Two mad days of travel from Mai Chau (Vietnam) to Sam Neua (Laos)

The morning Ben and I were to leave Mai Chau we saw a newlywed couple walking down the street.

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They picked a good location.  Like the day before the mist was dense in the mountains – the set of stairs that I had climbed to make it to the cave the day before were barely visible in the green mountainside.

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Ben and I would be attempting to navigate a series of six different local bus rides (Mai Chau to Quan Hoa to Dong Tam to Quan Son to Na Meo/Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai to Sam Neua) in order to accomplish our general goal of crossing the border from Vietnam into Laos.  Our Visas were about to expire and I didn’t want to have to bribe the Vietnamese border crossing agent for overstaying my welcome.

The Na Meo (Vietnam) to Nam Xoi (Laos) border crossing is rarely used by tourists because it is so hard to get to.   For Ben and I it was the closest border crossing to Mai Chau, though in this case closest did not mean easiest to reach.  I had researched a way to get from Mai Chau to Sam Neua (our ultimate destination in Laos) from a guy who had done it back in 2009 and provided an excellent and thorough step by step forum post, but as I’ve learned from previous reliance on forum posts they can be far from accurate.  And this route was complicated so even the best explanation of what happened three years ago would be subject to error.

I detailed our route based on the post, writing kilometers in between connecting lines and circling the prices I could hypothetically negotiate for each ride based on the prices the guy negotiated three years ago.

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This chicken scratch scrap of paper was clutch

We stopped on the side of the only street that runs through Mai Chau and watched for our first bus which would take us to Quan Hoa.  While there is an official “bus stop” in Mai Chau you can pretty much wait anywhere in the street that the bus runs along and simply flag it down when you want to hop on.  This is not the strict one destination stop bus system-“be at the bus stop at 4:10 pm or you miss your bus”-that you have in the U.S.   If you are a potential candidate that the bus driver can cram onto his bus and collect more money he will stop for you, even if his bus isn’t going to where you want to go….

I learned this the hard way on our first bus ride from Mai Chau.  As we waited for the bus which seemed to be late (no surprises there) we had been talking to some moto drivers about trying to get this bus to Quan Hoa, our first destination.   They were not being entirely helpful because they wanted to take us on their moto for triple the price of what a bus would cost.

A couple buses rolled by and I would flag them down (there is typically no way to tell where they are going) and ask them “Quan Hoa”?  The first two said “no” but the third bus driver said “ok”.  This should have raised red flags – I was looking for a “yes”, not an “ok”…. As we boarded the bus the moto drivers that we had been talking to started telling us “no no no! no go Quan Hoa!”  This also should have raised red flags but since they had been unhelpful earlier I figured they were still just trying to make me take a moto ride with them for triple the cost of the bus.

I again confirmed with “money collector” (each local bus has one of these guys – they take care of passengers getting on and off and collecting payment) on the bus that he was taking us to Quan Hoa, negotiated our price down to 70,000 Dong a person (only 30,000 more per person than what the guy had paid in 2009), gave the driver 140,000, and we started on our way.  The bus ride started innocently enough – just another local bus jammed packed with people and things.

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But then red flag number three rose after I handed over my money and the money collector started laughing up at the front of the bus with the driver while throwing glances back towards Ben and I.  Red flag number four shot up when at a small town only 15 km from Mai Chau the bus turned around, parked, and everyone exited the bus, including the driver and money collector.  I knew from my chicken scratch notes that Quan Hoa was 54 km from Mai Chau – hmmmmmm.

Ben and I sat there quite confused for about 3 minutes, wondering why we were the only two people on the bus.  Ben still held out some optimism that the guy would hold true to his word and take us to Quan Hoa but I was more than skeptical at this point.  I exited the bus and the man who had taken my money was sitting in the living room of a house with several people while smoking tobacco out of a bong.  He didn’t look like he was going to Quan Hoa anytime soon.  I knew we were most likely screwed when I looked at the buses new destination sign, “My Dinh”, a bus station in  Hanoi.  The bus was going back through Mai Chau to Hanoi.

Still thinking there was a chance he had not lied to me I started out by politely asking the money collector when he would be taking us to Quan Hoa.  He said “no go to Quan Hoa. My friend with moto take you Quan Hoa.  He take you for 300,000 Dong.”  On hearing this I was done being polite.  I angrily demanded that he give me my money back, repeating our conversation in Mai Chau “Quan Hoa?” – “Ok!” and explaining to him “We are not in Quan Hoa!”  He walked away shaking his head back towards the living room and I followed right on his heels.

I circled around him again demanded my money back.  By this point all the other folks in the living room started to take notice that I was not happy.  I was not afraid to shame him in front of his family and friends – he had taken my money and lied to me and I wanted my money back.  Feeling the gazes of his family and friends around him he sheepishly pulled his wad of money out of his pocket and handed me 60,000 Dong back.  Not enough.  I explain to him “I give you 140!  This is not Quan Hoa! Give me money back!”

He again refused but I remained in his face until he handed me another 20,000 Dong back.  Still not enough.  By this time Ben had exited the bus.  I explained to him what was going on and he joined me in yelling at the Vietnamese fellow, who now had two customers yelling at him in front of his family and friends.  He handed me another 20,000 and at this point I decided to terminate the conflict and walk away.  I had gotten back 100,000 of the 140,000 Dong I gave him and he did take us 15km, so I figured 40,000 Dong was fair for that.

The moto drivers standing nearby (friends with the guy I had been yelling at) knew that Ben and I were now stranded and began pestering us.  “I will take you to Quan Hoa – 300,000 Dong!” But at that point I was upset with all of them and with the situation so Ben and I walked away back through the small town.

We were now stranded in a small town that we didn’t even know the name of 40 km from Quan Hoa with no way to get there except for con men who wanted to rip us off.   It would have been an understatement to say that the first bus ride had not gone according to plan.  We hailed a passing car and asked them if they’d take us to Quan Hoa but the two Vietnamese men in the car also surmised we were stranded and wanted 1,000,000 Dong.  No thanks.

Just when it seemed like all hope was lost a bus rounded the corner with big flashing neon lights reading “Quan Hoa”.  Unreal, the bus we should have waited for in Mai Chau, on its way to Quan Hoa.  Never had I been happier to see a crappy local bus roll by.  We flagged the bus down and hopped on.  Crisis averted.  We paid the man 80 Dong (40 Dong per person, the price the guy got back in 2009) and were on our way.

At Quan Hoa my notes indicated that we would each need to hire motos for around 25,000 Dong apiece to ride us 16 km to Dong Tam, our next destination.  But we got lucky.  No more than five minutes after we had been dropped off in Quan Hoa another random bus rolled by that was on its way to Dong Tam.

The ride to Dong Tam had several seemingly random stops along the way like the one you seen in the video below.

But just as they will pick you up from anywhere along the ride they will drop the locals off anywhere they request along the route – it makes for a lot of short little stops.  Beyond that the ride to Dong Tam was enjoyable, set beside a big river.

At one point I took a film of some young local boys playing football on the side of the muddy river bank.

Dong Tam is a small town at the junction of Mai Chau, Than Hoa, and Na Meo, the Vietnamese border crossing town.  I knew that a bus would be coming from Than Hoa on its way to Quan Son, which was our next destination.  I knew this from my research and also because I confirmed it with a local Vietnamese man who had rode the bus with us from Quan Hoa to Dong Tam.  He used the back of my chicken scratch instructions to draw me a helpful little diagram.

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We ascertained from some locals in Dong Tam that the bus we sought would be coming through “at some point” and that we might have to wait a bit.  We took seats in an old local woman’s house/store and Ben fired up some Fifa on his iPhone.

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The device you see next to Ben’s leg is a bong that the local men use to smoke tobacco. You see it everywhere in Vietnam – they smoke tobacco out of these bongs just like people in the U.S. take cigarettes. While Ben and I were waiting two young local guys came by and smoked out of the bong you see here. As they always do, they offered Ben and I a try but we politely declined.

While we were waiting I turned on my netbook to work on a blog post.  When the old local woman saw me scrolling through my pictures she came over to stand beside me.  Locals are many times entertained by the pictures on my netbook – this may have been the first netbook the woman had ever seen.  I took a break from my blog post to show her pictures I had taken in Mai Chau.  She smiled when she recognized Mai Chau and called some of her other family members over to join in observing them.

After about an hour our bus headed to Quan Son and I was seated next to a young local man who was 24 years old.  He was really excited to be seated next to an English-speaking American and quickly pulled out and showed me his English book that he was using to learn English.

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He flipped through to some of his favorite “conversation exercise” pages and demonstrated his ability to speak sentences to me.  With his allowance I took a few pictures of the pages.  The book looked pretty basic and the “Units” seemed totally disorganized (the phrases and words in each unit seemed completely unrelated) but for him it was all he had and he seemed to be really happy with it.

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His English was broken but I gave him nothing but positive feedback and encouragement, which delighted him.  People in SE Asia really take it as a compliment when you tell them they speak good English so I always do (even if they don’t speak good English).

At times I would observe him sit and stare intently at the seat in front of us, sometimes for 30 seconds or more, while he worked up a question to ask me in English.  After his contemplation he would finally turn to me, smile, and stutter out his question.  I would always smile and nod, and slowly respond.  Though it was a stunted conversation I could tell he was really enjoying practicing with me.  He was a local guy who lived in Quan Son and right before the bus dropped him off at his house I snapped a picture of us.

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After snapping the picture the other locals in the front of the bus wanted their picture taken so they could see themselves on my digital camera.  At their request I gave them a shot as they laughed and then handed my camera to each of them so they could review the shot.

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If you notice the woman on the left, you are not seeing her teeth incorrectly.  They were black, very black.  I had remembered reading about this in Hanoi’s Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

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As explained from the picture I took of the museum’s plaque, Thai, Khang, and Lu villagers in remote areas of Vietnam would burn tree branches to extra resin.  Every couple days they would put three to four layers of this black resin on their teeth.

