Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome Home

After 6 weeks away, visiting Oz and travelling some of Vietnam, I returned to Hanoi and hit the ground running. We arrived on Saturday night and both had a full day of classes on Sunday. It was really nice to go back to our schools. We were welcomed with friendly smiles from the staff and students. The teaching environment is relaxed and very enjoyable. It was almost a pleasure to go back to work; something Celine and I definitely didn't feel in some of our other jobs. The owners of my school invited us out to dinner early next week.

On Sunday night our neighbours were having a party and invited us to come along. They have two young kids, who spent most of the night doing dragon dances in preparation for the autumn festival. They had a few of their friends over as well and we sat on a mat on the floor and chatted and shared a few drinks. We ate chicken hot pot which was delicious. Everything was going great until they pulled out some trung vit long, or duck embryos. They cracked them open into the hotpot; semi-formed embryos with all the added blood and goo you would expect. It was ghastly. I was wide-eyed and stunned. Celine broke into a cold sweat and couldn't look. It got worse when they served us some in our bowl. Celine politely refused. I summoned up the courage and thought of a happy place. It didn't taste so bad.

Last night we caught up with our friend Nam. We rode to his house and visited his family; sister, nephew and niece. We have organised to catch up for lunch next week.

We have been welcomed home by many people in the past few days which makes us very happy to be back.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


After a few days in Hoi An we jumped on the bike for our final journey; a 30km ride up the coast to Danang. Our bags were bulging with some last minute shopping and the straps to tie on our luggage were past their used by date. After 1,500km, and no 3rd gear our bike was struggling as well. Us, the bags and the bike made the short trip up to Danang in one piece.

Danang is a big town. It is very clean and I would say quite modern. That said, the city itself is not very attractive. The city runs alongside the Han River. There are mountains on one side of Danang and the South China sea on the other. The best things to see are outside the city. We rode up towards Monkey mountain to visit the big Buddha (apparently 68m) which looks down on Danang. The views and setting were amazing. There were a number of Buddhas situated around the main one. In the pagoda monks sung. It was 7am and the place was virtually empty. It was incredibly peaceful and very beautiful.

We then rode 10km to Marble Mountain, took a look from afar at some of the pagodas and checked out statue street (street alongside the entrance to the mountain where all the statues e.g. Buddhas are sold).

After that we stopped at China Beach and went for a swim. The sea was unbelievably calm; all the way out to the horizon. The water was great and we had most of the beach to ourselves. We also came across a rooster fight (as in the gambling type), on the side of the busy highway. A group of Vietnamese men were squatting on a patch of grass watching intently as the two roosters fought. I had never seen this before and was surprised that the roosters seemed to know what they were doing; prancing around each other before making an aggressive attack. It wasn't a fight to the death and the spurs were taped.

At around lunch time I put our bike on the train; sending it back to Hanoi. Celine and I found a bar that was showing the AFL grand final and we chilled there for a few hours. We had a flight back to Hanoi at 5.30pm bringing our trip to an end. The past few weeks have been amazing; both of us spoilt with some beautiful landscapes, wonderful people and delicious food. That being said, we are happy to get back to Hanoi.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hoi An - Full moon festival

I knew that every month on the 15th day of the lunar calendar, there was a full moon festival in Hoi An, where in the old town no electric lights or motorbikes were allowed. As a result, the old town is lit by candle and multicolored lanterns, creating a romantic ambiance. Romantic, yes: Vietnamese people come from all around the country for this special night and I swear I’ve never seen so many Vietnamese couples holding hands (including on Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi. If you know this bridge, you know what I mean. Love Bridge). Romantic, no: because there are thousands of people in the streets.
So, this is only once a month, and even though we had not planned it at all, we were lucky enough to be in Hoi An when in happened.
The streets of Hoi An were riddled with massive crowds walking around, holding hands, and with kids dressed as dragons playing drums. From what I gathered, the kids (boys only) got in the local shops or restaurants and danced around in Dragon outfits until the shop owner gave them a little money. It was fun to be around for this special night – actually it was two nights, the second one even more intense than the first. Oustide of the “pedestrian” area (in quote marks because only pedestrian on this instance) streets were gridlocked with bikes, not able to move even one inch. We were happy to have left ours at the hotel.

Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An very tired after 6 hours on the road, booked in a wonderful looking guesthouse, where the walls are antique carved wood panels – it felt like staying inside a Pagoda, and slept.

The rest of the evening was spent exploring the most charming town you’ll ever see, Hoi An, unfortunately absolutely ridden with tourists. But who could blame them? Hoi An’s old town has the most beautiful architecture and decrepit looking walls which to pretty much quote the LP; modern interior designers would spend a fortune trying to reproduce. I can see that, and I can see why.

It’s very hot here though, and there’s nothing to do between 8.00 am and 4pm but hide out somewhere and wait for the burning sun to subside a bit. Since I’ve been here, I’ve mainly wanted to chill and do nothing. I sleep a lot, walk around the old town, then sleep again or read (my DS charger is bust, so I can't read on that anymore... Dan just finished the third volume of Millenium, I was more than happy to read THAT again, damn I love Salander), swim a bit in the sea or the pool, get a few clothes made because, well… it’s Hoi An, the capital of Vietnamese tailors, then have a diet coke by the river and read some more… very relaxing. Very, very sunny and hot, so relaxing is a must.
Every day I discover walls so beautiful I have to catch my breath. I took a few pictures (500), some of which I’ll share here.

Dak Glei was uneventful, it’s a very quiet village in the mountains where we only stopped for the night, but the people were extremely friendly. Kids were preparing for the full moon festival by banging on drums most of the evening and running around singing and laughing. We did baptise it “oil town", as we decided it was the Vietnamese cradle of oily dishes. I mean we have now been through the cradle of wine, of dragonfruits, of flowers, of coffee, of milk… so why not of oil? Dak Glei is not famous for its oil, really, but after being served two dishes bathing in it, we declared it was. (Photo: would you like some Pancakes with your oil??)
We stayed in a very cheap guesthouse where the shower was outside(litteraly I mean not in a room outside but just outside in the backyard) and we weren’t given towels anyway, so I must admit we skipped the shower. I know I washed my face and feet, but I can't promise anything about Dan.

In the very early morning I discovered My Quan, a noodle dish I didn't know yet: thick noodles, quail eggs and bits of pork and shrimp. Perfect for breakfast but in good Dak Glei style, a little too oily.
Then we set off on the Ho Chi Minh trail towards Hoi An. The ride was stunning. We had a coffee around 7am in a tiny mountain village, altitude 1900m. We shared a table at the cafe with this adorable little girl and her father. I don't have a good picture of her, but she had one of the most perfect prettiest face I've ever seen.The air was pure and once again, the locals were very friendly. Women would come out of their little wooden houses, baby on the back, and when seeing us, looked a little startled before waving at us with a big smile. Some of them didn't speak Vietnamese, so obviously they were from a mountain Ethnic minority but we don't know which one.
The road was virtually empty. That mountain ride took several hours and it became very hot very early, but it was the most beautiful of all.

Photo of the week # 6

Young boy from the Banhar minority cutting a piece of bamboo

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Road trip section 8: Kon Tum to Dak Glei

After a morning bouncing along dirt roads, visiting ethic villages, in the blazing sun we headed back into Kon Tum to pack up our gear and make a dash towards Hoi An. Being 300km away we wern't going to arrive that day so we wanted to make the following day as bearable as possible and aimed to ride around 100km and find a place to crash as night fell. Once we had checked out of the hotel run by the Happy Family (note: sarcastic tone) I tied our bags onto the back of our bike as the sun belted down. Sweating profusely I did my best in an otherwise uncomfortable situation.

It felt like a sauna as we rode along. We decided the afternoon road trip was not for us and would keep to the early mornings for the rest of the trip. We were not in the mood for photo's and flew along the highway until our bums needed a break. The seat on our old bike is not the best and the padding provides little support so after an hour or so it starts to get a little painful. Celine and I would take turns standing up on the foot rests and stretching our legs, getting the blood circulation going, while I rode along. It was probably not the safest thing to do but provided great amusement for any other riders nearby. In Kon Tum our bikes third gear decided to die so we could only use first, second and fourth for the 300km journey to Hoi An.

We were now on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We stopped in Dak To, a small unassuming town which saw some serious battles in the Vietnam/American war, for a coffee and a relax. This was an area that saw major human losses, on both sides. It was hard to imagine what happened in Dak To as you sat and chatted to friendly locals, watched kids play and ride bicycles, waving enthusiastically when you caught their eye.

After that the rain set in so we stopped and put on our new raincoats. The rain came was heavy for about 30 minutes but we rode straight through it waving to anyone else who was still on the road. We continued along the Ho Chi Minh Trail passing many ethnic minority villages that lived close to the highway. Women in traditional dress were walking up the road carting timber. Young boys drove buffalo's with a long bamboo stick. Others gave us a curious gaze as we slowed on the bike. The minorities have their own languages and many village people, especially those living out of the bigger cities, don't speak Vietnamese.

As the sun was going down we arrived into a small town, Dak Glei, and found a guesthouse to sleep the night. The room was basic and relatively clean, the people friendly, and the rate very acceptable: $5 for the room. It was nice to be staying somewhere not written about in guide books or online reviews.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Orphanages of Kon Tum

There are 7 orphanages in and around Kon Tum, 2 of which are recognised by the government. They are all run by the Vietnamese Catholic sisters of the Miraculous Medal.

When visiting Mr An at Eva cafe, he drew us a map showing the orphanages in the area, making mention to the ones that are not listed in guides such as the Lonely Planet.

"These ones that are not in the guide need more help" he said.

We spent the best part of our first day visiting a few of the orphanages. First, we visited Vien Son 1, the main orphanage in town. We played with the kids, gave them some candy and talked to the sisters that looked after the orphanage. Alongside the orphanage is a dormitory for young adults, who live to far to study in town but also can't afford to live with their family. I met two amazing 23 year old girls, who lived in the dormitory, and studied tourism in town. Their English was good and they grew up in the same orphanage that joined their dormitory. These very intelligent girls grew up in a very small block of land, calling this humble place home for the best part of their lives. They were so friendly and felt blessed they had a small chance to speak English with a foreigner. They showed us around the orphanage, answering all our questions. After playing with the kids, mainly toddlers in this orphanage, we gave the Sisters in charge a bit of money, and said our goodbyes.
Photo: It's hot in Kontum. Babies at nap time look like they're passed out from heat!

Our next stop was to an orphanage that Mr An said needed help, and was on the outside of town. The orphanage, known as Orphanage number 5 (They can't get a proper name until recognised by the state), was a few kms out of town, over a suspension bridge. We arrived over a bumpy, steep, dirt road that passed houses very much in need of repair. We were passing houses of the Bahnar people, who make up a decent proportion of the areas population.

The kids in that orphanage were older, mainly from 5-12 years old, and seemed very happy. They looked healthy and were playing happily outside, the older ones taking care of the younger ones. That's where we met Theresa.

This is a picture of Theresa, a woman who has 4 children under 6 years old, including a 3 month old baby, and still goes and works in the Orphanage 7 hours a day, as a teacher. This is volunteer work of course. Theresa grew up in the main orphanage in town and is now dedicating the best part of her life to 68 kids (and growing), who have next to nothing, and are not getting any help from the state.

Last month, Theresa found this baby in an ethnic village far off the city. The baby had been left to die, as his mother had died post labour and the father had no means to feed the baby. This used to be current practise for surrounding ethnic villages: without a mum, the baby was left to starve for a few days and then buried with the mother (or even buried alive with the mother). From what we were told it doesn't happen much anymore as the villagers know about the orphanages and bring the newborns there. But this particular village was very far and the villagers didn't know any other way.

Fortunately, Theresa was visiting a friend in the village and she saw the baby lying there, abandoned. She took him back with her and told everyone in the village to call her if another baby was left motherless. We were completely shocked when we heard this story; speechless, listening to this terrible and surreal account. Celine and I glanced at each other in disbelief as we learnt what nearly happened to this one little baby, and what has happened to many others. It was terribly sad and very personal to us because we had spent time, earlier that day, with the little one Theresa saved; rocking the cot and feeding milk through a bottle.

We are determined to help out in some way and have been brainstorming ideas ever since. Please see my latest post

In and around Kon Tum

The area around Kon Tum is my favourite place on this trip. I say the surrounds because the town itself is pretty uneventful without much character or soul. The people are friendly, which can be said for most of Vietnam, but everything else is quite uninspiring. It is very hot and as Celine pointed out there are virtually no trees or plant life throughout the city, and trees mean shade. Having a coffee on the river for breakfast or a drink in the evening is very enjoyable and is without a doubt the highlight of the town.

The ethnic minority villages and the people in general that surround Kon Tum are what makes this a special place. On our first morning in Kon Tum we went for a drive and found a cafe, Eva cafe, that was listed in the Lonely planet. The owner, Mr An, spoke great English, and pretty good French, and gave us a number of ideas for exploring the area. He also offered some inticing trekking options which we unfortunately could not fit into our schedule.

we spent the rest of the day visting a number of orphanages around the area, meeting adorable kids and amazing people, and learning about the plight that countless children face. (see next post)

We explored the local wooden French church, probably the most beautiful church I have seen, and later stopped for dinner around town. I chatted to many of the locals who were very friendly. One guy was telling me how his kids were living in Sydney, working for Macquarie and Wespac Bank. I used to work for Macquarie Bank. Small world.

The following day started as most do: with a coffee. After that, we had organised a guide to take us around some of the surrounding villages. The people, mainly Banhar people, have lived in the area long before the Vietnamese. There are a number of villages in close proximity to the town and others that are further out. He took us to places we would not have found, answered all our questions and gave us a great insight into the locals current culture and also their history. It was a very authentic experience.

We returned from our half day tour and hit the road towards Danang, hoping to find a small town to sleep for the night, before making tracks to the coast the following day.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On the road, 11 days of stats

Number of days on the road: 11
Number of rainy days on the road: 1
Kilometres travelled: 1,085km
Number of coffees consumed: I would think around the 50 mark
Number of accidents: 0 (Woooooooooo Hooooooooo - touch wood)
Number of breakdowns: 0
Number of flat tires: 1
Number of times scared shit less by an approaching bus or truck: at least 15
Number of dragonflies who have undergone a kamikaze mission into my face: 5 (man that hurts)
Number of times we have got lost or taken a wrong turn: 1 (my fault). Seriously, how good is my co-pilot?
Number of hotel rooms above $15 per night: 0
Number of hotel rooms with a bathtub: 0
Number of hotel rooms on the beach: 2
Number of times kids have waved and shouted "Hello": uncountable
Number of pictures taken: around a 5000
Number of absolutely awesome pictures taken: around a 1000
Number of those absolutely awesome pictures taken by me: 3
Number of random cuddles from Vietnamese women to Celine: 3
Number of times people touched my bald head: around 20
Number of times men stroked my arm or leg hair: around 10
Number of new friends made: Plenty
Number of conversations in Vietnamese only: a few everyday
Number of inappropriately long stares at us: 1000
Number of bicycle treks we did: 1
Number of bicycle treks we enjoyed: 0
Number of days to go: 7

Road trip section 7: Buon Ma Thuot to Kon Tum

We awoke early, around 5.30am, in preparation for our longest stint on the road. Our poor little bike had to carry the both of us and all our luggage (which actually is not that much) around 230km. We grabbed a few things to eat on the way from the local market and stopped at a cafe for our morning coffee. The Vietnamese coffee is damn strong. The coffee in Buon Ma Thuot is even stronger. One coffee and I was buzzing like a pill-popper at a rave. Now fully awake, we hit the road by 6.30am.

It didn't take long to realise the weather was not going to favour us. Firstly, it was cold. The chill of the wind cut through our clothes. Not long after it started to rain. Not heavy rain, but that annoying spitting rain. The rain decided to fall in a most uncomfortable angle; right into my face. A word of warning; a speeding rain droplet in the eyeball is quite unpleasant. Once this has been repeated a few times it can get frustrating. I was forced, at times, to squint to lessen the chance of another hit. I also tried driving with one eye, alternating every few seconds, but soon realised this was neither practical or safe.

Celine and I stopped on the side of the road to put on our cheap raincoats. To their credit they stopped most of the rain and acted as a great little wind barrier. We kept the raincoats on virtually the whole way to Kon Tum, which took us most of the day. A wet, windy and cold day was not what we wanted for our epic road journey but it had to happen sooner or later; being the rainy season and all.

The trip has gone great and we made our 230km to Kon Tum, arriving tired and weary but in good spirits. The road was generally in good condition (highway 14) and the landscape was not as stunning as the previous couple of days. That was good in a way because we could put our foot down and concentrate on riding. We passed a number of rubber plantations which reminded me of the French film Indonchine.
After a few stops along the way in Buon Ho, Iang Bang (tiny) and Pleiku for lunch we made a final dash for Kon Tom. We stopped for a final drinks break in a small cafe where we chatted to some very friendly locals, before zooming along the last 20km. After a long day we both needed a few hours to rest.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Road trip section 6: Lak Lake and BMT

On the south side of Lak Lake is Jun village, where M’Nong people live (M’Nongs are one of the ethnic minority people of the area). We decided to stay in the village for the night. We had hoped to stay with a local family but that is not how it works here. You stay in the village, in the same kind of house as the locals, but in your own house. This is set up for tourists and we could feel it. Being low season, we were the only ones there, which is not a bad thing, but still we didn’t get to mix with the population much.
We could hear the kids play soccer or ride bikes outside in the evening, so it was semi-authentic, but It didn’t come close to our experiences in Ba Be Lake (January this year)or Mai Chau (In August last year).
In the morning (today) we took a boat ride on the lake, it was beautiful.
This guy was either washing or drowning an elephant. Not sure which, as he kept pushing the elephant under.Even though the village’s main attraction is an elephant ride around (and IN) the lake, we didn’t want to do that. In always seems incredibly sad to see elephants enslaved to take tourists on their back all day long, every day. Dan did it in Thailand and has kept a very bitter memory of it.
We hit the road again around 10 am but this time we didn’t go very far. We stopped 50 kms away, in the city of Buon Mat Thuot, the coffee capital of Vietnam.
I had 4 Vietnamese coffees today, and I’m buzzing. BMT is not amazing, but right next to it is the cutest little village, where we walked around and took pictures, as we do.
The people in the village were all out and about, walking around and chatting with the neighbours. I think we said “hello!” back to approximately 200 “helloooo!” thrown our way.
Dan, the local star:We’re staying in a small hotel in BMT. Tomorrow we'll be on the road from 6.00 am.
We'll be deep in the Highlands and on the Ho Chi Minh trail from tomorrow and for the next few days. It probably won’t be easy to get an Internet connection, so we’ll be back on the blog after that.

Road trip section 5: Dalat to Lien Son (on Lak Lake)

The day started with our first, and hopefully last, flat tire. We ran over a long nail as we were leaving Dalat, right in front of a waterfall site, which had a bunch of cafes and security on hand. Within a minute a handful of Vietnamese guys came over to help us. One of the security guys from the waterfall found the nail in the tyre, pulled it out, and explained where the nearest garage was and how much it would cost to repair. We untied our bags from the bike and without explanation the security guy jumped on our bike and rode off. This may have raised a few alarm bells, and we did have a joke that our bike was now long gone, but in all seriousness we found this quite normal and typical of the friendly and helpful nature of the Vietnamese. We had a coffee and after 20 minutes the guy returned with a fixed tire. We paid and thanked him and were on our way. I have had probably 4 or 5 flat tires since I have been in Vietnam and the process of getting it fixed has always been painless: there's always help around the corner.

This day on the road was all about the Vietname Highlands, or as we like to call them, the "Greens". As the day progressed we passed some amazing landscapes, causing us to make repeated photo stops. We headed south-west through Nam Ban towards Dinh Van on highway 27. We were basically driving South when our destination, Lien Son, was North, but we were assured that this was the best way to go (driving South meant reaching the better road to go back up). As we dropped in altitude, winding down the green hills from Dalat we could feel the temperature climb. Dalat was crisp and even a little cold but by the time we got to Nam Ban the temperature was perfect.
Once we reached highway 27 we rode north-west up towards Lien Son. That ride, yesterday’s, was my favorite so far. I know I have repeated this statement but the stunning landscape, along with relatively good roads that twisted and turned through hills and valleys, across rivers and through quaint little towns can’t be beaten; so far. There was again little traffic and the backdrop was a mass of different greens that even an artist would have problems putting together. The rice paddies were a fluorescent lime and the vast variety of colours from other crops and vegetation was eye catching. We had a game of "count the shades of green".

We drove up and down hills, in and out of valleys. The hills around us were efficiently cultivated with coffee, fruit, rice, bamboo and others I can’t put a name to. Each patch had its own shade of green which at times made the landscape seem surreal.

The rice fields seemed artificial they were so perfect. Ladies, again wearing their conical hats, worked incessantly in the hot sun. The fruits of their labour were obvious to see as we stopped and admired their pristine pieces of land. Rice fields were in the valleys with coffee and corn plantations on the slopes of the hills. When coffee plantations stopped bamboo ones started. We watched workers gathering bamboo on steep slopes. At times we stopped on each corner for another great photo.

After a while we stopped for a coffee. How awesome was that cafe corner?

We had a picnic lunch by the side of the road, made of bread, tomatoes and yoghurts. A family living in a humble tin house saw us and came over to say hello. We chatted to them for a while before getting back on the road.

We passed small towns and saw many kids walking either to or from school. They waved happily. Cows and pigs crossed the road, a normal scene in this part of the country. Locals gave us a curious but happy look. Now in the highlands there is probably less chance to see other foreigners. We weaved our way through the wonderful scenery before reaching Lien Son and Lake Lak late afternoon.

The trip was around 160km, it took us 5 hours.