Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One final post on Southeast Asia

Final cost report: Roughly $2559.26 or ¥16711.95

I say roughly because I used a mix of currencies, so I'm using the average exchange rate between USD and RMB for the month of April.

This figure covers every expense that I incurred from stepping into Pudong International Airport in Shanghai to stepping out of it, i.e. airfare, visa fees, foreign transaction fees, SIM cards, etc. The only exception is my visit to the international clinic in Saigon (which cost $96.14), since that will be reimbursed through my health insurance (Thanks, Obama!) and also because it is not a routine expense (though it is something you should budget for).

This figure does not include materials I bought in preparation for my trip. The expenses for those are as follows:

Digital guidebook: $14.84
General travel supplies (inflatable pillow, earplugs, eye mask, etc.): ¥30.36
Adding visa pages to my passport: $82
Backpack: ¥150 (I think)
External hard drive (for photos): ¥60 (I think)
Extra camera battery: ¥40 (I think)

I can't remember the exact prices for the last three items, but they are something very close to those figures. The average exchange rate in March (when I bought these items) was 1:6.56, so the total for this would come out to $139.58 or ¥833.12. I believe that many of you who may be embarking on a similar trip may not necessarily need to add visa pages though, which is the bulk of these expenses.

I am fully recovered from whatever parasite I had (which the doctors could not recognize but the internet leads me to believe is a fairly common parasite among travellers in the region), and it already feels like a distant memory, even though it only ended a month ago. I think the literal physical distance has a lot to do with that, although it's not the entire reason. I have been back and forth between Shanghai and Nanjing visiting relatives and friends, and it looks like I will be pretty transient between those two cities for the rest of my time in China. It is the rainy season here, which means it rains every single day, yet seemingly without any sort of cooling effect.

In contrast, China's greatest freshwater lakes are now dry. This is what happens when you cut down all the trees and then build a huge dam where it makes no sense to do so: Erosion and desertification run rampant, and the nation loses any natural resources it might have had once upon a time. The air is more dust and pollution than it is air, i.e. the air is actually visible. No one should be surprised. This has been a long time coming. The whole of China, whether it is the majority of people, companies, or government agencies, are more concerned about day-to-day survival and profits than meaningful and/or sustainable long-term development. And this is the price of short-sighted thinking. Ok, off the soapbox now.

I had an amazing trip. My favorites were Thailand and Vietnam for things to do and see, and Malaysia for food and relaxation. You already know how I feel about Laos. Feel free to add me on CouchSurfing. (Mention the blog or I'll think you're weird.) The end.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


So I forgot about the Great Firewall, and then I got back to Shanghai and realized I couldn't access blogger. Or facebook. Stupid lack of freedom.

I've just now gotten a proxy to work, but the connection is very tenuous, and if I try to add pictures, it will stop working, so that's a no go.

Luckily (?), I don't have much to report for my last three days in Bangkok.

On the 19th, all I did was go shopping for some last-minute souvenirs (rather unsuccessfully, as I only got one thing). I took a little boat from the canal behind Sergio's place to get into the city center, which is a good way to avoid traffic, although it kind of smells during the day (19 baht).

The stop where I got off happened to be in the middle of a Red Shirt rally, which I didn't notice until 2 minutes later, at which point I thought, "There sure are a lot of people wearing red today." As a result, a bunch of the stores were closed, but not MBK.

I also saw the evening shift security people all gather for their pre-shift morale boost. This is some sort of ridiculous work custom that I've only seen in Asia where employees have to line up in a grid and do stupid physical exercises together and shout things about providing better service and whatnot. I highly doubt this has any effect on morale whatosever.

On the last day, I realized that I still had not gotten a Thai massage, so I planned to go in the morning, so then I'd still have time to gather my things and head to the airport in the afternoon. The thing is, I'm a procrastinator. So I actually went around twelve or something, which was cutting it really close.

I went to a nearby massage place and asked for a 1-hour Thai massage. They then give you these sort of pajamas to change into and wash your feet. Then the massage commences. It's sort of less of a massage and more of a physical therapy session that focuses on really stretching you out as much as possible.

So the lady did this for what was much longer than an hour, and they tried to charge me for a two-hour massage. I looked at them and was like, "I asked for a one-hour massage and now I'm late for the airport." (True.) So then they were like, "Oh, sorry sorry, ok one hour." So I paid them for one hour and rushed out.

I stuffed my crap in my bag as quickly as possible, and got a taxi to the airport link station and was able to make it on time, although without much to spare. I was fed on the plane, which, as far as I can tell, is still to be expected on airlines across the world, even for very short flights - just not America.

I went to the hospital for a check-up a few days after I got back (as I had another fever and the hospital is where you go to get check-ups in China), and it turns out I have some sort of colony of single-cell parasite things in my intestines. (Not like a worm. That is gross. Micro-organisms I can handle.) This is most likely from drinking water, as I can't recall eating anything raw. I also didn't drink tap water, but sometimes when you buy bottled water, you can tell by the taste that it's really just tap water packaged as bottled water. At least none of the water I drank turned green overnight. (This happened to the British siblings in either Laos or Viet Nam.) Anyway, you just have to take some medicine that makes you feel kind of nauseated and then they're gone. No biggie.

You do feel exhausted after nine weeks of travelling though. For sure.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Laos was not a good time.

After finishing the previous blog entry, I went to meet up with the Thai girls to get ready for our 6:00 PM bus to Vientiane. I had noticed that the latest bus on all of the schedules posted at all of the guesthouses was 1:30, which I thought was strange, but I supposed there was some sort of non-tourist bus or something.

