Your Fearless Travelers

Your Fearless Travelers
Your Fearless Travelers

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Confessions of a Travel Junkie: Sapa, Vietnam to Los Angeles, California

It all started out so innocently; an old copy of National Geographic, carelessly left out for my young fingers to thumb through; the frenzied buzzing in the air whenever my family headed out to the airport; the odd late night spent watching documentaries on Guam. When I was 10 my parents bought a wall sized map of the world. I whiled away hours in the basement looking at the outline of countries who’s names I could never pronounce. Nobody ever thought much of it.

I guess, like many people, I really started to experiment with travel in college. Gateway road trips up to New York City gave way to that first glorious plane ride to Paris (you always remember your first time… out of the country). I went into school with a bachelor’s degree in aimless rambling and came out P.H.D. in wanderlust.  By the time university ended I had a ravenous travel monkey on my back the size of King Kong and twice as loud. For years I fed the beast, living on the Mediterranean, taking weekend trips to Corsica or driving up to Amsterdam when the itch got unbearable. It was a beautiful dream but it could never last.  At my lowest point I even allowed myself to be photographed in a beret.

When I returned to New York I kept the monkey satiated with an endless stream of Chinese take-out, aboriginal art installations and foreign tourists. I could close my eyes on the streets in Curry Hill and, just for a moment, be transported far away to a bustling, Indian bazaar deep in the jungles of the sub-continent.  My neighborhood in Brooklyn was awash in the smells of rich marinara sauce, roasting coffee and too much cologne like the streets of Naples. New York is a convenience traveler’s fantasy because the whole world comes right to your doorstep.

I knew I needed to stop. Who could keep a traveling lifestyle up forever? Eventually everyone needs to hang up the spurs and put down some roots. I decided to end the habit but, like most addicts, I promised myself one big score before the end; a round the world trip. That was my ticket out…

Molly and I took the train from Hanoi up to Sapa, Vietnam, right next to the Chinese border. It was still dark when we arrived and a curtain of clouds rolled down the steep mountains offering only momentary glimpses of the spectacular vistas that lay beyond. We took a mini-bus up to the main town and quickly booked a hotel room for a much needed nap. We awoke just after noon to a blinding sun pouring through the huge window of our hotel room. The mist that had obscured our view earlier retreated leaving a spectacular panorama of the valley below. Jagged, green mountains rose thousands of feet into the air. On the lower slopes every inch of arable land was transformed into an endless staircase of terraced rice paddies.

H'mong girls walking in town
Northern Vietnam is where most of the ethnic minorities make their home.  The hills around Sapa are home to the H’mong, Red Dzao, White Dzao, Tay and many other tribes. The different tribes are easily identifiable by their clothes. The Red Dzao wear bright red turbans or scarves on their heads. The H’mong on the other hand are easy to spot by their embroidered indigo dresses over velvet legwarmers. Although the majority of these tribes are subsistence farmers, a large number of the young women have learned that foreign visitors have deep pockets and a low threshold for saying no. A tourist walking down the steep main street in Sapa often looks like a sweaty goose with eight or nine brightly colored, ethnic goslings following behind. Each of the honking, squawking flock holds up bracelets, necklaces and embroidery in a reverse force feeding of indigenous trinkets down their new mother’s throat. Tenacity is in their blood. Molly and I were followed through town for about two miles by a gaggle of four girls. They proceeded to stand outside in the rain for an hour and a half while we ate lunch before renewing the chase. We eventually broke down and bought some bracelets and an embroidered baby carrier for our friend. It’s hard to say “no” for three hours straight. Those girls are good.

Red Dzao girls
Molly and the H'mong

Deep in negotiations. Can you spot the Red Dzao?

Early the next morning we rented a motor bike and drove off into the hills around town. The mountain road twisted and turned like an epileptic snake slithering its way to the summit. Hairpin curves and precipitous drop offs forced me to concentrate heavily on the road. I did, however, manage to look up every once in a while to catch a glimpse of silvery waterfalls plunging down the hills or a few H’mong children leading a herd of water buffalo to graze on the slopes. 

Those dogs are not heading to a pet store...

