Dalat…

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(journal excerpt: February 24, 2012-Dalat, Vietnam)

We have been really enjoying our time in Dalat and I’ve been especially enjoying taking photos! I swear, every time I take out my camera, I breathe a sigh of relief. 

Dalat, being the top rated location for Vietnamese honeymooners, is full of tourist kitsch and tackiness and we had to take part by taking a paddle boat swan onto the lake in the middle of the city.  I haven’t had a chance to upload more recent photos of all the things we have seen here but I will be sure to include some in my next post.  The paddle boat was fun but the lake is quite green with quite a few fish floating belly up.  Apparently the lake is drained and dredged every decade or so having just been drained last year but you can’t tell by looking at it! The fish don’t seem to tolerate it much either.  Surprisingly, this doesn’t stop people from sitting around it all day, trying to catch the diseased fish.  It made me glad I’ve been off seafood the past few months.  But mostly the paddle boat just showed me how out of shape I’ve become. 

We then wandered around this creepy abandoned children’s amusement park, taking photos of all the weirdness (again, photos to come soon).  No idea why it is not in operation anymore but there was still a woman working there, presumably renting bicycles.  It’s funny how there is absolutely no such thing as copyright infringement here.  The park has weird representations of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Mickey Mouse images are pretty much used everywhere in this country, including on the front of elementary schools, on T-shirts in the market, no problem! Same with the whole bootleg DVD thing.  Apparently not an issue. 

We went to a free flower garden next to the golf course which was nice but not very well maintained and a little run down.  Perhaps because they are not collecting admissions like the other main flower garden here (update: we went to the paid flower garden yesterday, equally mismanaged and dirty).  We were particularly surprised to see all the produce growing, just rotting on the vine-pumpkins, tomatoes and chili peppers, seemingly going to no use at all. 

We went to the market which is huge and covers two large indoor spaces, spilling out onto the streets surrounding it.  Pretty much everything is for sale here, but it’s geared more for locals with not a lot of tourist tat which is great because HCMC is full of that.  In fact, I read somewhere that Vietnamese tourists make up about 80% of the tourism here, with the rest being from other countries so it is kind of nice. You feel like you are getting more of an authentic experience wandering around the country roads here.  Anyway, back the market.  The bottom floor is full of food, local produce and dried local fruits, sugared to the point of candying.  I got suckered into buying a bag of mixed dried fruit, most of which were okay but some where just awful and far too sweet for my liking.  Like most sweets in SE Asia, they are just TOO sweet for me. 

The next day we went to Crazy House, a place we had heard about from Departures years ago.  The photos we took (to be posted next time), do not really do the place justice but it is indeed crazy! The mastermind of a Vietnamese, female architect, Crazy house was built, I think, starting in 1990 and it is still under construction.  Heavily influenced by Gaudi, as far as I can tell, Crazy House is a mass of artificial hills and terrifying bridges with no guard rails.  This fellow travellers Youtube video gives a great idea of what it looks like, actually.  It felt like I fell down the rabbit hole, wandering through all the weird themed rooms and we just missed the tourist buses so we mostly had it to ourselves.  I don’t know about staying here though.  Besides the parades of tourists walking through all day that you would have to put up with as a house guest, the place wasn’t the cleanest looking and the beds all looked rumpled and slept in, not to mention it was more expensive than any other place we had been staying in thus far.  Very cool though and very worthy of the 35,000 D admission charge. 

Hard to say what we will do on the rest of our days here but we’ve been enjoying wandering around, checking out all the beautiful old French architecture and drinking the cheap local wine.  We’re not much for the tourist hot spots, choosing instead to walk back roads and avoid tours and major tourist sites but there is a pagoda that sounds interesting to me that you can also access by cable car.  I don’t know about a cable car in the third world, but we’ll have to see!

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Dalat and Heart Attacks and How much I love Vietnam…

(journal excerpt: February 21, 2012-Dalat, Vietnam)

We left HCMC yesterday in the early morning and caught our bus around 8am.  The bus ride wasn’t too bad and took about 8 hours with a break for lunch.  We climbed a lot of narrow windy mountain road with the typical third world passing of the traffic in the oncoming lane on the blind corner but it still wasn’t as unnerving as similar trips in India or Malaysia.  A lot of the landscape on the way was quite pretty with coffee and tea plantations and colonial architecture left over by the French.

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I think we passed a church every kilometre or so.  I don’t know why I never realized last time how many Catholics live here! We eventually made it to Dalat, where it was cloudy and misting rain and walked to find our guesthouse, avoiding the touts who were waiting for us as soon as we arrived.  We found it, eventually, after I handed M the map (I’m starting to realize I’m not so great at map reading)!

