Wednesday, 2 May 2012

045 Toads In A Box

A crowded, noisy alley, somewhere off a main street. Low ceilings, assorted plastic tables and chairs, the combined smell of a hundred different types of food all boiling, shimmering, frying, soaking up flavours. In a corner, a stall with behind it, an old lady with a big rusty knife, cutting up vegetables and something that might once have been a sausage. Men in white aprons with red and brown stains covering most of the surface, shouting at potential customers. A glass plate, with behind it, hanging from metal hooks, whole roasted ducks. The din of glass against glass, of pots being scraped, of orders for food, repeated a thousand of times a day.
"one Rojak" , "Two Ginger Tea" , "Lor Mee, terima kasih"
I'm sitting on one of those chairs, eating a cocomilk based soup with at least ten different pieces of meat, most likely from as many different animals. Poornima is working on a vegetable soup that doesn't look any less adventurous for the taste buds. A little bit away, in a plastic box on a shelf, a dozen fat toads are gawking at me, blissfully unaware of the premature end that surely awaits them.

Wait, where are we again?

Look out of the alley, and you'll see a clean street, with clean cars riding in front of clean, very high buildings. Not Indonesia, then. And also not Malaysia any more. Must be Singapore, that city-state where you are fined for chewing gum, where all the big businesses go who want to be in Asia but don't really feel like going to the sticks, where the noble citizens travel from their up town homes to their down town offices in squeaky clean metros, never leaving the safety of the ever present air conditioning.

This abundance of local food, I must admit, did not fit in my prejudiced picture of this peculiar place, but I'm happy to discover than in between the shining malls, big roads and architectural prowess, something of the older Asia can still be found.

Aimlessly wandering the green wide streets of Singapore, it strikes me how my trip has taken me from third world right up to first. From Cambodia to Vietnam to Malaysia to here, each country seems to be doing, in it's own way, better than the last. Singapore, this tiny country sitting like a cherry on the upturned pie of mainland South East Asia, is the pinnacle of perfectness. Perfect that is, if you want to do business, if you want to go shopping, or if you suffer from mysophobia. 

Some bigger cities in Asia make me feel like a seagull floating above the waves of an endless chaotic ocean, in search for a small island or quiet ship to land for a while and rest my wings. Never a chance to be by yourself to read a book or shelter from the sun, no space to sit, all surfaces of the city in use by its inhabitants to cook, eat, sell, sleep. Not so in Singapore, where the lanes and parks offer benches to rest, and where many a big building is in fact a big Public building where one can enter, find a quiet spot and write ones diary as I do now.
The huge parks, vivid green from the rain that falls everyday and from being less than 150 kilometre from the equator, are devoid of people, everyone choosing shopping or working above wandering the city's many green spaces. I enjoy Singapore enormously, but mainly because of the contrast it offers with what came before in my journey. This place with its outrageous architecture (three skyscrapers with what looks like an alien mothership on top), strict rules ($100 fine for eating in the metro, $1000 fine for riding your bicycle through a pedestrian tunnel), and overemphasis on shopping (I saw a poster for new metro line, stating its completion would save you precious time to "do the things that matter most to you", depicting three ladies carrying assorted shopping bags) lacks a bit of soul, in my personal opinion.

But man, do they try to make up for this by being modern, artistic and multicultural. Zipping through the city in the high speed Mass Rapid Transport lines, I admire this place, with its fantastic museums and designs, and with its people who came from all over the planet to work in this financial epicentre. And whenever the cleanness, the abundance of traffic signs and the complete lack of honking cars gets on my nerves, I just think of that plastic box on the shelf, and I am reminded that I am still firmly in Asia.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

044 Bounty Islands, Finding Nemo and Big Buddha's

In Real-Life Today is April 28th. In the real world, I have returned from my journey in Asia. I have flown from Jakarta back to the Netherlands, where I hope to spend the rest of my sabbatical travelling around in Europe again.

But not in this blog series. In this incredibly slow blog, we have kind of stopped for a while, we got stuck in the past. In this virtual environment, it has been the beginning of March for quite some time now. In the coming weeks, I am going to attempt to speed up time a bit, with the ultimate aim to synchronize it with the real world again. Bear with me, there is still a very real possibility that at some point in the near future, all will be revealed.

