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Tag Archives: Vietnam

Thai Spirit Houses

Since one night on the beach at the Sanctuary on Koh Phangan where I saw a random light hidden in some bushes, I’ve been drawn to Spirit Houses and their ornate decorations and offerings that can be seen throughout Thailand.

A spirit house overlooking the beach at Haad Tien

Statues inside a spirit house

Spirit Houses are a Buddhist tradition that essentially welcomes and distracts spirits with an appealing place to rest as opposed to inhabiting places like trees, lakes, waterfalls or the heavens. These houses are meant to appease the spirits to bring good luck on the house, business or farm and they are everywhere. Considering that Thai’s believe that if a spirit is unhappy, they can cause the business or venture to fail, the importance of pleasing these guardian spirits of the land is very important.

A set of Spirit Houses outside MBK

The houses themselves look like little temples, complete with little statue families inside of them, sometimes there are also animals and furniture to make the home more comfortable. But they can also be huge to represent the building that they are meant to be residing over, for instance the larger than life one at the MBK centre in Bangkok, or the ones built to reside over an entire city block.

Offerings are commonly placed around the alter on the outside of the spirit house, of food, flower garlands, drinks and incense that is lit everyday. The importance of keeping up with the spirit house is seen by the fact that you’ll rarely see a spirit house with rotting fruit or incense that hasn’t been recently lit because that is seen as disrespectful to the spirit.

In Vietnam, because we were there for Tet, the offerings were exorbitant. They had everything from money, to food; to beer and alcohol to make sure that the spirits were happy with them and to bring good luck to their home or business for the New Year.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of these, but they were seriously overflowing!

In Laos, during our trek and talk with the tour guide over Lao Lao we talked about Buddhist culture and he explained that they create the spirit houses to make spirits of their loved ones more comfortable in the after life. That is why, Micke explained, some of the houses have furniture or cars and the family offers money, food and drink to make their afterlife as comfortable as their earthly life.

I was saddened when I saw a stack of discarded alters and spirit houses in Bangkok, but after a little research I’ve learned that this is because the family or business has decided to upgrade the spirit house. They perform a ceremony to transfer the spirit to the new house. Still, seeing where spirit houses go to die outside of a Wat (temple) may have been a tad depressing.

Small, discarded spirit houses

The “I’ll be back” feeling

Something weird happened to me while I was traveling around Laos and Vietnam with Melisa, and even when I was in Chiang Mai with everyone else. I wasn’t concerned about buying a bunch of mementos, of taking a million pictures or fitting in as much as humanly possible. I had this crazy feeling that I would be back and that I would be able to do my shopping at another time that it made more sense to keep my load light for the time being. The only thing I bought from each place, was a postcard or two to send home to loved ones.

I fell in love with Laos. Looking at photos of Melisa’s return to build a school outside of Luang Prabang made me realize just how much we both fell in love with it. There are so many parts of it that are seriously untouched, hill tribes living with the bare minimum to survive, electricity being a relatively new concept, and the pace of life being so quiet that the entire country shuts down almost as soon as the sun sets. I love the pace of life here in Thailand, but the pace in Laos is turned down about 5 notches. But I don’t know if I could live there for that very reason. I’m a city girl, through and through, and I need streetlights and late nights. But I will be back. Maybe even for the chance to ride down the river on an inner tube and the view of the mountains in Vang Vieng.

I hated Vietnam at the time, but know that if I go back when everything is actually open and the country is its vibrant self I might feel differently. I hated Bangkok, but what I’ve realized is that I really hated the drunken, partying foreigners on Khao San. I might also feel differently seeing other parts of the city, although I think that once I’ve experienced the small town life here, it’s doubtful that I would fall in love with it.

The other thing I realized while at the Luang Prabang night market was that the trinkets sold at the markets are the same all over the place, and finding something specific to that culture takes a little more searching and knowing about the culture instead of just searching for something that “looks cool;” those can be found anywhere.

Setting up for the daily Luang Prabang night market

That reason alone made me not want to buy anything until I was sure that it accurately reflected the culture and wasn’t some cheap little trinket that was mass produced in China or some sweat shop. If I wanted stuff like that, I could head down to Chinatown and buy them by the armload.

