Saturday, May 7, 2011

Halong Bay hurts my ass

Woke up around 7:00 by means of Snow's sister, since for some reason I thought a 7:17 alarm would be appropriate for a 7:30 departure. (7:17 is probably when I ended up actually getting out of the bed, from which point it really does only take me ten minutes to get ready, but I have to factor in time to muster my motivation to move.)

Snow's dad dropped me off at the place where I bought my ticket (since they only do pick-up and drop-off in Old Quarter), called Ocean Star Tours, where I waited (but could use the internet) until about 8:30. The van seated about 25, and was packed. Since I was one of the last people picked up, I had to sit in a fold-out seat that fills in the empty space in the aisle, which was not comfortable.

There were very few white people on the bus, which I thought was a bit strange.

My ass started disliking the ride about an hour into it, and it takes about three hours to get to Halong Bay. We took a 20-minute break in the middle at a shop with a frightening lack of charm. Not that you need charm when your market is captive and your whole system is based on kickbacks to the tour companies.




Some tour guide just lit this up and smoked it as casually as ever.

Naturally, everything here was completely overpriced, so I just sat there with my bottle of water for what was actually 30 minutes until we were loaded back onto the van.

I met an Asian-American who now lives and works in Singapore (but evidently travels a lot for her job) and a brother and sister from England on a nine-month leave from work for travelling, so the four of us pretty much stuck together throughout the trip.

Upon arriving in Halong Bay, I was not met with the hordes of scissor- and knife-wielding pickpockets that I had been warned against (blades for use against purses and bags, not victims), and it wasn't as crowded as we had been told either. The guide purchased our junk tickets for us (as in the boat, not as in rubbish) and we headed on to the boat. At this point it was about 12:45.

We cruised for a while into Halong Bay, which was really good for picture-taking, and then we stopped at this random fishing place to have lunch (although sadly, we were not served any of the seafood we saw in the nets).







We were supposed to see a "floating village" at some point, but this is the closest thing I saw.

Lunch was an uninspiring array of dishes, including one small fish for six people (qualifying it as a "seafood lunch" in their advertising), although there was enough to go around (if only barely).

Fish and tiny egg things

Pickled radish and pork

Tofu and tomatoes

Salad

Not part of the lunch, but purchased and provided by the Asian-American

Because I had asked before I purchased my ticket last night, I knew that drinks were not included, so I had my previously mentioned big water bottle. Otherwise, cans of soda were 20,000 dong and lukewarm beer was 30,000.

Tip: You should also ask if the company will charge you for opening your own bottle of water on the boat, because apparently this happens with some of them.

There was a Czech woman who was extremely displeased with the lunch. She evidently saw that on the other boats, they had a substantial amount of actual seafood and felt that for $30, our lunch should have been much better. She said that she had been on several boat trips before, and that for the price, this was terrible value. I can't speak for other destinations, but the more reputable companies do Halong Bay for substantially higher prices, so $25 was on the cheap side, so I was going into this with very low expectations.

Tip: Know what you're getting into when you book a tour so you can manage your expectations so you won't be an angry Czech woman.

After lunch, we went to a dock where those who had paid for kayaking (an extra $5) embarked on their excursion and everyone else had the option to take either a bamboo boat or a motorboat into two "heaven swimming pool" caverns for an additional $5. The English siblings and I opted against this and stayed on the boat to chat.

After about an hour, we then left for the caves that were really the main activity of the tour (other than simply cruising around the bay).



The first was Dong Thien Cave, which is huge and lit in many colors, which actually makes it look a little fake.






I exited the cave a bit earlier than the other three, so after waiting for a while outside, I decided to go back in to see where they were. Unfortunately, in doing so, I slipped on something and fell down a few stairs, so now my ass and lower back are very bruised, my left arm has a few scratches and a sporadic shooting pain, and my right ring finger is a little jammed. (Typing is not fun.) So yeah, limestone steps don't offer the softest landing. I was also the only one in our little group wearing sneakers instead of flip-flops so go figure. God hates me because I don't believe.

