Vietnam

Rock My Boat

 

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Thoughts from Amanoi

December 5, 2014. “My last morning in Amanoi I climbed out on the rocks in our backyard. I ate my apple listening to “Steady Rolling” by Two Gallants –

Out waltzin’ with the Holy Ghost,
from the Bowery to the Barbary Coast.
The land I’m from you know I love the most.
Steady rollin’, I keep goin’.

And everyday is just another town.
The more I search you know the less I’ve found.
Me, I’m a sucker, just a slave to sound.
Death’s comin’, I’m still runnin’.

– I stared out at the sea, the mountains, the trees, the rocks, as a light mist blew across me. I turned around – there was a huge full rainbow over the trees at the intersection of dark rain clouds over the land and thin clouds over the ocean that were starting to let the sun shine through. I smiled. I breathed. I’m moving forward from here. The last leg of this journey is about to begin and it will affect me in ways I don’t even know yet, but if this is the universe’s way of telling me that the sun is coming out for me then I’m not just ready to face it, I’m excited to face it. As Two Gallants came to an end so did the rainbow, fading away from the sky, like it was meant just for me. It only exists in my memory and what it signaled to me. I stepped off the rock ready for the day, but more importantly, ready for the next part.”

Vietnamese Cuisine is in the Lead

Despite my quick departure from Vietnam, I still think it has the best cuisine of my trip so far.

First of all, I have a declaration to make: Vietnamese coffee is the best coffee in the world. There, I said it. I love Vietnamese coffee. I don’t just mean the proper “Vietnamese coffee,” the type on ice with tons of condensed milk, although I do love that too. I mean all coffee in Vietnam. It is STRONG. It has flavor. It is good alone, with condensed milk, in Espresso form, in drip coffee form, with whipped egg yolk… You name it it’s good. There’s a reason there’s a whole street in Hanoi dedicated to Ca Fe’s. Go to Vietnam, have coffee, bring some back for me. Thanks.

Then there’s the food. It’s all so fresh, clean, rarely is there oil or excess sauce. I had the best spring rolls of my life in Hoi An and then learned how to make them myself on my Halong Bay boat. That Halong Bay tour had some incredible food! From DIY spring rolls to sauteed vegetable dishes to hot pot lunch to barbecued oysters everything was fantastic. The street food is unbeatable. Before I went I was most looking forward to bun mi but it’s the pho that is the clear meal of Vietnam – it’s on every street corner for around US$1.50 and it’s all good – and the bun cha was my surprise favorite. These were the make-it-as-flavorful-as-you-like kind of meals, with chili sauce, fish sauce, garlic water, herbs, and chili’s all available to please your taste buds. I wish I could eat in Vietnam every day.

The Decision to Leave Vietnam

I realize at this point the timeline might be a bit confusing so let me lay it out. Here’s how my last week in Vietnam went: Ho Chi Minh City for 2 days, Hanoi for a day, Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay for 3 days/2 nights, Hanoi for one night, flight back through Ho Chi Minh City on my way to Cambodia.

Basically what happened was that I knew I wanted to get up to North Vietnam and at least see Hanoi and Halong Bay. I had a good time in Hanoi and adored Halong Bay, but I realized while I was out in Lan Ha Bay that I needed to go to Cambodia. Nothing against Vietnam, there’s still plenty to see and do there (Sapa, Hue, Mekong Delta, to name a few) but if I stayed to go to those other places it felt like I was just filling time before I had to meet friends in Thailand for Christmas.

I was in a weird place. Between family leaving from HCMC and meeting up with people for Christmas I had 2 weeks. It was not enough and too much time all at the same time. I love meeting up with people, but sometimes it puts a lot of stress on the planning process. So the beautiful part about traveling alone is that I can make any last minute decisions that will alleviate this stress.

