2 Weeks in Vietnam

I just Fedex'ed my VISA application to the embassy in Ottawa today. It's kind of a hassle and quite expensive after you factor in the courier bills. I found another way to do it by getting an invitation through and then getting a stamp once you arrive in Vietnam. Maybe I should have gone that way, but I didn't want to chance it.

Here's my itinerary in Vietnam. I'll update it as I figure out hotels and flights along the way.:

Oct 16: Vientiane to Hanoi (Vietnam Airlines)

Oct 18 - 24: Hiking in Sapa, Bac Ha Sunday Market, Village Tribes
TRAIN: Hanoi to Sapa

Oct 24 - 26: Luxury junk and kayaking in Halong Bay

Oct 26 - 28: Hanging out with David and Neil in Hanoi
HOTEL: Hanoi Elegance 4, 03 Yen Thai Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi

Oct 28 - 30: Hue and Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
FLIGHT: Hanoi to Hue (Jetstar Pacific Airlines, $34)

Oct 30 - 2: Buying tailored clothes in Hoi An

Nov 2: Hoi An (Danang) to Siem Reap (Vietnam Airlines)


Sep 21 - Pre-Trip Thoughts on Vietnam

I think out of all the places I'm going, I've done the most research on Vietnam. I guess one reason is that I'm spending the most time there. But another reason is that there are so many questionables and possibilities in the country.

I'm most excited about the stops in Halong Bay and Sapa. The beauty there will be unmatched. Hiking with little Hmong children following me like the Pied Piper sounds fun. It'll be interesting talking to them and seeing how they think and feel about the world. I'm going to bring my juggling balls or the astrojax to entertain them. The food is also something I am really looking forward to. I love Vietnamese food at home, so I'm sure it'll be even better there. Oh and the fresh tropical fruit...mmm....

What I'm worried about is navigating around when I don't speak Vietnamese. And the local people trying to squeeze every penny out of me as best they can. As a tourist, it's not flattering and I will hate having to be on guard constantly. One backpacker referred to himself in his blog as a human ATM. Regardless, I'll end up paying less than at home, so getting screwed a couple of dollars here and there isn't a big deal. I think it'll be a better trip if I get rid of that me-vs-them mentality.

Actually, there's a business adage about negotiating that says a good deal is when both parties feel like they got a bad deal. It'll be interesting to keep that in mind as I'm bargaining hard for a can of coke! Haha.


Oct 21 - I Have Never...

Wearing hats more reminiscent of a beer blast in Tijuana, our tour group boarded the Hoan Cao, bound for a 3 day, 2 night tour of Halong Bay. Along with the fine group of friends I accumulated from Laos, we joined up with some French, British and Canadians. The day was hazy and we were a bit dubious about our trip as we could barely make out the karst formations in the distance.

After picking up some kayaks at a floating village, we stopped at a bay for a dip in the water and some kayaking. It was great paddling among the peaks and dipping through caves to hidden lagoons. Afterwards, back on the boat, I swallowed my fear and jumped from the top of the boat into the green waters. It was fun as each person took their turn jumping at the end of the motivating countdown from the ones in the water.

A boat stocked with liquor and snacks floated by and Dave bought a bottle of whiskey, which later would prove pivotal in this storyline. We anchored in the designated sleeping bay and after a surprisingly tasty dinner, we made our way to the top of the boat to watch the sun set. With the haziness, the sunset was a bit anti-climactic.

Our guide brought up some ipod speakers and Lee started playing his fantastic collection of chillout music. Lee, if you're reading this, please send me a CD! One of the French girls brought out a deck of cards and that's when the games began.

We started out with an innocent murder mystery game, and then progressed to the main event: the drinking games. Dave pulled out his potent whiskey and some Vietnamese rum appeared out of nowhere. I have never played drinking games before (my Uni days were spent studying). But we started playing games like Shooter Racing and Ride the Bus (Sarah, your busride was fixed!). The best game was Ring of Fire--where the cards arranged in a ring around a shooter of whiskey and Vietnamese hot sauce, the first to break the ring would suffer the consequences of a nasty shot. Each person picks a card, and each card would have a meaning, generally resulting in someone drinking.

For example, when you pick a Jack, you must say something that you have never done in your life. I had never skinny dipped in my life--whoever had skinny dipped took a drink. After many more rounds including the "little gnome on the drink" and "you must stand whenever the tour guide speaks", and many drinks later, we all ended up jumping from the top of our boat naked. It was fun! Something else I can cross off my "I have never..." list now.





Oct 22 - Living Dangerously

We sailed into a quiet cove off the main Halong Bay highway. A tiny fragment of beach surrounded by the high karst walls. I had originally signed up for the relaxing kayaking tour of the bay, but since I was the only person who signed up, I was convinced to go top-rope rock-climbing instead.

Ok, so I'm not really 29, that's just what I tell everyone. I'm a bit older than 29. And to rock climb for the first time on the jagged vertical karst walls at my was just a bit too much. The first climb took me up a grade 3. Standing at the bottom and watching the guide make his way up to place the rope--he made it look so easy! Well, as I made my first few baby steps up the rock face, I realized: This is fuckin hard! Where are the perfectly formed rubber handholds that you see in the gyms?! I could not figure out where to put my feet or my hands. I started to remember what gravity feels like.

The grade 4 climb that I did next was worse. Now, I want to explain this clearly so that my fellow climbers (Dave, Jack, and fellow Canadians: Liz and Shaun) will understand why I flatly refused to do the grades 5 and 6+ that came afterwards. Ok, now imagine this: You are 500 feet above the fiery lava pit of Hell with demons grabbing at your ankles. The wall you are climbing to escape has been strategically built such that the handholds you can find are actually Ginsu knives, and each move you make you are really making a decision to slice your hand in half. ...Ok, it wasn't that bad, but it was close.

There were really moments up there when I was freaking out. No lie. Like hyperventilating, asking God for help, sort of freaking out. By the end of the climb, my knees and elbows were bruised, my hands were sliced up, and my back was raked after falling a few feet when I missed my handhold. Dave, an experienced climber, laughed after he observed that I hadn't cut my hands for a while. I told him that keyboards don't cut your hands.

For the grade 5 climb, our guide (who suspiciously lives on this tiny deserted beach with his Vietnamese "roommate") asked me why I refused to climb. I said that I didn't understand why I would go through the pain and panic of climbing all the way up to the top...just to come down again?!?

Dave ended my traumatic day with some words of wisdom: "You're not too old to do this--you have to live more dangerously!". Ok Dave...will do.




Oct 24 - The Hills Are Alive With the Sounds of Hmong

After a noisy 8 hour ride on the train and a one hour bus ride from Lao Cai, I arrived in to a foggy day in Sapa. Sapa is a small town buried in the hills and rice paddies of Northern Vietnam. It's a resort town built to take advantage of the spectacular views in the area. I did some hiking in the area, you don't need a guide. All you do is start walking in one direction out of the town and eventually, a few ladies from the local minority hilltribes will start to gather around you and lead you to their town.

It was interesting talking to the hilltribe ladies. The minority groups mainly live on the edges of Vietnam and speak a different language and have different customs and clothes than the Vietnamese. They seem to be quite self-sufficient with creating their own tourism industry, and seemed to speak better English than the Vietnamese! They wear their full traditional clothing which is intricate and colourful, leading to tribe names like Black Hmong and Red Dzao. It did break the illusion of interacting with an undiscovered people when one of the Red Dzao's cell phone started to ring and she pulled it out of her traditional gown. Yala, a Dutch girl I was hiking with, laughed because it was the same cell phone as hers.

But regardless of their technological advancements, their villages were still quite basic and mainly agricultural. A cold wind could blow through the cracks in the walls. The children laughed as they played their game of kicking small green fruit to one another. And the satellite on their tvs don't get HBO.


Oct 27 - Eating in Vietnam

The food in Vietnam has been great. From local specialties to fresh fruit and herbs, with prices ranging from the obscenely cheap to Western prices. I have looked forward to every meal here. Our first meal in Vietnam was at Quan An Ngon, a super busy place with tons of atmosphere. Their extensive menu is served from "stations" and gives you an opportunity to try all the local food in one place. It reminded me of Le Marche in Toronto.

During my few days in Hanoi, I went every day (!) to Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu) that was suggested in my guide. All they make here is one dish. A dish of mystery meat, herbs, bean sprouts, and mystery juice which was amazing. You just walk up to the lady at the front and hold up the number of fingers to show how many bowls you want. Grab a seat at the cafeteria-style seated and get served. You pay a measily amount to the lady when you leave.

We also had Cha Ca La Vong. Watch out for the knock-off Cha Ca La Luong across the street who have cleverly designed their sign to read La Vong. This place was packed. The one dish they make is their namesake. But it was pretty greasy, not too tasty, and relatively expensive. I wouldn't recommend coming all the way here for it.

And the cheap fruit salads (they call them shakes, but they're not really) on To Tich Street are fantastic. I avoided the crushed ice, but the condensed milk was delish.

I also did a few expensive (western prices) meals with David and Neil. KOTO (Know One Teach One) is a neat idea where the restaurant serves as a training ground for students in hospitality who have been taken from disadvantaged backgrounds. The buffet breakfast at Sofitel was a letdown, especially for that price. And Green Tangerine and Bobby Chinns had great food and atmosphere, but the bill was a shock. Vietnam is not really worth it for high-dining when you can get similar meals for cheaper in Canada.

The food in Sapa was great as well. The restaurant at Sapa Rooms was where I ate most of my meals because I wanted to try all of their great food. But I also got to eat equally delicious meals at Baguette et Chocolat and the Italian restaurant, Delta.--my mouth is watering just thinking of those meals.

I also heard of some of my travel-mates going for a snake dinner in Le Mat. Apparently, they gut the snake in front of you and drain the blood into some rice wine. They do the same with the still-beating heart and the gall bladder. And you just drink it / eat it. Sounds yummy! Ugh.

And for the super squimish, as we were trekking out of Sapa through its less touristy part by the lake, we walked past a hot dog cart. No, I mean a hot DOG cart. With a fried head sitting on the front and different parts being served. Gross!!

Vietnamese food sure does run the gamut!


Oct 28 - Motorcycles, Motorcycles, and Motorcycles

Sitting at Highlands Coffee at the top end of Le Thai To Street, you have a perfect view of the giant game of Frogger that is Hanoi. It sits a few stories above a 5 lane uncontrolled intersection where you can watch the 2 million motorcycles battle out with cars, bicycles, cyclos, ladies with rice paddy hats carrying baskets across their shoulders...basically the most random street corner you would ever see. Check out my tilt-shift version on the left bar.

For the few days that I have been here, one of the craziest things to do is cross the street, wondering when you will be squashed like a frog. It's a very surreal experience. I don't know what planet they learn to drive! Wherever you are, rest assured that there is a motorcycle coming straight for you. Motorcycles on the street. Motorcycles on the sidewalk. Motorcycles coming out of the stores and alleyways. Motorcycles driving the wrong way on the street. Motorcycles ignoring red lights.

Crossing the street requires a healthy dose of zen as your first instinct is to run for your life. If you walk steadily step by step, the traffic will somehow flow around you. And if you are about to get zinged by a motorcycle, you will get a sharp reprimand--a loud horn honk. In fact, some Vietnamese will constantly honk their horns for absolutely no reason.



Oct 28 - Traveler's Diarrhea

I spent last night in bed curled up in the fetal position. I've narrowed it down to either the ice cream or tiny sip of water that I had while sitting at the coffee shop. My whole body is sore and I generally feel shitty--in all senses of the word. Note to self: No matter how thirsty you are, don't drink the tap water


Oct 30 - Taking a Vacation From My Vacation

It's about 2pm now and I have yet to leave my hotel. During these long trips, it normally happens around the 4th week when I get exhausted from moving around and doing things constantly. So today, I'm chilling--I am not worried about missing the temples or not enjoying local life.

I've been updating my blog, watching a few episodes of Nip/Tuck from the dvds I got for Secret Santa (shh...), and listened to a cd I got: Michael Learns to Rock--a pretty relaxed band that my Laos travelmate, Anne, suggested and requested as we sat on a wooden platform at a bohemian Laos bar, complete with bonfires and hammocks, shortly before the backpackers began to swarm.

...this is nice being on vacation.


Oct 31 - I Need a Farley

Hoi An is a small town in Central Vietnam and has been named a world heritage site by UNESCO. The streets are small, cute, and manageable. I took the opportunity to ride a bike along the dusty streets around Hoi An. About 15 minutes out, there's a full-on beach, Cau Dai Beach. But one of the things that Hoi An is known for is the shopping. From wooden sculptures, to silk lanterns, to lacquered bowls. And especially the tailored clothes.

So I brought with me to Vietnam, a printout of a nice army-style Burberry jacket and one of my favourite dress shirts. In Hoi An, there's store after store of tailors with fabrics and samples galore. It's pretty difficult to choose from the dozens of places, so if you don't get recommendations beforehand, it's almost the luck of the draw. I had read that B'Lan and Yaly were a couple of higher end tailors, so I decided not to screw around and went directly to them.

The ladies at B'Lan were very nice. Asking where I was from (which translates from Vietnamese into "How much money can I squeeze out of you?" I always answer "Malaysia"), and if I had a girlfriend followed by giggles. I spent about an hour going through the fabrics, looking at the printout and explaining what I expected, and getting measurements done. I even got to put a bit of my own design in there, and added a removeable hood to the jacket.

The ladies at Yaly were likewise friendly and professional. You can tell that Yaly is quite successful as they have many salespeople walking the floor. I was going to do a vest, but didn't like their wool-cashmere fabrics, so I just settled on some plain linen pants.

So once you settle on your design, they take your measurements and write it down. The sewing is actually outsourced to other people working out of their homes, and it's up to the saleperson to remember and translate your requests to the sewers. So, if I could have done things differently, I would have made sure to get more of the style discussions down in writing.

I just got back from my final fittings. They finish the basic outfit within 4 hours (for a shirt) to 6 hours (for the jacket), and then you do fittings. I had some issues with the jacket in that pockets were set in the wrong place and it was also missing a pleat that I pointed out during the consult...grrr. The arms on the shirts hung wrong--and when we compared them to the dress shirt I had given them to copy, we saw that the armholes were cut too big. So there are problems like that--the problems with churning out these clothes in record speeds.

In the end, I was pretty happy with the results. And the prices I paid were a big discount to what I would get in Canada. The whole experience has also given me a new appreciation for clothing. You really start to notice the details in clothing when you do something like this.