March 2007


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It’s been said (by whom I don’t know) that for travelers Thailand is like kindergarten and India is like grad school. If so Vietnam must be junior high. So why worry about the little things, like finding good places to eat? Here’s a quick list of the great places in Hanoi we recommend travelers check out:

@ Highway 4 – Rice wines get their proper showcase here, with everything from fruity to herbal to floral, and of course the ever-popular snake, scorpion and silkworm selections. And the catfish rolls are phenomenal.

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Marc and Malcolm at Hwy 4

^ Tamarind Café – Lonely Planet has done a lot for this place. Tamarind (they have a sister restaurant in Bangkok) has great breakfasts, and a terrific all-vegetarian menu, but don’t book your tour here – you can do just as well or better for half the price.

# Cha Ca La Vong – It says something about a cuisine that they named a whole street after it. This place serves one dish: fish sautéed in butter with greens. Trust us, it’s all you need. Cha Ca La Vong has been around for 100 years and with this taste they’ll be around 100 more – if the rickety wooden stairs hold up …

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What you get at Cha Ca. It’s what you need

~ Mao’s Red Lounge – Sweet atmosphere, hip clientele. Of course: we went there: must be the Place To Be.

= Red Beer – One of the many new brew pubs in Hanoi, this place has a terrific — you guessed it — red beer and a passable lager, and decent pub food. The atmosphere is very “American brew pub”: the perfect place to go after dinner at Highway 4, which happens to be right next door.

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* Bia Hoi Corner – Bia Hoi means “fresh beer,” and it’s available all over the city. But in the Old Quarter there’s an intersection with Bia Hoi places on all four corners: a famous place, easy to find. Plop yourself down on a lawn chair in the street, hand over 2,000 dong and you’re set. The going exchange rate is 16,000 dong to the dollar: eight glasses of keg beer for a buck: cheaper than water.

+ Whole Earth Restaurant – Best way to break your fast in the Old Quarter, for a pittance. Get the omelet with baguette. Lots of vegetarian options.

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“Why you don’t have baby?” the 10-year-old asked with a sidelong look, surprised that after more than six years of marriage we have no children.

“I do have babies. Just because they’re hairy and a little retarded doesn’t mean I don’t love them.”

Long pause. “We have a dog and a cat.” Silence. Deadpan is dead here, I thought.

The little girl, smart as a tack, a bright little bulb, redoubled her efforts.

“You don’t have babies, who take care of you when you’re old?”

“Hmm.”

“You don’t have baby, who respect you when you’re old?”

“Hmmm. Probably no one. Just like now.”

“You know what I think I think maybe you trouble.”

“I think maybe you right.”

“You selfish.”

“Now I know you’re right.”

Thus ended the exchange. The girl, about 3 feet from the ground foot to head and dressed smartly in the traditional black Hmong tunic with red, white and green beadwork, gave up trying to sell me a bracelet or mouth harp or indigo-stained pillowcase and edged away.

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Our guide in Sapa, Ma Yai, had somewhat less traditional views. She is a 19-year-old Hmong with a very modern outlook on sexual politics. “I have boyfriends,” she said, emphasis on the plural. “But I don’t let them marry me. I don’t want to get married. Then I won’t be able to do what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is continue her thriving business as a guide, at which she makes a few hundred dollars a week, a very comfortable living. That keeps her from having to sell trinkets to tourists. But it doesn’t stop her from flirting all day on her cell phone with boy admirers.

But she refuses, rightly, to settle down. Not just yet.

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Ma Yai

From north to south, from rural villages to urban centers, Vietnam is on the cusp, economically and politically, of becoming a dominant regional power. By some measures it’s already there. With that change naturally comes a reassessment, a readjustment, of social mores.

It was fascinating to see this stage of Vietnam’s development: the brimming modern city of Hanoi, the sweeping mix of culture and history and rapid change – and then run to the hills, where economic and social change has been much slower in coming – but where it has incontrovertibly taken hold.

We hopped an overnight train north out of the capital city, leaving the honking horns behind, and woke up on the Chinese border. Piling into a bus, we climbed the twisting roads for an hour-and-a-half deep into the territory of Vietnam’s indigenous peoples, among them the Hmong and Zay, toward Sapa which in the last ten years has become a tourist destination almost beyond its capacity.

Sapa is an idyllic little town nestled on a steep hillside in the Hoang Lien Mountains facing Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest peak at 3,143 meters. This time of year the peak, and the town, are often shrouded in mist day and night. As it was during our three-day visit. Strange to say but Sapa felt to me like a ski resort town, somewhere in Summit County maybe in the off-season.

