Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Philippines

           Since we had all seen the main Southeast Asian countries on the backpacker circuit, we decided on the Philippines for the rest of our trip.  Being slightly off the beaten path, and also being a bunch of islands, travel around there is not easy.  There is not as much tourism information because there are not so many tourists.  Where do you stay when HostelWorld and Lonely Planet don’t give you much??


First things first, I made the decision to start eating meat again right from the first meal we sat down for.  This was an excellent decision because the 5 of us often dined family style so we could try everything.  So much good food but I’ll get to that...
In HCMC the best site was the War Remnants Museum.  Opening in September of 1975 (!), the museum had planes, tanks, cannons, preserved prison cells, and more than 6 rooms and topics full of photos and information.
So the group was myself and my friends from Phuket, Helen, Summer, and Sid and my brother Ryan, who flew out from Boston for the trip.  We started in Ho Chi Minh City in the South.  Here we saw more motorbikes in one place than I have ever seen.  Phuket is not comparable since it is not a big city, something I forget until I’m in an actual big city.  The chaos of the bikes weaving through each other at intersections with what seems to be no logic or system, just honking, made me think there has to be tons of scrapes.  When I paid close attention I did actually see lots of bumper-car-action going on.  People were helpful enough here but it was strange to not be in Thailand anymore- the Land of Smiles.  Also we were back at square one with the language! 
We also did a little day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a system of tunnels used by Vietnamese guerillas as an excellent war strategy.  The tunnels are complex and well planned out with small air passages to the surface and exit points under the river surface.  The entry points and passages between rooms were teeny tiny and dark.  It is remarkable how those men navigated all of it.  The entry points are also camouflaged so hopping out of one and running to another during combat was a very crafty thing.  At the end of the tour we got to go through the tunnels which was shocking to say the least!  We couldn’t believe they even let us in there in the tiny stuffy passages, largely just feeling our way through the dark, apart from a couple tiny lights.  All of a sudden the tunnel would have a wall and you needed to climb up, we had to help each other through!  There were 3 we were allowed inside, getting trickier as they went.  More of the group opted out by the 3rd.  We were really just in shock that they actually let us in there without a disclaimer of how claustrophobic they would be!
The Vietnam War is such a big and powerful part of Vietnam’s history that it dominates tourism activities.  It was a strange feeling to be an American in such a place and feel the guilt and eventually just embarrassment.  There is no actual grudge, no hostility towards today’s American tourists but it’s hard to walk with your head too high.  Also, there are few American tourists in Vietnam; we were often the only ones on the group tours we did so that feels a bit awkward. 
One of the must-sees in every guidebook for Vietnam is the water puppet show, which we did in HCMC. I’m pretty sure it is the same exact show throughout the country because every shop selling Vietnamese puppets had the same ones from our show.  Also, the same folklore stories kept showing up in other sites.  The puppeteers stand in waist deep water behind the scenery, sometimes opening it to let a puppet out.  The puppets can also enter the scene by just emerging from the water.  It was cute and unique and had nice Vietnamese music as well.
We enjoyed every meal we had, right from the beginning.  The always changing different spices of Phở, the fresh baguette sandwiches with “everything” on them from the street carts, the Vietnamese pancakes, the thin rice papered spring rolls, the lemongrass chicken, and the many delicious dishes that I can’t even describe or name the flavor.
We finished Ho Chi Minh City with happy hour drinks on the terrace at the Sheraton hotel with a lovely view of sunset.  We then hopped on the train and woke up in Nha Trang where we went to a secluded resort called Jungle Beach Resort.  The beach was gorgous but we had quite a bit of out-of-season downpour and were a little bored there.  The food was excellent, they fed all the guests together as a feast.  We had traditional Vietnamese flavors as well as guacamole and French fries sometimes!  We met other young travelers and enjoyed visiting with them over dinner and ping pong.  We also hiked to a nearby waterfall with the resort’s dogs showing us the way.  Right as the weather was clearing up after solid days of rain, it was time for us to move on, this time on an overnight bus to Hoi An.
The overnight bus is something we tried never to speak of again, as it was the most uncomfortable excuse for a bed (a super reclined chair, feet in a compartment, practically overlapping your right or left neighbor, and bunked!) and as soon as the sun came up at 5am or so, the driver could not keep his hand off of that awful horn for more than 5 seconds.  And if you wanted to pee, forget about it because random people were sleeping on the aisle floors.  Needless to say, we didn’t do that again.
We spent a perfect day and a half in Hoi An, an old trading town famous for its character including French cafes and countless tailor shops.  Some tourists were so big on the tailored clothing, they were bringing their laptops in to show pictures and getting suits, clothes and shoes made for good prices and shipping big boxes home! None of us were into that but it’s a good idea for people who normally buy really expensive clothes.  We rented bikes and rode around town and just over the bridge on a little island, we stopped at a small place for some local food.  The main local dish is called Cao Lau, which is hearty fresh noodles, tons of fresh green herbs, meat, a sweetish sauce, and fried wonton pieces.  What a delicious mouthful it was!  Best food on the trip!  We had some more that night along with our cheapest-beer-of-our-lives session (20 cents for cup of draught).  When we asked for our bill they said ok how many did you have?  We said we thought you were keeping track!
The next morning, we made our artsy souvenir purchases and took an afternoon bus to Hue, the historic capital of Vietnam.  We spent the following day there exploring the old citadel where we put on traditional royal dress and took the best pictures ever.  We walked through a local market and just when we decided we would stop for a bit of food, we were sat down by some smart little ladies at one of those spots with short tables and mini stools in the middle of the market.  We knew we wanted to try the Bun Cha, the local Pho type soup, so we were glad when they just put a bowl of it in front us.  But then, she continued to bring each one of us each thing from her menu… It was all super delicious, especially the pork skewers, but she just kept bringing it!!  It’s a good thing we liked it so much because she ended up asking for $5USD each as well $1 more for the candy on ice drink she put in front of us, which was actually from the next cart over- tricky!  But even though it was expensive for Vietnam, that is still lots of food for a cheap price in American terms.
We woke up the next morning (overnight train) in the capital city of Hanoi.  Hanoi was nothing like HCMC.  A cute smallish feeling city, we saw most of it that day.  We went first to see Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, which houses his embalmed body and is only open for 3 hours each morning and often closes for more restoration and preservation work.  You must dress very modestly and walk in 2 straight lines, moving steadily around the 3 viewing angles of the body and then out the door.  No hands in your pockets, no arms crossed, no talking, and leave your camera and firearms in a bag outside (don’t worry you can collect them right after).  A very interesting site to see indeed, and for free!  At the same sight we saw Uncle Ho’s old houses around a small lake as well as his old cars.  There was also a Ho Chi Minh Museum and a famous One Pillar Pagoda.  Most of Hanoi was just small sights to see, 50 cents here or there to see a bridge or small museum. 
From Hanoi, we took a bus to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise.  Halong Bay is full of karst rock islands that seem to go on forever in every direction since you see no end throughout the cruise.  The weather in Hanoi was colder than we Phuket dwellers had experienced for a while and even colder in Halong Bay but Ryan and some other boat passengers jumped off the boat into the water.  We all ended up getting wet though because we went kayaking to a cave.  Interesting fact, there is a cave in Vietnam (not this one we visited) that can have 2 jumbo jets flying side by side in it!  After the cave we kayaked back to our boat in the dark which despite being freezing, gave us a chance to see the algae that glows beautiful colors when you touch it.  It looked especially cool hitting the water with the paddles.
Back in Hanoi, after saying goodbye to Sid and Ryan, the 3 girls continued on to Sapa.  Sapa was even colder since it is in the mountains but it was a worthwhile journey to be freezing for 2 days (it was low to mid 50s); we just put on all of our clothes and didn’t take any off until we were back in Hanoi.  Sapa has mountains of rice terraces and local tribes.  Our guide was a 17-year-old girl from a tribe.  She met us in Sapa town to take us trekking through the scenery and to see some tribes.  There was a constant drizzle or small mist of rain going on there and the hillsides were completely muddy.  We all rented rubber boots and were sometimes ankle deep in the mud!  There were women, from young girls to old ladies, who took our hands and somehow managed to stabilize themselves and us as we sloshed up and down the hillside and through the rice paddy.  Of course after they insisted we buy the jewelry and purses they were selling but most of us felt that was fair!  The mountains were big there, more impressive than I thought, with a mountain over 10,000 feet!  Our trekking group of about 15 stayed at a tribal home meant for homestay with lots of beds.  The locals made us delicious dinner and we tried their local rice wine, followed by huddling around some burning coals and chatting.  Those women spoke such good English and they mostly learn from spending time with tourists since they were young, not from school. 
That was our last adventure in Vietnam so after one more meal of Pho and one more baguette sandwich, it was time to head for warm weather again—next stop, Philippines!

