Sunday, April 28, 2013

Da Lat is for lovers!

*Warning: This post has a picture of snake in it!*

Sometimes Courtney and I have a great plan for our next few days. Sometimes we make it up as we go. Da Lat has definitely been the latter. We stumbled off of our bus from Ho Chi Minh City at 5:15am. We had no map, no plan, no hotel, no idea where we were, no exit strategy, and very little sleep. We strapped on our backpacks and stumbled down the street just as the sky was beginning to brighten. We asked a few strangers which direction to the center of town, and we got a few confused looks before they pointed out the way. We found the middle of town just as the sun was coming up, and stopped to watch the sunrise over the lake.

As we sat there, we borrowed the wifi signal from the cafe next door and found an open hotel near the center of town. We strapped our backpacks back on, and after viewing one of the rooms and being satisfied, we booked our next few nights. Step one, complete.

Step two was to pass out and sleep til early afternoon. Eventually we woke up and wandered from our hotel in search of food. We found a little bar in the basement of a nearby hotel that we had heard about, and sat   down to dinner and a few drinks. Just what the doctor ordered.

On our way home, we stopped in the local market and found a candy vendor for dessert. We walked away with a bag full of sugar coated dried fruit and little cubes made of aloe vera. They were delicious. 

As we were getting ready for bed, we heard muffled singing coming from somewhere nearby, but we couldn't figure out where. We listened out the window, opened our door and listened down the hall, but it never seemed to get louder. Then it dawned on us. Our hotel is right next to a large karaoke place. The singing was coming from slightly intoxicated Asians singing their favorite songs on the other side of our wall. Thankfully, the place closes around 11:30, so its been mildly amusing/irritating instead of terrible. 

We got up the next day and checked the weather forecast. Afternoon showers were on the way, so we decided to stick around town and see what we could find that morning. What we found was the Hang Nga Guesthouse, also known as the "Crazy House." 

This place was wild. It was filled with winding tunnels and towering staircases linking the rooms of this guesthouse. We spent forever exploring every nook and cranny of this insane hotel. 

We grabbed a bite to eat and then headed back to our hotel just as the rain clouds were rolling in.

The skies opened up, and stayed that way for most of the day. Courtney and I took the opportunity for a relaxing dinner and a movie night in at our hotel. 

We were up early the next morning. We had booked a day tour with the Da Lat Easy Rider Club. The Easy Riders are a group of motorcycle enthusiasts turned tour guides. You can book them for just a day, or even for a multi-day journey around Vietnam. Our guides, Phuong and Bom, met us at their office and we were off. 

Our first stop was at a nearby pagoda. Before a long journey, Vietnamese people come here to pray for good luck, so that's exactly what we did. They also have a giant dragon statue!

We stopped at a few places along the way with great views of the surrounding countryside. The central highlands of Vietnam are beautiful.

Our next stop was at a local coffee plantation. They grow a number of different coffee beans here, and as of last year, Vietnam was the world's number one exporter of coffee.

From there, we went to the Elephant Waterfall. We followed our guide down a very treacherous path down the rocks to the bottom of the waterfall, but we're so glad we did. The views were amazing!

On our way back up, Bom took us across a few precariously placed rocks that lead to a cave behind the waterfall. It was so intense to be behind that much falling water.

We walked back up the hill to the pagoda at the top, and were rewarded with a picture with the giant happy Buddha.

After that, we sat down to a traditional Vietnamese lunch with our guides. Before we knew it, our table was full of rice, vegetables, pork, beef meatballs, tofu, chicken, and spring rolls. I was also offered a shot of interesting looking "rice wine'. Game for anything, I counted down with our two guides "Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!" (One, Two, Three, Cheers!) and downed the glass. Not bad, I thought. Then they showed me the jar it came from.

Snake wine is a traditional Vietnamese drink. They take wine made from rice and yeast, and shove a few snakes, head and all, into the jar. They let it sit for about 6 months, and then its ready to serve at about 30% alcohol. Our guides informed us that the people drink it as a local remedy, especially as a cure for gout.  A few more Mot Hai Ba YO's later and I had a snake wine buzz.

After lunch, we stopped at the rice winery to see how the rice wine is made. Turns out, its just like making moonshine in the hills of North Carolina.

As we started heading back, the skies were growing darker. Sure enough, about halfway back to town, it started pouring. Not just raining, but pouring. Our guides were great, and managed to avoid most of the streets-turned-rivers by snaking (no pun intended) their way along canals and through alleyways.

