Category Archives: Asia

Never run in Bali after 8am…

Life has been so crazy and busy lately, some things in life have unfortunately taken a back seat. I tried my hardest to do everything at once and not compromise, but of course that isn’t how life works or how humans function. I like to think I’m no mortal human, and can do everything and anything, but that unfortunately isn’t the case.

I’ve been sick about three or four times this year. I never get sick. But that is my body telling me to slow down, stop working so hard, stop doing a hundred extra curriculars, stop running 60km a week, and sleep! I got sick quite recently, right before going on vacation, from again doing too much, trying to do everything without compromise. I had all the normal cold symptoms, plus foggy thinking (helpful at work right?). But no time for a sick day when I’m going on vacation and have a two page to do list to complete prior to departing for Bali.

The incredible thing was, once I reached Bali and slept a solid 10 hours, I had recovered. It was as if I had never been sick at all. Poster girl for perfect health. Fully rested.

The only negative part of my sleep in was that I had planned on going for a run on my first morning in Bali. Again, running had been an item that got cut when busy and sick, and I was excited about getting out and exploring and also getting the legs turning over again. But, by the time I got my act together it was 8:30am and 28 degrees. The sun was out in all its glory and not a cloud to be seen.

Still, i was determined. I am running. I will run and I will enjoy it and I will survive and it will be fun (she says with gritted teeth).

For the first 2km, that was the case. I ran from our villa down to Echo Beach. It was relatively quiet, and was nice to get a feel for the neighborhood. Villas, rice paddies, small shops…dogs and young kids, and the heat was present, but tolerable.

I made it down to Echo, and stopped to take a few photos. 

Stopping to take photos was a mistake. Within 30 seconds the heat had really hit me, I was sweating profusely, and wanted to stop. But no, I wasn’t going to give in. I turned around, turned down a side street to do a loop, and kept going. As I ran it got hotter and hotter, my legs wanted to move less and less, and I started to look less like a glamorous westerner effortlessly running in her cute lululemon gear in 28 degree heat on vacay putting all passerbyers to shame, and started to look like a deranged, dehydrated person dripping in her own sweat, a dumb westerner who thought 28 degrees was nothing, or someone who lost a bet and this was my punishment (or all three combined).

Luckily I found a road taking me back to Jl  Padang Linjong (our street) that was slightly in the shade, not too busy and which only motorbikes really used given its narrow width (though I did see one car!).

I cut my run short – I had no goal but thought 5km was just enough. I couldn’t bear to be out any longer. I got back to the villa and had never been so happy to see a swimming pool. In I went, running clothes, socks and all. I was in such a rush to cool down I even forgot to take the 40,000 or so rupiah out of my pocket that I had taken in the case of emergency. 

The water had never felt so good. And I had never felt so dumb. Don’t run after 8am on Indonesia Jen. What were you thinking? Unless you want a sure way to dehydration and heat stroke. Lucky for me I decided 5km was better than 10, and was easily able to return to the villa (I hadn’t gone too far). I still had a fresh coconut in the fridge, perfect to quench my thirst and help the body recover. And it was a wonderful start to the day, good to get my legs moving again, to run again,  even at a slower (5:17) pace than I would usually run 5km. But best not push myself too hard, that’s when the body rebels and says stop. A short run, a chance to explore the neighborhood by foot, and a opportunity to clear my head and start the day fresh ūüėä


Farewell 2012…

I can’t believe that it is New Years Eve. December 31, 2012. The year has flown by so quickly. It seems like just yesterday I was finishing my job at Buddle Findlay in Wellington, getting on the ferry to drive down to Christchurch, saying goodbye to my home for a year. Researching and preparing for my round the world trip, and then again saying goodbye to my boyfriend, my Mom, and my friends.

Little did I know, at the beginning of this year, what 2012 would bring. It exceeded all my expectations – just blew them out of the water. 2012 will probably be one of the most memorable of my life, a year I will truly cherish. Not merely due to my experiences and the places I visited, but because of the people I met along the way. When I talk about my travels, especially through Vietnam, I focus on the people I met, not what temples or museums I visited. The people. Both tourists and locals.ImageMr Tien, my motorbike driver in Hue, who drove off road through the rice paddies, past small villages, and taught me all about the culture of central Vietnam. Luna and Tom, Hanoi locals who introduced El and me to the local activity of drinking lemon tea and eating sunflower seeds by the side of the road, whilst sitting on child size plastic seats. And I will never forget Abdul, our whiskey-drinking joyful guide in Tanzania, who had a personality larger than my Dad’s personality and mine combined. I will never forget seeing a warthog at the end of our first day, me yelling out ‘Pumba!’, and Abdul driving after him, rhythmically repeating Pumba Pumba Pumba. And driving through the savannahs, listening to ‘Circle of Life’, while he taught us all about the animals, the local culture, and his experiences as a park ranger. It was my very own Lion King.