So the night I got back to Hanoi I booked a flight to HCMC, which departed 13 hours later. I didn’t have a bus ticket to Cambodia but was confident I would figure it out when I got to HCMC. I knew where it left from and the names of two companies, and I booked an early enough flight (6:45 am eesh) that I had all day to get to Phnom Penh. That’s the other thing about traveling this long – I’m not afraid to wing it. It would work out. This became the theme of Cambodia for me, and something that is still happening. I’ll get there eventually, if it’s last minute so be it, flexibility is king right now. And I got there: less than 24 hours after booking that flight I was playing pool at a hostel in Phnom Penh. I love it when it all comes together.

So why did I decide to leave Vietnam? It’s hard to explain. I just wasn’t feeling it. It felt anxious, it wasn’t working for me. Something in me told me I had to go to Cambodia. Angkor Wat was one of the reasons I came to Southeast Asia, and it felt like now was the time to go there. Plus I can always go back to Vietnam. If something isn’t sitting right for this trip then I should make a change so I do feel right. I’m not going to get everywhere right now anyway so why force it?

Maybe it had to do with everyone talking about getting together for Christmas and I needed to be somewhere that clearly reminded me why I’m not there with them. Maybe I had some residual feelings from the Amanoi. Or maybe I just don’t vibe with Vietnam like I expected and it was bumming me out. Whatever it was, I decided to go. It was one of those times where I just had to trust myself; it will all work out. And as always, it did.

Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay

I hit a wall when I tried to write about Halong Bay. I think it’s been so hard for me to write about because I’m torn between two posts: 1) The majestic place that is Halong Bay; 2) My mental state in Halong Bay. I’m very aware that what I’m writing goes out to the online world, so it can be hard to know how to approach these things. As I’ve written more, I have found myself wanting to portray the places and helpful tips on seeing them for other travelers, just in case someone stumbles across my blog when looking up a place (as I have with others), but I also have to be true to myself. Ultimately this blog is my record of my trip. So I’ll just have to include both posts somehow. I’ll start with Halong Bay itself.

Halong Bay is one of those places that is entirely deserving of all of its praise. It’s Vietnam’s answer to New Zealand’s fjordlands. It’s the end of the world. The way to visit Halong Bay is on a boat tour, which takes you in between soaring karst mountains that rise directly out of the water. I found myself just sitting at the front of the top deck staring in awe at the sight all around me.

I chose a quieter tour on purpose, opting to avoid any mention of “party boat.” I was picked up at my hostel and, with my four new travel companions, driven 3 hours to the dock. Our junk was an in-between: not new, but not falling apart. Since there were so few of us I was upgraded to a private first level room, complete with my own balcony! Luxury. Lunch was served as we departed for the cave, a main tourist attraction. The cave is overrated. It probably was cool before it was Disneyfied with colorful lights. We were herded around with all the other tours being shown the same rock formations and what they supposedly looked like; a couple, a lion, a boob.

The afternoon was dedicated to getting to where we would dock for the night, which was a perfect way to spend it really. It was such an enjoyable ride. Upon arrival we had some free time to kayak around wherever we pleased. The water was so calm and the mountains so huge around us. After dinner on the boat we all called it a night rather early, which was fine with me since we had an early morning for the next leg of the trip.

I chose to do a night in Lan Ha Bay on an island – based on a great recommendation from a friend – so after breakfast we took a bus across Cat Ba Island to board our next boat out into Lan Ha Bay. We puttered through the largest floating village in this area; an impressive array of houses and shops all bobbed on top of the water, and I wondered how the families raised kids somewhere where they had to balance on beams to walk around. It wasn’t much further through more karst mountains until we reached our private island: Monkey Island.

There is just one hotel on the island made up of bamboo bungalows set back from a small beach with a gorgeous view. I had my own bungalow just steps from the sand. Lunch was served – hot pot this time, a group activity – then free time for kayaking. This water, much closer to open ocean, fought back against me way more than in Halong Bay, but it made for a more rigorous kayaking adventure. Later that afternoon our guide led us on a hike up and over the mountain to a beach on the other side where the monkeys liked to hang out. Turns out monkeys really like white bread; we saw tons of them up close. They started out cute, but once a new group showed up and provoked them we saw their mean side.

