Category : Travel Experience

2012 Travel Travel Experience Vietnam

A Moment When You Just Pause – Cu Chi Tunnels

Bing

It’s been well over 6 hours since I left Cu Chi a province 60 km north of Saigon. Growing up you learn about the Vietnam War and through the years I’ve read numerous articles and books about the war from journalists and American Veterans. I pride myself in my ability to see both sides of any conflict whether or not I agree with one side or the other.

My guides name was Billy Francois Rivera. A 63 year old Filipino Vietnamese man proud to have served under the American flag during the conflict and also proud of his Vietnamese roots. He served along many other US Navy and Marines and recounts his stories of living in NYC, service in Subic Bay (Philippines) and being deployed in Vietnam.

As I approached Cu Chi, I honestly didn’t know what to expect or what to think. We stopped by a handicapped workshop. Victims of agent orange who do not have all four limbs or those who mentally disable who work to create arts and crafts. I walked through quickly as I can’t bare to stare at individuals made to look like a living museum.

Back to the tunnel system.

I never heard of this tunnel system. I heard from other travelers that since I am American I should definitely go see this elaborate tunnel system built by the Vietcong.

We paid our 90,000 VND to enter this “historical” site to the Vietnamese government and I prepared myself to watch a movie to learn more about “Cu Chi.” I sat there with other foreigners along with the Vietnamese tour guides and I can’t recall the last time I felt so uncomfortable.

I couldn’t listen to the lady in the film talk about the “awards” a vietcong received for killing the most “American killers.” Of course I realize this is one side of the story, a side I had never heard of and it was indeed harder to swallow than I thought. For some reason, I thought the war was fought all over Vietnam but it seems as though it mostly took place in this northern section 60 km northwest of Saigon. Many Saigonese supported the Americans and those who did not fled and became known as the Vietcong. They were pretty resourceful in their tactics and the film showcased their “ingenuity” that proved to overpower us.

The movie finished and got a 5 minute lecture on the tunnel system. The Vietcong stayed underground for 20 years to protect themselves from the air bombardment. The tunnels and living quarters could be as much as 10 meters deep. They cooked during early morning hours and had the smoke go up levels in a hillside so it would look more like morning myst or fog. They had a “love-making” room for those young vietcong who fell in love and wanted to start a family. 20% of Vietcong were women fighters.

We exited one of these quarters now covered by a roof.

We walked around and first stop was a small pond that was once a B52 bomb had exploded.

The American soldiers realized that the Vietcong were underneath and these bombs were deployed and set to bury itself underground and explode. However, as the bombs exploded it hardened the clay sediments.

As we wrapped around the jungle with trees planted by Australians, I started recounting pictures of Rambo and books I’ve read of how this place must have been in the 60s. Billy points out to the distance on where a US base was located and I couldn’t fathom how close these tunnels were to the GIs.

We approach a tree with tourist staring at the ground and a “sniper hole.” The hole must not be more than 12 inches by 8 inches. A few smaller tourist managed to make it inside for picture taking. These sniper holes were used by the Vietcong to kill the soldiers and quickly hide back underground for days.

Again, we walk and approach a bamboo trap. Not for use to get soldiers but for American dogs used to smell out the Vietcong holes. The dogs would smell fish, walk right into the trap and killed.

We then approach a section filled with “boobie-traps.” The vietcong realized the soldiers had protective body armor but their legs were not protected so they made contraptions on the ground. The description was brutal and I couldn’t stick around so walked away.

We approach an old tanker destroyed by the vietcong and tourist happily jumped on it. I inquired about the tanker and was told it was destroyed by the vietcong and four American soldiers killed. I was horrified and couldn’t get any closer than I did. I just imagined if 50 years from now, tourists would be climbing tankers in Iraq and Afghanistan taking pictures.

The final stop was the tunnel system. There used to be 278 km of these tunnels running through the area of 80km. The Vietnamese government made 100 meters accessible to tourists to get a taste of them.

I took a breath and was the first to enter.

It was dark but manageable but that was only for the first 10 feet. Then it got hot and being surrounded in darkness began to make my heart beat faster.

