Quick Taste of Tokyo
I ended my journey with mixed emotions. I am not looking forward to returning to “civilian life” and a high cost of living. I trudged onto my Japan Airlines flight vowing to travel again and I know I’ll return to Southeast Asia soon.
Japan Airlines is a decent airline and the food isn’t bad. I sat next to an odd, elderly Vietnamese gentleman who had a peculiar quirk of immediately placing whatever food he didn’t want onto my tray table. No words were communicated while he was doing this. The stewardess handed out rice crackers which he immediately placed on my tray. I ate both his and my bag b/c I enjoy crunching on rice crackers. For breakfast, he quickly plopped his fruit dish onto my tray and bread. I amiably ate his fruit b/c I enjoy jackfruit (it is like a non-tart kiwi) but ignored the bread. Things got weirder when he started to shut my tray table for me the minute the stewardess collected our trays and then reached across me and reclined my seat back for me without my asking him to. I assume so I could sleep more comfortably, but I was wondering what the heck his deal was. OCD? Overly solicitous? Grandfatherly? We parted ways with smiles and head nods at the Narita, Tokyo airport where I had a 4 hour layover.
I was overjoyed to find my beloved and rare (only available in Japan as far as I know) green tea kitkats. Friends and family can attest to how obsessed I am with these pale green wafers. I have been known to resort to ebay to get my hands on some. I almost mistakenly bought the look-alike wasabi flavored ones and boy, would that have been a tragedy. They also had a limited edition soy sauce flavored kit kat which I ignored. After spending about $40 on kitkats (more than I usually spent in a day in Vietnam but I justified it as supporting Japan in wake of the recent tragedy), I ambled over to another aisle and stumbled upon the chupacabra of all Pocky’s…the green tea flavored one which I have not had or seen in close to 10 years! I yelped and grabbed a box (they only come in the giant size $13 box) clutching it to my chest excitedly as I went up to the counter to pay. Oh happy day!
Now I’ve been to Tokyo twice and was reminded just how much I like it despite my usual preference of traveling to less urban and more developing countries. But gawd, who can beat the organization, cleanliness, politeness, gadgets, and little signs for everything with cute symbols? I even love their tastefully designed bathroom signs on how to use the bidet. I’ve never been in a public bathroom so spotless and pleasant that you don’t mind hanging out in the stall. I placed my bags on a nice and roomy shelf inside the stall and proceeded to read all the signs for the tricked-out toilets with amusement. ”Press to play flushing sound to muffle toilet noise.” Button for “Washing the rear” Button for “deodorizing to increase the absorption strength for removing odors.” It was so lovely and comfy in there I almost started reading my Kindle but instead enthused about finally being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet (a big no no in Southeast Asia since the plumbing is poor, you put toilet paper in waste bins next to the toilet).
The endless displays of fake, plastic foods in restaurant windows fascinate me and I considered collecting some plastic food of my own b/c I know of a Japanese wholesaler site for just that, but I decided I didn’t need that kind of kitsch in my borderline shabby chic apartment. I settled into a restaurant and ordered a soupy rice porridge which came with pickled radish on the side and I also ordered an iced coffee and OJ. This set me back a cool $16 which gave me a mild aneurysm since I am accustomed to $1 breakfasts.
I snacked on a green tea kitkat on my long flight back home (where was the elderly gentleman to give you his rice crackers when you needed him?) and dreamed of my next big trip and where to go…Burma? Bhutan? India? Nepal?
Phu Quoc Island: The New Phuket
Phu Quoc is an island off the southcoast of Vietnam on the Gulf of Thailand. It used to be owned by Cambodia which they lost to Vietnam much to their dismay. I can see why you wouldn’t want to lose this gem of an island. It is like Phuket minus the tourists, sex workers, parties, and mega resorts. And that is why I like it. It hasn’t “popped” yet on the international scene or become oversaturated with resorts. Once a Four Seasons goes up in a beach town or they start serving nachos on the menus, I lose interest. That is not to say I’d object to staying at a Four Seasons…preferably on someone else’s dime.
