Sunday, December 30, 2012

For Christmas...An Arm and A Leg

This year for Christmas, we got our families a gift that was inspired by our travels. We weren't going to be sending packages home full of exotic gifts from abroad, but we came across something that fit the bill perfectly, even if it was an arm and a leg.

Literally. An arm and a leg. That's what we got our family for Christmas. Let me explain. One afternoon in Vientiane, Laos, I had some time to myself and went to the COPE Center, which is a rehabilitation and advocacy center for victims of unexploded bombs. They have set up a visitors center to educate the public about unexploded bombs in Laos and the various rehabilitation services that they provide, including prosthetic limbs.

Before I walked into that center I will admit that I was pretty ignorant of the situation there. I had heard a lot about landmines in Cambodia, but this was something else entirely. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. It's rather mind blowing and bears repeating. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. Wow.

During the American War (or Vietnam War), Laos was dragged into the war as parts were occupied by the North Vitnamese to use for supply routes to the south, ie. the Ho Chi Minh trail. Their geographic location, just to the west of Vietnam, led to devastating consequences. From 1964-1973 it is estimated that a B-52 bombload was dropped on Laos every 8 minutes. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this period than during the entire Second World War. Upwards of 30% of those bombs, mostly cluster bombs, failed to explode leaving behind a path of death and destruction that continues today.

What makes this all more devastating is that we have heard over and over that not all of these bombs were targeted for Laos. We, the Americans, dropped tons of bombs without reason in Laos. Actually, we had a perfectly good explanation. Our aircrafts flew out of bases in Thailand to bomb Vietnam during the war. They had just enough fuel to get back to base, assuming the bombs had been released. Therein lies the catch. The bombs had to be released, otherwise the extra weight would interfere with the fuel projections and the airplane would not have enough fuel to arrive back at base. So if they missed their target over Vietnam, they would be forced to drop them in Laos, where they exploded then, or maybe later, or maybe some day in the future.

Even now, decades after the war, they continue to feel the effects. People collecting scrap metal to sell find bombs and, not registering the danger, pick them up. Many are children. Building a fire over an area where a bomb is buried may also cause it to detonate. Simply farming the land and coming across an unexploded bomb makes farming a dangerous activity in some parts of the country. Daily life for many is still greatly affected for those living in areas contaminated with unexploded bombs, and especially those whose lives have been touched by the destruction of the bombs in their own communities. The Laos government estimates that these bombs still affect 25% of rural villages. There are agencies working in Laos to clear the contamination, but it is a slow process.

Facts and figures. Click to enlarge.
(UXOs stands for unexploded ordnance, essentially unexploded bomb.)

Needless to say, after visiting the COPE Center in Vientiane, we knew we had found the perfect gift for our families. Merry Christmas everyone!

Some pics from our actual Christmas, spent lazily in Hoi An,Vietnam. We were lucky enough to also celebrate a day early with a Christmas brunch with the fabulous Fernandes family, including Simon's latest crush, Oriel.

Christmas brunch.
Christmas brunch crew at Intercontinental Resort, Danang.
Simon making friends on Christmas Eve.
Simon watching Swedish Christmas cartoon.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Multi-million Dong Day

We are officially millionaires. It happened the day we arrived in Vietnam. We didn't win the lottery, it's just that dollar buys a lot of dong. Now don't be silly, I am not talking dirty and we didn't make all this money in the sex trade. Dong (unfortunately named) is the Vietnamese currency, and it's roughly 20,000 dong/dollar. Just needed to clear that up.

We had recently been hearing great things about the Phong Nha Farmstay, which made the most recent edition of the Vietnam Lonely Planet that came out this fall. When we contactd them there were only 2 nights available for the rest of the year (including dorm beds), so we booked a room and adjusted our entire schedule around it.

I really questioned if we should be putting so much effort into this visit. It's kind of hard to get to, it's not cheap, and the tours are expensive. But this place was offering a piece of countryside, and it's an up and coming place, rather than the thoroughly trampled places we have visited. It sounded nice to stray a bit from the beaten path for a few days. So we forged on.

