A Quick Taste of Doha

I arrived at my hotel in Doha, Qatar in desperate need of a shower and sleep, maybe some food. Luckily I was checked in quickly and brought up to my room - and the views!! I could see the Corniche and several of the impressive skyscrapers. My hunger quickly got the best of me and I ventured to an adjacent mall for a quick bite to eat before bed. 

The following morning I woke up and had breakfast in a restaurant at the lobby of my hotel - Turkish coffee and some eggs, before heading out the door. I asked a bellman for directions to the Corniche and he laughed and informed me I couldn't walk there and got me a taxi instead. This immediately reminded me of the girl Katie and I met in Bali who lived in Doha - she had informed us that people wouldn't let her walk anywhere in the city, and that they always insisted she have a driver take her wherever she needed to go. Anyways, I got dropped off at the start of the Corniche and started my walk (with an iced coffee). The day was gorgeous - not too hot, but not a cloud in the sky, and the smell of the ocean (Doha Bay) wafted through the air. That's one thing that always smells the same, no matter where I am in the world, and I love it. My walk took me passed expat mom's pushing strollers, couples going for a jog, friends sitting on the stairs with their feet in the water - the Corniche is clearly a place for everyone to be outside. Oh, and there are free exercise equipment - apparently the U.S. hasn't caught on to this. As I made my way along the 4 miles to the Museum of Islamic Art, I kept turning around to see Doha's impressive skyline across the bay that was littered with dhows. Dhows are old wooden boats and the view of them in the foreground with the modern skyscrapers in the background was a great juxtaposition of the old with the new.

The Museum of Islamic Art is impressive - its location and the architecture are simply stunning. Then add in the ancient pottery, inscriptions of the Qur'an, beautifully carved astrolabes, intricately woven rugs and sparkling jewelry, and you have a museum definitely worth visiting. A few things I learned from my visit to the museum include:

• Arabic has a special significance in Islamic art, with calligraphers dedicating their entire lives to copying the Qur'an. 
• The arabesque is a vegetal design of palmettes and half-palmettes connected by stems. It is one of the defining elements of Islamic style.
• Islamic patterns are based off the idea that what we see is only part of a whole that extends to infinity. (I love this idea).

After several hours in the museum (and out of the heat), my intention was to walk back to my hotel. However, new sandals meant blisters. And I am now grateful for Uber in Doha! 

Some snacks by the pool, different shoes, and a short nap prepped me for another walk along the Corniche - this time to Souq Waqif! Souq Waqif was founded over 100 years ago, but underwent a restoration in 2006 to preserve the architecture and history of the Souq. It was originally a gathering place for trade, and today acts as a marketplace. 

My walk this time was after work and the Corniche was full - families eating dinner, kids riding bikes, couples running - it is clearly a place for people to get outdoors! Once I arrived at the Souq my senses kicked in - the smells of spices, the brightly colored fabrics and shimmering gold, the chatter of people, the wafting of shisha, and the sounds of animals. Walking along the narrow stalls I first ended up in the spice area of the market, and wow did it smell amazing! Add to that the colors of all the spices laid out and the different types of rice - it may have been the best spice market I've ever been in (and Asia does spices well, too). However, as I wandered, the scents quickly changed to that of animals, and before I knew it I was in the section of the Souq that has a plethora of animals from parrots to kittens to falcons. I'm 99% sure there were threatened animals and all of them were caged so I quickly made my way out of this section and didn't go back. Next up were the stalls of fabric with every color in the rainbow. They also had the little hats that Abu wears in Aladdin. I made my way to the Gold Souq that consisted of jewelry store upon jewelry store, and through the perfume area where I chatted with a stall owner and purchased a small bottle of perfume. 

By this time I was famished so I headed to find some food. My hotel had given me one recommendation that looked nice and had a patio overlooking the Souq; however, I was back in my normal swing of travel and quickly found a shoddy little stall serving up meat to people sitting on benches. It looked and smelled delicious, and was quite packed so naturally, this was what I went for. I paid about $3 for several kebabs, a water, and some other meat on a stick. The most...interesting I guess we'll say, part was my dinner companion. All I'll say is that I think I left the meal unmarried. 

I quickly left the Souq for fear of my suitor (husband? (Kidding, Mom!)) finding me and walked back along the Corniche, stopping periodically to take pictures of the beautifully illuminated skyline. An early morning flight to Nairobi should've meant early to bed, but instead I took my time on this walk to enjoy all the nighttime hustle and bustle. 

Biking and Eating through San Antonio

Have you started to notice a theme in my blog posts? I tend to eat my way through places, and use a bicycle as my preferred mode of transportation (partially to counter all of the eating that I do). Anyways, this trip was just a weekend trip with my best friend, Betty, and it took us across Texas. Our first stop was San Antonio - we stayed at the Omni La Mansion right on the riverwalk and the location couldn't have been better. 

After checking in and changing out of our road trip attire (yoga pants and tank tops), we got a ride to the Pearl Brewery area of San Antonio for lunch. Actually, we thought we were getting a ride to a restaurant called Pearl Brewery. Nope, it's a bunch of restaurants and shops (and a new hotel opening soon), none of which are a brewery called Pearl. A little confusing, if you ask me. We opted to eat lunch at an impeccably decorated and adorable locale by the name of Cured. While the building and decor received an 'A+' in my book, the food left some to be desired. We both ordered a salad with roasted chicken - the chicken was great, the salad was more like 3 carrot pieces, 4 asparagus pieces, and half a handful of mixed greens. Needless to say we were not impressed. 

