Tag Archives Black women travel

I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours(ish)

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Street action in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Stepping into the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), your senses are overtaken by the cacophony of whirring motors from scores of motorbikes zipping by, and car horns blowing at pedestrians and cyclo drivers on the chaotic streets where traffic rules seem nonexistent.

Your skin dampens after mere minutes of exposure to the powerful sun and relentless humidity. In every direction you look, people occupy space, whether it’s working in one of the many retail shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, street kiosks, businesses, and residential units that flank the roads, or pedestrians – some wearing masks covering their nose and mouth – boldly darting across the hectic roads from one side to the other.

Sidewalks are scant and the few that exist frequently serve as parking space for motorbike riders out eating or shopping.

My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – Vietnam’s largest and most populated – where I spent less than 36 hours this past December, left me a bit dizzy and unsure what to make of it all.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Happy New Year 2016!

Other tidbits about HCMC:

Pho tastes about the same there as it does in California

I had one goal for my short visit to Vietnam: eat a bowl of pho – that delicious noodle soup in a flavorful meat-based broth – in its homeland. Goal: met.

Living in California I’ve had the good fortune of tasting some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam. After all, outside of Vietnam, more Vietnamese-Americans live in California than any other state.

For lunch on my first (and only) afternoon in HCMC I ordered a traditional bowl of beef pho aaaaaand….it tasted no differently from what I’ve had here. To confirm my unscientific finding, I again chose beef pho for dinner later that evening. Aaaaannnnndd….same result. I guess that’s good? I get good pho at home.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
This bowl of beef pho, including the coriander and bean sprouts, along with the 7UP (I like the snazzy can) cost me less than $4 USD! Pho is considered the national dish of Vietnam. It makes a great comfort food, and is eaten for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner depending on the region.

Cyclo drivers deserve major kudos

Having arrived in Ho Chi Minh a day earlier than my tour began, I used the extra time to explore as much of the city as I could. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, I opted for a cyclo ride around HCMC. What’s a cyclo? Imagine an oversized tricycle with a bucket seat in the front to hold passengers.

My driver spoke very little English – enough to communicate the names of the landmarks we paused to view – which is more than the Vietnamese I knew (“cám ơn” or “thank you”). At various points along the 2.5 hour ride, I’d close my eyes and inhale deeply, while with the ease of a pro, he steered us through the frenetic tide of vehicles careening in all directions  – as I mentally reaffirmed my desire to live a long life.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
So much to see in this photo: Of course, the motorbikes (and notice the drivers are wearing helmets), in the background center you see a woman wearing a conical straw hat, known as a “leaf hat”, most likely to protect herself from the fierce heat; the bundles of low-hanging power lines; and background left: a man wearing mask over his face, which could be because he’s sick, scared of getting sick, or is protecting himself from the visible air pollution.

It’s difficult to gauge the age of my cyclo driver – I think he’s at least older than I am. His skin was worn with sun, smoke, and life lines, but he exuded youthful energy. He pedaled that giant bike – with me on it – for nearly 3 hours. Granted we took brief breaks here and there, but still.  Good for you, dude. Just goes to show that you can be fit at any age.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
You can see the French Colonial influence in the architecture of the Saigon Opera House, built in 1897 by a French architect.

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
As seen in Ba Thien Hau Temple, a temple in honor of Thien Hau, the “Lady of the Sea.”

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Bitexco Financial Tower, with a design inspired by the lotus flower, rises to over 860-ft (262m) and is currently the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City.

Being Black gets you noticed

Did you know that I’m kind of a big deal in Vietnam? The minute I walked out of the airport, I noticed so many eyes fixated on me that had I not been prepared for this, I’d have thought that maybe my blog had taken HCMC by storm. Finally famous in this bitch. Everywhere I went, I attracted attention. They never mention this phenomenon in the travel guides..

None of it was meant to be rude or to cause me discomfort. It’s just that some people have never ever in their whole long lives seen a black person IN REAL LIFE. Generally, when I would smile at the owner of the gawking eyes, they’d return the greeting with a sheepish grin.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Hey! I’m Black and in Vietnam! (This really isn’t my favorite photo, but my cyclo driver insisted on taking it and it’s the only picture I have of a cyclo. I am sitting in front of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.)
I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Is this man mean-mugging me? Just staring right in the middle of my photo. Anyhow, this is Saigon Square, a large market packed with stalls where everything from jeans to tourist knick knacks are sold. (The guys in the ties are parking attendants.)

