Friday, February 5, 2010

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Sapa, Hanoi....

I can NOT believe we have been in Viet Nam (yes - two words) for more than 10 days already. Time has just flown by and we have done a lot. In addition to going all around the country, which I'll tell you about soon, Chris and I both celebrated our birthdays. Chris' birthday is on January 30, while mine is on February 1. Having our birthdays during the trip added another dimension in that we saw amazing hospitality that we might not have otherwise seen.

When we arrived at the Ha Noi (again two words) airport, I was so relieved just to be in a place that didn't smell so much. Actually, I really wanted to be back in Kuala Lumpur because that airport was so clean and modern. Anyway, we had set up a room ahead of time and they picked us up from the airport. It was a lot of mental math to go from rupees to dong. Once we did, it still gave me pause to take out 2,000,000, yes million from my account to get about $100. Zeros are very important numbers.

We took about a one hour cab ride from the airport to the Old Quarter section of town. For some reason that area reminds me of San Francisco. We got to our hotel no problem and then ventured out onto the street to find dinner. We ended up going to a restaurant, La, that quickly became our favorite for the trip. Sorry to say it was just western food, but the wine list was impeccable, food delicious and service hospitable.

The next day we ventured around Ha Noi. The main thing about the city is that traffic is insane. I think Chris is going to try to post some video. Basically, everyone just goes at once and hopefully everyone makes it ok. We walked around all of the markets and found a place to get some pho for lunch. Pho is a super popular meal. It is rice noodles with veggies and chicken or beef. We pulled up at a little side cafe that looked good and sat in some chairs or stools that looked like they should be in a kindergarten classroom. We definitely picked the right place because the food was wonderful. It was also easy to order because they only served one meal and you didn't have a choice of what to get! After our lunch, we walked down some other main markets and ran into the food section. We started to pass by all different kinds of meats and fish. To keep the fish fresh they just keep them alive in buckets nearby and allow people to select from there. As we were walking along, I saw an animal sitting on one of the chopping blocks. All hair was removed and its teeth were showing. It was about two and a half feet long. I leaned over to ask Chris what it was when another English speaking girl heard me and told me it was dog! AHHHHHH! All I could think was that I hoped we didn't eat dog pho for lunch, but I've repeatedly told myself that it wasn't possible.

While walking around Ha Noi, we booked a ticket up to Ha Long Bay for the next day. Ha Long bay is a gorgeous area just north of Ha Noi. In the Bay are rocks of limestone, I believe, that have been cut away over the years to leave random rocks spread all around. While we were on our boat for two days and one night, we saw a lot of the bay, but unfortunately, we also saw a lot of fog. We were on one of the traditional "junk" boats with about 14 other people from all over. At one point we stopped off and went to a cave called "SURPRISE CAVE" and saw a bunch of stalactite and stalagmite formations. The funniest things was that our guide told us that many of the rocks looked like certain animals or people, but we could never see what they were talking about and then other guides would say that the same rocks looked like different things. I was most surprised in Ha Long Bay by how many tourists there were. For some reason I didn't think of Viet Nam as a huge tourist destination, but apparently it is. Our tour guide for the Ha Long Bay trip, Tam was great and on the trip we met up with some super fun Aussies, Gita and Dan, that we saw later in Sapa. Overall, Ha Long is a must see place, but hopefully it doesn't get ruined through lack of responsible trash clean up.

After Ha Long, we went up north to Sapa a rural area just a few kilometers south of China. We took a trek to a "village" but it was more of an area where people sold goods. Regardless of the commercialism, Sapa is a beautiful area and we very much enjoyed the mountain views. We stayed at a hotel a little outside of town called the Sapa Eden hotel. We made quick friends with the front desk person, Zoom. When I mentioned that it was Chris' birthday he totally went out of his way to set up a great dinner for us including a Happy Birthday cake! Even before we had the special birthday dinner, we had wine at a different restaurant in Sapa and I mentioned it was Chris' birthday only to make conversation. The manager brought a fruit plate out for Chris while playing Happy Birthday over the speakers! We enjoyed the dinner Zoom set up with Ellen from the Netherlands who we met while trekking. After dinner, we sang karaoke forever. The difference between American karaoke and that here is that the songs all have this weird electronic sound and you can never really tell what it is that you are actually singing.

We had a long train back to Ha Noi from Sapa and made it with little excitement, at least compared to all of the madness we experienced in India. Back in Ha Noi, we had a little R&R because it was my birthday!!! We shopped all around Ha Noi and I picked up a pair of pants that I had made for me. It was so nice to have custom made pants, but really the only reason I got them was because I had to. All of the women in Ha Noi are teeny tiny. It was rare that they even had my size and usually I would tell them my size and they would just laugh. Luckily, I went into one store where I tried on a pair of linen pants that fit around the waist, but were about five inches too short! When they offered to make a tailor made pair for the same price, how could I resist? After shopping, Chris took me to a lovely dinner at La, our favorite restaurant in Ha Noi.

On our very last day in Ha Noi, we had a tight schedule. Our flight out was at 3:30 pm and before that we went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and bought our very first piece of art together. The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was a huge ordeal. They don't really tell you where to go and I think Chris almost got shot for going two feet in the wrong direction. The Vietnamese people are very serious about Ho Chi Minh who is their great hero. He is embalmed in a similar way to Lenin and Stalin and his body actually goes to Russia each year to make sure the embalming is intact. Speaking of Lenin and Stalin, I'm not sure why, but for some reason it is very hard to get onto facebook here. In the entire ten days, I've only been able to get on twice for a limited period of time - That being said, thanks to all of those that left me birthday wishes on facebook! Enjoy the pic from the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the government would only let us get in a pic with our foreheads!!!


Carrie February 5, 2010 at 1:32 PM  

Happy belated birthdays!

Tina,  February 5, 2010 at 3:52 PM  

I was wondering what you up to on your birthdays! What a beautiful place! I am totally enjoying this trip through your eyes. Happy happy birthday to both of you! Much love!

40licious February 5, 2010 at 7:17 PM  

Happy Birthdays!

And I am very excited to someday inherit your custom pants.

Rock on, sistah!

xoxoxo Vanessa

Sapa Eden Hotel February 6, 2010 at 10:28 PM  

Happy birthday to you!

Dear Mr. Chris,

Your birthday makes this day really special...
Just like you!

It's your birthday later we would like to send you a special birthday wish and a little prayer
Have a Happy Birthday!
Wishing you all the best in the year to come
May your days be filled with sunshine and beautiful colors
And may your nights be filled with comforting dreams and wishes to come
A birthday is just the first day of another 365-day journey around the sun...
Enjoy your trip and we hope you have a pleasant travelling over the world.

Best regards
Sapa Eden Hotel
Customer Service Manager

Zoom Pham

Margie February 10, 2010 at 6:57 PM  

Dear Katie and Chris Happy Birthday yet again. Kate I am on Facebook so maybe we can connect next time! These pics are great and it sounds like Viet Nam is a little easier on the senses that India. Margo is smiling a big I told you so or at least she told me so about India being sensory overload.

Gerry Torribio,  February 21, 2010 at 8:21 AM  

Katie, I have just belatedly reached your blog and enjoyed the Vietnam stories you and Chris have posted. I visited under very different circumstances in 1972 and am happy to read your adventures in this revitalized country. Re Chris' account of the Gulf of Tonkin boat ride, I recall the puzzling sight of fishermen standing on bamboo floats out in the open sea. The floats sunk under the surface so it looked like they were walking on water. Wonder if that practice has persisted. Keep sharing your trip with us!

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