Saturday, March 31, 2012

Reunification Palace and War Relics Museum: Saigon

Tim:  After doing very little in the way of sight seeing our first few days in Saigon, we made it for a few sights after selling Amber's motorbike. We rented a motorbike for $5 per day before setting out. The first stop was the Reunification Palace. This palace was the home of the president of South Vietnam in the 1970s. The palace is significant for many reasons. This is where the South Vietnamese President signed permission for American troops to come into Vietnam. It is also the place were the North Vietnamese use tanks to break down the gates, and the South Vietnamese Army surrendered to the North on April 30, 1978 after all American troops had pulled out. The building has been kept just the way it was in 1978 and acts as a museum so it definitely has a 70s feel to it.

The palace was complete with the president's office and a secret stairway to multiple basements built to be capable of large bombs. There were reception rooms, gambling room, dance room, dining rooms, and a helicopter pad.

After the palace we headed over to the War Relics Museum. There were tanks, jets, and various artillery. There was also various lighter assault weapons used by American troops and the South Vietnam Army. Several floors were dedicated to the attrocities carried out by American troops. The pictures of massacres and killings of women and children by US soliders were disturbing. There was also a wing dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange (chemical weapons) used in Vietnam by American troops even though this was against international law. A very sober experience.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Leaving HCMC Behing: My Tho and the Mouth of the Mekong

Amber:  We sold my bike!  After a few more days of unsuccessfully posting flyers around HCMC and reposting every morning on Craigslist, we finally got a phone call.  Two Australians were planning on doing our trip, but in reverse.   They came over, took it for a test drive, and handed Tim $300 in Australian currency. They didn't even try to negotiate. The Australian dollar is doing slightly better than the American, so it worked out to be about $312.  Which meant I had driven the whole way from Hanoi, excluding gas and $10 in repairs, for about $4.00!   Yea Tim for being a good salesman!

Tim:  It's been two days since we sold the last motorbike, and we are already missing the freedom that having your own bike provides. Even though we have to pay for our own fuel, driving your own motorbike is a much cheaper option than paying for all of the taxis and buses. We left HCMC yesterday morning. Our travel arrangements just to get 65 kilometers south of the city took us about 4 hours for the whole ordeal. First we had to go to a tour company and book the ticket for US $7. Then we had to wait 20 minutes for our transfer taxi to pic us up. The transfer taxi ended up being two motorbike taxis which wasn't too bad. After a 10 minute motorbike taxi ride we waited at  transfer station for 20 more minutes before getting on our bus that took us to the main station. This bus ride took us only 15 minutes. Once at the main bus station we had to wait 45 minutes for our mini bus. Amber and I got the worse seats on the mini bus (a 15 passenger van) all the way in the back with the backpacks shoved underneath our legs. A few minutes into the ride a final passenger got on to fill the seat next to us. Our water bottle cap came off and poured water on the seat and soaked Amber's behind. Small altercation broke out between us about whose fault it was. The minibus was really hot too even though it had AC. Temps are getting into the 90s every day here. When we arrived an hour and a half later in My Tho pronounced Mae Thaw. We had to jump on two more motorbike taxis who took us to the wrong hotel outside of town where they get a commission. All that said, motorbikes are a much freer way of traveling.

Our last night in HCMC we ate dinner at an Italian food chain called Pepperonis. We opted for the all you can eat buffet for $5 each. This worked out well because Amber and I had not eaten lunch. I'll just say we got our $5 worth. While sitting on the second floor balcony of the restaurant we saw to other bike travels looking for a room on the street below. One was driving a huge 4 cylinder road bike and the other was driving a large 250cc dirt bike. Both were decked on in full riding gear including full face helmets, riding pants, riding boots, and a riding jacket. The three of us had just finished 1800 km on second hand 100cc motor scooters usually wearing flip flops and shorts.

Amber:  After getting scammed into staying at a hotel, we walked the mile into town and got some lunch then booked a tour to explore some of the islands and canals around My Tho.  The hotel we were staying at had offered to take us for $20 per person.  We declined and the guy literally stalked us into town and then found us after lunch to try and get us to go with him.  I guess since we fell for staying at the wrong hotel (there is a correct, different hotel in My Tho with the same name) he assumed we'd happily go along with getting ripped off on a boat tour as well. 

