Archive for ◊ April, 2009 ◊

30 Apr 2009 Hoi An, Vietnam
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We took a night train from Hanoi to Da Nang…it was really nice and super comfortable! We shared a cabin with two cool people from England, Julianna & Paul. Sherri & I have done a lot of train travel through Europe so we came prepared for the long journey with enough snacks, drinks and cocktails to share with our new friends! We were having such a great time that even the girl in the cabin next to us joined in the fun, as she was traveling with her sister, sister’s husband and their little baby. The views from the train the next morning as we traveled along the coast were beautiful! We arrived in Da Nang by midday and Julianna & Paul were super sweet and had their driver give us a ride to Hoi An, which was about a 45 minute drive from Da Nang.

We checked into a small hotel on the river and set out to explore. Hoi An is a super quaint town with beautiful old colonial buildings and is a well preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port. The street that runs along the river floods when the tide is high but people just go about their day riding motorbikes, bicycles and walking through the water. Hoi An is famous for their custom tailor shops. It’s overwhelming walking the streets because everyone is trying to get you to buy something and there are too many tailor shops to choose from. Our friend Richard (who lives in Bangkok) recommended a tailor shop so we went to meet the owner, Lan. She was so sweet, her shop is beautiful and before we knew it we were picking out fabrics for some custom made clothes! Hoi An is a shopper’s paradise. You can get custom made clothing and shoes for great prices! Plus they can turn the goods around in 1-2 days. You can have them copy your favorite pieces & remake into new colors, bring in a photo from a magazine, choose from the many samples they have in their shops or make up something unique…the possibilities are endless! We had so much fun picking out fabrics, colors, trims, lining, buttons…you can customize every detail and get exactly what you want. The stuff we had made at Lan’s turned out amazing. If you are ever in Hoi An definitely stop by her shop B’Lan. It located at 23 Tran Phu Str. or check out her website www.hoianblan.com

We met back up with Paul & Julianna for a hilarious night of karaoke. You get your own private karaoke rooms so we had a lot of fun dancing and singing. It was pouring down rain on our walk home and I woke up the next morning not feeling so well. Sherri & I both ended up coming down with the flu…high fevers, coughs and congestion…no fun.

On our last night in Hoi An we were both feeling sick so we chose at restaurant close to our hotel. Dao Tien Restaurant ended up being so much more than we expected! Located in a charming two storey French colonial building you can sit inside or outside. The food and service were great & the meals were well priced with a nice mix of Vietnamese, Thai and Western dishes. After our meal we met one of the owners/investors, he was from Australia. We got to talking and found out that this restaurant was dedicated to helping underprivileged children and young adults in the community by training them in the hospitality and service industry and giving them jobs. We also got to meet Tien who runs the restaurant, alongside contributing to her many volunteer projects (helping to support local orphanages, centres for the physically and mentally disabled children, schools and homeless centres) that are funded by the restaurant profits. Currently she is trying to open another restaurant that will have an English language training school above it. She will be looking for volunteers to teach English once the restaurant is up and running so if you plan on spending time in the Hoi An area & would like to do some volunteer work please contact Tien at daotienhoian@yahoo.com or visit the restaurant website www.daotienhoian.com. Tien’s husband is the head chef at Dao Tien Restaurant. He trains the cooks and teaches cooking classes to visiting tourists. Sherri & I wish we would’ve met these wonderful people at the begining of our stay in Hoi An, so we could’ve spent some time doing volunteer work with them, but we were already booked on a flight to leave the next morning.

27 Apr 2009 Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
        

Vietnam is one of the world’s poorest nations with 30% of the population classified by the United Nations as living in extreme poverty.  Over 40% of children suffer from malnutrition, 25% of the population is unemployed and the average daily wage for an adult is $1 USD.  Families struggle on a daily basis to put food on their tables, send their children to school and access medical treatment.  Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam (HSCV) provides relief to the children in Vietnam by assisting them in a number of ways including food, clothing, shelter, schooling and medical attention.  For as little as $1 USD will feed a child for three days and $50 USD will send them to school for a year. 

We found out about this wonderful organization through a friend of Rana’s that she worked with. While in Hanoi we spent a morning visiting a poor family in need with Charles De Vet, the president and founder of HSCV. The family is living in poverty…but yet they were still so sweet and smiling while we visited with them. We got to meet the mother, father, and the two youngest children. The three older ones were in school.
Family’s situation: They are extremely poor. Their house is going to collapse soon so they won’t have a place to live. Last year the father broke his leg while working construction and couldn’t work for 7 months.   There are five children, three are in school and the fourth son will start school this September.  Rana and I are sponsoring the four children to go to school for a year, but they are still in dire need of help as they soon will find themselves without a roof over their heads.  For anyone who would like to help this family out please go to their website and choose option 10 and add a note that you would like to help the family that Sherri Vann and Rana Townend are sponsoring. http://www.hscv.org/sponsorships_options.htm 

 

26 Apr 2009 Hanoi, Vietnam
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Hanoi is an interesting mix of old and new. We stayed in the Old Quarter where the streets are small and narrow…vendor’s stores spill out onto the sidewalks, motorbikes are parked everywhere, women wear the pointy bamboo hats carrying their goods across their backs and just about every spare space people set up little stools and tables to sit, drink, eat and socialize. Crossing the street is an interesting experience as there are very few street lights or pedestrian crossings, no stop signs and tons of traffic…you just have to step out into it, slowly and confidently walk across.  It’s quite an experience.

Great places to eat in Hanoi:

- Rock Billy – Great food and service! The staff are friendly, good music and atmosphere, drinks are well priced and come with ice (we ordered cocktails at some other bars/restaurants and were always puzzled when they were served without ice).  We started off with the soup…I tried the pumpkin while Sherri had the mushroom soup…both were delicious! Definitely try the Hanoi style fish. It came out sizzling hot & is served alongside a plate of shredded carrots, cucumber, red bell pepper, pineapple, rice noodles, crushed peanuts, cilantro and sheets of rice paper that you take and wrap it all up in a roll & dip in a yummy tangy sauce! It was amazing! For dessert we had the mango crepe…soooo good! Fresh mangos inside a warm crepe drizzled with chocolate sauce. We enjoyed our meal so much that we even came back for lunch the next day and tried the Rock Billy pizza…which sounded a like bit strange combination…it had banana and curry sauce on it amongst other things, but it was really good! 54 Luong Van Can Str., Hoan Kiem Dist. nguyenminhthongtc@yahoo.com

- Papa Joes – three story cafe located near Hoan Kiem Lake…looks really small from the outside but you climb up narrow steps to the different levels which are more spacious. It’s a great place to relax in comfy couches and chairs while enjoying a latte or pot of tea. Really good sandwiches, salads and fresh squeezed juices/smoothies. Ground floor Hanoi Towers, 49 Hai Ba Trung.

- City View Cafe – centrally located near Hoan Kiem Lake you can sit out on the balcony and enjoy a great view of the city and lake. The food was good, traditional Vietnamese food and Western food…cocktails were a little pricey, but it’s all about the location. We found this restaurant on our first night in Hanoi and we were mesmerized by the crazy traffic below. Tons of motorbikes, cars, buses, cyclos and pedistrians all merging…amazing that there were not a ton of accidents.

 

25 Apr 2009 World Malaria Day – April 25
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Today is World Malaria Day, which is a day that is set aside to raise awareness of what a huge problem Malaria has become.  Malaria is a disease that kills nearly 1 million people every year. Eighty six percent of malaria cases occur in Africa, but it also remains a global problem that affects countries in large parts of Asia and Latin America. This mosquito-born disease is preventable, yet every 30 seconds one child dies from it.  Celebrities such as Oprah and Ashton Kutcher have also been working on raising awareness on this serious issue.  We can all do our part to help.   Before leaving on our world tour, Rana and I threw an event to raise funds to purchase nets through the non-profit organization, Netting Nations.  We will be arriving in Nairobi, Kenya in June to distribute these nets to the children who so desperately need them. We thank all of our friends an family who donated funds.  If you would like to donate you can do so by going to www.nettingnations.org or by clicking on the “Donations” tab above.

24 Apr 2009 You’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia for awhile when:
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- A family of five squeezed onto one motorbike without helmets zooms past you and you no longer think twice

- You ask for ice with your beer

- You always travel with toilet paper

- A fly lands in your drink…you scoop it out and keep on drinking

- Finding a place that serves real brewed coffee (not instant powder) is a joyous occasion

- Mosquito bites are an everyday occurrence

- Forget perfume…Tiger Balm is your new scent

23 Apr 2009 Luang Prabang, Laos
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We absolutley loved the city of Luang Prabang!
The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos.
The city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once a French territory, there are still many of the French influences…beautiful French colonial buildings, amazing bakeries, wine, fresh baguettes, real coffee, adorable cafes and modern bars…Utopia was one of our favorites as it had a great view of the river.
We rented bikes and enjoyed strolling the streets and exploring the numerous temples.

21 Apr 2009 Our 2 Day Trek in Laos
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Around 8am a tuk-tuk truck from White Elephant Adventures arrived at our guesthouse. We hopped in the back, dropped our large backpacks off at their storage and we were on our way. We were very lucky to have a small group of only 5 people going on the trek, Fiona (a girl from England), Sherri, me and our two guides Kai and Keo. We heard that the children in the villages couldn’t afford paper notebooks so they had to write on small chalk boards and then erase what they wrote, so we asked our guides to stop at a store on our way out of town so that we could purchase some to take with us and give out to the children in need.

