20 December 2008

Week 57: "Vietnam! Vietnam!" and the Plain of Jars (or "Don't worry the driver is drinking milk.")

57th-1st in Phonosavan 10/1

The bus did not take 10 hours. Or even the 12 hours that one guide book said. It took 16, meaning even without the breakdown last night we would’ve only made it there in 14. It was much longer than we ever thought. The bus stopped several times to let people out to urinate. The first of the morning was in the middle of the mountains. Really, the most beautiful pee stops ever. (pics: first stop in the mountains in the morning to pee, third stop out of the mountains in a rolling plain)

As we wound through the mountains, we saw villages hanging off the sides of the road, the hills dropping off below them. (pics: villages on the ridge line in the mountains, each time the bus stop to drop someone off in these villages a crowd gathered)

We arrived at the Phonosavan bus station, which sat it the middle of a large plain; all around the plain were hills. This was the location of the Plain of Jars. We bought a ticket for the bus back. We would have only six hours here. Meaning we’d be busing 28+ hours just for 6 hours of activity. We didn’t care. We can’t care. It was the only way to make this trip with the distances being so long. We knew Laos would be tough and we were glad to have our most difficult times at the front end of our trip. It also occurred to us that we would be spending 4 nights in a row sleeping on transportation. We quickly accepted it.

Nearby the bus station was a guesthouse. Amy went in and looked into having a tour of the Plain of Jars. They said they would do it, but we only had to time to visit Site 1. It was the closest, with the next two much farther away. Although the Jars are elsewhere, there are many land mines still scattered across the landscape, and at these three sites only have the land mines been removed. We agreed to go, bargained the price a bit. They took us to their tour office in the tiny downtown to register us as visitors and then drove 20 minutes outside of town to the site of the Jars. The parking lot was empty. We saw only four other people there, and two of them were teenage girls doing a “fashion shoot” amongst the jars. They had brought a wide array of clothing to model. (pics: girls doing a fashion shoot amongst the jars, a close up of the models)

The Jars themselves were scattered all across the area at random. Some were broken, and some were filled with water. No one really knows why they are here, or what they were used for. Of course there are many theories. This area used to me a major trading crossroads between China and India. Many events in history have thus taken place here, but now its quiet and forgotten. We took lots of photos; saw a cave that borders the site. Our guide went back to the car, and we took our “lunch” of random foods we’d acquired and ate it at a pavilion on the site. It started to drizzle a bit. We went out again anyway and took more pictures of us with the Jars. It’s cool how some are from 2000 BC. I wished to see the other sites but really didn’t have time to go out there. (pics: the warning sign about land mines outside the jars site, the jars sprawled across the field, Amy walking amongst the jars in Site 1, myself next to the largest jar at the site)

Despite the rain, we went “hiking” around the site. We stuck to the trail because that was guaranteed to be free of land mines. At the top of a hill, with still plenty of time and nowhere but back to the car to go, we played shollo guti in the rain. From the top of the hill we could say straight out over all the plains. Our driver was antsy to go, but we had booked them for several hours, and paid plenty, so we were in no rush to appease him. (pic: Amy on our "hike" and the plain stretched out beyond)

At some point we had to go back. They took us back to the bus station and quickly they were gone. We then sat at the bus station for three hours. (pics: touts for hotels waiting for more buses to arrive, Amy sitting in the cold open air bus station)

I was talking to some tourist touts at the bus station who were waiting for buses to show up to bring people to hotels. One guy told me I could get sparrow to eat at the nearby food stall. He said people like to catch sparrows and sell them. Then they barbecue and eat them. Usually they sell them four per skewer. I went over to the restaurant, but they were out they said. Dang. They did offer me their choice: rat. I declined.

We had dinner at the station. All the bus stations we find on this trip have expensive toilets to use. Always coughing up 1000-2000 kips for each time we have to pee. We thought we had time before the bus was leaving, but all of a sudden we saw everyone on board. We thought it would leave without us. We scrapped buying more snacks, and got on board. The bus sat there though until 8, when it was supposed to leave, a half hour later. Oh well. How were we to know?

57th-2nd in Vientiane 10/2

In the middle of the night our bus made a food stop. Apparently our tickets doubled as a bus food coupon. You could exchange it for rice and curry, or a bowl of noodles. So Amy and I enjoyed our midnight noodle snack.
We had pretty bathroom stops again on the way back, but I haven’t really drank any water, so I just got out to stretch my legs.

We got back to town, and we hoped to get a hotel near the city bus stand for the day, before we left at night for Vietnam. It didn’t really work out that way. Nothing was nearby except one expensive place. So we trekked into town and got a hotel room half price for 8 hours. Amy just wanted a real bed to sleep in. Despite the buses I somehow was feeling okay. So I went back out to see the city again.