And this year really helped me realize who I am as a person. I learned a lot about myself along my travels, and became more confident and stronger. I moved to San Diego, to a brand new law school, where I didn’t know a single soul. I had never even been to San Diego – I had no idea what to expect. I thought it could be an opportunity to reinvent myself – no one knew me, so I could be anyone I wanted to! However I soon found that I was the exact same person here. Just improved. I had no constraints on my personality based on prior high school dramas. It was refreshing, and reaffirming.

And as I said above, this year has really been the best year of my life. San Diego has been, and still is, the most amazing, beautiful city to live in. I found it hard at first. My first day of law school, when I ended up crying because I couldn’t decide what to wear. Going to a law organization mixer, not knowing a single person, but leaving having met over a handful of people, one of whom has become a very close friend. Trying to hold my own in law classes, where preparation is vital, participation is mandatory, and expectations are high. I spent more time in the library this year than my previous 4 years combined. But I have met the most amazing people, and had the best American experience a 23 (now 24!) year old American-Kiwi could have hoped for.

I flew to Ohio to spend Thanksgiving with a friend’s family, and experienced true Midwest hospitality. I got to visit her college, met her college friends, and even saw her college football team play, and dominate, their rival team. I dressed up for Halloween on three different nights. I went to Disneyland, learned to play flip cup and participated in a Color Run. I took the most interesting legal courses of my law school career, and really felt like part of a community. I was adopted for Christmas, and made to feel welcome and at home amongst a family I had never met.

And all my experiences are thanks to the wonderful people I met here, who will always hold a place in my heart. I was meant to leave the USA on December 23, but I then postponed my departure until January 18. I am now staying until February 13. I don’t want to say goodbye to America, because that means I return to New Zealand, have to start work, and resume my mundane life without 3 story bars, the ocean on my doorstep and sunshine year round. However the real reason I don’t want to leave, the reason I kept delaying my departure, is that I don’t want to say goodbye. Goodbye to the wonderful people here. My amazing friends. My new family. They are the reason that despite 3 months of traveling through 13 countries, San Diego is really what made this year the best year of my life. Friends are the family you choose for yourself. And once I leave, once I return to New Zealand, I don’t know when I will see my San Diego family again. I know there will be many tears when I leave, and I may have to be dragged onto the plane against my will. Of course I am excited to return, and excited to see what 2013 brings, but I doubt any year will ever top this last year.

So here is my year in review. The places, and people, that shaped my year.

Yogyakarta - Borobudur, and the friends I made.

Yogyakarta – Borobudur, and the friends I made.

Siem Reap, and our wonderful tuk tuk driver, Mr Golden Stone, in Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap, and our wonderful tuk tuk driver, Mr Golden Stone, in Phnom Penh.

Hanoi and Hue - Mr Tien and I on the motorbike, Tom and El eating nam, and Mr Tien's cousin, El and me at the incense shop in Hue

Hanoi and Hue – Mr Tien and I on the motorbike, Tom and El eating nam, and Mr Tien’s cousin, El and me at the incense shop in Hue

Halong Bay Sunset

Halong Bay Sunset

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang

Serengeti National Park

Tanzania Safari – The view from our camp in Serengeti.

Tarangire National Park

Elephants, at Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

My new brothers and sisters from PAD, at the Padres game - my first ever baseball game

My new brothers and sisters from PAD, at the Padres game – my first ever baseball game

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Cindy and Lauren after the Color Run

Nike Hoops!!!!!

Nike Hoops!!!!!

Thanksgiving with the Foleys in Mayfield, Ohio.

Thanksgiving with the Foleys in Mayfield, Ohio.

OHIO - Ohio State v Michigan Game

OHIO – Ohio State v Michigan Game

So thank you to my San Diego family. I will visit you soon. Never forget you. I love you all.

War and Religion in Saigon

My last 3 days of Vietnam were spent in Saigon. I was there for two days with Elle, and then I had a day and a half to myself to meander the city. I visited the War Remnants Museum, explored Chinatown and had some very interesting egg filled bbq pork buns. I visited temples and then bargained with a motorbike rider to take me back to my hostel after a tiring morning of walking. I have to say that the traffic in Vietnam looks worse than in Indonesia, but it was a much more pleasant ride, apart from the fact I was wearing a dress (always more difficult to ride on the back of a motorbike in a dress than in shorts) and half sliding off the back due to holding onto the bike with one hand and holding my purse with the other. However I survived, and one thing I just had to do before leaving was have a relaxing gin and tonic on the roof of the Rex Hotel, where I wrote this reflection on anti-American sentiments in Ho Chi Minh. The Rex Hotel was the “Home of the Five O’Clock Follies”, as it was where the United States Military gave briefings to the Press at 5pm each day. It had a very nice high view of the city, with high prices to match! However it was my last night in Vietnam, so I decided to treat myself after a full month of the grungy backpacker lifestyle.

