Saturday, December 12, 2009

Radio Shack in Ho Chi Minh City

So we're back, and mostly rested (though I'm still fighting the cold I brought back as a souvenir), and while still not completely unpacked (my luggage somehow exploded -- seriously, it's all over the house), I'm finally beginning to go through photos from the trip. I have a lot new photos, videos, etc. that I plan to eventually post, but in cleaning up previously-blogged photos on my Flickr account, I came across this pic I had posted from our first full day in the country, and I decided that it really needs some context.

Electronics store, Saigon, Vietnam

So, the night before this picture was taken, we'd arrived in Vietnam. It's something like 1 am. We've managed to successfully get through immigration (which was kind of creepy -- the officials who scrutinized our documents didn't say a word or crack a smile, only made eye contact to compare our faces to our passport photos); we've found our driver at the airport (yeah, he was holding a sign with our names on it, but the International Arrivals in Saigon was a complete madhouse of people waiting to greet their friends and loved ones, plus scores of taxi drivers accosting everyone who walked out, saying "Where are you going? Where are you going? Need taxi? Taxi?" -- it took us a while to find him in the crowd); we've survived our first car ride in Saigon traffic (albeit at midnight, the streets were a lot quieter, but this was our  introduction to the Vietnamese "rules of the road" -- something you can read about, but you have to experience firsthand to really understand. There are rules, but let's just say they're subtle... Those lane markers? They're really just suggestions). We've made it to the sweet little mini hotel we're staying in (which required our first Saigon street crossing, with the help of the driver), stepped out into the backpackers district for a quick bite at a late-night pho place, and are ready to settle in for a good night sleep after our long trip so we can start the next day fresh...

We were prepared (we thought) for the electrical situation, having checked in advance which devices we brought would switch voltage automatically, which we'd need to switch manually, etc. We've brought adapters (which we ultimately ended up not ever needing -- all of the hotels we stayed in had outlets that took both US and european plugs). We've researched and we've planned and we're ready.

But we've also been on and off of airplanes for 24 hours. We're discombobulated, and really, really tired. Needless to say, our heads were pretty muddled, and planning and preparation went completely out the window when it came time for us to plug the first device in. And of course, the first thing we plugged in was Daniel's CPAP machine.

You don't really need to know what CPAP is to understand the story, but basically, it's a breathing machine for people with sleep apnea. What you do need to know is that without it, Daniel can sleep, but not very well, and not very restfully. A few days without it, and he's pretty much exhausted, and has to take more or less involuntary naps to get through the day. You need to know that in it's bag, with it's accessories, it's maybe the bulk and weight of a 12-pack of beer. You need to know that we've already carried it on three different airplanes. That it's been scrutinized by security in two different countries. But that dragging it around, while a hassle, is necessary. Of course, it's also the one device we've brought that requires that you switch the voltage manually.

I'm sure you can predict what happened next -- in our muddled states of mind, we forgot to switch the voltage. Daniel plugged it in, we saw sparks, and it stopped working. At first we were sure we'd killed it. Though, off course, they've designed it with fuses to protect it from idiots like us. And although the lighting in the hotel room was really bad (we found that to be universal in the hotels we stayed in -- really terrible lighting -- either too dim, or horrifically surface-of-the-sun bright, and no reading lights), it looked like one of the fuses had blown.

So now, the biggest, heaviest, most expensive and most important thing we'd lugged thousands of miles -- and would continue to have to lug around for the rest of the trip, whether it was in working condition or not -- was now as useless as a cinder block... Not a big deal at home, just stop into Radio Shack for new fuses, but we weren't really sure where to go or what to do in Vietam. Kind of silly in retrospect, because of course they have devices with fuses there, too, but at the time, we were really worried that he'd be stuck without the thing for the rest of the trip. So he slept the first night without it, and we thought maybe the hotel receptionist would be able to help us sort it out the next day.

Take a look at this photo again:

Electronics store, Saigon, Vietnam

Yeah, it's kind of blurry, but does it look like a Radio Shack or the electrical aisle of a Home Depot to you? Might not, but that's more or less what it was. When we first got into the country, we'd be hard-pressed to look at a store front and be able to tell what they might be selling, but this one was more or less an electrical supply store -- light switches, electrical outlets, conduit, wire, plus some small appliances, fans, etc. Within just a few minutes of mentioning to Chris that we'd blown a fuse, he had us in this store, walking distance from our hotel -- they dug through several boxes of fuses until they found what we needed. We bought a replacement and a couple extras for something like 15¢. 

