With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

Hue Beach

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 20, 2017

Saturday April 8 – 9, 2017

Time to Relax

Gone were the Hanoi times of hot days and cool evenings. Hue was blazing hot during the day and manageably hot in the evenings. This was not the weather we wanted to go sightseeing in. Walking around took too much effort at these temperatures. Breathing took too much effort. It was time to relax.

Mark and I headed to the beach. We heard many backpackers going on and on about Hue beach. They would rent a scooter and drive out there in the afternoon and come back to Hue in the evening. We wanted more. We would stay at the beach for several days.

We found accommodations in a grass hut bungalow. That sounded real-island-like. We packed our stuff, leaving behind more clothes to lighten our bags and headed over. It looked like a dream come true as we walked down the semi-tiled path to the beach and to our hut.

We entered the hut. There were six bunk beds, meaning the bungalow could sleep 12 people. Each bed had a fan and a mosquito net. But, only 2 were made up and ready to be slept in.

Sometimes the wind just blows the doors open.

“Where are the lockers?” Mark asked.

The lady showing us around opened a cupboard made of dried grass and bamboo. The door was held close not by a lock, but by friction. She pointed inside.

I took a look. I could see that some termites had had quite a feast there recently. “How does it lock?” Mark asked knowing fully well that it could not be locked. The lady shook her head.

“Well, we’re the only guests in this hut,” Mark thought. “As long as we keep the front door locked we should be okay.”  Then he asked, “Where is our key?”

The lady showed us the door, pointing to an obvious lack of a key hole. “No key,” she said. Then she walked outside to show us the bathroom.

We looked at each other wondering if it was too late to get our money back. It would not do for us to be robbed the first month of our around-the-world trip. We weren’t given too much time to think about things. The lady was out the door. “This is the bathroom.”

We followed her. The bathroom was very rustic. The toilets were okay, I guess. But, the showers could have done with more walls or a bigger door at least. There were three showers each with a set of 2 feet long saloon doors about 3 feet off the ground. No locks. No curtains.

It was actually the shower for the beach goers. It was meant to be the place where swimmers rinse the salty ocean water off themselves. These people would be clothed in their swimsuits and didn’t need complete privacy.

Mark and I would be using these same semi-open showers as showers. We would not be wearing clothes.

But, we didn’t want to admit that the place was a dump. Or at least that we pick the dump option of this resort. Our hut hotel was operated in conjunction with another resort, one that cost 350 euro a night.

The pamphlet for our bungalow was made up of mostly photos of that resort. The resort had several indoor pools. Some rooms had their own pool. There was an outdoor pool and a room of marble pillars, for some reason. On the last page in the corner was a picture of our hut.

The huts were the “backpacker friendly” accommodations at 8USD per night. So, we weren’t expecting much, just a locker and a private shower… the essentials.

It’s way past shower time.

After our tour we sat on the beach to discuss things. “What are we going to do?” I asked Mark.

“I guess we can put all our stuff in the bamboo cabinet and hope no one looks in there. If all our stuff is put away, maybe people will think the hut is empty and that there is nothing to steal.” Mark tried to sound reassuring.

“And I guess we could shower really early in the morning and really late at night…” I added.

Things didn’t seem so bad. We ordered food from the kitchen and took photos of the beach. Maybe everything would be okay…

That used to be Mark’s face.

For the first few days things did seem alright. We woke up with the sun and took showers. We got dressed and put all our stuff away. But then we got more comfortable and started hiding everything except our swimsuits and towels; they needed to dry.

We tried swimming. The beach was very nice, but the water was too rough to relax in. Even when the water only came up mid-thigh, it would be just a matter of time before a wave would come along and knock you over. I could only be in the water for about 15 minutes before getting tired of being thrown about.

Sand flea bites one week later

Then one night we stayed out on the beach a little too late. We got bitten up by sand fleas. This got us to our breaking point.  We were ready to get the hell out of Dodge.

While we were at the beach we made friends with other guests. Not the guests from the 350 euro a night resort, but other guests like us. They told us about beaches further south that were better and calmer than this beach in Hue. Mark and I decided then and there that we would beach hop our way to Ho Chi Minh City.

Checking reviews on google, booking.com, and hostelworld.com.

This time, we would choose our hotels more carefully. This time we would read online reviews and make sure our next stay will be more pleasant.

I know how complaining about our stay at a beach may come off. Three weeks earlier we had jobs, responsibility, and winter coats. No matter how you looked at it, this was an improvement.  …sand fleas and all.