I am staying at a lovely beach bungalow right on Long Beach overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. I splurged on my bungalow since I am towards the end of my trip and just needed some R&R after weeks of travel on buses, trains, boats, tuk tuks, and motorbikes. The waters are the turquoise blue I’ve been waiting for with white sand lined with tropical trees. And there is barely anyone on the beaches. I’ve carved out a daily ritual of eating giant breakfasts at the hotel and then just lying on the beach reading and occasionally going into the water. Ladies in conical straw hats walk up and down the beach selling pineapples which I buy. They expertly peel and slice them neatly right in front of you. Seafood is abundant so I usually eat squid or a grilled fish for my meals right on the beach with a pineapple shake or fresh watermelon juice. I like it here.
Solo in Sa Dec
Be careful what you wish for. I’ve been kvetching about seeing too many tourists and being pestered by motorbike taxi drivers and I thought I wanted nothing more than to go to a sleepy town where I would not hear the phrases “Where you go?” and “Motobike?” everywhere I turned. I got exactly what I wished for in Sa Dec which is a sleepy town in the Mekong Delta that the Lonely Planet says not many people visit and foreigners rarely overnight there. I arrived in Sa Dec via Vinh Long and kind of missed the other tourists. I was the only tourist I saw in the town and it is certainly sleepy. No tourists means no English is spoken and it also means I had to pony up my miming skills and frantically look up Vietnamese words in the Lonely Planet. It also means there are only about 3 hotels in town b/c no one in their right mind overnights here as there is nothing to do here unless you are obsessed with the movie The Lover or roses since they have many flower nurseries.
Marguerite Duras’ family lived in this town as did her Chinese lover Huyunh Thuy Le. And please note, I was terribly disappointed he did not resemble Chinese actor, Tony Leung, from the movie version just like how Marguerite does not look like Jane March. Above is a photo of Thuy Le and his Chinese wife and of me standing in front of his family home which is pretty gorgeous and has this wonderful Chinese interior of dark, Sino-French ornate woodwork, beautiful tiles, complete with giant ancestral family shrine. Per the Lonely Planet, this house is an “atmospheric guest house” you can overnight in. I noticed the Lonely Planet can be misleading and the house has 2 very basic rooms with just beds with dumpy covers on them that you can sleep in to the tune of $25. In these parts, that is a fortune considering you can get AC, mini-fridge, and cable TV for $10. And I got the feeling the woman didn’t even want me to stay b/c she kept telling me it would be too hot for me (it was hot). It wasn’t quite what I pictured and I think I’d get the creeps being the only person sleeping there with no electricity or bathroom in the room.
I wound up staying at the “smartest pad in town” per Lonely Planet which translated into a faded, musty, hotel that may have been charming during it’s heyday. Today, it seemed neglected, run-down, and sad. They were drying and hanging sheets on the tennis courts. I think I was the only guest and there were no nearby restaurants to get food. I ate crackers and a pepsi for dinner. My room had layers of dust, the faucet barely worked, and I tried figuring out what the brown stains on the wall were. I concluded they must be gecko poop. Now, you will encounter many geckos in Southeast Asia and scratch your head in wonder at how they got in your room. I kind of got used to seeing them in my rooms and I no longer freak out but their droppings are too much for me. I was desperate to high-tail it outta there but there was no place to upgrade to as this was the nicest place in town. I thought of going back to the bus station and heading to Can Tho immediately but I was sort of rundown with a cold and just needed a place to rest.
I am now happily stationed in Can Tho and feel a tad sheepish to admit that it is not only the largest city in the Mekong Delta region (and probably the most touristy), but it is the one I feel the most comfortable in. Sometimes a gal just wants her tourist cafes, nicer hotels, and little conveniences.
Mekong Delta Here I Come
My plan is to leave Saigon today and head to the Mekong Delta region. I’ll spend the next few days meandering the small towns, lazing in cafes drinking strong iced coffees, boating thru the canals and floating markets, and taking in the lush vegetation and fruit orchards. A group packaged tour would be easier and cheaper but I really want to do this region on my terms. I hear it is the highlight of so many people’s trips and I want to visit a few towns that the tours overlook especially Tra Vinh and Sa Dec. The other day, we drove by a beautiful rubber tree plantation near Cu Chi. I half-expected Catherine Deneuve to emerge (a reference to the movie Indochine). I hope to see more rubber and fruit plantations. And the fruits of the Mekong Delta area are bountiful. I’ve been buying entire sweet pineapples for $75 cents. The choices and array are endless. I can’t wait to slowdown. Ah, dolce far niente!
