Braving the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City

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As we continued our unplanned travels, we hit a snag when my Russian friend wanted to go to Vietnam and I wasn’t too keen as I had been there before and was quite content with what I had seen.  Also, the visa is 70USD to go there.   So we made a compromise, we would go just to see this cave complex in the middle of the country that has just recently opened up to tourism called the Phong Nha Caves (more on this in next post).

As we were in Cambodia, we first crossed the border and headed to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.  Although I had been hesitant to go back there, upon waking up in the city, I was absolutely elated to be there.  I couldn’t wait to eat banh (Vietnamese sandwiches), pho, bun (Saigon style which is the style that you get in the western countries), and they cook their meats in this lemongrass, ginger, chili sauce that is to die for.  Oh how I’d forgotten how great the food in Vietnam was!

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Then there was the cracked egg shell tea set that I had wanted to buy last time that I was in Saigon, but couldn’t because I had no space to carry it with me.  I thought that I would get a chance somewhere else in the country to buy it once I dumped some of my stuff, but never saw it again.  Not even in China where they make everything.

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Finally, I would have the chance to visit the Cu Chi tunnels which I didn’t get a chance to do the first time round.  No visit to Vietnam is complete without learning about the history of its war.  The Cu Chi tunnels are where the Viet Con hid out while fighting the American soldiers.  You can visit this site which is about a 60 minute drive away from Saigon by paying 5USD for transportation with a tour group and then the entrance fee once there. Here you will be able to explore some tunnels and if you really want to, you can shoot a machine gun.  Yes, shoot a machine gun.

There are two tunnel systems that you can go through.  One mostly everyone walks through.  It’s relatively clean (just dusty) and it is lit with lights.  There are many exit points along the way if you don’t like it and want to exit.  In here the tunnels are connected to rooms where the soldiers would congregate for different activities such as eating.

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And then there were the other set of tunnels… Optional…  This sampling of unlit tunnels that we could choose to go into had a very narrow opening to enter.  Then initially you could “monkey walk”- walking in a squat position, and at some point, you had to go on your hands and knees.  We were warned that these tunnels had bats.  So the first set of people that went down said that they saw the bats, but that they were not in the areas that we were crawling in.  My friend went down and said that she didn’t even see any bats and she was looking.  By the time that I went down, I was one of the last people to go.  Two people were in front of me and we were supposed to stick together.  All we had for lights was the flashlight function on mobile phones.  After posing for some photos as I squeezed my way down the rabbit hole, I got into the tunnel and couldn’t see the two people that had gone ahead of me, but I could hear them.  We had been instructed to turn right and then left in the tunnel.  So I made the right turn and was now crawling on my knees.  Black things were flying past my head.  OMG, bats. I started feeling anxious.   I called out to the 2 ahead of me.  No response.  I couldn’t hear them.  I called out again and nothing.  I found the tunnel where I was supposed to turn left and all I could see were bats hanging from the low ceiling.  If I continued to crawl toward them, I would run into them with my forehead.  I remembered people saying that the bats were not in the parts of the tunnel that we crawled through.  So I thought that I had gone the wrong way.  So I backed up looking to see if there had been another left turn.  Then, thankfully, I heard voices from behind me.  I called out to them.  They caught up with me and I let them go ahead of me because I wanted them to be the ones to encounter the bats first.  They went ahead and as they disturbed the bats and they started to fly, they flew into my head.  So much for not going first.  From this point, we were just 5m around a bend from the exit.  When I came out, my friend and others were wondering what had happened to me in there and why I’d taken so long.  Embarrassed, I told them I panicked because of the bats.  So be warned, if you go down the optional tunnels, they aren’t kidding when they say there are bats in there.

Rabbit Island: It Doesn’t Get More Basic Than This

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Only 30 minutes by bus from lazy Kampot, you can find a beach resort town named Kep. Catering to a slightly didn’t clientele, the bungalows here are actually luxurious and were out of our price range. Trying to keep up with our atmosphere of pure relaxation, we got ourselves onto a ferry and headed directly to Rabbit Island.

In the Philippines, I thought El Nido was rustic, but compared to Rabbit Island, it was extremely touristy. In Indonesia, I thought Gili Trawangan was a backpackers paradise, but Rabbit Island must be like what Gili T was 20 years ago.