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Our room is quite big with heavy wooden furniture, two big wooden chairs and a coffee table.  Flat screen, fridge and hot water with french doors that open onto a beautiful balcony for only $14.  Man I love Vietnam for the quality of their accommodation.  You just cannot compare the value to anywhere else in SE Asia.  But by the end of the day I had come to love Vietnam for so much more. 

After hanging out in our room for a couple of hours, and resting from the long bus ride, we began to think about dinner which made me think about my day-pack and how I needed to reorganize it and stick the camera in it to take out with us, as is our routine.  That’s when I realized I didn’t see the camera bag anywhere.  This camera, the one that I’ve blogged about buying, splurging on, spending a big chunk of coin on, the camera that I’ve taken all these past photos on that you’ve seen on this blog, was gone. 

I immediately asked M if he could see the camera bag and the freak out soon commenced.  Once we started to realize the camera wasn’t in the room, my heart began to race and I felt sick.  M was livid.  Not at me specifically, (it’s me that carries the camera case, he carries the laptop-it’s our deal) but at the fact that the camera was gone and he feels like, “…stuff like this…” always happens to us.  But all he could say to me, was, “well, it’s gone”.  I racked my brain trying to figure out where I could have left it.  On the bus we attached the strap to the back of our seat so no one could nab it from under our seat, we are that paranoid.  In fact, I am always obsessively careful with the camera and knowing where it is at all times so I could not believe this was happening.

I must have left it on the bus, but that seemed so crazy to me.  M would have had to step over it just to get off the bus from his seat and there was just no way he would have missed it.  After checking downstairs with the hotel lobby, as I thought I may have left it down there, it slowly started all making sense.  When the bus arrived, I was a bit distracted.  We pulled in at the station and there were already touts waiting to talk to us as we got off.  I HATE this part of travelling.  They were pulling our bags off from under the bus and I was keeping my eye on what was going on there while thinking about the directions I had to the guesthouse and carrying a couple other plastic bags and things.  We got off the bus and grabbed our packs, pulling them to the side to put them on and adjust them for the ten minute walk uphill to the guesthouse.

During this, the touts starting talking to us, asking if we wanted a day tour, seeing if we had a hotel booking-I was tired and frazzled and we wanted to get out of there quick.  I left it on the bench with all the touts.  There was NO WAY it was still there.  But we had to go back to check anyway. We left to head back to the tour company’s bus station.  I wasn’t crying yet, but I was definitely hyperventilating and I felt like throwing up.  I had already started considering if we would be able to buy a replacement camera on this trip or if that would be it for travel photos. 

On the way to the tour office I went over the possibilities a thousand times of what happened and none of it made sense but I started thinking about how much a  local person could sell the camera for and how much it would compare to a monthly salary here and how a local would consider it to be a totally replaceable item to a comparatively wealthy tourist and well it wasn’t looking good. 

We went into the hotel at the tour office but she led us to a small booth adjacent which seemed to be where the tickets were sold.  The hotel woman talked in Vietnamese to the man and I frantically explained in English.  He began to look in  a box under his desk and handed me a notebook and asked me to write today’s date and my name.  I didn’t really understand how this was relevant but I did what he said.  He asked me for a description of the camera and case and just as he was asking me to sign my name in the notebook, I saw him pull up my camera case from under the desk.

My heart leapt up into my throat.  That’s not just a cliché.  That actually happens.  I could not believe what I was seeing.  The camera was turned in!! I practically left over the counter and hugged him while he sat dumfounded and stiff.  I was crying in shock and happiness as I thanked him.  M shook his hand, equally shocked but far more composed than I.  I mean, the camera was gone and I took it on 100% as being my fault-it was my responsibility, despite the fact that M didn’t blame me at all.  The relief and surprise were overwhelming.  I was so blown away by the kindness and honestly from someone who had so much less than us.  Even if a tourist handed it in, the staff could have kept it and said they never saw it.  It was unbelievable and I am still in shock.  All we read in guidebooks and web forums is how much theft there is in SE Asia, particularly Vietnam.  Lately we’ve seen a lot of blogs where people have been complaining of how much they hate Vietnam for its dishonesty and scamming. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of that too, and I’ve been ripped off a few times since being here but this has given me a big reminder to never underestimate people and never to generalize.  There are good and bad people everywhere and we were very, very lucky the right people were involved in our saga but I know one thing for sure-I will NEVER say anything bad about the Vietnamese people.  Thank you Vietnam!

