Monday, April 27, 2009

Vietnam - Part Four

People ask me how I can travel by myself and I never understood what the big deal was. I've only recently realized that it's easy for me to travel alone because I almost always make friends while I'm out and about, (I get this from my mother.) While traveling in Normandy, I met two American guys and two Frenchmen in a restaurant. We talked for several hours and then headed out to a local bar. In Rome, I spent a memorable night with three guys from the hostel. We had dinner and then hit a wine bar in the Piazza Navone. In Venice, I spent a whole day sightseeing with a Canadian girl I had met at breakfast in the hostel. And in Vietnam I was never without someone to talk to.

The very first day, within two hours of striking out, a woman asked me if the big building next to us was the Reunification Palace. I told her it was. And within five minutes we had lunch plans. She was from the Philippines and her sister was going to be studying in America next year. I didn't end up meeting her and I felt really bad about standing her up but I ended up going back to my hotel for an early afternoon nap because I wasn't feeling well.

The next day I left on my bike tour and just when I was starting to feel a little lonely Alan and Wendy from the UK showed up at the home stay in the room next to mine. We ended up having dinner and then breakfast the next morning together. We kept seeing each other along the tour and chatted whenever our territorial guides let us. It was really nice to have someone to share stories with about the trip with and most of our conversation centered on travel. Where we had been. Where we were going. I was very jealous of their upcoming trip to the Sahara and I wished we could have spent a little more time together. We tried really hard to have dinner together again the last night but the guides wouldn't hear of it. Weird, right? My guide wanted to take me to a local place and their guide was too nervous to veer off the approved itinerary. We said goodbye the next morning when they headed off to Cambodia and I went back to Ho Chi Minh.

Back in Saigon my last day I booked a tour to see the Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. By the time the day was over I had chatted extensively with a guy from Germany. (He even bought me a coke at one point.) And I ended the day having coffee and then dinner with two German girls, Jules and Nicky, who were also on the tour.

Dinner with my new German friends, Jules and Nicky.

Even on the way home, I managed to find a friend. An older Vietnamese man started talking to me in the check-in line. He was visiting his 93 year old mother. It was only his second visit to Vietnam since he left in the seventies. He told me all about how he had gone from a fighter pilot in the South Vietnamese Army to a janitor in America. He eventually got his masters in Engineering from Purdue and had only just recently retired from Lucent Technologies. We didn't sit near each other on the plane but he found me the next morning when we landed in Seoul and bought me breakfast and gave me some traditional Vietnamese sweets before we said goodbye and parted ways.

So there you go. That's how I can travel by myself. Because I never seem to end up by myself. I don't know how it happens. Sometimes I start the conversation. Sometimes it's the other person. Sometimes it's just a friendly chat but a lot of the time it turns into something more like a dinner or going to get coffee or a drink. I've never kept in touch with any of these people but it's still nice to share the experience of traveling with another traveler or two. Someone who understands exactly what it's like to be in a foreign country and what it is to see and do the things you are doing. How about you? Have you met anyone interesting while on vacation? I can't seem to help but to meet people on mine.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First let me say, I am no where near being overweight. And yet, Japan isn't the best place for me mentally when it comes to my body image. I've never had a problem with my weight before. I was slender in high school, gained some weight in college, lost it and a little more in France after college, was starting to creep up again due to my office job, and promptly lost it again when I moved to Japan. Here I tend to hover around a set weight, a little more if I'm on holiday and eating/drinking to excess, a little less if I'm depressed or sick and eating less. I work out consistently, walk or bike most everywhere, and try to eat within reason. And I'm doing something right because I got a perfect score on my health report this year. Living abroad has been good for my pant size. It hasn't always been great for my body image however.

Just being a westerner in Japan is enough to make a person feel fat. I'm constantly surrounded by people who are shorter and about 20kg lighter than me. None of the clothes are designed to fit me. I'm too tall and too curvy for things to fit. Some shirts and jackets are okay, although they seem to be designed for people without waists. And pants are impossible. I'll try on the largest size they have in the store and it's still not large enough.

And if that isn't enough people here are not shy to make comments about your weight. When I first got here they were all complimentary, "Oh wow, you've lost weight!" Now I'm seeing that they also go the other way. The other night at dinner my shirt slipped up so my lower back was showing. My friend Sue walked by, tickled me there, and then told me that I needed to go to the gym.

I was aghast. "Are you calling me fat?" I asked her indignantly.

"It's okay," she said. "I need to go too."

