Kyusho, South Japan: about love at first sight and earthquakes

11/12.04 How I ended up in Kumamoto, South Japan

I LOVE Japanese food. Japan therefore HAD¬†to be in my itinerary Period. I knew little more of Japan than that Tokyo was the capital. Consequently, I thought 2-3 days Tokyo plus 1 day for its rural area would be ample of time. And maybe if Japan would have been like Hong Kong I could have gotten away with it. But Japan isn’t, it is humongous. It has 29,000 kilometer of coastline for example. I thus clearly needed a change of plan; add more time, inbound in the South, trains to the North and a outbound via Tokyo to Vladivostoc.

For those who also know little about Japan, here’s a mini overview. Japan is an island nation. It constists of 4 major islands; Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. It has 6,848 smaller islands. The country is lush green all over the place and predominantly rugged or mountainous. The temperature ranges from cool in the North (hidden gem for skiing) to tropical in the South (jackpot for diving/sunny island retreats). In short, if you look up ‘heaven’ in the dictionary you will get a picture of Japan. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I touched down.

So why Kumamoto? Japan is renowned for terrific hiking and it offers a bonus feature; vulcanos. I was eager to tick the box ‘summit an active volcano’ off my bucket list and fancied Mount Fuji (world-famous active volcano, 3,800m). Unfortunately, it is ‘closed’ until May because too many people die due to extreme cold. Since death on the mouontain doesn’t sound appealing at all, I needed an alternative.

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(Mount Fuiji. Courtesy of an unknown photographer)

Vince (of the Yangze cruise) had a cool suggestion. He summitted an active volcano in Kirishima on Kyushu Island in the South. I anyhow wanted to start in the South, so that was an easy decision made. All I had to do was to fly to Kagoshima, take some trains and a taxi. I did not spend much time preparing for this endeavour because I was too submerged in Beijing. I had noticed that information in English was scarce, but how difficult could it be, right? Ehhm, wrong…

Firstly, I never reached Kagoshima. Once I knew my departure date I had missed out on all reasonably priced flights. The nearest airport was Kumamoto and that didn’t look to far away on the map. Now, I told you that Japan is BIG, so in short, it was not near at all. I needed a 50 minutes bus to a railway station, hurry to catch the last high speed train of that day, and somehow get a room booked on the way. Not impossible if only for those few “minor” challenges:
1: No data. It seemed impossible to buy a sim card, so I could not use the internet. Disaster! I could not check the train time table, use google maps, book a room or use the translator
2: No English speakers. No one spoke English and most signs were in Japanese only. Fudge, China had been child’s play compared to Japan.
3: No clear maps, at least not to me ūüôā The online maps were outright confusing. Did I really see two Kirishimas, 200 km apart? Which one was the right one?
4: No Lonely Planet guide. I hadn’t bought a travel guide yet (as China didn’t sell in English) so I was literally in the black.

It was 6 PM at night, I was all alone, in an unknown country, tired and overwhelmed. All I wanted was sushi. So I decided to call it a day. I checked in at the first random hotel that looked OK to regroup. So that is how I ended up in Kumamoto.

12.04 Kumomoto-jo, what it looked like just before the earthquakes

Kumomoto is famous for its castle so I paid a visit on the next day. Japan has taken their castles very serious. Shiro or jo’s served to impress and intimidate rivals not only with their defenses but also with their size, architecture and elegance, and were the residence of the daimyo (feudal lords) and their samuraj.

¬†I didn’t know at the time that I have made some of the last pictures of this gorgeous place. Two days later Kumomoto was struck by two earthquakes of resp. 6.4 and 6.2 on the Richter scale. Japan announced a state of National Crisis. Tens of people died and thousands got injured. Material damage is in the billions and it is said that the quakes will impact the Japanese economy. What a tragedy! I was ofcourse glad that I had evaded the danger but I can help thinking that -if I would have been there/close, I could have joined the rescue teams and helped the people in need.

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12/13.04: Aso’s toxic smoke (what an aso…)

During my ‘regrouping night’ I had resolved my travel itinerary chaos; I replaced Kirishima by Mount Aso, the largest active vulcano in Japan and amongst the largest in the world. A respectful replacement, don’t you agree? Aso-san actually consists of 5 vulcanos. The Nakadake is the one that is active. On my hike, I was lucky and unlucky; Nagadaka was highly active and emitted toxid smoke. Although this was a fantastic sight to see, it meant that the authorities had set a 2 km no-go perimeter. I alternatively climbed one of the highest peaks, mount Kijimadake, which surprised me with a view on 4 of the 5 Aso volcanos. Awesome!

