Monday, March 28, 2011

Southern Vietnam

My last dinner in Saigon with Jacklyn was absolutely lovely, at this beautiful, swanky-looking restaurant with a huge arrangement of ginger flowers and fountains at the entrance, but with typical Vietnam prices. We had Bun Cha Gio, which is vermicelli noodles and cut-up egg rolls with fresh herbs and veggies and topped with fish sauce. It was really amazing. We also had a green papaya salad, similar to the Thai kind but a little different with dried beef, called Goi Kho Bo. For dessert: black-eyed peas in a sweet coconut milk soup (Che Dau Trang) and Rice balls in ginger syrup and coconut milk (Che Troi Nuoc).

The next day I woke up early, said goodbye to dear Jacklyn, and tromped off to catch the bus to the beach town of Mui Ne. I had about 20 minutes until the bus left, and figured I'd grab some cash from the ATM that was right there... and the machine ate my card. For no apparent reason. I had actually withdrawn money from that same ATM days earlier, and my bank knows where the card is, etc. The transaction seemed fine, it was being processed, and I pushed "no receipt" and then it just said it couldn't return the card. So I got a refund on my bus ticket, and headed back to Jacklyn's to have her call the bank and talk to them in Vietnamese. They said it takes them 5 business days to get a card out of a machine! So I walked through District 1 to the actual bank to talk to them in person, thinking it might make a difference, and they said the same thing. The card just sitting in the machine and eventually being taken back to the bank seemed sketchy to me, so I just canceled the card. It was sort of a low point, as I had missed the early bus and there wasn't another one for 7 hours.

But these kinds of things happen when traveling, and I remind myself that a couple weeks without a debit card and a few less hours at the beach aren't huge problems in the overall scheme of things. So I took the later bus, and ended up meeting a Canadian guy who was in Vietnam for a friend's wedding. We met up for dinner that night and had spring rolls, stewed prawns with fish sauce (tom kho to), and curry fish baked in a clay pot (cary ca). In the morning we met up to ride bicycles out to the nearby sand dunes, pedaling past school kids and the sparkling water and a fishing village. We found some red dunes, but weren't sure if they were THE dunes until some kids came up trying to rent us sandboards. Then we knew we were in the right spot.

We made it back to Mue Ne for lunch of a savory seafood pancake, iced tea, and passion fruit ice cream for dessert. Then we took a quick dip in the almost non-existent beach (high tide) before I had to run to catch the bus to Dalat. On the bumpy ride winding into the mountains, I met D, an American gal from Minnesota who was teaching in Thailand, and like me also just finished her contract and was doing some traveling before heading home. We hit it off and decided to share a hotel room. We found a good spot and set out for an evening walk in the center of Dalat, trying street food like chicken-filled pastries (sort of like empanadas) and grilled eggy rice paper which I really liked. That was before dinner.

The next day while D went on a tour, I had a relaxing day in town. I finally took my laundry to be washed... of course unconsciously waiting until this cool, damp mountain town (the downside to not having dryers... two days later my clothes were still not totally dry. ug.) I had to put on my one pair of pants for the first time on this trip, and layered up with a scarf and jacket. But honestly, it was sort of nice to have a change from scorching hot weather. I went for a morning jog around the lake, and smelled freshly mowed green grass. I realized that I hadn't smelled that the whole time I've been in Asia, for over a year. Later when I was walking around in the light drizzle looking for an internet cafe, I stopped a girl on the street who had a ukulele in her back pack. I had to say hi to a fellow uke player! She was from Holland, and we had a good chat and ended up finding an internet cafe together.

The next morning I said goodbye to D and took an Easy Rider trip. Easy Riders are local motorbike drivers and cultural tour guides who you can hire for the day, week, or more to be your custom guide. The countryside around Dalat is really beautiful, and I wanted to see it without going on a package tour or renting a motorbike by myself. I found Thien, an old Easy Rider and jack of all trades, who was a wonderful guide for the day. I thought he seemed too quiet at first, but he ended up being quite talkative and very knowledgeable. We went for a hike, saw vegetables farms, flower farms, traditional rice-wine brewing, mushroom cultivation, silk-worm production, a waterfall, minority hill-tribes, local weaving, among other things.

Back in Dalat I went out for street food dinner with a new Spanish friend. I stuck to noodles (boring, I know) while she got a little more adventurous with these leaf-wrapped sausage thingies and also fertilized chicken egg. I don't know the name but apparently it's commonly eaten in many parts of Asia- hard-boiled egg with an embryo at various stages of development. Sometimes they were just fertilized so the yoke has just started to change flavor, but sometimes it's a formed chick. I tried cricket on my Easy Rider tour, and I'm not a picky eater, but I have to draw the line at eating unborn babies.

The next morning I caught the bus out of Dalat and who was assigned the seat next to me but my Dutch ukulele friend! We were both going to Nha Trang, a popular beach and party town on the southern coast. Unfortunately it wasn't exactly beach weather when we arrived- cool and cloudy- but we decided to hang out together and make the most of it. My Pacific Northwest and her Dutch transportation sensibilities coincided to make us agree that we should rent bicycles to check out the city. But all the rental places we passed just had motorbikes... until we saw the tandem bicycles. We looked at each other and both nodded, "Definitely." We had a blast riding in the zany but manageable to traffic to rock promenades, multi-religious stone towers, a Buddhist temple, a Cathedral, and a bakery. It was fun riding a bike because 1) taxi drivers stop asking you where you are going and if you need a ride, like they do when you're walking, and 2) people are super friendly and concerned about you finding your way.

We returned the bike by dark and then feasted on a huge Indian meal. I know, I know, I just last week said I wanted to eat Indian food in Cambodia, but made myself eat local food. But I couldn't resist. Later we met up with a new Italian surfer friend, and (predictably?) drank some limoncello and gelato for dessert before going out. I had heard that Nha Trang was a huge party town, but even though it was a Saturday night, it seemed pretty sleepy to me. We eventually found a spot to dance where the mojitos were terrible, the music was okay, and the people-watching was great.

The next day I really wanted some sunny weather, but it was grey again. We decide to rent a motorbike and drive south to check out another beach that possibly had surfing waves. It was the next step in my budding scooter-riding skills, because I drove with my friend on the back. I'm now feeling like a pretty confident driver, between surviving Saigon traffic and carrying a passenger. It turned out the waves weren't breaking right for surfing, but it was a fun excursion and I still took a dip in the cool weather. The thing is, it was cool by Vietnam standards, but still pretty warm by my Seattle standards.

I caught a very comfortable overnight sleeper bus back to Saigon, where I will fly out of back to Bangkok. I really wanted to make it farther north, up to Hoi An and Hanoi and Halong Bay. But for now in my short time, I feel like I got a good taste of the south.

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