Simon playing with Michael, the owners' son and his grandmother, an American War survivor
The farmstay itself is very pleasant and relaxed. It is located in the rural village of Cu Nam overlooking rice paddies and the limestone peaks of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. (These limestone peaks are the same types of mountains found in Halong Bay.) The park was founded in 2001, and became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003, in order to protect one of the world's two largest karst regions, with more than 300 caves and grottoes. Phong Nha is one of the popular caves in the area area. Its name means dragons breath because of the long stalactites that protected the entrance to the cave. American efforts to destroy the cave only damaged the stalactites, but did not do any damage to the interior of the cave. In 2005, Paradise Cave was discovered by some locals out gathering herbs (read poachers). In 2009 Son Doong Cave was discovered by British explorers, and it is now considered the largest cave in the world. It is not open for visitors. Much remains to be discovered in this great park.

Until 2006, when a new highway was built, it took a full day of travel to get between the park and the closest town along the coast, Dong Hoi. It's a distance of some 30 kilometers, mind you, not far at all. Now it's a quick 30 minute drive. Needless to say, a tourism boom is well on its way to this small rural community.

What we were really excited about was the National Park Tour. This is what we had heard so much about, so on Thursday morning we were very eager to head out and see what there was to see.

The tour started off with a lot of history about the American War. You might know it as the Vietnam War, but over here it's known as the American War. Seems pretty fair. Anyways, the park occupies the most heavily bombed area in the world! The Ho Chi Minh trail goes right through what has become the park, and the Americans bombed this area relentlessly for 10 years, trying to cut off supply lines to the South. The road that we were driving on was called Highway 20, the age of most of the people that came to work on the road. Most of the workers were young girls who were given a 2 day supply of food and water, the length of how long were expected to live. And if they lived longer? Well, they could gather supplies from the countless others that were not so luck to survive more than 2 days. Many of the caves in area were put to use during the war as hospitals, factories and shelters.

The outfit made this photo blogworthy. Right?
Awesome spider. It was huge!
The wall in the background was bombed repeatedly during the war.
Vietnamese workers hid here during bombings.
Above is a picture of a wall that was constantly bombed during the war, as there was a bend in the road below that was visible from above. Directly below was a cave where workers hid during bombings, and then came out to repair the road again. It's frustrated the Americans to no end that they could not figure out where the Vietnamese were hiding and how they always managed to get back out there and repair the road so quickly.

At one point we were at one of the narrowest points of Vietnam, where it was 21 km to the beach and 21 km to Laos.

The final peak of mountains are in Laos.
We finally arrived at Paradise Cave, where we were given some time explore on our own. The infrastructure at the cave was amazing, starting with the golf carts that brought us to the stairs or ramp up to the cave (over 500 stairs, we took the ramp), to the very nice boardwalk and lighting inside the cave. As always, our pictures don't do it justice, but the cave belonged in a Hollywood sci-fi thriller on some alien planet. It was magnificent, chalk full of stalactites and stalagmites! I was surprised at how impressed I was with the cave. The path went into the cave for 1 km so we really got to see a lot. Even Simon was impressed. "Mama, really fun cave!"

Check rule number 5.
After lunch we went swimming at one of those idyllic swimming holes, where the water is crystal clear and cool and you are sure life just doesn't get any better. I was in heaven. Simon paddled around with us, but was not a fan of the slimy rocks (can't blame him). He cheered me on when I jumped off a rock, and he provided me with an extra workout as I had to swim against the current with his arms and legs wrapped around me. It was serene and beautiful.

This little oasis was just at the edge of the park, and they had recently built an echo trail through the woods here to help keep it safe and clean. Before the trail opened two years ago locals, including Ben, an Australian who runs the farmstay, were debating whether or not they should have it checked for unexploded bombs. (Quick background: During the Vietnam American War, the Americans dropped bombs that had been developed during the Second World War. They were designed to be dropped from a certain altitude on a certain surface type. In other words, they were not designed for the terrain of this area of Vietnam and as a result, up to 30% of these bombs did not explode and many remain hidden underground and in dense forest, with the potential to explode if disturbed.) Ben's pleas to get someone to come out and check things out won' and 17 bombs were discovered within one meter of the newly built Eco trail. Yikes! We definitely stayed on the marked path.

