A Travellerspoint blog


Sa Pa, Vietnam

Up in the hills

overcast 70 °F

Sapa sits at 1,000 meters elevation and is where rice and vegetables grow like crazy amongst the terraced hills. We were fortunate to find an $8 fourth floor hotel with a balcony view of the mountains. We enjoyed taking a break from the hard long days of being a tourist and spent our mornings with breakfast on the balcony and closed the day by squeezing fresh limes from the market in our cocktails.

The town of Sapa is surrounded by hill tribes and many of the ethnic women have found that they can earn a living in the tourist industry. They flock the streets trying to sell miscellaneous items to fresh meat tourist. Their English is minimal, so they usually set the mood with “Where are you from?” and “What is your name?” (to this day, they probably still believe Kevin’s name is actually “No Thank you.”) If we had a Vietnamese Dong for every time we were asked these questions we would be traveling for another year! From the safety of our balcony, we could watch the women flock to the arriving tourist buses every morning.

Sapa is famous for homestay trekking between local villages. However, because Robin is still recovering from the knee injury in Laos we looked for alternative ways to enjoy Sapa (her injury is most likely a torn meniscus as diagnosed through emails from our awesome doctor friends). We stumbled on Sapa O'Chau, a school for local hill tribe children and went to visit to see if they had any need for some volunteers. They asked us what our specialties were, and before we knew it, we had signed up ourselves to teach a two-hour session on gardening and water…. scary and exciting! We spent the next day and a half planning our lessons. We found that teaching, although really challenging, was very rewarding and probably the highlight of our stay in Vietnam.

If you like mountains like we do, Sapa is worth staying a while. There are views everywhere you go, from restaurant balconies to easy day hikes or a scooter ride into the winding mountain roads.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 06:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

In the Suburbs of Hanoi

Off the tourist track

overcast 77 °F

We were lucky enough to meet and stay with the Snell family for a few days about 10 km outside of the CBD. Luyen is from Saigon and her husband, Robin, is from England. Their son Nicholas attends one of only two United Nations International Schools (UNIS) in the world. We attended the UNIS spring fair and learned a lot about teaching abroad while sampling homemade foods from the countries that attend UNIS. We listened to the middle school band and chorus and pondered what it would be like to be a traveling teacher or attend an isolated school in a completely foreign country.

What interested us most about Luyen was that she owns and manages a bakery/café/sewing factory that employs disabled people. Her goal is to encourage people with disabilities and build their confidence by showing them that they can still be useful in the work place. We spent a couple half days trying to be useful at the bakery and picked up some tips for starting our own. After a morning in the café we would hop on a local bus to explore. On one trip we ended up at a lake (that reminded us a lot of Greenlake in Seattle) where we found a café with the best mango shake ever!

After our stay in Hanoi we headed North West to Sa Pa via “sleeper” bus, however we weren’t so lucky this time… not only was the driver training for the large vehicle version of F1 racing, but the seats didn’t lay flat and seemed like there was only enough leg room for an Umpalumpa! It was still a fun adventure and we were able to score some seats together.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 10:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

On the Streets of Hanoi

Drinking beer and eating street food with the locals

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Rule of thumb in Southeast Asia: The smaller the chairs, the cheaper the food!
It has been over a month since both of us fell very ill to some serious food poisoning in Laos, long enough for us to regain confidence again in street foods. So we toured the streets of Hanoi tasting ‘fresh’ beer, coffee, bbq, bun chau, cha ca, and tofu dessert, all of which required sitting on the sidewalk, or in the street on little plastic chairs made for 4 year-old children. Eating on the streets is so much fun because you get to sit face to face (literally sometimes) with the locals, eat tasty homemade delights and drink delicious beverages all while watching the hustle and bustle through of the alleys of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. We enjoyed a few meals and beers with our new friend Chris (from sleeper bus).

We rented bicycles to explore the city and entered into the chaotic traffic, the amazing thing is how the Vietnamese somehow resist any urges of road rage in a land where you are constantly cut off, beeped at, and nudged around. It actually became quite simple once we let go of all that we have learned about etiquette, good driving, and being courteous… sound familiar from our post on crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh? Using the red traffic lights only as a suggestion, there is only one real rule: Don’t hit what is in front of you. In essence, ignorance is bliss! You never have to look behind you, indicate that you are turning, or worry about whose turn it is at an intersection. If you did look, you would be risking “losing face” (which is a huge no-no in Asia) by knowingly cutting someone off. Kevin was photographed three different times by tourists, either because his bike was way too small (think clown in the circus), or because of the monstrous grin on his face. Organized chaos for sure, but quite fun.

