Monthly Archives: June 2014

Hanoi: My Beloved Homebase in the North

I’ve spent a total of about five days in Hanoi, using it as a home base between my time in Halong Bay and Sapa.  I have to say I love this town!  And that’s despite it being so humid and hot that I’m never not sticky with sweat.  There’s just something about this place – it makes me happy!  The amazing owner (Ahn) at the little hotel  (Camellia No. 6) I used as home base also helped; she was both coordinator and friend to me in my time here.

Round 1:  I flew to Hanoi from Hue.  Since Danny (who I met in Nha Trang) was still in town for one more night, we decided to meet up for a good night out.  And it turned out to be an epic night that has not been topped in this town. 

We started by checking out the scene by Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the locals play what seems to be a blend of hacky sack and badminton.  They invited us to play and when we declined then (of course) tried to sell us drugs.  Why is it that I only get this offer when hanging out with guys? We passed, but then were approached by a local who wanted to practice his English.  But he didn’t really need practice, his English was perfect.  When Danny told him his English was good, he simply said “I know.”  Ha!  Needing an exit, we opted to get some food, and ended up at a place overlooking the lake that actually had a good view and good food.  A nice surprise, really.  

The view from the restaurant, Cau Do.
The view from the restaurant, Cau Do.

After dinner I wanted to check out a bar I’d read about, Mao’s Red Lounge.  It was okay, pretty mellow, but with cold beer and decent music it was an acceptable place to chill out.  Bars close pretty early in Hanoi – well, midnight – which came pretty quickly between the beers and the lively conversation.  We decided to wander and went down the street to Local, where a group of obnoxiously loud tourists (Americans, probably) were thankfully leaving.  Unfortunately they were leaving because the bar was also closing.  Not to be deterred, we semi-followed the obnoxious drinkers who were obviously going on to somewhere else. 

But then we passed a place that looked open and chill, and decided to pop in.  The guy at the door gave us the once-over and then waived us in.  They pointed us to the back room, and then had us move to a table that was not within the line of sight of the front door.  I wasn’t quite sure why, but, hey, no questions asked.  So we settled in.  The back room was a little more clubby than the front bar anyway, with a great DJ playing some danceable music (a rarity here).  We were also the only tourists in the place.  Turns out we had happened upon the Funky Buddha, which I’d heard about.

Close to 1:00 the police show, making clear the reason they insisted we sit out of the line of sight of the front door.  So, we were asked to pay our bill, but not asked to leave.  And the DJ cut the music.  The police just hung out, watching the room, for about ten minutes.  It felt like we were all just trying to appear like upstanding citizens . . . “just chilling, not causing any ruckus, officers.”  Then the police just left.  Eventually the music came back on, only quieter, and the place took on the feel of an after party. 

We befriended the locals at the table next to ours and ended up doing shots with them and sharing our shisha.  One of the guys (Tom) turned out to be the owner, and he sat with us for a while, just shooting the shit.  I think he may have just been impressed by the tall, bald white dude, but he was a really nice guy.  He gave us a card for his other (what he called “more commercial”) club, Bank, which looked like a credit card and had his cell number on it where the bank account number would appear.  He told us to text him if we went the next day, but unfortunately neither of us made it there. 

DJs tearing it up, with the owner looking on.
DJs tearing it up, with the owner looking on.
DannyBoy being his silly self.
DannyBoy being his silly self.

Eventually even that party had to come to a close and we headed out. 

Walked out of the Funky Buddha to see this awesome graffiti art on the security door across the way.
Rolled out of the Funky Buddha to see this awesome graffiti art on the security door across the way.

The old quarter was all quite in the middle of the night.  Well, except for the meat delivery, apparently.  We saw a scooter go by carrying freshly slaughtered pigs.  At first we thought we imagined it, but then there was another, and another.  Madly we tried to get a photo of it, and eventually, with the right camera setting, we got one!  And it is one of my proudest photo accomplishments:

And this is how you get fresh meat at the morning market.
And this is how you get fresh meat at the morning market.

Somehow I dragged my hung-over, sleep-deprived self out of bed early the next morning for the city tour I’d so stupidly previously signed up for.  But, I met another American, Amy, and we were fast friends.  Although I ended up opting out of the tour after lunch in favor of a nap, I met up with Amy that night for the water puppet show and dinner.  We also went gallery hunting, but I didn’t see anything I couldn’t live without. 

Tran Quoc Pagoda.  The oldest pagoda in Hanoi.
Tran Quoc Pagoda. The oldest pagoda in Hanoi.
Not sure why this dude is sitting in the mucky water.
Not sure why this dude is sitting in the mucky water.
The changing of the guard, at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
The changing of the guard, at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
Me at Uncle Ho's mausoleum.
Me at Uncle Ho’s mausoleum.
We caught a traditional music performance, at the Temple of Literature.
We caught a traditional music performance, at the Temple of Literature.
Waiting for the water puppet show to start.
Waiting for the water puppet show to start.
Water puppets!
Water puppets!

Round 2: Came back to Hanoi after Halong Bay.  My number one mission was to get a new camera after dropping mine in the water.  So I spent about half a day going to several camera stores and electronics stores trying to find something comparable to the model I had.  I bought the thing about four years ago, but somehow it seems like technology hasn’t improved much.  I had a hard time finding anything with a high speed shutter setting (that’s how I got the amazing photo of the pigs, above, after all; so now I consider it vital).  So, I ended up settling for something that was not as good because that’s all I could find.  Sometimes you need to know when to give up!  

In these few days I had some great food (BBQ pigeon is quite good), checked out the night market, got a decent hair cut (after doing some research on who can cut white people’s hair in this town), and visited the Fine Arts museum and the Ngoc Son Temple.  I also did the street food tour Amy recommended.  It was great – tried some stuff I never would have found on my own and they didn’t stuff us so full that I was miserable.    

Ngoc Son Temple.
Ngoc Son Temple.
Getting my good luck calligraphy (the symbols for peace and contentment).
Getting my good luck calligraphy (the symbols for peace and contentment).
Colorful murals at Ngoc Son temple.
Colorful murals at Ngoc Son temple.
One of our stops on the street food tour, for banh cuon (rice pancakes filled with pork and mushrooms).
One of our stops on the street food tour, for banh cuon (rice pancakes filled with pork and mushrooms).
This restaurant has it's very own Trevi Fountain!
This restaurant has it’s very own Trevi Fountain!
Drinking street! This is where a bunch of bars are in the old quarter.
Drinking street! This is where a bunch of bars are in the old quarter.
Having egg coffee at the end of the street food tour.
Having egg coffee at the end of the street food tour.

Round 3:  My last day in Hanoi before flying out to Hong Kong I came in really early on the night train from Sapa.  By now I’d seen most of what I wanted to in Hanoi.  But I decide to finish up with a couple of the museums I had been wanting to check out – the Women’s Museum and the Ethnology museum.  And the motorbike driver who took me round trip to the Ethnology museum threw in a drive around West Lake, which was fun to see in the evening. 

Zooming past West Lake.
Zooming past West Lake.
I stumbled upon a very lively Lego building contest at the Women's Museum.
I stumbled upon a very lively Lego building contest at the Women’s Museum.

Since I got in at like 5:00 a.m., I wandered down to the lake to see the locals doing there morning walks, bike rides, tai chi, and other calisthenics. Another good thing about being up so early is that I had time for lots of meals throughout my day.  I finally had the fish noodle soup (bun ca) in the alley where my hotel is – so good!  And hit up some of my old favorites (egg coffee, bun bo, sweetend ice coffee, bun cha, spring rolls).   

Hanoi in the morning.
Hanoi in the morning.
Kicking myself for not having bun ca earlier - it's so damn good and about 15 feet from my front door!
Kicking myself for not having bun ca earlier – it’s so damn good and about 15 feet from my front door!

