Vietnam: Familiarities

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

After Siem Reap, I took a flight to Saigon and spent the next 3 weeks making my way from there to Hanoi.

Whenever I thought about Vietnam, it seemed like a place that would take a lot of planning and navigating of buses, trains, schedules, figuring out how to communicate with people, staying in shitty places, just generally being in different degrees of discomfort, but still seeing cool things and eating all the food. This thinking is basically why it took me forever to go, I just never felt like I was in the right head space to challenge myself to be constantly figuring things out and making myself comfortable in an uncomfortable situation and to do it alone. 

I dunno if it's because I've been in South East Asia for over a year, but Vietnam is an incredibly easy place to travel. First off, getting a SIM card there is easy and cheap - $15 for unlimited 3G for a month! So that already made it really easy to figure out where things are (although for being so connected, Twitter is blocked). Getting from city to city is really easy, you can arrange it with wherever you're staying with very little notice. And there's so many ways to get from one place to another, with the prices range from reasonable to insanely cheap. The country sees so many tourists, with most of them generally taking the same path (Saigon to Hanoi, or vice versa) and so a lot of things are built so that it's really easy to find and get to where you want to go. 

Where I sleep really affects whether or not a place sucks for me. And especially because it was unbearably hot in Vietnam when I was there (again, do yourself a favor and avoid Vietnam in May, otherwise you will know the true definition of heat and sweat), I spent a considerable amount of time in hotel rooms (AC!) I was worried that Vietnam would be full of places where I would have to convince myself that it was okay and that it was just for one night and to put aside my germaphobic tendencies for the sake of budget and experience, but mannn, Vietnam is full of the most clean, reasonably priced, value for money places I've been in.

Every time I told someone I was going to Vietnam, they kept saying that the people are quite hard and it takes a bit more time to really get friendly with them. I dunno who they were talking to, but everyone I met and interacted with were incredibly warm and kind. 

Saigon is grimy, messy, chaotic, dense and I loved it. A lot of it felt instantly familiar. The garish signs in awful colors with some pretty terrible font choices reminded me of all the Vietnamese restaurants I went to growing up in Calgary. It was like, oh man, those aesthetic choices actually came from somewhere. Massive streets lined with trees reminiscent of Paris (this is another great thing about Vietnam - there are cheap, legit baguettes everywhere! If you get sick of rice or noodles or just Asian flavors, this is a welcome sight - also hilarious/interesting - there's these ladies on the sides of highways and roads with their motorbike just covered and stacked with baguettes). Insane motorbike traffic that not too long ago would have scared and stressed me out to no end, but was a nice exercise in death defying and felt like making your way through a sea of fish (you move slowly and they just go around you). Alleys and nooks packed tightly in together, hiding lives inside.

First ca phe in Vietnam. I love that they have these setups everywhere, just a small plastic table and chairs around it and you just chill and watch everything pass you by. 

 From Saigon I took a flight to Danang and then took a taxi to Hoi An.

The center of Hoi An is a UNESCO Heritage site and is known for being cute, that every other store is a place where you can get tailor made clothes (sounds a lot nicer than it is), is the home of an incredible banh mi, and being insanely romantic and swoon-y at night with all the colorful lanterns lighting up the streets. It's small so you're able to ride a bicycle around it and pretend that you're in some sort of quaint movie. That said though, it is insanely touristy and you see the same store selling the same thing over and over. I think that's one of the downsides of Vietnam, that you don't really see a lot of emerging designers or people doing different things like you do in Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Japan, Seoul, and even Bali. I found myself a bit hard pressed to find a store that sold things other than typical tourist things like rice hats and I can't even remember what else. But I guess who needs new shit when you got noodles and ca phe and scenery.

From Hoi An I took a bus to Hue and from there I took a bus to Phong Nha to see some caves there.


