Sapa

1/14/06

When we got back to Hanoi from halong bay, we only had three hours before we needed to be on a train to Sapa. We took advantage of that short time by having some pho and also going to a bia hoi place. Bia hoi is the local draught beer, and people often drink it at streetside stalls. It’s dirt cheap (less than 30 cents for a glass) and pretty good.

Pretty soon, we had to run off to catch the train to Sapa, a small mountain town in the north of Vietnam near the china border. Several of Vietnam’s ethnic minority hill tribes live there. On the night train from Hanoi, we shared our compartment w/ two Vietnamese women. It’s funny, most of the people we’d encountered so far took no interest in foreigners (seeing as they must see tons of tourists everyday), but one of the women in our compartment got really excited to see us and started taking photos of us with her camera phone to send to her friends.

1/15/07-1/16/07

After the train, we did the last leg of the trip by minivan up a steep and treacherous mountain road through thick fog w/ pretty much no visibility. The driver rarely drove on the correct side of the road, instead choosing to just honk his horn continuously to warn approaching cars.

In town, we were staying at a hotel about one zillion steps (or so it seemed) up the mountain that had gorgeous views of the surrounding area… or at least it would have if the fog hadn’t been so thick that you could barely see across the street. Along w/ this Australian girl August, we went out to go see the Sapa market. The market was pretty interesting w/ people selling everything from vegetables to souvenirs to clothing. the thing that made this different than other markets, was that there were lots of the hill tribe people there. It was really cool to see all of them dressed in their traditional clothes, the people of each tribe looking very different from each other. It was quite a contrast to the Vietnamese people who, other than the conical hats, pretty much all wear western clothes these days.


girls from Black Hmong tribe crowd around to watch tv inside a building

As excited as we were to see the hill tribe people, they were even more excited to see us… because they wanted to sell us their stuff. Man, these people were unbelievably persistent. You would think that there were only so many times that you could say no to buying a pillowcase or bracelet, but no, they would just follow you all over town and keep asking… just in case you finally changed your mind, or at least got tired of saying no. we got some pretty funny videos of people trying to sell us stuff.

After hiding in a café, we went on a hike that was part of our tour. The hike seemed like it would have been incredible beautiful… but we could see hardly anything because of the fog. We checked out some not-so impressive waterfalls and also went to one of the small nearby villages for a tiny bit.

That night, seeing as we were high up in the mountains, it was hellza cold. Our hotel had given us some wood that we could use for the fireplace in our room. Well, apparently I don’t really know how to start a fire (especially using damp wood/paper), so I had used almost all of the matches w/ no success. For the last match, I had the brilliant idea of putting a ton of toilet paper in the fireplace, and I finally got things going. It seemed like some of the smoke was coming into the room, but I thought it’d probably be fine and went to shower. Nope. When I came out of the shower, the whole room was filled w/ smoke, and caryn had all the windows and door open and was fanning smoke out w/ a blanket. Doh. My eyes stinging from smoke, I called reception for help. Luckily, they let us change rooms

The next morning, caryn wasn’t feeling very well so she stayed in, while I went on a long hike w/ our guide. We walked for a long time, and every once in a while the guide would stop and say something like “over there is a very beautiful view and you can see many many rice terraces… but not today because it’s too foggy”. Pretty much the whole hike down, you see almost nothing below. But when we finally got near the bottom, we could finally start to see some of the rice terraces.

The rice terraces looked really cool, even through the mist. Walking on them was super sketchy though. The ground was incredibly muddy and slippery, and you had to walk across the rocks at the edges of each terrace… one bad step and you’d fall into the nasty muddy water. Our guide also took us to a couple of the smaller villages nearby, and we got to see how some of the hill tribes live, where they go to school, etc. I had noticed that some of the people here had little red marks on their foreheads, and I asked our guide about them. “oh that is for headache” she told me, and I totally remembered how Cao Boi from Survivor would do this weird thing to people’s heads to get rid of headaches, and how a red mark would be left behind. How random that this is actually a common thing here!

At the end of our hike, we weren’t exactly eager to hike back up all the way that we had just hiked down, so we took motorbike taxis back up the mountain. Dude… it was so freaky. I was scared shitless. The road is totally wet and gravelly, you can pretty much not see more than a few yards in front of you due to fog, you aren’t wearing a helmet, there are lots of trucks and other obstacles in your way, and yet the driver insists in flying up the mountain as fast as he can. I was totally hanging on for dear life and counting down the last seconds that I had to live. I’m usually hella down for motorbikes, but this was way not cool. About half way up the mountain though, I just decided, hell, there’s nothing I can do to change the situation now… nothing is up to me, whatever will happen, will happen… may as well enjoy it. And somehow I was fine from then on… actually it was pretty fun flying up this mountain, getting drenched, and constantly driving into the never-ending white fog.

