Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Buddhas: Part 2

We arrived in Vietnam utterly exhausted after having little to no sleep at the airport in Bangkok. But as another best friend always told me “you can sleep when you’re dead”(shout out to Katie!) so we decided to push on. After getting our visa on arrival and passing through immigration we decided to go to the tourist information desk and see what they had for us. We knew we wanted to take a trip to Sapa, to see the Hmong villages, and go to Halong Bay, as well as see what Hanoi has to offer, and we only had six days to do it all in! Before the trip we had looked online to see what packages to these places usually cost and what we wanted to do while there. The woman at the tourist desk was very helpful and we ended up booking two tours, starting that night with a night train to Sapa.

As we were finishing up booking our travel plans, a German girl approached us saying she was headed to the Old Quarter and, if we were too, would we like to share a taxi. Knowing how expensive taxis can be from the airport to town we happily agreed. So Kelly and I along with our new German friend and a Chinese girl shared a taxi into the city of Hanoi. As it turned out the German girl was a volunteer living just outside of Hanoi teaching English. She was able to give us some useful tips and even showed us around town, pointing out some things to do and where the best bargain shopping was to be found. (I love how you always meet friendly fellow foreigners while traveling!)

Since we weren’t spending the night in Hanoi, we dropped our bags off at the tour company and decided to sight see before our night train ride. We grabbed a bite to eat at a local place our German friend recommended since we said we wanted to try pho – the famous noodle dish of Vietnam. It was a local restaurant that served only difference varieties of pho. As I walked into the restaurant a man sitting outside on the ground started touching my shoes and saying something to me in Vietnamese. I was confused then but later learned he wanted to clean my shoes. Everywhere we went people wanted to clean my shoes. My first thought was “are my shoes really that dirty?” but then after talking to other foreigners I discovered that it is just a typical street profession. One Australian girl we met later said a guy took her shoe off mid-step and started cleaning it. another time, while walking around Hanoi Kelly and I saw a man standing on the corner waiting while a young local cleaned his shoes. I looked at him and smiled and he said “eventually I had to give in”… some could be quite persistent.

But at the time of my first shoe cleaning offer I just stepped past the young man in confusion and sat down for my first pho meal. Kelly and I ordered vegetarian pho and a Bia Hanoi Beer. Let me just say, it sounds so simply and probably it is but pho is also very delicious! It was served hot alongside some fried dough for dipping. And yummy! It made both of us into pho lovers!

Our first meal in Vietnam!

The moment we both became pho lovers!

After lunch we decided to check out the bargain shopping. It was a bit colder in Vietnam than either one of us expected and we knew it would be much colder in mountains of Sapa where we were headed that night. So Kelly bought some gloves, I bought some socks and we both bought matching hats. (Another good thing about traveling abroad – you can dress ridiculously and it doesn’t really matter.)

Shopping alley in Hanoi
Next we decided to check out the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. As the name suggest it was once a prison used by French colonists to hold political prisoners. The museum was organized nice, and even had English translations under the Vietnamese descriptions (although usually these translations were fraught with grammar mistakes). It was interesting to see the Vietnamese point of view of both the French and American wars with Vietnam. Vietnam is a Communist nation so seeing history of the war from a country where Communism won is a different side than what our American text books taught us.

After the prison we went for a coffee break. Vietnam is said to have great coffee and Kelly and I both agree. Although I am coming from being in a country for over a year where “coffee” means “3-in-1” packs which has coffee listed as the last ingredient….

It finally came time for our night train to Sapa. The tour shuttle picked us up and took us the three blocks (that we easily could have walked) to the train station. It seemed a little chaotic with all of the other travelers around and at one point as we were walking past cargo trains I whispered to Kelly something about hoping they weren’t taking us somewhere to harvest our organs, but we finally boarded the train. (On a side note I really regretted making that comment to Kelly the next day when she told me she had nightmares on the train about waking up in a prison cell…. Sorry Kel.)

All aboard!

Our sleeper cabin for the night's journey.

Sapa was COLD. Ok maybe not cold cold but to two girls from the south, and me living the past year in the Philippines, it felt COLD. In Sapa we went on a 8 km hike to the Hmong villages. The Hmong people are one of a few minorities that have lasted through the centuries and kept their culture and heritage, partly due to their living isolated in the mountains. Accompanying us on our walk were some Hmong women and girls. They enjoyed practicing their English with us and we enjoyed asking them questions about their daily lives. When we arrived to the Hmong village we ate lunch and enjoyed the scenery. Although it was a foggy and rainy day, it was still beautiful to see the rice terraces all around. (The terraces are similar to the ones I saw in the mountains of Northern Luzon in the Philippines, which made me curious if these two different cultures invented the type of irrigation system separately or from some common ancestor).

Our hiking companions, some Hmong women and girls.

The rice terraces of Sapa, Vietnam.

After our lunch we hiked back to the hotel where the only heat to be found came from our electric blanket, brrr! The next day we traveled via shuttle to the Hmong market, where I went picture crazy!

Hmong women at the Bak Ha Market

Kel checking out some souvenirs made by the Hmong people, very colorful!

Love the hat!

Can't leave baby behind on market day!

Elaborate jewelry worn by some of the Hmong women

After the market and dropping by to see the China border (not China Buddha as we thought our Vietnamese guide was saying in heavily accented English), we made our way back to the train station for another night trip.


Having a local beer while waiting for our night train back to Hanoi (not a very good  beer, we switched back to Tiger Beer after this one).

The French style architecture around Vietnam

We arrived back in Hanoi around 4 or 5am. After some difficulty in finding a hotel to stay in we completely passed out for our first good sleep in days. After some well needed rest we went to buy tickets for the Water Puppet Theatre. We heard several travelers say it was a must-do while in Vietnam. Water Puppet shows date back to the 11th century where it was used as a way to appease the spirits. The show we went to in Hanoi showed different aspects of Vietnamese life and tradition, but the best thing about the show is the live music! Musicians dressed in cultural wear play traditional Vietnamese instruments, making beautiful music to go along with the puppet show. It is definitely a must see if you are ever in Hanoi! I will add another travel tip while I’m at it; Vietnamese are not the best to haggle with. They expect to get more money from foreigners and no matter what, you will NEVER get the local price. Although Kelly and I both generally prefer to stay away from package tours and travel independently, while in Vietnam I highly recommend it. Otherwise you will end up haggling for every price and still walk away feeling cheated.

Water puppets!

The next morning it was off to Halong Bay. The bay is famous for the thousands of limestone islets that are found there. And of course the best way to see the bay is to spend a night on a ship traveling through it. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and it remained foggy but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the beauty of the bay and kayaking around it. We also went into one of the largest caves I have ever seen!
We only spend one night in Halong Bay before returning to Hanoi and then heading back to Bangkok for our flight to Manila. Our flight to Manila was at midnight (that’s what we get for booking the cheap flights…) so we spent the day in Bangkok, catching up with Ann before we had to leave.

Our over-night vessel around Halong Bay

These vendors followed us around trying to sell us snacks and beer. They even  came knocking at our cabin windows!!

Inside a limestone cave in one of the many islets of Halong Bay

Kayaking fun around Halong Bay!

Thailand and Vietnam are amazing countries rich in religion, culture and history. It was amazing to see how the two cities of Hanoi and Bangkok have managed to progress into modern cities while still holding on to their culture and preserve their past. Kelly and I were only able to get a small glimpse of what these cultures have to offer but I hope to go back and see more in the future.

Also a note on the "two Buddhas" that I mention in my heading. Both Thailand and Vietnam boast Buddahism as a main religion but looking around the Buddhas both look very differently. The Thai Buddha is tall and regal looking, coming from the Indian influence; whereas the Vietnamese Buddha is fat and happy, coming from the Chinese influence. Both countries have had so much outside influence but have managed to maintain their own identity. Thanks be to Buddha!

Since this post is already longer than l like, I will recap Kelly’s time in the Philippines with a few pictures rather than a bunch more words. After all pictures do say more…..

Watching the parade at Iloilo City's Dinagyang Festival

cramming in a jeepney with some fellow PCVs and visiting friends

getting time in at the beautiful beaches of Guimaras

watching a parade for my town's Foundation Day Festival

hiking to Bula-an Bukid, the highest point of Guimaras

another hike to a local waterfall

and finally, a must-do while in the Philippines, a little karaoke -ing
Until next time..... Halong!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Buddhas: Part 1

Well January has really flown by, with Kelly’s visit and with it being festival season once again for Panay and Guimaras Islands. But I finally feel the slow island pace of things again and have time to recount my travels abroad. I have been looking forward to Kelly’s visit since I first found out I was going to the Philippines and she told me she was coming to visit me. I had no doubt in my mind that she would because that is precisely the kind of friend she is (shout out to you, Kel!).  Let me first say that planning a trip together when we are literally a world and 12 hours apart is no easy task. But with the help of google chat, email and skype we were able to make it happen!

Finally the morning came when I arrived in Bangkok. Kelly’s flight wasn’t due in till the late evening time so I decided to head to the Peace Corps office there (fortunately Thailand is a PC country and the main office is in Bangkok). I was hoping to run into some volunteers with helpful tips on where to go in the city and how best to navigate around. Bangkok happens to be the medical hub for all Asia and Eastern Europe volunteers so there are usually people around. Sure enough when I got to the volunteer lounge there were a couple of volunteers. One volunteer in particular had been in Bangkok for almost a month and was nice enough to not only give me some maps and tourist brochures of the city, but she also told me the best things to see and showed me how to navigate the sky train system.

Made it to the PC office in Thailand

I was very impressed with the metro in Bangkok; it had several tracks running through the city, cheap fares (around $1 to get to your destination) and had a link straight to the airport. So when it was time for Kelly’s flight to arrive I saved lots of money by taking the train back to the airport instead of another expensive taxi.
It just so happens that one of Kelly’s friends in the States used to work in Thailand and had put us in contact with a friend of his. So I knew when I got to the airport that I should look for a small Thai woman by the name of Ann. Sure enough I saw a woman holding a sign with mine and Kelly’s names on it. I introduced myself and we got to know each other while waiting for Kelly.  After waiting what seemed like hours (in actuality probably only 30 min) Kelly finally game out of the terminal! It was almost surreal to see one of my best friends from the States here in Asia with me!

Reunited at last!

Ann was very adamant that we stay with her instead of paying for a hotel and she didn’t get much argument from us! She was so hospitable, giving up her bed for us to sleep in while she slept on the couch. She even arranged for one of her best friends to take us sightseeing the next day since she had to work. So the next day Ann introduced us to Ning and we headed to the Grand Palace. Using the sky train and river taxi, we headed out for our day of sightseeing in Bangkok.

riding the river taxi

The Grand Palace was built in 1782 by King Rama I and its large compound includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Inside the temple is enshrined the Emerald Buddha, where religious ceremonies are performed. It is a very sacred place and tourists are expected to show respect. You must take your shoes off before entering and no cameras or videos are allowed. Ning explained to us to enter one side and exit the other, walking around the front of the temple to get our shoes instead of just returning the way we came.
The Grand Palace and Temple are beautiful, with large paintings and statues everywhere, covered in gold. The paintings on the walls tell the story of Buddha. There are lots of temples and Buddhas to see around but my favorite was Wat Pho, the gigantic, gold plated, reclining Buddha. It is 46 meters long and 15 meters high with inlaid mother of pearl soles.

Elaborate paintings depicting the story of good vs. evil

Guarding the Grand Palace!

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (sorry no cameras allowed inside)

A monk! These guys are everywhere in Thailand but after being warned by Ning that  women are not  to be near the Buddhist monks, I made sure to keep my distance and tried to play coy when taking their picture.

The Grand Palace, where the royal family once lived


Oh Buddha, what big feet you have!

On another note, while traveling around Bangkok, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how many portraits of the Thai King we saw. The King is beloved in Thailand and his face is everywhere, in portraits, statues, and all of the paper and coin money.  According to Ning, he works very hard for the Thai people and so the people love him and honor him.

The Thai King!

There he is again on a billboard...

...and again! He is everywhere!

When we returned from our sightseeing, Kelly and I grabbed a bite at a Thai restaurant in the mall. Kelly had green curry and I had something similar to tom yam kung (prawns in coconut milk). The food was exactly what you think Thai food should be, tasty but oh so spicy. In fact I looked over at Kelly at one point and she had tears coming down her face. Once we ate as much as we could, we met up with Ann and headed back to her apartment.

The next day Ann had volunteered to drive us to the Khao Yai National Park, the first national park in Thailand. It was great to get out of the city, do some hiking and breathe some fresh air. Our first stop in the park was a waterfall. After walking down what seemed like a million steps (not looking forward to the return up) we reached the waterfall. Ann then told us a true story she said all Thai people know. Years ago a family of elephants was crossing the river at the top of the waterfall. A young elephant got stuck on the rocks and was unable to join his family. The older elephants tried to rescue the baby but one after another they slipped and fell to their death at the bottom of the waterfall. The story made headline news all over Thailand, telling about the loving elephant family that died trying to save the baby elephant. As we walked back from the waterfall we passed a small shrine with wooden elephants and incense. Ann said it was for paying respect to the fallen elephant family.

Road trip!

Shrine for the fallen elephant family.

Our looong walk down to the waterfall.

A beautiful waterfall with a sad history.

We continued through the park, stopping to go on a little hike here and there and look for wildlife. Of course Kelly and I wanted to see some elephants, but Ann said it was unlikely during the day since it was too hot. The elephants were known to come out more in the evening time, walking along the road. We did however see birds and lots of monkeys! (Also I go a little crazy for monkeys, I just love ‘em!)


More MONKEYS!!!!!

too many monkeys! and they are chasing our car!

After our day at the park Ann took us to a road side eatery where the menu was all in Thai. Ann ordered us a variety of local Thai foods, making sure to tell the waiter not to make it to spicy for her foreigner friends. We had papaya salad, mushroom salad, roasted chicken and soup. It was still a deal spicy but bearable for me and Kelly, however according to Ann the spiciness of the food was “for babies” LOL

yummy food!

We got back to Ann’s apartment and prepared to leave for the airport. Our flight to Vietnam was at 6am, which meant that in accordance with the ‘get there 3 hours early for an international flight’ rule, we had to be there by 3am. Ann being the nice hospitable person that she is offered to drive is there but we just couldn’t allow it after all she had already done for us. So we opted to take the last metro to the airport at midnight and spend the night in the Suvarnabhumi Airport of Bangkok, where we (embarrassingly) enjoyed our first beer in Thailand.

at last....

So that makes quite a long post for now. Tune in next time for our travels to Vietnam in Part 2!