Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Three-For-Three

January 18, 2009
by Stuart
2 Comments
2,055 views

Uncle Ho's final house.

Uncle Ho's final house.

The next stop on our tour of entombed Communist leaders led us to Ho Chi Minh.  Seeing “Uncle Ho” lying in a permanent state of waxy build up made me think about how different our reaction to the Communist propaganda has been: in Russia it had an old-school charm, in China it was amusing – all these people with their little red books. But in Vietnam it’s rather unsettling.

Store in the Old Quarter.

Store in the Old Quarter.

Tina pointed out that in Russia and China, the propaganda was about farmers and factory workers – the common man. Whereas in Vietnam, the propaganda was about fighting for the country – fighting America. It became personal. Not in a “how dare they think that about us” way, but more of “I’m really sorry we had something to do with this” kinda way.

Visiting the tomb was really similar to Lenin’s. They march you down an incline and through the dark room with the body. One guard pushed me because I was walking too slowly. You only get about a minute to view the body since you can’t stop. But since he is just lying there, you would think that is plenty of time. However, you are so engrossed, or just grossed out, that you spend all that time trying to decide if it’s real or not – so you never get to really “look” at him. You get focused on the details, not the experience.

*     *     *

After Ho, we wandering around the Temple of Literature then stopped for lunch at KOTO, a pretty hip place with a social cause. KOTO stands for ‘know one, teach one’ and uses its proceeds to help former street kids get on the right track. We then walked back to the Old Quarter to book a tour for Halong Bay. The tour was three days, and not wanting to spend another day in Hanoi, we looked into getting night train tickets for when we got back from Halong Bay.

Bamboo being turned into pipes.

Bamboo being turned into pipes.

We had the hotel get tickets through a “black-market” source when we learning that some trains were sold out. After paying for the tickets, we explained that we were heading out the next morning for the bay and would be returning a few hours before the train left Hanoi so we wanted our tickets before we left. The guy at the hotel said we could get them later that night. But after dinner (at a pricey and rather mediocre restaurant) he said we could get them the next morning.

There were two huge teddy bear stores.

There were two huge teddy bear stores.

After packing and checking out the next day, we still didn’t have our tickets – and the guy wasn’t there to explain himself. One of the hotel staff called him and handed me the phone. I asked where our tickets were and he said he was outside the office waiting for it to open. I explained our ride was coming shortly and we either needed the tickets our or money. He said we could have our money back.

Late night pho.

Late night pho.

That, however, would have put us in a possibly worse situation. We could get our money back, and show up in a few days and find the train was sold out. Or we could just get them when we got back. It was even more complicated for Shirin who had less time in Vietnam so she had to leave that night to keep on schedule. And if she couldn’t get her ticket, she needed to book a flight before we left for the bay.

I hesitated answering him and he suddenly said the place was open and hung up. About five minutes later he ran into the hotel still wearing his helmet and handed me our vouchers – not actual tickets – that we were to turn in at the station for real tickets. They were handwritten and looked like photocopies. He said we needed to trust him. We did have a legitimate receipt, and he had been really helpful with other things so we took a chance. A moment later the bus to Halong Bay picked us up. We left hoping things would work out. Thankfully they did.

Row, Row, Row My Boat

January 18, 2009
by Stuart
1 Comment
31,256 views

On the Perfume River.

On the Perfume River.

On our way out of Hanoi, we passed the section of town with dog restaurants. Outside on the street, there were entire fried dog bodies stacked on tables waiting to be sold. The skin looked like roast chicken, but the body was unmistakably canine. Tina even saw a dog on hooks being skinned.

After leaving the city proper, we traveled a highway that cut right through huge fields of rice paddies with workers digging, hoeing, planting and whatever else people do in rice paddies. There were stretches of road with baguette sellers about every 50 feet frantically waving at the passing cars hoping they would get the munches (having spent considerable time occupied by the French, baguettes are about as common as rice). Not many people were stopping, but who would? Somehow baguettes with a sprinkling of highway filth doesn’t sound that appealing to me either.

Tina, Stuart, rower guy.

Tina, Stuart, Puma fan.

A while later we turned off the highway and started working our way through smaller villages towards the river. The bus disgorged us and we were told to wait as our guide got the boats worked out. I noticed a sign displaying the price and learned that had we done this ourselves, it would have cost way less then what we paid the tour company. But there were no buses coming down this way, so a tour might have been the only option anyway.