We have been trying to live without the existence of the ‘proper queue’ (i.e. standing in line for something). No one in Asia ever forms a proper line… it’s more like a battle to the death, and we think that ‘survival man’ TV series should forget about how to survive a plane crash in the desert and do a show on how to survive boarding a bus or buying a train ticket in Asia. One example that left Kevin’s jaw dropped was when we are at a bank; Kevin was clearly standing in front of a ticketing machine reading the options with his hand hovering over the screen when someone stepped next to him, reached around him, made a selection, took a ticket, and walked away! We tried to catch something like this on camera at an ice cream shop where Robin was determined to get a cone… note in the picture below that there is a hand waving money that appears to be poking out of Robin’s belly (that’s someone pushing and leaning on her from behind to try and jump queue) Luckily, she hung in there for our tasty desert.

Although extremely touristy we do recommend the famous ‘water puppet’ show. Tickets are priced to sell and we found the 45 minute show pretty entertaining. There was a live orchestra and singers who talked to these indescribable puppets. Imagine a stage made of water with puppeteers standing in the water but hidden by curtains. Puppets connected to rods under the water would enter through the curtain and perform a story. We saw the puppeteers at the end of the show when they came out for a bow and they all had forearms bigger than Popeye AFTER he ate his spinach!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 09:35 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hue, Vietnam

Our new hot pot, jackets and a lovely river cruise

overcast 75 °F

The bus from Hoi An to Hue takes about 3-4 hours. As always, the bus ride was filled with unknowns and interesting events… one notable event this time was when our already full bus stopped to pick up a bunch of locals. Of course all of the tourists were very curious to see where they were all going to sit, but to our amazement a dozen or so small (4-5 inch tall) plastic stools appeared out of nowhere and they all squatted down in the aisles of the bus. It never ceases to amaze us how many people and cargo they can fit into a tourist bus. It seems as though we have single handedly escorted countless extra packages, passengers and miscellaneous boxes and bags of ‘stuff’ across Southeast Asia.

Using an excellent recommendation from WikiTravel, we had dinner with Mr. Cu at his Madarin Café and sampled his delicious banana crepes. At the end of our meal he handed us a city walking tour map and a postcard of his own photography (way cool)! Instead of walking, we of course toured around on bicycles, riding around the old Citadel, and stopping to have some Pho and coffee along the river.

After blazing through the ‘walking’ tour on bikes, we explored some of the rest of the city and found ourselves on a street selling kitchen appliances and electronics. We really enjoyed Australia and New Zealand where there was always a kettle in hotel rooms, and were wondering if we could find something that could boil water but still be small enough for traveling. Well, we’d like to introduce you to the newest member of our travel family… our brand new $2 portable hot pot! Yes this violates our ‘go lite’ mentality however this bad boy is light weight, fits in our bags and has now served us up numerous cups of coffee, hard boiled eggs, and even steamed broccoli!

During our tour around the city we tried on about a million different knockoff North Face jackets and ended up picking a couple up in anticipation for our travels at elevation in Tibet and Nepal.

Hue is infamous for gaudy tombs of historic emperors that are located along the Perfume River. We joined a boat tour with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised by how relaxing the river cruise was.

After a full day touring tombs and temples, we boarded our first ‘sleeper bus’ to Hanoi. The journey takes about 12 hours, and leaves in the evening, to arrive in Hanoi in the morning. After a long debate we requested seats at the very back of the bus where our beds would be joined… turns out our beds were also joined with another, which meant one of us would be in the middle with an extra sleeping buddy. Luckily, our sleeping buddy was Chris, who turns out to be an archaeologist from Portland!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 08:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An, Vietnam

Clothes tailors and ‘fresh’ beer

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Our travel paths crossed again with Daniel and Sam so we spent a few nights drinking fresh beer (at 20 cents a mug) on the water front while discussing the issues that come with hiring a local clothes tailor. Hoi An is infamous for its small walking streets lined with tailors who will custom tailor clothes for you based on only a picture. Robin decided to take on the challenging task of a buying a custom made Vietnamese style dress and a jacket, while Kevin opted out of what became quite the drama. Having clothes tailored can become slightly stressful when the clothes or shoes are not what you expected and the once nice accommodating sales person turns into an irate disrespecting biznatch. Both Robin and Sam had quite the test of patience but in the end, Robin got an amazing jacket, and a slightly see-through dress (think emperor’s new clothes). Robin was looking at a vietnamese style dress in Thai Silk, and selected an ivory material from the square inch of display fabric. Unfortunately the tailor forgot to mention that this color, in this type of fabric is see-through… oops! Getting Sam’s boots made is a whole other story, but eventually the two were able to walk away with some decent clothing, and the experiences to share and laugh about later.

Hoi An is a UNESCO cultural site, so traffic is limited so our rental bikes came in quite handy. The bikes we had had an extra padded seat where you would normally see a rack for panniers so we could carpool to the bars! You can tell that Sam and Daniel are from the Netherlands because they have wicked biking skills:

Hoi An is situated along the coast and has some beautiful beaches when the sun is out. The weather was such a nice relief from the heat and made riding out to the coast very pleasurable. Apparently it was too windy for other people so we enjoyed some coffee and the beach all to ourselves.

We took scooters out to some temple ruins from the 12th and 13th century called My Son. These ruins were not that impressive after recently seeing Angkor Wat but it was still fun seeing the different architecture. More impressive was the humongous craters left by the bombs dropped on these temples during the war.

The highlight of the trip to My Son was stopping along the side of the road to have some coffee with the locals. Vietnamese coffee is very different from what we0020are used to in The States, it is extremely strong and syrupy and made using a stainless steel dripper over a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk… we think this might be why they serve a complementary pot of tea with the coffee.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 08:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Our new favorite dish: pho xao!

sunny 85 °F

We stayed with Jerry, in his apartment on the outside edge of District 1 (the center of town). We had a hell of a time renting bikes in Ho Chi Minh and quickly learned that a 10min taxi can turn 35min with traffic :) His balcony had a lovey view and I’m sure the neighbors enjoyed us screaming ‘good morning Vietnam’ at the city every morning.

Jerry took us to the best place for Pho, and introduced us to our new favorite Vietnamese food: Pho Xao (fried pho noodles). Unfortunately Pho Xao differs greatly from restaurant to restaurant, so you must go to 25 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai for the best Pho Xao in Vietnam.

Seeing as Vietnam is infamous for coffee, we were eager to try some good coffee. We went to Jerry’s contact at the local market to buy beans and through her broken English it turns out (we think) that she has family in the Bay Area. We bought two different varieties of beans, some condensed milk, and attempted to reconstruct the market coffees at the apartment. We decided that although the famous Weasel Coffee (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak) was good, it wasn’t that much different to for out such a heavy price tag, and we most likely had the chemically simulated version, rather than the beans eaten by the civets. For those who can’t be bothered to read about Weasel coffee, the image below summarizes it pretty well.

The small world, and even smaller Asia travel circuit, amazed us once again when we bumped into the Canadians we met in Siem Reap (and ran into in the Phnom Penh market) while aboard a bus to the Chu Chi Tunnels. We spent a day touring around the Chu Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, where we once again came face to face with the devastation of life and natural habitat that Vietnam endured during the US bombings. Life size pictures of birth defects that are still occurring today due to the chemicals (such as Agent Orange) used to destroy the jungle, are humbling, to say the least.

The tunnels are fascinating, and definitely test your ability to deal with confined spaces. We went into both an actual tunnel used by the Vietcong and another one that spanned for 100 meters, with exits at every 20 meters. Although the diameter had been increase to accommodate fat foreigners, you could still feel the thin air and lack of oxygen.

Wondering around the streets in Ho Chi Minh (after you have mastered the art of crossing the street, see previous post) is actually quite pleasant and fun! There are numerous parks, a beautiful post office, and a Grand Palace to roam around. We randomly found the hotel on an alley that Kevin and his family had stayed in 6 years ago! Ho Chi Minh statues and pictures are everywhere around the city, here you see him with Kevin at the Palace and Robin at the post office:

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 05:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Setting Foot into Vietnam

A lesson for the not so faint of heart

The first task that any foreigner must learn when arriving in Vietnam is how to cross the street. This seeming simple task can frighten you stiff at the sign of scooters, pedestrians, tuktuks, bikes, cars, taxis and buses with horns ablaze going in every possible direction as fast as they can. If you have ever played the video game called Frogger (the one where the lil frog must advance across a busy street avoiding trucks and cars), your ability to survive in Vietnam may be slightly increased (although in real life you don’t have the luxury of second chances). Imagine there is a stream of ants all tailgating each other, now plop a rock right in the middle of the ant stream and you’ll notice that the ants miraculously avoid the rock by going around both sides. Now all you have to do to safely cross the street is to become that rock!

To summarize:
Step 1: Forget EVERYTHING you have previously learned about traffic rules
Step 2: Take a deep breath and a leap of faith
Step 3: Step into the street and keep walking at a steady pace
Step 4: Look straight ahead and ignore traffic
Note: If you look at the oncoming traffic, you will be expected to act. If you don’t, you won’t lose face, and the drivers are expected to deal with what’s in front of them by swerving around you. It’s probably safer to just close your eyes and walk across at a steady pace than it is to negotiate a game of chicken.

Here is a video of one of our mad street crossing skills with two notable highlights to look for:
1. the two terrified peds across the street waiting and are probably still waiting for a clearing
2. the bus that comes within inches of us
3. the Sir Lancelot wannabe scoter caring a metal rod like a knight on a horse

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 05:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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