Oh dear lord, this has been way too frigging long. I don’t even know where the time has gone, but unlike in Europe, where I had long train rides in between places, in Southeast Asia, I feel like I am constantly on the move. And don’t even get me started about the Internet: I am STILL in the process of uploading photos to Flickr from the family’s time in Vietnam, which really delays posting the blog since the main point of this thing is to show some photos.
I don’t have the energy or time for specifics on everything, but thus far, Asia has been wonderful. It all began in Singapore, a crazy efficient mecca to materialism on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Their underground system is extremely well-run and the food in their hawker centers is delicious and exceedingly cheap. Not to say this place is cheap: you can spend your money liberally, if you so choose. Orchard Road is full of every designer store you could ever imagine. Like Hong Kong, only bigger stores.
Little India is quite a trip, as no international city I have been to has quite the same energy in their own “Little Indias.” Chinatown is frenetic, if predictable, as any city with a Chinatown can be. This one has a fabulous night market, however, and the aforementioned hawker centers are to die for. The highlight of my four days there, however, was the Singapore Botanical Garden. The Orchid Garden there is absolutely astonishing, but the garden as a whole is a tranquil escape from an otherwise chaotic city.
Next, it was on to Bangkok, where I met up with my brother Graham and his girlfriend Amanda for a four day visit in the Thai capital. In a nutshell, this city runs at a frenetic pace. Whereas other southeast Asian cities have a massive amount of motos EVERYWHERE, this city has motos AND cars. The traffic is the only thing about this city that’s not frenetic: it moves at a positively glacial pace. The traffic aside, we had a wonderful weekend in Bangkok. I fell in love with its hip grittiness: it’s equal parts developing, developed and over-developed. It’s consumerist and unburdened by material goods all at the same time. It has public transport (a personal favorite) that’s not quite as extensive as it needs to be, but it does the trick. It’s full of beautiful Wats and decaying homes and five star hotels and skyscrapers and shanty towns. And the food. It’s beautiful, beautiful food. I enjoyed it so much that Graham, Amanda and I will be back there this weekend for another go. And then I head up to Northern Thailand for an even better sample of the food on offer there.
So then we flew back to Phnom Penh and after an expectedly long wait to get my Cambodian entry visa (which is goddamned expensive considering how cheap this place is) we made our way back into the city that I got to know last year. But this year, it was different. I’ll talk more about Phnom Penh in a little bit, but basically, I can see why Graham has fallen in love with living here. Yes, it can be polluted and there’s trash in the streets and its corrupt, but this place has a lot to offer.
Anyways, our dear parents made the trek from the San Francisco to meet us in Cambodia to set out on our three week journey through Vietnam. To get to the heart of the Vietnam trip quickly: we had a great time, though we were at times frustrated by the steady stream of tourists throughout the country and the incredibly high amounts of pollution. We had an entire itinerary mapped out before we arrived, with tour guides and private cars etc. all included. It was nice to have that level of attention (like when I stupidly left my passport in a hotel safe and the guide called the hotel who sent an employee four hours by public bus to give me the damned thing) but it was also sometimes constricting, as we’re a family who knows how to travel and knows the pace at which we do things (read: there shall always be ample time for an afternoon rest even if there are a billion sites to see). To that end, we were also tired some days since the days were long and we saw a LOT of stuff. I won’t bore you with the details here, but rather, let the pictures and a skeleton outline of the trip guide you.
We started in Hanoi, the beautiful Vietnamese capital and home to some beautiful architecture a whole lot of history. We all loved it here, for its wonderful people, majestic beauty, delicious food and great shopping. This served as our base for all things North Vietnam as well. Our lovely guide Trung was always there with a smile on his face and perfectly willing to accommodate any silly request. He made our trip up there an absolute joy and we got to learn a lot about Vietnamese culture and his life growing up as the son of a rice farmer.
We spent two days in the rural Mai Chai among beautiful rice paddies which are set in a valley surrounded by majestic cathedral-like peaks. No drive is short in Southeast Asia because the roads are either crowded or worn by time, but the long journey was worth the R&R at the Mai Chau Lodge and our wonderful meals at Mr. Binh’s guesthouse (note: it was here that Dad aka Paul and I were quite ill, though I never quite got it as bad as he had it. Thank GOD we had a day to do nothing here.)
