Saturday, May 23, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 6: Vietnam. Fin.

Well here it is finally, the last chapter of my trip across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. For those of you just tuning in, I haven't been travelling for the last 4 months, it's just taken me this long to write up the trip in blog form (*insert sigh of frustration and self-loathing*). The trip actually finished on February 26th, 2009. Here's how the last week of it went:


Mui NE

We could feel the end of the trip around the corner and with itchy feet we got on a bus to the Cambodian/Vietnam border. We were on our way to Mui Ne, a coastal fishing town about 3.5 hours away from Ho Chi Minh city, where we would need to end up in a week to catch our flight back to Seoul. We felt gunshy about the journey because of all the hassles we'd gone through to get from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Thankfully, the journey was a smooth one. We had a bit of a wait at the border, but other than that we rode on a comfortable airconditioned bus into Ho Chi Minh, which dropped us off close to a travel office where we booked the next bus to Mui Ne (and it happened to swing by and pick us up within 10 minutes of getting off the previous bus).

When we rolled into Mui Ne, we had no sleeping arrangements and after the recommended guest house was found to be full we hopped on the back of some moto-taxis and stayed at family owned guest house a couple miles down the road with cute, clean rooms. Although it had been a long day of travelling, but we were all too excited to have made it to the beach to go to sleep. Especially in my case; it would be my first time on a saltwater beach. The matron of the place gave us a huge light to take with us to explore the beach that lay just beyond the backyard full of palm trees. And not only did it light our way, but it also warned all the crabs we were coming, so nobody stepped on one as we wandered down the beach to the closest beachside restaurant named cowboys. Their lasagna wasn't great, but it was sure better than the baked kimchi and ddok in red pepper sauce my school sometimes makes as a cruel joke. We toasted our fruit shakes and mohitos over the sound of waves rolling to shore: we'd covered a lot of miles and we'd earned a few days of unscheduled, unstructured bliss.

The next morning we were up pretty early and on bicycles searching for some bungalows on the beach. We stopped at a lot of places, but naturally our first stop turned out to be the best bang for our buck. We stayed at Nhat Quang for $13 bucks a night. Not quite the bamboo huts we were hoping for, but the bungalows were very nice with white linens and mosquito nets. Also, the grounds at this guesthouse were absolutely beautiful, and acted as a buffer against the constant honking of motorists on the road (in Vietnam, it's a law to honk when you pass someone, which motorists have taken to include passing not only autos and motorcycles but bicycles and pedestrians, so it's A LOT of honking). We were also far enough off the road that it also camoflagued the strange organic, musky smell that was inescapable on the main road (and was also present in a big way at our first guesthouse).

side note: The mystery smell turned out to be the scent of Mui Ne's famous fermented fish sauce, which most of the homes and restaurants keep in big clay pots on the roof or in the backyard. We suspected this, and it was confirmed during the first week of school when my school cafeteria served fish in a sauce that instantly brought back waves of memories of Mui Ne.

The next few days are probably better described by pictures than my narrative, so here's the highlights:

- hour long oil massages on the beach for $6

- fantastic sunsets

- watching the cattle be driven across the beach daily

- watching the fishing boats leave the village in the late morning and return in the evening

- hammock naps

- tasty eats like: thin crust pizza, bananna pancakes for breakfast, jackfruit and mango smoothies, panini's, Vietnamese soup

- chasing a cockroach out of Jen's room at night

- getting dressed up for tropical drinks and fire dancers at Wax

- not a single full night's rest, thanks to my summertime insomnia making an early reappearance

Now I had mentioned back in Chapter 2 that I broke my camera at Elephant Nature Park and that it was not the only camera to meet its demise on this trip. Of the five camera's brought with us to SE ASIA, only two made it out alive. Here are the stories of how cameras #2 and #3 bit the dust.

Camera #2 Jennifer's Camera - "If you can't take the heat, stay away from the tail pipe!"

