11 February, 2007

Oh, poo

Well, darn it, I got lazy and let all this time slip by; now I have a gazillion adventures to write about and it's all piling up in my brain, augh!

So, in brief:

- have officially applied to grad school
- have offically left Laos and am three days from returning to Saigon
- have just uploaded more than 400 photos from our adventures in Laos
- have caught yet another weird stomach thing and am not feeling so hot, especially since today's beach frolicking won me a sunburn,
- and um, gosh. I don't know. I have a lot to write about. Guess I better start.

Since the last time I was able to write a blog, I’ve traveled from Luang Prabang in Laos all the way to Nha Trang in Vietnam. But let me slow it down.

We decided to eschew the tourist trail and not go to Vang Vieng and Vientiane, even though we had heard fun things about those places, and at some point I’d like to go back (like when we can afford tourist prices). Plus, it was really cold at night and we had had several overcast days, so the real attraction of hanging out in Vang Vieng (tubing, kayaking) was sort of a moot point.

So. We looked at the map and read a little bit on Travelfish (which is fast replacing the Lonely Planet website, in my opinion) and decided that if we just headed dead east we could cross the border and be back in Vietnam- and it would be warm again, and we can speak a little bit of the language, and it was just be good. So the first stop East is a little town called Nong Khiew (called NK from here on out). The main things to do in NK is to walk to the cave a few miles down the road in this huge limestone cliff, and to catch a boat to what turned out to be the best place in the entire country for us: Muang Ngoi.

Muang Ngoi consists of one road. The electricity only comes on from about 6:30pm to 9pm, but that all depends on who’s turning on the generator, I guess. You cannot get to the town by roads- it really took me awhile to absorb the fact that there are no roads that go there. None. You have to take a boat. And the boat ride is one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen—the mountains are so unbelievably tall and they’re really sudden. There’s no rise, there’s just jungle and then boom, it gets shaken off and there’s a white and grey limestone face with a few scraggly palm trees hanging on to the sides. Once you get to Muang Ngoi, you pretty much just walk up and down the little street and pick a bungalow- they’re all about two bucks a night, some with a porch (ours had a porch!) and some facing the river (ours faced the river!). It gets seriously cold at night, and stays that way until the sun is way up in the sky the next day. While we were there it was a full moon, which lit everything up so much that the roosters crowed all night. There were seriously hundreds of chicken in Muang Ngoi. In fact, there was an unusually large number of babies, puppies, and chicks in the town- I guess there’s a lot of procreating going on. There’s no hot water, so you have to pay to go to the steam bath and pour little bowlfuls of hot water over your shivering body if you want to wash with something other than the chilly river water that they pump up to the guesthouses.

After a few days hiking around the trails, visiting the minority hilltribe villages up in the forest, and trekking across the rice paddies and streams, we caught a boat back to NK and spent the night there, and the next morning we caught the first of many trucks to get to the Vietnam border.

You wouldn't believe it, but after three days with a runny nose and frozen ears and a wrapped up pig screaming at your feet and a pile of chickens overhead, the whole open-air back of the truck thing can get pretty tiring. So it was with glad tidings that we rode the final three hours to the border and hopped out of our ride, went through the stamping out process, and walked the half mile or so of no-man's-land between the two countries.

