Friday, August 29, 2014

Hoian cycling: Passing through Realities

By Mpom
I finally met someone who spoke English at my most frequented Hoi An culinary hotspot: the local market on the road to Cua Dai beach. Trinh, donning a mandarin satin uniform from her hotel shift, informed me I was eating banh bot loc, bite-size clear rice noodle pockets of shrimp and potato lathered in oily chili-garlic fishsauce and sprinkled with chives. She also equipped me with a number of useful phrases.

The next day, lathered in sweatproof 50 spf, I am prepared for a day of cycling Hoian with my Canon camera, large water bottle, and Vietnamese “hello” “what is this” “how much” “thank you” “what is your name.” Anxious to escape the countless tailor shops and chorus of Vietnamese-accented “hellos” ringing with the single-minded pursuit of cash, I peddle off toward the Cam Thanh fishing village. Past rice fields, their moist, sweet smell overtaking the toxic exhaust of whirring motorbikes. Past dry fields sprouting solitary concrete shrines, miniature marigold-painted, red-roofed temples perched on posts and filled with the incense remains of prayers past. Past a wedding reception, punchy Vietnamese hip-hop and raucous laughter spilling through the gauzy red and pink decorations onto dusty streets. Past tightly packed teams of bamboo trees standing in shallow water dotted with wooden canoes; the owners shade their faces with conical hats fashioned from tan, slender leaves as they pull clear fishing lines from the water without end, like magic trick ribbons from a spectator’s ear. 

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I happen upon a small farmers’ protest in a town clearly surviving on the bamboo leaf industry, open-air sheds filled with drying stacks. Ten old men and women, skin shriveled brown and their few surviving teeth like cracked and blackened bits of corn, quack poorly coordinated group chants. They clank sticks on hollow bamboo poles, shouting as police in olive uniforms half-heartedly herd the farmers’ bare feet down the town’s one cement road. A few meters later, I discover two young men who accept my hand gesture request to watch them as they make bamboo siding. Around the corner and four thousand dong ($2) later, an eager woman, clearly awaiting any lost tourists who happen upon her home, paddles me amongst the bamboo forest, the easy-going whoosh of her paddle gliding us through narrow water alleyways winding amongst the trees.

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After many thanks and photos, I decide to take a coffee break on the riverbank. As small restaurants and cafes are merely extensions of the family living room, I join an extended family as its three women make sugar cane juice and skin bamboo shoots while four men of various generations drink their 10 am beer and idle in hammocks. It is a dirt road town with few diversions beyond its natural beauty; I quickly become easy entertainment. An entire wedding party arrives and sheepishly indicates they would like a photo shoot with the disheveled American biker. (They are one of the 13 wedding parties I will see July 17; I find out over my dinner noodles that it is an auspicious day for weddings amongst the Buddhists in the area). We snap approximately twenty-three group photos and a series of individual shots, me in a sweat-darkened grey t-shirt, the men in their suits, and the party’s primped and whitened women in brightly colored and sequined ao dai, high-neck long-sleeved tops that fall to their knees slits up the thigh showing matching loose pants. (I love when enthusiastic, camera-happy groups attack me; it redeems me and gives me good travel photography karma.) Like confetti, the giggling party blows on down the street.

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Seeing the fun has passed, a sinewy old man, one of the four boozers slouched in the hammocks, begins crafting bamboo leaf glasses so he can swap me for my black plastic frames. The family collapses in jovial howls. We start our own photo session using my camera. Then my coffee is finally finished. I wave and proceed to peddle around the area for another six hours before returning to my hostel near the Old City.

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A few custom-made shoes and sandals, one more night in my slanted-ceiling, and a relaxing day at the beach later, I board an overnight sleeper bus to Nha Trang en route to the mountain town of Dalat, famous for its flowers and honeymooners. Away goes the swimsuit, out comes the jacket.  Fast-forward two days: I am riding on the back of Vietnamese Khein’s motorcycle on the winding roads beyond Dalat, poncho flapping around my body. I take in the chilly hillside.  It is a scene from my childhood: a Kansas patchwork quilt of fields, but here stretched over the rolling land and sprinkled with trees.