Whilst in Vietnam, I never had a chance to upload any photos, because the Vietnamese government blocks a lot of sites such as Facebook. This meant that WordPress was difficult to access in some places too, so photos never made it online. Until now.

I won’t repeat everything I said in my earlier post, but I do want to re-touch upon the Cu Chi Tunnels, as it really was quite an experience. I wrote earlier that the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum were similar to theme parks, minus the roller coasters. They seemed to celebrate the war, and rightly so (in their mind) because the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was built upon the fall of Saigon and the conquest of North Vietnam over the South. So in their view, they won. They forced the Americans out, beat South Vietnam and now operate under a one-party system where they are in full control of the country. I was sickened by the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, yet I barely felt anything at the Tunnels.

I even fired my first gun there. That’s right, after learning about the atrocities of war and seeing traps left for American and North Vietnamese Soldiers, I cheerily handed over $17.50 for 10 bullets to an AK47, and shot at targets (see photo below). And I felt nothing negative about it, because the whole day didn’t feel sad or depressing. It felt like an amusement park. It was very weird. And after I had fired all 10 bullets (and taken one of the shells as a souvenir), I simply handed the gun back over, took off my ear muffs and rejoined the group to continue on our tour. Again, weird.

This gun is not the gun that I shot, although my AK47 wasn’t particularly new (it probably did come from the war itself!). I just thought it was a pretty cool looking gun on display at the War Remnants Museum. When you walked in, there were all these different guns, tanks and airplanes on display. With American tourists wearing baseball caps, singlets and basketball shorts taking photos of them and their friends in front. Not at all the same vibe you get when you walk into the Killing Fields, listening to the audiotape about how they are still finding bodies in the fields beneath your feet…

Like I said in my earlier post, the tour guide at Cu Chi talked about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide after they shot at US troops. So, at the start of the tour when he was discussing this tactic, we came across a person dressed in uniform, ready and waiting by the hidden trap door, to show us exactly how it was done:

After, we were asked whether anyone else wanted to have a go. Elle volunteered, and down she went. She was thin enough to fit in, though most tourists in our group were not…

And speaking of the size of tourists, one of the key attractions of the Cu Chi Tunnels is the ability to actually climb through the tunnels yourself!! Although you don’t climb in an authentic tunnel – they widen the tunnel, make it higher, and put electrical lighting in it. They clean it up a bit and get rid of all the booby traps. I can’t imagine the Vietnamese size tunnels, as the tourist tunnels were tiny and unbearable. You are torn between crawling and perching, and can’t wait to find the first exit possible. I couldn’t imagine living in there for days on end!

And of course, no war exhibition is complete without a tank. And an amusement park war exhibition especially is not complete until you have a huge group of school kids climbing on top of a tank (used in the war to kill people) and posing for a group photo.

I had my token tank shot, at the Presidential Palace, in a much more tasteful manner. If a tank photo can be tasteful. And I am happy to say that the super sexy camera-bag-matching knee brace is no more. My knee is 90% healed (yay!).

Now the other half of our full day trip was a visit to the Cao Dai Temple. Balance the good with the bad, salvation with death. Caodaism draws upon Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Cao Dai means “High Tower”, or the supreme God. Under Cao Dai all religions are one, and all Gods are one. We actually were there for a ceremony, where they chant and hum with an orchestra of sorts in the back. The temple itself is really quite spectacular, and very vibrant. I was happy we added that to our tour, rather than just visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels (like most people from our hostel did).

Motorbiking to Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou

The Kuang Si waterfall and Pak Ou Buddha caves are two of the main tourist attractions around Luang Prabang. The waterfall is about 32 km south-west of the city, and the falls are about 25 km north-east. Both take about an hour to reach by road, the most popular option being to share a tuktuk (to share the cost) or go on an organized trip. To visit the caves, you can also go on a boat ride, 1 hour there and 2 hours return.

What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that there is a secret transport option C: navigate the winding jungle roads by motorbike. And it is this option that Andy and I chose. Our first hurdle was obtaining an automatic motorbike. Neither of us can drive manual, and although I have in the past (manual motorbike and dirt bike) it has been at least 4 years. Plus I don’t have a NZ motorbike license so wouldn’t be covered by my travel insurance if we crashed. Everywhere rents out manual bikes for around 120,000 kip (15 USD) and there seemed to be only one place in town that all travel agencies got automatic bikes from, which were apparently booked out and then no one answered their phone. However walking around, we found one place that would give us an automatic bike and 2 helmets for 200,000 kip (25 USD) for 24 hours (Lao Siri Ticketing Co Ltd, 023 Ban Xiengmuane Sisavang Vatthana Road (map here), (856) 71 254885, As we finally found a bike at noon, we split up our travels and did the waterfalls that afternoon followed by caves the next morning. But this decision was actually made for us by the weather…read on.

