VIDEO – 2 Days in Oslo, Norway

Fellow Misadventurists,

We’re taking a short break from project updates to share a video that Beej put together from our three day layover in Oslo, Norway!

By night we stayed with a great Norwegian/British couple, Per Kristian and Clare, in their flat in Oslo’s northwest district. By day, we made the most of the city’s incredible and surprisingly cheap public transportation, which includes an exhaustive system of ferries, subways, trams, buses and trains. The city of Oslo is completely charming and it won us over even in the short time we had.

The video has no narration, but locations are introduced in titles. There’s Holmenkollen mountain in the northwest, where a giant steel ski jump juts into the sky; downtown Oslo’s Royal Palace, parks and monuments; the waterfront harbor and the Alfred Nobel Museum, which honors Nobel Peace Prize recipients; the Oslo marathon in progress; and a ferry ride south to Hovedoya island, where we explored a ruined 12th century Catholic abbey while being stalked by a curious European Red Fox (don’t worry, he didn’t eat us).

Enjoy!

Breb, Romania: Welcome to Maramureş

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Text by Stax. Photos by Beej.

By the time we leave Romania, I’m going to be fat. They’re going to  have to roll me out onto the tarmac at the airport. Or better yet, just float me across the sea like a bottle.

After our long confinement on flights from Eugene to Seattle to Los Angeles to Oslo to Budapest, then the train to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and finally our trip by car north to Breb, a nice open float doesn’t seem so bad.

When delicious food is combined with generous people who will keep feeding you until there is nothing left to feed you, it doesn’t bode well for the ol’ waistline. Our diet in Maramures consists of homemade broths and soups with tripe and other fats from various pigs, cows and sheep; potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, peppers and herbs fresh from the garden; mushrooms gathered from the hills; and bread. Lots and lots of bread that magically refills your basket when you turn your head away.

So Breb. Where the heck is it and why are we here?

It all goes back to last year. When Beej and I traveled through Romania, we were told that if “traditional” weddings were what we sought, we needed to head to Maramures.  And Breb is famously one the most traditional villages in the the region. So that’s where we be.

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Our tiny European-made Ford Ka bubble car, with its lawnmower engine, can barely handle the grades as we descend into Breb from the narrow highway zigzagging above.The fields spread down below us all the way to the base of the distant Gutai Mountains. The small fields are dotted with towering haystacks in that distinctive Romanian style – bell-shaped surrounding a central pole, which we are told keeps the water from rotting the hay over the winter and thus keeps animals alive.

We pass a big white church with two towers and lots of rustic wooden houses that look handmade. Smoke rises from chimneys, obscuring the view as the pavement degrades to dirt and mud scattered with fist-sized rocks unearthed by the recent rainfall. The road narrows even more as we struggle in first gear toward Babou Maramures Hostel. Sometimes we have to stop for long minutes to let teams of horses pulling wooden carts full of pumpkins, hay, or tree limbs pass us by. I feel like we’ve entered into the Shire–if we give ourselves enough time, we may just find Hobbiton.

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Elderly women in traditional dress (patterned scarves, baggy black dresses, wool leggings, boots) – some carrying mean-looking scythes across their backs from the fields – stop us for a chat. They can’t speak English and we can’t speak Romanian, but somehow we manage. The two most common phrases we hear:  “Buna seară” (good evening) and “De unde sunteti?” (where are you from).

“America,” we answer.  They nod their heads in amazement. “Ahhhh…Amehreecaaaaah.” Sometimes they raise their hand to mimic a plane, suggesting we’ve come a long, long way.

For our first night, we stay at Pensiunea Maramou, a farm bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by a local woman, Maria, and her mother. We had planned to stay at the hostel, but they were booked.

I can’t complain. Though the cost is twice as much as the hostel, the comfort and free meals makes it seem like a steal at 100 RON a night per person: a beautifully decorated room with hand-woven wool rugs and heavy sheepskin comforter on the bed for maximum coziness, plus an all-you-can-stuff-your-face home-cooked breakfasts and dinners made mostly fresh from the animal products on the farm. To top it off there is a nice view of the town from our room.

