Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 Continents. 5 Months. Done! Reflections from our journey.

Two people with a dream set out to see the world.  Two people returned home changed & forever grateful of their new perspective. Two people who celebrate a bond forged by a unique journey -  5 Continents.  5 months.

     -          Exploring Buenos Aires in the wee hours of the night 
     -          Tasting the wines of Mendoza 
     -          Exploring the mountains of Mendoza
-          Realizing sometimes things don’t end up as planned: like rain on your wedding day!
-          Sharing vows in Mexico with family & friends & having my grandma share with us her marriage advise
-          Exploring Paris again but this time with the man I love
-          Cooking in our Parisian jail cell apartment
-          Attempting to learn French
-          Taking Tango classes in Buenos Aires
-          Taking French classes in Paris & revisiting Spanish in Buenos Aires
-          AFRICA!
-          Being inspired by Rob & Sima – thank you for making me realize that it takes drive and courage to make great things happen and change lives
-          Feeling whole in Africa while seeing nature in the Serengeti
-          Seeing my dear friend jump about 10 feet in the air as my husband rubbed a green rope on her shoulder while sleeping and waking her up shouting “green mamba”
-          The sunsets of Zanzibar
-          The poverty of the world but the hope the people and drive of individuals working to change it
-          Village trek through Cambodia
-          Hiking through Sapa with the local Hmong people – getting a better understanding of their struggle
-          Realizing the audacity of some individuals and their disgusting treatment of people
-          Tasting & learning how to cook cuisines from around the world
-          Exploring the Mekong
-          Navigating the streets of Ho Chi Minh
-          Dune Bashing in Dubai
-          Feeling the change inside of me
-          Sharing this trip with people I love & adding new friends to my life
-          Knowing that I can walk away from comfortable situation only to be intruiged by the unknown
I have no regrets from this trip.  Only new beliefs. We can do so much with so little as I learned from so many  people along the way.  Traveling teaches you more than any classroom about yourself, about people, and about the realities of the world it awakens the souls and reminds you to live life everyday.
I am happy to have realized a dream I set out to conquer when I was 18 and even more thrilled that I was able to share it with someone I love dearly.  I am thrilled that he worked to explore his own passions in medicine during our travels.  I will forever cherish the memories made and I will forever hold dear to me the changes that occurred in my person.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A bus ride back: where the west clashes with the east

To go to Sapa to Lo Cai you will have to take a private car, your own motorbike (so jealous of the group of guys we saw on a motorbike trip across the north), or take a local van.

On our van ride our driver decided that he would pack about 15 people into a van that was made to seat 8.  Just when you thought we were going we would pick up another, then another, then another. It seemed like it was never going to end! He kept saying that each row could fit 5 Vietnamese even though they clearly were made for 3. What he had failed to realize was that he was carting a bunch of westerners who tend to be just a bit bigger than your average Vietnamese.  Five of us don’t really fit on a seat made for 3.

At one point I was sure there was going to be a throw down. My favorite was the women who kept yelling, “I am going to call Hanoi and you’re going to lose your job”, lets think about this....Really? I am don't think she realized where she was.

Trekking through North Vietnam

We opted to do the 6 hour village hike through the Sapa Mountains although I would highly recommend  the homestay if you have the time.  One thing to note about Sapa and the village trecks is that all guests must be with a guide. And after wondering through the tiny mountain trails, I see why. One wouldn't want to get lost or end up like the two people who fell off the mountain.

Our guide Pam was a young Flower Hmong, we were so grateful she was there to lead us and to teach us about her culture.  As you hike through the mountains you will be accompanied by a few other Black Hmong ladies.  If it is raining these women will be your saving grace.  The trail gets slippery and can be super steep so I am sure you won't mind having a few other helping hands.  They will only ask that you buy a small product at the end for $1 on up.
We were a bit disappointed learn about a few things:

-  Some tourist get a bit aggressive towards these women yelling at them not to follow them and sometimes physically pushing them out of the way. Ironically, these same people when it rains realize they need their help to get through some of the trail.

-  In Vietnam the Hmong people and other ethnic groups are referred to as “little cat”. They are looked upon as uncivilized. 

Vietnam: Sapa Town & Ba Ha Market

I didn’t know what to expect about Sapa but I was pleasantly surprised upon arrival.

Getting to Sapa is easy: 1 overnight train to Lo Cai and an hour and a half trip up the winding mountain.  The trip up the mountain is gorgeous and perfectly picturesque - lush mountains are covered in bright green rice terraces.

CREEP ALERT:  1st overnight train: I swore they were trying to make a popsicle out of me and an old Chinese women kept staring at me from across the other bunk in the dark.  How do I know? I did the pretend one eye sleep bit.  I was a little too creeped out to relax all the way.