We got off the boat to a shoreline of bamboo bungalows. There were 4-5 guesthouses with very basic accommodations. Each guesthouse has its own restaurant and that is all there is on the island. Toilets don’t flush, so you have to know how to use a bucket to flush. Most showers are bucket showers. We actually had a shower head but the pressure was so low, I used a bucket anyways. Electricity is via a generator which runs from sunset to 10:30 pm. You pretty much have to be in bed by 10:30 as there is no light anywhere. You also can’t sleep before 10:30 because you can’t turn off the light.

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Rabbit Island was the perfect place to do nothing. Sit in a hammock and read, bathe in the sea, drink coconut water, eat crabs and just enjoy the natural surroundings. For a bit more activity, we actually walked around the island which takes 2 hours to walk. There is well marked path for 90% of the journey. For the last bit, the path disappeared and we found ourselves skirting the edges of a manky mangrove and then having to walk on jagged rocks along the water edge. Oops have we done something wrong? No, we were on the right path.

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Rabbit Island was a paradise, I could have stayed longer except for one thing. The suffering at night when the mosquitos and sand fleas attacked with a vengeance. I couldn’t take the onslaught as they went for blood.

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So back to the mainland it was. Although a completely different feel from Kampot and Rabbit Island, it was worth a visit for the crab market. Here you could see the crabs being captured and brought in and sold. You could also partake in indulging in cheap crab in one of the many restaurants there.

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Happy in Kampot

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10 years ago, was when I first came to Cambodia. The country had just opened itself up to tourism. Most tourists just came to see Angkor Wat and left the country. There were no ATMs then; people left the country because they ran out of money. It was advised to stay on main roads as landmines were still randomly scattered about the countryside. A lot has changed since then which I commented on in previous post 2 years ago when I went to Phnom Penh to visit a friend. Now I’m back visiting areas in the south that have become attractions since my first visit.

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I met up with my Russian friend in Kampot which is this riverside town. How to describe Kampot… backwater town perfect for relaxing. We came there with high expectations of things to do there- sunset in Bokor Mountain, treks to waterfalls, visiting pepper plantations (kampot pepper is renowned), etc etc. What did we do? Nothing. It’s so easy to do nothing in this town.  It’s amazing how time can slip away so quickly and you’ve found that you’ve done nothing.
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We stayed in two different places by the riverside, Naga House and Samons Villa, in very basic bamboo bungalows.  Keeping in mind that I’m a city girl, born and raised, the closest to nature that I got on my family vacations was to American beaches. The first time I slept in a tent was when I was 28. Staying in these bungalows was a bit of a challenge for me. The walls were made of woven bamboo and there was a thatch roof. The walls didn’t meet the roof. I’m not referring to poor workmanship, I’m referring to purposeful ventilation. So we were completely open to all elements. I heard noises at night that I’ve never heard before. Did you know that geckos make a sound? We had the biggest gecko ever living inside of our roof. Frogs jumped around me in the shower. Stray cats found it easy to get into the bungalow. But this is the only way to experience Kampot, so I would highly recommend it.

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We did actually motivate ourselves to do something. We took some kayaks out for an hour. We had high aspirations of kayaking to a waterfall but found ourselves quickly getting tired of fighting the current. So it became a relaxing kayak where we didn’t stray far. Then we decided to go see this church that was 8km by bicycle. In the lazy attitude that we were in, we didn’t have the name or directions to the church and we started our journey at 4 pm. As we left the town, the roads worsened and became gravel and dust. I did notice that there were no street lamps along the highway.  At some point we turned off this gravel road to a dusty dirt road in search of this church. I’ll tell you right now, we didn’t find the church. We did find a cave which we took a peek at. But we decided to turn back because the sun was starting to set. Not more than 100m into our return journey, I noticed that my bicycle was becoming sluggish to peddle. I had a flat tire. How to cycle 8km on a flat? Keep filing it up with air every chance you get. I wanted to fix it properly but everwhere I went just wanted to put air in it. In a country where everyone is riding bicycles on crappy roads, you’d think it would’ve been easy to fix. I somehow managed to get back into town (in the dark), but by the end I had destroyed the tire. The tread came off the rim. Fortunately, that happened when I was walking distance from the guesthouse. This is why it was better for us to just do nothing than to try and be productive.
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We were happy in Kampot. We wanted to be happier. So we decided to try a happy pizza. Neither of us had had one before so we didn’t know what to expect. We bought it from special happy pizza where they didn’t charge us anything extra for a happy pizza. As we were eating it, we were waiting for something to happen. “Do you feel happy?” “No.” When we finished it, “happy?” “No?” 15 minutes later. “Anything?” “No.” So we googled it. How long does it take to be happy. We found a blog that said it was delayed. We waited. 1 hour, nothing. After 1.5 hours, we had given up. “Maybe we are immune.”  Around 2 hours later while playing cards, my friend did something while dealing, like putting the card face up when it should have been face down and we both looked at each other and started giggling. We knew what we were laughing at wasn’t funny but we couldn’t stop. We were on the ground rolling with laughter.  We weren’t immune after all and we were very happy in Kampot.

