Photos from India

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The long journey back to Vietnam

I had been in way to good of a mood for the past week and I knew things were sure to come crashing down soon. That's the way it is when you travel. When things are good, they are really good. When they are bad, they are really bad. Having had such wonderful luck working out my Chinese Visa and then following that up with sorting out a Vietnamese visa in no time at all, I knew I was destined for a downfall. I had bumped into old friends, enjoyed every minute of every day, and found a good price and time for every bit of transportation that I took. The food was great and the beers were cold. My jokes were funny and women half way around the world were falling in love with me. Things couldn't get any better! It could however get worse.

I said good bye to three new friends I had dinner with in Savanahkett, Laos, picked up my bags and walked out the door of the guesthouse where I spent the day waiting on a night bus to deliver me across the border and on to Danang, Vietnam. While the woman at the bus station had told me that the trip was fifteen hours, I definitely believed her but I couldn't figure out where in the world all that time was coming from. Looking at the map and knowing the distances in Vietnam, it seemed like the trip should only take half as long. Oh well I thought, fifteen hours on a night bus is usually not that bad.

After flagging down a tuk tuk driver and being dropped off at the bus station, I promptly paid my driver the 10,000 kip he requested with one of my only three Laos bills left, a 50,000 kip note. He put it in his pocket and handed me back a 10,000 kip note. I looked at him and realizing that he didn't speak English, held up four fingers signifying that he owed me 40,000, not 10,000. We began to argue each in our own language and for the first half of the argument I assumed he was pretending like it cost 40,000 for the ride although we had agreed upon 10,000. I began to raise my voice, yell out into the bus station if anyone spoke English and proceeded to call the man a thief. As I stared him in the eyes with a threatening and extremely angry look to convey my point, he then began to yell something else and discuss the matter with a man standing beside him now. During the discussions, he began to point at me and laugh. Not pleased at being ripped off and now laughed at, the man again pointed his finger at me, extending his arm close enough to grab and grab I did. I grabbed the man and yanked him out of his tuk tuk and onto the ground. At this point, I think he realized how serious I was and that he wasn't getting out of here with my money.

The man began to pull money from his pocket and put it into my hand. When he got to forty he stopped and I said thank you, still madder than hell though. He then held up a 20,000 note and waved it in my face, I think to say what he may have been arguing the entire time that I had only given him a 20,000 kip note instead of the 50,000 kip note. I turned my back on him while he tried to show that he had no 50,000 kip note and knowing how much the two look alike, I had a moment of doubt. Earlier in the day, I tried to pay for something that was 20,000 kip and I didn't have anything but three 50,000 notes. A girl that was with me paid the money as the person we were paying didn't have any change. We settled up our debt at dinner. My meal was 30,000 and since I owed her 20,000, I gave her a fifty. I then proceeded to check my funds to make sure I would have enough to buy some water, get a tuk tuk to the bus station and a snack in the night if I needed it at one of the stops along the way. I am positive I only had two fifties left. Walking away, with that slight moment of doubt and then the thought that what if I had given him a 50 and he thought it was a 20? What if he really wasn't trying to rip me off and I had really given him a 20? With that slight doubt in my mind, I turned around, still angry and threw all of the change back at him including the fee for the ride. He began to pick up the money and departed shortly after. The ride cost me five times what it should of in my moment of rage but I decided he needed the cash worse than I did no matter if he was ripping me off or if I had made the mistake. I would hate to have taken the money out of the hand of an honest man for a mistake I made. I felt bad for my behavior but in retrospect, I am confident that I gave him a fifty originally. Five dollars will make a big difference in that man's life and if he was ripping me off, then maybe my yanking him from his tuk tuk to the ground will make him think twice before he tries it again on someone else.

I boarded the bus at 9:30 to give my bag to a man inside which at first seemed odd as my bag usually goes beneath the bus. Upon boarding I quickly realized that this might be a really really long bus ride. All of the seats in the back of the bus had been removed and in there place was a massive stash of enormous white rice bags and brown cardboard boxes carrying god knows what. The normal seats seemed strange in some respect and it took me a minute to realize that they were actually raised up higher to accommodate more cardboard boxes from beneath. You might think that this would make it hard for your feet to touch the ground but you have to realize that there were also cardboard boxes stacked up to the level of the seat itself, and in some cases even higher on the floor where your legs would normally go. The seats were filled with other miscellaneous things and as I looked around trying to choose a seat, the man who took my bag and tossed in in the back amongst all of the other cargo directed me to get off the bus. At this point I began to feel a bit of relief as he must be moving all of the stuff in the seats to the back, I hope.

A few minutes before ten, something came over a speaker in the bus station which obviously signaled that it was time to board our bus as everyone ran for the door in a mad chaos, actually, more like a complete panic. I stood up and joined the back of the line from where the man who was checking tickets waved me to the front and pushed everyone aside to let me through. I am not sure why I was getting special permission, I can only think that it had something to do with the fact that I purchased my ticket earlier in the day and had probably paid a bit more for the privilege of one of the actual few seats on the bus.

Once on board, I found a seat that had the least amount of cargo stored in front of it and as I was making my way to the window seat, a man who had obviously claimed that seat with the bag on the floor nearby climbed over me and left me in the aisle seat. No place to rest my head. Great! I would shortly learn however that it would not matter in the least bit.

11:30 and the bus had not moved an inch. The seats were full and the top of cargo area became like a massive human storage compartment. People were lying down in the aisles and sitting on boxes everywhere. Cell phone radios played and the heat, the heat was unimaginable. The only time I have ever been in Sauna was as a child at the local fitness club. This heat was ten times worse than that ever felt. Sweat poured from every bit of my body and there was no relief in sight. Imagine if you can that this would be the way I would feel until about three o'clock in the morning.

12:00 and we were finally on our way. Five minutes from the bus station we did the typical Asian stop for gas as soon as you get started. Another five minutes and we did the next official stop which was for everyone to enter into the woods to pea as the bus stations charge you about twenty cents to use the toilet. The toilet break ended and I thought we would finally get going. With all the operable windows on the bus closed as the locals fear being cold worse than anything, I along with everyone else on the bus continued to sweat profusely. As I tried to find a comfortable position to adjust my feet atop the cardboard boxes in the floor and spread my knees around my backpack, the bus came to another stop. I had no idea why we were again stopping but when the bus driver turned off the engine, that was the signal for most people to take another pee break or just stand outside and smoke. Seeing as how it was 12:30 in the morning and we had been going for only a half hour at an extremely slow pace, this could not be another toilet break.

A man with a flashlight in his hand, a big gut beneath his shirt, and a pistol in his pocket came on board shining his light at everyone and all of the cargo. Now I am sure there was plenty of illegal stuff in the bus, rice, or alcohol or drugs or something that was taxed more heavily in Vietnam than Laos, but I really have no idea what we were actually carrying. Another man came on board in a uniform shining a flashlight and asking lots of questions. When I looked outside again, I realized that they had emptied a bunch of baskets from under the bus and were looking through those as well. I decided I couldn't take the heat any longer and would stand outside with the others who had decided to disembark until the matter at hand was solved.

Packages came out of the window for the next twenty minutes until the ground had about half the stuff that was on the bus lying around. When the forces who had stopped us felt they had emptied whatever it was they didn't want on the bus, we all re-boarded. I expected to see cries and pleas from some of the people on board because they were having to leave all of their stuff on the side of the road but the cries never came. Everyone promptly returned to their seats , boxes and designated spots on the floor and we continued on our way in the slowest moving sauna you can ever imagine.

You would think the half emptying of the bus of all that stuff would have made a bit of room but it looked just as crowded as ever. You couldn't even tell that anything had been removed. We had now been underway for a solid fifteen minutes this time and I thought we were finally on our way when the bus began to slow down, again coming to a complete stop. This time, we were in a very dark spot and five men quickly ran from the bus to a tree where they began picking up boxes and loading them onto the back of the bus. I again have no idea what was in those boxes, but I am pretty sure they knew that we would be boarded where we were and we were now picking up the really illegal stuff.

Now, 1:30 a.m. and we were finally moving along the road, still sweating but at a decent pace now. We rode on until 3:15 with only a few quick stops in between and I felt that other than the heat inside the bus and the sound of ten cell phones all playing different tunes, I was going to survive this journey. Just as I said that, the bus came to a stop, the engine cut off and everyone began to disembark. I thought this was just a routine food stop as they seem to do them at all hours of the day here and everyone always seems to be hungry and ready to participate in each and every meal. At first I thought I would just wait on the bus and try and get some sleep. After a while, I noticed people weren't eating but were just standing around. Some had even walked off down the road and had yet to return. Could we already be at the border? Surely not. The border isn't supposed to be open until 7:00 in the morning. Why in the world would we leave so early to get to the border three and a half hours before it opened? That question will never be answered but that is exactly what happened.

