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:
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.