On top of our already inflated cost, it was suggested that we tip the rowers because they don’t make much money – guess the tour company keeps a good chunk of our money. We were also told not to tip until we get back to the van because some rowers, if tipped too early, will stop rowing and demand more money.

On the trail up to the pagaoda.

The workers ran over and picked up the flag when they saw me take this photo.

Each boat held four people not counting the rower. Tina and I got in and were joined  by two other people whom neither of us could understand. They were from South Africa. Even knowing that, we still couldn’t understand anything they said. But that was ok, because they were in front of us and facing forwards, making it awkward to hold a conversation anyway.

After an hour in the boat we landed at the base of the mountain the pagoda was on. We walked to a restaurant in the village and were told that we were running late and that we should take the cable car to the top. Well, the hike was part of the reason why we were doing this, so we said we’d hike fast. It was over 4km to the top, our guide warned us, and that if we didn’t make it in time, he wouldn’t wait to explain things. So the two of us, and another American couple – who were from Boston but had lived in Oakland – took off up the path while everyone else headed to the cable car.

Entrance to the cave.

Entrance to the cave.

This was the fastest 4km hike ever. I don’t think it took longer then like 30 minutes. The path was lined with little stalls selling drinks and snacks, yet they were building more even though there were only about five people on the trail that day. There was even a monkey chained to a tree. Tina made a pretty accurate observation that in China and also Vietnam, supply of junk far outweighs demand for junk. There are lots of people selling stuff that nobody is buying (see photo of teddy bear store in Hanoi).

Lunch with tour group.

Lunch with tour group.

The pagoda was a little shrine in a cave at the top. Pretty boring. We arrived around the time most people were leaving, so we found the guide and he explained a few things then we hiked down, meeting everyone at the restaurant for a group lunch. The food was ok – good rice and spring rolls, but then this plate of white and dark meat came out that freaked people out. The white meat didn’t look like chicken or pork, an the dark meat didn’t look like beef, and it all smelled funny. There were also jars of snake wine for sale. The jars were filled with wine as well as actual dead snakes – some eating other snakes. Had I not known about snake wine, I would have thought it was some hillbillie’s dead snake collection – which actually would have be cooler.

*     *     *

That night we eagerly awaited Shirin’s arrival. We had arranged an airport pickup for her through the hotel, but when we checked in to make sure they had sent someone, they started asking if we needed to set something up for tomorrow night. After explaining that we had already made the arrangement, and that it was for tonight, they said someone was there waiting. Shirin arrived a few hours later and her excitement gave us a needed boost which lasted about 30 minutes until we fell asleep.

A rower waiting for her next customers.

A rower waiting for her next customers.

The Best A Man Can Get

January 18, 2009
by Stuart
3 Comments
1,967 views

Anyone who has watched bees dart around a disturbed hive, has seen a visual analogy of the motorbike traffic in Hanoi. There are people everywhere, going everywhere, driving everywhere – on the sidewalk, on the wrong side of the road,  inside stores. There are no lanes, no traffic signs, no order. Even our Chinese friends from Nanning – who actually spend most of the year in Beijing which has crazy traffic – were in awe of the madness.

An intersection in the Old Quarter.

Try crossing this!

As a pedestrian, when you cross the street, you have walk slowly so oncoming traffic has a chance to see you, adjust their path, and decide to go in front of you or behind you – no one stops. The roads were so congested at times that I had to step over the tires of motorbikes in the middle of intersections just to avoid being crushed from behind.

Anyway… Our friends had hoped to stay in the same hotel as us, but were sent to another hotel around the way that had vacancy, so we made plans to meet for dinner at Little Hanoi – a restaurant between our two hotels. Everything was fantastic: crab spring rolls, pho, shrimp with tamarind sauce, banana flower salad, beef wraps, mango salad and a few other treats.

*     *     *

The next morning we had to find a new hotel because our friend, Shirin, was going to travel with us for a few days and we needed room for her. Fortunately this didn’t take long – we found a hotel a block away that was a better deal and had really helpful staff. So we booked a room for the next evening. Oddly, getting a room for three people is incredibly easy in Vietnam – it’s a standard room choice. Four, however, is not.

Checkers.

