Nepal - Milk Tea, Yak Dung, and the Top of the World

After landing in Lukla (elevation 9200ft), Eli and I grabbed our backpacks and opted not to hire any of the guides or porters that were anxiously waiting outside the airport for our 12 day hike up to Goyko Ri. We had done our research and learned that the trails are easy to navigate without a guide and we knew we were capable of carrying our own packs. As we started hiking, we quickly found the scenery to be more spectacular than we could have imagined. Immediately we could smell the fresh crisp air and we were fully surrounded by enormous snow-capped mountains.
We tried to put in perspective the size of these mountains since many of them were over 20,000ft. Almost too much to absorb. Our final destination would take us up to 18,000ft by day 8 or 9, we would then have 3 days to hike back down. It would take over a week to slowly hike to Goyko Ri so we could properly acclimatize. We had been warned and we were well aware that many hikers weren't successful at reaching the high elevation due to altitude sickness. We were not about to blow our hike by rushing up there. Everyday we told ourselves "polay polay" which means "slowly slowly" in Swahili as we learned in 2006 while hiking Mt Kilimanjaro. The weather was very cold, especially when the sun disappeared around 5pm everynight. Only when we were hiking could we shed our down jackets.
I was beginning to worry that this would be a very long 12 days for me since I do not like to be cold, however, along the way we bought yak wool scarves and hats which turned out to be just what I needed. We did not need a tent for sleeping as there were plenty of guesthouses for us to stay in. The guesthouses were small stone buildings that had anywhere from 5-20 rooms. The rooms each had two twin beds that were padded with thin worn down foam mattresses . They had mostly outdoor toilets (squatter holes in the ground) and some of them offered a bucket of hot water for a shower. As we got higher up, the less available running water and fuel to heat the water was so the guesthouses would charge about $4 for these buckets of hot water. As you can imagine, since we were already cold and our clothes stunk, we easily talked ourselves out of the "bucket showers". I won't go into detail about the body odor or the weird things that started happening with our hair, but I am sure you can imagine. I also won't admit to how many showers we took out of the 12 days.

Most of the guesthouses lit up a woodburning stove at night. Everyone huddled around the stove at the center of the room to thaw out. Often times the stove would spurt out a nauseating, tear jerking black smoke. This was not the typical woodburning stove, we realized, as we witnessed dried yak dung being used instead of wood. Yes, yak dung made for a fuel efficient heating source, plus the supply of it was endless! The locals didn't seem to notice the smoke. It was only us tourists that seemed to need to step out for fresh air. Often times Eli and I were the only people staying in a guesthouse as trekking season is not yet in full gear. We played alot of travel chess or just read books. We also went to bed around 8 pm everynight as that is when the stoves turned off.

The best thing about the guesthouses were that they provided hot fresh meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every morning we would have a cup of black tea with eggs, for lunch we had Sherpa stew (a potato, veggie stew), and for dinner we ate dal bhat, momos, and potatoes while we spoiled ourselves with a pot of delicious milk tea. On day 2 it dawned on us that the "Milk" in milk tea was probably not the typical cow milk we were used to. Turns out we were right! It was YAK MILK that gave it such a rich yummy flavor. Despite knowing that I was actually drinking Yak Milk, I was hooked, plus I thought the extra fatty calories was good for our trek. I credit the milk tea for helping me overcome my coffee addiction as I no longer crave coffee....now what will help me get over my milk tea addiction?

Most of the trail for the first few days took us through Sherpa villages where we could find any supplies we might need such as Snickers bars for snacks and toilet paper for well...blowing our noses. We treated stream water with a UV light pen so we didn't have to carry or buy bottled water. We passed over rickety suspension bridges adorned in prayer flags overlooking the Dudh Kosi river. Each day took us up and down ridges and valleys. We passed multiple Sherpas along the trails that were carrying heavy loads of supplies. We learned that the nearest road to these small villages would take 7-12 days to get to. You wouldn't believe the things that these Sherpas had to carry. We saw stacks of plywood, tables, chairs, endless sacks of rice, gallons of kerosene, cases of beer, and anything else you can imagine being hauled up the mountains. Pretty much everything in the village was hauled on someones back, or if they could afford it, a yak or donkey's back. The ridiculous thing was how the Sherpas carried the enormous weight. They strapped a wide band to the tops of their heads, bent over so their bodies were almost perpendicular to their legs, and loaded the supplies on their backs. Talk about knee, back and neck problems when they get older. It made us appreciate our small backpacks and we had no room to complain. At one of the guesthouses we stayed at, the owner had a really cute little boy who either played or practiced being a porter.
I think his mom was making him practice but Eli was hopeful that he was just playing and mimicking the adults around him. Hmmmm.

