I’ve never started a blog with “I felt like a mom.” Probably because I very rarely feel like a mom… the no kids thing contributes to that. But on this particular day in Hoi An, Vietnam… I felt like a mom.
Brian, Eric and I had been traveling together for a little over a week, when they had a “great idea”. This came before their “great idea” to trade the chick (me) for a chicken (Boots) as a travel companion. (That story will be recounted in detail one of these days), but for today… Here is the story of another “great idea” that I still can’t believe they pulled off.
The Thu Bon riverside is lined by boat owners. They call out to you at every step, “Boat? Boat?” Think Venice, minus the romance. No crooning gondolier or ornately decorated seats- just a conical hat donned river guide who will float you up the river a half hour, then turn around and float you back. We ignored these tourist traps without exception… until this day. “Boat? Boat?” they asked us. “Yes. We want a boat.” The boys answered. “But we don’t want you in it.” Now this conversation doesn’t lend itself to easy translation. “We both want our own boat and our own paddle for 30 minutes. Oh… And we want the small boats that are stuck in the reeds over there.”
I’ve written before about the language barrier we encountered almost everywhere we went. Let me tell you, this conversation was no exception. Brian took one side of the river, Eric took the other, looking for someone who would give them a boat. I stood on the bridge in the middle, shaking my head and taking pictures. Nobody had a clue why these two white boys wanted to go out alone- and in such small boats, but luckily, money is a universal language, and after a while, a shop owner came over to help with a rough translation.
The guys paddled around the river for about 20 minutes, and I promise you I thought the two boat owners (who took a while to locate, but were impossible to get rid of afterward) were going to wade into the middle of the river and physically sit the boys down. They paced back and forth calling and motioning for the guys to “Sit Down!” I tried to help by explaining that they were “Paddle Boating”, my own word.
I guess if you keep a beach boy off his board for long enough- this is what you get.
Since returning to the states, the number one question people seem to ask is: “What was your favorite place?” It’s an impossible question to answer and it makes me sound like a liar- because my answer changes with my mood. But if I had to pick a favorite stop today, it might be Hoi An, Vietnam.
I love getting comfortable enough in a city that the roads start to look familiar. (Not that it seems to keep me from getting lost…) I love being somewhere long enough to have favorites: A favorite sandwich stand, a favorite breakfast spot, a favorite umbrella vendor. Hoi An was one of a handful of places that I stayed in for more than three days. I was here for a little less than a week- but it was just long enough to fall in love.
Hoi An doesn’t have a checklist. The guidebook doesn’t provide a detailed section of places to go and things to see. I think this is a huge reason that it became one of my favorite spots. After a pretty quick pace for about a month in a half, this deliciously, low-key stop was exactly what I needed. Now this is not to say that I don’t love a good checklist… I have visited (and loved) many places that require making a plan in the morning, and being careful not to stray too far, lest you miss one of the national treasures. However, it’s a nice change of pace to stop somewhere where the only thing you are meant to do is “soak it in”.
In my travels over the last decade or so, I have probably seen about a dozen National Palaces, but show me a picture of one and there is a good chance I couldn’t tell you which country it belonged to. After a while, temples, cathedrals, palaces… they all start to blur. But I will always remember the tree at the end of the street that marked our favorite Banh Mi Sandwich find in Hoi An. I will always remember the route we took every morning from our hostel to our breakfast spot, and I will always remember the motorbike ride from town to the beach.
Since the guidebook isn’t going to list it out for you, hear are a few of the “Highlights of Hoi An, According to Mindy”
- I’ve rarely met a beach I didn’t like, and Hoi An was no exception. You can rent an umbrella, chairs and drinks for about the cost of parking at some of the beaches in the States at Cua Dai Beach. We’ve been told that at times there is surf, but there certainly wasn’t while we were there.
- You can’t visit Hoi An and not try the world’s best sandwich. I’m not kidding. It’s called Banh Mi (think fried egg, headcheese, liver pate, pork belly…) okay it doesn’t sound as appetizing as I’m writing it, but let me just tell you: it is heaven on a baguette. You may question my judgment, considering I had been surviving on rice for about a month and a half at this point, but on our second of five consecutive days at this little stand, we noticed an article taped to the outside of the cart window. Apparently Anthony Bourdain agrees with us. So there you have it… Definitive proof that we discovered one of the world’s best sandwiches.