At the roadside stall I found another white person who was experiencing the same trip as I from a different bus that had originated a few hundred kilometers further away than mine. She informed me that after lots of work she determined that we were at the border. She had been there since 2:00 a.m. and it didn't look like anything was happening till sometime between 5:00 and 7:00. We chatted for a minute about how miserable we were both feeling and I finally said I am sorry but I need to get some sleep and I put my head on the table and tried to recall the wonderful art I had learned in high school of how to sleep with your head laying on your arm on your desk.

I think I got a full hour or so of sleep and I have to say that made a huge difference in my mental state this early in the morning. It was now 5:45 and I gathered that pretty soon we would make it to Laos immigration. Around 6:20, the bus started and drove us the five minutes to Laos immigration where there was already a horde of people gathered around the window that read departure. For some reason, Asian people have no idea how to form a line or for that matter any concept of what one is. Even if there is a group of people standing in line, the sweetest of people here will barge their way up to the front and cut everyone off. Now, imagine there are several hundred people trying to do this at three small windows. Complete and utter chaos. After a thirty minute fight, I managed to get my passport into the window where a few minutes later, I watched the officer flip through the pages, find my Laos visa and put a stamp inside. After completing this process, he threw it off to the side in a pile with all of the others he had taken. Fifteen minutes later and still no passport in hand I was confused and beginning to worry about receiving my passport again. I went around to the arrivals side where there was not a line yet as the border wasn't actually opening for another five minutes or so and she informed me that at 7:00, they would begin handing the passports back out.

Sure enough, at 7:00, they began placing passports against the window showing the picture and name. People struggled and fought to see the faces of each passport. This is the most ridiculous process I have ever seen at any border anywhere in the world. Eventually, my passport showed up, I threw a few elbows here and there and made my way to the window where I retrieved one of the most important possessions I have over here.

From there, I walked 500 meters across the border where I was again amazed at the spectacle before hand. The same mass of people was now mobbing the Vietnam arrivals window in the same fashion that they were in Laos. Fortunately, the Vietnamese immigration officers didn't approve and waved and yelled everyone into a cue. This didn't stop people from cutting into line with every given opportunity. I even took the liberty of pulling a couple of people who stepped in front of me back out of line and directing them to the end of the line. When I had finally neared the window, a little old woman broke in line in front of me. Everyone including her smiled at me, and I think those who had seen me pull several men from in front of were quite surprised that I could let a woman do the same thing.

Finally through immigration and customs and the bus was again rolling. I boarded the bus as quickly as possible and decided that I was taking the seat next to the window this time. I wanted control of the window and no one was going to take that away from me. With the sun now out, the bus had the potential of becoming an oven on wheels, cooking the flesh off of my body. No one, was taking me out of that window seat! The man who sat by me and who by the way made frog sounds in his sleep, how he could sleep I will never understand, came and sat beside me. He pointed to his window seat, and I shook my head, gave a few jerks to the front of my t-shirt, wiped my brow and pointed at the window. I think he got the point and sat down.

Rolling along with the wind in my face, I thought now that I might somehow manage to survive this ordeal. Ten minutes later the stops began. We began to stop constantly to unload all of this cargo we were carrying and ever so slowly, the people also began to depart. By ten o clock, we had probably not traveled 30 kilometers, but the bus was getting to be pretty empty. Most of the cargo in the back and beneath my feet was now gone. The man beside me had left as had most everyone riding in the back. Things were looking good! We rolled on down the road and I was determined to try and get some rest. The bus and my seat were determined to not let that happen. With the emptying of all of the cargo that had my seat smashed into a nice vertical position, it changed the whole nature of the stiff and stubborn seat to which I was riding in. It now felt like I was riding on the biggest spring that had ever existed. My seat squeaked and was set into harmony with every bump we went over. At times, it felt as if I was floating in the air, suspended between the bumps until my seat would again tap me and shoot me back to the air as I settled back down.

By noon, the springiness of the seat had not settled down but we had managed to pick up an old woman who was selling some form of food wrapped in banana leaves on the bus along with some baguettes. Unable to identify the food in the banana leaves, I purchased two baguettes which I promptly devoured like they were the last morsels of food on earth. The woman came back around for a second time and having no clue as when we might actually stop for food as we had yet to do so far, I purchased a second round of baguettes and devoured those as quickly as the first two. Five minutes after I had eaten the bread, the bus came to another stop. Everyone stood up and the woman sitting nearby me looked at me and made a signal that it was time to eat. Still hungry, I was happy to eat but needless to say four large baguettes in my belly might make it difficult to fit much more in.

Lunch ended and we were now what I knew to be a five hour journey in a normal bus away from our destination as was written on the ticket in my hand. We bounced on down the road and with some food and my belly and the wind upon my face, I felt good enough to pop my headphones in and enjoy the rest of the days journey. Around 1:45, we entered into the city of Hue and the buss pulled into the bus station. The driver promptly told me to get off the bus and handed me my bag. I tried to explain that I thought we were going to Danang but it was quite clear it didn't matter. All said and done, I was hoping to get off this bus in Hue anyway and catch a much better bus further on.

At the bus station, everyone wanted me on their bus. It was quite obvious that I was white and to them that meant I was not only rich, but a sucker as well. I boarded one luxury bus and when they tried to charge me twice the going rate that I knew of to get to the next town further South, I jumped right back off. The ticket people weren't making any sense either and fortunately a security guard who spoke great English stepped in and offered help. He helped me get a ticket on a mini van that left in ten minutes. I grabbed the front seat and with only a few people in the back, we pulled onto the highway. We were on our way and I might actually be able to catch the night bus to Nah Trang that I hoped to get in Danang. Once on the highway, the bus pulled to a stop. The driver and his assistant spent the next forty five minutes packing people who must be getting some sort of a discount for not going to the bus station into the back. The mini bus was as full as any I have ever been on and the AC was working about as well as most as well.

We finally pulled off towards Danang with our packed mini bus and although the AC was on full blast, I was again sweating profusely. I attempted to crack my window and place my hand out of it to direct some of the air towards my face but the driver didn't seem to like this and decided to roll the window up on my hand. Ouch! Nothing to him. He just kept driving. What a bastard!

We arrived in Danang and were of course bombarded by the motor taxis. I told them I wanted a bus and one took me to his friends bus that he must be getting a commission from. The bus was headed South, leaving in just a few minutes and would reportedly arrive in Nah Trang at five in the morning. I asked if there was a bit later one so I could get some food and the motor taxi man and the bus ticket hawker reminded me that the bus would stop for food in a couple of hours. I thought it to be a good point and agreed to buy the ticket. The price started at about 400,000 dong. Way too much. I had made a similar journey on a similar bus for half that price and wasn't going to pay a penny more. It took persistence and hard negotiating but I managed to get the cost down to 200,000 dong or about $12. A fair price on an all night bus that is complete with full size beds!

Aside from the blaring loud music and comedy show that was on the tv, the bus was perfect! Air con blasting so hard that I needed the blanket provided and my ipod with sleep timer allowed me to sleep through till our dinner break a few hours later. After dinner, I fell back asleep and didn't wake except to shift my position until a man poked me at around 3:15. He said we were in Nah Trang. I gathered up my things and knew that nothing was going to be open, but who cares, I had finally made it to my destination!

When I disembarked from the bus, I was greeted of course by a motor taxi driver who showed me a card for a hotel and said it was only 40,000 dong, the same price he wanted to take me the “very far” five kilometers across town. I got him down to 10,000 dong for the ride and we rode into the dark streets of Nah Trang toward the hotel. The hotel had a security staff and receptionist who were actually awake. I immediately had my doubts to the 40,000 dong this was going to cost. I asked about a room and how much it would be and she replied 400,000 dong! Shocked, I walked out the door. The best price I heard on my way out was 350,00 dong. I do actually think my driver mis understood their prices and had not maliciously brought me there. I told him to take me to the original place I had requested which I knew would not be open but it at least put me in the vicinity of other hotels that I wanted to check out in the morning. He dropped me off at the dark and closed up hotel and of course asked for more money. Entertained by his proposition I just laughed at him and waved him off. He didn't put up much of an argument and left me there on the street. I turned my bags into the bed that they have become so many times before and fell asleep on the ground on the dark and empty streets of Nah Trang. I was finally there after thirty hours of miserable hell and bed or not, I curled up with my small backpack in my arms and fell asleep.

Recovering on the beach in Nah Trang

Around 5:30 this morning, I awoke on the ground outside of a hotel I had found in the guide book to find signs of life all around me. Some of the other hotels were opening their doors, a man was watering plants outside another and a little food vendor was setting up for breakfast. I stood up, wiped most of the dirt off my already filthy body and decided I would try and find a room to get cleaned up a bit before heading to the beach. The first one I found turned out to be quite nice and at five dollars, I wasn't going to complain much anyway. I dropped my stuff on the floor, went into the bathroom and beheld a broken man. In need of a shave and a shower, I looked like I had been without a bed for a couple of weeks rather than the two nights that I had spent on the road.