We ended up paying $17.50 total and enjoyed the Mekong for about two hours and even got to watch the sunset.  Our guide pulled into the bank at one point and pulled what looked like a cluster of light green, leathery skinned grapes from a tree.  He indicated we should eat them, so after a few attempts of eating the skin (tough and bitter) and the huge seed in the middle (also not supposed to eat), Tim and I enjoyed the slimy, sweet flesh of the fruit. Our guide then took us to a coconut candy store that was tucked away in a canal.  We sampled some candies and some hard alcohol that they had made from coconuts, bananas and other local fruits.  They wouldn't barter with Tim, so we ended up purchasing some banana candy and leaving the coconut wine behind.  

Because we were so far from our room, we stayed in town and had dinner at a local hot spot.  A man got pick pocketed while we dined on salt water prawns and sipped on beer.  Thankfully, one of the other diners saw what had happened and the man was able to chase the offender down and get his wallet back.  I guess our precautions of keeping our stuff safely stowed payed off!

Monday, March 26, 2012

VINEPEARL Land (waterpark) and Nha Trang

Tim:  Nha Trang was definitely a more populated area. The beach was lined with huge hotels including Sheraton, Marriott, etc..  We went to the outskirts of town and got a cheap place for $8 a night. We arrived late in the afternoon and took a walk on the beautiful beach. Later in the evening we found dinner at Coyote Mexican Restaurant which served the best Mexican food we have had in Asia so far. Fajitas, Tacos, and Nachos, and $0.50 beers.

Our Lonely Planet Guidebook lead us on to VINEPEARL Land. It is located on an island 4 km offshore from Nha Trang. Access to the park is by ferry or the longest over water suspended cable car. The cable car was suspended up to 70 meters above the water in places. The water park was much more exciting than the one we visited in Bangkok. There were as many as 20 decent water slides, some many that required an intertube to use. There was also a wave pool and a beautiful white sand beach with imported sand. Even so it was amazing.

After getting our fill of water slides we dried off and went to the bumper cars. I would have to say they were the best bumper cars that I have ever been in. Mostly because they actually went pretty fast and a full speed head on collision with someone almost caused whiplash. Three times on the bumper cars was enough. There was also and expansive video arcade. Even at 27 I still like video arcades. Best of all, every arcade game was on free play so it was free with the admission cost.

After a while we also visited the water show that was put on one per evening. It was actually very good. Not quite on the same immense scale as the Belagio Fountains in Las Vegas, but the show was more interacate with four different light colors and seven different pieces of music water danced too. The fountains were in front of a 2000 seat open auditorium with very loud speakers. We ended up staying at the park for 10 hours, arriving at 10:30 am and leaving the park at 8:30 PM. By the time we returned to our hotel room we were exhausted. We were having so much fun in the water that we did not take the time for photos.

On the down side, Joe and I each noticed a small rash developing on our back after the water park. Looks like we aquired some jacuzzie rash due to the lack of chlorine in the water. Oh well, it was worth the fun!

Amber:  Vinpearl Land was quite the aderaline rush.  After driving motor scooters along A1 for two weeks straight, I wasn't sure how much more I needed.  The first slide we did we had to climb up about six flights of stairs.  The stairs were made out of grating, so the view down as we climbed up was... scary.  The slide consisted of six different side by side lanes that did a few jumps as it shot down into a pool with us laying face first on a mat.  The attendant told us to kneel on the mat as we went down.  Grabbing ahold of the handles on the front of the mat, we took off down the slide.  Water splashed us in the eyes as we went over the jumps and all three of us hit ourselves in the face with the mats when we slamed into the pool at the bottum.  It could have been worse.  One of the two ladies that came down after us flipped up a little out of her lane and cracked her head pretty good on the side of the slide as she entered the 'breaks' pool.  We opted to move on.