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Lacquered black teeth are considered beautiful on women from these villages – the blacker, the more beautiful.

Because the practice of lacquering teeth had largely stopped in the mid-20th century, the museum plaque stated that “[n]ow[adays], only a few elderly women have lacquered teeth.”  I guess I was just lucky enough to see one of these women and on a bus ride from Dong Tam to Quan Son of all places.

When we arrived in Quan Son started walking down the street it was almost as if aliens had landed.  Tourists never come to Quan Son so two white men walking down the one road through Quan Son was something rare for most of the locals.   People would curiously peer out at us from their houses/store fronts and many would wave and say “Sin Chau!”

Quan Son is a quaint little town set by the river.

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It was even smaller and quieter than Mai Chau.

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As it had happened to me in Mai Chau, a group of local Quan Son boys started following Ben on their bicycles, interested in the two strange white men walking through their town.

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As we walked the group of kids grew until I finally made them all stop for a picture.

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My research indicated that from Quan Son we would need to catch a moto to Na Meo, the Vietnamese border crossing town.  It was about 4pm and we probably needed to catch a ride before the sun went down but Ben and I were hungry so we stopped for a bite at a local restaurant near the river the runs next to Quan Son.  They served us up a nice steaming plate of meat and vegetables and the customary huge bowl of rice.

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As in Maui Chao our presence in the restaurant did not go unnoticed.  A group of local teenage boys sitting two tables away came over and asked to have their picture taken with us.

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And not just one picture.  They each wanted taking turns getting their picture taken with Ben and I.

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After dinner we talked to the local Quan Son doctor who lived across from the Quan Son hospital.  He spoke pretty good English and explained that we should probably stay the night in Quan Son and take the bus from Na Meo the next day.  This wasn’t part of our plans but the town seemed small and friendly so we took his advice and checked into the town’s one hotel.

As the sun set we observed the locals gathering at certain spots around the town to get their sport on.

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This volleyball match was intense – these guys were good.

About 100 meters from the volleyball game we saw Vietnam’s number one sport being played – badminton.

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There were a group of about eight teams taking turns playing doubles.  The woman in the below video was the best one on the court in this game.

This was not a “winner stays” format.  Instead, two teams would take a turn playing one game and as soon as it finished a different set of four players (two teams) would run onto the court for the next game.

One of the games we watched got really close and I had a chance to film the final four points of the match, all on the video below.  The fourth and last point was really intense.   Almost as intense as pickup basketball games at the University of Iowa’s Fieldhouse.

The locals playing invited Ben and I to play a game but after watching a few games I knew our attempt to play would be laughable.  No sense in playing if you can’t even compete.

After getting our sports fix we headed back to the hotel room.  Knowing we would face a barrage of rice wine shots from the generous and gregarious locals if we went out to grab a late dinner we decided to stay in and go to bed early.

The next morning we wandered to find some place we could eat breakfast.  Two local men munching on some noodle soup and smoking tobacco bongs motioned for us to come join them.  Ben was sick of noodle soup by this point so he went off to get a sandwich but I obliged the men and had them make me some noodle soup.  One of them wanted to try my shades on and get his picture taken.

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When Ben came back we pulled out the LP and started teaching one of the locals some English.

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In about 10 minutes a huge group of locals had started to gather at the random restaurant we had stopped at.

I don’t think it was because of us though.  This was clearly a pre-arranged meet up for what would become a massive feast shared by 20-some people. They invited me to join while Ben agreed to stay out front and watch for our bus.

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The feast was very big and it was nice to be a part of it.   Though it was only 11 am, for them it was 5 o’clock somewhere and they had 15 bottles of rice wine out for the occasion.

Just about every man at the feast came to share a shot of rice wine with me.  Even men at the other table would wait their turn to bring their bottle over, pour us both a shot, say “Sin Mai” and throw it down.  The eight guys at my table shared at least 1-2 shots each with me.  Maybe it was just the full sun, but I felt pretty warm by the end of breakfast.

Our bus ended up coming but it was packed to the brim and chances of getting on seemed unlikely.  To complicate the matter the bus driver’s money collector wanted 600,000 Dong each to drive us just to Na Meo, Vietnam’s border, which was just 55km away.  He even called his English speaking daughter to have her negotiate this ridiculously inflated price for him.

After several minutes of haggling which involved hanging up on the daughter, I said “150,000 for 1 person.”  I then showed the bus 300,000 Dong for both my brother and started walking away.  In hindsight this was a stupid move.  Our visas expired on that day and without this bus we were stranded in Quan Son.  But for some reason I felt it would work – most likely because I was emboldened by rice wine instead of orange juice for breakfast.  But it ended up working.  After I got about 10 meters away the money collector shouted for us to jump in and we did.  From 1.2 million dong, I negotiated him down to 300,000 and we still paid more than the locals did.

The bus drive to Na Meo was less than pleasant – it was the most crowded ride we had been on to date in SE Asia.  There were about 30 people crammed into a bus meant for 14 and the two women next to Ben and I were ill.  We had seen the bus driver hand small clear plastic bags to passengers and now we know why.

The sick women would vomit and noisily spit phlegm into the bags.  Why they make these things clear is anyone’s guess.  It is absolutely disgusting to witness someone sitting one foot from you blow chunks into a bag.  At one point one of the women filled her bag with vomit and phlegm and handed it to the money collector to toss out the window.  Unfortunately for Ben the man’s toss was less than perfect and the bag spilled out all over his leg on its way out the window.  He was not pleased.

Finally the long vomit ride ended and we crossed the border into Laos.

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I had sobered by this point and we were able to get out of Vietnam with 30 minutes to spare on our Visa.

But a new problem awaited us.  There is no place to stay in Nam Xoi, the Laos town at the border crossing so Ben and I needed to continue on this bus to Vieng Xai and then to Sam Neua but we had only paid for the ride to Na Meo.  The bus driver’s money collector, knowing we were stranded in Nam Xoi without him, was again asking for 600,000 Dong each to get us there.  He had a big advantage in this negotiation.  Nevertheless I brushed him aside and told him we would walk, which of course he knew was impossible.

Because the bus had about a 30 minute layover in Nam Xoi, to delay the inevitable disadvantaged haggle I was going to attempt, Ben and I explored Nam Xoi for a bit. It was a small town overlooking the river and border checkpoint in the distance.

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Nearby a group of Laos locals played Sepak Takraw, called “ka-taw” in Laos.

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Sepak Takraw is a combination of volleyball and football – essentially it is volleyball without hands on a badminton sized court.

Ben and I saw Sepak Takraw being played in several places in Laos – it seemed to be more popular than we had seen in Cambodia or Vietnam.

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The game seems incredibly hard to me but these guys made it look pretty easy.

Because it is so difficult many of the points are short but most points involved a skillful “winner” shot by one of the players, such as the bicycle kick winner in the video below.

Unfortunately the inevitable finally happened and the bus fired up to start the final trip through Vieng Xai and Sam Nuea.  Time to haggle with the money collector again.  As with last time I told him I would only pay 300,000 Dong and got to a point where he was willing to take no less than 600,000 for both of us.  This time he put on a hard bluff, getting on the bus and waiving for the bus driver to start driving unless we paid the full 1.2 million.

As the bus took off I responded with a counter-bluff, walking away and deliberately showing a sad face to all the locals I’d had a chance to meet on the ride to Na Meo.  My bluff was hinged on a gut feeling that they simply would not leave two Americans stranded at the border.  Luckily my intuition was correct.  The bus rolled about 25 meters away before they stopped and waived my brother on.  Sigh of relief.

But they had the last laugh.  On the cramped bus ride from Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai and finally to Sam Nuea, someone (I’m guessing the money collector) pickpocketed over $100 in Thai Baht from my pocket.  I had had my wad on me because I had paid for the Laos visa and forgot to put it back in a safer place than my pocket.

All in all I considered these two days to be two of the most memorable and real “experiences” of the trip.  You take the good with the bad when traveling and these two days of crazy travel, from Mai Chau to Sam Neua, had both.

Mild Mannered Mai Chau and why I like rural parts of SE Asia more than big cities

After Halong Bay and getting back to Hanoi Ben and I were on the fence about whether to go to Sapa in northern Vietnam.  Sapa is set in beautiful mountain country and affords lots of trekking opportunities but the weather forecast was bad.  I love hiking but not when its pouring rain and I am constantly slipping and falling.

So instead of Sapa we elected to go to Mai Chau, a lesser-visited Vietnamese town set in a valley west of Hanoi.  We ended up making a good choice.  Some friends we met in Halong Bay who had already scheduled their Sapa trip to occur after Halong Bay said Sapa was awful – two days of attempting to trek but mostly falling on slippery muddy paths.

We bought our tickets to Mai Chau in Halong’s bus station to avoid the overcharging we experienced in Hue.  Our trip to Mai Chau from Halong Bay was not without incident.

Every bus driver in SE Asia doubles as his own mechanic, a skill I wish I had

Every bus driver in SE Asia doubles as his own mechanic, a skill I wish I had

Buses break down all the time in SE Asia, particularly if they are “local” buses which I mentioned earlier in the first Phong Nha post.  If they tell you its going to be a 4 hour bus ride, expect at least 6.  Nothing is on time and you shouldn’t expect it to be.

We arrived in Mai Chau late in the evening.  The town was very quiet and almost everything was closed.  No need to strictly enforce a curfew here because there is nothing going on.  We wandered a few hundred meters and eventually found a guesthouse run by a nice Vietnamese family.  We were hungry so we less than optimistically ventured out into the dead street in hopes of finding a restaurant still open.

We eventually came to a house that looked like they were serving food.  A group of six young Vietnamese men and one woman were eating quietly in the back of the restaurant.  The young woman came up to us and helped Ben and I order because the woman serving spoke no English.  But she did cook us up a good meal.  Afterwards the woman who had helped translate invited Ben and I to come back and join her friends for some rice wine.