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That first night at dinner, we chat with Mihai, the Romanian head of an ecological NGO, and two Icelandic National Park rangers who are staying at the Pensiunea. They all met 15 years ago during a National Park exchange between Iceland and Romania, and the three have been visiting each other in their respective countries ever since.

(In a weird sort of coincidence, Mihai and his NGO, Romanian Ranger Association, had written one of the first papers detailing the environmental destruction of the planned Rosia Montana gold mine back in 2001, when it was first proposed. We had gone to the FanFest at Rosia Montana a year before and met the filmmaker whose documentary chronicles the movement against the mine. Small world we meet someone so influential in that movement, which grew to encompass the E.U., here in Maramures a year later.)

Our talk is only interrupted by Maria and her mother try to burst our stomachs by giving us more food or to admonish us laughingly for not drinking enough horincă. We try to explain that while they’ve been working up huge appetites working in fields and farms, we have been sitting in a car.

And we can’t be blamed for going easy on the horincă, a clear plum-based sort of brandy distilled by everyone and their mothers in Maramures. While all ţuica is strong, the Maramureş version, horincă, will clean your insides. One sip from my tiny shot glass and I feel like I’m breathing fire.200

So anyway, here we are in what could easily be Middle Earth, but on our own Fellowship journey to find traditional weddings.  We aim to spend the next week narrowing down our search.  And we’re starting, of course, with the wooden churches.

More on that in the next post!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding Part III!

Continued from the last post

Now, there’s nothing to do but try to retrace my route from last night. The neighborhood appear to be stirring even at this early hour, but still I feel bad about the motorbike noise.

I buzz through a narrow gap between two concrete slabs – probably not more than a meter and a half. Large white eyes stare out at me from the near-total darkness inside one of the slabs.

A couple of scrawny little kids with wild hair sit on their mother’s lap near the ground. She glances out curiously too, stick legs folded under her knees on the hard swept dirt floor. The rest of the house looks patched together from wood and sticks and sheets of warped and rusty aluminum and whatever other materials might have been cast around left over in the weedy lots between the larger houses.

Income levels are all over the place in this city. Some houses stand strong and alone, made of brick and concrete with modern electrical work and even plumbing and insulation, and the roads in front of them are smoothly paved. But these others like the one I’m passing fit uncertainly in among the newer flats, squeezed against the wall of a big brother building, and appear to be little more than squatters’ residences. Natural light, maybe a gas hot plate for cooking, plastic green buckets for bathing water, and cotton rags hung in front of the doorway for privacy.

I wonder how these low frames and dirt floors handle even the slightest shower, let alone the monsoons that completely flood these roads during the long months of the rainy season. The people must just have to pick up and move every year, or they would constantly be half-submerged in mud and rainwater.

As I muse on these subjects realize too late that I’ve passed my turn. I was looking for the big Coke bottle billboard decorating the intersection, which without a street name is the only way I know the place.

But even as I pull up and turn around I can see that though we’re running very late – an hour at least – we haven’t actually missed anything. The wedding party is in a bit of chaos. And Stax is already in there somewhere with her camera, accompanied by Seiha with the sound recorder, getting it all down.

TO BE CONTINUED in the first segment of our series! We’ll premiere a sneak preview of the Khmer wedding segment very soon on matrimundi.wordpress.com.
But of course, in the meantime, there is much more to come of our exploits in Cambodia and beyond right here on the old blog.

Quiz: Where in the World are the Misadventurists?

by Stax

Beej and I are sometimes so intent on not following the beaten path that we do things like visit major tourist attractions at night when everything we would want to see is already closed. Then instead of sleeping in regular places like “beds,” we opt for open-air train station benches, covering ourselves with sleeping bags, huddling together for warmth while enjoying the company of one tweaked-out local as he tries to feed us sausages in between spastically moving about and talking to himself in rapid Czech.

