Chili Pepper Bridge

Chili Pepper Bridge

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Vietnam Trip and the New Year

It's now late February and winter is beginning to draw to an end (although it doesn't feel like it!).  The last month and a half have been a blast!  I took a vacation to Vietnam, had a friend from Chicago come visit, and of course packed in lots of snowboarding.  Since my trip the Vietnam was by far the coolest and most interesting thing I've done lately, I'll spend most of this post talking about that.

I headed out on January 12th with my friend and fellow EPIK teacher Tom, for a late night flight to Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.  By coincidence there were two other English teachers that I knew from Incheon on our same flight (one of them lives on the same floor as me in my apartment building).  The flight was about 5 and a half hours.  I tried to sleep but failed, as I was too excited.  We landed in Ho Chi Minh City sometime around 1am local time.  After about and hour or so fumbling around at the airport obtaining Visas, exchanging money, and getting our bags we finally met our ride.  We had arranged for someone from our hostel to pick us up from the airport.  When we got to our hostel we checked in, put our bags down and immediately headed out.  The neighborhood we were staying is in District 1 in Saigon, and is full of hostels and caters to the backpacking crowd.  So, this meant that there were tons of people out and about (almost all foreigners) at all hours of the night.  We took a seat near a convenience store that had tables set up outside, ordered some 30cent beers and talked with some other backpackers from Spain who had been in country for a while.  Here is a taste of the neighborhood in District 1 at night.

These fire breather guys would come around every once and a while and ask for tips.

The street had all kinds of things going on.  There were tons of backpackers, people trying to sell you all kinds of different things every couple of minutes, barefoot children running around, and stray animals.  It was all a bit crazy and really cool to see.  After a while of hanging out on the street, we headed back to our room to get some sleep for the next day.

The next two days in Saigon we spent exploring the city.  We walked to the Saigon river, checked out other neighborhoods, went to a huge street market, and visited the Vietnam War museum.  The city itself was beautiful and very densely populated.  There are around 9 million people in the greater Saigon area, and it seems like there are about the same amount of motorbikes (these things are everywhere and are used to transport everything!).  I couldn't get any good pics of crazy motorbikes because they went by so fast, but I'll give you some examples of things I saw people carrying on motor bikes:  Two adults and two children all on one bike (this one was pretty standard), a woman on the back of a bike carrying about 20 coconuts in her arms with no bag, a man with a washing machine on the back of his bike that he was holding onto with one arm while he drove with the other, and my personal favorite, a man with 12 bird cages on the back of his bike, all with live birds inside!  The insane amount of motorbike traffic also made crossing the street pretty scary, as the laws for driving there seemed to be "if you did it and survived, its legal."  Here are some pictures of our first couple days in Saigon:

If this teaching thing doesn't work out, I can always get a job selling coconut water on the streets of Saigon!

Captured American Army vehicles at the War Museum 

War Museum entrance

Guillotine replica from the French occupation

These "Tiger Cages" were used to torture Viet Cong POWs.  Up to 5 people could be placed into these barbed wire cages at one time. 

People fishing on the Saigon River

The most profound thing I saw in those first two days was definitely the War Remembrance Museum.  It was a very interesting experience to come from a country that is very Pro-American (South Korea) to Vietnam which was completely ravaged and destroyed by the Vietnam War.  I didn't take too many  pictures at the Museum because many of the images were very very graphic.  Most of the exhibits were photo galleries which documented American torture of North Vietnamese POW's, destruction of the the landscape through bombing and defoliation, and the horrible effects of Napalm and Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people.  Overall a pretty eye opening and somber experience.

One less morbid section of the museum was about the children during the war.  It showed how they had built classrooms underground, so the kids could all still attend school while the fighting continued.  All the children were also trained in basic first aid and other useful skills to help out during the conflict.

So after two days of exploring Saigon proper, we headed back to our hostel to plan out our next move. We booked a tour for the next day which went to a Temple and also the Củ Chi Tunnels.