Ridin' in style 

We wound our way over gravel roads up to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin, northeast of Sapa. On the way we came across the ruins of an old monastery. Built during the colonial period in the early twentieth century the church was abandoned when the French pulled out of Vietnam. It was beautiful strolling among the crumbled archways and overgrown orchards. Something about ruined churches makes them feel more sacred to me. The strength embodied by the huge stone walls and buttresses is balanced by delicate flowers that grow out from cracks in the mortar. The ruins almost feel as if they grew up out of the earth, as natural and in tune with their surroundings as the trees that nestle in the spaces between their stones. Ghost of the past walk the disintegrating corridors reminding all who enter that the builders of this place have long ago gone to meet their own maker.  

We stopped for a bowl of Pho at an idyllic little restaurant right next to a small stream overlooking some rice paddies. We sat at the one table in the place and made goo-goo eyes at the owner’s toddler who wouldn’t stop staring at us from under his mother’s skirt. (Y’all act like you’ve never seen a white person before) After lunch we walked through the village and were immediately surrounded by a sea of red scarves. We haggled for twenty minutes and eventually left with a woven glasses case and a floor mat. I’m telling you those girls are good.

This girl has a bracelet for YOU!
We left Sapa in high fashion. Our friends Zak and Ali, who we met on our cruise in Halong bay, had booked a sleeper compartment on a train back to Hanoi. They had two extra beds and invited us to come along. We jumped at the chance to ride in style.  Now, it might have been the altitude or, more likely, the two bottles of Vietnamese vodka that we all split, but it was one of the best train rides of my life… and I don’t remember going to sleep.

(From left to right) Zak, Ali, Molly's chair, Mark, Katie and El
Back in Hanoi I felt that old monkey stirring again. He knew we were going home soon and he wasn’t about to go quietly. After a few hours of drinking bia hoi I finally I decided to screw my courage to the sticking place and go for the king of all traveler’s experiences… eating a beating snake heart. Hanoi’s snake district is just across the river from the old city so Molly and I jumped in a taxi along with Zak and Ali and two other friends El and Katie. We soon found ourselves face to face with a pit full of hissing cobras, something that El was none too keen on. 

We picked out a nice, juicy three pound cobra that was about 5 feet long. After haggling a little we agreed on the price and the meal began. First the blood is drained into a glass and the heart is removed to be eaten later. A snake heart will beat for up to thirty minutes after it is removed from the body. They then remove the skin. All through this ordeal the snake is wiggling and moving around. I prefer to think that the snake is dead and, like the heart, the snake’s muscles are just convulsing with residual electrical impulses, otherwise this would this would be incredibly cruel.

Beating snake heart with shot glasses
One thing that is nice about the snake restaurants is that they use every piece of the snake. That night we had snakeskin cracklings, stir fried snake meat with lemongrass, deep fried spine (yes, spine), snake offal with garlic and peppers as well as shots of snake bile, blood and heart. Here’s a tip. Drink the snake blood early in the meal, otherwise it starts to congeal. Drinking the heart in a shot of vodka was something I will never forget. The heart continues beating for a few minutes after you swallow it and you can feel it in your throat. It is said to impart strength and virility to whomever eats it. I’m just happy I didn’t puke.

Snake meat stirfried with lemmongrass

Deep fried spine and skin
As the end of our trip drew nigh, Molly and I found ourselves with a lot of ground to cover to get back to Saigon for our return flight. We decided we might as well bite the bullet. We booked a twenty-eight hour train ride from Hanoi to Nha Trang, bought some Ritz crackers, Hanoi Beer and some Coke Zero for sustenance, and prepared for our nightmare.

Because we had very little money we opted to buy a seat in the economy class car. All the other tourists arrived and went into their air-conditioned cabins with beds and fresh linens. Molly and were the only to foreigners in the budget car. It was literally crawling with roaches. Children and adults curled up on straw mats on the floor trying to sleep away the endless journey. Every few hours conductors pushed a cart full of soda, beer and hột vịt lộn, partially formed duck fetuses boiled in their shell. YUMMY!  Glad we brought those Ritz. The train ride was so long I actually started to feel like I was in the Jean Paul Sartre play “No Exit”. Hell is other people… who won’t shut up during a long train ride.

We finally arrived in Nha Trang and hopped in a taxi to our hotel by the beach. The next few days were spent in blissful ignorance, turning a blind eye to the impending wave of reality that would shortly come crashing down around us. We rented beach chairs at the Louisiane Brewery for sunbathing, schooled a bunch of Russians in eight-ball, and ate some of the greatest Vietnamese BBQ in the world at Lac Cahn Restaurant. Every table has a smoking ceramic BBQ and waiters bring out huge plates of beef, pork, squid, shrimp and vegetables to be seared to your liking. For people who like to play with their food, this place is like heaven.