Whomever correctly guesses the name of the historical site one kilometer away from where Beej and I spent the night on the train station bench –  email us at misadventuristfilms@gmail.com OR send us a private message on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Misadventurist-Films

 If the answer is correct, we’ll put your name in a drawing. The person whose name we draw will receive a prize: a postcard from wherever we are with your very own personalized note!

Here is the clue:

In 1278, Henry, the abbot of a certain Cistercian monastery, was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar II of Bohemia. He returned with a pocket full of Golgatha dirt and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. The word of this act spread throughout Central Europe and the cemetery became a desirable burial site.

Conveniently, the monks somehow figured out that one year was enough for your bones to be buried for you to receive complete absolution. And then they could dig up your body and sell your plot to the next person.

With the combination of Black Death running rampant throughout Europe and the 30 Years War, this nifty profit scheme became a bit untenable. The graveyard filled up much too quickly for even a one year corpse residency to be viable.

By 1511 half-blind monks (or blind depending on your sources) were tasked with exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel.

By 1870, the House of Schwarzenberg had taken over the chapel and decided it was time to put the 40,000 bones to rest. They hired a local woodcarver, František Rint, who artistically arranged them into some of the most interesting and macabre art.

Guess the name of this historical site. We’ll announce the winner in 3 days (July 9)!

Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Pham Ngu Lao-cious

by Beej McKay

23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The 23/9 Park across from Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon’s backpacker district is swarming with activity from 6 am on.

This being a large Vietnamese city where authority is centralized, most of the activity is pretty tightly regulated. The first day we’re there, dozens of organized groups are kicking the shuttlecock around; the next day, everyone – I mean everyone – is rollerblading, and it’s as if the shuttlecock never existed.

The slight oddness is amplified doubly by the fact that we’ve arrived while the entire park is being used as an advertisement for Vietnam’s tourist industry. A garish live concert, as loud as at any arena, is being held at the east end. Vietnamese pop singers extol the wonders of the country’s natural beauty in song while images of waterfalls and beaches are projected on a giant screen behind them.

The singers strain their hardest to get the packed and seated crowd worked up. They dance and sing with tremendous flair and energy. This being a reticent Southeast Asian country, though, and not prone to outward celebratory expression, the pop stars’ raised fists and triumphant smiles at the end of every song occasion no uproar.

No, instead there is dead silence once the music falls silent. Not one spectator betrays any sign that they have just witnessed a performance at all, no matter how slam-bang the spectacle. It makes me feel bad for the performers giving it all, but I’m sure they’re used to it.

Pretty sure this girl was there? Not positive.

The rest of the festival is mostly just booths hawking Malaysian cruises and temple tours and such. The only other highlight occurs when we run across a large group little kids dancing to a  great DJ spinning hardcore hip-hop tracks (think an F-bomb every five seconds) while their parents look on. The DJ is so good, in fact, that Stax and I have a hard time stopping ourselves from joining the kids. The dour expressions of the parents as they stand around put a damper on these inclinations, however.

Despite these peculiar goings-on, the park is very pleasant at most hours and usually full of Vietnamese students  eager to speak English or French with foreigners. Don’t deny yourself this experience – you will get more out of the exchange than the kids themselves probably will.

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Since we returned to Saigon from our mountain retreat in Dalat, we’ve been staying at the Vy Khanh Guesthouse down a maze of  back alleys just off the main street.

Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Vy is really nice and helpful and her guesthouse is too fancy for what we are paying. She’s also great to talk to, and the setting of her place is pretty awesome.

The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The steaming narrow alleys of Pham Ngu Lao, jam-packed with guesthouses and family residences and noodle stands and herb shops, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie like “Big Trouble in Little China”. I could easily picture  Lo-Pan and the Storms facing off against their rivals right outside our guesthouse.

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Ah, my dear misadventurists…make yourself at home in my Saigon alley. There is nothing to fear!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlema....AHHHHHHHHHHH!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlemAHHHHHHHHHH MAKE HIM STOP

Stax and I waste no time in finding the best Pho and the best fruit and yogurt smoothies in the neighborhood. The stage is set for a very pleasant five days in Saigon before we head  across the border to Phnom Penh. But as soon as I open my guitar case –  for the first time since our bus trip from Da Lat – I realize that not all will go as smoothly as I hope.

