Ha Long Bay


164_6445-4.JPGHa Long Bay is the most famous of Vietnam’s attractions and since we have time to kill while we wait for our Chinese visa, we decided to do a 3 day/2 night tour of the bay. We got picked up from our hotel in Hanoi and then spent another hour driving around filling the bus up with more backpackers. It was a three and a half hour drive to bay, which was broken up with a not-so-pleasant stop at a handicraft warehouse. It seems that every tour we’ve taken in Vietnam always stops at one, although they never tell you. They just take you and stop at one against your (and every passenger’s) will. Five or ten minutes is never an option, despite the fact that everyone just goes to the bathroom real quick and spends the rest of the time standing around fending off Vietnamese salespeople. Anyways, we finally did make it to the boat and had lunch as we started out into the bay. We asked if we could put our bags in our rooms, but our guide said not yet, because the rooms weren’t clean yet. So we ate lunch and enjoyed the spectacular scenery. The bay’s unique feature is the hundreds of small islands that rise straight out of the water. Someone at our table noticed the boat had way more people than rooms and asked our guide about it. He said that some people onboard were just doing a day trip. Kind of odd, because that would imply we’d have to go back to where our boat launched from, I thought. I didn’t say anything because I figured getting a sufficient explanation would be futile anyways. So we happily ate and admired the bay as we glid through the water.

Our first stop was an island with several large caves. We disembarked and entered the first one. Despite only being discovered a decade ago, the place was totally developed. You might think that’s a weird way to describe a cave, but imagine a paved path running through it and colored lighting illuminating the walls and geological formations. Joylani likened it to something at Disneyland. It was kind of like that, complete with fake waterfalls and fountains inside. I was pretty happy to get out of there. Although our guide told us not to because we didn’t have time, Joylani and I went to another cave on the island. It was probably the biggest I’ve ever seen and way cooler than the Disney cave. Back on the boat we made our way to a fishing village, which consisted of individual floating shacks grouped somewhat near each other. We opted to take a short little raft ride around, which was okay until we tried to get off and were told there was a 50,000 dong required donation per person. Afterwards, we asked if we could get our room, so Joylani could change clothes. He said 15 minutes. “Why?” we asked. “15 minutes.” That was kind of the breaking point with our guide. The needless stop at the handicraft factory, the overcrowded boat, the pointless directions he gave us (go here, don’t go there, stand over there) all for no apparent reason and then trying to charge us extra for things when the tour was all inclusive, and then not giving us a room (although they were all clean and nothing would change in the next 15 minutes because the crew was sitting around doing nothing all day). Joylani and I had a little “talk” with our guide. He gave us our room and we went to change. When we came out (around the time he said we’d all get rooms), the guide was telling some people on board that plans had changed. It turns out everyone on the boat was told they’d sleep on the boat that night, but the tour company had just overbooked the boat and was making some people stay on the island that night. That’s why he didn’t want to give us a room until 15 minutes later, so he could kick us off along with the half dozen others he made get off. After dropping the poor souls off, the boat went offshore a bit and we jumped into the green water. We swam for just a little bit, before climbing into some kayaks. Joylani and I paddled around for about an hour. I think we have the same conversation 2-3 minutes into our kayak sessions everytime we go out: “I don’t think kayaking is our thing.” “Yeah, I don’t think so either.” Yet for some reason, we always do it if given the chance. It was nice to get off the boat and just have some time after arguing with that guide all day though.


can you find Joylani in the HUGE cave?

One thing I’ve learned to avoid at all costs is getting Joylani mad, because you do not want to be the target of her anger. Usually I try to deal with frustrating people in order to save them. On our trip, I try to calm her down a bit before she takes her complaints to people. Even at home, I tell her to calm down and go easy on the inept customer service reps every company employs. It takes a lot to get her angry, but if you’re shady enough to incite her anger, you probably deserve what follows. After ripping into the tour guide a little earlier today, he was extra polite and always asking us if we’re okay. Maybe he was just humoring us, but maybe he was just practicing self-preservation. To the bigger picture, Vietnam is seemingly more and more like Nepal. And not in a good way. We’ve been continually lied too, made the targets of scams, and it’s the only place that we’ve both gotten visibly angry at people. (Joylani wants me to write that sometimes she calms me down too)


