who ... moi?

a social butterfly: scared of much, but not of many. never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. not a fan of acronyms, snakes and angelina jolie. a HUGE fan of Fathead.

this blog is black for ENERGY-SAVING reasons.

thanks for your understanding.
if it's too dark, put your glasses on old one.

Thursday, August 19, 2010



blogposts will be updated with pics as soon as possible

cambodels, baby!

we followed the delta up into the greater mekong river, which took us across the border of cambodia, into the capital city, phenom penh. this would be our starting point for the journey up this wonderful place.

more on that in a mo - but herewith a map to orientate yourselves with our path.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

mekong meanders

so i know that technically speaking the mekong delta is still in vietnam - but i like to separate the two (mainly because it justifies the jewelry i bought in "both" places as reminders of "both" separate places).

anyway, we left saigon on a bus, which took us to a boat, which took us to another boat which took us up the mekong river, starting in the delta at the south of vietnam, travelling through fishing villages and floating markets for two days. 

there was an overnight stop-over in the border town of chau doc, which was so boring and drab and souless that i will neither admit it is part of my beloved vietnam, nor bore you with any more details.

you can't really escape the mekong river.  it's enormous and it is the "rice bowl" of south east asia. its banks touch vietnam, cambodia, thailand, laos and china - so if you're in south east asia, you will at some stage be near it, see it, get on it, get in it or go over it to get into another country.

the nations of south east asia have a long history of battles and alliances - but it's thought that the next major conflict will be fought over the mekong.  china (as only china can) don't really care about what happens down stream - and are furiously damming up their section of the enormous waterbody.  they are also blasting rapids, which is where the mekong catfish is thought to breed.  as a result, the numbers of this unique river monster (300kg's of man-eating terror, but also a local delicacy) have drastically dropped in recent years, and now the countries in the south are breeding them in farms and introducing them back into the system.

the effects of china's dams are extensive and far-reaching.  they are impacting thousands of communities further down-stream - and although no one out here is too concerned with environmental issues and animal rights, there are obviously huge implications from an ecological point of view too.

as far as rivers go, it's impressive.  enormous, deep, slow and powerful.  it's like an elephant.  you just automatically respect it.

the highlights of this tour up the mekong were:
seeing how the local villagers raise fish in floating farms,
feeding the 100 000 fish as they thrashed about violently trying to eat,
watching them make coconut-candy, rice paper, rice crackers and silk weaves.

number one thing about the mekong river though, was meeting an english couple (brodie and dan).  we met them as we crosssed the vietnam/cambodia border and played a game of shithead (cardgame ... get your mind out of the gutter!)

they seemed fun and friendly at the time, and were a welcome distraction from the fact that we'd not been on land for what felt like days.  little did we know then, that we were about to make two very special friends - with whom we would spend every waking hour for the rest of our cambodia and laos journeys.

remembering 'nam

vietnam had an intoxicating effect on us.  in short, we loved it. 
you have to go, and you have to stay for at least a month.

it's a country of the senses - and for each there are specific things that you will only hear, smell, feel, taste and see in vietnam.

when i remember 'nam, i will recall the never-ending soundtrack of buzzing engines, "hello - you want a cyclo?", "hello - you want to buy something?", the polite beep-beep i'm coming so get the fak out of the way.

if i close my eyes and imagine i'm there, it's about 50 degrees and i'm covered from head to toe in sweat. 

i've got a bowl of pho (noodle soup) in front of me, and an ice cold bia hoi in my hand.

there's a woman somewhere under a conical hat across the street and she's carrying a basket of that strange fruit that looks like wallpaper glue and smells like dribbly bum. 

as she calmly strolls into the swarming streets, a thousand motorbikes glide around her.  she stops to chat to a friend who is asleep next to his baguette stand.

the streets are lit with a kaleidescope of paper lanterns, and i feel like i'm in a giant christmas tree.

i've spent the day surrounded by rice paddies and tomorrow i'll take a dip in the warmth of the ocean.

i'm fascinated with the markets and the people and the pure genius that i can see all around me. out of pure necessity, they have devised the most creative solutions and it inspires me. 

i'm hot, and i'm safe, and i'm excited, and i'm relaxed ... and most of all, i'm just utterly happy.