Even though Vietnam is one of the least religious nations in the world, Christmas is a thing.

Albeit in a secular sense and no doubt influenced by “Western” culture.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
With Christmas less than two weeks away, decorations were up all over the city.

That final evening in the city, I met my tourmates – the 6 other people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as we dined, until it ended abruptly as a scene grew directly in front of the open-air restaurant. When the crowd drifted away, we were shocked to see a terribly disfigured man dragging himself across the pavement.

It’s hard to know how to react or what to say in that moment. My mind reeled with conflicted thoughts and questions. Our group fell silent for several counts as we all processed what we’d just witnessed. The images will be with me for awhile.

—-

The next morning, we said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and hit the road shortly after the roosters crowed – I could hear the cocky birds from my hotel room. Within a few hours we’d reach the border of Vietnam and cross into Cambodia.

I’ll have to return to Vietnam. My visit was entirely too short and I hear good things about Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Exchange rate at the time: 22,130 Vietnamese Dong = $1 USD (approx.)

Stay tuned for more in my series on my travels throughout Southeast Asia!

Have you ever been to Vietnam? If not, is it on your list of countries to visit?

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Snorkeling, Spice Farms and Stone Town in Zanzibar, Tanzania

This is part II of my trip to Zanzibar. Check out part I here.

Zanzibar Beach Indian Ocean Beautiful | The Girl Next Door is BlackBright and early I met up with the group of 20 other snorkelers and divers at the pick up point for our guided trip on a dhow. The hyper crew had us all introduce ourselves by name and origin. The group of six from my hotel were aboard, along with two white South African girls. The rest of the group hailed from places in Europe like Germany, the Netherlands, England, Scotland and Poland. I was the lone person who lived in America. I was also one of only two solo-ers and the only black person aside from the crew. Thankfully, no one directed a shocked exclamation of, “YOU ARE BY YOURSELF?!” my way.

We stopped in the middle of the Ocean twice to snorkel and let the divers do their thing. I had to use a life jacket because though I can swim (as in do proper strokes, even backstroke) I still cannot tread water. Having almost drowned twice, I just cannot relax enough to let the water help me float. One day…

Clown fish in Zanzibar Indian Ocean CR:  BBM Explorer, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Clown fish in the Indian Ocean Photo cr: BBM Explorer, flickr.com

The coral were “reach out and touch someone” large. I could swear one tried to grab my leg. Our guide made sure we all stayed together so no one got lost or taken by coral or lost in the frigid, choppy water.

The problem with guided snorkeling is everyone must enter and exit the water together. If you decide you want to stop – say if you’re chilled to the bone and wish you’d accepted a wetsuit when offered – you have to tell the guide and then everyone must return. Even though I felt like my legs were going to fall off and it’d be 127 Hours: Indian Ocean edition, I opted to grin and bear it. I wasn’t going to ruin the trip for everyone else.

Once back on the dhow and still freezing, I climbed up to the top-level to catnap. Shortly after I laid my head down I heard a male voice say to me:

“Dada (miss), do you like the trip?”

My eyes were closed, so I pretended I didn’t hear him.

“Dada, you are from America?”

Alright, I’ll play, but I’m not sitting up. “Yes, I am from America.”

“Ah, America. I like to visit there one day. Where is your simba?” Hmm, simba means lion, so is he talking about a man?

I don’t have one.

“I don’t believe it. You are too beautiful to be alone.”

Yep, I am here by myself.”

“How old are you?” I told him.

“Nooo. I think you are 23, 24. You are very beautiful. I am 42. I am looking for a special lady. Dada, I am going to play you a song.”

He pulled out an empty Tupperware container leftover from lunch, turned it over, began drumming on it with his hands and sang,

Jambo, jambo bwana

After three weeks in TZ, I’d heard the beloved 80’s Kenyan pop hit so many times I could play it myself. He asked me to join him in playing. I could see the South African girls peeping over curiously.

“Dada, I want to take you dancing. I think you probably dance like Shakira.”

Shakira, I am not. CR: oouinouin, flickr.com
Shakira, I am not. Photo cr: oouinouin, flickr.com

I guffawed. “Uh, maybe if I have some pombe (beer).

