By the Mekong

We got up early and had coffee at the lobby with Miss Vy, and then went to the travel agency where we booked the bus ticket the previous day. The same clerk was there and she rode with us on a van that went to the bus station, and then showed us where to go and said goodbye. We took a bus to the central station, and then another one to Cần Thơ. The ride took several hours, during which I wrote in my diary, listened to music, napped. It was a bit strange that I managed to pass long rides with my nose in a book without getting car-sick.

When we arrived at Cần Thơ, taxis and bike drivers gathered by the bus doors and offered a ride to anyone who got off. It was confusingת and we needed a few minutes to figure out where we are and where to go, when we saw a van going to the city center. Through the windows, the city seemed suburbian and cute. We stopped in front of a small hotel where a polite young man greeted us, gave us a city map and told us where it’s best to eat. After we settled down in our room we went out. The city is built on branching of the Mekong river, with the main street on its bank. At its center, there’s a humble marketplace, and simple city life – the sun stands high in the skies and underneath it people are working, eating, napping on hammocks. Some fishermen standing by the river, boats passing by. In the evenings there’s a night market, which has one street with clothes and a parallel with food stalls. After a walk in the city and a dinner we put together from several stalls we went back to the hotel, where we had beer with the receptionist (unfortunately I forgot his name) and went to bed.

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The next morning we got up at 4 thirty AM and had coffee at the lobby until we saw the guide for the trip to the floating market on the Mekong that we booked the day before. He led us to the docks where we went on a small wooden boat with a small middle-aged lady, that navigated with an engine on a board that she operated underwater.  The sun began rising as we sailed the quiet water and actual neighborhoods emerged on the river bank, with houses built on pickets on the water.

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Big ships greeted us on the entrance to the floating market, and then small wooden ones like the one we had – at first just a few, leading to heavy boat traffic. On the prow of each boat stood a bamboo stick with an example of what they sell hanging, mostly fruits but also various appliances. A cry from bellow of “Hellooo, coffeeee” caught our attention, and a woman who sat in what seemed like a floating tub sold us some coffee. We kept sailing slowly through the market that stretched on several kilometers. In the end there were fewer boats and we turned and made our way back through narrow canals, and the guide told us about life in Vietnam. He was a young man, an engineering student, and said that the labor market is tough for the young generation but there is always a demand in construction, since it’s a developing country. Right now they are dealing with global warming and the approaching rising of sea level by high construction near the shores. The sun was high and it was getting hot when we finally arrived back at the dock.

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We got off and said goodbye to the guide and the driver, and went to get some tasty Phở. I thought about that young guy, who seemed a bit sad and unpleased. I thought about the temporary jobs I’ve had as a student back home – serving coffee to tourists, on their way to or back from the beach, enjoying the sunny days while I struggle to balance my precious time between working and studying. When a tourist asks about life in Israel, go tell him briefly about the military, gentrification, corruption, violence. It made me think about all the things the guide didn’t have the time to tell about.

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Despite being told Cần Thơ was boring, we spent almost a week there. The main excuse was that we had to wait until the weekend was over to fix my phone, but the truth was, we liked the place. Passionfruit juice with books by the river and food stalls that served Xôi gà – a comforting dish of rice with chicken, vegetables and quail eggs. Tiny cafes, a marketplace with a load of strange vegetables. We met some people at the hotel – Thom from New Zeeland who traveled North with a rugged bike, and Keith, an English pensioner who roamed through South-East Asia and bought local women’s hearts with his retirement money. At the evenings we’d get dinner at the night market and then went back to the hotel and sit with the owner on the step outside, the humidity is high and drunk mosquitoes are buzzing around, drinking beers and talking in broken English into the darkness. The polite receptionist kept calling us “Miss” and “Sir” even after we gently implied he can lay aside the formality – possibly he felt more comfortable this way. He told us he was in the military but working in an office and study English in his spare time, and asked for help with his homework.

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As a new week began I went to a big store that fixes phones. I walked a lot on foot since it took a while to catch a cub, and when I finally did the driver and I had a hard time connecting because of language, but eventually we made it there. I walked into the big clean space and was greeted by a woman with a traditional Vietnamese dress, marching in tiny steps and smiling without showing her teeth. She served me coffee and sat next to me with a polite smile, waiting for me to speak. It seemed a bit odd but I tried to somehow explain what the problem with my phone was. She smiled and nodded and after I finished she remained silent and kept looking at me, and then referred me to a man in a tie that sat by one of the stations. I asked, “English?” and she said, “Yes, yes”.
I sat in front of the man, and told the problem again. He looked at me and I looked at him, and then he typed on his phone for a while. Eventually, he showed me the screen – a Google Translate page was open there with a text – “What is the problem with phone?” I took a deep breath and explained again, slowly, using the Translate and hand gestures. In the end, he picked up the phone next to him and dialed, and let me speak to another man on the other side. After I explained the problem again to the man on the phone, he asked me to wait.
I kept sitting there in awkward silence until the guy arrived – a man with wide bearded face and hands as big as paddles. He sat next to me and talked about politics, of how they are all corrupted and play with us like soldiers on a chessboard, and when I told him we call our prime minister Bibi he rolled in roaring laughter and slapped his knee. He took my phone and messed with it for a while, and said he fixed something in there but it might take a few days before we can know if it worked. I asked if I can get a new battery, and he said there are no phones batteries in the whole Mekong Delta.