So where did we spend all this time, this near unending beginning of March, from which we only now awake? Not in the worst of places. Not bad at all. Indeed, if one would have to pick a place to get stuck in time, this one should be able to claim a top position on most people's short list.
Picture your favourite bounty island. You know, the one you involuntarily dream away to on those rainy autumn days in the office. Yes, that one. White beaches, crystal clear water, palm trees galore. You have just pictured one of the Perenthian Islands, your daydream having transported you to a small island half an hour off the coast of Malaysia. Admittedly, it is not completely uninhabited, but that also means there are people to run a bunch of pretty beach bungalows for you to rest in, and a couple of restaurants to fill your stomach, both well deserved after an intensive day of lazing around, dozing in the sun, reading a bit and, if one would feel exceptionally energized, a short swim.

It is the contrast with our last location which gives this little piece of heaven it's glowing halo. As you may or more likely may not recall, we earlier found ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm in the aptly named rainforest, somewhere in the central (and much colder) highlands. On the swim back to the hostel, we unanimously decided that it was time for a bit of sun. We had heard good stories about this set of islands in the far north-east of Malaysia, so that was to be our destination for tomorrow. Inquiries at the local bus station revealed that a trip with semi-public buses would involve a ride back to the coast on the west side of the country, then back up to Penang where we had just been a couple of days back, and then another gazillion-hour-busride to the east coast. Wow, there must be an easier way to get down from the centre of the country to the east than by first going to the west, right? This being one of Malaysia's tourist hotspots, of course there was a way, so the next day we drove down the mountains straight to the east in a small van with a couple of other tourists and a driver who listened the whole way to music from System of a Down.
We booked our ride with the boat ticket included, so we were dropped off right at the boat office. Quite a lot of other backpackers, some chaotic procedure to write your name in the registry and the obligation to pay a national park entry fee, but after a mere twenty minutes we were in the boat, on the water, towards these two islands. A  'big' one with more upper scale accommodation, and a smaller one for low life backpacker scum like yours truly.

I am a sceptic person by nature. If you send me a postcard from a picture perfect island, part of my brain will assume that the image is photo-shopped. That someone made a decent picture of a pretty beach, and then cranked up the colour saturation. And I'm sure that they do this. But they wouldn't have to, they could just come to the Perenthians and save themselves a day in the office.

It was great. I am not very good at doing nothing for days on end, but I was happy to make an exception here. The restaurant that was run by the people who also rent us a hut was right next door. When we ate there the first day, right after coming off the boat, and the food was so incredibly good that we ate there three times a day, not seeing any reason why we should walk another 40 meters through the white sand to eat at the neighbours'. I would like to nominate them for a Michelin Star.

We went snorkelling, something Poornima nor I had ever done before. For a couple of Euro you rent a set of flippers, a mask and the snorkel, you walk right off the beach into the water, that's it. Once you're up to you knees in the water, you can already see how clear the water is. But what I am not at all prepared for are the six colourful little fish throwing curious looks at me the moment I dip my masked head below the waves. You're in an National Geographic documentary. So many different colourful fish, the whole crew from Finding Nemo seems to be invited to the party. I see big silvery fish, fluorescent green ones, a bunch of small bright blue ones, and dozens of other crazy coloured and shaped sea beasts, including those small funky yellow fish that your uncle keeps in his fancy heated aquarium. Technicolor corals and swaying anemones everywhere, its truly revelational. Just a pity my goggles keep fogging over.

We stayed on the island for four days, reading, doing nothing, swimming and sea-canoeing to some deserted beaches. But there was still more to see in Malaysia, so at some point it was time to get back to reality.
We took the speedboat back to shore, struggled our way through a bunch of persistent but eventually unsuccessful taxi drivers, and made our way to the main road from where we took the public bus to Kota Baru (or, in abbreviation loving Malaysia KB), the big city in this north-eastern corner. This part of Malaysia is more Muslim-conservative than the rest of the country, but so close to the Thai border there are also large groups of Buddhists. The city itself was not that exciting, and after a couple of days on a paradisical island, a big hot busy city is hard to love.
But our hostel (the KB Backpacker Lodge) was amazing, hands down the most funky and friendly place I've stayed in in South East Asia. The rooms are nothing special, but the older owner who runs the place is one of a kind. All the walls in the place are filled with funny and inventive home made posters of things you can do in and around the city. He also drives a cab, and when he comes back from that job he brings a bag of mangoes, or fresh bread for the toaster. And whenever he sees you, he will come up to you and ask if you need anything, or if you heard already about the free dance performance in cultural centre tonight.
He drove us around the country side for a day in his battered cab, showing us the big Buddhist temples. These Buddhist, they like it big. We saw a reclining Buddha as big as a row of houses, and huge sitting and standing Buddha's.

