December 27, 2008

Indonesia: Bali for Christmas


I booked a flight from Saigon to Bali for Christmas to meet Abigail, a friend I met in Bangkok while petting a tiger. Back in October Abigail and I talked about our Christmas plans and she mentioned that  she would be spending the holidays in Bali. Without hesitation, I invited myself along. I might be getting use to this backpacking life. Inviting myself on strangers holidays, who have I become?

The morning started off smooth. Two hours before my flight my xe om (motorbike taxi) showed up on time in front of my house. Two honks later I was out the door, strapping my helmet on and off to the airport. I now have a personal xe om driver who arrives when I text him. Ya, that happened. He dropped me outside of the airport (xe oms can't enter the airport) and I walked the rest of the way to the Singapore Air check-in counter. As I checked-in the lady behind the counter alerts me that I don't have any visa pages and I can't go to Indonesia. What?! So I missed my 10:00 am flight to tropical paradise. I was not giving up on my Christmas vacation. I quickly got another xe om and took off to the US embassy where I got an additional 24 visa pages (hopefully that will last me). I then crossed the street to the Singapore Airlines ticket office (how conveniently located) to book the next flight which left later that afternoon. I went back to my house and confused my roommates who thought I was jet setting to Bali. Pulled a fast one on them, didn't I.


As I landed in Bali with not a care in the world I instantly stopped. What does Abigail look like again?  How will I make sure I don't pass her at baggage claim? I also didn't show up when I originally said I would since I missed my original flight. But, my long lost friend from 12  hours together in Bangkok really pulled through. Turns out instead of leaving the airport after realizing I didn't make my 10:00 am flight from Saigon she waited and waited and waited. She even asked the airport staff to do an announcement for me over the intercom, however, only Holly was announced as she realized she didn't know my last name.

The first night we spent laughing hysterically over how random our Christmas meet-up was. We were off to a great start.

Christmas Eve was spent lounging by the pool and shopping. In England, Abigail informed me, Christmas Eve was a huge night to go out so to keep up on her cultural traditions we went to all the bars we could find. We also bumped into drunk Santa.

{ we should have reapplied sunscreen more often }
Christmas day was spent at the pool again and meeting our fellow pool-go-ers who had some great stories for us about their midnight tattoos. That evening we headed down to Kuta Beach to catch the sunset. All along the beach there are little pop up bars. It is ideal. After the sun was down we had Christmas dinner at Hard Rock Cafe which was having a Christmas concert. That night we met our fellow pool swimmers out at the bars.





The next day Abigail and I left Kuta and began to explore the island. We took a shuttle to Ubud and rented a taxi to explore the near by rice fields and temples. While driving from one place to the next I seized the moment to ask our taxi driver all about the medicine doctor from Eat, Pray, Love. To my surprise he had no idea what I was talking about. I am still skeptical of that.


We then headed back to Kuta and rented a motorbike. Learning how to drive a motorbike started a little rough but it ended up being a huge success. We wobbled and almost crashed our way out to Nusa Dua which had a gorgeous beach resort. After we had perfected our tan lines we drove out to Uluwatu where there is a temple out on a cliff. We arrived at sunset, the timing couldn't have been more perfect.

{ Nusa Dua }
 
{ Uluwatu at sunset }

December 21, 2008

Vietnam: Back in Saigon

I am back in Vietnam! Who would have guessed I would have ended up teaching English here?

Phase two of the TESOL course was teaching practice and Vietnamese language lessons (Vietnamese is the hardest language ever. It is tonal). I have now completed the TESOL course and a few job interviews lined up.

Last Friday Zach, Kyle, Alex and myself moved into a five bedroom house one block from Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street. Learning to say our street name so our xe om (motorbike taxi) driver knows where to take us is turning out to be very challenging. We will need to keep practicing. Our house is huge with four floors, two bedrooms on each floor and a roof top terrace. Our living room is also the garage. Once we all get motorbikes we will park them next to the tv. The front door is a huge gate that opens all the way up. We have a little pad lock that locks it all up. You have to stick your hand inside a small hole and then try and fit your key into the lock without looking and with one had. I have yet to master this. So far our neighbors are very welcoming and there are lots of banh mi sandwich stalls.


The other day we were walking around downtown Saigon and we were asked by a local tv station if we would stop and read some English words for the camera. It was a tv show that teaches country children English. I read "the suitcase is over there." I guess the country children are taking a trip on a plane. So a little local tv fame to start off our year in Vietnam!

(May 2009 update: We are mini celebrities at our schools right now as our English segment aired and all of our students saw us on tv.)

December 3, 2008

Cambodia: LanguageCorps TESOL

The day I left Vietnam (Nov 21st) until the day I arrived in Phnom Penh (Nov 22) I had been to three countries in two days: Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Lots of traveling and little enjoyment doing so. I am finally in Cambodia were I get to unpack and stay in one place for at least two weeks.

