Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Final Thoughts on Vietnam

Wish we could have spent more time in Vietnam, but as the blog says, we need to get a move on, so here are some final thoughts...

- Not visiting Dalat, a mountain town where many Vietnamese go for their honeymoon
- Not finding Rich's soup made from rice paddy crabs (bun rieu cua) on any menu
- On the night train, buying what we thought were chips, but actually was a bun with possibly strips of cheese or butter and a filling that can only be described as fur! We found out later the "fur" is actually "pork floss," and I am sorry, call us close-minded, but pork should not be unrefrigerated and above all, should NOT BE FLOSSED!

Previously unmentioned highlights:
- Pho, the breakfast - or really any meal - of champions!
- A pretty decent steak and chips (steak frites, heavy on the garlic, from the French influence), which we never would have ordered except it was a popular choice at the street stall
- Walking through someone's living room with grandma and kids watching cartoons to get to the restaurant's "upstairs outdoor seating" on the balcony
- Hoi An crispy country pancakes (banh xeo)
- Being able to watch World Cup matches anywhere - from being with the family at the homestay in a mountain village to with hundreds of Vietnamese fans at a giant outdoor screen in Hoi An

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

Most people seemed to still refer to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) as Saigon, and I was a little concerned that, as the musical claims "the heat is on in Saigon," but actually, the weather seemed fractionally cooler than Hanoi. We were forced to buy a flight from Danang to HCMC because even the black market could not help us out on that leg of our journey. We arrived late because our flight was delayed, but it was interesting that it was so obvious we were traveling the discount airline even from the departure lounge (no A/C and limited snack options) and how you get on the plane (by bus and walking, no jet bridge). You were able to make purchases on the plane, and I got a cup o'noodles, (or pot noodle), which worked out to be about 75 cents, a ridiculous mark-up for what is essentially ramen.

From the brief time we were in HCMC, I got the impression it was much more flash than Hanoi and cleaner with wider sidewalks that were not filled with parked motorbikes. The pho, however, was not as good, but maybe that it is an unfair comparison since we got it from a pho chain with bad service instead of a proper street stall.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Danang, Hoi An, and Cua Dai (Vietnam)

Hanoi to Danang wins hands down as the sketchiest train ride we have been on so far. Starting off with having to buy black market tickets due to availability, the only bit of luck we had was they were soft sleeper (4-person berth) instead of the expected hard sleeper (6-person berth), and we did not have to change berths in the middle of the night as suggested. However, this time there were visible cockroaches (German cockroaches - even though I tried hard not to notice them), which I suspect were encouraged by the waste basket under the table and probably not helped by the hygiene of our cabin mates, a backpacker couple of the hard-partying hippie stereotype (greasy clothes, dirty feet, and drinking grain alcohol chased with valium). The train also would periodically jolt to a brief stop, and we suspected at least one of these times, it must have hit something or someone.

Danang is a big city in central Vietnam, but we were really only there to catch a taxi to Hoi An, which Rich did for a respectable price with A/C.

Hoi An is a picturesque river town, and we happened to catch it on one of the Full Moon Nights. The streets of the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are closed to motorized traffic, and all the restaurants and shops are lit with candles and Chinese-style lanterns. Everyone is out walking around, and the street vendors are selling candles in paper lanterns that you can buy and send floating down the river. It looks very pretty, but I did not want to buy partly because it is such a tourist trap and partly because it was essentially littering (and Vietnam, although not as bad as some places, already has its fair share). We did buy a patty that ladies were grilling over charcoal on the sidewalk (sweet potato, coconut, and ginger - a little on the dry side).

Rich got into the real business of Hoi An: tailoring. That's right, he's "Mr. Couture" now. Shop after shop in Hoi An is filled with custom tailors where you choose your fabrics, pick your designs, and new clothes can be ready in as little as 24 hours. Rich got a suit and three shirts made. The shirts were a good deal since, even at the first fitting, you could tell they already fit better than anything he has ever gotten in the store without also paying for alterations. The suit was probably because we were getting a little carried away, but a man needs more than one suit, especially if he expects to get a real job some day. With additional fittings, the entire process took about 48 hours. He looks pretty sharp!

The Old Town in Hoi An also has several ancient buildings you can visit with the same pass. A couple included a guide who gave a brief tour (nice) but who then made it a point to try to sell you some specific trinket (not so nice). The handicrafts museum had artisans demonstrating how they make the Chinese lanterns, wood carvings, and embroidery. We also managed to catch an exhibition of traditional Vietnamese songs and dances. One of which involved ladies passing out what looked liked fans in the audience. We were not going to be tricked into buying that one, that's for sure! Unfortunately, the joke was on us, since, during the following piece, the singers were calling out the written characters on the "fans," and the fans were actually more like tickets for a free door prize. One of the winners even received a Chinese lantern, which we had been hoping to buy anyway!

