February 28, 2015

Patience, Thrift, and Brief Goodbyes

Today began in Da Nang, as it ended last night; Hung and I shared a room, and the girls shared a room down the hall. I've talked about the hotel, so I think I'll not say a whole lot more on the subject.

Hung and I woke up sometime around seven, and got out on the balcony, and then roof of the hotel, to take some photos of the city. It was a beautiful sight from up there, early in the morning. The architecture in Vietnam consists in large part of buildings which are deep but not wide, and then a few stories tall. Hotels (and other buildings) exist like this everywhere, some only like twelve feet wide, but maybe fifty feet deep, with four or five stories.

We went down for breakfast a bit later. Getting up was hard, as we'd both been up until after one, but
breakfast was a pretty good incentive. I didn't know for sure what to expect, but given it was a "buffet breakfast," I'd had high hopes for some continental sort of breakfast options. I was largely disappointed, but I honestly should be pretty okay with Vietnamese food 24/7 as I've spent so much to get here. A good continental breakfast can wait another month.

Speaking of another month, I checked my bank account and current funds, and I'm pretty sure I'm within budget, if not slightly on the surplus side of things. Problems still arise, though, from my bank back home; transactions are limited to six a month. I looked up the federal regulations, and it seemed like they would allow me to withdraw from ATMs and banks without limit, but the fact is that I'm getting letters back home warning me of the $15 fee and limit to transactions/withdrawals. I'm pretty tired of my bank at this point, and for traveling, I've found much better options (from what I've read).

Anyway, I ended up eating chicken soup (pho ga), a couple pieces of toast (I only said largely disappointed), some green beans and a cup of orange juice. It was good, but I'll admit at this point I'm missing eggs, pancakes, waffles, and biscuits and gravy.

After we ate breakfast, we spent an hour in the room waiting and very ineffectively communicating with the girls, and then we packed up and went down to the lobby, paid for our room, and continued to wait for another hour down there. We were...frustrated...at that point, and decided to leave and eat while the ladies had their day. With spectacular timing, once we'd been out of the hotel for about fifteen minutes, they call, saying they're headed back to the hotel to pack up and join us for lunch.

I loved hanging out with them, I really did, but when all three of them have iPhones and spend so much time on Facebook...just how can it take two hours for them to reply? I really don't understand.

Girls, if you read this, you're awesome and I love you, but...I'd love to communicate, so we can all have fun...

Anyway, we ate our late lunch, and I had two whole bowls of the stuff, one crab, one pork. I guess I was hungry. I also wanted to stay hydrated, so I really finished both bowls (Clean Plate Club 2005 represent!).

We had ice cream at a Baskin Robbins in Da Nang, which I learned only then was an American company and brand. I realized I didn't know it because it's a California thing and may or may not have made it to my home state yet. Anyway, we enjoyed some ice cream and it was delicious, and then, within the next five minutes, we walked to a more main street, said very quick goodbyes, and Hung and I jumped on an intercity bus. The price was better than to take a taxi all the way, by far.

The bus was pretty full, so I got to sit up front on top of the engine. It was hot. Da Nang was hot to begin with, but I sat on the back of a perspiring, hardworking ox of a machine. Anyway, despite seats freeing up elsewhere in the bus, I decided to stay there. I was taking photos and video out the front of the bus. I believe I've told you about what buses are like already, but let me reiterate, and maybe introduce some new detail.

All vehicles in Vietnam somehow manage to get in places they never would elsewhere. I've been observing traffic and everything in Vietnam for a while, and I honestly think that the way Vietnamese drive isn't really dangerous, but incredibly risky. I think the greatest threat to you on the road is a westerner on a motorcycle. In Hoi An, I've seen a number of more sporty motorcycles, the sort of thing you'd see in the US, doing 70 mph on a 60 mph highway. And this is pretty much what happens in Vietnam, except the speed limit is typically 30 kmph, and the motorists usually go closer to 50 or 60 mph, I would guess. They certainly make more noise than the typical Vietnamese rider.

My point (not necessarily connected to the above example) is that Americans and other westerners drive in a way which may be safe in the right context, but which is pretty dangerous here in Vietnam.

I should digress. I hope to get up tomorrow, as ever, and do something useful in the early morning. However, Hung and I went out later that night and felt the breeze, once more, on the bridge with no name. We agreed to have different perspectives (meaning I on one side of the bridge, and he on the other, as illustrated in the picture above of Hung), and I experimented with long exposures and flash, in combination and apart.

I almost never shoot with flash, as I detest the abrasive nature of the resulting image. However, using that same coarse character can be artful, especially in combination with a long exposure image. The result above was created by triggering the flash at the beginning of the exposure, and then continuing the exposure for another second or two. This makes the initial moment vivid and clear, and the remaining seconds of the exposure blurry and faded.

Later on during our time on the bridge, a man walked up to me, and eventually I asked him if he wanted me to take his photo. The first one wasn't to his liking, but this second one was better. He made a show of his (apparent) martial arts skills, and posed like this the two times I shot.

I wanted to check out the tie shop to complement my dress shirt, but by the time we left the bridge, the one I wanted to visit was closed. There were a few other shops selling ties, but this one had a much greater selection, and while it didn't have any bow ties, the prices were much better than the alternative. I will hopefully visit the place tomorrow again.

As we were riding home in the night, I continued to take long-exposures, but left out the flash for reasons of safety, and one of the shots in this post is the result. I tried enough that I succeeded a few times. I was rather calm despite being on the back of a motorcycles with both hands on my camera.

I am well, and today I actually submerged myself in the ocean for a bit in the late afternoon. I got enough salt water in my nostrils to get my nose running like crazy. I think that's a good thing.


February 27, 2015

Blood, Guts, and the Big City

 Today began somewhat mundane, again, until Hung came up to wake me up. I remember that I was dreaming rather vividly, but I can't remember about what. Oh, well.

The girls were ready to go out and get photos taken. I didn't think a ton about what this would mean, but being the deductive genius I am, I've concluded that only a grade A numbskull would think a photoshoot, of girls, on the beach, would entail anything but a couple lovely ladies in bikinis.

I contributed a little, but I didn't exactly come prepared. I still ended up enjoying it quite a bit. I should have had my legs sunscreened, and my pants zipped to shorts so I could get in the water more. Linhh and Thảo posed while Hung and I shot, and Hằng watched and was regularly assailed by the ocean.

The photoshoot went well, although Hung probably knows better, as he could communicate better, and thus get more and better shots.

After some further shenanigans with the tailor, I finally got my shirt. It's okay. For $25, I'd probably prefer to get it back home, but I may have been able to get a better price or better service elsewhere. I don't really know. Regardless, I donned the thing and for the night we chose to go to Da Nang (30 minutes north) and stay there for the night in a hotel.

Hằng actually lives here, so she went home while Linhh, Hung, Thảo and I stayed in the hotel.

Hotels and homestays and hostels in Vietnam are all their own unique strange thing. This hotel is just one of a kind. It's the sort of high-end thing that has the name on everything, electronic locks and keys, and an HD TV in the room. It's about $30 a night, which at home would be spectacular. Here, it's a bit pricey, so the fact that I'm splitting the cost with Hung is comforting. They also have a breakfast "buffet" tomorrow, which I will critique excessively when the time comes.