And this is what I love most about traveling: passing—biking, walking, hitching, swimming, busing—through people’s day-to-day routines. Rumbling along on the back of the cycle, I am seeing the 6 pm near Dalat. I can imagine the 6 pm Hoi An market with its faithful food stall vendors, perhaps wondering where the odd solo American girl has gone after nine meals in their company. Or maybe the absence goes completely unnoticed. In New York, I can see my friends on subways headed home from work. In Kansas, Mom is driving home about to feed the horses. For now, in biking Hoian, I am passing through these realities, like a  person entering a dance after it has begun, enjoying the beat while it is in full swing, and then gracefully bowing out before the music has a chance to trail off. It is the ability to enjoy each local’s unappreciated routines as if fabulous novelties. Traveling through these varied alternatives is the should-tap-whisper-in-the-ear that the reality of one place simultaneously exists amongst a million others, including the place I call home. And how quickly, when I once again begin to make my circles in that home place, my reality will misguidedly  become the world.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ha Long Bay - Surprising Cave and Kayaking

By Jennie Mckie
One of the most famous areas in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay situated in the North East of Vietnam 4 hours away from Hanoi. All around Hanoi you will find loads of different Halong bay tours which will take you around the area. 

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We were picked up early in the morning and driven to Ha Long Bay to board our boat and where we would be sleeping that night. Straight away you could see the famous limestone cliffs every way you turned however once we set sail the sheer size of them was incredible! Our guide explained that Ha Long actually means ‘descending dragon’ and legends told of how the dragons protected the country from invasion until they finally laid to rest in the sea and the jagged cliffs you see are actually the dragons that had fallen down!

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Ha Long Bay consists of 1969 islands and the scale of it was way bigger than I first thought! The pictures do not do the place justice and it’s hard to explain just how beautiful the scenery is. We had lunch on board the boat of chicken, spring rolls and seafood all while watching the beautiful scenery pass us by!

We stopped off at Sung Sot Cave one of the ‘most beautiful’ caves in the area and also known as the “cave to heaven” or “surprising cave”, it was only discovered in 1993 by a fisherman and not opened to tourists until 1998. The caves reminded me of the Nigili Caves in Australia but with much higher ceilings!

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It was lit up in all different coloured lights and the effects were staggering! We walked through as our guide pointed out all the rock formations in the shape of all different animals and people such as the dolphin, the lion, dragon, Buddha and our favourite… the giant boob! Some of these require a LOT of imagination but it makes you think about the first people down the caves who would have been down here before all the lights and must have seen all the rocks like ‘WAA there is a lion!!!’ Half way round the cave we reached the point where the fisherman first came through to find the cave and where the cave gets its nickname as high up there is an opening, and when the sun shines it sends a beam of light down into the cave as though it is coming from heaven.

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My favourite area of the cave was ‘Romeo and Juliet’, again you need an imagination for this however as you look into the rock the shadow looks like a man (all be it a man with a beer gut!!) and he is looking up to another shadow that looks like a girl. It is quite sweet despite ‘Juliet’ looking in the opposite direction! The caves are ridiculously humid and everyone in our group had sweat pouring down their face by the end!

We got back onto our boat and headed off for our next area. We stopped at a tiny floating village and started our kayaking Halong trip, taking them out to explore the area around Luon Cave.

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Kayaking around going under the massive cliffs it really does feel like you are in some sort of dream or movie. It is exactly like scene in Avatar where they fly through the floating cliffs except that obviously the cliffs are in the water!! We kayaked around the area for about an hour in what was literally breathtaking scenery, heading back to the boat we took our kayak around the village with tiny kids shouting hello and guard dogs barking away. The dogs are there to protect the fish farms and the whole thing seemed so weird as the closest land to village is about 2 hours away by boat!!

