Pretty Things

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Hello again from Vietnam! My last post left off with us being sore, filthy and thoroughly satisfied, cave-wise. After some rest, heavy doses of antibiotics on my part and patience on Curtis’ part, we re-emerged into the chaos of Vietnam and took the bus to Hoi An. Hoi An has a history of tailoring clothes, and as more tourists arrive, this history is ongoing. In fact I’ve heard that for every other type of shop, there are at least two tailors. As an observation I would also say that for every Vietnamese person here, there are at least two foreigners. As such, this quaint little city is very “white person” friendly. Small streets lined with lanterns that are lit up every night, delicious regional food that is served fresh at one of the million food stalls, shops, markets, easy biking (without fear of death but motorcycles), beautiful UNESCO sites that fill much of the Ancient Town, it’s a real holiday type place. We met some very nice older travelers that come here once a year to get garments made and enjoy the surroundings. On the flip side though, more foreigners means more locals trying to make a living off tourism and tailoring, which means that competition is stiff and the locals can be quite relentless. This can make for an overwhelming, but mostly fun experience! Every guest house or hotel has a tailor recommendation to offer you, which is probably their sister’s or brother’s place. Every tailor tries to find out where you are staying and offers you a price accordingly as there are probably kick-backs going around. Everyone is in on it basically, not that I blame them really. We’re choosing to come and take part, they’re just trying to make a living.

Thus we did research quite a bit to try and find places that a) were hopefully not outsourcing to sweat shops, as the turn-around is so fast there is no way the tailors in the shops could do it all themselves and b) were hopefully not part of any quasi price scamming (again not that I blame them, I just don’t want to take part). I say “hopefully” in all earnestness as I don’t think you can ever really be sure. However, we did find a place we were super happy with and had a really great time! Kimmy Tailor is a venture that is half owned by Canadians and while they do have a factory where they send the garments, at least everyone is employed by the company and gets reasonable working conditions (I hope). Kimmy was also outside the main fabric market, which was fun to walk through but pretty congested with people yelling at you, following you around, and thrusting fabric into your hands. I know a few people who got stuff made here, and were happy enough, but it was just too much stimulus for me! I really enjoyed being about to sit with my water and laptop they provided and sift through all the styles and types of clothing they could make. Curtis had no need for computers mind you. He knew exactly what kinds of suits he wanted and was gleeful as can be as he drew out his designs. The tailors were very patient with both of us and offered really helpful suggestions (That cut is no good, you’ll be needing this type of waist-line to hide your cookie belly etc.). So obviously we blew our budget here, but it was so worth it. In the end I got a few dresses, blouses, a “winter” wool jacket and cigarette high-waisted pants a la Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Curtis got two suits, a smattering of work shirts and a really handsome wool trench coat. Like I said, budget completely blown. Getting fitted for clothes is seriously addictive stuff! And to make matters worse/more awesome, they keep your measurements on file so you can order more items as you like. We’re going to have to stay the same size forever now, it will be a good lifestyle motivation. We got some shoes made as well, by the nicest woman around. She worked in the shoe market, which was just as aggressive as the fabric market, but we went in with a recommendation which was very helpful. “We’re here to find stall no. 241, sorry!” I’m really glad we went with her, though we should have bargained more. We let it get personal! But oh well, she was really skilled and professional and the billion photos of her daughter I looked at were adorable. Which is she of course knows. Don’t be cynical Heather, it ruins the fun!

Yes Hoi An was enjoyable to navigate and I’m crossing my fingers that the shipment we sent home by freight arrives in Calgary roughly around the same time that we do. I’m looking forward to wearing clothes that aren’t stained and torn!

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Deep, dark, damp

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What kind of cheese do you use to get a bear out of a cave? Camembert! Ha ha ha. That’s literally the only joke I can remember. No joke! While our caving adventure in Central Vietnam was bear-free, it certainly wasn’t short of excitement. But I should back up a bit. A few years ago I read an article in National Geographic about the recent discovery of the world’s largest cave. Largest in all dimensions: the newly discovered Son Doong Cave has a height of 250 meters, width of 200 meters and lengths of approximately 8 kilometers. That’s enough space for a) a city block of 40-story buildings b) a 747 airplane to sit comfortably c) two and a half Statues of Liberty d) all of my excitement. Oh, and it has a completely distinct rainforest ecology growing inside. Watch this to see! Unfortunately we couldn’t quite justify the week-long $3000 adventure in Son Doong, so we settled for another tour with the same caving company, Oxalis Adventure Tours, who I would highly recommend should you ever be in Phong Nha National Park. There are heaps of caves to choose from here, and they take you to the least known/furthest away ones.

We met our guide, three porters from the local village, and three fellow cavers in the small town of Phong Nha. We collected our helmets and torches, dry bags and life jackets and were off! We weaved through the peanut and corn fields, past the buffaloes wading in the river and immediately found ourselves in the rocky terrain of the next two days. Dry bags slung on our backs we scrambled up craggy rocks and boulders, always being outpaced by the porters who were carrying at least twice as much weight as us and wearing nothing but flimsy sandals. It’s worth mentioning at this point that I had gastroenteritis (undiagnosed at this point) and a lingering ankle injury that was definitely put to the test. My rough shape made the porters’ strength and agility that much more impressive. These guys were dynamos! Anyhow, with the distance between them and us always growing, we enjoyed the jagged limestone karsts jutting out all around us, the sounds of the jungle, and the constant climb towards our first goal, Hung Ton Cave. Our group of five finally arrived, caked in sweat and a glimmering sheen of bug spray, just as the porters were casually finishing up their umpteenth cigarette. Looking effortless in the jungle clearly involves an aura of smoke at all times. They prepared us a fantastic meal at the mouth of the cave, and from here we found ourselves surrounded by blackness, creepy spiders, and dripping stalactites. Trying to take in the immensity of the cave is difficult. As we crane our heads up, the heights of the ceiling engulf our tiny headlights, which is for the best really as we need our trivial beams to shine light on the damp stone beneath us. Shimmying down through cracks, hugging walls to avoid gaping holes into nothingness, we crept our way down into the vastness. (Afterward, Curtis and I pondered what would happen if someone had a serious accident in there. It’s probably best that no one did.) Eventually we reach the bottom and find ourselves in deep black placid water. Our guide regales us with (not) hilarious stories of monsters in its depths. We swim and swim, casting our lights above us to try and catch glimpses of the thousands of bats echoing around us. It is absolutely serene in the belly of the cave, swimming awkwardly in all our clothes and trekking gear. I feel connected to the millennias before me that have created these caverns, and will continue to do so long after I’m gone. It’s comforting in a weird way, the world is an amazing place.

This pattern of climbing up, shimmying down and swimming in our gear continued until we reached our campsite for the evening. Our piddly water-proof camera really doesn’t do it justice. It was a beautiful spot tucked between the mouth of the cave, waterfalls and green jungle. There were the porters, smoking away in their care-free sandals as Curtis and I struggled to swim to shore. For some reason everyone else was much better at swimming with helmets and shoes than us! I mean I’m not a great swimmer I know, but clearly I need to do some drills. The evening was spent under waterfalls, then under thick layers of deet, then under the comatose state we were all in after the most amazing dinner I had in Vietnam. Those porters were excellent cooks! Not that their families would know, unfortunately, as apparently they never cook at home. Vietnam has very clear gender-roles, unsurprisingly. Soon it is dark out and there isn’t much left to do besides swig rice wine that would clean out a car battery and climb into our hammocks slung between two trees. I’ve never slept in a hammock all night, it was quite nice!