Let me back up though and inform you all about Pattaya, in case you were wondering what the sex capital of Thailand is like. Neon lights, disgusting street dogs, crowds, 60+ year old white men with 15 year old Thai girls and dancing girls. Its like a Thai version of Vegas. With a ping pong show under my belt I have seen Pattaya.

I arrived in Cambodia over a week ago to begin a four week TESOL training course. I am happy to back in Cambodia. The people are friendly and I love the country. The course is divided in half- two weeks in PP and then two week in your country of choice learning the local language and practicing teaching in front of a class. I went into this thinking I was going to teach in Thailand but I am slowly changing my mind and driving my teacher crazy. I can't choose a country- Cambodia one day and Vietnam the next.

I am living in The Villa which is the name of the five bedroom house that Zach, Kyle, Alex and myself live in (all Americans). It is very comfortable except for the scary barking dogs outside our gate. LanguageCorps also provided us with a tuk tuk driver as we live a good distance from the school. Our tuk tuk driver is the best and it has become a routine to stop for crab sticks on the way home at night. We are all becoming addicted.

{ Zach at a food stall in PP, Cambodia }
Last weekend we all took the bus to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat and Angkor What bar, second time around and still a great place:

{ Angkor What bar }

{ Angkor Wat- Zach, Kyle, my and Alex }
{ "one dollar, one dollar" }

November 18, 2008

Vietnam: The Cold in Sa Pa


I am so happy to be in Sa Pa but without surprise I had a bit of a rough start getting here. I paid for the cheapest tour which means I had a ticket on the second class sleeping car and a roommate at the hotel in Sa Pa. The tour I booked wasn't a tour, they dropped me off at the train station in Ha Noi and sent me on my way. After looking in my room on the train with five of the six beds (three on each wall) full of homeless looking men I had to do something. I found the only other traveler (from Holland) on the car and made one of the men swap beds. With a few rounds of charades he understood that she was my sister and we needed to be together. She was relieved and so was I. On the second class train us travelers had to stick together. That night I slept with my weekend bag wrapped around my body (I had just heard stories about trains in India where people steel your shoes off your feet while you are sleeping). That morning I woke up in Sa Pa with a cold. Who was sick in here? With my new cold I stepped off the train and realized my flip flops and cropped fisherman pants where not weather appropriate, it was freezing. What was I thinking, all I brought besides an extra t-shirt was a rain coat- I was use to the sun!

I arrived at the hotel with all the other travels and was assigned my roommate. An older mid-fifties American man. Great, the only two Americans around and we are roommates. Everyone thinks I am his mistress. It will take me all weekend to get the word out I don't know him and this isn't our romantic weekend away. On a side note: the hotel is not heated and I think I will upgrade to a first class train ticket on the way back to Ha Noi.

Sa Pa is exactly what I was hoping Vietnam would be like, locals wearing traditional clothes and rice fields crawling up the hill sides. The trekking was much different then I expected though and my flip flops hardly made the cut. We walked on dirt roads to mountain villages with local Black/ Red Mong mountain women who helped us cross over rivers while asking us lots of questions about if we are married or how many children we have. Lets see… from their point of view I am 22 so I should be married and my first child should be on the way if not my second. Since I was getting grilled I took the pressure off my unmarried life and asked them where their children where. Not a single lady knew where their kids where, I guess they just run around the countryside and come back at some point. What a different way of life.


Tomorrow is another day of trekking and the last day in Sa Pa. Right now I need to shower my feet with burning hot water to regain circulation in my feet and ankles.


 

November 16, 2008

Vietnam: Up North

The train ride from Hue to Ha Noi was not as shockling disgusting because I was prepared for the worst.

We spent the first day in Ha Noi getting oriented with the city and shopping at markets. The old quarters street names are organized by what is sold on the street, however, this is only helpful if you speak Vietnamese. So there are streets with clothes, streets with sewing materials, streets with bamboo, streets with coffee. Whatever you need just head to that street. As simple as that... if you speak Vietnamese.


Ha Long Bay: The day after we arrived in Ha Noi we headed to Ha Long Bay (a few hours drive North East). I was initially very excited for Ha Long Bay but honestly it was not what I had expected. I think I had my expectations set high by National Geographic's photos where the skies were blue and junks (boats) had their orange sails up. Turns out the junks motor and it was hazy when we were there. We did all the standard sightseeing that Ha Long Bay has to offer but instead of staying on the boat we stayed at a hotel on one of islands. Which I truly enjoyed. It was still worth the journey up north but it just wasn't as picturesque as I had expected.


We are back in Hanoi and I am mentally and physically done with Vietnam. The Intrepid tour has come to an end but I still have one last Vietnam stop... Sa Pa!

November 13, 2008

Vietnam: In the Middle, Hue

{ Half way point between North and South Vietnam }
The best part about our time in Hue was the motorbike ride out in the country. All eight of us (number of people on the Intrepid Tour) each got our own motorbike and driver - what a gang we were. After the day on the bikes I can totally understand why people always ride in a group. You just feel so much cooler starting up the bikes all at the same time. The motorbike tour first took us to a local market where they sold everything from brooms to chicken blood, as I am sure you can guess neither attracted my attention but what did catch my eye were the baskets and baskets of baby chicks. They were wood baskets with dozens and dozens of chicks in them and I got to hold one! I might have the bird flu but it was a total highlight of my time here in Vietnam.


