Tag Archives: travel

Version 0.89 (Happiness)

07/20

Been in Da Lat for five days and hardly written a thing. It’s hard to when one is always on the go with very little quiet, peaceful, distraction-less time to himself. But here I am! At last! Yet my initial thought is that I will write very little. That I have very little to write. That despite five days of being in a new and fascinating city nothing has tripped a switch in me to write—the link between external stimuli and internal feeling and thought was not connected.

“Here I am!” means that I am alone—and will be for quite some time. I am also enjoying an excellent V60 coffee from Da Lat at La Viet. Mozzie and her friends have departed for the airport for flights back to Nam Dinh. I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything in particular until 21:30 as I have a bus to Saigon at 22:00. Well, what to do to fill my day? Wander with my camera all over town. Visit a couple of cafes that I have earmarked in Google Maps. Eat bahn xeo; they make a different style here than in Da Nang. Thinking about food, am I ever grateful for Mozzie and her friends. Because of them I tried so many different dishes than I would have otherwise. Most of the places we went to eat clearly rarely, if ever, received western guests. Many of them didn’t bother to have english translations of anything—food or drink. Certainly there are areas where foreigners are more commonly seen, though not many, especially when one compares it to another popular mountain town like Sa Pa, but we spent no time in those areas besides racing through on our scooters.

So, this morning she left. I walked with her up to her waiting taxi and friends. We were lying in bed this morning and she told me she was happy. This may seem like a strange thing to tell your lover the morning of the last day that you will see each other for quite a long time, but it made me happy to hear her say so; to know that I could contribute, nay, to be the sole contributor to that happiness. That is something too easily taken for granted. Like, “of course!” but it’s a thing that is never “of course” (at least with me), for it is all too easy to hurt someone, to cause pain, to cause suffering, and there is already far too much of that all around the world (as there ever has been), so why make more? Furthermore, to be able to make someone happy on a day such as this when in most relationships, there would be tears is another reason to be happy myself. Perhaps it was easier because we knew there was a strong chance of this happening, that our relationship was running on borrowed time, so to speak. I can’t say for sure though. All I know is that it’s all been worth it.

Version 0.88 (Getting to Da Lat)

07/15

That was a long and noisy train ride. I definitely recommend the top bunk rather than the bottom bunk of sleepers in Vietnamese train cars. Not sure how much sleep I got but it was sporadic, infrequent, fitful, and constantly interrupted. Luckily I planned for that occurrence. (No, I didn’t. But I did plan to check out a couple of fairly popular specialty coffee shops not far from the station in Nha Trang, which may help me overcome the lethargy from my mainly sleepless night.)

[Later]
Just finished a surprisingly voluminous espresso at Nha Trang Coffee Roasters that despite its volume wasn’t as bitter as I expected. It wasn’t really good, but I didn’t need to add sugar to it at least. Considering the state of specialty coffee in Vietnam, and the obviously small budget the cafe has to work with, I am impressed. The espresso machine and grinders in total could not have cost more than a couple thousand dollars (really a fair chunk of change over here), and were likely bought second-hand. The roaster is a small two or three kilo one and is clearly where the bulk of the money was spent. However the cafe space is cavernous—perhaps it was an old automotive garage—and is pretty busy, with most of the tables and chairs occupied, so hopefully those profits can turn into better equipment and additional education for the staff.

I have a limousine bus to Da Lat that leaves from somewhere in the city at 11:30. Perhaps I will get some sleep then. But I‘m not there yet. I have over two hours to do whatever it is I wish to do, which at this point will likely be getting another coffee or juice, then lunch, then calling a Grab. I’d like to wander around the city a bit, but it’s not worth it with all the crap I’m lugging around.

