Tuesday, January 6, 2009


ALL of my Vietnam photos can be found at naominicoleschrock.shutterfly.com 

It would take forever to write about JJ, Margie, and my trip to Vietnam, so I’ll try to hit the highlights with a couple hilarious stories.  Overall, the trip was perfect!!  I’m in love with Vietnam, and am so happy to have spent roughly two weeks traveling with two of my BEST friends. 
JJ flew in from Chicago and met me at the Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) airport REAL early Saturday morning.  The taxi that took us to Madam Cuc’s Hotel ripped us off, but it was OK because we made it to Vietnam!!  Seeing as it was 3 AM, and Madame Cuc’s was more of a guesthouse than an open hotel, we had to wake Mademe Cuc herself (maybe) up to be let into our room.  The next morning we enjoyed complimentary breakfasts of bananas, French bread, butter, strawberry jam, fresh fruit juice, and Vietnamese coffee (espresso-style sweetened with condensed milk).  It seems so simple but was more than delicious and we came to look forward to it every morning thereafter.  We went on the Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the city, stopping along the way to eat pho, ice cream, and various other street foods.  People had warned us before about the motorbikes, but I don’t think any kind of warning could have prepared us for the billions of motorbikes that were on the streets.  We quickly learned to hide behind the locals when having to cross streets, and also that we could get anywhere in the city by paying $1 or $2 for a ride on the back of a bike. 

The next day we took a bus tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, outside of Saigon.  The tunnels were an intricate and important system for caring for the wounded, living, hiding, storing, and fighting during the Vietnam War.  It’s interesting to hear the perspective from the other side: Cu Chi was a peaceful place filled with loving Cu Chi people until the fire-eyed Americans began destroying their homeland for no reason.  The Cu Chi people got together to dig tunnels, build traps, hide land mines, and fight the dogs off, leading to victory.  From the American (and Saigon’s perspective seeing as they were the Republic who lost to the North Viet Cong Communists), the VC guerrillas were builders of the tunnels, using them to eventually attack Saigon, and cause the American troops to withdraw.  At the very end of the tour, we were able to go about 100 meters through an underground tunnel system.  There were lights set up every 20 meters or so, and escape areas for the claustrophobic.  In between the lit areas was pitch black, smelly, sweaty, and scary as heck.  The people in front of me kept stopping to take pictures and I kept on wanting to scream at them to go.  JJ and I talked like freaked out little girls the whole way through “Where are you?  I can't see anything, can you see me, Oh my gosh, there’s a dip coming up, its so hot, I can barely breath.”  We managed to traverse the whole distance, and were relieved to see daylight when it was all over.  On the tour we met many people from all over the world, and were invited to dinner with a New Zealand/Chinese couple, Darin and Juliet to a recommended restaurant.  After dinner, we stepped out to the streets were even more motorbikes flooded the streets with Vietnamese flags waving and people shouting with joy.  JJ and I had absolutely no idea what was going on.  We decided to walk around and get lost until we had to get Margaret from the airport.  The motorbike guys who drove us to the airport told us something like “Vietnam 2, Singapore 1, woo!!” (after my guy got lost, causing JJ’s guy to get mad, but then we all laughed about it later, for a while haha).  Much later we would find out that there was an Asian Cup Soccer tournament going on.  I guess Margie’s flight got in early, so while JJ and I were waiting for her to come out of the terminal, she came from behind and scared the b’Jesus out of me!!  I screamed loud, and everybody looked and it was very funny. 


The next morning we caught a 55 minute flight up to Nha Trang, a beach resort town.  At the airport, we met a Vietnamese/American girl, Cam who asked to split a cab with us.  Somewhere along the way to the city, we managed to agree to also split a hotel room for 2 nights.  Cam’s a very nice girl who grew up in Vietnam.  She moved to the USA for high school and college.  Fluent in both Vietnamese and English, she helped in getting us around and teaching us a lot about Vietnamese life.  After settling into the hotel, we went to eat some pho and then took a taxi up a muddy mountain to a spa!!  There, we took a mud bath, sat in a hot spring, and got massages (I’m pretty sure they walked on our backs).  For dinner, we stuffed ourselves with fantastic seafood. 