After the market we headed off to a monastery where we were served lunch by nuns. It was a unique and different experience. We, of course, had Vietnamese which for now I am totally over unless it is Pho.

November 11, 2008

Vietnam: Hoi An, Tailor Made


Hoi An, the town were you have clothes tailor made in 24 hours. It's a great little place. We have been exploring the town by bike while picking up our clothes or sandals that were hand made the day before. The beach is huge and windy, not much swimming but fun to see the ocean. The streets are lined with lanterns adding so much color.

{ The beach in Hoi An }
{ The lantern shops line the streets }

November 9, 2008

Vietnam: Nha Trang, Rock and Roll Tank

From Saigon to Nha Trang we took the nicest train, with soft sheets, flat screens, and bottled water waiting for you bedside. We arrived in the morning and headed to a huge white Buddha that sat above the tree line so you could see it from almost all points in Nha Trang. Then we stoped off and saw some old ruins that were similar in style to Angkor Wat. In the afternoon we went to spa of mud baths and mineral water. It was glorious.


The following day we hired a boat and went out to Nha Trang bay. We stopped off at an island with a fishing village where the hand make fishing nets.

 


I was wearing a black tank top that said Rock and Roll on it in neon and this older women just loved it.

 

After the village we headed off to a small bay where we snorkeled, swam and had lunch. It was great fun jumping off the roof of the boat into the blue water. Following lunch was another stop at a beach were we had "lazy" (as it is called). The day was filled with sun and fruit.


That night we took another over night train up to Hoi An. The train was gross! My bed sheets looked like someone had a hair cut before they got off.

November 7, 2008

Vietnam: Saigon, I Never Left the Block

Hello from Vietnam!

Since Monday I have been in Saigon and I have waited to write this post because I wanted my impression of Saigon to change which it has. At first I was not a fan of this city - I found the people to be very unhelpful and to be overly aggressive towards travelers. You also cannot cross the street unless you are willing to through your life on the line which in the end is just what you have to do. Even though Vietnam is connected to Laos and Cambodia for all I know I could be on island in the middle of the ocean. Vietnam feels so unconnected to the rest of the world. The money has so many zeroes how does anyone get good at converting millions of dongs to US dollars? 100,000 dong is 5 US dollars. Anyways besides the first day of frustrating events I have come to enjoy the city. 

My three favorite thing here are rice cakes with coconut and honey in the middle, pho and the coffee stands on the side of the road. You just sit on a little step stool and sip away!

{ Pho }

First of all I think that the traffic needs to be addressed. There are 7 million people in Saigon so how many motorbikes do you think there are? My answer: 8 million motorbikes. Well, at least that is how it looks and feels. I cannot get over the amount of motorbikes, it's like rush hour 24/7. However, during real rush hour... it's gridlocked. There is not an inch to spare. Crossing the road is hilarious and the scariest thing I have ever done. Let me help paint the picture for you- image the worst traffic jam of your life, now convert all those cars to millions of motorbikes and no traffic laws. Finally picture yourself just stepping out into the street and walking across. Once you are across and on the side walk you would think you are safe but no - when traffic is really bad motorbikes drive on the sidewalk. So now I am not only terrified to cross the street I am also terrified to cross the sidewalk. So far I have had only one close call. I could go on forever about the traffic but to not bore you I will move on.



On Wednesday we went out to the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta. We crawled through the 40 meter underground tunnels at Cu Chi which felt like a lifetime. I cannot believe that the Vietnamese soldiers practically lived in the tunnels/underground for as long as they did. The whole Cu Chi tunnel experience was impressive.

{ rice cakes laying out to dry / ticking and cu chi tunnels }
After the Cu Chi tunnels we drove to the Mekong Delta and on the way we got the news that President Obama was elected!

We had a local Vietnamese lunch on an island while it down poured. After lunch we headed to an island where they make coconut candy and coconut wine, which is practically a shot of whiskey with a drop of coconut in it. A real throat burner but when in Rome! Following the candy we hopped on a motorbike for a tour around the local village. It was great to see local living at its best! The highway as we jokingly called it was a small dirt road just larger then our motorbike. When our motorbike tour ended we stopped off at a honey farm to try honey wine (again practically a shot of whiskey with a drop of honey in it) and honey tea while eating local fruit. The whole day ended with a row boat ride through small water ways.


The following day we had a walking tour through Saigon, which included the War Remnants Museum. The museum was shocking. The most horrifying part of the museum was to see how people are still being affected by agent orange that the US spread. There are dozens of pictures of children with serious birth defects from their parents having the gas in their genes. It just broke my heart.
 
Saigon walking tour photo round-up: