Mekong

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

After staying out late the night before, the early morning bus trip into the Mekong Delta came far too early.

We were on the bus and ready to go at 7 a.m. When we got on the bus we realized we were part of a large tour group that would likely result in a highly regimented and overly touristy trip through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. While this was exactly what it turned out to be, there probably isn’t a better option to travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta without a lot of additional transportation planning.

Our guide had terrible jokes, many if which he repeated over and over again throughout the journey.

One the first day we traveled from Saigon to Can Tho with stops along the way for short boat rides through narrow creeks, lunch on a small island and a short trek through a fruit plantation.

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Our day ended in the town of Can Tho, where we were left to our own devices to explore and find a place for dinner.

After dinner we browsed through a few of the town’s underwhelming markets, which we stocked full of cheaply made clothes and trinkets, before making our way back to the hotel excited to see the Mekong’s largest floating market the next morning.

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Once again our day started bright and early with breakfast at the hotel before we set out with the group for the river dock in the center of Can Tho. Our entire group quickly boarded into a long narrow boat and we set off down the river toward the much anticipated market.

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The market was promised as a significant part of the tour and we were expecting to spend quite some time cruising back and forth between the many boat stalls purchasing fruit and veggie snacks. Of course, like many of these organized tours we only took one quick lap around the market before they quickly hustled us on to the next scheduled group toilet break.

From the market our boat headed deeper into the delta and we stopped at two more destinations nestled back in some of the small canals connected to the larger river.

The first stop was at a small family workshop that produced rice paper. We were able to spend about 15 minutes watching this local family work during the mid-day heat over burning ovens. It was actually a really cool process to see in action.

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Our second, and last stop, before returning to tour buses was at a small riverside village. Upon arrival we were able to rent pedal bikes and take a quick ride along the banks of the various canals, peaking into the lives of small homes and shops lining the water’s edge.

At the conclusion of the bike ride, we all piled back into the boat and set our course back to Can Tho and the awaiting tour buses.

The early afternoon was spent sitting on the bus as we made our way toward Chau Doc near the Vietnam-Cambodia boarder. En route we stopped at Tra Chu Bird Sanctuary, a flooded forest and swampland that is home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.

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We toured the mangrove forest in a bunch of small row boats and saw countless storksand other birds as our boats slid through the still, quiet waters.

By the time we returned to the bus from the sanctuary dusk was already beginning to set in. It wasn’t too long before our bus pulled up to our hotel in Chau Doc for our last night in Vietnam.

It took us quite a while to find somewhere to eat, but we finally found somewhere amenable and then finished the evening walking along the river bank.

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We woke up on Saturday morning ready for our slow boat ride to Phnom Penh.

The day started as expected. We boarded a boat and visited a small fishing village before heading up river toward to Cambodian boarder.

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It was when we arrived at the boarder control after only 30 minutes in the boat that things took a turn for the worst. After passing through immigration we learned despite the fact we purchased a “slow boat” ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, the “slow boat” portion of the trip was only from Chau Doc to the boarder. From the boarder we were expected to ride in a tiny minivan the rest of the way to Phnom Penh.

Although the boat was not supposed to take us all the way to Phnom Penh, it was supposed to take us to Neak Leung, with a mini van ride the rest of the way.

After a massive argument with the captain of the boat and a phone call to TNK Travel, we were unable to resolve the issue.

“It’s not a slow boat then, is it? It’s more like a slow bus.”

Frustrated and annoyed we piled into the minivan and drove the rest of the way to Phnom Penh and the Funky Monkey Hostel.

 

 

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.