The next one we did was even taller and you did feet first, without a mat.  Tim and Joe took off down the two slides.  Both of the men I'm traveling with are adereline junkies.  I stood frozen between the two, tryind to decide which one was less likey to cause bodily harm or death.  Finally I took a step towards the one Joe went down.  It started out less steep as it led up to a small incine before dropping off into a pool.  Tims went straight down.  Steeply.  The attendant must have senced my delema as he shook his head and pointed at the slide I was inching towads.  "Scary".  I pointed at Tims slide and he smiled patiently and nodded.  He's probably sick of hearing people scream all day, but I did any way as I went down.  I hit the water at the bottum of the slide so hard I almost lost my suit top.  Later in the day we watched as one of the larger patrons went barreling down the slide and hit the water, causing him to flip half way out of the slide and skin his side.  

The next one we did was by far the most terrifying of the water park. So we did it five times each.  The "Tsuname" was in the shape of an inverted horse shoe.  You started out at the top of a thirty foot straight drop off in an intertube, did a slight free fall as you did so and your weight caused you to slide back up the other side.  Then you would drop backwards and do it over again as you slowly slid away from the enterance, ending by dumping into a pool.  Tim even uttered a slight sound as he went off it the first time.  Later he told me I scream like a girl, as I screamed every time I went.  You could go in solo, double or in a triple intertube.  I was scared by myself, terrified in the front of Tim, and awed when I saw a Russian dad and his two daughters, no more than seven and nine, launch off.  The attendant had a nice little way of kicking your tube out of the enterance to give you even more speed.  One of them even made it so that you would spin around and go backwards as you free fell.  I told him I'd have none of that, and went facing forward all five times, thank you very much. 

The rest of the slides were calm in comparison.  We enjoied the beach front and swimming in the ocean, had an aweful lunch that makes McDonalds seem healthy (both in ingredients and food handeling practices) then headed for the arcade.  Tim and Joe were like kids in a candy shop when they found out the games were covered in the admition fee.  They were high qulity, and an endless selection of racing games, tank games, army games, assasion games... anything and everything, and you never had to quit.  I was less than thrilled about the video games, but the bumper cars were so fun!  We plaied three rounds, and I have to say that driving a motor scooter in Vietnam has made my bumper car driving quite impressive.  People in Alaska better watch out when I get back.  I drive even more like a crazy person!

Made over 1800 Kilometers to Ho Chi Minh!

Tim:  We were a little bit aprehensive about the ride into HCM a city of 7.5 million people. Traffic was dense, but with all of our experience the driving wasn't too much of a challenge. Thankfully the iphones work very well over here and we are able to use the GPS maping to find our way around. In the last few days we have seen evidence of numerours motorbike accidents. Thankfully they did not include us.

It took a few minutes to find a good place to stay. We decided on Royal Saigon Guesthouse for $14 a night.

We had posted an ad on craigslist to sell our motorbikes. We got a hit earlier in the day from two foreigners who taught English. They seemed interested and planned to come back the next day with their friend to take another look. In our craigslist ad we were asking $325 each for the motorbikes. We paid $316 for them two and a half weeks ago. We'll see how it goes.

Our hope is to sell all three of the motorbikes and the mover further southwest towards Cambodia. We have to be our of Vietnam by April 2nd to not overstay our 30 day tourist visa.

Vietnam has been an amazing place! We have stayed along the coast for most of the time which means we have been in the more populated parts of the country, but it also means we have been to many awesome beaches too.

Amber:  HCMC is crazy!  It's hot, humid, and full of people.  Driving our motor bikes have become second nature to us, however, so while HCMC is almost twice the size of Hanoi, it was much easier for us to navigate.  HCMC has over 7 million people while Hanoi is *only* 3.7 million people.  Crazy!  We got in early yesterday evening, found a cozy room in a guest house, and took our motor bikes to the wash.  For $0.75 we got them clean and sparkely for the nice "for sale" signs we made out of card board and sharpie.  As we sipped on a few beers, we discussed what our lowest price would be.  Tim and Joe agreed that if hard pressed, $200 would make them happy.  I was greedy and wanted at least $250 for mine.  

Two guys were lined up to view the bikes thanks to the add we posted on Craigslist the evening prior while in Mue Ni Beach.  We had posted for $325 each.  Tims and my bike are 100cc, Joes is 110cc, so pretty comprable.  We had stated that we would give a discount as well as our racks, helmets, etc if they purchased all three together.   They arrived at seven and immediately were impressed with Tim's Honda Dream and Joes Honda Wave.  My bike was not even given a second glance aside from an off hand 'who's bike is this one' from one of the two potential buyers.  We're not sure if it's because it's a slightly ugly bike, or if it's because a woman drove it. 

