Friday, January 29, 2010

Halong Baying it

Jan 23 to 25, 2010 (by Swiss)

Note: Cyndi, aka "The Slave Driver", has been on my ass since day one of her arrival to get going on blog posts. Jason, as always, has been quick to have all his blog posts ready to go, while I, as usual, am lagging behind. I just managed to get my last post up yesterday (Jan 25), followed 24 hours later by Mr. Lawton's, so the ball once again is in my court. So we'll see if I can get this thing up before our visitors leave. If I don't, I have this feeling that I'll be beaten to a pulp. So here we go.

The highlight of our visit to Hanoi was supposed to be Halong Bay. Located about 3.5 hours east of the city, it's a gorgeous collection of limestone cliffs and caves protruding from the south china sea. Our two day/one night tour included the transport to the bay, a cruise on a junkboat, meals, canoeing, checking out a cave, overnight stay on the boat, cruise back to the harbor, and finally a ride back to Hanoi.

Rise and...get rained on
As Jason mentioned in his last post, it was time to say good bye to Carl and hop on our bus for yet another rainy ride toward Halong Bay. On the bus we were introduced to our guide, Kenny, who spoke a very quick, almost nervous English while giving us the scoop on Hanoi and the usual jokes about how to cross traffic in Vietnam (something to the effect of "move slowly and consistently like a rock, cars and motorbikes will drive around you.") The bus stopped at a couple of other hotels, at one point picking up two girls from London, Kat and Liz, who would be seated in front of me. Team London was now officially on board.

Team London was trying to nap on the ride, so I offered them my jacket to use as a pillow, which quickly drew a text message exchange between Carl and Jason (absolute SMS fiends) about the lameness of that move.

We arrived at the dock around noon, after a quick stop with crummy ice cream at a travel center near the halfway mark. The weather remained pretty rainy and cold, which was not aided by the fact that we had to wait for a good 45 minutes for our water taxi to pick us up and drive us out to our junk boat.

Once safely on board, we were served lunch and were amused/annoyed by signs everywhere pronouncing a $10 corkage fee and ban of drinks other than water in the cabins. Drinks ranging from tea to soda to wine were of course available from the on-board bar, but prices were, um, extremely inflated. Luckily we had snuck some contraband on board and we quickly started devising plans on how to open our wine without the use of a bottle opener.

As the boat puttered out into the bay, we were limiting our exposure to the outside environment due to rain continuing to hit the deck. Instead, passengers spent most of the time inside chatting away. Kenny had informed us that the heaters in the room would not be activated until after dinner, and the hot water heater would be kicked on shortly before dinner. Alas, there wasn't much to do in the cabins, either.

The first activity for the day was a visitation to the Hang Sung Sot cave, one of the largest, if not the largest, cave in Halong Bay. The cave itself was quite impressive, although a tid bit overrun by toursit groups. Kenny managed to get on quite a few people's nerves as he kept hustling us along, limiting picture taking and posing time. "We are familiy", he cried, "stay together." Perhaps he was suffering the same issue as our guide to the cu chi tunnels; that is, we all look the same to him and he didn't want any stragglers to be lost. But pictures were taken nonetheless:

The second and last official outdoor activity for the day was a 60 minute canoe stint. Canoes were more wet than usual due to the rain earlier, but as Cyndi insisted, "Damnit, we're going canoeing." She may have not said it in exactly those words, but you get the drift. So Lawton and I got our pants wet sharing a canoe, while Cyndi and Matt shared their own boat. Given the cool and rainy climate, splashing/tipping games were kept to a minimum, and we actually had quite a jolly time paddling around the bay and taking pictures.

After finishing our excercise for the day, we once again resorted back to scheming on how to access our contraband. As luck would have it, our now befriended London girls informed us that another English couple on the boat had brought a wine bottle opener. I had shared a beer with him after canoeing, and he quickly agreed to make the opener available to us. Score. Here's a pic of them in the canoe - Thanks!

Our grand plan for the evening was to have dinner, have a couple of drinks in one of our cabins (Liz, Kat, and the English couple joined us in our mischief), followed by a Karaoke session on the boat's built-in Karaoke setup. We managed to accomplish the first task quite easily; task 2, however, didn't really happen as we discovered the entire crew already in bed as we ascended to the main deck around 21:30. So that plan was aborted, and Matt and I went over to the girl's cabin to chill and teach them some proper American English. Bed time came sometime after midnight, which was actually quite late given our 7 am departure in the morning.