Checker players at the Ngoc Son Pagoda.

We hopped a taxi to the Ethnographic museum, which, altho ridiculously cheap – maybe a dollar – was quite informative and entertaining. I got wrapped up in a video explaining how women make those conical hats you see everywhere here. It’s quite a process and it seems like different women in the village are responsible for certain parts – some make the frames, some the covering. Then there is a big market were all the different parts are for sale, or they can buy already assembled hats

After taking the local bus back to the Old Quarter, we started walking around the lake and out to the Ngoc Son Pagoda, stopping along the way to enjoy some fresh pineapple. Once we finished a lap around the lake, we headed deeper into the Quarter to scope out some tour companies and their offers to the Perfume Pagoda – a day trip that promised a bus ride, being rowed down the river and some hiking. We finally decided on a company and signed up, hoping we’d have enough time in the morning to switch hotels and get a little breakfast as well.

*     *     *

After dinner, I asked the receptionist where a good barber was, thinking I’d just get my beard trimmed. She led me to this guy in a shop that was about ten feet wide by five feet deep. He had only one chair but a pretty big smile. He handed me a little pink plastic stool and motioned to sit outside while he finished with his current customer. While I was waiting, a man was walking by holding his baby. He saw me, came over and handed me his son. I put him on my knee and he reached up and grabbed beard and was stunned when it didn’t come off. Then his dad crouched down, got out his phone and took a photo of us, picked his kid out of my lap and walked away.

All that crazy driving can tucker a guy out.

All that crazy driving can tucker a guy out.

When my turn was up, I got in the chair and tried to explain that I just wanted it trimmed – cleaned up a bit. He leaned me back and got out the clippers and went to town. Being shaved by the clippers was a unique mix of sensory signals: the newly-freed hair was falling on my face like soft dry snow, it sounded like someone down the block had a weed wacker going, and it smelled like my dad’s shed after we changed the mower’s oil.

When he was done, he sat me up and asked if it was ok. It was pretty short, and I was tired of finding parts of my lunch hours later crawling out from the jungle that was my beard. So I asked him to shave my face clean. He said ok. Then leaned the chair back. And at that moment, some of his friends showed up and all surrounded me to watch “whitey” get all cleaned up.

This can't be safe.

This can't be safe.

I have never been shaved with a straightedge before and was worried about bleeding like a baby. And I’ll be honest: it hurt. Not as much as I thought, but it wasn’t soothing and I don’t think I’d want it done often. And yes, I had my eyes closed the whole time. Also, having no idea what my role in this should be, I kept turning my head or making faces to tighten the skin as he was clear cutting.

At one point, trying to help, I tightened my cheek by pulling my lips to one side. I felt him stop shaving, then he gently tapped my cheek. I opened my eyes to see him right above me, with his hands raised in position and perfectly still, like a needle just lifted off a record player. He kindly shook his head, which made me smile, which made me smile even more. Then I settled down, closed my eyes, and felt the blade start right where he had left off.

For a good time... or for a taxi. Or both, maybe.

For a good time... or for a taxi. Or both, maybe.

He again raised my chair when he was done. I didn’t even recognize myself, but I was proud that I made it though without bleeding. I paid and gave him a big tip – more like a “thanks for not killing me” payoff. I walked back to the hotel and the receptionists looked up and went all ga ga about how handsome and better I looked. My ego was so inflated that I practically floated up the four flights of stairs to our room. I opened the door and was quickly brought to Earth by the pins of Tina’s hysterical laughing.

Good Mid-afternoon Vietnam!

January 2, 2009
by Stuart
4 Comments
2,342 views

After spending a few days in Nanning waiting for our Vietnam visa to be processed, we boarded the 8:00am bus on Thursday to Hanoi. The ride was pretty uneventful, but the border crossing was pretty amusing. This was our first time crossing a border by bus, so we were used to the relative ease of crossing by train – where the officials do all the work. This crossing involved two buses, two shuttle carts and intense scrutiny of Tina’s passport photo.

The bus to the border from Nanning was only about three hours – including the multiple breaks taken about every hour. Once we got to the border, everyone had to get off the bus, grab their luggage, then hop on a shuttle cart (a golf cart that sat 12 people) and get carted about 300 meters to a building where we had to fill out an exit card for China. We then went downstairs to have our passports stamped and luggage scanned.

