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Asia/SE Asia

Butterflies and Bicycles — Lost Days in Chiang Mai

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We’re almost at the end of our month in Chiang Mai. It has been eventful in some very fun and some not so fun challenging ways as we work through a retirement plan that includes selling the condo and boat.

We’ve decided to extend our trip until April 2014 and put off India until the fall of 2013; as a result we are staying in Thailand until mid April before heading to Turkey.

Having visited here before we knew that Chiang Mai is a great place for an extended stay. Some of our best days have had us out on our bikes exploring the city particularly the small sois that wind through the old historic town. These are the sois we like to get lost in, as they are full of surprises – temples we didn’t know existed; small markets that return us to the real Thailand, with rank market smells and market dogs sleeping in the street so that we have to cycle around them. Yesterday we returned to the terra cotta garden, one of Ian’s discoveries – a walled in patio-stoned garden full of decaying terra cotta statues and mural tiles, all artfully displayed, leaning up against jungle trees and brick walls, some covered in moss. As I wandered through the garden taking pictures I watched flocks of butterflies flying amongst the statuary. Very pretty.

We have also cycled up to Doi Suthep (Ian twice) a challenging 1300 metre climb over 13 kms where the grade averages more than 10 percent. I still have to walk bits even without panniers. Doi Suthep itself is an amazing temple and very popular with Thais and tourists – the whole area at the base of the temple itself (which sits on top of the mountain and requires a further climb of 300 stairs) has a carnival like feel with tons of trinket and food stalls. I will be doing it a couple of more times as well as some other out-of-town rides to try and stay in shape for the next 5000 or 6000 kms we plan to cycle.

Then there are days of slow breakfasts either in the neighborhood or up in our room, and then a slow walk around the sois that eventually take us out to the moat road and beyond the walls of the old city to a favourite street full of used book stores. We are thankful these exist as I am averaging three books a week and Kobo prices and their non-sharing policy is expensive on the retirement budget! I am buying used books here for 2 or 3 dollars a pop and I am able to trade them in when I’m done. Kobo is averaging more like 12.00 a book and that is with me searching for their bargain reads. However I have also splurged a little on a David Foster Wallace bender buying a biography, his editor-finished novel The Pale King and his big hit Infinite Jest. This has been a period of intense reading and I feel like I’ve completed the equivalent of a university survey course on American university-produced writers since 1985. Perhaps more on that on another blog…

Our first weekend here someone told us that the woman’s prison was being repurposed as a temple and the women moved to better facilities out of town. Curious, we cycled down to see it and were very moved by the place, a tough spot to end up in, and I suspect that, like most people in prisons around the world, economic circumstances and family background has a lot to do with how they end up there. The women had only recently moved and we were sobered by the personal items left behind, magazine cut outs of women in bridal dresses in one cell, and shampoo and shower cap laying outside the communal shower.

We’ve finally found things to do in the evenings here beyond trying every restaurant in our walking radius :-0 We were happy to learn that the North Gate jazz co-op is still operating and we managed to stay up late enough finally to get down there and hear a first set that starts at 9 pm – it was terrific jazz, a Thai band with a French sax player.

We saw our first movie ever in Thailand a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night – at the Cineplex in the large shopping plaza near the airport. I managed to talk Ian out of cycling there (although its only 3 kms) because we have not been in a tuk tuk since we arrived in Thailand (Aisa for that matter) and I needed a tuk tuk hit. (For those who don’t know a tuk tuk is a three-wheeler open cab that is built around a motorcycle.) The theatre was identical to the Cineplexes at home — so much so that when we left (we saw Life of Pi which was fantastic) we were completely disoriented, expecting somehow to walk outside to a rainy Vancouver Friday night near Tinseltown (the theatre complex in Vancouver we typically saw films at) and to jump in Ian’s old car to get home. Instead we jumped into a tuk tuk and ate dinner at a street stall close to our guesthouse. It was a little bittersweet – novel and fun and yet it made me a little homesick for Vancouver. However, two theatre tickets cost us 11.00 Cdn., dinner was 3.00 for the two of us and we sat outside eating in our t-shirts at 9:00 at night watching a very international world go by.

Ian was also able to get a hockey hit at the U.N Irish pub which plays a variety of sports events on big screen TVs; Ian is on their mailing list so he can catch whatever hockey games come up. Our first wasn’t a Canucks game (Leafs versus Rangers) but it was CBC and we made fun of Don Cherry with an expat from Toronto and had a few pints and a good time.

We celebrated Chinese New Year last night with some people from Tennessee one of whom is bigger than life and very charismatic. We had dinner and drinks at a street stall table close to our guesthouse. Dan bought ten flying lanterns and then began calling people who just happened to be walking by our table, to come and light a new years lantern and watch it disappear into the heavens. What started out as dinner and drinks turned into a kind of instant street party and a good time was had by all.

On quieter days and evenings I have been thinking a lot about community and citizenship and globalization…I have moments of guilt re taking advantage of cheap living here in the winters (which is making early retirement possible with six months every year in Canada as well) as I imagine the expats have been driving up the prices for average Thais who, at least minimum wage earners, make the equivalent of 300 dollars a month. On the other hand, the cost of living in Vancouver has skyrocketed over the last 20 years with wages not keeping up to any degree (unless you are a government worker who gets cost of living raises). In my own case, my highest salary was more than 13 years ago now and my salary proceeded from there on a downward trend to the last two companies I worked at fulltime. Those companies also closed shop in Vancouver moving to India in one case and the U.S. in the other. So, perhaps I have also been a victim of globalization and there is some balance with me now taking advantage of it, or so goes the rationalization now.

When I think about what is required for me to manifest and manage this new life I think of a phrase I have adopted from my friend Dana. She talks about ‘living creatively ‘ and I believe that that is exactly what is required of me now. There is the creative challenge of finding and adapting to a cheaper winter lifestyle in other parts of the world. There is the challenge at home in Canada of training myself out of a consumer-oriented mindset to more of a producer-oriented mindset – can I create a home with second-hand furniture in a smaller cheaper town and make it an expression of myself that I am contented with rather than requiring expensive digs and furniture to do the same – can I learn to cook so that the 200 restaurant treat meal is something I can produce myself – can I learn to find expression through drawing and other art rather than solely through the purchase of other peoples expressions (art). Can I find flexible work that I like doing so that I am not completely retired (and get tax breaks as a self-employed individual in retirement). I think the answer is yes to all of the above and the challenges are exciting – more exciting to me than working as a consultant on a full-time basis.

So forward we go, working a retirement plan and enjoying the easy life here in Chiang Mai.

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Asia/SE Asia

The Expat Experiment — A Month in Chiang Mai

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Chiang Khan to Loei 50.59 km
Phu Ruea to Dan Sai 50.00 km
Dan Sai to Nakon Thai (10 kms beyond) 61.13 km
Nakon Thai (about 10 km outside ) Phitsanoluk 81.85 km
Phitsanoluk to Chiang Mai – we took the bus. Its bloody hilly!