That night, a little before we took our train back to Hanoi, I started feeling a little funny. Uh-oh. I hoped things would get better, but no… they got worse. Much worse. Soon I had to make a frantic dash to the restroom and was vomiting from both ends. Yes, it was fucking awful. I was completely miserable for the rest of the evening, and barely was able to fall asleep on the train because my stomach was killing me. Ugh. It turns out, we heard later that a ton of other people who had gone up to Sapa had also gotten ill. By now actually, we’ve heard of at least 7 or 8 others. Must be something heinous going around there. ugh.

1/17/07

We got back to Hanoi a little after 5 am. It will still dark outside and we stumbled to the hotel, completely exhausted, and me still filling pretty ill. The hotel still had it’s shutters down, and we didn’t want to wake them too early, so we decided to at least wait till dawn to knock. We walked to a nearby church and collapsed on the steps. We sat there for almost an hour in the darkness, barely staying conscious while listening to the melodic singing from inside (people go to church *early* in Vietnam. Finally, at 6:30, we got to go to sleep.

The next day I spent recovering and didn’t leave the hotel room at all. More vomiting etc. I started taking antibiotics, and by night time I was feeling almost decent. Thank god cause the next day I’d be taking a flight at 6:30 am… ouch.

*v

Halong Bay

1/12/07-1/13/07

Halong bay is one of vietnam’s most famous sites. It’s a large bay w/ over 3000 limestone cliffs jutting out of it. We booked a 2 day tour to go check it out. On the 3 hour drive there, it was cool to look out the window and watch the Vietnamese countryside go by. We saw farmers working in the fields and lots of small towns.

After arriving in halong city, we boarded our boat and sailed into the bay. Our first worry was that we wouldn’t be able to see anything. The bay was extremely misty and visibility was really bad. Eventually, as we cruised along, the limestone cliffs started coming into view, but they were difficult to make out… you could pretty much only see the silhouettes. But as we got closer, things started looking better… though things were definitely still murky. In a way though, it was actually pretty cool to see the cliffs slowly appear out of the fog. As we moved forward, you could see layers upon layers of these cliffs, each of them a varying shade of gray depending on how close or far way they were.

Eventually, we got to Titop island where we got to hike up a (small) mountain. From the top, the views of the bay were stunning. For the first time, we were able to see the islands in good lighting.

After chilling on the island for a bit, we got back on the boat. The boat we were staying on was really nice. Each room had its own private bathroom and the dining area was huge though there were only 11 tourists onboard! When we anchored for the night, some of us went swimming. We got to jump from the second story of the boat down into the water below which was really fun, though insanely freezing. After swimming, we spent the rest of the night kicking it w/ the rest of the people from our tour. A couple of times, this woman on a raft would float up to our boat and try to sell us crackers, chips, etc. what a crazy job that must be, floating all day on raft from boat to boat, trying to sell stuff to tourists.

The next day, we checked out this huge cave on one of the islands. This thing was enormous and each time I though we had gotten to the end of it, there would be another huge chamber to explore.

Then, that was pretty much it. We sailed back to halong city, taking in the views as we went.

One other crazy thing about halong bay is that there are people there who live in floating houses. These are small houses on floating platforms in the bay. That must be such a weird way to live… every time you step out your front door, you’re surrounded by water.

*v

Hanoi

1/10/07-1/11/07

Due to lack of time, after only spending two days in Saigon, we flew to Hanoi today. Right away, I liked Hanoi better. Although it’s the capital of Vietnam, it’s a much smaller city than Saigon. 4 million people live here, half as much as in Saigon (although there are 3 million motorbikes!). the city is a maze of tiny little streets going in every direction and filled with tons of small shops. The buildings here are smaller but more intricate than the ones in Saigon. An interesting thing here is that a lot of the buildings are “tunnel houses”. There used to be a housing tax based on how much street space a building occupied, so to get around that, people built houses that were very narrow but tall and deep… it looks pretty crazy.

We stayed in the old quarter. In the old days, each street here was designated to sell one particular thing: cotton street, fish street, incense street etc, but nowadays everyone just sells random things all over the place. This is definitely a good place to just wander around and get lost in. although there are less scooters here, the streets are much narrower, so it might be even more scary to cross the street here! Other than just walking about, we also checked out this cool pagoda that’s on a tiny island in this lake.


this vietnamese woman made me wear her stuff for a photo… so dorky!!

