Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Hanoi


The bus stopped quite far from the center, but thankfully a guy walked in and said that he offers a shared taxi service to the center for $1.75/person. The taxi goes to his hotel, but you don't have to stay there if you don't want to. I went to the backpacker hostel, but it was crazy, looked like a 24/7 party is going on there, and a dorm cost $10!!! I went back to the hotel and got a private room for $11.
In the morning moved hotels to the best rated hotel on hostelworld. The stuff there were running to assist you, to open doors, to take the luggage upstairs, the minute you showed up, they'd be running with a glass of cold water, they always had huge grins on their faces, but these smiles and their behavior is not genuine when it's over done way way over the border.
Vietnam is huge and I only have 1 month visa, no time to take days off, every day I wake up at 7, go to sight see for the whole day till my legs can't walk no more, get back to the hotel at 11, get 8 hours of sleep, and that's on a good day. Lonely planet got me scared, but nothing can be as scary as India, touts, pollution, traffic?? Give me a break! Well ok, they got it right about the traffic. It's one of the craziest traffic cities I've ever seen. The amount of scooters is unbelievable, there are absolutely no rules, 2 lanes turn into 6, and they don't even stop for red light, and would never stop for a pedestrian. Sidewalks are used as parking lots for scooters and every day I thanked someone when I arrived at the hotel alive. To cross the road is impossible, as there are no breaks in the fast flowing current of scooters, so the rules of street crossings are: take a deep breath, close your eyes and start walking in the constant pace, all the 100s of scooters will drive around you. Everybody who's been to Hanoi has some crazy street crossing stories. But the locals are used to it, so it's relatively safe. I would never rent a scooter in here, I don't think I'll be able to cross the first crossing, where the scooters drive without stopping from all the directions, and somehow in this millimeter game, I haven't seen one accident since I was here. Besides me being life conscious, LP warns about renting scooters in Hanoi. It says that there will be people from the agency following you and will "steal" the scooter when you'll park, making you pay about $800. Or the local people will take some part out, and when it won't start, they'll kindly offer you their services and will put the part back for the very low price of $20.
Hanoi traffic video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oetF3UTIwbc
(LP) Hanoi is not only the political capital of Vietnam. It is also the capital of hotel hustles. Copycat and fly-by-night hotels abound. These will rent a building, appropriate the name of another hotel, and then work with touts to bring unwitting tourists to their "chosen" accommodation. Visitors who question the alternative location are told the hotel has moved and it is not until they check the next day that they realize they have been had. These hotels overcharge on anything they can, often giving a price for the room on check-in and a price per person on check out. Airport taxis and minibuses often work in partnership with these copycat hotels, as they give the biggest commissions and there have even been reports of desperate Westerners working in tandem with these hotels, steering backpackers their way.
I constantly had to look at the map when I walked in the old city center. The names of the streets are all alike, and I can't remember one from another. Every junction I came to, I had to look at the map. Street names such as: Hang Bac/Be/Bo/Bong/Buon, Hang Ca/Can/Chai/Chi/Chieu/Chien, Hang Da/Dao/Dau/Dieu/Dong/Duong ... am I walking now on Hang Ba or Hang Ca? I never had a clue! The street names translate to what that street sells: Bat Dan - wooden bowls, Cha Ca - roasted fish, Hang Huong - incense, Hang Mau - pickled fish, Hang Ruoi - clam worms etc ... you come to a street, and every store sells exactly the same thing, until you turn a corner and go to the next street.
All their words are very short, consisting of maximum 4 letters. It seems that they divide their words into syllables: Hanoi is Ha Noi, Dalat - da lat, Honda - hon da, Viet Nam.
(LP) Old Hanoi is known for its tunnel (or tube) houses - so called because of their narrow frontages and long rooms. These tunnel houses were developed to avoid taxes based on the width of their street frontage. By feudal law, houses were also limited to two storeys and, out of respect for the king, could not be taller than the royal palace. These days there are taller building, but no real high-rises.
I love the hassle of Hanoi, after Laos it's a very welcoming change. There are people, there are cars, there are buildings! It's an extremely interesting city, though it has nothing to offer architecture-wise, but the culture and life are thriving. Hanoi is famous for street food sold around the clock and I vowed never to walk into a restaurant while I'm here. I went to "restaurants" that served only 1 kind of soup, and it's the best soup in the city. If it's the only thing you make, and you make it for years, and it's packed to capacity with tables and low chairs overflowing to the sidewalk, it's probably done right. You just sit, and you get served. On different occasions I tried mixed jelly desert drink, wild duck with bamboo noodles, lotus tea, pigeon, staffed crab, potato mixed with seafood patty, duck tongue, everything's so good! There are many bbq places where they have a display of raw things, you place them in a tray and they grill it for you and then serve it onto a hot plate on your table so the food always stays warm. I always tried a combination of normal stuff and weird stuff, and every day I was excited as to what I'll try the next day. I didn't get the courage to eat intestines though :) Some people say that they like Thailand food, but I think Vietnam wins hands down!
