Sunday, February 1, 2009

25 January 2009: A journey into new lands at the Lunar New Year

It is my last night in Vietnam. I write to you from a lesser known city called Da Lat, encased by surprisingly rich pine forests reminiscent of those found in California...dotted with glistening lakes...simply and breathtakingly beautiful.

I have been traveling with my friend Karen, combining a yoga training/retreat (led by one of my teachers, Twee Merrigan) and a journey into new lands. Our travels began a couple weeks ago in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), with a rude awakening reminder to not be naive little tourists. Though we'd been warned of swindlers, we had been in the country but 10 minutes before getting cheated by an opportunistic taxi driver. He came right up to us and asked if we needed a taxi into the city. We already knew that it should cost about 8 USD but when he told us that it cost 500,000 Vietnamese Dong, we became flustered as we struggled to figure out the conversion. We had just exchanged our Hong Kong Dollars and were still trying to wrap our minds around the exchange rate (2,120 HKD = 1,000 VND or 17,500 USD = 1,000 VND…whattttt???). Karen, much better with numbers than I am, quickly did the math in her head and said he was asking for 30 USD. He said, “Nooo! It is 9 USD!”, making her second guess herself. I stood by totally useless as he grabbed my suitcase and ushered us towards his cab, saying, “9 USD Okay? Okay?” He then literally took the Dong out of my hands, and we were well on our way before we pulled out our BlackBerrys to use the calculator function to confirm that yes, Karen had been correct in her mental calculation and yes, we had just gotten ripped off.


We stayed at the Saigon Mini Hotel, a boutique hotel that seems typical to Vietnam. These hotels resemble townhouses, having about 4-5 stories; the first story is like the main floor of any home with a living room and a kitchen and the guest rooms are on the floors above. We stayed in their most expensive room at 50 USD/night. The Saigon Mini is technically a “business” hotel, but it was homey and clean, the staff helpful and friendly. It’s a bit off of any main road, which is nice in a loud and busy city like Saigon.

Armed with the Luxe guide, we walked around town, doing our tourist duty by visiting the Cathedral (closed around noon, so we didn’t get to go inside), the old Post Office (straight from the ‘50s), and the Reunification Palace (could have skipped this one). Ton That Thiep was our favorite little area, with a sweet little spa called Jasmine where we had a massage, a hair wash, and a mani/pedi all for about 45 USD. Such a treat! The best part of our stay in Saigon was the food. We had delicious, fresh, healthy, and super inexpensive meals at Quan An Ngon, Bun Ta, and Cha Ca Hanoi: all DEFINITELY recommended! Other than that, it’s just about walking around and people-watching on major streets such as Le Loi and Dong Khoi, and at Tao Dan Park. Oh, and learning not to get run over by the gazillion motorbikes going in every direction with very little discretion! Strangely, though, I noticed there is an order to the disorder of it all, and you could even say there is an art to weaving in and out of the thick traffic, a dance, if you will. My Budokon teacher Kancho Cameron Shayne once explained the art of practicing martial arts as not being about competition or violence, but rather a skillful dance between two beings, totally present and aware of each others’ intentions and movements. You could say crossing the streets of Saigon was sort of like that. Plus plenty of loud, unnecessary horn honking.

From Saigon we went to Hoi An, a beautiful beach town outside of Da Nang (which itself looked rather uninteresting). Our retreat was held at the Palm Garden Resort, which was just lovely…right on the beach (a vast shoreline of super soft white sand), huge pool, beautiful grounds. Food at the hotel wasn’t exceptional, though, and communication (in general here) was pretty tough. The weather was a comfortably warm 25-ish degrees Celsius most of the time, except for the very first night, which was a freezing 17 degrees – the coldest Hoi An had been since 1975!

The training/retreat was so perfect. Thank you to wonderful Nicky of Breathing Room Yoga for putting it together! Every morning began with a Prana Flow Master Class (sometimes practice would be over 4 hours long!), and the Teacher Training on Energetic Alignment was on the first 3 days. Twee is a senior teacher of Shiva Rea and the Prana Flow tribe. She has been on her Soul Connections Tour over the past couple years, traveling all across the globe to share her love and knowledge of yoga. She is a highly inspiring and inspired teacher, truly embodying the flow of yoga in all of life. I encourage all yogis to seek her out if she’s ever in your town. Please follow the hyperlinks for more information.