Number one priority was to brush my teeth. The shower could wait but it had been about thirty hours without toothbrushing. After the teeth came a bit more sleep. A couple of hours later and I was feeling like myself again. I arose from my bed to a sunny day and stood beneath the shower and felt the life returning to my body. Following the shower, I got rid of the four day growth that was covering every inch of my face and neck. I looked in the mirror and was beginning to recognize myself again.

Next came food. An enormous English breakfast, a cup of coffee with sweetened condensed milk and as always, a banana shake. I devoured my food and had just enough money left on me to pay the barber for the use of his services. Since the voltage on my clippers is different is Asia, I now am forced to pay the two dollars here for a haircut but I still hold true to my principals and cut it myself. They usually laugh when I take the clippers from their hands and begin cutting my hair on my own. Today was no different but seeing as how my hair was the longest it has probably been in years, it felt damn good to have a haircut!

After a quick trip back to my hotel, I recharged my depleted funds at the atm and then began searching the town for a new beach towel. During a big storm in Loas, my favorite Auburn towel that has been around the world with me was destroyed. The wind blew it down below and covered it in mud and all forms of animal feces that you can imagine. I had seen dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks all occupying the area it landed in for the past few days and since it was fraying pretty badly anyway, I decided it was a total loss and left it as a blanket for the animals in case another wild storm came up and they needed some protection.

It wasn't long before I had located a new towel and made my way to the beach where I secured an nice adjustable chair with a thick cushion, small wooden table and a massive thatch umbrella. I took a big sip of water, grabbed my book and began to enjoy the endless blue sky over the turquoise colored water. Around lunch time, I was getting hungry but I had no desire to leave my little piece of paradise. The chair I was in belonged to a restaurant that looked rather expensive so rather than leave, I was just planning on skipping lunch. At this point, a woman carrying a small grill and some seafood began waving a nice sized lobster in front of me. Seeing as how I had missed lunch the day before, for six dollars, I couldn't resist! The nice little lady put her spices and portable bucket that had been transformed into a grill to good use. Fifteen minutes later and I had the most wonderful grilled lobster that I have ever eaten.

After lunch I got back to my book for a while and after another hour or so, another woman approached selling pineapples. A little deserted sounded pretty good by then and after paying her a dollar to slice up an enormous pineapple, I had to work hard just to get it all down. Lobster and pineapple on an incredibly beautiful beach reading an incredible book is one hell of a great way to get over a miserable journey like the one I made to get here. All I am missing now is a beautiful woman to share the experience with. Any one out there feel like joining?

A side note: The book I read today was Paulo Cohelo's The Alchemist. I have to recommend this book to everyone I know, especially if the journey I am on is hard for you to imagine. I must warn you that it may have an impact on your life and cause you to chase some of the dreams that you have always held close to your heart.

Russian Visa!

It is looking like obtaining a Russian visa may actually be more difficult for me than obtaining a China one! This is not good!!!!!

How to obtain a Chinese Visa

I am not going into the specifics on what exactly I did to obtain a Chinese Visa but I will give you the basics. First off as many of my fellow travelers have asked, it didn't involve any strange sexual favors. I simply thought long and hard about the documents they requested seeing. These are all fairly new regulations due to the Olympics. The sweeping hand of the Chinese communist government decided that in order to be considered for a visa, you first needed hotel reservations as well as return flights into and out of the country. For some reason, they chose to ignore those of us hovering around the borders hoping to enter by bus or train. Along with the flights, you needed hotel reservations. Most other backpackers I know were stressed about this, but to me, that was the easy part.

Hotel reservations are easy, I just found a website and made reservations at a China hotel. No problem and no credit card needed. As soon as they emailed a confirmation, I printed off the document and canceled the reservation. The flights however were a whole different issue. Let's just say that making a few bookings to obtain some itineraries as well as an old American Airlines Eticket in my email and a little bit of photoshop went a long way. In hindsight, I figured out that Laos airlines would give you an eticket print off with your name and itinerary and passport number on it without even paying and you could use that just as easily.

From that point, all it took was a ten minute bicycle ride to the embassy, a ridiculous fee for American's only, one small photo and a few hours later I had a Chinese visa! The guy looked at my hotel reservation, my doctored up plane tickets and handed them right back to me. He had no concern at all of how I actually get into the country, he just needed to see the documents for an instant. Beautiful! China here I come!!!

Hanging out in Luang Prabang

I bumped into my friends Allison and Andrew in Luang Prabang again. They arrived the same day as me and after having dinner that night, we decided to explore the area together. After a long walk around the city and a couple of days exploring the local waterfalls, we ended up having a really good time together. The end of the second day took a short turn downhill when Allison's camera decided to quit working. She had also received some of her grades the day before and wasn't too happy about that either. As the sun was starting to set, I made the suggestion that we look past all those troubles, buy a bottle of tiger whiskey and head down to the river to watch the sunset.

Tiger Whiskey mixed 1 to 1 with coke goes down ever so smoothly. Seeing as how the coke is actually more expensive than the whiskey, I would have to say that it is pretty damn amazing. A full liter and a half of Tiger Whiskey costs $1.50. I have seen it for as low as $1 but here in a tourist town we have to pay the inflated cost. Now, the other beautiful thing about Tiger Whiskey is that you don't have a headache the next morning. I don't know what the magic substance inside is but as good as it tastes, as cheap as it is and the fact that you don't get a headache the next day makes this stuff as precious as gold. You could make millions if you sold it back in the states. I think I may have to go into business importing this stuff when I go back home!

An hour long sunset and between the three of us the bottle was gone. We set out from there to take a quick shower followed by the best pizza I have eaten in Asia. I try to avoid the western food over here because it usually turns out to be so bad but Andrew was set on pizza and he claimed he had seen someone eating one of these pizzas earlier in the day and they looked pretty good. I am now happy to say that he was dead on. I felt quite nourished after devouring an enormous thin crust pizza! Not sure of what to do after dinner, I suggested we get another bottle of Tiger Whiskey and wander around the market.

I think it was the first bottle of whiskey talking in me that thought it was a good idea but it must have been saying the same thing to Allison and Andrew as they both agreed that another bottle was a great idea. We bought a cheap bottle of water to use to mix half of the whiskey and coke in and the rest we just mixed in the whiskey bottle. Looking like a bunch of drunken winos with our bottles in hand, we set out to explore the night market.

Andrew was the only one still capable of drinking by the end of the whiskey but Allison and I managed to follow along to a bar later on that night. I watched Andrew drink one beer and he didn't appear to need it at all. When he was about half way finished, I called it a game for me and headed for home. I definitely had a good nights sleep that night, but the next day was a whole other story. We all woke up feeling a bit strange yet no one actually felt bad. The whole day however, we were walking around like a bunch of fools. Math was extremely difficult, we couldn't remember words and we were all around pretty much worthless. The only thing that was accomplished was a ride to one of the local waterfalls in a tuk tuk late in the afternoon to go for a swim in the cool waters. Even that felt like work! While I think I can still recommend the Tiger Whiskey to anyone who finds themselves around Laos or Southeast Asia, I don't recommend consuming a liter for each person throughout the course of just one night!

Spring Break ruins Vang Vieng

Sitting outside an internet cafe my second day in Vang Vieng I met a British guy who asked me if I had been tubing yet. I told him no but I had heard a lot about it here and wasn't sure that it was something I would enjoy. I have been tubing elsewhere in the world and floating down a stream in the middle of nowhere is always a relaxing experience. You can even tote a cooler full of beer behind your tube while you sit back and relax for the day and just let the scenery pass you by. My impression of what tubing in Vang Vieng had to offer however was somewhat different. My suspicions were confirmed when the British guy to whom I was speaking told me “Hands down, it will be the best day of your life!” I stared at him for a moment to see if he was being serious. I said “I hardly doubt that. I have had a pretty amazing life and somehow I don't imagine that tubing down this river that I have heard so much about will turn out to be the best day of my life.” His response, “You won't believe it. Hands down it will be the best day of your life.” I quickly recalled my last day in Tonsai, Thailand where in my current thoughts, I don't think there are many days that can ever live up to that day. I won't get into too many specifics but I have to say that there aren't many days that will ever compare to that one in my book. If tubing here comes even close, I will rebuke all I have said, but somehow I don't think it will.

After another day of exploring more caves, this time on my own and this time in a much more adventurous fashion, I found myself with nothing to do for the remainder of the afternoon. The sun had finally emerged from the clouds so I decided to give this tubing thing a try and find out if it was as horrible as I expected. Originally I had thought I could come here and not go on this tubing adventure thus setting me apart from all of the other travelers in the area. I have never met anyone else who came to Vang Vieng and didn't go tubing. I thought it might set me apart from everyone else as being above and beyond ordinary. Here I was however with nothing else to do so I paid a few dollars for a tube and a lift upstream.

