Sunday, December 19, 2004

My Son, China Beach, and Marble Mountain

I rented a minibus with four others; Beth, Lauren, Jeff, and Tracy. I met Beth & Lauren at my hotel one morning - they were having breakfast and I asked if I could join them. It's amazing how social you become when you are travelling alone... They had booked a minibus for 12/18, and there was one seat open. I stopped by the company and booked the last seat.

We set off at 4:30am on 12/18, since we had a long day of driving. It took about 1.5 hours to reach My Son, and we got stuck in mud en route. Luckily, a few Vietnamese construction workers helped us push the minibus out of the mud.

My Son was empty when we pulled up - it was worth the extra effort to get up early in order to beat the other tourists. I had mixed feelings about the site - it was great when the sun was low in the sky and we were the only people there. At that time, it seemed very mysterious & tranquil. As we walked around, an acute sense of shame & anger was welling up inside me. The US had bombed the area, and many of the ruins are REALLY ruined. I could only imagine how magical this place would have been if it were still intact. Just as we were leaving, a few groups of tourists had started to arrive - perfect timing!!

Upon arrival in China Beach, we were surrounded by young & old women trying to sell us handicrafts. All of us need some R&R, so we asked our driver to take us to a nearby resort. We wouldn't have to deal with as many people in our face - all we wanted to do was relax in the sun. $10 later, we were laying on a beach with 8 other tourists. We were at the Furama Beach Resort; some 5 star elitist hotel. I was disgusted at myself for paying $10 to escape the locals, but I needed the peace. The beach was deserted and locals weren't allowed on the beach. I felt like I had the place to myself - 500ft of beach (almost) all to myself. I was lounging around for awhile, and then borrowed a boogie board and went out into the surf. The lifeguard had warned me about staying close to shore, but I didn't understand why. After swimming out a ways, I was terrified. The current was so strong that I could swim as hard as I could and not move. Instead of swimming along the beach, I came much closer to shore. In total, I was in the water for 20 minutes until I was exhausted.

We ate at the resort's restaurant - $16 for all you can eat brunch. We hadn't shown any modesty; we ate like gluttons and paid for the meal like it wasn't a big deal. When we were preparing to leave, I was ashamed. I haven't lived a day in my life when I haven't had enough food or a soft, warm place to sleep. My country killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen only 40 years ago, and now we return to flaunt our money, having these people wait on us like servants. What did the hotel employees think of us? I would really like an honest Vietnamese opinion of Westerners. Each of us had just spent about 25% of an average monthly Vietnamese income on breakfast.

I don't think the others thought much about this, as when I mentioned the cost of breakfast versus the Vietnamese monthly income, my statement was dismissed. I felt like my fellow travellers were raised with a silver spoon. On the way back from My Son, they were discussing California universities and recalling found memories of universities like Berkley. None of these people worked for their own education - it was provided by their parents. I ignored their conversation about a world very different from mine, and focused on the landscape rolling by.

After Furama Resort, we headed to Marble Mountain. I'm usually down for anything with 'mountain' in it, but this was mildly disappointing. There were caves filled with Buddha statues, but I had been expecting a bit more. Nevertheless, it was worth the trip since we were so close.

My flight to Saigon leaves tomorrow - then I fly out from Saigon late at night, and stay a few days in Tokyo. I can't wait to go back to Tokyo - I love it there. The huge buildings, the throngs of people, the food, the lights. It brings back good memories of the summer program that I attended at Sophia University.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Back to 'Nam

I started my journey from Luang Prabang on 12/15. Since my last journal entry, I flew from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, had a 2 hour layover at Wattay airport, flew to Hanoi (arriving around 7pm), took a taxi from Noi Bai airport into Hanoi to pickup my train ticket, took a motorbike to the train station, spent the night on a train from Hanoi to Hue, took a taxi to a booking office to purchase a minibus ticket to Hoi An, then a bus from Hue to Hoi An and a finally long walk to my hotel in Hoi An. The best part of my trip was the train from Hanoi to Hue. When I woke up in the morning, I had a few hours to stare out the window as the landscape passed by. I saw many villages, rice paddies, and livestock - everyone was working in the fields. I imagined what this experience would be like 40 years ago. It would be much different; I would look at these people differently and their perception of me would be different. I would be suspicious of my surroundings and all people that were near me. I would be filled with fear; adrenaline pulsing through my veins as I passed near a local. I've never been involved in war, and I never want to be.

