The Great Caves of Vietnam

Back when I was in San Francisco a friend told me about the world’s biggest cave being in Vietnam. I definitely had to see it. And now Dev and I are making our way to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Phong Nha Map

On the way we stop to see the Vinh Moc tunnels. Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels, this one had been inhabited by civilians. 60 families lived in these tunnels, and ~17 children were born in the tunnels. The tunnels were also a lot bigger than the Cu Chi tunnels, being dug out of limestone, which is more structurally sound than dirt.

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Children who were born in the tunnels.IMG_2703

Here is the room where women would give birth.

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You can see the tunnels are big enough to easily walk through.

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One nice aspect of these tunnels is that it had paths that led to the beach.

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We leave the tunnels, heading on a 2-hour ride to our main destination, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave is here, but it’s off limits to the public at this time.

No worries, Paradise Cave is open to the public! Discovered in 2005, it was opened to the public in 2010. This cave is 31 km long, with parts of it reaching 100m in width and 150m in height. Only 1km is open to the public; going any deeper requires hiring a tour guide. Since I heard that going deeper requires swimming in some parts, I decided not to try that option being a weak swimmer.

The cave is impressive, it’s huge, and well-lit. Walking into the cave feels like walking into an air conditioned room, a refreshing break from the heat just outside. Unfortunately, the vastness of this cave cannot be caught in photos; you actually have to see it yourself!

It’s hard to capture the depth here, but there’s like 150 steps to the bottom of the cave from the entrance.

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Here is one huge stalagmite.

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It looks like a giant foot!

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Me trying to capture the depth of this cave, but the camera fails me.

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One downside of opening to the public was the lack of respect people have for a natural wonder; Dev saw one man urinating in the cave; I saw another man smoking. Shaking my head…

The next day Dev and I visited Phong Nha, a wet cave. This cave required hiring a boat for 350k dong, which is about $17 dollars. We ended up splitting a boat with 4 locals, one man and three teenage boys.

We start out near our hostel, which is located next to this river.

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View from the front of the boat.

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Boats queuing to get into the cave.

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The entrance.

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It was a different experience than Paradise cave, being rowed in a boat through it all, rather than walking. It wasn’t as vast as Paradise Cave. At one part they lets us off the boat and walk around a part of the cave. It felt like walking on Mars, the reddish rock, and the stalactites and stalagmites look out of this world. Again, photos don’t do it justice.

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One part of the cave had lights and music; it felt like a Disneyland ride in some way.

One of the locals was excited to have a few photos taken with Dev and I, us being foreigners.

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I was glad to have seen two great caves in Vietnam. As we left the park, we heard from a fellow traveler that they have possibly found an even bigger cave – seems like the national park is now getting a lot more attention from with all the recent cave discoveries. It’s amazing that it’s 2013, and there are still discoveries being made. I find it humbling.

Next up: Riding on a junk boat in Halong Bay

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Hoi An and Hue

Hoi An

Hoi An

We arrive in Hoi An early morning, at 9am. It’s already very hot, it feels like its 90 degrees. We check into a hotel, and relax for most of the afternoon, tired from our crazy 14-hour bus ride for the previous night.

Hoi An’s old town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999. Hoi An stands for “peaceful meeting place”, as it used to be a center of trade in the 16th century. It also is home to 300 tailor shops; you can’t walk 12 feet without someone asking you if you want to have a custom suit made. For many of the visiting Europeans on holiday here, it’s a great deal to have a custom suit made for $80.

That evening Dev and I go to a couchsurfing event. Couchsurfing is a community of world travelers, who either offer their own couch for other travelers to crash on, or find a couch to crash on. It may sound scary at first, but it is safe, and the site uses a lot of tools so the host and guest can review each other.  In this case, we are just meeting to socialize; every big city usually has someone hosting a couchsurfing local event. We meet at a local restaurant called OM, which I thought would have Indian food. It didn’t. =\ I met Richard from Belgium, a local named Levy (expat from Europe), and later on a few more Europeans and one local Vietnamese woman. We have casual conversation over a few beers, everyone exchanging information about their travels. We have one conversation about schools and education in Germany, and I learn about issues from another developed nation. We leave that evening around 10:30. I’m feeling more tired than I should be; I’m beginning to catch the same cold that Dev has.