The evening was another quiet one, and the next day we started the long journey home early. Boat to bus to boat to bus – it took all day to get back to Hanoi.

This three day trip was a peaceful getaway in amazing scenery. I definitely recommend spending a night in Lan Ha Bay. It was so much quieter than Halong Bay so it felt like a real escape, and it’s still stunningly beautiful. I felt so lucky to be there.

So the second part.

I started the Halong Bay adventure unsure of my tour decision. My resentment of tours upon leaving Australia carried over into Vietnam a little bit and I spent most of the ride there thinking I should have gone about this in a different way. But maybe there is no right way to do Halong Bay. Then as we were gliding through the rock formations I decided it was nothing to harbor over because look where I was. The thing that really mattered was that Halong Bay was worth it in every way, no matter how I got there.

All I could think was: “This is good for me, this is what I needed. I should really start believing in myself more. Isn’t that what the yogi said anyway? Just keep going, I’m strong, I can do it.”

Everything that I had experienced in Vietnam shook me in ways that are hard to talk about. I needed to get out of South Vietnam, I needed to get out of the craziness of Hanoi, and I needed to get into serene, gorgeous nature and be by myself. I spent a lot of time just thinking, admiring where I was, and working through what I was feeling. I meditated both mornings with pleasing results. I came around to travel decisions that felt right for me, most immediately that I needed to go to Cambodia.

I was sad to leave Lan Hay Bay but confident in the decision I had made to go to Cambodia. Sometimes I just need a little alone time in nature and everything feels right again.

I See Dead People in Hanoi

Hanoi is insanity personified, if you replace person with city (is there such a term?). If you thought motorbikes in HCMC were a problem, try Hanoi. It’s utter chaos. Only some major streets have traffic lights so the area you mostly walk around – the Old Town – is just a free-for-all. I resumed my old NYC jaywalking awareness. Whenever it looked remotely ok, full speed ahead, confident that I would make it to the other side. Somehow this worked. It was when cars got involved that it all went wrong. Motorcycles move quickly, much like people, and as long as everyone kept the same speed we were able to time it right and not interfere with each other without missing a beat. As soon as a car appeared, looking like a huge beast compared to the rest of us, the dance was thrown off. Speeds had to change, caution had to be practiced. It made me wonder if we’d all be better off with just motorbikes and pedestrians, something that is impossible in our world.

Hanoi, former capitol of North Vietnam, is now the capitol of all of Vietnam. I started my visit with one of the most important sites: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It took a while to even find the entrance but I eventually fell into line with everyone else approaching the impressive structure. Then I got inside and holy shit there he is! I’m staring at a dead man! I can see his facial hair! For some reason I didn’t process the fact that YOU CAN SEE HO CHI MINH. He’s not in a coffin, he’s right there inside transparent glass. I started my day by circumnavigating a dead man. Yup, that happened.

I got over the shock by hovering next to some tour guides outside of the building listening to the history of Ho Chi Minh, the Uncle of Vietnam, main proponent for unification who never got to see his efforts come to fruition (he died in 1969, Vietnam was unified in 1971).

The other highlight of my tourist wanderings in Hanoi was wandering through the Temple of Literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucious and his teachings. It’s a procession through and around 5 courtyards and it’s beautiful. I spent a while making my way through the complex, pausing to take in a temple here or a bonsai tree there. 20,000 VND well spent.

By the time I made it back to the main part of the Old Town I was starving. A nice lady who was running a pho stand on a street corner caught my eye at the right time: “one?” Sure, this place looked as good as any. It was the best pho of my life. I love how they give you a bowl with the noodles, meat and broth, and the rest is up to you. You can make it as simple or as spicy as you want. Of course the way I make it my noise was running uncontrollably and I loved it.

