Friday, April 24, 2009

Nha Trang and Jungle Beach... Again... With Emma and Mikaela

I arrived in Nha Trang (again) at 6 am. Emma and Mikaela's bus arrived at about the same time, and after checking into our hotel we walked to the Rainbow Diver's office to book a snorkeling trip for the day. We had a quick breakfast then piled into a van with a dozen other people and headed to the docks.

We cruised for 30 minutes before arriving at the first dive spot. Of the 15 or so people on the trip 10 were scuba diving and the rest of us were snorkeling. We had an hour at the first spot, and although the waves were big we still enjoyed ourselves. We saw many more types of fish than in Phu Quoc, however the water was deeper so the colors were more muted. There also weren't sea urchins, which I had found really cool in Phu Quoc.

Pic: 1. First dive location 2. Emma and I on the boat
The divers came back up after 45 minutes and 15 minutes later we left for the second spot. The second spot was a little more shallow and the water a lighter turquoise color (maybe because the sun was higher in the sky), however the long overnight bus rides caught up to us so after 30 minutes of snorkeling we went back to the boat. We jumped off the roof into the ocean for a while, then settled down to some cards and sunbathing.

Pics: Snorkeling at the second spot 2. Me sprawled out on the roof sleeping

We got back to port around 1 and got dropped back in town. We had lunch, then went to the beach. In the evening we went to dinner at the Swiss- Italian place that I had gone to with Annika, then went to Why Not? bar for some drinks. We met a pair of British guys and played some cards, then met a group of German girls who came with us to a big party on a beach behind the Sailing Club. There was a large stage set up with a dj performing; it was a really good time. We danced the night away and got home late.

Pic: Miki, Emma, the other German girls, and I at Why Not?

On Sunday morning we woke up early and were picked up by the shuttle bus to Jungle Beach (again). 2 German girls, Ani and Jana, were picked up at the same time. We arrived at Jungle Beach in the early afternoon and relaxed on the beach for the rest of the day. We managed to get the same bungalow as I had with Annika, which was really cool. Fin and Tina, a German couple who was at Jungle Beach the prior weekend, were still there but everyone else had cleared out. Fin and Tina had only planned on staying for a couple days and ended up staying 10. Sylvio said that he had long awaited the slow season, which apparently started then, because it had been a busy year.

Pics: 1. Jungle Beach 2. Fin and Tina looking at the ocean during the final hour of daylight

In the late afternoon the monkeys in the mountain were being really active so I watched them through the telescope. Then I went to the beach and watched the sunset until dinner. After dinner we played a rousing game of Jenga, which Fin and Tina said became a tradition since Annika and I left, and had a bonfire on the beach and looked at the starlit sky.

Pics: 1. Watching the monkeys 2. JENGA

Monday we did almost nothing. I started reading White Fang and we alternated between laying on the beach, swimming, and laying in the shade in the recreation area inside the resort. Emma and I got Fin and Jana to play volleyball with us, we got a little sandy...

In the afternoon while we were sitting in our hammocks we heard a crack then a thud. I went to investigate and saw that a coconut fell out of a palm tree. I was thirsty, so I took it over to our bungalow and slammed it on the concrete lip of our patio until it cracked and the juice started flowing...

In the evening a storm started to come in right around sunset. It was coming from the North, so it was a little bit cooler than other nights. For a while though half the sky was blue with a few scattered pink clouds and the other half was dark storm clouds made an orange-pink from the setting sun; it looked really cool. 

A couple of local guys saw me taking pictures and yelled for me to come over while holding up a watermelon. I obliged, and shared the watermelon with them. Then they whipped out a shot glass and asked me to take a shot of rice wine. I hesitantly agreed, and they pulled out a plastic bag full of the clear liquid. Never before have I seen liquor poured from a plastic bag, so I was a little worried, but felt like I couldn't walk away from it because it would be insulting. It actually tasted pretty good, so I ended up doing a few rounds with them. We always toasted: Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!!! which means 1, 2, 3 CHEERS!!! 

We played Jenga again after dinner, followed by a card game that we taught everyone. Then we had a small ping pong tournament. We also made plans to hike up to the waterfall the next morning.

On Tuesday we woke up early to have breakfast so that we would be hiking while it was still somewhat cool out. This plan backfired a little as that it was already 85 F at 9 am. We arrived at the waterfall at 10, and I immediately climbed up to jump (so that I wouldn't chicken out like last time). Emma, Fin, and Tina all jumped as well, each of us about 3 times. Then Fin discovered a scorpion in the water and we decided it was time to go... 

