Hoi An

I was up bright and early Sunday to go explore Hoi An. Hoi An was once a busy trading port on the Thu Bon River and the river is still a big draw, with various tour boats and fishing boats everywhere. Tons of shops line both sides of the walk along the river and the whole place has such a cute, small-town feel; it was easy to walk everywhere. One of the things the city is known for is the tailor shops. There are more than 400 and they can make practically a whole new wardrobe overnight. One of my first stops Sunday morning was to Bebe’s, one of the best-known tailor shops. It was even more fun than shopping. You can look at pictures from their catalog or anywhere you find them, like Pinterest, and they’ll sketch out the items you like and make any changes you want, then you can pick from hundreds of fabrics. It’s relatively inexpensive but I never have money when I travel, so I only got one dress, but it was custom-made from Hoi An silk and still less than I would have spent walking into a shop at home and buying something similar. They had it finished 24 hours later so I could come back and try it on and the seamstress could make any adjustments. She finished the hem and it was ready to pick up Tuesday morning. I wish I could do all my shopping there! Afterwards, I just spent some time walking around the old town.

Monday morning I booked a tour/cooking class where we visited a local market, then took a boat downriver to Cam Thanh water coconut village. It’s a small fishing village at the edge of Hoi An. During wartime, soldiers and locals would hide here, but now they hive a thriving eco-tour business. From the large riverboat, we transferred to traditional woven basket boats, which were fun to float around in. Each boat had a local guide to row us around and show us how to weave grass, catch crabs and fish. I was in a boat boat with a girl named Haley from the U.K., and our guide was a sweet lady who must have been about 80. She spoke only a few words of English but would talk to us in Vietnamese and gestures, smiling the whole way. Her husband was in the boat rowing a couple ahead of us, and their son had his own boat as well.

After floating around for an hour or so, we were rowed over to a big open-air kitchen to prepare lunch. I liked the cooking class a lot. Sometimes, they are too touristy, more like demonstrations, but this one was really hands-on and the instructors knew a lot about the ingredient and could explain the technique. Hoi An is also known for its cuisine so it seemed like every restaurant in town offers cooking classes, but I would definitely recommend this one, especially since it includes the coconut boat tour.

When I got back, I rested up at my Airbnb and did some homework, then went out to see Hoi An at night, which was both wonderful and frustrating. The city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 to try to protect its culture, but it appears to have done the opposite. The streets are busy enough during the day, and just about everything in the old town area is now a shop or restaurant, which is bad enough, but at night the area is just flooded with tourists. It’s sad to see. I still enjoyed seeing all the lanterns and the small boats going out on the river, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more 10 years ago.

That said, the view on the river is amazing. I tried to narrow down my photos but it was hard! I got there just before sunset and stood on the bridge (with about 400 other people) to watch it go down.

Evidence of environmentalism was everywhere. Recycling bins, recycled planters, like the ones below, were really common, restaurants and vendors are cutting back on disposable items. The place where I got a breakfast smoothie one day had hollow wooden straws instead of plastic. All the fishermen and tour guides had nets in their boats to nab any bits of floating trash they came across in the river or sea.

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One question I’ve gotten more than once is how people act toward Americans, or were there still any signs of war. It seems that’s all Americans really know about Vietnam. It’s impossible to answer definitively; I only visited four cities and I certainly didn’t talk to every person in the country. I can only tell you what I saw and heard from others. I’m sure there are still people who hate us; I would, frankly. But I didn’t feel that at all. What I’ve read, what I had been told by other people I know who have been to Vietnam, is that Vietnamese people love Americans. I don’t know if I’d go so far, but I certainly found them all friendly and welcoming. (Of course, Vietnam now has a thriving tourism industry with Americans pouring money into it.) This article has a much more detailed perspective if anyone is interested. In general, they view us as just one more invader they conquered, the way they did China, Japan, France, and others. Others appreciate that we tried to help. There are likely as many opinions as there are Vietnamese people. Another factor is that many revere Ho Chi Minh, and took his words to heart when he told them to blame governments, not people, for their trouble. (Something we could all learn from right now.)