Can't stress how great it was to have Chris and Yan easing us into the country.

View from the stage at the Pearl Farmer's Market

Chilly and damp, but still a great turnout!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Still in tourist mode...

Home and rested, but the cupboards are beyond bare, so out for breakfast at the Guenther House.

No pho to be found on the menu, so we had to settle for waffles and biscuits with country gravy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Adios/Aloha Vietnam

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.] 

Thursday, December 3, 2009

After multiple delays at the airport in Hanoi...

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.]

...they've finally begun boarding our flight to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
Good thing, as the baby was getting cranky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hanoi -- Some downtime before we head back home

Today is our last afternoon in Hanoi -- flying back down to Ho Chi Minh City, getting in during the evening. Then we have just a little over 24 hours before we get ourselves back to the airport to start the trip home -- a midnight flight out of Saigon, 27 hours of flying and layovers, and back in San Antonio Saturday early afternoon local time.

I have a lot of stuff still to post, but at this point, thinking it will happen when we get home, as selecting and uploading photos from the camera burns a lot of time. Daniel's resting up (both of us kind of hit a wall after 2 weeks of travelling -- last night was my night to crash and burn, he's feeling it this morning), so I thought I'd take the time to let you know you can look forward to reading about/seeing pictures of:

Water puppet theater in Hanoi: we saw this show a few days ago, and really enjoyed it. There is a municipal theater in town that has a permanent Water Puppet Theater performance troupe -- there may even be more than one cast/band, because the theater company also tours and does festivals. Extremely popular with the tourists, but I think there were also some locals there. Literally 5 one-hour shows a night, one after the other -- they were shooing us out the door as the next group was filing in. The tickets are cheap - we were 7th row in the roughly 400-500 seat theater, and it cost us just around $3.50 each, plus a $1 to bring the camera in. Although the way the theater was set up (not a steep enough angle), I don't know that anyone could really see all that well -- higher/cheaper seats may have been better.

Visually, it was quite stunning, though I personally think the music is really what made it. I shot some short clips of the band which I'll post later. The clips will, I think, give you an idea of what exceptionally-played traditional Vietnamese music sounds like -- they were all clearly masters of their instruments, and it was a huge treat to hear them.

I didn't have a very good view of the stage, and I don't know enough about photography to get a decent photo in that setting, so I gave up taking photos pretty quickly into the show -- I figured with 5 shows a night, someone else with a better camera and a better view has nice photos and videos online somewhere that I can share -- a quick search of Flickr has proved me right. Here's a teaser, someone else's HDR photo of the stage and set -- when I get back, I'll find some other photos that do the show justice and post some more information:

Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre


Halong bay cruise: as you saw, posted a couple of crummy pics off the iPhone -- I'll spend some time doing a post about the cruise, which was a lot of fun and quite luxurious (by far the nicest room we've stayed in so far), though they packed in several days worth of shore activities into 24 hours, so even our relaxing cruise felt harried at times.


Bia Hoy: Bia is the Vietnamese spelling/pronounciation for, well, beer. Bia Hoy is the term for fresh beer -- kegs of draft beer with no preservatives, meant to be served and drunk within a day of being brewed. Bia Hoy is drunk in the Vietnamese equivalent of a Texas ice house -- corner open air bars -- most have some kind of bar food. There's quite an after-work happy hour type scene at these places, because this beer is very cheap, and very light and meant to be drunk in large quantities. We'd read about these places in the guidebook (having seen them all over town in the part of Hanoi we're staying), and yesterday afternoon, we found one to hang out it, hoping to have some beers and maybe a light lunch. After a few beers, we thought we'd see what would happen if we bought a round for another table. More on Bia Hoy later, as I have a lot of photos and video clips to go along with the story, which turned out to be one of the highest points of the trip.


Money / cost of living: Since I'm in a writing mood, a little bit more info on the money and cost of living.

Ho Chi Minh is pictured on all the front of the bills. The backs have various famous scenes and sites -- some pagodas, one engraving of an off shore oil rig, etc.

The small bills (up to 5000 dong) were printed in the late 80s and early 90s according to the dates on the bills we have in hand, and are paper money. The bigger bills (10,000 and above) are some kind of plastic, with translucent areas for counterfeit protection and lots of other counterfeit protections as well (watermarks, holograms of the denomination, etc). Not sure when they were printed -- no dates that I could find. I haven had time to research much what's going on with the exchange rate here, but clearly they have some massive inflation, since they have recent bills (the 10,000 dong plastic bills) which at this point are worth just over 50 cents US.