The temple we visted was quite interesting. One obvious aspect were its beautiful architectural features. Massive halls and towers with intricate paintings throughout. However, the most interesting part to me was the religion for which the temple was dedicated. This was a Cao Dai Temple. The Cao Dai religion was started in 1926 in South Vietnam and is a combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity. One of their venerated saints is Victor Hugo, and according to our tour guide they also use Ouija boards to communicate with the saints. Its hierarchy is modeled after the Catholic Church, with the leader of the Cao Dai religion being called the Pope.

Prayer Service going on inside the temple.

You can see Monks wearing different colored robes.  Yellow is for Buddhism, blue is for Taoism, and red is for Christianity.  The people in white robes are still novices in the order.

 Inside the Holy See is a painting depicting the Three Saints signing a covenant between God and humanity. From left to right, they are Sun Yat-senVictor Hugo and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm.

Some monkeys hanging out

Outside the main temple

Prayer service

We spent about an hour on the temple grounds and then got back on the bus and headed to the Củ Chi tunnels. These were the tunnels used by the Viet Cong resistance during the Vietnam war. Whole systems of underground tunnels complete with kitchens, hospitals, sleeping quarters, bomb shelters, weapons caches, ventilation  and booby traps. We got to see some of the tunnels and also go inside some of them (they had been widened for tourists, but were still pretty small). Oh yea, we also shot AK47s!

Don't wanna fall in this thing!

Shooting the AK47

Our tour guide showing us how to get into the secret tunnel entrance and then cover it up behind you.

Tom inside the tunnel

Me inside the tunnel

These traps were originally used by Vietnamese to hunt tigers and other large game.  In the war they used  them to "hunt" American GI's.

After our tour, which took up most of the day, we headed back to Ho Chi Minh City to eat some dinner, have a few drinks, and unwind. They next day we were embarking on the next part of our trip into the Mekong Delta.

The next morning we got on a bus to the city of Cần Thơ in the heart of the Mekong Delta. We didn't do a whole lot that night, because the next day we had a 5am tour of the floating market on the river. So we grabbed some dinner and chilled out to get ready for the early start the next morning.

The next day we took motor taxi's to the river and got into our tour boat. It was a really small wooden boat and it was just myself, Tom, and our tour guide. We headed out into the delta while it was still dark outside. Because we started so early we got to watch the entire area come to life. In the early hours you could see fishermen getting ready for the day and merchants setting up their boats for the market. A little after sunrise, we bought some breakfast from another boat right on the river. We ate bananas and fresh bread, as well as fresh coffee. We continued on to the floating market, which was a really fantastic sight to see. There were tons of boats selling all kinds of things (mostly fresh produce) all around, and you could literally just pull up to a boat and buy something. After cruising around though the market for a while, our guide then took us through some smaller tributaries and we explored a bit more of the delta. Finally after several hours we headed back, went to our hotel and took a nap (it was still early!)
Early morning on the river

Fishing net

Tin shacks off the main river

approaching the floating market

Pineapple man

Whatever the boat was selling was hanging from these poles

Morning sun on the Mekong Delta

We bought a pineapple and our tour guide diced it up for us

dilapidated shacks with really nice apartments right behind them

After our post river naps, we grabbed a quick lunch with some other travelers at our hotel and then headed to our next stop, Rạch Giá.  Not a whole lot going on here, just a stop over before we took a boat to Phú Quốc Island the following day.  We checked into our hotel and booked our tickets to the island.
Some herbs and stuff drying on the street in Rạch Giá

So now on to my favorite part of the trip, 5 days of non stop relaxation on the beautiful Phú Quốc Island!  We stayed at this fantastic place called the Ecologycal Garden Ut Phoung Resort.  It was well off the beaten path in the middle of the forest on the north central part of the island.  Most of our stay we were the only people staying at the entire resort.  It was run by this Vietnamese family who where some of the nicest people we met the entire trip.  Right away they upgraded our bungalow, since no one else was staying there and were really helpful with anything we needed.  So, like I said we were off the beaten path, so we had to rent motorbikes to go anywhere.  It was about a 20 minute ride to the nearest beaches and a 40 minute ride into the town.  The next 5 days were just a blur of riding, swimming, snorkeling, seafood, and relaxing.
Out bungalow was the one on the right

Can't beat poolside accommodations!

