Same as with the post on Cambodia, I’ll start with an important geographical reference. You might remember that I “discovered” that Indochina did exist, right? Well, here I came across the word “Cochinchina”! … I can’t remember how many times as a kid did I hear something in the lines of “it must be in the Cochinchina” …implying a remote, extremely far-away place, nobody really knowing exactly where. Well it turns out that “Cochinchina” was the name of the French Colony in this part of the continent (then it would become part of Indochina). The lost-and-found section of this place must be enormous, only considering the many things that “went to the Cochinchina” during my childhood.
– Mom, it’s right here! –
HO CHI MINH CITY (aka HCMC), FORMERLY SAIGON
We started with Saigon, former capital of South Vietnam (and still the largest city in the country. Compared to the other South-East Asian countries we had visited, we quickly noticed people here looks a bit more “Chinese” and their language also sounds a bit more “Chinese” (for what our humble westerner’s stereotyped Chinese looks and sounds like, of course… apologies for that). It lived up to the expectations… lots of traffic, scooters, smog and chaos on the streets, lots of green, rice and cone-shaped hats on the fields. Ok, lots of cone-shaped hats in the city as well. And cheap beer.
– The hats fulfill their shade-providing role quite well, I must say.. –
HCMC was very vibrant and full of activity (read chaotic), but also with many nice-to-walk areas (or is it that we still have Delhi so fresh in our minds that any area can now feel as “nice to walk”?). We found creamy-chocolatey coffee (they roast it with butter), a very confusing currency (called Dong, from all names), with plenty of ceros and note bills you can easily make mistakes with -and lose a lot of money in the process-, good food and unfortunately -by now almost a constant- more terrible stories of war.
– really, people? … couldn’t you guys have made them a tiny bit more different? –
A sad -but in my view nevertheless a must-visit place- is the War Remnants Museum, which tells a very graphical – and rather one-sided (read: anti-USA)- story of those days. You can easily conclude that Vietnamese people will not exactly have the deepest love for our US friends. We however met a US students recruiter at a coffee place, who travels a lot to Vietnam … I asked her about it (as in “do Vietnamese students really want to go study in the US?”), and she said it was all in the past and now people here “looo-hoooove the USA”. It must be because America is now Great Again.
– clear editorial direction of all texts in the exhibition … –
Oh… and we also visited the Củ Chi Tunnels… an underground network where the Viet Cong used to operate. Impressive stuff, what they did here. By the way I have to say I got confused about who supported whom and who fought against whom. North versus South, versus the USA and several allies, apparently switching sides every now and then. And even Cambodia got their share of bombs, like my dad used to say, “sin saber leer ni escribir” (meaning not having anything to do with the conflict). Anyway, I honestly don’t really care much about the details of the past, as long as kids grow up knowing that war is not right. If I were a beauty pageant contestant, I would definitely answer “world peace”.
Here some pics…
Every country has its Hoi An … that small, easy-going, picturesque town, usually full of backpackers, where there isn’t much to do and where life goes by more slowly than elsewhere. If you come across one of these places, do stay longer than planned… you won’t regret it. We’ve had Ubud in Indonesia, Puskar in India, Kampot in Cambodia, I’d also include Melaka in Malaysia and, stretching the parameters a little bit, Nimbin in Australia and Queenstown in New Zealand. Ok, you don’t have to stay for too long in Nimbin. It’s full of Nimbos, remember?
– Hoi An and its lanterns –
Hoi An had a nice balance. One of our favorite towns so far, even if a bit too touristy. Famous for lanterns flooding every corner of its streets and every wall of its colorful buildings. Famous for good coffee, for tailor-made outfits, for counterfeit bags and for the infamous banana-printed clothes, which seemed to have replaced the ubiquitous elephant print from India and Cambodia as the “must-wear-here-even-though-you’d-never-ever-wear-it-at-home” fashion.
– Banana-mania –
Here we went to -wait for it – … cooking classes! (surprised?) 🙂 … also sailed in a coconut-shaped boat and even tried some local fishing techniques. Oh, and we had our first experience at a south-east Asian hospital – due to Sandra’s ever-lasting cough-. We received special treatment -and pricing- at their international section, where even the pharmacist -with the medicines- and the cashier -with the handheld POS- came up to the doctor’s office on the third floor for personal attention. They didn’t want us to “mingle” with the locals (or find out how much they were paying for the service), it seemed.
