Monday, March 16, 2009

Hoi An and Hanoi: Three Girls and a Boy

Thanks for being patient between blogs, everyone.  We’re alive (and thanks for checking Chalain.  We’ve been in net inaccessible places for awhile.  

So we came to the conclusion that flying was going to be much easier than the bus this time.  It was $80 as opposed to $40, but didn’t take 16 hours.
The airport was quite a bit smaller than we’re used to, but they did still manage to confiscate the scissors from our first aid kit.  Should have checked it . . . .
The flight was pretty nice as it was only an hour and a half and we got snacks and warm towels on the way.  We met a nice woman who splits time between US and Canada who gave us some advice on where to stay in Hoi An.
The flight actually took us to Denang, which is almost exactly in the middle of the long country.  It’s also where the first US troops landed in the Vietnam War.  We met a guy named An who was Vietnamese, but lived in San Jose and split the taxi. 
I’ve noticed that we’re immediately tuned to say “NO!” to anyone who wants to sell us stuff when we first arrive at a new location.  This time, that wasn’t so smart as we turned down 3 $10 a night hotels only to end up in a $12 a night place.  It’s a nice room though, complete with A/C and TV which was thouroughly appreciated before calling it an early night.
Hoi An is a pretty small town, known for being unaligned in the North/South rivalry, a good selection of local cuisines, ancient trading and is the tailoring capital of Vietnam.  It’s said that if you want clothes made in Asia then you should do it here.
Other benefits of the town include that it’s smaller, (less than 100K people) and definitely cooler than Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok.  I’ve actually put on a jacket for two days running :)  One of the most charming aspects of the coastal port is that much of the populace gets around by bicycle, as do we.
We immediately rented bikes our first day for about 60 cents each.  These bikes are quite different than what you expect at home.  First, they’re all road bikes (the skinny tires) and are all one-speed, so no shifting is possible.  The town is flat so it doesn’t make too much of an issue as it’s not too tough to get around.  Getting all the way across town takes approximately 10 minutes.   This process is expedited by the fact that there are no stop signs or stop lights at most intersections.  Four lanes of traffic just head into the intersection and hope.  We’ve made it through these about 50 times without an accident, but I’m still not sure how we’ve pulled that off. 
We immediately took a wrong turn and rode past the entire town.  Realizing what happened, we turned around and headed back.  A woman tried to talk Leslie into coming into her tailor shop, but ended up recommending a decent little restaurant. 
“Coffee” is served either white or black here.  Black is REALLY strong and closer to what we know as espresso.  Only 1/2 a cup will get you wired!  It’s single serving with a metal device on top of a glass that holds beans and the water is poured through.  It’s served before it’s done straining. 
“White” coffee means with milk.  Not regular milk, but sweetened condensed milk.  It’s pretty good.  I also ordered cao lao (thick noodles, pork and a cilantro/soy broth). 
About halfway through the meal, Leslie said, “is that Lena?”  I ended up standing on the sidewalk and waved my arms.
Amazingly, we’d run into Lena and Marilyn, who were our neighbors in Ubud, Bali.  They were on their last day in Hoi An, but we’re going to try to catch up with them in Ha Long Bay in a few days time. 
They’d apparently spent most of their time here shopping and desperately wanted to take us to their tailor.  Off we went and we were introduced to Ly.
About 1/2 the shops in Hoi An are tailor shops.  Most are run by a single family, as was Ly’s.  The storefronts are about 20 feet wide and have two rows of mannequins showing examples of their work.  Inside Ly’s shop was a table in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs with partially complete projects and scrap hanging over them.  A full-length mirror sat next to the “changing room”, which was a curtain in a corner of the store. 
The walls were covered floor to ceiling with different types of fabrics.  The tailors here can make anything you can sketch or describe.  An Englishman we met pulled up a $1600 coat on the internet, showed it to a tailor and had an “exact” replica made for $25.  Now, I’m sure there’s some different with the quality of fabric, or buttons or what not, but the workmanship is excellent and they can turn anything around in a day. 
