Barefoot in Burma Part II

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The divers loaded onto the dinghy at dusk, a gray sky masking the setting sun. They joked with one another to distort the clear sense of uneasiness in the air.  The sign at the border promised, “we warmly and kindly welcome tourists”, but the gruff looks on the faces of the guards said otherwise.

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My grim imagining from the dock in Ranong was swiftly becoming reality; our journey ashore bared a frightening resemblance to being kidnapped by the Burmese government!  We filed into the customs office and watched our passports be casually slung aside while we stood to get photographed.  No one spoke or smiled; the tension was palpable.

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When it seemed we were free to go, we swiftly returned to the dinghy.  As we started the motor, a few guards came shouting after us, one of whom jumped into the boat:  this was Nyein, our Burmese guide, who would accompany us on our trip.  I could tell by the look on Dani’s face that this was not a protocol he had ever seen before.  Nyein was there to act as our guide and translator, as proof of our allowance into the country’s waters, both for our protection and their own.  Captain Wat was commanded to remove his Thai flag and put up a Burmese one, which he was visibly disgruntled about.

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Despite the drama of the day, we finally sailed off into open waters.  Nyein, who turned out to be a very nice man, drank Singha beer with us as we relaxed into our new home with this motley crew.  Captain Wat didn’t talk much.  Our exchanges consisted  mostly of Sa-wat-dii kha and khop khun kha (Thai for hello and thank you) when purchasing beer from his special refrigerator.

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The ship’s fabulous cook, Swing, served us the best Thai food I ate in Thailand (next to Mrs. Jip’s papaya spicy salad).  Our dinner that first night consisted of prawn fried rice and Swing’s speciality: coconut milk soup with whole straw mushrooms, scallions, and an assortment of julienne vegetables. Another standout included soft tofu curry over rice with cabbage, aubergine, straw mushrooms, and whole quail eggs.  With our evening beers, Swing made us a special bar snack that Steffi and Boris, the German couple aboard, had eaten in Chumphon a few years prior: roasted cashews sprinkled, while hot, with salt, lime juice, chopped red chilies, sliced red onion, and chopped scallions.

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We sailed on like this, eating amazing Thai food, drinking Captain Wat’s beers, and, most importantly, diving four times a day for a week.  Each morning we awoke to the breathtaking sunrise over open water, and each evening we finished our last dive to the brilliance of the sunset.

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Throughout this time, the only other boats we spotted were local fishing boats, the fisherman sometimes waving to us as we passed by.  The diving was not easy, and we often dove with much current, needing to drift dive sites. By the end, I had 28 new dives under my belt and saw my first turtle (which Steffi said was requisite for any dive trip). The reef was brilliant, full of gorgeous sea fans, with none of the evident damage I later witnessed in The Philippines.

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The boat usually carries 12 divers, so with only the four of us we had reign of the ship.  The main deck consisted of a large dining table (three times the size of Swing’s kitchen), a center console with stereo, books in German, hot/cold water and snacks, and a main room with window seats and a big lounge area.

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The best place to sleep, though, was on the sun deck, because from there you can see the stars.  More than I’ve seen in so long, even though the moon was only a few days old and a small sliver in the sky.  On The Flying Carpet, for the first time in my life, I truly slept under the stars, not just in a tent.  I awoke every few hours to look up at the luminous sky of bright stars; they seemed near enough to touch, and I felt safe and close to home on the roof of a ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea.

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On the Road: Part II

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We arrived with empty stomachs in Thakhek and stopped for Laos BBQ, one of the best traditional dishes of Laos and a slight variation on the Vietnamese hot pots we had become accustomed to.