Claustrophobia in the Cu Chi Tunnels
Today I visited the famous Cu Chi Tunnels which is a fascinating and ingenious network of underground tunnels the Viet Cong and local villagers used and lived in for years during the war. During it’s heyday, it spanned 250km but only small sections of it remain due to massive US bombing. I only spent about 10 minutes in the tunnels and I was starting to get that uncomfortable “Get me out of here, I am on the verge of a meltdown” feeling. The tunnels are small and claustrophobic and remember that they had no lights inside them back then. They are 3 levels deep and are linked so you can drop down to deeper levels. Today, they are dimly lit for tourists and one section has actually been enlarged for tourists to fit in and it is still cramped. You cannot walk through them standing upright you must crouch the entire time and they are stuffy and hot. Our guide kept telling us that “happy buddha tourists” aka heavyset ones should not go in b/c they can get stuck. these tunnels were not built for hips or broad shoulders. The second set of tunnels is the original size and it is cramped. I was short enough that I could still crouch and do this weird duck squat walk through them but most of the men had to crawl on their knees b/c they were too tall. Small , hot, cramped, spaces with poor ventilation freak me out and 10 minutes in the tunnels was enough for me. Imagine living there for years.
Our guide showed us examples of booby traps the Viet Cong used and the creative ways employed to fight Americans without the aid of sophisticated military equipment like chinook helicopters, missiles, dioxin. The bamboo booby traps set in the ground were virtually undetectable and looked painful since they were filled with spikes. Even fruits like durian were used as weapons with iron spikes sticking out of them or their scent was used to confuse german shepherd sniffing dogs. It was just incredible thinking of the fortitude of the people who managed to live in the Cu Chi tunnels and survive. You could also shoot guns for fun if you wanted to for $10-25 but I passed b/c I don’t like guns and I’m not sure the Vietnamese safety standards are as strict as in the States. I’ve heard the ear protection isn’t very strong but a few people from my tour group opted to shoot AK47s and machine guns several yards way from where I was snacking on grilled corn. Guns are loud. I almost jumped outta my seat at the first few pops.
I came back to the city and had a most divine soursop shake. I once asked my Vietnamese friend what the heck soursop is and he introduced me to my first taste of it. I still don’t know what the heck it is but it is this wonderful fruit which is like a cross between a pineapple and lemon. It makes for a good shake. My sister, Carolyn, called my trip a poor man’s Eat, Pray, Love and I certainly have eaten on this trip, prayed (well, some and mostly when on the back of a motorbike taxi), and I have simply loved some of the food. Forget temples, pagodas, and tombs! Food has been the recipient of some of my highest praise. Pho’s have been labeled “genius”, baguettes sandwiches have been called “Brilliant” and today, I thought my soursop shake was “sonnet-worthy.”
The Sweets and Eats of Saigon
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) ain’t so bad after all. I was expecting to hate it b/c if I thought Hanoi was noisy and had a lot of motorcycles (4 million and counting!) then boy, was I in for a treat with Saigon. But it is amazing what a little warm weather and sun can do and I arrived in Saigon this morning amiable and docile after a friendly reunion with some sunshine.
I headed to the Ben Thanh market and good gawd it is a smorgasborg of good cheap eats. I shoved fresh shrimp summer rolls on my mouth followed by condensed milk, desserty, deliciousness with red bean, ice, and glass jelly. I don’t even know what this nectar of the gods dessert is called but I am bananas for it. It is officially my deal of the day at $0.75 a pop but I don’t know if anyone cares about my deals of the day since they are not easily accessible. These don’t come by way of Amazon and aren’t available at the stroke of a keyboard. However, I take comfort in them b/c lately I have been uttering statements like “I think I’ll take the night sleeper train to save me a night at a hotel.” Never a good sign.
I visited the War Remnants museum which is heavy stuff. I found it very interesting and moving. As a kid, I’ve seen some photos in Life magazine but not to this extent. The photographs of all the babies and kids with birth defects from Agent Orange is very difficult to look at as well as massacres such as My Lai. The atrocities are sickening to see and you read the captions and your heart feels heavy. One photograph caption disturbed me b/c it was of a family with young children just moments before they were all killed but the war photographer said “Wait, let me take a picture first.” I felt sick that this photo captured their looks of utter terror right before being shot but at the same time I’m glad these photos are in existence. They serve as documentation and proof that these things happened. Reminders. Obviously, the museum came off as quite biased but any way you slice and dice it, war is devastating and kills many civilians.