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When I got back to the hotel Roni sat outside with Thom next to him on the sidewalk, working on his bike with hands black from motor oil. After he was done and the bike ignited successfully, he parked it and asked if we were hungry. We sat at a small street restaurant that served noodle soup and spoke about restaurants in our countries, and Thom said he used to fish and hunt his meals back in New Zeeland. It led to a long conversation about vegetarians and vegans, and about food-ideologies in general. After we had coffee together we went back since dark rain clouds appeared in the distance. In the evening we went to the main mall, possibly the biggest in the area, because they had a Galaxy store and I wanted to check one last time if they can somehow fix my phone – they only offered unnecessary gadgets, so I just accepted the fact that the phone is dead. next to it was a designed ice-cream parlor, a cinema and an arcade, and groups of teenagers gathered by them.
We had dinner at the night market at a stall with a woman who laughed at us because we are westerns, and then kept strolling for a while. In one stall they sold olives in what seemed like oil and chilly I was very excited since during the last weeks I developed a crazy craving for olives, and those seemed so nice and juicy, and it was only after I put one in my mouth that I realized it was some exotic and too-sweet fruit. We also got some durian – a big fruit that looked like a spiky melon, bright yellow on the inside, and a smell that resembles a pineapple. We got back to the hotel for beer with the receptionist. I tried the durian and thought it was gonna be sweet-sour like a melon, but it was so sweet it made me sick – kind of like gum for kids loaded with sugar. Keith also appeared in the lobby with a grumpy Thai woman, and while she went upstairs he stayed with us. He told us he speaks many East-Asian languages and showed us he was chatting in Thai with various women. He used to be a history teacher, and four years ago he retired and divorced his wife and since then he’s traveling in Asia and meeting women who are looking for an older man with money. He laughed and said his money was worth a lot in those countries.

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We went upstairs and booked hotel rooms in our next destinations, and went to bed. Even though I brushed my teeth twice, I could still sense the durian’s sweetness in my mouth.
In the morning we packed our bags and had a humble breakfast of bread with jam and butter at the lobby, when a van arrived and we took it to the central station. I said goodbye to the city through the window – the hotel, the river, the main street, the marketplaces, and the small restaurants and cafes. From the central station we got on a bus and began the bumpy ride to Rạch Giá, where we would take a ferry to Phu Quoc.

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70 Kilometers on the Road to Hồ Chí Minh

When we went outside the hotel to get soup for breakfast, we saw Cambodia  a valley, and then a row of mountains that is already in another country. After breakfast we went back to the hotel for coffee with Nip and Quan, as next to us sat a bunch of giggling women who spit shells of seeds on the floor. I had a feeling they were laughing at Roni and I, because they were from the outskirts areas and hadn’t seen a lot of white people in their lives.

Before nine we were on the bikes again, back on the roads. The sun was beaming and strange tan marks began to form on my thighs. We stopped here and there at monuments for the war fatalities, and on a narrow road inside a jungle. Quan showed us a small rough fruit you can eat its soft core, and said in broken English that they used to eat that in the war to survive. He saw a root with a strong perfumed scent, and said you can chew on it if you have fever. We continued the ride, stopping here and there in front of landscapes that broke my heart.

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We reached at a relatively big village with 10,000 residents, and Quan took us for a walk in the marketplace. Curious children followed us as we looked at the vegetables and meat, tubs of seafood, live poultry and one crab that escaped a tub and walked in the market’s alleys. Outside we met Nip, who waited by the bikes. We bought some fresh fruits, had sugar-cane juice and continued.

We passed by a field of guavas and Nip bought some home, and then stopped at a Mường village  a minority in Vietnam. Girls walked around with school shirts and colorful skirts and some kids stared at us while we sat on a bench in one of the yards. Nip said that minorities get support from the government, so they have electricity and TVs in their homes. He also said that the Mườngs often get married to their relatives so the children might be under developed. And stupid, he added quietly. I peeped at their faces, and saw that indeed some of them seemed to look under developed, physically and mentally.

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After that we stopped again at a remote town, to look for lunch. The skies got dark and as soon as the afternoon rains began we got under a shed at an old lady’s yard. We sat by a long wooden table as the nice woman took out rice, fried pork, greens, small bowls of soup. Heavy raindrops dripped from the edges of the roof. While Nip and Quan talked, I could already understand some words. Even when he spoke Vietnamese, Quan pronounced long slow letters.

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As the rain stopped we began with a long ride of 70 kilometers to the bus station, where we will take the bus to Hồ Chí Minh. Above us were red and green mountains and above them the big skies, beneath us a valley and lakes with floating houses. It was raining lightly part of the time. Once in a while we passed by a truck or a bike that emerged from beyond the road’s curves, and here and there we stopped to stretch and look at the view. I don’t know how long this ride took, perhaps even hours. Eventually more vehicles appeared and we arrived at a town, and then to a bus stop. We paid Nip and Quan, thanked them and said goodbye. Again, with this strange feeling of letting people go.

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A clumsy sleeping bus approached the station. The ride took forever. Pretty quick it got too dark to read, and I’ve forgot my phone at the hotel in Đà Lạt so I couldn’t listen to music. After three days of open roads it was wierd to sit inside the bus, on the bottom bed near the floor, as bare feet passing by.
Towards ten PM we began to see through the windows some buildings, skyscrapers, colorful lights, and eventually the bus stopped at a broad main street. Lots of cabs passed by and one driver asked us where we need to go to. After we gave him the adress of the hotel he said it was just a few minutes away, and showed us where to go. Inside the block he was pointing at there was a hidden ally that led into a crazy maze of narrow streets. We arrived at the small hotel and the owner, a young woman who said her name was “Miss Vy”, greeted us kindly. After she gave me my phone, that was sent there by Hien from the hotel at Đà Lạt, she showed us our room and said to ring a bell by the entrance if we go out and want to come back.

We went outside to the busy street and found a small place for dinner, and as we ate I looked at the people. For a second I’ve felt like in Bangkok again, at the Khaosan, because of big groups of tan European and American tourists. It was full of music and bars everywhere and the locals seemed to be more modern than in other places  young women with mini-skirts leaning against motorcycles and smoking, flirting, two fancy transgender tip-toeing on high heels, merchants with small wagons crossing the streets and selling dried salted octopuses, drunk men laughing loudly.

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The next morning I woke up early but stayed to cuddle in the bed, and eventually went down to the lobby at nine. We sat with Miss Vy on the couch and she showed us on a map places to go to. She then took us through the narrow alleys out to the main avenue to a woman that sold Bánh  outside. The recommendation was great. We ate the Bánh  at a park across the street and then kept walking along it and had iced coffee, and then went to the market. The sun was high in the sky and inside the market building it was shadier than on the streets, and very crowded, and people from all around tried to sell us things.