My two nights in Hanoi were different but both enjoyable. Night one I met a friendly dormmate from Mexico who had been in Hanoi for a bit but whose friends had already moved on, so he took me to a cool bar that he’d been to once before, Bar Betta. This would be a place I’d frequent (especially the free Wednesday night beer hour) if I spent more time in Hanoi. It has a very chill retro vibe, huge beers, eclectic seating options, and an expansive rooftop. Of course the guy at the table next to us was from San Francisco.

Night two was my last night in Vietnam and I was alone, which is what I had wanted. I went to a bun cha place that some people on my Halong Bay boat had recommended and it was one of the tastiest meals of my trip. Bun cha is a do-it-yourself experience: you get some fried (I think?) pork and some white vegetable (I think?) in broth, with a side of more of the white stuff in broth, a plate of herbs and lettuce, and a bowl of chilis. Again, as spicy or as bland as you want. Wash it down with a Hanoi beer and it’s the most filling and delicious $4 dinner you’ve ever had. Also by recommendation I had an egg coffee for a nightcap. It sounds like Manhattan’s famous egg cream, which I have to admit I’ve never actually had, but if they’re at all similar I have to get one when I visit Manhattan next. Egg coffee is basically coffee with whipped egg white but it tastes like liquid tiramisu. It is rich, creamy, decidant, dessert-worthy, and delicious. And not the thing to have when you have to wake up at 4 am for a flight. Oops.

Quick shoutout to my hostel, Hanoi Hostel. It’s tiny, just 2 8-bed dorms and one more room that we think may have been private, but for just $5 a night you get breakfast – egg, toast, fresh fruit, tea and coffee – and an hour of free beer every day. Plus huge lockers under the bed, warm showers (bathroom is better in the girls room), and a lovely rooftop on which you can enjoy the freebies.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, land of the motorcycles. When we landed Mer and Lois told me to be ready, we were about to be surrounded. I don’t think there’s any way to be ready. The motorcycles swarmed around us like bees in a hive; the road was theirs, we were intruders made mercy to their whims. But more on them in a bit. It was an entertaining ride in to say the least.

It was my last night with Mer and Lois so we toasted to a great trip with prosecco, red wine, and a much-needed (for me at least) steak tenderloin. Yum. I still had another night at the hotel though, the end of my break from the backpacker life before I would return to cheap multiple bed dorm rooms and shared bathrooms. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Not like Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t great, but a plushy queen bed with movies on TV and a final massage was just what I needed to decompress from the Amanoi experience and get ready to take on the next part of my trip. Again, thank you Lois and Jack. Seriously. I feel so lucky.

So Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. It’s huge. It’s like any modern metropolis; constantly busy, too big to get everywhere on foot, with different neighborhoods all offering different experiences. There’s a lot of history in HCMC, former capital of South Vietnam (when it was still Saigon). I saw this walking around past the old train station, Cathedral, Imperial Palace, a visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and the War Remnants Museum.

For starters, I’d like to elaborate on “walking around” for a minute. I like to walk around cities without headphones, hear the noises that come with it, but in HCMC you can’t hear anything over the buzz of motorcycles. At stoplights they look like an army ready to pounce as soon as the order is given. Green light, ATTACK! They don’t care if a car is coming or trying to turn, the car must wait until they let it ford the river; the bike is the king of the road here not the car. As a pedestrian you just have to take a breath and move forward with confidence, telling yourself the motorcycles will not hit you. It’s possible to walk around, but it’s not easy. More than once a motortaxi driver mounted his bike just to make sure I got across the street ok. I figured it out though and I started to see it like spiders in the Amazon: if you don’t attack them they won’t attack you; if you keep your pace then the motorcycles will keep theirs and everyone is safe. It ended up being good training ground for Hanoi (which is even worse with the bikes, if you can believe it).

