Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Son Ruins

So to satiate Michael's desire to visit places around Da Nang before it starts to rain, we planned to go visit My Son this past Saturday with our lovely lady French friends Marie and Geraldine. Sadly, Geraldine's sweetheart Xavier, another good friend, was working and couldn't join us - but we got some fun pics for him! My Son is described as a "Holy Land" as it is where the ancient peoples of Southeast Asia, called the Cham, built a lot of temples. Another place that is more well known is Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Sadly, many of the remaining ruins were destroyed during the Vietnam War, but the ones that were remaining were pretty cool anyway.

My Son is about 60-62 Kilometers Southwest of Da Nang, and when you go maybe 40 km/hr on a motorbike it is slow going. Very slow going. Add to that the poorly marked streets and construction in some parts and it took us about 2hrs to get there, maybe a tad bit more. I had a really sore bum to say the least.

One of the highlights of the trip was driving through the small towns on the way to My Son, one in particular was very neat as they must produce a lot of corn and what looked like soy beans there. Almost every home had at least one, if not 2 or 3, tarps laid out on the ground in the sun, covered in either corn on the cob, corn off the cob, just corn cobs, or something pale green that looked like soy beans to me.

When we finally got to My Son, they had a lovely little museum where you could learn about the dates the buildings were constructed and some information about the Cham people, where and how they lived. I also had the lovely opportunity to experience my first squat-style toilet there, at least the facility was clean and had a working sink, but it was quite the new experience for me nonetheless. After the bathroom we drove another kilometer or so up a very bumpy cobbled road - also a different experience - to where we could park our bikes and then hike another 1-2 kilometers to the ruins. It was a long walk in the crazy heat.
I can't get the photos to align according to time without doing a lot of crazy shuffling, so here are photos in no particular order and I will tell you about them as they go:

Photo of the side of one of the temples, very beautiful carvings were everywhere, and still visible after being built from the 4th to the 13th century according to UNESCO.
 Here's a photo of one of the courtyards, all of these buildings are small temples, which had the carvings on the sides and all over.
 One of my favorite parts was when Michael spotted this lovely lizard on the doorway of a temple - it looks kind of like an iguana but with one very unique trait - this is the color he was on the red brick of the temple and ...
 This is the color he was when he moved off of the red brick onto lighter brick - SO COOL! So maybe some kind of chameleon, I'm not sure. Needless to say I have maybe 10 photos of this guy at least - he did seem to like posing for me and Michael :)
 Here's a photo of one of the large stones covered in ancient writing. You may need to click on it and enlarge it to see the writing - our camera battery died shortly after we started our trip (I know, we're morons) so most of the photos were taken on our phones, so they aren't as large or detailed. But the writing was beautiful anyway - it reminded me of Thai writing a bit.
 After seeing the ruins we tried getting back to our bikes on a different trail - and kinda got lost. But the trees offered much needed shade and were really beautiful. Geraldine had brought some cookies luckily, as we hadn't stopped for lunch yet, and we had a great time eating them and talking about the weird differences between French and English - like how to pronounce "Spiderman" in either language :)

Here's Michael and me at the first ruins we came across. Sadly all that is left of this area is this one wall and a few pieces strewn all over the ground, but it was still neat.

This is one of the main temples in the large area of ruins, you can see how big this one is in this shot, but the inside is pretty small.

Michael and Marie in the museum, reading about the different types of statues inside the temples.

Here is the bridge you cross to go inside the park after going through the museum, it was pretty cool.

Here's a view of the main area of ruins from a distance, it was really beautiful with the rich greens and mist surrounding the mountains in the distance.

Here's the side view of the main temple Michael was standing next to a few photos back. I loved the carvings of the different deities on the sides (at least I think that is what they are). 

Here's Michael walking inside one of the temples. The inside was very cool and a bit dank, not to mention dark if the temple was still sealed, and surprisingly small due to the way they construct their buildings. The Cham used no cement in their building, they would simple arrange the bricks in a counter-balance pattern that would hold itself up without a bonding element.

Here's Michael in the rear courtyard. This place was cool as it had statues on either side, some were still fairly intact, the photo below is a close-up of the statue you can see on the right hand side of this photo.

It was a beautiful piece of sculpture, even if it was missing the head. Sadly, a lot of the statues were missing heads, I think they were taken and sold possibly or maybe destroyed by people who didn't support that religion, but I don't really know.