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And so it goes in rural Vietnam.  Over the next three days Ben and I spent in Vietnam I was unable to eat one meal without taking at least 6-8 (and usually more) small shots of rice wine.  Unlike in big cities and touristy areas in rural Vietnam the locals rarely see or interact with foreigners.

So when a foreigner walks into the restaurant they are eating in, they see it as chance they must take to share some rice wine shots with you.   Mostly just the guys – every single male in the bar must share a shot with you.  The men will take turns pouring you a shot, pouring themselves one, saying what they pronounced as “Seen-My” (cheers, I learned “Seen-My” well after the three days I spent in rural Vietnam) ith you, and then throwing it down together.  I could tell that each one of them felt honored to be doing the shot with me.  They were genuinely happy – just like I am sharing the story with you now, this a story they could tell to their friends and family as well.

This marks a big difference between the Vietnamese people that deal with tourists and the ones that don’t.  The former group will not smile when dealing with you and may try to extort or scam you and the latter will share what little they have with you and ask for nothing, just happy to be having an experience with you.  I like the latter better.

Because every male in each restaurant feels compelled share a rice wine shot with you, you start to feel pretty warm pretty quick.  And then of course they do group shots.

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Like the rice wine I drank in Hue with the moto drivers this stuff tasted a bit like Vodka and was pretty strong.

My hangover the next morning was bad but not as bad as it could have been – the “shots” I took the night before were about 1/3 the size of what people in the U.S. would consider a regular shot – thank goodness.

It was rainy and cool in Mai Chau that morning but it wasn’t pouring so I put on my raincoat and started what ended up being a six hour hike.

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Mist was settling down in the valley that is Mai Chau as I started my trek.

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I decided to head out to the local White Thai village near Mai Chau.

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These ethnic minority villages are made up of people that immigrated from Thailand many years ago.  Local women quietly weave on their looms and hang their wares for display.

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Like in Cambodia and in most villages I’ve seen in SE Asia the houses are all on stilts to avoid rain and flood water.

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The villages were rudimentary several years ago but because Mai Chau has become a place where people can come to do “homestays” with the villagers (where they stay a night and eat dinner in the locals’ hut), electricity and other modern comforts have followed.

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Note the two satellites in this picture

In the flattest parts of the valley there is lush farmland.

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After about an hour I was completely lost but kept wandering deeper into the villages, many times along small dirt paths that seemed to lead to nowhere.

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One of the roads was not quite finished yet.

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But the locals seemed to get around on it just fine.

In every village there were mother hens protecting their little ones.

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The livestock wander freely and openly throughout the village which always makes me wonder how the villagers know which chickens, cows, pigs, etc. are theirs, as opposed to their neighbors.

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I guess these cows were tied up.

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But most of them roam freely and with all the lush farmland they have a big selection of places they can eat.

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There were also lots of ducks, which would mostly congregate in the rice paddy.

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Everyone else was hiding out under huts to avoid the rain but these guys were having a time of it.

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They didn’t like me though – I think I sent them running.

Several spots along the trek were deliberately dug out to retain water and a rudimentary irrigation system would run water out of these spots to other more needy areas.

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There were lots of these pink flowers along the trek.

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And by the flowers, lots of these butterflies.

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Kids that I would run into in these villages would stop and stare or follow me on their bike, making me realize just how alien I probably looked to them, especially with my beard.

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At one point a group of them deliberately biked behind me for about five minutes, intermittently saying “Hello!” and ‘Match!” (how they pronounced my name, after I answered the only question they knew).  I finally turned around and told them I was going to take their picture.

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They loved seeing themselves on camera when I showed them the shot I had taken.  I stopped and spoke with a local family hanging out under their thatched roof hut.  The gentleman on the left was proud to show me his new baby girl.

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Older women in the village would see my beard and make sounds to indicate they were frightened.  I would laugh and “fro” the beard out even more, which would send them squawking and running.  Vietnamese men don’t grow hair like Westerners do and I grow more hair than most Westerners so my beard is something of a spectacle over here.

The night before I had showed the young woman that had translated for Ben and I and then invited us back to share rice wine a photo of me clean shaven in Bangkok.  She had said “I don’t recognize this man (in the photo) because he is handsome and that,” pointing to my beard, “is not.”  Touche.

After spending about four hours hiking through the villages I headed back towards the town.  About 100 meters from the main street in town there is a big set of stairs that stretches up the mountainside.

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Having no idea where they would lead me I began my ascent.  After only five minutes I was rewarded with a nice view over the small town of Mai Chau.

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Another twenty minutes and the view was even better.

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After about 45 minutes of quickly gaining elevation I was sucking wind and hoping for an end to the never-ending staircase.  I finally got my reward when all of a sudden the mouth of a cave appeared.

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It was a welcome sight.

The cave was surprisingly big and had many similar interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations I’d seen in the other caves in Vietnam.

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Hiking all the way back led me to an area that was pitch black.

There was no commercial lighting in this cave, which made it a good point to turn around.

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I hiked back out and enjoyed the silence of the cave for a bit.

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I was not the first to meditate in this cave – there were alters and incense set in various places in the cave.   After relaxing I hiked back out of the cave.

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Later that night I got dinner at another small restaurant and was again way more rice wine than I wanted to drink by some locals that saw me eating alone and invited me to join them.

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The men who had given me rice wine that night refused to be part of this picture because one of them was actually a policeman (a nice one) and I’m guessing he didn’t want to get in trouble for having his picture taken with an american

When I explained to them (through hand motions) that earlier that day the older women in the villages had run away from my beard they all laughed.  The men indicated they had never grown facial hair.  They must just not be as manly as me.

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3 days in Halong Bay – 3,000 rocks rising out of the sea, trekking and biking on Cat Ba Island, and bungalo beach

Our Halong Bay excursion started with a long bus ride to Halong City that included a 30 minute stop at the bus driver’s sister’s textiles shop.

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You see this all over SE Asia.  When you buy a tour package the includes transport by bus you will inevitably stop at a restaurant, shop, or store owned by the bus driver’s brother-in-law, sister, mother, etc, where you are expected to buy overpriced things.  It can be family but it also can be a general business deal between the tour company and sho. The usual sell is that the stuff is hand made, and it is – you can see the workers in the side room.

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But these stops are the definition of a tourist trap – you are literally trapped at the venue until your bus driver decides that the group has collectively given his sister’s shop enough money.

The first thing you see when you arrive in Halong City is thousands and thousands of tourists.  Throngs of them, all standing about waiting for their guide to herd them like cattle onto boats.  And we were no different.   We stood around for about thirty minutes before getting ushered onto a small transport boat.

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This boat transported to us to our actual boat, a “Junk” boat.

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“Junk” is just the name for these types of boats but the name isn’t too far off the mark.  These are not luxury cruise boats.  But they were simple and nice and Ben enjoyed our time on them.

Within an hour we were enjoying a filling lunch as we cruised into Halong Bay.

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Halong Bay has more than 3,000 limestone-peaked islands, all between 40 and 100 meters above sea level.  The below video shows us approaching the Bay from a distance.

After lunch we took some time to explore our Junk Boat to catch different perspectives of the Bay.  Both Ben and I enjoyed sitting down on the front of the boat.

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This video will give you a sense of what its like to be standing at the front of the boat.

Lots of other boats were entering Halong Bay along with us – this place is a money maker.

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I ended up on the sun deck which gave the only 360 degree view of the Bay.

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Unfortunately the three days we spent in the Bay were overcast but the views of the Bay were still impressive – you’d don’t get this in the Midwest, thats for sure.  Our first stop for the first day was Sung Sot Cave, a cave set into sheer rock wall overlooking the Bay.

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Nearly 50 other Junk Boats were docked next to us and the cave was packed with tourists, all in a long line shuffling through the cave.

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It was not the spacious and silently powerful experience we had had in Paradise cave in Phong Nha but it was a pretty cave.

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We eventually made our way up to the cave’s opening in the sheer face rock.

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It provided a good view out over the Bay and a chance for the obligatory we-were-here-and-this-is-my-scary-beard-blocking-what-would-otherwise-be-a-good-view photo.

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After the cave we went kayaking in the Bay for a bit.  Kayaking up to and under the massive projecting rock islands gives you a true appreciation for their size.

Later that night we enjoyed some dinner with Elina, Kim, and three blokes from the U.K. we had met on the tour.

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The fruit Ben is displaying was juicy and delicious.

That night we docked in one small area of the Bay and relaxed on the sun deck along with about 25 other Junk Boats.

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Some people might think that the presence of all the other boats would ruin the experience but I loved the way they lit up the Bay.

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We got a good night of sleep in our cabin on the Junk boat and the next day we transferred to a different Junk boat, this one with a nicer sun deck than the last.

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No matter which boat you are on in Halong Bay the views are the same – awesome.  All over Halong Bay you see hawks gliding while looking for fish swimming below.

It was another overcast day but I wasn’t complaining too much – you don’t have these views in Iowa…

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Before we could even get settled we transferred to yet another Junk Boat- there are way more boat transfers involved in this excursion than you would think.

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This boat led us back through some tighter coves to get to Cat Ba Island, the biggest rock island in Halong Bay.

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As soon as we got to Cat Ba Island there was a line of bikes waiting for us.  The first ten minutes of the ride was along the side of the island.

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We made our way into Cat Ba’s jungle but the trail we were on was still smooth and paved.  The paved trail led all the way to a small village in a low part of the island. 

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We eventually arrived at the village and took a break while our guide explained the trekking options we had.

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There were two options – low and easy or steep and hard.  I chose the more challenging of the two and was rewarded with a good view over the village we had just stopped for lunch at.

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The trek was legitimately difficult and dangerous.

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But taking it slow made it easy to mitigate the dangerous aspects.

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And surprisingly everyone was able to cross this creek without getting wet.

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Our guide leading the way on that tree in the picture above was constantly coming up behind me, brushing my foot with a stick and yelling “Shnake!”  And yes, his snake had an H in it.  The joke got old after the first ten times he did it and I never did see a snake but did see this sweet little spider.

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After we done trekking we hopped back on our bikes and left the village.