good morning saigon

travelers will tell you that if you start in the north of vietnam you'll love hanoi and hate saigon, and if you start in the south - vice versa. i think that because we'd mentally prepared outselves to be disappointed, we were not.  it turns out that ho chi minh city (saigon's formal name, according to nobody other than the vietnamese government) is more modern, clean, pretty and open than we had expected.

it's very similar to hanoi, but in the kind of way that your older, cooler, smarter, stronger brother is "very similar" to you. the throngs of motorbikes and cyclos are there.  as are the book vendors with their shamelessly photocopied replica's.  the conical hats have diminished in their numbers, as have the narrowed streets and tightly packed buildings. 

in saigon, there were enormous intersections and wide, green, peaceful parks.  here the buildings were not as charming as they were in little bro hanoi - but they were more modern and it felt like we'd suddenly stepped back into the real world, where they have the interwebs, and petrol stations and BBC world news.

and holy moly, do they have the most jaw dropping electrical wiring system in the world.  you have never (and i do mean, never) in your life seen so many millions and trillions of black wire nests tangled atop every lamp post.

because saigon's a little more 1st world, it's also a little more pricey.  nothing earth-shattering, but it did mean we had to spend more time than usual looking for good rates and cheap eats.  one of these spots was in a small alley off the main backpackers district - a characterless hole in the wall called "punjabi" and rrrun by a rrreal hindian, eh!  hey men, i tell you wat - it was a hellova ting 'n all  (if you're not reading this in an indian accent, go back and read it again).  by far the best indian we've ever had - and i remind you all here that Fathead and i both worked in a spice-shop for several years.

one of the days we spent in the war remnants museum (previously named "the museum of american war crimes").  it's not what you'd call objectively representative of both sides - but it is a harrowing, distrubing, eye-opening exhibition of what the war did to this beautiful country.  of the many museums i've found myself standing in, no other has effected me with it's exhibitions quite like this one did. it should be compulsory for every visitor to vietnam to spend a day in this place.

the parks are enormous and in the afternoons the locals gather for champion-style tournaments of hakkie sack.  well, i say "hakkie sack" only because i have no idea what the real name for it is.  but it's basically a few plastic disks which are loosely connnected like a ring of keys, with a few colourful feathers poking out the middle.  you then kick the disks to one another, in exactly the same way you would play with a hakkie sack.  anyway, these guys are incredible and we spent several hours watching in amazement as they pelted these things for miles across the park.

the people in the south are a lot more ready and eager to join the rest of the world.  they wear brandname clothes.  they get around on 4 wheels.  they have read the latest dan brown novel and are desperate to improve their english so that they can get out there and explore the world.  this means that they are also a lot more friendly and willing to talk to you, and we found ourselves on several occasions with a group of students who'd corner us in the park and wanted to chat for as long as we'd let them.  it was a really cool way to meet the locals and get a better feel for the flavour of the vietnamese.

admittedly, most of the conversations were spent convincing them that we were definately from south africa, yes we sure were born there, no we are not from america, definately africa, yes the place with the world cup, yes we watched the soccer, yes we know that they only saw black people on the tv, but there were white people in our country - and we were two of them.

we were several days in this vibrant city, and then suddenly we had all but completed our journey through vietnam. what a shame to have to leave this incredible country, but saigon was an appropriately warm, fuzzy and energetic send-off.

the pink panther

our next destination was a town called da lat.  for some unknown reason the name got stuck on "repeat" in my brain, and conjured up the tune to the pink panther - so that whenever i said or read "da lat" i was then left singing "da lat-da lat, da lat ... da lat, da lat, da lat, da lat, da-laaaat duh duh duh duh dum".

and now, i suspect, so will you.  a moo-ha ha.

but i digress:  da lat.  right.  not much happening in this place.  our first day there was also the first day of rain that we've experienced in this so-called "monsoon season" - so happily, i spent most of it on the interwebs uploading photos to facebook.

the town was pretty small, pretty busy, pretty average and rather unpretty.  baffled as to why we had chosen to trek all the way there, we adjourned to our guidebooks for some insight and discovered that just beyond the centre of the town, there were indeed several rad things to see.  given the distanced between everything, we also realised that short of hiring a taxi for the day (something our budget simply would not allow) we had no other choice but to rent a motorbike to get to all the places we wanted to.

my dad always made me swear that i would never take drugs or get onto a motorbike - but fortunately he doesn't read this blog ... so if you don't tell him, he won't kill me.  also, maybe don't mention this to my mom either ... she likes to worry.  a lot.

anyway, turns out that Fathead is very good behind the handlebars of a bike, and after a few hair-raising intersections we had left the chaos of town behind us, and were heading for "the crazy house".

if tim burton was asked to build the house of his dreams, this would be it:   a weird, fantasy-inspired maze of twisted staircases and twirling towers.  bridges swell and narrow as they cross an enchanting garden, and lead into several different sections of what is now a functioning guesthouse: you can stay in goldylocks and 3 beers room, or in the mush-room.

it felt like we were walking through a salvador dali landscape - only i half expected to find myself following a fluffy white tail down a hole.
originally, hang nga guesthouse (but more aptly named, "the crazy house") was conceptualised by the excentric madam dang viet nga.  today it remains in a constant state of construction - an ever-evolving orb of weirdness.  it's also earned a very deserved place on the list of the top 10 most bizarre buildings in the world.
from the weirdest place i've ever been, we took a beautiful ride around their central lake and then followed a 5km stretch out to the datanla waterfall.  though it was quite small - we still loved it.  let's face it:  a waterfall is rad no matter it's scale.  the mist, the sound, the endless volume ... just really leaves you silenced in awe.

the best part of this particular trek into the country had to have been the self-controlled rollercoaster that we rode through the jungle down to the waterfall.  Fathead "drove" (or rather, Fathead did not brake)- and i shattered the tranquility of our jungled surrounds with shrieks of terror.  

we spent the rest of the day just enjoying the bike - a new and i must admit, rather thrilling experience.  we popped into the emperor bo dai's summer palace which was by far the most drab buliding i've ever seen.  well - that's not true.  the home affairs office in paarl is probably the drabbest.  but the "palace" of brown 70's yukness is a very close second.

nonetheless, da lat (strike up the band) turned out to be a rather enjoyable experience.  we had the most divine meals at a restaurant called Tu Ahn's, run by a wonderfully charming (read "off her rocker") woman who would cook you absoutely anything you wanted.  we checked out the thoroughly entertaining night market.  we even managed to be coaxed into a spot of clubbing in the world's loudest club.

so all in all, "the city of eternal spring" was rather festive - and definately worth checking out as a stop over, before you hit the very south of 'nam running.

vin pearl

because Fathead had been on such good behaviour i decided that a day on vin pearl amusement island would be a nice treat for him.  vin pearl is still part of nha trang city, and is connected to the mainland via a cable-car track that is the largest over-sea system in the world.  it spans 3,3km's across the water and the views from up there are just incredible.

the island itself is entirely dedicated to 6 year olds and people of a fathead-persuasion. the usual rollercoasters and bumpercar emporiums occupy a third of the island, another third is dedicated to a beach strip and the remainder is an enormous waterpark - which is where we spent most of the day.

Fathead went down, around, under and over just about every terrifying, death-defying, adrenalin-pumping, heart-stopping ride he could. 

i took pictures.

Monday, August 16, 2010

not-so-kak nha trang

if you had to liken nha trang to anywhere back home, i suppose you could say it was nam's version of plett:  not as pretty, as say, knysna with little more than a beach to offer and deprived of it's soul thanks to the throngs of local and foreign tourists - but still a holiday hotspot with all the amenities that this affords.

two upmarket resorts have demarcated their strips of beach, and kitted these areas out with palm-roofed beach sandbars and shaded sun-loungers. a coconut cocktail is a flip of the hand away, as is a tasty (but pricey) meal.

just beyond the tanning bodies, both the sailing club and the louisiana brew house have set up lounge-style restaurants, swimming pools, bars, pool tables and dance floors.
don't get me wrong - i was far happier to be there working on my bronze than sitting at a desk sending an email to a client who neither appreciated the work i was doing, nor the email they were about to receive ... it was just so not what we had come to love about this country.

so we suffered through - sipping fruit shakes, taking dips in the surf, reading our novels, eating crabs steamed on the sand right in front of you (having only been plucked from the seabed minutes before), meeting fellow travellers and losing a few brain cells (only the strongest survive anyway) to consuming a multitude of cocktail buckets - whose potency only became apparent the follow morning.
a few days in, and with a headache that can only be described as atomic, we decided to catch a ferry out into the bay to see some of the surrounding islands, visit an aquarium and dive off the deck into the middle of ocean for some dodgy fruit wine served off a floating bar.