We compensated the expensive hospital with extremely cheap beer, with the record so far at 5000 Dong per glass (that’s about 17 eurocents).
– And that’s how you do it. 🙂 –
We loved our days in Hoi An. Rented a mini-loft with kitchen (god we miss cooking our own food), went to a local gym a few times, cycled around and laid back, not doing much and convincing ourselves that not doing much was just fine. Sometimes it’s ok to trade the “full immersion experience” for a “get a little taste of”.
HANOI AND HA LONG BAY
Then came the capital, Hanoi, although our stay was brief and basically just a base for the trip to Ha Long Bay, UNESCO World Heritage number 583948437282940483 in our list (sorry, we’ve lost count long ago).
You’ve probably seen Ha Long Bay already, even if in a movie or documentary… thousands of limestone islets sticking out of the ocean in a landscape that almost looks like one of those matte paintings used as backgrounds in movies, intentionally made to impress.
– Out of a movie… –
We took a 3days/2nights cruise tour, on a vessel which had seen better days (probably made to impress as well… a few decades ago), however compensated by a great fun young guide who skillfully led an agenda packed with early wake-ups and activities. One of the highlights was rock-climbing amongst wild monkeys, on flip flops (we, not the monkeys). I can only imagine the number of lawsuits these companies would get into, elsewhere in the world, sending people off for such a “hike” (which is how they called it). We saw more than one who got bitten by the monkeys and had to look for rabies shots the next day. These fellows can get pretty territorial and aggressive. Even more when a naïve German girl tries to feed and pet one of them and then hide the rest of the food. Geez. At some point Sandra had an angry monkey in the front and a cat-sized mountain rat at her back. Wasn’t fun. Well maybe a little bit. We did laugh (except for Sandra).
– Because we love risk (and had no other option). Photo credits to Amandine 🙂 . –
Big contributor for the good time we had was the cool crew we were on board, which included a brave French solo traveler (she’s done all the “…istán” countries by herself), a fellow Peruvian (more precisely from my hometown Arequipa, imagine that) and a nice brit family of cool-sporty-I-look-younger-than-I-am dad, chillout daughter and rap-addict son. Dad kept his cool only until the wild-monkeys-episode. The second night (spent on an Island, not on-board), we went for drinks to the bar with the longest happy hour I’ve ever seen. Plenty of beers and laughing-gas balloons were consumed that evening.
– Two Peruvians and a Frenchie –
And the pic selection…
SHORT AND SWEET
As you can see, this was shorter and with fewer stops. We skipped some Vietnamese destinations flagged as “must-visit”, but still saw plenty of Vietnam and its people. We saw them enjoying their fertilized duck-eggs with an almost developed embryo inside. We saw them opening the bags of snacks lengthwise (which I found brilliant, btw). We saw plenty of mixed couples, meaning foreigner man with younger-looking local woman… almost never the other way around. Not sure if they were long-term relationships or something more “sporadic”, but I’m not the one to judge. We saw many signs prohibiting prostitution in the hotels/hostels/guesthouses (so I guess it’s a bit more of a serious issue down here).
A tip for you all… if you ever ask them a question and they answer with a “no”, do not try to confirm that you understood by saying “no?”, because then they’ll say “yes!”. They are not changing their initial answer… they are confirming that “yes, the answer was no”. Can be confusing the first couple of times.
– colorful Vietnam-
SO LONG, SOUTH EAST ASIA
After Vietnam, the plan was Thailand. Plans change, though, as every project manager knows. We still went to Chiang Mai for 10 days but decided to leave the rest of Thailand for another time. We didn’t even buy the fridge magnet nor the flag-patches for our backpacks. Not deserved. Batteries were running low…. 10 months had gone by and, just like I had read, we were spending more time in our rooms or at the lobbies than out there… going back to tried-and-tested restaurants instead of willing to explore new ones.
We wanted to close this year-long-adventure on a high note, so decided it was a good time to move on to somewhere else. Every country we visited in South East Asia has its own personality, for sure, but they are not THAAAT radically different from each other. Also, for us South Americans, it’s not such an extremely unfamiliar reality. “Same-same but different”, like they say here. Up for a change of airs, thus, to a different, more “unique” -and almost final- destination.
– thank you for the many flights, Air Asia –
But not so fast… in Chiang Mai we had good days of relax and reflection (we did some Muay Thai though… that one I was not skipping). We went to the movies and were caught by surprise by a huge image of his Highness the King and everyone standing up to sing the anthem before the movie started (we perplexedly joined, of course).