It was dark and full on rush our traffic, so our two potentials agreed it would be best for them to come back in the daylight with a friend that knew something about bikes.  They were also certain that they had a buddy that would be willing to take a look at my bike, as well.  After they left, Tim and I walked around some of the 'budget' distrect of HCMC and posted a few more flyers about our bikes. 

As promised, they texted us this morning and arranged to meet us at two this afternoon.  They arrived with their friend that "knew something about bikes", but not a third buyer.  Tim's bike had developed an issue with its rear wheel barring and was experiencing slight engine problems.  Joe's bike was having a cronic oil leak and had a tendancy to lose RPMs at highway speeds after long periods.  Both Tim and Joe had invested about $45 each into their bikes in problems that weren't 100% fixed.  The gas milage was consistantly better on my bike and the only issues I'd had with it were two flat tiers and a front break I had replaced.  For about $10 total. 

I assumed that it would be my moment to smuggly watch as the 'knowledgable' bike man looked at Tim and Joe's bikes, then, after test driving all three, would see mine was the diamond in the rough.  Unfortunately, he was not as smart as I was hoping. Again, my bike didn't get a second glance, even with both Tim and Joe saying that they should really test drive mine, too.  Afraid I would start yelling "are you people stupid" if I said anything, I sat quietly as they drove Tims and Joes bike and then asked if they could go discuss a good price. 

My boyfreind is a master at negotiating.  They came back, willing to give him $237 per bike.  Tim got them to buy them for $275 each!  We bought the bikes for $315 and drove them 1800km!  So, without repairs, Tim and Joe drove the entire coast of Vietnam for $40.  My little bike, sadly, is still sitting outside our guest house with a 'For Sale" sign on it.  Time to repost on Craigslist!

Mue Ni Beach and Fairy Springs

Tim:  The ride from Nha Trang went without incident except that it was scorching hot. I was sweating even while driving 80 km in the open air. Mue Ni Beach wasn't quite what we expected. It gets is popularity from the proximatey to Saigon (only 200 km away). We were attracted to Mue Ni Beach for the possiblity of surfing, but when we arrived we noticed quickly that surfing would not be an option as the surf was nowhere near large enough. Kite Boarding and wind surfing are also very popular here, but the prices were far above our budget. Lessons and rentals exceeded $100 per person.

Mue Ni is also well known for its sand dunes. This area has a micro climate that is desert like with very little rain. There were actually cactus growing. We did a small hike call Fairy Springs which is actually a small stream bed that you hike up to its source. You actually hiked in the water which only 2 inches deep in most places. The sand formations were very interesting, and is not a sight that I would have envisioned in Vietnam.

Later in the afternoon, Joe and I needed more motorbike repairs. The repair shop was a few kilometers from our guesthouse, so the three of us actually piled on to Amber's motorbike for the ride back. Besides being a little cramped, controlling the bike wasn't too hard. We see locals doing this kind of thing all the time. We often see four people ride on one motorbike on a regular basis. Two parents and two children.

Amber:  We were running out of time on our Vietnam visa so decided to opt out of going to Dalat. It is in the mountains, so cooler, and know for growing strawberries intead of rice and fish sauce. It seems like everywhere else in Vietnam is known for its fish sauce, or should be as it is common to get a nice whiff of fish as you drive through any town.  Dalat came highly recommeded by fellow travelers, but we decided to save time and stick to the coast.  Mue Ni Beach was half way between Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City, and Lonely Planet boasted about its beaches and surfing.  Once we arrived, however, the only thing impessive about Mue Ni Beach was the fishing village to the north.  The boats moored up for the evening were beautiful! 

While Mue Ni was probably the least attractive beach we've been to in Vietnam, one still has to appreciate white sand, bath temperature ocean, and drinking a beer to the sound of surf. 

The hike to Fairy Springs was beautiful.  And completely not what I ever imagined Vietnam to look like; sand dunes!  The sand was shades of red and blonde.  So beautiful!  The spring was sandy and shallow, and we were able to walk up it barefoot in about two inches of water.  On our right were tall sand cliffs.  To our left, a small jungle with coconut trees.  The sun was not out full force, so we were able to climb out of the creek bed and go explore some of the dunes barefoot. 