We spent some time walking around the shops, got ice cream at Lick (which I highly recommend), and then headed down to the river where we were told we could get a water taxi back to our hotel. We sat, and sat, watching turtles swim (and one that was questionably attempting turtle suicide), and no boat came. We decided to walk along the river, figuring that at some point we'd see the water taxi. 

We did not, and eventually opted to rent bicycles from B-Cycle, and bike our way back to the hotel. Well, up in the art museum area and Pearl Brewery area the riverwalk is wider and not packed with people and restaurant tables. Once we got closer to our hotel, things got questionable as we weaved our way between people, and miraculously managed to not end up in the river. Multiple people commented that we were brave, crazy, stupid, surprisingly dry, etc. As soon as we could, we dumped the bikes and got margaritas. Because you obviously need electrolytes after such a strenuous bike ride...

The rest of our evening was spent getting mani/pedis, purchasing my coveted heart-shaped sunglasses, and eating (shocker). Per the recommendation of various people, we went to Two Bros. BBQ and stuffed ourselves silly with mac and cheese, creamed corn, potato salad, ribs, brisket, and stuffed jalapeños. I'll hand it to them on the mac and cheese, creamed corn, and jalapeños, but the rest was just okay. It didn't stop us from eating though, and it put us in quite the food-induced coma that carried us through the night. 

Friday morning, we woke up bright and early to some light rain and surprisingly hungry stomachs. We grabbed bikes from B-Cycle again and instead of biking along the river opted to bike on the roads - all the way passed Pearl Brewery to a Mexican restaurant called El Milagrito Cafe for breakfast. Once again, somewhat disappointed - I am a self-proclaimed chilaquiles connoisseur and what I go were not chilaquiles, but more like migas. That said, the horchata I added to my coffee was on point, and the tortillas could be eaten plain they were so good.

We jumped back on the bikes and made our way back to town for a quick walk through of the Alamo before packing up and heading out. While we weren't particularly hungry we knew we had a long drive through what I will affectionately call the "Nothing" part of Texas, so we obviously had to stop at In 'N Out for burgers and milk shakes. If you haven't had In 'N Out, I'm sorry, and if you have, you know that every time you have it its just as good as the first. 

We then started on our 5.5 hour drive to Marfa, through some rain, lots of sun, and stunningly beautiful landscapes as I was serenaded by Betty's snoring.

Hanoi Happy

As I traveled north through Vietnam, I continued to hear not-so-great things about Hanoi, and I was not looking forward to the 4 days I had saved for myself there. When I finally got there and walked around, experiencing the street food, the hustle and bustle, the water puppet show (which is a waste of time and money), and the people, I confirmed what I had heard. So I kept my belongings in my hotel and ventured up to Mai Chau to avoid the city.

However, my last night in the city completely changed my view. I started with a foot massage and some last minute souvenir buying, before I grabbed a child-sized chair on the sidewalk of one of the busiest intersections and ordered a bia hoi. Bia hoi is draft beer that is brewed daily and costs a whopping 5000 Vietnamese dong, or less than $0.25. Definitely can’t be beat!

I drank my beer, wrote out postcards (because, yes, I waited until the very last minute), and just observed. I watched fellow tourists drinking their bia hoi, and rushing to take photos when a motorbike with 6 people on it would ride by. I watched police tell people they couldn’t be selling certain items on the street, and those same people run if they saw the cops coming back. I watched children play and listened to the chatter all around me.  

My walk back to my hotel that night was filled with observations as well. I was filled with a warmth from the multiple bia hois I had consumed, and had a hop in my step. I couldn’t help but smile as I walked through the streets. There were old couples holding hands and going for an evening stroll, young teenage love taking pictures by the lake, families stopping for ice cream on their way home. And it hit me then. Hanoi may not have as much to offer travelers as other cities, and on the surface it may seem like a place for a quick stopover. But if you take the time to just watch, listen, smell the city you’ll realize that there’s a happiness in the air that everyone is breathing. So as I made my final evening walk in SE Asia, I took a deep inhale to take in the Hanoi happiness.

My Final Food Day

I was unsure of what to do with my final day in Vietnam – the only obvious thing that I would be doing was eating all of the Vietnamese food that I possibly could (while trying to save some room for sushi in Tokyo). The obvious activity was a cooking class, and boy did I luck out – private lesson!

Bright and early, I was picked up at my hotel in Hanoi and taken to a beautiful house right on the banks of the Red River. We sat outside, watching fishermen on the river, and discussed what I wanted to make. Little did I know, we’d make EVERYTHING - clams with lemongrass, stir-fry morning glory, green papaya salad, grilled pork with rice noodles, Hanoi grilled fish (and more that I don’t remember). Then the tough part came – learning what was needed for each recipe, and how to ask for it in Vietnamese. That’s right – this cooking class included a trip to the local market where I was responsible for getting the necessary ingredients. Uh oh…

Once I successfully faked my comfort with speaking in Vietnamese, I was handed some Vietnamese dong (yes, the 7-year old boy in me laughs each time), and we hopped onto bicycles and headed down an alley, away from the river. As I pedaled, following my guide, I began to notice that I was literally the only foreigner in the area – and I wasn’t the only one noticing that. People were waiving to me as the sights and sounds zoomed by. I was really getting to experience the city sans other tourists trying their best to bargain or cross the street.

