Returning from Cat Ba Island

After the previous days excursions, May 31 was a somewhat sore day. I actually wasn’t as sore as I was expecting though, which was nice. Tien and I were thinking about finding more things to do on Cat Ba Island, but instead we decided to head home. We chose this over our tentative original plan, which was to take the bus back down the coast and see things along the way. I think it was mainly because we’d been traveling for about a week so far and were just a little tired. In hindsight, I think we should’ve just taken a day to rest, but heading home wasn’t a bad choice either.

We grabbed breakfast and then took a stroll by the waterfront businesses, looking for a travel agency to get us as close to her home town as we could. We found ourselves in a travel agency with a girl sitting in front of a piece of paper with a telephone. She talked and talked forever, and Tien talked back. The woman made a phone call and talked some more, then made another phone call and talked some more. When ended up being the story was that the people on the other end of the phone were away for lunch, and we weren’t making any progress with our flight plans. I should’ve known something lame was going on because I felt that same kind of boredom I often felt as a kid in church or school, like I’d rather die than continue sitting there doing what I was doing.

Eventually we got tickets on a boat and bus to take us to Hanoi, plane tickets would have to wait. Back at the hotel we packed, checked out and sat down at the cafe where Paul was talking with two young brits. He told us the story of their trip to sleep on and island. They had chosen monkey island. They slept under a mosquito net on the beach, but got rained on in the middle of the night. Instead of trying to sleep in the rain, they hiked to the peak of the island in the dark to watch the sunrise, then hiked back to where their kayaks were. Just as they were about to leave they got attacked by a group of monkeys and had to defend themselves with their paddles, jump into the kayaks and row away from shore. It was quite an exciting tale, one of the best I’d heard in my travels. The other two brits he was with were on the island with him and they all thought it was a pretty funny, enjoyable time, monkey attacks, rain and all.

We all ended up on the same boat and bus to Hanoi. The bus took us up near where Tien and I had gone on the motorbike the first night, way off into a marshy area with salt percolation ponds. On the way the bus actually scraped another bus while trying to pass it on a narrow gravel road on the side of one of the karsts. On top of that, our bus was probably the worst automobile I’ve ever had to ride in. It stalled at the top of a hill and a guy got out, I assume to put rocks behind the wheels so they could start it and get it back into gear without it rolling down the hill backwards. I thought about that scene from romancing the stone where the bus breaks down and everybody on board just gets out and starts walking. That scene had never made so much sense to me as it did right then. The bus stalled a few more times on the way to the boat, but we eventually got there.

The boat was not one of the hydrofoils or junks that we’d taken for transit in other places. This was a boat like you’d find in America on a lake, but longer and made for carrying people. There was an inside cabin with rows of seats, and an outside deck with an awning and a bunch of the ubiquitous Vietnamese plastic chairs. Paul, the british kids, Tien and I sat on the deck with a bunch of other people, including a child who kept pulling the hair on my leg. There was also a lot of luggage on the deck, and a motorbike.

After a short ride that was always within distance of land, we arrived in a very industrial place called Dinh Vu. Once off the boat we were divided up into a group going to Hanoi and a group going to Ha Long City. The bus going to Hanoi was blaring loud techno music with the lyrics “who the fuckin who the hell is ringing at the bell right now,” chosen by two slender guys in pilot shades who were in charge of that bus. We drove through some places I had never seen, mostly industrial, and made a bus in Hai Phong to a bigger, higher class bus.

Tien gets carsick depending on the quality of AC that is in the vehicles we drive in. Sometimes she’s fine, sometimes she immediately gets nauseous. Sometimes the nausea comes on gradually with carsickness. This bus was almost immediately nausea inducing. Actually I even got a little bit sick. I looked it up later online and found nothing specifically relating to AC, and it was interesting to me that the condition was so reproducible but nothing online mentioned it. Tien sickly tried to sleep most of the way, I played a lot of Plants vs Zombies.

32::AM::142We arrived in Hanoi ahead of a storm that was making beautiful clouds and a rainbow, and a sunset that was throwing lovely colors at it all. Tien, the brits and I tried to get a taxi, but we couldn’t all fit and so they chose to go with Paul for a while before he caught a bus to somewhere else. Tien and I said goodbye and took off in our own taxi heading to Ngo Huyen street.

When you say goodbye to other travelers, you never know if it’s the last goodbye. We didn’t see Paul again after that.

Tien and I went to the place we thought we’d stay but it was full. We quickly found another place that was nice and cheap. This neighborhood was undoubtably much better to stay in than our previous area. This was the Pham Ngu Lao of Hanoi, the backpacker’s street. Before I had started traveling last year, Lila had told me that in every city you willfind a place where the backpackers go. You’ll be able to find cheap accommodations, good food, good conversation, and everything you’ll need to keep traveling. She was definitely right, and we’d found that spot in Hanoi. It felt relieving to not have to worry about all the little things.

Tien and I left the hotel and went to get dinner, but two doors down we ran into the brits. We had a funny exchange where they said they had just gone to a noodle place, but I thought they said nude place, and had thought “damn, these kids don’t waste any time partying, but where on earth did they find a strip club in Vietnam??” That was the last time we saw them.

We got dinner at a place playing kung fu movies. There was a refrigerator with a sticker that read “Hybrid plasma toshiba refrigerator.” Quite the technological accomplishment.

After that we haggled with a travel agent for a while and ended up not getting our tickets there. We checked the internet and found cheaper tickets, went back out to see if we could find some cheaper around nearby, but after talking about it over some smoothies we ended up buying our tickets from jetstar.com. We decided to stay an extra day in Hanoi so we could get an early flight to Saigon on June 2nd then catch a bus back to Binh Hoa and arrive at a decent hour.

A Trip to Cat Ba Island

On the morning of May 28th our alarm failed to go off, or at least we didn’t hear it, but I somehow managed to wake up about 15 minutes before our bus arrived. We hurriedly packed and got downstairs with just a few minutes to spare. Tien tried to find us some breakfast but the neighborhood we were in was mostly construction type shops so she only managed to find some snacks before the bus came and took us away.

There were many europeans on the bus, it was almost entirely full of white folks. The narrow streets of Hanoi were already full of life and packed with motorbikes. We passed by the lake where a street was closed off for a festival that was just beginning. We stopped at a few hotels to pick up other folks, and then stopped at the cathedral to wait for somebody. It was at that time that Tien realized she’d forgotten her bag at the hotel. The bag that had the iPad in it. In her typical stressed out mode, she forgot all english and began blabbing away in Vietnamese with the bus driver and some other folks, and didn’t really say anything to me or answer any questions. She told me to wait, and went to hail a moto taxi. 32::am::138 I chatted with a girl from The Netherlands for about 10 minutes before Tien came back, relieved to have her bag in hand.

At 9am we headed out for Ha Long City. Traffic was heavy on the way out of Hanoi, and I noticed again how the number of cars just seemed to mess up the flow of traffic. Tien and I drank water and ate Oreo cookies for breakfast.

We passed the charred frame of a motorbike that stood up in its own ashes as if it had immolated itself at the side of the highway, probably protesting the rise of the cars.

We passed factories for Canon and Foxconn in the countryside.

We pulled off at a travel stop for 20 minutes. Tien and I got some pomelo and bananas. I was hoping to find a better breakfast, but they don’t know how to make breakfast sandwiches yet in Vietnam. I could make millions selling them… Millions of Dong.

We passed a few auto accidents along the way to Ha Long, one involving a motorbike and one where a car had driven up the side embankment and crashed into a pole, finishing sideways, squished between the pole and the hillside. It was a remarkable sight, I’m not sure if anybody died, but it looked like they should have but didn’t.

Soon after the car crash we arrived at the outskirts of Ha Long City where the bus dropped us off at the docks. Tien and I were the only two folks on the bus left who weren’t going on the cruise, and it felt kinda nice to be sitting there with just the two of us, ready to do whatever we felt like, far away from obligation. The tour guide from the group came over and asked us if we wanted to go on their boat to Cat Ba Island, which is precisely where Tien and I were headed, so we agreed to take their tour for 250k each. It was expensive for a boat ride, but included the Ha Long Bay tour, dinner and a cave tour, so it was a pretty good deal.

The boat we boarded was a typical asian junk. Ours had three levels: rooms downstairs, a dining room in the middle and an upper deck. Dinner was served shortly after taking off. Tien and I sat and chatted with some other travelers and it was good to be back in the company of english speaking, active people. Only one of them was from America, the rest were brits, french and other countries that I never learned. Tien was the only Vietnamese person on the tour that wasn’t working. She mostly listened while I blabbed away with the brits about traveling, culture, food, work, and destinations. One of them, a man named Paul who we’d run into many times on the island, was traveling from London to Australia to work. He’d been traveling for a few months and had a few weeks left. Local transport in Ha Long BayMost other folks were just traveling for fun, some for weeks, some for months.

