Travel

A Vacation from Traveling

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I think one travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more.” — Thomas Jefferson

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I’ve spent the last few days working my way from Tangalle on the south coast, to Unawatuna, to the fort city of Galle and to my last stop Negombo on the west coast. The only reason (and the best reason) anyone goes to Tangalle is for the beaches - and it did not disappoint. My hotel was at the end of dirt road and out my window was nothing but white sand and palm trees. I got up early in the morning, before it got too hot, to watch local fisherman bring in their catch, and then…well, that was pretty much the activity for the day. I sat under an umbrella, watching the waves crash, swimming, walking the beach and pretending to read.

My mantra is usually “what’s next,” but I have started to realize that sometimes, (just maybe), it’s as important to stop, to look, to listen and really be some place - not planning on how to get to the next one. These few days on the beach were my chance, before my trip came to end (and real life came rushing back), to really enjoy the ride, to relish what I had seen and to just be here, in one spot, with no plans for a few days. Call it intervention by vacation. I soaked up every minute of the sunshine, then packed up and headed north.

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I stopped for two days in Unawatuna - another amazing beach, and just a 20 minute bus ride from Galle. Galle is a fortified city, established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, taken over by the Dutch and eventually by the British. But long before the western incursion, it was the main port on the island and a trading point for spices and goods. It is a confluence of architectural styles, a World Heritage site and the largest standing fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. It is surrounded on all sides by huge walls facing the sea and the land. To this day, you can walk almost the entire perimeter of the city on top of these walls. After doing just that, it was time to head back to the beach for one last day in the sun.

Traveling for nearly three weeks is an amazing opportunity. It can also be challenging. But it is always memorable - haggling with tuktuk drivers to try to get somewhere, trying to decipher a train schedule in a foreign language, or standing for two hours on a moving bus. It is an opportunity to learn about other cultures, and a chance to learn about myself - what I love, what I hate, and what inspires me.

It is also a stark reminder that the world keeps turning while I’m away. That is not a bad thing. In fact it means that the mundane stuff that consumes so much emotional and mental energy, is just that. mundane. The world is a magical and wonderful place. Watching couples walk hand in hand through a garden, teenage boys swimming in the ocean, old men sharing a breakfast on the beach after hauling in the days catch, families working together, and swapping stories with fellow travelers. That’s the good stuff.

We have but one life. The days are long but the years are short. Make the most of it. Find joy.

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Over and Through the Mountains

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I thought of this trip in three stages - the cultural triangle of the north, the Hill County in the southcentral region and finally the south and east coasts. The Hill Country is many things – green, mountainous, bisected by waterfalls and rivers, cool climate, lush farms, tea plantations and by all accounts one of the best train journeys in the world. 

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I boarded the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, one of the highest points in the country. The town, known as Little England, with Victoria Park at its center, is surrounded by acres and acres of tea plantations. Tea growing, harvesting and processing is done almost exclusively by hand and is back breaking work. Pickers climb the steep hillsides picking the tender leaves and buds. The baskets they carry are strapped to their heads and they are paid per kilo of leaves collected. The bags of leaves are picked up from the fields and brought to the factory, During the initial drying or withering, leaves in the giant troughs are turned by hand, then fed manually to the rolling machines. Once rolled the leaves are sorted, fermented and dried again. Each step the tea leaves are handled by people. The process is old and so are the machines. Most wood-fired drying machines came from England or Ireland in the late 1800s and are still in operation today. The tea estates bag the leaves and sell the tea at the auction houses in Colombo to buyers like Lipton, who blend the leaves from many estates. Some tea factories retain a portion and sell estate grown teas under their own label…a little like winemakers and grape growers. 

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But it’s not just tea, the area is perfect for growing all kinds of vegetables – especially as my tuktuk driver said, “English vegetables” - carrots, peas, cabbage and leeks. The narrow mountain roads are lined with vegetable stands, precariously perched between the cliff and roadway.

From Nuwara Eliya I hoped the train again to Ella. The trip through the mountains was even more spectacular than I could have imagined. Everywhere you looked there was green, and the people, especially women in vibrant saris, lined the tracks at each station or walked along behind the train. It was almost sensory and color overload.

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Ella is the heart of the Hill Country. Over the last few years it has gained a reputation as a backpacker destination - surrounded by the mountains, more tea plantations, and a small downtown, filled with cheap eats and Western style cafes. It is a hiker’s paradise – start walking in any direction and the views are amazing. I walked nearly 20 miles in two days - climbing Little Adam’s Peak, walking along the railroad tracks to Nine Arch bridge, hiking to waterfalls, and cave temples. It is also was one of the few places in Sri Lanka to take a cooking class – which was my reward after a day of many, many, many steps up the mountains.