The next day was a boat and island tour.  The boat took us to 4 different islands, and by ‘take’ they meant anchored next to so that we could jump in and swim around.  At the first stop, we snorkeled and were able to see some pretty cool marine life.  I guess these waters are infested with tons transparent little jelly fish though and we kept getting stung left and right.  The next stop is where we were treated to an unexpectedly massive feast followed by live music.  After lunch was the ‘floating bar.’  One of the crewmembers sat on a little floaty with a crate of wine, and served us in the water!!  Then they pulled up the anchors and sailed to the next island where we were actually able to go on the beach and splash around.  After the beach stop was fresh fruit, and then the island aquarium where we ran around and took pictures with the sea creatures.  Somewhere along the crazy fun ride, Margaret and I got SO burnt!!   The sun really got to us, and at dinner I was getting the chills, and Margaret was in immense pain.  I didn’t even finish my frog legs because my body felt so messed up!!  Margie and I went to bed early that night while JJ and Cam went out on the town. 

The next morning we flew from Nha Trang to Hanoi.  Hanoi was much colder with narrow streets, and billions of motorbikes.  We walked around Old Town a bit, but couldn’t take the pollution and congestion, so opted instead for the less busy Temple of Literature, One Pillar Pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  That night, we ate at Koto, a restaurant that works at getting people off the streets and working for money.  It was for a good cause and great food!!  That night, we celebrated Christmas Eve with some of the hotel staff (it’s important to know that we became friends with these people) with some disgusting wine and snacks. 

Thursday morning, and Christmas Day, we were off to Halong Bay for a 2-day, 1-night boat ride through the World Heritage Site.  Ha Long Bay is truly a majestic place, featuring 1969 limestone karsts.  I think we got really lucky with this boat tour with the amount of activities and quality of food they offered.  We soon learned that this particular tour company organized many boats, with many different agendas, and groups were transferred from one to the other a couple of times.  No worries, because we were able to meet many great people from all around the world: Germany, Japan, Australian (remember this Australian group for later).  The activities included a tour through a massive cave, hiking to the top of an island, and kayaking.  It was a very peaceful trip that JJ, Margie, and I has a lot of fun being silly on. That night, we exchanged gifts after another delicious feast and salty wine.  I got the other two Japanese toe socks, JJ got Margie a wristlet and me a artsy notebook, and Margaret got us masks.  Here’s a funny story: before we went Kayaking, JJ made a comment about not wanting to get too wet because she didn’t want to have to pack wet clothes on her way through South Korea and then back home.  For some reason, this conversation lasted a while with Margaret weighing in about kayaking in the past.  Maybe I wanted to be part of the talk, so said something ridiculous like ‘yeah, because South Korea doesn’t let you in if anything’s wet.’  Se we went kayaking.  JJ got paired up with Kumiko, a Japanese lady, while Margie and I took the other kayak.  Alas, it’s in both Margaret and my nature to quarrel and do what we want, so when Margaret wanted to cross over a rope and I didn’t she tried to go forward and I paddled as hard as I could backward.  Haha, in the end we all got a little wet and when JJ was packing her bag for the final time she said in a sad, sad voice “But how will they know if it’s wet?” referring back to the comment I made about South Korea not letting in wet things.  AHHHAHAHA, I think I cried laughing!!