the rough seas exiting the bay were not as therapeutic as i had hoped, so I duly gave lunch a skip as i fought my first bout of "sea sickness" at the bow of the boat. but a brave leap of desperation  into the deep blue quickly sorted me out, and the rest of the day/evening was spent with new-found friends chasing yet more deceptively tasty buckets of potency.

on to nha trang

the food in hoi an was some of the best we found throughout vietnam, and the remainder of our stay was largely spent flitting from feast to swimming pool back to feast, with a spot of night markets and window shopping before finding a pleasant bar on the river bank to finish the day off with a few ice cold larue beers.

several days passed and it was time to continue down the coast, in an overnight sleeper bus, to the coastal town of nha trang.
the transport in vietnam is pretty impressive: far exceeding what you'd expect from a country still clearly licking it's war wounds.
we've since found ourselves on several sleeper busses - which have aircon and comfy chairs that recline all but 180 degrees into an almost flat bed.
with a good book and a charged ipod the 14hr journeys are doable - so long as you don't look ahead at the driver's lack of adherence to anything resembling road safety.
much like the motorbikes, the rules of a 'nam road say,
"you can drive anywhere you want to, in any direction as long as you let everyone know you're there by constantly honking your horn."

for overnight busses this rule can be extended to overtaking three trucks on a blind corner of a mountain pass with your headlights off ("to save petrol").
thankfully the angels, st christopher, my gran and my mom's ring that I wear for good luck all ensured that we made it to nha trang (and every other destination to date), in one piece.

they say that if you travel with your partner it'll "make or break" your relationship. luckily for us, it's doing neither - as i figure we're already "made" and our good times far outweigh the bad ones.

can tell you this, though - the occasional bad times are as predictable as the tides:

when you spend 14 sleepless hours being jiggled about on a bus, and arrive in a new town at 6am with a desperation for the bathroom that causes blindness, and the driver chucks your expensive backpack into the road mud, and as you battle to maneuver your arms into the day back on your chest and your big bag on your back, ten men surround you with their guesthouse flyers and another seven hound you to get onto their cyclo and all you want is a cup of coffee and a wee ... you will have one if those bad times.
but post-caffeine, and with some guidebook time-out, invariably we orientate ourselves and send one person out to scout for our new home.

this, like many more, was how we spent our first morning in nha trang.

the happiness of hoi an

hoa arranged for a taxi (his brother took us in his beat up skadonk) to our next stop along the coast, hoi an. this was by far our favorite place in the whole of 'nam.

it's hard to pin point the best thing about this place... i guess because there is just so much to love:
filled with the french charm of an era long since passed, the town has retained all of it's (remaining unbombed) exquisite architecture - whilst still progressing into the 21st century.

one thing we've noticed about south east asia is that wherever you go there are certain things that are synonymous with each place.
you cannot miss them, they will find you.
you cannot escape them because were it not for their existence the town would cease to exist.

for hoi an it's tailors.

i'm not exaggerating when i say that the vast majority of the traders are tailors. they line the streets packed shoulder to shoulder, each spilling onto the pavements with an exhibition of the most exquisite silk dresses, three-piece suits, gorgeous winter coats (worth a look despite the relentless heat) and leather boots and bags in every style and colour.

for a westerner it is shopping heaven.
for any shoestring budget backpacker, however, it is a never-ending torture trip.

there was one dress in particular that kept haunting me, whispering sentiments of bad influence and poor judgement in my ears. I had to have it and were it not for the constant support and guidance of my Fathead, i would.

as a compromise, we decided that we had to at least experience having a garment tailored, so the boy was measured up for two pairs of boardies and I for two small summer dresses. not quite the oscar-red-carpet-show-stopper silk number, i'll admit - but having it done was a super cool experience.
apart from the estimated 500 tailors in the small town, hoi an's charm can be largely attributed to the dinky river that runs through it. by day fisherman go about their family trade, by night the water provides the most picturesque setting for the bar and restaurant strip. with every balcony aglow with paper lanterns, the river reflections at night turn this part of town into the most romantic setting ever.
eiffel tower se moer.

we were to meet up with our friends from hoa's place for dinner on the first night. this also happened to be the night of the SWC final between spain and holland.

while my heart was gunning for Spain, we'd become mates with a loopy dutch couple (who had provided us with hours of entertainment), so agreed to gather for dinner and watch the game from a dutch-perspective, with them instead.

it was 1am by the time the match started.
we were drunk, lost and looking for somewhere with a big screen.
somehow i'd met a group of drunk, lost randoms and been coaxed into having our faces painted orange. then the randoms informed us of a big screen on the beach. so there we went, and shortly thereafter, there we all slept through the first half of the final.

i never saw the actual final but watched the highlights (in the silence of our speaker-less tv) the following morning. i gathered the result, seeing as all the red people looked stoked and all the orange okes, quite bummed. we consoled the dutch duo over breakfast and then began our day.