I think day 1 was the easiest for trekking and it got progressively harder as we got higher in elevation and the air got thinner and colder. Everyday we spent about 4-6 hrs hiking but we always had a place to rest and recover.
On day 4 we made it to the hilltop town of Tengboche that is known for it's beautiful monastery, monks, and prayer wheels.
It felt especially cold that day so we hunkered up in the guesthouse next to a wood/dung burning stove and we watched the Buddhist monks playing soccer outside in nothing more than their robes and sandals. So cool! On day 5 we stayed in the village of Phortse.
The owner of the guesthouse we stayed at had certificates lining his walls. Upon close examination, Eli saw that the certificates were given for successful summit of Mt Everest. Turns out, the owner was a Sherpa and he had guided groups up Everest 9 times and summited 4 out of those 9 times. He told us that he did not like climbing Everest but that it was a good job and he needed to provide for his wife and 2 kids. He says his family prayed daily for him while he was on Everest in hopes that he would make it back alive. He admitted that he thinks Westerners who pay tens of thousands of dollars to risk their lives are a bit "stupid." I could totally see his point. He also shared with us that he is most likely going back up to Everest again this April to guide again. I feel bad for his family. Also on his wall he had an award for winning 2nd place in the Everest Marathon. When probed, he humbly told us that he just wanted to try the marathon but that he didn't like it and didn't even train for it. Hah!

At one point along our trek, we opted to wash out our dusty, dirty socks and shirts. It was quite comical because as soon as we hung them out on a clothesline, they began to freeze. We then used our brains and brought them into a guesthouse to dry by the stove. The days between 1-8 went by alot faster than I anticipated. We felt our bodies getting stronger and the weight of our backpacks seemed less burdensome. By day 8, we made it to the village of Goyko and decided to go ahead and summit Goyko Ri to catch the sunset. The weather was clear and we knew it was our opportunity to spot Mt Everest in all it's glory. Goyko Ri looked like a small hill compared to the gigantic mountains around it, however, the steep 2 hour climb through snow proved to be a wind sucking event. We had to make our own path, sometimes climbing straight up, sometimes making switchbacks. The wind picked up the higher we got, we put on all our layers, and we pushed onwards. I seriously thought we would never reach the top but suddenly we saw the prayer flags and I stood up in awe. Goyko Ri had promised a great view but I was literally blown away at the 360 degree view of mountains that were spread out before us, including Everest! I got teary eyed, not sure if it was from the wind, the pain, or the view, but I immediately felt God's presence. My eyes were truly open and everything Eli and I had worked for had paid off. It was like a little bit of my life flashing before me and I felt so much appreciation for my blessings and I could think clearly and picture everyone I loved up there with me. This lasted for a short 10 minutes (haha) as the wind reminded us that it was in charge. Brrr, our hands and feet began to freeze.
Eli quickly jumped into action taking photos. He did a great job at capturing the essence of our short time at the top. In the picture with us in the front of the mountains, Everest is the tall dark peak on the top right. Since we were so cold, we started down the mountain right at sunset, knowing that if we waited too much longer, the temperature would drop significantly. What was supposed to take an hour to get down, seeing that there was no real path, took us about an hour and 45 minutes. About half way down, we pulled out our headlamps since it suddenly became very dark.
The obstacles of the snow, darkness, and lack of path made for an interesting trek down. Eli said to me "this is one of those times when we wouldn't want our parents watching what we are doing". Not that it was dangerous or anything, but I took at least 6 spills and Eli took 2. At one point, I must have forgotten my humility at the top because I yelled at Eli "I am so over this!" Eli confessed to me later that he didn't know what I meant by "over this" as he didn't really see what choice I had in the matter....either walk down the mountain or stay at the top.
I told him it was just one of those moments of total frustration and as soon as I yelled it, I really had no idea what I meant either. We can laugh about it now. The day after our summit proved to be another amazingly sunny clear day. I was content on taking a rest day but my chipper husband wanted to explore the area more. We compromised in that I stayed at the guesthouse to play cards with another group while Eli "explored" the area and then WENT BACK UP GOYKO RI. I thought he was getting altitude sickness because I knew there was no way a sane person would climb that hill twice, but his eagerness to take more pictures and see the views again prevailed. He made it up and down safely, with only one spill this time, and produced some of his best photography to date.

He said that the wind stopped, the sun was hot and he could have stayed up there all day. Truly a rare experience. I was happy to have stayed behind anyway as I felt rested for the trek back down the mountain. Days 10-12 on the way down were just as difficult as the days up.
We were using different muscles and our knees took a long time to warm up in the mornings. We hiked longer days, about 7 hrs each day, so we could make it down to Lukla to catch our flight back to Kathmandu.