My suspicions were immediately confirmed with there being a small shack selling drinks right where you are dropped off along the shore of the river. A few people who had shared the tuk tuk with me on the way up stopped off and had their first drink. The party had begun. I passed the bar and plopped down in my tube and silently floated away. After an entire minute of silence, I began to hear the music. Loud dance music blasting through the air and screaming and whooping and yelling from further on downstream. As I floated closer, I could never have imagined that the state of things along this amazing and scenic river could be as bad as it was. Bar after bar lined the shores as all of the tubers made it a priority to spend the day bar hopping all the way down the river till they could no longer comprehend where they even were. Each bar was equipped with massive rope swings departing from platforms about twenty five feet in the air where they each launched the drunken tubers high into the sky. It was a new experience that most of these people never had before.

Now, I am all for rope swings and even tubing down rivers with a few beers in hand. I stopped at the least obnoxious bar I could see, went straight past the alcohol and took a few turns on the rope swing. After a few swings in between the already drunken people at 2:00 in the afternoon I made my way back to my tube with the decision that there would be no more stopping and even purchasing a beer at any of these places would be against so many principals that I believe in.

Most everyone reading this knows that I am an avid outdoor enthusiast and whitewater kayaker. What I as most people enjoy about being out in nature is getting away from the crowds, the loud music and the sounds of everyday life. Whenever I am kayaking on a river where commercial rafting takes place, it takes away from everything that is so wonderful about being on that river. Vang Vieng is the epitome of how our society can take a place so pure in it's beauty and turn it into a circus or disney world type of attraction. It wasn't good enough for the backpackers to come here to float down a river in one of the most beautiful settings I have ever seen. They couldn't just come here to enjoy the incredible surrounding mountains and streams with the small thatched hut villages scattered along the shores. No, they had to turn it into Spring Break 365 day a year! God forbid you aren't stoned and drunk to actually enjoy something. For me to have had a drink at any of these bars would be condoning the destruction of this stunning place and I wasn't having any part of it. It has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and I wish I had by passed the entire tubing experience here. What I saw was 100 times worse than I could have imagined and I felt sorry for the lost souls who actually believed that this was “Hands down, the best day of their lives.”

Spelunking through Vang Vieng

I took a day to explore the many beautiful Wats, Stupas and temples that abound throughout the Colonial capital of Laos, Vientiane. It is probably the smallest and most basic capital city that exists anywhere in the world with the tallest building probably not exceeding five stories. Most of the city (town would be more appropriate) is only two or three stories and stretches out from the banks of the Mekong River, the lifeblood of all of the countries throughout IndoChina. Along the river are countless places to eat and drink. Simple local run places with nothing more than a platform and some plastic tables and chairs. At the end of the day you can sit along the riverside, sip on a coconut, a banana shake or a beer lao and watch the setting sun turn the sky into a dance of different colors until at last the light of day fades away.

Happy to have taken my time enjoying the capital, I felt sorry for the many people I met the night before who were skipping out on all of the cultural and historical sights of the country in exchange for partying and tubing down the river in Vang Vieng, the place that put Laos on the map as one of the top backpacker destinations in Southeast Asia. I wasn't sure what to expect from the town or the surrounding area but since all I had heard about was how great the tubing experience there was, I had to make a visit just to check it out for myself.

When I arrived in Vang Vieng, I knew that I wanted to be out of the main town as the streets are lined with bars and restaurants all broadcasting reruns of popular tv shows like Friends on multiple televisions throughout. Inside these tv bars were endless rows of backpackers sipping on cocktails and beers while wasting away their holidays in one of the most stunningly scenic places I have ever visited. I cared so little for this part of the town that I couldn't even bring myself to have dinner in the area as the sound of Ross and Rachel could always be heard in the background. Just seeing that these type of places existed and were actually successful here made me sick.

After doing a bit of exploring around town looking for a decent place to stay, I found a rickety bridge that crossed the swift moving Nam Song river. Arriving on the opposite side without slipping through any of the holes in the bridge, I found myself at a family run guest house that consisted of a series of small huts situated along the river complete with hammocks on each porch, a fan, a large bed and a mosquito net. For just under three dollars, this was exactly what I was looking for. I set down my bags, had some lunch and stretched out in the hammock and spent the remainder of the day relaxing in the shade of my porch slipping in and out of sleep between chapters in the book I was reading.

The sun began to set and with it the air cleared from the hazy and cloudy day that had enveloped the area. It finally gave me the opportunity to have a look around. I found myself to be situated against the base of stunning limestone formations for as far as the eye could see. It was pretty apparent to me that I could find a lot more to do here than partying and watching television.

My first full day, I rented a mountain bike where I made the mistake of inviting a British couple along to join me for the day in my exploration of the area. I had read about some caves around the area that I wanted to check out and in the meantime get some good exercise by covering a lot of ground on a bicycle. Five minutes down the road and moving extremely slowly, I realized that this may have been the first bit of exercise that the British couple had done in the past ten or so years. I was actually having a hard time keeping my bicycle balanced by traveling so slow. I felt guilty about ditching them after inviting them along so I just began pulling ahead and riding back behind them and then repeating the process till we actually reached our first destination.

Although we hadn't intended to find the first cave that we came across (it wasn't in the book or on the map we had) it turned out to be quite and interesting find. After parking our bicycles and paying the man that lived on the property a dollar to let us into the cave, he provided us each with a torch and pointed us toward the entrance to the cave. Seeing as how he didn't speak English, we weren't sure what we would find in the cave or how far in we could actually go but in that lies the excitement of exploring subterranean passage ways.

Having left my headlamp on my bed that morning even after going back to get it, I was not happy with the torch that the man gave me at the entrance to the cave. It lit up only a small spot wherever I shined it's pathetic little beam. As we ventured in through the entrance, we could hear the sound of water rushing inside and after a short walk we were greeted by a rushing stream that poured forth from the depths of the cave. Seeing that the water wasn't too deep, I gladly began trudging up the stream. The British couple just went to the edge of the water and stared. I continued on slowly, thinking they would eventually come along. After walking for a bit, I again found dry land and began to wait for the other two to catch up. Ten minutes later and no sign of flashlights through the darkness and I decided to go back and check on the other two. They were still at the edge of the water and I asked what the problem was. The guy was wearing his trainers and didn't want to get them wet. So sad, I didn't even think that the poor guy would have had to get his feet wet. I suggested he take his shoes off as all of the stones are very smooth and wade across with them to the dry ground that I had found shortly up. Although he seemed reluctant, I think he did not want to appear to be the scared little boy that he was and conceded.

With the British couple walking at the pace of a child through a haunted house, I made my way deeper into the cave where again I was forced into the water. The cave was more of a tunnel that housed a small river that poured forth from it's depths obviously the source of it's creation so long ago. Seeing as how I had just finished reading journey to the center of the earth, finding myself alone in the darkness going upstream in this cave made me feel as if I was a character in the book. I imagined myself going further and further in until I found an entire other world in the depths below.

By now, I had given up hope of the British couple making it further into the cave and resolved to proceed on my own as I have done so many times before in the multitude of caves I have explored throughout Southeast Asia. As the stream went on, I continued to emerge onto it's dry banks for short periods of time before splashing back in again. At one point, I had to take my shirt off and carry my backpack above my head to make it through and keep all of my gear dry. It was becoming an all out adventure!

I had now been walking for a solid hour and the cave was showing no signs of closing up. Normally, having my trusty LED headlamp, I would have pressed on. Here however I found myself at the mercy of a cheap torch that recharges itself by plugging it into a wall. If the other couple had joined me I would have gladly pressed on but the thought of having my torch fail me this far inside began to get into my head. I could easily follow the stream back out in the dark but there was one catch that worried me. Along the way I had passed several spots where some of the water disappeared into small passages that were just big enough for a human to slip through into the unknown depths of the cave. At these points, the water picked up speed and forced it's way into the earth with enough power to take me along with it. All it would take in the dark would be one wrong step and off I would shoot into a passage that would most likely swallow me up, never to be seen again.

I reluctantly turned back where I eventually found the British couple where I had left them making excuses of why they had not followed. “The formations are just so beautiful here that we could spend hours just looking at them!” Bullshit I thought, go back to your pampered lives in London. We made our way out of the cave, thanked the man and remounted our bicycles on a quest to find a cave that I read about where after exploring it's depths it was possible to find an underground lake that made a fine place to have a relaxing swim in the dark.

We pulled back onto a dirt road and the British couple resumed the pace of a child trying to learn how to use a bicycle with training wheels. At this point, I made the decision to move on without them. There was lots to see in the area and the day was already half gone. I wasn't going to let them spoil my adventures. As I cruised down the dirt road turning every bump and hill into a small ramp, I suddenly heard a loud “pop!” and saw the end of a glass bottle fly up from my front tire into the air. I immediately began to swear and brought the bicycle to a halt to find what I knew to be true. The front tire was as flat as could be. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, I could only think that my adventurous plans for the rest of the day would now be replaced by the sad and slow process of pushing my bike the twelve kilometers back to town.