Saturday morning we lounge in the hotel, staying out of the heat as much as we can. We step out to go have lunch at a vegan restaurant. We spend 2 hours there because the service is slow, ordering one delicious entree after another, and having breaks in between.

Later in the evening we go to Old Town and visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites. First we visit a Chinese Assembly Hall, which has this interesting spiraling incense I really like.

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We go to a family chapel, which appeared reverent at first, but quickly became more like a tour through a gift shop. Tourist trap!

After, we see the old Japanese bridge .

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That evening we try to eat Indian food at Ganesh, but they are full, so we walk about a half mile away to another Indian restaurant where we are the only customers – pretty easy to get off the beaten path here. It was nice to enjoy some samosas, naan, daal, and saag paneer. The saag in this region so far is quite watery. The owner was a nice Vietnamese man, and was able to make good conversational chit chat.

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On Sunday we visit two more sites. We walk along the calm, charming street.

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We run into a woman on the street, who asks for money in exchange for a photo. Dev pays her and gets this snap:

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We visit a communal house, run by two charming old men. Despite not knowing English, they were able to guide us around, and point out that the site was where Indian traders used to come centuries ago, sleeping in this communal house (they especially point this out to us because we are Indian). Even then, the world was pretty connected.

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After lunch, we head to Hue via a 4-hour bus ride. Through one of the people at the couchsurfing event we find out about a brand new hostel, which just opened yesterday! We plan on staying there.

Hue

Hue

Hue is referred to as the intellectual and spiritual capital of Vietnam, according to Lonely Planet. I’m excited to find out what this means.

We spent two nights in Hue, at the brand new Tigon Hostel. We are the first customers to check in since the official opening on the 10th. Consequently, we have a 10-bed dorm all to ourselves both nights.

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I develop a stuffy nose in addition to my sore throat. I also notice some heat rashes on my arms and chest; I suspect that the doxy malaria pills are giving me these side effects. I also had a headache one night, which is not normal for me. I stop taking the pill, hoping these side effects will go away. Malaria pills aren’t necessary in big cities like this anyway. The side effects go away in a few days.

We leave the hostel to go to dinner to a highly-reviewed vegetarian restaurant. Every few minutes Dev and I get approached by guys on motor bikes or rickshaws trying to sell us weed or “boom boom”‘, a code term for prostitutes. It’s annoying to deal with someone coming over every two minutes asking us the same question, repeatedly, hoping we would change our mind or something. We finally get to the restaurant and have a delightful meal. Below is an appetizer with a variety of tofu.

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During our 2nd day Dev and I plan to rent a motorbike to ride around the area.  As I’m having breakfast at the hostel, I meet Andy, the hostel owner, and Thomson, the hostel manager.  They greet us excitedly as we are their first customers. Both are great to converse with. Andy explains some details about life in Vietnam, running a hostel business, paying for electricity and water, etc. I also meet a 26 year old Israeli man who has been working in Hanoi for a few months, now having to leave the country and re-enter to get a new visa. We talk for a bit over breakfast about life; he talks about the challenge/pressure of not following the usual path of getting a university degree, followed by a good job, followed by getting married and having kids.

Two hours later Dev and I then go our for lunch, and find a vegetarian restaurant where locals go. We ate a full meal for 10,000 dong each, or 50 cents. It was good, and a steal for the price!

We then hop on our motorbike and ride over to the Thien Mu pagoda. On the way, a local pulls up next to us on his motorbike, while we’re cruising at 30 km/h. He makes small chat with us; tells us he’s an engineer too. He asks if we want to grab a beer, but we tell him we are going to the pagoda. He says goodbye and zooms away.

At the steps of the Thien Mu pagoda is the beautiful Perfume River, with interesting long, low-lying boats passing by.

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The steps to enter the pagoda.