One more stop before the tour was over. We weren't told exactly what we would be doing, just to only wear our swimmers (crazy Aussie term for swimsuit), and to bring and wear nothing else. Then we were given headlamps. Intriguing! We got into some inflatable kayaks, and I was convinced that we were going to kayak through a dark cave and then come out a waterfall. Sounded pretty awesome. But after paddling for about a minute we got out at the mouth of a cave. Cave swimming!

The guides took led us through the cave and showed us where to carefully swim (lots of very sharp rocks under water). We went back into the cave, turned off our headlamps and enjoyed that total blackness that one so rarely experiences. We also learned that this cave, called Dark Cave, is most likely the only one like it in the world. Like all of the other mountains in the area, this cave was found in a limestone mountain. But if you looked around at the rock inside the cafe, they were different, dark (hence Dark Cave). Now, if rock names meant anything to me I would remember just what mind of rock it was what had seeped thrugh a crack in the crust many millions of years ago. But, shame on me, I have no idea. Maybe cobalt? I know there were some lovely strips of quartz mixed in. That I remember.

This was one of my favorite days of the our entire trip so far. It packed so many great things into one little package: Vietnamese culture and development, American War history, geology, biology, swimming, hiking, etc. It was well worth the millions we paid for it!


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Where are you from?

Where are you from?

This simple question has no simple answer. Is it where you are currently living? Where you were born? This question is increasingly complex for people to answer, as careers, families, and life take people from one place to another, to settle in a foreign place, or continue moving constantly.

Where are you from? is a common question amongst travelers. We have several responses that vary in depth, depending on how much we want to go on.

The basic - I'm from the states and my husband is Swedish.

Just a little more - ...and we live in Germany right now.

All the details - ....and we will be living in Amsterdam when we get back.

Sometimes Simon chimes in, and his response is clearly Germany. So here you have one family, 3 different members, and they each identify as being from 3 different countries.

So where is home? What defines home? This is a good question for the Oppenwig family.

I remember the first time I really considered the concept of home. Martin and I were living in Louisville, Kentucky and I was working a Kentucky Refugee Ministries, a refugee resettlement agency. Every year on June 20, the United Nations celebrates World Refugee Day to honor refugees around the world. And that first year, it must have been 2004, the theme was home. Part of my job was to teach citizenship classes for refugees preparing to become U.S. citizens. So I asked them, where is home for you?

I can't imagine a harder question for a group of people that were forced to leave their homes and lives behind, because staying would be far worse. They then resettle in a completely new country with a new language and culture, in search of safety and hope. As they were preparing to take this next step to become U.S. citizens, many considered the U.S. home. It wasn't where they were from, but it was where they now belonged. They were raising their children in America, never mind the lives they left behind. Those lives were painfully gone. Home was the United States.

For me, the word home is fluid. When I am getting ready for a trip to Minnesota to visit my family, I am without doubt going home. But I also have a family of my own now, and, cue the sappy music, they are my other home. Home is not always defined by a space or a place. For some it is, but for many I know that's just part of the larger concept.

I always feel at home with these guys around.
Just like for refugees who now call the U.S. home, safety and hope are important elements of home for all of us. It's as much a feeling, a sense of security, of belonging, that defines home. That's why when we are homesick, we conjure up images of places, people, and smells that give us those warm fuzzy feelings. Home can be many places all at once. I know it is for me.

I will always be from Minnesota. But home? Well, it's always with me.

Check out how other traveling families conceptualize home. (Technical difficulties, will update soon.)

Bohemian Travelers: Home is Everywhere

Nomadic Family: I Hate Home, and That One, and That One

Flashpacker Family: My Heart Doesn't Lie At Home

A Lifechanging Year: I Never Thought We'd be Home for Christmas

A Minor Diversion: A Minor Diversion Comes Home

Grow in Grace Life: Home...Where Ever We Are, There We Are

Witness Humanity: Things I Will Miss About Home..

Discover. Share. Inspire: How to Always be Home for the Holidays

The Barefoot Nomad: Where's Home for a Barefoot Nomad?