It was another reason that I loved the Chiang Mai Sunday market, those were all local artisans selling their own handmade goods. It was like the Thai version of a one-of-a-kind show, but on the street, and with lots of amazing food. If I end up working anywhere near Chiang Mai, I can guarantee that I will be there every Sunday evening doing a weekly splurge.

While here in Ban Phe, on Monday and Thursday they have night markets and on those nights it’s routine to go and wander and buy market dinner. The first real local market that I’ve come across, it’s aimed not at tourists, but for the locals in Ban Phe to stock up on vegetables, snacks and used (or sometimes new) clothes.

Ha Long Bay Cruise

A fishing Village with the best view in the world

Much like the beauty of the Limestone Mountains in Vang Vieng, Laos, the beauty of Ha Long Bay can simply not be described. So I’ll describe the boat and ride and post some pictures instead.

We arrived at the ferry docks the day of our tour and got on the boat after only a little waiting, just enough time to buy and drink an overpriced, harsh tasting tourist coffee.

The boat we ended up on was quite beautiful, complete with “VIP” written on the side. We felt special. Not to mention after a couple days’ talks with other people on the boat, we still paid less. Awesome

Our guide spoke incredible English and explained exactly what it was that we were going to be doing in the next couple hours, so we all sat back and got to know each other while we eagerly awaited lunch to be served. I don’t know how we do it, but everywhere we go, Melisa and I always find the Canadians. So we end up on a boat with three Canadians teaching at the Canadian International English School in Beijing, a couple Newfies and an Australian girl who also has Canadian Citizenship who may be doing a year at U of T next year. (Her uncle also works at York) That’s 8 out of 16 people that have Canadian roots, all on one boat. It IS a small world after all.

Surprise Cave formations complete with lights

So we spent most of the first day dumbstruck at the beauty of everything around us, and take a hike through a couple caves. One was the Surprise Cave and the other was the Bo Nau Grotto. Both were beautiful, the first was discovered only about 5 years ago and some of the stalactites and stalagmites have been recognized as animals, the image of Buddha, and even shadows of Romeo and Juliet. The exit has a place for any other discoveries that people may notice in the shapes of the rock formation.

The second cave was home to the Vietnamese army, where they would hide out when they were sharpening their weapons in preparation against the Mongolians. Our guide explained that when they enticed them into battle, they would hide out in the cave and wait for the water to recede; causing the Mongolian boats to be impaled by all the rock, and planted steel tipped spears, under the water. Walking through, I could almost feel myself walking back in time watching the commander and all his men plotting their battle win.

After seeing the caves we waited on the pier for our boat to come around and pick us up, it’s at this point that there is a serious boat traffic jam and our boat crashes into the side of another boat. No big deal all the crew claim and help us all onto the boat. At this point, we all start to notice the dents and broken sides of our boat and all the other boats around us. Turns out those boat drivers in Ha Long Bay are just as careless as motorcycle drivers in Hanoi.

My only regret about our tour of Ha Long was that it wasn’t warmer so we could sunbathe while watching all those amazing rock formations slowly move past as we cruised through the bay, I’m sure that there would have been more activity in the fishing villages and that we may have been able to see the fisherman at work. Although at one point, our giant junk boat got caught up in the line of a tiny little boat and pulled them almost a kilometer before the crew recognized their frantic screaming and stopped to allow them to untangle themselves.

Despite the cold we got into Kayaks and steered ourselves through a mountain tunnel that I am absolutely in love with, and around the bay. Later some of the people in the group went swimming, despite the frigid temperatures outside and the fact that everyone else was wearing double pants, double sweaters and scarves. (Turns out we weren’t the only ones completely unprepared for the cold weather.)

Kayak tunnel: my favourite place on earth

All in all it was a great three days away from the city, and despite the frigid weather and wind keeping us inside the cabin, we made the best of it.

And no, the Aussie children were not on our boat! I think the lady we booked with hooked that up after we told her that we weren’t actually friends with them.

“In the end its not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away”

Culture Shock: Laos to Ha Noi

The first memorable thing about arriving in Vietnam for Tet (Vietnamese New Years) wasn’t the chaos of the motorbikes, it wasn’t the haggling of the taxi drivers or the unscrupulous way people would call out to you from their hotel or shop.

No, it was the fact that once we dropped our bags and started asking about arranging train tickets out of the city in the next few days, there was nothing available. Nothing for a full week. Neither Melisa nor I have been in one place for a full week since we were at the Sanctuary, surrounded by friends and beach and lazy days. There was no way that we were going to spend my last free week stuck in the city that was meant to be a launching off point for side trips.

After some heavy drinking, we met a group of Aussies who had found a place where they bought bus tickets to go to Ha Long City, and from there they would hire their own Junk boat to do a tour of the Bay. They figured that since they were such a big group, and a boat usually holds about 10 people, they would find a good deal. So the next morning, first thing, we booked our bus tickets to join them on the adventure out of what will be a dead city.

We were able to do some wandering around the city, but quickly realized that all the streets look the same, with either more or less traffic. The farther we got into downtown, the more hectic it got. Melisa compared it to the streets in Delhi, minus all the squatting old ladies. Everywhere we went people had peach and mandarin trees strapped to the back of their motorcycles and people where frantically doing their last minute shopping in preparation for all their New Year visitors.

Tet in Vietnam is mostly a family celebration. The elders give the children money, same as Chinese New Years, and the children all get new clothes to look presentable for the New Year and for family gatherings. Everything will be closed, there are very few parties, and everyone will be traveling out to the country to visit family.

Nonetheless, wandering got old fast and we turned to planning mode and headed back to our room to book my ticket to Bangkok and Melisa planned for what she’s going to do when I head back to Bangkok.

Headed to Ha Long without a plan:

So Ha Long turned out to be just as dead, if not more, than Ha Noi. There was seriously only one person around booking tickets for boat tours and the group we were with was trying to do everything on the super cheap, so denied her. Melisa and I were seriously considering ditching the group, whom we were getting weird vibes from anyway, to take the $60 two day tour through the bay.

Following the group turned out to be the worst idea, considering that apparently a couple of them decided that they wanted to ditch us and essentially told us so.

“We’re already a big group, planning is hard enough as it is, plus this is our last few nights in Asia together… so…”

Whatever, we left the children and walked back towards the tourist wharf to take the lady up on her deal. Hopefully everything I’ve read about boat tours and friendly people doesn’t play out in our case, because this woman took us into her hotel for a good price, offered us the same price 2-day boat tour that she offered when we were in the group, and even found us a cab back to her hotel from the wharf. Kind of a relief after the slight disappointment of being ditched.

It’s been seriously cold here, and we’re probably going to catch hypothermia out on the boat tomorrow, but the view of the islands and the caves should be worth it. I have 6 more days before I’m headed somewhere warmer and with better health care, so if I do get sick I can worry less about it in Thailand.

Obviously I’m taking every precaution to stay as warm as possible (despite the fact that my only sweater is a ‘summer night’ long sleeve shirt, I’ll be doubling up with Melisa’s cardigan and scarves). I seriously don’t want to get sick when I settle into classes.

Even if we do end up on the same boat as the Aussie douchebags, we’ll make the best of it and enjoy our trip. We are the older and more mature people of the bunch anyway, so we’ll prove it.

Vietnam, why you no like Facebook?

How sad is it that without Facebook, I’m getting a lot of writing done?

Last night we both realized almost simultaneously that Facebook is blocked here. It’s possible that because Vietnam is a single party system, they are not open to any kind of organized dissent, but then again Twitter works, WordPress works (obviously) and I’m sure that there are other social media sites that are still up and running.

So I did a little research into it and came across this blog where the author suggests ways around it and offers some deeper insight into the issue. Apparently because Facebook gains their revenue through advertising, and they aren’t paying proper taxes to the Vietnamese government, the government is cracking down on the site.

While Melisa (with thanks to Theo) have used their super tech-savvy ways to figure out how to login via proxy, I can’t seem to get it to work for me, and I’m not purchasing a VPN for just over a week here. It’s probably better to be relatively off the grid anyway. Which is quite a shame, the connection here is faster than Laos and some places in Thailand and I could (maybe) have uploaded a whackload of pictures.

I guess I’ll just have to leave that for homework procrastination in a few weeks.

Strange relation? Mark Zuckerburg, Facebooks founder himself, decided to spend Christmas here just last month. The LA Times reports that he went to the popular places, Ha Long and Sapa, both places we were thinking of heading.