Before I knew it, we arrived at the market, left our bikes with a little roadside restaurant and headed in. I was immediately overwhelmed. Despite being mid-morning, the market was still bustling and my eyes darted from one stall to the next – vegetables, fruit, beef, fish, poultry, dried goods. It was amazing how organized the space was amidst the chaos – people on foot, on bicycle, some people even brought their motorbikes right up to each stall. I immediately noted that I should pay attention to my feet – flip flops were a bad choice for fear of losing a toe to a motorbike or stepping in some of the foul looking puddles on the ground. Then there were the smells that all merged into what I can only describe as a mildly sweet, rotting scent.

My guide quickly pointed me to a pork stall and said I should order pork belly. Uh oh, that meant I needed to remember how to ask for things in Vietnamese and how to understand the response. Luckily I had a little cheat sheet that I pulled out as I slowly attempted the pronunciation of “How much for 200 grams of pork”. The woman chuckled, gave me a response, and I quickly accepted. My guide told me that the price was okay, but that I should try bargaining next time. The process went on like this for an hour – I’d ask for something, attempt to bargain, and then get it. My guide jumped in a few times when it was clear that I had no idea what I was asking for (or, more likely, I was pronouncing something incorrectly and asking for pig brains when it was clams that I really wanted). (Note: I do not know what pig brains are in Vietnamese, or clams, so it is very likely that these two things sound nothing alike). The following few things broke up the time in the market:

(1) The tiniest kitten ever, which I immediately spent the following 10 minutes petting, unfazed by the fact that it was likely covered in fleas.

 (2) The stall immediately adjacent to where I purchased the pork. I couldn’t stop staring out of disgust and awe. I had heard that older Vietnamese still ate cat and dog (and, therefore, avoided red meat when I was eating from street stalls), but I hadn’t seen it and I really didn’t want to believe it. But there it was – a dog on the cutting board. And people were actually purchasing pieces! (Side note: I realize that the thought of eating a cat or a dog is repulsive to me, because in my mind these animals are pets. If I had grown up eating cat or dog because I had no other meat options, I would likely have a different view).

(3) The stall with live pigeons stuffed in a cage with zero room to move. And then the yanking of a pigeon in said cage and the plop as it hit boiling water.

Despite my lack of language skills and my short attention span on what we were actually doing, we managed to purchase everything on our list, grabbed our bikes, and headed back to the house on the river.

It was cooking time! I was unsure how long I’d be in the kitchen given the number of dishes we were making, but luckily I had help from my guide and the chef at the house. Almost immediately the delicious smells wafted into the air (amidst the not so delicious smell of fish sauce, which we used in almost every dish as it’s a staple of Vietnamese cuisine). As we cooked and tasted, I shared a beer with the head chef, and we discussed life in Hanoi and the other areas of Vietnam that I had seen. Before I knew it, I was sitting outside filling up on all of the delicious food we had cooked, and talking with my tour guide about tattoos and where to buy various cooking supplies to bring home.

After stuffing ourselves to the point of sickness, we ate a bit more, and then my guide kindly offered to take me on her motorbike to buy a few things. I immediately accepted the offer, which was then followed by a few skipped heart beats as I realized that I’d be getting on a motorbike in the city. (Side note: the traffic in Hanoi is no different than that in Saigon – cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians just go with the hopes of not colliding). Luckily, by this point in my trip fear was a thing of the past, so I grabbed the helmet and hopped on the motorbike. I didn’t even hold on, as I was preoccupied with videoing the craziness as we zoomed through the streets of Hanoi, stopping to purchase various fish sauces, oyster sauces, seasonings, and the ever-important extra-long cooking chopsticks.

I went to sleep that last night with a fully belly, two bags bursting at the seams, and the corners of my mouth turned up. I had done it. I had traveled for almost 6 weeks, half of which was solo, made new friends, experienced different cultures, and not once did I let my fears stop me. I realized now that my fears are never going to go away, but I found that courage that I thought I’d lost. 

Alone in a Village

Per the suggestion of Phu (my guide from Ha Long Bay), I opted to spend 2 of my final days in SE Asia in a small mountain village in northern Vietnam, Mai Chau. Actually, Mai Chau is where a lot of tourists go, so I opted for the less visited Mai Hich, just 15 km from Mai Chau. 

Once I arrived in Mai Chau with a tour bus, I hopped on the back of a motorbike for the ride to Mai Hich. I wasn't fully prepared for what I'd get, but as I watched the rice paddies go by and felt the light rain mist my arms, I decided I really didn't care. And then I got to the Homestay in the village and very quickly learned it would be an interesting stay. NO ONE spoke English. My language options were Vietnamese or the local village language. So, I acted out sleeping, and eating, and hiking. What I ended up getting was sleeping, eating, biking, and a motorbike tour of the surrounding villages. But hey, I can't complain about what I got.

About an hour into my stay a van pulled up with 5 people. I had been looking forward to an authentic experience, but an hour of not talking to anyone, made me hopeful that these people spoke English. I was disappointed, as one of them spoke some English, everyone else spoke French. So while I was not actually alone in a village, it sure felt like it at times.

The French group was nice enough to let me join their bike tour of the village. What this mainly did is prevent me from getting lost. We ended up getting a little lost anyways, but at least I was with someone who could speak to the local people to get us back on track. 