Cash in the form of $US is widely accepted here, even preferred, as the exchange rate changes such that a dollar today may be worth only 17,000 VND, but may be worth 19,000 VND tomorrow. Most cash transactions we made, they asked if we had USD, and took dong if that was all we had (we brought some cash, but ran out of US dollars halfway through the trip and have been pulling Dong out of ATMs), but made it clear they'd rather have $US.

To give you an idea of the cost of living, a bottled local beer has generally been running us 10-20,000 dong depending on the city we're in and the type of place, and whether it's a tourist or local place (roughly 60 cents to a 1.20). Premium local beers maybe 25,000 dong. The 1000, 2000, 5000 dong bills haven't been good for much beyond street food stalls (some great pastries from a bakery in a local section of Hanoi were 3000 dong for 2), and I gather pay toilets, though we haven't tried one of those yet. Rents and property costs, I gather, are high relative to other expenses -- not cheap like the food and beer are. You may notice that most of the buildings are very skinny and very tall -- property costs being what they are, it makes more sense to build small and build tall.

Food prices generally aren't posted, except in sit-down restaurants that have a printed menu, and in general, I imagine we're paying more for the same thing than locals do -- we bought 2 banana fritters in the street last night and were asked to pay 15,000 dong (still less than a dollar, but I'm thinking the 3000 dong price the pastry shop charged us is probably more in line with what it should have been). But it didn't seem worth haggling over since we didn't really know what a fair price is. They have to make money as they can, might as well make some extra from the tourists -- if they price they quote is not ridiculous, we generally just pay. We've had other situations -- eating noodles at a sidewalk cafe where the food and beer just comes, and at the end of the meal, the amount of money they wanted was very cheap (2 big bowls of noodles with some meat and sausage, some hard boiled quail (?) eggs, a couple of beers, plus a couple other things that just showed up on the table, all for 70,000, maybe $3.50.)

Some things, we are haggling, if we have enough experience with how much it should actually cost, but it seems poor form to haggle for food we've already eaten, or food they've already brought. A couple people have quoted us prices so ridiculous we've just walked away (or at least tried to walk away -- cheap sunglasses for Daniel that would be $8 at Target at home, a street vendor wanted $10). We really did try to walk away in disgust, but the sunglass man followed us up the street for more than a block, wanting us to haggle. In the end, we paid about $5 for them -- Daniel did need sunglasses, but at that point, we were mostly paying to make him go away.


Daniel's rested, so a last jaunt out in Hanoi. Probably one more short post from Ho Chi Minh City before we are back to travelling again.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Halong Bay cruise

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.]

Couple of quick phone pics from the cruise -- Halong Bay turned out to be more breathtakingly beautiful than I imagined it woul be, even shrouded by fog as it was during our short cruise (just under 24 hours on the boat).

Better pics from the camera to come later...

Waiting to board the cruise ship

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.]

Last chance for WiFi for a while. Here's Brad's promised (though blurry) Vietnamese Dong pics. Bills ranging from 500,000 down to 2000. Exchange rate is around 18,000 to the dollar.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hanoi street scenes

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.]

Some random pics from our 2nd day in Hanoi:
Hoan Kiem lake (near our hotel):

Saw these stencils all over town and have been speculating over what they might be. We showed a photo to the receptionist at the hotel and she said they are... (wait for it...) advertisements for a mortgage refinancing company. Bill posting is, I believe, not allowed, so these would be guerrilla advertisements, and harder to remove than handbills (which we also saw -- took us a while to realize they were advertising the same thing -- I think it's the initials of a company, and then their phone number):

The streets in old town are named for what the vendors historically have sold. Sometimes the name matches what they are still selling, sometimes not so much anymore. This is counterfeit street -- we think it would historically would sell the fake money and dollar bills that buddhists leave on altars as gifts for their ancestors -- these shops probably still sell that kind of thing, because we've seen it everywhere on altars. However right now, the whole street is full of these (I think) wedding decorations:

And Christmas decorations:

Blacksmith street -- all things metal, welded, soldered, forged, etc. We did see a blacksmith working on the sidewalk, but didn't get a shot of it. Hard to see in the pic, but these are metal birdcages (a lot of people keep songbirds here, maybe the way we would keep houseplants), metal hat racks (many businesses have hat racks for umbrellas and motorbike helmets), metal garment fixtures, etc:

I don't remember what street we were on when we came across these kewpie dolls...

