Monday, December 9, 2013

Sea and Do in Australia: Top 10 Best Underwater Experiences

So, I am a marine biologist spending one year in Australia and not wasting one second of my explorative nature in this underwater promised land. Come dive in with me and check out the Top 10 Best Underwater Experiences Australia has to offer!

1. Cage Dive with Great White Sharks with Adventure Bay Charters in Port Lincoln, SA

 Photo Courtesy of Michael Patrick O'Neill

The ultimate in epic adrenalin rushes, but with an eco-friendly and all natural twist, Adventure Bay Charters offers cage diving with the Great White shark year-round through acoustic attraction (often ACDC) instead of using bait. You don't need any previous diving experience to participate because you are suspended, in a steel cage, just below the ocean's surface, while breathing surface air through a regulator. It is recommended that you visit when sharks are more plentiful and reliable, from December through February, as well as May through October, following the New Zealand fur seal breeding and pupping oscillations.

Cage Dive with the Great Whites - Adventure Bay Charters

2. Swim with Whale Sharks with Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours in Exmouth, WA
 Photo Courtesy of Krystal Vision

Whale Sharks are abundant in the winter months of late March though early August, leading up to and following the spawning events of massive coral aggregations on the Ningaloo Reef in April each year. This is the most magical underwater experience ever! Humpback whales are also plentiful in June, July, and August and can be seen breaching and tail slapping throughout the Ningaloo Reef Marine Sanctuary. Manta rays, sharks and the Ningaloo Reef are often the icing on top of the cake!

Swim with Whale Sharks - Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours

3. Experience a Top 10 Shore Dive in the World at the Navy Pier with Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive in Exmouth, WA

Photo Courtesy of Tamar Melon

Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive offers one of the best shore dives in the world, year round. With beautiful fish in intimidating numbers swirling all around you, nudibranchs hiding out on the daunting, submerged pier beams, and wobbegong and nurse sharks chilling out on the ocean floor, the navy pier is not to be missed. You may even get the opportunity to tickle the big friendly grouper's chin!

Dive the Navy Pier - Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive

4. Swim with Dwarf Minke Whales with Poseidon Cruises in Port Douglas, QLD

Photo Courtesy of Poseidon Cruises

July to September is the peak season to encounter the inquisitive minkes as they frequent the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs. They are also common between the months of March and October. A lucky swim with these inquisitive beauties will change your view of intimate encounters forever.

Swim with Dwarf Minke Whales - Poseidon Cruises

5. Swim with the Endangered Australian Sea Lions with Adventure Bay Charters in Port Lincoln, SA

 Photo Courtesy of Jamie Reynolds

Ever wanted to play fetch with a marine mammal? These spectacularly playful animals will move you to believe they are true puppies of the sea. With inquisitive, bulging eyes, spins and whirls in unsurpassed speeds, and a game of loving chase, the Australian Sea Lion is sure to please. The experience is a guaranteed interaction as well!

Swim with Sea Lions - Adventure Bay Charters

6. Dive the World's Largest Barrier Reef with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions in Cairns, QLD

Photo courtesy of Mike Ball Expedition

Three-day liveaboard trip showcases the Ribbon Reef, diving with incredible marine biodiversity, including Australia's famous Cod Hole. See the spectacular colors and intensely diverse ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef before it's too late!

Dive the Great Barrier Reef - Mike Ball

7. Swim with Manta Rays with Ningaloo Marine Interactions in Coral Bay, WA

Photo Courtesy of Krystal Vision

Manta rays are such a beautiful and mesmerizing site. Just watching them dance in sync around you while feeding on the microscopic plankton abundantly floating in the waters of the Ningaloo Reef. Manta Rays are sure to please even the hesitant snorkeler.

Swim with Manta Rays - Ningaloo Marine Interactions

8. Swim with Wild Dolphins with Rockingham Wild Encounters in Rockingham, WA

Photo Courtesy of Rockingham Wild Encounters

This just might top your list of best wildlife encounters imaginable! Hearing dolphins speak in their high pitched, squeeky voices will bring you back to Flipper days. Playful, curious and unexpectedly  intimate, wild dolphins are worth the drive. Western Australia has so much to offer its a shame most travelers only see the east.

9. Search for the Leafy Seadragon with Kangaroo Island Dive and Adventures on Kangaroo Island, SA
Photo Courtesy of Laurent Ballesta

The elusive and hard to distinguish leafy seadragon is a find to brag about. Two day dives are a guaranteed sighting with Kangaroo Island Dive. While you're there searching out this bizarre and beautiful creature, enjoy the pristine beaches, historic lighthouses, underground caves, rare honeybees, gourmet local delicacies and even penguins of Kangaroo Island. You may even encounter a deadly blue-ringed octopus (viewing purposes only of course)!

10. Dive a Kelp Forest with Eaglehawk Dive Centre at Munro Bight, Tasmania

Courtesy of Mick Baron of Eaglehawk Dive Centre

Swimming through a giant kelp forest is like zip-lining through a rainforest canopy, but you better hurry, because the kelp forests are disappearing fast! This unique habitat is home to a wide variety of smaller kelps and other algae, plus many animals including seadragons, various wrasses, banded stingarees, skates, cowfish (boxfish),  pinnipeds, octopus and the occasional bigbelly seahorse, amongst many others. Novice and expert divers alike enjoy the rare chance to swim amongst plants that grow up to 50 cm per day and 20 meters deep!

