Archive for April, 2009

Hoi An again

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

A week ago we arrived in Hoi An for the second time, after a long journey on the bus from Ninh Binh. After checking in at a hotel around half the price of last time we were here, we rented bicycles and headed to the beach. The beach was where we spent the next four days, until sunset, or until we couldn’t take any more. πŸ™‚ The waves were awesome for body surfing, the palm trees provided shade to retreat into when the sun got too strong, we played frisbee in the surf, read books, bought fresh mangos and pineapples from the beach vendors and enjoyed the beach life, until Saturday night…

After a long day on the beach, we splurged on a splendid three course western meal at the Cargo Club Restaurant, accompanied by a nice wine. While we were eating, it started raining, and the weather’s been gray ever since. We stopped for a Tiger and pool at Before and Now on our way back to the hotel, where we met a couple of nice travellers. We were going to show them King Kong, but when we were getting our bicycles, Annikken’s right calf touched the muffler on a moped parked next to it, and she sustained a deep second degree burn. With a burn like that you can’t go in the water, so the gray weather has been a consolation; at least we haven’t missed any beach days because of the burn!

Annikken also had to return some tops she had made, because the first time she wore one of them, the seams started coming apart. The tailor took them back, and as a matter of course double stitched the seams on all the tops. A dress that was returned for refitting turned out to be more of a problem. She had three fittings before we left Hoi An last time, and the dress was still not ok, but we had to take it, as we were leaving. After we returned, she had seven more fittings, several arguments and much frustration on both her and the tailors’ sides, before the dress turned out the way it was ordered to begin with.

On Monday morning we had cooking classes at Friendship Restaurant, which makes Annikken’s favorite clay pots. We showed up at at 9:30 in theΒ  morning, and started out by going to the market to buy some sauces, vegetables and noodles. In the following hour and a half, we were taught how to make fresh spring rolls, Wonton and Chicken Claypot.

Last night we dined at Treat Restaurant, and spent the evening talking to a Canadian couple on their yearly three week holiday. They were extremely jealous of Annikken who could take two months off, and Gjerulf who’s travelling for a long time… πŸ˜‰

Tomorrow night we’re taking a 24 hour bus ride to HCMC, and on Monday Annikken is flying home to Oslo. She is really looking forward to cooking her own food, sleeping in her own bed, baking and meeting her friends again. She is NOT, however, looking forward to returning to a place with no tropical beaches, and temperatures below 30 degrees. Gjerulf on the other hand, is still not sure what to do after Monday, except that the plans WILL involve tropical beaches and temperatures over 30 degrees, but sadly no kitchen, dark bread or tasty, fresh, cold milk. πŸ˜›

Stunning scenery in Ninh Binh

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

We arrived in Ninh Binh last night at 9.30. We decided to take an early night, in order to get up early, and botched miserably as usual… After our usual breakfast pho, we headed off on a rented moped around 11am. The destination was Tam Coc, where there are karst formations of the same kind as in Ha Long Bay. The limestone has been thrust up from the old seabed and then been withered by wind and water in much the same way, but the difference is that here Rowing with feetthey are on land. A slow river meanders between the rice paddies, and curls around the jutting karst spires, except where the water has cut a hole straight through them. We hired a flat bottomed sampan, and were rowed up the river, and through three of the caves. The lady rowing, alternated between using her arms and using her legs to push the oars! We even put our strength to use with a paddle ourselves, when we got bored of just sitting and looking.

Our timing turned out to be as perfect as could be, since we had the river to ourselves almost all the way. Only at the very end did the next bus loads of day trippers from Hanoi start moving rank and file up the river, with only a few meters between each sampan. The best moment on our whole 2 hour boat trip, was when our rower stopped rowing in a narrow, uninhabited valley, and the silence was so intense we could hear our own breath… That’s a first in Vietnam, even for Annikken who has spent months here earlier!

