There and Back Again (A bit like what Bilbo did) – Part 2

Day 5 – Onwards to Da Lat 50km
The air was crisp and stung my sleepy eyes. It was now appropriate for me to wear socks with my flip-flops; my feet were as elegant as a two-toed sloth’s. My grey scarf was wrapped tightly around my chilly neck. My small backpack, containing my now damp clothes, was tied onto the bike seat with a bungee cord. Our bikes impatiently revved as we discussed a few last minute plans then it was time for us to embark on the final leg towards Da Lat in the South Central Highlands.

It was along this road that the flora began to evolve. No longer did we see the palm trees of the tropics, instead we saw pine trees lining the pass taking us higher into the mountains.

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Winding down the steep Dalat streets, we found cheap accommodation fairly quickly, bearing in mind that it was the Tet New Year’s Eve. We threw our bags into our rooms and took a little stroll around the city centre.

The first hotel in Dalat was built in 1907, when the city was a part of the French territory called Cochinchina. It is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists and travellers alike, although usually those with a more adventurous streak. With buckets of outdoor activities such as mountain biking, hiking, canoeing, even ostrich racing, there is no excuse to laze about in this city.

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Da Lat Lake

Partly restricted with what we could actually do due to Tet. (most outdoor activities were fully booked or cancelled), partly laziness (I know I said there’s no excuse but with a high of 16°c it was freezing compared to our usual dose of 32°C!), and mostly because our spa experience, or lack of, from the night before had given us a mild case of hysteria, Neha and I decided we desperately needed a foot, leg, arm, shoulder and head massage, while Gareth had a quiet lakeside beer, observing the Vietnamese tourists at their most relaxed. During the hour and a half of delicious prodding I woke up three times snoring and with increasing amounts of dribble on my cheek. I could barely remember my name.

It was an early night for us party animals but at the stroke of 12 we were awoken to thunderous bangs of fireworks and excited shouts to mark the New Year of the Snake.

Day 6 – Da Lat to Nha Trang 140km
The following morning, while we were going out of Da Lat, we passed by hundreds of people walking along the road. They were all heading to the local cemetery where they were going to be spending time paying their respects to their ancestors – and more than likely enjoying a bevvie at the same time – a tradition across Vietnam that is acted out on New Year’s Day.

Party Central!
Party Central!

Immediately after we passed the cemetery we were on the most stunning road to Nha Trang. Never have I felt so invigorated. It was the quintessential long and winding road, not a soul in sight. Suddenly there was a fear in my mind. We were vulnerable, more so than ever before. There was no point indulging in this fear so the only option was to carry on and hope. I set my mind to enjoy the solitude that comes with riding a bike.

As we moved higher into the mountains the clouds were ominously grey and foreboding. We pulled up to one of the few local shops in the middle of nowhere that had remained open, bought a coke and, just to be sure, pulled on our raincoats. If there was a sudden downpour again like two days ago then we’d be much more prepared. What we hadn’t expected was to be riding on a main road with visibility at 5 metres.

A cloud rested on the mountain. There was only the sound of a natural spring waterfall shyly spilling down the face of the cliff that hung beside the road. I held my breath as I slowly rode into the white curtain that opened up a little more of the road. The deep mist whispered, ‘If you keep moving, I will keep revealing’.

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It wasn’t long before we were out of the clouds, I could still feel the mist on my cheeks as we stopped to survey the road ahead. It was now all downhill, down towards heat, down towards sea, down towards white sandy beaches and pink tourists and over priced hotels and poorly concocted Bloody Marys. It was just what we needed.

Day 7 – Nha Trang Second Day
After almost a year, the first piece of clothing I adorned was my bikini. Neha and I went to Thap Ba Hot Spring whilst Gareth had some alone time. We picked up a map in the hotel and found the spring with little difficulty. Pulling up into the car park, an immediate sweet earthy scent enveloped me.

We needed help buying our tickets because we had no idea what we wanted. A lovely and informative Vietnamese receptionist advised us to buy a communal ticket, which meant, worst-case scenario, we’d share a mud bath with 10 other people. The ticket only set us back 120,000 dong each, so just under £4 or $6.

We shoved our clothes into a locker and moved on to a warm outdoor mineral shower. A few men and women were there already cleaning mud out of their hair and cleavages, all trying their best not to be seen with their hands down their pants scooping out the hard to reach places. When we were sufficiently wet we waited for our communal bath to be filled with a sludgy beige mud. We were to be joined by three young gap year kids; an Aussy girl and two other British girls. Not just a Western tourist attraction, Thap Ba had plenty of Vietnamese tourists enjoying the therapeutic soak.

We spent 15 near-ambrosial minutes pouring the fragrant mud over our bodies. What spoilt it for me though was having to make pointless small talk and listening to the irritating giggles of the young girls we shared our bath with. With only a few years between us I realised that:

a. all I wanted them to do was shut the hell up while I savoured the moment, and

b. I was turning into a miserable old boot.

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When the too-serious-staff told us our time was up, we slipped and skidded our way up some hot stone steps and sat in the heat of the day as the mud dried and cracked over our skin.

