Covered in Bees

Today I took a somewhat odd trip to the Mekong Delta. I had presumed it would be a big bus tour with a bunch of folks from all over. Instead, it was myself, an Australian couple, our guide, and our driver, in a Sprinter. I’m not sure whether that was the intent of the tour or not, but it made for a pleasant tour. Our guide, Tim, was a real character, and enjoyed calling us his family.

The Mekong Delta is about an hour and a half outside Ho Chi Minh City, and is the “bread basket” (rice basket?) for Vietnam. It’s incredibly fertile and supplies rice, fruit, vegetables – you name it – to the rest of the country.

On the way, we made a brief stop at a Buddhist shrine to check out some Very Large Buddhas. They were built within the last few years (from concrete) and are, in fact, Very Large.

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Onward to the Mekong. The Mekong is very wide (up to 4 kilometers), relatively shallow (from 12 to 30 meters), and very muddy. I imagine you could draw parallels between the Mississippi and the Mekong, but that’d be a bit too easy, wouldn’t it?

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We started out by taking a small motorboat to an island. As best I can figure, most of these islands are akin to the Caribbean islands owned by cruise ship operators. Their only reason to exist is so that tours can stop there for Authentic Mekong Experiences. Which is sort of fine with me, as long as everyone is on board.

We sampled some dried fruit, some rather delightful bee pollen tea, and some of the honey produced on site. I held a bunch of bees.

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I also held a python.

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I can’t say I loved the python. Don’t trust snakes.

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Next, we migrated to another part of the island to sample various local fruits – jackfruit, dragon fruit, etc. As a Minnesotan, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the abundance of fruit in this country.

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We transfered into small boats for a trip up a tributary, then got back in our motorboat to go to the Coconut Kingdom. This is another island, where they make Stuff Out Of Coconuts – candy, coconut milk, etc. The amount of effort involved in doing anything meaningful with a coconut probably provides insight into local labor markets. If you were Friedman or someone at least.

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Our next mode of transport was a horse-drawn wagon, which took us to lunch. Lunch in this case consisted of a rather angry looking river fish (I imagine he was angry even before he was cooked) and various accoutrements.

Finally, another series of boats brought us back to the bus, and back to HCMC.

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A perfectly pleasant outing. It was fun to chat with the Aussies, and the tour didn’t have any high pressure “buy these trinkets!” sales lines. It was just a “hang out for the day, we’ll show you stuff, then bring you home” sort of deal. I can’t complain about that.

I guess I’ll just hang out on Broad and South

This evening, I took the Foodie tour from XO Tours. The gist is that a group of folks travels the city on the back of mopeds, each driven by a woman in traditional dress, stopping to eat the street food that you don’t normally eat as a tourist. So, no pho or spring rolls here. This was an absolute blast, and well worth it if you’re headed to HCMC.

There were thirteen participants in my tour – primarily a group of Americans from Kansas City, traveling together. In addition, a pair of New Yorkers, a pair of Malaysians, and me. We all met up at a back alley place to get oriented and have some Bun Bo Hue. I’d actually had this one before, and it’s one of my favorites. This version was even better.

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The leader of the group, Tay, gave us a rundown of what we’d be seeing, and kept everything very fun and lighthearted. Part of the fun of the tour was that it doesn’t take itself, or “tradition,” too seriously.

HCMC is a very spread out place, and many tourists never leave district 1. One of the attractive things about the tour is that it takes you to all the outlying districts that are difficult to reach without your own means of transport.

Our first stop as a group was in Chinatown. I’d noticed the strong Chinese influences in HCMC, but was surprised to learn that there are over half a million Chinese living in the city – the HCMC Chinatown is one of the largest in the world. We didn’t eat at this stop, just got a chance to see this district and get a feel for it.

Part of the fun of the tour is that the driver can point things out and give you a brief history lesson as you ride. Not just the big dates and places, but little neighborhood trivia. For example, we drove down a street that straddles two police jurisdictions. Illegal clothing vendors setup on one side of the street, and if the police come, they push all their merchandise to the other side of the street. If they time things wrong, folks hanging out in the area get free clothes.

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The next stop was in a district (I’ve already gotten confused about which are which) which has a strong emphasis on goat meat. So, we started with some grilled goat meat, then moved on to grilled squid, grilled prawn, and grilled frog.

