Ankur’s 2nd Mundan

I’ve reached the first pinnacle of my trip: seeing Ankgor Wat. The temples of Ankgor are a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, two cultures I connect with on different levels. I’ll write more about the Ankgor temples in another post.

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The second pinnacle of my trip will be starting starting September 26, where I have signed up to do a Vipassana retreat in Thailand. For 10 days, I will be completely silent. No reading, writing, listening to music, or any other similar kind of stimulation. Only two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. I will spend 10 hours a day in meditation. Here’s the schedule if you are curious:

4:00 a.m. ————–   Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m. ——-   Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 a.m. ——-   Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m. ——-   Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 a.m. —–   Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 noon — Lunch break
12noon-1:00 p.m. —  Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m. ——— Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 p.m. ——— Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 p.m. ——— Meditate in the hall or in your room
5:00-6:00 p.m. ——–  Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m. ——–  Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 p.m. ——— Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 p.m. ——— Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 p.m. ——–  Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.  ————–  Retire to your room; lights out

I’m really excited to have the opportunity to experience this. We talk everyday for all our lives; so taking ten days off in life to practice silence doesn’t seem to be a big sacrifice.

I’ve also been wanting to get stronger in my meditation practice. Back home I would only practice for about 20 minutes, a few times a week. I hope this course will help deepen my practice. I’m trying not to set expectations though.

Approaching the beginning of the retreat, I’ve felt nervous now and then, wondering if I could make it through ten days of silence; I have heard stories of people quitting after 3 or 4 days. However, I’ve gotten support from loved ones. I also have friends who have done the same retreat as well, and knowing they’ve done it, and hearing their stories, gave me confidence. I also have a good\bad habit of finishing what I start. In this case it’s a good habit. Given the above, I’m going into this feeling confident to persist through the 10 days.

In preparation for the retreat, I decided to go shave my head. WHAT?!? WHY? As part of Hindu culture (at least from Punjab), every baby has their head shaved sometime in the first few years of life. Since babies are born with hair, it is believed that hair is from the previous life; shaving the hair is removing the karma from the past life. In the same spirit, I shaved away my hair that I had before this trip; I feel that it symbolizes making space for new thoughts and behaviors, and letting go of behaviors that don’t serve me positively. Will I become a new Ankur?

I was a bit scared of shaving my head, because, I’ve never done it before. How would I look bald? Would I look funny? Dorky?

Here’s a video and some photos of the process. I walked into a barber shop in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and I think the employees were as amused as I was during the process.

Before:

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Face shaved.

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As I walk around later that day, I keep a hat on, feeling a little weird being bald. Whenever I see myself in the mirror, I’m like, “who is this guy?” It’s interesting to me how much I identify myself with having hair on my head. However, I enjoy the unusual feeling when seeing myself bald; I’m challenging my external image of myself.

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And during my 10-day retreat, I will be challenging myself in my inner world.

The Elusive Forest Temple

We leave Luang Prabang and arrive in Vientiane, Laos. Being the capital of Laos, the city is busier than  Luang Prabang. Alongside fancy French-style government buildings, there are many magnificent wats.

Dev read a blog post about Wat Pa Na Khoun Noi, aka “Forest Temple”, where some previous tourists went and spent a few days at the temple living among the monks. This would be good preparation for our upcoming 10-day meditation retreat, so we decide to try as well.

We arrive at Forest Temple. It’s quite simple compared to the other temples we’ve seen. A loud prayer bell rings, and all the dogs on premises start howling – quite an unusual site – and this goes on for 30 seconds until the bell stops ringing. Wish I had caught a video of it, but I was just surprised in the moment! I’m a little hesitant at the idea of staying here for two days…

Since no one has greeted us after a few minutes of standing around, we ask one of the monks exiting the temple if he speaks English; he doesn’t, but he leads us into the living grounds to another monk who does. We ask for the abbott by name, who will ultimately be the one that gives us permission to stay at the temple. The monk doesn’t seem to recognize the name. Eventually he figures out who we must be talking about, and tells us that we are at the wrong location, that the Forest Temple is far far away, maybe 20 km. Funny how 20 km is so “far” away here, back home that would be a 15 minute drive. We ask for contact information for the abbott, but he is unable to get us any. He tells us to come the next day, Sunday, during a meditation session for newcomers, where we can ask another monk who will probably be able to help us.

After this inquiry, we have a casual chat with the monk where he mainly asks us questions.  He’s curious about why we want to meditate, how we are able to travel for many months, what our professions are. Then at some point he abruptly ends the conversation and leaves. Perhaps he has something important to do.

The next day we arrive in the late afternoon for the meditation session. We do one hour of meditation consisting of sitting, walking, then sitting again. After the meditation session, we ask one of the monks if he has any contact information for anyone at the Forest Temple. He says he might, and takes our email addresses, telling us he will email us the contact info.

A few hours later, the email arrives. I call the number; unfortunately it is out of service. I’m ready to give up at this point, but Dev does not.

After some reflection, I try to think why I’m hesitant. After all, aside from money, what do I have to lose? I’m spoiled by the expectation of being able to call or email someone, and getting a yes or no answer quickly, efficiently. But that’s not how it’s working out here. Before mobile phones, many people had to travel long distances, not knowing whether they would be able to accomplish their goal. Some people had to do this by foot, and potentially waste a whole day. We were being driven there in a tuk-tuk in 40 minutes.

So I decide to see it as an adventure.  Go directly to the temple and seek accommodation. This is a true adventure; not knowing what will happen.

We check out of our hostel, and take a tuk-tuk to the Forest Temple.

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When we arrive, there is a lot of excitement in the temple as people see Dev and I hop out of the tuk tuk. They don’t get many foreign visitors here being so far from the city. We are immediately directed to an elder monk sitting towards the front of the temple.

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He asks us what we are here for. We tell him that we are seeking the opportunity to meditate with the monks for two days. He asks where we are from – and asks to see our IDs for some reason. I hand him my driver’s license. He finds a piece of paper, and flips it over to the blank side; he ask us to write our name and nationality down (and I’m guessing its a good sign he needs our info, authorities sometimes require hosts to retain info of foreign guests).

But then he then explains to us that unfortunately they cannot accommodate us, as there is a big celebration starting tomorrow, throughout the entire week. He tells us to pray to the nearby Buddha statue, and enjoy walking around the temple before we leave. We pay our respect to the Buddha statue, and walk around the temple grounds.

There are lots of chickens here.

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The temple is beautiful.

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We meditate for a bit in the temple; a monk takes a picture of us.

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Walking along the grounds, there is a smaller temple in the back.

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Inside.

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Freshly cut flowers, in preparation for the celebration.

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Amazing statues around the temple, some feel Hindu-inspired,  especially with the seven-headed naga (serpent).IMG_3286 IMG_3288

After enjoying the serene beauty of the temple and statues, we leave. On the ride back, I feel a little burned that it costs us $20 to get there, and another $20 to get back, so $40 total invested in this adventure.

But we tried! It’s a lesson where I learned to be more open to taking such risks, and challenge my desire to want answers conveniently. Sometimes you have to find out answers the hard way.

Getting Spiritual in Laos

We arrive in Luang Prabang, Laos, after a one hour flight from Hanoi, Vietnam. A taxi drops us off at the hostel. We leave for dinner. Walking around the area, there’s no honking, no traffic; it’s calm. Initially it makes me uncomfortable for some reason, having come from the busy streets of Hanoi – lots of motorbikes, honking, open shops, people everywhere, eating and drinking on the street stalls. There is none of that in Luang Prabang.

That feeling quickly goes away as I discover the spiritual side of Laos.

One morning I wake up at 5:30am, to watch the famous alms giving ceremony. We walk out to the main road, and we see locals waiting for the monks to arrive. And soon the monks arrive, carrying large bowls. The people on the sidewalk, give a handful of food to each monk. It lasts for about 30 minutes.

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The food collected is what the monks will eat for the day, for breakfast and lunch. I find it interesting that locals show up everyday, so early, to feed the monks. It feels very communal, very intimate. As a tourist, I make sure to observe from a distance, curious, but not rude. Some tourists get too close, taking photos, which alters the mood for the monks. Some tourists do buy food from street vendors in the morning, and offer it to the monks; while this is a nice gesture, the monks cannot become dependent on the ups and downs of tourism over the year for food. Depending on the local community is more stable in this respect.

Why is the community so generous? One reason may be that practically every man in Laos goes through monk hood once, from a month to years. When these men leave monkhood and later find a job, they may feel inclined to give. Another reason is that they find value in Buddhism, and are motivated to support their religion. And thats why there are so many beautiful wats in the region.

I spend the remainder days bicycling around the small town, surrounded by the Mekong river.

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I visit the many wats, meditating in some of them, and appreciating the spiritual energy of the region. Unfortunately I don’t remember the names of the various wats, but hopefully you can just enjoy photos of the various wats I visited below.

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A selfie is nice once in a while, right?

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I love the nagas (seven-headed serpent) and red and gold interior in the wat below.

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Wat Pa Phon Phao

I was able to remember the name of this one!

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The inside of the above temple:

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I was sitting in the temple above, and decided to meditate for 30 minutes. A few minutes into it, the monks started playing some magnificent music. I wish I had caught more than 5 seconds of it.

Next stop: the capital of Laos: Vientiane.

Awesome Overload – What’s the Meaning of It All?

Its been 30 days that I’ve been traveling. I’ve traversed Vietnam, south to north. I’ve seen more than I thought I would. The big cities – Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi. I’ve motorbiked in the rural areas. I’ve been in the great caves in Phong Nha National Park. I’ve seen many beautiful waterfalls. Cruised at the gorgeous Halong Bay on a junk boat. Hiked through the scenic rice terraces of Sa Pa. It’s too much beauty to handle in a short amount of time. It’s overwhelming.

A high-class problem.

Too much beauty

Spending no more than 2-3 days in one location, before catching a sleeper bus to the next major destination. Constantly moving, exploring, experiencing; the senses continuously fed, there is no habituating to any space. Every new place I see is like a weekend getaway; after this weekend is another; there are no weekdays in between my weekends. Constant pleasure! It may sound great, but…

I’m wading through the people of Vietnam, some who have never seen as much of Vietnam in their lifetimes as I have in 3 weeks. This could be a limitation of time, money, or just taking your own home for granted.

I ponder more on the people who don’t have the money. The people who I see on the street, hoping I’ll buy their bananas, water, books, or some other good. The families I see in the rural areas, living very simply, just getting by. It makes me feel guilty. Do I deserve this? It makes me think of their lives, my life. By some fate, I’ve been given the privilege of being relatively wealthy, having the freedom to travel on my savings. I imagine if the tables were turned; what if the people of Vietnam were tourists at my home? I could be the one selling goods on the streets to tourists.

I have a moment of gratitude, being thankful for my privilege. I make a Kiva loan to a Vietnamese woman, Hanh, who is trying to expand her inventory at her small electronics shop. Even though I never saw her, being in Vietnam made me feel more connected to her need.

Kiva Loan to Hanh

At this point I move to feeling overwhelmed. After learning of the atrocities of war, and then seeing the people working hard to gain prosperity, it feels like life is a struggle for all of us. What’s the point of existence? What’s the point of this cosmic dance?

These people wake up everyday, trying to make a living. When I go back, I will need to do the same. Back home with some friends, we talk about finding your passion; but for many of the people just getting by, does the question of passion even arise, or is it even relevant?

This great TedTalk from Mike Rowe (20 mins) challenges the idea of finding a job based on passion. Then there’s an inspiring excerpt from Alan Watts that asks, “What would you like to do if money was no object?” (3 mins) And I must say, this video from Alan Watts contributed in some way to helping me decide to leave my job to go backpacking for a few months. It convinced me that experience matters more than money.

It leads me to the question, What makes you come alive? I’d like to find my passion. Or find a cause.

Luckily I know many others who have thought about this.

How will I help create a ripple in this world? My girlfriend Cherry describes how it starts by being a drop. And this does not have to be accomplished through your job – my friends Amit and Cat have written about this eloquently in their blogs.

So I’m in the mode of seeking. There is some pressure to find some deep meaning from this trip. I relieve the pressure by reminding myself that I shouldn’t have such an expectation; this trip may not give me the answer. I also remind myself that the journey is just as important as finding the answer.

You can see my thoughts are divergent at this point. There are a variety of emotions: excitement, guilt, emptiness, gratitude, fear. I feel uncomfortable asking such big questions at moments. But this is exactly the purpose of creating negative space – to be able to reflect on life and explore possibilities.

Feel free to share any blog posts or other links related to this subject in the comments. =)

The Gorgeous Rice Terraces of Sa Pa

Sa Pa is a region renown for its rice terraces. The higher altitude means it’s cooler, with the temperature being in the 70s. It rains often. Lush, green, cool, wet.

Based on advice from other travelers, Dev and I choose to try out a homestay option in Sapa with a woman named Mei Lai (may ligh). Over 2 days, Mei Lai will hike with us through the rice terraces, and have us stay over one night with her family. I anticipate learning a lot about Mei Lai’s family.

