Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vietnam - Day 4 & 5 (Mekong)

We woke up nice and early and met up with our tour guide for biking through the Mekong. The tour was not cheap at all, but....it was just the four of us, a private guide and everything we needed completely taken care of. It was awesome. (http://sinhbalo.com/cgi-bin/app.cgi)

It was about 3 hours to reach our destination - somewhere just outside of My Tho. We got out of our van, pulled the cheap bikes out, strapped on ill fitting, dented busted helmets and set off on the skinny paved road. It was heavenly after the chaos of Ho Chi Minh. Cows, canals, green, rice farms, tropical fruit trees, scooters, school kids on bikes - not exactly supreme peace and quiet, but everything was fascinating and came at a much slower speed. Actually, it was far more urban feeling than I expected, but delightful anyways.

Notice the awesome fit of my custom helmet. Did I mention it had a huge dent in it as if it'd already been in a wreck or two? After an hour of biking we stopped in at a factory where they made made some special local treats the old fashioned way - by hand, cooked over rice hull fires. (specifically for the tourist trade of course) We bought some delicious coconut candies and had a chance to sample the famous "snake wine" seen below:

Yes, that is a sun tea pitcher filled with dead snakes and moonshine. Or home distilled rice wine - and I do mean distilled, we saw the distiller. So wine is being generous. I took the teeniest sip, it tasted fine, but the idea of snake guts mixing around in there really grossed me out. Kyle and Kevin manned up and did full shots of the stuff.
After sampling and purchasing a bunch of the treats, we rode another mile or so to our boat. And we sailed off down the mighty Mekong.

I loved the boat paint jobs which were a mix of weathered wood and bright cheery colors. We had lunch & drinks on the boat and then sat back in our chairs for a couple hours to relax.

It was gorgeous and perfect. Well ....Kevin & Kyle kept talking about how they needed to go on more sales trips, which is always a downer (for me anyways), but other than that, it was perfect!

Eyes were painted on the boats to scare crocodiles. Or so our guide, Tao, told us. But he was often full of crap. I can't even tell you how many things he told us straight faced that turned out to be completely wrong. Apparently our gullibility amused him.
We docked in a completely non-descript location that was an island in Ben Tre province. Five minutes of biking and we were at our homestay where we would sleep and eat for the evening.
It was called a homestay but was really more like a family had added an outdoor sleeping area for up to 10 people, a few bathrooms and showers. Notice the Pomelo tree over the chairs & tables.
Our guide had told us he'd slept here once before and rats chewing on the roofs had kept him awake all night. I only half believed him at that point, but when we saw our sleeping location, it seemed pretty likely he had told the truth.

Not exactly the privacy we expected, that is one large, not fully enclosed room with 10 cots in it. And mosquito nets. I was feeling sort of nervous. I mean, we were in the tropical jungle, weren't there all sorts of critters who might scurry around our "bedroom" at night? Like my arch enemy cockroaches? Ugh. Would mosquito nets really keep everything out?

We put our fears aside and talked our guide into taking us for another bike ride since it was only 2-3:00 (at this point, time & days of the week had completely lost relevance). We went on a brutal 1.5 hour ride down a super dusty, bumpy sandy road. My bum ached.

See me in front of the lady with sticks? And Kyle in the green shirt?
But...all the kids yelled friendly hellos as we went by and we saw fascinating things like wedding preparations:

And the shells of cocoa beans:

It was gorgeous. Even though by the end my bum really ached. Darn bikes. We had a wonderful meal back at our homestay. First we got to watch the grandma kill, scale and gut our fish, then we took cold showers and missed the rest of the dinner preparations. We had rice wraps for appetizers - the steamed fish, topped with pineapple, rice noodles, lettuce & basil, all wrapped in the those awesome chewy rice paper rolls. All the meals in the Mekong ended with soup - in fact most meals people ordered for us ended in a soup. (when we ordered for ourselves, we tended to skip the soups)

By 9pm it was dark and there wasn't much to do, so we went to bed. Kyle and I saw our very first firefly ever. Prior to that, we saw a rat climbing around in the beams of our roof. I went to sleep very nervous, but relieved that so far I hadn't seen any bugs of alarming size and no cockroaches.