“I’ll take you dancing at the club where the local people go. We can have some drinks and dance. Cost no money.”

My gut told me that as nice as he seemed, going off with a man I just met in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, where I can barely speak the language, is an unwise idea

I’m sorry, I am going to stay home tonight.”

“Dada, we will have fun.”

Noooo, I’m sorry.

“Dada, why do you break my heart? I think you are lying and have a simba at your hotel.”

His tenacity and earnestness was admirable (and amusing).  Tempting. He wasn’t bad to look at: Wesley Snipes choco with short dreads and very fit from his day job.

Ha! I really don’t. I leave tomorrow and I want to go to bed early tonight.

“Ok, we will go dancing early. 10 o’clock.”

10! That is not early!

“The people do not start dancing until 11.” I shook my head no.

“Dada, why do you reject me? What is wrong with me? I am going to sing another song. It is about a man with a broken heart.” He launched into a sad melody and looked at me forlornly as he sang. Is this really happening? I fought the urge to laugh. Everyone on the top deck eavesdropped without subtlety.

Dejected and rejected, he left to attend to his captainly duties.

We neared the shore where high tide had rolled in, bathing the beach in ocean water. The captain and his assistants navigated the dhow 100-feet from shore and anchored it.

“Ok, ladies and gentleman, you will have to swim. We will pack your things.” Is he for real? I can’t swim that! I can swim in a calm, contained swimming pool next to toddlers diving and synchronized swimming. Not a angry-waved, freezing ocean. Embarrassingly I had to ask for help. Of course, who else but the broken-hearted captain also doubled as lifeguard? Now I felt like I owed him. But, not enough to reconsider going dancing. Once we hit dry land, I thanked him profusely and said goodbye. He threw a last sad-puppy face my way.

Beach East Coast Nungwi Zanzibar| The Girl Next Door is Black
East Coast Nungwi Zanzibar

Later that afternoon, I headed to the bar at the hotel to have a pre-dinner drink and enjoy the ocean view.  I introduced myself to the bartender, Bakar, who’d met my friend J earlier in the week.

“So, you are friends with J_, yeah? He is my best friend!” This tickled me. People seemed to get attached quickly in TZ.

Yes, he told me about you. You like hip-hop, right?

He smiled widely. “Yes, I like Tupac!”

We made idle chitchat for a bit and he shared, “I would like an American girlfriend.”

I asked why.

“American women have independence. African women want you to have a job and then buy everything for them. They depend on you.”

I laughed, “So do some American women. They like men with money and nice cars who will buy them things.”

“Really?” he asked, surprised. “But, in America, you have a job. You can pay for yourself. Here? The woman wants you to buy her things that are simple, like bras. And they ask you to help their family too.” I could see his point.

I dined solo at dinner that night and continued reading my book. I ordered fish for dinner mostly so I could share it with Mwezi, the hotel kitty. I went to bed early in preparation for the next day’s activities. The hotel manager had helpfully arranged a spice tour and Stone Town excursion for me.

In the morning, a driver picked me up and me to a local farm where a guide awaited me. I thought I’d be joining a group to tour the farm, but I had my very own guide! I loved my guide; he was very knowledgeable and sweet.

Ginger, an aphrodiasic for men, in addition to being used to flavor foods and aid in wellness.
Ginger is used as a male aphrodisiac  in addition to its use in flavoring foods and aiding in wellness.

The spice farm is community owned and they all share in the profits (including the dog I saw eating the fallen fruits). As we visited each plant or tree, an assistant would tear off a leaf or slice into bark for me to smell and guess what spice is derived from it. I sucked at the game. The only thing I was able to guess was the scent of vanilla.

I enjoyed seeing the origins of the spices we use for cooking, medicines and to scent things like candles and perfumes. Also of interest was hearing how the locals use spices recreationally. As my guide told me,

Ginger is an aphrodisiac for men. It gives them power.”

Later, “Nutmeg has many uses. You can make it into a tea to help with your nerves if you are like, a singer. But, it’s also good for women as an aphrodisiac. If a man takes ginger and a woman takes nutmeg, it’s like a boom! You don’t know who will win.” He pantomimed an explosion with his hands. I giggled.