There was a power outage tonite for a short period which is quite common in Vietnam (and Laos). I just drank a 0.50 cent Tiger beer and ate a banh mi sandwich in my room with a headtorch. Wild evening for me! I’ve had 4 power outages so far in Vietnam and my least favorite was the one where I was staying on the 10th floor of a hotel and the lift wasn’t working all day. Try climbing 10 flights with a 40lb backpack.
So I saw weasel coffee at the market today. I don’t think it is as “fine grade” as the Indonesian variety but I still need to get my mitts on these beans. I can’t seem to find this weasel coffee made of the berries picked from their poo or something at the coffee shops ready-to-drink b/c I want to try some desperately. I’ll just have to pick up a bag before I go and maybe brew up some for my Seattle coffee loving sister and her husband when they come visit NYC.
Where You Go?
You will be asked the question “Where You Go?” and “Where You Go Next?” dozens upon dozens of times in Vietnam. Every hotel front desk wants to sell you a tour, bus ticket, or train ticket which admittedly at times has been helpful. But it also can be a hassle. I have had to fend off so many requests on a daily basis that it kind of interferes with my enjoyment. I’ve started to feel like I need to get off this tourist circuit pony. I always forget I’m a tourist myself and grow indignant that other people want to see the places I happen to be at. I’m in Nha Trang which is a beach town on the South Central coast known for it’s scuba diving. I don’t dive and it is not exactly beach weather so I decided last night “Where I go next” and that is South. I want to spend more time in the Mekong Delta region where I can hopefully escape the tourist crowds and spend more time just relaxing amongst the locals and eating exotic fruits like mangosteen, jackfruit, and lychees all day before hitting up Phu Quoc Island. I’m determined to go to this certain sleepy Mekong Delta town that not many tourist stay overnight in where the movie, the Lover, was filmed. I want to stay in Marguerite Duras family home which has been converted to a guesthouse.
In order to get to the South, I have to first take another night train to Saigon and reluctantly stay a night or two before busing it to the Mekong Delta. I’m growing pretty tired of all the public transportation b/c I’m just not great on buses and trains. But the trains beat the buses which I find kind of dangerous driving-wise and too unbearable for long trips. The constant honking almost drove me bonkers. The train cabins are kind of dodgy-looking and last time I shared it with 3 ladies who kept eating from take out containers all night and gabbing loudly while I was trying to sleep on the top bunk. And I don’t know what they ate but one kept tooting all night which would have been comical if our cabin didn’t stink so bad. I think I’ll try a glass of Dalat wine this afternoon and read books near the beach.
Hoi An, Tailors, and Banh Mi
Present location: Hoi An. Present state of mind: Slightly cranky with oreo crumbs on my mouth b/c I crammed 6 in to soothe my disgruntled nerves. Deal of the day: 50 cent banh mi (vietnamese sandwiches filled with roasted BBQ meats and pickled veggies on a baguette). Not a deal of the day: the hand tailoring I got done in Hoi An at Kimmy’s.
Let me back up by saying I arrived in Hoi An which is my favorite city so far in Vietnam and utterly charming and deserves its Unesco Heritage Site status. Between the old houses, chinese paper lanterns glowing at night, and river you feel like you stepped back into a different era. I finally feel like “Ahhh, I’d like to spend a few days here” which is a feeling I haven’t really had since Laos. Btw, I am like a lovesick teen and missing Laos and reminiscing about it to myself on a daily basis. If someone overheard my thoughts they would tell me to shut up already. But can I crow that I checked the price of a silk scarf here similar to the ones I bought in Laos which was $85 vs. the $11 I paid. I compared similar embroidered blankets and I paid $50 in Laos vs. $148 asking price in Hoi An.
Hoi An is famous for it’s many tailors and there are hundreds concentrated into a small area. Some are better than others and you should be suspicious of the quality if someone promises you a new suit for $75 in 1 day. Many of the designs and dresses on mannequins outside the shops look like something from Forever 21. I went to one b/c another traveler recommended it and it certainly wasn’t the cheapest of tailors. I printed out some black and white pics from Jcrew’s website and asked my tailor to copy those designs - a blazer, silk blouse, and outdoor military vest.
