Monday, July 28, 2008



We left Xi’an on what was supposed to be a 36 hour train ride to Kunming. Turned out to be 43. Trains were still being re-routed due to the earthquake, so we had to take a roundabout way to get around Chengdu (couldn’t really follow the course of the train) before reaching Kunming. Turns out that the train was extremely relaxing; we read, played cards, slept well, and reminisced over our year while playing “train trivia.” I can’t remember the last time I slept so well – two decent night sleeps and several naps each day. What heaven. However, Tal clearly felt that the endless parade of pb & j sandwiches was slightly tedious.

Kunming was low key. We stayed near the campus of Yunnan University so had lots of foreign students around us, and the accompanying food and shops. We specifically chose that area as last time we were in Kunming (on our way to and from Laos) we stayed in the centre of town and were constantly approached by child beggars – too disturbing to describe. In Kunming, I LOVED their fried goat cheese, and ordered it whenever I could. We were kind of upset as we didn’t get to eat the local specialty, “across the bridge noodles.” Not always easy to find the right food at the right time. Met a nice family from Minneapolis who were there as the dad was running a Chinese language camp – interesting to see how many families find different ways to travel – and went to the museum with them one day.

Yoni ran into a person who he knew from his time doing field work in Nanjing for his Ph.D. The guy is now an assistant professor at Seattle University. Otherwise we did a bit of touring, but the weather was rainy and slightly cold, so we focused on getting the Vietnam visas, and then headed out on an overnight bus. Overall we spent 3 days in Kunming.

The bus was a total disaster – on the outside it was one of the older muddier buses (that should have been a clue that the road would be rough) and on the inside it was fairly dirty and overcrowded. (Tal’s comment: “a little more than fairly.”) We slept in bunk beds, with three bunks across the width of the bus. Dirty, smelly, and the guy in front of me was a chain smoker. Excluding Noam, none of us could stretch totally out on our beds-they were too short. The slimy “owner” of the bus greeted us by charging us extra to transport our bags. Quite certain this was a scam but didn’t want him to get angry at us and chuck all of our belongings off in the middle of the night. The road was AWFUL – reminded me of our Juizhaigou trip in October. Recent rains had made what was probably already a very bad road much worse. Did not sleep much and was quite nervous for a significant part of the ride. Thank goodness I was sleeping on the bottom, the top guys seemed to feel the bumps and swaying of the bus more. A Dutch couple on the bus said that we were very "brave" for travelling on that bus with children. Not sure if that was a compliment.

Miraculously arrived safe and sound (almost sound, anyway) in Hekou and crossed the border into Lao Cai, Vietnam. Was very emotional to leave China after the year. The opening photo of us on this posting is the boys and Yoni about to cross into Vietnam.

Initially, Vietnam didn’t feel very different – hectic border towns with people hukking the tourists. But we couldn’t understand anything! All of a sudden we went from feeling “in control” while traveling, to being completely at the mercy of the tourism industry and whatever English speaking people we could find. A much more difficult way to travel.

We easily caught transportation to Sapa, a French hill station. Truly gorgeous. Huge mountains, moderate climate, terraced rice paddies, many different ethnic minorities. We stayed at a decent enough guest house, but the real selling point was the view. Stepping out of our room, was a million dollar view. Here's a picture of Noam on the balcony. We trekked two days – first day was a fairly rigorous hike to a waterfall; Noam struggled a bit and at the end had pretty much given up when a friendly jeep passed us just as we had climbed up to the road. Noam hopped in, followed by Yoni and the rest of us, for the final 500m. Crazy enough, it happened to be the very jeep that we had reserved to take us back to our hotel. Here's a picture of us at the waterfall - after lunch and a rest everyone was happy again. Afterwards we took a jeep ride to a famous Vietnamese canyon that bridged the gap between the hottest and coldest places in Vietnam, Sapa being the coldest. The view was supposed to be spectacular, but it was very foggy and we could barely see 10 meters in front of our faces.

The second day we took an easier route to a local village called Ta Phin – shortly after heading out we were joined by three minority women who walked with us for the majority of the trip, clearly trying to sell their wares. In the end we felt bad for them so asked to at least see what they had – beautiful embroidery work – and then I felt too bad not to buy anything. It was a bit of a scam, or an extremely guilt-ridden way to sell things (but I just walked 5 km with you with all these heavy things on my back . . what do you mean you’re not going to buy anything??). Maybe if it was later in our travels I would have held firm. But now I’m the proud owner of a table covering and some small purses.

Here's some pictures of us trekking amongst the rice paddies. Rained two of the days we were there, but it was a nice, gentle rain, and didn't stop us at all. Notice the plant that we found growing all over the place?

Wild marijuana.

Overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi went fairly smoothly, although when we first got on the train it was a sauna – no exaggeration. We were dying. Men got on the train and stripped off their shirts (here's a picture of Noam following the trend - a bit dark but hopefully you can make him out), and we tried to open as many windows as possible to stick our heads out. It even had the sauna look-everything was made of a fake wood.Eventually the air was turned on and it was a fine ride. Actually, a bit too chilly if you can believe that. Bathrooms were MUCH cleaner than any Chinese train I’ve ever been on. We arrived in Hanoi at (ugh) 4:30 am and slept in the lobby of our hotel for a bit before hitting Hanoi. Yoni was smart enough to wander around the city early to see lots of elderly people out doing their morning exercises around Hoakiem Lake.

Hanoi was a bit hectic – the motorbike traffic was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Made crossing the road in China seem sane. We saw the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (except I couldn’t go in as I forgot to cover my shoulders), the Ho Chi Minh museum (interesting, but there were no English tour guides to be had at the museum and we missed out on the symbolism in many of the exhibits . . but they were clearly proud of their historical defiance of outside invaders), the “Hanoi Hilton” (disturbing, particularly the contrast between their exhibits on how inhumanely the Vietnamese prisoners were treated under the French, while the exhibit of US POWs showed pictures of US soldiers getting medical care, raising chickens, celebrating Christmas, and smiling while playing cards).

From Hanoi we went on a 3 day boat trip to Halong Bay – beautiful karst peaks jutting out of the water. Spent our first night on a boat after kayaking, swimming, and seeing some beautiful caves. Tal and Yoni jumped off the top of the boat (Tal's the lower jumper, but that's not Yoni - couldn't get a picture of his jump). I decided not to jump, and was enjoying just swimming around in the bay, until I got stung by a jellyfish – ouch! Second night was a bit less fun – got stuck in a TERRIBLE hotel on Cat Ba island-a big island in Halong Bay. Turns out that the tourism infrastructure just couldn’t handle all the people that wanted to see the bay, no matter what our reservations said. Our morning trek was almost a disaster when, while climbing up a mountain (really HOT and HUMID) our guide stopped halfway and said that if we wanted to go all the way to the top we’d have to pay him some more $. After some negotiating (we were with a group of other tourists, mostly younger backpackers), a lovely young man stepped forward and offered to take us up. Didn’t really understand it at the time, I thought he was another hiking guide, but it turned out that he was a university student studying to be a tour guide. He didn’t want us to think negatively of Vietnamese people (and diplomatically stated that there must have been a misunderstanding with the first guide) so guided us up the mountain. It was a great view, and easier to climb once we got into the shade of the trees.

Things ended up OK, as we went to a beach on Cat Ba Island with enormous waves – much fun. Yoni and I were a bit edgy as we just couldn’t take our eyes of Noam (who basically couldn’t stop laughing no matter how many times he was thrown by the waves).

From Hanoi we took an overnight bus to Hue. MUCH more comfortable than the bus from Kunming to the Vietnam border. In Hue we settled into an AMAZING hotel (at $20 a night it was our best hotel value for the entire journey) and did wonderful siteseeing. But it was HOT and HUMID. Here's a picture of Noam sweating it out . . us older guys looked MUCH worse and wetter. Was significantly hotter than Hanoi. The citadel in the old city was amazing – somewhat like China’s forbidden city but less grandiose. Significant destruction everywhere, although renovations are underway. Took a boat tour to see some nearby tombs and pagodas, and a one day trip to the DMZ. Unfortunately, for the DMZ trip we had to suffer through a HORRIBLE guide, so the best information we received was either from our own guidebook or the people we were traveling with-a lovely older Australian couple (Patrick and Liz) and a nice younger English couple (Hannah and James) who were just returning from working in Hong Kong for 2 years. Here's a picture of Noam entering the Vinh Moc tunnels where local villagers lived for about two years during the war. They dug it out mostly themselves, and the tunnels in parts were 25m deep; an amazing feat. The wood is just a modern addition to keep the tunnels from collapsing. We took a break from the heavier aspect of the DMZ tour by wandering into the ocean at a relatively peaceful and undeveloped beach. Was bittersweet to see this beach; however, the same one that the villagers could see, but rarely touch, while confined to the tunnels.

From Hue we continued south to Hoi An, where it seemed to get even hotter (if that was possible), but at least in Hoi An we had a beach nearby. Unfortunately we were not as lucky with hotels in Hoi An, and considered moving to a nicer place several times, but after all the running around in the heat we just couldn’t motivate ourselves to leave the place, and just stuck it out for the 3 nights. Probably a mistake, as both Yoni and I left kind of grumpy, and feeling like we’d been cheated. We call the hotel “the touching hotel” as the staff were constantly touching us (and all the other guests). One waiter even greeted Tal and Noam (separately) with kisses. I told him off (not too severely I hope) and he stopped. But Hoi An itself was lovely. The old city has been well –preserved, and we enjoyed wandering the streets, took a kind of paddle boat trip around the river, a rickshaw ride for me and Tal, and several trips to the beach. I got some clothes made (that is the thing to do in Hoi An – fast and relatively cheap tailors and shoemakers) and even a pair of made to fit sandals. We’ll see how long the things last. Here's a picture of Tal, Noam and Yoni eating our favourite, "Pho" - noodle soup - at one of the local joints we frequented in Hoi An. The beach was lovely but the sun is so strong here that we have struggled to keep ourselves from burning. No matter how much sunscreen we put on. We went from 30 to 50 spf, and finally told the kids they just had to wear their shirts in the water. Tal woke up one morning to all the skin from his shoulders spread over the bed he was sharing with Noam. We then referred to him as a snake. Below are a few pictures of Hoi An - the Japanese covered bridge lit up at night, and Tal, Noam and our tour guide when we went to see the Champa ruins of My Son. We got caught in a colossal downpour, but the site was really amazing.

Next came another overnight bus trip (this time much worse than the first, but still not as bad as our China overnight bus) – and I swore I wouldn’t do another one. We ended up in Nha Trang, a beach resort where we were hoping for some R & R. But it was so crazy with tourists, that it didn’t really feel so relaxing. We went snorkeling and scuba diving (Yoni and Tal did a dive) one day – crystal clear water and decent coral reefs, and took a boat trip to an island another day for some less hectic swimming and snorkeling (the coral at this island was mostly dead, but there were still plenty of fish to see). For those of you who haven't seen Tal in awhile - look at how big this kid is!!!

One of the perks of Nha Trang was that we got to hang out with a lovely local family (a friend of a friend), so that we were able to break free from the tourism circuit a bit. We ate in their home two nights (we ate on the floor – good vegetarian fare), and they took us shopping and siteseeing. Their hospitality was wonderful and two 11 and 9 year old girls let me braid their hair every time I saw them, and tried to teach me how to count in Vietnamese. From the beginning, we have all felt totally overwhelmed by the 6 tones of this language, and the very difficult to decipher words (they swallow way too many letters). Tal, amazingly, has learned to count, so he is our language expert. Anyway, one of the women in this family is married to a Canadian guy, so she has this little one year old who wears “future hockey star” t-shirts, although the kid has never experienced weather below 18C.

Nha Trang was not as hot as Hue or Hoi An, being by the beach, but was not as relaxing as we had hoped, so we decided to squeeze in a 3 day trip to Mui Ne – a more rustic beach town about 4 hours from Saigon (it’s still referred to as Saigon by everybody, although officially it’s called Ho Chi Minh City). Of course, the ultimate perk was that adding in this journey ensured that we didn’t have to do anymore overnight bus trips. We lucked into an idyllic bungalow resort right on the beach, beautifully sculpted gardens and not much else to do except go from the beach to your room. Unfortunately, Noam got stung by a jellyfish (a big one) and refused to go back into the water after Day 2. We subsequently found two HUGE dead jellyfish washed up on shore, and if one of those things was the stinging culprit for Noam, it’s amazing that he didn’t suffer more. Here's a picture of Noam's sting (about day 3; it actually looks worse now (day 5). And here's one of the massive dead jellyfish we saw on the beach.

The siteseeing in Mui Ne was low key – we walked through a stream to a waterfall and ran down some sand dunes (red dunes and white dunes). Here's a picture of Tal and Noam that seems like they're wandering through the Sahara. These were the white dunes - they were nicer than the red dunes as they were a bit harder to get to. Mostly, in Mui Ne, we went to the beach, played cards, read books, and relaxed. It was a nice break from the hectic pace of travelling. Here's pictures of our bungalow and the beach (when's the last time you saw a herd of cows on a beach?)

And now here we are in Saigon in front of the Reunification Palace. For those of you who remember - the North Vietnamese tanks plowed through the gates of this palace in 1975, to claim their victory over the South. The whole place has stood still in time - wandering through it is like an eerie walk back into 1975; dial phones, tacky furniture, out of date communication equipment. It was very interesting.

And now it is our last day; we were supposed to do some more touring but cancelled at the last minute to just enjoy Saigon, get some good food, and wander the streets. Yoni has been recruited to give a lecture at a university here, so it's me and the boys wandering around. Of course, this is slightly dangerous as the motorcycle madness is totally out of control - millions of wheels coming at you from all directions. Makes Hanoi appear tame.

And I believe that's the end of this blog. What a year it's been!!!