We got to the place where the girls had asked about the bus information, which was called Riverside Tours. The woman working there told us that the tuk-tuk would arrive at around 6:00. Buses often run late, especially if this one was coming from Luang Prabang, so I didn't think anything of it. We got dinner across the street, and then headed back to wait for the tuk-tuk.

The driver charged us 10,000 kip/person to take us to the bus station, only instead of taking us to the bus station, he took us to a point just beyond the old airstrip, which is perhaps a three- to five-minute walk from Riverside Tours. And then he just asked for payment without any shame whatsoever, saying that the bus would pass this way, so it doesn't make sense to take us all the way to the bus stop since we'd just have to come back anyway.

That makes no sense, because even if it would be backtracking, it still makes more sense to get your tickets and have your seats assigned at the bus stop than wait for the last, crappiest seats that happen to be available when the bus rolls around randomly to pick you up. I should have spit in a 1,000 kip note and thrown it on the tuk-tuk floor because that is as much payment as he deserved.

The place that we stopped at is a family owned haircut place that also sells snacks and drinks. The owner says that the bus is delayed and will be there around 8:00. It is only 6:15 or so. At this point, I'm thinking, "Ok, this bus does not exist, and they're saying 8:00, because by then it will be dark, and they will try to charge us for another tuk-tuk ride back into town."


Do you know how long two hours is to sit and stew over being lied to? Can you imagine how incredibly pissed off and righteous you get in that amount of time? Believe me, the thoughts in my head could have given the best Bible Belt fire-and-brimstone minister a run for his money.

I had a flashlight with me, so we did not need a tuk-tuk ride back into town, and when the lady at Riverside Tours saw us, she just smiled without any shame whatsoever. And here's the thing - Thais smile no matter what. They smile when they're happy and when they're pissed. I bet they even smile when they're constipated. And these girls were pissed. But all they did was smile and say, "There was no bus!" I am not Thai. I gave this woman a dirty look and told a foreign couple who was asking about tours there that the place was a scam.

I had actually planned to stand outside and yell in the four languages that I speak about the place being staffed by liars for the rest of the night, but there were only ever 4-8 people within 50 meters in any direction of this place at any given time, so that would have been unnecessarily crazy.

Granted, I realize there are far worse scams out there, but in terms of my personal experience, this was the only time I was outright lied to (as opposed to just overcharged), and in a way that could potentially have serious consequences. (What if we had a flight from Vientiane the next morning?) She just had absolutely no regard for the effects of her actions, and for what, 30,000 kip? That's not even $4. It's not even a good scam; she should be ashamed even by scam standards.

The worst part about what she did is that whenever I think of Laos, I will think of her and how pissed I was that she arranged for a tuk-tuk to take us barely out of town to wait two hours for a non-existent bus. Not that I expect her pea brain to understand that the way you treat foreigners is not only a reflection of you, it is a reflection of your people and of your country. And my memory of Laos will forever have a negative tint. Because of her. I hope she's proud of herself. Selling out her country's image for 30,000 kip.

So yeah, Riverside Tours Laos in Vang Vieng is staffed by liars. I hate them. And their stupid fluffy dogs. They lie with their eyes.

So we set off to find a room. I was not aware of this due to my feverish state, but apparently the guesthouse that we had stayed at the night before (something Orchid Guesthouse) was not very nice - the towels were not fresh and the air conditioning barely worked. We went to Popular View Guesthouse, where a 3-bed room was 700 baht, or roughly 186,000 kip. The room was much nicer, the towels were clean, as was the bedding, and the air conditioning worked normally. However, this is not an expense we would have had to pay had we actually been in Vientiane, since we would have stayed with the girls' friend.

We went out to check out the local market on the airstrip, which we had passed on our walk back from our waiting point, and it was very much like the arcade in Cambodia with darts and balloons and a giant inflatable slide for kids. They also had bingo. The darts were much harder though, because you had to decide what you were playing for ahead of time, which would determine how much you had to pay for three darts. Then, regardless of what you're playing for, you have to make it all three times. So if you're playing for a silly keychain, you only pay 2,000 kip, whereas if you're playing for a large stuffed animal, you pay 15,000 kip, but no matter what, you have to hit three balloons with three darts to win.

After that, we had some snacks at a local restaurant and went back to the guesthouse. On the way back, I gave the Riverside Tours lady a cold stare and she had the gall to stare back. Seriously. No shame. Like you're going to pretend that I did something wrong? I don't think so.

The next morning, we took a minivan into Vientiane, which cost 70,000 kip and came to pick us up at the guesthouse, which was nice, especially since we were the first stop. We saw an accident on the way there, in which a big cargo type truck was sideways, after which the driver noticeably stuck more to his lane for the hairpin turns where you can't see oncoming traffic at all.

The minivan dropped us off... somewhere... in the city, and we took a tuk-tuk with a whole bunch of other Thais to some market to go meet the girls' friend. The four of us then had lunch, after which I took a nap at the friend's place while the girls went to visit some gate that is supposed to be like the Arc de Triomphe I suppose, only looks nothing like it.

We then took a tuk-tuk to the Friendship Bridge for 80 baht each (four people total), and went through Lao immigration. There is an "overtime" fee if you arrive after 4:00 PM of 9,000 kip, which I believe applies to weekends as well. Fa (one of the girls) really wanted to go duty-free shopping, but unluckily, the stores were closing just as we arrived (around 5:00 PM). There were two open though, so they were able to stock up on "Johnnie Lao." (It's packaged and sold as "Johnnie Walker" but believe me, something about the packaging is just off, though it's hard to pinpoint what exactly.)