Anyway, we had talked about purchasing suits in Bangkok, as Leslie needs one for upcoming interviews and mine fit better ten years ago.  As a result, we picked out some fabric and Ly went to work making measurements as I requested a little more room as my “Asia waist” is a bit more like me in high school than I usually am. 
Leslie also picked out a traditional vietnamese design which is modeled by the woman in red here 
After that we checked out the rest of old town on the bikes and rode around looking to see if we could find a better hostel.  We never really did but soaked up a lot of the small town atmosphere available at 20kph on a one speed. 
At lunch I saw a veteran from the Vietnam war who had lost his legs and ended up buying a few postcards from him.  He gave me a pig-whistle free of charge.  He seemed like a guy down on his luck and it crossed my mind that he was incredibly similar to a lot of US veterans of the Vietnam War I’d seen at home. 
I should tell y’all that it’s now about a week after Hoi An and I’m back in Bangkok.  I’ll do my best to remember all the salient details, but I am going to go fairly quickly across the next week or so.
The next day we got a ticket to old-town Hoi An in the morning.  It brought us a trip of an old style Vietnamese house, with a family who’s lived and produced artwork in the place for eight generations, a trip to the native cultural center, which showed plenty of “old time” baskets and the like that were still being used in the modern market and a trip into an old assembly hall with the largest pieces of incense I’d ever seen.
That night took us back to Ly’s for a fitting and Leslie got measured for a winter coat.  It was $25 for a coat that would run about $150 in the US. We also found a charming little eatery outside the market where food stalls were all lined up with ladies trying to convince people why one stall was better than the next.
Our last day in Hoi An sw us wake up and get on a tour bus to My Son.  My Son was the ancient capital of the Cham (pronoucned Sham) Empire who were a perennial enemy of the Khmer of Angkor Wat.  The Khmer were the dominant power and the Cham ruins, while cool, were definitely not in the same ballpark as Angkor. 
A boat trip back to Hoi An saw us stop by a small craft village that was set up as a woodworking commune.  Four families dominate the commune and have since it was set up. 
Everything was for sale though with no thoughts of a fair share for the outsiders.  It showed that while Vietnamese political structures are  still controlled by the Communist Party the economic machine is increasingly capitalistic.  To top it off, the prices were listed in US dollars. 
Returning to Hoi An saw us pick up our goods from the tailors and buy a flight to Hanoi.  We almost got the nightbus but were warned away by our hostel and some people who had taken it.
The bus trip to Hanoi was actually quite nice as we met a bunch of people our ages and turned into a group of ruffians for the day.  We made our way across town and Leslie got a pretty good picture as three of us had three Lonely Planets out looking at the maps with confused faces.  For those that don’t know, about 99% of English speaking travellers use the Lonely Planet guidebooks.  We have the “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” version. 
Hanoi deserves more time then I’m going to give it, but it was a charming city that did not have anywhere near the edge I expected.  There is a lake about a quarter mile long in the middle with a nice walk around it.  Touching for couples is forbidden in Vietnamese society, except around the lake so you can see plenty of young couples actually holding hands and putting arms around each other at the lake. 
The popular restaurants for locals have little plastic tables and chairs.  They appear to have one put out and when that’s filled they put another. . . . and another . . . .and another.   We stopped at one that had ten tables at it.  When we walked by later that night there were about 40!
Ho Chi Minh still straddles Hanoi like a Goliath with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum being one of the main attractions (we didn’t really want to go though).  You can still see “Uncle Ho” embalmed and under glass, despite the fact that his will requested cremation. 
It was St. Patricks day the day we arrived so we ate at a French/Irish place that offered Guinness for 150,000 dong.  That’s about $8 a can.  I saw NOBODY order it.  I think they just wanted to say that they could serve one. 
The gang headed to the traditional water puppet show that evening, which was quite entertaining.  Definitley worth it if you have $3 and a night in Hanoi. 
The next morning saw the gang split up as we all went our seperate ways.  Leslie and I spent about half the day searching different cruise companies for a decent trip through Ha Long Bay in the northern part of the Tonkin Gulf, yes, that Gulf of Tonkin.  Wikipedia is at if you need a history refresher. 
