With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

Halong Bay Then and Now

Posted by Heliocentrism on April 23, 2017

Monday April 3 – 5, 2017

On Monday morning Mark and I got up early, showered, ate breakfast, and was packed and ready to go to Halong Bay. To lighten my bag a little more, I left behind one pair of black khaki pants, one dark colored t-shirt, and a pair of light sweat pants.

We waited in the lobby of our hostel for a bus to pick us up. We were told it would come by any time between 8AM and 8:30AM. While we waited, Mark downloaded some podcasts to listen to during the 3 hour ride to Halong Bay. The minibus came at 8:35 and we loaded all of our stuff inside. Well, all our stuff minus Mark’s smartphone. It was forgotten on our breakfast table still downloading podcasts.

There was no turning back. All we could do, as we sped towards the east coast of Vietnam, mostly on the correct side of the road, was to hope that someone put Mark’s phone in the Lost & Found and that it would be back at the hostel when we returned.

This would be my second visit to Halong Bay, so I thought that I would compare the two visits. My first trip to Halong Bay was in May 2008. Then I had a 2 day, 1 night stay. I remember feeling like I wished I could stay longer. So, this time in 2017, Mark and I got a 3 day, 2 night stay with one night on the boat and the second night in a hotel on the island of Catba.

Back then I paid 65USD for my trip; 32.50USD per day. This time Mark and I paid 145USD each; 48.40USD per day. So that just looks like normal inflation.

The ride to Halong bay for both trips were pretty uneventful. Both were standard 3-hour drives with a 20 minute rest stop in the middle. On the 2008 trip the ride was in a van, but on the 2017 trip we were driven in a minibus. On both rides, it was best not to pay too much attention to how often the driver changed lanes, when he overtook someone, or how long he chose to stay on the wrong side of the road with on-coming traffic racing towards him before he hesitantly got back to the right side of the road while constantly honking the horn.

The dock for the boats to Halong Bay was a bit more crowded during the later trip, though. There were many more buildings than before and a lot more boats. The wait time at the dock for the 2008 trip took about an hour. We were waiting for the 2 Dutch boys I talked about in the past entry.

On the 2017 trip, there was no wait for us. Everyone who would be on our boat was either with us on the bus or already at the dock when we got there. Some people from our bus got on other boats.

The top two – 2017; Bottom two – 2008

My Shipmates

I don’t really remember all the people on my boat from back in 2008, so I have to go on the number of people in the group photo. Assuming no one was left out, there were 9 other people on the tour to Halong Bay with me. All these people were on the van from Hanoi minus the two Dutch boys. This number, as far as I can remember did not change. I mean, I don’t remember anyone leaving early or staying for more days on the boat.

There was no group photo on the 2017 Halong Bay trip, but it’s still fresh in my mind. Let’s see… There was a family of 4, who was already at the dock when our bus go there. There were 4 French guys, two sets of Danes, a British woman, Mark, and me. So 15? But there was also an older French couple and a German couple; sometimes they were there, sometimes they were not. I mean, they weren’t there for lunch the first day or any other day. But then they were there for dinner the first night. The older couple were there for breakfast on the second day in Halong Bay, but not the Germans…

So there were 15 or maybe 19 people staying on the boat.

The top two – 2017; Bottom two – 2008

The Boats

In 2008 the boats looked more like modified traditional Chinese junks. They had junk sails they could put up, but weren’t needed because all the boats had modern engines. My 2008 boat could not sleep more than 10 or 12 tourists.

In 2017, none of the boats looked like Chinese junks. These boats were bigger. Our boat could hold more than 19 people and it was one of the smaller boats in Halong Bay. Both boats from my 2008 and 2017 trips had 3 levels. There was a top deck for relaxing and mingling, a middle deck for dining, and the bottom deck for rooms. In 2017, there were many boats with 4 decks.

2017

For some reason our boat was not at the loading area along the dock. We had to get into a smaller boat, put on life vests, and be taken to where our boat was docked. Over the next few days, we would get quite used to taking all our stuff and moving from one boat to another.

Once on the actual boat, we put our stuff in our various cabins then went to the second level of the boat. We were served lunch as the boat headed to Halong bay. It was a long and relaxing ride. I think it took about 1 or 2 hours from the dock to get to the bay.

The top two – 2017; Bottom two – 2008

Halong Bay

In Halong Bay there are these women who row around the boats. If you somewhat glance their way, they will row over to you and try to get you to buy things from their little boat. The last time I was in Halong Bay they sold dumb stuff. All they had were undelicious dry generic cookies, warm beer, fruit, and cheap sunglasses.

This time around, they seemed to have gotten their stuff together. Their cans of beer were on ice. They sold Oreos, Pringles, the Vietnamese version of Pringles, sun screen, Snickers, wine, and lots of other stuff tourists would want to buy. I actually bought something from one of them, not because I felt sorry for her rowing around all day, but because she had something I genuinely wanted.

After making her sale she stayed floating around my cabin door talking on her smartphone. My, how things have changed. Many of the rowers, in their downtime, were on their phones playing games or texting. I wondered what kind of coverage they got in the bay.

The top two – 2017; Bottom two – 2008

The Cave

The first stop in Halong Bay is at Surprise Cave. The cave hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still a lovely cave-like cave cram-packed with tourists who walk very slowly and take way too many pictures, me included… but mostly Mark.

The Crew knows how to relax (all photos – 2017)

Mark and I and our tour group were given a whole hour to explore the Surprise Cave. This was way too much time. Mark and I followed the path through the cave and it led all the way down to where the ferries for the boats were docked. Along the way I stopped to take a photo of Mark. I guess the 3 seconds I needed to get the shot was too much for one lady because she bumped me and cursed at me as she walked by. She did the same thing to an older couple up ahead on their romantic stroll. Then we heard some shrieks further up the path which we assumed she had caused.

But it was completely worth it because she was first in line to wait for her ferry which would not leave for another half hour. Some people just don’t know how to relax on vacay.

It’s COLD!

Ti Top Island

On the 2017 trip our tour made a stop on Ti Top Island, named after some old Soviet guy who did something quite forgettable. Most on the tour group climb to the top of the island and took photos of Halong Bay, but Mark and I were having none of that. We wanted to relax.

Seeing a beach, even a somewhat overcrowded one, we put on our swimsuits and jumped into the water. It was cold. Mark swam around much longer than I did. I stayed in the water only long enough to take a few photos. I tried to not look so cold, but I’m not that good of an actress.

The Food

Back in 2008 I was not a big seafood eater. I grew up in the Virgin Islands where fish is a main stay. I did like some fish, but that was more the exception rather than the rule. But, on my first trip to Halong Bay I decided to give the seafood a try; after all the sea creatures came from right outside the boat.

I tried shrimp with lime, salt, and pepper. It was amazing. I never knew that shrimp could be… delicious. Then I tried octopus, a meat I had only tolerated before. It was fresh and fantastic! “Give me some squid,” I demanded. It was tasty too. I left the bay a seafood lover.

Returning to Halong Bay I told Mark that most of our food will be fresh seafood caught right from the bay. “There will be some chicken, beef, and pork, but the seafood is the specialty,” I enticed him. We were both looking forward to all the fresh calamari, fish, octopus, and shrimp dishes coming our way.

But once aboard, we found that this was no longer true. The meals were mostly not seafood. It was mainly pork and beef from far away. The food was okay. Most meals started with a platter of French fries and then moved on to a random assortment of unrelated dishes. The meals were brought out one dish at a time and everyone served themselves like how one would eat at home with the family and a lot of “Could you please pass the fries?” As disappointing as it was, 90% of each meal was passable to delicious and only one meal I would out right call terrible.

Later I read reviews of other tours. Most of travelers complained about the, “disturbing quantities of fish and seafood” being served on the boats. So, I guess the tour companies read those comments and responded by offering more French fries and imported beef.

Squid Fishing Time!

The trip to Halong Bay is a group tour, so you do what the group does when the group does it. There is no going off on your own or opting out of most things. This began to get on my nerves by the second day. My first time in Halong bay I stayed 2 days, one night. I remember leaving wishing I could stay longer.

This time, I think I stayed too long. We were kept up late the first night to do some squid fishing. I guess this one, we could have opted out of by just going to bed. But, most of the group stood around waiting for something to happen like, seeing a squid in the water, but very few of us saw anything. I went to bed and later Mark caught a small squid which he handed over to the crew and never saw again.

We were told to be up by 6 AM for Tai Chi and 7:30AM we would all have breakfast. No one made it to Tai Chi and many people had to be woken up for breakfast. We had a schedule to keep. After the meal, we had to pack up all our stuff and get off our boat and unto a ferry. We left our packs on the ferry and we made our first stop.

By 9:00AM we were taken to a pearl farm, which is as interesting as it sounds. What it really is, is a floating jewelry shop with a short but boring tour at the beginning. Having no interest in buying expensive pearls, Mark and I just waited to be taken back to our boat.