Nutmeg, which my guide informed me has many uses including use an aphrodisiac for women.
Nutmeg, which my guide informed me has many uses including use as an aphrodisiac for women.
Tree climber - his job is to climb trees to get fruit down. Tree climbers' skin becomes rough due to the nature of their work.
Tree climber – his job is to climb trees to retrieve fruit. Tree climbers’ skin becomes rough due to the nature of their work.

Near the end of the tour I tried some of the tropical fruits grown on the island: mangoes, green oranges, orange oranges, jackfruit, papaya and a couple of different types of bananas. The guys serving up the fruit in a open-air hut, were listening to Drake. They spoke barely any English but were jamming to “Forever.” The one who cut my fruit flirted with me via my guide. I didn’t need him to translate though. I’d learned the words for “beautiful,” “(not) married,” and “American” quickly. I loved that the men I met in Tanzania were so upfront (but respectful) about their interest. It was refreshing and flattering.

Spices for Sale Spice Farm Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Spices for sale
Jackfruit in Tree Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Jackfruit – it’s an adventure removing these from the tree. They are heavy and if one falls on your head…
Spice Tour Guide Zanzibar Farm | The Girl Next Door is Black
With my spice tour guide. I’m wearing handmade souvenir gifts made for me from plants on the farm.
Drinking coconut water in Zanzibar Spice Farm | The Girl Next Door is Black
Drinking fresh coconut water

My driver waited for me (with my luggage) during the hour and a half I toured the farm. He then drove me into Stone Town where another guide was waiting to take me on a tour of the city. My driver let me know he’d return for me to take me to the airport in a few hours. This kind of personalized service would have cost me so much more in the States. In TZ it was affordable and I felt like I was helping employ people who needed it.

Muslim Men on Promenade in Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Promenade in Stone Town
Little Girl in Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
This little girl is too cute and she happened to be grasping an impressively designed door.

The people of Zanzibar have an interesting ethnic makeup due to colonialism and trade with influences from all over Africa, as well as Britain, India, Oman and Portugal. This diversity was especially noticeable in Stone Town, the hub of Zanzibar. Ninety percent of the population is Muslim, 7% Christian and the remaining 3% of other religions include Hindu. Many of the women dressed in traditional Muslim coverings and the looks I got for showing the bit of leg I did in my capris did not escape me. I found myself scandalized when I saw two female tourists wearing booty shorts and tank tops. Put on some clothing, you harlots!

You can also see the varied cultural influences in the architecture. There are the Arab-inspired narrow streets and open air markets; the ornate, heavy wooden doors with rounded tops reminiscent of India; and its own native influence with buildings constructed from crushed limestone and coral, hence the name Stone Town.

The only Hindu temple in Zanzibar Stone Town | The Girl Next Door is Black
The only Hindu temple in Zanzibar

Zanzibar is more of a tourist destination than Moshi and I observed a distinct difference in the treatment of visitors in each place. In Zanzibar, the locals greeted visitors with “jambo,” which I’d learned soon after arriving in Tanzania, is a greeting used for tourists. Having been in Tanzania for three weeks, I was taken aback by the number of “jambos” directed my way.

Ampitheatre Stone Town Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Amphitheatre

My guide clearly took his job seriously as he rattled off historical facts in rapid succession. I love history, but I found myself becoming mentally fatigued. I can’t keep all of these Kings straight!

We visited the site of a former slave market where a Christian church now stands. Left intact is the cellar where slaves were held until auction. The cellar was dark, windowless, tiny and at 5’1” even I probably wouldn’t be able to stand upright without hunching over. The captors chained people up in this dungeon with no access to food, water or even a way to relieve themselves.

Outside is a tree that stands as a marker for the old trading post. Near it is a monument to peace with messages in four different languages. There is also an art installation depicting five African slaves chained together by their necks awaiting sale at auction. The chains are from the originals used on the captives. Taking all of it in, I felt the same sobering, heavy feeling I got when I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Sometimes I hate people.

Peace Monument Slavery Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Peace monument – “May peace prevail on Earth”
Slave memorial Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Slave memorial

Freddie Mercury, of Queen fame, is Zanzibar-born. My tour guide told me, “He is the king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

The museum was disappointing. Aside from a plaque outside and a handful of newspaper clippings, I’m not sure what made it a museum.I didn’t actually see anything about Freddie Mercury inside. It seemed like any other souvenir shop.

