Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Country Caverns

While we were waiting for our night train to head out to the country, we went to a Bia Hoi in Hanoi where the fresh draft beer costs about 25 cents and you get to hang out with the locals on tiny plastic stools. The train itself was an interesting experience as you book individual beds in a cabin of four, so you stay with complete strangers. Our cabin mates ended up being completely fine and kept to themselves, but it is still just a new and different experience.

Arriving in the early morning and soaking in the rural sites of Dong Hoi, we were picked up by a van from the farmstay that we had booked phong-nha-cave. The farmstay was a stunning French villa with gorgeous sprays of  flowers tumbling down from the rafters and a picturesque view of rice fields and water buffalo. The staff and the tours that were organized and scheduled by the farmstay were exceptional, and the food and facilities were wonderful.

The first thing we did in the country was to get on the back of a motorbike to go to the Wild Boar Eco Farm to see the symbol animal of my Scottish Campbell clan and sway on a giant swing overlooking the valley below. When we were finished swinging, we arrived at the Duck Stop where we learned how to eat peanuts the right way, drank cold beer and rode a water buffalo named Donald Trump in the Son River. We also fed the ducks with our bare hands which is a terrifying experience for someone who has a fear of birds. Nonetheless, we had a phenomenal day and made memories to last a lifetime.

One thing we really wanted to do was to visit Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and gaze upon primordial caves which are approximately 400 million years old. First up was Paradise Cave which is 31 kilometers and is the longest dry cave in Southeast Asia. Hiking the 500 steps in the heat of the jungle was a bit difficult, but the underground realm that lay beyond was worth the effort. The monumental size of just the one kilometer of this subterranean world which is open to the public is astonishing. The second cave we visited that day was Phong Nha Cave which you enter via boat. We rented a motorboat, and while skimming across the water we passed locals in sampans gathering seaweed and quaint French cathedrals in the lush green hills. Once we reached our destination, they cut the engines and a small boy used a wooden oar to paddle us through the cave. It was such a majestic sight, reminiscent of a gilded and elegant ballroom beneath the earth.

We will miss Phong Nha and our lovely friends as well as the beauty and tranquility of the land itself.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sail Away to Halong Bay

The following morning we were going for a cruise in Halong Bay which is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The travel company that we went through was vspiritcruises. Our travel guide, Jimmy, picked us up at our Airbnb and we set off for a three hour journey to the bay along with the rest of the crew that would be sailing with us.

The legend surrounding Halong Bay is that a mother dragon, along with her children, descended from the heavens upon the land of Vietnam in order to guard them from northern invaders. The dragons dropped giant emeralds from the sky in order to create a sanctuary of protection for the people, thus, the northern aggressors retreated. The dragon and her children transformed into humans and showed the people how to cultivate and enrich their land.

Dotted with limestone karsts, the beauty of this emerald bay was a breathtaking site to behold. Once we were on the boat, it was time for lunch and a few beers while we glided across the jade waters toward Surprise Cave. Once in the cave, our guide pointed out formations which resembled other creatures or objects. We had met some lovely friends by this point, and the six of us were all slightly amused by what our guide called the 'happy finger' which was jutting out aggressively near the ceiling of the cave. It seemed to all of us be some sort of hidden innuendo, but I'll let you look at the picture and decide for yourself.

Back on the ship, Lynzie did her best Titanic impression as we sailed to a netted cove to languish in the warm waters of the South China Sea while safely away from the flourishing jellyfish in the water. After taking a dip, it was time for cocktails and snacks, dinner, games and night fishing for squid, all while laughing hysterically with our new friends from South Africa and Tasmania.

After being rocked to sleep by the gentle lull of the boat we woke refreshed and ready for morning tai chi and kayaking. Paddling through the coves while singing childhood songs and gazing upon the stunning backdrop, was quite an enjoyable and serene experience.

It was now time to head back to Hanoi and say goodbye to our sweet friends Katrina, the other Katrina, Tony and Caroline. We will miss our darling friends from other continents, but an unknown person once said, 'There is no distance too far between friends, for friendship gives wings to the heart.'

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hello, Hanoi!

Hanoi is a teeming and energetic city consisting of seven and a half million people which immediately inundates every one of your senses and sends a shock to your system that suddenly jolts you awake. Luckily, we had booked a tour with Lam Le who came and picked us up from the airport, brought us safely to our Airbnb and then took us on an immediate tour of the capital city. First up was a stop at Pho 10 for delicious rice noodle soup and Hanoi beer, but after traveling for thirty hours and being stifled by the intense humidity, we were only able to enjoy a few bites!

Next up was the Temple of Literature which the emperor had built in 1070 CE and was erected in order to house scholars. This temple was dedicated to Confucius, the wise philosopher who was born in 551 BCE. Before Confucius was born, his mother went to the mountains to pray for a son. One night while in her garden, she had a dream in which she saw an animal coming toward her. Once it got close enough, she realized it was a unicorn. She placed her scarf on the unicorn's horn to make sure it wasn't an illusion, and noticed that there was a jade tablet in the mouth of this mythical creature. Inscribed upon the tablet it stated that a son of the Great Spirit was to be born and that he would one day be a good and wise king. Our tour guide, Lam, had told us that there are four revered animals in Vietnam; the unicorn, the turtle, the dragon and the phoenix, and many of these divine creatures were ornately displayed throughout the temple which has miraculously survived years of war and destruction.

 The following item on the agenda was Hao Lo prison which the French built in approximately 1886 to house political prisoners striving for Vietnam's independence against colonial occupation. During this time, heinous acts of torture were committed inside of these stone walls, creating an eerie mood upon seeing the degree of detail applied to generating this punishing level of existence. At the time of the Vietnam War, this same fortress was again used to detain prisoners of war from the United States. It is certainly a glaring reminder of our divided history, but as Winston Churchill said, 'If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.' I think it's so important to remember these sad, yet poignant times in history so we aren't doomed to make the same mistakes again and rather, rebuild relationships by trying to gain an understanding of one another and the things that make us unique as well as the things that make us the same.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Now that has got to be an Apple Record!

During our last days in Japan, we were in the countryside of Narita where we enjoyed the old wooden structures, eye catching shops, and the excitement of knowing we'd taste the most delicious eel and peanuts that the Chiba Prefecture are known for.

After finding a hidden gem of a man who takes people on tours of the local treasures, we hit pay dirt! This man was Katsumi, and he runs Narita Rainbow Tours. He came and picked us up first thing in the morning at our Airbnb and told us we'd be starting off by touring a local Sake Brewery. He played a movie for us which detailed the process of making sake while he drove us to the location. It was a quaint and award winning operation which has been passed down through the generations. And even though it was still morning, the sake rolled across the tastebuds as we tried different levels of strength and clarity. I also learned that all rice starts out brown, it only becomes white after scraping it. The absolute finest sake is made by scraping the rice down to a very fine piece, therefore wasting most of the rice and making it worth it's weight in gold.


Next, we headed to a Zen Buddhist temple in which the bell was forged in 1330. This was a wooden temple with a thatched roof and it showed more splendor than a golden palace. Katsumi told us the Japanese prefer twisted trees because they have more character, and I must say that gazing at a contorted plum tree hundreds of years old with all of its imperfections was a magnificent sight to behold. The simplistic beauty of this place down to the finest details such as the pots of fish that are self sustaining because the plants in the water give the fish all the oxygen they need to breathe and everything they need to live in their own microcosmic world, was a lesson within itself.

The next stop was to one of the only existing rice cracker stores which still make them the good old fashioned way. This shop was called Nishikura (stone warehouse) and the ladies were roasting them slowly and patiently. They gave us a hot sesame rice cracker with soy sauce to try, and it was so divine I could have cried!

A tour of the local market followed, and we beheld fruits and vegetables like we've never seen before. The apples were about half the size of a human head and the kiwi's, the daikon and the fungi...oh my! Katsumi bought a freshly baked sweet potato and shared his favorite treat with us. He told us that after he is done with work all day, he digs holes to search for roots near his home so that when he is done, he can enjoy the roots so much more because of how hard it was to get them. I feel it's the same way with our families and close friends, you must put energy into the roots that cultivated you.

Sawara was our next journey, and I was so excited to see the wondrous canal in what used to be the 'Venice of Japan.' This place was a teeming waterway before World War II. The locals lived off of the land and the children ran to school amongst wooden boards attached to separate structures. Unfortunately, after the war, the Americans encouraged them to build roads and their existing way of life slowly diminished. The elderly people regret this choice and the hotels in this town are only open for a little over a month a year when people flock there for the Iris fields. Katsumi said that here, they call beautiful women Iris and the most beautiful of all women, Peony. It was in this willowed town that thrived Inō Tadataka, the first cartographer to map Japan about two hundred years ago within one kilometer of accuracy by using the heavens and a sextant, he created his dream and changed history, and we got the pleasure of viewing his home along the canal. And in a brilliant twist of fate, Lynzie is a random is that?! After this tour, Katsumi then took us to a Japanese garden to feed the coy and enjoy the delicate balance of nature.

At the end of our sojourn, Katsumi took us to the Shinsho-ji temple where the fire of wisdom burns out the wood of illusion, where the temples are so stunning and ornate externally, shock you when you see they are even more visually pleasing on the interior. Every nook & cranny of that spacious temple is covered with hand paintings by artists from Kyoto who were so excited to come and create something new rather than their normal restorations. Shinsho-ji temple is dedicated to the God of Fire. Katsumi took us to witness the fire ceremony which is no longer allowed in most places like Tokyo for the general public to witness, for it would be too overrun with people. But here in the country we witnessed the monks walk in procession to the temple where we knelt and listened to the sounds of their bells, the lighting of a blazing fire, and even with the forewarning from Katsumi about when they were going to strike the enormous drum, it still struck you to your core. It was one of the most poignant and hypnotic moments of my life, and Lynzie and I had to agree it was one of the best moments of our trip. Afterward, we happened to be there for the one day a year that they hand out free rice porridge with beans for the patrons of the temple. It seemed like after that ceremony broke open our hearts and our minds, a simple bowl of porridge seemed like the most satisfying meal in the world.

The very last stop was on the Main Street of Narita where we shopped for the local delicacies like the peanuts from the Chiba prefecture, feasted on roasted chestnuts while shopping for Christmas presents for our loved ones at home, and checking out the master of the local delicacy of Unagi eel that are sliced live by a master of the art right in front of your very eyes. Katsumi told us that it takes ten years to perfect this intricate process. The owner of the shop takes his living so seriously that when a large earthquake hit the town, he grabbed his enormous clay pot of their special sauce and protected it from harm as he ran. And I must say, the Unagi eel with local sake from the Chiba prefecture was a delight as the eel melted in your mouth. We are very grateful to Katsumi for the meaningful experiences he so enlightened us with, but also for a friend we will always think fondly of.

And with that, we flapped our little wings and flew back home, grateful for our twisted roots.