So because of her comments I've cut out all sugary snacks and alcohol during the week. Eating healthier isn't a bad thing. I think course corrections here and there and making sure that a few holiday pounds don't become permanent is easier than trying to lose a lot of weight down the road, but it's my mindset about it that is starting to become worrisome. Her comments shouldn't have affected me, but it did.

I didn't realize how much until I got the opposite reaction from a friend in America. She told me she had showed my Vietnam pictures around to the ladies she works with and they all made comments about how skinny I was and how my collar bone was sticking out. I tried to tell her it's always done that, but she insisted that when she saw me at Christmas I was looking pretty svelte. Not skinny in a bad way, but just smaller. This after the "You need to go to the gym" comment. My mom has made similar comments about me getting too small but I've dismissed them since she worries too much. I'm getting mixed messages and my brain is having trouble sorting it out. Am I too big or too small? I feel a bit like Goldilocks. Of course, rationally I know I am just right. I checked at the gym tonight and I'm no bigger or smaller than I was at my health check. But still...body image doesn't seem to come from the rational part of the brain. I still look in the mirror and wish my stomach was flatter and then I berate myself for caring so much.

It's not just women either. Nathan (co-ALT, neighbor, and other half of our English comedy duo) had a teacher he hadn't seen in awhile tell him that his face looked fatter. If it does I haven't noticed. He was put out since he's been making a concerted effort to lose some weight before he goes home this summer. My friend Jovan was called out on his weight gain when he came back to Japan after spending the summer in North America. Just a casual, "well you've gained weight," like they were commenting on the color of his shirt. I know it's acceptable in Japanese culture but as an American it's one of those things that rankles no matter how long you've been here.

One thing is for sure, culture shock can be a bitch. And with that said, Nathan is coming over soon and we are eating cake - cake with strawberries and whipped cream and maybe even some wine or bourbon to wash it down. And we'll be two sexy beasts doing it too.

Vietnam - Part Three

My final day in Vietnam was spent back in Ho Chi Minh. Before I left on the bike tour I had scheduled a day trip to a Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels that left at 8am so I was up early and out the door before 7:30. After some confusion on just where I supposed to be (resolved after I raised my voice explaining to the guy asking for my ticket that SOMEONE had ALREADY taken it and they WERE NOT leaving me behind) we were on our way.

We hit the Cao Dai temple first because they like for you to be there during prayer time. Cao Daism started in 1927 and is a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The ceremony and prayer itself was very interesting but I felt it was ruined somewhat by the hordes of tourists snapping photos (me included.) I wonder if the participants are able to block us yahoos out while they meditate or if only the last half of their prayer time, after most of the tourists wander back to their buses, is peaceful.

One eye is the symbol for their religion.

The altar at the front of the temple

All but the monks wear white while they pray. Tourists gawk from the balcony.

Then it was onto the Cu Chi Tunnels. And just like the War Remnants Museum the history reflected was one-sided and biased to the point it was funny. The interesting part was that the tunnels were actually built during WWII to hide from the Japanese army. They were only expanded later when the Viet Cong moved in and used them to fight the US Army. One US Army base unknowingly was built right over one tunnel entrance making it very easy to steal weapons and information. The tunnels themselves are very small (they've widened sections so fat American and European tourists can have a look) and were heavily booby-trapped. Special markings on the wall told the Viet Cong which way they should go to avoid the traps. US servicemen oftentimes weren't so lucky.

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They had all sorts of nasty traps including this one with bamboo spikes.

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Me inside the tunnels. They weren't so bad after caving in KY.

They had a shooting range where for a small fee you could shoot an AK-47 (I declined.) When it started to rain, our guide hurried us through the last bits showing how the VC used the tunnels to live in and planned their attacks from and into a small area with a video to watch. The video was a propaganda video from 1967 lauding teenage girls who had won medals for being "American killer heroes." I kept waiting for a narrator to cut in and explain the historical significance of the tunnels or put them into some kind of context but no it really was just a propaganda movie from the sixties and nothing else.

Check out the flag and picture of Ho Chi Minh displayed over the TV.

Then we were rushed back into the van in the hopes that we would beat the looming thunderstorm back to Saigon. We didn't. But it worked out okay because I ended up in a cafe with some German girls from the trip while we waited for it to stop raining. We went to dinner together as well and then it was back to the airport for me!

And that was my vacation. I'll probably have one more post talking about all the people I met but this is most of the pictures and sights done. If you ever get a chance to go to Vietnam, I say jump at it. It's a great place and I loved (almost) every minute I was there.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vietnam - Part Two

After rushing through great cities like Rome in one day that it's best to take your time and savor a place rather than rushing around wildly to see all there is to see. So with this is mind, I booked a four day trip through the Mekong Delta. It turned out to be a great decision. It also helped that my guide knew that I wanted to try some authentic Vietnamese food and made sure to take me to local watering holes rather than the usual tourist stops. He told me I was the first guest he had taken to these places and the first guest he had drank with. I think by the end he might have had a bit of crush on me because when we got back to Saigon he offered to take me out again that night even though the tour was over. My stomach was screaming for a break by that time though or else I might have taken him up on it. Lots of pics and text...

Mekong Delta:

The first day started with a river cruise from My Tho. It started on a larger boat with a motor but we soon transferred to a smaller boat with a skinny old man in the back who paddled us into a increasingly narrowing canal. We got out on an island and followed a small dirt path through fruit tree gardens. We stopped at a cafe where we ate locally grown fruit and drank green tea sweetened with honey and lime. Then it was back on the boat, which took us to lunch, but not before a quick look at the temple of the Coconut Sect, a religious order started by a man who ate only coconuts and drank only coconut milk. After lunch we met up with the van and then we finally hit the bikes for a 17 km bike ride along the river for my first real look at the countryside I had signed up to see. Another boat took our bikes, our overnight bags, and us to the home stay where I would spend the night. It was like camping!

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The second day we set off on our bikes around the island past beautiful houses with large open verandas. Vietnamese pop music drifted out while the inhabitants lounged around in hammocks. A father crouched around a bike, fixing it, while his two young sons sat nearby and watched with the radio on in the background reminded me of similar Saturday afternoons with my dad in the garage. We ran into two other tourists who were delighting the local children by taking their pictures. They laughed and hit each other when they saw the results. I smiled and said hello to school-aged children as they waved and shouted at me. This happened everywhere I went.


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Then we took a ferry over to the mainland where we continued on through rice fields and past brick kilns. Large white funereal monuments rose up from the fields, family ancestors laid to rest in the same fields they had worked themselves. Cows lounged in the sun along the path, undisturbed by us or the auto bikes that whizzed by. The sun beat down as the temperature soared and my energy leaked away. When we finally stopped for a drink after 35km, I was done for the day. We rode the rest of the way to our lunch stop and then onto Can Tho.

Brick kilns

Cud-chewing cow who ignored us as we biked past.

My hotel that night was horrific with two gray mice snuggled up under my pillow in my first room. My second room was better but I stilled spied a gecko running around in the bathroom, but I was too tired at that point to care much. That night my tour guide, Le, didn't take me to the normal tourist venues but instead to a back alley stall for dinner. We sat on low plastic stools in an open air restaurant and ate Vietnamese hot pot - chicken in a beef broth mixed with Chinese herbs - with fried chicken feet to finish and several bottles of rice wine to wash it down.

We decided to go get coffee and when we got back to the main street, I suddenly found a helmet in my hand. I had avoided the auto bike taxis in Saigon, but Le was determined to show me the real Vietnam, and with my inhibition lowered, I climbed on and away we went. Where we ended up didn't actually have coffee so I ordered an Orangina and inexplicably ended up with a Bird's Nest drink instead. (And yes, it's really made from bird's nest. It was sweet and not so bad tasting if you can forget its origin, which I never really could.)


The next day we set off to see the floating market. There were almost as many tourist boats as vendors but it was still interesting. Then we hit the bikes, through tiny villages and over small bridges, some of which looked like they might fall apart and into the canals at the slightest provocation. Before lunch we visited a stork sanctuary. It was beautiful to see so many birds everywhere, but my guide said if they strayed too far the rice farmers would capture and fix them up for dinner.

The floating market

Lunch was another hot pot, this time my new favorite dish - sour soup. After lunch we left the small dirt tracks for the larger road towards Chau Doc. It was a little unnerving (okay a lot unnerving) to share the road with cars, auto bikes, and these humongous dump trucks but as the mountains slowly appeared in the background I learned to stay as close to the side as I could without falling in a ditch. I saw ox carts and young boys carrying bags of grain on the backs of their bikes. We stopped for a drink at a hammock cafe. Why don't we have these in Japan or America???

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After another day of 35km or so on the bike we hiked another 1km up to the top of a mountain to see the view at sunset. Then Le dropped me off at my hotel (mouse-free this time!) with a promise to take me to another local restaurant for dinner. We had another hot pot, roasted beef, and more rice wine. The ride home was in a cyclo. About halfway back a pair of boys recognized our driver, and realizing that I was a foreigner, ran to catch us. They jumped in with us and rode the rest of the way. They asked my name in English but then grew frustrated that I couldn't speak Vietnamese. They asked Le why he hadn't taught me. I'm not sure what he told them, but I snapped their picture when we got back to the hotel.