I also just enjoyed being in Hanoi. The old quarter was historically separated into different areas for each specific type of merchant, and it retains some of this division today.  There are still streets dedicated to different types of vendors: separate ones for toys, bedding, silk goods, cell phones, electronics, cameras, grave markers, auto parts, hair accessories . . . you name it!  I had fun figuring out which category of street I was wandering down.  I also love the street food here!  I loved sitting in the little plastic seats on the street, eating my noodles or drinking iced coffee, and watching the world go by.  By just sitting still I saw that some vendors deliver – a motorbike would stop by the street food stall with their daily purchase of coriander or cucumbers.  What service!  These are the little things that make it so special here. 

Gotta look your best to get sold!
Gotta look your best to get sold!
Tagging while hungry again?
Tagging while hungry again?
Hanoi
Mobile storefront.
The daily street market outside my hotel.
The daily street market outside my hotel.

 

Vietnam = peace!
Vietnam = peace!
Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?

I have really loved my time in SE Asia.  Although I felt strangely at home in this part of Asia, I was also often reminded how amazing and different it is.  I was seeing something new and fun . . .  like this on my last morning in Hanoi:

You ordered a bag of ducks?
You ordered a bag of ducks?

I spent my last day soaking it in and honestly feeling a bit sentimental about leaving.  I have come to love Vietnam.  The people are amazing if you approach them with an open heart; a kind smile and patience go a long way when language is a barrier.   Also, the end of my time in Vietnam marks the end of my three month SE Asian journey.  I came here for a much needed break from reality so I could hopefully gain new perspective and reassess my priorities.  And I have done that.  I feel more ready to tackle my future than ever before, even though that future remains uncertain (I am currently homeless, after all).  But I am starting to feel ready to go home – which is good, since I was afraid I never would.  But, well, not quite ready . . . I still have two weeks in Hong Kong and Taiwan to work my way back West! 

I fully intend to come back to Vietnam.  My heart feels full in this place, and it is with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I am moving on.  I wanted to throw a coin in Hoan Kiem Lake to express my intention to return (like at the Trevi fountain in Rome).  But since there are no coins in Vietnamese currency, I threw in what I had on me – the extra key to my luggage lock J  Here’s to next time!

I shall return . . .
I shall return . . .

 

Sapa: A Mountain Escape

Sapa is a great break from the sweaty heat of Hanoi (and most everywhere else in SE Asia, honestly).  I spent a total of five days there, trekking, biking, and relaxing.  I took the night train from Hanoi, timing it just right to get in a nice spa treatment and good meal beforehand (hunted down the cha ca fish I’d heard so much about).  This time I got a soft sleeper, and man what a difference it made – it felt so luxurious!  

Sleeping in style!
Sleeping in style!

There was a young family in my cabin, with a super smiley and adorable kid (probably 3 years old).  So I offered to give the mother my bottom bunk so she could be across from her husband and baby.  I actually prefer the top bunk, so it was win-win.  The only snag was that the A/C was super strong up there!  When I went and changed into a long sleeve shirt the father noticed and apparently trying to be considerate asked the conductor to turn down the air.  It was a sweet gesture but of course I then woke up in pool of sweat in the middle of the night.  Thankfully I was able to successfully pantomime to the conductor that I was dying from the heat, and he turned the air back up.       

Unfortunately no matter how well I sleep on a night train, I’m always groggy the next day.  So my first day in Sapa I just walked around and explored, scheduled my trek to start the next day, and had a really good dinner at the one nice place I could find, the Hill Station.

Sapa Sapa

The square at night - a good gathering place.
The square at night – a good gathering place.
The trekking company I went with.
The trekking company I went with.

I did run into my first inconvenience in traveling in the third world – I couldn’t find contacts solution anywhere in town.  I tried every pharmacy and the local woman at the trekking company (Pen) even tried to help me track some down.  I managed to cobble together enough – between the last little bit I had, eye drops, and solution from my trekking mate – to make it work.  Since I’d had no such problems up to that time I had become reliant on being able to find whatever I needed when I needed it.  It was a good reminder to be a little more forward-thinking.

