A True Test of Patience and Related Matters

To set the stage for this post, we must go way back, several months before travel began. Way back when, during my planning for travel, I had read about the Tet Holiday. It was one of those things that required caution, except it occurred for a week and since the year was filled with 52 weeks, the chances of arriving during this time was slim to none. The Wikitravel article about Vietnam states “…Then a few days before Tết the pace begins to slow down, as thousands of city residents depart for their ancestral home towns in the provinces.” The grounds for a terrible situation slowly start to materialize…
China celebrates three week-long holidays throughout the year. One of these is Chinese New Year and this is the week we planned for our travel. The thing about the Tet Holiday is that it is very similar to the Chinese New Year in various aspects, including the dates on which it occurs. Instead of having a 1 in 52 chance of ending up traveling the same week, our odds had been narrowed down to 1 in 3 weeks and of course we arrived during that time.
This was great during our time in Hanoi, a little annoying during our time in Nha Trang, but now… we were in for an interesting journey. The preceding story had taken place in Hoi An, just a little ways outside of Da Nang, where we would be taking the train from. At the train station in Da Nang, we went to purchase tickets and our original desired time of travel was completely booked. Uh oh. I inquired about the next train and was told that only “hard seats” were available. Due to the time constraint of my friend needing to get back to Hanoi in only a few days, we had to pick these seats. For those that don’t know, hard seats are wooden seats that have backs that are nearly vertical. The trip was only seven hours and I’d dealt with challenging bus rides before so I figured this would be a non issue. 
Thank you to Vietnam Online for this picture of a hard seat. 
We boarded the train and it was almost empty, not bad. My traveling partner and I took opposite seats and prepared our space of four total seats for the long journey ahead. After two or so hours we rolled into the next station to pick up a few more people. The two seats extra in our group of four seats were not taken by anyone boarding at this station so we retained our spots. After a few more hours, we rolled into the next station. 
There was a massive crowd waiting to board the train. I figured we would depart at the next stop and so I was not worried by the mass of people that was about to join along my journey. I pulled out my map of Vietnam, looked outside to find the name of our stop, and then looked back at the map to figure how close we were to our destination to Hanoi. Panic shot through my body as I realized we were not in for a seven hour ride but closer to a seventeen hour ride… seventeen hours of nearly vertical wooden seats.
As the situation rushed into my consciousness, so too did the passengers waiting to board the train. What was once an empty train, comparable to the picture of above, was now completely filled with people. The workers of the train started pulling out plastic chairs out of the closets for people to sit on. Instead of four seats between two people, myself and my friend, there was a family of three sitting within our section. That brought the body count up to five people for a group of four seats. 
This madness propagated throughout the train and a heap of people, bags, pillows, and blankets formed. At this point, myself and my friend were sitting straight up in our wooden chairs, expecting little sleep due to the situation that was presented to us. In my head, I realized if I didn’t bite the bullet and sleep on the floor, neither of us would get any sleep. And like that, I found myself sleeping in the fetal position underneath a seat that was only a foot or so off the ground. 
I’ve got the Adidas pants and blue shirt to the left
In the morning, I woke up, surprisingly well rested, with a greater sense of patience about the madness life throws at you. Over the coming weeks I would travel several more times on comparable overnight trips and they barely affected me. 