Diesel Alarm Clock and Free Coffee
If you've ever wondered what it's like to sleep next to a diesel engine, make sure to get a back room on a junkboat. Although I was already slightly awake, the vibration and noise from the boat engine quickly turned my "deluxe" bed akin to a cheap Vegas coin operated motel bed. It was actually a good thing, as it forced me to shower and join the rest of the boat for breakfast. The food was ok, but we were pleasantly surprised that they decided not to charge us for coffee or tea, if only during breakfast.

The rain had subsided during the course of the previous day, and the weather on Sunday was acutally somewhat decent although still devoid of acutal sun. We seized the opportunity for some good ol' Kodak moments on top of the boat while slowly heading back to the port.

Lunch was served shortly after de-boarding, and unfortunately left quite a bit to desire. Out of all the dishes, the rice was probably the most tolerable. We figured we'd just have a snack and nice dinner later. So we hopped on the bus and headed back towards Hanoi.

Given this would be our last night in Hanoi, and the rain had finally stopped, it was time to walk around town a bit, score a Döner Kebab (absolutely outstanding, btw), have some Bia Hoi (draft beer served on the street for a whoppingt $0.16 per glass), and do the mandatory lake pictures. Matt and I even had some ice cream shortly after we ran across this little overachiever:

Below are some pictures from the lake and our Bia Hoi experience, including our "waitress" which may have been a tad too young to serve beer in the US.

Dinner was had on a street restaurant, where we all enjoyed beef steak with fries and gravy. We had noticed this dish all over Hanoi, and it seemed to be a specialty of the joint we were patronizing. So we gave it a shot, and it was actually quite tasty. This is more than can be said of the toilets at the establishment, which according to witness accounts by Cyndi, Matt, and Jason were absolutely dreadfull and lacking of anything remotely representing a toilet bowl. And no, pictures were not taken. It was here that we once again ran into some random travel acquaintances, this time the Danish couple we had met a few weeks ago in Saigon.

Stuffed and content, we headed back towards the hotel. I had gotten a text message from Liz that her and Kat were hanging at a pub just down the street from our hotel. So I joined them for a beer while the rest of our crew retired towards the hotel.

Southbound Choo Choo train
Prior to departing for Halong Bay, our group (minus Carl) booked some train tickets for our trip southbound to Hue. The 13.5 hour overnight trip was chosen as an alternative to a bus or airplane, and since we had four people, we scored an entire compartment to ourselves. Given that the train was leaving at 8pm, we had the entire day to bum around a bit and take care of errands.

Given that it was Monday and the US lags behind by 12 hours, I got up at 6:30 am to catch the Saints-Vikings game. Since Drew Brees went to school at Purdue at the same time as us, I've been following and rooting for the Saints over the last couple of years. Needless to say, it was a great game and I'm super stoked they made it to the Super Bowl. Go Saints!  Who Dat!

Now Jason, Cyndi and Matt had different objectives that morning, namely the visiting of the local market for gift shopping. As such, they left me behind as I was glued to the TV, and were very productive in procuring various presents and a bottle opener (we learned from our Halong Bay experience.)

We met back up for lunch, where we sampled a hot pot at a local restaurant prior to visiting a spa for massages we had booked the prior day.

Since Cyndi and Matt were on vacation, we chose a slightly swankier spot that got us a 90 minute massage and a 30 minute mineral/herbal bath for a whopping 18 USD. Although picutres were not taken, it was quite humerous to watch first myself and later Lawton hop into the herbal bath that was prepared, complete with rose petals, in a tight barrel style tub. And no, we didn't get in together, Alvin.

We left our hotel shortly before 7pm for a quick cab ride to the train station, where we boarded the train and prepared for a very uneventful journey south.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hanoi…more time with Carl…and Cyndi and Matt’s Arrival!

1/19 – 1/22/10 by Jason

So we arrived at 6am, bright (well not really bright, it was cloudy) but early in Hanoi.