Next it was on to Tam Coc, home of some beautiful karsts that open up over a sprawling river. A bit touristy but also quite beautiful. Again, a drive of epic proportions (but this road was EXTRA bad).
Back to Hanoi for a night and then we set off to Halong Bay. Of course, I start to develop a head cold (cuplrit: the lovely goddamned pollution). We are spending the night (my birthday) on a boat in the bay, which sounds like the perfect antidote to the dumb cold. But, problem worsens when: A. we realize the pollution in Hanoi is probably partly coming from Halong Bay, which has a bunch of polluting coal power plants and cement factories nearby and B. Our pretty little boat, while full of fun people, is also a tourist hell hole and relies on showing us the most touristy shit you can see for miles in the enormous Halong Bay. Oh and C. when we realize the nighttime activity is karaoke. Conveniently located on the other side of the wall of my bedroom. I got over the cold through a mix of Graham’s French cold meds and my determination to not let the thing spoil my fun. Plus, they knew it was my birthday, so I got a tacky bouquet of flowers and a cake that was likely the result of scientific experimentation rather than a mixture of eggs, flour, water and oil.
While Halong Bay was beautiful, it was mostly memorable for being extremely touristy, polluted and funny. It was just so goddamned odd. Terrible, terrible food. TERRIBLE. Oh and Graham, Amanda, this British dude Richard and I all got “caught” trying to take our kayaks beyond the dumb little bay we were allowed to paddle in. So that was funny.
One more night in beloved Hanoi. Included a make-up dinner for my birthday at the Green Tangerine that was absolutely delicious but partially ruined by this weird guide who worked for our tour company who insisted on sitting and talking with us and watching us eat even though we didn’t know him and didn’t want to talk and wanted to enjoy our own company. Though I’ll give the guy some slack, as the tour company provided the cake and this one was a homemade beauty courtesy of his wife. Anyways, we did that then the next morning (after one more delicious breakfast at our Swiss-owned Moevenpick Hotel) we set off by plane for the ancient capital of Hue.
Hue was rainy and, by comparison, quite cold and also quite rainy. Needless to say, it was refreshing for the lungs (and my persistent head cold). We spent two days in Hue, seeing the sights of the former Vietnamese capital, including the ancient citadel/royal palace, which is astonishing in its beauty. Unfortunately, much of it is in ruins (as a result of the infamous Tet offensive at the height of the Vietnam War). Our wonderful guide Truc taught us quite a bit about the architecture of the period and was an invaluable resource for all things Vietnam, from food culture to war history. He even spoke openly and candidly about his family’s opposition role during the war (the pro-Democracy, anti-Vietcong types).
Our trip in Hue was a nice diversion from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We saw an incredible amount of beautiful temples, as one often does in Southeast Asia, but nothing could prepare us for how much we would enjoy our next destination. We left Hue in the rain and relative cold, drove over a stunning mountain peak and arrived on the other side to perfectly sunny and warm weather, like one might find in California in early summer. We were headed to Hoi An, where we spend the best three days of our trips. Hoi An is a town where time has stopped; it has only recently opened up for the thousands of tourists who throng here every year. It thrives on tourism and lovely little shops and restaurants. The architecture is French colonial farm house style and it is set on a nice little river and not far from a beautiful beach. My oasis, basically.
It was here that we had a lovely time relaxing by the pool at our beautiful hotel. It was here that we had a meandering bike ride to an organic farm that grows everything you can think of in sun. It was here that we collected shells on the beach and basked in the warm glow of the sun. It was here that we had our very own suits made by one of the town’s many cheap-but-good tailors. It was here that we took a wonderful cooking class and ate our best meals. Some of the best food ever, really. And it was here that we finally had to say goodbye to Graham and Amanda who had to be back to life and work in Phnom Penh. While our time there was too short, we will always remember what a wonderful time we had in Hoi An and how glad we were to have shared it all together.