Biking on the narrow paved roads meant avoiding the water buffalo shit, but we quickly got onto dirt paths. The rain of the previous few days had made them a slick mess, and as we biked I'd feel my back tire slide out every couple hundred feet. At one point we stopped and were invited to join a football game, and a little further on we were invited into a local house for tea. 

What I was able to pick up from the French chatter was that the man who lived there is a carpenter, and he and his wife have two children, one of whom lives in the city with another family member. They're house was simple - a kitchen and one main room that held an entertainment center, rugs to pull out for people to sit on, and one large bed in the corner. The girls were full of laughter and kept joking about taking pictures with the older French men.

Our ride then really started to take us off track - onto unbikeable paths either covered in inches of mud or splayed with massive roots through the woods and rice paddies. Eventually, we made it back to a paved road just as it started to downpour. In my rush to get my camera in my dry bag, I hadn't noticed that everyone else had disappeared - a local saw everyone caught in the rain and invited us to stay dry. 

Back at the Homestay and in dry clothes, I joined the French couples for dinner and then we were treated to a traditional dance show, which included our participation coupled with drinking a sweet liquor out of a big jug via long bamboo straws. After several sips from the straws, I was ready for bed and headed up into the stilt house where I'd be sleeping with everyone else. The windows were open, our mattresses on the floor made up and beautifully surrounded by curtains and mosquito nets. I climbed in, pulled the covers up to shield myself from the chill in the air, and promptly passed out until morning.

That morning was when I had planned to go hiking with a local guide. A local guide showed up...on his motorbike, and with two helmets. I didn't bother explaining that I had said hike, not bike, and hopped on the back. 

The wind whipped my face and I pulled my jacket tighter as we passed  peanut farms, rice paddies, stilt homes, and schools. Children playing outside would yell hello to me, huge grins on their faces, and I'd waive back. We stopped a few times for photos, and again at a local market, where all of the old women said my smile was good luck. I literally could not stop smiling, even when my teeth started to chatter from the cold. It was a great way to spend my final days in Vietnam - eating and sleeping with locals, touring the countryside by motorbike, and getting stuck in the mud and rain. I was looking forward to a nap on my bus ride back, but that unfortunately didn't happen as I was busy running an experiment (see post on proposed horn honking ban). 

The Adopt an American Program of Halong Bay

One of my splurges on this trip (besides all of the unexpected ones that occurred at the tailor in Hoi An) was my three day/2 night cruise of Ha Long Bay. And after my hike and night bus where I didn't sleep much, I was in need of some luxury!

Day one started with nine of us piling into a shuttle bus for the 3.5 hour journey to Ha Long City. As you can imagine, I was the only solo one, and was joined by a Canadian family of four, a German couple, and an Australian couple. I almost immediately thought, "Well, looks like I'll be spending a lot of time alone these next few days" as I dozed off on the bumpy ride. 

As we arrived at the port and were taken to our boat, Treasure Junk, I started to think I had overpaid. The boats on the bay are all called junks, and from the outside they look just like that; in fact, they look like one small wave may sink them. "Good thing I know how to swim", I thought. 

Once on the boat, however, that all changed, and I realized I would be getting the luxury I craved. The main deck consisted of a large dining area decorated with dark wood and tangerine fabrics, a bar and indoor lounge area, and then outdoor seating on the deck. Above it there was a sun deck with lounge chairs. The lowest deck held the cabins - mine was in the bow and I could lay in bed or stand in the shower and watch the limestone peaks pass by. 

After settling in, it was lunchtime on the boat, and I was lucky to join the Australian couple, Rachel and Anthony, instead of sitting alone. I quickly learned they have three children, but were enjoying a vacation to themselves. Little did they know, they'd have a 4th daughter for their 3 days on the ship, as I joined them over every meal and activity.

The main activities during the 3 days on the boat included relaxing (sometimes with a book), watching the changing yet somehow constant landscape of Ha Long Bay pass by, sleeping, spa treatments, kayaking, and visiting a floating village. Oh, and eating. Eating was a big part of our time in the bay, and I think if they had kept us on board for another day, the ship may have sunk. There's only so many 6+ course meals one can take. 

Kayaking was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and each time we went out, the conditions were completely different. On the first afternoon, the water was glass, perfectly reflecting the limestone islands we paddled around. The only sounds were the chirps of birds, the slight splash of paddles hitting the water, and the swoosh as our kayak glided forward. I was paddling with Phu, our guide, and as we glided along he told me about his travels, his family, and life on the bay. He informed me that we were actually in Bai Tu Long Bay, which is a less touristy bay adjacent to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay translates to Dragon Bay, while Bai Tu Long Bay is Baby Dragon Bay. The kayak trip was short but included passing through a small cave, and as we paddled Phu collected the trash that has unfortunately accumulated in the bay.

Our second kayaking experience was the next day, and boy had things changed. The wind was blowing, making the paddling slightly more difficult, as waves lapped over the front of the kayak. This time we were in Ha Long, and paddled for several hours. The trip included a stop at a beach where we were the only people in eyesight. I couldn't help but think that Johnny Depp was going to come out from behind one of the islands in a pirate ship, and wish that Leonardo Dicaprio would suddenly show up on our deserted beach. Neither of those things happened, but the kayaking through the mist of the bay did not disappoint. 