I was told there is an exist 30 meters for those who can’t make it all the way. I wanted to challenge myself so I skipped the first exit and the guide told me to keep on straight. I couldn’t see anything except for some candles placed inside as a marker of sorts every few meters.

My legs began to cramp.

I started to think is this going to end. I wanted to turn back but I unable to do so. I approached an area that was much smaller than the tunnel I was going through and had to slide my body and inch my way through.

I began freaking out and wondering when will this end.

I paused for a moment. Took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves. I kept moving and finally a drop of 4 feet then a few more feet to a room.

Relief.

I just walked through 100 meters of the Cu Chi tunnel and ended up in the “hospital” quarters.

My heart was racing. My legs cramped. Beads of sweat poured out of every pore of my body.

I said to myself, “I can’t believe what I just seen or experienced.”

Imagine these tunnels was so tight for me and they were made slightly bigger to accomodate larger tourists.

We started walking out of the area into our bus and I just thought to myself.

“War is never good.”

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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
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2012 Travel Travel Experience Vietnam

Back from Halong Bay and a Surprise Meet

halong bay

I didn’t know what to expect when I booked the trip to Halong Bay, Vietnam.  I figured it would just be another check in the list of “amazing” places people had to go see and experience.  The van picked Liam and I up to get us ready for a ride to Halong.  The ride was pretty uneventful having stopped at a stone carving station which was another one of those tourist traps.  Liam was knocked out from the night before slouching his head to sleep.  I was lost in thought just thinking about what I left at home.

But, this post isn’t so much about what I left at home but who I met along the way.

It’s nice meeting someone even for a short period of time and feeling some kind of connection one that you can’t explain but truly and completely enjoy.  I met these two guys, Nate and Sam, and we come from different parts of the US and different backgrounds but I felt akin to them and their journey.

At times traveling alone you feel a bit lost or lonely and you do spend a lot of your time in your head.  I find myself repeating my journey over and over again but in a way feeling great that you get to impart knowledge to other travelers.   There is something about meeting people while traveling that I get attached and that’s probably because that’s my personality and the fact that we are all walking similar paths.

I immediately gravitated towards them because they were both Americans and Thanksgiving was the following day.  I probably should have asked what they were doing but I think I might be headed south with Liam.  I am not entirely sure yet.

Earlier I had decided not to go to Monkey Island and just relax and go for a swim.  There were four of us (Sam, Nate, Bill from Africa and I) who walked from the hotel searching for the beach.  The walk was probably no more than a mile and we all got a chance to connect.  The two Americans just graduated college and backpacking through India and now SE Asia.  Both are medical students of some kind.  Bill worked in mining of a mineral. I want to say diamonds but that might be too cliche. He was originally from England but now works as a geologist for a mining company.  He decided it was time to go out and explore.

Something was different with these two guys and I know that I had to meet them to make me understand something that I needed to understand.  I know I get pretty philosophical with these posts.  On the trip back from Halong to Hanoi, I realized how I wasn’t myself with Danny.

Anyhow, the conversations I had with the travelers ranged from a variety of topics all of which made me smile.  We didn’t manage to get to the right beach but found a smaller beach then I said lets go for a walk around the coastline which in my mind would lead to a great view point or the beach we were looking for.  We kept talking on the short hike about everything – their dreams, aspirations, travel experiences and basically plans when the trip ended.

We finally went around a bend and saw the beach and met up with the two canadians, Bob (?) and Bronwin.  I remember her name cause it was really unique.  This couple was so relaxed and chill and they make you feel comfortable.  I love people like them who exude love for each other and others.  Bronwin has a bright smile that makes you smile and she’s energetic while Bob is laid back and cool.

Finally in the water, the conversations continued with Bill and the two guys.  I waded in the hip deep water asking myself is this true can you really have these cultural, spiritual, thoughtful discussions with random guys.  There was an immediate connection for me.  I looked and smiled not sure if they noticed as they were busy throwing rocks at a buoy. Unfortunately, both never managed to hit it.  For a moment, I know I was out of my head wondering what was special about them.

