Thursday, May 29, 2008

Friends and Fun

Last weekend, The Fab Miss B and her husband came to Hong Kong and spent the weekend with us. They were our first overnight guests, and it was nice to have visitors. Issues were encountered trying to find each other, since Erik and I were late due to horrible traffic. Also, I should have given more explicit directions. I tried to make it simple, but Miss B and DH were way too travel savvy for my simplistic directions. After a relieved hug and a few laughs, we were off on a fun weekend.

We walked around the flower market and bird market in the afternoon. Then we headed back to apartment to freshen up for dinner which was a lovely Italian meal. After dinner, we went to the movies to see the new Indiana Jones movie. The movie was a bit disappointing, but the HK movie experience was cool. The theater in the mall near our apartment is brand new and has all the bells and whistles. In Hong Kong, all of the movie tickets are advanced purchase and you have assigned seats--great concept. You can walk into the theater at the last minute and know your set is guaranteed. I booked the tickets on-line--so simple.

On Sunday, we went to the Big Buddha. It has been three years since I was there on my first trip to Hong Kong. It was very foggy, but it added a cool atmosphere and temperature to the experience. We enjoyed the vegetarian lunch at the monastery. Later we walked around Tsim Sha Tsui a bit and then bid farewell. It is amazing when you can spend a weekend with people you have only met once before, but never run out of great conversation.

I hope to see Miss B one more time, in early June, before she and DH move, however I have a feeling it will not be the last time we see each other.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Twelve Years Already?

On May 11, we celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. It is hard to believe we've been married so long and have known each other for fifteen years. It has been a great ride! To commemorate the occasion, we went to Macau and stayed in the Venetian. Macau is an island off of Hong Kong where gambling is legal, thus, it is known as the Las Vegas of the east. The Venetian hotel and casino is just like the one in Las Vegas only newer and bigger. It is supposed to be the second largest building in the world. The room was decadent and bigger than most Hong Kong residents’ apartments. It was an enjoyable anniversary.

Macau was formerly under Portuguese rule, and there are some remnants of the culture. Since the weather was bad, and we were still recovering from Vietnam, we decided to save the sightseeing for another trip. We enjoyed a great Portuguese meal at a long-standing restaurant. Unfortunately, we were not lucky in the casinos, but our money held out for a few hours of fun. Note: my game of choice is craps, and Erik plays blackjack. To travel to Macau, you take a high speed boat ride of approximately one hour.

The development in Macau is astounding—all casinos and big hotels including a new MGM Grand. Chinese are crazy about gambling, and the large population of mainlanders becoming rich is fueling the growth. We watched a long TV show about the Macau phenomenon. It is interesting to see which games are popular in China versus in Las Vegas. There were tons of Baccarat tables but very few blackjack. The horse races are very popular in Hong Kong, and we need to go before the summer break.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Vietnam: Part 5 (Final)

Typical Sapa house and the village at the bottom of the mountain: Village beauty salon:
Erik and a friendly village boy:
Some women, who live on the mountain, wait at the top for tourists, and they help guide you the whole way. These women, especially the one on the right, held my hand most of the way down the very steep, slippery, and muddy trail. They were awesome. After the hike, they asked us to buy their goods, and I was more than willing. I was amazed by these women's strength as was our guide. They hike up and down the mountain several times a day,in plastic sandals usually carrying a child or a large load on their backs. When we took pictures of them, they begged to see the playback so they could see themselves. We crossed the raging river on this rickety, bamboo bridge: For lunch, we stopped at a village guest house. If you take a multi-day trek, you spend the night in guest houses. The working part of the house is on the ground floor and the sleeping area is above like a tree house. The lunch was brought from town by our guide, since our stomachs couldn't handle the local food. We drank a toast with the host: his home-brewed rice liquor served out of a recycled plastic water bottle just like when Anthony Bourdain visited Vietnam. Us with the host: Walking along the road in Sapa: For our return trip to Hanoi, we rode on the train operated by our Sapa hotel, which was supposed to be the best train. We had to share a cabin, so we actually prefered the first train, however the Victoria train had a lovely dining car.
Overall, our trip to Vietnam was one of the best vacations we ever had.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Vietnam: Part 4

From Hanoi, we went to the mountain town of Sapa, near the Chinese border. The only way to get to Sapa is by an 8-hour train ride. The train leaves at night, and you arrive the next morning. When we arrived at the train station, things were a bit sketchy, and we questioned if we were in the right place. We saw no other tourists (there should have been a lot going on the trains to the very popular tourist area of Sapa), and everyone in the station looked poor and as if they had been trapped there for days. They didn't look like they had the means to buy an $80/pp train ticket. As we tried to figure out where to go, a guy asked to look at our tickets and said we needed to follow him, so we did it. Once he led us out of the station, we knew something wasn't right and turned back. We will never know what type of scam he was working, but he was cleaver, because we saw him appear back in the station a few minutes later and noticed he was dressed in a similar way as the train station employees. Back in the station, we tried to ask where we should go, but no one spoke enough English, and they kept pointing us in opposing directions. We were able to conclude that we needed some kind of boarding pass that we didn't have. Finally, we saw another white guy and just got in line behind him. The woman didn't have our boarding passes, but said, "wait" and made a call on her cell. We waited anxiously not knowing if this was another scam. In a few minutes, a guy appeared, handed her our boarding passes, and we were shown to the train. The trains did not pull up directly to the station; you had to walk out into the rail yards. There were lots of trains going to Sapa, so we had to make sure we were on the right one. Once we calmed down, we were both thankful to have had two heads to navigate the situation. Our train cabin was very comfortable. Downtown Sapa is a sleepy mountain town.
We stayed at the nicest hotel hotel in town--elegant and comfortable.
In Sapa, there are many indigenous people who live very simply in traditional ways. The women dress in their tribal costumes. They make handicrafts and sell them to tourists with refined sales techniques. The women are very sweet and know how to charm and entice the tourist to purchase their wares.
Small children get in the game too. These girls are selling bracelets and little charms. Of course I had to buy from them. The items are very cheap, but I am sure that money goes a long way. It was raining and we were carrying the hotel umbrella, which didn't go unnoticed. After saying no to a small girl selling things she said, "You are very rich. You stay at the Victoria Hotel and it cost over $100 a night." I am sure spending that level of money on a hotel room was unfathomable.
The weather in Sapa was cool and rather rainy, but not so rainy that it spoiled our fun, however it wasn't ideal for photography. Sapa is known for its terraced mountains. Virtually, every inch of the mountains are carved into terraces and farmed. It is difficult to capture the scope in pictures. We hired a guide and took an all day hike down into the valley of these mountains to visit the villages. It was quite difficult and super muddy, but well worth it--so beautiful.
This is a quintessential Vietnam picture: the indigenous woman grazing her water buffalo, overlooking the river.

