Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Streets of Old Hanoi

Picture of vendor.
Feb 28 - Mar 2, 2015
Days 226 - 228

At last we arrived in Hanoi. This was to be Katie's final destination in Vietnam, and the beginning of my solo overland trip to Beijing. We stayed in the Old Quarter, a small section in the middle of the city. The Lonely Planet calls traffic in the Old Quarter “oppressive,” and I couldn't agree more. Simply walking across the street required absolute concentration and patience to avoid the swarms of motorcycles. But, as in every other Vietnamese city we had visited, Hanoi delighted the senses.

Picture of crabs.

Lunch is served.

Picture of bicycle walker.
Picture of people.

Getting ready for duck.

Picture of woman.

The justice.

Picture of man.

The Godfather.

Picture of cleaner.

Keeping the streets clean.

Picture of motorcycle.

One of a million motorcycles in Hanoi.

Picture of cigaretts.

The Marlboro Woman.

Picture of fruit.

Delicious fruits and coffee.

Picture of saleswoman.

A beautiful arrangement.

Picture of man.

A happy man.

At one point, I found a sidewalk that the motorcycles had yet to commandeer. I thanked my lucky stars and skipped along the wide pedestrian boulevard. But within a few minutes, I was stopped dead in my tracks. By an intense game of badminton.

Picture of badminton.

They take badminton seriously here.

After spending two days in Hanoi, Katie's vacation was over. She, and some of her coworkers, shared a cab to the airport at 4:45am. Halfway there, she realized that she had forgotten something: her passport. Our hostel had taken it when we had checked in, and the front desk had yet to open, so she had forgotten to ask for it back on her way out.

Katie made several desperate phone calls and finally got through to someone at the hostel. By that point, she was already at the airport, and her coworkers were checking in for their flight. While she calculated whether she'd have enough time to return to the hostel, pick up her passport and go back to the airport without missing her flight, the man on the phone suggested, “Don't worry, we'll bring your passport to you.”

Katie considered the odds that a stranger would drive across the city with her most important possession, find her and deliver it, no questions asked or rewards demanded: close to zero. She refused, stating instead that she would take a taxi back to the hostel and pick it up, and possibly miss her flight.

By the time Katie's taxi made it back to the Old Quarter, the oppressive traffic was in full force. The street vendors were also out, so there was no way the large car could drive down our hostel's narrow alley. While Katie considered what to do next, an employee of the hostel ran up to the taxi, passport in hand. She was saved.

Or so she thought. The man held out the passport and Katie noticed an obvious mistake: it was from Canada! This was the same man who had suggested that they deliver the passport to the airport. Katie informed him of his error, and the embarrassed man ran back to the hostel to retrieve the correct passport. Luckily, Katie made her flight, so all was well. Unfortunately, I didn't get to witness any of these events firsthand because I was sound asleep in my cozy bed.

Lesson of the day: Whenever someone returns your passport, always make sure you have the right one. Better yet, don't let your passport out of your sight. (Though sometimes you don't have a choice.)

More Hanoi photos

A Crunchy Train Ride to Hanoi

Picture of iPad.

Katie photographs the scenery.

February 27, 2015
Day 225

We had tickets for an overnight train from Da Nang to Hanoi, Vietnam. But first, we had to get from our hotel to the train station. We didn't want to deal with the racist, thieving bus attendants who charge foreigners double what the locals pay, so we had our sleazy hotel owner arrange for a taxi to pick us up at 11am. At 10:50, the same sleazy hotel owner asked us what we were planning to do today.

“We're going to Da Nang, remember?” I asked.

“You should've told me,” he replied. “I could get you a taxi.”

“We did tell you! And you already set up a taxi for us, didn't you?” He had done nothing but smoke cigarettes, play games on his iPad and flirt with his female customers since we had arrived. How could he have forgotten our taxi? Now I worried that there wouldn't be a taxi and we'd miss our train. I felt like a colossal dumb-ass for trusting this guy.

But then he thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Oh, that's right. Taxi. Now I remember.”

The taxi actually showed up on time, so our sleazy hotel owner got his commission. On our way out the door, he gave me a snaggletoothed grin and said, “You'll give us a five-star review on Trip Advisor, right?”

Not quite, but thanks for trying. At least we made it to the train station early enough to grab lunch, where we filmed a short video.

Picture of train.

The train to Hanoi.

The train was nearly empty, and it left an hour late. Most of the carriages were sleepers, though there were also a couple of hard-seat cars and a luxurious dining car. We spent most of the afternoon watching the ocean-side scenery, including rice fields at the foot of emerald mountains, cemeteries, wooden houses and tropical vegetation. We also passed through several towns and cities. Before coming here, it was hard to imagine what 90 million people, packed into a country twice the size of Wisconsin, might look like. But after seeing city after huge city, I was beginning to understand.

As darkness set in and we made our 15th unexpected stop, several small critters scurried across the walls of our cabin. We took off our sandals for a bit of “housekeeping,” then we shot another video.

And then things started to get weird...

When you're stranded in a cramped cabin for more than a day cockroaches are running across your body as you try to sleep, your mind can reach all sorts of epiphanies.

More photos from the train ride

Good Morning, Hoi An!

Group shot.

Vietnamese Hats.

February 24 - 26, 2015
Days 222 - 224

The Fast Talker

After surviving our bus trip into Hoi An (during which we paid twice as much as the locals), Katie and I found our lodging. The sign outside said “Home Stay,” but that was a stretch. Our room, and the building in general, were quite nice, but it was nothing like our last home stay in Can Tho, where the mom taught us how to make spring rolls, and their neighbor showed us around the city. This place was simply a hotel with a “Home Stay” sign in the yard.

The owner was a short and slim man with crooked yellow teeth who wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt on top of a wife-beater. All day he sat on his living room couch, smoking cigarettes, playing with his iPad and awkwardly flirting with every female who entered the place. He didn't flirt with me, but he did grab my arm and try to sell me stuff whenever I walked past him. “You could use a suit. My sister has a tailor shop, she'll give you a great price.” “You want to take a tour? My friend can set it up.”

His wife was quite nice, though. She literally did all of the work around the hotel, from cooking, to cleaning, to showing guests to their rooms, to actually booking those tours and managing the finances. Because of her, we did enjoy our stay, though the hotel would be much better off if it got rid of one of its employees.

* * *
Picture of temple.

Yes, My Son

One of the most popular attractions around Hoi An is the ancient Hindu temple of My Son, dedicated to the god Shiva. While not as big or impressive as Angkor Wat, My Son's recent history still made it worth a visit. During the American War (as it's known in Vietnam), some of the Vietcong were hiding in the ruins, so the US military carpet-bombed the site. Our guide even showed us two of the bombs that didn't explode, as well as an impact crater from one that did. Some of My Son has since been restored, but most of it was damaged beyond repair in the war. Perhaps the most interesting part of My Son was the restoration itself: the 30-year-old bricks were falling apart, but the original bricks from 800 years ago were still in fine shape.

* * *
Picture of Dan.

Marble Maddness

One day Katie and I rented bikes to explore some nature around Hoi An. Our goal was to check out Marble Mountain, about halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang. We rode north along the coast, past huge rice fields and tiny villages. As we approached the mountain, we understood how it had gotten its name. Piles of marble were lying next to the road, and there were giant marble statues of Buddha and Confucius standing outside of shops. As we rode, a lady on a motorcycle pulled up next to us. We had a nice conversation, until I realized that she owned one of the marble shops, and she was only talking to us in hopes that we would buy something. She did allow us to park our bikes, free of charge, and she even covered them with cardboard to protect them from the elements. Splendid!

As soon as I saw the glass elevator to the summit, I knew that Marble Mountain would not provide the solitude in nature I was seeking. In fact, several temples were on top of the mountain, and hundreds of people were walking around. We joined the crowd and made the most of it. While not an amazing nature experience, the bike ride to the mountain made it worthwhile.

On the way back to Hoi An we stumbled upon a little restaurant, with bowls of something similar to seafood gumbo for $1. The family who lived there was very friendly, and the food was delicious, perhaps our favorite meal in the country so far. In fact, we both wanted seconds. But the language barrier prevented us from communicating this to the lady selling it. When hand gestures using my empty bowl failed, I took out my cash. The lady insisted that I had already paid and wouldn't take any more money. Finally, it clicked in her mind that we wanted to buy another bowl. She laughed hysterically, and called out her family members to watch as we continued to eat. I guessed they had never seen anyone eat so much. But when the food's that good, I don't mind being laughed at. It was the perfect lunch before our long ride, through the tropical heat, back to Hoi An.

* * *
Picture of rice farmer.

A nice town?

“Hoi An is a nice town, if you take away all of the bad stuff,” Katie said.

Motorcycles ruled the streets. The sidewalks were full of parked motorcycles, leaving nowhere to walk but on the streets. One of the main attractions in town was a bridge, but it was so packed with people taking photos, it was hard to walk across. And even despite all of the pedestrians, people still managed to force their way across the bridge on their motorcycles.

One day we rode our borrowed bicycles around the countryside. Hoi An was surrounded by bright green rice fields, filled with flocks of white storks. (The scarecrows wearing cone hats clearly weren't very effective.) Buffalo grazed on the grasses and fishermen trolled the rivers with giant nets. The idyllic villages were mostly devoid of traffic, and every other house had delicious coffee and pho for sale.

That night we met a friend of a friend of a friend and his friend for a drink. The “fresh beer” (their name for draft beer) was only twenty cents a glass, tied with Isla Margarita in Venezuela for the cheapest beer I've ever had. We sat outside and had a long conversation while flickering candles floated along the river next to us. Recalling the beautiful rice fields and the delicious food and coffee, I realized that Katie was right: if you take away all of the bad stuff, Hoi An is a nice town.

More Hoi An photos
More My Son photos