At 8:30am, we are greeted by Mei Lai in our hotel lobby. Her husband dropped her off at our hotel, which is about 20 minutes from her home via motorbike. Going back however, we are going to hike through the rice terraces, which should take about 4 hours.

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Mei Lai speaks English fairly well, which she picked up from tourists. She makes small talk along our hike, pointing out various vegetables people are growing in front of their homes. She asks if we grow food back home. I suppose growing food around your home is a given to her, but I tell her back in the U.S. many people don’t, though a few do have gardens.

We walk along the trail, some parts very muddy, while enjoying the breathtaking views around us. We pass by people’s humble homes, I give a smile when I pass a child just staring at me.

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Mei Lei teaches us about the rice; this is sticky rice, and will be ready to harvest soon as it gets heavy and bends the plant.IMG_3008

There’s no warning sign when crossing this bridge. In general, this applies to a lot of what I have seen so far – there’s no warning signs, it’s your responsibility to be aware. I can appreciate this somewhat, but maybe because in the States it’s in the other extreme, with too many warning signs (e.g. “This cup contains hot coffee.”)IMG_3011

We meet 3 women along the trail. Mei Lai explains that they are from different tribes, based on the subtle differences in the colors of their clothes. The women make small talk with as we walk. I’m surprised two of them speak a lot of English, and they ask me about my age, if I’m married, where I’m from. I ask them the same. One woman talks about how she has to work a lot to make money to support her family; another woman tells us how her husband died one month ago, and now she is supporting herself. I’m glad to be having this authentic interaction.

After finishing small talk, the women converse with one another in their native language. I notice that one of them stays closer to Dev, and the other two stay close to me. One of them doesn’t speak English, but nonetheless she’s walking really close to me, but I make nothing of it, thinking it’s a cultural difference in how much personal space we all feel comfortable with.

We stop for lunch, and Mei Lai orders vegetarian pho for Dev and I. One of the women following us says we can buy something from her, now, or later at the homestay. I awkwardly say no. At another table is a family of four, also tourists; there are surrounded by half a dozen women, each one trying to sell something. I hear the mom saying, “No, it’s too expensive, I don’t want it.” I now realize why the three women were following Dev and I – they are going to try to sell us stuff! They are polite, waiting for us to finish our meal. I eat my meal, slowly, realizing that I’m going to be ambushed as soon as i’m done.

(The scene of the ambush)

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We finish our meal, and then suddenly, the two women who had been following me start showing me things like purses, shawls, tablecloth, pillow cases. I say no to each item. I repeat myself many times. This goes on for a few minutes, and she keeps cycling through different things. One woman tries to use guilt as a tactic, telling me she followed me for an hour. I didn’t ask to be followed! I realize this isn’t going to end until I buy something. I give in, and buy a purse for 50k dong, $2.5, but she’s unhappy that I didn’t buy something more expensive. The other woman who had been following me motions I need to buy something from her too, but I say no, not wanting to set the precedent of buying something from everyone. Eventually, we manage to leave and resume our journey to Mei Lai’s home.

I’m kind of upset at Mei Lai for not giving us a heads up about this, but I understand it’s beyond her control. This is her community, and she has to have good relationships with these women. But being essentially forced to buy something detracted from the peaceful countryside experience I had imagined. I was hoping to escape consumerism in Sa Pa. And what I initially thought as authentic interaction with the women was actually all part of the sales scheme. It makes me sad. The compassionate side of me realizes they need money, but I don’t think its a good strategy to force tourists to buy products they don’t want.

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Mei Lai’s home is spacious. She leads us to a nice patio with an amazing view. At home are her husband, two little boys, her mother, and her sister. Her sister is preoccupied sewing. Apparently after a woman gets engaged, she has a year to make her own wedding dress. The bride is judged by the intricacy of her dress. If it’s not intricate enough, then the woman is seen as lazy. I have noticed a lot of women sewing in the area. These brides-to-be often spend free moments sewing. I realize you may be wondering how the dress looks, but in the moment I didn’t feel comfortable enough to just take a photo.

Mei Lai mentions that tonight 8 other guests will be coming, so it will be a full house. There are 10 total beds, so each guest will have a bed. She asks me if this is ok; I’m thinking, “well, there goes the idea of an intimate homestay”, but what else can I say except, “Yea, it’s ok.”

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The rest of the day I spend relaxing by reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, and looking out onto the landscape from the patioIt rains, and I plan to meditate shortly after reading for a bit.

