Friday, January 25, 2013

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Totally the most beautiful place we've ever been.

Halfway through January we went on a trip with our Argentinian friend/co-worker Maxi Cadiz and our friend Spencer from HCMC, who has one of the coolest jobs ever - he travels all over Vietnam recruiting students for the University of Cincinnati.
So, we took a 6 hr train ride north of Da Nang, it just went on and on, but it was only 3 stops or so (not including the random stops at parts where there's only 1 set of tracks) - and as we brought a bunch of sugary snacks to sustain us, it lead to way too many Top N Top cupcakes...
We pulled into town about 7pm, got a hotel - where the owner asked us where we were from and replied "30 years ago I would have shot you" - totally creepy - and then when we went to look for food, there was nothing open - not a single store - but we finally found a little sidewalk stand selling sticky rice and chicken, and it was ok, not great but all right. The good thing about the hotel was that it had an awesome soft mattress (1st one in Vietnam, woot woot! - though our backs still hurt in the morning). After some uno cards we all headed off to bed.
We got up bright and early the next day to rent a motorbike to take into the park, and we took off with nothing but a general direction and Spencer's internet access on his phone, but, his phone did have the full advantage of modern technology and we had a live map showing us where to go.
I must say - it was one of the most beautiful drives we've ever been on, it was so incredible I can't even describe it.
I hope this panoramic gets bigger if you click on it, because it shows the amazing rice fields we drove through and the mountains in the distance are the entrance to the park. It was breathtaking.

We went first to Phong Nha cave, which is partially filled with water and you have to take a boat to go inside. It said it was a "3 hour tour"... kind of ominous, but most of that is spent in the boat going along the river. The boat really crawls, but at least it was good scenery.
Here's a view from the boat along the river.
Here is where the boat enters the cave, it was pretty intense as the women rowing the boat are actually ducking down to avoid knocking their heads on the ceiling in the first part.
Here's me, Maxi, and Spencer inside the cave.
After the boat ride they have you get off inside the cave. It was pretty awe inspiring, but I admit I had a lot of Batman thoughts with the colors they had everywhere.

Here's a photo of the entrance to the cave.

After that we went on the craziest most awesome drive of all time to the next cave. It was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. 
The mountains were so incredible; we couldn't believe our eyes.

And then, against all mind-blowing-ness, it got even more beautiful as we got into the canyon and were surrounded by rich greens, misty mountains, and dark earth of such color intensity no photos or screens could ever do it justice. Here's a link to a video in another attempt to capture the moment.

It was the experience of a lifetime. I think it will always be one of the best things I have done my entire life, and I must say I've never seen anything so beautiful, anywhere.
So, once we picked our jaws up off the ground, having dragged them the entire way to the cave in a smiling, slack-jawed stupor, we reached a newly (within a few years) discovered cave - Thien Duong Cave, also known as Paradise cave. We purchased our tickets and took the long, long walk up to where you hike up to the cave entrance, and Michael just HAS to point out the CRAZY SCARY SPIDER IN THE TREE ON THE WAY UP TO THE CAVE, seriously, I took one look at it and never wanted to enter a jungle ever again.
Duh duh DUH!
Michael seriously has to have a scary spider radar or something.
It was at least the size of an adult hand (including your fingers), hanging about 12ft off the ground in a large web in the tree branches.
We continued our walk as Spencer told us of his LDS mission to Australia "a place designed to kill humans" according to him. He said that there are giant spiders all over the place and they jump. Jump people {shiver}. Totally not my idea of a good time. But, he loved it and loved his companion's arachnophobia-induced attempts to keep out said giant spiders by taping closed all spaces in his room, leading to the inevitable in-escape of one spider who took up residence in the poor guy's bed. Hilarious yes, but creepy.
At Paradise cave you have to hike up 500+ steps to reach the top, then you walk down through it and back up to where you started. All I can say is that it was the most amazing cave we've ever been in. It kind of really puts Timpanogos Cave to shame... in an incredible Grand Canyon-versus-small-river-sized kind of way.
Here are some highlights:
Due to it's fantastical appearance and ability to defy gravity, this was one of my favorite formations.
This was one of Michael's favorites - it was ENORMOUS, somewhere in height like a 3 story building or something, HUGE.

This formation was amazing as you could see where it had fallen over who know how long ago and then kept growing in it's new direction, really really neat.
Here's a link to a video I took inside the cave to try and capture the sounds there.