My hotel posted this list of facts about Vietnam I found interesting.

You don’t have to look far, though, to see that America has had a big impact on this small country. What we call the Vietnam War, they call the American War. On a tour of Hanoi, driving down the shaded road between Trúc Bạch Lake and the West Lake, the guide was sure to detail the account of John McCain crashing down in Trúc Bạch Lake and point out the small memorial of the event there. We went by Hoa Lo prison where the POWs were held. In souvenir shops there are t-shirts like this:

I found a vintage poster shop with replicas of propaganda ads from different eras. I just bought a few, but there were dozens and dozens featuring America, American soldiers, American presidents.

Everywhere I went, people would quote prices to me in USD. I find this completely useless since I now think in RMB, and I don’t even really do that when I travel. I exchange my cash, since my Chinese debit card doesn’t work outside China. I take the amount I have, divide it by how many days I’m staying in any given country, and that’s my daily allowance. I had roughly 1 million VND per day (about USD $44-a lot, compared to my usual budget; I probably could have gotten by with half) to spend. So shopkeepers waving me over to buy things, “Very cheap, only 5 US dollars”, meant nothing to me. I had to keep asking people to tell me the price in VND, which confused them. They assume all Americans must have money and simply didn’t believe me when I told them I couldn’t afford things. “Beautiful necklace, 20 dollars”. To most tourists, that’s nothing. To many Asians, and me, $20 is a lot of money. It doesn’t sound like it, but when I convert it to VND or RMB, my first thought was usually, “Are you crazy? I’m not paying that!” Most of my hotel rooms didn’t even cost $20 a night, and they were nice rooms! I suppose this pricing is helpful to most American tourists, but I didn’t encounter many of those; most were from Europe, China, New Zealand, or Australia. Still, it shows how pervasive our currency is, and our language. Nearly every person I encountered spoke English.

Street food is super cheap. Madam Khanh’s is one of the most popular Banh Mi vendors in Hoi An-every time I went by there was a line of people starting two doors down. I had to try it at least once. An eight-inch baguette stuffed with pate, grilled meat, and vegetables-extremely filling-set me back roughly eighty-five cents. It doesn’t get any better.

After 3 days in Hoi An, I left to spend a night in DaNang. Hoi An is so small it has no airport or train station, so you have to fly in to nearby DaNang, the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, and from there it’s nearly an hour’s drive to Hoi An. (However, even in a private car, the trip was only about $11.) I had a 6 am flight back to Hanoi Wednesday morning, so I thought it would be more relaxing to go back to DaNang around noon on Tuesday and spend the night there, instead of trying to get back from Hoi An so early Wednesday morning. It worked out well. My hotel was only a ten-minute drive from the DaNang airport and I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk to the beach. I got some lunch at a seafood restaurant (incidentally, this is the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten sick of seafood-I think I ate it for every meal in some form) and then spent a couple hours walking up and down. I covered every inch of me I could reach in sunscreen, rubbing it in to my skin, then added another layer on top so I looked like a mime. I added a hat, some sunglasses, and still got burned. Not as bad as I usually do though. The sand was actually sparkling with some sort of gold mineral mixed with black, and there were tide pools everywhere, some up to my knees, and light was reflecting everywhere. It was a beautiful day, and the beach was relatively quiet. I’m sure it’s more crowded on the weekend, and in a few more years it will be unbearable touristy, as seems to be the trend in Asia currently. For now though, it’s perfect.

