China Mountains, Rivers, Valleys, and Terraces

At the time of writing this post, we are rolling through the Chinese countryside on a train.   Outside are pretty terraced rice fields with small hills rising between.  Inside, people are smoking cigarettes, spitting, (seemingly) yelling, and throwing all of their trash onto the ground, including peanut shells, wrappers, and plastic bottles.  However, our seat mates are friendly; one even bought water for us from outside the train at a stop!   Another practiced her English with us and gave us little moon cake snacks.  Such are the pleasures and difficulties of our time in China.

Jon and I had been in Southeast Asia for about 6 weeks at the time we entered China, plus the last 4 days spent in Hong Kong.  However, arriving in mainland China was still culture shock akin to a slap to the face…with a fermented fish.

We flew into Guilin, China, and pleasantly surprised to have no issues with Visa or arrivals whatsoever – we can probably thank the arrival at the small Guilin airport for this.  We were instantly attracted to the mountains surrounding the town, and eager to explore one of the top  tourist cities of China.   There was a night market that ran up and down the two streets that are hotel was on, which was cool, but other than that and a very artificial setup downtown with pretty lights all around the downtown lake.  Overall, the town of  Guilin was “meh,” but the surrounding scenery was gorgeous.

We did take a one day tour to “the Dragon Rice Terraces”, about a 3 hour bus ride from Guilin.   Situated deep in a river valley then rising up the sides of the mountains were centuries-old rice terraces.    Jon had a lot of fun hiking and exploring the trails and villages that winded throughout the terraces; Jen took the gondola due to an ankle injury.

We did have to endure the Chinese-style tour.  We quickly learned that this involved a Chinese tour guide speaking incredibly loudly for incredibly long stretches through a loudspeaker, in addition to being shuttled around like cattle.   Even the oft-used horn on the bus seemed to be at volumes many times the U.S. standard.   All volumes in China – speaking, phone calls, car horns, microphone, etc – seemed to be at much higher volumes than we are used to in the Western world.  Or, perhaps the rest of the world.  We learned our lesson…no more tours!

Our next stop was Yangshuo, which according to our guidebook is now often the preferred tourist city over Guilin.   To get there we took a “bamboo boat” river cruise down the Li River.  It was gorgeous scenery: the river is even featured on the back of the Chinese 20 Yuan bills!

Yangshuo was one of the highlights of China.   The “town” (which in China still means a population around 300,000) is surrounded by mountains and a river, and the central part of town is a pleasant place to stroll around and explore.   The lively walking street had it all: bars, restaurants, live music,  and even archery!

Best of all, Yangshuo is the perfect place to bike around.   We took off from our hotel just outside town, biked through town, crossing rivers and valleys leading outside of town to a mountain hike.   On the way back, we followed the Yilong river, which winds among the mountains and back rounds end up back in town.  One of the best (road) bike rides ever!

The karst limestone mountains around Guilin and Yangshou were stunning, despite the culture shock.  We headed for more mountain views in Zhangjiajie, China!

I <3 HK

Hong Kong was a great break from the less developed countries that we’ve been in for several months now.   It is like Manhattan plopped onto Hawaii, with New York prices to match.  For that reason, we were very lucky to be hosted by the generous Ray and Sally Helfer, friends of Jon’s parents in Massachusetts.   He works in finance and has been working in Hong Kong for the past four years.   It was fascinating to hear about life and politics from someone who has been living there, including how much money there is, who has it, and how.

It’s amazing that 7 million people live together in such a small area.  Hong Kong is made up of several islands, two major ones, and almost all of the population lives along the coasts.  There are so many people, but unlike the large Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok, Hanoi and Saigon, there is much more structure – as Ray put it, “ordered chaos”.   There are stoplights and traffic rules, and people and vehicles actually obey them.  At least in non-tourist areas…

On the tram up to Victoria Peak for views of the city, we experienced our first Chinese pushing incident: right in front of us, people started aggressively pushing each other (and us) to get onto the tram.  We stayed back, but a fight almost broke out, and people were blocking anyone from entering that door of the tram!

Inland from the coasts are beautiful mountains and meadows, which Hong Kong has developed into some great recreational trails.  We hiked “Dragon’s Back”, one of the more scenic hikes.  It was gorgeous.   Best yet, the 3.5 hour hike ends at a beach.

Interestingly, while we were in Hong Kong, the “Occupy Hong Kong” conflict was gaining steam.  When Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, China promised elections in Hong Kong, but apparently the details of the promised elections are vague.  While Hong Kong is getting to vote in elections, the Communist Party in Beijing has decided that they will pick the candidates.  Protesters in Hong Kong, lead by students and professors, demand meaningful elections through their “Occupy” movement, promising to obstruct business as usual in Hong Kong. We didn’t directly see a protest, but we saw signs around town and articles in the newspaper. We will definitely monitor the outcome of this situation.