On our way to the beach

Bang Thang Beach, first stop of the day

Shackin' up

That day we rode all the way up the northwest coast of the island.  We stopped for lunch at this beach side restaurant for some delicious seafood.


At the north west tip of the island, chillin' with some ice coffee before riding back to the resort.

The next day we went on a fishing and snorkeling tour for the day.  This was one of our snorkel locations.  The coral reefs were pretty cool (although the wildlife at La Jolla Cove is a bit better I think).  The trip was awesome nonetheless.  There were lots of cool little underwater tunnels and caves you could swim though.  Funny story though, at one point the boat ran out of beer, so one of the Vietnamese guys jumped out, swam to a shack on the shore, and then swam back with several more bags full of beer to keep the boat stocked for the rest of the trip.

Me and the lamest fish ever.

fresh sea urchins, our appetizer for lunch
At the end of the trip we stopped over at Bai Sao Beach on the southwest tip of the island for some relaxing.  It was gorgeous.  Clear blue water and white sand beaches.  And the best part (this was pretty much everywhere though) was no crowds.

Corona's got nothing on Tiger

After several busy days of roaming around we spent sometime just doing NOTHING. Which was awesome.  Stayed at the resort, swam in the pool, ate good food, and enjoyed not being in the freezing Korean winter.  The first half of the trip was pretty hectic so this was some much needed down time to unwind.

One of 5 kittens that was roaming around the resort.  Looks like he wants to come to the beach with us.

Massive mangos

The resort dog (there were two).  Apparently the two dogs had had 15 puppies between then recently, but they were too young to come out.

Heading back to the mainland

After 5 glorious days on the Island it was time to start making our way back to Saigon.  We had time for one more stop over on the way so we took a boat back to the mainland and then a bus to the city of Châu Đốc   This city is right on the boarder of Cambodia and apparently lots of Vietnamese people go here to cross the boarder and gamble in the Cambodian Casinos (gambling is illegal in Vietnam).  Cock fights are really popular, although we didn't manage to see one.  We did however hire some motor bike guys to take us around and see some temples and the big mountain in town.
Boat ride to the mainland

We had some geckos crashing in the hotel with us 

Chili pepper fields

endless rice paddies

sketch bridge we had to cross

local Buddhist temple in town

View from on top of Sam Mountain

It was a bit overcast but still very nice

rice paddies as far as you can see

After a nice day in Chau Doc we caught a sleeper bus back to Ho Chi Minh City.  We had one last night out on the town and then spent the next day doing some last minute shopping (everything is so cheap). I bought a nice pair of Quicksilver board shorts for around $10!  We also found a cool war propaganda poster store, so I picked up a few cool posters.  Out flight back to Korea wasn't until nighttime so we had a full day to spend in Saigon before taking off.  But of course, all good things must come to an end, so eventually we headed back to the airport and took our red eye flight back home.  Here are a couple more pictures from the last day in Vietnam.
Staaaaaarrrrbucks!  (we didn't actually go to one but I though it deserved a picture)

Fresh meat, right off the street

Ready to cross the street?

Last ice coffee at a street side cafe

Wow!  That took a lot longer to write than I expected, haha.  But anyways, now I'm back in Korea.  We had the Lunar New Year Holiday on February 8th, so a few friends and I took advantage of the 3 day weekend to do...well what else... snowboard!  In other news, my 6th graders graduated last week (I'm gonna miss those guys) and the new school year will begin the first week of March.  I'm getting two new co-teachers as well, so things are switching up a little.  My school did have me on the interview panel for the new teacher however, so it was pretty cool that I got to have a say in who I would be working with.  Until school starts back up I don't have any classes, but I still have to go into work (the dreaded desk warming!).  So I've been updating this, practicing some Korean (not as hard as I should...), and getting things in order for next semester.  Today my Vice Principal told me that I am getting some extra classes this year, so I have some overtime pay to look forward too.

Well, I think that's about everything!  There is still about a month left of the snowboarding season, so my weekends are booked until the snow melts.  Then glorious spring!