I'm going to attempt to list the toiletry related things they have in the bathroom. There's a comb, a shower cap, a box of cotton swabs, soap, a toothbrush with toothpaste, a razor kit...there are at least two other things, maybe three, that I'm forgetting. It's ridiculous. I left my toothbrush back at the homestay intentionally, completely forgetting first that I really do want to brush my teeth every day, and second that almost every place I've stayed (and even a couple of the flights I've been on) provides a free toothbrush and toothpaste. This hotel, high-class as it is, is no different.

You must forgive me for getting ahead of myself; we arrived directly at the hotel when we came to Da Nang, but before we actually went to bed, we went out to eat at a fairly typical Vietnamese street restaurant. It has an actual roof and walls, but the chairs and tables are still tiny and everything. There are many beer cans and bottles, napkins, and random trash on the floor, but the fact is that this is the way Vietnamese eat a lot of the time. The name of the place was Lẩu Bò Cô Lan, and Hằng and the rest discussed among themselves what we should eat.

Being from Da Nang, Hằng knew most about the food we could order, and specifically about what we did order. First came something rather hot and spicy, consisting largely of vegetables and the stomach of a cow. I believe there also might have been some blood in a gelatinous sort of state, which tasted okay.

Second, we had a hot pot sort of thing, but with a pan on top. This pan had some oil in it, which we used to fry a sort of beef. Once cooked, we rolled the beef in a green not unlike a lettuce leaf, and then dipped it in a salty seasoning mix. This we ate, hot. I found it a lot easier to handle the food once it was in my mouth than leaving it in my hands until I could hold it. It was still very hot, but somehow once it got in my mouth, it was bearable. This was delicious, and simple enough that I think I can remember it and try it myself back home.

Our final dish was a proper hot pot, with sections of a cow's tail. There wasn't a bit of hair to be had in it, thankfully. The consistency of the tail's meat was something like fat, and somewhat like meat. It strikes me as something that an American would discard rather than eat, out of habit and ingrained preference. I suspect it's quite healthy in some way, much like I believe the stomach is.

Finally, before we returned to the hotel, we had some Vietnamese deserts. Two of the ones we got were contained in coconut shells, and then there was a custard yogurt that I tried a single spoon of, and probably should have ordered a proper cup of it on the spot. I ended up primarily eating this coconut, which I think had caramel in it. It was delicious, and I would have it again were it not for the priority of the custard yogurt that Thảo ordered.

When traveling, you have to make a habit of just not trying some things, and other things (sometimes directly next to the first option) are significantly better. An example would be the banana pancakes and donuts offered on the street. Having tried these options, I would probably avoid the products sold by these street vendors, but last night I had a crab cake purchased from one of these same vendors, and it was delicious and hot. I may have to specify that I want a fresh product, especially if I don't really like the price, but whatever.

In the same manner, I might never have found this dessert shop if I hadn't been going around with Hung and his friends. Eating with the locals is truly critical to finding the best food around.

 I'm well, but there's a breakfast buffet tomorrow morning that I must attend, and that leaves me only six or seven hours to sleep. Good night!


February 26, 2015

Ghosts, Beer, and Friends

Today was mostly fun toward the end. (Anyone else see a trend here? Maybe I should stop writing and get up early tomorrow and see if I can have twice as much fun in the same time...)

A few friends of Hung and I went out on the town, as they say, and I had my first beer. Spoiler, I still don't really like any alcoholic drink I've ever tasted. The Magners was ok, as it tasted like more than alcohol and soda, but the Corona extra just didn't really float my boat. Anyway, that happened.

Much more enjoyable were the things we did; we first took a taxi into town (which was much cheaper than I anticipated; 80,000 dong for a ~5 km ride) and walked around a while. The girls checked out clothes in a number of shops along the way, and I eventually got Linhh to pose for a few shots. Not necessarily glamour shots, but she looked lovely anyway.

Not Particularly Impressed Mad Scientist
We sat down and ate some food, I shared a bit of music, and they talked a lot. It's now been mentioned at least three times that I look like Abraham Lincoln, but looking at portraits, I'm pretty sure he had a better trimmed beard than I do. Also, my hair isn't much like him. Somehow, even shown the picture of me from my last post, the first thing that came to Hằng's mind was still Abraham Lincoln. I'll take it.

Finally, we visited a bar and I had my first beer. I wasn't impressed with either the Corona Extra, or the Magners somethingorother cider. I'll have to try some crazy craft brew or something when I get back home just to make sure I never want to taste alcohol again.

We also played pool. Or billiards. I'm honestly not sure which. Regardless, this shot was taken by Hung. He offered to shoot a bit while I was playing.

All told, good night, would do again. Hopefully I'll get up early tomorrow for 1. The sunrise and 2. A photo op with the ladies.

Good evening. Bwahahahaha.


February 25, 2015

Hair, Shoes, and Fashion

This morning, I woke up sometime before seven, looked out the window, and, based on the cloudy sight I saw, I chose to go back to sleep. I woke up again sometime before ten, at which time I went downstairs to eat breakfast. This may surprise you, at this point, but breakfast was indeed good. I still crave banana pancakes every single day, but the variety of Vietnamese food I'm trying instead is quite delicious.

I'd given Hung my laundry the previous day, which he'd cleaned and folded. I had taken a cold shower thing the night before, but hadn't actually washed myself. I did that now, and chose to try going shampoo-less. I didn't really know what I was doing, so I basically grabbed a comb and combed my hair a ton while in the shower. I rinsed my hair out a couple times, and eventually I realized that my attempt at cleanliness had resulted in a rather interesting hairstyle.

It was with this hairdo that I accepted Hung's invitation to eat with his family for lunch; he said I looked like wolverine, which hadn't occurred to me, actually. It's certainly complimentary, but I'd kind of been aiming for a more Syndrome look. Oh, well. I went to town with something similar to this, and my hair is still all poofy and loud even now. I also bought a pair of sunglasses which make me look like a certifiable mad scientist, but I'm going to wait 'til tomorrow to show you that. I haven't gotten any good pictures of it yet. Bwahahaha.

My mission for today was threefold; first, I needed to get water. I first returned to 399 Cua Dai to see if they'd give me the water I left there, but the would not. Alas. Many tears shall be shed for you, fair vessel of my most prized beverage.

I proceeded unceremoniously to the nearest mini-mart and bought a 4.9 liter bottle of water, which cost 25,000 dong. A real steal, considering the prices for bottled water in the US.

The second prong on my trident of a day was to find myself a pair of flip flops. Sandals. Penny loafers. The penny part was particularly important, as I was looking to spend rather a lot today. The water was cheap, but numbers two and three would gleefully join hands and wreak negligent havoc on my budget, not unlike a certain pair of Dr. Seuss's mind-children.

I'd gone into a shop one of my previous days in Hoi An, but the prices were a bit higher, and the resulting product wouldn't be ready for two or three days because the Tet holiday was coming to an end, and thus people wouldn't be making footwear. I walked into another shop of utterly unknown repute and looked around at the footwear available for immediate purchase. These were mostly female, and but I found a style I liked that seemed non-feminine and asked how much it'd be to have it made in my size. 

She answered eighteen dollars, roughly half what the first shop originally offered. It seemed entirely plausible that, at a Target or Walmart back home, I'd pay $20 and get a far lower quality, worse fitting product. I chose to go ahead, and to my surprise the lady told me to come back later that day, at about six o'clock. I paid and left, continuing on to item three in my triumvirate of current objectives.

