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Verbal Vomit Update of Vietnam & Cambodia

11 Dec

Get ready for massive verbal vomit. This is not a dry heave, we’re talking massive expulsion of words, thoughts, verbs, pictures and adjectives about Vietnam and Cambodia.

Now, let me give you some direction for the slow readers or skimmers.  For those who have not even read about Thailand excursions, I recommend starting with Bangkok by Night blog and work your way up.  All of Thailand was written in November, so if you go to the button under “recent posts” and click on November,  all the fun, filled and exciting Thai tales ranging from dildos to Tiger Woods will be before your bright eyes.

As for Vietnam, I had a few challenges.  The blog started off chronicling my journey into “adventure, outdoorsy” travel – with massive biking, trekking and kayaking.  Then, it turns a 90-degrees when I had my identity stolen.  Yep, passport, Visa, credit cards, $$ stolen in a country we terrorized 30+ years ago.  Try that one for size.

The stolen identity tales all have the title “Stolen Identity.”  Please start with the first one labeled “Stolen Identity,” and then move up to Day of Reckoning and end with Snowballing in Halong Bay.

I’m well aware that violence, crime and sex sell, so many will want to start with Stolen Identity.  But, don’t forget to read about dead bodies, Ho Chi, pelvis pain, marriage proposals and the Vietnamese DAY tribe tales starting with the blog called Good Morning Vietnam, Hanoi…

If it were me, I would start with Good AM Vietnam and work my way up to get the full story for the adventure travel and stolen identity are all wrapped together.  But, that is me — I lived it.

Cambodia takes a bleaker tone.  I went Cambodia primarily to understand Israel.  Sounds strange, I know.  Trust me.  I know.. The Cambodia story is told through Chet, my guide.  He survived the Khmer Rouge’s terror in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  And, his story is powerful and haunting.

While in Cambodia, I did hit temple-land.  Check out the pics in the pic section.  Much better than the words.

Again, thank you for your comments, questions and random thoughts about my journey. Keep them coming.

Everyday, presents itself with a new gift. And, finding the world is a very small place… Enjoy the ride…

Cu Chi Tunnels. Saigon by Night. Vietnam.

11 Dec

I made it out of Vietnam! The whole passport/border control gig at the airport was uneventful. So uneventful that they did not check my passport, visa or asked me to undress. Impressive for me. Even more impressive for future terrorists. I’m just happy I’m up in the air in route to Cambodia. That sounds very, very strange to me. I mean, Cambodia???

Before I go any further, I do want to announce that I DID receive my ATM and Credit Card today – Day 5. Ultimately, FedEx did their job. Delivering my cards on time so I can do the American thing – spend more $$$.

Taking in these last few days. I have not had time to journal. But, I do feel compelled to share a little about about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It will be brief.

The adventure junket ended in Halong Bay. The three of us returned to Hanoi to catch flights to our next destination. For Tour-burn, it was off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to tour the temples . For me, it was Ho Chi Minh City – for more cycling. No resting for this pelvis.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed all the signs said Saigon. I was confused. What is the proper name for the largest city in Vietnam?

This is what the locals told me….Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh in 1975, after US bolted and Viet Cong ate Southern Vietnam. The folks in S. V-nam haven’t taken to the name – or communism for that matter – and still call their city Saigon. People in Northern Vietnam – taken to communism – call the city Ho Chi Minh. But, when you’re checking luggage at the airport, the AIRLINES call it Saigon.. Yet, the AIRPORT calls the city Ho Chi Minh. We’re back to confused communism, Vietnamese style…

If you ask me, which I’m sure the Vietnamese welcome my opinion, I prefer Saigon. Has nothing to do with communism or the embalmed bearded man. The name Saigon sounds more exotic. Has more energy. Seems eccentric. Fitting for a city with 6 million motor-bikes and 10 million riders. Think about it. Say Ho Chi Minh City and what comes to mind? For me, I picture a desolate, dusty Indian Reservation being corrupted by gambling. Not exactly fitting.

Focus. What did I do in Saigon for 1.5 days? Took to peddling. Wanted to see the city and tour the tunnels. Sam, the bike guide, arrived at the hotel at 8 am. I had the routine down. Grab a helmet. Raise the seat. Pop some pills for pelvis relief. And, start peddling. Our destination was the Cu Chi tunnels, built by Viet Cong to fight their enemy – their South Vietnamese brothers and our troops. Jungle warfare at its finest.

I want to share how V-nam tourists’ materials describe these famous tunnels. Needed some tweaking so I made some edits:

The Cu Chi tunnels are a historic revolutionary vestige and the base for the Viet Cong in the Anti-American resistance during the American War…. Tunnels were used as a place of eating, accommodation, meeting as well as unique battle formation, which took its part in the fight against the enemy for saving our country.

It was also the place where over 20,000+ of our soldiers were killed. Take a look at the pictures below of the tunnels… Small. And, the government expanded the tunnels 40% so tourists could crawl though to experience the full effect. Let’s just say, my H&M black leggings now have holes in the knees. Had to crawl. There were NO tall people in Viet Cong army. Or, fat people for that matter.

Other “must do” tourist attractions at the Cu Chi tunnels included shooting your choice of guns – AK 47, Automatic machine guns, pistols, riffles… Pay the dude $5 and fire away. I opted for that AK 47. My shoulder will never be the same. I hit my target, thanks to taking riflery at summer camp… Only in America, can kids grow up learning to shoot weapons at camp. I digress..

After tunnel crawling and rifle shooting, we jumped back on your bikes. I popped some more Advil. We toured through the country side of Saigon. I noticed group of people gathered in the distance. Sam slowed down. Stopped. He said, “Stop. Try this…” I whipped my leg over the bike seat and missed. Pain again. I limped up to the group of people. Notice furry creatures in cages. Furry creatures were rats. People are lining up to eat rat. Doesn’t get much better than this.

Rice farmers catch the rats in their fields and the women sell them on the side of the road. And, here I was the tall foreigner scared of something they ate. Damn straight. Scared is not the right verb. It’s more like repulsed. And,vomiting was not part of the day’s scheduled activities.

So, here’s this cute woman in her PJs. She’s about 20 or so. Her kids are running around half naked.

Her job is to grab the dead rats in the bucket, and with a pair of scissors in one hand, cut off the legs, tail and head and toss the body into another bucket. The next woman wearing Pjs, grabs a knife. Opens it up. Pierces it with a stick and cooks it on an open fire, on the side of the road.

Now, if you don’t want to eat now, you can always just buy the no extremities rat. The Pjs women plopped the rat in a clear plastic bag. And, off you go on your motor-bike or on foot with a rat in hand. Kodak moment…

Saigon by Night

Sam struck a cord yesterday. He complained how foreigners come to Saigon just to tour the war, talk about the war and leave thinking about the war. They don’t want to see the NEW Saigon. He said, “Saigon is not war. Young people don’t even know about war. Business people don’t care about war. War is old. I want show you Saigon not for tourists.. Tonight…” I’m IN!

So, off we went on his motor-bike to see the NEW Saigon. This NEW Saigon is suburbia.

We’re talking four or five story homes. Lawns with sprinklers. Screened windows. Streets with speed bumps and stop signs. Sidewalks for people. Gate guards. This is NOT your one-party, communist controlled country. It’s Reston, VA. It’s Lake Mary, Florida. It’s reeks of wealth. It reeks of inequality. It reeks of excess.

Sam: “Homes here are $1 million to $2 million US. Pay in cash. We don’t trust Vietnamese dollar. People here invest in gold for years and years. People rich. People here are government workers. Shipping. Textile manufacturing. Work with US…Work with China. Rich…”

Me: “People are sitting on $2 million in cash? No bank loans, home loans, car loans in Vietnam? Not even credit cards?”

Sam: “No. No credit cards either. We save. We don’t understand how you buy on credit card. We know each penny we have and spend everyday. I save between $1,000 and $2,000 US a month. Took me two years, and I bought my house with cash. Saved everyday…”

We zoomed passed homes, town homes and apartments ranging from $250,000 US and $2,000,000 US. Sam continues to be amazed only ONE family lives in a house with four or five rooms and three bathrooms. He screamed into the night, “Look! Only one family… Look! Only one family. This family only have 2 kids. And, four rooms. Have three stories. Only one family! Look! Only one light one. Whole family in one room. Look!”

In Vietnam, they squish a family of four, six or eight – we’re talking grandparents, aunts and uncles and randoms – into a one story house with just two or three rooms. He’s amazed by space.

I was amazed by paying in cash, investing in gold and automatic garage doors. I bet these families have washer machines, dryers and bleach. NO underwear, sheets or Pjs were hanging from these pricey windows. How bad did I want to knock and use their washer machine and dryer…

We cruised on over to his neighborhood. He wanted to show me his new house. San was proud. He bought his home two or three years ago. It has 4 rooms and he rents THREE of them to families. We darted through dark streets. We turned left on a dirt road filed with water. He said, “this is temporary. Govt. building a 20 story apartment building at end of my street. Next to my house. Take 2 years. A lot of flooding now. Putting in new sewage system…water…very good for me.” Yea, not good for me for this nasty sewage is forming a new life on my clean jeans.

By this point, he has proposed. When I said, “We just met…little early?” He changed tactics, “Then, you come and live with me. You single. I single. Same age. It works.” I said, “Oh, is it that easy. You single. I single. Boom, that is it.”

He said, “Yes. Easy. I like you. When you see my house, you will know.” That is a lot of pressure because I can’t insult his home for I feel certain he lacks closet space, kitchen counter-tops and water pressure. We pull up. I see two pad locks on his patio door. Barb wire around the roof. Home sweet home.

He unlocks the first padlock. Then, another one greets us on his front door. I giggle inside. When he show’s me his kitchen, he’s proud it is NOT attached to his house. He said, “Too messy. Too smoky. It’s better out in patio.” Fab.

His house is nice. Clean. One bedroom downstairs. Two working bathrooms. No closet space. Super-small fridge with space for only a twelve pack of Coke Zero. And, a Buddha shrine to boot. The decibel level of the construction site and padlocking the doors would drive me to drink. I just don’t see Sam’s home as my final resting place. Don’t feel it. I tell him as much. He really looks sad. I’m not taking time to analyze this one…. I’m about to land in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The capital.

Last night, over 300 people were killed in Phnom Penh. Trampled. I saw it on CNN this morning. They say too many people were crossing a bridge? I don’t know the details yet but it is bad. Cambodia government said worse crisis since Khomer Rouge. The dude that killed over ¼th of the population. That’s hard to swallow.

Welcome to Cambodia. Two for one. Killing Fields. And, Killing River. I just hope they let me in…

Snowballing at Halong Bay. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

Snowballing. That is what they call it. When the mind just goes to the unimaginable places. When you run through worst case scenarios, and the next thing you know you’re sittin tall and pretty in a Vietnamese prison or scaling a fence into Cambodia. That is where I am now.

I’m waiting. Waiting to hear if “they” secured a legit Visa. Waiting to hear if I can leave the country. … Leave for Cambodia. Can we please laugh? Cambodia out of all places… Surreal. This is surreal.

I arrived in Halong Bay about two hours ago.

Halong Bay is in North Vietnam, surrounded by untouched coastlines and islands. Limestone rock. Clear blue water. Think Avatar but in the water.

My transport was perfect Vietnam. Perfect. No foreigners. Just me chugging along side of beer drinking, motor-bike riding men. My soul inhaled every second. An adventure for I really had NO idea where I was going. I just kept moving from car, ferry, motor-bike, bus, feet, boat, ferry, boat….until I reached what Handspan Travel calls a resort.

Let me step back and walk you through how I got to Halong Bay. Ha dropped me off at the hotel after we stuffed, crammed and cajoled Christmas presents in a box to be shipped to America via a ship. This took over an hour.

I had about twenty minutes before my driver was to pick me up to start my three, four or five hour journey to Halong Bay – depending who you asked. I perched myself on a one-foot stool outside our hotel and watched the world go by. I get why men and women can sit for hours on a sidewalk in this country. This place is sensory overload and pure entertainment. Much better than Mad Men, Price is Right or the Amazing Race.

A V-nam policeman in one of those nasty green uniforms was approaching. The rank color of his uniform and sour expression caught my eye. He looked about 21. And, he wore his angry proudly. Like a badge of honor.

He was searching for his prey. With each step, his eyes darted to V-nam to V-nam finding who was in violation of whatever the rule was for the day. He spied her. Unlucky for me, she was sitting a few feet away. He did not notice the tall, white Westerner. His legs picked up the pace. And, bee lined for the older woman sitting on her hind legs – you all know the yoga pose that kills your Achilles…that one.

Her bamboo basket was full of nuts and potatoes for $.15 or $.25. She comes from the countryside to make a living in the big city of Hanoi. Thin frame. Face lined with sun damage and wrinkles. When she smiled, she showed off only a few teeth. Her hands were gnarled, weathered and muscular. Her white shirt was now stained with cooking grease and picked-off dirt. Her brown pants were made out of what looks like burlap fabric. She tied her fashions together with a brown, orange and blue scarf. Worn plastic flip flops encased her tired feet. Clearly, she was out of place among the shop keepers of Hanoi.

I watched.  She smiled at the Foreigners. Please buy. She smiles at the V-nam residents. Please buy. I can feel him approach. Within seconds he was hurling insults and her. He raised his hand and hit her. In the street. Next to me! I’m taken back. What do you do? I stood up.

She looked embarrassed. Mortified. Now, all were watching. She collected her things. Bowed her head and walked as fast as possible. He looked around to receive admiration and respect from his fellow V-nam-ers. But, all he got was coldness. They all just stared at him and turned their heads. They don’t want to be next.

I just stare at him. His eyes settled on me. I could tell he did not see me standing there, but it had little impact.  He probably believes he was protecting me. And I have to wonder. Is his assault because of me? I reported a crime on this street. Now, I see street patrols everywhere. Is the word out. Foreigner’s passport and visa was stolen – look out – the police are watching.

I feel sick to my stomach for an old woman from the countryside was not the thief. She’s the target. And easy victim. I bet it was a V-nam teen on drugs. A rich kid. Not a poor peasant. I inhaled. Exhaled. Tried to comprehend what I saw. And, understand that I had no power to do anything. I asked God to protect her.

Off to Halong Bay…

The driver picked me up and I settle in for a good 3 hours of bad driving to a flat-bed boat for motor-bikes. I later found out my driver was a bus driver in his previous life. That is why we did not pass trucks and yielded to motor-bikes. I wanted to pop him along side the head and tell him to move it. Slow drivers KILL me.

I’m typing away to distract me. I mean we are moving at a snails pace. I look up. We are in ship yards, passing by hundreds of thousands of containers. There is no tour bus or foreigner in sight. No one. Where in the hell are we? Is the driver lost? He picks up the phone. Talks. I try to make out any hint of stress in his voice. Nothing. We are not lost. I can not believe any travel agency would take foreigners out here. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos – V-nam style. My time is numbered.