And lastly - we had to take a photo of Michael, he was sweating more than he has EVER before, even during summer. It was a lot hotter and more humid in My Son than in Da Nang recently, but still, it was weird. He was literally dripping wet, enjoy! 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Monkey Mountain Monkeys

So the best part of Monkey Mountain, despite the beautiful scenery and cool temperature, were the local creatures on the mountain. We saw 5 different kinds of butterflies, more beautiful than any I have seen before - there were blue ones, green ones, purple and grey ones, and some with black wings and hot pink bodies! But the best thing was seeing these:

If you can guess what the long, white thing is in the middle of the tree is...  
Monkeys!!! They are called the Son Tra Red Shanked Monkey, and are rare as they are endangered and only live in the Monkey Mountain area. We were just getting back to the bike and were going to leave when we heard some loud moving noises in the trees, and when we looked up we saw these long white things hanging from the trees, when we realized what they were it was SO awesome. They were probably 100 ft from us I think, up on the top of the hill where we were on the road a little below.  

The camera couldn't zoom very well, but in case you want to squint and guess at blobs - here are some more photos (don't forget that the long white things are tails, so that kind of leads you to where they are):

Here is a photo off the net of what they look like:

Unfortunately we were a little far away to see them very clearly, but it was SO amazing anyway. I have a lot of really bad photos of them - all you can really see in them are the tails (there was a large family in the tree, I think we counted 6 or 7), but it was still the coolest thing we've ever seen. Seeing a monkey in its natural habitat is something so amazing - a little scary perhaps as you realize that they can come down out of the trees after you if they want - but so amazing nonetheless.

I took a longer video of them, but sadly it plays sideways (the troubles of using a phone), so here is a shorter video of them - if you listen closely you can hear some of the noises they make:

Monkey Mountain

On Sunday (a couple of weeks ago now), after church Michael really wanted to get out of the house, so we went for another drive - this time attempting to find the top of Monkey Mountain. Monkey Mountain is a very beautiful mountain on the northeast side of Da Nang, out on the peninsula past the Giant Buddha we visited last month. Like idiots, we forgot our camera so we had to use our phones instead - and everything always looks better on a little phone than on your computer. Here are some pics of the drive:
The view of Da Nang on our way around the peninsula, you can just see the high-rise buildings in the distance, covered in clouds and possibly pollution as well.

Another view of the peninsula, clouds were all over the tops of the mountains.

Beautiful rocky shores around the eastern end. This was near one of the most expensive and beautiful resorts in Da Nang, I can't remember the name but we hope to visit there with our friends sometime for dinner, they have told us it is really amazing. We actually drove around the back of the resort to go up the mountain, it was crazy steep.

Here's the view as we start the climb, the road went almost completely straight up the mountain, it didn't wind back and forth like they do in the states. At times the road was so steep I had to get off the bike and walk while Michael tried to drive up the road - our bike wasn't very happy but it made it.

Here's Michael turning the bike around, it got too steep for my liking so we parked the bike and hiked up the road for a while instead.

Here you can see what the road looked like. Apparently we came up the steep way, we were passed by a lot of Vietnamese people driving the other way. They are so skilled on motorbikes they were going a lot faster than I ever let Michael go :)

The clouds were so beautiful! The top of the mountain was covered, so the lighting was always changing as the density of the clouds changed overhead.

Here is a little video of the clouds, hopefully the quality is viewable!

The best part of the drive were the local animals we were lucky enough to see up there, but I will post separately about that so I have enough room for the post :)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Vietnamese for a Day

Our journey begins with a promising young Vietnamese college student named Thui. We met Thui a few weeks ago at a coffee shop where she works during the summer. She brought us noodles, we told her she was nice, one thing led to another... next thing you know, she's taking us to her hometown to meet the parents.

Over the weekend of Vietnamese Independence day, we traveled with Thui by train to a little Vietnamese country town called "Quang Tri".  And there, we were magically transported into your average Vietnamese family for a weekend. It was amazing, and intriguing, and... frustrating in some ways, but an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.

The train ride was about 3.5 hours. There was some AMAZING scenery travelling along the coast, but overall there was nothing special to report about the train ride. Except that Thui bought the snacks and, judging by what she knew about American diet, she provided us with "sausages" (hotdogs wrapped in plastic and eaten cold like a candy bar). "Blarfy" is the word I am choosing to describe it. Yes - Blarfy. 

Upon arriving at Quang Tri, we were literally "embraced" by Thui's parents. They were soooooooo happy to have us there!  I get the feeling that foreigners are a rare and exotic commodity in the country side, and they were pumped to have us in their home. The following days they reinforced this theory by showing us off to the whole neighborhood and all of their family (which was a veritable army of people since practically everyone in the town is related). Risa says it wasn't that many people, and it was a holiday so maybe they get together for holidays anyway. Both Thui's Mom and Dad come from large families (7 or 9 kids each), and we met maybe 3 of them total so it wasn't an army, but it was fun. 

The motorbike trip to their home was treacherous, like every other motorbike trip in Vietnam. We managed to make it unscathed to their house, however. Their house was pretty cool! It looked a lot bigger from the outside than it actually was on account that half of the square footage was made up of balconies and porches. Pretty sweet. Thui's dad is also an amazing gardener and we were met by a jungle of Bonsai trees in elevated pots upon entering the yard. The interior was cozy, but sparse by American standards. The only furniture was some artistically carved tree bases (roots included) that made up a table and some stools, along with a computer desk. For the most part they just pulled out mats and sat on the floor for everything. They did have a couple of beds...

Let me say that it is somewhat difficult to tell Vietnamese beds apart from American kitchen tables due to the complete lack of mattress, sheets, or anything fluffy or comfortable. Our bed did have a mat of bamboo tiles to cover it... but I think that might have just made it MORE unyielding.  I've slept a lot on the ground, being the assistant scout master before we moved here, and I can reliably say that the ground is NOTHING compared to the brutality of Vietnamese beds upon one's back, hips, and shoulders.  It was okay though - it was all part of the experience. And I'm sure if you grew up sleeping without a mattress, it's probably the most comfortable thing in the world.  

I must emphasize at this point the MOST IMPORTANT part of the trip. That is that Thui's family and all their friends and relatives are AMAZING people. They were so loving and welcoming and warm to us, I had a hard time accepting all that gooey love! Everyone we met was truly amazing.  

Okay - now for some crazy food adventures! Apparently the only thing they do in the country in their leisure time during holidays is eat. Because that's pretty much all we did. One of the meals we had involved a dish called "duck blood".  It entailed some meat-like chunklets swimming in deep red liquid (duck blood I assume), covered in peanuts. It was actually pretty good, but a little creepy, even for my taste. It was also the fanciest of the meals offered us, so we felt obligated to eat it. A lot. I think I ate so much that I wasn't hungry for a full 20 hours after.  After dinner, they managed to find a guitar somewhere (a neighbor I think) and I played while Thui's dad and his friend sang. And man - those guys LOVE to sing. I bet they kept it up for 2 hours at least. They would give me a rough idea of the tempo / beat they wanted me to play, and then they would just belt it out. Sometimes for 15 minutes at a time! It was the craziest jam session I've ever been a part of. I loved it. 

As far as sight-seeing, they took us to a war museum in their town, along with an amazing bell-tower and a huge ancient Catholic church. The best part of the church was a huge row of angel statues with water coming out of their fingers you could turn on and off.  Not sure what that was for - washing, or drinking I assume? No idea. 

Getting home was both sad and a major relief. Mattresses and showers were embraced with joyous reunion (oh yeah - there was no shower at the house in Quang Tri either. We washed ourselves out of a giant water tub in the bathroom. It was pretty cool!). But, it seemed a little lonely to return home after having spent 2 solid days with so many wonderful people.  Overall the trip was really neat and I'm glad we did it. Check out the pics!

These two photos are of Thui's Dad's friend, a really great gardener who invited us to his house. He had a beautiful house and offered us Tea (which we politely declined), and instead he offered us a sweet bean drink and fresh mangoes. He was very kind and had some very beautiful bonsai trees that he was caring for. 

Here were some shoes of Thui's family, we thought it was kind of funny how the right one read "Sport", and the left one read "Trops".
Us in a rice paddy around the corner from Thui's house.
Here's a shot from riding on the motorbike, Thui drove me and her dad drove Michael.

Here we are at the memorial museum, there were a lot of people here to commemorate Vietnamese Independence Day that day.
Here's the giant bell tower they took us to. 

Here's Risa and Thui's dad at the riverside.

Here's a view of the Catholic cathedral/monument thing. It was definitely apparent that East meets West out here. It was established as Mother Mary was supposed to have visited some Catholics at this location back in the 1800's I believe. 

Here's the building at the Catholic Church, this building isn't used inside anymore I don't think but it had a large picture of Mother Mary on it and signs telling the story of the church here.

Here are the angel statues. 
Here's the beautiful sunrise that greeted us the morning we woke at 5:15AM to catch the train.
Us at the train station enjoying an early morning snack before we leave. They were so kind and insisted on giving us a lot to eat, while they all said it was too early for breakfast so none of them ate. They were so kind to us, they wouldn't even let us pay for any of the food. It was such a neat experience to be on the receiving end of such humble generosity.