Wednesday we laid on the beach until leaving Jungle Beach at 2. We got a room in a cheap hotel, and an Austrian woman named Betina, who left Jungle Beach with us, shared it with us because the room had 4 beds. We went out to an INCREDIBLE Indian dinner, then walked around for a little before going to bed. 

Pics: 1. Batina, Emma, Miki, and I at the Omar's Indian Cafe 2. Final picture of our trio

Thursday we sat on the beach all day long and didn't do much of anything. My bus to Da Nang wasn't leaving until 7, so in the evening we had a final dinner together... but at the last second before the bus was going to leave the girls, who had all along planned on staying for Thursday night, convinced me to stay as well. I changed my ticket to the following day and we went out. We went to a bar that was promoting itself with free mojitos, then to Why Not? bar where on the way we met another Swedish guy who had lived in Santa Rosa for a couple years. He joined us for Why Not? as well as the Sailing Club, which we went to later to dance. 

We slept in the next morning, then went to the beach for one last time. The Swedes and I took a picture on the beach to remember the peak of our tans...

In the evening we had Indian food again (because it was just that good and we're a bit tired of Vietnamese) and at 7 I went to the bus stop to catch the bus to Da Nang. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hoi An, Town of a Thousand Poses

We arrived in Hoi An at 6 am Tuesday morning more tired than when we left Jungle Beach. The sleeper buses definitely were not made for westerners: all of the seats were set in a reclined position 10 degrees from horizontal and my feet were supposed to go underneath the seat in front of me, however my legs are longer than a vietnamese person's torso so I ended up with my knees in a very uncomfortable position for most of the night. At some point Annika moved to the floor in the aisle.
We checked in to our budget hotel, Hop Yen, and went back to sleep until lunch time. A restaurant along the brown river caught our eye and we stopped in for a bite. We explored the town all afternoon.

Hoi An is essentially a small town that had been occupied by the Chinese, Japanese, and French at different times, and absorbed some of each of those cultures. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site some years back, which made it a tourist hot spot, but without the hurried development of other places, such as Nha Trang, because of the UNESCO requirements. All of the signs in the historic part of town are uniformly made of wood with yellow lettering and no new building is permitted, giving old Hoi An a very pleasant vibe. There is a river that flows through the center of the old town that is a very odd brown color, most likely from rain runoff from the rice paddies nearby. We posed for many a photograph...

Tourism has become the main industry in the city, so every other storefront is a restaurant or shop. It is also THE place to get clothes tailored in Vietnam. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before, not even in NYC. A 3 piece suit made of nice wool costs about 100 bucks, or only 40 for polyester. I got a winter jacket, 2 pairs of pants, and 1 shirt tailored for me for only 60 bucks. Not bad. The reason I did it now is because Emma and Mikaela are headed back to Ho Chi Minh after Jungle Beach so they can bring the clothes there for me to pick up at the end of my adventure. There also were a lot of shops where tradesmen were making their products out front for people to watch. 

Pic: A guy making lanterns in front of his shop

At night all of the lantern shops were lit up, they looked really cool.

Annika had been in Vietnam for nearly 9 months and not yet bought any presents, so much of Wednesday was spent shopping, which I didn't mind. The overcast weather wasn't very conducive for the beach anyway. We also walked through a food market. There was a very, very large variety of eggs.

For Lunch we had some fantastic "street meat". It was 5 marinated chicken skewers that were barbecued then stuffed into a baguette along with cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, basil, peanut sauce, and chili. Incredible. Some Australian guys saw me devouring my sandwich and came to have one too. They agreed that it was the best thing they had since being in Vietnam. SO GOOD.

Pic: Street meat lady. And yes, Vietnamese people really do wear the conical hat all the time. I would have guessed it was just a tourist thing too...

Note the stool I was sitting on... I felt very Vietnamese

Thursday we rented bicycles and rode the 5 kilometers to Cua Dai beach. It was still overcast, but the beach was really pleasant anyway. The ocean this far north is much cooler than at Jungle Beach, but the cooler temperature was a nice change- in Mui Ne and Phu Quoc entering the water was like getting into a lukewarm bathtub. When we got back we booked our buses for the following day. Annika is continuing up the coast to Hue, and I am going back down to Nha Trang to meet Emma and Mikaela and head back to Jungle Beach.

