A Tin Rocket

A tin rocket on wheels, shooting across the countryside.

“Where are those damn seat belts?” all of the foreigners cried.

Road bumps so mighty each butt leaves its seat

But there is no time for safety, there are time deadlines to meet!

Karaoke plays loudly, sweat starts to drip

Remind me again why I decided on this trip?

Stop after stop, people stream onto the bus.

25 people for 18 seats, but it’s no use to fuss.

Pitch black outside, but there is no way I can sleep.

Not with the symphony of car horns and motorcycle beeps.

When the bus rolls to a stop, an eruption of cheers and chants.

First item of business: A much needed change of pants.

A Four Day Ride

Have you ever met someone and knew, just knew, that you could trust them? That they were genuine, honest and helpful? Meet Mr. Sao (far right), my Easy Rider guide.

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(Above: 3 of our guides enjoying rice wine with us after a long ride)

When I found my way to Da Lat, I knew I wanted to ride a motorbike. I watched thousands zip past me while in Ho Chi Minh, and the itch to get on one myself was just undeniable. Fortunately enough for me, while roaming around the city wide-eyed and lost, Mr. Sao helped me out. 30 minutes after picking me up, I had a comfy (and cheap!) bed as well as plans for four days of motorbiking. You see, Mr. Sao is an Easy Rider. The Easy Riders have been around for roughly 20 years, and they take visitors through Vietnam on motorbike. You have the choice; either sit on the back of an Easy Riders bike and enjoy the views, or take a bike (and your life) into your own hands and ride alone. It was an easy decision.

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(Above: I can get 70 miles per gallon on this hog. Aspen, anyone?)

On a side note, I must say, riding a bike makes you feel infinitely cooler than you really are. I should also say I’m not sure if what I was riding was a bike or a scooter. It wasn’t a Harley that’s for sure.

That being said, here’s what I felt like when I was riding my bike:

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Here’s what I actually looked liked:

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Anyways, being that this was the first time ever on a bike, and that I’m a total chicken, I was a bit nervous. My first test run in the side streets of Da Lat were best described as “wobbly”. Evidently, wobbly was good enough for Mr. Sao, as we soon hit the main streets of Da Lat for a tour of the city. However, I wasn’t alone. Continuing my streak of amazing luck, I joined a group of four young Israelis for my Easy Rider trip. It was a familiar story. They had recently finished up their time in the military and were taking advantage of their new found freedom to travel. The group consisted of Amit, who is clever, outgoing and playful; Rom, who’s wit and intelligence constantly blew me away; and twins Naama and Noa; both beautiful and warm, with laughs that could crack a smile on even the grumpiest of faces.

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(Above: From left to right: Amit, Naama, Rom and I resting at a temple)

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(Above: Amit, Noa, Rom, I and Naama in front of Elephant Falls)

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The first day of our tour consisted of the city of Da Lat. Sights included waterfalls, rollarcoasters, historical train stations and villages, and religious monuments. The highlight was the Hang Nga Guesthouse, or “Crazy House”, which looks like a building pulled straight out the imagination of Dr. Suess. After studying architecture in Moscow, the designer used the natural surroundings of Da Lat for inspiration in it’s design. The design is very fluid with few sharp corners, and the outside facade often resembled that of an old tree or root system. Some rooms felt as if they were melting, and walkways spiraled around buildings and on top of roofs.

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After the first day dedicated to city driving, the next three were spent on the open road. The guides did an impressive job ensuring we had a full and diverse experience, and we stopped pretty regularly to at various areas of interest. Flower greenhouses (Da Lat is known for their flowers and strawberries), rubber tree plantations, snake farms, coffee plantations (where we drank coffee made from beans that ferrets pooped out. Yum), mushroom farms, silk factories and waterfalls were all on our itinerary. The waterfall was easily the groups favorite stop as it was well deserved after a long day of riding. The water was deep and cool, and there were plenty of rocks to jump from and waterfalls to sit under. We spent a good hour playing. It’s impossible not to play when waterfalls are involved.

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As interesting and informational as all of the stops were, by far the best part of the trip was the ride itself. I was happy enough to just be on a bike, but having my first ride be through the central highlands of Vietnam, I couldn’t be luckier. Riding is very easy, as long as you keep your eyes and ears open. Horns, which are a bane to the sleeping bus passenger, are a god send to the novice motorbike rider. I’ll never forget coasting through the countryside, with lush green rice patties all around me, descending into a lake filled valley at dusk (and yelling out in pure joy because I just couldn’t keep it in any longer), and chugging up the mountains to Eagle Pass, then zooming down the winding roads back into the flat lands. Simply amazing.