Our plan was to traverse the whole of Malaysia by night train, from KB to Singapore, our next stop. It was not to be. We went on an expedition to the train station, that is placed a convenient fifteen kilometre out of the city, only to find out all the tickets for the coming days were sold out already because of a public holiday. In the end we take the night bus, which might be quicker but is also endlessly less comfortable and lacks the travelling romance. After a short night being shaken around, we are dropped off in Johor Bahru, from where we board another bus to cross the Johor Straight, through two modern, airport like border control buildings and into Singapore.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

043 Malaysia: KL, Chinese towns and torrential rains

Do you know that feeling, when you get of your plane/boat/train/donkey in a place far far away, where things are a little less developed then you're used to, the feeling of stepping back in time? I had such a feeling when I got off the plane from Vietnam and into Kuala Lumpur. But then the other way around, the feeling of back to the future, of getting in the airplane in boring old 2012 and getting off in, say 2050. A super modern airport, squeaky clean. No cabbies shouting and touting you into their overpriced stinky cars. No dodgy money changers, no faintly comforting smell of rotting garbage when you leave the premisses. In stead, an air conditioned, almost sterile airport with clear signs, working escalators and a friendly guy pointing the way to the bus into town. For the really futuristicaly minded there is also a fast train (the fastest of South East Asia (SEA)), which is incidentally also a lot more expensive. I have time before meeting my friends, so I take the bus.

Kuala Lumpur, universally addressed as KL by locals and visitors alike, is the place where I awake from my semi-solitude; I will stay a couple of days with Jurek and Magda, friends from Poland who have moved out here to work; and this is also the place where I will meet Poornima, a Couchsurfer I met in Mumbai at the beginning of my trip, and with whom I will travel together for a while. I really enjoyed traveling on my own and meeting locals and fellow travelers here and there, but I am also looking forward to sharing part of my journey with someone for a little bit longer than those random encounters.

I meet Jurek and Magda in the square in front of the Petronas Towers, not the highest towers in the world anymore, but still pretty high. They live at the edge of town, but the high speed Mass Rapid Transport brings us there in a jiffy. After a few days of hanging out with a bunch of displaced Poles (they brought some friends along) I have met a couple of other expats making their living here, have had a nice cooking party in their flat, have had a good look around town, and have met up with Poornima who is here to visit her cousin.
KL is big, hot and interesting. The food is great and cheap, the beer in this Muslim country hard to find, expensive and refreshing. We visit a nearby mountain topped with the most ugly hotels ever conjured up by mankind, we have dinner in an Uzbek restaurant downtown, and we climb a long staircase infested by crazy monkeys towards a Hindu temple in a cave. This is probably one of the first places in SEA where I could imagine myself living, if it wouldn't be so bloody hot the whole time. 

Malaysians like sweet stuff. If you order a tea here, it comes standard with a generous serving of sugar and condensed milk. On the drinks menu there is a special name for tea without milk. Tea without this sweet milk AND without sugar doesn't really exists, and requests for it are only granted with a confusing, disbelieving look, but brought to you with a smile. Strange foreigners.

Malaysia's population is a mixed bunch. The majority of Malaysians are Malays, but sizable groups are ethnic Chinese and Indian, who found their way to this strategically placed trading country during recent and less recent history. Though there is religious freedom, the state religion is Islam. Part of the Indians are Muslim, the rest is Hindu. The Chinese are, well, Chinese. I see some temples which give me the impression they believe in dragons and the color red, but I assume there is a bit more to it than that.
Although this has been different in the past, the three main groups coexist quite peacefully. But the current setup has a few peculiarities. During the colonial period the Chinese and Indian parts of the population were often favored by the British, and after independence (1957) and ethnic tensions against the Chinese Malaysians ten years later, laws were introduced to promote the economic development of the Malays, or Bumiputras (Sons of the Land). These laws worked quite well, and now many Malays belong to the upper and middle class. Because of political reasons, however, these rules are kept in place and are even extended, promoting Malays over other ethnic groups (who all have Malaysian passports, we're not talking about recent immigrants here. Many Chinese and Indian families have lived in Malaysia for hundreds of years). Universities, for example, have lower entry requirements for Malays than for others, and many government jobs are reserved for Bumiputras. Most of this you don't really see as a tourist, But after I was told that many Malays who work in the service industry are not very service oriented because they get paid well for a job they don't like and will probably never lose, I started noticing how uninterested some shop attendants and restaurant waiters in KL are.

It is obvious, however, that the Malaysians (that's all the people living here) are proud of their country, and rightfully so. When we leave the capital it becomes clear that the rest of the country, albeit not as spiffy as KL, is in a good state. Modern highways connect clean cities through green jungle and industrial parks.

We visit five places in Malaysia, all in the northern half of the country. Between them they cover many different aspects of the country.
Ipoh, our first stop, is also the least interesting one. Highlights are the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel and the collection of songbirds outside a pet shop, one lonely caged cat nearly going crazy with a mixture of hatred and desire.

Penang, our next stop, is an island further to the north. This town has been a trading port for centuries, resulting in a strong Chinese influence with the beautiful architecture and cuisine that come with that. We take a bus to a mountain in the center of the island, where a mountain train takes us to the top. The guidebook promises us a scenic, one hour drive up the mountain, with a stopover in the middle to change trains. Alas, modernization has swept through this once nostalgic experience as well. The slow, open train has been replaced by a new one, hermetically sealed off to keep the conditioned air inside, speeding up to the summit in under ten minutes. And all this modernity is sold to us for a fare that has been increased tenfold . Long live Progress.
We take a one way ticket and walk down the mountain via an overgrown path through the jungle, down a very steep decline. Occasionally we encounter uberhuman mountain bikers going up. Near the foot of the mountain we meet a bunch of aggressive monkeys. Don't look them in the eye, fellow walkers had warned us. We ignore them. They hiss at us.

From the west coast a bus brings us to the central highlands, where we stay in Tanah Rata. Here it is blissfully cool. The guidebook talks about a couple of hikes one can do from this town, so one sunny morning we set out to see a waterfall. The path leads into the rainforest and passes said waterfall, a modest muddy stream. After that the path winds itself around the deep green hill sides. After a while I see something slithering from the corner of my eye, a long, black shape. Seeing visions of vicious vipers, I yell "Stop" but after closer inspection we are not dealing with a cobra but with a fairly big millipede that uses all of its many legs to get away from us.
The path takes us through some really beautiful forest and we are amazed by the verdant jungle, huge leafs and colorful orchids everywhere we look. After about an hour the reason for all this abundant green in this rainforest is suddenly revealed to us. Dark clouds crowd together overhead and someone pulls a lever to open up the sky. It starts raining. Not gradually. Not building up to a storm. No, it rains right away as if a whole angry ocean has been brought in right above us, and is now released, no holds barred, no mercy, no prisoners taken.
We turn back, but the path has instantly turned into a small river, the rocks and tree roots turned into a slippery slide. The immense trees and huge leafs above us keep out the rain for approximately twelve seconds, after that our shoes and trousers are soaking wet. Carefully and slowly we make our way back towards the waterfall. Once we near it we are surprised by the roaring sound, but when we round the last corner and have a clear view on the once modest falls, we have to stop to take in the awe inspiring sight. The small river has swelled into an unstoppable torrent, the water is a deep rich red like creamy tomato soup, the liquid containing so much eroded soil that you could almost walk over it, if it wouldn't eat you alive. The path is just out of reach of the ferocious rapids, and finally we make our way back to the hostel. There is so much rain the whole time after that, and the air is so humid, our shoes and cloths will never dry in this town. Time to hit a coastal region again.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

042 to the North

As of today, I have solidly entered the rainy part of Vietnam. It isn't the monsoon weather as I was told it works, with warm and humid weather all day, interrupted by torrential downpour for a couple of hours on set times of the afternoon. No, in Hue I encounter weather I know from home: long, grey days in which it rains steadily without end. I guess it is very Dutch of me to comment on the weather, but I urge you to keep in mind that up to now, in three months of Asia I have had about four days of rain. That is all going to change now.
In the towns I go through now, most of the locals and many of the tourists walk around in thin cheap raincoats made from colorful plastic that are sold everywhere by old ladies roaming the streets. Suddenly, everyone looks alike, armies of brightly colored ghosts floating through the cityscape. Motorists with flapping peaces of plastic trailing them, trying to protect themselves, their kids, their grandmother, their livestock and whatever else they saw fit to carry around on their bike from the incessant rain.

Hue is the former imperial city of Vietnam. Currently Vietnam doesn't have an imperial city, on account of not having an emperor. The emperors used to move around quite a bit, this city only became the capital in 1802, and ceased to be the seat of power when the emperor abdicated in 1945 to make way for the communist regime. But this emperor planned things well, and built his city next to a big river. The town was (and the historical center still is) surrounded by a moat and high walls, measuring ten kilometer in length. Within these walls, close to the river, even bigger walls seal off the palaces of the imperial enclosure.
Unlike Hoi An where I was earlier, most of the Hue was reduced to rubble during the Vietnam war between the South and the Communist North, which is named 'The American War' here. Parts of the imperial enclosure have since been rebuild, and make for a very interesting and beautiful day of walking among the temples and palaces.

When I stroll around, I talk to a local I first mistake for a moto-taxi looking for work. He asks me where I am from, and then reveals that he doesn't want to sell me anything, but just wants to talk. Initially cautious, I let him convince me to go for a lunch and a beer in a nearby local restaurant. He is an interior decorator working on the restoration of an old building, but because of the heavy rains today he was sent home early. He genuinely wants to practice his English, and we have a nice conversation over fantastic food. After I walk back to my hotel I feel a bit embarrassed for having been suspicious of someone who turned out to be just a curious and hospitable local. 

I embark on the third long train trip north in this long, long country. I'm moving up in the world. Having started with a hard seat ride and graduated to a hard sleeper, now I find myself on a soft sleeper, the best of the best, as far as Vietnamese trains are concerned. It is indeed rather nice, I sleep well, especially after walking into the restaurant wagon in search of some food. Two hours later I stumble towards my bunkbed, having just downed a couple of vodka´s offered to me by the six members of train staff that I found there, obviously not bogged down with work in any way.
In the morning I arrive in Hanoi, but I leave it again just 45 minutes later, having eaten a quick breakfast and hurled myself through traffic on the back of a motorbike toward the bus station. I will come back here, but first I will spend a few days in Ha Long Bay, an incredible collection of tiny and slightly bigger rocky stumps sticking out of the sea. I stay on the biggest island, Cat Ba, where one can find many hotels, but not many tourists this time of year. It is the middle of the low season here in colder North Vietnam, and I find a nice room with a balcony overlooking the bay below. The weather the next day is not very inviting for a canoe trip or a boat ride, so I opt for a mountain bike to explore the island. The place is really really beautiful, with karst rocks sticking out of the water and the land of the island. After a struggle with the very steep roads I come to the center of the island where a huge rock face rises from the fields, buffaloes quietly munching on the grass, and rock climbers scaling a wall that looks unscalable. What a place.

Back to Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, seat of the communist (excuse me, socialist) government and moral hearth of the state. Here I  finally couchsurf again, I stay with Bao. He is a university student who teaches English in the evenings as well. Now he teaches his college friends, neighbors and some rich people's kids, but he has big plans to introduce computer bases learning to Hanoi. His English is refreshingly excellent, and while I sit on the back of his motorbike zipping through the small streets around his house, he fills me in on Hanoi's happening areas, the food culture and local history. His family originally comes from a clan-village in rural Vietnam, and a considerable part of his clan now lives in the same street here in Hanoi. His mom runs a hairdresser's shop, Bao lives above it but has his own small apartment, which is exceptionable in Vietnam, where most young people live with their parents until they marry. Good for me, because it means he an host people. I have a few days here, and use them to explore the city.

Hanoi, imperial palace grounds, behind Ho Chi Min's humongous mausoleum. Walking around the compound, I am accompanied by patriotic music rising up to me from discretely hidden speakers in the immaculately kept lanes. Some areas are no-go, guarded by soldiers in white, their costumes probably taken over for a bargain from an upscale restaurant that went bust, with big buttons, wide hats and too much gold.
I round a corner and see a couple of groups of green clad marching men, some wearing pointy guns, other groups unarmed, and all wearing green jungle helmets as if they are about to go on a butterfly hunt. They are accompanied by officers in hats that are a few sizes too big. With the theme song of Star Wars playing loudly they march round and round and round the courtyard, round and round, left right left. Its not the famous changing of the guards, then, or they don't know where they're changing to, the protocol backfiring in an endless loop, the men marching in circles until old age or regime change.
I want to sit down on the edge of a flowerbed to write this down, but one of the white clad waiters blows a golden whistle at me. No sitting down in Ho's backyard.

Hanoi is a good city. The traffic is so crazy it needs a soft padded room and a handful of colorful pills each day to sedate it. But the old town is bustling, with a few tourist streets and many busy alleys where Vietnamese people sell all matter of things to each other. Merchandise spills onto the pavement, which is already full with parked motorbikes, food stalls and ladies in conical hats carrying bread, fruit or unidentified meat in two heavy baskets hanging from either end of a pole. All the little restaurants have have little blue or red plastic furniture, like garden chairs, but then half size, for kids, it seems. Vietnamese people are a bit shorter than I am, but they, too, sit with their knees sticking out above the tiny tables. It´s tradition, you know.

Outside the old town the city opens up, with wider lanes and small and bigger parks to commemorate small and bigger heroes. Thus, the Lenin park is huge, and Ho Chi Min's complex is enormous, with a big Ho Chi Min museum that depicts the live and work of the leader of the revolution.

After work (and presumably also before, but I never went to check that) many locals can be found in these parks, jogging, playing badminton or some game I don´t recognize which involve kicking a small ball with a tail around in a group.

The traffic probably never dies down here, but when the sun goes down, the big colonial and government buildings are nicely lit up, as is the temple on the small island in the central lake around which the hearth of the city is concentrated. Real, vaguely modern but still full of Asian character, this is a good city.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

041 chasing waterfalls

Dalat is where the French went to escape the heat of the coastal regions. Nowadays its a nice refreshing mountain town with a certain European feel to it.
I am here because I read you can do rock climbing here. But after one of the tour operators I visit tells me that they don't do rock climbing now because it is rainy season and the water makes climbing too dangerous, I resolve not to brake my neck and opt for an activity that is wet all year round: canyoning.

The next morning a van picks me up. I meet my fellow climbers for the day: two girls from Korea, a girl from Vietnam itself, a Polish guy who is a gym instructor on the Isle of Man, and our two guides. One speaks good English, the other one is mental in every language, but in a good way. They will be taking us down a nearby mountain stream using professional climbing gear. We start with a couple of "dry drops" where we abseil down a rock face.

I have done abseiling (rappelling) before, and I like it. You step over the edge yourself, you give out more rope to descend yourself, you jump down the vertical path, you reach the ground.
But then we come to the first waterfall. Climbing down with a wall of water falling down on you is a whole new ball game. The rock is slippery, and I loose my footing a couple of times. No problem, that's why the rope is there. But when you struggle against the water to get to your feet again, you do realize the power behind all this water.
But this climb has an extra complication. After you've climbed down to four meters above the surface of the pool below, you have to jump off the vertical wall, let go of the rope, and fall into the water. The rope is shorter than the length of the rapids you're going down.
When I was twelve years old, I was afraid of heights. It started when I was standing on a viewing platform with my parents and brothers, somewhere above a forest in the east of the Netherlands. I had climbed up the metal and wood construction like everybody else had, but once I reached the top I suddenly got scared and wanted to go down again as soon as possible. My acrophobia lasted about three years, and then it somehow disappeared.
I thought.