One night in Hanoi we decided to check out the water puppet theater. This is a northern Vietnamese tradition where they make wooden puppets which do little performances on the water. The puppeteers (who are hidden behind the set) make puppets swim around, walk on water, etc. it was actually really neat. Lots of the puppets have moving limbs etc, and it’s really impressive just how animated the puppeteers make them.

We had two memorable dining experiences in Hanoi. We ate at a French café and tried frog legs. They were actually pretty good, and yeah, they do taste like chicken. It is kind of weird though when you’ve eaten all the meat and you see this funky frog shaped bone left. Another night, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner and went out to seafood. Looking over the menu, we saw that they had these huge golf ball sized snails which are a delicacy here in Hanoi. We decided to give it a shot. Our waiter took us down to a separate room where they kept all the fish etc, but there turned out not to be any huge snails that day… there were however lots of lobsters. Even though the lobsters were insanely expensive (about $100, but these were massive 2.5 pound lobsters), we decided to go for it. So, the guy grabs a lobster out of the tank and the thing starts going totally nuts… struggling and snapping and trying to get free. Ugh, it was awful and I started feeling really bad. I didn’t want to actually see the lobster that they were about to kill for us. So, we went back to our table and were all bummed. To make things worse, they totally overcooked the lobster and it tasted pretty bad. *sigh*. In hanoi, there are several restaurants that serve dog. I had been mulling it over as to whether I should go try it. Btu after the whole lobster scenario, I decided that I wouldn’t do it. If someone else was eating dog and offered some, I’d try it for sure just to see what it tastes like, but I couldn’t bring myself to go down there and know that a dog was slaughtered for me. Just too sad. I was reading in the guidebook that a lot of these dogs are raised on farms, but some of them are just snatched off the street!! Because of that, the Vietnamese who own dogs as pets are very possessive of them and don’t let wander very far!

*v

Ho Chi Minh City – part 2

1/9/07

Our second day in ho chi minh city, we started off like the first by having pho. So good! We then went to go check out the Chinese area of town, Cholon. There is this one street that is famous for it’s herb shops and we walked around there checking out all the crazy herbs they have for sale. So many crazy different kinds of smells. Not only did they sell herbs there, but there were lots of other weird things like dried sea horses for sale, cobras and scorpions soaked in wine, shark fins, and dried out bats.

We then checked out some of the elaborate pagodas. There are a ton of them in this part of town, sometimes more than 2 per block! It was really cool to walk through them, so quiet and tranquil compared to the hectic motorbike madness outside. Inside the pagodas, Buddhists lit incense and bowed to the Buddha statues while others left offerings on various altars. Each pagoda was filled with unbelievably intricate wooden carvings and many multicolored statues. One of the pagodas had music playing inside which really added to the atmosphere. It’s really interesting how everything in these pagodas is so much less formal than say in church or something. Whereas you would expect quietness and people talking in hushed tones etc, here cell phone go off, people chat loudly, others eat food, tourists snap photos.

Later on that day, we checked out the War Remnants Museum. This museums gave a bit of history about the Vietnam war and showed tons of photographs etc. it was pretty brutal. There were some really hardcore depictions of torture, a replica of the tiny cages that POWs were kept in, and some really disturbing photos. One of the most disturbing parts of the museum was a large display about agent orange w/ photos of deformed people and children. It was horrific to see what happened to all of these people because of what the US had done.

Here are a few other random notes about Vietnam:

When riding scooters, most of the women here wear bandanas on their faces which makes them look kind of like bank robbers or cowboys.

The Vietnamese use the same alphabet as we do which makes reading streets signs etc a lot easier.

It seems like it’s the women here that do most of the work. You see them hauling huge loads of things, cleaning the streets, cooking the food, running the shops, etc etc. I’m not really sure what the men do other than drive taxis, cyclos, and motorbikes!

*v

Ho Chi Minh City – part 1

1/8/07

I’ve heard that there’s around 6 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, and after being in town for only a few minutes, that number didn’t really surprise me. There are motorbikes *everywhere*. On any given street, there are hundreds of them streaming in either direction. Trying to cross the street is quite a daunting task. The key apparently, is to just walk across at a slow and steady pace; if you make no sudden moves, the motorbikes will just avoid you… but if you run back, or try to dodge them, you’ll be in trouble. No fear is the key. After a while, we definitely got used to it, but in the beginning it was pretty nerve-wracking, especially since most of the people on the roads don’t really follow many rules… some of the mopeds just go and drive on the sidewalks as well… yikes!