One closing note on Aso – and I am sorry if this only comes across for Dutch speakers, as Aso is in Dutch short for an a-social person, let’s say in English… an asshole. When I reached Aso City I had to laugh all day. Yes, Aso City (asshole City) really exists! I always knew there was a place especially for aso’s/assholes… So next time that you meet an aso/asshole, just tell him to p#ss off to Japan! ūüôā ūüôā ūüôā

13/14.04: How I fell in love with the Japanese

I had been recommended to stop-over in Kitakyushu in the Fukuoka prefecture by a fellow traveler in Aso.¬†I still don’t understand why because I didn’t find much of interest. What did happen there is that¬†I fell for¬†the Japanese. Here are just three extraordinary stories.

The bank officer
Japan is expensive… I had spent almost all cash in 3 days that I thought would get me to Tokyo. I am not complaining but no cash is no fun. It was even less fun to get new cash. The ATMs didn’t work. A senior bank officer came to the rescue when his ATM also failed. He put on his coat and escorted me for 2 hours (!) from bank to bank until one finally worked. How amazing is that! I brought him a big box of chocolats afterwards. The whole staff was gleaming with pride. Very special!

The chef
It became even better that night. A hostel guest asked me to drop a note in Japanese at a nearby (tiny) restaurant. I don’t know what it said but it made the chef laugh aloud. I instantly became his Guest of Honor and was sat down on the ground (Japanese style) with two locals. We were his only clients for several hours. So there I sat, not understanding a word they said yet patiently awaiting the tantelising food to reach my plate. Yummy! Biggest surprise? I was not allowed to pay. Huh? Wow!

Mateo
Ex-US citicin Mateo gave the last push. He spent his whole morning to help me get my sim card, stamps and long distance rail passess sorted. This would have been quite cumbersome on my own. He dissapeared for an hour to return with specially painted postcards, soaps and candy as a present for my onward journey. He was the sweetest ever! We went for lunch together untile it was time to part ways; Hiroshima was waiting for me.

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And finally, the ‘tube’
I had heard about Japan’s tube hotels. Tube hotels, as the word already suggests, offer (cheap) rooms in the shape of a tube. Image to sleep is an ‘MRI scanner’ with fellow sleepers above and below. I just don’t know about that. Altough I can appreciate the efficiency. My hostel didn’t have real tubes, but rather, ehmm, ‘holes in the wall’. I can’t recall that I had a smaller room in my whole life. Luckily I am not clausterofobic

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Beijing, China: City of my heart

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06-07.04: Katie’s lie and the other tough start

Katie Mellowa lied to us. There are not 9 million bicycles in Beijing. Not even 1 million and that is when I am lenient and¬†count in all motor bikes and baby strollers. I have been humming her bl##dy song since entering China, so you can imagine how dissapointing this is, especially for us – citicins of Cycling Nation, the Netherlands. If this is not a fact, if this is¬†a truth we can deny… what other truths have crushed down unnoticed? Maybe the fact that people love each other till they die?

Excuse my cynisism but you have to know that I actually barely made it to Beijing. I spent my last night with Raoul on the big white telephone (Just say the name aloud to understand my business in the bathroom) due to food poisening. The next morning was really tough. I could barely move and nevertheless had to disembark. I had no next bed arranged yet. I realised for the first time how vulnerable I was as a solo traveller. Vince from the US/Aussie group helped out but had itinerary¬†in the opposite direction. I managed to get myself on a ‘bullet train’ to Beijing and simply sat it out. I reached Beijing only¬†8 hours journey later. Thanks China for your high speed link!

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Next day, feeling a little better, I went¬†to the Forbidden City, My hostel was only a block away and is the¬†no 1 place to visit. I walked up to the entrance, expectingly, but must admit to be somewhat disappointed by its looks on the outside. It is just a big red wall, nothing spectacular. Their audio guide system seemed more funky, it tracked my position by GPS and then automatically started on the nearest subject. Brilliant, if only it would have worked. I tried and tried and, yes, I did touch the 2 buttons that they explicitely said NOT TO TOUCH. Forbidden buttons in the Forbidden City, that was just too tempting. After an hour I had figured out the functions of the forbidden buttons but the device still didn’t work. My ‘bring-it-back-make-a-big-fuss-and-get-a-new-one’ was more effective.

