A Travellerspoint blog

March 6, 2010

Crossing the street in Vietnam (Level 1: Hanoi)

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We are all really digging Hanoi. I had heard (okay, from people who are from southern Vietnam) that people in northern Vietnam are not very friendly and I was expecting Hanoi to be like Marrakech: stinky, full of pollution, crazy traffic, and people hassling us to buy something left and right. In fact, people are quite polite and friendly and the motor bikes must run on gasoline because it does not smell like diesel at all (although lots of people where face masks, some of which are quite stylish).

The sales pitches here are nothing like Morocco. As we walk through the streets, occasionally someone will ask us if we need a ride (on cyclo taxis or motorbikes) or try to sell us something, but they always give up the first time we say no (or shake our heads; we don't actually know how to say "no" yet, only "thank you"). Nobody is shouting "I make you democratic price" or trying to put things into our hands. Such a relief! In general when we do buy something, the seller holds up the appropriate bill to indicate the price or shows it to us on a small calculator (we haven't done any haggling yet; we've only purchased food and even the tourist price we are no doubt getting is SO cheap).

Traffic is definitely a challenge. There are few cars, but the streets are absolutely packed with motorbikes and bicycles. There are no breaks in traffic and stoplights are extremely rare and seem to be more of a stop suggestion that everyone ignores (we have actually seen a handful of people pulled over by police; I cannot even imagine what they must have done to get pulled over). There are also no lanes so traffic comes at you from every direction. Also people park on the sidewalks so there is simply no way to avoid the traffic. So if you are going to cross a street, you have to just walk out into the middle of traffic and move steadily across the street while everyone swerves around you. If you show any hesitation at all, people will cut you off and you find yourself stranded in the middle of the road. My strategy is to start into the street when I see a car or truck coming because they generally go slower than the motorbikes and theoretically (in my theory anyway) have more opportunity to see and go around me. Alternately, if I see a Vietnamese person starting to cross, I just squeeze myself right up next to them because I figure they know what they are doing.

The motorbikes in Hanoi are a spectacle all by themselves. I could happily sit at a fruit smoothie place for hours watching them and the bewildering array of things people load onto them, including very small children and startlingly large, awkwardly shaped things like ladders and plasma televisions. Seriously, Dan saw the very model of 50" flat screen TV that we own strapped onto a motorbike. There is also no limit to the places people will drive motorbikes. All the shops have little ramps leading into them so motorbikes can drive right in. I have seen them in quite fancy hotel lobbies, the inside of a temple that we accidentally entered, and even a train. Most fascinating to me, though, is the footwear that Vietnamese women wear while driving motorbikes I would say that 50% of the women under 40 (I can detect only two age categories for Asian women: under 40 and over 40) are wearing really high heels, like 3+ inches. Don't they snap those heels off when they have to stop suddenly and balance the bike?

Of course, it's god that we are getting to practice these street crossing skills here in Hanoi first before we go to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where by all accounts, the traffic will be far more frightening. To see for yourself, go to Youtube and look up "crossing street in Saigon" to see dozens of people's videos.

Today we supplemented our culinary tour of Hanoi (which included peach juice - where has that been all my life - fried tofu with rice noodles dipped into orange ginger sauce, some whole shrimp fritter things, grilled pork springrolls, and Vietnamese baguettes) with some historical and cultural sightseeing. We went to Hoa Lo prison, built by the French in 1899 and better known to American as "the Hanoi Hilton" where captured American pilots were held during the Vietnam War (known here as "the American War"). The interpretive narrative of the prison is fascinating. Clearly the Vietnamese trace the origins of their Communism to the people who were imprisoned here as political prisoners during the French occupation of Indochina. The displays dedicated to the Vietnam War era take quite a different perspective, as you might imagine. There was a tour of American ex-Marines just behind us as we toured the prison and I cannot imagine what they were thinking. It's just incredible to me that the could even come back here.

