Archive for July, 2010

Time with Friends in Tokyo

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

28 May – 4 June 2010, Japan

After more than two months on the road, we were craving a short break from the backpacker lifestyle. Ironically, this coincided well with our scheduled stop in Japan. Although it’s been seven years since I lived in Japan, flying into Tokyo’s Narita Airport felt a little bit like returning home. Knowing where to go and how to get there eliminated about 95% of the stress that we typically experience when arriving in a new place. Perhaps our greatest sense of relief came from not having to worry about getting ripped off or being overcharged. After spending time in Vietnam, a country where finding someone to charge you a fair price is a constant battle, we were especially grateful for the opportunity to let down our guard.

Both Jason and I have spent quite a bit of time in Tokyo so we felt no pressure to go sightseeing during our week long stay. Instead, we focused on spending time with our friends and Jason’s former colleagues. The first half of our short trip was spent with our Aussie friends, Suria and Carl. I met Suria when I was living in Japan and although she moved back to Australia in 2004, she returned to Japan a couple of years ago to work at an International School just outside of Tokyo. Spending a few days with Suria and Carl in their cozy apartment was one of the most relaxing stops of our entire trip. Other than excursions to the grocery store, a sushi restaurant with a rotating conveyor belt and the 100 Yen shop, we didn’t do much other than eat delicious home-cooked meals prepared by Suria and enjoy each other’s company.

Although their apartment in the suburbs isn’t in the midst of all the action, I was grateful for its location near a river with an excellent running path. For the first time since leaving New Zealand, I was able to run without fearing that I would be run over by a speeding vehicle or bitten by a rabid dog. In fact, the running path was so quiet and serene that I nearly forgot one of the largest cities in the world was just across the bay. As psyched as I was about the ideal running conditions, Jason was even more excited about Suria and Carl’s reliable, fast internet connection. Within 12 hours of hooking up our laptop, thousands of our photos were fully backed up to a server back home.

After a few days of R&R at Suria and Carl’s we packed our bags and headed to our friend Gavin’s apartment. Gavin is from Ireland but has been living in Japan since 2003. Like me and Suria, he moved to Japan to work as an Assistant Language Teacher but eventually moved on to pursue an exciting career in tax accounting. We had the honor of being Gavin’s last guests as he was relocating to London just a few weeks after our visit. Gavin’s apartment is less than ten minutes from Shibuya, home of Tokyo’s famous scramble crossing, so there was plenty to keep us entertained when we felt like venturing out. For the most part though we tried to avoid the crowds, preferring instead to wander the small, charming streets near Gavin’s apartment building.

One additional bonus to visiting Tokyo is that we were able to see Jason’s former Japanese colleagues from Boston Scientific. Since he was based in St. Paul and they are in Tokyo, he never had a chance to say goodbye when he resigned. Fortunately, they were nice enough to arrange a get together so that we could see everyone while we were there. Jason’s former manager arrived in Japan the same night and, fighting his jet lag, joined us as well. We really enjoyed seeing everyone and also appreciated the great meal.

Although our visit to Tokyo felt a little rushed, we were thrilled with our choice to include it on the itinerary. Gorgeous weather, time with friends and a short hiatus from our routine bed bug check all combined to make it a relaxing and enjoyable week. Japan is by no means a budget destination but we managed to do it as cheaply as possible. Our flights to and from Narita were purchased with frequent flyer miles that Jason accumulated while traveling for work. As an additional perk, Jason’s elite status on Delta meant we were able to take advantage of the swanky airport lounges. With our casual clothes and Jason’s scruffy beard we sure looked out of place! Our accommodation In Japan was also covered thanks to our generous friends that put us up during our six night stay. Thank you to Suria, Carl and Gavin for being such wonderful hosts! We would also like to thank Kentaro for providing Jason with a stick of Canadian deodorant from his personal supply!