The next morning I set off on my two day, one night trek north of Sapa, with a homestay in Ta Phin village. It was me and the two Brits (Jay and Roz) I’d actually met in the minibus from Lao Cai (where the train stops) to Sapa.  A minibus that I’d actually forced my way into to avoid being ripped off by the guy who insisted on arranging transportation for me at more than triple the going rate. 

The trek wasn’t too hard, but challenging enough.  Plenty of hills involved.  We walked through lots of rice patties and fields, had some H’mong women befriend us (and of course try to sell us their handicrafts), and saw lots of livestock (pigs, chickens, ducks, water buffalo, etc.).  We eventually made it to our homestay – even though our guide (Pay) got a little lost trying to find it in the village – and were greeted by the matriarch, her two children, and several of her nieces and nephews.  We then basically just hung out and relaxed, snacking on corn on the cob, until it was bath and dinner time. 

I'm trekking!
I’m trekking!
A farmer with his buffalo.
A farmer with his buffalo.

Sapa Sapa

One of the H'mong women who befriended us.
One of the H’mong women who befriended us.
Well, hello there, Mr. Buffalo.  Please don't let me disturb your mud bath!
Well, hello there, Mr. Buffalo. Please don’t let me disturb your mud bath!
I'm in a rice field...what?
I’m in a rice field…what?
Our homestay.  Love the use of bottles for structural support.
Our homestay. Love the use of bottles for structural support.
The kids playing cards.  The owner's daughter seems to be quite the card shark.
The kids playing cards. The owner’s daughter seems to be quite the card shark.

The bath was pretty amazing.  The mother boiled special herbs for hours – a special mix she wouldn’t disclose to us.  The water was grey and smelled amazing.  It was like taking a bath in hot tea!  The bathtub was just a big plastic bucket – big enough to fit in squatting, but not big enough to stretch out in.  I wish I’d gotten a photo of it; Jay actually did and the photos were hilarious since he was clearly too tall to be super comfortable in that bucket.  I spent far too little time in the bath and didn’t even think to bring in soap.  But those herbs have magical properties . . . I actually felt like I had gotten clean and my skin was so soft I didn’t even need lotion. 

Boiling the herbs for our special baths.
Boiling the herbs for our special baths.

Dinner was a huge meal of many different dishes.  The father actually did most of the cooking, stir frying dish after dish on the open flame with expert precision.  Once we sat down, the parents quickly broke out their homemade rice wine for us.  We drank toast after toast, with them goading us that it helps with digestion = drink more, eat more! 

 

Me and Roz sitting by the fire with the kids (a smoky shot).
Me and Roz sitting by the fire with the kids (a smoky shot).

 

Making chips for the white folks.
Making chips for the white folks.

After a day of trekking we were predictably ready to pass out after dinner.  Now, the beds in Asia are all pretty hard, but these take the cake.  They were wooden slat beds with just a ½ inch foam pad thrown on top.  That was when I wished I’d been successful in my repeated attempts to train myself to sleep on my back!  At least I’d had enough rice wine to knock me out.

The next day we had a big breakfast, but the family insisted we sit and have a second meal of village chicken and liver, and more rice wine before departing.  Although being drunk for the trek didn’t see like a good idea, a couple shots of rice wine (always in an even number, mind you) actually hit the spot. 

Some more rice wine for our trek!
Some more rice wine for our trek!
A shot of crew before heading out.
A shot of crew before heading out.

We then hiked to a cave, had lunch in another homestay, and made our way back to the highway where we were picked up and driven the final stretch back to town.  All in all it was a little over 30kms trekked in two days.  We felt like we’d earned ourselves the beers and chips we had when we made it back to town! 

Loving how cool it is in this cave!
Loving how cool it is in this cave!
Sitting on a rock overlooking the valley (me, Jay, and our guide Pay).
Sitting on a rock overlooking the valley (me, Jay, and our guide Pay).
The view from the hilltop.
The view from the hilltop.
A rare white water buffalo!
A rare white water buffalo!
Me and our guide.
Me and our guide.
Testing our balance walking through rice fields.
Testing our balance walking through rice fields.

Sapa Sapa

Pigs and a dish.  Just cause you live in the boonies doesn't mean you can't watch your stories.
Pigs and a dish. Just cause you live in the boonies doesn’t mean you can’t watch your stories.
The cute kids playing in a hammock at our homestay lunch spot.
The cute kids playing in a hammock at our homestay lunch spot.
Yep, I'm in Asia!
Yep, I’m in Asia!
That is one big pot!
That is one big pot!
Working in the fields.
Working in the fields.
Hard to see, but this guy was carrying a pet bird on a stick in the fields.
Hard to see, but this guy was carrying a pet bird on a stick in the fields.

The next day I got a scooter and ventured out to the waterfalls.  Funny enough, this time the scooter didn’t even come with enough gas to get me to the station; but thankfully I was only a block short and could push it the rest of way easily enough.  First stop was Silver Waterfall (Thac Bac), which was right off the road and a quick stop.  I then kept going, passing Love Waterfall (Thac Tinh Yeu; I went on the way back), and driving until I went over the Tram Ton pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam.  A snaking two lane highway hugging the mountainside, with intermittent waterfalls peeking out from the lush green foliage.  It really was a beautiful ride!   

Silver Waterfall.
Silver Waterfall.
A view from the road.
A view from the road.
Cruisin' (don't worry, the highway was empty enough that I could pull over to take photos).
Cruisin’ (don’t worry, the highway was empty enough that I could pull over to take photos).
Highway through the clouds.
Highway through the clouds.
Watch out - if the fall doesn't get you, the water will!
Watch out – if the fall doesn’t get you, the water will!
A view of the road over Tram Ton Pass.
A view of the road over Tram Ton Pass.
A view of Tram Ton Pass.
A view of Tram Ton Pass – that bend is the actual highest point.

 

My "hog."
My “hog.”
Pit stop.  Seriously, would you identify this as a pee place?  This is the female version of a urinal.
Pit stop. Seriously, would you identify this as a pee place? This is the female version of a urinal.

With no real plan ahead of time, I decided to just go as far as the next town on the roadside mile markers and have lunch there before turning back.  This was about 40km out of Sapa.  But about 3km from my destination I came to a crossroads that didn’t tell me which way went to this mystery destination.  So I figured I’d come far enough and had lunch at a random place on the side of the road.  I ordered “cóm” and finally figured out that it’s simply fried rice.  I ate my lunch in the company of a stick bug trying his best to camouflage into the carved wood furniture, and the owner’s daughter who was napping in a hammock with her teddy bear.  

 

Lunch break!
Lunch break!

On the way back I did stop at Love Waterfall, it was a bit of a hike back to it.  I also hiked up to the lookout tower, which actually didn’t have as good of views as the road itself offered.  But when I went to leave, I realized I’d lost the scooter key.  I put it in the pocket of my windbreaker and very stupidly didn’t zip the pocket!  So, I knew just what had happened, it fell out who knows where.  The guard helpfully tried to use another key to start the bike, but I knew it was no use.  So I retraced my steps back down to the waterfall, hoping to find the key but also running through the worst case scenario in my head: I at least had the phone number of the rental place (a first!) and would just have to pay whatever kings’ ransom the owner demanded for the lost the key and rescue effort.  But luckily I found my key laying right in the middle of path almost all the way back down at the waterfall.  I felt extremely relieved and really lucky!  I’d been debating whether to remove the now very decayed string bracelet a monk gave me, along with a blessing, during Thai New Year.  But, hey, maybe it is bringing me good luck after all!    

 

At Love Waterfall (after a bit of refreshing rain).
At Love Waterfall (after a bit of refreshing rain).

 

A bell in the observation tower...why not?
A bell in the observation tower…why not?