We got back to Hanoi that evening, and had to say sayonara to JJ because she had to get back to the working world in the USA.  Margie and I took a crazy night bus 2 hours to Ninh Binh so that we could get to Cuc Phuong National Park easier the next morning.  We stayed at a hotel that arranged for two motorbikes to get us the next morning.  It ended up being about an hour and a half from Ninh Binh to Cuc Phuong National Park on the backs of these bikes.  The ride there was astonishing.  We rode through small towns and rural Vietnam rice paddies with those same limestone karsts popping up every once and a while.  Once in the park, we were told that we had to hire a trekking guide to take us through the 4-hour hike.  Thank goodness this was mandatory because the jungle was so thick that we definitely would have gotten lost forever if it were only Margaret and I.  The weather that day was much less than ideal with a rain that kept getting heavier and heavier.  We struggled to keep up with our guide’s pace through vines and over jagged rocks.  The first hour was awesome being in the middle of a jungle, but the last three hours were pretty cold and wet.  We managed to make it out alive, and were greeted by the motorbike men that took us to the park in the morning.  Then checked our socks for leeches (I had a little one in my shoe), and Margaret had pulled one from her hand earlier in the trek.  They took us back to civilization, and dropped us off at a public bus stop.  They flagged down the bus and we ran onto it dripping wet from the weather.  On the bus, Vietnamese dance music was playing, and everyone looked at us and busted out laughing.  Everyone on the bus was so kind and tried to talk to us really slowly in Vietnamese, only no matter how slow they talked there was no possible way we would ever understand them.  It took 2 hours to get back to Hanoi, and then another half hour or so to get a decent price for a taxi back to our hotel.  Margaret was boarding on hypothermia so I let her shower first.  I took my time emptying my waterlogged bag and hanging everything to dry.  Finally I took my jacket off and saw a watermelon-size blood spot on my shirt near my stomach.  My stomach was all bloody and slimy with coagulated blood, and a black spot where the blood was coming.  Naturally, I freaked out and screamed “Oh My God Oh My God it’s inside of me!!!”  Margaret ran out of the shower and tried to get me to shut up “calm down, it’s not inside of you, it probably fell off.”  “Then why is there a black spot?!?!”  “Good point, do you want to go downstairs, I’ll meet you down there as soon as I throw some clothes on.”  So I ran downstairs, barefoot with a bloody shirt, and squeezing my stomach, trying to get the leech out.  The hotel people were our friends from Christmas Eve, and looked so concerned “Don’t worry, no problem, you go to Cuc Phuong right?  We call someone, sit down.”  “It’s inside of me!!!!!!!!”  Everyone came out of their rooms to see what the commotion was.  A Taiwanese man said “don’t worry, I’m a doctor.”  “WHAAT should I do?!?!  It’s inside of me?!?!?”  “Oh no, I’m a Chinese doctor, we do things differently.”  “OK?!?!?!”  Then, that Australian group from Ha Long Bay walked into the front doors of the hotel.  Calm as Ha Long Bay was, he explained “No worries mate, leeches are harmless.  What they do is attach themselves to you, numb you up with a little anesthesia so you can’t feel it and suck your blood.  Sometimes it bruises like the one you’ve got there.  When they’re done, they just fall off and you bleed and bleed a while after.  Just have a shower and check to make sure you don’t have anymore on you. It looks like another one got your leg a bit too.”  “Oh, ok.  So I’m OK?  It’s not inside of me?  Oh.  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!”  It really did bleed for hours and hours after that, but everything was OK in my world again.  Later, Margaret and I went out for some Italian food and 30 cent beer. 

On the 27th, Margie and I flew back down to Ho Chi Minh City.  We visited the War Remnants Museum, which was heartrending but necessary.  Afterward we successfully crossed a couple streets, went to the Jade Pagoda, and then to an Australian Sports Bar to watch the Vietnam-Thailand soccer game.  We found out from the public bus ride from Ninh Binh to Hanoi that there would be a game this evening so we thought, cool.  I had a club sandwich and a beer that came with ice.  Margaret got a burger that did not taste at all like beef – I think it was dog.  Anyways, once the game started the bar got loud and crowded.  Thailand scored and Vietnam didn’t score for the rest of the normal time.  During the last second or so of the lost time part, Vietnam scored and everyone went CRAZY!!  Everyone on TV, in the bar, out on the streets were celebrating and going crazier that they were what JJ and I had witnessed earlier in the week.  Of course Margaret and I are happy, but we were kind of like ‘ok, that’s cool … so now it’s tied so … calm down Vietnam.’  It probably took us an hour to figure out that this was the final game of the tournament.  Vietnam had already beaten Thailand, so all they had to do was tie to win it ALL!!  WOO HOO, then we started cheering and on our journey through the madness back to Madame Cuc’s bought a couple of Vietnam headbands.  People laughed and pointed and cheered for us when they saw tourists celebrating with them.  Imagine if the Cubs won the World Series, and add trillions of motorbikes. 