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.

Posted in Hue, Vietnam | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Best beer and coffee?

Posted by mracine on May 15, 2017

Beer
Let’s stop and talk about locally crafted beer.  Do you look for fresh, high quality malt and hops?  Does the brand or batch size matter to you?  Or do you, as a connoisseur of the bubble brew, look for a different aspect to determine your enjoyment?

If you are anything like me, then you’ll be pleased to know that in Vietnam you can get a special kind of beer that pleases the pallet at an extraordinary price. “Bai hoi” also known as “fresh beer” can be found littered all over Vietnam, but predominantly in the northern regions.  I was first introduced to this delectable treasure in Hanoi.

So by now, you must be wondering what magic makes this beer stand out from the rest.  Well, it’s outstanding price.  It’s usually priced around 5,000 dong.  For those who need a price conversion, it come to 22 cents per glass.  In other words, you can drink a small kegs worth for what you usually carry in your wallet.   In fact, the first hostel I stayed in gave it away for free during happy hour.

 

P4020117

Okay… Maybe more like happy half hour.

Now, beer this cheap comes with a catch.  That would be favor.  In a fair contest, PBR would retain its ribbon and Budweiser would still be king.  But if your watch is often set to Miller Time, then you’ll have no problem pushing down this kind of libation.  Also the alcoholic nature of the drink is less than its kin.  It hovers around the 3% mark.
To those who come to South East Asia, you’ll quickly learn that beer can be inexpensive and tasty.  I suggest giving “fresh beer” as taste, but also give other locally brewed beer a chance.  Many like “Bai Saigon” and “Huda” have much more to offer in overall satisfaction.  The price may be an exponentially higher at four or five times the cost; but as with all things in life, you get what you pay for.

P4230742.JPG

Food goes down better with local beer.

Coffee

Do you remember this legendary scene from Happy Gilmore?

 

This begs the question; why not have poop for breakfast?  Well, maybe not that exactly.  You see, I had the synthetic version.

Ever since I watched the movie “The Bucket List”, Kopi luwak was something that was on my radar. Kopi luwak is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, selling for about US$3,000 per kilogram (2.2 lbs).

kopi

The specialty Vietnamese coffee beans are made with the help of wild civets also called “weasels” here.  Now, don’t imagine these weasels wearing barista aprons.  Instead, they help with the bean selection.  They supposedly only select the ripest and, as a result, the best coffee berries.  Then the weasels eat them.  After some time and nature doing natures work, the berries arrive on the other end of the weasel.   In what I assume to be “the new-guy-at-he-coffee-farm’s job”, a person goes around collecting the digested oblong berry logs laying on the ground.  The weasel excrement gets washed and then the beans goes through the same process as the rest of the coffee that gets served to us.

luwak-2-reu.jpg

And I helped.

Now, I want to make clear that I did not drink Kopi luwak.  For one thing, I hear rumors of some weasels being mistreated.  Some farmers looking to profit, cage and force the beasts to only consume coffee berries to maximize yield.   For another, most poop coffees are fake.  They are just regular coffee bean passed off as the genuine article.  And lastly, I’m not insane enough to pay more than Starbucks’s prices for coffee and I rarely allow myself to do that.

P5061077

That’s $20 per cup for possibly fake weasel coffee!

However, I learned that there are legitimate fake poo coffee at a reasonable price.  Now, that’s the kind of thing I go for. You see, the weasel poo coffee get’s its fame for two things.  The selection of the best coffee beans and the digestive enzymes in the civet’s stomach which rounds out the flavor and adds to it somehow.  Some Vietnamese companies learned how duplicated this process chemically.  Now all I had to do was to buy some.

However, I encountered some difficulty in getting my synthetic poo coffee.  In Hanoi, they are trying to sell you the “real thing”.  However, the “real thing” isn’t real at all.  It’s either synthetic poo coffee or just regular coffee.  But this doesn’t stop them for trying to sell it for “real thing” prices.  There are also lots of companies selling coffee with a picture of a weasel on them.  Technically, they don’t say its real poo coffee or synthetic poo coffee, it’s just coffee with a picture of an animal and if you get the wrong impression, well…  It gets really confusing very quickly.

Look, I’m just your average tourist looking to sit down somewhere and have a nicely brewed cup of coffee that mimics the beans that been digested by weasels.  That’s not too much to ask, is it?  Well, after studying up on it online, I learned that Vietnam was the second largest supplier of coffee in the world.  And I also learned that Vietnam also has a problem with some places selling fake coffee beans.  Yes, you read that right.  Fake coffee beans.  Apparently, you can dye soy beans and bake them a certain way to resemble and taste like coffee.  And it actually fools people.  What I can’t understand is why there isn’t coffee flavored tofu on the shelves of my local supermarket?  I would eat that.