After dinner most of us went up on the deck to take in the sights as we approached the islands of Ha Long Bay. The boat pulled into a bay and docked with a bunch of other junks and we all got off to explore Thien Cung cave. It was a cool cave, but there really isn’t much to see inside most caves. There was an opportunity to go to another cave, but Tien and I declined and instead went to take some photos and relax.

Everybody returned to the boat and we traveled onwards, through the islands and into a market area where there were many floating houses that were used as a fish market and other business related things. There were girls floating around on boats with their fruit all laid out for sale. They paddled up next to us and shouted out, sounding like retarded people with a heavy lisp, saying “eck-u me, pine-appo” and things like that. It was cute, and their boats were beautiful with the colored fruit, but Tien and I already had some fruits we’d bought earlier so we didn’t buy anything. Instead, we decided to go with a small group on a little tour of an enclosed part of the bay, completely surrounded by cliffs, almost like a lake except it was salt water. We took a small local boat in and a few of us swam around for a while before returning through another natural tunnel.

A short rest on the boat later we were pulling up to Cat Ba Island, which looked like a pretty treacherous place, and seemed like it would be more than one island. Indeed it would be if the water were deeper, the landscape rose and fell just like the islands sticking out of the water, but came down to land at the bottom.

Anybody who wasn’t sleeping on the boat was dropped off on the island. We were, once again, dropped on the completely opposite side of the island from the town. Tien managed to negotiate some kind of bus ride, still with the tour, and after sitting for 10 minutes or so a group of us got in and headed over the crazy terrain.

Cat Ba backroadsThere was one sign at the front of the bus, and it was written in Korean. I’m sure nobody on the bus knew what it said. The ride took 30 minutes and we passed by many, many beautiful views. The steep hills fell down to flat fields where different foods were grown, some ponds and rivers, and countless steep hills. On top of one of the hills was a tower standing tall, and I made a joke about climbing up it. A lot of other people were blabbing away in their native languages, and a group behind us was chatting in english about their travels.

As we pulled into town, Paul and some of the folks he was talking to were trying to find a hotel in the guide book. We all got out right at the main intersection of the town, and after looking at one hotel that had no vacancy I decided Tien and I would probably be better off walking around trying to find a hotel. We went one block and found a place where we negotiated with a slimy guy who I didn’t like much. Tien said she also didn’t like him much because of some things he did or said that showed he looked down on her. The hotel room actually kinda sucked too, no AC, no internet, and a bed wrapped in plastic with a tiny blanket.

We took a short rest and then went out for dinner. There were a lot of people riding tandem bicycles around and we thought about getting one, but decided to do it another day. Instead we returned home and fell asleep. Some time during the night, Tien got up and found some towels to use as blankets. The next morning we woke up and the power was out. 32::AM::139 It was a dreary morning. We decided to find a new hotel.

Finding a hotel has become much easier now that I know to use my iPhone to do it. I don’t look it up online, that’s pretty tough over here where there are no centralized review sites like yelp. Instead, I go into the network settings and look for wifi hotspots with hotel names, then I go to that hotel. Any hotel who has wifi that my iPhone can find from the street has got to be good. The only downside to this is that sometimes these hotels are expensive, but at least it helps weed out the crummy places.

We walked out to the end of the pier that stuck into the bay where dozens of boats were docked. Some were fishing boats, some were floating hotels, some were restaurants. It was a good way to get a view of the shops that went along the waterfront.

We had a disappointing breakfast in a restaurant that seemed like it was closed. I was getting tired of fake coffee. One great thing though was we invented a new food. It’s the stir fried beef and noodle egg breakfast sandwich. Tien orders stir fried beef and noodles, I order egg with bread. I put the egg in the bread with some soy sauce, and she puts some beef and noodles in with it. It is *so* delicious, I’ve been eating it frequently ever since.

We went back to a place we saw the previous night while walking around looking for dinner. It was a hotel that was built into the rock cliff. There was a big room with two beds available for not much money, and we took it. We didn’t need the second bed, but it’s nice to lay things out on when you’re organizing, and for lazing around on like a couch.Tien and the bike at Cat Ba So, we spent the mid day heat being lazy at our hotel room.

We went to rent a tandem bicycle, but the prices were like 20k for 1 hour. A motorbike was as low as 60k a day. We had already paid the girl before we knew it was per hour, and I finally decided to let her keep the damn bike and the money because we didn’t need a bike for an hour. She finally gave my money back as I was walking away. Instead of a bike, we decided to get a moto from our hotel though, for 100k a day.

