The Girl Travels

A log of my recent adventures in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pictures: Hanoi

Street in Hanoi

Me on the street

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Street corner in Hanoi

One Pillar Pagoda

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Angkor Wat and What

I haven't written in the past few days because I've been too busy crawling up, down, and around ruins and temples, showering, passing out, showering again, eating, drinking, passing out, and then starting all over again.

The day before yesterday was our first full day at Angkor Park. I don't have the guide book handy to give you all the details, but Angkor is a complex made up of 200 temples built about 5,000 years ago. It was lost to civilization and reclaimed by the jungle until some Frenchman, trying to catch butterflies (gay, gay, gay!) stumbled upon it. I'd tell you what year, but I left the guide book in my room. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat. It's enormous and surrounded by a moat. Every surface in the temple is carved and decorated. When you climb the temples, it's at your own risk, and there were more than a few that we climbed, not knowing how we were going to make it down.

Yesterday, Trent and I went back to take more pictures of Angkor Wat, since by that time the day before my batteries were dying in my camera. Then we saw a few others - one gorgeous one seemed to go on for a mile and was beautifully falling apart with moss and trees growing out of it. I think I have over 150 pictures of the temples at Angkor... and we only saw maybe 10 of the 200 total.

Saying goodbye last night and this morning suuuuuuucked. I really can't express just how much I do not want to get on this flight tonight, but rather hire a boat and follow my friends up the river to Battambang and Bangkok. If I thought I could still get paid every two weeks, I probably wouldn't be back for six months. I know it's only been a few weeks, but it's incredible how quickly you assimilate to the culture and the pace here. I've got to get out of the habit of taking my shoes off before I enter stores, of walking in the street, of jaywalking between oncoming motorbikes and tuk-tuks, of saying "no thank you" the minute a stranger walks up to me because I know they want to sell me something, of $4 dinner entrees, of flip flops and no makeup, of leisurely afternoon showers before a long night out, of good company with people who quickly form a second family. There is nothing so stimulating and personally rewarding as traveling. This part of the world has caught my soul, and I will definitely be back next year, hopefully for longer.

I've got a few hours before my transfer picks me up to take me to the airport. They are going to be the longest ever.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

I'm sorry I haven't been able to post the last few days, but the internet in Cambodia is slooooow and I'm currently using a keyboard that only registers 1 in every 3 keys I hit.

The first night with the new tour group was great. About eight new people joined the other group from Vietnam - the ones whose names I know are Sarah, Martin, David, Heidi, Grant, Shoshanna. Our tour leader is P.K. Actually, his name isn't P.K., but it is completely unpronouncable in English, so we call him P.K. We had dinner together at a local place the first night and a bunch of us went out for drinks together after.

The next day started out incredibly depressing: we visited Tuol Sleng prison, the converted high school where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured the 200,000 men, women, children, and babies they considered to be "enemies of the state." Then we saw the Killing Fields, where those who didn't die in Tuol Sleng were killed by a blow to the head via bamboo stick or axe, since the Khmer Rouge didn't want to waste the bullets. Oddly, the field is a very beautiful, peaceful, and quiet place.

In the afternoon we went to the Royal Palace, and then Trent and I had dinner at the Foreign Correspondent's Club along the river: $30 for a bottle of wine and two entrees. Fabulous.

Today we hopped on the bus to Siem Reap. Cambodia differs from Vietnam in that it is so poor and there are many people so obviously in want. Everywhere we go are people with missing limbs and other beggars. But Siem Reap is a very beautiful and quiet place compared to Phnom Penh. Less traffic and less noise, even though there are quite a few tourists.

Today we had our very first view of Angkor. It's stunning in its scale. We climbed up the steepest stairs only to wonder how on earth we were going to make it down without slipping. Tomorrow we have a very extensive tour of Angkor Park, and then on Sunday we have a full free day.

A few things to add to my advice and observations of SE Asia:

-Everything you order will come with sliced tomato and cucumber
-They're not big on napkins. Hopefully you will get a box of Kleenex in the middle of the table
-They make no effort to bring everyone's food out at the same time in a restaurant. If you want to wait for everyone to be served before eating, your food will be very cold

I'm in denial that this trip will be over soon. A few friends are encouraging me to play hookey from work and come with them to Bangkok. If only! Thailand will happen next year, probably along with Laos.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

First Day in Phnom Penh

Today I did a little exploring around Phnom Penh. Honestly, I didn't wander that far. First I went to the Central Market, which is only a few blocks from the hotel. This market has everything you could ever think of for sale: fruit, meat, cow brains (I saw 'em), perfume, toiletries, scarves, fabric, clothes, jewelry, watches, sunglasses, souvenirs, cooking implements, etc. There were tons of Cambodians there and very few foreigners. I did meet a doctor from Jordan: Dr. Baset Sadiq, who is a lecturer for Advisor of Youth for Peace, an organization in Cambodia. He talked to me a bit about the area and showed me the way to the riverfront, where I had lunch and saw the outside of the Palace and the National Museum. I think we have the opportunity to go inside them tomorrow after we see the killing fields and something else. Clouds have been gathering all afternoon, and by the time I got home, it was pouring rain. Mud and puddles are everywhere on the streets, as is tons of garbage. Unlike the Vietnamese, the Cambodians don't seem to have this organized.