Vietnam: Part 3

In Vietnam, you can not drink the water or even brush your teeth with it. We were very careful to eat at nice restaurants, but we still both got sick at different times during the trip. It was hard to pinpoint what caused the sickness. Fortunately, I was prepared with medicine. When we travel, we like to eat at local places and are not afraid to eat on the street, but in Vietnam we had to be more careful. I love Vietnamese food, but wasn't able to eat much of it, because it all had meat. It is tough being a pseudo-vegetarian in South-East Asia. A famous restaurant we patroned called Cha Ca La Vong, serves only one dish, Cha Ca which I think translates into fried fish. The fish arrives at the table frying over a mini grill. You add scallions and dill to the frying pan to wilt, and then serve it over cold rice noodles toped with the famous Vietnamese sauce, herbs, and some peanuts--so yummy.
Most of the locals were eating in sidewalk "restaurants" such as these:

There are some great "bars" on the sidewalk that we visited a few times. This was a popular one where draft beers were only ~$0.30. Notice the vendor in the front selling dried fish; she is wearing pajamas. It seemed to be very popular for women to wear their pjs in the evening while going about town.

Erik was brave and ate some steamed buns off the street, but they were thoroughly cooked and did not make him sick.

There were several shop fronts selling a combination of baby formula and liquor. The combination struck me as humorous. I guess these are two high-dollar necessities.

A mobile nail shop:

Vietnam: Part 2

We visited some historical places in Hanoi. The first was the prison where John McCain was tortured. I will edit later for the exact name since I am posting from work (don't tell). When I thought about McCain being tortured, I imagined a grass hut in the middle of a jungle, but in fact, it is a proper prison on the heart of the city. Only a portion of the original building remains. There is a tall hotel built right next to it on the property where the demolished portion used to stand. St. Joseph's Cathedral, a major landmark in Hanoi.
We visited Ho Chi Min's tomb. He is preserved in a glass casket--quite disturbing. No pictures were allowed in the mosoleum. Below is his official residence even though he chose to live in a very small wooden house several yards away. The compound grounds were very beautiful, and the bright yellow buildings contrasted sharply with the lush greenery.
I don't know what this building is, but it appears to be a Chinese temple.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vietnam: Part 1

We began our trip in Hanoi which is a decent sized city with lots of energy, and at times it was downright crazy. The first thing you notice is the crazy traffic, most of which is motorbikes, and as a result, the air is acrid with the smell of exhaust. Everyone beeps their horns constantly. This seems to be the general practice in South-East Asia since there are virtually no signs, traffic lights or even lanes, so using your horn is the only defensive driving technique. The sidewalks are unwalkable due to vendors and parked motorbikes, so you have to walk in the street amongst this wild traffic--hair-raising. Also very noticeable is the poverty. There didn't appear to be many homeless or destitute people, but the standard of living is low. Thus, people are constantly trying to hustle or hawk you. There is an endless streem of offers to buy this or that or take a motorbike ride, etc. You have to be firm and thick skinned to even make it down the street.

In Hanoi, we spent all of our time in the Old Quarter. It has some beautiful, old, French-influenced architecture. Our time was spent walking the city, hanging out in cafes, shopping, and sightseeing. Things were very inexpensive in Hanoi. Our hotel was simple but clean, and it cost $50 per night. There was lots of great shopping; could have purchased much more. We both got silk shirts for about $15 per shirt. Hanoi was super hot and there was almost no air conditioning. We had AC in our hotel, but most restaurants were fans only.

Street scenes of Hanoi:
(We have 2 cameras so the pictures are a combination of shots by Erik & Amy.)
Note the crazy mass of telephone wires. It is as if each house has its own line. Communism is alive and thriving.

We are sitting inside a cafe when this picture was taken and the man on the right is approaching the window selling tour books. The books are sealed in plastic, but when you buy and open them, they are just a photocopy of a very outdated tour book.

We were only in Hanoi a few moments before we were scammed. This vendor was selling bananas and pineapples and approached us to buy, but when we nicely said no, she quickly placed the goods on my shoulder, hat on my head, and encouraged us to take a photo. After doing so, she basically forced us to buy fruit from her as "payment" for the photo. We didn't fall for that trick again but did see other tourist being victimized.

Many times, Erik was offered to have his shoes repaired by mobile cobblers. They could spot his tearing shoe from a block away. After saying no several times, he finally agreed, because they really did need repair. Erik bartered with the guy and agreed on a price to glue the shoe, but then after the gluing, the cobbler proceeded to polish the shoes too. Then he raised the price since he had also polished. This is how they get you. Erik bartered again, and when it was finished, he only paid the guy less than $2.00. The street vendors are very clever.