Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Viet Nam

Drifting back in time....

Day 1 12/19/08

After a delightful overnight stay in Taipei's international airport we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City). From the airport we took a cab to Kim's sister's mother in law's house. Little did I know that this would be the scariest cab ride of my life. A significant majority of Vietnamese do not own cars. They instead own motorbikes, which whizz by and disregard all traffic regulations. The entire cab ride was wrought with danger as these bikes literally surrounded the cab going 40 mph down a two lane street. I knew from that point on Viet Nam was going to be an adventure.

Day 2 12/20/08

Kim and I ventured out into the 90 degree heat (apparently winter for south Viet Nam) to explore the city. We both hopped onto Kim's nephew's motorbike and took the streets. This is the point in the trip where I lost my second life (1st was gone from the cab ride). We weaved in out of traffic until we reached the bus stop and took the bus into downtown. Our first stop was Ben Thanh Market, which has a lot of great Vietnamese food and various goods for sale for ridiculously cheap. Again our journey was wrought with danger as we had to figure out how to cross the intersection to get to the market. There is no such thing as a crosswalk in Saigon (at least the motorbikes disregard that there is one in the first place) and the city is so packed with people that traffic never lightens up. There are no breaks, just a constant flow of madness. In order to cross you step out into the middle of the street shuffle slowly across while whizzing motorbikes pass by you. The saying "there is safety in numbers" has never really hit home until I tried to cross the street in Viet Nam. To put things into perspective, imagine watching the discovery channel and a pack of gazelle try to cross a river filled with crocodiles and you will get an idea of what we were up against.

I consumed my 3rd life trying to get to the market and was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the food was. After Ben Thanh we took a bus to Cholon district to see Binh Tay Market, which is apparently larger than the former. The Cholon district is home to the largest Chinatown in the world, and is probably one of the grossest. It was a pretty filthy area, not to mention we got completely lost and I consumed at least a couple lives while I was there. The market was enormous and you could easily get lost but it caters mostly to the locals and isn't very good for shopping for tourist goods.

One thing about Saigon that was almost comical was the pro communism signs everywhere. In downtown they had in the center square all these pictures from the Viet Nam war and it would say "this is a picture of our soldiers storming the gates of Saigon as we completely overpowered the Americans and liberated Saigon from their control." Every sign would talk about how they liberated the south when in fact they basically took it over and impoverished the country.

Later on in the evening Kim's nephews arrived (Dustin & Denny) and we ate out with a few other relatives who showed us some the finest Vietnamese cuisine, snails. We went to a place that specialized in both snails and clams. We must have had 14 different varieties, it was pretty great. Kim's relatives as well as others in the restaurant got a kick out of me trying all these various crustaceans.

Day 3 12/21/08

A vacation in a tropical country without the beach just didn't seem right, so Kim, Dustin, Denny and I left with D and D's father's brother and wife Lap & Nha to Vung Thau. Vung Thau is a beach town about 3 hrs southeast of Saigon. It was a beautiful day of sitting around eating fresh crab, and snails and of course beer. Once we arrived back in Saigon Kim's mother, sister (Thu), and brother in law (Minh) arrived after several days of delays at PDX due to the unbelievable snowfall that hit the Pacific Northwest.

Day 4 12/22/08

Early that morning we caught a flight up to Ha Noi (north Viet Nam) to begin our guided tour of the North. Our group consisted of me, Kim, Dustin, Denny, Momma Nguyen, Min's mother, Thu, Minh, and two of Minh's friends. All of us packed into our tour van and began the trip that was guided in entirely vietnamese. Luckily Kim is a superb translator so I got the gist of what was said. What is even funnier is that Dustin and Denny who have had Vietnamese spoken to them their entirely lives had to listen in on Kim's translations to follow along. I'm convinced I understand more of vietnamese than they do. Ha ha just kidding fellas.

Northern Viet Nam is quite a different experience than the south. As our guide told us, in order to fully grasp the history of Viet Nam you have to visit the north. The north has 5,000 yrs of history, whereas the south has only about 300 yrs. Our first stop on the trip was Hoa Yen, which is a famous temple/shrine in the mountains. The story goes that a King renounced his thrown and traveled to the mountains to embrace Buddhism. He then built these temples that are way up into the mountains. I realize that I completely butchered that story and it is probably worth reading up about b/c it is rather fascinating. The temples were pretty cool and you had to take this gondola up to the oldest temple that is high in the mountains. It actually very impressive that they built this temple so far up. If you go to Viet Nam and need to see one temple I strongly recommend seeing this just b/c it is pretty amazing that they built this whole network of shrines and temples so high up into the mountains.

Later that evening we drove up to Tuan Cirau, which the city outside of Halong Bay. Our guide took us to this amusement park after dinner to see this water light show. Originally we thought this was going to be really stupid and boring, but it turns out it was actually pretty impressive. They have all sorts of streams of water that move to the music along with fire (I mean seriously who doesn't like fire) and lights going every which way. Pretty entertaining.

