Dodging Mario on the way to a date with some owls

Today was our chance to get a quick glimpse of Tokyo before heading home to Minnesota. Tokyo being impossibly overwhelming, we chose to focus on what is, perhaps, its core feature: animal cafes.

After a perfectly pleasant night at our hotel, and a delightfully random breakfast (we didn’t wear our PJs), we set out for the Akihabara district. For Colin, this was a walk down memory lane. In the 1990s, Akihabara was synonymous with all the most exciting things happening in the hardcore PC nerd space. Whenever a new Intel chip or graphics card would ship, it’d show up first in a bin in Akihabara – often before it was even officially available. Nowadays, the markets in Shenzhen have largely supplanted that, but Akihabara retains the technology-focus.

Our walk to Akihabara took us past Yasukuni Jinja Shinto shrine and the Kitanomaru National Garden. We walked down alleys and big streets, and enjoyed the quiet, calm, and cleanliness of Tokyo.

Upon reaching Akihabara two go karts drove by – one driven by Mario, one by Pikachu. Just a normal morning in Akihabara. We popped into Mister Donut to test out Japanese donuts – almost funnel-cake like. We explored some of the multistory department stores of the neighborhood, overwhelmed with the audio and visual experience. Then it was time for our appointment at the Owl Cafe.

The Owl Cafe is not a typical Cafe, insofar as it doesn’t serve food or beverages. But, “Expensive room full of owls” wouldn’t have the same ring. After some instruction about keeping quiet and moving slowly, we were let in, along with 3 other couples. Apparently one doesn’t go to the owl cafe solo. During our allotted hour, we were allowed to (very very gently) pet owls, look at owls, hold owls, and have our photo taken with owls. This was a substantially more exciting hour for one member of our pair than the other.

The owls are gorgeous. Each sits in front of a card with his or her name and species. They range from cute little baseball-sized guys up through “hey, has anyone seen the dog?” sized. The owls are handled by professional handlers who seat you quietly and then bring you an owl of your choice – provided that the owl isn’t having ‘sleepy time’ marked by a pink sticker above their name tag. Kat was nervous that this experience would feel uncomfortably unethical but the professionalism of the operation was impressive. One does not simply run into the room full of owls and start poking them. We were each allowed to interact with two owls over the period of an hour. Colin picked an extremely active owl who was feeling adventurous, so after his first owl-on-head experience, opted to photograph Kat’s owl snuggling session. Both of Kat’s owls were relaxed and snoozy. The second one, a juvenile spotted wood owl was comfortable enough to stand on one leg and preen himself while she watched. The handler was pleased with how comfortable the owl was, so he gently rubbed the owl’s wings on kat’s nose before he took him away squee

After our hour at the owl cafe, we walked around the corner to the rabbit cafe. No reservation needed there (rabbits are far less sensitive than owls) – just decide how long you want to stay, and then hang out with some bunnies and feed them snacks. The bunnies are in play enclosures with their bond mates – usually sisters. Most of them were holland lops (like Toba) with one lion head. They were young rabbits, probably all less than a year and were all extremely active and comfortable with people. Spoiled rotten actually. They immediately jumped into our laps and climbed all over us looking for treats.

Having accomplished our two primary missions for the day, there was only one thing left to do – eat some ramen. We plotted a course for a well reviewed shop in the neighborhood, and were not disappointed. Once we figured out the system – buy a ticket for the type of ramen you want from a machine, then sit at the counter with your ticket – we dove in. It was exactly what you’d want for ramen experience – one counter, people slurping silently, delicious food, no nonsense. We were in and out in fifteen minutes, and on our way to the airport. We managed to have perfect timing – there was a line of businessmen waiting outside when we left.

So that’s the trip. We’re a few minutes from Minneapolis now, beginning our descent. Our return home was delayed a bit by a volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands – a new reason for a delay for us. Our flight plan was diverted south and Kat thinks it might have been due to a volcano called Bogoslof.

We’ll have some bigger thoughts about the trip in a future post. For now, we just want to bail the dog out of jail and catch up on life.

