Xe om, Hoa Lo and pho in a single day

I’m in Luang Prabang, Laos right now and I haven’t posted a blog in a while because my hotel doesn’t have an internet connection and the two internet cafes I’ve been to had such slow connections that I ended up only writing a few emails instead of working on the blog.  Considering that I’m in a very important Buddhist town, I think it’s appropriate that I’m learning patience through dealing with poor internet infrastructure and turtle slow connections.

That all being said, tonight (9/18), I’m staying up late in my hotel room and typing up blog entries into my netbook so I can try to transfer them over tomorrow.  I won’t have to type the entire entries at the internet cafe, but instead I plan on going to one of the two restaurants that offer wi-fi while you eat, or maybe I’ll try and find a memory stick and just transfer the stories that way.

I’m planning on entering a different blog post for each of the days I’ve missed so that it won’t be just one gigantic post.  You’ll need to scroll down to see the different posts because I wanted to get them all posted at once since I don’t know how many chances I’ll have to post again in the near future.

9/16/09

After my first night back in Hanoi I relaxed in the room until just before noon checkout because I’d stayed up until almost 4am.  I finally showered and packed up, then checked out.  The guy from Especen Hotel was watching me from outside to make sure I checked back in to their hotel.  Once I was done checking out of the place they’d sent me to because they were booked I went two doors down to Especen and changed from room 202 (my room before Halong Bay) to room 502.

I left my bag in the lobby and walked back to Cinnamon Hotel because yesterday the guy had said they’d reimburse my $100 the following day when the bank opened, and they did.

Once I’d gotten my money from the Halong Bay trip reimbursed I went to the panini shop and had a sandwich.  While I was at the restaurant two guys from outside started talking to me – they were a salesmen team with one selling photocopied books and the other was a xe om driver (xe om = motorbike/scooter taxi).  We talked for a long time and I bought the xe om guy 2 beers.  He wanted to know what I wanted to see and kept trying to tell me which places he thought I should see but I only cared about seeing Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”).  They wanted me to give them my Hanoi-Halong Bay Lonely Planet book and I told them maybe I would the next morning before I left for Laos, but that I still wanted it for the rest of the day.  They also wanted to sell me “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene, but the copy had same pages printed upside down so the bookseller took off to have a new one made up for me.

Eventually after some proding (“we go now, it close soon”), I took my first xe om ride (pronounced “shay ohm”).  I’d seen several burnt calfs (Larry the Australian, the New Zealander who rode on the van with me to and from Halong Bay, a Polish girl at the panini shop).  All those people burnt their legs on the hot mufflers of a xe om.  Anyhow, after a comical struggle to get a tiny German war helmet on my head because helmets are required, we took off.  I’d been wanting to try it the whole time I was in Vietnam, and I had several opportunities because guys lean back on their scooters and ask where you want to go every 10 feet along all the sidewalks I’ve been on in Vietnam.  On my last day in Vietnam I finally took the leap and it was exhilerating!  Fast, wind blowing in your face, swerving around
cars, honking the horn and just pulling out into the insane traffic.  I never really felt in danger because he had foot pegs for a passenger and I held on to his shoulder a little bar around the back of the seat.

He dropped me off right in front of Hoa Lo and said he’d wait, so I paid me admission fee and walked around the complex for a while.  I noticed the main point of the exhibits was to demonstrate that the French built it to imprison Vietnamese during colonial times and the indigenous peoples were treated badly, beheaded by a guillotine still on site, and they had to live on these long wooden tables with their ankles shackles around the clock.  The section where American POWs were kept was only a small exhibit and showed pictures of Americans demonstrating to end the war, the kind Vietnamese release of POWs, Vietnamese leaders meeting with American presidents in the past 15-20 years, the things the POWs had in prison (playing cards, razors, etc).  They had a picture of John McCain being pulled from the water where he landed after being shot down, they had his flight suit on display and a picture of him visiting the Hanoi Hilton in April 2000.

When I visited the War Remnants museum in Saigon I mentioned in my blog that there are several sides to each story.  Hoa Lo was definitely a Vietnamese view of things – French bad, Vietnamese good, Americans treated well.  I’m sure the French did bad things to the people when they colonized Indochina, just like we did to the American Indians.  I believe that the Vietnamese people, just like people everywhere, are generally good and just want to live their lives in peace.  I don’t necessarily believe that American POWs were treated well by their captors.  I know that America has done questionable things even recently to our own captured POWs (Abu Gharab, etc), so I’m sure we tortured and killed Vietnamese POWs and civilians during the war, but I am equally sure that the Vietnamese tortured and killed Americans and committed war crimes themselves.  Again it was interesting to see such a different perspective on a major world event that you would think should be cut and dry as far as the facts go, but that just simply not true – still lots of grey areas 40 years after the war…

After I finished with Hoa Lo (45 minutes) I got back on the xe om and he wanted to take me to some pagoda but I told him I just wanted to go back to the panini shop.  The round trip ride plus waiting time cost 40,000 dong, but had I bothered bargaining I’m sure I could have done it for 30,000, but saving $0.70 wasn’t a concern.

I sat in the panini shop from ~4:30pm-11pm, drinking beer, watching Bangkok Dangerous (Nick Cage) on tv with the owner, talking with a retired Frenchman who’s there to write short stories and live amongst the people and I bought The Quiet American from the bookseller.  The owner gave me his dinner; while I was in the shop several backpackers came in for food but were turned away because they were out of food supposedly.  I asked the owner and he said they ran out of bread and he wouldn’t buy more because it was raining and whatever he didn’t use that day would go bad.  He had one panini left for his own dinner, but he cooked it and gave it to me and at the end of the night when I went to pay he refused to accept payment for it because he said it was a gift he offered to me.  His cousin visited him and brought him some food, and he even let me try traditional Vietnamese home cooking.  He asked if I wanted to try it and since it was my last day there and that opportunity wouldn’t happen again I said sure.  It was sticky rice with a beef stew that was excellent.

While we talked about Vietnamese food I mentioned to him that I hadn’t ever tried “pho”, which is the quintessential Vietnamese food.  There are pho restaurants all over the place in California, especially in Orange County and Little Saigon in LA.  It’s a soup.  All day long, but more so in the mornings, you see Vietnamese people crowded along the sidewalks all over the place sitting on these tiny plastic stools (maybe 5″-6″ tall), and they’re all eating pho.

The owner asked me why I hadn’t tried it after being in Vietnam for 10 days and I told him because I was nervous.  I didn’t elaborate, but I was nervous to sit at these little outdoor sidewalk stalls with all the locals starring at me and not knowing how or what to order.  I was nervous about the ingredients being of dubious origin and questionable cleanliness.  He told me about the 4 different types they offered and asked if I’d like him to order me some at the end of the night.

I had thought it was just a breakfast thing but he said down the street from the panini shop there’s a late night street stall that sells good pho until late.  I figured that today I’d already ridden the xe om that I’d wanted to do but had been too cautious to try and it was awesome, so why not…  At the end of the night he left me and the older French guy I’d been talking with alone in the shop and walked down the street.  He returned with a piping hot bowl of pho!  It was delicious and I really appreciated him sharing so many things with me, but again when bill time came he didn’t want me to pay for the pho, but I insisted.  He was such a nice guy and made my final day in Vietnam a memorable one.




The long ride home

9/15/09

For my second day on Halong Bay I woke up around 7:30am and soon thereafter my phone rang.  It was one of the boat staff telling me to come to the dining room for breakfast.  I got dressed and headed up there.

Breakfast was an egg, 1 thing slice a lunch meat ham and some bread.  It wasn’t anywhere close to the previous day’s lunch and dinner, which was both amazing.  During breakfast the English speaking tour guide asked if I wanted to go kayaking and I said “no”.  He was surprised but I didn’t care at all about paddling around at 8:30am when it was already VERY sticky and humid outside.  Honestly I just wanted to crawl back in the bed and get up later because I had such a late night with my Aussie buddies, but after breakfast I walked out to the front of the boat and talked to Larry.

Larry felt bad because Barney didn’t sleep since Larry was snoring so loudly; Barney even went back up to the top deck to sleep on one of the lounge chairs but couldn’t sleep up there due to all the surrounding boats running their diesel generators.  Larry wanted to go kayaking but he was letting Barney sleep instead of waking him up to join him.  He said he didn’t feel as bad since I wasn’t going to kayak so Barney would have someone to spend the morning and afternoon with.  The plan had been for people to kayak and then take like a 4 hour tour of a floating village while the main boat ran back to the docks to drop off the 1 night people and pick up some new ones.

Eventually the Vietnamese-Canadien girl joined us at the front of the boat and we all talked for about an hour as groups took a small wooden row boat into a cave just off the side of our boat.  After about 45 minutes we moved to another location in the bay and a few people dove off the top deck into the water to swim for a few minutes.

Some time around 9:45am we were all called to the dining room and told a typhoon was headed to Halong Bay (Typhoon Hoppu), so we had to leave the water and would be heading back to Halong City immediately.  I went to my room to lay down and a few minutes later a guy called again and asked me to see him upstairs.  He wanted to know if I needed his help in calling my hotel to arrange a stay for the night since we would be coming back a day early.  I explained that I didn’t book the tour through my hotel but another one close by, and I gave him a card for Cinnamon Hotel to ask about a refund since half the trip was canceled, and I gave him a card for Especen Hotel so he could try to book a room for that night.  Ten minutes later he came to my room and said Especen was full for the night but they have another room next door.  I said that would be fine and he called back and confirmed that I wanted that room for my same rate ($18).

We were called BACK to the dining room by 10:30am for “brunch” and ate again.  I wasn’t hungry at all, which wasn’t a big loss because brunch was not so good: wet weeds, rice, some spicy pork with onions and a few other equally gross things.

At 11:25am we took the pontoon boat back to the docks.  We waited in the same room we waited in when we got there the day before – ahhh, A/C!  I talked to Larry and Barney for a while and eventually (40 minutes later) our van arrived and we piled in and left for Hanoi.  I sat next to Barney in the back seat and it was uncomfortable because the seat padding sucked and my butt was on a metal support bar the whole time.

Our driver wasn’t very aggressive at all, unlike the guy that took me from the Hanoi airport to the hotel and the driver who took our van to Halong Bay.  This guy went really slowly and didn’t pass anyone so we were stuck behind truck convoys forever and after about 4.5 hours we stopped for 20 minutes at some tout/hawker store for a “bathroom break”, but I think it was really so we could purchase lacquer, silver, jade, etc.  We took off again and it started to rain.  The typhoon’s outer edges had finally hit the Northern Vietnam coast.

Barney and I talked the entire way, and Larry was in pain for most of the ride back because he’d been to the hospital about 5 days earlier and found out he had kidney stones after he had unbelievable pain.  That story was funny too because Larry is probably 6’3″ and maybe 250-260lbs.  They had been on their way to Halong Bay for the same trip we were on when Larry had pains in his lower back like someone was twisting a knife inside him.  Since they’re both trained nurses they knew something wasn’t right and forced the van driver to pull over and take them to a hospital.  They ended up at this little rural place where the doctors didn’t speak any English.  They said at first they thought he was having a heart attack and did an EKG on him, but he finally drew a picture of a kidney bean with little circles inside it and motioned at his body enough until they realized what he was trying to say.  He was paralyzed with pain and couldn’t walk so it took 10 small Vietnamese female nurses to load Larry on a stretcher and carry him to a different ward.  I was crying from laughing so hard at the story and asked if they had any pictures, and Larry said “I was in too much pain to care and Barney was trying to carry both of our bags and rush out of the room with the nurses and me, but after I got morphine and the pain went away I told Barney it was a shame we didn’t get a photo of it.”