[Further Later}
I’ve finally arrived in Da Lat after a fairly dull and uneventful, but also a bit odd and on occasion slightly unsettling, bus ride. I have showered at last, and, in the sink of our homestay washed my t-shirt and boxers I’d been wearing for the last sweaty 36 hours. Being as we are in the mountains and the temperatures are significantly cooler, I’m looking forward to not sweating through my clothes for the next five days. Writing this I am sitting at La Viet, a highly esteemed specialty coffee roaster here in Vietnam, and I mean “specialty” in the very best way: the way that all players in the industry should want to act, for they not only take special care to roast and brew their coffee as best as possible, but they only roast Vietnamese grown coffee, and they work with farmers in the region to improve the cup quality so that the farmers may have a more sustainable living, one that is bound more by the quality of the product (gasp!) and less by what the commodities market dictates. They do this by improving soil quality, fertilization techniques, improving the picking and processing of the coffee fruit, testing different cultivars to see if one does particularly well in a region versus others, etc. It is a beautiful relationship, and I am happy to finally get to try their coffee which, while pretty unremarkable by specialty standards, is far and away much better than most of the rest of the coffee grown in the country.

But how did I come to be here? From Da Nang I took a night train to Nha Trang where I whiled away four hours at a couple of different cafes and one very busy, very good pho stall. In no place yet in Vietnam did I get as many stares as I did in my brief time in Nha Trang. I thought it strange considering the size of the city and its magnetism for tourists, granted I was hardly in a touristy part of the city as those places are located predominantly along the beach, and I was nearer to the train station.

It’s an interesting comparison between where I stayed and spent most of my time in Da Nang, and the area of Nha Trang I was in. Mainly I’m thinking of the level of English spoken in both places. Quite a number of Vietnamese where I was in Da Nang are conversational in skill level and are not embarrassed to speak, but in Nha Trang I noticed a severe decline in ability, or possibly they were all just too shy and afraid of making mistakes, because what little english I received was mumbled and barely audible, spoken in a way that suggested nervousness, apprehension, or insecurity, and these were all younger kids in their teens and very early twenties.

After my layover in Nha Trang which was highlighted by my breakfast at the pho stall where a Vietnamese gentleman pulled up on a motorbike as I was attempting to sit down with my cumbersome belongings and repeated the word pho to me several times (whether that was to be sure that I knew what I was going to be eating, or so that I understood the correct pronunciation of the name of the dish, I can’t be sure), and then verbally warned me that I was about to put too much fish sauce in it while I was seasoning it, I took a bus—a “limousine” bus, mind you (basically a slightly larger, glorified mini-van (some with, some without bucket seats))—here. We were packed to the gills in this bus so that it was anything but limousine-like, and my pack had to be lain on the floor between the legs of other passengers. Add to that squished between me and the driver was a woman with her one year old baby. The entirety of the trip the driver was coughing, and by the end of it, which came a bit sooner than expected, he had to stop to let us out by the lake in order to go see a doctor for his cough. And now I’ve developed a cough. Whether from him or something else I can’t be sure, but the timing certainly is suspicious. I wonder if the woman or her child came down with anything…

Version 0.87 (Questions)

07/12

Da Nang.

Booked flights “home”, meaning California, today. Very mixed feelings about it, but at least the flight was cheap. I was able to use credit card points and still have some leftover for use in the States. And the flight is with American Airlines as well; something just seemed significant about that. Booking the flight, however, is about all that I have accomplished today. Working on getting my number with Authy changed so I can get into my Gemini account (lost lots of important information since losing my phone). Currently, having left the cafe, I am eating a wonderful, spicy ramen at The Vegan Ramen. So nice to see quality, and varied, vegan places popping up in the cities here.

Not sure what I will do with the rest of my day. Walk to another cafe and relax and write for a couple of hours since I accomplished nothing but the flight earlier this afternoon—but booking flights is a thing that takes time. One must ask questions such as when do I want to leave? Do I really want to leave? (not really) What time of day? How long for a layover? Layover where? But most importantly these questions all take a backseat to the questions of “do I want?” (or must I?J) and if so, “how much does it cost?” If you must or if you want, then hopefully you find a flight that is cheap, and if that is the case and the stars are aligned perhaps you will have your other preferences granted. I feel lucky in this respect.

