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Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

Life on the water

The Thinker

The Thinker

I love markets.  I mean, I really love markets.  I could wander around the local markets for hours, just soaking it all in.  On the second or third day of this trip, way back in October, we wandered into the central market in Lima.  As with most markets we’ve visited since, we saw everything from whole butchered cows to kitchen sinks to food stalls–it was noisy and chaotic and exciting and we were entirely too terrified to try any of the food.  I remember it clearly as the moment that I thought, “Wow.  We are really not in Kansas anymore.”  One of my best memories of our most recent stop in Bangkok was the labyrinth weekend market, an enormous set-up with thousands of stalls that completely dwarfed that first market, and where we ate all of the food.  Progress?

So, as I have a tendency to make waaaaaay more out of a market than is probably sane, it will be no surprise that visiting the floating markets of the Mekong Delta was towards the top of my list of to-do in Vietnam.  We initially planned on blazing through Vietnam in no more than three weeks, but quickly found that to be unrealistic.  By the time we made it down to the furthest southern reaches of the country, we only had three days left to visit the Mekong Delta before our visas expired.  In the interest of saving time, we checked out some of the tours on offer.  However, the idea of organized visits to brick factories and tours of floating markets in big groups was less than appealing, so we passed on the tour option.  We planned on recreating our own version off the highlights of the tours–some bike riding through the countryside, a homestay, a day of visiting the bigger floating markets, then off to Cambodia by boat.

We left Saigon with high hopes.  Then the sky turned black.  By the time we arrived at our first stop, the town of Vinh Long, where we planned  to book a homestay for that night, it was pouring rain and showing no signs of stopping.  As most of the ideas in the plan for that day were outdoor activities–bike riding,  boat tours with our homestay hosts, wandering the orchards around the homestay–we knew we needed a change of plans.  After a whopping 30 minutes in Vinh Long, we hopped on another bus and headed for Can Tho, the biggest city in the Mekong Delta and the nearest city to remaining floating markets.

You’ll notice I said “remaining” floating markets.  With the improvement of the road system in the Delta and the construction of numerous massive bridges, the land based markets are flourishing to the detriment of the floating markets.  Modernization, while it does have its benefits, is killing the floating markets of Southeast Asia.  For instance, we have heard over and over that the floating markets outside Bangkok now exist solely for the benefit of tourists, selling souvenirs and not much else (disclaimer: that is all hearsay–we didn’t go ourselves.)

That made me all the more grateful for the opportunity to visit two thriving floating markets in the Delta.  We hired a long tail boat in Can Tho and set off for the Cai Rang and Phong Dien markets.  Both are primarily produce markets.  The first is a wholesale market–sellers show up in huge boats just bursting with produce.  Sometimes you can see the goods spilling out onto the top of the boat.  In other cases, you can determine what’s on offer by checking out the long poles hoisting an example of that vendor’s goods high above the boat.  So clever!

Banana boat

Banana boat

This boat was selling a wide variety of veggies--squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce--everything you see tied to the pole!

This boat was selling a wide variety of veggies--squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce--everything you see tied to the pole!

Catching up on the latest gossip

Catching up on the latest gossip

Potatoes galore

Potatoes galore

Of course there were also vendors selling baskets to carry all the produce.

Of course there were also vendors selling baskets to carry all the produce.

The second market was a retail market, still primarily produce.  However, instead of the huge boats of the Cai Rang market, Phong Dien was a crowd of smaller boats maneuvering through and around each other, all buying and selling.  It was crowded with locals and much more personal.

Happy vendor

Happy vendor

Pomelo vendor, selling pomelos to our very sweet driver (on the far right)

Pomelo vendor, selling pomelos to our very sweet driver (on the far right)

Bustle

Bustle

Fruit vendors

Fruit vendors

More fruit boats

More fruit boats

One of the fantastic things about heading out on our own was that we ended up hiring a small boat, rather than the larger boats we saw carrying tours around.  That meant we were able to spend a couple of hours just motoring through the small canals, watching life go on in the Mekong Delta.  The people were remarkably friendly, which makes  any experience better.  It was also so interesting to actually observe how important the water is to the people who live in the rural areas here–they live on it, drink it, use it to wash, get food from it, use it as a primary means of transport, use it to water their crops, and unfortunately, they also throw their garbage in it.

