A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam - first impressions

I arrived to Hanoi airport shortly after noon, landing into a persistent smog that left no doubt that air quality ain't gonna be the highlight of this trip segment. The first impression of the airport and the passport control very much reminded me of the former Soviet Union. Guards wearing a-la USSR uniforms, outdated facilities. Here is a shot from that line, I found the combination of a Soviet-era uniform on the guard, in the background to the left, to be an interesting contrast to the traditional garb of the Vietnam Airlines flight attendants, to the right:

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I had pre-arranged an airport pickup for myself, to avoid what purportedly are many scams of the kind where you are taken to a different hotel than the one booked, with the cabbie claiming that this is a 'new and improved' version. Perhaps to silence out the persistent beeping of the seatbelt reminder (which he refused to wear) or the constant honking of the horns which appears to be an ongoing communication language between cars and motorcycles, the driver promptly put on a 'mix tape' (ok, mix CD) with the Scorpions, Bryan Adams and the like that instantly took me back some 20 years -- I used to have a tape just like that, when I was 12 or so.

What was going on outside the car was a whole different matter. It didn't take long to find out that those crazy videos one can find on Youtube, of how people supposedly drive in certain places in Asia which I used to skeptically write off as spliced or doctored with time-lapse effects, are certainly an accurate depiction of Hanoi's traffic scene. What seems like a serene 2-lane road can suddenly evolve into more intertwining lanes than the number of distributaries the Mekong River has. Cars, motorcycles, bikes, all interact in this chaotic dance that is Hanoi traffic. There is no laws, and for the most part, no traffic lights or even stop signs -- you just take your chances, and attempt to navigate around others who were similarly inclined. I haven't made my own traffic video yet, but here is one that summarizes my experience walking several blocks today for my 2-hour massage and mani-pedi:

Youtube video of typical Hanoi Old Quarter traffic

The city is certainly teeming with life. Yet, among all the motorcycles and scooters, in an ever-evolving traffic pattern, you still see plenty of these classic images:

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I'm writing this from the balcony of my hotel in the Old Quarter, having cut the festivities short in order to catch up on sleep. Tomorrow, I begin exploring in earnest. In the meantime, enjoy this night-time image of downtown, paying particular attention to the feat of engineering that is the electric pole, behind the tree:

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Posted by kgbgirl11 07:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Family @ Russia

I spent the past 4 days in Moscow, stopping over for a brief family visit on my way to SE Asia.

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It was great to see my parents and younger siblings, neither of the two deserves the description of my 'little' brother, or my 'little' sister anymore:

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Unlike in the previous couple of visits, I had the pleasure of driving through the entire city (a trip, fully within city limits, took 1hr 40min which, according to the taxi driver, was miraculously fast!) and could observe the changing face of Moscow from the comfort of a Nissan's back seat, in full daylight. Some of the things that stood out, on this ride and throughout the trip:

  • Much has been said about Russia's weather, but the difference is particularly acute when coming from Miami, via Israel, where the temperatures just barely dropped into the teens. In Moscow, I was greeted with a 0-7C weather, which left no doubt that summer was long gone.
  • The standard of living has improved dramatically since I left, and it seems to continue to improve. I noticed that only about 5% of cars on the roads are the fabled Russian brands like Zhiguli (Lada), with the vast majority consisting of Asian, European and some American cars, with a rather significant representation of luxury brands. Improved general standard of living could also be seen in a myriad of casual dining options which have sprung up all around Moscow, with prices not much different from those charged by comparable establishments in NYC. And these places are well attended.
  • Attitudes/mentality, which has bothered me so greatly in years past, appear to have softened. People are a lot more polite and even relaxed (well, at least they don't have the look of a serial killer on their faces anymore).
  • The flipside of this newly found prosperity is drastically increased traffic and horrendous air quality -- NYC has nothing on Moscow when it comes to both of these issues.

Here are a couple of pics from my cross-town cab ride. The first one is showing a classical Soviet-era apartment building in the forefront with shiny new glass skyscrapers in the background. The second one is one of many ad billboards, this one advertising Uncle Sam's Cafe.

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Tomorrow I'm off to Vietnam, starting the Exploring portion of the trip!