As I pushed along the dirt road, there was still no sign of the British couple behind. As slow as they were, I was surprised that they had not yet caught up to me. Walking along, I was reminded that there are motorcycle tire repair men everywhere here. Even the smallest of villages has someone who repairs the motorcycle tires which are all equipped with tubes here. I started to think that surely it wouldn't be too long before I found a place to repair my tire. At th first sign of life, a few ladies walking along the road, I pointed at my tire and they pointed me on down the road in the direction I was heading. Five minutes later and a few more people pointed me on down again. Ahead of me I could see a group of children playing in a small stream which I took as a good sign that there might be a village nearby and that is where the people I had met along the way were pointing me. Sure enough when I reached the children there was a small path leading into a little thatched hut village. The people I met there pointed me toward the village where I found exactly what I was looking for, a small shack with motorcycle tires hanging on the outside.

Ten minutes and fifty cents later, I thanked the man for his help and picked up my bicycle ready to continue on my way. As I started off on the bike, up walked the British couple now pushing there bikes as well. I said “you too?” The girl only responded by holding up a pedal in the air. “It fell off” she said. Huh, this is something I had never seen before. I decided to wait on them and showed them the way to the repair shop where I was sure the man could figure out a way to get her pedal back on and send us on our way. With the help of a hammer, a file, a screwdriver and a wrench, the pedal was forced back into place and the three of us were again on our way at the miserable pace our day had begun with.

The next cave was much larger and a local man offered his services as a guide which we gradually accepted. After walking in through a large cavern for a while we came to a small throat in the cave where you almost had to crawl under. Along with crawling, you would be forced to again get your feet wet. The man also informed the couple that further up you would be knee deep, then waist deep and then chest deep. This did not sound so exciting to the other couple so they decided to stay back and wait while our guide and I continued on our way.

After walking a good deal further, wading through water and crawling through passages we came to a spot where the guide told me that the water would get chest deep and I could see that there was barely enough room above the water for my head to pass through. He said it would only be that way for about thirty feet and then the cave would open up. A further twenty minutes or so, we would reach the underground lake where I could go for a swim. The catch to this as I saw was that I would have to leave my backpack laying on the ground outside of the passage. With two cameras, an ipod, my wallet and passport I wasn't too happy about this idea. If only the damn British couple had made it this far, they could stay here and stand guard over my things. It seemed like the perfect scam to take people into the cave while someone else waited to take all of your things hiding in some unknown passageway. As excited as I was to find the underground lake, I told my guide that we should get back as it was late in the day anyway and I didn't particularly care to ride the bike the fifteen or so kilometers down the unlit road back to town.

Returning we found the British couple where we left them, the guy still making excuses about not wanting to get his shoes wet. We all followed the guide out of the cave and after sorting out a reasonable amount to the pay the man who was demanding a ridiculous sum for the hour of his assistance we made our way back to Vang Vieng. I have to say at the end of the adventurous day that I had just had, I was disappointed that it wasn't that much better. While I enjoy the company of others, if they lack that sense of adventure of exploring unknown places, it really can detract from what you can accomplish in a day. I think tomorrow I will set out again on my own and attempt to explore more of these incredible limestone formations from the outside as well as the inside without the burden of a my new found friends.

A disatrous dinner conversation!

After meeting Allison and Andrew in front of their hotel, I was introduced to a group of students from California who were all traveling together and were going to be joining us for dinner. At first this seemed like a great idea as most of them were twenty year old girls but as we began walking around looking for a place to eat, I quickly remembered the biggest advantage of traveling alone, only one person has to make a decision. After passing plenty of spots that looked great to me, everyone seemed to be torn in different directions. I had suggested a place that had a great local menu and the cheapest price on beers. It was pretty obvious it didn't look “Western” enough nor did it have any other backpackers at it so the majority of the group thought it looked dirty or something. Allison and Andrew hadn't commented much as they were chatting amongst themselves at the time so I was left to converse with the California girls on my own.

We kept walking and one couple from the California students began to talk about an Indian restaurant that they had seen in town. Now that we had walked past fifteen restaurants over the last twenty minutes, I was frustrated and just when I was about to walk off and go eat at the place I had chosen with whoever wanted to join me, one girl from California took the words right out of my mouth and said that was where she was headed if anyone wanted to join. Hurray! I was impressed with this girl for being so bold. It sounded like me around my friends when I am in the same situation. The only reason I hadn't already done it this night was that I was trying to make some new friends and didn't want to seem like a jerk or something. Everyone followed along except the couple searching for the Indian restaurant and it looked like it was going to be quite the pleasant meal.

After ordering dinner and drinks, myself, Andrew and Allison having beer Lao and the five California girls ordering magic mushroom whiskey, the conversations gradually began to go downhill. Andrew and Allison kept to themselves as they had not seen each other in a while which left me with the five California students. Ordinarily this would be a good thing but I quickly realized that these girls were not a group that I had much in common with. We first discussed the potency of the magic mushroom whiskey that they were consuming at a pretty astounding pace. At twenty years old being the average, they refused to believe that you could turn the magic mushrooms into whiskey. Having seen many a party throughout the world where mushroom tea was served, I assured them it was possible and that it did have the same effects. As intelligent as they thought they were, they then asked why it was possible to sell it at a restaurant in a country where drugs were illegal. While I have no good answer for that, I assured them that I had been to almost every country in Southeast Asia and mushroom shakes, whiskey and tea were a common item on the menus here. As well as magic mushrooms in your food, you can also get a variety of brownies, pizzas and various other things with pot thrown into the mix. Add the fact that every motor bike driver and guest house employee, no, change that, everyone that is breathing over here tries to sell you drugs and you would never really know that drugs were illegal unless somehow one of the cops who didn't use drugs, if that exists, decided to bust you with some.

After a short debate about the mushrooms, the conversation turned to the culture of Thailand where I quickly realized that these girls were not only poorly educated but also not very well traveled. They distorted a few of my statements and changed them into arguments. All five girls were quickly angry with me and fortunately Allison tried to help us end the conversation with the whole, “let's just agree to disagree” theory. I too thought it was a good idea and looking at her I could tell she actually said it for her own benefit as she looked like she was ready to jump into my corner of the argument and put these girls in their place. Apparently she has much more tack than I do and just decided to keep to herself instead and let me look like the fool.

Now, the conversation gets even better. One girl during the heat of the argument decided to walk outside to have a cigarette. Now that she had rejoined us, she sat back down and made a comment about her head spinning. The other girls asked if it was the three glasses of mushroom whiskey but she wasn't sure since she had just met a tuk tuk driver on the streets and had smoked a joint with him along with a bunch of opium. To the other four girls this was perfectly normal to do just before dinner and they didn't even seem surprised. They were actually more interested if the guy could sell them some more pot and opium and thinking ahead, the girl had already sent him out to get some.

With drugs the main topic, I sat back and watched these five girls go into their personal drug histories with miserable stories of “The first time I tried this and the fist time I tried that . . . “ Followed with “Oh, this one night I was so messed up on this that and the other that I thought I was going to die!” Very intellectually stimulating for me to say the least. With Andrew and Allison at the other end of the table I found myself in the middle of one of the worst conversations I had ever heard in my life. After remaining quiet for a bit, one of the girls finally looked at me and said, “You don't do drugs do you?” I responded with a simple no and she quickly followed with “I can see you don't, you don't look like you do.” It took everything in me not to tell her that unfortunately she did look like she did drugs, and plenty of them at that. You could see it in every bit of her skin and looks. Maybe it wasn't the drugs that had given her that look so young, but the non stop chain of cigarettes that moved between her hand and her mouth ever since we had met probably hadn't helped anything.

After dinner we stood outside the restaurant with a couple of the girls talking to a tuk tuk driver discussing possibilities of anyone going out for another drink. Allison and Andrew decided to head to bed and that was all I needed to hear. I wanted to be as far away from these five girls, whom I found to be a perfectly good waste of oxygen, as I could be! Smiling for this miserable dinner to be over and heading home for a good nights rest, I waved goodbye to the girls talking to the tuk tuk driver and overheard them arguing about the cost of Opium. I really hope everyone in Laos is not this pathetic!

Heading to Laos

My last day in Hanoi began with a casual morning walking around town taking care of a few things that I needed to deal with regarding banks, emails, and phone calls. After sorting out everything I had set out to do, I packed my bag, left my hotel and stopped by a place that I knew not only had good food but was one of the cheaper places to get a bite to eat in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. With plenty of time to spare I opened up my handy guidebook and began looking at what sights Laos had to offer. As I read on, I realized that the meal was taking a really long time to come out and I needed to catch a bus to the airport at noon.