My roommate had arrived while I was out. Her name is Shoshanna, and she's from New Zealand. This is her first of four tours, and she'll be travelling until December. She's nice, if a little peppy and know-it-all. Basically, I miss Carmen.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Advice and Observations, Now That I Am 10 Days into It

I'm in Cambodia, after the shortest recorded flight ever, and my initial impressions are that the place is a bit more run-down than Vietnam. Right now there are very dark storm clouds over Phnom Penh. I haven't ventured from the hotel since it tends to get dark by 6PM, but I think I will walk around a little tomorrow before the rest of my group makes it here. I'm not positive what time they are coming in, but it should be before 6PM.

I had the chattiest cab driver ever. He practiced his heavily accented English on me and gave me his card so that the next time I come to Cambodia he can give me a tour instead. Yeah, right. As we were driving, one thing I noticed was no Western tourists. Maybe we were in the wrong area of the city, but it looks like Phnom Penh is pretty untouched.

To recap the past few days:
We went to the hot springs/mud bath in Nha Trang, which was wonderful and refreshing. First you shower in "cooled" hot mineral spring water. Then they fill a huge vat with warm, watery, green mineral mud. You get ladles to just pour the stuff all over you. After 15 minutes, you sit on warm rocks and bake in the sun. Then, another shower. Finally, a dip in the hot mineral springs. It was so relaxing. We got a picture of the whole group in the mud, and mom, I'm bring some mud home for you.

That night after dinner, Shaye, Biddy, and I went to this beach party back at The Sailing Club. We were much more aware after our experiences the previous night, especially since Biddy's wallet had been stolen (she got it back because all the thiever know each other and all she had to do was ask someone). A few people from the other tour group showed up - Tim, Jordan, Susan, and Trent - and we had a great time dancing on the beach. We all walked home later and I pointed out the same group of transvestites, just waiting for someone stupid and drunk enough to trick. No one bothered us on the three-block walk back to the hotel.

The next day we went on a snorkeling trip in the South China Sea. We took a boat out to a few nice areas and swam in the warm water and got massages and manicures on the boat. The crew fed us a great seafood lunch, too. Then we went back to our day rooms at the hotel, because we had one more overnight train - this time to Saigon. We cleaned up, got on the train, and I passed out until we arrived in Saigon - at 4AM!

We transferred to the hotel and everybody passed out again. Some people took a 1.5 hour bus ride to the ChiChi tunnels, but I decided to explore the city, since the last time I did a tour, I felt there wasn't enough time in the last city. I saw the palace, Notre Dame cathedral, the opera house, the post office, the shops on Le Loi, and then Carmen and I proceeded to spend what felt like sickening amounts of dong in the marketplace, but which ended up only being about $50. One of my favorite purchases is a black Vietnamese dress.

We went out for a while last night, but Lauraigne, Karen, and Leah stayed in so I never got to say goodbye. They're staying in Saigon for a few more days (along with Biddy and Shaye), so they're all heading to the Mekong Delta tomorrow morning. Carmen and I said goodbye this morning, and it was weird - we're so used to hanging out together. My flight was uneventful and Mittapheap Hotel is nice and has HBO - so I'll be set until everyone else arrives.

So I've been trying to keep a list of observations/advice for travelling in Southeast Asia. Since I'm obviously not the world's most experienced traveller (having been in SE Asia for only 10 days), this might be a little incomplete, but it does mirror my experiences so far:

