Saturday, May 31, 2014

Birthday Greetings

My first-born's birthday fell during my trip to Vietnam. No matter how many years have passed, it's always hard fur a mother to be apart from her babes on their birthdays, and it's especially difficult when you are not even experiencing the same day at the same time. 

Since I'm 14 hours ahead, I counted down the minutes until 2 pm on the big day so that I could message a birthday greeting to my daughter at precisely midnight her time. We just happened to be eating lunch at that time, and after finishing another satisfying Vietnamese meal, my two middle daughters and I crossed the street to pose for a snapchat greeting under this bower of gorgeous pink flowers under the dazzling tropical sky. 

I know. Digital greetings from the other side of the planet are not the same as being there. But in their own way, they are kinda cool too. 

* * * * *

For more stories about birthdays, read:

Good Morning, Vietnam

4:00 am  First alarm went off. Groaned. 

4:10 am. Second and final alarm sounded. Groaned again. Got up and threw myself together. 

4:30 am. Met up with my posse, helmets on and ready to ride. Our bikes purred through the shockingly quiet streets of Danang under dark night skies. 

4:40 am. We turned west and then north, crossing the Han River, passing through the still-sleeping town of Son Tra, and edging along the perimeter of the mountainous peninsula north of the city. 

4:50 am. Passed an assortment of joggers, cyclists, and walkers who were taking their morning exercise as the first hints of daylight were gathering in the eastern skies. 

5:00 am. Pulled off the road at an ideal viewpoint. While we hadn't reached the easternmost point on the peninsula, we had a fantastic watery view of the predawn skies. 

5:05 am. Clouds gathered and threatened to diminish our view. Distracted myself by taking a few shots of fishing boats. 

5:10 am. Still waiting. Took photos of flowers. 

5:14 am. The sun appears! Took a million photos as the brilliant red disc quickly passed above the horizon and blazed with glory. 

5:30 am. Fully satisfied, we turned our bikes around and headed for home. 

5:40 am. Stopped at a viewpoint of the city and enjoyed the pastel skyline of the city awakening to a new day. The photos don't do it justice. 

6:04 am Crawled back into bed for a few more hours of sleep, tired but happy and  very grateful that I live on the west coast of the USA. In my neck of the woods, the sun graciously puts on her finest show at sunset., a time of day when I am much more likely to be awake. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Stream: A Day For Play

My visit to The Stream began with a highly eventful journey through the Vietnamese countryside.  

But The Stream itself begins with a waterfall. As the rainfall tumbles down the deep jungle's mountainside, it pours over first the large fall pictured above, and then across a series of boulders and rocky ledges, creating small falls and deep pools that are just about perfect for a day of play. 

This natural water park has been here for a long, long time. Both my daughter's boyfriend, Ky, and his father spent their boyhoods jumping off these rocks and splashing through these very same waters. 

But just last year, I'm told, a series of shaded platforms were built. Precariously balanced upon the boulders and up in the trees, the shelters give stream-goers a place to spread out a picnic, watch the swimmers, or snooze In the afternoon shade.

Between and among the platforms are a series of bridges and walkways that give stream goers full transit around the area. 

I was super excited when I first saw them, feeling like I'd stumbled onto a real life Gilligan's Island.  But once I got an up close and personal look at the construction techniques, my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered. 

But the real center of all the attention were the pools. Cool, clear water ran briskly across the rocks creating a crazy variety of interesting spaces. And we had a blast playing there all afternoon long. 

Iky's mama might have crawled up under the little waterfalls, positioning herself under the maximum impact of the cascade and sweetly smiling as she proclaimed, "Massage!"

We might have made friends with the little chicken-killing girl who worked like a champ all morning long but swam like a fish after her work day was done. We tickled each other's toes underwater and smiled back and forth till our cheeks hurt. 

I might have slipped while crossing a slippery boulder. After losing my balance, I fell face first onto the rock, crashed down a four-foot fall, and plunged into the deep end of the big pool. Dazed but mostly unhurt, I surfaced to the whoops, cheers, and applause of dozens of my fellow stream-goers who had been entertained by the crazy white lady's antics.  