My third time kayaking I went solo, tagging along with another group and collecting trash. The presence of garbage in the bay is astounding and sad - I picked up plastic bottles, plastic bags, candy wrappers, and food containers. 

While the kayaking was fun, the food was delicious, and the scenery breathtaking, the best part of my 3 days on Ha Long Bay was the company. Rachel and Anthony took me in right away - we told stories of home and our travels, we laughed, and I gave them fair warning about the (financial) dangers of Hoi An. Overall, my time on Ha Long Bay was great and full of some necessary relaxation at the tail end of my trip.

Ban Proposal for Car, Bus, Truck, and Motorbike Horns in Vietnam

Why would I suggest this, you ask? Well, I am currently sitting on a tour bus taking me and 16 other people from Mai Chau back to Hanoi. The ride is 4 hours, and my plan had been to sleep. Within minutes of getting on our overpacked (there's a girl sitting on a stool because there were no seats left) minibus, the horn honking started. In fact, our driver keeps one hand on the horn at all times...just in case.

I've experienced this throughout Vietnam. While it appears that there are no traffic laws, there are some unspoken rules of the road, and specifically rules regarding honking. What I've gathered thus far is the following:

(1) Honk your horn if you are passing someone from behind to give them warning.
(2) Honk your horn if someone is turning onto the road you are on, just in case they didn't see you.
(3) Honk your horn if you want someone to move out of the way.
(4) Honk your horn if you are passing a vehicle on a blind turn to give oncoming traffic notice that you may hit them.
(5) Honk your horn in response to someone else honking their horn.
(6) Honk your horn at any pedestrian crossing the street, even if there is no chance of them being in your way.
(7) Honk your horn to give notice that you have arrived to pick someone up.
(8) Honk your horn if you are going the wrong way down a supposedly one-way street.
(9) And just in case there is no one else anywhere on the road near you, you can honk your horn then, too. I guess it's some sort of celebratory honk.
(10) I'm sure there are many other horn honking rules that I have yet to pick up on.

Due to my inability to sleep with the incessant  honking, I decided to conduct a little experiment. 

Methodology: Set phone timer to 5 minutes. Count how many times in the 5 minutes our driver honks the horn. Repeat 5 times.

I should note that these were all conducted in various conditions ranging from a town where school was getting out to an open stretch of road with no one else on it. 

23 honks/5minutes
20 honks/5 minutes
14 honks/5 minutes
20 honks/5 minutes
35 honks/5 minutes

Average of 22.4 honks/5 minutes or just under 4.5 honks per minute.

Given the above information, and the fact that this ride is 4 hours long, I've extrapolated the data to determine that our driver will have, on average, honked his horn over 1,000 times during our drive. This does not account for the length of honk, which ranged from under half a second to 3-4 seconds. 

Given this information, coupled with the fact that I have heard this incessant honking on almost every vehicle I've been in, I think a temporary ban of horn honking in Vietnam would be entertaining to watch how the driving changes, and quite pleasant for everyone's eardrums. 

Spelunking the Third Largest Cave in the World

One of the few activities on this trip that I planned in advance was hiking to Hang En, the third largest cave in the world at 200 meters wide and 100 meters high deep within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. I hadn't even known about it when I booked my trip, but only a week later I read an article describing the trek in the New York Times about it, and knew I had to do it. The pictures were stunning, and I figured "I hike for work, this will be a piece of cake". (If you'd like to read the NYT article, shoot me an email - it does a much better job, in my opinion, of describing the adventure).


What I didn't plan for is the self-diagnosed tendinitis in my ankle getting worse over the course of my trip from all the walking I was doing on uneven ground. Luckily, I brought my mildly supportive ankle brace. So as I rode the local bus from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, the starting point of my trek, I began to question what I had gotten myself into. I knew I would do it - I don't quit, even if I'm getting my ass kicked, but I decided there was a definite possibility that my ass would be kicked, and an even higher probability that my ankle would hurt like hell. 


The following morning I woke up, decided what I'd be wearing and bringing (luon is a lifesaver), and boarded a bus with 15 other people - from San Francisco, Amsterdam, Canada, Vietnam, England, and Australia. It was nice to see that some people were feeling as unprepared as I was. My original plan had been to wear my Keens, as I knew part of the trek involved wading through hip-deep water; I instead opted to wear the fashionable camo high tops that Oxalis, my tour company, provided. 


Before I knew it, we were on the road, winding through limestone peaks covered with vegetation and over rivers that in the wet season can be impassable - essentially Ha Long Bay on land. Once we reached the start of our hike, we piled out, were given caving gloves, and started our descent. 


The sandal-clad porters carrying all of our camping gear and food quickly passed us on the 1500 meter descent. Luckily the shade of the trees provided relief from the hot sun, and every once in a while we'd get a nice cool breeze. Despite my ankle brace, my tendinitis was screaming at me with each step down, and I was looking forward to going uphill for a change (I would later regret this wish on day 2). After one final steep drop, we reached our first stream. We had been told we'd cross streams around 40 times (including multiple crossings the same stream) - we clearly had a ways to go and I was wishing for Advil. 


A few minutes later we arrived at lunch; the porters had set up quite the spread - baguettes, Baby Cow cheese, vegetables, fruit, processed meat (in the shape of a hot dog), and cookies. We ate and refilled our water bottles from the nearby stream (via a purifying pump), and then headed out again, this time on flat ground, so my ankle got a bit of a break. Our next stop was at a minority village, where the 62-year leader greeted us with tea and rice wine. We sat around, admiring their village, the tiny school, and the cutest of passed out puppies. 