Maybe it was the youthful energy of being young and just graduating college and believing the world is yours.  Maybe it was the feeling like I am not alone and that similar minds do want to wander about the world.   I’ve met some really great people who’ve impacted me in more ways then imaginable.  But, I don’t know what it was about Nate.  Was it the way he couldn’t say his “r” that I thought was just ridiculously cute?  I forgot to mention I thought he was South African because of the way he spoke. I was drawn to him in a way I couldn’t explain probably more fascinated about his crabbing family and the fact I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.  It could be the fact that he is freakishly smart.  But there is a warmth about him, a kindness.

As the sun began to se we started our walk back to the hotel.  Nate says, “This might sound strange but I feel so connected to you and I just met you.”  Not really sure if that’s what he said exactly but I told him something about traveling you immediately connect with people because its short, quick and you have one thing in common – you’re in the same situation experiencing something new and by virtue you create a bond.

I stopped to take a picture of the sunset and looked down and saw a lady who was drying fish on the concrete lake bank.  He stood there waiting for me remarking on how he loves his “purse.”  I chuckled because I bought a similar one for my niece and I said I am sure you got that at Sapa.

We continued talking while Bill and Sam was a few feet ahead of us.  I pointed at a puppy and Nate jumps and go “Aw he’s so cute.”  Something about a masculine athletic guy who isn’t afraid to say the word cute.  I could probably write a book of this entire experience that was less than a day so I’ll save everyone.

The day has ending and the ships have sailed on. I lay now in my guesthouse a bit saddened that the experience was short but knowing it was just perfect.  Meeting them helped me clear my mind.  It made me realize how a connection can happen anywhere, anyplace and with anyone.  It’s about the person and how they make you feel.  Nate made me feel happy and for that I’m grateful that 4 travel agencies later I booked the Halong Bay cruise and Sam and Nate ended up switching ships on the second day.

As I lay here looking through pictures, I’m asking myself why didn’t I take a picture with them? :/

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)
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2012 Travel Travel Experience

My Fellow Jerseyans!

Jersey Friends on Laos

I travelled 10,000 miles away and find myself hanging out with two adventurous and hilarious girls from Jersey. In such a short period of time, I felt like I’ve know Jasmine and Georgia for years now. Jasmine I met back in Jersey in one of those random car rides to AC when a friend is bored and just feels like driving down to the shore. We quickly bonded over gambling and traveling.

A month later and 4 countries I planned to meet with Jasmine in Vientiane, Laos and her friend Georgia. The minute I got to the Mixay Guesthouse I knew I was going to be in for a wild adventure with these two.

Georgia is painfully honest, loud but with a sweet caring and sensitive side. She can crack a joke and tells it like she sees it without sugarcoating the obvious. Let’s just say I quickly felt connected.

I decided to relax at their guesthouse while they decided to go get a haircut and eyebrows done. You know how it is for you ladies…got to keep up the looks even while backpacking through SE Asia. They manage to spot a “salon” and I’ll use this word lightly. I couldn’t imagine what this place looked like but they said it was in the middle of the block across the street. As I was enjoying my beer outside the guesthouse they quickly filled me in on what just happened.

Georgia tries to explain how she wanted her hair styled with a Lao person who doesn’t speak a word of English. I can imagine how that conversation took place. At the same time Jasmine decides to get her eyebrows done and she is told to go through an alley, up some stairs into an apartment. (Yes, I was asking myself what are these girls thinking…BEAUTY over Safety!).

Jasmine tells me an old lady comes out and starts working on her brows as she looks around at the cobweb filled room.

They are safe.

We get on our sleeper.

In the sleeper bus, I am switched around twice and get to lay next to a person who just stared at me. Maybe he was more frightened than I was. I figured if I kept letting gas out he wasn’t going to get frisky. Yes, I just told you the secret.

We eventually made our way to Pakse.

Once there we wait again for a mini-bus to go further south to the 4,000 islands.

The mini-bus arrives and we start boarding the bus. Jasmine goes in first with her backpack strapped on her back. All of a sudden I see the bus moving.