We passed the hot hours with watermelon juice and lots of iced-tea, and after a quick shower at the hotel we went to “The Bánh  King”. With hair dyed to black and huge rings on his fingers, the Bánh mì King ruled his small kingdom, and his staff produced dozens of crispy Bánhs with huge amounts of butter and pate, which made the Bánh  taste divine. We ate standing under a roof while the heavy rains began to fall.

We planned on staying for two days at Hồ Chí Minh before traveling south and then back to the city, and on the first visit it seemed to me cynical and alienated. The huge main roads busy with hundreds of motorcycles, the tall buildings, the nights when neon lights ignite and the streets fill with tourists. It was hard to see what’s real and what’s not. Young women were standing at each corner with fake smiles, belonging to the sex industry and not happy at all. By the evening I had the same feeling I had in Bangkok, like meeting somebody radiant and glamorous that would never let me into their heart.

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On the morning of the second day we went to a travel agency to book a bus to our next destination, Cần Thơ. Fans on the ceiling swirled the air lazily as a sweaty agent suggested some deals for tours and sightseeing in different towns by the Mekong, and said we didn’t have much to do in Cần Thơ for more than a day or two. Yet we refused for the deals and only chose a bus ride there because we preferred to not be tied to schedules.
We went back to the room and packed some stuff. Then we went to the mail post to send a few things home and save space and weight in our bags. We found the one clerk that spoke English, who wasn’t particularly friendly, and it seemed we were bothering her. She unpacked our things and checked them one by one, and then repacked them into cardboard boxes that didn’t seem to be strong enough to survive the trip. The packings and paperwork took almost two hours. When we finally went out it was pouring rain and we were hungry, so we ran to the marketplace building nearby and ate rice and fried pork. After the rain stopped we went back outside, and passed the day lazily. As evening came I began to like the city. The streets are huge, but inside every block of buildings there’s a web of tangled alleys that amongst them there are peaceful everyday lives. Later on the night market was opened, and the sleaze I’ve felt the night before turned into a feeling of life and freedom. There were mostly clothes and shoes in there, and I found the perfect pair of shoes at a tiny crowded store that was run by a loud woman. I decided to wait and buy them when we come back, so I don’t have to carry them during our trip at the Mekong.

We finished the day at a BBQ place on the street where we had meats and cold beers, and went to bed early.

Down, Down, Down

We got up at seven-thirty, got dressed and went downstairs for a hot coffee and bread with butter at the lobby. I looked at the town, that on daytime seemed different – a main road, a square, small houses. Next to us sat the blonde who traveled alone and had coffee with her guide, and I thought about how easy it was in this country to just travel alone with a stranger man with no fear.

The bike ignited and we rode into the mountains until we stopped above Lak Lake. Nip said the lake’s height changes dramatically with the rains, and when the water level is low enough they grow rice on the damp ground. We walked uphill for a while until we reached at Lak Lake Resort, some sort of hotel with a museum dedicated to a king who ruled there, not so long ago. He had 2,000 wives (Nip said it must be tiring), and anyone who got caught looking into his eyes would be killed. There was a black and white photo on one of the walls, of the king when he was a child, surrounded with grown-ups, looking seriously directly into the camera.

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We drove back down the mountain and through a straight road, between fields, and stopped in front of a small church that was burned during the war. The black ruins were surrounded with green thick plants, and from inside what used to be the main hall you could see the white skies. Nip told us about the warriors, that had to start fires for food etc so they put sets of tubes on the ground that dispersed the smoke away, so they won’t be seen inside the jungle.

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After that we arrived at a small village, matriarchal too. Loyal dogs barked at us from the yards, and the houses were built upon polls over half-open pits in the ground, as the farm animals were protected inside them. Chickens picked the ground with groups of nestlings running around their legs, and little children peeked at us curiously from inside the kinder garden. Here and there were burning piles of logs, that were being used later as coal.

We moved on to a tiles factory, which left me with a bitter feeling. It was a big yard where men and women worked hard loading clay into a large machine that created the tile shape, taking them with wagons to the area were they set them to dry, and putting them into furnaces. Some of the women had small children, who couldn’t stay alone at home. A middle-aged woman carried a heavy wagon as her children helped her.

We also visited at an artist’s yard, where he created stone and marble statues combined with gemstones – frogs with coins in their mouths were a recurring subject. We walked in the yard and examined the smooth shiny sculptures as the artist looking at us with smiling eyes. A big dog and her puppies barked toward us if we got too close.

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Before lunch we passed by a black-pepper field, which grow like tiny green berries on bushes that climbed around polls. Lots of white butterflies flew around. Roni took a few fruits, and we drove to a restaurant where lots of trucks were parked outside – as mentioned, that’s a sign for a good place. They served free range chicken that was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, rich with bone marrow, together with steamed rice, some soup and iced tea. We were hungry, and the food was tasty and filling.

We continued the long ride through villages and towns. children finished their school days and drove by us on the rural roads with their small bikes. Nip bought a ticket at the entrance of a nature reserve, and we went on. We went down a bumpy road surrounded with jungles, once in a while a blue-green lake is peeping from within the trees, way down. We stopped where the road split into a dirt path. While Nip waited by the bikes Quan led us down the path, between rocks and boulders, thick plants, grasshoppers, dragonflies, black mosquitoes. The path was steep and there wasn’t always something to get a grip on, and the skin ached from sweat and stinging ants. Once in a while the pool emerged, each time a bit closer – turquoise and chill, a body of water amongst small waterfalls. As we arrived Quan left us there to swim, told us to go back in half an hour, and began climbing back up. We got undressed into swimwear, and I made my way on the muddy ground into the water. Big cobwebs blocked the way but nothing scared or startled me anymore, so I shoved it aside and went inside. The water was cold and I didn’t know its depth, and water plants made it so turbid you couldn’t see if anything was lurking inside. By the edges there were rockier areas you could stand on, and once in a while seaweed, or tentacles, stroked the feet. Climbing plants created small caves on the water with their branches. Water dripped into one side of the pool from higher rocks, and on the other side a gentle drift led into a small waterfall, blocked by boulders. I’ve felt myself tiny, on the head of a narrow water pit with endless depth, as any moment a huge hand might emerge from depths and take me down. Somehow, this vulnerability feeling was soothing.