Haggling for Something More

When it comes to shopping in China, outside of the chain stores, haggling is the norm. If you don’t learn the skill of it you’ll walk away paying too much. If you’re a foreigner you’ll walk away paying too too too much. In my pursuit of purchasing presents for my return trip to America, I decided to buy a few scarfs. Out the gate the lady wanted $35 for one “100% silk scarf.” At this point I’d been in the country for several months and had grown accustomed to bargaining and so my reaction was to laugh at the exorbitant price, and countered with a more reasonable price of $5. Bargaining was attempted on my part but the shop owner was relentless about lowering the price, until I walked away. As soon as I turned my back the price dropped to $5. It’s rather funny how that works.
The same applies in Cambodia and Vietnam and if you don’t bargain hard you’re going to walk away a sucker every time. One night in Hoi An, after a day of tours, my friend and I sat finishing dinner. He was still hungry for more meat and I wanted the dessert I saw a few streets back. We parted ways and soon I was munching on a delicious bread of some kind. As I wandered back, I happened upon a bookstore. Having just finished my previous book, I decided to take a look. I got carried away since book prices are so cheap and ended up with three I wanted.
The bookstore owner started the bargaining at $17. Not quite happy with that price since I’d seen cheaper prices earlier i the day, I began my typical routine. Before I continue I have to make a quick interjection that the day was spent sipping beers and playing chess so I was a little off my game. As I offered my first price, he countered with $17 and a beer to celebrate the Tet holiday. We countered a few more times unsucessfully to convince each other. Until, probably due to the beers in my system, I countered with $17, one more beer, and the chance to hang out with his family until my tour bus was scheduled to leave.
It was an interesting look into a typical Vietnamese family’s home life. The first floor was split with half being a book store and the other half being a living room. One of my tour guides had previous informed me that land is very expensive in the ciyt so many familes will convert a part of their home into a shop. The living room portion of the first floor was very simple. There was no furniture, only a mat on the floor. I didn’t get a tour so I didn’t see the rest of the house. I also asked to take pictures but didn’t want to be potentially disrespectful so I only took three.
As for the family, I was introduced to the store owner’s wife, son, niece, and mother who you can see in the picture. He was the only one who could speak English. Sadly I didn’t get to ask much more since I only had 30 minutes to begin with until I had to leave.
Hopefully I can bargain my way into similar encounters again in the future. The cost of the books was well worth the experience.

The Ups an Downs of the Tet Holiday

One of the great things about a country with a widely used public transportation system is that the system is generally pretty awesome. Vietnam is one such country and trains that have beds are readily available for the booking. When you’ve only got twelve days to get through Cambodia and Vietnam, as we did, overnight trains manage to cut travel and sleep time in half by combining them together! 
We left Hanoi on an overnight train to Nha Trang and arrived before the sun had risen. The goal of the day was getting to the beach and so we found a taxi driver who understood our desire, and we headed off directly to the beach. The sun began to become visible during the drive and so did our appetites. 
The taxi dropped us off right next to the beach. Conveniently located across the street was a hotel offering an appetizing looking breakfast, so we made our way there first. (Also to use the restrooms to change into our bathing suits, ha!) After breakfast, we walked back across the street and found ourselves a pair of beach chairs that had been conveniently set up by the hotel. In no time, our heavy backpacks were dropped to the ground and we set about relaxing for the day. 

About an hour past noon we had grown bored of sitting on the beach and decided to head into town to find a tourist agency and see what they had to offer to occupy the several hours until the departure of our train. With not a clue what there was to see in the city or where there was to go, we walked towards the most important looking road and continued along it, stopping at each intersection to see if this newly found road would be more interesting than the road currently being walked on. We quickly realized that there were no tourist agencies open, or much anything for that matter. This city was not as important as Hanoi and almost everybody had closed up shop for the Tet Holiday. 

This time, the Tet Holiday got the better of us and had left us without an excitement filled day. What the day did leave us with however was terrible sunburn. Luckily our train for the night was air conditioned  otherwise I’m not sure how an ounce of sleep would have been achieved. Next stop, Da Nong.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Before I start talking about my day trip through the Cu Chi Tunnels, I’d like to give a brief history lesson about this location. 
During the Vietnam War, The Vietcong, of Northern Vietnam, utilized a series of underground tunnels to wage war against Southern Vietnam and the United States. These tunnels ran throughout the country and large amounts of information, supplies, and soldiers were kept hidden within them. The United States tried several times to render the tunnels useless but failed. In the end, these tunnels were a strong aid in the winning of the war by the North. More information can be found here and I suggest checking it out. 
Our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels started with a short informational presentation about the American Imperialism invading Vietnam and turning the country against itself. It was weird and rather uncomfortable at the time to be associated with a country that came into Vietnam and ravaged the land with a war.  