We’re off the bikes for a month except day rides and commuting in Chiang Mai. This is the first of two one-month breaks we planned for this year of cycling. The next one is scheduled for August in France. We will, however, continue to take the odd week off here and there.

We are almost at the 4000 km mark and I have to say the big mountain climbs are still hard for me. They must be easier since I started this trip I guess but after all that flat riding – essentially since the Lao/Vietnam border, getting into the mountains en route to Dan Sai and to Phu Ruea was still tough for me. We were about 10 km out of Loei when the first long climb started – probably about 10 km with some steep bits. We also climbed out of Dan Sai for five or six, again with steep bits. As usual, though, the mountain scenery was beautiful and the traffic light. Maybe one day I will manage to get through a climb without cursing at some point…Close to Phu Ruea I passed a sign that said STEAK AHEAD and was very happy to find that Ian, who was ahead of me of course, had pulled into the roadside restaurant to stop. We had a great meal (steak!) and continued on for another 10 km or so and then stopped at a mountain resort (and there were a number of lovely resorts) frequented by Thais, all wearing toques and scarves (it was 15 degrees at night oh brrrr ☺) We were the only farangs and the only downside to a beautiful night was a lot of bad singing. The Thais do love their karaoke but I swear they are all tone deaf! Luckily they stopped by 10 pm.

We both felt a huge wave of nostalgia when we arrived in Phitsanoluk. I don’t know if it was because it was the end of another cycling leg or because it was such a typical large Thai town, a city really and we loved all its Thai characteristics. It was also quite hot once we hit the plains and I enjoyed rolling by brilliant green rice fields and coconut palms.

I also enjoyed the bus out of Phitsanoluk, especially when I got to see the 20 km climb I missed on highway 11. Although it has a wide shoulder it is quite busy and I think I will prefer practicing some hills around Chiang Mai on quieter roads. As usual the bus was great: we were charged 3.00 each to put the bikes down with the luggage and then less then 10.00 for the two of us to ride for 8 hours.

We both love Chiang Mai. It is very western in the old town and if this was the only part of Thailand I’d ever seen I would find it too commercialized. However, given all the beautiful rural places we’ve seen and all the small towns we’ve visited I am not bothered by the western aspects at all. I am thoroughly enjoying the fact that there is a pub on every corner and an amazing choice of restaurants. Within a 10 block radius we have an Irish pub, a middle eastern restaurant, a few Indian restaurants, a number of Thai restaurants of course, British places with fish and chips and bangers and mash, a big Mexican place, a French-inspired bar called the Writers Club where you can get steak and frites and red wine. The list is endless and it is all easily walkable and in a perfect climate – 20 degrees at night and 25 in the daytime (although I hear it is supposed to get up to 35 this week).

Our room is large, air-conditioned if we want it, has cable tv, internet, a fridge and western style bathroom, a large wardrobe, a desk and a small café table and chairs. We have a view of a temple. We are paying 200.00 dollars a month. There is a small restaurant on the premises where we can lounge about outside and eat pad thai or a curry dinner for 1.25 each. There is also a shared kitchen if we want to cook ourselves. An expensive meal out with a carafe of wine, a steak with peppercorn and frites and a pork chop with mashed potatoes, apple pie with ice cream and an additional glass of wine was 28.00. Last night we had an Indian meal for 18.00 (for the two of us). Breakfast is typically 3.00 for eggs, coffee, croissant and often ham or bacon. Many of these places are outside or have outside spaces and I love being able to be outdoors much of the time.

We can’t afford to come home!

And so I am seriously thinking of retirement with some freelance work thrown in and a lifestyle where we are here for 6 months and somewhere in the Gulf Islands or Vancouver Island for the other six months. Accomplishing this sooner rather than later has become a serious project in the last week and will be what I focus on while we are in Chiang Mai. I’m building complicated retirement calculators in excel… I’m selling my boat…I’m looking into health insurance costs and property taxes on the island…I’m trying to do a little freelance article writing to prove to myself that this is all doable…

And when I am not sitting at my computer calculating the cost of my existence I am wandering about the neighborhood. The old town in Chiang Mai is a maze of little lanes called sois. On a typical morning we walk 200 metres to our favourite restaurant and bakery, saying hello to neighborhood dogs along the way. We have made our first trip to the expat grocery store where I can buy cheese and wine…not cheap but no worse than home and possibly better as wine is 10 to 12 dollars a bottle rather than 15 to 20 (although there is a selection of pricier wines as well). Riding a bike around town is the best way to get around and I am really looking forward to more exploration after number crunching in the mornings.

The tough part is missing friends and family and we will eventually rectify that with our six months in Canada, six months in Asia plan.

Ciao for now from Chiang Mai…

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Asia/SE Asia

Chilling in Chiang Khan with Thailand’s Yuppies

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Nong Khai to Sri Chiangmai 44.62 kms
Sri Chiangmai to Sangkom 47.03 kms
Sangkom to Pak Chom 54.6 kms
Pak Chom to Chiang Khan 48.45 kms

The best cycling of our Asia trip has been in this first part of 2013.

This area of Thailand is fabulous for cycling. It is warm but not baking (we need blankets at night and sometimes a light jacket). The scenery is pretty; Highway 211 is tucked up against the mountains and borders the Mekong. The road is rolling but the hills are not too steep or long. There is little traffic and there are interesting towns, guesthouses and restaurants — all the winning characteristics of a great road trip.

Given we don’t need to be in Chiang Mai until Jan 15, we have been poking along doing an average of 50 km a day.

The highlights: Aside from the wonderful Mut Mee guesthouse, the sculpture park in Nong Khai is another attraction there with its weird and wonderful sculptures (those are the large sculptures of the nangas (snakes) and buddhas in the blog photos). Leaving Sri Chiangmai we followed the road along the river rather than highway 211 and we were treated to 8 km of paved road bordered by farms and views of the Mekong River and absolutely no traffic. The wild and rustic garden at the Bouy Guesthouse in Sangkom was beautiful and we stayed three days enjoying the flowers, the views of the river and some great company, including a lovely woman named Amelie, who bears a very strong resemblance to our friend Susan Fiedler. Amelie is a French winemaker who regaled us with lots of traveller tales and gave us some advice on Thai wines which we will follow up on once we are in Chiang Mai. Between Sangkhom and Pak Chom, Highway 211 follows the river and is bordered by mountains which come right up to the road. There were stretches of Highway 211 between Pak Chom and Chiang Khan that reminded me of California around Loleta; the combination of rolling hills, farmland, art shops, and coffeehouses (and western toilets ☺) giving me a little Thai flavoured déjà vu.

Ian spent time in Chiang Khan (where we are today) 8 years ago. At that point it was a sleepy town along the river with a few old teak houses that had been converted into simple guesthouses. It has enjoyed a tourist boom since then, attracting yuppies from Bangkok and we are guessing Chiang Mai and Udon Thani as Bangkok is 500 or so kms away. But there is no mistaking the Thai yuppies and the number of guesthouses and boutique hotels along the river front, all either upgraded original teak buildings or wood replicas, has proliferated since Ian was here. The Thai tourists here wear expensive sunglasses and carry around little apartment dogs dressed up with bows and other very fashionable doggy wear. Our first night here there were hundreds of Thai tourists wandering along the main river front road shopping in tourist boutiques that have also sprung up and eating from the hawker stands before stopping in for whiskey, beer or latte in the waterfront restaurants. Not a bad way to spend a few days. The prices are higher here as a result (30 to 35 dollars a night instead of 10) but its fine and fun for a short time.

We leave tomorrow and head to Loei, then Dan Sai, and then some as of yet unknown town between Dan Sai and Phitsanoluk. We catch the train to Chiang Mai from Phitsanoluk. Our easy 50 km days will become 80 km days once we are on the road to Dan Sai.

We are looking forward to our month in Chiang Mai, a favourite spot in Thailand, where we will do some day trips and work on some non-cycling related projects. I am also very much looking forward to some Skype sessions with friends and family.

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Asia/SE Asia

Days On and Days Off: Enjoying Mut Mee Guesthouse Garden

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Mukdahan to That Phanom 50.43 km
That Phanom to Sakon Nakhon 73.58 km
Sakon Nakhon to Wanon Niwat 83.92 km
Wanon Niwat to Fao Rei 87.3 km
Fao Rei to Nong Khai 73 km

Looking at the mileage this morning as I transfer it from my journal to the blog, I realize I’d already forgotten we rode for six days in a row, not the three days I’ve been telling people, through Issan, the name for this region in Northeastern Thailand. The forgetfulness comes from having been resting in a beautiful garden for the last 5 days (we arrived in Nong Khai on Christmas Day) and the ease we both feel being in Thailand.

The cycling was perfect – mostly quiet roads and no serious problems finding places to stay. We used the Thai map we purchased at the 7/11 in Mukdahan to find back roads (roads with 4 digits are paved but not highways); we have been able to rely on the Hotel indicators on the map for all the small towns we passed through. The exception was in Fao Rei where we roughed it for a night in a hotel that consisted of a number of small cabins that had not been used in what looked like many years. Upon arriving, we met an older man who was a bit perplexed by our appearance. He figured out quickly that we couldn’t speak Thai and we struggled to try and get him to understand we wanted a room for the night. He phoned someone and a few moments later his daughter (?) showed up on a motorcycle, a middle-aged Thai woman who spoke some English. She rented to us but was very embarrassed by the condition of the room. However, once they untied the bull who was tethered to our door and kicked the giant bullfrog out of the bathroom, we managed.

The Mut Mee guesthouse is a lovely place along the Mekong close to the center of town. We are housed in a small bungalow, basic, with a king-sized bed and a ‘jungle’ bathroom (outside but private with a roof and thatch walls and hot water). The garden and restaurant are really pretty and we have spent the better part of our time here playing computer as we are wont to do and talking to other guests. We’ve ridden around town a couple of times now and have liked what we’ve seen: a number of other guesthouses and restaurants along the river which also has a long promenade that we were able to cycle along, a couple of interesting looking markets, some temples, a park – enough to keep the mind alive if you have ebooks and writing projects. We’re spending 380 baht a night for accommodation here (12.00 dollars per night) and living it up eating most of our meals here and beer or gin and tonic every night :-0 We’re averaging 50.00 a day here for the two of us all inclusive.

There are a couple of fulltime yoga teachers here as well as a Thai masseuse so we have managed to keep ourselves amused when we haven’t been cycling or playing computer…if I incorporated a yoga course (they do a 7 day intensive) I could see spending a month here.

We spent out first night here talking to a Belgian couple who had cycled from Laos. They have these fantastic little books on cycling Asia that are written in Dutch. We’ve seen them before in Europe – someone should translate and sell to Lonely Planet :-0 They are detailed and accurate – Ian sat down with the couple and mapped out our route to the north south train line which is our next destination. We plan to ride about 6 or 7 days when we leave Nong Khai and then will take the train the rest of the way to Chiang Mai, giving some of the very hilly bits a pass. We are no longer on a cycling pilgrimage – just a cycling trip ☺

Ian has begun to work on me re not coming home next summer – it is a very tempting idea right now but being ever-so-practical I am certainly weighing things out. I am putting the boat up for sale for sure as that frees up 6000 a year in moorage (plus insurance and some maintenance). With rent coming in I can probably afford to be here; however, the issue is cutting myself off from the workplace for too long. I am looking for creative solutions on that front, including investigating working remotely. So…we shall see what happens over the next few months when decisions will have to be made.

2012 has been a very busy year with some amazing travel and good times with friends. It has also been a difficult year for myself and family with the loss of my brother Mike last January.

Here’s hoping that 2013 brings joy and peace to all my friends and family.

Happy 2013 everyone!

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Asia/SE Asia

We’ve left Sleepy, Sweet Savannakhet for Mellow Mukdahan

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Savannakhet Laos to Mukdahan Thailand 21 km

We’ve left sweet and sleepy Savannakhet for the relative bustle of Thailand, but it is a quiet and prosperous bustle here in Mukdahan, very unlike the aggressive and relentless hustle of Vietnam.

Savannakhet and Mukdahan are separated by the Mekong River which is the border between the two countries for a few hundred kilometres in both directions. We had no difficulty getting Thai visas at the Thai consulate in Savannakhet. The next day we cycled 7 kms to the bridge and border. We had hoped to cycle over the bridge but this is not allowed. The border people were helpful though and quickly asked a truck who was going over to give us a lift – they did for free – so unlike Vietnam – and that was that. About 4 kms into the ride on the Thai side we stopped at the Super C, a very new and very large supermarket complex that includes Mister Donut, KFC and very importantly Swensens Ice cream (in addition to a huge grocery store). We stocked up on our most craved for western amenities – cheddar cheese and proper hair product for moi and a chocolate sundae for Ian. Two days in Thailand are proving, to our relief, to be what we anticipated: easy and exotic at the same time.

We very much liked our six days in Savannakhet though. Although Laos is tremendously poor by comparison to its rich neighbor…a little like the US and Mexico I guess, the old French architecture and the lack of motorcycle and vehicle traffic give Savannakhet a romantic edge. Our last night we finally made it to the French restaurant on the old plaza and sat outside drinking good red wine that had been properly stored (in fact it was chilled when we first poured it from the carafe but it warmed quickly in the tropical heat) and garlic baguette toasts and terrific salad and steak with peppercorn sauce…fantastic. We watched the world go by slowly, kids and adults cycling or walking home in the twilight. We cycled home to our guesthouse a little while later, a little glow on, in the dark, very relaxed and happy.

Yesterday and today we spent provisioning a little for the trip, buying up the other items on our list not easily found in Laos: pens, a map of Thailand, bicycle tubes, sunscreen etc. We weren’t having much luck with the bike tube when a man on a motorcycle stopped to chat. My first thought was whether he was going to try and sell us something or worse (memories of Lee in Vietnam) but no, he had been to Houston and parts of Europe in his training as an electronics tech and he just wanted to chat. He told us to follow him and he led us to bike store. I chatted with him while Ian went in and he gave us some tips on where to find a good noodle stand on our upcoming trip to Nong Khai and was just generally on the up and up. In fact he complained about his own trip to Vietnam and how he felt cheated a number of times…and this was without us mentioning it first. He lives close enough to the border that he has been a number of times, driving the same route across Laos and into Vietnam that we cycled.

The night market here in Mukdahan lived up to our expectations as well last night and we paid 3.00 for a small feast, eating fried and fresh spring rolls and some chicken satay with a fabulous peanut sauce. We didn’t see another foreigner all evening. I saw two today and they were expats with Thai wives and children.

The middle class is developing at a rapid pace here still. Amazing what manufacturing does for an economy…it certainly makes me continue to feel concern for our own economic recovery and direction. Steven Harper obviously thinks we need to sacrifice the environment and our sovereignty, exploiting our natural resources without constraint in order to move ahead. But I think we need to develop smart industry and be environmental leaders…might be a good idea to quit firing all the scientists and support research and who knows, ultimately innovation. However we are stuck with the bastard for a couple of more years and God knows how much damage he will have managed to do by the time we finally get rid of him. I’m guessing he’s scared the crap out of enough of the people who voted for him now to ensure we won’t see a majority government again and hopefully we develop a new NDP or Liberal party in time to swing things back a bit.

We’ve mapped out our next bike trip: we are cycling along the Mekong (and inland a bit where road doesn’t follow river) to Nong Khai. We expect to be there by December 26. We spend about a week in Nong Khai (including New Years). We then head inland (essentially west and a bit south) to Phitsanoluk where we get the train to Chiang Mai on the 14.

I am not sure what internet will be like in the next week or so – so this will probably be it for the blog until afterwards.

So, Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Crossing Vietnam and Laos — I can see Thailand across the Mekong

[slideshow]

Hue Vietnam to Dong Ha 73.13 km
Dong Ha to Khe Sanh Vietnam 63.59 km
Khe Sanh to Sepon Laos 63.03 km
Sepon to Muong Phin 36.91 km
Muong Phin to Phalan 61.17 km
Muang Phalan to Savannakhet Laos 102 km

After six days of cycling we have arrived in Savannakhet. I convinced Ian to spend two days at the posh hotel here – mostly because it has a pool and we have hit 30 and above now that we have left the west coast of Vietnam and some of our cycling days have been pretty hot. Also, the ride was very rural as expected and after a number of days of rough travel it is nice to have the king size bed…

I would recommend the cycle across Laos. As expected, there was less traffic than in Vietnam and we enjoyed the scenery. There were definitely enough guest houses to get us through although the last one outside Phalan was a bit rough…I think it may have doubled as a brothel. We used our air mattresses on top of their mattress and my sleeping sheet. We didn’t use the free condom that came with the place. Enough said :-0 The one we stayed at was the first one west of town. There was another west of us that might have been better.

The ride out of Vietnam was uneventful – pleasant enough along highway 1 between Hue and Dong Ha but certainly the quieter highway 9 across Vietnam was much nicer. However there is a climb…About 8 kms before Khe Sanh we started to cross the mountain range that separates Vietnam and Laos. It was a bit steep at times but the scenery was some of the best of the last six days. The ride out of Khe Sanh was fabulous, a long descent into Laos and a tailwind the whole way. In fact we had tail winds the whole way across. We met two groups of Thai cyclists going the opposite way – all male and with a guide and van. We met two lone Japanese male cyclists at the Laos Vietnamese border, also going the other way. Otherwise we didn’t see any other tourists until we got to Savannakhet.

A typical day in the last six…rise with the roosters as they are free range and work as alarm clocks for everyone. Then scrounge a little for breakfast – we stocked up a little in Hue (cheese, bread an choco pies) and these certainly came in handy. We always found lunch and dinner places but choice is limited. Pack the bikes, make sure we have enough water and off. Yell at a goat or two to get off the road, wait for the odd cow to cross, watch a pig eating sugar cane that has fallen off a truck in the middle of the highway, pass motorcycle with wire cages full of live chickens, say sabidee hello and goodbye at every single village and hut we pass in response to every little kid who lives in rural Laos and likes to run out to the road to greet us. Look at water buffalo grazing in the rice fields, watch geese swimming in tiny ponds in front of bamboo and thatch huts. Pass shops that make the spirit shrines that every house of any size has and where morning prayers are said and incense is lit (even at the brothel I noticed this). Overtake carts powered by rototillers, get overtaken by motorcycles, ride with the school kids who have bikes until they can’t keep up (ha ha). Stop at roadside stalls (huts with a table). Buy cola or noodles depending on whether it’s a get out of the heat break or lunch time. Find the guesthouse. Turn on the air con. Drink a beer Lao. Find a restaurant or stall for dinner. Feed the restaurant dog (so much better than eating them…although I know I have no right to bitch about that Vietnamese habit since I am a meat eater myself). Go to bed and repeat the next day.

We gave Vietnam our best shot. But in the end, it wasn’t for us – too much comparison with Thailand I guess where scams exist but not to the same relentless degree. That being said we really appreciated our hotel in Khe Sanh: the owner did his best to communicate with us, helped us with bags, exchanged Vietnamese dong for Lao kip at a fair rate and went out of his way to do so. The staff at the Google Hotel in Hue was also helpful and the manager wouldn’t take a tip at the end. We also appreciated Mr. Binh at the Madam Moon Guesthouse in Hanoi. So its not everyone that tries to take advantage of tourists – but I’m afraid there was too much of it nonetheless and not enough charm to make up for it. We also liked our train trip to Danang up and through the mountains where we saw un-spoilt beaches (but unreachable) and I really appreciated the Waterfront Restaurant there with its wine room and brie. But all that didn’t make up for the scamming. I’ve done some research now and Vietnam is aware that they are not getting return tourists. (The rate for Thailand is over 50% and the rate for Vietnam is something like 15%).

We spent a lot of time in Hue trying to figure out how to get my bike part and I spent some time entertaining myself trying to draw faces from photographs on Facebook. I’ve posted an attempt. This gives me something to do when we don’t have Internet :-0

Otherwise in Hue, Ian did most of the work trying to get me a derailer and then all the work putting in on, including creating a shim out of a coke can because the part sent up from Saigon wasn’t quite the right size…

Savannakhet seems like a lovely place to hang our helmets for a few days as we regroup for the next part of the trip. We will move to a guesthouse after our little splurge here at the hotel. There is a Thai consulate here so we can get visas. We just need to plan our route which we have decided will eventually take us to Chiang Mai, our chosen spot to get off the bikes and relax for a month.

Time for another dip in the pool. Ahhhh….

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Asia/SE Asia

Woes and Wonders — Waiting it out in Hue

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I’ve been waiting for a day brimming with positive Vietnam stories to update the blog, that day where traveller serendipity has kicked in and obliterated some of the not-so-good days. I’m beginning to think that this just may not be possible for us in Vietnam so I’ve settled for a reasonably good day, except for my orange roots.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

On the woeful side, my derailer packed it in at Cuc Phuong Park. We had seen the primate rescue and rehabilitation centre which was wonderful and had a short but nice visit with some turtles at the turtle conservation center but we only experienced about 8 km of park road through the jungle when my chain broke and took my derailer with it. We might have delayed going back to Ninh Binh to get a part so we could do some hiking and see the rest of the park but by that time we had been scammed by the park shop owner, paying 18.00 for a bottle of water, a bag of peanut brittle, a small container of nuts and six wedges of La Vache qui rit cheese – local price would have been about 4.00. Adding to our woes, the food was truly terrible at the Mac Lake Restaurant and then someone tried to make Ian pay 1.00 for parking his bike…Enough of Vietnam we said. Let’s get back to Ninh Binh, get the part and get on the road to Laos.

Back in Ninh Binh we searched for a derailer with the help of our hotel owner. No luck but we appreciated his efforts. Ian found a shop in Saigon that spoke English but they didn’t have the part. Ian fixed the chain on my bike so I could ride it – I just can’t change gears except for the back sprockets. We enjoyed a nice afternoon cycling slowly around Ninh Binh, part of our excursion to buy train tickets to Hue.

Our 11 hour daylight train trip to Hue, with bikes following on the night train, was not spectacular but certainly pleasant. It is the hands-down winner compared to any bus I’ve seen – night buses are really popular here with the tourists (or I suspect with tour operators who strongly promote them – from the outside looking in they look cramped especially as tickets are sold to locals who sit in the aisles when seats fill up. This might be ok for a few hours but 9 hours on an overnight bus under those circumstances is not my idea of a good time.)

Daytime train trips can be long but at least you can get up and walk around and enjoy the views. The views between Ninh Binh and Hue were great on some parts of the journey, through karst mountains and past rice fields in every stage of growth and harvest. We were alarmed by the TVs hanging from the ceiling when we first boarded but I have to give RailTV credit – there were some decent documentaries and music shows mixed in with the odd Tom and Jerry cartoons. It was interesting watching the commercials and music videos. I would say communist propaganda has been absolutely replaced with western-style propaganda for buying lots of consumer goods – whacks of commercials for everything from shampoo to bank services with smiling happy models living in western-style houses with all the modern conveniences – most of which is still out of reach for many Vietnamese.

We got to our hotel in Hue without incident or scams and just laughed at the brazen copyright infringement. We are staying at the Google Hotel – logo, colours and font all prominently displayed in neon over the font door. Ironically the internet connection here sucks and the ISP that serves the hotel is victim to government censor on Facebook. However, staff is helpful and friendly, the beer is free (yes free) and our room is pleasant. 25.00 a night, breakfast included.

Our friend Dave was kind enough to go pick up a derailer from the Bike Doctor in Vancouver. He has it on standby – meanwhile we are heading to DaNang on Sunday (a two hour train ride) to pick up one sent up from Saigon. Hopefully it works. Otherwise we are looking at getting Dave to send it by Canada Post (7 days) and then who knows how long in Vietnamese customs. Plan C may be to get a bus to Thailand and just get one there, significantly rearranging our itinerary. Time will tell.

Our first morning in Hue we picked up our bikes from the train station, grumpily paying another 4.00 charge we weren’t told about (we had already paid to ship the bikes when we were in Ninh Binh and not told about any other fee and so did not know if it was legitimate). However, we enjoyed cycling along the river and then off to a FedEx office to see what we might have to arrange to get my bike part from Canada. We really liked what we saw of Hue along the way.

As we sat waiting for the FedEx office to open after lunch (they have siesta hours here) a man named Lee came up to us. He was well dressed and spoke good English. He told us he was waiting for his daughter to arrive from Saigon; his whole family was gathering for some kind of party. He asked where we were from (everyone asks) and when we told him he said he had a cousin in Victoria. This is typically the opener for a sales line but it didn’t come. He chatted to us for five more minutes about Victoria and Hue and then invited us for lunch. Ian and I hesitated.

It was me who said yes. On other trips saying yes has often led us to new people, places and good adventures. We both have had a rough time here I thought, perhaps this is the beginning of something more positive. Lee asked the woman who owned the drink stall where Ian and I were sitting where we could find a lunch spot close by (Lee told us he was also from out-of-town) and we jumped on our bikes and followed Lee to a small outdoor restaurant. He ordered for us, checked that we were good with 50,000 dong each price for lunch (about 2.50) and we said yes. We enjoyed an hour together talking more about Victoria, Hue, and Vietnamese history.

When it came time to leave, Lee offered to pay. We said no of course and he insisted. We said no again and he said, ok well how about I pay for lunch and if you want to do something for me you can buy a bottle of wine for the temple tonight (he had explained he was meeting his family at a temple for their party). We said sure. So he paid for lunch, and then we followed him to a small store. I watched the bikes while Ian bought the wine. As Ian paid I asked to take Lee’s photograph. He demurred saying no because he was going to the temple that night. I thought that was weird but shrugged it off given I don’t know local customs.

It wasn’t until we’d ridden away from him and stopped that Ian told me the wine cost 900,000 dong (45.00). We were both a bit stunned for a bit; it took a few minutes of trying to give Lee the benefit of the doubt before we realized it was an elaborate scam. It took me a few hours to get really angry and a whole day to get over it. I searched google for scams in Hue and found he had been written up by a British tourist; he had gone by the name Lee and story was pretty similar except of course Lee had relatives in Britain.

Being robbed or pickpocketed (which has happened to me in Canada, Thailand and Mexico) is less of a violation that this kind of scam. This man didn’t just take our money: he took advantage of our generosity, our desire to be respectful and our trust.

I’ve posted a very crude drawing of Lee based on my rudimentary drawing skills. He has salt and pepper hair, and very high and prominent round cheekbones. He’s in his fifties. He’s lean. He’s a bit long in the tooth and one of his front teeth has a fair amount of decay on it. He is well-dressed, well spoken and charming. He was hanging around the Gold Hotel on Ba Trieu Street.

Although I’m over it now there is collateral damage – we generally don’t like or trust most of the Vietnamese people who work in the tourist industry. They seem to look at us and see us simply as dollar signs. I’ve been to 28 other countries in the world and I’ve never been scammed like this (although, ironically twice in Vancouver by well-spoken drug addicts). There is also collateral damage to the Vietnamese tourist operators — its unlikely we will come back to Vietnam and we certainly won’t be recommending it.

Comparable experiences in Thailand after 12 visits there over 24 years? On one of my first trips there I was walking on the street and saw a temple in a construction lot. There were people buying offerings and milling about. I went into see what was happening. A well-dressed local woman came up to me and explained it was a temple for a new building that was about to be built. She bought me a coconut and showed me how to make an offering. She shook my hand. That was it. She wouldn’t let me pay for the coconut and didn’t want anything from me. There was another woman in Thailand, a banana hawker, on the side of the road. Ian and I stopped our bikes to buy bananas. She wouldn’t take any money; she wanted to give us a gift. There was Mr. Charin who owned the guesthouse in Kampang Phet. He asked us if we would like to spend a day with him in the country. We said yes. We drove off for a great drive through the countryside, entertained by Mr. Charin’s stories and eating stall food he bought for us. He refused to let us treat him to anything and we paid for nothing the entire day.

Yep. Some cultures promote giving and generosity and ethics. Some don’t. Lonely Planet says the government here might partly be to blame as they used to charge one price for foreigners and one for locals with difference as much as 10 times. This may have set an expectation with the tourist operators.

But there have been some wonders – the old imperial city and the citadel complex are worth a visit or three. It was the afternoon we spent there wandering about old temples and royal residences built in the early 1800s that got us over our anger. In fact, Hue is my favourite city here I think, possibly beating out Hanoi which we got to like after the first few days of adjusting to noise and traffic.

We also had a terrific dinner at the Imperial Hotel last night, a five-star, with a reasonably priced Asian set menu that was very generous in terms of servings and great value at 40.00 for two of us. It gave us an opportunity to try some Vietnamese specialties (rice pancakes, pho with all the fixings and no fear of the raw veggies and herbs that come with it) and we had a great view of the city from the bar on the top floor.

Oh yeah. The orange roots. Neither wonderful nor completely woeful (but only because I have a sense of humour) is my latest Vietnam hair experience. The slightest hint of grey was starting to show at my root lines and given we are in rural territory after this week for some time I thought I would deal with it here. There is a salon in the hotel. The woman who runs it picked a colour I thought might be too light but I figured she knew what she was doing. Wrong :-0 I now have an orange stripe covering all my grey. When it grows out in a month I will be black orange and grey. Too bad Halloween is over. We should be in Thailand in a month where there are Tescos and Boots in the bigger cities so I will hopefully find a home kit and fix it myself.

Off to buy our train tickets to DaNang.

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Categories
Asia/SE Asia

So Long HaLong Bay and the Streets of Haiphong

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Tuan Chua Ferry Terminal Ha Long Bay to Haiphong 70 km
Haiphong to Thai Binh 69 km
Thai Binh to Ninh Binh 60 km

We hit the road earlier than expected from HaLong Bay, cycling away in a bit of a huff I’m afraid. We did manage to get one afternoon boat tour in and got some close ups of those spectacular limestone rock formations (there is something like 2000 of them) but I am afraid we let the tourist circus get to us.

We weren’t overly impressed with the boat tour. 25.00 each for a couple of hours in an afternoon and we didn’t spend as much time cruising as we would have liked. Too much time was spent parked at a dock and then being herded through a fabulous cave filled with too many people. We decided to try and base ourselves at Cat Ba Island to see if we could do better. We spoke to the tourist office in Bai Chay thinking we would avoid all the scamming middle men who set you up with the boats and we were told there is a ferry that runs three times a day to Cat Ba Island.
Great we said, we’ll do that.

We rode the 14 kms out to the terminal only to learn that the office had given us the wrong ferry times (lucky we were early) and neglected to tell us that the ferry only runs if there are a minimum of twenty passengers. So we hung around as our numbers grew to 15. Problem. So we talked amongst ourselves and decided we would kick in extra money (the fare was 2.00 each) to make up the 20 passengers. Unfortunately this wasn’t acceptable – no reason given. We then tried to negotiate with a boat owner. He couldn’t take us but was calling a friend and asked us for 70.00 to take us there. Some dockside Mafioso came up and began interfering with our negotiation telling us we had to take the ferry. We wheeled away in disgust, deciding to cycle to Haiphong about 60 kms away where we knew there was another ferry service. It felt darn good being able to just wheel away. These guys are used to captive tourists who are dependent on taxis and buses arranged for them at whatever price works for the scamming middle man. Once in Haiphong we decided to just give the whole thing a pass.

What we did see of HaLong Bay is truly beautiful. It is too bad it has been badly developed. We do get that we will have to have some patience here in Vietnam. We are very independent travellers and don’t like packaged tours. At this point though, I would have to say that there isn’t a lot of options for non-packaged tours when it comes to HaLong Bay.We’ve also heard stories from other travellers now who did book their tours in Hanoi and were disappointed. Ironically, this is an area where government intervention would be a good thing. Funny how few rules there seem to be in this communist country or perhaps there is just a lack of knowledge on how to develop the area sustainably (both economically and environmentally). But ultimately Vietnam tourist operators have a hard lesson in free enterprise coming to them — people will not come back if they are scammed. What is happening in HaLong Bay now is not certainly not sustainable.

The ride to Haiphong was flat and through some nice rural areas, all along highway 10 which we found easily. Away from the tourist traps the people are fabulous and happy to see us. We get the school kid chorus of hellos pretty much incessantly and lots of shop owners who sell us tea and cold drinks and try hard to communicate with us despite the language barrier. Ian high fives the boys as they ride by and they love that. The girls ride by, say hello and giggle. I am often cycling behind Ian and laugh as motorcyles ride up along side him to ask him where he’s from, trying to chat without any other English while negotiating some busy roads where the traffic is constantly honking.

We enjoyed Haiphong, Vietnam’s third-largest city and a prosperous port town. It was bombed by the Americans and the French but there are still some large colonial buildings left including an opera house and the building which houses the museum which was unfortunately closed for renovation. Our hotel was in a small tourist area where there were lots of cafes and restaurants. The center of town has a canal that is bordered on all sides by a large sidewalk made of marble tiles. This is a car and bike free zone – a great blessing for the locals. In fact Ian and I didn’t know the no bike rule and were immediately given shit by an old woman as we wheeled along. Gotta love old women. They tell cyclists to get off the damn sidewalk in cities all over the world :-0 We didn’t need to speak Vietnamese to understand her. We spent a day wandering through the town’s market, along the river and hanging with the locals on the marble sidewalk.

The exit out of Haiphong was as chaotic as Hanoi but mercifully short and we didn’t get lost. Yay. It was busy along highway 10 yesterday but we enjoyed it nevertheless. The ride to Ninh Binh from Thai Binh today was busier, a taste of highway 1 and this has reconfirmed our decision to cycle the Ho Chi Minh trail and just travel short sections of highway 1 as necessary when we want to visit a town on the coast.

We will take day off here in Ninh Binh to arrange tours in the national park (Cuc Phuong). Although it was busier today I still enjoyed seeing the towns and villages along the way and interacting with the locals.

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Vietnam Road Warrior Stories – Map and Menu Mishaps

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Hanoi to Pha Lai 87 km (we got lost)
Pha Lai to Hong Gai 93 km (we got lost again)
Hong Gai to Bai Chay) 12 km (where we meant to end up)

We are finally back on our bikes. Carefully researching our route out of Hanoi saved us some stress as we managed to get out of the worst of the traffic without getting lost — and by the time we did get lost the first time we were in a suburb where it was less stressful. After that, we enjoyed about a 25 to 30 km cycle to Bac Ninh, paralleling Highway 1 rather than riding it. We found the shoulders very wide, the drivers very used to negotiating around small vehicles, and traffic moving at slower speeds than it does on highways in North America. It is anarchy as people ignore most traffic rules — motorcycles ride the wrong way down the street sometimes and people turning from a side street onto a main street don’t look to see what’s coming – its up to drivers on the main road to keep an eye on side street intersections. However, anyone who can ride the Pacific Coast Route in California can ride in Vietnam, at least as far as dealing with the traffic is concerned. The downside is pollution and noise. I bought a mask to filter out the worst of the dirt – these are worn by many of the motorcycle drivers and are so common they are a fashion accessory (you can get matching helmets).

We got ourselves completely lost getting out of Bac Ninh where we were supposed to pick up highway 18. We ended up on highway 38 and quite a few kilometres on our way before we realized we were headed the wrong way. With a lot of trouble because we don’t speak Vietnamese and no one speaks English, we asked for directions and managed to get on a dyke road that parallels the river and which eventually took us to highway 18. Except for a little trepidation about being truly lost in what felt like the middle of nowhere, the ride was pleasant as it was a narrow concrete rural road with very little traffic. We saw more cows and pigs on the road than we did people (and very nice fat little pink pigs and healthy looking brown cows they were). There were small villages off the dyke road all the way to Pha Lai where we eventually got to highway 18. I wish I had stopped to take photos now as there was some interesting architecture in the villages — some take on French colonial in a very rough style. Some of the buildings had small turrets – strangely European. The one village we did stop in to buy water was very third world. Reminded me of some small villages in some of the remoter parts of Mexico I have visited – narrow lanes and crumbling brick buildings, very few commercial buildings if any.

The first night on the road we ended up in Pha Lai, a small town whose claim to fame is a coal-driven power plant. They don’t get many western tourists. We learned that Nha Nghi means hotel and paid 20.00 for a room that wasn’t worth that but after 93 km we weren’t going to argue. The room was big, had an Asian-style shower but western toilet, big windows that opened onto the street and air conditioner and a fan. The bed was like a rock (many of them are – a little too much for Ian’s liking) but I don’t mind that. I was more suspicious of linen though and was glad I had my sleeping sheet from our camping days. After Ian’s bad night sleep we were sorry we hadn’t thought to pull out his air mattress which we are also still hauling around. The only other issue with the room was that it had Asian plumbing (bad) and water leaked out under the bathroom wall into the bedroom and unfortunately onto our road Atlas of Vietnam. We salvaged some of it but this is a bit of a problem now as I am guessing it will be hard to come by another one outside of Hanoi.

Our first menu mishap happened in Pha Lai. We were proud of ourselves for using the Vietnamese phrasebook to find a restaurant. All good. We were the only people there – still ok . There was a menu with no English but it had dishes by meat category, and showed pictures of the meat categories by animal (including dog and cat.) We chose the chicken. Safe we thought. Then we flipped the menu page and saw a picture of what I thought was a plate of vegetables. We ordered. The owner looked at us quizzically on our second choice but we persisted, pointing again. She shrugged. We munched our way through some greens but also some relatively small bones with white meat and figured perhaps it was some kind of bird until we saw a piece of spine that could only belong to an animal. We hope it was rat and not dog. Probably the right size for rat….Argh. So I am now very motivated to learn the food words…as this will be what we get on the road for the most part. Vietnam is not very developed outside the tourist areas. However, we certainly know the word for pho and this is always the fallback. It is also what everyone here eats for breakfast everyday and what we also ate the next morning when we were leaving Pha Lai.

We cycled another long day to get to Ha Long Bay where we misread the map and took ourselves over a large span bridge that crosses the bay. The whole area is called Ha Long City but it is composed of two parts: Bau Cai and Hong Gai. We ended up spending the night in Hong Gai, which wasn’t a bad experience – very nice three star hotel for 30.00, completely westernized, which I think is used by higher-level bureaucrats. There was a nice looking night market out in front of our building but we opted for a more western choice for dinner as we were still getting over our rat experience.

We are now in Bau Cai (back over the bridge) in a tourist area. We’ve found decent (though somewhat Asian plumbing) digs for 15.00 a night and we are resting up for another day and then getting a boat tour and transport to Cat Ba Island that will take us through the limestone karst formations the bay is famous for.

Overall I like being on the road again on the bikes. It is kind of rough travel and it takes some getting used to. We both think we will feel about Thailand the way we did after cycling in Cambodia – after Cambodia Thailand felt like an oasis of western comforts. Vietnam is much more together than Cambodia but it is still very much a developing country. Wages are low for many people – the average school teacher makes 168 US a month here. There are just not the amenities here yet that there are in Thailand (like supermarkets, corner stores, department stores etc.) For the most part people are happy to see us on the road and give us the thumbs up. We certainly got some double takes and chuckles on the rural road when we were lost ☺

The claustrobphobia has diminished quite a bit with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories working to reduce the sinus issues. It wasn’t the small spaces making it difficult to breathe – I was struggling to breathe period. I should have looked after that a long time ago but it is hard to get antibiotics from my doctor unless there is some kind of positive on a throat swab…but given I am getting better there must have been some kind of infection for some time.

For anyone cycling out of Hanoi to HaLong Bay

North end of Hoan Kiem Lake take Hang Dao (the night market street). It is one way in the right direction. The street changes names part way (Hong Giay). You will pass the market building and go under the railway. You’ll come to an intersection with a grey concrete turret building (don’t know what it is). Turn right on Hong Dau. At the first T intersection (perhaps more of a three way intersection) head across the street and up onto the ramp onto the railroad bridge. There is a bicycle sign on the ramp. Cross the bridge and go under the railroad bridge (on Ngoc Thuy). Continue south until you get to the next main bridge (it is not far maybe 500 metres to one km) then turn left on Nguyen Van Cu. This is a main drag that takes you out of town to Bac Ninh. The road changes names a number of times and you will pass through a few towns including Tu Son. You pick up highway 18 to HaLong from Bac Ninh.

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Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Side Trip to Sapa

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We took a very laid-back side trip to Sapa, spending two lazy days walking around town and then an 8 km round trip walk out of town along the road to Lao Cai. (Lao Cai is the train terminus for train from Hanoi and then it is mini bus for a switch-backed 34 km ride to Sapa). The town of Sapa is in the mountains north of Hanoi close to the Chinese border. It was built by the French for colonial R and R but the area around it has been populated by various hill tribe people for eons (the Hmong and others). If we had been looking for a trekking experience we would have chosen to be there for a week although most of the trips booked from Hanoi offer jam-packed one to three day itineraries. I would not have wanted to have foregone our time just wandering around on our own in lieu of more trekking time.

We enjoyed the mountain scenery including the clouds that roll in and change the vista every few minutes. The hillsides are mostly terraced and cultivated by the tribal people. The town itself has retained a French colonial feel and we noticed that new construction is following the same design – a good decision given the other model is communist block ugly. I also loved the urban gardens that were everywhere in Sapa (and on the train on the way up I noticed that people had planted herb gardens between train tracks in some villages). Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of herbs and greens (which I love) and so people grow the stuff everywhere. We could learn from them…I got some ideas on growing mustard greens on Ian’s boat (to his chagrin) in styrofoam containers based on a little sidewalk garden across from our hotel in Sapa.

The folks managing our guesthouse in Hanoi (Madam Moon) arranged the trip for us, including getting the train and their sister hotel (Fanzipan View) booked in Sapa. Everything worked like clockwork and the hotel in Sapa was really nice with very attentive staff. I am glad though that we didn’t give into pressure to book the night train both ways as we enjoyed the ride up in the daytime in coach seats where we got to see the country side. I am also glad we didn’t visit a hill tribe on a trek as our experience of the hill tribe people in town was an endless and irritating sales pitch for handicrafts I didn’t want to buy and from what I heard, visits to the villages, although interesting, are more of the same and worse.

Our train back was for the most part fine although I think the quality of the trains varies between trains so even booking a night train with the same company can be hit and miss. There are a few superior cabins which are shared by two people but these are hard to book as there are so few so most tourists opt for a four person cabin. The bunks were big enough for short people (like me but not Ian) and the bedding was clean and fortunately our car was air conditioned as apparently not all of them are. The windows didn’t open on our train – I guess because of possible problems with air conditioning, but I would have foregone the air conditioning to have the windows open. My Argentinian roommate said they had a cabin on the way up without air con and where windows did not open – worst situation possible.

This is especially true for me this trip as I am still experiencing some problems with claustrophobia, an ongoing issue since we arrived in Vietnam. I was a bit worried about the night train ahead of time and so prepared myself with the Vietnamese version of Nightol (over the counter sleep aid) figuring that if the train did make me uncomfortable at least I would eventually sleep and not suffer for 9 or 10 hours. This turned out to be a good strategy as my room mate shut and locked the door of our compartment and then couldn’t get it open. (She and I had taken bottom bunks, her husband and Ian top). I got up and tried and couldn’t open it either…not a good situation to calm me down. To my credit I managed to get back on my bunk without saying too much and eventually said to the guys that we needed some help. Her husband came down and figured it out and once I opened and closed it a few times I managed to mostly forget about it. It still took three hours to get to sleep after that…even with the Nightol.

That experience and a couple of others made me decide to talk to a doctor as although the claustrophobia is relatively mild it is not fun. I’ve also had a minor sinus issue since being sick in the spring which has made it hard to breathe sometimes and that combined with humidity and generally smaller physical spaces than what I am used to in North America (and other parts of Asia) is what I think has created the claustrophobia problem.

My intention was to go to a clinic in Hanoi and talk to an English-speaking doctor but our hotel concierge in Hanoi talked me into a house call, telling me the doctor was very good and English speaking. He turned out to be very nice but his spoken English was negligible and when I realized he didn’t know what claustrophobia was I had to turn my computer on and resort to Google English to Vietnamese translations. The whole consultation then turned into a conversation where we took turns googling drugs and symptoms on my Mac…with me having to coach him on the Mac user interface which I don’t think he’d used before. It was kind of the comical side of a not so funny situation. In the end, he prescribed (and then went and picked up from the pharmacy) a bunch of drugs for the sinus inflammation (antibiotics and anti inflammatories and vitamins and antihistamines) and then something called Dogmatil which is an anti-psychotic for schizophrenia in high doses and a mild anti-anxiety remedy at low doses.

After he left (I paid him 50 US for consultation and then 50 for drugs) I told Ian I wasn’t planning on taking the Dogmatil as it was meant to be taken over a period of time to reduce anxiety rather than very situational claustrophobia (I just wanted valium or a derivative for emergencies basically but he wouldn’t prescribe that as he said it was too strong.) He phoned back in the evening asking for a second consultation and I was suspicious that it was a money grab; however, given he was a doctor I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and agreed. It turned out he had talked to his colleagues and wasn’t sure about the Dogmatil and came back with an even stronger anti-depressant called Zoloft. After a lot more googling and charades and broken English, we agreed I would take the Dogmatil daily for awhile and then use the Zoloft if I needed it for a particularly stressful claustrophobia inducing situation (although I have no intention of taking the Dogmatil but it was just easier to agree given the language problems).

In the end I admired his conscientiousness in talking to his colleagues and his concern (I believe he very sincerely wanted to help) but after more research realize he gave me a second drug that is not meant to be taken situationally and is actually quite dangerous for some people and really inappropriate for my situation. So a hundred more dollars later I will rely on Nightol to help me sleep on any long distance vehicles where I feel closed in and practice some of the cognitive therapy techniques I have now researched on the Internet. Meanwhile, my travel bag includes a whole pharmacy of drugs I will probably never use.

We are enjoying a new hotel in Hanoi that is quite luxurious (all that was available in our little hood where we wanted to stay.) We are paying 45.00 bucks a night! A fortune in Hanoi…but our bikes are on our balcony and we have a very nice tub and a lovely little room. This was the cost of the cheapest motel of our California trip…in fact the horrible motel where we stayed in shitty Crescent City was 45.00 a night. I love Asia :-0

We walked our cycling route out of the old quarter of Hanoi yesterday so we know exactly what we are doing on the bikes once we get on them. We were supposed to leave today but there were thunderstorms and torrential rain at 7 am just as we planned to leave. So we changed plans…so nice not to have a strict agenda…and I’m enjoying another day in Hanoi being a bit lazy. Weather looks better tomorrow so we’ll be off…the panniers are packed and we’re ready to go.