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The ride back to our boat was steeper but the views were just as good.

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You could pick up some pretty good speed on some of these hills.

When we got back to our boat it took us to our private island bungalow resort.

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Our bungalow had a nice view of the bay but we didn’t spend too much time in it.

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Right after lunch we played a game of football on the sandy court.

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I scored two goals (more of a comment on the other players – I’m not a good football player) but by the end of the 10 minute game I felt like puking I was so tired.  I’m completely out of shape and the fact that I had just put down a massive lunch did not help.

After football we did a bit of kayaking and frisbee throwing on the beach.  That night we enjoyed a big barbeque and I help our tour guide set up a big bonfire.  Nothing like a good fire to bring people together.

The next morning we bid adieu to our private beach and got on yet another junk boat.

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Our fun tour guide (out of the three we had) paused for a picture with Ben.

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And then he agreed to take a shot of both us as we cruised out of Halong Bay.

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On this ride we saw one of the coolest “islands” of Halong Bay, a rock rising straight up on a base that was no more than 10 meters in diameter. 

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The below video shows us cruise past it.

We then transferred to what must have been our fifth junk boat of the trip – this one had another nice sun deck.

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Before lunch everyone I was tired from the last two days’ activities and needed some R&R on the sundeck.

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When I woke from my mini-nap I realized pretty much everyone had the same idea as me.

Everyone on the boat got a crash course in how to make spring rolls.  With some rice paper and some veggies pretty much anyone can do it, even me!

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Ben and I shared lunch with the three English guys in our tour group.

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Ben has loved talking to people from the U.K. during our trip because he loves British television, most notably “Peep Show” and “The Thick of It”.  So when he brings it up and demonstrates his absolutely incredible knowledge of the shows, the U.K. folks we meet are really impressed and glad to see an American so into British T.V.  One of the guys in this group of three was almost as knowledgeable on Peep Show as Ben but I don’t think I will ever meet any human who can match my brother’s knowledge on this show.

When we got back to Halong City there was a cluster of boats both docking and leaving

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The exchange on these things is incredible.  I’ll give you the rundown.  A bus full of tourists from Hanoi drops Tourist Group A off at Halong City around 11:45.  Around 11:50 a junk boat drops off Tourist Group B, who are just finishing their Halong Bay tour.  At 12:00 Tourist Group A takes a small boat and boards the junk boat that just dropped off Tourist Group B.

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At 12:05 Tourist Group B is escorted onto the bus that 15 minutes ago dropped off Tourist Group A in Halong City.  At 12:10 the bus takes Tourist Group B back to Hanoi and the junk boat begins its journey back out to Halong Bay with Tourist Group A.  Like clockwork – Halong Bay is a giant money making machine.

In this scenario were Tourist Group B and thankfully our bus back to Hanoi was not as long as our ride from Hanoi to Halong City.  There were even some heavy-London-accented brits behind us and we watched “That Mitchell and Webb Look” (same guys that do Peep Show) with them as we rode back.

All in all Halong Bay was a great experience, albeit a hectic one filled with one too many boat transfers and activities.

Crowded Hanoi – markets, a strict curfew, travel agencies, and Vietnam’s Women’s Museum

We took the night train to Hanoi from Dong Hoi, the train station nearest Phong Nha Farmstay.

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After a surprisingly good night’s rest we had a chance to explore Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital.  Out of all the cities I’ve been to in SE Asia Hanoi had the most “crowded” feel.

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This is because every city block has motos parked out to the edge of the sidewalk which forces you to walk on the street to get around.  This adds some stress while walking around the city because you must be hyper-vigilant to make sure you aren’t going to get run over by a moto, especially in intersections like this.

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Seriously.  If Saigon is the most moto-dense city, Hanoi is a close second.  Here’s a video I took of the same intersection a moment later when it had cleared up a bit, but you get the feel.

Hanoi is also chock full of markets.  You can go into simple street-side stores like this one.

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Or you can get yourself a little deeper into the fray.

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Hanoi has a north-side market similar to the Olympic Market in Phnom Penh.  Click here for a video.

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But in Hanoi and other Vietnamese markets you always have more seafood for sale – seafood is more readily available because Hanoi is closer to the ocean than Phnom Penh.

You can get the live stuff.

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Or the dried stuff.

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Dried sea food, particularly the dried squid, STINKS. The locals are crazy about it though. I haven’t tried it once while over here and don’t plan to. The smell is enough.

Women all over the city have their wares displayed but are not particularly pushy with trying to get you to buy something.

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You can stop to get a haircut at one of the busy intersections.

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All over the streets you see men playing Xiangqi (Chinese chess), many times with a crowd of their buddies gathered around.

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They sometimes slam the pieces with authority.  The game looks like it involves some good logic just like European chess, which I last played in Kampot.  I’ve been dying to learn how to play so I can take up a street game myself but so far I haven’t had the time.

After exploring some of the markets we went over to the Huc Bridge where a young Vietnamese couple was getting some wedding shots.

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“I’ve made a terrible mistake” – GOB Bluth

The Huc Bridge leads to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake.  Hoan Kiem Lake is set right on the side of the French and Old Quarters of Hanoi.  The lake has another aging temple set on an island in the south part of the lake but I think to worship at it you would need a boat or some good swimming arms.

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Near the lake we watched a little game of football being played to an incredibly fast and dangerous intersection.   I only watched for one minute but saw the ball squirt into moving traffic twice.  No one seemed concerned so I didn’t either.

Wandering west led us to St. Joseph Cathedral.

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For me seeing a church like this in SE Asia is just bizarre and especially bizarre in Hanoi.  Churches like this are a dime a dozen in Europe but SE Asia isn’t as big on Catholicism as Europe – Buddhist temples are the norm over here.  That is why seeing a church and a statute like this is almost shocking.

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The inside of the church had the same feel that all the churches in Europe had.  Silent and inspiring.

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The courtyard outside the church is a happening place.  Many local people in Hanoi will participate in mass from the seat of their moto in the courtyard – click here for a feel of the action, and take note of the street badminton games going on.

Just like on Bui Vien street in Saigon there are lots of young people on little chairs drinking.  But the similarity stops there. Instead of beer they are generally drinking iced tea and eating bowls of sunflower seeds.

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After St. Joseph Cathedral we headed back north towards the Old Quarter where we were staying.  A massive roundabout borders Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.

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Later that night we headed to a bia hoi corner where they were drinking beer, not iced tea.  We ended up running to a guy name Jack Rothschild, a retired man from the United States that we had met back at the Phong Nha Farmstay.

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This happens way more than you’d think while traveling.  Even if you’re not traveling with someone you can meet them in a certain place and if you are both heading in the same direction there is a decent chance you’ll run into them again in the future.  I would estimate this has happened at least 7-8 times on this trip.

We shared some beers until about 11:45 p.m. I note the time because it marks a very big difference between (more western) Saigon and (more communist) Hanoi.  The police presence.

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There is a curfew in Hanoi and it is enforced.  Strictly.  I kid you not, the two nights we had beers at this Bia Hoi corner at midnight a jeep with at least eight uniformed police would roll up and all of them would jump off and efficiently and sternly hurry around to “shut down the fun”.

Two policemen go to each bar and make sure the beer stops flowing and people leave.  None of the police in Hanoi ever have a smile on their face.  And you see them all over the city – hassling a store owner, hassling a woman selling her fruit – these guys do their business, which is generally interfering with their citizens’ businesses, with icy cold stares.

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And its not just at the bars – everything is shut down.  On one of the nights when the beer corner had just been shut down I was walking back to the hotel and stopped to get a delicious Bánh mì sandwich at one of the stands you see all over Hanoi.  You find these stands all over the city – the sandwiches go for 10,000 Dong (50 cents), are tasty, and fill you up – the bread is surprisingly good and the chili sauce gives it just the right taste.

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I ordered a sandwich from the woman who had parked her stand in front of her house.  While she was making my sandwich we saw a police van approaching from a distance down the street.  Before I could even process the sight of the van she dropped my sandwich and essentially shoved me inside her home, switched the stand’s lights and her home’s lights off, and crouched next to me silently in her living room.

Apparently it is not ok to make someone a sandwich after curfew but this woman was willing to take the risk for 10,000 Dong.  Once the police van rolled by she finished my sandwich in the dark and sent me on my way.  In Hanoi, this is not your typical American late night taco bell run.

The next day I made it a priority to get us a trip booked to Halong Bay.  There are more travel agencies in Hanoi than anywhere I’ve seen in SE Asia.  They most popular trips they book are to Halong Bay and Sapa.

The hotels and guesthouses in the city almost treat their primary business, taking care of their guests, as secondary to making sure their guests book their Halong Bay tour with them.  Our guesthouse was no different.  We could not walk by the front desk without getting asked “Are you ready to book your Halong Bay trip with us”?  In fact, even before we had checked in they had me set up with one of the guesthouse employees (read, family members) so she could read me my Halong Bay options.

But I’ve learned to be a more savvy customer in SE Asia than simply booking my tour with the first business that offered it.  Especially when there are 400 more businesses within one block that can offer me the same or better.

So through a series of negotiations and quite a bit haggling, some of which I will admit involved playing two companies off against each other, I was able to negotiate a 3-day, 2-night Halong Bay trip that was originally offered at $155/person down to $110/person.  For the four people I was negotiated for, it amounted to roughly $200 of total savings.  It took some time but that’s the price you pay if you want to get a reasonable price.

In the end I had booked my tour with “Sinh Cafe” instead of our hotel.  Once our hotel owner knew this the hotel staff was openly hostile to me the rest of our stay.  It was palpably uncomfortable every time I had to interact with them and at checkout he overcharged me for laundry.

I’ve read this is a little bit too common.  Guess its just something to keep in mind if you stay in Hanoi and want to book a trip to Halong Bay.  If you’re not going to book with your hotel/guesthouse be prepared to leave a night early to avoid what will be a hostile staff.

Our other night in Hanoi we explored a night market in the north part of the Old Quarter.