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Part Two of Saigon update soon!
To Be Continued…

Dalat, Vietnam: K’Lang and Ho-Biang: Shining Bright Like Diamonds

Fellow Misadventurists: This entry was originally posted on Stax’ blog, gypsytrampthief.wordpress.com.

There were once two hill tribes that lived uncomfortably close at the foot of a mountain. They were called the Lach and the Chil and they hated each other. A lot. It seems that in general, they were pretty good at maintaining a safe distance from one another. That is, until Fate intervened.

I realize I'm mixing my mythologies, but you get the gist.  www.theoi.com

One day, K’Lang, a boy from the Lach tribe, happened upon Ho-Biang, a girl of the Chil tribe. Their eyes met, their hearts raced, and in an instant they were experiencing chemically induced euphoria, excitement, bonding… In short, they were falling fast into forbidden love.

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They wanted to marry, but it had been decreed many, many years ago (so many years that no one knew when or by whom) that people from different tribes could not marry. This did not deter them. Defying their parents, elders, tribe members, and years of tradition and enmity, the two married anyway (in a private ceremony, I presume), then climbed to the top of the mountain, away from their respective tribes to live in peace. Things went pretty well until Ho-Biang became very ill and nothing in K’Lang’s experience could cure it.

Thinking that the Chil people might know what to do, K’Lang and Ho-Biang decided to make the long journey back down the mountain to Ho-Biang’s former village. Unbeknownst to them, the Chil tribe were anticipating the couple’s arrival and had specially prepared a poisoned arrow to pierce K’Lang’s heart.

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Look out K’Lang! That’s a poisoned arrow! Image courtesy exploringworldview.com

Upon entering Ho-Biang’s village, K’Lang plead with them to prepare a cure for his wife. But the villagers were too angry to listen. Blinded by vengeance toward this Lach tribesman for stealing their daughter from them, they aimed, shot and let the arrow fly. It looked like K’Lang was done for.

But despite her grave illness, Ho-Biang jumped in front of the arrow to save her beloved and died instantly. K’Lang died just afterward, devastated by his beloved’s death.

Realizing too late the error of hating one’s neighbors, Ho-Biang’s father decided it was time to unite the hill tribes of Lach, Chil, and a few others to become K’ho. Now that they were one shiny happy people, members also had the right to marry outside without having to move to the top of a mountain or worry about poisoned arrows.

Shiny happy people holding hands.

In the meantime, the tombs of K’Lang and Ho-Biang grew to be two mountains, which the hill tribe members named LangBiang. Hundreds of years later, the Misadventurists (Beej and myself) visit this natural monument to lost love.

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We pass through the large yellow archway entrance and are greeted by a very old woman trying to sell us authentic purses, scarves and other trinkets. Atop a small hill, above the parking lot full of green Russian-style jeeps that take tourists up the mountain to the trailhead, a giant “LangBiang” rises, laid out in big white letters like the Hollywood sign.

Next to the sign there’s a statue of K’Lang and Ho-Biang. The doomed lovers stand on separate rocks facing each other, reaching out their hands in futility, angst etched into their faces.

Climbing the mountain by foot is free, but for a small fee ($2/pax), someone will drive us to the top in one of the green Russian jeeps. Cheap. But there’s a catch: they’ll only take us when the jeep is full.We’re the only tourists in the parking lot. We can wait for four other people to show up (which could be awhile here in the hot low season) or we can pay for all six seats ($12) and a guide will drive us up, no problem.

I don’t want to wait, though. Things in the parking lot have become…annoying. The sun is trying to kill me, beating my head with wrenches of of heat. The authentic old Lach tribal woman won’t accept that she’s struck out.  Her approach becomes more direct: she starts rubbing her belly with an exaggerated look of pain, holding out her hand and pointing to her mouth.

She won’t stop following us around the parking lot – from the motorbike parking, to the jeep ticket window, to the designated eating area, to the shade of one of the jeeps in the parking lot, and back to our motorbike, she seems to now be asking us to just feed her coins.