Day 5 12/23/08

Early in the morning we set off for Halong Bay. Unfortunately it was a bit overcast so you couldn't catch the full beauty of the place. I guess it also didn't help that it was around 50 degrees outside as well. In Halong we saw various caves and caverns (Dau Go), but the highlight was the floating fish markets. There is a community of people who live in boats and rafts within the bay that make their living off selling fish. You go onto their platforms and they have these tanks of a variety of fish and other crustaceans that you can purchase. We bought a fish, several crabs, and shrimp in addition to the meal our tour was providing and gorged ourselves on seafood. Overall Halong Bay was a very beautiful place and I am sure it is even better in the spring time.

Day 6 12/24/08

Quite possibly the coolest part of our tour through the North was to go see the temples of Trang An. In order to get to these temples you have to travel by boat. All of us shipped off on these tiny boats with vietnamese woman as our rower. We traveled through a network of caves through limestone mountains (similar to the limestone rocks of Halong Bay) to reach various temples and shrines that were over 1,000 yrs old.

After working up an appetite by climbing up to various shrines we went to a restaurant that specialized in goat. Saying they specialized in "goat meat" would not have been appropriate, this place specializes in goat and everything that has to do with the goat. They brought out various dishes that came from all parts of a goat. Luckily they did not specify which part of the goat it came from and I was pretty content with the broad description that I was merely eating goat. Everything seemed pretty normal until we got to desert. They brought out what looked like cherry pudding of some sort. It turns that this too was part of a goat, in fact it is literally "goat blood pie." YumMAY!! I managed to take down every bit although it didn't taste like much. I included a pic just so I can imagine my vegetarian sisters cringing at the thought.

Once our bellies were full of goat blood it was off to Ha Noi. Ha Noi is a beautiful city and is heavily influenced by french architecture. At one point it was considered a french colony. Ha Noi was a lot less crazier than Saigon with the chaotic traffic mess. It is also a lot cleaner since it is a hot spot for tourists. In Ha Noi we ate traditional vietnamese dishes of the North. Eating almost became an all competition between Dustin, Denny and I. We kept having to order more food or D and D's parents would sacrifice their food to stab off our ravenous eating. Although the food was good in Ha Noi it still could not hold a candle to the food we had in the south. The south's cuisine is similar to what we get in the US, whereas the North's cuisine is a bit bland, but still good. After dinner we did the tourist thing and hopped on the death trap known as the Cyclo. Its more like a bike bumper car than a taxi.

Day 7 12/25/08

Christmas day was spent for the most part in a car and airplane. We went to Cho Dong Xuan market in Ha Noi, which was not nearly as cool as Ben Thanh in Saigon. Probably b/c Cho Dong Xuan catered to locals as opposed to tourists. We also went to the main Catholic church in Ha Noi for mass. Everyone wished we could have had a few more days in Ha Noi b/c it really was a great city. Maybe one day I'll head back that way.

Once we got back to Saigon that night the group split. Kim, Momma Nguyen and I left with Kim's uncle to visit her grandmother and tour the South. MInh and his family left for a beach town north of Saigon. We drove from Saigon to Kim's aunt's house in Phuoc Long, which is about 3 hr drive outside Saigon. Kim's aunt has a nice quant house with an absolutely beautiful garden. She has quite the green thumb and the house is literally covered in flowers. She is also apparently quite the artist and designed various sculptures throughout the yard.

Day 8 12/26/08

We spent the day in Phuoc Long. We did a bit of hiking and just lounging around the house. Kim's aunt made me one of my personal favorite vietnamese dishes, banh xeo (kind of like a crepe with lots of herbs and meat). It was awesome! At dinner though I had a real treat: pan roasted baby duck (see pics). This isn't just the meat, no no, this is the entire baby duck. Kim's uncle caught these suckers and you pop the entire baby duck; bones, head and all, into your mouth. Its kind of like eating popcorn. Its a bit crunchy, but very good. If I could set up a trap to catch baby ducks in Tokyo, I would do it.

Day 9 12/27/08

We left early that morning for Rach Gia, which is where KIm was born. To get there you cross through the famed MeKong Delta, which accounts for more than 50% of the world's rice production. This was the first time I got to see the southern countryside during daylight hours and it seemed to be a distinct difference between the north and the south. Quick background: prior to Viet Nam war the country was split b/t the north (communist) and the south (democratic). When the US left the communists took over the entire country. All the money basically comes from the south. Saigon is the commercial and industrial hub of Viet Nam, and the Mekong Delta provides a significant majority of agricultural products for Asia. The north has very little commercial and industrial activity and mostly feeds off of tourism.

When we drove through the north's countryside most people I saw lived in these two story concrete dwellings that were relatively well maintained. It was quite a different story when we drove through the south. People lived in huts that were built with anything they could find. I imagine many of them probably did not have running water. Here I was driving through the rich Mekong Delta that was the hub of agricultural production of Asia and it looked like people could barely feed themselves let alone have a roof over their heads. It seemed to me that the north has a lot more help from the government than the south.

We were aiming to stay in a small village at a friend of Kim's aunt and uncle that was slightly off the beaten path. A terrential down pour started and things started to look a bit bleak. Once we arrived at the village we found out that they turned the power off to the entire village. Apparently all of these little villages rotate each week to turn off all power for one day to save energy. If only we could learn by such an example. As a result of this we opted for the cozy hotel in the next large town. It was a good thing too b/c Kim apparently is a human mosquito magnet. Seriously if you don't want to wear bug spray just take Kim along with you. The bugs will literally bypass you and eat Kimi.

Day 10 12/28/08

We finally reached Rach Gia where Kim's family lived for many years and where the great Kim Nguyen entered this world. Apparently the town has developed significantly since her family fled the country in the mid 80s. An array of colorful condos now line the river front in downtown. We took a brief drive through tour and then headed over to Kim's family's old house.

The house lies across the river from downtown. We took a small row boat over there (see pic) and you could see a lot of the cottages on the water that looked like they were near toppling over. The Nguyen family house was designed by Kim's mother and the land around the house was owned by their family including a saw mill right next door. After the Viet Nam war the communists came and kicked Kim's family out on the street and confiscated their house, business, and other parcels of land. At that time the house was the tallest building on that side of the river and still remains as one of the tallest houses there today. When we arrived it was quite emotional to see Kim's mother standing and looking at her old house, reflecting on memories of the past.

I was expecting to see another family living there, but apparently the communists still use it as a government office. They allowed us to take a tour of the house and mom explained how the house was set up and so forth. On the top balcony is where I mustered up the courage to ask Kim to marry me. It didn't go quite as I planned b/c all the smooth things that I thought in my head to say turned out to be a jumbled mess, but she did say yes (thank God!) so it all worked out (see pic of engagement spot).

After the house we headed to Can Tho, which I do believe is the 3rd largest city in Viet Nam and in the heart of the Mekong Delta. We arrived just before dusk and we had one mission while we were there: find Phung Hiep. Phung Hiep is the largest floating market in the region. You can purchase fish and other various items, but the main attraction is the plethora of fruit! All throughout the trip we gorged ourselves on all sorts of various fruits such as dragon fruit, lychee, and chirimoya. I have never eaten so much fruit in my life, but it was fantastic and now we are off in search of more.

We bargained with a lady to take us over and we hoped onto this small motor boat down the river. Kim's mom on the trip talked about how entire families would live on these small fishing boats and I couldn't envision it unless I saw it with my own eyes. Then as we were riding along I saw many families all huddled in their fishing boats. It was quite remarkable and sad (see pic). We eventually got to the floating markets, but very few boats remained since it was so late. However, we did manage to purchase some pineapple so it made the trip worthwhile.

Once we arrived back we ate dinner at a small street vendor. In Viet Nam a space on the sidewalk is as good as a restaurant. We had some incredible food straight from a vendor on the sidewalk. It seems anywhere you go in Viet Nam the food is incredible. I also had one of my personal favorite vietnamese cuisines, balut, or as I call it by my literal translation "baby duck fetus." Basically you crack the duck egg open at the top and scoop out the goodness. You eat everything from the beak to the feathers and you know, it is quite good. Dip it in a little salt, pepper and lime juice and mmmmmm....delicious!

I just want to add real quick that we were in Can Tho when Viet Nam beat Thailand for the first time ever in a soccer match and not only that won the Asian cup. The Vietnamese literally partied all night long.

Day 11 12/29/08

Basically we drove straight to the airport and that concluded our vacation in Viet Nam. If you want to see more pics then what is shown below click on the slideshow off to the right and it will take you to Kim's picassa web page. From here you can see all of our photos from various trips. I congratulate you if you actually made it this far as I practically wrote a novel. Good day

Death crossing to Ben Thanh Market

I swear, the chickens were alive when we left (dinner in Saigon)

Crab and snails at Vung Tau

No, there is no trick photography here I really am this white (Vung Tao)
The old ladies didn't stand a chance against Dustin and I's ravenous eating.

Picture perfect (Halong Bay)

Those lights, in the cave....completely natural (Denny & Thu Halong Bay)

Lunch (floating village Halong Bay)

Lined up to take us to Trang An

The Gang

Ahh goat blood soup

This pic goes out to my Vegetarian sisters

mmmm yumMay!

Kim's aunt's house

Kim's aunt & uncle

On the way to the Nguyen family house (Rach Gia)

Where I popped the question (Rach Gia)

Homes on the riverside of Can Tho

An entire family lived on this fishing boat

Ah yeah, bring on the baby duck fetus


Brad said...

Did you just call your future mother in law and old lady?

David Armstrong said...

It's cool man she doesn't speak english :P