2nd overnight train: we met two brothers traveling together through Vietnam. Homeboy go comfy and stripped down to his boxers, I was just happy he covered up despite how hot it was.
We were lucky enough to arrive on Sunday, the only day that the Ba Ha market is open. This is a festive occasion where a number of communities come together, some people traveling for over 4 days to get to the market: Flower H’mong, Black H’mong, Zai, & Red H’mong.  All day long the market is packed – starting at 5 am until 4 pm.

What can you buy at the market: anything from standard items like clothes, food, and houseware items to water buffalo, puppies, chickens, pigs, birds, snakes – you name it, they have it.

Oh to be a Hmong man...

Apparently the Hmong men gather and drink and drink until they pass out. If a man doesn’t drink it means he isn’t a good man because he has no friends. Once drunk and passed out the women will sometimes hold an umbrella over him until he wakes up and is ready to leave.

Although it was 9 am in the morning we were invited twice to partake in the festivities and drink up.  If you thought whiskey was strong think again – their corn alcohol is called the the dragon that breathes fire into your throat.  Ouch!

Our first taste of the corn based alcohol was with an elderly Flower Hmong who giggled as she held up the bottle cap for us to taste.  Our faces must have said everything because she & her cronies laughed hysterically at our reaction.

On our second tasting, we were invited into the tailor shop owned by a friend of our guide.   First she offered us tea.  After the first cup she brought out a bottle of mooshine that she  had aged for over two years! 1 shot, 2 shots later and then another with her husband had us a bit tipsy!

Vietnam: Halong Bay

Travel tip:  don't always believe the reviews you read. 

Initially we were hesitant to visit Halong bay after reading a number of reviews that said it was overrated and overrun by tourist.  SO GLAD WE DIDN’T LISTEN.  I think key may be to visit the bay during low season, late May/June so that you can really enjoy it and avoid the big crowds.

Halong Bay offers a variety of options from 1 day tours to 1 week.  I would opt for the longer ones if you have time. I repeatedly said that if I didn’t have to see anything else in Vietnam, I would have stayed a week.

Whatever you do, you pay for what you get so you many want to spend a little more to get a better quality boat. We loved our boat, the food was fab & it was chill with only 10 cabins.  If aren't looking to relax or be romantic then you might as well go for a party boat.  One was anchored across from us & the entire group continued to jump fro the sun deck for hours!

The trip is so relaxing and the views are stunning. There is as much activity as you want. We kayaked, hiked, swam, explored caves, relaxed on the sun deck, and learned how to make spring rolls.

We were also lucky enough to share a few meals with some great people: an older couple from Holland traveling through Vietnam for 3 weeks, an Australian man who was visiting his brother in Thailand and was planning to rent a motorbike to ride through the north of Nam, and another couple from Holland who were on a 6 month adventure – they had taken a motor home through Australian and New Zealand and were traveling Vietnam for 1 month before returning home. (I hope to be them in my 50's!)

Vietnam: Hanoi Highlights

Hanoi is a totally different vibe from “the Ho Chi”.  It tends to be a bit slower than HCMC & a little more chill but it still has enough going on. 

The Old Quarter is where most people opt to stay and so did we . It is totally walkable and is packed with all different areas from the textile area, to the toy street, to the spice market, to the tubberware section (random).  It’s a blend of Vietnamese architecture and French colonial buildings.

TRAVEL TIP: It’s an excellent place to get clothes made.  If you do opt to do it, go on your first day and get it out the way.  You will need to allow for a day or three before your creation is complete.

-  Walking around the lake early in the morning or late afternoon with the locals as they get their daily exercise.  If you’re feeling up to it, opt to join the old ladies in the aerobics class.

Cu Chi Tunnels: discovering how the Viet Cong lived.  For 30 years, since the beginning of the fight with the French for independence into the Vietnam War with America the Viet Cong learned to survive underground.  It is worth the visit but be prepared for over the top propaganda. 
A few things we found disturbing:
-  A gun range where you can opt to shoot anything from an AK 47 to a machine gun. 
- Encouraging guest to climb up a blown up tank to take pictures.  (C'mon people show a little respect).

Vietnam, round 2: Hanoi, Halong Bay & Sapa

We got suckered into doing the local tourist route and I am glad we did.  On our tour around North Vietnam we got to check out Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa.

After being in the south, it was hard not to start to compare some of the differences:
- The geography north of Hanoi is mountainous, lush, and green
- We had been told that by locals that people in the north tend to be a bit more aggressive, visit and you decide for yourself.

TRAVEL TIP: A few words of advice that we received and I thought I would pass along:
- Taxi’s in Hanoi: get in the airport taxi’s ONLY.  Often taxis will take you to a hotel of their choice, despite your protest. They will want you to stay at the hotel and if you refuse will sometimes get physical. Never happened to us but supposedly it does.

Random fact (as told by one local north vietnamese): According to our guide the southern ladies want northern men because they are strong and manly and northern women like southern men because they are romantic and sweet. Not sure if this is true but thought I would share.