The next day was a 2 day, 1 night trip to the Mekong Delta.  It took about 3 hours to get there by bus, and then hours and hours up the delta and through floating markets by boat to Can Tho.  On this tour we met again with two really cool girls from Holland.  We met them first on the boat tour in Nha Trang.  They are currently on their ‘gap year’ between high school and college, 1 month into their 9-month journey around the word.  We first stopped at a family-run coconut factory and some markets.  We floated around a bit more, and then arrived at a restaurant for lunch.  I got the specialty: fried Elephant Ear Fish Spring Rolls.  Then, to get back to the boat, they told us that we would have to ride the rickety bicycles down the road.  Fine, only problem was that there weren’t enough bicycles for everyone.  So they started shuffling some people by motorbike, some by returning bicycles.  And then there were only three of us left: Margaret, Anok (one of the Dutch girls), and me.  Well two motorbikes and one bicycle were available, and who do you think got stuck riding the bike.  As Margaret and Anok took off and were already over a hill on the motorbikes, the tour guide told me to follow them.  OK, whatever, I don't really know where I’m going but I guess I’ll just go straight until I see them.  So I rode and I rode and I never saw them.  I rode all the way until the road ended.  Great, I don’t know where I am, I can’t speak Vietnamese, Margaret has all of my money, and I’m really sweaty.  I assumed that Margaret and Anok wouldn’t let the boat take off without me, and any minute now someone would come to my rescue.  That didn’t happen, so I turned around and started back to the restaurant.  Every time there was an opening to the river, I would look out to see if there were boats carrying the people in our tour.  Then, on the other side of the river, I thought I saw them.  Cool, now how do I get to that side of the river?  After riding a little more, I found a bridge, crossed the bridge, and looked for the next bridge to get me across a creek to the boat.  Then Margaret was like “Hey!!  They’re looking for you.”  Why they would be looking on the other side of the river and how they ever assumed I would find the boat is beyond me.  I was pretty angry, but the 3 hour boat ride with the sun setting to Can Tho helped calm me down.  At the hotel in Can Tho, we met some French travelers, and along with the Dutch girls went out to eat.  One of the first things I saw on the menu was Snake Curry.  Done.  For those who have not YET eaten snake, it’s OK – tastes like chicken, only a little chewier.  Margaret actually came up with a good point: a lot of the dishes we think of as weird or gross are readily available to us in the USA.  One of the reasons we might not eat them are that they actually aren’t all that good??  Either way, it’s always fun trying things that make other people cringe J

The next day we floated to one of the biggest floating markets to see people selling fruit and vegetables.  They put what they are selling on a long stick as a form of advertisement.  At one point, our boat conveniently anchored next to a boat selling pineapples, so most of us eventually gave in and bought one.  It was a pretty good pineapple, only my lips and tongue were all tingly for the rest of the day!!  Come to think of it, it was probably washed in the Mekong Delta itself.  I met two Japanese ladies from Tokyo who were also traveling in our group, and invited me to Tokyo anytime!!  Eventually we had to say ‘goodbye , maybe we’ll see you again’ to our new friends, and then back to Saigon.  When we got back to our the Madam Cuc Discrict, it started pouring, and the streets were flooded.  Margaret and I took our time in avoiding the flood water by snaking around parked motorbikes, walking through restaurants, but finally gave in and got our feet wet.  While we were waiting for the hotel staff (and friends) to show us to our room, a German backpacker came in with wet hair and a huge backpack, looking for a place to stay.  Unfortunately for her and many other backpackers, many of the hotels were already booked due to the New Year Holiday.  Lucky for her though, they first said they were fully booked, but then found an open room.  While we were all waiting, we started talking in English (a truly valuable language) and invited her out to dinner with us.  So after settling into our rooms, we met up and had food with our new friend, Kristin. 

New Years Eve, our last night day in Vietnam was spent romping around the city in the search for souvenirs.  Kristin joined in and we hit up China Town first, but quickly resorted back to the Ben Thanh Market to negotiate for bags, keychains, and weasel coffee.  All the while, I tried practicing my German.  “Wie Gates?”  At one point, Kristin had the brilliant idea of buying a little bottle of the Snake Liquor we see everywhere but have not yet tasted.  After a long day of shopping, street food, and motorbikes, we decided that it was time to start celebrating New Years Eve.  We went to a nice Thai Restaurant for dinner.  At the end of our fantastic meal, first Kristin grabbed a toothpick and started to clean her teeth.  Soon after, Margaret picked one to do the same.  I then felt a little left out so joined in with the tooth cleaning.  So there we sat, 3 girls at a nice Thai Restaurant cleaning our teeth.  Kristin was the first to realize what was going on and started laughing.  “Funny thing is, I ever do this!!” she said, then Margaret also said “I never clean my teeth with a toothpick” and then I honestly said the same “I’ve never done this before!!”  AHHHAHAHA, that was another laugh until you cry moment.  After dinner the streets were filling up with more motorbikes than usual, and we found three to take us to a bar near our hotel.  We ordered a round of drinks, and Kristin pulled out the mini bottle of Snake Liquor.  It was NAASTY but we had a lot of fun drinking it and then washing the gross taste down with beer.  We even offered a sip to others sitting around us – for some reason they didn’t have the same dramatic expressions we had after tasting it.  Poor Margaret’s flight left at 1:00AM, so we counted down to 9:35, and then put her in a taxi to the airport at 10:00.  Kristin and I went back to the bar, and then to the crowded street to count down to the actual New Year and other new friends around us.  It was indeed a Happy New Year, then when the clock struck 12:30, it was my turn to head to the airport to catch a 3:40AM flight. 


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