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Vietnam, From Top to Bottom in January 2014

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In about three weeks, I'm taking my first trip to Viet Nam. From Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta, from Phu Quoc to the cave adventures near Dong Hoi, from scuba diving to spelunking, this should be quite the adventure. I'm interested in other brave souls who have done athletic, adventurous trips to Viet Nam, and who like tents and hostel vs five star accommodations.

Please kindly, anyone who has suggestions: I am doing a minority tribe adventure with Ethnic travel out of Hanoi, working with Oxalis near Dong Hoi, diving with Blue Coral and A-74, and spending minimal city time. I'd love suggestions about how to get around the Mekong Delta, and any insider tips. I'm skipping Halong Bay (sheer time limits, next time around). Would love to do the motorcycle ride around Hoi An, any suggestions?

Been studying the language, doing my best to correct my accent, and planning what I hope to be a wonderful trip. I'll be posting regularly here and on TA, and giving insights as how things go and what happens, including if a river sweeps me downstream in the cave system.

Insights and feedback welcomed from seasoned Viet Nam travelers. Please keep in mind that I am also a Viet Nam era veteran, so this is a personal trip of real significance for me in that regard too. Thanks in advance to all.

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    Sorry, I don't know either of those agencies.

    VN is a country full of travel agencies. If you want a travel service, it's usually best to wait until you get there and can talk with agencies in person.

    In terms of language, if you have a phrase or two people will be impressed, but you can do almost everything in English.

    Once people know you are a VN vet, they will want to show you the local bar owned by a VN vet, etc.

    Have a good trip!

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    Jhubbel, looking forward to hearing all about your travels. Sound like much sort of trip. I applaud you for learning the language, I am sure you will find it extremely useful as you seem to be going off the beaten track. One thing I did on a similar trip was to get 20 pr so travel phrases written down in English and Vietnamese so that when my accent failed me, I could show the people the paper. Worked a treat ( mostly!) The effort you are making we be much appreciated by the Vietnamese people. However, do bear in mind that many of the minority people in the more remote areas will not speak Vietnamese so to get the most out of a trip insist on a guide that speak their language.

    When visiting Vietnam nam I usually travel independently and pick up guides along the way. As Kathie suggests, it is often better to choose a guide when there. There are loads to choose from and you will get the opportunity to meet them face to face before parting with your cash.

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    If I might suggest this, there's a wonderful small hotel in the old French diplomatic district that we stay at in Hanoi, the De Syloia Hotel, 17A Tran Hung Dao. Google it. It's lovely, and in a beautiful sector of the city, walking distance of the old quarter, the lake and the railway station up to Sapa.

    In Saigon we always stay at the Majestic. Best hotel in the city.

    English and French and German speakers are easily found, just ask the concierge, no need to go through tourist agencies. You can organise everything before leaving home, the people there will do it for you, they're very good on organising these things.

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    Many thanks to all. Crellson good to hear from you again! Just a note: as to the language, I have a wonderful family that has been taking care of my lawn and my nails for about seven years and Loi, the computer expert, is a university teacher who also helps out his sister at the nail shop. He has kindly spent 2-3 hours a week coaching me on basic phrases, and grilled me on the accent. Money well spent. I so appreciate the many suggestions.
    So far the inquiries have been met with warm responses and I'm looking forward to leaving Jan 1. I'm also expecting many mispronounciations, many wonderful discoveries, fantastic food and absolutely breathtaking scenery. And a certain insanity for the Tet holiday.

    If anyone has brought home something they found particularly lovely in terms of souvenirs from Viet Nam, what suggestions do you have? Thanks again to all for their good input. Best of the holidays to everyone.

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    My favorite souvenirs have been artwork. The FIne Arts Museum in Hanoi has a gift shop that has work by locals, most of it very inexpensive. There are also art shops in the old quarter of Hanoi.

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    Thank you again.

    I understand that a woman earlier took a great deal of umbrage at my referring to myself as a Vietnam veteran. I didn't say that. I said I am a Vietnam ERA veteran, which is something very specific, and I am an 80% disabled, DECORATED, veteran, who spent five years on active duty and one year as a Reservist serving my country during the latter part of that difficult war. I will be 61 in about a month. I take great care in making that distinction just as I take great pride in my service for which I earned three medals.

    I don't know who this person is or what her anger is. However I do know that as a military vet who served honorably during that challenging time, it took many years before I chose to tell anyone I had served. We were spat upon, looked down on, refused the respect that we most certainly had earned for serving our country. It has only been in the last few years that I've been thanked for my service, asked to speak on Veteran's Day (I'm a professional speaker) and asked to stand at events where veterans are honored. From the time I first stood at attention at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 1973 to the time I left the Army, both as an enlisted woman and as an officer, I was proud to wear that uniform. I help fellow vets get business with the Fortune 500. And I speak for all of us in the service: We don't need vitriol. We don't need to be attacked. It would have been slightly more polite to have asked a few questions before blasting away.

    None of us is privy to the facts of someone else's life. As a long time journalist, which I learned at DINFOS (Defense Information School then housed in Indianapolis) and practiced at the Pentagon, I do my best to ask questions to understand, which is one reason I love to travel. I do my best to not make assumptions. For whoever wrote with such bile, I sincerely wish you great peace, and I hope that whatever is causing you such anger to heal. Anyone who is that angry clearly has some pain. I do most truly hope this puts this question to bed and I can continue this dialogue with others who've been adding value to this thread which I most certainly appreciate. Again, thanks to all.

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    Hi jhubbel
    I think you'll have a fabulous time, the Mekong delta is fascinating, and trekking to minority villages from Sapa a real highlight for me. We bought some lacquerware serving dishes in Hanoi, cheap, light and still in use today (trip was in 2009).
    Enjoy!

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    jhubbei, don't worry about maree. She responded to you out her own issues. She assumes all VN vets must be Australian. There was no need for you to explain yourself.

    Enjoy your trip!

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    Thanks sweetie. I appreciate it. I would love some last minute pre trip suggestions, including from sartoric, about the trip you took around Sapa. I am doing that for about seven days. Any thoughts about stuff to take or what to look out for, other than wonderful people and gorgeous scenery? Since this will be winter, any thoughts about weather? I've googled everything but it always helps to hear from those who've been.

    What are your thoughts and suggestions about taking photographs in the minority areas? I want to be respectful and then again I am a journalist. All insights welcomed.

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    Hi jhubbel
    Are you taking the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (for Sapa) ? If I'd known I would have taken sleeping pills, the "soft sleeper" beds were slightly larger than an ironing board and about the same density.
    Sapa was freezing in October, but enchanting all the same. We walked about 13 kms from one village to another with a young lady from the Red Dzao tribe. We had lunch with her at a roadside restaurant which was very rustic, basically two tables set up at the side of the owners home. There was a basket of green vegetables nearby, which turned out to be young bamboo shoots freshly cut that morning. Stir fried with some ginger & garlic they were yummy. I'd never seen them before, about the size of a middle finger and nutty. the cost for the day was about US $25 which I thought ridiculously cheap.
    Have a hot pot in the Main Street of Sapa, noodles chicken and assorted veggies that you simmer in a perfumed broth at the table, delicious. We also had the best chicken spring rolls ever in Sapa.
    I hope it's not too foggy/misty while you're there as the views are amazing.
    There's a market with lots of ethnic tribal women selling embroidered fabric. Memorably my husband snuck away to a high point before yelling at the top of his lungs "lady wants a blanket" He then snapped away as I was swarmed by 20 or so women, all a foot shorter than me holding up their wares.
    I did of course buy several.

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    Sartoric, your descriptions of the food are bringing back many memories for me and making me very hungry!!

    We visited Sapa in December/ January at the start of our trip around the Dien Bien. Phu loop. We spent a few days in Sapa hiking around the valley an villages and loved it. The weather was great, blue skies and 20-25c temps. The morning we left it was thick fog and freezing temps. The next day we heard of snow in Sapa. The weather there really can change in an instant. A fleece and or thermal underwear would be a sensible precaution but hopefully, won't be needed.

    As for people photography, Sapa was especially difficult in the town as there are so many tourists visiting, particularly at weekends. As a result, you can expect demands for payment to be the norm at these times. Out in the villages and markets, you will also probably encounter resistance as many people really do not there photos being taken. Buying something or a small fee may overcome this resistance but not always. A long lense or unobtrusive compact may be your best option.

    Finally, I would echo Kathie's sentiments re the offensive post(s) I came in for some abuse from the same person at the same time. Water of a ducks back as far as I am concerned. Maybe that person has problems, maybe they are just another internet troll, either way just ignore.

    Have a fantastic trip and do post atrip report of your experiences.

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    Crellston, as always, well said. It's amazing who has issues these days. At the moment, having landed here a couple of nights ago, I've been writing since three am, god I hate jet lag but at least it gives me writing time. My backpack zipper exploded during handling so when I picked it up it was taped up with all the contents shoved back in willy nilly. No idea if anything was lost. So first call of business was either repair or replace.
    I'm staying in a funky little guest house in the tourist area, close to many key sites, and happily not too far from a "shop" where I could get repairs done. So after getting some money exchanged I began my trek to this shop, and what a trek it was. Anyone who's been here can attest to the tsunami wave of white helmeted motorcyclist, who care not a whit about pedestrians, and that goes for any other driver. These bikes and a great many going concerns take up all available walking space on what otherwise would be considered the sidewalk, forcing those of us who do walk out onto the street, into the onslaught of traffic. Hair raising to say the least. In many ways very funny, because there's not a thing to be done about it. I did find that joining arms with a bao (grandmother) or two helped when I needed to plough out into the middle of an intersection rather than wait for an opening when there never was one. There's a general disregard for street signs other than the basic stop or go and if you happen to not get across the street in time when the light turns green for them, then you'd better damned well be very very fast or get run over. They do not yield to pedestrians full stop.
    After about a mile and a half hike and some checks along the way I found my baggage repair "shop", basically a guy and a gal in a conical hat wielding two sewing machines out on the sidewalk. She cheerfully eyeballed my backpack, pulled out a zipper, showed me, gave me a price of 145000 vnd or about thirteen dollars, and said it would be done by 5 pm. Are you kidding me? Part of me thought that might be too good to be true but at 4:45 when I had swum upstream through the traffic again, the guy handed me my better-than-new backpack with a perfectly repaired zipper, I had been saved a $300 replacement. Wow, I am impressed and very very grateful.

    En route in the middle of the ocean of buzz one guy's refrigerator got disengaged right in the middle of the road, and landed on the street. I handed my backpack to two ladies on the sidewalk and sprinted (this isn't easy but it is fun) to the guy, who was trying to keep his bike upright and salvage the fridge. Soon two other guys stopped and we quickly got him off to the side of the road. It astounds me what folks put on the back of these sturdy little bikes, they flat disappear behind their loads.

    There was a wonderful opportunity to try out my limited Vietnamese with a gentleman at the fruit market. I asked for two papayas, negotiated the price and got a better price, all in Vietnamese, and was tickled pink. Then I walked in with great confidence to a pho restaurant to order soup and the manager couldn't understand a word I said. All the air farted out of my balloon. Oh well. He told me in that very frank way that is common here that I "needed to work on my language skills." I'm laughing as I write this. Trust me, I sure do. Vietnamese is one tough language, the accent is tricky and it is humbling to say the least.

    Saigon for me is beyond loud, being a lover of mountains and the country and silence, it's hard to be around this kind of bustle and traffic density. What I hope for today is to visit some markets and key sites before heading off to a tour of the minority villages including Sapa. As luck would have it, a young lady at a local Vietnamese restaurant has parents in Sapa who own a guesthouse and if let loose I hope to visit them with her greetings. That would be a lovely opportunity.

    What was fun yesterday evening was to visit the local big supermarket and inspect the food, from the fruit to the packaged food. I always find that so fascinating in other countries. From how things are presented to seeing which countries get their goods in the stores. What brands are represented. I came home with new kinds of fruit to experiment with and lots and lots of pomelo juice, which anyone who loves citrus would adore if they ever dig into that marvelous fruit here.

    Sartoric, I am flying to Hanoi, and then Ethnic Travel is the group I am joining for about eight days of touring the northwest area. I did pack for cold, although Crellston reminds me that I might not have packed enough. Sigh. Another bit of shopping to do today. I'm trying to go lighter, not heavier, guys! I have an excellent down jacket which I brought as much for the Phong Nha caves as for the northwest. I have to see what might still be in the bag after it spilled its guts in travel. Prices being what they are here, I'm sure I can find long johns for a good price!

    One thing I am grateful for, though, is being where I can get excellent fruit, wonderful wonderful pho and other yummy food, and celebrate food and countryside at the same time. Thanks to Crellston who is on his own extended journey, and practicing his Spanish while I struggle with my feeble Vietnamese. Inevitably I'm going to request toilet paper instead of soy sauce at the dinner table which will send everyone else into hysterics and leave me turning red. But then, it will make another good story.

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    :-) I needed that. I've been struggling today with the pollution, I went out for a good long walk over to the big market and my eyes were streaming and burning. The humidity is high today and the suspicion is that it's holding the pollution close to the ground. Just awful. So I came back to write. One funny aspect of this little guesthouse is that the dank little room I'm in has minimal lighting. That means that when I went to repack my gear- and this is with all the lights on including the bathroom- I had to use a flashlight to see anything. I'm not making this up. The fixture overhead is very dark and has one, not four, low wattage light. The lamp on my bed doesn't work. The lamp in the bathroom is very low wattage. Hey I get saving money. But I nearly went blind in here trying to write. With my 60 year old eyeballs? Gimme my carrots! I can't even cast a shadow in here! So I spoke to the guy in charge. Yeah yeah yeah. Hour later, nothing. So I spoke to the cleaning lady who yelled at the guy in charge, who then padded upstairs to explain to me that a special person had to be brought in to take care of the light. I'm thinking: taller than you? So I got up on the bed, and reached for the light fixture, at which point he nearly had a heart attack, and pointed out the lock on the fixture. A lock? It only has one bulb in it anyway! Okay so now I'm laughing and suggesting a lamp.

    Forthwith he comes back with a lamp which is now spreading lovely light all over my computer, and making the room livable in a kinda cozy way, as long a you stay within the reach of the lamp. Of course when it dies out you have to unplug the fridge, and plug in the lamp, you get the picture.

    What saddens me is that the pollution is evil enough to keep me inside when I'd like to go see the water puppets or something else, but it really is pretty bad. My eyes were in misery and it's just not worth it.

    For anyone who likes kitsch, I recommend the big Ben Thanh market just off the park on Le Lai street. While it's like most of the inside markets I saw in Thailand it's still fun to go poke around. I've not yet found a treasure, but I've got a big lug friend back home who likes T-shirts. If I can just have adequate time to find something I like before someone pounces on me to demand what size I want I'd be fine. That rather sends me skittering down the aisle. It's more fascinating to go watch the still live fish swimming around ready to be chosen for dinner.

    No long johns to be had in this heat. That will have to wait til I get to Hanoi where winter is more likely to be felt.
    And as for this place, I'm not going to recommend My My Arthouse. From the mildewy smell that greets me each time I walk in to the dungeon dark to the roach that greeted me when I leaned over to pick up the gear for my backpack, let's just say I've stayed in a few better places. But I did get a lamp.

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    By the way sartoric I failed to comment on your funny story about lady wants a blanket! That reminds me of when I was just in Tanzania, one of a small group of whites, quite likely the only whites to ever show up at this particular Maasai open market way the H out in the deep bush. We got out of our car and were immediately bullrushed by all these women selling beads in all forms. Chris, who is Tanzanian and fluent in Swahili and Ma, which is what Maasai speak, was absolutely overwhelmed, as he is very tall, handsome and spoke the language, and to boot, he was buying. So it was a feeding frenzy around this 6'5" guy, until suddenly he starts good naturedly jumping up and down with a grin on his face, speaking Ma, to clear a space for himself. Having bought himself a few extra feet, he finished his shopping, made some jokes, everyone laughed with him, gave thanks all around and everyone was happy. I keep this vignette in mind when I feel crowded, how sweetly he handled this- in the context of the culture, and with such good humor. He knew precisely what to do and how. Granted, this is his culture, but it was still a lesson in good manners. I have some photos of these wonderful women crowding in on a number of us, so close they were nearly in our pockets, their children touching our hands, legs, fingers, arms. CLOSE. We're not used to this. I rather enjoyed it, as a very new cultural experience.You got your sheep dip quite another way, and I'll bet you HAD to buy several, or else your husband would have to answer for calling in the troops!

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    As always jhubbel, fantastic writing! I am living your. Vietnam trip vicariously. I remember the sea of motorcyclists only too well. I had learnt from my first trip 20 odd year previously that crossing the street in Saigon was just to walk and carry on walking and the traffic would just open up and flow around you. back then it was only push bikes and it worked perfectly. Indeed it worked ok on our last trip a few years right up to the point when crossing an almost empty street and I got hit by a motorbike speeding around a corner!

    Keep up the great reporting. Looking forward to reading more.

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    At this point I am huddled in my rather chilly hotel room on the third floor with iffy wi-fi, having coming over a very wet misty pass over very very muddy roads with Ethnic Tours, an English speaking guide named Chi who's a tiny girl in her twenties, a charming and very much in love French couple in their sixties named Serge and Marie, and a French speaking guide and our enthusiatic and hilarious driver Linh. We've stayed in two homes so far in two tribal villages, two hotels, and the experiences have run the gamut. For one, I flat love being in the country. As others who have read my missives will recall I have a habit of losing things so it won't come as any surprise that the day before we left on this journey I left my purse- and nearly two thousand dollars- in the first floor bathroom of the hostel before setting out to pay Ethnic Travel the balance of the trip fee. I was off and getting happily and thoroughly lost in the Hanoi old quarter, being accosted by everyone to take a ride (not on your life, I'll walk, thanks) and after adding at least one unnecessary but hugely entertaining mile to my journey I finally found them. I got an idea of my itinerary, paid up and left to purchase a new hat, since I donated my very pricey Goretex version to the security guards at the airport. Well, natch, I didn't get far in the shopping process before I realized that the familiar whop-whop of the purse against my body had been missing for some time now, and I stopped in the middle of the street (NOT a smart thing to do) and amidst all the angry beeping and honking tried hard to figure out where on earth I could have left my purse. First I hurried back to Ethnic Travel, and of course it wasn't there, and then we called to the hostel and I asked the girl to check the bed area and the downstairs bathroom floor where I knew I'd taken the purse off. She said it wasn't in either place. Well, after that I figured it was gone. Phooey. Two grand lost. Well, that's why we have travel insurance. I asked what I should do, given I had to leave first thing in the morning, I got some good advice, bought a hat and got lost again getting back to the hostel.

    Well lo and behold, after I'd already accepted the loss of my Kindle, my books, the money and much more, there was the purse ( a little wet for wear) sitting behind the girl at the reception desk. I asked where she found it, and she said "On the bathroom floor." I refrained from saying anything about the state of mind I'd just been in for an hour, gratefully accepted my purse and money and Kindle, and enjoyed another good laugh at my tendency to misplace important things. At least not my passport.

    It took us some time to get out of the pollution and traffic of Hanoi, something I've come to accept about Vietnam, and when we did it was wonderful. Soon we were sharing the road with buffalo and kids and cattle and bicycles more often than cars and motorbikes, and the lovely part of it was that there were no tourists where we went. None. At some point we were dropped of and we went for a good long hike, which for me was such a gift. We were promised hikes and cycling, and this through rice paddies which were mostly mud and water this time of year. That doesn't take away from,their beauty, nor from the placid grace that makes this area so lovely. People in tribal dress bend over their labors, the women in cone hats and plows, the water buffalo in the fields, everywhere women with babes on their backs.
    At our first homestay they were under construction so we were shuttled off to the neighbor's house to sleep in the stilted home on bamboo floors. We had pads and huge thick blankets, and a long walk to the toilet. The "shower" which I could not sort out ended up being a tap near the floor, so I resorted- because the water was just icy- to soaping the essentials, ahem- and figuring that I'd do the whole thing at the next stop. Food was magnificent- a great variety of home made, much rice, vegetables, pork, chicken. The dogs are all very wary here, even the puppies, until you can catch one and cuddle them, and when they realize you're a petter, their tails go nuts and they can't lick you enough. Most would rather bite than allow you to touch, so I've learned to be very careful of them.
    The terraced hills and sweet calm of the area is sometimes broken by someone's motorbike, or the loud music from a neighbor's stereo system. The first night the wife came in and proudly turned on the tv, which was irritating, because I had so badly wanted to escape just that kind of noise, and the silence was such a balm. However, Chi quite rightly pointed out that to these people, to be the only family in the village with a color tv was quite a statement of status. Sigh. This I understand fully, being a child of the fifties, of course. It's only after we've been so deeply invaded by technology that we want to return to some semblance of silence!

    The morning was cool, and a light mist lay on the mountains, which were nearly conical and pointed in this area. In the early hours the women in their cone hats set forth to continue their work on prepping the fields for the rice planting to come in April. The ducks and geese with their long necks fed in the waters and the dogs patrolled the clay roads. Out in these hills the roads are only just wide enough to accommodate one car or truck, and there is much beeping around corners because their bulk takes up all available space. Much of the traffic takes place through the rice paddies by foot, motorcyle and bike which is what we did the next day.

    Fully fed we took off by foot for a solid two hour hike in the morning, the sun behind the clouds to soften the heat and keep things easy on our heads. Despite the presence of many animals large and small there was little more than an organic smell- which indicates how carefully offal was used to fertilize the prolliferation of gardens. Dogs everywhere but not once did I smell dog poop. That fascinated me. The whole area was so clean smelling, and what I did smell was that wholesome smell of things growing.

    Our hike took us alongside the irrigation ditches, through the paddies so that we could see the crops close up in their dormant stage. Everywhere people greeted us, tickled that they knew a few English words and we could practice our Vietnamese words. By this time I'd had a chance to negotiate prices on dudu (papaya) and buy a few things using my language and so far hadn't gotten myself arrested, no small feat yet, but there's still plenty of time. What I did find that the ability to pay two compliments to the homestay hosts: Vietnam is a beautiful country, and the Vietnamese are a beautiful people (two very simple phrases in fact) were extremely well received, and went a long way towards making us welcome. I flat forgot all my notes and I'm just lucky to be able to remember those.

    More later, the troops are assembling three floors down.

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    This is my seventh attempt to write an entry since 4:30 am and I admit I'm jaded. I keep hitting some button and it has repeatedly erased hours of creative work, and man, that has gotten old. I started out enthusiastically and now, after losing six long entries, ladies 'n germs, this gets old. I don't know what I am doing wrong here. I should probably shorten them and ensure that something, anything, gets posted!

    Well, here goes, trying again. Our second day dawned cool and misty, which for the long hike we were about to embark upon was perfect. It stayed misty our whole time in the northwest, anbd while that cost us some vistas, there's something to be said for that mystical layer of cloud that hovers over the evergreens. For us, it kept the temperatures reasonable for our athletic endeavors and that worked.

    Today we headed off for a two hour hike along the same paths as the villagers, along the irrigation ditches. Passing bent over blacktoothed grannies, people carrying burdens ranging from babies to bamboo to building materials. Scooters, cyclists, pedestrians, kids, everyone is on that walkway, and not a single person is overweight. People in the paddies are up to their calves in the mud prepping for the April planting, using very basic hose. Vietnamese potbellied pigs are happily digging for goodies, blissfully unaware of the impending fate, the coming New Year's celebration. Water buffaloes either graze in the distant paddies or are hard at work at the plough. It's deeply quiet, yet busy, industrious, and there is bustle and activity everywhere. The hike, which is not necessarily hard, is challenging and a great wakeup call for us.

    What I like about this trip is that it gives us insight into daily life. Because we see no other tourists, we are the minority here. That is hugely pleasurable. We are a curiosity, and so when we take a photo and share it, that gives pleasure. Kids shriek with delight and run away, and then come back for more. It's wonderful to be a novelty, rather than an annoyance, as I felt at times in Tanzania. We saw not one other tourist, not once. That alone was worth the cost of the trip to me. We could walk for hours and stop and talk to a woman cleaning casaba and ask her about her life, and she was happy to talk with us.

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    After the sometimes muddy up and downs of the hike, we found ourselves at our lunch stop at 11 am. This house, dotted with bird cages like little gems, provided a respite and we decided to eat before our two hour bike ride. Our host plied us with pork, beef,soup, vegies, all the goodies while we listened to a backdrop of lilting birdsong, far more melodious than anything electronic. Thus rejuvenated, we mounted our bikes.