Now, you loyal fans of this blog have noticed that I have not kept the same clean cut appearance that I sported in SF – which makes me closer resemble a homeless Berkeley hippie then the guy in my passport photo (taken eight years ago). Tina, however, still looks pretty dang close to her passport photo – which is only a few years old. But the customs guy didn’t look at me twice. Yet when Tina got to the counter, he made her remove her glasses, change her hair and even called someone over to help him decide if it was really her.

Once they accepted Tina’s visual legitimacy, we had another another shuttle ride to the next building where we filled out all the paperwork for Vietnam. The paperwork was pretty simple, but the arrangement of the building was confusing: the window with the customs paperwork was at the far end requiring you to swim upstream back towards the entrance to hand in your paperwork and wait for the stamp (Westerners served last, thank you).

Then you went to the middle window to get a “medical exam” where they declared you in perfect health provided you had the right amount of money – which we didn’t, but some nice Canadian girls we befriended on the bus helped us out. Behind the counter at the medical exam desk, there was a computer screen that had what looked like a sonogram that changed when either of us moved, and there was also a digital thermometer reading that seemed to fluctuate wildly.

Since our (us and the two Canadians) passports were processed last, we were the last to board the bus which had plenty of room in the rear prompting us to holler, “Westerners in the back!”. Once we were seated, the bus pulled out, and we resumed our trip to Hanoi. The scenery seemed to change right as we crossed the border: it was more lush, more tropical plants and endless rice paddies with farmers in the conical hats bent over picking rice out of the ground.

Yangshuo

January 2, 2009
by Stuart
1 Comment
2,389 views

Overlooking the Li River.

Overlooking the Li River. No, I am not on drugs.

After getting off the bus in Yangshuo, a man came up offering to take us to his hotel. We explained that we had already booked a room somewhere else, but he insisted on following us out of the bus station anyway. We got out the map and tried to figure out where we were. He looked at the map and said we were at another station – that was off the map – and that his hotel was right down the block. Even after the experience in Guilin, I still doubted him so I walked down the road about 10 meters and saw a street sign – we were on the right street just like the map said. Once I realized this, he receded back into the bus station to prey on someone else.

Yangshuo with the karst scenery all around.

Yangshuo with the karst scenery all around.

The main drag. Our hostel is near the bottom right.

The main drag. Our hostel is near the bottom right.

There wasn’t much to do in the city proper – so we walked around a park on the Li River, then climbed up one of the limestone “hills” in the middle of town for a good aerial view of the city creeping up through the hills. On the top we met some French travelers – one of whom we think might have been on our train to Guilin. We talked about Russia and what a shame it was that the French government had outlawed the common practice of French people driving their old car down to Africa and selling it for a good profit.

*     *     *

That morning, we got up and headed out to the trail (which was really a country road) on our bikes. The first mile or so was through the city which was kinda hairy for Tina, but she made it just fine. Along the way we met a family from New Zealand, and since the road was poorly marked, we teamed up together – hoping that a few bad maps would be better then one – to find the Dragon Bridge, our destination for the ride. They had also befriended a Chinese couple from Beijing. So when we got really lost we’d ride with them and let them lead the way.

The town was built flowing like a river around the hills.

The town was built flowing like a river around the hills.

The trail led to a sort of parking area with some people offering bamboo boat rides. Not sure where to go, I showed a local my map and he motioned that we circle around the parking area and to follow a little dirt road. At this point the road turned into a little dirt road that would eventually connect a few villages that dotted the trail along the way.

The village next to Dragon Bridge.

The village next to Dragon Bridge.

Once we got to the bridge, Tina and I found a shady spot along the river to eat lunch. The kiwi family, and the couple from Beijing joined us. The couple spoke a little English and told us they were TV journalists and were in Yangshuo working on a story. Turns out they were also staying in the same hostel we were.

Dragon Bridge.

Dragon Bridge.

After a lazy lunch we got back on the bikes and decided to ride back on the other side of the river – making a loop for part of the trip – like a lollipop if you will – which ended up giving us a completely different experience. The trail getting to the bridge was a wide dirt trail, whereas the trail going back on the other side of the river narrowed and became the path between rice fields – rocky paths maybe two feet wide at the most. At some points the trail was so narrow that it was hard to keep the bikes on them and Tina and one of the kiwi kids fell off the trail into the rice patty.  On either side of us where farmers tending their crops, taking their buffalo’s for a walk or just patches of wild farmland.

