Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Crouching Crocodiles, Overgrown Dragons

I’m jumping ahead on all the blog posts that are piled up in my head waiting to be written, to tell you about an adventure we had just the other day.

Steve and I have been traveling by motorbike for the past few weeks here in Vietnam. We rented our motorbikes in the town of Danang, then headed down to Hoi An for a few days, before starting our long journey northbound. If you imagine the country of Vietnam as a giant ‘S,’ Hoi An/Da Nang are right on the top part of the belly on the S. Essentially, we are covering North Vietnam by bike.

After heading out of Hoi An and through Da Nang, we passed over the Hai Van pass, which is considered one of the more beautiful stretches to drive in Vietnam. Winding over the mountain, surrounded by cliffs, beach, and lush greenery on both sides, was a beautiful way to start our road trip. Not to mention the $2 lunch at a stop with a view just before the top of the pass.

Coming down off of Hai Van, we were on a highway for another two hours, passing and being passed by big semi-trucks, along stretches of green rice fields, rivers, and mountain backdrops. We arrived in the city of Hue and checked into a home stay owned by a young Vietnamese guy, for 2 nights. We had booked a 6-bed dorm room for $3 per person, but those rooms were not available when we arrived, so they put us into the 12-bed dorm room for a price of $2 per person, and then later upgraded us to our own private room for the same price (that’s a private bedroom for only $4, with aircon, and free breakfast and coffee). Not the mention the guy who owned it ran the homestay with his 2 best friends; they were in their young 20’s and took Steve and I out to a local restaurant where we ordered at least 7 different plates of food and an entire case of beer, and the total for the whole meal was about $4 per person. We are really enjoying having homestays with Vietnamese families here, rather than staying in hostels and just meeting other foreigners- it makes for a more unique experience of the country we are in.

So, a little about Hue’s history, because this is a town I knew nothing about, but one that has an important history. Hue sits pretty much in the center of the country. It was once the capital of Vietnam, during the Nguyen Dynasty, before Ha Noi became the capital in the North, and then later, Saigon became the capital in the South. Hue was part of the Republic of Vietnam (or South Vietnam), but sits right at the border between North and South Vietnam, making it an important zone during the “Vietnam War” (or, as it’s referred to in Vietnam, the “American War”). During the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the war where the Viet Cong/People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) led a series of surprise attacks on South Vietnam, the city of Hue took a serious beating. The Viet Cong and the PAVN captured and occupied Hue for four weeks, during which time the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War occurred- the Battle of Hue. While American forces bombed many of the historical buildings in Hue, the communist forces also committed a huge massacre of the civilians and POWs of Hue. Between 2,800-6,000 victims, or 5-10% of the total population of Hue, were butchered by the Viet Cong during this Hue Massacre.

Despite the destruction seen here 50 years ago, the city of Hue has a nice charm to it. In the center of the city, just north of the Perfume River, there is a massive citadel which hosts what was once the Imperial City, a forbidden city only for the emperors and other royalty. At night, the outer fortress walls are lit up, lined with spotlights shining on the waving Vietnamese flags. Also strewn throughout the city are a number of pagodas, temples, monuments, and tombs.

