Caves, Lakes, and Pepper Farms

After arriving in Kampot and making my way to the RikiTikiTavi Guest House, I put on comfortable clothes, settle in, and go to the house’s attached restaurant for dinner. While eating a very westernized burger, fries and shake, I meet Joanne from Ireland. She is having dinner by herself, I am about to have dinner alone, and I ask if she would like some company. After conversing over the basics, I learn she has already rented a motorbike, and we set up a plan to meet the following day and explore Kampot.

The next day, we acquire a rough map and set off towards near-by caves. Before we get to the true touristy caves discussed in Lonely Planet and the like, we run across another explorer who is on bicycle and he informs us of a larger, less crowded cave on the way. We pick up two more, Jesper and Matilda from Sweden, en route, find a spot to park our motorbikes, and meet a handful of local teenagers eager to show us around the cave. The cave is the site of an old ruined temple, which we confirm by the many statues and broken staircases throughout. We feel our way through passages of complete darkness and try to fit in others that are much to small. We find bats as we attempt to climb up a wall using a hanging vine. All the while, we play with the exposure settings on our cameras as we have to fight the intense contrast caused by thin streaks of light sneaking in between trapped boulders. After this positive caving experience, Joanna, Jesper, Matilda, and I decide to forgo the more touristy one, and continue on to the appropriately named Secret Lake.

Caves near Kampot

Cave climbing in Kampot

This lake may not be a secret to the locals, but for the four of us, finding the lake is an adventure as we bump along dirt paths through local villages. Every couple meters, a young high-pitched voice yells “hello” at us and we all respond with another “hello” in chorus. And at every junction, we stop, assess the options, and eventually attempt to ask someone the way. I enjoy the path to the lake just as much as the lake itself. While the other three find tubes and go swimming, I play with two local kids and make myself comfortable in a hammock. I even doze off for a moment as I enjoy my shady spot.

Cambodian countryside

Kids near Secret Lake

For the next activity on the day’s agenda, we take a 30 minute ride to a pepper farm. Kampot is apparently well-known for its pepper, and we were interested in learning more about all the hype. We find a small farm, where a father and his son show us around with the son doing most of the talking because he could speak better English. We learn about pepper as well as other local fruits, which they are also growing on the same site. To complete the tour, they cut up some fresh fruit for us, and we enjoy the new tastes with some cold drinks.

The last stop of the day is Kep beach.  On the way, we stop for gas, which means that we pull over to a village hut, find gasoline in old pepsi bottles and ask for either one or two liters worth.  Kep beach is relatively quiet with some tourists, some locals, and a handful of monks all there for an afternoon swim. I sip on a Coca Cola to combat the warm sun as we wander up and down the beach taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.  After a while, I realize that I am wearing a similar color to the monks and ask some to take a fun photograph with me.  As the sun starts to go down, we realize it is time to head back so that we do not end up riding in the dark. In the evening, the four of us meet up one last time for dinner and drinks before heading our separate ways hoping that one day we would see other again.

Matching with the monks

Kampot and Kep, Cambodia

Kampot and Kep are small adjacent towns near the southern beaches of Cambodia. Kampot has a population of around 40,000. The pace of life is slow and all the locals wear smiles. The weather changes from sun to rain and back again. And the tourists who choose to visit are mostly energetic to explore the countryside. On my way to Kampot, I have to change buses in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and am happy that the change is quick because the smog, heat, and hustle of the city is uninspiring.

Although it is not as historic as Siem Reap, Kampot still offers plenty to photograph and enjoy, and even a little rain can’t stop me from having a good time while we explore as evidenced by my poncho-wearing grin.

Raining in Kampot

From The Calm to The City

Getting into Saigon was a shock after my time in central Vietnam. The paddy fields were replaced with buildings and the rivers with roads. However, the bustle of the city was made more manageable as I toured around with my new friend, Hoa on her motorbike. She showed me the post office with its elaborate French architecture, we toured the South Vietnam wartime headquarters, and she helped me haggle my way through the night market of District 1. Saigon is a young vibrant city with parks full of activity and a busy nightlife. Unfortunately, part of the youngness of the city is the fault of the American War in that much of a generation died within those years.

Learning Hoa’s university student perspective on Saigon was a perfect way to end my Vietnam tour. Similar to the other Vietnamese I met, she was both proud of the culture and excited to share it. The perfect example of this was with traditional Vietnamese food. Hoa brought me a special dish along with some ca phe (Vietnamese coffee), which I had ordered at any and every opportunity. In short, the big city of Saigon felt smaller and friendlier thanks to Hoa.

Hoa and me

Later that evening, Hoa and I went to listen to Anh Tuyet sing Trinh Cong Son in a concert to remember this famous composer’s death 10 years ago. The concert was relaxing and I enjoyed listening to Hoa and the others around me sing along with some of the more famous tunes. As a change of pace from the last week, the culture I experienced in Saigon was less of the old traditional Vietnamese culture, and more of the current and live arts culture. Interestingly, at the end of the performance, everyone sang a song recognizing the unification and cooperation of the Vietnamese people. When trying to compare this experience to something in U.S., my first thought was that of my school’s fight song that plays after the performances leading up to our big rivalry football game, the only difference being that our fight song ironically has less of a marching feel.

Attempting to cross the street in Saigon

Again, I thank Hoa and all of the friendly Vietnamese I have met that made me feel so welcome. As I mentioned before, especially in situations such as these, I feel so fortunate to have had the experiences and to have met the people that I did.

My Son and The Boys

My Son is a Vietnamese name for a cluster of temple ruins that bears no relation to its English meaning. The phrase “the boys”, however, is intended to have exactly its American connotation.