I slept very well. I woke up a couple times to dogs barking and a another time to a helicopter landing on our shelter - no, make that a boat motor - that thrummed loudly on and on. In the end I loved it. I slept well and loved waking up to fresh air, morning sunlight and twittering birds. Kyle and Kelley had the worst sleep ever.

I would definitely recommend a homestay, it was rustic and made me a bit nervous, but it turned out great and was one of the most memorable parts of the trip (in a good way).

The next morning, we were off on our bikes again. It was even more beautiful as we were on tiny single lane paved trails with gorgeous coconut groves and more traditional houses. I won't even mention how much my bum ached this time, but I promise to get more time in the saddle before I ever suggest a bike tour again. My leg muscles & stamina were fine, but man...its like riding a horse and getting saddle sore if you haven't done it in a long time. Gorgeous traditional houses were everywhere. We left the trails for a bit and hit our first main road. Wow. It was frightful but fun since none of us got run over. The traffic was no Ho Chi Minh, but roads were narrow, and there were lots of trucks, many scooters, bikes and no real rules about how & when everyone tried to pass. Or what to do when the guide was way in front and you were stuck between some old guy going 5 miles an hour on his bike.
We rode for a couple hours and our guide took us to the house he grew up in, where his parents still live. It was so beautiful - just maybe 500 sq feet and entirely made of natural local plant materials. The roof was woven of palm fronds and the walls were made of something similar with light filtering through. The floors were packed earth and swept immaculately.

His parents have a rice farm they tend and also grow cherries - or at least something he called "cherry" that looked like a cherry and tasted like a cherry, but had no pit & a different seed structure. We drank fresh coconut juice at their house because Ben Tre is the Napa Valley of coconuts. Famous throughout vietnam. And they were indeed the best ones we drank through the whole trip.

More biking, but this time we hit an even bigger major city and had more spine tingling adventures with the traffic. The biggest rush was biking through a roundabout with the rest of traffic. Ay-yah! It felt so good to make it through alive! We were true vietnamese traffic veterans at this point.... and then we boarded another boat to take us to our lunch location. This boat was teeny and the canal we traversed was equally teeny. and muddy.

Once again we got off at a non-descript dock and found lunch waiting for us. First up - fried elephant fish, rolled once more in the delectable rice paper rolls. Yum. I keep forgetting what we ate for the rest of the meal, I loved the rice rolls the most. I know we always had some clear soup with greens, rice and some sort of stir fried or stewed meat. It was all delicious though.
That is a whole fried fish. With a special "fried fish stand" apparently. I want one. After lunch we had an hour to nap in hammocks. Delightful. Then we rode off, back to the big town and went through the same big trafficky round about (equally exciting the second time).

Actually i have to stop and explain what made biking in the traffic so great. It was frightening, things coming at you from all directions, with no seeming organization. But, observing the vietnamese, you could see they were alert, but relaxed. No one made sudden movements and you realized your survival depended on doing the same. So I would purposefully relax, breathe deeply and try to not focus on any one thing but observe the movements all around me and in my peripheral. And flow with everyone else. The way it works is that you stay alert but act slowly, gracefully and try to be predictable to those around you. It was amazing to become a part of that and have it work. Like I said in Saigon, people would just walk into traffic, but do it slowly enough that everyone goes around them. That is the key to the chaos. Be predictable, alert, no sudden movements. It was fantastic.

Then we were back in our van, headed to Ho Chi Minh. Dinner that night was superb but once again...sort of a blur.


After a year of indecision, Kyle and I finally bought a new 4runner to be "my car" and replace our old suburban. Kyle went ahead and arranged it all so I could get the car for Christmas - unfortunately when he was "sneaking" it home on Christmas eve, I left the house later than I expected and managed to pass him on the road driving it. So much for the surprise!

I love my new car, but this morning a bunch of weird warning lights came on. Angry, I took it to the dealership and demanded they take a look. The technician nodded knowingly and I thought "oh great, its a known issue with 4runners! And there are only 800 miles on it, are you kidding me!!???"

