Monday, May 4, 2009

A Lot To Catch Up On...

I woke up on the night bus as it arrived in Hoi An, where people get off an on, and I stayed awake for the two hour trip to Da Nang. I only planned on stopping in Da Nang to break up the trip to Hanoi (from Nha Trang to Hanoi is 28 hours) and to see the Marble Mountains- a group of large mountains of solid rock that were formed by the ocean and that have large caves that buddhists turned into temples. The buses stop approximately every 4 hours, however, and the routine stop from Hoi An to Da Nang happened to be the Marble Mountains. It was really cool, I climbed all the way to the top of the mountain through caves and tunnels, all the while passing by Buddhist shrines and statues. 

Pics: 1. A view of one of the other mountains from the top of the mountain I climbed 2. Ascending to the light.

Because I already saw the Marble Mountains, I decided en route that I would skip Da Nang and keep on going to Hue, the capital of the former Vietnamese monarchy. The Batina, the Austrian woman from Jungle Beach, told me that the train ride from Da Nang to Hue was really nice, so in Da Nang I got off the bus and found my way to the train station. I waited about an hour until noon when the train departed. Although the sky was overcast, the view from the train was still gorgeous. The train mainly went up the coast but also went inland for a bit and passed by lots of rice paddies and dense jungles. 

On the train I met a girl from Denmark named Mia, and we decided to share a room in Hue to save money. We arrived at 5 and checked into a cheap hotel. There was no food on the train so we were both really hungry. After dinner we went back to the room and watched a movie, and that's where I started sneezing. At first I thought I was just allergic to something, but even the next morning my nose was running and my throat began to hurt. Also, the overcast skies turned into a drizzle and then into a rain. Undeterred, Mia and I made our way to the Imperial Citadel, the former capital of Vietnam. The entrance was very intimidating, and it had a moat on either side of the walls.

The central building of the large complex was in good shape because it had been restored. That was where the Emperor's throne and court were. A few other buildings near it had also been restored, however the rest of the 3 square kilometers was in shambles-mainly due to American bombing. 

Pic: Mia walking ahead of me by the ruined palace.

We did happen upon an archway that was still totally intact. It had mosaics all over it, and not just 2 dimensional tiling but really cool mosaics that protruded from the wall. Many kinds of glass and ceramic were used in it's making, I was blown away by the size of it.

We spent a few hours wandering around the Citadel and the surrounding city, then stopped for lunch. 

Pic: A woman moving her food stand to another location

In the afternoon we booked our bus tickets for our next destinations- Hanoi for me and Ninh Binh for Mia. Ninh Binh is on the way to Hanoi from Hue so we bought tickets on the same bus. We had the choice between paying 10 dollars for a sleeper bus or 6 dollars for a sitter bus, and this is where I made a huge error of judgement. I knew I was getting sick and should take the more comfortable option, but I let Mia convince me to take the cheaper option. 

There were only locals on the sitting bus, and it was nearly packed before we left the station. Then the driver started picking up random people on the side of the road and having them sit in the aisle. They also pumped the AC to a very low temperature- I was uncomfortable the entire trip. We left Hue at 5 pm and got to Ninh Binh at 5 am. Mia got off, and at least for the final 100 km of the trip I was somewhat comfortable. But the bus ride put the final nail in my coffin. When I got to Hanoi I felt terrible. After checking into the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel I went back to sleep. I slept on and off all day, going out occasionally for food and tea. In the evening I met an interesting British woman and we went to the first of the 3 street food vendors recommended in the NY Times article "36 Hours in Hanoi". It was pretty good, but ended up being my least favorite of the 3...

"bun cha, grilled pork patties served with crispy crab spring rolls and fresh herbs at 1 Hang Manh Street." It was really good, but the portion was ridiculously big. Between the British girl and myself we couldn't even finish half. We did watch a Vietnamese couple down theirs though, between them they couldn't have weighed more than 250 lbs...
Many of the 15 or so people staying in my room at the hostel were young Europeans, and all went out that night. I was awakened many times, so the next morning (Monday) I moved to another hotel recommended to me by Fin and Tina (from Jungle Beach, I ran into them when I was out with the British girl). There were only 3 other beds in the room, and only 1 was filled, so it was much quieter. I watched movies and slept the entire day. And the next day. And the next. Every day I went out to get food and to the Backpackers Hostel to use the free wifi, and one of the days I met a girl from Seattle named Chelsea. She invited me to go with her to the prison where McCain was held during the war, which was pretty interesting. 

It was built by the French, and they descriptions on the walls described how terrible the Vietnamese prisoners were treated. When we go to the section about the American war, however, the pictures on the walls showed the POWs like McCain playing volleyball and watching movies... talk about propaganda. Afterwards I felt really bad again, so I went back to bed. On Thursday I finally felt a bit better, so I got restless. I walked around the city for a bit because I really hadn't seen that much of it.

Pic: An average street in Hanoi. There were many more trees than in HCMC, and every street was unique and had lots of character and history. It felt much nicer than HCMC.

I went to the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel and signed up for the same trip to Halong Bay as Chelsea and her friends, which left Friday morning. In retrospect, not the best decision. After I signed up I ran into them and they convinced me to go to another water puppet show. It was, literally, the exact same show as I saw in HCMC.

Pic: The musicians at the show

After the show we went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. On the way we passed by a rally for the Vietnamese Independence day. Compared to what we do on our independence day it was pretty small, but I was happy to see it.

The singing was surprisingly good...

The trip we booked to Halong bay was with the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, which pretty much guaranteed it to be all young people. The 25 people going on the trip met at the hostel at 8 am Friday morning and we took a chartered bus the 3 hours to Halong bay. We got on the boat, which was really nice- made all of wood, 3 stories, a big dining room, bathrooms in the bed rooms, a large deck with lawn chairs- and cruised for an hour out to the bay while we ate lunch. The food was great and the portions generous, and the weather finally turned pleasant in the afternoon; it had been raining all week. 

Like the Marble Mountains, the islands were made when the ocean receded after the last ice age. I don't know how many islands there are, but the kept going into the horizon as far as we could see. Vietnam is trying to get Halong Bay named one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World. The 3rd pic is of a site where the Russians met with the Vietnamese about space travel and satellites... random.

We finally stopped at a floating market where our tour leader rented kayaks. We kayaked for an hour until coming to a cave/tunnel that was the entrance to a beautiful cove, where we relaxed and looked at the mountains for a while, then went back out through the tunnel. We kayaked through a hole in one of the rocky islands that the guide named after the female genitalia, then headed back to the boat to swim for a while until sunset and then dinner.

We swam and jumped off the top deck of the boat for a while (about a 30 ft drop), then the boat cruised out to open water for sunset. It was an amazing sunset, the water and sky waere a pastel orange color. The pictures don't do it justice.

Everyone partied in the evening, although I tried to take it easy. I didn't feel bad anymore, but the congestion in my nose was getting worse, not better- all my other symptoms were gone. In the morning I woke up and my ears and sinuses hurt like hell. I decided it was best to go back to Hanoi early and get treated for my self diagnosed sinus/ear infection. I got back to Hanoi at 5 pm and checked into another hostel, then went to search for the antibiotics and ear drops that I needed. I found them, after calling my mom Carol and freaking her out, then went to sleep. She contacted the brother of one of her friends that used to be a doctor and is living in Hanoi, and the next day I went to his gallery of tribal art and artifacts to meet him and let him check me out and make sure that I have the right meds. On the way to his gallery I stopped at a Vietnamese "mall". It was a 3 story building full of individual vendors- there weren't any actual stores. Vendors selling similar products were grouped together; it was a mad house and really hot- I couldn't stay there long.

On the walk home I stopped at the 2nd NY Times recommended street vendor but it was closed, so I went home and slept. Monday I woke up feeling much better, the antibiotics worked really fast. Because all the museums are closed on Mondays I rented a motorbike, bought a map, and rode around the city for the day. I went North of the old quarter to the large lake called West Lake, where I stopped at a pagoda, but it was closed. I took a picture anyway...

I kept going around the lake, and on the west side I came across a large residential development. It wasn't one developer making cookie cutter houses like you see in suburban US, but rather many individual houses all going up at the same time. They all looked very high end and modern, a true sign that Vietnam is prospering.

In the afternoon and in the evening I hit up the other 2 street food vendors recommended by the NY Times.

"bun bo nam bo, grilled strips of beef served over rice noodles, fresh herbs and peanuts at 67 Hang Dieu Street." It was really filling, I could barely finish the bowl, but the flavors were great, and the beef was tender and tasty.
"Don't-miss items include banh cuon, soft rice crepes filled with minced pork and mushrooms at 14 Hang Ga Street..."
The last one was my favorite, the dipping sauce in the upper right corner of the picture was sweet, tangy, and spicy; the pork and mushrooms were really flavorful; the rice flour crepes were soft and hot; and the whole dish was sprinkled with dried shrimp and fried onions and garnished with basil and mint. It was so good I had to get a second portion... Each place only served the one dish, and you just sat down and they brought it to you, no ordering involved. All three dishes cost under 3 USD, the last one was only 1 USD. Incredible. 

The Pho in Hanoi was also better than anywhere else in Vietnam. Here are a couple pictures of my favorite bowls:

Today, Tuesday, May 5th, I went to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and to the Ho Chi Minh museum in the morning, and now am writing my post before getting on a bus to Laos at 5 pm. Because I was sick I didn't make it to Sapa, a minority village in the highlands in northwest Vietnam. I am really disappointed that I didn't make it because many people have said it is the highlight of their trip, but I have to meet Dave and Jeff in Bangkok on May 24th, so I only have 18 days for both Laos and Cambodia. The trip must go on!

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