Then a boy of about 10 shows up out of nowhere. “Money” is his only greeting, and he holds out his hand in expectation.

So we begin our ascent. Soon we’re huffing and puffing up an almost vertical climb in the midday heat. This road is much steeper than we thought. Still, it is a tad cooler under the shade of the trees, the breeze constantly carries the odor of sweet pine to our nostrils, and the road is smoothly paved. Branches shimmy above me whenever the wind blows, and it’s quiet enough out here that I can hear them clearly.

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Pines on LangBiang mountain. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Occasionally, a farmer roars past us on a motorbike, carrying huge loads balanced precariously to the back.  Farmers are the only motorbike riders allowed on this mountain, and summer seems to be the season of gathering branches.

We watch as a couple gathers summer-dried pine needles from the hillside and stuffs them into huge bags, which they then lift and tie carefully to the back of their waiting motorbike. Balancing the load and maneuvering through traffic would take a more experienced rider than I. It’s a good thing they start training early. In Vietnam, babies stand on the seats of motorbikes in front of their parents as soon as they can climb to their feet.

Thirty minutes into our climb, the first tourist jeep of many roars by, but it’s not the deafening engine noise that warns me of its approach. Instead, it’s Rhianna belting out, “Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond.”

Shine bright like a diamond! Do it!

The top-40 hit echoes unnaturally across the previously peaceful countryside. It sounds like a dance party should be rocking the jeep, except no one on board looks amused nor is anyone dancing. By the time the sixth jeep passes us overloaded with grim-faced tourists, sure I’m feeling a bit sore from the climb, but I’m not disappointed at all that we’ve chosen to walk.

Two plus hours later, after talking briefly on the way to a German hiker from an island we’ve never heard of (Borkum??) we reach an area set aside for hiking.

In case you were wondering, there's Borkum!

There’s a shack there where we are instructed to pay a small entrance fee, but the place is deserted and doesn’t look like it’s been in use for a long while.

So we ditch the shack and continue along the switchback trail through the pine trees until we finally reach an overlook of DaLat city and the countryside surrounding it. It’s absolutely beautiful. The climb, the woman stalking us below, and even Rhianna occasionally screaming in our ears were worth it.

a view

However, we can’t stay too long. We still need to head down before it gets dark. We’re not too keen on our last sight being a green jeep mowing us down with Rihanna telling us that we’re “beautiful, like diamonds in the sky”.

Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.

“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”

Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.

“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”

DALAT, VIETNAM: Weirdness at Datanla Falls

If you find yourself in DaLat and awash in cash, you can book a motorcycle trip with one of the “Easy Rider” tours that leave from the center of town and visit such places as a mountain lake populated by tribes of elephants, silkworm farms, and other far-flung locales around the highlands..

But if you are on a miniscule budget (like us) you’ll probably end up bicycling or motorbiking to less ambitious destinations.  Enter Datanla Falls, a mere 15 km south of Da Lat, but still a must-see in it’s own peculiar way.

We arrive at the falls just ahead of a giant, multi-bus Pegas tour – uniformed Vietnamese guides shouting orders into megaphones to overheated Russian tourists.  We hang around the entrance eating ice cream sandwiches until the hordes have passed. Then we buy our ticket.

The info about the falls mention some sort of hike. This is false advertising to say the least. If there is a trail, we certainly don’t see one (likely it exists, but became overgrown through disuse). The real “hike” consists of, hilariously, a” toboggan” ride down to the upper falls, then a short amble to a cable car that whizzes you through the gorge, and finally a very strenuous, air-conditioned elevator drop to the lower falls. This is Vietnam, after all, where people REALLY hate to walk.

(Though this is partially true, it’s not entirely fair. Vietnamese family outings almost always include the very aged – they would never leave revered parents or grandparents behind – and these oldies cannot practically hike around Vietnam’s incredibly rugged terrain.)