Pic: A perfect mango enjoyed on Cua Dai beach

Friday Annika did some last minute shopping in the morning, then we relaxed and read our books during the hot hours of the day. I finished the book I was reading, The Quiet American, which takes place in Saigon during the French war in the 50's and is about a British journalist who recounts the events leading up to an American diplomat getting killed (the murder happens in the first two pages, I didn't ruin it for you). It was really good, Greene is a great writer and I now understand why so many of his books have been made into movies- The Quiet American read like a script. I rushed to finish so I could give it to Annika next.

Annika left at 2, and I am now writing my blog entry to kill time until my bus leaves at 7. As opposed to in Ho Chi Minh where I posted almost every day, I am now only writing an entry when I leave a city. This allows me to A. enjoy my time, which is less structured than when I was volunteering, and B. to give a good overview and final opinion of each city instead of my day to day sentiments. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nha Trang is to Disneyland as Jungle Beach is to Santa Barbara

I arrived in Nha Trang at 6 Thursday evening and Annika met me at the bus stop. I got settled in the hotel room, which was clean and had lots of windows, then we had dinner at an Italian restaurant. I got gnocchi for the first time in a long while and it was delicious- a nice change from Vietnamese food. We went back to the hotel room and watched a movie before going to bed early.

The next morning we ran a few errands, then rented a motorbike with the intention of getting out of the tourist area and finding a remote beach. We cruised up the coast for 10 kilometers and came across a resort that was only half finished, although nobody was doing any work on it. We decided to go exploring, hoping that there might be a nice beach in front of it. The weeds and trees growing in and around the resort made it feel eerie, and we were disappointed to discover that the beach was composed of large rocks, concrete, and rebar. 

We went through a small village because we saw a beach that looked nice on the other side of it, however it started to rain so we stopped at a small Pho vendor for some noodle soup. The family that ran it were really nice, and the Pho was delicious- they even grated green mango into it, so it had a tangy and sour flavor. We hopped back on the bike and kept going North.

10 km later we caught sight of an island that looked like it had a nice beach, and a few minutes later saw a small dock that had boats. We stopped bought two tickets to the island, and 20 minutes later we arrived on Monkey Island, named for its large population of, you guessed it, monkeys.  

Pics: 1. A shack on the structure of a series of lobster traps that we passed while on the boat 2. Monkey Island

We relaxed on the beach for an hour, then were informed that a dog and monkey show was set to begin shortly in the middle of the island. The show was really disturbing. One male and one female trainer forced the animals to do tricks. The dogs were first, and they sat on their hind legs with their front paws up on miniature school desks and were forced to do simple math problems using the number of times they barked to answer. When they did things wrong they were slapped on their nose, and when they did things right they were given a small treat.

The monkeys were next. They were dressed in ridiculous outfits and kept on short leashes. They did a variety of balancing acts, all the while the trainers throwing them around as if they were stuffed animals, not live creatures. 

In their final act they rode small bicycles around, and one monkey stole food from another which started a brawl. They really went at it, and all the while the crowd watching just laughed. 

I was disturbed by it, however Annika was appalled. We walked around for a bit after the show to wind down, then returned to the dock and went back to the mainland. 

On the way home we passed a sign for a hot spring and mud bath spa and took a detour. It took almost an hour to find it because the signs were irregular and it was far inland, but we eventually got there. It only cost 6 dollars for full spa access, so we splurged and did it- it was my first mud  bath.

We had Indian food for dinner, then wandered around for a while and eventually booked a "4 island boat tour" for the following day. We had a couple drinks at a bar called Why Not?, then went home.

The tour company picked us up at 8 on Friday morning and took us to the docks. We were soon to find out how much of a tourist trap the tour was. At the docks there were uncountable other tours unloading from buses and getting on boats. There were 50 or so people on our tour, and we all crammed on to the boat. The tour leader then gave us the schedule for the day: 1st stop an aquarium, next a good site for snorkeling, third stop lunch on the boat next to an island with live music and a floating bar, and finally relaxing at a beach resort.

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance for over-using cynical quotation marks in the following description of the day, and I omitted pictures to spare you the boring visuals-

The "aquarium" was a bit disturbing. It was a formed concrete structure meant to look like a 18th century sail boat, and inside was a small assortment of fish, turtles, and sharks- all stuffed into tanks much too small for them. It took about 5 minutes to walk through it, although the asian tourists took much longer because they took pictures in front of EVERY SINGLE fish tank.

Next stop "snorkeling". We arrived at the dive spot in 30 minutes and the crew passed out the snorkels and masks, which were essentially toy snorkels for children, and half of them were broken. There were a number of other tour boats in the same spot and many smaller boats with see through bottoms that entrepreneurs were trying to sell us as being "as good as snorkeling without getting wet".  Annika, however, had never been snorkeling before so she still enjoyed seeing the coral and fish in their natural habitat. 

We cruised along for another 30 minutes before stopping for lunch next to an island. The lunch wasn't too bad, which was surprising, then the "band" started to play. Two of the crew members played guitar and drums, which looked home made, and the tour leader sang an assortment of Vietnamese songs. I didn't think that it could get worse than Vietnamese singing karaoke, however when a mediocre band replaces the recorded music it gets much, much worse. I found it amusing that all the Vietnamese people on the tour enjoyed it, whereas all of us westerners climbed up to the roof to minimize the sound polluting our ears. 

The band wrapped up after 45 minutes and we jumped in the water and enjoyed the floating bar, which served complimentary mulberry wine. For those that haven't enjoyed mulberry wine, it is similar to Manischewitz but sweeter...

The last stop was a resort on a "beach". It actually was a concrete slab 8 ft above the water with chairs and umbrellas- you had to climb down a ladder to get in the water, and there was absolutely no beach to speak of.

I will never do a similar tour again. Ever. Annika and I decided that we needed to get out of Nha Trang; it was just too touristic and fake. I remembered hearing about a small resort north of Nha Trang called Jungle Beach that was supposed to be really laid back, so we looked it up on the internet. It looked appealing, so we made a reservation for the following night. Afterwards we had dinner and drinks at Why Not? bar again. We met some interesting people and stayed there till 1, then went home and packed for Jungle Beach.

We arrived at Jungle Beach just before lunch the following day- it took an hour and a half in a van to get there. The owner, a Canadian expat named Sylvio, greeted us upon arrival with glasses of lemon juice, and gave us a tour of his resort. It was a group of maybe 15 bungalows in no real organized pattern, in between of which were gardens and trees, and in the middle of all of them a climbing structure for kids and a makeshift ping pong table- a piece of plywood on cinder blocks. 

Pics: 1. Sunset over Jungle Beach. 2. Jungle Beach

Sylvio showed us the different types of available bungalows, then told us to choose the one we wanted. We chose one right on the beach so that we could best hear the waves crashing at night and see the sun rise. He then explained to us the way the resort works: 22 dollars a day, including all 3 meals, which are family style at a set time, unlimited lemon juice and water, and guitars, books, games, and boogie and surf boards available for use. Guests never need to carry money.

Pic: 1. View from the doorway of our bungalow 2. Annika on the beach

I immediately fell in love with the place. The other guests were really nice and down to earth, the scenery was beautiful, and lunch was excellent. We relaxed on the beach all afternoon, then had dinner with everyone at 6:30. In the evening we played Jenga and cards with the other guests, then went to the beach to have a bon fire. 

Pic: Family style dinner
I enjoyed my day at Jungle Beach so much that I called Emma and Mikaela, who were set to go to Nha Trang on Friday the 17th, and told them that they should go to Jungle Beach instead of Nha Trang. I had originally planned to keep going north to Hanoi, but decided I wanted more time at Jungle Beach; 1 night wasn't enough. Because I had 5 days until Emma and Mikaela would arrive, I decided to go north to Hoi An with Annika, then go back down to Jungle Beach on Friday.

The next day I woke up for sunrise, it was really nice, then went back to bed till 9.

Pics: 1. Sunrise from the doorway of my bungalow 2. Sunrise from the beach

Annika and I had breakfast then laid around the beach till lunch. I had seen a couple puppies in a shed next to the front gate, so after lunch I went to check them out. There were 4 pups in all, one a runt that looked really pathetic and small and could barely open his eyes, even though they were 4 months old. Their mother was really sweet too. 

After another couple hours on the beach a German couple, an Italian girl, and I took a hike up the mountain to a waterfall Sylvio told us about. He told us we could jump off it, although it was 30+ ft high, so we declined...

After dinner Annika and I were picked up by 2 Xe Om who took us to a gas station where the overnight bus to Hoi An picked us up. 

The walk from my bungalow to the beach:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Last Days In Ho Chi Minh City and Mui Ne

Friday night we arrived in HCMC airport at 6 pm. We went to Pizza Hut, which was actually really good after so much Vietnamese food, then went home and relaxed for the night. Saturday I woke up a man on a mission: to write my blog entry for Phu Quoc, which took me a good part of the day. I also went shopping for food, because in the evening we had my farewell BBQ (again); it was just Emma, Mikaela, Ludvig, Gus, Jay, and I. The burgers and chicken were even better than last time. We were gonna go out, but I was so tired I decided to go to bed instead. 

On Sunday we went into District 1 to do a little shopping and for me to buy my ticket to Mui Ne for the following morning. I was going to be by myself, but while in D1 we ran into a new volunteer named Nam, and after having lunch with him found out that he had 3 friends who were traveling to Mui Ne for the same time as me, and he gave me their phone number. In the evening the girls and I went to a local coffee house for some ice cream, then went home and watched a movie.

Monday I woke up at 5 am and went to the bus stop in D1. It took 5 hours to get to Mui Ne, and when we got in at 1 pm I checked into my guest house, Hai Yen. It only cost 7 a night, and was pretty nice, complete with a pool and everything. The only bad thing was the communal bathroom, which was kinda far from my room

The Hai Yen Guesthouse:

Mui Ne is a small beach town that has a fishing village but has become overrun with resorts and tourism. The main attractions are a couple of sand dunes and the beaches- not a cultural center of Vietnam, to be sure. 

The sunset from my guesthouse:

After eating lunch I laid by the pool for a few hours, then went to my room to call Nam's friend, Emily. She answered when I called and asked where I was staying. I told her Hai Yen, and after a pause to laugh she told me to come out to the pool- they were staying at the same place. She turned out to be really cool; she's in been in the Peace Corps in Cambodia for the past 9 months, and had a week vacation so was relaxing in Vietnam. She was traveling with 2 friends, Rachel and Eddie, who are in Peace Corps as well. The 4 of us went to dinner, and we got along well so we made plans to go on the tour of the sand dunes the following day. 

We booked the tour for 2 pm, so had the morning and early afternoon to relax. I woke up at 6 and went running with Eddie, but after a few kilometers had to stop because my knee was hurting again. I hate being hurt, it's such a bummer... We sat by the pool until lunch, then waited for the jeep to pick us up.

The first stop on the tour was the Red Creek. It is called this because a hillside composed of red dirt has been eroding from water seeping through it, and now it has made a creek with cool sandstone formations on the side. We hiked up it for 30 minutes, then went back to the jeep.

Pics: 1. the Red Creek 2. Rachel posing

Next stop was a small canyon formed by creek that no longer exists. It was no Grand Canyon, but still cool.

The 3rd stop was the white sand dunes. The dunes were maybe 2 square kilometers, but cool because they seemed to appear out of nowhere. There were green hills and a lake next to it; it looked like someone trucked a bunch of sand there and dumped it, that's how out of place it felt. We hiked around on the dunes for an hour, then went back to the jeep.

Pics: 1. from left, Emily, Eddie, me, and Rachel 2. The white sand dunes

The last stop was the red sand dunes, which is where we were supposed to watch the sunset, however it was overcast so there wasn't one. In the evening we went out to and Indian restaurant, which was surprisingly good, and for a drink before going to bed early.

Wednesday I slept in till 10, then sat by the pool until lunch. The girls decided that they wanted to go to Dalat for a couple days and booked a bus for 1 pm.  Then I received a big surprise: Ludvig and Gus had taken the bus up the night before, however I didn't have my phone on me so didn't receive their calls or texts, but when I happened to glance at my phone at 12 I saw that they were in Mui Ne. I called them, and they came and met us for lunch. 

After saying goodbye to the girls we took a taxi to a remote beach and hiked around for a couple hours. I realized that we were close to the red sand dunes, and it wasn't overcast, so I convinced Gus and Luda to go there and have a beer while we watched the sun set. It was really beautiful to see the sun set behind the red dunes with the blue ocean behind us.

1. walking down the beach 
2. the sunset at the red sand dunes 
3. Ludvig jumping of a dune

In the evening we went out for burgers at Phat burger, which was cheap and delicious, then went to a bar with a French guy and British girl Luda and Gus met the previous night. We got home around 12 then crashed. Thursday I woke up at ten and had lunch with the guys before heading to the bus stop at 12:45 to catch a bus to Ne Trang to meet up with Annika.