Dive a Kelp Forest - Eaglehawk Dive Centre

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Whale Sharks - A Must!!

Whale sharks have become my obsession. I don't easily fall into an obsession role as most things come and go in a traveler's life, but my few months spent in Exmouth, Western Australia with these majestic and placid sharks has provided me a passion for a lifetime. If you ever have the desire to be mystified and awed in the same encounter, whale sharks will behold your amusement. This should be a tick on everyone's bucket list!

A Day in the Life

As a tour guide and whale shark spotter I was handed over the responsibility of organizing food, manifests, transportation, entertainment, education, organization, safety, cleanliness, teamwork, administration, and many other hats while taking intrigued guests out for a day to swim with whale sharks. It is no small feat to get 20 people to a jetty, onto a boat, geared up, taught to snorkel (sometimes even how to swim), and tossed into the water to swim with the largest fish on the planet. The largest shark on the planet at that!

After spotter planes go up and a shark is sighted, it is my job to get everyone in order and make sure the first group is  ready to take the plunge.

An alarm is heard in the distance and the first spotter tells everyone to 'jump, jump'. Wrangling up 10 people into a single file line in an open ocean is probably just as difficult as it sounds. Heads are bobbing in and out of the water, guests are flailing around with their noodles, and the lone whale shark spotter is trying to give orders. It sounds a lot like military camp, but I assure you, it is all in a fun whirlwind of organized chaos. The line is ready, the shark is coming, and everyone is directed as to where to look.

As we take those first few glimpses of the beautiful creature before us, people forget to start swimming, and the gentle dotted creature begins to get away.

Expertly maneuvered, the captain swings around to the group after placing a second group in the water just beyond the whale shark's reach. While the second group is getting an eye full, the first group is frantically doing 'dugong flops' on the marlin board and preparing for their second attempt at viewing an all too often cruisy shark. As the number of drops increases, people tire.

Those who are more comfortable continue to jump in at every opportunity and begin to feel a connection with the side glancing eyeballs peaking out just over the edges of the wide-gaping mouth. After a hand full of jumps, adventure seekers are amazed at this fantastic marine encounter and the ear to ear smiles exhibit it all for the world to see.

Whale sharks aren't the only marine encounters we have the pleasure to share, manta rays, fish, coral reefs, sharks, sting rays, and other marine life abounds. Occasionally a tiger shark is spotted from the boat and crew are given the rare chance to swim with an all too-feared apex predator of the deep blue. Dolphins glide through the water in the hundreds and humpback whales breach within an arm's reach. There is no where on the planet better than Exmouth during whale shark season! 

As the Informative Tour Guide That I Am

I honestly can't get enough of my time with whale sharks. I want to share a bit more about the area in Western Australia as well as a bit more science behind the oftentimes curious encounters.

I have posted below my tour guide speech for guests while we are traveling out to the boat on the Ningaloo Reef with King's Ningaloo Reef Tours. This information is pulled from different resources and is as factual as possible. Enjoy the free tour (without the whale sharks).

Just outside of town is the Harold E Holt Navy Base. 

This base was established in the sixties and used as a rest camp for American navy personal during the war. They have a bowling alley, baseball diamond, tennis courts, restaurants, and a cinema. They even drove on the left side of the road and traded with American currency to make them feel right at home whilst they were here. It is now run by the Boeing Australia and the Australian Federal Police, and it’s still a bit of a mystery what actually goes on in there today. Straight ahead of us are 13 towers which are actually very low frequency towers and were erected around the same time as the naval base during the war. They actually chose this spit of land because it is the western most point of Australia. 

The towers were built to be able to communicate with submarines long distances away including submarines stationed kms below the surface. This is the most powerful transmission station in the southern hemisphere operating at 1 megawatt and the station is able to communicate at 18 words per minute with submarines 15 meters under polar icecaps. There are 13 towers named 0-12 as the Americans were superstitious. The towers were arranged in two hexagons, one inside the other, in the form of the strongest structure in nature, just like a honeycomb, snowflakes, and the scutes of a turtle’s shell. Now I know it’s a bit difficult to get a real gage of just how tall these towers are because of our flat landscape, but tower zero is actually 387.9 m tall, which is taller than the Eifel tower. At the base of tower 0 we have the skyscraper of Exmouth. What seems like a little white building is actually 5 stories high and made entirely of ceramic and wood to withstand the extreme heat produced in the transmission room. The people that work inside that room are only aloud 1 hour shifts because of the exposure to such high amounts of radiation. Now, do you see that cabling? If the cabling holding these tall structures erect were laid out in a big line, it would run all the way from here to Carnarvon. There are pivot points in the cabling to allow for sway during strong winds such as cyclones. In 1999 Cyclone Vance hit Exmouth. Winds were clocked in at around 270 km/hour. There was a glass bottom boat at Bundegi Beach that was blown all the way over to the west side of the cape, with its outboard engine found wedged half way up tower 6. So these structures were well engineered for their time. 