floating village

The second day of the tour was more awful than the first, which is hard to imagine. Joylani woke up puking in the morning. Which continued once we disembarked the boat and got a bus to visit Cat Ba National Park on Cat Ba Island. Joylani checked into our hotel on the island and slept, while I went for a more strenuous than expected hike in the park. It was a pretty steep trail than went up and then down, up and then down, following the bumpy geography. There was a fair amount of climbing over rocks and it was incredibly hot. I’m not exaggerating when I say its probably the most I’ve ever sweated. My shirt was completely drenched down to the horizontal line where my pants came up to. Sweat was almost streaming off my chin most of the hike. Everyone else looked the same though; shirts sweat-soaked down to their belt-line and dripping sweaty faces. Joylani gave me quite the look when I arrived at the hotel. The views from the peaks we scaled on the hike were phenomenal though. The geography was very very unique. Unfortunately, I developed a migraine and slept on and off until the next morning. Its kind of worrisome because although I’ve frequently gotten headaches throughout my life, I’ve had two bad migraines in the past week. Hope its not related to when I bumped my head really hard on a boat in the Gilis. The hotel was clean, but sheisty. They didn’t even turn on electricity until 7, despite the fact that it was million degrees outside. Joylani and I did go downstairs for dinner where we met two really cool Malaysian couples, but Joylani couldn’t eat and left early to do some barfing.

Day three was finally better. Joylani felt better and my headache had gone away. We ate an early breakfast and took a bus to the boat. We cruised around the bay for awhile before finally heading back to the mainland. The whole trip was a somewhat of a microcosm of our time in Vietnam thus far. The bay was really cool. Not so unique that there’s nothing else like it in the world, but it was pretty cool. But despite the bay, the frustration of our tour being a scam operation, the hassle of having to deal with our guide and other shady people, and both being sick made the trip memorable in the worst kind of way.



Waiting Game

164_6445-4.JPGI’ve mentioned it a couple times, but the reason we kind of rushed to get to Hanoi is to get our China visa. China has long been part of our itinerary and our flight home this summer is out of Beijing. We never thought it would be a problem to get into the country until recently though. From our research, it seemed that China has always offered tourist visas from 30-day single entry to two-year multiple entry visas. It turns out that their consular information is misleading; its rumored that most of the visas don’t even exist, while the max that most people get is anywhere between 30 and 90 days. Not that matters too much though, as we were never planning to stay 90 days. But with the Olympics coming up, they’ve clamped down on visas in an unprecedented way.

There is total confusion around the world regarding the visa situation. Some departments are saying that there has been no policy change, while other have issued press released detailing the new restrictions. The European and American Chambers of Commerce have lodged complaints with China, and even the Australian Prime Misnister Rudd has commented on the situation. Besides not being able to obtain anything more than a 30-day single entry visa (which basically eliminates HK from our itinerary :( ), visa applications must have R/T air and hotel bookings attached. And while every citizens of every nation on earth pay ten to thirty dollars for a visa, Americans must pay 130 for any visa! Even for a transit visa! Some Chinese embassies and consulates have stopped issuing visas altogether and some will only issue to residents of that country. Most are just plain inconsistent, which unfortunately happens to be the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi.

Yesterday, I went to the embassy to pick up the forms and ask exactly what documentation I would need. I spent a large part of the day getting everything together. This morning we arrived before it opened and were one of the first in the door. We saw a few other westerners picking up their passports while we anxiously waited. Once at the counter, the clerk looked over our papers and passports and then asked us what we were doing in Vietnam. We told him we were traveling here on a tourist visa, to which he replied we’d have to apply for a visa in America. Only Americans working here can get visas here. And that was the final verdict. Despite the fact that I’d seen how many other backpackers picking up their visas the past two days and despite the fact that yesterday they explained to me what I’d need to bring when I applied today. Most travel agents won’t even attempt to get a China visa for us because of all the hassle that it involves, but we found a couple that would try to get one from Saigon for a fee. So we handed over our passports and will have to wait a week to see if we’re going to China.

This whole thing has been incredibly frustrating, which is why I’m writing this ventful post. The Chinese government does and says a lot of weird things, but this is the first time I’ve had to deal with the giant machine personally. Information and explanations are difficult to get and rationality is absent. I’m mostly upset that we cannot go to Hong Kong and we’ll have to wait in Vietnam for two more weeks before we can enter China. Well, technically, we can go to Hong Kong and get another visa or we can enter China earlier and extend our visa once there. But since China seems to have issues with Americans, it’ll cost an additional 130 USD (260 for both of us) for either option, while any other nationality in the world would pay 30 USD max. Anyways, now we wait.