I was fitted and measured and went to my first try-on session tonite (6 hours after I first walked in the store) and I was disappointed. I told the woman as much and I don’t even want to know what she said about me in front of me in Vietnamese. I may sound snobby but the topnotch quality wasn’t there. The fabrics and buttons look cheap to me and the attention to detail was also lacking. And it was not what the picture showed. Why did my blouse have a fricking mandarin collar when the picture didn’t? If I wanted a blazer that looked H&M I’d go to H&M. And get it for cheaper than I paid. I really wanted a “Theory or Jcrew look” and I realized it is the attention to the little details that make Theory clothes so nice. Many travelers come away thrilled with their hand tailored clothes so maybe I just went to the wrong place and I admit my print-outs were grainy. I think men have the better deal b/c their suits are more standard and I know plenty of men who love their handmade dress shirts and suits. The irony is I am saying all of this and commenting on fashion as I am wearing a huge “rice paddy looking Asian top” that I bought in a moment of weakness that I can easily picture Steven Segal in. Oh I wish my cousin Sly was here to tell me when not to buy things!
But Hoi An is still quite lovely and I go on a tour to the Cham ruins tomorrow to My Son which is 55km outside Hoi An and like a very poor man’s Angkor Wat. Since I blew a good chunk of my budget on my clothes I will be eating many banh mi sandwiches…
btw- I am not posting photos b/c I had a heart-in-throat 2 days where my photos were gone from my memory card due to a virus I got from a hotel computer. The darling Mr. Pham at some camera store restored my photos and I need to burn CD back-ups before I post anything.
Getting Lost in Hue
Solo traveling is nice in that you have a new bestie that you hang out with for a couple days in each city you go to until you part ways. My current bestie is Jordie from Barcelona, Spain whom I met on the train from Hanoi to Hue. We rented a motorbike for $4 yesterday in Hue to see the royal tombs and his assurance that he drives them “all the time in Barcelona” was testimonial enough for me. Motorbikes are different here in Southeast Asia and ours only had one gear and stalled and bucked like a tempermental rodeo pony. Drivers are another story and anything goes as long as you honk first. There were some definite hair-raising moments but Jordie liked to honk like the locals and then shout “I love it!”
We completely got lost which was a good way to see Hue and the surrounding areas but made it to the Minh Mang Royal Tomb before it started to rain. The rain made us decide to head back and we made it back the 15km one hour later after many wrong turns and many stops to ask locals for directions.
I have developed an ESL way of speaking after hanging with so may ESL speakers. English is the international travel language and you must speak it whether you are from Germany, Spain, Israel, Norway etc. in order to get around. I keep saying phrases like “It not so nice” or “It very nice.” I head to Hoi An today which I’m very excited about despite the rainy weather forecast. Everyone tells me Hoi An is utterly charming and mama needs new clothes!
Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island
I have had enough of the night sleeper trains in Vietnam. I’ve been on 3 in less than 5 days and don’t let the word “sleeper” fool you into thinking you are getting much sleep on these trains. However, they are better than buses which are bumpy and the drivers constantly honk. Toot toot. I was going as “first class” as the trains allow by booking the 4 person soft sleeper trains which consist of 2 bunk beds which sleep 4 people. But these are kind of grubby looking carriages and I don’t dare use the pillows or blankets they provide b/c they are not washed and my sheet had a small bloodstain on it.
I finished my Halong Bay cruise which was 1 night on the bay on the boat and 1 night on Cat Ba island with a hike through Cat Ba National Park. I had 1 day of decent weather on the bay with no rain and the boat accommodations were nice. I fear there is too much tourism on the majestic Halong Bay and it will be ruined in 10 years. You already see many boats and pollution in the bay.
I need to sidetrack and say I am so intrigued by Australians. The more I meet (and you meet many in Southeast Asia) the more fuel to my stereotype that they are extremely laidback and can out-party any nationality. What is it in their DNA that enables them to be so darn chipper and drink like fish? I met 2 on my Halong Bay cruise and they managed to drink 30 Tiger beers (yes, 30) between them in 1 night on the cruise while singing karaoke and still wake up not hungover at 6am and cheerfully jumped off the side of the boat into the frigid cold waters at dawn and declared “Now THAT IS living!” I was almost awestruck by them b/c they were such an anomaly to me. I think it is important for everyone to find their own definition of “living” and I’ve had some moments on my trip where I could echo the sentiment.