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For some reason I have the curiosity to look under this bell.IMG_1303

And I’m surprised to find it filled with graffiti.IMG_1308

I walk around the grounds, and it’s all very tranquil. I feel so relaxed, so happy to be here.

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Walking further ahead, I’m surprised to see an antique car. Why is this car here at the pagoda?

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I look above the car, and realize I’m looking at one of the most famous photos of all time. Thich Quang Duc immolating himself. He immolated himself in 1963 in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, to protest the oppression of Buddhism by the South Vietnamese. He sat there, and lit himself on fire. Police tried to get to him, but he was protected by a circle of his fellow Buddhist clergymen. During this whole time he is on fire, he never moved, flinched a muscle, or made a sound. That is deep meditation. Some people around him, including a policeman, began prostrating to him in reverence.

Initially you may see this as suicide. But it is meant to be an act of compassion, making a great sacrifice to protect Buddhism. And it did get a lot of attention.

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After standing there for a few minutes, I take a deep breath and continue walking around the temple, doing walking meditation around the paths amongst the trees.

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After seeing the pagoda we set out for seeing the Royal Tombs. Instead we somehow get lost for an hour, following an inaccurate map. We find two other tombs along the way.

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By 5pm we finally reach the Royal Tombs, but its 5pm, and they just closed. We leave. We again get lost on the way back home. We stop for gas. Dev asks me to check if the gas station has WiFi. I laugh at him. It does. I load up Google Maps. Before you say we are over-reliant on technology, we were getting lost despite asking locals for directions along the way. Maybe we don’t know how to ask for directions well? We get back to our hostel, and prepare to leave Hue the next morning.

Next post: We head to Phong Na to experience the great caves of Vietnam.

Days 2 & 3 of Motorcycle Biking

Day 2

The day starts off at 7:30am, having breakfast at the homestay. After breakfast we walk around town for 2 hours, observing the agricultural lifestyle of the local natives. To survive floods, the houses are raised about 6 feet off the ground. The empty space beneath the home is occupied by farm animals like cows, pigs, and dogs.

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Many of the local children are very friendly, yelling “hello” to us as we pass by. They’re just as fascinated with us as we are with them. I wonder how many of the kids go to school? Do the families have good drinking water? Otherwise it looks like everyone has food and shelter.

Children under house

Below is Dev walking the streets, where locals are taking their cows for a walk.

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The nearby lake.

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Some tourists are riding elephants around town. Dev and I choose not to. Partly because we’ll have more opportunities in the future. But it also reminds me about elephants in the circus, which sometimes have PTSD from a young age, being stolen from their mother or some other traumatic event.

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Tourists riding an elephant

Hopping onto our motorbikes, we leave the village. We make a brief stop at a marble factory. Below is a man polishing marble. We get a quick glimpse of what kind of objects are made with the material.

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Next we stop by a famous hill in Vietnam, one of three. This one is popular for a time when a lot of people died on the hill during the war; so much blood was spilt here, it was called “Hamburger Hill”. There’s a nearby church that remains standing, serving as a memory for those who hid in the church during the battle. Our guide doesn’t give us much more information than that.

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We then stop by a cafe. I see a scorpion in a box, which our tour guide pulls out. I was kind of worried about having a black scorpion dangling near my face.

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Suddenly I see the local cafe owner opening a big wooden box and he pulls out a huge snake. Thanks for the heads up! Two European girls are there with us, too scared to have a large snake wrapped around their shoulders. I’m not entirely comfortable with it either, since they aren’t giving me any directions, but our tour guide and the handlers seem comfortable, so I oblige. The body of the snake feels cool against my skin, especially with the heat outside.

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As it begins raining, we ride to the national park. We hike to a waterfall, enjoying the lush green jungle in the rain.

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Our next destination is a noodle factory, to get a quick overview of how noodles are made. A 20-foot long machine helps make around 300 kilos of noodles a day, which is supplied to local restaurants.