So after some time, I found a few brands that sell the actual synthetic poo coffee with real coffee beans.  Imagine that!?  When I discovered this, I was off going in and out of stores asking where they kept their best “weasel dropping beans”. I eventually found a box that met my qualifications, I bought it and brought back to my hotel to try.

Both my wife and I were excited to give it a try.  However, a coffee pot wouldn’t work for this.  Mostly because we didn’t have a coffee pot in our hotel room.  Instead, we did like the locals and used a device that slowly drips the brew directly into our coffee cups.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

We precisely measured the amount of coffee grinds needed with our eyes.  Slowly poured in the hot water over the coffee grounds and waited.  Using my expertise, I wanted to know if I could detect all the subtle differences between regular Vietnamese coffee and this special kind.  When the coffee making device finished I looked inside my cup to discover that my wife, in tradition to how most Vietnamese make their coffee, filled it half way with condensed milk.

So did my sophisticated pallet discern the hints of weasel dung over the condensed milk?  Well, no.  The major flavor in the forefront was the delightful sweetness that is condensed milk.  Then it’s followed up by the espresso like taste of the coffee.  The subtle earthy hints and chocolate flavors or the less bitter taste didn’t really come through.

On my second go, I had my weasel manure flavored coffee straight.  And this time, I tasted… coffee.  Yep, a good cup of coffee.  A bit anti-climatic I know, but there is one good take away I get from this.  The next time I make a pot of coffee and someone tells me it taste like crap, I’ll just take it as a complement knowing how much crap coffee can cost.

gourmet-sht

 

Posted in Vietnam | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hue

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 10, 2017

Friday, April 7th, 2017

The Forbidden Purple City

This was the day it suddenly got hot. In Hanoi it was warm. But in Hue, it was hot. I brought a coffee tumbler with me on the trip. This was the day I started using it religiously. It is a Starbucks Lucy Tumbler. It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold for hours. This tumber is saving my life right now.

We would buy some cold drinks, preferably one with lots of ice. When all the drink was gone and I had nothing but ice left, I would put that ice in my tumbler with water. Then I would have cold water all day.

The Forbidden Purple City is so beautiful. I wanted to take way more photos than I did. It was just so hot. I would walk around for 15 minutes then have to look for a place in the shade to sit and sip my cold water. If the place wasn’t so spectacular, I would have given up and spent the day in an air conditioned coffee shop.

My Recommendations for surviving a Hot Day in Hue:

  1. Bring lots of water.
    • Even if you don’t have a coffee tumbler.
  2. Get an umbrella.
    • Mark bought his on the walk from the hostel to the ancient town.
  3. Go early in the morning (8:00 – 10:00) and then in the evening (after 15:30).
    • Stay indoors during the hottest part of the day.
  4. Wear a hat and sun screen.
  5. There are sections of the palace that have fans and an air condition unit. Hang out there for a while.
    • Unfortunately, the doors of the air conditioned areas are never closed. So, it’s cool only right in front of the ac units.

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.

Imperial City
(Hoàng thành)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates: 16°28′11″N 107°34′40″E

Address: 

  • Huế, Thua Thien Hue

Phone:

  • 0234 3501 143

Websites:

Cost:

Hours:

  • 8:00 -17:30

Notes:

  • The Forbidden Purple City in the restored part of the ancient town.
  • This place is very beautiful.
  • Bring lots of water.

Map:

Posted in Hue, Vietnam | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Trains in Vietnam and Other Ways to Get Around

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 5, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017 — 19:30

Top Bunk

Come and Ride the Train

Mark bought our train tickets from the travel agent at our hostel. He was a little dissatisfied with this process. He kept having to explain what he wanted. He also had a hard time understanding what the agent said too. With the length of time it took to get the ticket, he felt the commission rate the agent took was too high. In the end, Mark felt confused and he just hoped everything worked out all right.

It did. But not wanting to go through that again, Mark turned to the internet the next time we took the train. Buying the tickets online, doing it yourself, and doing it in English leaves little up to chance.

Bottom Bunk

Later we met a man and his cousin who wanted a compartment to themselves. They went to a travel agent. She told them to get a compartment for just the two of them, they would have to book all four beds in a soft sleeper berth. “Fine,” they said. “Give us the best bunks you have.” One was sold 2 upper bunks and the other sold 2 lower bunks.

When they boarded the train they found that the two sets of bunks were in two different compartments. One compartment had a screaming brat of a child. The other had Mark and me.

It took a while for Mark and me to find our berths. There was a big drunk guy fumbling with his ticket pulling a rather large non-spinner suitcase behind him and blocking the way. “I don’t have my glasses,” he kept repeating. “I don’t have my glasses.” If I wanted to hurry things along, I had to help him find his bunk.

I took his ticket and looked at it. “Oh, you’ve past it,” I told him.

“Did I?” He seemed very surprised. “I don’t have my glasses, you know. I couldn’t tell where I had to go.”

“Yes,” I said. “I think you’ve mentioned something about that.”

He spun around, but with his suitcase in front of him, he was too drunk to move it. Both he and his luggage were too large for him to just pick the suitcase up and place it behind him. He kept spinning around hoping that one more try at turning would somehow get to suitcase on the other side.

It took no time at all for a line of people to form in the corridor. I had to get this fat man out of the way quickly. He was just so drunk and clumsy.

“Hey!” I tried to get his attention, but he kept turning. “Push it instead of pulling.” He didn’t seem to hear me. “Or you could walk backwards.” I got no reaction out of him. “Probably to uncoordinated for either of those anyway,” I thought to myself.

Then I suggested that he step into any compartment, pull his luggage further down the way, then step out again. That would have easily solved the problem. But by then he was squeezing around his luggage. He wedged himself between the wall and his suitcase. There were groans and inelegant Chris Farley-like twitching.

I looked past the drunk and saw some train officials headed his way. The man was still telling everyone about his lack of glasses as he struggled to get free. Just as the officials got to him he popped out on the other side of the suitcase as it fell over.

I got everyone to back up a bit and showed him to his bunk. The train officials carried his enormous suitcase for him and placed it next to his bed. Thankfully, he was on a bottom bunk.

Later I heard him, a man of about 60, flirting with some teen-aged school girls. It made my skin crawl.

the neighbors

When we got to our bunks there was a man in his bed already. He had a little radio blasting old timey Vietnamese music. Mark and I got into our bunks and waited for everyone else to get on the train. We both had top bunks.

The fourth person in our compartment entered, pulled out a vodka bottle, and tried to talk to everyone. Only radio man could speak Vietnamese. Vodka guy asked Mark and I, “Where from?” But that was the limit to his English. We told him, but he did not understand our reply.

Giving up on conversation, he tried offering everyone vodka. Mark, radio man, and I declined. Not wanting to drink alone he left the bottle on the table unopened. Vodka guy offered many more times, after dinner, right before everyone  went to sleep, as soon as he woke up the next morning, after breakfast, and a few more extra times. There were never any takers, so the bottle sat on the table the whole ride, unused.

Since talking was out (I guess radio man was not that interesting) and drinking was unsuccessful vodka guy took out his smartphone and played American pop music. This was probably a gesture on Mark’s and my behalf. But, mind you, radio man was still playing his radio.

I began to wonder how I would deal with this. Listening to one persons bad music was one thing, but two! Then the train itself started to play very loud awful music too. It was deafening. Both Mark and vodka guy scrambled around looking for a volume button to turn down.

Once they found it, the train music was turned off. After that the duel of crappy music didn’t seem that bad. At least it wasn’t horrendously loud.

About an hour before I wanted to sleep, radio man’s radio had long since been turned off and vodka guy’s phone’s battery was dying. I prayed that he left his charger at home. Right by his head was an electrical outlet. I knew that the outlet worked. Both Mark and I had been charging our electrical devices.

Vodka guy took out his charger and my heart sank. He plugged it in. He waited a while then unplugged it. Then plugged it in again. His outlet didn’t work! He had to turn his phone off to save power. I was never so glad for a dying battery.

The Train

Best Information: Seat 61

Buying Tickets: Baolau

Pro:

  • Usually cheaper and faster than buses.
  • Generally more comfortable than buses.
  • It has air conditioning.
  • You can buy food on the train.
    • There are meal, snack, and drink carts that come by.
      • Everything cost 20-30,000 VND
      • If you are in the first car, the food cart might run out of food before it gets to you. If this happens just go to the dining car at the opposite end of the train.
    • There is usually a dining car at the caboose.
    • At longer stops, vendors from that station will jump on the train and quickly sell drinks, food, and snacks.
  • There is always a bathroom you can use.
    • If the nearest bathroom is extremely filthy, try the other end of your car or another car.
    • All train bathrooms are dirty, but not all are filthy.
    • There is usually toilet paper, but it might not get restocked often enough. Bring your own to be safe.
    • Bring your own hand soap or hand sanitizer.
    • Unlike in other countries, the toilet is never locked when the train stops at a station. This is the best time to go!
  • Very low chance of being in a traffic accident.

