A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam - Saigon

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This nighttime view out of my hotel window could have been Times Square, but it isn't. What a change from Hanoi! Compared with its Northern rival, Saigon (which, actually, is still the proper name for downtown Ho Chi Minh City) is a sophisticated metropolis. Yes, there are definitely still uniquely Asian scenes here, and I even encountered a pair of chickens on the sidewalk, but it's much more 'West' than Hanoi.

Having arrived here yesterday, I was lucky to connect with a local here, a young lady named Linh, to show me around the city. What an amazing experience! Linh took me to a wonderful local restaurant for dinner, followed by an upscale karaoke place where just about every single performer was surprisingly good, some Susan-Boyle kind of good. Linh explained that locals' fondness for karaoke was fortified during the long war, when for years there was no entertainment and meeting up and singing songs was the only alternative. We finished the night with a night-time scooter drive around the city, witnessing some unlikely sights such as impromptu road closures due to a Halloween block party. To get in touch with Linh, I used travbuddy.com, which helps travelers to find travel partners as well as meet locals -- I recommend!

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Today, after having breakfast with Linh at a hidden gem of a coffee shop, I started my roam around town by going to the War Remnants Museum. This was a very powerful experience. Images of war are always distressing, especially when a war's affect on civilians is concerned. But I must say, the section on the gruesome affects of Agent Orange and other 'non-traditional' warfare were just sickening. These are not some ancient methods of barbarians we are talking about, these are the weapons of choice of the world's greatest power only 40 years ago. Whether one believes the cause was just or not, the methods used were simply repulsive.

The rest of the afternoon was less emotionally charged. To reset my mood, I enjoyed a wonderful massage at one of the local spas, had a bowl of pho for lunch, and roamed around town, soaking up the atmosphere. Now, I'm sitting at a very cool lounge/restaurant that could have easily been a trendy Manhattan spot, if it weren't for its more forgiving prices. Tomorrow, I leave on a 2-night boat-and-bike tour of the Mekong Delta, which will conclude the Vietnam portion of my trip.

Posted by kgbgirl11 06:45 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Dalat

I arrived to this resort town in Central Highlands yesterday. Located at about the same elevation as Denver, this is where the rest of Vietnam comes to escape the heat. The city is relatively new, founded at the turn of the 20th century by the French as a resort town. For the same reason that locals, weary of rice paddies, find this 'little Paris' appealing, I, who came to see the proverbial rice paddies, find it nothing unique... though it is, indeed, a nice reprieve from heat and humidity, and clean air is definitely appreciated. The area around Dalat is renown for its Vegetable production, supplying much of the vegetables to the rest of Vietnam. It's also a major coffee growing area, largely responsible for Vietnam's status as second largest coffee producer, after Brazil, and ahead of Colombia (I had no idea!).

Having arrived yesterday in early afternoon, I had a solid three hours to explore the town, with its huge market specializing in local fruits and vegetables a definite highlight. I had an on-the-go lunch purchased at the market consisting of steamed corn on the cob, dried persimmons and fresh mulberry (still happy to report, no food poisoning!).

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I then decided to combine sightseeing with exercise by circumnavigating downtown's 7km lake. This is where I met my new bffs -- these girls, students at a local university studying English, wanted a picture with me, so I got one on my camera as well.

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Today, I spent the entire day exploring the surrounding countryside with an 'easy rider', a motorbike driver-come-tour guide. Given the prevalence of motor bikes in Vietnam, it only seems logical to see the country from this perspective. Having for a long time thought of motorbikes as coffin-on-wheels, I was at first apprehensive of getting onto the back of one, especially given local driving. However, I have since learned that there is definitely logic to Vietnam's driving madness, and though it operates on completely different principles than western driving (think bee hive!), it actually appears to be safer, as I only witnessed one minor traffic accident so far. So, I got on the back of the bike with Dai Lai, who was recommended to me by a hotel staff member, and who passed my pre-hire interview with flying colors.

And I'm very glad I did! It was a day full of pleasant views, informative narrative, interesting cultural experiences, and valuable insight into local life provided by my guide. Some of the highlights included visiting a beautiful pagoda, visiting a local rice wine distillery (which truly was more like a moonshine/'samogon' operation), climbing down to the base of a beautiful waterfall, and watching silk cocoons be transformed into beautiful fabrics. Here are a few of the pictures from today.

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Tomorrow, I head down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Speaking of the itinerary: I had to re-route due to the serious flooding in Thailand. The 'Itinerary' entry at the beginning of this blog ( http://rndzwrld.travellerspoint.com/2/ ) gets dynamically updated every time I make a change. You can zoom in on the map, and can also click on the points to see the dates when I'm expected to be there along with some details (my current location is always marked with a star).

Posted by kgbgirl11 05:30 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Halong Bay

Just got back from 3 days in magnificent Halong Bay, located about 3 hours driving East of Hanoi. It truly is magnificent, with about 2000 karst islands bursting through the mirror-smooth water of the bay. The 2-D pictures below definitely don't do it justice, as sailing among the islands, and having each of them gradually reveal their beauty as we navigate past them can't be captured on a flat photo.

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Other than the sailing itself, some of the highlights included kayaking, including several caves and arches that we kayaked into and through. Another highlight was dinner in a cave, this one set a fair bit above sea level, so we had to climb a few stairs (to the dismay of some of the guests), and the crew had to schlepp everything for the dinner -- starting with the tables and ending with the multi-course meal. One of the hilarious moments, to me, was when the crew was when we just sat down for dinner in this rugged natural setting, the crew was putting on the finishing touches when I hear the all-too-familiar sound of a Windows O/S loading, echoed through the cave -- apparently there is no cave dinner without digitized cave music.

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The other supposed highlight of the trip was visiting a floating village. Sounds cool, right? Well, it lost its appeal, in my eyes, when I learned that this is not really an ancient way of living. These are fishing families that until maybe 100 years ago used to live on the boat. However, in the early 20th century they decided that there was no reason to drag the children out to sea as well, and it would be nice to have a sheltered home to come back to in an event of a storm. So, they built small houses in a protected harbor, but because the cliffs didn't allow for any building on land, the houses are floating on water (currently buoyed by giant blocks of styrofoam, not sure what they used prior to that). Could it be a recently discovered sustainable living environment? Hardly, as my prodding of the guide with questions revealed that they used to dump all their refuse into that very same protected bay they were living with. Perhaps that bay could sustain a couple of houses, but they certainly haven't discovered a new scalable form of living. Currently the village, the larger of three such villages we were told, has about 30 houses and supposedly 170 residents (that's a lot of residents for each small house!). The young generation, one, can't marry within the village because they are all relatives there (at least they figured out that much!), and so are encouraged to look for spouses outside. And now that these floating houses have gotten satellite TV and tourists stop by for visits, the new generation has gotten a taste of life outside, and they like it -- many leave and don't come back. So, while the concept of such village may seem romantic, just like the concept of kibbutsim, it's unlikely to survive as a sustainable societal form for much longer, in my humble opinion.

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Overall, I'm very glad I did this cruise, and got to see the natural beauty of Halong Bay before it becomes totally ruined by tourists (the shorter 1-night cruises, which can't stray too far from the port, have already turned the nearby portion of the bay into a zoo, inundated with ships, so if you get to go, take a 2-night or longer cruise if you can).

Tomorrow, I leave for Dalat.

Posted by kgbgirl11 08:35 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam -- Hanoi Day 3

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No, this is not a leftover pic from Israel. This is me, as I type this -- sitting in a hookah/sheeshah/nargilah cafe in Vietnam, watching live market feeds via Etrade, smoking sheeshah, enjoying myself.

Today was a lazy day, I roamed around Hanoi some more, taking it in. I also caught a Water Puppet Show, which is a traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment, which originated in the rice paddies, using the stagnant water as the stage. The main difference from more common form of puppetry is that it's staged in a 'pond' of water, with the surface of the pond acting as a 3-dimensional stage, an improvement over the 2-dimensional vertical stage. all the controls are submerged in the water and hidden out of sight, and the plots revolve around traditional rice paddy scenes, so the water surface is used very skillfully as part of the plot. All this is accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. Here are a couple of pics:

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Some observations on street life:

Traffic is basically an ongoing negotiation between pedestrians, bicycles, motor bikes and cars. Crossing the street, as a slower of the breeds, is kind of like crossing a running race -- you have to weave through the traffic, moving at a predictable place and direction. Indeed, motorbikes seem to get dumbfounded when a pedestrian stops to let them pass, they assume you keep moving. Pedestrians are respected, and none of the locals look back while walking on the side of the street (not sidewalk), operating under the assumption that bikes will get around them. Those bikes that are passing in close proximity to you honk to warn, and cars honk pretty much continuously, as they are very much a minority (outnumbered by motorbikes about 10:1).

Sidewalks are for anything but walking. Some of the activities that take place, roughly in order of their observed frequency: motorbike parking, vending of all kinds, eating, cooking, grooming (haircuts, pedicures), raising chickens... Here are some of the streetlife snapshots:

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Tomorrow I'm leaving for a 3-day boat-and-kayak trip of the Halong Bay, will post my impressions once I return on October 28.

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Posted by kgbgirl11 08:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam -- Hanoi Day 2