A few days later we caught our last night bus of the trip back to Saigon. Aside from an epic shopping spree at the Ben Thanh market, the only thing left to do was the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were originally build to fight the French but were greatly expanded in the war against the Americans. Cu Chi has hard red, clay soil that is perfect for digging tunnels. During the war the VC dug hundreds of miles of these tunnels to help supply troops, aid in surprise attacks, and serve as living quarters for thousands of soldiers. Molly and I crawled through the steamy, bat infested, 40 inch high tunnels and looked at the vicious home-made traps that were used against american troops. All I can say is that I have the utmost respect for anyone who made it out of there alive.

And that was that. Suddenly the trip was all over. Molly and I boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles the next morning. I watched the Far East retreat in my window and prepared to return to a normal life… whatever that means. When we landed in California both Molly and I got incredibly ill. It seems that like any other addiction, travel withdrawal is a bitch. We spent the next week in bed, too weak to move, both running temperatures of 103⁰. I’ll spare you the grim details but suffice it to say that things got really ugly.

Going cold turkey is one of the hardest things I had to do but, thank God, it’s over. This past year traveling was the greatest experience of my life but to do it I had to leave almost everything I love behind. I would take up at the drop of a hat and jaunt off to sunny Thailand or disappear into the Chilean Andes for months at a time. But, that’s all gonna change-I’m going to change. Like others before me, now I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life. It’s all about the straight and narrow path now; houses in suburbia and early morning jogging in the neighborhood. I can’t wait to start tomorrow…


I have always heard that Dublin is nice this time of year.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Dragon and the Fairy; Saigon to Halong Bay, Vietnam

Long ago, in a time when the world looked very different than it does now, a water dragon was given a great gift. Sired by a mountain god, the dragon, named Lac Long Quan, inherited a sprawling land near his home in the sea. One day, while flying over the green hills of his newly acquired realm, he met a beautiful fairy named Au Co. The two fell instantly in love and began to dance together. Mighty sweeps from the dragon’s tail collided with the rolling earth, creating colossal mountains and carving jagged islands in the sea. Soon afterwards, Au Co bore 100 eggs containing their children. The eggs hatched into a new race on the earth, a race of men.

Sadly the love between the fairy and the dragon could never last.  Lac Long Quan went back to his castle in the sea, his tears filling the gorges made by his powerful tail. Au Co retreated to her home in the mountains. The children of the divine pair were likewise divided, half went to live with their mother in the mountains and the other half chose to dwell near their father by the sea. And so the country of Vietnam was born.

This myth, handed down for countless generations, is both beautiful and enlightening. It speaks to the heart of this magnificent, mystifying country. Even today, the remnants of Vietnam’s unusual parentage can be seen all around. The bloody fangs of Lac Long Quan lend a murderous counterpoint to the ethereal splendor bestowed by Au Co. By turns the country can be enraging or enlightening, destructive or divine, blighted and beautiful, often all at the same time. It is a land that has been torn apart by war but held together by the indomitable spirit of its people.

Our first introduction to the bloody nature of the dragon was on the road into Saigon. We were nearing the end of a thirteen hour bus ride. Traffic slowed to a crawl and I let out a groan of annoyance at this new delay.  That’s when I saw the foot. Just outside my window lay the twisted wreckage of a motor-bike. A straw mat covered up most of a body that lay in a pool of red-black blood in the road. Sticking out from beneath the mat a single foot was gleaming white in the harsh light of car headlights. Her toenails were slick, glossy, and blue-green. The accident had taken her life but left her pedicure untouched.

About ten minutes later traffic slowed again, and I knew what was coming. The collision must have happened only a few moments earlier because the wheels on the motorbike were still spinning as our van crept slowly by. The body lay uncovered in the street. Dark, glassy eyes stared unblinking from his smooth, round face. This time there was no blood. The boy’s body seemed unbroken, as if he could jump up and walk away were it not for the fact that the rear view mirror of his motor-bike had somehow embedded itself in his left foot… Welcome to Vietnam.

We mercifully arrived in Saigon without further carnage. Officially named Ho Chi Minh City after the reunification, Saigon greeted us with wide, tree-lined avenues and slightly crumbling colonial-era buildings. The city has the look of an aging movie star, past her prime and a little rough around the edges but still easily recognizable as a stunner from the old days. We found Ben Thanh market in the center of the city and devoured some 
delicious crab soup before making our way to the War Remembrance Museum.