We cruised some local beaches and then headed northwest on the island into territory we hadn’t seen yet. We found a place where they were filling in a bay with mud to build a golf course. Beyond that there were beautiful, natural places, some caves, farming villages, roaming goats, and eventually a beautiful pink sunset. Finding the rural Cat BaWe stopped a lot along the way and took photos, and at sunset we decided to speed back to the town to go swimming at the Cat Co 2 beach. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the water was off limits, so we sat and had some drinks on the beach instead. I dipped my feet in the water and was suddenly not disappointed that I couldn’t go in, the water was cold. Too cold to enjoy a swim in, that’s for sure. It was a huge difference from the beautiful, clear, warm waters of Phu Quoc. Instead of sticking around, we headed back to town to get dinner at an awesome spot on the water front called Bamboo. It was recommended in the guidebook, but also looked appealing. The staff was nice and the food was great, and it was a very satisfying end to the day.

Tien’s first day in Hanoi

On the morning of May 27 we woke up, rented a motorbike and immediately got lost in old town Hanoi. We got really lost too, and didn’t find our way back to the lake for about an hour or two. When we finally did we stopped for breakfast. I had a western breakfast, a delicious omelette and a cappuccino. It was delicious, and a welcome change to the otherwise mediocre breakfasts I’d been subsisting on.

I managed to avoid getting a ticket for riding our motorbike on the sidewalk when Tien spotted the cops who were pulling people over, then continued on to the Ngoc Son temple. Tien had seen Hoan Kiem lake in a lot of books and on TV as a child and had always wanted to go there, and now she was finally there. It’s a special place for Vietnamese people because it has historical significance dating back a few centuries.

32::AM::137We went into the Jade temple and looked around. Tien went to the buddha’s and prayed in the standard way, with her palms together, raising and lowering them three times towards the statue. Watching her, I got a great idea for an iPhone game that would use the accelerometer. You’d run around a temple and pray to as many buddha’s as you could as quickly as possible. I’d call the game Buddha Blitz.

We proceeded on to the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh was, but it ended up being closed. I was having fun riding the moto though so I didn’t mind so much. I had sold my last motorcycle a year prior and had missed riding most of that year. We cruised by some other spots on the way back to the hotel. It began raining just as we arrived, so we stayed in for the afternoon and geeked out.

We had dinner at a small restaurant that sold mostly chicken and rice, and I thought about self identity. I saw a man come in with tattoos and piercings, two things that I had at one time wanted but never gotten. I thought back about how I’d wanted to dye my hair and pierce my ears, but my parents didn’t let me do that when I was younger. By the time I was old enough to do it I didn’t want to anymore, it wasn’t part of my identity. I thought about how this detached my physical appearance from how I perceive myself. Because I couldn’t distinguish myself when I was younger, I lost the will to do so. I remembered a daydream I had while driving down 280 a few years ago. I dreamed I was running through the grass fields of the Stanford Campus by the dish. What was remarkable though was that it was the first time that I could remember since I was a kid that I saw myself from a third person perspective in a dream, I usually dream in the first person perspective. I have ended up with a weak style of physical appearance for expression, and primarily a sense of style for what is easy for color blind people to do without thinking about it. I thought about how this related to my disconnection from a lot of my own people, white american men or white people in general, and a disconnection from what people my own age “ought” to behave like.

On the way home we got Oreo cookies, potato chips, juice and beer. I got online with the wired ethernet cable I found coiled up outside the door to our room while Tien went and booked us a bus ticket to Ha Long City leaving the next morning at 8am.

Last day in Hanoi

This morning I woke up in Hanoi and went to work developing the photos I had meant to develop before I laid down. Around 7am I went upstairs and ate breakfast by myself. I peeled a banana for myself and thought about meals with Tien.

I looked around the building tops and noticed that the clean lines of the architecture were more prominent without fire escapes. I haven’t seen a single one since I’ve been here.

At checkout I caught up on some internet stuff on the lobby. My brother says he probably won’t come to Bangkok, which is pretty disappointing. I really need to find a traveling companion.

The tour split into two groups, and unbeknownst to me I would not see many of them again. I lost the English speaking couple from Miami and my two favorite children. I ended up with the brat, but also with the Parisian couple. We piled into an SUV and headed out.

I saw a girl on the back of a scooter with a cute backpack on her lap and a crowbar in her left hand.

I saw soldiers doing target practice with rifles on the side of a city street.

We went to the capital campus. Here we entered an area where no cameras, water or cell phones were allowed. No talking, no hands in pockets. Lots of soldiers standing at attention. We were a large group of tourists walking silently on a red path through a huge building that looked like a CTF flag area. Instead there was the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh himself, laying in a glass box in a dark room with 4 soldiers posted around him. I was trying to stay close to the Parisians and for some reason all I could think of was the word “morte” as said by the frail man in Amelie. Morte indeed, but he looked just asleep, laying there with even his beard still in tact.

Presidential Palace of VietnamWe left and the tour guide gave me my gear back, the we went the Presidential Palace is, which is the equivalent of the Whitehouse, and a few other places that were packed with us lemmings. Some of the Vietnamese people looked at me as much as the sights. There were a lot of white people and it was weird. I think I just hate to be associated with the mainstream American ideal and all the white people reminded me of that.

There was a place called the house on stilts that wouldve been awesome to stay in. There were too many people so I didnt bother taking a picture. Outside the house there were a dozen people standing around a sign that was in French, Vietnamese and English: Do not stand here.

Like a million other placess in Vietnam this place had a shrine. Like other shrines and temples, outside of it were loud children and pedalers. Vietnam is definitely a religious country and the business minded people are monetizing that. I’ve never seen this in America. Nobody set up an ice cream cart and a religious souvenir shop outside of a cathedral in any city I’ve been to in America.

Hats! We left the capital and headed to the largest market in the city, both indoor and outdoor. I walked in and out, through streets and up stairs and down small ailes and down stairs. I thought “what the hell is there for me in a place like this?” Then I wondered why I had come on this trip in the first place. Feeling the need to have a purpose I have settled on photography as my primary purpose. Photojournalism, I guess. So with that in mind I began taking photos and wished I had my 10-20mm lens on me.

I saw a dozen k ock-off apple products. They put the apple backwards though. I almost decided to buy a knock-off iPhone just to see what it was like.

I found an ATM and pulled out 2,500,000 to pay the tour guide back the money I owed him and have some left over.

Iistened and thought about bow much easier Vietnamese is than Chinese. For one thing, when I ask what something is called people don’t get into an argument about exactly what it’s called in whatever dialect, they just answer. There is the intonation thing still, which makes sense thinking back to all the VN people I worked with at Actiontec. I think Vietnamese is much prettier when it’s spoken clearly.

It was down to just me and the Parisians on the tour now. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where the hostesses had tropical patterned shirts emblazoned with the names of placess not on this continent, like Jamaica. As we had only a few words of common language between their broken English and my broken French, we ate in silence and listened to the swank jazz music playing in the nearly empty restaurant.

We talked a little towards the end. They recommended Da Lat like the Couple from Florida had.

On the way to the airport I thought about how the scooter makes the dynamic of the cities here so much different. I wonder what SF would be like with thousands of electric scooters. I thought about what it would be like to roll up to The Irish Bank and just park in the alley, and then I realized that I hadn’t seen a “no parking” sign anywhere in Vietnam, nor parking meters, just garages an paid parking lots.

I saw a banner ad for a resort and golf club and thought about how playing golf in Vietnam is good enough for some people. I wonder what is good enough for me.

I saw an ad for Ford SUVs and thought “who the hell over here would buy a Ford?” I looked at the steering wheel of the SUV I was in and found the answer.

At check in I said good bye to the nice Parisian couple who was finishing off a 40 day tour. On the wall behind the check in counter there was a stencil of Santa Clause which may have been the first graffiti I had seen on the trip yet. There was also a man in shined shoes, pressed slacks, a striped button down shirt and a bright green baseball cap with the word “groove” on it.

I saw a Windows XP terminal and wondered how on earth these people could afford XP Pro, especially with Linux as an alternative. I guess it’s bundled with the PC like in the US, and that’s still expensive.

In the airport I heard English announcements with English accents. I found the business lounge that had internet and food for $10, which is just too much so internet will have to wait. Instead I sat down and wrote this on my iPhone then went and had my first taste of whiskey in Vietnam and listened to Kaskade, got on my plane and flew away.

A day among the islands of Ha Long

So there I was, back in the bathtub in my room at the Chains First Eden Hotel in Hanoi Vietnam. I was drinking a Tiger beer and had just used up all the hot water washing away the sweat from a long day of hiking and boating in Ha Long Bay. The photographs from the last 24 hours were importing from my D300 into LR2 and were instantly being backed up to my external hard disk where they would be safe in the event that my laptop got stolen.