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After about half an hour two French tourists with a guide arrived, as we were just getting out of the water and sitting on the rocks to dry. The French took their time getting inside, which associatively made me think they must be on the beginning of their trip. Light rain began to fall as we went back up and I tought it might make the ground and rocks slippery, but the treetops kept the path relatively dry and it was easier to go up than down. We went on the bikes again and drove towards the reserve entrance, where we had hot coffee with a curious kitten who peeked from under the table. When we finished our coffee Nip showed us where to go to get to a big waterfall, so we walked towards the direction and went down some stone steps. The steps led to a small bridge that turned into a trail, which was half inside water. My feet were soggy anyway so I walked carefully inside the water, and Roni somehow managed to walk on rocks without getting wet. After a short walk on the simple road we reached at a huge spectacular waterfall, and sat there together on a rock in front of the storming wall of water.

On the way back the light rain got stronger. We’ve met three Russian tourists with a local guide who were also on their way to the huge waterfall, and stopped to talk for a while. The guide knew a lot about Israel, and mentioned names of leaders from the past. He said Israel was interesting for many Vietnamese because of the agriculture, since we’ve learned how to grow crops in the desert – in countries with tropical weather things grow easily, and they don’t need advanced technologies. As we got back the rain started pouring. We sat under a pagoda at the cafe and I poured out all the water that gathered in my shoes, and then we put the rain coats on and continued with the ride. The rain was getting weaker and stronger and weaker again until it stopped completely, only a black cloud appeared here and there. We drove in open rural ways, crossed towns with orange muddy ground. We made a stop at a field of gum trees, that dripped a white stuff that hardened into actual rubber, and another stop at a cocoa field with heavy cocoa fruits, some white and some red.

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Eventually we parked at another small town, right by the border with Cambodia, and went up a curved stairway of a small hotel. After showers Roni and I went for tea at a quiet place, where aside of us sat only the employee with her friends. The sun set a while ago and aside of that place it was utter darkness, only a street lamp shed light on a part of the road.
At six thirty we met Nip and Quan again at the hotel lobby, and went to a BBQ restaurant. We had Saigon beer and ate some sort of big rice cracker, and then the food arrived at the table – first the grill itself, on which we fried the meat, and then the food – soft and yummy goat meat, its leg and tought udder, and another part of the leg that arrived in a lemony salad. We ate and drank and talked about generations gap. They said that the adults begin to be exposed to the gay community and it seems very strange to them, but they slowly realize that they don’t have to understand different people as long as they don’t hurt anyone. Around nearby tables gathered groups of people, mostly men, adult and young ones, all drinking heavily and talk and laugh with loud voices. Since the city was so dark and empty, it felt like sitting in the last happy spot inside a void.

We ordered small empty glasses to the table and drank with small sips the rest of the rice wine – “One person drinks, makes to people happy”, winked Nip. We walked for several minutes in the darkness towards the hotel, where we sat at the lobby with a strong ginger tea that relieved the body after another long day of traveling. As I lay in bed later, between sleep and wakefulness, I felt like I was still in the lake, ready to be swalloed into it.

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A Chautauqua About Elephants Falling

If the strong tasty coffee we had at the hotel didn’t wake me up, the motorcycle’s growls on the rugged road and the wind on my face sure did. After about thirty minutes of driving out of town we stopped at a rose farm, where we got off the bikes and Nip told us about his life, and life in general. Nip had a strong roaring voice like his bike and he spoke passionately, with extreme facial expressions and wide gestures. Quan on the other hand didn’t have good English, so he talked flatly as he’s spreading syllables while he’s thinking about the next word. Nip spoke about the American war, the one we’re calling “Vietnam War”, and said they are a communist country since but it’s a matter of a generation or two before they become capitalist since that’s what the people reallt want. “Communist here” he said and pointed at his head, and then put his hand on his chest and whispered “But capitalist here”. He pointed at the flowers surrounding us and said that poor people care more about having food and clothing than to give flowers to their wives, and then told that his two sons are learning engineering and one of them wants to move to Hồ Chí Minh City and his wife is always crying because of that.

Afterwards we stopped by a large coffee farm with a field of tall coffee bushes and a pen next to it full of weasels, who cuddled together in a furry pile inside wooden rooms. When we approached they took out their tiny noses and sniffed the air, and went back to sleep. By the pen stood a few tables with the coffee beans after they went through the weasel’s stomachs, got cleaned and dried. Wooden steps led to a second floor, where they had a store and a cafe that served the fancy weasels coffee. Roni ordered for himself a cup of Moca beans coffee and I chose the Robusta, and we sat to drink it in front of the view of the farm. Each cup costs about 2-3 Dollars, which is five times more expensive than a regular one, and the coffee has a strong fresh flavour.

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The next stop was at a silk factory, where only women work. First we got into the room where they keep the hungry caterpillars and cocoons on a bed of strawberry leafs. On a second, larger room, there were big containers full of hot water and the miserable cocoons inside, each one with a fine string attached to some sort of loom. They showed us two kinds of cocoons – with one caterpillar or with two, which are called “Romeo and Juliet”. On one of the walls different kinds of silk sheets were hanged. At the end they fry the dead caterpillars with loads of lemon grass, a popular snack. It has a strong flavour of lemon grass and it’s crispy on the outside and mushy on the inside, and pretty tasty once you forget it’s a bug.

From there we went to the Elephant Falls, a big stormy waterfall. The bikers waited for us as we went down some stairs which led to a bridge, that led to more stairs. As we went down the air got cooler and the vegetation thicker, and the ground damp and slippery. We carefully climbed the rocks, passed some lizards and huge spiders and when we almost got to the best lookout point of the waterfall I flinched and couldn’t move forward because I was afraid of slipping on the wet rocks. A couple of Australian pensioners passed by, the man with a moustache and the woman with white hair tied in two ponytails, and the man helped me move on. It really was a great lookout, right by the point where the stormy waterfall meets the river and sprays water drops. We stayed there for a while to look at the river and the people around. Next to us a few women sat with fancy dresses on the muddy tree trunks for a strange fashion shoot, and a large group of Chinese tourists walked behind us. When they got closer we cleared the view-point for them and climbed back up. Next to where the bikers waited we met the Australian couple again, and they told us they loved traveling and mountain climbing.