We made it safely back to our hotel, and even managed to dry out a little before dinner. We went to the same guesthouse for dinner as the night before, as it was lots of good food for cheap (dinner and drinks came to around $5). While we were waiting on our food, we struck up a conversation with a fellow American sitting at the table across from us. She was from Washington, and had just arrived that day. As we were talking, the 9-year-old Vietnamese boy next to her interrupted us. "Excuse me, I don't want to interrupt, but I would like to practice my English with you." How could we say no!?! The four of us proceeded to talk all through dinner about everything from his favorite subject in school (he likes math and recess, but history is boring! Too many wars.) to the places he wants to visit in America (The big bridge in California) to why there are people on earth (I kid you not, he asked me who the first human was and where the rest of us came from, and then sat there, interested, and listened while I gave him the evolutionary history of mankind). His mother sat next to him the whole time, smiled, and looked very proud. After saying goodbye to our new friend and encouraging him to always ask questions, we headed back to the market.

The market was crazy thanks to all of the Vietnamese toursists on holiday for Reunification Day, or the day the Americans left Vietnam (ironic, no?). We managed to find what we were looking for. A few limes and a bag of sugar. We got back to our hotel and made freshly squeezed, all local limeade. We added a little vodka, and sat back to relax after an amazing three days in Da Lat.

Saigon Street Eats

While I was writing that last blog post, TJ was dodging rush-hour motorbikes on his way to every travel agent in our district. He visited at least eleven, and the answer was the same every time: "Full." He couldn't find a bus or train out of the city until Monday.

Finally, he found one option: a bus that left Saigon for Dalat at midnight - seven hours from now. He came back to the hotel to discuss it with me, and then we left to buy the tickets together. It meant giving up a paid night at our hotel. It meant packing wet clothes that we thought we would have an extra day to dry. It meant leaving the barely-familiar Saigon for another completely unknown city, with no time to research. But we know that we tend to like smaller cities better than large ones, and we knew that spending the weekend in Dalat would be cheaper than spending it in Saigon, so we jumped.

By the time we got to the travel agent, the "midnight" bus had strangely transformed into a 10:30 pm bus. That added the element of rushing through dinner and springing for a taxi to get us to the station on time, but we were already committed. I may have had a bit of buyer's remorse on our way back to the hotel, but TJ convinced me to either suck it up and make the best of it, or go back to the agent to cancel our tickets. I decided to trust in our ability to make it work. That, and we had ten minutes until dinner!

At 6:00, we were meeting Barbara and Vu from Saigon Street Eats for a Vietnamese family-style dinner. They specialize in street food tours, but with our lack of fondness for tentacles and our short time frame, we opted to go out to a real restaurant instead. I was especially looking forward to this experience because I already felt like I knew Barbara a bit. I've been reading her blog for the last few months as we've prepared for this trip, and it was so much fun to meet her in person!

Barbara and Vu met us in the lobby of our hotel and handed us helmets. More motorbikes! They whisked us off through the city, just in time to catch a beautiful view of the city from a bridge.

Dinner itself was phenomenal. TJ and I were game to try just about anything, so our hosts kept ordering. We ended up with plates of vegetables, chicken, meatballs, pork, and beef, and we tasted everything. TJ and I even tasted our first frog!

The most entertaining part of the evening was interacting with the waiters and waitresses. This particular restaurant had stellar service, by Vietnamese standards, and that meant the staff never stopped fussing over us! I watched them pluck a shrinking ice cube out of Barbara's glass with tongs so they could replace it with a giant ice cube. Every time they brought a dish to the table, they would rearrange all the dishes already present, including the ones you were eating off of. If they were ready to clear a plate that still had food on it, they would grab whichever pair of chopsticks was currently not in use and plop the food into your bowl, ready to eat. I loved it!

We ended dinner with a hot pot, a spicy soup heated over a flame at our table. They cooked the broth in the kitchen and then added seafood, vegetables, and herbs once it got to our table. We added some delicious noodles to our individual bowls and then ladled the soup on top. 

Time was running short if we were going to make our bus, so Barbara and Vu picked up some takeaway dessert for us to eat on the bus and dropped us off at our hotel. We've gotten our brush teeth-change clothes-pack bags routine down to seven minutes now, so we were in and out and on our way to the bus stop in no time.

Then, of course, we waited for an hour. During which we noticed all the fancy buses with fully-reclining seats and lots of room were lined up on the left side of the station:

And on the right side, all by itself, was our little bus:

But considering it was all that was available, it was good enough for us. Off to Dalat!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The First Scam

TJ and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (called Saigon by everyone who lives here) on Wednesday afternoon. Despite two months of traveling, we still get a little overwhelmed when we arrive in a new country's big city. Our rule, "If in doubt, walk" still stands, though, so we found a map of the area and set off, looking for the hotel we had booked the day before.