Went to a prison museum where American soldiers were imprisoned during the Vietnam war. I'll write more about the war later, but it always makes me very sad to look at things like that. There is no excuse for war! And I can't believe that some people still are brainwashed to believe that they're doing something noble for their country, for freedom, no wonder most of the people who sign up for army don't have any high education.
Women museum was very interesting, huge 4 floors, nicely displayed artifacts, information about customs, cloths, their role in Vietnam. It has nothing to do with my being a feminist, but it's one of the best museums I've ever been to and LP says it too :) In there watched a short video about street vendors. They wake up at 2am, go to a market and start selling by 4am until everything's sold. Usually it's 5pm, but sometimes it's 7pm. They go back to a dorm with 10 other women which costs 35 cents/night, take a shower, have dinner and go to sleep. And like that every day. Once in 2 weeks they go back home to their village with $20. They do it usually to send their kids to school or it's the only way to support themselves if their husband dies. It's much easier to understand why they rip us off. For us it could be an extra dollar which is not a big deal, but for them it's a fortune. We get mad at them when we get ripped off, they hate us for being greedy, which produces a hate-hate relationship. Is there another way? But I still try to buy from the street vendors, that's where it counts the most.
I also went to fine arts museum. I remember how much I hated when my parents dragged me to the Louvre, but now I was sad when I was done.
I went to a theatre for the must see water puppets show - a very unique form of art in Vietnam. The music in the beginning was beautiful when they were playing traditional instruments, but when the puppets got out, I got bored. They were pretty much splashing in the water left and right for the whole hour of fun! It's such an important form of art that it was only taught to men who stayed in the village for the fear if the women got married and moved to their husband's village that they might reveal the precious secret.
While I'm travelling, I'm wondering more and more what a 3rd world country is. In these countries the roads are better, hotels and restaurants are better, government helps people if there is a food shortage, hospitals actually take care of you, public transport goes everywhere and works very well. Or is it a corrupt government, police and lack of social security?
I took a tour to the perfume pagoda. The guide told us a bit about Vietnam and how they're very proud to be number 1 world exporters of rice (they're always in competition with Thailand). That's kinda contradictory. If they're so proud, why does everyone wear a winter jacket, gloves, socks and a big hat at +35C not to get a sun tan? Not to show that they're a working class people. They wear these flowery jackets and pollution masks and all look alike. I haven't seen the masks in such a quantity anywhere yet. They've gone crazy in here! Even on the buses, even on mountains. If they think they have pollution problems, what's there to say about India? I'm wondering how much money you could get if you'll start the mask selling/importing business in India if you could successfully convince the Indians that they're the most polluted country in the world? And it's not like they look or allowed to look at each other anyway, so a covered face won't do too much difference at all.
We arrived on the bus to a river and took a paddle boat to the pagoda. Annoying ladies were paddling nearby and the whole way were whining to us to buy something from them. Buuuuuuy somethiiiiiing, buuuuuy from meeeeeee. You buy nooooooooouu!!!! (Talking to me) Missy, missy, missy missy, why aren't you answeriiiiiing? "Cause you annoy me!!". The whole boat started laughing. Missy, missy, missy, missssssyyyy! Do you have children? "No!". You need to have one boy ok!
It would've been such a relaxing boat ride if it wasn't for them.
We took a cable car up and enjoyed the free sauna inside. Who built a car with no windows is beyond my comprehension. The pagoda was just in a cave where they found lingam like stalagmite and decided that this cave is holy. The journey and the views were nice, but to come there just for the pagoda is a waste of time. We all walked on the way down. I needed water but everyone was trying to sell me water and chase after me to put the cold water to my hand for me to see how cold it is. I promised to myself that I'll buy the water from the first person who'll not tell me to buy it. 45 minutes later, I'm at the bottom and just went to the restaurant to buy it. On the way back on the boat I collected a whole bag of garbage. This river is disgustingly dirty!

