Hello, Autumn!

I’m loving these blue skies and chilly mornings lately. It’s my favorite time of year.

I made a quick-and I do mean quick-visa run last weekend. Twenty-four hours in Busan, perfect for doing all my favorite relaxing things. I love exploring new places, but sometimes it’s nice to go see old friends:

This past week has been completely draining. Kevin, who’s three and really too young to be in our school, has made it his mission to destroy me I’m pretty sure. Every day, all day, temper tantrums, screaming, hitting, running around ripping everything off the walls. He nearly tore my hair out when I tried to stop him from hitting Siri with a chair one day. I feel so bad for the other kids because they’re being so good (most of the time) and they’re really patient with him. Sometimes he’ll be fine for an hour or two and we can actually get something done though. We’re learning about other cultures and since this month is Latin America we learned to salsa dance. They were so adorable! I don’t salsa dance myself; I just pulled up a how-to on YouTube and we tried to follow along. We’re not very good, but we had fun!

We’re also preparing for Halloween this week, so we had to “carve” some jack-o-lanterns. I love how individual they are:

paper cut jack-o-lanterns on door

This weekend Jess and I planned to go up to Fragrant Hills-the mountains on the outskirt of Beijing. This weekend and next are the best time to see the fall leaves. But traffic got horrific as we got closer to the park entrance and we had the cab driver drop us off so we could walk. Even then the street was gridlocked with people walking and tourist buses. So we detoured to the entrance of the Beijing Botanical Gardens instead, which turned out to be a good idea. It was way less crowded than Fragrant Hills would have been. I heard later it sold out about the time we would have arrived anyway. But the botanical gardens were amazing. There’s a huge conservatory in the middle but we skipped it and just enjoyed being outside. It was the perfect fall day. So. Many. COLORS! We had fun running around taking pictures for a few hours.

Beware the Eyes

Tianjin and Binhai

I’ve got a lot of things left to cross off my Beijing bucket list before I leave China. I know I’ll be back to travel more at some point but I don’t know when. So I’ve just been trying to do as many new things as possible before I go.

Recently Jess and I tried this new whisky bar near our house. I’ve never actually tried drinking whisky or really straight alcohol at all but it wasn’t bad. Mostly we just enjoyed the atmosphere-it’s super quiet and relaxing. The bartender let us smell a bunch of different bottles and made recommendations for us to try.

Last week, my friend Carol got tickets to an NHL game. I’ve never watched hockey in my life so when she asked me to go I was all “Sure, why not?”. Carol’s Chinese but her new husband is Canadian and now she’s on a mission to learn how to be Canadian 🙂 Neither one of us knew anything about the game but since it was Calgary vs. Boston we decided she’d cheer for Canada and I would cheer for USA (who won, btw!). Mostly we just had fun people watching. The goal of playing in China was to get Chinese audiences interested in the game before the next Olympics come to Beijing, so the organizers made a point of explaining the rules first since a lot of the viewers were new to the game. Every time there was a goal or a penalty they would post an explanation of what was going on up on the screen, which was really helpful to us. All sporting events should do this-I might be able to follow them!

Then this weekend Jess and I took our apple booth money and went to Tianjin. Tianjin is not far from Beijing-only about half and hour by high-speed train. Actually it took longer to get to and from the train stations than to take the actual train. Tianjin is a major city in its own right though; established in the 15th century, it’s the fourth-largest city in China with 13 million people. It just sort of sprawls along the Hai River to the coast, running into the newer city of Binhai. The library we wanted to see is actually in Binhai but we enjoyed exploring both cities. We found this cute park close to our hotel. There’s actually a lake in the middle but you can’t see any water because it’s completely covered with lotuses-thick enough to walk on.

The cities seem distinctly different despite being so close together. A lot of the buildings in Tianjin and Binhai are more European than the traditional Chinese style of Beijing. In some ways they feel more modern. The people, not so much. We get stared at all the time in Beijing and have more or less become accustomed to it, annoying as it is. Beijing has thousands of foreigners though so we’re not really such a strange sight. Tianjin, though, was awful. People would stop and gawk at us constantly, old people, children, one girl, about seven, walked up to our table in the coffee shop and stood about six inches away, just staring. I wanted to leave my backpack in a locker instead of carrying it around the library. The lockers were automated; you scan a code with your WeChat (WeChat is basically the only app in China), pay with your phone, and the locker opens. The app was entirely in Chinese but not that difficult to figure out, just took a few minutes. The whole time we’re standing there trying to use the app, this family gathers around us and starts staring. When the locker finally popped open they all gasp and start oohing and aahing like they were watching some kind of performance. It’s enough to make me want to scream sometimes.

The library was spectacular though. It’s known for the giant atrium with a sculpted sphere in the center, surrounded by stairs lined with books. Well, pictures of books-the atrium wasn’t approved by officials to house actual books. But surrounding the atrium is a five story library that houses 1.2 million books and people can bring them down to read on the steps. There are also several quiet study rooms.