The bus from here to Nong Khai is 4,000 kip and takes maybe 10 minutes.

From the Nong Khai immigration point to the Nong Khai bus station, we took a minivan, but I forget how much it was. Something between 20 and 40 baht.

We got tickets for a bus going to Bangkok for 350 baht each, which is ridiculously cheap, but it was a very simple seated bus that stopped at every bus station imaginable, so we didn't arrive until 8:30 or so this morning.

From there, I took a taxi from the actual taxi stand. It turns out the lanes don't mean anything. They're just separate lines, but not split by destination region or anything like that. Just pick a line and wait there. From my observation, the third one gets the most action, so that might be your best bet.

Now I am back at Sergio's, where I stayed before I went to Chiang Mai, and it's nice to meet up with the same people again. Even the receptionist recognized me and practically threw me his key. The taxi driver circled around this place three or four times because he could not figure out how to get on the right side of the road to make the turn, but he made it eventually. This place is pretty far east of the city center, and very far from Mo Chit, and the fare (even with the circling) was 150 baht. If I had taken a taxi to the metro and then a bus from there, it would have been cheaper, but not worth the hassle after an overnight bus ride where I didn't get much sleep. Plus I have a lot of baht left over that I can afford to spend.

I have a follower from Iceland! How cool is that?

Monday, May 16, 2011

I'm not dying. Don't call the embassy.

So yesterday, I woke up around 6:30 to meet the Thai girls in the lobby at 7:00. We got a tuk-tuk for 10,000 kip/person to take us to the bus station, where the cheapest bus to Vang Vieng was 130,000 kip. It’s the same price if you take it all the way to Vientiane, but really only tourists go to Vang Vieng, so you can just think of it as a tourist tax.

The announcer guy at the bus station was really funny, although unintentionally so (I think). He was super dramatic. It was like listening to Gob. "Please. Get On The Bus Now. Because. The Bus Will Leave. In Fifteen Minutes."

The bus ride was fine at first, what with yielding to elephants and seeing people either living out of an old train car or using it as a furnace for something, but after several hours, the extremely winding and bumpy road makes you very aware that your brain is smashing against the walls of your skull. Repeatedly. I should’ve worn my helmet. The seats were surprisingly comfortable though and didn't make my ass hurt after an hour.

We stopped for lunch, which is included in the price of the ticket, and I got some noodle soup with beef while the girls had stir-fried stuff with rice, and we all got some ice cream after (5,000 kip for a small cup).

Ice cream is a good example of the point I was making earlier. At first I asked how much this really good cone ice cream was, with like peanuts and frozen fudge and everything, and they told me 15,000 kip. This exact same ice cream cost 15,000 dong and that was in Hoi An, where everything is priced for tourists. Same number, but very different value.

Then it was back to the bus for the rest of the trip, which thankfully, was almost over. We arrived at a new bus stop in Vang Vieng, so it is not walking distance from the main street. The tuk-tuk into town was 10,000 kip/person as well, and they put everyone’s luggage on the roof.

The girls asked for the price of a room at the guesthouse where we stopped, and it was 125,000 kip for all of us for a room with a balcony and air conditioning, which is not bad at all. It pays to have them ask in Thai, otherwise I’m sure the price would have been much more expensive. In general, it seems like they have no trouble with communication whatsoever. I don't know if this is because everyone here speaks Thai because of tourism or because they're linguistically very close.

We slept for a few hours, throughout which my brain was pounding from its intimate ordeal with my skull, and by the time the girls were ready to go out for dinner, I was running a pretty bad fever, was really dizzy, and kept wanting to throw up (which later I did). So that was not fun.

I hate being sick. Plus, when I’m sick, I always think everything is worse than it really is, so part of me is like, “CALL THE EMBASSY I NEED TO BE AIRLIFTED TO THE STATES FOR EMERGENCY MEDICAL ATTENTION.” And the other part of me is like, “… Well… ok, yeah, let’s do that.” In the end though, being sick and pukey and dizzy means you’re not going to look up the number for the embassy and then call them. It means you are going to stay in bed and mumble incoherent things.

During my fever, I had a dream that I got a contract to write a book about navy warships in connection with Yale Associated Press (does such an organization even exist?) but I thought I was supposed to write about these cartoon guys that LIVED on a navy warship, so I kept going, “Can’t I just write about the Weebles?” Sometimes you just want to write about the Weebles.

So I stayed in bed all day, and the girls brought me back some fried rice and orange juice, which I had asked them to but simply could not stomach. One sip of the orange juice made me dry heave, and solid food was just not possible.

It's a good thing there's only wifi in the lobby and not in the rooms at our guesthouse, because if I had had access to the internet, I would have been all, "CALL THE EMBASSY I'M DYING."

I do feel much better today though. We are leaving tonight for Vientiane (which is a much shorter ride, thank god), where the girls have a friend, so we are staying with them, and then tomorrow night, we will leave for Bangkok, and then I fly back to China, although given the state of things, this is not really a sad moment for me.

I was going to go to the tubing area to watch people be drunk and almost kill themselves, but I need to meet the girls in the guesthouse lobby at four, and it's already three, I'm really comfortable at this place where I had lunch and has free wifi, and I'm also somewhat afraid drunk people will hurl me onto sharp rocks and then I might actually die. People seem to be very comfortable with picking me up and dragging me around. Not that it happens often, but the fact that it happens at all is kind of strange. Plus I should just come back when I am in a condition to participate in said tubing. Maybe skip the killing myself part though.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Children are cute when not exploited.