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Before lunch we made a little stop at a Buddhist pagoda, a beautiful and quiet place. Nip told us about the monk’s lifestyle, different customs such as shaving their heads and chores they need to do during their trainings, and just as he said they eat only one meal each day my stomach began to growl and we went to eat. We stopped at a roadside restaurant where many trucks were parked, and Nip said that parking trucks are a sign for a good place. They ordered to the table chicken, pork, boar, fish, rice and morning-glory. We kept sitting there with the beers and talked for a while after we finished eating. I looked at a tall blonde woman who sat with another Easy Rider.

After eating we deviated from the highway to a dirt road that let into a small local farm. Some animals greeted us – aside of chickens and geese, a small dog ran towards us barking and growling but was too scared to get close. A few kittens were hidden inside a pile of bags with pig’s food and played with their tiny tails peeking out, and a nursing cat slept on top of the pile. A young piglet escaped into a pen with muddy ground and clumsily climbed into its cage, where it felt safe. The adult pigs woke up from their nap and got up heavily, sticking their curious snouts between the fences. Quan led us into a room where the family makes strong rice-wine and then move it into jars with conserved snakes. The room was loaded with big dark containers with flies buzzing around, full of liquid with a strong smell of yeasts. We said goodbye to the big family, and they gave us some of the rice-wine in a plastic bottle.

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Close to the farm there was a village, where most of the people and animals have already retired for their afternoon nap. We walked with Nip and Quan on the main street while they told us it was a Matriarchal village, where the women are dominant. At the end of the street stood a wooden house and a few women sat at the porch, their limbs spread comfortably as they’re chain-smoking, a habit that is usually maintained by the Vietnamese men. In the center sat a middle-aged woman who looked at us confidently and greeted us. A young toddler, the only male creature around, bursted crying and the women laughed, and told us he’s never seen Western people before. The mature woman, the alpha female, talked in Vietnamese and Nip translated. The men go to work and the women take care of the children, which creates a strong female community and the kids get their mother’s last names. It was a Sunday and the Catholic village had the quiet and sleepy vibe of a holiday. As the woman spoke she made more eye contact with me than with Roni, Nip or Quan. We said goodbye and went back to the roads.

During the long consecutive ride that came after visiting the village my mind wandered, to our country, to coming back home, to the future. I thought about a job Roni and I were offered when we get back home, an offer that was too perfect to be real. I imagined how I was going to do the job on the best side, without fear, being the best I could be. I ran it in my mind, like a movie, the day we will finish the trip with its beaches and roads and the wind in the hair, and on Sunday we will go to our new office for the very first time and work. And on the next day, and on the next one. But we will do something amazing, move forward, make money. And we will have an orginized schedule, with normal hours and weekends off and vacations in the holidays, unlike the jobs we used to have until than. And we couldn’t go to the beach on the quiet mornings during week days, but that’s fine, we will go on Saturday afternoon, when everybody else is going, and it’s not too bad since we’ll be satisfied of our job. There will be Winter days in the office, we will leave when it’s dark outside and work sitting above a table. The bike went through convoluted roads between the mountains and fear began to seep in, so I stopped thinking about it and thought instead about a dream I had one day, that a girl I knew has a large tattoo of a white elephant on her arm.

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We stopped for cold coffee at a tiny stop on the sides of the road where a young woman worked. She sat with me and said she’d learned English and wants to be a teacher, but there’s no demand for that. We stopped again on top of a high bridge stretching above a river, with houses floating on it, like in Hạ Long Bay. During the rainy season the river rises so the houses almost reach at the bridge. Nip said they once made a trip with some young Israelis guys that were after their military service, and they jumped into the river with a perfect dive. They served in a dangerous secret unit  in the navy where they learned how to jump into water from heights without being hurt – from the description I understood they were fleet forces. I wanted to say I was in the navy as well, but didn’t feel like thinking about the long days in the office back than so I kept quiet and watched the floating houses.

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The skies went dark and heavy rain began to fall as we arrived at a town and went into a tiny motel with heavy wooden furniture. Quan spoke to the owner and got the keys, and we settled in our rooms. I found out I forgot my phone on the sofa at the lobby in Đà Lạt when we had our morning coffee, but when Roni connected to the wi-fi we saw that Hien from the hotel contacted him via Facebook to ask where we’re going to stay in Hồ Chí Minh and send my phone there. It was nice to be phone-less. We showered, put our wet shoes under the air conditioner and chatted with the woman who offered us the job back home. We went outside to find a place to have tea at. It was utter darkness outside except for a tiny spot lit in yellow – some sort of shop, or a kiosk, or a cafe, where a few plastic chairs were spread. We sat there as the tall blonde woman we saw earlier at the restaurant tried to buy cigarettes and the people around laughed, since they were not used to women smoking, or blonde people, or tall people. Quan and Nip met us there and took us to a restaurant, that aside of the cafe was the only place that showed signs of life. We had a big satisfactory meal of noodles with bamboo leafs and vegetables, fresh vegetables, and duck stew. Together with the beer we ordered, Quan asked for four small glasses to which he poured the rice-wine we got at noon from that family. We sat there for a long while and talked, and drank from the strong wine. When we ordered some more food Roni, that used to be a cook before the trip, asked to look at the kitchen and the way the lady who owns the place makes the food. Lizards bustled around us and stray dogs nibbled on the bones on the floor, and I thought that I might miss working in restaurants. We payed and walked back to the motel, where I stayed up for a while to write about the long day.

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Taking Off, Again

I walked alone and listened to music, and tried to find the Crazy House – a place I saw marked on the map they gave us at the hotel, but didn’t really know what it was. I found the place after looking for it for a long time in a maze of small streets and alleys. At the entrance some Russian tourists stood and local women sold merchandise and strawberries. I bought a ticket for 40,000 Dong (about a Dollar and a half) and entered. It was lovely inside, special and different, like being in a Doctor Seuss’s book. It’s some kind of a museum that functions as a hotel as well, built of a few buildings with lots of steep staircases leading into and out of strange rooms. There are small cosy bedrooms looking as if they’ve been carved out of rocks or tree trunks. Hidden at the bottom floor of a building, there’s a lobby and a living room with wooden furniture and maps on the walls, a funny gift shop is concealed somewhere, and amongst the buildings there are yards with sculptures and hidden places, ladders, low porches. If you go high enough some of the staircases are becoming bridges that go over the whole Crazy House and whole Đà Lạt and you can see the rooftops of the small colorful houses.