I still had a fifteen minute walk ahead of me and was going to need time to eat my food and here I was at 11:30 with nothing to eat yet. I sat there impatiently looking around and informed the staff of my travel plans. 11:40 came around and still no food on the table and as I watched the minutes go by on my watch, I continued telling myself that if it didn't come in the next minute I would just leave. 11:48 came around and I finally grabbed my things, said sorry, you took too long and walked out the door in the direction of the bus station.

Now I had investigated the location of the bus station earlier in the day so that I would be able to find it without any problems. The catch now was that I was approaching from a different way and things were beginning to look a bit different. I quickened my pace and began looking at street signs anything remotely familiar while constantly being bombarded with shouts of “Moto? Moto?” from every direction. The sensible thing to do would have definitely been to pay a dollar, jump on the back of a motor taxi and travel the quarter mile or so to the bus station, wherever in the hell it actually was. Instead, I continued walking, actually by now, I was almost running in order not to miss the bus that I needed to the airport. My watch now read 12:00 and I still had no idea where in the world the bus station could be. Sweat was pouring over my body as I turned yet another corner and finally saw the armada of mini vans waiting to take passengers to their various destinations. The bus was ready to leave and about to shut the door when they saw me hobble up under the weight of my backpack after running for nearly a full ten minutes now. There was one seat left in the back, sitting more on top of the luggage than the actual seat but at least I was on the bus and off to another country!

At the airport I checked in and finally got some food in my stomach helping me to feel normal again. I wandered around the airport for a while checking out the small duty free shops in the hopes of finding a good price on some M&Ms. I can't really explain why I had a craving for M&Ms but lately I have really been wanting some. You can find them every now and then along with a few other kinds of American candy bars but when you do find them, they tend to be pretty expensive. As I walked into the first duty free shop I saw, I found a decent size bag of M&Ms. I picked the bag up and my mouth began to water. Turning the bag over in my hand, I searched for a price tag. After searching for a bit, I finally noticed a small white tag with 8usd written on it. Surely this wasn't the price, it had to be some kind of code that they used to identify the price to the Vietnamese sales clerk.

Since there were plenty of other stores at the airport to choose from, I decided surely some of the others would have the prices marked much better. I realized my intuition was correct as I began wandering through all of the candy in the second store. I quickly spotted a bag of M&Ms and on the shelf was a clear label with the price, eight dollars. I mean come on, here I am at a duty free shop and the M&Ms are costing four times what they would in the U.S. I couldn't believe my eyes! While I really wanted an M&M, I decided these M&Ms were out of my price range and I would have to do without for yet another day.

With nothing else to do in the airport but wait, I took a seat and began reading my book. It didn't take long for me to get distracted when a cute girl sat down across the room from me. She had the look of an Asian person but for some reason, I could tell she must be from a western culture. I am not sure if it was the way she walked or the way she dressed or what, I could just tell she was not a local. Shortly after seeing her sit down, I saw her swing her backpack around embroidered in the typical Canadian fashion with a large Maple leaf. Out of the backpack came a Lonely Planet guide book for Laos and in an instant without even speaking to her, I not only knew she was Canadian but that she was also on my flight heading into Laos.

Seeing as how I was alone as was she, I decided to go for a stroll around the duty free shops again allowing myself the opportunity to take another seat that would be closer to her. Hoping that she hadn't noticed me sitting across the room already, I did a loop through all of the duty free shops and wondered who in the hell it was that actually purchased these eight dollar M&Ms in one of the poorest countries in the world. When my loop through the duty free stores ended, I took the seat next to the girl I had noticed before and realized that in my absence she had put her headphones in. Now, it is a difficult thing to strike up a conversation with someone wearing headphones and I usually tend to not even make the attempt. It usually signifies that they don't have any interest in talking to anyone else around as that is what I tend to do in the same situation. Feeling like I had failed in my attempt to meet the girl, I opened my book again and began to read.

It didn't take long, maybe one chapter or so but this petite little Canadian girl who looked very Asian pulled her headphones out and looked over at me in a perfectly clear North American accent and asked “Do you know what time it is?” Another great reason for wearing a watch I thought as I told her the time. From there our conversation started and my suspicion was confirmed that she was heading to Laos and she was Canadian. She was doing an internship for law school in Hong Kong for the summer and was meeting a guy she was friends with at the airport in Laos. I wasn't sure what “friend” meant but either way, it was nice to make a new friend who would be traveling in the same country as me and on top of all that seemed pretty intelligent.

After a short flight on a small prop plane on what is supposed to be the airline that has the worst safety record, our wheels touched down and we exited the flip down staircase onto the runway. Allison, the Canadian girl and I decided to wait together for her friend so that we could all split a cab and meet up for dinner later on. With the bags already waiting on the revolving belt, we quickly made our way through customs where we then found her friend Andrew waiting on the other side. After they hugged and caught up for a few minutes, I was introduced and we all took a cab into town and decided on a good spot to meet for dinner. I can't describe how important it is when you arrive somewhere to make new friends quickly. Having people around who's company you enjoy can make or break your first day in a new location. After eating a multitude of meals by myself on my first nights in new locations, I was happy to have two new friends to share my dinner with along with several of the local brews, Beer Lao!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Trekking through the Northern Highlands

A breath of cool air! Wow, I had forgotten what cold weather felt like! I even needed my jacket at night just to stay warm. My time in Sapa, situated in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, has been long overdue. Everyday for the past two and a half months has been as hot as a day in the middle of July back home in Alabama. Combine the cool weather with stunning mountain scenery and Sapa has been one of my favorite stops so far in Vietnam.

I spent one night in the cool air of Sapa before heading off into the nearby valley to explore all of the rice paddies and minority cultures that cover the area. The trip ended up being quite spectacular with beautiful views everywhere, interesting cultures working and inhabiting the land, not to mention relaxing afternoons swimming in the cool waters of the rivers that come down from the mountains into the valley. Having seen plenty of photographs of Sapa and the nearby valley for so long, I had really wanted to visit ever since arriving in Vietnam. Now that I am here, I have to say that it is as spectacular as I imagined.

A long and miserable day

I am rapidly finding out that the North of Vietnam is not quite as friendly as the South. From the time I woke up yesterday till the time I went to bed, it was nothing more than scam after scam after scam. And now, I awake with a bad headache from trying to take my mind off of such a shitty day on the road by rapidly consuming the tasty local brews last night.

It all began when I was handed my bus ticket at the guest house where I had spent the night in Ninh Binh. I had intended to travel to Halong City and sort out a boat to cruise the waters of Halong Bay for a few days. I looked at the ticket and realized they had put me down to go to Haipong, a city near Halong city, but much less accessible for what I needed. When I inquired, the lady told me it was the same, or in her words, "Same Same." She said that it was easy to get a ferry to an island and then another to Halong City. I consulted a map and my guidebook to see how easily this was done and quickly realized that the process could take me a full two days and cost me a good deal of money. Again I spoke with the owner of the guest house and when the bus arrived, she yelled something to the driver in Vietnamese and said that he would get me to Halong City, same ticket, no problem.

With the bus leaving, I didn't have much choice but to get on. I however now had no ticket in my hand and the lady handed the bus driver the 70,000 dong I had paid and off we went. Not sure of where exactly I was heading, I popped in my headphones and started to enjoy the ride. It didn't take long before the bus stopped and began gesturing to me to get off. They pointed at another bus that had pulled off onto the highway and directed me towards it. Everyone was waving from the other bus to hurry and my bus was pointing at that bus. With no one speaking a bit of English, I was stuck in a tough position. I wanted to inquire if they had a ticket or money for the other driver, but without any Vietnamese language skills I was forced to go with the flow.

I boarded the other bus which I did notice was actually bound for the correct destination and found a seat near the back. A few minutes passed and the man who collects money came around and gestured that I needed to pay him fifty thousand dong for the ride. Seeing as how the entire journey was supposed to cost 70,000 dong (four dollars), I wasn't about to pay again. With no one on this bus speaking English either, I made a few hand gestures and held up some fingers indicating that they should have gotten money from the other bus and that I had already paid for the journey. He kept pointing at himself saying that I needed to pay him. There was no way in hell that was happening. I gestured for him to call the other bus and even gave him the phone number of the guest house so that they could sort out his money. On principal alone, there was no way this bus was getting money from me.

After a half hour of arguing with me in Vietnamese and lots of hand gestures, I figured I was about to get kicked off the bus. The collection agent eventually walked off, made a few jokes about me to others on the bus and kept looking at me. He eventually made a second attempt with no luck again and finally left me alone for the rest of the journey. When we neared Halong City, they indicated that we had arrived at where I wanted to go and kindly dropped me off smiling. Amazed that I had successfully made it, I was dropped off into the usual armada of motor taxis all begging to give me a ride. I told them which hotel I wanted to go to and the bargaining began. The first shouts were for 50,000 dong. I just laughed and kept walking. The price began to drop and I said I would pay 20,000 dong. They all said no. I smiled and said thanks anyway and goodbye. Two steps later, I hear the familiar Ok, Ok and off we went.