Local boatman

Local boatman

Typical covered boat

Typical covered boat

Fishing/house boat

Fishing/house boat

These boats on the Hau Giang River were big enough to head down the river and out into the ocean.

These boats on the Hau Giang River were big enough to head down the river and out into the ocean.

Roving vendor selling jars along the narrow canals

Roving vendor selling jars along the narrow canals

A little bit different than the mermaid on the front of a pirate ship...

A little bit different than the mermaid on the front of a pirate ship...

Mekong carport

Mekong carport

Rice field

Rice field

Turns out teenagers are sullen everywhere :-)

Turns out teenagers are sullen everywhere 🙂

The boats have eyes

The boats have eyes

Our guide suggested that Adam might want to look for a Vietnamese woman as they really love washing.  I told him that I didn't believe for one minute that they did all that washing because they looooooved it.

Our guide suggested that Adam might want to look for a Vietnamese woman as they really love washing and I, admittedly, do not. I told him that I didn't believe for one minute that they did all that washing because they looooooved it.

A moment before I snapped thie picture, the women in the back of the boat were leaning out scooping water out of the river and washing dishes with it.  I also loved the man driving with his feet.

A moment before I snapped this picture, the women in the back of the boat were leaning out scooping water out of the river and washing dishes with it. I also loved the man driving with his feet.

After our day exploring the Mekong Delta by boat, we headed off to the border town of Chau Doc where we caught a boat into Cambodia.  For anyone who is traveling from Vietnam to Cambodia, I would highly recommend the slow boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh.  It was a very scenic trip and for my money, there’s no better way to be introduced to a country than by crowds of children playing along the riverbanks shouting greetings and waving frantically from the shore.

We’re now in Siem Reap exploring the ancient temples of the Khmers, including Angkor Wat.  It’s absolutely spectacular, and at the rate we’re going on the blog, we should be able to tell you all about by 2015 or so.  🙂

~Meg

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The Honeymoon Capital of Vietnam

Swiss Mountain Town

The City of Eternal Spring

Of all the monikers coined for the city of Dalat, Vietnam, it was the last one that really caught our attention–we’ve been roasting in the Southeast Asian heat since early May, so the opportunity to visit an area that promised a respite from the sauna sounded just perfect.  What we found upon arrival in Dalat was so much better than a simple break from the heat.

Dalat is an oddball little place.  Initially founded as a hill station by the French colonialists, modern Dalat could be called the world capital of kitsch.  The big lake in the center of town is filled with swan-shaped paddle boats, the shops are filled with all manner of knicknacks and Dalat themed tchotchkes, and if you travel a little further afield, we hear you can ride a pony and get your picture taken with a Vietnamese cowboy (sadly, we didn’t make it to that attraction).

The parting gift we were given by the woman at our hotel--typical Dalat kitsch :-)

The parting gift we were given by the woman at our hotel--typical Dalat kitsch 🙂

While this town could never be called non-touristy, it had a different feel than most places we’ve been.  With the exception of one street in town, we could walk around and rarely see another western tourist.  The locals were warm and friendly, with owners of restaurants passing their babies off to us over breakfast and the ladies who rented us bicycles waving from across the street whenever we wandered by.   I also could not help but be charmed by the attire of the locals–we were so releived to be in 70-degree weather, but everyone around us was prepared for a snowstorm–kids in head-to-toe cable knit, ladies in woolen sweaters and stocking caps, men in big puffy coats or jackets with fuzzy hoods!

It was about 70 degrees!

It was about 70 degrees!

Despite the fuzzy collared jacket and puffy coats, the temperature was between 65 and 70 this morning!

Despite the fuzzy collared jacket and puffy coats, the temperature was between 65 and 70 this morning!

We stayed in Dalat for five nights and ultimately had to tear ourselves away.  One of the best days was also the hardest–we rented bikes and rode 35 kilometers through the hills of the central highlands to a smaller village and then on to a small but pretty waterfall.  While the sights were nice, my favorite part was how excited people were to greet us as we rode by.  They occassionally looked at us like we were crazy as they whizzed by us on their motorbikes but almost always shouted out a greeting and waved hello.  Whenever we stopped people came up to chat, and in one case, asked us to pose for a photo with them.

Adam navigating his way through some curious cows

Adam navigating his way through some curious cows

That's ingenuity--there were obviously no bike paths in the middle of the forest, so Adam locked our bikes up to an exposed tree root.

