I felt it during the four-hour train ride to Dong Hoi. The subtle but unmistakeable rumbling of oncoming gastrointestinal distress. Remembering the 10-day involuntary cleansing ordeal I went through in Saigon and Dalat, I pleaded with my body and then tried not to think about it. After all, we were heading to the countryside to explore caves and harass cows and ain’t nobody got time for that. It had also only been about two weeks since the end of the first bout, and I had already lost at least 3kgs since I started traveling. I was withering away into a stick insect (plenty in this area). Completely ignoring my pleas, it started right after dinner that night and continued throughout the next four days we spent in Phong Nha, an otherwise relaxing country village.
We were staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, which I expected to be a glorified mud hut in the middle of rice paddies (lowered expectations!) but it ended up being pretty nice and comfortable, complete with a small pool. Now I wouldn’t call this place a Farmstay. It’s more like a hostel or hotel, in the middle of rice paddies and farmers’ homes. I didn’t eat much that week but I also didn’t miss out on much judging from the taste of the food.
What kept me from just laying in our room like a useless lump on a log was an adventurous Australian family we met who was also staying at the Farmstay. It was their idea to rent mopeds to explore the countryside, and N somehow agreed to rent one of her own (I wasn’t there to stop her during the rental transaction) even though she had never ridden one in her life. Genius.
It all worked out in the end one afternoon, when Nigel (the father) kindly offered to drive the two of us on the back of one moped while Pip (the mother) and the kids rode on the other one. Nigel somehow maneuvered the cumbersome scooter around potholes, rocks, hay, rice drying in the sun and cow patties on the windy dirt roads towards the Chicken Lady, who is rumored to have the best chicken in the village. We got lost thanks to the crappy map the hotel gave us to decipher, but we got back on track once a friendly local pointed us in the right direction. So friendly that she got full cuddle time with my wife before we took off again.
At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
There is nothing more pleasant than going on a full-day group tour by bus and boat while suffering from stomach issues. Uncle Ho’s Revenge, Vietnam Vengeance, Saigon Squirts, call it what you will, but it sucks ass. Literally.
I woke up that morning feeling sick and fully prepared to abandon N and let her go on the tour alone, but I didn’t want her to be all by her lonesome so I muscled up every ounce of willpower that wasn’t flushed down the toilet and ran for the bus before it left without me. A heavily made-up Vietnamese tourist took multiple selfies of herself a few seats in front of us but I felt too drained to photobomb them.
It was only after we got off the bus 1.5 hours later by the Mekong Delta that I realized that the majority of our fellow tourists were Korean. I don’t know why but besides our group, there were a billion Koreans on the Delta that day, with the men wearing colorful hiking apparel and the women all covered up to protect themselves from their worst enemy: the sun.
After tourists snatched up the $1 cone hats to wear in the sun, the tour guide led us onto a riverboat which was surprisingly smooth and pleasant. The seats were comfortable and I gradually started feeling a little better by the time we got to our first stop, a rice paper-making workshop. I was busy making sure there was a suitable bathroom (just in case) while the tour guide explained the process of making rice paper, which seems pretty easy.
We had about ten minutes of them trying to sell us bags of toasted rice paper crisps in different flavors, and I watched from the periphery as the selfie-snapping wife of a middle-aged Vietnamese couple — dressed like they were going clubbing immediately after the tour — ignored her adorable little son and generously opened her wallet for the first of many times that day.
Group tours are always tricky for us and for the most part, we go home disappointed despite our forced optimistic outlook throughout the day. I think it’s because we’re a hybrid kind of traveler. We don’t need luxury hotel accommodations and can rough it if necessary, but we also (greatly) appreciate a clean bathroom and sheets. Over the brief time that we’ve been traveling, my disdain for touristy spots has increased, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a bus and rapidly ushered through one crowded place after another. Sometimes though, the most convenient and cost-effective way to see things is to participate in a group tour. So with this understanding, N and I signed up for a tour of Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels with TNK Travel. It was really cheap — $8 per person for the all-day tour, excluding an additional $8 in entrance fees. We woke up earlier than usual, had the free breakfast provided by our hotel and boarded a bus at 8:00am with 25 other tourists/travelers.