For whatever medical reason I totally don't understand, I felt really dizzy and nauseated after, so I had to sit down for a while, and the English sister, who is a nurse, said I should drink some soda to get some sugar in my system. So alas, I was forced by the circumstances into buying a 20,000 dong can of soda anyway, although at least it was cold, and I did feel much better afterwards.

When you exit the cave, there is simply a sign that says "Exit to Boat" with no indication of a second cave so I thought perhaps the big one was really two connected caves. However, after you go down the steps, you see a sign across from the bathrooms that forks off into "Exit to Boat" and "Dao Go Cave" so I was mistaken. We were already late though, so we had to go back
to the boat. A google images search tells me it was more of the same.

We then took the boat back to the harbor and got back on the van for the ride back to Hanoi, which was doubly unpleasant due to the new and very large bruise on my ass.

The sunset was nice, though.

The shop we stopped at had slight charm, but obviously nothing notable ever gets sold in these types of stores. The four of us had decided to go to dinner together, so after we were dropped off en masse in Old Quarter (except for two people staying in more upscale hotels that we passed on the way there), I walked over to their hostel with them. We arrived back in the city at about 8:50.

They went upstairs to freshen up, and I went to ask about the price for a one-day tour of Tam Coc. Apparently, the English siblings had only paid $17 for the Halong Bay tour instead of $25. I recalled that when we went to buy my ticket yesterday, I had asked how much a 2-day/1-night tour of Halong Bay was, and the guy told me $45. Then when he opened up the brochure to show me the itinerary, my host noticed that the price was different in the brochure and said, "Oh, it's more than $45" and for some inexplicable reason (in hindsight), we both went by the prices in the brochure rather than what he was saying. I think my thinking at the time was that he's telling me $45, but there are really hidden costs that will make it the same as the brochure price. This is not the case. The price in the brochure for a one-day tour is, in fact $25, but it's not what you should be paying.

I asked about the Tam Coc tour, which is $27 in the brochure, and was told by the agent that he could do $20. I could also book my bus to Laos, which would be a sleeper with proper bunks, for $35. So knowing this, what I think I'm going to do tomorrow is go back to the agency where I booked my ticket for Halong Bay and see if I can essentially get the Halong Bay cruise, the Tam Coc tour, and the bus ticket to Laos for a grand total of $67, $25 of which is already paid for. (So that works out to 17 + 20 + 30, because I think that's what the Laos bus really costs.) The agency I used also used an exchange rate of 1:21,000 when it's actually 1:20,595, which makes a difference when you are multiplying by 67. So more accurately, I'll see if I can get everything for 1.38 million dong, 525 thousand of which is already paid for. We shall see. I hate the feeling of having overpaid, even though I know this is a fundamental part of travelling, and it's usually not by very much when converted to dollars. I am my father's daughter though, and he's much worse than I am on this count.

Tip: Always ask for a discount. Always bargain. Lonely Planet seems to think that if a price is marked that means it's non-negotiable, but I have absolutely no idea where they get this notion. It is patently false. You should not, however, bargain in a store that is a national chain or at a proper shopping center/mall. If it's a street stall or small shop though, feel free. If they are really non-negotiable, they'll just tell you so. It's not going to offend them.

The English siblings do not eat street food for some reason, and even if they did, they wouldn't tonight, because it's the sister's birthday, so they went to a nearby restaurant to eat. Nearby means in the foreigner-dominant backpacker area. I looked at the prices and decided to pass, because I can normally eat for less than 30,000 dong, but the prices here were 80-120,000. So I called my host's sister who picked me up and took me home where I had some instant noodles, which at 10:30PM, were delicious.

I used some sort of Japanese version of Icy Hot (not that I've ever used Icy Hot, but it feels icy and hot, so I'm assuming that's the concept) and Salonpas on the places I fell on. Salonpas is some sort of stick-on thing; I don't know if it's a pain reliever or anti-inflammatory thing, but whatever.

