Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

This morning I threw back the curtains of my hotel room and was rewarded with a gorgeous view of Nha Trang beach. Nha Trang sits on the coast of Vietnam, located only 450 kilometers north of Saigon but a world away from Saigon in every other respect. It is a small town by Vietnamese standards, with a population of only 300,000. Bicycles are more prevalent here so the traffic (and the noise) is not as bad as in Saigon.

The pinkish sands of the Nha Trang beaches

The pinkish sands of the Nha Trang beaches

The climate is tropical, the streets are lined with palm trees, and a broad promenade runs along the beach for miles. I wanted to walk but first I needed food – by the time I’d checked in and gotten settled last night it was 9PM and the hotel’s restaurant was closed. I was simply too tired to go out and find a restaurant that was open. I drank a bottle of water and hit the sack.

My $20 per night hotel (Hotel 52) includes a delicious breakfast buffet. I started with a bit of rice porridge, to which I added some hot sauce and several slices of raw cucumber. Then I had a bowl of Pho, which is Vietnamese noodle soup. This dish is a Vietnamese staple and they eat it for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner. It is generally made with beef broth, but there is a vegetarian version made with vegetable broth. To the broth they add flat rice noodles, cilantro, chives, lettuce, mints, basil and sometimes hot chilies. It is eaten with chopsticks and is not as hard as it sounds. Leaning over the bowl you grab a bunch of the noodles with the chopsticks and shove them in your mouth. Once you have a mouthful, you use the chopsticks to continue feeding the noodles into your mouth while you slurp up the noodles! As they say, “be sure to slurp the noodles.”

The main road in Nha Trang

The main road in Nha Trang

With my hunger sated I headed out to walk the town. Immediately upon leaving the hotel I was approached by a couple of tour guides hawking day trips. One of them lured me over to the curb, where I joined his entire family at their street-side food stall. I squatted on the foot-high plastic kitchen stool that was offered to me and leafed through his photo album and book of guest comments. All of the reviews were glowing and although I am interested in going into the hills to see how the villagers live and work, we couldn’t agree on a price. He started at $50 for the day and we got down to $40, but I figured I’d wander a bit and check out some other prices. Read More

Buses are a great way to see a country but they’re hard on the posterior. I just arrived in Nha Trang after a 12 hour bus ride. What I’d like to know is, who in God’s name designed the seats in buses (or in airplanes, for that matter)? The headrest of my seat was curved so far inward that it was impossible for any part of my my neck and shoulders to lean against the back of the seat and the seat itself felt like it was made of concrete. In order to get the least bit comfortable I had to recline the seat and scoot down so that my head was below the headrest. That caused another whole series of problems because my assigned seat had some sort of motor bolted to the floor under the seat in front of me, so there was nowhere to put my backpack but on the floor where my feet would normally go. I rode the entire 12 hours slunk down in the seat with my feet straddling the backpack, trying not to encroach on my seat mate.

Sinh Cafe bus tour of Vietnam

Sinh Cafe bus tour of Vietnam

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll know that today was not my first experience with bus travel in Vietnam. Two days ago I took an all-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels northwest of Saigon. I would highly recommend the trip but the driver drove me crazy. I swear that he honked his horn every 30 seconds. He honked when he pulled out to pass another vehicle. He honked every time he came up on a bicycle or motorbike on the shoulder of the road. He honked at every pedestrian he passed. Oh yes, and he honked (and waved) at oncoming buses and trucks whose drivers he knew. I’m talking about a big ah-oogha bus horn – the kind that makes you jump a foot high when you hear it. I figured it was just this particular driver who had a penchant for horns – boy was I wrong. Today’s driver Read More

Originally I had intended to stay only two days in Saigon, so I crammed a couple of tours into the last couple of days to see everything that was highly recommended by the intrepid travelers on the Thorn Tree Forum at Lonely Planet. But I rather like Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and felt I wasn’t quite done with it, so I decided to stay another day. Therein lies the beauty of unscheduled travel. The only problem was that my hotel was booked up and didn’t have a room available for an additional night. And that is an example of the challenge of unscheduled travel. You have to be able to roll with the punches and not get upset. My mantra – which works for me – is, “Everything happens for a reason.” So I checked out of the Indochine Hotel, stashed my luggage behind their front desk, and headed out in search of new digs. I’ve purchased an “Open Tour” bus ticket through SinhCafe that allows me to hop on and hop off the bus wherever I like and resume my travels with a day’s notice. I leave early tomorrow for Nha Trang, so I figured it would be better to have a room close to SinhCafe anyway, since that’s where I board the bus.

I found a hotel two doors down from the agency (based upon their recommendation) and by noon I had retrieved my luggage and was settled in. This place, the Lan Anh Hotel, is not as nice as the last one but it’s in the heart of the backpacker district, so it is dirt cheap – are you ready for this – $13 per night. And yes, it’s air-conditioned and has a window. It’s a bit noisy, but that doesn’t bother me. No Internet connection in the room but there’s an Internet Cafe next door where I can plug in my laptop. Sweet! I think if I ever came back I’d stay here rather than the Indochine because there are great restaurants up and down the street, not to mention a fabulous juice store across the street where I can get a large banana coffee smoothie for about 35 cents.