The Tianjin-Binhai Library is well worth the trip just to ogle at the architecture and people-watch.


This Binhai skyscraper in progress looks like a rocket!

The ancient Culture Street in the center of Tianjin was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours. To be honest, the street food may have been the biggest draw. Tianjin is home to my favorite street food-jingbing, an eggy crepe folded around a crispy wonton with spices and sauce.


After strolling around the culture street, we found the Tianjin Eye, a giant ferris wheel built atop one of the many bridges crisscrossing the river. It towers above everything around it and takes about half an hour to make a rotation. We were up higher than the apartment buildings surrounding us!


After dinner, we came back to take in the sunset views and see the riverfront all lit up at night.

Jess had read up on the nightlife and found that the Astor Hotel had a speakeasy type bar, called O’Hara’s, with drinks and jazz. It’s really tucked away so you have to ask away and the front desk clerk led us to a back hallway and showed us in. Their drinks were great and the atmosphere is cozy. We were too exhausted to stay and wait for the music to start but I want to go back, hopefully next month.

All in all, I’m mad I haven’t made time to go to Tianjin before now! It’s so close and such a nice change to be out of Beijing.

Will cook for train fare…

Last Friday night Jess’s school hosted a night fair; parents and staff could set up booths in the classrooms and parents and kids came to buy their homemade foods and crafts. Jess signed us up for an apple-themed booth and she made a bunch of applesauce and I made some individual apple pies and cheddar-apple muffins, and we went into business! We didn’t make a lot of money but we covered our costs and used the rest to book round-trip train tickets to Tianjin and hotel costs. We’re thinking about taking the show on the road and opening up a street-food cart to fund our travels (joking, joking). So keep an eye out for trip photos in a couple weeks!

Also just a few photos from our nursery rhyme lesson this week. We’re learning Humpty Dumpty so I decorated an egg-which I was quite proud of-then we incorporated some science and wrapped him up in tissues and marshmallows and balloons and threw him off the third floor balcony to see if he would break. In a surprising twist to the original story, he survived!

 

 

That time we got eaten by a dragon…

So Jess and I combined our birthday celebrations into one really fun weekend (our birthdays are two weeks apart). We kicked it off Friday night with some drinks on the outside patio at Blue Frog, one of our favorite restaurants, got massages, dinner at a tiny Japanese place where they wrap up your vegetables in bacon (really the only way veggies should be eaten) and booked a day trip to LongQingXia.

LongQingXia, or LongQing Gorge, is a couple hours’ bus ride out of the city center. It’s a man-made lake in the valley of the surrounding mountains. Beijing has been really hot, but the mountains were nice and cool; it actually felt like fall. The entrance opens into a little park where we wondered around and took pictures:

The path led us to a waterfall created by the dam above us. To the right, a massive dragon clung to the mountainside. It’s one of the things Longqing is known for-the dragon’s body conceals a series of escalators going up to the lake. It’s a pretty cool sight. To get up to the top of the dam we literally walked into the dragon’s mouth:

From the dock at the top of the stairs we took a boat further down the lake to a large park and wandered around for a while

Jess handed me her camera to get a picture, then happened to look up and notice the spiders above her:

After lunch, the ferry took us back to the main dock, where you can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain.

Once the cable cars brought us back to the top of the dam, we went down the slideway. They had toboggans that go down this zig-zag path to the park entrance area. We rode the flying swings amusement park ride, snacked, took the bus back to Beijing, then decided we’d done enough walking to justify dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. All in all, it was a great birthday weekend!

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.

 

HaLong Bay

I don’t have much to say, but I have a ton of pictures. Halong Bay has been on my travel list for years so I had to see it this trip. It was my one splurge-I booked an overnight cruise from Hanoi. They pick everyone up in a van, then it’s about a four-hour drive to Halong Bay. It rained off and on during the drive but the views were beautiful. All along the highway were fields and fields of rice, with farmers wading through them picking the plants, some still using oxen, others with tractors that had sort of metal or wood frame wheels to roll through the mud.

We got on our boat around noon and checked in to our cabins. There were 15 people total: 5 guys from India who kept mostly to themselves, a family of 4 from Australia, a father and daughter from Russia, and another dad from Belgium with his teenage son and daughter. It was an interesting group, and a fairly small boat; we saw others much larger. The main area of the bay was super crowded; the tender boats could barely find a place to dock to pick everyone up. But once we got on the boat we headed to Bai Tu Long Bay-part of the Halong Bay heritage area, but less crowded. It was raining most of the first day but the water was pretty calm; all the little islands seem to break up any waves. I liked seeing them in the rain, actually, it was misty and looked so mysterious.

The cliffs rise straight out of the sea, with no natural beaches I could see, but one of the larger islands had a man-made beach built for the tours to dock. From there, we could climb up to a large cave in the side of the rock and explore.