    Now I dunno about you but the last time I rode a single speed, push pedal bike was about fifty years ago. The one I have has WAY too many gears and you clip into the pedals, so when your foot apparatus goes up, the pedal does too. Yeah well. Ain't happenin, man. We go flyin' down a hill and suddenly pedals are going one way and my feet are going another and I have this nasty feeling that I may end up in the river at the bottom of this gulley. At the last possible second I get that under control, but then I find another challenge.

    Any time we are off the sweet quiet and safety of the pathway along the irrigation ditches and paddies, we are on the main road. The "main road" is a single lane road which accommodates everything and everybody, including VERY LARGE VEHICLES THAT MUST PASS EACH OTHER. You, on a bike, are insignificant. Kind of like a gnat. So there you are, pedaling along, minding your own business, when some massive lorrie creeps up on your backside, to your shoulder, then emits this blasting BLAAAAAAAAT

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    which of course sets you to wobbling around in the gravel while you struggling to put your heart and lungs and brain back into your body cavity as this behemoth rumbles by you about two inches next to your shoulder. Thank god for panty liners, all I can say. Next time Chi says "Left!" onto the country path in the paddies I weep with joy. Hey, it's just me.

    After two hours of death defying road cycling and riding along the countryside, we are back at the bird house, where we return our bikes, and are taken to a large market where we can buy lots of tangerines and other goodies for our next homestay. Chi is going to cook us a dinner. Here is where I learn a key lesson about toilets. I know how to ask for one in Vietnamese, a very good skill, but sometimes you don't want to go to one in a public place. I asked, I went, it was worse than the Cleveland Zoo in 1972, and Baby that was memorable. The market however is fun, and Chi loads up on bag after bag of candy, and Serge and Marie pick up bananas and bonbons.

    Thus set for the night we are left off on the road, sort out our things for the next overnight at a home stay and hike a short way down the Black River which is a euphemism for what is now a big lake created by a hydroelectric dam. It's a ten minute hike, and we approach a thatched roof house which house a goodly number of people as well as the first friendly dog I've met since landing. I promptly sit and lavish affection on this animal, who promptly lies down in my lap and sucks it all up.

    The stilt houses where we've been staying have bamboo floors, are all wide open inside, basically one big room. When we arrive, the host family usually brings us green tea to greet us. There is bedding that is set on the floor, mats and pads, and a very common, very bright kind of comforter that I saw in every house. It's a brilliant red and fuschia flower pattern, big, bulky and warm. Everyone has mosquito netting. There is a kind of skeeter up here that causes Japanese encephalitis but it is out of season right now. Still it makes sense to protect yourself as there are still plenty around near the water.

    As the Vietnamese are not known to be a tall people, their houses reflect this. I am a rather tall women, perhaps not by the Amazonian standards of some athletes and models today, but at 5'8" I'm not short. I tower over the average Vietnamese. So at this house, to get to the kitchen, there was a wooden walkway that skirted the sleeping area,and to make the corner you had to go under a beam that would be about right for Granny, who was about 3'8". Granny sat in the kitchen, at the window, overseeing that very corner, so that she could watch the festivities.

    All right so you can see damned well what's coming. There's this big thick wooden beam over this corner, which means that anyond over about 4' tall better lean way the heck over or else get your egg cracked, which I managed to do brutally, three times, which got Granny to giggling through her black teeth as I collapsed to my knees. This is the "Stupid White People Who Don't Duck" Comedy Reel, until I realized that there was another, safer, very obvious alternative route which meant walking around the outside of the building without clobbering the coconut.

    I don't mind being the entertainment at all unless it's causing me severe pain, which in this cause, I was using up my pain meds in short order. Sorry Grams.

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    That afternoon the breezes blew through the trees and mists persisted, and I also persisted in pestering the pup, who was pleased to be patronized. He was a yellow boy, and loved to be lavished upon. My suspicion is that not too many dog get a lot of love over here, as you don't want to fall in love with some critter that could easily end up in the cook pot next Monday night. Sigh. Whaddya do. So I gave him the Dreaded Butt Scrub went sent him to paroxysms of joy and he was still recovering when dinner was starting to smell really good.

    I meandered the safe way to the kitchen which was a close hut with a big fire going. Chi, her hair up in a big towel, was on her knees and managing several very big woks of vegetable and meat dishes at once very skilfully. The fire was very hot and smoke burned the eyes, and dad was smoking, and Grams was in the Corner with a View. She grinned at me with that smile that said "hey stupid how's the pumpkin?" and I sat down to watch the proceedings. You can't blame her, the best entertainment around here has got to be watching white people whacking their noggins on that beam. She's so short she sails underneath it without brushing a hair.

    Finally we all helped carry the massive, gorgeous dinner upstairs. The homestay family had theirs in one part of the room while we feasted on Chi's delectable dinner. More food than we could finish, by quite a bit. No one has a refrigerator out here, so it will get eaten right away. Sated, we all had beds out in a minute, to bed shortly after the sun went down, netting down, night upon us.

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    The next morning I woke up at 4 am, more to the insistence of a certain body part than anything particularly responsible on my part. There was a short hike which involved tripping on Mr. Please Scrub My Butt Again at the base of the stairs, and another back, this time with a planned stop to do just that. I sat down with him and his sweet nature to enjoy the absolute silence that the mountains and quiet lake provided. There were no waves, just mist, and pure stillness. After the bedlam of honking and shrieking that both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi had provided, such quiet was as pure a gift as anyone would ask. When you grow up on a farm such as I did, and could escape to a big thatch of woods, our silences were broken by the Southern symphony of cicadas, noon insects, buzzing, humming and whirling and birdcalls. Its own perfect blend with frog calls, especially right after a rain. Here there was nothing to interrupt the night. Such silence we get after a snow, in the high country.

    The man who owns this house was a proud Communist, his photo and medals and acknowledgements up on the wall over the tea table. He could not be more kind. When we arrived, however more things had been afoot, including his foot, which he had somehow damaged rather badly along with a severe scrape on his knee. Marie, who is an RN, came the rescue, with her kit and some very hot water, and she took him out on the walkway out of our sight and later led him back in nearly good as new. He was beaming and smiling and clearly delighted to have been in such capable hands.

    After a hot steaming breakfast of pho and fruit, Marie and Serge and I were trundled off to the fishing boat for a 90 minute tour of the River-Now-a-Lake. We pushed off the shore in the solid mists, and took note that just a few others were out and about, two to a boat. One stood in the front with a big net and the other moved the boat with his feet on the oars as adept as with his hands. As we watched, the fishcatcher did just that, and someone's dinner landed in the boat's belly, slap!

    As we slowly traveled, we noted a number of fish "pools," which kept the creatures corraled until needed. They had obviously been there for some time as grass had taken up residence on the perimeters. There was active commerce taking place on the shoreline, otherwise we could see the crisscross pattering of thousands of feet- animal and human- on the hillsides.

    On our way back in, Serge leaned his head forward on Marie's shoulder and she leaned her head back to touch his in a sweetly intimate gesture. I caught it on camera, a completely perfect moment of two people who are wholly sympatico. It's one of my favorite photos of the entire trip.

    We did a long, slow circle, and finally came back to rest, at which point we docked and made our way back to pick up our backpacks, hike back out and resume our journey.

    Our homestay owner had left by motorbike, but happily, he found himself stopped behind us when we had found some sun and the perfect light to photograph a waterfall that had escaped us the day before. Sitting behind the tour bus, I recognized him and ran to his cycle. He grinned ear to ear. At first I shook his hand, and then on impulse, I just hugged him, and he hugged me back, hard. You cannot manufacture that, not in any way, shape or form. That's just pure, simple, 100% joy. It's why we do this. Pure and simple.

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    On the next night we were at a hotel, where I finally was able to get the wifi to work. My guide insisted on my letting her have my passport for the police for the night, which I equally and with a polite face, rather strongly insisted she could not have. The hotel could see it, take the information, take a copy, but it could not have my passport overnight. Not in Communist territory, not with a blackmarket business in American passports, not on your life, not when the American consulate requires we keep the passport on our person at all times. My very young (maybe twenty? Maybe?) guide was furious with me on this point, and this was perhaps a turning point for us. The hotel receptionist understood and had no issue with it. However, Chi did. And she didn't forget either, because it came up three more times. This wasn't a battle she would win with me, and when I tried my best to explain she rudely cut me off mid-sentence over and over. I gave it over to youth, inexperience, bad manners, and a few other things I won't mention here. An American passport is gold and I'm not willing to risk not getting it back. Being a Vietnam era vet, I'm also not willing to risk being hauled in for some spurious reason and not being able to go home either, none of which she understood nor cared to hear about. Ah well....

    So we had another wonderful dinner and I was able to dream about a certain kayak for sale on ebay, which had begun to call my name, and now the wifi had confirmed a counter offer. A distraction. There was a birthday coming up and hmmm.

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    As we began to climb higher into the mountains, and this was really tribal country, we saw several things that were new. For the first and last time I saw horses- four of them. Two small brown horses, about thirteen hands, pony sized, were set up for riding. Another was driving a cart, and a fourth was being ridden by a man in tribal costume. The mists had come to the ground or rather, we had driven into the heavy clouds. The mud was deep, sticky and tough. As we drove, we hit big trucks mired in the stuff. Our warm bodies and breath steamed up the car and between the internal steam and external mist we couldn't make out a thing for hours. I suspect we missed out on some spectacular scenery, but all we could make out were some ghostlike apparitions on motorbikes passing by us, or the shape of a big truck that we were passing or vice versa. Linh, our driver, was very competent, which was a sigh of relief, given the awful condition of the roads and the driving conditions in general.

    At one point the mists lifted as we drove through a small village, and the most striking thing I recalled was looking into a tiny salon and seeing a young woman with her hair loose, and it fell to her ankles. I should say cascading, for that's what it did. As she worked on her client, the light from the shop sparkled in the waves of her hair as it moved with her body.

    Today at lunch, we ended up with some fried river fish. This was the same fish we'd seen drying by the Black River cum Lake, and the smell had nearly sent me running then, and deep fried it nearly sent me running even faster. It did an excellent job of making me unable to consider eating anything for the rest of the day. I respect- I really do- different tastes in food, but there are times, especially when it comes to things like fish- that I cannot stop the flip flop of my gut, and when I walk by the loads and loads of dead dried fish in the markets it is just all I can do to walk as fast as I can and not lose my lunch. It's what you're used to, I guess. Like anchovies. Oy.

    That afternoon we were put out again for a good long and very wonderful hike so I shouldered my backpack and set to with my group. This hike took us through a village and some very long ups and downs that got quite steep. Chi, who was carrying her annoyance with me like a badge, wanted me to run uphill with her. So I did. But she can't run uphill and I can. Mind you she has no backpack on, I am carrying twenty pounds. We did this repeatedly, and I really want to do it because believe me this is precisely the training I want. We're on the very very long steep hill and Chi is demanding that I run with her. So I do. Past her. Now I find this amusing, (trust me I know where this is going, but those of you who are my age also understand there is teaching point here). She's doing her absolute level best to show me what an old lady I am, but she cannot possibly keep up. So when she poops out for the last time I speed hike the rest of the way, and eat three tangerines until she catches up. I probably shouldn't have, but there's a wicked streak in me which I fully admit is there. Chi had been argumentative and condescending and rude, none of which I particularly appreciated, and now she was trying to put me in my place physically, which she most certainly could not do. Besides, this is not how you treat a paying client, and I was starting to get a little annoyed. The upshot of this was, and I quite welcomed it, was that she turned her attention to flirting with Serge and making friends with Marie. That was perfectly fine by me. I loved not having to deal with her and if left me to call on her only if I needed help with translations or negotiations. Problem solved for the most part. Chi had many things going for her, but let's just say customer service wasn't one of them. I usually love my guides, but this time, it didn't appear to be working out that way- and my suspicion was that there would be a good learning along the way.

    We finally cleared the mountain pass and when we did the valley opened out below us in such scalloped beauty we stopped. Not only to take in all in with all our senses and take pictures, but to take the van aside and next to the stream of water and wash the layers and layers of mud. We all got in the act, with Linh and Hieu and Serge doing most of the hard labor, getting each other wet in the process (of course) and having a grand old time making the van look spanking new again. Duly cleaned up, we climbed back and began to see who and what was on the road. Chi had arranged for us to take photographs of some tribal girls, who had organized themselves under an umbrella, all in tribal clothing. They giggled and collapsed into each other's laps as we approached, and were very shy about our cameras. And they were stunningly beautiful, every single one of them. Their costumes were identical, turquoise and black, with many coins and ornaments causing light and movement on their bodies. We were lucky to have sun so the photos were magnificent against the mountain and rice paddy backdrop.

    A mother say nearby as chaperone, Chi knew her, and we were able to speak with her as well. She was sewing, all the mothers sew, most by hand and some with machines. That is a primary activity and what is sold most often to the tourists.

    Before we'd had dinner last night, Chi had taken us into a very small village where we saw some friends of hers. This was a place where white people simply didn't go. This was the part of Chi that I so appreciated and valued. We were able to see inside houses, meet the kids and the families, see food being prepared and it was not in any way staged or organized for tourists. This was the real thing, real life being lived, and you don't forget that you are being allowed back stage. We were asked to join them for dinner and for a sleepover- these are very very poor people and the hospitality is just astonishing, they were cooking an entire pig that night. Chi explained what we were doing and begged off but still the invitation was remarkable and touched me deeply. The kids got a huge bang out of the puppy who peed on my hand when I picked her up and petted her, it caused peals of laughter for quite some time.

    We had been offered fresh water at this friend's house, which I had some concerns about drinking. It's hard to refuse what's offered so I had to pull that age old drink of seeming to drink without actually drinking. Considering that Marie was sick the next day and several days after, that ended up being a wise choice. I doubt we have the immune system for what might be in the local water, and I am not going to put a Steripen in a glass of water just offered by my host.

    The higher we got into the mountains, and I say this about Chi as well, the women got more and more lovely. I mean this in every single way. Chi is from the Sapa area, she is tiny and delicate, and I think Black Hmong although this was never made clear. At every juncture we were able to see the tribes very close up, and their features were astounding. Men and women, they were truly attractive people, and each tribe had particular characteristics. Not just the costumes that differentiated them, but cheekbones and the cast of the eyes.
    This is the part of exploration I love best. I love the nature, but to see the variation of the peoples, their diet, and how they receive strangers is such a joy. The languages varied and the farther north we got the less people spoke Vietnamese, so my limited language was pretty useless. Up here, it was your intent, expressed in body language, facial expression, and the calmness of your presence.

    We also began to see pines, and a kind of tree that looked precisely like a green ostrich plume, stuck in bunches coming out of the ground. Tall, and lovely, graceful. No more horses, anywhere.

    At market today, because I am dying for something milky for protein (no yogurt since Saigon because no one has electricity for a refrigerator), Marie helps me pick out a kind of super vitamin milk for babies. On a whim I try it, and while I've never had Ensure, my guess is that this is kind of like that. This becomes my new supply for driving along. I buy a big fat supply of the peach kind, and slurp it up by the gallon. At the hotel tonight, the water is a series of ice cubes on my gooseflesh. We are paying for hotels and the hotels have no hot water. Okay. Hmm.

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    Chi, true to her nature, has not let the Battle of the Passport go, although each hotel has quite happily accepted my request to take the information and give the passport right back. This is one of those die in a ditch, gotta be right battles that I choose to back away from because to argue is to be cut off, but I just handle it with the hotel staff and bypass Chi. It's not worth the headache. I wake up feeling not very clean and wanting to get on with the day in hopes of finding hot water somewhere, anywhere, so I can wash my hair (it's been a looooong time and dreds are beginning).

    Today we are going to pass a waterfall. Waterfalls happen a lot here, and I've learned that this is not the season for them. Chi has repeatedly pointed at a waterfall that has no water. So it was no surprise today when we pulled over on the highway to look at a waterfall that for the life of me I could not find. There was a whole lineup of tourist tents where tribal people were selling trinkets, but not a waterfall. I guessed at its location, then I went looking for a bush. On our journey, the other thing I got used to was finding bushes, trees, ditches, low spots, and working fast, because you never knew who, or what, would come around the corner at any time. Could be a bad dog, a big buffalo, a guy with a wide load of siding that would take your punkin head off as you were getting up to zip, no telling. And there were eyes absolutely everywhere. Knowing that you just dealt with it. Hell, everybody else did. So you'd announce to the driver, Linh, I need a bush, and he'd start keeping an eye out for some kind of protection. Suddenly he'd pull over and point. You'd run, squat, shake and zip and run back. You'd get pretty good at it too. You had to.

    The other thing is that you learned to nick a little paper where you could. I never travel with out a big fat roll of Charmin, not like what you find here, but thick soft Charmin, and try to make it last the whole trip. Then you learn to start taking bits and pieces here and there. For when there is none and up here in the woodlands, that happens a LOT.

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    What a wonderful experience you are having! Suggestion though - next time start a new thread and tag it as a trip report. I'm enjoying the read and wish I had been as adventurous as you.

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    Thanks for the suggestions, and they are good- and of course, obvious ones. Now duh, why didn't I think of that??
    So the end of this waterfall story is that I'm at a waterfall that isn't a waterfall and that gets certain body parts thinking that there should be a bush around here someplace, and so off I toddle past the tourist tents with everyone yelling at me (I must have been the only live one that day) with a tinge of desperation in their voices, and finally see a WC sign but missed the price, and I went down to the porta potty line up. I went inside to a squat porta potty, which was a new one on me, and of course there is neither paper nor a water source, this is a squat n shake, and this is why we bring Charmin, ladies n germs. So out I come and this very skinny guy with a Fu Manchu cops me at the top of the stairs and points to a sign I can't possibly read and wants 5000 dong. Not much for private relief. So I pay up and off we go.

    As the sun begins to reveal more and more of the valley the big ostrich plume trees show more and more on the hillsides and more people are on the roads, as there is less sticky foul mud to struggle against. Cows, water buffalo, grandmothers, babies on backs, the omnipresent scooters, big construction trucks all crowd the road. Moms and babies and families are on the roadside where we stop to take photos and they graciously allow us to take theirs. I drop off double handfuls of mandarins and candies which they fall to and are in the middle of thinning out when we drive away.

    As we head through yet another village, we are greeted by the sight of Easter egg colored houses, painted precisely like the Victorian places in San Francisco that are so meticulously detailed. Lavender, pink, yellow, soft orange. They stand out like Petits-fors against the dark background of wintry mountains as we drive by.


    As we begin to approach Sa pa, we see the beginning of the end of a way of life. I hate to say this but this is what you see: huge hotels going up, major construction work, and it's as obvious as the nose on your face. Change is coming. And with it, everything that the people we just stayed with know and love as their way of life. Because what can be monetized will be, and what tourists are curious about (like everything I just treasured as private and special and quiet and simple and in the middle of nowhere) is going to likely be opened up to tourism for its curiosity factor to the outside world. Am I a cynic? Yep. Being a Floridian, I watched what happened to my state pre and post Disney. Living in Winter Haven, where Cypress Gardens was the only tourist trap in the entire state prior to Walt. And then after. Trust me. I don't trust a developer with a "vision" and a government talking about "progress." So we drove through "progress" and into what the hell that "progress" had wrought in Sa pa.

    By that I mean what had happened to the way of life for the tribal people. With thousands and thousands of tourist invading and their land overwhelmed with hotels and roads and "progress" and resorts, the tribal women are reduced to standing around on the streets in great numbers and accosting every single tourist and asking you to buy the very same thing over and over and over and over and over. Their kids do too. They follow you into shops, out of shops, on the street, across the street, they hover at door jambs, they wait at hotel entrances, they have become used car salesmen and beggars. And it breaks my heart. What else are they to do? They are insistent and aggressive and unrelenting. If they weren't in tribal dress they'd be considered something much worse. As it is at least they are picturesque but no less harrassing. And it frankly ruined my experience of the town, which was as traffic choked, noisy, pushy, full of beeps and honks and shoving as any downtown I've ever been in including Hanoi. I couldn't wait to get out. However, I was in for one great treat for which I am very greatful. And some fun stories.

    Once we were in Catcat view hotel (read my TA review, NOT recommended unless you bring your own generator for heat) we headed to lunch which was lovely, then Chi led me off to the real tribal market. The real one. And it was. Now you have to realize a few things here. Chi's mom works here, she has a shop in the corner. Everyone knows everyone, this is a group of grandmothers and nieces and sisters and women mostly too old to go hawking on the street.They are damned good with their hands. What's in here is the real thing. They all know Chi and if Chi brings someone in that person has money. And that means fresh meat. And then the fun begins.

    Chi's mom's shop was way in the back in the far corner. As soon as I'm in the door eyes are on me, and I'm checking them out too because I know damned well what's about to go down. Women start yelling hello! Where you from! What's your name! all in an attempt to waylay you into conversation and to get you to stop, and once stopped you're done for, because they have vice like grips on those old overworked hands, and once you're gripped, forget it. I make it to the corner, at which point I'm mobbed as Chi and her mother and I begin to decide what I want. I can feel hands grabbing at my shoulder, wrist, arms, waist, bulk pushing at me, people shoving purses in my face, women putting determined faces in my face (or as close as their stature could get) and trying emotional blackmail.

    I had to simply ignore the cacaphony and focus on the business at hand, and I found a brilliantly colored runner which Chi's mom hemmed for me, and Chi and I picked out some hemp material and some beautiful turquoise designs for pillowcases. We agreed on a price.
    At the other end of the market I spotted a splash of color that interested me among the blacks and deep indigos, and slipped past the crush to investigate. At the far end was a young woman sewing away, and she had a very pretty tribal skirt that was just the ticket. She let me try it on, it was inexpensive and I bought it, and Chi took a photo. I went back to her mother and on the way suffered murderous glances from the stiffed matrons, but when they saw I had a skirt, suddenly skirts were shoved in my face. One very large woman bullied me with her bulk and insisted that I would buy from her. I'm sure intimidation works with some people- and with her it was significant, but I looked at the gorilla grip she had on my right arm and the Mike Singleterry eyeball she was giving me (Bears fans can appreciate this if you're a defense lover) and I said, very calmly, "Kindly do NOT do that." And I stared her down. She let me go and walked away. Damn.

    By the time early afternoon had rolled around, Chi's mom had finished the pillowcases and as we returned to the Saturday fray she was putting the finishing touches on the second, and cutting off the final strings. They were beautiful, pricey, but it doesn't get more handmade than when you can see it made right there. And it's done by someone you have met and enjoyed and you have a sense of the family the money is going to. All that felt terrific. All the same operators came back, including Chi's auntie, who returned with force but her goods didn't look any better the second time around. However, I had spotted some silver metal jewelry the first time through and I called on Chi to help me negotiate.

    On this kind of thing Chi simply excelled and I really appreciated her help. These were her people, she knew the pricing and had a good sense of the value of things and what was real or not. I had chosen a very heavy, very narrow necklace that only people with very thin (read: scrawny) necks like mine can squeeze on. There are no clasps, you have to force it on. Heavy as the dickens so you have to have some size to wear it. The woman wanted a LOT. I offered way too little. She made a show and offered way too much back. This went on for a while and Chi told me to walk away. So I did, and this woman sat and stewed for a while. As I was walking out, I had to walk by her booth, and we made one last offer, which, natch she accepted, with a great flourish. She was happy, I was happy, now I have to carry the heavy damned beautiful thing. And it is gorgeous. Sure is.

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    So armed with our purchases, and our laundry at a local laundress through Chi, we head back to the hotel for the night. I've got food for the night and Chi is spending the night with her family (she needs a break too) so I am off to take a bath in what appeared to me to be a scuba gear only size tub. I cannot wait.

    One has to keep in mind that this is winter, and that Sa pa is COLD. The hotel has no heat. The receptionists all wear down clothing and they are all freezing. They happily inform you that there are fireplaces in the rooms. What they don't tell you is that the guy with the wood doesn't get around to showing up until, say, around 9 pm, at which time you are a person shaped block of ice. I have Reynaud's disease. This is just not a good idea. I didn't bring expedition clothing on this trip, and this is wet wet wet cold, that misty humid cold that wiggles past down and sneaks into everything, and I am layered up with two hoods and my wool hat. I trundle downstairs and through chattering Chicklets I ask about heat. Ah! yes! For an extra ten dollar a night you have heater! GET ONE UP THERE NOW.