Afterward we wandered around Hanoi until we found the water puppet theater. The show was surprisingly understandable and really a spectacle. These are puppets operated in a pool of murky water by people behind a bamboo screen. The puppets reenact scenes from rural life accompanied by a live band. The puppets were amazing and it wasn't hard to figure out the story. I don't believe there was a single Vietnamese person there who did not actually work for the theater though.

At night we went by train to Lao Cai, 350 km to the northwest. The Hanoi Elegance hotel hooked us up with someone else's taxi (and thus free to us) to the train station and got a guy to accompany us to be sure we got onto the correct train (thank goodness; it was a very large train station and rather confusing, although I imagine we would have gotten there just be following the trail of Australian accents). So we drifted to sleep in our little bunks to the rocking of the train and the flashing of lights as train personnel checked the under side of the train for stowaways.

Posted by redtogo 06:10 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Photo update

Things we have seen... Stories to follow

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Posted by redtogo 05:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

March 5, 2010

We throw ourselves head-first into Hanoi street food

80 °F
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After showering and packing our valuables into the hotel safe, we headed out into the streets of Hanoi to explore. And by explore, I mainly mean eat. Dan had consulted this incredible website on Hanoi street food www.savourasia.com and had already strategized how to get to the most delicious cooked-right-in-front-of-you delicacies. Here's the way street dining works (or at least how we do it): you find a place where lots of locals eating something that you want to try, then you point to it and indicate how many repetitions you want of it (in our case, four) and pull up some little plastic stools, then they plop the food in front of you and you eat it.
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Then you get up and go somewhere else: lather, rinse, repeat. Here are some of the things we have had so far: chicken pho (tomorrow's "meat" was pecking around the ground around us as we ate), pork spring rolls (OMG so good), some little dreidle-shaped dough thingies, some fruit smoothies (fruit chunks in a glass with coconut milk poured over it and ice scooped on top), beer (warm and watery, but good), steamed snails with a ginger dipping sauce, and some fried dough thingies with some kind of sweet goo inside (Dan notes that there are in fact names for these things, but I'll let him add that). And the total cost for all of this (spent in various places): $16 for all four of us.
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By far my favorite thing was the pork spring rolls, but the most bloggable experience was the snails. So for 40,000 dong (about $2) we got two huge bowls mounded full of snails covered in lemon grass. One bowl had the kind you usually get in the US as escargot and the other were some periwinkle type guys. We also each got a small bowl of some kind of ginger sauce with more lemongrass and maybe garlic floating in them. We were also each given what can only be described as a shiv to pry the snails out of their shells and dip them into the ginger sauce. Seriously, they were long sharpened shards of aluminum. We could get detained at the airport if we accidentally stuck these things in our pockets.

When we were totally stuffed with Vietnamese deliciousness and had stayed up to a respectable hour (8:00), we stumbled back to our hotel and dropped happily into our super comfy Hanoi Elegance beds.

Posted by redtogo 19:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food Comments (0)

March 3 - 5, 2010

It takes a long time to get to Vietnam

sunny 80 °F
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We left the house on a Super Shuttle and in high spirits at 3:40 pm on the first leg of a multi-vehicle, multi-airplane, multi-day (I still worry about what happened to Thursday and its dose of malaria medication) journey that would, eventually, deliver us to Hanoi, Vietnam. Dan had a nagging fear that we would get to the airport and find that our tickets were actually for Dallas. In fact, when we were finally plucked from the "kennels, firearms, and paper tickets" line (we had the latter), we were told that our flight to SFO was delayed 3.5 hours and that there were no other flights that would get us to San Francisco in time for our midnight flight to Taipei. Much internal panic ensued as we called our travel agent, who informed us that she had rebooked us for a flight that left over an hour earlier than the one we thought we were on (and for which we held those paper tickets). We were too freaked out at the time to mention it, but let me say now: Dear Azumano Travel, that would have been super information to have BEFORE that flight boarded. By the time we were told, it was too late to get on the flight. But once several United Airlines employees had finished discussing their lunch plans, they realized that there was in fact a United flight that would get us to SFO at 10:54 pm.