A shirt. After I arrived in Hanoi a couple weeks ago, I realized that I packed not three shirts, as I suspected, but two. Ever since, I've been trying to remedy this problem. First, I bought a shirt with some circular pattern on it and was horribly small for me, then I bought a Tintin in Vietnam shirt (good print, way too small), then I bought a similar T-shirt in Tam Coc, thinking the print I saw in the shop must be identical to the good one I'd bought previously. Not so. This one fit fairly well, but the design they printed on it was nothing like the artful and accurate apparition on the first.

So here I was in Hoi An, where they'll make you anything you want, and I needed a shirt. My host, Hung, recommended a shop with which his homestay had a cooperative relationship; his customers would be recommended this tailor, and this tailor would recommend his homestay. I was hopeful.

After some confusion, I arrived at the shop in the center of town, where I was ushered in to consider fabrics and styles and patterns and everything. I was somewhat uneasy, as there was very little proper orange in sight. Despite this, I chose a design and a fabric (not particularly bright or colorful), and then I realized that spent all the money in my wallet on the sandals. I literally had a thousand dong on me. As they were ushering me to the nearest ATM, I remembered I'd also left my debit card inside my room at the homestay. 

I am not a clever man. However, the shop was somewhat accommodating, and I returned to the homestay, got money, my card, a new layer of sunscreen, and went back on my way. I paid when I returned to the shop, and was under the impression that my shirt might already be ready, but in fact I'll be getting the shirt tomorrow when I return again. I'll be sure to tell you about it when I get it.

After I left the tailor shop, I wandered around, wondering whether I could go back to the sandal shop and get my flip-flops this early. I crossed a bridge, and there was a particularly lovely lightshow going on in the sky, so I took a panorama. I'm trying hard to process it, but my laptop is lacking in many ways, one of which is disk space.

I chose to return about an hour early to the sandal shop, where I found my sandals ready. They weren't quite as big as I wanted, but besides that they looked and felt as flip-flops do. I think I'll wear them tomorrow and see how I like them, but I'm at least moderately satisfied as of now.
After all the riding around town I did, I chose to go back to the river and find somewhere to eat. When asked what I wanted to drink, I indicated I'd be drinking from my bottle. The man looked confused but continued his work. I had sat down at a drink place, which served all sorts of beverages, but no food of any kind. 

I felt a bit like a jerk; I'd basically sat down in a coffee shop with instant coffee and some boiling water. So I chose to buy a banana shake, which was quite good, and take some photos of the river and this curious beverage. Hung tells me it's a young coconut.

After this, I had supper proper. I can't for the life of me remember what I hate, but I stopped on the street and sat on a plastic seat with a bunch of Vietnamese people, and ordered something that may have been Bun Quong. Maybe. I dare not venture further. Hung will probably correct me tomorrow.

Eating on the street like this is something I've sort of tried to avoid, but at the same time have really wanted to do. I've been told by multiple people in multiple places to just find the place where the locals are eating, and eat something there. That's what I did this time. The setup consists of a woman with a lot of different pots around her, and a fire pot pit thing to boil water on. There are bowls of noodles and a ton of varieties of soupish things. 

I had no idea what anything was, and was pretty much comfortable eating anything they threw at me. Apprehensive, but comfortable. I just went with the first thing one of the ladies suggested, and it was worth it. 30,000 dong, and I was on my way.

The remainder of the day and night was spent eating even more at 399 again, and finishing it off with a somewhat expensive donut from the street. Finally, I reconnoitered with Hung on the An Hoi bridge. This bridge has tourists crossing it without end for hours at a time, and almost every one of them wants a photo on the thing. It was hilarious watching people trying to take photos while dozens of people passed by unaware.

I found it especially funny how the Vietnamese chose to exploit this; everyone wants a photo on the bridge, so they offer not only a photographer with a reasonably good camera and lens, but also a mini printer to get you your photo within a few minutes. I'm told they charge 20,000 dong for this service, which is at the same time cheap and rather exorbitant. That said, I admire the idea and execution.

Another thing you'll see in Hoi An is women, young and old, selling little lanterns. These are designed to float in the water, and cost a dollar. I have yet to buy one, but late at night, it makes for rather lovely lighting. Occasionally the results are excellent.

Hung and I remained on the bridge for probably an hour or more, and talked occasionally. We both enjoyed the opportunity to peoplewatch, and after a bit I turned on my speaker and began pumping tunes upon the multicultural masses. Hung browsed my library a bit, and chose a few of the songs. I did the same, and we received a multitude of curious or confused looks. I attracted rather a lot of attention, between my rather crazed hairdo, and the music coming out of my backpack.

We both returned separately to the homestay some time later, and now we shall sleep. I'm rather eager to eat some more native food again tomorrow. I'll have to start making a checklist of things I've eaten and want to eat.

I am well, enjoying my stay, and perhaps being a little too lazy, but it's fun to just bike around town all the time. Today I biked almost four hours. My "goal" is two. 

Oh, the things that travel can do to you.


February 24, 2015

Laziness, Leadership, and Loss

To begin today's day, I slept in rather late, and then stayed in late as well. Why? Sunburn, baby. I had to make a game plan for the day, and I hadn't yet done that. I guess when I got out and ate breakfast, it was probably nine o'clock or something. Hung's family cooked sunny side up eggs (actually chicken eggs), which were accompanied by baguettes, as well as cucumber and tomato slices, and finally Cha sui pork, which had been cooked in soy sauce, "five aroma powder" and some other spices (I know because Hung told me so). It was delicious.

After breakfast, I went back to my room and spent far too much time doing nothing. It was afternoon before I properly got prepared and went out. I'd read a story or two about sunscreen in Vietnam at some point today, and I read someone else bought what sounds suspiciously like this St. Ives 90 SPF stuff I got; their experience was, in fact, more decisively bad than mine. It turned out they'd reapplied liberally while in the sun, and had ended up burnt rather badly regardless.

So I determined that I really needed to find some proper sunscreen here in Hoi An. There's a proper supermarket in Da Nang, but that's thirty minutes by motorcycle; I decided I'd go into town and check the pharmacies. Hung, however, recommended I search the mini-marts scattered through town, which are surprisingly well stocked. You can still expect exorbitant prices, though. I spent about fifteen dollars on a six-ounce canister of spray-on Banana Boat, which I'm 99% confident is actually legit.

Within ten minutes of finding said sunscreen, I walked into another mini-mart selling the same product for less than thirteen dollars. That was frustrating. But at least the product is (probably) real this time.

Before I went searching for the Banana Boat this evening, I actually served as something of a leader in a boat race. Not quite a pilot or captain, as there were people at both the bow and stern sort of more in control, but our conglomeration of Aussies, Americans, and a stray Frenchman resulted in nearly zero coordination. I really shouldn't take too much credit, as we lost horribly, but look at the kind of guys we were up against!

Anyway, we were basically at Hoi An's Tet Olympics for boat racing. We finished, which I'm quite proud of myself and my team for achieving. We thought initially that it'd be a single relay, but then the other boats went around another two times. It was quite strenuous continuing after the first lap, but I maintained the count of "ONE, TWO, ONE, TWO" that I began at the start of the race. By our third lap, the locals in nearby boats and on the shore were raving for us.

