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Monthly Archives: May 2012

I’m a wordy person.  If you read this blog, you already realize that. If you’ve ever had an actual conversation with me, you’d realize it’s the same long winded kind of storytelling.  A few friends have asked if I put up all my pictures that don’t appear here with snarky captions, so here we go.  As I travel, I have already seen people losing pictures and files when physical items get misplaced so I’ve decided to back up all my pictures on Flickr.

I’m joining Fiickr like it’s the mid 2000’s: Travel Photos.

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My last post was about motorbiking the beautiful northwest region of Vietnam.  While this was going on, I was driving sans a passport and driver’s license as one was at the bike rental office and the other at the Hanoi Department of Transportation.

After three weeks of trying, and my friend getting denied, we have just about given up on doing it the legal way and rode to Sapa anyways.  The Vietnamese Department of Transportation decided that an “M” on your license doesn’t mean anything because it didn’t state an explicit engine size you are licensed for.  My California license says I’m licensed for “2 wheel m/c, scooters and motorbikes” which they took to mean only scooters and motorbikes.  Good thing the California DMV site had a picture of a hefty motorcycle next to the description of M1 licenses.  The best option seems to be to get an International Driving Permit translated.  Unless you’re me, and AAA screwed it up and forgot that you ride motorcycles.

This is what your license application looks like after a month. The green thing is a receipt and the orange thing is my new license!

So finally, after a week of riding motorbikes, the roads dissuaded my friend who joined me from America to no longer want to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The good news though is that I got my license!  So after a month it took a mere 30,000 dong (about $1.5) and a 5 minute office visit for me to escape grouch town!  Not that things that should’ve taken a week should take a month.  It wouldn’t be a long term stay in Southeast Asia unless i dealt with some nonsensical bureaucracy.  I hope this is the last I’ll deal with.  My next few posts will be coming from the road again.

What’s in a mean of transport?  When you fly you get there fast, seeing things from high above.  When you drive, you get there pretty fast with lots of storage.  When you bike, you slow it down a bit and have to put in some manpower.  When you walk, you get to smell the roses but might take forever.
Times like these made me wish I had a helmet camera.  The scenery of Northwest Vietnam is jaw droopingly gorgeous.  I fight to keep my eyes on the fast turning curvy mountain roads because there is always a beautiful landscape off the edge.  Alas, I only have pictures from where I stopped to take them, but I wish I had shots of everything I saw.  I wish I had pictures of the cows leisurely crossing in front of me and the chickens running across the streets for dear life.  Why are you crossing the road little buddy?  It seems pretty suicidal in a country full of zooming motorbikes and giant construction trucks.

I totally look ready to ride a scooter.

I don’t know if this is a very popular thing to do.  We saw five foreigners on the entire week long ride and one motorcycle tour group.  I did envy that one of them did indeed have a helmet camera.  The motorbike rental place had to give me a jacket in the only size they carry.  The female worker noted that it was large on me, but that women never rent motorbikes to do this ride.

The lush rolling green hills kept making me think I was riding through Ireland. The sweltering humid heat reminds me I’m in Vietnam.

The narrow limestone karsts covered in greenery are not just in Halong Bay, they’re all over the land too.

Riding curvy mountain roads means lots of breaks. This particular one involved enjoying Oreos and milk next to these farms creeping up high on the hillsides.  They grew corn all over hillsides, in whatever arrays they could fit.  I think it is the first time I haven’t seen corn in neat little rows.

Zoom in a little and you’ll see the hills covered in a patchwork of farms and the small villages all over the valley.

At some point we made our way into Red River Delta area. We didn’t stop anywhere with the really dramatic red cliffs near the water to take a picture.

We passed quite a few relocated towns as well.  They started multiple dam projects that have led to the sudden construction of large, new provincial capital towns that felt creepily like ghost towns.  All we saw were empty streets, free of clothes hanging everywhere and people lounging on every surface.  Who lived here?  Did anyone?