It was about an hour ride out of town to where we were dropped off to start the trek. With our small packs loaded down with bottles of water, a few necessities and the supplies we had just bought we set off through the rice fields. It was sooooo hot and humid!!! Over 90 degrees! The beginning of the trek was in the open fields where the scorching sun beat down on us. Thankfully, after an hour or so we came upon some shaded areas. The trail was a fairly skinny dirt path. We passed people working in the fields, water buffalo bathing in the river and we even had to get out of the way of some cows that were coming down the path in the opposite direction. We stopped for lunch in the shade by a small stream. The food (which the guides had carried for us) was really good. Lunch consisted of rice (of course!) with chicken curry and beef with vegetables. It was way too much food, so we gave our extras to a hill tribe man that was passing along the trail.

After a steep climb uphill (and a lot of sweat) we arrived at the first village, Had Kho which are part of the Khmu mountain dwellers. The children all came running and gathered round as Keo and Kai told us about this village and its people. The kids were soooo cute! Keo is a descendant of the Khmu people, which are the indigenous inhabitants of Northern Laos. We handed out some of the notebooks and pencils to the kids that needed them. In this village, there is only 1 classroom/hut and the kids that go to school all study together. Some children do not go to school, as some parents need the them to help in the fields.

The next part of the climb was tough…it was even more steep but the views were gorgeous! At the top of the mountain we looked out over the valley and our guides pointed to a village in the distance, “there is our next stop”. To the far right, at the top of another mountain you could just barely see a bit of red roof, “and that is the village where we will spend the night”. We thought they were joking, but they were quite serious. At least the next part of the journey was downhill but is was also steep and a bit slippery. Kai and Keo were super sweet and patient, constantly reminding us to go slow and be careful and they even found us bamboo hiking sticks to help us down the hill.

After about 2 hours we arrived at the Phapheng village, which is part of the Hmong Hill Tribe. The Hmong people originated from China and Kai is related to the Hmong people, so he could speak their local dialect. This village was much larger than the first one and there were tons of animals (pigs, dogs, turkeys, chickens, etc.) running loose all over the place. School was in session when we arrived so we peeked our heads in and passed out notebooks and pencils to the children that didn’t have any. Fiona had learned to count to 10 in Lao and the children got a real kick out of hearing her count. We also got to see the inside of the chief’s home, who is also the village shaman. According to believers, shaman’s can treat illness and are capable of entering supernatural realms to provide answers for humans.

We continued onto the next village up another huge hill. Our final destination for the day was the Mok Chong village which is a mix of Khmu and Hmong people. It was about 5pm when we arrived and we were exhausted. Our clothes and backpacks had white residue all over them from the salt we had sweat out during our journey. Keo had told us there was a stream that we could rinse off in at the village. We changed into our swimsuits and headed down the hill to discover that the “stream” was just a small stream of cool water coming out of a bamboo pipe…Fiona and I grabbed the bucket and joined the locals in filling it up and pouring it over ourselves. It was actually very refreshing. 

We sat at the table outside as the animals and children ran around us. Sherri brought out her i-phone, which she had 1 music video on and about twenty children and a few adults gathered round watching with wide eyes. Kai cooked an amazing dinner of vegetables, chicken and rice which we ate by candlelight. Afterwards we took a couple shots of Lao whiskey with Kai and Keo. We were exhausted from the long day so we called it an early night and crawled under our mosquito nets and into our sleep sacks.

The roosters started crowing while it was still dark outside…we waited for the sun to come up and eventually we pulled ourselves out of bed. Prepared for our second day we stopped by the school to give out the remaining notebooks and pencils. This school was actually quite big in comparison to the others. There were 3 classrooms and tons of kids. We set off down the hill for about a two hour hike back to the road where we met up with some additional travellers to kayak down the Nam Khan river. We spent the rest of the day on the river…we even kayaked down through a few rapids, which I’m proud to say we made through without falling out of the kayak! Unlike the guys from England who flipped their kayaks over in every rapid. On the way down the river we passed a large group of kids playing in the water…we paddled over to them and soon about 10 laughing, smiling children were climbing all over our kayak.  We didn’t think we’d ever get out of there! It was hilarious!

All in all it was an amazing adventure!