The Forbidden City is the biggest standing palace in the world. It served as the home of the Chinese emperors and as the centre for national ceremonies and politics for the last 500 years (until 1912). It was called forbidden because no one could enter without the emperor’s permission. The premise is so vaste that it feels like a city, however, one different from anything I ever experienced before. It seems an never ending maze of royal buildings, squares, tempels and gardens. Beautiful buildings in the brightest colors with the most delicate ornaments with the loftiest building names My favorites were Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Supreme Balance.

I thought long on how to let you experience the City in this blog by just a few pictures. I don’t think this is possible.¬†I recommend you to¬†go to China and see it for yourself (or come over and I will show you my highlights.

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08.04: The greatest of the greatest

Today was the day for which I had come to China: the Great Wall (in Dutch: Chinese muur). I booked a tour that would take me to the farthest, less touristy section of the Wall and it included a 4 hour hike, whoohaa! I was accompanied by Olivia, an 18 years old English daredevil, who had decided that she wanted to see the world for a year after graduation to find out what she wanted in life. She fancied China so she found a teaching job. She is all alone and it is going smooth, now that is what I call guts and glory.

So how to tell you about our experience on the Great Wall? Ehmmmm. OK, here goes nothing: IT IS GREAT IT IS GREAT IT IS GREAT. IT IS NOT ONLY GREAT, IT IS THE GREATEST, IT IS THE MOST IMPRESSIVE ‘THING’ I HAVE EVER SEEN. WOW, OOH, AHH, IIEEE x100,000. This one, again, you have to go and experience yourself.

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Olivia and I had bought tickets for the famous Beijing Kong Fu show later that night. Honestly, I was worried that we would be up for a cheesy tourist show, but my gut feeling was wrong. The show was well done and very entertaining. Of course, Olivia and I practices our kicking techniques at the entrance and sang ‘everyone was kong fu fighting whohaa whohaa’ the entire night, maybe at the dismay of the staff.

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9.04: The Summer Palace and the Lama Temple, two other wow-ers

The blossoms in the Summer Palace

Many people recommended the Summer Palace, so I jumped on the metro and went. It had crossed my mind that it was Sunday and that Chinese have their one and only day off on Sunday so it could be a little more crowded. Crowded? You could barely get in, it was that crowded. The whole nation must have come out there that. I didn’t have much choice in postponing since it was my last day In China.

I went in¬†anyways and that was a good decision because the place is almost criminally big. Unbelievable that an Emperor can claim such amount of land in the heart of the city for his private Home-Away-From-Home. It’s like our Dutch King claiming the entire Amsterdam inner city centre (or the Ruler of Dubai claim the full Marina area, from beach to SZR). I put the latter between brackets because I think the Ruler can do it with the blink of an eye if he wanted, whereas for King Willem-Aexander it would probably mean the end of the Kingdom as we know it ūüôā

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The royal gardens were in one word magnificent; I actually liked them better then the buildings. That was probably due to my perfect timing in the blossom season. In my Dutch home province, we have some blossoming trees but nothing compared to this. It was magical.

Burning down the Lama temple

My mind was already pretty filled up with tempels so when I entered the Lama tempel, I didn’t expect much. Boy, was I in for a surprise! I suddendly was in front of¬†a 3 story high, golden lady buddha statue. Breath taking!

I need to confess a tiny, tiny mistake made in the temple. An English sign, which are very uncommon, invited visitors to burn incents (in Dutch: wierook). Now I burn a candle in any (Christian) churche where I can. It is my ritual; I¬†feel that somehow a candle in a holy place can transport a thought to an expired loved one. And, even if this is ‘bs’ then I can console with the fact that at least it makes me feel good.

The Lama Temple didn’t have candles so I wanted to try with incents. I picked up a box of incents, walked in, studied the behaviour of the worshippers so that I could copy it (and I remember that I felt so snug when I thought that up) walked up to the front of the ‘altar’ and stuck -just like everyone else- 3 sticks in the ashes. Three was the perfect number for me. I used to burn one candle for my grandma, but I added one after my dad died last year, who I miss terribly. I recently added another candle, I call that one ‘one for the world’ because I think we need it.

I was looking at the smoking sticks. Hi grandma hey dad, I hope you are well, and ‘go world go’. So far so good. Then I realised with a shock that the box wasn’t empty yet. It had some 20-30 odd sticks left and I did not know what to do with them. All eyes were on me and people were getting eager to have their go. I took a decision in a split second; I took out all remaining incents and stuck them -in one package- in the ashes.