We make a slow left down another dirt, rocky road. Yep, this is the place they shoot people. We slow down next to a makeshift hut on the side of a ship yard. Looked desolate. This is NOT a ferry station. No dock in sight. Men – only men. There’ all sitting on foot stools smoking cigs and drinking beer. Staring at me. I’m staring at me too.

My driver hands me my bag. Points to another hut with words and set’s off in that direction. I follow. But, he motions for me to stay. Great, now I standing in the middle of ten beer guzzling V-nam motor-bike men. Just standing. I stare at them for they are staring at me. Stare game is on. What seems like 3 years later, my driver reappears with a cig in his mouth and a ticket. He points down the road.

I guess that is were the ferry is? He nods. I motion do leave now? He shakes his head. Wait. I sit down. He goes over to the car and gets on his phone. Why do I think we are in the wrong place. The only thing keeping me sane is we are near a canal. Water. About an hour later, a put-put boat pulls up . It’s a flat bed boat for motor-bikes. And, another small hut for people. This is the ferry? Ferry for foreigners. Think again. Loving this adventure for I’m so at their mercy.

All of a sudden the men jump to their feet. The must have heard a bell. Or, one of those silent signals only certain species can hear. They finished their beers, start their motorbikes and leave me in the dust. The driver points. And, motions to me to follow on foot. I do.

He picks up my bag. Together we navigate the rubble and dirt roads to the mini-ferry boat. By the time we arrive, the motorbikes are on and everyone is waiting for tallgirl.

I get on the boat. Only one seat left up front. Everyone is quiet. Staring at me. Gosh, I hope I don’t trip or burb or fart. They’re look is of “what are YOU doing here?” This type of scrutiny is unnerving. It’s like I’m in a freak show – what will the white, tall woman do? Will she sit? Drink water? I decide to sit.

The motor starts and we are off. I think to myself. Wait… I did not ask for details of this transport. I’ve been so consumed with Visa, passport and money – that I have NO idea the name of my final destination. It’s in Halong Bay.

But, it like saying, I’m going to swim in a lake in Central Florida. I just hope and pray I can figure this out. Calling all travel angels again. They must be resting for I’ve kept them occupied these last few days. So, I settle in and just wait.

We putter on. About an hour later, we arrive at another desolate ferry stop. I stay on the ferry. Not sure if this is my stop. I show the ticked to the boat driver. He motions to me to get off – NOW. I did. No one is there waiting for me. There are NO foreigners. Just V-nam men on their motor-bikes. I walk over to the ticket lady. Show her my ticked. She smiles and motions this is the place.

But, the place to do WHAT? I’m to hop on a bus. There are four buses sitting in the dirty parking lot. Now what. I breath. I walk around and take pictures. I will give it 15 to 20 mins and then ask to use someone’s cell phone. I have Ha’s phone number. I watch the people. Someone caught an octopus. They are playing with it now. Guess, it’s super for later.

I wait. Take pictures. Wait. Give it another 10 mins. Then, another 10 mins. I figured no harm in calling Ha. I reached for some Vietnamese dollars. I look around and I’m down to three people. Octopus players and me. Then I heard some loud voices. A man in blue appeared. He is staring at me and saying loud things. I smile. He motions for me to follow. I do. Love how I just follow people I can’t communicate with. He points to the four buses. I smile. I stop. I mean, which bus. He grabs my hand and walks me to the red bus. Red is my favorite color. YEA for me. He points. I get on. I smile. He grunts. Clearly he had to deal with foreigners before… I sit down. No one is on the bus. I just wait. Wait. And, wait.

Within in 20 mins, the bus is bombarded by heard of Vietnamese families, teens and elderly. Packed in minutes. And, we’re off. The scenery is amazing. Limestone mountains standing tall in the bay.

Winding through small villages. Doors and windows open. Families sitting on the floor eating rice. TV playing in background. Kids playing outside. The world marches on. The bus starts to make random stops. People get off. Where do I get off? I decided I’m not moving until I see lamp post lights. Electricity. Need to see electricity. I’m sure my resort has electricity. Little did I know…

We arrive at a mini-town. Looks like a fishing village. Outdoor restaurants. Cafes. Hostels line the street. I’m the last one off the bus. The driver asks, “where you go…where you go..” I respond, “I don’t know…I don’t know…” And, just smile. A man appears in motor-bike helmet. My name is scribbled on a piece of paper. AM-DAY. Yep, that’s me! He smiles. Grabs my arm and leads me to his motor-bike.

Someone how he gets my one piece of luggage on his bike along with my 6 foot bod. We set off. Streets are dark.

We zoom along the bay. The moon is full, guiding us. I feel like I should be cold, but I feel warm all over. I look out over the water and think, “Are you KIDDING me? I’m in Vietnam. Riding by moonlight on some RANDOM man’s motor-bike along the water, windy roads, over the mountains to an unknown destination.

I’ve been robbed of an identity. But, right now, feel so rich inside. Overwhelmed with gratitude that I’m here. I mean REALLY. Who is this person? It’s not me – Not the tallgirl who is Ms. Marketer/Communicator worker-bee. Not the person who gets up at 5 am and works until 10 pm. Works weekends. Works and works… Has no life outside of work. Who needed to blow it up big to fill her cup up with joy – again. Well, ladies and gentleman, my cup is being filled. Being replenished. Renewed by a country with a generous spirit and complicated culture….

We stop at a shack. Motor man gets off. Tells me to stay put. He grabs an oar and a life preserver. Tells me to put on the preserver and he will carry the oar. I follow directions. Now, I’m sporting a helmet and life preserver as we jet off again in the dark night. This is a sight.

We make it to another dock. This time we are greeted by an old, delapidated boat with a bamboo canopy. A woman is there to greet me. Not really. She’s giving her husband, the motor-man, the 411 on me. She’s in her Pjs.

Motor-man then grabbed my hand. Looked into my eyes and apologized for his country. I was taken back. What in the world was he talking about? I just smiled. Again. Just smiled. I nod. Then, he said his wife just told him I was robbed. Everything gone. She looks at me with sadness. Motor-men grabs my arms and says, “sorry for you…sorry for you…some of my people are bad… sorry for you… Vientiane good country. Good people. Not all bad. Please come back…” Tears welded up. Am I really going to cry wearing a motor-bike helmet and a life preserver? NO. I smiled. Told him I will be back and jumped on the rickety boat.

The boat driver looked about 90 and no teeth. But, he was strong. He hand cranked the motor and we set off. The only light was the full moon.

He’s navigated these limestone mountains and floating fishing huts for years. I felt safe.

Once again, I pinched myself and thanked God. How am I here? What is it I need to learn? Observe? See? Take with me?

I am so grateful. Even grateful for this experience. God has blessed me with so many angels to carry me these past two days. I was not in control. Still not for I’m in V-nam and NOT Cambodia. My mind keeps saying – you will relax when you get to Cambodia. I have many more hurdles. And, need to hear back about my Visa.

In the meantime, I am puttering through the waters of Vietnam with an old man. He looks at me. Looks at me with a sense of sadness – for me, not him. I get the feeling they are embarrassed by their countryman’s action of harming a foreigner. How much things have changed since Vietnam War. Think about it.

I’m thinking about it all. And, inhaling the air around me. Its one of those times I want engraved in my heart and soul. If I ever loose my short term memory, I pray this day, this hour and those minutes of traveling to Halong Bay will be seared into my soul.

After an hour of puttering, we pull up at the resort. This is a NO star resort. It’s a negative star. Why? No electricity or water. Water tank busted. And, back up generator down.

The resort is on a remote island. I could care less. Ang met me. He led me to my bungalow. Mattress on the floor. Bamboo with holes as a roof. Rustic is a good word. I smiled. Very happy to be hear with Ang and Tour-burn.

I wonder outside my hut to the patio area and order a beer. I’m telling the guys my story. I say the word Visa and my body tenses up. My mind snowballs. I’m trying to act cool. I believe we call this an anxiety attack. I keep talking. I wanted to blurt out to Ang, “Hey. Call Ha NOW and ask for a status on the Visa. It’s 8:00 pm at night. She should have heard something – no word means I’m screwed. CALL NOW…”

Instead, I calmly talked about my ferry trip and wonderful motor-bike ride. They did not notice that I’m having a complete freak out attack inside. By the time I’m finished with my story, my mind has placed me, once again, in a V-nam prison. Irrational, I know. But, the mind can do that to you.

I sip my beer. Sit back. Act cool. And, calmly say to Ang, “Hey, can you call Ha? I’m curious if she heard about my visa. Status?” He said, “Sure. I go now.” He gets up from the table and walks off. I start to over analyze. He’s leaving the table. Not good. Why can’t he talk in front of me? He knows something. I’m screwed.

I strike up a conversation with Tour-burn… “Tell me about kayaking today? What did you see? Do?”

He wraps it up in 45 seconds… You have GOT to be kidding.

I’m looking for a distraction. Give me something here. Anything. I can’t feed off this information. I just smile. Forget it. I just sit in silence. If he wants to talk, fine. But, I’m not doing the work here. I have more important things to think about, like breaking out of V-nam prison.

Minutes pass. No Ang. We are hitting the 10 minute mark. Next is 15 min. Clearly, no visa. I’m starting to make contingency plans. OK. What if I can’t make it to Ho Chi Minh City. Just fly straight from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Wednesday instead. That will work but my CREDIT CARDS and ATM will be resting in Ho Chi Minh at the travel agency. Then, what… It will work. It will work. I have options. Always options. I’m FIIINNNEEE… As Stephanie would say. FFFIIINNNNEEEE.

We’re hitting the 20 min mark. I blurt out to Tour-Burn who is just sitting and staring next to me, “I’m screwed. No Visa. Ang is not back yet. I’m here for the long term… I do LOVE rice….”

He actually agrees with me. Idiot. Doesn’t he know I need reassurance, not agreement. Men can be so clueless sometimes. I smile at him. Shake my head and stare out into darkness. Where was that inner peace. Joy. Nirvana I felt only an hour ago. Gone. I think back willing it to calm me.

I hear Ang behind me. He is silent. Bad. I hear his voice. “Good news! You got the Visa… We are good.” I wanted to scream, “Where have you BEEN? It took more than 20 mins to find out this news??? I mean, I’m at the point of buying a cemetery plot in V-nam.”

Instead, I jumped up and hugged him. No need to freak him out. I thanked him. Thanked his company. And, told him that I was nervous because it took so long. He said, “Oh. Bad reception. And, I got other calls I had to take…” I did not want to hear that because this was all about me. I’m the customer. And, I’m top priority. Let it go—

I felt my body relax. Check another box. Got the Visa. Question now is it real? Who is this “expediting” agency. And, will it work? Faith baby. Faith. I pray for faith. Protection. And, mounds of patience. We’re not there yet. But, we’re getting there. Travel Angels unite! God, just get me to Cambodia.

Vietnam Immigration. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

It’s 7:45 am.

I’ve been in the hotel lobby since 6:30 am. Emailing the bank. Travel insurance companies. And, contacting the travel agency I’m working with in Cambodia.

Yes, there ARE travel agencies in Cambodia. I went ape-crazy on them the night before. I got an email saying they did not receive payment for my flights OUT of Vietnman to Cambodia or anything else. My credit card told me differently. I pulled out my “this is unaccepable” card. And, put a PS in there that my whole life has been stolen in Vientman. So, this is NOT a good time to try and rip me off.

Yea, got a response on that one. I felt bad. Of course, they found the money. The company actually is amazing. I mean superb too. It was all bad timing. They are so traumatized by my situation, that they are meeting me at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to take me to dinner. I email Vo, my travel agent contact, that I need my confirmed flight information that says I’m officially scheduled to leave Vietnam on the 23rd. This is a MUST for immigration. She sends it to me in a matter of minutes.

Ha walks in. It’s maybe 70-degrees and she’s buried in a red, ski jacket and a new pair of jeans with rhinestones. She smiles, grabs my arm and off we go on her motor-bike. She brings me a better helmet today. One that fits. And, one I can get off. I think I embarrassed her yesterday walking around the bank and immigration with my motor-bike helmet on.

We pull up at the former French prison – aka V-nam immigration. And, sprint to the Visa for foreigners desk. Our girl is there. She smiles at us. We sit. Feeling confident. We’re next. Ha shows her our paper work. She touches the paper. And, starts chatting up a storm. Ha looks upset. Annoyed. None of this is good. I just wait. Trying to ready body language and expressions. Other people walk up to the desk to look at my paper work. I wonder what they are saying. I just stand there. Reminding myself that I’m not in control. Ha still is holding on to my arm, reminding me to be still and silent. She huffs. Grabs my paper work and sits down. I follow. Sit down next to her in the plastic chair.

Me: “What? What happened?”

Ha: “She said need 3 to 5 day for Visa. Business days. Today is Friday. Not good. I make call…”

Me: “Wait. If I need to change flights, I can. I mean..there is a solution here?”

Ha: “I make call. Not good. Not happy. You stay here. Don’t move.”

She walks out. Walks back in. Opens her purse. Grabs $200,000 VND (Vietnamese dollars). Then, shoves the money and my passport into an envelop. Stands up and walk to the V-nam immigration agent.

NO. NO. We’re NOT bribing the communist… Not worth it. I want to get out of Vietnam, legally, not through prison time. I grab Ha’s arm and whisper, “Not good. No. I don’t do this…I will change flight..”

She shakes her head. Motions to me to shut up. And, continues to talk to immigration lady. I can tell immigration lady is not budging. Ha’s hand is on the envelop. I’m starring at the envelop. If she moves it, I’m grabbing it from her. I don’t do this. No way. I can tell Ha is exasperated. Her voice sounds annoyed. But, she is smiling. Her hand never leaves the envelop. She waiting to play her card – or not. She decides to fold, grab my paper work and walks out of the office – leading me by the arm.

She whispers, “I have a friend. Take care of this. May cost you $$. Like $100 US dollar for Visa. Ok? You Ok?”

Me: “Ha, not a problem. As long as it is legal. In US we have companies that are in business to expedite passports and visas. That is all they do – if this company is legit, that is good. My country just charged me $135 for an emergency passport..ok? It’s ok…I have travel insurance. Money not a problem. It must be legal..”

Ha: “I make phone call. It’s legal. Ok. Don’t move.. OK?” She assumes I have some great place to go…

She returns a few minutes later. “Ok. Let’s go. They get you Visa in one day. I negotiated. You only pay $80.” Her smile returned. Yep, she is my travel angel.

On with the helmet. And, onto the motor-bike. We speed through the streets in search of a random office. We pull up. I wait outside. She’s gone for a while. I wait. Find a curb. I’m turing into a Vietnmese. Love curb sitting. This time, I’m not wearing my bike-helement.