18 Apr 2009 Two day boat trip down the Mekong River
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We left Chang Mai and spent the day in the “VIP” AC bus, which was actually a packed mini van. Since we were picked up last we had to sit up front with the driver, which was a little uncomfortable for a 6 hour drive.  We stayed the night at the border in the city of Chang Khong.  The next day we were eager to get on the boat as we had heard it was a very fun trip.  We were told by our driver and the guy who sold us the package that since we already had our Laos visas we could leave on an earlier boat.  However, that turned out not to be true and the boat that was supposed to leave at 10am didn’t leave until after 11am.  I’m not sure if it’s a miscommunication with the language barrier or people just say yes even if that’s not really the answer, but that is one part of traveling that gets super annoying.  And everything takes longer than expected.  Finally we were on board and the boat loaded down with people pulled away from the shore.  We met some nice people from England who were well prepared for the long boat ride and came equipped with two cases of beer and a cooler with ice.  As we went down the river we saw a few fields on fire since it was the end of burn season.  Some of the hill tribe people burn parts of their fields before replanting.  After 6 hours we docked the boat at the small hillside village of Pak Beng.  They run off of generators so at 11pm all of the electricity shuts down…including the fan in our room, much to our dismay…it was a hot and sweaty night. 

The next morning I got up early and went for a walk/jog through the little village.  The air was heavy and thick from all of the smoke.  I don’t think many people exercise here as I got a few sideways glances from the locals.  But most people were smiling and friendly and I got some good photos.  I came across a group of small children crowded around a window.  As I got closer to see what they were all trying to look at I realized they were watching TV.  Television is a novelty for many of these villages and towns whose families do not have electricity or a TV of their own. 

We headed down to the boat and made a bee line for the back baggage room to score a spacious spot next to the window where we could lean against the bags.  We were the only non-locals in there.  Part of the time we would spend up front with our English friends.  It was nice to hang out and play cards and drink with everyone up front, but it was also very nice to be able to escape to the quiet back of the boat as well.  It was so peaceful laying next to the window and looking out at the lush emerald mountains passing by.  We made many stops at small villages to drop off locals and supplies…I guess that’s why they call it the slow boat.  There is a fast boat which gets you to Luang Prabang in about 6 hours (compared to 2 days).  It’s a very small boat and very dangerous.  We saw a couple of them pass by.  The passengers and driver wear helmets since people have died on the fast boat…scary!  We liked the slow boat because it’s a lot more relaxing, social and safe.  We were originally told that we would arrive in Luang Prabang around 3:30, but surprise, surprise we actually got there closer to 6:00.  But once we saw how beautiful Luang Prabang was, we decided it was definitely worth the long journey.

16 Apr 2009 Thai Farm Cooking School – Chang Mai
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Rana and I both love Thai food, so we were super excited to take an all day cooking course on an organic farm.  They picked us up in the morning and took us to an open air food market and taught us about several of the different ingredients.  Then they gave us a list of Thai dishes and told us to each pick out 5 that we wanted to make.  Rana and I picked out different dishes so that we could try each others.  Before we started cooking they gave us aprons and large straw hats and took us on a tour around the farm and showed us several of the fruits and vegetables that we would be cooking with.  The first thing we made was a curry paste, which consisted of about 10 different ingredients finely chopped and then put into a stone mortar…this is where you get to let your aggression out by pounding and grinding for about 10 minutes until you have a paste.  I was so happy when my red curry chicken and chicken coconut milk soup turned out just as good or better than any restaurant I’ve been to…since these are two of my favorite dishes I can’t wait to make them at home.  My spring rolls also turned out great.  It was so much fun!  Everything Rana made was delicious as well and we especially loved the sticky rice and mangos.  The only bummer was something made Rana break out in a rash.  We weren’t sure if it was from heat or the food.  The next day she got it again, but since we weren’t in the heat we figured it must be something from the food.  We think it might be from fish sauce so she’s been staying away from that and it hasn’t happened again.

13 Apr 2009 Thai New Year in Chang Mai
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After two blissful weeks in the islands of southern Thailand, we headed north to Chang Mai to celebrate Thailand’s New Year called “Songkran”.  It starts April 13 and lasts between 3 and 10 days, depending on where you are in Thailand. The word Songkran is from the Sanskrit meaning the beginning of a new Solar Year.   It is also known as the “Water Festival” as people believe that water will wash away bad luck.  According to many of our new friends, Chang Mai is the best place to be in Thailand for the celebration.  The city basically shuts down for several days for a full blown water fight.  Our friend Trevor, from Bangkok, also flew up for the festivities.  We all got water guns with backpacks attached.   The majority of the mayhem was along the man made river, called a moat, that surrounded the main part of the city.  People had buckets with ropes attached that they would drop into the moat and fill with water to throw on people who were walking or driving by.  There was also beds of pickup trucks full of people who had large garbage cans filled with ice cold water that they would dump on people as they drove by.  Whenever we got someone wet they would always flash us a big smile…no one ever got mad because it’s fair game…no one is safe, even on small side streets.  The water fight would last all day until the sun went down, but even in the evening hours there were always a few overzealous people who would keep the game going.