The bus was clean and air-conditioned, and we slowly crawled through the morning traffic of Saigon as the tour guide rambled on about the history of the temple and the tunnels. We then got to our first stop, which wasn’t the temple or the tunnels, but instead a lacquerware workshop employing people affected by Agent Orange.
First of all, I like how our 30-minute forced souvenir-shopping stop cut into our day, which could’ve been spent exploring and learning more about the tunnels. I think it’s great that this business employs people with disabilities and teaches them useful traditional skills, but I hate it when tours try to sell you random crap at ridiculous prices. Call me cynical, but who knows if the artisans are being treated fairly or paid well, or if their visible disabilities were used by the company to exploit them? The only redeeming factor about this stop is that my mother is a professional Japanese lacquerware artist and it was interesting to see the differences in technique and style. We walked through a huge warehouse piled high with lacquerware products collecting dust and climbed back into the bus to go to the temple. Read more…
“Keep Calm and Carry On” is a good motto to live by in Saigon. When crossing the street here, a safe crossing is determined by how calm and collected you are as you make the walk of potential death. Crossing signs are scarce, so it’s up to you to dodge oncoming traffic to make your way through town. The trick is to not think too much about it. “It”, as in your body colliding with a car, bus, or more realistically, a moped (none of which will slow for you) and being crushed under the dozens of mopeds following closely behind the one that snagged you.
On a particularly busy street, we hesitated and watched as an ancient old lady casually tai chi-ed* her way across the street. While our version wasn’t nearly as graceful as we jerkily zombied across, we did it. Multiple times. In humid, 97 degree heat, with the sun beating down on us. I’m kind of proud of us.
A blogger had mentioned that walking through Saigon is a stressful rather than a pleasant experience after the first hour of it being somewhat thrilling, and unfortunately, it’s true. The sidewalks are almost always blocked off by mopeds parked in a jumble in front of storefronts, forcing pedestrians to hug the curb and walk in the street. And right when you think you’ve made it safely across to the other side, a moped driver will gun it down the sidewalk at you. No, not even the sidewalks are safe.
We woke up to a drizzling, cloudy day and made our way by train and bus to Jiufen and Jinguashi with our private tour guide, Chienya. My cold was now full-blown and my stomach was in protest, but sometimes you just have to suck it up (quite literally, with my relentless runny nose). A bus weaved its way up a mountain side before depositing us at the entrance to Jiufen, and this is where Simon found us. We hadn’t seen each other for years, and he had driven up to spend the day with us.
Like usual, food was on our mind and Chienya had told us that Jiufen was famous for their fish balls and taro mochi. But first, an amuse bouche. We opted for a sweet snack of two types of ice cream over crushed candied peanuts and chopped cilantro, wrapped in a crepe-like wrap. It was surprisingly good, and I loves me some cilantro so I didn’t mind it with ice cream.
Next, we ducked into a fish ball shop and pigged out on fish balls of different flavors, and a glutinous pork thing that they’re also supposedly famous for. It was good, and if I was feeling better I would’ve had seconds.
There’s not much to do on a rainy day, so off we went in search of a snack and wound our way up to a taro mochi shop. We walked through a corridor full of people making taro mochi and sat down for warm, sweet mochi balls and steamed cubes of sweet potato over shaved ice. I’m not a huge dessert person but it was pretty refreshing.
We landed into a thick wall of humidity. We were in Taiwan. Over the years we were living in New York, we had somehow accumulated quite a few Taiwanese friends, and we were finally going to explore their motherland and eat our way through it.
We made our way to my college friend Chienya’s apartment in Donghu via bus and subway, which was super easy because the service people here are helpful and friendly. Chienya busted out some wax apples and pineapple, which was my first wax apple experience and the beginning of our foray into the various tropical fruits of Taiwan. Then, we were off to dinner… At Mitsukoshi. I felt like I was still in Tokyo.
I couldn’t help but immediately start comparing Taipei to Tokyo, because they’re both alike in many ways. First off, there is Japanese writing everywhere, so you can pretty much get by without any problems if you speak only Japanese. Besides the familiar shops and Japanese products they sell here, the culture is similar in many ways. I feel like we’re easing into our Southeast Asia trip, which is different from our Europe trip when we started in Russia.
Our first full day in Taipei was all about food. That morning, we had a traditional Taiwanese breakfast at a typical shop here in Taiwan, which means it’s open to the outside, has a counter with some busy ladies preparing and serving food and it’s a little less than ideal in restaurant hygiene. But I’m going to have to get used to that, because the food was awesome. We went to a local market and picked up some more fruit before heading home to digest in preparation for dinner.
The last five months flew by while I sat around like a lump in my parents’ house. It was the first time in about 15 years since I had lived with my parents, and being back for that long allowed me to spend some quality time with them.
On our last day in Tokyo, we took a walk along the Kanda River with my mom and her favorite daughter, Kaede. It was also the first time in 15 years that I saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Japan, and what was pretty uninteresting then was now totally transformed in my eyes.
Outside the bus windows, signs were all in Cyrillic, reminding us of our month in Russia. But this was a whole different place, where the languages are similar across borders but for some reason, only Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Belgrade was all about meeting people, sometimes in unexpected places. We arrived in the evening, looking forward to a week of some sightseeing, good food and a whole lot of down time.
We dropped off our bags and headed to a cute little bar for our very first Couchsurfing event, which was the weekly Belgrade CS get-together. There were about 25 people crammed into the upstairs section of the bar, and we ended up talking with two Serbian guys who gave us the rundown on what to see in and around Belgrade.
One of the first things we did was to check out a popular lesbian party near our apartment. We found it behind some type of office building and were ushered in by the slightly friendly butch bouncer. It was completely empty, and within a few minutes of us walking in the DJ started playing “Gangnam Style”, which probably was a coincidence… Or wasn’t. We stood around the table we were ushered to and looked around the sad, empty place until two women walked in and sat in a dark corner drinking and chain-smoking like they were exchanging state secrets. People eventually started trickling in, and one or two people got up on the stage and played around on the stripper pole for a bit before shyly running back to their group of friends. All-in-all it was probably one of the most boring lesbian bars we’ve come across on our travels and there wasn’t any eye-candy, so we called it a night and went home to watch movies instead.
Sightseeing is all fun and good, but we were craving good food, after having had the same sort of food (meatballs, meatballs and more meatballs) for the past few weeks. We had read online that Belgrade was a foodie paradise in the Balkans and we were ecstatic. Unfortunately, this is a lie. I guess if you had to pick a place with the best food in the region, it might be Belgrade just because it’s a big city and there are so many offerings, but it isn’t a city I would go out of my way to visit for the food. At all.
I was 14 when the Bosnian War ended in 1995. I remember hearing about it, but it was a world so far removed from my world that I didn’t bother to learn about it. Later, we all heard and read about the genocides, the mass rapes and the ethnic cleansing that went on as the rest of the world turned their heads. It’s one thing to read about it and another to be in the places where these atrocities happened.
We occasionally came across abandoned, bullet-ridden houses in Croatia, but seeing the remaining damage in Mostar was shocking. Rows and rows of pock-marked buildings stood next to brand new ones as silent but sobering reminders of the war. One especially notable place left over from the war is the “sniper tower”, a former bank building that was occupied by Serb and Croat forces.
As we made our way to the sniper tower in the afternoon (before the junkies go to the building in the evening to get high), we ran into a traveling American couple we met at the bus station on our way to Mostar the day before. THANK GOD. We wouldn’t have to explore the creepy abandoned building by ourselves!