Ten Differences Between Travelling in Australia/New Zealand and Developing Nations

I thought it might be fun to reblog this post from 2 years ago. I wrote it after traveling through Australia and New Zealand, noting the differences between these countries and developing ones. As I returned to Asia from New Zealand now, I did have a bit of culture shock.

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This is the first time that I’ve backpacked a western country (although technically Australia and New Zealand aren’t in the west).  I’m used to travelling in Asia, South America and Africa.  So I’ve been noticing some differences while travelling between the two different regions.  They are as follows:

1. Laundry services:  Normally in developing nations, you can drop off your laundry in the morning and return at the end of the day with you clothes washed, dried and ironed for you.  Here, you have to do it yourself.  Hostels provide coin operated machines.  Who has the time!

2. Bargaining:  No bargaining in Australia and New Zealand.  Even if prices are over inflated for tourism, you have no choice to pay it.  But at least the locals have to pay the over inflated prices too.

3.  Taxis:  When you walk out of your hostel in Australia and New Zealand, no one…

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Traveling: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

New Zealand was supposed to be the end of my travels which would have marked the closing of a chapter in my life. The end of the era for the urban gypsy. Quite a lot of people would define me first and foremost as someone who loves to travel and it’s the only way they know how to relate to me. I am multifaceted. There is much more to me than just exploring the world.

This trip was supposed to be an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that I was in between life. Moving from one country to another with no ties to either. I thought that spending a few months of sleeping in dodgy accommodations would help me to embrace the comfort of my bed when I returned to Canada. But the opposite became true.

This trip has unsettled me. I have spent the past year deciding on which country I wanted to settle down in because I was ready for that next phase of life. Now I find myself realizing how important travel is to me, and I don’t want it to become less significant in my life. Since 2006, every two years or so, I have travelled for at least 2 months and I want this to continue. But how do you focus on your career or start a business when all you’re thinking about is the next escape. The irony is that if I’d chosen to settle in London, I would be more mentally settled. I wouldn’t have gone on this trip. The visa renewal process would’ve taken 6-8 months which means I would be passport-less. All my energies would’ve been focused on the next phase of life.

So two days before I was to return to London, I found myself on the phone changing my plane tickets. I decided to do this one act of spontaneity which can only be done when you are completely free. No rent or mortgage to pay; no job to return to; no one to consult and no one that your responsible for. I’ve done something like this before. Two days before I was going to leave London to move back to Canada in 2006, I changed my mind and stayed.  (I see a pattern forming). The feeling of being able to change your life’s path in an instant is euphoric. Very few of us will ever find our lives at a point where we are free to make impulsive decisions. There is usually something or someone holding you to a place.  I felt that before I anchor myself down with a ball and chain, I just needed to do something that I wouldn’t have been able to do in any other circumstance.

Here I am in Kampot, Cambodia. Extending my travels for just a little bit longer. I’ve met up with my Russian friend. I have no travel guide (mailed it off in Indonesia), ideas but no plans and am in absolutely no hurry. Continue to follow my adventures as my travels go on. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

Rafting and Tongariro Crossing: New Zealand Revisited

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As travel in Indonesia came to an end, I had one more destination  on my itinerary, New Zealand.  I have already travelled through New Zealand, but was coming here this time to visit friends who I’d met in London and had returned to Auckland to settle down.  My travels here were different as I was visiting people and getting to know Auckland better.  Most of my time was spent visiting numerous crystal clear beaches with clear blue skies.  Honestly, New Zealand is a beautiful country.

I did manage to get out do some touring with one of my friends. We headed off on a two day adventure.  I wanted to try white water rafting again.  I had tried in Bali and for the price I paid, the experience I had was okay.  The last time I was in New Zealand, I had rafted in Queenstown, which was the worst rafting experience ever.  Paid 195NZD to be on the river for 1.5 hours and only experience 5 minutes of rapids.  This time I tried to do some research, which sometimes doesn’t get far when it comes to white water rafting.  I decided to go on the Wairoa River which is controlled by a dam and can only be rafted 26 times a year.  It is advertised as a grade 5 river, but in my experience they always advertise higher than the river actually is.  For 110NZD my friend and I headed off.  I was a bit weary when there were no safety kayakers, how bad could this river really be?

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This river was made up of a couple of grade 4 and 5 rapids along with some grade 2’s and 3’s.  The grade 4 rapids were more like grade 3.5 rapids.  The grade 5 rapids were waterfalls.  One of the grade 5 rapids had a danger spot after the waterfall that we had to try and avoid called the toaster.  Our guide explained that if we got stuck in the toaster the boat would be pulled into the water and we would all be sucked in and fall out of the boat.  He said that he’d try and steer us away from it, but he had been caught in it 4 weeks ago.  He said that if we noticed that he started to look panicked and started saying “Fuck, shit, fuck, shit, fuck, shit” then something has gone wrong and we were to hold on and get down quickly.  He did well that day and kept us out of the toaster by leaping in the boat to shift around the weight so that we stayed out of the toaster.

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Always up for new experiences, when offered the opportunity to float through a grade 2 rapid, the whole group was on board.  How to make a grade 2 rapid exciting, don’t use a raft.  The instructions that were given to us was to lie on our backs with our legs out straight because if we bend our knees, our butts will hit rocks.  You’ll see a wave approaching you, take a breath before the wave comes and hold your breath.  You will go under the water.  You will take on water.  Hold your breath for 10 seconds and it will be over and don’t hyperventilate and don’t panic.  So I jumped into the water.  My knees were straight, but my butt was still hitting rocks.  I saw the wave approaching.  I took a breath and went under water and surfaced.  Then I saw another wave, took a breath, went under water and surfaced.  There was another wave right above me, breath, under, suface, next wave, breath, under, surface.  Now I was taking on water and I was starting to  hyperventilate, I was telling myself to not panic.  Fuck, shit, fuck, shit, fuck, shit.  Finally after what seemed like an eternity it came to an end and I survived.

After the rafting, we went onto do something very kiwi, freedom camping.  In our station wagon, we converted the trunk into a double bed with mattresses, blankets, duvets and pillows.  This is the way to travel New Zealand, forget about camper vans just convert  your car into a tent and it’s free accommodations!  We learned that when you sleep in the trunk of a car, with every turn, the car bounces up and down. I can assure that although our car was bouncing from the outside and our Windows were fogged up in the morning, it was due to a restless night and condensation; nothing else.

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After our somewhat restless night in the car, we headed off early in the morning to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  When I was last in New Zealand, I had done this trek before.  However, when I did it, it had been raining for days and the walk had been closed.  I went on the first day that they opened it and it was misty and there was no view.  This time, there were clear blue skies and the views were amazing.  The crossing is near where The Lord of the Rings Movies filmed Mordor and there’s even an option to climb mount Doom.  Whether in mist or in sunlight, this area just seems like death.  The trek is taxing.  You start of in a flat bit with sparse vegetation.  Then comes the infamous devil’s staircase which I think they redid because it seemed more gentle in its incline, less stairs this time.  Then you reach the red crater which marks the beginning of the descent.  The first descent is down scree.  I remember the last time having no control as I walked with lots of momentum from gravity.  I thought I was going to fall of the edge.  This time, it felt more manageable, maybe because I was mentally prepared for this.  Reaching the bottom of this brings you to what I think is the highlight, the emerald pools.  After this, it’s an easy walk downhill for 2.5 to 3 hours.

Mount Doom

Mount Doom

Emerald pools

Emerald pools