However, Vietnam was not as ready to welcome us with open arms as we were. The officials at the gate were incredibly sweet, and I was back into my flow of maybe two dozen words in no time, charming them with my "Chung toi la giao vien tieng anh, Ho Chi Minh City!" [we are English teachers, Ho Chi Minh City!]. Kenny stomped on my foot and then I realized maybe that I shouldn't mention that we've been working illegally. Oops. Luckily nothing was mentioned, for the guys were busy drawing us a map of how we were best to proceed to Hue, our first stop on our grand tour from North to South. It turns out that when public transportation is scarce, motorbike drivers get greedy, as well they are able to. Kenny and I each paid more for our 53km ride to the next town over than we would end up having to pay to travel the entire rest of the length of the country. We were pissed off, and so we strode out of town, intending (this was K's idea) to just walk to the next time where the locals were maybe not so used to seeing stranded tourists at the border, and try to get a better price. But what ended up happening was the greedy motorbike guys (just young men on flashy bikes) followed us out of town, watching us getting hotter and hotter and more and more tired from hiking uphill and not seeing a dang hut or village or anything. Finally we agreed to put our lives and budgets into their very nicotine-addicted hands and spent the next hour and a half fairly certain that death was imminent and being grateful that at least, we made it back to the country that has our information at the Embassy, and that we got to see a little of North Vietnam.

The plan was that the guys were going to drop us off at the next town over, Quan Son, where we could catch the daily 1pm bus to the big town on the coat, Thanh Hoa, where we could catch any number of possible transportation options southward to Hue.

But. They guys stopped a few times. They just pulled over on the side of the road, tried on our sunglasses, smoked some cigarettes, tried to get us to pay a higher price (now that we were in the middle of Where The Heck, Vietnam) and basically dawdled until it was almost 1pm. Then they said, in effect, "oh, we better pull over again at the next village and call the bus so they'll wait for you!" Suuure, we said. Not like we had a choice. So they do that, and we continue a little speedily now (who knows what the bus said?) until my guy gets a flat tire and we have to change it. By now it was definitely after the bus's departure time, and when we sped into town, locals started shooing us down the road, as if to say, "they;ve only just left! go, by god!" and so we did.

But. When we caught up with the bus, a young guy swung down casually and appraised us, apparently much amused by our frenzied attempts just to catch up with him. "Twenty-five dollar!" he says, to the mirth of everyone aboard. We protest, shocked, and the cackles from toothless Vietnamese already onboard pour down from the open windows. "Twenty-five, twenty-five," he says, ointing at Kenny and I in turn, "very cheap fah you, you Amedican!" and laughs gleefully.

Well, sometimes you just snap. We've got this guy hanging from the bus, we've got our motorbike drivers who have been steadily quacking a litany of higher prices than we had agreed upon from behind us, and I just loose it for a second, and yell "no! NOT cheap! Di, di, di!" [go away, go away!]. I turn to the motorbike guy, pull our rightful change from his hand, and grab Kenny, walking away in a steaming huff. The bus leaves, the motorbike guys zoom around taunting us for a few seconds, "ooh, hee hee, etc" and then we are left, again, on the side of the road with no apparent plan. At this point we've spent well over our daily budget, and that's for everything: food, transportation, room-- just on this one 53km leg of the trip alone.

So now we really do start to hoof it. We walk for about an hour, taking some pictures of the stunning countryside, and rationing out what's left of the last water bottle that we bought, when along comes a huge lorry, and we make the little finger-wiggling come here motion (palm down, arm out straight, now flap your wrist around), and lo and behold, they're going to Thanh Hoa and there's room in the cab!

To make a long, long ride into a much shorter story: we ride all crammed in, with three men who are very kind and speak almost no English, but do have an enormous tobacco-filled bong that they slurp on the whole way. We experience some hand-fixed break downs, a succulent dinner of eel and rabbit (it was actually really, really good), and a straight shot to Thanh Hoa, where we immediatley hopped onto a night train and rode it, snoring all the way, to Hue.

A few good days were spent there, washing the Laos dust out of our pores, clothes, and hair, and quickly remembering what it means to be in a hot climate again. We walked all over the city, splurged on an $8 room which had internet en suite (Hosanna!) but no hot water, and then to save money, bought a ticket for the open bus, which dropped us off this morning at the crack of dawn in Nha Trang.

On Valentine's day we return to Saigon, and Kenny flies home on Saturday morning. And then I get to do some major souveneier shopping and repacking of the bags-- and finis!

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