After the boat trip, we headed further into the karst scenery on our moped, until the road ran out… There we were befriended by a deaf road construction worker, who insisted on showing Gjerulf a small, deserted valley over a low ridge. It was a short trip in dense jungle, but it was like entering a different world! With his communicative sign language, he explained that the valley was home to both monkeys and huge snakes. Meanwhile, Annikken helped a Vietnamese family build the foundation for a new house… She lifted heavy rocks, tried her hand at chiseling a rock, and helped apply the mortar. At first they were making fun, and pointed to a big rock they wanted to have carried over. Their faces changed rapidly when she just smiled, picked up the big rock, and asked where they wanted it… When she lifted her arms and flexed her muscles to show how strong a Norwegian woman is, they lauged happily at her antics.

After lunch, we just drove around for a while, until the sun set between the limestone towers. As we write this, we are waiting for the sleeper bus to come and take us to Hue and on to Hoi An.

Ha Long Bay

Monday, April 20th, 2009

On Wednesday we bought tickets to go to Ha Long Bay, and Thursday morning we were picked up outside our hotel by the travel agent. After a four hour drive, we arrived in Ha Long City, where we transferred to our boat. As we started out from the tourist pier, we were served lunch on the restaurant deck, and we soon reached an island where there were a couple of really nice caves. When we headed out to sea again, we checked into our cabin, and headed out on the sun deck on the third and top floor. The type of boats that take tourists out on the bay are called Junks, but it still looks a bit strange when a boat proudly displays “Paradise Junk” or “Junk Tours…”
Cruising around between the striking karst formations sticking out of the water, Pia, a danish woman who was travelling with her daughter, voiced a question of whether they could be called islands. They were certainly big enough, but they were basicly just huge rocks with vegetation clinging to the tops and sides. We never did find out what the definition of an island really is. πŸ™‚

In the afternoon some of our group were dropped off at Cat Ba Island to go trekking and stay at a hotel, while we continued to where we’d stay the night, in the boat. We had a beautiful sunset, and Gjerulf had a little swim in the ocean once we stopped. The next morning we also started with a dip, before going kayakking. The islands or rocks or whatever are just as magnificent up close. The formations are beyond description, the way they just rise abruptly out of the water, with their sharp ridges and sheer walls flecked with clinging trees and bushes.

After kayakking we had breakfast, while waiting for a couple of vietnamese girls who’d lost track of time while kayakking. Our guide set out to look for them, but they got back from another direction immediately after he left, so then the whole Junk set out after the guide. πŸ˜› The rest of the trip we spent on the sun deck. Annikken suggested Gjerulf should put on some sun screen. He thought it sounded like a good idea, and then immediately forgot about it. He now sports a fancy sunburn where the shorts and T-shirt didn’t cover him.

Yesterday we were invited to spend the day at a pool in a nice hotel, with Gautier, the Frenchman we met last Saturday. He’s been teaching English here in Hanoi for a year and a half, and has taken Annikken sightseeing on his moped, and shown us nice places to eat and to watch football. Gjerulf was particularly happy about Finnegan’s, the Irish pub where you could get a REAL Irish stew, and where Annikken got to watch footie both Saturday and Sunday nights. πŸ™‚

Today we’ve checked out of our hotel, and we’re taking the bus back south to Hoi An. The plan is to stay where the weather is sunny, and a beach is within reach… πŸ˜‰ The weather forecast says Thursday onwards is going to be rainy again, and we might head further south to look for better weather. Nothing’s for sure, though, we just go where we feel like, when we feel like it.

Hanoi – a city with two faces

Monday, April 13th, 2009

After 16 hours on the bus, we arrived in Hanoi the day before yesterday, at 6.30am. The bus was quite comfortable, and the trip wouldn’t have bothered us, if it hadn’t been for this one young man in the bunk behind Annikken. As he entered the bus we felt an odd aroma in the air, and when he climbed to his bed, we got a foreshadowing of what was to come. This man probably works in a Nuoc mam factory, producing the world famous Vietnamese fish sauce that stinks like rotting fish… He looked clean, but either he hadn’t washed after work, or the smell is impossible to wash out, because the reek was so strong, Annikken at one point thought she’d be sick from it, and actually considered getting off the bus to catch the next one, 24 hours later!

On arrival we spoke to a tour operator, who sent us in a taxi to a hotel he recommended. The problem was just that the taxi driver was so eager to get us in his car, that he didn’t catch which hotel we were going to, and just dropped us off at a random one. We were told we could get a room for 8 dollars, but we’d have to wait a few hours, until 12, to get it. In the mean time we were placed in a bigger room. At 1.30 we still hadn’t been moved to a different room, and when we asked, we were told we couldn’t stay there after all, but they’d fixed us a room in a different hotel, smaller room, lower standard and higher price… We said “forget it”, and walked out on the angry hotel keeper who wanted to charge us for a half day of waiting! After having trotted around half of the Old Quarter, we finally settled for a hotel, after several attempts where the staff more or less plainly tried to scam us. At one backpackers’ hostel they tried to make us pay 20000 dong for a 6000 dong can of 7Up. The first face of Hanoi was one of unfriendly people, constantly trying to rip us off.

In the evening we headed out for Indian food, and a visit to a local pub. We met up with a group of English teachers on their weekly night out, and they took us to their favorite after-hour haunt, where the cocktails were 90% booze and 10% mixers. (Which was why they liked it, appart from the fact that it’s one of the few clubs that pay the police enough money to be able to stay open after midnight) Annikken was especially glad to meet someone with whom she could discuss good wines, a Frenchman of course. An early morning was thus followed by a late night, and sleep came quickly when we finally turned in.

Yesterday we had plans of catching the early morning easter mass in St.Joseph’s Cathedral, but we were unable to get up at 4.30 in the morning to get to the 5am mass. Instead we got up rather late, started the day with a magnificent Pho Bo and Pho Ga, (Rice noodle soup with beef, and with chicken) at a street kitchen in an alley by the cathedral. Annikken’s father had recommended the Museum of Ethnology, and we had a few hours before the next mass, so we took a taxi out there. The Museum of Ethnology gives an introduction to all the major ethnic groups in Vietnam, and show everything in their every day lives, from arts and crafts to rituals and rites. In the garden they have built copies of houses in the architectural archetypes of the various etnicities. Annikken adopted a communal house as her own, with the steepest, tallest thatched roof we’ve ever seen, 19 meters from the ground up! We also saw a Water Puppet show in the museum garden while we were there, and one of the puppets brought out a rose that was given to Annikken. On our way back, the taxi had to break suddenly because of a crossing moped, with the result that another moped crashed into us from the rear. Seeing as an accident like that takes a million people and hours of arguing to settle, we just got out, and hailed another cab. Even though it was a bit of a drive out of the city centre, the visit was definately time and money well spent.

We returned to the Cathedral just in time for mass. The building is reminiscent of Notre Dame from the front, with the two square towers, but the inside is rather different from Western Catholic churches, with banners and decorations in bright colours in evidence everywhere. We stayed for a while into the mass, but the atonal chanting in Vietnamese eventually drove us back out into the bustling city.

This morning we went out to get a sandwich breakfast, which turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than expected, but we found a good place after a long walk. The places serving noodles and other traditional Vietnamese food are numerous, but getting a decent sandwich in the Old Quarter is actually quite difficult! About five hundred years ago, that part of Hanoi was divided into 36 areas, belonging to the different Artisans’ Guilds. Still today many of the streets are devoted to a particular type of merchandise. On the street where we were first dropped off, for example, all the shops were making and selling bamboo ladders, another sells diapers and towels, yet another sells sweets and cakes, but one that caught our attention was the street devoted solely to traditional medicine. Annikken went into a store, pointed at things that looked interesting or curious, and bought a bit of it. The shopkeepers didn’t speak a word of English, but they phoned for help from a shopkeeper nearby, who unfortunately was fluent in French and Vietnamese only, but spoke enough English to explain what the different things were, what ailments they target, and how to use them. So in case any of you need a cure for cancer, just contact Annikken when she gets home in May!

Since we were in the vicinity, we visited the Dong Xuan market, a massive three storey structure that covers an entire city block. The whole thing looks more than anything like a normal mall, but occupied by hordes of hawkers with their piles of goods in a blessed chaos all over the place.

The second face of Hanoi, is one of a relaxed atmosphere, friendly people, beautiful scenery and old traditions. If you ever go to Hanoi, be ready to fend off the people who want to trick you out of your money, but keep an open mind. Everything is not as it might seem!

PS:
As we’re sitting here on a bench after a nice stroll around the Hoan Kiem Lake, (Breiavatnet i Hanoi, for dere Siddiser) we’re sending warm thoughts to all our readers living in colder climates, because today is the first day of summer in Hanoi, and the temperature just keeps rising. (Γ†da-bΓ¦da!)

Hoi An

Friday, April 10th, 2009

The week before we got to Hoi An was spent in Nha Trang. Due to heavy rain, Annikken thought she deserved a day at the SPA where a body scrub, hot stone massage, manicure and pedicure was on the menu. She was pampered and cuddled and returned to Gjerulf a happier more energetic woman. Meanwhile, Gjerulf took a boat trip around the islands outside Nha Trang in the rain… He enjoyed it, but Annikken did the same trip three years ago in beautiful sunshine, and felt it couldn’t be topped.

The week also contained a refreshing trip to Thap Ba hot springs, with mud bath, mineral baths and mineral showers. After having spent a good week in Nha Trang, we took the sleeper bus to Hoi An, of which Gjerulf has heard a lot lately. In 2006 Annikken spent three months studying here, and this visit is a trip down memory lane, and at the same time rediscovering Hoi An. In the first two days here she has shown Gjerulf her favorite Breakfast Noodle Soup place, her favorite dinner restaurant, her favorite bar, her favorite French Bakery, her favorite beach, and her old study centre, where she also had time to go every once in a while… After the first night, in the first hotel we happened to drop in at after a sleepless night on the bus, we also went to see the hotel where she used to stay. Due to Annikken’s old contacts (who still remembered her name!), her charm, and the fact we’re here off season, we’re now staying in a 45 dollar room for 15 dollars, with air con, a balcony, a bath tub, and breakfast included. We met some nice people at her favorite bar, and headed with them out to Cam Nam Island, to a bar called King Kong, where we put our names on the wall, where hundreds of other travellers had done the same.

Hoi An is known for the food, the laid back atmosphere, the Unesco World Heritage listed old town, and last but not least the numerous tailors crowding every street of the city! They are known for their low prices and good workmanship, and we spent the main part of our second day here shopping for clothes. Annikken was getting some dresses and tops made for her and her friend, and Gjerulf was getting a couple of kaftans. In the evening, we headed out to King Kong again, to meet some guys we’d met the night before.

Our third day was spent at the stunningly beautiful beach, where the beach hawkers also recognized Annikken! πŸ™‚ That evening the moon was full, and Hoi An celebrated it’s full moon festival. There were lanterns lit and put on the river, cultural shows on boats and improvised stages around the old town, and even a martial arts show, and we met up with our friends from King Kong bar.

Both of us got quite sunburned on the beach that day, so on our forth day rented a motorbike went to Marble Mountain, an extraordinary piece of geography (or is it geology?) about 20 kilometers from Hoi An, named for the amazing marble extracted from it and the surrounding hills. The steep sides of the hill had steps going up to temples, pagodas, caves and view points, and in the village surrounding it, more than half the shops were stone cutters! On the way there on our rented moped, a vietnamese woman drove up beside us and started chatting. It turned out she lived just next to Marble Mountain, and ran a stone cutting business there with her family. She let us park our moped there for free, and Annikken struck a good deal with her on a marble mortar and pestle when we were done sightseeing. Next to Marble Mountain is China Beach, where we went to “Hoas Place” for dinner. Hoa himself was playing poker with a Canadian and an Australian, and was very drunk, even though it was only 4.30. He kept telling us to take it easy, and gave us lots of hugs when he realized Annikken had been there in 2006… The food was great, especially the spring rolls, but we forgot to sign the guestbook before we left, even though we had planned to find Annikken’s last entry in the back log of over 20 books!

Today we are headed to Hanoi, to renew Gjerulf’s visa. At the airport in Saigon he was given a 15 day visa, instead of the 30 day one he was supposed to get, and we found this out only after it’d run out, so he’s hoping fervently it won’t cost a fortune in fines… Although we had not planned to go to Hanoi quite yet, we’re not all that sad to leave, considering the weather forecast has predicted rain all of next week! We’ll rather come back later and get some sunshine. πŸ™‚