On my to-do list was to find a bookshop to buy a new book, as I was almost done with A Brief History of Time. All the shops I found selling used books, however, were too expensive; at least what I thought a used book in Laos should cost (which I felt should be on par with the new books I bought I Bangladesh, less than a dollar.) I saw lots of delicious restaurants as I walked, and I restrained myself from indulging in any of them. I need to save the money I have. I read in Vientiane’s central square, not really a major place, but quiet with a tree to give shade. I bought a postcard and then wrote it out to a friend and spent an hour finding a place to get a stamp and ultimately walked to the national post office.

I walked into the city’s mall, and found a concert happening. A rap concert in fact, except everyone was lip synching to the English lyrics. (pic: lip-synching concert happening inside a mall in Vientiane)

I hoped to find sparrow again but no luck. I did find a place that had tiny skewered poultry, but this just turned out to be chicken wings. I played make believe.

I went back to get Amy from the hotel, and together we walked to the riverfront again to get dinner. We had really liked eating along the Mekong River. We ate at a place right next to where we ate last time. (pic: dining along the Mekong River)

When we had booked the ticket to Vietnam, we were very unsure how long the bus would take. We had asked the woman the duration, and she had said we would arrive at 12am. Well that meant he trip would be 30 hours long, or 6. We were confused. I think she meant 12pm, and that would put us at 18 hours. But we still arrived unsure. We found our bus, and a helpful bus worker got our bags on and we took some seats on board. We bought French loaves for the trip, as we both didn’t want to have upset stomachs. Just something to fill us.
We sat with the other passengers in the parking lot in front of the bus. Then all of a sudden we were leaving. Everyone scrambled on board, including us. We sat in our seats. Some pushy scary woman came up to us and started yelling. We didn’t know what to do. She was speaking Vietnamese. We finally realized she wanted us to change seats, but we didn’t know where to go to. The helpful bus worker came up and motioned for us to sit two rows back, and cleared the luggage someone had placed there. It was a pretty dramatic scene. (pic: our bus to Vietnam is on the right and the helpful bus worker is sitting with the baseball cap in front)

I enjoyed watching the helpful bus worker’s activity. He would jump off the bus while it was moving, sprint to somewhere on the side of the street. Drop something off, then sprint back to the bus and jump back on. This happened several times.

We stopped for a dinner break after 3 hours or so. Everyone got off, but Amy and I just nibbled bread. I saw inside that everyone was drinking. I mentioned it to Amy, “Amy, everyone inside is drinking a beer.” Then I noticed the one person not, “Wait almost everyone. You’ll be glad to know the driver’s drinking milk.” We laughed at that the rest of the trip.

57th-3rd in Hue 10/3

We got through the central part of Laos faster than I thought we would. We knew we’d arrive at the border in the morning, and we did, before it opened. It was about 3 AM. The whole bus was told to get off and sit in a restaurant. The owner of the place collected all our passports, and had the foreigners sit by him as he went through them. We found it difficult to keep our eyes on our passports like we wanted to. They put them in a plastic bag, just like they did at the Bangladesh-India border, and kept them themselves. We now had to wait 2.5 hours until the Laos side of the border opened.

The helpful bus worker had our passports, and he made sure to get the foreign ones processed first. He gave them back to us and had us fill out the Vietnamese immigration form. Then took back our passports. He seemed to like to hold onto them. It had us worried a bit. All this time Amy and I are both fretting about getting into Vietnam. I have the two visas because of the mishap with them giving me the wrong month initially, and hers wasn’t in her passport, but had been one mailed to her.

Then the time came. The Vietnam border opened and the helpful bus worker came running at us visibly excited. He shoved our passports in our hands, and started gesturing for us to run to the border yelling “Vietnam! Vietnam!” He was pointing vividly, shouting, very animated. So we power walked it to the elaborate gorgeous gates marking the entry into each country. Amy and I were the third and fourth people to cross that morning. We realized he wanted the foreigners to get across quickly so we could be processed first, as we likely would take longer. His wild antics definitely spurred us to action. This became the second quote of the trip “Vietnam! Vietnam!”

We were on our way. The ride to Hue from the border was about 4 hours. We were unsure of where to get off, and almost got off north of town. Got off in the middle of town and walked to find a hotel. We found a nice place and asked to see rooms. The guy bargained down the price and the rooms were huge, so we gladly took it. Honestly, we think we were the first people every to stay there. They seemed so unsure how to handle us as guests. We were glad to have full size beds, each! Nicest place we stayed at on our whole trip.