My first day in Hoi An was spent doing nothing. It took me several hours to decide whether I should continue south to Mui Ne or stay in Hoi An. I opted for Hoi An; the city has charm. It's filled with cafes where I can read and drink cafe phinh sua da all day. When I couldn't drink or read anymore, I went shopping. I stopped by Yaly Couture, which has received nothing but great reviews on Lonely Planet's Thorntree forums. I asked them to make me one shirt; they instructed me to come back in 4 hours for a fitting. When I stopped back I was so impressed by the quality and fit of the shirt that I ordered several more. At $12 each, they were cheap compared to the prices back home for a tailored shirt. I found that I had a hard time adjusting to prices in Vietnam - I was used to Laos. A meal that cost me $1.50 in Vietnam cost me less than $1 in Laos. It's funny how costs are so relative; if I had just come from the US my perception of a $1.50 meal would be much different.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Collecting Alms

I finally woke up early enough to catch a glimpse of the monks! I was on the main road at 5am; sitting, shivering, waiting for the saffron robes to be visible. At 5:45, I saw a procession up ahead, barely visible in the morning fog. I walked a bit closer, and finally saw them come out in full force. Most of the monks were young men, although there were a few near my parent's age. The monks walked with their heads bowed, carrying an urn in both hands. The townspeople knelt on small rugs along the street. As the monks passed, a small amount of sticky rice was put in their urn. Once they return to their temple, the food is massed together and everyone gets the same portion. If there are less people giving food away in the morning, the monks are a bit more hungry. This ritual & custom left me in awe. The monks were relying on the locals for offerings of food; the locals relying on the monks for spiritual guidance and services. This strong symbiotic relationship must have been forged over hundreds of years.

I'm returning to Vietnam today - I've enjoyed my stay in Laos. The country is very peaceful, the countryside filled with so many different colors of green, and the people have surpassed my expectations of generosity & hospitality. From the moment that Phouvieng & Athith picked me up at the airport, I've felt comforted - it's almost like home. Luang Prabang was filled with a spiritual aura that I haven't experienced elsewhere. Young men come here from the neighboring communities to follow a path that is lit with their faith. It's hard for me to understand, because the religious people back home aren't this spiritual. Protestants (that I know) may go to church once a week out of routine (and perhaps some guilt), but they forget about the religious teachings as soon as they leave the church. The monks I see here act with the same integrity inside & outside of the wats. I would imagine that Angkor Wat feels similar to this, but with many more tourists.

Another part of Laos that I'll miss is the solitude. I could walk down the street and only be asked for money (or to buy something) once or twice. Vietnam's streets are much more visceral; it's an onslaught of beggars & merchants. I think one defining difference is personal space; Vietnam constantly touches you, pulling you into its world. Laos does so with more grace. This doesn't mean that I don't like Vietnam - I just accept it as a different place.

I desire to share these thoughts & memories with loved ones, but the reality is that no one has experienced what I've seen, felt, and tasted. They'll want to hear about the nasty things that I encountered, but I'll never be able to do a place justice by just talking about it. Those mundane, magical moments of travelling aren't interesting unless they are slightly embellished.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


I arrived at the Wildside office to find 2 Canadians, 2 Swiss, and a Spaniard waiting for the kayaking to start. Everyone had exchanged greetings when we piled into the back of a tuk-tuk and pulled out of town. For some reason, I thought we would put in the kayaks right outside of town. We didn't - we drove for about two hours in the back of the tuk-tuk. I was shivering the entire ride, rubbing my blue hands against one another for warmth. The mornings & evenings are fairly cool, but I knew that midday would be warm enough to be in the water.

We arrived at a small village and were instantly surrounded by people. We unloaded our gear and headed down towards the beach. Only a few children followed us, I guess everyone else had settled back into their previous activities. I shared a kayak with a guy from Calgary; I was sitting in the front and he in the back. After 30 minutes of the kayak filling with water, we finally realized what was happening. He was about 60 pounds heavier than me, so the rear of the kayak was mostly submerged in water, while the front of the kayak was sticking out of the water. I didn't understand why he kept complaining about getting wet until I looked back.

Our route consisted of 16km of river, with 7 sets of rapids strewn throughout. The rapids made things very fun, until you fall out. We capsized the kayak 1/2 way through on the 2nd set of rapids. I wasn't thinking, so I kept holding my paddle and tried to make my way towards the kayak. Unsuccessful in reaching the kayak, I was dragged and slammed into the rocks that made up the rapids. When we finally reached the end of the rapids, I held onto the kayak while I caught my breath. After we pulled our kayak to the shore, I realized I had cut my knee and bruised my legs and feet. I was determined to keep the kayak upright for the remainder of the day...

We stopped for lunch along a bank of black sand. Lunch consisted of sticky rice, Mekong seaweed, beef, fried noodles, and a veggie stir-fry. All of the food had been pre-cooked, so we ate the cold food out of plastic bags that it had been packed in. It had been prepared the night before, and then bagged for our trip. It had sat at room temperature all night, so plenty of bacteria had had a chance to develop. This is just another example of what the west considers 'unsanitary' passes by without question. While westerners would be aghast at the food preparation, is there a difference in our societies? We grow food & animals with the assistance of pesticides, herbicides, and medication. Are all of these chemicals much healthier than eating food that has sat out in the air for a day?