    For an extra ten dollars I got a bright orange sun that sent a considerable amount of heat radiating into the ceiling, left the rest of the room icy, but did a nice job of keeping the sheets on the side of my bed from getting cold. And it lit the room up like a Florida beach all night too. It was right cheerful.

    The bathtub? Ah yes. Dreams of submerging and soaking those hiked out bones. Well, I turned on the hot water only and figured that I'd see how far it would last. Good thing I checked it frequently because it didn't. I ended up with a tub of fairly warm water about a third full. Now I am a very thin woman, but I am long, so a third-filled tub means that to submerge this part means that these other wet parts are out in the cold air growing large goosebumps. So something was perpetually cold. Well soap was soapy, warm water is warm water, you work with what you got, and tell you what, after multiple nights of scrubbing just the three basics and not cleaning the rest it was very nice to get everything scrubbed red and clean. And moving very very fast to get it done.

    At 6:30 I heard Serge and Marie's door open en route to dinner and I met them in the hallway, and while Serge protested, Marie got what I was trying to do, which was give these lovely people a nice dinner on their own. And me some privacy. I mean, come on, they had planned a trip for two with guide, I wasn't in their plan and vice versa, at some point they had to be wanting some time on their own. I really really enjoyed them, and in fact the photos I took of their holding hands and being sweet were very emotional for me.
    We were going to exchange emails and photos and would continue this later.

    I crawled into my bed which had- get this- a heated blanket, for which I was rather and let me not understate this EXTREMELY grateful since the heater was doing little more than acting like a Halloween light and warming the rafters. I slept like the dead. No wifi, btw, if you wanted that you had to go sit downstairs in the reception dressed like the Michelin Man. I will say they took pity on me, they did bring me a delicious cup of hot ginger tea, which was wonderful, and lasted a little while, but then the frost started forming on my lips again. I rolled over and put my head under the comforter to block out that brilliant sunshine,

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    On our next to last day I woke up to brilliant sunshine. Oh crap. That's the heater. I scraped the frost off the other side of the bed and hurtled towards the toilet where things weren't a great deal better, screamed when my nether parts touched the toilet seat (I've always been intrigued by the tonal quality of one's voice when those particular areas are involved because it's almost always preceded by a very sharp intake of breath). Danced the one legged Maasai stork dance when I washed my face until the water finally warmed up and thoroughly entertained myself until I finally heated and I got dressed enough to brave heading downstairs and see if I could get wi fi. Now in saying all this, I should also state that this is the same person who, a few years ago, when putting in the first and most beloved Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album of the season, went leaping across the house and landed in dining room shouting "BRING ON THE GRANOLA!!!"

    An act which so stunned her that she walked into the bathroom, took a very close look at her reflection, mouthed "bring on the granola?" And she sat down for a long time, the cheery music flowing around her. After a while, deciding it was a fluke, and in fact a rather funny fluke, and not a sign of early onset dementia,it has become one of her favorite stories. So taking this in stride, don't trust much of anything she says. Ahem. The fact is that the Bring on the Granola story, is sadly, a true one, and had I been living with anyone else at the time I'm quite sure I'd have been quietly admitted by now. But no, I'm at loose and at large.

    So I am downstairs working on my laptop with cold fingers when the rest of us appear, and off we head into the deep thick mists of the morning. Today we are off to go down the canyon towards our last homestay, and I hadn't read the itinerary (foolish me) and while I'd put aside stuff for the homestay I actually didn't really understand I'd be hiking about ten miles with a great deal of weight on my back- and this in particular when I later got a chance to see the conditions of that hike it would have been extremely difficult in the sticky, slippery, evil mud and streams and wet rocks we had to climb. Chi was annoyed with me (again) but we sent my overstocked bag along elsewhere, no biggie, and I hoisted Chi's backpack. We embarked on a very long downhill climb, which if anyone has done this before can be ugly on knees. If you duck walk it's much kinder, and also better for your pelvis. On and on. All the big lorries beeped. The motorcycles beeped. Everyone beeped. It hurt the ears. Incredibly annoying. People beeped when there was no call at all for it that you could see. Just to have a voice I think. BEEP BEEP BEEP. I wanted to punch someone for the headache that was forming between my eyes from the noise.

    Along the way we got ambushed repeatedly by extremely young children trying to sell us bracelets, and I mean three year olds, who just walked up and murmured, god what do you do with that? I'm not going to encourage it, it's just short of begging, and underscores my point. They need to be in school not accosting tourists for money. If the damned government wants to spend money on progress let it invest in its children. My head gets hot. Grr. Not my country, not my people but you see my thinking here. People are poor where there is little education, especially where women are uneducated.

    The hike took us up and down long roads, thin roads, washed out paths, up rocks and rivers and through villages. There was a tourist group just ahead of us. We walked along paths were indigo crops were grown, next to water buffalo. Up large hills to overlooks where we could see the terraced valleys below. The mists would part and come back again like theater curtains. The hills of bright red clay would sometimes have footholds cut into them like stairways, where they were too steep to climb, where the clay was too wet. We followed animal trails and concrete pathways, some of which widened out into real roads that were being built on very steep ground. There were signs of motorcycles making attempts up impossible hills. And always, we went down, and the hours went by, one by one.

    Now those of you who have done this before know that fording streams while heading uphill on uneven slippery rocks is hard enough, with a backpack with no belt is also unpredictable, and in a conga line worse. So a great deal is done by momentum. Your eyes pick out the likely rocks and move move move move move move move. Until some June bug moron stops and says Lookee that over thar- and the whole damn line stops and there goes your momentum and you are now teetering with your backpack going here and everywhere and you shout MOVE IT with no malice but because you don't fancy landing on hard rocks, in icy cold water, breaking your bits and parts and getting really cold because some moron up front has no understanding at all for his place in the universe. Now trust me it's funny afterwards when you are on solid ground and then June bug moron is all offended because you called out his tender ego, but believe me, I have no problem letting people know that there is a responsibility for everyone behind you when you are coming up a mountain and it is a dangerous climb. Not just you, June buggy. I love it when we are more on our own and there's no OSHA around but I am big on personal responsibility.



    Somewhere around 11:30 we found ourselves in a small village, again marked by women in tribal dress selling the same things as before, again following people everywhere. Our group went into a restaurant and Chi ordered for us. Soon a big meal landed at our table: chicken with vegetables, rice rolls, soup, a beef and vegetable dish, hot sweet cabbage, and fried eggs. about four minutes later I was looking at the remains of those dishes- what was left after I'd devoured my third of them- and Serge and Marie were laughing at me. They pushed what was left at me and urged me on. I hadn't been so hungry in days and days- not with dried river fish and some of other questionable smells wafting about. But this lunch was overwhelmingly delectable and I simply couldn't get enough. It was like making up for lost time, that, and we were buring a great deal of calories as we were hiking. While we sat at the table, our interpreter was giving us instructions and we were all listening to him. One of the tribal women came up behind him and mugged face at us and held up things for us to buy. We all shook our heads no. She pushed in closer and got in his way. We did this same thing. I shot her a warning glance because we needed to hear what this guy was saying and this was intrusive. This woman would not get the message. This went on and on and on. She held up item after item ignoring that she was interfering with a private conversation. It annoyed the holy poop out of me. As determined as a forest tick on wart hog. And that's what those three year olds are going to grow up into. That's what the VN government is creating with its progress. Oh hell, i don't have any feelings about it. Nah, not me.

    We made our way slowly down into a pleasant, almost verdant valley, the rice paddies beginning to show a little green here and there. Chi led us into one of the villages which, because there was access from a road on another side, had some tourist traffic. This was obvious from the signage in the village, advertisements and the homestays in town. As we walked through I saw a shop featuring tribal ware and asked Chi to stop with me. Two things caught my eye- a full Flower Hmong outfit and a Black Hmong jacket. I tried both on, and the Flower Hmong outfit actually fit, only because I am small boned and very light. The skirt was too short, but not by much, and it wrapped around me several times. The problem, although it wasn't the skirt's fault, was that it was very very heavy with the magnificent hand embroidery which made it so beautiful. The other things, and this is what I had to do with in Argentina as I thought about a poncho, was would I wear it. The truth was, probably not. A big, heavy clumsy item that's expensive,a burden to carry that I wouldn't wear. Not good. But I sure loved it. However there was an equally interesting apron which could be worn over a pencil skirt as a statement piece and that did come home. Chi took photos, and I left happy. I have often since thought about that skirt, but it was the right decision.

    We had another two hours of seriously challenging hiking to go so we escaped the backpackers and tourists and tribal women and continued on through the valley. Eventually the hike flattened out and it was mostly clear sailing until we reached our final destination, a homestay next to another homestay. No view, but with an unexpected bonus which showed up later. We came in, organized our luggage, and tea was served. There was a small bowl of intensely hot wood chips on the floor with low seats so we all sat around it.

    As the evening drew on, and those in our party took hot showers, I realized we had a visitor. A puppy had inserted itself between Serge and Marie and was enjoying some attention. A while later said puppy found herself installed on my lap, getting the works, ears, neck,tummy, the whole shebang. She twisted her head around and landed some kisses on my mouth and promptly fell asleep on my lap. After being in country for two weeks and trying to do so much as simply pet an animal and getting snapped at, to be able to hold and cuddle a happy puppy was heaven on earth. I am never so joyful as to hold a warm animal and find all its happy places. Puppy (Bunny, as I was later to call her) stayed with me til we had to evict her to eat dinner, but she came back all night and scratched at the door. I'd have just as soon have come sleep with me, that would have made me delirious. But it would have exacerbated the problem I'd already started.

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    One last story from the previous night. As we hiked, Chi had gotten increasingly quiet, and I asked after her. She commented that her feet were hurting, and she was wearing really bad plastic shoes which were poor choices for the kind of hiking we were doing. Chances are she had blisters and there was no support. So after we'd all had showers and before Bunny had made her first appearance, Chi was sitting next to me next to the wood chip fire, barefoot. I grabbed up a foot, and massaged it. This wasn't a fumbling I have no idea what I'm doing massage, I am a trained massage from Esalen Institute so I know what I'm doing, and I did a really nice job on her. When finished I didn't get much of a reaction, more other people in the party made a deal out of it than Chi. Considering the strain in our connection this wasn't surprising. I'm quite sure at that point she didn't know how to say anything nice.

    When I woke up early the next day the first thing I thought of was Bunny, so I headed out as soon as I could. I clapped my hands four times in the cool morning mist and second later a ball of brown and black fur came hurtling out of the bushes making a beeline for me, with a doggie smile wide as the sky. Hot on her heels was clearly daddy, a full blooded German Shepherd, who skidded to a stop with his big cold nose buried in my face, long tail waving. He was as pleasant and friendly as his daughter. Introductions made, as soon as that was accomplished, daughter and daddy set off to the morning's romp. They became a blur, which I did my best to capture on film. Mock rage and outrage, tumbling, growling, tossing, rolling, wrestling, daddy chasing, Bunny being hurled the ground, you'd think world war III was going on. I got called for coffee which I got quickly down my gullet, then returned to join the fun. This time I sat down on the patio, and Bunny landed on my lap. At once, so did ninety pounds of very energetic Dad, so the battle ensued on top of me, with legs waving and teeth flashing and tufts of German Shepherd hair disengaging and floating off in all directions. The host family came outside to see what on earth the fight was all about and watched me get snowed on, which every Shepherd lover is very familiar with. Bunny was in ecstasy: Daddy was here, we were playing, a human loved her, life was so good. Until. Yeah.

    Well Chi and I had to go, we all said our final goodbyes. Except Bunny. Bunny didn't understand goodbye, she had just said hello, and that was the end of it. She was coming too, and come she did, right through town, which got her attacked, and when it became clear that she wasn't going home we had to come up with Plan B. We had to leave Bunny caged with a friend of Chi's and Chi called the homestay family to get her picked up. To this day all I have is Chi's word. I have very strong feelings about animals, I know they aren't shared in this culture, it's not my business, and it's not my place to criticize it. It just is. As we climbed I heard her distress cries all the way up the hill, and they still haunt me. Chi made a point of saying she'd probably be eaten, something I know full well, understand completely, and that hadn't needed to be said, except that Chi wanted to cause pain. Another reason I really wanted to get the day over and done with.

    In sum, Ethnic Travel does a great job taking people to the isolated places of this country, and for that I am deeply grateful. I could have been better matched but hey, I really liked the French couple and there were some fun times and equally funny stories, and what is life without conflict? It was a long and silent seven hours back to Hanoi, I got a lot of reading done, and I am quite sure Chi was most happy to get in her cab and have me out of her hair. The reverse was true. I am currently hiding out from the rain in cool Hoi An, considering my options as I take a full day off to write, catch up, pound down lots and lots of cold yogurt, and take as many long, very HOT showers as I please. I'm a prune. But not for long. My birthday comes soon and adventure awaits.

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    What a great adventure. Hoi an will be much more relaxing and a bit of down time for you after all that hiking. We enjoyed our time there. Hope you also get to hue. Waiting for more and enjoying your well written report,

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    Thanks again to all. I spent a most happy day yesterday buried in my comfy bed making trips outside to buy strawberry yogurt which disappeared as soon as it was bought, and writing oodles and oodles of emails and trip reports. Today I am off to find a motorcycle company for local adventures, a place to fix my breaking watch band, and a long hike to work off the enormous and yummy breakfast that Sunflower Hotel offers. This is a tip for anyone who is looking for a place to stay. Sunflower's private rooms are just fine- when I landed, I'd signed on for the dorm, and this indeed a backpacker's haven, but I realized that I really just didn't want to deal with that kind of chaos at the moment. They had one room left and I nabbed it, and what a delight it's been to spread out and have a fridge and enjoy the real quiet of a top floor room and a big bed to myself and just BE for a while. $20 a night, fine by me, worth it. The backpackers here are as they are in all places, friendly and loud and happy and at night, drunk and disorderly, and while I can deal with that most of the time, not right now.

    Yesterday morning was a special one because I buckled down and bought myself a lovely Jackson Rogue 9 bright red kayak for my birthday, and that will be waiting for me when I get back to Colorado. I used to buy designer clothing but now it's sports gear. I chuckle when I think about all those closets that used to house Armani that now are experiencing "gear creep," as scuba suits and backpacks are pushing the clothing towards consignment shops. Good riddance, I say.

    Thanks for your kind compliments. And btw, I had to amend that piece about LONG showers when I assessed the size of the hot water supply in the bathroom. I'll be able to wash my hair only if turn off the water in between shampoo and condition and move really fast. Sigh. But hot it really is. And one more thing about Sunflower. So many places promise, but do not really deliver, on breakfast, and you end up with a hard roll, some jam and a piece of fruit and coffee. Here, there is a buffet that takes up half the room (not making this up) of noodle dishes, meat dishes, fresh fruit, bread, an omelet/egg cooking station, fresh juice, coffee and tea, you have more food and variety that you can possibly consume in one sitting. And it's terrific. You can prep yourself for a day's worth of stalking the stalls and emptying your wallet or going out on an adventure with the motorcycling folks, or doing what I did yesterday which was loll around and act like a pot bellied pig in my room all day and do nothing but write and shop and spend too much money on a kayak. The staff here all speak good English and they are very helpful, but this place only takes cash. There is a wall of shame of all the people who used bad credit cards next to the front desk as an explanation of why they not longer take plastic.

    I had in my dreams imagined scuba diving here, which is a huge laugh, as I drove in my taxi along the shoreline to look out at the pounding grey China Sea. Not on your life do you dive in that. Not til around March. No worries. On my travels today I plan to go track down that cute little brown dog that climbed up in my lap the other day when I bought fruit. He decided that it was a very nice place to be when I gave him the Whole Body Scrubover, and he gave me this Look that said Where the hell have you been all my life Kiddo? So we stayed like that for a while until my thighs and knees started yelping and I put him down and he gave me a resigned look and walked off. He knows the drill. Sigh. So do I.

    I have this hope that I will find something tribal out there after I buy a day on a motorcycle -it's overcast but not raining right now, and yesterday the first shy rays of sun actually slanted across the roof outside my windows so there is hope.

    Loving a bit of down time but the long walks to the shopping areas are welcome exercise, gotta keep that up. Again, thank you for your kind words.

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    After a lovely, filling and underpriced (free) breakfast, I layered up and doubletimed down to the motorcycle adventures shop which is happily right near the main marketplace. We signed me up for a half day for tomorrow, quite enough to allow me to finish all I want to do here and finish laundry and everything else. Including a broken watchband and other chores. I had slim hopes of finding something tribal in the shops and everyone told me it wasn’t likely. But hope springs eternal, even though what I’d seen so far wasn’t promising. Evening gowns, suits, tailoring services, and lots and lots of purses and shoes. I had on hiking boots, a fat wallet, and hope.

    I did also find one of the two little dogs I loved on yesterday, and did my duties again today, which pleased him no end even if it did confuse him a bit. I reach out to many of them, and I often get a raised lip in return, but some respond well. Those I love on. They made my travels very happy. We dog lovers know just where to go, right above the tail, where they can’t possibly reach, and it usually elicits any one of a number of funny responses, including backing into you as a distinct indication of Dickens’ “More, please?” or their back legs giving out in pleasure. Either way it tickles me pink to do it even though I often end up with blackened fingertips.

    Minutes into the market I quite literally stumbled into the single shop that sold tribal clothing. I mean the only one, which after marching the market for hours more, I found not a one which offered anything at all like this one. A petite shopgirl hurried to help me when I knelt to look at the Hmong jacket- which unfortunately is cut to accommodate a bun in the oven so they don’t work for me- but it was the glorious, explosive, brilliantly orange skirt that had caught my eye. It was all hand embroidered, a Flower Hmong piece, to the knee, and it would fit me.

    That was not, however, the opinion of my shopgirt, who eyeballed my height and my layers ( I had on many) and she was thinking “Oh crap this tourist is gonna rip my expensive skirt” and she was doing her level best to talk me out of it. Well truth be told, many tourist have tried this skirt on and they ARE too big for it, and I don’t blame her one bit, but I already knew it would fit because under my twelve layers I’m skinny as the proverbial beanpole and I’m gonna buy it. I just want to see it on. So I ask for a try on and she’s following me like a clucking hen thinking about shrinkage and I hide behind a sheet hung on nails, strip down to all but socks and a shirt, wrap this magnificent piece of artwork on my person with much room to spare and come out.

    Now ladies this skirt is the BOMB. This is why designers go to the ends of the earth for inspiration. Those great collections get their beginnings in out of the way places just like this. I have written on fashion for a number of years and you’d be amazed at where the real beginnings of a Stella McCartner three thousand dollar skirt comes from. This eyeball killer was utterly gorgeous, and for sixty dollars I would much rather wear this piece of real art, which was hand made by grandmothers in the mountains, rather than put three grand in the coffers of a top designer. This has memories and love sewn into it. This skirt has a story. Paired with a Thai bolero, what an outfit for a speech. You won’t see yourself coming or going in any city anywhere on earth, and I call that worth the money invested, and a heck of a lot more fun than shopping in Neimans (or as we all like to jibe, Needless Markup). I’ve always found women in their sixties who wear clothing of the world that they themselves have collected on their travels so elegant in their own way simply because they carve out their own look. Well, now that I’m firmly in my sixties, I figger it’s about time to add a few pieces to that collection. Because when you put those things on, you go back to the country where you bought them. Somehow you can’t do that with the Armani you got at the closeout sale at Nordstrom’s.

    The rest of the market stretched block after block, with much of the kinds of goods repeated. At one point I stopped to inspect a pile of bracelets. With the exception of Tanzania, where I didn’t find any, I like to add to the growing number of small braided bracelets that accompany my watch on my left arm. Up in Sa pa, kids offered very cheap ones. I wear them till they give up the ghost, so I want something both feminine and hardy. Many shops have them, but this particular shop was kind enough to have one man simply give me the one dollar asking price at my request and let me sit and sort. I was able to find a thin, sturdy braid of New Orleans purple and green, which he tied to be permanent, and now I am further festooned.

    As is my wont, at some point I noticed that my bright orange North Face ball cap was missing, so I began my Where the Hell Did I Leave My Hat search. I would need a hat for tomorrow’s adventure. I walked back to the adventure shop, but I had left there with it on. It wasn’t where I’d gotten my watch band repaired. So I ended up across the river where I walked up to where they were selling hats with a Columbia tag on it. I mean, you chortle, because no way would Columbia sell hats like these, with such poor dye jobs and terrible stitching, but I needed a hat, so the women and I negotiated, and I got one for a couple of bucks. Thus behatted, I walked back across the river but not without being accosted to eat here! Buy here! Hello! Madam! Madam! Madam! (I’ve always wondered when I crossed the line from a Miss to a Madam without getting married but there it is.)

    I wound in and out of the streets again, found one that felt right, and walked up it until I saw the familiar jacket again. My orange crush skirt had been replaced by a purple passion version, and I had to walk by it very quickly before I bought that one, too. We found my orange hat back behind the sheet on the nails, so mission accomplished. By the way, this sweet shopgirl told me that I was her first customer who bought anything from her, and I was as delighted as she was. It’s interesting, as a side note, I have a very close friend in the consignment business. I have over the last five years moved many wardrobes of small sized designer goods to her manager’s stores. She has regaled me time and time again of having to rescue this or that skirt from a customer whose generous rear end would rip out the seams of one of my pieces, because this client has an unrealistic notion of their sizing. We women shop by size, which is one reason so many designers changed their sizing so that more of us could fit a size 2 or 4 or 6, although our proportions didn’t change. They were smart. Years ago I bought a size 2 skirt from Loehmann’s (remember them?) just because I could zip it up. I never wore it again. I nearly bronzed it after being heavy for so many years. Yeah. The designers were smart. They sure had my number! Truth be told I was probably a size 10, but the label said 2, and that's all I cared about. Silly me.


    The other market, the local market, ran by the river, and it was as distinguishable by the smell as it was by location. Fish. Raw or rotten or cooking, and having already expressed a certain aversion to this smell, well. I sucked up a big breath and waded in. It’s just too interesting not to. The colors of the garden vegetables to the coagulation caused by the crowds-It is here that everyone comes. And there are few whites, who tend to stay safely in the well kept touristed areas.

    But here, people are being pushed and shoved and carried and harried and motored and harassed and sold and bargained with, and everything from souvenirs to dried ginger to dead fish is on sale. The night’s vegetables are everywhere and the streets are so full of humanity that the motorcycles are moving very, very slowly, almost toppling over. Cyclists, too, although they keep upright, seemingly impossible to do. I tower over almost everyone which makes me an easy target. When I make the mistake of acknowledging someone like saying Chao ba to a grandmother, she assumes automatically that I want to buy something when I’m just being polite. Big mistake because now she’s mad at me for raising her hopes. Ah well. It’s all commerce down here. Shut up and keep walking if you ain’t buying.

    I head around another corner to find three chestnut mutts on the steps in front of a store, and I’m in the mood to pet something friendly. They’re lying in front of a very old grandfather who is minding the store in his chair, and we nod to each other. I greet the dogs and two vacate the area. The third makes for my hands, checks me out and decides that things might be promising here. That decision got him ten minutes of solid omigod I can’t believe I lucked out loving. Lift a leg and shake all over and then back into the hand hard and look over your shoulder and beg yeah more more more right…THERE. Ungh. Belly rub. Omigod can you move in next door? How bout this side? Ten minutes at a squat is what I can manage with these thighs, and it’s also about what I consider polite with the owner sitting right there, so after taking that much time with his pup I stood. Something very nice passed between this very old man and me, and he smiled at me in the kindest way. You cannot get that kind of warmth from any other source. You're just uplifted.

    I passed a group of people at one point who were clearly on a tour. The women were unsmiling, and the ones who caught my eye looked angry. I smiled at them, and they didn’t return it. There were many nationalities in the town, most of them clearly pleased to be there, having fun, but boy, not this group, these folks were grumpy, angry and something was not pleasing them at all. But then, last May, I was on a trip in Salta were I was paired with a couple- German man, American woman. German guy, in response to our charming guides’ enthusiasm about the grand and amazing landscape, “nothing much impresses me. I saw the Taj Mahal and it looked just like the photos. So what.” I have several very choice phrases for such a person and they are not to be voiced in polite company or on this forum. But use your imagination. Crellston might recall this as we were with Angie whom we both admire. But when you are that arrogant, just go in your cave and find a mirror and kiss your image until you expire.