High Fashion in Hoi An

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

18 – 23 May 2010, Vietnam

Our tour with the Easy Riders ended on May 18th when we rolled into Hoi An. After six tranquil days on the motorcycles Hoi An was a shock to the system: traffic filled the streets, there were tourists everywhere, and without Hong and Duc our chances of paying anything resembling local prices were just about zero. The motorcycle trip moved our route inland instead of along the coast but we’d always planned to visit Hoi An. The city is famous for custom tailors, and just about every article of clothing I’d worn to work since 2006 was sewn in Hoi An. My recollection was that Hoi An was like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with perfectly fitting, high quality garments produced magically overnight. Unfortunately our second visit reminded me that the process isn’t quite that lustrous.

Our first step was to choose a tailor, which was not an easy task with literally hundreds of shops lining every street in the city. We initially followed the recommendation of our honorable motorcycle guides, and quickly set about choosing styles and fabrics. All of the shops are filled with fabrics as well as stacks of European fashion magazines, and they’ll copy any design. At this stage we encountered the first signs of trouble in Asian haute couture paradise. Not exactly an expert myself, I looked to the salesperson for advice about fabric selection. He enthusiastically recommended a cotton blend that he himself had purchased for the shop; however, he didn’t seem to know the precise content of the blend. I later learned that he’d only recently returned to Vietnam after living most of his life in Canada, where he’d worked as an engineer. Unless I slept through my textiles classes I’m pretty sure an engineering education isn’t exactly appropriate preparation for a career in fashion. I wasn’t very impressed with the shop but eventually ordered some cotton shirts and wool trousers, and after my measurements  were taken we left so the elves could do their work.

The next afternoon, less than 24 hours later, we returned for my first fitting. Although the shirts fit well, the cuffs were inconsistent, there were small stains on the fabric, and the pants were too tight. It took an exasperating four more fittings before the problems were fixed. A second tailor couldn’t seem to produce two shirts that fit the same. The only truly painless experience was at one of the most expensive tailors in town. A first dress shirt fit perfectly after a single fitting and alteration and an additional two didn’t need any adjustments at all. However at $40 each they were more than twice the price as those from the first tailor.

After five days of staring at fabrics, haggling over prices, and seemingly endless fittings we left Hoi An with several extra bags in hand. Despite the hassle, our visit to Hoi An was worthwhile; with ready-to-wear shirts back home I’m left with the choice of sleeves that barely extend beyond my elbows or a chest with enough extra material to power a small sailboat. Allison, on the other hand, has no problem filling her shopping bags back home and left Hoi An with only a dress and a shirt. Later, back in Saigon, I put my faith in the Vietnamese postal service and sent my purchases off on a slow boat to the USA. With any luck they’ll be waiting for me when I return home, and with a little more luck I’ll find a job to wear them to.

Dalat Easy Riders Live Up to the Hype

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

13 – 18 May 2010, Vietnam

Dalat was included on our Vietnamese itinerary for a couple of reasons. First, we were anxious to escape the heat and humidity sucking the life out of us in Saigon. Second, we never made it there during our first trip to Vietnam. Situated in the Central Highlands, Dalat is famous for its cooler climate, French architecture and Vietnam’s most famous group of motorcycle guides, the Easy Riders.

We didn’t make any arrangements in advance, but the Easy Riders found us as soon as we stepped off the bus from Saigon. They offered a day tour of the surrounding area and although their sales pitch was convincing we weren’t sure if they were the same Easy Riders that people on the internet raved about. In Vietnam it is common for the name of a respected business to be copied by less than upstanding individuals looking to make an easy buck. As we reviewed their pictures and testimonials from former clients we began to feel more confident that they were the “real” Easy Riders. Their official looking vests didn’t hurt either. We decided to join them for a tour the following day.

Our day tour with the Easy Riders, Hong and Trung, completely surpassed our expectations. We visited Buddhist temples, a coffee plantation, a silk worm factory, flower farms, a waterfall and a couple of small family owned businesses producing rice wine and bamboo baskets. These sites alone might not have been exceptionally interesting but visiting them with our knowledgeable guides made a world of difference. At each stop Hong and Trung took turns explaining the things we saw, discussing Vietnamese culture, answering our questions and patiently waiting while we took pictures. Topping it all off was our lunch stop where we sampled an array of delicious Vietnamese dishes at local prices.