I think something I had for lunch on the tour was bad, because my tummy is not happy. I have antacids though, as any traveller should.

Tip: Pack antacids and basic over-the-counter pain relievers, antibiotics, and, if you so desire, fever medication.

A selection of conversation topics throughout the day:
September 11 (about which the English sister knew far more than I did)
The Vietnam War
Drunk tubing in Vang Vieng and stupid people who die there because they are doing lots of other substances and then jump onto rocks in shallow water
The English siblings' harrowing 31-hour bus ride on a non-sleeping bunk bus from Vientiane, Laos to here and the terrible border crossing involved
The one-child policy (which I suppose for my generation is the two-child policy)
Law school debt
A failed attempt to talk about movies, but we haven't seen any of the same ones
Twins (the brother is one of a pair of identical twins)
Aborigines having just been classified as "humans" (as opposed to animals) in Australia by a vote within the last year (which totally blows my mind)

One random photo:

The stupid blinking/rotating lights to the right of the traffic light are surprisingly effective at passing the waiting time. You don't even notice you're staring at them and then the light is green.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Host = awesome. Hanoi = ...

It feels weird to write about this morning, because I was in a different city then, which makes it feel like two different days. Does anybody know what I'm talking about? Is this a common sensation or an idiosyncratic one?

So, from what I can remember, I woke up around 8:00 or something, and was doing something productive on my laptop although I can't recall what precisely. Then I packed up my stuff and Tony picked me up to take me to the airport, where Thao, my original Da Nang host, would meet us for coffee. (Oh, I remember, I was answering a student's questions for a research paper. I guess I should say former student, otherwise it sounds like I'm actually being a productive member of society.)

Checking in at the Da Nang airport is not like checking in at the Saigon airport. There, I was finished and done in about 1 minute. Here, the representative I was speaking to was backseat handling the passengers who were in the next line over, who had some kind of issue with wanting to take their backpacks as carry-on instead of checked luggage. This resulted in her asking me the same question a few times because she kept forgetting I existed. She also spoke to me in Vietnamese even after seeing that I had an American passport with a Chinese name. Seriously, what are the chances that I speak Vietnamese? There must be very few people who fit that description.

After getting my boarding pass, we went to the "airport restaurant," which is a misnomer, because they only have two choices for food as opposed to a million for drinks. It's also ridiculously overpriced, but that's always true of airport food, and in this case, "ridiculously overpriced" still only comes out to five bucks.

When it was time for me to head to my gate, I was wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical hat over my new motorbike helmet, simply because this is the most convenient way to carry these things. This woman behind me was commenting in Chinese, "Why is she wearing that hat?" in a rather judgemental tone. Her significant other responded, "I'm sure it's just a souvenir." Then she says, "Yeah, but she has two," in the same tone as if she were referring to number of heads. I know, man. Two. Madness. Now I obviously don't care what random strangers think of me, however, I do get some weird schadenfreude kick out of making them feel embarrassed that I can understand what they're saying behind my back (in this case, literally). So I turn around and say in Chinese, "One of them is a helmet." And the guy goes, "Oh! She's Chinese." And the woman shuts up.

By the way, don't let any Asian give you any crap for not being able to tell the specific nationalities apart. I've been Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Vietnamese, and Korean (evidently I look like some actress there) on this trip. Let's be real. We do all look the same. Although apparently, I look particularly Vietnamese, because everyone takes the time to tell me so, rather than just speaking to me in the native tongue and then realizing I don't understand a word they're saying.

Anyway, we are shuttled off to the plane and I am reintroduced to the ridiculously crammed seats provided by JetStar. Also more crying babies. What is it with JetStar and unhappy children? At this point, I see a text from Tony telling me he has feelings for me and hoping to keep in touch. I very much appreciate his decision-making here. Knowing that I am not single, he waited until after I left to say anything, which eliminates the potential for extremely awkward face-to-face interaction. (Given the situation, it's not as though saying something sooner could have changed the outcome.) I tell him we can keep in touch for sure, but it's only fair that he knows the chances of any date in the future are slim to none. He says he just wanted to tell me how he feels. All right then. Duly noted, I suppose. Or just... noted.