I went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda on a Sunday, which I’m guessing had something to do with why it was so crowded. I enjoyed seeing it this way; instead of quietly walking around an empty temple, I saw people using it as it should be used, lighting incense and making motions in their prayers to Buddha. The smell of incense was overwhelming, unescapable, wafting around me as I roamed through the networks of rooms. From the appearance it’s easy to see that this temple has been around for a long time. I felt like I’d stepped back in time when I was in there.

The War Remnants Museum was a harder experience. It’s mostly dedicated to the American War, or what we refer to as the Vietnam War. The images and stories in this museum I could never imagine being present in a museum in the US. It was honestly a little uncomfortable to be in there as an American. On my way back to the hotel I encountered another American who had trained with forces that fought in Vietnam, the war ending before his own deployment by just a few months. The helicopter he was learning to fly was in the images. He felt obviously much worse than I did, and I already wasn’t feeling so good. It was interesting to see how the other perspective talks about the war. When we were touring around Dalat with Thanh he spoke to us about what was happening when the US entered into war with Vietnam, and we learned things we’d never heard before. We appreciated the honesty. All of this (and more in Cambodia) just made me question what else is left out of our history lessons. Tons, I’m sure.

When the time came to leave Ho Chi Minh City I was ready. I had been told in the past to skip it, but I think it’s worth a visit. On my way back through a week later (between Hanoi and Cambodia) I briefly encountered the backpacker area of the city and it seemed like a bustling fun place to stay. If I ever go back I’d try it out.

We Went for Relaxation, We Got Spiritual Bootcamp

I’ve been wrestling with how to write about Amanoi and have come to the conclusion that there is no right way to write about it so whatever comes out will have to do.

I have never experienced anything like an Aman resort. I don’t want to go into detail about the resort itself, both because I don’t think it’s necessary here and because I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone else, so I’ll just say that it was the kind of place I thought only existed in hearsay, that I would never experience in my lifetime, and I feel very fortunate to have been there. It was another level.

Amanoi was somewhere we went for ultimate relaxation in a remote, beautiful setting. Perched on a hill with no other buildings nearby, it was peacefully removed from the bustle of civilization. Within minutes from our little apartment (bungalow? residence? pavilion?) we could be at the Cliff Pool with an unobstructed view of green mountains cascading into ocean, or we could be at the Beach Pool with just a private strip of sand separating us from the water’s edge (both infinity pools, btw). Even bad weather didn’t ruin the serenity; our private residence felt like it was alone, and being able to order anything (aka cocktails) right to our door helped us find no reason to leave for an afternoon.

What we sought at the Amanoi was an escape for a few days to recharge, which is why what I got out of the Amanoi was entirely unexpected.

It started innocently enough: yoga at 8 am on the pavilion hovering over the lily pond. I didn’t know I could enjoy Ashtanga Yoga, the kind that focuses on breathing and stretching, moving slowly in order to center yourself, but I did. I went to 8 am yoga every morning we were there and would like to keep it going in the future. Then Meredith signed up for 7 am meditation one day and invited me to join. I’ve meditated a few times in the past and always found I had a curiosity for it so I happily went with her. That’s when everything shifted.

Our 50 minute meditation session with the Spa Manager reached both of us in ways that are hard to describe. My experience was not what I expected it to be but had a definite effect on me, which took a little while to realize and evolved as the day went on. It prompted me, with some encouragement from Mer, to speak to our meditation leader – who I have taken to calling “the Yogi” – later that evening. Our conversation was important for me in this trip and in life. He knew things about me that he had no reason to know, and reaffirmed things that I didn’t know needed reaffirming. After our conversation I sat in the bath for a while – I don’t remember the last time I took a long bubble bath – trying to process what just happened. I needed some me time.

What came out of this encounter was hard to understand. On the one hand I felt empowered, gifted an insight into myself that I wouldn’t have readily come to at that time. On the other hand I felt a little turned upside down. Did that really happen? Was I really that affected by the Yogi?