After finding a final waterfall and then turning around, we were propositioned by a local to ride his osterage!  For 30,000 dong, or $1.50.  Slighlty wierded out by the idea and a little worried about the bird, we walked on down the river.  Realizing we probably would never get the opportunity to ride an osterage again, we went back, but the origional local was more interested in dinner time, and a different man quoted us a higher price.  We went with our first instinct, and carried on down the spring. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Surfing China Beach: Danang, Vietnam

Tim:   China Beach is listed as the best place to surf in Vietnam and was the host to an international surf competition in 2002. Now is the tail of the surfing season and the surf was not very large. The surf was barely large enough to surf on. After searching for a while we found the place to rent surfboards. They had a pretty poor selection of suitable boards. We took what was available and gave it a try. After a while someone returned one of the larger surfboards so we switched one of the boards out for a better board. Joe, Amber, and I were all able to get up on a few waves. It was a fun afternoon, and we got great excercise.

China Beach is closer to Danang then where we were staying in Hoi An. The beach was about 25 kilometers north of Hoi An. On the way we stopped for gas. Joe had stopped at the same gas station the day before and they had tried to rip him off. This was the only gas station on the way so we opted to stop there and try it again. Amber filled up first, and we quickly realized she was getting the shaft too. The flow meter quickly jump up and read 115,000 dong for 5 liters of gas. The problem is that Amber's tank will not hold more than 2.5 liters of gas when it is empty. We argued and he told us to pay 50,000 but that was even too much. We ended up paying 30,000 dong and walking away.

We often have to put things in perspective. 115,000 dong is about US $5.70. So the gas attendent tried to rip us off for around US $3.00. Even today as we sit on the beach in rented beach chairs we were hard pressed to pay the 30,000 dong rental fee. This came out to be $1.50 each.

Amber:  Tim, as it turns out, spent three weeks in Hawaii a few years ago and learned how to surf.  We both grew up in Alaska, and while I'm very boyant, I can't swim particularly well and definately can not surf.  I can snow board with some sense of style, so was hoping that surfing would be easy to pick up.  After searching for a board place in the blistering heat, we finally found a place that had a few really beat up boards.  We had driven all the way from Hoi An, so decided to rent two really small boards and a boogie board from the shop on the outskirts of Danang. 

We walked to China Beach where Tim said that the surf was small and not very good.  It looked huge to me!  We waded out and attempted to catch a wave, but it was hard as the boards were small and the surf kept knocking me further back than I could make it forward.  I had the surf board flip over me in a big wave and its fins give me a nice bruse on my hip while Joe got pummled into the sand.  Tim got a good smack on the tail bone.  Amature Alaskans hit the ocean again!  Finally Tim was able to trade one of our small boards for a bigger one and he and Joe were able to make a few nice runs on the surf. I, on the other hand, was unsuccessful on getting a good run into the beach standing up. Next time!

On the Road Again

Tim:  After leaving Hoi An, we continued to head south with Nha Trang as the destination we were looking toward. We knew this ride would take us at least two travel days so we expect to stay somewhere along the way for the night. We went in search of ancient Cham ruins on the way. Our first attempt got us no where. Turns out we were at the wrong site, and there did not appear to be a trail up to the hill top where the Cham tower stood. After plowing our way along a narrow dirt trail on our motor bikes we tried hiking up the hill but were unable to due to the dense jungle brush blocking our way. We got within 100 yards of the tower before finally turning back. The temperature was over 90 degrees so we were drenched in sweat by the time we returned to the bikes. We were all a little frustrated by the lack of progress, but 15 kilometers down the highway we saw the ruins we were attemptimg to find originally. There were no other tourists, and we were able to ride our motorbikes right up to the ruins. These Cham toweres were built around 900 A.D. There were obvious signs of refurbishing, but it was still and amazing sight.