After I arrive in Hanoi and get my bag, I go to the tourist information desk to get a map and to ask where I can take the bus. The woman looks at me all blase and sort of mumbles some directions, which she has to repeat for me to hear, and even then, I don't quite understand what the last step is. All I know is she's telling me to go upstairs, go outside, and then go down, which makes no sense to me. (Why wouldn't I just go out directly then?) After asking a couple other people, I finally understand that I have to walk along the overpass, which eventually descends into the bus station. (The level of English of employees at the airport of the nation's capital is surprisingly sub-par.)

I take bus 7 all the way to the end, which takes about an hour but costs only 5,000 dong, which is a fraction of what a cab or xe om (motorbike taxi) would cost. I don't know the route, so I don't realize when it's about to be the last stop, so I don't have my stuff ready when we get there. Every other person, including the ticket guy, gets off the bus, and then the bus driver keeps going. The rest area is naturally only a short distance from the last stop though, so it's all good.

My host, Snow, comes to pick me up and take me to her house. A lot of houses here and in Cambodia are skinny, but tall. Snow's room is on the fifth floor and has very high ceilings. We go around the city a little bit before she has to go teach a tutoring session at a student's house.

Two of what must be hundreds of silk shops in the Old Quarter

Apparently turtles live in here.

Fancy shmancy stores

Snow takes me to Hanoi's first and most well-known ice cream shop. As we were turning in, this guy in an SUV behind us just blares the horn. I had heard about the Hanoi habit of doing this, but seriously. Let's grow up. I turn around to glare at him, and it's a foreigner. Really, dude? That's what you took from cultural integration? Being obnoxious on the road? The guy stares back at me, even after he's passed us. The last thing you want to be doing when you're driving in Asia is not be looking at the road in front of you, and instead be sticking your head out of your window glaring at someone on a motorbike behind you like a moronic dog. But no, I'm sure that staring at me is both proving your superiority and safe.

Anyway, the ice cream shop sells two types of ice cream: a fresh, "soft" kind and a hard kind. The hard one is far better than the soft. (Yeah, yeah, insert penis joke here.)

It's more like an ice cream shop/motorbike parking lot for customers.


This tasted like it was made with chocolate powder and water (and not really purified water)

This was much better and had little rice jelly things in it that made it really smooth. While in line for this, the lady immediately after me was nudging me along with her shoulder, and not in a cute way. Seriously woman, I don't think the .3 seconds you're saving by doing so is really worth your augmenting the unfriendly and unopen reputation of your city. If I wanted people with this sort of attitude, I'd have stayed in China. I can see why Westerners generally dislike Hanoi. Because the people here are less likable. Which I wouldn't be saying if it weren't for Hanoi residents proving that point as if on purpose.

While Snow is off tutoring, I stay at her house and have dinner with the family.

We have stir-fried veggies and pork, chicken, more pork, even more pork with powder peanut stuff on it, and shrimp. Also that bowl of green things. During dinner, I think my host's dad was asking for favors having to do with America, because my host's older sister (who also speaks English) kept using the "oy" that you use when a seller quotes a price too high, i.e. No, Dad, that's not appropriate. The reason I'm guessing that's why is because she did translate one sentence about him wanting her to have some opportunity in the U.S.

When she gets back from her class, we go out again to check out the night market here. Along the way, I see a tour company, so I've paid a deposit for a one-day trip to Halong Bay tomorrow. Snow will be departing for a two-day trip in a village near the Lao border, but I don't have enough time to join her and also do Halong Bay, which everyone says is not to be missed. I'm not sure if the company I've booked with is legitimate or not, but I knew to ask whether the lunch they provided includes water (it does not). So I will bring my own, which they've told me they will not charge me to open on the boat. If they're decent, I will book another tour for Sunday to a place Tony suggested when we were at the Marble Mountains.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Did I mention all I do is eat?