    The lanes of the market area that are for tourists are surprisingly clear of traffic, and they are kept very clean. You get a very nice impression, and there isn’t a great deal of the kind of full on salesmanship that I’ve seen in other places like Sa pa. There was some but not much invitation to come in but it was much more restrained. This allowed me to pick and choose and feel comfortable, and that made me a happier shopper.

    The big heavy rains have subsided, we still have overcast skies, and the temps are still in the high sixties. A good brisk walk here will cause you to cast off a jacket. So far a couple of rest days here have been very productive, from long luxurious sleeps to good long exploratory hikes. It was so very fun to tumble into the one shop that featured tribal clothing, and to find a skirt that would work. It's funny, but the things that belong to you will find you, and those that don't will not. I really believe this. It's very Buddhist in its view.

    Which reminds me. The night that Chi dropped me of in Hanoi, I spent at the Hanoi Hostel. I totally forgot to mention that above my bunk was a charming Thai woman who was utterly delighted that I could still remember some of my Thai from traveling there in 2011). She got hold of the book I carry with me (I carry a copy of my book WordFood) and read it while I showered and worked. She was a Buddhist,as most Thais are, and when I came back we had a wonderful, wide ranging and very deep discussion about her beliefs and mine. That sweet and meaningful conversation made up in spades for the previous unpleasantries with Chi, and reminded me of the constant flow of human gems that there are to find everywhere. Anywhere. I am indebted to her for making my heart sing. I love the Thai people, for very good reason.


    This afternoon I am enjoying another quick break and considering laundry, and another exploratory hike. While I promised myself I wouldn’t, I checked the football scores anyway, and my beloved Broncos are moving forward ( I am a major Manning fan) and I also see that Russell Wilson has moved the Seahawks forward. I still think those are our Superbowl teams but you can never ever count the Patriots out, even with the Gronk gone and other factors at work. I miss the games but someone is taping them for me. So long as we beat Rivers, I was happy. Right now I have more strawberry yogurt in my fridge, a quiet room and some repacking to do to see if that skirt will fit….I hope……

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    JH, somehow i've missed your post updates, (until now) thanks for the very funny report.
    I cracked up at the home stay property with the low beam and maniacal granny, don't worry, she'll be dead soon.

    Loved the Masai market story too, we hope to go there in May. I'm gonna try the jumping thing if the occasion arises. And, glad you outran the guide uphill, sounds like she had a bit of "princess" going on.

    We'd love to see some photos..........

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    So I am sitting here at work waiting on a phone call, but without my laptop with my OWN report I am supposed to be working on, and instead am totally absorbed by JH's reports. Fantastic reading especially as we just returned in December from VN. And as our trip devolved into a mostly urban experience, I am so appreciating the parts we missed. We opted out of Sa Pa for some of the reasons that disappointed JH - overly tourist-filled being the biggest. Thanks so much for the wonderfully descriptions. Interesting too that some of her experiences don't match ours. The dogs we saw that were pets were very well treated, even spoiled. Perhaps it is different in the rural north. Even in the tiny hamlet where we stayed in the Delta, pet dogs were everywhere and as loved as any back home - which is Colorado for me too, btw. Can't wait to read more. Also wondering if JH is interested in contacting, or already knows, of a Vietnam vet living in Hanoi for the last 20 (?) years and still working to repair the damage done by the war.

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    I have plenty of pics, will someone kindly inform me how to post? I honestly don't know how. Tons and tons of them, quite happy to share.

    Maniacal granny aside- trust me- this has been a joy. Chi taught me some great lessons about how some people just are and I think this is a great word - princess- and are probably not suited for guiding. That's a service role. Not a good place for her talents, which in fact were there but she was very immature. I note that elsewhere in places like TA mention of immature guides for this outfit come up.

    As for the dogs, I have seen many beloved pets too. I think Chi's comment about the cookpot was pointed at my heart more than anything else, although I do know they're on the menu in very rural and isolated places.

    It's about 5 am here and I have an email from a client (god they can get you anywhere any more) that I have to respond to first. But if someone can give me instructions about how to post photos I most certainly will.

    I am in Hoi An now, and am leaving tomorrow for Phong Nha caves for a five day adventure deep in their depths for my birthday celebration, so it might be tough trying to contact the guy up in Hanoi. I don't carry a phone with me on these trips. But I do appreciate the offer.

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    A note to sartoric who had written me earlier about fog and mist; if you are checking this thread out you saw that we did indeed hit fog and mist big time. Up in Sa pa we saw no views at all. The mists were so solid they were impenetrable up there. Basically Sa pa was a tourist trap, which had we been able to see some of the storied views might have been a bit more tolerable. And it was absolutely freezing. I'd taken layers, polypro and wool and down, but they didn't quite do the job, and what I'd needed was one more serious layer of long johns in a pro wool especially for that deep freeze hotel. Just a funny experience. Humidity adds an additional level of cold to the mountains, and in this case I just wasn't as prepared as I could have been. Brrrr.

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    Hi JH
    A shame you didn't see the views in Sa Pa, they were truly inspiring. Yes, it was cold for us too, the first thing I did there was buy a knockoff K2 fleece for about $20. We were there in Oct 2009 and found the local ladies persistent but no way aggressive, really quite charming, I guess things have deteriorated.

    I admire your roughing it with the local home stays, we're a bit too needy of creature comforts like hot water and heated rooms. Sorry I can't really help with the photos, most people seem to use Flickr or some other file sharing app.

    Continue to enjoy the journey, and know that many people are reading your entertaining tale, even if not commenting.

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    What an interesting and entertaining TR. I almost missed reading it because it was not labelled a TR. Your report has brought back great memories of our 3 week trip to VN. Because it was Jan. we decided to skip going to Sapa because we were afraid of the fog, mist and cold. Seems like we made the right decision.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip. I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of it. Thanks for posting.

    .

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    Sartoric, I'll tell ya, at our final home stay we were followed all the way, and there were tribal women at the doors of our homestay who hovered and hovered for us come out, like vultures. It was just - come on man, what do you do or say? You're there to appreciate, and you really do get harrassed. From what you say it must have deteriorated. What saddens me is the apparent level of desperation, and the fact that kids aren't in school, so this is what they're learning. But I've already said what I'm gonna say on the subject.

    This morning I was out at the markets again, this time to spend an hour or two wandering before going on an afternoon motorcycle ride with Hoi An Adventures. I ended up back in my favorite store where they got me for a pair of pajama pants.
    Then I had another hour to waste which got me in trouble for $95 bucks. This very cool Aussie chick in her, say, sixties has this uber slick store where she has just nailed a particular clientele, and I wandered into it. Saw a very cool white blouse on the wall I'd never seen before, nothing like it around, so I nabbed it and snuck in back to try it on. No sooner did I do that than another Aussie chick snuck in back with me with an identical white shirt and we burst out laughing. She nailed a type. Of course we pranced out and preened and did our girlie thing and egged each other on like girls do and both of us plunked down our dong. Now where the hell I'm gonna fit all these goodies in my backpack I have no idea. But there it is.

    At 12:25 I was ready to go at Hoi An Motorcycle Adventures, and off we went, we being two separate groups of Aussies, one group of males and a group of females. The minibus drove us off to their outfit out of Hoi An, carefully fitted us with proper helmets.waterproof gear and proper instruction. I had my own but the helmet and was riding in the back because you can't take photos when you're driving the vehicle. Off we went, on what was promised on the website by various tourists to be "The Adventure of a Lifetime." OK.

    Well perhaps for someone it might be. My driver slowed down for every ant hill, every divot, every pebble. Come ON man, drive this thing...if an adventure of a lifetime means we're not going to rattle my molars then let me get off and walk fast so that I feel like I'm moving! Now I jest a little here but he and I were at the rear of the pack the whole way, and being somewhat, er, competitive, as all of you know by now, I'm champing at the bit for some wind in the face. However I did get some nice shots, and to a point it was kinda fun. Not, however, the adventure of a lifetime. We were promised a Western toilet. On someone else's adventure of a lifetime perhaps, but not ours. The English guy who runs this thing calls himself Hawk, and he's perfectly nice, but it's like some dude goes to another country and opens up a shop and calls himself Indiana Jones. It's just a little pretentious, you know, usually if you have a nickname like that it's either been bestowed on you because you did something to earn it or the guys you hang with had a really good reason for calling you that. This one, I think, came out of a need to seem adventurous and cool. I don't know this, it's my impression, because he gave us no reason for the name, and when that happens, I smell something hinky. The only Hawk I know was Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans, and trust me, this guy ain't him.

    So we spend three hours driving around some very poor villages past the trash and the Communist graveyards, past the other graveyards which were indeed impressive in their grandiosity. The spirits must be appeased, after all. I still wait to see the adventure part which I'm thinking is going to be in some hills. Maybe meet some tribal people. Closest thing we got to that was schoolkids who put their hands out to high five us as we went by. Got to see water buffalo actually submerged in the water, what a novelty.

    Soon we were back at the shop, un-toiletted, although I'd found a few drop trou opportunities, and I never did see what the adventure part was. We got the buy the t-shirt speech, offers of beer and soft drinks (no water) and then a sales job for other tours they do. For the life of me after that trip I cannot envision anyone's wanting either to do it again or do it more.I just rated it on TA and gave it an average rating. Hey, I'm sure it appeals to many, they get lots of praise. But as an adrenaline addict, I was completely unimpzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz sorry I fell asleep there for a second. Look I realize my taste for adventure isn't everyone's but the way they sell this thing and what is pictured on all the posters and signage, folks, it does not live up to the hype. That's all I'm saying. For all the excitement I felt this afternoon I might as well have been cantering across a quiet meadow on an old mare. That, at least, would have required more effort on my part.

    Yeah and for all my comments about paying too much for overpriced goods in the market place I sure as heck did a fine job of donating to the general economic wealth of the area. Heck, why not, it IS my birthday in a few hours. Even if I do end up carrying one more bag home (brought one for just that purpose), does it really matter? Every woman on here knows. Nah. You go girl. In our group today we had three January 17th birthdays. The stars were right for a splurge for us Caps.

    Tonight I bought twelve (yes twelve) strawberry yogurts, and to the sound of Colorado Public Radio Classical streaming on my computer I am going to attempt to squeeze all my stuff into my backpack. This process would be a lot like my mother's attempting to squeeze her increasing bulk into her girdle, which she wore all her 91 years, the same size as the one she wore in her twenties as the one she wore in her sixties. Said girdle was under extreme duress, as will be my backpack, having ripped out one internal panel, like Mom's girdle, but that didn't stop her from wearing it. It just meant she listed to one side. She was ever the Depression girl, she kept that girdle repaired, with every color of thread imaginable, and safety pins, which caused runs, and that meant more thread, until it looked rather like some of the embroidered skits I've been peering at lately. But still she wore it. Parts of her squeezed out, as I expect will happen with my backpack. With my mother it was funnier, as lumps would appear here and there like small toadstools as flesh desperately seeking release from their colorful jail found a weak point and spilled out. After my mother died my brother was the one appointed to the task of taking care of her personal things. I'd given anything to have seen the look on his face when he first encountered that girdle.

    Oh, I have to correct myself. I've just received an email from Hoi An Motorcycle Adventures and this guy calls himself "Hawksnow". This is even better. I'm just going to chalk this up to playing too many video games. And after I stop falling on the floor laughing I will eventually pack my bag. I am so easily entertained.Given the ridiculous things I do I am quite sure that I provide plenty of it myself.

    You all are headed into your day. I am winding down into my evening and about to tackle that groaning backpack-that-needs-a-girdle. G'night all.

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    It is about 7 am, HB to me, my rest in Hoi An is done and what a nice rest it has been even if my wallet did leak a bit. I do tip my hat again to the Sunflower, which did my laundry, exchanged my American dollars (for a small fee), fed me pho, and pretty much did absolutely everything you could possibly want on top of ensuring a quiet night's sleep on the top floor. One more trip this morning to that enormous, ridiculously wonderful wall to wall breakfast buffet after a hot shower and it is off to a REAL adventure with Oxalis for five days, no wifi, and I will be reduced to the writer's tools of pencil and paper for a while.

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    Well, pooh.
    First thanks to all who wished me a happy birthday, very kind of you, I am currently sitting at the Pepperhouse which of course has no heat, it's about fifty degrees if it's that, and raining, and COLD thankyou very much,and my French press is dripping as I await its slow progress. The roosters are crowing and I just got my very rank body out of a rather cold shower (getting very used to those) and finally getting ready to tell some funny stories.

    These rather fall into the category of shoulda coulda woulda, but what a fine, fine, fine lesson in doing one's due diligence beforehand. I took a long, dank and humid train ride from Da Nang to Hoi An where I was picked up and deposited at Pepperhouse quickly and kindly by the Oxalis group. There was no birthday party, somehow that got lost in translation. No matter, I was happy to be safely in the right place, and eager to get on with The Big Adventure. The Highlight of The Trip. The Grand Kaboo, or whatever.

    Okay well you know when you build something up? Okay. So next morning guy picks me up at 8, I got all my gear, Goretex hiking boots, gaiters, everything for trekking, right? Wrong.I quickly find out that I have to give up that gear for a pair of utterly ridiculous cotton Army boots that have no insulation, are a full size too big, my feet slide around in them, they have no tread. I give them the beady eye. Hm. Just for going through a couple of rivers right? Okay. I'm thinking, I'll just change back. WRONG.

    What I should have asked about, and come to understand,was that the trip I'd booked, we hiked through (magnificent, amazing, gorgeous, remarkable, steep, muddy,gooey, sucking mud) jungle and eighteen, maybe even twenty rivers and streams. You give up your good gear and your lower extremities are in freezing water. All.Day. Long.

    Now hey. If you don't have what I have, no worries, mate. But I happen to have this thing called Reynaud's Syndrome, which means that when my extremities get cold, especially cold and wet, like feet, they turn fishbelly white as the blood rushes to my body core, leaving them floppy and nonfunctional appendages. So after the third stream, my feet are pretty much as effective as large blocks of ice, and we are clambering up but mostly straight down some pretty epic trail and my guide is moving at warp speed.

    Well of course. The inevitable happens. Clown foot lands on a smooth, mudslop covered root and takes off for Cambodia and my right knee goes clobbering into the nearest rock surface. Another unfortunate medical fact is that I'm a bonafide hemopheliac, which means that at times like this, I provide huge entertainment for others who have never seen a bump get THAT big THAT fast. It was the size of a California navel orange and straining against my pant leg by the time we got going again, and I was roundly cursing the shoes, but icy water actually did it some good. Hey, you look for bright spot. On we went, more and more streams, until I lost all feeling in my lower extremities and did my best to concentrate on what was around us: mystical mountains disappearing off into the fog, wild banana trees and deep primitive forest, a very poor village with a pet owl, the swift moving clear streams with their tiny fish, the small but lovely waterfalls and moss covered rocks. The land was so isolated, so silent- and so perfect. Were it not for a knobby knee, what an experience. But no! We're not there yet!

    Towards midafternoon we hit a series of small streams. Suddenly, like out of a movie set, a great yawn in the earth appeared in the mist, out of the limestone, that was so completely out of proportion to anything I'd ever seen before that it stopped me in my tracks for a moment. This was our cave, still a bit of a ways off, but of such a size that it boggled the mind. We wound our way towards it, through more streams (hey natch) and finally hiking our careful way to the entrance.

    The only way to grasp the sheer enormity of the entrance of this Lord of the Rings monstrosity would be to put a person in the photo, which we did. They looked like Frodo in the caves, so tiny and insignificant. It's not in the scope of words to really express. We scrambled (I crawled) over the big scree and there, Lego sized, far in the middle of the cave, were our porters, our tents, and our campsite. We could barely make them out. They were ants, specks, in the middle of the biggest amphitheater I'd ever seen, imagined.

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    We cross the cave streams to make our way to the campsite, and by this time the cave entrance was well above us, shining light deep into this enormous entrance like a cathedral. We could see the pines and a bit of the cloud cover, and there was a bit of a constant drip from the (ceiling? roof?). In some parts of the cave the floor is thick with bird guano. After putting our packs aside, we headed off into the deep dark ( you can almost hear the Grey Wizard say this,can't you?) of the caves with our helmet lights on.

    Well, hell's bells. My hemmit doens't want to sit tight, the lid loves my nose, and so as I bumble and stumble along after my adventure mates I am also struggling with my noggin wear. Soon we are going over some unfortunately sharp post-volcanic upheaval rocks, down some (surprise!!!) muddy smooth stuff.Ggee whiz, wouldn'tcha know it, my Cotton No-tread Army special boots slide out from under me again and this time I not only wallop the knot on my knee but I also slam my shin, and my feminine delicate mouth lets loose a few indelicate comments to the Underground Gods which are sure to bring up something fiery and angry and bearing a whip.

    Nothing untoward came bursting in a wave of lava out of the underworld but I can speak volumes about what the twice offended knee had to say about things. I'd twisted my back again, so my lumbar was using language that no polite body part was supposed to know. The second insult added to depth rather than height to the navel orange on my knee. I sat for a while thinking unpleasant thoughts until I found my funny. Then I went after the long disappeared headlamps. The conditions are the conditions and you deal with them, and you keep in mind that the end product is a good story.

    We finally exited out another cave into postcard pretty landscape - with more streams. This time the stream had force, and we of course, had to cross it. I was the last, and I had my trekking poles to help keep me upright. Now a stout guy of 250 is going to have no worries crossing this stream. But a skinny chick of 115 is a weed in that rushing little current, so I set forth and shoved the tips in my poles into the rocky stream bed. Rock steady, taking my time, legs apart to brace. No problem. Making fine progress, just doing it slowly. Then one of the porters waded out to help. Help is a euphemism. He grabbed one of my arms, jerked up the pole and there went my anchor. I immediately was swept to my knees onto the hard rocks of the stream bed, soaked to the waist and this time came up bleeding. Help. Yep.

    Okay so by this time my legs looked like Hollywood had made me up to be the broken slave in a torture movie, my butt was as frozen as my icebound feet, and my back was hurling expletives. It was a fine day in paradise indeed. And it was. Despite the various body insults we were in some of the most gorgeous country imaginable. In caves very few people will ever see. Breathing in air full of sweetness and mist. I'm sorry, life doesn't get better than this. Every bump and bruise was worth it. Every single bit. You pay for the right to see such remote things and the scars you bear are the price you pay. Some day big highways will be built out here. And it won't be an adventure any more.

    So of course we trundled back the way we came, and I left sparkling little ruby drops to mark my path (hey let's get dramatic) and by the time we got back, it was determined that YES I could put on dry socks and my Goretex boots, and finally life was good. Omg. You have no idea. My poor tootsies finally began to thaw out, a fire was going, and there was a small private tent to set up.

    And here comes the fun stuff. To set up a tent, you have to kneel. When you have damaged knees you can't kneel. Think of the options. It got done but not without a fair amount of creative movement, thank you all my yoga teachers, I'd like t thank the Academy....

    I had to tuck together two very thin quilted sleeping bags, which I was sure I'd freeze in, but truth was I didn't. As long as you slept fully clothed and that included down jacket you were fine.

    Dinner was a healthy, huge selection of dishes and a great deal of rice wine and very loud echoing toasts, the quantity of which were paid for the next morning by the porters. Ah. The next morning. Yeah right.

    I stiff walked back to my tent after dinner, took about three minutes to find a way to a seated position, squirmed into bed and frankly remember nothing afterwards until twelve hours later.

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    Well, pooh.
    First thanks to all who wished me a happy birthday, very kind of you, I am currently sitting at the Pepperhouse which of course has no heat, it's about fifty degrees if it's that, and raining, and COLD thankyou very much,and my French press is dripping as I await its slow progress. The roosters are crowing and I just got my very rank body out of a rather cold shower (getting very used to those) and finally getting ready to tell some funny stories.

    These rather fall into the category of shoulda coulda woulda, but what a fine, fine, fine lesson in doing one's due diligence beforehand. I took a long, dank and humid train ride from Da Nang to Hoi An where I was picked up and deposited at Pepperhouse quickly and kindly by the Oxalis group. There was no birthday party, somehow that got lost in translation. No matter, I was happy to be safely in the right place, and eager to get on with The Big Adventure. The Highlight of The Trip. The Grand Kaboo, or whatever.

    Okay well you know when you build something up? Okay. So next morning guy picks me up at 8, I got all my gear, Goretex hiking boots, gaiters, everything for trekking, right? Wrong.I quickly find out that I have to give up that gear for a pair of utterly ridiculous cotton Army boots that have no insulation, are a full size too big, my feet slide around in them, they have no tread. I give them the beady eye. Hm. Just for going through a couple of rivers right? Okay. I'm thinking, I'll just change back. WRONG.

    What I should have asked about, and come to understand,was that the trip I'd booked, we hiked through (magnificent, amazing, gorgeous, remarkable, steep, muddy,gooey, sucking mud) jungle and eighteen, maybe even twenty rivers and streams. You give up your good gear and your lower extremities are in freezing water. All.Day. Long.

    Now hey. If you don't have what I have, no worries, mate. But I happen to have this thing called Reynaud's Syndrome, which means that when my extremities get cold, especially cold and wet, like feet, they turn fishbelly white as the blood rushes to my body core, leaving them floppy and nonfunctional appendages. So after the third stream, my feet are pretty much as effective as large blocks of ice, and we are clambering up but mostly straight down some pretty epic trail and my guide is moving at warp speed.

    Well of course. The inevitable happens. Clown foot lands on a smooth, mudslop covered root and takes off for Cambodia and my right knee goes clobbering into the nearest rock surface. Another unfortunate medical fact is that I'm a bonafide hemopheliac, which means that at times like this, I provide huge entertainment for others who have never seen a bump get THAT big THAT fast. It was the size of a California navel orange and straining against my pant leg by the time we got going again, and I was roundly cursing the shoes, but icy water actually did it some good. Hey, you look for bright spot. On we went, more and more streams, until I lost all feeling in my lower extremities and did my best to concentrate on what was around us: mystical mountains disappearing off into the fog, wild banana trees and deep primitive forest, a very poor village with a pet owl, the swift moving clear streams with their tiny fish, the small but lovely waterfalls and moss covered rocks. The land was so isolated, so silent- and so perfect. Were it not for a knobby knee, what an experience. But no! We're not there yet!

    Towards midafternoon we hit a series of small streams. Suddenly, like out of a movie set, a great yawn in the earth appeared in the mist, out of the limestone, that was so completely out of proportion to anything I'd ever seen before that it stopped me in my tracks for a moment. This was our cave, still a bit of a ways off, but of such a size that it boggled the mind. We wound our way towards it, through more streams (hey natch) and finally hiking our careful way to the entrance.

    The only way to grasp the sheer enormity of the entrance of this Lord of the Rings monstrosity would be to put a person in the photo, which we did. They looked like Frodo in the caves, so tiny and insignificant. It's not in the scope of words to really express. We scrambled (I crawled) over the big scree and there, Lego sized, far in the middle of the cave, were our porters, our tents, and our campsite. We could barely make them out. They were ants, specks, in the middle of the biggest amphitheater I'd ever seen, imagined.

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    We made our way down, across a sandbar- this time the water in the cave was a deep blue due to the depth of the pool so it served to step carefully- and we eventually made the campsite. Not time to change to boots yet, so we dropped off our packs, donned our cave helmets and lights, and headed off into the Deep Dark (and if you can't hear Gandalf shame on you).

    The other couple was right on Vung's happy hurried heels, he was nothing if not speedy, and I did my best to keep up. There were razor sharp volcanic rock, fossils, fantastic formations, all manner of things to climb over and look at up close. My twisty back and club feet slowed me a bit, particulary down a section of (natch) smooth muddy rock where my left foot, insisting on its journey westward, took off again. This time navel orange landed first and then shin, and I muttered, rather loudly, some incantations that were likely to bring up Gods of the Underworld wielding whips of fire. Since none appeared, I made an attempt to rise, then realized that apparently that's precisely where the Gods of the Underworld were taking out their revenge by throwing whips of fire up my back.

    Well hell Gandalf turned white for his efforts, I figured I'd at least stand up, so eventually I did, and now further festooned with purple and blue I followed after the disappeared headlamps. And found the silhouettes against the bright green of the postcard pretty landscape, just outside a different entrance, past another, ahem, stream.