-Carry toilet paper, tissues, and antibacterial wipes everywhere
-Bring your own headache meds and first aid - there is nothing available
-Accept and embrace the squat toilet
-Be prepared for stomach upset. It may take a few days to kick in, but it will happen
-Only drink bottled water. No ice, no iced tea, no cold drinks made with water. Try to brush your teeth with bottled water, too
-Don't bother wearing any nice or expensive clothes or jewelry. The clothes will just get stained and the jewelry will make you a target for thieves
-You may be tempted to wear sneakers, but flip flops and slides are the shoes of choice, and they keep your feet cooler
-Long shorts and short-sleeve tops are best. Singlets are okay for going to nightclubs or in big, cosmopolitan cities, but seem disrespectful almost everywhere else
-Standing in one place for too long will attract sellers, motorbike drivers, and cyclos
-People offering motorbike and cyclo rides are not necessarily licensed or authorized by anyone. This means that they may not know where they are going. In some places, this means that they may drive you somewhere unfamiliar and rob you (e.g. Nha Trang). Know the area before you agree to a ride
-Avoid large, rowdy crowds
-Have a buddy with you who's watching out for you
-There are no seat belts in the back seats of cars and taxis. There are no helmets on the motorbikes. You just have to accept it
-Thieves are only interested in tricking you out of your money, not in threatening or hurting you. If you know the scams, you are too difficult a target for them to bother with and they will move on. The scams include trying to hug you (and taking your wallet), distracting you (and taking your wallet), or asking to take a picture with your camera (and taking your camera). As long as you're not paying attention to your valuables, you are a target
-Beware of anyone who approaches you. They either want to sell you something or steal from you
-When you tell someone you don't want to buy something, beware the "why?" question - it's just a ruse to draw you into further conversation and make you feel guilty about not buying
-Bring some American coins (not dollar bills) with you for the street kids - it helps to get them to stop bugging you to buy yet another package of postcards
-Try all the local beer. Tiger Beer, Huda Beer in Hue, 333, and San Miguel in Nha Trang all go down easy
-Be wary of your property on sleeper trains. Even if the door to your cabin locks, put your bags as far from the door as possible and keep it locked. Most robberies are crimes of opportunity
-Use your sleep sheet on the train. They don't wash the sheets. I know this for sure, I watched the guy fold up my dirty sheet for the next person
-Public nose-picking, spitting, and pushing past anyone in your way without saying excuse me are all acceptable forms of behavior
-All of the vendors love the newest paper money. They will always give you crappy bills as change and then try to refuse them as payment
-The Vietnamese love me. They love that I am a short Westerner. They love to comment on and touch my hair. They love to brush their fingers over my eyelashes. On the way to Nha Trang, we stopped at the Marble Mountain and the shopgirls tried to trade shoes and earrings with me (I said no because the earrings were some of my favorites), and kept telling me I was beautiful

In Flux

Sorry I haven't posted in a few days... it's a result of no time and trouble with the internet connections here.

Anyway, I will write more tonight or tomorrow, but basically, the last few days have been great. I am leaving in about a half hour for the airport for my flight to Cambodia, and then I will meet up with my new group there tomorrow night.

Amish - yes, I got the memory card from the old camera.

So the next time I write, I will tell you about the mud bath, the boat trip on the South China Sea, the beach party at the Sailing Club, how much the Vietnamese love me, traveling to Saigon, my day in Saigon, and my first impressions of Cambodia. Really, I wrote that list just for myself.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Did You Know That Your Forearms Can Sweat?

Because I didn't. Until today.

We are in Nha Trang, where it must be in the 90's with 80% humidity. We came in yesterday on the train, where our group played a rousing few games of Kings and other drinking games, and generally harassed all of the other passengers (which was pretty much just the other tour group shadowing us). Tu took us out to a nightclub on the beach called the Sailing Club, where we ate a late dinner and danced until about 2AM. About 1/3 of the club was tourists, 1/3 were Vietnamese, and 1/3 were Vietnamese prostitutes flirting with the tourists. On the way home, Carmen, Vanessa, and I were accosted by some transvestite pickpockets on motorbikes. Vanessa scared them off - she's pretty tough - and it was more funny than threatening, but still, Nha Trang is much more gritty than Hue or Hoi An.

Today we are going for mud baths and a dip in the hot springs. If I don't die of heatstroke in the process, we'll probably be heading out to the Sailing Club again tonight. Tomorrow we are going for a boat ride to the islands, snorkeling, and seafood. Yum, can't wait.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Lessons From 'Nam

Lesson One: Don't bother getting custom shoes made unless they are very simple (i.e. boots: a bad idea). Either they won't look anything like what you thought they would, or they are poorly made because the shoemakers insist they can create something for you and everybody else in less than 24 hours. The glue was still wet on the boots I received.

Lesson Two: Don't take a motorbike anywhere unless you are able to give the location in Vietnamese. This morning Carmen and I tried to take motorbikes to the post office to mail our boots and clothes back home (because we are wimps who can't carry anything). We showed them where to go on the map, they nodded like they knew, and we negotiated 15,000 dong. Well... first they stopped at the tailor. We're like, "no, the post office." Carmen showed them the map again, and we got on our way. Next, they stopped at a restaurant. "No," we said, "the POST OFFICE." The third time, they stopped in the middle of a quiet street. Carmen got out her phrase book, found the Vietnamese word for "post," and we thought we were good. But no, this time we were dropped off at a street corner. So we paid them and started walking. One of the drivers followed us a block or so later and said he would take us the rest of the way for another 5,000 dong. These people have no shame.

Lesson Three: Be prepared to wait. Whether it's your check at the restaurant or the people at the post office, everything moves slower here. Getting things mailed at the post office took an hour. And we didn't even have anyone in front of us.

Lesson Four: Dirt is your friend. So is sweat. So is the oil from the food that inevitably finds its way over every single pair of pants you brought with you into the country. Embrace them, love them, because they are not going away.

I know it sounds like complaining, but Carmen and I have had a rough couple of days. It just seems like everything has gone wrong, from our crappy boots, to me losing a toenail on the uneven sidewalk, to Carmen stubbing her toe on the bathroom floor, to Carmen hating her pants from the tailor, to having to wait 45 minutes to an hour for our boots... etc. I really do love it in Hoi An, it's very beautiful, but everyone who lives here knows that the tourists come to spend money, and they are forever hassling you to buy, buy, buy.

The one awesome thing about yesterday was the motorbike ride Tu organized for us. About eight of us got on motorbikes (with drivers) who took us all over Hoi An - through the back streets where the people actually live, along the river, through woods, to the beach (China Beach), and back. We spent around 2-2.5 hours doing that, and it's probably my favorite memory from this town.

We're taking a day train this afternoon to Nha Trang. One of the other tour groups is supposed to be in our carriage, so I think we're going to have a pretty rowdy time.

Thanks to everyone who's been writing comments in. All blogs are blocked from the Vietnamese internet, so I can't see this blog or post replies to the comments. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I am receiving them and I love hearing from everyone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Day is it?

The internet here won't let me view my own blog, so I hope everything is showing up okay.

Yesterday we left Hue in the morning and rode a bus to Hoi An, a beautiful and very old little town about five miles from the coast. It's so quaint that there are actually rules forbidding anything new from being built in the "old town" area. It's also filled with Westerners, since this is the town where you can get clothes and shoes made to order. Did I get suckered in? Oh yes I did.

Our guide Tu took us to the shop where he had his wedding suit made. Each of us was assigned one pretty Vietnamese girl who flattered and cajoled until we spent way more money than initially intended. I was just going to have a dress or something easy made. I ended up with a suit (with both pants and a skirt to match) in a grey wool/silk blend, and a wrap dress in deep purple jersey fabric - all custom-made to fit me for less than $200. They have books and magazines filled with pictures, and anything you point to, they can make. You can also just draw what you want on a piece of paper and talk through it with them. I have to go back for two fittings today. Then Carmen and I got suckered into one of the shoe shops where we're both having boots made. We're picking those up this afternoon.

Yesterday afternoon Tu took us to one of the local places for lunch, so we got to experience the whole authentic sit-on-a-plastic-chair-at-a-plastic-table-and-make-a-mess type of meal. The owner kept showing us how to make the wraps and spring rolls and practically force-fed us pork satay. It was great, and Carmen and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking it off. Last night we had a "pool party" at the hotel with the other tour group, which Tu thinks I will join when I get to Cambodia. We'll see.

Today we are off on some motorbikes to the beach for a few hours, and then Carmen and I are running errands - picking up clothes, boots, mailing stuff home - because none of this stuff will fit in our bags. Tonight I think we are having a cooking class with a local chef and learning to make spring rolls and the like, which should be fun.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Never Pay For Anything in Vietnam With a Credit Card

Because at first, the shop owner will look at you with confusion. Then, realization. They will beckon you onto the back of their motorbike while your companion guards your merchandise at the store. You will be whisked off into the nutty Hue traffic, holding onto your strange new Vietnamese friend with all your might, whispering prayers to God, the Virgin, baby Jesus and grown-up Jesus as your driver zooms to the nearest bank. There, you hand your credit card over to the people behind the counter, listen to the shop owner argue with them, then tell you you're beautiful and pronounce your name "Zzhaaameeee." Once you sign over your money and the bankers hand the shop owner stacks of VND, he is enormously happy and shakes your hand and gives you a big smile before once again scaring the living shit out of you on that damn motorbike.

That sums up what happened between 5:30 and 5:50 today.