That's ingenuity--there were obviously no bike racks in the middle of the forest, so Adam locked our bikes up to an exposed tree root.

Closeup of Tiger Falls

Closeup of Tiger Falls

Tiger Falls

Tiger Falls

Roads, shmoads.  Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, stops the motorbikes in Vietnam.

Roads, shmoads. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, stops the motorbikes in Vietnam.

Detail of Linh Phuoc Pagoda

Detail of Linh Phuoc Pagoda

More Linh Phuoc Pagoda

More Linh Phuoc Pagoda

Besides our day biking, another highlight was the Crazy House.  It’s a guesthouse (although we didn’t see anyone actually staying there) designed by a local architect who also happens to be the daughter of the third successor to Ho Chi Minh.  While it seems that most really off-the-wall locations are no match for The Party, apparently the Crazy House’s owner is in the clear because of her political connections.  Whatever the reason, it’s a quirky place that is often described as one part Gaudi, one part Wonderland, or, if you’re from St. Louis, is a whole lot like the City Museum.

Adam climbing around the bridges of Crazy House

Adam climbing around the bridges of Crazy House

Bridgess over Crazy house

Bridges over Crazy house

Where's Adam?

Where's Adam?

More Crazy House

More Crazy House

Dalat City from Crazy House

Dalat City from Crazy House

This creepy kangaroo with glowing red eyes was actually inside one of the guest rooms.

This creepy kangaroo with glowing red eyes was actually inside one of the guest rooms.

Hallway of the Crazy House

Hallway of the Crazy House

Crazy House

Crazy House

Views of Crazy House from behind

Views of Crazy House from behind

The Crazy House was a fun way to spend a morning, but the final highlight of Dalat that can’t be missed is the Dalat Market.  It sits smack in the middle of town and is filled with all of Dalat’s local specialties–produce, jams, candies, wine and of course, wool sweaters and hats for those unprepared visitors.  The produce alone made it one of the best markets I’ve seen, anywhere.

Strawberry vendors

Strawberry vendors

Any kind of dried fish you desire

Any kind of dried fish you desire

Artichokes and beans

Artichokes and beans

Somehow, I didn’t manage to  get photos of the countless varieties of avocados on offer.  Adam was in heaven.

All in all, Dalat was just a welcome break from the heat of Southeast Asia and a taste of a different Vietnam.  I couldn’t be happier that we were able to work in a visit.  After Dalat, we were off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and we’ll have lots of photos from our time there soon!

~Meg

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Ten Things: Vietnam

Vietnam, in ten long-winded observations.

Love: The People
We may have mentioned (oh, once or a hundred times) that before we came to Vietnam, we had read and heard accounts of the Vietnamese people being extremely aggressive.  To the point of being unkind.  I would usually write off a few bad accounts–chalk it up to that whole every-party-has-a-pooper syndrome–after all, some of our favorite places have been cities that people profess pure unadulterated loathing for.  HOWEVER, we heard and read so many accounts of people vehemently disliking their time in Vietnam (I actually heard the phrase snake pit!!!) well, I’m not going to lie, I was nervous.

Well, we’ve been here for three weeks now, and I honestly don’t know where these people were.  I know that everyone has different likes and dislikes, but seriously, who were these people talking to??  I have all but fallen in love with some of the people we have met here.  From children who pop out of doorways and race up to you to shout “HELLOO!!” then run away just as quickly to teenagers who can’t stop giggling when they sit down next to you on the local bus to beach vendors who plop down on your chair with you and proceed to have a 30 minute discussion with you about their kids, your family, etc, etc, etc., to the teenage waiter who sat down with me at the market stall and filleted the whole fish that had just been barbecued for me under the watchful eye of his father, these people are charming.

In my observations, the Vietnamese can be a bit more aggressive than in other cultures.  Sometimes that’s entertaining: the woman who walked up to me in the Dalat market and whacked me on the arm to try to get my attention to sell me some plums or the lady who gave me a great big smile and a good-natured pinch when I ran by her on the beach; sometimes not so much so: the elderly lady who was shockingly strong and almost knocked Adam down the stairs of a train because, well, he was in her way.  In most cases, it really comes across to me as a cultural thing, and not at all as a malicious thing.  To me, it’s just one more thing that keeps our visit to Vietnam interesting.  That said, on the whole, the people have just been lovely.

Love:  The food
You know those people who eat food because otherwise their bodies won’t go anymore?  Those people who look at food as fuel only?  It has become clear to me on this trip that Adam and I are not Those People (not that I ever really entertained any notion that we were).  Vietnam is like a paradise for people who love good food.  You really cannot beat a country that serves delicious food on every street corner, some of the strongest coffee you’ve ever tasted, smoothed out with a shot of sweetened condensed milk and glasses of bia hoi (fresh beer) for the equivalent of a quarter.  Every dish has contrasts of texture and temperature and flavor–crunchy and soft, hot and cold, salty and sweet, spicy and tangy.

Sweet Delicious Iced Coffee

Sweet Delicious Iced Coffee

We often start out the day with a steaming bowl of Pho, the quintessential rice noodle soup.  Volumes have been written about Pho, so I’ll simply say that when this is done well, it’s better than I ever thought a soup could be.  If we tire of soup for breakfast, we can have a baguette and still rest easy that we’re eating the local cuisine–thank you French colonization.

The options are endless for other meals–curries, stir fries, noodle dishes, rice dishes, seafood, oh the seafood (god bless a country with this much coastline!).  To add to it, each area or city has their own local specialty.  Hoi An, home of more tailor shops per square inch than any other place on earth,* is also home to what just may be my favorite dish in the world–White Rose.  It’s a delicate rice paper dumpling stuffed with prawns.  The flavors are subtle and delicate, but never bland, and while the dumpling just melts in your mouth, the shrimp stuffing provides enough texture to keep it interesting.  The beauty and the sadness of the whole thing is that you cannot get them anywhere but Hoi An.  Oh I want to go back already.

Hoi An was also home to the teenage server I mentioned above who filleted my garlic, lemongrass and chili flavored fish (barbecued inside a banana leaf) and whose father eventually came over to the table to supervise and ensure that we had gotten all the meat out of the fish.  These people appreciate food.

*Yes,  I made that up, but it just might be true…

Love:  Chubby babies
Need I say more?

Love: The Sense of Community and Family
My favorite times of day in Vietnam have quickly become the very early morning and the mid-evening.  That is when the entire town, regardless of where we are, seems to come together.  In Hanoi, it was around the central Hoang Kiem Lake.  In Nha Trang, the beach was the meeting place.  We were amazed to find the streets and beaches absolutely teeming with people in the wee hours of the morning.  There were senior citizens doing Tai chi, teenage boys playing football, women playing badminton and teenage girls walking arm in arm, gossiping away.  In the evenings, as the heat begins to dissipate ever so slightly, the families come back out in huge groups.

In the beach town of Nha Trang, we were astounded when we lazily looked up from our spots on the beach to see thousands of people filling the previously empty sandy stretches as the sun went down.  It seemed that regardless of what else was happening, the people gathered.  To play, to talk, to rest, to just be together.  It really is remarkable.

Nha Trang Beach in the evening

Nha Trang Beach in the evening

Love:  The Traditional Dress

Nowhere more than here have I noticed people wearing the traditional dress as part of everyday life.  Not as a costume for the tourists, but rather, because, in the case of my two favorite pieces, the ao dai and conical hat, because they are beautiful and practical, respectively.  The ao dai is a beautiful dress-like top featuring a high neck and long sleeves with front and back panels (split at the waist), fluttering down to mid-calf length, worn over loose long pants.  It’s elegant and graceful and there’s nothing so quintessentially Vietnamese to me as the image of a woman buzzing by on a motorbike with ao dai fluttering around her.  (Well, maybe the cigarette smoking cyclo driver, but that’s not nearly as pretty of a picture.)

My other favorite is the conical hat.  Nearly anyone who works outside sports one, as it is just the perfect form of sun protection.  And, as with everywhere we’ve been in southeast Asia, the people here are seriously concerned about sun protection.  The very sweet girl working at our hotel in Dalat was worked up nearly to the point of hysteria reminding us not to leave the hotel without hats to protect us from the sun.  That is, until a friend of hers, a westerner, reassured her, “Don’t worry, they’re not Vietnamese, they like the sun, like me!”  She smiled bashfully and told us to have a nice day.

Vegetable sellers with conical hats in Dalat Market

Vegetable sellers with conical hats in Dalat Market

Love:  The passion for all things kitsch
The people have an unabashed love for all things kitschy–it is not unusual to find a statue of Buddha in a pagoda adorned with neon halos, nor to see a crucifix on top of a catholic  church outlined in neon.  In the town we’re in right now, Da Lat, there are huge stores of stuffed animals for sale, paddle boats shaped like swans and the opportunity to have your picture taken with Vietnamese cowboys.  Also, it’s not at all unusual to see a grown woman wearing a Minnie Mouse sweater or a shirt decorated with rhinestones and glitter.  It may not be my style, but they embrace it with such gusto, I can’t help but love it.

Neon Buddha

Neon Buddha

Love:  Lotus fields
Quite possibly the most beautiful crop ever–I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing water-filled fields dotted with huge vibrant pink flowers as we drive through the countryside.

Do Not Love: The Honking
The traffic in Vietnam is madness.  It is crazier than anywhere we’ve ever been, even in the smaller places.  To combat some of the chaos created by rivers of motorbikes and bicycles flowing in all directions and on the sidewalks, cut only by steel-nerved pedestrians and racing buses, the horn is used as a defensive and  offensive driving tool.  It can mean anything from “No, I will not be slowing down while flying through this intersection, thank you kind sir!”  to “Oh, shit, I‘m about to crash into a bike carrying three kids under the age of six!!”  to “Hey foreign tourist, want a ride on my motobike??” to “I have a refrigerator tied to the back of my motorbike, can. not. stop!!” to “I drive a very large bus and could squish you flat, but I’m doing the really neighborly thing and warning you as I overtake by blaring my obscenely loud horn just as I pass, you’re welcome!!”

Not only does it have so many varied meanings, but many have tricked out their horns to ease the exertion necessary to make a whole lot of noise–one quick punch to the steering wheel and the horn honks once at full volume, then echoes down to nothing, about seven or eight times.

For the most part, the traffic, despite its madness, works well.  Most of the people here have been riding motorbikes since before they could walk.  They can anticipate what the guy riding into oncoming traffic is going to do next and they can accommodate it.  We have seen a couple of crashes and a few near-crashes, but never seen anyone seriously hurt.  I can understand why the horn is actually a necessary driving tool.  However, sometimes the  noise is purely gratuitous.  When two buses going in opposite directions are passing each other on an otherwise deserted highway at 3 am, why must you honk so many times?  When I am crossing the street and you have lots and lots of room to go around me on your motorbike, why so many fierce blasts of your horn-trumpet?  My ears are starting to ache from sleeping with earplugs.  No sir, I will not miss the horns.

Most Striking: Unstoppable forward progress
You get the sense, as you explore the cities and towns, chat with locals and just generally observe, of a feeling of unstoppable progress towards the future.  It’s difficult to describe, but as much as the past is clearly revered (for example, ancestor worship is common in Vietnam), there is still an energy that is focusing on moving forwards, rather than dwelling on the past.  The best example I can think of is that as we’ve traveled the country, I have never once gotten the feeling that anyone has given a moment’s hesitation to the fact that we’re Americans, despite the devastation caused by what is known here as the American War.  I was a bit nervous about that before we came here–would people react badly when we told them that we were from the USA?  The answer  is an emphatic no.  We’re regularly asked where we’re from, and upon telling them that we’re from the US, people are always eager to know exactly where we live and to tell us about any family they may have living in the states.  We’ve not had one single instance of people displaying any kind of coldness.

Do Not Understand: The Censorship
With everything having been so wonderful here, it’s easy to forget that it’s still a communist country.  The most prevalent reminder of this is on the television–even the cheap hotel rooms have satellite TV, but it’s nearly impossible to watch a movie.  Entire scenes are regularly deleted–anything with any measure of nudity, profanity, or whatever else might strike the censors as inappropriate.  I couldn’t even watch Hamlet, for crying out loud (and yes, I know Hamlet’s family was one messed-up group, but c‘mon, it‘s Shakespeare!!)

The TV was my first reminder of the control that the government exercises over the people.  I was reminded again later when I read a news story about the government’s crackdown on members of the democratic party.  In the past month or so, several outspoken activists have been arrested for spreading propaganda against the government.  The idea of being in a place where one can’t safely speak out the government is a scary thought.  I suppose the one upside of this is that, through the internet, both sides of these stories are available to the Vietnamese people, rather than the one-sided accounts that appear in the local media.

All in all, we are having an absolutely stellar time and loving Vietnam.  We leave the cool temperatures of Dalat for the madness of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) this afternoon.  We’ve been busy and have lots of stories and pictures to share–until then, I’ll leave you with one photo for those of who were wondering if Adam was ever going  to shave again 🙂

~Meg

Happy wanderers

Happy wanderers

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When Megan last left you, we had been on our Halong Bay cruise and had left Hanoi for a little town called Hue.  So much has happened since, and we’ve been having so much fun with our new friends Dave and Tina and Mikael and Maiken that posting just hasn’t been our first priority.

We are in our third different city since Hanoi, having been through Hue (where we didn’t do much) and Hoi An (where we had custom made clothing made for three days), and are now in a beach town called Nha Trang.

Let me back up a bit though.  We left Hanoi on the same overnight bus as Dave and Tina, our new Brit friends who we have been traveling with since the Halong Bay tour.  We should be experts in bus travel by now.  We have taken countless buses over the last nine months, many of them overnight buses.  Some were great, like the one in Argentina where we were served a hot meal, two glasses of wine, dessert, coffee, and an after dinner drink.  There have been some that have been terrible, like the 14 hour  Coroico to Rurrenebaque ride from hell in Bolivia where we feared for our lives and came away bruised and sleepless.

While many bus journeys have gone off without a hitch, many have been quite memorable.  The overnighter from Hanoi to Hue was one of those memorable ones.  All four of us got on the bus and thought we had scored great seats, the 4 front ones.  Excellent.  No one was in front of us, so there would be no reclined seat in our laps, and there was a railing in front of the seats for us to put our feet up on.  Bonus.

Then we started driving.  As you may remember from the traffic video in the Hanoi post, driving is a little different here in Vietnam.  They drive really fast.  That little yellow line in  the middle of the road to signify the direction in which traffic is supposed to go.  Yeah, that’s ignored.  Might as well not be there.  Then there’s the horns.  My God, the car horns.  The drivers here in Vietnam use their car horns for pretty much everything.  In my way?  HONK!!!  Almost hit me?  HONK!!!  Oncoming traffic coming towards me because I’m in the other lane?  HONK!!!  Motorbike on the side of the road?  HONK!!!!  Pretty girl walking down the road?  HONK!!!  You get the picture, right?  And the makers of said horns must be deaf because they are some of the loudest, most obnoxious sounding things I’ve ever heard.  And it was constant, all night long.

In addition to the incessant honking, our driver liked to scream out the window at other cars.  Road rage was an understatement with this guy.  He also liked to smoke.  A lot.  That worked out great being that we were right behind him in our “prime seats” we were so lucky to grab.  So sleeping wasn’t really in the cards for this one.

Patience is something that you just have to have on journeys like this.  But sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming.  You know there’s nothing you can do about it.  Nothing is in your control.  I was on my last little bit of patience after one particularly long and obnoxious string of horn-honking when the driver’s phone rang.  If I was to give you 100 guesses for our driver’s ringtone, you would never get it.  As I’ve described him, you may  think Rage Against the Machine.  Metallica, perhaps?  Megadeath?  Pantera?  That would be a no, no, no, and no.  As I was sitting in my seat with smoke practically billowing out of my ears, the driver’s ringtone on his phone brought me back to the world of sanity.  How could I not help but laugh my ass off at the sweet sounds of Gloria Estefan coming from the phone of our cigarette smoking, horn-honking, profanity spewing bus driver?

So while the drive continued like this for fourteen hours, every time I would seem to be fed up with the ridiculous noise, his phone would ring.  And I would look at Megan and Dave and Tina, and we would all just crack up laughing.

So we all arrived in Hue quite tired but in good spirits, knowing we’d have yet another interesting story to tell about public transportation.  After checking into our rooms, cleaning up, and resting for a bit, it was time for lunch.  It was 11am.  It was a Monday.  All four of us decided that we would drink a much deserved beer with lunch after our harrowing 14 hour bus journey.  We all had a few reservations about starting to drink so early on a Monday, but Monday’s don’t really mean anything to us at the moment being that none of us had to work on Tuesday.  So when the thought of beer number two came up, we all thought why not?

Well, one turned into two, which turned into three, and well, you all know how this one probably turned out.  The next thing we knew it was  10pm and we ran into our other friends, Mikael and Maiken, from Halong Bay, and invited them inside the bar to join us.  It was a proper night out (one of my new favorite British phrases and something I will bring home to the US along with the tank top), one of drinking, dancing, practicing Danish phrases, and getting to know one another better.  While I may regret this, we do have the pictures to prove it.

Adam and Dave

Adam and Dave

Megan and Maiken

Megan and Maiken

Dave, Mikael, and Maiken

Dave, Mikael, and Maiken

Tina and Dave

Tina and Dave

Mikael and Adam

Mikael and Adam

Us

Us

Dave, Adam, and Mikael

Dave, Adam, and Mikael

As you can probably imagine, the next day was pretty much a wash as we weren’t really up for anything. Luckily our room had a tv in it with ESPN, so I was able to wake up and watch the Home Run Derby and All Star Game the next two mornings, which made me quite happy and homesick at the same time.

Megan and I did manage to make it to the Citadel in the middle of Hue, which is what the city is most famous for.  It was quite stunning with the huge walls surrounding the mammoth complex, which was then surrounded by a moat.  They even had a separate entrance that was used for elephants.

Bridge in Hue

Bridge in Hue

Entrance to Citadel

Entrance to Citadel

Outer Wall of Citadel

Outer Wall of Citadel

View of outer wall from inside Citadel

View of outer wall from inside Citadel

Moat and inner wall of Citadel

Moat and inner wall of Citadel

Moat and inner wall of Citadel 2

Moat and inner wall of Citadel 2

Courtyard inside Citadel

Courtyard inside Citadel

Inner wall of Citadel

Inner wall of Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Inside the Citadel 2

Inside the Citadel 3

Inside the Citadel 4

Inside the Citadel 6

Inside the Citadel 5

Break time for the Citadel workers

Break time for the Citadel workers

Detail Shot

Detail Shot

Inside the Citadel 7

Inside the Citadel 8

Inside the Citadel 9

Inside the Citadel 10

Inside Citadel 11

Lotuses in Pond inside Citadel

Lotuses in Pond inside Citadel

Lotus Flowers inside the Citadel 2

Lotus Flowers inside Citadel 3

After Hue it was a short train/bus ride to Hoi An, which is famous for the 500tailors that make custom made anything for tourists for a fraction of the price it would cost at home.  Megan had three, three piece suits (skirt, pants, jacket) made, two pairs of more casual pants, and another pair of nice work pants.  I had one suit made, a pair of shorts, a pair of sandals, and a pair of shoes made.  Everything was custom made to our bodies, which was awesome.  It was a fun experience, and cost probably about a third of what it would have at home.  It’s difficult to choose among the seemingly endless amount of tailors, so we had  one thing made at three different ones before we chose who would make the bulk of what we wanted.  We ended up spending most of our time at Bi Bo, which was owned by the one of the most charming and talented women I’ve ever met.  She was amazing, and if anyone is planning a trip to Vietnam, go to her shop.  You will not be disappointed.

After a few days feeling like rock stars buying custom made clothing, all six of us were off to the beach town on Nha Trang, which is where we are now, enjoying some snorkeling, boat rides, a little more drinking, and some R & R (again).

So until next time…

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Madness in Hanoi

A quick glimpse of our first day in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Honestly, I was a bit nervous coming to Vietnam.  Travelers we’ve met over the past 8.5 months and everything we’ve read on blogs and message boards tends to elicit the same varied respnoses.  People either love it or hate it.  The people who claim the latter responses always cite the same reasons: the people aren’t friendly, there’s too many touts, everyone’s trying to rip you off, and it’s just too intense.

It didn’t take long for us to form an opinion ourselves about Vietnam after spending just a day in Hanoi.  And while some may say that a day certainly isn’t long enough to form an opinion on a country, I say bollocks.  I am pretty confident in our instincts, and our first instinct told us we love it here.

As you can see by the videos, yes, it’s pretty crazy here.  The traffic is chaotic pretty much everywhere in Hanoi, and crossing the street is an adventure.  Sure, there are plenty of touts hassling tourists, but hey, that’s just how it is when traveling in countries with a lot of poverty.  It’s really not much different than Lima or La Paz or Bangkok or New York or any other huge city that draws lots of tourists.  That’s just how it is, and the sooner tourists realize that, the better time they’ll have.  A simple “No, thank you” and a smile usually does the trick, although it might have to be said anywhere between 1 and 10 times.