Leaving Thailand: last thoughts

          It is a strange feeling ending a chapter in your life.  I always get overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions- how much that life became the norm for me, the sadness of how I’ll never see certain people again, how I’ll never be that age again; the amazement of how much time has passed, the wisdom I’ve learned, the difference in me since I entered that chapter; and of course, aspirations and anxieties about the future.
Saying goodbye to my students was sad for me.  Most are too young to fully understand that they will never see me again and that I have a different life in a different part of the world.  And naturally I was more attached to certain students; some I had for all 3 semesters of my teaching and some were just more mature or advanced in their language skills and built special relationships with me.  When I started hugging those students on the last day of school I felt sad.  At the same time, I knew that my career as a teacher had definitely burned out, at least, with that age group, with that curriculum, with that school, and possibly with this continent.  The last couple of months were a big struggle for me in all those areas.  As I have expressed before, I feel that the curriculum presented for such young kids is very difficult to uphold as it is not age appropriate, thus making my job a struggle despite my enjoyment of being around kids.  At the same time, this situation and its challenges gave me an irreplaceable lesson, the exact kind I set out for.  I mean, why would I go across the world to teach at a school identical to one in America? 
Some students’ parents seemed a bit surprised that I was going home and I almost felt guilty… but I got what I came for and now it is time for me to move on… that’s understandable right?  Nothing personal towards Thailand but I didn’t see my entire future there!  There is still so much more of the world that I want to see and I’m really excited for when I do. 

Now that I am home, in what I find to be the most freezing April weather ever, I have to get used to not only the weather, but also driving on the right side of the road, people having a million electronics, people having such trendy clothes and hobbies, following traffic laws, expensive food, and the fact that things have changed and I am totally not with it.  My family said the thing that outsider-ed me the most was asking who is that guy with the crazy beard? on the Giants while they were watching the game.  When I was watching the news I said who is this guy they're calling governor isn't Arnold the governor? Apparently not anymore.  I keep forgetting that there are dryers and free tap water and I can't get enough of these comfortable beds and couches!  I guess every country has good features about it!!