I’m not sure that there was an “aha” moment, or lesson learned by traveling to the Hill Country, but I know I will never forget the sights, the colors and sense of being in a place that practically begged to be seen and explored, and then enjoyed with a cup of tea or (or a beer).

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Bigger and Better?

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Living in a small town, I know (almost) everyone and they know me. I know how to get what I need, or who to call to find it, or fix it. I wouldn’t change this for anything, but after a period of time, something pulls at me - to get outside that comfort zone, and open myself up to the unfamiliar. I need to make my world bigger, if just to see to see my home with new eyes.

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So once again, I have set out to see what I can see. After 36 hours on the road, in the air and on the road again, I arrived in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. It’s booming – cranes everywhere in the skyline, and advertising for development opportunities, financing, and technology abound. I think at first, I was put off by the lack apparent “differentness,” There even is a Minististy of Megapolis and Western Development,. (I can’t help but ask, is this really something to aspire toI?!) It’s not fair for a place not to grow or evolve. I certainly don’t want someone else’s world to be smaller so mine can feel bigger. The fact is our world is already getting smaller. (While I’m writing this, at a little curry restaurant, a guy is getting off a motorcycle with an UberEATS backpack to pick up an order).

So rather than asking a place to make my world bigger, whatever that means, I’m going to say “show me what you got,” because I want to see what makes a place or people special, to learn from the experience - to see what’s here, instead of what’s not.

In this case, I saw some beautiful restored colonial architecture in the Old Dutch Hospital, wide open green spaces in the midst of the city (picture a Sri Lankan central park), Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian religious sites (sometimes all on the same block), 30,000-years of Sri Lankan history at the National Museum, and lots of juxtapositions of religion and history across a city that took a day or two to open itself up to me…or maybe it was the other way around.

Family Ties

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After the madness of Phnom Penh, I headed south via bus and tuktuk to the small ocean town of Kep. It seemed laid back enough that I decided to brave renting a motor bike. I rode down from my mountainside bungalow to the waiting white sand beach. What I forgot was, it was the weekend. Hundreds of Khmer families come to the beach on the weekends. All along the coast, not directly on the beach, but set back from the beach are platforms with hammocks hanging from the side walls. Families rent these covered platforms for the day, sitting in the shade by the ocean, eating fresh crab, drinking and relaxing. I felt like I’d walked in on someone else’s summer vacation.

Sometimes, when you’re traveling, you work hard to see how people do the work of their daily lives, and forget see how they enjoy their lives and each other.

From Kep, I travelled north and west to the ultimate Cambodian tourist destination, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. After a day of temples and lots of people, I wanted to get back into the countryside, so with the help of a local guide, I headed out of town. We visited a small village east of Siem Reap and home to two families who produce all of the fresh rice noodles for the entire province. Given the number of noodles consumed daily, you would assume this was a factory operation, but that is definitely not the case.

Under a tin roof hut with wood smoke filling the air, a family of six were working in a quiet rhythm. A young son pounded the rice mill. Another sat on a wooden press over a large kettle on an open fire, squeezing the rice flour and water mixture into noodles. A young woman used a reed basket to scoop and drain the noodles. An elderly gentleman cut banana leaves to line flat baskets, and two woman, a mother and daughter, scooped handfuls of the fresh noodles, twirling them into bundles and artfully laying them in the baskets. This well oiled family machine produces about 1000 pounds of noodles every day, completely by hand.

Today, I took a cooking class. Ben, as he calls himself, runs the school and picked me up a motorbike. After a visit to a local market outside of town, we headed to meet the woman who would help me learn to cook traditional Cambodian food, in a traditional way - over a wood-fired clay brazier, using a mortar and pestle, and cleaver as my only tools. We pulled up to the hut, and Ben and I worked on three dishes, under the watchful (and smiling eyes) of the “chef.” As we were talking, I asked Ben about his family. He said he was not married, but had 65 children. I said “65?” He said yes, all of the children who benefit from the proceeds of the cooking school and tours he runs, are his children, his family. He provides a home and kitchen for orphaned children and children from families in need, including those with HIV. As of today, that was 65 children and counting.

Whether east or west, developed or developing country, I think family (whoever you decide to include in that definition) is what gets us up each day, helps to get the work done and are the people you turn to after it is done.

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Lessons from the Past

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Phnom Penh is an exploding, vibrant, chaotic, city. Like its predecessors on the way to development, Hanoi and Bangkok, it is a crush of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, bicycles, new high rises agaInst crumbling ruins, high end-foodie restaurants and local food carts. It is one of those cities that requires you to steel your nerves before you walk out into the crush of humanity and traffic. I almost always prefer to walk, rather than take a tuk tuk (although given the heat -102 degrees, I did think twice).