After an uneventful smooth flight back, we were happy to have warmer weather, showers, and a comfy bed. Not long after those needs were met, our hunger began to take over. Now, for the past 3 days we have been eating everything in sight. We hadn't had meat for over a week (we were warned not to eat meat high up in the mountains) and we've been devouring kebabs and hamburgers. We did loose some weight, not from starving, rather from hiking, but we can already feel the pounds coming back.

Tomorrow there is another festival in the city. I am nervous about it and Eli is totally excited for "Holi" as it is Nepal's water throwing festival. The locals douse each other (and especially tourist women) with water from buckets or balloons and then throw acrylic paints on each other. Eli has a skilled history at throwing water balloons and is already planning to participate. I on the otherhand, will try to witness from the rooftop of our hotel. I am sure it will be a site to see...we can already see and hear that the festivities have begun a day early. I am sure there will be some great pictures of me covered in water and paint.

Laos to Nepal - Airports, Delays, and Slumber zones

Eli and I excitedly left Vientiane, Laos for our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. Being the savvy travellers that we are, of course, we didn't buy a non-stop flight. In fact, we purchased separate tickets from Laos to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu (with a layover in Mumbai, India along the way). 2 different airlines in 2 days to get to a country that with a non-stop flight, could have only been 3 hrs away. We saved about $300 in doing this...is it worth it? First leg of the trip started smooth enough. We arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and sailed through customs and we did not need to buy any entry visas for the country. We had about 5 hrs to kill before our next flight on a completely different airline. My instinct told me to go check into our next flight before we found lunch, which turned out to be a wise move. We looked and looked for our ticket counter with no avail. After a while I went to the information desk to inquire and the nice lady wrapped in her traditional Muslim headscarf smiled and told me I was in the wrong airport. After I stuttered, "excuse me" she told me that I needed to catch a bus to a different airport that was about 20 minutes away. I had her write down the precise directions for us in our little black book and I swiftly walked over to Eli exclaiming "we are in the wrong airport!" That is a traveller's worst nightmare, but luckily, we had time to spare and soon on the bus to the correct airport. Once we arrived, we quickly devoured some Burger King (yum...burgers tasted so good after all that rice and noodles), and waited for our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Mumbai. We arrived in India around 12 midnight with hopes to catch some sleep in the airport before our next flight to Kathmandu at 8am the next morning. When we arrived in India, we were a bit disoriented from the previous flight so we found ourselves walking around like zombies. We didn't get too far before we were asked to show our boarding passes for the next flight and our Indian visas. I lackadaisically told security "Umm, we don't yet have boarding passes and we don't have Indian visas because we are not staying in India, we are sleeping in the airport for the night." Looking back at this statement, it sounds pretty naive, however, it turns out that this was not all that uncommon for travels "in transit" to other countries. Everyone at the airport seemed to look out for us that night. We were escorted 2 different times through security, we were given a handful of candy to eat, and we were given temporary transit passes which meant we were confined to the airport and were forbade from leaving a secured area. Fine by us, we just wanted to sleep! We were told to meet back at a coffee stand at 5 am to be escorted back through security to get our boarding passes. By this time, it was 1:30 am so we found a corner in the airport with benches that was actually labeled the "slumber zone." There was only one bench left so I took it and Eli blew up his air mattress and pulled out his sleeping bag. I got a kick out of watching passerbys watching Eli. They had never seen such a sleeping device come out of a little backpack! Eli seemed to fall asleep quickly whereas I was too distracted by the group of 5 Indian men spooning on the benches laughing and listening to traditional music on their cell phones. I wanted to yell at them "can't you read the sign...it says slumber zone" but of course I didn't. I must have fallen asleep at some point because at around 3 am, I was being shaken awake by airport personnel. I had no idea where I was and it took a full minute for Eli and I to understand what was going on. She told us that we needed to go to a new area immediately as our escort was getting off of work and there wasn't anyone else to help us. Eli struggled to release the air from his mattress while we were following our escort back through the airport to a new holding area. Again, Eli was getting all kinds of weird looks so I pretended like I didn't know who he was. We got to our new area with only about 1-2 hrs of semi-sleep so we are anxious to get on a quick flight to Kathmandu. Our flight went smooth until we were about to land. We were watching our TV screens with the miniature plane and we noticed that the line on the tv map showed our plane going in circles. Hmm, we wondered. Sure enough, on the speaker the Captain's voice said "due to fog we cannot land and we are diverting BACK TO INDIA!" Eli and I shrugged, pulled out our jackets to use as pillows and tried to get some shuteye. We landed in India again, and we ended up sitting on the runway for 5 hrs before the fog lifted. We finally made it to Kathmandu, about 8 hrs behind schedule, so happy that our bags didn't get lost in the shuffle. At the airport we were greeted with a mob of taxi's and tour guides. I eagerly accepted the help of one guide who rushed us into his friend's taxi. We told the taxi driver to take us to a cheap hotel in the center city. The night we arrived in Kathmandu happened to be on the sacred holiday of Shiva Ratri, a celebration of the Hindu God Shiva. The locals celebrated by gathering up all the wood they could find to build massive bonfires throughout the city. It was quite the site to see, especially after no sleep and a little jetlag. We were happy to be in Nepal but we knew we wanted to get out into the mountains sooner than later so we met with a tour agent that same night to schedule our trek. As crazy as it sounds, we booked a plane ticket to Lukla for 6:30am the following morning! Lukla was where we were to start our trek and the only way to get there was by a 35 minute plane ride or by a 7 day walk. Yes back to the airport! We filled our bellies with some traditional Nepali food of Dal Bhat (rice and lentils) and Veggie MoMos (veggie filled dumplings) and got a solid 6 hrs of sleep before heading off for our next flight and the start of our trek. We thought for sure our airport luck would be golden but when we arrived to the airport, once again, the fog was too heavy so we were delayed. We waited in the freezing cold domestic airport drinking warm "milk tea" for about 5 hrs until finally, we boarded and took off towards Lukla. Finally, Eli and I were about to see the Himalayas, and the previous days of airport chaos quickly vanished. Our faces stayed pressed against the windows of the 14 passenger plane so we could take in the amazing views of the mountains the whole way. We spotted the Lukla airport, if you could call it that. It was more like a building with a piece of airstrip on the side of the mountain. I thought, no way are we landing there. Oh yes we did.


