Ireland

There are places in this world that have a special meaning to its visitors.  Places that bring warmth to their hearts, a sense of completion to their minds, and unify their souls with the like-minded individuals that seek the same spiritual therapy.  The Muslims have Mecca, the Hindus The Ganges River, and the Armstrong’s Dublin, Ireland. Sally and I met in Dublin during the Saint Patrick’s celebrations in 2006.  On March 18, we bumped into each other at the Arlington Hotel Bar and a year later to the day we were standing in front of our families exchanging vows.  We had always dreamed about one day returning to our place of introduction but we never thought the trip would be possible.  Even with a mapped out plan to travel the world for a year, we knew the trip back to Ireland was out of reach.  But being on the road for an extended period of time does a funny thing to your sense of what is achievable and what is not (or is that, ‘does a funny thing to your sense of responsibility’?).  With a slight adjustment to our travel plans (that would be extending the duration of our trip by two months and reversing our travel direction by flying back 3/4 of the world from Vietnam to Ireland) we found ourselves once again in the land of mighty craic.

P1050644

Saint Patrick’s day is an Irish holiday tradition that is celebrated all over the world.  So it only makes sense that people from all over the world come to Ireland to celebrate it.  As you walk down the street, undoubtably on your way to the pub, you would be hard pressed not to hear at least five different languages.  Most of them being spoken with a slight slur to the speech of course.  The heart of the festivities can be found in the Temple Bar area, but virtually every pub in the city seems to have more than a few extra patrons kicking back pints of Guinness.

IMG_8344

After two days of reacquainting ourselves with the city, we hopped a train for Belfast for the day. Belfast was a last-minute decision.  We hadn’t planned to venture out of Dublin and didn’t allot the necessary time to truly experience Northern Ireland.  But we decided it would be better to get a small taste of the area, rather than write it off as a non-possibility.  Thankfully we gave it consideration and made our decision to go to Belfast far enough in advance to arrange a Black Cab Tour of the city.  The cab company is famous for its cultural ride through the different political strong holds of the IRA and loyalists areas. (Photo of snipers and IRA memorials) The drive was extremely interesting and insightful.  It also didn’t take very long for our driver to expose his support for the IRA.  Doing everything short of coming right out with where he stood and clearly continues to stand on the issue.  It was solidified when he excitedly insisted on taking our photo in front of Bobby Sands.  The only photo he offered to take of us during the hour and a half tour.

P1050834

The recent and not forgotten history of these opposing groups was thrust into the forefront of our trip as soon as we left the cab for the down town area.  There was a protest against the decision not to fly the Union Jack flag on particular days at the capital building.

IMG_8287

The combination of the cab ride and the protesters caused us to visually interrogate every local we encountered.  Assuming that every Northern Irishmen not only had an opinion but a clear side in which they stand.  We went into the information center to ask about the best way to spend our precious few hours in the city.  Sally had mentioned the Ireland rugby game and the man-made a disgusted scoff and said the English game is the only one that matters.  Was he referencing their standings in the points?  The fact that England was still in contention for the championship.  Or did his statement have a more deep seeded meaning?  We couldn’t help but wonder. We exited the information center and once again lost ourselves on the cold and rainy streets of Belfast.  Our first four hours in the city caused us to feel like we were in a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any minute.  We decided we needed a drink.  As we fumbled with our map and tried to decide where we were and where we were going.  A nice middle-aged man asked if he could be of service.  We told him the bar we were looking for and with a smile and no room for debate he quickly set off in the direction of the oldest pub in Belfast.  He walked out of his way four blocks before he dropped us at the front door and was back about his day before we could offer him a thank you drink.  I did manage to squeeze in a few probing questions about his stance on the country’s past divide by playing dumb and asking him what the protests were about.  He told me about the decision with the flag and quickly responded that he thinks both flags should be flown. “It’s all pretty silly if you ask me.  They should just fly both flags, the Union and the tri-color.  Life’s too short for all this trouble.” And with that our confidence was restored that most people are inherently good.  It’s just the crazy ones that seem to get all the attention.

This confirmation was continued during the next hour and three different bars.  Hey!  It was cold as shit and snow/raining!  What did you expect from us?

IMG_8297

Belfast Photos

Our Saint Patties day plan of attack was simple.  Ingest large quantities of alcohol, drink water, and don’t forget to eat something.  That way you can ingest even larger quantities of alcohol.  A common mistake by the rookie festivity goers.  We had both been witness to the mayhem that is Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin.  The days leading up to our second time around was reconfirmed what this city with this crowd is capable of. Sloppy drunkeness was all around us. But we have been in training for this day for over a year.  Forging our livers into alcohol guzzling monster machines!  Testing our bodies tolerance and pushing beyond what normal humans are capable of!  Not to mention, we had our drinking socks on.

IMG_8307

We knew the day would blur and recollection of the days events would become muddled.  So we did our best to take a video of every bar we visited.  This plan of action was successful  . . . kind of.  After bar number (?) I lost interest and or ability to document the occasion.

Dublin Photos

A few videos from St Pattie’s Day

Bar One

Bar Two

Bar Three (Video Not Found)

Bar Four? Or Maybe Five?

Temple Bar District

Sally Leading The Way!

Vietnam Wrap

We came to Vietnam with a renewed sense of adventurism.  Our three-month break from the region gave us more than just a strong desire to return to the land of dollar meals and $20 hotel rooms (Having been forced in Australia and New Zealand to watch our bank account get ravished like a fresh bottle of Jack during our pre-drink rituals).  The trip back to south-east Asia marked a tipping point in our travels.  Vietnam was the last country on our list that we had yet to explore.  The last country we would visit that would give us that spark of excitement as we navigated its unfamiliar roads and absorbed its cultural story.   Maybe that’s why our spirits were a little higher and our skin a little thicker when we returned to the region. (If you recall we had left Cambodia in somewhat of an exhausted state.  Proclaiming that westernized society was the only cure for our jaded lack of tolerance and self diagnosed symptoms of travel burn out.)  Or maybe it’s the fact that Vietnam is a few steps ahead of its geographical neighbors on the road to development.  Their economy more advanced, job market broader, and street hustle dialed down to the low whisper of cyclo drivers trying to earn your business.  The question begged to be answered.  Did we find ourselves revitalized and thirsty for our last drop of travel or is Vietnam just that perfect blend of east meets west?  My guess is that it was a combination of the two that created the perfect storm.

