Hue and Halong Bay and Hanoi

On Wednesday we started the journey from Hoi An to Hanoi, via Hue. Our bus left at 730am and we managed to get the prior day’s shopping shipped out from Hoi An via mail so we didn’t have to lug it around. The bus ride was quick and we met some Australian girls who we ended up spending time with on and off the rest of the trip.

Hue was nice, with large leafy streets, but brutally hot an humid. We had a total of four (yep) hours in the city during which we in effect chartered a AC’ed taxi and saw the Citadel, the Tu Duc Tomb, and the Thien Mu padoga. It was a whirlwind tour through the city and we even had enough time to book our return flights from Hanoi to Saigon.

Back at the bus by 5pm, it had started to rain a little bit so that among other reasons (which were totally opaque to us), the bus took off late for the 15 hour ride to Hanoi. The buses were the sleeper type, which meant there were nearly lie flat individual bunks to sleep on. While that may sound somewhat comfortable, it’s not at all. They were barely padded and the start and stop traffic all through the night meant I probably put in 6 hours of sleep.

While on the bus, we managed to find a Halong Bay tour operator which said we had to get to their office by 9am sharp to make the bus to Halong Bay. As soon as we arrived in Hanoi we found the first cab we found and hightailed it across town to catch the next three hour bus to the bay. Total time on a bus in transit from Hoi An to Halong Bay was roughly 30 hours!

Thankfully we made it on time, and set out for the two day, one night cruise along the bay and the lime outcroppings in the UNESCO-protected Halong Bay. It was a beautiful day to be on the water, and the geology of the surroundings is something otherworldly. One of the other passengers on the junk was a Dutch oil geologist who we went part of the evening chatting with on how the formations came to be, which added bit of color to the picture.

On the bay, we rented kayaks and paddled about two hours (or so) total, first out from our junk to a beach where we climbed some 450 steps to a pagoda at the top of an island. From there we paddled for a while until we finally came to an opening in one of the mountain facs that was maybe 10 feet high and 30 feet across. We paddled through it which lead to an incredible open lagoon. By the time we paddled out, our junk at arrived at the opening and the crew lashed the kayaks up as we went in to the water for a swim.

The water in the bay is bath tub temperature. Given the surroundings are in the 90s it’s not terribly surprising. While that sounds idyllic, we had heard from our tour guide that the waters in the area have some box jellyfish present, and unfortunately they managed to sting both Brendan and Dan. The jellyfish isn’t poisonous, but it’s as described by them “it felt like an scalpel cutting your leg”. Apparently there was a jellyfish sitting near the ladder that was used to climb out, and both of the guys had the misfortune to get their a leg each wrapped in the tendrils.

They sat writhing in pain for a few hours that eventually subsided, we slept in our cabins on the junk and made our way back to land by mid day. Our return put us back in Hanoi around 4pm, after which we explored the old town and made bookings for an evening water puppet show.

Old Town Hanoi is quite lovely. It’s bristling with motorcycles and bicycles and more than once I was nearly clipped by one, but it and the city seem like they’d be a great place to spend some time. By the time we got back to the hotel, the aforementioned Aussie girls had left us a note to hang out later since we were at the same hotel. We went to the water puppet show, which was fantastic. There was an 8 piece traditional Vietnamese orchestra playing music to the water puppetry.

After the show we met up with our friends and ended up stumbling upon an all you can eat ice cream buffet that happens the first Friday of every month. Needless to say, that ended up being our dinner. After walking along the lake back and taking photo booth pictures in the night market, we returned to the hotel and everybody has turned in for the night.

Tomorrow begins the return leg of our journey. We fly from Hanoi to Saigon at 11am, then Saigon to Tokyo at 11pm. There’s a ~10 hour layover in Tokyo on Sunday, during which I think we’re planning on going to Tokyo proper via the JR Express. We’re also planning during the day to meet up with Justin in Saigon for the afternoon and do any last minute shopping.

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Hoi An

[originally posted Tue June 30 2009 at 5:44pm]

We’ve been in Hoi An for two days now, after arriving Monday morning via train. We settled in to our rooms at a nice little budget hotel right off of the main town area and got on our way to explore the old town. I’d heard tons of the bespoke shoes and suits that are made here so purchasing one was on the agenda, as well.