*     *     *

The next morning we got up early to make calls home for Christmas. This turned out to be one of the weirdest days of our trip. After finally finding a place with phones to use, we ended up taking for way longer then planned so when we had to pay, we didn’t have enough money. So I gave Tina some money to exchange – since we have that wad of cash from my visa extension – and she started the long hike to the Bank of China, the only place in town to exchange money.

Bambo boats used to transport things - mainly tourists - down the river.

Bamboo boats used to transport things - mainly tourists - down the river.

After about 25 minute of me sitting awkwardly in the phone place, Tina comes storming in and explains that you need a passport to change money and she had left hers in our hostel room. So we switched places and I took off for the bank. At the bank, I got in line and filled out the necessary paperwork and stood waiting for about 15 minutes. Once I got to the window and handed over the money to change, the cashier got all picky about my Benjamins and got out a counterfeit detector. One passed and one failed. I tried explaining that I’d gotten these from a bank in China, so if it was bad, it’s her fault. She said how does she know I was telling the truth. I was fuming. It was a good thing there was a wall of Plexiglas between us. I gave her another hundred that passed and got my money and ran back to the phone place and paid our bill – getting a more excited reaction from the employees then from Tina.

Looking north down the Yongli River.

Looking south along the Yulong River.

It was pretty late in the day so we headed out to get some lunch. We went to a cafe that was recommended to us by a few people back in Guilin. They led us upstairs where there was only us and this older guy from England that we ended up talking with for a few hours. The food was good and it was cozy – thanks to the two coal burning stoves placed in the middle of the floor.

A water buffilo taking this owner for a walk over the bridge.

A water buffalo taking this owner for a walk over the bridge.

After we ate and were talking for a couple hours, I got really really sleepy and even had to stop my sentences midway to remember what I was talking about. Sometimes I felt like I fell asleep while talking. The same thing started happening to Tina, and even the other guy occasionally started forgetting what he was talking about.

Along the Li River.

Along the Li River.

The conversation naturally wrapped up, so we paid and started walking to the hostel – and the guy we’d been talking to suddenly disappeared in the cafe someplace. Tina mentioned how dizzy she was I said I felt the same. And once we started walking home, it got a lot worse for both of us. We hardly managed to get to our room before Tina went into semi-hysterics about how we’d been drugged and we should tell people in the hostel and call the police and that we shouldn’t fall asleep.

Foggy.

Foggy.

I was incredibly tired but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the cafe was so warm in part because it was well insulated – and this meant that the coal fumes had no where to go except for our lungs, leaving very little room for fresh air. I tired explaining my logic to Tina but she was too busy looking up emergency numbers in the LP – somehow this is much funnier in retrosepct. I gave up, and rolled over and went to sleep. We ended up sleeping from about four that afternoon to late the next morning.

*     *     *

We had also planned to do a boat trip down one of the rivers around Yangshuo. And since we the bike ride took us along the Yulong River, we decided to check out the Li River. We hoped the weather would stay nice, but instead we woke up to a steady drizzle. At first I was kinda bummed, but then on the ride up I noticed that the fog and mist added to the mystery and romance of the karst scenery.

Tina and our boat captian.

Tina and our boat captain.

When we got to the bus station, we only had a few minutes until the bus left. But that didn’t matter because once they started letting people on, it was a mad rush to get seats. I pushed my way through the scrum but only scored one seat-  which I gave to Tina (Boyfriend of the Year Award points: 100) – and took my place standing next to her. There were quite a few people standing and when we got to the station exit, they made everyone – but not me for some reason – get off, walk across the exit, then when the bus exited, they all got back on. At that point they tossed around little pink stools for us standers to use as seats.

More scenery.

More scenery.

After quickly eating our peanut butter sandwiches along the river – while being harassed by people wanting to give us a boat ride – we decided that it was finally time to give in to the offers. Unfortunately, at that point they had stopped coming and most boats had left. So we wandered around a bit until finding a woman who took my low ball offer and we set off down towards the town of XingPing. The scenery was great – well, at least the parts we could see – as most peaks were under heavy fog.

dude.

Area tourist tries to look cool on a fake bamboo boat.