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Finally we come to a hotel for the rest of the evening. For some reason Dev and I have a hard time finding vegetarian food – the local population doesn’t speak English at all, so it’s even hard to ask for rice and vegetables. We find a shop where the meal involves rolling your own spring rolls. The owner speaks some English, and says we can have a vegetarian meal, so we decide to eat at the restaurant. The dipping sauce smells of fish, and we ask the owner about this, but she assures us there is no fish. So we don’t use the sauce. I’m also little concerned about eating raw vegetables, as we’re supposed to only eat cooked vegetables for the sake of our stomaches. It ended up being okay. =)

As we walk around , we hear loud house music coming from a local lounge. We have a beer there, watching a live DJ mix. No one seems to be into the music or conversing; instead eyes stare at TV screens playing some TV show or movie. The crowd is almost entirely young men, who seem more bored than entertained. The only person dancing happens to be a toddler in the back, jumping to the beats of the music. At least someone is dancing to the music!

Tomorrow is our last day of biking. Our guide, Happy, is hoping we’ll extend our journey from three to six days, but Dev and I think three days will be perfect. It’s already been exhausting to be out all day, especially through the hot sun and occasional rain.

Day 3

Our stops today are:

1) a field of rubber trees (trees whose sap is used to make rubber). Every morning the farmers cut the bark of the trees; they then come back later in the day to collect the sap and sell to the rubber factory.

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2) a cocoa farm (did you know this is is how a cocoa plant looks like?)

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3) a rice paper shop, where we have delicious, fresh rice paper

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The rest of the day was spent trekking to Nha Trang, a 200 km ride. A lot of the ride was through intense rain. While I was wet, I was never cold or shivering, and sometimes the water even felt warm. And we remained mostly dry thanks to our ponchos.

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Along the way, we stopped by cafes to rest and have Vietnamese drip coffee.

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We arrived at a hotel where Happy dropped us off.  Earlier in the trip Happy had found Dev’s Leatherman sitting on the table, and he seemed deeply enamored by it. Perhaps this a rare find in Vietnam – I’ve seen two other people give the Leatherman that look. At the current moment, Happy suggests that Dev’s Leatherman would make a nice tip, but Dev doesn’t want to give away his birthday gift. So instead Dev and I tip Happy in cash. We then bid Happy farewell.

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I then took a warm shower at the hotel, which felt satisfying after motorbiking through the rain all day. After hanging at a nearby cafe, we then board a bus for a 12-hour journey to Hoi An.

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Dalat & Motorbiking

Dalat

On the bus ride to Dalat, Dev and I decided we would check into The Dreams Hotel. The selling point for us is that it has a sauna, jacuzzi, and steam room. That would make the premium $30 rate worth it. On our first night there, we rushed through check in so that we could enjoy the spa before it closed at 7pm. We got about 20 minutes of pleasure.

The next morning we had an amazing breakfast, with a variety of fruit. Afterwards we headed out for the day. After 5 minutes of walking we got stopped by someone from Easy Rider. Easy Rider is a tour company that takes you on tours of the rural parts of the country, and it requires you to be willing to ride on a motor bike. So Dev and I are talking with a tour guide named Happy, who is trying to convince us to go on a 6-day tour to Hoi An. Dev and I are reluctant to do that long of a trip. We ended up negotiating a 3-day trip, to Nha Trang. Throughout, Dev and I were apprehensive about the 6-day trip due to time, and money ($400 per person). Our 3-day trip will cost us each $180. And without a written itinerary, all we know is that we’ll be riding on a bike for 3 days, seeing certain businesses and sites along the way.

Our tour was to begin 8:30 am the next morning, and as a preparation, Happy gave Dev and I lessons on how to ride the motorbike. We practiced by riding around Dalat.

Our first stop was an old train station, designed by two French architects in 1932. Below is Dev riding into the entrance.

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Decorative train engines.

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Next we visited a pagoda (Buddhist temple).

Inside the Temple

There were seven floors – you can walk all the way to top via spiral staircases. Each floor contains a statue. Each floor also gets smaller as you ascend.

The Pagoda

Writings on a large bell.

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At the topmost floor. Enlightenment.

Buddha Statue

Day One of Motorbiking

Our first day of motorcycle riding!