The rest of our trek was through lush greenery and streams upon streams. The sandy bottom streams were quite easy to cross, even when they were deep and flowing; some streams, however, proved more difficult. Their slippery rocks, coupled with the gushing waters made it difficult to keep your footing and stay upright - somehow we all made it without falling! At one point we saw the rusty remains of a cluster bomb from the Vietnam War, and our guide told me that this whole area had been sprayed with Agent Orange and other herbicides, making it devoid of vegetation during the war. I felt a bit of sadness, and amazement at the power of Nature to grow back with such a vengeance. 


As we continued hiking, now drenched up to our hips, we finally saw an opening in the limestone - we were told it was called "Daylight" and we'd later learn that it's where the sun spills in over our campsite. One more river crossed, and we were at the opening to Hang En, putting on our caving gloves, our helmets, and our lights. We looked like professional spelunkers. 


Now it was time to act like professional spelunkers. We followed the river that flows through Hang En, and then started to ascend a pile of limestone and sand. I don't think any of us were ready for what we'd see at the top - sunbeams flooded through "Daylight", illuminating our campground down below. The porters had set up camp, and our colorful tents looked like tiny houses from an airplane, littering the beach around a turquoise blue pool. It was unreal. We carefully climbed down, still in awe of what was before us. I felt like I needed to be pinched, surely I was dreaming. 


We dropped our bags at camp and headed out to explore the cave - wading through the river and up over mounds of limestone and sand. We saw a very large and very poisonous centipede that I very much did not want to have in my tent, spiders, and heard thousands of swifts in the cave. Hang En translates to Swift Cave (hang = cave, which is why people were confused when I kept saying Hang En Cave, or Cave Swallow Cave) due to the plethora of birds during the dry season. 


Up over another pile of limestone and we were greeted once again by sunlight - this time through the largest opening in the cave, 120 meters high and 110 meters wide. It was massive, and has the ability to make one feel like the tiniest being on Earth (which is saying a lot in a country where many of the people are smaller than me). Our trek back to camp brought us past 300 million year old fossils of snails and insects in the limestone, and past few stalagmites and stalactites, none of which stretched from the ground to the ceiling, since they grow at a rate of less than 10 centimeters per 1,000 years. The cave itself is 300 million years old, but the limestone that speckles the region and is home to these caves is approximately 450 million years old, the oldest limestone in SE Asia.


We all dispersed to our tents, eager to strip off our wet (and not the most beautiful smelling) clothing. Some people went for a quick dip in the two pools, though it was a bit chilly. Before we knew it, it was dinner time, and the porters had delivered yet again. The amount of food was mind baffling - rice, pork, chicken, morning glory, green beans with beef, and more. And of course, rice wine. 


Before eating we all grabbed our shots of rice wine, and together yelled "Mot, hai, ba, do!". Little did we know, that would not be the last time we'd do that - in fact, 4-5 opportunities to down some rice wine presented themselves; I opted to chase the shots with actual rice in an attempt to cover the bitter shock I got with each one. We stayed up, chatting, laughing, and exchanging travel stories. 


That night I slept with only the mesh portion of my tent zipped, gazing up towards "Daylight" as I was serenaded to sleep by the swifts. Unfortunately, the same swifts that lured me to sleep also woke me multiple times in the night (coupled with the hard ground - I'm getting old). As the sun rose and light entered the cave, I watched the swifts fly in and out, listening to their chatter once more. Once I heard people up and moving, I went to get coffee and was pleasantly greeted with bird shit on my arm - the first of four times I was shit on that morning in the cave. I think/hope it's good luck...


By 7am more people were awake and I had the awesome and challenging opportunity to teach a yoga class to a few people of varying levels and varying English capabilities. It was quite the fun experience and felt good to move my stiff legs a bit before our hike out.


Yoga and breakfast done, I slipped my wunder unders back on, opted to use the same, still damp socks so as not to drench another pair, and slid my camo boots on for a little more cave exploration before we headed out. The porters once again passed us in their sandals, this time only having to carry 35 pounds each. Our trek back included a brief pause to let a green viper (definitely poisonous) cross our path, another stop at the minority village (they seemed happy to see us), and a lunch break to refuel before our steep climb - that same one we had descended the day before, and the same one I had said I was looking forward to.


Sixty minutes later, hot, sweaty, and with tired quadriceps, we reached the top, and more importantly, we reached hydration in the form of ice cold beer (or water or Coke)!


A quick but heavenly tepid shower, and the realization that I would not be able to get a ticket on the sleeper bus to Hanoi with some of my new friends, I hopped on the local bus to Dong Hoi, hoping I'd be able to get to get transportation from there. 


I wasn't sure where I needed to get off the bus, or if it would get me there in time. But the universe works in funny ways. There was a lovely Vietnamese girl who spoke English and kindly helped me. As we rode for 90 minutes she explained how the younger kids on the bus all wanted to practice their English with me, but were too scared (even after my encouragement), and how she works for Oxalis. I told her how I had just finished my hike to Hang En, and she took it upon herself to make sure that I would get to Hanoi. Tao skipped her bus stop, got off with me and walked me to the bus station, ensuring that they had a seat for me on the next departure. It's funny how the universe works. And maybe the universe was also working for the two Vietnamese men who got to sleep right next to me for the 10-hour ride. 