All in all, I had a great time at The Stream, and I'd gladly go back there any old day to play some more. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Stream: Getting There

^ The Stream

They often say when going someplace new that getting there is half the adventure. 

In the case of my recent trip through the Vietnamese countryside, I'd have to bump that fraction up to at least two-thirds. 

Which is to say, I had quite a wild ride. 

But let me back up and explain a few things. 

* * * * *

My daughter's Vietnamese boyfriend and his family offered to take my daughters and me on a day trip. "Let's go to the spring," Ky said. And I'm sure it was he because his parents don't speak a squeak of English. 

Of course, we gladly accepted their offer. It wasn't until much later that the three of us put our heads together and realized we knew almost nothing about the plan. There seemed to be swimsuits and a picnic lunch involved, which were certainly encouraging omens. So I just put my faith in Ky's family and went with the flow. 

Bright and early on the big day, we gathered at Ky's house on our motor bikes and prepared for the first leg of the journey. Mysterious bags of food were stashed into the seat compartments and riding partners were assigned: my third-born with her boyfriend, my second-born with his mother, and I would be riding with Ky's father. 

Who speaks, as I noted, not a squinch of English. 

Well, no worries. I was perfectly willing to cruise along in comfortable silence and enjoy the scenery. In fact, I was looking forward resting my overtaxed communication senses for the half-hour ride. 

So imagine my surprise when, just a few minutes into our trip, Papa began to speak. 

Wait. You're talking to me??

Yes, he most certainly was. I leaned forward, strained my ears, and used up a reasonable quota of "I beg your pardon?" -s before I sat back in confusion, mulling over this unexpected attempt at conversation and trying to make sense of his sentence. 

A full thirty seconds later, it hit me. My brain suddenly unscrambled the message and as clear as a bell, I understood. 

"I don't speak English."

Oh. Oh! That's fine

Relieved, I was sure that I grasped his point. "I won't be able to chat with you. Let's just ride in peace."

But I was dead wrong. 

For the next half hour, I clung to the back of my bike and turned my brain inside out as I tried everything in my power to decipher Papa's commentary. He pointed earnestly at the scenery, apparently punctuating his gestures with observations and backstories. I caught a few words here and there but honestly, I made precious little sense of his enthusiastic conversation.  

 * * * * *
We wound our way out of the city and along the shore of Da Nang Bay. Just as we began to climb into the jungly mountainside, Papa abruptly pulled into what looked like a Cold War-era transportation depot. The others soon joined us, our bikes were whisked onto an ancient flatbed truck, and we were deposited onto tiny red plastic chairs to wait. 

But what are we waiting for?

Eventually, I figured it out. Up ahead lay a long tunnel that led travelers from one side of the mountains to the other. But due to rough road conditions, motorcycles are not allowed in the tunnel. Our bikes would make the transit on the back of the truck, and we would be ferried through in an equally aged bus. 

Our stifling journey through the mines of Moria was soon accomplished and we came out to find ourselves in a mid-sized fishing village. Back aboard our bikes, Papa's monologue resumed as we made our way out of town. 

City streets gave way to country roads.

Asphalt gave way to packed red soil. 

Two full-sized lanes gave way to a cow path. 

On one particularly steep and gravelly grade, I had to hop off the bike and hike up the hill on foot. 

We passed grazing cattle ("Cow!" Papa pronounced proudly), Hindu cemeteries, and toothless old grannies who came out to pat my arms in amazement. Papa seemed to know everyone, waving and smiling to all the country folk who stood and stared at the white woman on the back of his bike. 

Curiously, every now and then, an improvised barrier would block our progress. Nearby, usually under a tarp in the shade, would be an unlikely toll collector, typically a woman with a flock of youngsters. After a flurried exchange of Vietnamese and the passing of a few bills, the handmade gates were lifted - often by the children - and our journey continued. 