During the afternoon, we floated over a few exciting sets of rapids. On one of them, one of our kayaks grew a fresh hole in the bottom of it. Jit, our guide, proceeded to burn one of the water bottles that we had, and drip the plastic onto the kayak. It was my first experience with Lao kayak patching. Jit assured them that there were no more rapids for the remainder of our trip. After the kayak had been patched, we rounded a corner and saw more rapids! Ben, the guy who created the hole in the kayak, swore at his misfortune while the rest of us laughed.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Luang Prabang

I've made it to Luang Prabang; the plan is to spend 5 days here and I don't have much planned. The entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site - the architecture and ancient temples have been well cared for. I met a few people at my hostel, so we decided to go out for dinner. I have fried noodles with veggies and a beer lao. After walking around the night market (which consumes 4 blocks of the main street), we sought out L'Etranger - a local bookstore & cafe. We arrived to find a private showing of a local artist. We went in anyways, pretending like we were invited. I wasn't hungry after dinner, but a glass or two of free wine really hit the spot.

One of my goals during this trip is to wake up early enough to see the monks file down the street to gather alms from the townspeople. The monks are not allowed to ask for food, but they are allowed to accept offerings of food (a.k.a. alms). I didn't make it out of bed early enough - I woke up at 6:30. After several nights of mediocre sleep, the travel is starting to take a toll on my delicate body. I haven't shaved in days, my skin is peeling due to sunburn, and I've developed a sore on my right ankle. My sandal has been rubbing away my skin, a slow steady pressure that slowly grates away the cells of skin. I've been hobbling around the streets, because that sore has been filling with puss. I can only hope that it doesn't get infected...

I feel really good about making this trip happen. I'm not nearly as lonely as I was when I was in Europe. Maybe I've become less self-conscious, or more comfortable being alone. All of this time by myself allows me to keep my journal updated, because I believe that I'll appreciate the journal in the years to come. It will be a good source for memories, and maybe some fodder for thought. I have seen true hardship here, and my life is more similar to royalty in comparison. I can't wait to be thankful for everyone I have, and let my family & friends know how much they mean to me.

After lunch, I wandered over to the Mekong River in search of a boat and a driver. I wanted to cross the river to see some of the old temples, and there wasn't another way to cross. When I climbed the hill to the first temple, I saw a building in ruins. Parts of the building were falling apart, but there was still a Buddha inside and offerings of flowers and ashes from previously burned incense. I spent the remainder of the afternoon traipsing through Buddhist temples across the town. I love the architecture and the simplicity of these buildings. The outside are ornate, and the inside is very humble.

This afternoon, I realized that I have another two full days in Luang Prabang. I stopped by an outdoor tour operator, and booked a day of kayaking. I'm excited to get out and exercise; I haven't been doing anything besides walking around and eating.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


I never wrote about the last two days in Sapa. I was there on 12/8 and 12/9. On the 8th, Hoa (my guide) and I went trekking. We walked a path that he described as the 'hard way'. We traversed footpaths that the Black H'mong use to make the daily journey to their rice fields. While we were walking, I was receiving strange looks from the locals. I'm assuming it's because the foreigners take the more trodden path. From the path, I noticed something which looked like a well. As we approached, Hoa explained that the contraption was used to mill rice. The 'mill' was placed adjacent to a stream. In the water, a long piece of bamboo had been cut in half, creating a trough. The water ran into the bamboo and emptied into something that resembled a bucket. Once the bucket was full, it would lift a piece of stone that was connected to the bucket on another piece of bamboo. The water would empty back into the stream, and the stone would slam onto the rice. I was flabbergasted by the ingenuity.

The valley surrounding the villages is beautiful - 1500m mountains line the valley like security guards. A small river snaked across the valley floor, providing water for the rice. The rice fields splayed out from the river in all directions. As the mountainside became steeper, the rice fields turned into rice terraces. When it was too steep for a rice terrace, the earth went back to its original form. Hoa stopped to prepare lunch and pointed me in a direction to continue hiking. I started climbing towards the bamboo forest along a very smooth tract of earth. I later realized why the earth was so smooth; the locals pulled the logs down the mountainside for firewood & building supplies.

We ate lunch at a Dzai family's house. We sat on plastic children's chairs in the cooking room. For some reason, Vietnamese don't like regular-sized chairs and tables. I was thinking about how funny it would look if I bought a set of kid-sized chairs for my patio. I had to chuckle in awe - the context of a situation greatly influences your perception. For lunch, we had white rice, taro potatoes, and watercress. The family gladly served me rice wine with my meal, although I was secretly ecstatic that I also had a bottle of water - the wine tasted like I imagine gasoline to taste like. They served it in a shot glass, and it took all of my mental fortitude to finish all of it. I couldn't finish all of my food though, and I was feeling ashamed. People all around me were dying for a meal, yet there was still heaps of food on my plate after I had filled my belly.