Posted by kgbgirl11 11:22 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Tachat Shmei Yam Hatichon

(reference to a famous song 'Under the Mediterranean Skies')

Having spent a week in Israel so far, I've been feeling at quite home and starting to think that 3 weeks is not enough. Maybe I can pull off a few months here after my trip, given my newly flexible lifestyle? That said, certain cultural frustrations have emerged.

Case in point -- my quest for Shalom Chanoch tickets. I admit, I got accustomed to the convenience of life in the US. You want tickets to a show? No problem, you go online and buy them 5 minutes later. Even if there is no more tickets, you can find them through ticket brokers. Having missed the Izhar Ashdot concert a few days ago, I was determined not to let that happen again. We called the venue several days in advance, hoping to order the tickets by phone and pick them up at will-call. We were told to order them online. It took a few creative attempts to circumvent the fact that the website and order form is Hebrew-only and though I can read it fine, I don't have Hebrew fonts on my computer, and everything I filled out in English was showing up backwards due to the fact that Hebrew is written right-to-left. Well, then we find out that all credit card orders must be accompanied by corresponding Taudat Zehut (national ID) number. What do you do if you have a foreign credit card? I was told that the only option to go to the venue and buy tickets there in cash. Next day, when I was in the area, I stopped by to do just that, just to find the venue shut closed, with the metal screen protecting the entrance, for the avoidance of doubt. I call them, and I'm told that the venue doesn't open until 7:30pm. What do I do if I want to ensure we don't again find ourselves in a situation that tickets sell out before? I'm told that the only solution is to drive from the concert venue in Herzlia to the venue's branch in Tel Aviv, just to purchase tickets for a show in Herzlia. By then, I was rather frustrated with the fact the experience and certainly wasn't about to do that. Instead, I arranged my plans to be there as soon as the ticket window opened yesterday, the day of the concert. Well, turns out 7:30pm is in Mediterranean Adjusted Time, which apparently runs even more behind than the Miami Latin Time that I have been adjusting to. At 8pm, the ticket window finally opened, and after a mad dash home to change out of my yoga attire into something more suitable, my cousin Stav and I made it to the concert. And we have a picture to prove it.

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Yoga in Hebrew is a separate story. Determined not to completely lose my fitness during the 3 months away, I joined a yoga&pilates studio nearby. Being a reasonably experienced yogi, I'm well familiar not only with English names of asanas, but also their Sanskrit names, and generally have a good enough sense of vinyasa to understand where they are going with it even if I may not understand the specific technical Hebrew terms used. Still, I found it hard to get in the spirit of it in Hebrew, perhaps because technical terms like 'pupik' (slang word for belly button) and 'tusik' (slang word for butt) played a prominent role in the guidance from the instructor... somehow pupik and tusik don't seem to go with 'ohm shanti shanti ohm'.

Posted by kgbgirl11 03:22 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Family @ Israel

I arrived yesterday in the wee hours of the morning; though I was dead tired, I melted in a smile walking through the kotel-esque area of TLV airport where the arriving passengers, walking on a sloping path, face the departing passengers, walking in the opposite direction. The new terminal is gaining some nostalgic associations for me, though I must say, I still have wistful memories of the old terminal with its busses, where I got to smell the distinct scent of Israeli air the moment I stepped out of the plane.

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It's such a good feeling when, even after being away for almost three years, I needed no map or GPS driving my rental car from the airport, perfectly remembering not only the highway, but even which lanes to be in and local turns in Herzliya. Add to that Lev haMedina radio blasting out of the speakers, and the 5am drive was quite a joy ride.

Though I've been to Israel countless times and during all seasons in the past 15 years, this is my first time celebrating Rosh Hashana here. Having stepped out for a few last-minute grocery purchases yesterday afternoon, I could feel the spirit of the holiday permeating the air -- something that we don't get to feel in the diaspora. We had a great family dinner enjoying my aunt's amazing cooking. The New Year is off to a good start!

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Posted by kgbgirl11 03:41 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Family @ Spain

Enjoying quiet family time in Catalunya... the nephew is growing very fast, he is a little man with a big personality by now. He can now pronounce a few words, and 'auntie' (the Russian version) is the new addition to his vocabulary.

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Though he possesses a very healthy appetite (I've never heard of a 17 month old enjoying a meal of lamb and olives!), he enjoys sleeping just as much, and at times these two activities conflict with one another, as this photo shows...

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Posted by kgbgirl11 12:01 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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