A lot of the roads were covered in dirt and rocks from landslides and construction. This one was under construction and causing a traffic jam so we waited with the calm Vietnamese people.

I wanted to but did not reach the Yuyuan rice terraces in China, good thing I caught the rice fields full of water reflecting the heavens here.

Rice fields stretch across hills. I’ve seen rice in all stages in Vietnam, from just planted to yellow and brown, heavy with grain. We’ve even passed lots drying on the road.

We got a flat tire right around here which gave me lots of time to take pictures of rain falling in a rice field.

A nice guy with a convenience store rolled the bike in question up a hill 200m with a flat and then made us lunch and took lots of pictures with us.

We found a random couch overlooking a gorgeous valley. Where’d the rest of this sectional go?

The bikes are always ready to go. I was less ready to go after a tumble into a foot deep trench of dirt and rocks, but scooters just aren’t made for that. That is contrary to what you see in this entire country.

The last day of riding before Sapa consisted of amazing rapids and this famous waterfall known as the Silver Waterfall.

The landscapes were stunning every day and I was shocked and pleased by how different they were every day.

Many of the best things we saw on the trip were the normal life moments for this area.  The ones that passed so fleetingly I did not have time to stop and take a picture.  The little girls riding overladen bicycles with other people on them, pedaling as hard as they could and hardly going anywhere.  Boys and old men who walked cows and water buffalo up the street.  Two of them shot imaginary gun slingshots at us.  Pew pew pew!  There were the naked toddlers, too young to know shame being carried, squatting to use the bathroom, or even wandering down the street with money.  Butterflies quickly flit across our paths in yellow, white, blue, green, purple and brown.

In the big city of Hanoi, it is an entirely different riding game.  Everyone travels like a school of fish, knowing where to be and reacting like an animal instinct.  Women will cover up every inch of their body with white hoodles with gloves attached.  They come in 4 inch heels and helmets that have ponytail holes.  Often I think they are trying to save themselves from everything except normal motorbiking safety.  It was hectic to figure out the rules of the city but once we hit that road, it was the most glorious ride in the world.  The only thing I’d change is I would do it on a motorcycle and not a scooter.

A lot of the tourist sites in Northern Vietnam seem to revolve around the Indochina Wars and praise for Uncle Ho.  My understanding of the history of this region is only paralleled by my awful geography.  What I learned in school of US imperialism involved a noble (if sometimes witch-like) hunt and fight against a spreading Communism threat that would kill freedom.  Perhaps I fell asleep the one day we glazed over the biggest series of worldwide revolutions, de-colonization and freedom that occurred in the later half of the century.  Vietnam’s victory helped inspire revolutions in Cuba and Algeria as well.  America did not fall to the threat of Communism in the meantime.  It is ironically of note that while western imperialism fell to a vicious defeat, modern western culture globalism has certainly taken over in Asia since then.

After going to the Army History Museum in Hanoi, my second encounter with the military history propaganda machine was at Dien Bien Phu.  This is the site of the greatest defeat of French forces.  The information about Dien Bien Phu is scarce and I had a hard time finding an address for the big tourist points.  I stumbled on this informative site, which appears to be the account of a US military guy who visits as he is fascinated with the history.  At one point he talks about how he can’t agree with anything the mass murderer [I assume he means Ho Chi Minh] says or does.  While they certainly were the US enemy, I have a hard time painting the Vietnamese as entirely evil when we were the ones invading and trying to keep them colonized.  Ho Chi Minh took to communism because he thought it was the route to independence.  Neither Indochina War (the war for independence from France is known as the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War is also known as the Second Indochina War) was popular in the fighting countries of France or America.

This is a plane sculpture made of plane wreckage. They made everything out of wreckage during the war. The Vietnamese are certainly creatively scrappy.

Little can you see of the dude in the back with the machine gun propelling this otherwise peaceful looking victory celebration with flowers and flags.