- I never thought I would say this, but here it is… A trip to Hoi An is not complete without at least considering custom tailored clothing. Tailor shops are huge in Southeast Asia. I used to laugh when they would approach Brian on the street in his board shorts and day old t-shirts, showing pictures and asking “Suit? Suit?” I would look at these people like they were crazy! “I am carrying everything I own in a backpack, it’s 100 degrees out, I am sweating through a sundress… and you are talking to me about custom tailored suits??” If they weren’t talking bathing suits, I wanted nothing to do with them. That rant aside, however, I will sheepishly admit that I fell under the tailor spell in Hoi An.
If you are going to buy a custom tailored anything in SEAsia… Hoi An is the place you do it. Even knowing this, I had no intention of getting sucked in. And then one day, as we were walking to the river, a little red riding coat caught my eye. (Okay it was not a riding coat, but that that makes it sound more romantic.) I had to at least inquire, and by doing so… decided that I had to own it. $35 for a darling, red, tailor-made coat, that they will ship back to the states for me? Yes, please. I stood there for the better part of an hour being measured and trying to describe what I was looking for. During my second fitting, I guess I decided this whole “custom” thing was quite fun, and thought, “Why just get a red jacket, when white is such a nice color as well.” What’s a girl to do when they are so accommodating with their combined shipping policies? Both coats made it back to the states before I did and I am already looking forward to next fall so I can wear them.
Considering my list is limited to a beach, a sandwich stall, and shopping (my only real purchases in 3 1/2 months, I will note) you can wrap your mind around just how much there was “to do” in Hoi An… and yet, it’s at the very top of my list. Here are a few pictures of one of my favorite towns. No national palaces or historical landmarks- just alluring, charming Hoi An.
I wrote this on my last day in Bali. I have been trying to post in order, and I haven’t even finished the first month of my trip yet, but I wanted to post this while everything was fresh.
Bali marks the end of my Southeast Asia (and Australia) adventure. Leaving breaks my heart. We were in Bali for 10 days. Brian will continue in Indonesia for another month, not just in Bali, but traveling around and I so long to join him, but I have already extended my trip several times and there comes a point that it is just time to go home. If I allowed myself to, I could travel forever.
I am excited to see my parents, my dog, my friends. I am ready to sleep in my own bed and eat all the salsa my body can handle. But I’m not ready to leave. Maybe you are never “ready” for the next chapter.
Yesterday was my last day surfing. I went out early in the day and it was fine. Not great. But fine. I wanted it to be great. My legs were on fire from a surf board rash that I have been working on for the last 10 days on that board. I came in discouraged. Later that afternoon I went back out. I was mad before my feet touched the water. I spent the first half hour out there fighting with my board. Fighting with the waves. Getting frustrated and jumping off even when I had caught a wave and would normally have been able to ride it in. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even enjoy the surf. And then I cried.
I cried because I’m not ready to leave. I cried because I hadn’t become an amazing surfer in 10 days. I cried because no matter how I much I don’t want it to, I know that a chapter of my life is ending, and I don’t how the next one goes. I cried for everything I was afraid of losing… for about a minute… then I ducked under a wave, felt the salt water wash my tears away, got back on the board, and surfed.
This is a little bit different than the posts I normally do. I have never done a review or post on a particular shop/ho(s)tel/restaurant before- but this place was just screaming for it’s own post. We stumbled upon JUNK quite by accident, while we were scouring the streets of Georgetown (the historic district of Penang, Malaysia) for food stands. One glance through the window and I just had to go in. After browsing a bit, we met the owner, Ono, and asked if he would allow us to come back with cameras to photograph the place. He was more than willing, so we made plans for the following evening.
The next night we arrived to find a group of 20-somethings sifting through sunglasses, jewelry and handbags on the second floor. I immediately started snapping pictures while Brian talked to Ono. Communication was no issue, as Ono speaks three dialects of Chinese, in addition to English, Japanese, French and Malay.
“Ono’s Junk” opened at 401 Lebuah Chulia in Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia) only six months ago, but Ono has been collecting antiques for the last 15 years. Before moving to the heart of the historic district, he had another shop, and despite all the effort of transporting and displaying so much “junk”, he knew the move would be worth it. JUNK’s novelty is as much about the actual pieces as it is about Ono’s knack for creative displays. It’s this skill that has earned him jobs as a contract designer for restaurants, cafes and hotels that are looking for a unique flair with a consistent theme.
Odds are, if you want it- he’s got it. You can find everything at JUNK, from sculptures to shoes. The shop is full of rare musical instruments, antique cameras, clocks, bikes, action figures, and hundreds of other collectibles, with prices that fit every budget. Two of his priciest pieces are Vespas from 1975 and 1973, situated near the front of the shop. They are listed at $13,000 and $15,000 USD. The second floor is home to an enviable collection of women’s vintage, designer clothing and accessories.