Laos - Elephants, Crepes, and the Mekong River

It was quite a shock going from super busy Hanoi to arriving in sleepy Luang Prabang in Laos. Jodie and I exited the airplane ramp on to the tarmac and noticed that there was only one plane at the airport, our plane. I guess that is what you get when you go from a country of 86 million to one of 6 million. It was exactly what we were looking for. Luang Prabang is a small town of maybe 40,000 people. It is nestled securely between the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers on a small scenic peninsula. There are lots of old buildings and temples in the city which is one of the reasons it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We really need to start keeping track of all the UNESCO sites we have visited, they are starting to add up. Although pretty popular with the tourists, Luang Prabang definitely was alot quieter than many of the cities that we had been to. After being surrounded by the roar of traffic all day everyday, it was weird to have silence again. Also there was hardly anyone trying to sell us stuff as we walked down the wide sidewalks. Every once in a while a tuk tuk driver would ask if we wanted to go to a waterfall, but that was it. The Laos people definitely seemed more easy going and laid back than their neighbors. The first day we were in Luang Prabang we just wandered around the streets and relaxed by the Mekong drinking Beer Lao. My favorite local dish is beef laap. It's a spicy minced meat dish mixed with cilantro, mint, and bean sprouts. Jodie's favorite food is the nutella banana crepes that you can order from any street conrner stand for $1. Their is definitely a French feel to this town as seen in the architecture and scrumptious food selections. The next day we took an elephant trek through the jungle which was amazing. We rode a 40 year old female elephant named Ton Khum or something like that. Each elephant had a handler/caretaker called a Mahout who sat on it's neck and gave verbal commands and foot pokes behind their ears to steer them. Jodie and I rode on a little bench/saddle that was strapped to the back of the elephant. Within about 2 minutes of riding our Mahout motioned to me to switch spots with him so I gladly oblidged. I'm not sure if he wanted to let me drive, or just wanted to sit by Jodie but I didn't argue. After an awkward tango on top of the elephant, the Mahout and I switched positions and I was sitting on the elephants neck, with my legs tucked neatly behind its ears. It was awesome! The first thing I noticed was how rough its skin was, and how coarse the hair was. The elephant was continually flapping its ears against my legs and occasionally blew some fluid out of its trunk misting my legs. Kinda gross but I figured it was a sign of affection. The Mahout thought it was pretty funny. After about 20 minutes of lumbering along through the forest Jodie and I switched positions and she got to steer. I don't think the elephant liked Jodie as much because she didn't get sprayed with snot. Before too long Jodie switched back with the Mahout and we descended down into a river. The elephants seemed to really like this because they got to drink and occasionally spray water on themselves and us. One elephant was particularly unruley and soaked the girl that was riding her. I'm pretty sure the Mahout was telling the elephant to do it, but he acted like the elephant wasn't obeying him. Soon after we strolled back up the river bank and passed a school with children playing soccer and waving. Then we passed by a monastery where we saw some monks in thier orange robes outside sweeping and talking. It felt very Lao. We returned back to the elephant camp, thanked our Mahout and thanked our elephant by feeding her bananas. It was really amazing being so close to them and seeing how agile their trunks were. We even got to feed a 7 year old 'baby' elephant. It was fun to hold your hand out and the baby elephant would grab your hand with the end of its trunk like it was shaking hands. What a wonderful experience. Jodie says she was a bit scared while riding the elephant because right before we got on, one of the other tourists was telling her about a show he just watched called "when animals attack". We were literally walking up to the elephants when he went into detail about some elephants who snapped and went crazy on their trainers. Jodie was like "not cool dude." She loved it despite the scare.
One of the unique things about Luang Pragang is its morning alms procession of the monks. Every morning around sunrise, about 200 Buddhist monks with their shaved heads and orange robes line up and walk down the side walk of the main street and receive alms from the towns people. Each monk has a metal drum-looking container that he carries slung over his shoulder as he walks down the street. The towns people have large containers of rice that they hold out to the monks as they walk by and scoop out their food for the day. It was a really mesmorizing sight. However it was disheartening to see tourists stand 3 feet away from the monks with their huge cameras snapping away right in the faces of the monks. These monks have been doing this for much longer than the tourists have been around and it felt very disrespectful watching this take place. Jodie wanted to punch a girl that was tramping around in a skimpy dress.