I had one more night in Hanoi before flying back to Beijing Thursday. I spent most of the afternoon wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake again, enjoying the sights. I found a rooftop cafe overlooking the lake and the busy central square and was kind of mesmerized by the flow of traffic. Everybody just keeps moving at their same pace, dancing around each other. There are so many motorbikes! The government taxes cars between 100% and 200% person, so most people use bikes. I have seen a mom and grandma with four kids on a bike, two guys carrying a 6’x4′ framed mirror on a bike while going down the highway around 55mph, fruit vendors with baskets and bundles piled up on the seat behind them. I’m constantly amazed by the innovations people come up with.

 

May 2, 2018

Hi all! Yes, it’s me, I’m alive. I just haven’t been able to blog for the past couple of months because I had to um, get this kitten out of a tree, and then I, uh, fell and broke both my arms, had to spend weeks in the hospital, until it got hit by an earthquake, so I ran, jumped off a cliff and got kidnapped by pirates. Or maybe I’m just insanely busy with work…yeah, that might be it. I’m actually drowning in projects at the moment. I’m going to finish this last year of school if it kills me, but, you know, it very well might. And don’t even get me started on students. They get worse by the day, and unlike last year’s class, I just don’t like most of these kids. I have a couple that I will really miss but otherwise June 30th can not get here fast enough.

I don’t have anything huge to report at the moment. I think I have finally decided to stay in Beijing one more year. I think. But ONLY one more year. Seriously, if I’m not out of China by July 31st 2019, get a rescue team together and come get me. I’m actually kind of tired of Beijing at the moment; I feel like there’s nothing new to see or do here. I still want to see other places in China and Asia though, and save up some money, so I’m going to try to survive one more year.

Last weekend we had a 4-day holiday for Chinese Labor Day, so I went to Busan for a few days. On the one hand, I’ve already been there twice and I felt like I should go explore somewhere new, but on the other-I just love this city. It’s my happy place-so peaceful and pretty and friendly, plus I really just wanted to hang out on the beach and do nothing for a change. Besides, it’s nice to go someplace a little familiar. I got in late since I left after work Friday, and I didn’t have to worry about figuring out how to navigate a new city. I just went straight to the subway and used the change I saved from my last trip to buy a ticket. I already know all the streets around the Haeundae Beach area, and it was really easy to walk around.

The weather was perfect-warm and sunny, with a nice cool breeze. The water was chilly but not too cold to walk around barefoot in the surf. On Saturday, I spent several hours working on homework in the morning, then went out, had some excellent seafood, read my book, wrote in my journal, and sat on the beach for a while people-watching. It was actually pretty busy for being so early in the season. There was a little boy, probably not even 2 yet, a few yards down, who would toddle up to the waves, just inching closer and closer, but as soon as the water touched his toes, he would run back up the beach screaming “Mama!” He must have done it six or seven times. An older girl, probably 5 or 6, was fascinated by the pigeons pecking around in the sand. She would run up to one group and they would take off, so she’d run over to another group and they’d take off flying and she would just crack up laughing. She did this all up and down the beach until she scared one flock off birds into flying straight at a group of teenage girls taking selfies by the water and her mom dragged her off. (She did them a favor, really, they looked like idiots.) Another woman next to me spread out her towel, sat down, and pulled out a book. Oh, hey, another reader, nice to see people still do that. Nope. She next pulled out her phone and proceeded to take pictures of the book open on her lap. Then, apparently afraid that wouldn’t be convincing enough, she brought out a selfie stick so she could get a picture of her face looking down at the book. She sat there posing for 30 minutes and the only time she actually looked at the book was when she clicked the shutter. This is really getting out of hand, people. Can we not even spend a half hour on the beach without phones?

Sunday, I also spent several hours doing homework in the morning, then finally got out in the mid-afternoon to explore Dongbaek Island, which, interestingly, is not an island. It was once upon a time but now buildup of sand and silt from streams have connected it to the mainland. You can take the subway to Dongbaek, near the Westin, and then there’s a beautiful walking path that goes all around the perimeter of the island and turns into a boardwalk on the far side with steps going down to the rocky shore. From there you can keep walking and end up back on Haeundae Beach, where I did some more beach-sitting and people-watching before strolling down the seafood street for dinner. Most of the places on this street have a set menu. You just pick what kind of fish you want and they’ll pull it out of a tank out front and bring it with all the accompaniments.