In the morning, Steve and I tried to beat the heat of the day by heading out to the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who was the 4th emperor during the Nguyen Dynasty. His is laid to rest in a beautiful walled-in park on the outskirts of the city; within the walls is a large grassy expanse with a koi pond in the center and various tombs and pagodas surrounding it, paying homage to Tu Duc and his many wives. 
After leaving the tombs, Steve and I headed a few kilometers up the road to an abandoned water park that we heard about, Ho Thuy Tien.
Ho Thuy Tien was built in 2004 and cost about 3 million USD to build. It stayed in operation for only two years- after talking to some locals, they said that the price to get into the park was way too expensive for the locals, as they were very poor at the time, and no one could afford to go. Therefore, the park went bankrupt and shut down; it has been left as-is ever since. Without any upkeep, nature has taken over and taken back it’s land. Additionally, many people have trespassed into the park and graffitied all the buildings, which actually makes it very visually pleasing. Not visually pleasing, however, were all the shattered windows, long broken by vandals, and the sludge-filled pools, which supposedly hosted many crocodiles in their waters up until recently when they were removed. Word on the street is that a massive company has now bought the land and is about to demolish it to build a resort- again, another thing that won’t be accessible by the local people, so the locals are fighting the government on this issue currently. Many of them want to leave it as is and have it opened as a place people can come to visit freely- there is a massive plot of land that this park is sprawled across that is a beautiful place to go have a picnic and gather with friends. However, since the land has now been purchased, security guards have been hired to chase out the tourists that come to the park.
When Steve and I first arrived, we went straight to the entrance shown above, as you do. There was a security officer there, who nodded to the “No Visitors” sign on the gate. We parked our bikes, walked up to him, and he pointed to a shelf for us to secretly slip him some money- 20,000 dong each (<$1). After that, we walked straight into the park, over a big dirt lot, around the edge of the lake that the water park sits on, and to a stadium that was previously used for water shows.

Outside, the old concession stand area was covered in colorful graffiti art. And some mold. And  broken glass.
Next to this arena, there was a small building that housed an old flight simulator ride.
Now, while this park doesn’t have very many attractions, it is spread out over a few kilometers around the edge of a lake. The property is huge. And it was really hot out. So Steve and I decided to head back to the entrance, grab our motorbikes, and go to a location on our google map marked “free entrance” (I don’t know why we didn’t go here first...). This entrance was a small path through a neighborhood that eventually led right back up to that dirt lot we had crossed after we entered the park the first time. Now, we had our bikes and we could ride around all throughout the park.

Heading along the lake up an old stone path, we next came to the water attractions. This consisted of a kids play area in a shallow pool, a wave pool, a lazy river, and 4 larger waterslides.
Want to play??
It was really cool how the jungle has taken over this decaying man-made structure.
Further up along the path, we came to a massive dragon sitting over the lake.
You could enter the dragon from any number of doorways under his tail or feet. The inside of the structure was built to resemble the inside of a dragon- the spine and ribs lined the stairs and walkway.
Inside the dome the dragon is sitting atop, there used to be an aquarium; while all of the tanks are still there, as I mentioned before, someone has gone through the entire park and smashed all of the glass, including the super thick pained glass of the aquarium tanks.
By climbing the stairs within the dragon, you can enter it’s head and actually climb out onto a ledge in its mouth to look out over the lake.
In the wooded area just behind one of the dragon bridges, there are two old cottages that were apparently built for guest accommodation. They look like they were never actually completed, however, even though the park was operational for two short years.
That was our day exploring Hue! The abandoned water park was so cool, and I loved getting to drive around it and explore without anyone cautioning us or restricting activity- I feel like this sort of thing would never be allowed in the States! I never knew I was into this sort of thing, but now I want to explore more abandoned places around the world!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Bandipur: Homestay with a Nepali Family

On March 1st, Steve and I arrived to Kathmandu, Nepal, around 8pm. We grabbed a taxi to our hostel, Zostel Kathmandu, and checked in, then promptly grabbed a beer (or 2). After an entire stress-filled day of tying up loose ends and shutting down accounts in the pouring rain, a late night (err, 4 am morning) at the bars in downtown Daegu, South Korea saying sad “see-you-later”s to our beloved friends, an early (530 am) departure to Incheon Airport, and a hectic sprint through the airport in Chengdu, China, we definitely needed to decompress and de-stress once we had reached our first destination in Nepal! We went to bed a few hours after arriving to our hostel, only to awake the next morning to our 5:30 am alarms, yet again, so that we could make it to the tourist bus station by 6 am for a 7 am departure. We got the the bus station, which was more of a dirt road with buses parked along the curb, threw our bags in the back of the bus, and ventured to a local cafe for coffee. However, we quickly decided against coffee, as we are well aware of what it does to our bowels, and didn’t want to have to deal with that ordeal on a multi-hour bus ride. Instead, we grabbed some croissants and bottles of water, then boarded the bus and awaited the departure towards Pokhara.

