The Garden of Catholic Guilt

Wandering in Saigon, I came across a magnificent Pepto-Bismol colored church. It had a lovely flower garden complete with statues of all the Stations of the Cross. They were pretty brutal, as anyone who is familiar with the Easter rites of Good Friday well knows. Here’s a few samples: try to find the Roman soldier spearing Jesus, or the bald man flaying Jesus, or Jesus falling for the first time.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

North of Ho Chi Minh City lies the extraordinarily extensive Vietcong tunnel system. It is the longest hand dug tunnel in the world, at over 250km of connecting labyrinthine clay tubes. They used these tunnels for their guerilla fight against the French and Americans. They planted hidden explosives and spiked trap doors among the fallen foliage. They used the discarded foreigner’s trash to mask the scent of their ventilation tubes. The walked with their shoes on backwards to confuse trackers. They successfully practiced the “hit and run” style of warfare. Our tour guide, Billy, said the war was like an extended episode of Tom and Jerry. Vietcong (Jerry), smaller and quicker, with a small, impenetrable hole in which to hide; and America (Tom) bigger and increasingly desperate. Vietnamese would sneak into USA camps at night and steal supplies (probably also cheese, just like Jerry would). The tunnels were tight, crawling room only in places. We could only do about 120 m. I would have explored more if they let us, but that’s only because I know they were unoccupied. I can’t imagine the dread of living there, constantly aware of possible attacks from above, or the immeasurable fear of looking for enemies hunched over in the dark inside their tunnel. It was an impressive exhibit, concluded with the chance to fire (35,000 dong per bullet) any of the seven major rifles used in the war. Our tour guide fought for the ARVN, and after 1975, being a lieutenant, spent 6 years in a prison “re-education” camp. It’s history, and rarely is it possible to so tangibly feel the experience first hand.

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You can see how low the man in front of me is crouched.

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There was a good bit of apprehension masked behind that excited smile.

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The VC traps were home made in appearance but viciously effective. There were about eight different varieties, all involving spikes in sensitive areas of the body.

Roadside lunch in a fly full environment.

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We also visited a temple that is dedicated to three different deities. It’s hard to understand from broken English information, but the meditation ceremony involved instruments, incense and incantations. The adherents were mostly older and seemed accustomed to tourists walking around during their quiet time. It was much grander inside than I was expecting.

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Da Lat ~ “Crazy House” and Datanla Waterfalls

A few minutes ride from the main area of Da Lat resides an avant garde hotel/tourist trap called Hang Nga Guesthouse, or The Crazy House (03 Hunyh Thuc Kang). It was designed by a woman holding a PhD in architecture, a love of Gaudi and a wild imagination. It’s fun to walk around inside the house, and feel the lack of right angles smoothing out a cluttered mind. There are plenty of photo ops and really narrow staircases.

Nearby you can find Datanla Waterfalls. They weren’t as crowded with tourists. For 50,000 dong (3$), you can ride a self-controlled bobsled down the mountain to the base. As long as you don’t get a slow-poke in front of you, you can go as fast or slow as you want because you control the brakes! It was a sustained smile the whole way down. Afterwards, explore the fragrant pine tree walkways and then pop back in your bobsled which gets tow-roped back to the top of the hill.

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Da Lat ~ Black and White by the Lake

I noticed how calm everyone seemed beside the big, peaceful lake in the middle of this southern highland city of Vietnam. The monochrome complements the serene healing power of being near large bodies of water.

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They offered me a beer, but it was only noon…and they were pretty deep already! Plus, I think they would have enjoyed the warm Saigon beer more than me anyway.

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The guy on the right was quite keen on getting a good shot and asked to see the picture before I left.

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Baking like a lizard on the sidewalk.

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They were too comfortable to even turn around as I approached.

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I like that they kept their helmets on to chill. The flowers in the tree were a pretty, deep purple.

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You could just barely see her eyes between the paddie hat and the smog mask.

Nha Trang ~ The Russian and Backpacker Beach

Its natural beauty is easy on the eyes, but as with most resort towns, tourists find a way to crowd out the beauty to be replaced by high rise hotels and trendy beach bars. The city is overwhelmed with Russian tourists due to the one way flights serviced from Moscow. Signs and menus are posted in Vietnamese, French, Russian and English. The Russians seem to be a hard bunch to impress and walk around with faces that seem to ask, “Is this all ya got?”

The party area is loaded with backpacker bars and restaurants/pectopahs. There is an amazing place called Louisiane Brewhouse (29 Tran Phu) with six house brewed beers. I ordered the sampler and wasn’t disappointed. The cheeseburger; however, was a total letdown. It was under-cooked and had the amateur hour problem of meat patty being smaller than the bun. But, wifi was fast, there is a pool, and perhaps the overpriced seafood was better.

I also went to I-resort. A short ride away over the bridge into the locals-only part of town (some of the roads aren’t even paved yet). They offer a range of services, but for 300,000 dong (15$) you can get 20 minutes in a mud bath, floating in delicate minerals that alleviate a variety of health issues, all-day access to warm mineral pools and comfortable lounge chairs. I spent the day pruning my hands in the soothing water, tanning and reading.

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The food was not impressive. I stayed four days, ate two big fish (which were pretty good), a decent pizza, decent tikka masala, a terrible eel dish, and two very poor, under-cooked cheeseburgers (I-resort and Louisiane Brewhouse). I did eat a very delicious bacon cheeseburger at Booze Cruise Bar (110 Nguyen Thien Thuat). I know I shouldn’t be eating so many burgers, but there’s just something about being at the beach that makes me crave a “cheeseburger in paradise!” Below is a nice Indian food breakfast beside the beach, and a terribly bony eel dish.

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This place, NT Fitness, owned by a few expat bros from England, was a huge highlight and allowed me a chance to get in a few curls, watch a Russian guy bench 200kgs and get in a nice banana protein shake. It was top notch for any city in the world, four floors of various equipment and hardwood exercise rooms.

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I stayed at Mojzo Inn (120 Nguyen Thien Thuat), a cute place with irrepressibly cute staff. They were helpful, cheery and greeted me with the same, “Hey Wirl,” at all times of the day. The rooms are clean and well equipped.

I kept hearing how lots of backpackers have begun skipping this city completely due to negative word-of-mouth. Yes, it’s crowded, loud, pushy, and has mediocre food, but…I’m not sure how to finish that sentence. I didn’t hate it; I didn’t love it. You can party here, get a tan, shop for expensive goods, eat fresh seafood, ride the longest cable car over water in the world, drink beer that isn’t yellow, float in clean mud, or get a bike and ride to the distant beaches 20km north or south of the main city.

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Getting Lost in Nha Trang

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These guys were hanging out laughing and whistling at chicks. They offered me some tea, I had a buzz for the next hour from it. Not sure what kind of tea it was, but it was strong.

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Getting in some chilling time before hustling the tourists.

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This guy was talking so loudly, and bits of food were flying from his mouth.

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Working hard or hardly working? To be fair, it was 9:15, so maybe coffee break time.

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The “easy-riders” all want to take you around and show you the “real Vietnam.” This guy was very persistent.

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She’s quite attractive, friendly and I like purple.

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He saw me with my camera and held up this rather ordinary crab. The market stunk like sour meat, seafood and sweat.

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She was not pleased with this picture. She immediately began yelling to her superior after I took this.

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The kid finally waved to me as I was walking away.

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They were laughing as soon as I took out my camera as if I just told a joke.

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Love her expression.

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Genuine smiles when I popped in their hardware shop.

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He reminds me of Gummy Joe from the Simpsons…Image

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Hanging with her vegetables in the shade.

Hoi An ~ A Place to Shop and Eat.

My first impression of this town was cheesy. In one direction were tourists, in the other were the hawkers selling trinkets or sugary donuts. I heard the gentle, instrumental muzak version of “My Way” playing. Strangely, I kept hearing it as I continued walking. There are actually posted loudspeakers dedicated to playing contemporary easy listening hits as if to encourage the mall atmosphere this town as acquired. It’s not wholly without charm. There are fascinating old houses, a lovely Japanese bridge, swinging, glowing lanterns across the street and a friendly, but completely commercial vibe. There are 400 custom tailor shops and perhaps just as many restaurants. With so many tourists, that much competition is possible. But, it is totally overwhelming. There are signs posted outside many stores and restaurants proclaiming wonderful reviews on TripAdvisor. And they are probably all correct. The tailors are probably all talented, and the restaurants are probably all tasty; but how do you choose?

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I went to BeBe tailors (11 Hoang Dieu) because they had lots of great reviews and I liked their storefront. After lots of cajoling by my helper, Hoa, I chose a 3 pc. suit, 6 shirts, tie, 2 jeans and a pair of trousers. It was all fully measured to fit and cost 690$. After shipping airmail and CC surcharge it came to a total of 823$. I checked Banana Republic and you can get a suit and only 5 shirts for the same price (but not tailored) so I felt it was a good deal. There were many fittings and re-fittings, so make sure you have at least three days in Hoi An to get exactly what you want. I was too concentrated on seams and crotch length to remember to take a picture, but I felt satisfied with the results.

I learned quickly that all the restaurants serve the same three special dishes as well as others offerings. But, they are:

1) Banh Bao (white roses) A delicate little dish of prawns wrapped in boiled rice flour. It’s a nice, simple appetizer.