I drove, and Andy seemed skeptical and somewhat scared saying “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, but once I gained my balance with him on the back, adjusted my helmet and got used to driving on the right side of the road, we were off!! No map, just a general “that a way” indication of our destination. Out of all the countries I have been in Asia, Laos was the most relaxed in terms of driving. No honking, no crazy over passing, one way roads are actually one way, and I felt totally normal driving. Wind in my hair, sun on my back, the only bad thing was the beautiful scenery that wanted to distract me along the way. I had to tell Andy to take photos as we went so that I could concentrate on the road.

Going by motorbike was also great because you encounter lots of beautiful butterflies along the way. Regrettably, one or two drove into me, but there were many more that weren’t suicidal. It took about an hour to get to the falls, on windy well paved roads, through lots of wonderful small villages, picturesque rice paddies and children playing games on the sides of the road. It really was an adventure.

Upon arriving at the waterfalls, the parking lot attendants laughed at my attempt to park the bike due to my sudden braking and the slippery muddiness of the lot. But 2000 kip got us parking, and allowed us to leave behind our helmets. The waterfall and all its lower pools were really breathtaking. You walk up through the forest, surrounded by nature, past ice blue pools, until you finally reach the waterfall at the top. It is huge. I climbed over the fence for some photos, and was the only westerner amongst local Lao doing the same. Andy then finally followed me out, getting slightly closer to the waterfall, although he almost fell in at one point, due to the slippery rocks!

We then found a nice quiet pool to swim in. Because most crowds arrive after 3, we had a pool all to ourselves. The water was freezing, and you have no idea how deep it is or even what is on the bottom, but it was so refreshing. I found some rocks to stand on so I wasn’t constantly treading water, and then realized the little fish were giving me a fish manicure. Like all the places popping up in Siem Reap, where you have fish eat dead skin off your feet, I was having a fish manicure but for free, and much more authentic.

Luckily we left at 3, because about half way back to Luang Prabang it started POURING with rain. And I mean pouring. We had to stop, scramble through the backpack to find our ponchos, put them on and continue on, with Andy putting his hand over my eyes to shield them from the rain so I could see. It was probably one of the most memorable moments of my trip, turning up at the hotel soaking wet in ponchos off a motorbike. You would never get that on an organized tour of even from a tuk tuk ride.

The next morning we ventured off to the caves before we had to return our motorbike at noon. We had no map, and unlike our trip to the falls, we had no exact idea of how many lefts or rights we had to turn. We just knew how to get out of town in that direction. And the way out of town included a very long bridge, with the driving space the size of a motorbike. I held my breath, and zoomed on. Somewhat slow and swerving, we made it across, without falling off to the sidewalk area, which would have been a mission to get back on the driving portion.

We soon found our way, and after stopping to ask for directions, and receiving no legible English answer, we finally found a road sign that said ‘Pak Ou’. The road changed from paved to dirt, windy and bumpy, but we became fully immersed in the rainforest and rice paddies, having workers and children waving and yelling hello. We even had to stop for elephants crossing the road!!

Once we arrived, we had to pay for parking, and were allowed to wander into the town. It wasn’t clear where on earth the river was, so we walked and walked, and finally asked for directions. We found the river, saw boats, but no boatmen. So continuing, we walked down, looked around, and a man appeared over the horizon out of no where, and let us on his little boat.

Upon arriving at the caves on the other side, there are two caves you can visit, the lower and upper. The lower was a bit disappointing, as there are a lot of Buddhas but nothing overly impressive. Just lots of small to large Buddha statues haphazardly arranged. We then ventured up to the top cave – a total of 220 steps up. And it was a hike. It is much cooler up there, and you walk in a dark cave full of tourists. If you allow your eyes to adjust, you can actually see around without a flashlight, but most tourists are using flash on their cameras and flashlights so it took away from the magic of it. There were beautiful golden Buddha statues in the upper cave, but even those were not as beautiful as some of the Buddha statues we saw in temples in Luang Prabang. The caves themselves are not breathtaking or spectacular. It was still fun though, and definitely an adventure due to the motorbike.