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Setting sail again we had time to chill out on the deck of the boat, lying on sun loungers as giant cliffs sailed past us. Dinner was on the boat where we made our own fresh spring rolls and had amazing fish and honey chicken all while listening to what I think must have been a 90s power ballad CD including some Titanic classics! It was a hectic day and after dinner Andy and I decided to head to our room on the boat and get showered and changed for bed ready for day two on the majestic Ha Long Bay…

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Random Motorcycle Adventure in Vietnam Leads Tourists to a "Death Party"

By Micah Spangler
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Ben Tre province - Mekong Delta
The idling motorcycle wobbled as I climbed aboard, my arms desperately clutching at the waist of the stranger now only centimeters from my face. I eyed Caroline anxiously as her driver started his bike.

“My name is Diamond,” Caroline’s driver yelled at us, attempting to drown out the rumble of the passing Saigon traffic with his slow, practiced English. “OK, we go to Mekong Delta now!” he shouted.

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Blue boats in the rivers of the Mekong Delta (Photo: Getty Images)
The bikes lurched into action as our drivers weaved their way onto the busy street. A kaleidoscope of colors sped past us, echoing against my helmet’s visor until the lights and sights of the city were miles behind.

Caroline and I had met two days earlier on a bus ride back from Cu Chi – a vast network of Viet Cong tunnels that are part of the common Ho Chi Minh City backpacker route. The tunnels turned out to be a huge tourist trap, complete with cartoonish mannequin soldiers and tacky, overpriced souvenirs.

“Do you want to see the real Vietnam?” Caroline asked me, as I vented out loud that the trip had been a waste of a good afternoon.


“Then I have a plan,” she said.

Caroline unfolded a ripped piece of paper with a Vietnamese phone number scrawled across it. “This guy, Diamond, offered to take me on a motorcycling southern Vietnam trip! He can take you too. We can go together.”

“Diamond?” I asked incredulously. The name – and the do-it-yourself business card – didn’t exactly scream reliability. Caroline looked at the number and then at me and sighed, “I want to go, but not alone. Come with me?”

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Beware of the smelly durian. So pretty … so noxious. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Over the next two days, Caroline and I took an exploring Mekong Delta trip with Diamond and his uncle, perched on the back of their twin motorcycles like two infants in a high-speed BabyBjörn. We visited a local floating village and then a family farm with fields full of Asia’s most noxious fruit, the pungent durian. We snuck into an upscale Western-styled resort, where Diamond knew a security guard, then cooked shrimp on a homemade grill while passing around a bottle of banana seed whiskey – a strong, tart bottle of booze I had never seen before or since.

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The writer never would have visited this floating village without his motorcycle guide. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Properly plied with Vietnamese liquor, we ended the day halfway to our destination in a sleepy village somewhere in the Ben Tre province, where the Vietnam War is commonly considered to have officially begun in 1959.

“Do you want to get a beer?” Caroline asked.

“Yeah, of course.”

The streets of Ben Tre were dark and quiet. After crisscrossing half a dozen blocks, we finally found an open restaurant.

The patio was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with chain-smoking patrons, white bandanas wrapped tightly around their foreheads. A trio of musicians was crammed into one corner, sending a wave of live music over the crowd. Behind the tables, large wreaths leaned against the bare brick wall, adorned with balloons and ribbons.

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Ben Tre musicians (Photo:Jos Dielis/Flickr)
Caroline and I quickly sat down at the only two open seats at a table close to the street. Less than a minute later, a little girl tapped us on the shoulder and motioned for us to follow her. We shuffled passed the crowd, returning the diners’ awkward smiles and nods until we reached a large table at the back. At the table’s head sat a plump man with a smile seemingly superglued to his face. He shooed away two of his seated guests and offered us their chairs, slapping us on the back as we sat.

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Fruit plate (Photo: Getty Images)
Almost immediately, another girl emerged from the kitchen and placed a pile of fresh fruit and sweets in front of us. The crowded table looked at us like biologists examining specimens of a long-extinct race, waiting for us to eat. We dug in.