But if the country’s aversion to walking incites them to construct such glorious apparatus as toboggans, it can’t be all bad. The ride is thrilling. You basically fly down the open mountainside in your own personal roller coaster car around hairpin bends, the only catch being that there are no hydraulics or electronic controls, so you must brake for yourself around the corners to avoid hurtling off the rails and somersaulting the rest of the way down like Andy Samberg in that forest dancing scene in “Hot Rod”.

We want to do the toboggan again as soon as the guy has stopped our cars at the bottom. But we restrain ourselves. At any rate there are other diversions. Like the archery range just above the falls.

Yes, an archery range, complete with real, extremely sharp arrows (suck it, Disneyland!) and bows – and no safety net of any kind in case an arrow flies wild, say toward the Russian tourists milling around the falls a few meters away.

Never being one to resist a test of skills, Beej opts to pay the lady 2 bucks for a chance to hit a target shaped like a critically endangered Asian tiger (you can’t make this stuff up) and win a big bottle of Da Lat wine. Hey, at least they don’t give you the wine before you handle the extremely sharp arrows.

Stax helpfully captures my archery fail on her phone. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Stax helpfully captures Beej’s archery fail on her phone. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

It doesn’t go great – either Beej’s archery skills have declined since the last time he drew a bow at age 14, or he’s still jittery from the toboggan ride. The lady encourages him by laughing in unrestrained delight at every missed shot.

At one point she takes up her own bow and arrow to demonstrate to Beej how easy it is for her to hit the targets, which she proceeds to do effortlessly, several times in a row. This gesture doesn’t quite have the bolstering effect on his performance that she intends. Well, at least someone got joy out of it.

After the archery debacle we walk over to the upper falls.

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Upper Datanla Fall. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

A thing to do here is to have your wife or girlfriend dress up in traditional garb, smear on tons of make-up, and pose for highly unnatural portraits in front of natural wonders like waterfalls. There are at least two groups of people staging these bizarre shots in front of Datanla Falls – standing on rocks with arms raised like nature goddesses, etcetera. And it’s fascinating to watch.

A hulking figure in a full fur suit, previously camoflauged, suddenly arises from where he’s been lounging in a plastic chair near the cliff beside the falls. He springs toward us monkey-like.

In his frozen white mask, he bades us, with gestures alone, to take photos with him. We decline.

Whatever tourist outfit he works for hasn’t done enough research into Western horror movie tropes to know that having large mute furries in horrifying masks brandishing spears lurch out of the shadows in front of you might not be the best way to earn tourist dollars from Americans.

Fortunately for the monkey creature’s bottom line, others are not so shy:

Monkey warrior fight tourist! Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

 

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Monkey warrior make conquest. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

A guide has informed us there are three even better falls down the gorge. Ready for a proper walk, we excitedly set out along the trail, the first we’ve seen so far here. Some have boarded the cable car which soars overhead.
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But we are the only souls hiking on this peaceful trail.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Dalat, Vietnam: A lotta Dalat

We are driving our motorbike at sunset along a winding road atop a high mountain pass. Far below lies a landscape of intensely green rice paddies, dark turned earth, sprawling coffee plantations, forest glades, and copses of fruit trees.

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A panorama of the Central Vietnam highlands spreads magnificently out over the lip of the road. Peak after craggy peak marches over the spine of the country toward the coast, veiled in the smoke that is ever-present in rural Vietnam: the oily blue smoke of the rubbish fire, the dusty brown of farmers’ crop burns.

And still further out, white mists creep over the high distant peaks and fold into the deep green valleys, a blazing midsummer day exhaling into the cool of night.

We are just arriving back to Da Lat after a day riding around the countryside and hiking along the spectacular gorge below the hundred foot tall Datanla Falls ( more about this in the next post.)

For several days previously we’ve been hanging out in town at our favorite coffee shop, Urban Cafe, eating at our favorite restaurant, Chocolate Café, and exploring hilltop pagodas

Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
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Recycling collector, Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
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Downtown Dalat, Vietnam. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

 

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Super Pagoda Man. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Linh Quang Pagoda. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Linh Quang Pagoda. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
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Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

 

or driving our moto around the huge lake that takes up the east side of the city.