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Onward from there, we drove past a semi-sanctioned “hookup spot” – because most Vietnamese households are multigenerational, privacy is hard to come by. So, along the river, there’s a long stretch of lawnchairs with umbrellas, behind a row of bushes. Like “make out point” done at scale.

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Our next stop was district 7. District 7 is less than 20 years old and is filled with western chains and high end retail. We got an explanation of the Vietnamese property bubble – lots of fancy condo buildings, fully sold, with all their lights off (because nobody actually lives in them). Interestingly, because the Vietnamese eschew credit, everyone pays cash for these things – a hedge against inflation (which has been averaging 10% per year, and has recently been as high as 20%).

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From there, we went to district four, which is considered a rough-and-tumble area – the sort of place a tourist shouldn’t wander alone.

This food stop was mostly seafood – crab, scallops, and oysters. And then there was Balut – duck fetus eggs.

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In truth, the balut weren’t bad, they just weren’t amazing. Think hard boiled egg with some feathers and bones.

The final dishes were a few desserts – a strange coconut gelatin item, and a variety on a tiramisu.

As I said at the beginning, this was a great way to get to know the city and some food that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. The guides were all fantastic, the participants were great and I had a tot

They killed me in Vietnam, and I didn’t even know

Yesterday, my body (or a helpful bacteria) called timeout and asked me to stay in bed (or the bathroom). So, no big news there. Misery, a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, and more misery. All better now though!

I’ve only spent one day wandering HCMC, but at this point I’m feeling pretty good about my decision to weight my trip towards Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh City is a young city – whereas Hanoi just celebrated its 1000th anniversary, HCMC is only around 300 years old. Big chunks of the city are less than 20 years old. And, obviously wars have taken their toll. The result is that it feels like a young, modern city – perhaps Chicago is the closest American parallel? Just a little bland.

I got my bearings, as I always do, with a walk. A stop by the big market (nothing of note) and then onward to the War Remnants Museum. This museum is primarily focused on American involvement in Vietnam – lots of our military hardware outside, lots of our atrocities inside. Far, far more powerful than the museums in the north. Instead of hitting you over the head with placards about the American Imperialists, they simply show photographs, many from American news magazines (Life, etc).

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This museum kinda kicked my ass. And, judging by the distant empty looks on the faces of other Americans (including some vets) I don’t think I’m the only one. The exhibit on the aftermath of agent orange filled me pure, unadulterated rage. A powerful place. Sorry.

Anyways… Next up was the Lunch Lady. I first learned about the lunch lady, as most people did, from Anthony Bourdain. But I’d forgotten about her, until the South Africans mentioned her during my cooking class last week. They said she was legit. They weren’t kidding.

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Definitely a cut above other street food. Worth the walk.

From there, I swung by the Jade Emperor Pagoda which was rather unremarkable, aside from a pretty epic turtle pond.

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The final stop of the day was for another book, as I finished The Things They Carried earlier today. This time I went for The Innocents Abroad – seems appropriate.

The rest of the day was my foodie tour of the city, which I’m going to writeup in a separate post. Day one of HCMC – certainly not unpleasant, but the city hasn’t sucked me in like Hanoi. Tomorrow, a trip the Mekong delta.

Bookless on the Beach

Like Sleepless in Seattle, just a different kind of horrible.

Yesterday, I made the trek to Hoi An. Hoi An is part Ye Olde Town, and part beach resort. Because the river silted in, it was basically frozen in time a few hundred years ago (when the port became useless) and was mostly spared during the various wars of the 20th century. The town lines a river estuary, with a couple islands connected via small bridges. It’s a town of tailors, spas, trinkets, and restaurants. A few miles from town is a gorgeous beachfront on the pacific, lined with more restaurants.

I’m staying at a hotel midway between town and the beach. It’s got an amazing view overlooking the river and the type of terrain you imagine when you think of The War.

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I started the day with a walk to the beach. I’m not really a beach type of guy, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity entirely. Apparently beach type people don’t show up at 8 am, because I was more or less the only person there. I paid my dollar rental for a beach chair and umbrella and set about relaxing. Except, I killed my Kindle yesterday, and thus was bookless. Well, not entirely bookless. I brought along my Vietnam Lonely Planet guide and flipped through it. But, I lamented the loss of my Kindle. On the plus side, they will bring you vietnamese coffee (so.. coffee) while you lounge. In reality, it’s a fantastic beach, with great gentle waves and clean water. I spent the better part of the morning there.

Around 11, I strolled back to the hotel, by way of the semi-local market for some lunch. Today was the 15th day of the lunar month, which for some Vietnamese means maintaining a vegetarian diet. For that reason (I suspect) there weren’t any meat vendors at this more rural market, and all of the street food options were vegetarian. In town of course, everything was on the table. It was, as with everything I’ve eaten in Vietnam, delicious and served with a smile.

In the afternoon, I set out for town. The first stop was Randy’s Book Exchange, a bookstore selling used and pirated foreign language books. A life saver! Crisis averted, I settled in at a cafe to reach and people watch. Eventually, I strolled the town, poking in shops and snacking a bit.

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Hoi An doesn’t really come alive until dusk. That’s when the tour busses bring in the folks staying at out of town hotels, and the river front lights up. There’s a night market and most of the streets are closed to traffic.

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I can only imagine what it’s like in peak travel season. One of the Hoi An rituals involves purchasing little lighted luminaries which are floated down the river. Sales weren’t particularly brisk tonight, but I can imagine the river looks stunning when flooded with them.

Tomorrow, I head to Ho Chi Minh City. I imagine it’ll be a bit of a change from Hoi An. A day and some partials was definitely as much time as I needed to spend here – a pleasant place, but if a beach resort is what you’re after, I can’t see flying to southeast asia. And if Ye Olde Town is what you’re after… have you considered Charleston? I’m ready to dive back into the chaos.

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Music is just organized noise

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Sitting in Hoi An, having flown from Hanoi to Danang earlier to today, I’m feeling reflective on my first week in Vietnam.

At this point in the trip, I have nothing but superlatives for this country. Hanoi is a seething cauldron in the best possible sense – barely contained chaos. A city like that can easily feel overwhelming, but Hanoi does not. It sucks you in, tells you that it’s ok to be anonymous. It encourages you to step back and observe, absorb the rumble. It steps right up to the line that would overwhelm you, but does not cross it.

Essentially every person I’ve interacted with thus far has been friendly, interested, and eager to be helpful. The motorbike taxi drivers asking if you want a ride generally respond with a grin if you make eye contact and politely shake your head. You don’t feel pestered as you walk the city. There’s no sense of poverty – just lots of people working hard.

It is, for reasons that should be relatively obvious, a very young place – most people are more or less my age or younger. The constitution enshrines gender equality as a basic principle, and the UN scores the country at parity with the US on the gender inequality index. I didn’t know this prior to a few moments ago, but guessed it, watching the gender roles and interactions taking place.

So, my overall impressions are of a happy, friendly, tasty, place with an amazing landscape and a horrid history. It’s incredibly affordable, very manageable for a solo traveler, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend. Start planning your trip already!

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With mints on the pillows

Last day in Hanoi – a bit sad really. I’ll write up my thoughts on the city, and week on in Vietnam, tomorrow. For now, let me just say that Hanoi has quickly propelled itself near the top of my list of favorite cities in the world.

Today was about mopping up a few things I hadn’t gotten around to doing yet. First things first, a trip to the Dong Xuan Market. I hadn’t really grasped the scale of it from the outside – think good sized three story American shopping mall, filled with vendors selling everything from candy and meat to record players and clothing. It’s massive and overwhelming and honestly I didn’t enjoy it very much.

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I did enjoy a very nice bowl of pho ga nearby though. Dear god I love the food here. I’ll do a separate food post eventually.

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From the market, I wandered up to the home of VietClimb, the only climbing gym in Hanoi. It’s more of a bouldering cave, but I paid for a day pass just to get a few laps in. It was nice to be on the wall, but bouldering isn’t my favorite thing, and doing it in an un-airconditioned 100 degree room is even less fun. Friendly staff though, and I’ll definitely look into their trips if I ever make it back to Vietnam with a climbing buddy.

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In the afternoon, I headed to Hoa Lo prison, the Hanoi Hilton. Most of the site is devoted to the rather horrible things the French did when they ran the prison. There are a few rooms dedicated to the American prisoners held there during the war. This part of the exhibit definitely crossed the line from “positive interpretation of events” to “outright mistruths” in a few places. Essentially, you’d come away thinking the American POWs spent their time playing basketball and opening care packages from back home. Interesting none-the-less, and it helps you understand a little bit of why John McCain is such an asshole.

From there, a quick trip to the Temple of Literature rounded out the Hanoi sites.

The rest of the day was more or less devoted to reading and enjoying the city. I sat in a coffee shop overlooking the lake for a while, and then moved to a bench lakeside. Various interesting people sat down next to me to chat – an Indian living in Australia, a Vietnamese student studying to be a teacher, etc. Some good conversation, and enjoyable reading. I love being surrounded by the constant thunder of this city.

Tomorrow, I head to Hoi An. I’m expecting a bit of a touristy mess, but I’m sure it’ll be gorgeous. Thank you for a wonderful week Hanoi.

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Turns out I’m the suit

Today, I got on a boat full of interesting people for adventure. A good start to a day!

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I did a split kayak/climbing day with Asia Outdoors on Cat Ba. Somewhere around 18 of us got on a boat and headed out into the bay to pickup our kayaks.

The group consisted of Americans, Brits, Norwegians, French, Germans, Canadians and “wanderers.” Everyone seemed to be at some point on an epic pan-asian adventure (except me). I heard people talking about going to Asrams in India. Like, not ironically. I’m in the midst of reading The Great Railway Bazaar (it’s fascinating!) and it was hilarious to hear people using the exact same hippie-pilgrim language that Theroux heard 40 years ago.

In any case, we got our kayaks and went for a paddle, led by our Russian/French guide who lives in Vietnam to save money for deep water soloing in Spain (you see, everyone is more interesting than me!). Ha Long Bay continues to amaze, and getting to see it up close was even better.

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Kayak is definitely the right way to see the bay – you can get into coves and caves that you couldn’t possible enter in anything else. The area around Cat Ba is, I gather, far quieter and less tourist-y than the main chunk of Ha Long Bay.

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At one point, we were able to pull our kayaks up on a beach for some swimming and general milling about. It was pretty pleasant, if I’m honest.

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After lunch back on the boat, it was time for for climbing. We were deposited on a small island and the guides rigged a handful of top rope routes. As I expected, it was just like any other group climbing outing – most folks were trying climbing for the first time, and what a great place to do so! Happily for me, they also rigged one harder route – something like a 5.11d in imperial units, a 6c+ in their crazy metric units – which was fun.

The rock makes for great climbing – it’s very sharp and a little painful, but there are amazing holds everywhere and tons of great texture. I imagine serious climbers here build unbelievable callouses.

We climbed for a few hours, before being picked up and brought back to the larger boat for the trek into town. Overall, an experience that certainly wet the appetite for more. I’m glad I didn’t plan to do more on this trip, but next time, with friends, this area has endless possibilities.

Decent sunsets too.

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What’s Vietnamese for Cinque Terre?

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Cat Ba Island, and, I’m lead to believe, all of Ha Long Bay, is in the category of “places which cannot possibly be real but apparently are.” It’s too perfectly picturesque, like it’s been staged for a film. It’s lush and dramatic and unlike anywhere I’ve seen. And I haven’t even seen the really cool bits yet.

First things first – getting to Cat Ba involves a series of busses, then a boat, then another bus. It’s all well orchestrated, but takes a solid 5 hours. My bus was about 50% Vietnamese, and 50% westerners. Cat Ba is a tourist destination for foreigners and Vietnamese alike.

After arriving, I arranged my outing for tomorrow with Asia Outdoors. After talking things over, they strongly encouraged me to meet up with some other climbers and just rent gear. It was tempting, but I’ve only got one full day in the area, and I didn’t want to just spend it working a couple routes in one crag. So, instead I’m doing a half kayaking / half climbing guided outing. It’ll be tame climbing, but that’s fine with me given the purposes of the trip. No deep water solo due to the tides, which is a bit of a bummer. More reason to come back.

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After arranging that, I went for a wander. Cat Ba town has a couple large markets, which were fun to browse. Then I set out walking out of town, and ended up at a strange abandoned … something? Maybe a resort of some sort? It doesn’t appear to have ever been built, but they were planning for something impressive.

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The rest of the afternoon consisted of more wandering, punctuated with coffees and snacks. Which is more or less an ideal afternoon. Rather than describe it in minute details, I’ll just go for an image gallery.

Does Not Smell like Perfume

Today was more or less devoted to a trek to the Perfume Pagoda. The “Perfume Pagoda” itself is actually a cave, at the top of a mountain, with a Buddhist temple inside, and it’s part of a large complex with many pagodas.

This was one of my first experiences taking a tour while traveling. The whole expedition was a bit of a whim, and I signed up via the tours desk at my hotel. Getting to the site involves about two hours in a minibus, and then another hour on a boat. The drive included the obligatory stop at the arts-and-crafts store, for kickback-laden shopping (afraid I didn’t buy anything) but the tour guides were friendly and stuck to the schedule.

All of the boats going to the site are rowed by local women – how they manage it is a mystery to me, as I was nearly dead just sitting still.

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After the boat ride and a lunch, we set out for the Perfume Pagoda itself. There are two options to reach the site – hike or cable car. I chose hiking. Oddly, everyone else went for the cable car. According to my fitbit, the hike involved 127 flights of stairs, over 3 miles. In 100 degree heat, that turned out to be relatively substantial. I was not looking, or (I imagine) smelling, so fresh by the top.

I did a poor job of capturing the scale of the site. This is a really massive cave.

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After walking back down the mountain, I ate all the ice cream, and we took the return trip to Hanoi. Tomorrow is the trek out to Cat Ba for rock climbing. It’ll be an early morning, and I’m immensely tired, so I’ll give up trying to write anything clever.

Oh, briefly – does the logo for Vietinbank look familiar to anyone else?

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Like Paris Hilton says…

(“that’s hot.” Hey, is she still alive?)

There is a point at which it can be too warm to enjoy yourself. Or at least, there is for me. Parts of today reached that point – temperatures were again over 100, with humidity in the high 70% range, and no breeze. It’s hard to want to linger reading museum placards in that weather. On the plus side, the air quality in Hanoi is such that while you get very sweaty, you don’t have the filthy “covered in diesel soot” nastiness you get in a city like Rome (to say nothing of Beijing).

I kicked off the day with a trek to Hup Tiep Lake which is a bit tricky to track down. On the way there was a breakfast Bahn Mi, an invention that desperately needs to be brought to the West. Fried egg, hot pepper, cucumber, etc.

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Hup Tiep Lake contains the remains of a B52 shot down during the war. It’s striking to see, and remarkable that it was left as is.

From there, it was on to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology which is where the heat really got to me. It’s a well done museum, with indoor and outdoor exhibits, but it was stifling about that point.

One observation from the museum, and in truth from all of the museums I’ve visited thus far – the Hmong are treated like just another Vietnamese tribe, and there’s no mention of any “issues” past or present in Vietnam or Laos. I don’t profess to understand the history well enough to know if that’s truly odd, but it strikes me as such.

This afternoon, it was cooking class time! Class started with a tour of a local market – interesting to get the various fruits and vegetables explained. I’ve never seen fresh turmeric for example, nor lotus root.

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After the tour, it was time to cook. The class consisted of myself, three South Africans (a couple, plus a fellow currently living in Dubai) and two French men. The instruction was rather oversimplified – time limitations meant the pho stock was already prepared for example. But, it was a fun experience, and certainly gives some ideas for future items to attempt at home.

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The most interesting and valuable part of the course turned out to be the point at the end when we all gathered to eat the food we’d prepared. All of the South Africans had been in Saigon at previous points on their respective trips, and were able to offer some great tips on things to do and tour companies. The couple was nearing the end of an epic 5-month trip around the world, and had plenty of amazing stories to tell.

As we were eating, an intense rain came through, driving down temperatures dramatically. I know it won’t last, but it sure was pleasant. The Hanoi Night Market only runs Friday/Saturday/Sunday, so I took the opportunity to visit. The rain delayed setup a bit, and it’s mostly random trinkets – not something I would go out of my way to visit again.

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So, that’s day two in Hanoi. I’m starting to get more comfortable with the city, and I’m trusting my navigation skills a bit more. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be ready to write a bit more broadly about the city.