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We met up with Ma Yai, from a neighboring village, and explored the area on two daylong treks. We marched down mountainsides into long green valleys of terraced rice paddies, hopped stones past wading water buffalo and children. We crossed rickety bamboo bridges on the backs of xe oms. We were deluged by merchants selling indigo-stained pillowcases and wall hangings until their signature phrase – “You buy from me:” sort of a cross between the interrogative and the declarative – lodged firmly and permanently in our brains.

We traversed a quilt of multitiered terraces interspersed with tin-roofed barns and red-roofed schoolhouses; rivers laced with bamboo thick around as cannon and waxy-leafed green-tea trees; sinuous trails dusty in the dry season; villages in the shadow of looming water towers. We peeked in the windows of bamboo houses on stilts with

satellite dishes poking out of their thatched roofs.

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We spoke with women hauling textiles to market; women hauling water home; women carrying great baskets of sugarcane, children toddling after them, nibbling on the fibrous stalk. Their fingers were permanently stained green and blue from indigo.

The men didn’t speak to us at all.

hmong-2.jpgThe government gives these people nothing, unless it’s grief. And taxes. They have nothing besides tourism, and rice. But tourism is booming. Tourism, the Dao Tuyen, the Flower Hmong, the Nung, Red Hmong, Tay, Thai, Tu Dithe White Hmong and Zay, think and hope is the answer to the poverty they’ve seemingly always known.

Ma Yai thinks so. She’s happy: she has a neverending supply of out-of-shape turistos to drag up and down the aptly named Tourist Mountain. And to tease mercilessly in a sweet beguiling way.

Like when she informed me that if I did two things I could find a Hmong wife: never mind that I already have a non-Hmong wife, and a pretty good one: shave my chin (few Hmong have beards), and substitute rice wine for beer.

“Beer make you fat. Rice wine make you skinny but crazy,” she said. “Americans like beer too much I think.”

“Americans are also very sensitive about their weight I think.”

“Too sensitive I think.” Big smile.

Big smiles all around.

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Spent 3 days in Delhi and now we’re in Agra for the mandatory but no less wonderful Taj Mahal visit. Amazing photos to follow.

Sloth is our only excuse for not finishing off our Tales of Southeast Asia, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming. A post on northern Vietnam, and one last one on Angkor, soon.

We’re in Agra until March 26 (our time) and then move on to Jaipur, then Jaisalmer, deep in the northern desert, as close as we’ll get to Pakistan. From there we return to Delhi before going north to Hardiwar and Rishikesh where we’ll spend 10 days or so. All via train, the best way to see this country.

Delhi was fun. We ate well. We stayed in the thick of things in Paharganj, on the border of Old Delhi and New Delhi. The first day I backed out of an ATM kiosk and nearly walked into an elephant. Gaggles of young women keep gesticulating frantically at Lisa, yelling “Hello! Hello!” — maybe because with her Liz Taylor sunglasses and shawl wrapped over her head she looks like a movie star. Angelina Jolie, maybe, on the hunt for another adoptee. And yes, that makes me Brad Pitt.

We’re getting into The Rhythm. More later once we wrap up all the terrific adventures we had east of here.

We just missed CNN’s Anderson Cooper the other day. We were in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market at the same time. We were shopping, he wasn’t. We later caught his report on animal trafficking in Thailand and Cambodia, a good report. He is a very attractive man.

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We’ve been back in Bangkok for a few days. Not just shopping: preparing for the flight to Delhi, mostly. Also doing our taxes. And getting caught up on the news because for once we have a TV in our room and we’ve been enjoying the glorious moving pictures.

Even though the messages are mostly depressing. In the north, despite a cloud-seeding effort that gave residents their first view of blue sky in two weeks, the Permahaze is back: the government just distributed 600,000 surgical masks for residents and tourists alike. We got out of there just in time.

In Australia the drought worsens — Queensland’s premier says his state is approaching an “Armageddon situation.” They are simply running out of water.

Plane crashes and mudslides and forest fires in Indonesia. More carnage in the Middle East. The Incredible Shrinking Dollar keeps shrinking. Anna Nicole Smith is still dead.

Good news? Ruapehu erupted in New Zealand and no one was hurt, thanks to the Kiwis’ terrific advanced warning system. This is one of two hikes we weren’t able to do last November because of bad weather.

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Now we’re looking ahead. The forecast for Delhi this week: high 80s, low 90s and nothing but sunshine, with a slight chance of intestinal dismay. Further bulletins soon.

In the meantime, we’ll miss Southeast Asia. But we’ll be back.

Strange to talk about Vietnam when we’re about to leave for India. But some tales must be told. Read on.

 

We’ve used the word “crazy” a lot on this blog. Not “crazy” like the people running America’s foreign policy. Not “crazy” like this guy. “Crazy” like weird, strange, hectic, wild: Not quite Hunter Thompson crazy, but almost. Good craziness.

 

But nothing we’d seen prepared us for the craziness of Hanoi.