Fathead made me rent a bicycle (which I have only just learnt to ride, "shocking" - I know - I blame my parents).

he then tricked me by taking a leisurely peddle along the quite and scenic river. to throw off my senses even more, he took me for a peaceful lunch overlooking the water. then, when my guard was sufficiently down, lead me down a back street which spat my gearless, chainless, brakeless mobile out into a throbbing artery of extreme rush hour traffic.

so traumatic was the experience that i've had to file most of the memories into a cabinet hidden deep in the recesses of my brain. i can recall my yelps of pure terror, polite honks of a thousand horns swerving to miss me, sweat pouring down my panicked, furrowed brow and an exchange of words - most of them mine, all of them too impolite to repeat here.

marble mountain

it took us four days to finally leave hoa's. we'd spent everyday in a state of lethargy on the beach and every night gathered around that table after dinner, playing drinking games and depleting the beers in the "honesty bar".

by the time we left we were so relaxed i feared another day there would leave us comatosed.

on the last night a group of us decided to climb marble mountain for sundowners. the whole mountainside area is a marble quarry which sustains an entire community of local sculptors. as we scaled the highest hill in danang we passed enormous marble buddha's that had been carved out of the mountainside.

the view from the top wasn't half bad - so we took a few shots, cheers-ed ours new friends and watched the sun slip under the horizon.

hoa's place

our journey down the coast of 'nam continued towards the fourth largest city, danang. as the bus drove through we were astounded by the amount of developments being constructed along the coastline of china beach.

it seemed that everyone from greg norman to donald-fake-do-trump had jumped on the "let's-build-a-resort" bandwagon.

heaven alone knows where all the people, required to fill the endless strip, are going to come from.

the beach is now almost completely colonized by glitzy hotels and overly luxurious seaview villas - each more glamourous and grotesque than the next. my guess is danang's vision for the future is: be the next phuket.

this place was not for us.

okay - so change of plans:
give this tourist trap a wide birth, stay on the bus and get them to drop us off further down the road, somewhere beyond the theme park accommodation ... preferably in the middle of nowhere.

so with bribe money in hand, Fathead went to have a little chat with the driver.

the bus headed on to the middle of nowhere, as requested, and at the foot of marble mountain along a dusty highway, left us standing looking at each other with "now what?" expressions.

we'd read about a place not far from this point of desertion, where a man named hoa ran a backpackers on the beach. it was reportedly rustic but homely, with double rooms for $9 a night. with very little clue as to where we actually were we managed to hail a taxi and request he take us there.  bemused, he politely refused - shaking his head and pointing to a small dirt road on the other side of the highway.

so with backpacks strapped to our bodies we wondered down the path. nothing but a local sleeping in a hammock and a few chickens awaited us.

but then, as we neared a dead end with china beach ahead of us, hoa's place came into view.

on the ground floor an open air bar with one large dining table and a few fridges - promising a refreshing beer -greeted us.  that and a chatty group of tanned and chilled out travelers who were gathered around the table, awaiting their lunch which was being barbequed under a palm tree outside.

hoa refused to let us check in, "take it easy man" as he thrust ice cold larue beers into our sweaty hands. the afternoon continued in this manner, with each of our requests to check in being answered with another beer.

we soon learned that hoa's world moves to a different rhythm: this man had been on holiday since 1994. our fellow travelers had already adjusted their internal clocks to hoa-time, and a few beers later, so did we.

everyone staying there looked really happy, bronzed with a glow that said "i'm on holiday".  we spent the rest of the afternoon hearing how wonderfully empty the beach was, how clear the waters were, how white the sand was.

after our barbecue lunch we sat with hoa, listening to stories of travelers gone by and how he left the real world over a decade ago to start his humble half-way-house on this secluded piece of paradise.

tipsy and overcome by the warmth of his hospitality, Fathead and i exchanged a glance and i knew we weren't leaving this place anytime soon.