Leaving Laos for a few days of sunny island paradise

I apologize again for my lack of blog posts. Truth is I have been enjoying my trip so much I forgot about my blog!! That and I have so many amazing photos that I want to attach to my posts. But I thought it was time for a quick run down as I am currently sitting in KL low cost airport for a 5 hour layover. It was meant to be a 3 hour layover, but 2 days ago we received an email saying our flight was delayed by 2 hours. So here we sit in coffee bean nursing our ice blended coffees to retain these comfortable plush seats before having to brave the check in havoc. However it is most depressing because they are playing a wicked upbeat playlist very similar to my running playlist. It has been almost 3 months since my knee injury, and although my ruptures have repaired, my knee cap is still not properly aligned. So I have 2 more months of taking it easy according to a knee specialist in Jakarta. And 2 exercises to do every morning and night. They hurt and are difficult but at least make me feel like I am making progress. I may not be up for the San Diego marathon in August, but I am going to find another run to make my goal.

It is also nearing the end of Asia (round 2). Andy and I spent the last 12 days in the beautiful country of Laos. It was the place I most looked forward to going to this trip, because I know no one, except my dad, who has been there. It also seems slower than the rest of SE Asia and at least 10 years behind in terms of tourism and popularity than Cambodia and Vietnam. It did not disappoint. 12 days was too little, and to Andy’s horror I am already planning another trip, to see the entire country by motorbike.

It was such a gorgeous country with such wonderful friendly people. So many beautiful temples, great rural scenery, with mountains, rain forests, the might Mekong River, and so many nature activities such as Rick climbing, caving, kayaking, mountain biking, elephant riding and more. We sadly did not participate in any, due to either rain, my knee, or Andy being diagnosed with tonsillitis on day 2, at the Australian embassy medical clinic in Vientiane. This meant not only did it hurt to eat and drink, but prolonged periods outside or doing physical activity was out of the question. Which is why another trip is on the books!

Whilst in Laos, we spent 2 days in Vientiane, basically in order for Andrew to be well enough for a bus ride. It is just a big city that we didn’t really enjoy. The sights aren’t very spectacular and the river front is very commercialized. It was hard to find local food not in nice restaurants or westernized, but we did find a restaurant literally on the side of the road, where we had our first experience with sticky rice, which became a staple food throughout our trip.

It is soaked for hours and hours, then cleaned and rinsed 3 times, drained, and cooked in a bamboo basket. You pick up a lump in the left hand, take a small portion with your right, and roll it into a ball so it starts to stick to itself. You then use your thumb and two next fingers to dip it and pick up laap or other food. It is only for dips and dry stir fries though. Any curry or saucy dish has steamed rice. Of course we learnt this all throughout our trip, so with our first experience we just picked at it and ate it, not quite sure what to do!

After Vientiane, we took a 4 hour bus to Vang Vieng, the party town. It is basically a town in the middle of no where, with two main strips, full of places serving up hamburgers, pizzas, “happy” additions to your food, and playing family guy or friends on full blast. It is also popular for it’s caves and water sports, but the talk in our bus there and when we left was “are you going tubing?” or “did you go tubing?”. Still, better than Vientiane. It at least had something making it stand out from a normal city. A strange western influence that no one quite understands.

After 1 night we then endured a 7 hour ride to Luang Prabang. My favorite place in Laos. It was beautiful and magical. It had an old school French feel about it. We stayed in the old quarter on the river amongst French colonial style houses and cafes, with crepe shops on street corners and numerous pagodas and temples about. We saw monks live their daily lives, and after 5 days i can now say it is no novelty seeing a monk. They are everywhere in Luang Prabang. It is another reason the city has such charm. It is peaceful and calming, and it is wonderful seeing monks in action at the temples, walking down the road with a yellow umbrella sheltering them from the sun, or younger ones running around playing games like the boys they are. It was our favorite place, and I want to rerun, especially to go further north to Luang Namtha and other more rural areas.

After LP we had another stint in Vang Vieng, this time involving tubing, injuries, lost jandals and a broken camera, but we made it back to town after tubing down the river in the dark unsure of where we were. We only lost $2 of our $7 deposit for returning the tube after 6. And despite the blunders, we can now saw we have tubed down the Mekong in Vang Vieng. Our last day in Vientiane also involved a visit to the COPE visitor centre, which was my favorite museum/war exhibit on this trip. We met a 20 year old man who lost both his lower arms to unexplored ordinances dropped over Laos during the Vietnam war. He was also partially blind but full of life and joy. The only really sad moment was when he revealed he has never had a girlfriend, because “no one likes disabilities”.

