Travel Tales

An online space for travel musings, philosophical rants, photos and constant discussions of the weather.

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Well, I’m generally terrible at keeping a travel journal. I gave it up after my first few major trips, cynically exercising my traveller privilege and declaring, “I’ll remember it by living in the moment!”

But, as age uses its grey matter Wite-Out ™ to blank out the vast majority of my travel memories, (except for the time that nun hip-checked me to butt in line at the Vatican), and I find myself stopping mid-story to mentally check if it actually happened in Vietnam, or Guatemala, or Singapore, I think a journal/blog is helpful.

Scroll down for the latest post, or click the link to jump to an older post.

Marble Mountains – a trip to hell – May 31, 2017

Unexpected glories and, well, spiders – May 19, 2017

Alberta dreamingMay 11, 2017

Reunification day and rice harvestsMay 2, 2017

Going coastal – road trip to Tam KỳApril 29, 2017

Fish, fins, and conquering anxietyApril 26, 2017

Vietnam’s glorious street food – don’t listen to your mammyApril 23, 2017

Road trip to Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, or what to do if you don’t have a fanApril 19, 2017

The great sand caper of 2017April 16, 2017

Highway to…getting killed by an inconsiderate oncoming truckApril 14, 2017

A day of self-reflection, or, the battle to avoid NetflixApril 12, 2017

First daysApril 11, 2017

Arrival in Hội AnApril 8-9, 2017

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Marble Mountains – a trip to hell

May 31, 2017

Another day of inclement weather meant another impromptu day off for my beau, and we decided to take the short 20 minute trip to the Marble Mountains (Ngũ Hành Sơn), close to Danang.

The famous site, consisting of five limestone and marble hills named after the primal elements of water, metal, wood, fire, and earth, has an interesting heritage. Besides being home to several Buddhist and Hindu grottoes and temples, it was also a hideaway and lookout for the Việt Cộng during the Vietnam War, with a good view of China Beach and the American army’s operations at its Marble Mountain Air Facility.

View of Marble Mountains, Vietnam

The marble had been historically hewn from the mountains and used to sculpt amazing bone-white statuary, and while the artisans still exist (you can’t miss their many workshops with their mammoth denizens), the marble is now brought from elsewhere in order to help preserve the site.

Allow yourself three to four hours to enjoy the mountains, and try to go early to avoid the heat. Come fueled up; refreshments and snacks are served on the way up, but most food places are at the base of the mountain. Make sure to bring sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water to rehydrate after the inevitable sweating.

Temples and hell caves

For a mere 20,000 VND, you can take a trip to hell via Am Phu Cave, located at the base of Thụy Sơn (Water Mountain), the only hill open to the public. King Minh Mạng (the second emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty in Vietnam, who ruled in the mid 1800’s, and whose tomb you can visit close to Huế) purportedly named it the ‘hell’ cave to represent its duality with the ‘heavens’ above, at the summit of the mountain.

It’s aptly named; you enter over a bridge suspended over a pool of koi and grasping stone hands. As you continue on your journey, you will pass through caves inhabited by monstrous demons creeping forth from the rock, serene Buddhist and Hindu statues, suffering humans (complete with blood spatters and joss sticks stuck in gaping wounds), carved man-eating crocodiles and snakes. Such sites as the court of hell kings, purgatory, and the hell gate host such charming creatures. .

It is an unnerving but extremely mesmerizing experience. The grasping clutches of the demons are tempered by the ascent through the roof of the rock, climbing slippery, narrow steps past carved elephants, tigers, and Buddha figurines. You can imagine penitents rising from the depths to this serene view onto China Beach, given a chance for a final offering to a large, jolly Buddha seated at the top.

The throne of the Bodhisattva, located midway through the cave, is marked by an electric neon wheel that gleams through the darkness like a red and green beacon, presiding over the calm inhabitant of the throne; and the magic mirror (located in the court of the hell kings) has a bronze eye which mimics the flaming eye of Sauron.

 

Am Phu Cave was undoubtedly my favourite, perhaps due to my ghoulish love of all things supernatural. But if you prefer things a little less dark, don’t worry; heaven is only an elevator away.

The heavenly summit

The rest of the Marble Mountains site  costs 40,000 VND. You can quickly reach the summit, and the many-layered Xá Lợi Tower, via the glass elevator (15,000 VND). For a bit of cardio, you can climb the much more picturesque (if sweat-inducing) carved stone staircase, passing rearing dragon heads and a massive carved Buddha.

Although there are many pagodas and other attractions topside, my favourites were again the caves. Huyen Khong cave, reached via Hoa Nghiem cave (famous for its female Buddha), seemed like a tiny village inside a massive cave, lorded over by yet another gargantuan Buddha figure. It also seems like an apt setting for the next Indiana Jones movie (coming soon, starring an immortal Harrison Ford).

The attendants seemed as ancient as the rock itself, with a brown-garbed elderly woman tottering to light incense, arrange altars, and watch over the place.

So if you’re in need of an easy day trip, take advantage of the short trek to Marble Mountain, easily accessible from Danang and Hội An by bus, taxi, and moto (for the brave). Where else can you visit heaven and hell in one afternoon, for only $3 US?

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Unexpected glories and…well, spiders

May 19, 2017

Something that I am always struck by living here is how immediate everything feels, buzzing and alive. Every moment is filled with fresh surprise – just going down the street can be an exhilarating adventure.

Unexpected things pop up at every corner. Imposing, desolated shrines appear along busy roadways. Mosaic-tiled dragons leer from railings; bouquets of chrysanthemums spring from the knotholes of massive, ropy trees; and small, glittering shrines filled with offerings can be found alongside pastures filled with only cud-chewing water buffalo.

Shrine, Hoi An, Vietnam

Flower offering in tree, Hoi An, Vietnam

Temple, Hoi An, Vietnam

Gap-toothed grannies cycle by, their wares of brushes and mops held precariously on the flanks of the bike. Motorbikes carrying four members of a family, some chickens and a dog are a common sight. Karaoke performances blare from rice paddies, and bamboo-built restaurants become wedding venues draped with pink and red for the lucky couple, their huge portrait looming over the entrance.

Peanuts, tomatoes, corn, and all manner of delicious things are often found drying on the roadsides or in front of restaurants and homes, daring the passerby to have a taste.

Drying rice squares, Hoi An, Vietnam

 Triem Tay Village, Hoi An, Vietnam

Liquid-eyed, red-brown cows with floppy necks tramp through city streets, calves at their sides, while their caretakers urge them on with bamboo canes. Cars and motorbikes are forced to weave through herds of goats, the crowd braying and skittish.

Cows, Hoi An, Vietnam

Of course, these unexpected glories and peculiarities can be unpredictable and at times dangerous – perhaps why we see them so rarely in the sterilised order of the West. Of course, I may be the only person to trip over some well-meant incense sticks stuck in a sidewalk niche, burning myself in the process.

I am also not a huge fan of the spiders the size of a coaster or the overly curious toads who seem intent on finding their way into my bathroom, only to terrify me in the middle of the night. These kinds of surprises my heart can do without. Although I definitely won the most recent broom fight against a spider determined to stay in the house, and I hope he tells all of his friends.

Intrusive toad, Hoi An, Vietnam

Triêm Tây village, Cẩm Kim island

But for the most part, these hidden treasures help create the soul of Vietnam, in my opinion. Take the recent jaunt of my fiancé and I: on a rare day off, we took the bikes out for a ramble.

We headed for a bridge leading to a small island, arriving at the impossibly quiet and picturesque Triêm Tây village on Cẩm Kim island. Small leafy laneways led to sleepy temples, and breezy bamboo restaurants overlooking the river, perfect for a beer and a plate of spicy food. Visitors can also arrive via boat, stepping onto piers made of a straight, precarious line of individual logs.

Temple, Triem Tay Village, Hoi An, Vietnam

We stopped at a riverside restaurant called Quán Bến Xưa, and sat next to a table full of Vietnamese gentlemen who had clearly settled in for the day, with a carton of Tiger Beer.

We ordered bánh tráng mè to start, a delicious crispy rice cake about the size of a crepe, peppered with sesame seeds. Often eaten as a snack with beer, accompanied with a chili soy dipping sauce, it is more filling than it appears.

We followed that with fried spring rolls and mì xào hải sản (noodles with seafood). We washed it down with La Rue beer. It would have been easy to spend the whole day there, with the sound of bamboo creaking in the sweet, constant breeze off the river.

These are the kind of surprises that please me – spiders, please stay away.

River, Triem Tay Village, Hoi An, Vietnam River, Triem Tay Village, Hoi An, Vietnam

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Alberta dreaming

May 11, 2017

The rice harvests here remind me of home, as improbable as it sounds. Southeast Asia and central Alberta, the Texas of Canada, would not be mistaken for the same place.

However, the harvesting of the rice and the cutting and swathing of hay brings back memories of harvests back in Alberta. The smell of dusty, warm chaff always conjures up images of long, hot summer days, with endless skies and cotton puff clouds.

I find it amazing that so much of the rice or hay is collected by hand in Vietnam, and hauled to the nearest truck or motorbike. I have seen some small swathers here that make some of the work easier, but most of what’s gathered seems to be dried on the street or in the field and then bundled.

For the last few days, the fields have been covered in huge plumes of smoke as farmers burn off the reaped hay fields.

Apparently, burning can be an important part in maintaining the vitality of fields by releasing nutrients into the soil, and can also eliminate excess weeds or brush.

While the techniques are far less industrial here in Vietnam, a lot of the images remind me of my father and grandfather, sweating in the field; lifting heavy twirls of twine or fixing the stubborn, rusted tractors, swearing and heaving as they changed oil or fixed tires.

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We would often have a small picnic lunch or dinner in the shorn, short-stalked ground. Grandma’s chili and garden corn would fill our bellies, with long draughts of iced tea to quench our thirst.

Alberta sunset

We would sometimes ride in the combine with my dad, the rumbling of the great machine filling our ears, along with some tinny 80’s classics from the small radio. Tall and wide-shouldered, practical and hard-working, Dad loves farming as much as he hates it, like all of those in the occupation.

Big sky country

Alberta is ‘big sky’ country, as the prairies are often termed by those used to skyscrapers, narrow roads and close quarters. You want to see it when the canola is in full bloom (rapeseed for those outside of Canada). The soft yellow flowers brush the robin-egg blue of the sky, bowing in the wind.

Canola fields, Alberta, Canada

While I haven’t always fit in with Alberta’s prairie ideals or expectations, I have come to appreciate it more as I travel. And I have come to think of myself as a farm girl, despite a disastrous lack of coordination and a general inability to operate machinery.

So much so, that these days of harvest make me miss ol’ Bertie: its fields, trees, lakes, and sunsets; its rodeos, campfires, and long weekends; its familiarity, and its constant strangeness.

In other news

In addition to missing home, I have joined a creative writing group, a yoga studio, and have contemplated how hard it will be to return to so-called “real life”. Alas, that is still four months away – so escapism (and hopefully some short story inspiration) will be the order of the day.

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Reunification day and rice harvests

May 2, 2017

April 30th, also known as “Reunification Day” or “Liberation Day”, is a national holiday in Vietnam. It is the date that Saigon fell to the invading Northern forces in 1975, and signalled the end of the Vietnam War (Chiến tranh Việt Nam or Kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước (“Resistance War Against American invasion”)).

I am not sure if it is as fondly remembered here in the South, but it is one of the major annual holidays, as it is followed by International Workers’ Day on May 1st.

Red, billowing Vietnamese flags adorned with golden stars were installed along many of the major roads, and cars and taxis wheeled by sporting smaller versions.

Vietnamese flags installed for Reunification Day, 2017. Hoi An, Vietnam

Hội An has been a mad house, receiving a huge influx of tourists. My fiancé says that the Island has been packed to the proverbial gills, and that any wayward tourist hoping for a spontaneous ticket there has been disappointed.

Scars of war

The Vietnam War has left its scars here, the vegetation still recovering from rounds of the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange, still affecting its human victims to this day. Unexploded ordnance abound in the countryside, and old rusting hulks of tanks, B-52s, and other paraphernalia are strewn around the country.

The older people who experienced the war have long memories but have seem to forgiven, if not forgotten.  I was once cursed at in Hanoi for being an American, but that is the most ill will relating to the war that I have seen toward foreigners here.

But for the most part life goes on in the country; as with any other hardship, when the going gets tough, the Vietnamese get going.

The Vietnamese have outlasted the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, the Americans, and they will continue to endure.

Road rice

Another feature of this time of year is the rice harvest, and the subsequent drying of the grains; there have been patches of rice strewn across the roads, some cradled in tarps but most left to the dangers of the road.

Vietnamese motorists trundle over the grains of rice, leaving tire tracks in the carefully worked piles. Workers have been spreading and sifting the burnt umber grains with wooden rakes (and their feet). The tarps are removed in the afternoon, and replaced the next day during peak drying hours.

Rice drying, Hoi An, Vietnam Rice drying, Hoi An, Vietnam

Rice drying, Hoi An, Vietnam

I’ve seen women using woven bowls to sift the flour and then to pour it into large sacks, to be sold at market. Yet another example of how Vietnamese people process their resources in an unconventional but ultimately effective way.

First blood and determined desserts

A few days again, I got my first moto accident of the trip out of the way (always a momentous occasion). Luckily, I was on foot. Unluckily, I was hit from behind by a Vietnamese woman, who did miraculously stop. She threw up her hands, I threw up my hands, and she was on her merry way again. I was bleeding, dirty and bruised.

Motorbike collision, Hoi An, Vietnam

Now, to be fair, I did look both ways; BUT I was distracted by the sight of a stand selling the glorious kem caramen (or crème caramel).

A hangover from the French occupation, the delicious, flan-like custard dish is served with a splash of coffee and a dollop of ice. They are a favourite of mine, and I hadn’t seen them in town here yet.

So I was damned if I was going to let a little blood (and likely a broken toe or two) stand in my way. I limped over to the stall, still a little dazed, and the proprietor gave me a sad smile.

“One, please,” I whimpered. “10,000 dong,” she answered. Unhappily, I only had a 500,000 note and 4,000 in small notes. Sympathy only goes so far, it seems, and she shook her head and pointed down the street.

Undaunted, I bought a water and trudged back to her with a 10,000 note in my fist. I raged all the way home, but as always, dessert is worth it.

Alas, I was grumpy and no photos were taken, but please see the Wiki photo below. I know, you agree it was worth it.

Creme caramel dessert
By Popo le Chien (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Going coastal – road trip to Tam Kỳ

April 29, 2017

There  have been a few days of bad weather here at the tail end of the rainy season, and my fiancé has had some time off.

We decided to take off to Tam Kỳ, the capital city of Quảng Nam Province.

Map of Trip to Tam Ky, Ha Thanh, Vietnam

We took the Cửa Đại bridge, a massive, modern bridge spanning the Thu Bồn river (25.5 metres wide and 1.48 km long). Following the newly paved road south, we saw a very different Vietnam to the lush, tropical one we are both used to seeing. Arid, with dunes of red and white sand, there were more cacti than palm trees. There were also graveyards stretching in all directions, quite a distance from any neighbouring towns or villages.

Roadside south of Hoi An, Vietnam

Since ancestor worship is such an integral part of the Vietnamese culture, you would think they would want the commute to be a little easier. We mused that the dispersed cemeteries might be the result of multiple wars, or that towns had been raised and returned to the dirt and left the cemeteries literal ghost towns; but we still don’t have answers.

I haven’t attended a Vietnamese funeral, but I have seen the long, weaving processions through the streets, with mourners dressed in a coarse white head band. Funerals last several days, and are often accompanied by solemn atonal music; you can tell it is a funeral when a house or temple is flanked by multicoloured flags.

On our ride, we passed many fish farms, sliced through by large lines of fans used  to aerate the water; these were the few oases that appeared in the desert-like conditions. We also observed the harvesting and drying of rice, baking on the road in the afternoon heat with a lone attendant.

I took the combine picture to represent my agricultural Alberta  roots, and to show to my long-suffering farming dad.” Look! The combines break down here too!”

Once we arrived in Tam Kỳ, sunburnt and wind swept with a bad case of “rumble butt” (what I like to call the sensation of having ridden on a motorbike for too long), we had a swift lunch out of the brutal sun. Typical tourists – we’d arrived at the time of day when sensible Vietnamese people are having a nap or otherwise avoiding the sun.

After our lunch of cơm cá (as the proprietor had misheard our garbled request for cơm ga (chicken rice), and had sent a minion out for the fish on special order), we continued to the coast road and the beach.

Hạ Thanh beach, while already populated by some restaurants, hotels, and inflatable toy vendors, is much quieter than An Bang or Cửa Đại beach. There are more traditional fishing boats here than people, it seems.

Ha Thanh Beach

It was an absolutely gorgeous ride back home, passing through small villages filled with colourful, picturesque houses.

Tam Thanh village is a particularly lovely spot, as a multitude of buildings are decorated with murals of flowers, women dressed in traditional garb, and other scenes.

In June of 2016, the Korea Foundation and UN-Habitat Vietnam chose the village for the Korea Foundation Community Art Exchange Programme, a pilot project meant to improve living conditions and expose the community to public art.

Five South Korean artists, 12 volunteers and a team of Vietnamese students painted around 100 homes. See the wonderful results below.

House in Tam Thanh mural village, Vietnam

House in Tam Thanh mural village, Vietnam

I would recommend the journey as a solid day trip option if you want to avoid crowds and have a truly unique ride.

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Fish, fins, and conquering anxiety 

April 27th, 2017

So I finally went diving in the deep blue South China Sea with my fiancé’s scuba dive operation, Blue Coral Diving.

I was originally certified on the island of Útila in Honduras in the summer of 2015.

Completing the skills and classroom work of the course was relatively easy and intuitive, but during my first dive, I had trouble equalising and realising that yes, the regulator would help me breathe underwater, as promised.

Island of Utila, Honduras

A few panicky moments meant that I shot to the top and angrily made rude underwater hand gestures not recognised by the PADI school.

But my subsequent dives went more smoothly, and I really enjoyed the last two of the six, as my anxiety calmed and I felt more at home under the water.

I saw a nurse shark, a cacophony of fish (lion, parrot, trigger, damsel), seahorses, and a multitude of bright, brilliantly coloured coral. Once the gut-churning panic subsided, it was absolutely serene and enjoyable.

My next dive wouldn’t be until November 2016, when I dived with a semi-dry suit at Killary Harbour in Ireland.

It is a wild, misty place, especially at that time of year, with rolling green hills surrounding it. We had a sunny day, which made the water golden and particularly inviting.

Killary Harbour, Ireland

Diving in the North Atlantic is very different to tropical diving. Obviously, the temperature is much lower, the visibility can be variable, and you need to wear a semi-dry suit with a hood, booties, and gloves, in order to stay warm.

During this dive, my buoyancy was affected by the extra thickness of neoprene of the semi-dry suit and my mask had a poor seal, meaning extra-panicky Karen and a more- patient-than-usual fiancé as I floundered and kicked.

I clung to the buoy line and cursed myself for ever deciding to fly in the face of one of humanity’s most well-known truths: we are not meant to breathe underwater.

It didn’t help that I also popped up like a cork at one point, either due to the extra buoyancy of the semi-dry suit or me pressing the inflate rather than the deflate button on the BCD (buoyancy control device, which is like a vest that can be inflated or deflated to help you sink or float), like a maniac.

Sink or swim

So I was a little bit trepidatious at the thought of diving again – even though I know that it is a beautiful and unique activity, and that “it’s better down where it’s wetter”, to quote another underwater creature.

I wasn’t concerned about the conditions, the depth, or my diving partners; I was more worried about betraying myself by letting anxiety and panic affect the experience.

The boat heads out from Cửa Đại dock, crossing a shallow sandbar and heading over to the Chàm Islands. It was a bright, warm day.

I would recommend Blue Coral, even if it wasn’t for my connection: the boat is clean and well-stocked, the gear is impeccably prepared, and there is complimentary coffee, tea and watermelon – as well as reasonably priced beer and soft drinks. The staff is knowledgeable, relaxed, and patient, and obviously more than part fish.

You can sun yourself on the top deck or hang out in the shade below on the way to the first dive site.

Stepping off the deep end

The Chàm Islands consists of eight small islands, part of the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Our first dive site was Hòn Dài West. I suited up, grit my teeth, prepared for the worst…and it went just fine. See the initial splash below.

A leap into the big blue, Cham Islands, Vietnam

Sometimes the build-up is far worse than the actual event, as anyone who struggles with anxiety will tell you.

I even got a prescription mask, so that I could see the delightful creatures below instead of blurry half-fish.

Sea cucumbers, anemone fish (clown fish, as they are more commonly known), zebra lionfish, scorpionfish, moon wrasse, crabs (both hermit and homeless), yellow tail fusiliers, parrotfish, nudibranchs, and a wealth of coral greeted us below.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an underwater camera, so the photos below are courtesy of the staff of Blue Coral (that is blurry us, bottom right).

After a second dive at Hòn Dài North, we headed to the main island of Hòn Lao, the only inhabited land mass in the isles.

After a delicious lunch of ribs, omelet, pork rice, and a couple of Bia Larue (one of the main beers here, owned by Heineken), we had an hour to chill in the shady palms.

Cham Islands, Vietnam

Cham Islands, VietnamDSC_0035

Karen = 1, anxiety = 0.

A beautiful day, capped off by a sun-warmed siesta – makes it very hard for me to be sympathetic when he says he’s had a tough day at work.

Until the next time, Blue Coral.

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Vietnam’s glorious street food – don’t listen to your mammy

April 23, 2017

Vietnam is well-known for its vibrant, unique street food, and tastes and delicacies vary from north to south.

It’s not just a cuisine, it’s a way of life. Tiny stalls, filled with wonderful aromas, crowd sidewalks; women in traditional rice paper hats carry their restaurants on the back of motorbikes, stools included; mobile chè (a sweet, soup-like dessert), bánh mì (sub-style sandwiches), nước mía (sugarcane juice), and bánh bao (steamed filled buns) stands can be found everywhere.

Banh mi stand in Hoi An, Vietnam

Street food is also an intensely social experience – these places with their low tables and even lower stools are an important part of Vietnamese life, and whether it’s food, tea, or beer, street food stalls are places of chat and sharing.

So when you see an ancient Vietnamese woman ladling out something steaming and delicious, make sure to stop and try it.

When and where to go

A good rule of thumb is to go to the busiest street food place (frequented by locals, if possible – Vietnamese people always know the best places) at the right time. A busy place will guarantee a constant turnover and thusly, the freshest food.

Remember that certain places only serve breakfast, such as cơm tấm and the sticky rice dish xôi, between roughly 7 to 9 AM. Lunch time is generally between 11 and 12 PM, and restaurants outside of tourist hotspots will often close around 8 or 9 PM.

Woman serving street food, Hoi An, VietnamWhile some caution should be taken towards avoiding local tap water and perhaps eating raw or very rare meat, street food is an essential experience in Vietnam.

Don’t listen to your mammy, who begged you not to try any iced drinks and eat only heavily cooked or fried foods, or indeed only in Western places. You will miss out on a panoply of hidden riches, and I don’t use that two dollar word lightly.

To be honest, I’ve only ever gotten sick from eating at Western-style restaurants, mostly due to the fact that they have fewer customers and aren’t using as fresh of ingredients as many Vietnamese restaurants or street food places.

Street vendors, especially in touristy places, generally use store-bought ice, wash dishes and utensils thoroughly, and buy fresh ingredients every day.

Here are four of my favourites that I hope you will try and enjoy.

Quick, take a photo!

I have to admit, I am often a poor food blogger, because I usually dig in before remembering I should take a photo, and food pictures of a few shreds of rice are generally not appealing. So, I’ve done my best to snap first and eat second.

I failed at the delicious xôi stand I found the other day, ran by some very genial ladies. When I walked up, they were sitting and laughing, decked out in rice paper hats and staying out of the sun under a tin roof attached to a side of a building, presumably one of their residences.

I was an unfamiliar sight, I think. After a tentative, “Soy?” and a gesture at the sign, one of them served me up a generous plate of sticky rice, sweet pork, Vietnamese sausage, pork floss, and roasted garlic (only 10,000 dong, or $0.50 US). Although it was missing the mung bean paste I was used to in Hanoi, it was very tasty.

Xoi ga, sticky rice dish, Vietnam
Photo credit to: Kossy@FINEDAYS on Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

After a few bites, I declared, “Zut non!” (rất ngon, or very delicious) and they cackled good-naturedly at my pronunciation.

Another lady put out her hand, about yay-high, and pointed at me (children?). I shook my head.

Next she stuck out five fingers (how old?), and I answered, in the best Vietnamese I could muster. We shared some tea, used more gestures as conversation, and they tried unsuccessfully to teach me a little more Vietnamese.

They were even gracious when I realised I had foolishly forgotten my wallet in my hotel, just down the road. I offered my helmet as collateral, but they shook their heads. Upon my hasty return, they asked if I would come another day (I think), and I nodded. I’m always glad to entertain, especially such lovely ladies as these. I will bring my fiancé next time – his long Thor locks and red beard are sure to please.

The humble bánh mì

Many more illustrious chefs and writers than I have praised this delicious, low cost staple (15,000 – 20,000 dong). The light, fluffy baguette comes with a variety of fillings, but the usual bánh mì in the South will consist of pâté, shredded carrot, green papaya, coriander, and mint. Some other additions might be spring onion, peppercorns, and roasted onion or garlic.

Banh mi sandwich, Hoi An, Vietnam

My favourite filling is always barbecued pork, though egg, chicken, and a variety of other ingredients are available. So get it in you!

All praise thịt nướng (grilled meat)

Hội An has several local delicacies that will generally be on every menu: some popular favourites include mì quảng, a regional delicacy made of thick noodles served in a few teaspoons of broth with shrimp, quail’s eggs, herbs, vegetables, and sometimes peanuts, and its sister dish found only in Hội An, cao lầu (made with slightly thinner noodles in a broth, topped with greens, sliced pork, fried pork rind, and other goodies).

While these dishes are undoubtedly delicious, satay-style pork thịt nướng is king.

Sometimes served with thin vermicelli (bún) noodles in a fish sauce broth, eaten with banana flour and herbs such as mint and coriander, it is also served as a skewer-cum-spring-roll, with rice paper, greens, and a spicy peanut sauce.

Thit nuong, Hoi An, Vietnam

Usually priced at 30,000 – 35,000 dong ($1.50-$1.75 USD), it is a delicious, cheap treat. I found mine on Nguyễn Huệ street, near the market.

Point and Rice

For lunch, I often have cơm bình dân, or “popular rice”, which we often referred to (rather inelegantly) as a “point and rice” in Hanoi. You get to choose (by pointing, if your Vietnamese isn’t great) from a buffet-style selection of different foods, accompanied by a heaping plate of rice. Options include many kinds of meat, vegetables, and pretty much everything else, including silkworms at certain places.

At this particular spot on Trần Quang Khải street, for a mere 20,000 dong ($1 US), you got a three-egg omelet, steamed vegetables, boiled pork, and a bowl of soup with leafy greens, accompanied by bits of pork.

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While I wouldn’t recommend the boiled pork, a new favourite was a sauce made from tiny fish, pineapple, and chilies, an excellent combination of flavours. Finished off with a complimentary glass of  trà đá (with a lovely hint of jasmine), it was a successful lunch.

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Vietnamese siesta

A side note, for those wondering why some businesses will close over lunch. You may perhaps have seen a proprietor sleeping behind the counter on a cot, only to jump up upon hearing you enter.

Vietnamese people throughout the country commonly take a nap after lunch.

The practice is most likely the result of living in a hot country where it is often unbearable to leave the house between 12 to 3 PM (especially for this Canadian snowflake).

When I taught at public schools in Hanoi between 2012 – 2014, classes generally ran from 8 or 9 AM to 11 AM, followed by a break until 1 or 2 PM, depending on the school.

After lunch, primary and secondary students would retrieve their personal pillow and blanket from a cubby hole, fold down their desks into makeshift beds, and nap for about an hour.

I tried it once; the Vietnamese believe a hard bed is good for health, but my dainty back, bowed by memory foam mattresses and other far saggier Western beds, heartily complained.

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Road trip to Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, or what to do if you don’t have a fan

April 19, 2017

So, one of the best things about riding a motorbike is that, instead of sitting stationary in a pool of your own sweat, you get the cool breeze whipping through your hair and over the rest of your body. The fact that you multiply your chances of death exponentially, well, it’s worth it.

This was our thought yesterday, at any rate, when we decided to take a quick run to the Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located approximately 38 km (a one-hour ride) southwest of Hội An, the road is fairly picturesque, except for a short sojourn onto my old nemesis, the QL1A.

Closer to the temple, you pass by fields of rice slowly turning yellow; imposing water buffalo and sloe-eyed cattle; bamboo stands with people selling watermelon or other refreshing fruits; and the inevitable cavalcade of tour buses.

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The Mỹ Sơn temple complex is a collection of temples dating from the 4th to 13th centuries, built by the Cham people, whose spiritual roots lay in Hinduism. According to the UNESCO website, the series of tower temples were the “religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence”. The Cham people, who dominated the coast of central and southern Vietnam from the 2nd to 19th century, built temples to honour such Hindu deities as Shiva and Krishna.

Cham Temple at My Son, UNESCO site, Vietnam

Entrance is 150,000 dong ($7.5 US), and parking is 10,000 dong ($0.50 US), for those intrepid souls who wish to drive a motorbike.

Intricately carved, imposing temples, embedded with moss and flowers, dominate the landscape.

Artifacts are dotted around the site, and temples surround bomb craters, from ordnance launched during the Vietnam War. Many statues are missing their heads, chiselled off and taken by the French during their occupation of the country. There are also many representations of the phallic linga and feminine yoni, representing Shiva and the divine creative feminine force, Shakti, that powers the cosmos.

There are also some large bomb shells crowded next to Sanskrit-inscribed tablets and statues, housed in one of the temples.

Artifact at My Son Temple, Vietnam

Whilst we were there, there was a troupe of “traditional” Cham dancers and drummers, who put on a vibrant display for the gathered tour groups.

Flamboyantly coloured, the women twirled and swayed around the central figure, a woman dressed in red with a candle headdress perched atop her head. They opened, shut and flourished frilly fans.

Traditional Cham dancers at My Son Temple, Vietnam

A man garbed in yellow, with a white headband, played a flute, seemingly directing the dance, almost like a snake charmer. The other men pounded the long, cylindrical drums in time.

Traditional Cham dancers at My Son temple, Vietnam

Now, at this point it was about 3 PM. We arrived during the hottest part of the day, and I was quickly wilting. Luckily, the whole tour only took about two hours, and there was a welcome drink and ice cream stand waiting at the end.

Also, this man, who is a seriously cool monk, was there.

Visitor to My Son Sanctuary

Stay cool, man.

“Rules of the road” – don’t make me laugh bitterly, into my own scorn

On the way back, we navigated roads now clogged by rush hour. Kamikaze school kids, slowly cycling grandmothers, and bikes loaded down with banana leaves, wood, or some other items were just some of the fun obstacles we encountered.

I have started compiling a list of “rules of the road” in Vietnam:

  1. The field of vision is roughly V-shaped: the head never swivels past the mirrors, so drive defensively.
  2. Lights are only a suggestion.
  3. “Right side of the street” is an illusion. Expect bikes coming at you in your lane around a corner.
  4. The honk can be used as a courtesy when passing, or when about to collide with a bike carrying a rake of chickens.
  5. Beware the “conversation league”, which often consists of hapless school kids riding four deep, laughing and unaware they are about to be mowed down by several aggressive drivers.
  6. The biggest vehicles always win, so expect trucks to motor into the intersection when it isn’t their turn and you are running full tilt towards them.
  7. Expect to constantly forget about your kickstand, and drag it along the pavement until several Vietnamese men yell and gesture at you, and you sheepishly stop and fold it up (perhaps this rule only applies to me).

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Motoculture

I’m always intrigued with the importance of the motor bike in Vietnamese culture. For many citizens, who will never be able to buy a car because of the massive import tax placed upon such items, among other reasons, the motorbike is the only form of motorised transport they will ever have.

It is the school bus, grocery truck, livestock transport, coat hanger, ladder wielder, fish tank mover, among many other functions. The most people I’ve ever seen on a motorbike is six, from the parents to the youngest child, standing like a ship’s captain on the floor board between their dad’s knees.

In a strange way, I feel if cars became the norm here, something in the culture would be lost; things would become more sterilised, more “normal”, more…boring.

So here’s to constant near misses and raised heart beats: be ever vigilant, and enjoy the road.

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The great sand caper of 2017

April 16, 2017

Today started off with a quick trip back to my new friend, the cơm tấm lady,  and then a stop-in at nearby Mia Coffee at 20 Phan Bội Châu street. Populated by primarily Western customers, with Vietnamese coffee twice the price of a street-side café, it was still a nice place to sit and chill in shady comfort, as well as get some writing done.

It also offered more traditional Western-style coffees, such as lattes and americanos, priced between 25,000 to 45,000 dong ($1.25 to $2. 25 US, approximately), as well as paninis and baked goods. I recommend a slice of the banana oatmeal loaf for 25,000 dong.

Blog revamped and photos uploaded, it was time to go back to the homestay for the requisite few hours to escape the heat of the day. But I stayed focused, and did some research on tips to get my first short story started.

After the siesta, I headed out to Cửa Đại beach, around 2 PM. After successfully haggling a bánh mì down to a more reasonable foreigner price (20,000 dong, or $1US) at a stall on the beach, I wandered over to the hanging palms to marvel at the blue.

You can see the Chàm Islands on the horizon, the site of all of my fiancé’s scuba diving shenanigans (he saw a turtle! And nudi(branch)s).

View of the ocean from Cua Dai beach, Vietnam

The beach is currently shored up by a series of large, bloated sandbags. The town has had some difficulty retaining the sand due to coastal erosion, and started a project to dredge up 70,000 cubic metres of the granules at some expense.

Vietnamnews.vn reported that the project, which began in January in the Cửa Đại estuary, was meant “to facilitate passage of boats and re-san[d] the badly eroded Cửa Đại Beach”.

Twenty hectares of the beach disappeared between 2009 and 2014.

Sandbags line Cua Dai beach in Hanoi, Vietnam

“Missing” sand

Interestingly enough, only 16,500 cubic metres had been fed to the beach between January and March 25, and an investigation will soon be underway to ascertain what happened to the remaining 50,000 plus cubic metres.

Public Security and Transport departments of the region are currently working with Hội An City and involved agencies to look into reports of “illegal sand mining and transport” from the Cửa Đại Beach, the publication said. It quoted an anonymous source, who said that the sand had been taken to the Đa Phước International Urban project in Đà Nẵng.

Both projects have now been put on hold.

Coastal erosion

The current state of the beach isn’t the most attractive, but considering that coastal erosion is a recurring global problem that will only get worse as climate change ramps up, perhaps it is an easy and inexpensive stop-gap solution to the problem.

I saw workers sewing the edges of the jute, worm-like monstrosities, one tube only half-filled as it sat beside a motionless backhoe.

Sand dredging project seen on Cua Dai beach, Vietnam

Nevertheless, Cửa Đại Beach is a nice place to pass the afternoon. Even with the large waves whipped up by the wind, the water was temperate and easy to splash about in, the waves being more playful than dangerous. I gave out more than one childish “whoop!” as I danced about in the shallow water.

Of course, the beach is lined with cafes and restaurants catering to the sun-kissed (read burnt) tourists, both local and international. Some determined older ladies, covered up from the sun and sporting some traditional bamboo hats, will stubbornly sell their wares of fruit or keychains, no matter the amount of polite “no, thank-yous”. One lady in particular has a very charming sing-song voice, which I found hard to resist. Only my extreme lack of need for cigarettes or novelty keychains stopped me.

Near the end of the afternoon, I treated myself to a can of local  333 beer (which is, similar to Saigon and Tiger, light and mostly flavourless, meant to be drank in the sun) for 20,000 dong ($1 US). You may have seen it previously in its incarnation as 33 beer, in such Vietnam war time films as Good Morning Vietnam and Full Metal Jacket. I’m not sure where the extra came in, but I will find out, dear reader.

I also had a green papaya salad for 40,000 dong ($2 US). It was fresh and colourful, but I missed the chili sizzle that usually accompanies this dish in Thailand.

Next time, I’m off to An Bang beach, and will report back about its charms (and sand quality).

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Highway to…getting killed by an inconsiderate oncoming truck

April 14, 2017

Today I ventured out to a job interview, for an English teaching centre approximately 28 km south of Hội An.

The journey started off well. Rice fields, a few water buffalo, a lovely track through the countryside. I felt pretty smug (see photo below) and had shaken off the anxiety of previous days.

Motorbike, countryside, Vietnam

That was before I traversed up the tiny dirt track which served as an on-ramp for the QL1A.

HRRRRROOOONNNNK! A semi obnoxiously honked as he passed me with a few inches to spare, nearly sending me into cardiac arrest. A mini-bus came at me as it passed another truck in the oncoming lane of the two-lane road.

That was the end of my time in an actual lane. I took the cue from other motorists to stay on the wide shoulder, as close to the railing as possible, while praying fervently to any god who was listening.

I will admit, I did consider turning back and rocking in a fetal position in some safe place. But I tightened my knuckles on the handlebars and vowed to make it to my intended destination.

More than one hour after I had left, I arrived at the language centre. Clean and well-equipped, with friendly and knowledgeable staff, it seemed like a good place.

They very kindly offered me lunch, which consisted of fish paired with jackfruit, some sort of spinach and shrimp soup, fresh vegetables and salad. The owner’s eighteen-month-old son, who regarded me suspiciously at first, was a healthy eater who loved fruit and would stubbornly finish every bite, cheeks bulged out as he assailed a particularly large piece of mango. The family would clap with every bite he finished, which might be the reason why he eats, rather than throws, his food (unlike many other children his age I know). If french fries didn’t exist, my nieces and nephews would never eat.

I very reluctantly headed back out on the highway, the centre’s owner leading me back to the road and wishing me a cheery farewell and delivering an admonition to be careful. Despite getting lost (apparently tiny dirt on-ramps are hard to find when you are scared to look off the road), it was a nice tour through the countryside and a successful trip, all in all.

Mountain view, Hoi An, Vietnam

Note: I lost the Netflix battle again today, finishing the first season of Penny Dreadful. Seriously considering deleting my account…(not really. I love you, my streaming pal). On to another day.

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A day of self-reflection, or, the battle to avoid Netflix

April 12, 2017

One of the things I always struggle with, as a writer and a person, is motivation. I need a Monday-Friday, 9 to 5 job to make me feel productive. I’m hoping to conquer that here, and start a collection of short stories and poetry. This blog is one way to keep my writing skills fresh, while cataloguing my experiences.

That being said, being on my own from 7 to 5 here, plus the intense humidity and heat, has made it difficult to not slink back to the homestay and engage with its extremely good Wifi by binge-watching Penny Dreadful on Netflix.

I started the day off well; I found a new breakfast favourite at a street food stall down the road: cơm tấm, meaning “broken rice” (or so Google tells me). It consists of rice, lovely pieces of barbecued pork, herbs, lettuce, and cucumbers. I also made a new cat friend, which made the old cat lady in me very happy.

Orange cat, Hoi An, Vietnam

I wrote in my journal, jotted down some terrible poetry, musing on the sublimity of cà phê sữa Đá. I was achieving my objective. I mentally patted myself on the back.

BUT THEN…

The heat, oh the heat. It was obviously time to return to the safe haven of A/C and cold showers. It would only be for a few hours, I told myself. Just the hottest part of the day. Then I would venture out, camera in hand, writing cap on, ready for another coffee and some good words (hopefully).

Half a season later, my fiance walked in, and I guiltily jumped up and tried not to look too cool and comfortable. But, knowing me as he does, with the evidence glaringly on the screen, he shook his head and went for a shower.

Alas! “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”…said some great procrastinator. And look what he accomplished.

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First days

April 11, 2017

My fiancé started his new job yesterday, leaving early to get to the Chàm Islands, about 45 minutes off the coast. Since Hội An is on a delta, diving off the shore is too silty and too low viz for good diving. I have yet to make it to the islands, but they are apparently idyllic.

We are now living at a homestay that is just outside of the old town. The landlady is friendly, and I wish my Vietnamese was better so we could have a chat. Sadly, “xin chào” (hello) and “cám ơn” will have to suffice for now.

Honda Super Cub motorcycles on the street, Hoi An, Vietnam

She lives there with her mother, father, daughter, and grandson. She offers every service – from tailored shoes to laundry, to a plate of steaming mì xào bò (noodles and veg with beef).  Any outside purchases are met with a quick cry and her ushering me to her offering of the exact same item (generally 5000 dong more (0.25 US), but that’s the price you pay for convenience (heavy sarcasm).

We have been looking at a few places, and have now settled on one outside of town that seems clean, quiet, and most importantly, has A/C in its two bedrooms. It will be available in May, so for now we will make our home in our one-room residence on the second floor, with a north-facing balcony and opportunities for a good breeze.

I put fish sauce on everything

That night, we went for some well-priced, juicy burgers at a place called, aptly, Hoi An Burgers Plus on 22 Phan Bội Châu street. The onion rings ($1 US) were light, crispy, and marvellous. The restaurant offered a burger, beer, and fries deal for 120,000 dong (roughly $6 US), which was very reasonable, especially compared to the astronomical prices for good burgers in Hanoi. The fries could have used more salt, but I put fish sauce on everything, so my opinions on salt content are probably invalid.

Lunar-tics

Around 7:30 pm we began to see signs of the full-moon celebrations, roughly mid-month in the lunar calendar.  I had stupidly forgotten my phone, so I have no pictures of the events, but it was an interesting eve. One of those “live in the moment” moments (where you then curse the fact you have no pictures for Instagram).

I had noticed that tables had been set with offerings throughout the town during the day – loaded with chrysanthemums, lychees, bowls of sweet rice soup or cháo (rice porridge) perhaps, incense trailing smoke, and sweets. Vietnamese residents placed incense in small holders in doorways and in the roots and branches of thick, ropy trees. They prayed, putting their hands together and gesturing from the offering to the sky.

Table of offerings, Hoi An, Vietnam

Some burnt fake money, US dollars or dong, in small metal cylinders, poking at the flaming embers with long bits of rebar as bits of paper smoked into the air.

We saw preparations for a dragon dance, for want of a better term, with a battalion of young boys dressed in orange and yellow frilled pants and shirts, their colourful and fierce dragon heads at the ready.

The old town seemed more packed than usual, and more than one atonal vocal performance was held. There were also renditions of the “clay pot” game, where blindfolded chancers paid to take swings at small clay pots suspended in the air, for the chance to win a prize.

There was also a martial arts competition, a monthly event which featured several different academies with students aged between five and perhaps 15. The undisputed star of the show was a small boy of no more than six, garbed in maroon and gold, whose pot belly stuck out just more than his stubborn bottom lip.

Serious-faced throughout the whole performance, he stood on the sidelines with his hands behind his back, studiously watching his fellow students. I felt he was a harsher critic than their teacher.

By this point, it was 8 pm, and while jet lag makes you productive in the early morning, it also makes it hard to last past 9 pm. We went back to the homestay and slept soundly.

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Arrival in Hội An, Vietnam

April 8-9, 2017

My Irish fiancé and I had decided to move to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hội An, Vietnam, for the summer. It would be our third time in the lovely, lantern-filled tourist mecca, but this time we had come to work, he as a scuba dive instructor and I, hopefully, as a writer and editor.

Thirty-four hours later…

We arrived in Hội An after a 34-hour journey from Calgary via Vancouver, Shanghai, and Ho Chi Minh City. With only a brief three-hour bench nap in Shanghai airport, I was certain my fiancé and I would be more crabby, but over all it turned out well (with little screaming and no bloodshed).

Vietnamese customs were as unorthodox as usual; when we realised we had foolishly forgotten to bring cash for the 50 USD visa fee on arrival, one olive-clad, red-starred official ‘escorted’ me to an unlocked gate, gallantly opened it, and left me to run around the airport in search of an ATM.

I also successfully manoeuvred a forgotten water bottle and juice container through the security check, which kept me hydrated but made me fearful for any assessment of Vietnamese security at HCM airport.

Sweat like you mean it

Upon our arrival at the Little Hội An Boutique Hotel on An Hoi island (after our cab driver dropped us off across the plaza and we had to hoof our bags a mere 100 metres over), the staff seemed alarmed by our red Irish – Canadian faces and the impressive amount of sweat streaming off us. A half-block seemed like an eternity in 35 degrees.

After initially being unable to find our booking, causing us to despair into our sugary watermelon welcome drinks, the hotel staff graciously let us into our room early at 9AM (again, probably because they feared we would collapse), and I had what is, to date, the best shower in my life.

On the road again

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We headed out for lunch and were pleasantly surprised to find that there were plenty of restaurants in Hội An that were well-priced, from $2-5 US. Street food is still the winner, being the cheapest and most delicious, with local favourites such as delightfully simple yet delicious bánh mì sandwiches, with lemongrass-flavoured pork, herbs, and vegetables, priced at only $1 US or less. The return to $1 US beer was also welcome.

The next task was to procure a motorbike. I had driven the streets of Hanoi when I taught there in 2013/2014, and considered myself a fairly grizzled road maven, but upon further, more mature reflection, realised I was terrified. I’d lost my nerve.

Every bike that scooted out of a blind alley, or Super Cub that passed too close, had my eyes closing (from the back of my fiancé’s bike, for concerned readers or fellow Hội An residents who may fear me on the roads).

My own test by moto fire would come later.

Lantern lights

That evening, we walked along the river, in a riot of lights, colour, and Hội An’s version of bingo (which seems to include a tragicomic operatic recital and wooden paddles instead of bingo cards). One of the hosts pulls wooden sticks with characters on them, and then another helper hands out yellow flags to those with the correct images (I think).

Other highlights included some Vietnamese break dancing, and the parade of restaurant touts offering “buy one, get two free” cocktails. The Mr. Bean Bar and Moe’s Tavern, named after the local watering hole from long-in-the-tooth animated staple The Simpsons, are some of the gimmicks used to get tourists in.

The old town is lovely, with lanterns strung in the trees and floating down the river. Women with crinkled faces, who could be 80 or 1,000 years old, hawk their colourful paper wares – enchanting when they glow with candle light as they float down the river, but turning into dingy, sodden remains in the harsh light of day, amassed at the edges of the river with the other rubbish.

Still, it is quite magical with a moon high in the sky in the warm breeze.

Goose(?) rides again

I drove us home on the motorbike after dinner. Getting back on the proverbial horse was a bit terrifying, and I felt like Goose (or whoever it was on Top Gun that lost his nerve – correct me, you know you want to) at the prospect. I started slow but steady, and while I jumped whenever someone honked at first, and obsessively checked my mirrors, I think I can get back into the swing of it.

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Copyright Karen Henderson 2017

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