I have to introduce Vietnam by admitting that I was nervous about coming here. It's not exactly the most American-friendly country, and we have heard very mixed reviews about it from people we have met along the way. For every person that enjoyed visiting the country, we met someone who disliked it. Although we left our hearts in Thailand and considered skipping Vietnam all together so we could return, we knew that we had to face our fears and give the country a chance. This is the trip of no regrets.

So we found our hotel relatively easily, even using our map to help out a fellow bus passenger along the way, ate a delicious dinner, and caught our first glimpse of this crazy city. The traffic that we walked past on our way to dinner was absolute chaos, so we laughed that there would be no beloved motorbikes for us - the only vehicle we could possibly feel safe in would be the big buses like the one we arrived in. Then we made it back to our hotel room and promptly booked a day tour with Back of the Bike Tours. Because we're here to face our fears, right?

Our guides picked us up this morning, handed us helmets, and helped us onto the bikes behind them. We had two ladies, both very good at English, who each drove a motorbike with one of us on it. That was it! No big group, no megaphones, no matching stickers or hats. Just four people on two motorbikes in the insane Saigon traffic.

First of all, we survived. I'm writing this from the safety of our hotel room. Second, it was an amazing way to see the city! We went everywhere, tried all kinds of different foods, asked lots of different questions about their government and religions here, and got advice on which sights we should visit around the city. These ladies were wonderful at introducing us to Vietnam, and we even enjoyed the heart-stopping weaves through crowded intersections. Maybe we would enjoy Vietnam after all!

Mangosteen - a new favorite!

Our first taste of dragonfrruit.

Then the tour ended. It was 12:30, and our guides dropped us off at the main Post Office (at our request) with directions and encouragement to visit things like the museum and the cathedral. We had a map, we had our bearings, we were good. We made it to the museum just in time for them to reopen for the afternoon, and...I decided I wasn't feeling well. Too much heat and pollution for the day, and we can always save the museum for tomorrow.

TJ, bless his heart, took the first opportunity to get me back to the hotel he could find. While we were looking for a taxi, a man approached us, offering one. I asked him if it was a "company" taxi (the kind you want), and he said yes. Skeptical, we followed him. Halfway across the street, he changed tactics and suggested, "Would you ride a bicycle?" He meant the contraptions TJ and I call "cyclos" - a three-wheeled bicycle with a seat on the front for tourists. My gut reaction was a big "No!", but TJ wanted to get us back to the hotel and thought it would be fun.

The guy took us to his friend and then jogged off around the corner. The cyclos each hold one person, so we needed two bikes for the two of us. The first guy had run off to get his own bike, which he had planned on taking us to all along. While we waited, the friend encouraged us to both hop on the bike, TJ in the driver's seat, for a photo op. When we hesitated, expecting him to charge us for the picture, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the bike. First sign. The first guy arrived with his bike, we both asked, separately, how much the ride would be, and both of our questions were expertly avoided. Second sign. We climbed in anyway. We weren't going very far; how much could it be?

After a peacefully slow ride outside of the rush of traffic, we pulled into familiar territory, a couple blocks from our hotel. Then we stopped. Third sign. Even with TJ's map and specific instructions, the guys were finished, and our rides were over. Since TJ was carrying the money, he raised an eyebrow at our first guy's high price, but paid him, thinking it was for a unique experience. Then, that guy immediately pedaled off, leaving my driver demanding the same amount of money from me. That high price was for ONE of us, not both. When we balked, he pulled out convenient laminated papers showing the "official" prices for one-way and round-trip, both exorbitant. We had less than half the amount left in our wallet, so TJ sprinted off to the nearest ATM (he's always doing that!), leaving me waiting with the impatient driver.

A few minutes later, dues paid, pride hurting, and final blocks walked, we angrily stumbled into our hotel room - to find that no one had touched it in the entire time we had been gone. Only the second time on this trip that we have splurged on a real hotel room, with a (gasp!) bathtub, hand towels, and maid service, and we don't even get to enjoy them! So we put in a polite call to the reception desk and parked ourselves in the lobby while our bed was being made.

Now, we're sitting on our clean sheets, feeling much better, trying to recover our sense of adventure and brainstorming how to get out of this city and gain a different perspective. Apparently it is a Vietnamese holiday and all buses, trains, and private drivers out of the city are completely booked through the weekend. Now what do we do?