As far as friendliness goes, I just don’t see the basis for all the complaints we’ve heard.  We’ve gotten countless huge smiles from locals when walking down the street, including several emphatic waves from small children who I’m sure are quite curious about us.  The workers in our hostel our great as well.  Sure, we’ve gotten a little iciness from a server or two, and we’ve gotten some annoyed looks from a few touts after being stern with them after being hassled, but honestly, those were few and far between so far.

As with any kind of traveling in a foreign country, it pays to do your homework.  We knew going in that touts could be relentless and that there were countless scams in Hanoi.  All it took was  a little bit of research before going to a new place, which is invaluable (in my eyes) and is something that I’m starting to learn many travelers don’t do, which would obviously factor in to the fact that someone may not like a place.

So when we were on the minibus coming from the airport and a “friendly” local got on the bus when we got into the city to offer his services to help us find our accommodations, we knew he was most likely full of shit and just wanted to get us to go to a different hotel so he could collect a commission.

While  it sucks sometimes to be so negative and think that someone’s always trying to scam you, that probably explains why we really haven’t been taken for anything on this trip.  We paid attention to where we were and where our hotel was located,  and while we were stopped close to where we thought our place was, we asked to get off.  Our friendly local told us that our place was still up further and insisted that we were wrong even though we were holding a map, pointing to the street signs evident from inside the bus, and showing hiim exactly where our hotel was.  He was pretty animated about telling us we were wrong, but we trusted our instinct, got our bags, and got off the bus.  We were right, and our hotel was right around the corner.

So while there are little headaches that one has to deal with in cities like Hanoi, just simple awareness can have a major effect on how people like a certain place.  For us, the energy, excitement, great variety and quality of food, drinking, and shopping, and beautiful sites of Hanoi completely make up for any touts or scammers that we have to deal with.

Our first day here consisted of just wandering, getting to know the city (which is something we always tend to do on our first day in a big city) and researching and booking a trip to Halong Bay.

Today we started off the day with a run in the park that surrounds a huge lake in the middle of the city.  Because of the heat here, the park was absolutely packed at 7 in the morning with runners, walkers, vendors, and groups of elderly Chinese women doing Tai Chi.  After that we ate a typical Vietnamese breakfast of Pho (beef and noodle soup) before heading to the Temple of Literature, one of the most famous sites in Hanoi.

Mmmmm, Breakfast--on a side note, go to Pho Grand for dinner tonight; they do a great job of cooking authentic Vietnamese cuisine

Mmmmm, Breakfast--on a side note, go to Pho Grand for dinner tonight; they do a great job of cooking authentic Vietnamese cuisine

The  Temple of Literature was the city’s first university, founded in 1076 and educating students for over 800 years until 1919 (side note:  It’s pretty astounding to be in a country and city with so much history; for example, Hanoi will celebrate it’s one THOUSANDTH anniversary as a city next year in 2010.  ONE THOUSAND YEARS!!!!  Sorry, I just think that’s amazing and feel pretty blessed to be in a place so historic).  It’s a 14 acre complex of temples, pavilions, and courtyards that now serves as a tourist attraction and place of worship.  Despite the heat and crowds, it was a beautiful place to visit.

Entrance gate to the Temple of Literature

Entrance gate to the Temple of Literature

Courtyard of Sages (in the Temple of Literature complex)

Courtyard of Sages (in the Temple of Literature complex)

Detail Shot

Detail Shot

Constellation of Literature

Constellation of Literature

Well of Heavenly Clarity

Well of Heavenly Clarity

Place of Offering inside the Great House of Ceremonies

Place of Offering inside the Great House of Ceremonies

Statue of Confucius

Statue of Confucius

We went to a local restaurant and ate the local seafood  dish for lunch, and now are just resting during the middle and hottest part of the day.  Tomorrow we take off for a 3 day trip through Ha Long Bay, one of the supposed highlights of not only Vietnam but all of Southeast Asia.  We are extremely excited to see such a unique and beautiful place and hope that our instincts served us well in picking a tour operator, as scams and shadiness abound for Ha Long Bay trips.

Wish us luck, we’ll be off the grid for the next few days, and we’ll be back soon with tons of pictures and stories from our trip.  Until next time…

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