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Now, I only have one problem. How the hell am I going to ever be satisfied with a bus ride again?

A Simple Gesture

Yesterday, while walking around the lake in Da Lat, Vietnam, a young university student named Ngoc Lan approached me wanting to practice English. We walked and talked for about 2 hours, jumping from favorite foods to family to school and everything in between. She even became my Vietnamese teacher as I practice greetings on all the strangers who crossed our paths. It was a wonderful evening.

Fast forward to today when I hear a knock on my door. In pops the woman from the front desk with a bag full of Banh Bao (dumplings) with a thank you note to “Mr.Larry” from Ngoc Lan. I was awestruck. Who was I to her, other than a study partner, yet she went out of her way for me.

Such a simple gesture, but one with such impact. I’m a very lucky man to have met her.

Vietnam: A Change of Pace

When I last left off, I was preparing for 2 days relaxing in Kampot. Those 2 days turned into 4 days filled with early morning and late afternoon swims, fresh fruit plates, new friends, bike rides, stuffed Kampot peppers, adorable kittens, stow-away frogs and late night carnivals.

Our bungalows were right on the riverfront, and each morning fellow travelers and I would gather around for conversation and breakfast, each taking turns diving, back flipping or cannonballing into the cool waters of the Kampot River. A select few would make the 25 minute round trip swim across the river, fighting both the currents and our own endurance levels. More often than not we’d take breaks, floating on our backs while the morning clouds moved slowly across the soft blue sky. It was peaceful and serene, other than the occasional passing fish nipping at our toes.

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(Above : Relaxing afternoon on the river)

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(Above: One of 5 bungalow kittens. This one’s name is James Brown)

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(Above: Found this frog in my bag after a few nights in Kampot. He was originally in an unzipped pocket, nestled deep in my bag)

As much as I would have loved to have stayed longer, I had to keep moving. I have a self imposed deadline to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand again by mid April for the Songkran festival, which means some semblance of a schedule must be kept. With that in mind, my friend Amy and I hopped on a bus destined for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). One extremely smooth border crossing and two Banh Bao (ball shaped dumplings filled with meat/eggs/onions and other good stuff) later, we rolled into HCMC, the largest city in all of Vietnam.

I was actually very excited to get back into a big city. I’ve been bouncing around from sleepy town to sleepy town, and it was refreshing to feel the energy that comes along with 6.6 million residents (and roughly 6.6 million motorbikes by my guess). We didn’t prearrange any accommodations, so off we went for another late night hostel search. As always, it’s easy enough. We talked up some fellow travelers who lead us down alley ways full of hostels and hotels eager for our business. We decided on a modern looking youth hostel, hauled our over-sized bags up 6 flights of stairs, and hit the town.

As most travelers are want to do, we ended up staying in District 1, which is the hub for foreign travelers in HCMC. The streets are filled with youthful backpackers lined up in small red chairs, drinking the night away. Couples walk hand in hand, transfixed by the sea of neon lights all around them. A never ending stream of motos weave in and out of traffic while locals do everything in their power to get your attention in the hopes you might, just might, buy their wares. The city is alive and electric, and you can’t help but feel excited for the possibilities to come.

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(Above: Not the most efficient way to help a friend move, but it works)

For the first two days of HCMC, we decided to hit up the historical museum and take a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a preserved area of the Viet Cong tunnels in which guests can learn about the war, see various booby traps, and actually crawl through a portion of the Viet Cong tunnel system used during guerrilla warfare. The War Remnants Museum was well organized and accessible, broken down into numerous sections ranging from agent orange, war protests around the world and war atrocities, just to name a few. It definitely peaked my interest in learning more about the war and I found myself on Wikipedia searching for more complete and balanced (to no surprise, the information you receive here is ripe with propaganda) history. All in all though, the museum is informative and a must do for anyone traveling here.

The second crash course in Vietnamese War history was the Cu Chi tunnels. Our guide was a former captain supporting the U.S. Navy during the war, so our tour was peppered with true stories about his time in the war. In fact, he fought at the very location he was now giving tours, so often his stories were about where we were currently standing. He did a fantastic job both detailing the positive and negative aspects of the Vietcong, and his admiration for their tactical warfare skills was obvious. He broke down how the tunnel systems worked, with their multiple levels, air vent systems and various escape routes. We discussed the Viet Cong’s abilities to hide their true numbers in battle, to blend in with the villages, and their ingenuity when creating weapons from scrap parts. It was truly fascinating.

The big finale (unless you count the chance to fire AK-47s as a big finale) is crawling through the tunnels themselves. There is a 100 meter long section of tunnel that has been preserved for this experience. Well, preserved might be the wrong word. They actually had to alter the size of the tunnels so westerners could fit in. Our guide said something about our fat asses not being able to fit otherwise. I can confirm this, because there was a point where I got stuck for a few seconds or so. Whatever, I’m big boned.

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(Above: Learning about the Cu Chi region near Saigon during the war)

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(Above: Our guide, mid story)

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(Above: Testing out the tunnel sizes in which Viet Cong would pop out and attack U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers)

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(Above: A tunnel entrance)

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(Above: Down we go into the tunnels)

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(Above: my favorite shot of the trip. I’ve only been in the tunnels for 5 minutes, but it looks like I’m coming out after 5 years of no food or exercise.)

On a lighter note, the food here in HCMC is fantastic. After discovering a website run by local residents on the best street foods in the city, I’ve been roaming the neighborhoods in search of recommended food stalls and nameless restaurants. Everything has been delicious, but the fruit cocktail mixed with yogurt, crushed ice and some sort of mystery orange sugar juice has captured my attention. More than likely, you can find me down an obscure alley way, sitting amongst 20 or so young Vietnamese, feverishly slurping down dragon fruit, mango, coconut, avocado, guava, watermelon, and strawberry. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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It’s the Small Things

Let’s take some time to appreciate some of the small things about traveling:

1) The traveler’s smell check – At least once a night, you will see someone in the hostel pull clothes out of their bag, bring the soiled garment to their nose, and do the standard traveler smell check. Is it clean? Will I smell like warm trash on tomorrow’s bus ride? It’s a common procedure, but often one of futility. My friend Amy put it best (I’m paraphrasing a bit):

“It’s not like a backpack is some magical washing machine. If it was dirty when you put it in, it’s dirty when you take it out. Hell, it’s probably dirtier”

After a little thought, I realized a traveler is not actually performing a smell check, but instead a standards check. Sure, the clothes haven’t changed, but perhaps personal standards have. Maybe those formerly blue but now brown shorts don’t seem so bad anymore.

2) The ¾ seat concept – When traveling by minivan in Asia, which is often the case when going to smaller towns or areas within a couple hours of each other, you are never sold a full seat. That would be way too comfortable. With the introduction of the ¾ seat concept, it’s a sardine can on wheels. 16 people in a 12 person van, not including bags, which hang perilously from the open back gate. Get to know your neighbor, because you will be thigh to sweaty thigh with them for the foreseeable future.

3) Book exchanges – These things are a godsend. Done with a book? No problem, drop it off and pick up another. Who needs to buy a Vietnam Lonely Planet when you can grab it out of the exchange. The selections vary pretty wildly, from books on economics to the latest airport trash novels. Sadly, the selection of Calvin and Hobbes is in short, short supply. A 32 year old solo traveler reading Calvin & Hobbes? Ain’t nothing wrong with that!

4) Pineapple Shakes – I’m still addicted. No explanations necessary. Drink it up. Daniel Day-Lewis would.

5) Being American (Except in Vietnam, where I might pretend to be Canadian) – Sadly, the rumors are true. Most people believe Americans are uneducated or rude. It’s fun to talk to fellow travelers in an attempt to disprove the stereotypes. On the flipside, embracing those stereotypes is an amazingly efficient way to be left alone. Pro tip: A couple of comments about guns and creationism will guarantee you a bus ride of silence. Also, try to use the phrase “personal freedom” as much as possible.

6) Rice – Embrace it. It’s everywhere, and it’s spectacular.

7) Tuk Tuk Confessions – Not as seedy as the HBO taxicab confessions tv show, but far more interesting. Most tuk tuk drivers are eager to talk, and many have fascinating stories. It can break your heart though, so be wary

8) Rediscovering music – I don’t listen to enough music at home to blow through my playlists very fast. But on the road, I need to keep it varied. I’ve rediscovered old favorites and even found gems I never gave the light of day. So thank you, Javier Dunn (album: Winnetka), Clams Casino (Song: I’m God) and Kid Cudi (who on a scale of 1 to 10, I give an 8.5). However, I still can’t explain the full Justin Beiber album on my Itunes.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Inevitably, when you tell someone that you’ve been to Cambodia, they will ask you about Angkor Wat. But it’s with good reason. It’s the main draw for tourists both on the cheap or living luxuriously.