After the tour was over we continued on to the booby traps that were used to wound and kill the “Invading Americans.” From here on out it was just a waking tour of things to look at, so I will leave pictures below.

Crater left behind by a B-52 bomb.

False floor with spikes underneath. 

My friend entering one of the hidden entrances to the tunnels.

Not much action in this picture but as I gazed into the forest I managed to put myself in the shoes of an American soldier walking through these woods just a few decades ago unsure of what was awaiting ahead. 

Part of the ventilation system of the tunnels

Booby trap where the leg enters and leaves wounded, letting disease of the jungle take over

Another booby trap. Spikes enter at the waist as you fall in

 And finally we got to go into the tunnels. This is a tunnel enlarged almost 2x and it was a tight squeeze. Imagine living down there for years…

Tet Holiday

After a long night bus ride we arrived in Ho Chi Minh… or so we thought. What happened to the border crossing, why didn’t we get awoken for that? Why were we getting dropped off next to a random coffee shop? Then I realized that we’d only made it halfway through our bus ride and we were awaiting another bus to take us to the border and then on to Ho Chi Minh City. 
Several hours later we arrived. Since the day was almost over and the sun was setting, we headed straight to the hotel, dropped our stuff off, and then headed aimlessly out into the night. 
When originally planning the trip  I read about the Tet Holiday which is the Vietnamese version of Chinese New Year. This meant a rather chaotic atmosphere would fill the entire country for almost a week. This also meant that some cities were overwhelmed with crowds while other were left vacant. Being in the capital, we lucked out and ended up walking right into the middle of the Tet celebrations in a giant park in the middle of the city. 

Since neither of us spoke the language we decided to continue aimlessly walking. I became intrigued by a vendor cooking some sort of omelette with pigeon eggs (I think…I hope). Since I was growing hungry, I placed an order for one.
It was a whole family operation where the mother cooked the egg and the daughter added the ingredients. The father and other daughter were responsible for selling souvenirs for the holiday.
After some walking around we began to grow more hungry and so we headed off down a side street for some dinner. My friend pointed out a restaurant selling phở and so we stopped to have a bite. I had no idea what this was due to the fact that I ate almost nothing prior to my living and traveling abroad. My friend corrected my ignorant food ways and educated me on the joy that is phở. 

After some more aimless walking we started making our way back to the hotel since we had a large day of tours ahead. On the way back we came across this intersection:

Looking at this chaotic mess from the sidewalk, as we were, you would think, why not wait for the red light or use the cross walk? That is generally not a thing in Vietnam. To cross through this, you simply walk straight ahead into the crowd. So long as you walk at a constant speed, not speeding up, slowing down, or panicking  you’ll be fine. Of course, I panicked and was nearly hit by a scooter. With nothing else interesting to tell once we crossed the road, I’ll leave you with a life lesson for Vietnam:
Walk strong and be confident or you’ll get hit by a scooter. 

Sunburn Recover and Overnight Buses

After finishing the daylong biking journey through Angkor Wat and suffering from a decent redneck looking sunburn, I decided to relax in Siem Reap before the overnight bus to Vietnam. Since I’d been abroad for almost a year, I felt that having local food for a majority of the meals didn’t apply to me. This is how I found myself sitting in a bar eating fried bananas and drinking Beerlao. Through all of my travels through South East Asia, no beer compared to this. (Expect another post about this beer once I start writing about Laos.)
After finishing my drink and relaxation there was one thing left for me to try in Siem Reap, a fish massage. I’m horribly ticklish and couldn’t stand it for more than a few seconds at a time. Writing this over a year later, I can still remember the feeling of the fish. With that in your head, I’ll let the two pictures explain the rest.
One of the most testing parts about the journey was the overnight travel.  To begin with, I am a terrible sleeper. To make matters worse the bed was cramped, the entire ride was on bumpy dirt roads, light and noise constantly floated in from outside the bus, and the air conditioning was broken. With all that in mind, I hated every moment of the ride but left with a better appreciation for life and what it throws at you. Without going greatly into depth, I’ll leave it at, enjoy the ride and don’t take things for granted.