Of course we had the excitement of a fat kid that was able to sneak a piece of chocolate cake in the middle of the night.  Relishing our treat that would soon be taken from us when we are shipped back to fat camp and forced to eat salads.  In our case that would be the regular world of jobs and responsibility.  But it also helped to have buses that were built after the creation of the internet, upscale accommodation, and the option to get a meal that reminds you of home when you want it.  Sure its easy to find yourself discouraged when you can’t find any fucking chopsticks.  But you get over it pretty quick when you’re burping up that tasty chicken burrito.

Top Rated For The Trip:

It was fairly short-lived, but we were both pretty happy with the beaches in Vietnam.  The trip to Ha Long Bay was also amazing.  But what we both agree was hands down the best part of Vietnam would have to be the food.  Even with countless other genres of food available, we rarely strayed from the local cuisine.

Food:

Vietnamese pancake – a thin, oversized savoury pancake made with rice flour, water and turmeric powder, usually stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, served with a spicy fish sauce.

Pho – hands down one of the best meals ever!  We both enjoyed multiple bowls of this awesomeness.  We noticed that the South tend to serve the soup with more sides, such as limes, jalapeno/chilis, bean sprouts and plenty of herbs, where in the North only lime and a couple of chilis and no sauces.

Fried wonton – a flat piece of wonton dough deep-fried and topped with diced vegetables, shrimp and pork.  Unfortunately we were only able to find and enjoy this appetizer in Hoi An.

Fresh Spring Rolls – fresh rice paper rolls filled with shrimp, pork and rice noodles, served with the usual fish sauce.

Ban Mi – A French baguette stuffed with vegetables and various meats or tofu.  Best one we had was in Nha Trang.

Cau Lau

Ha Long Bay

After Bret’s thorough research on trips to Ha Long Bay, we decided on a two-day, three night organized tour from Hanoi.  We saw this is a once in a lifetime experience and we had read horror stories of the backpacker style trips to the bay.  Where they cram 30 people into a boat designed to hold 15.  Not exactly a recipe for a successful experience.  Our selection wasn’t quite luxury, but it was a decent step up from our usual traveler standards.

The tour began with an early pick-up from the guest house and a four-hour drive to Bay Chay Port where we were transferred to our boat.  After a welcome drink we checked into our room and had some time to relax and explore the boat while we cruised out to the bay.

P1050449As with most organized tours, we had a full itinerary.  The first afternoon we were taken to the beautiful beach of Tree Top Island where we climbed 425 steps to reach a stunning viewpoint.  We were given a few minutes to relax on the beach before re-boarding the boat and moving on.  Next up was a sunset kayak around the emerald waters to a small cave before returning to the boat for sundowners.

IMG_8140 IMG_8146Back on board we indulged in a few cocktails while waiting for our pre-dinner cooking class which demonstrated how to make spring rolls.  During dinner we had a chance to get to know our fellow travelers.   We were accompanied by three French couples, a couple from the US who were on a holiday from teaching English in Korea and a lovely and legendary couple from Germany, Tina and Jorge.  They were less than a week into a six month trip, travelling with their six-year-old twin boys and nine-year-old girl.  Showing us that if there is a will to travel extensively with family, there is a way.  We all took full advantage of the boat’s happy hour of buy one get one free cocktails and had a great night chatting to the American’s and German’s.

tina weisser WeisserUnfortunately we had very little sleep in our cabin due to a family of rats living in the ceiling above our heads scampering around non-stop during the night.  Unable to enjoy a sleep in, we were up early and managed to get a quick workout in on the top deck with a gorgeous view of Ha Long Bay (and the copious amounts of other tour boats).

P1050509Our first activity of our second day was a walk up the mountain to Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises).  What would have been a quick five-minute walk up 100 or so steps was dragged out to at least a 40 minutes due to the number of tour boats on the exact same schedule.  Although the cave was pretty amazing, the huge crowds put a damper on the experience.

Sung Sot Cave

IMG_8180Back on the boat we had time to get organized before transferring to a day boat that would take us further into the surrounds of Ha Long Bay.  We cruised along for another forty or so minutes before reaching a beautiful bay isolated from the rest of the boats.  We did some more kayaking around the bay, taking the time to enjoy our peaceful surroundings.

IMG_8187After a BBQ Seafood lunch we relaxed on the boat, chatting to Jorge, Tina and a French couple from Leon.  We managed to sneak in a nap on the sun deck before continuing our cruise through a local fishing village and eventually arriving at a pearl farm.  Here we had a brief tour to learn how the locals do the pearl farming.  Which is a long and difficult process, with only about 10% of the pearls farmed making it sale quality.  The rest are turned into powder and used in beauty products.

IMG_8212Arriving back at our main boat, we freshened up and treated ourselves to happy hour once again! It was sundowners on the top deck before another cooking class.  This time the class covered how to make fresh spring rolls.  After the sleepless night before, Bret and I crashed out not long after dinner, unable to keep our eyes open.  We had mentioned the rat problem to the tour manager and he assured us it would be taken care of while we were out for the day.  But the confirmation that he did nothing was brought to our attention as soon as our heads hit the pillow.  Yet another sleepless night of rats running around above our head.

P1050518Our last morning on the boat was very relaxed.  No activities, just hanging out on the boat before being transferred back to the mainland.  We ate some lunch and boarded the mini bus back to Hanoi.

The trip to Ha Long Bay was a success.  We were both very happy with the tour we chose.  They had a good mix of activities and relaxation.  However, the large number of tour boats operating in the area made us feel a little claustrophobic at times but with a site as stunning as Ha Long Bay, it’s to be expected.  One sad thing that stood out to us was the amount of rubbish present in the water and on the beaches.  It is almost impossible to look out over the water without spotting floating bits of trash in every direction.