We arrived at SFO at 10:36 and made a mad sit-com like dash through the airport to try to get to the China Airlines ticketing counter in the separate international terminal. Dan arrived well before me (I was carrying two bags and my shoes were falling off, plus I took a wrong turn and had to double back) and to his enormous credit, did not respond to the ticketing agent's "where is your friend?" with "leave her, I'll get another one in Vietnam!"

So we and Chop and Nat (who were also delayed) miraculously (and in my case, sweatily) made it onto our flight to Taipei. The flight was uneventful and featured the usual international flight routine: lots of people, a couple of movies, some bland (but hot) food, and short bouts of sleep, but it was LONG: 14.5 hours just to get to Taipei. In Taipei we found that our travel agent had been wrong about having to get our bags through customs (they were checked all the way to Hanoi), so again, not much to report. The flight to Hanoi was on a much newer and nicer plane (the kind with individual video screens and your choice of movies so we didn't have to watch the sappy dog movie again), but another 3 hours. So all total that's over 20 hours of in-flight time from Denver to Hanoi. But I'm still on my first book.

The Hanoi airport experience was nothing like I expected. That is to say, what we experienced in Morocco. We breezed through security and our bags arrived despite all odds. I am loving my Osprey Porter bag. I just opened it up, chucked my carry-on bags into it, cinched it back up, pulled out the shoulder and hip straps and I was good to go. The driver from the Hanoi Elegance hotel was waiting for us with a printed sign and we checked confirmation codes. Easy. Only one person approached us to ask if we needed a ride to a hotel and we told him we already had a hotel and a ride and we just walked away. Everything we had read about the Hanoi airport said we would be hassled and essentially hijacked (that's why the Hanoi Elegance gave us a confirmation code to check with the driver) and that people would lie to us saying our hotel was full then shanghaiing us to some other hotel. None of that happened. The Hanoi Elegance 3 is a beautiful hotel in the middle of the old quarter and we are so happy with it. We were greated with some pineapple smoothies. Our train tickets to Sapa were waiting as advertised. And our room is super clean and nice (with computer, thus the immediate blog entry). The shower (with hot water and super water pressure) felt like heaven.

Posted by redtogo 19:02 Archived in Vietnam Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Preparing to go

Wherein we discover the "Dreamie" and plan the assassination of the Postmaster General

We have been leading up to this moment for a while now. We have had every guidebook on Vietnam that our library system checked out for a couple of months now. And honestly, how did people make travel plans before the internet?

Below you can see a map of our itinerary. There is a good bit of hopping around and we sort of skipped over the creamy middle of Vietnam, but we are getting to see some of the biggest highlights and we are rolling in a trip to Angkor Wot to boot.

After what seemed like an eternity, we got our visas from the Vietnamese and Cambodian Embassies.
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It is kind of a terrifying thing to mail your passports away. You aren't really sure you will ever see them again and the thought of your passport out in the world on its own, maybe having an exciting solo adventure is little comfort.

We discovered that Overnight Express Mail from the US Post Office can actually take up to 4 days to get to the destination. However, we won't linger on those thoughts. Let it simply be said, that if you want to mail something and be sure that it gets there on time, don't try to save a couple of bucks using the postal service. Just go to FedEx and save yourself the grey hairs.

Now we are on to the supplying and packing phase. The dearly beloved REI adventure pants are already in the new luggage. Dan got a new camera and won't shut up about all the bells and whistles. Oooo facial recognition.... Today we start our Typhoid vaccination regime and then we move on to the anti-malarial pills. We recently discovered that some anti-malarial medications can cause strange dreams and in some cases severe memory loss in 25% of the people who take them. How disappointing would it be to lose all your memories from your vacation? You may as well not have gone. Rest assured, we got the other kind of pills. We also got the horsepill antibiotic for traveler's diarrhea. Oddly enough, one of side effects of this antibiotic is diarrhea. Convenient!

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We have packed our precious dominoes and are carefully choosing our reading material for the 26 hour flight. Don't even get Nicole started on the knitting project decisions that remain to be made.

Posted by redtogo 08:55 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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