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It was crowded and immensely popular with the locals.

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T-shirts aplenty.

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Our wanderings led us to a store titled “Videogames.”  A trip inside confirmed that yes, indeed, kids still love to play videogames in Vietnam.

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Ah, boys after my own heart.  I could go for a little TF2 right now, come to think of it.

Our last day in Hanoi Ben decided to sample some alley food.  I would call it street food but this food, this great food, is located in the alley.

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There are tons of food stalls jammed in the alley and at each one, small tables and chairs for passerby to have a seat and eat.  Ben and I tried some Bun Cha, an extremely popular morning-early-afternoon food in Hanoi.  It was delicious. We were still a little hungry so we opted for some fried things filled with pork, which were also delicious.

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That afternoon I went to the Vietnamese Women’s museum, my second favorite museum (first was in Son My) in Vietnam.  The first temporary exhibit was a bit bizarre, Illustra Brazil.

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But since I will be going to Brazil in Febraruy 2013 I decided it was worth checking out.  There was lots of interesting abstract art but this was my favorite piece.

Exaggerated Ronaldinho

Exaggerated Ronaldinho

The Women’s Museums more permanent exhibits and halls were really good.   They were divided into six sections: Women in the economy, women in the military, women in the family, women’s clothing and styles, Vietnamese marriage, and a section on the Vietnamese Mother Goddess worship, which I mentioned earlier in my Hue blog post.

Much like women all over the world Vietnamese women have strong role in the family.  They are expected to farm, cook, clean, and raise the children.  They can do it all.  There was a video segment running that was focused on women in the rural villages outside Hanoi that make the long trip every day to Hanoi just to sell fruits and vegetables.

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They will stay until everything has been sold which usually takes 12-14 hours.  They make between $3-5 a day and do it so they can send their kids to school, which is expensive.  Their most frequent complaint was that they are constantly harassed by the police, who I mentioned earlier in this blog post.

The section of women in the war was also interesting.  At the beginning of the section there was a wall length photo array of women who had children or husband’s die in the U.S. war because without their sacrifices the country would not have been reunited.

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In recognition of the sacrifices on September 24, 1994 the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly established the honorary title of “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam”, though I found the requirement to receive the title somewhat odd.

In order to receive the title a woman the plaque explained that the woman must have lost “more than two children, their only child, only one child, or their husband and children, or their own life.”  Why not just say if they, their child, or their husband died they get the award?  May have been a translational issue here…

In December 2008 roughly 50,000 women received the title, many posthumously.  Two women who had lost 12 and 8 children were both awarded the additional honor of “Hero of the Popular Armed Forces.”

I found it interesting that Vietnam placed so much emphasis on mothers of the Viet Cong but given how they’ve spun everything else about the war I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

It was not just mothers that were honored for the war though.  Many Vietnamese women were guerillas.

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Lots of women were recruited and trained to lead Viet Cong troupes in the jungle because women were less easy to identify as “Charlie” and just like Bich’s mother in Phong Nha, these women knew the jungle maybe even better than the men.

There was also lots of propaganda illustrating the dual role of the woman during the war.

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Keeping the harvest up was critical as lots of rice was needed to feed the Viet Cong.  But when you go out to the rice paddy for the harvest, don’t forget your bayonet….

“Hello-Hello-Hello!”, boating into Phong Nha Cave, getting lost in rural Vietnam, and keepaway from the villagers

Our second day in Phong Nha was again one of my favorite experiences in SE Asia.  We started out with a bike ride through some of the rural village areas around Son Trach village.  Here is a little video of the surrounding rice paddy.

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We stopped by a local man’s wood shop and found that safety standards are not quite the same in SE Asia as they are in the U.S.

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The kids in these rural villages loved running out to greet us on the road while frantically yelling the one word they know in English – “Hello!”  Since its the only word they know and they want to be more conversational, in place of “Hello, nice to meet you!”, it is usually “Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!”  I’ve never heard more “hello”s in one day in my life.  Occasionally you get the one other phrase they know – “What is your name?” but most just stick to “hello”.  I tried to do my best and tell them hello in their own language – “Sin Chau”.  Either way it’s a pleasant exchange.  Click here for a video of me riding by some of these happy local kids.

With good there is always some bad.  In addition to “hello!” many of these local kids have been taught to say “Money?”  This is true of many kids from poor villages around SE Asia.  And while you’d think giving them money might be a good thing – after all, $1 would mean a lot more to this child’s family than it does me – you’d be wrong.  Giving them money will allow the child to feel more comfortable with dropping out of school and becoming a beggar, hustler or scammer.  When you hand them money their thought becomes “who needs an education when you can simply hold out your hand for a living?”

After passing through the villages we again headed for Phong Nha Park.

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We would be visiting Phong Nha’s namesake cave, Phong Nha Cave, which is only accessible by boat.  A fleet of boats awaited our arrival.

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The boat ride was cramped but better than the bus ride from Hue to the Farmstay.

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Local villagers used boats to pull seaweed (which they would serve later that day) out of the riverbed.  I was stuck next to the choppy sounding motor – click here to get a feel for the boat ride and listen to what I listened to for about 45 minutes.

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Some kids played on and in some heavy machinery on the riverbank.

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Eventually Phong Nha Cave appeared in the distance.  The video shows the approach and entrance to the cave. Due to regulation they killed the motor right as we entered the cave.

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Its initially low hanging ceilings were just high enough that Ben didn’t need to duck.

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We docked at the back of the cave and went up to see some Cham graffiti left from hundreds years ago.

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The Cham was an early empire that ruled Vietnam and apparently some of its minority ethnic villagers that lived in Phong Nha left behind some chicken scratch on the walls of Phong Nha Cave – it wasn’t too impressive as the picture probably reflects.

Joe Cham was here

Joe Cham was here

Besides the graffiti Phong Nha is another beautiful cave.  Rainbow lights set up around the cave reflect off the water from the boat.

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We took another boat ride and docked again, giving us a chance to explore the biggest part of the cave.  This video shows our view right as we walked up the slope of the cave.

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If you can see the person in the lower left part of the below picture you can get a sense for the scale of the cave.

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 It was another big cave – this video does a pretty good job of showing that.

Like Paradise Cave, massive stalagmites and stalactites shoot up and down in random places of Phong Nha Cave.

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The picture above shows an interesting circle of stalagmites and this video shows the dripping coming down the middle of them.

The unnatural colorful lighting is a great enhancement for the experience.

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Another video to show you some more of this great color.  The tallest part of the cave was probably at least 150 meters high.

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The stalactites meet the stalagmite about 75 meters up, in the above picture on the left and in the below picture on the right

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As you hike around Phong Nha Cave you eventually get back to the boat entrance.

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At one point we found a stalactite that Ben had to hold to prevent the cave from collapsing.

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We then made our way out of the cave.

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Two large nests were attached to the rock right above the cave’s mouth.  Do not disturb.

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The ride back to the boat dock was pleasant just like the ride to the cave.

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A friendly seaweed collector gave us a friendly we waved as she passed.

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Once we got back to the docks we grabbed some lunch and biked around the town a little bit.  Click here for a little sample – there were some “roadblocks” in the road. 

We eventually made our way across the Son River.

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From the bridge we could see rice paddy and locals busy at work.

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Click here to see Ben hitch a ride from a passing moto as we finished crossing the bridge – definite speed booster. 

We continued our bike ride into some more rural villages and naturally we got lost at some point.  While we struggled to communicate with the local adults a young girl bashfully approached us and told us she could speak a bit of English.  Her mother stood by, full of pride, as their young daughter proceeded to communicate to us the directions to the ferry we sought.  People that speak English are rare out in these rural parts of Vietnam so for this girl’s mother this moment made every English class she paid for worth it.

English speaking is a major asset over here.  Much easier to make a sale, get a job, you name it.  If you can communicate with the English speaking American, European, and Australian travelers over here, you’re money making ability goes up tenfold.

The night before at the Farmstay a local girl had come to the common hall simply to work on her English with the backpackers lounging there.  Kim was nice enough to patiently give the girl an hour’s worth of English lesson. Many times the younger Vietnamese students can read and write but speaking and hearing spoken English is the real challenge.  This local girl told Kim she wants to get better at English so she can someday be a tour operator in Phong Nha.  Smart girl – I hope she masters English and in twenty-five years when I come back she can give me another tour.

We eventually made it to the ferry where we would need to get back across Son River to get back to the Farmstay.

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We joined a couple school girls, one of whom was FBI in training, and made the ride across.   Click here for a video.

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After our ferry ride as we rode our bikes back to the Farmstay we witnessed a bullfight but not the Spanish kind.  Two bulls were going at it in one of the villager’s yards.  Not sure why but I’ve never seen two bulls but it out before.  This is surprising considering I am from Iowa.  Click here for a video – at the end the local farmer boy tries to run in stop them, but he doesn’t get too close. Neither would I.

Ben took a quick dip in the pool at the Farmstay to cool down after the bike ride.

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A shot of the pool I took later that night.

While we still had sunlight we decided to head back out to the village courtyard where we had played frisbee two nights earlier.  Sure enough a gaggle of kids were there and wanted to join our game.  Ben and I decided to make them earn it, turning our game of catch into a game of keep away with the kids.

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I took a few videos of our game – these kids were into it and they had way more energy than I did. The first video especially shows their youthful exuberance better than I could ever describe it.   The third video shows me almost running into some cows…Did not realize they had gotten this close to our game.

[KEEPAWAY VIDEO 1]       [KEEPAWAY VIDEO 2]         [KEEPAWAY VIDEO 3]

These kids were getting creative too.  At one point a kid set up a bicycle halfway between Ben and I, climbed his way up and stood on top of the bicycle seat to give him an extra height advantage.  I was genuinely surprised when he was able to launch himself of the seat of the bike and nearly block a throw that I had intentionally made higher to avoid him.  Cudos kid, you tried it with gusto.

After our game of keepaway ended we headed back towards the Farmstay.

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It was nice to sip a beer while watching the sunset over the rice paddy.

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Caving, kayaking, swimming, and trekking in Phong Nha National Park, local buses in Vietnam, a frisbee game with villagers, and Vietnamese superstitions

This is the longest blog post I have put up to date but only because it covers what will undoubtedly be my favorite 24 hours in SE Asia.  If you want a thorough read give yourself at least 20-25 minutes.  Cheers.

Our second morning in Hue Ben and I hired motos to get us to the north bus station.  We arrived and quickly located the local bus we would be riding to Phong Nha Farmstay, located just near Son Trach village and near Vietnam’s Phong Nha National Park.  Among the Hue locals waiting for the bus I noticed two white girls with backpacks and calculated that they, being the only other non-locals, must also going to the Farmstay, a sweet piece of backpacker heaven in rural Vietnam.  

It turned out I was right.  The two girls, Elina and Kim, were from the U.K and both just about to finish their last year of law school.  Both were taking some time off during their last late fall to do a bit of travel in SE Asia.  Ben and I would end up traveling north with the girls for the next ten days through Vietnam.

Unlike in the U.S. every law student in the U.K. does an apprenticeship as part of their graduation requirement.  During my last year of law school I had an externship with Iowa City Attorney and the Iowa City Human Rights Commission but this was not required.  Elina and Kims’ apprenticeships were with law firms, firms they would be practicing with when they graduate.  This is a little different from the U.S. law school system. While externships can lead to job opportunities, more typically it is summer internships (clerkships or summer associate-ships) that lead to jobs for law graduates.  Or at least when the economy was good that was the case.

I told the girls I had also attended law school and practiced for two and half years before deciding to take a break to travel in SE Asia with my brother.  We talked a little more about law school and practice to pass the time, mostly because the local bus ride was kind of brutal.

For starters we were overcharged, big time.  When it came time to pay the bus driver he came back to the four of us foreigners and demanded 150K Dong each.   The locals in the bus were not even trying to hide their laughter as we shelled out 3-5 times what they all would be paying.  We watched as he went back up the bus, collecting only 30-50K from each of the locals, many of which were going farther than us.

Overcharging foreigners is the norm on local buses in Vietnam and all the bus drivers are in on it.  It is blatent discrimination and there is not a whole lot you can do about it except try to buy tickets at the station rather than on the bus.  But when this isn’t an option, and it wasn’t in Hue, you are generally SOL.  That said, I learned a little later how to negotiate and fight against this practice when I got into northern Vietnam and local buses were the only option to travel.

But the overcharging was just the start – room on the bus was also an issue.  There were about 35 people crammed onto a bus designed to sit 16.  Oh and lets not forget the bags of feed, backpacks, and the moto also jammed up at the front.  The local buses in Vietnam, and SE Asia in general, use every square millimeter of space, even if that means that woman getting on the bus and her baby both need to sit on my lap to fit them in the bus.

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It was the most cramped ride I’ve had in SE Asia to date.  I couldn’t even extend my feet more than one inch from the bottom of my seat because there was a woman sitting on the step right in front of me.  I less than agreeably allowed her to use my legs as her back rest for the duration of the four hour ride.  Click here to get a sense of how cramped this ride was.

To stretch, if I could have even called it that, I would extend my legs up while keeping my torso bent forward just under the cieling, perpendicular to my legs – making an “L” shape.   When we finally arrived at the Farmstay I had never been so glad to get a full and proper stretch in.

But the ride was worth it.  Phong Nha Farmstay is a backpacker hostel/hotel set right outside the rural part of Son Trach village.

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The two days I spent at the Farmstay I will remember as the best two days I spent in SE Asia.  The setting is beautiful.  From the porch of the Farmstay you can see rice paddy and mountains in every direction.  The hammocks and furry little dogs make it all the better.

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After resting in hammocks for a bit Ben and I took a walk with his new friend.

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A Son Trach villager had a fire going in the distance.

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We had brought our frisbee for our walk because we had noticed a big field down the road and felt like tossing for a bit.  When we arrived at the field we noticed there was a huge gathering going on.   Most of the adults in the village – around 50 of them – were all gathered at a big yellow building that we later learned was the village common house.  The adults were all sharing a dinner but I couldn’t tell you what the occasion was.  The kids of the village were all playing – younger ones were running around and playing some form of “tag” and the teenagers were playing a game of volleyball.

Ben and I casually stepped on to the far edge of the field and started tossing my frisbee back and forth.  It didn’t take long for this to get noticed.  Within one minute about half the kids had come over to watch our game of catch and within three minutes one of the braver adults strolled over and called for the disc.  We gave him a friendly toss and then the rest fell like dominos.   Within five minutes of our arrival to the field every villager in the courtyard had stopped what they were doing and come to join our game.   The oldest wise men, the middle aged men in suit coats, the mothers, the teenagers, the youngsters – everyone joined the game.

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We formed a giant circle in the field which was good because the villagers had never tossed a frisbee before –most of them had probably never seen a real frisbee before.  But a giant circle was a great solution to this problem because wherever their errant throws would fly it would always be to at least someone in the circle.  A few of the villagers were better than others.  This guy in particular – check out that great form!

excellent follow through!

excellent follow through!

Regardless of how they threw the villagers were having a great time.  Misthrows and dropped catches would result in uproarious laughter.  This was a truly rewarding experience – I  can’t think of one minute during this experience when I wasn’t smiling ear to ear.  I took four videos of what I will surely remember as the most fun game of catch I’ve had in SE Asia thus four.  You can check them out here:

[VILLAGE FRISBEE VIDEO 1]    [FRISBEE VIDEO 2]  [FRISBEE VIDEO 3] [FRISBEE VIDEO 4]  

When we got back to the Farmstay we were tired and covered in sweat – that good kind of sweat you can appreciate after an amazing experience.  I guess Ben’s friend was tuckered out too.

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The next day we geared up for a day long tour of Phong Nha National Park.  This was the coolest day we’ve had in SE Asia thus far.

At 8 a.m. we all hopped in a van and headed towards the Park, located about 5 km from the Farmstay.   It was a misty morning as the Park approached from a distance.

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There is a sign built right into the first mountain you pass on your right as you enter the park.

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The next 10 km were along a road in the valley next to the river.

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Finally we stopped along a steeping road and our tour guide – a cheeky fellow named Ben from northern England working a temp job at the Farmstay as he saves up some more money to travel – gave us an introduction to the park.

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The Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003 and is home to a variety of species – wild elephants, snakes, monkeys, the whole lot.

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It is mostly untamed forest but there are significant problems with illegal logging here.  When the park rangers only get paid only $4 a day by the government to do their job it is pretty easy for a logging company to slip the rangers $25 and have them look the other way as the company’s logging trucks roll by.

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Vietnam has applied to get the national park UNESCO Biodiversity site status in addition to Heritage site status but despite the Park’s incredible biodiversity these applications (two in the last five years) have been denied, mostly because UNESCO is aware of the illegal logging problems.  Ben explained to us that Vietnam will likely give up on seeking the biodiversity accolade because “Vietnam doesn’t liking being rejected” and its applications have already been rejected twice.

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With respect to some interesting biodiversity, Ben pointed out some small plants along the side of the road with a curious little retraction mechanism.

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When the plants are brushed or lightly touched the plants’ tendrils curl inwards.  Click here for a video of this slick little mechanism.  Ben told us that during the Vietnam War the Viet Cong would observe these plants to track where the U.S. soldiers had been walking.  The U.S. soldiers were leaving a trail without even knowing it.

Before Phong Nha was even known as an amazing national park it was a war ground.  The dense forest, steep karsts, and immense cave systems made Phong Nha a great place for the Viet Cong to hide and set up bases of operations.   The U.S. was largely unsuccessful at trying to find Charlie here so what was its solution?  Just like its tactic in most other war-torn areas of Vietnam where the Viet Cong were hiding, when you can’t find Charlie just use more explosives.

Thousands and thousands of bombs were dropped on beautiful Phong Nha.  “Carpet bombing” – the phrase used by Ben – is the perfect phrase to describe what the U.S. did.  And when the U.S. was on the ground in Phong Nha it never forget to pack some rocket launchers.  Ben pointed out a mountainside wall that still has scars from rockets launched by U.S. troops at the Viet Cong hidden in the caves.

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The U.S. was almost completely ineffective at hitting their targets but their bombs did wreck and scar many parts of Phong Nha.  The Phong Nha Farmstay owners take this quite personally.  The Farmstay is run by an Australian named Ben who married a Vietnamese woman named Bich.  Bich’s mother was born in Son Trach village and fought with the Viet Cong in the U.S. war.  She was a medic that doubled as an anti-aircraft gunner.

During a battle south of Son Trach, somewhere near Hue, the U.S. was laying layer after layer of bombs progressively up the battle zone.  Bich’s mother spotted a wounded Viet Cong solider that needed medical attention and despite the fact that she heard the bombs getting closer she rushed to his side to treat him.

The soldier was wounded but not unconscious and was likely telling Bich’s mother to leave him and save herself from the approaching destruction.  Bich’s mother refused as the storm of bombs grew closer and closer.  Just as a bomb exploded right next to them the wounded Viet Cong solider threw his body over Bich’s mother, absorbing nearly all of the shrapnel from the explosion.

This sacrifice killed the soldier instantly and saved Bich’s mother but she was not unscathed.  Her back and arm were both riddled with shrapnel but thankfully the wounds were not fatal.  For the next two years, Bich’s mother walked back to her home village of Dong Ha and a couple years later, Bich was born. Bich’s mother still has shrapnel scars today.

Ben, our tour guide, told us that several years ago some old U.S. Vietnam Veterans were traveling through Vietnam and stayed at the Farmstay.  Both of them had remembered the war and had a chance to speak with Bich’s mother about it.   The conversation was almost morbidly humorous.

Back and forth Bich’s mother and the soldier’s would joke – “Oh yeah, I remember shooting your friend” – “Ha yeah, but then I shot down your plane” – “Oh yeah, that was right after I threw a grenade into your fellow soldiers’ bunker.”  It was all in good spirit but definitely a strange conversation between former enemies.

Ben also told a story about a young American who had visited Hanoi and had a chance to share some rice wine with a Viet Cong veteran.  In observing the veteran’s kindness the American came out and bluntly asked him why he was being so kind, given that the U.S. killed at least a quarter million Vietnamese people and dropped thousands of bombs and the world’s deadliest toxic all over the country?

The vet responded by asking the American why he had to come to visit Vietnam.  The American told him that he had come to Vietnam to see the beautiful mountains, jungles, and beaches, as well as to learn about and embrace Vietnamese culture and food.

The Viet Cong vet smiled and said “This is why I am happy to have a conversation and share rice wine with you.  If you come my country to learn about me, my country, and my culture, I will welcome you with open arms.  But if you come to fight, I will fight you, and we will win.”  And they did win….

Back to Phong Nha.  Ben showed us a sinkhole at the bottom of one of the valleys.  Not a place to have a swim…

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Near the sinkhole Ben pointed out a cave used by the Viet Cong to hide during the war.  Can’t hit them with a rocket or a bomb if they are in a cave…

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But you can blow up rocks above the cave that will fall down and trap them in the cave.  And at one cave in Phong Nha on November 14, 1972, the U.S. did just that.  Unfortunately for the U.S., they didn’t trap any Viet Cong soldiers in the cave – they trapped eight innocent Vietnamese villagers.  During a carpet bombing exercise the villagers had scrambled into the cave for shelter and once inside, a bomb exploded above the cave and trapped them in.

Seven of these innocents were young people between the ages of 16 and 20, just on a simple village supply run with one older guide from their village.  It was customary for at least one older guide (37 in this case) to travel with the younger villagers and this man was the eighth victim.

Once trapped the situation was hopeless.  Their fellow villagers heard their cries for help but there was no equipment or tools capable of breaking through the tons of rocks that had been felled by the U.S.  Attempts to get them food and water also proved fruitless.  The villagers outside the cave heard their fellows’ voices and cries for days until one day, they heard nothing.

Vietnam has created a monument to honor these eight villagers and each person in the tour group, including Ben and I, was able to place two burning incense sticks down in the cave to remember them.

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The eight villagers’ names and birth dates were listed on this plaque.

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Burning incense is a very big thing in Vietnam.  Most Vietnamese people believe in spirits – there are good ones, bad ones, and the spirits of your ancestors.  In order to honor the good spirits and the spirits of your ancestors and in order to receive blessings from them, one must place incense sticks near alters.  One must never place an odd number of incense sticks – this is bad mojo.

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In addition to leaving the burning incense sticks people leave snacks and drinks.  One must wait for the incense to burn down to nothing and while the incense is burning the spirits are able to “have” the gifts that have been brought to them.  After the incense has burned down, you can feel free to eat that delicious box of Choco Pies that you brought because the spirit is “done” at that point.

SE Asia's favorite chocolate snack

SE Asia’s favorite chocolate snack

Ben also explained several superstitions Vietnamese people have with money.  Ben and I already had an inkling of this after the Mother Goddess dancer in Hue handed us lucky money, “loca”.   But if a Vietnamese person has a bad day they will take out a small bill and rub the bill vigorously in order to rub their “bad luck” onto the bill.  They then throw it on the floor so Ben warned us that if we ever see small bills on the floor of a home or the street, we should never to pick them up because we would be picking up the “bad luck” that got dropped along with the bill.

While we were at the cave memorial they were setting up for a big celebration and a huge truck carrying a steam roller nearly knocked over the tents.  You don’t have the same traffic/construction safety and clearance requirements in SE Asia that you have in the  U.S.

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We didn’t stay to see if it made it past but I’m hoping they did.

After the memorial site we headed for the main reason that Phong Nha is a world-renowned national park.  The caves.

Phong Nha is home to the world’s largest cave, Son Doong Cave, only recently discovered in 2009.  The locals of Phong Nha knew of the easiest main accessible opening to the cave – a small hole measuring only two meters wide – but they avoided it.   Why?  The answer makes sense in the context of Vietnamese people and their beliefs about spirits.

This massive cave, measuring 80 meters by 80 meters in most places, with multiple small openings and a big underground river, creates quite the wind tunnel.  Because of this at the main entrance there are constant strong gusts of wind blowing out.  And you know what that means.  Bad spirits.  Do not go in.  And so the locals didn’t.

But at some point a local farmer took a member of the British Caving Association to this entrance and he made quite the find.  The entrance and the cave itself is perilous.  Wet steep drops will turn a simple slip into a quick death.

Son Doong Cave is not currently open to the public.  Ben said the only way you can get in is to have “ologist” in the name of your trade and even then you must be accompanied by the top caving expert from the British Caving Association.  Ben said one of Vietnam’s top entrepreneurs, who has already made several of the caves in Phong Nha publicly accessible, is considering building a cable car in the Son Doong Cave and making it public.  To me, this sounds like a terribly dangerous idea.  Lets leave this cave to the ‘ologists Vietnam…

So on this day while Ben and I weren’t able to view the largest cave in the world we definitely got to see one of the prettiest, Paradise Cave.  The cave’s entrance did not give any indication of how big the cave was.

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But within seconds of entering the cave you gain appreciation for its size.

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After getting 300 meters in the cave only got bigger.

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The lights set up in the cave give it an eerily beautiful glow in every direction.  Paradise Cave was commercialized and made publicly accessible by the same guy that wants to open up Son Doong Cave.

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Tranquil pools are spread throughout the cave and if you walk quiet enough, all you can hear is dripping.

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The cave was cool but humid.

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Intricate stalactite and stalagmites rise and fall like colonies of jellyfish.

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Some stalagmites look like undersea coral growth.

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Paradise Cave is over 31 km long and Ben, Kim, Elina and I were able to get cover just over 1 km.

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It is the biggest, most stunning cave I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see.

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We spent over an hour in the cave.  Most of that time was spent in respectfully silent awe.

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The pictures I’ve posted fail to do justice to the beauty and size of Paradise Cave but some of these videos might do a better job of capturing the size of the cave.

[PARADISE CAVE VIDEO 1]   [PC VIDEO 2]   [PC VIDEO 3]    [PC VIDEO 4]     [PC VIDEO 5]     [PC VIDEO 6]

After the cave we took a break for lunch.  The longest walking stick I’ve ever seen in my life hung out on a building next door.

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When Ben and I would get close it would sense our presence and start swaying slightly to mimic a stick of a tree in the breeze.  This would probably have been more effective if it wasn’t on the wall of a building.

After lunch went to to a river in the Phong Nha jungle and did the safest thing possible.  Swim!

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It took a bit of trekking through the jungle.

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But we eventually came to a point in the stream that was just deep enough for swimming.

Ben was leading the charge against the current

Ben was leading the charge against the current

The current was not dangerous but it could push you.  In this video you can see Ben swimming against it but staying in one place, sort of like those stationary swimming pools.

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After the swim we air dried and did a bit more trekking.

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By the road an intensely green pool of water poured out of some underground cave entrance.

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Ben told us that the British Caving Association is still looking for this hidden cave which obviously contains a massive river but they have yet to find it.

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After the trekking and swimming we drove a little farther down river and prepared for some kayaking.

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We kayaked over to a different cave entrance, only accessible by water.  Unlike Paradise Cave this cave had not been commercialized and there were no lights to help us along, making our headlamps critical.

After securing our kayaks we walked along a ramp that led into the cave and by that I mean it led into a massive pool of water.  At this point Ben said alright everyone get ready to swim – we’re going to need to swim the next 300 meters to get deeper into the cave.  The older woman in our group said “Are you serious?”  He was.

We swam/floated slowly and feet first so as to avoid any nasty cuts on underwater rocks and we kept our heads above water in order to avoid shorting our headlamps, which were not waterproof.

After about 300 meters we could no longer see the light from the entrance of the cave – only the lights of the headlamps illuminated the group and the watery cave we were swimming in.  At this point Ben explained to us that we would need to take turns swimming under a massive group of boulders that had fallen in the cave.  Again, the older woman thought Ben was joking…

We each took turns handing each other our head lamps through a small crack in the boulder and then swimming under the boulder to continue deeper into the dark cave.  After swimming under the boulder we got about another 300 meters before we stopped.  Ben had us all turn off our headlamps to give us a true appreciation for the pitch darkness of the cave.

On our way kayaking back my brother and I realized we were the worst kayaking team ever.  We were dying with laughter as we did no less than 15 unintentional time-wasting 360s while other kayaks effortlessly flew in a straight line by us.

When we finally got back to shore Ben had arranged to get some vodka and soup to warm us up.  Here is a shot of the happy tour group on our ride back to the Farmstay.

Ben, our awesome tour guide with the cheeky sense of humor, is the guy smiling on the left with a cup of soup

Ben, our awesome tour guide with the cheeky sense of humor, is the guy smiling on the left with a cup of soup

All in all this was the most action packed, informative and fun day we had in SE Asia.  To anyone travelling in Vietnam I have to recommend Phong Nha and the farmstay.

A rainy day in Hue – boating on the Perfume River, tombs, pagodas, a Mother Goddess worship ritual, and sharing rice wine with some Vietnamese moto drivers

Ben woke up momentarily during the last hour of our sleeper bus ride from Hoi An to Hue.

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It was just enough time to snap a few pics before he went back to sleep.

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We were only going to stay one day in Hue so we decided to make it a big one by booking a full day boat/bus tour of the temples, pagodas, and elaborately decorated tombs outside the city limits along the Song Huong River, also known as the “Perfume River”.  When we rose bright and early to start the tour it was raining – bummer.  Not to be discouraged we threw on our rain gear and muscled up for the long day.   Two motos arrived at our hotel to give us rides to the dock where a fleet of dragon boats awaited us.

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Our dragon boat had a nice front deck overhang so we could see the river without having to get wet.

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Our dragon boat was also equipped for making mutineers walk the plant.

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We personally witnessed two tourists forced to make this dreaded walk, one for taking one too many pictures, the other for not buying enough syrupy flat-tasting overpriced coffee on the boat.  The plank also served the side purpose of helping us walk onto shore whenever we stopped.

The boat ride to our first destination was a long one – about 90 minutes.  During the ride Ben and I watched from the front deck as the rain came down and the two dragons led us forward.  Here’s a video of part of our ride. 

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The river was full of interesting passing boats, including this one loaded with…chairs?

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Our first river stop was at the Thien Mu Pagoda.

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This pagoda was built during Emperor Theiu Tri’s reign in 1944 and each of its seven stories is dedicated to a manushi-buddha, a Buddha that appeared in human form.

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A permanent guard warned Ben to be quiet and respectful.  Here’s a video of the guard that quieted him and the surrounding courtyard and pagoda.

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Meanwhile in the main courtyard the rain flooded the walkway.

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Ben and I explored a little and found  a massive turtle-tombstone relaxing under a shelter from the rain.

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The prettiest courtyard was the one the farthest from the river.

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It also had a small pretty pagoda.

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At this point we boarded the boat again and continued on down the Perfume River.  The cattle grazing along the river didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as we did.

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By the time we had reached the next temple Ben and I had lost interest in the tour because our guide’s English was impossible to understand.  I snapped another quick picture of a decorated guard only because the guard’s beard seemed to be made of real hair, which was disgusting…

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While the rest of the tour group continued into another temple Ben and I wandered down to the riverside where we heard strange music coming from one of the boats.  We peered curiously into the boat and could see what looked like someone dancing…with an oar?

At some point someone came off the boat and giving us a smile, motioned for us to come on.  We obliged, taking our shoes off at the front of the boat and then stepped into one of the most bizarre religious ceremonies I’ve ever been witness to.  There was colorful attire, a massive spread of food, and interesting music playing.  They smiled at us when we joined, happy to have us be a part of their celebration.

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Everyone had special clothing on but the focus of the ceremony was on the man dressed in black – I will explain why this was a little later.  When we first entered the ceremony he was paddling an actual oar through the air while the music played and looking around and smiling at everyone while they clapped along.  We were happy to be there to and joined in the clapping and when we did we were offered a small bowl of rice to eat.

At some point the song stopped and the main guy put down the oar.  The participants then began handing him stacks of small bills (Vietnamese Dong) that he would either count out or write on with a pen – click here for a video of this.  I now think he was blessing some of the bills to make the money lucky – money to be kept in the wallet, not spent.

All of a sudden they grabbed a live crab whose claws had been bound up and cut the bindings to free the crab.  While they were doing this one of the women took some of the bills that had been blessed and gave them to my brother and I – lucky money – heyo!  When I looked back the crab was scuttling across the floor until one of the male participants brushed it back to the center with a feathered broom.  Seconds later and just ten seconds after freeing the crab, a man from outside the inner circle came with a dustpan to scoop up the crab and then throw it out the window of the boat.  Again, I got a video of this which you can view here.

Moments later the man dressed in black leading the ceremony was back at the dance but this time instead of using an actual oar he was executing a sweet air-oar solo, again with music and clapping to aid him.  A video of this here.

We stayed and watched the ceremony for about another ten minutes and at one point the participants changed the main guy from a black robe to a white one.

While Ben and I were observing and clapping along with this strange ceremony we had absolutely no idea what we were witnessing but we left feeling very inspired.  After learning more about Vietnamese religious beliefs at the Vietnamese Woman’s museum in Hanoi  I now believe we witnessed a ritual Mother Goddess ceremony.

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The different costumes represent the different incarnations of the Mother Goddess and each incarnation represents a different form of the Mother Goddess.

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One of the incarnations, the “sixth dame”, takes money, or “loc”, and blesses it and give it to the participants to give them luck – I think this is why Ben and I were handed money as you saw in the video.

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The musical players in the background were just doing a “gig” – these musicians are trained especially to play in Mother Goddess Ceremonies.

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A family or person hires them and can spend lots of money putting on one of the ceremonies Ben and I witnessed.

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These are my favorite types of experiences, ones that you can’t get through a guidebook or a tour agency.  Truly authentic.

After getting some loc Ben and I needed to make it back to our tour boat so we said our goodbyes and made our way back to our boat.

The next stop was the Tomb of Minh Mang.  The main gate has not been opened since  the early 1800s.

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The rain continued as we made our way through the tomb.

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The tomb’s structure was massive – terrace after terrace after terrace.

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Ben and I were thankful for our rain gear during this tour.

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The tomb’s structure was surrounded by lakes and forest – very pretty.

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At some point we finally made it to the end of the tomb’s terraces.  I took this video here of the surrounding landscape – its pretty slick. 

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Nearby some cow herders tried to coax their cattle across a bridge.

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After the tomb we switched to a bus and drove to the tomb of Khai Dinh.  Massive dragons adored the steps leading up to the gates.

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Ben and I were a bit tired of the rain so we relaxed in the bus while the tour group shuffled through.

I jumped out to check out our final stop, the tomb of Tu Doc.  This first picture was the place where the emperor’s servants would sleep.

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It was another nice structure with a winding river built right into it.

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Cute leafless trees were all over the structure.

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And of course your obligatory statutes.

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Massive tombstones were all over these structures.  Each of them were covered in ornate micro-inscriptions.

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I’m not sure what this fruit was but it was growing all over this structure.

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When we got back to Hue that night I took a stroll out near the intersection near the bridge.

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The bridge was constantly changing colors as you can see in the pictures below and this video here.

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On my way back I walked by this lady who I see all over Vietnam – she creeps me out every time – always looking at me regardless of where I am on the street.

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Ben went to bed early that night so I wandered out on the streets to find a place to get a beer while I wrote.  As I passed the first corner near our hotel a moto driver came up and pestered me.  I have become so jaded with these pushy scammers that as always I brushed him away and told him to leave me alone.  But he was persistent, this time not to take me on a moto ride, but to have me come share some rice wine with him and his moto buddies.  I let him lead me over to the corner where two of his moto friends were passing around a bottle of rice wine (tastes like vodka, a little less strong).  They had me join the circle and their ritual.  One person would take a shot of rice wine and then pour the next shot and pass it to the fellow to his left.  During this process I asked each of them, with their limited English, what their name was, how old they were, whether they were married, and how long they had been in Hue.  All three of them were happy to share that they had lived in Hue their whole life and two of them were married with kids.

We also exchanged some basic language.  They told me that (this is a rough phonetic translation) “voi” means good, “swvao” means young, and “an” means old.  After about six shots I asked them for a chance to slow down but apparently this was not acceptable.  At this point a woman came over and brought some food for us – they let me join in their eating.  The food wasn’t that good but their generosity was refreshing.  After a month of dealing with scammer moto drivers in Vietnam it was nice to meet some that just wanted to eat, drink, and talk.

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The “main” moto driver was the guy with the black leather jacket. Pretty seedy looking bunch, eh?

At one point another man came to join us that spoke much better English than the three moto drivers I was sitting with. I told the man I wanted to reciprocate the boys’ generosity by buying them a few beers.  He told I should give them some money so they could buy so more rice wine.  I said ok and handed the first guy who had accosted me 100,000 Dong ($5).  He asked me to get on his moto so we could go get some more rice wine.  He rode me across the color-changing bridge and we stopped at another moto-driver gathering where three moto drivers were drinking rice wine out of a plastic water bottle.  Of course I was yet again encouraged to imbibe at this stop.  But this is where things got a little weird.

The main man moto driver who had drove me across the bridge asked me at this point for more money.  I opened up my wallet and handed him another 100,000 Dong.  More he asked.  Another hundred.  More again.  Another hundred.  More he asked.  At this point I said no, 400,000 is plenty to get a bottle of rice wine.  I think his scammer instinct had clicked back on when he realized I had a wallet full of Dong and he kept trying to get more and more but he realized he had pushed the limit when I said no more. Or so I thought.

He got a big bottle of rice wine which I’m sure cost far less than 400,000 Dong and we drove back across the bridge to his waiting friends.  When we started sharing the new bottle of rice wine I noticed an immediate difference – higher quality, much better tasting.  It probably didn’t cost 400K Dong but it was certainly better than the stuff we had been drinking before.  We shared some song together – they loved singing – and some more “whiskey” – their common word for the rice wine we were drinking (any hard alcohol = “whiskey”).

After a few drinks I did my instinctive wallet-camera pockets check.  Not necessarily because I was worried about these guys (but after handing him 400K, I kind of was) but because this is what I always do wherever I am.  The main moto guy saw me doing this “check” and said “we are all friends here”.   He seemed to take from my check that I was worried about getting robbed – he was partially right.  The main moto guy then tried to take me to a restaurant down the street for some food.   I assumed after giving him 400K Dong that this was going to be a free meal but when we arrived he said “50,000 Dong” for both of us to eat at the place which was most likely owned by his aunt.  At this point some red flags had already gone up and I sternly told him “no more money”.   He got the point and I saw in his eyes that he truly felt bad.  He had tried to get one thousand too many dong from this American.  So he took me back, assuring me all the while that we were “friends”.  We had a few more drinks and shared a cigarette.  He clearly just wanted to make amends for trying to take his scamming one step to far.

But then he and his buddies said they wanted to go for a “ride” and they all motioned for me to join in the  fun – “hop on and take the ride!”  I asked them “where” are we going to and he simply pointed a direction that was opposite of where my hotel.  It was obvious that they wanted me to come with them but at this point I did not feel comfortable hopping on back for another wild ride.  I told them thank you, enjoy the whiskey and the extra money I gave you and good night.

I’d like to walk away from this experience thinking it was just a genuine experience but deep down I know that when I crossed the bridge with the main moto man his scammer instinct kicked in and he tried to extort every last Dong he could out of me.  But when I said “no” multiple times I think he genuinely felt bad about it and he knew that he had ruined an otherwise genuine exchange by trying to extract more money from me than he should have.