Where coffee really says, “Good morning, Vietnam!”

As it so happened, Ben and I lucked out and our contract ended right after China’s second big holiday: Golden Week. This is the week-long celebration for the founding of the People’s Republic of China. You know, the day Mao stood atop Tiananmen Gate and announced that the communist party had liberated China.

 

Essentially, this added up to us getting to leave a whole week early. So we did just that, and headed to explore the rest of South East Asia. Given that we had spent the last big holiday (Chinese New Year) in Thailand, we decided that it would be unfair if we left Vietnam and Cambodia untouched.

 

Our prior experiences in globetrotting have taught us that we have a few different ideas about travel. So, just to prove that I’ve been paying attention, I made time for each of our goals. Leaving my history-nerd time to Cambodia and starting with Ben’s beach time in Vietnam. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on the rainy season holding on through October.

 

Nevertheless, we were off to Halong Bay!

Someone's home and fishing operation in the middle of Halong Bay

We established out home base on Cat Ba Island so that we could bike through the National Park (never happened- next time) and take a cruise through the limestone isles of Halong Bay (totally happened). The rain stayed down to a few afternoon drizzles for our cruise and, although it wasn’t the weather we had brought shorts and sunscreen for, nothing could have prevented us from enjoying the fairy-tale scenery. The rain and numb toes didn’t even thwart our plans to enjoy the caves, go kayaking, and even go swimming (the water was actually warmer than the air!).

Don't you just loooove what I've done with this poncho? The sitting man does.

Enjoying the sitting man after leaving one of the caves. Don't you just loooove what I've done with this sexy poncho?

Our time back on the island found us running into some fellow teachers from Guangzhou! Including some of Ben’s former coworkers! So we caught up with them to enjoy the nightlife of Cat Ba- cheap food, beer, and massages before heading back to Hanoi to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh.

 

Through massive organization in transportation (and a really early wake up), we were able to make it back to Hanoi in time to visit just one of the capital’s attractions. We opted for the Hanoi Hilton (officially called Hao Lo Prison). This place was originally used by the French for Vietnamese political prisoners and then later by the Vietnamese for American POWs. The emphasis was how inhumanely the French treated the Vietnamese here in contrast to how humanely the Vietnamese treated the Americans (although John McCain and several others disagree).

The Hanoi Hilton- it's like a novel where the weather reflects the mood.

The Hanoi Hilton- it's like a novel where the weather reflects the mood.

After landing in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon), we again hung our clothes up to dry and then planned our next day over a delicious bowl of Pho. We decided on another early morning so that we could explore a bit of the city before catching our noon bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

We started our last morning in Vietnam with a cup of its famous coffee before venturing through the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral on our way to the War Remnants Museum.

 

The courtyard of the War Remnants Museum houses American military equipment left behind, which caused Ben to question, “How did we lose?” It was with the background that many young Vietnamese asked two popular questions: “Where are you from?” And then, “Can we take a picture?” Being ever the ambassador (as suggested by Doug) I always agreed. It never ceased feeling surreal- posing in front of military remnants left behind as a reminder of a war between two nations, flashing a smile and a peace sign.

Posing for peace at the War Remnants Museum

Posing for peace at the War Remnants Museum

So it is with these depressing images (Vietnam’s museums are not for those with weak stomachs) and wet feet that we filed ourselves onto the bus to Cambodia.

Yangshuo

We just had the Moon Cake Festival around here so we got an extra day tagged on to our weekend. A bunch of teachers from the various schools around here got together after work on Sunday and we hopped an overnight bus to Yangshuo. It’s this really pretty little town that’s famous for its collection of limestone cliffs and its fishermen’s use of cormorants to fish.

This fisherman assaulted me with his birds and this tres chic hat when I asked to take a picture of him.🙂

On our first day there we took a bamboo raft down the river to check the view and do a little swimming.

 

On our second day we rented some bikes and wandered through the country. We got a little lost and ended up in a maze of small villages. We ran low on water and started asking villagers where we could get some more… they pointed us to a well. We finally found the one village which all the others sent their kids to for school- they had a small convenience store and we made the shopkeeper’s day by our excessive purchases of beverages (the best water I have ever had, hands down). Eventually, we did find our way back on to our route and ended up at our original destination- The Buddha Mud Cave. At the mud cave you walk through a cave which is pretty cool of its own accord but then you get to a mud pool where we went swimming. It was a lot of fun. Then you get to rinse off in a waterfall and then soak in the hot springs.

 

Ben getting ready to make the final leg to the hostel after the Buddha Mud Cave

On our final day we went kayaking down the river to enjoy the scenery, complete our sunburns, and do more swimming. Killing time before catching our sleeper bus back to Guangzhou, we sat by the river and watched boats take tourists out to watch cormorant fishing. Not long after they left, a few fishermen punted in on their bamboo rafts and we were happy to find that they were fishing in the traditional manner.

 

Yangzhuo was amazing and we really regret not going sooner! We would really love to go again, but now we’ll have to wait until our next trip to China. Our passports have already been handed over to the proper authorities so that our working visa can be replaced with a tourist visa. I can’t believe our time here is almost over!

Lovely Laowai

It seems that I can’t go to a temple, pagoda, monument, historical site, park, or museum (not to mention shopping malls, supermarkets, and sidewalks) without becoming part of the attraction. I have lost count of the number of pictures of me in the procession of random Chinese people that I have encountered along the way.

After all, it’s not everyday you get to see a ‘blond-haired’ and ‘blue-eyed’ laowai in China. Apparently, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that should be immediately photographed for posterity and village bragging rights.

This man actually waited in line for a photo op.

I nearly always agree to these strange photo-ops, but it does make me wonder if there’s some sort of on-line data base (similar to this American site) where the Chinese can view their country’s collection of foreigners. So I made a Google search: “white people in China” which referred me to another blog post. It cracked me up, so I want to direct you all to Shanghai Sigrid’s How to pose like a Chinese person.

Happy reading!

Sleepless in Xi’an

To get from Beijing to Xi’an, we opted for the hard seats of a 15-hour, overnight train.

 

OK, so the hard seats (a class above the standing option) weren’t really a part of the plan, but it made for more of an adventure, as my mother would say.

 

Since sleeping wasn’t much of an option, we spend the night alternating who could read the one book we brought (The Count of Monte Cristo) and who would play solitaire with a 5 kuai deck of cards. Even so, we fared better than the French couple across from us. For, although they had each brought a Nintendo DS and an iPod, they had somehow gotten onto the train thinking that it could cover the distance in a couple of hours. When I told this story to my Chinese friends they responded, “Oh! It’s because France is too small!”

 

We finally arrived in Xi’an at 7 am, dropped our bags off at the hostel and immediately caught a bus to see the Terracotta Warriors. Although sleep deprivation may have prevented us from truly appreciating this particular UNESCO sight, it was still awe-inspiring. I definitely remember thinking that, from now on, whenever I read a book and the author tries to describe an army of 8,000 soldiers, I’ll have a great visual to look back on.

Ben contemplating the warriors

After leaving the warriors behind, we opted for a stroll through the Muslim Quarter: a part

of town that developed as a byproduct of the Silk Road. This part of town feels less East, and more Middle East (if you don’t mind being Eurocentric). The best part was the food! We had a great time trying to find a little bit of everything.

Yummy!

Our final venture in Xi’an led us to the City Wall. There aren’t many city walls left in China, so we wanted to take a gander at this one.

 

At the suggestion of our friend Julia, Ben and I decided to rent some bikes on top of the wall. It was a great idea (thanks Julia!) and Ben and I got to enjoy a sunset over the city during our ride. A perfect end to our northern vacation.

Atop Xi'an's City Wall

Last Day(s) in Beijing- Or, a series of unfortunate events

Our last day in Beijing was a somewhat unexpected one. Because of problems with our train tickets, we had to leave a day later than expected. Our original ‘last day’ was a very unlucky one.

 

It starts and ends at the train station. During the 15 minutes it took to exchange our tickets, a downpour started outside. Foolishly thinking that Beijing rain would be a fast and furious downpour, similar to what we’re used to in the south, we decided to wait it out while arranging a new hostel from KFC.

 

When it became evident that the rain wouldn’t stop anytime soon, we abandoned our seats to try to find a cab (no metro nearby). However, flooding had caused the taxis to park it, cover their exhaust pipes, and curl up for a late afternoon nap. After nearly five hours of trying taxis, trying to find the metro, and attempts at unraveling the mystery that is the Beijing bus system (with millions of others, nevertheless), we had finally had enough and gave in to an out-of-budget hotel nearby.

 

Yet, our story of misfortune doesn’t end there. The hotel’s elevator was out.

Our room? On the 12th floor.

 

After climbing up, we came to a room that was seemingly occupied. After calling the front desk, they confirmed that it was ours and sent a team of housekeepers up to tidy and attempt to fix the broken plumbing.

 

Finally, we were given the nod and allowed to begin the process of hanging up every soaked item we had.

 

If you think I’m exaggerating the flooding, it made a lot of news which can be found translated, consolidated, and pictured here.