We were back under the mineral shower to wash off the mud and finally directed to a steaming hot mineral bath to finish. We were left well alone so we bathed until we resembled giant Shar-Peis. We could have also spent time swimming in the mineral pool at Thap Ba but having just gone through the decadence of the past two hours I didn’t fancy smelling of chlorine.

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From nippy Da Lat to balmy Nha Trang, within four hours of travel we’d experienced a transformation of climate and lifestyle. Nha Trang was where we could indulge in the luxuries of life whereas Da Lat had felt like just another transit town. We didn’t want to move and Nha Trang was trying to convince us to stay, ‘you don’t need to go anywhere else, explore me, I’ll keep you well’. And stay we did. But maybe we shouldn’t have.

To be continued…

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The Day That Changed Everything

When I unzipped the partially opened small backpack that Gareth had handed to me with sheepish eyes, and I saw a grey, misty gaze peering back up to me framed by a muddy face, I thought ‘Oh, shit. This changes everything.’

It was August 2012 and we had lived in Ho Chi Minh City for two months. We had no concrete plans to stay much longer than till October. Our room was about 20m² and was feeling smaller by the day. With most of our clean clothes thrown off the bed onto the floor every night, and unashamedly kept there throughout the day, with our piles of shoes left by the door waiting to be tripped over, with our bin occasionally left to overflow for a day or three, we found ourselves escaping from the claustrophobia as often as possible. We were in no shape for having any kind of parental responsibilities.

Earlier that afternoon Gareth had nonchalantly left the room to go to work where he expected to spend an hour and thirty minutes teaching English to 3, 4 and 5 year olds by pretending to be an octopus or threatening to eat the children or something. He was really disappointed when he arrived and saw that the Kindergarten was closed. As he pulled up, his teaching assistant was already there, talking on the phone to the office of the language centre that had sent Gareth to the school. After she passed the phone to Gareth, it was time for them to part ways.

‘Ok, well see you next week’

‘Goodbye. See you again’

His TA pointed to Gareth’s feet ‘Ooo, look, look, look! Cas, cas!’

Gareth looked and saw a scrawny dirty-white kitten croaking for its life. He picked up its gaunt body and looked around. There were no homes close by, no open doors the kitten could have escaped from, no one chasing after it. Gareth did the only thing he knew to do, he put it in his bag and hoped beyond hope that I would be in a good mood.

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Welcome!

After washing, feeding and laying down some newspaper in the corner of the bedroom, we had to think of a name for this fur ball.

‘I want a name that means something’

‘Yeah, me too. But what if it dies?’

‘We don’t even know if it’s a girl or boy yet’

‘I’ll check… It’s a girl’

‘She still deserves a name, even if she dies’

‘Yeah, I suppose so’

‘I wonder what’s ‘strong’ in Vietnamese?’

I grabbed my dictionary and  flicked through to S

‘It says khoe, I really like the sound of Khoe, it sounds delicate’

‘Yes, that’s the one!’

So, we called her Khoe, pronounced like Kway. At that moment she could have been days, if not hours away from death. Her body was limp and her eyes were dull. But she was going to be called Strong. Everyday of her life we would declare Strength over her. But a few days later she got sick.

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My wee family

After racing home from work to be with Khoe I saw that there was some blood on the newspaper in the corner. My heart sank. A few minutes later Gareth returned and I explained to him what I’d seen. After a quick search on Google we read that we had to seek medical attention immediately. It may have been the cat biscuits that we’d hastily bought two days before that had caused her to get sick.

The nearest vet to us was a two minute ride on the motorbike. The doors opened out onto the main road and there was a dog, lying on a metal table in the so-called reception, tongue out, mid-snip. The vet understood our problem, it helped that we’d translated a few terms using Google Translate too.

Khoe popped her tiny head out of the backpack. Little did she know that she was going to be pricked and prodded in the most undignified of manners. Her temperature was taken and she was injected with an ample amount of antibiotics. We were told to return another four times.

She seemed to recover instantly but we continued to take her to the vet. After the fourth time, however, the vet insisted we bring her back another three times. Our instinct told us to forget it. We were sure that Khoe was too small for this treatment. It also didn’t help the vet’s situation that whilst we were there two Vietnamese ladies came with a kitten, the same size as Khoe, that had died, and they were furious with the vet. We never took her back to that vet again.

A couple of months passed and Khoe was getting bigger. It was time for us to decide about our future.

‘We have to move out’

‘She’s getting too big for this room isn’t she?’

‘Yeah, and it stinks of shit in here all too often’

‘Well, lets get looking then’

So, that is how we decided to stay in Vietnam a little longer. If we stayed for at least another 6 months we could afford to save up for Khoe to go home to the UK and meet us there after we’d finished travelling. We wasted no time in looking for a new place. Three weeks later we were in our tenth floor apartment, on one of the busiest roads in the city. Khoe spent the first couple of days bounding around the 90m² space and sitting out on the balcony overseeing the aeroplanes touching down at Saigon airport.

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I’m loving my new pad mum!