Lastly, I’ll just leave you with a fun fact I learned over the weekend. So the Airbnb I stayed at this time was an older, local building. Saturday morning I woke up to some guy’s voice-but it was inside the apartment. I was super groggy since I hadn’t gotten in till 1am the night before, and it took a minute to realize the voice was coming from the ceiling, but I couldn’t figure out how, or what it was saying because the only word of Korean I understood was gamsahamnida (thank you). Then I saw that there was a metal square intercom up above the bed. By the time I was fully awake it had stopped and nothing seemed to be happening so I was just like, that’s weird (and creepy) but I was too tired to care. Then it came on again later that night and I was like “What the hell is this?”! So I started googling “voice in ceiling of Korean apartments”. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s had this problem. I stumbled onto a couple of really funny blogs that explained it. All old apartments have these public-service warning systems, that have now evolved to include notices from building managers (like stop playing music late at night, don’t park there), and even advertisements in some areas. Did I mention it’s super-creepy? If I lived in one I’d have to take a page out of this lady’s book and kill the voices.

Malaysia Rocks!

Malaysia was incredible-Jess and I are already planning a return trip in October! This weekend we had a four-day break for the Chinese QingMing holiday so we took off after work Friday. The flight to Kuala Lumpur was a struggle since we left at 2am. But we landed and were out of the airport before 10:oo so we had time to explore the city before our next flight. We caught the express train to the center of the city. It went straight to the Petronas Twin Towers. Then we walked all over the center of the city and saw some of the old town and the Central Market.

Then we went back to the airport for our evening flight to Langkawi Island where we were going to stay-only to find out we were at the wrong airport. Apparently there are two-oops! So we got a cab to the other side of the city. Fortunately, Subang was a much smaller airport than KUL so we had plenty of time. The flight to Langkawi was only a little over an hour, and the resort we stayed at-The Daun-was only about 10 minutes or so from the airport.

There were so many things to do on Langkawi but we were kind of limited for money and time, and some things had to be booked in advance. So we have a full itinerary lined up for next time we visit. But for Saturday we still got to go on a boat tour of the mangrove forests and see some wildlife. We went with Dev’s Adventure Tours and our guide, Khirien, was excellent. Highly recommend both to anyone visiting the area-they do other tours too. Next time, I want to go kayaking. Khirien was knowledgable, funny, and very eco-conscious, which was great. We went first to see the bat caves, then spotted some local wildlife-water monitors, venemous pit vipers, that sort of thing. Sadly we missed seeing one of the deadly cobras known to haunt the island. Maybe next time.

One area in particular was home to numerous eagles. A lot of the tour companies feed them but ours did not, which I prefer. Khirien told us that for years the tour operators fed the eagles kilo after kilo of chicken skin to attract them to the boats. It affected their diets drastically; the birds hunted less, didn’t get enough calcium, and their eggs were too fragile to survive. With fewer birds, the snake population went up. Fortunately, officials have taken some steps recently to curtail the amount and frequency of the feedings and things have improved. But it’s frustrating to see what happens when we interfere with nature.

After the tour we went back to the resort to change and head out to the beach. It was starting to drizzle a bit and Aizat offered to drive us into town, although it’s just a short walk. We found chairs and an umbrella and sat and drank mojitos in the rain for a bit. Then I figured I was already wet so I might as well swim in the rain. The water was perfect and I had fun splashing around; Jess opted to go parasailing instead once the sky cleared up. It’s rainy season now, but the rain is sporadic and we got pretty lucky overall, with quite a bit of sun between showers.

This was the first predominately Muslim country I’ve been to and I have to say it was unusual to see women wading and and swimming in headscarves and long sleeves and pants. But after my inevitable sunburn, I have to say I was tempted to do the same! And people were really nice everywhere, in both Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, very friendly and helpful.