Georgia screams, “The bus is moving! The bus is moving!”

Jasmine is oblivious to what is going on.

From my perspective, I see the bus moving and Georgia screaming and trying to hop in.

Jasmine looks at Georgia again confused.

Georgia screams, “There is no driver!!!”

The driver who was busy trying to stuff our packs in the undercarriage realizes what was going on and hops back into the bus to stop it.

Turns out Jasmine hit the gears when her pack swung around. What I found hilarious was that as the bus was moving, with no driver, Georgia was trying to hop on it. She definitely wanted to make sure she got on it with or without a driver.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
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2012 Travel Myanmar Travel Experience

A Few Months After Dalla

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I was able to finally download the rest of the videos from my Samsung Galaxy S phone. I began the editing and uploading process for YouTube. I haven’t seen the videos in quite some time and after reviewing them it brings back so many memories.

I filmed about 5 minutes worth of video in Dalla, Myanmar and most of it rough and shaky. I wrote a detailed blog about my experience and its crazy how I’ve lost that experience. I mean its natural for the effect of certain experiences to wane. But, watching the video reminded of what I felt and how I wanted to view and help the world.

So here is the video version of my travels across the river from Yangon into Dalla. A totally different place than the former British city across the banks.

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2012 Travel Myanmar Travel Experience

The Famed Moustache Brothers Show

A show famous for its political satire.

The lonely book touted it as a must see when in Mandalay. I had actually never heard of them but then again I never really knew much about Myanmar, which I called Burma, until I came to Southeast Asia. I consider myself worldly but I felt a bit uneducated about the plight of the people of Myanmar whose freedoms were surpress under a military junta for 4 decades.

We left Bagan in the early morning hours to catch what I presumed was a 7 hour river journey up to Mandalay. The song that stated “all roads lead to Mandalay” would be correct if the roads were a bit better.

We opted for the boat journey along with 15 other passengers and 8 crew members.

The sun was rising which gave us plenty of opportunity to take some photos. After that wore off, we went to the bow of the ship to get a front view of the river. To say it was relaxing would be an understatement.

The river is wide.

The land around it expansive and fertile.

The breeze soothing with a comfortable chill.

The river journey from Bagan (Nyaung Oo) to Mandalay actually took over 12 hours. At the first sight of civilization, we got excited and went to snap pictures and videos assuming we had reach the fabled city. We learned that it wasn’t Mandalay but Sagaing. The sight was still amazing as the sun set behind this hilly city.

In about an hour, I feel a slowdown of the boat, I proceeded towards the front of the ship only to be notified that we have reached Mandalay.

It was a quarter to 7.

We had a mission.

Catch the Moustache Brothers show at 8:30PM.

We found a guest house called the Silver Swan. At $50 a night for three people, we checked in, dropped our bags and got a taxi to bring us to the show. The moment the taxi dropped us off, we were greeted by one of the brothers. He had a big smile on his face.

He welcomed us inside what looked like a storefront. We purchase our tickets at C8,000 which equates to about $10 USD. We did not eat in the boat and had some time before the show to get some food at a restaurant across the street.

After dinner, we crossed the street back to the storefront and heard the same welcoming brother’s voice calling us into an alley. I asked myself, what is this all about, do they really need to do this show in secret? I come to find out that the original house the show was performed in had burned down. They were using another home in an alley to continue the nightly performance.

I sit down on a plastic lawn chair very close to the platform. There was about a dozen of us waiting to experience this show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Was this a play, a comedy skit, a talking perspective regarding Myanmar life? As I sat there imagining what would take place, I was given an article from the NY Times that featured the Moustache Brothers. I proceeded to read the article which gave me some clues on what was about to happen next.

Being American, we take our ability to speak freely, for granted. In Myanmar, people are jailed for speaking their minds especially if it puts the military junta or the government at the receiving end. Two of the Moustache Brothers were jailed for saying jokes about the government. We aren’t talking about extreme rebuttal of government policies. Just a simple joke about not being able to “open your mouth” in Myanmar could cause one prison time. While his two brothers were in jail, Lu Maw continued the show and learned english from tourists.