As Khoe grew we realised that we had one very smart cat. She can actually play fetch! She drops her little grey ball next to either Gareth or myself and we can spend 10 minutes at a time throwing the ball, which she runs to full pelt and brings it back to us with absolute anticipation. She also has become one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen with her dazzling white coat spliced with wisps of turtle shell and ginger.

Last month we began to research properly how to send a cat back to the UK from Vietnam. Our fear was that she would have to be kept in quarantine for 6 months in the UK but it turns out that the EU laws changed on 1 January 2012 and instead there is a process that can take a minimum of 4 months with any approved vet. We found one such vetinary practice online called Saigon Pet Clinic, so Gareth popped Khoe back into her favourite backpack to begin the journey of becoming a Scouse cat.

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Words do not describe how much I love this fluff ball

This clinic had an actual reception and waiting area. Behind was a curtained sparkling surgery where Khoe was to take her first steps. The vet was a chirpy man in his early 40’s with good English; he was even able to crack a few jokes to lighten the atmosphere. He was smitten with Khoe, as were the rest of the staff. They were constantly cooing over how beautiful she is.

Khoe’s first appointment consisted of getting microchipped and then given her first rabies injection. She had to wait 30 days before she could have a blood test to confirm whether or not she is rabid, and given her second and final rabies injection. We took her back to the vet on Monday where she was pricked and prodded again, hopefully for the last time. Covered in a white towel and held carefully by three staff, the vet gently drew out the blood from a front leg. Her second rabies injection was fairly traumatic. It must have hurt her because she yowled and bit the poor fella holding her close to her neck. Like any crazy cat lady I couldn’t bear to watch Khoe go through this ordeal. I had to walk out a few times holding back tears and violent eruptions that I instinctively felt to protect my fur ball.

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The final hurdle

Our next step is to wait for the blood test result, which should arrive in three weeks. The blood sample has to be sent to the UK where it will be tested and certified. We will then receive a certificate that will allow Khoe passage to the UK. From this point on it’s at least another three months before she can legally leave Vietnam. But something tells me it could be a bit longer before we decide to leave. One thing we do know, when she is carried off that aeroplane she will be a free woman-cat.

If you are interested in adopting a cat from Vietnam then read more about it on ARC Vietnam (Animal Rescue and Care). Their website, at the time of writing, appears to be under construction, but you can find more information on their Facebook Page. The British government has produced a leaflet with the longwinded title of Bringing Pets into the UK after 1 January 2012 which details a checklist of the new rules.

How to not learn Vietnamese

As you have perused Jen Can Jump you may have come across a post written in August 2012 called ‘Bạn có nói tiếng Anh không and other non-useful phrases’ – if not then I hope you don’t because it will show you my true commitment phobic, reneging, quitting character.

It was a blog post written with absolute enthusiasm and intention. Vietnam was to be explored in its fullness; be by its food, culture, people and language.

Fast forward nearly eight months and I can tell you how to say left, right, straight-ahead, any number from 1 to 999 (except any number that includes the numbers 8 or 9, I can never remember those two for some reason) so, ok most numbers from 1 to 777. And, of course I can say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no, the bill, oi you and a few other titbits.

As with 99.9% of most ideas that I have ever had, I have 100% failed at achieving any so-called realistic goal that I set for myself concerning learning Vietnamese. So, if you want to fail, just like I did, then follow these 5 easy points to a future of self-defeat and non-achievement.

1. Be inherently lazy

Sometimes it is so much more satisfying to do anything other than hard work, and trust me, learning Vietnamese comes under that category.

2. Speak English all of the time and/or point at everything

Gareth and I teach English 7 days a week. When we’ve finished teaching English then we come home and talk to each other, in English. We watch TV, in English, and read our English friend’s Facebook statuses. Even our Vietnamese friends speak to us in, you guessed it, English! And we just, yeah, point at whatever we want.

3. Blame everyone else

It’s obviously not just our fault. Like, you know, every time we try to say these strange sounds with our mouths to a local they either laugh, look confused, repeat the same nonsensical noise over again until it corresponds with something that is actually Vietnamese or think that we are saying something in English anyway.

4. Enjoy your already perfectly well adjusted English speaking life

Because life is good already. Why spoil it with being able to understand even more people…

5. Stop taking lessons

We did have a two-hour weekly lesson with a teacher friend of ours, but we were tired from our busy lives and after lesson 2, when we’d nearly cracked the alphabet, we decided that we just didn’t have time for this anymore.

And if these 5 points didn’t help you already then…

6. Have no interest in learning Vietnamese

It’s not like it’s sexy Italian! Although, when we have tried to learn Italian we’ve never really gotten very far either. Please see point 1.

If you do want to learn a new language, then let me reiterate from my original post; visit Fluent in 3 Months and absorb everything you read on that website. I could regurgitate from their how best you can learn a language but I’ll let Benny tell you directly. He’s the real deal. For example, since I wrote the August blog post Benny has learnt Arabic, in Brazil, up to, he believes, B1 conversational level.

I still dream of being able to speak another language fluently, and I know that one day I will achieve it, but sadly I still lack the characteristics needed to learn a language effectively. I’m working on it though.

So, if at first you don’t succeed, have another nap.