I headed towards the Mekong Riverfront in the center of town to visit the National Palace, residence of the ruling King; the Silver Pagoda (the entire floor is made of silver tiles with several famous Buddha statues inside); the National Museum, a beautiful archive of Khmer and Angor history, and restored temples. The ubiquitous question “Tuk tuk, Madam?” followed me everywhere, but I resisted. 

I stopped at the Wat Ounalom, the center of Cambodian Buddhism, a complex of over 40 buildings. Behind them main temple is a small shrine, with an ancient inscription over the door, and a toothless old Cambodian man guarding the entrance. I climbed the stairs and he unlocked the shrine and led me inside. He grunted and urged me to kneel. I placed a few Riel in the offering dish and he proceeded to grab my hands, turn them palms up, splash them with water and then told me to rub my face. He recited some words in Cambodian, blessing or curse I couldn’t be sure. When he finished he squeezed my hands and gave me giant toothless grin. I’ll take that as a sign it was a blessing.

It was hard to remember, as I moved through this city of half a million people, that only 40 years ago, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the population was only 50,000. Most historic and religious sites had been looted and destroyed and all of the intellectuals, civil servants and religious leaders moved to the villages or killed. 

While I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, on the morning of my last day in Phnom Penh, I decided to visit Tuoi Sieng, the genocide museum. The museum is at the site of Security Prison 21, formerly a high school, where thousands of Camodians were tortured and killed, upwards of 100 a day during the final years of the Khmer Rouge. When the prison was liberated, only seven prisoners remained. They had saved themselves because they were painters or photographers and were used to document the prison by the Khmer Rouge. The museum includes room after room of gripping black and white photographs of men, women and children, almost all killed. The space is bleak and the contrast of the old school yard and the instruments of torture sill hanging from the walls is so incongruous as to seem unreal. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty we humans are capable of, and a place I will never forget.

As I walked out of the museum, back into the throws of the city, I was reminded that despite all that this country has seen and suffered, they are once again growing and thriving. Maybe this is the greatest answer to those atrocities - resilience.

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Time Well Spent

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I travelled by minivan and then by boat to reach the villages of Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi and others in northern Laos. The river winds between mountains, long boats are scattered along the riverfront, and small foot paths lead uphill from the shore to the mostly unseen villages. Each has a dusty road down the center, chickens and dogs wander freely, and small kitchen gardens attached to bamboo houses. The rice fields lay outside of the village, along the mountain slopes and valleys.

The difference between a big village and small village is the number of families that reside there - 30 versus 150. Everyone is connected to someone. Children may attend school in their own village, if it is big enough, or spend the weekdays away from home and return on the weekends to help the family. Most are farmers or fisherman. Wealth is determined by the number of cows you own, or acres you farm. Families provide all of their own food and a successful farming family earns $750 per year from their surplus crops or the selling of handicrafts.

In northern Laos, there is a never ending stream of work to be done, collecting firewood, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner over an open fire, washing clothes by hand, weaving, feeding the animals, planting and tending the fields…the list goes on. But nothing seems to be done in a hurry. There is a pace and rhythm - rainy season, growing season, harvest time, making bamboo baskets time; spinning time, and time with family and neighbors.

I had only been in Laos a few days and my western brain was still running at top speed - accustomed to asking “what next?” and the never ending stream of multi-tasking and busyness that surrounds all of us. As I hiked up the rocks to summit the 100 waterfalls (another thing on my list), my guide said, “you can stop, rest, take a picture, you’re on holiday.” Point taken. I slowed my pace, looked around a little more and fell into the rhythm of the climb. I eventually got to the top and the view was that much more special.

The next day, we trekked to the Ban Naa village, a relatively prosperous village by Lao standards. One villager, Mama Khan and her husband, had begun running a guest house for backpackers - a simple bamboo bungalow without indoor plumbing. They also had a small restaurant (three tables under a bamboo roof). After my guide and I ordered our lunch, I watched an aging Mr. Khan scale a neighboring tree to gather some tamarind for the salad, then walk to the garden to harvest some vegetables for the noodles; and Mama Khan gather the pots and stoke the fire, and so it went. We sat overlooking the rice patties for about an hour while the elderly couple worked on lunch. It definitely would not qualify as fast food, but I remembered there was no where I needed to be, except where I was right at that moment.

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The Right of Rituals

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I moved north from Vientiane to beautiful Luang Prabang. In recent years, the city has become known as the gateway to the eco-tourism explosion in northern Laos….trekking, biking, kayaking, etc. It is at the intersection of the Namtha and Mekong rivers and for centuries was the seat of the monarchy - before the rise of communism, and the religious capital of Laos.