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One day we climb up a (very!) steep path through a fragrant pine forest to the top of Langbian Mountain, the highest peak in the Central Highlands and the second-highest in Vietnam. The next day we’re navigating the vine-shaped walkways of Da Lat Crazy House (more on these i the following posts).

Night comes on rapidly here in the highlands; tiny lights wink on all over the hills as we re-enter Da Lat and cruise down the narrow alley that leads to our guesthouse.

The time nears when we must leave this beautiful mountain city

Dalat, Vietnam from near our guesthouse. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Dalat, Vietnam from near our guesthouse. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

and head back to Saigon to begin the next phase of our journey. Watch for the next posts where we’ll go more into the weird and wonderful moments we’ve experienced here!

To be Continued…

Saigon to Da Lat, Vietnam!

Fellow Misadventurists! Greetings from Da Lat, Vietnam.

Why are we in Da Lat, an eight hour bus ride up into the mountains, so soon after arriving in Saigon?

To quote Senor Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

After our long flight from Hong Kong to Manila; the afore-mentioned sleepless overnight layover in the stinking basement of the Manila airport watching bad 1970s Filipino exploitation movies; the subsequent, even longer flight over the Pacific from Manila to Saigon; the wait at the baggage carousel in Saigon only to discover that the airline had misplaced the bag with all of my clothing back in Manila, meaning I would be stuck in the reeking clothes I had worn since Hong Kong (sorry Stax!) while they tracked it down and sent it to the airport in Da Lat three days later; the local bus ride from the Saigon airport to the Pham Ngu Lao district and the near loss of my camera on that same bus; the ensuing fifteen minute chase after said bus on the back of a hired motorbike in the oven of midday Saigon, careening over traffic-swarmed bridges and bombing through pedestrian-swarmed riverside shanties, barely clinging to the rear handle, only to find the surprised bus driver lounging at his lunch stop miles away (he had stowed the camera safely behind his seat when he found it) – needless to say, this 24 hours of abject boredom and restless excitement has left us pretty much exhausted, and we need a break in a cooler climate.

So, back in Pham Ngu Lao, we pay the moto driver a few bucks for his trouble and then jump aboard a giant red Phuong Trang sleeper bus to Da Lat.

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Your typical sleeper bus in its wild habitat (parking lot). Image courtesy http://www.sleeperbusvietnam.com

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For those unfamiliar with the various species of Southeast Asian bus, a sleeper bus is the variety with three long rows of seats, top and bottom, which fold out fully horizontal into makeshift bunkbeds, allowing the rider (theoretically) to snooze away the long hours of the trip.

Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com
Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com

Notice I said “theoretically”. This theory – let’s call it the General Theory of Sleep on a Sleeper Bus – holds true only under one condition: if every human element present upon the sleeper bus is somehow controlled for.

For kicks, let’s enter one or more of the following variables into the experiment: the driver barrelling around blind corners directly into the path of giant cement trucks, barely swerving back into the correct lane in time to avoid collision and the fiery demise of all “sleepers” aboard; the driver’s cohorts blasting at top volume (I mean eardrum-splitting, cranked-up-to-11 volume) a musical concoction of pure excrement posing as Vietnamese EDM out of speakers that are conveniently located a foot over the “sleeper’s” prone bodies; the driver steering (I’m only assuming he was steering) with one hand while keeping the other hand constantly pressed to the ear-splitting air horn to helpfully warn motorbike drivers that he is about to run them over; and the fact that most foreign travelers on sleeper buses must settle for the higher top bunk (they tend to give lower seats to locals), meaning that every swerve, sudden brake, and crunching, bottom-out pothole is amplified to crisis levels.

Stax, true to form (as anyone who knows her will tell you), falls asleep almost immediately and barely stirs henceforth. I, with my control freak tendencies and hyper-awareness in moments of extreme danger, have to force myself to find brief moments of rest amidst the barrage. If I am to get any sleep for the rest of our extensive travels, I’ll have to learn to relax in these situations.