https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/Hanoi

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Luang Prabang


In the morning I booked a mini bus to the next town, and in the whole minibus, which was the largest mini bus I've ever seen, there were only 2 people! Why would they go with 2 people? Wouldn't it be better for them to pay us a bit of money and ask us to leave an hour to 2 later? These mini buses go every hour, if not every half an hour. They burn all this fuel for nothing! :( I heard the road passes through mountains, decided not to take the chance and popped in a sleeping pill (i.e. motion sickness pill). I slept the whole night, then I slept the whole way in the bus stretched on the back 4 seats till 2:30, then I zombied around the town for a bit, and went back to sleep at 8! I took a hostel this time, and there were guys who came in drunk at 10:30 and started shouting, I woke up, and hissed back at them "Common, is it your first time in a dorm? If you want to yell, there are tables outside!". Besides being ticked off by their disrespect, I was scared that if I'd wake up now after sleeping the whole day, I wouldn't be able to fall back asleep. But luckily that didn't happen, and I happily slept till 10 :)
Luang Prabang is a very nice green town surrounded by lush rolling hills (ha! no rice paddies this time :) ). The French loved this city, and build many villas in here, giving Luang Prabang a very colonial town feel. It has very expensive restaurants (Lao expensive that is, vacationers (as opposed to backpackers) would have a blast in here!), with extremely nice decor and inventive menus. Even I on a first lunch out went to a bakery and ordered a frozen cappuccino and a sun dried tomato bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon ... very unbackpacking-ly of me! :) This town is actually on a world heritage list, but I really don't understand why. There is a theory that there were so many temples, and so many got ruined, that it was given the status to hopefully save the rest of the temples. The temples aren't that nice though, and cost quite a lot to get in. When I went on my sightseeing tour, I wasn't impressed by the temples, but rather enjoyed the walk quite a bit, except the annoying tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk, sabadiiii mmaaaaaassaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa (massage) calls.
It was so hot, but instead of buying water, I bought a coconut. I asked him how much it was, and some guy told me 10,000. Hm 10,000 seems quite a lot, but whatever, I was too hot to bargain. I barely finished the coconut when I gave the seller 10,000, and he started giving me change, and the other guy, just told him that 10,000 is fine. I'm like hey, give me the change, but he left. I wasn't too pissed off, it's only a few cents. But that guy continued talking to me, asking me where I'm from and if I want a boat, I told him that he's a liar and I don't want to talk to him. I wasn't angry at him at all, just wanted to make my point. In South East Asia (maybe in other parts of the world too), saving face is soooo important! You don't want to make people embarrassed, and even if you hate something, say food, you still should eat some, cause the owners/your hosts will be embarrassed. That's why they'll give you fake directions even if they don't know where it is, because again, they're embarrassed of not knowing. Seems kinda stupid to me. Anywho, there were a lot of guys there, most of them playing some game, and I made sure that I made him embarrassed in front of them, and of course they all wanted to know what's going on, and even though I didn't understand anything, I kept hearing the word "10" coming up quite often.
Next day I took a boat trip to some caves. The river is very beautiful, but pretty soon it got quite boring. Half of the people fell asleep, the other half were reading a book. Gave me a chance to catch up on the Vietnam LP :) We stopped at some village where they make whiskey, but of course it was so touristic, there wasn't anything authentic about this village at all. From every identical shop that everybody set up everybody was yelling "Miiiss take a looooook", "Somethiiiiiing?" Annoying! Other than that we've seen naked kids swimming, and then arrived at the caves, which weren't too impressive. For some reason EVERYBODY went to the lower cave, and when I saw that, I went to the upper cave, it was pretty cool, because I was alone in this dark cave all on my own, shining my flashlight at some Buddha statues. In one cave there were 4000 Buddhas ... fun, fun, fun! I think Buddhism is a nice religion. They're pro peace, forgiveness, non attachment, preservation of nature, all the good stuff, until I read a plank in this cave that said that women must be reborn as men to obtain nirvana ... and suddenly I'm not a big fan anymore :)
I think this motion sickness pill still affects me, because when I got back, I got completely knocked out for 3 hours.
In the evening I met a girl in the common area and we decided to go to dinner together, I went to the room to get money, met some guy there whom I invited, when I returned she talked to some other guy and at the end, the 6 of us went to have dinner together. We discovered a market that has a lot of buffet stalls with all you can eat buffet for $1.25 :) And in the morning we discovered a sandwich place with avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes, chicken and pork, also for $1.25, it was almost impossible to shove it in the mouth :) It all goes in much smoother with a vast array of juice mixes. You pick a glass, and they'll blend whatever is inside of it. Yum! Then we did all the touristy things, climbed on top of a hill for the city views, went to a royal museum and finished the day with a chick flick eat-pray-love which guys enjoyed so much :)
Got news from people coming from Vang Vieng. The Australian government intervened and demolished all the bars on the river, a few months later we found out that now they've also demolished bars in town! That doesn't make any sense. There are more people dying on the full moon parties in the Thailand, thank god they didn't come that far.