Once back on our boat, we were told to take our stuff and get on another boat. This boat took us to another boat, which took us to another boat, which took us to the edge of Halong bay. After spending most of the morning going from one boat to another we were finally where we could kayak.

Before this past April 1st, tourists could kayak in Halong Bay. Now some law stops this. Online, several articles say the law is to prevent tourists from being scammed, but that makes no sense. If you want to prevent tourism scams, you should start with taxis or tour agents. By the time a tourist reaches Halong Bay, they have already been scammed. In fact, many Halong Bay tours are scams!

Anyway, now the kayaking is done closer to Catba. Which means that only people doing the 2 night tour can kayak.

This looks completely safe.

After Kayaking we had the worst meal ever. “The best part of that lunch was the tofu,” is something you never want to hear your guests say for a non-vegetarian meal, but that’s what we all said. The food was pretty bad and most of it went uneaten.

Then we were taken to Monkey Island, where monkeys rob tourists. The beach where we landed didn’t have anything to offer me; I would have much rather stayed on the boat. The main attraction on Monkey Island was a hiking trail; I was not interested. Then there was a somewhat swimmable beach; it was too cold to swim that day. So Mark and I bought some drinks and snacks and spent 30 minute shooing monkeys away.

You have to stay on your guard with the Monkey Island monkeys. According to the many signs posted on the island, you should consider yourself lucky if a monkey only steals your Pringles. The monkeys have been known to run off with sunglasses, smartphones, cameras, and wallets. These primates aren’t messing around! They are cute and entertaining at first, but when you stop to think about all you have to lose, their boldness is less appealing.

After Monkey Island we were taken to Catba Island. The great thing about the night on Catba was that it was a break from the tour group. We were left on our own with no one to keep us to a schedule.

Our group had been broken up and added to other partially broken groups so many times throughout the day, that by Catba there were only 6 of us from our original tour group. In all there were about 12 tourists that left our boat to go to Catba, the rest spent the night on Monkey Island. I can only imagine the hell they went through.

The 12 of us Catba tourists stayed in 4 different hotels. Mark and I and one of the pair of Dane stayed in the nicest of the 4 hotels. It was one of the biggest hotels in the island, though it felt empty and void of guests. Walking down the halls of this hotel reminded me a little of the hotels in North Korea. It’s big. It’s fancy. But without guests, how does it make money?

It was a 3 star hotel, which sounds impressive. The hotel was not fancy, but it did have a lot of communist-cliched fancy-hotel kitch. In the lobby was a set of shiny wooden furniture. It looked expensive and extremely uncomfortable. There were way too many tables in the dining hall and they were all too small for the 4 adults they all seemed to be set for. The chairs in the dining hall all wore wedding dress like coverings that looked fancy yet made everything just look ridiculous.

There are about 20 people staying here.

We didn’t do much in Catba other that walk around a bit before returning to the hotel. We had dinner at the hotel, since all meals came with the Halong Bay Tour Package. Although there was no one else in the entire dining hall, they made us sit with the Danish couple for dinner.

It was an awkward meal. I got the feeling that the Danish couple, though polite, didn’t want to talk to us. Maybe it was their lack of interesting conversation topics, or maybe it was their mostly speaking in Danish. We would have happily left them to their own thing if we weren’t force to sit with them on the tiny tables set out for us.

The next day for breakfast I was shocked to see about 10 people in the dining hall. Up until that point I thought it was just Mark, me, and the Danish couple. I wondered if these people, like Mark and I, were placed in this hotel as part of a packaged tour, or if the hotel had an actual functioning marketing department.

The next morning we were taken back to the boat. From that boat we were taken to another boat and given “cooking lessons”. By “cooking lessons” I mean we were shown “how to make” spring rolls. The tour package came with a cooking lesson. What actually happened was… We were given a plate with slices of vegetables and another with rice paper, along with a cup of water and one plastic glove. With a few verbal instructions we made some spring rolls. It was not a cooking lesson, but I was grateful for that. I didn’t want to actually cook on vacation; I’m on vacation.

After that we were fed lunch and left alone until we got back to the dock where we would be placed on a bus back to Hanoi. We were finally left to rest having completed everything on the schedule. It was a peace 2 hour ride back to the dock.

What I learnt from 2 trip to HaLong Bay:

  • Don’t expect to relax too much on a Halong Bay trip.
  • You might get scammed on your package tour.
    • Ask other travelers how much they paid and what agency they used.
  • 2 days, 1 night is best.
  • When the food is not great, buy snacks from the rowing ladies.
  • Squid fishing is not that fun.
  • Look up what hotel stars mean before you buy your tour package.

Vietnam
(Việt Nam)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus.
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to Vietnam. Although some nationals can get a visa at the border for a few days, many cannot or will need a visa for longer stays.
    • Visit the Vietnamese embassy in your country to get a visa.
    • Or you can apply for a visa online if you do not live near an embassy or consulate.
    • Remember if you enter Vietnam on a single entry visa then leave, you must wait 30 days before returning to Vietnam on another visa.

Phone:

Website:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Don’t worry if you cannot get Vietnamese dong from your local bank back home. You can get your dong at the bank in Vietnam. (DO NOT get money at the airport. You will never get a good rate. Use an ATM/bank.) Don’t get too much; no one will buy it back from you. Many hotels, fancy restaurants, and tour agents will take US dollars or Euros. Though who knows what exchange rate they will use? You will need dong for taxis, small shops, and local restaurants and vendors.
  • When you get to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh pick up a map of the area from any hotel, hostel, travel agency, or tourist information center. Once you have one of those you’ll be able to find anything.
  • Having a map of the area in Hanoi is very important. Every block has a different street name so once you know the name of street something is on you can easily find it with a map.
  • Wherever you choose to stay, make sure you bring a picture and the address of the hotel. One common trick that taxi and motorbike-taxi drivers like to pull is to take you to the wrong hotel. When you say, “I asked for ABC Hotel!” They will tell you that the name changed. They usually get a commission for bringing tourist to certain hotels.
    • Sometimes hotels do change names. But most likely a hotel will not change names between the time of your booking accommodations and your arrival without telling you.
    • Also, asking the average Joe on the street for ABC hotel will do nothing. Locals don’t stay in hotels, so they don’t remember hotel names. But Mr. Joe will know where 123 Hanoi St. is.
  • Also for taxis, NEVER agree to a flat rate fee. The flat rate fee will always be way higher than it should be. Always demand that the cab driver use the meter. If he doesn’t want to use his meter, get out. Taxi drivers are a dime a dozen. This is true in most countries.
  • For motorbike taxis, settle on the cost of the ride before getting on. Ask fellow travelers for advice on how much a ride should cost.
  • Watch out for cyclo drivers that claim not to have change as a way to get more money out of you. If you need to, wait for one of those fruit vendors to come along and buy something from her to make change. You really should ask the cost to your destination and make sure you have exact change before you get in the cyclo. 
  • It’s best not to say anything bad about Ho Chi Minh while in Vietnam. He is still very much loved by his people.
  • There are companies that charge 10USD to take you from Hanoi to the airport. They are all around Hanoi. Use one of those instead of jumping into a random cab.

Ha Long Bay
(Vịnh Hạ Long)

How to get there:

20°48’13.4″N 107°13’09.7″E

There are many companies that offer trips to Halong Bay from Hanoi and other cities in Vietnam. Just shop around and ask other tourists for their advice.

Cost:

Depends on the agency you use and the package you get.

Website

Notes:

  • There is no more kayaking at Halong Bay.

Map:

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Hanoi

Posted by Heliocentrism on April 12, 2017

Friday March, 31st – Sunday April, 2nd 2017

“Where should I go to eat?”

Our first day in Vietnam Mark and I were very tired. We had been traveling for almost 24 hours by the time we got to Hanoi at 8AM local time. It was about 9:30 when we got to the hostel, but check-in time wasn’t until 1PM. We had them hold our bags and went out to eat and explore the Hanoi.

Hanoi is not an easy city for walking. One must be very vigilant not to get run over. But even in our exhausted state we managed to get to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake without being harmed. We walked around the lake for as long as we could then went back to the hostel and waited for 1-o’clock to come.

Once checked-in, we showered and went to sleep. Around 4PM we went back to the lake for phở. Over dinner we discussed our game plan for our time in Hanoi. We would do one thing per day and nothing more.

On Saturday our one thing was to visit the Hoa Lo Prison. This place has seen so much suffering. The prison was built by the French to torture the Vietnamese. Then taken over by the Vietnamese to inflict pain on POWs and other Vietnamese who had pissed off those in power.

a modded hoverboard

Next we went back to Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The area around the lake is closed off to traffic on the weekends. So, instead of cars and scooters whizzing around pedestrians, there were kids in Power Wheels and carts made from hoverboards. The kids were cute, but I trusted their driving even less than I did their adult counterparts.

On our lake walk we came upon a mall. I needed new shoes and decided I’d look for a pair in the mall. Most of my clothes and shoes are labeled “Made in Vietnam” so I thought I could find an affordable pair there.