We checked out of the hotel and began our journey at 8:30am. I sat on the bike with Happy, and Dev was the first one to ride the motorbike solo.

Dev putting on his helmet

On the road in the rural area. Our backpacks were strapped to the back of the motorbike in a plastic bag, as it rains daily.

On the road!

Our first stop came quickly. We stopped at a flower and rose farm. Took a few photos, and proceeded from there.

Flower farm

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We next stopped by a coffee plantation. The highlight here was coffee beans that have been through the digestive system of a weasel. Neither Dev or I felt the urge to try this coffee – I enjoyed a Butter Mocha bean instead. We enjoyed the views here for a bit, and life seemed very romantic and relaxed here, the lady who was helping us was polite, relaxed, and smiley.

Below is a coffee plant.

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Coffee beans digested by a weasel.

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The weasel is shy, hiding in the corner.

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Weasel beans come in two flavors!

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There was another woman in the coffee shop trying to sell us handmade silk scarves made by the locals, and she was saying I should buy one for my mom. I didn’t feel compelled to. And I would have felt worst if I had, because…

Our next stop was a silk factory. Now, I’ve known silk isn’t vegan, but that day I got to see the process firsthand. They have silk worms, which they feed for a few days.

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These worms are then go into a cocoon state after a few days.

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Cocoons.

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When they do, these cocoons are then tossed into hot water for 5 minutes, the silk extracted. It was pretty hot and humid in the factory.

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The larvae is then disposed of in some way.  Below is the remains of the cocoon with the silk extracted.

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The rest of the factory processes the silk, by spooling it or weaving it into a cloth.

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And below is the final product. Odd something so beautiful comes from a worm. One article of silk clothing is perhaps the result of a few hundred cocoons.

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For a bit of a change, we next stopped by at Elephant Waterfalls, for a nice 40 minute trek. It felt good to have some real time in nature.

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Behind the waterfall:

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I think at this point I took over, and started biking on the road. Overall, the experience felt very comfortable and safe. The rural roads are empty, there weren’t many big trucks, and there aren’t people speeding around everywhere – they take it easy.

We left the waterfalls and rode to a restaurant where we had lunch. Leaving the restaurant we put our ponchos on, as it would continue raining. Below is Dev modeling how we ride motorbikes with ponchos on.

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We then rode to a rice wine farm. We sampled some rice wine for 20,000 dong ($1 USD).

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Fresh rice wine being brewed!

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We continued down the road and saw the cocoon factory – basically a hut with silk worms eating leaves, and then being laid out on frames at the right time where they would become cocoons. These cocoons would then be sold to the factory we visited earlier, where the silk is processed and spooled.

Our guide liked to show us the entire chain of how things are made.

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The silk worms are put on these frames; eventually they go into a cocoon state here.

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Inside the hut, where the floor is filled with worms and leaves.

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En route, we had beautiful views like below. What a simple life these fishing families live.

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Riding to our homestay, I got a flat tire on my bike. I fishtailed a bit when the tire popped, and then I honked a few times for Happy to hear (he was riding with Dev on the motorbike ahead of me) and stopped on the side of the road. He came back and repaired the tire, and we were on our way in 10 minutes. Luckily this happened at dusk, when we still had sunlight.

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When we arrived at our guesthouse, it wasn’t what we expected. we thought we would be staying with a family in the rural area. Instead we got a dorm in the rural area – there’s about 20 beds in one long cabin.

Bad photo, but there were ladders to the entrance. All the houses here are raised about 10 feet from the ground, as the nearby river floods during the heavy rain season.

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My bed for the night, with mosquito net.

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All houses are long like this; there’s about 20 beds in here.

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We showered and then had dinner at the on site restaurant.

Overall the day had been great, and I’m glad we decided to do this 3-day motorcycling trip. I don’t think I’d like to do this beyond 3 days, as its would get tiring with a tour guide, your days being managed by someone else. And there was also some sales pressure, since Happy was hoping we would really love the tour and want to upgrade it to 6 days.

I thought how motor biking could be quite useful in other parts of Vietnam where attractions are near cities, 10-30 km away. Its not always easy to get there via bus, or too expensive via taxi or guided tours.