Gypseekers: Are we home yet? Re-entering society after a round-the-world adventure.

Expat Experiment: Traveling Home


Friday, December 14, 2012

Descending Dragon: A 3 day cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong Bay

I was extremely excited about our 3 day/2 night Halong Bay cruise. But at the same time I was a little apprehensive. The majestic beauty if Halong Bay is undisputed. But with majestic beauty comes the hordes of tourists who want to see and experience said majestic beauty. Some would argue that Halong Bay has been spoiled by the many tourists boats going in and out each day. There are always other boats around, sometimes even party boats playing loud music, and more and more there is trash floating in the once pristine emerald green waters. I know. Doesn't sound all that appealing, right?

Well, not everyone has a bad experience and we had received a good tip for a boat from some travelers we met in Chiang Mai. Indochina Junks, also very highly ranked on tripadvisor, managed to put all of our worries to rest. They operate in Bai Tu Long Bay, where they are the only tour company licensed to operate in that section of Halong Bay. So the only other boats you see (besides fishing boats) are a few of their own boats and they pretty much keep out of each other's way. Amazingly, they are not more expensive than other boats of their class, and we still managed to book just a few days ahead.

A little background. Halong Bay, descending dragon in Vietnamese, consists of over 3000 limestone islands, covered with thick, lush vegetation jutting nearly straight up out of the water. The islands boast hundreds of caves, with several islands nearly hollow. Freshwater lakes can also be found on some of the islands. Only a few of the islands are inhabitable, and a number of floating fishing villages also exist in the area. Its name derives from a myth that dragons, who were originally sent by the Vietnamese gods to help protect the people from invaders, eventually settled in the bay. Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in1994.

When we arrived at the harbor in Halong Bay, we could make out the dark masses of limestone jutting sharply out of the water. It was magical already! We boarded the boat, put Simon to sleep immediately, and sat down for an eight course lunch of delicious Vietnamese seafood. What a start!

Felt I had to include a picture, but it doesn't do it justice.
We woke Simon up 10 minutes before our first kayaking trip. We kayaked around a few islands. Ok. Martin kayaked around the islands. After hitting Simon in the head a few times with the paddle I was met with a firm, "Stop it, Mama!" any time I tried to pitch in.

That night we had dinner in a cave. It was beautifully lit and the food was amazing. I don't know that I have ever had dinner in a cave again. It was an experience. The cave was enormous and filledwith stalactites and stalagmites, you could almost imagine living there.

In fact, It is not hard to imagine for many fishermen, as that cave used to actually be the home of a fisherman family living in Halong Bay. Before Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, the fishermen of Halong Bay and their families lived in the many caves on the islands. In 1994 the government required all of them to leave the caves and moved them to floating villages. This was a huge change for the way of life for these people. They had never lived in a community setting or had access to schools. Most importantly, according it our guide, they now also has electricity which allowed them to watch tv. Why was that so important? The weather! Living in caves, the fishermen had no access to weather forecasts and could be caught out in huge storms, easily preventable if you had just listened to the weather guy. Boats from the mainland come out regularly to bring them fresh produce and other necessities, as well as to purchase fresh fish and seafood. They have to travel to town for medical attention or for any education beyond elementary school.

The yellow building in the middle is the school house.
Checking out where the fish are ket until they are sold.
A quick language lesson: shut up and thank you are quite similar in Vietnamese.
When we visited a fishing village, we were picked up by bamboo boats rowed by members of the village. While the setup was not unlike a rowboat as I know it, the technique was totally different. They stood up with the oars in front of them, facing the direction of travel. Martin and I each gave it a shot with varying levels of success. I couldn't even figure out which direction to move the paddles in order to go forward. It didn't go well, and I had to hand the oars back over to the professional so that we could continue on our journey.

On one of our kayaking trips we were even lucky enough to have the sun break out for a few hours. It is winter in northern Vietnam, and this often means chilly and overcast weather in Halong Bay. Luckily, chilly for Vietnamese is not the same for a Minnesota-Swedish couple. And when the sun broke out I did what any good Minnesota girl would do when the sun is out and you are faced with a pristine body of water - I swam. (I know that my dad and sisters would have done the same. I felt that it would bring shame to my family if I did not.) UuuIt was so beautiful, I could have just swum around those islands for hours. Martin and Simon joined me, and the water was perfectly pleasant.