The hotel room was different from my other one which was directly across the hall. That one had a view of the downtown park out its window. The window here could be opened about 2 inches before it hit a hot water pipe. I guessed I wouldn’t be getting anything like the sunrise awakening I got today on the 5th floor of the Bach Dang.

Floating in Ha Long BayThis morning when I woke up there was sand and a bunch of rocks where there used to be water, and I remembered that we were on the Pacific Ocean. The tide had gone out. I got ready, went downstairs and ate my breakfast with the parisian couple, caught up on some online stuff and then we headed off for the boat. On the way I saw an image of a bay with a speed boat circling another boat. A minute later I saw that same bay and the same speed boat circling two rocks sticking up from the water where the 2nd boat had been. I wondered why on earth in a place with such blatant and obvious beauty did somebody feel the need to embellish with a composited image. Advertising spits in the face of true beauty.

As we were going to be outside all day long I put on a bunch of sun screen, and I managed to find and buy a hat with the bartering help of one of the VN mothers who is on my tour. I got a good price on it, something like $2. This is especially nice because when I was shopping with Tien for hats I couldn’t find one that fit, and this one fits perfectly. It is emblazoned with the Vietnamese flag and the name of the country, my first souvenir and a functional one at that.

When I got on the boat I found the tour guide and got down to business. I was in debt to him a healthy 5,131,000 and had to come up with the money in the next day. I forked over 4 millions on the spot and told him I’d get the rest to him later. I thought about “Coming to America.”

We headed out across the wide bay on a junker style boat, an open upper deck and a covered gallery below, no handrails on the front end by the stairs and one mast that is clearly not used for sails. The sky was hazy and provided a diffused shield from the sunlight, which was very nice. Unfortunately as soon as I noticed this it went away and we were attacked by direct sun rays.

Everybody began taking photos on the upper deck even though the cliffs were still a few miles away. It continued, however, until the cliffs were right there, and then it wasn’t so ridiculous. The cliffs are great… they’re strange. They remind me of the cliffs by my house in Almont, except completely overgrown and with an ocean at the bottom. They were immediately impressive and I can see exactly why this place is being nominated for one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

There were little groups of boats and floating houses that were tied together. We stopped at one that had little square openings in a floating deck, holes where different kind of sea life were swimming around. Crab, shrimp, all sorts of stuff I didn’t recognize. There was a man with bloody hands chopping up a fish. There was a man pouring boiling water onto two large fish in a large pot. A man took a fish out of the water and clubbed it three times before it quit flopping around and died.

We got back on the boat and kept going. Some other folks that weren’t on our tour were on the boat and one of them was a camera nut. He had an old nikon film cam with a 28mm ƒ/3.5 lens and a modest external flash. He was taking pictures of his family on the boat. We talked a little about photography through the only other english speakers on the tour. It always bugs me when people ask how much my gear cost. I always think back to that time where these two guys were trying to hustle me in SF.

Docked at Surprise CaveWe slowly circled counter clockwise and northward until we got to a place called Surprise Cave. I never found out what the surprise was, but we sure as hell found the cafe. It was really big, way bigger than I expected. The caverns stretched maybe 100m or so into the rock. It looked like something out of Half-life 2 and I kept looking around for head-crabs and corpses with spare supplies. It was the other two english speakers and I walking around and we had lost the tour but we quickly found them with the sonic assistance of a wailing spoiled brat. We talked about how awful that kid was. We agreed that he is a monster. We finished the tour of the cave and headed for the boat.

The day was incredibly hot at this point and I was pretty much showering in my own sweat, so I bought a cold drink off a vendor and took it back to the boat. As we pulled out of the dock we talked about weather, hot and cold. The girl was talking about how cold NYC was on new years. I told her that if she had the right clothes she’d be almost fine with the cold. She said that even with the right clothes her face would still be cold. I told her that there’s no cold a bottle of whiskey can’t help you withstand. She said that she doesn’t drink. She was wearing a t-shirt that said “just add cocktails.”

Next stop was a man-made beach. There’s no natural sand in Ha Long bay so they had to bring in sand from other places. Since the waves are so small I imagine they don’t have to refill the sand on the beach very often. It was a nice beach and we spent an hour on the island. I climbed up to the top of the precipice and took a bunch of photos. Ha Long Bay I was kicking myself for not bringing my tilt/shift lens with me. It was too heavy to bring, but the views from the top of this place would’ve been ƒ *amazing* in TS. I will just have to come back again.

Ice cream was never so good. I sat at the bottom of the cliff in the shade of a hut and ate an ice cream cone while the sweat shower I had taken on my way up the mountain evaporated. I looked at the ticket for the tour and saw that it cost 40,000 dong. That’s about $2.50. The relativity of wealth is staggering.

We headed back to shore, got on the bus and started driving.

I saw a girl on a bicycle talking on her cell phone while the girl on the back held a parasol above their heads. I saw this again a few hours later.

I saw four adults on a 110 cc scooter.

I saw a man on a bicycle with a stack little cages with colorful birds inside.

I saw a little girl sitting in front of her dad on the scooter, sleeping with her head on the dials.

Painting mugsI saw cows grazing in a cemetary.

I saw a woman on the sidewalk cutting a block of ice with a table saw.

Judging by the commonality of models, the Honda Wave 110 is the most reliable scooter.

We stopped at a little pottery place where girls were hand making and hand painting pots. They made all sorts of clay things, from lions to ducks to cups to chopsticks to pots to vases. They were pretty girls, quiet and attentive to their work. It was amazing to see them so smoothly stroke out the designs they were doing. I thought that they could make much more money being artists in America. They asked me to exchange $10 for them, so I gave them a good deal at 100,000 dong. They deserved it, I wasn’t going to buy any of that novelty stuff anyway, even if it was skillfully made by hand.

Outskirts of Hanoi We continued driving. Vietnam countryside is almost entirely rice paddies. Fields and fields of beautiful green rice with roads running through them. The people here are real farmers. They don’t just drive farm equipment, they do the farming. They walk out in that field and cut that rice by hand. They wrap it into a bushel by hand, pile it into a package and wrap it by hand, then put it on a bicycle and ride it back to town where they they do whatever it is that they do to make it into small grains, and then they sweep it up and put it in bags. They also burn a lot of stuff, I don’t know what that’s all about but there were fires and smoke everywhere.

Seeing these fields I was reminded of the drive between Colorado and Texas, which I’ve done more times than I can count. I used to hate that drive, and I wonder how bad it would be right now because I don’t get tired of staring out the window at rice paddies, listening to music on my iPod. I’m sure I will though.

In America, homeless people gather under bridges. In Vietnam, everybody does. A bridge provides shade from the sun, and you will see people selling drinks, bread, pho, anything you can imagine under a bridge in the middle of the country.

I saw a circle of houses around a large depression, a hole in the earth that had a pond in the bottom of it. I wondered if it was a bomb crater from the war.

We stopped for dinner and even though it was nearly sunset, it was blazing hot. So hot that as soon as somebody put ice in my glass it immediately started spinning around as it melted. It was gone before I had finished my first glass of tea. My second glass was warm. The meal was good though. I don’t know why they have to serve fish with the head still attached. Everything I chose to ate was good, right up until the end. There was a soup which I later found out was spinach and crab meat soup, but when I tasted it I could’ve sworn it was dirt soup. It was absolutely terrible. It literally tasted like eating dirt, and I do know this from experience becasue one time when I was running from the police I tripped on a fence and ate a mouthful of dirt, then just lay there still in the field hoping they wouldn’t see me, so I got a good long taste of dirt. This soup tasted exactly like that, except it was liquid.

I excused myself and went outside to play with the nicer kids. I had brought my hacky sack and tried to teach them to play. The boy picked it up quickly, but the girl fell into the problem of trying to kick too high. I couldn’t get her to kick low, and her brother kept treating it like it was a full contact sport so she soon left. The father of the brat came over and he, another guy and I had a good game and all ended up once again showered in sweat. We piled back into the van and headed back to Hanoi.

Because there are so many scooters in Vietnam there are also a lot of helmets. People express theirself through their choice of helmet. Some helmets look like baseball caps. Some look like cowboy hats. Some look like military hats. Some look like girly sun hats. They have some pretty rad helmets here. I’m pretty sure they’re not DOT approved though so I’m not going to bother buying one.

We made it back to the hotel and I made it to my room, which brings us to now. I’m sitting on the floor, a single protected wifi signal within sight, a little bit of beer left in the can, wondering once again if I should go out and make the best of Hanoi.

This is the same problem I’ve run into in America. Do you leave your comfy bubble where you can simply be lazy and go out into the big bad world and experience something exciting, or do you stay indoors where you’re safe and cozy? Tonight, I’m not sure… I may stay in and develop the 300 or so photos I took today. Bleh, never enough time, even on vacation, if that’s what this is.

A day in Hanoi

Hanoi was immediately recognizeable as a more modern city than the rest what I’ve seen of Vietnam. There were many cars on the streets, there were less shanty shacks and more tall buildings, there were large bridges, a railroad, cleaner streets. There were mountains visible in the near distance and I liked it immediately. There was a lot of water, big bodies of water like lakes and wide rivers. There were people hanging around parks, having picnics, fishing from the shore wall, parked with their scooters under shady trees, and I thought that this would be a very fun city to live in. There are less mosquitoes and less geckos.

The building architecture here is as impressive as Saigon, only there’s more of it since there are less shacks. I would love to come back some day with a guide and a tilt/shift lens and do a whole book on the architecture of Vietnam. The lines are so clean, the space is more… I don’t know how to describe it… less monotonous than even the Victorians of San Francisco, which I love.

Another thing I noticed about Hanoi is there was art. Art had been mostly absent on my journey so far, except mass media like TV and ads which aren’t a direct expression of the local people. Other than architecture there have been only small examples of art. Thu’s manicure paintings which she had samples of. A man with a flute, a man with a guitar. Tien singing. But here in Hanoi, art is prominent. There are tiled mosaics along boulevards, many Chinese influenced decorations, and martial arts as well, but I’ll get to that later.

The Hanoi tour started at the airport with a family of 8 and an older Vietnamese couple from France. I was the only white person, the only English speaker except our guide. He told me that we were going to pick up two more people then head out for some sights. We found our way to a hotel and found our two other people, a Vietnamese man in his 20′s and his wife, a drop-dead gorgeous, beautiful Vietnamese girl with a figure that could start wars.

We drove on and came upon an old school of eastern philosophy. Around the outside of the school walls there were men with mirrors hanging off of trees or the wall itself giving people haircuts on the sidewalk. Inside the school there were Vietnamese, French and English translations of plaques describing what the school was about, but all of the original text was in traditional Chinese. I hadn’t been aware of the heavy Chinese influence in Vietnamese culture until I came to Vietnam, but it’s everywhere.

We went on to have lunch and I was seated at the end of one table. Next to me were the man and his beautiful wife, and to my surprise he greeted me in English. I asked him about it and he said he didn’t speak English fluently, but had been living in Florida with his wife for several years. Then she began speaking to me in perfect English. She was a Vietnamese American, born in the south of Vietnam and raised in Miami. She wondered why on earth I joined a tour without a translator and I thought about Tien.

View from Hanoi hotel room After lunch we went to the hotel. I got my key and went to my room on the second floor and discovered why this tour might have been more expensive than I had thought. This room was nice. It had a refrigerator in it. The refrigerator had beer and coke and bottled water in it. There was a bath tub with warm running water. There was air conditioning, but it didn’t seem to be working. In fact nothing electronic except the refrigerator seemed to be working.

I later found out that they have this ingenius mechanism in this hotel where all non-essential electronics are hooked to one circuit and all essential electronics are hooked to another. When you enter the room you insert the room key into a little slot and this turns on the non-essential circuit. When you leave you take your key and all of the lights, TV, fan, etc. turn off. I imagine this is pretty important in a city where the power lines are in such atrocious conditions. I even saw a a power junction pole on fire yesterday.

I didn’t know this about the electricity yet though, but that did not stop me from cracking open a Tiger beer, running a hot bath and relaxing in the tub under the light of a LED flashlight that Igor bought for me before I left. It was wonderful. I hadn’t had a beer or a bath since before leaving America a week and a half ago.

The tour continued at 4pm and we went to another pagoda with a shrine inside of it. There are shrines everywhere around here. In Binh Hoa I saw something that looked like a doghouse, but really it was a small shrine.

Pagoda in Hanoi We had dinner on the waterfront at a good restaurant, a modern restaurant, and there was a wedding reception going on. I saw the first Mercedes Benz since I’d been in VN. I walked along the shore wall and found several dead fish floating in the water and was glad I didn’t see this before dinner.

After dinner we went back to the hotel and I was thinking about going out on the town for a while. Hanoi is rad and I really wanted to go out and see more of it on my own, but alas the lack of good sleep caught up to me and I drifted off on the king sized bed and slept for nearly 10 hours.

When I awoke at 5am the sun was already up beyond the trees and buildings and morning light was diffusing off the sky into the park across the street where 50 or so people were doing thai chi or some such. I took a shower, took some photos of the building, organized my backpack a little, and looked outside again to see even more people in the park. They were playing badmitton on the sidewalk, doing martial arts, thai chi, and dancing. What an interesting place Hanoi is… I hope to come back some day.

In 30 minutes we will leave for Ha Long bay, which is ~200km away.

I still haven’t found free WiFi in Vietnam.