To Brazil

Thursday, Feb 19th, 2015

 

You know how it goes. The trip that seems so far away one day seems entirely too close, closing in on the possibility of getting what you dreamed of done before walking out the door.

Well, the blog isn’t caught up. We are theoretically stuck somewhere in Cambodia.

It will be. One day. But definitely not today or the next two weeks.

Why? Because we are getting the hell out of Seattle and back on the road and I can’t be bothered to dig through terabytes of images.

How did we decide on Brazil? We didn’t. The dice did.

James was pushing for the Middle East. While I agree with him that it’s one of the most interesting parts of the world and it’s entirely easy to surrender to that curiosity and our absolute favorite cuisine (hello falafel), I wasn’t interested in being beheaded on the beach. I was pushing for green hikes, palm fringed beaches, and anywhere with the opportunity to pretend our first adventure never paused.

With a few and too many other destinations pulling at our interests, we decided to narrow it down to the number of faces on the dice.

1. Cuba

2. Brazil

3. Peru

4. Middle East

5. Think about it one more day, shared with diving in Carribbean (because realistically there needs to be another face on the dice)

6. Nowhere- save money and be boring

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I rolled a 2; James rolled a 5.

So we slept on it, thought about it and the following day booked flights to Rio.

Getting a visa costs more than we were previously comfortable spending in 3 weeks. I ordered it through Travel Visa Pro and now that my feet are beyond immigration I can say with confidence they are a legitimate company that can decrease the pain-in-the-ass process of obtaining a Brazilian visa.

Judith donated her morning off to taking our butts to the airport. Our plane departed at 12:20 p.m. and we were in Houston 4 hours later. We decided to change over some money, but realized it would cost $25 to change $100 US to Brazilian Reals (R$). We passed on the exchange and instead opted for a quick stop at Ruby’s Diner before jumping on the long haul to Rio.

Our flight was delayed because the toilets on the plane weren’t working. Luckily the United Airlines moron behind the counter decided to announce to everyone that we would be flying at “60,000 feet” to makeup time and to encourage the shitter to work. I’m no flying genius, but isn’t that nearly double the average flying altitude? Sure hope their oxygen masks work if their toilets don’t.

After checking on Seat Guru and James memorizing the interior of every Boeing plane ever assembled, we were a bit surprised when our seats were crammed into a corner, non-reclinable and smashed up against the toilet. The stinky non-working toilet that would magically return to working order upon reaching those magical 60k feet.

“Oh boy, we are definitely tapping into that free alcohol so we can sleep on this thing” announced James.

No, actually we wouldn’t be drinking at all. United charges for booze on international flights.  They also only allow one cup of water for your 10 hour flight.

Just like the smell of the plane the entire ride, their onboard entertainment is pretty crap. They brag about their extensive selection of 109 movies, but it’s actually 11 movies in 10 different languages.

At least I managed to find something half-funny.

Each time the attendant passed we begged for water. She hesitantly poured an inch, rolled her eyes and announced each time that she wouldn’t have enough for other passengers. Those inches eventually made a full cup.

At one point I think we may have actually been at 60k feet because it was freezing. The woman next to us pulled out a down jacket and a beanie. To say it was a crap start to a good vacay is pretty accurate. Thanks United. We will definitely not be flying the sober, water-rationed “friendly skies” with you any century soon.

Hue

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

We left Hoi An in early afternoon. It was sad to say goodbye to the Sunshine Hotel, our clean, cozy and comfortable home for the previous five days. We would miss the spacious room, palm tree surrounded pool and extravagant buffet breakfast, but were excited to continue our adventure on to the next destination: Hue.

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Hue is the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, and between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Our bus rolled into central Hue in the early evening and we were already hungry by the time we checked in to Hue Backpackers Hostel. While not quite as impressive as Sunshine Hotel, Hue Backpackers has a sweet bar, fun vibe and is in a great location for exploring the city.

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With only a limited time to explore the former imperial capital, we set out for a stroll around the neighborhood under the evening light in search of food and a cold drink. We eventually stumbled across a Gecko Restaurant and decided we better eat there, before we got too hungry and ill-tempered. After dinner we made our way to DMZ Bar, an old ex-pat and backpacker’s institution where we had some beers, vodka diets and chatted the night away.

Monday, May 26th, 2014

We woke up on Monday morning to find that our early afternoon flight to Saigon had been delayed until 6 p.m. With almost a full day ahead of us, we rented a scooter and set out to explore the city. After filling up with fuel at a gas station dangerously positioned on the perimeter of a massive roundabout, we whipped across the Perfume River and headed west toward the Thien Mu Pagoda.

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The pagoda itself is fairly underwhelming, but it’s located on well-kept grounds and the gardens boast nice views of the surrounding lush green jungle spilling into the deep murky river that winds in and out of Hue.

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Having enjoyed a quiet walk around the pagoda and through the grounds we climbed back on our scooter and cruised back into the city to visit the old, crumbling Imperial City of the Nguyễn Dynasty.

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The Imperial City is made up of a large walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Back in its hay-day, inside the great walls was a forbidden city where only the emperors and those close enough to them were granted access. Today, mostly what remains of the forbidden city are a few structural walls and various building foundations. Although, significant renovations are underway and the city is once again beginning to come to life.

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The ancient city is not only in ruins because of its age, but also because of excessive damage from air strikes during the Tet Offensive. In early 1968, Hue was seized by the Viet Cong and the entire city, along with the ancient imperial city was subject to extensive bombings by the U.S. and South Vietnamese. Bullet holes from the fighting can be found in the stone walls and remaining metal artifacts.

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After walking around and exploring the massive, maze like imperial city, we hopped back on our scooter and headed back across the river for a late lunch at Mandarin Cafe.

Mandarin Cafe is a must visit restaurant for anyone staying in Hue and is owned by local photographer Mr. Pham Cu. While we were eating, we had the privilege of meeting Mr. Cu and he showed us some of his fantastic photos of Hue and the surrounding landscapes. His photos have been taken over decades and clearly show how much the city as changed and evolved.

Having gotten wrapped up in conversation with Mr. Cu we lost track of time and had to race back to the hostel in time to catch our bus to the airport.

Thankfully, we made it back in time for the quick 30 minute ride to the airport. Our flight left about two hours later, just before 6 p.m., and we were on our way to Saigon.

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Sunday, May 18th, 2014

The trains in Vietnam can’t even compete with those in India. Four beds are safely enclosed with a locking door, thus eliminating the need to zip-tie and lock yourself and your belongings to anything fixed to the steaming pile of metal.

IMG_0181It doesn’t smell of urine, but is quite inviting with comfy beds, clean sheets, cute reading lamps and bottles of water making for the most comfortable overnight transit we’ve ever had. Nine hours passed almost too quickly. Fortunately, accepting these comforts didn’t mean sacrificing the “sleepover on a train” preboarding excitement by travelers just trying to get cheaply from A to B. James was also guilty of catching this contagious feeling, so of course disappeared and minutes later returned proudly passing out his beer purchase from the petite woman working the platform.

We settled in and ended up cheersing on the bottom bunks before a friendly American turned Australian joined us. Anthony was a chef living in Australia, on holiday in Asia with his parents.

The first third of the train ride was spent dissecting “travel” and further inflating our excitement about every day we would see the sun rise over an unfamiliar skyline.

By 7 a.m. we arrived on the platform Lao Cai. We sardine packed ourselves and other stinky, beer smelling tourists into a shuttle where we would all enjoy playing corners for the winding 25 mile, 60 minute drive up the curvy roads to Sapa Town.

Sapa.

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This 100 year old hill station still shines with French undertones, which is probably why I think it’s breathtaking and like a dozen other places, could gladly call it home. Cafes and baskets overflowing with unfamiliar and curious fruit spill onto invisible sidewalks.

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IMG_3576We checked into Elysian Hotel. This hotel is a sweet find. It’s situated in a perfect location, with the dining room opening up right out onto a little side road off the main center of town. For about $32 for a room per night, this is easily a deal. The kind receptionist offered us warm tea and a shower before dropping our things and heading back out to explore our new destination.

The overwhelming smell of thick dark Vietnamese coffee had us perched on an adorable cafe rooftop within minutes of arrival.

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With the coffee shakes setting in, we were ready to explore.

The rest of the day was spent wandering curiously through the rice fields.

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That night we walked around town, explored the market (of course!) and ended up at a fun cafe for some pho and drinks while enjoying the setting sun and resting our tired, happy feet.

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Monday,  May 19th, 2014

We were up early and made sure to tap into the complimentary breakfast offer. America’s Continental Breakfast just doesn’t have game. We were served up piping hot spicy chicken and beef pho, with a side of dangerous caffeinated vietnamese syrup (coffee).

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IMG_3797 Yup. This is paradise.

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Our day started out in the opposite direction from the day prior. We were quickly met by a group of H’mong women and girls.

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Young women half my age (hey- I’m not that old…yet) had sleeping babies strapped to their backs, while woman more than twice my age were still breastfeeding.

IMG_3825Despite that it was hot as hell, they were covered in heavy hemp cloth dyed intricately with indigo blue, neon threads decorated fringes and hems, and silver’s cousin made an appearance on about every accessorize-able surface on a human body.

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We invited the woman we liked most to join us for the day.IMG_3866

It was an incredible day, with our eyes treated to green rice terraces, picturesque mountains serving as the backdrop, the joy of not knowing or caring where we were being led, and the opportunity to laugh and learn from these beautiful people from a hill tribe we would never be able to discover on our own.

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All was well until we departed from our ladies and we were left to find our way home. We were pretty thirsty, sweaty and a little pressed for time to make our return overnight train back to Hanoi.

We hiked around up and down, forwards, backwards and in circles. My Mom thought we brought her out there to kill her, and while James loves to make public transportation wait for his tardy arrival, I wanted to make sure we were onboard the train that evening.

I attempted to flag down a motorcycle, but the driver looked at me like he didn’t understand and disappeared around the bend in the road. While the three of us sat delusional, dehydrated and arguing with one another on the best plan for action, my motorcycle man returned, with his plus one.

James saddled up next to this dude and Mom and I tres packed the motorcycle for the return journey home. All was well in Vietnam again.

We retuned home and Elysian staff made us the strongest most dangerously refreshing mojitos this cocktail chick has ever dreamed of. The evening was spent sitting alongside my adventurous mother, sipping mojitos and watching the hill town settle down as the sun cast its giddy pink glow across the mountains.

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It was a perfect night filled with disgusting rice wine (I think they meant to call it rubbing alcohol), incredible Vietnamese food, market runs and impulse purchases of the soon be disappearing indigo goods.

We eventually made the trip back down the hill and boarded our cozy train for the overnight trip back to Hanoi.

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Happy Birthday to me!!!!!!!

There is absolutely nowhere in the world I would rather be than with my two favorite people. Unfortunately I was little miss grumpy thanks to a surprisingly crappy night of sleep. So we returned to the all-too-familiar Serendipity Hotel, performed our predictable shower-pho-coffee routine and then set out. We cruised around, shopped and purchased a few dozen chopsticks, buttons, amazing printed tanks, pants and headbands. That bad mood quickly turned good.

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James then treated me to an amazing spa treatment. IMG_4248

We walked into SF Spa and were served tea while excitedly waited for an hour plus of indulgence. We all received the most incredible spa back massages, enjoyed a lemongrass steam and waterfall showers. It was absolutely unbelievable and made the day precisely perfect!!!!

We decided to carryon the celebration by heading to the famous Hanoi beer corner. Prime people watching, endless beers and lots of inflatables made for a wild and crazy night in Hanoi.

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With too much to drink and having forgotten to eat, we of course ended up at our favorite place, Gecko. We spent hours sitting on the intimate little balcony overlooking the hundreds of motorcycles, pedestrians, pedal bikes, cars all zipping around creating what looked like a long exposure on an American Fourth of July.

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Being with Mom and James was an amazingly perfect way to welcome age 28!!!!!