The bus left promptly at 7am, but made multiple stops throughout the city of Kathmandu, as well as a 30-minute stop on the side of some dirt road where a man with a wrench hit the bus until he magically fixed the air conditioning unit, which again broke down a few hours into the ride. Once we were on the main road that connects East Nepal to West Nepal along the Trisuli River, we were met with sharp mountain turns overlooking steep cliffs into valleys below. As car sick as I get, I was surprisingly fine for this journey without needing any meds. However, the view of the road from the bus was pretty treacherous, and at each blind mountain turn the bus driver honked the horn to announce his presence so we wouldn’t crash into any oncoming traffic. As scary as the whole situation was, I never really felt unsafe.

The bus stopped along the river at a road-side rest stop around 10am and we had some Nepali breakfast. It was about $4 per person, all vegetarian, and included chapati, a sort of chow mein, dal baat (lentils), and dumplings. After filling up so early in the day, the bus continued on. Around 11:30am, we reached a town called Dumre, which is where there is a crossroads to head North or South in Nepal. We alighted from the bus at this junction, then hopped in a jam-packed Jeep with 4 other foreigners and all of our bags. In this shared taxi, we turned off the main road and headed up a winding mountain road to a village town on top of the mountains, called Bandipur. It was in Bandipur where we would be spending the night with a Nepali host family. After a 15-20 minute taxi ride, we were dropped at the edge of a town square where the road ended. We hoisted our (much too heavy) backpacks onto our backs, opened up the wonderful offline map app (Maps.me) and followed a foot path through the town square and to our homestay. The village was not like anything we had seen thus far in Nepal- with cobble stone walkways surrounded by anachronistic buildings crawling with bougainvillea vines, framed by hills reaching up over 1,300 meters in every direction.

Upon reaching our homestay in Bandipur, we were introduced to the mother/wife, Giddah, and the father/husband, Ram. They led us downstairs to the bottom floor of the house and showed us to a simple room which overlooked Giddah’s garden and the surrounding hillsides. 

View from Giddah’s garden.

As we relaxed in awe of the views from our room, Giddah brought down some freshly sliced cucumbers and carrots from her garden. We weren’t aware at this time that our home stay would include all of our meals, so we asked her if it would be alright to join her and her family for dinner. She promptly assured us that would be fine, and that we should meet at 7pm. After settling for a bit, Steve and I wandered up to the roof of their home so we could see the views from 4 floors up. While up there, we asked about a cave, Siddah cave, that I had read about. Siddah cave is at the bottom of the hill(s) which Bandipur is sprawled across. It is the largest cave in Nepal, and supposedly the 2nd largest cave in South Asia. Giddah told us that her husband, Ram, would walk with us to the cave if we would like to see it. We said: sure! And off we went.

When we hiked through Bandipur the the very top of their hill and could see down the backside of the hill, Ram pointed to a ridge off in the distance, seemingly miles away and hundreds of meters down in evelation, and said that was where the cave was. We walked down hundreds and hundreds of stairs for over an hour and a half. Finally, we reached the entrance to the cave. After paying about $1.50 each, a guide led Steve, Ram, and I into the trenches! It was massive inside, with a bunch of different rooms including one that fills with water during monsoon season and turns into a massive swimming pool for the locals, hundreds of bats perched on the rooftop, ladders to climb up and down, and areas where we were rock climbing up slippery rocks using an old, soaked rope to grip onto. After an hour of wandering around only a small percentage of the cave, we finished up our tour  and began the trek back up to Bandipur, 2 hours of nothing but going up the stairs this time! Along the path we saw a handful of massive white-faced monkeys playing in the trees; Ram told us that these monkeys are really dangerous, so he threw some stones at them to make sure they didn’t come near. He also informed us that if the monkeys are around, then there are no tigers during that time of year, and when the tigers are around, there are no monkeys.

As we were still about 30-40 minutes from the top of the Bandipur hill, we saw some dark clouds roll in and heard the thunder roar. I asked Ram, “Is it going to rain?” And he looked at the clouds and said, “No, not until tomorrow.” I didn’t believe him based on my own assessment of the clouds, the shift in wind and temperature, and the noises I could hear but... he lived in these mountains and probably knows their weather better than me! At the top of the hill, we stopped to enjoy the views and visit a Bhuddist temple. We then made our way back to Ram’s house- hungry, hot, dusty, and exhausted. 

About two seconds after we got back inside the house, torrential downpour accompanied a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. It was so loud, shook the entire house, and quickly wiped out the electricity for the town. I asked Giddah for some boiled bath water, rinsed off in the dark, then wandered back upstairs to the main part of the house. The kids invited us into to the sleeping room, where Ram and Giddahs daughter, Garima, and son, Garauv shared a bed alongside Ram and Giddah’s bed, which was also in the same room as Ram’s elderly mother and fathers beds. We sat down on Ram and Garima’s bed, which was strange for us, but seemed so normal for them to have us in their sleeping quarters. Garima, who was about 10 years old, could already speak English pretty well. She wanted to play some hand games with me and sing songs. We sang the ABCs for her in the tune that most Westerner’s sing it in, as well as the tune that they sing the ABCs with in Zambia. She taught us the tune they learn it to in Nepal, which was also so different than anything I’ve heard before. After playing hand games and singing songs with the kids for about 30 minutes, Giddah told us it was time to eat. They rearranged some table and chairs in their storage room, and stuffed Ram, Steve, and me into the small, cramped space. Giddah then brought us out the traditional Nepali staple food that they eat for 2-3 meals a day, Dal Bhat. Dal Bhat refers to a sort of lentil soup that is poured over rice and accompanied by some curried vegetables and pickled vegetables. Giddah also slaughtered one of their chickens that I had observed on their roof, after she asked me if we eat meat. So again, everything that we feasted on during our home stay came directly from Giddah’s home. 

Upon waking up the next morning and having some chai tea, eggs, and homemade muffins for breakfast, Giddah told us she wanted to show us her children’s school. Both of her kids attended a Catholic Mission school up the road. The campus was beautiful, sprawled down the hillside, and was covered in vegetation. They also had animal husbandry projects, which included chickens, goats, buffalo, rabbits, and guinea pigs. We got to meet some of the nuns that run the school and talk with them. One of the sisters, the principal, was from Japan and had started this school here in Bandipur 30 years ago. We also met two sisters from the US, who were not only sisters in the nunnery but actual blood sisters, and got to speak with them about their experiences. We of course asked about religion classes, it being a Catholic mission school in an area where most people are Hindu and Buddhist, and they explained that they don’t push any religion, but instead teach a course called ‘Morals and Ethics,’ which is actually part of the Nepalese government’s curriculum, and taught the basic morals and ethics that most religions value, such as not to lie, not to steal, treat people how you want to be treated, etc. It was nice to get to chat with the nuns and learn more about the school systems in rural areas of Nepal.

Steve and I went back to the house and packed up our bags while Giddah prepared some dal bhat for our lunch to enjoy on their rooftop. Before she ran off to a parent-teacher conference at her kid’s school, she adorened Steve and I with the Sindur (similar to the Hindu Bindi) on our foreheads as a mark of good luck and blessings. She also gave us a little Bandipur tote bag and a khata, which is a scarf representing purity and compassion, typically presented for weddings, celebrations, graduations, or to guests when they arrive or depart. We took some selfies on the roof with Giddah and Ram, then some with the kids as well, and off Giddah ran up the road to her meeting.

We stuck around for a bit to help Ram develop his profile and settings on AirBnB, which is how I found this homestay, so that he could make more money and attract more guests to come and stay with their family. Steve and I find that doing homestays with locals while we travel is one of the best ways to get to know the culture and experience the day to day lives of the people in the countries we are visiting, rather that just staying at hostels, touring through towns, and meeting no one but other foreigners.

Just as we were leaving, Garauv ran down and opened up their family shop, where they mostly sold school and office supplies. 

We said our goodbyes, walked out through their cute little village square, then grabbed a taxi back down the mountain to the main road. From here, we jumped in a bus that was heading from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and continued on our journey.