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Unlike most (every) other city in Viet Nam, the bus to Hanoi does not drop you off at the tourist center of town and conveniently they don’t/won’t tell you where you are in town, but the local hotel representatives are there to offer you a taxi ride to their place. Of course if you don’t end up staying at their place you owe the taxi drive an exorbitant amount of money (Hanoi Scam #1.) Well we were taken to “Star Old Quarter Hotel” in a free taxi and shown a triple room that was a bit small but newly remodeled and only $5/person/night with free breakfast and wifi, seemed alright when we walked in. [Maybe we should’ve realized that the open window on a cold morning was a bad sign, but whatever] I dropped off some laundry first thing as I was low and was promised it’d be ready by 7pm that same night…more on that later. We read the review of the place we’d just checked into on TripAdvisor and were excited to learn that the owner has a penchance for violence towards guests that don’t buy tours from him and also for kicking people out of his hotel for booking through other places (multiple reviews corroborate these same anecdotal stories, lovely.)

We then set out in search of some coffee and breakfast after being hounded to purchase a tour of Halong Bay by the folks downstairs in our hotel (which is really a travel agency that happens to rent rooms, but whatever.) We found some Vietnamese coffee at a little place with small plastic chairs, which usually means cheap, but somehow was much more expensive that Saigon (Hanoi Scam #2, western vs local pricing.) Afterwards we grabbed a steamed meat and egg bun and set off in search of a real hotel to stay in for Cyndi and Matt’s arrival. Our search lasted around 6 hours and included at least six different hotels we looked at, although I’ll spare you the details except to say that we booked a room at the Sunshine 3 Hotel (and a car to drive me out to the airport and pick them up.)


We also looked around at a few shops for an iPod Touch for Carl, stopped at the Post Office to get a quote on shipping some stuff home (Hanoi Scam #3, postal rates change from the quoted rate once you’ve already sealed it in the box)


and had some fresh spring rolls at a local place for lunch (don’t ask us what kind of meat we ate, could’ve been dog, we’ll never know.)


We headed back to the room to get cleaned up (and dodged more requests to buy a tour) and headed out in search of some local food. We stumbled on a place selling coffee and offering a free sample of their “Weasel” coffee  and very cheap Vietnamese style coffee makers (less than a dollar each for stainless or something very close to stainless!) and we bought some coffee and filters to send home as presents. (You’re welcome family!)


We ended up at a little place (plastic chairs where we had our knees in our chests, a good sign!) where Swiss had a pigeon (yes, just a pigeon) for dinner.


Afterwards we headed in search of some Bia Hoi and ran into our friends from the Bia Hoi place in Saigon (THE UK couple, lovely really except they became stalkers ;-) hehe)


A few beers there and it was time to bed (and ensure the crazy owner of our place hadn’t thrown all our belongings on the street for not buying a tour. [Note: My laundry was not ready that night, apparently they didn’t have electricity in their laundry area that afternoon]

Western Food Day, and other silly ideas

So it’d been more than a few weeks since we had any Western food and Carl came up with the brilliant idea that we have a “Western Food Day” where we wouldn’t eat anything local, seemed like a good idea at the time. We got up early and ate our hotel down stairs (with, of course, an interruption asking us if we wanted to buy a tour, the answer was of course still no) which was eggs and bread, seemed western enough. My laundry was promised to me at 11am, we’ll see about that. We were out the door on a slightly damp morning and hopped in a cab to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (that’s right, against his wishes the Vietnamese people have decided to embalm him and place him on display three days a week in the morning, Tues, Wed, Thurs only, 8-11am.)  No pictures were allowed inside, so we’ll spare you the view of his dead body.


We then enjoyed a stroll around his old house, his garage and his stilt house (under construction, though, how authentic.)

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Swiss purchased himself a Burberry helmet for $5!


The hunt for Carl’s iPod continued, although unsuccessful, and we grabbed more Western food (a pizza for me, double cheeseburger for Swiss and a nearly real “proper English fry up” for Carl)


Afterwards we headed south to the post office to mail some gifts and a DVD backup of our photos home. On our walk from the Post Office south we saw a large crowd gathering around Hoan Kiem Lake, so we of course joined them. They (the locals) were all staring at and following a trail of bubbles and a few minutes later we saw what appeared to be a turtle’s head pop out of the water for air. (From what we learned the next day from a local guide, that turtle in the lake has only been spotted by him personally twice in 40 years). The police showed up and (we assume) told people to disband, so after all that excitement we continued our walk to check out Maison Centrale or the “Hanoi Hilton”, a former French prison used during French occupation and by the Vietnamese during the “War of American Oppression.”

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One interesting piece is that they put shards of glass into the wet concrete as they built the outer wall, which in addition to barbed wire, makes a good deterrent from climbing over the wall.