I knew better than to travel with new shoes. I had a comfortable pair of waterproof Merrells that were several months broken in. By the time we started this trip they were at the right stage of worn in and I hadn’t needed to put a band-aide on my heels while wearing them for about 4 months.

Walking through the airport in Hong Kong I noticed a crack in the leather on the toe of my left shoe. On my first day in Hanoi there was a hole where the leather meets the sole on the side of my right shoe. Then each day after that, I discovered a new hole, crack, or tear. My shoes were falling apart quickly. I didn’t know how much time they had left.

I don’t have the money to shop in a mall with marble pillars.

The first store in the mall sold just Prada, the next just Gucci. I walked past a Versace store looking for something more in my price range. I found a Gap. The Gap doesn’t sell shoes. We found an Adidas store close to the top floor, but all they had were light, small-sized, overpriced running shoes. I needed something sturdier that would fit my US women’s size 10 feet for a reasonable price.

On our way back to the hostel we stopped off at a travel agency. There was a post on the side of the building of Halong Bay tour packages. The agent came out to tell us about all the trips she could offer. Mark and I asked her about the prices of the various trips.

“How much is this 2 night 3 day tour?” one of us would ask.

“Let me call someone about that one.” The agent would then phone someone and 2 minutes later she would give us a price.

“How much would it cost if we spent the second night in a bungalow on Monkey Island instead?”

“Let me call someone to ask.”

“What if we stayed in a hotel for the second night instead of the bungalow?”

“Let me ask someone about that one.”

I didn’t have a pen on me at the time, but she had one. I kept asking her to write down the prices for me, but she won’t. “After you pick one, I will write down the information you need,” she would tell me.

“We need time to think about which one we want,” I said. “We’ll come back in a few hours.”

“You should choose now because the price will go up,” she warned.

I didn’t like hearing that. Why would the price go up in a matter of hours? Why did she have to constantly call someone else about tour package prices? I was suspicious.

We left, promising to come back with no intention of doing so. Tour agencies are a dime a dozen in Hanoi. I was sure we could find a better one. Within 10 minute we did.

Mr. Manh and me with a bottle of water he gave me.

There was one a stone’s throw from our hostel. It had several tour packages on display just like the first one. The major difference was that there were also prices for the tours painted on the display too. Because of this we knew we would pay the same price for a tour as everyone else who came into this agency.

We talked to Mr. Manh. He was the owner and he spoke about the tour like he knew what was going on. There was no calling any mysterious people to ask for prices. We settled on a tour and paid for our tickets. Later we had the chance to talk about tour prices with other travelers in Halong bay. We all paid roughly the same amount per person.

Mr. Manh was such a lovely guy. The next day he saw us walking back to our hostel. He ran out to us and handed each of us a bottle of water. “It’s a hot day. I think tourists don’t drink as much water as they should. Take these.” Then he bid us a good trip to Halong bay and went back to his office.

On Sunday we tried to go see Ho Chi Minh. I saw him the last time I was in Hanoi. Then I was on a group tour of the city. The group tour had a reservation and skipped part of the line. Even with the skip we stood in line for 20 minutes.

This time Mark and I did not go with a group tour. We got up early and left our hostel around 7AM. The place opens at 8AM. We set off on foot and got to the mausoleum half an hour later, then tried to get in line. What we thought was the start of the line was the skip area for people with reservations. We walked even further back. About a mile and a half beyond the reservation skip section, was the start of the line. And the mausoleum hadn’t even opened yet!

We got to the back of the line and just kept going. The line was too long. We went to the nearby botanical gardens instead. Then walked back to the lake.

That’s how we spent the first 3 days in Vietnam… along with all the eating and drinking. I have a check list of foods and drinks to try while in Vietnam and have add more stuff to the list.

The picture above from top to bottom and left to right:

Avocado Milkshake

Creamy, sweet, and avocado like. I liked it. Mark didn’t.

Mountain Snow Coffee

What does that even mean? It tasted like regular milky iced coffee.

Coconut Water

I don’t like coconut water, but Mark loves the stuff. When he was done, the waitress opened it for him and he ate the jelly inside. I LOVE coconut jelly.

Milkis

This is actually a drink from Korea. I couldn’t remember if it tasted like my beloved Calpis. It didn’t. It tasted like weakly flavored soda.

Coconut Coffee

It was creamy and coconutty. If you like coconut, you’ll like this.

Egg Coffee

It sounds weird, but it’s very creamy… heavily creamy. Stir well before you start. I didn’t and drank the top sweet creamy half before drinking the bitter espresso on the bottom.

Fruit Shakes/ Smoothie

Every restaurant in Hanoi sells shakes and smoothies. Most are real fruit blended with yogurt, milk, or just ice made after you order it. Sometimes they add lots of sugar, sometimes the only sweetness comes from the fruit.

Yogurt Coffee

Mark hated it. I loved it. The combination of coffee and yogurt tasted a bit like West Indian Vitamalt mixed with milk.

 

Cha Gio

deep-fried spring rolls. It’s flaky and greasy and wonderful.

Pho bo

Pho with beef. It’s starts off plain but delicious and you add spices, pepper, and limes to your liking.

Noodle with vegetables and seafood

It’s very good when done well.

The Obama Combo at Bun Cha Huong Lien

For about 4USD you get a pork soup, noodles, vegetables, over stuffed deep-fried spring rolls, and a beer or Fanta. This is where Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate for the show Parts Unknown. It tastes like BBQ soup. It’s meaty and great.

Coconut Jelly

The best part of the coconut.

Goi Cuon

Spring rolls not deep fried.

An assortment of spring rolls (some deep-fried)*

I love all types of spring rolls.

Mickey Ice cream

Macha flavored ice cream on a stick.

Banh Mi

Baguette sandwich made with Vietnamese seasoned meat. Mark can’t get enough of these.

 


Vietnam
(Việt Nam)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus.
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to Vietnam. Although some nationals can get a visa at the border for a few days, many cannot or will need a visa for longer stays.
    • Visit the Vietnamese embassy in your country to get a visa.
    • Or you can apply for a visa online if you do not live near an embassy or consulate.
    • Remember if you enter Vietnam on a single entry visa then leave, you must wait 30 days before returning to Vietnam on another visa.

Phone:

Website:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Don’t worry if you cannot get Vietnamese dong from your local bank back home. You can get your dong at the bank in Vietnam. (DO NOT get money at the airport. You will never get a good rate. Use an ATM/bank.) Don’t get too much; no one will buy it back from you. Many hotels, fancy restaurants, and tour agents will take US dollars or Euros. Though who knows what exchange rate they will use? You will need dong for taxis, small shops, and local restaurants and vendors.
  • When you get to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh pick up a map of the area from any hotel, hostel, travel agency, or tourist information center. Once you have one of those you’ll be able to find anything.
  • Having a map of the area in Hanoi is very important. Every block has a different street name so once you know the name of street something is on you can easily find it with a map.
  • Wherever you choose to stay, make sure you bring a picture and the address of the hotel. One common trick that taxi and motorbike-taxi drivers like to pull is to take you to the wrong hotel. When you say, “I asked for ABC Hotel!” They will tell you that the name changed. They usually get a commission for bringing tourist to certain hotels.
    • Sometimes hotels do change names. But most likely a hotel will not change names between the time of your booking accommodations and your arrival without telling you.
    • Also, asking the average Joe on the street for ABC hotel will do nothing. Locals don’t stay in hotels, so they don’t remember hotel names. But Mr. Joe will know where 123 Hanoi St. is.
  • Also for taxis, NEVER agree to a flat rate fee. The flat rate fee will always be way higher than it should be. Always demand that the cab driver use the meter. If he doesn’t want to use his meter, get out. Taxi drivers are a dime a dozen. This is true in most countries.
  • For motorbike taxis, settle on the cost of the ride before getting on. Ask fellow travelers for advice on how much a ride should cost.
  • Watch out for cyclo drivers that claim not to have change as a way to get more money out of you. If you need to, wait for one of those fruit vendors to come along and buy something from her to make change. You really should ask the cost to your destination and make sure you have exact change before you get in the cyclo. 
  • It’s best not to say anything bad about Ho Chi Minh while in Vietnam. He is still very much loved by his people.
  • There are companies that charge 10USD to take you from Hanoi to the airport. They are all around Hanoi. Use one of those instead of jumping into a random cab.

Mark enjoying free Fresh Beer

Old Quarter View Hostel Hanoi

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 21.034730, 105.851142

Address:

  • 42 Hàng Giầy, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Phone:

  • +84 94 321 65 89

Websites:

e-mail:

  • booking@oldquartviewhanoihostel.com

Cost:

  • 5-9 USD / night

Hours:

  • Check in – 13:00
  • Check out – 11:00

Notes:

  • Free Breakfast
  • free “fresh beer” from 18:00 to 18:30.
  • Towels & sheet are provided and changed everyday.
  • I recommend ordering an airport pick-up through the hostel.

Hỏa Lò Prison

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 21.025249, 105.846522

Address:

  • 1 Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Phone:

  • +84 4 3934 2253

Websites:

e-mail:

  • bqldtnthl_sovhtt@hanoi.gov.vn

Cost:

  • 30,000 ₫
  • 20,000 ₫ for the pamphlet.
    • All the information in the pamphlet are written in English on the walls throughout the prison.

Hours:

  • Daily 8AM – 5PM

Videos:


Vietnam Real Tours

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 21.035402, 105.851107

Address:

  • 32 Hàng Giấy, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Phone:

  • +84 914 898 129
  • +84 976 242 887

e-mail:

  • tienmanh601@gmail.com

Notes:

  • I’m not sure if his prices are lower than other package tour places, but his prices are posted on signs around the office.
  • Also, when you ask him a question about costs, he can tell you right away. He didn’t have to call anyone on the phone first, unlike other package tour places.
  • The costs of the tours are what you see posted on the walls plus 10% tax.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
(Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh)

How to get there:

  • 21°02’11.6″N 105°50’05.5″E

It is about a 30 minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. It shouldn’t cost too much to take a taxi, motorbike taxi, or a cyclo.

Address:

5 Pho Ngoc Ha Hanoi, Vietnam

Phone:

  • +84 4 942 1061

Website

Cost:

  • It is free to enter, but you are not allowed to bring anything like a purse, camera, water bottle, etc in with you.
  • There are lockers you can rent for a fee. If you are on a tour, your tour guide will hold your stuff for you.

Hours:

  • 8:00 – 11:00  Tues-Thur & Sat
Videos:

Notes: 

  • It’s best not to say anything bad about Ho Chi Minh while in Vietnam. He is still very much loved by his people.

Map:

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You’ve been scammed. Now what?

Posted by mracine on April 9, 2017

While traveling in countries that have a reputation of being dodgy, it’s best to have your guard up.  Learn the local scams that are in play and learn how to avoid them.  This seems like great advice, but it won’t stop you from being scammed.  There are too many things to watch out for and some that will hit you before you know it.

Take this warning to heart!

For example, Josie and I fell for a ruse.  Even with all the preparation beforehand.  Even though we tried to be diligent.  Even though we were confident we were safe.  We got scammed…  And we weren’t even out the doors of the airport.

Josie and I made our way from Japan to Vietnam.  Because we chose to take a cheaper route, it took several planes and layovers.  After traveling for so long and with little sleep we were the perfect people to get taken.  We couldn’t look like bigger targets.  A scammer’s wet dream, so to speak.

But, Mark, you say.  You’re not a complete idiot.  You know about the taxi scams, right?  We’ll I’m not a complete idiot.  Just a partial one.  Knowing how easily a cabbie could swindle us, we contacted the hostel we were staying at.  We choose to pay the hostel to reserve a taxi for us from the airport to the hostel ahead of time.  We were to pay the hostel instead of the driver and knew how much the trip was going to cost us.  Smart, right?  We’ll I said I was a partial idiot, didn’t I?

We were slightly delayed at immigration while we filled out our visa application.  This caused us to be about a half hour later than expected.  When we came out immigration, most people on the plane had already left.  We entered the arrival area, where we looked for our names on a paper.  Usually, the taxi drivers have limited English and hold these signs to indicate that you should go with them.  At first, a slight pang of worry swept past us as we failed to see our names.  However, it quickly went away as a driver came up to us calling our last name.

Now, I told you that we got scammed and you can probably guess, this is where we got scammed.  But did you find our misstep?  Can you guess what we did wrong?  Don’t skip ahead for the answer.  Look, you are in much better shape than we were.  You’re (probably) not sleep deprived, physically tired, reeking of your own B.O., and desperate to be in a warm bed.  So did you guess it?

Touts in training?

We grabbed our bags and followed this man.  To keep it simple, I’ll call him Mr. Hanoi.  Surprisingly, his English was pretty good.  He had us wait at a pickup spot.   A silver Toyota pulled in with his friend driving and we piled on in.  The ride overall was quite pleasant.  He asked us about our travels and he talked about Vietnam.  The usual small talk lead to him asking us about our money situation.  He seemed overly concerned that we didn’t convert any of our money to the local currency.  He asked if we wanted to stop by a bank and we told him that we would covert after we settled in at our hostel.

Now red flags were going off in both Josie’s head and mine.  It seems strange that our drivers was overly concerned with our money situation.  Why should they care?  We try to steer the conversation to something else but it went back to money.  It wasn’t until we mention that we had dollars on us, that he seemed to back off.

As we got closer to the hostel, he casually mentions that our taxi ride was going to cost $36 US Dollars.  This was it.  Both Josie and I realized that we were being scammed.  We were not in the right taxi.  We were somewhere in Hanoi, but god knows where.  Which side would the police choose to help.   How to react?

First, don’t panic.  I was panicking, but Josie wasn’t.  She instead played stupid.  She mention that she will pay at the hostel.  Then she mentioned that she agreed to pay $18 dollars beforehand.    She kept pointing to the sheet with the hostel’s number and telling them to call about the price difference.  This seemed to work out.  Mr. Hanoi wanted to keep up the pretense that he was the right taxi and the money was a misunderstanding.  Josie kept acting like she was not understanding the situation.  It was a battle of the wills.

Second, try to keep it in perspective.  Josie and I had been in this car for about 45 minutes.  In Japan, a similar ride would be way more than $36 dollars they were going to charge us.  We were getting ripped off, but at the same time getting a really good deal.  It’s one of the strange feelings you get in Vietnam.  They are adopting capitalism in ways that would make Uncle Sam proud, but no one likes the feeling of getting ripped-off.

Third, compromise.  We pulled up to our hostel, Josie still putting up the charade of misunderstanding.  “We already paid.  The hostel pays you.  Come to the hostel and get your money.”  Obviously, they couldn’t do that.  So instead Mr. Hanoi broke character and said that there was a misunderstanding.  Maybe we got in the wrong taxi, like it wasn’t his damn fault.   Josie threw out the compromise of paying them the 18 dollars that we should have paid the hostel.  With some resignation, the man agreed.  We got our bags out of the taxi and Josie handed Mr. Hanoi exactly 18 dollars.  Mr. Hanoi, for his part, took the money, looked at it, and with a shit-eating-grin asked for a $20 dollar bill instead.   Needless to say, he didn’t get the extra 2 dollars.

US dollars turned to local currency sure makes you feel rich.

It all worked out for the best.  We informed the hostel what happened and they sympathized with us.  They didn’t even charge us for the missed taxi, so the cost of the taxi ride ended up being exactly the same.

So, did you figure out our mistake?  Mr. Hanoi came up to us calling out our names.  He had a rolled up piece of paper we assumed had our names written on it.  Looking back, I assume that he looked at another person’s sign and read our names.  He approached us before the real driver was found.  Do you think you would have avoided the scam?

Overall, it’s a learning experience.  This was one that didn’t cost us anything but hassle.   Another example, was in Ha Long bay.   It didn’t happen to us, but another person we were traveling with.  We just got off the boat to Monkey Island. Incredibly, a few monkeys came to great us.  One was so brazen as to go down to the walking path where all the tourists were traveling.  A seemingly perfect photo opportunity.  Everyone drew around the money taking several photos.  However, the photogenic monkey was just a plant.  While one was diverting all the attention towards itself, another took the opportunity to relieve a tourist of their can of Pringles.  Proving that, even for simians, once you pop you just can’t stop.

Posted in Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Vietnam | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Lesson 1: Pack Light. No, Lighter. LIGHTER.

Posted by Heliocentrism on April 7, 2017

March 30th – 31st, 2017

I pride myself on being a light packer. You might not know this about me, but I travel a lot. I have tons of practice packing light for trips. The key is to pack like you’re going away for a few days and then just do laundry when you run out of clothes. You should bring the same amount of stuff whether you’re going for 5 days or 50 days.

Well, that’s the idea at least. I just could not keep that in mind when packing for this one-year trip. I started to think, “What if I get cold?” So I packed a travel blanket. “What if I get sick?” So, I packed over the counter medication for every ailment I could think of. “What if I get invited to a fancy dress party?” So, I packed a ball gown; just one.

The heart of my problem was that I wasn’t just leaving stuff behind that I would come back to once the trip was over. There is no going back. What I didn’t take, I had to dump. There were some things I just found too hard to throw away.

My backpack did get lighter and light the closer we got to the departure date. When Mark and I rolled up to Hiroshima Airport, I was confident that I had packed as light as I could. We found the Hong Kong Express check-in counter and headed towards it. But, first we had to pass a luggage scanner first.

The lady at the machine asked if my bag was going to be checked-in. Offended, I told her, “no.” “Lady,” I thought, “can’t you not tell how light I packed? This is a carry-on.” Mark and I then walked through the zigzagged line to get to the ticket agent.

The agent told us to put our bags on the scale. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re bags are too big. You must check them in and paid the fee.”

“Even my bag?” I asked. I looked at my pack. To me, it was small.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s too big for our plane.”

Mark and I had to sheepishly walk back through the zigzagged line and put our packs through the scanning machine.

Not packing light enough cost us time and money. Our cheap airfare had 2 layovers, one in Hong Kong and one in Kuala Lumpur. To cut down on cost, there are very few baggage handlers. The ones they do have only put bags on the plane or take them off. They do not transfer luggage.

This means that at each stop we had to go through passport control then pick up our bags for the carousel. We then had to check them in again, where we paid each time to re-check the carry-ons. If we had lighter bag, all we would have had to do after landing was find the gate for the next flight.

In Hong Kong, our first layover, when we checked our bags in, the lady there told me my bag was small enough to fit in the overhead compartment. Mark, on the other hand, had to check his bag. His pack is an 80 liter pack compared to my 45 liter bag.

He had to pay his fee in Hong Kong dollars. While he went off to change his yen into HK dollars, I lighten my load a bit more by shoving half the contents of my pack into his. Since it was going to get checked anyway, I might as well.

Once we sent Mark backpack down the shoot (or up the shoot, however it goes) Mark took my bag and we headed to the gate. I felt validated. I did pack light after all. It was just that Hong Kong Express had planes with unusually tiny overhead compartments.

We had to go through everything again in Kuala Lumpur. We got through passport control, found the luggage carousel, and picked up Mark’s bag. We walked to the check-in area and I found

Once in Kuala Lumpur we went through passport control, found Mark’s backpack, and picked it up. Then we headed to the check-in counter at the departure section of the airport to drop off Mark’s bag at the check-in counter.

I found a prompter that told us to go to P21 for the flight to Hanoi. Mark saw a sign leading the way to sections P and Q. He followed the sign and I followed him.

Every airport does things slightly differently. So, I didn’t think anything was off when I had to scan my baggage. People in uniform at airports are always asking to see my passport, so it didn’t bother me when some guy asked to see my passport.

No, it wasn’t until I saw an official stamp my passport that I realized that Mark and I were past the security check and he hadn’t checked in his bag yet. He bag was officially “too big” for the overhead compartment. We stopped a uniformed officer and asked her what to do. She told us to go to some other officer.

We went there. That officer told us to go to another security station and ask them. We went there. They did the same thing. We went from security station to security station, but no one could tell us how to get out once our passports had been stamped with an exit stamp.

Walking around with my backpack was a nightmare. The last time it got weighed was at the Hiroshima airport and it came up to 9kg. I had since put some of its contents into Mark’s bag, but carrying it and my day pack was too much for me. The day before this flight I had a slight stomach ache. My stomach was now in a rage. My little tummy ache had graduated under the strain of the pack.

Eventually our security station hopping took us back to the first station where we got our passports stamped. We asked them again and ended up doing this loop one more time. At the end of the second go round I looked at my watch. It was 4:00AM Japan time and 3:00 in Malaysia. “Forget it! It’s a carry-on now,” Mark declared. “Let’s find our gate.”

At the gate, Mark removed my stuff from his pack. “I have to make this thing look smaller.” He tightened all the straps and fasten all the snaps. It looked like a fat person who had been squeezed into an outfit 3 sizes too small. He sat his pack next to mine. Mine was clearly a lot smaller. His bag looked HUGE. “Whatever,” he huffed.

When it was time to board the plane, he picked up his pack and walked proudly onto the plane as if there were nothing wrong. No one stopped him. “You mean we could have done this in Hong Kong!?”

Looking back now I think about what we should have done. Here in Hanoi, there are many shops that sell inexpensive easy-to-wear tourist clothes. We should have packed only underwear, swimsuits, and one change of clothes. Once in Hanoi, We could have gone to some shops and bought new clothes with less than half the money Mark and I paid for extra baggage fee.

Live and learn I guess.

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Let’s Go Around the World, But First…

Posted by Heliocentrism on April 1, 2017

March 23rd – 30th, 2017

Mark and I were very busy during our final week in Japan. My last day of work was on Thursday the 23rd of March. The next day we went to the hospital to get some vaccinations. That took half a day. The shots themselves, four of them, took a few seconds to be administered with 4 hours of paperwork and preamble.

First we had to fill out some questionnaires that were completely in Japanese, but we were given a translator with an electronic dictionary in hand and another helper with a never-ending portfolio of forms to fill out. In situations like this you always hope that your answer is the sort with no follow-up questions.

“Have you ever had a heart attack?” the lady translated.

“No,” Mark and I said.

“No,” usually had no addition accompanying questions.

Then they asked, “Have you ever gotten sick after getting a vaccination?”

“No,” Mark replied. “Yes,” I answered. Mark looked at me with a “Now you’ve done it” stare. “Well, I have!” I told him.

When I was 16, I was enrolled in a Florida state high school. My mother had lost my immunization card, so we had no proof that I was vaccinated. Before I could attend classes, I had to get all my shots again. It took a few days as I got shot after shot after shot. It caused me to run a high fever. The doctor at the clinic said it was nothing to worry about; it happens sometimes. I was told to rest, which I did and after a few days I was fine.

“What shot was it?” the lady asked.

“I don’t remember. There were many. You know, the usual… for an American?”

Follow up questions came pouring in. “What year?” “How old were you?” “What it a combo shot?”

Mark looked at the paper. “Can she change it to, ‘no’ for that one and we just move on?” But the two hospital employees were deep into discussing what other questions I needed to be asked. They stopped some nurses who made the mistake of walking by at that very moment and dragged a few more questions for me out of them.

“Sorry,” I said to Mark. He just rubbed his eyes. “Just try to say, ‘no’ from now on. That’s the best answer.”

This is not actually City Hall; it’s the winery. I just assumed that you won’t care either way.

In the afternoon we stopped by City Hall. One cannot just pack up and leave Japan. First, one’s weight in paperwork must be filled out. We asked for the forms needed to leave Japan.

“When are you coming back?” the nice lady smiled and asked in Japanese.

“No.” My Japanese is not so good.

“No?” She was astonished. “You live in Japan now?”

“Yes.”

“At which schools do you work?”

I listed my schools and Mark’s one school.

“And, you’re not coming back to work?”

“No.”

She seemed to not be very satisfied with my answer. I turned to Mark and whispered, “They can’t refuse to let us leave, can they?”

The lady was carrying on a conversation with herself which I could not fully understand. She was definitely listing things. I got the dreaded feeling we would be there all afternoon. Another lady came by and led us to a cubical around the corner.

She asked us the same questions. “So, let me get this straight. You two, the both of you, are leaving Japan for good?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not coming back?”

“Yes.” Sometimes, you have to answer “yes” in Japanese when you would answer “no” in English.

“Never?”

“Yes.”

“Never, ever?”

“Yes.”

“For realses?”

“Yes. For realses.”

She asked us a couple more times. I think that she was not sure we understood Japanese too well. She might have just been checking so that the city hall workers weren’t starting our “leaving Japan” paperwork, only to find out what we really wanted were directions to the bathroom.

The weekend we packed and repacked our backpacks making them lighter with each re-pack.

We also started throwing away all of our possessions no one wanted to buy or take. This was a lot harder than you would think. Most of the difficulty had nothing to do with any emotional connections we felt towards our stuff. In Japan you can’t just throw something away.

There are color-coded bags that need to be used. Everything goes into some bag. You have to put everything in the right bag or the garbage man won’t take it… We actually had a Homer Simpson-like stand-off with the garbage men once, where they just refused to take our trash. Unlike Homer, it was not because of our stubbornness. We just had no idea what we were doing wrong.

Me: “Did they take the bag of glass bottles this time?”

Mark: “No. And, I don’t know why.”

Me: “Did you use a blue #4 bag?”

Mark: “Yes!”

Me: “Is there only glass in that bag? No plastic bottles posing as glass.”

Mark: “No. Those pesky plastic bottle didn’t get passed me this time.”

Me: “Did you wash all the glass bottles and remove all the labels?”

Mark: “We have the cleanest trash in this whole neighborhood!”

Me: “Did you put it out on the correct day?”

Mark: “Yes. The 3rd Wednesday of the month.”

Me: “And, you took the caps off and put them in either a blue and yellow #6 bag for soft plastic, a red #3 bag for hard plastic, or a different red #3 bag for metal?”

Mark: “Yes.”

Me: “I’m out of ideas…”

The problem was that Mark had the audacity to put clear glass bottles in the same blue #4 bag as green and brown glass bottles. If you ever hear of a Japanese person lighting his own house on fire, it might not be for insurance fraud purposes. He might just have gotten tired of sorting through the maze that is the recycling/ trash process in Japan.

Who will take our dead computers off our hands?

Adding to our stress was that on Sunday I came down with a really bad cold, then Mark caught it. We would get up, take some Day-quil. Pack. Nap. Take ibuprofen for our fevers. Throw away stuff. Nap. Take NyQuil. Throw more stuff away. Then fall asleep once the NyQuil kicked in.

On Monday we had to drive all the way down to Hiroshima City. My US driver’s license expires in April and I’m not too confident that I can get it renewed in the mail. I did all the paperwork and stuff, but I feel like something will go wrong. So I renewed my Japanese driver’s license, which expires in May, just in case. Mark and I also got international driver’s licenses for the trip.

By Wednesday evening we had a completely empty apartment. The gas man came over, gave us our last gas bill, and turned the gas off. The water man came by and did the same. The electric man also came by, collected the last payment, and told me to turn off the switch the next day before we left.

With no heaters in the apartment it was very cold. Mark and I walked to the nearest mall, which is also a community center, to waste some time and drink coffee. I felt ill at ease.

“I’m a bit nervous, but I don’t know why,” I told Mark. “I thought you would love not working for a year,” he teased. “Well, yes,” I said. “That’s the part I’m most looking forward to.”

I sighed, “Maybe it’s knowing that I will no longer have health insurance.”

“We HAVE health insurance; the travel insurance,” Mark corrected me.

“Then I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s not like I’ve never done something kind of like this before.”

Mark leaned in and asked, “Do you think something bad will happen?”

“I’m sure something bad will happen. Something bad always happens. But I think it will be more entertainingly bad that will make my blog more interesting and not some like, ‘And they were never heard from again Dot Dot Dot.’”

A little apprehensive.

“Well then just relax,” Mark said. “You’re on vacation.”

I tried. But, my stomach hurt.

Posted in Japan | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

10 Things I Will Miss About Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on March 30, 2017

  1. Conveyor Belt Sushi

They come in both the expensive and inexpensive varieties. Mark and I mainly stick to the more economical kaiten sushi places like, Hamazushi, Sushi Meijin, or Sushi Ro. They charge 100 yen (1USD) for a plate of sushi with 2 pieces of regular (or one sumptuous) cuts of sushi or rolls. I usually eat about 4 to 5 plates with a side or dessert. The cheaper restaurants also have special days for discounts. Hamazushi’s sushi plates costs 10 yen less on weekdays. Sushi Meijin gave women 10% off on Tuesdays. Although sushi is the main attraction, they also serve fries, ice cream, cakes, soups, salads, and other dishes.

  1. The Kei Car

It’s like driving half a car. They are not as fast, big, or powerful as regular cars, but they’re also not as expensive. Kei cars burn less gas. It costs less to drive a Kei car on a toll road. Both insurance and taxes for Kei cars are about half that of regular full-sized cars. There are also more parking spots around town for these smaller vehicles.

My first Kei car cost about $1,500. That price included all the taxes and both mandatory and optional insurance for a year. It didn’t have much power though. I would have to turn off the air conditioner when going uphill with more than two people in the car.

My second Kei was newer, cost about $2,500, and had a turbo something. (I don’t know that much about cars.) It had more power than my first Kei car, but it was still not as fast as other regular cars on the toll roads where you can drive faster than 80 kph. But in Japan, there are very few roads where you can drive that fast. The speed limit in and around town is about 50 to 60 kph, so it doesn’t matter that some cars can go 180 kph and mine can’t.

The only real reason to get a regular car over a Kei car, is if you have to drive around with several passengers. Kei cars can fit 2 adults comfortably, 3 adults less comfortably, and 4 adults uncomfortably. Four is the max capacity for most Kei cars. There is one make of Kei with 2 extra jump seats in the hatch-back trunk area. In general, no one ever wants to sit in a jump seat.

This happens so infrequently, we had to take a photo.

  1. Not pumping my own gas in the winter or summer

Self-service gas stations in Japan are not that common. When you find one, they seem a bit gimmicky, like a self-check-out aisle in the supermarket. Some people think that the self-service stations are cheaper, but I think it varies. The full-service place where I get my gas now, is on par with the self-service place I used when I lived in Okayama (and it comes with free stuff when you buy a pre-paid gas card).

In the winter I stay in my heated car as the gas attendant stands out in the cold pumping my gas. While he’s doing that, his co-worker cleans my windshield and mirrors. When I pay, they ask me for any trash I might have in my car that they could dump for me. This is the closest thing to a cleaning my car ever gets.

  1. Apples

Apples in Japan are just more delicious and apple-like. They only have Fuji apples, though.

  1. Calpis

It’s the drink with the funny name that also tastes kind of funny, but in a good way. If you’ve never had Calpis, let me explain the flavor this way:

Imagine you live in a little town or village somewhere. Your community doesn’t have a lot of things that most places in the world have, like pizza, the internet, newspapers, or milk. One day your neighbor, who spent a few weeks out in the world several years ago, sits by the big tree to regale the village with tales of the Outside. Everyone likes his stories so they sit at his feet to hear about ink pens, fax machines, and disco music. But, the most popular yarns are about milk.

“Tell us again about milk!” The townsfolk beg, almost whispering the word “milk” to show reverence. Everyone is fascinated about this white juice that doesn’t come from a fruit. “It feels like drinking something smooth and soft,” your neighbor tells everyone. “I would say it’s creamy, but I come from this milk-deprived village and know nothing about cream or creamy things. So I would say it’s not uncreamy because I know more about things that aren’t creamy.”

You go home and retell your neighbor’s stories to your mother who has never heard the tales before. She works in a lab and she is very curious about this “milk-juice”. She asks you to repeat everything you remember hearing about milk. She asks you, because she refuses to talk directly to the neighbor. She was engaged to him once and he stood her up on the wedding day. He ran off and went to the Outside and she has never spoken to him since.

After retelling your second-hand tales several times, your mom runs to her basement laboratory vowing that she will make this milk herself. After an hour she comes back with white-enough liquid that she added some ice cubes to. You taste it. It’s slightly too sweet, but it tastes like milk to you. You’ve never had milk, but you think this must be it.

That is what Calpis tastes like. It’s wonderful!

Salt, Denim, Sweet Potato, Gold Flakes

  1. Souvenir Ice Cream

I don’t see this as much I would like, but I’ve seen it enough times to look out for it. If you go to a town that is famous for strawberries, you will see someone selling strawberry ice cream. Of course that could just be a coincidence. But Mark and I have been to towns famous for figs and found fig ice cream. We went to an island that harvested salt, and the gift shop sold salt flavored ice cream. It was terrible!

I’ve had denim ice cream, in a denim manufacturing town, sake ice cream near a sake brewery, and asparagus ice cream near a farming village. The denim ice cream was actually ramune flavored but it had denim-blue food coloring and was sold next to The Gap.

Miyoshi is famous for its wine.

  1. Omiyage

In the states when your co-workers or friends go on vacation they will usually bring back souvenirs. They give out t-shirts, key chains, or post cards. When you get one you think, “Great, another refrigerator magnet…” In Japan the souvenirs are little cakes, cookies, or chocolates. They are either molded in the shape of some tourist attraction or have a picture of some attraction on it. Sometimes the omiyage tastes good, sometimes it tastes bad. Either way, it’s gone after two bites. You eat it and thank the person who gave it to you. And for that person, buying the omiyage was very easy. They sell boxes of the stuff at every souvenir shop and all rest stops on the toll roads. One box has anywhere from 10 to 50 little treats, so you don’t have to spend half your vacation wondering, “What should I get Kim from accounting?”

Cola & Soda KitKats

  1. Flavored KitKats

These are great. Even when they are awful, they are great. The best flavor I’ve had was sugar cookie. It had to be baked. The worst one was sweet bean cake flavored. I never found the illusive wasabi flavored ones.

His job is to protect Kobe.

  1. Everyone is so professional

At some point in time, you’ve probably needed someone somewhere to help only to find that they don’t want to. It has nothing to do with you personally. They just don’t care that much about their job and helping you is part of that job they care so little about.

This rarely happens in Japan. So many people in Japan take pride in their job no matter what that job is, whether they hate their job or not. Clerks at 7-Eleven are always well groomed and courteous. Bank tellers are happy to help you understand the Japanese on an ATM. Even full-service gas station attendants, after pumping your gas and cleaning your windows will put their lives on the line to stand out in traffic to stop cars so you can get back on the road.

No matter what question, problem, or complaint I have ever had, and no matter where I go for help, I have always been treated like my needs are very important. The people helping me have always been polite and friendly. This really helps when living in a country where I don’t speak or read the language very well.

  1. Daiso

This is the best dollar store in the world! (Though, it’s not quite a dollar store.) Most things at Daiso cost 100 yen which is roughly 1USD. This is the first place to go if you need kitchen supplies, stationary, and even electronic accessories. You need a cute box, preferably one with a cat’s face? Go to Daiso. Do you want an HDMI cable? Go to Daiso. A bicycle bell? Daiso! The only thing I would not recommend getting from Daiso is food, but only because the unit price makes the food from Daiso more expensive than the same thing at a grocery store. They sell, for example a one serving package of spaghetti at Daiso for 100 yen. At the local grocer’s, spaghetti is sold in 4 serving packs for 200 yen. If you just want to buy a small amount of something like, let’s say, umeboshi to try it. Then go to Daiso. If you like it, buy a bigger package of the stuff from the grocery store.

Posted in Japan | 1 Comment »

Time to Leave Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on March 22, 2017

Mark at the airport last December

If you asked Mark or me last month what our plans for the next year were, we wouldn’t have been able to tell you. We wanted to leave Japan and travel the world, but we had been offered positions with the Yokohama branch of our company. Yokohama seemed like a fine city. It’s an hour train ride from Tokyo. This would have been a great place for us to live and explore the top half of Japan.

We waited for months for our new contracts and information about where exactly in Yokohama we would be placed. We wondered if we would teach elementary school, junior high, or high school. Would we be at one school, two schools, …thirty? Would we take the train to work or could we walk? Our future was very uncertain.

Our current contract was coming to an end and we needed to make a decision. Our choice was an “Around the World Trip” for a year or to work another year teaching at Japanese public schools. We put up dream destinations and exotic adventures as reasons to go then tried to counter argue for staying with the implied assumptions and maybes of the new Yokohama jobs.

With three weeks left in our current contracts, we made a firm decision to leave Japan. The unknown of the positions in Yokohama were no match for a year-long vacation. We emailed the branch in Yokohama and told them that we had changed our minds. Two days later, the contracts came in the mail. We did not look at them.

So with less than three weeks left in our contracts, we had to prepare to leave Japan, for good. We had to schedule the cancellation of our internet and utilities. Change addresses on credit cards and at banks. And, we almost drowned in massive amounts of paper work.

The hardest part, though, is getting rid of our stuff. I’m writing this on my second to last day of work. We leave Japan in a little over a week. And, even though Mark and I put nine 30-liter bags of clothing in the bin before heading off to work this very morning, there is still way too much stuff in our apartment.

We have already given away or sold some of our things. The bigger items, like our fridge and washing machine we still use, but we have buyers waiting in the wings. They will be taken away right before we leave. I don’t care about most of our things; they are just things. I’m taking my best coffee tumbler, throwing away the rest, and I don’t even care.

But some items we own, I have grown attached to, like our camping gear. We gave them to a friend of ours and his family. I know it sounds silly, but giving our camping stuff to a friend who we know will enjoy camping with them felt a lot better than selling them to some stranger or abandoning them at a dump site.

Last weekend Mark and I did a mock-packing. That’s where we pack our bags with what we think we need, then carry our backpacks around for 10 minutes or so to see how heavy they are. I had to pack and repack several times to lighten the load. I still need to get rid of more stuff.

At the start of the mock-packing, Mark was sure he didn’t “have that many clothes.” But after putting all the clothes in a “to pack” pile, “to mail” pile, or a “to dump” pile it was plain to see that this was not true. It was also very disconcerting for us to realize how many “favorite shirts” we have.

It’s a little harder for us than for most travelers. Usually people leave for trips with the intent of returning home. There is no need, no matter how much a traveler would want to, to take everything. But for us, what we don’t take, other than a few things we will mail home, we have to throw away.

Some of these things were hard to come by. I love Arm & Hammer toothpaste, which is not sold here in Japan. I order them online from Amazon and pay the extra shipping. I have 2 extra tubes of the stuff, which doesn’t seem like much. But my pack is too heavy and I need to take only the essentials. Toothpaste, which can be bought anywhere (as long as you care little for the brand), is not essential.

In December, Mark and I went back home to visit family. I did pack light, but still, I didn’t wear half the clothes I brought. That was not so bad for that trip. We drove in cars the whole time. Our flight cost the same whether we took 2 check-in suitcases each or 1 combined. (We actually took one suit case combined and 1 carry-on each.)

This time, taking thing A means leaving behind thing B. It would break my heart to take a shirt I never wear after throwing away a tube of my beloved toothpaste. (Yes, I love Arm & Hammer toothpaste that much!)

And it’s not just me. This is hitting Mark hard too. He’s the king of “favorite shirts” and “favorite shorts”. I asked him the past weekend how many shirts and shorts he packed. “I have 6 shorts and 12 shirts,” Mark told me.

“Are you planning on not doing laundry for a whole year?” I asked with as much snark as I could put in my voice.

“That’s not too much. I have plenty of space in my pack.”

“Do you have a towel?” I challenged him.

“No.”

“Do you have shoes?”

“Those will be on my feet,” he answered confidently.

“What about your sleeping mat, your toiletries, your computer, camera, charger, smartphone,” I went on listing things I knew we had to take.

Mark looked at his pack. He had most of the things from the list, but they were sitting next to his pack, not in it. The pack was almost full and would not hold everything. “So, you’re saying I should start over with less clothes?”

I looked at my own backpack. It looked like it had just finished its Thanksgiving dinner and it was still missing many of the things I listed for Mark. “Yes. And, I think I do too.”

“How many shorts do you have?” he asked me.

“Four, but I think I’m going to get rid of one pair to make space for an extra tube of toothpaste…”

Posted in Japan | Leave a Comment »

Travel List Thursday: Oita Prefecture

Posted by Heliocentrism on December 1, 2016

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Posted in Japan, Kyūshū, Oita 県 | Leave a Comment »

Travel List Thursday: Bangkok

Posted by Heliocentrism on November 17, 2016

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Posted in Bangkok, Thailand | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Proving Ground

Posted by Heliocentrism on November 13, 2016

Sunday. October 23, 2016

All Pictures

One day Mark and I were lazing around the house watching old videos of Community Channel on Youtube (because someone hadn’t uploaded any new videos in weeks), when we saw a Facebook post of a friend in town. “Enjoying all this festival food at Miyoshi Park,” said the caption under a photo of our friend biting into some meat on a stick.

“There’s a festival in town? Why didn’t anyone tell us about it?”

In about 10 minutes we were showered and dressed and heading out the door. From our apartment it’s a 15-minute drive to Miyoshi Park. At the park entrance there was a long line of cars waiting to be ushered into a parking space.

We parked our car and headed to the community center in the middle of Miyoshi Park. We hadn’t even stepped out of the crosswalk linking the parking lot and the walkway to the main building when we were approached by someone with brochures.

 

Mark managed to sneak away from the solicitation leaving me on my own to turn down whatever was being offered. I put up my hands and started waving them to say, “No, thanks.” Then another lady spoke up.

Words in Japanese Mazda test track and back to Japanese again.”

Surprised, I asked in Japanese, “Right now?”

“Schedule,” the lady told me, pointing to a list of times. Speaking in Japanese, she said, “The bus leaves from here.”

How much?” In Japanese I usually use one or two-word sentences.

It’s free,” she replied with a smile. Then she pointed to the path to the community center and said something. But I couldn’t understand anything more than “Go over there…”

I smiled and thanked the lady for the information. Then I ran to catch up with Mark.

“What do you think this festival is all about?” Mark asked me. Nearing the community center, I could see many flags. There was some sort of caricature of a sea captain on them, which is odd because Miyoshi is a land-locked town. There was some Hiragana writing which said “Miyoshi,” the name of our town, some Katakana which said, “Festival,” and some Kanji which probably explained the purpose of the festival. But my ability to read Kanji is very limited.

Behind the community center was an unpaved lot. There were many emergency workers in the center of the lot. There was a tent of soldiers showing off their Hummers and rescue equipment. There was a tent filled with smoke demonstrating how hard it is to see in a house that is on fire. firefighters were standing at the entrance of the tent beckoning to passersby to go through. This was clearly some sort of safety festival… perhaps.

There was a truck with a room set up inside it. The room had only 3 walls, so that festival goers could witness the spectacle. One family was asked to go in and sit around the table to a pretend dinner. As they talked and pretended to eat, someone flipped a switch to start the simulated earthquake. The family had to show what they would do in an earthquake.

Nearby there was a crane manned by the coast guard attached to a stretcher. The crane lifted the stretcher off the ground simulating a helicopter rescue. There was a little boy strapped into the stretcher with a big grin on his face. He was having the time of his life. There was a long line of other little boys and girls waiting for their turn to be “rescued”.

There were cops barefooted and walking on a tarp laid out on the ground. There were several lines of kids. The police officers where showing them how to get away from someone holding on to them.

Then, seemingly out of place, were a bunch of Mazdas. Most of the police cars, Hummers, and firetrucks had kids climbing in them and their parents taking photos. “Can we get into a Mazda?” we jokingly wondered.

A man walked towards us and asked us something in Japanese. All I could understand was, “What time?” “Testing track?” I asked the man.

“Hai. So desu.”

“14:00,” I told him.

He handed both Mark and me tickets that said 14:00 on them. Then he said some other stuff, but all I understood was, “Go over there.” But, this time I knew exactly what he meant. We would “go over there” near where we parked by 14:00.

There were people selling homemade crafts on the parameter of the unpaved lot. We walked over to them looking at stuff no one wanted to buy. It was hard to pay any attention to the craft tents because opposite them, in the middle of the lot were the rescue workers. Alarms were going off, kids were laughing, and demonstrations were given. The crafts tents just could not compete with all that. They should have asked to be placed next to a room of old ladies knitting.

We ran into my Japanese teacher. It’s been sometime since I took lessons, but we still hangout every once in a while. She greeted me very cheerfully. She was with a group of friends and couldn’t talk long. She pushed a pair of tickets in my hand.

“What’s this?”

“Tea ceremony tickets. It’s held inside the main building on the second floor.”

“Thanks.”

“Enjoy,” she said as she and her friends headed to the Hummers.

Mark took the tickets and inspected them. They cost about 350 Yen each. “She just gives you tickets?” he asked.

“She’s always giving me stuff. It’s like I have 100 birthdays.”

We looked at the time. It was 13:30. “The tea ceremony booth closes at 16:00. We better do this before we do the Mazda thing,” Mark said. Half an hour seemed like a good amount of time to do an informal tea ceremony at a festival and make it to the bus in time for 14:00.

We walked to the main building by way of passing the food stalls on the side of the building. We were not hungry; we were just looking. Then from out of one of the stalls popped a man who grabbed Mark by the arm.

“Hello my friend!”

Mark was caught off guard. People in Japan don’t just walk up to Mark and start speaking in English, so I figured that the man knew Mark. But, Mark seemed to be side stepping any formal introductions.

“He doesn’t remember who this man is,” I thought. “How is camping?” the man asked Mark. “Oh yes. Camping is fun,” Mark replied.

“This is yakisoba. You try.”

Mark felt bad enough about not remembering who the man was or where they met that he bought the yakisoba. Mark sat down at a bench ready to dive into his food. “He must be a teacher at one of my schools from last year or the year before that. But, if he’s a teacher, why is he peddling yakisoba?”

“Less talking and more eating,” I demanded. I wanted to get to the tea ceremony before we left.

A few minutes later we made it to the main building. There was more festival going on in there. Though, the theme inside was not safety like it was outside. The theme inside was commerce.

“Well, now I have no idea what this festival is about,” I said as I scratched my head. There were many booths set up in a grid inside the auditorium. On the parameter, people sold baked goods and treats. All of the interior booths had someone showing off some products for sale. It felt like walking into 1,000 infomercials.

We walked past a man hawking ShamWows and turned at a booth selling green smoothies that looked like swamp water. We walked by two competing cell phone companies that were trying to attract new customers by giving out those awful hard candies that only old people like.

I guess if you made the mistake of trying a sample of swamp water smoothies you would gladly take the offer of free candy. After clearly showing your lack of good judgement, you would be preyed upon by the cell phone people and end up going home with a phone plan you didn’t need or want.

We ran up the stairs and looked at the time. It was 13:45. Mark whispered to me, “You think they could do a 10 minute quick ceremony for us?” “No,” I looked at Mark appalled. “Tea ceremony is about the exact opposite of that. Everything is done slowly.”

We thought back to the last tea ceremony we did. A bunch of ALTs from Miyoshi were invited to a lovely house to be served tea by a tea ceremony tea master. It took at least an hour.

“Well,” Mark reasoned, “This is a festival. This can’t be meant to last for hours. We’ll stay for as long as we can.” Then he whispered, “We’ll stay for 8 minutes then slip out like we would from church.”

I handed our tickets to a lady in a fancy kimono. She bowed and showed us to a padded bench. I was grateful to not have to sit on my heels, a position I can only hold for a few seconds.

We were given beautiful sweets that, as usual, tasted too sweet. Then we were served thick green tea from tea cups that looked like small bowls. As we drank we watched a man teach his student how to serve tea. She was practicing opening the lid of the tea container over and over again.

I sipped my tea and watched the lesson. I leaned over to Mark, “She’ll never get around to making tea at this rate.” “Less talking, more drinking,” Mark responded. I looked at Mark’s bowl. It was empty.

“Did you drink all of this in one gulp?”

“I don’t mess around!”

I sipped at my tea as fast as I could. It was still very hot. Mark looked at the time and fidgeted impatiently. Another kimonoed lady came by with a tray to take our cups. I quickly finished my drink and placed my cup on the tray next to Mark’s.

Then we sat there awkwardly wanting to go, but not sure how to do that without being completely rude. After a few minutes a family was ushered to the bench next to ours. As the ladies fussed over them getting them sweets and tea, there was a perfect moment when both the student and the teacher were looking down and the two ladies had their backs to us. We seized the moment and quietly slipped away like ghosts.

We ran down the path to the bus. We were the last people to get on, but we were in time. The bus sat there for about 5 minutes before firing up the engine and setting off for the Mazda Proving Grounds.

Shortly after moving to Miyoshi we found out that there was a test track in town where Mazda puts their cars through their paces. Whenever I drive past the Mazda gate, I try to peek in. There are guards at all the gates with very high walls and it’s fenced all around. Until this day, I was not entirely sure how big the Mazda Proving Ground was.

At the front of the bus a lady in a suit gave the passengers information about the testing facilities. It was all in Japanese, so I couldn’t understand most of it. Then a man sitting in the row in front of mine turned around and asked in English if I understood what she said. “She said she can’t paint a picture… I think,” I answered the man. That didn’t really make any sense to me.

He smiled and corrected me. “She said you can’t take photos during the tour. But, when they stop the bus you can take photos if you like.”

“Oh.”

“If you want, I can translate for you when you don’t know what she says.”

“Yes, please,” I told him. Then throughout the tour he would turn around and whisper the important and interesting facts the lady told everyone.

We drove over many of the test tracks. There were roads that simulated various real world driving conditions. There were roads with potholes, roads with bumps, roads made of dirt. They had roads made with cement and ones made with tar.

We made a turn and everyone wooed and awed. “The bus driver doesn’t turn here. This is an American turn. The road tilts so the bus driver can go straight. The road turns the bus,” Our new friend told us. I learned quickly that Japanese roads lacked this feature. Exiting from a Japanese freeway requires sudden deceleration to avoid everything in the car pitching to one side. The road does not bank enough to give a driver time to slow down without sickening amounts of inertia. It’s a rather disturbing experience for the uninitiated.

We drove on several types of American-styled paved roads. When the bus drove over the segmented cement road, everyone laughed at the clicking clacking sound the bus made. Then we tried a French road along with a German one.

Then we drove on a Belgian road. The guide said that unlike the American, French, and German roads that were made here in Japan using the same methods as in those countries, the Belgian roads were made in Belgium. In fact there were actually Belgian roads that honest-to-god Belgians drove on. Mazda ripped it up piece by piece, numbering each section as they went. Then shipped it to Japan and reassembled it at the testing facility. It was very expensive.

The Belgians roads were not smooth at all. Honestly, I could feel no discernible difference between the German, French, and American black top roads. (The America cement road clearly caused the clicking-clacking sound.) The Belgium road felt like a bad massage. It was a terrible road.

We drove passed a track with a very steep bank. A car would have to go very fast on a turn to stay on that track. Then the lady announced that the bus driver wanted to try it out… with this bus. I was wary.

I didn’t know this bus driver. I didn’t know how skilled of a driver he was. I buckled my seat belt and hoped he knew what he was doing. The driver accelerated the bus in the furthest left lane. It was a big bus filled with lots of people so it took some time to build up speed. This did not instill my confidence in the plan.

Eventually we got up to a speed fast enough that the driver could switch to a middle lane and then the most right lane with the almost vertical bank. We were flying around the corner. It was disconcerting looking out the windows and seeing sky on one side and black top on the other, all while still being in a big ungainly bus that would normally never go over 80 kph.

I did want to try out this test track and this steep bank in particular. I just wanted to do it in a sports car, something small or sleek. A cool muscle car maybe? Not a bus.

The bus stopped at another curve. We were all let out to inspect the steep bank ourselves. Many people tried to cross the road. Once you passed the second lane, the crossing became exponentially difficult. Once on the other side, people had to hold onto the guard rails to stay up there.

Everyone took as many photos as they could before getting back on the bus. We were then taken to more tracks that simulated various driving conditions. We drove past the crash testing area and a parking lot for new cars waiting to be tested. There were either no prototype cars for us to see or they were kept in doors in the aerodynamics lab building.

The proving ground was a lot bigger than I thought it was. The whole tour took roughly two hours from pick up to drop off. There were more roads, lots, lakes, and buildings than I thought were behind any of those gates.

5,000 Candles in the Wind

I still have no idea what the overall theme of the festival was, but I enjoyed it.

All Pictures


Japan
(日本)
(Nippon)

How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.

Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • International ATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank to ask what ATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with the most international cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan; I’ve never been a tourist here.)

Miyoshi Mazda Proving Ground
(マツダ三次試験場)
(Matsuda Miyoshi Shikenjō)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 34°47’49.4″N 132°51’56.0″E

Address:

  • 551 Higashisakeyamachi, Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture 728-0023

Phone:

Websites:

 

Notes:

  • Unless you get a job here or you’re on a tour, there is no entering the facilities.

Map:

 

Posted in Hiroshima 県, Honshū, Japan, Miyoshi 市 | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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