The next morning we arose to complete the pattern of climbing and swimming, only this time with the added challenge of sore muscles and filthy wet clothes. All was forgotten though once we slipped into the murky water in each cave we (we went through four in total). Time froze, darkness reigned, and it was truly spectacular. Finally we found ourselves back in the peanut fields we started in, and the flat solid ground found us again. Incidentally so did a flash floody rain storm. Good timing on our part! Well sort of, the porters were waiting back at the village for us, bone dry of course, smoke and babies everywhere. I’m so thankful that Curtis and I were able to do this trek together, it’s been a bucket list item for me since I knew the National Park existed! Rock on, awesome caves, rock on. I’ll be back again one day, I hope.

Salty, Sweet, Spicy, Sour

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“Is that a baby riding on the back of a motorcycle?!”

So begins our arrival Vietnam. Families of five on motorcycles zipping in and out of other motorcycles, paying no interest to the lines on the road, or even the side of the road for that matter. There are no apparent rules, and also no apparent physics to abide by. Honking your horn means “Hello there, Here I am”, and whatever stack of babies you have on the back of your motorcycle better move over in a hurry. Welcome to South East Asia. People here are on the move.

(Motorcycle passenger personal favorites so far include: two men and a giant pane of glass; one man, one woman and an IV pole attached to the man’s arm whilst he is driving; a man and a tree complete with roots and leaves; a woman, two toddlers and a newborn…it is a rubric’s cube of possibilities.)

Vietnam is intoxicating. A kaleidoscope of colours and smells, left-over colonial French architecture surrounded by ramshackle homes stacked on top of each other, glimmering rice paddies and beautiful women in conical straw hats riding push bikes. It made us feel at once alive and exhausted as we navigated our first developing country. Our first stop was in Hanoi, the cradle of Vietnam’s history. It is a great mix of ancient history, colonial remnants and a modern Vietnam that is still finding itself. We spent most of our time just walking around, eating street food on squatty plastic stools and discovering the many wandering bits of the Old Quarter. Street food culture in Vietnam is pretty fantastic, even though it definitely gave me some serious “Asian belly”. You can divide the Vietnamese food regions into thirds: the traditional North, the spicy centre and a sweet South. So while in the North around Hanoi, we mostly enjoyed pho and spring rolls.

We did not enjoy people constantly hawking trinkets or constantly having to barter for everything (like everything, even water), but I guess you could say we just got used to it. I suppose it is part of being a foreigner in a market economy where the market is supersaturated and margins must be razor thin. I can sympathize, I just can’t stand still or make eye contact for too long if I’m not willing to buy.

From Hanoi we headed North still to our first of three UNESCO sites in Vietnam, Halong Bay. It was breathtaking! We slept on a private-ish island in bamboo bungalows, kayaked around all afternoon with new friends, and enjoyed seeing the floating homes scattered about. It was a really nice reprieve from the constant folderol of Hanoi. From here we made our way down to Hue in Central Vietnam on our first SE Asian train experience. Some valuable lessons learned here: 1) Vietnamese people are in a crazy hurry to get on the train! Like bonkers pushy. Why? I couldn’t tell you, there are assigned seats that are constantly being monitored by the train staff. We just had to embrace the elbows and get ours in there too. 2) Don’t assume the train will have toilet paper or soap or drinking water. 3) I will get motion sick, all the time. This is an ongoing lesson that has been the hardest thing in SE Asia for me hands down. But all things considered I did really enjoy the train system, we ended up using it quite a bit. Thanks France and colonialism!

I’ll save our favourite experiences for subsequent posts (CAVES! TAILORS!) because that’s just too much at one time. The rest of our time in Vietnam can mostly be summarized by precarious bike rides in varying levels of heat and traffic; continuing our food journeys from the spicy to the sweet (details can be found here ); antibiotics; searching for hipsterness in Ho Chi Minh City; fine tuning our bartering skills; and constantly trying to explain to curious locals why were weren’t married with tons of babies, ha. And while Vietnam has had a very sad history, and continues to struggle especially in its rural areas, we saw a lot of positive action taking place. I found the Vietnamese to be a resourceful and resilient group of people. I hope the strides they are taking in education, social activism and poverty-reduction continue to improve.