I felt mixed emotions as I walked through the museum. We had just come from Cambodia where a lack of American intervention allowed the genocidal regime of Pol Pot to systematically murder millions of his own people. Here in Saigon, we came face to face came with unspeakable horrors that US involvement brought to Vietnam. Images of destroyed villages and butchered infants were juxtaposed against the nauseating genetic consequences of the defoliant “Agent Orange.” They actually had a stillborn corpse of conjoined twins floating in a jar of formaldehyde. Confronted with such terrible icons the questions that arise out of this international Sophie’s Choice torture my soul — to intervene or do nothing... to suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles... am I my brother’s keeper? I cannot speak of such imponderable profundities and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

After Saigon we took a bus to the beach town of Mui Ne to meet up with our friends Clare and Will and enjoy some much needed R & R. Here, the horrors of the war seemed a million miles away. Swaying palm trees silhouetted themselves against a backdrop of rolling azure ocean waves and imposing mountains rising in the distance. We spent hours lounging in hammocks swaying to the rhythm of tropical breezes. We even found a hotel with a swim-up bar where we whiled away a whole day splashing in the water and drinking cocktails with little straw hats.

From Mui Ne we caught a bus that drove us high into the mountains of central Vietnam. The city of Dalat is surrounded by huge pine-covered hills and blessed with a cool climate that feels like eternal spring. It was the first time in months that I had to put on long pants and shoes to ward of the evening chill. This temperate micro-climate also means that Dalat has some of the most diverse cuisine in the entire country. In the busy night-market we feasted on delicious food. It was here that we realized that the menu descriptions can be a bit misleading when we ordered “cook pork in sauce.” It turned out to be delectable a dish that consisted of a scalding hot clay pot filled with tender strips of stewed pork, onions and a tangy, sweet caramel sauce that sizzled and steamed at the table, filling the air with its intoxicating aroma.

The next stop on the trip was Nha Trang. This was where American servicemen went on their time away from the front lines. A crescent of white sand stretches for miles in front of the city. Beautiful islands dot the horizon and the crystal clear waters lap gently against the shore like a giant bathtub. We rented beach chairs on the sand in front of the Louisiane Brewhouse. It was amazing. We’d spent months drinking the local brews; Chang beer in Thailand, Beer Laos in Laos, Ankor beer in Cambodia, all of which taste like watered down Coors Light. The beer at Louisiane was a revelation. We downed frosty mugs of thick chocolaty stout, deep caramel ales and crisp, flavorful pilsners, all under a thatched umbrella that shielded us from the burning sun. When the inevitable afternoon rain showers arrived, we retreated inside for several games of pool and several more delicious brews.

The next day wanted to take advantage of the offshore islands and pristine water so we booked a snorkeling trip. Strange does not even begin to describe the itinerary. A boat picked us up at the local pier and took us to a protected marine preserve where we swam amongst the coral and a living rainbow of tropical fish for about an hour. And that was the end of the snorkeling. We went back to the boat for lunch and the crew began the “entertainment.” A full drum kit made of discarded plastic buckets was placed on the central table. The captain came out playing a cheap, imitation Fender Stratocaster and our guide warbled karaoke songs into a microphone with so much reverb that it sounded like he was singing in an empty auditorium made of tin. My favorite tune was a heavily distorted punk-rock version of “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles.

After lunch the boat stopped in the middle of the sea, miles away from shore. The crew threw a few old tires into the water to use as life preservers. They then pulled out some bottles of rice moonshine and informed us that it was happy hour. The guide set up a few bottles and glasses on two of the larger tires and everyone jumped into the water to start downing shot of this vile concoction, often mixed with large amounts of sea water from the splashing waves. So much for snorkeling.

We left Nha Trang on a night bus and headed to Hoi An. Stepping off the bus was like being transported back in time 100 years. The ancient downtown area of Hoi An is closed to cars and you stroll the cramped maze of streets in relative silence that is unknown in other cities in Vietnam. The old colonial buildings are covered with ivy and bright crimson flowers. Crumbling French windows and the brilliant yellows so common to southern France, fit in perfectly with delicate pagodas and stupas of Buddhist temples that are a thousand years old. We rented bicycles and rode with a local, Mr. Trung, to his village just outside of town. Each village specializes in some type of craft. Mr. Trung smiled warmly as he showed us the techniques that his village had used to churn out red clay pottery for hundreds of years.