On our 3rd day, Jennifer and I felt adventurous and decided to take our rented bikes for a trip down the highway to see if we could find the red or white sand dunes all the tourist offices boasted about. At a Y intersection of two main roads about a 1/2 hour north of Mui Ne we found a place to rent ATV (4 wheelers) on the sand dunes. We were sold. It was pricey, but we couldn't think of a better way to see the dunes and knew we would we regret it if we didn't do it. After giving us a very quick explanation of where the brakes and gas controls were located, the manager sent us off with our guides, smiling "Don't be afraid, you can't tip them. Go fast, they won't roll over!" Hey buddy, you don't have to tell me twice! Jen and I took to ATVing quite differently. I found myself exuberantly bounding up and over steep dunes blindly following my guide over the edge, while Jen found her herself often stuck in the sand and needing rescue from her guide. She was cautious, you know like a complete newbie should be. It should be noted that after taking a few pictures, Jennifer handed me her camera for safekeeping in my little sling bag. She was ready to call it quits after 10 minutes while I pretended not to hear her and followed my guide down the next dune. He told me in broken English he was impressed with my driving abilities and continued to take me up progressively steeper hills. I even caught air a couple of times. As we travelled down the side of one dune, my guide cut to the left to travel in the ravine of two dunes. I followed his lead, but I cut the corner alittle short and the two left wheels of my ATV caught a ridge of hard ground hidden in the sand. Suddenly I was launched into the air sideways, and braced myself for a broken leg, certain it would be crushed under the ATV that was going to land on me. I landed in the sand, head and right shoulder first like a rag doll, stunned. First, stunned to see my glasses laying only a few feet from me in the sand. Second, stunned that I felt no broken bones. In fact I felt no pain at all! I rolled over and saw the ATV turned on it's side about 5 feet away. I rolled my eyes forward in time to see my guide looked over his shoulder, shout out a shocked "Oh my God!" and make an immediate u-turn. I quickly stood up and started wiping the sand off the right side of my body. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" the guide kept saying. I assured him I was ok, also surprised to find my self completely scatch free. He righted my ATV to find the front fender had sustained a significant crack, but otherwise was still running fine. From here on out, Jen and I experienced a role reversal of sorts. Jennifer found her confidence increasing and began having the time of her life on the dunes. I on the other hand found, after the adrenaline rush passed, that my nerves were completely shredded by the fall, and though I continued to follow my guide, felt terrified everytime we bounded blindly over another dune. Now it was Jennifer hooting as she ascended another cliff of sand and me who was ready to call it quits. For the last 10 minutes of our rented time, one of the guides decided to take me on the ride of my life. He hopped on my machine and I held on for dear life as what was left of my nerves abandoned me completely. As we pulled into the overhang and I got off the ATV on clumsy legs made of jelly, I felt a stab of heat. My small sling bag, which had been hanging safely at my side, had fallen behind the back of the ATV for the duration of my "joyride" with my guide, directly infront of the exhaust pipe. The heat had burned through my bag and melted Jen's camera cover to it. The camera came out like a hot potato - too hot to handle. Jen pulled into the overhang to see us all huddled over her camera. The prognosis grim. The camera was totally melted. I was really upset having destroyed yet another camera, especially one that didn't belong to me. But Jennifer was really wonderful about it. Thankfully, camera wizards in Korea were able to recover the pics on her memory card.

Camera #3 Susan's Camera - The Camera I Did NOT Break

I believe it was our 4th day in Mui Ne when the 5 of us took a walk up the "fairy stream", a gorgeous fresh water stream that met the ocean close to Nhat Quang. We politely refused the children who offered to "guide" us to the waterfall. It was absolutely beautiful: the red sand, the green foliage and the bright blue sky seemed almost too saturated with colour. Again, I'll let the pictures do the talking. We took turns splashing under the small waterfall and then headed back towards our guesthouse. About 2/3rds the way back, Suze realized she didn't have her camera. In fact, none of us did. She and Ali headed back down the stream to look for it. Jen, Amanda and I tried to assure ourselves, "There is no way we can lose 3 cameras on this trip!" Suze and Ali ran into a couple of little "tour guides" who responded excitedly when Suze mimed that she was looking for a camera. Sure enough one of the boys held up a water-logged, grim-looking camera. Filled with relief, Suze generously offered the boys some money as a reward for finding the camera. Ever the opportunists, the boys held on to the camera and tried to extort Suze for more money to get back her broken camera. Thankfully, Suze has good training in handling youngsters as a teacher and was able to get the camera back without being ripped off by some very ballsy 8-year olds.

I spent the last couple of days in Mui Ne relaxing as much as possible. While I didn't break any bones in my ATV accident, I found myself very stiff and sore for the next few days. I also took a gamble and got a $3 dollar haircut at a beauty shop. Let's say, you get what you pay for. (Krissy, you'll find out what I mean when I get back to Dryden in July.) Reluctantly, I got on a bus to Ho Chi Minh after 5 wonderful days in Mui Ne. Exciting and relaxing, it was the perfect way to end a long trip of constant movement.

Ho Chi Minh

Amanda and Suze had gone to HCMC earlier than Jen, Ali and I. Those ambitious gals had plans to some more historical sight-seeing around old Saigon. The idealist in me gave the old lady in me guilt trips about staying on the beach alittle longer. But let's be honest: I was out of steam. I was ready to get on a plane and I was not anxious to be back in the middle of a bustling metropolis, which is exactly what HCMC is. About 80% of its motorists are on motorbikes, and rush hour traffic was like watching densely packed schools of fish travel. Unfortunately for us pedestrians, there are no crosswalks. You just walk very slowly out into traffic and the motos drive around you (I guess one benefit of traffic that dense is that it rarely gets moving over 40 km/h). We reunited with the history buffs at a cafe and got settled into our guesthouse. HCMC is alittle like Bangkok but friendlier, cleaner and the vendors are a lot less pushy.I slept in nice and late the next day. Jennifer and I decided to hit up a local waterpark (her first time at one!) instead of touring the Musuem of American Atrocities. The idealist in me didn't like that decision either, but I assuaged her with a promise to return to HCMC one day and see it properly. Jen and I ran around the waterpark like the rest of the 13 year old's there and had a great time. We had dinner at the fantastic vegetarian restaurant we ate almost all of our meals at while in HCMC and then the five of us met up to see a Vietnamese Water Puppet show. It was really cool to see and, being in the front row, we got a little wet. After the puppet show, it was time to head to the airport and catch our midnight flight back to Korea and back to semi-normal life.

I felt bittersweet boarding the plane. I was ready to go back. I missed my cat. But I felt overwhelming gratitude for having the oppportunity to take a trip like this. I felt stretched and expanded as a person, and more grounded. I felt I was taking so much with me from SE Asia, so many positive things to keep in my life and was leaving behind so much of my own negativity.

Pictures here (minus ATV pics, I'll post them next):

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