At Home in Hoi An

After my time in Saigon and before heading to North Vietnam where it's cooler and rainier, I knew I needed some time at the coast. Originally I had planned to go to Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. Luckily, however, I opted to go 45 minutes south to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I didn't really know what to expect besides a beach, an old town, and a room I had booked at Lam Hung Seaside Homestay. Well, Hoi An easily surpassed these expectations.

My first night in town I was invited to dinner with Hung, Lam, and their parents, as well as two other guests. The meal was delicious and the company even better. I was immediately taken in by the family as one of their own. 

Hung (24 years old) and Lam (21 years old) largely run the booking and guest interaction side of the business, as they both speak English. Their parents speak some English, but that doesn't mean they don't want to learn. One morning I worked with Lam and her parents to teach them a couple of sentences about the Homestay, and almost every morning I would talk with their mother over the delicious breakfast she had made. 

During the daytime I'd ride a bike to town, or Hung would take me on the back of his motorbike and show me around. I was lucky to get to eat at local places with him, though the best meals I had were at their home. Hung took me to try cao lau, chicken rice, and balut (if you don't get grossed out easily, look it up). I have to say, the balut was actually quite tasty, but had it not been dark out I don't know that I would've been able to eat it.

Hung showed me around town, taking me to the Japanese bridge, and showing me the Chinese and French areas of the town. At night we went to see the beautiful lanterns that light up the night sky with brilliant colors, and watched tourists purchase lanterns to set into the river for a wish. 

Hung also directed me to a tailor (Jenny's in the market area) and a leather shop, which both proved to be extremely dangerous. Hoi An is clearly the place to go for custom made clothes. I found that you can get women's pea coats for $50-60, pants for $22, shirts for about $15, and dresses for around $20, all fit to your body. For leather goods, depending on the quality of leather you choose, you can get handbags made for $70-90, shoes and boots for anything from $40 up, and leather jackets for $150-200. The only problem with the food at my Homestay was making sure I'd fit into the clothes I had made! Eleven kilos of clothes, shoes, and handbags later, I knew I had to stop! Luckily, Hung's home is right across the street from a beautiful beach, so I spent time there to avoid spending any more money. 

On my last morning I woke up for sunrise on the beach, and was bummed to see that it was cloudy. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the locals coming back from a fishing trip; they invited me over to watch as the whole family cleaned the fish and the net - even a 3-year old boy was trying to help. As I watched them and an older man who went in chest height with a net to catch fish, I noticed that the sun had risen above the clouds and was a brilliant orange-pink. With the sun now above us, I put my camera away, and helped them push the boat back into the water. 

A quick breakfast and goodbyes with the family, and it was time to go. I really didn't want to though. The combination of the beach, the quaint town, and Hung and his family had made Hoi An feel like home. It's a place that I can say I will definitely be back to...and not just for the custom clothing (though that's an added benefit). 

Biking Back in Time

My reason for visiting and spending the bulk of my time in Vietnam is two-fold: (1) Vietnamese food is the bomb; (2) my father fought in the Vietnam War. Per usual, I will save the food post for later, once I have eaten my way through the country. 

Saigon and southern Vietnam is an area full of history - museums upon museums about the war, the Unification Palace (South Vietnam's presidential palace back before the war), memories etched into the minds of locals, injuries and defects all around from the use of various poisons and bombs, and the Cu Chi tunnels. I knew this was where I'd get the most regarding the war. 

First, a brief history: The Vietnam War (or in Vietnam, the American War) began after French withdrawal in 1954, and was fought on the American front as an attempt to stop the spread of communism. North Vietnam, a communist country, was supported by China and the Soviet Union; South Vietnam was supported by the U.S., Australia, Thailand and other countries. The North also had additional support from the Viet Cong, a communist front within South Vietnam. As you likely know from history classes, U.S. involvement in the war wavered, escalating in the 1960s. The Tet Offensive, launched in 1968 by the communist side, was a turning point where Americans began to distrust government assurances about the war, and the U.S. began to pull troops. Direct U.S. involvement ended August 15, 1973, and on April 30, 1975 the North captured Saigon, ending the war. 

During the war, the U.S. used various herbicides to remove foliage providing enemy cover; the most common of the herbicides was Agent Orange, which is a combination of herbicides that resulted in a byproduct called TCDD, a classified dioxin considered carcinogenic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Now for the personal side. My father fought in the Vietnam War during 1969-1970. He was deployed once, and was very likely exposed to Agent Orange. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs considers that veterans who were on land or in inland waterways of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. On May 19, 1992 my father passed away from brain cancer at the age of 42. His doctors at Yale said that the tumors had been developing for about 20 years, putting the initial development of the tumors around the time that he was exposed to Agent Orange. 

All of this considered, it was only natural that my interest in Vietnam was high. And my first full day in Saigon did not disappoint. 

Having had such a wonderful time on the Grasshopper bike tour of Angkor Wat, I booked another bike tour with the group, this time to the Cu Chi tunnels, and it happened to be a private tour! 