The exhibits were neither political nor hateful, they presented statistics, photos, and information about what COPE does to help, through rehabilitation, rural visits and prostheses. It was a wonderful albeit heartbreaking visit, and really brings you back down to earth and makes you thankful for having all your limbs in tact. 40% of those injured are children, as they follow adults into the forest, searching for exploded bombs to sell as scrap metal, and picking up the unexplored ones set aside by the adults. Or they are discovered while farming or even cooking, by heating the earth and setting one off without knowledge of its existence. It is so sad, especially as 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode upon impact, with up to 90,000 estimated to still be hidden. Makes you thankful to live in a place where you don’t have to worry about stepping on a bomb.

And with that ending our Laos experience, we fly to Jakarta for 2 days to boat out to Kotok island in the thousand islands. Looking forward for more beach time, and time to read. Will be the perfect ending to my 2 months of Asia, and my 2 weeks with Andy before he returns to work.

Hoi An, the Tailor Capital of Vietnam

Before Hoi An, El and I were averaging 2 nights per destination, fitting as much in as humanly possible. Hoi An was meant to be 3 days, a relatively long period of time when you consider we only spent 1 day in Hue. I had then decided on an overnight bus (11 hours) to Mui Ne/Nha Trang, for 3 days, and then overnight train to Ho Chi Minh City. However, because Hoi An was such a nice peaceful place and we could lounge by the pool and beach, and because I didn’t fancy another two nights on public transport, I decided to extend our stay and booked a Jetstar flight direct from Danang (45 minutes away) to HCMC. In retrospect, I wish we had ventured to Danang for a night or two rather than spent the whole time in Hoi An, as it does look like quite a cool place. Next trip!

Tourists come to Hoi An mainly for the clothes. Hoi An has tailor shop after tailor shop, all with manikins out front wearing various outfits, trying to entice you inside. Tailor shops are everywhere, even in the markets by the riverfront. It is a rather overwhelming experience really. Far too many competing stores. How do you even begin to choose!? I decided against the well known Lonely Planet recommended stores, and decided on a shop at 48 Tran Hung Dao street called “SU”. The owner was really nice and lovely. The clothes on display were well done, they had double hems, invisible zippers and were all shaped quite well.

The process of getting clothes made in Hoi An goes somewhat like this: Presented with numerous catalogs. Look through catalogs. Stick post-it notes on pages you like. Decide that is enough. Show them the catalogs. Look at fabric. Choose fabric. Motorbike to another store to look at fabric. Choose more fabric. Return to tailor shop. Be measured. Be measured again. And again. Be measured for every individual piece of clothing, rather than just measurements in general. Sit down and negotiate a price. Pay a deposit. Come in 24 hours later for a fitting. (I know, 24 hours, to make my 8 items). Make adjustments. Another fitting. Hope that it all works well. Pay. Be happy (or so we hope. See my tips on getting clothes tailored).

I decided upon a 3 piece suit, 2 work dresses, a skirt, and a more playful party dress. We had 3 fittings, because we had enough time, and because I make clothes myself so know what to look for in terms of hems, zippers, finishings and how the seams line up. Apart from one dress, where I hope the fabric will soften after washing in order for the neck to fall how I want it to, I am incredibly happy with my orders. I never wear pants – be jeans, trousers, leggings, whatever – and I loved my suit pants. I got two more pairs made, in navy and black! I loved the dresses, and the top actually turned out really well, despite being a last minute decision. The suit is beautiful, and some of my dresses look like they cost $200, when in fact I only paid $50.

Apart from having clothes made, we spent quite a lot of time at the beach and exploring the town. I find it sad when people go to Hoi An only for tailoring, spending just enough time there to order clothes and fit in a single fitting before moving on. The town is so beautiful and calm. It is quiet and is a great city to explore on foot or by bike. The old town area has beautiful lanterns at night along the river, a night market selling souvenirs, and so many restaurants and lounge bars. Our hotel had free bicycles so we biked to the beach in the morning, back for lunch, and all around. Luckily, bicycling was recommended by my doctor as therapy for patella-femoral syndrome, so I was able to bike and feel like it was helping my knee, instead of injuring it further.

Hoi An is very quiet compared to Hanoi and HCMC, and even compared to Hue. People are much more relaxed. However, it is still a big foreign city, which you tend to forget when you feel comfortable. Bags still get snatched, and you still don’t want to walk the streets by yourself late at night. I felt completely safe and secure in the city until one night when El disappeared and I was left in town at 2:30am by myself. At that point, biking back to the hotel, I realized how dark the streets were and how sketchy the situation was. Luckily I biked quickly and with purpose, and got back to the hotel safe and sound. But it did make me worry. You never want to be by yourself in a foreign city, especially as a Western tourist. Whether you have lots of money or not, you are viewed as being rich. Always have to be careful.