Awkward situation managed, right? Not really! The 20-30 incents caught on and caused a massive smoke. Pretty logical; the smoke of 20-30 incents is roughly 10x more intense than that of 3. I foresaw (yes, I acknowledge, a little too late) that this would happen so I tried to back out slowly, unnoticeable. My incents made the shrine almost  invisible for several minutes. Oops!

I walked on quickly, pretty embaressed. It struck me only once I reached the next square and looked around to see¬†another altar, another one and another one. Almost every shine and buddha statue had one and people were lighting 3 incents at the altars of their choice. So that was what I had supposed to do with my remaining incents. Quite logical.¬†I will do that next time, or, maybe I should just refrain from religious activities in the future…

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Peking Duck

I cannot close a¬†blog on Beijing without telling about Beijing Duck (or Peking Duck). It took some time to find the ‘best local restaurant’ but this place became my House-of-Happiness. The only dish I ordered was Peking Duck. Have a look at the picture and tell me that you don’t get hungry just by looking at it.

PS: How to eat peking duck: 1) Take a pancake, 2) add crispy duck skin after having dipped it in sugar and garlic cream, 3) add duck filet after having dipped it in Hoian sauce, 4) add some sping onions and cucumber, 5) roll in all into a pancake, 6) stick it into your mouth and experience heaven on earth. Yummy!

Senior lovers caught in the act

China is fantastic. It has deep rooted traditions and they are visible in every aspect of life. The Chinese, as many Asian countries, believe in pre-arranged marriages. I used to be very sceptical but my Middle Easter experience has made me soften my opinion a little.

The Chinese have ‘markets’ where families show pictures and stats of their children/grand children in attempt to find the most suitable suitor. I was amazed to find such a market for mature people; for men and women who had lost their spouse and who wanted to get back into a relationship. I unknowlingly¬†caught a senior man making courtship to a lady of roughly the same age and had accidentely taken their picture just after the man had touched the woman’s cheek which made the two blush like school kids. How wonderful and simple life can be!

I quickly dissapeared without them noticing me. Funnily enough, I got ambushed by an ouder gentlemen -I guess at least 60- who, without speaking any English, insisted on taking my phone number. I had been told that this was ‘Step 1’. I felt a little troubled that he thought I could be interested -I don’t look THAT old now do I- but hey, I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. So I gave him my number, also because I was still a little mellow from witnessing the senior love birds earlier. Admittedly, I¬†given an incorrect last digit ūüėČ I am truly sorry for the person in Dubai who received my calls.

Encore: What the Duck!?!

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South-Central China: Paunchy pandas and gorgeous gorges

31.03: Fire alert at Chengdu airport

China is on another planet. Honestly! I already realised that at the conveyor belt for luggage retrieval at the airport. Conveyor belt? Yes!  I am used that people wait a meter from the belt, quietly step forward to pick their suitcase, walk to their cart, load and leave. Okay, I agree this is the sophisticated case, and yes, I have had people park carts AT the belt (and if you are one of them, please could you try to stop it, there is simply not enough space for carts).

Chengdu however took it to another dimension. I barely heard the alarm indicating the belt initiation because peril broke loose (in Dutch: de pleuris uitbrak). People started shouting, bulldozing carts to the belt, leaning forward on/over the belt and pushing an occasional person out of the way. For a moment I thought I had missed a fire alert announcement and reasoned that people were frantically trying to rescue their valuables. But people relaxed once reunited with their belongings so that did not add up. I was astonished. What an interesting start of this China Adventure.

1.04: Six for one… when oh when will¬†I know know better

I woke up early due to arrival of my new dorm mate, Henry. This amicable British rock climber/traveler and PhD student-to-be suggested to bike around Chengdu together. Nice idea so off we went, Henry with helmet and I without, because Dutchies just don’t do helmets, sorry. I must have had a bad influence on Henry because he ended without too.

Biking in Chengdu was modestly dangerous because cyclists need to use the major roads in absence of designated cycle lanes. We had tons of fun despite the traffic risks. Witnessing a mass tea ceremony was definitely one of the highlights.

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The stakes went up when we entered the National museum. We got a little bored because most signs were in Chinese so we invented our own interactivity: bets. For example, we disagreed on the location of Chengdu on a map on display so we needed to figure out who was wrong and that person had to buy a round of beer. Map reading skills…. Yes, I should have know better, I lost! (Note to¬†Claire, since¬†you asked¬†me to refrain from stigmatising language I want to add to the above comment that map reading is a personal improvement area of an otherwise reasonably¬†intelligent human being, and as such is hence fully unrelated to gender).