She walks out – smiling. “Ok. We good. Get Visa in one day.  Now, you go to Halong Bay to Kayak with Ang. I get you there. Bus pick you up in 2 hours. Take ferry. A bus. A motorbike. And, another boat. Spend one full day at Bay. Ok?”

I respond, “ROCK ON Super star! I did NOT think I would see Halong Bay. I’m so grateful that my heart hurts…

Day of Reckoning. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

No sleep. Maybe 2 hours. I wake at 4 AM. Need to repack for prison or kayaking. Either way, there is a full hour of sorting, folding, tossing before I kick off today’s festivities at 7:45 am.

The hotel lobby greets me around 6:30 AM. I’m back on the phone with the ATM folks at USAA. It’s 5:30 pm Central Standard Time. The real people are working. Real meaning NO night answering morons telling me my ATM card will be in my hands in 15+ days. I go through it again with New ATM gal. She puts me on hold forever and ever. I took it as a good signs. She’s either asking questions or going on a cig break. Either way, she’s meeting my expectations. She’s doing something.

For whatever reason, I keep reminding these ATM gals they are working for an international, military bank. It’s like I want them to take ownership in their brand promise. It seems to have zero impact.

New ATM gal looks into other rush options and it seems like night ATM gal was right. We’re talking about ATM in hand in 4 to 5 business days via FedEx, no guarantees. My heart says – there is a faster way. But, I’m in Hanoi. In a lobby with poor internet connection. Without an identity. So, not much I can do right about now. Release it. Purge the I’m in control monster.

An email pops up from Dad. It’s the secret code needed for Western Union. God willing, Benjamen Franklin and I will be celebrating a la rice wine tonight. But, I must prove my identity to get the money. Government issued ID, which leads me to the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi. This whole day hinges on an emergency passport. The worst part is to get me out of the country, hinges on a communist immigration bureaucracy.

Hello, anxiety? I pray – “God, help me let it go. Protect me. Keep me safe. Send me your top travel angels. Allow me to give this day to you – be gracious, humble and thankful…Thankful I’m NOT in Russia…”

And, then she appeared. My pint-sized travel angel. Quite frankly, I’m not feeling all that confident. What is it about size, clothes, and, overall, first impressions that can set you in a tailspin.

She walked over to me wearing a big smile and introduced herself as “Ha.” I asked her, “Like in HA?” She said yes. I hear myself saying… “ha..ha…ha…This is soooo NOT funny…Please, God…we’re not doing funny today…”

Ha is about four-foot eleven. Sporting jeans, with colored rhinestones spelling the word BeBe. Her little purple polished toes are squished into black, open toe flats. It’s chilly out – like 75 degrees – so she’s bundled up thick glow-in-the-dark blue sweater. Her black hair is slicked back into a tight pony tail, making her look like 16 instead of 22. She’s wearing no visible signs of makeup. Has a few acne scars. And, her mouth carries too many teeth for her small mouth.

She tells me she’s the office receptionist. REALLY? The office recptionsit? Ha…Ha…Ha… Yea, this is getting funnier by the second…

We sit down for she comes up to my arm pit. She describes, in broken English, our game plan for the day. I just listen. Control my breathing. And, take in this little person who is going to find me an idenity and an exit out of V-nam all in ONE day.

Ha: “Get taxi. Go to US consulate. You get passport.  By taxi, go to police to get stamp. Office manager take you to police. She know people. By taxi, we take police stamp and passport to immigration to get Visa…ok…ok…You call US consulate now. Tell you’re coming…ok?”

Me: “Ok?”

I’m trying so hard not to overwhelm her or me. I have so many questions. I quickly determine which questions to ask now and then pepper her with in the taxi on the way to US Consulate. Because, this is NOT that easy – way tooooo many variables. And, I need to calculate and debate. Role play scenarios. Do a decision tree analysis. Game theory…. Just can’t walk into this blindly, can I? Is it possible for me to let go control of these three ginormous “to do” items without questioning, understanding and over analyzing? Inhale. I look at her. My God, I don’t have a choice. I’m in Ha’s hands.  God, are you listening?  It’s time to call in for reinforcements.

Inhale again… “Ok. I do have a few things I need to tell you before we get started…. My father…..” Voice trails off. Tears sprout from my eyes. You see, I have not cried yet. So, why not just let it rip in the lobby. Why not cry so much that black mascara showers my cheeks. Cry so much my lips blow up like Angelina Joelie. Cry so much that I finally have color in my checks. Perfect timing for guess what today is? New passport photo day. I got up even earlier to shower, blow dry the hair and apply cover-up, eyes and lips. Because we all know this photo will haunt you for years… ha…ha..ha..

When I said my Dad’s name, feelings of genuine love and relief overcame me. I miss my family so much – especially in times like this. And, just having their support and prayers is truly indescribable. There are no words. But just tears of gratitude. Tears of thanks. Tears of love.

Ha grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes, “I’m here. No worry. I take care of you…No worry…” I looked into her deep, dark, soulful eyes and knew her little 80 pound frame would be carrying this 6 foot body these next two days. God sent her to me. And, I’m grateful. We’re going to do this – No worries.

I shook my tears away. Repeated out loud…. “Brain… need to be focus… Brain…find logical, rational thoughts…Emotions are for later.” I am NOT kidding. I really said that. I laughed at myself and that my emotional, wackiness subsided. I uttered Western and Union and Daddy in the same sentence without having a nervous breakdown. We’re off to a good start.

Next thing I know, we are in the back of a cab in route to the US consulates office. Ha asked me within 30 seconds of our trip if I have a boyfriend. I laughed. GREAT distraction. I said, “No…Not as of 5 mins ago… Why? Do you have a tall, smart brother?” For whatever reason, she thought that was so funny. She said, “No tall in Vietnam. We short.” She told me about this boy – in high school – with whom she has a crush. They go out with a large groups – eat sunflower seeds and drink green tea. They’re just friends, but she likes him more. The taxi stops in front of a big, ugly yellow building.

We get out. She grabs my arm to lead me. She’s not letting go – and never did for 2 days.

We march to the building with my country’s flag. Wanted to climb up the pole and kiss it. The guard said, “you in wrong place. Passport office moved…” Ha looked shocked. And, then she turned it on. My word, she’s got it. She has the FLIRT gene. God is GOOD! I got a Vietnamese Choppy! (Choppy is my stepsister, BFFer.. She’s one of the top flirts out there..) Next thing I know, V-nam military leaves his post and is escorting us down the sidewalk. He points the building. Ha smiles, never letting go of my arm.

As we are crossing the street she asks, “What do you do when you’re sad?” The question startles me. It’s a little out of context as we fight traffic with our feet. I scream over honking horns, “I write. I have a journal. When I’m sad– I go to a place –by myself – and write…and pray…later, like 1 week or 1 year later, I look back and see how much I’ve learned…and, you? What do you do when you are sad?”

Ha said, “I write too! And, listen to my favorite music. I go outside of Hanoi, where it is more quiet. I like to write. I have a journal…” Perfect. We have something in common. And, by this time, we are in front of a gray, oversized building. I head inside to see what the US consulate has in store for me.

Second floor. Second window. There are only two or three people in the lobby. None are from the US. Not sure if this is a good sign. I ring the bell on window 2.  A Vietnamese lady speaking perfect English greets me. I tell her my situation. She nods. She says she received my email and has a copy of my passport. Then, she uttered words I longed to hear, “We’ve been expecting you…” I LOVE my country. L-O-V-E!

Relief flooded the body. She told me where to go for new passport photos as she handed me a stack of documents. As I wait for the photos, I can fill out all the paper work. Wanted to kiss the woman. The words, “she’s been expecting me” rings in my ears as I skip down the steps.

Ha is waiting for me outside. We head down to the Kodak store to pose for pictures. I pass by a mirror. Damn, this is going to be one ugly photo. I quickly whip on some lipstick so I would not fade away. Kodak V-nam dude takes one photo and tells me to wait. Only one photo? Can’t we go for the best of five? Back to ugly. I just nod and smile, reminding myself it is out of my hands. I start to fill out the paper work. Ha is holding my arm – still. I told her I’m not going anywhere. She says, “Friends hold each other when sad and happy…” I smile. Look over at the Kodak V-nam dude and he’s touching up wedding photos. Yea, we will be here for a while.

About thirty mins later, I have the passport photos. Not that bad. He photo-shopped the dark circles Red puffiness. And, kept my oversized lips. And, my skin looks flawless. Like HIM! And, like the photo. Who knew redesigning your face was included in the $1 price?

Back at the consulate’s office. I turn in the paperwork and sit down. Wait. Wait. The Director of Passport (I guess that is her title) called me over. She is a fellow TallGirl too! We bonded. Good energy. I told her what happened. Told her I’m taking time off to travel. Told her I’m thankful I’m NOT in Russia. She agreed. Or, China. She agreed. But, she DID say, “BUT you’re in Vietnam…” I smiled. And, later found out what was behind those words.

Tall consulate woman said, normally, she only issues a three month emergency passport. But, she will extend it to 7 months for me. She recommend once I get to Cape Town, for I’ll be there for 2 weeks, to contact the embassy and have them issue me a REAL passport. This emergency passport will cost me $135 US. I told her, “I have NO money. Nothing. And, I can’t go to Western Union without a govt. issued ID. “

She told me to borrow from the Travel Agency. She said to come back between 3:00 – 4:00 pm to pick up the passport. In the meantime, I need to go to the police now to get a formal incident report with a stamp. Bring it back and the US consulate will write a letter to the V-nam immigration requesting an emergency Visa. I thanked her profusely. And, thanked God the place as not packed so all the govt. worker bees can focus on my issue. I’m serious too. The place was DEAD.

I tell Ha about the $$ situation and ask to borrow $200 US dollars. She smiled and said, “Ok. I call friend. Wait 20 mins, Ok? We get green tea.” We sit on two stools for micro-mini people on the sidewalk, in front of the US consulate building. And old woman with narley hands, dirty fingernails and no hygiene hands us two dirty glasses full of tea for $.15. I take. Drink. And, say a silent toast to Tour-burn for gifting me his cold for I’m consuming large doses of antibiotics to kill all bacteria on sight.

Ha and I watch the world pass us by. We go through different scenarios of our day. “What if… What if… What if….” Next thing I know, a kid who looks about 12 pulls up on motor-bike and pulls out a wad of cash. Hands it to Ha. She giggles, bats her eyes, touches his arm and yanks the $ from his little grubby hands. He blushes. My word, she is good.

We got the $$. Next stop, her travel agency office to tackle the next cog – Vietnamese police department. I have to file a formal report with the police if I’m to get a Visa. Ha said, “Office manager know police in neighborhood. She take you. On motor-bike… You go with her..” I nod. What am I going to say, “no?”

We arrive at Handspan Travel Adventures and the Office Manager introduces herself. Didn’t catch the name, so I called her Ann. She hands me a motor-bike helmet. Next thing I know, I’m straddling little Ann as we fly through the busy streets of Hanoi. I’m actually smiling. Having fun.

We pull up in front of the police station. Buzz kill. Fun is over. The Vietnamese police station is like something out of a military, war movie. Like Platoon. This station is sandwiched between an assortment of shops — coffee, stuffed animals, handicrafts, stolen movies… We park the motor-bicycle out front. Ann reminds me of my story. We rehearsed it several times. “Stolen passport. Stolen $200.”

I believe she was more concerned about the street names than anything else. Apparently, Hanoi is divided into police districts. The police departments are judged by crime reported in their district. Less crime reported, the better for the police station. Some areas – like the touristy areas – the police departments are HYPER sensitive to reporting crime. If something bad happens to a tourist, then the department is severely reprimanded. I did NOT know this. I would have been vomiting in a toilet if so.

We walked up the three concrete stairs. No doors. Few plastic chairs scattered to the side. Two men in olive green, polyester uniforms look up. NO smile. They said a few words to each other. Younger man leaves. Older man of 50+ sits and stares. He is wearing German, style square glasses. Faint gray mustache line his lips. Skin is smooth. Shirt is open. No hair on his chest. Ho Chi Minh portrait hangs above him. His, uniform is too large and swamps his small frame.

His eyes say it all. He does NOT give a shit. Only thing he cares about is good sex and good rice wine. He looks past us as we walk closer to his desk. His desk is perched in the middle of the room. It’s his thrown. I look over my shoulder to see what is holding his attention. Then, I look down in embarrassment. GIRLS GYMNASTICS is on the TV. He’s entranced. So, I revise my comments. Let’s add good sex with little girls to the list.

We sit. I slump over a tad. Body language of the submissive foreigner. Ann sits up. Leans forward. Tilts her head and smiles. Everyone is listening. I notice police from the backroom got word a “foreigner” is here – so now we have a party. Shit. V-nam Police Pervert is not going to cave. I slump over more and look down. I repeat, “look humble.. respectful..listen..”

Ann starts. Police Perv is intent on watching gymnastics. He looks at me a few times as she continues to tell my story. Does not say a word. Nothing. She stops. He’s silent, like he did not hear a thing. He tilts his head. After a few moments of silence, he looks at me quickly, turns to Ann and says, “was not stolen…she lost her passport.” Ann translates. I give him a look of confusion. And, shook my head. I said the word S-T-O-L-E-N very slowly. He sighs. Great, he’s part Russian.

A younger man looking on says something. Police pervert reaches for a folder. Starts to go through it while looking at the gymnastics. There’s no motivation to find the document. Younger police man opens a file cabinet and yanks the sheet out. Hands it to Ann and smiles. Maybe THIS is her friend? She fills out the form for me. Her writing. Police pervert is paying no attention. But this time, the room has cleared. It’s anticlimactic. Maybe its a blessing he was distracted by flat chested, little girls twirling in leotards.

Ann writes my passport was lost. I grabbed her pen. Wrong verb. I scribble in caps STOLEN. What is it about verbs. They can make or break you. It’s always about the verb. If it is lost, I get no stamp. She looks embarrassed. She keeps writing. Then, hands it to me to sign. I sign it hoping it will not come back to haunt me. I mean, it’s all true – but signing a V-nam police document in a communist country… Makes me skirmish. Again, calling on my faith and travel angels.

Police pervert looks over the document. Says a few things. Puts it down and continues to watch TV. Now and then, he looks outside to see what’s happening. Ann says, “he can’t speak or read English. I need to translate to Vietnamese.” I reminded her, “Please say the word stolen…” She finished. Pushed the paper back to him. Police pervert sighs. Not happy about missing his gymnastics. Stands up. Shakes his head and walked in the back room, leaving us out front.

Ann and I move to plastic seats in the corner. I notice more and more people are coming in to sign a paper and give the police money. I ask, “What’s going on? Crime reports?” Ann laughs, “No. The police charge for parking motor-bike out front. Money business for them.” Of course the do… Got to love seeing capitalism at work in police departments in communist countries.