The graveyard had more French visitors than Vietnamese. It was still pretty empty overall. There was incense at the front desk to leave for the mostly unmarked tombstones and a lot of incense in front of each grave.

I wondered what would make the French come visit the end of their colonial power.  Perhaps it is a guilt they have assumed for their country or a fascination with the military or cultural history.  I could say the same about visiting the Plain of Jars as an American though.

Looks more like a great wall than a cemetery entrance.

The cemetery sits on a corner across from the A1 hill, site of the most important and last victory, and the Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum.

One of the more tender moments of the war as you see ethnic minority women in Laos giving flowers to Vietnamese soldiers. This picture can be seen in Dien Bien Phu’s Victory Museum and Hanoi’s Army History Museum.

There was a bit of overlap between the two museums and Hanoi’s was definitely bigger, better organized and the better stop if you are only going to one.  They also shared a love of showing captured equipment with very clear US markings.

You don’t have a chance. These guys were willing to use their heads to fight. Or this is just how these machine guns were fired.

Really, no one had a chance because they were fighting for their freedom and independence.  The French military leader knew this and figured their best shot was a stalemate.  The US was trumpeting freedom and independence from Communism, but this was the Vietnamese’s land and their hearts.  They wanted it way more than anyone else.  Ho Chi Minh was once quoted saying “You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.”  They certainly were right about that.  France even made a point of only using other colonial troops and to avoid metropolitan troops because this war was so unpopular.  In France, the first Indochina War is often known as the “Dirty War”.  Terrifyingly, the current war on drugs in Mexico had the drug lords saying they would kill ten of the police and army for every one of theirs killed.  Either way, it is a brutal ratio for any war.

They really loved pushing that the villagers lugging 90 kg of rice up mountains won the war. I think they were just showing the predecessor to the people strapping whole barns onto their motorbikes.

The biggest downfall of the French was that they assumed no one could get artillery anywhere near Dien Bien Phu.  What they didn’t count on was a bunch of plucky Vietnamese willing to sacrifice large groups of men to pull in large weapons by manpower.  Add in the fact that they outnumbered the French 5 to 1 and knew the landscape better and you can see how this battle would go.  The Vietnamese used their farm hardened skills to traverse hills and get in the French trenches without many casualties.  This started 57 days of hell for the French.

The Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum oddly had a huge lot with a tiny building on it and was otherwise covered in weeds and ruins.

For being the site of such a huge victory and a provincial capital, this is still a slow dusty town.  Only the advent of more tourism made the town recreate the trenches and bunkers of the past.  They didn’t realize anyone would be interested in that.

I always have a hard time with imagining trenches and giant bomb craters on such a beautiful pastoral landscape.

It seems like hardly a generation has passed and already the land looks so peaceful.  There seems to be no hard feelings either, the locals happily attempting to deal with foreigners and using broken English.

At least they only left this one here, as opposed to landscapes covered in them still in Laos.

The people in Laos were even friendlier which was even more surprising given that they’re still suffering the effects of the Secret War.  The US dropped more bombs on the province containing the Plain of Jars than they have anywhere else.  Yet the people could not be friendlier to all the Westerners.  Perhaps they have forgiven us, even though we still like to hold our moral superiority.  Perhaps the dollar trumps all.  Or perhaps, in countries where they gained independence but their own government takes their land and oppresses their voices, they understand that the act of a government is not always an act of the people.

Often when I get to places, I wish I had gotten years earlier before every storefront was trying to sell me an American breakfast and a burger.  I think I can finally say I reached a place at the right time, when they’ve installed some infrastructure (some electricity, wifi, cell coverage, and air conditioning) but before it got overrun with foreign tourists.  I think we counted an average of five or so foreigners a day.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t huge groups of Vietnamese tourists, but at least no one was trying to sell me crap food or drugs.  Quan Lan Island isn’t easy to get to but I’m glad I made the journey as a break from running into too many tourist towns.