We had some fantastic food in Hoi An, partly due to our cooking class with Van, but also because of the abundance of local Vietnamese restaurants serving up Hoi An specialties. White rose, cau lau and mi quang are all local dishes. White rose is basically shrimp dumplings, but with more dumpling than shrimp. Cau lau is a noodle dish with pork, herbs and fried noodle chips on top, with a really delicious 5 spice sauce (which the pork is cooked in) on top. And mi quang, I sadly never had a chance to try, is a vegetarian noodle dish.

White Rose

Apart from the food, there are two gorgeous beaches, one to the north and one to the east. Out of the two beaches, An Bang was probably my favorite. It is the more local beach, north of Hoi An but closer to our hotel. It has only 5-6 restaurants on it and one morning we were the only tourists there. There is a bit of a scam to the lounge chairs on the beach though – they are free, as long as you buy a meal. If you don’t, they are 30,000. They don’t tell you this upfront though, they say ‘free free!’. So make sure it is actually free, and you don’t have to buy anything. Even if you spend all day drinking there, that doesn’t allow you to sit for free. So at An Bang, we refused to give in and set up our towels on the sand. On our second to last day though, we discovered La Plage, a French restaurant and bar, where we could lounge all day on their chairs, even if we only bought a 10,000 dong water (50 cents). I also discovered this little roadside stall selling fried goods, including donuts!!! It was this amazing greasy coconut filled donut, amongst other fried treats (whole fried crab as well!).

The best meal we had was at Bale Well, a restaurant similar to the one in Hue, where you are served a huge variety of plates, and you make your own rice paper rolls. Bale Well was busy with locals and tourists alike, and we got the last table available. We were presented with rice paper, herbs, a kim chi type dish, dipping sauce, pork satay skewers and sausage skewers. And shortly after, we were presented with fried spring rolls and omelets. Which, brilliantly, you put in the spring roll!! Our waitress was incredibly friendly, and in showing us exactly how to do everything, she wrapped up a spring roll, dipped it in the sauce, and fed me!! Only in Vietnam.

Sadly I write this post already having left Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh for 4 1/2 days, with the plan to meet Andy and venture into the Mekong Delta. However things don’t always go to plan, and this turn of events means I am in Changi Airport in Singapore, waiting for my 11pm flight to Frankfurt, and then to London. England will be incredibly different from my last 35 days. Instead of staying in hostels, I will be staying with family, and catching up with relatives I have not seen since I was younger. I am actually really looking forward to it, and so thankful that it was easy enough to change my round the world ticket and book new flights, to make sure I can still go visit everyone. I still have a few Vietnam posts to put up, so a few more Asia related posts will still come, however so will some photos of English countryside, and bustling London. Gotta mix it up a bit.

Reflections on anti-American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh

There is surprisingly quite a lot of negative American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh (“HCMC”). I have noticed this even without visiting the War Remnants Museum, a museum that (according to the Lonely Planet) highlights atrocities carried out by Americans against the Vietnamese, without any mention of atrocities carried out by North Vietnamese against the South Vietnamese or against the Americans. I guess I expected it a little bit. However I hadn’t experienced any anti-American sentiment in our last 13 days of Vietnam. So I found it a bit weird to then find it in our final destination. One reason I wanted to visit Vietnam was to learn more about the Vietnam War. To see the place it happened, to understand it better, and see a different perspective.

Not only do the attractions seem a bit anti American, they also seem to be pro-war, pro-revolution or pro-reunification, whichever term you prefer. In my view, it was still a war. Doesn’t matter who was involved or what the aims were. Sides fought against one another. People died. There was a victor. It was a war.

Because of the war, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction in HCMC. The tunnels, about 50-70km outside of HCMC, allowed the Viet Cong to control a large area between the border of Cambodia and HCMC. It is a large area of underground tunnels, some 20 meters below ground. These were not mere tunnels for transport, rather there were multiple floors, and the rooms included schools, churches, hospitals, weapons storerooms and kitchens. They had multiple hidden entrances, and these hidden entrances allowed the Viet Cong to attack American troops by surprise, and quickly jump back in their hole again and disappear. They had wooden trapdoors that were camouflaged or booby-trapped, and hidden underwater entrances from the rivers. It was all rather clever, and despite the US establishing a base camp nearby, the tunnels eluded the US troops for months. People lived underground for months at a time, and only about 6,000 of the 16,000 soldiers who fought in the tunnels survived.

Unlike other war sites I have visited, such as the S-21 genocide museum and the killing fields in Phnom Penh, the museum seemed to almost celebrate the war. Applaud it. Be proud of it. It was like a theme park, minus the roller coasters. It didn’t make you feel disgusted with what happened, or ashamed that it could be allowed to happen. In Phnom Penh I could not fathom how people could do such atrocities to their own people. To murder children and babies by throwing them against a tree. To torture people to try to get confessions. And to work people to death in the fields. At the Cu Chi Tunnels, the only part that I personally found sickening was the traps set for American soldiers, more because I hate blood and pain, and the hook needles on the traps made me squirm.