The next day we took a mini bus up to a town called Nong Khiaw which was recommended to us by some people we met in Halong Bay. The ride took three hours and was very beautiful. Laos is a very mountainous country and the jungly peaks are incredibly steep. As soon as we arrived in tiny Nong Khiaw we knew we would love it. It straddles a river, connected by a tall bridge and surrounded by beautiful cliffs. The town probably has less than 300 people living there, so it was really quiet. We found a small bamboo hut on the bank over looking the river for 80,000 kip or about 9 dollars. It was pretty basic, but had a small porch and a perfect spot to hang our travel hammock so that was all we needed. It was fun sitting on our porch in the evenings and watching the local kids play in the river as the sun set. It was very scenic. One morning we went out rock climbing with a guide on some local cliffs. Our guide was British, he had been living there for 3 months and was hired to start up some rockclimbing in the area. He and his two assistants, Pet and Wan, had been working hard making trails, clearing brush and bolting climbing routes. All three were a lot of fun and we had a great time climbing in an area that only a handful of people had climbed before. After eating a Lao lunch of fried pork, vegetables and sticky rice, with our new climbing friends, we escaped the hot sun and walked down to the river for a refreshing swim. The water was cool but rejuvenating and it was the perfect way to cool off. Nong Khiaw had strange but predictable weather. In the morning it was always cloudy and quite cool requiring a light jacket. Everyday about 10 AM the clouds would lift and it would rapidly heat up until it was pretty hot. After the sun would set it would cool off and the same exact thing would happen the next day. We spent a little more time in Nong Khiaw than we had planned, but we figured why mess with a good thing. Jodie says she felt privileged to experience a rare "unspoiled" place and we both wonder what it will be like in 10 years from now. She also loved Nong Khiaw not only because of it amazing landscape but also because there seemed to be a puppy around every corner. A little bit of Heaven on Earth for her.
We did need to make our way down to Vientiane and we thought it would be fun to take a boat back to Luang Prabang, then catch a bus. The boat ride took about 7 hours, but it was beautiful the whole way winding through narrow valleys and past jagged peaks. The boat was very long and skinny, maybe 5 feet wide by 40 feet long. We lucked out and got to sit in the front comfy seats but soon found out that the front seats get a little wet from the spray of the boat. It was really cool seeing all of the locals on the river fishing, washing clothes and to see the happy children playing. About 3 hours in the boat, the driver stopped the boat on the bank and told us that the river got really shallow up ahead so we would have to get out and take a taxi for a little ways. Luckily we had a Lao girl on the boat to translate for us or we would have been even more confused. All 15 people got off the boat, walked up to the local village and piled into the back of a truck. There was a little boy in the village who started crying as soon as this big German guy came near him, it was pretty funny. We drove for about 10 minutes then stopped in another little village, walked back down to the river and boarded our boat. About half an hour later, the driver pulled the boat over again and this time we had to walk down the bank of the river for 15 minutes before fording a portion of the river to get back in the boat. Its funny how they didn't mention these little detours when we bought our tickets. We made it back to Luang Prabang safely and were happy to have a good meal and a comfy bed to sleep in because we had another long day of travel ahead of us. We awoke early to catch our 9 hour bus to Vientiane. Shortly after leaving we realized that the shortest distance between two points is NOT a road in Laos. I don't think there was a straight stretch of road for the first 6 hours. Some times it seemed like the road would climb a mountain just for the sake of climbing it, not to actually get anywhere. Luckily I took some dramamine or I'm sure I would have lost my omelette. The Lao girl sitting across the isle was not so lucky. She threw up about every half hour almost the whole way to Vientiane. We felt so bad for her, she seemed miserable. We offered her some dramamine but she said she had already taken some so there wasn't anything we could do.
We arrived in Vientiane with tired butts, turned stomachs, and grumpiness to find a hot city with no available hotel rooms. We wandered with our backpacks for about an hour and the only places we could find were either REALLY sketchy with unthinkable smells and sunken beds or expensive budget blowing rooms. Sweaty, frustrated and fearing catching some hard to pronounce disease, we opted for the last available midrange nicer room. Our spirits quickly lifted as we mellowed out over 2 Beer Lao and some undercooked pizza. There was quite a few mosquitos at our restaurant, so when I asked our waiter if they had mosquito coils, he shook his head yes and then brought out our pizza undercooked. I think he thought I was getting anxious for our pizza. We asked them to cook it some more and when it came back 5 minutes later it seemed a little hotter but just as doughy. We gave up and just decided to eat it. Lost in translation. Jodie says that anytime I ask for something, I am always told "ok ok" and then something completely random is brought out. We always get a good laugh out of it. The next day, our final day in Laos, we mainly just took care of some planning we needed to do before leaving for Nepal. We didn't get out to see the city much, but we got our planning done.
We are now on our long journey to Kathmandu in Nepal. To save some money we bought some round a bout tickets to get to Nepal. We are flying from Vientiane to Kuala Lumpur, six hour layover, then Kuala Lumpur to Delhi, then an overnight layover in the airport, then on to Kathmandu. A good 24 hours of traveling to a country not that far away. This is typical Eli and Jodie. Although we wish we could explore Laos more, we are very excited about Nepal as this is the country we have been most looking forward to on our trip. We are planning on doing a two week trek while we are there in the Everest region if the weather cooperates. Prayers for good weather and safety are appreciated!