I also fancied the idea of owning a scooter when I go back to SF. Maybe.

Next post: Days 2 and 3 of motorbiking!

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

And the journey begins! First stop, Ho Chi Minh.

Map of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Right before I left, my family gave me many blessings to have a safe journey.

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They walked me all the way to the TSA security line at the airport, waving me goodbye right until the moment I had to take off my slippers to go through the scanner.

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After a smooth flight, I arrived at Ho Chi Minh about 20 hours later. I met up with Dev at the hostel – it was funny that this is the first time we were seeing each other. We had planned the entire trip, with me being in San Francisco, him being in Philadelphia.

We started that evening just walking around Ho Chi Minh, people watching in the park. The warm evenings lends to a lot of people hanging out in the parks. Below people are learning some form of dancing. There were also people working out on public exercise machines, or practicing martial arts, or a variation of some other form of exercise.

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We visited a nearby Hindu temple. It was interesting to see the slight difference in the style of the statues – the faces of gods were softer, fuller, than those in India.

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The War Museum

The next day we visited the War Museum. We ended up spending 3.5 hours here, and the museum was much bigger than I expected. After walking through many rooms depicting different aspects of the war, I couldn’t help but feel the senseless aggression the U.S. had against the Vietnamese people.

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Agent Orange

I was particularly saddened to learn about the Agent Orange Program – where the U.S. sprayed a chemical toxin, dioxin, over the fields in Vietnam to kill all agriculture, and drive people out of the cover of trees. Ironically, this chemical was made by Monsanto, who is now popular for making genetically modified food. After spraying 20 million gallons of this stuff, they succeeded; the result was 400,00 people killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. There were plenty of photos showing deformed children, and it was saddening. Vietnam sought reparations for those affected, but the U.S. government hasn’t given any. Occasionally I saw donation boxes around asking for support to those affected by Agent Orange.

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As I left the War Museum, a man selling coconut water approached me, beginning with the usual question, “Where are you from?” In that moment, I opted to say Indian, rather than American; I didn’t want to be associated with what I had just seen in his eyes. I wasn’t sure if the Vietnamese would have some negative sentiment towards Americans. But so far, everyone has been warm and friendly, greeting me with smiles after I tell them I’m an American.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The next day Dev and I took a bus trip 2-3 hours from Ho Chi Minh to visit to Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is a region where several villages existed. At some point in the Vietnam War the Viet Cong built a network of 75 miles of underground tunnels. This amazing network had various rooms underground, so soldiers could eat, sleep, work. The tunnels were built in an elaborate manner that made it difficult for the American army to breach them in any way, and certain tunnel openings were traps for would-be intruders.

Our group got to climb into one of the actual tunnel openings, but these tunnels are small, too tight for many of the tourists. So they built a slightly larger tunnel which tourists could go through, about 100 feet long. This was just to give us a taste, but imagine going through the actual tunnels, pitch black darkness, leading deeper into the earth, eventually into large rooms to inhabit.

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Towards the end of the the tour, we were given the chance to buy 10 bullets and shoot them through a rifle of our choice – including an AK-47. I do have he curiosity of what it is like to shoot a gun, but it felt spiritually wrong to do it at Cu Chi, where so many have fought and died. It felt like I would be supporting what happened there in some way, or trivializing it. I’m appalled that the government is even providing it as an option, but perhaps the Vietnamese see it in a more practical way. A few people in our group did opt in to try these guns. During this part of the tour there was a snack booth, and I enjoyed some chocolate ice cream while hearing the sounds of AK-47s and other rifles shooting in the background.

So in combination of visiting the War Museum and Cu Chi tunnels, I left Ho Chi Minh feeling a lot of sympathy for the Vietnamese people, who have endured a lot of suffering at the hands of the American government from 1965-1973.

My next stop would be Dalat, an old French colonial-style town up in the hills, where the temperatures are like 75 in the day, 68 at night – a very cold place according to locals. A relief from the heat for me – temperatures were in the high 80s in Ho Chi Minh.