Leaving the Amanoi felt strange. It was like an alternative universe, one that turned my normal one upside down. It led to a lot of self-reflection, a lot of emotional ups and downs, and necessitated some time to myself before I could move forward. I got that in the next few days and was able to move past the slight bewilderment I was experiencing in the days immediately following.

Now I can say that I am still curious about meditation, having kept it up since then. I am in a very spiritual part of the world that has always intrigued me. It is not coincidental that all of this happened here; if anything I should have seen something like this coming. So as I continue my Southeast Asia portion I am curious to see what happens with this side of me. Will I keep going in this meditating inner-self-discovery direction? Considering that I just tried to type “or realize that it was a temporary experience and go back to my closed-off life” and deleted and retyped and redeleted it a few times, I think I probably will continue. At least for now.

This is why the Amanoi was not what I expected it to be, but also why it was an important stop for me in this journey. I realize this could be a kind of out there post for some people, but if anyone wants to talk to me about it I welcome it. This journey has become a spiritual one as well as a physical one, around the world and the self.

Dalat + Easy Rider = Joy

My adoration of Dalat was instant. As soon as our car recklessly overtook motorcycles on bends you couldn’t see around on an uphill mountain road I felt like I’d found my Minca of Vietnam.

Dalat is a village nestled into the hills of Southeast Vietnam. It has a French Colonial history that contributes to its picturesque appearance. The city is busy but not overwhelming, organized around a river and surrounded by lush jungle and farmland. It didn’t hurt that we were staying in a gorgeous French Colonial villa from the 1920’s, one of the most casually beautiful places I’ve ever stayed.

Our first day in Dalat was flat out awesome. Mer and I went on an Easy Rider mortorcycle tour of the countryside with fantastic guides Thanh and Leo. On the back of a motorcycle cruising along winding mountian roads with nothing but open landscape around us I felt my mouth curve into a huge smile. This was pure joy.

We spent all day roaming the countryside, stopping to see: one of the flower plantations, Dalat’s main export; a coffee farm that specializes in weasel coffee (the weasel eats the bean, which is then retrieved from its feces and turned into extremely strong and expensive coffee, which of course we tried and were subsequently wired for the next few hours) and hand-loomed silk crafts; the Elephant Falls, where I scaled down a treacherous, wet, rocky path to get underneath them; a Buddhist temple built only 10 years ago, since this area used to be predominantly Catholic due to its French history; a silk factory, where we saw and were fascinated by the entire process from worm to silk yarn; some incredibly delicious local pho bo; a taste of rice wine, both pure and fermented with snake (I preferred the snake version, it was surprisingly sweet); and the Crazy House, which was indeed crazy, insane really, and totally impractical, as well as unsafe – it was a construction zone with no rails and narrow high staircases.

Obviously we covered a lot but it was all great to see and by the end of the day I felt like we really got a feel for the area around Dalat. When we returned we toasted to the awesome day – yo! – while we watched the video Leo put together.

The next day Lois, Mer and I did a city-focused tour with Thanh, full of history, the beautiful Truc Lac temple, and some riverside chillin’ time. The rainy weather couldn’t hold us back from seeing more of what Dalat had to offer (rain was a trend for us, we had a rainy day in each of the 3 locations we went in Vietnam). We celebrated a fantastic stay in Dalat that evening with wine tasting at the hotel in one of the best locations I’ve ever seen: an attic wine cellar. We even made friends with the hotel manager who did the tasting with us, all sharing a bottle of wine when we were done. I really missed wine. It was all so good.

Dalat is definitely a highlight of my time in Vietnam. The town is charming, the country beautiful, and the people friendly. I’ve recommended it to everyone going to Vietnam. It also helped further solidify that I am a mountains person. Beaches are nice but I’ll take a motorcycle ride around the mountains any day.