The reason for the purchase was that we took a boat ride (on a boat marked "Tourist" in case it wasn't obvious enough) and my camera fell into the Perfume River. I was able to retrieve it before it sank, but it wouldn't respond, the lens wouldn't open, and the viewfinder was clouded with river sludge. So I have no pictures of all of the temples, palaces, and mausoleums we saw this afternoon. What I do have, now, is a new camera.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Last Day in Hanoi

So I have yet to get run over by a motorcycle, but it is a little unnerving when they drive right up into the stores. Yeah.

Our tour guide's name is Tu. That's pronounced "Dtoooooooo?" like you're asking a question. If you don't inflect correctly, his name literally means "fuck" in Vietnamese.

There are only eleven people on my tour. I'm the only American. There are two New Zealanders: Colin and Naomi (I might be wrong about her name). Everyone else is Australian: my roommate Carmen (26), John (50's?), Shaye and Biddy (20's), and four 40-ish women, though I only have two of their names: Lorraine and Leah.

Last night after meeting each other and going to dinner, I got talked into going to this weird puppet show with Shaye, Biddy, John, and Carmen. It would have been fine if the theater wasn't so dark - I was constantly falling asleep. I really would have rather had a beer with everyone and met some of the other Westerners we saw hanging out on our way to the theater, but unfortunately this is a communist country and I guess I have to do it for my comrades.

Today we did some tourist sight-seeing: the Temple of Literature, the Hanoi Hilton (P.S. John McCain was hot when he was in the army), and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Then Carmen and I ran around Hanoi buying gifts and souvenirs. I love this area - it's crazy, noisy, but so full of life. Everyone lives very much outside here, so it's always lively.

Tonight we are taking the overnight train to Hue. We'll get there at about 7:30 in the morning. Accomodations on board are "basic," and Tu advised that we bring both our own food and our own toilet paper with us.

Anyway, I should run... sorry for the lack of pictures, but there's just no time to figure it out here.

Hope everyone is having a safe Sept 11.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hi Mom, I Made it Here Okay

It wasn't until my roommate Carmen and I started walking around the tiny streets near our hotel that I really started to feel like I'm in a foreign place. Hanoi is unbelievable. The sidewalks are so crowded with merchandise and motorcycles for rent that half the time you have to walk in the street. The streets are full of two and three people piled helmetless on motorcycles, honking their horns to let you know they are coming through. Cars and buses are rare. The honking, ringing of bells, shouting, hawking, etc. never ends. Women in traditional garb carrying baskets of fruit over their shoulder are endearing until they extort you for money just for taking a picture. People are everywhere. When you want to cross the street, you just walk and let the motorcycles go around you. Vehicular-related injury is imminent. I'm happy I made it this long.

It's also not as hot as I would expect. It's pretty humid today, but I don't think it's hotter than 75 right now.

Getting here was taxing. I feel like I was born and lived a lifetime in my airplane seat. Still, Singapore Airlines was great - everyone is exceedingly polite, the food is actually good (and copious), they have tons of on-demand movies and music, etc. That helped make up for the 22+ hours I spent in the air. On the car ride from the airport, we saw a man on a motorcycle with a cage of pigs strapped to the back. Now I know what a pig frightened for his life looks like.

We're meeting with our group tonight at 7PM in the hotel. The hotel is okay - but there's no real shower. It's just a spout on the wall next to the toilet and sink, so basically, you just make a mess. We're supposed to all go out to dinner after we meet, but I'm starving already...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Next Time I Post, it Will Be From 'Nam

Check back next week for any updates!

Monday, September 04, 2006


I was trying to get some serious packing done tonight, but somebody decided that the inside of my luggage was the most comfortable spot in the apartment.

Right now she's passed out on top of my itinerary. I know everybody hates cats, but they're freaking adorable.

Friday, September 01, 2006

One Week to Go

I'm starting to get really excited now. When I first booked the trip, I read everything I could get my hands on about Vietnam and Cambodia, but the excitement dropped off a few months ago and now I have to go back and re-read it all again. I'm completely prepared with everything I need (at the moment, it's all in a big pile in my closet), plus I have a "shopping list" for when I have my layover in Singapore so I can purchase all of my dangerous gel hair products and toxic, deadly liquid moisturizers before I get to Hanoi and make the mad dash from the airport to the hotel in time for a shower before our first tour meeting.

Anyway, I'm setting aside time this weekend to re-familiarize myself with my itinerary. And also, to see my family before I go. Ernesto spoiled our plans for a nice weekend in Maryland, so I'll just have to make do with some light reading material, my parent's comfy couch, the dog sleeping next to me, and some Chips Ahoy! cookies (side note: for people who claim they are trying to lose weight, my parents keep a surprising amount of junk food - cookies, ice cream, etc. - in the house).