We heard some horror stories of people not getting enough food on the trips and the Lonely Planted warned that those taking the cheap-o cruises rarely had positive experiences and pointed at a few tour companies. To top it off, there is little to no enforcement of copyright law in Vietnam.  While we in the West usually think of this in terms of pirated software and DVDs there is a huge cost for legitimate Vietnamese businesses as well. 
“Fansipan” was a well respected tour company that was so successful they spawned copycats.  The copiers did not try to emulate the cruise, but give poor cruises.  The copying has to do with the fact that they’ve stamped “Fansipan” outside their store.  As a result, “Fansipan” changed their name to Vega.  There are still 4-5 “Fansipan” Tour operators in Hanoi. 
Eventually, we widdled it down to two cruises (Vega and Ocean Tours) and headed back to rest off some food from a restaurant that was VERY cheap and get ahold of Lena and Marilyn.
Marilyn and Lena arrived the next morning and we took them to the two tour places.  We all came to the conclusion that Ocean was the way we wanted to go.  The remined of the day was taken up with shopping for essentials, such as a better bag to carry all the stuff we had. 
I’ve not gone from the guy at the beginning of the trip who couldn’t believe people who had a daypack over their front as well as a rucksack to the guy who has a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.  The duffel bag is a great “North Face” bag with “Reebok” zippers.  AKA, it’s not made by North Face or Reebok.
The next morning we were off.  A “short” three and a half hour bus ride later we boarded the junk in Ha Long Bay.   At the start we weren’t sure if we’d made a good decision or not as to which tour to take. 
We knew we’d paid for an “upper mid class” tour, but weren’t sure if that’s what we’d get.  We immediately started lunch on a boat of about 20 and our worry increased.  We first got some shrimp, which was nowhere near enough for everyone.  Then came some clams, that while good, left us hungry.  That was followed by a miniscule amount of french fries. Couple this with the fact that we had to pay for drinks and we were sketchy.  We assumed that “drinks not included” meant we had to pay extra for alcohol, not that small waters were $1 (they’re about twenty cents usually). 
We were downright nervous!  Then came the calimari, and rice, and salad, and fish and fruit and we were satisfied. Turns out our nervousness was for naught and we felt bad for letting the crew know we didn’t have faith in them.  They came through with flying colors. 
After our nervousness fled we actually got to look around Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO heritage site.  There are four techtonic plates crashing into each other in the Gulf of Tonkin forcing huge amounts of limestone straight up out of the ocean.  There are a rediculous amount of islands, many of which inaccessible without rock-climbing equipment.  Here’s a snapshot. 
The entire cruise was through these sorts of structures.  Unfortunatley, there was no sun the entire time, but if there was then I’d have complained about being hot. 
Our first stop was at the floating village.  A woman on a small row boat came paddling over to us frantically.  At first we couldn’t figure out why but then realized that she was the Ha Long Bay version of 7-11.  She had (still overpriced) water, beer, snacks, etc. and would sell directly to the tourists on the boats as she was much cheaper than the on-board stuff. 
The floating village is  You can also see the boats we were on in the background. 
We then changed our stuff to a different boat (no dining room) and hopped into kayaks to explore the bay.  We later learned that one of the things that the budget tours didn’t get was a kayaking guide.  He took us into and out of caves and would around the limestone cliffs.  
Marilyn and Lena were PHENOMENAL kayakers as they knew what they were doing.  Leslie and I did okay, but our ability to go straight was circumspect.  As a result, we worked WAY too hard for too little progress :(
The highlight came at the end of the trip as we went through a small cave which had a decent current pulling us in.  We made it to a small bay that was inaccessable by other means and had the limestone cliffs completely encircling us.  We all made it an had a laugh until the guide informed us we had to go back . .. . up current. 
Lena and Marilyn had no problem as usual, but Leslie and I got whipped back and forth across the cave a few times.  We made it out through sheer muscle more than any skill. 
