chilling feet

chilling feet

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Antarctica By Boat

(Antarctica and it's vast landscapes - not the two
tiny zodiacs with around twenty people in them)
I have mentioned before how amazingly mobile my wife's job can be. It's truly amazing in every sense of the word. Sometimes we travel just for fun but she has worked it out so that usually when we travel she is work-cationing. Is it too late to go back and become an emergency medicine physician? Maybe. And besides most of the places she goes/we go as I tag along, are often places where only one doc is needed. So even if I were a physician I would be coming along in other various roles just as I do now. In the case of this trip, I come along simply as a passenger. It's not a bad way to go, and there are certainly worse options. It does confirm the job title I gave myself when we were opening a bank account a few years ago in New Zealand. When the lady asked me my job title I floundered a little on how to describe my role of an unemployed husband following my wife around the world. She said, "You're a man of leisure then?" And something about the way a Kiwi says the word leisure sounds way better. "Yes ma'am, I am a man of leisure." Do I love that the title is ambiguous and perhaps even misleading? Yes. So, as an international man of leisure, I write this post about one of the best ways to spend time in said profession - on a cruise boat in the Antarctic waters. 

(Some beautiful Crabeater Seals laying out on some ice. One is as curious about us as we were about it)

(I like this photo as it shows the thick ice, algae,
and a bunch of Adelie penguins - some of the first
I have ever seen. Such cute little fellas)
A few years back Sarah applied for a job working as a doctor for a cruise boat company called Quark. They take passengers on expeditions to the wonderfully hard to reach wonders of the Arctic and Antarctic waters. By clicking on this line you can read about one of the three posts I wrote describing our Arctic trip (warning as there are amazing photos of polar bears!). We had a fantastic trip and had been looking forward to any other adventures we might be able to make possible through such spectacular opportunities to travel in the vast areas near either of the poles. As we were finishing our time at the South Pole, Sarah started looking into this seasons possible trips through Quark and applied for a few. Long story short, she landed three trips to the waters just off Antarctic Peninsula! She packed her bags and headed off for the first two, and as her companion I was granted access to joining her for the third and longest of her expeditions. For anyone who asked why we would go back to Antarctica after having lived at the South Pole (click here for the first of many South Pole posts), this post should quell any more questions. While on this note though, I can safely say the experiences I have had in the Arctic and Antarctic have only made me want to visit both of them again and again.  Each trip misses animals on the list of those we both want to see. Every trip takes us somewhere we have never been but misses some other wondrous island or historically charged spot we have not managed to make it to yet. Why again? I think the pictures will do most of the talking. If anyone is still not convinced just ask me and I'll come talk to you.

(Some Gentoo chicks just hanging out and waiting for a parent to bring back a meal)

(Notice the one penguin who looks different?
That is a King Penguin!)
The trip was a blast! We saw penguins (Adelies, Gentoos, Chinstraps, and one King penguin), whales (mostly lots of Humpbacks, but also two Minke whales - no Orcas for me but Sarah did see some on her first two trips), seals (so many Crabeaters, Fur seals, Leopard seals, a few elephant seals, and some Wedell seals), and so many different kinds of Antarctic birds. I think instead of writing a long post attempting to describe the wonders of this trip, I will simply share some of the photos. Hopefully there will be an official story through one of the Guideposts magazines I can share later about some of the experiences we had with the animals, but for now I'll keep it short and sweet. The whales stole the show! We had some Humpbacks who decided to just come up one day and give us about a fifteen minute investigation. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life! Such enormous creatures just gently lazing on the surface, peering up at us through the water with the massive eyes. Such a fun time! Pictures!!   

(Sometimes the formations of icebergs are just as beautiful as anything else)

(One of the highlights was visiting Vernadsky
station. Super fun to be hosted by such friendly
folks)
We also were able to make several landings to old stations, abandoned whaling stations, and even a station still in use for scientific research. These were certainly fantastic experiences as well. After wintering-over at the South Pole, it was unique to see how other people have lived or are living at their stations in other parts of the Antarctic. The coastal stations are quite different from one 800 miles inland. Really neat to note the differences and similarities. More pictures!! These are just some of the best we took. Hundreds more of course.
(No caption necessary)
(Sarah driving a zodiac. She's so cool)
(Penguin highway! Ruts in the ice caused by continuous penguin trekking up and down the ice. Pretty fun to watch them awkwardly make their way up and down these paths)
(The up close experience with the Humpback whales. That's me taking a video in the front of the boat - wowsers!)
(So many penguins!!)
(I did not ask this guy to come and jump up on a rock and pose, but it happened right in front of me)
(Fur seals play and spar at an old abandoned whaling station)
(Sarah stops to take some pics of remnants left over from the whaling station. Thank goodness this time of history is mostly over. It still happens but not in the same way as before)
(A still shot from the video I took of the two humpback whales just inches from my face. Sarah was unfortunately not in one of the three boats that had this amazing experience, but she has had several encounters I was absent for... so I feel bad but not too bad)
(Such dignity, beauty, and wonderful curiosity. I am so glad these gentle giants are more free than they used to be to roam the seas free of the dangers of a whaling industry. They are still recovering but are on their way. After this experience it was heart wrenching to consider them coming up to investigate our boats only to be harpooned and drug ashore. This should not be the fate of any whale)