Our stomachs full, our trusty guides could tell we were impressed. Like all good businessmen, they seized the opportunity to discuss other Easy Rider tours. With the aid of a Vietnam map they quickly proposed a route that would fit our schedule. We hadn’t planned for an additional tour but their sales pitch started to take hold and we were soon contemplating a five day tour from Dalat to Hoi An. Portions of their proposed 890 kilometer route followed the Ho Chi Minh trail and offered enough war history to satisfy even the most discerning history buff. As far as we were concerned, one of their greatest selling points was Hong himself. He was a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army so we knew we would hear firsthand accounts of the war.

Despite our excitement we felt uneasy about the relatively high cost of the tour. During our first week in Vietnam we lived well on about $50 a day; taking the Easy Rider tour would nearly triple our daily expenses. Later that afternoon we spreadsheeted our expenses to the extreme and finally concluded that we could afford to splurge on the tour. Exceptional tour guides are difficult to come by and we wanted to take advantage of their expertise. The next morning we found out that Trung was unable to join us and another Easy Rider named Duc would take his place. We were initially disappointed but it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with Duc. His sense of humor perfectly complemented Hong’s reserved demeanor.

During our five day motorcycle tour we drove north, visiting brick making factories, rubber plantations, and small businesses where we saw how things like tofu, sugar and rice paper are made. We browsed markets so far off the beaten path that people were genuinely surprised to see a tall, blonde haired foreigner wandering around. Farms were another frequent stop and for the first time in my life, I saw how peppercorn, cashews and mushrooms are grown. We passed through areas only recently resettled, after being evacuated due to high concentrations of chemical defoliants during the war. The Vietnamese government has forcibly relocated people back to the areas in order to create new economic zones. Similar to our one day tour, Hong and Duc taught us an incredible amount. At each stop they provided in-depth explanations of how products are grown or made. Their knowledge seemed endless and, as promised, they were continually able to get us local prices for food and accommodation. This is no small feat in a country where foreigners are consistently overcharged.

As much as we enjoyed the factory and farm tours, we were even more blown away by Hong and Duc’s war stories, the never-ending stream of propaganda billboards and historical sites including Charlie Hill and Phoenix Airbase. One of our many stops was Dak To, a major battlefield in the American War. Other than a faded plaque, some bomb craters and barely visible trenches, there isn’t much to indicate it was once the scene of intense fighting. If we hadn’t been there with the Easy Riders we never would’ve been able to distinguish it from the surrounding area. Despite the lives lost from both sides at this battlefield and others, Vietnam has no memorials commemorating the South Vietnamese soldiers.

As we drove north on the back of Hong and Duc’s motorcycles, they repeatedly pointed out war remnants that we never would have recognized. We saw the remains of bridges bombed during the war and hillsides wiped clean of trees by Agent Orange. One of our more unusual stops was a recycling facility. In addition to the usual plastic bottles and aluminum cans, there were piles of unexploded mortar rounds, grenades, land mines, and shell casings. Although most metal was collected shortly after the war, some Vietnamese still head out each day in search of valuable objects.

Our five day tour with the Easy Riders has earned a place on our list of around the world trip highlights. In our opinion a motorcycle tour is the absolute best way to see the Vietnamese countryside. I now realize how much we missed while stuck inside a cramped bus during our last trip to Vietnam. Other than Hong and Duc’s phenomenal skills as tour guides, what I will remember most is the throngs of kids chasing after us as we drove through small towns and villages. With our backpacks strapped to the back of the motorcycles they could see us coming and, before we even had a chance to wave, they would jump up and down, waving their arms and shouting, their adorable faces covered in huge grins. If we had stuck to our original plan and traveled up the coast on a bus, we would have missed out on countless interactions like this that made the trip so special. Although we were initially apprehensive at the thought of paying for such an expensive tour, I now have no doubt that it was money well spent.