Not one of them spoke English, and I was convinced that even if I was fluent in Vietnamese, I’d have trouble communicating. The man to my right poured a plastic water bottle into a shot glass. He flapped his arms to get my attention and then stared at me straight in the eye as he tossed back the shot, careful to leave it half full. He handed the glass to me and smiled wider.

I examined it playfully, bringing the shot to my nose. The booze was as clear as water but reeked of diesel. I swallowed it in one gulp and slammed the glass on the table. The crowd cheered, and each of the men followed suit, individually taking their turn to share a drink with me.

Finally, at the behest of our accidental host, a little boy began translating for us.

“What is this?” I asked the boy. “Looks like a party. A birthday party?” I guessed, eyeing the balloons and homemade streamers.

“Um … kind of.” The boy said, clearly eager but nervous about conversing with a native English speaker. “It’s a … a … death party.”

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A scene from a Vietnamese Death Party (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Caroline and I both let out a gasp. “This is for his mother’s death,” he continued, pointing to the man nodding back and forth, signaling that even though he didn’t understand us, he knew what was being said. “She died one year ago today. We remember her.”

I was shocked and saddened, but I couldn’t help but think this was a much better way to remember a loved one, rather than the gloomy memorial and a cold cut combo that was all too common in the States.

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Incense burning (Photo: VivianDNGuyen/Flickr)
As we continued on, the man invited us inside to light a stick of incense and place it in front of a large framed picture of his mother. Turning to finally leave, he gave us both a big hug and began to cry.

“He says come back whenever you want,” the boy translated.

The next morning, we climbed aboard our motorbikes and sped passed a twisted corner. To my amazement, the “death party” was still in full swing, the band thumping their instruments like it was its first set.

From across the street, I caught our host’s glazed gaze once again – his face redder and puffier than the night before, but his smile two times wider. He waved both arms at me, jumping up and down. I waved back until he was out of sight; the vacant, open road the only hint he was ever there at all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cycling in Hoian - the charming ancient town

By Anner
cycling Hoian 1
Today, after a lengthy breakfast at the resort, we decided to take a cycling Hoian trip around the town.  We set off along the river, stopping periodically for pictures or shopping.

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Maddie and Akaya on bikes
At this point, we had gone five minutes, and in 88 degree heat with 89% humidity, we were all drenched in sweat. So we stopped at one of the many little stores, and all bought conical hats. I went with a simple design, though they did have ones that said, stitched in Vietnamese, “Hoi An- I’m a tourist.”

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Buying tourist-y conicals hats
Along the way, we passed many rice fields, bridges, and decorated streets. We stopped for sugar cane juice, pressed fresh, and sat down while various people came over and tried to sell us things. This time, though, they actually succeeded, selling cards with pop-out pictures of things like boats, flowers, and characters. 

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Rice paddy fields
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Dad looking out
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Fish nets
After some time we stopped for lunch right on the river, and I learned all about Vietnamese customs. First off, if someone invites you somewhere, it’s considered very important. It creates a sense of community and friendship, and is not something you can be careless about. Also, it is customary for the youngest woman to wipe off all the chopsticks for each guest at the table, and for the oldest woman to look over the bill at the end of the meal. Also, splitting the check is seen as very rude, similar to buying a gift for someone and then asking them to pay for part of it.

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Lunch on the river
As for the meal itself, we all trusted Dad to pick out some good dishes. None of us are really well-versed in either Vietnamese or finding out which menu items actually translate into good food. We ended up with grilled squid, lemongrass chicken, rice, garlic spinach, and probably some other seafood items that I’m forgetting. Everything was, of course, family style, a custom that I always am familiar with.

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After lunch, we headed back to the resort, ready to embark on our next three tasks before going out again for our Hoian travel: chilling, relaxing, and resting (my dads own words, surprise surprise).

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Beautiful views

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Halong Bay: The Most Beautiful Place in the World

By Vicky 
Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world, there’s no doubt about it. I booked a kayaking Halong tour there when I was in Vietnam for two weeks in August. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about the place beforehand but somehow had heard it was awesome and so decided to check it out. I’m glad I did. It was 5 hours from Hanoi, but worth every minute of the journey. Just a short boat ride out and we were greeted by these huge limestone karsts just scattered in the bay. Apparently there are thousands of them, but we must’ve only seen a small per cent during our time there.

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The smaller boat took us out to this the ‘Surprising Cave’. As soon as I step foot in the place I was amazed – I didn’t realise then how huge the cave was. It was exciting for me to come across on a guided tour, imagine being the person to discover this place all those years ago?!

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It was so hot and humid in there – note the lack of piccies of me here – I was a sweaty mess. The ground was slippy too, a few times I slipped off the path. If you’re going investigating places like this on holiday you need to make sure your travel insurance covers any sort of adventure activity, even if you have to pay a premium on it. Just check with your provider if you’re in any doubt, but do make sure. As long as you stick to the signposted walkways, and can walk steadily you’ll be fine but there’ll always be that one person who decides they want to go and explore further. Don’t be that person.

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The way they’d lit the Cave of Wonders up just made it all the more incredible. Stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere but the cave was so huge it never felt claustrophobic.

They took us kayaking tour on the second day morning – if you’ve ever kayaked before could you let me know how you steer the ruddy thing in the direction you want it to go? I was hopeless.

Kayaking Halong bay

We stopped to swim at the beach and there was a pathway to climb the limestone and look out over the bay, this was the incredible view.

Beautiful Halong Bay

Friday, August 22, 2014

Motorcycle Chronicles - Northwest Vietnam - Sapa

By Brian Keels
Jacob and I started our 800 km epic motorcycling northwestern Vietnam on a 5 day loop through the rugged mountains and countryside.  What started out as one of the greatest experiences of my life, it's definitely an experience I'll never forget.  We planned to visit an old French hill station high in the mountains in a town called Sapa which lies near the Chinese border as well as several other interesting towns along the way.  

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We explored Sapa by motorbike and ended up picking a place high up on a hill (with an awesome balcony) overlooking the cartoon-like emerald green valley.  $10 a night between the two of us for a ridiculous view, free internet, and clean sheets -- what more can one ask!  Many of the people around Sapa are Hmong, which is an ethnic minority that I believe originated in Mongolia, but over time were pushed further and further south into Vietnam, Laos, China, and Thailand.   The town really has an out of this world feeling.  The Hmong men wear navy blue French pettycoats with popped collars and silver bands around their necks. Women wear traditional clothing which they make themselves from hemp and dye with local indigo.  They are a truly 'ethnic' looking people and those involved in tourism speak excellent English.  

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We hired a tour guide to take us on a trekking Sapa tritp through the local Hmong villages and the countryside.  The views were almost beyond what I can describe.  It was the kind of thing that sent chills down your spine.  The entire mountain was a network of terraced rice fields framed by impossibly steep peaks .  Again, I don't think I can even put into words how beautiful the scenery is and I am convinced there is no other place like this in the world. It's as if the scenery was digitally enhanced by some computer nerd and you're sitting in a movie theatre with 3D glasses just soaking it in.   Words really can't describe the place or the feeling, but see the pictures for yourself and just know that pictures can't even do the place justice.

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During our time in Sapa, we met a lot of the Hmong women as they were selling handmade hemp clothes, bags, etc. They would all come up and with broken English say "You buy from me?!". It was funny because it was all ages (from 4yrs to 85yrs old), and they would say the same thing. I assume that tourism must be their main source of income, aside from the old days of opium cultivation

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The next day Jake and I spent time exploring the town and checking out the local markets, which had some interesting hand made souvenirs we bought.  Realizing that we needed to get on with our trip, we left early the next morning for what turned out to be a 10 hour test of endurance.  We drove through every type of terrain imaginable: mud, gravel, potholes, washed out sections due to small rivers crossing the road or because of rock slides, dusty back roads, you name it.  The weather varied nearly as much as the terrain: rain, cold, and fog turned to radiating heat and humidity.   We were literally in the middle of nowhere and due to some major construction on a new highway, we were forced to take all the back roads through small and remote villages. 

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The hard work was completely worth it though because the scenery was even more impressive than Thailand and Laos with continuous views of the mountains and rice terraces that constantly gave us goose pimples. The elements and construction work slowed us down a lot, and although we tried to make good time we didn't make it to our stop in Dien Bien Phu (the famous site where the Vietnamese won a decisive battle that ousted the French) until 8:30pm. When we arrived we were both covered from head to toe with mud and backcountry Vietnamese dust. To say the least we slept good that night!

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That next morning we got on the road early in anticipation for another long-haul day.  The views again were absolutely stunning.  

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I am probably a good 2 weeks behind on the blog, but will do my best to catch up...for some reason I can't access the blog site.  Stay tuned.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mekong Delta Exploring

By Klassens
We have decided that it's time to give our feet a rest and put our butt's to the test.

Instead of navigating the maze of the Mekong Delta river ways on our own we decided to do it on bikes via a small tour group.  We picked a biking Mekong tour and were led by An, a sincere gentle soul who was very purposeful in leading us onward. Or perhaps his purposefulness came from trying to help us keep up with a very fun and very fit young couple from Germany? I'm not sure.

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Before we could start biking, we needed to get away from the main cities, so onto a boat we went, passing small floating shacks with cat fish farms underneath.
The tour combined stops and information along the way to give us a better sense of how the locals live, and primarily do life on this vital body of water. One such stop was at a family farm where they had a large variety of fruit trees and vegetables which is more lucrative than growing rice.  We toured their home and kitchen and got a better idea of why they layout their homes the way they do, religiously and culturally.  Their homemade banana rice wine was pretty good for home made hooch and we sampled local fruits and homemade sweet rice cakes. One of our nights was spent in a very rustic guest house on the water.  Fairly open air rooms are set up on stilts along the water's edge.

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A local house
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Gorgeous sunset as we cruise to our evening stop.
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Stopped  at a pottery factory for export. All handmade, and this kiln will run 24/7 for 20 days being stoked and fed constantly with rice husks for fuel. 
One of the things I enjoyed most was just knowing that this was the same body of water we were on while traveling from Northern Thailand through Laos to Luang Prabang, and in only another 150km or so, this water would empty into the South China Sea.

Actually, whining was not high on my list, as I loved the biking Mekong Delta trip.  Brad gets a rush weaving in and out of busy traffic, but I so enjoyed biking under a canopy of tropical greens of palm, bamboo, and so many varieties of which I don't know the name of.  Simply gorgeous and when you passed a rice field, you literally felt a cool fresh breeze wash over you as you pass by! 

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In the outlying farms, family bury their dead on the land And bring regular sacrifice to help them in their next life.
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Stopped at a Khmer temple and this new young monk (15 years old) will spend a year here in training.  Temple combines Hindu and Buddhist artifacts. He was very chatty with us and Anna, and amazed at how tall she was, especially compared to him.
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Little school girls going home for lunch.
Again so many of the locals and children call out hello and laugh.  Why they laugh, I still don't know. Laugh because we are biking in the heat? Laugh because they just don't see many of us foreigners on the back roads? Laugh, because they are secretly making fun of us?  Not sure, but many hellos were exchanged with only a minor crash as children came out for a high five and when I tried to oblige, more came, along with a bike of two old ladies.  A minor crash with the elderly grandmas resulted in minor injuries, embarrassment (on my part) and one severe tongue lashing to the kids.....  So wish I could have understood it, but I couldn't and just sheepishly biked away to join the others.
Small bamboo bridges to homes across the river.  They are called monkey bridges.
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A rice field
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Loved the many bridges and paths  weaving along the river
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What looks similar to our canoes, but called arroyos, we navigated through narrow waterways with spectacular foliage.
It's 3:00 in the afternoon. Temperature 30, feels like 38... Humidity 80%.
Last haul was up a massive bridge.  Never ending steady up.  Brad is cheering me on, I am down to my lowest gear.... I made it without getting off.
Damn proud of myself, though I might have had a minor breakdown after.... Can't remember! Blocked it out so I would choose to go back out again the next day!

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