Sunday, April 27, 2014


Winter break festivities did not end with my brother’s visit!  We both had flights out of India on the same night; he went back to the U.S. and I pressed on to Vietnam.

If you can’t locate Vietnam on a map, it’s the one that looks like Captain Hook’s namesake holding “hands” with Cambodia/Laos. 
That's the one!
I traveled in Hanoi, by myself, for the first few days.  It was fun to meander around the city, taking in all the new sights and smells, especially at the Sunday night market in the heart of town.  I saw intricate pop-up cards sold alongside iPhone covers, and so much cute, cheap clothing that I cursed myself for being 5X’s the size of an average Vietnamese woman.  Then, aptly, I drowned my sorrows by hailing down a passing donut-seller.  YES, in this version of heaven, women weave through the crowd selling donuts out of baskets. 

But the culture of Hanoi does extend beyond food and shopping.  Water puppetry originated near here in the 11th century.  It was difficult for me to capture good shots of the performance, but you can see someone else’s video HERE.

I also went to Halong Bay on what was truly ‘halong’ day trip (ha.ha.ha.).  Halong Bay is a picturesque cove scattered with limestone islands and surrounded by caves.  Though the weather was dreary and unseasonably cold, it was still beautiful.  I joined a random group tour and created temporary friendships with fellow travelers from Tunisia, Ecuador, Russia, and—surprise!—India.

Then I splurged on a domestic flight to Danang in order to meet up with friends in Hoi An, a quaint ancient town and tourist hub.  By chance, I arrived on the same evening as the monthly Full Moon Festival, so the ambiance was fueled by colored lanterns and wish-candles.
Full Moon Festival
After enjoying Hoi An, we decided to take a 24-hour bus ride (!!!) to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon).  Taking a bus in Vietnam is a significantly more enjoyable experience than taking a bus in India.  Before riding, you have to take off your sandals and put them in a plastic bag!  While riding, you can semi-recline your seat AND have access to a bathroom!  But after riding, you still have interesting stories to tell.  For instance, said built-in bathroom had a unique... air freshener?  The first time I went inside, I was overcome by the stench of rotting pineapple.  I soon located the surprising source of this pungent odor.

I still just don't understand.
Ho Chi Minh City was more modern than I expected, and it definitely had a different atmosphere than the capital of Hanoi.  But for all of its contemporary charm, we took in the haunting experience of the war memorial museum.  Seeing memorabilia from the past was intense enough, but even more heartbreaking was seeing and reading about how the war is currently affecting Vietnam’s innocent citizens.  Though war is not pleasant for any of the involved parties, Vietnam is still riddled with landmines and babies are still born with defects as a result of the chemical weapons used over 40 years ago.  How different to physically bear the effects of a war rather than to read about it in a textbook.

We then took a day trip to Cu Chi, home to part of the vast system of underground tunnels used by Viet Cong soldiers.  This is one of the original tunnels:

Along with seeing the tunnels themselves, a trip to Cu Chi included a general history lesson about Viet Cong battle techniques.  There were small exhibits set up to display typical war gear and supplies.  There was also a rather disturbing display of various torture devices and descriptions of how they were used.  I did not understand some of the tourists who were taking pictures in front of the torture devices.  While smiling.  What, did they think the sharpened bamboo poles brought out their eyes? 

Cambodia also had interesting, yet depressing, sites of historic turmoil.  We started in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, to see one of the “Killing Fields” where executions occurred during the 1970s.  The field was eerily peaceful.  We also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, situated within a schoolhouse cum Khmer Rouge prison.  The most memorable aspect of the museum were the walls lined with photos of prisoners, including children.  Around 2 million people—almost a quarter of the country’s population—died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.  And to think, I never knew this until I physically traveled to Cambodia. 

But Cambodia was not all death and destruction.  We also enjoyed relaxing on beautiful, postcard-perfect beaches…

…finding snakes-on-a-stick and roasted tarantulas…

oops, this falls under 'death and destruction,' too.

…and, of course, exploring the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap.  These temples—originally Hindu, then Buddhist—are no longer active.  The trees have claimed the buildings as their own.  Stepping through the crumbling architecture, I felt like a time-traveler.  Or a tomb raider, minus the act of raiding tombs.  But a badass, in any case.    

the Tomb Raider tree... guess I should see the movie now

That is, I felt like a badass up until I felt like death warmed over.  I got sick during our second day of temple-hopping and ended up taking a rickshaw back to the guesthouse to sleep it off.  The rickshaw driver was very concerned about my well-being.  At one point, he stopped the vehicle, opened a secret compartment, and handed me some kind of balm that I just stared at in my sickness and confusion.  Then he got out of the driver’s seat and manually applied it to my nostrils.  Keep in mind that I had no sinus issues or breathing problems of any sort.  But it was still endearing.

The only major temple I didn’t see, as a result, was the Bayon.  I’ve swiped an image from Google because I like that these ancient edifices seem to be in good humor, even after being stuck next to each other for hundreds of years.  Humanity could learn a lot from these stone men.

"Did she just call us stoners?"
"That's what she said."
I know, they're aging themselves.

I must go back to Thailand.  The time spent in Bangkok was far too short and the rest of the country, particularly Chiang Mai, is still calling.  I loved what I saw of Bangkok, but Ritika was… less impressed... probably because she didn’t experience the (bitter)sweet taste of white privilege in the airport.  Americans land and can immediately get on their way; Indians not only have to buy a pricey visa, but they also have to show around $800 in hard cash.  The whole process was highly confusing and time consuming, and this was the result:

And then there was one.
Places of interest in Bangkok included the Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha.  We also went to a mall called Terminal 21, where each floor was themed as a different country and escalators between the floors were ‘airport terminals.’ 

I was excited to find the terminal to my future home!

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