First world pleasures

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The ANA star alliance gold lounge at NRT is pretty spiffy. Complimentary noodle bar (I had tempura udon), sushi (including umeboshi onigiri), wine, sake, and awesome showers. 3 airports down, 2 to go til I get home.

Unfortunately, B finally got what T & C and I had this week and is miserable and unable to enjoy it 😦

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Heading home

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Woke up in Nha Trang, took a bus to Dalat (4 hours through beautiful mountains, $6), spent the afternoon in Dalat, including some great bun bo hue soup and a visit to cam Ly falls, then took a cab to the airport ($10 for the 35min ride). Enjoying one last coconut in the airport before flying home (priceless).

Sigh, here today, Saigon tomorrow

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The last few days have been a whirlwind of sightseeing and Kleenex hunting. What started as a scratchy throat turned into full blown head cold for T, C, and I. B hasn’t caught it yet, but she accidentally drank from my water bottle yesterday so she probably will, too. Despite feeling under the weather, our trip to Ha Long Bay continued. When we got there, it turned out that we’d been booked for a private day boat — just the 4 of us and our guide. Ha Long bay was beautiful, but having just come from Ninh Binh I wasn’t as picture-crazy as I might otherwise have been. It was also a very gray day, but it wasn’t raining. The boat stopped at an island where we hiked around and into a couple of caverns. Pretty cool.

After the boat ride, we went back to our hotel (the least nice of the ones in the tour package) and called it an early night. In the morning, we drove back to Hanoi, checked out the Temple of Literature, had lunch, and saw a water puppet show before heading to the airport.

Back in HCMC, we checked into our hotel near the airport and then had a late dinner of noodles/soup from a food stand on the corner.

This morning, we caught an early flight to Nha Trang for a day on the beach. Of course, it’s raining, but still beautiful. I splurged on the $37 VIP room with ocean view, and am enjoying watching and listening to the waves as I write this.

Miscellaneous thoughts and observations from this trip:

Our guide, “Nyah,” often referred to rich people and normal people. Watching people work so hard in rice paddies or paddling boats of tourists or cooking fantastic food over a single burner at a food stall, I realize just how lucky I am. By US standards, I think of myself as more “normal people” than rich, but by Vietnam standards, we’re all very wealthy. This hotel room alone costs nearly as much for one night as the average monthly salary of most Vietnamese people ($45)

Our guide moved to Hanoi from a small village for work and to help take care of her aunt, and clearly identified with the “normal people.” When talking about rich people, the main difference was in the location of their home (prime real estate = near a main road and/or a river). Here, the hills and mountains don’t have buildings on them. Everyone is in town, or near their rice paddy.

Everywhere, whether it be in the dense cities of HCMC or Hanoi, or in more rural areas, buildings are long and narrow. I guess this is in an effort to share the road-front property better, but it looks funny to see a long, narrow, multiple story building with nothing else around it. Like a city building just waiting for the city to grow around it.

Because the buildings are long and narrow, and because they’re built tight against one another, many buildings only have windows in the front and rear. Some of the hotel rooms we’ve stayed in haven’t had any windows at all, though most have had curtains as though there was one. Some have tiled mirrors behind the curtains, others just wall.

Outside, a few things are immediately different from home. Sidewalks full of parked scooters, food carts, and other street vendors. Streets full of scooters, as well as a few bikes and cars. Driving seems to be a matter of constant negotiation, involving beeps to let people know you’re there and light flashing. There’s never going to be a hole unless you make one. Several times, I’ve looked at the traffic patterns and been reminded of shuffling a deck of cards. Crossing the street as a pedestrian, you just have to make your way through all the chaos. C said it was like playing Frogger. Although we’ve seen a few accidents (mostly on the roads outside the big cities), most people just drive relatively slowly and the process of negotiation seems to work. It does make for a beepy environment, though! Interestingly, despite the chaos in the streets, when it comes to airports, people queue up very well — at least, for security, customs, and boarding planes. When I first got in to HCMC and was waiting in line for customs, I noticed that the man working the line just to the left of the one I was waiting for was open, and I made a move to go over there, but he waved me back to stay in my own line. Meanwhile, a man walking toward customs from a good 25 feet away was allowed to walk up to the free customs agent. Okay. No line switching!

Back to scooters… we’ve seen entire families (including babies) on board, a man with a 6 foot tall bookcase on the back, another man with a giant hog strapped on the back, and people driving in the rain in Hanoi with 2-headed ponchos with clear fronts for their headlights to shine through. I kind of want a scooter now. They seem so versatile!