The day started with my pickup and a boat ride up the Saigon River. As the boat weaved through the water hyacinth, I ate breakfast, drank delicious Vietnamese iced coffee (without the condensed milk), and took in the sights. An hour later and off the boat, I met my guide, Nguyen, and we hopped on our bikes. If the Vietnamese coffee didn't wake me up, the first slap in the face by a banana tree did as we winded through small farm pathways. Before I knew it, we stopped at a rubber plantation and Nguyen was explaining how the farmer's tap the trees every few days to collect the latex, which then gets sent away and is used for everything from tires to balloons. The trees produce latex from when they are about 5 years old until they are 25, at which point they are chopped down and new ones are planted. The farmers make approximately 150 USD per month. As we pedaled side by side along dirt roadways between the carefully and perfectly planted rubber trees, Nguyen and I chatted about everything from what his parents did (they own a coffee shop 400km from Saigon) to the school system in Vietnam to the war. 

I had been a little unsure of whether I should tell locals that my father fought in the war - I didn't know how U.S. involvement in the war was perceived. But, per usual Dana, as we biked along I just blurted it out...and I was glad I did. Nguyen told me that both of his grandfathers had fought for the South and had died in the war. His father was young during the war, but Nguyen said he loved American soldiers - I like to think one of them was my dad.  

Our next stop was at a local market where I was was the only non-Vietnamese person. Nguyen explained that many women come to the market and spend 10 minutes buying what they need, and the rest of the time socializing. (Sometimes my work day is similar). He then purchased coconut and green bean sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a common snack in Vietnam. It was delicious 

Our next stop was a rice paper factory. As a big fan of spring rolls, I was excited to see the process of making rice paper. The factory we visited can produce over one ton of rice paper per day, and 80% of what they produce is exported to the U.S. Until recently the entire process was done manually, but now they have machines to mix the rice and tapioca powder, to pour a thin layer on bamboo mats, and to cut out the circular sheets we're used to seeing in the U.S. However, parts of the process still use manual labor, and it's not an easy job. The men and women in the factory work from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, with one week off during the Lunar New Year. The men make $150/month; the women make less. 

Back on our bikes after a quick stop for fruit, water, and fresh sugar cane juice, we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels. (I very quickly learned that there are two places where you can visit the tunnels - one which is closer to the Saigon River, and the one I was visiting. From speaking with people, the place I went is the place to go). 

From the minute we arrived, I was in awe. We winded through dirt paths in the jungle that I imagine was non-existent in the 60s and 70s from the U.S. herbicides. As we walked, Nguyen explained the history of the tunnels and the war. The tunnels, which are 250km long, were constructed in Cu Chi due to the hard ground, and the location near the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were dug by hand with the equivalent of a small garden shovel. The tunnels consist of three levels, one at 3 meters underground, one at 7 meters underground, and one at 10 meters underground, and all of the tunnels are connected to the Saigon River as a means of escape if they were gassed. 

Level one consists of square bunkers and kitchens, all easily collapsed by bombs. The kitchens had chimneys that brought smoke far from the tunnels, and meals were only cooked in the early morning to prevent the South and the U.S. from determining tunnel locations. Levels two and three required air holes to the surface, which were cleverly disguised as ant mounds, and these levels had many traps in case enemy soldiers got in.  

As we walked the dirt paths, Nguyen pointed out a small, disguised mound of dirt that had 4 holes in it - each hole for the barrel of a gun. My task was then to find the entrance, and wow was it hard. I pointed to various locations and just got laughs. Then, in a perfectly inconspicuous spot, Nguyen wiped away leaves to reveal the tiniest trap door. And once another guide demoed how to get in, both he and the door were gone again, underground and covered with leaves. Fifteen meters away, he popped out of yet another opening. I cannot imagine having been an American soldier looking for the Viet Cong, and having them literally just disappear right before you.

It was then my turn to try dropping down into a tunnel and exploring. I didn't even attempt to disguise the area, and slowly lowered myself in. It was dark and damp except for a small amount of lighting. But the light was enough for me to see the two bats flying directly at my face! I put my bag up in front of me, hoping for the best...and then they were gone. The tunnels are small - I had to squat and bend at the waist to get through them. (I would not recommend going in them if you're claustrophobic). I opted to take the longest route through them, seeing everything from a kitchen and a meeting room to turns that went off to who knows where, and traps meant to injure but not kill American and South Vietnamese soldiers. All of it made me not at all surprised that the North won the war. The tunnels are simply genius. 

Once we finished exploring the tunnels, I got to try tapioca root, the staple food of the Viet Cong. It was pretty good, but if I had to eat it for every meal for multiple years, I would not be a happy camper. The Viet Cong were unable to eat rice due to the herbicides sprayed, so they relied on the tapioca root since it grew quickly and the roots weren't directly exposed to the sprayed poisons. 

As we ate the tapioca root and then moved onto a delicious lunch (complete with snake wine), Nguyen shared more staggering facts and information about the war. During the war approximately 2 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died, 1 million Vietnamese civilians died, 300-400,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, and 58,000 Americans died. These numbers are simply from during the war, and do not account for the 40,000 people (mostly children) who have died since 1973 from unexploded bombs in the ground, or the children who have gotten lost in the tunnel system. It does not account for the birth defects of children born to parents exposed to Agent Orange, or the parents who died due to their exposure. 

As we rode back to Saigon, with Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Whitney Houston serenading us, it was clear that the effects of the Vietnam War are still being felt - by U.S. Veterans, by many of the Vietnamese, by people, such as myself and my brother, who were not even alive during the war, and by children born with birth defects, or those unable to play in their backyard because of explosives. And I know as I travel up through Vietnam, I will see and feel many of these effects, and I can't help but think my father is by my side through this entire country (and really, always).