(One of the few abandoned stations we visited)
(My first ever Leopard Seal!!!!! Wow. No wonder the penguin in Happy Feet was so afraid of these guys. This seal was huge and it was probably not a full grown leopard seal at all!)
(The defining moment of the trip - when two Humpback whales decided to make our day by spending time with us. The photo with us in the boat shows just how close they really were)







Thursday, March 29, 2018

Vietnam and Cambodia: Next Antarctica Again

(Taken from the train ride into Hoi An)
I really should not have waited so long to write this post.  The further away we get from a trip the more difficult it is to look back and give it justice in a post I am not nearly as interested in writing in comparison to one about a more recent venture, or one on the horizon.  But in our last post I only took us as far as Sa Pa, which leaves a good amount of Vietnam and all of Cambodia left to cover.  To this end, I will focus this post more on Cambodia, but it will also wrap up our spectacular times in Vietnam as well - it would be a shame to leave it off.  Also, I apologize.  I edited this at least once for errors and the changed were not saved.  I was way to lazy to do it again.  Read with your hearts people. 

(The lanterns - ya we bought a few. The prices
are actually really amazing)
After Sa Pa, we visited Hoi An.  To get from Hanoi to Hoi An we took an overnight train.  This was quite the adventure as it afforded us a way of travel we have rarely taken, along with some fascinating views of the Vietnamese coastline as we came into the area around Hoi An.  We quite enjoyed our time in this part of the country.  Not only did we try and love every food specialty Hoi An boasted, from Bahn Mi to White Roses, but this is the area where they make and sell really beautiful lanterns!  Unfortunately we were not able to visit the islands off the coast due to weather (and they are supposed to be amazing), so instead we went to a cooking class and rode bikes around the farms surrounding Hoi An.  We ate lots of food, had some dresses and suits made from hand (at truly outrageously low prices for handmade clothing), and even sought out some Vietnamese beer while we wandered around Hoi An.  Great place.

(The Great Holy See Temple - Cao Daism)
Next we headed down to the infamous Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon depending on who you are talking to.  I originally thought that Saigon was an old name for the city and it was an incorrect way to referring to a place with a new name.  One of our guides, you can judge for yourself by researching just one of many articles, told us if you're pro-communist you say Ho Chi Minh City while if you're not you say Saigon.  Well after that explanation it was Saigon to me!  What an interesting place with so much going on.  Again, plenty to eat and see everywhere we looked.  Our first day in Saigon, Getaway Halong Sapa, our tour agency, which again we cannot say enough good things about, had planned an interesting day for us.

(Where is Sarah?)
As a Christian minister, I am always interested to learn more and experience what I can of the local beliefs when we travel.  While this may not always be the case, I believe there is much one can learn about a people by seeing how they approach the divine, even though, like in the case of Cao Daism, I understand so little.  This faith is a combination of Buddhist, Confucius, and Christian views and traditions merged into one faith - I think there are a few other things worked in there as well.  One part of their faith I found to be most intriguing is that one of their three most venerated prophets is Victor Hugo - yes the author of Les Miserables.  Feel free to click on the link on their name if you'd like to know more.  We visited their temple and were allowed to come in during their noonday service to watch and listen.  Unfortunately there was no interpretation of what was going on, but it was still quite fascinating.

(There she is!)
After we finished at the temple we went to Cu Chi tunnels.  This is a museum and area dedicated to demonstrating what the tunnels were like that the Vietcong used during the Vietnam War.  A visitor can see everything from examples of the different sorts of traps they used to actually crawling through a 100 yard set of tunnels that have been preserved for exploration.  Parts of the trip like this were interesting as we always heard and learned things from a completely different perspective.  At times I certainly had to hold my tongue as I considered what I was learning to be quite fabricated, but in other moments it was certainly clear I had been told things in my youth that were equally muddled in political jargon.  It as a fun place to visit, nonetheless, and we enjoyed working our ways through the cramped tunnels, which have much less air to breath than the surface.  No way I could spend much time down there! And we were the only two in our group to take the entire 100 yard stretch.  Most quit after twenty-five yards and I think the rest bowed out at fifty.

(The tunnels were small, dark, and
narrow. Though I think our ex-
perience of them was quite nice
compared to during the war)
During this part of our trip our home base was Saigon.  After our Cao Daism and tunnel times, we spent the evening exploring the rooftops and streets of Saigon at night.  In the morning we were off again, this time to the Mekong Delta to see and experience still yet another way of Vietnamese life.  There are a set of islands in this delta with people doing anything from growing coconuts (a lot of them) to making honey to growing all sorts of other tropical fruit.  We were able to taste most of these things as we enjoyed a peaceful boat ride from island to island, having a super delicious lunch on one of them, and of course trying their snake wine while we were there (not sure I would recommend it but when in Vietnam).  Coconut candy, fresh tea with honey right off the cone, and a trip that ended with live music as some locals sang folk songs to us - our day of visiting the Mekong delta area was quite nice overall.

(Snake wine)
This left us with one more night and a day to explore Saigon before heading over to Cambodia.  Naturally this meant as much Vietnamese food as we could get our hands on in such a short amount of time (which included two stops for what they call Vietnamese pizza - so good!), visiting at least two breweries in the city, seeing the Vietnam War museum (a great place to get a different perspective on the war but quite depressing as well), drinking some ferret coffee (yes it is what you think it is), and seeing as many other sites in Saigon as we could handle in a short amount of time.  We are actually pretty good at getting out and figuring out what a city has to offer according to our interests.  The internet in combination with brochures at hotels and such can be quite a nice way to plan an adventure in any city around the world.  I read blogs that talk about particular places and foods, while Sarah reads tripadvisor .  At the end of the day it flushes out a lot of good options for what we like to do.  Here are some pictures of our "street pizza." I can taste it right now! (At the bottom I'll post our list of top things to do in Vietnam again)












Ok - Cambodia Time!!

We only went to two cities and spent six days in Cambodia.  The first of these two cities in the famed Siem Reap.  What's in Siem Reap?  Oh lots of ancient temples, most notably one called Angkor Wat.

This is one of the largest temples and archaeological sites in the world.  Not only is it beautiful and ancient, but the art and style in which the temple (and those surrounding Angkor wat) are wholly unlike almost anything we have ever seen.  The vastness of the land dedicated to the temple grounds is as much a part of the grand display as is the intensely intricate amount of detail committed to the sculptures and art carved into the walls.  One could dedicate hours to surveying the various outlying buildings and sculptures without even entering into the main structure itself.  I have not done research yet to see if what our tour guide told us was correct, but if what he said is true, the history of this place is almost as interesting as it is.  Originally built as a Hindu temple (to a very particular sect), it has survived a country who's overall religion has shifted a few times back and forth with Buddhism.  These changes are always dangerous for a place like Angkor Wat, but it seems for the most part that it did not suffer too much from the deliberate decimation that comes with religious changes.

(Angkor Wat from the backside.  There is no side to this thing that is not impressive)


We very much enjoyed our time at Angkor Wat, making sure to see as much of it as we could.  This often meant telling our guide we wanted to see a building he did not deem important enough to waste time on, but that was fine with us.  He was not keen, for instance, on us waiting the forty-five minutes to ascend to the highest part of the temple (the government only allows 100 people at a time to the top but there was no way we were missing that).  Our guide told us this was sort of the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu gods when it was built.  The bridge over the moat was like coming to the city of the gods, while the last climb we did was representative of visiting where they resided.  It was nice comparison that was easy to think about while walking through the temple.

But Angkor Wat is only the beginning of what we saw that day.  There are so many temples in the surrounding area it's almost kind of crazy.  So off we went in our tuk tuk and saw as many more of them as we could for the rest of the day, knowing we would need at least one or two more days to see even more of them.  Seriously.  Each temple we visited could have stood on its own as an impressive work of art, and each of them were only slightly over-shadowed by Angkor Wat - though one or two seemed to vie for our favorites.  I am not sure if there were temple building rules, of if each ruler had their own creative streak to exhibit, but one of my favorite parts of these temples was how they all differed from the last one.  Some of these variation were vast while others were less significant.  In some cases this meant dedicating an entire art form to the temple, like giant faces carved into almost every elevated portion of the temple, to placing a small temple in an island that can only be reached by boat after a long walkway which may or may not have existed when it was created.

To this end we went from temple to temple never really knowing what to expect.  Some had ancient looking trees seemingly growing out of the temple itself, while another seemed a giant geometric cross with corridors running along the axis of North, South, East and West.  It was exhausting trying to walk through them all and see everything they had to offer, knowing each time you chose going down one corridor you would miss something significant down the other.  But a person has only so much time to wander through temples before it gets dark and they make you go back to town.  So we did our best and tried to hurry our guide along, who was quite fond of long stories, in our attempts to experience as much as we could.

At night we would shop, eat food, get some drinks, shop some more (Sarah loves to shop), and then usually eat some more food.  I mean what better way to understand a country than to learn what types of food they eat right?  While in Siem Reap though, it is all really just resting up so you can go see more temples on the next day...unless you're into thinks like a silk farm, which we are.  The next morning we spent our time learning how Cambodians make their famous golden silk.  Super cool.  They took us through the process from beginning to end, from growing silk worms to the final beautiful silk product.  It was very interesting and good way to spend a portion of the hot day not outside walking through the hot and humid temple grounds.  I've got some great photos from this time but I might opt for only shots at more temples - still deciding.  Maybe at the end.

(It's hard to see but how many faces can you count? They are carved into almost every piece of this
temple you can see)

Then we spent another afternoon walking through more temples.  This time we did not hire a guide and we just ventured out on our own to see as much as we could of the temples we had not seen yet.  Hundreds of elephants either carved into the walls or as standalone sculptures, bats hiding in the dark recesses of darkness provided by certain high vaulted areas, monks wandering around in their orange robes, way less tourists in the late afternoon and away from the larger temples - we had a blast.  There were still several portions of temples we had to rush through due to a lack of time, but overall we saw most of what the area had to offer.  We even stopped off at a nearby, though sort of out of the way, museum dedicated to the mine fields of Cambodia.  It is an interesting stop and one dedicated by a man who laid several of these mines himself during the time of the Khmer Rouge, who then committed his life to disarming them and digging them up.  Worth the stop, though short and sweet.  Sweet meaning good, not nice or fun.  It's a serious topic for sure.