Woke up around 10:00 and did stuff on the computer before and a little while after lunch. (Anyone want to write a letter of recommendation for a scholarship for me?) Lunch consisted of noodles and some more rice paper wraps, this time containing greens and beef and/or pork. Again, homemade food = delicious.

You essentially mix in the same stuff with your noodles as you put in the wraps, but it's good both ways. The larger bowl of sauce on the left is satay sauce, I think, based on its peanuty goodness.

Dessert was a cold drink called che, which is a mixture of different beans that, when combined, is very sweet and yummy in my tummy.

Although not particularly attractive

My wound didn't secrete any fluids yesterday, so I switched from gauze (which I am fresh out of in any case) to the children's face mask to cover my wound. It works very well. Plus everyone says it's fashionable. They're being sarcastic of course, but whatever, I like it. I also can't believe this is not the popular thing to do, given that these wounds are really common. (A person my age has typically had at least two or three if not many more.) At the very least, there should be gaudily decorated big-ass band-aids readily available at any pharmacy.

Tony picked me up at 2:30 to go see an art exhibit featuring pieces from all over the country at the city museum (free admission), where "usually, there is nothing" (which explains the free admission). I'm not even going to pretend to get art, so here are a few photos with no commentary whatsoever.


Lacquer on wood

"Sunny Street"

Uncle Ho. I love that they call him Uncle Ho. So much better than "Chairman Mao." Uncle Ho sounds like a guy you could find at your dinner table and has a lot of wisdom to dispense. Whether or not that's what you really want in a leader, selling that image has a nice feeling to it. This is commentary on his name, not the art, so it doesn't count.

Ok, this totally just looks like a 3-D emoticon. That will be my sole commentary.

"1000 years"

Some old rich guy smoking opium with his man-servants around him. The one on the left is holding a bottle of Jim Beam. The original bad-ass (but actually douchebag). That should have an acronym, like BAMF does. BABAD. There, it's done.


"Marketing"

Evidently in Viet Nam, it's the men who are worse than the women when it comes to this social activity of swapping news that is irrelevant to your life but you find endlessly interesting anyway. (Commentary on the subject, not the art.)

"Sounds from the Past"

After that, we went back to the restaurant where we had dinner last night to try the other two specialties, which they had run out of when we arrived the night before.

This one, which is rice cake and pork, you dip in a sweet sauce.

This one, which is obviously shrimp, you dip in a salty sauce.

Then we went to this snack place that caters mostly to females and children because it is said that guys who eat too much of these snacks will be really girly as a result. I don't know why, as none of the food seemed distinctly feminine (apparently fruit and spicy dried squid = Barbie dolls?), but who knows.

Guava and mango and pickled versions of each

Two kinds: either pate or beef rolled up in rice paper

Spicy dried squid, as mentioned above

I forget the name, but the coloring is supposedly natural (I have my doubts). It's pleasantly sweet.

Coconut and coffee-flavored jelly. The coffee was obviously mixed with water before it was set, but I think it would've been much better with milk. The coconut one clearly had a decent fistful of sugar added to it, but I like sweet things, so it was ok for me.

After getting what is evidently a dose of estrogen, I wanted to check out the helmet shops, because I really like the helmets here, and I want to learn to drive a motorbike when I get back to China, and nobody wears helmets in China. Some of them actually really look like hats; I never would have guessed that they were helmets had I not been in a helmet shop. However, these are also not the safest. I bought one that is a matte black with two somewhat-darker-than-baby-blue stripes going from the front to the back and little mouse ears on either side (as in a graphic on the helmet, not as in mouse ears that stick out of the helmet). It cost 160,000 dong (or eight bucks). So now I have a mouse on my head a little dog on my leg. I wonder why people think I'm younger than my age. (Everyone here thinks I look 17/18, and that my CouchSurfing profile picture looks very different/much older. This is ironic, since my CouchSurfing profile picture was taken when I was 19.)

Then we went to a park that used to be a landfill, but is now quite nice with a manmade lake and a lot of low-thrill amusement park rides for children.