After winding our way through the maze that is the old city, we finally settled on a suitmaker whose recommendation had come from some New Zealanders we’d met in Nha Trang. I ended up purchasing two suits (one three piece gray and one black pinstripe) and two shirts. We picked them up for a fitting today and they both turned out great. The best part? The price — the whole package was just over $100! After (or before?) shopping we stopped in to a restaurant along the waterfront to try Cau Lau noodles, a dish that Hoi An is famous for. They’re basically grittier (texture-wise) and thicker pho noodles that were in the same soup, but served with fried dough (like croutons). Needless to say, they were delicious.

The rest of the time in between was interspersed walking around the town and alleyways exploring the area. After clothes shopping (and the guys stopping in a few other stores to get some other jackets and the like), we met up with Rachel and her sister for dinner at a waterfront and finished the evening up a few beers (and working to avoid some rather annoying young American and British backpackers).

Today we went to the My Son ruins, about 45km outside of Hoi An. The weather was easily in the high 90s and probably crossing in to the 100s. The sites were beautiful, old Hindu relics that reminded me of a little version of Angor Wat. We explored the ruins for a few hours until the crushing heat sent us back to Hoi An.

We spent the afternoon getting the alterations done to our clothes, and then afterward sat outside of a sandwich cart (Bánh mì) while eating our sandwiches (vegetarian of course). While sitting down, the women who owned the store we got our clothes at came over and joined us for over an hour talking about life in Vietnam, her family, the store, life when she was a kid and when she opened the store. It was truly fascinating having a conversation with her and talking about the two worlds we came from.

The trip is entering the back half of journey. It’s already Tuesday here, and our flights out of Saigon are on Saturday evening via Tokyo. We’ve got bus tickets tomorrow at 7am to Hue, where we have a four hour stop over in order to catch our 16 hour bus to Hanoi, thus putting us in Hanoi Thursday morning. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do a day or overnight tour through Halong Bay, and if not enjoy Hanoi. We’ve got to get on an airplane from Hanoi to Saigon Friday or Saturday in order to make our flights out (and meet up with Justin for a day in Saigon as he starts his trip).

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Diving in Nha Trang and Leaving for Hoi An

[originally posted Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 10:16pm

We woke up this morning at 7:30am to catch our ride to our dive boat for a day of diving on the islands off of Nha Trang. I’ve never been diving before so I signed up for a “discovery” dive, which is basically a tandem dive with a dive master. The ride out to the dive sites was ~50 minutes and the diving was fantastic. There was a ton to sea underwater and the ocean was really clear. I did two dives, and in the in between time we snorked the waters. The diving pretty much like snorkling, only you’re a lot deeper and about a thousand times closer to the coral and sea life. Saw some moray eels and a lot of other fish I’ll never be able to identify.

After about four hours out on the water we returned back to the city at 2ish and made plans with some of the other people we’d met diving to have dinner later in the evening. We had some pho as a late lunch and then hung out for a while, bumming around. We had a lovely dinner with the people we met which provided perhaps the culinary hilight of the trip so far — an order of monitor lizard.

We also decided to try to find transport out of Nha Trang to continue our trek north, but as it turned out the sleeper train to Da Nang was sold out tonight, and all the sleeper buses were also sold out. For a brief moment we had hopes that seats in the sleeper bus avaiable, but by the time we pulled the trigger, the tickets were sold out. Long story short, we’re on a upright seat train tonight to Hoi An / Da Nang. We’ll see how it goes — we leave at 11:18pm and arrive at 9ish in the morning. Sitting in a seat for that long with a pack does not seem like it’ll be fun, but I’m looking forward to seeing Hoi An tomorrow.

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Nha Trang

We reached Nha Trang this morning after taking the overnight train from Saigon. Our time in Saigon was brief and towards the end of the day we got caught in a monsoon type of storm. The rain poured from probably 5pm to 10ish, by which time we were on the train heading to Nha Trang. The ride was pretty uneventful, given that our trip was from 11pm to 530am. On our way out, we almost were stuck on the train at the Nha Trang station as we missed the cue that said when people deboarding and people boarding swapped and had the conductor yelling at us to get off the train before it left the station.

Nha Trang itself is a lovely beach town. Given how early we arrived as soon as we had our first room available we managed to catch a few naps, and then went out to eat and lounge by the beach. In the evening, we caught up with a old coworker of mine who was also in Nha Trang, Rachel, and her sister before they were about to leave for Hoi An. After walking the beach for a while, we bought overnight sleeper bus tickets for Monday night for Hoi An as well as signing up for a discovery scuba trip tomorrow morning.

It’s not too late here, maybe 10pm, but the train ride’s house and jetlag are catching up so it’s an early night for our group.

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Landed in Saigon

We landed in Saigon late last night after our flight was 40 minutes late but we were picked up by the hotel in our only plannned thing of the trip. We checked in and met Dan who had arrived in the morning. After taking a few minutes to freshen up we went on a walk and found ourselves at a late night pho joint. The place was very cool. They had 30 of so plastic chairs outside and a fleet of waiters (and also what appeared to be a very make shift cyclo valet service). We ordered pho and beers and hung out for an hour or so. After eating we came back to the hotel and did some light planning. Looking like today we’re thinking of going to the market to visit the “noodle lady” who is apparently serving lemongrass something today. After that we’re planning on going to Sinh Cafe to book either an overnight bus or train to Nha Trang.

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Heading to Vietnam

I’m at the airport heading to Vietnam for basically summer vacation. We’ve got a couple of friends going and others who are meeting mid trip and at the end. The goal is to make of from Saigon to Hanoi in about 8ish days and fly back at the end for our return flight back. I’ll be blogging hopefully most of the trip. Should be fun!

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Photos from Vietnam and Cambodia

I’ve finally finished uploading all my photos from the vacation to my site. Uploading 900 pictures from Shanghai to San Francisco takes a long time but they’re all there now. They’re listed below day by day, with some of the more interesting pictures singled out, especially at Angkor Wat.

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Mekong Delta

We spent today touring around the Mekong Delta, where the Mekong River empties out in to the South China Sea. It was a three-ish hour bus ride each way and by now, I’m starting to hate on busses.

After our coaches reached the city of Cai Be, we got on a motorized boat that took us through part of the canal/river branch network of the river till we reached a shop where they were making candies from coconuts. They’re produced for both sale in Vietnam and exported to some of the surrounding countries and as far as Germany and the US. Tasty little bites. After that workshop we then were back on a boat for another workshop on the river/canal/tributary/etc that made another set of candies from puffed rice. Watching the process of puffing rice and the production of the candy was pretty interesting, but I ended up spending a lot more time taking pictures of the peoples homes who lived in the area.

We then got back on the boat for a while and headed to the town of Vinh Long, where we had lunch and we spent some time talking to a couple from San Francisco. They’d been on the road thru SE Asia (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia) for 3+ months and it was interesting to swap tips and perspectives with them. Truthfully, I can’t really imagine traveling for that long but I can see the appeal.

The boat cruised around some more in the Delta and gave a really good perspective of how huge the area really is. There are homes, houses, islands and markets all on the river. Given the size of the network in the Delta, it makes a very convenient transportation network as well. There were plenty of barges, large and small, transporting goods. In one part of the Delta, where a market was, little boats would be selling types of fruit or vegetables. You could tell what each boat was selling because it had their produce stuck in the air on the end of a stick. In one other area we saw rambutan arriving via a little boat then being packed in styrofoam boxes for export to China. Really interesting. Also, the river has four tides a day, every six hours. During the dry season, it ranges from three to four feet high while in the wet season it’s over double that. There were a few times when our boat hit sandbars in the water due to the low depth.

In the evening, we had dinner at the acutal Sinh Cafe, ordering bowls of vegerarian pho. Now, finally, I know what I’ve been missing. I’ll need to find a place that sells pho that’s not made in a meat broth in the states. Tomorrow we head out back for home. Since our flights are late, the plan is to spend the day in the Cholon district of Ho Chi Minh city looking at the temples and enjoy the last of Vietnamese food.

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Back in Ho Chi Minh City

I’m back in HCMC, at the same internet cafe as the first night I was here (same hotel as well).

In the morning, we had a lazy day in Siem Reap and hung out a cafe for most of the morning until our flight to Saigon. The Siem Reap airport was small and ‘cute’ but on the way out they charged a ridiclous $25/pax airport fee which was nearly an extra 35% on top of what we’d already paid for the ticket. A real rip off considering the facility. Even the price for Cambodian nationals was $20, which seems evil.

Also at the airport we met a few random people. We all ID’ed each other by our American passports as there arn’t many Americans in this part of the world. All three of them were on their way to Thailand (a couple and a college guy), the former for Bangkok and the latter for some full moon party on the beach. Sounded pretty intense, it sounds like it’s worth checking out in a few months. I gave the college student the Thailand book we’d bought in Siem Reap — street vendors sell all the Lonely Planet books of the region on the street for a few bucks. When you open them up, they’re obvious photocopies of the real thing, hence the price.

Flight to Saigon was uneventful, a quick 45 minute hop. Compared to the over land route I took from Saigon to Siem Reap — 7 + 6 hours in a bus, plus one night in Phnom Phen — it was blisfully quick. As soon as we landed we made our way to the Vietnam Airlines ticket desk to see if there were flights avaiable to either Hue or Danang and bingo, there were two leaving in 90 minutes. As my hopes built up of being able to visit central Vietnam on this trip, they came quickly crashing down with the complete lack of seats on the flights back from either city on Saturday. There was one seat available in business class, but only one. Even the price for that seat was in the budget, but given the lack of a pair of them it was a no go. So, no Hoi An for me on this trip, perhaps next time. It is a bit disapointing, but it is what it is.

Now we’re in Ho Chi Minh City and we’re probably going to head to the Mekong Delta tomorrow for some sights and to check out the river and some the villages along the Delta. Saturday will probably be spent in the Cholon district of HCMC, as there is supposed to be some picturesque contemporary temples in the area or perhaps one the nearby beaches. My flight back to Shanghai is at 1:30am Sunday and work thereafter! It’s hard to believe it’s near the end of the week already and this vacation is drawing to a close.

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Cu Chi Tunnels and War Museum

In it’s whole, today was spent learning how awful America (et. al.) were during the Vietnam War (or the American Agression as it’s called here).

In the morning we joined a tour group for the Cu Chi Tunnels, and started by seeing a workshop where people with deformaties from Agent Orange are given jobs to help make egg shell/mother-of-pearl inlay desks and things. Quite a way to begin. We then drove for 1.5 hours to the tunnels themselves and walked through a section of the actual tunnels. They’re impossibly small, with the littlest amount of room to walk on all fours thru (even as they’ve been expanded for tourists sake). We spent some time in the area also looking at various reproductions of the different types of stations/etc that the Viet Cong had mantained and setup to prevent detection as well getting nearly deafened by a non-sound-isolated live-fire AK-47 range. It was interesting (tragic?) to note that as we walked around, the remains of the war (defoliated jungles, bomb craters, etc) were everywhere to be seen.

After the bus came back to HCMC, we went to the War Reminants Musuem, which was incredibly enlightening yet horrifying. Seeing the things that happened on both sides of the war (and esp. getting the Vietnamese side of the story) was incredibly unique. Undoubtedly there was quite a bit of propaganda being thrown around but some of the images, stories and facts really make you question what we call our “American morals.” Even worse, a lot of the quotes and facts and situations are not unlike our America of today. From the war crimes that we’re committing in Iraq to the stories of the Vietnam past, they sound exactly the same. Some of the quotes they had listed you could just place them in today’s politicans (replace “Communism” with “Terrorism”) mouths and they’d fit.

Later in the evening, we tried to find the Jade Buddha Pagoda but were totally unable to, so we ended up grabbing dinner near our hotel and then went to the “fabled” Rex Hotel rooftop bar. For all it’s fabled-ness, it was a bit (okay, a lot) underwhelming, themed with a garden-green lights and a hanging potted plants mess. I much prefered the rooftop bar of the Majestic.

The tickets for the 8-hour bus ride to Phomn Penh are booked for tomorrow, departing here at 8:15am. From the best of my understanding we should be able to get Cambodian visas at the border crossing. The plan is to spend the rest of the day tomorrow in Phomn Penh and then head to Siem Reap the next day. If the visas don’t pan out, we’ll be stuck in the middle of Vietnam until it’s sorted out.

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