Having woken up a bit late and feeling rather jetlagged (or perhaps oxygen deprived), I downed some food and a couple of cups of strong coffee and set off on a 6-hour walk around town. Being rather good with maps, I confidently made the two turns that were supposed to put me onto the street that I needed to follow for a while, in order to get to the mausoleum area. Within the expected timeframe, I reached and crossed the big road that according to the map, separated the Old Quarter from the designated area. However, when I tried to get my bearings, comparing the street names with those on the map, I couldn't find any of them. Undismayed, I decided to walk another several blocks in the supposed direction of the mausoleum. When it became apparent that the further I went, the deeper into the ghetto I got, I decided to get a sanity check, and walked into what looked like a cafe/tee house, attended by two middle aged women. Unfolding the map in front of them, I asked them 'where?' -- I was hopeful that this much English would be understood. Then I pointed at the mausoleum. The women started talking to one another excitedly, moving their fingers all around the map, and the more zigzags they drew across the map with their fingers, the less confident I became that I will get a coherent answer. After about three if not five minutes of this, one of them confidently pointed to a street that was in the complete opposite direction of where I thought I was, indicating that we are here. She then proceeded to show me the best route to take from there to the mausoleum. I was glad I asked!!! Rather than just offer her money for her help, I asked her for a cup of tea -- this was also a little experiment of the kind I often do when abroad, to see local people's mentality and attitude towards foreigners -- as I didn't ask for a price upfront. The value in question was harmless enough that even if she jacked up the price, whether in recognition that I'm obviously not from around there or pricing in the value of the advice given, it wouldn't have made a bit dent in my budget, but data points like these are not only curious but important in figuring out to what extent one needs to watch their back in a given place. To my surprise, the price quoted, 10,000 Dong ($0.48), was maybe only slightly more than what I would have expected.

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Soon after that, I had my very first encounter with what I believe was a local scam. I stopped for a few moments to look at the map to make sure that I was where I thought I was, and was approached by a young woman. She asked me in a decent English where I was going, and then gave me some helpful info on the subject. Next thing, she began to tell me that she is a student, and she works for this humanitarian non-profit organization, and began to show me some printed materials. She asked me for a donation, and asking me to put in my name and country of origin into this diary-like booklet already filled with a dozen or so entries, along with the amount of the donation. When she saw me write USA in the country column, she said, 'USA, twenty dollars please'. That was the point when I became almost certain that it's a scam, as $20 is big money here, and no real non-profit would demand you give such rigidly specified amount. I gave her a little bit of money, more for the advice and the well-executed act. It made me wonder, though, whether in a society that works hard for very little money, by world standards (think $8/hour massage), something as outrageous as asking a stranger on the street for $20 is so unexpected that naive foreigners think that it just can't be such a blatant scam.

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The mausoleum was closed on Mondays, but that's just as well -- I wasn't going to go out of my way to see a recently mummified dead person, never even been sufficiently curious to see Russia's own in all his gory glory. I walked by the complex, snapped a couple of pictures and moved on to the Temple of Literature. This temple has a huge historic significance as an ancient university, however other than the nicely kept grounds, there is little educational value one can derive from the exhibits.

My next stop was lunch at KOTO restaurant, which is really a non-profit project for street kids and underprivileged youth run by an Australian. The 24-month program provides these kids with hospitality industry vocational skills, English skills and life skills, and the restaurant is the training ground where they hone skills learned in the classroom. I have to say, not only was the food great (best spring rolls I've ever had!) but the service was impeccable, very warm and attentive (I witnessed the waitress kindly wiping the face of a little girl at a table next to mine after she finished feasting on the ice cream). I think this is an amazing example of changing the world through empowerment of those less fortunate, rather than enserfing and corrupting them with handouts. On the subject of handouts -- I noticed that beggars are nearly non-existent here, instead everyone is trying to earn a living. I've been approached all the time by goods peddlers, people offering rides, etc, but only once was I timidly approached by a disabled beggar. That earns the people a lot of respect, in my book.

Next I walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, where the most notable pieces were several statues of extremely emaciated Buddha. Having always thought of Buddha as someone on the chubby side, I was very surprised to see those barely clad statues that resembled concentration camp photos. This goes into my 'to research' list.

I ended the 6-hour walk with a fresh coconut drink (best recovery drink, right?) and a 45-minute foot massage ($6), and got ready for dinner.

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Having gone a bit past the touristy area, I got to a street with several sidewalk restaurants. Don't let the term fool you, these ain't Parisian cafes -- these are makeshift restaurants consisting of nothing but a cart with a portable burner for a stove, and the 'tables' and 'chairs' are little plastic stools of the kind you might find parents buying for their not-yet-tall-enough children to put next to the bathroom sink, as stepping stools. While I was apprehensive about ordering seafood under such circumstances, the best place on the block instilled confidence if not with their very own karaoke singer serenading in Vietnamese, then with its nearly-full 'dining room' (i.e. stretch of the sidewalk) filled entirely with Vietnamese, and the still-moving crabs and langoustines that were to become my dinner. The guy in charge first ignored me, probably assuming that I'm another one of those tourists passing by who ask questions but are too afraid to participate, but when I got service, I was very happy with the choice. It was really cool to enjoy this freshest seafood among the locals, feeling sorry for the tourists passing by who were clearly curious, but too afraid. The bill, an equivalent of $24, was steeper than I would have thought, though still a bargain by US standards for the amount of seafood ingested. Curious whether I was charged the tourist price, I later consulted the concierge at my hotel who proved knowledgable and unbiased before, and independently verified that prices charged were in fact market prices (the concierge lamented that here in Hanoi, seafood is about twice the price of Da Nang, where he comes from). Once I got back to the hotel, I topped off the seafood with rambutans (a lychee-like fruit that I discovered several years back, in Costa Rica) I bought on the street during my walk back ($1.40 per kilo). Looking forward to another day here tomorrow!

Posted by kgbgirl11 08:55 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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