After an extra day in Hoi An, my parents and I set off for Saigon, where we met our last guide, Anh, a nice guy but also a very programmed individual–he had bought in to all the Vietnamese government propaganda years ago. We had only one full day in Saigon and it began right when our plane landed at 9:30 a.m. Saigon is Bangkok but 4 million motos. It’s insane. Really. I can’t even explain it, you just have to see it to believe it. We enjoyed a lot of the war history that the city has to offer and some of the remaining colonial era buildings are quite nice, but it lacks some of the charm of Hanoi, which is also smaller.
The last two days of our trip in Vietnam included a stop to a Cao Dai temple, which is a religion created here a century ago to include all the major religions of the time. The worship ceremony is quite fascinating, really. We also had a chance to see the tunnel system made by the Vietcong, which includes the chance to shoot an AK47–GRRRRREAT. If you know how I feel about guns, you can probably imagine that I hated it.
And our last day, before our boat ride back to Phnom Penh, included a fascinating tour of the Mekong Delta. We definitely didn’t have enough time here, but its someplace I’d like to come to some day. We saw how they make puffed rice, ate a delicious meal of fried fish and ate more tropical fruit than we ever thought possible. And, to end the day, we stayed in the weirdest hotel ever–which was hotter than hell.
Well, that’s about the quickest summary I can give on Vietnam. Here’s the part where I get all reflecty, so skip if you like, but this is perhaps the clearest picture I can give of what it’s been like on this five month journey:
Now I am back in Phnom Penh. I’ll have been here, on and off, for a little over two weeks, including the rest of this week and some time here before the family went off to Vietnam in late October. This place has really grown on me and I have become increasingly comfortable here. Sure, I long for the conveniences of home, like broadband, public transport and tempeh (I kid, sort of), but there’s something to be said for life here. I get it now. Whereas I was skeptical of Graham’s extended stay here, I understand now how this place can change a person in a multitude of ways. And I say this with not an ounce of mocking or insincerity: I am really, really proud of my brother and his bravery in coming here and staying his course. He impresses me daily–while still annoying me too–and he challenges me to think critically about this tiny little planet seven billion of us are sharing. He’s truly a brilliant guy–he’s surely one of the youngest in his field and has a knowledge of world history and current events and politics like no one I have ever seen. It’s mind-boggling. Yes, frustrating too, especially when you want to make your point heard, but ultimately, I am happy for Graham because his know-it-all nature shows that he does what he loves and he has passion for it. If there’s any recurring theme from my journey, it’s this: love what you do and don’t settle until you find it.
I can’t say that the picture for me when I return is anymore clear than when my journey began. My list of thungs I want to do in life (aka careers) and places I want to visit and foods I want to try and books I want to read and movies I want to see have all multiplied in my five months abroad. This time was long enough to realize that I have so much more living to do and yet, I am not so sure I can imagine a life without the constant excitement travel provides. But, unlike the billions of people in this world who are not so lucky to see as many places in a lifetime as I have in 23 years, I realize now that my travels have changed me a great deal. My “lists” of :”things to do” are not really lists at all but rather a reflection of the people who have touched my life during all phases of this journey. I have learned more about myself through these people than I could have ever anticipated.
So every time I step on that plane or train or bus off to the next place or back to the place whence I came, I remember I didn’t just see a place. I became part of the symbiotic relationship between people and place, animal and earth, plant and sun. As far fetched as it sounds, there is so much to be seen if you really just take a closer look. What brought these people here so many years ago? Why did such a culture develop? What are the sum of the parts that make up this entire culture?
SO WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH LOVING WHAT YOU DO? Well, it made me realize how many things I do feel passionate about. And that, despite my best attempts at convincing myself otherwise, I wouldn’t be happy going into organic farming just because I believe it’s something we need more of. No, I’ve seen it and it can be miserable. So I’ve settled on my greatest strengths in my time here and I am ready for a few years of figuring out how the hell those puzzle pieces fit together. I know I’ll figure it out somehow. If not, there’s always escaping to far flung places again… Until next time (which will surely be sooner rather than later in the high speed internet zone of THAILAND!)