As our time in Siem Reap neared an end, we decided to follow up on one last suggestion from some friends and what we had read.  Being at Angkor Wat for sunrise.  Woah.  Outside of the thousand other people who also decided being there at sunrise was a grand idea, this really was worth the getting up ridiculously early to make it happen.  I had not yet managed to get a run in while in Cambodia, having been nursing a nagging injury and giving it some time off while we traveled, so I woke up a little bit earlier to run to the temple.  Sarah took a tuk tuk and met me there, where we then played the waiting game.  For the first little bit I felt we had wasted our time due to the overwhelmingly large number of people mixed with the locals trying to sell us breakfast or coffee.  Not exactly the peaceful sunrise I had expected.  But then the colors in the sky started changing and it was all gravy.  Certainly a sunrise to remember.  And then we were able to explore some more of the grounds we had not seen during our first day walking through Angkor Wat.

This brought our time to Siem Reap to an end and we headed to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and big city life.  After an all-night bus ride, we visited the presidential palace and the silver pagoda (along with everything else on the palace grounds).  We were quite tired and rugged from our bus experience, but the palace is certainly worth visiting as there is quite a lot to see in such a small area.  We ate more food (of course), spent an afternoon exploring the city, and got ourselves situated in a hotel Sarah booked for us right on the river - super sweet.  We then looked to tomorrow and booked a tour to go see The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields. 

Now this does not sound like fun, and it is not.  But it is a big part of the recent Cambodia history and while some people seem to ask why we went, I think places like this are important to visit.  There is a danger in those of us who did not experience such horrific events to dismiss or avoid thinking about such tragedies.  I have heard people say things like, "Surely that many people did not die in that genocide," or other such statements.  Well I will tell you it is difficult to pretend an evil of this magnitude did not take place when you stand exactly where it did.  When you walk the hall of a high school converted into a prison by power hungry rulers with a huge conspiracy problem and see where people were tortured to death, there is no room for dismissal.  When you read a sign that explains why a particular tree is called the killing tree and the description mentions the pieces of brain from children that were found there, the heart cannot process how another human is capable of such atrocities.  But capable we all are of such things and we must be reminded how easy it is for such things to take place.

So yes, we visited these places and we read the accounts of those hundreds of thousands of people who were wiped off the face of the planet because of the whims of a madman who never owned up to what he did.  I will not mention his name, for he is not important.  Those who were killed are the important ones and places like the killing fields remind us there is a time when people just like them need protecting.  Did it define our trip to Cambodia and ruin our stay there?  No.  It helped us learn about a portion of their history where the darkness was able to reign for a short time.  It certainly was not fun to read the placards posted on the walls of the prison or on the graves where the bodies of over 400 people were all found, but it was important for us to experience these things.  Let us all experience such so that we can see it coming and defy it with all of our being.

The rest of our time spent in Phnom Penh was the usual: eating, visiting temples in and around the city, shopping at the various stores (my favorite was Daughters of Cambodia), trying some Cambodia beers, and watching locals as we walked down their streets.  The one unusual thing we did was renting a motorbike.  We decided to experience the Cambodian culture the way they and the Vietnamese get around.  We rented (a scooter might be the right word) motorbike for cheaper than we could get around in tuk tuks and we headed out into the countryside to see more of the country we were traveling through.  For anyone who has ever seen how the locals drive these machines, this was somewhat of a daunting decision to make - at least for while we were in the city.  But we jumped on one, had plenty of adventures, and somehow made it out alive.  Some stories are reserved only for the closest of friends, especially when they involve motorbikes in Cambodia.  But if you're adventurous and have any experience riding one, we highly recommend it as a way to get around.  We wished we had rented one earlier to save money and have more fun.   

We very much enjoyed our Vietnam/Cambodia times.  Wonderful countries you should go visit.  The food and the people are amazing in both countries, offering so many places to go and wonderful things to do.  Both countries are super affordable to visit, though the prices for visiting the temples around Siem Reap have raised recently to reflect how significantly amazing the experience truly is.  We recommend everything we did during our stay in both countries, though as I mentioned in our last post on Vietnam, sometimes people do not have as much time as we did during our stay.  Below will be a suggestion of how much we enjoyed various places in Vietnam should you have to choose when making your own visit, and should you care what we think.

Our next post will be on the recent trip we took back to Antarctica.  This trip was very different and all through a cruise boat Sarah worked on as a doc.  Way more animals than our previous time spent at the South Pole, which was really amazing and I cannot wait to share about our times there.






A list of top things to see/do in Vietnam:

1.  Food - we loved all of the food we ate, with the exception of a few poorly made Ban Mi sandwiches, but I think that is because we had two that we so delicious.  I recommend you search what foods to try in each city.  It was more fun to try and eat dishes a particular area or city that was known for making it - such as egg coffee in Hanoi for example.

2.  Halong Bay - I had looked forward to it and it one of the most beautiful places we visited.  It was a bummer that there was a little bit of trash floating around but we also saw boats of people picking it up - nice.  I could have spent more time here!

3.  Hanoi - Originally I did not think I would enjoy having as much time as we had built into our schedule to be in Hanoi.  When we left Vietnam I wanted to go back to Hanoi.  There is so much to do and see!  From food and drinks to temples and museums to countless streets to shop on, Hanoi was very enjoyable for us.  We highly recommend spending some time here.  We walked a lot!  But we love to walk, and it was a great way to see the city.