After the caves we took a long, cold drive back to the hotel. On the way there was the weirdest thing ever - frogs were jumping across the road to their doom like a live version of Frogger. You would see them jump in your headlights like some desperate amphibian suicide, we might have squished one on accident, so sad...
We got back to town really late and after some entertaining exploits at dinner (everyone wanted to buy Spencer a drink, but the food was really good), we went to bed after a while of trying to figure out room space with the hotel. Then we got up even EARLIER the next day to catch an early morning train (5:00AM) back to Da Nang in time for Spencer's flight back to HCMC. It was a long, long day, but totally worth it. Here's a picture of some Bun Bo (noodles with beef) we had for lunch between the two caves, good times :)

Monday, January 14, 2013

At Hue for the Holidays

The weekend before New Years Eve Michael got it into his head that it was time we visited Hue, the old Imperial City of Vietnam. We had heard a lot about it, and he figured, we have 2 days, let's take the bus! That was the first interesting part of the trip...

The bus was an experience all in itself. We got to the bus station amid confused looks from the locals, there were no other tourists there, and it was kind of a scary place. We tried to buy tickets inside, but they said we had to purchase them at the bus, but when the bus finally came they tried charging us double the price, so we had a lady from the ticket station buy them for us. Sadly, in the minute's time it took to have the lady work things out, the bus had already filled most of the way, leaving just the very back part of the bus open - it's a shelf behind the back seats, no leg room and we were kind of squished in there with about 4 other people. To our amazement, when we thought the bus was full it turned out that it wasn't - they started to put stools between the seats in the middle of the bus and they kept putting more and more people on, even 4 or 5 stools around the door, plus additional packages for shipment. Plus, the bus made regular stops along the way like a regular bus stop, and even more people and packages got on. We rode with our knees under our chins this way for about 2 hours, it was crazy.
In the end, we finally made it to Hue in one piece and we able to get a taxi to our hotel, and it worked out all right. Our hotel was interesting, maybe $10 for the night, and the reviews were great that the staff were really kind, which is always a big plus. The funny thing is as the hotel was inexpensive we reserved the "Deluxe" room instead of Standard thinking it would be nicer amenities, but when we got there it just turned out to have 3 beds instead of 1.
As it was the rainy season, it was raining - note the water coming through the wall of our room :)
It rained THE ENTIRE WEEKEND, but we did have some fun amid the storm. 
Hue is a total tourist city, there were a lot of tourists everywhere, and the town center is primarily made up of hotels, tourist-geared restaurants, and tourist shops. Michael was even offered drugs and other shady things while we were walking the streets, a first for us in Vietnam. 

On our journey through the streets on a particularly cold day we were approached by an older Vietnamese woman carrying a large pole with two box-like things on either end, and a shop owner came out to tell us it was hot/fresh tofu. It looked really good, so we got some. The lady got out a bowl from one of the boxes, and then got the tofu out of the other box, then she added lime and sugar. It was hot and one of the best things we've ever had. 
There was a really cool night market along the river, and there we found the best cookies EVER. We saw some tourists buying some and since they were like 50 cents we decided to give them a try. It was HEAVEN.
They were made up of two thin wafers that tasted like ice cream cones, and in the middle was fresh shredded coconut and a large serving of what we think was coconut candy/taffy. We went back for more before we left the market, it was that good. And get this, they were sold out of what looked like a  briefcase on the back of the guy's bike:
This photo was taken when we had all sought shelter from the rain under the bridge. Most of the food stalls were under there and Michael bought some really tasty Bun Thit Nuong, one of our favorite dishes with noodles, fresh herbs, and grilled meat, and it was awesome until rainwater from the bridge dripped into it - ewww.....
Hue at night was cool though, here's a photo of a floating restaurant and it's cool neon lights. Everything in Vietnam uses colored lights, it's awesome.
We ate some really good Hue food, and we bought a crazy painting depicting Vietnamese food just for the occasion:
At the end of our trip we left said painting in a taxi and thought it was gone forever, but we were really lucky Hue City isn't too big because we called the taxi company and were able to get it back, an awesome trip highlight as we are notorious for leaving/losing the cool things we buy in different places.
Other than tofu and cookies, we wandered around town mostly, seeing the Imperial City of inner Hue that is still surrounded by a large wall. The palace was neat, but as a lot of the more impressive parts of Hue were destroyed in the war, it was not the most impressive place to us, but it was really cool to see a glimpse of Vietnamese history.
Here's a cool statue at the Palace in Hue.
A cool pathway along the palace grounds.
The palace grounds in the rain was really cold, but it made for some really awesome shots.
This was the theater at the Palace where they would entertain the Emperor.
We also visited 2 tombs of past Emperors, the most awesome of which was the tomb of Emperor Tu Duk, who was apparently very small in stature but huge in presence. He had a harem of like 200 concubines (never had any kids), hundreds of servants died building his palatial tomb that he used as a getaway or office before he died, and the 200 servants that buried him were all decapitated so that no one would ever know where his treasure was as it was buried with him.
The grounds of his tomb were amazing and beautiful, especially the area shown above that looked like something out of the movies. There was even a large forest-like area with tons of trees, it was really breathtaking.
Here is a detailed shot of the archway in the previous picture, can you see what critters are looking at you? Totally fascinating artwork.
It was really fun until we tried to get back to town, as the tomb of Tu Duk is about 5 km south of town there were no taxis, and we were hounded relentlessly by the locals to rent a motorbike, but we wanted to use our taxi vouchers so we ended up waiting around for what felt like a long, long time in the cold and rain but we finally made it back to town.
As fun as the bus was, we decided to try our luck with the train for the ride home. Due to the weather conditions, we ended up waiting at the train station for 2.5 hours as all the trains were delayed, but the mattresses in the sleeper car we got were more comfortable than anything we've slept on so far.
About 5 hours later than we expected and a little freaked out by crazy taxi drivers, we finally arrived home after our weekend adventure early Monday morning, and luckily we could both sleep in as Michael had New Years Eve off.

