Flashback to last April, and our 40-hour train ride from the steamy Mekong Delta to the fog of the Sapa Valley. Here is Vietnam viewed from the rails of the Reunification Express.
After three hot, wonderful months in Southeast Asia, we’ve landed on Australia’s southern coast, where winter is just beginning to set in.
Before we begin exploring this vast country, we wanted to share a few things we are thrilled to be leaving behind, and some things we will desperately miss.
Things we will not miss:
1. Riding in any variety of public vehicle.
2. Prevalence of hard-boiled eggs on said vehicles.
3. Being treated like an ATM.
4. Watching people throw garbage on the ground.
5. Toilet paper being replaced with a butt washing spray hose.
6. The beer selection.
7. The lack of cheese.
Things we will:
1. Fresh fruit on every street corner. Especially mangos!
2. Paying $3 for dinner and $10 for a hotel.
3. Wearing flip-flops all day.
4. A spring roll appetizer at every meal.
5. The feeling of being very far away from home.
6. A change of scenery every few days.
7. Thai curries and Lao sticky rice.
8. El Nido’s tropical beaches.
9. Rice paddies.
10. Excited children yelling “hello.”
Our first post from Australia is coming soon!
Before we update you on our time here in the tropical perfection of the Philippines, we present a haiku poem dedicated to one of the most delicious things money can buy:
Here in Vietnam
I spy an orange bag of chips
Crunchy snack from home
Assorted varieties of Kettle Chips have surprised us several times in the most unlikely locations, and they are always a friendly reminder of home. These guys turned up in Sapa, Vietnam.
According to local legend, the two thousand mountainous islands that rise out of the dark teal waters of Ha Long Bay began as pearls thrown to earth from the mouth of a dragon. An island sprang up where each one fell, blocking the enemy ships that threatened the native people and giving the area its name, which means “Descending Dragon.”
As the only package tour we booked and with the price doubling our average daily budget, three days exploring Ha Long Bay with Handspan was clearly going to be a step up from the last ten weeks. We didn’t expect it to be downright luxurious.
After a van ride from Hanoi, our group of eight plus our guide boarded the Victory Star, and we immediately knew this tour was a good idea. A four-story wood-paneled ship with an elaborate dining room, cabins with private balconies, and spacious sundeck, the Victory Star was incredible. The room was one of the nicest we’ve ever slept in, not even including the bonus points it garners for being on a boat. (more…)
Ho Chi Minh City, still known to many as Saigon, is packed with life. City parks are full of people power walking, playing badminton, and even doing after-work aerobics classes. Thousands of motorbikes sweep through the city streets, spilling onto sidewalks. People sip beer and slurp pho at outdoor restaurants, and vendors call out to passersby.
Though we’re by no means city people, we rather liked it.
Just an hour or so south of Saigon, the Mekong River splits into nine massive branches, each with a complex network of tiny canals, tributaries, and streams. We were excited to see what the river we crossed into Laos three weeks ago had become.
Our destination, Ben Tre, turned out the be a nondescript city sprawled out along polluted water — far from the small riverside community we were picturing. Luckily, a man on a motorbike pulled up as we stood dejectedly on the sidewalk and flashed a brochure for his guesthouse, 13 kilometers out of town. Set in a sweet-smelling orchard with small ponds and plenty of hammocks, it was just what we were looking for.
We borrowed two rickety bikes and set off down the street, past tiny towns and orchards and over small bridges spanning canals. On the return journey, school let out, and the narrow street was suddenly filled with schoolchildren in their uniforms, two or three to a bike. It was an ideal way to spend an afternoon.
The following day we took our friendly innkeeper up on a boat tour around the area, which led us down narrow canals fringed with overhanging water coconut branches, and out onto the main river. Wide and muddy as the Mississippi, it’s hard to believe there are eight more branches flowing into the South China Sea.
Back in Saigon, we stuffed our stomachs and bags with French pastries in preparation for a 40-hour train journey to northern Vietnam. Yes, a plane would certainly be quicker, more comfortable, perhaps even cheaper, but there’s something in the ability to trace the curved coastline of Indochina on a map and remember covering every inch of it on the ground.
On a line dubbed the Reunification Express, trains cover 1,079 miles of track between Saigon and Hanoi. We shared a four-berth sleeper cabin with a quiet Vietnamese couple for the first 644 of them, and were quite enchanted with the whole thing. We passed the time reading, watching movies, and being pulled in and out of sleep by the rumbling of the train.
When the sun rose, it revealed miles and miles of vibrant green rice fields rolling by. Farmers in conical hats stooped to tend the rice and steered plows pulled by water buffalo. White cranes burst out of the greenery and flew alongside the train on its journey north. After passing Danang, the train tracks veered to the curving edge of the ocean. Peering down from our bunks, we watched waves crashing on the rough rocky shore, dotted with wide, honey-colored beaches. (more…)
During the course of our seven weeks in Southeast Asia, we have accumulated various levels of proficiency at numerous essential travel skills. These include the stuffing of belongings into an oversize backpack (unpaid professionals), shrewd bargaining (hopeless novices), fortitude during laughably horrendous bus rides (advanced intermediates), and street crossing in motorbike-infested cities (newly minted experts). But one thing we have truly excelled at in the last few weeks is the Art of the No Thank You, and we are here to share our vast wisdom. Here is an example scenario:
It is 11:30 p.m. in Saigon, and you (the no-thank-you-er) are attempting to get drunk off tasteless 5 percent beer at a streetside table. A woman (the no-thank-you-ee) approaches with plastic bags full of small, speckled eggs, and looks expectantly in your direction. It appears they are for sale, and you feel obliged to decline.
First, pause, squint your eyes, and give a tilt of the head which says, “I have duly considered your offer of small speckled eggs and all of the possible joys and detriments they may afford, and am now fully qualified to make a decision that will bring me, the unsuspecting customer, the most satisfaction.” A moment of eye contact follows and goes a long way in solidifying each other’s understanding of the situation. A slight smile is, of course, polite, and always appreciated.
Then comes the big moment. The “no, thank you” must be firm, but also convey kindness and a slight tinge of regret, as if to say: “These small, speckled eggs are a fine commodity, but alas, I must decline. The hour is late, and they may not mix cordially with the four or five beers currently residing in my stomach should I choose to consume them. Of utmost concern is their manner of cooking preparation, and for this reason I am unable to move forward with the procurement of these eggs. But do not be discouraged. There is undoubtedly someone else nearby with a taste for such things.” Of course, during the delivery a left to right shaking of the head helps bridge language barriers, and, again, a smile helps to keep the tone genial in nature.
This method may be used for any number of offered goods, including, but not limited to: shoe shines, assorted fresh fruit varieties, dinnertime massages, cigarettes, live, cooked, and uncooked poultry, rides via two, three, and four wheeled vehicles, unidentifiable foodstuffs, endless knickknacks, dried cephalopods, dinner solicitations, soft drinks of ranging temperatures, all manner of meat of sticks, etc., etc…
Be warned, though, after several days of constant no-thank-you-ing, you may find yourself automatically turning down services and goods that you are actually in desperate need of!