He used to go hunting for all of his rare finds, now people often bring things to him. “Everything in the shop tells a story,” Ono said. Opening this amazing collection to the public is one of his ways of keeping those stories alive.
I get a bit of writers block every time I try to write about a city. I have all of these pictures I want to share, and I have just had an incredible experience, so I sit down to write about it and …. nothing. Maybe that’s why I spent three weeks in Australia stuck on trying to write about crossing the border into Vietnam.
A close friend recently gave me a book of essays by A.A. Gill, a travel writer I have fallen completely in love with. His inscription was “Mindy, Always travel lightly.” It was perfect and I will keep it forever. Gill says the best advice he can give an aspiring writer is: “Never write with a view.” Think about that for a second. Okay, now start reading again… When you travel you need to live it- experience it. When Gill travels he doesn’t bother doing research beforehand. He doesn’t take notes during the trip, just collects bits: ticket stubs, maps, programs. When he comes home he sits down, faces a blank white wall, and writes.
Brian made a point a few days ago that I had never really noticed. He said I write better when things are going wrong. When I am sitting in a beautiful city, sipping an iced coffee, and gazing out at something wonderful- be it a beach, mountain range, or a bunch of kids rolling around in the dirt- words don’t come quickly… or easily. Put me in a dusty, dirty bus station in the middle of the night, with mosquitoes biting my ankles- and I can’t stop typing. I guess that’s my equivalent of a blank white wall.
Looking back, I probably should have waited to write about our journey to Vietnam. The experience was so vivid- so dramatic- so unforgettable. Nothing I wrote could have done it justice, but as I have told the story again and again, I think I have a better idea of how I should have written it. So I am done forcing stories about specific places (as you might have noticed). I am trying to embrace more of the “Write Here, Write Now” kind of thing. See what I did there?
There is so much more I can write about than what I’ve done in each city. I will still continue to write those as they come, but there might be a lot more in between. Who knows, I might still be writing about the amazing places I have seen on this trip for years- the way I have my European backpacking adventure five years ago. There will be fewer pictures in some of these entries… but the impact of this journey goes beyond what I’ve seen. My interactions and my forced acclimation to a world so shockingly different than my own has been the most life-changing. Yes, I loved all of the pointy hats (conical, if you want to get boringly technical) in Vietnam, and I adored the baby tigers in Thailand. I loved riding an elephant in Laos, and I’ll never forget the banyan trees at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But this trip has given me more than great photo ops. It has changed me fundamentally as a person.
When I was in high school, I remember sitting in my room painting intricate swirls and quotes onto an old bookshelf for weeks until it was “just right”. My favorite song at the time was “Drops of Jupiter” by Train- it’s still up there in my top 10. I think the song inspired the whimsical nature of the bookshelf. I think the bookshelf helped to inspire the whimsical nature of my life. Its fairytale-like theme was all about believing, hoping, dreaming… It was a fifteen year old interpretation of what I thought life should be about, and what I have tried to model my life after since.
On this trip, not only did a Thai wind sweep me off my feet, but I finally got the chance to dance along the light of day. Venus blew my mind on one hemisphere, and a few weeks later, the Southern Cross did too. I’ve sailed across the sun and fallen for shooting stars. Everything about these months has been the perfect soul vacation. I think I will always have drops of Asia in my hair. I hope I do.
I have to put this at number one, because I had been somewhat prepared for everything else from past travels… but this was culture shock at it’s finest. No one warned me about squat toilets (proper name). The first time I saw one, I just looked at it for a minute trying to figure out how exactly I was supposed to use this thing. It was just a hole in the floor with two (very slippery) “steps” on either side of it. Looking back now, I guess it is somewhat intuitive and maybe most people have come across these at some point (especially if you have spent much time in the Middle East, South America, or Asia), but in all of my travels- this was a first for me. There was also no button, lever or cord to flush it. Instead, there is usually a trough of water, often with a nasty green film around the edges, and a cup or bowl. I couldn’t figure this part out on my own. In order to flush, Brian explained to me, you have to ladle the water from the trough into the toilet and the pressure flushes the waste down.
They don’t have directions to tell you how to use a squat toilet, but if you ever wander across a Western toilet (you’ll find these in bigger cities, most hostels, and the islands) they do have pictures reminding locals NOT to squat on the seats. Let’s just say in my months here, I have learned how to go carefully. A slip would be tragic. More than tragic really. And poor form means you end up with pee on your feet… and your shoes… because there is no way in hell I am stepping up there barefoot. After a while, though, you get used to it. Thank you, Crossfit. I am proficient when it comes to the toilets in Southeast Asia.