    We tramped around a bit here, and let me remind you we are really out in the hinterlands. There are very few people here,and it is simply gorgeous. Vung takes us across a quite busy stream, deeper and stronger than any of them. This one, a good stout 260 lb man would have no problem crossing. NO worries. A 115 lb skinny chick, I'm a weed. So I have my poles, I'm last across, and I plant them hard in the rocky stream bottom. Carefully cross a step at a time, plant the pole, take a step, doing great. Until the porter wades in to Help. Yeah right. He snatches my right arm and jerks my pole out of its anchor spot. Immediately I am swept under, smashing both knees (which are bare)on the river rocks, and my patootie gets soaked.Okay, now I come up bleeding, and I'm right pissed at this butthead, and I am soaking wet, and biting my tongue. The funny will come, it always does, but right now is a very good time to give me about a four foot berth. The funny eventually comes. The look I give the porter ensures I have my space. We have to recross the same stream. This time I forewent the poles and let another porter drag me across like a water buffalo. Got a lot wetter than if I'd just done it my way, but some things you cannot fight. Selah.

    So I take a moment before being hustled back into the caves. Why is everyone in such a damn hurry here? The mountains surround us and are clothed in this soft mist and fog, their silhouettes layered and layered and layered. The temperature is somewhere in the fifties. The jungle surrounds us, the wild banana, the thick vines choking every tall living thing for access to the always hazy sunlight. Water sources everywhere running over smooth multicolored rocks, moving sand along quickly to some unnamed destination. For millions of years. It is unearthly quiet out here. How often do we get to enjoy that kind of peace? I don't WANT to hurry back to the cacophany of the campsite, the sound of people, the movements and noise and all the rest. This is perfect. For this kind of thing, we pay with our bruises and our bumps and our little complaints. Against this kind of experience there is no complaint that matters. Someday a highway may come directly to these caves. No adventure. Today, and my legs bear witness, I paid for the right to be here. See this. Smell this rain-sweetened air. How many such places are left before they are are marketable "products?" I would not have missed this for the world. Nor would I have avoided the damaged knees or annoyed the lumbar gods or anything else. We must pay for such things, and the price is worth it.



    This time we go back through the caves and I am leaving a trail of little ruby droplets (you like that bit of drama) as I manage the rock formations. But what a treat on the other side. Someone has unpacked my TREASURE. My LIFESAVERS. My boots and socks, into which I immediately change, with a great sigh of relief, although bending over to do so put me in stitches, because it was almost impossible to accomplish.

    As was the act of kneeling to set up my little tent. The tent, my tiny Taj Mahal, needed to have the sleeping bags set up. Bags: there were two thin quilted things that needed cocooning and my liner, so fine a companion on Kilimanjaro.

    Okay, to set the tent you must kneel.I can't kneel, because I have brutalized my kneeling devices. I can't well lean over because the Gods of the Underworld have set up camp in my lumbar. Okay. So it takes about three minutes to find a way to sit down at the opening of my tent and I do this facing outward. Fifteen minutes later, I'm sweating, but I'd like to thank the Academy, my yoga instructors, my dance teachers who always taught me to stay limber.....now please,where the hell is my codeine medicine?

    Dinner is set out, heaps of good food, and we all come round the campfire, where we are joined by another Oxalis crew. Dish after dish is laid out, and everyone heaves to. They also heave to the rice wine and with the exception of boring yours truly, they all engage in the Rice Wine Drinking Toast, which is otherwise known as the Rice Wine Drink til you Drop Toast, otherwise known as the Geez, what happened to my head this morning Toast. Ah, morning. We'll get to that.

    I recall getting to my tent, taking a very long time to find a way to a lying down position, getting into my liner and twelve hours later it was about 7 am.

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    Morning came at 7 am, announced first by those body parts that have had liquid pooling in them for twelve hours and would like, please, to release them, as soon as humanly possible, which would, of course, be NOW please. As in RIGHT NOW.
    Second, movement to accomplish such blessed relief was immediately met by answering lashes by the resident Gods of the Underworld who had been waiting for just such an impudent act on my part to attempt anything so ridiculous as to get out of the tent to relieve myself.

    This set me to giggles again, which is the worst thing anyone with a full bladder can do, it's worse than going over a cobblestone road while looking for a loo, you start and you can't stop and now you have a SITUATION on your hands which is, really, just one of math and engineering to be cold about it.

    To get up normally, body parts go here and here and there. To do that means ouch, ouch and now you die, Another route is here, there and now here, which entails scream in agony, and leave a puddle. You muddle such things.

    I think that it took me about eight minutes to reach a relatively vertical position and from there to stiff walk to the loo. Poles were involved. They saved my life, and were laughed at yesterday. I was rarely so grateful for a piece of equipment.

    The other couple watched me and decided immediately, we ain't letting that slow us down. So they went to Vung, and said, "oh yeah well but Courtney gets all cold when we walk slower and see yeah well, it's kinda tough so yeah well if you don't mind yeah well we're gonna, yeah, we're just gonna leave now."
    They are in their thirties, and this decision had real consequences for us later. Hey what do you do. I know full well that what you feel in the first half hour after injuries in the morning feels very different after you starting exercising, but let 'em run. Fine by me. I liked them very much but they don't want to feel burdened and this I understand.

    So of course we have to backtrack, same streams, but not quite. This not quite paid off handsomely in unexpected
    ways. Vung veered me off into primitive jungle, and by primitive I mean primeval. This is the real thing, the kind of tropical jungle you just can't waltz through. If Vung hadn't been leading I'd not have seen the track. The sky was darkened by a thick overhead weaving of heavy cover. The ground was a mass of thick ropy vines and roots that I swear reached out to grab unwary feet. We walked on a six inch wide piece of clay - me with ruined knees and a ruined back- and I couldn't possibly have been happier. You don't get to see this on a tourist tour, folks. Had I not damaged myself, Vung would not have taken me into the jungle to avoid the streams. Now he's doing his best to keep my feet dry and I am getting a chance to experience jungle that is as wicked and raw as it gets. I go down a four foot drop of pure slippery mud, using vines on each side as my handrails. Life does not get any better than this. I duck, weave, slip, slide, and wonder at such a tangle of life. Deeply humbled.

    But that's not the half of it.

    In the middle of all this, I get a sudden burning imprint on my heart of what it must have been like to be a soldier in all this. To live in this, fight in this, struggle in this day and night. The leeches, the mossies, the cold, wet, impenetrable bush, the snakes, the enemy, either side. What awful, terrible, yet beautiful conditions. And for the first time I had the beginning of deep and powerful empathy for those of my brothers and sisters and arms who, unlike me, actually came to this country during the war. I did my time Stateside. They often suffered these conditions. And now I had some idea of what that must have been like. Sometimes you are shown a thing, and that thing gives you insight, and all you can do is be thankful. And believe me, I was.

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    At the first waterfall we'd crossed the previous day, it was our lunchbreak, and that also marked the point where I could bid forever goodbye to those lousy Army pieces of you know what that had adorned my dogs for two days. A bandana to dry off the pieces of pure white flesh that currently sat at the end of my pegs (is this mine? no feeling, no movement. SLAP,that stings. Mine.) In about half an hour the hard core uphill climb is going to hard charge blood and energy through my muscles and the Gods of the Underworld are going to the Fiery Depths of Hell Where They Belong (yeah yeah okay Gandalf quit grandstanding). Truth be told, that's what happened. Vung pointed uphill and I was right on his tail. The opportunity to work using proper footwear was, and I do not overstate, a joy. You don't have to be so tentative. We put on the afterburners, the porters quit complaining about the slow white woman and we cleared the jungle right on time for our pickup at 2:30 pickup. Only the pickup van wasn't there. Natch.

    Remember the other couple who couldn't be bothered? Well yeah, they did bother to cop our ride.

    So here we are in the middle of BFE, it's cold, windy, foggy, rainy, silent, the guys' feet are cold and wet, not much to eat. One porter points out it's Sunday and a big porter party is on back at the office. No more rides, everyone is drunk. Hm. Oh, and it's a five hour walk. Everyone gives me the goo goo eyes. I hoist my back pack and start walking. We all do.

    So here is another wonderful lesson about if then, then what? In the next mile of Ho Chi Minh trail, I saw more wildlife- monkeys, birds- than I saw in eight hours of jungle trekking. In the sweet silence of our walk, we could hear the monkeys chatter, spot them on the trees and see them climb, play and watch us back. The birds swooped close, bright cherry red and brilliant yellow. Had the van been there, we'd not have seen these things. So I was happy to hike.

    As we walked, the first motorcycle that rolled up, not running (saving fuel) took our first porter who was just freezing. Only right. The second, about a half hour later, took the second porter. Vung and I tramped along, enjoying one vista after another on the trail, which wound around the mountains, always down down down, our footsteps muffled by the mist. Our hair gathered millions of tiny droplets, our conversation ran the gamut. We'd walk in companionable silence. Another cycle came, a guy in a Communist uniform. He grinned and nodded at me, thinking payoff. I said no. We kept walking. For two hours.

    Suddenly our van came careening around the corner at speed and screeched to a halt in front of us, tunes blaring at full voice. I winced, and seriously considered telling him to go on his way. He'd shattered a perfect reverie, the silence and peace of a quiet Sunday afternoon, broken only by sounds of nature and distant waterfalls. Who gets to hear this now? What lucky ears get such a treat except by purchasing white noise? You can't buy mountain silence. And our ride ruined it.

    Well, I was rank. I stank. I hurt, I needed medicine. Sleep. Rest. I had to cancel trip #2 and sleep and write and eat. In all, time to head home. Vung was so worried that I held him responsible for my bumps and bruises. I disabused him of such a notion, and explained that this trip was worth every bit of discomfort. I learned a priceless lesson. Do your research. Understand the conditions. I hadn't done a good job of that. That is nobody's fault at all. The term "river boots" on their website should have been challenged. I trusted it and in the future I will always challenge a third world country's gear. And there is nothing like a lesson that cost you pain to imprint upon you the importance of being thorough, and then coming over-prepared.

    Oxalis holds a grip on what I consider to be the best of all the cave trips to the area. I think that this is their strong point. Their weak point is the gear piece, and not being quite as clear as they could about the shortcomings of such gear. People who are adventurers, most of us have good gear, so it's not their fault if we don't ask enough good questions, or don't come adequately prepared because we have special conditions. So in no way do I hold them responsible for any of my bumps. Any adventure holds as an assumption that there are going to be potential injuries. What cranked me was that I probably could have prevented these with better gear of my own. And that includes those walking poles, without which my trip would have been much more difficult.

    So if you've got a feeling about a piece of gear, bring it. I frankly don't give a damn if a local scuba instructor snorts at how many wetsuits I put on. He doesn't have Reynaud's. I do. When he snorts and says such a thing doesn't exist because he in his vast worldly experience has never heard of it, zip up your second 5mm and walk away from the jerk or find a better scuba outfit that is more concerned for your comfort and safety. Your safety, your comfort, your business.

    So I was dropped off at Pepperhouse last night, and after sitting in the car too long the body parts lamed back up and I gimped back into my room. I got back online to do some work, and was so tired I literally just rolled under the covers fully dressed and slept another 12 hours, knowing that the AFC Championship was being played while I slept. When I woke up today you could have used my clothing for riot control.

    So of course, first thing I checked when I got on line this morning MADE MY DAY. With apologies to all Patriots fans, what a sweet beginning to Super Bowl frenzy, and ending to our magnificent regular season, the first email I got was "we are going to the SB!!!!" Ah. Ah. Ah. All is right in my world. I can't walk, bend over, go down stairs, squat to use the pot, or sit long to write, but Manning did it. One more game to go.

    Oxalis called early, while I was still comatose, and asked after my health. Bless them. It's raining, rained all day. I was scheduled to head out again today and thank heaven I didn't. It would have been miserable. I've been moved to a bunk, fine by me. I have spent this cold rainy day writing. Resting. Doing laundry. Eating. Resting. One thing injuries demand is rest. Rest. And more rest. Tomorrow, I am going to spend what promises to be a less rainy day visiting the Phong Nha cave system via the Park system, which allows me to continue exploring but not take any falls along the way.

    I will write more about the charming Diem and her very interesting Aussie husband Multi (the name has a story, natch) who run this place later. Now I am going to go sit near the fire, warm my dry boots, pack away my no-longer-mud encrusted laundry.

    Which brings me to a quick side story. When I gave Diem my laundry this morning she spotted the dirt, and the next thing I saw was her sister pounding away working on my laundry by hand. She has a washing machine. I asked Diem what was going on. She explained that the machine doesn't do that good a job, so everything has to be handwashed (hard by the look of it) before it's washed. Honestly, you have to ask, what's the point of a washing machine if it doesn't replace hand washing? Like washing your dishes before they go into the dishwasher. But then, you have to ask some women why they clean the house before the housekeeper comes over.

    But some Universal questions are to be left to the gods, and I ain't them, so at 4 am Denver time in a very very happy town, and at 6 pm local time, I wish the bookmakers good luck. I have no idea who Denver is playing. But I will find out. G'night to all.

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    Hey sartoric, keep in mind the date line. I left on the 18th and came back on the 19th at about 7pm. I've spent the 20th- today- at home. It's about 7:50 pm here right now. So basically I was away two days, one overnight. And nah, no wifi. It looks like this system double printed my entry and it's confusing, too. I can't figure out what happened. I can't seem to cut the umbilical cord from the computer just yet.
    Oh and btw I was recalling your funny story about "lady wants a blanket!" in Sa pa, and having been there, I have a hilarious picture of how that could have gone down. Feeding frenzy indeed!

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    Aw Shellyk sorry. Truly am, but in truth this is Peyton's year. He won't be around much longer and I want him to get that gold ring.
    As for which made me happier. well we're comparing camels to cobblestones here. They are two wholly different categories of experiences and there is no way to hold them in the same light or even in the same room. The cave trip left deep and enduring impressions which were earned by considerable effort. I learned some enduring lessons. Gained some valuable emotional and heart changing insight. I found reserves I appreciated for dealing with pain and adversity and finding funny things where I had some considerable discomfort. Those are all good things that gave me joy.

    Peyton is a hero of mine in many ways. But football is just football, a passion that I walk away from when I travel, but I care enough about to check the scores. I am very happy about the SuperBowl. But hey, it doesn't fundamentally improve my life. So in that sense, I'll take the caves.

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    I took a long, dank and humid train ride from Da Nang to Hoi An where I was picked up and deposited at Pepperhouse quickly and kindly by the Oxalis group.

    I'm confused. I don't think Hoi An has a train station and Hoi An is less than an hour by road from Da Nang.

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    Sorry, Marija, I meant Dong Hoi. This tells me that my codeine is working!

    When I got up yesterday morning to start working on what turned out to be an entire day's worth of writing, I popped a Tylenol with codeine to deal with the various aches and pains. Fortunately, it helps. Unfortunately, there are side effects :-).

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    Thanks all for your kind comments. What I am so grateful for when it comes to travel and especially to adventure travel is the opportunity to face limitations. And there are many. The body sometimes just says NO. And while the ego wants to keep going out of nothing more than just that, ego, the rest of us just has to sit down for a while. Like all day yesterday, when getting up and moving around was downright painful. But today it's back off to the caves, not the full blown adventure stuff but the Paradise Caves, and apparently there is a five hundred step walk (my kinda staircase) and some other really nice caves that are not going to involve getting the dogs cold and wet. If I return to Vietnam I might consider Oxalis again but this time I'd take a wholly different kind of gear, being much the wiser for this experience. Boy, live and learn.

    The Pepperhouse is a wonderful little place six km out of the town, which isn't a particularly exciting place, but is functional largely because of the cave system. Oxalis and the Farmstay and the Lake House all have popped up around here to provide competition to the National Park system to give all of us intrepids access to the caves, with Oxalis doing the true adventure stuff. Pepperhouse is owned by Diem, who married an Aussie, whose real name is unknown. His visa said Multi for number of entries, and somehow that became his first name, and no one ever asked him otherwise, which I find very funny. He's a garrulous guy whose busy wife keeps him in beer and cigarettes, and he helps with kids and the setups for incoming guests. Diem cooks a mean pho and provides plenty of great food any time of the day, and they do a wonderful job of ensuring you get where you need to go and when. I found out they can get me back to Dong Hoi for 17 bucks instead of Oxalis' 60, so I'm going to take them up on it.

    One characteristic of their homestay is that everything is open, so that whatever the temperature is outside is what it is inside, so if it's cold, well then. And the shower system requires some patience. If you happen to be showering when everyone from the valley has just come in from working and the lights are greying out, so will your hot water. That can cause a case of that one legged Maasai stork dance. There is no tv here which I celebrate but as you can tell there is wifi, which I most assuredly appreciate. For some reason I can't update my Facebook, to thank everyone for the birthday wishes.

    As I worked in bed yesterday morning I had to constantly remove tiny ants from my screen, which made me wonder how many of them had made a home of my face, hair and body the night before, a question that I chose not to explore. Some things you leave alone if you'd really not like to know. I didn't wanna know.

    Diem is a very pretty woman, who also has a very pretty sister, and the family extends here to several other members who come and go so often it's hard to tell how many there are. There are a number of very attractive kids. Multi regales us all with stories of how when he goes to the town to get things like nails, he might get a handful, and that handful sits in the back of the house. When the village finds out that the nails are there, they disappear one by one to be used on projects long left undone, say for many years, until he goes back one day to do a project and ah! where are my nails? Meanwhile, the entire valley has successfully completed perhaps fifty or sixty longstanding projects for want of a single nail or two. They figure hey, he's an Aussie, he has money, while he actually doesn't, it's Diem who has the money. He's retired, basically a kept man. Last night we were chuckling about this idea, which he was doing his best to explain to an ancient rice farmer he sometimes smokes a pipe with up the valley. This man is and was and will always be a rice farmer, and when Multi tried to explain the concept of retirement to him he blew out his smoke in surprise. "What!" He blurted out." Now you just waiting to die?" He explained that he would be farming rice until he fell over in the fields. I love this story, because it speaks directly to the idea of retirement, and why so many people die right after it- and why it's so essential to stay active, purposeful and engaged. Multi, for his part, thought it was funny, but for my part, it was excellent wisdom.

    My stomach informs me that it's time to beg Diem for yogurt and fruit, and a big bowl of pho, and a driver is going to take me around all day long for only fifty dollars, a real bargain. I'm jazzed. Again, thanks as always for such kind comments. Feeling much more mobile today.

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    It's 5:30 am, it's icy cold. Right now I'm lying in my bunk fully dressed including my down jacket, enclosed in mosquito netting, the roosters are crowing outside. The weather changed last night and for the first time since I got to this country we saw stars. That also means it's a lot colder so right now all we can do is bundle up. I figure it's in the thirties out there, really downright cold, and I don't have any more layers to put on. Tomorrow I head for Phu Quoc Island where, apparently there is some semblance of sunshine. Hallelujah. And warmth. Lordy lordy. I can't wait.

    Yesterday I spent the day hiking around the local cave systems, one of which turned out to be a real gem and the other a more touristy endeavor. Diem had secured for me a terrific driver named Dat who adopted the habit of teaching me simple Vietnamese words and then checking to see if I remembered them when I came back to the car, something I actually did appreciate. Other drivers never invested that much interest. This one delivered me to the Paradise Cave, which entailed a nice long walk to the ticket booth and then another nice long walk, and a good long upward hike to the cave. Along the walk I adopted a Canadian and a Greek, both guys who'd apparently adopted each other along the way, and we spent the rest of the time in the caves together. We reached the top of the long walk and then it was time to hike down on the sturdy brown staircase. Here was where it got fun.

    All the way down on either side of this remarkable journey were visions out of a Hollywood set. Nothing seemed real. Formations with teeth, formations with dripping faces, like flowers, some seeming to explode out of the walls, some with fleshlike flaps, everything you ever saw come out of a movie makers imagination was right here in real life, coming out of the ceiling, the walls, visions of the Alien movies blasting out of you in limestone. It really was fantastic. The lighting made it all the more eerie. Blue, yellow and green backlighting. As we strolled through this cave we consistently spoke of how disconnected we felt, how it felt so science fiction. Almost as though it was a movie set under construction. But it was completely real, and you could touch the cool rock in many places and feel the surfaces rough and smooth. I was very glad to have been able to see this particular cave, to climb down into its depths, and wonder at the first person's impressions upon discovering it. What their flashlight or fires must have revealed and what they must have felt in response. Terror? Delight? Wonder? or all three? Certainly we did, and here it was all lit up for us, with walkways and staircases. I'd have liked to have seen the look on that first person's face seeing these incredible sights.

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    Okay, so I finally got my carcass out of bed and it's 9:15. This is just FUNNY. I am sitting out in Pepperhouse's dining area, layered up in every single bit of clothing I own: wool t- neck, polypro, down jacket, rain jacket, long pants, rain pants, heavy socks, goretex boots. I have to be barehanded to write and my fingers are screeching at me. Folks I am so cold I feel like I'm at Lambeau on that very famous day in NFL history. Come ON man...It's overcast again but a front moved in last night and it was everything I could do to get out of bed. This morning I was whining at people to keep the bunk room door closed until I realized, hey, the window right in front of my bed didn't have any glass. It was wide open. I'm sorry you just have to laugh.

    I was talking to two Canadian girls last night who are heading north, and this conversation has happened so many times that I've lost count. Every single one of us miscued for the weather. I packed for tropics. I have Ex Officio wicking tank tops and a bathing suit and tropical weight this and that and short cotton socks all with heat wave in mind. I have spent three weeks shivering in the warmest gear I've got. I just find this hilarious. I'm usually over prepared but this one I really got wrong. The good news is that with the constant hiking, walking, moving I can stay pretty warm, but last night I had to sleep fully clothed, including rain jacket, and I had to rub the poor tootsies and put the toes behind the knees in a move that produce a yelp that woke up a few bunkmates. I apologized this morning. These are the two Canadian intrepids who are off to do the Oxalis thing with their very thin jackets and no layers. They're philosophical about it. I'd rather be warm than philosophical, frankly. We've all found it amusing, and I think that this is where this fake North Face industry has cropped up. Dumb tourists show up thinking ah~! Vietnam! Hot country! No! Crap! Freezing country! Need jacket NOW! Look! North Face for cheep!!! I just wouldn't want to test any of those products to true specs in the high country.

    I forgot to tell you a couple of funny stories about the train and landing at Dong Hoi, and they are both about the toilets, as things often are with me. First, the train ride from Hoi An to Dong Hoi is about five hours, give or take, and in our case it was take, as we had an accident on the road which cost us about forty minutes. On the way, inevitably, one has to take a trip down the aisle. That means finding your way to the loo which is situated at the back of your car, outside, between the cars. Here, the very nice thing is that you can actually breathe fresh air for a change and get out of that close, dense humanity that you've been subjected to for hours (including that foul smelling octopus that woman was selling and somebody bought two seats up, omg). So you clamber into the squatter, fumble with the door which you cannot figure out, so now you're squatted, and your naked butt is waving over a hole in the floor, and you're also trying to keep the damned door closed, and the train is heaving to and fro, and you'd really like NOT to decorate your clothing, but you're also hanging on for dear life to the hand hold on the side of the loo, and this goes on for some time because you also have to concentrate, so you think waterfall, waterfall, waterfall, and when all is said and done, by some miracle of physics everything has gone where it should. Whew. Besides the floor is soaking wet with whatever and you don't wanna know. Gingerly you get back up and well, let's not go back in right away. Let's just stand here and smell the air for a while, because it kinda smells in that car. The countryside trundles by and for a while you just watch Vietnam in the afternoon light, bicycles and motorcycles, rice paddies and hills, clay roads and dogs, geese and chickens. Village after village, moms and dads and kids and babies and a few cars, lots of big trucks, life going on, oblivious of you and your cares, or your curiosity. Finally you step back inside to the stomach curdling octopus, sweaty bodies, dank air and closeness of humanity, and take your seat again. The TV is on to a Candid Camera type program. It's amusing.