Eventually we got out of the boat (my butt was really sore by that time), having unanimously agreed that another five laps weren't really in the cards. 

Hung and another of his friends had a sort of Vietnamese drink/dessert thing, which consisted of ice, a variety of beans (think kidney beans and baked beans, plus a really big bean of some sort), and a bit of sugary sauce on top. Hung also paid for that, which was exceptionally cool of him, and then we returned home a bit before four o'clock. 

After getting off the boat I probably should have reapplied sunscreen, but I was covered in 1. Sweat and 2. River water. I also managed to get a blister on my right thumb, which shall irritate me for the next week or so, without any doubt. Despite the fact that we lost the race, we were all of us given a present for our effort. The present is a sort of lantern, which I'll make sure to take tons of photos of when I finally light it/turn it on. I'm not even sure if it's electric or conventional.

After a bit more lollygagging around at the homestay, I started reapplying sunscreen and went out to find sunscreen. Google Maps showed eight mini-marts in Hoi An, two of which ended up being shameless duplicates, and most of which sold a great variety of products (Doritos, Pringles, Johnson and Johnson products, Head and Shoulders, water, pop, etc), most or all of which were sold at rather absurd prices.

Having found sunscreen at what seemed like an okay price after perhaps an hour or two of searching, I decided to eat my second meal of the day; it was already something like six or seven o'clock, and I wasn't feeling particularly inventive. I returned to Nhà Hàng on Cua Dai. I first had a wonton soup, then some fried rice with shrimp and vegetables, and finally (sort of dessert), I had a banana pancake with chocolate syrup on top. I also ordered a large bottle of water, but I forgot that entirely when I left the restaurant, and as of now still haven't reacquired it. 

Oh, well. They'll either give me another one for free, give me the one I left, or I'll have to get a new one. I'm not worried.

As I was biking in, people were taking photos along the side of the road; the sun was casting shadows from behind a cloud upon the atmosphere above. It was both beautiful and unique. I managed to take a pretty good shot with my camera outside town as I was riding in.

I'm well as a sunburned, cold-recovering man can be, and I'm happy to be in Hoi An...perhaps a few days longer.

Please check out the post directly before this; blogging is going well. Also, I'm curious if any of you have ideas or critiques of my blog. I'd love to improve this crazy place in any way I can.

Thanks for reading!


How Am I Doing?

Status update on the blog situation: I really appreciate those of you who are following my travels, and I especially appreciate that you're actually reading the whole posts. They seem so long when I'm done writing theme very night. Because of the interest in my journey, my blog has hit an all-time high of views per month...and the month isn't even over.

I appreciate your patience and interest. Thanks!

If you have the time and care, feel free to let me know anything you feel I could improve on with my blog. I've submitted my blog for a couple user tests online, but I'd love to know how you guys feel about it.

Are my posts too long? Are there too many/too few photos? Do I ask too many questions in a row?


February 23, 2015

Sunburn, Sweat, and Subterfuge

Today was a good day. I woke up too early, having stayed up 'til later than midnight blogging last night (probably going to be the case tonight too...), and I chose to sleep in for another hour or so. When I got up, Hung served me a Vietnamese dish which I believe had noodles and pork in it. I should definitely pay more attention to the food that goes in my mouth, but my memory for tastes is pretty terrible. It was a good dish, though.

However, as something of a breakfast fanatic, I ended up getting a banana pancake later that morning at a restaurant somewhere else in town. It was good, but nowhere near crispy; it was borderline soggy, but it still tasted fantastic. Heh.

Ok, back on track. I finished breakfast and, remembering my debt from the previous day, applied a layer of sunscreen (who knows if the stuff works or not), and proceeded to bicycle the kilometer or so to the La Plage restaurant. There was hardly anyone there, as it wasn't near lunchtime or anything, and breakfast was pretty far gone.

One of the Vietnamese ladies attending the empty restaurant took care of my debt and I went back on my way; I intended to get my pancake fix there that morning, but they didn't have it. Oh well. There are only another fifty places within five miles where I can get them. Heh.

Speaking of which, I think it's impossible to go a mile in Hoi An's city center without finding anything and everything you'd need, as a tourist. That said, it might be expensive or a knock-off, or it might just not be what it says at all (I'm looking at you, already fake 90 SPF St. Ives sunscreen).

Pharmacies? Probably twenty or more. Restaurants? I don't even know. Too many to count.

Alright. At this point, not a whole lot happened. I went back to the homestay and tried to teach Hung how to pronounce vegetable a couple dozen more times, and then I went back to my room. After a while I reemerged, covered in another layer of faux St. Ives. I biked into town, and after a couple hours of wandering, I found a restaurant named Morning Glory.

Shops in Hoi An can sometimes be hard to find, and Morning Glory somehow eluded me for a good five minutes when I was within twenty feet of it. I eventually found my way inside and ordered a couple of the local specialties, White Roses, and Cau Lau. To drink, I added a pineapple-pear soda.

White roses are a delicious dumpling sort of thing which I couldn't describe if I'd read the menu, much less having not done so. If you visit Hoi An, try them. They're available in quite a lot of places.

The same is true of Cau Lau; it's quite a ubiquitous dish around here; you could find it on street corners more frequently than White Roses, which isn't difficult to imagine, as White Roses are dumplings and Cau Lau is basically a soup. That said, it was a very good soup, which included pork, sprigs of parsley, and a sort of cracker thing made of rice. It was delicious, and I think I'll try it again if I make it through the other half dozen dishes available specially here.

After leaving Morning Glory, I spent a good half hour or so biking around with one hand and shooting with the other. This was probably the second most fun thing I did today. The road was sparsely populated with people and other bikers, so it was reasonably easy enough to navigate. I actually managed to get some good shots while biking, some of which will probably populate this post.

Then, I went to a busy intersection nearby and began taking pictures as the people passed. I met a trio from Portland who apparently made a habit of jumping with strangers in front of a camera, and posting the resulting pictures on the internet. I should have exchanged information, so I could show you what I mean, but I just continued taking pictures afterwards.

At some point I decided that a sunset was almost as gorgeous as a sunset, and decided to take a timelapse as the sun set. A few people were interested enough to ask me what I was doing, as I merely sat down on the edge and waited. It's times like these, when your camera is tied up doing one thing, that you think how wonderful it'd be to have two cameras. I packed light, though, so two cameras wasn't really an option.

After I finished the timelapse, I returned to the restaurant I visited on my first day. At this restaurant there was a young Vietnamese waitress with a fair knowledge of English and a pretty face, who took the opportunity, on that first night, to trick this gullible man into thinking there was something on my shirt, after which she flicked my hat off.

I am a gullible man, especially in the presence of a pretty girl. A gorgeous girl once told me "gullible" was written on the ceiling, and I'm pretty sure I looked.

Anyway, we conversed in broken English for a while, and eventually she told me that she didn't actually have a boyfriend, which she'd previously told me, and furthermore, she hated me.

I was pretty done after that, so I biked away. And then biked back. I probably biked back and forth in front of the restaurant like five times before I walked in and ordered something.

Soon after said order, an Englishman sat down at the table nearby, ordered a Tiger beer, and we struck up conversation together. Eventually, I invited him to eat with me (you're as far as you can get from everyone you know, you might as well be close to someone you don't), and we talked about traveling and teaching English abroad and Korea and biking and motorcycling in Vietnam, honking, and so much more.