I love you!!


Pham Ngu Lao…

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Pham Ngu Lao’s alleys are rabbit warrens.  Barely wide enough to walk through, they are a bustle of activity.  They are also the backpackers alleys, where guesthouse upon guesthouse can be found.  Ho Chi Minh buildings, typically are one room wide and packed in here, one guesthouse after another.  Cars cannot drive down here but scooters and motorbikes still try, despite the lack of space and the various vendors selling in the morning and early afternoon.

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These vendors are not selling tourist stuff, but rather food for locals.  Raw meat on a board close to the ground greets us as we leave our place every morning.  Vegetables and fruit or ready-made pho and spring rolls abound.  They pack up when the rush is over and sweep the alley behind them.  They Pham Ngu Lao alleys are also a great way to see how people live in this area because everyone’s home is open.  The ground floor, obviously where the entrance of the house is located, is usually two gates that are closed and locked if no one is home, but if occupied, these rabbit warrens are open to any nosy onlooker like myself.  Let’s just say they make Tokyo apartments look palatial in size. 

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Some of these ground floor rooms have about as much space as a large dining room table.  In there, you may see a small bed or someone napping on a tiled floor, always a television, perhaps a small shrine for their ancestors.  Some of them have even less space.  There is one place close to ours that is the size of a closet with water bottle crates stacked up high on both sides of the wall where a man sites on a chair in between the two stacks, watching a wall mounted TV.  A small ladder goes off to the left for access to the upper floors.  Other times you might see the tiniest kitchen (even by my Tokyo standards!)  It really is amazing, the utilization of small space.  I’m not sure what they do with the other rooms above but I assume they are for family and the bottom floor is essentially a sitting room.  Of course the guesthouses have a much larger ground floor with space for their family to meet, eat dinner and watch TV.  I havent been able to get very good photos of these alley ways without being intrusive but hopefully you will still find it interesting and hopefully visit yourself some day!

Ho Chi Minh and more decisions…

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(journal excerpt: February 17, 2012-Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

Still here, in Ho Chi Minh and I admit it’s been a bit difficult to think of where we want to go next.  We decided early on that we wouldn’t be revisiting all the areas of Vietnam that we’ve seen before but we considered returning to one place we remember fondly: Mui Ne.  However, last time we were there it was low season, and mostly deserted.  The idea of a packed beach and unavailable rooms wasn’t really attractive to us and we kept hearing mixed reviews about how busy it actually was.  Some people were telling us it was pretty much dead.  Other people told us it was overrun with Russian tourists.  Our other option was Dalat, a cooler area in the mountains and an old hill station to the French.  Kitschy and a popular Vietnamese honeymoon spot, it still sounded interesting but eight hours away by bus with some windy stretches of sketchy mountainous road? We weren’t sure if we were up for that either. 

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This debate has been torturing us over the past couple of days.  Why is sometimes making even the simplest of decisions so hard for us on this trip? We were making way to big of a deal out of the simplest things! Some days I get so annoyed with making decisions all day long and I realize that home life gets boring sometimes because there are not that many decisions to make in each day.  Breakfast is usually the same, route to work, workload, dinner routine, same same same.  So instead I know I should embrace the choices that we decided to embark upon, by choice, because of lack of choices and decisions back home! I seriously must drive some of my readers crazy with these trips down my meandering psyche.  Lordy, I annoy myself most of the time.  I really do actually appreciate “options”.  Honestly, when I write this and think of it, I am very grateful.  But it’s just tiring sometimes.  Sometimes I wonder if our willingness or desire to slow things down on this trip, spend more time in fewer places, is also related to the idea that we will making bigger choices soon enough regarding what to do after our trip and maybe we just don’t want to think so hard right now about the little things because we always have big things niggling at our brains. 

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But that doesn’t mean we are not exploring! Spending more time in each place really gives us a better chance to go beyond the tourist sites and see a city.  We’re walking a lot here, yes, we escape into a mall every so often for a blast of air conditioning but we’ve also explored Ho Chi Minh a lot.  Our guesthouse is good right now and a brother who lives in Seattle is visiting and we’ve been able to talk to him a bit about his displacement, his life in the US and coming back home.  As a young guy he left Vietnam on a boat and tried to immigrate to Malaysia.  With 208 people on his boat, only 100 or so survived.  He told us that he recommends Dalat over Mui Ne because he doesn’t like the ocean which reminds him of this time, taking the boat to Malaysia.  It was just a tiny boat and people had to stand with their heads looking up because they were packed so close together, they couldn’t breathe otherwise.  When someone died, they threw them overboard and the bodies got caught in the wake which make them appear to follow the boat like ghosts. 