After a fourty five minute stop there we continued on. We were behind schedule after our detour, and it was getting dark. We had ridden our motorbikes one other time in the dark on the highway and it wasn't fun. The headlights on the motorbikes do not work very well and only illuminate about 15 feet infront of you. The bugs also come out at night and you can no longer where your sun glasses so you tend to get a lot of bugs in your eyes. After 30 mintes of night driving we had had enough. We found a small hotel for $8.00 a night and held up for the evening. We had dinner at a small local restaurant where they served only one dish that included beef scewers, miniture spring rolls, and deliscious rice pancakes with shrimp. All this was dipped in a mildly spicy peanut saw. The food was great. We combined this with a beer. The whole tab was 90,000 dong or $4.50 for all three of us. So dinner was $1.50 each including a beer.

The next morning we were on the road by 9:30. We grabbed a cup of excellent Vietnamise iced coffee and a quick sandwhich. The drive was beautiful as we were right on the coast. I ran out of gas again. I've actually lost track of how many times I've run out of gas. I think this was the 6th time. None of our gas gages work and my bike has been gettng worse fuel economy recently. Our bikes are getting arond 75 miles to the gallon. Not bad.

We stopped at a small beachside village for lunch the only thing on the menu was steamed rice served with shrimp. The food was simple but deliscious. An old man who spoke some english sat next to us and told us about being a scout for the South Vietnam Army during the American war. He told us about his 10 children and 21 grandchildren. After a filling lunch we were back on the road. One and a half more hours and we had reached Nha Trang. The sun was blistering hot. I was forced to wear pants, shoes, and a long sleave shirt to avoid being fried by the sun. Right before we reached Nha Trang we found a drink stand selling cold drinks. In a matter of minutes Amber, Joe, and I downed 5 different soft drinks of iced tea and soda pop.

There are may hotels lining the beach here. We found a budget hotel one block from the beach for $8.00 per night.

Amber:  We left Hoi An and went in search of Son My, a South Vietnamese "American War" memorial.  While Americans record 369 deaths, the Vietnamese Memorial recorded 504 civilians that were massicered.  Most were women and children.  It was chilling to look at the pictures of the elderly, women and babys that had been herded into a ditch then killed, exicution style.  Others as they fled down the street. We were walking into the memorial and encountered school children leaving.  The common greating of "where you from" from one of the children caused him to actually take a step back when we responded "America".  The rest of the memorial included foundations of the homes that had been burned to the ground, bomb shelters that had been destroyed, and really, really tacky dead animal statues.

We drove a long ways after Son My.  It was a beautiful road, and very warm.  We wanted to reach Quy Nhon but it was getting dark.  Bugs are bad enough without it being dark out, let alone the traffic on A1.  We decided that we should pull over after who knows how many bugs died by hitting us in the face and being pushed off of the highway by busses for the hundredth time.  We discovering that our low headlighs didn't illuminate that the locals were drying straw on the road side.  Not fun!  We found a nice hotel, had some dinner and went to bed with a plan of rising early and checking out some Cham ruins.

The Cham ruins were beautiful, once we found them.  We put our bikes and our ability to back road to the test before we succeeded!  We could see a really magnificant one on the top of a hill and after asking several locals how to get to it found ourselves driving through cactus and pricker bushes on a tiny, faded path up the hillside.  The problem with asking a local how to get somewhere is you say "this way?" and point and they say "yes" and then you ask: "or is it this way?" and point the opposite direction.  The answer is again, yes!  We got so close to the origional ruin sighted before deciding that getting cut to shredds from the thorns or eaten by a huge spider wasn't worth it.  There were more on the way south, and it was 90' out. 

The next sight we attempted was far more successful and we got great pictures.  It was beautiful!  What a cool way to spend the morning!  We made it to Quy Nhon in time to make it to the beach and relax.  Beach time makes everything better, and it had already been a great day.

We got up early again, and headed out to concure the 220km south to Nha Trang.  We took an amazing streatch of road that hugged the coast.  As we wound along, Tim's bike ran out of gas.  He and Joe staied behind while I took an empty water bottle down the highway, in search of the nearest town and gas station.  Happily, I didn't run out of gas and have to walk by myself to the next gas station.  There was one just over the hill.  Joe met me at the gas station and I refueled then drove back to Tim.  Once everyone had gas, we headed off.  Everyones bike worked fairly well; Tim's seemed to blow a gasket that caused it to smoke, but we made it to Nha Trang by 3:00pm.  Just in time to get a hotel for $8 a night and more beach time!