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We biked to Chengdu’s top¬†nightspot, which was beautifully located at the riverside. New challenge: no one spoke english and the menu was in Chinese only and very confusing because¬†1 beer costed roughly the same as¬†6 beers. So what do Penny-Pinched Dutchies & Budget Brits do? Ofcourse… they¬†order [rounds of] 6 (and apologies¬†for the blackmarking of the Dutch and Brits). That wasn’t the most sensible decision ofcourse¬†because the next early morning I had¬†panda petting scheduled¬†¬†and trust me, I got punished badly for this mistake.

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PS. If you visit Chengdu then pls try their hot pot. We dared to eat many uncommon items such as heart and some animal’s skin.

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2.4: Cutest cuddly creatures

I now understand why WWF chose a panda as logo. Forget it penguins (of the movie ‘Madagascar’); cute and cuddly is reserved for these teddy bears with their big bellies.

One instinctively wants to run up to them and hug them. Part¬†of the fun is that you actually can because they are not aggressive. I went early in the morning to see them at their most active and I can tell you these creatures are LAZY in caps. No complaining from my end though, my body system was nowhere ‘near the green’ yet, so thanks to their immobility I¬†managed to take a¬†few reasonable shots despite the¬†shakes.

When the furry fellas made preparatives to nap, I went back to the hostel and had a nap too. At night, some locals invited us to a local gig. Chinese techno/house plus live jamming on Chinese instruments. Impressive!

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3-6.04: The LOOOVE boat soon will be making another run….

The next morning I had to take a¬†tough decision. I wanted to finish¬†in Beijing and could travel eastwards via the Yiuzhaigou National Park with possibly the best ever horse riding hack or go via the (South) Center and sail¬†the Yangze river’s Three Gorges -printed on China’s 10 Yuan bank note- and see Xian’s terra-cotta army.

I decided for¬†the Middle because¬†the East was simply to far out and I read some negative¬†reviews on the hack on the internet. So I traveled to¬†Chongquin on a high-speed bullet train and boarded a ‘world-standard’ cruise ship that night that would take¬†me to¬†Yichang in 4 days. Our Chinese Isaac was a little less fun then the series’ since ours spoke little¬†English. This seemed the standard¬†on the vessel; only 3 crew members spoke English and a travel group of 5 Brits and Aussies, who basically adopted me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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It was unexpected good fun on the cruise liner. I rested quite a lot. Isn’t it funny that if one is somewhat confinement it is much more easy to kick back. I also wrote some blogs, edited pictures and had a great time listening to 80s-90s music with Vince, my new friend from the UK/Aussie group.

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And then there were ofcourse the gorgeous gorges; the biggest one, the Qutang Gorge (on the 10 Yuan note) was incredible, however, I liked the Lesser Three Gorges best. On tiny tourist boats, we were taken into  a whole new world, brilliant.

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Another highlight of the trip was not the word’s largest dam (the Three Gorges Dam), no. Much more damn memorable was witnessing a full cruise ship perform the Chicken Dance (in Dutch: vogeltjesdans). Hilarious! Never expected that this song was still accepted, LOL!

Hong Kong: Doing it the Chinese way

30-31.03  How Hong Kong won me over

Hanoi had been great. I loved the place and the party. I was sleep deprived yet feeling fully revived. China was next on the list and I was excited; how massive would the language barrier be? I added a stop-over at Hong Kong at the last minute. The city somehow had not appealed to me when I was planning my tour but I thought to give it 24 hours. And OMG, how wrong can a person be; Hong Kong is terrific!

It wasn’t love at first sight though, because my hostel was not at the place it was supposed to be. I hear you [the guys] already think ‘yeah, that’s a typical women’s issue (and I gracefully admit that my map reading skills have been an issue on several occasions…) but please take into account that I was lost at 10 PM at night, in an unknown country, in a wrenched area, with no data on my phone, not speaking their language and them not speaking any of mine, and all the hostel’s phone numbers that I had were somehow out of service. Now that is a recipe for disaster. But help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it, so I managed. I rushed to my room which was, ehhmm…. petite. I had never guessed that 4 m2 can accommodate 9 people plus luggage – but yes, it can ūüôā

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I headed straight to the Ritz Carlton. This hotel hosts HK’s highest viewpoint which happens to be a bar, one of the trendiest in town. How lucky is that? I ordered a Mohito -my favorite and their signature cocktail- and got the tastiest fluid ever. Most expensive ever too; 25 euro for a half glass. ¬†Worth every cent and the view was amazing!

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My time was limited so I got up at 7 AM to ‘do a city the Chinese way’. Camera ready, I jumped on the hop on/off bus, clicked ¬†hundreds of pics and got efficiently dropped at the entrance of all memorable places enabling me to see it all, or at least which I thought worthwhile… In 122 hours, ¬†I managed the star ferry, the maritime museum, the Peak, touring arround the sky scrapers and the seaside and its lovely bays and walked in some famous areas such as Soho and the escalator area.

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My excursion ended with dim sum, Hong Kong’s famous food (Claire!). Mouth watering and delicious. I guess that’s where it happened; Hong Kong had won me over. Fully. Oh how I wished I could have postponed my flight!

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HCMC/Da Nang, Vietnam: From shock to suspension

20.03: The inimitable rules (in Dutch: onnavolgbaar)

HCMC is nicknamed ‘perl of Asia’. I looked from all perspectives imagineable but just couldn’t see why; it is just big and busy. One big plus; it is Vietnam and hence strewn with amazing food stalls¬†and restaurants. Yummy! Could I have a better reason to set off straight after check-in?

My hostess, however, stopped me at the door to grind out the city rules. My mood dropped by the rule. 1: don’t go out alone at night – as a woman. 2: don’t take dark alleys. 3: don’t carry more cash than absolutely needed and no passports, credit cards, etc. These rules was pretty impossible since I travel solo, the hostel was¬†located IN a dark alley and my room had neither safe nor locks for my valuables. If I wanted to be fed, I would have to take the rules with a grain of salt. So I did and guess what? I did not only survive but had some of the best food ever; my favorite scallops sprinkled with crushed nuts – an insanely good combination.

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21.03: Agent Orange – a horror story

HCMC has various exhibitions to learn about the Vietnam war. Or better said, the American war as the Vietnamese call it. Short recap, the North invaded the South who asked the USA for help. The US sent in their troops to ‘fight communism’, yet many say that tin and tungsten [of pivotal importance for the US] was likely the more substantial reason. After some years the Vietnamese wanted to end the war and reunite but the US [government] did not step down. World wide protests (including from US citizens) were in vain. The US lost the war although this has never been so clearly written in the records.

The war caused severe casualties on both sides. The Vietcong used tactics that killed physically and especially psychologically; they created the illusion that they were invisible with their cunning tunnel systems and caused death and destruction without being present on the spot through the tons of strategically set up booby traps and iron pin traps. The US retaliated and used methods that were barbarian and frankly unacceptable as a world-power. The two Ultimate Lows in history were the civilian massacres (e.g. My Lai) and the use of Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is a deadly toxic herbicide that causes severe burns upon direct contact and cancers at later stage in life. It has a nasty sting since it induces genetic mutations which is why the¬†incidence of extreme birth defects in the victims’ offspring and their next generations is unbelievable high. Cambodia has to bear the after effects of the US’s action for the next decades to come. The US government [and their suppliers] knew of these effects and nevertheless decided to apply it. This is for me a crystal¬†clear case of a crime against mankind! They still haven’t acknowledged, apologised nor compensated the affected people. Can you imagine?

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Chi, the lady in the picture top right, is very special to me. She was born in ’78, just like me. Our lives could not have been more different; Chi weighs 15 kg, is housebound and dependant, her goal in life is to add some value to her family. I am healthy, established and independent, I can go where I want, when and how. When I read Chi’s story I made a resolution to remember her each time when I feel bad or sad or whenever life doesn’t seem fair. I shall never complain again!

22-26.03: The super tourist suspended

I knew it would happen eventually… I am worn out. Tired of being the ‘super tourist’, continuously absorbing tons of information. I visited all ‘socially compulsory’ sites since I left Everest. I have been awe-ed and abhorred by the creations of mankind, and I thought a lot about our present. I initially felt lucky that we live in peace but then I realised¬†that this is an illusion that stems from my upbringing in the West. In Dubai, I heard many heartbreaking¬†stories of my Middle Eastern friends from Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Africa, etc. Countries that are not at peace or have great difficulties to establish or maintain¬†it. Let alone the threat of terrorism that both East and West exposed to. I feel that the task cut out for our generation – restoring the equilibrium- may be the most difficult task that mankind has yet faced.
I  think it is quite clear that I needed a break quite desperately. So no more night busses and haste but a direct flight from the South to Da Nang in the Middle of Vietnam. I spent a few days chilling, enjoying marvelous food, coffees and drinks and, surprise, running. My first run Р7 km- was easy.; two fingers up my nose Рthank you Everest! I secretly planned to squeeze in a half marathon at some point on trip but please keep it to yourself, OK ?

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The second run -11 km- was a tough one. I had targeted¬†the statue of a lady Buddha (!!) at the end of the bay as turning point. Maximally 5-6 km I thought but it proved an itsy bitsy further (9 km 1 way). Oops! It was drizzling a little at the start but¬†after a while it picked up and I got soaking wet. Luckily, a friendly lorry driver stopped to give me a rain cape. I couldn’t make out if he thought ‘poor girl’ or ‘crazy tourist’.

The beach changed over to a road that soon started to wind up as it wanted to punish me above and beyond the rain and the cold. I was happy to finally reach the statue! I only had a steep flight of stairs ahead, with water gushing down, but who cared, it was the last leg… if not¬†the stairs ended in… a close gate. Sh#t!

This had to be¬†my final wake-up call to abort the mission so I started to head down. Who wouldn’t have done the same? Yet, a mile later, I simply couldn’t¬†reconcile, I just don’t give up. So I turned around again ran back and found the entrance just around the corner of the steps. What a beautiful¬†place! Proud to have endured.

On my way down I stopped at a tiny restaurant where the staff (a family) could not speak any English and when hands and feet failed too, they simply invited me to join them for their family diner. Awesome!

I then tested the concept of hitchhiking, and I can tell you that Vietnamese don’t know this concept. I was lucky that a student stopped in sheer surprise when I raised my thumb…. No complaints from my end; he dropped me at my accommodation! In the evening, I feasted on lobster…because there is always a reason to ear lobster ?

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Oh, I have to admit that I cheated¬†during my suspension. I travelled to Hoi An, which was supposedly a must-see. I can say that it was a lovely town but it was also very touristy. I think my ‘super tourist syndrome’ kicked in again, so I returned to Da Nang after only a few hours…

25-26.03 Hanoi: another first: getting mugged
I guess I am human too –¬†¬†I got mugged. It¬†happened on my first day in Hanoi and I lost iPhone and UAE sim card. The IPhone was expensive but it was the cheap prepaid sim card that was a¬†nightmare since my whatsapp was still running on that UAE number. My friend Alfred managed to have Du (my UAE phone company) issue a replacement sim card. I was deeply impressed and mega thankful.

27-30.03. Halong Bay – the booze tour

I booked a party hostel for my stay in Hanoi. This place transformed into a party place every evening. Great fun! I found Hanoi -despite the theft- the best place of Vietnam.

I booked a tour to Dalong beach, which was called ‘Castaways’. They promised it was notorious and I can concur that it was indeed. I did other things then partying; I climbed my first rocks and I cayaked. ¬†The rest of the group, however, had one objective only; to party as hard as possible. It took me a little bit of time to switch gear but honestly I must admit that I had a great time. It was a welcome change after all hiking and sightseeing. Another plus… I am now also up-to-date with most new drinking games, so feel free to ask me for any ¬†version of beer pong, ‘who’s got the ball’, shotgun, basket pong, etc

I was pretty proud that I succeeded in my first rock climb (30 m). It was terrifying yet awesome. I was pretty clueless on what to do, so I climbed with anything available, hands, feet, arms, knees, elbows, etc. My entire body was black-and-blue and cut, oops ūüôā

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: the Knight bus part 2 / Killing Fields

18.03: Phnom Penh instead of Sianoukville

I guess the travel agency forgot to mention that the “Knightbus” had a 4 hour lay-over/change-over in Phnom Penh. Arriving at 2 PM instead of 9 AM made my ‘one-full-day-at-the-beach’ plan go to pieces. I gave my bus ticket to a merchandiser to let her try to sell it, but we got lost in translation.

I jumped on a rental scooter at 10 AM. Driving in the East could not be more different than in the West. Lonely Planet wrote that Vietnam is not the place to learn to drive and that is so true! There may be 9 million bicycles in Beijing (if this is a fact I will tell you soon ūüôā ) but there are at least as many motorbikes in Phnom Penh and zero traffic rules. If it is bigger then you it has right of way, unless you are faster or [more] fearless’. Loved it! And yes, I behaved. Oh yeah, I can understand if you struggle to believe me but I reached 80 kmh once and the bike seemed to lift off. Terrifying. Not to mention, the dodging of several pot holes that could fit my bike…¬†argg

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Choeung Ek

That day, I visited an immensely sad place, the Killing Field Choeung Ek. From 1975-79, Pol Pot’s regime -the Khmer Rouge- forced the establishment of a communist state. It became a totalitarian dictatorship; enslaving virtually the entire population and killing about 3 out of 8 million Cambodians. The majority died at Killing Fields (concentration camps), butchered with farming instruments such as spades or bambo sticks because bullets were too expensive. Loud music was played to counteract the screams of the dying. Babies were grabbed by their legs and smashed¬†into a big tree whilst their mothers were forced to watch. About 9,000 people were killed at the site that I visited; bones, sculls and clothes still keep surfacing from the soil today. It was a shocking experience; the site was reasonably busy yet no one spoke, we were preoccupied in our worlds of thoughts and emotions.

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My birth year is¬†’78. I had heard of the¬†name ‘Pot Pol’ but I was unaware of this monstrosity. I fail to comprehend how this act against humanity could have taken place,¬†only a few decades ago and with the world watching this region due to the Vietnam War. No one stepped in and stopped this massacre. My Middle Eastern experience has made me much more reserved towards international interventions in local affairs but I really believe this was one of those cases where we should have. What an incredible tragedy.

19.03: Vietnam doesn’t seem to want me but I will not throw in my hand

Fellow travellers had advised me to travel to Vietnam via the Mekong River because the delta was supposedly amazing. I joined a tour and sat on a crappy ‘speedboat’ for 5 long hours. I learned that the definition of¬†a ‘speedboat’ is culturally different. ¬†We finally made it to the border crossing, where the local Cambodian tour guide concluded that my e-Visa was not valid at land crossings. I couldn’t test this because it meant exiting Cambodia in order to reach the Vietnamese post. My Cambodian visa was single entry, so if the Vietnamese would turn me down, I would be stuck in no-mans land between the two border posts. The only option was to return to Phnom Penh on the “speedboat” and catch a flight. Captain’s log: Attempt 2 to enter Vietnam failed.

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I got some¬†refund for the tour after I nearly strangled the saleslady; she claimed I had ‘consumed the tour’. Yeah, as if waiting on a shabby boat for 10 hours with lousy views without food to return at departure point is ‘consumption’!! It must have been my eloquent language ( ūüėČ ) that made her change her mind rather fast after.

So Vietnam doesn’t want me, but I am not that easily daunted. I quickly booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It was twice the price of the tour but at least my schedule would not be compromised. I reached the airport just in time and my mood had lifted; in a few hours…I would eat real Vietnamese spring rolls. For the non-Dutch: every Dutchy loves them.

However… Did I already mention that Vietnam doesn’t want me? The ground staff apologised and told me that my booking was not confirmed by the travel agency yet. In laymen’s words: my name was there but I didn’t have a ticket. They offered a new ticket for twice the amount of the initial¬†ticket. I decided to reach out to my agency first and ended up in a shabby airport hotel in the middle of a seriously dodgy red light district. Captain’s log: “Attempt 3 to enter Vietnam failed”.

20.03: Attempt 4

The next day, the agency’s 24/7 SOS help desk appeared to be available 0/24, so I wrote off the loss, booked a new ticket and marched to the departure terminal (again). At the check-in desk -hooray- my name was in the system and -hooray, hooray- I actually had a ticket confirmed. So step 3 out of 3 normally is to board the plane, right? Do I hear 3x hooray? No! Because Vietnam doesn’t want me! The ground staff explained that new rules stipulated that visitors needed proof of an onward ticket and I hadn’t booked one yet. In short, I was refused on the plane. Captain’s log: Attempt 4 to enter Vietnam failed. However, quick research on my iPhone -thank god that I invested in a data bundle- made clear that this rule is not 100% enforced. After some verbal jiu jitsu, I managed to sign a waiver to renounce all responsibility of the airliner. The incident almost made me miss the flight. When I finally reached the Vietnamese customs I felt pretty ambivalent. I promised that in case of any hickups I would fly to a deserted island else where, screw Vietnam!

Luckily, I had great support in this miserable time. My Intelligence team had all fingers crossed. Thanks, guys, your thoughts and prayers must have helped. It made me feel really great; miss you!

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Then, the strangest phenomenon occurred. When you don’t want something anymore, then that something starts to want you. All the sudden, Vietnam wanted me. I couldn’t believe what happened but I was out and about in under 10 minuten. Wow. Captain’s log: mission accomplished!

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