Despite, their adoption of a communist government in 1975, Buddhism is an integral part of their society. This small town has no less than 15 temples and monasteries, is home to the famous Luang Prabang golden Buddha, and hundreds of monks young and old. Many Laotians still send their sons to a monastery for few few years to be educated.

Each morning the drums sound from the temples, and the barefoot monks, clad in bright orange robes, leave their homes to walk single file through the streets to receive alms of rice from the locals. Men and women kneel or sit on low stools on the edge of the road with large steaming baskets of sticky rice, placing a small handful in each monks basket as he passes by. There are no words exchanged, in fact, there is no eye contact. In this simple act of daily charity, there is unspoken respect for the life they have chosen and of course, tradition. The procession lasts for about 20 minutes on each street, and then people get back to their day, but this happens every day, every year and has for centuries. 

I’m not sure why I find this comforting. Personally I’m not interested in organized religion, but in a world where religion so often comes in the form of extremism, evangelism, and unfortunately hate, it was reassuring to see this rite of daily compassion.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and temples. I walked along the Mekong River, visited the national palace, and climbed a mountain (really a big hill, but that’s what they call it) to view a golden stupa and get some amazing views of the city. As I came home from dinner, I passed a monastery, just finishing their evening payers, lit up, covered in pink bougainvillea, and the orange robed monks closing the doors for the night. I have to say I did feel some of the peace they are always talking about and quietly thanked them for caring for this special place, and the work they do.

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The Sound of Silence

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When you’re traveling alone, you don’t have the voice of a friend to come between you and the unfamiliar. So those first days on the road, on the other side of the world, can seem almost overwhelming - an assault on the senses - unknown noises, smells and sounds.

As I woke (all too early…jet lag) in Vientiane, I noticed the distinct lack of honking that is so pervasive in other southeast Asian capitals. In fact, all I heard was what sounded like an army of angry squirrels, but turned out to be some sort of small, very noisy bird. As the sun rose over the Mekong River, roosters started crowing…another unfamiliar urban sound and the revving of motorbike engines.

Vientiane is small by comparison to places like Bangkok and Hanoi. It feels sleepier, more like a big small town. This location on the Mekong has been the seat of kingdoms, but it has also been destroyed, over and over and over again, by the Siamese, Chinese, French, and Americans. The city is not old, but throughout there are remanants of its past…a stupa from the Khmer period (once covered in gold, but looted at some point), disintegrating French colonial architecture, Soviet style concrete block buildings, and a few standing temples (wats).

After a short walk through morning traffic (still no honking) I passed through the gates of a small temple complex. As soon as I entered, the street noise faded and the only people I saw were a few young monks in training, studying at a plastic table behind the main hall. Coming from a country where we no longer enter public buildings with out searches, scans and guards, I’m always amazed that these places are so open…that there exists a trust that we will treat these spaces as we should.

After a few more temple visits, I made my way to the central downtown, passing through the “backpacker” district, read cheap guest houses, man buns, batik pants and mostly European languages. I stopped for an iced coffee at what could have passed for a French cafe, eavesdropping and trying to remember my high school French.

I made my way to Vientiane’s oldest religious site, Wat Si Saket, the temple of 2000 Buddhas. Once again I was struck by how quiet it was inside…a couple dressed in traditional Laotian wedding garb for a photo shoot and few older travelers to break the silence. The exterior buildings were filled with bronze, wood, and concrete Buddhas, some damaged, but most staring implacably at the intruder.

I was beginning to wonder just where the noise and commotion of a city of 250,000 was happening, until I got to the market area. The scene was orchestrated chaos - wooden carts, motorcycles, foot traffic, and cars parked on the sidewalk. But unlike other cities, I was never harassed with the infamous “buy something Madam” instead I wandered the stalls, watched an old woman serve lunch from a shopping cart to the vendors and as I left, a few unenthusiastic tuk tuk drivers asked me if a I wanted a ride. They seemed relieved when I said no.

During the hottest part of the day, I wandered the National Museum, in a crumbling French colonial building. It was clear that in a country that has suffered many losses and struggles with wide spread poverty, preserving the national heritage was not high on the priority list (or maybe too much has been lost). Myself and four other visitors wandered room after room of faded photographs and antique weapons laying in the open and held down with wire.

At night, the street vendors came out, Laotian families sat at plastic tables, eating and drinking. The sounds of frying food and beers being opened filled the narrow streets. As I lay in my bed, I finally heard my first car horn. While traveling is so often about seeing things, the sounds we hear or don’t hear often tell us as much about the place we are in.

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A Work in Progress

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“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ― Jawaharlal Nehru

It had to happen eventually…today is my last day in Vietnam. Since leaving the Mekong Delta region, I’ve spent two days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. It was like going from Kansas to Manhattan. There’s unending traffic, old colonial architecture, street markets, high-end restaurants; Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic places of worship and lots of reminders of US history here.

On the antique street, there are old American GI aviator sunglasses and zippo lighters for sale. There is the Reunification Palace (as its now called) where Kissinger met with the South Vietnamese leadership and the eventual site of their surrender (or liberation according to the current regimes version of history). Yet the the city itself feels like it’s moving forward - refurbishing historic buildings and building new ones like the Bitexco Financial on top of an old colonial building. Maybe this is what Vietnam is…a work in progress.

Before I left, I read lots of things about travel in Vietnam. It didn’t always get great reviews. There are lots of people trying to sell lots of things - even when wearing flip flops you’re fair game for aggressive shoe shine boys. It’s a hard country to navigate. The public transportation system is not well developed and there are lots of scams targeted at tourists. The people can be difficult or unfriendly. Despite all this, the real question is, “Is it worth it?”

It probably would have been easier to sign up for a tour and been driven around the country in an air-conditioned bus or car to avoid some of these pitfalls, but I’m pretty sure I saw some things and met some people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard - it was. I’m fairly certain I paid more sometimes than I should have, but I’m not going to argue about 50 cents or a dollar or two. I did feel pressure to buy things, but the things I did buy, I’m happy I did. I got where I wanted to go on trains, boats, buses and the back of motorbikes. Along the way I shared meals, trusted in the kindness of strangers (and was not disappointed), learned that there is nothing you can’t load on a motorbike - from a family of four, to a refrigerator, to eight kegs of beer, to 500lbs of rice, to a half a slaughtered pig; saw amazing landscapes and a way of life vastly different from my own.

Generally speaking, the people were hard, but in most cases their lives have been and continue to be hard, in a way most of us will never understand. On the other hand, rarely was a smile not met with a smile. Even when they were obviously trying to con me or sell something, a smile and a shared knowing laugh, seemed to be enough to stop the game. And if we were lucky enough to be able to communicate in broken English, they were willing to talk and share their lives for a brief moment. They are still trying to figure out how to open their country and themselves to all types of travelers and tourists, and while there is still work to be done, I would have to say, yes, its worth the effort.

A Web of Water

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“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

From An Bihn Island I moved even farther south to the largest city in the Mekong, Can Tho. Can Tho is not a beautiful city (read lots of concrete block buildings) there are few sites to see, but it is a growing city, home to the largest university south of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and a redeveloped riverfront. It is a stopping point between HCMC and the unreachable areas of the delta. I came here to get a glimpse at those unreachable place.

While we use cars, trucks and highways to move goods, in the Mekong, everything moves by water - from logs, to food and even household goods. The major rivers are navigable, but the small channels are accessible only by canoe-like boats called Xuong. Without roads, this is the only means of transportation in and out. Even the ever-present motorbike isn’t feasible.

Today I hired a Xuong (almost always driven by women) and an English speaking guide to visit several floating markets - the center for trade on the delta - and to go deeper into the delta’s channels. My guide was amazing. Her English was mostly self taught, but she was curious about the US and about improving her English. She was also very generous in sharing information about her life, her family and living on the river. She had spent her early childhood on a boat, although her family were now farmers.

Most of the floating markets set up before sunrise and trade is over by 10am, so we had to be on the river by 5:30am to reach the first market. Some markets are wholesale markets, like Cai Rang, where larger boats bring produce from many farmers and sell to individuals who then take these goods to the markets on land. Each area of the market is devoted to a single product…yams, pineapples, watermelon and each boat is identified with a large pole on the bow indicating the items they have for sale. The small boats weave in and out of the larger boats, bargaining, trading, and stocking up. There is a small grocery store boat, a boat selling coffee and even a boat selling noodle soup to the wholesalers. The larger boats, and the boats’ owners, remain on the river for several days until the goods are sold.

After Cai Rang, we visited a smaller market for farmers selling directly to other farmers…trading papaya for ginger, or purchasing sweet potatoes. Then set off down a narrow channel into the delta. It became clear that many of these people never travel from home. They are fully self-sustaining. The river and the land provide everything, from peppercorns, and herbs, to rice, fish and vegetables. What was more amazing, as my guide and I spoke, she could look at a plant and tell me what they used it for. There was almost nothing that couldn’t be eaten, used medicinally, or didn’t bear some sort of fruit (over 100 varieties of bananas). All of this knowledge handed from one family member to the next.

As we motored back to Can Tho around noon, I though about trying to fight a war in this place, about how unprepared and unknowing we must have been. It has taken generations to know what they they know. I also felt humbled. There is whole way of life - a hard life - that exists completely and utterly different than my own. Hundreds of thousands of people, working, trading, living, getting married, feeding their families all on this network of waterways.

Delta Time

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I left Hoi An and traveled south through Saigon to the Mekong Delta. (plane, taxi, bus, a smaller bus, ferry and motorbike was all it took). I arrived on An Bihn island, a short ride away from the town of Vinh Long, a small provincial capital. I had booked two nights at a home stay with a Vietnamese family. Mr. Phu’s home stay is a little larger than some. You do not share the family home, but stay next to the home, in a thatched building with several rooms and shared baths.

To say it was culture shock, would probably be an understatement. Compared to the international, tourist-friendly town of Hoi An, An Bihn is nothing but jungle, slow moving canals of water, stilt houses, no signs in English or French and the heat is stifling, a rare breeze moving the jungle around me. Since I arrived late in the day, I opted to spend the evening with a book and dinner made by Mr. Phu’s wife.

In the morning, I borrowed a bike and set out to explore the island. The roads are mostly dirt trails, cement paths wide enough for a bike or motor bike, maybe two if you’re a good driver, and one single lane asphalt road. There was no available map, so Mr. Phu drew a circular route for me that was to take about two and half hours. At his suggestion, I started out early to be done before the heat of the day.

During my ride, I did not see one other tourist. Occasionally a Vietnamese kid would yell hello, but as I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bottle of water, I felt a little like a curiosity. I’m not sure they see many Americans on a bike riding around the island. Because of the heat, nothing seems to move very fast and work seems to happen early in the day and late afternoon. As a I neared my home stay, I saw lots of people laying in hammocks (a really good idea at this point), or asleep on their motorcycles in the shade. I did round a corner on the cement path and see a lean two with a pool table and several guys shooting pool. I had to wonder how they even got the pool table there…boat, motorbike?

I got back to Mr. Phu’s grabbed my book and headed for a hammock. I think this is the first time on this trip that I have not been doing something in the middle of day. I wasn’t quite sure I could really relax, except that moving induced sweating, so staying still seemed like the best option. I laid about for few hours, Mr. Phu and his wife even joined me by laying in the hammocks in front of the house for a while. I finally decided I could move again, and with another map from Mr. Phu I headed across a bridge to the adjacent island and then took my bike by ferry to the market on the mainland, another short ride and a ferry back to An Binh.

Life seems to move differently here, and while it is not necessarily beautiful (maybe interesting and different), there is a beauty in the rhythm of the place.

Speaking my Language

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“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected" ― Roman Payne, Cities & Countries

After Hue, I headed over the mountain pass, towards to sea and to the small city of Hoi An. I am in love. Hoi An is a magical place. It is the reigning culinary capital of Vietnam, an old Chinese merchant town - a mecca for fabric and food.

Hoi An lies along the Hoia river and during the 16th and 17th centuries was a major merchant town for the Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Indian traders - somehow remaining untouched during any of the wars. The old town is a 15 block area that architecturally is both European and Asian…tree lined streets, row houses, Chinese assembly halls (temples dedicated to various clans), a Japanese wooden bridge, and so much more. The entire area is a heritage site, so there is no unwanted development, and even better, there are no motorized vehicles allowed in the city center, only bikes and foot traffic.

I knew I wanted to learn to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An. The location of the city makes it a melting pot of both northern and southern cooking styles. I found a cooking school run by a Vietnamese woman chef named Mrs. Vy. She is a force of nature - an advocate for preservation of Vietnamese street food, the use of local, fresh ingredients and the owner of four restaurants. I was incredibly lucky to be in a small group (again, no Americans), but a Canadian chef, and two people from the UK.

Our day started with a trip by boat to the local market. All of the local restaurants and hotels shop at this outdoor market twice a day to guarantee the freshest ingredients. I learned how to tell if a papaya is ripe, watched a woman tie crabs with banana leaves, tasted herbs (one leaf that tasted exactly like an anchovy), and the difference between the several varieties of garlic available. After the boat trip, we headed back to the kitchen and got to try our hand at making several Vietnamese staples, rice paper wrappers, noodles (much harder than it looks) and tasted some local delicacies (including frog with lemongrass and chili, which I tried, and fried silk worms, which I did not).

After that we set to work making some traditional vietnamese street food, crispy rice pancakes, mango salad, barbecue, cabbage soup…while this sounded simple, each dish was a complex mix of flavors and textures - sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, soft. Not to mention everything had to be presented in a manner pleasing to the eye. I’m not sure I will ever remember how to make it all, or be able to get the ingredients, but I will remember the tastes.

Hoi An comes alive in the evenings, after the sun has set and the weather has cooled. The chinese lanterns that line the street are lit, the shop owners put out their goods and the street side tables fill with diners. I walked the old town for a few hours, spent a few dollars and am sad knowing that tomorrow I will leave this place, but so glad to have found a city that speaks my language.

Seeing What's in Front of Me

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” ― John Ruskin

I’ve been traveling now for almost two weeks. I can tell. Packing and unpacking, figuring out what to see, how to get there…I’m not complaining, but as I got to the city of Hue, I decided instead of knowing what I wanted to see, I would let the city decide what I should see. Hue is the former political and cultural capital of Vietnam, located in the center of the country and set along the banks of the Perfume River. The Nguyen emperors united north and south by building the capital here. Before the war I can imagine how beautiful, almost European it might have been.

I headed in the direction of the old citadel across the river from my hotel (leaving my map in my bag). I stopped at a small pagoda complex that was completely deserted except for some monks studying and tending orchids. It was quiet, cool and the infamous horn honking of southeast Asia faded into the background. As I came out of the pagoda, I saw the ancient walls of the citadel. The citadel is surrounded by brick walls on four sides, each almost a mile long and inside the citadel in another walled fortress - the old imperial city - also surrounded by a moat. I wandered through the citadels narrow streets, finally stumbling upon the entrance to the imperial palace late in the afternoon. The sun was lower, the tour busses and crowds were gone. I paid my entry fee and wandered inside. The palace area used to include almost 150 buildings, about 20 remain (the palace was heavily bombed during the war). The street noise once again faded, and a I walked the grounds…the ceremonial palace, the house for the emperors’s mother, the royal theater, the spot where the forbidden city once stood, I saw only a handful of people.

As I was leaving the citadel, I met a Vietnamese man who showed me where the citadel’s walls had been bombed. He explained that his father had fought with the Americans (the first question everyone asks, “Where you from?”). He said that his father was shot by Vietnamese and lost both his legs for his treason. In this small country, everyone was affected by the war.

I made it back to my hotel and in the spirit of not having an agenda, I showered, changed and headed out to find a spot for dinner. I stopped at a cafe that was run by two Italians. I ordered a beer and a pizza marguerite. It was delicious! My American palette (and my Wisconsin dairy-addiction) was craving something other than rice, noodles or spring rolls. An Australian guy sitting next to me had the same idea, as he sheepishly order a pepperoni pizza, saying he needed some “real” food. We talked about where he had been, what I should see in Saigon and his travels around the world.

I’m not sure that I did everything I was “supposed” to do in the citadel of Hue, but I saw what was in front of me and I feel ready for the next leg of the journey. Tomorrow…a motorcycle tour outside the city.

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Through the Mist

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.” ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

I spent the last couple of days in the northwest mountains of Vietnam around Sapa. The French once called this area the Tonkinese Alps - it’s home to the highest peak in southeast Asia Fansipan. Sapa town is a strange mix of hippie backpackers (mostly European), outdoor trekking types (lots of pants with zippers) and the native Black H'mong, Flower H'mong and Red Dau people (hill tribes).

While it was supposed to be one of the drier times of the year to visit, mother nature had other ideas. It was pouring when I arrived and a grey fog settled around the mountains. I decided to take my chances and booked a guide for the following day for a 12km trek to three neighboring hill tribe villages. On the morning of the trek (which honestly I hoped meant walking), it was misty and cool, but the rain had ended. I met my guide Ahn and we headed through town, out the main road, past the checkpoint for entry into the hill tribe area and onto the trails. As we hiked up and down the mountain side, through rice fields, mud, more mud, and rocks, she leapt like a mountain goat and I kept hoping I wouldn’t slide several hundred feet down the mountain through the orange mud.

The clouds moved in and out of the valley and I could see endless steep slopes carved into terraces for rice planting, water buffalo grazing, wooden houses perched on the side of the mountain and small villages in the valley below. While it was take-your-breath away beautiful, it also become clear as I talked with Ahn and others over the next two days, it was not an easy life.

The H'mong are a very traditional people, trying to grow enough rice to feed the family through the winter, making most of their own clothes, including spinning hemp fibers, dying cloth and embroidering designs and taking care of their families, young and old. The outlying farms do not have electricity (or heat), just a water-powered generator for a light bulb or two. It can be a two or three hour trek (each way) from the farm to the nearest market or village to sell or trade goods. Education especially among girls has been a problem. Many marriages are arranged based on astrological signs and birth years.

As I visited the villages with Ahn and the next day at a hill tribe market, I began to wonder how many more generations will live like this - both the good (strong families and culture) and the bad (poverty). There is better access to education for the H'mong people and a push to keep children in school longer. There is a greater opportunity to earn money through tourism and some H'mong are moving away from the family farms. H'mong teenagers with cell phones are probably going to start arranging their own dates. I hope they can navigate a future without loosing their past.