The sweltering lowland humidity gives way to the alpine air of the highlands. We glimpse dark forms of mountain ranges. The traffic has let up and and we now pounce upon only the occasional motorbike and bicycle (most leaping suddenly out of the blackness into our view because they have no lights on their bikes in front or in back). I’ll say this about rural Vietnamese commuters: they have some balls).

We manage to arrive in Da Lat at around midnight in one piece.

Well, I say “in Da Lat” loosely, because in one final raised middle finger to the passengers before he drives the cursed bus back down to the Netherworld from whence he came, the driver has dropped us at the farthest bus station, approximately 3 km from where most of us are staying.

For several moments the hapless foreigners stand with their huge bags beside them in the empty station, eyeing the unmarked taxis that wait like silent predators (and which we have been warned to avoid as they have the habit of scamming foreigners outrageously), wondering how we’ll get somewhere we can finally sleep.

Belatedly, help screeches in in the form of a free shuttle (which suspiciously does not bear the name of the bus company, and which nobody from the bus company thought to tell us about), a shuttle that will supposedly take us to our various guesthouses. We load our bags into this van and follow the driver’s finger to the seats. But all the time, my built in scam radar is bleeping wildly due to the warning signs I mentioned before.

I needle the driver:

“Free?” I ask. No answer.

“Free?” I say again, louder, losing precious face by the second. Again, no answer.

“Free or I get off the bus!” I say even louder, thinking that impossibly, he might not have heard me, or that he’s just hoping I’ll give up so he can get a good fare out of us.

Finally someone else – not the driver, who is scrunching down in apparent shame – turns to me and nods.)

In Vietnam for less than 24 hours, I have already managed to shatter the unwritten code of Southeast Asia – the one where everybody stays calm and doesn’t raise a fuss or a holler no matter what, even if heading at that moment over a cliff. I have lost face irretrievably for myself and my entire family past, present, and future. But at least I saved a couple bucks, and I am assured now that this is the right shuttle and not just an opportunist taxi posing as the shuttle.

All is dark at the guesthouse when we arrive. I help the grim-faced driver (who practically spins all the way around to avoid eye contact) unload our bags and he’s off, presumably to a bar to tell his drinking buddies about the horrible American he was just unfortunate enough to pick up.

Luckily the guesthouse owner has waited for us, even though our bus is over 2 hours late. We thank him profusely and head up to the cool and spacious guest room. Sleep overwhelms us seconds later.
TO BE CONTINUED. Next Post: Da Lat!

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to HCMC Part 2

And I never saw Beej again.

Just kidding.

I’m sitting at Highlands Coffee (a major chain in Vietnam), taking big gulps of my Vietnamese style iced coffee (syrupy and strong coffee, sweetened, and then sweetened some more with sweetened condensed milk).

Highlands Coffee Shop in Hcmc
Typical Highlands Coffee. Image courtesy vietnamonline.com

The big gulps serve two purposes. One, I’m thirsty and it’s freaking hot out here. Two, I keep forgetting that ice, while nice on a hot day, can contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. I actually say that lightly. As we are traveling through so many countries with so many different levels of disease factors, I’m assuming that I will catch something, I just don’t know when or where. But if I recall correctly, Vietnam is fairly good when it comes to cleanliness and disease control as compared to some of its neighbors.

But I digress. The point is, Ben is on an adventure. And I’m sitting here with nothing to do but lollygag. As you may recall from my previous post, Ben has hopped on the back of a motorbike to chase after a bus and retrieve the camera he loves before it falls into the wrong hands. Such high drama!

I’m hoping they find the bus and the driver. Losing that camera will be a big blow to our budgets if we have to buy another one for our doc shoot.

For now, I will sit in the a/c, drink my iced coffee, think about the cost of a new camera, think about mosquitoes, bide my time, and wait for Ben’s return.

Update: Ben has just returned, big grin on his face, his camera grasped triumphantly in his hands.

He raises his camera case high so I can’t miss it, much like Gollum raises the One Ring after a long and trying separation.

“I got it!” he exclaims.

What a relief.