A Travellerspoint blog

11 March 2010

Adventures with the crazy Oreo lady

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This morning we awoke in a quiet, waveless lagoon where we had anchored for the night in the boat we had chartered to take us on a tour of Bai Tu Long, Cat Ba Island, and Ha Long Bay. We had chartered a smaller boat (through Catbaventures) for these two days (just two cabins), which means that we can get into a lot of places that the large tour boats cannot. So it seems like we have the place to ourselves. Except for when we went into Ha Long Bay, we only saw five other boats (two of which were part of the same company; apparently our boat was sharing cooking duties with them). Yesterday we picked up some kayaks at a local (floating) fishing village and our guide, Mr. Kai, led us through limestone tunnels and into secluded lagoons that seemed like something out of a movie. These bays are made up of huge limestone karsts, kind of like the Oregon coast, but rock after rock after rock from here to China (literally).

The weather has been quite foggy and so as we entered the bay from Cat Ba Island it looked to me kind of like the Smokey Mountains: this haze of dark peaks appearing one after another off into the distance. I now completely understand that scene out of the movie "Indochine" in which people become lost and adrift in Ha Long Bay (it's a great movie that you should check out, even if you're not thinking about visiting Vietnam). I cannot imagine how anyone navigated this area before GPS (which I'm just assuming our guides are using; they seem to have no shortage of cellular service).

Mixed in among these little islands are dozens of floating villages. Lliterally large collections of houses floating on a huge rafts supported by plastic barrels in the water. Each how runs its own little fish farm. Between the support barrels are nets that make up fish "tanks" in the water. Each "tank" contains a different kind of fish.

We stop at these periodically to buy our meals (well, the crew buys them; we walk around and look at the fish until we're told to get back on board). The most fascinating part of these fish farms is that they all have dogs. Apparently the dogs let the people know when a boat approaches (at least, they bark a lot, so let's just say that they are serving some purpose). We keep speculating on where the dogs go to the bathroom. Do they poop into baskets that the people dump overboard? None of us can bring ourselves to ask though. I can't quite gauge the Vietnamese relationship with dogs: on the one hand, some people keep them as pets, but on the other, lots of people seem to eat them.

The cold weather means that none of us feel like swimming, but it's definitely warm enough for kayaking. In fact, it seems warmer down nearer the water. We were able to get some great photos and video of passing through this limestone tunnel. The best part of the kayaking is that there are almost no tourists here, yet there are fishing boats and sampans all over, just Vietnamese people going about their regular lives in the bay. We were all particularly taken by this sampan that pulled up to our boat which was filled with cookies, crackers, Pringles, sodas, and cigarettes. Basically it was a floating 7-11 (no Slurpies I don't think). We saw this woman on our first day and then she never bothered us again, but at one point our crew decided to pull up to a floating fish farm to buy some cigarettes from her and we got to watch her get into what we assume was some kind of argument with the men at the fish farm. Although, an argument suggests interaction from both sides. This appeared to be mostly her screaming at the men while they sort of rolled their eyes and chuckled. At the end of the exchange she tied onto the back of our boat and followed us for a distance, but when we looked back about a 1/2 hour later she had disappeared, taking her Oreos with her.

Although the scenery and kayaking have been unbelieveble (the scenery really does defy explanation, and, I'm afraid, photos), the best part of the trip to me has been the food. It is all super fresh seafood that the crew cooks for us: fish, squid, shrimp, and clams cooked in various ways, from springrolls to fried fish, steamed clams, and my favorite, squid cooked in ginger and lemongrass. I think that the guy who serves us the food may think that the English word for "food" is "ahhhh" because each time he brings a new dish out he says that or "wow!" or "oooh!" I assume because he hears it from tourists every day. We were no exception.

Posted by redtogo 07:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boating Comments (0)

10 March 2010

We respond to Mr. Tung

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This morning we were to leave bright and early (6:15) to begin our journey to Cat Ba Island, where we would be taking a cruise around several bays and doing some sea kayaking. We had already received a call the night before from our Cat Ba contact, Mr. Tung, telling us that the hydrofoil from Haiphong to the island was broken and so we would be picked up at 7:15 instead. At this point I will confess that I hve no idea what a hydrofoil is, being a midwesterner and having (as the Inuit supposedly have 100 words for snow) one word for boat. That word is "boat."