It was nice to have a break from the constant planning that goes with being on the move. We didn't have to find a restaurant or book a hotel, everything was planned for us, we just went with the flow. And Simon was very happy, the staff were amazing with him, and he even got to drive the boat whenever he wanted. It was just the bit of R&R that we needed.

Simon and Sunny, our guide.

Hanoi: A very pleasant surprise

I have to admit that had mixed feelings as we left Laos and boarded our flight to Hanoi. Other travelers had mixed reviews of their time in Vietnam, citing the crazy traffic or the pushy vendors as sources of constant stress. I had also heard from several people that people who travel north to south in Vietnam have a more negative experience than those that travel south to north.

Even during our cab ride into the city in the dark, we were impressed with the tree lined streets, and we could sense a certain charm. We weren't disappointed the next morning when we ventured out into the city, enjoying the cooler weather and the happy city enjoying a pleasant Sunday in the Old Quarter.

We headed to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where we watched Simon run screaming from his newfound fan base. He enjoyed the attention and running around, but wasn't always keen on being held and taking pics. It was quite a sight. This is when I taught Simon to say, "Please don't touch me."

We then found a popular Vietnamese restaurant where we dined with the locals, before heading back for our afternoon nap. That evening we attended the water puppet show, and drank local fresh beer, known as bia hoi. $0.25 for a glass.

The next morning we were off to Halong Bay. More on that later.

Yesterday we had one last day in Hanoi, and we were very lucky to get a tour with the extremely popular tour group Hanoikids. They are as group of college students that offer tailored tours of the city for free. It allows students to practice their English and learn about the history and culture of their city, and tourists get the unique experience of seeing more of the "real" Hanoi. Tours are usually booked 2 months in advance, so were very lucky to get a tour when we emailed just 5 days prior!

Viny and An, two students studying economics in Hanoi, arrived at our hotel at 9am to start our tour. Since we weren't really sure what we wanted to do, we asked them to take us out for typical Vietnamese coffee. Turns out that the Vietnamese cappuccino is an egg coffee, drunk sitting on tiny stools around little tables. We were definitely off to a great start!

We decided that we would head to the Temple of Literature, then go out for a good Vietnamese lunch, and then walk around the French quarter a bit. Turns out having 2 guides for the 3 of us worked out perfectly! An stuck with me, who bhad to keep up with Simon and make sure he didn't misbehave too badly with all the mobs. Turns out Martin and Viny were behind us dealing with a bit of celebrity status themselves. Turns out Martin was quite a hit as well.

The women are wearing traditional clothing for their big graduation day.
We haven't done any city or cultural tours up until now. I know from experience that keeping tabs on Simon and trying to listen to a tour guide don't go that we'll together. That's why this was so amazing. If I lost my train of thought or suddenly had to chase Simon, I wasn't being rude when I had to have something reexplained. And it's free, so the price is right.

Family pic at theTemple of Literature.
Lunch at the cool Hwy 4.
Simon with his new buddies, An and Viny.
Martin and I learned so much about not only the sites we visited, but Vietnamese life and culture as well. We learned about the four sacred animals (turtle, unicorn, dragon, and phoenix), the five sacred relationships (father-son, husband-wife, friends, king-people, and brothers), and so much more. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Similar organizations exist in other cities in Vietnam, and probably all over the world. They are so worth checking out if you ever get the chance.
Simon with his new buddies, An and Viny.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mama, I want pink Eis.

Simon said his first full sentence today. "Mama, I want pink Eis." (Eis=ice cream). It was really fun to hear him say it, knowing that it was the first time he had really put it all together. Subject, verb, adjective, direct object. A very proud moment for this mama.