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Water and a Way of Life

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“They spoke less and less between them until at last they were silent altogether as is often the way with travelers approaching the end of a journey.” - Cormac McCarthy

I left Hanoi on Thursday, and one taxi, three buses and a boat later, I arrived on Cat Ba Island in northeastern Vietnam. Cat Ba sits on the edge of Halong Bay - a UNESCO World Heritage site, significant for its beauty and culture.

Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha were one of those bucket list places for me. The rocks and karst formations rising out of the sea are the stuff of National Geographic photos. Also as a solo traveler, it was time for some sort of group trip…didn’t want to start talking to myself. So I signed on for a day long boat cruise/kayak/beach trip around the bays. A perfect antidote to recovering from the frenzy of Hanoi (and I am on vacation). The small group was made up of mostly Europeans, and a Russian.

We headed to the dock and boarded a wooden junk boat. As we pulled out of the harbor, we traveled past a floating village of fish farms. These fish farmers spend their entire life on the water…floating houses, dogs and kids running between the fish fish containment areas, generators, and even a floating grocery store. Water taxis ferry children to the island for school and goods back to the fishermen.

We moved past the fish farms into open waters, we cruised around Halong Bay past amazing rock formations…the remnants, according to legend, of a dragon that hit the water. I sat on a chair on the deck and reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to see this…most people will never see this in person. Also, the group of people I was with were smart, funny travelers, who had great stories to tell from places they had been around the world. They were not the backpacker set, but mostly working people like me who had taken a few weeks to escape the real world.

We anchored and kayaked through caves and lagoons, ate a seafood lunch, prepared by the guys on the boat, swam, drank a beer…I could have gotten used to this life. As we were heading back at sunset, our guide, a 10th generation Cat Ba Island native, began to talk to a few of us about the state of the bay.

We motored past oyster farms and more fish farms, he pointed out boats specially designed to catch small fish to feed to the larger farmed fish. There are no regulations to control the over fishing of these small fish and the larger native fish are become scarcer and scarcer. Once, the people of the island would trade produce to the fisherman for these native fish, but the cost has skyrocketed and they can’t afford to eat the fish from the bay any longer. The majority of this fish is consumed by wealthy Vietnamese tourists in the summer months. China controls the South China Sea and Halong Bay is the bread basket of seafood for Vietnam, if this ecosystem is destroyed, so will go the culture and economy of the region. You could hear in his voice the concern and sadness for the future of this place.

We quietly rode in the harbor in the pink light of sunset, grateful for an opportunity to see this beautiful place…for as long as it exists.

Seeing History in a Mirror

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
― Marcel Proust

When I left for this trip, more than one person asked me “Why Vietnam?” Honestly, I don’t think I had a very good answer. Culturally, I like this part of the world; had heard it was a great (and safe) travel destination and, it was really affordable, but I was/am no great student of Vietnam. I could give some highlights, early religious dynasties, colonial occupation, the rise of communism, war with U.S, and that every other item of clothing sold in the US has “made in Vietnam” label on it.

After a day of being the passive observer (and trying not to get run over) in the Old Quarter, I decided to go a little further…hoping to gain a bit more understanding of the people and place. I was struck by the profound visible signs of loss in this historic capital, but also pride, resilience and sense of sameness.

I learned that they revere learning. The Temple of Literature, founded in 1070, is one of the few remaining examples of Vietnamese architecture still standing. The temple was built to honor Confucius and scholarly learning. The names of great Vietnamese scholars are etched in stone tablets on the edges of the temple. It is still regarded as a place of learning…today there were a group of Vietnamese high school kids in a graduation ceremony on the grounds.

I learned that the Vietnamese are proud of who they are and their country (even if we don’t agree with their politics); and they honor their forefathers. After the Temple, I walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. Like Lenin, “Uncle Ho” is honored with a huge monolithic stone mausoleum, where thousands come to pay tribute each year. Adjacent to this is a museum dedicated to his life and work and surrounding this is is huge botanical garden.

I learned that they value art and creativity, but have lost much of their heritage. A trip to the National Museum of Fine Art, begins with the phrase, “what you see here are examples or remnants of early works, most have been lost by wars.” The Vietnamese were great sculptors in bronze and stone, wood carvers, print makers, silk painters and a lacquer artists.

As I moved to the more modern section of museum, I saw works in these same traditional medium, but about the war with the U.S. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. While I don’t know many people personally who served in the war with Vietnam, I know the impact it is has had on us culturally. I have visited the war memorial in D.C. and been awed by the enormous losses suffered and the residual pain. Yet, these works showed the same costs of war….widows, children, loss, resolve, sorrow, poverty, pain. It was like seeing history in a mirror.

I know there are unresolved political issues between my country and theirs and there are many Americans who lost too much, but it seems to me, that going forward only happens when you are able to look beyond what is different and see what is the same.