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I went downstairs, where there was a small kiosk, and bought passionfruit juice. I sat with my book by a lake, while toads cackled with their gruff voices and groups of tadpoles swam in the water. When I finished the chapter I walked around some more – I looked at a big cage where different species of fat doves napped on the branches of a tree. As the skies got cloudy again I walked back to the hotel, where Roni was already waiting. Rain began falling outside and after we showered we sat on the bed and watched “The Social Network” that I somehow managed to download to my phone, and by evening, as the rain stopped, we went for dinner. We sat at one of the places where you get a small grill to the table and order skewers to roast on it, ate fresh meats and drank beer. Heavy rain was falling again, and when it weakened we quickly went back to the hotel. It was cold and we cuddled in the bed, and continued watching the movie until we fell asleep.

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In the morning we ate soup with mushrooms for breakfast. At the table near us a woman with a Chinese look and an American accent tried Vietnamese coffee for the first time and admired its chocolate flavour. After eating we went to the market again to find me some shoes. At the hotel’s entrance there was a place to put your shoes at, and in one of the days my sandals just disappeared from there. On the second floor of the market there was an area with only different kinds of shoe shops, from practical ones for work to fancy ones, and I found flat colorful canvas shoes which I liked immediately. I still have them in my closet and they’re starting to fall apart, but I can’t throw them yet because they remind me of Đà Lạt.

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For lunch we ate again at the small restaurant a meal of meat and rice, and then went to the Crazy House because I wanted Roni to see it too. I was glad to go back because everything was so cute and strange, and Roni liked it as well. Meanwhile evening came slowly. It was our last day in Đà Lạt and I was a bit sad to leave – the sweet homey hotel, Hien the receptionist, the chill city. We had dinner at a place similar to the night before, with a small grill served to the table, and for the first time I tried a roasted chicken leg. It was nice but poor with meat and with lots of bones. A local mother sat next to us with two little girls who were scared of the grill’s red sparks.

We moved from there to the night market, which was closed to cars and very busy with people and vendors. At the central square stood two people with huge costumes of a Minion and Hello-Kitty, and some teenagers pushed them to make them fall down. We walked around a little, Roni got himself a pair of shoes, and then we had ice-cream at a small cafe. We went back, organized our backpacks and went to sleep.

We got up at seven AM, got dressed quickly and went downstairs for check-out. We sat with Hien for a breakfast of rice leaves rolled with meat, and coffee. Her cute sister joined us too but her English wasn’t so good so she mostly smiled in silence. A rough rolling sound broke the silence – Nip and Quan, the motorcyclists, parked their heavy motorcycles outside. As we loaded our things on the bikes Hien gave Roni and I scarves as a gift to cover our mouths and noses during the rife. Roni went on the bike behind Nip, a middle-aged man with a smile and a moustache, and I sat behind Quan, a quiet man with moon-face that seemed age-less even though he must be over 60. The motor ignited and rumbled beneath us as we made our way in the heavy morning traffic. After we passed by the central square we catched up with Nip and Roni, who disappeared in the distance for a while. The bike accelerated and the wind began blowing through the hair as we left the city, towards another journey.

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Flowers, Snails and Raindrops

On the two and a half days Quoc and Giang were in Đà Lạt they took us to resturants, cafes and bars we would never have found on our own. It made me grateful again about the decision to leave the fancy hotel in Nha Trang and move to their cute one.
On the first evening they left us a note at the hotel’s reception saying they’ve booked a cab to come pick us up at eight and take us to their favorite place. The cab took us to the front of a big loud resturant where they waited for us, and after we got inside and sat they ordered for all four of us a big comforting hot-pot, some soup that comes in a big bowl at the center of the table together with vegetables and meats you can cook inside, and everybody share it. I told them we’ve seen people eating snails but never tried it ourselves, so they ordered a dish for us to try. Aside of the snail itself the shells were filled with chopped pork, and were served with a stem of lemon-grass so you could pull out the shell’s content with it. The snail itself had a texture similar to calamari and a very gentle flavour I could hardly feel, because it was blended with the strong tastes of the pork and lemon-grass. When we sat they told us they have a three years old daughter back home named Sushi, since they like sushi. Quoc tattooed her name on one of his fingers.

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After dinner we went together towards the market. The hotel itself is inside an alley and outside of it there’s a small lake, followed by a steep hill leading to the central square ot the market, a building with four or five floors. We went to a cafe in the area called Windmills and went up to the second floor, where there was a porch viewing the square. Roni and I had tea and Quoc and Giang had green matcha-based coffee drinks, and together we shared a tiramisu and another cake with cheese and berries. We talked about the hotel in Nha Trang. Quoc confessed that when he got our booking and saw we were from Israel he was nervous because they had a bad experience with Israelies before, and asked the receptionist to be extra nice so we won’t have reasons to complain. We said we are aware of it that Israelies can be rude when traveling, and some hotels in the world won’t accept us at all. They told us about customers from different countries they’ve had who complained about strange things, such us not having an elevator even though they knew that when they booked the room, or the place not being fancy enogh, while the price is super cheap. It’s nice you can give a review on Trip Advisor or Yelp, but it can hurt small independent places when people give low ratings for nothing. I said I always check the most negative reviews to see if they are legitimate or just petty.

We really liked the huge marketplace and the area around it. To get there you go down some stairs and reach at the big square with a grass plot in the middle, and lots of resturants and cafes around it. From there you can turn right to a big street where dozens of modern and traditional resturants are under the open skies, together with stalls of jewelries, various hand-made items, souvenirs. Behind the square stands the crowded market building burdened with shoes, clothes, make-up, groceries. Around the building there are more stalls, the merchandise lays right on a rug on the floor in some. From one of the top floors there is another exit to a different, higher street – since the city is so mountainous, it’s built with different levels. In the evening lights are turned on in the square and to the thick crowd thats already there more families are added, dogs, children, young honeymooners, vendors who sells unnecessary items.