The other thing that stands out about the ride back was that Barney was sitting next to the window and all of a sudden says “That bloke there is naked!”  Sure enough, a tall skinny Vietnamese guy was walking down the side of the highway from Halong Bay to Hanoi without any clothes on.  Larry turned around and said, “He must have lost at cards.”  We saw a Vietnamese street sweeper which was actually just a truck loaded down with a massive amount of huge branches that were dragging behind it, and Barney told me about how they’d seen professional lice pickers on the streets in Hanoi.  You pay a guy to pick through your hair and pull the lice out and throw them in a bucket.  I never saw that, but every other time I doubted the Aussies I was wrong.

At one point during the drive back some sort of police or military had a semi pulled over and our driver swerved around it and did something to piss off the official in the road and we were waived over to the shoulder.  All the passengers were laughing at first because this guy had been ridiculously cautious for the entire ride and now he gets pulled over.  Two officials come up to the door and tell him to get out and he went ballistic.  We all turned around and some people were even taking pictures.  The driver kept grabbing their nametags and yelling.  Barney, Larry and I were joking about it being a Communist country and how this driver would probably be hauled away and never heard from again if he didn’t shut up, and I told Barney he should get behind the wheel and peel out.

After a very long 5.5 hours we got to Hanoi and the traffic was TERRIBLE.  Everyone was packed in like sardines and barely moving, plus our driver didn’t want to turn in front of anyone so we got cut off by 16 year old girls on scooters a dozen times.  Everyone on our van was bitching by 6 hours because it was obvious the driver was lost because we drove around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum twice in a circle.  The driver would put on his blinker one way and then merge back into traffic when he realized he wasn’t at the right place.  Finally I was dropped off at Cinnamon Hotel after 6 hours and 25 minutes for what should have been a 3 hour drive.

I talked to the guy who setup my tour and he already had me in a $65 room for the night as part of my reimbursement, but I told him I wasn’t staying there so he changed it around and was going to give me $85.  I argued with him for about 30 minutes; he kept saying I did 2 of the 3 days of the tour and I said I wasn’t paying for a 3 day tour but for a 2 night tour and I didn’t consider spending 11 hours cramped in a van to Halong Bay and back as the tour.  Eventually he gave me $100 of my $250 back, which I thought was fair enough – I had an incredible first day on the bay and it was my main reason for coming to Vietnam.

I went to my original hotel (Especen) and they walked me 2 doors down to another hotel.  A really friendly guy at the front desk who spoke good English checked me in, then I went to my panini shop for a sandwich and soda to go.  I returned to the room and took a shower (another toilet/shower head in one tiled room deal).  I got a working cable for the internet, then vegged out and relaxed for the remainder of the evening.  I thought a mouse was in the room with me because I kept hearing a squeaking sound every few minutes.  I got my flashlight and looked under all the furniture, but I didn’t find one.  I did see a massive roach in the bathroom while I was on the toilet.  I spent the rest of the evening on the internet chatting and writing a blog.  I stayed up until ~4am.


A day on Halong Bay

9/14/09

I left off in my last post at the part where I had just arrived in Halong City to start my two night Halong Bay boat trip.  I got out of our cramped van and then I waited with several other people (mostly couples, but some groups of 4-5) in a waiting room.  The building was right on the water so I knew it wouldn’t be too much longer before we got on the boat, and I was happy because the waiting area was like a restaurant converted into a Halong Bay Boat Trip waiting lobby with air conditioning!  I noticed that the two Vietnamese girls from Montreal, who were travelling with their aunts and rode down from Hanoi in the same van as me, were asked to board a little pontoon boat.  Just like when we got out of the van and nobody bothered to tell me to come along, I took matters into my own hands and asked a guy who looked official and he told me that I was supposed to join that group because I had been put on the same boat as them.  We took the pontoon boat, which they called a “tender”, out to our main boat which was floating maybe 500-700 yards off the shore.  Our boat had “Indochina Sails” painted on the side and looked marvelous.

These boats are billed as “traditional Chinese junks”.  The Chinese used to sail this style of boats along the Chinese coastline.  They’re all wood with two to four decks and also 2-4 sails on the top.  Obviously traditional junks would have been sail boats, but these replicas you take out into the Tonkin Sea (I think it’s part of the South China Sea) are outfitted with inboard diesel engines.  They have all the sails unfurled, but they’re just for the authentic look and don’t really have anything to do with powering or navigating the boat.  Still, they look really cool.

We boarded the boat after the tender pulled up next to this little doorway, and everyone went to a dining room on the middle floor.  Once everyone was there, which took two trips with the tender to bring all 18-20 guests out, we were told the itinerary and then given our room assignments.  I was assigned to room #102, which was the furthest forward room on the bottom deck’s starboard side.  I went downstairs to check out my room.  My big pack had already been put in my room by the staff and when I opened the door I was in love…  It was awesome!  It was pretty tight, but it’s a boat.  The room was completely wood paneled with two single beds, air conditioning, two full sized windows (not port holes) looking out on to the water, and a gorgeous tiled bathroom with a huge shower and actual walls around it instead of being a toilet/shower combo room like I’d gotten used to.

Fifteen minutes after going to my room everyone went back upstairs to the dining room and we were served a seafood lunch.  I felt a little awkward because everyone else on the boat was with someone and I was the only person travelling solo.  I picked a little two seat table right by a window so I could look out.  The boat was as nice as they’d billed it to be – a waiter rushed over and unfolded my linen napkin and put it in my lap for me, then he took my drink order.  I’m not a big fine of fine dining because I hate getting dressed up, but most of the people on the boat were in shorts or at least casual wear like me.  I enjoy seafood, but in America I’m more used to the deep fried or grilled variety where you can eat it easily with your fork.  I’ve had Alaskan snow crab legs dozens of time and I usually keep from ordering them because it’s more work then pleasure to break those bastards open for an hour to get 5 oz of meat, and I’ve had mussels and clams a couple of times but it isn’t something I would normally order.  In Asia, especially in coastal areas, their seafood is presented in a very different manner.  If you order a grilled, fried or baked fish it’ll most likely be served as a whole fish – eyes, tail, everything.  Shrimp usually still have the heads on ’em, and when you get crab you get the body part and are expected to maul it to get the meat and goo inside the body instead of just eating the leg meat like you’d most likely have in America.

I didn’t know the proper way to eat most of what I was served, but it all looked really nice and it tasted great.  I don’t remember everything because they’d bring out one little plate at a time and we had maybe 8 or 9 courses.  The first thing was peel and eat shrimp.  I’ve eaten them before, but usually they aren’t this enormous with beaks and antenna hanging 4-5″ off their heads.  The waiter nearest to me could see I was just staring at ’em so he came over and motioned that I was supposed to squeeze this lime into a little bowl with salt and some kind of jalepeno, then peel the shrimp and dip them in the mixture.  I felt better when he went over to the table closest to me and explained it to these two middle aged Australian guys.  I was served a whole crab and when I slowly got the nutcracker and started breaking open the big claw, the waiter came back and asked “you want me help?”  Sweet!  I shook my head, he put on some plastic gloves and went to work.  He pulled out all of the meat from all the legs and claws, then cracked open the body and pulled the meat out of there too.  After that came some clams or mussels and I had no problem pulling those out with my fork, then it got really exotic – french fries, steamed rice and some boiled weeds.  After the meal one of the Montreal-Vietnamese girls joked with me about how exotic and romantic the whole thing was until they plopped down the plate of crinkle fries.

While I was eating I introduced myself to the Australian guys sitting at the table in front of me.  Barney had long hair but was balding, and he’s been a nurse for 25 years.  Larry is tall with a beard and works “in the middle of nowhere” (450km from the closest town) doing analysis on underground water resources at an aquafer that supplies an iron ore mine.  Larry used to be a nurse at the same hospital as Barney that’s how he met.  They’re good buddies and only see each other about once a year now that Larry moved away to the middle of nowhere, so they decided to do Vietnam – actually just Hanoi and Halong Bay.  Barney is allergic to most seafood, so it was funny to watch them try to explain that over and over to the waiters each time a new dish was served.  After a while the waiters understood and they brought him some deep fried tofu!  Larry said, “Barn, if you get tired of tofu and whiskey maybe we’ll have to cook up one of the staff.”  Those guys cracked me up…

During our lunch we cruised out into the bay and I was taking photos out the window since I didn’t have anyone to talk to.

After the meal we boarded the tender again and went to see the “Surprise Cave”.  We climbed up something like 137 stairs and everyone was dripping with sweat by the top because it was very humid (not even close to Beijing or Saigon, but still nasty).  The tour guide told everyone to stay close but within 5 minutes everyone was on their own.  I walked through by myself because I lost track of the tour guide and Australians somewhere in the crowd on the way up the steps.  The cave was huge, not Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave huge, but surprisingly big compared to what I expected it to be.  The natural and artifical lighting made it look really neat, but it was hot (yeah, I know, caves should be cool but this one wasn’t).  I was sweating a lot just like everyone else, but I felt bad for the few groups with older people – the old Europeans that were probably in the mid-late 70’s looked like they were going to die in that cave.  Our guide had wanted us to stick together so nobody get left there, so I moved quickly because I didn’t want to be the last one and either left in the cave or holding up the group.  After just over an hour since arriving at the “Surprise Cave”, I climbed back out and was actually the 3rd person back on the pontoon.  Within 20 minutes everyone else made it back and we went back to our main boat again.

I was worn out from the cave hike so I opted to skip the next trip to Titov beach.  I stayed on the main boat along with the Vietnamese aunts and Larry the Australian.  While everyone else went to Titov Beach to climb a 450 step mountain or to swim, I took a shower, changed clothes and had a few beers on the sun deck.  Halong Bay is famous for tons of limestone karsts sticking out of the water, and it’s a UNESCO site.  I first saw it on The Amazing Race a few seasons ago and thought it was so beautiful that I wanted to go.  Halong Bay was the main reason I wanted to go to Vietnam.  I took pictures of the limestone karsts from the boat, and it was so peaceful and beautiful that it reminded me of the overwhelming feeling of awe I had at the Great Wall in MuTianYu just a little more than a week earlier.  For a while I was the only person on the top deck and it was so quiet, the sky was clear and the view was absolutely spectacular.  Similar to when I was at the wall I kept thinking, this is so beautiful and I’m so lucky to being experiencing it, but it would be twice as amazing if someone were here to share it with me.  I wish Jean had been there…

I watched the sunset from the top sun deck and about 2 hours after they left for the beach everyone everyone returned.  After another 45 minutes we all met in the dining room and had dinner.  Larry and Barney asked me to join their table but I didn’t want the seating to be awkward because they were at a two person table and all the four person tables were taken, so I told them I’d prefer to just buy them a drink after dinner and they were very agreeable to that plan.

Dinner was good, more seafood but easier to eat this time: 1 big shrimp, baked fish that was super tender, a stuffed crab shell that didn’t require cracking, some strange fruit that was ok, etc.  After that I talked to the Vietnamese-Canadien girl for about an hour.  We talked about the general stuff (what do you do, etc) and then about our brief experiences in Vietnam, and then she interrupted me and said she wanted to hear about “romantic things” instead of Vietnam, so I told her about meeting Jean and all of our travels together and about our wedding.

Eventually I said goodbye to the Vietnadien and then I joined the Australians on the top deck where we drank beer and whiskey until about 1:30am.  I was surprised that they’d heard of Maker’s Mark and that Barney was a big fan of Jim Beam.  We actually had a few Beam and Cokes.  We talked for a long time and I laughed my ass off.  Those guys are crazy!  Seriously.  At one point we were talking about gun control and they said you can only own rifles and pistols in Australia if you’re a farmer or have hunting licenses.  When Larry told me about his pistols I said “What in the hell do you hunt with a pistol?  Turtles?”  I say this because anything that can move faster than a turtle would be, at least in my experience and within my abilities, almost impossible to hit unless you were less than 5 feet from it.  Larry answered, “No mate, camels.”  “What?!  You hunt camels with a pistol in the Australian Outback?!”  “Yea, mate!  I shoot ’em from me car.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was laughing so hard mostly because it sounded like bullshit and thought they were just messing with me.  They went on and on about hunting ferrel dogs, cats and donkeys and said something about how they went camel and donkey hunting together last year and that they ran out of room for the legs in the back of Larry’s Land Cruiser so they had to tie them the the brush guard in the front.  We talked about brush guards for a while and them getting a Baja VW Bug stuck in a river once, then about my trips into Baja, and finally we came full circle and started talking about camel hunting and gun control again.  The second time around I think they knew I was skeptical about their story, so Barney left for a few minutes and came back with his camera.  I’m not kidding when I say this, but I have seen a picture of a 42 year old Australian nurse with long hair, standing in front of a Land Cruiser with two pistols crossed in front of his chest and two camel legs tied to the front bumper and sticking up in the air…  I almost pissed in my pants I was laughing so hard.  I couldn’t have had more fun that day.  Halong Bay, the beautiful landscape, great food and drinks with two Australian crazy men.  What an awesome world!

Once we called it a night I took a shower and hit the sack but it was hard to fall asleep at first because the water was slapping the boat under my room.

Here are the pictures from my first day on Halong Bay.  Also, in case you too are skeptical, Larry ended up giving me his business card and said to call him if I’m ever in Australia and he’ll take me camel hunting, AND he says he’ll email me the picture of Barney with the pistols in front of the legs.  I plan on posting that baby as soon as I get it.







Typhoon Koppu chased me from Halong Bay

I’m back early from Halong Bay because Typhoon Koppu is supposed to hit the coast of Northern Vietnam (including Halong Bay) tonight.  It was like an armada this morning with dozens of these vintage Chinese junks all heading in the same direction as far as you could see.  Everyone was trying to get back to the port in Halong City before heavy winds and waves hit the bay.

I left off last time at the end of my birthday (Sunday night here in Hanoi), and now it’s Tuesday night (9/15).  I stayed up late on my birthday trying to post a blog before my trip to Halong Bay, and then watching a few episodes of Band of Brothers.  Early the nest morning I woke up, showered, carried my big backpack to the hotel around the corner where I booked my Halong Bay tour, came back to my room & laid in the A/C for about 30 minutes, paid my bill and checked out, then went back to the hotel around the corner (Cinnamon Hotel).

When I went to drop my big backpack off I had to ring the bell for about 5 minutes because the metal doors in the front on the street were still locked at 6:50am.  Accept for the 5 star international hotels, all the hotels and hostels I’ve seen in Vietnam (Hanoi and Saigon) lock up their front doors over night and the hotel staff sleep down in the lobby on the floors.  When people arrive they ring a bell and the staff open up and either check them in or help them to their rooms.  I’ve been wondering what would happen if there was a fire – everyone locked inside.  I’ve been lucky and stayed only on the second floor in all three hotels I’ve stayed at.

The front desk guys at the hotel where I’ve been staying in Hanoi don’t speak much English and they aren’t that helpful.  Chanh at my hotel in Saigon was awesome and the two guys I’ve dealt with in booking my tour of Halong Bay at Cinnamon Hotel both speak English well enough and they’re unbelievably friendly.  When I arrived at 6:50am and rang the bell non-stop of 5 minutes the young guy who called around to help me book the trip came out from the back with a huge smile.  His eyes and hair told me I woke him up, but he couldn’t have been nicer.  He hurried to open the gates and grabbed my pack that probably outweighs him by 10 pounds, and he told me to come in a sit down.  He tried to get me a cup of coffee and quickly turned on the A/C without me saying anything (bonus!).

Anyhow, after I checked out of my hotel and returned to my bag at Cinnamon, I sat there waiting for the company to pick me up.  They were supposed to be there at 8am according to the kid that booked it for me, but I waited until about 8:30am before they showed up.  I spent the time talking to a couple staying at that hotel.  They were eating breakfast right next to me and the wife started asking me about my travels and we ended up exchanging stories for the 45-50 minutes I was in the lobby.  The couple lives in Montreal (he’s from NYC and she’s originally from Belgium), and they’ve traveled to several of the places Jean and I have been – we talked about Varanasi, Agra, Cambodia, etc.  They’re retired and take 1 month to see a country in depth.  They’d just come in around 5am from Sapa (northern hill station in Vietnam about 10 hours by train from Hanoi).

When my van arrived I went outside and realized that I’d made a mistake.  The van was about half full and when the guy opened the back door to put my big pack in I saw that everyone else only brought small day packs.  Looking back on it I should have taken 2 changes of clothes out of my main pack and just brought my day pack.  I went to the back row of the van and introduced myself to the three people sitting on the bench in front of me.  A man, his wife and sister-in-law from New Zealand.  When I heard them talking I asked if they were Australian or New Zealanders and the guy turned around in his seat and said, “Kiwis, mate!”

We talked while the van drove around Hanoi picking up a few more people: a young and frowny Russian couple, and a pair of Vietnamese cousins who live in Montreal but were in Vietnam for a wedding and taking their elderly aunts on a cruise in Halong Bay.

One of the Vietnamese cousins ended up sitting next to me for the ride and we talked the entire way.  She moved to Canada last year and hated the snow, and I told her about how much I hated Vietnam’s humidity.  She had been a tour guide in Hanoi for several years before marrying a Canadien guy and moving over there, so she told me all sorts of interesting things along the way.  She had even traveled with dozens of tour groups to Halong Bay in the past.  Currently she helps North Americans who want to invest in mid-range Vietnamese businesses.  She’s like a consultant who brings her clients to Vietnam to show them around, help them decide which businesses will be profittable, helps recruit staff/workers and everything else.  If you designed some product, wanted it manufactured cheaply in Southeast Asia and then exported to the US for sale, this lady would help you get that done.  If you wanted to open a hotel on a beach in Hoi An, she’d help make it happen.

My travel guide and the people at the travel agencies in Hanoi tell you that Halong Bay is 2.5-3 hours outside of Hanoi, but it took us about 4-4.5 hours to get there even though our driver was swerving into the oncoming lane to pass people the entire time.  We stopped for 15 minutes at some tourist trap (lacquer art, silk ties, etc), but it was nice to get out into the swampy heat and stretch for a minute.

When we got to Halong Bay it was strange because our van pulled up and a guy told the Vietnamese family (2 cousins and 2 aunts) to get out.  I wasn’t sure what was going on because we were all booked with the same company, Huong Hai.  I got a little nervous about what was going on; everyone else was just sitting in their van seat quietly, but I got out of the van and asked what I should do.  The little guy that had asked the Vietnamese family to get out showed me a list and asked if my name was on it and I pointed to my name and he told me to wait outside the van.  He also asked the Kiwis to get out, and then they opened the back of the van and asked us to point out our luggage.  This little guy picked up my pack and the Kiwi guy said something like “Jeez mate, how long are you stayin’?”  I shoulda left that thing in Hanoi…

Tags were put on our bags and they were taken away and we were taken into an air conditioned building (I’m keenly aware of which buildings have A/C at this point).  This big room was already 60% full of other people sitting around waiting.  A guy came up to me and waited me to point out my name again and then he told me to wait for 20 minutes because more people were coming, then he put a little plastic card on my table and said I’d be on Junk #2.  The Kiwis were on #3, but the Vietnamese girl I sat with on the drive over came up and said we were both on #2 together and she said “You are lucky.  We are lucky.  We are on upgraded boat and it is very nice.”  I thought to myself that perhaps I was going to get what was sold to me.  I’d paid the extra money for the nicest trip (boat, food, service, etc), so it was good to hear from the girl that used to lead tours that this was a great boat.  Lucky it wasn’t – I paid for that luck with VISA.

Once again I got nervous after someone came in and got the Vietnamese family and they all walked outside.  I knew I was supposed to be on their boat, so why hadn’t they asked me to come outside too?  Again I got up and asked and they acted all surprised and said “Oh yes!  You come too!”  It seemed kind of disorganized, but a good sign was that my bag was already on this little pontoon boat that we boarded to take us out to our junk…

More on my trip to Halong Bay in the next post because this one is already getting long.  Tomorrow I’ll be running errands in Hanoi and hoping that this typhoon (the Asian name for a hurricane) doesn’t spoil my plans to fly to Laos in a few days.

Here are some pictures from Saigon and Hanoi.  I got a shot in Saigon of the sunglass touts that bug the crap out of you, a shot of wedding photos being taken in front of Saigon’s main post office, my (very) cold beer at Milwaukee on a (very) hot day, me trying to see Ho Chi Minh and then stilt house overlooking a little pond, and some street scenes in Hanoi (people making funerary floral arrangements, giving haircuts on the street, etc).





32

Yesterday, Saturday September 12, I flew into Hanoi, checked into my hotel, walked around the neighborhood and stopped at a local hotel for and omelet breakfast, talked to 3 different travel agencies about a boat trip into Halong Bay and then came back to the room to escape the sweltering heat and heavy rain downpour cycle. 

I relaxed in my room for a while until I went to the bathroom and almost slipped on the tile because there was a puddle of water.  I quickly realized that the air conditioning unit was dripping condensation onto the floor, but it was also dripping into the back of the tv.  I turned off the tv and went downstairs to let the staff know, and the young kid who carried my bag from the taxi to the hotel came up here, went out on my balcony and sucked on the A/C condesation drain hose until he unclogged all the nasty build-up in there.  I couldn’t watch for too long because he’d get a mouthful of sludge and spit it off my balcony into the street.  He certainly deserves his paycheck for the day in my book.  After my A/C was working I had a whole crew in here for a few minutes, wiping down the tv and the floor and testing everything out, then they left me alone.  I watched Animal Planet and MSNBC until I fell asleep.

When I woke up it was around 5pm and I was getting hungry.  I walked around the area for about 30-45 minutes until I found a little panini shop.  I sat down and tried to order their special, a ham and cheese panini, but she shook her head “no”.  I then tried to order the sausage panini and she shook her head “no” again.  Apparently the only items on their menu that are available are whatever they have ingredients for and didn’t run out of earlier – I guess they shop each morning and when it runs out, it runs out.  I shrugged my shoulders and pointed at the menu and she said “Ga! Chicken!”.  I ordered the chicken panini…

My sandwich was really good even though it wasn’t my first choice, and after an orange Fanta I had about 4 beers while talking to a guy named Shane from California’s Bay Area.  He’d been living in Asia for about 6 years and married a Vietnamese women back in December of last year and she was pregnant by February.  She’s due any time and she was the part owner of the panini store so they spend a couple evenings a week there to watch over the place.

Shane was an English major at UC Santa Barbara, then tried to become a journalist in LA but said he tucked his tail and went home after not finding a job within 3 months after graduation.  He worked for a vineyard in Sonoma/Napa for a while, and said he’d done that growing up too because his parents had been in the business.  After a while he decided to try and teach English in Asia so he took his TESL test and moved to Thailand.  He taught in Phucket for a while and then ended up training hotel staff at a place there for about a year.  He moved to Ko Samoi, Thailand and worked in the hotel management/service industry for a while longer and ended up being transferred to Vietnam.  He met his wife there and said she was one of the girls he was training and the rest is history.  They’re planning on living here for a while, and after making a few investments similar to their tiny panini shop (it seats 7 people at 2 tables inside), they’ll move back to the US.

After I left the panini shop I came back to my hotel and sat outside on the steps drinking beer from the tiny stand across the street.  I smiled and communicated with sign language to the husband and wife team running the place and we all watched their kids playing with other neighborhood kids for a few hours.  Two little boys came running up at one point and started stomping in some mud and kicking the hotel wall to leave footprints.  They did about 15 or 20 of them until an old woman noticed them and screamed at them.  They stopped, turned around and looked at her, looked at each other and took off running.  The old lady walked inside my hotel and told the guys who are always crowded around the computer playing games and they all ran outside and went down the street looking for the little boys.  I’m assuming they would have forced them to clean it off if they’d found them, but the kid who carried my bag and sucked the scum out of the A/C unit ended up coming outside with a bucket of water and scrubbing the wall.

Around 11:30pm I headed back to my room and went to sleep.  This morning I woke up at 6am, took a shower in my odd bathroom and packed up all my stuff securely.  My bathroom is a narrow but long room with a toilet at the end and a hand held shower on the wall.  You just close the door and shower between the toilet and sink right there.  Everything is tile, plastic or ceramic so it doesn’t matter what gets wet and they just hose the whole room off to clean it.  As for my securely packed bag, I use the PacSafe to wrap my laptop, cell phone and electronics up in my big pack when I’m going out for a while.

I walked down to the main road and flagged down a taxi.  I showed him a picture of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and he shook his head.  I hopped in, then 15 minutes and 18,000 dong later we were at the mausoleum.  I paid and when I was getting out I could tell the driver was in trouble because two cops or military guards were walking quickly towards us and yelling something.  When I realized they were yelling at him and not me, I walked away.  I looked back to see what happened and it looked like he had dropped me off in a restricted zone and now they were hassling him about not having some sort of sticker.  He drove off about a minute later so it couldn’t have been too bad.

When I was in Beijing I missed out on seeing Chairman Mao because the line was massive and it was hot as hell.  I was determined to see Ho Chi Minh.  I’d asked a travel agent about it yesterday and she said it’s open on Sundays but not Mondays, so I should be fine as long as I got there early because viewing hours are only from 8am-11am (I also heard 8:30am-11:30am).  I was in front of the tomb by 7:50am.  There was one pretty large group of Chinese tourists there too, and when I asked one of the army guards wearing a white uniform where I should go to get in line to view the body he just gave me a stearn look and said “No English”.  Great…

One of the Chinese tourists was aiming his camera dead at me so I gave him the finger and he quit.  About a minute later he walked up near me and I asked if he spoke English and he did.  He said the tomb closes for two months a year for restoration and September is one of the months.  CRAP!  My guide book says it closes for 2 months a year, but it says October and November.  He was the one with a guide so I believed him, and besides that I didn’t see a line forming and the doors to the mausoleum were closed.  I’m now 0-2 in having an audience with dead Commie Leaders.  Oh yea, that Chinese schmuck said, “Can you help me please?”  I replied “With what?”  He motioned forward and asked me to stand in front of the mausoleum so he could take a picture of me.  This was the same guy I gave the finger to earlier.  I said “Get out of here, man!  No!”  He shook his head and walked away.  What the hell was that all about?  Ollie had a bunch of Chinese people wanting to take his picture in Beijing…  I just don’t get it.

It was hot and sticky but I decided to press on and at least see something involving Uncle Ho.  Right next to his mausoleum is this big compound that has a little stilt house where he supposedly lived a very simple life, and it also has a much nicer house where he lived while leading North Vietnam into the war with America.  I skipped the new house but checked out the stilt house and it was simple but nice.  There was a nice view over a little pond in front of it.  An old lady yelled out something at me in Vietnamese and kept pointing to the koi in the pond.  I walked up and watched them for a minute with her, then I decided to get out of there because it was nasty – hot, humid and mosquitos buzzing around everywhere.

I’ve realized that I love air conditioning.  I believe man’s ability to cool down air and blow it out into a room may be the greatest invention in the past 100 years.  The automobile, computers, space travel, moving pictures and the telephone are all nice, but they’re just fluff compared to the enjoyment air conditioning provides.  Whoever is able to convince the Chinese and Vietnamese that fans aren’t nearly as wonderful as A/C will be a rich man because after 10 days in the area I think less than 2% of the places in Beijing and the entirety of Vietnam have A/C, and if you exclude airports that number goes down to something like 0.15%.

I walked around a little more trying to figure out how to get out of the HCM compound and eventually found my way to a major street where I could try and flag down a taxi.  In Saigon there are about 40 taxis within eyesight no matter where you are, but Hanoi has almost too few taxis.  I waited there for about 5 minutes until a few started coming towards me.

A guy sitting against a wall behind me had asked twice if I wanted a ride on a motorbike and I’d said “no thanks” both times, but right when a taxi started pulling a u-turn after seeing me I noticed the guy against the wall who’d been trying to offer me the motorcycle ride had a huge wooden pipe.  It was probably 2 feet long, an inch in diameter and wooden.  He could see the surprised looked on my face when I saw it, and he held it up and offered me a toke.  I asked what it was and he said “tobac”.  I’d seen a picture of this thing in my travel guide.  My taxi pulled up next to me and I gave him the one finger “hold on a second” sign and he nodded.  I went over and took a pull on the pipe and the old man and his buddy laughed.  It didn’t taste nearly as good as the apple tobacco I smoked from a hooka in Istanbul, but it wasn’t terrible.  I asked if I could take a picture of the guy and he nodded, but my stupid new camera has a tendency of getting switched from picture mode to video mode while in my pocket, so I have about 4 seconds of video of this guy giving me the thumbs up and holding his pipe.  When I realized I screwed up and the camera wasn’t making the “click” sound from when I snap a photo, I didn’t feel like asking him to hold the pose any longer.  I thanked him and got in my taxi.  If I can figure out how, I’ll capture a picture from the video and post it.

The taxi took me back to the old quarter and I went back to my room to cool down for a while.  Around 1pm I went to my panini shop and had a sausage panini (it hadn’t run out yet), then I went to a travel agent and signed up to go on a boat tour of Halong Bay tomorrow.  Since it was my birthday I decided to treat myself to the better of the 3 boat options I had.  My hotel offered a two night stay on a boat in the bay for $95, one place offered two nights on a boat for $215 and another offer 2 nights for $250.  The difference between the three is the quality of the boat, your room on the boat and the food and drinks served.  I hope mine is as nice as they said it would be, but I’ll have to report on that in 3 days when I get back to Hanoi…

Like I said, today I turned 32.  I had a decent enough time, but I would have preferred to celebrate it with my wife and dad in Socal.  It was cool that I had a birthday card hidden in my pack by Jean, and I was able to chat with her online late this afternoon.

My internet options are limited in Hanoi, so no telling when my next picture post will be, but they should be good based on what I’ve seen from Halong Bay.

A repeat of the day before

On Friday (9/11/09) I basically did the same thing I did on Thursday, relaxed.  I woke up and had my fried egg and bread, this time with an Australian girl from Darwin.  She had been diving in Hoi An and was on her final day in the country and about to tour the Cu Chi Tunnels.  After breakfast I talked to Chanh because I had originally only reserved the hotel for 2 nights and I’d been extending it day by day.  He had told me on Thursday that they were booked for Friday night and most likely I’d have to change hotels, so after breakfast when he told me a sister hotel was about 2 minutes away but the room would be a little more expensive, I told him to hold off because I’d walk around the street near Bich Duyen and see what was available.  He paused and said not to worry about moving and that he’d send some of the arriving guests to the sister hotel instead.

After getting my hotel situation straightened out I took a taxi over to the Main Post Office.  On my first visit there I was a tourist, but this time I had official business – to mail off some postcards.  I mailed off several postcards and then went and sat in a garden in front of the post office and watched the morning unfold.  The Notre Dame Cathedral is in the same square as the post office and there were two or three weddings going on, so I joined the hired photographers and took some pictures of the different couples.  After a while I got bored with that and hopped into another taxi and went back to Pham Ngu Lao.

I ended up spending the next several hours at another open air restaurant called Milwaukee Grill & Cafe.  Phil, you would have liked this place.  It had a huge mural of a Harley Davidson and then menu was Westernized – chicken wings, burgers, etc.  They even had tacos…  I drank some cold beer, ate some potato skins and read the English version Viet Nam News a street tout sold me.

When I got bored with that I headed back to my room to relax in air conditioned splendor.  I woke up around 5:30pm and did the same exact thing I did the day before, I returned to the place where I hung out in the morning and afternoon, but this time it was Milwaukee instead of Allez Boo.  I had some delicious chicken cordon blue sort of thing and after about 2 hours of relaxing there I strolled through some of the narrows alleyways and made my way back to the hotel because I had to be up at 4am to be ready for an early morning flight to Hanoi.

When I got back to the hotel I paid for my room ($17 a day – Chanh gave me a $1 discount for staying so long) and for the flight he purchased through a travel agency for me so I could fly from Hanoi to Laos next week.  I set my phone’s alarm for 4am, worked on a blog post and went to bed.

This morning I woke up, showered and headed downstairs where Chanh and two other guys who work for the hotel were all asleep on the floor of the lobby.  Chang woke up and waited out front with me until my taxi arrived, then I went to the Saigon airport and checked in for my Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi.  At 7:30am I boarded the plane and flew to Hanoi.  The Boeing 777 we took had cameras mounted under the plane and you could watch take off and landy, which was pretty cool.

In Hanoi I collected my pack and met the driver from my hotel and we headed into town.  Hanoi seems much more reserved than it’s southern counterpart, Saigon.  We drove past fields and fields of rice on the way in from the airport, and just like in the movies there were workers out in it with the little cone hats on.  I still haven’t taken a picture with one on, or bought one for Phil, but I’m looking into it.

Another thing I noticed is that traffic isn’t nearly as crazy here.  The only idiot swerving around and honking like a madman was my driver.  Everyone else was just going along slowly and calmly.  There aren’t half as many scooters either.  It took us almost an hour to get to the area where my hotel is, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and when we arrived it was raining and this little kid (maybe 14) was waiting for the taxi.  He grabbed my big pack and I followed him through the narrow alleys to my hotel.  The guy at the front desk here isn’t half as proficient at English as Chanh was, so that sucks.

I checked into my room, which is the same price as the last one but about 3 times bigger and with a huge wrap around balcony.  I had an orange Fanta, put my stuff down and went walking around the neighborhood.  There are tons of hostels and hotels in the area and I found a place just around the corner to eat breakfast.  I had a good ham and cheese omelet and tried the mushroom soup they served me but it tasted like gritty mud.  I also passed on the bananas covered in nutella (dad you woulda loved it).  Instead I talked to a guy named Coung (pronounced “Koong”) about taking a 2 night boat trip out into Halong Bay.  Halong Bay is the whole reason I came to Vietnam…

More on Hanoi tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be a great day.

It almost feels like a vacation

When I got back to the hotel on Wednesday (9/9/09) after the city tour it was around 5pm.  I took a shower, sent some emails and then headed back out into the streets to find dinner.  I ended up going to a tiny bar/restaurant here in Pham Ngu Lao called something like “Queenie’s”.  Queenie was a half Vietnamese and half Chinese lady who married an Australian guy and they have had this place for something like 3 years.  It has a Pacific island them – surfboards and bamboo all over the place.

I sat at the little 4 stool bar and ordered a Tiger beer (from Singapore) and an order of spring rolls.  The little tourist restaurants in the area don’t seem to have kitchens, so when you order food from their menu they dispatch a worker to run out into the streets and get your food.  After about 15 minutes this kid came back to Queenie’s with a tray, carrying a piping hot plate of spring rolls and a salad.  The spring rolls were excellent and as I usually do in developing countries, I avoided the salad.  Queenie and I talked for a while and then this girl arrived at the bar and sat at the stool right next to me.  She apparently works there too and was about to start her shift, but she’s only worked there for 1 week so she was more interested in talking to the foreigner than working.  We talked for a while and she showed me pictures on her phone of her 4 month old baby and her husband who’s in Boston working right now.  She was super friendly, but after about 2 hours there I was ready to go back to my hotel room so I said goodbye to everyone and took off.  They all told me to come back tomorrow.  I stopped by a quickie mart on the way back to my hotel and bought an orange soda.

On Thursday (9/10/09) I got up early again, at 6am, and after getting showered and packing away all my valuables and locking them up I went downstairs for breakfast.  I’m getting used to my bread and egg breakfast each morning.  It’s strange because they only have 2 four person tables in the kitchen area, so when people are already seated I have breakfast with strangers.  It’s pretty cool though because I get to meet lots of people.  If I were with Jean I wouldn’t care about it, but since I’m alone it’s nice to talk to people over breakfast.  I ate with a couple from the Philippines who were in town for only two days because they got a half price deal on their flight.

After breakfast I headed down the road on a 15-20 minute walk to go see one of the major markets in the area, Ben Thanh.  It was drizzling rain on me the whole way but it was actually refreshing because it was already hot and humid by 8am.  Supposedly the heat index was going up to 104F, which is nasty with 100% humidity compared to 104F in Socal.  I used to think it was b.s., but after leaving a Socal summer and coming here, dry heat is much better…

As I was walking around the Ben Thanh market all the stalls were being opened and the people were busily setting up their wares to be on display for the day.  Since I hate shopping my main objective was to take pictures and look for beads for Jean.  I ended up buying Jean this massive beaded necklace that I think she’ll like even if it’s only to pull it apart and use the beads.  I bought a cold water and went outside of the market because it was like a sauna in there.  They have oscillating fans every 10 feet attached to the ceiling, but they feel like hair dryers blowing hot air on you.  Outside I was accosted by rickshaw drivers and sunglass/zippo vendors, but I used the time to hone in my tout avoidance skills.

The Vietnamese people have been super friendly and they all ask where I’m from and want to talk about Alabama and California.  I knew California had a massive Vietnamese community (Little Saigon in LA), but just about everyone I’ve met has some family member in California.  Oddly, they pronounce California almost like the governator – Ahnold.

After I’d had all the heat and sweating I could stand I caught a taxi back to Pham Ngu Lao and walked to a restaurant called Allez Boo (pronounced kinda Frenchy, like “Allie Boo”).  This place is a three story al fresco joint where tons of backpackers are always sitting when I walk by, so I figured it would be a good place to kick back, relax and enjoy my vacation.  It was early, but it was hot and I’m on vacation so I order a cold Saigon Beer.  I sat there for the next 4 hours drinking beer and watching Saigon come alive…

Allez Boo is cool because it’s right on a busy corner, so you can sit there and watch the constant stream of scooters, street vendors, rickshaw drivers, backpackers and everything else you can imagine going by.  I had a chicken club sandwich for lunch and my general thoughts on Allez Boo are that the atmosphere is great, the food is ok and the price is too high for the area.  I spent most of my time there talking to my waiter, Nguyen.  I’ve seen that name several times before coming to Vietnam and knew that it was a common Vietnamese name, but I’ve always pronounced it incorrectly.  It’s pronounced like “when”.  Nguyen was this young guy studying tourism and English at a local university, just like my tour guide the other day had.

Vietnamese people can either serve 2 mandatory years in the army after completing high school, or they can continue their education and go to a university.  If they go to university they aren’t obligated to serve in the military.  The tour guide the other day, D, said that the only city in southern Vietnam with universities is Saigon, so lots of young people from the rural areas (Mekong Delta, etc) come here to go to school.  Also, during the Vietnam War the population of Vietnam was around 40 million and now it’s just shy of 80 million, so some 40 million people were born since 1975, making this a very young country.

Anyhow, my waiter, Nguyen, was kind of a nerd – just like me.  He was interested in geography, collecting paper money (and coins, but mostly paper) from foreign countries, talking to tourists about places they’ve been and seen, etc.  He had me quiz him on the capitals of different countries and I was VERY impressed.  The only person I know who’s as good as him is my own wife…  I thought I’d catch him with some oddball countries, but he knew the capitals of places like Gabon, Nicaragua, Albania, Uzbekistan and many others.  He said he loves collecting paper money from other countries and his little brother collects coins.  He asked me if I’ve ever seen a US $2 bill.  He said it was a very special one and I asked him for his address and told him if I’m able I’ll mail him one when I get home.  He lit up and thanked me every time he walked past my table after that.  He told me his uncle lives in Mobile, AL and he knew Montgomery was the capital.  He asked if Alabama has beaches and wanted to know how close it was to Florida, and if there are sharks there.  We had to write lots of stuff on his notepad because we couldn’t always understand each other, but it was fun.

I had a blast at Allez Boo except for this little squirrely waiter who probably weighed 80 lbs soaking wet and was flaming gay.  He floated by several times and would come over and try to read what Nguyen and I were writing about on his notepad, but after I’d been there for about 2 hours this schmuck comes up to me and rubs my shoulder and gets his face about 3 inches from mine and looks dead at me.  It was strange and made me uncomfortable.  It felt like it lasted forever but it was probably only 5 seconds, then he says, “You very nice looking man, I like you.”  WTF?!  I shook my head and rolled my eyes at Nguyen and he shook his head.  I was wary of the little guy after that and the second time he came up to me he said he wanted to save money to move to the US and live with me, then he touched me again and that’s where I drew the line.  I yelled at him – “Get the f%*# off me!” and after that he gave me a wide berth and didn’t come near me again.

I enjoyed talking to Nguyen, and he actually led me to an introspective and reflective period when he said that I was lucky to travel.  He said he loved the world and wanted to travel, but it was too expensive so he does all his traveling on the internet.  I love searching for information about places around the world on the net too, but he’s right – I am lucky.  I’m lucky to have been born in America to an upper middle class family.  I could have been born in Vietnam to a poor farmer in the delta, or to a chai wallah in Mumbai or anywhere else.  I’ve been lucky and blessed to have been born into my circumstances with all the advantages I’ve been given.  I recognize that and I’m grateful for it, and I don’t plan on squandering my good fortune, but enjoying it and making the most of it throughout my life.  I hope Jean and I will continue to be “lucky” (or blessed, or whatever you want to call it)…

When I finally left Allez Boo it was around 1 or 2 in the afternoon and very muggy, so I went back to the room and took a long nap.  When I woke up I walked back to the Allez Boo and had dinner, beef and vegetable stir fry.  I met a couple from Toronto who’d been on vacation in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for 5 weeks and were on their last night.  We talked for a while and they’d been to several of the places I’ve been or I’m going to, and the guy gave me his business card so I can email him with any questions about traveling in Egypt.  He said they took a felucca trip on the Nile and I said I’d like to but I don’t think my wife would go for the pulling the boat to the bank to use the bathroom and he laughed and said he didn’t think his wife would either until they did it.

I eventually made my way back to my room and relaxed some more.  It felt like I was on vacation all day long.

Tomorrow morning I leave Saigon for Hanoi.  I hope to see Uncle Ho, the Hanoi Hilton and Halong Bay over the next several days.  I bought a plane ticket to Laos today so that’ll be my next stop after Hanoi.

The Vietnamese view of things

Two posts in one day…  I’m trying to catch up because I’m behind and it’s hard to remember what happened each day if I don’t write these fast enough.

On Wednesday (9/9/09), I got up early once again and had breakfast downstairs.  They make a good fried egg and the French bread is fresh and excellent.

The French colonized most of Southeast Asia in the late 1800’s and called it Indochina.  French Indochina was made up primarily of current day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Because of this part of its history, several older buildings in Saigon were built by the French and some other French contributions are still alive and well, like good bread.

I was supposed to be picked up by a tour agency at 8am for a day long “City Tour”.  It was hard to pass this up because instead of taking taxis on my own, they drive you around to several different Saigon sites in an air conditioned mini-van, feed you lunch and all of this for $9.  Much easier and cheaper than messing with it on my own.  After breakfast I waited in the lobby for a while before Du showed up.  His name was pronounced “Doo” as in “don’t”, but he said to call him “D”.  We walked out to the main street and got in the van.  There was already two people in there – a guy from Adelaide, Australia and his female friend who lives here in Saigon.  We drove to a hotel and picked up a Chinese couple from Singapore and that completed our tour group – 5 customers, a driver and a tour guide.

Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum.  The museum was dedicated to the event known to Americans as The Vietnam War.  The museum used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes but was supposedly toned down out of respect to American tourists.  The museum demonstrated something I’ve been interested in for many years now – different perspectives on the same historical events.  Obviously the books being used to teach Russians history in their 10th grade have a different perspective on the collapse of the USSR than American textbooks.  I’m not so sure they champion Ronald Reagan.  Likewise, since the US and Southern Vietnam lost the war (1959-1975), and the communists from Northern Vietnam unified the country after victory, their view on what started the war, what happened during the war and what ended it are different than our’s.

The best I can remember, my US history classes focused mostly on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and WWII.  We brushed over WWI, the Korean War and Vietnam.  Basically the concept in my memory was: Communism = Bad.  When I was growing up in the 80’s I remember Born In The USA by The Boss, the movies Red Dawn and Ruskies, and pretty much just thinking that communism was a terrible thing and the US was trying to help oppressed people by freeing them from these terrible goverments like the ones in Northern Korea and Northern Vietnam.  The older I get the more I’m aware of the fact that there are two sides to each story.  I don’t forget everything I learned in the US, but I don’t shun everything else either.  I believe the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I don’t believe the US should meddle in the affairs of other countries for the simple reason that I wouldn’t appreciate their interfering on our domestic issues.  I don’t think it was any of our business to force democracy and capitalism on foreign countries, especially given the massive cost in American lives for both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  That being said, I do think democracy is a better model for governing a country.

Without going on any more about this, the War Remnants Museum was sad.  I was very upset by it because the main focus was on American war crimes.  It was pretty graphically displayed.  The museum is an open air two story building with some bombs and guns scattered around for displays, and pictures with Vietnamese and English notes along the walls.  War isn’t supposed to be pretty or nice, but some things are just wrong.  The main thing that bothered me was the section about the chemicals used by the US, such as Agent Orange.  It had dozens of pictures of women and children deformed by dioxin and talked about how the chemicals existed in the water table for decades after the war and thousands of innocent people suffered death or unbelievably painful and grotesque disabilities.  I don’t know the specifics, but for a country so concerned about having the moral high ground and trying to right the world’s wrongs, we’ve certainly done some nasty things ourselves.

On the flip side, I think in fairness they should have included some of the atrocities the Northern Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong inflicted on American GIs and their own people who were with the US.  But that’s not for me to decide – as Clifton Fadiman said, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable.  It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”  I’m sure there are visitors to US museums that disagree with our point of view…

Outside of the War Remnants Museum I sat by myself waiting for the rest of the group to finish up and this guy walks up to me and sits down.  He was missing both hands about halfway between the elbow and wrist, he had one missing eye and one prosthetic leg.  He introduced himself as “Wei” (sounds like “we”) and asked my name.  He asked how old I was and then said he was 41.  He reached out his right nub for me to shake and I told him it was nice to meet him.  He told me that in 1977, after the war, he was unlucky because he stepped on a land mine.  I told him I felt bad for him and then he asked me to buy something from him to help him out.  I offered him 10,000 dong (about $0.50) and he said he couldn’t accept handouts or he could be arrested, but could I please buy one of his books.  He had some Lonely Planet books and some other stuff, but when I asked how much he wanted for this little Vietnamese language guidebook he said 250,000 dong ($14).  No thanks – that’s overpriced in my own country, much less here.  He asked repeatedly and I finally said no and walked away.

I did go back up to him about 5 minutes later and ask if he had any postcards I could buy and he sold me a pack for 50,000 dong ($3) – WAY overpriced.  I had no problem doing it though, just like I always tell Jean when I give money to the bums at the exit ramps in the IE and she asks me why – they need the money worse than I do.  A guy without hands, an eye and one leg can use that $3 in more useful ways than I can…  If you get a postcard from me while I’m in Saigon it came from this guy.  You may notice also that the pictures on the cards have absolutely nothing to do with Saigon and that’s because it was a pack of Vietnam postcards…

After we left the War Remnants Museum we went to the Chinatown section of Saigon and visited a Taoist temple and then to a huge wholesale Chinese market called Binh Tay.  The Taoist temple wasn’t anything special except that the coiled incense you can buy and stick to the roof as an offering lasts for 7 days supposedly, which I thought was cool.  I’m not really into markets because I hate shopping, but I did get some decent pictures at this one.  I’ve actually seen several woman with the conical hat carrying two baskets on either end of a pole like you see in stereotypical Asian artwork.  It isn’t just something from the 19th century – they still do it today, and it ain’t for the benefit of tourists.  It rained for a while during our market stop, then we rushed out to the van during a break in the weather.

We dropped the Chinese couple off at their hotel because they had to leave, then the tour continued with just 3 people plus the driver and guide.  We went to the tour agency’s office in the front of a hotel and had lunch.  A pile of rice and some boiled weeds…  Nothing special or good.  After a lunch break that seemed to last forever (it was getting hot by this point), we took off again and went to the Reunification Palace.  This place was like the White House for the Southern Vietnam President during the war.  We toured around the entire thing and it was odd because nothing was changed at all since the day the NVA rolled into Saigon in April 1975 and the President surrendered.  All the carpeting and furniture is the same and it looks like a perfect set for a movie set in the early ’70s.  We saw the rooms where the South Vietnamese President met with his American advisors to review maps, and we walked around the bomb bunker in the basement and the disco on the roof.

After the Reunification Palace we went stopped by a handicrafts workshop where all the workers are handicapped.  They do lacquer work.  Some was painted, some had sea shell inlay and others had egg shell inlay.  Even though I’m colorblind I was in awe of the colors.  I bought a tiny piece (just a coaster) because I loved the reds in it, or at least what I thought was red.  Our last stop was to see Notre Dame and the Main Post Office.  Pretty much just a walk in and walk out.  They’re old buildings that the French commissioned when they colonized the country.  The part I liked was that the Post Office has a gigantic portrait of Uncle Ho – Ho Chi Minh.

Here are the pictures, but please note that there are some graphic ones from the War Remnants Museum, so don’t expand them if you’re uneasy about deformities.  Also, the one of the urinal is because I thought it was pretty smart to throw crushed up limes in there when your sewage system stinks (literally).












Goooooood morning, Vietnam!

On Tuesday morning (9/8/09), I decided to relax all day long because I’d been trying to rush through everything in Beijing and I would be in Saigon for 5 full days.  I didn’t wake up until 8:30am even though that meant I only slept for about 4.5 hours.  I showered again because I was so excited about having on in my room, then I went downstairs and Chanh fried me an egg with green peppers, onions and tomatos on top.  Breakfast is included with the room price, so for $18 a night it ain’t a bad deal.

It was sticky with humidity as soon as I came out of my room and I knew I didn’t care to be out in that all day long.  After breakfast Chanh asked me two or three times what I planned to do for the day and I kept saying “I just want to relax”.  He gave me some flyers that advertised all the available tours, like down the Mekong Delta, to the Cu Chi tunnels, a city tour and to Cao Dai (some Vietnamese religious sect).  I did mention that I wanted to find out how much a flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos would cost.  When I was planning the trip in the US I was quoted a price of $165 and a Vietnamese lady I work with told me to wait until I got to Vietnam because the price would be much lower since they inflate prices to overseas people.  She was wrong, at least on this route.  Only Vietnam Airlines offers this route and they don’t even advertise it on their website so you have to go through approved travel agents.  When Chanh called the price was now up to $180!!

I told him to hold off on the plane ticket because I wanted to consider a different route to save money.  I put on my shoes, which you leave on a rack downstairs, and headed out into Saigon.  I didn’t have anywhere to go but thought I’d just check out the neighborhood for a little while.  I’m staying in district 1, which is the center of town, in an area called Pham Ngu Lao (pronounced Fam-gu-laow).  Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker area and there are a whole bunch of hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, bars and souvenier/trinket shops all over the place.  Since it’s a backpacker haven there are also way too many touts – selling sunglasses, zippo lighters, fake Lonely Planet books, fruit and everything else they think a backpacker can’t live without.

I headed down the road and the first thing I noticed was that walking along the sidewalks here isn’t easy for the uninitiated.  I’ve found out since that morning that Saigon has surpassed Bangkok within the past 2 years as the leading Southeast Asian city for the volume of scooters/motorbikes, and they park them on the sidewalks.  I’ve been told that the city has 10 million people and approximately 4.5 million scooters.  I’ve probably seen 3 million of those since I’ve been here.  I had a hard time walking around the sidewalks at first because I was nervous about getting in the street since the traffic is insane with thousands of scooters, bicycles, push carts, taxis and buses humming by, so I was trying to stay on the sidewalks and maneuver around the scooters.  The sidewalks also have a lot of uneven sections and lots of it is tile and usually wet because it rains off and on all day long.

While I was taking my time looking around and dodging scooters I was approached by no less than 4 sunglasses/lighter salesmen.  These guys yell out “Hello!” and then run up to you and start showing you sunglasses they have on this huge board.  They’ll hold a pair by the parts that go behind your ears and bend them around to show you how durable they are.  I say “no thank you” 5-6 times and then they switch to a different pair.  I say “no glasses” 4-5 times and then they pull out a zippo lighter.  They’ll test it out for you and after you say “no” a few times they’ll point out that it has a map of Vietnam on it.  Still “no”?  Then they pull out this metal match thing where you can strike it and it lights, then blow it out and strike it again and again.  After the second one of these guys cornered me I started to just dodge them and pick up the pace.

I was also questioned by several rickshaw guys about where I was going, or more importantly, did I want them to take me there.  Some guys have bicycles with an attached compartment for 1 person and then there are scooter drivers that operate as taxis and both types constantly ask you where you’re going and they’re stationed about 2 of them every 10 feet.  I noticed a refuge from the touts – across the street at a little park.  Since I wasn’t really going anywhere I decided to make this my destination, but now my problem was how to cross the street.

I’ve been to a bunch of developing countries, but the traffic is crazier in Saigon than anywhere I’ve been but India.  India is in a realm all to its own, but Saigon is so far beyond normal that it requires a little description.  Keep in mind that half of the people in this huge city are driving scooters, and that normal road rules don’t really apply here.  At any one time a two lane road will have between 4 and 32 scooters across its width, all going about 30mph or slamming on their brakes if a taxi, bus or fruit vendor is forging ahead.  The kid on the plane from South Carolina said it’s easy to tell which people have never been to Saigon because they’re the ones on the curb standing there watching for 15 minutes looking back and forth before crossing a street and the Vietnamese and expats who’ve been here a while just step on out into the craziness.

I did a hybrid.  I looked around to see if there would be any breaks in the traffic any time soon and when I realized there wouldn’t be I just got out there.  The trick is to move slowly and look in the direction of the traffic heading towards you.  The scooter mafia estimate your moves and begin swerving about 10 feet from you.  You can actually see them turning their handbars to go right or left around you.  If a bus or taxi is coming you just stop because they don’t really swerve – they actually have just flashed their lights and honked at me so far.  Once you get to the center you take a deep breath and look the opposite way and continue on across.  I made it!

Once I was at the park I walked over to the handrail and watched a couple guys fishing and some workers picking weeds.  The guys actually caught a little fish and I imagined that I may see it on my dinner plate.  The workers were wearing those little conical hats you see in all the Vietnamese War movies.  Actually, tons of people here wear those hats, especially the street fruit vendors.  I haven’t taken the obligatory picture in a cone hat yet, but I will before I leave.

The only event of note while I was at the park was when this creepy dude approached me.  This little guy walks up and stands right beside me and within a couple of seconds starts asking me questions.  I’ve been through this several times while on this trip – “Where you from?” “Where you go?” “What your name?” et cetera, but normally it has only led to them trying to sell me something or get me to go on a tour.  This guy was different…  He had glossy yellow/brown eyes (the part that’s normally white) and he told me at the beginning of our conversation that he did electrical work in a hotel on the opposite side of the park.  Later in the conversation, like 10-15 minutes, he said he was from Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and in town for a family wedding.  He wanted to know everything about me – my name, where I lived, what I did, where my hotel was, how long I’d been in town, what I was doing today, what I was doing tonight, etc.  I started giving progressively vague answers.

Once we had talked for probably 25 minutes I noticed him make some hand gesture to his side out of the corner of my eye.  I turned around and across the street some guy was watching us and started walking towards us.  I kinda froze for a second, not sure what to do, but I could see the guy was getting fidgety and the other guy was headed straight for us.  When the guy was about 50 feet away I quickly said “Nice to meet you”, shook his hand and hurried off.  I looked back over my shoulder and the two of them talked for a couple of seconds and walked off together…  Strange, but it probably wasn’t going to be good for me no matter what they wanted.  Traveling with someone else would have probably kept that from happening, but at least I was alert.

I was getting hot by then because it’s very muggy here and I’d been out in it for about 2 hours, so I headed back to my hotel.  I relaxed in my room under the luxurious air conditioning for about 45 minutes and then went right back out.  I went in a different direction the second time and stopped by a little market to buy a green tea, then I went into a little store with beads hanging from the ceiling.  It was time to make my first purchase for Jean.  The lady working in the store was tickled to death that I wanted to take pictures of her stuff and she kept pointing out different things for me to get shots of.  Her favorites were a smiling pig and the see/hear/speak no evil monkies.  I ended up buying Jean and couple of strings of beads and then walked further to a shop where a guy was painting.  He was pretty good.  I watched him for a while and then decided to head back to my room.  This was supposed to be my day for relaxing and I’d spent half of it walking around and hot.

Everyone in Saigon has been super friendly – smiling and saying ‘hello’.  The only people who’ve given me any grief are the beggars.  An old lady came up to me with her hat out wanting money and when I avoided her she flipped out.  I’ve since given small amounts of money only to a few disabled beggars, but I refuse to give money to every person I encounter who wants some.  Honestly, if it weren’t for the steamy weather Saigon would be in my top 10 favorite cities in the world.  Lots going on, super cheap and people are are really friendly.

After I got back to my room I spent the rest of the day napping or text messaging Jean.  I went to bed kinda early because I had to be ready for my city tour by 8am.

Down to Saigon

On Monday morning I got up early beause all my roommates got up early.  They were all up by 6am to try and make it to Simatai to walk on the Great Wall to Jinshanling.  Luc said a quick goodbye and then I joked with Ollie and Martin for about 10 minutes and finally they were off.  I was alone in the room and it was quiet.  I decided to fall back asleep for about an hour, then I got up and went upstairs and arranged a taxi to the airport.

This was my final morning in Beijing and by the end of the day I’d be at the second of my six stops on this trip – Southeast Asia, or more specifically, Vietnam.  I packed up all the stuff I’d been just tossing into my locker neatly in my bag.  Jean, you woulda been proud of my packing skills.  I ran some last minute errands, like getting postage for my postcards and picking up a bottled water for brushing my teeth.  At 9:30am I got in a van with the same three French guys I’d been to the wall with and we headed out for the airport.  The tour desk girl that had been such a pain when I was trying to arrange a taxi to the wall was equally as annoying when I was trying to arrange the ride to the airport because she wanted my plane ticket and couldn’t believe that I had an e-ticket.

Traffic was pretty nasty and it took us about an hour and a half to get to the airport.  Once we got there I walked around until I found where I was supposed to check in.  After getting my boarding passes printed the airline had me come behind the ticketing counter because my big pack had set off some alarms and they asked me if I had a lighter in my pack.  I told them no, but they didn’t believe me.  I had to unpack everything until the young guy that was sure I had a lighter figured out it was my leatherman.  I packed everything up and was off to security.  Immigration was a breeze – stamp, stamp, here’s your passport back.  Security was not so easy.  I asked the kid if I needed to remove my belt and he said no, but when I went through it beeped and then this young woman who was about 4ft tall grabbed me and put me up on this pedestal and proceeded to give me a serious once over.  She wanded me, reached inside me pants to check under my belt, lifted up the legs on my shorts, and all sorts of stuff.

Once they realized that my belt wasn’t a threat, I was sent on through.  The only place in Beijing with air conditioning is the airport, but when they go the distance to install A/C they do it right.  It was heaven in there…  I bet it was 65F throughout all of Terminal 2.  I was loving it.  I plugged in my netbook and started sending emails back and forth to Jean and posted a blog while I waited for my flight.  Eventually I boarded and flew to Seoul.  At the Seoul airport they’d changed their requirements in just a few days and I didn’t have to do anything for H1N1 this time – no form to fill out and no little temperature machine to the neck.

I bought a sandwich from Subway and ate my lunch/dinner while writing more on the blog.  After about an hour and a half I boarded the plane that would take me to Vietnam.  This young Vietnamese guy with a Cincinnati Reds cap on sat right next to me and he was really nervous.  Not so much because he was flying but because he wasn’t sure what to say to me.  He was talking really quickly and his hands were all fidgety for the first 30 minutes we were talking, but then he calmed down.  He was born in Vietnam, but moved to Greenville, SC when he was 13, and now he’s 21 and works as a CNC operator (runs a drill press machine that makes parts for Boeing).

We talked during the entire flight and he gave me tips on what to watch for in Saigon.  He said he’s had his cell phone stolen twice in Saigon, and both times he was standing on a sidewalk talking when someone on a scooter flew by and swipped it.  He also said that taxis will rip off foreigners, including him, and that their meters will run ever when they’re stopped.  He mentioned two companies to use because their meters are legitimate.  He was a nice kid.

When we got to Saigon I passed through their H1N1 checkpoint easily and then immigration was easy – stamp, stamp.  I did, however, have a problem with my luggage.  My big backpack that I’d checked in Beijing didn’t come out.  I waited and waited, and after about 35 minutes all the people from my flight were just about gone, then with maybe 3 or 4 people left in the baggage claim area my bag popped out.  Phew!  I didn’t want to have to deal with the problems involved with tracking down a lost bag, so I was really relieved.

I exchanged some US dollars and the rest of my Chinese yuan for Vietnamese dong, then I walked on out into the main part of the airport.  There were several people waiting for family and friends to arrive and several dozen taxi touts yelling at me.  I noticed a sign that said “Matt” and when I got closer it had my hotel’s name on it, so I gave the thumbs up to the driver and we walked through the rain to his little car.

The first thing I noticed about Vietnam was that there were thousands of scooters and little motorcycles.  It looked more exciting than Beijing too.  We made it to the hotel around midnight and when we walked through this little alley to the front door, I got nervous when I saw that a huge metal roll down door was lowered and we had to ring a bell.  A guy yelled from inside and then the door slowly opened up.  Inside was a nice but small lobby and two smiling Vietnamese guys.  I had to take off my shoes at the front door, a little kid grabbed my backpack and the manager, Chanh, welcomed me.  He speaks really good English and even jokes by going from Australian English to Scottish English to Irish English to American English.  He took my passport and gave me my room key, then I followed the kid up to the second floor.

When I got to my room I was beside myself with joy!  My room is tiny, but the matress is thicker than the last one and now I have (in order of importance): air conditioning, a fan, television, refrigerator and private shower/toilet.  The kid turned the A/C and fan on and left, and I almost exploded because I was so happy.  I was only paying $6 a night in Beijing for my dorm room, but this place at $18 a night was a steal after 3 nights at the Far East Youth Hostel.  I text messaged my family and got on the internet (I get wi-fi free in the room) to instant message Jean.  I told everyone how awesome the new room is.  Amazing how the little things are so important to your comfort.

I took a shower and then layed on the bed, basking in the air conditiony goodness while instand messaging Jean and writing blogs until about 4am.  It was glorious!  I was in love with Vietnam even though all I’d seen was the airport, dark/rainy streets and my hotel room.

Down to my last visa request

About 30 minutes ago I mailed off my passport for the last time.  I’ve already gotten my Indian and Chinese visas, and now my passport is on its way to the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco.

On my previous RTW trip I paid a company that specializes in foreign visas.  You fill out the application plus a form for the intermediary, pay the normal visa fee plus $25-$50 for the service.  I will never do that again.  I did all the work myself this time on all three visas and it was pretty straight forward each time.  You still have to fill out the application form, but you don’t have to fill out a separate form for the intermediary, you save the ridiculous fee that goes to that middle-man when all they really do is hand deliver your application to the consulate instead of having it arrive by mail.  Some consulates don’t allow you to mail in your visa application, like the Chinese consulate, so you may have no other option than using the middle-man if you don’t live near it.

I did learn a few things, like FedEx won’t let you pre-pay for a self addressed envelope unless you’re a business that already has an account with them, the US Postal Service offers overnight “Express Mail” for $17.50 between LA and San Francisco or you could get “Priority Mail” that will arrive within 2 days for a much better deal at $4.50.  Foreign countries put their embassies in DC and then put consulates in different regions of the US.  I learned that most foreign consulates for the western region are located in San Francisco instead of LA.  I learned how to fill out a money order and that grocery stores (at least Albertsons and Stater Bros) only charge $0.50 for what banks want $5 to do.  I learned that CVS offers the cheapest passport photo service and Kinkos is a rip off.  I learned that you’ll usually get your passport back with the visa in it within a week, and I’m hoping it’ll be the same way for my Vietnamese visa.

The Vietnamese visa was more confusing than the other two because they don’t really give you any clear information on their websites or when you call.  The Indian and Chinese consulate websites were a little difficult to navigate and figure out where the applications were, but all the information you need is posted on there somewhere.  The Vietnamese consulates require that you call them to find out the most up-to-date visa fees.  I was surprised that several visa middle-man companies advertise single entry 1 month Vietnamese visas for $55-$65 (plus the $25-$50 fee for them), but when I called the consulate in SF the guy told me on 2 different phone calls that the same visa would cost $85.  I even called a middle-man company and the guy assured me that the visa they get (single entry with 1 month validity) costs $55 in consulate fees and a $23 service fee.  How in the world can the consulate offer deals to these intermediaries?  I think perhaps this company is a scam.

Also, the Vietnamese website and the guy I spoke to at the consulate never really explained the validity period of the visa.  I asked if the single entry 1 month visa begins its validity period when they grant it or when I enter Vietnam.  I eventually talked to a guy who said that he doesn’t know how early you can apply for one, but the application asks for your entry and exit date into and out of Vietnam, and the validity of the visa begins on the date you enter – you can’t get into the country before that date, you can only stay one month from that date, and you are able to enter after that date as long as it falls within the 30 day period starting with your estimated entry date.  I put on my application that I’d be entering the country a day earlier than I actually planned on entering just in case my flight changes, and I put on the application that I’ll be leaving about 4 days after I’d like to leave in case I can’t purchase a flight from Hanoi to Laos once I arrive in Saigon.  I’ll need the extra 4 days to take a bus or train back down to Saigon from Hanoi, and then over to Cambodia.

Jean has been busy trying to find all the clothes I’ll need for the trip.  I wanted some new t-shirts because all of mine are getting a little ratty.  She’s also going to get me a new Alabama fitted cap (7 7/8 is almost impossible to find), and she’s looking for some of those convertible khaki pants where the legs zip on and off and they convert into shorts.  So far we’ve ordered 1 pair of khaki pants.  I would normally want to wear shorts for the entire trip, but some religious sites require that you wear pants and I may end up going to a nice hotel restaurant or bar at some point and I don’t want to look completely like a bum.

And 1 more makes 4

Yesterday I spent my third straight day doing jury selection and I was finally called up to the jury box.  Of the 88 possible jurors that started on our trial on Tuesday, there were only 4 of us left in the seats at the back of the courtroom by about 2pm yesterday, then they decided to call Juror #7, yours truly.  I was all sorts of nervous, even though the audience was only a fraction of what it would have been earlier in the week.

I walked up to the jury box, took my seat and read through a list of 15 questions, answering each one.  I stuttered a little bit while I was talking, but I was relieved when the two attorneys only asked me a few questions and then left me alone.  I guess they were happy with my answers because I remained in the jury box while they sent the next 3 people in the audience home one at a time after questioning them.  At the end of the day there were only 11 jurors in the box, so we still need 1 more plus 2 alternates.  We’re in recess today and Monday, then we’ll be doing more jury selections on Tuesday.  I could still be sent packing if the attorneys decide they didn’t like my answers enough to keep me and would like to try someone else, but they can only send home 20 possible jurors each and the DA has already said she’s satisfied with the current jury pool.  I still can’t talk about the actual case, and after Tuesday I’ll know if I can go ahead and give details or if I’ll have to keep it a secret until the trial is over.

Late last night Jean arrived at the Ontario airport, so now our family is back to four.  We didn’t get home until around 11pm and I wasn’t asleep until midnight, but I was up early this morning and worked all day.  It was hard to get back to work because I had a lot of projects to catch up on but people kept stopping by to talk.  I enjoyed talking to them, but it meant I had to skip lunch and stay a little later than I wanted to in order to finish all the things I needed to get done.  I may go in this weekend to try and catch up on a few more things.

My dad has stuff to do tomorrow, but he says he’s coming up on Sunday.  Hopefully he’ll finally be prepared to make his flight reservations for India because he’s been saying that and putting it off since Monday.  Next week I had already planned on sending off my passport to the Indian consulate to get my visa, so hopefully he’ll be ready to do his at the same time.  After I get my passport back from them I’ll still need to send it off two more times for visas to China and Vietnam.  It’s so much easier when you can just get a stamp at the airport instead of having to arrange for and pay for visas before getting to different countries.

In other RTW trip news, I’ve been looking into how I’m going to get around in Southeast Asia.  The main things I plan on doing are checking out Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the southern part of Vietnam, doing a 1-2 night stay in a Mekong Delta village, exploring Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam, doing a 1-2 night boat trip into Halong Bay, then going to Laos to see Luang Prabang and Vientiane before heading to Bangkok.  You can take a train or bus from Southern Vietnam (Saigon) to the north (Hanoi), but last night I paid around $80 for a one way flight.  The bus and train options would both take well over 24 hours, so I’d be wasting my most precious commodity on this trip, time.  The flight only takes like 2 hours, so I’ll have more time to enjoy the two cities.  If I had another week in Vietnam I would have taken the train and broken it up with a stop in the middle at Hue or Hoi An.

I was stuck when trying to figure out what what to do about getting from Hanoi to Luang Prabang in Loas.  Bangkok Airways, Nok Air and Thai Airways don’t service that route, and I found out that Siem Reap Airways has been shutdown since about January because they weren’t up to international airline standards.  My only other options are Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines.  Vietnam Airlines has a nice website that’s easy to navigate, but it doesn’t have an option for the route I wanted.  I had read in several places (Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Wikipedia, etc) that Vietnam Airlines flys between Hanoi and cities in Laos, but their website doesn’t allow it…  Lao Airlines was a different story.  Their website is pathetic – it won’t load at all.  I tried a different plan to get to Lao Airlines website.  I googled it and then selected the “cached” version, which means it’s an older version of the website that was saved off.  It actually half way worked and I was able to pull up the Hanoi-Luang Prabang flight I wanted, but I was blown away when the total came to $188!!  A 50 minute flight for almost $200?!  I had just paid $80 for over 2 hours of flying and Jean’s flight all the way from LA to Egypt was only $1100.

I decided to hold off on buying the ticket, so I emailed myself the phone number to the Vietnam Airlines office in San Francisco, and I called them today to see if they do actually service the route I wanted.  The lady was really polite, but hard to understand.  She did say that they do have a daily flight from Hanoi to LP, but they don’t offer ticketing through their website; you can only reserve those tickets through an authorized ticketing agent.  She insisted on taking my phone number and email address and said she’d have a ticketing agent contact me.  Within 5 minutes I got an email from a Vietnamese travel agent in Frisco asking for my name as it’s printed in my passport and they’d reserve the ticket (she knew the date and route already).  I wrote back saying I wanted the price quoted, not a reservation, so she answered with $165.  Insane!  I called a Vietnamese lady I work with and she said do not buy the ticket in the US because it’ll be marked up “around 100%”.  She said to ask at my hotel on my first day in Hanoi about the flight I want and once they give me a price, walk down the street to another travel agent and compare prices, but it’ll be MUCH cheaper.  She also said I wouldn’t have any problems getting a seat.  I’m taking her word on it and taking my chances.

I had also wanted to look into flights from Vientiane (the capital of Laos) to Bangkok, but every airline that services that less-than-one-hour flight wanted $215 or more!  I made up my mind on that one too, I’ll take the 8 hour bus or 14 hour overnight train between the two before coughing up $215.  The bus and train both cost less than $40.  I also think I may be able to get that flight for under $100 once I’m in Vientiane, so I’m waiting on that one too.

Basically I’m done with planning for Beijing and Southeast Asia at this point…

RTW fast forward – Vietnam

When my mom was out here visiting me a few weeks ago she mentioned that my website doesn’t really talk about travel any more.  I agreed…  I have had a number of websites over the past 10 years, but this blog was originally created so that I could write about our first Round-The-World trip and post pictures of our travels.  Unlike my previous job, I haven’t been able to travel very much for work while living in California.  I miss it, but Jean and I have been able to go to many new places since we moved on our own; besides the RTW trip, we’ve been to Baja, Prague, Paris, Peru and a whole bunch of places in the western US.

Anyhow, based on my mom’s suggestion, I decided to start posting more about travel since its my favorite hobby.  The only thing I regularly purchase is travel books.  I watch movies just to see scenes from exotic places.  My favorite show is The Amazing Race, which just went to Angkor Wat this past weekend, and that was a place that blew Jean and I away on our RTW.  For a flashback, read about Jean and I arriving in Siem Reap back in February 2007.

Jean is at work until 10pm tonight and my dad said he’ll be getting home late, so here I sit with Charlie and Tank, ready to write about travel.  I’ve decided to give some information about the places I’ll be going on next year’s RTW trip.  Speaking of my next RTW trip, Delta and Northwest just merged today.  I cashed in 140,000 Delta frequent flyer miles for this next RTW, but I still need to push the dates forward to be able to go when I actually want to, so I’m not looking forward to wading through even more bureaucracy now that they’ve added another layer of difficulty to their loyalty program.  It’ll probably take 40 hours on the phone and 6 trips to the airport to get the changes made, but I’m committed to it so I’ll do whatever I have to.  Oh well, here’s Vietnam:

The RTW ticket includes any six stops you choose as long as you continue around the world in the same direction (either east or west) without backtracking, Delta or one of their partners service that destination and you can’t stop in any one continent more than 3 times.  Also, you are allowed to count “open-jaw” segments as a single stop, which means you can fly into City A and then travel over land to City B and fly out of City B.  My first planned stop is Southeast Asia, which will be an open-jaw segment where I’ll start in Vietnam, continue through Laos and then finish in Thailand.  Since I’m flying into Vietnam and out of Thailand, and doing all the in between travel on my own (without Delta), this whole part will only count as one of my six stops.

Since you have to continue in the same direction, I chose west.  I’ll be leaving from Los Angeles and flying to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in December of 2009.  Ho Chi Minh City is usually abbreviated as HCMC, but most Americans know the city as Saigon.  Saigon had been the capital of South Vietnam until the Americans left at the end of the “Vietnam War” (April 1975) and the communists from North Vietnam took over and renamed it HCMC in 1976.

Most Americans know Vietnam solely because of the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1959 until April 30, 1975.  America was worried about communism spreading, so we joined the South Vietnamese in fighting both the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and the Vietcong (South Vietnamese communist insurgents).  If you’re like me, most of your knowledge about Vietnam came from movies like Good Morning Vietnam, Platoon and Apocalypse Now.  Little guys popping out of underground tunnels and sniping American grunts.  Little villages of conical hat wearing people, picking rice.  I even think about the American counter-culture (hippies) when I think about Vietnam because aversion to that war was one of the catalysts to the counter-culture movement.

Another thing “Westerners” have probably heard of is Indochina.  Indochina was what the French called the area when they colonized most of Southeast Asia (1887-1954).  French Indochina was made up of what we now know as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  The almost 70 years of French colonization left a thumbprint on the area that can still be seen today.  French is still spoken (or at least understood) by many older people in Vietnam, French architecture can still be seen in the major cities, and there are supposedly many French bakeries in the major cities also (I’ll let you know if this is true after I get there).

Enough about the history though.  I plan on arriving in Saigon and spending a few days there, soaking up the frenetic pace of a big Asian city.  When I was first thinking about this trip, I thought I would got down into the Mekong Delta area (below Saigon) and spend some time in a few of the water-logged villages, but I decided that traveling around would be too slow in these backwaters and I need to be moving at a good clip because I plan on spending a total of 19-22 days in Southeast Asia, so I can’t stay in any one place for too long or risk getting stuck in a small village without any regular buses/trains outta there.

I had also thought about going into Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a couple of days because it would only take 6-10 hours of traveling from Saigon.  I had wanted to see the famous killing fields from the Khmer Rouge and the related museums, but decided that 2 days of travel and a day there was too much to spend to see another big city and 1 museum, so Cambodia was completely scratched from my itinerary; besides, I have already been to the best thing Cambodia has to offer – Angkor Wat!

After my 2-4 days in Saigon, I plan on taking a train or bus up the coast to Hoi An.  Hoi An is supposedly a must-see.  I’m hoping it’ll be that romantic vision I’ve always had of exotic Asian seaports: silk lanterns, narrow passageways, wild markets with fruits I’ve never seen, opium dens (don’t worry mom, I won’t visit any), people pedaling by on bicycles, an old man with a cormorant on his little wooden boat, etc.  Again, I’ll have to report back after I get there.

If Hoi An rules, I’ll stick around for 2-3 days, otherwise I’ll be gone the day after I get there.  Next I plan on heading on up the coast to Vietnam’s other major city, Hanoi.  This city has been in the news most recently as the home of the Hanoi Hilton, which wasn’t a 5-star hotel, but the torture house where Senator McCain spent several years after being captured during the Vietnam War.  I’m a little nervous about being in a communist capital, but I doubt it’ll be that bad because Vietnam is moving in the same direction as China, which means they’re embracing capitalism, or at least the endless dollars it brings into their country.  I plan on checking out Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  Uncle Ho was to Vietnam what Lenin was to Russia, what Kim Il-sung was to North Korea and what Chairman Mao was to China.

After a few days in Hanoi I plan on heading back to the coast to spend a night or two on a “junk” in Halong Bay.  A junk is traditional Chinese boat, and Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is so unique.  Halong Bay has been featured in movies because of the other worldly scenery which includes these massive rocks (called limestone karsts) sticking out of this foggy bay.  It should be pretty cool and nothing you could see or experience anywhere else in the world.

I’ll leave Halong Bay and head back to Hanoi (a few hours away) and spend a night there before catching a flight to Laos.  I had thought about doing a land border crossing, but it sounds like it would take days and not be much fun at all.  Sometime in the next week or two I’ll pick up where I’m leaving off and write about Laos.

I almost forgot, some of the other things I’d like to do in Vietnam are:

  1. check out local markets and get pictures of some strange things
  2. eat insects
  3. ride around on the back of cyclos (motorbikes)
  4. read up on the Vietnam War and check out some of the famous sites
  5. pick up a Vietnamese book for their perspective on the “American War”
  6. see terraced rice paddies (hopefully it’ll be the right season)

The main things I’m concerned about are if I’ll be able to get on a train up the entire coast, from Saigon to Hoi An and then from Hoi An to Hanoi.  I’m pretty sure it runs that entire distance, but getting tickets on the days I want may not be so easy.  As usual, I’m concerned about getting ripped off, getting sick and getting lost, but I’m sure it’ll all work out.

Well, I’m gone now.  Watch for the Laos “fast forward” coming up soon!