Ha Long Bay Photos

Hanoi

There is no better introduction to Hanoi than a cab ride through the old district at midnight.  The sidewalks are packed full of parked scooters, the street vendors plastic chairs have spilled into the street, while thousands of people both tourist and locals alike are drinking, eating, and trying to move through the warm night.  The street is left with barely enough space for a single vehicle to drive.  Yet the scooters are insistent upon shoving their way through the smallest of non-existent spaces, like five-year-olds jostling for position as they line up at the door for recess.  The four blocks it takes to leave the main street and venture into the old district to reach our hotel is a fifteen minute journey that makes you feel like you are driving on the sidewalks of Manhattan   The slightest move to the left or right will crush the toes of people trying to squeeze past your car before the next set of scooters topple them over.

The driving in Hanoi is the apex of poor driving in south-east Asia.  I am not sure if it is a simple numbers game?  The fact that the roads are four times as populated as other parts of south-east Asia.  Or if it’s the hustle and bustle of a city that has stripped virtually every one of their patience.  Describing the style of driving is easy.  It is conducted in the same manner as a crowd attempting to exit a building after someone yells fire.  There is no regard for anyone but yourself.  To slow down, to not aggressively push past everyone in your way, to not charge full speed ahead, is simply  jeopardizing your own life.  It seems like they would rather risk injury to themselves and others then use their break, even just for a second.

The constant blare of horns is just as much apart of the day as the sun rising and the wind blowing.  In fact, I had someone who was attempting to pull off the sidewalk onto the street and I was so oblivious to their repeated attempts to ask me to move (laying on their horn).  He was forced to get halfway off his bike and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.  The horns on vehicles are used for everything.  Most notably, a signal that someone behind you is just moments from slamming into you.  You being a car, another scooter, or even a person standing completely still with your back to traffic just one step off of the sidewalk (A position you quickly realize is taunting death).  In fact, even just putting one foot onto the road is like stepping into the octagon.  You better be ready to be hit.  Stepping off the sidewalk is like refusing to cook eggs for an abusive husband.  First there is a look of confusion from the scooter drivers.  But that look is immediately replaced with a look of rage and determination to smack the shit out of you.

The horn on a vehicle is also used to: indicate you are turning, letting those around you know you want to go faster, telling others that you are going through the intersection, letting others know you are not happy with someone going through the intersection, telling other drivers that you are slowing down, you are upset, you are impatient, you are impatient with someone being impatient, you don’t know what’s going on but you don’t like being stopped, etc, etc, etc.

Video of Traffic In Old Quarter During A Slow Time

You might be thinking that the close quarter driving and constant hecticness would instill confidence in your belief that these drivers are adapted to their conditions.  That the fact they were practically born on the back of a Vespa for generations would somehow genetically alter them to become superior drivers.  Like a family of fishermen, it must be in their blood?

P1050632This couldn’t be any further from the truth.  It would be like saying every American is a crack shot with a gun, all Canadians know how to make amazing maple syrup, or all Mexicans are in someway involved in drug trade.  Ok, maybe that last one wasn’t such a great example.

During our first 24 hours in Hanoi we were witness to four accidents.  Making it a total of eight in Vietnam so far.  Which we both thought was surprisingly low considering how many close calls we saw.  One of the accidents happened when a steel rod about 12 feet long fell into the road.  I watched as two scooters, with at least five seconds reaction time and 12 feet of space.  But they didn’t even attempt to hit the brakes.  They looked shocked when they both were picking themselves up off the ground.

An accident seems to be the only time that other drivers are concerned about each other.  They are quick to rush to the victims aid and help them to their feet or to the side of the road.  But it doesn’t take you long to figure out their concern is for the “flow” of traffic rather than the health of the fallen (I say “flow” because if they just had some fucking patience and organization things would move so much more efficiently).  We actually had the misfortune of watching an ambulance try to get someone back to the hospital.  Their siren was no more effective at moving people than the guys horn who was trying to get me off the sidewalk.  Rather than the typical parting of the seas reaction you get in the States.  Scooters observed the ambulance as simply another obstacle they needed to weave around.

Thankfully, just outside the Old District lays a small lake.  Its unobstructed sidewalks provide a much-needed sanctuary from the hectic traffic, constant noise pollution and pushy doughnut ladies who have a similar sales strategy as the suit salesmen in Koh Saumi.

P1050394Hanoi is the final resting place to Ho Chi Minh.  The communist Vietnamese revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1945–1955) and president (1945–1969).  His embalmed body is currently on display in a mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square despite his will requesting that he be cremated (Wikipedia).

We arrived at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb after an unexpected impromptu tour of the city.  Which was really our karmic destiny for being lazy.  The tomb was borderline walking distance from our hotel.  But the twenty to thirty minutes it would have taken to get there felt like an eternity after the mental and emotional damage sustained from our death march in Hue.  The opportunistic taxi driver was more than happy to give us the run-around (literally), driving almost 5K out-of-the-way by performing a large arching movement around our final destination.  We were only keyed into his antics because we were following his route with our map and some minimal knowledge of the area.  This puts us in an all too common situation.  Being ripped off, knowing it, but trying to gauge the monetary loss of the scam versus the pain staking time it would take to challenge the punk bitch ripping us off.  We have been here before, we know how the drill goes if we choose to object.  We contest, he pretends not to understand why we are complaining, then we watch as his English vanishes like the great Houdini in front of our very eyes, until it is well past our threshold of patience and we would have been better served if we paid him double of what he was asking.  So we exit the vehicle with a surrendering sigh and bite our tongue in order to save our energy for the exploration of the tomb.

P1050600Ho Chi Minh’s popularity in Vietnam would be undermined if you compared it to that of Elvis, JFK, or Martin Luther King. . . . combined.  Thankfully Sally noted that Lonely Planet warned not to get discouraged by the lines.  Otherwise when we turned up and saw half of Hanoi lining up like the new iphone was being released, we would have called it a day and found the nearest bar.

After a ten minute walk we finally found the back of the line.  We stepped behind the never-ending snake of people and wondered just how long of wait we were in for.  Sally noticed an employee of the tomb and asked the very question that weighed so heavily on our minds.

Sally: Excuse me, do you know how long the wait is?

Employee: Ten minutes.

We looked at each other with a unified expression of confusion.  Even if the line uniformly began to jog at a brisk pace to the grave, it would take longer then ten minutes.  Clearly there was a translation break down.

In the three and a half seconds it took for this conversation to transpire, a small Vietnamese girl pushed her way in front of us in line.  This was particularly confusing because Sally and I were the last two people in line.  We looked at each other, at her, back at each other, at her boyfriend who stood behind us, back at her, and then finally back at one another.

Bret: What the fuck?

This was not our first introduction to the Vietnamese version of linear formations.  We have found that the rule of lines is similar to the scooters rules on the road.  That is, if you are in front of me but have chosen to leave enough room for even a fly to squeeze between you and the person in front of you.  Then you really aren’t showing interest enough to be in line and I can place myself were said fly would have the opportunity to be positioned.

Once in Hue, we were being checked out at the grocery store and there was another western couple behind us.  There was a rack of impulse purchases to their right and a large metal bar to their left.  They left the understood western appropriate amount of space between us (one foot) and waited patiently for our transaction to be finished.  While we were getting ready to hand over our credit card a middle-aged local woman pushed pass them (almost shoving them into the candy bars) and dropped her basket in front of the other couples items.  The same dumbfounded look of “what the fuck just happened” came over all four of us.  But the western girl wasn’t having it.  After a few words of ignored pleading, she simply pivoted in front of the local woman and boxed her out like Shaq going for a rebound.

This strategy was not lost on Sally, but she first attempted to reason with the intruding girl.

Sally: Excuse me, we were here.

(nothing, zero acknowledgement)

Sally: Excuse me

(nothing)

Sally tapped her and repeated her statement that we were obviously here before the girl.

(The girl looked at her for a brief second and then went back to looking straight ahead)

Sally’s patience was wearing as the girl was not only pretending that she didn’t cut, but now refused to acknowledge our existence.

Sally tried the passive approach.

Sally: It is really rude to cut in front of people.

(nothing)

Sally then resorted to the Garth get the fuck off the Murph Mobile approach.  Using her hands like blades to shoo the girl back.  Yet she still stood like a sentinel, dedicated to holding her post.

Finally her boyfriend grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back.  There was no apology, no fake look of confusion (Oh were you standing there?), just a distasteful glare at her boyfriend for not joining her campaign to hijack our spot.  Our spot that was only one fucking position from the fucking back!  The line was so long, to cut in front of us would have been like scooping a cup of water from a pool in an attempt to empty it.  We took our que from the girl at the grocery store and stood in a bent knee, hands out, basketball stance for the remainder of the 45 minutes it took to reach the actual display (a pinch off the 10 minutes we were told to expect).

Once we entered the room itself we completed a circular motion around the room, viewing the display at 12 ft distance as we were hurried through the exhibit.  There are comments about Ho Chi Minh’s body being a wax replica, the fine work of Madame Tussauds.  From the distance we viewed the body it’s difficult to contest this theory.  Regardless, I couldn’t help but wonder if the spirit of Ho Chi Minh is still looking for the girl with the green eyes.

Hanoi Photos

Hue

We all have those things in life that seem to cause us unnecessary rage, those moments, rules, people, or jobs that just seem to make us see red.  It seems to have the ability to drive us beyond our breaking point and all you want to do is go Michael Douglas ‘Falling Down’ on everyone and everything around you.  Destroying an entire city, bashing a convenience store, shooting up a fast food joint, blowing up a construction site, and killing a racist skin head.  All because of a traffic jam that seemed to catch you at the wrong moment in life.

falling-down-original

But there is no better feeling than knowing that something, that nearly drove you off the edge, is officially over.  Giving you the rest of your life to put nothing but the distance of time between you and listening to Christina Aguilera destroy the national anthem, staying off the grass even if it means you have to walk ten minutes out of your way, Bill O’reilly, and burning shit in Iraq.  Or in this particular case traveling by bus in third world countries.

This is a subject that has been overly expressed throughout our travels, but it still feels like we haven’t put enough emphasis on the actual level in which it blows ass.  The blow ass level if you will.

You might ask, “What exactly is it that makes you hate bus travel in third world countries with such a passion?”  or “Damn Bret, I wish you could construct a simple and easy to read list.  That way I could better understand a summarized perspective of your distaste.”

Well I thought you would never ask!

Why Bus Rides Blow Ass In Third World Countries(The Official List That Indicates The Actual Level Of Blow Ass)

1) The bus companies ability to find the most incompetent and unsafe drivers possible.

2) The bus companies ability to find the most incompetent and unsafe drivers possible.

3) The bus companies ability to find the most incompetent and unsafe drivers possible.

4) The AC (Broken, blowing hot air, blowing foul-smelling air, blowing out dirt, directed away from you and can’t be moved).

5) The wet patch that smells like garbage and piss that is now on half of your bag that you were required to put under the bus.

6) The general lack of cleanliness.

7) The driver’s ability to choose the absolute worst place to stop for food.

8) The cramped conditions.

9) The bus companies ability to find the most incompetent and unsafe drivers possible.

*Please note: The preceding list excludes services provided by Cruz Del Sur in Peru (first class seats).  Those buses fucking rock!*

But it’s now official!  We don’t ever have to get on a bus in a third world country ever again!

Well. . . . . .except a four-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay. . . . . . . and then back from Ha Long Bay, that’s another four hours. . . . . .but then we will be done forever!

To commemorate this monumental moment we have put together a collection of our readers top rated blog posts (most read) that contain our best bus ridding complaints:

First bus ride         –         Last over night bus         –         Laos over night.

hate buses

We arrived in Hue mid afternoon and were pleasantly greeted by the staff at Jade Hotel with a cold towel and icy beverage.  There isn’t a better contrast of love and hate then getting off a sweaty afternoon bus ride and cleansing your soiled mood with an icy cold, neatly rolled, wash cloth.  We happily quenched our thirst with the freshly prepared juice and we were content with our decision to stay at the Jade Hotel.

This instant approval was quickly put into jeopardy when our gracious host changed hats and brought out the tour options book.  Being up sold during the first five minutes you walk into the hotel does not set a good precedence for the remainder of your stay.  We have had instances in the past where we literally had to dodge the manager for fear of being asked, “What you do today?”.  An opening line in a conversation that leads to the various ways they can help you spend your money.  With a nice chunk of commission for themselves factored into the price of course.  A conversation they seem to be insistent on having every-fucking-time you walk by the front desk until the moment you check out.  Regardless if you have already exhausted all of their available services or not booked a single trip.  They seem to be on your ass right up to your ride to the airport, bus station, or down the street to find a different hostel that won’t harass you.

The only thing keeping our fake smiles on and our death eye stares refrained was the pleasant welcome, the plate of fruit they provided during the pitch, and the fact that this was an employee running through the formalities of her job.  Not an over zealous owner blatantly trying to squeeze our wallets for every last dong we had.  (That’s an interesting name for currency isn’t it?  It doesn’t translate to English very well. “I have a pocket full of Dongs”, “Man, I would kill for some more Dong”, “The job didn’t offer enough Dong for me to take it”. . . and with that my twelve-year-old humor has exhausted itself, I apologize).

But the pitch from our host wasn’t a complete waste of time.  It divulged the fact that a majority of Hue’s highlights are far from the hotel and even further from each other.  We were left with four tour options:

1) Rent a scooter

2) Ride on the back of a scooter

3) Get a bus and do a tour group

4) Hire a private car

It wasn’t much of a debate about which options we should/would consider.  Our past experiences have pretty much put us in lockstep on our desired mode of getting around.

1) We have rented plenty of scooters on our trip and in other countries this might be a cheap and fun option.  But it only took a day of being in Vietnam to see that their driving style is as well-organized as a prison riot.  It’s fairly comparable as well.  That is, you might not be actively participating but you still run the risk of getting killed just being near the situation.  Walking beside the street is risking your life enough for us.

2) Set aside the fact that you have to grab onto a strange Vietnamese man, sitting nut to butt.  The same risks apply from the first option.  Only now you’re not responsible for your own destiny and forfeit the outcome of your life to the lowest bidder.

3) While you gain the organization of a strict itinerary.  It is quickly offset by being ushered too quickly or too slowly through the attractions, the side stops at shops to get ripped off, and the fact that it is now impossible to avoid the crowds, because you are the crowd.

4) $45 for three hours:  Granted, that is 70% of our daily budget slashed away in just three hours.  But if we want to see the attractions on our own terms, it is pretty much our only (safe and comfortable) option.  Now all we have to do is decide if our desire to see the local sights is worth the hefty price tag.

We decided to spend the day walking through the Citadel.  Leaving the decision about the tour for another day.

P1050265

“The Citadel Complex of Hue, set up by Nguyen Dynasty from 1805 to 1945, is now one amongst the relics of the Hue ancient Capital. . . ” (continue reading here if you are interested) 

There is a noticeable lack of Tuk-Tuks in Vietnam, but the hustle and hassle is replaced by the cyclo operators.  A cyclo is a three-wheeled pedal bike with a seat in the front.  From my observation they seem to attract the same caliber of characters as Tuk Tuk drivers in other parts of South East Asia (see Tuk Tuk Ten Commandments).

As soon as we walked through the gates of the Citadel we had a cyclo on our tail (Ghost Rider, we have an unknown aircraft. Vector 090 for bogey).  Each time we stopped to take photos, check the map, or itch our ass, he was in our face.  Asking if we wanted a ride, a tour, cheap tour one hour, where are we going, where are we from, lying about distances to encourage us to reconsider.  We actually had to cross the road three times and double back by ducking behind traffic, giving us freedom from our stalker just moments before I reached the point of dismounting him from his bike and throwing him under a passing vehicle.

The days struggles went beyond the annoyances from the cyclo operators.  The heat was at an all time high for our time in Vietnam.  Reaching a sweltering 37 degrees celsius.  For you Americans, that is roughly the same temperature as hell.  The somewhat pleasurable and cool temperatures we had been experiencing thus far in Vietnam (overcast and rain) created an adverse reaction to this drastic change in climate.  The fact is I looked like Weird Al singing the chores to Amish Paradise.  Sweat was dripping off my face at such a rapid pace that I was forced to find an improvised solution.

P1050222

With my $1 bathroom floor mat in hand, we continued on our journey.
After circling the Forbidden City (the main / only attraction inside the Citadel walls) for 20 minutes, we came to the realization that it was closed for lunch (several locals telling us and then we confirmed with several more locals while we were searching for the entrance).  That meant we now had 90 minutes to kill until it reopened.  Not exactly what I would consider electrifying information when the heat is draining you more than a Business, Government, and Society class.  Fucking-yawn.

With no shelter to hide us from the sun and a belly full of lunch we just ate, we didn’t have many options to fill our time.  We checked the map and noted a pagoda a couple of blocks away.  Nothing of great significance, but we had to do something with our time.

P1050238 P1050232

Four hours after our initial start time we finally made it to the Forbidden City.

P1050309 P1050303

The full day of walking the city left us fairly exhausted and somewhat enthused about our accomplishment.  The decision was made to wake up early the next day and walk the 5K (supposedly) to the closest and one of the more popular tombs.

Our thought process is as follows.

$45 will get you quite a bit of frosty adult beverages in a country like Vietnam.  We run at least 8k on a regular basis and it doesn’t take us more than an hour.  By my expertise calculations we can walk 3-4 miles an hour if we step it out.  So we should be able to make it to the tomb in less than an hour and fifteen minutes, easy.  We gain the benefit of exercise, we save money, we see if the whole tomb thing attracts enough of our attention to seek out the remainder of the tombs in the area.  It really was a plan of genius, at least we thought.

The following day wasn’t quite as hot as the preceding day.  It must have been about 36.9 degrees instead of the life sucking 37.

Great walking weather. . .

There were no sidewalks or the few sidewalks that were available were packed with scooters and trash.  That meant it was three or four steps on the sidewalk, a glance behind us to ensure we weren’t drilled by a scooter, seven or eight steps on the road (continually checking over our shoulders for more scooters), then back on the sidewalk.  This strenuous walking behavior slowed our pace down to a crawl.  The constant horns, obstructed walking path, and unrelenting heat gave our walking campaign a moral level that was on par with a sick dog trapped in a puppy mill.

After an hour and a half of single file, traffic dodging, life risking, drag-ass walking, we made it to the halfway point.  Unbeknownst to us, there was a (I am not sure what? We didn’t really care, just wanted a fucking break) a nice park area that had some significance we were unaware of.  It was a welcoming break from the heat and almost gave us the energy to walk the additional 2.5 kilometers

P1050337

We had set out on our adventure just after breakfast and it was now inching incredibly close to lunch time.  Unfortunately the tomb was originally constructed by the emperor as a sanctuary away from his palace and home life.  Basically a summer home.  Surprisingly and disappointingly, this purposeful isolation hasn’t really dissipated over the years as you would assume with urban sprawl.  As our stomach began to ach for sustenance, our frantic eyes made the realization that we were leaving the density of Hue city behind.  It wasn’t until we reached the tomb itself, an hour later, that we were able to plop down at a restaurant and ease our pain.

In passing conversation as the waitress dropped off our menus she asked if we were on a tour or motor bikes.  When we expressed to her that we walked, her jaw almost hit the floor.  It was not a look of tremendous accomplishment she was giving us.  It was a look of “you guys are fucking stupid!”, and yes, we had come to the same conclusion many, many, many, steps ago.

It only took us two and a half painful hours to walk the “5k” and we easily came to the unified conclusion that we would be catching a cab home.  A cab that only cost a mere $5.  The taxi home drove us the exact route we took to the tomb on our death march.  Short on money, we had to stop the cab 10 blocks from our hotel.  The metered showed 8.5K on the dashboard.

P1050377 P1050351 P1050373

Nah Trang and Hoi An

Что это такое? Я не могу есть палочками

We have left the Russian getaway of Mui Ne but still found plenty of Russianizatoin, over-kill of western food, and a general lack of chopsticks in Nha Trang.  This might strike some of you as a petty thing to complain about, chopsticks.  But call me crazy, I like to feel at least a small sense of intact culture of the country I am visiting.  It also helps with my eating problem.  I have the ability to down an entire four course meal in a matter of seconds.  Often getting mistaken for a Nathan’s Hot Dog competitor in training, I actually look forward to using chopsticks in order to slow down the inhaling of my food.  By adding at least an additional 2 minutes to my dining experience.  Those last few scoops of rice are a bitch!

Thankfully, if you take the time to walk 10-15 minutes in any direction away from the tourist pocket of high-priced hotels, Texas BBQ, and raging backpacker bars, you’re able to find what you would expect to see when visiting Vietnam. . . Vietnamese people, Vietnamese food, and fucking chopsticks!

But we did manage to find what we both agree is hands down the best Banh Mi (Sandwich) we have had in country to date and wouldn’t you know it, the lady was smart enough to position herself  right in the middle of the four square blocks of Western food.  Fifty cents will get you a kick-ass vegetarian sandwich that is comprised of fresh vegetables, a concoction of sauces, and her secret family recipe of glazed soy chunks.  They look like pieces of teriyaki chicken and taste awesome!

P1050153

P1050155

For those regular blog visitors, you are all to familiar with the recent (by recent I mean the last three months) complaints about the weather.  It started in New Zealand, followed us back to Australia, and ultimately continued here in Vietnam.  We believe this recent string of bad luck is due to two things:

1) By the end of South Africa (about half-way through our trip) we had to put up with the rain a total of seven days.  That is seven-fucking-days of rain in six months!  We proclaimed our fortune arrogantly and often spoke aloud about how lucky we have been.  Obviously dooming us for the future.

2) We are getting close to returning to Seattle.  Our first real city we called home together.  We had good jobs, a nice apartment, a handful of people we liked to have a beer (or beers) with, and ultimately a pretty good sense of the cities offerings.  We liked Seattle.  We like Seattle.  We would love Seattle.  Just as soon as global warming does something about that damn constant overcast and the shitty-ass rain situation.  It turns out the two of us hate rain with an equal, non-tolerant, and disgusted passion.  Short of being in the desert and dying of dehydration, neither of us ever want to see rain ever again.  Not tropical rain, not light rain, not warm rain, not snow mixed with rain, not even rain made of Jack Daniels!  No, wait, I retract that last one.  Thankfully, Sally has learned from our past and now checks the weather on a regular basis and if she doesn’t like the forecast she is provided with, she just keeps checking different websites until she finds one she can deal with.

Sally: This one says only 40% chance of rain!  See!  So it might be OK. . . ?

So as soon as we arrived we hustled down to the beach (but ended up at a pool, with a bar of course!) for the only five hours of sunshine we saw while in Nha Trang.  The remaining two days were spent under the cover of darkness.  Scampering through puddles and trying our best not to use the weather as an excuse to sit in the bar all day.

IMG_7956

We completed our last overnight bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An, our last bus trip for the entire trip, and we couldn’t be more excited to report that overnight buses have just been placed number five on the ‘Top Ten List Of Experiences We Never Want To Have Again'(better know by its acronym – FUCK THAT SHIT!).  It ranked just below having a pregnancy scare and just above a three thousand Pound phone bill.  Which for those of you not keeping up with the exchange rate, 3,000 pound is roughly four million US dollars.

We only had about two hours to wallow in our self-pity for our lack of sleep before we were due at our private cooking class. Our time in Chiang Mai made us fall in love with the simplistic, connect the dots, style cooking classes that can be had in Asian countries.  In Thailand it felt like all I had to do was put on an apron, stir some shit, and BAM, good food just started magically appearing (No chopping, no thinking, no reading, no cleaning, just stirring!  My kind of cooking!)

IMG_8013

After a quick stop by the local market to pick up some fresh ingredients, we made our way to Gioan Cooking School.  We were greeted by a young and chirpy host that walked a fine line between psychotically annoying and overly pleasant.  Her extreme enthusiasm to cook was only matched by her inability not to giggle at literally every comment that was made and referring to Sally and I by what ever we happen to be dishing, chopping, or adding.

“Ha-ha-ha sugar boy!  Now one tablespoon of sugar!”

“Ok chili girl! Ha-ha-ha, now how much chili do we add?”

And so on, and so on. . .

The first five minutes of class actually made me feel like I was Neo from the Matrix.  But rather than Kung Fu being pumped into my brain through a wire in the back of my head.  I was getting Eddie Murphy Raw, Kat Williams, and Ralphie May.  I began to think I was the funniest man alive!  I was so funny that I started to shoot from the hip.  Not even taking the time to reflect on if what I was saying was actually funny.  Dreams of a world comedy tour began to shape in my pea sized mind.  I could see myself sipping scotch on stage, talking about salad side dishes, and actually getting paid to get wasted!

I think that was about the time that Sally could sense my already large head infringing on her space more then usual.  She could see that my eyes were glazed over, fantasizing about having my own show on Comedy Central.

As our host walked away to grab me another beer Sally brought me back to reality.

Sally: Wow. . . that chick will laugh at anything, I mean anything! . . .  It’s almost annoying.

Bret: . . . . . Huh?

Sally: She laughs at everything!

Bret: Really? I hadn’t noticed.

But I had noticed and it was all to easy to realize the truth upon our hosts return.  A simple test of running through some trivial and somewhat nonsensical comments (conducted in an enthusiasm tone with a smile on my face) quickly divulged the truth.

Bret: Terrible weather.

Host: Ha-ha-ha, smash garlic, garlic boy!

Bret: I don’t know what I am saying.

Host: Ha-ha-ha, fish sauce please. . . . fish sauce boy!

So much for Comedy Central.  Looks like I will have to settle for a late night show on CBS. Baaaaaa Zing!

IMG_8017

We quickly learned to keep our comments to a minimum and tried our best to absorb the formalities of our dishes.  It may have been as remedial of a task as coloring within the lines.  But we enjoyed our cooking class and we were instilled with the full confidence that we will never be able to replicate the dishes we created during class to that level of quality again, ever.

IMG_8025

The following day was Sally’s birthday.  With expectations being at an all time high after my bash in Vientiane (Laos), we set out to re-create our own Hangover-esk night of shenanigans (The first Hangover, not the second.  For those of you that were able to tell the difference.)  We spent the day scouting the area, looking up bars on Tripadvisor, checking out the Old Town area, and of course having juuuuuust a couple pre-drinks.

The charm of Hoi An is definitely something to write home about.  The traditional, mostly wood, Vietnamese architecture that derives from the 19th and 20th century, is tightly packed around the narrow and weaving streets of this one time port town.  We easily found ourselves captivated by the beauty of city as we wandered for hours through the Old Town.

P1050172 P1050190

Sally had decided that we should get massages for her birthday as a nice way to relax before we headed out for our big night on the town.  I initially objected to my participation in the activity but was quickly reminded the power that comes with the apex of the birthday week celebrations.  We found Hoi An Day Spa through tripadvisor and set off for the half hour walk from our hotel.

When we arrived, two of the employees were designated the unfortunate job of washing our feet.  A chore that the 97 degree day made a bit more demeaning.  I gave Sally an odd look as I plunged my first foot into the cool cleansing water.  Not because I was concerned about spreading my highly contagious foot fungus, but because the provider of my services was a Vietnamese man.  From my approximation very close to my age.  My look was easily understood by Sally and from her reaction I properly conveyed my objection to the situation.  As soon as they two foot cleaners stepped away Sally addressed my glare.

Sally: I don’t think they are the same ones that are going to be giving us our massages

Bret: They fucking better not be.

As we were lead upstairs to our private massage room, each step confirmed my suspicions.  The door was opened to our room and I frantically scanned the room to look for additional employees.

The room was empty.

We were directed behind a curtain to discard our cloths and left to wrap ourselves in a towel.  I stood staring at Sally with my face clearly showing my discomfort.  I slowly removed my cloths with the same hesitation as a first time inmate heading to the shower room for the first time during his incarceration.  Not knowing exactly how or if I was going to make it back behind the curtain to put my cloths back on with the same sense of manhood I came into the building with.  I stopped the process at my boxers.

Bret: There is no fucking way I am taking these off.

I said in the firmest, this is not up for discussion, I will fucking bolt right now if you say shit, voice I could put together.

Sally: Ok

Sally said with a big smile, trying her best not to laugh loud enough to be heard through the curtain voice she could put together.

I stepped out from behind the curtain and made eye contact with my masseur.  I pointed to my boxers and said, “I am leaving these on bro.” in a very flat and definitive tone.  As I meticulously observed his facial expressions for any sign of anything that would indicate anything.  But he maintained his professionalism and responded as if it were as simple of a request as asking a waiter for a straw.

I wish I could say the next hour was a blur of relaxation, where I lost all sense of time.  But that was simply not the case.  My constant awareness of my masseur’s hands and body position crippled me from ever fully being absorbed into the relaxation of the massage.  Thankfully he used a towel as if I didn’t have boxers on, constantly adjusting it to ensure I was always covered from mid-thigh to lower back, he always positioned himself at a far enough distance to ensure there was never any incidental crotch grazing on any part of my body (something I was sure was inevitable), and he used such a monumental amount of force that there was no questioning this was a massage for the muscles and not an oil rub down for the skin.  He actually did a good enough job at conducting himself, that approximately between the seconds of 58:55 and 58:56 of my hour-long massage, I was finally able to look past gender, relax, and take in the situation for what it was.  A relaxing and revitalizing treatment.