That was then…

…this is now.

As world attention grew, the two brothers were released from forced labor near the Chinese border in 2007 and able to rejoin their family.

The Moustache Brothers help shine a light against the struggles of the Myanmar people against the junta.

In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi have visited the brothers. If you don’t know who she is, she’s been the proponent for a free and democratic Myanmar. She was in house arrest and finally released in 2010 after two decades. This was an attempt by the military government to start reforms and become accepted within the international community.

Ok, let’s get back to the actual show.

Lu Maw hosts the show and narrates in english. I have to admit I didn’t get some of the jokes but there were moments when I laughed loudly.

Lu Maw goes on talking about how in tourist districts lights are on 24 hours a day, but in the local neighborhoods, lights are turned off. No electricity for the people.

And as if it was perfectly queued, the lights in the house shuts off. The room illuminated by battery charged florescent lighting.

That gave me one of those “aha” moments but the show must go on…

…and it did!

There were a couple of unplanned but cute interruptions when Lu Maw’s 1 year old granddaughter joined the performers. I can see how this little girl will continue this family’s show.

To sum up my experience with the Moustache Brothers, its definitely still a must see. Don’t come to the show with any type of expectations. Come to the show to see an art form that may not survive as the country continues its march to join the world community.

Definitely, meet the brothers that have become a symbol for change in Myanmar and see a show that can fill up an hour of your night in Mandalay.

Exhausted and with a stomachache. We head back to our guest house via another bicycle ride.

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2012 Travel Journal Myanmar Travel Experience

A Chat with a Young Inspirational Monk

The Young Monk on Mandalay Hill

In Mandalay, we did what any good tourists would do and that was to make it up Mandalay Hill on the infamous 45 minute barefoot ascent.

I timed it.

We made it to the hill top, including photo stops, in 40 minutes.

When we reached the summit, we were greeted with a government employee who wanted to charge us C500 to take pictures, but we opted not to pay the photo/video fee. Although, we did sneak in a few pictures just for memory sake. I’d be more comfortable paying the fee if I knew it would be used to help keep the Hill clean but it was far from immaculate.

After 15 minutes of exploring, we began our descent on a dirty staircase in hopes to find the two welcoming dragon/lions we didn’t see earlier. Suddenly, a lady on the top of the staircase yelled that there was no way out in the direction we were heading.

We didn’t believe her.

We waited until a monk, who was walking up the very same staircase, confirmed what that lady had stated.

We backtrack to the summit to take another set of stairs down the mountainside. I made sure to thank the merchant lady who tried steering us in the right way.

“Jezu tem bade,” I said.

During the walk down the hill, we found another Buddha statue standing gracefully holding his robes. I decided it was time to take a picture of all three of us.

I saw a young monk walking up the stairs and asked him to take a picture.

He asked me what country I came from in which I replied, “America.” He beamed at the opportunity to speak with tourists who spoke english. I can’t recall his name, but he was a 23 year old monk, who has been in the monastery since he was 7 years old. He confirmed the pride families have in having a son as a monk.

He told us that he comes up Mandalay Hill everyday to find tourists to converse with in english. He has been learning english but access to books and other proficient english speakers are limited.

[quote]”Most english books available in Myanmar are basic level,” he stated.[/quote]

So up the hill he goes…

…daily…

…to listen to how words are spoken and hopefully make connections with the outside world.

I was completely surprised by this young monk’s outlook on Myanmar life. He stated how not too long ago many would fear speaking freely. Especially about the many issues that plagued this country because of its military rulers. He was comfortable in speaking about the changes that are happening within the country that look favorable. He was excited to share with us – his activism in HIV prevention, birth control and other taboo subjects not spoken by anyone, especially in his role.

He was opinionated, smart, witty.

I wonder how long he’ll be in the monastery. He stated he wasn’t sure as well. Given the opportunity, I see this monk becoming an active leader to help steer his country into the 21st century.

As I look back at this picture, I can’t help but wish that I grabbed his contact information. He did take my Facebook url and hope he reaches out soon.

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