– remembering good-old days –
We washed our backpacks’ (rain covers and all) and mended ragged socks. So relaxed it was. Oh… and we had our second visit to a hospital (still Sandra’s persistent cough). “I have some amoxicillin with us”, I said to the doctor… “that’s no good”, said he … and then prescribed something for Sandra. It was amoxicillin, I later found out.
– the type of things you normally get busy with, in Chiang Mai –
And before moving on, a couple of unrelated, un-linked, philosophical reflections (some of which I wrote earlier, but didn’t fit in the previous posts… so here they come, as I foresee I won’t be writing too many additional posts). Apologies for the lack of flow.
- It’s funny to realize that some simple things one normally takes for granted are now so much appreciated. Like having more than one electricity outlet in the room (bonus point if your plug fits tightly). Like having some space in your life, to dry your laundry. Like having a bathroom where you CANNOT take a shower, do your thing on the toilet seat and brush your teeth at the sink, all at the same time from the same spot.
– shelves and drawers are now officially considered a luxury –
- Also, some things you start seeing with stronger disapproval, such as people leaving food on their plates. How dare they! I will confess that, more than once, we have taken food others left on their tables. Sometimes asking nicely, sometimes waiting until nobody was watching 😊. Only untouched, not bite-marked stuff, mom, it’s all fine.
– ahmm … excuse me sir, are you NOT gonna eat all of that juicy mango with sticky rice? –
- By now it’s become so average to say we are on the road for a year. We meet so many people who don’t have an answer for the question “where do you live?”. We say “one year” and instead of “oh wow!”, more often than you’d think we get something like “oh, I started with that idea in mind 3 years ago”.
- We’ve also seen and met many “older” travelers (like ourselves and beyond). Some of them somehow “fit” less than others… sort of trying too hard to look younger, died hair, Metallica t-shirts, one too many hippie bracelets, fake “I’m so cool” attitude and, according to Sandra, who “do not fill up the t-shirt”, whatever that might mean. I sometimes also started fearing a lack of fit, of ourselves, with the backpackers’ scene, so it’s a good thing we did this trip now (for the record, I still believe I would rock that full-moon party we had to skip in Thailand).
– we can still kick some bu##$ –
- Interested to know for how long a backpacker has been going around? … check their shoes. I now feel envy when I meet travelers with shiny, spotless new sneakers. Ours soles are close to becoming see-through (and they are not Nike Airs).
- It wasn’t really a secret, but It’s officially confirmed now. A recommendation in Lonely Planet’s guide books guarantees a 95% western clientele, as well as larger crowds and higher prices. We’ve also started questioning the impartiality of some of their recommendations, but I will leave it there. Nevertheless, sometimes their advice was well received, especially when we needed something like a reassuring “we use clean water” clarification on the menus (India, I’m talking about you).
- It took me a while, but I learnt to operate with a different attitude towards prices, basically accepting the fact they are making more money with you than with the locals. Just go with it. Bargain, make an offer and if the price still doesn’t make sense just say no and move on. It proved way less stressful.
– “and… for that price do your crabs come with a side order of gold?”-
And so, just like that, having touched Thai soil exclusively in Chiang Mai, we left South East Asia… land of palm trees and fresh coconuts… of elephants, monkeys, tigers and dragons … and stray dogs… of colorful religions, deities, rituals and offerings… of temples of all sizes, shapes and styles and smell of incense… of rice fields, morning glory and ginger… of westerners walking all over with bulky backpacks… of buzzing bugs and dusty mosquito-nets… of Chinatowns, night-markets and radioactive-looking street food… of durians, pineapples, jackfruits and dry-food for souvenir… of touts, hawkers and rickshaws/cyclos/tuk-tuk drivers (each country with their own distinctive model)… of a million scooters and petrol sold by the sidewalk in liquor bottles … of beautiful beaches -some more pristine than others- and picturesque fishing boats… of smog and breathing masks… of people with strong family principles, big smiles and love for food, who don’t want to lose face… who find it hard to say no… who give and receive with both hands or touching one of their elbows… who put their hands in praying position to say welcome, hello, good-bye, thank you or simply namaste.
Namaste, South East Asia.
– Namaste to you too, Ronald –
Tokio-Japan, May 5th, 2018