Con:

  • You have to go to the train station which is usually a cab ride away from your hotel.
    • Many tour/ long distance buses pick travelers up in the downtown area just a few minutes walk from most hotels and hostels.
  • Doesn’t run as often as buses in some areas.
  • Doesn’t stop at every city.
    • Some towns are between two train stations.
  • Trains only run north or south.
    • If you need to travel east or west, you have to take a bus.

Tips:

  • Bring your own toilet paper, hand soap, and hand sanitizer.
  • Bring your own snacks.
    • Even though they sell lots of snacks on the train, you might not like any of them.
  • There are hot water dispensers on every car, but they look really, really gross.
  • Book your tickets online (https://www.baolau.com/) or from your hotel.
    • Don’t buy tickets from someone who doesn’t speak English very well. You might not get what you asked for.
    • You pay a smaller commission when buying tickets online than buying at your hotel or hostel.
    • If you buy your tickets at the train station you pay no commission, but that might be quite a hassle.
  • If you try to buy your tickets on the same day you plan to travel, you run a huge risk of either getting no seat or getting a really bad seat.
    • You don’t have to buy your tickets too far in advanced, unless the day is on or near a holiday.
    • Buying tickets a few days ahead of time will do.
  • Get a soft sleeper for long rides or a soft seat for short ones.
    • The soft sleeper is softer than the hard sleeper, obviously.
      • The bottom bunks are better, in my opinion, but it costs more. (Like a few dollars or so more.)
    • The soft sleeper has 4 beds per cabin; the hard sleeper has 6.
      • You can sit up in a soft sleeper, but not in a hard sleeper.
    • I’ve never tried a hard seat, but it just looks like torture to sit on for more than a few minutes.
      • Essentially, it’s just a wooden park bench on a train.
  • Since the toilets aren’t locked when the train is pulled into a station, that’s the best time to use it since it’s not moving.
  • Don’t expect too much.
    • The trains are dingy, but so are the buses.
    • The bathrooms are dirty, but so are the ones on the buses and at rest stops.
    • The dining cars are also dingy, but so are a lot of restaurants in Vietnam.
  • Unless you are leaving from Hanoi or Saigon, your train will depart behind schedule.
    • When heading south, the further away from Hanoi you are, the more off schedule your train will be.
    • When heading north, the further away from Saigon you are, the more off schedule your train will be.

The (Sleeper) Bus / A Rest Stop / Bus Ticket

Best Information:

Buying Tickets: Baolau

Pro:

  • There are more bus destinations than train destinations.
  • Sometimes, they pick you up right from your hotel.

    The Sleeper Bus (bottom bunk)

  • The stops are right in the down town area.
  • There are many buses to choose from throughout the day.
    • There are tons of bus companies.
  • You meet a lot of backpackers.
  • The bathrooms at the rest stops are better than the ones on the train. But, only in that the train moves making it harder to aim.
    • Bring toilet paper and hand soap/ hand sanitizer.
  • You are usually given a bottle of water for free.
  • Most of them come with wifi
    • It’s good enough to check your e-mail, but that’s about it (if it works at all).

Con:

  • They are more expensive than trains and have longer travel times.
  • There is no sleeping on a sleeper bus.
    • They are uncomfortable. There is never enough room.
    • They are usually either too hot or too cold.
    • Every time you drift off to sleep, the driver will honk loudly at no one in particular on the road.
    • If you are in the bottom bunk, the person above you will constantly drop things on you and never ever apologize.
    • If you are on the top bunk, things will always slip out of your hands when the driver swerves. It’s not your fault; never apologize!
  • Half the time horrible loud music will be blasted from cheap speakers.
  • On board, there is usually no bathroom or the bathroom is broken.
  • Companies try to pack as many people aboard as possible.
    • This is not too bad on buses.
    • On vans, this means that someone (or a few someones) has to sit in a jump seat.
  • There is a higher risk of traffic accidents with the bus than with the train.

Tips:

  • Don’t take a bus if you have a weak bladder.
  • Use your headphones. (You’ll be surprised how many backpackers act like they’ve never heard of headphones or earbuds.)
  • Don’t drink too much water. Bathroom breaks are too few and far between.
  • Keep a jacket and a fan with you. Sometimes it will be too cold; sometimes too hot.
  • Bring snacks and water.
    • But, again, don’t drink too much water!
  • Wear comfortable clothes. (Well, if you’re traveling, you’re probably wearing comfortable clothes everyday anyway.)
  • Some seats are better than others.
    • On the sleeper buses, there are seats that are a lot shorter than the rest.
    • You might prefer a bottom bunk or a top.
    • Ask about the seats when you buy your tickets.
  • Take the train, if you can!
    • I have met people who genuinely enjoyed taking the sleeper bus. I’m just not one of them.
    •  Do research. There are some sleeper bus companies that have high road accident rates.
    • As for non-sleeper buses, if it’s a short trip (3 hours or less) it’s okay. Still do your research of the bus company’s safety record.
    • Check online reviews for the company before buying tickets.

And of course there is always flying. Air fare is sometimes cheaper than train tickets, but getting to and from the airport can be a big hassle. I would fly if I were pressed for time. Since I haven’t flown domestically in Vietnam, I can’t do a pros and cons list.

Tip:

  • Take a shuttle bus to and from the airport. Try not to take a taxi.

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New Shoes & Obama Combos

Posted by Heliocentrism on April 30, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mark loses his smartphone, then turns to drinking.

Back in Hanoi

Mark and I got back to Hanoi Wednesday evening. We returned to our hostel and asked about Mark’s smartphone at the reception. Mark described the phone and explained when and where he left it behind. But, there were no smartphones in the lost-and-found. The receptionist promised to check the CCTV and get back to us. We figured that was the end of that; no more smartphone.

I Need New Shoes

Thursday was our last day in Hanoi. My Merrells were soon becoming more holes than shoes. I was amazed at how quickly they were falling apart. Just one week ago, in Japan, they were perfectly good shoes. But now I found myself constantly running away from touts trying to repair my shoes on the street. If I stood anywhere for too long, someone with a shoe repair kit in hand would be bent over my feet squeezing a tube of glue and saying, “Fix, Madam? Quick fix!”

Online, I found a normal mall in Hanoi without stores like Versace or Prada. The Vincom Center was a 30 minute walk from the hostel and near a restaurant Mark wanted to try out.

We left the hostel early that morning and as we pass the reception, the guy at the desk apologized for not finding the phone after checking the CCTV. We assured him that it was, in no way, his fault. We hoped, but only somewhat expected, to be reunited with the smartphone again. We thought about buying a new smartphone at the mall if we found a cheap one.

On the walk to the mall I saw a fresh new hole forming on one of my shoes. I told Mark, “I might not make it to the mall. Go on without me.”  But I did make it to the mall with some semblance of foot covers left.

In the mall, I found a Sketchers and looked through the shoes they had on display. I was in luck; they were having a sale. I picked out a few pairs I liked. There were many suitable athletic-casual shoes to choose from.

“Do you have these in 42?” I asked the clerk.

“No, the biggest size we have is 35,” she replied.

“What about these?”

“The biggest size is 32.”

“And these?”

“34.”

I went into an Adidas store, a Nike store, and several other stores and they all said the same thing. There weren’t any women’s shoes in my size. My only options were the Converse and Vans stores, mainly because their shoes are unisex. But I didn’t want any of those; I wanted comfortable shoes that didn’t need to be broken in.

I walked past a store with several brands of athletic shoes. The manikin wore a lovely pair of retro New Balance that were brightly colored. Mark says that I like ugly shoes, which I guess I do. But, they have to be the right kind of ugly. These were the right kind.

I went in and asked if they had the manikin’s shoes in a 42. They didn’t. Their largest size was a 39. That was the largest women’s shoe size I had heard all day. I asked if they had any women’s shoes in a 42. They did; flip-flops.

I sat next to the shoes I wanted. They were on sale at 50% off and they came in 3 different colors. Mark picked up a pair of men’s shoes and walked over to me. He looked at the shoes closely. “What’s the big difference between men and women’s shoes anyway?”

I huffed. “Seriously Mark, you know nothing!” I tried to explain to him, the pedestrialy uncultured, all the integral differences between men’s and women’s shoes. “Men’s shoes are wider for one. For example, find a pair of those shoes in a 42.” I pointed to the men’s version of the shoes I wanted. “I can get the right size, but they will feel too big, because they are wider,” I announced.

Mark found me a pair of blue ones. I took them from him. I sort of liked them, but thought, “too bad they are for men.” I put the shoes on and laced them up. I walked around in them for a bit. I wanted to proclaim, “See, they are too big,” but they fit.

“Well?” Mark stood there waiting for the verdict.

“I think… I guess that maybe… They fit.” I walked around in the shoes, disillusioned by gender specific shoes. “Has my whole life been a lie!? Could I have been buying men’s shoes this whole time?”

I picked up the smaller women’s left shoe. I looked at it and the corresponding men’s shoe. They were quite similar except in size and color. The men’s shoe was not vastly wider than the women’s, only proportionally so. “I’m buying the men’s shoes.”

They were on sale at 65% off. The women’s shoes, which started out at a higher price had a smaller percentage off. I gave the sales clerk 35USD in Vietnamese dong and took my men’s shoes. I then sat down somewhere, put on my new shoes, and placed my Merrells in the New Balance box. Then a few blocks away from the mall I placed the box on a trash can on the side of the road.

Obama and Bourdain

Mark is a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s shows. I am too. Mostly, I’m envious of Bourdain. He flies all around the world on someone else’s dime to eat food and then they pay him. He gets paid to travel and eat!

In one episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, he and President Obama go to a bun cha restaurant in Hanoi. This was where Mark took me.

We found the restaurant and went in, but there was no place to sit. It was crowded, but there were stairs. We took the stairs, but still there was no empty table. But, there were more stairs. We kept going up until we reached the last floor for dining. There, we finally found an available table.

This place only serves one main dish, bun cha, and two types of sides, seafood rolls and crab rolls. The menu is very sparse. But let me tell you a little secret. Most of the time, when a restaurant only serves one thing, it means they are really good at making that one thing. And, the ingredients are more likely to be fresher.

Waiting for the rolls to arrive

We ordered the Obama Combo with the seafood rolls. It was so meaty, so flavorful, so good! The bun cha tasted like barbecued soup. The fried rolls were great too, but the soup out shone them. I loved how vegetable heavy the meaty soup was. At some point in the meal I realized that I could not eat it all. I abandoned my roll to give more stomach space to the bun cha.

Got to stay cool in this heat.

After lunch we walked around the streets of Hanoi trying drinks and eating ice cream. We tried fancy ice cream at Fanny. They had many flavors, some we hadn’t heard of before. Then we tried ice cream sold on the street from a cart being pushed by a young man. His ice cream was green, but we couldn’t tell what flavor it was. Maybe, it was matcha?

In the evening we went to a water-puppet show. It is more interesting than it is entertaining. It’s all in Vietnamese, so I’m not sure of the details of the story. I saw this show 9 years ago the last time I was in Hanoi, and from what I can remember the story is the same.

The great thing about the water-puppet show is that it is indoors in an air-conditioned room. But there was one old lady who thought it was too cold. There was an empty seat next to Mark. I don’t know where she was before, but about 10 minutes into the show she plopped herself into the chair and demanded Mark’s attention.

Mark looked at her as she gesticulated wildly. She pointed to the cord hanging from the fan. Mark, feeling that the theater could do with some more cooling, told the lady that the fan was at its max setting. “I can’t make it go faster.”

The lady mimed that she was cold and continued to point to the nearest fan. She pulled on an invisible cord and pointed to Mark. Mar,k realizing what she really wanted, concluded that the woman must be mad. Not only did Mark not want to make the place warmer than it already was, he had no desire to mess with things he ought not to touch.

Mark turned his head away from the lady and pretended he could not see her. “Fine,” I imagined her saying to herself. “Can’t send a man to do a woman’s job.” She got up and walked over to the fan. She stretched her short arms up as far as they could go. She was too short.

To be fair, Mark would have been too short too. It was out of the reach for any human. I’m sure they did that on purpose so people would not keep yanking on it during the show. This little old lady was not the first of her kind.

“Whatever,” she probably muttered to herself. “There are plenty of tall foreigners around. She did not return to the seat next to Mark. She moved to an empty seat in the next row up.

By this time, I was completely ignoring the water-puppet show. This woman was far more entertaining. I kept peeking from around Mark’s shoulders to see what she would do next but not wanting to be seen.

She found a French guy. He was tall. She tapped him on the shoulder and gestured her delight of his height. He nodded a thank you, but clearly wanted her to sit quietly so he could enjoy the show. She tapped his shoulder again. “Wow, you’re tall!” she said with her eyes and out stretched arms.