My first cyclo ride.

The fourth and final day we set off on another boat cruise, stopping first to see a fishing village. It was crowded with tourists but it was interesting to see the houses up on their stilts with one pole marked to show how high the water got during rainy season. Back in the boat we cruised peacefully and snacked on fruit (they were always feeding me fruit wherever we went) before taking our bikes around another island. We biked through a small town where navigating the bike reminded me of a video game. I was constantly dodging people, bikes, animals, and veering right at the sound of horns so I didn't get run over by scooters from behind. It was crazy. It was awesome.




As we left the town the tracks became packed dirt and one point we had to detour because they were re-doing the road. Even after our small detour (down a ridiculously narrow path and over a small stone bridge that I actually fell off of) we had to ride through wet sand. An older woman on a scooter waited patiently while I hogged the one path that had been packed down some and when I passed she reached out and patted my shoulder and offered me a smile and an encouraging word. After 20km or so we caught another ferry back to the mainland and met up with our van driver who took me back to Saigon. And there the tour ended. I had a fabulous time and if I ever have the money for a private tour again like it, I will definitely jump at the opportunity.

Next up: A Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Vietnam - Part One

Vietnam - Part One

I had never really considered visiting Vietnam until my mom insisted that I should go there instead of Indonesia, which was my original idea for spring break. In her mind somehow Vietnam sounded safer than Bali. And being the respectful daughter that I am I decided to listen to her...somewhat. When I went to the library I checked out guides for both Bali and Vietnam and in the end Vietnam won out. I haven't been to Bali so I can't compare but I think I made the right decision. It was easily the best vacation I have been on in a long time. Vietnam and I got on rather well.


Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it used to be called (and still is by many residents) definitely shows its previous French influence in both the architecture and the coffee. But despite this, there's no way you can forget you are in southeast Asia. Woman in conical bamboo hats line every street, some of them carrying loads of fruits and vegetables over their shoulders. Hundreds of auto bikes and scooters whiz by, casually pulling up to street vendors to buy the day's food or a drink before whipping back into traffic again, sometimes driving on the wrong side until there is an opening to move back to the right side.



Men sit hunched over on plastic stools at impromptu sidewalk cafes, sipping tea or iced coffee while others lounge on parked bikes blocking the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians into the street with the traffic. Crossing the street is a nightmare preceded by a prayer. If you can find a local then follow them. One older lady saw me looking nervous my first evening, grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me across. She hardly waited for my relieved thank you on the other side. The trick, I was told, is to walk slowly so the bikes have time to swerve around you. They will but not without a lot honking first. The honking never stops actually, even late into the night, you can hear it. It's like the heat in that way.


If you are a tourist then you are constantly beset by men offering to drive you wherever you want in their taxi, cyclo, or on their auto bike. Women hawk different wares from food, toiletries, to cheap plastic toys. I learned quickly that an insistent "NO" along with avoiding eye contact kept them from harassing me too much, but not before I was stalked by a cyclo driver I had been too friendly with. An Australian couple near me at a cafe the first day was harassed into buying something from an elderly woman and her smug smile and laughter at the man's irritation made me lose any sympathy I might have had previously.

I didn't actually see many of the sights that the city had to offer. I refused rides by the cyclo drivers on principle and after observing the traffic there was no way I was getting on an auto bike taxi, which left me only my two feet to get around. I still managed two lovely parks, the Ben Thanh Market, walked by the Renification Palace (a horribly ugly concrete building from the 1960's) and over to the War Remnants Museum.


The museum was interesting though completely unreliable historically with its obvious bias. It did a good job of showing the horrors of the Vietnam War while managing to lump all the blame on the murdering henchmen of the American Army. Despite the harsh language though I was never made to feel uncomfortable being an American there. Maybe its because I'm young and female and they wanted my money, but I hope it was more than that.


I will say though that the pictures of Agent Orange victims combined with the heat made me sick to my stomach and I retreated back to the hotel for a few hours to rest before I ventured out again to do some more shopping although I didn't stay out long. I'm sad to say that the first day I went to bed early. The heat and pollution combined with an early start the next day to begin my bike tour had me showered and watching American Idol in the hotel well before 9pm. But since I rarely get to watch real TV I counted even that as a treat to be savored while on holiday.

Next up: Four days in the Mekong Delta