 

A vendor selling kites in front of the Bird's Nest

 

 

Our last actual day was a better one for us. We re-packed our bags and went to spend our last ours in the city seeing things we would have otherwise missed: the Olympic Park and Lama Temple.

 

When we finally made our way back to that fateful train station, we were good and exhausted from hurrying through the city toting our bags (thankfully, we travel light) and ready for our 15-hour train ride to Xi’an.

The /Great/ Wall of China

Sometimes I make the mistake of building things up in my mind. I get interested in something: read about it, fixate on it, and when I am finally facing the object of my obsession I find that I’m disappointed.

But rest assured: The Great Wall of China is not like that.

In fact, it should probably be renamed The Great Freaking Wall of China. Or at least be referred to as The Great Wall of China. Just for greater accuracy.

Katherine the Great Wall

We even went to the ‘bad’ part of the wall (Badaling). The part reputed for being overcrowded and more commercialized. Of course, these aspects of Badaling can be avoided by turning to the steeper left instead of the right and by bringing your own provisions to avoid price gouging.

Ben at Badaling

Even at the ‘bad section’, climbing the wall was akin to taking a hike through a scenic mountainous region by way of an ancient artifact. Two things we love: hiking and really old things.

Proof we are now great!

When we had finally had enough of strolling and picture taking, we succumbed to the novelty of drinking a beer on The GWC. Some fellow hikers asked us to take some pictures of them next to this large stone head with the Great Wall snaking in the background. They wanted to return the favor, so we obliged and were satisfied. Later, when showing the pictures to my coworkers, this photo got a lot of attention. When I asked what all the fuss was about, they informed me that the inscription on the rock is done in the calligraphy of Mao Zedong himself. It (roughly) translates to:  You cannot be a great person until you climb The Great Wall of China.

Unforbidden.. but still a city

Finally! After our 8 months in China, we have finally gone to Beijing and Xi’an. Which means, we have finally seen the Forbidden City, climbed the Great Wall of China, and taken in the Terracotta Warriors. And we’re excited to tell y’all all about it.

We flew to Beijing where we found a nice hostel hidden in a traditional Hutong; perfect for wandering. We had wanted to wake up early on the first day to see the raising of the flag in Tiananmen Square but when our hostel informed us that it was to be held at daybreak (around 4 am) we decided against it.

The Forbidden City as seen from Tiananmen Square

However, we still woke up early the next day thanks to the nearby morning market. It’s one of those traditional markets that the grandmothers take their grandchildren to for socializing while they pick up the ingredients for that day’s meals.  By 7 am it’s already noisy, but that was alright because this was one of those vacations that left us no time to waste…

We got to The Forbidden City when it was still relatively early but we weren’t able to get inside for quite some time because we kept getting stopped for photo ops (in places with lots of tourists, there are a lot of people whom have never seen foreigners before).  Besides, we had to take a few photos of our own in front of the infamous portrait of Chairman Mao hanging from Tiananmen Gate- the place where this man announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to a crowd in Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Gate

After finally entering The Palace Museum, we were able to discover that, although the Forbidden City is no longer forbidden, it still is a city. It’s huge- nearly 7,800,000 sq ft! You wander in through hall after strangely named hall and it seems impossible to finally see the end of it all.

A few of the highlights (besides the general grandness of it all) include:

  • The Nine Dragon Screen; a beautiful way to divert bad Chi trying to enter The Forbidden City.
  • The Well of Concubine Zhen; A small well in which Emperor Guangxu’s favorite concubine was thrown into at the command of the infamous Empress Cixi.
  • The Hall of the Cultivation of Nature; the place where Emperor Puyi was given English lessons by Sir Reginald Johnston. Watching The Last Emperor is a great precursor for a visit to The Forbidden City.

Dragon Boat Festival

Ben and I received the happy addition of an extra day off this week in honor of the Dragon Boat Festival. I was really excited about this festival and tried desperately to find out where I could view the Dragon Boat Races and get myself some rice dumplings, but none of my expat websites or even any of my Chinese friends could tell me where to go for the big event. In the end I decided to sleep in. However, as luck would have it, Ben and I were able to stumble upon it during lunch.

 

As we were walking to lunch, we heard the familiar sound of drums and firecrackers. Thinking it was just another lion dance, we continued to lunch without giving the distant drums another thought. But, when we had finished lunch and were still able to hear the drums, we decided to follow the ruckus which led us straight to the Pearl River.

 

The river was scattered with extremely long and thin boats filled with local men rowing in the hot sun. Each boat had some drummers maintaining the rhythm and someone in charge of the firecrackers. They would put the firecrackers in baskets on long poles, light them, and then quickly extend them over the water.