    On arrival in Dong Hai, as soon as I stood up and wrestled all my gear in place to get off I realized that I'd need to hit the WC again. So when I spotted my Oxalis driver I requested one in Vietnamese and he pointed to a dark little corner of the parking lot that had a small sign, WC, so I headed towards it. Soon I was weaving in and out of an alley, through a garage, then across and open space, and totally lost for a moment. I finally found the WC and the squat toilet and did my thing. No one anywhere and I used my supply of Charmin. On my way out I was nearly out the alley when I heard "HELLO HELLO HELLO" called after me with great urgency. I kept walking. "HELLO HELLO HELLO!!!!" Oh damn, granny wants to get paid, all I have are 500,000 vnd bills. Not being willing to pay that much for a pee, I apologized in Vietnamese, didn't turn around and put on the afterburners. And yes I felt badly. But I thought it was a public toilet. I guess not. I scooted guiltily across the parking lot and leapt into the Oxalis car, fully expecting to feel a Vaudeville hook around my neck at any point for her 2000 vnd.

    She apparently had given up the chase, however, and we made our way without incident to Pepperhouse, the rest of which you know by now.

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    Hi JH and thanks again for the entertainment.

    For the photos, register with Flickr, they will email you a link to activate your account, then upload away !

    I managed to do it with just an IPad, it worked a treat.

    So loving your story and philosophy....

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    Okay so back to Dat, and the Day of the Local Caves. The Greek and the Canadian and I climbed the stairs back out again (I was told there were five hundred of them, trust me, there weren't five hundred. More like maybe two hundred. I train on that many at home and that felt about right. People LOVE to exaggerate). We got out at the top right as a very large tour group was arriving. Just in time, trust me, this would have been a totally different experience in the cave with fifty people talking shouting laughing smoking. We had a quiet, thoughtful, magnificent time. It serves, as other reviewers note, to get there early or late. And I am a BIG fan of doing the walk and skipping the buggy ride. Again, and this depends on your fitness level, it's a nice little workout because there's a nifty long uphill ramp that's a good demand on you (the boys complained, come on guys) and also, when walking to the cave, you see wildlife. If you're whizzing along in the golf cart you are whizzing past the wildlife. Honestly, like my guide, I've never seen a people in such a damned hurry, like there's always something better ahead, ahead, ahead. Well dammit, what about what's right here right NOW? That's what attracts me about the Thai Buddhist attitude about being in the moment. I slowed down my hike repeatedly by wanting to actually look at my surroundings, and soak up the grandeur of those misty mountains. Hey dunno about you guys but when we spend so much effort and cash to get to these remote places, kinda serves to take it all in, rather than marathon walk past places few folks get to see. What do I know? Just a dumb traveler here.


    Anyway to wit, as we were walking back to the ticket booth and the exit, we were treated to some gorgeous birds, which the buggybabies did not see at all, and we got to photograph. When I leapt in my truck with Dat, he promptly tested my knowledge on the fruit he'd named for me and we took off.
    The road we were on was narrow and twisty. Now here is where I got some of my education about the beep. Sitting in Dat's van I watched carefully when, where, how and why he used his horn. Also, what was coming and what the conditions were coming and going. Points to keep in mind. On the sides of any Vietnamese (very narrow road, also called euphemistically hahahahahahahahaha a highway) are people, bicycles, motorcycles, buffalo, usually in twos or fours, cows, babies, families, carts, the usual suspects. They do not stay to the right. Not on your life. They tend towards the middle of the road. There is a great and abiding love for the center of the road by all travelers of all kinds, which creates the challenge for those on wheels. Anyone coming up from behind must warn by horn blast "MOVE OVER", which they sometimes do, not with any particular hurry. Consider that there are large wheeled vehicles approaching you who are dealing with precisely the same problem on a road too narrow to accommodate one, much less two big lorries, or SUVS, or sedans, and you get my drift. Add to that a slew of impatient motorcycles moving in and out of said cars, this is what chokes the road. Dat would approach any turn and blast his horn, knowing that cars or motorcycles approaching from the other side would be riding the center line. Or passing on a blind turn. As they always were.


    Coming through little Phong Nha, cyclists would weave out in front of us without checking if anyone was coming, people and animals cross the road without warning, motorcyclists shoot out into our path at speed with insouciance. I recall one particular offender who did just that, infuriating Dat who had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting the guy, who had that Angry Young Man expression on his face. Dat looked at me sheepishly and gestured at me to indicate the guy had been drinking. By this time I was so accustomed to seeing people drive the wrong way down a one way, hog the center line, play chicken until the last possible second that I was largely immured to it. There is a part of the brain that screams “Order! Rules! Regulations! AUGH!” But there is little more than a level of accepted mayhem on the roads of Vietnam, and everyone who rides them has a pretty clear idea of how it works. After not having any idea of how to walk a street in Saigon I quickly learned that the advice I got there- DON’T RUN- was accurate. Running turns you into one of those cute little yellow ducks in a shooting gallery. Just keep walking. These guys know how to flow around a pedestrian. It’s as natural as rain water. If you are dumb enough to run and mess up their judgment you’re gonna get bullseyed.


    So Dat beeps and blows and hoots and hollers and in the process I finally learn the annoying, but helpful, Language of the Beep. Out in the really rural areas, vehicles are still pushing the envelope in some ways, as men in very old hats walk four buffalo down the road the same way they did centuries ago, and they see no reason to get out of the way for a tourist bus. The roads we traversed yesterday were narrowed by large piles of wicked rocks, deep holes and sharp curves, more suited to walking than driving. Hence, an SUV. To a degree, it’s almost as though people see, but don’t always want, the inevitable change they see coming. So they resist in the only way they can. They continue to move at their own leisurely pace, and get out of the way on their terms. Don’t blame them one bit. Time has moved at the same pace for them for a very, very long time.


    We drive to the ticket office for Phong Nha caves, and I pay up for the boat ride. Here, Multi’s advice again holds true. He said to buy a boat all to myself. It isn’t any cheaper to get more folks on the boat but it is noisier and people talk and smoke and eat. And and and. So I request, and get, a man and his son to haul me away on their ancient, blue and yellow dragon painted boat on the quiet river. We push off, I put on my life vest and settle in for the put-putting of the motor to carry us to the caves.


    The quiet ride took us past houses new and old, poor and prosperous along the river. A young girl was working the river in her own small boat, and the mists hid the mountains off in the distance. Many blue and yellow boats with variously painted dragons lined the shore. Eventually we reached a stopoff point, which was basically a place to get nabbed by people selling drinks and coffee while you tried to make your way to the loo. This time the loo had a donation box, and I was armed with small bills, and was happy to drop a few for what turned out to be a sparkling facility. No paper, but we carry.


    Dad took over rowing duties and I sat on the bow, and we entered the dark cave. This time it was again lit, and you shot your photos from the boat. You’re supposed to be a good girl and sit your tush inside the safety of the covered area but it was far too much fun to sit right behind Dad and actually catch his silhouette in a few of my shots. He pointed out some great pictures of some of the alien-like flower arrangements coming out of the roof of the cave. This was something that Stephen King’s furtive, evil imagination might conjure up, beautiful and foul and almost alive in the shifting lights of the caves. We turned and Dad gave me a great shot of it from several angles. This cave was nowhere near as high, nor as wide, nor as spectacular as the others, but the novelty of going through it by boat was kinda cool.
    Soon the cave is full of tourist boats with tourists stuffed like anchovies in their bellies, and I thanked my lucky stars for Multi’s advice. I’ve got this big boat all to myself, it’s quiet, calm and peaceful, and all I have to deal with is the operator’s jibes to each other, clearly teasing him about only one customer.


    As we approached the entrance there was a small “beach” or step off point which Dad offered me, and I took. You walk up to see some pretty nice formations of ‘tites, but here is where every other tourist was, and the fun stopped. Lots and lots and lots and lots of people taking Hi Mom I was here photos in front of this one and that one and this one and oh honey this one too. I’m outta here. I can’t get a shot of anything without someone in it. Time to goooooo. So I make my way out, and here’s the front of the cave. Ah! Staircase.
    Good. I start walking. These steps are double high, high for me, and I’ve got long pegs. They must be murder for the locals. Lots of them. I go up up up up. I’m trying to point for the beach head where I know my boat is. I wind around a few times and pass a coffee and cold drinks spot and then finally make my way to the same toilet area. I suspect this is a busy place in high season, and I am the only customer.


    Of course that makes me a Very Big Target in my emerald green Marmot rain jacket so I bull rush the bathroom again, make my donations and run fast as I can for the boats. I get chased about halfway down by people offering cokes (this really was a slow day!) and I make it to the first of four tied together, and I walk across four moving bows ‘til I land on mine. We cast off for home, it is now getting really chilly.
    Back on the bow, I pull the life jacket tight and watch the river life go by. There’s a motorcycle ferry operating, it takes about five at a time. Much clothes washing in the icy river. My hands sympathetically get cold watching these women work. The strangely formed mountains with their rich green cloaks of jungle rear up and slide by until the mists envelope them again. Always, the mists.


    Dad had taken over engine and rudder duties so son was sitting behind me. He was wearing a pair of earphones and was belting out tunes at the top of his lungs. I swung around and got a shot of him as he sang with such abandon and he collapsed in giggles. Such sweetness. I swung back forward and the singing commenced again.


    When we pull up, I pull out a 100,000 vnd for Dad and son for their willingness to take out mot tourist and they were most gracious. As I walked across the parking lot I could see my ride, and about four men around it. Dat popped out and opened the doors to let all the smoke out. He motioned “just a moment” as the cigarette smoke cleared, and then a minute more as he closed the doors and the Great Start the Engine Attempt began. Dat jumped in and the four guys took their positions and soon they were shoving the SUV with gusto backwards across the parking lot until it lurched into gear. Success!


    When I got in the now happily chugging car I communicated to Dat that I wanted to go by Oxalis, and he indicated to me I’d have about 5 to 10 minutes only before the car would crap out again. Fine, and we pulled up for me to talk to Luke, the manager. Luke wasn’t there, and I got the standard “how can I help you” from one of the staff. I explained that he couldn’t, my conversation was with Luke, whom I’d like very much to speak with. He gave me that Yeah right who the hell are you look, took my name, walked to the back of the room and called Luke. Seconds later he’s hurrying back to the front to hand me the phone and Luke and I greet each other- Luke manages Oxalis and is my guide’s boss- like old friends.


    It is my habit to debrief managers on my experiences, since one of my hats is management consultant, and I wanted to hear the story the guide had given him about our trip. If Luke knew anything of what had transpired. The lost van ride. The hike down the mountain. Many things, like Vung’s unfortunate habit of letting his little group get so strung out we all lost sight of each other (often with me limping along at the very back with the impatient porters way out front, something expressly forbidden by Oxalis' rules). Ah, well, no. Vung had come in hours late and told Luke that all had gone well, fine, perfect no problem. And that got up my nose. I asked Luke a few more questions to determine how much he knew and didn’t know- which was effectively nothing. Vung didn’t report the missing van or anything else. And when I told him that Vung had taken me off into the jungle he went ballistic. At this point I made it clear that this was actually a treat for me, and while it might have been off script and not very smart, for me it was a delight. So to take that into consideration in my case. I didn’t appreciate Vung’s lack of forthrightness, and since I want Oxalis to be successful with good trustworthy guides (and in this case he wasn’t being trustworthy) I wrote up my side of the trip, using plain reporting facts, and tempering Luke’s potential reaction because I really did have a gas. Luke reported that even he had admonished Vung for trekking far too fast so I felt vindicated somewhat. Now I do know that it is a habit of the Vietnamese to say very positive things, but in this case, you kind of do have to do an honest trip report, and not gloss over some of the more serious aspects of your trip, like a missing pick up van. Because if someone else got injured, and they don't happen to have similar attitude or sense of humor, they are going to have a very mad hen on their hands. We are going to stay in touch as I may well do this again with proper equipment- because the caves- and this expedition- is worth it. Luke did agree that the website could have a wee bit more complete information about seasonal temperatures and conditions, and gear ideas. Good idea mate.

    Now that I've done all three cave activities, I am in a position to rate them in terms of their quality and which I'd say you gotta go do. Oxalis is, hands down, the best, no question. Yes, it's epic. And worth every bit of effort. This is indeed one of those once in a lifetime, must do if you're in country, do not miss this, adventures. No question. Glad I did it, even if I am still finding eggs on my shins (I kid you knot).

    Paradise Cave, if you are only doing one, is far far better than Phong Nha, it offers some exercise, is far more gorgeous, if you plan well and go during the week when there are fewer tourists and early am or late pm, you will delight in the serenity of the place. Bring your own food. Take your time. This is a treat for the eyes. Lovely, fascinating, 120,000 vnd.

    Phong Nha Cave at about 400,000 vnd is a distant third. A lot of dong for not a lot of cave and a whole lot more tourists. People get fooled into thinking that if they fill the boat with more tourists it's going to be cheaper. No. It's the same price for all of you no matter how many hapless folks they cram into this sardine can. Go to the local market, buy some fruit and water, cop a boat for yourself. Don't try to go cheap and really enjoy the journey if you do this tour. But frankly, having seen it, I'd easily have skipped this and spent more time in Paradise. Well heck, we'd all like to spend more time in Paradise. So do. Or sign up for one of Oxalis' treks and really do the caves, meet Luke, a very cool and committed Aussie, and have a right grand adventure.
    And mind the rocks, please.

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    Thanks Sartoric. I may do the photograph thing at some point. Not at the moment. I have one afternoon left, it's very cold, and I am glad that our power finally just came back on after being off for many hours. My battery went down to 7% and my computer was blinking Danger Danger Danger!

    I appreciate your kind words.I had such a laugh yesterday when I pulled up my pants leg and discovered yet another very large perhaps three inch high lump on my right shin. Well hello, where did you come from? I know damned well where, this beauty came from the cave walk, when I fell the second time, and I never checked that leg again. So Mr Egg here has been growing away in the dark environment of my pants leg and my ignorance for a while. I never even checked while I hurried through my icy shower. It's a beaut, too.

    I don't mind being a little battered from an adventure. What has begun to annoy me is to be so constantly cold. The inability to take a hot shower- here it's nearly impossible. You turn this switch up, climb in, turn this little lever this way, ease this down, wait til that turns red, back it off a wee bit, then see if it turns hot. Not. Oh well then, you try turning it back a wee bit- oh but then it turns green and the water is now icy cold. Go back and start all over again. Meanwhile you are standing on river rocks (sound familiar?) and you are thrice layered with goosebumps. Your hands, pure white, feel a semblance of warmth, you duck under the water only to realize that what your ice cold hands registered as warmth was a few degrees above freezing. You jump back out of the stream and try again. And again. And then you curse like a drunk sailor, blaspheme his sainted mother and do what you've done this whole trip: the essential bits, and get out. You are largely still not really clean, but the parts that tend to smell the most have been scrubbed and toweled off. That's well enough. Until you get to some blessed Paradise (not the cave) which offers something that resembles a stream of consistently warm water that you can actually wash under. Ah. I dream. I daydream. I wish.

    But then, as Diem hoes outside, and Multi cleans up the ground peanuts they were shelling and sets out the bikes that they both were cleaning with equally cold water, these are the conditions of this valley. This village. This life. The smell of the rich sweet earth that Diem is turning over with her hoe wafts up to my table. I grew up with that dense good smell. Ducks and chickens, most with their chicks cheeping in little troupes at their feet, wander the fields.

    This is how it is here, people deal with the lack of heat, the greying power, intermittent electricity, open buildings, and it just is. And while I can grinch about not being able to take a warm/hot shower, the truth is that there are many Vietnamese for whom that's a very distant if not impossible notion. If anything that's for the tourists with their need for creature comforts. Yeah well. One of those creature comforts would be washing my hair in warm water, which, after the discovery of an infestation of ants in the double bed that I spent two nights in a wee while back, I would really, really like to take care of, but can't. And there's a story to this.


    Back when I was a very active skydiver, in the late eighties, I was down in Coolidge Arizona which was, and may still be a hotspot for skydiving boogies. Boogies as they were called at the time were events which drew skydivers from all over the country to a place where very large old planes would cram a lot of us together and fly very high over the desert and we would merrily fling ourselves out with mad abandon and create stars and formations of great complexity. I was at one of those back about 1990 and I flew in a particular formation where I docked eighth on an eight man star. That earns you an award, the Bob Buquor Award, and for all such awards, cold beer is involved. In this particular case- the awardee has to strip to his or her underwear in the middle of a circle and be sprayed with said cold beer.

    Okay so we're out in the desert, desert gets cold at night, remember what I said about Reynaud's? Yeah right. So there are two of us victims out there receiving this special treatment and someone shouts "HIT 'EM" and the next thing I know is I can't breathe. The beer onslaught goes on and on and on. My body and head are soaking with icy beer and I literally cannot take a breath. My chest has frozen and I am struggling. Everyone is busy opening up third and fourth cans and I am almost lights out with oxygen deprivation. The last thing I remember was that my beery head felt like a vice of ice and my lungs were on fire.Then, nothing. Some time later I woke up in my car still stinking of beer, but at least under a blanket, and close to my sleeping bag (which would never smell the same.) This was before I'd gotten diagnosed with Reynaud's. I was so white and shivering so hard that I was nervous that I might chip a tooth. That's when I realized that very cold and my head- hell, any part of me- were probably not a good match, and New Year's Eve celebrations that involved jumping into freezing water would not be in my immediate- or distant- future. So yeh, I can wait til I find hot water to scrub little critters out of my hair, and in the meantime, let 'em party if that is what they are doing.

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    So lucky me,I appealed to Diem's mercy late this afternoon, and she was kind enough to join me in the shower and see what was wrong, and marched me to shower #2, and fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with this that and the other until she triumphantly invited me to stick my hand under the water. Warm. To a point. Tolerable. She said, "wait." So we left it running, and I peeled off the seven or eight protective layers, and by the time I was down to bare skin I was ready to brave whatever was pouring out of the spout. Which was actually almost hot. Jesus Mary and Josephine, leap in and do yer best soapup before this goes the way of the dinosaur! I did just that, and got red with the effort. It was a puny little waterfall but it was hot, and that's all that mattered. Thus finally cleaned (not enough for hair however) I quick dried and re-layered, and we are now all sitting near the nightly fire which is gaining in force. Most of us are eyeing which way the wind is blowing to get a seat upwind. Diem, who has been moving banana trees all day, is taking a break before starting the dinner service. A while ago she was snockered out on the hammock in front of the big house, dead to the world. She works incredibly hard around here, with Multi doing bits and pieces. She lovingly calls him "hopeless" being the more competent of the two, leaving him to schmooze with the guests, which I have had three days to observe. It's good for business.


    I leave tomorrow at 10 for flights through Saigon and on to Phu Quoc, so must dress for much hotter weather. Such a distant notion. But we all know the feeling of being layered to the gills for January and stepping off into the tropics. So some level of temporary discomfort tomorrow en route to the airport and then visions of palm trees, beaches, and an actual shining sun. Or something round and yellow behind the haze putting forth warmth. Heat. I have one week left and I will by damn wear my Ex Officio tank tops. Unless of course, it rains.

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    I will not by damn wear my Ex Officio tank tops. It didn't rain, it did me one better.

    Never, ever ever make pronouncements to the travel spirits. They wake up and then come after you and laugh at you as you suddenly remember, two steps out of the van that delivered you to the airport this morning, that your passport is not on your person. AH! That would be a problem. You stop the driver. The driver calls Pepperhouse. Diem doesn't have it. That would be....ah....the guide at Oxalis. They don't have it they say. I look again. There are multiple calls back and forth, frantic, because my plane leaves in 40...30...15 minutes. Diem calls. Oxalis has my passport and they are coming NOW!!!!! The van driver leaves you in the parking lot.

    Well, I run into the airport to the customer service counter where I discover several things: first, there is no other flight until next Saturday. My flight is a one time use once no refund. I get on this or I leave in two days. I will lose three other flights as a result.

    Visions of waving palm trees are diminishing into the distance, along with all hopes of warmth. Egad. The charming girl looks at me and then her watch and she informs me that boarding ends in 7 minutes. Oxalis is a long way off still. I pull out my computer and start cancelling my scuba, my hotel, my flights. 'Tis what it is. I try to call Pepperhouse for a reservation. No answers. No worries. See what happens.

    About 35 minutes later the operations manager of Oxalis comes hurtling in the glass doors waving my passport, grabs my bag and yells "you can still make it come on come on come ON!" I am spread out all over the counter, and the attendant gives me this look like "Lady I wouldn't count on it," and this guy is running like mad across the tiles towards the turnstiles and I'm trying to stuff my things back into my backpack. Pretty soon there's an official who's running at us at similar speed waving something and making go away signs, saying Pilot Waved Goodbye Long Time Ago.

    Sigh. My heart said, 'nuther two cold nights in Paradise baby. Must be something here in Phong Nha for me.

    So I can't make a new res, have to do that online. I pile up my stuff, grab my gear and we load up. The ops guy and I have a lively discussion about the guide and the trip and the possibility (yes I'm a glutton for punishment) of my going to see the famous Tu Lan cave, the one that National Geo got so many awards for. Now look. I did want to see that cave, there is a one day trip, it's epic but there are only three streams and I can handle three streams. The weather's been downright warm (I actually cast a real shadow today. Nearly fell over.)
    So I kinda committed myself. What else am I going to do in this tiny, rather drab, monotonous little town that has absolutely nothing else going for it but the caves, which I have seen, and if I am going to be stuck here another day I might as well go see what I came here to see. The bumps have flattened out. My back is well, it is what it is.

    We drove to Pepperhouse, which is booked. So he makes a res for me at what he said was the best place in town. Thirty a night, warm showers, big bed. No heat. Nobody has heat. Them's the rules. So they drop me off and I get to my room. Cold, big bed, nice bathroom, real toilet.

    The girl leaves me alone. I go in the bathroom. Turned on the water in the sink. It was warm. Then hot. I filled the sink with blessed, wonderful, holy, HOT water then sank my constantly aching angry cold hands in it.

    A sensation that I had become quite unfamiliar with these last three weeks shot through my whole body- pleasure from having warm hands- and I was anchored to the floor, until the sink nearly flooded the bathroom. Indescribable. I have misplaced my gloves, oh well, so my hands are white all the time now. So this was just, well, the berries.

    I am now thinking about that shower, how the hair on my legs has gotten so long that those resident ants ( if there are any) are playing jumprope down there, and it's gonna be heaven if this trend continues. Clean hair. Shaved legs. Ladies, you're tracking me here, right? These are not small things. Hugging a puny trickle of warmish water hasn't been particularly satisfying so the idea of the real thing makes the mouth water.


    Well I have to book this trip so I put the shower off (delayed gratification) and walked the 1km to Oxalis. That, by the way is what the sign says. It's easily two or three times that, which is fine by me, but if you're not a walker you're not going to be happy about that inaccuracy. As I walked out of downtown and along the river, I waved at the tourists, and enjoyed the bright sun on the mountains whose jungle coverings were particularly green and lush today. And still hazy. I bought some fruit, which one guy demanded a piece of (this is what tourists bring to town, it happened often- gimme gimme gimme money) and then arrived at Oxalis. The trip booked, I headed back. Oxalis brings a lot of traffic, people are accustomed to whites coming down this way.

    Men working on motorcycles yelled out Money! Give me money! and slapped their stomachs. Tiny kids giggled and called out hello. I bought that SuSu for want of yogurt for my dinner and two doors down a man demanded it for his child. There is no bank here and I am almost out of dong so I am hoarding my limited funds. But responding to this teaches begging. And I won't do it.

    There was a terrific fruit stand near the market but the town's market was a dump. Muddy, trashy and foul, only a few outside cooking stands. Phong Nha is not prepared for tourists at all, and in one way that's good. There's nothing set up for them. You can't get much of anything that a Westerner would want here. Nor would you really want to go near many of these shops. The guys tend to leer and be a little threatening, and I just cross the street. This is the first town I've not felt comfortable walking around. So one day to the cave, twelve hours of it tomorrow, and then out of here again Saturday morning. I sure hope so.

    Back at the hotel the deep freeze has begun, and I shut down windows and doors, and not without trepidation strip down and enter the shower. There's a red knob on the wall and I'm not sure if I'm supposed to turn it. The water is off, I push things here and there, turn the knob, water comes, it's not hot, here we go again. I dress and start down the stairs but am met by the manager who escorts me back in, finds the same problem ( good I'm not mad) twiddles this that and the other, then waves me in and warns me, may be too hot. No such thing.

    Well yes there is. Bless him, yes there is. And bless him there is pressure in this shower which means that if you move half an inch in either direction the water is actually still landing on you. What a concept. This room immediately filled with red hot steam. Red. Hot. Fabulous. Incredible. I stood under the shower and got my head warm then hot, and I might have screamed were it not for a big French family with young kids right next door, and they don't need to know that there is an insane woman in the next room trying to kiss a shower head.