Vietnam - Tailors, Sleeping buses, and Junks

After leaving Da Lat Jodie and I took another bus through the mountains to a town on the coast called Nha Trang. The bus ride was a bit scary because we were traveling on some of the narrowest, windiest roads I have ever seen. Luckily I didn't lose my lunch even though at times I thought I might. The scenery was spectacular as we descended through the rugged mountains down to the lowlands filled with unbelievably green rice fields. We have discovered that when we ask how long it will take to get somewhere by bus, we need to add on about 30% to get the actual arrival time. When we arrived in Nha Trang it had started to rain so we let one of the 10 hotel touts waiting outside the bus take us to a nearby hotel. This seems how many of the hotels off of the main drag find their guests. It worked out well for us because we didn't have to wander around aimlessly looking for a place, and we got a good price up front. Nha Trang was a pleasant town, but its main attraction was the beach which wasn't very enjoyable with the rain. Instead we spent the day hanging out in cafes, reading and eating. We found a good Indian food place that we really enjoyed. Even though the food in Vietnam has been very tasty, we have found that you can only have so much pho (noodle soup) so we like to mix it up a bit. The next day we woke up and found the rain had not let up so we decided to get on to our next destination and schedule our night bus to Hoi An.
There are two different types of tourist buses in Vietnam. The standard type bus with regular seats and the ever so enjoyable sleeping bus.
The sleeping buses consist of two levels of seats one on top of the other. When sitting in the seats your legs are straight out and under the back of the person sitting in front of you. The seats recline pretty far, but not all the way flat because of the feet of the person behind you. The very worst of the seats are in the back of the bus, where there are 5 seats side by side so you are laying very close to a possible stranger. Since we got our tickets kind of late, we ended up with the seats in the back. Luckily one of us had an outside seat (Jodie graciously insisted that I take it, so I didn't have to snuggle up with any strangers). On the other side of Jodie an unlucky girl traveling alone got sandwiched between two couples. I am thankful that there were only two guys in the back, I can't imagine how cramped it would have been with five Eli's back there. Thanks to some Dramamine, Tylenol pm, and our trusty earplugs we managed to get some sleep in between the spine jarring pot holes. We awoke dazed and sleepy eyed in quiet Hoi An. It proved to be one of our favorite places so far. The town has a very old feel to it, narrow streets lined by old buildings with faded yellow paint contrasted by dark shuttered windows.