Just when I thought we were about to fall off the edge of the earth, we came to a parking lot. 

Well. More like a bare patch of dirt at the end of what was now passing for a road. A mesh canopy provided shade for the fleet of forty or so motorcycles parked underneath. 

We gathered up our packs and parcels, and headed to the far corner of the parking space only to find - you guessed it - a barely discernible footpath leading off into the jungle. 

What in the world could possibly happen next?!

Despite every crazy moment of the journey up till now, I was not prepared for the answer. In moments, I found myself traipsing through a primitive and very busy cookhouse where a darling five year old girl chopped the head offf a live chicken before my very eyes. Papa negotiated the price on a block of ice then led us forth. 

At long last, the path gave way altogether, but we kept moving. Now we were scrambling over rocks - some the size of convenient step stones, others were massive boulders that required a two-handed heave-ho and some sure-footed climbing. 

I was so busy with this mountain goat routine that I didn't see our final destination until I literally stepped inside. 

We were in a tree house. Yes, literally, I stepped up onto a wooden platform, maybe 5 x 10 feet in size, built among the branches of a huge tree. A blue tarp created shade overhead; a simple woven mat lay on the floor. As my brain caught up with my eyes, I realized that there were dozens more of these platforms beyond ours, built into other trees and suspended over the boulders that toppled down the hillside. 

In the middle of this rustic village lay a series of pools, cascading down from one level to the next. And each pool was filled with cheerful swimmers, the air rent with the sounds of their splashing and Vietnamese chatter. 

Finally, our long, highly adventurous journey had ended and I now understood our mission. This, ladies and gentlemen, was The Stream. And  despite the fact that I had seemingly used up a lifetime's worth of drama, novelty and excitement in just an hour of travel, there was plenty more adventure yet to come. 

Fresh Fruit

I've been eating a lot of amazing food here in Southeast Asia, and I have to say, every meal has been satisfying and delicious. 

But at the top of the list, I would have to say the fresh tropical fruit has been my favorite. Rambutan, watermelon, dragon fruit, mango; each one has been juicy and sublime.  

So it should come as no surprise that I asked my daughter's boyfriend to accompany me to the market to buy some mangoes of my own. 

And of course, he graciously agreed, because he's cool like that. 

But what knocked me off my feet was the delivery he made to my door the next day. A big plastic shopping bag bursting forth with three enormous mangoes and a dozen persimmons (I think).

I can't wait to dig into them. And thoughtfully, he also brought me a knife. Thanks, Ky!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Beach Bounty

At first glance, the freshly washed beach appeared to be empty. 

In fact, even after half a dozen trips between the shade of my umbrella and the refreshing, rolling waves of the South China Sea, I noticed nothing to catch my fancy. 

But today, a tiny sliver of white caught my eye. I didn't dare to get my hopes up until I noticed the delicate scalloped edging of whatever this was that lay half-buried in the sand at my feet. 

And you have already guessed what my hidden treasure turned out to be. 


Precious little white scallops. 
Fragile pairs of angel wings.
An impossibly tiny sand dollar that's just a little bit broken. 

Once I noticed the first shell, my eyes found them everywhere. I gathered and sorted and compared until I'd narrowed my collection down to a carefully curated handful. 

I will take them home and they will be my finest treasure of these happy Vietnamese days at the beach. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Beach Reality

Here's the thing. I could never be a legitimate beach bum. I'm too hyper to stay seated in a lounge chair for long, and while I love me some warm sunshine and fair trade winds, I can only take so much tropical perfection. Before long, my adrenalin starts to pound, my restless mind kicks into creative mode, and my muscles beg to get moving. 

But oh, these first few days of lazing around on idyllic Vietnamese beaches are suiting me very well indeed. 

The Han Bridge

The Han Bridge is nothing short of a devil's snare. Four choked lanes of traffic flow together into a swarming steam of mostly motorbikes with a handful of bicycles, rickshaws, cars, and trucks thrown in for good measure.  I've traversed this dangerous path at least a dozen times during my first week in Danang because she stands between me and the beach. And while I'm getting the hang of the crossing, but it must be said that passing over this wicked temptress is a nasty piece of business. 