We began our night of celebration in our traditional fashion.  A few sips of our favorite adult beverage, Sir Jack Daniels The Great or at least it would be called if we were in any kind of position to knight people and or products.

IMG_8051

The pre-drinks put enough enthusiasm into our veins to skip the one mile walk to the bars and grab ourselves a two dollar cab ride.  The enthusiasm deriving from wanting to keep our buzz going, not physical exertion.  We had sorted our first watering hole through Tripadvisor reviews and were expecting a great crowd and cheap happy hour deals.  However, it seems the travelers passing through Hoi at this particular moment didn’t conduct the same research.  The place was completely dead.  Thankfully we had heard the serene sounds of Bob Marley in the not so far distance and we scored ourselves some reasonably overpriced cocktails.

We decided on the Secret Garden for our birthday meal of indulgence.  Appropriately named because it is fucking hard to find.   The birthday meal is one of the few times we don’t decide our dish based on price (the cheapest one on the menu), don’t split, insist on ordering at least one bottle of wine with dinner ,and have as many mixed drinks as we can squeeze in before the food arrives.  We over ate to our hearts content and laughed it up until we closed the place out, literally.  The waitress had to come over and ask us to leave.  Normal circumstances would have had us taking the last quarter glass of wine down as a shot and asking for a roady to supplement the establishments inability to cater to our needs.  But when you’re birthday ballin’ you elevate your game to rise above these penny pinching habits   Which means we actually left the establishment with booze on the table.  Break the wrist and walk away. 

IMG_8059

We ended the night after a few post-dinner drinks and an incredibly long walk home. Despite my unrelenting protest and repeated attempts to hail a cab.

IMG_8075

 

Nha Trang and Hoi An Photos

Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne

After what felt like a two and a half month hiatus from travelling new and unknown places, we are back on the road for the last leg of our year and a bit long adventure.

The journey from Brisbane to Ho Chi Minh City was a long one and upon arrival (around noon) on Valentines Day both Bret and I were not sure we were ready for the craziness that is SE Asia.  The first afternoon was completely uneventful, however after an awesome bowl of Pho and a 12 hour sleep we were more than ready to get amongst it.  Knowing this is our second to last stop before we return to the States, we felt completely re-energised to be travelling again.

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still widely known as, is a bustling and vibrant city, perched on the banks of the Saigon River.  With its fine dining restaurants, big name hotels, and many bars, it has a distinct western feel to it.

P1050090On our first day in HCMC we decided to visit the War Remnants Museum.  Only knowing a little about the Vietnam War, I had high expectations to learn more about the history of the war.  How it transpired and transformed the country over the ten-year period, the local perspective, and the resolution between north and south to give us the Vietnam we know today.The museum is three stories high and mostly photography with small captions describing the image.  A series of halls house the various photography exhibits, showing the atrocities of the war with graphic images of torture, Agent Orange victims, and a collection of war photographs taken by photojournalists who lost their lives  during the war.  It also showed the various weapons used throughout the ten-year ordeal.  The museum did a good job invoking sympathetic emotions for the atrocities that were a result of this conflict but really missed a great opportunity to educate visitors.  It didn’t seem to have any direction behind the layout.  What seemed to us the obvious chronological ordering of events was ignored, as the curator choose to organize the museum based on American wrong doings instead.  There is little to no mention of the Viet Cong or the NVA, their role in the conflict, political ideology, or reason for fighting.  It simply highlighted the number of deaths committed by the US, the number of bombs dropped by the US, and showed a onslought of mostly civilian casualty images.  Even in the small section that highlighted the period during French rule (prior to the war) was focused on the amount of money and bullets the Americans gave the French, rather than the reason the French invaded or negative acts committed by the French.  I understand the country was torn apart by this invasion and it is their story of the war (which they are more than entitled to).  But I was hoping to understand more about the Vietnam perspective during the war rather than just being shown the American wrong doings.

P1050085

We also visited the Reunification Palace.  A colonial mansion built in 1871 as the home of the governor-general of Indochina.  It was pulled down in 1962, then reconstructed in 1966 as the home and office of the president.  On April 30 1975, the palace was stormed by North Vietnamese tanks in what was the defining moment of the fall of Saigon.  (Sound like I got this information from the back of a brochure?  Because I did!)  We found ourselves wandering the halls aimlessly trying to care but not really sure what the attraction was.

P1050126

The majority of our time in HCMC was spent wandering the relatively wide, clean streets of the city, visiting the river banks, the financial district, the up market area near the Rex Hotel, which was used as a base for the US media during the war and the “backpacker” area where we stayed.  All the while trying our best to get sick of the national soup, having multiple bowls of pho – some days eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner! 

P1050137 P1050098

Making our way North, up the coast of Vietnam, we stopped over in the beach town of Mui Ne.  It’s basically a strip of hotels, resorts, restaurants and bars, specifically catering to Russian Tourists.  We were surprised to see almost every sign and restaurant menu was in Vietnamese and Russian.  If you were white and sat down at a restaurant, you were given a Russian menu.  We had to repeatedly go back up to the waiter and ask for an English menu, which was often covered in dust due to its lack of use.  We also found it amusing that there wasn’t a chopstick in sight.  Apparently the Russians don’t like to eat with chopsticks?

The area also supposedly is home to some pretty awesome sand dunes, but Bret and I chose to do nothing but laze on the beach and by the pool for the two days we spent there.  As we sat on the beach we marveled at the countless number of kite surfing victims.  The area has hundreds of them dotting the first 40 meters of the wake and it seems the ‘anybody can do it’ advertising doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt while doing it.

IMG_7949

HCMC and Mui Ne Photos