A few Singaporean girls behind us had definitely trouble though.  The guide had stopped halfway out and was shouting directions.  “This way!  This way!  Towards me!’  Then, the current took a kayak and hurled it right into the guide.  THWACK!   Eventually, he got out and hauled them out of the cave by the tow-rope.  
The twenty of us were hauled wet and tired to the private island rented by Ocean Tours.  We were then explained the next day’s itinerary where the 20 of us were to be split up.  We were the only four that had chosen sleeping on the boat for the second night option.   Many were only going for one night and lots were going cycling the next day, which necessitated staying on the beach.  
The bungalows on the beach barely deserve the term “bungalow”.  There was hot (sometimes) water, electricity, no sand in the place, clean linens, towels, paintings, mosquito-proof walls (and a mosquito net), balconies, an electric blanket, blinds and seashells hanging from the walls.  They were the poshest bungalows I’d ever seen. 
Dinner that night consisted of another smorgasboard of seafood with the calimari salad stealing the show. There were also “Mantis Prawns” which were like prawns except bigger and with the forelegs of a preying mantis.  They were okay, but were new so that was fun.  A funny moment came when Leslie said, “Waitaminit, am I eating a bug?”
The next morning saw everyone take off early except Marilyn, Lena and the two of us.  We had a liesurely breakfast on the beach, followed by a liesurely lunch and got back on the boat at 2. 
Our first boat was actually about the size of a ping pong table which was a bit of an experience.  It wasn’t sealed so much as just tied together bamboo.  It worked though and got us to the junk.  We then headed out among the bay and had a great time chit-chatting above deck.  A few hours later we came to the spot where the kayaks got off and picked up a pair that also wanted to sleep on the boat. 
We then headed into a large bay packed with about 35-40 different junk boats.  It was explained that typhoons can come out of nowhere and “sleeping bay” was where the mountains and deepness of the bay provided the best protection. There were also three or four “mobile 7-11s” rowing their way around the different junks.  We got some Oreos :)
Dinner was again a massive amount of seafood highlighted by a jumbo-shrimp cocktail for six with vegetable flowers and stuffed crab. 
The boat rocked us to sleep with full bellies. 
The only sad part of the trip was the next morning where breakfast was a bit meager.  Fortunately, there was plenty of coffee and we could fill up on Oreos. 
We were then off to the Amazing Cave. 
The Amazing Cave did not diappoint.  It was inside one of the limestone structures and consisted of four or five main caverns.  The largest was probably the size of three soccer fields end to end and two across.  The whole thing had been outfitted with a path and lights and hosts 2000 people on a normal day.  The path starts at the lower left
A few hours in the cave and we were back in the boat and heading “home” to Hanoi.  Our guide got a call and was told he was needed to get another group immediately.  He was a little sad as he wanted to go back to Hanoi.  Lena said that she’d trade him, but to no avail. 
A three and a half hour trip bus ride back saw us back at Ocean Tours and we headed to our included stay at a place with air-con and TV.  Leslie and I scrambled to find two tickets back to Bangkok before heading to dinner by the lake with Lena and Marilyn.  This was especially nice because we got some ice cream :) 
That brings us to this morning, when we bid adieu to Marilyn and Lena as they headed to Nim Binh and we flew back to Bangkok. 
Banglamphu has become the closest thing we have to “home” in SE Asia, as we now know where to go to get bug spray, water, our laundry done, find that book we need, see a movie and basically do errands before jetting off to the next stop.
This time we also can store some stuff we want to keep but don’t need in one of the guesthouses.  This includes the suits, duffelbags, a mask from Bali, Leslie’s designer jeans from Koh Tao and 100 football shirts I’ve just taken delivery of for Bellingham City FC (my soccer team at home).  Tomorrow we’re getting books, probably catching a movie and taking the night bus to Changmai in Northern Thailand.
On a non-travel related note we want to give a shoutout to Leslie’s Mom Deena Lewis as she’s heading into surgery in a few hours.  Our thoughts are with you, Deena and we hope to hear from you as soon as you’re up to it.  Lots of love.

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