A Dragon Boat in front of the Guangzhou Tower

This tradition stems from an old legend. Long ago, there was a bad emperor. He allowed his officials to become corrupt and he didn’t care for the needs of his people. In a protest against the corruption in the government a poet named Qu Yuan drowned himself in a river. The people respected Qu Yuan and therefore immediately set out in their boats to try to save his body. When this didn’t work, they beat drums and lit firecrackers to prevent the fish from eating his body. They also threw rice in the water in an offering (or some people say that it was another way to prevent the fish from eating his body).

Macau

Strolling down the streets of Macau

Although the second leg in the Adventures of Doug and Barb (Ben’s parents) included a significant stopover in world-renowned Hong Kong, I’ve already written about it here. So, in my effort to avoid redundancy and in my excitement to tell you all about another beautiful (although less famous) Special Administrative Region, I’m going to skip ahead to tell you all about Macau.

Macau is famous around these parts mostly for its gambling. The revenue brought in from Macau’s casinos is higher than that of any other gambling city in the world. But then again, if you know me even a little bit you would know that this isn’t as interesting to me as the fact that it is a former Portuguese colony. Yet, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for the heavy Portuguese influence around the city. The streets are lined with Portuguese architecture, trimmed with the famous yellow and white facades, and are dotted by various Catholic churches and missions. Of course, no mission would be complete without the accompaniment of a fortress or two.

The facade of Sao Paulo's Church... all that remains after a fire.

And yet, with all this, there’s still the heavy influence of the Cantonese who live there. After all, the official languages are

The Lion Dance

Cantonese and Portuguese. Nearly every shop has a place reserved for incense burning, the auspicious red is used everywhere, and (as luck would have it) we even stumbled upon a lion dance complete with firecrackers. They do this a lot in Guangzhou, too. This is usually when a new business opens to drive away bad Chi and promote financial success.

Ben and I really loved Macau and hope to go again sometime. After all, it’s only a two-hour bus trip from Guangzhou; although since it’s a SAR, we have to pass through customs which is annoying… but at least it provides a pretty stamp.🙂

Another Look at Guangzhou

It’s funny how you can leave your whole life behind for an adventure and then find yourself stuck in the same routine that you lived in your past life. Spend the work week working and your weekend recovering from the former. It’s easy to get lazy. Luckily, our routine recently received a good kick in the pants when Ben’s parents came for a visit. It got us back into exploring the city and seeing things with fresh eyes. We took them to a few of our favorite sights and to a few places we’ve been meaning to see. I think that this officially makes us experts on the best sights of the city.

Our distinguished guests taking in the view from the tram down Baiyun Mountain.

The first place Ben took them was the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall. A good pick, because I consider it to be easily the most beautiful place in Guangzhou. I’ve already written about it here if you’re interested.

One place that really impressed our guests was Flower City Square. It’s a park just an easy walk from our apartment that’s flanked by the Guangdong Museum of Art and the Guangzhou Opera House (both of notable architecture). It’s especially beautiful when it’s lit up at night and you can view the Guangzhou Tower across the Pearl River.

People have written wishes on these red ribbons and thrown them into these intertwined trees to ensure that they come true.

Of course, you can also view the Guangzhou Tower from the top of Baiyun Mountain. This is one of the sights that had collected dust on the top of our ‘To Do’ list and once we went, we quickly reprimanded ourselves for not going sooner. It’s a really beautiful place to ‘hike’ (they have paved paths) and see some other interesting sights, including the lovely and serene Nangren Temple. The tram down was also a highlight and a great way to see the mountain and the city at once.

Then there’s always the winner of Liurong Temple whose proximity to the People’s Park and Beijing Lu Shopping Street makes it a good place to get in a few sights at one. This temple is the most beautiful (and most famous) in the city and all of these sights are great places to view the locals doing what the locals do: pray, shop, and play.

Ben's mom snapping a photo of some women practicing a dance -probably one they remember from the Cultural Revolution.

However, the People’s Park is small potatoes compared to Yuexiu Park, where the family spent their last day in Guangzhou (I had to work). Of course, no visit to Yuexiu would be complete without following up with a trip to a nearby hospital… Unfortunately, Ben’s mom took a tumble as they were leaving the park and had to go to the hospital for stitches and observation on a concussion. Hopefully, their final experience as tourists in China didn’t color their perspective too much. But we can all guarantee that China’s hospitals are a sight worth skipping.

Ben’s mom is one tough lady, because the very next day she insisted that we continue with our original plans to visit Hong Kong and then to Macau before they left Asia. More on that later…

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