In high school my friends and I had our photo up in a sushi restaurant next to school because we were there so often.  My current version of that is I managed to stay at Quan Lan Island so long the hotel owner told me that we were his longest guests.  Much like in high school, I’m totally ok with being a regular somewhere with fresh, cheap seafood.  He also asked if I was a researcher because I didn’t like doing the normal touristy things and spent a lot of time writing and drawing instead.  Apparently the other guests spend all light hours at the beach, temples or pagodas.  I think he might’ve missed the part where my friend and I got sunburned the first day and had to relax a lot of the week.

While on beaches I often think my feet look like they’re in a Corona ad. Minus the Vietnamese flag of course.

I am amused the entire town noticed we were there longer than the night or two everyone else stayed.  Everyone we interacted with asked us how long we were staying or jokingly ribbed us about how long we’d already been there.  Most people didn’t speak English so this involved a lot of smiling and actually elbowing me in my ribs.

Our slow relaxing stay gave me plenty of time to bike around the island and interact with people, and unfortunately, so many bloodsucking bugs.  The lack of working gears on all the bikes meant I got to cruise extra slowly and observe life as it happened, one of my favorite things to do while trying as hard as I can to not look creepy.  My day job used to be making games and I still greatly enjoy seeing how people in different places play games or entertain themselves.  I smiled as the toddlers crowded around a man making a kite for them out of old pieces of paper. Kids would run outside or play hide and seek with me as they yelled “Hah-low!” when I rode by.  They stood in a circle and played hacky sack with a metal shuttlecock like thing and seemed pleased when I tried, and failed, to kick it to one of them.  My favorite was the group of little girls we pulled up to on a side sand road who ran up to us to practice their English.  They run up to my friend, who is white, and start asking her where she is from or how she is.  This time they wanted to see the wallet around her neck, thinking they were binoculars.  They ran up after we wandered off, fists clenched and wanting to share.  What would a little kid give you?  Oh of course, they’re little kids.  They dropped handfuls of small live bugs in our hands.  We smiled, looked at them crawl, and gave them back, unsure of what we were supposed to do with them.  I love the endless wonderful curiosity of kids, before little girls grow up to learn to be terrified of bugs and when you still want to share the treasures you found with anyone in sight.

My interactions with everyone else but kids were on a broader range of different and weird from what I’m used to.  There was the old guy on the beach who kept trying to rub sand off my collarbone, hold up his styrofoam cooler top to fend the sun off for me, and then tried to sit next to me.  We learned that to get a beer from the already cranky sleeping lady in the hammock, you slap her really hard on the leg.  She’ll still always get up, pour you a cold draft, and skim off all the foam for you though.  I got chased by a pack of barking dogs on a bike for reasons I still don’t understand.  This does not even count the various times we were shooed from or ignored at places that had pictures of food on their signs but apparently did not serve food at the moment.  That is the true adventure of traveling: getting the weird, the unexpected, and the beautiful interactions all at the same time.

It was hardly an evening in Hanoi before I remembered how hectic and loud the city was.  I already miss the island.  Developers were creeping in and destroying parts of the island so I hope they don’t get too much of it.  I already want to go back and relax some more.

Good bye Quan Lan Island, you were wonderful. I hope you don’t change too much.

It’s quite hard to get yourself that lost if there isn’t anywhere in particular you are trying to go.  After a week of dealing with getting stuff done in Hanoi it was time to relax on a beach near Halong Bay in Bai Tu Long Bay.  There isn’t a whole lot of info online but I took that as a good sign that it wouldn’t be as touristy as Halong Bay.  I’ve posted a bunch of information at the bottom of this post.  We made our way over a whole day of travel of buses and boats to get to Quan Lan island.  I finally figured out the panorama settings in Photoshop this week so there’s a few shots showing how empty all the beautiful beaches here are.