When I think of this story and how we can’t decide if we want beach or mountains I feel like an idiot.  At the end of the day we chose Dalat because we haven’t been there before.  We will probably go the day after tomorrow.  It’s a long bus ride that leaves early in the morning so it’s going to be rough but I think we’ll like it when we get there.  I’m looking forward to the lake and seeing Crazy House which I heard about on Departures, the Canadian travel show.

Almost everything you didn’t want to know about bedbugs…

Why am I writing about bedbugs on a blog that talks predominantly about food and travel? Well, because bedbugs are unfortunately becoming a big part of travel, both when we travel domestically and abroad. Before I get going here, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m any kind of expert.  I just want to post some of the information that I’ve found from years of working in hostels and travelling internationally.  The more we, as travellers are aware of the currently HUGE problem of bedbugs, the better we can combat them and travel more comfortably and peacefully!

As you’ve noticed if you read my blog, we’ve encountered bedbugs at least four or five times on this trip already and we’ve only been gone about four months! This is a huge increase from our last trip where we were away for six months.  The bedbug problem is increasing and they definitely seem to be more prevalent lately.  That being said, we also find them because we know how to look for them, what they look like and where they tend to hide.  When we get into a new room, it’s the first thing we usually do and that is why we sometimes find them before sleeping in the room and getting bit.  In any case, I hope by giving you a bit of info about them, you are not totally grossed out and instead feel a bit more empowered during your next trip abroad or at home! So here goes:

-Bedbugs are non-discriminatory.  Like cockroaches, they don’t have anything to do with what star of hotel you are staying in or how clean or dirty it is.  They can be anywhere, regardless.  It doesn’t mean they don’t clean the room properly if you have them in your bed.  Bedbugs are extremely hardy and can go for a long time without eating.  They can live in the carpet, the floor, the mattress and the bed frame.  They can travel a long distance for a meal

-Bedbugs do not (as far as studies currently show) carry disease or transmit anything from one person to another.  They are essentially harmless except for their extremely itchy, annoying bites

-Bedbugs look like this:

I spared you the actual photos I found on google because they were just too disgusting.  Note the colour and the lines on their body.  If they are full of your blood they can look fatter.  I know this is disgusting, just hang in there!

Like I said above, they can hide in all sorts of places, but if you are trying to find them in your room you can look for them under the mattress.  Peel back the seam of the mattress and look for tell-tale signs.  If you don’t see them, you may find lots of black specks.  These are their body casings (they molt), and poo! AAAAAACK..so gross!! Shudder…okay.  Look in the bed frame.  If your bed frame is made of wood, look in the knot holes and the nail holes.  They like these kind of places.

-Bedbugs come out at night, specifically when you are in the bed as they are attracted to the warmth.  I read somewhere that they are most common between the hours of 3am and 5am and I tend to agree with this.

-Bedbug bites look kind of like mosquito bites so sometimes you might not realize what is getting you when you are travelling.  I’ve seen people just covered in tell-tale bites complaining of all the mosquito bites they’ve been getting while they are relaxing poolside chatting with their friends.  If you are getting bit in rows, especially in groups of three bites or more, these are most likely bedbug bites.  Check out this:

Messed up Bedbug Bites

These are three nasty, upset bedbug bites on M’s finger after the aforementioned “incident” in Ho Chi Minh.  I think he is a bit allergic to them, so you can see they are a bit infected.  We eventually had to lance them.  Yummy!! But you see how they are red, inflamed and in a set of three? Bedbugs!  How many readers have I lost yet?

-What to do if you find bedbugs: This is only my advice and what works best for us, and again, I am not a professional in any way but what works for us is to leave.  This is bad I know, because in some ways it heightens the risk of transferring them to the next place you are staying, and spreading them.  So this is why I suggest you take everything you are wearing, everything that has been out in the room and has been in contact with the room.  Put it in a plastic bag and tie it up and get your laundry washed.  Keep your bag as far away from the bed area as you can.  Tell the place you are staying and if they don’t speak English (as is usually the case with us), bring them the bedbugs if you can and show them.  Explain to them that they are biting you and they need to spray the room.  As for your bites, we find that a hydrocortisone cream works the best.  The itchiness goes away after a few days.  In fact, the worst thing about bedbugs is the psychological problems they bring.  After you know you’ve had bugs crawling on you in the night, sucking your blood, its hard not to get crawly and yucky feeling when you crawl into bed.  You may feel like you have them on you when you don’t and you don’t want to move to a new place after you get a “good” room for fear of getting them.  It kind of messes you up a bit.  But unfortunately, there is not much you can do about them. 

Anyway, I hope the above stuff helps some travellers and you are not too grossed out by me! I promise I won’t post too many more disgusting blog posts and I’ll get back to flowers and food and nice things in my next post! Thanks for hanging in there!

Ho Chi Minh and Bedbugs…

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(journal excerpt-February 14, 2012)

Well, we’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City for a week now and we are enjoying taking our time exploring the city, despite a few setbacks along the way.  We had made a reservation online for our guesthouse which is something we don’t usually do, but it’s peak season and after seeing how incredibly busy it has been in Thailand, we didn’t want to take the chance.  We were curious about the place we stayed at the last time we were here and hoped we could book there but couldn’t find it anywhere on the internet and no way to book it online.  As it turns out, we found out later it has been closed down, the whole building is currently abandoned.

Anyway, so we booked into the same Pham Ngu Lao area of the city but in the packed guesthouse area of the alley networks, an area I didn’t even know existed when we were here the last time.  Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker area of HCMC-it’s full of great restaurants with a tonne of international food, bars with the ever-present old white dude with his prostitutes, tour companies and guesthouses.  Standards of accommodation are way higher in Vietnam than what you get in the rest of Southeast Asia and for about the same price.  Rooms are usually very clean and cleaned daily with aircon, free wifi, satellite TV and a refrigerator all standard.  Most of the accommodation in Pham Ngu Lao is of a colonial style building and the architecture here is quite beautiful.  A narrow, skinny building, usually four or five stories high with two rooms per floor is quite common, with one room facing the street and the other the back, with a tiny winding staircase between.  It makes carrying the backpacks up quite fun! The bottom floor is where the reception area is and is also often the common area for the family that runs the house, whose kitchen and other rooms are at the back of the main floor.  Many rooms have balconies and extra furniture like wardrobes and desks.  In a word, great value compared to the rest of Southeast Asia.

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Our first place was good and we based our decision on reviews we had read that said they didn’t push tours which can be quite a problem in Vietnam.  The family was nice and friendly with limited English but upon check in we found the mother already handing us the tour brochures.  We tried to stay on for a few nights,  paying in advance but we were told to come down in the morning and check availability each day due to their online bookings.  By the third night we were told we wouldn’t have a bed the next day due to no space and we couldn’t help but wonder if it was because we didn’t go on any tours and mentioned we had been to HCMC before.  But don’t worry, she assured us! She had a friend who ran a guesthouse we could stay at the following day.

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The next day we moved over to this next place and checked in.  Not as nice, but looked clean enough and it would do.  We went out for the day as usual and came back in the evening to watch bad movies on HBO.  By 5:30am, M woke me up to tell me he was getting eaten alive by bedbugs.  We found one on the floor where he was standing and pulled back the blanket to find another big fat one, full of our blood.  I also had bites on my foot and leg.  Well there goes our sleep.  We sat awake until daylight when, armed with further good online reviews, I went out searching for our new “home” while M stayed with the bags in our room.  Everywhere I looked was full but we finally found another place.  We brought our bags in over from the last place, explained to the staff why we were leaving and that they needed to spray the room.  They were really apologetic and sweet about it and it’s actually not their fault but I will cover all that in my next public service type, bedbug post! I’m becoming quite the expert! Anyway, we hadn’t even gone down from this new room to check in when we found two more bedbugs in this new place, one on the wall and one in a nail-hole of the molding by the bed.  Argh!! So frustrating! We decided after much deliberation to try a different room here and tell of the problem.  She seemed surprised and didn’t really understand us at first but after I showed her the “carcasses”, she and her cleaner? sister? knew what I was talking about.  Now we’ve been in this current room for three nights which brings me to our one week in HCMC and so far, knock on wood, no more problems.  We had to wash every item of clothing that was out of our backpacks in the last room and we are just hoping nothing followed us here…

things i’m loving…

It’s definitely been a while for a ‘things i’m loving’ post…mostly because i haven’t had a lot of time for online browsing.  If I’m online these days, while travelling, I’m usually sussing out travel plans, updating the blog or emailing people.  However, I’m always a sucker for pinterest and stumbleupon which I find a constant source of inspiration.  If only I could access them from my Ipod 1g.  Ahh well, there is a new Iphone in my future, I can feel it! In the meantime, enjoy these images:

Source: flickr.com via Holly on Pinterest

Source: google.com via Ms. on Pinterest

Beautiful images of Ho Chi Minh City courtesy of Pinterest.