Ningaloo Reef

 The Ningaloo Reef is the longest fringing reef in Australia. It stretches 260 kilometres along the west coast of the Cape Range Peninsula near Exmouth, Western Australia approximately 1200km north of Perth. It is the only large reef in the world found so close to a continental land mass; about 100 metres offshore at its nearest point and less than seven kilometers at it’s furthest. The Ningaloo Reef is home to 500 species of colourful tropical fish and 250 species of coral. Six out of seven of the world’s marine turtles are found on the reef; dugong feed on sea grasses within the lagoons; and humpback whales migrate close to the coast. It was named a World Heritage site in 2011. Preferring warm waters, whale sharks populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of Western Australia. The coral spawning during the months of March and April provides the whale shark with an abundant supply of plankton. 

Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are actually fish, and classified further as sharks. Not whales. They are made of cartilage, not bone, and have hard, scale-like structures called dentricles, with no fur. They were described as a whale because of their sheer size. As the largest fish in the sea, whale sharks reach lengths of 12 meters or more, and up to 21.5 tons. Our bus is 7 meters to put that into perspective. Females are typically larger than males and scientists believe they mature around 30 years old or about 9 meters. Most of the whale sharks we get in the Ningaloo are immature males. We can tell this by looking underneath each individual and seeing if it has claspers or not. Claspers are hardened structures extending from the pectoral fins just here and are used to hold onto the female during intercourse. 

EATING: The species name of a whale shark is Rhincodon typus with "Rhincodon" meaning "rasp teeth" - which is what the whale shark’s tiny teeth look like (a rasp). The teeth are about the size of a match head or 3 mm high. The whale shark is one of only three filter-feeding sharks (the other two are the basking and megamouth sharks). It feeds on very small plankton including small crustaceans like krill, copepods and crab larvae as well other tiny invertebrates such as squid, small fish and jellyfish. Whale sharks have about 4,000 tiny teeth arranged in more than 300 rows, but they neither bite nor chew their food. Instead, the shark often feeds via passive feeding, by sucking in a mouthful of water, closing its mouth and sieving prey as small as a millimetre through its gills. Gill rakers within the gills are able to catch the small prey, much like a noodle strainer. They are able to open their mouth wider than a meter, and filter up to 6000 liters of water an hour. However, unlike the megamouth and basking sharks, the whale shark does not rely only on forward motion, but can hang vertically in the water and ‘suck' in food, know as active feeding. 

DEFENSE: 1) A whale shark's skin is 10-15 cm thick on it's dorsal side. If an individual feels threatened it will bank, turning its thick, protective skin towards the intrusion or threat. 2) Whale sharks are deep divers and have been documented to depths of over 1.5 kilometers 3) Whale like size. Whale sharks were named based on their massive size. 


In 1995 the controversy ended when a team of scientists from National Taiwan Ocean University examined a 10.6 m pregnant whale shark that had been harpooned by Taiwanese fishermen. Her twin uteruses contained 300 embryos ranging in size from 40 to 63 cm at three different stages of development. The female provided proof that the embryos emerge from egg cases while still inside the mother's body and that whale sharks bear live young. Of the 300 embryos, 15 were alive, fully-developed and ready to be born when her environment deemed conducive to do so. It is unknown how long she can hold the sperm or how long a whale shark's gestation period lasts. We are still in the beginning stages of learning more about these majestic creatures. 


With the help of ECOCEAN, Brad Norman, researchers, photographers, and people like you, we have been able to identify over 880 individual whale sharks in and around the Ningaloo Reef. 
You can take part in the research as well by taking a picture of the left side of the whale sharks, just behind their five gill slits. Software developed by NASA scientists  maps the dots and stripes of each individual, much like the program used to map constellations. You can go online to and submit your photographs to ECOCEAN's photo-ID database and they will send you updates when that whale shark is spotted again. You have to have the GPS coordinates though, so be sure to ask your skipper for more information.

Thank you for visiting my site!