One day we rented a pair of cheap but rickety bikes from a lady who made me hold her baby while she unlocked them. Cua Dai beach is about 5 km down the road in the gauntlet that is Vietnam traffic (although in all fairness, traffic in Hoi An is laughable compared to the death-defying trek it is in Hanoi). Seafood restaurants line the beach and will rent out chairs under umbrellas to you. Our section of the beach was pretty quiet, and the water was very calm if not quite as warm as it had been in Halong Bay. Unfortunately, we were not able to have the big seafood blowout we were hoping to for lunch since the prices were extortionate. I made the mistake of ordering what I thought would be fish spring rolls. Instead, a whole fish (very fishy-tasting and boney) and the rice paper to wrap it came to our table. We are fairly at ease now with wrapping our own rolls, but it is challenging when you are taking apart a whole fish with only chopsticks and also trying not to let the rice paper blow away in the wind!

Other regional specialties we have sampled included white rose (shrimp steamed in rice paper), cau lau (fried noodles with pork, bean sprouts, and cracklin' croutons over salad greens), and crab fried with tamarind (which I have to admit was pretty good despite my usually strict standards of not ruining crab by mixing it with anything else). Bonus: the crab had eggs in it - Yummy!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Plan, Part II

After much deliberation and hearing good reports, Thailand is back on the list because who wouldn't want to see elephants?!

The new plan is:
-Vietnam for 2.5 weeks
-Cambodia for 1 week
-Thailand for 2.5 weeks
-India for 4 weeks

Hanoi (Vietnam)

Finally, we said our goodbyes to Hanoi. Forces seemed to be conspiring to keep us in the city, including lost luggage and our inability to book the trains or tours we wanted. All told we were there about 7 days and 4 nights. Our last night we ate on the street, at a place that was doing brisk business with probably seventy customers at any one time crouching at line after line of little plastic tables. Thanks to the kindness of the young Vietnamese couple sitting opposite us, we managed to get a copy of the English menu and our order actually delivered. I ordered what looked like one of the most popular dishes, roast pigeon (tasted like chicken, but greasy and not much meat on the bones). Rich went for the frog legs in a sweet and sour sauce (tasted like fishy chicken, but sticky and again, a lot of bones for the meat).

We had such a pleasant experience that Rich wanted to push our luck more so we stopped at the corner bia hoi (local fresh beer) place. There seems to be one on almost every corner in Hanoi. It tasted like Miller Light. Then we got charged the stupid foreigner price, which we thought was high but did not realize until later, it was 10x more. The guy even had the audacity to ask for an additional big tip, which we did not give. Rich is still fuming about it on principle. I would like to think that, of all the possible ways one can get ripped off in Asia, I am ok with a loss of what amounts to 2.50 USD, or the price of the odd PBR in the States.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island (Vietnam)

Halong Bay, with thousands of beautiful limestone karsts, is the most visited destination in Northern Vietnam. We splashed out on a three day, two night tour. The first day we spent mostly cruising around the bay in a Chinese-style junk. Amazingly, the entire tour group consisted of us and only one other couple... who also happened to be of the same age... backpacking in Asia for 3 months... after quitting their jobs... and before they had to move across the country. Rich was a little disappointed we were not the only ones with this brilliant idea, but it was nice to share stories, e.g. your weird selling-everything-you-own craigslist experiences.

We went to a floating village of people who live entirely on the bay and store their freshwater on concrete boats. Who knew you could make boats out of concrete? They also supplement their income culturing pearls. Even in the middle of the bay, with nothing but saltwater and limestone outcroppings surrounding you for miles, people try to sell you things - Rich bought some tasty seaweed-flavored Pringles from a old lady in a sampan (traditional rowboat). We also spent some time swimming (or for Rich, jumping) off the boat. The water was shockingly not-at-all-cold and, more disturbingly, warmer than many baths I have taken.

The memories of our Belize kayaking nightmare trip must have faded significantly, and been replaced by humorous nostalgia, since a big part of why we booked this trip was that it included kayaking in Halong Bay. We were pleased to find our skills had not been entirely lost, and we did not tip the kayak getting in from the support boat (which happened to the other couple). Kayaking was pretty leisurely, and the karsts are even more impressive when viewed from water level. I even saw a huge jellyfish while we were paddling around a small lagoon. More swimming and then a short boat ride later we arrived at Cat Ba Island.

Smelly and with the fine lacquer of multiple applications of sunscreen, we arrived at the Sunrise Resort, the fanciest digs we have stayed in or will ever stay in during our trip. A welcome cocktail, fantastic view of the bay, terry robes in the closet, a shower with excellent water pressure, and a plate of fresh lychees waited for us. I booked another massage before we even finished checking in... Rich was worried I could get used to this. Another morning was spent relaxing in this luxury, and then a series of buses and boats brought us back to Hanoi.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lao Cai, Sapa, and Ban Den (Vietnam)

The overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai was an adventure. About 10 minutes after we left the station, the train lost power, and we got to sit in the blistering heat and humidity for almost 2 hours until they tried to fix it and then finally just replaced the whole engine car. We kept ourselves amused by trying to figure out what was going on in the train parked next to us, which looked like it could have been a train robbing or just a casual pick-out-your-cargo-from-the-freight-car-free-for-all with smoke breaks.

Lao Cai is the last station before the Chinese border filled with neon lights and coach buses as well as the drop-off point to catch a mini-bus to the real destination, Sapa.

Sapa is a bustling mountain town with a big backpacker (and therefore, tout) presence. We made a newbie mistake in our choice of hotel by being distracted by the beautiful view and cheap price and not catching the moldy ceilings and damp bedding until later. I got a massage from a girl who was more of the slap, pummel, and poke style than to my liking, but really, for 70 minutes at 8.50 USD, can you really complain? We also took a cooking class at a hotel restaurant, which was more demonstration than the billed as "hands-on," which really was fine, until the owner/manager lady came over and berated the nice pair instructing us. I think we would have preferred it to remain demo rather than having an angry woman standing over you yelling, "YOU! YOU COOK THE PORK NOW!" We were hoping she was just having a bad day and not normally such a jerk to be around.

The real draw for coming up to the mountains is for hiking and visiting the villages of the various minority tribes in the area. Sho, a Black Hmong girl who can be quite chatty at times, was our guide for a slightly less touristy trek and homestay in the area with Hmong, Red Zao, and Zay people. The first day was a 15 km trek up and down steep mountain sides - the longest, most technical, and hottest hike I have ever been on. At times we were walking along ridges of rice paddies and doing more of a controlled falling than actual walking. The first third we were followed by three Hmong women trying to sell us their jewelry and pillow cases. Although it was annoying they would not accept we were not going to buy, when we got to the rough areas (sinking mud, steep inclines, and more often than not, both at the same time), there were times that two of them were forcibly holding me up or catching my fall. It is pretty humbling to have some 4 ft tall grandma in wellies and a young mother in sandals with a freakin' baby strapped to her back (!) be the people who are actively keeping you from pitching head first down a mountain or into a huge pile of water buffalo cow pie. Anyway, it worked out to their favor since we ended up giving them a little something anyway for saving my life a couple of times. Rich, carrying our pack, was much more graceful and nimble on his feet. Of course! The rest of the day was also challenging but with less of a mud factor. We finally made it to the homestay in Ban Den with nothing wrong with us except for some shaky-tired legs and mud-covered shoes. Dinner made by the family was a fair spread and capped with shots of the local rice wine moonshine. We also managed to catch a good amount of the Germany vs. Serbia match before dinner, too!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hanoi (Vietnam)

Flirting with heat stroke... Rich claims even his eyeballs are hot, and I swear every drink of water I take leaks straight out of the pores on my face. We were so delusional that we thought we saw English footballer Wayne Rooney on the back of the Tiger Beer bottle [update: It really was! He's a "brand ambassador"]. The combined effects of heat, jet lag, and the airlines losing our bags did not make for an encouraging initial outlook for Hanoi. There is a lot of great shopping in the Old Quarter - housewares, fabric, and art - that we could take a fancy to if we did not want to lug it around, and we do not want to get started on that slippery slope less than a week into our trip. Also, walking everywhere in Hanoi means nearly getting run over at every intersection.

Interesting odds and ends:
-Old ladies still wear the woven triangular hat while gardening and hauling buckets on a yoke on their shoulders.
-Young ladies dressed to the nines speed by on their mopeds wearing Burberry knock-off helmets, pumps, and that all-too-overlooked-accessory... face masks.
-A German guy at the local fried fish place told me proudly he had lived in America... in Indiana... and played varsity basketball for his high school outside of Fort Wayne.
-The lady who tried to hawk fans to us by Hoan Kiem Lake got the smackdown from a group of local policemen, and the bystanders were unabashedly staring.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Step 1: Store stuff with the folks

Julie's parents have been kind enough to let us store stuff at their house... even our dog Pepper for 3 months. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

The Plan

The current plan is:
-Vietnam for 2 weeks
-Cambodia for 1 week
-India for 7 weeks
-Barcelona for 3 years

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Welcome Aboard!

Follow us as we get a move on...

You can also listen to the sweet tune with some pretty cute and happy cartoons that inspires this blog: