Thursday, June 22, 2006

Day 1 of our intrepid adventure!

June 22nd. OK ready to rock and roll! Seriously, there is something to be said for hanging out on the back of a bike! Check out Jackie and I as we met our guides and got ready to head off! I was with Luong, Jackie with Ton and Dave with lovely Lew.. don't worry tons of pics of them coming up my friends! Wasn't quite sure what to expect on our first day - how much stuff would we see, where exactly would we be going (Luong likes to keep the itinerary close to his chest!), how would it all work, would my bum get numb - you know, all those really important things to think about!

First stop - i did mention Dalat had lots of wierd kitschy things going on - was the Crazy House, yes that's it's name folks! Well, the real name of this house is Hang Nga Guest House, but it is usually known as the Crazy House around town. It's definitely a wierd mixture of styles and materials that create a unique, albeit very odd house, built by Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Vietnam's former president, right after she finished her architecture studies in Moscow. With a giraffe tea room, helter skelter hallways, and an intricate maze of passages, stairways and rooms, it was fun to roam around. It's even possible to rent a room for sleeping the night here, check out the pic... hmmmn dont know if i could actually sleep in a room like this but hey, its funky!

After this we headed out of town to a beautiful flower farm! Due to Dalat's temperate climate, it is an agricultural paradise and the farmers here grow everything from flowers, vegetables, rice, coffee, tea - you name it they probably grow it here! The flower farms have been going for some time, but with investment here from many Dutch companies, the types of flowers grown has expanded dramatically, from the more traditional roses to newer varieties like gerber daisies - my favourites!

After this it was off to a silk farm to see silk worms and how they worked! Talk about an education here folks! First we went to the farm where the worms are kept in large, flat baskets and fed a diet of leaves (can't remember what kind - is it mulberry?) should hear the noise they make chomping away! Wierd! Then we got on the bikes and went down the road a bit to a wee homestead where we met a woman whose job it was to take the worms and hang them out once they have gone into cocoons. Sorry but have to make the comparison that they looked like lots of little tampons sitting out in the sun - so strange! And did you know you can get up to 800m of silk thread from one cocoon - isn't that pretty amazing! The farm makes $4 a kilo for the worms, and each one of the big baskets we saw holds 3 kilos so it can be a profitable business. Then we went to the factory where the skilled workers here - and they have to be skilled to put the cocoons - still with the live worms inside them i think? - onto a spindle and then the machine unthreads the cocoon until all the silk comes off .. its incredible! That thread is then used to make all the beautiful silk material in Vietnam and beyond, for clothes, tablecloths ets. I'm sure Luong if you read this, you can correct some of my facts, but considering the ton of info you and the boys gave us every day, i'm pleased that i've remembered as much as i have so hope its not too off target!

Then it was back on the bikes again. Thank goodness as it is hot, hot, hot in Vietnam my friends! We passed a bridge where some local people were taking a wee break from their incredibly heavy looking loads (poor things, an older lady and younger children - have i said how hard these people work!).. And again, they seemed quite happy to see us and waved hello! The bridge we were standing on had been bombed twice during the Vietnam war and had just been rebuilt 9 years ago! This was to become typical of a lot of what we saw on our travels.. newer roads and bridges etc. that had been rebuilt post- reunification and even more recently as the country has embraced tourism!

We passed tons of coffee and tea bushes as we drove through the beautiful, lush countryside. More interesting info - Vietnam is the number two exporter of coffee in the world behind Brazil, and number two rice exporter behind Thailand! Luong also pointed out areas of the land that had been hit by napalm (immediate explosioon over one specific area) and Agent Orange, which could blow in any direction depending on what the wind was doing when the chemicals were dropped (many people don't realise the American pilots who dropped Agent Orange also got very sick and many died due to the lack of control in how the chemicals fell). You can clearly see the earth has been scorched by this, even today, and only very short rooted plants can grow in these areas because deeper down the soil is still so toxic. We asked Luong if people really ate rice and other shallow rooted food grown here and he said, yes it was safe because as soon as a plant hit the dangerous soil, it died immediately so everyone knew you couldn't eat that - mind you, i'd be a tad nervous eating rice from this soil - sorry Luong!

Stopped at a wee house where they make rice wine.. met the owner and his family and Ton explained how it all works. Essentially you take the rice (sometimes mixed with tapioca?) and boil it up in big pots. Then there is some fermenting that goes on, the liquid is syphoned off to another pot and then it sits for a while. OK this one im a bit rusty on the process here, but we all tried it and wow - its potent. Let's just say that! Bit nervous that the rice wine section was right next door to the piggery, but i suppose if the stuff is that potent, it will knock out any germs possible so no worries there!

Stopped off for Lew to introduce us to an older gentleman who was making - by hand - knives and machetes in order to till his crop. He was a native of the north who had moved down south after the war in 1975, like many other northerners who thought they might have a better life in the south! Lew explained how the machetes were made to fit with the way the people used them, how they would last for a long time, and how they did everything by hand!

So THEN we stopped for lunch! Yes, folks we did ALL that amazing stuff BEFORE we ate! Wow! As part of the trip, Luong and the guys pick the restaurants for lunch and dinner...and the food is a big part of the overall experience because there is a) no way we would know about the restaurants we visit and b) we couldn't order from them because there are usually no menus and certainly not in English! And sorry, I feel bad Luong, but we just can't eat noodle soup for breakfast- its just too hot! We end up wimping out and having baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese no less!).. but anyway i digress! Anyway our lunch was amazing - Dave the Brave - as i will now call him for all eternity cos he would try anything, and the boys loved him for that - he tried some snake wine - yuk! And then we saw something being blowtorched in the kitchen - turned out to be (after some investigation online by Dave!) a "cheo" Java mouse deer.. hmmn slightly worried when Luong got a present of it and it came with us to our first night's dinner - but more on that later! Lunch was amazing.. but it was time to head off again!

After lunch we stopped to chat (well, Luong did obviously not us!) to some nomadic farmers who are in conflict with the government right now as they practice "slash and burn" tactics, using the land until it is no longer viable for their needs, then moving on to the next area. The government wants to bring the nomadic people into villages and change their working habits to preserve the land, but so far only some tribes have made the decision to move.

We also visited another group within the same, larger tribe - the H'mong people I think. One group live in the forests, this group moved hundreds of years ago to villages, where they live in longhouses. The children were just so gorgeous and we got to meet a family in their home (everyone is so accomodating.. part of me did feel uncomfortable going into people's homes as if its a tourist attraction, which, hey if we are being honest, is true - we are tourists!). I talked to Luong about this and not wanting to be exploitative in any way and he said he understood, but he'd talked to the people before and they were happy to have us (Vietnamese people really are incredibly open and proud too, to show off their life to tourists!).. and that they were as curious about us as we were about there you go! Still a little unsure, but everyone we met was so gracious and smiley and wanted to touch us and hey, its all good! The make up of the country is as follows: 84% are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), 2% Chinese and the remaining 4% are Khmers, Chams, and members of more than 54 ethnic minority tribes like the M'nong, Ba Na, Brau and H'long....also the tribes vary depending on where they live.. in the north there are H'mong (black and white), White Thai, Dao, Zao and many others...

Anyway to make a long day just a tad shorter, we arrived at our first hotel around 5:30pm! What a first day! And it wasn't over yet! We were staying in Dac Lac and from our hotel had a lovely view of beautiful Lac Lake. Above the lakeside is an old palace owned by an Emperor that has been rebuilt as a hotel We walked up to the "Hunters Palace" where there used to be game hunts for tigers, elephants, etc, in the oldend days (all that is left of this time is a bunch of stuffed animals in the hotel). Then the rain hit us so we headed back down for a few Tiger beers before dinner. Now - dinner was certainly fun! Not only did the Java deer mouse from earlier come out (blowtorched hours ago and then kept in a plastic bag for a few hours)- and yes Dave did try it - to Jackie and my's horror! But then we all had to try goats blood rice wine (i thought it was just a fun name - i found out later - no, i really did drink goats blood - wow! pretty powerful stuff!). Dinner was fantastic.. as usual the food is amazing on this trip! We had great chat with all the boys - they have been friends for a long time and like to ride together if possible; Lew and Luong have much in common with their lives; they both lost their fathers at a very young age (when they had joined the Viet Cong in the later stages of the war when many of the Southern Vietnamese wanted the Americans to leave).... These men are really lovely; so open and want you to ask as many questions as you want. So proud of their country and how it is growing and changing.. im telling you - this trip is a cultural, gastronomic, anthropolical adventure.. im loving it in case you can't tell! They are so good looking out for us, wiping our plates before we use them, serving us and making us eat more, more!! Making sure we are enjoying ourselves! Anyway, lots of rice wine and food later, the boys dismissed us around 9pm .. it all seemed to happen all of a sudden (we later heard they were off to watch some World Cup games, hey, we would have watched them too! - but don't want to cramp their style!). They weren't being rude, and to be honest, they (and Dave!) were all a few sheets to the wind anyway so probably a good thing (Luong says first and last night are the party nights.. the rest of the time, its all business - yeh right Luong teehee!).

Can't wait to see what tomorrow brings!


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