We missed the ferry when we got in mid afternoon.  Luckily we managed to catch other people who missed the ferry to split a chartered slow wooden boat.  Don’t mind me as I shove some electronics into a dry bag as we pull away from Cai Rong.

The wooden boat slowly puttered around letting us catch all the beautiful karst formations that Halong Bay to the south is known for.

My Lonely Planet book has an awful section for Vietnam that kept recommending “taking 2 day tours” for everything. I think I’ll take the slow route, thanks. This is too beautiful to do quickly.

The next day we walked to the beach closest to the village we stayed in. Why yes, I will take a completely empty beach!

The beach of Lost? Washington? Why are there pine trees here?!

This would be perfect except this is the beach all the villagers come to, so like everywhere else in Asia, it was covered in trash.

While waiting for my license for motorized two wheels, I took the time to get some exercise and bicycle around the island. I saw these tombstone like markers in Laos telling you how far you needed to go as well.

The bicycle ride was beautiful. We passed beaches, mangrove looking swamps, and forests. We even got invited to join Vietnamese and Chinese fisherman for a delicious lunch and beer drinking contest.

It’s hard to keep your eye on the road when this is on the side of the road.  The not well maintained bikes and sand covered roads made sure I kept a close eye on both.

Biking the next day brought me to what looked like the worst floating restaurant in the world. Does it count as floating if you put it in a pool?

This beach was beautiful but it was creepily empty besides a bunch of vendors who were lounging around. So I kept riding.

This beach was beautiful as well and had some beachside cabanas full of vendors who’d rent you an inner tube, volleyball, lounge chair or hammock.

Why no, there is no one else on the beach anywhere near me. Look how happy I look about it. Surprise, I do have more pictures of me when I’m not traveling alone.

I rode out all the way to the northern tip of the island where I came in the first day. The port wasn’t this busy when I got here!

As I rode, I saw many water buffalo. They looked a lot bigger when I was looking at them than they do in this picture. The next few pictures will be a minigame called find the water buffalo!

The water buffalo is in there somewhere.  I wish I got a picture of the ones hiding in makeshift tent huts.

Water buffaloes like to stand in front of beautiful views in ones or twos. Or sometimes in the middle of the road right in front of your bike.

Later in the day I rode past the floating restaurant again. Oh, sorry restaurant. I didn’t realize you were just surrounded by low tide earlier.

In fact, the view is quite nice inside. Except they just served drinks, so either I came at the wrong time or it isn’t’ a restaurant. There’s also some sort of seafood farm outside, but I’m not sure what kind if it’s dry in low tide.

I saw a bunch of these all over the island. Some were alone. I couldn’t figure out if they were tomb shrines, they’re so colorful.

What would a locale with me be without food? I first had the syrupy bitter coffee of southeast asia in Laos, but it is just as delicious here. I like it cut with a layer of thick condensed milk and set over ice to cool my overheating body. They use single serving gravity dripping metal cups to make theirs here. You can’t see how full that thing is of grounds.

The highlight of being on an island is all the delicious seafood. The downside is during the weekdays so much is closed that most restaurants aren’t open and shooed us away. Many of the rest tried to serve us multiple renditions of things made with instant noodles.

We ate at our hotel restaurant a lot and they got used to us being around. They started letting us know what came in on the boats each day and even shared fruits with us. I’ve never had a rambutan cut this pretty for me!

This whole bay is beautiful. I’ll take an empty, beautiful bay over the bustling air and sound pollution of Hanoi any day.

Wikitravel is surprisingly sparse for northern Vietnam. I’ve updated the article on Quan Lan here.

These are all the websites I found with useful information about Quan Lan island:

First and foremost, Hanoi is a beautiful city.  I am not particularly fond of it at the moment but I spent most of my week trying to get a driver’s license.  If I judged every city I went to based on that criteria, I wouldn’t like anywhere.  It’s got a personality, albeit a decidedly more European one than Thailand had.  I still prefer it over the sterile design of modern China.