 

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We came into Hanoi from Laos on New Year’s Day, or Tet, and the town was dead. At least that’s what the locals told us: dead for Hanoi being bustling for just about anywhere else. Every third shop was closed. The big markets of the Old Quarter likewise were deserted.

The best thing going was water puppetry.

 

Still Hanoi had energy, mostly provided by little miscreants throwing loud crackers around day and night. That’ll keep you on your toes. The gunshot-sounds reverberated in our heads long after we left the city limits.

 

And no matter how quiet Hanoi is, there are still thousands of xe oms — motorcycle taxis — and other bikers on the streets, honking merrily away. The honking never ceases.

 

We left shortly after Tet, but still during the week or so afterward when no one does anything, or any more than they have to. The Vietnamese essentially have one vacation annually and this was it. But that doesn’t mean tourism falls off, as we learned in Halong Bay: just that we’re expected to pay higher prices for somewhat more haphazard service.

 

Yes, tourism was and is and always will be booming down in Halong, in the northwest of the Gulf of Tonkin, a name that will ring bells for the history buffs among you. Even in the off-season, when the fog never lifts for more than a couple hours a day — if at all — Halong is a beautiful, haunting place. Surreal. Unreal.

 

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The sense of unreality comes from the karst formations, looming parabolic limestone peaks that jump out of the jade-colored water, hairy with bamboo, streaked by exposed grey and ochre rock. The topography was formed by seawater erosion over many thousands of years but looks like the result of a dramatic, sudden upheaval: knees and elbows of green monolithic karst spring one after another out of the churning water in an awesome random sequence.

 

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As part of our official tour we explored them, though somewhat perfunctorily. Time limitations again. It was enough just to stare at them for a while. After an afternoon of kayaking we were brought to a hidden grotto, a great circular lake accessible only by paddling under an immense low arch of rock. Echoes of birdcalls, but no sign of the monkeys said to inhabit some of these isolated eminences.

 

We spent the first night on the bay, on a “junk” – basically a floating hotel – arranged by the tour company. We were pursued by women in little paddle-boats fore, aft, port and starboard trying to sell us warm beer, cigarettes, vodka, Pringles. Pringles incidentally are the chip of choice throughout SE Asia.

 

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We bought some warm beer.

 

We had an onboard poker tournament late into the night and Lisa came in third, I came in second. Some punk from Sydney (just kidding, Tim) kicked everyone’s butt.

 

Our second night in Halong we spent on Cat Ba, the only human-inhabited island among the 1,900 or so that fill the bay. In Cat Ba’s mangrove wilderness we toured the famous Hospital Cave where wounded Vietcong were treated during the American War, as it’s known. New Zealand’s spelunkers would be aghast at the cavalier attitude tour groups display in these caves: touching is hardly forbidden, almost encouraged. In Waitomo on the North Island we learned a thing or two about the fragility of caves and couldn’t help remembering them now. The caves — and there are many much-visited caves in Halong — seem to be holding up so far.

 

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Streaming stalactites

On our way out of the Hospital Cave Lisa was cooed over by a group of women clam diggers who admired the whiteness of her skin. White skin is a treasured trait in Asia: a profusion of scary whitening products fills the pharmacy shelves.

 

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The women couldn’t get enough of Lisa. Then the rest of our motley crew of a tour group caught up with us. “Wait’ll they get a load of the Norwegians” I said, and I was right: a new and whiter creature had arrived to general amazement and admiration all round. It took some time to extricate ourselves from the encounter.

 

Later that night we all drank too much rice wine and made the owner of the karaoke bar regret posting his hours. Here is me, a nameless Norwegian (honestly forgot their names) and Joss, another Australian, doing a spot-on “Hotel California.”

 

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The Norwegians saved their most passionate backing vocals for Abba tunes. The biggest hit of the night? “Like a Virgin.” Every woman, and not a single man, pitched in.

 

Returning to Hanoi, we found that Tet was finally winding down. With it went any sense of tranquility we might have sought after a quiet few days on the water. Once again we were Traffic Dodgers. There was nowhere to walk: the sidewalks were covered in parked motorcycles and street vendors, and every inch of street was fair game. A free-for-all.

 

All the shops were now open, brightly lit and manned by aggressive hawkers. There were no more urchins tossing firecrackers, but the circus kept on rollin’. The horns of the xe oms seemed increased by an order of magnitude.

 

Crazy. And not bad crazy – hectic, eclectic, wild fun crazy. Unforgettable crazy.

 

We had little time to enjoy the change: we soon hopped a train north, to Sapa, a former French hill station in the mountains near the Chinese border.

On getting to Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat: http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976932438

Wings fan in Pai
Some dude, Pai

http://www.sportsline.com/nhl/gamecenter/recap/NHL_20070314_NSH@DET 

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