In the evening, we anchored to have dinner and spend the night. The food was delicious; every kind of seafood in the area-shrimp cocktail, squid, stuffed crabs, oysters, steamed fish, lots of vegetables, rice, and pumpkin soup, which seams to be popular here. They also had a cooking demonstration where everyone got to make some traditional spring rolls. After dinner, we had the opportunity to try squid fishing. Fortunately no one caught anything. It rained more overnight but the bay still stayed pretty calm and the cabins were really comfortable so I slept well.

The view of the bay at twilight was stunning!

The next morning we left bright and early and arrived at this little floating fishing village just after breakfast. The houses were built on pontoon-type platforms and linked by docks. Some were houseboats. I was surprised to see how many people had dogs or cats with them, just floating along. The cruise companies had arranged for some of the local fishermen to row tourists around the islands in rowboats to see the village and cliffs, so we anchored there and got into smaller boats. It was a beautiful morning to be out: finally got a bit of sun!

It was a bit sad to see though. Our guide was telling us how these fishermen had lived in their floating villages for generations, even had floating schools for the children. It was the only way of life they knew. But when the bay was declared a world heritage site the government wanted to clean up the bay and relocated them to the mainland. Many couldn’t read or write and couldn’t find jobs.  They still come back to fish and the government employs some to clean up trash on the bay and has subsidized other employment, like the pearl farm we visited. Still, this trip has illustrated a lot of the problems caused by overtourism. I have read several articles lately about this problem that is affecting different places around the world, but in Vietnam I have seen it first hand. Hoi An, where I am now, is overrun with tourists, and it’s clear that the lives of the local people have been changed, even in the past few years.

I arrived back in Hanoi by the late afternoon and had a bit of time for some shopping and sightseeing in the evening. The lake at night is even more beautiful:

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My flight the next day was scheduled at 6pm (and ended up being delayed until 8pm) so I had the morning and early afternoon to explore. I took one of the hop-on-hop-off tours buses to see as much as possible; this one let you choose the duration, which was nice, since they had a 4-hour option and I had 4 hours left in Hanoi. It rained a lot of the time but I still sat outside on the top deck with my umbrella. (I thought I was the only crazy one, till we drove past West Lake and I noticed people still swimming in the rain!) It was a good way to see some of the city outside the old quarter.

Clockwise: Hanoi Opera House, Flag Tower, Temple of Literature, West Lake Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

 

Hello Hanoi!

So far I have had spectacular luck dodging the weather this trip (knock on wood). I was a bit nervous yesterday when I got to BCIA and saw this:sdrFlights were being cancelled and delayed all around me. It had been raining most of the day in Beijing and there were thunderstorms in Guangzhou where I had a layover. But by some miracle my plane actually left on time and landed in Guangzhou early. I was exhausted and dazed at that point and sort of stumbled through immigration and found a coffee shop to sit and zone out in until my next flight. We were a bit late taking off but not too bad, and from the plane I could see the thunderstorms out the window. It was surreal. It was pitch black outside, but when lightning lit up the sky I could see black clouds below us, and here and there patches of city lights shone through, but we were above the rain. In the distance, the lightening danced on the horizon and lit up the mountains, bright as daylight. I wish I could paint things the way I see them; some things can’t be put into words.

It wasn’t raining when I landed in Hanoi and I breezed through immigration with no waiting, no lines (it was after midnight), got a cab immediately and went straight to my hotel, although it was quite a drive from the airport. The guy checking me in was really nice and it’s a small hotel so there was not much of a check in process. He photocopied my passport, gave me a key, and I believe I was asleep within an hour of the time I landed at the airport. My room is so cute:

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It was pouring rain when I woke up and ate breakfast, stopped just before I went out to explore, and started raining again just after I came inside to rest this afternoon. I grabbed my umbrella when I went out later to get dinner, but there wasn’t a single drop. I came back to my room, and now it’s raining again. I actually don’t mind getting rained on, but this is nice too!

I’m staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and my hotel is about a 2 minute walk from Hoem Kiem lake, which is lovely. I walked all around it and explored a bunch of streets and shops.

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oznor

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My favorite place was The Note. It’s a three-story coffee shop, and every inch of it, walls, chairs, tables, windows, the air conditioner, even the ceiling, is covered in notes people have left from all over the world. I got some iced Vietnamese coffee (coffee mixed with with sweetened condensed milk), and took it upstairs to enjoy the view of the lake and write my notes. I wandered around a bit reading notes other people have left too, about everything: life, travel, love, secrets, jokes, thank-yous, happy birthdays, apologies. All the notes have little square notes that you can peel the back off when you’re down and stick anywhere you want. The employees were wonderful as well, incredibly friendly. The manager was going to all the tables to chat and encourage people to write anything, asking where they came from. Everyone in there was all smiles.

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Tomorrow it is off to Ha Long Bay, hopefully. Today’s tours were cancelled due to the weather on the bay, but maybe my luck will hold…

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