In an attempt to avoid the tourists at My Son, I left in the mid-afternoon from Hoi An and pay a motorbike driver less than it would’ve cost for gasoline in my Prius to take me to My Son. On our way, we fly through narrow roads surrounded by rice fields and farmland, and during the hour drive, I learn the smells of Vietnam. I smell exhaust on the road, trash burning next to it, incense sticks, and occasionally fresh air. When we arrive to My Son, it was just as I had hoped and there are less than 10 tourists wandering through a space that could accommodate many more and still feel empty.

My Son black and white

With my camera in one hand and the Kindle version of Lonely Planet in the other, I navigate my way through the ruins trying to come with the perfect photo while still learning which building was intended for which purpose. After covering about half of the ruins, I find a group sitting in a circle and listening to music. It is unclear how everything progressed, but I soon find myself in their circle, we compare music tastes, and we share our snacks. I learn that they are all currently attending a university in a near-by town, De Nang, and are just visiting the ruins as an afternoon break from school. A couple snacks later, they ask my evening plans, I tell them none, and we decide that they should come back with me to Hoi An. Throughout it all, we communicate either very slowly in English or by writing notes to each other. They could understand almost anything I wrote despite having some trouble understanding me verbally.

Snacks at My Son

Between the five of them and me, we pile on four motorbikes and work our way back. I was particularly happy not to be driving at this point as the sky was turning black with only the almost full moon, the occasional street light, and the bikes less-than-powerful headlight to drive by. We get back to town, and the first thing we do is eat. I am not entirely certain what I am eating because we eat next to the street on what seemed light children’s red play furniture. The food was good and cheap. Dinner cost less than $0.50 per person. With full stomachs, we walked the streets of Hoi An, before coming across another inexpensive and local restaurant. We ordered beers, some fried food, and I took out my deck of cards. I let them teach me a new game because with our communication barriers, 5 teaching 1 is clearly superior to 1 trying to teach 5. During the rest of the night, I really enjoy the game and their company.

Card Games in Hoi An

The Vietnamese, both tonight with the boys and the other day with Quynh Chi, have been so welcoming and warm to me. In twenty years, I think it will be these faces that I will remember the most about my time in Vietnam.

The Kids Table

As I travel and search for new cultural experiences, I want to try the local foods, see how different people lead their lives, and start to understand the world as they do. Having dinner with Quynh and her family is this authentic experience. I arrive at her home complete with a small store front, several bedrooms, a kitchen, a small dining room, a chicken pen, and her big family. Quynh has 4 other sisters, all of whom live at home with their father, mother, grandparents, and two dogs. The newest addition to the family at only 6 months old is Susu. When I arrive, I meet most of the players as we all congregate in the front while the father mans the store of cigarettes, snacks, and drinks.

My Hue Family

Hue Grandparents

After a tour of the home, much playing with the baby, and getting to the know the family while using a couple of the sisters as translator’s, it is time for dinner. At this point, one of the sister’s boyfriends also enters the scene, making dinner a crowded occasion. As would happen in my family, the adults sit at one table and the kids sit at another. The parents and grandparents sit in the dining room, while the kids sit outside around a small table.

The food is traditional and at times, too traditional. I try everything on the table, and as I am eating, the five sisters continue adding more to my plate. Most of the dishes I enjoy even if I have little idea what it is I’m actually consuming, and half way through the meal, I realize not knowing is probably easier than knowing. One of the sisters puts something in my plate, and because they like to joke and try to mislead me, I assume when they say it’s a pig’s tail, they are trying to get a reaction out of me. I give them their reaction as my face cringes, but I learn that they are not joking and slowly work my way around the cartilage in the center of the tail.

The night ends where it began, in the front near the street. We drink tea, laugh, and learn about each others’ cultures and customs while I thank them repeatedly for their hospitality using the new Vietnamese vocabulary I learned during the day. Half jokingly, one of Quynh’s sisters keeps questioning me if I want to take Quynh back to the States with me. I respond with an uncomfortable smile and an enthusiastic yes. The follow up question is then do I want to take one of the other sisters back with me. Again I smile, blush, and respond that the whole family should come to California. They all laugh at me, and I feel relieved. Before leaving, we arrange ourselves in many permutations for a quick photo shoot so that we all can remember the night.

More than the inspiring sites and adrenaline-pumping activities, it is experiences like these that are making traveling so exciting.

My Hue Tour Guide

I’m on a flight to Hue and sitting next to two Hue locals, Quynh and her grandfather. Although only a short flight, through broken English, Quynh and I have enough time to cover the basics– names, jobs, home towns, and families. And before parting ways, we make a tentative plan to meet up the next day and she gives me her contact info. A couple dollar SIM card later, I give her a call and we set up a time for her to come pick me up on her motorbike from the very simple and nice Hong Thien Hotel (the first A/C room I’ve enjoyed in two weeks). Still not convinced that she is actually coming, I wait outside and soon after she pulls up with an extra helmet in hand.

Me and Quynh
Quynh, her motorbike, and me

We go to a couple of the more famous pagados and tombs in Hue before visiting her mother and sisters at the local market, where they tend to two different shops. Trying to keep up with Quynh in the market is a challenge as she weaves in and out of the many obstacles of the already narrow passageways. At one point, she and her sister run off and I am left sitting alone at the booth. I am tempted to attract customers in the many ways that I have experienced. As someone passes by, protocol is to tell them hello and ask where they are from or what they are looking for. I did not say anything; I restrained myself.

Although her English is fragmented, Quynh gives me Vietnamese language lessons throughout the day so that I can at least communicate hello, goodbye, and thank you. She shows me her favorite sites in the city with pride and excitement for each location. Quynh is an excellent tour guide, and to complete the day, she invites me back to her family’s home for dinner, which results in a very authentic Hue experience.

Bell ringing in Hue