His name was John.

We parted ways as travelers must, and I paid for my meal, got on my bike, and rode.

This was the best part of today. I'd already booked more than two hours of biking today at this point, and now I pedaled like a maniac, overtaking motorcycle after motorcycle, ringing my bike bell constantly, running red lights, tipping my hat to pretty girls, and generally having far too much fun.

A motorcycle passed me on the way back to the homestay, and the rider (whose family was mounted with him) gave me the thumbs up, which I returned, jubilant. Further, after he'd passed me, I ended up overtaking him, with great exertion, to which he said, "Very good!" and gave me a thumbs up again. I sped off toward the main road along the coast, and, forearms glistening, I returned.

I took a short cold shower, and quickly realized that I'd burnt myself on my forearms and legs.

It doesn't hurt much yet, but I think I did a right thorough job with it. I did not reapply.

I'm mostly cold-free; I now have sunburn to worry about, instead. I spent over three hours today on biking alone, and I'm happy to be alive. Looking at some of the shots I took today...

What did I do to deserve this, Lord?


February 22, 2015

Friends, Words, and Snails

So tonight was cool. I went downstairs around 6:30, at Hu'ng's mother's invitation, and ate supper with them. The food I had from this point onward wasn't really the same as what I'd had up to that point. Street food is hit or miss, in my experience, and the typical pho, spring rolls, and some kind of rice or other eventually gets old. It's delicious when prepared right, but I'm spending thousands of dollars thousands of miles away from home, so I might as well try a few new things.

Supper tonight was good, but not particularly unique or spectacular. This is not detriment to the hospitality of my hosts here, who have been kind and generous in equal measure with my expectations and my experiences thus far in Vietnam.

I guess it's just the juxtaposition with what followed afterwards. After supper, Hung took me to town. We attempted for about five minutes to find a helmet to my size, but my head is genuinely big. The fact that my trilby happens to be an XXL doesn't seem to be a fluke or coincidence. I really do have a big noggin. And big feet.

I'm big in Vietnam.


Anyway, once we settled for a helmet still too small for me, which couldn't properly buckle up (especially with my beard to reckon with), we headed into town on his motorcycle. Riding on the back of a Vietnamese motorcycle can be extremely stressful if you choose to let it; I think given you've got a sober rider to drive for you, you should be fine. I reckon the Vietnamese are about as good at collision avoidance as anyone. It's simultaneously terrifying and impressive, when you're riding with one of them.

Once we got into town, he parked his bike with a lady offering space by the side of the road (probably three feet of sidewalk to work with, but she made the most of it), and we started walking around. Hung told me about the city and the markets; some of the city is different because of the Tet Holiday. There is a bridge in Hoi An with a pretty storied past; the bottom part of it was built by the Germans, the middle by the Japanese, and the top by the Vietnamese (if I remember correctly).

The bridge's design and placement also had significance; it was placed on the Silk Road, which was symbolically represented by a dragon whose head and tail were far off, but whose middle was in Hoi An; the bridge's design was that of a sword's hilt, such that the dragon would be pinned down and not move. Am I good at telling stories, or what?!

Anyway, a few minutes later we sat down at a street...setup. You can't really call it a shop as it has no roof or walls or even floor, really, but there's merchandise and a salesperson of one sort or another. Ours happened to be female and the only beverage she sold that I was really interested in was Fanta. Vietnamese Fanta.

It was branded as Fanta, but it's anyone's guess if that means anything. (the sunscreen I bought today for such an absurd price was labeled as St. Ives, a pretty familiar brand back home, but the printing looked blurry. I checked the UPC online, and couldn't find anything. I have no idea what I'm depending on to provide "90 SPF." It looks brown, or at least tan.)

Anyway, I had a Fanta and they had some iced coffee, presumably in Vietnamese style. A friend of Hung and her friend sat down with us. Both of them spoke somewhat basic conversations in fairly good English, and with Hung there to speak Vietnamese and English, conversations in both languages went on pretty smoothly. I spent a lot of time trying to help Hung pronounce "vegetable" correctly...or at least the way I think is correct. He was having particular difficulty pronouncing the V sound at the beginning, repeatedly, which is odd; I couldn't think of a Vietnamese word to get him saying the V sound, and just now I realize that, hey! His country's name starts with that sound!


After coffee, he got us tea; apparently Vietnamese drink tea after they drink coffee; not coffee alone, as Americans do so often. Perhaps this is more healthy somehow, but regardless, I drank some iced green tea.

After drinks we walked around for a while, Hung and I talking about music. Hung was singing the lyrics from A Sky Full of Stars, by Coldplay. Eventually he asked what I listened to, and I said one of my favorite artists is Regina Spektor. Hung had no idea who she was until he remembered this one song from a movie he'd seen. Thus I found out that Hung was a pretty big fan of the Narnia series.

He hadn't heard of much of her music but the one song from the Narnia movies, The Call.

Regina Spektor is one of my favorite artists, and she sings a lot of songs I love; this is somewhat unique. Often, I'll find one song by an artist, and that'll be the only thing I listen to by them. I love it, but when they sing other things, it's just not my thing, or isn't the same sort of stuff. Whatever. With Regina Spektor, while her music does vary and change over time and between albums and songs, I can almost always enjoy the songs she sings.

We ended up on another bridge in Hoi An, on which there was much traffic, foot, bicycle, and motorcycle (as is Vietnam's specialty). We stopped near the middle and stood to the side, against the railing. For a while, we just stood there, watching the people pass, and talking to each other. We took some photos. The motorcycles were honking, there were tourists and locals everywhere trying to get selfies, but it was still kind of a peaceful thing. I don't know. I enjoyed those moments. There was a sort of silence here and there in those moments, and...I don't know.

Some sort of eye of the storm thing.

Anyway, when we were done having our moment (probably more like ten minutes, really), we returned toward where we'd parked (two separate locations). My companions wanted to eat some more, and I was eager to continue talking and acquainting myself with them, so I agreed wholeheartedly.

I hope to wake up tomorrow before the sunrise and take a timelapse, but with any luck, I'll have more than two days here in Hoi An. I'm pretty sure I'll stay far longer than I should here. But I'm doing things. I'm seeing things. I know what I can do and want to do. I'm marking things on Google Maps to look at later.

We arrived about fifteen minutes later at a restaurant back down some dark alley with motorcycles parked all along it. And this alley would be difficult, even without the bikes, to drive a normal vehicle down. Probably impossible. And the "restaurant?" That's kind of generous. There were plastic tables about two feet off the ground, and plastic tables probably half that. It helps to be short when you're eating street food in Vietnam.

I am not short.

However, the food was interesting. Good, I would venture to say. Food today has been a spectrum of good and bad in one; the shrimp I ate this afternoon was delicious, excellent, but for some reason it really irritated one of my thumbnails. Might have been trying to get the shell off or something, or the marinade they used, but my thumb ended up hurting by the time I was halfway through my five shrimp. It was still delicious. I'm definitely going to pay for that when I get back there tomorrow.

Đan and her friend were seated at a table when we arrived, and had already ordered and received some food, which consisted primarily of snails; however, these snails had been cooked with spices and were pretty spicy. Extracting the snails from the shells was a pretty simple process, but a difficult one to master. The snail shells have their tips cut off, such that if you suck on the opening of the shell, the snail will zoop into your mouth.

In theory, anyway. As a beginner with these things, I managed to extract maybe one of the snails on the first try, and probably five of the snails wouldn't budge at all. There's a method to this, and I definitely haven't got it yet. Hung stopped me eating them after a bit, as they can apparently cause problems with digestion if you're new to them. He made me some ginger tea when we got back home to combat these effects. I have yet to explode violently, so all seems well, for now. Perhaps my stomach is stronger than most.

I can only hope I come home with zero incidents, so I can boast of the character of my hearty internal organs to all.

I think I've covered most of what happened today. Hopefully. This is an incomplete and imperfect record of my adventures and escapades. It shall serve to impart some portion of the truth of the matter to myself and others. Hopefully the other part of the truth shall be retained in some crevasse of my mind.

I'm well, despite riding motorcycle multiple times without a helmet, or with undersized, unstrapped helmet. I don't yet have diarrhea (I spelled that right the first time), my nostrils are clear, my skin isn't yet burnt, and I think I bit my tongue. I'm in debt to an Aussie and have yet to feel the sand between my toes.

If you've got questions about what's up or how my trip is going, you can definitely place such questions in the comments section. I do have time to answer them, much as Hoi An has to offer.

I apologize if my posts are getting longer. I guess it's okay if you don't read the whole thing.


I Look East, Toward the West

I arrived at my scheduled homestay in Hoi An this afternoon, having been brought there freely by my previous host. The hospitality, even at the places you don't completely like, or don't intend to stay at, is almost always spectacular. I was also given (free) another bottle of water, 1.5 liters.

The homestay is good, I guess. For $15 a night, I get free use of a bicycle and access to a refrigerator (leaving my bottle in there overnight should leave me with cold water come the morning). They also provide free breakfast, which I'll have words to say about as soon as I've tasted it.

I went last night to a restaurant at which a young lady served me, and appeared to be flirting with me, but today she stated she had a girlfriend when I tried to kiss her hand.

Yeah. Probably not a gesture she would appreciate as much being that she's Vietnamese, but what can I do?

Let me move on. Please.

Anyway, I arrive at the homestay a good two and a half hours early, and there I took a shower and got ready to expedition out upon the town. I chose, after much advice from Hu'ng, that I'd set out toward Hoi An's city center, which takes me away from the ocean. The bicycle wasn't the best, more of a cruising sort of thing, but with absurd pedaling and the endurance gifted by a bike bell, I was outpacing slow-moving motorcycles left and right.

Bikes are fun.

Anyway, I arrived in the city center after a while of pedaling like a madman, ringing my bell until my thumb was sore, and I wandered around somewhat aimlessly. Eventually, I found a shop selling sandals and flip-flops. I quickly realized that it would be difficult to find a shoe of any sort to my size in this country, as not only my height (which messed up my first two shirt purchases), but also the size of my feet caused everything to be slightly out of my size range.

This shop was willing and able to make me sandals sized exactly to my feet, but because of Tet, I wouldn't get them for at least two days. Being that I'm going to be on the beach for these three days, I kind of need a pair of sandals right now. Also, she wanted 750,000 dong, which comes to more than $35. While this might be a good price for correctly sized, leather, quality sandals, I wasn't sure I could justify buying two pairs, unless one was exceedingly cheap. I may still buy these leather sandals she offered, but I'll have to think about it and I might have to buy something in the meantime.

There was a woman loitering around during the entire ten to twenty minutes this woman was offering me sandals to try on, and eventually measuring my feet; once I decided not to make the purchase right away, she all but forced me to follow her to her shop, probably three or four blocks away, where she offered me shirts and fabrics and jackets from my wildest dreams.

It was difficult for me to dissuade her initially, as I can't afford to have much cotton, and further I can't afford to buy much more than one shirt on my way through the first time. I may come through Hoi An just before I head to the airport in Hanoi, and go on an absurd spending spree, for myself and my family, but I might have to get some checked baggage at that point. That'd be interesting.

Anyway, eventually she quoted an actual price to me for a simple polyester T-shirt, and her price was (initially) $35. USD. I almost laughed at her, saying I'd pay $15 or less; perhaps that seems mean, but the shirt on my back cost me less even than that. Also, they didn't have a proper orange fabric to be found.

I was sorely disappointed, and at that point, between the lack of orange, the price, and the fact that I'd been unceremoniously walked four blocks (she rode my bike; I initially assumed her shop was across the street, then that she was stealing the bike, before I arrived, perhaps five minutes later, at her shop). She meant well, I don't doubt, but I'll have to check out more tailors (cobblers?) around town before I make a purchase like that. I can only afford to have one more shirt in my backpack, so it'd better be everything I want and still reasonably priced.

Once I escaped the tailors' shop, I went out, hoping my bike hadn't been stolen (they're equipped with this interesting lock which is mounted on the fender), and finding it still out there, I realized it was afternoon and I had not yet eaten lunch. I'd picked a restaurant earlier that day to go to, called La Plage, near the beach, beyond the initial Hoi An beach area, which is supposedly devastated. It's a real shame if our attempts to view the beauty of this country, we've managed to destroy the beach there. The beach near La Plage was a few kilometers north of my homestay, which I rode past and continued on, on the beach road, toward the north beach.

One thing from earlier today which I ought to mention is that I found some sunscreen at a pharmacy and bought it. Six ounces. One hundred eighty thousand dong. $8.44. 6 oz.

Now that I think about it, it MIGHT have been cheaper to bring a smaller case full of sunscreen and other liquids than it'll be to buy them all here. Of course, I didn't barter with this woman. I guess I really need to shake off the sort of official status I give pharmacies. In the US, despite the fact that they're technically businesses, there's this sort of impression of officialness, as if they were part of the government or something.

I suspect the Vietnamese learned this and took advantage of the social norms of America in order to get a profit here in Vietnam. I guess next time I'll have to offer half her price and start walking away if I don't like the price she reciprocates with. Anyway. That happened. That's relevant for what happened twenty minutes ago, though. Not just some random tangent. Yay!

So I arrived at the beachfront area, in which vehicles and bicycles are prohibited. As often occurs in these areas, there were several parking lots as you approached the vehicle-prohibited area. One lady quickly flagged me down, offering a price of 20,000 dong, and I counter-offered ten, just like that. I kind of feel like a jerk and a boss at the same time, but I doubt she feels much pity for those she manages to charge that much to.

Anyway, another man had a lot directly next to hers, and he quickly asked, "Ten? Ten?" I affirmed and queried the same back to him a couple times just to make sure, and went in to park my bike. He offered me a laminated number, and marked my bike's seat with that number. I paid my fee, and went on my way.

La Plage was a bit hard to find, honestly. On Google Maps, it shows up just off the road, probably within fifty meters or so. However, the fact was it was well down a footpath back toward the homestay. I insisted on finding it instead of settling for another, as it had good reviews on Google Maps. It was worth it.

I'll have to return and take some photos tomorrow, but beyond that, the food was good (fried shrimp and fried shrimp spring rolls), and as of now, sitting in my hotel, I have yet to pay for my meal (which amounted to nearly $9). I intended to return as soon as possible to repay my debt, but the Aussie tending bar said he trusted me, "Your face looks like an honest one," he said. I went back to the homestay and here I sit in my bed.

I've neglected to take any photos since I left Ninh Binh, but I hope to get to sleep early tonight and wake up to take a timelapse of the sun as it rises. I only hope I get the exposure correct for when the sun has risen. It's impossible to accurately determine what the exposure needs to be a few hours ahead of time, but I have to give it a try.

My host, Hu'ng, came up just now and asked me, for his mother, whether I'd stay and eat dinner with them. I was glad to accept; I only hope his mother doesn't try to marry off her daughter in the three days I have here.

I think I should just buy those sandals, but probably at 600,000 rather than 750,000. It seems like a pair of properly fitted leather sandals ought to be worth about $30. A big box store in the US would sure take the opportunity to overcharge me. At least if I'm getting overcharged here, it's for a product being made specifically for me, out of (presumably) real leather, and by a person far closer to the labor and source of the merchandise than at said store in the US.

Speaking of labor, there are cooking classes everywhere here. Of course, I was staying at a hotel in the middle of no-where before, but I think I might have to stay here in Hoi An for a week or more. There's so much to do so close. Boat tours, bike tours, motorcycle tours, beach, restaurants, so many homestays and hotels which I want to try, I'm hopefully going to be able to get to Saigon and Angkor Wat before I have to return.

The space of time I have afforded myself feels now uncomfortably little.

I'll write you some whimsical poetry or prose or something while looking out upon the ocean tomorrow, so you one day save a few thousand dollars and come here. While Tam Coc would probably be my choice in the summer, if you travel during the winter years, I think Hoi An would probably be a better choice.

Oh. And there's still Hue, as well. I've been told that I would love that place, as it has a great deal of history to it and everything. I feel like the history of a place may not hold as much appeal to me as the faces and sights of a place, but I'll probably try to make it to Hue at least with as much vigor as Saigon.

I've written too much, I feel. I worry that you won't read the whole thing if I keep jabbering, but I guess I write for the most interested of my audience, not the least.

I'm getting slightly better in body, and being in a new place where the sun shines will do some good for my spirits (as if they need it)...I finished Tintin and the Shooting Star, if you're inclined to follow me in that. It surprises me now how little time it takes to read a single book; they're all less than a hundred pages, I think, and I can pretty easily read one before bed.


February 20, 2015

Day Zero in Hoi An

I just arrived in Hoi An a few hours ago, and am now sleeping in a homestay I walked in on. The hosts were welcoming, but somewhat difficult to communicate with, but I am now in a comfortable bed for today/tonight. I plan to move to a homestay closer to the beach on the morrow, where I will stay for three or four days.

I didn't sleep all the time on the bus, so I'll be asleep hopefully for a long time now. I'll probably wake up at some absurd hour of the night; perhaps I'll do some star trails photography, perhaps I'll simply browse the internet when I wake up. I downloaded copies of all the Adventures of Tintin, and have read through about five of them. There are included in this pirated batch a few works I've never read completely.

I'm tired. I'll update you when I get to Hung's Beachside Homestay tomorrow. Maybe tonight. Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope life back home is going well.


Day Eleven in...and out of Paradise

So today I was becoming more and more concerned that I'd be whisked off to be wed to some unsuspecting Vietnamese maiden, but these suspicions were unfounded. While my host, Anna, repeatedly indicated that I should marry the young lady I mentioned in my previous post, who turned out not to be Anna's sister, but perhaps rather her cousin or something. The relationship they exhibited today seemed more like that of best friends or cousins. Anyway, either they were largely joking, or my dissent was accepted and appreciated.

Anyway, she seemed neither enamored nor disgusted by me, which is a pretty good state to be in, in my book. I returned to the hotel, having collected four million dong to supplement my waning wallet stash, to find most of the women of the family and friends, and the lady herself. At least part of me was unable to avoid considering her features and character, but as we never got properly introduced, I was working primarily with her looks.

Much time was spent at the table eating nuts and candies, enjoying the time together, but I naturally knew almost nothing which was said. Given an environment like that, with seemingly nobody and nothing to talk about but myself, I became paranoid that they genuinely hoped or even expected me to choose a bride and wed her.

Give me a break. I've never traveled before. I'm naive. I'm American. I'm certainly no good at understanding Vietnamese. In my defense, my parents and a fellow passenger on one of my flights here somewhat elevated my paranoia and suspicion of my hosts' motives. But...

I should really move on. It was an excellent time in/near Tam Coc, and I would heartily recommend staying at the Anna Tham Hotel View to anyone, but especially those at least moderately fluent in either French or Vietnamese. With the benefit of one of these languages, communication would be much more fluid, and it would be much easier to deny lovely young Vietnamese women your hand in marriage without confusion or delay.

Anna charged me for nothing but the room. I can mention, I guess, that the price she offered when I contacted her via email was higher than prices offered on booking sites online, but I used the bike probably four or five days, ate (a lot of) breakfast, plenty of lunch and dinner with them, during the last seven days or so, and drank plenty of water (1.5 liters of which was freely given to me for the 12 hour bus ride to Hoi An). Given all this, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I'd racked up well over another million dong; Anna simply calculated the days I stayed, times the price I paid, and then converted to dong.

People have had bad experiences with the hotel, and it's certainly a possibility, as 1. The room doors are difficult to lock (after the first three days, I didn't bother) 2. The showers are somewhat awkward. 3. Other minor quibbles.

Face it, though, for $22 a night, you're getting a ton. I'm hoping to stay at a homestay in Hoi An, and I'd be surprised if they could treat me better. Also, the banana pancakes will be difficult to beat. I'd love to try making some back home right now, but I suspect the quality of ingredients back home would make them mundane and uninteresting; I think the bananas here sort of have a deeper flavor; it's like the ones we have at home are two dimensional, and the ones here in Vietnam are three-dimensional. Anyway, I really like the banana pancakes.

I'm currently on a bus to Hoi An. I may have said that before, but I should describe it, lest you never know what a Vietnamese sleeper bus is like. To begin with, it's a pretty big bus. It has three rows of two layers of beds, which can lift up to a sitting position.

They seem to be playing a Vietnamese television station right now, which as a live performance of what seems to be pop music; in the background you can regularly hear the loud PARP of the bus's horn. The horn will almost certainly be consistently in use throughout the night. I think in the case of buses the use of the horn isn't so much to announce one's presence, but rather to barge as quickly and as dangerously as possible through traffic. It serves to alert other vehicles to its presence, but I believe in the case of the buses, they're in a big hurry and don't care who knows it.

I'm about twenty kilometers outside Ninh Binh now, and have been on this bus no more than forty minutes. I have yet twelve hours, I believe, until I reach Hoi An. The beds around me are occupied with a variety of Vietnamese, some quite young, and some more middle-aged. The young lady in front of me is particularly adorable. I hope I can bring a smile to her face sometime during this journey.

I remain somewhat sick, but recovering. Unwed, but content. I should be in Hoi An early tomorrow.


February 18, 2015

Day Nine in Paradise: Tet

Today was the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year, officially called Tet Nguyen Dan, if my memory still serves me well.

Technically, the new year begins at midnight, a few hours from now, but the supper tonight was one of many dishes, whiskey, beer, and relatives I'd not yet seen; any and all guests were invited, if I'm correct, and I got to meet a couple new couples. A British woman who's been around for a day or so also attended.

Between us the majority knew French (I being in the minority), English (the French among us were weaker in this department), and also all of us seemed to know one or two words in Vietnamese.