Due to the smaller population, there were also far fewer motorbikes than we were used to. A quaint river runs through the center of town with a very picturesque pedestrian bridge crossing its still waters.
Hoi An is famously home to hundreds of high quality, inexpensive tailor shops where one can get any article of clothing custom made to your liking. Every other business has jackets, suits, dresses and pants displayed in the store front behind which hundreds of bolts of every color and style of material you can think of. Originally we were only planning on maybe each getting a couple of articles, but one thing led to another and we ended up getting jackets, some dresses for Jodie, a few shirts for me and some nice pants. After taking our measurements in the morning, our clothes were available that evening, and for CHEAP! We had a ball shopping, and I don't even like shopping.
The food was also delicious with Hoi An having some unique local fare, like cao lau which are doughy flat noodles, and a rice and shrimp dumpling called white rose. In between eating and shopping we managed to squeeze in some sight seeing by renting a motorbike (finally!) and checking out the local beach. It was very nice and for the most part empty, although as we travel further and further from the equator we are definitely noticing the water temperature dropping. We also rented some bikes to try and find a local temple that Jodie's Dad had recommended to us, but after about half an hour we found ourselves lost on a path in the middle of a bunch of rice fields as the sun was starting to set.
It was beautiful. We took in the picturesque Vietnamese scenery of the women in the conical hats working the rice fields for a few minutes before deciding to head back before dark. I was glad to get lost.
After three days in Hoi An, we decided to move on even though we loved the city so much. Our next destination was Danang, a larger city about 2 hours up the coast from Hoi An. We mainly wanted to stop to see the famous "China Beach" where all of the US soldiers headed to relax during the war. I had never seen a beach so close to a large city so deserted. The beach stretched for miles and we maybe saw half a dozen other white people (and not many more locals) in our four hours there. It was great. Some of the locals guys that were there really liked Jodie. They blew kisses, whistled, and asked her to take a picture with them. She was flattered but a bit embarrassed by the attention. Secretly I wanted to punch their faces in, just kidding. We found a local beachside cafe where we drank a bucket of Saigon Beer, munched on peanuts and watched the waves crash on the beach. We also sampled some fresh mussels and crab grilled right on the beach, it was delicious! One other order of business we needed to take care of was the extra stuff we had been accumulating along our way. With our newly added clothes, our backpacks were over stuffed and we had to ditch some weight so we bucked up and shipped some stuff home. After about 30 minutes at the post office (we had to inventory everything in the box) we paid our $50 to ship the 22 pounds home via sea mail. We thought it would cost more so we were happy to pay only $50. We thought about the airmail option, but it was three times as much, and we weren't in a big hurry to get the box home. And good thing too, because sea mail takes THREE MONTHS to ship. I was pretty sure I could swim across the pacific and beat the package home. After saying a quick prayer for a safe journey for our box to get home, we wondered if we would ever see our package again. I guess we will have to wait and see. We didn't stay in Danang very long as we wanted to spend some more time in our next destination in the old imperial capital of Hue.
Hue was old Vietnam in all its glory. A large walled citadel in the center of the city looked like a fortress from the middle ages.