Or this music store -- most of the stuff in the front was for tourists, but they had some playable guitars in the back, and I saw some decent violin cases stashed up above in storage:

High-end wedding dress shop in the French quarter:

Rollercoaster in Lenin Park:

After being turned away from a popular French bistro whose kitchen had already closed, we had our best meal yet this afternoon at a hospitality/food/beverage training school for disadvantaged kids called Hoa Sua School. A very quiet, peaceful courtyard in a beautiful French colonial building (quiet is rare here... exactly what we were hoping to find after 2 days of walking through traffic and crowded sidewalks). Great food, reasonably priced -- and really great service (though they're learning, so occasionally a supervisor would step in to help, or take over and demonstrate). Daniel had Vietnamese, I ate French. The servers were darling. We had a lot of fun here -- plan to have dinner here again before we leave:

Tried the local Vietnamese (Dalat) wine for the first time -- we had actually tried a glass in Hoi An earlier, but it had been open too long and had turned to vinegar, so it wasn't really a fair try. We ordered a bottle here, and it was actually quite good - light-bodied and very drinkable (I'm not a big wine connoisseur, but I enjoyed it, and Daniel said it was good):

Duck l'orange:

Our server on the left. After the meal, we tried to let her know what a good job she had done (her English was quite adequate for taking our order and meeting our needs, but beyond that, she had a hard time understanding us, so it took a few minutes to get the point across). She seemed to think she didn't do a very good job (she said no, she is "very bad" -- maybe because she needed help opening the wine, tried to clear our dessert plate a little too early). But in the end, I think we made it clear that we'd had a great meal.


Anti-smoking poster outside of the World Health Organization office:

Evening tai chi warmups:


Last post for a couple of days as we'll be in Halong Bay.

Hue street scenes

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.]

Backtracking a few days, here are some pics from our 2nd day in Hue -- rented bicycles, braved the traffic (not so bad like Saigon or Hanoi, but still a little alarming, especially on wobbly rented bicycles) and crossed the river to get out of the tourist areas. Explored and found a lake in the citadel area in a residential neighborhood that was definitely off the tourist track. Also took an hour or so cyclo ride in some of the less touristy areas of Hue.
Ate lunch here -- it was packed with locals when we sat down. We were some of the last to leave. Here, it's all cleaned up (there had been napkins all over the floor, which apparently is a sign of a good place).

Spotted this along the way -- a full PA system being hauled on a cyclo:

Didn't have to go too far to get out of the tourist areas -- the Citadel side of the Perfume River is a lot quieter, once you get away from the Imperial Enclosure. We rode around for a couple of hours and saw few westerners:

Hue, Vietnam
Quiet lake we found while exploring bicycling. I'm guessing the platform had a temple or pagoda on it once upon a time:

After bicycling for a while (which was somewhat relaxing, but also somewhat nervewracking -- in order to get across the river to the quiet areas, we had to wade through some pretty heavy motorbike traffic), we decided to take a short cyclo ride -- a lot of the drivers speak enough English that they can act as a tour guide, and though we'd already seen enough of the official "sights," we thought it would be cool to have them take us around for a half hour or so anyway, again maybe a little off the beaten path. It's a nice, relaxing way to be in the traffic and be able to take it all in, without having to negotiate the traffic like we did on the bicycles...
I had met my cyclo driver earlier in the day -- he had been following me from shop to shop trying to talk me into hiring him for a cyclo ride (I was something like a block from the hotel, so wasn't interested at the time). But I ended up talking to him for a bit. When he asked where I was from, and I said "U.S.", he gave a big thumbs up and said, "Obama! I like Obama!" Said he's seen Obama and his daughters on TV, and he seems like a good family man. Won me over, so when we decided to take a ride later that day, we looked around for him until we found him again. He grabbed a friend to drive Daniel around. Here's just a couple of pics. We had a really interesting time riding with them and talking to them, since it gave us a chance to ask "What's that sign say?" "What's that big building over there?" I have some other pics and videos I'll post later.

Communist billboard:

Kids we came across during a short stop on the cyclo ride, on the other side of the river. A lot of the kids we met when we got off the tourist track were really friendly and eager to talk to us, wanting to use their little bit of English (generally just "Hello! Hello!"):

Fresh-made incense drying, here more or less in someone's backyard:

Here, incense drying in front of a Buddhist temple. We peeked inside -- the monks were playing football/soccer in the enclosed yard:

Daniel's cyclo driver in the striped shirt -- we're crossing the river back on our way back to the busy side at the end of our ride: