Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

I spent 4 days in Hanoi, and it was very nice to see a familiar face, because my friend Mike was staying there working with the organization Kiva, which does microfinancing in developing countries. So, he was able to show me around, and introduced me to his friends, and I didn't feel like so much of a helpless tourist. While there, checked out a water puppet show, too. They have the puppets in the water, telling a story, with people moving the strings standing behind them out of sight. We couldn't really tell what the story was, but the program gave us the gist of it. It was a lot about the harvest and the kings and the magical animals of Vietnam. Worth seeing, but anything longer than the one-hour show we were there for would have been a little repetitive and boring.

What I really liked about Hanoi was the Old Quarter, which was an area filled with many little streets, full of shops and hotels and travel agencies. This is the most popular area for backpackers, so when you walk through here you are constantly being asked to buy something or eat something. All of these streets have names which correspond to the product they used to sell, such as "duong" for sugar or "cha ca" for fried fish. But, nowadays the names dont always correspond to what they actually sell. After all, they didnt have a "bootleg dvd's" street a hundred years ago.

People told me that Hanoians are less friendly than Saigonese, and I couldn't really tell any difference but I started to assume it was true. Perhaps I was reading too much into it. I was taking taxis everywhere in Hanoi, which I hadn't really done in Saigon, and had a couple bad experiences to sour my mood. No one really walked up to me to ask me where I was from, which happened often in Saigon. But maybe they could tell I was a tourist, not a resident. Anyway, even though it was 1,000 miles away from Saigon, I felt the same distinct Vietnamese atmosphere, similar food, practically the same language, similar looking people. All in all, Vietnamese.

It was a nice, relaxing few days there, but we did spend one long day on a tour of Ha Long Bay. We left very early for the 3 hour drive there in a cramped travel van, but we had a nice boat to tour the harbor in. We ate a lunch on the boat, then docked at an island that had a strange cave with many stalagmites, and then back to the boat while people tried to sell us sodas, doodads, and jewelry. Next the boat traveled around the bay some more, it was a very sunny day, and we saw some remarkable islands and strange rock formations. The Vietnamese have folklore about the area, and when they look at the rocks they can see a certain person or animal who is part of the story. You have to admit when you look at a certain rock that it looks like a man's face.

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO heritage site and it's on the list of nominees for the 7 natural wonders of the world. So, it's a very famous place of natural beauty here, and I'm very glad I had the opportunity to see it.

I could ramble on all day about it, but here are some pictures:

Sunday, July 26, 2009


That's right, folks, I'm finally home from my year living in Saigon. It was quite a whirlwind the past couple weeks, saying goodbye to everyone, finishing up last minute things, then going on a week of traveling. Even though i was on my own, I still kept pretty busy while traveling, and it wasn't the relaxing vacation I had envisioned. But that was fine, because I was in such beautiful, fascinating places such as Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Beijing, and the Great Wall, so i didn't want to waste time. Now that I'm home, I have plenty of time to lounge around and relax before I start law school.

Now I'm still pretty exhausted from my long journey and my huge time shift, so I need to let my body clock adjust. Once I feel up to it, I'm going to post about my travels and show some pictures, and also reflect on my year abroad and the reverse culture shock of coming home.

And I think I may still keep this blog in the future. After all, even though I'm no longer in Ho Chi Minh City, I will always be the rock of Saigon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cafe Tram, or what i'll miss the most

Did I mention how much I love coffee shops? In Vietnam, they really embrace nature and make you feel like you're miles away from the city when you've ducked into a coffee shop down an alleyway. I met fellow blogger Kevin at a coffee shop Thursday morning that was very relaxing and beautiful. However, I did not have my camera to take a picture.

However, later that day I met someone at Cafe Tram, which is practically around the corner from my house, on Tran Huy Lieu. I didn't know it existed until my friend recommended that we meet there. I think they are really trying to keep the place a secret. All you can see from the street is a narrow passageway. You enter through giant wooden doors to find a secret garden of sorts. There's a small manmade stream, and you walk over it on stone steps, with lots of statues nearby to wish you luck. In the water are big, bright koi. My friend led me into a very dark room, lit only be dim Chinese-style lanterns. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust when you first walk in, as you can barely see. But once you adjust you realize how peaceful and cozy it is in there. You are at almost a lower level than the water outside the window, so you feel like you're in the deck of a ship. Did I mention the fruit juices are delicious? I can't believe I discovered this place with one week left in Saigon.

Also, they wouldn't let me take pictures, apparently afraid that someone would steal their ideas. However, I still snuck a few, and they let me take a couple from up top as long as a person was in the picture. So, enjoy a free, clandestine peak at Cafe Tram! (by the way, Tram, which sounds like 'jum', is a word which means introverted or introspective)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What I'll miss

Even though I miss many things from home, I know that when I go back I will miss many things about Vietnam.

My tutoring job has finished and my student will try taking his visa interview for the third time. Good luck to him, but I really think he needs another toeic course before he can hope to pass it. Anyway, in this last week or so before I go home I once again have a lot of free time, even though I'm still teaching at VNU right to the end. Also, the construction on the house nearby has finished, so once again my neighborhood is quiet and peaceful. It reminds my why I quickly felt at home here in the first place.

So here is the list of things I think I will miss:

Cheap prices for almost everything
Overly friendly waiters
Smiles from everyone
Toothpicks readily available on every table
Driving a motorbike
Never needing a jacket, except for a rain poncho
Many exotic fruits
Looking around the room in a restaurant and finding that I'm the only foreigner, and the good feeling that i'm not another face in the crowd.
Harmony of seeing churches, temples, and mosques all together in the same city.
Planning life around my own timetable
Vietnamese coffee
Cheap gym, even though it's hot, small, and has old equipment
Juice coffee shop
The abundance of street vendors
Interesting stories from English students
very cheap dvd's and tv shows
being able to live and not be saturated with pointless news and media updates
all the friends I've made here, even up to the very end

I could go on, but I think I'd really just keep listing things that are cheaper here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What I miss

Things I miss from America, that are either hard to find or nonexistent here:

Carbonated red bull
Greek food, including an abundance of Feta cheese
Being able to use slang wherever I go
Using googlemaps to find where I am
Nintendo wii
Fast, stable internet connection
Electricity not randomly getting shut off by the city
Temperature fluctuations
Driving a car
Empty supermarkets at 8pm- ive actually never found a time when the supermarket isnt swarmed with people.
Quieter neighborhoods
Grilled burgers, hot dogs, and shiskabob
TV stations like comedy central
Being able to watch any TV show online
Greater variety of music, movies, books
Black pens - they all seem to be blue here
Wearing shoes indoors - not that i ever really did
Hiking in the woods
Homemade apple pies, cookies, etc.
Orthodox churches
Driving a car
Trash being put in trashbarrels, not just thrown in the street
Printing things in my own house
Philosophical discussions!