Early Morning Plans: 0, Comfy Bed: 1

Today was another travel day. We woke up in Kuala Lumpur and ended the day in Tokyo.

We had intended to rise early and explore the city but ended up getting a late start on account of our fancy bed and gorgeous view. We caught an Uber to a breakfast spot in one of the oldest apartment buildings in KL. We were not sure we were at the correct spot, but after a walk around the block we figured it out. Colin ordered us the special – eggs over roti canai with some chili sauce. We washed it down with some hot tea tarik, then headed out over a footbridge covered in pigeons to explore the neighborhood en route to our next meal.

Determined to try new things, we set off for ICC Pudu , a newly built indoor market that offered some food we hadn’t had before. The complex is still under construction and everything is well lit and clean. We headed to the back of the space to find chee cheong fun, which is a mix of many delicious things served over big rice noodles with mystery sauces.

Bursting from breakfast and brunch, we called an Uber to take us back to the airport. The highlight of the next flight was getting to try a 787 for the first time. We dutifully dimmed and undimmed the magic windows and ooo’d and aaa’d at the quiet and comfort. As an added bonus, we got to Tokyo about half an hour early. We slimmed down our bags and left most of our luggage at the airport. Our Uber driver took us on the scenic route over the rainbow bridge so Kat could get a nice view of the Tokyo tower at night.

After checking in, we went upstairs to our room to begin the fun adventure of “what does this button do?”. Japanese technology is delightful and we both enjoyed figuring out the ins and outs of our tiny room. The hotel provides one size fits all PJs as well as all toiletries for the travel-light business-types. There is a box in the lobby full of little lotions, hairbands, brushes, loofas, hair clips and fancy shampoos. Women are invited to pick 5 items for themselves (sorry guys, no goodies for you). Since one does not wear shoes into the sleeping part of the room, slippers are provided as well. In the elevator it is noted that slippers and PJs are not appropriate attire for the breakfast room.

Exploration complete, we headed out to the local corner store to pick up some snacks before bed. Now it’s time to sleep so we can get up early (for real this time!) and check out Tokyo.

3 cities, 2 countries, 1 sadness

Today was mostly a travel day, but not entirely. We got moving very early and were out of the hotel by 6. The very kind hotel staff packed us a breakfast to eat in the car. The Hue airport is a very low-key place, so we settled in to wait for our flight.

Originally, we’d been planning to just stay at the Ho Chi Minh airport during our roughly 6 hour layover. But, we weren’t quite done with Vietnam, so we dropped our bigger bags at left luggage and took an Uber in to the city. More specifically, we took the Uber to the War Remnants Museum. It seemed like the right place to start for Kat, on her first visit to HCMC.

We got a snack banh mi outside, took a few deep breaths and then went in. The museum is a low tech affair – mostly photographs and captions covering the walls. The galleries have names like “the truth”, “war crimes”, and “agent orange”. It’s a powerful and emotional reminder about what can happen when our leaders systematically dehumanize entire populations in the name of personal gain. Its a heartbreaking experience.

After stepping out of the museum into the sunshine, we found our footing and one last bowl of noodle soup at the side of the road. Then we took an Uber back to the airport.

Landing in Kuala Lumpur, the world was instantly less chaotic and more comfortable. The noise and excitement of Vietnam is exhilarating but fatiguing. KL is “Asia light” – easy, calm, modern. We again left our big bags at the airport, and took a car into the city. We’re staying in the heart of the city – the same place we were last year. We have a habit of gushing about our love of Malaysia to anyone who asks. This time, our gushing about our favorite foods resulted in a fancy room upgrade on the top floor of the hotel.

We dropped our bags, and set out for dinner. We were determined to try somewhere new, so we went to Wai Sec Kai, a two block food street about 2 kilometers south of our hotel. As is typical of our time in Malaysia, we had an extended conversation about whether we really had to stick to just one dinner each – in the end, we settled on Tai Bu Mee, Char Kuay Kak, and an amazing samosa bursting with tamarind.