This is an awesome dragon made out of plates.

The feet and tail are made out of tiny bowls and dishes.

The bush wasn't quite as solid as it looked, so I had to put Candide between two... fronds? Is that even a word? Is it plant-related?

A cool tree that branches into several trees, so it never dies

A massage train

A police station. With no one.


A future moth
Did I mention there's also a small zoo?

This cage was ridiculously small and the roof was ridiculously low.

I took the plastic bag out of this little one's mouth. I think he already ate some of it though.

I could not get a decent picture of this bear. He was swaying back and forth as if he were carrying a boom box and came from the 'hood in the 80s.

I guess this is what pythons look like when they're sleeping. Exciting stuff.

Crocodiles, mostly submerged

Monkeys!

After a walk through the park, we went to meet my host for dinner. At this dinner (aside from Tony and me) were my host, her boyfriend, her cousin, her sister, and her boyfriend, whom everyone was meeting for the first time. He was so nervous, I could not stop myself from being entertained. He had a look of fear and kept nervously tugging his shirt or otherwise playing with his hands. And the sister was just sitting there casually eating, as if to say, "Dude, you're on your own here." I think also the fact that I was watching him as if he were a projection on a screen instead of a real live boy was also a factor. I gotta say, he had reason to be nervous though, because the sister is 18, and he's 27. So if his internal monologue was, "Oh god, everyone thinks I'm a dirty old man," it was at least partially true. The age difference is the first thing you notice. Then the physical appearance difference. I saw Ivy's sister leaving the house last night, and she looked hot. She was wearing a tight, white, one-shoulder top with a single ruffle from the shoulder to the middle of her sweetheart neckline and the shortest shorts that shorts can be without becoming indecent (read: Hemline falling precisely on that line that separates your ass from your thighs). This is the kind of hot that you can't look at directly for over 5 seconds. (If you've seen it before, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, I actually feel a little bad for you.) If I were a guy, I would say she was intimidating, to say the least. Honestly, if I had seen them together with her in that outfit the night before, I would have assumed she was a prostitute, because the age difference added to the fact that he's like a 6, tops, plus her attire would make you think this is not a legitimate coupling at first glance. (I realize this is personal stuff, but the chances that these people will become anything more than just random strangers you read about are pretty slim. Unless you're a CouchSurfer, in which case I shall use the Force to make you forget this. That's something you can use the Force for, right? I totally have never seen any of those movies.)

A vegetable of some kind

Eel, rather spicy

Shell things that you use a toothpick to get the meat out of

Clams

Shrimp

Chili sauce with mayo, which is actually really good

Banana leaf with tiny shrimp

Or was that this one? I can't remember. I thought this was a duplicate photo until I noticed the plate was different.

Something that I didn't bother trying because I could smell the cilantro as the waiter placed it on the table. Unacceptable.

Next to us was a table of men happily drinking and gossiping away, as mentioned (and pictured) earlier. They had a very loud chant/cheer at a few points during the evening. So maybe it was a cult.

There was a guy who set up a large speaker and walked around with a wireless mic singing a song called "Money and Love" and sold candy. I would have paid him to stop singing. It was not a good marketing technique. The new boyfriend bought some though, so I had one.

Like peanut brittle, only more like taffy. Actually, I guess there must be such a thing. So peanut taffy.

After dinner, we went to a karaoke place, where they had Vietnamese and really old English songs. Like in China, karaoke does not mean going to a bar where people get up to sing, but being in a private room just for you and your group of friends and serving you snacks and beer. Ivy's boyfriend (who is awesome and hilarious) was ordering songs for me like "Baby One More Time" and "2 Become 1" and "Beat It." Karaoke is always more fun when people know the songs you're singing, so I was happy to play along and was very entertained in the meantime.

That was our last stop, so I'm back at Ivy's now, and Ha has found not one, but two people who can host me in Hanoi, which is amazing, because northerners are evidently not very responsive as a whole to this type of thing.