We took motorcycles to go to the train station. A persistent man on his motorcycle had been following us all morning trying to get us to go with him. They function as taxis here. Well I was hesitant as I’ve only been on a motorcycle once before with Nafisa’s uncle in Khulna. We decided to go for it. The guy grabbed another motorcycle taxi, and Amy and I each hopped on the back, putting on our helmets. (pics: myself on the back of my motorcycle taxi, Amy on the back of her motorcycle taxi, Amy's driver/Amy show directly displaying their level of comfort on the bike)

It was a blast. Not nearly as scary as I though it’d be. The guys drove safely, and were pointing out things to us (trying to win future business.) They were polite and friendly. We were just two of the many bikes roaming the streets. Vietnam really is a motorbike based transportation system. They were everywhere. Everyone has one. (pic: bikes and motorcycles are the primary mode of transport all over Vietnam like seen her in Hue)

We got to the train station and we bought tickets for tomorrow morning down to Ho Chi Minh City.

We took the motorcycle taxis to a restaurant they suggested. We would realize later it was one of the cheapest ones around, yet still delicious. We declined their offers to have a day tour, we really didn’t want one. Still they waited until we were done eating and followed us back to our hotel.

From our hotel we walked to the Old Imperial city. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during its last dynasty. As well, it got destroyed during the Vietnam War as it was the closest city to the demilitarized zone. The place was worth exploring and see all the architecture. This is my first time seeing true Chinese-inspired buildings.
A huge Vietnamese flag flew over the old wall of the city. The place is being heavily restored after the damage done from the war. (pics: myself underneath the huge Vietnamese flag flying over the Citadel's wall, Amy and the Imperial City, inside the Imperial City which was mostly destroyed in the Vietnam War, the ornamental gardens and buildings in the Imperial City)

We stopped in to see a cultural show. There were two classes of seats, normal and deluxe. The deluxe got served imperial tea and biscuits during the half hour show. Normal got a bottle of water. We chose normal. And so did everyone else. The reserved deluxe front two rows remained empty! A bit awkward to sit and watch the show from so far back and have two empty rows in front of us.
I liked the show as I never really go to see cultural programs. They did several dances and musical numbers. However the performers were a bit uninspired and looked like they wanted to leave. That was dampening. (pic: the cultural show)

Showered tonight and had a nice bed. Realized it had been 5 days since I last had one, and in that time I’d seen 3 countries as well.

57th-4th on train to Ho Chi Minh City 10/4

Today we took the Reunification Train 23 hours south to Ho Chi Minh City.

Breakfast for me was bread, cheese, egg, and tomato. I also got black coffee and green tea. That’s what EVERYONE was having. They all mixed their green tea and coffee too. So I also tried it. The black coffee was served on ice. It was amazing to me how each person was having the exact same thing. I was embarrassed to order anything else. (pics: the outdoor breakfast joint at which everyone was enjoying the same thing, the green tea and black coffee that everyone was drinking!)

We were sharing our cabin with a young couple with a baby, and luckily it didn’t cry. However when it was sleeping we tried to leave the cabin. We played an epic round of Shed, the game Ben taught me in May. We decided to play until someone won 10 times, and went all 19 possible matches to get a winner. Amy won. (pics: Amy waiting as the train arrives, Amy playing Shed on the train)

The train was really nice. Clean and had good toilets. There was a dining cabin on the opposite end of the train from us, and I enjoyed walking through the train to get there. The train tracks followed the ocean and mountains for awhile until the land flatted out. It was a long distance south, and mostly we were several miles from the coast except for the one that part where we were hugging cliffs. (pics: an island on the Vietnamese coast that the train passed, myself and the rocky coastline, the train passing through fields at the edge of the hills, homes and fields stretching out from the train to the hills)

Besides playing lots of cards, we worked on planning the next part of our trip in Ho Chi Minh and a bit into Cambodia. We even discussed what beach to go to in Thailand, and how exactly we’d schedule all this. This whole trip we were always planning off the cuff.

Lunch and dinner both could’ve been eaten in the cabin, but we enjoyed going down to the dining car. It had only six tables, and never were they all filled. The food was great for a train, and I wolfed it down. At night after dinner we sat with Cokes and played cards until they closed the car.

57th-5th in Ho Chi Minh City 10/5

The train arrived one hour late, but that was okay, as it was better for moving about in the daylight. We got to the tourist area and set about finding a hotel. We found one with a good price quickly. We got some breakfast: fruit shakes and some French bread sandwiches. Then we booked our bus to Cambodia; we’ll leave in two mornings on a bus direct to Siem Reap. Then we went and checked our email. All of this before 9 AM.

We meandered over to Ho Chi Minh City’s central market. It was crowded, but much more organized than what we had in Dhaka. Someone woman grabbed Amy’s arm though and wouldn’t let it go. I had to step in and tell her hands off. We made sure to pass by the Reunification Palace where the North Vietnamese officially ended the war. We found our way to the War Remnants Museum but decided we’d visit it later as they close for lunch, and it was almost time. (pics: Amy in front of the Reunification Palace, everywhere we went in the city we saw people taking wedding photos, the predominant motorcycle traffic mix in Ho Chi Minh City)

In the meantime we walked quite a ways to visit the Emperor Jade Pagoda. This place came highly recommended, but it was a bit difficult to find for us. It was a Chinese style pagoda, and was central to the Cantonese community living in Ho Chi Minh City. Inside the many incense sticks and the dark interior made it look smoky. It smelled good though. People were milling around praying at their own pace. Foreigners snapped photos in between, no restrictions at all. The place was smaller than I thought it would be. (pics: ceiling and lintel in the Jade Emperor Pagoda, myself/Amy on the pagoda's roof, one of the shrines and offerings in the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the smoky interior and the sun rays coming in)

Instead of heading straight back to the museum, we detoured into the center part of the city, and went past the famous Catholic Church. We went searching for a place for lunch, and it began to rain. We got under my umbrella and just chose the first place we could find, next to our museum.

The War Remnants Museum was very powerful. I learned so much about the Vietnam War that I had never known before. The images and stories left me speechless. I had not known the atrocities thar had been committed while in Vietnam. Apparently I also had not understood the war in general very well. The displays had so much information, you can’t leave feeling you didn’t learn something. (pics: inside the War Remnants Museum)

Back in the tourist area we went online and bought a plane ticket from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur and a train ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. We had spent a lot of time discussing which in Thailand to go to, and how we’d schedule our time. We realized at some point we’d have to take a plane flight, and the leg we booked made the most sense, beating out Siem Reap to Bangkok and Bangkok to Phukhet. We chose Phuket basically because it had an airport, even thought we knew it’d be tourist crazy. The train was the perfect way to travel from KL to Singapore. We accepted we only had time to see one city in Malaysia.

We went out to dinner with her friend Rachel who she had worked with in Taiwan. Rachel now teaches English in Ho Chi Minh City, and came across town to pick us up on her motorcycle. We got a second motorcycle taxi to take me, and Amy jumped behind her. Rachel took us to one restaurant but she didn’t know it would be closed. She then got lost bringing us to the restaurant where her boyfriend was. She had us going in circles around the city. Ho Chi Minh City is packed with motorbikes. It’s very crazy driving around, worse when you’re lost. My driver said we went the wrong way on some streets and made some other moving violations…uhoh.

We arrived at the restaurant her boyfriend was at. It was an Irish Pub. As far as I can remember, it was the most expensive place Amy and I ate during our whole trip. The food was delicious, especially the nachos, so it was clearly worth it. Her boyfriend and his friends, all from England, were great to spend the evening with. On the way back we zipped through traffic on our bikes again, and I took some video of it.(video: Amy and Rachel driving through the madhouse of motorcycle traffic in Ho Chi Minh City)

We went to a local drinking hole, which had plastic small tables and stools. Lots of African guys were watching soccer. Beer was cheap. We were sitting right on the street side. Next to us was a guy hawking dried fish if I remember right.(pics: Rachel/Amy parking Rachel's motorcycle, Rachel/Amy at the local drinking hole)

57th-6th in Ho Chi Minh City 10/6

Today was our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai temple. I woke up feeling tired. They gathered us for the tour from the place we booked it at and took us to the bus. There were about 12 of us on the tour.

The first stop was a crafts store, which was not advertised as part of the agenda, but magically became part of it. After showing us how the hardworking people make the crafts, they showed us the gallery, with lots of things to buy overly priced. The only people I saw fall for it were three young Australian dudes. Unannounced stops for you to be “expected” to buy stuff are never really a hit with me or anyone else I’ve met. (pics: making the crafts, selling the crafts at high prices)

Finally we were on our way. The first real stop was the Cao Dai temple. It is an indigenous religion to Vietnam that combines Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confuscism, and Islam. The three middle ones are the primary contributors. But the temple looked a lot like a basilica form church. We got to walk around the perimeter of their temple, and then go up to the balcony to see a service. They pray four times a day. They each had different color robes on, and I guessed to Amy that that meant what part of the religion they follow. Guide told us later, and it turned out I was right. (pics: interior of Cao Dai temple, main altar at Cao Dai temple, prayer service beginning, exterior of Cao Dai temple)

The Cu Chi tunnels were pretty neat, although I wish we had gotten to spend more time inside the tunnels, and seen more of them. We went through a 40 meter stretch of one, and it ended too quickly for me. Although for Amy it was more than plenty! Incredible to think people spent their lives down there as they got bombed by the Americans. (pics: tour guide entering one of the Cu Chi tunnels, guide in front of me in the tunnel, myself in the tunnel, Amy happy to be leaving the claustrophobic tunnels)

The tour started off with an Anti-American troops propaganda video. They then showed us all the neat ways they used the tunnels, the secret doors, the ways they used to fight American troops despite not having major equipment, and a captured American tank. The tactics and tunnels are so incredible because it all worked! They won! (pics: our tour guide telling us about the Cu Chi tunnels, one of the tunnel entrances we were allowed to test out, Amy/myself on a captured US tank)

A neat part was a shooting range they had. I read that you can shoot whatever gun you want, at 15,000 Dong per bullet. Well I was not told that it was a minimum of 10 bullets. I did not have that much dong to do that. I took that as a sign that I shouldn’t be shooting an AK-47 for fun. (pic: pay to shoot)

Traffic was bad on the way back, but nothing close to what I got used to in Dhaka.

We headed back to the market, and Amy bought some things. I considered buying some artwork, but decided against it, one because I didn’t have enough money. I told myself if I saw an HSBC ATM, it’d be a sign, and I should buy something. I walked 3 blocks past the market looking for that sign, but it didn’t appear. So I didn’t buy. (pic: night market in Ho Chi Minh City)

We shared dinner with Rachel again tonight. It was great to meet up with a friendly face midway through our trip. She gave us lots of advice on what to do in Cambodia and southern Thailand as well.

57th-7th on bus to Siem Reap 10/7

We woke up to leave; our hotel’s front door was closed. Had to have them open it for us. Then the place we booked our tickets was closed too! I started getting nervous. What if we missed our bus? We banged on the door until Worker McSleeps-a-lot woke up inside. He opened it and called the bus company to tell them we were here. They walked over and took us to the bus pickup. Only one bus a day goes to Siem Reap, and I was really worried we would miss it.

The service was incredible. This was Amy’s favorite bus. Amy had been nervous about being in Cambodia, and the bus’s comfort helped ease her worries. We passed through endless rural areas in the Mekong Delta. (pics: a man I saw rowing a boat with his feet saw me as well and waved back, Amy hugging her favorite bus company)

We crossed the Mekong by ferry, and I got out to look around. Reminded me of all my ferry crossings in BD. (pics: people crossing the Mekong by ferry, all the vehicles packed onto the ferry)

We stopped over for a few minutes in Phnom Penh to drop off and and pick up passengers, and it looked really nice from the streets we saw. Reminded us of Vientiane. I did notice that the city seems to be growing very quick. Saw new skyscrapers going up, and lots of suburban sprawl. (pics: new skyscraper going up in Phnom Penh, suburban sprawl outside the city)

Another stop was for food on the way to Siem Reap. There we got the first taste of Cambodian children selling us stuff. They surrounded us and showed us all the things we could buy from them. I bought some hard boiled eggs and mango. One delicacy I noticed they had were cooked tarantulas. I couldn't stop looking at them. A woman selling them took out a live one to show me…and it bit her!! She said simply, “Ow. It bit me” and threw it back in the bucket…no thanks. (pic: tarantulas for a snack)

Houses in rural Cambodia are all on stilts. They each have an ornamented roof center line. It has the year it was built printed on it. I was amazed to see the consistency of it all. It was neat that even with little money, evident by the choices of materials for the roof and walls, they still invest enough to ornament this part of their homes. (pics: Cambodian rural houses built on stilts, each home had an ornamented roof center line)

The land we passed through was incredibly flat and had very few trees. It made it seem much flatter than Bangladesh. (pic: flat plains of Cambodia at sunset)

We liked the bus service so much that when we arrived in Siem Reap we booked all our Cambodian needs through their office. We arrived after 12 hours, and booked a bus to Bangkok. They also recommended a hotel which we went with too. Lastly the guy they gave us to take us to the hotel offered to give us a tour tomorrow, and decided to go with him as well.

In Cambodia, things are more expensive than surrounding countries. This is mainly because they only want US dollars. Meaning the minimum anything could cost was one dollar because they don’t have the nickels and dimes to go along with the bills. If you’re lucky you can get two or three for $1.

I realized that chapter 9 is missing from my book A Brief History of Time…how can I understand the universe??? Maybe it really is there though, but since I’m observing it, its not….


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