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Before I get to meditate, new guests arrive, one after the other. The first group is a mom and her two daughters from Philadelphia, on a two-week vacation; the second group is three guys from London, two of them backpacking for several months, one for two weeks; and the last group is two guys from Spain, on a three-week vacation.

While it is cool to socialize with other travelers around the world, I had anticipated this homestay being more intimate, us having dinner with the family, learning more about their culture and way of life.

Dinner ended up being a big party; our hosts prepared us a home-cooked meal. The grandmother made rice wine, and a shot was poured for each guest.

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The next morning as I leave Mei Lai’s home, I reflect on the fact that there is some intimacy when someone has you stay in their home; I’m thankful.

I imagine these homestays are a good source of income for the community. I wonder if Mei Lai’s family is grateful that she is able to speak English, which is a big reason she is able to do homestays and be a tour guide, which ultimately brings the family income. It is interesting that the tour guides, and the garment sellers, have all been women – and speaking English is a competitive edge for them.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is known for its junk boats and beautiful scenery. Dev and I book a 2-day tour, costing us $105 each.

We arrive in Halong Bay at 12:30 after a 4-hour ride in a van. The boat wasn’t quite the way I expected. I had imagined a brown boat, looking like a pirate ship, with orange sails. Instead, I saw an all-white boat. All the boats were. I was told that the boats were painted all white after the locals heard that Europeans have all white boats. I think the boats would have looked beautiful in their natural wood finish.

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When we walk onto the boat, the interior is beautiful; our room is nice, cozy, and the bathroom is modern. It exceeded my expectations.

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The boat leaves the port, and soon we are surrounded by gorgeous hills.

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During the day we visit a cave. It’s a big cave, but nothing like what we just saw at the Phong Nha National Park.

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After cave viewing we kayak around the bay for one hour, followed by some beach time. The water is nice an warm, almost as warm as Carribean waters. A thunderstorm approaches, the air cools; we all leave the beach, but not before I get this photo:

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It starts to rain.

In the evening, the thunderstorm proved to be amazing. As I showered before dinner, the sound of amazing thunder and flashes of lightning added to the experience.. The lightning felt closer than usual, perhaps an effect of being in the bay. It feels surreal.

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The video doesn’t capture the magnificence of the thunderstorm, but it gives you a glimpse. You can skip 50 seconds into the video.

Video credit: Dev

Over the two days, we dine with other people on the boat. The boat has about 25 people aboard; most seem to be on vacation, and respond with some excitement when I tell them I am traveling for 4 months.

I enjoy dinner with a family of three from Holland (mom and her two daughters), and a teacher from Germany. We talk a lot about her being a teacher, and overall it seems that she doesn’t enjoy it. We talk about education in general, and it seems that teachers in Germany also have a tough time with salary, students, and other issues.

Later on the evening is some karaoke, with few people participating. Most people are just hanging out and chatting.

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Waking up in the morning, this is my view:

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During breakfast, I have conversation with a couple from Denmark – a man who worked for a solar company, and the woman studying to be a doctor. We talk a lot about solar energy, and the man really loves technology, so he’s excited to talk to me as I’m from Silicon Valley. I told him of Google’s self-driving cars which could be seen on the highway, or Teslas, people wearing Google Glasses; he was excited to hear about all this. It made me appreciate living in the Bay area.

As we finish up breakfast, we arrive at an oyster farm to see how pearls are made. Reminds me a lot of the silk worm experience.

IMG_2941Our guide didn’t explain this part too well, but I think he is inserting something into the oyster so it grows pearls more rapidly.IMG_2944

IMG_2945Our guide finds a pearl in one of the oysters.IMG_2948I don’t think I will regret, thank you. =)IMG_2952

The finished product.IMG_2951

Afterwards we begin heading back to shore, and have lunch on the way. During lunch, my company is a couple from Barcelona; upon hearing that I’m from California, they tell me how they are interested in moving there one day. They are unhappy with the economy in Spain, finding a new job isn’t easy. They were envious of Dev and I quitting our jobs to travel for 4 months. It was interesting to hear that.

I did encounter an old-fashioned, non-painted junk boat. It stood out from all the other white boats.

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After lunch we arrive back to the port; after a 4 hour bus ride, we arrive back to Little Hanoi Hostel. In a few hours, Dev and I will depart by train to the iconic rice terraces of Sa Pa, our last destination in Vietnam.

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