After which we stopped by the train station to check out fares and having had enough of the drizzle stopped back at the hotel to hang out and relax (yes, my laundry STILL was not ready) and we were again hounded to book a tour (Cyndi and Matt became a convenient excuse, we said we wouldn’t be booking anything until they arrived.) We headed up to the night market just North of our hotel, which was rather disappointing and empty and then to an Italian restaurant for a rather disappointing meal (Ok, the garlic bread was dry, Swiss’s Carbonara was cooked too quickly…my pizza was pretty good though.) Knowing that I’d be up early to head to the airport the next morning we were in bed at a decent hour. [Note: I finally got my laundry back but it was still damp, even after having it for 2 days, FAIL! Another piece of poor service from the Star Old Quarter Hotel :(

Sneaking out without buying a tour…oh, and Cyndi and Matt’s Arrival

Well I packed early in the morning and went outside with all my luggage, which left hotel staff scratching their heads. I told them I was going to pick up my friends and that we were all staying at another hotel, which they were not too happy about (apparently staying at their place and paying them for our stay is not enough.) I was picked up by Thang, our friendly driver from Sunshine. The Hanoi airport is quite a drive from town, about 35km from downtown. Their flight was delayed about a half hour but otherwise they arrived safely in the pouring rain.


Matt pulled some cash out of the ATM (where he left the ATM card, as we found out the next day, oops!) and we were on our way to the hotel with Thang. We arrived, they checked in and showered (it was 36 hours of travel, including 4 airplanes and being booted out of the Saigon airport at 3am) and we headed to a restaurant across the street for their first breakfast (pho) and ca phe sua (sweetened Vietnamese coffee).


Afterwards we walked around the lake in silly plastic ponchos (Carl, Swiss and I) and proper rain jackets for Cyndi and Matt.


We stopped by the Water Puppet Theatre and bought tickets for the 5pm show that evening. We continued our walk over the Red Bridge to the pagoda in the middle of the lake, in the rain :)


We continued our walk south in search of coffee and ended up stopping for ice cream and coffee while Carl continued his hunt for an iPod (still unsuccessful). After our quick snack I left with Cyndi and Matt to walk back up around the lake while Swiss and Carl went off to buy an iPod Touch. We caught the 5pm Water Puppet Show

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and then caught a meal just down the street from our hotel. (And guess what!?!? We ran into THE UK couple from Saigon again…stalkers ;-)


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We had a walk after dinner to get some sweets from a bakery


and then to bed (it was wet, Cyndi and Matt were exhausted and Carl wanted to play with his new toy.)

Driver, take me to the Temple of Literature

So, uncertain of the weather the following day we decided to hire a private car and driver for the day through out hotel. At $55 split between 5 people and keeping us dry from the rain, seemed like a great idea. Sure enough it was raining Friday morning and it was an excellent investment for us. I had requested that Thang, our airport driver, take us if he was available and he was, make the day that much better. We hit up the Temple of Literature (lots to look at but nothing to read)…

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…One Pillar Pagoda (pissing down rain, and since we did that the day before we let Cyndi and Matt do that on their own)…


…Quan Thanh Pagoda (rainy and under construction, muddy fun!)…



…a local supermarket to buy food for our boat trip…

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…lunch at Blue Butterfly Restaurant…

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…a visit to the Hanoi Hilton for Matt and Cyndi (we skipped this as we’d done it 2 days prior and instead took Carl shopping for iPod accessories, of which he bought zero)…

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…the museum of Vietnam History (kind of boring)…

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…and a final stop for Cyndi and Matt to buy some coffee and filters as gifts to bring home.


We stayed relatively dry and Thang was an excellent guide and very responsive. We tipped him at the end of a busy but productive day of sightseeing. That evening we went to 69 Restaurant (next door to our hotel, convenient in the rain!) for dinner where we AGAIN ran into THE UK couple from the Saigon Bia Hoi place. Dinner was good and afterwards we learned they were leaving the next morning, so it was our final run in with the lovely couple (yes, as should be obvious now we don’t know their names, we’re horrible!! Sorry!) We headed back to the hotel and were in bed after spending a little time getting pictures compiled (526 of them!) on my computer.

Tourists being herded like cattle

We woke up Saturday morning to cloudy skies and light drizzle. Carl was headed up north for a trek in Sapa while we were headed for a 2day/1night tour of Halong Bay, so time for a sad farewell with Carl.