Tomorrow, we’ll get up early to maximize our limited time in the city, before we head on to Tokyo and then home.

Paws and Pagodas

Last night we scoped out some breakfast options down the street from the hotel. We woke up ready for some Bun Bo Hue. The spot was packed with locals and the soup did not disappoint. Fueled up, we headed back to our hotel for coffee, fruit and day planning.

Unfortunately, Kat sat on her glasses, so we had a new pre-site seeing mission. Our hotel gave us directions to an optical shop a few blocks away. The owner had apparently stepped out for the day, leaving the young sales girl with no technician. We were off again. We walked another mile, then decided to check in with a different hotel receptionist. Highlighted map in hand, we continued our quest. Finally we arrived at our destination. The man behind the counter took the broken glasses to his bench while we watched his toddler slowly transfer toothpicks from one container to another. He was adorable and full of giggles. All fixed and polished up, the glasses were handed back with no charge!

Buzzing from the kind generosity, we hailed a cab to head south along the Perfume River to check out the imperial mausoleums – Hue’s big attractions. Emperors has the mausoleums built to their particular tastes and styles. Some served as country palaces while the emperors were alive. The sites are also reflections of both the wars, and the climate – nature is trying hard to reclaim these buildings, despite them being little more than 100 years old.

Our first stop was Minh Manu’s Mausoleum on the north side of the river. Our taxi driver waited for us in the lot while we wound our way up a path toward the site. There were marvelous chickens parading around the path and Kat desperately wanted to pet them. This first site was fairly empty of tourists and we enjoyed some biscuits, painting, and reading overlooking the complex. When we arrived back at the lot, our napping taxi driver was ready to take us to the next site.

Khai Dinh’s Mausoleum was inspired by a European castle and the emperor’s infatuation with the French is palpable. Most of the site is built from cement rather than carved stone which has turned black with age and is covered with delightful neon moss. The inside of the mausoleum itself is ornately decorated in tile relief. We enjoyed a view overlooking the grounds while it quietly rained outside. Hungry, we decided to drive back into town for lunch and an ATM.

Lunch was banh khoai, a deep fried pancake with bean sprouts, pate and shrimp. After lunch we found a sunny coffee shop to enjoy milkshakes and some more painting/reading.

Afterward, we hailed a cab south again to Tu Duc’s Mausoleum, the last of our old-dead-king sites for the day. This emperor had reigned the longest, therefore his complex is the most well planned and cohesive. We enjoyed wandering around the secondary tombs and poking around the gardens. The complex has been renovated, and this work continues. The tiles for the courtyards were apparently supplied by canine artisans whose signatures can be seen throughout the site.

From Tu Duc’s Mausoleum we headed north, this time on foot. We wandered down dirt roads and around rice paddies and fancy houses. The back lanes were quite and pleasant. It appears as though some large public works have required the rearrangement of roads since our map was not exactly accurate. Regardless, we enjoyed the wander. It turned out that the road on which we were walking was new – and the cement ahead had just been laid. Thankfully, an elderly gentleman waived us on and indicated that it was set enough for us to walk on.

Our goal was Tu Hieu Pagoda, a site a little off the beaten path that houses an active community of Buddhist monks. We found the graveyard behind the pagoda before we found the site itself. Eventually we wound our way around to the entrance of a park where ponds full of dragonfish happily swarmed for food from local children. We climbed the steps to the temple and enjoyed the quiet gardens.

Eventually we wandered back onto larger streets and hailed a cab to Thien Mu Pagoda on the north shore of the Perfume River. We stopped for a long cargo train to pass and arrived at the pagoda at dusk, just in time for the bats to start swooping. Around the back of the pagoda, young monks were playing a lively game of soccer and a local girl was having an intense selfie session. Super intense.