Proof that I made a post the night before last entitled "I think I broke my butt" - it showed up on my wife's news feed. So ha! I don't really know whom I'm proving that to. (No, I don't care about ending sentences in prepositions. All that rule does is force you into ridiculously awkward sentences, although the above is not necessarily the greatest example. I also do not know whom I am explaining this to.)

So this morning, I walked over to the nicer 70,000 kip/night guesthouse (the price I was quoted yesterday) and asked if the fan room was available. They only had an air-con room available for 80,000, but as I was going to walk away (because there's another 70,000/night place about 30 seconds away), they said I could take it for tonight. When I went to check out the room, I noticed that there was only air-con and no fan. (Usually rooms have both, and you just pay for what you use.) I asked him if it was ok if I used the air-con and he said yes.

The first thing I did was brush my teeth and take a shower, which I was quite frankly too afraid to do in the other guesthouse. As I was getting out of the shower, there was a knock on my door. They came to drop off a fan, which clearly means that I should stop using the A/C. Ok then.

After feeling clean for the first time since I walked into the previous guesthouse, I headed off for lunch before my trip to the waterfall. I had lunch at the same place where I had eaten the day before, because it's close by, and cheaper than places in town. There are only like, nine things on the menu though, and half of them are Western, so I had spaghetti bolognese. (Later, when I burped it tasted like pizza, and every time it happened, I thought to myself, "When did I have pizza?" "Oh right, it's the spaghetti." EVERY TIME.)

Lime juice

I headed over to the travel agency to ask about prices for transport to Bangkok (380,000 for two overnight buses - the first to Vientiane, the second to Bangkok) and wait for the ride to the waterfall, which came about a half hour late at 2:00. This is Laos though, so I pretty much assume everything is going to be a half hour late. There is not that much to do here other than sleep. Incidentally, that's perfect for me right now.

I met two girls from Bangkok who are here on holiday and are going to Vang Vieng before going back to Bangkok on Wedesnday. Naturally, they still have to go through Vientiane. (Vientiane is the Brussels of Southeast Asia. Every single person says there is nothing to do there, and no one has ever made so much as a gesture of disagreement.) That actually sounded kind of perfect and the timing works out perfectly, so I spontaneously said I might join them, and they didn't look creeped out, so that's good.

We got to the waterfall around 3:00, not because it takes an hour to get there, but because for some reason, our driver decided to drive back and forth through town three times before actually leaving. I think he went to wait for the last four people in our group (on the other side of town from where we were picked up), then realized he might as well get a phone card from a store back on the original side of town while we were waiting, and then went back to wait for them. That's the only way our route made any sense.

The waterfall is nice, and those of you who enjoy swimming or swinging into water from a rope like Calvin (as in "and Hobbes") should bring a swimsuit or a change of clothes.

The "hike" to the waterfall, if it can be called that, is very easy and takes about 20 minutes, if that. I do not enjoy physical activity, so this was perfect for me. (Seriously, have you heard me talk about doing a trek? No. No, you have not.) We had an hour and forty-five minutes to explore, which was way more than enough time, especially since I didn't go in the water.

There seem to be a lot of locals who like to come up here for a picnic, and for them the entrance fee is only 10,000 kip (about $1.25) as opposed to 20,000 kip. (If you can't do that math, we are no longer friends.)

Since I had a lot of time to kill, I went to a cafe that was by the water, which was no doubt more expensive than it should have been, but a cup of coffee was 10,000, which again, is about $1.25, so that's ok I guess, although it's really not a good habit to think in dollars, because then you think everything is cheap, even when it's way more expensive than it should be. By the way, if I ever say to you, "You know, I haven't tried adding cream and sugar into my coffee in a while. I think I'll try it out," just say, "Remember that time you thought that in Laos and how much worse the coffee was afterward? There is a reason you prefer your coffee black, and it has nothing to do with men like or unlike Taye Diggs."

There is a random bear sanctuary before the "hike" starts. There were two bears that were either making out or trying to bite each other's faces in a playful way. It's hard to tell.

On the drive back, we were taken to this village that is part of some development through tourism project that was not part of the agenda and is clearly just a ploy for tourists to buy really cheap bracelets or other stuff made by these villagers. There are a whole bunch of really cute kids who literally say the same sentence in Lao over and over again. There was an American guy who works in Vientiane who was in our group, and he asked the little girl who was trying to sell stuff to him if she knew what 2,000 plus 7,000 was (in Lao). She just kept repeating her sales line. So basically, instead of going to school to learn how to add, these kids are trained from really young to sell stuff to tourists at inflated prices. (One would think they should at least learn to add to calculate prices...) Yay development through tourism!

View from the road

Once you finish walking through, you wait for the driver for about 15-20 minutes. During this time the kids will realize you're not going to buy anything, so they just start playing with each other, and then it's really cute. But first, this kid asked me for my water bottle, which had perhaps two sips left in it, so I gave it to him. The American guy had a full water bottle though, and it was in a plastic bag that had other stuff too, so when he took it out in response to a kid asking him for stuff, all the kids swarmed over and had a mini brawl over the bottle of water and were asking for other stuff. It was like a lot of little Gollums fighting for the Ring. Only with hair. And clothing. And otherwise not creepy.


While we were waiting, this party pick-up truck with about twenty people in the back and music blaring passed us. I should do that some time.