Inside the citadel was another walled complex surrounded by a moat where the emperors ruled during the 19th century. One morning we explored the countless old Chinese style buildings and temples that filled the square mile complex. It was easy for us to imagine what it was like living there two hundred years ago. The next day we joined a tour of the sites around Hue, which included a 500 year old pagoda, an incense making village and two impressive emperor's tombs. The tombs were amazing and very large, each complex covering dozens of acres. They both had beautiful lakes and pagodas surrounding the tombs, which made for a very picturesque and peaceful atmosphere. I wish we could have spent more time soaking up the tranquility but the tour was quite rushed. We ended the tour with a quick boat ride down the Perfume River aboard a dragon boat which was kind of like an Asian covered pontoon boat. After this busy day of sightseeing we rushed to make our overnight sleeping bus on time which thankfully we did. This bus ride was 14 more hours of short Tylenol pm induced naps interrupted by lots of bone jarring bumps and incessant honking. Jodie joked to me that she thought she had a concussion from a few of the bumps. I'm not sure if I would call it sleep, but we got to our next destination safely so it could have been worse.
We arrived to sharp braking and the constant orchestra of horns which could only mean Hanoi. Although roughly the same size, Hanoi had a different feel from Saigon. It felt older (1000 years old in 2010 to be exact), but equally as busy. Saigon seemed to have very wide streets with rivers of motorbikes to dodge, where Hanoi had lively narrow streets lined by old buildings and crammed with cyclos, food stalls and motorbikes. We stayed in the old district, not too far from a very scenic lake lined by benches and a walking path. We had been given a contact to look up, Thuy Van, through Jodie's Dad. She was one of his students that had come to Arizona from Hanoi as an exchange student a few years back. Thuy Van married a guy from Sierra Vista, named Ramon. When they heard that we were in town, they immediately invited us out to show us around. On Friday, Thuy Van was busy getting ready for the upcoming Tet Holiday, so Ramon took us to a restaurant that served Mexican food, and it was actually quite tasty. We realized how much we had missed guacamole, cheese and beans. Stuffed on enchiladas, we then went to a few of bars which were very entertaining. One of them was called 17 Cowboys, a western themed bar. We pulled up to a pack of greeters, all wearing obnoxious red cowboy hats and vests. Inside the swinging saloon doors, there was all sorts of western garb decorating the walls. It was pretty funny seeing this in south east Asia and we had a good time listening to the live band singing 90's cover songs. It was really interesting getting Ramon's take on Vietnamese culture and how it differs from our own. Since he spoke the language he had an insider's view. We ended the night at a hotel bar that was one of the only places with dancing. Jodie was asked to dance a couple of times and later told me she never thought she would do the Cha-Cha with a Kuwaiti man and then the Twist with a 5 foot tall Filipino man all in the same night. She was all smiles and in her element. The next day Ramon and Thuy Van treated us to a delicious lunch in a very nice Vietnamese restaurant. We had duck with orange sauce, spring rolls, wantons filled with seafood, beef with lemon grass among other dishes. Afterward Thuy Van took Jodie to get a traditional Vietnamese dress made at a local taylor which was delivered to our hotel later that night. That afternoon we made a quick stop at a museum, then after dinner we cruised the night market. At 8 pm we went to the water puppet show that is a famous Hanoi attraction. It was really cool, there was a large pool in which puppets were choreographed to live music. The puppeteers stood in the water behind a bamboo screen so we could only see the puppets. We had been craving some karaoke ever since leaving Si's place in Hawaii and Ramon and Thuy Van said they would take us out.
Thuy Van brought some of her friends that she had grown up with which made it even more exciting. We alternated between Western and Vietnamese songs while we had some beer and ate some spicy beef jerky with lime sauce. It was a lot of fun and we were very glad to have some new friends who were such wonderful hosts.
The next morning we left for Halong Bay to see it's spectacular scenery. We decided to take an overnight tour (courtesy of Frank and Sue) on a boat called a Junk, which contrary to the name was quite nice.
The ships are beautiful old miniature ark looking vessels that have sleeping cabins, a dining floor and a deck on the top. We had 12 other shipmates that were a fine sample of Western travellers. Four Danes, three French, two Germans, two Brits, and a Canadian made up our motley crew. We had a great time making new friends and sharing travel stories.
Best of all though was the amazing scenery. Shortly after our boat departed we found ourselves in a labyrinth of hundreds of rock islands, towering above us all around. It reminded me of Ton Sai in Thailand, but even more spectacular. It was a very surreal mystical experience, and definitely one of the more beautiful places we had seen. We spent a total of about 24 hours around Halong Bay, cruising through the narrow passage ways between the rock outcroppings, and we loved every minute of it.

We returned to Hanoi to spend one more night before we depart for Luang Prabang in Laos. With our last few hours in Hanoi we made our way to Hao Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton. It was very interesting seeing how the prison was built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners and later used by North Vietnamese to house American POWs, most famously John McCain. After weighing our options for getting to Laos, we decided on taking a plane. The other option was a 30 hour bus ride through the mountain passes on the border of Vietnam and Laos. As adventurous as this sounds, we read some stories on the Internet from other travellers who made this journey, which more than one of them dubbed the "death bus". A one hour flight seemed a better option. Vietnam has been wonderful and we are glad we got to spend a little more time in this beautiful country. Here is a few parting thoughts about Vietnam:

- Jodie and I are GIANTS here, the average Vietnamese man is 5' 3".

- Women do 95% of the manual labor, from working the rice fields to hauling goods on carts. The men like to sit around, smoke and drink tea.

- The coffee is fantastic, even the "Weasel Coffee" that gets its flavor from passing through the weasel's digestive system.

- Most words are under five letters, but depending on the pronunciation the same word can have three or four different meanings.

- People here are always smiling, even if they are frustrated.

- While dog meat is a local delicacy we opted not to try it for fear of Marley smelling it on our breath when we get home.