Next day we went to a waterfall. Near the waterfall is a rescued bear sanctuary. There are some horrific signs of bear poaching around the place, and the bears are not capable of living in the wild anymore. Although the enclosure looks big and looked after, they seem bored and one bear walked back and forth for hours, he was doing it when we got there, and still was doing it when we were going back. That bear in India did the same thing ... maybe it's a bear thing? At the waterfall there was a cool swing. The swing was alright, but to get to it is tricky. First you have to cross a stream with fast current, then climb up a very slippery tree with nothing to hold on to, and one of the wooden "steps" broken and moving under your feet, then lean on a branch and reach for the rope. Awesome! :)
Luang Prabang has also a famous tourist "attraction" of daily monks making rounds in the morning gathering food from the town people and endless tourists. People - to get merit, tourists - to get pictures. This activity though comes at a cost of waking up at 5:45am!! First day I woke up, I expected the town to be covered in orange, but there were only maybe 15 of them, looking bored out of their minds with only tourists filling their food baskets and sticking cameras in their faces (yes, I was one of those :) ). The experience for me was just as boring as the monks must have felt. In the evening John and I went to a theatre for some traditional dancing. Oh man that was so boring, again, no imagination with the choreography at all, and the story can just blow your mind. One guy was praying in all the four directions, and then there was an annoying lizard who kept making sounds, the guy thought how much nerve that lizard has to bother him while he's praying, he wanted to kill the lizard but missed and hit the mountain which broke down, and unfortunately to him it was someone's home. Then someone offered his daughter's hand in marriage for a person who can fix the mountain, and fixing involved some heavier praying. What a beautiful plot :) I wonder how much they pay them, because there must be at least 30 dancers plus orchestra, plus people who operate the whole thing, and they run the show if 20 people show up at 100,000 each ($12.5). They probably drive our tuk-tuks in the morning!
In the hostel there was a small argument and I wonder what's wrong. I asked one guy and he said that he's tired of travelling with his "friend" because he makes no decisions on his own, does no research, has no clue about anything. He said, I just got out of army, I want to have fun and don't need that responsibility. Well what do you know, that guy talks to me for a bit, then finds out that I go to Vietnam and goes and buys a ticket on the same bus as me ... oh oh! I was looking for hostels in Hanoi, and passed the laptop to him asking him if he wants to look for any, he's like "No, I don't feel like looking for anything" ... oh oh! It's much more fun to travel with someone (for a while), but at the same time I don't want anybody hanging himself on me. I need a plan! Act aloof and hopefully he'll soon get bored of me... Plan worked! :)
John and I woke up at 5:45 to see the monks again. Last time I couldn't fall asleep, I think it might be an unconscious thing of the brain not letting me fall asleep in case I'll miss something important. It's been like that all my life, before the exams, before plane flights, but before monks? I'd rather sleep and miss the alarm rather than not sleep to make sure that I don't miss the monks. I decided to talk to myself. I lied in bed and said "Everything will be alright, the alarm rang every time and every time I heard it, now relax, sleep tight, good night", that night I slept, and I slept every night since. It's like the brain and the unconscious brain are 2 different people, have to make friends between them :)
The monks were ok, I was just happy that I got more pictures, this time I really bend the corners of proximity between ladies and monks, oh well, they are a tourist attraction, right? We then went to a cooking class with world class chef. First we chose the recipes that we want to cook and then drove to the market to look at the ingredients (the helpers did all the shopping). I just kept pointing my finger and asking what's this, what's that? Oh sorry, there is no word in English for that was the most common response. So many spices and jungle berries, I wonder how to use them in cooking. The chef told us that say in soups, leave the garlic and onion skins on, they're the ones that have a lot of aroma. And from now on, I'll definitely be adding coconut cream and lemon grass into everything, it's just too delicious to miss out. So anywhere you have a broth, you can add coconut milk, and lemon grass you could add anywhere garlic or ginger would go. We made 7 different dishes, but our favourite one was spring rolls :) Good that we can get them at any corner in Canada :)
Time to leave Laos ... sad again :( Took a bus to Hanoi, what a terrible bus, and it was VIP. There was no toilet, so I couldn't drink anything, the seats were extremely narrow and I was tossing and turning and wishing for the bus to arrive sooner. Thank god that I accidently discovered space underneath the seats that's meant for luggage. There was only like half a meter of vertical space, but it had a mattress and I could finally stretch out. 25 hours of boring bus ride with no TV and bad music ... just horrible!

https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/LuangPrabang