Drained, we took a cab back toward the city and started looking for dinner. We happened upon a large street market for clothes – and the associated snack stalls. We gobbled up some Korean-style noodles and a fish-shaped waffle before looking for quieter streets and a full meal. A couple blocks away, we found a banh canh stall. It was similar to our dinner from last night, with freshly made noodles, but with an awesome assortment of flavors and textures. There was some pate, some fish, some quail eggs, and pork cracklins, all floating in a bowl of a spicy, herby goodness. It was a great final dinner in Vietnam.

Our last stop for the night was the Big C, a supermarket and department store complex. It was … overwhelming. The first floor is mall-like, with small shops, but the upper floors are all Big C. We only made it through floor 2, the grocery section. It was completely packed, loud organized chaos, like the rest of Vietnam. We got some candy and snacks to bring home, along with a passionfruit, then we were on our way.

We’re all packed up to begin our meandering trek home tomorrow. We’ll spend a chunk of tomorrow in Ho Chi Minh City, and end the day in Kuala Lumpur.

No Hue!

(’cause it’s pronounced “way”. Get it? Super witty)

Catching up on our blog a day late, on account of being dead tired yesterday.

Yesterday morning, we flew from Hanoi to Hue, the old capital of Vietnam, and the scene of multiple intense battles in the war. Hue is about 40 miles south of the DMZ, so we’ve crossed over into “south” Vietnam.

We’re staying at an actual hotel – it’s a nice place with a very friendly staff and a fancy veneer (we can see the sky through holes in the ceiling of the room, which does slightly ruin the effect). After check in, we set out for a wander. The city is dominated by the Citadel which is surrounded by a moat and thick walls and sits on the north side of the Perfume River. Inside the Citadel is both the Imperial City, as well as just normal neighborhoods.

We went north across the river and visited Dong Ba market which spills out onto the riverfront. It’s a large, crowded market, and the stall holders are more aggressive than in Hanoi. We wandered around, but didn’t linger too long.

From the market, we crossed a canal into a smaller residential area, bounded by a curve in the river. We were looking for lunch, but found that we were mostly in among houses. Since Hue doesn’t have the density of Hanoi, there’s not as much (as we would say) mixed retail and residential. This neighborhood was once home to Hue’s Chinese community and there are a number of assembly halls that greatly resemble those we saw in Penang.

By this point, we were eager for lunch, so we crossed back to the market, where we’d seen food stalls. We settled on a busy stall selling bun bo hue. It was very different from other versions of the soup – far fishier and honestly not that great. We later found out it was a stall that Bourdain had eaten at on his recent Parts Unknown episode. I think that marks the third time we’ve accidentally eaten the same place as Bourdain.

After lunch, we loaded up on mixed candy at the market, and then went to the Imperial City. The Imperial City was more or less totally flattened between the wars with the French and the Americans. Walking around, it has the vibe of visiting an ancient archaeological site, with fragments of walls poking out of the ground. Then you realize that just 70 years ago, this was a functioning, gorgeous palace compound.

A few buildings have been rebuilt, many housing coffee shops or gift stores. The few buildings that were left standing are pocked by bullet holes. The narrative content is all pretty rundown and hard to follow, but the site itself is perfect for sitting, watching, and reflecting. Bullet holes are sprayed across walls and craters cover the landscape – all softened by grass and punctuated by arched tiled gateways. Kat did a painting while Colin read, catching fragments of conversations from tourists wandering by.

By mid-afternoon, we were feeling some travel fatigue (it was a very early start in Hanoi). We went to the fancy Highlands Coffee across the street for a fancy iced coffee and a chance to regroup. We’d been a little disappointed about struggling to find an awesome lunch stop, so we turned to the blogosphere for help. Thankfully, we found a great post from Legal Nomads which pointed us in the right direction. We went to Le Thanh Ton Street, not far from the Imperial City (still inside the citadel) and hit the jackpot.

We walked the length of the street, taking in our options. Banh ep and Banh trang trung, both mentioned in the Legal Nomads post, seemed like excellent starter snacks. Banh trang trung is a pizza-like dish made of rice paper grilled over coals with pork, shallots, and a squirt of eggs. Banh ep is cassava flour with filling, sandwiched between iron plates and heated over the coals. It’s got a gummier consistency. We were thrilled.

