Vietnam and Hong Kong, April 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hong Kong – Hanoi – Halong Bay, April 2009
Sunday Evening, April 12

We took sleeping pills for a long nap Sunday afternoon, but they took a long time to overcome our excitement about the trip. Waking up at 11pm was tough! I sleep-walked through a quick dinner, and taxi ride to the airport.

Check-in was a breeze with Cathay Pacific, and we seemed to board moments after arriving at the gate… perhaps I slept through it!

Flying Cathay Pacific Economy almost beats flying Air Canada Business Class. The food and service were definitely better, as was the choice of movies on my personal screen, and even the quality of the earphones. Only the seat’s smaller, and even there, Cathay’s are terrific for their size. It was fun chatting with the Vancouver-based crew, who seemed to enjoy themselves. One of the girls got excited and happy with the children’s book I found on the floor – for herself, not to give anyone else!

Tuesday April 14, Hong Kong and the flight to Hanoi

Monday disappeared somehow, lost across the International Date Line. We arrived in Hong Kong right on time, at 7am Tuesday. Xin was hungry so we had Japanese noodles in the airport, after finding a luggage-storage place for our carry-ons. 55 HKD (about $10), not cheap, but very secure.

From a website’s advice, we bought Octopus cards, just like Oysters in London. I’d planned to avoid the expensive Airport Express, but time was pressing, and the fare was 1/3 what I’d read, so we took it. Shades of the Heathrow Express, but through a very different city. Crumbling and shining skyscrapers everywhere, poking about twice as high as I’m used to.

At Central Station in the heart of Hong Kong, jet-lagged and confused, we got our directions wrong for the Peak Tram, and got on the wrong bus (15 instead of 15C), paying 9.80 instead of 4.50, and heading off for an unplanned tour of Hong Kong island. Sigh. But what serendipity! This bus winds through much of the business district, then up the hills, giving views over the tops of soaring condo towers, gradually revealing the other side of the island, and finally reaching the peak. It wasn’t how we planned to get there, but it was more interesting… and it turns out, cheaper. After taking a pile of pictures and wandering the tourist traps on the Peak, we took a one-way down the Tram, an interesting ride, just a little scary, and a lot of fun.

Fatigue really kicked in then. Approaching noon, we were stressed about getting a lunch, and making our 3pm flight. We gave up on the long lines at all the restaurants, and got back on the Express. At the airport, the restaurant line-ups were even longer. Finally we got some pasta, ran for security 40 minutes before flight time, and hit another long line. Running for our gate, we got there just as the flight was boarding.

That’s when we entered another world. The flight attendants wore Vietnamese costume. They handed out Vietnamese newspapers along with Wall Street Journals, and offered fish or beef entrees on the 90-minute flight. The seats were cramped. The English was too heavily accented to understand.

My first surprise was the high percentage of Caucasians on the plane, and then in Hanoi. Huge numbers of all sorts of Europeans and Americans and Canadians, all over the place, from backpackers to businessmen.

The taxi from airport to the Intercontinental was a strange experience, my first direct blast of Vietnam: cows wandering beside the road, dirt poor peasants riding decrepit bicycles or scooters, rice paddies stretching for miles, conical hats on squatting field-workers. 80% of the cars are Toyotas; there’s an occasional Ford or Chevy, but you have to look for them.

Wednesday April 15 in Hanoi

Random bits about Hanoi…

  • The French has disappeared, other than a slight preponderance of French tourists, who all have to speak English to be understood.
  • Vietnam beat the Americans in the military war, but American culture and economics slowly won the battle for ideas. KFC and tourist hotels, Bebe shirts and Louis Vuitton, jeans and Adidas abound. Oddly the taxi drivers and restaurants struggle mightily with the English language… perhaps it’s too recent an invasion.
  • 1000s of motorbikes. Mom driving a scooter with 3-year-old boy standing in front of her, grinning over the handlebars. Another lady riding a bicycle with about 2 cubic meters of pottery hanging in bags around her.
  • Staying for free at the Intercontinental on points, but they ask $18 US per day for Internet usage, while Sinh Café Hotel in the heart of Old Town Hanoi charges $19 per night for a nice room… with free Internet.
  • Vietnamese coffee makes Turkish coffee look like American instant.
  • Hanoi celebrates its 1000-year anniversary, and in the center of town, the Temple of Literature proudly commemorates its founding as a university in 1076, where students wrote national exams to get in, and another round of exams to become government mandarins after 3-7 years of study.
  • Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology has model homes scattered around a hectare, from among Vietnam’s 54 recognized ethnic groups. The Viets make up 86% of the population, but there’s a lot of pride in the diversity of culture, fashion, and language.

Xin and I had slept from about 7pm til 6am; hunger drove us out of the hotel with its $20 US breakfasts, searching for local food at 7am. A block away, we sat at communal tables and had fresh beef soup for about $1 each.

Wandering along after breakfast, we figured downtown was too far to walk, so we hopped in a taxi, asking for the Temple of Literature. He dropped us in the vicinity, and we promptly got lost, window-shopping and gazing at the bustle of the street. Two ancient old ladies sold us bottled water from a “store” the size of a closet. We crossed a 6-ish-lane (no markings) busy street without a crosswalk, Asian fashion, that is slowly but steadily walking across, watching carefully as the stream of motorcycles and cars parted to either side of us, first from one direction, then without much transition, from the other direction. It’s fun once you get used to it; it feels magical. Imagine crossing Broadway between intersections, walking slowly during rush hour, without incurring the least anger or surprise. Here in Hanoi, as in much of Asia, a car horn is not a voice of anger, but a friendly warning of your approach. They’re very friendly that way.

The “temple” was interesting more for its history than appearance. Hanoi is preparing to celebrate its official 1000 year anniversary as a city; this particular temple was founded in 1076 by King Le, primarily focused on study of Confucian classics. Students wrote national exams to gain entrance, studied for 3-7 years, and then wrote royal exams to get positions in the meritocratic government.

Well, it was not yet 10am. What next? We’d read about the Museum of Ethnology, and both wanted to visit it, so off we went in another taxi. This driver delighted in practicing his English and his tour-guide skills, pointing out embassies along the way.

The museum was fun, parading the diversity of culture in this proud and small country. The café served a sweet, muddy Vietnamese traditional coffee which I’m glad I sampled, and don’t need to try again. It also had lovely pastry.

It was time to look for lunch, so we rode to the fringe of the Old Town to the Quan An restaurant, recommended by our Concierge’s map. Noisy and huge, bustling with a 70/30 mix of locals and tourists, a huge menu showing off the rich complexity of Vietnamese cooking. It was wonderful.

So, return to the hotel exhausted, or try to hang on til dinner? We decided to do a little more wandering and shopping, because the hotel would mean a nap, and having to emerge again for dinner… better to fight the jet lag and try to stay up for the whole day. So we wandered up and down the Old Town. What a fascinating place! Thousands of tourists and a million locals, crammed with shops of all sorts, from a tray of bottled water and cigarettes 20x40cm on the sidewalk, to 3-story silk shops showing off photos of visiting royalty (plus Laureen Harper), to Internet cafés, to hostels, to travel agencies. We stumbled onto cool gifts for our friends, but mostly we were shocked at the high prices. Sure, you can get a sidewalk meal for $1, and an hour of Internet for $8,000. (Oh yeah, the currency… that’s 8000 Viet Dong for an hour of internet… in other words, about 62 cents Canadian!) But a beautiful embroidered silk scarf is $75 US, or an unembroidered one over $10. The Intercontinental charges $18 US per day for Internet access… but the nice 2-star hotels in the Old Town charge $15-25/day to stay, and throw in free Internet. The same 3-day tour of Halong Bay sells for $45 – $150, depending where you buy it. The same Internet café where we paid 50 cents for 45 minutes of access, has the $45 Halong Bay price.

5pm and we’re really really exhausted. We ate an early and delightful dinner overlooking Hoan Kiem lake, in the middle of the Old Town. Sweet & Sour Fried Fish with rice and veggies, plus a pineapple & tomatoes salad. Perhaps the salad was a mistake… later that night diarrhea hit me.
“Home” to the Intercontinental about 7pm. When we’d left at 7am, I’d half-expected to return after breakfast. Our minds and bodies were used up. Showers and baths felt soooooooo good, as did the peaceful quiet of the West Lake. Our room is in a pavilion built over the lake, with water lapping underneath us, and windows on two sides overlooking the water, and looking out to a relatively wealthy suburb, insulated from the bustle of the city.

But did we go right to sleep? No, that would be shameful for world travelers thirsty for more experience. I turned on my computer for a first glance at the electronics since leaving Vancouver… and found an unsecured wireless link, faint but free. “Xin, I found an unsecured wireless… hey, I’m in.” “Give me my laptop!”. 3 hours later, we finally crashed. Crazy bookworms.

Thursday April 16, Hanoi

We should have taken sleeping pills… we both woke up periodically through the night, still jet-lagged, still drowning in impressions. My digestion was lousy and I felt a fever.
Around 7:30am we walked off the hotel grounds, looking for a “safe” Western breakfast, and found a coffee shop with Panini, about 2 blocks away. Xin would have been happier with the soup noodles in the local sidewalk shops across the street, but she ate with me “in solidarity”. At 8:30, she had to leave for her conference at a downtown hotel.

I’m vegetating at the hotel, testing my health gingerly, paying for a $4 US glass of juice and a $5 US latte, avoiding the hotel Internet, but enjoying the air conditioning, and a quiet chance to jot down some of what I’ve experienced.

What stands out? I keep comparing Vietnam to China, hitting a mix of accords and discords. Like Japan, Vietnam is in many ways “derived” from China… but with so many centuries of independent refinement, that you get a very distinct feeling. There are Chinese characters and Confucianism, but the personality is different. While only a few hundred kilometers from Yunnan where I vacationed two years ago, the people here are far less happy, less musical, more capitalist, more sophisticated… but then, I recognize I’m making wild inferences from about 24 hours of exposure, to the capital city alone. Time to stop writing for a while, and do more exploring. After a nap. And a swim.

Friday, April 17, Hanoi

I wandered the city by myself for the whole day, after a workout in the hotel gym, taking pictures of ex-pat neighborhoods (all rented… foreigners are not allowed to buy real estate) and local markets. I didn’t get back to the hotel until about 10:30pm, to collapse into bed exhausted from the rain, the hectic traffic, the thousands of market stalls, the strange food, the waves of tourists and tourist industry, the press of people. But we found a free internet connection in our room! Probably some ex-pat’s apartment near the hotel has an uncontrolled wireless router. We happily jumped onto it.

Saturday, April 18, Hanoi

Xin and I got the same $2 breakfast of Pho (noodle soup with meat and veggies) up the street in an open-air ramshackle restaurant, watching the scooters go by with entire families, product lines, and pollution masks. To ease my culture crash, I had lunch in a Western coffee shop, paying $10 for a baguette and coffee. The waitress shyly borrowed my Mexican cowboy hat for 5 minutes, I think to get pictures with it on.

Xin finished her conference; I meant to catch her for dinner but missed, and had nasi goring overlooking the central lake by myself, with a Heineken. Xin and I arrived at the hotel minutes apart, and finally started our holiday “together”… with a cocktail at the beautiful Sunset Bar, out on the lake, looking across at the city lights. Tomorrow we check out and catch a bus to Ha Long Bay. End of 5-star treatment, prepare for 1-star!

Sunday, April 19, Ha Long Bay on a Junk

We did Tai Chi together in a corner of the Intercontinental Lobby as we waited for our bus. They were late, confused about where to pick us up, then not knowing where our hotel was. We got the last 2 seats on the mini-bus, with backpacks bulging around our heads. Then we picked up 2 more people. J Don, the guide, sat in the aisle beside the sliding door, and the newcomers squeezed into the front passenger seat for the 3-hour drive to the coast. Don gave a detailed description of the 3-day program, which nobody understood. After a day or two, we got better at understanding his English, with repetitions. We passed a thousand rice paddies, a garment factory, a Ford plant, a thousand road-side stalls, and countless scooters, carrying up to 3 kids (in addition to a parent or two), a crate of live pigs, long metal beams, plate glass windows, or anything else you might think wouldn’t fit.

At the harbour Don had big problems. Two Irish girls had sent their passports into the government for visa extensions, assured it would be no problem. I’d stored my passport securely at the hotel… but it turned out the government wanted to check for valid visas before the tour boat could leave! They kept us waiting, with many loud cellphone calls, for about an hour, even delaying lunch. Oddly, they found a passport & visa number for me… but on checking a few days later, I noticed they had my old passport number from 2 years ago!!! Eery.
Lunch was worth the wait; it was fabulous, fresh fish pan-fried with lemon grass, a plate of squid & octopus with veggies, spinach-like sweet veggies, rice. Then we motored across to begin weaving through Ha Long Bay’s 1600 islands with their chaotic shapes. We visited a huge cave hollowing out one of the islands, bought some travel trash on the jungle path, swam off the side of the boat, and enjoyed another fabulous meal on the boat. Taking turns buying bottles of wine, we enjoyed one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve seen. But we went to bed early, at 10pm, because tomorrow starts at 6:30am!

Monday, April 20, Catba Island

Kayaking was ideal for waking up, before it got too hot. Then off to zig zag through more islands, bargain hard for a pearl necklace, and finally land on CatBa Island. A bus took us to the National Park, for a wander through the jungle, past monkeys and deer pens, and up to the hilltop. A tropical equivalent to the Grouse Grind, this one had a rusted, rickety 100m watchtower on top, with rotting wooden boards for a platform, several key boards missing to stimulate vertigo.
We checked into the worst hotel I’ve ever visited, another wonderful part of the Third World experience. Well, it could have been worse, since it did have air conditioning (which works for an hour if you go ask the hotel management to turn it on), and a shower (with no hot water, and spraying democratically all over the toilet and sink), and even towels (the size and thickness of my tea towels at home), and windows (looking out over the inside hallway and stairs). To escape, we took another afternoon tour boat ($4) to Monkey Island for a swim. It was wonderful, put-putting through fishing and floating fish-farm villages, past beach resorts, and a few dozen more funny-shaped islands. On the island, we walked through some more jungle, saw jellyfish in the water and on the beach, took pictures of the free-ranging monkeys as they tried to steal food from tourist backpacks.

Dinner sucked, but I somewhat expected that. We paid $90 US for the two of us for a 3-day tour; there had to be a limit to the spending somewhere. We took it in stride, though some of the younger visitors, who had paid more for the same trip, bitched a lot. Wandering the village, we bought some $4 T-shirts and $2 shorts, and watched enviously as the store-owners ate dinner on the ground, full of delicious-looking steamed fish and lots of great veggies.

Tuesday, April 21, Back to Hanoi

We packed in the pitch dark, as the power shut off about 7am. Not sure if it was money-saving or accidental, but the staff were unsurprised. They gave us a dim flashlight, but a worker needed it back after two minutes. Haha. Breakfast was nice sweet tea, and some simple crepes with sliced banana. I asked if I could have another one, and the waiter said no (but winked, and brought me one anyway). The guy who complained about dinner bitched about the crepes, but he didn’t get seconds.

The boat-ride back to Halong Harbour was dreamy in the hot sunshine. The bus ride back to Hanoi was long but fun… everyone had ipods and books, and the scenery continued to fascinate me. Sometimes I couldn’t focus on my podcasts or reading, because too much was happening outside the windows, even after a week of drinking it in.

It was fun to come back into Hanoi; it felt like a comfortable, familiar place after 3 days on the move. It was funny to pick up our suitcases from the 5-start Intercontinental, and ask a taxi to take us to the Hanoi Blue Sky Hotel, a 2-star in the Old Quarter. The bellboy laughed and so did the taxi driver. Everyone pays $16 there, unless they look like rich suckers. The next morning, our host tried to charge us for breakfast, noting that we’d come from West Lake… I just shrugged and told him I knew breakfast was included. There was free internet too, and a hot shower. All for less than the 5-star charges for Internet usage!

That evening, we didn’t just crash. We went to Water Puppet show, and searched out the famous 100-year-old Cha Ca restaurant, which serves only one dish, a curried fish fried over hot coals at your table. Delicious. It cost 100,000 dong, that is, about $8. Plus $1 for beer.

Wednesday, April 22, The Longest Day of My Life

We only had 10 days, so we packed in a steady stream of absorbing and activity. The day of our departure, I woke up at 7am exhilarated and exhausted, ready to go home, but still eager to try to get as much out of our stop in Hong Kong as possible.

We clicked dozens more pics on the taxi ride to the airport, of cemeteries scattered among rice paddies, of conical hats bent over the farming, of pollution-masked women in heels riding their scooters, of oxen chewing grass in front of people waiting at bus stops.

The flight to Hong Kong was pleasant, just a couple hours. It was cloudy on arrival, though, so we skipped the mountain hike and Giant Buddha, and headed downtown to spend a few hours in the Art Museum. That was great, and followed by a fun shopping trip to the Museum Shop. After a week of cheap market stalls, it was a pleasure to look through high quality gifts and knick-knacks. I couldn’t resist some of them.

6pm meant dinner with Dr. Poon and Dr. Wang, so we could pick up a friend’s forgotten laptop to return it to Vancouver. That meant a fantastic 3-hour dinner in the heart of Hong Kong, at an elegant Shanghainese restaurant at the top of a skyscraper. We talked about politics and family, food and history.

Finally it was time to board our final flight, just before midnight. As we took off from Hong Kong, we picked up our lost day from the flight West, and experienced an entire April 22 over again. Neither of us slept very much, but we watched lots of movies together, and read our books. Both of us did Tai Chi in the corridors, and yoga, and lots of walking. At 9pm, we landed in Vancouver, happy to be home, and very very ready for bed.