Freddie Mercury Museum Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Freddie Mercury Museum

After we visited the open-air markets, we headed back to our starting point where I overheard three youts speaking in English about their prowess with girls with some of the foulest language I’ve heard since Eddie Murphy’s Raw. I gave them a look that said, “I can hear you motherbleepers and I know and you know, the ladies don’t love you like that.”

 Motorbikes in Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Motorbikes are a popular form of transport

I liked Stone Town, but a few hours touring the city was enough. Perhaps at another time I might like to try some of the restaurants and maybe spoil myself and spend the night at one of the expensive rich-folk hotels, but I enjoyed the quiet and ease of Nungwi more.

Right on time, my driver picked me up to take me to the airport. A male passenger was with him. The passenger introduced himself to me, asked me a few questions and then said,

“I just met you, but I will already miss you when you leave.”

I knew I would also miss the men of Tanzania when I left.

A Tanzanian Safari in Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Ngorongoro Crater

Our safari trip began the day before with a visit to Tarangire National Park, home of Ngorongoro Crater. As our safari guide informed us, “crater” is actually a misnomer as there are living creatures residing in the area, which is an active volcano. After a unique breakfast, we started exploring the park.

Lake in Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
A lake within Nrgorongoro Crater. There are rhinos in the water. They were quite vocal and sounded angry. It was a little disturbing being so close to animals that are prone to charging and trampling other animals, humans included, but we made it out without incident.

 

The crater is pretty impressive. There are tens of thousands of animals living there along with Maasai who reside in huts and tend to their cattle and other animals.

Zebra Buddies Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania Safari | The Girl Next Door is Black
Zebra Buddies
Line of Safari Jeeps Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Line of jeeps awaiting the lions

All weekend, we’d been hoping to see a lion in action. Even I, the animal lover, joked impatiently,

Is it too much to ask that I see a murder while I’m here? I don’t think these lions understand just how far I’ve traveled to see them. Work with me here!

After a few hours in the park, we spotted a line of safari trucks pulled over on the side of the road: almost always a sign that there’s something to see nearby. Sure enough, our guide slowly pointed out one, then two, then four, then seven(!) camouflaged lions. Their target: a poor lone gazelle. Once I realized what might actually transpire, I knew I didn’t want to see the gazelle lose the fight between prey and predator.

We all watched intently, eyes darting between the lion and the gazelle, and spoke in hushed tones. Well, almost all of us. G_ said loudly, with his Southern drawl, “Hey lion. Come to papa!” and laughed heartily. We all shushed him, including the party in the safari van next to us. No one wanted to spook the lions. We are not interested in being lion chow!

It seemed the lions enjoyed torturing their prey with fear; the gazelle seemed to be weighing its options. Finally, the gazelle made a decision and we watched as it hightailed it away from the lions, followed hilariously by two tubby warthogs. The strategically positioned lions, did not give chase. Instead, they rose slowly en masse and ambled toward the safari trucks.

Eek!

Lion pride in Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania
Very intimidating!

We watched as they hulkingly rumbled toward us. In the truck, J___ teased me, “You wanted to see some action. Your window’s open, one of those lions could reach in here.” I quickly closed my window and soon after, a lion strolled right by my window, less than 5-feet away from me. This is one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced.

Lions in Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania Safari | The Girl Next Door is Black
The lions had had enough of the tourists and moved on, abandoning their targets. The lions moved in between our safari truck and another, within spitting distance of me. I promptly closed my window when I realized just how close they were.

After the exciting safari, we returned to the lodge to eat. During lunch at the lodge, our Maasai guide, Zak, and our driver, Grayson, discussed the differences between their two tribes. In Maasai culture, it is okay to have more than one wife, who are sometimes paid for with cows and/or goats. Maasai men can “share” their wives with other Maasai men. This is not the custom is Grayson’s tribe, which practices monogamy.

Zak asked us what happens in the US if a man has more than one wife. He was beside himself with shock when we informed him that it’s call “bigamy” and it’s illegal. Same for Finland, M_ added. Additionally, prior to getting married, Maasai men must endure public circumcision during which they are not allowed to show pain, otherwise they are considered weak and unmanly. Their debate about tribal rituals was amusing. After digesting our last meal, we headed back “home” to begin another week of volunteering.

Group on Safari in Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Me and the other volunteers and our Maasai guide, Zak.