Zipping across an enormous bridge on the back of the motorbike, I was enjoying the surrounding view when another motor bike pulled up next to us. Driving along, he began to discuss something in Vietnamese with my driver. I was pretty sure that they were talking about me and my suspicions were confirmed when we pulled over the new motor bike driver paid my driver 20,000 dong and gestured for me to switch motorbikes. I agreed and made it clear that there was a good chance I might not even stay there and I wanted to be taken to a certain hotel, but only because it was in the center of the city. I wanted to eat lunch, check the weather and see what it was going to be like around Halong Bay for the next couple of days. This was only because it was an extremely overcast day and I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. It was not the type of weather I wanted to enjoy the 1,900 or so islands of Halong Bay with.

We shortly came to an intersection with the name of two towns on it. One was the town I wanted to go to and the other I had never heard of. We turned towards the one I had never heard of. I quickly asked my driver who fortunately spoke good English where we were going. He said he was taking me where I wanted to go. I reluctantly went along with the idea. A few minutes later, I decided we were heading in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I made him stop the bike immediately. I argued for a bit with him and then explained again where I wanted to go. He was trying to take me to his office where I could book a trip to Halong Bay and then was planning to take me to my hotel, or so he says.

We finally arrived at the hotel where the owner was anxious to check me in and I told everyone the same thing I had told my driver who was now waiting to assist me in booking a boat for Halong Bay. I was very clear that I may not even stay once again and only wanted to eat lunch and check the Internet before I made my decision. After a quick bite to eat at a local Vietnamese restaurant I picked up my bags and walked across the street to an Internet cafe where I quickly was able to confirm my suspicions that the weather was going to be less than appealing for the next few days.

Now that I had decided that I wasn't staying in town, I needed to catch a bus to Hanoi so I walked back over to the hotel I had been dropped off at and asked how much the bus to Hanoi would be. "Ten dollars" the man replied (he claimed to own the hotel). I laughed at him as it was only a three hour journey and the only bus ticket I had paid ten dollars for in Vietnam was a sleeping bus that had your own bed, pillow and blanket and lasted fourteen hours. When I told him that, he was quick to inform me that it is different here. The road is very busy and there is lots of traffic. I again laughed at him and told him that I was going to walk next door and ask them what the bus costs. He said that it would be the same an to go ahead.

"Five dollars" the nice young woman said. "They will pick you up in twenty minutes out front and drop you at whatever hotel you want in Hanoi. It was like magic. No problem whatsoever when you talk to honest people and take a little time to sort things out. The bus ride to Hanoi was quite uneventful as I slept most of the way there. I arrived at a nice little hotel, checked into a shared dorm room and went straight for the shower. It was time for a beer and I felt I deserved it after spending the day doing battle with all of the con artists and scamming hawkers that litter the streets of Northern Vietnam.

Seeing as how it was happy hour when I arrived at the restaurant and that would be ending ten minutes later, I managed to squeeze three beers down before happy hour was over. With a slight buzz, I ordered some dinner and proceeded to make friends with a couple of people nearby. The night went on and we left the restaurant and made our way a short distance down the road to another nice spot to have a drink overlooking the streets of Hanoi.

I am not sure what time it was but it was definitely time to go. I was feeling quite good and my thoughts about the miserable day that I had were far from my mind and now, all I wanted to do was get to bed. Now all of the streets in the old quarter of Hanoi look fairly similar. I had a map in my pocket but I decided that I could find my way back to my hotel without it. As I stumbled along the streets saying no to every moto taxi that asked me if I needed a ride, I quickly found I would be needing the services of my map. Opening it up in the dimly lit street, I couldn't figure out where I was. I continued to walk to the next intersection thinking that might help but when I arrived, it was the same thing. I had no idea where I was. I began to say the name of the street I was looking for to anyone I saw and occasionally someone would point down the road in the direction I was traveling.

Now, at this point, I should have hopped on the back of a moto taxi, said the name of my hotel and gone straight home, all at the cost of about one dollar. For some reason I had it in my head that I was going to make it home on my own. I wasn't about to give up and let a taxi do the work for me. While standing at yet another intersection alternately staring at the names of the streets and my map, looking as confused as ever, I heard a man with very good English ask me where I was going. I walked over to the doorway he was standing in and told him the street I was looking for. He ignored me and asked to see my map. I don't know why everyone in Asia wants to see your map when you ask for directions. I have yet to find anyone here who can actually read one. They usually spin it around about six times before letting it finally come to rest in an upside down position as they stare intently at the words written all over it. Of course, the same thing was happening here and the guy walked back into the store or house or whatever the hell this place was and told me to come into the light so we could see it better.

I thought we could see it just find where we were and tried to say no before he walked to the long fluorescent bulb that was located on the side of the wall of the empty room I was looking into. As he further studied the map, I analyzed the situation and determined that someone would have a hard time shutting me in from outside and that this guy had better pull out a gun if he was going to be beat me in any kind of fight. The situation seemed odd but I felt confident I would come out of it ok. I needed my map back!

After walking in and finally getting the man to understand that I just needed him to point me to Hang Ga, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked where I was from. I could tell the hand on the shoulder was supposed to mean something and I shrugged him off as I told him where I was from. I asked again to have the map and the man kept talking but this time changed the subject. "I bet your pretty big" he said as the hand that was on my shoulder was now making it's way toward my crotch. Instant sobriety immediately set in and before the man managed to grab a hold of my most sacred possessions I grabbed him by the hand, twisted his arm behind his back and threw him into the wall. "Don't even think about ever touching me!" I told him as I pulled his right arm high up behind his back with one hand and with the other pressed his face against the wall. I quickly grabbed my map, released this strange man and walked out the door.

At this point I probably should have hopped on a motor taxi but I walked another block and finally realized where I was. Just a few blocks away from my hotel fortunately! I picked up the pace in case the strange man had decided to follow me and finally reached my hotel. It was a long, strange and miserable day and I was glad that it was finally over. It seems when you travel that most days are really quite amazing but when one thing goes wrong, everything seems to go wrong. I am kind of glad that is the case as it gets it all over with all at once and allows your good days to be that much better!

The DMZ and Tony's last night

After a day of exploring combat bases, important bridges, underground tunnel systems and old battlefields throughout the demilitarized zone, Tony and I were pretty warn out. It was however his last day night in Vietnam and our friend Clark has sent over a twenty dollar bill to buy us some drinks for a night out on the town. Twenty dollars can by you a ridiculous amount of beer in Vietnam and we made sure to put it all to good use. At about fifty cents each for a beer, it turned out to be a pretty fun night!

At dinner we met a couple of girls, Amy and Jo and invited them to join us at our table. They turned out to be pretty fun girls and even offered to pose for pictures holding Clark's twenty with their teeth. We followed dinner with some more drinks and a few games of pool before the girls decided it was time for them to get some sleep. Still awake and with a few dollars left, Tony and I decided to find another place to have a drink. My guide book for Vietnam had mentioned that the best place to have a drink in town was on the rooftop of the Imperial Hotel with views overlooking the city. It was really late and the lobby of the hotel had all of the lights off, something that is pretty typical over here, but back home would seem really strange. We waved to the man at the desk and found the elevators and pushed the top floor. A few seconds passed and we were on the top floor. The doors opened revealing complete darkness. The only light was coming from a window at the end of the hall. We set off exploring the deserted hallway and found no bar or rooftop at all for that matter. It appeared that this floor wasn't even in use as it was completely dark and completely quiet.

After unsuccessfully finding the rooftop bar, we were determined that their was a place in this fancy hotel to have a drink. We explored a few more dark and empty floors without any luck. With one floor left between us and being back in the empty lobby, we pushed the two button and heard some sounds and saw a bit of light coming from around the corner. As we walked into the lighted room, emerging from total darkness, Tony and I found ourselves to be the only patrons of a twenty four hour casino. With electronic black jack dealers and all kinds of games in this tiny little casino, I found it quite hard to believe that I was in a Communist country. We stuck around long enough to down a couple of beers and long enough for Tony to loose twenty bucks to the electronic black jack dealer. With no luck at the tables, we decided to call it a night.

New Suits!

Tony and I are now the proud owners of custom tailored silk lined Italian Cashmere suits. We stopped in Hoi Ann, the best spot in the world to have anything you could ever want custom tailored to fit you at a price that is so cheap, you almost can't believe it! I have to say that it was quite strange trying on the finished suits and looking in the mirror to remember what I looked like in a much more professional environment. In the mirror I could only see the future where the lackadaisical traveling lifestyle would one day disappear forcing me back to work in the professional world. I am doing my best to avoid that happening but unless I manage to win the lottery, I find that will be inevitable. For now, I must press on!