Our next stop was a stall making some sort of fish-based noodle soup. We had walked past this spot before and made a mental note when we saw the man making rice noodles to order – throwing them right into the bowls. We definitely hit the jackpot on that one – salty, savory, spicy, all perfectly balanced.

We took a slow wander back through the city, along the river, and eventually back to our hotel. We settled down early, and watched the Parts Unknown Hue episode (where we discovered that we’d just shared a meal with Tony) and relaxed for a bit before an early bedtime.

City-wide Pajama Party

Perhaps the best reason to do a boat trip in Ha Long Bay is to get to wake up in Ha Long Bay. It’s a truly magical place. We slept incredibly well and woke up to a gorgeous view.

After breakfast (meh), we spent some time lounging on the rooftop deck watching the tourists do tai chi on the boats around us, before taking the launch to Ti Top island (named after Soviet astronaut Gherman Titov). We hiked to the top of the island for great views all around. There are obviously complicated logistics in Ha Long bay, with agreements about which tour companies can be at a given place at a given time. That means that tourists come in waves. When we got to the top of the island, it was packed with tourists. Kat sat down and started painting, and ten minutes later we nearly had the entire top to ourselves.

We lingered on the island as long as we could, but with the aforementioned schedules, it was quickly time to get back on the boat. We spent the rest of the morning reading and painting on the boat, before having a light lunch (meh) and motoring back to port.

The bus ride back to Hanoi was uneventful, with another stop at the disabled persons handicraft rest stop. Kat watched the men carving the giant sculptures outside and snagged a piece of scrap from the ground that she might someday poke with tools. Back on the bus, we had a good time chatting with our Australian and British bus-mates.

Hanoi has a night market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When Colin was here in 2013, the night market was mostly market stalls selling clothing and electronics. It’s changed dramatically since then, and has become much more of a community-focused street festival. Most of the streets around Hoam Kiem become pedestrian only, and the whole community spills into the streets.

We found some noodles for dinner, then wandered happily, watching kids playing, riding hoverboards, dancing, and playing music. Different community groups were running games and other activities. We were able to resist the stalls of cheap clothes and electronics… until we found bookstore street. Kat bought a beautifully painted picture book about space (?) and we continued to wander and watch performances and pedestrians.

The best part is that lots of people, from kids to the elderly, show up wearing their pajamas. If only we had known!

In a city as hectic and dynamic as Hanoi, the respite of a pedestrian-only area is particularly welcomed. It’s a chance for everyone to relax a little bit and let their guard down. Perhaps in a few more years, this part of the city will be pedestrian-only full time, like much of Florence.

Tomorrow we head to Hue. Our time in Hanoi has been wonderful – it’s a loud, chaotic, dynamic, friendly, delicious place, and it gives you a little bit of hope for humanity.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Karstmas

Last night ended up having a surprise twist ending, when Colin drank a glass full of tap water without thinking. He was able to spend the rest of the evening, through morning, contemplating his stupidity. Everyone appreciates an opportunity for reflection and self critique.

Fortunately, through a combination of immodium and not-having-anything-left-inside, we were able to board our bus to Ha Long Bay as planned, around 7:15. The bus wove its way throughout Hanoi picking up the other members of our group – as you’d expect, mostly Australians, with a couple surprise Canadians thrown in.

The ride to Ha Long takes about 4 hours, though it’s only around 80 miles. Traffic and an underdeveloped road network means there’s a lot of poking through towns and stopping to let larger vehicles pass. We made our obligatory stop at the giant souvenir shop. As an added bonus, the shop has a series of long tables set up for embroiders who work while tourists snap photos. The artisans are all disabled in some way, and notionally the sales go to support those communities.

We made it to Ha Long around noon, and boarded our boat, the L’Azalée. The boat has been renovated sometime in the recent past, though it’d be fascinating to know the history of the hull, which is much older. The tour we’re on is pretty structured, but more or less aligned with our interests.

Because everyone getting on a boat is coming from Hanoi, all the boats end up leaving the harbor at about the same time. It’s fun to watch – boats of all shapes and sizes head out into the bay – some just for the day, some for a longer cruise. Once underway, we had lunch (meh) and then had some time to relax.

Mid-afternoon, we took our small launch to one of the islands in the bay to explore the largest cave in the bay. The cave has been extensively modified for tourists – a paved path leads visitors into the smallest of three chambers, then winds its way into the second chamber before reaching the big reveal – the third and largest chamber. The geologic formations are lit up with bright colors for emphasis. Some of the formations are still growing and it would be nice to see the cave during the wet season. The path winds its way up and out of the third chamber and across a newly renovated walkway to our waiting launch.

Our next stop was a floating pearl farm, where we got to see the various steps of commercial oyster farming, as well as (conveniently) shop for pearl jewelry. They showed us the three species of oyster from the farm. The smallest takes 3 years to produce an oyster but the largest can take up to 8-10 years. We were then able to watch a technician implanting live oysters with seeds made from oyster shells and a tiny piece of membrane dissected from another oyster. After that our guide opened an oyster and pulled out a new pearl. At this stop, we also had the chance to do some kayaking, which was a lot of fun. We poked around the nearby low tide rock walls, visited some of the floating pearl farms, and enjoyed the quiet away from the cruise ships.

Returning from the pearl farm, we had time to get cleaned up and relax on the ship. Dinner was a bit comical – somehow, in a country with such an amazing food heritage, they managed to make a dinner straight out of 1960s middle America. It’s not a foodie cruise though, so we’ll just focus on the amazing surroundings!

We didn’t get much sleep last night, due to Colin’s aforementioned bought of self-reflection, so tonight we’ll be turning in early and looking forward to another lovely day on the bay.

V5 snacking

We decided to spend the sunniest day in the area around West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi. We walked north and stopped for our first coffee. Fortuitously, a banh mi lady set up shop on the corner in front of us. These ladies carry around little stoves and all their ingredients and wander around until someone asks for a sandwich. Colin ordered two banh mi for us and we watched her scramble eggs with herbs and grill the bread. Breakfast banh mi is, as far as we know, unavailable back home. But it should be.

We continued our wander north until Colin got a bloody nose – we took a break on a stoop and watched some dogs play on the sidewalk. There are a lot of dogs in Hanoi and many of them wear little sweaters. Most of the pets are mixes of toy breeds but we have also run into a dalmatian and a few huskies. Eventually we continued our wander north until we reached the lake.

Our first stop was Quan Thanh Temple, an ideal place to take some quiet time. Colin read while Kat sketched and painted. After a while, we headed across the causeway to the Tran Quoc Pagoda, which dates to the 6th century, at least symbolically (neither the current buildings, nor the current location date to the 6th century). As Americans, we tend to be impressed by age and fixate on it, but in places where templates are made of wood and constantly rebuilt for hundreds or thousands of years, dates become somewhat more fluid.

Feeling snackish, we walked a block to a fancy coffee shop and had some frappucino-type iced beverages on the rooftop overlooking the lake. After a good long bask in the sun, reading and painting, we were ready to continue on. We got some lunch – no idea what the dish was: lots of vegetables sautéed with some beef, served on some sort of seasoned rice – and then headed to Vietclimb, Hanoi’s premiere (only) climbing gym. Colin wanted to stop in, having been there on the last trip. And, after a week without climbing, he was itching for some bouldering. There were a few other climbers there – not a lot of english spoken, but beta is a universal language.

An hour of climbing meant we could reward ourselves with some iced coffee and a leisurely stroll to the Temple of Literature. Unlike most of our other destinations, this one is definitely on the tour trail – lots of tour busses unloading, groups following flags, and so on. The complex itself isn’t particularly jaw-dropping, having been blown up in various wars (mostly by the French, for what it’s worth). We were interested in the carved stele, recognizing doctors for having completed their exams and embracing study and wisdom. Maybe this is a practice we should bring back.