After we got back, the night market was already in full swing, and there were a ton of vendors with typical night market stuff for sale - lanterns, T-shirts, dresses, traditional-looking clothing, the weird purses that everyone everywhere sells, etc. Lonely Planet says the night market is candle-lit. Maybe the electricity was out when they visited, unless by candles they mean "a single electric light bulb dangling in each shop." Or the writing is bad and "the candlelit necklace of the Hmong night market" is a really weird metaphor for something.

The Thai girls were going to Phu Si (admission 20,000 kip) for the sunset, which is the only thing I really wanted to do here (you can really only be amazed by so many wats), so that was perfect. Unfortunately, the sunset was much like the one at Angkor Wat (i.e. non-existent), but the view of Luang Prabang from the top is still excellent.

We came back to the guesthouse (which happens to be the same one) so the girls could take showers before dinner (I shower before I go to bed and usually not earlier), which was lucky, since it started pouring. I guess it really is getting to the rainy season. By the time it settled down to a drizzle, most of the vendors had packed up and gone, and it appeared that the side of town on the other side of the market had lost electricity, because it was really quite dark. The lights were flickering at the place where we ended up having dinner, so I think that really was the case.

During this time, it occurred to me, that 80 was a good price for an air-con room, and if that's the case, a fan room should really be cheaper, so between paying too much for a fan room and paying the correct amount for an A/C room (and the difference betwen only $1.25), I'd rather have air conditioning. So I went down to the desk to ask the price again, only this time he said 90 for air-con. I said, "But you said 80 this morning. So can I have the fan for 60?" And he said no. So I went back up to my room, but a minute later, he knocked on my door and agreed to A/C for 80, so now I can actually sleep through the night without waking up and feeling the hair at the nape of neck be all damp from sweat. Yay!

I also looked up the travel time from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, and it takes 6-8 hours. The girls were planning to leave tomorrow morning, spend the rest of the day and one night in Vang Vieng, and leave for Vientiane the following morning. I wasn't sure that this was really worth it for only a few good hours in Vang Vieng, so I told them I might just go straight to Vientiane. Upon hearing the travel time, they said they would stay in Vang Vieng an extra day so they could actually do stuff as well. So I'm leaving with them tomorrow morning, although it is kind of sad now that I've actually found a guesthouse I like.

Anyway, dinner.

Spinach Lasagna, which in hindsight, must look totally disgusting to Asians. It's green stringy stuff with yellow-white stringy stuff. And yeah, I'm eating Western because the "Lao" stuff on the menu is fried rice. Look, I live in China. I'm not paying more than $2 for fried rice.

There was "ancient apple crumble" on the menu, which I thought was strange until I realized the restaurant was called "ancient bon cafe." We met a couple who also live in Bangkok, although she's originally from the States, and he's from Algeria. Also, they lived in Paris for 8 years. How cool is that?

Laos, in general, is way more expensive than I expected. It's much more expensive than Vietnam or Thailand, and they are way more developed. My guess is that Laos and Cambodia gouge tourists because they have little other industry to support themselves. Is that offensive? Regardless, I believe it to be true. For example, I asked how much a dress was at the night market, and was told 60,000 kip. I never know how close the first offer is to the actual price, so I said 20, because I bought one in Cambodia (which is also expensive for tourists) for $3, which is about 24,000 kip. The vendor's counter offer was a smiling shake of her head and 50,000, so she wasn't going to much lower. In fact, a lot of things here cost the same amount of kip as they would cost in dong in Vietnam, except the exchange rate of dollars to dong is 1:20,000 and that of dollars to kip is 1:8,000. So basically it's 2.5 times more expensive. (If you couldn't do that math, we can still be friends, but you're obviously white and American. If you're Asian, you're out. Not of being my friend, but of being Asian. Seriously. Please pack your chopsticks and go. Bonus points for getting that reference. Bonus bonus points if you got this one and the one from last time.)

I've had a sore throat all day, and when I think about avoiding swallowing, I become very aware of just how much saliva is in my mouth. It's awkward.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Internet here is terrible.

I most definitely made a post yesterday entitled, "I think I broke my butt," but apparently it did not actually post, and now I am annoyed. So I will try to recall what I wrote. LAME.

So I woke up around 8:30 feeling absolutely terrible. My lower back was killing me, and my butt is still "enhanced" and now all purple, so I think I might have broken my butt. I was sore all over, and I had a headache (which has only happened to me twice or maybe three times ever), and my eyeballs hurt. I think I also had an on-and-off low fever, and I was definitely dizzy and seriously fatigued all day.

I hitched a ride with Snow into the Old Quarter just to do some quick, last-minute souvenir shopping and then took the bus back to her house. She told me to take bus 31, so I was 100% certain that it would take me back, but the ticket guy kept insisting that I transfer to bus 8 to the point that I felt like it would be rude not to listen, so I did. Sure enough, bus 8 does stop on her street, but way, way down from her actual house. Given the dizziness and soreness, I was not too happy about this.

Someone was not happy about these flowers.

I had lunch at her place for the last time with her mom and dad, who are very typical Asian parents in that they will keep telling you to eat more and more and more until you absolutely refuse.

I packed up my stuff and had a bit of a rest before I left for the airport at 1:30. My flight wasn't until 6:25, but Snow said I should give myself three hours to get there on the bus (and the minivan is not guaranteed to be that much faster).

Before I departed, Snow's mom gave me a dozen pastry things and a huge bottle of water, and her dad tried to give me money. Seriously, these people are crazy-nice.