We wait. Watch. Ann is nervous, but tries to appear calm. I’m reading every expression in the room. I ask, “what’s happening now?” She said, “Police meeting. Decide to sign or not. No like signing…Bad. Crime needs to be low here. No good to have crime with foreigners…” This was my OH SHIT wake up call. I knew what she meant. I just sat there, praying. Ok God, it’s ALL in your hands. I’m just watching. I tell myself – it’s a movie…I’m really at the movie chomping on family sized popcorn and supersized Coke Zero. I’m just an observer.

Police pervert walks out about 20 mins later and tosses the paper at us. Ann looks surprised. I mean, shocked. I just smile not knowing what happened. She thanked them, grabbed my arm and ushered me out with great speed. Those red high heels can walk fast. She said, “Helmet fast. Get on motor-bike.” I did. We sped off. She starts to laugh. I can’t hear what she says, but I scream PART-AY really loud. She giggles even louder.

We pull up at Handspan Travel Adventure’s office. She gets off. Looks at me and said, “You lucky. Very lucky. Very lucky. Three or four hours at police. Never sign. You lucky. Lucky…” I said, “No luck. We’re blessed. Travel angels are with us…” She giggled, “Yes, angles… and dragons…” She kept on rattling off more. I smiled. And, asked her to make several copies of this police report.

I ate some lunch. Big bowl of carbs, washed down with a beer. Next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motor-bike heading to US Consulate’s office. Ha is in the driver’s seat. We pull up around 2:30 pm. I’m to pick up the passport around 3:00 pm, but hoping to get it sooner so we can make it to immigration and Western Union. The guards now know me. I sprint up to the second floor. Ring the bell at second window.

They gals ask for my police report. I gave it them. They were surprised I got one – and got one so fast. They said, “That is not normal in Vietnam… Usually takes days for police report…You are lucky…”

Hmmmm… maybe police pervert wanted me out of his country for I’m not his type… Or, he had to make crime quota for the month… Or, saw that I was NOT one of those narly backpackers who drink, vomit and poop all over his streets. I don’t care. Just blessed. I sit down. Thank my travel angels. And, wait. And, wait..

About 30 mins later, I walk out of US consulate’s office with my passport in hand. I have a 7 month extension. Hurray! I have an identity. I will say the passport looks fake. Looks like some kid did it on power-point. As long as it gets me out… Gets me to Cambodia…

Ha and I are back on the motor-bike and race to Western Union. I smiled. It’s now almost 4:00 pm. Ha and I bet we can get the $$ in minutes and be at V-nam immigration by 4:15 pm. It’s right around the corner. We submit my paperwork and pick up Visa the next day. Life is good.


The V-nam bank using Western Union services was slower than slow. The girl who helped me had trouble dialing a phone and using the fax machine. I did NOT know what to do. I can’t tell her to hurry it up b/c I need to get to “immigration” in time. She has my money. I need to be nice.

Then, Ha stomped in. Highly annoyed. It’s been 15 mins and she not tolerating slowness right now. She lays into little girl in a pretty suit. The girl looks mortified. Ha and shy girl come to a solution. Make a copy of my passport for Western Union files. We go to immigration and come back after to pick up my money. Done. We bolt. No need to put my motor-helmet on, because I was wearing it in the bank. Saving time. And, we’re off… zooming through the crowded streets. Going a zillion miles an hour.

We pull into the V-nam immigration. The French used the building as a prison back in the day. Perfect setting. As we’re pulling in, everyone is leaving. It’s 4:28 pm. Govt. workers going home. Ha ignored this and motored through. She was making fun of them – their schedules – and the fact they don’t work.

We park the motor-bike. I can’t get my helmet off. It stays on. Ha grabs my arm. She guides me through the crowd. Smiling. Talking. Responding to these govt employees. They all look at me. Who knows what she is saying. They smile back. I look like the Jolly Green Giant wearing a blue bike helmet. I feel it too.

We are walking up some stairs. Ha still has my arm. A woman asks where are we going. Just so happens she works in the Visa department. She looks through my paperwork and says we’re missing a document. I need a stamped letter from the hotel saying to confirm I was there. Ha looked very upset. She was trying to convince the woman to follow us to HER office to start processing my Visa now. Ha REALLY wanted to wrap all of this up in one day. From where I sit, I have an identity and money waiting. That’s called a miracle…

Back on the motor-bike to Western Union. She stops. I hop off and run across the street. The bank is closed. A large garage door covers the entire storefront window. Workers can’t see out. I can see them through the cracks. I’m NOT leaving without my money.

Wearing my motor-bike helmet, Jolly Green Giant starts banging on the metal garage door. You can see the scene now. Tall blond. Jeans. White long sleeve t-shirt. Pink hiking boots. Striped socks. Pounding with both hands as hard as possible. People behind me stopped. I feel their eyes. I hear Ha, “Amanda…No! We ok…No more bang…Stop!” I started to laugh.

Ha grabbed my arm and says, “see what happens when I let go of arm…you go crazy….I take care of this…no worry…”

Don’t ask me how, but we find our way into the building. A security guard waits for us in an some random garage for motor-bikes. We walk through a long hallway and enter the bank through the back door. I see slow Western Union girl. She smiles. Hands over the Benjamen Franklins. I LOVE him. I ask for a receipt. Slow girl takes a good 10 minutes to turn on and make a copy of the receipt. My word… I could NOT work here.

We’re back on the motor-bike. It’s getting dark. Ha drops me off at the hotel with instructions. “You ready at 7:45 am. Sorry about immigration. No worry. My country slow. We fix…”

I thanked her again and again. Told her she was my present. My gift. And, to keep holding on to me so I won’t go crazy. And, I needed her more than she knows…

Stolen Identity. Hanoi, Vietnam.

11 Dec

Wanted adventure.  Got adventure.

Entire identity was stolen from me last night. Passport. Visa. Credit cards. Driver’s license. Cash… You name it. Gone. All in the name of shopping. The first time I’ve shopped since I left the land of free press.  BAM.  Talk about buzz kill.

I’m sitting at the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi, Vietnam. Waiting.  Thought now is a good time to start chronicling these last 18 hours.

The US Consulate’s office is what you imagine. Grey blue walls. Gray tile floors. Obama, Hilary and Joe all staring at me – smiling. I’m not taken much comfort in their rosy disposition.  Instead, I want to cry. I need to cry. I feel it in my throat. The enormity. The violation. It’s settling in.

Last night was just adrenaline. Today is –oh shit. I’m in a wanna-be Communist Country with out an identity. I keep pushing my mind to the positive. God is good. I mean, I could be in Russia. I could be in jail in Russia. They they imprison you for being without a passport.

I keep going to the positive.   Well, I could be in China. I could be in a jail in China where I would be a just another faceless number buying my time.

God is good. I’m in Vietnam. This capitalistic communist country recognizes tourist dollars are needed for their economic survival. I’ve got that on my side. God is good.

So, what happened. How in the world am I seeing the inside of one of our nation’s consulates  in a country we terrorized only 35+ years ago.  It goes back to shopping. Two main points here. Vietnam is on sale. And, US dollar is one degree stronger here than other Asian countries. Oh, I almost forgot, the post office is in walking distance from my hotel. The shopping stars aligned. So, I took to the markets to spend US dollars.

Wait. The US Consulate’s office is blasting God Bless America over the sound system. They have a video of clean, happy Americans eating pie, BBQ, riding motorcycles, drinking beer and smiling. Who are these people? I want to be them right about now. Kudos to the video editor for it looks like the US is diversity sensitive. I look around. Is anyone watching the video? I’m the only one. Have tears in my eyes. I love our country. I’m soooo ready to cry right now.

Back to yesterday.

Of COURSE, I was pick-pocketed five minutes away from my hotel. Just bought a bowl with a hole for chop sticks. Yes, liking the chop sticks thing…. I paid with cash. Put my mini-wallet in my backpack. Walked out of shop with three bags. Meandered down the street looking at counterfeit Northface jackets and Gucci shoes. Cruised into the hotel lobby. Reached for my purse. Noticed my zipper was slightly open. Hmmmm.. Yes, I did the hmmmm thing. Felt heart start to race. Felt light headed. Felt sweat. Body going straight into adrenaline mode before I even reached for my bag. Spirit knew I was FUUUU before the mind did.

Breathing got labored. I started to wave my hands next to my face, thinking it would cool me. I took a deep breath and went into search and destroy mode. Dumped everything on the hotel lobby marble floor. Two mini-Vietnamese front desk girls looked on in horror. Words have not been uttered yet. Just crazy flapping of the arms and shit spilled on the floor. I look up at them and bellowed, “Call Ang now. Call Ang. Call Ang. Call tour operator. Passport stolen. Need him here now. OK?”

Within seconds, I’m out the door. Walking as fast as possible – if not jogging – back to the last store. Trying to navigate motor-bikes, taxis, bikes and walkers. At this point, I didn’t care if I were hit because I would feel NO pain. I’m now sprinting. Within minutes, I’m back at the shop. I walked in calmly. I wanted to see the expression of the girls’ eyes – afraid or questioning. If it’s afraid, they are going down. If it is innocently curious, then they are scratched off my “who done it” list. By now, I had a long list for everyone I passed on the street are guilty.

The two girls were helping another customer. One waved. The other smiled and walked over.  They are excited to see me.  They don’t have it. I hastily ask about my wallet? They look frightened now for their store will possibly be named in a police report.  No longer my problem.

I sprinted out the door. I’m actually surprised I found the shop for Hanoi is one big cluster of streets, markets, shops and traffic. Each street looks and sounds the same. Run down French architecture and a lot of honking. I spied a $3 pedicure place. Damn, I wanted to get a pedicure, but now can’t because I have NO money. Not even $3! I’m screwed…

I’m back at the Hotel Serenade in minutes. I shouted, “Where is Ang? Call him? Where is he?”  I called Tour-Burn and asked him for Ang’s number. No, I did not have his number for it was in my WALLET. The front desk lady handed me the phone.  She was clearly frightened of me. I told Ang what happened. Twenty-six year old appeared at the lobby minutes later.

By this point, I’m back in my room. For whatever reason, the hotel hooked me up with an AWESOME room overlooking the streets of Hanoi. Big king size bed and over-sized tub. But, no internet connection. How do I know? Well, I called the front desk. Raised my voice in hysteria about “no internet connection.”

Seconds later the hostess at the restaurant appeared with a cable cord in one hand and hot water for tea in the other. Why can’t it be vodka. After she fiddled with my computer, she declared “Room no internet. Near street and far from router. Cable no good.”

It did not makes sense but I had a solution.  I will take Magic Jack and the 1980’s phone from Wal-Mart to the lobby and work off their computer. I had to call the bank to cancel my life line of $$ and have them reissue new cards ASAP.

It’s around 7 pm. I’m seated in the hotel lobby with my 1980’s phone. French tourists were walking in from a day of touring. They were loud. Ang is sitting next to me –just watching. He won’t leave my side, yet has zero solutions so far. I ask, “I’m sure this has happen before. This is common, no?”   He responds, “First time happen to me… Vietnam is very safe…” Great. Got a newbie here.

On the phone with USAA ATM hotlink. I’m mentioning their name because I’m floored. Here it goes… This is after hours lady…

Me: “Hi. I’m a USAA member. Bank with you. I’m in Vietnam and had my passport, ATM and credit cards stolen. I need for you to cancel my ATM and reissue me a new one.”

ATM gal: “Wow. That is terrible? Where are you?”

Me: “Vietnam. Hanoi. Capital City. Yes, it’s bad. Can you please stop my ATM.”

ATM gal: “Not a problem. I will take care of it. Your new card should arrive between 14 to 21 business days.”

Me: Pause. Shake my head. Brain was screaming, NOT AN OPTION. “That will not work. I need for you to FedEx the new card immediately. I need you to overnight it.  It must be here in 2 days. I leave Hanoi for Saigon in 2 days. ATM is the ONLY way to get any money. Don’t forget, I’m in Vietnam.”

ATM gal: “With international express mail, I can’t guarantee you when it will arrive. You didn’t carry checks?”

Me: Did ATM gal really just ask me about CHECKS? All credibility just flew OUT the door. “Yes, you CAN guarantee international shipping. Fed Ex has a tracking system. Their whole business model is based on the premise of getting random stuff to people anywhere in the world in matter of hours or days – not weeks or months. You pay up the nose. But, they will get it to you. I think there is some confusion here. I need my ATM fast. I need for FedEx to deliver it to my hotel in 2 days. I leave in 2 days…”

ATM gal: “You will need to call Fed Ex.  Do you have a pen.  It’s 1-800-Go Express. It’s an easy number. Tell them you have the $8 option. That is what USAA uses…”

Me: “$8 option? I will pay the $80 option….. And, don’t I need a tracking number before I call them……. And, what I’m hearing you say is if I call this 1-800 number and say “$8” option they will know what I’m talking about? Look… I need my ATM. And, you are a military bank – you have people living all around the world. I’m SURE you can send cards to people within days… I’m positive..”

ATM gal: “Let me check for you. It looks like we can’t guarantee it but there is a chance we can get it there in 4 to 5 business days. So, we’re looking at next week sometime. Do you have a physical address?”

I think to myself. FedEx ships on the weekend too. Has this lady missed the memo on international shipping? And, does she realize she works for an international bank, not some community bank in farm-town USA where Fed-Ex stands for former Federal employees? Yep. This is what you get when working with the after hours on call folks. I WILL be calling back.

Now, I needed to think through dates. Where in the hell where will I be in 4 or 5 days. I don’t even know what day it is. My bottom has been glued to a bike seat for 3 days and, after that, I’ve been trekking for another 3 through the jungles and rice fields of Vietnam. It could be Thanksgiving for all I know. Mind is calm. The day Tuesday pops in my head. It’s the 17th. So, in 4 days, I will be in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in route to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Couldn’t get any less civilized right about now. And, I’m not staying at a star hotel with a reputable name. So, sending my cards to a random, no star hotel in Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh was not an option.

I turned to Ang. I needed to make this kid useful. I asked, “Hey, does your company have an office in Ho Chi Minh?”

He said, “Yes. We do.”

I responded, “Write down the address. Do they speak English there? And, is it a physical location or just a PO box….”

He answered my zillion in one questions. Who knew I could come up with so many questions about an office location… “speak English? Receptionist speak English? Manger at this location? Telephone work at all times…Back up generator during power loss… Open on weekends? Hours of operations? Do they understand what signing for mail means? Have they heard of Fed Ex? Do they have the authority from their manger to sign????” Questions kept coming until I felt assured that this travel agency, Handspan Travel, can handle the signing and holding of an envelop with precious goods. Yes, Tall Girl is still in control, bully mode..