She popped the hood and peered inside...then screamed. "It's a RAT!" Apparently she knew it was most likely rat damage making the wires go crazy, and sure enough, he was still riding around inside. They backed the car out of the garage and he jumped down, ran back into the garage and scampered around while we women squealed.

Seriously, why don't guys squeal?? I'm not even scared of rats, but something about the scampering made me do some hard core squealing.

I think the rat climbed up inside someone elses car, but it sort of just disappeared so who knows. What I want to know is - do rats just like new cars? Because we've never had this problem before and I happen to know a rat was living in our garage a couple winters ago.....

Monday, January 24, 2011

blog header

I can't believe this, the first time in 3 years I bothered creating my own blog header image and I do it the exact day people start reporting a bug that makes header images blurry on blogger.

Sweet, I won't ever get that hour+ back that I spent trying to figure out what I was doing wrong....gotta love technology.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Must be getting rusty...anyone want to tell me why my header looks awesome as an jpg image saved to my computer but is garbage once it is uploaded to blogger??? It is about the right size I thought....1002 x 280 pixels

Vietnam - Day 3 (we recover)

View from our "new" hotel window
We spent the morning slowly getting our energy back up after the day before. Kelley and I had a leisurely breakfast in the hotel buffet while Kevin & Kyle scouted out cheap pho shops. (pho is the traditional Vietnamese breakfast) We moved all our stuff over to the new hotel and then talked about what to do after our bike trip to the Mekong.
Most of the morning was spent booking flights & a hotel to a beach destination - Phu Quoc island. We ate at a cheap Thai restaurant for lunch and finally left our little backpacker neighborhood to go do some shopping.
Vietnamese take Christmas decorations very seriously.

This little kitchen was literally open to the street

The food in Vietnam was one of the best parts of the country. And the availability of it. I had gotten cautious after my stomach scare the night before, but everything looked and smelled delicious. So many tiny places on the streets that offered cheap, cheap amazing food. A bowl of Pho costs less than a dollar for a local, maybe $1.50 - $2 for you & me. I was especially insanely jealous of the fruit vendors - I only wish people were wandering around my neighborhood selling tropical fruit. I love this sort of dense urban environment where everything you need is within a couple blocks.

This is a picture of your traditional fruit vendor - an older woman with baskets of fruit balanced on a wooden stick over her shoulders.

A hint of the insane power/phone lines. Some of them must have had a tangle of hundreds of lines going into one uh...transformer? Onto one telephone pole. Unfortunately we lost that photo with Kevin's camera and I forgot to take another.

Sorry, but we couldn't help but laugh at some of the contrasts between tall foreigners and petite Vietnamese. (did I mention they made me feel like a huge giantess?)

Ah yes, the scooters. First of all, why don't the kids wear helmets? Every adult was wearing a helmet and NONE of the kids were. It was so scary, especially when your taxi was weaving and swerving around and you were just sure a scooter with youngsters was about to go down.
We crossed the street you see above, its like what....12 lanes of traffic? Yes, you wait for a break in the traffic, but ultimately cars are always turning and scooters just seem to be going every which way. They even zip down sidewalks during rush hour. Ho Chi Minh didn't really feel like a "walking town" - generally kyle and I love taking long walks in big cities, but the traffic was so scary and crossing the street so exhausting, we actually walked way less than normal. (not to mention the stress of worrying if someone was going to ride by and try to grab my purse)
Litchi seller
More traffic. There are occasional bikes, but most everyone has switched to scooters. We went to the main nearby market and did some souvenir shopping first. Somehow I forgot to take pictures - probably because everything is jam packed and hot and its not arranged artfully like other markets. Just too much stimulus to even think about a camera.
After shopping, we wandered back to the central area where Kevin had lost his camera. A girl who had been selling fruit when it happened was on the same corner and told us it had happened four times that day already. Crazy.
After some healing minutes spent discussing plans in which we would dangle empty purses until they got stolen, then rip the thieves off the bikes and beat them up, we headed up to the Sheraton rooftop bar for some drinks. It was a gorgeous view and we stayed till after sunset.