    I didn't care if I used up the entire hot water supply for the building. Didn't care if they had cold water for washing dishes tonight. Didn't care...well you get my drift. I stayed hot when I turned around. I stayed hot when I reached for hair goop. I was actually HOT. Okay it was over too fast, but for just a few minutes, yeah, it was pretty good. Awful good. Doing it again tomorrow night when I've earned it. I'd pay sixty a night for that shower alone. Kindly don't email the manager. I mean you just don't realize how cold you've been for so long until you are truly warm again.

    Tonight I laid out gear for tomorrow, and being far wiser this time around the choices are informed. I pray we don't have rain. We are supposed to swim in the caves. The other people will swim in the caves and I am going to sit and watch. I'm just not into self-flagellation.

    So gallumphing through the jungle again tomorrow by choice mind you, and I hope to see wondrous things, and get less cold, and be off to Saigon successfully on Saturday.


    We'll make no more final pronouncements about ANYTHING and I'm going to see if I can find some flowers for the spirits.

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    Oh dear, I was so looking forward to you take on Phu Quoc as I haven't been there yet.

    I'm kinda surprised that someone who battled to retain her passport earlier in the trip has now let it become absent at a crucial time... Last night I read your South American post, and realise that losing various items are par for the course (whether lost or just really well hidden), for you. Viva la difference.

    I'm sending empathetic thoughts from Oz (I hate the cold and would not be able to endure what you have put up with so cheerfully and pragmatically)

    Hope you find LOTS of very special flowers for those dastardly travel spirits !

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    Julia - Courtney here, one half of "the couple who couldn't be bothered", as you so kindly called my husband and I.

    It's been a long time since I have been as disappointed in a human being as I have been in you. I felt a connection and understanding between us and enjoyed our many conversations on our cave trek. Given your treatment of us here, it's clear you did not feel the same and saw us as nothing more than fodder for your semi-fictional stories.

    Your write-up of our trek includes outright lies (e.g. we can prove through photos that you did not have trekking poles with you when you went down in the river the first afternoon, nor was there a porter - only our guide, Vung, who was doing everything he could to help you cross), misrepresentations, and omission of key details (like my husband coming back to help you many times).

    You say that you learned valuable lessons on this trip, but you seem to miss that you learned those lessons at the expense of other people. That was our trip too, and we spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for you to catch up. The pace was not "warp speed" or "far too fast" and certainly shouldn't have been a challenge for a "serious athlete" such as yourself. No apology from you or recognition that you were holding us back. Fine, ok.

    Similarly, no else, including the other couple from the group that joined us, had issues w/ respect to gear, pace, food, etc. - just you.

    Much more importantly, your lack of prior research and due diligence as well as general ill-preparedness (both in terms of gear and physical ability/training) endangered us all. To put it simply, you had zero business being on a trip like this.

    Personal responsibility is the first rule of adventure, and by the account of everyone on this trek, Oxalis staff and other fellow clients included, you failed miserably in this regard.

    As a result, we too have learned a lesson of our own - namely, next time we find ourselves with the misfortune of being on trip with someone like you, we will abort or wait for another group.

    I contemplated long and hard about whether I should respond to your post here ("wrestle with a pig", as the saying goes). Ultimately, while I could swallow your casual smearing of me and my husband, I simply cannot allow you to do so to other wonderful people like our guide, Vung, whom you personally assured that you didn't hold accountable for your own mistakes, only to later throw him under the bus to his boss, Luke. You even smeared the town, which does in fact have an ATM and is full of lovely people (we had a wonderful stay and the pleasure of attending a local wedding, where we were treated as honored guests).

    My guess is that you will have this comment removed as inappropriate, and so be it if you do. But, I hope you at least take away from this that "adventure" is not a game or just a good story for travel forums.

    In light of both this cave trek and the fact that you had to be carried during during your descent of Mt. Kilimanjaro (as you told me on our 2nd day), please seriously reconsider your upcoming trip to Everest base camp for the sake of the guides and your fellow clients.

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    Well, Courtney, I also have pictures. And in all frankness you guys were simply terrific, both of you, until the ride that was for all of us disappeared and left us standing in the freezing cold and having to hike for two hours. That’s what I meant by “couldn’t be bothered.” I also felt a wonderful connection, and yes HJ did lots of extremely kind things. But Vung said to me later that he was “extremely angry” with you for going ahead taking the ride.
    And he also told me the reason you gave him for leaving early. Sometimes as a writer I have a little fun with that and it's the writer's right to do that. Two sides to everything. Perhaps more.


    I’ve written three versions of a response. It isn’t worth it. It just isn’t. There is so much that you don’t know, weren’t privy to, didn’t hear, and can’t know because you weren’t around that it doesn’t serve. While I’m sorry you’re so angry, it appears that you’re more angry at my choice of words. For that I apologize. However, when I have a disagreement I don’t engage in character assassination, which says a great deal more about you than it does about me. You have a right to disagree. No problem. The post stands. But it seems more about that I didn’t give you more credit than that we might disagree about the details about how things went.


    I went out with Oxalis again today for the one day, twelve hour Tu Lan hike, and it was an absolute gas. By bringing Tevos and not wearing the river boots, changing into hiking boots and warm socks, the entire day was perfect. Skipped the swim. Instead my guide and I went up and over an epic mountain, same jungle, same mud, no rain but still slippery. But good boots and warm feet. Hiked all day. It was an absolute delight- and no falls. A bit of butt scooting on certain rocks, but otherwise, cave exploration and magical sights. No, I’m not a danger to my guides. I need to know the conditions. And I made sure that Luke and Vung both knew that I hadn’t done my proper inquiries and that wasn’t their fault.


    I hope you have a good rest of your journey. And I honestly do hope you put this behind you and just let. It. Go.

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    Sartoric,
    I have laughed myself silly about that piece of idiocy, and it comes down to two things: I wasn’t done with the caves, and I needed that big fat shower last night.


    So as you probably gathered in my above response I did sign up for Oxalis again today, and it simply could not have been a more delightful trip. About 12 hours of hiking, two caves, swimming for the two Danes and I got to hike over one fabulous epic mountain. That was a nice trade. The trade was for “you chicken you won’t swim in our freezing water, here you climb mountain.” Great, I’ll take it. The mountain was gorgeous.

    We started about 7:30 this morning and this time I took Tevos for river crossings and plastic bags for wet stuff and lots of dry socks. The two caves were stunning, although Hang En cave was preposterous in its size, these caves were just as interesting in their formations. After we split up my guide and I wandered in the cave and then set to heading up and over the mountain.

    Now the trail, which had been affected by the typhoons, was still there but had been affected by fallen trees. He kept reminding me “be careful, be careful,” addressing the slippery mud, so this had the effect of getting me to focus hard on where I put my boots (which is a pretty good idea anyway). The bad news is that I didn’t then see what was about to bean the brain, like the great big fat tree that I walked right into while I was concentrating on said feet.

    My guide comes rushing over and asks “You okay? You okay?” Well, not right at the moment, trust me, but if you give me five, the waves of pain will cease. More trees crossed the trail, many of which it was hard to slip under with my pack but too high to climb, so it was a night at the calypso bar to bend over backwards. The trail climbed and climbed, and climbed some more, and more and more and more, until we finally started heading downwards. The views were just breathtaking. He pointed out the valley where we had begun that morning, but we had to circle around towards it to get there. More slipping and sliding, all the while passing cow and buffalo tracks.


    About 2:30, we hit the flat and the cornfields, and the Danes and our other guide were just crossing the stream. We crossed shortly afterward and made the SUV, downed some fruit in the late afternoon light.


    As for dastardly travel spirits. They’re out there. Including people who get offended and don’t agree with your version of a story (hey it happens) and lost passports (a beaut that one) and no time in island paradise. I am so very glad I had a chance to go hike out in the Tu Lan area today, because it gave me a chance to re-experience the adventure with better thought out gear. Not as much to write about this one because all went well. When things go sideways, then there are stories.


    I’ve also learned that when I think something is lost or missing or hahaha “stolen,” it will almost always turns up, because there so many pockets and places to put things, that inevitably this got shoved there and forgotten, and a pair of glasses got put in this pocket rather than that. Right now my scuba gloves are still MIA. Easy to replace. Probably will turn up in a shoe somewhere when I get back home.

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    Oh and Sartoric, if you read my Argentinian post, you also saw that my beloved friend AvRooster regularly kidded me about losing things, and while that passport was a first, I've taken a philosophical attitude about it, especially good knives in other countries. The bigger the adventures I do, the bigger the gear bags get and the greater the likelihood of something going walkies. But of course since I can't possibly be athletic and can't possibly climb a mountain I guess I'd better just cancel all my upcoming adventures right now and go home and sit in a rocking chair.

    The thing about the passport was, for me, a humbling reminder of our rank stupidity about some things, stuff that we can take for granted (well of COURSE I have my passport). Vung was supposed to give it back to me when we got back, he didn't, I didn't think of it, we were both kinda eager to get home. Moment lost and life went on for three more days. And you're absolutely right, it stands out in stark contrast to my standing my ground about it up north. That's what I mean about rank stupidity. But the end product is that I got this wonderful day in the caves, which I would have lost otherwise. So it's fun to see what is Quixotic in ourselves, and what windmills we are whacking, and which of them whack us back when we're not looking. Travel's the best method I know to discover those things.

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    Marija, I concur completely. Robert Browning said it best, and I am going to mangle the quote here as it is off the top of my head: "oh what a gift that eie would gie us to see ourselves as others see us

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    Hi JH

    It's Saturday, are you in Saigon ? At least you won't be cold there.

    Don 't miss the war remnants museum if you have time, the propaganda is an insight into how the Vietnamese view the American War. I also remember that era, although I was very young. So, it was interesting and enlightening, and very moving for me.

    We wandered nearby and found a local food hall consisting of many booths, offering such delights as "incremental chicken" and "beef communications landscape" very funny, we chickened out and only had a couple of beers.

    Two sides to a story, maybe more,....Many sides to a story, I like that and will use it.

    Watch out for those whacking windmills....

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    Hey Sar,

    Just landed. It's a rather indulgent habit to give myself nice digs for the last week, and I am in the very nicely appointed Evergreen Hotel which as a REAL SEPARATE SHOWER which I've not seen for a month. It's so sweet by contrast in here I feel like Queen Lizzie Herself indeed. Bamboo this and that, fourth floor view from floor to ceiling windows. Come on, come on, and no cold air flowing in from the Balcony Door That Won't Shut. It's 2 pm local time, 29 degrees, and while I am genuinely sorry that I missed the scuba diving, I am still also genuinely happy I got to see the Tu Lan caves, hike with a great guide and put a very nice cap on the Oxalis adventure, Courtney notwithstanding.

    I have, as I always do on such things, given this tempest in a teapot much thought, including my part in it. I spent a slew of time with Luke and his ops manager giving them ideas and feedback that I most certainly did not put on the Web, and I gave them a great rating on TA which is where my guess is the bulk of their business comes from. The guide got positive and mixed feedback, and some of what he did Courtney and her husband weren't privy to simply because they were, as she repeatedly states, gone. Like the whole second day. So my thought was to speak to the company directly about what I saw were some questionable practices, and their response was a resounding thanks. Today I boarded with four Americans who had had a very sick gal (the trots, poor thing) in their Oxalis caving party and funny, their guide had no issue slowing down for her, and nor did their party. It's the luck of the draw. It really is a crap shoot. The one I had yesterday set a nice quick but not NASCAR pace which kept me sweating and energized. Sometimes you get Chi, sometimes you get the gem I had yesterday, and you just never ever know.

    You know, every day brings something new, and like I said, sometimes it's a very funny mirror, or an insight- or insult-you may not like. A story typically has as many versions as there are participants. And here's the rub, Sartoric. We all want to be the central hero in that story. If someone calls out some aspect of our behavior that doesn't track with our vision of our own perfection, then the claws come out. It's human nature to want to protect our version of the story. That's why there's no reason to take out the post. It's highly instructive, not only about Courtney's take, but of her way of attacking character, not taking responsibility for stranding four people, not just me, and all of us with loads facing a five mile hike. Once you do that, you're toast for a roast. Just as I am if I'm the dunce in someone else's story.

    I'd like a drumroll here, for the first time in more than three weeks, the wicking Ex-Officio tanks have been taken out of their dungeon and fluffed out for WEAR, the zip off pants are zipped off, and the rather (how can anyone say this nicely) overworn polypro and woolen tops are on the floor for a good washing. When you wear polypro day and night to stay warm, it will keep you warm, with an unfortunate, inevitable side effect. I don't care how good your pit juice is. 24/7 wear just is too much for the duds. The guy who advised us pretenders to Kili to get this particular hooded top (which we all promptly went out and bought- it was everywhere in Moshi) also stated frankly it would stink. Guy's right. It does.

    Thanks again for the suggestions. I am not sure yet what to do tomorrow. The air is cleaner today, the sun is brighter, and I am very hopeful that I had caught this city in the grip of a bad couple of days. Perhaps this time I can walk around and enjoy water puppets and the museums, and then I am going to take a cruise down the Mekong Delta and eat every single piece of papaya I see. And Mango.

    One of the heavenly aspects of this hotel that I am really enjoying is that the a/c and the quality of the construction are buffering the incessant traffic noises from the busy streets. This is just the peaches rather than the pits, and if I have four more days in Saigon by Willy, this is going to be a right nice place to spend it.

    And Sar, about those windmills. Having been thoroughly embarrassed (and grounded) by the Missing Passport Event, and parm me for grinning as I write this, I am going to stab myself with my own scissors if I make any such Grand Pronouncements again. Like I said, travel is the best source of humble pie I know, but if you are arch, possess no funny bone whatsoever, and cannot possibly see our own silliness, then don't get on a plane. It's a setup for the human comedy.
    I am forever grateful for the sheep dip I regularly get in my own faux pas. There is great joy in laughter, and the more seriously I try to take myself the more there is to laugh at. And a propositon is not what I should end a sentence with.

    The market down the street awaits someone who has burning dong in her pocket.

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    Ah, lovely. I went upstairs to the hotel restaurant, and ordered their sauteed chicken and also the spinach with garlic. The serving girl told me I couldn't have both, I could only have one. Now that's odd. It seems to me that if a client wants to pay for chicken AND vegetables, and will eat them, then the restaurant makes money, the client is happy, right? Well imagine the look of consternation on her face when I told her in Vietnamese I didn't understand, and she frowned, patiently explained to me again that I could have this one OR that one, but not both. After three go rounds this was bordering on ridiculous and I was hungry after eating nothing but tangerines and bananas and pho for about six days so she finally got to the point. Ah. I have to PAY for them both. Oh you stupid American. Silly me. The prices are so low it's criminal anyway, $1.50 for a big steaming plate of delicious spinach. Two bucks for chicken (the bones are free). And that sauce- ginger- and rice. Oh yum. Just delicious. And the market, yes well the market.

    The market is down the avenue about three blocks, across a very busy street, which means that once again I am adopting the "grab an old person" method for safety's sake, and that way the two of us benefit. Every street corner a very old man or woman or both are gazing into the onslaught of motorcycles and lifting a vague wave to say, hey guys, can I? which is tantamount to screaming HEY BACK OFF to a tsunami wave. I walk right to their side and present a tall wall, we start out and invariably we make it across. Worked today. The market was very busy for the upcoming Tet Holiday, everyone is selling and buying bright red and yellow you name its.

    There were a number of fruit stands, and I tried to buy some tangerines. In this city neighborhood they are twice as expensive as the previous place I stayed and I won't pay it. I selected some from this one guy whose mangoes I'd already chosen. When he gave me the price for the mandarins I said no. But they were bagged and he'd seen the contents of my wallet. I told him what I'd pay but he wouldn't back off a dong. Well if you don't negotiate then you don't get the sale. He tried over and over, same price. No deal. Next stall I see the gastronomic love of my life, the dudu, papaya, and loving the gods above they are ripe. I grab three big heavy yellowing ones, fragrant and ready to go.

    Now the gal weighs them for me, they are 20k dong a kilo. She says 59,000 vnd. Got it. No worries. Guy in back stands up and says "That's 20,000 a kilo." Yep, got it. Righto. He points to the papaya and says it again. I'm wondering if he's deaf. I said Toi hieu, but he waves three twenty dong notes at me like I'm either blind or deaf and restates his case. Yes. I know. I say toi hieu three more times. His wife is in the middle of a transaction with someone else right now. Is there something going on that I don't know about here? Is there a candid camera hidden behind the bananas? Guy kneels down and picks up a calculator. Now he's going to show me the numbers. FELLA I GOT THIS, IT'S 59,000 vnd. No worries mate! He starts to come down from where thye both sleep, armed with the calculator as if I have a disease that prevents me from understanding his repeated attempts to explain the price of his wife's fruit. At this point I'm giggling and his wife is starting to repeat my mantra of Toi hieu! Toi hieu! As I hand her my money. Finally he realizes that the transaction's been taken care of and he goes back to his berth.

    I've learned from practice as a white women in the markets not to haul my wallet out and let people peer into it, as they will do, for if they see real funds in there, the sales pitch gets overwhelming. So I take out the dong when it's my turn, and not before.

    And my wallet, this big ugly clumsy thing, sits under my shirt right where it could be misunderstood as a baby ridin' high, and it gets me many funny looks. And now, with shorts on, and Jock Tape (Rock Tape) strapped to my knees (thanks to my sports chiro, a huge help for hiking), there are both curious stares and occasionally some outbursts which I can't decipher. The tape is terrific for bum knees and sprains, you get it all over the sports stores, and some of them have hilarious designs like nuclear biohazard. I go through a lot of it in training and it is perfect for when you go whack on a trail. You're smokin' when you learn to do your own lower back. All the cyclists wear it now at their races- it's like a badge of honor...dude man I really blew out my knee...yah dude, I blew out my shoulder on a crash man...Years ago someone tried to get me into hang gliding, and I would not. The joke about hang gliding boogies is that nearly every other person is gimping around in a knee brace. Not the case with skydiving. Okay well if you make a really big mistake it doesn't matter, does it, but in jumping you have to screw up two parachutes to do that. With hang gliding all you need to do is stall out at 90 feet, and wham. Bad odds.

    But I digress. The papaya, by the way, is like cutting fruit butter, the flesh is such a dark orange, and sweeeeeet, and just at that perfect point of ripeness. Grew up with them in Florida. they're lethal, they are so very good. And terrific for digestive systems. By the time they make it to land locked Denver, from starting out hard green, they aren't very good. So, this is a slice and another and another, of perfection. Mangoes and bananas are piled on my refrigerator, which is further stocked with cold yogurt. Life is very good.

    I have one free day tomorrow and then Mekong Delta, and then my final day here. Winding down. Thinking about Tet gifts for my Vietnamese family in Denver. Last minute goodies. No airport souvenir stores. So now that I've got tomorrow to do some checking around for goodies, further suggestions would be welcomed. Got most of my things, art would be hard to transport. But places to check in Saigon?

    Thanks again to all.

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    Crikey, jhubbel, that was a saga.

    I will keep this one short.

    My husband and his army colleagues fought in Vietnam, went back and built schools and clinics and orphanages, and paid to support Café Koto in Hanoi to train young orphans.

    Cheers and happy travels,

    Maree,

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    Maree,

    And absolutely, I salute him for his service, dedication and his kindness to the Vietnamese. Not enough of us did the same, in my opinion, but at least some are coming back and learning, working, healing now.

    One of the gifts of this trip mentioned a while back was the beginning of an understanding of the conditions for the fighting forces.Only the beginning. But that bit of empathy was so key for helping me to embrace my fellow soldiers and people like your husband. An unimaginable time. Thanks for sharing that. I admire him for his work.

    Julia

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    It’s so wonderful to be able to report that Saigon turned out her prettiest face today, all cool breezes and lovely sunshine, nothing like the pollution and haze of four weeks ago. What a delight today has been. The cycles are still there, but the air and weather are a complete joy, so it’s a great chance to head down to Ritzy Town and find that little shop, Sapa, that Lonely Planet lists as a great place. What is it about tribal wear.


    After a yummy omelet and by garsh the biggest and best cuppa joe I’ve had since landing, I headed off with the receptionist’s clear directions (and Lonely Planet’s map) in hand. Blocks flow by, and today it’s a good chance to see what the city fathers have done to keep the motorbike folks from driving on the sidewalks. Not only are there some sleepy guards, but there are some impressive metal devices that would most assuredly send you tip over teakettle should you attempt them at speed.


    As you hike towards Ritz Row the streets become avenues become Boulevards, and pretty soon you start seeing Calvin Klein and his peers, and then there’s Dior and his peers. Now any smart women – a smart woman who eats lots of fruit, drinks lots of water and juice and exercises and suffers from what we laughingly refer to as TBS or tiny bladder syndrome- knows, such buildings cater to women who likes a nice loo. So you sidle into the Dior shop, check out the spring offerings (trust me not much) and try to stop from guffawing as a Very Serious Clerk walks behind you and very carefully repositions everything you have just touched precisely back where you might have moved it, as though touching such an august and Terrifically Overpriced item might have somehow offended it. After having done your duty, you then head to the second floor and find the gaudily gorgeous loo which is dedicated to Expensive Women.


    One thing I have always adored about the USA and now, online outlets is that I can get the same Dior jacket- it you MUST have it, and I do have a couple- for about 95% off the appalling asking price. Why anyone in her right mind, or his, would purchase such a chunk of sewing at full price is beyond my ken. To those who can afford, my hat is off. But there it is. So you show interest, you take care of business, you saunter out like you own the place. And then you go do some real shopping.



    This area is architecturally stunning, these lovely parks and cultured trees and bushes, the New Year’s decorations and Year of the Horse in lights everywhere, the one in 2014 often done in, of course, Pepsi cans. Everyone is also offering New Year’s discounts, real or not, but it’s part of the fun. The receptionist’s directions are just spot on and I find myself angling down this charming little side street which features a bunch of small themed shops far away from the overly grand designer names. Here is Sapa, with the familiar tribal weaves and goods displayed, I feel like I’m almost home. Two girls meet me at the door, I find a place to put things down and go wandering. As a stark contrast to the insanity of the tribal market up north here all is neat and quiet and tidy.



    Here you can’t expect to find quite the same bargains as way up north, my guess is the rent is probably pretty high in this district. To balance that, some of their embroidered things are used, had a little love on ‘em, and didn’t match the pricing. I did find some skirts and another apron, and a ridiculously brilliant knock your eyeballs out bag that latched onto my arm and said without any mercy, “you’re taking me HOME, sister.” Well I dunno where I’m going to use it, and I am probably more tailored than this bag lends itself to, but what the hey. For $44 bucks, you really can’t go wrong. It’s just so beautiful in a kind of patchwork, butt ugly way it’s lovable, like a big hairy hound that walks into your life and you can’t fall out of love with.



    The gal also led me to a bookshelf to sell me hard on some cards that featured pop up figures, all churches or rice workers or fairies or any sort of delicately cut, fold up miracles. At first I wasn’t intrigued until I started thinking hey, not for me, but for others, who would really appreciate the handwork. I picked out several- wonderful, only one dollar and given the price of our Hallmark greeting cards probably worth far more. As we checked out, the girl informed me that she herself had made them. Well damn, that makes a big difference, at least it does to me, when the artist is right in front of you- I will buy more because now it’s personal.


    The gal and I negotiated a few minutes and came up with a most reasonable price, and now I had another problem. Bag weight. Remember what I said about mom’s girdle? We are now beyond both weight and capacity for that poor groaning backpack, and no amount of pushing, pulling, coaxing, cursing and repacking is going to make this work. It’s a massive cost to pay for overweight bags, United is a Grinch on this, so this means I have to find another on-board bag.


    Retracing my steps I find one of those typical shops that features knock off North Face, Gucci and Prada and everybody else bags and started shopping. I found a Wilson cheapie, and Madam walks up and offers me my New Year’s discount. 300,000 dong. Okay, I open it up, stuff my purchases into it, it has plenty more room for the rest of my gear, we have a deal. This is what I get for not bringing the “I couldn’t leave it behind bag” which I scrapped due to weight. That’ll learn ya. It just needs to make the journey home, and after that it can go to Goodwill or St. Vincent’s.


    Right now it’s 2 pm and I’m heading down the street to the market again, this time to buy some things for my wonderful Vietnamese family back home, who did so very much to help me be more at ease here with language skills and understanding more of the culture.


    Clouds are starting to creep in so I’m heading out while the outing is still good. Sleep well all.

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    Apologies to all, that little shop is on Ton That Thiep street, and I failed to mention the other shop I ducked into whose name I have forgotten but begins with a J. Close to Pasteur street where you make a right. There was lovely lacquerware in the window and some very intriguing household stuff which I don't need but enough so that I had to go peek.

    The very unintrusive girls kindly let me wander around, and the entire left hand side of the store was lined with (and forgive me, I do not know the proper name for this garment, it wasn't all the ao dai or the long tunic over pants, but the more Chinese style of long dress with the snap to the chin top. The ao dais were there too. The selection was lined up by every color of the rainbow and then by prints, and it was just stunning. Again, the problem. I don't wear stuff like this at home, and I won't, so while yeah I might fit into one, bringing one home isn't going to work out. I tried to find a short one, but the selection was poor and had worn spots. Ah sad. These gorgeous pieces were museum quality with stunning embroidery and eye-popping colors, soothing pastels, and every kind of material. The rest of this fine little store had just terrific lacquer ware of every kind, some quirky jewelry and eating utensils, and was one of those shops you're glad you found and are sad not to find something from which to bring home.

    The hike home was faster since the way back was familiar, and the coming home trip had a gift. Friendly dog under a chair, and for its sweet look it got the Dreaded Butt Scrub and a whole lotta lovin' for as long as the thighs held up, about as long as the owners, who were watching, probably felt at ease with my messin' with their mutt. His cute little feet curled inward when I went after his ears, and I chuckled at my jet black fingertips as I walked away.

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    Hey Sartoric,
    I was thinking while hiking again today, it’s a dangerous thing, thinking. I don’t know how often you travel, but these days I hurl myself to the wolves about three times a year for a month at a time or so. Lots of cultures, lots of blunders, lots of joy. If anything what travel has taught me is that about the only thing worth taking with you is a sense of humor. In my third book, which I’m calling WordFood Exchange, one of the points is this whole business about having to be right about whatever it is we have to be right about, and ultimately how useless that is. Sometimes it makes me wonder about the whole court system and people’s very leaky memories, which DNA has a way of changing many years later. Just as an example.

    My coach sent me on this trip with some readings, one of which said that if someone calls you a fool, and he is a child, then there is no reason to be angry. If he calls you a fool and you have been a fool, then there still is no reason to be angry, because it is your work not to be a fool. Either way, there is no reason to be angry. This is just priceless. It speaks to how pretty much everyone comes to us as a teacher. And if you have indeed been a fool, then laugh, and let’s kindly not repeat. If you get angry at someone for pointing out your foolishness, you too are a child and a fool. I love my coach. My toes are crispy critters for how often he’s put them in the fire.

    So we can stay home and never be challenged, or go out and make occasional fools of ourselves, and experience the full range of our humanity, what is good and not so good, what is wonderful and far less attractive, and deal with it. It’s like that example I gave in Hoi An of doing what I thought was polite, giving a “gidday” to an old woman which she naturally took as a buying signal, and she was furious as a wasp that it wasn’t. I didn’t mean to annoy her. But I did. There are far better examples on here. That’s why packing along an excellent sense of humor is the best traveling companion.

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    Yes JH agree a sense of humour is paramount.

    I travel a bit. For the last 10 years or so we have tried to cover a lot of the world and also lesser visited parts of Australia.

    My husband is a great guy and we travel well together, but I do all the planning and make the bookings.

    We leave for Bangkok in less than one week. We are arriving Election Day, which might be fun given the current situation. Flghts on cheap and nasty airline were booked some time ago. We have some travel booked towards the end of our stay, but about 9 days free to roam before going down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in Laos.

    Recently I've found out that the flight I've booked on Thai airlines from Luang Prabang to Bangkok has been cancelled by the airline. Sense of humour required here. Still not sure what we can do. He's supposed to be back at work the next day, and I have a flight booked to Myanmar.

    Such is the drama or comedy of travel.

    I really hope you enjoy the delta, We did in March 2011.

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    Well, you know that area well enough, I'm not a big fan of the buses. Oy. I really, truly hope you can find another option of the aerial kind. And to go during the election, with everything in such an uproar. I haven't checked to see if the king is still alive, it seems it would have been world news if he had passed away but I don't recall hearing anything of the sort. He's such an icon. You're pretty brave.


    Looking so forward to the Mekong Delta. The weather is probably going to be a good bit hotter but this is what I packed for - the wicking stuff, shorts, that kind of thing. It sounds like such a great place. The guys that I met in Dong Hoi at the airport had, before doing the caves, spent time in the Mekong and couldn't have been more effusive. I'd gone on line and found kind of an off-beat tour company so we'll see how that goes. He was recommended by a TA expert in VN, so maybe he's a family member. Fine by me. Sometimes it's nice to go with someone like that rather than the big guys if you can get off the well worn trails.


    So good to hear you're exploring Oz too, so many of the Aussies I met back when I lived there would go to Bali rather than see the fascinating parts of their own amazing country. Bill Bryson wrote a lovely book about Australia which I adored, with humor and love, and it brought back a million memories. The way he expressed the distances between one place and another in the Outback. The wonderfully twisted sense of humour. The sheer size of the country, which people really can't comprehend when they first come. "Well I'll just shuttle between Melbourne and Sydney, that's about two hours' drive, right?" The plethora of really wicked poisonous things in the ocean, the bush, the sand, in the toilets, the bog, the huge snakes in the garden, the road. An American friend of my mother's who'd moved to Brisbane sent us a photo of one of those enormous snakes that had been run over by a road train. It spanned the entire highway, and had tracks across two places in its body. Who cannot love such a place? Everything is at such a scale.


    One of my ultralight instructors out of Geelong sent me a photo of an enormous black snake curled up right underneath a toilet seat cover. I mean, it really makes you think twice about ever sitting down again. We did our practice landings out in the low hills at a chicken farm which had outhouses. The outhouses were inhabited by a certain kind of brown spider, I can't recall the name but you know it, not a friend to us humanoids. We always knew when someone had found one. Or the other way around. I love Australia. What doesn't kill you there makes you a lot stronger.

    Well, I do wish you luck with reconnoitering on that flight. Having diggled (I made that word up) my own flight and having to wait three days for another, I hope that's not your fate, given that hubby has work right away. But you're pros.

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    The flight/ transport issues willl be okay, today I have found some other options that will work. Hopefully, no diggling required. Thanks for the new word, always handy.

    Snakes, I have no particular fear but grew up with them ever present. My mother (who is now 91 and still living independantly) used to kill the snakes with a garden spade, that's illegal now of course as they are a protected species. I have a million snake stories, wanna hear about the one that decided to live in our laundry (tightly curled underneath the washing machine) or the many that sought liquid refreshment from the only swimming pool in the immediate area? That was in our backyard, thanks Dad.

    Many years later I drove over a snake on the way from Melbourne to Adelaide via the GOR, thought it was a shadow, but as it reared up in the death throw, I realised what had happened in the rear view mirror. I felt very sad that I'd killed a snake, but there's not a lot you can do at 100 kms per hour.

    My sister, (it was her car) was worried that it might have joined us in the back seat. It didn't.

    Were the spiders funnel webs ? The other killer spiders we have are red backs.

    Hope you've had a fantastic day in the delta....

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    Funnel web!!!!Righteo that was it! I love snakes, I do. Most of the ones we grew up with were totally safe rodent eaters. We'd throw them into the bed and scare the poo out of my mother who liked to throw the covers back to wake us. No rattlers, just big fat milk or black snakes. In fact just today in the Delta there was a guy holding out a python for us to wrap around our necks and I was there in a flash, second in line, to put that heavy gorgeous thing around my scrawny neck like a big necklace. They are so amazing. I'd love to hear your snake stories. What's great about Oz is that you don't have to live in the OB to have these stories. They come slithering right up to you, right in your back yard.

    BTW, Jungle Tours, the folks who put on today's tour for the Delta, is as touristy as it gets. A kind of cheesy talk to us by microphone and repeat my name three times and then sing kind of thing. I retreated to my Kindle for the very long bus drives but the occasional river bits were fun. We were promised an opportunity to row a boat but that didn't appear. We did get marched through many opportunities to spend money on souvenirs, and the only ones I bought were coconut candy for my Vietnamese friends back home. I don't know that they like it but I hope they appreciate a little something from home. Watching it being made was kinda cool.

    Perhaps what I had hoped for was a little more indepth look at river life rather than being dragged from one shop to the next and walked by souvenir stand after souvenir stand. There was little education about the life, the people, the world of the Mekong Delta which was what I rather thought this tour was about. We drank honey tea and got the pitch for buy five get one free. I'd honestly have preferred to learn about the honey production, seen it, then tasted the tea, and heard about the medicinal properties. I still wouldn't have bought something likely to break and put sticky goo all over my backpack contents but still. It's nice to learn. My guess is that there are other, better tours available than the one I got which really is the tourist trip. That's okay. There are some interesting people along, French and Italian and German and Dutch and that's always fun.

    Can Tho is dark, and the hotel is down a dark alley, so it's off to a fruit market and back immediately. I saw some mangoes had my name on 'em.

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    Just catching up with more of your report, and hugely enjoying it. The episode of being left behind brings back memories of a tour out to Uluru (Ayer's Rock) and the Olgas in the center of Australia. We hit the Olgas first and were given a time limit for hiking the site, and warned that if we were not back in time, the bus would leave. The guide explained that some had focused their trip around sunset at Uluru, and that we would make that deadline no matter what. When we reassembled, there were two people missing. We did indeed leave them - in the middle of the desert - miles from anywhere. I am assuming that the tour company notified the park authority, or radioed someone else to pick them up later, but I'll never know for sure. I and my three children were missed the tour bus leaving from the Alice Springs Post Office, also in the middle of nowhere, because we lost track of the time. We were fortunate that the lone remaining staff member could give us a lift back to town. I know these examples are different from yours, but I think one needs to be fully aware of consequences to not meeting deadlines. In your case, I should think your guide would have had a plan B. If you are still in the Delta, and have options, we spent time (not written about yet) at Jardin du Mekong. We were the only non-Vietnamese at the time. The nearby villages have real markets, not like the one in District 1 in Saigon. And if you have more time in Saigon, there are true markets, much cheaper but further out from the center. And finally try to see the AO show at the Opera House in HCMC. Super super super!

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    The one and only great sadness that I have is having spent four years in the great Oz and never seeing Ayers Rock. Your story reminds me of this failing. It does however underscore that sometimes there are deadlines and the guide has to meet them, and in our case we did, but our van was already gone by then. I think the fear of abandonment lurks deep inside us all, and especially when we're in a foreign land where we don't speak the language and it's terribly unfamilar, there are no facilities, no way to make a call, that kind of thing. When I spoke at length to our guide's manager, he had a good chuckle when he said that he himself had gone out with the guy and could hardly keep up. So his propensity to go way too fast was not just with our group. It was his habit, and it was indeed unnecessary, particularly if you know someone is fighting to keep up after a fall. It didn't help in our case that the other couple was hiding condescension behind what they called kindness which was, despite Courtney's strongly worded arguments, evident to me. That's what ended up making it unnecessarily unpleasant.

    I appreciate the suggestions. We go back tonight and I have one more day, unscripted, and we'll see what I can do with it. Believe me this has been a magnificent trip all around. I can't be more grateful for all the introspection, insight, gorgeous scenery, beautiful people, general stumblings and everything else that happened. As in all travels the suggestions that have appeared on this thread have been so very useful. All of them.

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    Yesterday was our second day on the Jungle Tours trip, and it was far more educational, and in that regard, a lot more fun. We gathered the troops in the foyer of our simple hotel in Can Tho and walked to the boat dock, and our guide directed us to load ourselves into two motored boats. As we chugged towards the floating market, our first stop of the morning, he explained the reasoning behind the red backed white eyes that nearly every boat has on the bow: the tradition is that the boat owner wants to scare off the water spirits when the winds and waves come, so thence, big bad eyeballs. Suddenly you can't NOT see them on nearly all the boats.


    I'm sure everyone on board had heard about the humidity of Mekong Delta- and the heat- which we simply didn't get. The winds were cool and pleasant and there was little, if any, real humidity to dampen the day. After about 45 minutes' chugging along our guide announced that we were approaching the Can Tho floating market, which we'd seen signs of already. Alongside our boat were small and large vessels carrying the current season's biggest crop, melons, along with onions and turnips and pineapples and every other conceivable vegetable and fruit from this very lush area. And from as far away as you could imagine. The six country long Mekong (Tibet to Vietnam, I'd had no clue) supports and feeds an incredible number of people and right here commerce culminates in this wonderful free for all. Just before Tet, there is a great proliferation of yellow carnations for longevity, and some of the boats are jammed full of them, and they appear absolutely everywhere- all over the country-but even more so here as the growers row them to market.


    Here we see melons being tossed one by one up or down, pineapples being peeled, a boat selling bananas and cut pineapple sidles up to us, a boy about 7 shouting out his wares. And we buy them, too. The Mekong is in explosive activity, a delight for the eye, not at all what I had imagined in my mind's eye (which is precisely why I don't put much investment in what I think I'm going to see anymore). We chew on popsicles made of pineapple and finger bananas, and watch commerce, going on since 4 am, as people do their best to be done and on their way home for Tet as quickly as possible. The boat's designations like DT indicate what province they are from, like a Cambodian city, and just how far they need to travel to be home in time. Hence, the sense of urgency.

    Having spent about an hour right in the midst of all this hectic activity, and stopping for fresh pineapple and a climb atop the boat to get bird's eye photographs of the river with all its residents and the hyperactivity, we headed on to the noodle factory.


    Each stop along the river to see various factories seemed like a step back in time, the simplest of all processes to make a product, the use of every part of a plant to ensure recylcing and no waste. This was most assuredly the case with the rice noodles. We wound our way through a series of houses and alleys and bridge overpasses and stopped at a small outfit where there was much focused work afoot.


    Under the roof, a woman was pouring rice flour onto two steaming platters, each then was covered for 30 sections with a metal cone. After thirty seconds the cone was lifted and a man would carefully roll the delicate, slightly yellow cooked rice film off and then, just as carefully, roll it flat into a series of four round "plates" onto bamboo. These would be stacked and later set out to dry in the sun. What heated the rice mixture were rice husks, the burned rice husks were used as fertilizer.


    After the rice plates, as it were, were dry enough they were lightly treated with oil and pushed through a cutter, which produced thinly sliced noodles. Previously this was done with a big knife, so the machine that now does this is a huge advance.


    We were offered deep fried noodles but some soul had slathered it with chilis and that was the end of it for me, so I dove into my backpack for a banana. God what a wimp.


    What I so loved about this particular look into industry was the smooth, lyrical movement of the flow of work. Three people: someone tending the fire and the husks, the woman cooking the rice mixture, the man lifting and placing the cooked dough. The simple efficiency of these movements and the pleasant conversation among them, being tolerant of our presence and patient with our curiosity and questions. I used to pack thousands of eggs for my dad's chicken farm back in the sixties, and it took some time before I could find the right set up and economy of movement to make the work flow economic. I was about 10 at the time and I remember the pleasure it gave me to work out a system that shaved half an hour or more off the entire process. There was a flow and synthesis to this work that reminded me a little of that, but this was watching three people whose movements depended entirely on each others' timing. Like ballet. It was quite a pleasure to watch.


    Our guide explained that the VN government hankered a bit after the riverfront property along the Mekong, but the challenge it faced was the number of people who lived there, worked there, and conducted commerce along it. No matter that they are poor. The question is where are you going to put river people if you move them? They all own boats in the same way that every Saigonian owns a motorcycle, or everyone in Sa Pa has a bike or good sandals. Each one of those residents would have to be compensated for what would be a very real loss not only of house and home but also of his/her livelihood. What's a riverman to do without the river? You can put up a pricey hotel but if you displace several hundred or thousand people to do so, you might ultimately be paying out a great deal more over time- and anger a great deal more. So they haven't done a thing, is my understanding, and life goes on. Guide didn't go into great detail on this.


    We did see that they like to party, however. As we we were carried along towards the rice factory, we could hear stupendous noise emanating from one of the promontories on the river. As we drew closer we could make out that there was some sort of party going on. Along our side of the boat we took to waving, they waved back, and pretty soon the guys in the party started dancing. So did we. They were definitely having a good time. Karaoke, I think. Whatever they were drinking, I think my boat wanted some. We all took photos of each other and we waved until we could no longer see or hear them.


    There was a "beach" of sorts along this particular tributary. Strewn with garbage, as much of the river was that I could see. It floated in the river too, the ubiquitous plastic bags, the styofoam containers, fruit. The shore was awash with trash. The houses and buildings looked to be mostly tin, many rusted, and you could easily tell which were shops and which were homes. One woman stood in a washbin and worked the day's clothing with her feet, soap up to her calves.


    We arrived at a rice production facility and had the chance to see the heavy (50kg +) bags laid out, and see the different productions from that facility. The guide regaled us with rice history, including the famines, human life lost, cost of the Viet Nam/American war, to the current stats of Viet Nam's being the world's largest rice producer (I think coffee too, or at least those are the claims).

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    Hi JH

    Good to hear that you enjoyed the second day on the delta. Did you see the tiny little skinned rats for sale in the market ? Yummy, I think not !

    I saw a brick factory which was interesting. I was also impressed with the sympatico cooperation between workers and that there appeared to be little waste of any part of the plant, like using the rice husks for fuel.

    Enjoy your last day in VN.

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    Jungle Travel was our tour operator, and I just wrote them up on TA. This was one of those really good lessons in going "cheep." I probably will steer clear of cheap again. What I will say and have said before in other long country threads is that there are fool guides, and that they are often given microphones, and when you are unlucky enough to get stuck on a bus or a boat with one you just sometimes want to shoot yourself and get it over with. Guy wants to sing karaoke, get you to practice words, get cutesy, it is the worst of low brow tourist horse manure. And there you are stuck with it.

    So what you have to do, as I did, was concentrate on things like stepping aside to get wound up with a python, intently studying the scenery, or focusing hard on your Kindle when he won't. SHUT.UP. When he does divulge something interesting, which is rare, it's valuable. That's what I came for. But this turned out to be a cattle car tourist tour and that's precisely what you get for about fifty bucks, and that one is on me.

    We did at least have some free time for lunch (on us of course) in Can Tho, and that allowed me to do some shopping on the pier which was adjacent to the restaurant. There were some cool things in there. There's a fireman who rents my house down in Durango, southwestern Colorado, and I always buy him an XXL T-shirt in country, and those are always available. It was time to find one. So here they were, and a better selection of embroidered dragons. I asked for a particular size, one girl didn't have them, shifted to another shop, the guy had them but wanted 100,000 dong. Then I realized, XXL Vietnamese sizing wasn't going to work on my buddy Paul. I go back to the girl for the XXXL and she sells it to me, no negotiation for 40,000 vnd. Whatta deal.

    Encouraged, I wandered further. A few people on here had advised art, and one booth that I backed into featured something that I really liked. These pictures are sewn, scenes from Vietnamese life. Some are cartoonish, but others are really evocative and well done. The ones I liked best speak to rice production and the sewing takes up the whole frame. Not cheap, but I really like them. By the time the woman and I are done we have covered all her goods with these pictures and I suspect she thinks I'm going to buy her out. Nope, just two, but still, it's a 700,000 sale for her and she is very happy, as I am. This reverberates down the booths and no sooner do I wrap up with her than the neighbor has me in a death grip and is showing me pillow covers. Got some. T-shirts? Got one. Oh but...

    I just can't recommend Jungle Travel. Other reviews on the site are much more damaging than mine. I rarely give one star because there's usually something out of what you do that you can appreciate, and there really were some good things. I'd had plenty of chances to book a more expensive, more exclusive Mekong Delta tour and I should have. Just a really good piece of learning for me. This outfit just caters to a different type of tourist.



    Yesterday afternoon was one very long string of changing buses and long drives, and getting a taxi back to this charming hotel. My room was left alone as requested. Right now it's 10:30 on my very very very last day and I have some shopping to do. Coffee for my coffee lover Paul and a few others, a lacquer item or two, and food for the long trip.


    Through my tall windows I can see bright sunshine, hear the beeps of motorcycles. I have twelve more hours here. And until about nine o'clock when my final taxi leave this da'ap lam country, I'm going to enjoy every single second of it. Sleep well all.

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    Da'ap lam: beautiful. Sorry.

    I really forgot. Tet holiday. Wandered out on the street and while the traffic is still going strong, and the street vendors are out, the stores are largely shut down. Well then. Where's a girl with a buncha dong burning a hole in her pocket to go? I did score a face mask- and there's a reason for this. I was reasearching the Everest Base Camp hike and one of the very smart points that a guy from Outdoor magazine made was that there is a great deal of particulate matter that the wind throws in your face during the hike in springtime resulting in what they call the "Khombu Cough" which I probably misspelled. I bought one of the local motorcyclist's facemasks as a precaution against this, although part of me thinks that it will block the already thin thin air that you're struggling to breathe. But you can always take it off. Doesn't hurt to spend a dollar on it and take it along. Wouldn't it be cool if it turns out to be perfect?

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    You are perhaps on your way home, but like your write-up on buying a face mask. I travelled with a light weight scarf which was used alternately as a face guard or wipe-down tool. Ycch I agree, but it worked for me. Funniest face mask story we had was seeing a woman and her dog on a motorbike - each with a mask! Asked our friend about that and said it was probably more to protect the dog's nose against sunburn. Not so funny that they worry about sunburn or pollution, but not about the safety threat by carrying their pets or more often their children on motorbikes.

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    Marija,

    I am all ears. My research has all indicated that a face mask is a necessary part of the equipment. What I figure is that you can always bring one to have if you need it for the conditions, and if you struggle breathing through it, remove it. If you have experience, please tell. Dust was not a problem on Kili, we don't get that typically in the Rockies. It's a different condition. And after that rather ridiculous dustup about inadequate shoes with Oxalis I'm not going to let that kind of thing sideswipe me again.

    The facemasks in Vietnam are of course cotton, and I tested them out for that very reason to see if they are challenging to breathe through. Some are, and I found one that is loose. Since I used a balaclava on Kilimanjaro on ascent night I've got some experience with hit and while they're not fun, they can be helpful. The one I got covers the lower face to keep out the dust as described by the Outside Magazine writer. He also used a buff, which he said was very hot and caused a lot of fogging. So I ordered a pack of the more standard dust masks. They are so very light they aren't going to be much in the pack. Classic case of better to have and not use than the other way around. The Julbos I've got are designed to limit the amount of fogging but some of it is just inevitable. What may be is that by the time I go- mid to late May- the dusty conditions may well be cleared up and by that time it's more a matter of cloud cover obscuring the gorgeous peaks. I will say this about gear, though, I just scored a terrific pair of Keens on ebay, and everything they say about them about not needing a break in period is ridiculously- true. Got 'em on right now. May not ever take them off again. I'm going to move this discussion over to that forum area, and close this off, as I am (ya!) home, it's snowing, I've been up since 1 am- god dontcha love jet lag, and the season's taped wild card games are playing in my living room as I take care of a month's worth of business. Again thank you to all for your excellent company and comments on this forum. You've been wonderful and that really does mean everyone.

    Oh I forgot- attitudegirl, loved your story about the doggiewithfacemask. The issue I have, and there's no answer for it, is that there is no restraining device for anyone or anything carried as a passenger. So infant or puppy makes no difference, if the motorcycle comes to a nasty halt, they become projectiles. I saw that happen in a very sad way in the middle of an intersection when a drunk father, carrying his two very young boys on his motorcyle, ran out in front of a big tourbus in the middle of the road and got walloped. The boys were flown hard across the road, the motorbike was crushed, and the tour bus continued on its merry way. What troubled me the most was that the man clearly was more angry about the damage to his bike than the potential damage to his two offspring, who seemed to have made it through that grisly accident without too much road burn. This was not in a major city but in one of the isolated towns way in the far northwest, somewhere perhaps about 200 or more km SW of Sa pa. Lonely Planet makes a point about helmets, too, saying that if you are going to do VN with a motorbike, bring your own noggin gear. What they have there are eggshells and offer no protection at all. So you really do kinda take your life in your hands if you use one to get around. I didn't. I know it's an essential part of life and people there really truly are very adept with them- from very young- but mixing alcohol with any kind of transport doesn't work very well.

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