He whispered something in French. “Yes, I know,” or maybe “I’m 193 meters.” She said something to him but he waved his hands at her cutting her off. Then he pointed to the puppets.

She pointed to the cord dangling from the nearby fan. The man thought she was pointing to the entrance to the theater that most of us walked through before the show started. He got up and went over to the door. Thinking that she couldn’t open it, he opened it for her. There was no difficulty in opening the door.

He looked at the woman. She got up from her seat and stood under the fan. She reached out to grab at the cord to demonstrate that she could not do it herself. He looked at her as if just noticing her insanity. He reached up to the cord. It was far beyond his reach. The woman squealed with delight and encouraged him to get him to try harder. He shooed her away with his hands and mumbled, “Leave me alone,” in French.

Not deterred in the slightest, the old woman moved another row up. There was another empty seat next to another tall guy. This one had seen what she was up to and actively ignored her. She tried waving at him and saying, “Hello, hello, hello.” But, he blocked her out.

She tried to move another row up, but there were no more empty seats. She went to a seat in the front row. I kept an eye out for her. Five minutes later she popped up again. She had the attention of a theater usher. She whispered her complaints in his ear and he nodded in agreement. “Oh no,” I wondered. “Is he actually going to turn off the fan like she wants.

The usher stepped out the door for a split second. He re-entered with a long pole. It had a hook at the end. With the hook placed into the loop at the end of the fan’s cord he gave the pole a sharp little tug. The old woman looked pleased. Then the man did the same thing for three other fans up the walkway.

The lady’s smile drained away when she noticed that the fans had not been turned off, but turned up. There was nothing she could do. The usher continued turning fans up and then left the theater. Mark and I laughed. This was exactly what Mark wanted. It was a little cooler.

After the show we had dinner and headed back to the hostel. We picked up our backpacks and waited for the receptionist to call us a cab to take us to the train station. As we waited, a staff member, came over to us. He was the receptionist from the night before who we had ask to check the lost-and- found for Mark’s phone.

“I want to apologize again,” he started. “Yesterday, I told you someone would check the CCTV to see what happened to your phone.”

“Yes, we know,” Mark told him. “Someone already told us the phone was never found. It’s okay.”

“Oh no,” he replied. “It’s not okay. You need your phone.”

“I do, but it’s alright. I’ll…” But Mark was cut off.

“Let me finish,” the staff member said. “We looked at the CCTV, but did not see your phone. But, I looked at the staff log and there it was.”

The guy told us that a new employee found Mark’s phone. But, he didn’t know where the lost-and- found box was. So he wrapped the phone in paper and wrote a message about it in his shift log. This is not how things are normally done, so no one knew what the paper-wrapped item in the desk drawer was. But when this clerk read the new employee log to check up on him, he knew that the thing wrapped in the paper and Mark’s phone were one in the same.

“Is this your phone?” the guy asked pulling Mark’s phone out of his pocket?

It was!


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.

The Vincom Center

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 21.010995, 105.849888

Address:

  • 191 Bà Triệu, Lê Đại Hành, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội

Phone:

  • 04 3974 1919

Websites:

Hours:

  • 9:30AM–10PM

Notes:

  • This is a normal mall in Hanoi.
  • There is a really nice game center here.

Bún Chả Hương Liên

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 21.018043, 105.853976

Address:

  • 24 Lê Văn Hưu, Phạm Đình Hồ, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội

Phone:

  • 008443.9434106
  • 0084904493322
  • 0084966962683

Websites:

Cost:

Hours:

  • 10:00AM – 7:00PM

Notes:

  • From my experience

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
(Múa rối nước)

How to get there:

  • 21°01’54.3″N 105°51’12.9″E

It is very near Hoan Kiem Lake. Ask anyone in the area and they will be able to point you in the right direction.

Address:

57b Dinh Tien Hoang Str., Hanoi – Vietnam

Phone:

  • 84 4 38249494
  •          38255450
  • 84 4 39364335
  •           39364334

Website

Cost:

  • 60.000 – 100.000 VND (3-5USD)

Hours:

  • Shows last for about 50 minutes.
  • 5 available shows a day weekly:
    • 15:00,
    • 16:10,
    • 17:20,
    • 18:30,
    • 20:00

Notes:

  • It’s has air conditioning.

Map:

Posted in Hanoi, Vietnam | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

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.

Map:

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Posted in Catba, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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:

Posted in Hanoi, Vietnam | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Vietnam | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

 
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