On the bus ride there (which involves a transfer for real this time), I dozed off very uncomfortably and in fear that in a moment of falling asleep I would slam my head against the end of a metal hand rail that was positioned very much in front of me. (Luckily, I avoided this.)

When I got to the airport, some guy offered to take my bag up the overpass for me ("for free!"), so that was nice. It had only taken 2 hours to get there, so I was too early to check in, so I just waited around. And kept waiting after I checked in.

I had a lot of Vietnamese dong left over, so I thought I'd buy a snack or something. All the prices were listed in dollars though. So I asked if I could pay for these Ritz cheese cracker sandwiches in Vietnamese dong, and they told me it was 60,000 in dong. The price was only $2 though, so that's overcharging by 20,000 dong, which they didn't seem to understand when I kept asking them about why the difference was so much. They just looked at me like, "I don't know what you're talking about. Two dollars is just sixty thousand dong. That's just how expensive it is." So I ended up just paying in dollars. It's the only time I've ever experienced something being less expensive in dollars other than visas.

The plane was one of those where you would bet good money that Michael Phelps would be able to touch both sides of it. It was only about a quarter full, so I told the flight attendant that I wasn't feeling well, so she let me sit by myself instead of with a neighbor.

The sky looked pretty cool when we left.

And we got a snack on board.

This is an Asian version of a hot dog. Something resembling hot dog meat (i.e. probably much better than real hot dog meat) in an actual pastry.

When I arrived, I asked these three English girls if they wanted to share transportation from the airport into the city, which they agreed to. First you get your visa on arrival if you haven't already gotten one, and then you go through immigration. Taxi tickets are 50,000 kip or $6 (roughly equivalent) for up to three passengers. Since we were four, they charged us 70,000, but they only had change in dollars, so it turned out to be slightly more. Oh well. They were going to charge 100,000 for dropping me off at the next street over from the girls, but the driver did it for free anyway.

The cheapest visa is for Vietnamese citizens ($20). Everyone else is mostly $30-$35, although Canadians are inexplicably charged $42.

The girls were "roughing it" at a guesthouse that charged $11 and change a night, which is not really roughing it, but ok. I walked up and down this one alley to ask for prices, but the cheapest I could find with wifi was 100,000, which is actually more than the girls were paying (about $12.50), but at that point, I was too uncomfortable to care. The state of the room did fit the price range though. It was nicely furnished and there were no mosquitoes, although the wifi signal was so weak and so slow and disconnected so much that I half-suspected they were actually stealing their neighbor's wireless.

This morning, I checked out and went off in search of a cheaper place to stay. I must have asked at a few dozen places, and am now staying in the cheapest room I found. It's 50,000/night, has a private bathroom, and wifi, and upon first glance is just your standard room. However, after chilling out here for a while, you start to notice why this place is so cheap. There is a dead wormy thing on the floor, there was a small pellet of vermin poo on the blanket, and there was a very large cockroach that scuttled by. And when I showed housekeeping the vermin poo, all they did was shake it off instead of replacing the blanket. So now there is vermin poo somewhere on the floor. Also, the room sort of smells like mildew and there's mold in some places. Basically, I am not going to shower here. And since it wasn't very hot today because it rained, I don't really need to anyway. The wifi here is also ridiculously slow and disconnecty, except for the past hour or two, so I guess this is some sort of golden period. The guy did take me on his motorbike for me to get my luggage from the other guesthouse though, which was nice.

I think tomorrow I will move to a 70,000/night guesthouse, because they seemed to be a little nicer. I could say I'm too old for this, but that's not really true. So I'll just say I like nice things. So I guess I don't like roughing it either.

So since I felt terrible yesterday, I did nothing today in the name of recovery. So now I'm not so sore, just a little stiff. Although my eyeballs still hurt. That's weird, right? Also my jaw hurts, which is new. Are these symptoms of a broken butt? In addition to licensed doctors, I will consider pre-med students and Indians qualified to answer that question.

So all I have to cover are lunch and dinner, which I ate at the same place since it's very close by, and also I booked a half-day trip to go see some waterfall at the recommendation of a Singaporean guest here. (50,000 kip for the transportation, 20,000 when I get there for admission)

Something I passed on my guesthouse search

This is a BANK. Seriously.

Dragonfruit shake

Chicken curry (mediocre)

Chicken with cashew nuts (also mediocre)

One comment from having the TV on all day: Jack Nicholson did a werewolf movie? Really, Jack? Ok, and now Bill of Kill Bill fame just used an old paint can lid to ricochet a sheriff's badge turned throwing star back into the thrower. Seriously, people?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I think I broke my butt.

So when I woke up this morning, I had the worst lower back pain ever and was generally a little sore all over, and I don't know why. I think I also had an on-again off-again really low fever and I was dizzy and fatigued the entire day. My butt is still purple and "enhanced" so maybe I broke my butt.

I woke up around 8:00/8:30 to hitch a ride with Snow to the Old Quarter for some last-minute souvenir shopping, and then came back to her house. The ticket guy on the bus on the way back told me I had to transfer to bus 8, but he was in fact, not right, and bus 8 stops hella far away from Snow's house. Given the dizziness and the soreness, I was not particularly happy about this.

After packing and resting up a bit, I left for the airport at 1:30, because Snow said I should give myself about three hours to get there. As I was leaving, her mom gave me a huge bottle of water, and a dozen of these custard cake things. They also tried to give me money! Seriously, these people are ridiculously nice.

Overall, it took two hours to arrive at the airport, throughout which I dozed off extremely uncomfortable, which put my arrival at the airport 3 hours before my flight, so I sat around for quite some time. Some guy offered to carry my bag all the way up the overpass to the entrance though, so that was nice.