On the second day Quoc and Giang took us for lunch at a tiny resturant near the market with two crowded floors and a big grill outside, where we had a delicious meal of rice with grilled meat and small bowls of soup on the side. We went from there for coffee and ice-cream at another place. It began raining heavily, so we sat there for a while and looked at the raindrops from inside. Quoc and Giang are the kind of people you can talk with for hours about anything, and you can also not talk at all.

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In the evening Roni and I walked around by ourselves. We sat at a cafe by the hotel and talked with some friends back home, walked slowly towards the market and stopped for a nice comforting bún bò, and at 8 thirty we met Quoc and Giang for beer. There were some hostels around with young loud American tourists who sat in nearby pubs, and Giang said that Western tourists always seem to her excited and full of energy. Their stories about the Israelies they’ve met before, and tourists from other countries, made me wonder for the millionth time how we are being perceived in this country, and how tourists see Israel.

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In the morning we sat on the colorful couch in the hotel’s loby and had breakfast with Hien, the receptionist we’ve met on the first day. We said goodbye to Quoc and Giang who went back home to Nha-Trang, and went for a walk outside. We walked slowly to the flowers garden – a park that is an attraction in Đà Lạt, which is famous for its flowers and greenhouses. We walked lazily, looking at stores here and there, and got inside a pagoda we’ve seen on the way that was very peacfull and quiet. We almost arrived at a big central lake when a middle-aged man with a blue Eazy Riders jacket approached us and began chatting. He was very welcoming and nice and we were planning to have another motorcycles trip to the next destination anyway, so we walked with him to his office, where we had tea with him and his partner and planned a three days trip and then a bus to Hồ Chí Minh City. They told us that it’s a low season for them since there aren’t many tourists so they lower their prices – they are Buddhist and believe in Karma. What goes around comes around. We took their details, shook hand and went on walking by the lake. We walked on a big grass plot, stopped where two well groomed horses stood and bought a bag of sweet popcorn for snack. The skies got darker and it looked like it was about to rain, so we decided to go back towards the market and visit the flower garden on another day. We arrived at one of the resturants on the market’s square and sat under a big shade right when pouring rain began to fall, and had a spicy Phở bò. A lazy cat took a nap on my bag and covered with my scarf.

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When we finished eating we ran in the rain to the covered part of the market and stayed there until the rain stopped, and went back towrds the hotel with the thunders still roaring in the distance. At the evening we went again and had peach-tea at a cafe with a gentle smell of coffee and cigarettes. We wanted to have dinner at that tiny resturant where Quoc and Giang took us but they were closing so Roni said we should get some pizza, something that suddenly we both had a craving for. We ate at a great pizzeria, even though the service was a bit too official for us, and looked at drunk tourists in the street and dogs playing on the road. It was the only time during the trip when we had Western food and it was very comforting, but to be honest I loved the local food so much I hardly missed anything.

In the morning we sat again with Hien for breakfast, ate the yummy soup they served for breakfast and had coffee. Hien told us about her job and life. She chose this job because she loved meeting and talking with people from around the world, so she can practice her English and expand her horizons. Her sister works in the hotel as well but more at the back on the house, maintenance and kitchen. We asked how come the stay there is so cheap yet the hotel is so nice and clean and they serve such delicious breakfast for free, and she said that Ken, the owner of the place, believes in giving as much as possible.

It was a bright sunny day, even warm, so we decided to try our luck again and go to the flowers garden. We passed by the big lake again, where the beautiful horses stood. Poeple paddled in the water in small flamboyant boats shaped like swans. After a long walk we found the beautiful entrance, payed 60,000 Dong (about 2-3 dollars) and went inside. It was quiet, clean and very nurtured. Small pathways meandered between lawns and floral gardens where shrubs were trimmed into shapes of pitchers, kettles, tea cups. A miniature house with a roof made solely out of flowers stood by a lake and wind chimes gently chanted on its entrance, and nearby stood some bonsai trees that with a close look seemed like tiny fairy-kingdoms.

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We sat for coffee at a nice woman with a stall by the lake, and kept on walking. We saw here and there young local couples, and aside from them the place was relatively empty. We went inside a green house with dozens different species of huge orchids, where a Western women talked with the saleswoman about the cultivation of the flowers. We strolled there some more, enjoying the cool fresh air of the ground and vegetationm until the noon rain clouds apeared in the distance again so we went back to the market’s area. We had a tasty lunch at the small resturant with the grill outside, and when the rains stopped we decided to split for a while and travel by ourselves. Roni went to the market, and I put on my headphones and went to explore the city.

A Journy to Đà Lạt

We began the morning as usual with phở bò nearby the hotel and then checked-out, and sat outside with our backpacks for coffee at the lady with the wagon. Pretty quick the Easy Riders showed up – Mister Lam with flames painted on the front of his heavy motorcycle, and Yen, with a big red motorcycle. They began loading our bags on their bikes as Quoc and his wife Giang were also getting ready for the trip, Quac with a small sports camera attached to his helmet. When we were all ready Roni and I went on the Easy Rider’s bikes – me behind Yen and Roni behind Mister Lam. The bike ignited with a load growl and we started navigating our way outside the city as Quac and Giang driving ahead of us.

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In a few minutes I got used to the motorcycle’s tremblings and its metallic feel, and leaned back on my bag that was tied behind. I took a big orange scarf with me which I bought back then from an old woman in Sapa and covered my mouth and nose with it, and a plastic part of the helmet protected my eyes. We stopped right outside the city by a small shack with a big yard where three middle-aged women sat and weaved rugs in red, yellow and green. Two of them worked on a rug as one adds more strings to the loom with a long hook and the other arranges the interwoven ones, and the third and oldest sat on the side and talked with the two others. They let Roni and I try it in turns, and we managed to slowly weave a clumsy line.

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We drove on narrow roads between fields and small houses in faded colors scattered here and there. We stopped by a rice field and took some of the tall plants growing like  wheat with small tough rice beans inside the leaves. We passed on a long shaky wooden bridge stretching above a green river. Mister Lam said that the rains start at November and the river overflows so the locals break it apart and put it together afterwards, a process that takes three months.