We started off our morning (after dodging many many mopeds) by having Pho. If you don’t know, pho is noodle soup, most often made w/ beef, and is the most popular dish in Vietnam. Here people eat it all the time, even for breakfast. It’s usually served w/ a bunch of accompaniments: hoisin sauce, chili paste, fish sauce, lime, vinegar, sprouts, onions, and basil. Each person can add as much of those things as they like, so in the end, every person’s pho will be unique and different from the next guy’s. our first bowl of pho (and pretty much all the pho we’ve had since then) was absolutely delicious. I just cant get enough of the stuff!

Following a walking tour from lonely planet, we soon ended up in Ben Thanh market, we were instantly accosted from all sides by women trying to sell us tshirts, hand bags, and all sorts of other souvenirs. They would literally grab onto us and pull on our arms to keep us from walking by, but we somehow got through. Like most asian markets, this one full of so many different things ranging from clothes to cookware to fruits to knick knacks. You could probably buy everything you needed from just this one market. One of the most interesting sections for me was the food section where they sold lots of crazy exotic fruits, mountains of dried shrimp that smelled so bad it almost hurt, and even really weird things like grubs.

After the market, we spent some time just wandering around town and taking it all in. Saigon is a pretty crazy town. On one hand, it is the largest city in Vietnam and is super modern with large fancy stores, big restaurants, etc but on the other hand a lot of the people still definitely live in the old style here. Men drive cyclos (a bicycle with a bench thing in front of it to cart people around in) around town, people cook in the streets, a lot of people still wear the old-school Vietnam conical hats, and old women hobble around the streets carrying yokes with fruit etc for sale. These old women are pretty hardcore… they’ll often be hauling *huge* loads of fruit, or sometimes a bunch of pots and pans so they can cool meals for people right on the street…. I really don’t know how they manage to carry that heavy stuff around all day.

Later on, we checked out the ho chi minh city museum to learn a bit about the history of the town. By then, we were beat, so we headed back to the hotel to nap. There’s this park on pham ngu lao street that we always passed by when going to our hotel. it’s funny cause we would always see huge groups of people doing calisthenics in the park… I guess if you don’t have 24 hour fitness in town, you gotta exercise somewhere! This is also the park where young Vietnamese couples go to hang out and we’d always see them clinging to each other and sitting or reclining on their scooters… I guess driving isn’t the only use for a scooter! The other crazy thing about this park was that people would get manicures right there in the park on benches.

That night, we went out to this restaurant where the specialty was grilling marinated meat at your table. The food was hella good, and cheap. did I mention that pretty much all the food here is dirt cheap? We’ve had meals where we paid like $2 for both of us and that’s including drinks! Anyways, checking out the menu at this place really gave us an idea of how wide a range of things Vietnamese people eat. Some of the things on the menu: minced snake, fried cricket, grilled turtle-dove, roast pigeon, grilled field rat, and scorpion. It was only our first day here, so it was a bit early to get too crazy.. but one of these days we’ll have to try some of this stuff.

*v

i made it to vietnam!!!

the journey here was so exhausting. 14 hour flight to hong kong. the seat in front of me was broken so it was falling into my lap, the food was some of the worst airline food of all time (they actually served cup of noodle instead of one of the meals?!), the service was surly, and the sound stopped working 80% of the way thru the inflight movie. 14 hours later, we got off in hong kong, exhausted and slightly delirious. after a painful wait, we flew the last few hours to vietnam.

but anyways, WE’RE HERE!! i’m so excited! after a full night of sleep, i cant wait to go out, explore, and try my first bowl of Pho!

*v

Bar#49 – Pink

12/16/06

Pink is the prefect place to end the night after going to a few other bars in the mission. it’s open late, there’s fun music, and the drinks are pretty strong. the all pink decor is a little cheesy, but it works her for some reason. i may have ended up spilling more drinks than i actually drank, but it was definitely a good time.

Pink is at 2925 16th Street in San Francisco

Bar#47 – Sugar Lounge

12/16/06

this is a cool shwanky bar in hayes valley. slick decor yet doesnt feel overly pretentious. the drinks we got were super good. pretty pricey at 8$ a piece, but pretty much everything i tasted was hella delicious. this place’ll be a nice to place to get a drink when i want a change from going to place pigalle all the time.

Sugar Lounge is at 377 Hayes Street in San Francisco