We visited a few villagers homes - the homes consisted of nothing more than corrugated tin roofs held up by a bamboo frame. The exterior of the building is made out of a mud/rice leaf mixture. The floor is pounded earth. I've seen these people build the homes - the amount of labor is incredible. On one home, I saw 14 men and boys building. When I arrived, they were sitting around and chatting. They were waiting - waiting for the right time to place the highest piece of the frame. The time of day dictates when portions of the house are constructed. The day is broken into two hour segments, and each segment corresponds to an animal (similar animal as the Chinese zodiac animals). The owner of the house was born in the year of the horse, so everyone was waiting for the time when it was good for a horse to build.

A woman approached Hoa & I when we were watching them building the house. She was selling copper bracelets. I bought one of Ayano - I had been telling all Vietnamese vendors 'no' for days and I wanted to haggle. She started the bidding at 20,000 dong. I am proud of myself, because after a hard bargaining session of 30 seconds, the price was reduced to 11,000 dong. While I was walking away, I realized that I had saved myself $0.50; an exponentially greater value to the village woman than it would be to me.

Friday, December 10, 2004

After another day of trekking in Sapa, I took an overnight train back to Hanoi and jumped on a flight to Vientiane, Laos. Things could not have been any better after I stepped out of the airport to a small throng of locals, buzzing with excitement about seeing their relatives that were visting from far-off lands. I was trying to look over the crowd to figure out where I could catch a moped to get into Vientiane - I needed to find a place to stay for the night. When I was about halfway through the crowd, I suddently noticed a sign that said "JEREMY IRWIN".

I hadn't arranged transfer from the airport prior to leaving for Laos; in fact I didn't even know where I was going to stay. The smiling faces behind the sign was Athith, his wife Phouvieng, and a friend of the family - Olay. (My apologies if I spelled that wrong!! I never got the spelling of your name!) To this day, almost two years later, I am almost moved to tears by the amount of generousity that they showed to a complete stranger, someone whom mentioned that he would visit them, an emigrated friend's co-worker's son. They had taken the entire day off of work to show me around their hometown. Now I'm going to be spending the night at their home. They've opened up their home with an open mind & heart; I still can't believe it while I sit on their couch and write in my journal.

Photo of a field near Athith & Phouvieng's home.

Phouvieng's sister's 4 year old nephew is currently dancing around the living room while we jam to a mix of Lao pop music and backstreet boys. I've already met the entire family - sisters of Phouvieng, cousins, nieces, and nephews. They all live at a dead end of a gravel road; each family having their own home. After taking some time to set my bag down and rest, Athith & Phouvieng take one motorbike, while Olay & I take his motorbike. Our first stop was a war museum which displayed information and antiques from the battles that Laos has been involved in over the past 100 years. The museum was very objective about all of the bombing that had torn apart Laos during the Vietnam war in the '60s. It was sad to see; this country of peaceful people suddenly pulled into a war because the Viet Minh took refuge in their country.

Honoring my vegetarian diet, they took me to a market where we had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant! The food had been cooked a few hours prior to our arrival, and was sitting out waiting for customers to eat. When we sat down, the food was cold and I imagined it being even tastier warm. Thankfully I was so hungry, that I didn't let that minor detail keep me from eating. After lunch, we went to the center of town where there stood a huge monument which reminded me of the Arc de Triumphe in Paris. We paid the 5000 kip entrance fee and climbed to the top. At 7 stories high, it was once Vientiane's tallest building, but it has now lost that title to a new hotel which was built exclusively for the ASEAN summit at the end of November.

We cruised over to to temples, Pha That Luang and Wat Si Saket. Pha That Luang is the golden wat that is the most famous in Laos. Wat Si Saket was a smaller wat, which was used exclusively by a previous emporer. Wat Si Saket was filled with different Buddha statues; it felt very serene inside. Although I have no preconceptions about Buddhism, I like it for its tranquility and pureness.

My trip to Laos, although one day old has been better than all of Vietnam, and I have Athith & Phouvieng to thank for the wonderful experience and hospitality. I sat around with their family this evening, drinking a Lao soda in the dusty lane in front of their home. Tonight Athith's daughter is performing (singing) at a bar in town. A bunch of the family is going out to see her, and I've already made plans to have a few drinks with several of their family members (I don't think this was my choice anyways...)

I can't say enough about today; this has been an absolutely great experience and another example of how honest and caring complete strangers can be. Time for dinner!