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We made another brief stop in another shack were some women made flat crunchy pastries made of rice and sesame, which goes great with the hot spicy food. They make some kind of a mush out of the ground seeds and pour it on a hot plate which in minutes consolidate it into some kind of a soft pancake, which they then move to a straw surface and take it outside to dry for several hours in the beating sun. Lam said they begin their work at 3 AM and finish at 1 PM, before the rains begin. Quoc and Giang were there with us as well and Giang said she hardly ever sees those rural people, because she doesn’t leave the city much.

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They took us to a workshop of a sculptor that works with wood. He lives in a tiny house with a huge yard where four barking puppies are tied. On the bare ground tools and wood chips with a strong smell of rain were scattered, and the place was full of statues in different levels of finishings. The ready sculptures were smooth and covered in wax and were mostly of fat laughing Buddhas with big earlobes – a sign for luck, long lives, riches, fertility. Other and smaller ones were of gods actually coming out of the logs, which is a part of their bodies. An impressive furniture was standing on one corner – a big tree lying on its side with bare roots, forming into a long bench, and on the other side there’s a smiling Buddha sitting, all made out of one piece. The sculptor said it’s a very expensive furniture which only rich people with a big house can afford.

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We stopped by a local village and Roni and I explored the place by foot while the bikers waited on the other side. Some curious children looked at us, and small pigs and poultry strolled around at the sides of the trail. We were accompanied by two dogs who barked at us from a safe distance, and a black puppy was playing in one of the yards. At the village’s entrance there were stalls with diagonal tables, where dozens of yellow hand-like bamboo leaves were placed.

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Outside of that village we passed by a sugar cane field and Yen chopped us small branch from one of the plants and told us to chew. It’s tough and fibrous, but after you work on it a sweet fresh juice come out. We moved on, now on open and free highways, driving much faster. I felt my feet vibrating near the motor and the scarf flapping behind me. The longer we drove, the higher the mountains around us became and the air was chiller, and the wind felt like tiny tinglings on the skin. It was freshening to finally feel a cool breeze after weeks on the humid shoreline.

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After about 45 minutes of consecutive ride we stopped on a bridge towering above a big waterfall, and went off the bikes. Aside from us there were only a couple of locals with big straw hats. We walked across the bridge until we reached at a small path with lots of stingy vegetation, and after we passed it and climbed over some black rocks we found the chill waterfall. We dipped our hands and feet in the freezing water. It was dead silence there, the plants absorbed every little rustle from the highway.

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We went back to the motorcycles and started climbing over the mountains. White clouds cruised around us like steam, sliding amongst the mountains and covering us here and there. The skies got darker and it began raining – light at first and then fast and heavily, the raindrops stinging like hailstones because of the bike’s speed. We stopped by the side of the road to cover our backpacks and wear some sort of blue plastic overalls that protect from the rain, and moved on. We reached at a tiny village in the middle of nowhere and stopped by a wooden house with a tall straw roof, and went up inside with a small ladder. It was empty aside of a few long wooden benches. Mister Lam said this was where the locals gather up for discussions or special occasions, and such a building is a sign of a strong community. There were similar buildings nearby, their roofs not as tall, and the only living soul around was a chicken picking in the moist ground with its chicks hiding between its legs.

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it was noon and we were getting hungry. We stopped at a small place on the sides of the road where a local woman served rice with fried pork and small bowls of soup, and sliced persimmon for dessert. We gave the bones to a pregnant cat who was meowing under the table and moved on. We passed by a strawberries farm and tasted the fruits straight from the ground. We talked with the farmer, a laughing bearded man, who said he was also growing potatoes and persimmons. Not far from there we stopped again at a coffee farm and tried the red coffee beans – they grow on bushes, like berries. The bikers told us that the coffee came with the French who saw Vietnam has the optimal conditions for growing it, and before that they used to drink only tea. They said there are some kind of squirrels (later on it turned out they meant weasels) that eat the beans and then take them out whole, and it’s used to make high quality coffee because of a chemical process the beans go through in their stomach. Light rain was falling and somehow the conversation rolled onto our country, and we tried to explain them the Israeli – Palestinian conflict in simple words, a thing we do not really understand ourselves.

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Towards the late noon we arrived at the city, which was surrounded with greenhouses and homes in various colors. We stopped at a colorful pagoda which was heavily decorated with loads of sculptures of flowers and small animals, and walked inside. There was a small garden in the center that had a pool with big orange fish swimming in it, and statues of dragons and people with three or four faces holding swords. The place had a few temples we’ve felt a bit uncomfortable getting into, where severe women with blue clothes sat by their entrance. We went up to the second floor, where huge Buddha sculptures were placed, and wandered in there for a bit. After we explored the whole place we went downstairs and sat with our drivers, Yen and Mister Lam, for coffee while they talked about the Buddhist beliefs. Its symbol looks like a swastika but much more ancient and stands for Karma – what goes around comes around. After dying one can reincarnate as different creatures, depending on what the soul deserves basing on its actions in previous lives – animal, human, something higher than human or lower than animal. It reminded me of a book I’ve read before the trip, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, about a man who dies in his village and reincarnate as various animals until he learns his lesson.

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The last stop was an old train station, that according to what they told us all the hipsters in Vietnam go there to take artistic photos.
Eventually they took us to Ken’s House – the hotel where we stayed together with Quoc and Giang from Nha Trang. We thanked the bikers and said goodbye, and went inside. It’s a small place, very colorful and clean, with wall-to-wall carpets in every room and a worm homey feeling which fits well in the cold city on the mountains. We checked-in with Hien, a beautiful receptionist who said her name means “Gentle”, and after taking off our shoes and leaving them in a cupboard by the entrance we went up to our room. It was charming, tiny with a floral painting on one of the walls and colorful sheets. We were wet and muddy from the long ride and while we showered in turns Hien showed up by the door with a tray of tea and spring rolls, which was right on time.
We rested for a while and got ready for the evening, since we scheduled that Quoc and Giang would take us to their favorite restaurant.

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