I get back to ATM lady.

Me: “I got an address for you in Ho Chi Minh. Yes, that is right. They use both Saigon and Ho Chi Minh. Today, we’re using Ho Chi Minh…. What do you mean the computer won’t let you put in Ho Chi Minh…what do you mean there is not enough lines for the address…what do you mean the address defaults to ‘Street’… what do you mean that the phone number does not fit…”

Yes, this was the call. So, in my mind, I will never see the ATM card. I need to think of another option. Next was the call to the credit card side to shut down my card. Another dozy. I never thought getting a credit card would be SO impossible. They give them out to students at college campuses. My word, they were mailing them to us when Enron was crashing. Giving them out to people who can’t pay, yet can’t get it to those that can pay. And, you wonder why they are in such a mess. Shock city. Focus.

Call with credit card lady at USAA went something like this…

CC lady: “Glad you are OK. Of course we can stop payment on your credit card and reissue you a new one. Do I send it to your home address listed in the system?”

Me: “No. I said I’m in Vietnam, not Winter Park, Florida. I need it sent to me in Vietnam….that should not be a problem for you are a military bank. An international bank with clients living all around the world. And, credit cards seem to fly by themselves. So, I’m confident there will be NO problem getting me my new credit card in 2 days…”

CC lady: “It normally takes longer. It will be in for an emergency credit card with Master Card. It’s up to them on when they process and send it to you. We ship by FedEx and you should have it in 7 business days.”

Are these people mad? I’m mean REALLY!!!! I have NO money. Nothing. Not a cent. I’m thinking of opening up a Viet-Comm banking account right about now. I’m thinking they can get me a card in an hour, not days and days and days. Unreal.

ME: “What I don’t understand is you are an international bank. And, you can’t get me a new card faster. I need this expedited. I will pay.”

Turns out, she can get it to me – NOT guaranteed” in 3 to 4 business days, if I’m lucky. Turns out that her system allows enough room for the address, but not enough room for the company name. Computers…. UGH. I hung up and decided I will be looking for a new bank. Citibank is everywhere.  This is truly ridiculous. I have no money. Need to figure out $$. So, who do you turn to in crisis situations, DADDY!

I called Dad. It’s after 7 am there. He’s up. He’s probably at work. I got him before he walked out the door. I tell him the situation. Calm, cool and collected, he says, “I’ll wire you money. Western Union. No problem.” What is it about Dad’s and daughters? They have that gene to solve problems of hysterical, emotionally wrecked daughters who are sitting penniless in communist countries.  I felt confident I would be seeing the green back by the next day. Love DADDY!

Ang gets a call from his agency. He informs me that a woman from Handspan Travel will be at the hotel at 8 AM to take me to the US consulate’s office and local police department. Told me not to worry. By this time, I’m not worrying about anything. All I wanted was a beer and some rice. It’s out of my hands. I am no longer in control. Bully, demanding, I’m in control of everything Amanda has been purged. And, it SUCKS. So need a drink because the next 48 hours will be a wild ride.

Ang, Tour-burn and I head to dinner. We opted for a restaurant with windows and chairs over 2 feet tall. I ordered steam broccoli with my dinner. They brought me steamed cabbage. I told Ang – this is not what I ordered. I’m in a mood. Over it. And, I’m fighting for my steamed veggies tonight.

Ang and the waitress go at it. I mean, he is attacking her. She’s attacking him. They get the menu out. I just watch. Mind is checked out. Mind is in a far away place. Ang finally says, “They fry broccoli, not steam. Only steam cabbage.” This would NOT fly in the states. I just nod. Reached for the soy sauce, chillies and chop sticks, and began to consume my steamed cabbage.  No need to ask questions, just salt the shit and move on.

Back at the hotel, I crawled into my super-sized bed. Can’t sleep. Mind races to random places. Somehow my neurons find their way to V-nam police station.  And, V-nam immigration offices…. I think I slept about 2 hours. So, I was emotionally primed when I met – who would later become my travel angel… The adventure continues…

College and Dating. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

I wanted to understand what college life was like in Vietnam. Do they have sororities? Fraternities? All night keggers? Hook ups and throw ups? I wanted Ang to give me the 411 on college life in this wanna-be communist country. Here is part of our conversation.

Me: “So, in college..what did you do for fun? I mean did you have parties at friends’ apartments?”

Ang: “We call each other up. Meet at the sidewalk for green tea. Eat sun flower seeds. Talk. Laugh. Drink more green tea… Meet girls on the sidewalk. My friends have our own sidewalk corner. We go there…”

Green tea? Sidewalk? Sunflower seeds? Little different than my kegger college experience.

Ang said at his University, his professors taught them think. Professors would only give them half the answer and ask the students to do research. From what I was hearing, his university taught students how to critically think, analyze and come up with their own conclusions – unlike China where memorization and regurgitation are the way, the truth, and the light…

For a one-party, communist country, this slightly surprises me. I’m learning more about Ho Chi Minh – founder of the Vietnam’s communist party and the illustrious Viet Cong.

A focus of Ho Chi was education. He believed education would free the people of occupation. Ho Chi built schools everywhere. You question, what was taught in these schools. But, if we keep this high level, Ho Chi instilled a culture of education, knowledge and learning – regardless of subject matter.

This philosophy seems to be true today as well. Vietnam seems to be much more open than China. The V-nam government has tried to limit Facebook, for example, but the Vietnamese students have figured out ways around it.  Unlike China, the government is not stopping them.

Ang said that his friends know Vietnam needs to change – but needs to change slowly. His parents and grandparents are amazed at the progress, and yet horrified by it as well. So much has changed since the Vietnam War. Ang said the government still closes down newspapers and censors publications that go against party lines.

For example, they are building a huge hydro dam and the government will be relocating many tribal people. (Sound familiar? China and Three Gorges Dam.) People are upset and wrote letters to the papers. Papers printed it. And, followed up with articles. Government got annoyed. Shut down the paper. Had everyone fired. This is how the government controls what is said. But, the people know the truth.

Also, as a tourist, you are tracked everywhere you go. (Not the case with me..more on that later…) The government, according to Ang, wants to know tourists are safe. Whatever. Call what you want.

I asked Ang for an example. He said, Mae, our ethnic tour guide, had to send our passport information to the Tribal leader of the local village where we are staying tonight.

The tribal leader called the police to get approval. Once the police approves, then tribal leader allows us to come to his village. It’s the tribal leader who assigns the family to take care of us. Only certain families can receive tourists in their homes. Many homes are not equipped with standing toilets, concrete bathroom floors and spigots of cold water. This is the government’s way to ensure the tourists only see and experience what THEY want them to see. I say this, yet don’t feel like I’m being denied the REAL Vietnam, like China. You can go anywhere you like. I mean the Vietnamese passport process was the most lax yet.

Ang on dating…

Me: “So, you’re almost 26. Are you looking to get married… What type of girl do you like?”

Ang: “I like a girl who can cook, clean, take care of family. I like a girl who does not have a big, hard job. I want her to be home when I’m home.”

Me: “What professions then?”

Ang: “Teacher. I like teachers. And, bankers. The girls work in the bank. They are professional. I like their suits. And, they don’t work late.”

Me: “So, you would not date a shop keeper because they work weekends, nights…very hard?”

Ang: “Different here. I would date a shop keeper. They can close shop when they want. If my wife need to go home early. Not work. Then, she close her shop for me.”

Me: “Really……What if your parents don’t like your girlfriend? What happens?”

Ang: “I’m a boy. It does not matter. Boy says they like girl. End of story. For a girl, it is different. If parent’s don’t like boyfriend, then daughter has to break up with him. North Vietnam is very traditional, unlike South Vietnam. Daughters must obey parents. Sons, not as much.”

Me: “Yea, that wouldn’t go over well in our family… Do you agree with this?”

Ang: “Yes. Because I am a boy….”

Indeed you are.

Vietnam is progressing, but still has a long way to go. It’s interesting because I asked a young girl about dating in Saigon (Southern Vietnam) and she said her parents have NO say in who she dates. Just asking about dating gives you another glimpse into the difference between North vs. South Vietnam. The later controlled by Ho Chi and the South controlled by capitalist.

I hope Ang finds his woman – He deserves only the best.

More Trekking and Tribes. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

Who knew I was part Vietnamese..

These last few days have been amazing. Besides catching a cold from the Norwegian and loading up on Vietnamese pharmaceuticals, this outdoor adventure trip has exceeded all expectations.

I was not all gung-ho about Vietnam only because I was coming off spa-life in Thailand. The thought of hiking through rice patties, biking up mountains, getting wet in a bacteria filled bay and sleeping on bamboo mats with no shower, was unappealing at best. How my attitude has changed. Loving it. Loving it. Loving it. Love Vietnam. Got to come back.

I’ve entered the trekking portions of the trip and hiking around 7,000+ feet above sea level. Point is I can still breathe. Ang, Tour-Burn and I arrived at a town called Sapa yesterday. I just love how Ang described this town.

He said, “The local people know tourism. The French here in 1905. Then, Japanese… Americans…  Local ethnic people speak many languages – French, English, Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese.  Local people learn fast. They understand tourists.”

Excuse me?  Sapa was an occupied town, not a town for tourist training. The French took over Sapa for they saw it as the strategic center to controlling all North Vietnam and Laos. Ang has missed the boat or thinks we’re no longer listening.

Sapa gave me an amazing gift. It’s called cheap laundry. OMG. Six dollars for 90% of my laundry. Sapa has dryers AND some powder substance they call whitening. We’re talking ALMOST bleach. My white long sleeve t-shirt was no longer yellow, just a warm mayonnaise color. When I picked up my clothes yesterday, I applauded. Little ethnic lady dressed garb just grinned ear to ear showcasing her gold tooth. I wanted to hug her too. Sorry to digress… Back to trekking…

To help the local ethnic people, a representative from the Black H’maon tribe – translation is black flower – must accompany you on your trek.

The Black Flower tour guides earn $5 a day for taking foreigners through their mountains, through their villages, through their rice fields.

Our Black Flower guide’s name is Mae. She is 22. Very shy. Oldest of six in her family. Never went to school, for schools were just being built in her village. Plus, as the oldest, she was required to take care of her siblings starting at age six or so. Her youngest sister is now 4 years old. Her mom was 16 when she got married… Mae thinks her mom will have more babies..

Mae may not know Pythagorean theorem but she knows English. She learned

Trekking thru a rice field...

the language by hassling tourists in the market. As a child, she accompanied her grandmother to Sapa to sell trinkets, thread, purses and key chains to the former occupiers of Sapa – the tourists. She said, she started out as “hello…” Then, progressed to, “what is your name… where are you from…give me money…” Then, it was onto numbers and counting.

Her grandmother had a booth in the market, and this is how she learned to bargain and expand her English. I told her she is 150% smarter than most for her English is excellent, especially since she learned it from the Americans, Australians, English, Germans, Swedes, Russians, Indians, and any other random nationality. She said she had no choice for she was the oldest and had to help her family make money.

Some of Mae’s friends from her tribe are also guides. She said, none of them want to get married to traditional Black Flower men and see themselves as living in limbo-land. Her other friends, with whom she grew up with in the village, have been married since 16 or 18 and already have two or three kids. They work in their fields full time, have babies and do what the man says.

If she were to marry a Black Flower, then she must give up her job, stay home — cook, clean, harvest rice, slaughter pigs and raise babies. She would loose her voice. Her identity. And, having the option to say “no.”

Better cell reception than Orlando...

Her language skills and her job have opened the door to a new world. She can’t go back to the “old, traditional ways.” She is the first in her tribe to have this type of job – with outside foreigners – where she earns a formal salary. All the tour guides from her tribe are female because the boys see working with tourists as “female” work. They equate it to selling goods in the market. Yet, it is the women who make the money.

Her parents are FREAKING out for they are torn. One side, they are proud of their daughter because she is supporting the family. The other side, she is not married. Boys in her tribe don’t want to date or marry her for she is too progressive. Too strong willed. Too motivated. And, she does NOT want them either. She made that clear.

Mae’s is in no man’s land. Rejected by both words. She knows this too. Accepts it. And, says she does not want to get married, unless the boy works in tourism. She is not going to compromise and neither are her friends. She is very candid about this and knows she’s a future example for her tribe.

And, she loves her job. She’s learning more everyday. She told me a story of how last week, she was taking 15 Australians and French folks through the mountains. One woman got to close to the water buffalo. The water buffalo nailed the woman in the leg. Gashed it open. Blood everywhere. Thank goodness there was a French doctor there to control the bleeding. And, thank goodness they have good cell service – unlike Orlando – and tribe men came immediately. They placed the woman on a stretcher and ran her down the mountain on their backs.

Sapa really does not have a hospital – see picture. So they put her in a car and drove her to Hanoi, about 5 hours away.

I asked if this was common? She said, “Yes… and don’t go near the animals. Meant to tell you that earlier.”

Duly noted. I told her not to worry, for I walk around and scream “Rabbis” at the ferrel dogs.Liability nightmare in the making..

When work becomes unbearable, think of her...

Mae lead us for two days through the mountains of Northern Vietnam. The trek itself was awe-inspiring and not as painful as biking. Take a look at the pictures.

They speak louder than my words…

We stayed with another ethnic family. And, it was Mae who cooed, cleaned and cared for their kids. It is not even her ethnic tribe people, but another – the DAY tribe!

She said she enjoys taking care of others. And, she does an amazing job. I will keep her in my prayers.

TANGENT: It’s early AM. I’m writing. In a bamboo hut on stilts. I think the DAY family is slaughtering the pig right now. I hear a pig screaming. I mean SCREAMING. I can’t wake to that… I mean, fresh pig blood. Pig parts. Pig intestines. Just can’t. I hear the fire crackling down stairs. Please tell me its for the coffee.

Guess what? I was right. Came back to bamboo house mid-afternoon, walked into the kitchen and low and behold, what’s hanging in front of me. Pig parts…They are smoking the pig they just killed that morning. Soooo going vegetarianism after this gig…

Below are some pics from the hiking adventure…

Mountaing Biking in Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

We’re driving down the strenuous stretch. Leaving the village of Bac Ha in our dust. Just yesterday, Tour-burn and I were biking this highway – the strenuous stretch. The driver has to put the van in low gear. It’s that steep. All I can say is, “I can’t believe this…This is crazy.. I’m from Florida..I’m not outdoorsy. This is not right…”

As the van carries us down the mountain, we pass construction zones, where young men and women are breaking rocks with hammers and digging ditches with small shovels. I recognize them. They are my fans – clapping and screaming in Vietnamese – Are YOU out of your mind!!

By the way, I have not seen one other walker, biker or jogger on this highway. Not even a villager is walking the thing. Damn, I really did this? Wait, I think those are my little dirty, naked highway kids. I took their picture, right? The positive is we did not drive up this “stretch” before our ride for there is NO way I could have made it.