Monday, April 1, 2013


"Cambodia trust Vietnam, Vietnam no trust Cambodia" -quote of an educated man seated next to me at the border.
Getting stamped out of Cambodia.
Entry point into Vietnam.
Vietnam has been wonderful so far. The border crossing was somewhat of an experience. First, we all exited the bus just to walk 20 feet and have our passport stamped out of Cambodia, which included 4 fingerprints. Then, we handed back our passport to a bus official and got back on the bus, traveled 100 yards, and were asked to get off the bus again with all of our belongings. We went inside the Vietnamese entrance building and had our stuff searched. While waiting inside, our passports were handed back to us and the bus was searched. I was sitting on the steps on the Vietnamese border when a kind, young gentlemen (of Kampuchea Cham decent) spoke the line above. He has been working in Cambodia and Vietnam for years and was raised in Cambodia, but his people were controlled by the Vietnamese, being forced to learn Vietnamese and no Khmer or English in school. He has overcome so much!
When the search was over, we packed back into the bus and started into Vietnam. About 2 miles passed the border we pulled over to pick up a massive bag of food. Dinner! A meal, water, and wipe was included in my randomly purchased bus ticket. Thank you to the man who was sitting outside the Capitol bus station and sent me to a better bus! Cambodians are so helpful!
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) around 7 pm (one hour ahead of schedule!) and hopped on the back of a moto to arrive minutes later at Vietnam Inn Saigon. What a wonderful 9 story hotel with dorm rooms and a rooftop restaurant. Perfect spot in Ho Chi Minh for $6 a night! After exploring the city and playing Frogger on a few streets, I hit the sack for an early start.
The following morning was beautiful! People who have not yet been to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh cannot appreciate the danger, excitement, and frustrations of crossing a road. It's unlike any other real life experience. I mean, picture real life Frogger. You know that computer game that kept you entertained for hours when computers were dinosaurs? It's real man! Dodging dead chickens hanging from rusted baskets, ducking before a horizontal ladder whacks you across the forehead, being aware of that crouch rocket that is going 10 km/hour faster than the bike with a family of 6 barely hanging on are just a few of the everyday challenges. The danger of people watching while trying to get across is as real as taking a fiber glass boat in pitch blackness, high seas, and storms through Bligh waters (Fiji trip for those of you who didn't live through it to tell the tale). I love the excitement!
I spent the day walking around the city, seeing the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, the History Museum, the Notre Dame Cathedral, historic hotels, the Opera House, stunning shopping centers, the Central Post Office, the Reunification Palace, and eating yummy Bun and Pho.
Hang Dau Go (grotto of the wooden stakes) In 1288, General Tran Hung Dao amassed hundreds of wooden stakes here; these were driven into the Bach Dang River estuary mud, skewering the boats of Kublai Khan's Mongol army as the tide went out.
Saigon backpacker central.
Large indoor/outdoor market in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
Shoe business on the streets.
A new meaning to 'Street Food'.
View from my hotel restaurant.
Bun Cha Gio. One of the best meals I had in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum.
City Hall, 1902-1908
Saigon Central Post Office, 1886-1891
Notre Dame Cathedral, 1877-1883
Municipal Theatre or Opera House, 1897
As I passed by the historic Opera House I was handed a flyer for a show that evening. It turns out, it was the Grand Premiere of the AO Show Saigon. Enchanting, intriguing, ingenuity, talent, mesmerizing, beautiful, emotional, I could go on and on. The best $22 I will spend on this entire trip. The show started in a village and progressed to city life. The performers used only baskets and bamboo. With the baskets upside down, they jumped on them like trampolines, they bounced and rolled from one to another, did acrobatic and Cirque du Soleil bending, acted out a frog scene with baskets attached to their backs, used the bamboo to shuttle baskets through a system much like a conveyer belt in a factory, rowed a member of the live orchestra in a basket with bamboo acting as waves and an amazing singer floating in the background, used bamboo shakers to create a mesmerizing wave, appeared and disappeared behind rolling baskets, and climbed up bamboo poles to perform balancing acts on each other. There was even a section with performers acting out scenes in an apartment with funny, sexual, and heart felt interactions within and among rooms. A hip hop contest on the street ensued before an enchanting aerial portion in large baskets hanging from the rafters. A must see when this show comes near you! I know it will become worldwide! It was that good!
AO performers.
My enjoyable stay in the former Saigon city quickly came to an end. I could definitely see myself living here! On to the beach!
Mui Ne
The weather was dreary and warm for my visit to Mui Ne. Between renting a bike, taking a tour to the sand dunes, and just walking the beach, I had a lovely time in this Russian influenced beach town. Two nights here and on to Da Lat.
Fish sauce at Fairy Stream.
Fairy Stream, Mui Ne
Fishing Village, Mui Ne
White sand dunes, Mui Ne
Mui Ne group
Children renting out plastic sheets as sleds for the sand dunes.
Da Lat
Da Lat from a distance.
The view from the crazy house in Da Lat
Elephant Falls, Da Lat
Very busy chicken kabob lady.
Bahn Xeo. Delicious rice omelettes with sprouts and meat, wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dipped in sweet and sour. Mmm!
Bahn Xeo preparation.
What a charming little French influenced mountain town. The altitude and weather definitely make you feel like you are in Red River, NM. The tall, slender buildings butted up to fields of lettuce, strawberries, and roses making this a traveler's delight! I only stayed two nights, but a few boys and I rented motos and drove around the sites outside of town.
The views were stunning and the weather was quite a nice change from the dry heat of Cambodia. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay! Chicken fetus and all.
Alex is about to try a young chicken fetus from the egg.
The chicken fetus. Yuck!!
Road from Da Lat to Nha Trang.
Nha Trang
Nha Trang Beach
Jamie Buddha. Ha.
Spending one night on Nha Trang was sufficient for seeing the sites. The beaches were beautifully lined with grass umbrellas and off in the distance were green hills and a ski lift crossing the bay.
Nha Trang Beach in the morning.
Fishing village in Nha Trang.
While strolling along the waterfront I stumbled upon a popular hole in the wall with the ceramic egg pot that I had been wondering about. I sat myself at one of the red kiddie chairs and started to eyeball what everyone else was doing when a beautiful woman next to me offered some advice. She ordered for me, showed me how to prepare the sauce, and showed me the way. When it came time to pay she wouldn't even let me cover my part! She is definitely one of the highlights of Vietnam so far. I haven't come across too many Vietnamese whom are willing to sit down and converse with foreigners.
Quail eggs with a delectable dipping sauce.
Dipping sauce.
Quail eggs.
I stayed in Nha Trang for less than 24 hours because of my desire to spend more time in the north, so I continued on fairly quickly. div> Qui Nhon
Rice paddies galore.
Beautiful Qui Nhon Beach.
Spectacular sunrise.
The locals here are not yet jaded with Western tourists and seem to genuinely say hello and desire to practice their English.  Besides that, the beach is trashed and poop is frequent. No dogs in sight. The fishing dock was a special treat though.
Fishing port in Qui Nhon
Bamboo canoes to transport workers to their boats.
Natural beauty.
Pulling the crabs out.
Untangling the nets.
Typical fishing boat. So colorful!
Taxi service to the fishermen's boat. Women sit around all day in their bamboo canoes looking for a fare.
Have you ever wondered how the ice is packed onto the fishing boats? Wonder no more!
Large version of a snowcone machine. Putting ice into the fish compartments on the boat.
Directing the ice into the hull.
Plus, round, woven fishing vessels littered the beaches giving this local tourist destination character.
Homeless family's shelter.
Pulling in the fishing boat.
Little boy under his shelter on Qui Nhon Beach.
I stayed one night though, which honestly, was too long. On to meet Ni in Da Nang!
Side Note to self: Never take local minivan again. Two miserable rides, one with too many smokers, the other with too many sissy girls and kids throwing up, four out of six hours. I kid you not. I can't do it!
Da Nang and Hoi An
One of Da Nang's many bridges.
Jellyfish salad, personal Vietnamese tour guides, ancient city of Hoi An, and pampered tailoring. I enjoyed four days of nice weather in Da Nang Hoi An with great people from Poland, UK, Germany, Vietnam, and New Zealand.
My first night was spent in Da Nang with a family friend's family. I was welcomed with open arms and a table full of traditional Vietnamese food. As we discussed the different dishes I was surprised to find out that one of them was jellyfish! It was delectable! And I didn't even know you could eat jellyfish! Along with clams, fish, pork, and greens, I was once again treated like royalty and loving every minute of it. I had my own private room on the top floor of a really nice home and prepared to get up early the next day to head for Hoi An.
Japanese Bridge in Hoi An
Enjoying a chat.
Beautiful old woman who has been indulging in betel root.
Another beautiful old woman.
The betel root the woman above was chewing. Makes women's mouths red like blood! Sedative.
While riding my bicycle this man stopped me to pet his bird. Lol. Weird!
Vietnamese version of Pinata. They us a woven mask to hide the eyes and a ceramic pot held up by rope. Then a wooden club as the bat. Funny to watch!
Handmade lanterns.
Beautiful handmade lanterns.
French district in the Old Quarter, Hoi An Hoi An is an adorable, quaint little town that revolves around tourism and tailoring. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site with restrictions on renovations and all construction. Shop houses look much like they did in the heyday of this important merchant village. Walking among the deteriorating wood and peeling paint gives the sense of old money and early civilizations. Shops open in the late morning and strolling along the streets reveals the slow pace of life in this town of tourism. Flowers are graciously decorating porches and dark woods are used to ordain otherwise plain storefronts.
French style architecture, Old Quarter, Hoi An
True innocence and beauty.
A form of bingo played in groups of three. The man and woman in the front sing a story to the crowd as the cards are drawn. Very entertaining.
The cards drawn during Vietnamese bingo.
One of the kitchens in Morning Glory Restaurant. You can have anything made in just hours from a number of historic, yellow, pockmarked shops. The latest trends pour from the store fronts and going Vietnamese women practically drag you into their shop to make a sell. They are masters at their work. It is extremely impressive what they can whip up in less than a day. My exhaustive list includes: a swimsuit, a jacket, a dress, a skirt, two shirts, and a pair of sandals. I went a little crazy. Well worth it! Everything fit and those that didn't were remeasured and nipped and tucked until they were right. No qualms about it. Because there are so many store the store representative must is under bridal competition and every customer must be satisfied to keep a glorified reputation or their business could go under in the matter of a week. I was definitely happy with the service I received by most of my tailors. The shoe store was not so pleasant.
Betel root. Makes women's mouths red like blood! Sedative. I also had a nice day on the beach in my new bikini. It will be a while before I am at a beach on a warm day again, probably in Australia, so I tried to soak up as much of it as I could. The beach was a nice change of pace from the stress of tailoring back in town.
A few traditional dishes of Hoi An include Cau Lau (homemade noodles like udon, but yellow) and White Roses (a shrimp dumpling). I had Cau Lau four times because it was so cheap and delicious!
Cau Lau (regional noodles) drying in the sun.
A mix of the yellow udon noodles, mint leaves, green onion, fried rice crisps, broth and topped with thinly sliced, tender beef... I couldn't get enough! While walking amongst the Tuscan styled old quarter at night you are not met with street lights, but instead, colorful homemade lanterns light the way. It is a romantic city with a channel of waterways and classical music greeting you at every corner. The highlight for my group was the fresh beer, coming in at 3000 dong (less than $0.15) a mug. It was a steal! Seven people each had a beer for one dollar - total!! Unheard of! I highly recommend this city as a top spot for tourism in Vietnam.
Train station in Da Nang.
Train from Da Nang to Hue.
The beaches untouchable by tourists. This is what Vietnam must really be like. Instead, tourists get the dirty, overcrowded bits.
What a precious little thing.
Six bed sleeper on this rickety train.
The dragon boat we took out onto the river for some traditional Vietnamese song and dance.
Hue, Vietnam
My next stop was my new found friend, Ni's, hometown. A beautiful city with a citadel, tombs, imperial palace, old shop houses, and mixed into a modern, clean city, Hue has it all.
Inside the Imperial Enclosure of the Citadel, Hue
Poor elephant chained up behind one of the dilapidated walls.
The gates to the Royal Theatre, Hue
My friend Ni grew up in a house inside the Imperial Palace moat. Inside her home was a comfortable ambiance with a warmth of love. Her mom and sister were such a delight as well! Extremely nice meals were prepared for me by Ni's mother while Ni served as a tour guide and friend.
Ni and I made our own spring rolls. Well, kinda. Her mom set everything out for us and we rolled them, then her mom cooked them too. Ha. I didn't really make spring rolls, did I!?
Our finished project.
Yummy steak wrapped in leaves, then bbqed. Yum.
Ni taught me how to do a traditional cup instrument.
She introduced me to her friends, schools, and local treats as well as the tourists sites of Hue. There are large markets, beautiful parks, many restaurants and historic villages. Locals, again, aren't jaded here with too many tourists and are more than willing to make an attempt at their English to try and help.
The riverboat crew.
Ni, her mom, and I.
The wonderful singers of traditional Vietnamese song.
Ni's mom is an inspirational woman. She has spent her life preserving Vietnamese traditions through theatre, song, instrument, and dance. While I was in town she decided to perform on the river boat so that I could enjoy her amazing talents.
We visited a fortune teller on a Japanese Bridge. Somehow we received the same fortune about marrying a European in the army and having three kids. It was her life! Lol. So cute!
Playing blackjack with the girls.
A delicious clay pot experience with Ni and her mother.
Star apple or commonly, breast milk.
See the milky looking substance. Hence the nickname 'breast milk'.
Vietnamese burn these after someone dies to send material things on with the deceased. Nowadays they burn paper cell phones, motorbikes, and houses too.
Well, it's a city. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the sites of the capital of Vietnam. I visited four museums and a prison museum. The Ethnology Museum as well as the Women's Museum were definitely highlights.
Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi
Across from the Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi
Another bit of the market, Hanoi.
Vietnamese market
What is that doing there? In front of the Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi
Besides museums, I rode around the city by bicycle and tried to blend into the local culture, but honestly, I didn't feel very welcome. I would get glares, people shooing me out of their store, and police honking, yelling, and hitting men on the streets. It was a bit hostile for me. There was also a strange event that occurred nightly. As a small group of friends and I were sitting outside of a small storefront, an open bed work truck is spotted in the distance. The store owners start rushing everyone to get up, put their chairs away and walk off. As the truck drew nearer I saw men inside in green uniforms. The Vietnamese police. Yuck! After the truck passed by, travelers around me had a short discussion about what that was all about. No true conclusion was decided. A short while later, I went to grab dinner at a kebab stand. While eating my kebab, the same truck is spotted down the street again. The kebab stands lights immediately go out and there cart is pushed off the street into a dark corner of a store front. The hanging lightbulbs are ripped down and the people running the stand act as if they are just standing about, chatting. After the truck of police passes by, the owners start setting back up, open for business again. I was flabbergasted. In broken English, I finally get some answers out of them that the kebab business isn't a registered business with a store front. So, legally they aren't supposed to be in business. I would accept this answer if not for the next night. We were sitting at a legitimate burger restaurant and as the police come around the corner again we are asked to leave by the workers. It just doesn't make sense!
All of these events reminds me of something that happened to me in Qui Nhon. I was walking down the sidewalk next to a busy street. The sidewalk was at least 2 meters wide. As I'm coming up on a small driveway I start hearing someone laying on their horn in an absurd manner. Now this obnoxious sound is nothing new, so o continue walking without even a twitch. As I step down the curb onto the driveway, a motorcycle turns the corner, off the street, and stops within 1 inch of my body, blocking my path. I look up, shake my head, and realize it is a damn green clad man in a Vietnamese police hat. I wanted to punch him. He could have easily sped up or slowed down to avoid us being in each other's way, but no, he wanted to make a point and drive it home. What kind of power trip are these guys on? Not impressed.
If you ever need meat and ties, here you go.
How Vietnamese enjoy an afternoon juice.
On the flip side, Hanoi had the best backpackers place out of anywhere I have been so far (in Vietnam) based on price, comfort, and extras. For $6 a night I got a 6 bed dorm, feather down comforter and pillow, nice buffet breakfast on the 9th floor over looking the city, an awesome theatre room, a great location, and the decor of a 4 star resort. May de Ville Hostel in Hanoi is amazing! Although, Hanoi not so much, it's time to move on to Sa Pa!
This man realized I was taking a picture and proceeded to put dark sunglasses on and hide his face. What is that all about!?
Yummy junk food store!
Candy buffet purchased by the gram.
Example of a hill tribe home in the Women's Museum, Hanoi.
Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison Gate
Mass detention
The museum was well organized.
John McCain's flight suit.
Hanoi's Opera House
Yummy dumpling soup for a dollar!
Bicycle Sales
Flowers are everywhere in Vietnam
More flowers
Ceramics on a bike? Doesn't that seem dangerous!?
Random necessities for sale.
Markets on wheels.
Local basket man. I saw him everyday.
It's not a bicycle, but wow that is talent!
Sa Pa
Sa Pa town.
Sa Pa town.
Wow. Hill tribe women sucking on sugar cane and begging you to visit their home. It is surreal and aggravating. From the moment I stepped off the bus I was enthralled with a woman named Zu and promised her I would go to her home and meet her children and husband. She was so adamant about making sure I stuck to my word that she even hunted me down at my hotel and waited outside for me. She had the sweetest demeanor though, so I wasn't fazed by the spookiness of her stalking me. It turns out, most of the women do this to seal the deal. I even had a women follow me around the market calling me a liar, shouting 'You promised you buy from me. You liar. You don't buy from me.' I was quite bothered by this particular woman. She actually almost ruined my view of the H'mong women, but after the weekend, Zu prevailed, and found me wondering around town. She won me over again, this time with her little girl in tow.
My beautiful cabin room all to myself, on the six floor, overlooking the valley. Wow!
View from the door of my cabin room.
Kids in the Sa Pa Market
Learning the family business at a young age.
Sa Pa Market
Enjoying sugar cane.
Keeping the streets clean.
Sa Pa Lake
Mama and I. She made one of the baby carriers I sent home.
Birds are a popular trade around here.
Hill tribe women selling local produce.
Bac Ha Market
Before going with Zu to her village of Thao Hai, I had my mind set to go and visit the Bac Ha market east of Sa Pa. It is known for drawing in over 10 different tribes from a multitude of different villages all offer the Bac Ha and Sa Pa District. After a minivan ride along the cliff's edge, swerving around super sized semis and miniscule motorbikes, we somehow made it safely to the Sunday market. Women clad in bright, handwoven garb were streaming through the streets like a slew of red ants. As soon as we jumped off the bus, they were rushing in to make the first sale. This type of tourism is what I avoid, but to see particular local culture, sometimes you have to grin and bear it until you stow yourself in a hidden corner away from the spotlight. So, that's just what I did. After walking around the market for a bit and realizing it was going to be hard to get good pictures of the women without sticking out like a sore thumb, I found a small enclave next to a building where I could stand incognito to get a few candid shots. These are a few of what I came up with.
Livestock area.
After the market we headed to the Chinese/Vietnam border, just for a looksie, and then on back to Sa Pa. It was a beautiful day and a great addition to my Vietnamese hill tribe interests.
Flower H'mong in her village.
Example of a hill tribe village. She is making alcohol through distilling corn.
Duck in Flower H'mong village. Back in Sa Pa
The following day I went to pick up my laundry and low and behold, Zu saw me walking towards the shop. She walked right in behind me and as I was trying to ask the shop owner a question, that was getting me no where with the lack of English/Vietnamese, she chimed in and cleared up the issue. I was startled into delight and we made plans for me to go with her to her home at 10:00 am that morning! Yay!
Zu and Mu.
The trek was long and strenuous. Well, I say that because three hours up a mountain is a bit more work than most tourists do to get to their Dzao villages along the riverfront. I was up in the clouds in the middle of no where! The rice terraces, fat, pot-bellied pigs, dirty, half-naked kids, and conical hat wearing rice farmers painted a scene of surreal peace. After arriving at Zu's house I asked her where I could use the toilet. She half smiles at mW and tells me 'just behind that bamboo'. I give a smile of appreciation and head towards the half wooded bamboo stand that would be my new pee buddy. Upon coming back into the house she was hard at work preparing the fire in the house and chopping vegetables for frying. I helped out wherever possible, but for the most part, she wouldn't let me. So, I found some kids to befriend and started snapping away at the little ones with knives, fire, and hoes. Americans are just too protective! I started studying the adults' legs and arms to see if they had many scars from being too young for 'dangerous' toys and I actually noticed a lot less scars than I see in most Europeans. I think playing with these things at such a young age prepares them for handling real danger. Possibly.
Buying groceries for the entire family!
Hiking to her village.
My home stay was amazing! I walked around her village of about 300 people and found a hilarious group of kids playing in a homemade wagon cart. They yelled in harmony, joked around with each other, and laughed in glee. I had a blast wheeling them around in circles and attempting to catch their enthralling grins. They were a joy to be around!
Soon enough, it was time to eat again. We all hunched around the kiddie sized dining room table and enjoyed a delicious meal of stir fried vegetables, beef, bamboo shoot, and fried egg. Zu is a wonderful cook and I could tell I wouldn't be going hungry on this trip!
Night came to a close and I settled into my nice bed. I was warm, mosquito free, full of yummy cuisine, and surrounded by a loving young family.
Local school on the way to Zu's village.
Carrying the produce to the village.
Local kids who look like trouble!
Chopping up lunch.
and eating lunch.
Ju, Zu's baby girl.
Cooking up lunch.
Rice terraces stretch along the hills in every direction.
A man...
and his birds.
Ju, Zu's baby girl.
Hill tribe home.
My bed for the night. Zu covered it in comfy blankets and a mosquito net. It was not near as bad as it appears.
The following morning I took a walk to some of the rice terraces and watched the eerie clouds roll in over the sparse and dry, clumps of dirt.
The wet season doesn't come until June, so the farmers' fields and terraces are currently just stagnant, upturned soil full of rocks and rice remnants. A few workers were working on planting corn for the pigs, but that is about all that will grow in this temperate time of year. It was spell bounding to sit high upon a hill and watch rolling balls of mist floating in towards my perch. I tried to pretend to be floating in the clouds, but really I just felt damp and tied down to my stump. It just doesn't feel as I imagine when floating high above the clouds in a plane. Clouds are deceiving!
In the clouds.
Playing with fire.
I'm not sure what they are eating, but they were using hoes to break the layers apart. Maybe it is banana tree trunk?
Playing with knives.
Playing with sticks.
and eating.
Zu married into a metal working family.
Leaving the village and heading back to Sa Pa.
Zu and I!
Regardless of my ecstasy in the clouds, it was soon time to head back down the mountain with Zu and Just (her baby girl). I bought a baby carrier from Zu that took her about a year to produce. I felt guilty only giving her $17 for it, but she seemed elated that I was offering that much. Back in town I had it relined so that it is all ready for a rainy day. Now it's on its way to America!
Sa Pa was an enjoyable little mountain town with beautiful people and scenery. I would recommend a visit there to anyone who is in Vietnam. Honestly, if it weren't for Sa Pa and my new friend Ni, I think Vietnam would have been viewed as a waste. There just wasn't much there that made me really want to come back. Been there done that.
See dog.
Fresh cooked dog in the Sa Pa Market.
Dog meat on the menu in Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay
What a joke. So, I'm going to try and not be a pessimist here, and some people have a different experience than I did, but o took a '$95' one night cruise to Ha Long Bay and was sorely disappointed in the quality. I paid $62 and most others on the boat paid $75, but there were a few that paid $90 and it wasn't worth more than $40 ($20 of this is going towards the transportation to and from Hanoi, so $25 for the boat and food would suffice). The boat was in tatters, the food was sparse and bland, and the activities were quite lame. Sorry, but Dragon Pearl White Cruises, you need to step up your game! The 'night fishing' was a bamboo pole with a lure that barely reached the surface of the water and no bait was provided, so it must have just been a marketing ploy joke.
The kayaking was 30 minutes of being told where to get a lifejacket, pay money to a random lady if you want to kayak through the 'cave', and waiting for someone to decide that it is time to get in the kayak... maybe 15 minutes actually kayaking the beaming limestone karsts.
The view out of my window when I woke up in Halong Bay.
Cat Ba Island.
Beached boat on Cat Ba Beach
Ferry unloading onto Cat Ba Island
I can't explain the communistic environment, you just have to take my word for it that the Vietnamese of the North have a permanent scowling look and often scowl at you for no reason. I have been pushed, shooed, yelled at, and ignored, just while trying to buy something at an office supply shop. It's degrading and definitely uninviting. Maybe they are just jaded by tourists.
My joke of a room. You should have seen the brochure's picture.
Wonderful night out in Hanoi with friends made on the boat trip in Halong Bay.
Friends enjoying fresh beer at $0.16 a glass.
Now, I'm going to back up these statements with an opposite last thought. It may seem hypocritical to my view of Ha Long Bay, but honestly, the bay was beautiful, the people on my boat were amazing fun, and I had an extremely enjoyable swim the morning I woke up on the boat. I just like to tell it like it is and not sugar coat things. I'm not trying to come across as complaining or pessimistic!
Last Thoughts
The more I think about how lucky I am the more I realize it's more about how I look at things. Instead of being upset that I booked a bed without a window, I am excited when the bed gets put away and I get to sit in my chair below and look out the huge window for the entire morning. Or instead of dwelling on the fact that my cramps put me out for a few hours because of the pain, I push through it without complaint and am relieved and extra happy after they go away and I am back to normal. Or instead of complaining about a 15 hour train ride becoming an 18 hour train ride, I take extra moments of being stuck on the train tracks to explore the train, make new friends, or study the culture and environment around me. I may learn something new or make a new best friend out of seizing the moment for all it's worth instead of dwelling on the mishap. I avoid thinking about home because it is more opportunistic and optimistic to think about the present and the future. Living life in the past makes you miss out on life in the moment. Life is what you make of it. Mind over matter! Thanks to my mom, I try to live by this motto every moment of every day, and I do believe this is what brings me 'luck'.