The sky was really cool when we left, and it's one of those planes where I'd bet good money that the width of the plane was shorter than Michael Phelps's wingspan.

It hurts when I move. Also it's dizzy. I should sleep now. Details and photos tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A trick is something whores do for money... or cocaine!

So I woke up around 11 and was all pumped and ready to do my loan applications, but then I started watching TV online, and then suddenly I had to leave to meet people for dinner.


It's actually really good that I didn't go outside, because there was a torrential downpour at around 4:00 that I would have been completely unprepared for and probably not the cleanest water to soak my burn scab in. New skin that is covered by dead skin is really itchy, by the way. Apologies if you were eating.

What do you mean I'm justifying my laziness? I don't understand the question, and I won't respond to it. (Bonus points if you get that reference. So just Cathy, really. Others might be more successful with the title of this post.)

So anyway, dinner was quite far from my host's place and I left at rush hour, so it took a really long time to get there on the bus. Johnny called while I was on the way, so I had him speak to the ticket guy so he could tell me when to get off the bus. Later, this same ticket guy gestured to me that I had something on my face, and after I failed to brush it off, he did it for me, at which point I realized he was just messing with me, as all he did was a half-pinch my cheek/brush my face twice with his thumb as if he were flirting in the 50s. (Ok, so my concept of the 50s is entirely fabricated. Just go with me on this one.)

Sadly, I later found out that when he was on the phone with Johnny, he had asked to "borrow your girlfriend" for a day, so in hindsight he was perhaps not as innocent as he seemed. (Actually, that's probably exactly like the 50s.)

The sky looked really cool when I got off the bus, though.

I completely do not understand the honking system here. People honk even when they are not passing someone, not accelerating, and not in any situation where they need or ought to warn others that they are there. They are driving exactly as anyone would expect them to, and yet they are blaring their horn every 50 meters. And the horns here aren't a simple toot; they are an army of trumpets playing in harmony. It's like standing somewhere and screaming, "BY THE WAY I JUST WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I HAVE NO VALUABLE INFORMATION FOR YOU WHATSOEVER KTHNXBYE!" And then doing it again every ten steps.

Anyway, Amy, an American expat who teaches here, chose the place, which was a street restaurant (i.e. a place on the sidewalk with plastic tables and stools that look like they are meant for children or Candide) where you grill your own meat. Shockingly, they use butter here, which you almost never see in Asia. You also get a bowl of oil to scoop onto the grill plate, which is excellent, because otherwise you get lots of burnt sticky meat bits all over it very quickly.

On a nearly completely unrelated tangent (which I suppose is redundant), why do native speakers of English think I'm saying my duck's name is Candy? (Not Amy, but others.) Does he look like a stripper who works for male validation and blow? Also, who would pronounce that word "can-DEE?"

Disclaimer: I realize not everyone named Candy is a stripper, and that not all strippers work for male validation and blow. But if I came up to you and introduced myself as Candy, what would be the first thought in your mind? Yeah, that's right. Stripper. Followed by daddy issues. Followed by blow.

Johnny is awesome. He's so nice and so easy to get along with and talk to. One of those people who leave you smiling at the end of the night. Why aren't more people like this?

I'm flying to Laos tomorrow, and I have no idea what to do there or where I'm staying. So I should look into that now.

I guess this post got a bit family unfriendly. Considering the non-existent child readership of this blog though, I think it's all right.

Someone was directed to my blog post yesterday by googling "small boob blogspot." Who is googling that? Is there a blog about small boobs? Did they think by the title there would be a picture of boob sweat? Why else would they click on it if that's what they searched for and saw as the title? What is wrong with people?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I'm grumpy. And I hate boob sweat.

I first woke up at 6:30 when my host turned on the light, at which point I had only slept for 3 hours. This really had no effect on the quality of my sleep, since it was really hot throughout the night, and again, I cannot emphasize how gross it feels to be sweating while you sleep. It is the worst; you can't really sleep well, and when you wake up you do not feel clean and refreshed, you feel gross and dirty and you haven't even started your day.

It's definitely not just me, because there were heat wave graphics of increasingly concentrated shades of red on the news tonight. I seriously haven't felt clean for three days. By the time you start towelling off in the shower, you're already sweating. The worst is the boob sweat. My cleavage hasn't been dry in three days. Can you even fathom how uncomfortable that is? I will tell you. It is like swamp ass, only displaced. (Yeah. Not sexy.)

Anyway, I discovered that the mosquito net I was using blocks a lot of the wind from the ceiling fan. And by a lot I mean all of it. So when I woke up again at 8:30, my torso was completely outside said mosquito net. Here's the dilemma though. I have over 85 tiny little scabs and scars from scratching mosquito bites just on my legs alone. (Yes, I counted.) And that's not counting the ones that have faded or that never left a mark. So basically, I need to choose between semi-comfortable temperature or not having tons of blood sucked out of me while I'm sleeping and leaving small bumps of itchy nightmares. Yay.

It is possible that I am a little grumpy today. You be uncomfortably sweaty for three days and not get good sleep and tell me you're not grumpy. I dare you.

The reason I woke up early (for me) was to visit Uncle Ho, who only sees visitors in the morning (no admission fee). My host dropped me off at the bus stop, where I waited for about 30 minutes for the bus. During this time, a guy backed his motorbike into my leg, exhaust pipe first, instead of just asking me to move, so thankfully it was only warm instead of burning hot. There was also an ambulance that left the hospital across the street that absolutely no one yielded to, despite the siren. I hate that. These people are basically saying, "Sorry dude, getting to my destination five seconds earlier is definitely more important than you getting what is potentially life-saving critical care. Tough nuts. Life's a bitch and then you die. -- Oh... too soon?"