Arriving in Hanoi


164_6445-4.JPGOur journey to and arrival in Hanoi has been a mixed experience, but I feel that Hanoi could be a turning point in our Vietnamese experience. Although we were promised a sleeper bus and boarded a sleeper bus in Hue, the bus ticket guy told us our tickets weren’t good for that bus and we had to switch to a sitting bus. At that point, I knew it was a scam but arguing would do no good. Post-payment service is non-existent in Vietnam and arguing doesn’t really work; the only other place like that has been Nepal. Funny, I thought the people there were really shady too. Anyways, there was nothing we could really do, so we boarded the sitting bus that they took us too- scammed. On the bright side, the bus was full of locals, which was what I’ve kinda been craving (see my last post). Although there were many downsides, at least we got a glimpse of local life. Like in the other mainland SEA nations, many people threw up during the bus ride. I’m not sure if people in Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam just aren’t used to riding buses or what, but little plastic bags are always available and people are always throwing up in them or on the ground at food/toilet stops. The food stop was pretty nasty, but at least it was just one and it was quick, unlike the multiple 50-minute stops the touristy bus takes at overpriced tourist-traps. Unfortunately, unlike the touristy buses which deposit you right in the center of town, our bus stopped well outside of the city. So we groggily got off the bus and hired a couple of motorbikes to take us into town. Joylani mentioned that at least we got to see more of the city in the 10 minutes it took to speed through the masses of motorbikes that clogged the maze that is Hanoi.

We spent the morning gathering information from travel agencies and the Chinese embassy regarding visas. It turns out its pretty expensive to go through a travel agency, so we’ll get all our paperwork together and try to apply by ourselves tomorrow. Actually, I went the embassy after the travel agents, while Joylani went back to the hotel. I was a bit surprised to find her not there by the time I got back to the hotel though. She arrived about 30 minutes after me, looking quite disheveled, and told me my directions back to the hotel were junk. I showed her the map I gave directions from and after examining it, she said, “That map’s not right. That’s not how the streets go.” I was skeptical, but didn’t raise the issue. Later, I went out by myself to do some visa stuff. On the way back, I ran into a T-intersection where the street should have continued straight- the exact place she had gotten lost too. Although somewhat close to the hotel, I walked around for an hour looking for it. As I wandered around though, I did notice why Hanoi is always described in such endearing terms. I’d been running around all morning, but I actually noticed Hanoi when I got lost. Little conical hatted women jostled up and down the streets carrying food and goods in bamboo baskets. The Old Quarter, where I was walking, was old. The shopkeepers were old and wrinkly. The old colonial architecture and antiquated shop and storefronts contrasted with the tons of motorbikes honking and grazing by me every second. Little boutique shops were mixed in with small street kitchens and random stores selling all sorts of junk. Several times, I walked down a street where nearly every shop was selling metalwork. I also found myself on furniture street a couple times. Finally, I did find the hotel. Just as Joylani did, I grabbed out guidebook and turned to the map. It was wrong. Moreover, we realized getting lost was easier as many of the street names only refer to a block or two. So a single street could have 3, 4, 5, or more names as you walk down it. That’s why we could never find our street. It turns out that the streets are named after the goods that used to be sold on them in the old days. The metal block, the furniture block, the bamboo block, and so on. Interesting and at least a reason for the stupidity of every block of some streets being named differently, but we were both in pretty bad moods after getting lost. But we ate well.

Throughout the day, we found really good food- pho, che, bun bo, and even kebaps to mention a few. After two weeks of eating mediocre food, its seems we’ve arrived foodwise. Hanoi seems to have a plethora of excellent food, which is great since that was the main thing we were looking forward to in Vietnam. Plus it’s interesting to see all the craziness that unfolds in the small streets and lanes of the Old Quarter. Today was pretty frustrating between our bus situation last night, the visa hassle, and getting needlessly last in the midday heat for an hour, but I’m feeling okay tonight. So far, Hanoi seems like a really cool place. I really hope that it is and that today will be an inflection point in our Vietnam visit.

Disappointing So Far…


164_6445-4.JPGI had high expectations for Vietnam. It was the final country in my trifecta of most anticipated countries, following Nepal and Indonesia. Moreover, Joylani actually wanted to visit this one beforehand too.

Yet two weeks into our time here, we’re both feeling disappointed. It’s a crazy place with lots going on and we’re surrounded by activity, but its all business. It was our second day in-country, when I first mentioned to Joylani that Saigon seemed to be consumed with “stuff.” Commercialism is rampant here. Everyone is busy trying to make money; half the time, they’re trying to make it off of us. Shamelessly overcharging, giving us the hard sale pitches, trying their scams on us. People talk to us randomly occasionally, but that stops the moment its communicated we’re not going to spend money. If you’re not going to spend you don’t exist. Not that Vietnamese seem very friendly or welcoming anyways; in fact, they often come across rude and/or pushy to me. Joylani said maybe it’s because Vietnam has been screwed by everyone for the past how many centuries, so perhaps everyone is out for themselves. I don’t think that’s it because most of Asia has had tough luck historically. The focus on money and the vibe of the people has been a downer.

Secondly, Vietnam doesn’t seem to have too much adventure. Saigon was crazy, but it wasn’t an adventurous place. And besides the far northwest, I’m not aware of any adventurous places we can go in Vietnam. Maybe my expectations for Vietnam were too high though. But on the other hand, I didn’t have too many expectations beyond good food. Even that has fallen short though. Perhaps I’m being too tough on Vietnam. We just came from two of the friendliest and warm places we’ve been: Malaysia and Indonesia. Both countries were full of adventure too. I don’t think this fact has colored my opinions too much, but it has emphasized the things I dislike about Vietnam. There are some factors that probably have influenced our experience and my opinions. The anxiousness of me taking the GMAT in Saigon, the uncertainty of our China visas, and the resulting stresses of planning around that. Additionally, perhaps I don’t feel there’s much adventure here because we’ve insulated ourselves somewhat from “real” Vietnamese experiences. Since things are so cheap here, our hotels are among the best all trip and we’re taking high-end buses. The downside is that we spend more time in the rooms than usual and our buses are filled with tourists. Which brings me to Vietnam’s pluses: its cheap and the food is good. Yet, we’re both still feeling disappointed with the country so far. I guess even though I’m super-frugal and Joylani loves food, Vietnam’s good deals and delicious food cannot overcome its cold people and lack of adventure.

Hue for a Day


joylani 130pxI don’t have much to say about Hue, other than it sounds like “whey” and not “hue” as in a color. It was a pleasant place to walk around with wide tree-lined avenues, big colonial-style buildings, and these pink lotus lanterns that we saw here and there in celebration of Vesak Day. Equally magnificent, though contrasting the colonial simplicity with imperial decor was the old walled royal city. Here’s a couple of my favorite details:

imperial palace (2)

imperial palace

A Day in Hue


164_6445-4.JPGHue has been a really quick stop on our march northwards. We probably would’ve spent longer here, but we’re trying to get to Hanoi asap to get our Chinese visa in order. We arrived yesterday afternoon and spent the rest of the day exploring the town a bit. There were a ton of motorbikes like everywhere in Vietnam, but for a large city it seemed pretty quiet. Despite not having the quaint colonial atmosphere of Hoi An, it was a pleasant place to walk around. The buildings and architecture were plain and unattractive, but the streets and trees were decorated with lanterns. Decorations adorned the city and buildings in anticipation of a holiday, although I never quite got what it was about. We walked down to the small Contemporary Arts Museum. It was closed for the holiday, but we found a guard and paid him a little bit to let us in. It was just a small little gallery of just a couple rooms, but Joylani thought it was okay. We searched around for food for awhile until we decided to just eat at the next place we saw. So we sweatily walked into a local place on a sidestreet. Most the tables were occupied by groups of men around tables full of empty beer bottles. The waitresses giggled and urged each other to take our order. Finally one of them was pressured into approaching the foreigners and she took our order, which was accomplished by randomly mispronouncing two random menu items (since the entire menu was in Viet). Luckily, we ended up with a plate full of vegetables and another of pork. After we got some rice, it turned out to be a pretty good meal. I felt pretty fortunate having not known what we were ordering. On a sidenote, Vietnamese speak less English than most places we’ve gone. On top of that, I think their English is among the worst we’ve heard. On the other hand, I’ve pronounced some things that I’ve read or heard and they cannot understand me at all. Something about the sounds, tones, and inflections of English and Vietnamese language make them extremely different and difficult for a speaker of one to learn/speak the other and vice versa.

We got up pretty early this morning and headed to the walled citadel across the river from our hotel. Inside the citadel was another moat and walled fortress, known as the Imperial City. It is the main attraction in Hue and for good reason. The old stone walls and ornate but imposing wood gate was cool. Inside was different from anything we’ve seen on this trip. Architecturally and stylistically, it became clear that we’ve moved into the Chinese sphere of influence. The old writing was in Chinese characters and the architecture and gardens resembled East Asian style much more than Thai or Khmer influences. There wasn’t anything that really stood out, but it was enjoyable walking within the large stone walls, gardens, and old wooden houses and halls. Its nice to have a little change of scenery as we begin moving out of SEA into East Asia. After the Imperial City, it was back to hotel to pack-up. Now we’re just killing some time until our bus to Hanoi tonight. I dislike rushing through places and Hue was a rush, but we saw the main attraction and explored about as much of the town as we probably would’ve if we had stayed for a few days.

Hoi An


164_6445-4.JPGThe past couple days in Hoi An, an old colonial town, have been a refreshing change of scenery. It’s a pretty touristy place, but its our first venture outside a Vietnamese city or beach. It was once a port town, sitting on the banks of a large river. It had a large population of Japanese and Chinese merchants, although most of the Japanese left in the eighteenth century when the shogun banned Japanese from traveling abroad. Nonetheless, a Japanese covered bridge is a main attraction and the town adopted it as its logo. If a small bridge is one of the main tourist attractions, you can probably understand how it took us only a couple hours to see everything of note in town. But besides the old Chinese clan houses and one-room “museums,” it was interesting to stroll through the old town with its colonial-Chinese architecture. There really isn’t much to do in Hoi An, but take in the character of the old town. Hoi An is also known as the silk and tailoring capitol of Vietnam, so we did take some time to have some clothes made. Two shirts and a pair of shoes for me and five shirts and a blazer for Joylani, all custom made, all for 102 USD. Joylani also took a cooking class, so hopefully I’ll be able to continue eating Vietnamese food once we get home. In my posts, I really want to focus more on the places rather than our activities, but I’m finding it difficult. I mean all the places we’ve been in Vietnam have had their interesting parts, but they’re just not very exciting places.

How to Make a Bowl of Pho

cooking hoi an

joylani 130pxYesterday we had some good pho for lunch along with some crispy [not overly drenched in oil] spring rolls. I knew I had found the place. After finishing up our tasty meal, Matt and I wandered to the back of the restaurant to see if they would do a cooking class. While I don’t think they normally, if ever, do such classes, the staff (a mother and son) agreed. Same time, same place tomorrow.

And so this afternoon I arrived, ready to cook for the first time in almost a year. Only I didn’t actually end up doing any cooking, not even a little chopping. But I was ok with that as my stomach was feeling a little funny from having eaten a kilo of mangosteens just an hour before (I thought I would need something to tide myself over before I was able to eat the food from “class”). It was more like standing in a cooking show. The son translated with stuttering English, which, though basic, was sufficient. Every now and then I would ask a question to clarify the name of an ingredient or how long to do this or that, but mostly I just watched. The woman did the chopping and cooking. On the menu was: pork and shrimp spring rolls, steamed noodles with fish, and pho bo (Matt’s request).

The spring rolls came first; I was horrified when the woman sampled the raw pork spring-roll mixture, and glad that when she held it up to me it was only for me to smell it. After the spring rolls, I don’t think I actually learned too much that a cookbook couldn’t have taught me, but the experience was interesting nonetheless. And I guess I came away with a few new bits of knowledge. One of which is that “seasoning” consists of liberally sprinkled amounts of msg. More unsettling than surprising, as I had my suspicions about the food we’ve been eating, but still, what’s wrong with plain old salt? My favorite part was just watching the mother and son interact as they prepared the food in front of me, the son asking his mom questions as he translated a little bit here and there. Oh, and the eating part wasn’t so bad either–Matt came at the end and we stuffed ourselves on a big feast of all the food.

cooking hoi an (2)

My Son


164_6445-4.JPGSeveral times in our travels throughout SEA, we’ve come across the remnants of the Champa civilization. Today we visited My Son, which are the most famous Champa ruins in Vietnam. The UNESCO-listed site consisted of several red-brick temples in about a dozen groups. Grass and weeds were growing out of the temples and some were leaning so heavily, I thought they were about to topple over. Unfortunately, many of the best preserved statues and artwork had been removed and taken to the National Museum in Hanoi. So we settled for crome-plated plaques here and there, which essentially said, “This [description of piece] was removed and is now kept in the National Museum in Hanoi, artifact number ….” Besides being stripped of its best art, I was disappointed with our trip to the temples for a few other reasons. One, it was really crowded with tour groups and tourists. Two, the temples just weren’t very impressive. Perhaps this is a bit unfair, because we’ve seen awesome Champa ruins in Lao and Cambodia and the impressive ruins of Indianized kingdoms from Thailand to Indonesia. And I still cannot figure out why civilizations in the hottest climates built all the great temples of the world. So much for the myth that tropical people are lazy. It was an interesting side trip, but walking around mediocre, stripped down My Son in the humid midday heat won’t make our highlights list.