I really can’t say enough good things about the resort we stayed at. We found it on Airbnb and thought it was odd that there were no reviews but the price and location were great so we took a chance and it turned out to be wonderful. The Daun had only officially been open a week and we were the only ones there for the duration of our stay. The staff, especially the manager Aizat, were friendly and accommodating. Aizat sat and chatted with us over breakfast, gave us advice about different places and activities, called to book our tour, and drove us around when he was available. If anyone’s looking for a place to stay on Langkawi I would definitely suggest this one! (On Airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/17964652).

Before we left for Kuala Lumpur the next day we decided to rent mopeds and drive around the island. Turns out it’s easier said than done if you’ve never ridden one before. Or if you’ve never driven on the wrong (left) side of the road. Aizat drove us into town, arranged the rentals, and gave us a crash course on how to use them. Jess chickened out a bit and didn’t want to ride on the street so he drove her back to the resort in a big loop and I followed. It was so much fun! When we got back to the resort we took turns riding around and practicing on some back roads. Aizat went with us in his car until we got the hang of it and showed us a little fishing port.

Nobody fell off or hit a tree so I’d call the day a success. It’s possible I was driving on the wrong wrong side of the road-i.e. the right side-at one point but the road was deserted and no one saw so it doesn’t count.

Aizat took us into the airport, which is tiny; we got there less than an hour before our flight left for KL and made it with no problems. Jess got some great shots of the islands from the plane:

For National Holiday in October, we’re planning to save up some more money, go back, and try the things we missed-ziplining, jet ski tour of the islands (Langkawi actually consists of 99 islands, 104 at low tide), snorkeling/scuba diving. We’re going to stay at The Daun again to see how it progresses. They will be adding a restaurant and a pool by the end of summer, if everything goes as planned. Can’t wait!

Spain, Day 2: Barcelona

I’m exhausted, so this is going to be super short, but I wanted to put up pictures from today. I took the Barcelona City Bus tour (yes the cheesy red double-decker bus kind; I don’t care, I love them). I made Mt Tibidabo my first stop and took the tram up the mountain. The top was closed today so we only got to go about halfway up but the view was still spectacular. There are amazing mansions built into the side of the hills, originally for the bourgeoise who wanted to live outside of Barcelona city. It was an exclusive area, and the residents would access it by tram, which still runs today for the tourists. I ended up walking back down just to get a better view of all the houses-there was some stunning architecture and design. Some appeared to still be residential, but many have been converted to businesses.

After that I rode the bus for a while until we got to the beach at La Barceloneta, where some of the best restaurants, and seafood, in the city are. So I got off for lunch at Restaurante Salamanca, which is right on the beach. Definitely go here if you’re in the area. The service was great. They bring out appetizers of sausage or serrano ham with tomato bread as soon as you sit down. The tomato bread is a typical Catalunian staple-crunchy fresh bread drizzled with olive oil and tomato sauce. I ordered some garlic prawns as well and they came out sizzling in a skillet full of butter. Delicious!

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After that, I got a little lost. Instead of getting back on the bus I thought I’d walk down the beach and catch it at a later stop. But the walk was a lot further than the map showed, and also, it’s not one beach but several laid out one after the other, plus the Olympic port. And when I finally got to the bus sign it turned out that all the beach stops except for la Barceloneta were closed for the winter and the bus took an alternate route, which was not very clear in the guidebook. And I did not feel like walking back to Barceloneta! So I went a few blocks away from the beach and found a metro station, took the subway to Placa Catalunya, and got back on the bus there. I mostly just rode since I’d already seen some of the areas, and then we went up Montserrat, the other mountain in Barcelona. The views were amazing, and I want to go back and spend a day at the art museum; it looks like a palace!

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Then on the way back we passed the Arc de Triomph:

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And now I desperately need sleep! Tomorrow, La Sagrada Familia!

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