Our driver probably took us to Haiphong, although it's hard to say as he did not deliver us to any populated area but to an industrial port type area where he took us to a boat (possibly a hydrofoil?) and then left us (he probably gave us some instructions but I didn't hear any). Soon a second boat pulled up to the one we had been left on and other tourists appeared. It became obvious that this was the boat that was going somewhere, not the one we were on. So we boarded and hoped our dirver or Mr. Tung had paid for us to be there. When the boat arrived at Cat Ba (as we later realized; there were no signs to indicate this when we landed), we were waved toward a waiting minibus by a man who indicated he was waiting for four people (apprarently the French people who had shared the boat wih us were more or fewer than four). Now we were all raised right by our respective parents and After School Specials so we knew you are not supposed to get into a car with a stranger (we must have missed the Special on not going to countries where you don't speak the language) so we did not get into the bus. That is, until the stranger said the magic word: "Mr. Tung." At that, we all nodded and said, "oh, Mr. Tung!" and climbed aboard. For all we knew, we'd just said" Mr. Tung says we're supposed to kidnap you and take your organs."

All ended well, though, with us being safely delivered to Mr. Tung and our boat (still not a hydrofoil, but Catbaventures Eco Junk). We spent the afternoon and evening touring the huge limestone karsts (tall, narrow, limestone islands) of Bai Tu Long.
It was quite cold and cloudy, something that was becoming a theme to the northern part of our vacation (how we would long for these days once we were in Cambodia), but we kayaked anyway and the food was, even for a trip that is marked by delicious food, incredible.

Posted by redtogo 07:57 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boating Comments (0)


Dead guys, plane crashes and cobras, oh my!

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Against all odds, we made it not only to Hanoi, but also the Hanoi Elelgance 2 Hotel on our own and without being totally hosed by a cab driver (no "Good Morning Coffee!" on our train trip to Hanoi, just Mariah Carey and you hope it's your stop). After breakfast we went to see Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. There was enforced solemnity by all the military guards present. It was a strange experience. Ho Chi Minh looked a little waxy in his glass box, but otherwise well preserved. We then trekked all over Hanoi trying to finda crashed B-52 in a small lake. A compass definitedly would have been handy in this situation. We went through many a tiny alleyway and were nearly run over by any number of motorbikes on the way. Afterwards, we went on a tour of Van Phuc, the silk village northwest of Hanoi. The shopkeepers then were thankfully all female and Dan got us his charisma discount on scarves and pajamas (now as a result of the combined silkniness of our jammies and our Dreamies, cuddleing at night is akin to snuggling a greased pig).

Our silky treasures in hand, we dropped Chop off at the hotel (she wanted nothing to do with this next adventure in the best of health and a war between the forces of Good and Evil had broken out in her gut overnight) and headed to the snake village, Le Mat, for our cobra feast. We did some brief negotiating over the price (somehow I helt that the preparation of a poisonous viper dinner was not where I wanted to cut corners). Our waiter grabbed a pole with a hookon the end and started rooting around in a cage full of snakes. He plucked a juicy looking specimen out and was reaching for it with a knife when we asked again wheather this snake was a cobra. It seemed to be taking its demise with a certain zen-like passivity that looked wrong. It turns out that it was not a cobra. We were that close to eating a run of the mill garter snake or something instead of our promised cobra. What kind of crappy power that have given us? Some more quick haggling adn the guy reached his snake hook into a second cage and pulled out our cobra. This one definitely had the tell-tale cobra hood (the guy played with it to piss it off a little so we could see it was definitely the right species-good for pictures!). Once we were satisfied, another guy came along with a knife and holding the snake over a basin, pfffttt, he slit it open.


The blood, bile and heart were collected and we were escorted to the dining room on the seconf floor for some tasty drinks. First the blood was mixed wiht vodka, then the same was done with the bile, all as we watched the snake's heart continue to beat in a little dish (Dan has excellent video of this). Then the waiter plunked the heart into one of the shot glasses of blood/vodka mix and it was handed to Dan. True to his word, Dan passed the glass to me (a gruesome act of cannibal awesomness which is also captured in the video below).

Our guide, Nam, gave some kind of Vietnamese toast and we shot down the blood. I figured this was one of those situations where any hesitation at all would lead to gagging, followed by vomitting, followed by a lifetime of embarrassement, so I just swallowed it all down, blood, cheap vodka and heart in one gulp. It really didn't taste bad, the worst part was the harsh burn of cheap vodka.
The bile, which was next, was far worse. It stasted exactly like the flavor you are left with after throwing up. After that there was a parade of snake dishes, including fried snake skins (which tasted exactly like pork rinds), snake ground with some kind of buckwheat (delicious), grilled snake, fired snake, snake soup, etc... There was no cobra dessert and we didn't get to eat the head, but it was an increadible experience nonetheless. I am still awaiting my new cobra powers...

Posted by redtogo 07:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sa Pa, part 2

In which Dan acquires a wife and daughter, as well as some handicrafts

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This morning, Nat located Sa Pa's street food: a bunch of stalls under the concrete stairs in the middle of town. We enjoyed some fantastic Pho for breakfast.
Here you order by pointing to a row of ingredients in the center of the counter which included bamboo shoots, beef, pork, some sort of melange of liver, gizzards and intestines, a whole chicken and tofu. We also had the most increadible coffee. It was so rich it tasted like Kahlua with no cream added whatsoever. Dan thinks it tastes like espresso and dark chocolate swirled together.

We toured La Chai (Black Hmong) and a Red Dao village with our Hmong guide, Chi. Again it was increadilbly foggy, but once we descended into the valley, it cleared up (you can see photos of Sa Pa in the photo post a few days ago). This kind of "trekking" was an adjustement for us. I had thought that being with a Hmong guide, we would be protected from the sales pitches, but actually no. IMG_016crop8.jpg

When our vehicle pulled up, we were literally swarmed by women asking "where are you from? how old are you? what's your name?". We had quite the entourage as we toured the village. I actually found the sales pitches to be quite pleasant as I bought a few items from Chi's mother and the entourage. At least I knew hese items were actually made by the people (some embroidered or worked hemp while they walked with us). And the haggling was friendly and humorous (unlike in Morocco). We walked away with some very inexpensive Hmong earrings, a wall hanging and a wallet that I will use for my knitting notions.

The villages themselves were very much as you would expect for a rural Vietnam (what we were here to see of course). Tiers and tiers of rice paddies (unplanted now as it is still winter), pigs and water buffalo all around (we had to yield to these on the trail more than once) and wooden huts, although they all seem to have electricity. Chi's family home was an open design dirt floor, a partition for the sleeping area, a loft to store rice and farm implements and (seemingly out of place) a television and DVD player.

After our tour, we returned to the same stall in Sa Pa for lunch (having had a bland restaurant meal yesterday which was by far the most expensive purchase of the trip so far). We also set out to do some shopping (both for souveniers and for photos). And this is when I realized that Dan has been hiding a spectacular talent for haggling lo these 10 years we have been together. I think it is the particular Vietnamese style of, let's call it "friendly haggling" (as oppesed to the Moroccan American style of pointing out flaws, etc...) or maybe he just got into the spirit of the game. Or perhaps it was Dan's apparently universal charm with women of all ages and ethnicities. In any case, one moment I was pointing out a particularly appealing bit of embroidery and asking him whether he thought it would look nice in the dining room and the next he was surrounded by an ever-growing circle of Red Dao and Hmong ladies giggling and elbowing him as they and Dan teased each other into some transactions.
I wish I had thought to video tape it, but I did get a lot of photos. I'm not sure how it happened, but at one point Dan seems to have agreed to marry one elderly woman and possibly adopt another as part of the price of a tassled hat (or maybe the wife came with the hat for 20,000 dong?). After that, he was drug to the "store" (a blanket covered with handicrafts) of each of his new extended family members. Even so, we got out of there amazingly cheap with Dan's "charisma discount"; however, I do believe we are the owners of one tassled hat more than we really need.

Chop and I were also very taken by a sassy little Hmong girl named Hu from whom we both ended up buying a wall hanging. The girl kept cracking us up with comments like "60 thousand? If you find someone here who will sell this to you for 60 thousand, I'll give you everything here for free!" We had a great time haggling with her and she ended up giving us each a bracelet as we left.

Posted by redtogo 07:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sa Pa

Wherein we get tipsy in a cloud

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We awoke to the call of "GOOD MORNING COFFEE!" as the train approached Lao Cai and a woman went door to door selling instant coffee (which turned out to be very good). This followed by blaring music is the way the Vietnamese train system prevents western tourists from accidentally sleeping their way into China. We got a (harrowing) shuttle ride into Sa Pa, but the van could not make it all the wy down the street. So we had to walk tot last few blocks. This, as it turns out, was our introduction to the main attraction in Sa Pa: dozens of Black Hmong women wandering the town selling handicrafts. OUr rooms were not ready (not surprising, as it was only 8am), so we hit town for breakfast and some shopping/sightseeing.

The weather was blessedly cool after the heat of Hanoi, but it was also increadibly foggy. Apparently our rooms had a spectacular view of Mount Fanxipan, but we never saw it. It will be interesting to check the internet for pictures that other people have posted to see what we missed. In the evening, we sat on our balconies and drank wine (compliments of the Sa Pa Eden to make up for the rooms being "delayed")while we actually watched clouds move through out hotel rooms.

Posted by redtogo 07:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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