Day three of biking was an ALL mountain biking day. We could not ask for better weather. But, I could ask for more Advil. Majority of the ride was downhill, navigating boulders, rocks and water buffalo patties. It was still grueling. My pelvis may have NOT touched the seat, but my legs and backed burned. Imagine sitting in a squat for 2 hours straight, downhill. And, why do people do this?

I know. The scenery. Today was some of the best scenery yet. No one was on this road – did you hear me? No one. When we were in route to remote mountain path, we took a detour and stopped at a market for the red flower ethnic tribe. NO tourists. This is where I had a little dude install a new watch battery. You would have thought he was performing surgery. A whole crowd gathered around him and watched him take out a Chinese battery and put a new one it. He did it. The watch works. I asked him about warranty for the battery. He told Ang, I have one year guarantee. Had to laugh –

Below are some of the pics from the market. Look how they carry their cute babies. Their bright colored clothes. And, look how they sell rice wine. Funnel cups! Also, the rice noodles are a carb-lovers delight.

After the 2 hour mountain bike trek, we loaded up and headed to Sapa to start the trekking to even more remote villages of more remote ethnic people…

Pouring Rice Wine

Strenous Stretch. Painful Pelvis. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

Children are no longer an option. Not humanly possible. No way. I’m done.  Out for the count.

It’s late at night. In a hotel room in a random, Northern Vietnam town. And, I’m pondering the word, “Strenuous Stretch?” That’s how the Adventure Travel brochure described today’s ride. “Strenuous Stretch.” Stretch means short distance, right? Not 15 km uphill.   Today is an example of marketing gone wrong.

Let’s make it clear. I’m not a biker. Cyclist. Peddler. My biking days consist of a stationary bike at the YMCA and a yellow Schwinn with baskets at seven. Had a mountain bike at college in Colorado. It was stolen on week two. The cops recovered it. Mountain biked moved to tour-DE-bar hopping bike. Fast forward to Vietnam.

My friend Chris told me if I was visiting Vietnam, then Halong Bay was a must. No matter what. Skip everything else, if need be. But, go to Halong Bay. I goggled it. Beautiful.   But why not experience more than just a bay.  Kick it up a few notches and add some outdoorsy stuff.   Fun, right?

I’m now on Day 2 out of day Day 12 of this outdoorsy adventure. I ask Ang about today’s bike ride.

Ang: “Today. We do uphill.”

Me: “Yes, but downhill too, right?”

Ang: “No. All uphill.”

Me: “What do you mean? It has to go down eventually, no?”

Ang: “No. Not today. We bike 15 km this morning. All uphill. Yesterday, we biked over 45 km. Today, much shorter. Today is good…”

Me: “Hold the phone.  All uphill? I don’t understand…”

I assumed something was lost in translation. We got out of the bus. Ang prepared our bikes, raising my seat for “big” people. I’m wearing the same black leggings from H&M and a JCrew t-shirt. Why change now.   Ang gave us instructions. He sounded serious.

Ag: “Only change gears when your body is at 70%. The mistake is when people change and change gears. Need to change gears gradually. And, uphill means you peddle very fast with little resistance. This is not a race. Go slow…”

Me: “I do go slow. I’m from Florida.  And, I change gears a lot because I’m at 70% within 28 seconds of peddling…”

Ang continues: “Watch out for construction and trucks. Do not stop for the first ¼th of the climb. You will loose momentum. No stopping. Just peddling. Peddle fast and go slow…”

Me: “OMG…Where are we?”

I look up the road. It’s a highway. For big, diesel, semi-trucks and motor-bikes. It’s like biking Interstate I-70 from Denver to Vail. And, why are we biking up this mountain? This highway? Why? Someone please tell me WHY. No answers. We’re off.

I’m only three mins in and want to stop. I tell Ang, “My bike is broke. It does not feel like it is going fast. The break must be on.” He said, “No. Bike is fine.” Implying it’s me.  My legs are heavy and tired from yesterday’s little 45 km jaunt. Lactic acid starts to chip in at minute five. Pelvis pain kicks in at minute six.

Sweet Tour-Burn peddles behind me. He needs to move. Or, else I may hurl a rock at him. I blurt out, “Please pass me or I’m going to hurt you. Don’t wait on me today. I’m super slow and superbly deranged.”

He said, “Are you sure?”

He could tell by my evil look if he does not pass me, I’m going to run him off the road. The pressure of having someone tail this Florida girl for 15 km – up hill – was too much to handle.

I told myself. OK. Bike for 15 mins and then reconsider your options – like air conditioned bus and Coke Zero. I focused. I focused on this 70%. Focused on “peddling fast and going slow” as motor-bikes flew by honking, mac-trucks spewed diesel and half naked street kids ran to the road screaming. This is friggin crazy.

Got 10 mins down and the body has started to adjust to the pain. Lungs started to work. Heart started slowing down. Sweat only dripped, instead of gushed. I looked up for the first time. Looked around. Truly breathtaking. Thank you travel angels. Now, I need your help in carrying me up the mountain. I talked to them the entire time – “Are we at 70%? Am I breathing? Are kids an option?”

I looked up and saw Tour-Burn walking his bike around a bend. My word – he is already walking his bike. I’m screwed. I refused to walk my bike. I’m doing this thing – come hell or high water. I don’t care if I can’t have kids after this. I’m biking it baby – well, at least the first 15 mins.

Guess what? I did it! I biked the first 30 or so mins without stopping. Without walking. Don’t ask me how. The mind is amazing. When I stopped for water, Ang said, “That was the hardest part of the climb. Usually people don’t make it. They walk or van picks them up. I did not think you would make it. Very good.”

Well, with that – I was on a roll. Now, I’m biker-lady. If that was hard, the rest of this is a cinch. Yep, give pride a crack, and he takes over.

I get back on the bike. Start peddling. About thirty minutes in, the pelvis is paralyzed with pain. No gel seat. Gel pants. Or, gel period is going to solve this one. I got off the bike, and walked. It felt good to walk. I saw the van. If van driver could take me 3 km as feeling resumes in my lower extremities, then I could bike the last 4 or 5 km into town. That would work. My pelvis needs a holiday.

I got into the bus. The driver was standing on the side of the road looking down into a valley. He motioned for me to come over. I hobbled across the highway and saw a car at the bottom split into two. Spit into TWO. Others were stopping. I hope this just did not happen and we’re just looking and doing nothing. It turns out, the day earlier, three people were going to fast around the turn – downhill – and flew off the cliff. They all lived. I don’t see how.

They said it was “magic,” I think it was more than mere magic. Van driver said, “Road dangerous. People fast. Cars and mopeds turn off engine to save gas when go down mountain…” He kept on trying to speak English. Too much information for me to absorb right now – I’m not sure what was more troubling….cutting off the engine downhill or me biking uphill.

About two mins up the road, we pass Tour-Burn. I wave. Looks like he’s about to keel over. I stop the bus. He was in the van in a matter of minutes. His body was giving out too and he is Mr. Athletic, Norwegian guy. Made this Florida girl happy.

As the van took us higher, I looked out the window. I was to bike this? And, I AM biking this? Crazy. The van dropped us off. Food and flushing toilets kept my legs moving. We arrived at the restaurant and grabbed a table outside. Both of us were in disbelief that we just biked over 12 km uphill. I sit down. Winced in pain. Food arrived in seconds. We inhaled.

Ang walked over to tells us about our afternoon plans.

Ang: “So we check into hotel. Then, do our afternoon bike ride. Two options long ride around the town and village. Or, short ride through the village.”

Is he crazy? Another bike ride? Wasn’t the strenuous stretch enough? And, am I the only one in pelvis pain? Don’t guys have pelvis pain?

Tour-burn and I looked at each other and shouted SHORT ride please. Back at the hotel, I popped four Advil before setting off – again. The positive was we started out going down hill. The negative, was our short trip turned into mountain biking. This pelvis was not prepared.

We stopped at a family’s house. The mother looked about 25. She had a baby on her back and four other kids surrounding her, barely dressed. She invited us in. She was part of another ethnic tribe – the flower tribe. A lot of colors. Creativity. Passion. Beauty.

Grandmother was seated on the floor picking dry corn kernals off the ears by hand. About eight people lived in the home along with a pig, ducks, chicken, pony and water buffalo. They harvested rice for a living and believe they had 400+ pounds of rice in their home, just for the family…just in case of a bad harvest… Now, I like rice – but come on. They did tell us they fermented and sold rice wine at market. They do the same with corn – ferment and make into wine. So, these folks sell moonshine!

Ten month old tiny tot was was half dressed and cozening up to his eighty year old grandmother. I pulled up a stool next to her and helped her pick corn kernels. Naked tiny tot wanted attention, and sat his naked butt in the bucket of corn. He just giggled. I thought, what happens if he pees? I later found out they are using this corn to make booze, so we’re good if the kid goes pee in the corn. No one will die…

The mom told me how she makes the clothes for her family. It takes about a month to make skirt. She puts one on me. It’s heavy! Over in the corner, sits the husband or grandfather. Sitting in the dark smoking a cig. I wondered if he was around during Vietnam War. I wondered what he thought of these Westerners – French, Americans and the whole lot – seeing his country as a travel destination, not a war zone. And, I wondered where I am right now? Was this a Viet Cong village? Were US forces here? N. Vietnam was THE hot bed. I looked over and just smiled at him. Above him hung a picture of Ho Chi Minh. He’s now their national hero. The liberator. I just took this all in as I’m picking kernels off corn with a naked, dirty baby.

We leave. Waved goodbye. And, jumped on the bikes. I felt good, until I go numb again. We rode for another hour or so through the village, stopping and inhaling the views – rice paddies.

Back at the hotel. I longed for a nice hot shower. But, guess what? There’s no warm water. Not only that, the entire bathroom floor was flooding. Where was the water coming from? Hell, they never installed the tub properly. Water was spilling fast. I just watched. The shower head was removable. I removed it. And, tossed the head in the tub and let the water run for a full 4 mins as I contemplated – what to do. I just couldn’t take a cold shower. Not now. Not today. I wondered if Tour-burn has warm water. This meant knocking on his door asking to take a shower. I just met the kid 2 days ago. I can’t do this to him. I walked back into the mini-flood. Touched the water. It’s lukewarm. Tour-burn was saved from naked, American, bossy girl.

After the shower, I headed downstairs to the lobby and overheard a French tourist asking the Vietnamese receptions for a new room. His rooms has spiders. I thought, be happy. Spiders eat the roaches, ants and mosquito carrying the malaria virus. It could be worse, like rats. The receptionist looked confused.

I passed them, and walked into the dining room with major overhead light issue. I felt like I was in an insane asylum or a mid-western cafeteria. Ugh. We sit. The meal was paid for. The room filled with loud, smoking French tourists within 10 mins. Even better. The French occupied Vietnam. And, now they occupy the dining room. Those damn French occupiers! Midway through dinner all the electricity went off. Pitch black. I could have told them its the overhead lights. Guess dinner’s over.

Tomorrow is day 3 of bike riding. God help me… God help my pelvis…

*Check out more photos in the album to the right of this blog

Kicking off Adventure Travel. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

I found the place. You know the place I’m talking about. It’s the place you go to when you are down, depressed, or despondent. When you’re trying to remember “the good times.” These places are few and far between. You treasure them. I have a few of them. Like New Smyrna Beach and today – biking through the rice fields in Vietnam. Now, I just need to figure out how to bottle the thing.

Arriving in North Vietnam, Lao Cai

Train pulled into the Lao Cai station at 5:00 AM. Train lady banged on our door and screamed words I don’t understand. I’ve been awake for what seems like hours. I looked at my watch. The Chinese “Adidas” watch read 11:30 pm. Can’t be right.   It wasn’t.  Chinese battery died. Bought in China for $3. Lasted 5 weeks. Now, need to add battery to list of random purchases in Vietnam.

I kicked the top bunk. “Ang, is this our stop?” NO answer. Tour-Burn turns over. People were getting off the train. Wait, people who like look me were getting off the train.

I screamed, “Ang, is this our stop?” No answer. He was still asleep. I kicked the bunk hard with both feet. I felt like I was back at summer camp. I heard him grunt. Something moved.

Yes, this was our stop.  Time to cram and slam.

The boys were up and out in 3 mins while I was still shoving. Why is it boys are faster than girls? I mean, I could be tossing into a bag some lip gloss, sunscreen and a camera, and I’m still last. By this time, the train lady was peering in the window and screaming some Vietnamese mambo-jumbo. I waved back, raised my eyebrows and smiled.

The train corridors were even smaller than the Chinese trains. A six-foot gal caring a backpack and over-sized  bag could not fit.  It was not even 5:15 am, and I was sporting a sweat mustache.  Made it to the door. Tossed my bags. Jumped out. And, yes, I was proud to say, the last one to disembark.

The sun was making its entrance.  The town of Lao Cai welcomed us with honking horns and diesel fumes. We were not even out of the train parking lot and my short term memory kicked in. I thought, “OMG! I forgot my Kindle on the train. I don’t remember touching it.”

I panicked. Told Ang to stop. And, yelled, “Ang, hold it. I need to check my bag for something. Left something….left something…”

I mumbled and ripped open my bag. And, there it was. Laughing at me. My Kindle. “SUCKKKERRR!” Yea, ever since I left 1/6th of my stuff in Chiang Mai, the brain goes into “gotcha” mode when I cram and slam. Not fun.

I wheeled my half-opened bag across the parking lot and into a welcoming restaurant across the street. I spied ambiance.

Freshly squeezed OJ was waiting. Back to happy again. I headed straight to the washroom. Sitting toilets. With toilet paper. That flushed. Happy again.

For breakfast, they served Vietnamese/French banquette, fried eggs, cheese and butter. Happy again. You just got to love the positives from French occupation. Oh, almost forgot, the Vietnamese coffee was to die for. No need for chemicals or cream to dilute the taste. Yep, was happy again.

After breakfast, we waddled to the bikes. I changed into my biking outfit – H&M black leggings and the stretched out, Perfect Fit JCrew long sleeve T-shirt.

Ang raised my bike seat to its limit and said, “You big…” I tell him wrong word. We use the word “tall.” He just smiled.

Me: “Ang, how long is the ride today?”

Ang: “Morning ride is twenty-five kilometers.”

Me: “WHAT!  It sounds like a lot… I think it is 18 miles or so, right?  No hills, right?”

Ang ignored me. I continued to think this through. Have I ever biked 18 or 20 miles before? Can’t recall. Certainly NOT at a pub crawl at CSU (Colorado State University.) And, I believe that was the last time I was on a bike for any extended period of time.

We took off. It’s after 7 am and the little/big town of Lao Cai was waking up with a bang. Families gathered on mini-stools made for midgets. Kids lined up for breakfast from the street vendors.

Old women carried baskets of fruits and flip flops to sell at market. Random men readied themselves for a day of sitting, staring and spitting.

We peddled on.

Within minutes we were out of the diesel aroma and into rice-land. The scenery changed in seconds. Teen age girls were hand washing their clothes at the river. Or, hanging laundry by the road. Their mothers or older sisters were walking to the field with plows in one hand, basket in the other and a baby strapped on their back. Banana fields, green tea fields, rice fields, mango fields littered the landscape. Green screamed at us. The air was dry. It’s hoovered between 68 and 72 degrees. No humidity. No bugs. No motor-bikes. Just Silence. Pure silence. Expect me gasping for air. Happy again.

We hit our first hill. Wait, how do you shift gears? Which side is which? First hill was a disaster. Used all the wrong gears. Walked it. Tour-Burn was cycling patiently behind me. Poor thing. He stopped. Waited. Helped. So kind. It’s nice. I could not recall the last time a cute boy waited on me. Wait, let me rephrase that one. I don’t recall the last time I ALLOWED a cute boy to wait on me. Very different preposition. And, I liked it. Instead of bucking it, I just smiled. It was nice.

The whole morning was filled with Vietnamese adults and children running into the street and enthusiastically greeting us in their high pitched screams, “HI! HI! HELLO!” Their energy kept me moving. And, the mini-hills got better.

We stopped at one point to help a farmer. It’s sunny these next few days and perfect time to dry out corn along the road teaming with mack-trucks, motor-bikes and water buffalo. We helped him sort his corn and he just smiled and smiled and smiled.

The next thing I know, a heard of water buffalo trotted towards us being led by 10-year girls. School does not start until 11:00 am for the older kids, so they can help with farm chores before school.

I really couldn’t imagine walking the dog, let alone a heard of water buffalo, before school in fifth or sixth grade. No doubt, I would have pitched a fit and been grounded for weeks…

After 25 km, we finally stopped. The bike bus was waiting for us. Ang asked if we wanted to keep riding for another 20 km or take the bus to the restaurant. Honey, I was on a high. There was NO stopping me. I say – LETS’ do IT. Both boys nodded in agreement. Off we went. For another 20 km.

OK. About 10 mins into it, my butt froze. Muscle spasm. The pelvis was not used to this much moving, over such an extended period of time.

What was I thinking? I tried to channel this joy and happiness I was feeling earlier. It was difficult. How does Lawrence Armstrong do it?

My attitude changed when school was being let out and all the boys and girls filled the street – again waving at us and screaming “Hello! Hi!” They were SO happy to see us. They could not stop grinning and giggling and waving. Innocent little Vietnamese girls in oversized floppy pink hats, hello kitty back-packs and school uniforms rode along side of us. Their enthusiasm and laughter were intoxicating. I forgot about my paralyzed pelvis and focused on their smiles and hats. I wanted their HATS. I had to find their HATS. I’m buying those HATS…

By the last 3 km, my lower body was on fire. Ang was very far ahead of us. Sweet, patient Tour-Burn was riding next to me. I finally screamed out for Ang, and he just pointed. I could hear myself, “Pelvis is paralyzed…Need to stop…” Tour-Burn said Ang turned into the restaurant. We’re at the final destination. OK, back to happy again.

We cycled up. Stopped. My legs buckled and I fell off my bike. I tried to stretch. Tried to walk. Tried the outdoor toilet. Couldn’t feel a thing… Finally after 10 mins or so, synapses kicked in. I had feeling. And, lunch was waiting. I inhaled and even splurged on a REAL coke. Needed the sugar to help fight the numbness…

After inhaling, we loaded into a wooden boat and cruised down the river for 2 hours. In a matter of minutes, I zonked out. I was full, just biked 45+ km and the sound of the engine just put me out for the count.

When my eyes popped opened, beauty danced around me in the form of limestone mountains, green rice fields, dense jungles and tranquil water.

Of course, this scenery caused me to think not about beauty but about the US believing they could beat the Viet Cong? And, why does stuff like this pop in my mind, when I’m supposed to be relaxed in a beautiful setting? This has GOT to stop.

The boat motored on and we passed men on bamboo rafts dredging up sand from the river. The sand was needed for cement to build buildings, roads….

I wonder if they have a permit or anyone with an engine and some bamboo can extract sand from a river bed? No one could answer my question.

We motored onward.

I knew we arrived for I spied her first. It was a tree. She talked to me. How do I know this? She is one TALL tree. And, I’m TALL. Tall beings bond with each other. I’m sure short beings do the same. Katie, Daph and Chop please chime in here. Do cats and shrubs talk to you?

Tall tree stood out. Her branches reached to the heavens and roots dug deep into the ground. This tall mama has seen it all – French forces, US paratroopers and Viet Cong as well as the occasional water buffalo, pig and China man. She has stories to tell.

I forgot about my partially paralyzed pelvis and lept from my metal chair to take photos. I could not stop taking pictures. Every angle – every light. Boat man, slowed down. I thought he was being nice so I could take at least 100 more pics before my battery died. Nope. We were disembarking at the TALL TREE. Travel angels unite. I just smiled and said “hi” to the tree. I felt protected here – protected from yellow fever, rabbis, mosquitoes and food poison. I belonged.

Tonight, we were to stay with an ethnic tribe. I believe only 10% of the Vietnam population is considered ethnic. This tribe is called Thai, but pronounced as DAY. Yep, I knew it. These are my peeps.

After photographing the tree, my battery died. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. The Day tribe is one big fat Kodak moment. Man, I hope this village has electricity. I spotted a wire in the distance. I walked towards the wire.

Ang shouted, “Amanda – this way…” I had to figure out where wire goes. I felt like a heroin addict needing a fix…

Need a few electrons. Just one electron will do – Give it to me now.

I pulled out my American hat – “Ang, do these people – the Day tribe – have power? Battery died. Needs recharging – We’re talking crisis here…” He smiled. “Yes, have power…Goes out at night.” All I heard was “yes and electrons.” Confident my people would have access to electrons.

The Day tribe daughter welcomes us to her bamboo home on stilts wearing her red PJ’s, accented with the Burberry design pattern. Red is my favorite color. Plus, she is wearing an oversized light blue, silk pock-a-dot floppy hat. Want the hat. Of course, she’s a DAY.

Found out later, she is a little over 40 and just had her second child. Her little girl is now one. Day village daughter looks all of 30. I wanted to take a picture, but was too embarrassed. Ang told me that her older son is 19. He’s off – carousing in the town and won’t return back to the village. Day girl wanted a girl, for girls take care of their mommies and daddies. So, her kids are almost 20 years apart. Wow…

Ang took us on a sightseeing mission of the Day Village. The village seemed sooo remote. We put-putted for over 2 hours to get here. Ang told us that the town where we ate lunch is only 7 km away and remember our little boat never went over 3 mph. So, bug spray and Coke Zero are right around the corner. Nice to know.

We came across a little girl cleaning rice with a Whirlpool fan. She looked like a mini-rice terrorists with her black scarf around her head. She’s about 14 and it’s her job to get rid of the unwanted rice kernels. Seriously, I will never look at rice the same. It’s HARD work. A lot of labor. And, I will assert Mr. Uncle Ben should be charging triple.

Next, we walked over to the loud noises. Hammering and music. This is where the men were. Shock city. They’re not sitting and sipping, they building a pagoda for the monks. The village has collected money to build a formal praying area for the local monks. The village does not have a hospital, but will have an oversized monk place to pray. Good to know. After our walk about, we headed back to the bamboo house on stilts for dinner. Another amazing V-nam meal. We inhaled. Then, curled up in our mosquito nets. The boys slept. I typed. Want to remember every moment of this day, even the pelvis pain.

Rise & Shine

My eyes flew open around 5 am. Roosters crowing. Pigs grunting. Birds twirping. Geese landing on our bamboo roof. Two snoring men next to me wrapped in mosquito nets.

My body was still. Mind just absorbing the sounds. I’m waking up with the Day tribe. I feel so blessed to be here. How am I here? Seriously. How in the world am I curled up in a mosquito net, sleeping on a bamboo mat in Northern Vietnam. How? It truly is a wonder. I wake amazed and grateful everyday. And, I’m not just saying that – I hate it when people say stuff like that because it sounds so annoying. You just want to smack them. I mean, waking up happy, joyful and excited to be alive? How is this possible? Well, I can’t tell you how, just can tell you I am.

The mosquito net stirred next to me. The noise of birds landing on the roof must have stirred Tour-burn. My brain goes to “I need to get up…need to go to the bathroom…need to…” But, my spirit said. “Be still. Stay still. And, talk to me.” I did the later.

The boys stirred around 7 am. Breakfast was around 7:30 am. Green tea. Crepes. Bananas. Sugar. We inhaled and then hiked through the Day village, observing their morning rituals. Some women were up early, washing clothes… veggies… babies. Other women were heading out to the fields. Sweeping their floors.

Tots with no underwear were running around. I finally figured out why village kids don’t wear pants. Diapers are too expensive or non-existent. Cloth diapers are too expensive or a pain to wash. They teach the kids how and where to pee and poop as soon as soon as they can crawl. It’s potty training at is finest people…

We hiked for an hour or so then our bus drove us to Day 2 of our bike trek through Northern Vietnam. This was the strenuous stretch day, whatever that means. I’m just happy to be here. Just happy.

Who is Ho Chi? Hanoi, Vietnam.

10 Dec

Governor's Palace. Built by the French.

A quick recap of Day 1 of touring in Hanoi…

Ang picked up the Norwegian, Tour-Burn, and I bright and early to do Hanoi – four or five hours of walking through air conditioned buildings here we come….

The first stop was the Governor’s mansion.   Ang talked.  Pictures say it all.  It’s huge.  French.  Palatial.  Beautiful.  And, French.  That was all I remember.

Next stop, was Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.

Ang instructed us to get into line.  He said, “Follow the people. I met you on other side…”  I assumed, Ang was over the museum tours.  I get it.  I’ve been doing this for 45 mins, and already feel my mind turning to mush.  It’s information overload.

The more the lined move, the more soldiers greeted us with stern looks.  I turned to Tour-Burn, “Waaaait.. We are at a tomb.  Does this mean we’re seeing dead people?  Are we lining up to see a Ho Chi?”

Tour-Burn nodded like, “duh!”   Sooo, not up for this.  But, what was I going to do. The line moved forward. Mostly Chinese and French tourists.

The V-nam soldiers were militant in making sure the tourists were in a single file line, with arms at our sides.  NO talking, no hats, no pushing…  I was behind some French folks who paid no attention to the rules.  They got whacked by V-nam military man.  I mean, whacked the man’s arms because they were not at his side.  Another V-nam military man pointed at French woman’s mouth for talking.

Where are we?

Tour-Burn and I walked in. Dead Ho Chi is laid out in a glass case.  He does not look like he’s “resting in peace.”  There were four young military men guarding his glass tomb.  I was more interesting in their expressions, than the Dead Ho Chi.  They’re eyes starred straight forward.  Body erect. No movement. Talk about a bad job. I wonder if this post is a punishment or an honor. They stand there for an hour or two, then relieved from their post, according to Ang.

Ho Chi Minh has moved up to saint-hood in Vietnam, like Mao, Lenin, Stalin and the rest of the communist dictators who killed, bribed and blackmailed to get what they wanted. Though, Ho Chi seemed a little different.  He tried to live out his ideal –  “equality for all” and “for the people.” For example, he refused to live in fancy French Governor’s mansion and built a bamboo house on stilts on the mansion’s grounds.   He wanted to show the people he was serious — he lived like them, not like a king.

Who’s Ho Chi?

I found out that you need to get an idea of this Ho Chi Minh if you are going to understand the Vietnamese people or the V-nam War.  I don’t recall ever studying Mr. ho Chi in High School.  That being said, I don’t remember the periodic table either or the square root of Pi.

Ho Chi was a smart man. He morphed into becoming a communist for many reasons, one in particular was his  failed attempts to get America’s attention.  He reached out for help, and we said, “Uhhh…don’t think so.”   Yep…that’s right. We did our part in creating another fascist despot….

Ho Chi’s quick soundbite is he led the V-nam communist/nationalist movement for 30 years.  He fought and defeated the Japanese, French and US-backed South Vietnamese and  became president of NORTH Vietnam from 1954 and until his death and embalming in 1969.

If we go deeper, we learn he is an educated, well-traveled man. After he graduated from university, he worked as a teacher and then a cook aboard a French steam ship.  Later, he did odd jobs like a photo retoucher before Adobe photo-shop.

And, when not working and traveling, he inhaled all books about socialism, communism and history from the greats. He lived in USA, England, China, USSR and France. In France, he was one of the founding members of the French communist party. Nice….

Well, rumor has it requested a meeting with Woodrow Wilson, while the Prez was in France signing the treating to end World World I.

Ho Chi intent was to obtain US help in booting out the French for they were abusing V-nam.  Prez. Wilson declined the invitation.  Hind Sight 20/20, you have to wonder how V-nam would have been different today if Wilson had the meeting…

Ho Chi Minh accepted the rejection and established the French Communist Party.  Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying, “It was patriotism, NOT communism, that inspired me.”  Yea, and being shafted by the US government…

Next on the docket of Ho Chi was he jumped to Moscow to learn how to “liberate people,” from an organization created by Lenin.  He soon became a spy for USSR. Then, headed to China and formed another communist party to help V-nam become independent from French control.

He was arrested by the Brits in Hong Kong.  Served 2 years.  And, went back to the land of Red – China – to serve as an adviser to the Red Army.

In his spare time, he built of V-nam communism support to kick out the French.    His followers – or soldiers – later became known as the Viet Cong.

WW II happened.  And the karaoke loving Japanese invaded Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) claiming to be French liberators.  PSYCH!  Instead, the jovial Japanese turned into ostentatious occupiers.  Ho Chi was not a happy camper and ramped up V-nam resistance to kick out all occupiers.

Ho Chi knocked on the Land of the Free – America – one more time.  He was seeking assistance to boot the Japanese and help to make V-nam independent. But, his invitation was declined, again…. So, Ho Chi ramped it up another notch and killed, maimed and injured the occupiers.  Japan relinquished control of V-nam in 1945.

After WWII, France was poor and reeling from the war but they refused to give up V-nam.

War broke out between the French and Vietnamese.

Ho Chi said he will not stop until France is out.  V-nam jungle warfare in its infancy…

Finally, an agreement was made and endorsed by France, Britain, China, Soviet Union and US.  It split V-nam in half – like Korea – into the North and South. North was controlled by Ho Chi, the communist – and backed by USSR.  China was not happy about this… And, non-communist south became a democracy.