However, when the sun goes down and the lights come up, she transforms into a colorful beauty. Seen from afar, gloriously reflected across the waters of the Han River, her treachery fades in my memory and I'm enchanted by the old girl's playful spirit.

I forgive you your dark side, Han Bridge. Let's be friends. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Things Are Looking Up

Today's photos come from the rooftops of Danang, Vietnam, where my adventures led me to the fifth floor of my daughter's classroom building and the fourth floor laundry room of her home. At these heights, the city takes on a calm if still a bit jumbly air, and I enjoyed the perspective of these peaceful vistas.

But my story takes place on the street.

So, along about mid-afternoon, after several errands and jaunts here and there across town, I was cruising down a crowded street on my motorbike. Now I'm not going to pretend for one second that I'm altogether comfortable navigating these Vietnamese rivers of chaos. But in the past four days, I've come several steps down the white-knuckle scale of fear and trembling, and I'm starting to feel the flow. 

My incremental bits of confidence must have been showing  - or maybe it was just the rare flash of pale skin - because as I drove through an intersection, I noticed a pedestrian waving me down. 

Well, technically I saw two men, obviously together and notable for their own pale skin and shell-shocked expressions. Clearly, these guys needed help. White people are a rarity in Danang and let's be honest, white people on motorbikes carry a definitive air of authority and authenticity. As I quickly pulled my bike to the curb, I couldn't help but feel sorry for these men. Surely my inexperience was about to dash their hopes for a savior. 

"Can you help us?" pleaded the taller man. "We're trying to find some mall with grocery store? We need to buy some food."

Wait. I'd just been to that supermarket a few hours earlier. I couldn't retrace my route for love or money, but at least I remembered the name. "It's called Big C," I offered. "I can't give you directions but it's not far."

"Oh my gosh, thank you!" the first man gushed as his friend grinned at me in relief. "We don't need directions; we'll take a taxi!"

"You're totally welcome. Glad I could help," I called back. As I revved my bike and eased back into the absurd swarm of traffic, I'm pretty sure I sat a little bit taller in the saddle. 

Give me a few more weeks and I may just make sense of this urban jungle after all. 

* * * * *

Read more stories about looking up, down. and all around:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lunch At Luna

After today's refreshing swim in the balmy waters of the South China Sea and a proper chat session in the shade of our tiki hut, my daughters and I had worked up a sturdy appetite. Dark storm clouds blew in and thunder rumbled in the distance as we mounted our noble motorbikes and whizzed through dust- filled streets od Danang in search of food and shelter.   

We found both in an open air restaurant called Luna. With French owners, an Italian menu, and a decidedly American hipster vibe, this place attracts western travelers and local urbanites alike. As the storm burst and warm tropical rain pounded down just beyond our table, we munched a delicious lunch of pizza, pasta, and fresh baked bread. 

I personally adored the rustic flavors of the food, the visually rich textures and tones of the food's presentation, and - let's be honest - the establishment's name. Because at this little pub on the other side of the world, it's nice to be reminded of my sweet black cat who waits for me back home. 

Beach Dreams

I came here to Danang, Vietnam for several important reasons: 

1. To visit my third-born who's been living here fir the past year. 

2. To experience the Vietnamese culture. 

3. To wander the world on a global adventure. 

But it simply cannot be denied that I also came here to Danang in search of tropical beaches. 

I have a well-documented obsession with beaches of all flavors. In fact, as long as they are clean and natural, I've never met a beach I did t like. On this trip, however, my heart was hoping for soft golden sand, clear warm water, rustling palm trees, and as a bonus, tiki huts.   

Score, score, score and score.

For the past two afternoons, I've luxuriated here at Temple on the shores of the South China Sea. I'm hoping to spend many more happy hours here during my stay, making all my beachy dreams come true.