I took a flight from Hue to Hanoi and then went on a tour from there to Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay:

Back to Hanoi:

By this point I didn't even bother trying to see museums and those sort of things in Hanoi. I had done enough of that in Saigon and I can say that, the museums are pretty terrible (although the buildings themselves are really cool) and I'd rather just eat and drink egg ca phe all day (what the lack in museum content they more than make up for food and drinks).

There was a moment where I was taking a taxi from my hotel back to the airport in Saigon - it was early morning and the light was pretty and gentle. We were passing by these parks and like many parks in Asia, you see bunches of people wearing bright (and not so bright) clothing doing exercises together (tai chi, dancing, or some other sort of thing), And then were these women who had these giant wooden bead necklaces (the beads were a little over half the size of a basketball) that they were swinging around their waists as a form of exercise and extreme blood circulation (I guess). Seeing all those things, with the morning light, and the days before that I had just spent exploring and taking everything in, I just swelled with nothing but love and awe for Vietnam. I was telling someone this, that there were these really nice small moments filled with visual idiosyncrasies that I loved so much and so inexplicably that it hurt. And he said that I went there and unexpectedly ended up finding something that I didn't realize I was even looking for.

Yes, totally. It swallowed me up, opened me and filled me with the best food, the nicest people, and sweet, warm moments.

Cambodia: Fever in the Ruins

Monday, June 1, 2015

Recently I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had actually been meaning and wanting to go to Vietnam ever since I've been in South East Asia (for lol, the past year and a half), but figuring out the visa (it seemed complicated as hell, but in actuality was easy as pie) just threw me off every time (I mean if the visa was confusing, getting around the country seemed like an even more daunting task). Finally I was like, okay, going to make Vietnam happen and since I am in that part of Asia already, it's so close to Cambodia, that well, I am into UNESCO Heritage Sites (life goal: see all the UNESCO Heritage Sites) and there's a preeetttty famous one in Cambodia, so how's about seeing that one too.

And so I did.

I only spent a few days in Siem Reap because I knew that I only really wanted to see Angkor Wat and then spend most of my time in Vietnam. I did little to no research prior (re: laziness) and didn't realize how small it was. So small (or at least the main center) that I was able to ride a bicycle around, and I can't tell you enough how good it felt to ride one in light traffic, weaving in and out and taking things in that way.

Anyways, Angkor Wat:

I went as early as I could manage, getting there at around 6am. The light and atmosphere was beautiful. It was hazy and...mystic. Even though there were already a lot of tourists there, there were still moments of quiet and grace.

It's just so incredible to me that human beings created these complex, intricate, and at times really pictorial/illustrative structures with crude materials and you know, way back when.

People spend days in Angkor Wat (it occupies a pretty sizeable amount of space and each temple is spread across it and has so many aspects to look at and explore)...I could only manage to stay for 5 hours (when I got back to the place I was staying at, he was surprised that I saw everything in that amount of time). Do yourself a favor and avoid Cambodia in May, the heat is brutal. It's like walking through hot jello, the air is thick and humid and you can't think about anything else but the incredible amounts of sweat your body can produce.

I spent the rest of my time seeing some back roads.

Eating pate sandwiches and noodles and jackfruit shakes.

Getting massages (like I said it was hot! I'll gladly kill time by paying someone a pretty reasonable amount of money to get knots out of my body when it's 34 degrees outside with blaring sun). I had one where the guy cracked my back an insane amount of times and I laughed every time he did and at the end he said, "so nice". lol yah, so nice.

I also haven't travelled like this in awhile, going to a foreign place by myself where I know no one and very little about the place. It was a good change and a nice way to start this trip off with because of its size, the food, the warmth of the people and its contrasts, like the use of "lady" to acknowledge or get your attention if you're a foreign female. It's rude (especially how they say it) but I found it hilarious.

Things are a bit of a blur and I felt a bit delirious at times, partly because I fell slightly ill, partly from the heat, and partly/mostly from being in a new place and being so into what it had to offer and feeling like it was more than happy to show itself to me and have me take it all in.