2) Carrying Toilet Paper Everywhere.
Keeping with the theme of number one, this also took some getting used to. Even when you pay to use the toilet, which happens more often than I like, paper will rarely be provided. There is always a hose, however. I suppose the logic is that it is better to air dry clean than the alternative. However, in all my Western ways, I have chosen to stay away from this custom and have become a pathological paper stealer. When I’m in restaurants or hostels and I see napkins or toilet paper, I feel no remorse when I stash some in my purse. When we check out of a hostel, I pull out the cardboard tube and tuck the rest away for later use. Oh, and on a related note of what is not provided- bring hand sanitizer. The bathrooms have sinks- if you are lucky. But they only have soap if you are REALLY lucky. I try not to think about what this means about everything I touch, and the sanitizing habits of those who have touched it before.
3) Carrying Water- Everywhere.
(Have you noticed there is a lot of carrying going on here? You’re right.) You’ve heard it before. It’s the same story in half of the world. You can’t drink the water. You can’t eat the ice (unless it was boiled first, and try communicating that over here!). You can’t brush your teeth under the faucet. You can’t open your mouth in the shower. Water=Bad. Carry water bottles everywhere. Problem solved.
4) Forgetting That English Is, In Fact, My First Language.
I have to constantly remind myself that just because everyone around me is using broken English, doesn’t mean that I should too. I actually caught myself saying “How do you say…?” about an English word the other day. They ask me that question when they can’t translate a word because I SPEAK ENGLISH. It is not okay for me to say the same just because I can’t think of a word. It’s funny, I have actually found myself speaking in some weird non-existent accent at times, even to other Americans. I smile when I hear other native English speakers doing the same. We all do it. We speak in slow, fragmented sentences punctuated with exaggerated hand gestures. I have several theories on why we do this, but one thing I’m sure of: The fewer words you use to communicate the better. When you are asking questions, it’s better to just make a statement and then ask “Yes?” Ex: “We get boat here. Yes?” They will correct you if you are wrong, but if you ask, “Can we get on the boat here?” and they don’t understand you, they are most likely still going to smile and say yes.
5) Taking Off Your Shoes- Everywhere.
I like being barefoot. I have incredibly tough feet- probably from growing up playing in bare feet all the time. I can walk on shells and rocks that other people tiptoe over. Heck, I’d probably be a natural when it comes to walking on coals (something for the bucket list). So it’s not so much being barefoot that was hard to get used to, it’s just that leaving my shoes outside was kind of weird at first… especially walking into a restaurant, bar or public bathroom. It’s been so drilled into me in the states: “No shoes, No service.” Here you better take off those shoes before you walk inside, or they are going to tell you to turn around and walk right back out. (Remember when I said I wouldn’t stand on a squat toilet barefoot? Well sometimes you have no choice.)
There is often no way for me to communicate except to put my hands together and nod. Luckily, around here, this can work universally as a thank you, a hello, a goodbye, an excuse me, a yes, a no, or an “I have no idea what you are trying to tell me.” It’s convenient. I might try it back in the States when I want to avoid an unpleasant interaction. Just bow my head down until the other person gets uncomfortable enough and gives up on the conversation.
7) Honking & The Fear of Being Roadkill.
The soundtrack of Vietnam is a constant collage of beeps. Motorbikes are everywhere and there is literally no rhyme or reason to their driving habits. Feel like driving in the left hand lane because you will be turning left in 5 miles? No problem. Want to drive on the right because it’s your best side? Sure! Just honk incessantly so people will see you. It’s like one giant, life threatening game of chicken. I didn’t realize it until half way through the trip, but I literally hold my breath while I cross the street and every time we are on a motorbike trying to navigate a roundabout. Red lights? Green lights? These are helpful suggestions that some people abide by in major cities. But in most of Asia- they might as well be Christmas decorations. They. Mean. Nothing.
(Quick sad story… Skip this if you love ducklings.) Once upon a time, we were in a minivan with about 15 people in Laos. As I earlier stated, vehicles here do not stop, motorbikes swerve all over the place… but apparently if you are bigger than a motorbike (like a minivan) you don’t even bother with swerving. I was sitting on the front bench unfortunately, so I saw the whole thing go down. Here’s the scene: There is a family of ducks crossing the street. They hear honking and all sort of scatter. One makes the wrong choice when it comes to scattering and ends up splattering. I almost cry. The van driver doesn’t blink. Ten minutes later a small child runs through the street. The driver lays on his horn and swerves a little. I am relieved that we do not squish the child, but I am still pretty darn angry that apparently ducks don’t matter.
We eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a matter of fact, rice can also be made into several desserts: rice pudding, sticky rice with mango, coconut milk and rice. Most places are backpacker friendly enough that they offer Western menus too, but I have firmly put my foot down about ever ordering from a fast food joint (which you can find in bigger cities like Bangkok, HCMC and Hue.) Want fast food? Check out a street vendor. They are very fast. Want “fast food”? Wait till you get back to the States.
I can pack everything I have in about 10 minutes. I have learned to live out of a pack that weighs less than 13 kilos (about 26 pounds) plus an extra bag that has my computer/camera/etc. It’s amazing how efficiently you learn to roll everything you need, and how quickly you can load everything into your pack in the perfect order. I usually have everything I need for two days on the top, so depending on how long I will be in a certain location, I might not even need to unpack deeper than the first layer. Amazing-Backpack-Packer.
10) Getting Ready in 5 Minutes.
I suppose this one is closely related to number 9. When I started this trip I packed two pairs of shorts, two cotton dresses, a pair of jeans, five t-shirts, a pair of sandals and a pair of running shoes. I will admit that I have absolutely added to this collection as I have walked the market streets… but I have also gotten rid of most of what I started with. I actually went into the market today and traded three shirts and a Vera Bradley purse for a pair of sunglasses and 100 baht ($3.50). After two months in the same five shirts, they get a little old. However, the lack of choices does make my life easier. It’s amazing how quickly you can get ready when your entire routine involves brushing your teeth, washing your face, and picking out a pair of elephant pants and a shirt (doesn’t even matter if they match). On a good day, I might throw on mascara… but I haven’t thought about drying my hair in months.
I know that as soon as I go home, these things will go back to normal. If I see a motorbike on the wrong side of the road- I am going to freak out. I’m going to LOVE brushing my teeth in the sink again (oh and don’t get me started on how much I miss my Sonicare brush). I will definitely slip into a pair of heels- just for fun, and will probably even plug in a hair straightener. But right now… my life feels pretty perfectly low maintenance. I don’t even mind the squatting.
At Jenna’s request, I have put together a quick little map of my journey thus far. I know how difficult it can be to orient yourself to the places I am talking about, trust me… I didn’t even know half of these places existed when I started planning this trip in December (15 days before I took it). Forgive the map, it’s crude and a little bit confusing because my plans changed about half way through so there has been a bit of backtracking (and way too much flying) but that’s the beauty of plans. They change.
My original “plan” was to do the backpacker’s loop through Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia) and then finish out my trip in Australia. I grossly underestimated how much time I would want to spend in Asia. With every city I visited, I fell more and more in love with the region, the culture, the people. As my pace picked up toward the end, I dreaded leaving the darling faces I’d grown to love. I started flying over places I really wanted to visit in Vietnam and Cambodia, so that I could make it to Phuket, Thailand in time. I was meeting a good friend for the Australia part of my journey and she was waiting for me there. As much as I have always wanted to go to Australia- to soak up the sun on gorgeous beaches, surf, hang out with kangaroos and koalas, etc.- I also felt this tugging in my heart that I was not ready to leave Asia. So, I did the least economical thing I could possibly have done. I continued on to Australia, but rather than take my flight home from Brisbane, I decided to fly back to Bangkok. I can’t back track through Vietnam and Cambodia to see the things I missed, but I can continue south through the Thai Islands and check out Malaysia and Indonesia… maybe even stop over in Tokyo on my new way home. (Thank you, Ryan!)
My backpacking trip to SEAsia, has now turned into more of a trip around the world, but that nagging feeling is gone. And while it’s cost me more than a couple of extra dollars and way more than a couple of headaches… every day has been worth it. Even the rainy ones in Australia. So that’s the complicated map of where in the world I’ve been.
My weeks in Australia aren’t in the first map… it’s too far away… but I can quickly describe: I flew from Phuket, Thailand to Perth, where we caught a connecting flight to Sydney. I spent a little over a week in Sydney and a few days about an hour north, on the coast with my friend Andy’s parents. From Sydney I flew to the Goldcoast, where I met the incredibly talented Ashleigh Mannix and her agent Tatianna Alpert who were kind enough to give me a very entertaining lift to Byron Bay. I met back up with Lesley in Byron and we spent another week there. Then I hopped back on a plane and back over the sea to Asia.
Kind of like this (but not exactly to scale)