A turtle with some serious knowledge at the Temple of Literature, a site dedicated to Confucianism. There’s also a turtle tower in Hoan Kiem Lake. I think they like turtles here.

I suspect however, that I would not like Hanoi that much more even in a neutral encounter.  As soon as I arrived I was besieged with what felt like the pushiest scams salesmen at the airport.  An hour and a half later I was let off at the wrong stop so they could try to sell me on more hotel scams.  The saving grace is that sim cards and data in Vietnam is cheap enough ($2 for unlimited internet) that I managed to find my way to my hotel.  It is an immediately overwhelming city.  There are people and motorbikes everywhere, both constantly trying to get your attention to sell you on something.  They beckon, hands down yelling at you, continuing their yelling even as you walk by.  On the upside, they’re a good example of how to hail a cab in Southeast Asia, with your arm outstretched and palm facing down.

I thought I learned how to cross the street in Asia in China.  No, they’ve taken it to whole other level here.  Instead of playing glare chicken like you do in China, here you just walk straight into the road.  You either look straight ahead or off into the horizon in the general direction of the cars and walk at a slow steady pace.  Then at the end of every intersection, I wonder if I hadn’t shaved in the last day or two because I’m pretty sure a few of those motorbikes grazed hairs on my leg.

I’m convinced residents of Hanoi waste huge parts of their brain daily taking in the sounds of the street.  Everyone honks to let you know they are there.  Cars are equipped with a particularly long horn that echoes and fades off.  “HONK honk honk honk hooonk…” which as far as I can tell means “HERE! I’M STILL HERE! OVER HERE!”  What’s terrifying to me is that Hanoi is the smaller, less busy version of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  I suspect I may not like Saigon very much.

Xoi kem: vanilla ice cream on sticky rice with toasted coconut. They do some delicious things with sticky rice out here.

Despite all this cacophony I am trying to enjoy the city.  I stroll by the residents playing badminton all over the parks.  Some even string up nets on gates and light posts.  I’m eating lots of popsicles due to the excessive heat.  All the popsicle vendors in town glare at me, as if daring me to buy their wares.  How can you be unhappy selling delicious happiness?  It’s like having sad clowns work all your ice cream joints.

Cha ca: mudfish cooked in dill, tumeric and spring onions. This is certainly not the banh mi, pho or even seven course beef I’d eat in America.

The rest of the food may be the only thing that could make me want to stay in Hanoi longer.  I ate a lot of Vietnamese in America and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I find here.  There are rice noodles here, in ways that I perhaps just do not know how to order back home. The pho is northern style, uncommon in America, less adorned with a huge plate of herbs and more about the hearty flavorful stock.  Pho was invented in the north and fancied up in the south.  Just about every meal has been fantastic.  A balance of refreshing while lighting my mouth on fire.  Of complex strong flavors that meld with the rice noodles and vegetables that accompany many meals.  Everything is somehow heavy yet fresh at the same time.

Bun cha: grilled fatty pork and pork rissoles with rice noodles and a mountain of herbs and lettuce. That’s a jar of pickled chiles and garlic and a bowl of fresh. Slightly different from America where it all comes in one bowl and does not have the multiple types of heat.

I’ve been following this list of 10 best foods in Hanoi, ironically written by someone now living in Los Angeles.  I am impressed as I have had nothing but amazing meals following this list.  Her Los Angeles recommendations are pretty spot on too so I’ll have to check out her Vietnamese recommendations there one day.  She must’ve stayed near where I stayed as many things appear to be on this street.  It should be a crime to have so many delicious things in such a small area so that I never have to walk far to find it.  I even mapped it out so I could find it on the go: Hanoi Eats.  Of note, the ice cream had the wrong address on the original blog but is fixed in the map.  Good thing I come back to Hanoi in a week to check on my motorcycle license, it’ll give me an excuse to try even more delicious foods.  I’m still looking forward to leaving this bustling city of honking behind for a week in the meantime.