Truth is, this trip has been very impressive from a language stand point. In just 5 weeks, he is making big strides in English, but huge strides in Swedish. It is so nice for him to spend more time with his Pappa and be exposed to more Swedish. He is not only saying a lot more in Swedish, but he seems to recognize that I speak English and Pappa speaks Swedish. For example, today when we saw some chickens (in a box on a crowded street in Hanoi) he pointed and said, "Mama, chicken." Then he said to me, "Svenska, kyckling."(Swedish, chicken.) He actually told me that he was telling me that it was chicken in Swedish. It's great. Another time when I pointed out a bear at a park, he turned to Pappa and said, "Pappa! Bjorn!" We even play a game called, "How does Pappa say...?" and he clearly understands what it means.

All that brain activity requires lots of rest.
I am so amazed and jealous of the child's brain. I often look at him with such wonder at the capacity of his little brain to learn. It's such a natural, fluid process for young children. Compare that with all the text books, verb conjugation exercises, and embarrassing language mishaps that come with learning languages later in life. What a gift!

Not only have I been impressed with his English and Swedish, but his Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese are coming along. Okay, I exaggerate. Hello and thank you are about as far as it goes. But what I noticed in Laos, was that when I would ask him to say "thank you" to someone, he would turn around and say "kop jai," thank you in Laotian. And one morning when we walked downstairs and I said, "say good morning" he busted out with "saibadee."

And now in Vietnam he has picked up a few words again. Children have amazing brains!

*Disclaimer: These are my phonetic spellings of Laotian words that I am not even sure how to pronounce. If Simon could spell, he could probably do better.


Catching up: Vang Vieng and Vientiane, Laos

We split our last week in Laos between Vang Vieng and Vientiane, which is a good idea considering the extremely windy 7 hour bus ride between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. We were very happy to finally arrive in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng has struggled with its reputation as a backpackers party paradise, where booze, "magic" shakes and a rocky river have made for a deadly mix. In 2011, more than 27 tourists died here. Yes, here. That's where we are right now. Party central with a 2 year old.

But very recently things have changed here. The government closed all of the bars that had cropped up along the popular tubing route, where drugs and booze had been such a deadly mix. The government is desperately trying to get this little town in a gorgeous setting under control. It now has plans to build a wide promenade along the scenic Nam Song river.

Watching Friends.
In our 2 days there we took advantage of the beautiful landscape and went tubing down the river and visited the blue lagoon. Tubing took about 2 hours and was sooo much fun for Simon. When the river wasn't moving too fast, he was swimming between our tubes and just swimming around. We chose not to bring the camera on that excursion - so no pics! At the blue lagoon we climbed up to see the caves just above. If someone has warned us we would not have brought Simon. He was on my back and it was a very steep climb. As we started our descent, Simon was clinging to my back saying, "careful Mama." And I was, and we were fine. At the lagoon he loved watching his parents jump or swim into the water, where he was of course waiting.
Overall we did not feel too strongly about Vang Vieng. The appeal of the town is the beautiful scenery, and it really is breathtaking. However, the town itself wasn't all that charming.


Vientiane, the capital of Laos, sits directly on the banks of the mighty Mekong, with Thailand just on the other side. When we first arrived, it was hot and the city felt a bit grimy. But once the sun went down and a pleasant evening breeze blew in, we enjoyed strolling through the night market and eating at one of the street vendors. Simon managed to get an entire meal from a group of Thai tourists sitting next to us, who kept giving him food very time he walked up to them. This included his own small basket of sticky rice, grilled pork, grilled shrimp, and salted fish. Everyone was happy.

Simon's basket of sticky rice.
We took a morning trip out to Buddha Park, where Simon was able to run around freely.
Protecting our heads.

The next day was all about Simon. We had found a playground....a playground. Our first in nearly a month! Simon was so excited, and he had it all to himself.

After his nap we set out to find some sort of a carnival we had heard about. We knew there was a bouncy house, and we were determined to find it. And we were successful!

Not only a bouncy house, but some rides too!

It was definitely a good day for Simon.

The next day brought very, very exciting news. Just 15 days after her due date, Simon's new cousin made her debut in Sacramento, California. Weighing in at 8 lbs, 5 oz, Sakhile (sah-KEY-lay) Neva Mazwi was born. Could she be any more beautiful?? Marie, Khiza, and Sakhile are all very happy and healthy. Times like this make me feel very, very, very far away from my family.