4.  Hoi An - We very much enjoyed our time in Hoi An. Unfortunately we could not visit one of the highlights for this time, the Cham Islands, because of weather.  But we were thrilled with some food that is specifically Hoi An (seriously one of my favorite food spots in our Vietnam travels), had some dresses and a suit made here, and bought more than a few of the hand made lanterns (the prices are super good).  We liked Hoi An and you should go to there.  

5.  Mekong Delta - The delta was an interesting trip.  We got to spend a lot of time on the water and visit some fun places.  Coconuts!  This one I will talk more about in our second blog post on Vietnam, but it's a fun way to spend a day.

6.  Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon - Again, we enjoyed the time we spent in this big city quite a bit.  Breweries, food, rooftops, more food, and mostly just walking through the city to get a feel for Vietnamese city-life.  Quite the adventure.

7.  Hoa Lu/Tam Coc Day Tour - We enjoyed this tour but it took a long time to get there.  And while very beautiful the guides who rowed us up the river were a little bit pushy about tips.  Though it did not sour the experience it sure made it weird.  It is a nice area but if you were pressed with time I would visit Halong Bay or something higher on this list.  Still worth seeing and experiencing if you have the time to see more of Vietnam.

8.  Cu Chi Tunnels - This is lower on my list only because it was difficult to tell if we were actually traversing any of the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War.  I would hazard a guess - no.  But it is the same area and if you are into history this is a must see place.  I will write more about this in our next post.

9.  Sa Pa - So I actually wrote a lot about Sa Pa in this post and though we did like it I rank it lower on our list because our weather was so damp and dismal.  I do believe if we had had a clear day this very well could have been a highlight of our trip.  We did enjoy it and it is worth seeing but it does take quite a bit of time to get there.  You should probably go to Sa Pa, however, if time is short I would not feel too bad at having left it off your list.

10.  Cao Dai Great Holy See Temple - This is last on my list for a few reasons.  It is on my list because through all of my religious studies in college and in seminary, this temple is quite unique.  I will write more about it in the next blog post, but what an interesting place!  I wish we could have spent more time there with someone who could have explained what was happening during the portion of a service we witnessed.  Watching any religious ceremony in another language is difficult, though still fascinating.

Some of the most memorable things we did, which I hope I will include in these posts, are things we stumbled upon or one of us discovered while researching what to do in certain areas online.  Go read up on these places by people who have been there and find some off the beaten path places to explore.  And make sure you won't end up missing something right near where you are traveling!!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Vietnam: The First Half of our Vietnam Trip

(Most of our trips revolve around trying to eat as
much of the local food as we can. Vietnam was
no exception and did not disappoint. Here we
are eating in an alleyway where some women had
set up shop - delicious)
As mentioned in our last post, Sarah and I have been looking forward to visiting Vietnam and Cambodia for quite some time now.  After a trip to Thailand we decided we wanted to see much more of Southeast Asia.

We booked our trip through a website, that in turn set us up with a company called Getaway Halong Sapa, a Vietnamese travel agency.  They planned out a North to South Vietnam experience with all sorts of fun adventures.  This was our first time using an agency to plan our trip for us and it was quite nice.  There was plenty of time for us to go off on our own to seek out various interests, while most of the more sought after locations were all planned out for us.  Airport transfers, hotels, tours, and all other details of this kind were meticulously planned out and ready for us to just show up.  When we had questions or our schedule needed to change due to weather, a person from Getaway was always super helpful.  I cannot recommend them highly enough should you find yourself planning your own trip to Vietnam and you want some help.

(Taken at the Hoa Lo Prison while looking at a
sculpture representing the many prisoners who
were held in this place over the years for
one reason or another)
Arriving in Hanoi at nighttime was kind of fun.  After an interesting ride watching the traffic patterns of mostly mopeds and vespas zip around in a seemingly "anywhere I want to go" sort of flow, we very much enjoyed being able to lie down flat and put our feet up after the long flight over - seriously, on both sides of our trip that first night in a bed is fantastic and something we look forward to eagerly.

The next morning we woke up and went to enjoy a free day in Hanoi.

The capital of Vietnam is home to around eight million people or so, it is a city busting from the seams with mopeds, the smell of food everywhere, and people selling anything you might be looking for in almost every direction.  First on our agenda was learning how to cross the street, which is actually much easier than it seems upon first glance.  The trick to it is really just walking out into traffic, within reason of course.  One must simply give the traffic enough time to merge and meld around you.  After doing this for a few days, Sarah being much better at it than I was, I realized watching her one day what that mental itch was I had been feeling.  Seeing her walk brazenly out into traffic and watching as the traffic flowed around her effortlessly, I had been reminded, though it took me some time to figure out of what, of the underwater scenes when a predatory shark or dolphin attacks a school of fish all grouped together.  The shark enters the ball of fish and the fish seamlessly morph around the bigger intruder.  Walking through a busy street in Hanoi looks just like this!  The mopeds just flow around you as you walk out.  Sarah made it look easy!