South Vietnam was screwy.   Weak.  And, under poor management.  President Dwight Eisenhower sent direct aid to South Vietnam’s government starting in 1954 for Ho Chi – supported by the USSR – was making in roads into South Vietnam.

Ho Chi was out for blood.  He ramped up killings in the south, assassinating over 40,000 civilians – government officials, intellectuals…. South V-nam responded by arresting anyone who may be a communist. They eliminated about 20,000+.

Around 1959, V-nam was on the break of a full-fledged CIVIL WAR, which they later refer to as the AMERICAN war.  Did NOT learn that in history… That’s right.

Vietnam calls  call THEIR civil war the American War.  Guess they learned revisionist history from the Russians…

Focus.  Around 1961, President Kennedy sent more aid to S. V-nam, providing  millions in military equipment for S. Vietnamese troops. Later that year, US military  started to train  S. Vietnamese military to annihilate, asphyxiate, and assassinate North V-nam army, the Viet Cong.

The people in the “know” claimed Kennedy  wanted to pull out later that year, but was assassinated before he could implement his program. Then, came Johnson…

USSR was funding Viet Cong. US funding S. V-nam.  Meanwhile, around 1965 S. V-nam becomes destabilized with a series of government coups. In essence, no one was minding the store in S. Vietnam.    Because of the destabilization, US sent more troops and money as does Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and Philippines to help S. Vietnam troops.

We know the rest of the story. We get more and more involved, for we are now fully engaged in a civil war to stop the spread of communism in a place where majority of Americans can’t locate on a map. War spreads to Cambodia and Laos, for Ho Chi convinced these countries to house Viet Cong guerrillas.

Ho Chi’s people also convinces Pol Pot, Cambodia’s  Rouge Leader who later killed 1/4 of his country’s population , that if he played nice, Pol Pot can have Saigon – South Vietnam’s capital.  Pol Pot agreed.  Viet Cong troops use Southern Cambodia to attack US troops and S. Vietnamese troops in Saigon.

Ho Chi dies in 1969. Nixon is elected on “a plan to stop war.” Has no plan. War escalates. Americans are angry. It was this anger and politics that forced the US to pull out.   It was not until 1973, a treaty was signed for all US troops to be withdrawn. We left as fast as possible.

Once US pulled out, then Communist ate the south and killed S. V-nam troops, intellectuals, government officials – anyone who is against Communist.  Saigon never went to Cambodia.  The communist changed the S. V-nam’s capital name to Ho Chi Minh in 1975.  Communist — or the North – have  full control of V-nam by 1976.

So, N. V-nam eliminated all “capitalists” by sending them to “re-education” or death camps.  Other S. V-name people were forced to relocate from urban to rural areas to become farmers. Around 70,000 S. V-nam were executed and over 100,000 die in camps.

Estimates say one-million South V-nam fled their homeland during this time. US welcomed many – CELEBRATE Nail technicians and V-nam restaurants NOW! So, next time you’re getting your toes done, ask the older ladies where they are from. I bet they are from S. Vietnam.  Ask them about their stories…

Anyway, US imposes an embargo and severs any diplomatic relations with Vietnam.  USSR funds V-nam. It wasn’t until USSR declared bankruptcy and communism “fell” that V-nam turned from “equality for all communist” to “capitalism for all communist.”

In 1994, US lifts trade embargo. Clinton visits in 2000. In 2005, Vietnamese communist Prime Minister visits US for the first time since end of V-nam war and meets with US President George Bush to talk trade and relationships. Now, US is V-nams biggest trading partner, with US$7 billion+ in V-name exports to US.

With this information, you’re now a wanna-be expert on V-nam. I did not know ANY of this until I entered this country.  (Don’t tell!  I’m embarrassed..)

I just thought – well, nothing.  Never gave the V-nam war details a thought. But, understanding V-nam history puts the whole country and its people in proper context.

It’s a new country. New to capitalism. Young. Vibrant. Creative. It’s says it’s still communist – one party – but its people are slowly changing it. They speak up. Scream.  Write graffiti. And, think, unlike the Chinese.  Give it time.  Just give it time…

*Information came from conversations and Wikipedia.

Good Morning Vietnam. Hanoi.

10 Dec

It’s 10:04 pm. Everyone is asleep. Train just pulled out of the station. In route to some random village near the Chinese/Laos border.

That’s right. You heard me. I’m on another train. Just when you thought I kicked my train days to the curb, I come crawling back for one more round of bunk beds, dirty pillows and stand-up toilets. It’s addicting.

As much as I make fun of trains, there is something about train travel that gives you sense of place. Sense of purpose. I mean, you are going somewhere… You ride through fields, villages, towns, and cities and peek into people’s lives – what they eat, shows they watch, cigs they smoke, booze they drink, motor-bikes they ride… You witness  inequality and injustice at its best.

Flying  is just a quick up and down in a sheet of metal, glued to a micro-mini chair, reclined at an 85.9% angle.  Plane travel is where you plaster your most proper “eat shit and die look” to beat back those close-talking extroverts, crying babies and drunk men.

Where am I?

Let me back up here. I flew from Bangkok to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines yesterday evening. I’ve been here for one full day…

Hanoi is the capital cit of Vietnam and the land of French-A-Fied style and 3 million motor-bikes. The French colonized – “occupied” as the Vietnamese like to say – the country off and on from 1873 until the 1950s.

Going to sound bad, but if you were to be “occupied” by anyone during that time, I would choose the French.  I mean, the French have French kisses, French Bread, French Braids……. Need I say more?

Walk the streets of Hanoi today and you’ll come across real, live French bakeries with real, live bread…  French bread sandwiches with pork or fish paste is a common food on the street as are crepes with sugar, honey or whatever you want.  V-nam absorbed the French influence on food, architecture, deign but missed the boat on wine. There is nothing French about fermented rice wine. Nothing.

Adventure what?

On the plane from Thailand to Vietnam, I decided it was time to read more about this thing called “Adventure Touring Through North Vietnam.”  I’m with this group for 12 days and can’t even fathom what we will be doing…

Reread the first paragraph.  Stopped.  I mean, what was I thinking???

Biking between 20 to 30 miles a day, trekking through rice fields, climbing mountains, kayaking for days and staying with villagers in bamboo huts. The huts don’t bother me, it’s the biking… I haven’t ridden a bike since college.   And, I have nothing to wear.  I packed for a 7 month journey around the world, not 12 days of sweating, groaning and moaning…

Ang, from the adventure travel agency, greeted me at the airport. Young. Great smile. Athletic. I’m already sore.

We loaded my luggage into the car and set off for the hotel in Hanoi. He said the two other people in the group canceled because they have VISA problems. Hate that word.

I asked, “Where are they from?” And, replied, “US…” Really? Hmmmm… Anyway, Ang followed up, “Only two foreigners now in group. Me, you and man from Norway.” Yep, Scandinavia is traveling. They are everywhere. I guess they’re getting in one last dose of Vitamin D before day turns to night and green turns to white. I just hope he is not socially slow. Or, the super outdoorsy.

Ang told me about Hanoi in route. A city of six to seven million – mere village to China’s standards. A lot of French influence since they were occupied by them for many years. I added, “what about China influence since they occupied you for a 1,000 years?” Ang, laughed. “Yea, we have A LOT of China influence – too much influence. China will eat us one day…” I laughed too. I think I’m going to like Ang.

Ang is around 25 or 26. The youngest of five. From Halong Bay area in Northern V-nam. He is the only one in his family that went to University. By the way, only 5% of the population goes to University in Vietnam. Go communism!

His brother recently died of lung cancer from working in the coal mines. He was 35. His Dad died too of lung cancer – coal miner. His sister transports V-nam goods to the Chinese border. We call it “import/export” business in US. She has a “retail” store at the market, but Ang said she doesn’t work hard. She only opens the store when she’s happy. I asked, “well how often is she happy…” He said, “Not often.”

We pulled up the hotel.Hidden among vendors selling counterfeit clothes and shoes. Very nice. I’ve return to my roots – a 2.8 star hotel. Liking it. I bet they have real mattresses in Vietnam.

The porter takes my bags up to my room. I told him – “No, no worries. It rolls. I do it…” He did not listen. We go to the room. He drops off my bags and stands there. I have no money. Did not go to ATM. Plus, I do not know tipping customs in this country.

I said, “No money yet. Need to go to ATM. Later?” His mood changed. He swings his body around. Hurls a few words at me. And slams the door. Nice welcome buddy. I think to myself, “great he will tell the cook and they will poison my breakfast. Have an upset stomach for the first 3 days of cycling. I better go to the ATM and fast.” Wait… If I were from Norway or Sweden – or other non tipping countries – what would he do. Not all countries tip. When he asked where I was from – he inferred $$. I hate that. So, I debated to tip or not on principal.

I walked around Hanoi that night. Got lost as usual. Instead of getting lost on the counterfeit  purse row, I scored the barbie and stuff animal street. Two streets that hold zero interests. I had to get out of here. But, how. I have no map. And, neglected to get the hotel card. An older woman carrying about 30 pounds of bananas, pineapples and assorted fruits was trotting down the street wearing her bamboo hat. Stopped to take a picture. She smiled. Trotted over. “I take picture of you?”

The next thing I know, she throws the bamboo rod over my shoulder and grabs my camera and takes a picture. Ahhhh… She’s a pro. I know now it’s my cue to give her a dollar or something. She says, “$200,000 Dong (VND).” First of all, this whole currency thing has thrown me for a loop. I went to the ATM earlier and pulled out $2,000,000 VND. It’s equivalent to $100 US. But, does my bank back home REALLY know that?

I got in a pseudo-fight with the post office lady when buying stamps earlier. She said stamps were $150,000 VND.  At that point, I thought the currency was 20:1. Not, 20,000:1. I was like “No way. Stamps can NOT cost that much in Vietnam.”

We went back and forth about it – neither one of us speaking our language. She got so annoyed with me, she closed the stamp book and told me to leave. Yes, got kicked out of the Vietnamese post office. If only I could do math – The stamps came to $8 US, not $80 US.

Back to old lady with the bananas. I said, “Wait… wait… Let me do calculations. This is like $10 US. NO. NO. Way to much… her happy smiles goes to anger in a second. I don’t care. Not ripping off this tallgirl tonight. I handed her $50,000 VND. We’re talking about a little over $2 and that was too much. She gave me a once over. Forced a grin. Her no teeth flashing at me. Rattled something incoherent. And, trotted off searching for her next tourists victim. I bet she makes more $$ than the street vendors.

I made my way down Barbie street and ended up at the lake. The lake is in the center of Hanoi. Mopeds flying by. Ang told me there was a grocery store near the lake. I was in need of a Gillette razor.

Lost the razor back in China. Seem to be leaving something in each country. So, I’ve been using a swiped razor for the last few weeks. Found out the hard way why a razor is a good investment.

I walked around the lake and found the grocery store. My word, it’s legit. I see named brands. And, they have refrigeration so their milk and yogurt is lukewarm too.  V-nam is beating China in the grocery department… Of course, the grocery gals followed me through each aisle ensuring I don’t steal noodles or packaged meat paste. Headed upstairs to the toiletry/ cosmetics floor. And, guess what, I found a Gillette razor for $15 US dollars.

Sat there for a good 20 mins in silence debating whether or not I was going to buy the stupid thing. I did “pro con pro….” I thought, “$15 US? It goes far and I can use the money for 10 taxis or 5 t-shirts…Do I really need this razor?” Then, went to the other side of $15. I rationalized, “It’s is a good martini at a fancy restaurants or six draft beers at a bad one…” Got mad at myself for wasting time debating the cost of razor. I finally bought the damn thing and my legs have NOT been happier.

The next day, our mini-group met for the first time. Meaning, I met the Norwegian and he met the American he would be spending WAY too much time with. Poor guy. Did not know what was about to hit him. His name is LONG and unpronounceable for the linguistically challenged.

I smiled, shook his hand and thought, I have to figure out how to say his name. I mean, we are going to be spending some quality time together, and I need the name. It took me the entire day until I asked him to spell his name. He did. Torbjørn. And, his name has funky Norwegian letters in it too.

I asked if we could comprise and I could call him, Tour-Burn. He did not mind. You have to feel sorry for him. I did.   And, we just met…


Swipping Spa Underwear. Thailand

28 Nov

At spa in Ko Samui, Thailand

Who swipes spa-underwear in Thailand? Me. I’m becoming one of “those” people — a hoarder.  I swipe hotel shampoos, soaps, shower caps, cotton balls, Q-tips… Well, anything free at a zero, one or two star hotel.   And, I’m wondering why my bag is getting so heavy.  I just can’t give up my Crabetree and Evelyn mini-shampoo from the Hilton in Beijing.  Or, my sugar spice soap from Bhutan.  Just can’t…

So, I’ve moved on to swiping underwear.  It all started in Chiang Mai at The Chedi hotel.  They give you underwear made out of pantyhose for the massages.  They are actually pretty comfortable.  I accidentally walked out with them on — So, there is NO way I was going to return them to the spa-lady after the fact.

You see, I’ve been leaving my underwear behind in random places and random countries.  I hand wash them.  Hang them up and then forget about them.  One pair of Hanky Pankies flew off my balcony in Krakow and landed somewhere in the middle of the square.  Another pair escaped me on the Trans-Siberian toilet.   Hung them up in rank train toilet while brushing my teeth in rank water.  Then, walked out.  Robust Russian Train Lady swiped them.  I can go on and on…

Now, I’m at places where they give you pantyhose underwear with your massage.  Granted — they are ugly as mud.  And, will disintegrate after two hand washes.  No matter.  I have a head massage this afternoon and plan on taking a few pairs.  Seriously, I  need to be put in a time out.  I know this is getting bad. I’m just cheap or  deranged.  I can say, both.

At Kamalaya — spa/wellness camp where majority travel afar to have their colon’s cleaned, loose the flab or find themselves – there is a tray FULL of pantyhouse underwear for the taking in the woman’s locker room.  What do I do?

Oh, I guess you want to know why in the world am I at Kamalayayaya?  Not for those things mentioned above.  For me, I came for the yoga, massages and fluffy pillows.  AND, to get back on track in the consumption and gluttony department.  Living off of beer, dumplings, meat, noodles, and rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner weighs you down.  Or, weighs your figure down.  Going to eat healthy for ONE full week.

And, you are probably asking, why don’t I just buy some new underwear.  Much harder than you think.  Besides being an amazon in countries where  LARGE is a small petite in US sizes, underwear is sold in open, street markets.   So, who knows how long they’ve sitting out there.  How many animals, insects, moldy men have touched them.  Or, better yet, how do you know if they haven’t been used. Nope.

On top of that, you have to bargain to wear them.  Who bargains for underwear.  It’s nope again.  So, I’ve taken to swiping.  I hope the pantyhose spa underwear can get me through to South Africa and onward to Australia…  I know there’s legit shopping in Australia… Has to be…