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In Laos – instead of a full pot of boiling water as in the Vietnamese hot pot above – a small, circular grill (resembling a bunt pan) is brought to the table and placed on top of an open coal clay pot. Boiling water is poured into the base of the grill, which is used to cook the wide variety of raw greens that come with the dish, including cabbage, lettuce, basil, Lao mints, and enochi mushrooms. Many restaurants also provide glass noodles and an egg for cooking. The menu had a variety of meats to choose from, including our beloved chicken hearts. Since we just had our fill, we chose beef instead, a safe choice when we were spending the next few days living out of our car. The meat is brought to the table raw, and the conical, “bunt” part of the grill is used for cooking it. After basting with the cubes of fat provided, you stick the thinly sliced meat on the grill. Both the greens and the meat cook quickly, and a good variety goes in your bowl. Each Lao BBQ restaurant makes their own special sauce to top the dish off, which can be doctored with extra chillies, lime, and garlic. Of course, a few Beer Laos were also necessary after a long day on the road.

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We slept in our car that night, as finding a decently clean place to stay came at too much of a price. The rising sun woke me from my surprisingly good sleep, and we continued our journey south in the early morning. I drove for many hours through mountainous terrain, open rice fields, and tiny, one road villages. Following our not so trusty map, we took a route of dirt, muddy roads that even Ginger had trouble getting down. It would have been hard to navigate regardless of the map, since there were no road signs or highway markers.

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Searching for the Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo), we hit a road made exclusively of rocks and realized, an hour later, that it had not yet been completed. We stared at the broken bridge, while a group of locals stared after us, amused. Further down the river, there was a running ferry for motorbikes, supported merely by three canoes. Pointing to our car, we asked if there was any way to get it across. The ferry operators laughed, pointing across the river to a car dock that was still being built. Turning around became the only option, but it meant we would not get to Tad Lor before sundown. Instead, we drove straight on to Paksong, a town a bit south of the waterfalls and high in the mountains. With the altitude change, I had my first taste of cold weather in nearly five months, such a shock to my system that I wore a sweatshirt and pants at the open air restaurant of our guesthouse. We stayed at a haunted house on a hill with a steep winding driveway, which turned out to actually be a nice hotel called Phuthaveda. Though we did not plan any accommodation ahead of time, the entire south was so empty that this was never a problem. Paksong was a charming mountain town compared to the filth of Thakhek, and having a taste of fall was a pleasant surprise.

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Before bed, I went to ask the owner about the roads on our map to ensure we would not get stuck again the following day. He could not speak English, but called to a man staying there who, I found out, was to become a monk in the morning. He was born and raised in Laos, but had spent many years studying in Chicago. From him, I heard of the terrible Pakse plane crash that had flown right over our heads without us realizing – we had been out of wifi for many days and so were completely disconnected from the world outside of our car. The monk also helped me understand our map, pointing out which roads we could actually drive down, and I felt confident in reaching the waterfalls in the morning. We went to bed in sweatshirts and socks, ready for another early morning drive.

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Laos: Land of the Wholehearted People

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This slogan for the country’s beverage of choice, “Beer Laos: Beer of the wholehearted people”, says it all. Laos, a gem of a country, tucked away into the center of Southeast Asia, offers the best beer and most wonderful people in Asia. Before beginning my journey, the little I knew about Laos consisted of whispers of bowling parties and real pizza in the northern city of Luang Prabang. We expected to spend two weeks in the country, and ended up spending nearly that in Luang Prabang alone.

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The word “city” is used loosely in Laos. The country’s major city, Vientiane, is easily seeable in one day and is almost laughably small for a capital. It’s size is not to the city’s discredit though; Vientiane is a fun and welcoming place, though most tourists seem to overlook it in favor of the obviously charming Luang Prabang. Especially during non-tourist season and after a month of trekking through Vietnam, Luang Prabang’s laid back atmosphere did become very hard to leave. This isn’t to say the only thing to do there is to lay on lounge chairs overlooking the MeKong and drink Beer Laos (though I did spend many an afternoon doing just this). The wilderness surrounding Luang Prabang offers a wide variety of activities for nature enthusiasts; I climbed (and fell down) a waterfall, rode elephants and went on a two hour kayaking trip through rapids.

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Vientiane has its own sites to offer, most notably the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture garden of ancient looking Buddhist Figures. Julia and I explored the grounds primarily alone, arriving with locals by tuk-tuk. The large mouth (pictured below) at the front of the park symbolizes the devil, and visitors are meant to ascend from the bottom of the sculpture, hell, to the top, heaven. Unaware, I quickly made my way to the top, and then descended the center spiral staircase to the dark caverns below. Even before knowing the symbolism, I understood the intended effect by the eeriness of my descent.

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Also worth a visit is the Ang Nam Reservoir, 1.5 hours north of Vientiane. The water was very clean and warm, and the entire reservoir is circled by large limestone masses similar to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. In this case, we had an oasis to ourselves, and our weekend was spent swimming, hanging out with some French students, eating at floating restaurants and just relaxing. It was extremely beautiful and secluded, and we had a view of the sunrise from our room’s balcony.

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The Laos pizza rumor turned out to be true – not just in Luang Prabang but in Vientiane as well. The first real pizza we had in a month was from a French Canadian with a nameless restaurant, currently ranked #1 in the city. The backyard, wood oven spot is outdoor seating only and is not viewable from the street. To find it, follow the white “PIZZA” sign hanging in the driveway. Certainly not New York style pizza, but the speciality pies, especially the bacon and onion, finally quelled my craving. In Vientiane, Le Provencal, a quaint French restaurant on the far side of the fountain, gave us our second taste of home. Though I would normally attest to the fact that only Italians and New Yorkers know anything about pizza, I must say, in Laos at least, the French are doing something right.

The French influence from the colonial period lent to the delicious western food we were able to find in Laos, but luckily the French, in this case, let the Laos keep their own culture as well. Laos food is both unique in Asia and also incredible. Julia and I took a cooking class with Tamarind Restaurant, and had the privilege of learning to create this delicious food ourselves. My favorite, Koy/Laap, consists of medium rare or rare ground meat (pork, beef, fish, bison), and a wide variety of herbs and spices, including Lao garlic, spring onion (scallions), lemongrass, mint, and three kinds of basil, which you mash together with fish sauce and lime/lemon juice. The Lao typically make their Laap, like most of their food, extremely spicy with fresh chillies, the way I always prefer my food. Laap is to be eaten with sticky rice, Lao style, which is to ball the rice up into bite size pieces and dip it into the sauce. Sticky rice is a staple on all Laotian tables, and accompanies almost ever dish.

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The night markets in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the best I’ve seen, especially for food. The grilled whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and topped with fresh lime/lemon juice became our cheapest and favorite dinner. Of course, no meal is complete without a big Beer Laos for sharing. Our most adventurous eating experience at the markets was to eat chicken hearts; served at almost every stall in Vientiane and grilled to perfection, these little muscles just taste, as should be expected, like chicken. Julia and I both enjoyed our first heart, and went back for seconds.

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Being in Laos also rekindled, probably for the worse, my love of dessert. In Luang Prabang, the most incredible thing we ate at the night market are coconut custards- piping hot, with a crusted outside and gooey inside. In Vientiane, the pancake stands sent Julia and I on nightly hunts – they are similar to crepes but made from balls of dough and flattened out even thinner. The cart owner then slathers both sides with butter, fills the center with either banana or an egg, folds it up, adds more butter, then takes it off the grill and tops it with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. This is how I left Vientiane 5 lbs heavier than when I arrived from Vang Vieng, where all bad food goes to die.

My greatest advice on Laos, however, is not on the food or the sites, but simply this: get here before the magic of the country is gone! Unfortunately, Laos is being turned in to a Chinese tourist destination with a new railroad being built all the way through the country. In the next year, Laos will likely be overrun with foreigners. The Lao locals I spoke to were not thrilled, to say the least, and I cannot say I am either.

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Though our plan following a stint in Vientiane was to head to Cambodia, we decided, an hour before our flight, that the extreme flooding experienced there made a visit unwise at best. So, we got a refund on our ticket (thanks to a little help from a miracle worker) and spent the afternoon remapping our plan. We had flights booked all throughout November, and had to be to Langkawi by Nov 19th to meet my cousin Fiona. Myanmar, which only recently reopened to public tourism, was our first thought, but there are no ATMs throughout the country and getting a visa is more involved than we are capable of from Laos. The only bills you can even possibly trade for are crisp USD from 2006 or after, which we did not come prepared with. I’ve come to find in general that having US dollars in this part of the world is like carrying gold. You often cannot get through borders without it, but the banks here only buy, they do not sell. When we need bills for the border, we have to go to the black market – oddly a common practice here.

My number one choice was something I had mentioned as wishful thinking a few days before – to rent a car and take a road trip down the south of Laos. I had heard from many locals that it is the most fascinating and remote part of country. It holds one of Southeast Asia’s largest caves, some very small and authentic villages and Si Phan Don, the “four thousand islands” – a group of very beautiful islands that are closed off by mountainous surroundings. The water is meant to be very clear and we plan to go fishing and climbing with some locals. By now, my love of Laos has run so deep that I wanted any excuse to stay. So, let the road trip commence – it will be our greatest adventure yet!

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Americans Never Forget the Vietnamese in their Hearts

Here’s the next installment from the Gold Coast Gazette!

We did not intend to stop in Da Lat. As the bus rounded a final hill on a long and winding road, I looked down upon the town centre in the valley below. A city founded as a resort town by the French, the European architectural influence remains today; the city resembles the Swiss Alps more than the South Central Highlands. 1,500m above sea level, we blissfully found autumn in Vietnam.

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While Da Lat centre may seem western, the surrounding hillsides are home to some of the oldest minority cultures in Vietnam. This is the part of the city really worth seeing, and there is no one better guide than the locals. We embarked early in the morning with Quy and Duc, two of the original Easy Riders of Da Lat. The town is famous for these motorbike tours, which take foreigners around the city sites and up into the mountains. These men grew up in Da Lat and spent over twenty years as Easy Riders. They put serious thought into giving us an authentic and personalized experience, showing us the places they grew up and love, as if we were all friends on a journey. Throughout the day, we were the only tourists among locals.

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In the exhilaration of the morning’s ride, I had nearly forgotten our real goal for the day: to meet the hillside minority groups of Da Lat. Our first stop at the local farms revealed transcendent views of the city. Da Lat’s temperate climate not only offers visitors a sense of fall in overwhelmingly humid tropics, but also allows for the growth of produce year round. As we walked through strawberry fields, which seemed to stretch on forever, we received gifts of fruit from the family of farmers. The people we met throughout the day were truly welcoming and gracious; their clear hardship had not damaged their beautiful hearts.

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Similarly, at the plantation where we drank Weasel Coffee (description in mleaciampi.wordpress.com), we met another minority culture of weavers that the plantation owners had taken in. I watched as one woman wove an intricate tablecloth of symbols for fish and rice. For authentic souvenirs, these are the places worth spending money at. The nearby silk factory was also solely operated by women; Duc explained the entire process, from live silk worms and dead larvae (battered, fried, and resold later) to the spinning and carbon screen printing press. The carbon machines were ancient and fascinating, outdated but very smart technology. The fabrics were truly gorgeous, much more so than any we’ve seen in stores, and the prices are wholesale. Again, it is worth giving to such hardworking, lovely people.

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The generosity of the Vietnamese consistently exuded from Quy and Duc. Their intimate knowledge of the land and the beauty they shared with us is beyond simple kindness. The most impressive site of the day was on the grounds of the Linh An Tu Pagoda. If Quy had not directed me to the right corner of the garden, I would have miraculously missed the “Merciful Charity Smiling Bô Dåi” (Vietnamese name for the “Laughing Buddha”). The shock of suddenly seeing such a large and ancient figure left me in complete awe. I dropped my raincoat and stood at the base of the steps, completely alone with this massive Bô Dåi. A very powerful sense of the long tradition of Buddhism came over me and reminded me why I ventured so far from home.

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Quy and Duc shared such breathtaking sites and showed us the true camaraderie of the Vietnamese people. Over lunch – whole fish and lemongrass chicken with vegetable rice and cabbage soup – Quy said “here, we sit together as friends and family”. He spoke about the Vietnam War, and though his father died at the battle of Hamburger Hill, Quy did not feel that Vietnamese and Americans harbor any ill will toward each other. The Americans, he said, just wanted the Vietnamese to be free, but that is not the way it can be in his country. He put it very eloquently: “the Americans gave up the war, and forgot the Vietnamese on the mouth, but they never forget in their hearts; the Americans love the Vietnamese”. After a history of such devastation and struggle, the beauty of the Vietnamese people is truly ineffable.

’twas a Dream for Peanut Butter at Breakfast

I would like to give an uncharacteristic shout out to the Dreams Hotel of Da Lat. While the town is filled with many lovely and charming hotels, there is absolutely no better place to stay – I’d even venture to say in all of Vietnam – than Dreams. The hotel has two locations on Phan Dinh Phung, but be sure to stay at the ‘151’ location (now 141 as recently changed by the government). This is where Mrs. Dung resides with her lovely family. The hotel, part guesthouse, part home stay, and part B&B, offers chic, clean rooms with multi-pressure showers. Mama Dung, as Julia and I took to calling her, knew everything about Da Lat and set us up with the best locals for all of our needs. Her kind sons and adorable grandchildren were always running around, making us feel at home. The legendary breakfast was what first drew us in; served round table style and catered to Mrs. Dung’s primarily Australian and American guests, so Vegemite and peanut butter were staples at the table. The most unique part of a stay at Dreams, though, is the rooftop jacuzzi and sauna, which Mrs. Dung offers to her guest as part of their stay from 4-7pm daily, all year round. Being able to overlook the city, feeling its cool climate in a nice, warm jacuzzi is a stunning and special site.

The hotel is also around the corner from the Windmill Hotel, which houses the best milkshake of all time, made from my favorite new fruit. It is titled “Passion smoothie” but is made with dragon fruit and fresh whipped cream. We have searched all of Vietnam and cannot find anything like it!

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Is That Poop You’re Holding?

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We came here searching for it – the strange and unfamiliar; the food that would confuse our senses, feel dangerous, and leave us wanting more. We had heard about the still beating snake heart shooters in Hanoi, but so far, nothing so adventurous had crossed our paths. In the South Central Highland city of Da Lat, or luck began to change (or run out, depending on how you look at it).

The grandmotherly Mrs. Dung from Dreams Hotel (rave review to come) organized our tour with the original Da Lat Easy Rider Group . Our guides, Quy and Duc, spent 20 years as Easy Riders and treated us as friends they were sharing their hometown with. To avoid the many tourist traps of Vietnam, it is important to look for the small, locally run operations that will be sure to deliver an authentic, personalized tour. Quy and Duc took turns introducing us to local farms, plantations, shops and roadside eats/hangouts located throughout the hillside. The men would teach us about the places we were seeing, then give us the freedom to explore on our own, so each new experience was completely individualized.

As we weaved through traffic, out of the city and high up into the mountains, a light rain descended. In the exhilaration of the morning’s ride, I had nearly forgotten our real goal for the day was to meet the hillside minority groups. Our first stop at the local farms revealed transcendent views of the city. We met families of farmers who let us picked passion fruit and strawberries, warm from the sun, which we ate despite the doctor’s warnings. Throughout the day, we met so many lovely people whose struggles did not deter them from sincere kindness.

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It was at the coffee plantation, though, where we got our first real taste of the exotic. Duc showed us the growing moka bean plants and educated us on Vietnam’s most expensive caffeinated delicacy – Weasel Coffee. Weasel coffee, made from a variety of beans grown in Vietnam, is all produced using the furry, beady eyed creatures we met caged alongside the fields. This wild specie of weasels, Asian Palm Civet, love to eat the coffee fruits but cannot digest the actual bean. In the 1800s, farmers began to collect the droppings and salvage the beans, eventually caging and feeding the animals to industrialize the process. Only the female civet is used, as they give off a special, delicate aroma that attaches to the beans during digestion. Though a rigorous washing process is a necessity, the casing surrounding the bean is never completely digested by the animal, so the actual bean does not come in contact with much bacteria. Have I made your mouth water yet?! While poop coffee certainly does not sound appealing, there is a reason it is the most expensive in Vietnam ($18 USD for 100 grams-less than a pound!). Julia and I both agreed it was the best cup of coffee we’ve ever tasted; it was served black and strong, but with none of the buttery taste present in most Vietnamese coffee. The moka bean added a unique richness and smoothness. We couldn’t resist buying some fresh beans as a gift for future unsuspecting tasters.

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Later, we held silk worms and watched the larvae be boiled out of cocoon’s, later battered and fried as a delicacy. To read more on my motorbike trip around Da Lat, check out this week’s Gold Coast Gazette!

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Freedom Angels at the Floating Markets

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Check out my article that appeared in the most recent issue of the Gold Coast Gazette !

Kilometers away from the smog of Saigon and my jet lag finally receding, I reached the Mekong Delta’s city of Cân Thó. My travel companion, Julia, and I met a local woman named Hà who agreed to take us, along with a newlywed Israeli couple, to the floating markets the following day. The city is famous for them: around 6am every morning, merchants meet on the river (large boats for selling, small for buying) to bargain on goods, namely fruits and vegetables. The experience is worth hiring a boat for, and Hà and her sisters have been guiding tourists through the river for years. Their boats fit up to four people, so the tours are intimate and authentic; the women are proud to share their vast knowledge of the city’s markets, waterways, factories, and produce with travelers.

At 5am, we walked along the river with Hà’s sister, Rose, our guide for the day’s journey. Our group followed her down an alleyway in the dark, where the strong, buttery aroma of Vietnamese coffee woke us from our predawn daze. The Vietnamese begin their day early; from my guesthouse balcony, I saw groups of locals exercising around the Ho Chi Minh Statue as early as 4am. For the markets, it is necessary to begin early for the top choice produce (and for us to beat the tourist crowds).

The four travelers were seated in a simple boat with a three blade, coconut sized propeller connected to a wooden paddle. As the sun rose over the Mekong, Rose pointed out the different types of boats that passed by and made us jewelry out of freshly cut bamboo – a lovely gimmick of the sisters’ tours. Rose asked about New York and the “Freedom Angel” (Statue of Liberty), while telling us all about the culture and superstitions on the river. The many boats with painted red eyes were an old tool used to fool the crocodiles that once inhabited the waters. Upon seeing an owl just before sunrise, Julia’s hoots were scolded by Rose. “That is very bad luck, you cannot make the sound of the owl!” she said. The fisherman believe that if the owl hoots at them, they will have an unlucky catch. Thankfully, our day continued on without a hitch.

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After a quick stop for fuel (Rose called it the boat’s beer), we were at the city’s largest market, Cá Rêin, by 6am. Truly, we were alone among locals, acting as on lookers apart from a few pineapples the Israeli’s purchased for 10,000 VND (about 50 cents). The hoard of boats was unlike anything I’d seen, a site so unexpected and warming that it was hard to do anything but sit in awe. The peaceful way the Vietnamese exchanged goods was reminiscent of old friends meeting over a (very early) morning coffee.

Rose had much more planned for us, as we had paid $15 USD each for seven hours with her as our guide. The driver expertly navigated through thick jungle full of tiny river pathways which our boat could barely fit down. Apart from a local who drove by with three spotted pigs in the bow of his ship, we were utterly alone. With the motor cut, the
silence within the sounds of the swamp hummed our insignificance. We pulled up to the dock of a family owned noodle and rice factory around 7am, where production had been in full swing for hours. The rice patties drying in the rising sun fulfilled a quintessential image I’ve always held of Vietnam, and to have it validated was comforting so far from home.

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As the morning progressed, we disembarked from the boat and walked through jungle and rice fields. To shade my face, the driver gave me his conical hat, made from the leaves of the coconut trees that surrounded us. Our late breakfast was served at a family home deep within the jungle, where Julia and I ordered coconuts to drink. After sharing shrimp rolls wrapped in rice paper and fried tofu with sliced cucumbers, we all napped in hammocks before returning to our boat for the hour long return.

Back on shore, we settled up with Rose and our fantastical morning came to an end just before noon. On the walk back to our guesthouse, a small child ran after me, asking for the bamboo cricket Rose had made for us, a token he seemed used to receiving from Hà’s guests. To find Hà and her sisters, visit the Tây Hô guesthouse, where they are well known.

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