Hanging in that waterfall, securely tied in my harness, my left hand on the tight rope going up, my right hand behind my back securing the line, and hundreds of liters of water pounding my helmet, I couldn't move myself to jump into the murky waters below. I hung there, trying to convince myself to let go, with the other climbers that had already gone down cheering me on.
To climb up high rocks with a rope to secure me: no problem.
To climb down with a rope: no problem.
To stand right at the edge of a ravine to look down: no problem.
To hang safely on a rope, and then having to relinquish that security, to trade it in for the pull of gravity and a dive in the nontransparent waters below: apparently a bit of an obstacle.

It wasn't panic, or even downright fear of heights as such that kept me in suspense. It was just that while I hung there, my arms and legs slowly getting tired, that I found myself waiting for the right moment to let go, and the moment wasn't coming. 
But I was standing in the middle of a straight waterfall, at the end of my rope, water pulling me down with force. No option was left but jumping or falling. For what felt like a century or two, I hung there. And then I did jump.

After some more climbing and another jump down another waterfall, we went back to town where I met with a local Couch Surfer who told me about living in this mountain town, which is famous for its strawberries and wine.
From Dalat, I went back to the coast, to a town that is known as Vietnam's number one beach town, Na Thrang. I ended up staying only one night there, and I filled the day with walking down the well maintained boulevard, watching the old men playing a board game on the sidewalk that looked like a strange version of checkers. I also spend time wondering why almost every tourist I see here is from Russia. It was really astonishing, I hadn't met any Russian in Vietnam up to now, and suddenly the whole town seemed to speak Russian. Even the restaurants have menu's with Cyrillic script, and the diving shops were advertising with weird lettering as well.

In the evening I board the night train that noisily but efficiently brings me to Danang. From there I board a bus to Hoi An.
This bus is run by some funny people. I know that the ride is supposed to cost around 15.000 Dong. I also read in in my guidebook that in the remote areas "overcharging is rampant". Although I board the bus in one of the country's biggest cities, it must me remote enough. The busboys practically drag me into the vehicle, the door closes, and we're off. I board along the route, so all the seats are taken an there is a big pile of luggage in the aisle. I add my backpack to it and turn around to pay. The guy looks at me and says "fifty". I say "fifteen?" and he repeats "fifty". That seems a bit much. Not in euro's, but I don't like being ripped off. So I tell him I think the quoted price is a bit on the high side. And then he pulls off a good trick. One of the old ladies sitting right next to him gives him a 50.000 Dong bill, holding it demonstratively so it is easy for me to see it is indeed the red 50 note, undoubtedly one the busboy just gave her for this purpose when I wasn't paying attention. The guy looks at me as if to say "Why, sir, you see, all the noble passengers of this bus are charged this fair and equal amount, so if you would be so kind as to oblige, we can continue this journey in an orderly manner". He waits expectantly for me to give in and give up.
In the next moment, a man who came into the bus after me decides to pay. He is obviously not in on the scheme, and decides to help me out. He also holds his money so I can count it easily. He is paying with his own money, not with a bill that the busboy just gave him to mislead the gullible foreigner, so he hands over only 15.000 Dong. Having found a way out of my predicament, I loudly proclaim "that seems more like it", and hand over two tenners in the general direction of the busboy. seeing the game is almost over, he accepts partial defeat and takes the cash. In a halfhearted attempt to regain ground, he points at my backpack an mumbles that it is big and justifies an increased price, but when I counter that he doesn't even have a seat for me to sit down, he gives up. Check mate.

When I get of the bus only an hour later, it feels like I have just traveled a whole lot closer towards the Arctic circle. What is this, it is cold here! In Hoi An it even rains a bit, and since my jacket parted ways with me back in Laos when my backpack was stolen, I buy a new one here. I walk around around in this famous town feeling not altogether warm, but dry. This place is known for its UNESCO preserved old town. It is solidly on every tourist's itinerary, and the buildings are certainly impressive. It is just a pity that every single building is a restaurant or a souvenir shop, with proprietors coming out to yell that you should come in. The omnipresent signs and colorful souvenirs streaming out onto the pavement are loud enough to distract even the most hardcore historian from the undoubtedly impressive but overshadowed and overscreamed architecture.