Seriously, did I mention how much they like Christmas decorations? The lights were incredible, my kids would have gone nuts. Much better than anything I've ever seen in the USA. After our drinks, we walked to a nearby restaurant "Temple Club" for dinner. They were full so we sat on red velvet couches in the lounge for dinner. The food was amazing as usual.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vietnam - Day 2 (Ho Chi Minh City takes her best shot)

Day two we were scheduled to have a Ho Chi Minh City tour with Samuel. Yes, we were shown around the capital of Vietnam by a Taiwanese man, one who had lived there and done business for ten years and still hadn't learned a lick of Vietnamese.
This is the view from our hotel room.
This is one of my very favorite pictures - the Asian Food Pyramid. My very favorite fact is that it was ONLY posted in English - in the hotel workout room. Apparently they think English speakers need some diet tips? Also notice red meat is monthly, at the very tip of the pyramid. So interesting...Personally, I found the fish to be the tastiest thing in the country, if I lived there, I would easily eat fresh fish every day. Yum.

We left our hotel at 10:30 and went to a travel agent to schedule a bike tour of the Mekong Delta. They recommended a $25 a night B&B type place next door, so we checked it out. It was immaculate & perfect. For $25 we got a huge room, air conditioning, quiet, cable and TWO free breakfasts. We LOVED it. So much better than the $130/night hotel. They even did all of our laundry for just $4.

Finally we were off to see an old church and post office. Very nice. Then we walked up to Reunification Palace, but it was closed for lunch. Seemed like the thing to do was go ahead and eat lunch, so we headed to Pho 2000, quite famous because of its previous clientele as seen below:

There were pictures of Bill & Chels everywhere and guess who got to sit at the VERY SAME TABLE that they ate at? That's right, we snagged it. It even had a fancy maroon tablecloth, just so you knew how special it was. But seriously, I am very disappointed neither of them got beef pho. Who goes to pho in Vietnam and gets the veggie & chicken versions? Suffice to say, I ordered the beef pho. Yum!! Unfortunately, I wasn't super hungry and couldn't even finish it.

After lunch, we headed back to the palace. It was the seat of South Vietnam government during the war and when the North won, they broke down the gates with a tank and renamed it "reunification palace"
We had an hour guided tour that was mildly interesting. Let's just say that when Samuel told me he'd taken the tour over fifty times with guests, I shuddered in horror.

The South orchestrated much of the war in the bunkers below the palace. Dad, this picture's for you. My favorite were the old maps and the list of soldiers from each country. USA clocked in about 500,000 soldiers while Canada sent...two. I think New Zealand sent nine. Awesome.

After the palace, we took a walk to the People's Committee building and that is where disaster struck. Actually, we were crossing the street right in front of the Opera house. You have to understand that every single time you cross the street, it felt like you were risking your life. Scooters and cars zip around everywhere and sometimes all you do is walk slow and trust no one is going to hit you. For the record, I think it was scarier than Egypt - in Egypt the traffic is very similar, but its all big cars. The little scooters zipping around all over leaves you super edgy - even if it looks clear, you never know when one will appear out of no where.

Anyways, so we cross the street - a fairly tame crossing actually, because there was actually a stop light. Just as we reach the curb, a scooter darts in front of us. Kelley, Kyle and I immediately stepped back, scared it was going to run it over. (for the record kyle claims he immediately knew what was about to happen. I just thought it was going to hit us) Kevin was holding his $1800 camera by its body. The lady on the back of the scooter reaches down, grabs the strap and they are off before anyone really realized what was happening. Kevin chased them but in flip flops, he had no chance.

It was so lame, especially because kyle and kevin both thought they could have grabbed them if they'd just reacted a split second sooner. Kevin was so mad. We all were. The worst part was that every single one of us - except kevin - had read about this happening and were being super careful. Apparently he didn't even know it was a possibility.

We sat down and I immediately felt sick. Sort of the "just before a sports game" queasy butterflies, but maybe something more. My heart was racing, I was sweating and I just felt like going home - pretty standard panic attack really. Kelley was doing the exact same thing. (something about our illusion of safety being shattered, it suddenly felt like everything was very dangerous) I finally decided I needed to go to the hotel instead of to our scheduled foot massage. I was so bummed but kept feeling awful and was worried I was going to vomit.

Finally, back at the hotel, I went ahead and took an anti-bacterial, because I felt so sick. Within an hour I was totally fine - but by that time everyone had already left to go to dinner with Samuel. My stomach was still pretty queasy until the next day, but I had no more problems.

Around 10pm that night, music started playing. Not super loud...but you could tell it was live and definitely hear it. It kept going....and going....all night long. Turns out it was a Buddhist funeral procession and they played until 7am the next morning. serious. Thankfully I can sleep through about anything, but some in our group weren't so lucky.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vietnam - Day 1 (How Bikes are Made)

Unless I've talked to you recently or you read my facebook post, I am sure most of you are shocked to hear that we just returned from a trip to Vietnam. Vietnam has been at the top of my vacation destination list (along with Thailand & Indonesia) for a couple years now. I've been itching to go to Southeast Asia with Kyle, especially since he has gone to Taiwan and China so many times without me these last few years.

Unfortunately, Kyle didn't really want to go for vacation because he hates the tropical heat. So we went to Spain last year instead. Just two months after that trip, Kyle found out a bike factory in Vietnam was finally "ready" for them to come visit. It is a branch of the company they work with in Taiwan - a new facility they opened to compete with the bike factories in China.

As soon as they knew a trip to Vietnam was in the future, Kyle and Kevin promised to take me and Kelley with them. Midway through December, they realized that there was only a two week window the beginning of January that would work for everyone involved. So we bought tickets - three weeks before our Jan 3rd departure.

We did minimal planning. We knew the company would take care of us the first few days, we had almost no time to plan, and plus Kevin....doesn't like having his trips planned out. That part was a stretch for me, there is so much I wanted to see and do, I just get excited and want to figure out how to squeeze it all in. We left with a rough idea of some things we could do, but really I spent very little time thinking about it.

After 2 hours to San Fran, 13 hours to Hong Kong and 2 more hours of flying to Vietnam, we were exhausted. Thankfully we arrived at 10pm and went straight to bed. We were in a pretty fancy hotel that the factory had recommended for us. Apparently it is where Bill Clinton stayed when he came, but I would rank it somewhere with the Westin in terms of quality and it was a whopping $130 a night. And only came with ONE free buffet breakfast per room.

The guy who created & founded the Vietnam factory, Samuel, arrived at 8:30am to pick us up. After eating our way through the incredible breakfast buffet that included breakfast options from around the world (pho, spring rolls, stir-fry noodles, deli meats, smoked fish, tropical fruits, pastries, omelet bar, waffles) we walked out into the glorious, amazing, warm moist air and gasped. Is there anything lovelier than leaving winter for a couple weeks and basking in 80 degree sunshine? I think not.

The factory was a fascinating one hour drive to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The first thing we did was tour the aluminum frame factory.

Each frame is welded & made by hand. There are machines there, but they are all manual - you pull the lever so the machine will bend a metal tube to just the right angle for that particular bike.
Bike Tubes
It was fascinating, I'd seen Kyle's pictures before, but really amazing to see everything getting done in person.
These guys were my favorite. Whenever a frame is finished, they stick it in this contraption that checks all the angles and makes sure the bike lies flat. And if it doesn't? Why, you hit it with a hammer till its correct of course! Serious!

Samuel, Kyle & Kevin
Samuel took us to lunch after we toured the factory and it was as amazing as I had dreamed. (yes, I do dream of Vietnamese food) We had the most delicious tea I have ever tasted in my life - unfortunately I have no idea what kind it is. I'm trying to decide if its appropriate to email Samuel and find out. Yes, he was super friendly and spent two whole days showing us around, but he is also the very busy CEO of the factory. Kelley and I talked with him quite a bit and it was fascinating to hear his life story.
Anyways, back to lunch...its hard to remember specific dishes, we ate pretty similar foods for most of trip. Fried thumb sized spring rolls, lemongrass grilled short ribs, rice steamed in a banana leaf, crispy fish skewers...and for dessert, fresh mango and pomelo dipped in chili salt.
After lunch, we visited the carbon fiber frame factory, which blew my mind. Carbon fiber frames feel like they are made of plastic. But apparently they are super strong, strong enough to handle anything an aluminum welded frame can handle. First, we saw huge rolls of carbon fiber sheets. Each sheet is the thickness of say....a sticker and is comprised of thin wispy carbon threads, all running the same direction, that are held together with glue. Ripped with the grain of the fibers, it is super easy to tease them apart, but against the grain, they were cutting with huge metal blades.
Next we went into the room where they assemble pieces of the frame. Its basically just like playing with... stickers. They remove the backing from each pre-cut piece of carbon fiber and stick it onto plastic wrapped wooden dowels. It is EXACTLY like sticking stickers on a piece of wood. They do about 7 layers of stickers, carefully changing the angles of the fibers to each other so that the finished product is strong. In the joints, etc, they put on many smaller stickers to reinforce those areas, on the long tube pieces, just a few larger stickers.
The black piece you see above is finished, but if you pressed on it, it would crumple up relatively easily because the dowel has been taken out. Because its just made of stickers at this point.

Detail of the stickers

Each section of the bike is made, completely by hand. Its almost entirely women applying the stickers because apparently they have steadier hands and better attention to detail for the work. Each woman has one piece she works on and creates, over and over. All the precut "stickers" are put in numbered boxes and she has a diagram showing how each one is to be applied. At the end they weigh the piece to make sure not a single sticker was missed.
When the frame is finished, they put it in these metal molds to be fired. Plastic tubes are still inside where the dowels were and as the frame is cooked, they are filled with air which creates the smooth taut surface.
Cooked bike frame coming out of the molds. It now is just one solid, hard piece of plastic.
One of the most amazing parts of the process is the painting & decals. Each bike is hand masked for paint and decals are also applied by hand - no rulers, no measuring...somehow everything ends up relatively straight and perfect but I have no idea how they do it. Super crazy.
After the factory tour, the guys had to work with their designer. Kelley and I read for an hour or so and then started to die of boredom. We walked around the big open area in front of the walled compound, took glamour shots of each other and chased fish in the fountain. Finally we peeked into the meeting room and requested a basketball for the hoop we'd been wistfully eyeing.
Success! Samuel even came out to play HORSE with us and we both got whooped by a fifty year old Taiwanese business executive. Sweet. Later when we were chatting, we asked him what he did in the Taiwanese military services as a teen and his answer? "I played basketball". That eased the sting of our defeat somewhat.
Finally the guys were finished and we headed to dinner at a famous seafood restaurant. First course was sugarcane shrimp - my most favorite thing, although I adored every rice paper roll I ate. They mince up shrimp into a paste, maybe add some stuff to it (?) and then press it onto a piece of sugar cane before grilling it. To eat, you take a crispy piece of rice paper, add lettuce, the shrimp, pineapple, basil & some vermicelli noodles. Wrap (like a salad roll, except the wrapper is still chewy instead of soft) and dip in a mixture of fish sauce, lime, sugar, & chili....fabulous.
We also had drunken shrimp, which involved them pouring cognac on live shrimp and then LIGHTING THEM ON FIRE at our table. Sick. But hilarious when a flaming shrimp tried to make an escape by jumping out of the bowl. Even more hilarious when we all yelled in surprise and then cracked up loudly...and then realized the entire restaurant was quietly looking at us.
But my very very favorite thing was the baked crab. They picked all the meat out of a crab, mixed it with....apples, butter, something pasty (breadcrumbs?) and sauteed onions and then put it in the empty shell, put cheese on top and broiled it. (bit of a french influenced dish I think) I think we had a seafood hot pot too, but the crab was by far the best. Samuel loves pomelo, so we had that again for dessert along with pineapple. I love tropical fruit for dessert. I could do that after every meal and never eat sweets again I think.
The end of day 1. Phew.