Overall, we loved the combination of city life, hiking and beaches that Hong Kong offers.  We hope to be back!  Now onto actual chaos…mainland China.

Northern Vietnam

From Nga Trang, we headed up the coast on overnight buses, first to Hoi An, then to Hanoi.   The bus was a sleeper bus, meaning no seats, just “beds” (big enough, but not very big – pretty much fully reclined, thin recliner bunk beds lining the sides of the bus, then one row down the middle) .

Hanoi is very similar to the hustle and bustle, crowds and whizzing motorbikes of Saigon, but boasts a “touristy” area that is much more beautiful and pleasant to spend time in.   The center of this area is a beautiful lake, with interwoven streets lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendos.   Just next door is The French Quarter, where most French lived during the colonial period before (the much revered) Ho Chi Minh lead the Vietnamese to run them out in the 50’s.   We enjoyed the fanciest meal of our trip there, in a nice French-Vietnamese restaurant, in celebration of our 2 year anniversary.

We were lucky to celebrate again on our Halong Bay overnight boat cruise, where apparently our hotel concierge had informed the boat company of our special day, and surprised us with a cake!  It was fun to celebrate again, especially with our eight boat mates.

We also had a fun night on the town the following night in Hanoi with a Kiwi couple living in Australia.  We are looking forward to seeing them again in Melbourne!

Hoi An was a much more quiet, quaint town in comparison to Hanoi and Saigon.   The main part of town was clearly built and centered around tourism, and seemed to have some good money pumping in, as all the buildings and streets were very pretty, well built and maintained. In addition to getting tailored suits made there, we took a day trip to a nearby island, enjoyed some incredible snorkeling and time relaxing on a beautiful white, sandy, remote island beach.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Ah Vietnam. We wish we had more time with you. A mere 12 days was not enough. Due to flights for China visas and some playing around with our schedule, we ended up with far too little time in this fascinating and delicious country.
We started in Saigon, where we had to stay a few days to obtain our visas to China. (Saigon is officially Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone in Saigon calls it Saigon. So we will too.) After appeasing the powers that be in the local consulate to the People’s Republic of China with incredible minutiae, including our bank statements, we enjoyed soaking up the food, and the food, and a few sights.

In Saigon, we also had to face some ugly truths of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as they call it. We visited the Chu Chi tunnels, an incredible system of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the war. Although we had been advised not to admit our American nationality at the tunnels, we took a chance and admitted our heritage. Luckily for us, our tour guide had fought with the Americans during the war, and we became his favorite tourists. Between expletives, he explained his story: he had fought alongside the American GIs, where he learned the curse words first and forgot them last. After the Americans abandoned the Southern Vietnamese, he had been thrown in a prison camp for three years. Once he was released, he was not a favorite of the Communist Regime, and life was not easy. Eventually, after Vietnam opened more to tourists in the 90’s, he became a tour guide. “I love American people. But I hate your government. Makes f#@&ing war everywhere.”

The War Remnants Museum was an even tougher pill to swallow. While the museum was partially filled with propaganda, it also had a powerful exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. The entire bottom floor of the museum was a multi-room argument OF “no one in the world supported your invasion in the first place” with photos of Vietnam War protests from almost every country in the world (including the U.S.A.). A notable plaque included donated metals of honor including a Purple Heart from a U.S. veteran with an inscription, “I WAS WRONG. I AM SORRY.”

The most heart-wrenching part of the museum was the exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. Entire rooms of photos of children through adults with horrible disfigured bodies. It was clear that the effects of Agent Orange reverberate in the lives of many Vietnamese, as they do for American Veterans and their families. We were caught in the rain with some American veterans of the war, and they explained to a curious Spanish teen that they had no idea at the time that Agent Orange was so toxic; they were lifting water into their canteens after it was sprayed. One veteran’s daughter had a disfigured limb as well. Like any regrettable decision, most Americans would rather forget and ignore our history in Vietnam; for many in Vietnam, that is not an option.

We still had good food and cheap local beer as a solace to our sad reminders, and so we continued to stuff ourselves with delicious food. We learned how to cook some simple Vietnamese dishes in a cooking class. (Yes, you are invited over for dinner!) Our chef, The, even invited us out for food and drinks the next day!

We took an overnight bus to Nga Trang, a gorgeous beach town up the coast. We were surprised that the town was filled with Russian tourists; even the signs were all in Russian rather than Vietnamese or English. An enjoyable beach pastime was to watch Russians do elaborate photo shoots with their beach babes. We spent two days in Nga Trang for beach time, pool time, seafood, and a few craft beers (heaven!), including one that really did have the aroma of passion fruit, as promised.