After taking that extra day in Sen Monorom at Tree Lodge, I started my two day journey to Siem Reap. Eager to avoid another long bus ride, I took a shorter ride to Kampong Cham, a highly regarded town just east of Phnom Penh. Regrettably, I wasn’t taken by what I saw of the city. Sure, the 30 Cambodians line dancing to the song Footloose was impressive, but I didn’t experience much else while there. I was there for only a day though, so perhaps I’m being a bit hasty in my judgements.

While there I ran into Maud, a trekking friend from Sen Monorom, and we discovered we were on the same bus to Siem Reap the next day. This was a great turn of events, as Maud is a wonderful person.  The only thing bigger than her smile is her love for children.  She also possesses one of the best laughs the world has to offer (as heard on the video on the bottom of this post).

We did two days of Angkor Wat, as the park is rather large. To be clear, Angkor Wat is a site of numerous temples over tens of kilometers. The most well-known temple is known as Angkor Wat, and is likely the image that pops into your head, or your google search, when the words Angkor Wat are mentioned. However, there is so much more, and in my uneducated opinion, so much better. We decided to go with a tuk-tuk the first day, followed by a bike ride on the second day. The first day we woke at 5am in order to be at the park for sunrise. We avoided the never ending mass of tourists at Angkor Wat and welcomed the morning sun while looking over a calm lake and temple site.

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Shortly thereafter we found ourselves at Ta Prohm, another famous temple known for the fusion of man’s creation and nature’s will. After years of being unused, mother nature has taken back her rightful place as master of this land. Massive tree roots swallow temple stones whole, and trees shoot up through many sections of the temples. The caretakers of this site do their best to maintain a balance in order to keep the temples intact while respecting the power of the trees.

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We planned our trip to Ta Prohm well, as we were one of only a few groups of tourists at the site. Normally swarming with visitors, our early morning excursion worked out perfectly for us.  We headed out for breakfast, munched on some chocolate pancakes, then walked through the Angkor Thom compound. Made up of many different temples and architectural areas of interest, we spent a few hours climbing and exploring this historical playground. The highlight of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple. This temple is one of the largest and most unique temples in the park, and a never ending amount of stone carved faces greet you at every turn.

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(Above: Me trying to blend in with a Japanese tour group. I think it worked. And yes, my hair always looks like that. I had a one dollar hair cut roughly 1 month ago in Chiang Mai, and I’ve been owning it ever since.)

After Bayon, we headed over to Angkor Wat. At this point we had been touring for about 8 hours, and were were a bit templed out. Angkor Wat, I believe, is the largest temple in the park, and is surrounded by a massive moat (one that I was thisclose to jumping into). Sadly, not many good pictures were taken at the temple. A lot of tourists, and nothing that really caught our eye.

We headed home, had a rest, met a new friend, and got ready for the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, Maud and I decided to rent bikes and ride around the park. That morning we met a fellow hostel mate named Kevin, an Irishman who was riding his bike across the world. He started in London, went across Europe, into Turkey, Iran, UAE, then a 30 day boat ride to Singapore, eventually making his way to Cambodia. It was his rest day, so he was planning on doing precisely that. A few words of encouragement later, the 3 of us were peddling our way to Angkor. I’ll spare you a lot of the details on various temples, but the bike ride itself was fantastic. Definitely go this route if you plan on seeing Angkor over multiple days. I would splurge for the good bikes, though. I was the lucky recipient of two flat tires during our tour. Kevin had a total of one flat tire in his round the world trip to date. Thankfully there were roadside “shops” where men filed, melted and patched my tires back together. All part of the fun.

Today I chased my bus down the street at 8am, sandals flipping and flopping, mouth crammed full of sugared street pastries, arms waving up and down like I’m trying to take off into flight.

I never made it airborne, but I did catch that bus.

Now I find myself in Kampot, a calm river town in southeast Cambodia. I plan on relaxing and swimming for 2 days before I head off to Vietnam.

I’m hoping some connections in Vietnam come through and I will have some local hosts or guides. Wish me luck!