I was drawn to stay another day because I believe you can never get the full flavor of a city until you walk it. I didn’t do that right off the bat because I wanted to feel more comfortable before striking off on foot. Between the city tour I took on Wednesday and a couple of days of observing what was going on around me, I felt confident enough to hit the streets this afternoon. One thing that strikes me about this city is that it is so clean. There is no litter or graffiti; no smells waft up from the sewers. Every day, brigades of government workers sweep the streets with long-handled brooms made of bundled twigs, leaving the trash in mounds every 100 feet or so. A second worker follows with a handcart, into which the trash is placed, but only after the recyclable cardboard is separated and flattened into bundles. The infrastructure is good and there is new construction everywhere: office buildings, bridges, highways, etc.

I decided to walk to the Cho Ben Thanh Market, just half a mile away. Along the way I had an opportunity to lean against a lamppost and snap some shots of the girls on motorbikes who are covered from head to toe – thought I’d share one with you:

Vietnamese women cover themselves from head to toe as a protection from the sun

Vietnamese women cover themselves from head to toe as a protection from the sun

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How do I describe Saigon? It is difficult to find words that will do it justice. I finally decided it would be best to simply tell you about some of the things I have seen over the past couple of days, so here goes:

In the midst of rush hour traffic a motorbike carrying a family of four (Mom, Dad, child about 3 years old and an infant about 18 months old) approaches the right hand side of my bus. As Dad maneuvers the bike so that her can cut in front of the bus with only inches of clearance, the infant gets restless so Mom helps him stand up on the motorcycle seat as they race by.

In 85-90 degree weather, Vietnamese girls on motorbikes cover every inch of their body as they motor through the day. In addition to long pants and a long sleeve shirt they add shoulder length gloves, a hat, and a scarf or face mask that covers the nose and mouth and is tied on top of the head over their hat. In most cases the only part of their bodies that is visible is their eyes and sometimes even those are covered by sunglasses. The story told by the tour guides is that the Vietnamese women covet white skin and cover themselves to avoid the sun’s rays.

I finally figured out how to cross a street on foot. You simply step out, regardless of the traffic and take slow, even steps, as the motorbikes and the occasional car or bus Read More

I arrived in Saigon about 11:30 PM Tuesday evening and was picked up by the hotel’s car. I am staying at the Indochine Hotel, located in District 1, which is in the heart of the business district down by the Saigon River. Most of the sites I want to visit are within easy walking distance of the hotel so it is ideally located. The room is fine – basic but nothing wrong with it – especially since it only cost $25 per night. It took me four trips down to the front desk to get settled, though. First, I couldn’t figure out how to call the front desk from the phone in the room. Pressing “O” did nothing. Turns out you have to dial “100.” Then I needed bottled water. And then I couldn’t figure out how to connect to the Internet. I looked in every corner of the room and behind every piece of furniture but there was no jack to be found, nor was there a wireless connection. The guy at the front desk finally came upstairs to show me how to hook up because, despite the fact that he claimed to speak English, he couldn’t understand me very well and I certainly couldn’t understand him. (Most of the people I have met who “speak English” have only a few words of vocabulary. My pantomime skills are improving by the minute).

Coffee in Vietnam using a press pot

A miniature single-cup press pot

Did I feel stupid when he walked in to my room and pointed up to the ceiling, where a bundle of cat5 cable dangled, just waiting for me to untie it and plug in. I checked my email, launched Skype and called my Dad to let him know I’d made it OK, then hit the sack. No use. Couldn’t sleep. It was 2:30 AM here but 1:30 PM at home and I was still on Florida time. After and turning tossing for an hour I finally got up and went back on the Internet, using the time to figure out where I want to go in the next 2 weeks. I just stayed awake all night and headed down to breakfast at 6AM. Actually, I do this a lot when I travel to Asia because it gets rid of the jet lag. Read More

I’ve been planning this around-the-world trip for months and already I’m having problems. I’m using my iPod as a PDA (I put all the monthly online bill payments into my Outlook calendar and exported it to the iPod) so that I can just check it every morning and remind myself of any business that need to be taken care of on the road. I’ve also carefully whittled down the equipment that I needed to carry, since every extra cord is something else I need to carry. One of the things I jettisoned was the charger for my iPod because I just figured I’d bring the USB cable and charge it through the MacBook. However I didn’t stop to think that I had the iPod set up on the PC (Windows) computer at home, which launched iTunes every time the iPod was connected and updated the Outlook calendar in the iPod. So last night, in the hotel room in LA, I booted up the laptop with the iPod attached to charge them both, and when iTunes was launched I panicked. You see, I don’t have a calendar on the MacBook, so I was frantic that my entire calendar would be simply wiped out when the system tried to update the iPod. Fortunately, the fact that I’d switched the iPod from the PC to the Mac made the iPod freeze up completely and I was able to change the system settings so that the calendar is not automatically updated each time the iPod is connected. Of course, then I had to figure out how to unfreeze the iPod.

Second, my Skype software – the one that I will use to phone people while I am traveling – suddenly stopped working. So I had to download and install it all over again. Strange gremlins are at work – it worked yesterday right before I left home. Read More