By late afternoon, we were ready for a rest. We had another coffee, and then stopped back home. Colin got another nosebleed (don’t worry mom) which took ages to stop. We ventured out for some chicken pho (Pho Ga) but we’ve mostly stayed in tonight. Tomorrow, we head to Ha Long Bay bright and early.

One of us, and I’m not saying who, has got rocks in her head

Today started, much like yesterday, with noodley soup. Here’s some sacrilege: noodley soup that may be even better than Pho. Bun Bo Hue. And not just any Bun Bo Hue, but the best kind: the kind eaten while watching a man repair the exhaust on a scooter.

Walking the city in the morning allows you to see all the children beginning school for the day. You can hear (and occasionally catch a glimpse) as they do their choreographed morning routines in courtyards throughout the city.

Our first stop, after bun bo hue and coffee, was the Geological Museum. It’s a neat space – samples from all over Vietnam, which some good insight into the history of the country along the way. You can see the sample collection happening in fits and starts over the 20th century, with a mix of French and Russian equipment. We were the only tourists there – the only other visitors were a group of Vietnamese students. There were a few cases on gem resources in Vietnam and Kat was itching to buy some local stones to set herself – unfortunately we had not done our homework for this trip on where to buy stones.

From the Geological Museum, we went around the corner to the National Museum, which is in the midst of some renovation for a new exhibit. This Museum mostly focuses on the early history of Vietnam, with many artifacts dating from pre-history through the 18th century. Kat had her museum exhibit design hat on – most of the exhibits are old, and reflect an earlier approach to conversation. But one exhibit was much newer and was put together beautifully. There were some gorgeous wooden Buddhas as well, dating to the 4th – 6th century.

Sufficiently cultured, we set out for Dong Xuan market. En route, our wanderings then brought us past a storefront selling sesame balls – a favorite from the Hmong Market back in Saint Paul. Of course we had to partake.

The market is a fun experience, as long as you don’t think about what would happen in a fire. There are hundreds of vendors for any given item – fabric, toys, hats, and so on. Many of the vendors were asleep on their piles of goods. Often they have to climb on top of the stacks to maneuver through the narrow slits. Kat decided that buying some fabric would be a good adventure, so we explored the various silks and silk-like-items, before settling on one. Being unskilled at things like bargaining, we definitely paid too much, but it was more about the experience.

We had a long walk to our last cultural stop for the day so we decided to grab a quick coffee. Unfortunately this turned out to be our only poor choice of the trip thus far – an exceedingly loud karaoke cafe across the street from the Japanese Embassy. We downed our caffeine quickly and headed back out into the sea of scooters.

Finally we arrived at the Museum of Ethnology, which has just opened a large new building dedicated to Southeast Asian culture. We ran into our second group of art students who were scattered around drawing the exhibits (the first group had been outside practicing their perspective drawing). The real highlight of the museum is all of the traditional buildings which have been built in the space, and which are open for exploration. It’s a place that would be really great with a super well informed guide – it’s hard to wrap your head around why some of the buildings are designed the way they are, without the context of their natural surroundings.

We were dragging by this point. The walk to the Museum of Ethnology was about 5 miles, and along some very noisy streets. Rather than repeat the journey back, we caught an Uber, which also provided a chance to experience riding in rush hour traffic.
Kat took some great video, which we’ll post at some point. At one point, we got pulled over – maybe for turning down a street we weren’t supposed to be on? It’s not clear exactly what was the cause, or what ended up resolving it, but eventually we were back on our way.

After a rest, a snack, and a shower, we left for dinner and the Water Puppet Theater. We found a place that looked heavily populated with locals and sat down to order “what they’re having”. This turned out to be a plate of rice with assorted veggies and proteins and a small bowl of broth – both of which were very satisfying.

Fueled up, we wandered around the lake until it was time for the puppet show. Before the puppets made an appearance, there was a performance by a woman playing a single stringed instrument that sounded very much like a theramin. It was mesmerizing to both see and hear. The puppets were delightful and explored typical scenes related to life in rural Vietnam: fishing, planting and harvesting rice, festivals, etc.. The puppets themselves were fascinating – especially the movements of the dragons and fish.

After the show we grabbed “sticky ice cream” (popsicles) and watched the lake for a while before heading back home to bed.

Haircuts and Hotpots

Hanoi at 72 degrees and sunny is a far more enjoyable place than Hanoi at 115 degrees and chewy. Today was a near perfect day to wander the city and get the lay of the land. We started things off, as one must, with some breakfast pho. Oh, and a pug, in a sweater, sitting in a window. Then we went to the Viettel store to get ourselves some sim cards. Then it was really time to start our day.


Our intention was to visit the National Museum of Vietnam. On the walk there, we passed a man cutting a child’s hair on the street corner. He asked if Colin wanted a haircut. He’d meant to get a haircut before leaving on this trip, and ran out of time, so hey, why not?


While waiting our turn, we got to chat with the child who’s hair was being cut. His name was James, and he spoke excellent English. He told us about his favorite foods, and was very interested in hearing our opinions of Hanoi. We also chatted with some young Malaysian men who strolled past. James was very interested in Kat’s blond hair, and wanted to know about her family. He was a perfectly charming young man.

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The National Museum turned out to be closed today (the first Monday of the month) as was the nearby Geology Museum. Working our way down our todo list, we hit upon the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which chronicles both the traditional role of women in Vietnamese culture, as well as their role in the fight against the French and the Americans. We read about many incredible women, fighting for the liberation of Vietnam (there’s always some cognitive dissonance reading accounts of the war from the Vietnamese perspective).


By the time we were finished at the Women’s museum, we were ready for some lunch. We stopped at a hot pot restaurant – they provide a bowl of deliciousness over a chafing candle. Through some magical process, as the bowl heats, soup appears in it. It doesn’t make a ton of sense. But it’s delicious!

After lunch we passed a woman frying corn cakes. We purchased something from her basked and bit inside only to find a fried banana (Kat’s favorite). We enjoyed our happy surprise en route to the Hoa Lo Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”). The exhibit is mostly focused on the way in which the Vietnamese prisoners stayed strong in their communist ideals despite the horrible cruelty of the French. The brief touch on the history of American imprisonment leads one to believe the prison was more like a hotel where the Americans pilots hung out and played basketball until the end of the war when they were sent happily home.

After a quick stop at the apartment, we set out for Huu Tiep Lake, with the remains of a downed B52. Along the way, we passed the Vietnam Military History museum, which was supposedly closed today. It was not, so we stopped in. The exhibits are older, and mostly directed at a Vietnamese audience, with a large focus on the French occupation. The Vietnamese have a long history of invasion by outside powers dating back thousands of years. The final room of the museum was filled with examples of international support for the north Vietnamese against the U.S. invasion. Looking at these photos and documents, you could learn a lot about the geopolitics of the 1960s and 1970s. Children in Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) holding signs supporting the North Vietnamese, etc.

Continuing our walk towards Huu Tiep Lake, we weaved in and out of the alley ways of the city, running into dead ends, friendly dogs, and lots of scooters. The lake itself isn’t particularly impressive – it’s more of a “see it to say you saw it” sort of destination. To prove that point, there was a group of young English-speaking women there checking it off for a scavenger hunt. But it was a good chance to explore. Somewhere along the path of this walk, both of our phones stopped working, which indicated that perhaps all was not right with our new sims. A stop back at the Viettel store, wherein an employee did something magical, resolved the issue.

Since we were already in the Old Quarter, we decided to stick around for dinner. We got some bahn mi’s at a place recommended by our AirBnB host. On our walk, we passed “Obama’s restaurant.” Sadly, based on the dearth of customers, Obama’s restaurant seems unlikely to last much longer than his legislative achievements.

We ended the night with a chocolate coffee pocket and a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake, watching people of all ages enjoying the mild weather. As we wound our way around the lake we passed through a gauntlet of bride and grooms having their ‘night lake’ photo shoots.