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2) Hoanh Thanh Chien (fried wontons) They are fried flat with a smidgen of meat inside, topped with shrimp, crab, and salsa.

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3) Cao Lau (noodle with pork) This is a fragrant, delicious dish. Wide, slightly hard noodles are mixed with pork, croutons, fresh herbs and some salad. I ate this dish at several different establishments, and they were all similar and flavorful.

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I stayed at the Sunflower Hotel (276 Cua Dai) which is a converted hotel into hostel. They have a pool with good sundeck, free billiard table, free water, free breakfast and clean facilities. It’s a bit of a walk from the hostel into the town, but you’re also closer to the beach here.

Hoi An ~ Bale Well

I had searched a few times for this place, and couldn’t find it. Then, as always, when wandering lost on my last night, I found it. Lonely Planet recommended it, and with good cause. It’s an outdoor seating, BBQ/family style gem. They offer a SET (as in, only thing you can order) menu for 125,000 dong (6$). It includes a large salad, marinated vegetables, fried spring rolls, two kinds of pork, fried pancakes, rice paper for wrapping and the special sauce. The nice ladies who work the place will help you build a few of your wraps until you can try. Basically, you just put a splash of all the ingredients on the table into the little, clear rice paper wraps, roll, dip and eat. I had been underwhelmed with the amount of street/authentic local food in this tourist haven. This was a place where everyone comes. Your fingers are greasy, beer is condensating, stomach is full and then they bring you a little chocolate or mango mousse with a dollop of whipped cream. The chairs aren’t comfortable enough to make this a place to chill for a long time and hang, but it serves a delicious purpose.

Best restaurant in Hoi An. (51 Tran Hung Dao)

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Massage in Asia

No, I don’t mean that all too frequent use of the word, as in “happy time massage.” I mean a true, therapeutic relaxation for the achy muscles of the body. Asia is a mecca of cheap, excellent massages. I’m a big believer in massage to relieve tension and toxins, especially after long transit, carrying heavy backpacks or party nights. I tried a few places around the world, and here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Don’t let a pretty girl standing outside her shop be your masseuse.

They can be distracting (to men) and usually have no idea what they are doing. It will end up being an hour of gentle rub-down leaving you feeling tingly like gerbils just ran around on your skin, but not deep muscle relaxation. You can let her coerce you inside, but make sure the girl trained or knowledgeable about the body does the massaging.

2) Don’t go to a shop where you can’t see inside.

If there are blinds or curtains or no chairs visible, it’s not a good sign. They are probably hiding something.

3) Don’t go if it’s dirty.

The shop should be immaculate. Everything should smell new and fresh and pleasing to the senses. Dirty could mean dirty towels, tables, water, oil, hands etc.

4) Don’t get pressured into more than what you want.

This is hard, because they make it sound amazing. Think what you want before (30, 60, 90 min) (face, feet, back) and make a good deal with them. But sometimes you should listen if they say they are experts in a certain style.

5) Don’t be afraid to show them your problem areas / communicate.

If they speak English, great, if not, use body language. Make sure you get the correct muscles taken care of during your time. They will usually ask a few minutes in, “Okay?” That’s your chance to say, “Stronger, softer, faster, slower etc.”

6) Make sure they are wearing a uniform.

If they are in their casual attire, they’re not taking their job seriously. This rule isn’t necessary if you are just doing a foot massage. Anytime anyone touches your feet it’s a good thing.

**Bonus Tip: Don’t even bother going if you’re sunburned. Just get the baby oil, aloe; put on some soft cotton clothes and pump the A/C.

So essentially, common sense, yet I have made all these mistakes. Find a professional, clean looking place; a happy, helpful staff; tell them exactly what you need and relax. Different countries specialize in different styles. Taiwan and China are great with foot acupressure. Korea does extremely strong sports massages. SE Asia usually does a version of Thai/Swedish.

I’ve found in SE Asia, you can pay between 7-15$ for an hour massage at small shops, and 30-70$ at higher quality resorts. Quality always ranges, so start with a 30 minute test run, then you will know if you want more. They are always happy to oblige. Some places use oil and may require you to be naked or in underwear. Others will use a towel over your shirt. Also remember to rehydrate immediately after to flush all the toxins that have been released through the muscles into the bloodstream. Coconut water, with the added potassium, is great if available. And don’t drink alcohol for a few hours as your kidney is overworked with the released waste.

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Selling Candles in Hoi An

 

They were happy to take a picture because they thought I would buy a candle. The little girl ran up to me after I turned around and pulled my pants to offer her cute face as a selling point. You just can’t buy every time someone shouts, “Buy something!” And for me, if it’s not edible, I don’t usually buy anything.

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The next group wasn’t so pleased.

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