Version 0.86 (Just Some Thoughts on a Train, and a Little Poem at the End)

07/11

Sitting on a train going nowhere.

Correction: just as I began writing this we began to move. Only about one hour from Da Nang Station now. There is only one track that runs through the mountains and jungle along the coastline, so it is imperative that care is taken when another train is coming.

I left Nam Dinh last night in the rain. Spent half the day in a cafe idling my time way while Huyen was in the office. Afterward she ended up driving me around in the rain so that I could replace my cellphone, which we succeeded at doing, and then dinner at a cheap Korean place. I’m so, so grateful for her. It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t want me to leave Vietnam, but I feel I really have to. So low on funds. Trips to Tam Coc and Sa Pa realized much higher expenditures than I expected, and then I lost my phone. The day spent in Nam Dinh was nice enough though, and I look forward to spending nearly a week with Huyen in Da Lat.

I’m still here for a few more weeks.

I want to see family and friends. Andddd, I miss my bicycle immensely.

Through the window
The sea is spread out far and wide
Rippling
Welcoming
Soft horizon
Rocky shore

Version 0.85 (This Moment and Bai Dinh Pagoda)

07/08

I’m back in town, heading to dinner soon but stopped for a coffee, smoothie, and a scoop of ice cream at a cafe. The girl that owns it with her boyfriend (who happens to be French) makes the ice cream herself, simply because she likes ice cream and thought that making her own would be a fun, and potentially profitable, thing to do.

The sun has drifted down to a level now where its light is ever so slightly beginning to wane, and all it touches is burnished bronze. Shadows are getting ever longer, the temperature is finally beginning to cool. It’s an extraordinary scene when walking through town, or just beyond its frayed edges and that light bounces off the still water’s surface or falls softly between tall, rocky crags, refracting and scattering through the distant hazy air, shimmering diaphonously like some ethereal curtain. One might imagine that heaven is like that—sort of a soft, hazy, halcyon, shimmering, euphoric, wondrous place. A place in which one’d wish to be immersed, feeling those feelings for eternity.

Short walk to Tam Coc boat launch where I found a group of children, some in life vests, some not, swimming or learning how to swim amongst the flotillas of boats which where they were pushed together appeared as large, floating islands. Nearby is a woman doing her washing in a basin and the river which a cascade of steps leads down to. Here too is where the children are swimming in supervision of their parents.

The water is gently rippling with the thrashings of the kids reflecting brilliantly the colors of the sky which are still primarily blue, but some apricot skin and rosé accompany, with wispy grey clouds interrupted by the tops of palms and karst formations jutting out of the dark void like termite mounds from a plain.

A young boy whose name is Money or Mani? and speaks little english has sat down next to me. He is maybe eight or nine years old. He mimes something and asks my name, but that is as far as the conversation goes. Currently he is watching me write this. It has been ten minutes.

My big trip this day was driving out to Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest buddhist pagoda in Vietnam, and wandering around for several hours in the sweltering heat that baked or wilted everything it touched (which was everything not tucked away in the shade). Truly an extraordinary place, and well worth the thirty minute drive beneath a blazing hot sky.

I arrived there, and like everyone else paid and parked on a dusty, dry patch of ground beneath a tent, so to provide shade for the black seats of motorbikes that everyone gets around on. I bought a bottle of water from a vendor nearby and began walking towards the most obvious landmark in the distance: a tall tower atop a hill pointing like a finger at the cloudless sky. I remember too thinking to myself that I should have applied sunscreen.

The grounds were seemingly deserted, though I don’t find that surprising as there is very little shade to be found anywhere, and to walk around is to be trapped without respite beneath the searing sun for great lengths of time, at least until arriving at the main buildings of the pagoda. I remember on my way back to the parking lot passing a group of French kids in their twenties who were quite obviously fagged out from the heat and the long uphill walk to the tower I first visited upon my arrival, asking how far it was to the tower and if there was any shade. Before even getting to the tower, however, one wanders through a gauntlet (there is always one of these) of vendors—essentially a market—selling various touristy knick-knacks and souvenirs, coconuts for drinking, snacks for eating, etc. With the general desertedness of the place the whole block felt like a ghost town with most vendors napping in a chair or hammock within the shade of their shops.

Beyond the tower one follows meandering paths and probably walks down some stairs, eventually coming to a gate or an entrance of a kind (there are numerous scattered along the shaded hallway that encompasses the three main temples on the grounds). Here one can walk for hours exploring the three temples, the courtyards formed by them, and the series of 500 Arhat, or Buddha, statues that line the halls. I passed several groups of Korean tourists, all with fans in hands, sweating profusely. One woman was even desperate enough to ask me for some water from my bottle.

I spent about three hours strolling the grounds and the temples contained within, taking pictures of other tourists and various objects while doing my best to stay in the shade, which was possible probably 80% of the time. Eventually, tired, somewhat dehydrated, and completely over the heat I walked back to my motorbike, passing the French kids I mentioned earlier.

Version 0.84 (Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province: Recommended)

07/07/19

Did a bit of touristing today as well. Went out to Hang Mua, which is a popular area of enormous karst rocks that protrude from the earth like half buried treasures, and meandering rivers set within a landscape of green rice fields a short bicycle ride, or an even shorter motorbike ride, from Tam Coc town center. The main attractions are the two buddhist shrines built atop a particular couple of these karst rocks, and the long, undulating stone dragon mounted near the highest one. HOWEVER, in reality the main attraction is the view from high atop these things: stunning vistas where if the air were clear and dry one could see for many miles (though one can still see quite far even through the humid, smudgy atmosphere thanks to the flatness of the land), though much of what is attractive about the landscape is within the immediate vicinity; the distant landscape offers little to feast ones eyes on.

To get there of course you will probably ride a bicycle or motorbike, and then navigate the gauntlet of restauranteurs attempting to scam you into paying them to park at their restaurant by acting as though they are the official Hang Mua parking (not sure if there is a charge for bicycles at the official parking lot by the entrance). However, if you ignore all these people with their arms waving and flailing and signs for parking, you’ll find yourself at the entrance gate where parking is just beyond. If you fall for the ruse though, life isn’t so bad; you’ll just have a couple hundred meters of walking to do to get to the ticket booth and entrance.

Once you arrive and pay the entrance fee (100k dong) you will wander through a sort of wonderland (in progress when I was there) beside the enormous rocks with flowers and vegetation sprouting up from everywhere, a small, green lake for paddle-boating, and of course the ubiquitous stalls selling coconuts, beer, coca-cola, snacks, etc., until you reach a set of stairs that wind up, up, up quite steeply until splitting in two, one set going left, the other right, each leading up to a different shrine. The views from the top of the highest are quite dramatic, with a wide and calm river winding far below between the bases of the karst rocks, often with the small tour boats, that one can pay a sum to take a two or three hour ride in, gliding unhurriedly along the river too, like autumn leaves carried along by the current of a bubbling creek. Of course once you get up there you’re very nearly surrounded by the numerous tourists that climb the stairs in order to be photographed in a beautiful locale highlighted by an extraordinary backdrop, then later uploaded to the social media of choice (I often think this is the only reason anyone bothers visiting). It’s a bit strange, but nowadays so common as to be expected, so much so that if no one was up there posing for a photograph or taking a selfie there would be a dissonance as if one were listening to a symphony and all at once the members of the orchestra played a portion of it off key.

After leaving Hang Mua I thought I might drive back through town and just cruise along the main road watching as the landscape flowed by me, looking for what I don’t know, but looking at everything because everything caught my interest. Somehow, perhaps I took a wrong turn? though I don’t recall making any turns off the main road, I arrived at Bich Dong Pagoda, a place I was planning to visit, just not on this day. I thought I might possibly be turned back because I was in something like hiking/running garb, and not something that one would wear in a more conservative environment (such as a monastery!), but some old man waved me over and asked for payment of 20k dong to park my scooter. It was a relaxing way to end the day as there were very few people and the monastery is set into a cliff overlooking a pond, and surrounded by lush jungle. The monastery is lived in and used, as a few monks were wandering about in their drab, brown robes finishing up their daily chores. It’s truly a beautiful monastery that effused a calm and contemplative atmosphere. It was obviously quite old as the stone inscriptions were in Chinese calligraphy. Among the banana palms that grew in a grove at the bottom of the pagoda around some of the old buildings was a cat hunting, it’s tiny, shining eyes glancing up at me before running off through the palms. After meandering and sauntering around for about an hour, poking my head in and out of different buildings I finally felt the need to leave as the sun was falling behind the rocks and the shapes of things and the landscape were blending and taking on the hues of mauve and blue as the light dimmed.

Earlier when I had arrived and parked my bike there was an old stick of a woman trying to sell me souvenirs and incense. I didn’t then, waving her off and making gestures that I would buy something when I finished my tour of the pagoda. And so I did making a purchase of a small foldable bamboo boat (a small model of those which they paddle tourists along the river in), as well as a couple of bundles of incense from her. I would have felt a heartless wretch had I not. One only need see the state of this skinny, old woman, a woman who looked like she could have just earlier in the day made her escape from the Gestapo she was so frail and emaciated looking. Many people in Vietnam do not have a decent income and so it only seemed right that I do this for her; she was practically begging me to buy something, reaching out for me, cajoling me….

Today ended as an extreme success, despite the loss of my phone. Quite tired and excited to get back to my dorm which I am only sharing with one other: an amiable woman from Finland.

Peace. Quiet. Calm.

Version 0.76 (An Illusion of Prosperity, and the Joy of a Haircut)

06/24/19

I’m sitting at a bia hơi near the apartment where I’m staying, just a stone’s throw from the lake, watching a few chickens scratch and peck along the sidewalk and the park. The usual hangers-on of dogs are roaming about scavenging for scraps of food and looking for handouts, and up and down the streets the usual and constant parade of motorscooters, the occasional bicycle or car, families out walking (late evening, just as the sun is going down and the heat of the day begins to subside is when neighborhoods become most active), children are shouting gleefully holding their parents’ hands. The lights of highrises across the lake shine brightly reflecting in its surface like dreams of prosperity that should be so easy to achieve if only by walking down to the water’s edge and scooping up with one’s hands or a pail. And then I look around me more closely and see the lights hanging from the corrugated steel awnings, and listen to the chatter of the family having dinner behind me (presumably the family that runs the place) and I see that right here, on this unassuming street corner that is like nearly every other in Hanoi that prosperity of a kind has already been acheived by some, if not many, and that illusion of prosperity rocked gently by the ripples on the surface of the lake is exactly that—an illusion.

I was down around Old Quarter today to enjoy a coffee at a favorite spot, and to have a slice of banana bread that unfortunately wasn’t available. Very basic things, and I had some delicious fried morsels at a little street food stall near the famous cathedral as well as a bahn mi. I’ve been pondering a haircut for probably over a month now, and today it finally happened. Walking back to my apartment it was along a stretch of road by a park where there are always several barbers, their chairs, mirrors, and other accoutrements of the trade at particular spots day in and day out. Each man to his station. I just happened to be looking at a certain gentleman whose chair was empty when he turned and saw me. We made eye contact and he made a shaving motion across his cheeks whereupon I made a cutting motion above my head. It was a fine thing this, having my haircut out in the open, watching children play at the memorial park in front of me, and young girls pose for photos with friends. Something so wonderfully joyous and life-affirming having a haircut outside while the world whirls by around you. The cars, buses, scooters, horns beeping, children playing, people walking and photographing, shop owners selling whatever goods they’re selling on the strip behind me, the trees and the sky overhead, the grass and the sidewalk beneath. It seems almost a crime to force people indoors for a haircut. Here, under the joy of the sky I was able to get one for $5 or so, and I would have gladly paid twice that.