Easy riding through the central highlands

Six days and over 800 miles of riding and we finally made it to Hoi An! That is a long way to go on a 100cc motorbike! Forgetting the fact that I no longer have feeling in either of my butt cheeks, it was an incredible trip to get a feel for how the people in the countryside of Vietnam live as well as to get up close to a lot of the battlefields and remnants left over from the terrible war that occurred over here. Our days were filled with riding through winding mounting roads stopping to check out waterfalls, old battlefields, minority villages and plenty of great Vietnamese restaurants.

As for the waterfalls, these were some of the most impressive I have ever seen. I can't even imagine what they would look like when the rainy season comes around. I don't think I have ever been anywhere where I have seen so many large waterfalls so close together. Drop after drop, each one taller and wider than the last seemed to keep appearing. Just when we thought we had seen them all, we followed a trail over a suspension bridged and were greeted by the most enormous of them all, Dry Sac falls.

After two days of exploring waterfalls and a couple of minority villages, we started to explore many of the different battle sights from the war. Sometimes, it was just a barren hill where the soil had been poisoned by the chemical agent orange that we dropped all over the place in order to kill off all the vegetation. It is sad to see that the trees still don't grow on this land today. That however is the least of the problems caused from agent orange. Everyone who came into contact with it has had deformed children. Those children our now between the ages of twenty to forty and can be seen throughout Vietnam. Even some of them who have been able to have children have had deformed children as well. It is a sad sight to see the affects of these chemicals that I had no prior knowledge of before visiting here. From a country that is so anti chemical weapons, it is horrible to see the affects and pains that continue to exist here today in Vietnam.

Along with the expanses of poisoned earth are endless fields where the local people continue to scrounge for scrap metal left from all of the artillery that was dropped throughout the country. The bomb craters can still be seen everywhere you go. Old sand bags litter the ground everywhere and all the farmers who now try to work this land are constantly pulling up more remnants of the war. We saw parts of old guns, shrapnel from bombs, old army boots and even a few bullets lying around. The other thing these poor farmers are still finding beneath the ground is plenty of land mines. It is evident everywhere you look. You can't go but a few hours a day without someone walking by with one leg, or no legs at all. Small children and adults alike are injured almost everyday throughout the entire Indochina region because of land mines and unexploded artillery.

To go along with the sad sights that the war over here left behind, Vietnam has also managed to destroy over 50% of their native forests since the war ended. It is evident everywhere in the Central Highlands where you can look at the hillsides and still see much of the land smoldering from the people still practicing slash and burn techniques. We road through barren hillsides with the occasional rubber tree farm for almost three straight days without seeing one bit of jungle. All I can think back to is all of my science classes talking about how fast the rain forests of the world are being destroyed and after traveling throughout Southeast Asia for four months now, I believe every bit of it.

Slidning down the sand dunes of Mui Ne

On our first day in Mui Ne, Tony and I decided that relaxing on the beach was going to be our first priority. Walking out onto the sand, we quickly realized that there wasn't going to be too much shade to be found so we just dropped our towels on the sand and laid down to enjoy the hot sun and the sound of the waves breaking just a few feet away. It didn't take long before both of us had to evacuate the heat on the beach and go for a swim in the cool clear water. After having cooled off we returned to the beach where the process of baking ourselves began again. This time, we didn't last half as long as the first and were both back in the water. Our third attempt to relax in the sun was even shorter and for several hours we went on with the process of lying on the beach for ten minutes and then going for a swim for twenty. I don't think I have ever been to a beach as hot as this one here in Mui Ne. I am shocked that the local people have not come up with the idea of renting umbrellas and beach chairs here. I would have gladly forked over a few dollars for the chance to get out of the sun for a bit!

We finally gave up on enjoying the beach as we were both beginning to be roasted alive so we decided to rent a couple of motorbikes and head off to visit the nearby sand dunes. After a few wrong turns and various pointing by locals we finally made our way to the nearest sand dunes that were not only red but were also covered by hundreds of children holding little plastic sheets. With women waving us to park in front of their stores, we pulled over thinking we had made it to our destination when we were suddenly boarded by multiple children. Each of us now had one child on the back and one more standing between our legs holding onto the handle bars. They carried these plastic sheets that looked like the remnants of a plastic ball you might see at a grocery store for a dollar. The children were yelling that we should go to the big dunes, the white ones. Each yelling and pointing down the road in the direction in which we were heading, they convinced us to head that way.

Fighting off the attempts of other children trying to board our motor scooters, we slowly eased out onto the road and began the fifteen kilometer drive to the white sand dunes. Now, I was a bit worried about Tony driving a motorbike, especially with two children on board but he seemed to be holding up just fine. We eventually turned off the paved road onto a dirt road where we slowed down the pace to avoid sliding around. As we wound down the dirt road, we were separated from the big white sand dunes by a small lake. It was a stunning sight to see these massive white sand dunes in the afternoon sun reflected on a perfectly still lake. With the sun fading fast, we decided not to waste time taking a picture and continue on our journey to the dunes. After passing the lake, we began a slight decent where I noticed a big patch of sand on the road. Knowing how easy this can make the bike come out from underneath you, I quickly slowed down and made my way through the sand, slipping and sliding all the way through. It occurred to me to stop the bike and wave to Tony to go extremely slow. For whatever reason, I decided he would be fine and continued on.

Not long after crossing the sand, the children showed me where to park the motorbike where we could walk up to the sand dunes. As I pulled in and hopped off the bike, there was no sign of Tony. Immediately I knew what had happened. The sand had gotten him! All I could do was hope that he along with his two child passengers were ok. A few minutes passed and still no sign of his motorbike approaching. I started the engine on mine to go back and look for the remains of my friend when suddenly the children began yelling that he was coming down the road. I waited and as Tony pulled in, I could see the blood pouring from his leg and his arm. It was obvious that the injuries weren't serious so I was more concerned about injuries to the children. Somehow, Tony had managed to take the brunt of the fall and was the only one on board the motorbike who sustained injury. A few minor scrapes here and there, but nothing to worry about. He did however claim that he was finished with motorbikes for the rest of the trip. We shall see about that one!

The children led us into the desert abyss of these enormous white sand dunes. The sun was fading fast and I wanted to get some good photos so I picked up the pace a bit and managed to get some great shots of the untouched and unmarked sand dunes. It was a stunning sight to be so far away from everything and have these massive sand dunes all to ourselves. In the distance I could see where the tour buses were leaving after dropping their passengers off for a photo of the dunes but here we were standing on the tallest of them around with no footprints to be seen but our own leading back down from where we came.

At the top of the biggest dune, the children took turns with their plastic sheets flying down the hillside. It was a steep and long ride down and watching them climb back up the hill with the sand slipping beneath their feet even made me tired. After the children had their turns, they brought the plastic over to Tony and I and the next thing you know we were flying down the hill. I have no idea how fast we were going but I think it definitely exceeded the top speed that we had made it that day on the motorbikes! After struggling through the climb back up, we took a rest and spent the rest of our time enjoying a terrific sunset over the enormous sand dunes. An incredible end to another adventurous day of traveling.

Welcome to Vietnam!

After spending a day on my own in Saigon otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City, I was ready for my friend Tony to arrive. I had agreed to meet him at the airport but had not told him about how we would be making our way to the hotel. I really wanted Tony to experience Vietnam from the moment that he arrived. At the airport, I saw him through the window finally clearing customs after 27 hours of flying time. It wasn't hard to spot a 6'4" white guy walking amongst an army of small Asian men by any means so I quickly got his attention and welcomed him to Vietnam.

After fighting off the aggressive taxi and motorbike drivers, Tony and I made our way to the parking lot where our chariots were awaiting. As we approached the dimly lit parking lot, Tony asked where we were going. I said I wanted him to start experiencing Vietnam from the moment he arrived and I had arranged for the traditional form of transportation to get us to the hotel, motorbike taxis. Tony could only respond with an "Oh shit, are you serious?"

Motorbikes are the most common form of transportation in Vietnam. The streets always appear as if a race is about to begin as the motorbikes line up and fill up every inch of asphalt, not to mention the few free bits and pieces of available sidewalk as well. With our cheap plastic helmets buckled on, we off into the darkness. Leaving the airport, the traffic was fairly calm and spread out. This however didn't last very long. As we came closer and closer to the city, the weekend traffic was in full swing! With our drivers trying to keep up with each other, we weaved in an out of traffic, through red lights, over street corners and down narrow alley ways. Every now and then, we were riding alongside each other, both holding on for dear life but as we would look over, we couldn't help but laugh and enjoy the theme park like ride that we were on! When we arrived at the hotel safe and sound, Tony looked relieved to be dismounting his motorbike and getting his feet back safely on solid ground. I looked at him and laughed and could only say "Welcome to Vietnam!"