(One of the dishes we wanted to eat in Hanoi was
 Anthony Bourdain. The rec was
really good and we enjoyed the food)
All that to say, we made it across the street successfully to arrive at the first of many temples we would visit during our trip - Ngoc Son Temple.  Walking across a nice bridge that leads to this Buddhist temple on an island in a lake in downtown Hanoi is quite interesting.  The smell of incense fills the air as all of the other senses are overloaded in trying to take in the visual spectacle that we found most temples in Vietnam to be.  Ornate in architectural design and with bright colors covering every wall, roof, ceiling and in many cases floors, the temples are interesting to walk through.  They are so entirely different from the Judeo-Christian buildings that are scattered throughout our entire country, that I found myself thinking and feeling many unexpected things.  It is easy to become enamored by the mysterious symbols and statues strewn about the temple, at times in what seems like overly numerous representations of something clearly important but distinctly odd to my western mind.  With this temple as with many more we would visit, the number of tourists or other people visiting most certainly detracted from a person's ability to enjoy the sort of atmosphere that should exist at such a place, but I guess that goes with the territory.

(While visiting the ancient capital of Vietnam,
Sarah stops for a picture with a water buffalo)
Our first day was amazing.  We visited a quilt store Sarah had read about (she loves quilts and made one for the first time while we were at the South Pole), went by one of the many old propaganda stores (they sell copies of communist propaganda from the past, most of which are very interesting to look at), had our first local beer and cider, ate our first dish of real Vietnamese food on the street (pictured above with Sarah, this food was delicious), we went to one of the big markets in town (Sarah DID some shopping), stopped by at St. Joseph's Catholic church (where we stopped to listen to some people singing hymns in Vietnamese - amazing experience), visited a rooftop for another drink while overlooking the church and the square in front of it, and then made our way over to Hoa Lo Prison.  We got our walk on!

I pause at Hoa Lo Prison because this was the first of a few places we visited on our trip that were connected to the Vietnam war in some way.  This prison was used by the French to hold political prisoners and then afterward by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.  I thought it was quite the unique experience to visit sites like this as an American who learned about these events through a much different lens than the Vietnamese, especially in the North.  A very thought provoking visit, our time here started off a series of questions and a challenge to clear the historical cobwebs of what we were taught back in school.  Mostly we were just trying to remember our history lessons.

(From Tam Coc, this was taken during our
peaceful boat ride up a river to see these
wonderful mountains)
We finished our day by checking one of the Vietnamese foods we wanted to try off our list.  Bun Cha was the meal and I had read about online, as the picture above suggests, about a time when President Obama and Anthony Bourdain had eaten this very dish at a particular spot.  So we sought out the spot, were seated within about five seconds, ordered the bun cha with some drinks, and sat back to enjoy looking around the restaurant.  Small and with plenty of photos now hanging on the wall to commemorate the afore mentioned visit by famous guests, we very much enjoyed ourselves while we were there.  The food came out speedily, was super delicious, and the bill for the two of us (if memory serves) was only around two dollars each!  They certainly have not raised their prices since the their infamous visit and Bun Cha Huong Lien was well worth the trip.  Wish I could have some more right now.

For the most part I think we started off Vietnam in a pretty decent way.  There was surely some shopping and maybe even a water puppet show that first day I neglected to mention, but there is no lack of things to see or do in Hanoi.  The second day of our trip put us into full tour mode as we were beginning the first of many little excursions planned by Getaway Halong Sapa.

(Also in Tam Coc, taken during our bike ride)
The first of these took us up to Hao Lu (the original capital of Vietnam) and Tam Coc (a beautiful area with some great natural landscapes to see).  Our time a Hao Lu was nice as we wandered through a few ancient structures left over from the time when the capital of the country had been there.  We had a guide, Chi, who told us much about the history of Hao Lu and the people who ruled there.  The picture of Sarah riding the water buffalo was taken on the grounds at Hao Lu. 

Once we were done at Hoa Lu we jumped back in our tour van and drove for a little while until we arrived in Tam Coc.  Here we started our time by getting into a small boat and heading up river.  As soon as our boat made it about 100 meters up the river, we almost immediately felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere.  If not for the other few boats going up and down the river the scene would have been complete.  The picture above of Sarah in her hat gives an idea of what this was like but fails to capture the overall mystery this place seemed to posses.  To complete the slightly odd but interesting aspect of this area, the people rowing our boats mostly did so with their feet!  I had never seen this done before but they had pretty much perfected the technique.  When our boat ride was over we jumped on some of the most ridiculously rickety bikes I've ever been on to go out and explore the countryside.  Like being in the boat, this gave us another way to see an extremely breathtaking part of this world.  While it was too muddy to take some of the roads we were hoping to explore, the few we did wound their way through rural countryside of Northern Vietnam and they were fascinating (see the picture of Sarah riding).
(Halong Bay)
Once our time in the Tam Coc countryside was over, we headed back to Hanoi and went out to our first night market (I think almost every town we stayed in had their own version).  Sarah could have stayed for days shopping these stalls.  I tire quickly of shopping but as long as we stop periodically for some food or a cold drink I can usually muster up some strength.

(Sarah and I in Surprise Cave in Halong Bay)
The next day we were off to Halong Bay, which our guide told us means "descending dragon" - pretty dang cool.  Before our trip I was most excited about seeing Halong Bay because as I looked at pictures of the places we would be visiting, and the images from this bay resonated with what I love most about traveling.  Seeing a place for the first time that is so significantly different from what I am used to seeing, that experiencing this new location forces a person to consider themselves seriously in relation to a greater world.  The world is bigger than the quaint lake my family lived off of when we grew up in a small town in Ohio, though somehow taking in the mysterious mist ridden islands of Halong Bay (oh and there are just under 2,000 islands in this bay) somehow allows memories of a place like my childhood lake to be that much sweeter.  For the big movie watchers, anyone who has seen the movie Kong: Skull Island will recognize Halong Bay as it was the home for one of the most infamously giant gorillas of all-time.

(Tough to get good pics of us while kayaking)
While we were in Halong Bay we stayed the night on a boat, which was pretty much the only way to see the bay except for maybe by helicopter.  Relaxing, taking in all of the unbelievable views, gliding through Kong's lair, and eating delicious Vietnamese food on the boat was way too much fun.  We even started off our second day on the boat with a morning of Tai Chi, which was really neat and invigorating.  Mostly just watching the sunset and the sunrise were the outright winners of our time on the bay.

There were two stops, one at Hang Sung Sot or Surprise Cave, and the other at Dao Ti Top Island.  Between the two, the cave was something quite special.  It was enormous (picture of the two of us above) and we were enthralled by the size of a cave as it seemed to be almost the size of the island it was on.  It was truly huge!  Our short visit to to Ti Top Island was fun because we could look out over some of the islands, but overall the cave and our time on the boat was the real deal for this part of our trip. 

(One of the many shopping streets in Hanoi)
Our trip to Halong Bay ended with a wonderful morning of kayaking around a few quiet islands.  It was a perfect way to end our time in a place of such memorizing beauty.  None of our pictures really quite captured it.  Then it was back to Hanoi for a night of some time on beer street, and some more shopping the markets before we headed off to our next excursion.

Next on our stops, and I'm trying to be more concise in my descriptions because I know this is getting long, was Sa Pa.  Sa Pa is a smaller town with a lot of truly beautiful countryside around it - the classic rice fields tiered on flowing hills of green and flowers.  When we were there we could not see as many of these fantastic vistas as we were hoping due to some massive amounts of fog/mist/clouds, but we could still picture it in our mind's eye and see just enough of the countryside to know what we were missing.

And sometimes the fog would life just enough for us to see portions of the wonderful views.  The best portion of our time in Sa Pa was spent hiking down to one of the villages outside of the town, guided by a few of the ladies who lived there.  We were hiking to the Black Hmong village of Lao Chai.  This hike began on the edge of the roads leading out of Sa Pa, winding on dirt roads up and down hills.  We slowly worked our way further from town until we descended into some of the tiered rice fields (like the ones behind us in the picture), and then our hike to the village became much more interesting.  Mud, tricky footing, a little bit of precipitation, laughing as the ladies made jokes for us and helped us along, and overall trying not to fall as we kept glancing around at everything surrounding us.

(No I do not have brown boots, but look at that
background! What a special place)
I am pretty sure Sarah enjoyed the hike down into the village as much as I did.  At one point, while we were negotiating a small crossing of some rice fields, my foot slid a little bit off the path as my weight carried with it the ground I had stepped on.  In just the brief moment before I could counter with my other foot I had sank into just over my boot in deep, thick chocolate milk like mud.  It was still sinking when I countered and lifted it back onto the path (the picture shows the kind of consistency and mud we are talking here).  Slipping into the mud, ducking under thick and opposing branches, jumping over a small creek, and negotiating all of this trek was what made it more enjoyable.  Finally some proper Vietnam countryside experiences.

While we were hiking this amazingly proper Vietnamese countryside path, which all of the women with us were navigating way better than us, I thought a few times back to books I have read or movies I have watched depicting the Vietnam War.  As Americans visiting this country only a mere fifty years after such a terrible conflict, the concept of the war and its effects were always close to the surface.  I know that most of the Americans who experienced the Vietnam I was now gleefully hiking through did not have the same joyful time I did, and neither did the people who were trying to repel their presence.  A sadness would seep into the joy I was experiencing while looking around at such beautiful landscapes, knowing full well that similar sites such as these had been terribly laden with traps, ambushes, and massacres. 

(Sarah poses for a picture with all of women from the hike down into the village, with the village in the background. Such a fun group of women - and very helpful during our hike)
(When we hiked down to the village this was one
of the many beautiful views we saw)
And yet, just look at the faces of the women who helped us down to their village.  While there is a regrettably horrific past in the recent Vietnamese/American history, after knowing what country we were from people all over the country would still welcome us openly and kindly.  Not once did we ever experience a cold shoulder or witness any negative interactions, though quite frankly I was expecting at least some.  We had one guide in particular, who I will talk about more in a future post, who talked more openly about the war and the current feelings of Vietnamese people about America, but even he said much forgiveness has flown through the hearts of Vietnam people.  It was really quite amazing.

(Back up in Sa Pa after our trek
down to the village, I paused for a
pic at the church)
At any rate, we hiked through their village and stopped off at a few places along the way to see particular sites - some to get warm and have a drink and others to buy some small souvenirs.  It was fun to see what one of the small countryside villages away from most of the more modern conveniences looked like.  This was a good way to see a slower-paced side of Vietnam, especially compared to the bustling streets of Hanoi.

One of my favorite parts of this tour out to Sa Pa was having some time just walking through the countryside.  It was refreshing, even in some damp weather, to get away from the cities we had been visiting and walk down dirty trails through fields and rolling hills.  There was a distinct quietness that rested over us and allowed us to enjoy the small conversations with our guides.

"What is your name?"  "Where are you from?"  "How old are you?"  "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

(Sarah posing with her egg coffee)
These were some of the questions we would be asked, and in return ask the women walking with us down to the village.  They always seemed to ask these questions with a giggle or a smile, amused at our responses and perhaps at the chance to converse in English some.  Of course when we arrived in the village we were given the opportunity to present the women with a tip or to buy some bags/clothing/etc that were all made by them specifically, a point of emphasis for them to share.  So, as Sarah pointed out later, I overpaid for a small bag and a few other small items.  I did not barter them down because I felt like it was a nice way to tip them for their help and time.  After all, it was quite nice to have their company and assistance in the more difficult parts of the trail, not to mention their smiles!

(Another site in Sa Pa) 
Once we finished up with our hike, we headed back up to Sa Pa to get warm and ready for our bus back to Hanoi.  We had just enough time to explore some and headed down to see a church I had seen on our way in and out of town - The Notre Dame Cathedral.  Unfortunately at the time it was closed, so we looked around a little bit and then did the next best thing.  We headed back up the road and had our first egg coffee in Vietnam.  Yep, it is pretty much what it sounds like, though slightly more than just coffee with an egg in it too.  And wait for it...  It was delicious.  Well, I liked it more than Sarah but I think she liked it too.  We made sure to have one once back in Hanoi (as that is where you are "supposed" to have one) just to be mainstream, but they really are tasty drinks.

Ok.  First post on Vietnam done.  There will most likely be at least one more post just on Vietnam and then a separate one on Cambodia.  Sorry for length, but then again, maybe I am not sorry for sharing so much about our fun trip to Vietnam.  We really did love it.  On each of our posts I am going to share this short section below for those who might be trying to plan their own trips, or just for those who want to cruise through the web and look up fun things.  Thanks for reading about our journeys.

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A list of top things to see/do in Vietnam:

1.  Food - we loved all of the food we ate, with the exception of a few poorly made Ban Mi sandwiches, but I think that is because we had two that we so delicious.  I recommend you search what foods to try in each city.  It was more fun to try and eat dishes a particular area or city that was known for making it - such as egg coffee in Hanoi for example.

2.  Halong Bay - I had looked forward to it and it one of the most beautiful places we visited.  It was a bummer that there was a little bit of trash floating around but we also saw boats of people picking it up - nice.  I could have spent more time here!

3.  Hanoi - Originally I did not think I would enjoy having as much time as we had built into our schedule to be in Hanoi.  When we left Vietnam I wanted to go back to Hanoi.  There is so much to do and see!  From food and drinks to temples and museums to countless streets to shop on, Hanoi was very enjoyable for us.  We highly recommend spending some time here.  We walked a lot!  But we love to walk, and it was a great way to see the city.

4.  Hoi An - We very much enjoyed our time in Hoi An. Unfortunately we could not visit one of the highlights for this time, the Cham Islands, because of weather.  But we were thrilled with some food that is specifically Hoi An (seriously one of my favorite food spots in our Vietnam travels), had some dresses and a suit made here, and bought more than a few of the hand made lanterns (the prices are super good).  We liked Hoi An and you should go to there. 

5.  Mekong Delta - The delta was an interesting trip.  We got to spend a lot of time on the water and visit some fun places.  Coconuts!  This one I will talk more about in our second blog post on Vietnam, but it's a fun way to spend a day.

6.  Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon - Again, we enjoyed the time we spent in this big city quite a bit.  Breweries, food, rooftops, more food, and mostly just walking through the city to get a feel for Vietnamese city-life.  Quite the adventure.

7.  Hoa Lu/Tam Coc Day Tour - We enjoyed this tour but it took a long time to get there.  And while very beautiful the guides who rowed us up the river were a little bit pushy about tips.  Though it did not sour the experience it sure made it weird.  It is a nice area but if you were pressed with time I would visit Halong Bay or something higher on this list.  Still worth seeing and experiencing if you have the time to see more of Vietnam.

8.  Cu Chi Tunnels - This is lower on my list only because it was difficult to tell if we were actually traversing any of the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War.  I would hazard a guess - no.  But it is the same area and if you are into history this is a must see place.  I will write more about this in our next post.

9.  Sa Pa - So I actually wrote a lot about Sa Pa in this post and though we did like it I rank it lower on our list because our weather was so damp and dismal.  I do believe if we had had a clear day this very well could have been a highlight of our trip.  We did enjoy it and it is worth seeing but it does take quite a bit of time to get there.  You should probably go to Sa Pa, however, if time is short I would not feel too bad at having left it off your list.

10.  Cao Dai Great Holy See Temple - This is last on my list for a few reasons.  It is on my list because through all of my religious studies in college and in seminary, this temple is quite unique.  I will write more about it in the next blog post, but what an interesting place!  I wish we could have spent more time there with someone who could have explained what was happening during the portion of a service we witnessed.  Watching any religious ceremony in another language is difficult, though still fascinating.

Some of the most memorable things we did, which I hope I will include in these posts, are things we stumbled upon or one of us discovered while researching what to do in certain areas online.  Go read up on these places by people who have been there and find some off the beaten path places to explore.  And make sure you won't end up missing something right near where you are traveling!!