The other thing is that a lot of people wear masks and long sleeve shirts, even when it’s 90+ degrees out. Apparently, they don’t want to get dark from the sun, and they’re willing to swelter to avoid it. I wonder if they know how hard so many “rich” people in the west try to get tan.

Tomorrow, B and I will take a bus leaving just after 7am to go to Dalat, then taxi to the airport in Dalat, then fly to HCMC (SGN), and from there on home via NRT. It’ll be a long day.

Other miscellaneous travel tips: the hotels around $19/night in HCMC are fine. Get a driver to go to Ha Long Bay (ours was good and we got his card). VietJet airlines has nice planes, but both flights we took with them were delayed. Vietnam Airlines has crappier planes, but was on time. Hopefully it will be again tomorrow!

Ninh Binh

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Today was a full day! B and I wandered around Hanoi in the rain this morning, and got lost trying to find our way back to the hotel. Hint: when using a map app, it works best if you actually SAVE the hotel’s location.

Anyway, we saw some neat things (like a back street local market) while trying to find our way back. We wound up being about 15 minutes late meeting T & C and our driver, but it was okay.

We then drove to Ninh Binh and had lunch, went on a boat ride down a river next to rice paddies, and then a bike ride. The limestone formations and the fog were really dramatic. I took hundreds of pictures. Many of the rowers used their legs to row the boats, which looked like it took a bit of coordination, but made a lot of sense. Paddle boats, indeed!

Our hotels with this organized tour are pretty swanky, and tonight’s even has a spa. The restaurants are alright, but the best meals we’ve had so far on this trip have been from street vendors.

We’re all feeling like we’re coming down with something (I’m still hoping it’s just allergies) so it’s an early bedtime before an 8am departure to Ha Long Bay tomorrow.

Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi

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Today, we met T’s mom’s friend for breakfast at pho 24 (just like getting pho in the US), and then caught a cab to the airport for our flight to Hanoi on Viet Jet airlines.

After checking in, B and I went to the Vietnam Airlines ticket window and booked our flights for later in the week. We’d been planning to go to Nha Trang with T & C, but the only available return flight back to HCMC left at 7:45am. After talking with the ticket lady, we decided to return via Dalat, which she said was just a 2 hour bus ride from Nha Trang. We’d been wanting to visit Dalat anyway, as it’s the town where T was born. The next few days will be pretty hectic — a 3 day tour of Hanoi and Ha Long Bay (different hotels each night) flying back to HCMC on Friday night, flying to Nha Trang on Saturday morning, enjoying a day and night there at the beach, then Sunday morning bus to Dalat, an afternoon there, catch an evening flight back to HCMC (eta 7:30pm), and then catching our flight home that leaves at 11:55pm. The disadvantage of booking each piece independently is that we wind up with a few extra flights, but What could possibly go wrong? 🙂 On the (delayed) flight to Hanoi, I chatted with the spaniards next to me, who’ve been in Vietnam for 18 days. When I asked them what the highlight of their trip was, they said Dalat! They said it was a nice town, quieter, less chaotic, and cleaner because there were more actual shops than street vendors.

Speaking of chaotic, Hanoi is chaotic. Even louder and more traffic and scooters everywhere than HCMC. We’ve also noticed more shady pickpocket types here, but maybe it’s just because we’re in the heart of the old quarter here (tourist central) that it seems that way. The cooler temperatures are a relief, though. It was 90+ in HCMC every day, but the Hanoi highs are in the mid 60s. Driving into town from the airport, the buildings and architecture were fascinating. Narrow but tall buildings, some very ornate, others in complete disrepair. Colorful and a lot of variety. B and I rode around in cyclos (bike rickshaw things) as part of our Hanoi city tour, and we didn’t die. Or get robbed. A good start.

Tomorrow our tour takes us into the countryside and the town of Ninh Binh. It’ll be nice to get out of the city.

The Lunch Lady

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Today’s adventure included A breakfast of banh cuon at a place our hotel clerk recommended, a cab ride to district 1, where we paid for our trip to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, the bank to get some more Vietnamese Dong, and lunch. We stopped in a coffee shop to use their wifi and get the address of The Lunch Lady.

Who is the Lunch Lady? This site gives a good description: http://gastronomyblog.com/2008/08/09/meet-the-lunch-lady/. T and C had seen an Anthony Bourdain show featuring her, and it had become a goal of the trip to find her. With a little help from a YouTube video containing her address and the OffMaps2 app, we realized we were just 5 blocks away and walked. Nothing like a hot bowl of soup on a 90 degree day!

After lunch, we checked out the big market, the reunification palace, Notre Dame of Saigon, and the post office.