The visit starts with a rather upbeat propaganda video. It is black and white, lots of old footage, but with lively music in the background. It shows smiling children and women, and pictures of beautiful Cu Chi, with a commentary: Cu Chi, such a peaceful beautiful destination that didn’t want war. Cu Chi, known for its plentiful fruit, beautiful forests, and innocent young children. Cu Chi, a popular weekend destination and picnic spot. Cu Chi, invaded by Americans, who forced war upon it. Americans, who “like a bunch of crazy devils, shot women and children, cows and ducks, the ground and trees”. I swear, that is a quote directly from the movie, or as close to the quote as I can remember. Cu Chi has been presented with numerous awards, and many villages have been declared “heroic villages”. The government has since given awards to children soldiers for killing Americans, with an “American Killer” award. Further, the tour guide talks about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide in after shooting at US troops. “Anyone want to have a go? Come on it’s fun!” There was also an old US tank, that we were told to pose next to or even climb on top of for photos. And, even weirder, “Here are the guns we used against American soldiers. Anyone want to shoot one? Only $1 per bullet!”.

Beginning to see how it feels like they almost celebrate the war…? Even at the reunification palace, the tour guide and photo captions said how the North “liberated” the South or “reunified” the two halves of the country. North Vietnam was a bringer of peace. Never a bringer of destruction. The Palace itself was beautiful and the free tour provided quite a lot of history on Vietnam and its politics. In 1868, a house was on the site, for the French Governor-General of Cochinchina. Once the French left, it became the home of the South Vietnamese President. However, he was unpopular, and his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an attempt to kill him. A new palace had to be built, which was completed in 1966, however the President was killed by his own troops 3 years prior.The new building became “Independence Palace” and was home to the next President, before he had to give up power at the end of the Vietnam War.

The “end of the war” happened at the Palace on April 30 1975 when two big tanks drove through the gates, demanding that the President surrender. He did. Vietnam was one again. A communist state. I actually enjoyed the palace visit, as the history was nice and the rooms and furnishings beautiful. We even got to go to the bomb shelter and president’s war room beneath the palace! Likewise, I enjoyed the Cu Chi Tunnels. It weirdly made me want to be more vocal about being an American. I often travel Asia on my British passport, but now I want to travel on my American one, or at least say I am from the States, rather than NZ. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I fired my first gun today. An AK47. Walking around the tunnel grounds you could hear the shots in the background. I knew I wanted a go. They have a huge shooting range with big posters of animals to aim at. There are 6 guns to choose from, 2 of which are machine guns. Bullets are either 20,000 dong each ($1) or 35,000 dong each ($1.75) depending on the gun you choose. You have to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, so overall it cost me $17.50.

It wasn’t El’s piece of cake, therefore I have no photos of me with my gun or with the earmuffs on, as she didn’t want any part in it. But personally, it was actually quite fun. Not in an “I am turning into a gun person” type fun, but just a cool, new, different experience. It de-stressed me. Took a load off my shoulders. I felt better afterwards. Running is my stress relief, but as I can’t run currently, this did the trick for me. I was shown exactly how to hold it. I was really worried about firing it the first time – whether if I held my head by the gun, it would kick back and hit my cheek, so I kind of held myself far away from it until I got a feel from it. After it didn’t really kick back much, I got more into it and actually tried to aim (tried being the operative word) at the targets. Before I knew it, I was out of bullets, and headed back to meet the rest of the group.

Following this, we got the chance to climb down into tunnels. These tunnels are not legitimate ones, they are tourist made. Which means they are 80cm wide and 120cm high. So still quite small, but larger than what they used. After two flights of stairs, we were truly underground, in a small smooth rounded passageway. Some crawled, I shuffled, and we ventured forward. The one piece of advice I can give is that if you are in a large group, leave a bit of a gap between you and the person in front. Because people stop or slow down, and then you are stuck in a very hot and very dark claustrophobic tunnel. So just leave a bit of room so if the person in front of you stops, you don’t stop suddenly too.

It was a very interesting experience. Very odd, due to the almost celebratory atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. Tomorrow, I will be visiting the War Remnants Museum, so will see how slanted against America the museum is. The interesting thing is that a lot of photos and parts of the exhibition at the museum were actually donated by the US government. So they seem willing to open up about exactly what happened. The Vietnamese government doesn’t seem willing. I read in Hanoi how US prisoners of war were made to sign forms saying they were treated well whilst being held during the war, when in fact they were tortured and depraved. Vietnam to this day still denies that the US troops held prisoner were treated poorly in any way. Politics…