Hoi An’s city center is known as Ancient Town, because much of the city’s original architecture has been maintained and turned into shops and cafes for tourists. It is – as all the guidebooks say – completely charming, and the vibe is chilled out and laid back…perfect for this native Californian! Meals in town were simply amazing, particularly the Hoi An specialties of Cao Lau, White Rose (delicately made dumplings), and Fried Wonton. Loads of fresh veggies adorned all plates, and practically everything could be made vegetarian. Our favorite spots were: Mango Room, Ly’s Café 22, Hai Café, Red Bridge Restaurant, and Cargo Club (aka our drug dealer, as their Vietnamese White Coffee was so addictive that we went back day after day for more). Most of these restaurants overlook Hoi An River, which runs along one side of town. There was also this BBQ spot on the beach near the resort where we had some of the freshest seafood ever, especially the squid, which we ordered seconds of before we finished off the first order.

The one thing I could have done without was the evening cooking class at Hai Café. The food at the restaurant is delicious, but the class left much to be desired. It was not at all “hands-on”, as everything was already prepared before our arrival, and we basically watched the chef do it all. Apparently, the full day sessions are much more involving and interesting. The one thing I wish I did do was a bike ride through the rice paddies. A couple of the other girls went, and their photos were just amazing.

I celebrated my birthday in Hoi An, complete with a "sacred chant Twee learned from a Hungarian woman" (ie “Happy Birthday”), balloons, a sunset boat ride down the river, gluttonous chocolate mousse cake, and everything courtesy of my tribe – the whole entire day! It’s Twee’s birthday rule, and I was happy – and so grateful – to oblige. I’m still so high and happy from all the love…not to mention the nearly 200 emails/texts/Facebook messages I have received. Wow! Seriously, I feel so loved, and so humbled by everyone’s thoughtfulness. Thank you for thinking of me!

And so we have found our way to Da Lat, a mountainous area about 300 miles (45 min flight) from Saigon. Like California, much of Da Lat is covered in farmland. Apparently many western fruits and vegetables that don’t normally grow in Southeast Asia, like strawberries, are grown here because of its dryer, milder climate. Fruit here is exceptionally sweet, and we’ve been treated to heaps of pineapple, mango, watermelon, dragon fruit, passion fruit, bananas, and pomelo for breakfast. BREAD is so delicious all over Vietnam, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of that, as it’s very hard to get proper bread in Hong Kong.

We’re staying at Dreams, another boutique hotel that is rated #1 on several travel sites, even before the uber posh Sofitel. We decided that 25 USD/night was too good to pass up. It’s fine…clean enough, with hot water and a recently renovated bathroom, but the bathtub leaks and I dropped a piece of cracker (ok, maybe it was a few pieces…) and in no time we were visited by ants. The included breakfast I mentioned above is fantastic though, and the service is very good. Still, I think next time I will pay twice as much and stay at the Novotel. We had a great Sunday brunch there, as well as high tea at the Sofitel, which were each only 15 USD! Everything in Vietnam is so cheap, but in 13 days, I still managed to spend over 6 MILLION Dong! (Can you figure out the conversion?)

Other than food, Da Lat is about relaxing and strolling around. Whether you take a simple walk around the artificial (but still lovely) Xuan Houng Lake right in the center of town, or take a more intense trek up Pinhatt Mountain like we did (even though we requested a relaxing, easy walk) to take in an incredible view, there are many ways to enjoy the natural beauty of the countryside. It’s been a perfect way to decompress our yoga’d out selves, in preparation for our return to Hong Kong on Lunar New Year’s Day. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my man, my friends, and my students, and to more birthday and New Year celebrations!

Gratitude to the beautiful country and people of Vietnam...
Cheers to the Year of the Ox…
Big love to you!

PS 200+ photos here! I suggest viewing in the Detail option as you'll see about 20 photos per page and can pretty quickly scan through the album.


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