Speaking of New Years, I was sick New Years Eve from being out in the rain all weekend and some local food, so Michael spent some time out with our friends eating more Foie Gras. He did come home before 12 though and we spent some time dancing to our favorite songs until midnight and we were asleep by 12:30, woohoo for getting old!
New Years Day we went and saw the Hobbit in 3D at the theater (it was the only English version available), found lots of crazy things at the new Lotte Mart in town, and chilled the rest of the day - it took some of our friends about a week to recover from the parties they went to, yay for holidays!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The weirdest Christmas I ever had...

had to be this year.

It all started in early December, about 2-3 weeks before Christmas, when the major stores and malls started putting up Christmas decorations and they started playing Christmas music. It was neat to hear things like Jinge-bells in Vietnamese, but strange too I must say (there was a mix of English and Vietnamese songs). I had seen X-mas trees come into the stores back in November, but this was a whole new level of decorations. [The fascinating thing was that even though there were TONS of decorations at the store (to buy) up to the week of Christmas, the day after everything was GONE.] Another funny thing was that most of the decorating was done right before Christmas, like days before, and we've been assured by our friends here that it will likely stay up for the better part of this year before it is taken down (though Gameloft has taken down their decorations already, yay!).

Here's Michael with some of the creepy reindeer at the building where he works. They totally looked like they would kill you in your sleep...
Santa is by far the greatest symbol of Christmas out here - most of the decorations centered around him - but with one big difference - they are usually skinny! This Santa had an amazingly long mustache that curled up instead of down - and everyone was taking pictures with him. There were plushie santas at the store that were really popular, but a bit pricey, we got a little one to hang on our tree. Santa outfits were EVERYWHERE, stores full of them in every size. It was really fun to see a bunch of skinny Vietnamese guys wearing Santa suits riding motorbikes around town Christmas Eve. On the walk by the river there were a bunch of them sitting around with little sleighs that you could pay to get a photo with them, and I must say I regret not getting a photo with a skinny, dark tan, smoking Santa Claus this year, oh well.

When we first got married, we thought we'd purchase a special ornament each year, like a tradition or something, but admittedly we usually forget until the after-Christmas sales. But when we saw these guys - 
We knew we had to keep up the tradition. Santa Gremlins will always remind us of our XMas in Vietnam.
In this photo you can see our little X-Mas tree on the right side of the photo. They had much bigger ones but we didn't want to spend the money. We were lucky and passed a shop that sold lights, so we bought a few strands for decoration also. What we consider as Christmas lights are every-day decoration here for stores and restaurants, so they are sold at general hardware stores and not with the Christmas decorations elsewhere. We had a strand over our window too, it was fun, we might live true to Vietnamese fashion and leave them up until summer. 
For Christmas we figured we hadn't heard anything from friends, so we decided to throw a party at our house on Christmas Eve. I was thinking this would be a fine day, as Christmas Eve is more for friends whereas Christmas Day is usually more for family, but it was an interesting cultural discovery to find out that not everyone in the world looks at it that way, anyhew, it was a bit stressful but ended up just fine in the end. I wanted to have a bit of a cross-cultural experience, so I decided to make Egg Nog for the party.
It actually ended up really good! I used this recipe - without the rum of course - and although it took a while to make (trying to boil milk without scorching it takes forever!) it was worth the effort in the end. If I make it again I will add some more spices (you couldn't taste it much). It was interesting to see our friends' reaction to it - they had never heard of it before - and some liked it, some didn't, and everybody said it tasted like something they have in their own country; Maxi from Argentina said it tasted like a cake that they make there, Charles from France said it tasted like something they have there, and it went on. Michael and I ended up drinking most of it, but ultimately I was proud of myself for making a "traditional" dish that tasted pretty good.
As for the rest of the party, it went pretty well. Here is everyone with our hard furniture:
Simon, on the right with the dreadlocks, is British, he had just moved here from Canada to be lead Producer at the studio. He's really cool - and his hair grants him celebrity status here as everyone wants to have a photo taken with him. From Right to left there is Simon, Xavier (France), Charles (France), Michael, Marie (France), Maxi (Argentina), and Phi, one of our best Vietnamese friends. Xavier's girlfriend Geraldine was home in France for the holiday, but joined us on Skype for a few minutes at the beginning of the party.
And here is our crazy food spread! I was worried it would be all candy and no food, but we ended up having WAY too much food. Marie was amazing and made ratatouille, some fish and egg dish, and some really spicy potato pancake things, and Maxi made Empanadas (in the bucket), and Charles brought the epic Foie Gras from his latest trip home before the holidays (it's in the front center, the pink stuff). Foie Gras is a French delicacy of duck liver that you eat with bread, Michael was brave enough to try it and he said it was pretty good. Maxi caused a cultural uproar with Marie when he put some of it between two slices of bread like a sandwich, and I didn't dare try it - I claimed my "recovering vegetarian" card and got out of it.
Our neighbors Haroeth and Alfa came later too, and brought Apple Walnut Raisin cake and an awesome Cranberry tart (not photo'd here), and we watched Elf, not a bad party.
Christmas Day came and Michael took the morning off of work (no work holiday here), and we talked with family and went to a fancy lunch at the Red Sky restaurant with friends. Here's Michael with his Carrot Soup. I got some Schnitzel, and it was good, but I missed the hot potato salad and the German red cabbage like you get at Siegfried's Deli in Salt Lake City. But it was nice to have a sit-down dinner with friends for the holiday. It was kind of funny/sad though, because we discovered that Christmas really is celebrated on the 24th of December in Vietnam instead of the 25th - all the Merry Christmas greetings, the lights, the smoking Santas, parties, the whole shebang, was gone for the 25th. Weirdest. Christmas. Ever. 
Here's a photo of our Christmas present to ourselves - chocolate covered Sunflower Seeds! They are imported from Korea apparently so they are a bit expensive for these parts. They are our favorite treat, so we bought some as an XMas gift to ourselves. **Special Thank You to all our family who were generous and put money in our home account for Christmas! WE LOVE YOU!** We told everyone not to send us presents because it costs so much to ship, and so finding that we still had gifts was really neat.
Oh, and Michael was really sweet and brought me home one of these for Christmas:
A Santa balloon! As you can see from the photo, the vendors walked around with these HUGE clouds of different Santa balloons, all month long, it was pretty neat. I will call him Santa Ballooney and keep him as a friend forever and ever :)
Christmas Day evening we invited whoever wanted to come over to our house to finish the leftovers from the party and maybe play games or watch a movie. Lo and behold, as soon as people showed up - the power went off! It being the first time the power has gone off at night while we were awake, we were scrambling a bit for our headlamps, and luckily we still had candles left from Halloween so we put them in empty jam jars for makeshift lanterns:
It worked out ok, Michael and friends played cards by candlelight while I tried running to the store to buy more candles as we really didn't have more than would last for a short while (so I thought). So I made a mad dash to the store through the rain and, yup,  you guessed it, not 5 minutes before I got back to the house the power came back on. That and the candles lasted until we went to bed. Ah well, we are prepared for next time now. 
So, there you have it. The weirdest Christmas ever. But it was great to be able to spend it with friends and still be in contact with family on the other side of the world. We love you all and miss you!