Seriously, Hanoians? Seriously? (Did I mention that I might be grumpy today?)

Tip: If you notice that everyone is sitting on one side of the bus, you should follow suit. The sun is going to beat down heavily on the other side at some point.

A typical bus stop sign

A typical bus

Eventually, I took bus 41 to the closest stop to the mausoleum and walked on over using my handy, extremely zoomed in map of Hanoi from the airport. Evidently the queue on the east side of the mausoleum where I was is shorter than the other one. (I didn't even know there was more than one.) You'll need to cover your shoulders and to your knees to visit, as well as check any electronic items you might have. In my case, this was my e-book and my camera. I don't know what my e-book could possibly do to violate the sanctity of the place, but photography of any kind, cell phone or camera, is prohibited. Apparently, so is water.

While walking to wait in line, an English guy came up to me and asked if I speak English. I said, "Yes, I'm American," not in any sort of exasperated way, but just so he knew he wouldn't have to speak Globish to me. He seemed to feel really bad about assuming that I was Vietnamese though, but I mean, it's the clearly logical assumption. I, too, assume that the Asians around me are Vietnamese, even though many of them are also tourists from other countries and may very well be fluent in English. The vast majority are not though, so the assumption makes perfect sense. It's not as though you walk around Asia assuming the local-looking people around you must be tourists from English-speaking countries.

He was travelling with a German guy that he met yesterday for the day and their subsequent trip to Sapa, so we chatted while slowly shuffling forward. Once you get to the entrance to the building itself, you will be shushed by guards all the way through until you exit, a trip that takes about two minutes. The body is supposedly the real body, but if that's true, it is freakishly well-preserved. I would not be that surprised if it's really a wax figure though.

When you exit you are free to walk around the grounds of the Presidential Palace, including HCM's old garage, a house on stilts, a small lake, and the One Pillar Pagoda. (Guess what it is supported by.)

Presidential Palace, I think

Lots of buildings were in this style

House on stilts

Office in the house on stilts

One Pillar Pagoda (in case that wasn't obvious)

After that, the boys headed off for their journey on a xe om for 20,000 dong ($1) after wearing down the driver, who had started at 80. If you know you're offering the right price, you don't have to give an inch.

I walked over to the Temple of Literature (admission 10,000 dong or 50 cents), Hanoi's first university. Along the way, a Filipino family asked me for directions, so we ended up walking over and going through it more or less together.

This is where people had to dismount their horses. It is also used figuratively to mean that you've forced someone to get off their high horse, only instead of referring to a holier-than-thou attitude, it refers to some sort of higher societal position, either by wealth or by power.

I believe the text engraved into this stone are the names of a graduating class

Inside this pagoda are a bunch of statues of important educators, like Confucius and Mencius. Unfortunately, it was a bit dark, and my pictures of them are bad.

By the time I had finished with this visit, it was around 12:30, and I had overpaid for two bottles of iced green tea with lemon (15,000 dong or 75 cents each), one at each sight. It would only get hotter from here, and the swamp boob was driving me nuts, so I took the bus back to my host's.

I had lunch when I arrived, and a quick rinse immediately after. While I was eating, Snow's mom was watching a Chinese drama on TV. What they do here is instead of dubbing completely over something by erasing the original audio, they just turn the volume on the original audio way down and the speak over it in Vietnamese. The weirdest thing though, is that the same person dubs every single character's lines regardless of the character's age or gender. So you will hear the voice of a 30-something woman to represent that of a child, an old man, and a young lady. She also has all the emotional range of a newscaster reporting on the mediocre achievements of her cat. So in the episode that was airing today, there was a really mean lady who had kidnapped the young daughter of someone who is apparently rich or powerful. The mean lady slapped the girl twice and was yelling at her for giving her sass, but from the way the dubbed lines were delivered, it sounded more like she was verbally cataloging inventory at a CVS. Same monotone delivery for the worried parents as well. And the scared child. It was like if a female Ben Stein dubbed over every single line in a dramatic film.

Other than doing some laundry, I sat under the fan for the rest of the day and even then, I would be covered in a thin film of sweat even without moving at all. I received my ao dai from Ha (thanks!), but I couldn't try it on until the evening because I didn't want to get sweat all over it right from the start (although even in the evening, it was still a bit sweaty).

This is actually dinner, which is duck, bamboo shoots, and duck blood. Lunch was something eggy with rice.

After dinner, I went out with Snow's family to a cafe near West Lake, which is much bigger than Hoan Kiem Lake and way more relaxed. The only people who are here are here for a drink or ice cream and just to sit and chill by the lake, unlike the bustle of tourists and the hordes of motorbikes that are always circling around Hoan Kiem. I had a fresh orange juice (although there was a lot of sugar in it) and two scoops of chocolate ice cream. I also saw the owners sweep any and all trash straight into the lake. So I guess lake = nature's trash can, apparently. Do that often enough, and the attraction of your location will disappear.

Snow's family is wonderful. Her dad, not realizing that I am leaving (actually flying) for Laos on Thursday, was thinking about scheduling a family trip to Sapa this weekend so that I could go there with them. Her mom is constantly peeling fruit and telling me to eat more. They are awesome.

I tried on the ao dai when we got back, and I look super Vietnamese in it. Even more so than usual. And now, it is time for bed.