At night Hoi An lights up like a thousand dancing fairies whose rainbow of illuminations are reflected in the gently flowing water of the Thu Bon river. Au Co must have spent a lot of her time decorating this enchanting town as her centerpiece.

Bia Hoi Corner
Many hours of bus travel later we arrived in the capital city of Hanoi. The bustling, noisy city must be a far cry from the bombed out shell that was left after American troops ceased their bombardment. Every corner is filled with people hawking wears from bamboo bowls to snakeskin banjos. About every thirty feet you run into a group of people seated on stools taking bong hits of tobacco (I don’t recommend it). Another great specialty of Hanoi is called “Bia Hoi.” Meaning “fresh beer,” it is a brew that was introduced by the Czechs and is made without preservatives so it must be consumed quickly. It runs about 20 cents per glass and for two dollars you can spend the whole evening sitting on tiny plastic stools and swapping stories with locals and travelers alike. Incidentally, the place across the street from us sold the beer for even cheaper, but they would not serve foreigners. This wasn’t because they were racist or bitter, it was simply because the bar itself was illegal and when the police show up a bunch of drunk white people can’t run away fast enough.

It's called Bun Cha and it is AWESOME!
The next day we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called KOTO (Know One, Teach One). It was founded by an Australian of Korean and Vietnamese decent who has dedicated his life to helping street kids. He started a program to train them and to help them find jobs in the hospitality industry. The food was so good that we bought a cookbook to try and recreate some of the dishes.

After lunch we walked across the street to the Temple of Knowledge, a university that was founded in the year 1070. For almost a millennium, this institution trained young minds in the arts of medicine, politics, and law. It is a beautiful place with tranquil ponds and elegant pagodas that once housed the classes. 

A classroom in the temple of knowledge
Our last stop was at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Unfortunately, the building was closed so we couldn’t see the old man himself, but we did get to look at the modest two room house he lived in from the 1950’s until his death in 1969. He may have been considered a communist pariah to the US government, but at least he walked the walk. The rooms contained little more than one bed, a writing desk and a bomb-shelter underneath.

Ho's final resting place
Ho Chi Minh's house

The bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake
Our final stop on this leg of the trip was in Halong Bay. About four hours by bus from Hanoi, the bay is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. According to myth it was carved by the tail of the dragon, Lac Long Quan, as he thrashed his way down to the sea after leaving Au Co. Molly and I decided to splurge on a three-day cruise onto the bay and it was unforgettable. Our boat, appropriately enough, was called the Au Co, and it was the definition of opulence. Each five course, gourmet meal was introduced by our Swiss cruise director and served by white gloved attendants. The white, goose-down comforters in our chilly, air-conditioned cabin made us feel like we were sleeping on a cloud.

From a distance, Halong Bay looks like a solid, impenetrable wall of green limestone cliffs but, like the country of Vietnam itself, it only reveals its splendor upon closer inspection. The islands themselves look similar to the dramatic karsts of southern Thailand, only much more concentrated. Navigating through the labyrinth of jagged islands must have taken considerable skill. We spent our days sea kayaking through limestone caves and swimming in the warm water. At dusk, the captain would position the ship on wide expanses of water for optimal views of the sunset. While sipping gin and tonics on our private balcony overlooking the glittering scarlet water, Molly and I whispered to each other, “We’re peaking.”

Vladimir Ilyich Uylanov!
Before dinner each evening the Vietnamese staff of the Au Co would gather in the dining room to sing a song. Many of the songs celebrated the victory of Ho Chi Minh and the recapturing of Saigon, which they called “Reunification Day.” It was during those songs that I realized something about Vietnam. The country, whose founding myth was about a great division, has always been yearning for unity. Torn asunder by the Geneva Conference of 1954 and ruled by imperialist powers from China to France for most of its history, the country was striving for its own identity. Ninety-nine percent of the soldiers who fought for North Vietnam during “The War of American Aggression” had never read a word of Marx or Engels. They were not fighting for the ideals of communism; they were fighting to rid their homeland of foreign influence. Communism just provided a common rallying cry. These days, although nominally communist, Marxist/Leninism has generally fallen by the wayside, making room for the new prosperity brought by capitalism (not to mention all the problems that go along with it). The people are enjoying a unity, peace, and freedom that they have not known for thousands of years. Although it still has a long way to go before the bloody scars of history truly heal, it now seems that the children of the dragon and the fairy can finally live as one.