We sat down to a table comprised of three tables, at which were far, far too many seats. Eventually all these seats were filled. I prayed, as I couldn't really expect anyone else to do so for me or join me, and began eating.

As we ate together, as has been common at family meals, the family would put things into my bowl of rice and encourage me to eat them. The incidence of these sort of things was actually less during the meal tonight than usual, such that I had to actually ask for rice a few times, as well as things to eat with it.

It felt a lot like Thanksgiving back home, but all the food was completely different; there was a chicken, pretty much cooked whole and then chopped into more portion-sized bits; there were these sort of bundles they made earlier of shrimp, what I assume was pork, lettuce, mint, and parsley (I think). These were wrapped up together in a kind of strip of green of some sort. Something like...oh, my memory fails me. Spinach! Like the stems of spinach leaves, I think. with those would they wrap up these combinations of ingredients.

There were slices of what seemed like sausage of some sort, another sort of green, there was a dish comprised of what we thought was pork and what seemed like spinach or some such green...

I'm pretty terrible at describing these things, unfortunately. While I enjoyed the meal and the company, I still feel I would enjoy the fried goat at the Bamboo restaurant more. Whatever. It was another good meal in a foreign land, and I loved it.

I have time now to write this because, like the western New Year, it begins at midnight; thus, fireworks will be ignited, and hopefully I'll get some good pictures then. I feel I ought to take a nap between now and then, but it may be that I'll be able to stay awake in Ninh Binh (more fireworks in the city). The difficulty will arise when I arrive back here and fall straight to sleep instead of writing to you first.

I've been worried occasionally that my hosts' generosity and kindness might be expectant of more than the money in payment for my stay here, but tonight I felt so welcomed and at home that, at least for that moment, all doubt of their intentions was gone. We'll see, in the coming days, if their love has limit or hope for payment I don't know of.

This is slowly becoming one of my favorite places in the world. It will be a beautiful memory one day, a place I long deeply to return to. I think I might spend a few days here for Tet, then pass on to Hoi An, if all goes well. I was considering biking to Hoi An, but it's almost eight hundred kilometers, so I should probably not try that, certainly without some recovery. It would take four days or so...and I've never biked that much in my life. Still, it would be a wonderful adventure to bike down Vietnam, had I the endurance and the bicycle to do so.

Anna bought me cough drops and nasal spray, which I've used once. Yet another example of them treating me like family, which is nice. It feels as if that's confusing to me, though. I don't know how to describe it, but part of my intention in traveling was to be away from my family for a while, and now I'm on the other side of the world and family is just as real and as close as it was there.


The young ladies seem to be content to leave me alone, which is relieving. There was a couple from Canada (also from Tokyo...I think. I can't remember), and listening to the lady's voice was interesting; I could sense it was different from Minnesota proper, but the similarity was there, and it served as an oasis of sorts in the desert. I was going to tell her that she reminded me of home, but I didn't get to it. She stays here, though, so maybe I'll get another chance.

For some reason, in connection with asking me to marry her sister (who may actually not be her sister; I've assumed things about the family here which aren't true), Anna asked whether I could dance. I would have been hesitant to say so before this January, but I feel somewhat confident in my ability to do so now. I assured her that I could.

Tet goes on for several days now, so I should have some interesting updates to post over the next week or so. I kind of hope I move on from the hotel. I love to be treated like family, but at the same time I can't wait to leave them.

Wanderlust, I believe, might describe what I feel. I feel antsy. The road beckons. I'll leave soon.

Just as soon as they get my laundry back...


February 17, 2015

Day Eight in Paradise; of Motorcycles and Buying Things

So it's been that long, I guess. It's surprising, waking up and realizing I've been in one place this long. It's sort of an unpleasant reality to have to face, but Tet is tomorrow. Things should get interesting starting very soon.

The last two days haven't been particularly eventful, but I did go to see a pagoda this...afternoon, I think. It was interesting, and I got photos of it, but it's been stressful trying to write posts sort of "around" photos; further difficulty when I try to keep things in chronological order and everything. If you look at the post history from my journey thusfar, you'll see that initially I wasn't able to upload photos and embed them into my posts, and then it began to be more and more photos as I went on. This trend has correlated with difficulty getting the posts up on time, splitting the posts up, and while it leads to a lot of gorgeous content that you won't see this post, it kind of bogs me down.

Editing photos, even simply exporting them for web usage, takes a long time, and compared to simply composing a text post, ends up being much more complicated and difficult. I realized slowly that this was a pretty difficult thing to do, so today's post will be uncoordinated, text-only, and probably go anywhere from Hanoi to now in the space of a sentence or two. Even given all that, my hands are getting heavy.

One of the things that just struck me as hilarious when I first got to Vietnam was the motorcycles. It strikes an American as downright unsafe, but in a way, I'd feel more comfortable driving a motorcycle in Vietnam than in the United States. If you've ridden bikes at all, or spent any amount of time coasting through red lights or weaving around cars and pedestrians, it's not a whole lot different. Also, it's not terribly fast; I was riding on the back of Mr. Tham's motorcycle yesterday and he was going no faster than 40 km/h most of the time. The rest of traffic was rarely faster, and this on one of Vietnam's larger highways.

Among the things you'll see on the roads in Vietnam are primarily motorcycles. Motorcycles with one person, two people, three people, four...maybe five. Motorcycles with trees mounted on the back. Motorcycles with refrigerators on the back (there's a home appliance store in Ninh Binh that we passed; they were loading at least one small-medium sized such appliance onto the bikes outside).

Some of the most startling things you see in Vietnam are mothers with their young children (sometimes toddlers or younger) simply sitting behind them on their motorcycles. I don't think it makes much sense to get upset or try to do something about it, so I kind of just acknowledge it. I guess I should probably treat it more seriously than I do, but there's so much different and completely weird about Vietnam that you can't be outraged every time someone puts a baby on a motorcycle.

I've never seen a crash in Vietnam; I took this as a sign that Vietnamese riders are just that good at avoiding others, but I've heard a couple terrible stories about collisions and the response Vietnamese sometimes give such accidents. Neither of these are happy stories.

Still, I've been in Vietnam almost two weeks, and haven't yet seen a single collision. It's not a perfect world, and Vietnamese probably aren't technically any better with motorcycles than anyone else in the world, but I think they do a good job. Biking through busy streets in Tam Coc isn't difficult. It's the occasional unpredictable movement that could end in disaster.

Motorcycles in Vietnam can be hilarious, though. It's like the melting pot of the most wonderful or stupid (we don't know yet) ideas of what to do with motorcycles.

Today, I was in a restaurant in Tam Coc, when a motorcycle with a couple of guys on it passed by; initially, it looked like the back guy was guiding a single dumpster behind them while they rode, but the fact was that both his hands were tied up leading two dumpsters behind him and his partner on the motorcycle.

Frequently you'll see a bike being led behind a motorcycle or one of the electronic bicycles they have here. I'll have to show you guys a photo of one of the electronic bikes they have here. They're kinda weird.

I bought a Tintin in Vietnam t-shirt in Hanoi, which was Medium, and yet too small for me (I almost couldn't get it off). I decided to try buying another one today in the storefronts in Tam Coc, and soon enough I found a store offering it. They had a "display model" mounted on the ceiling, hanging down, and then there were stacks of them back under the ceiling. I compared the shirt I got from inside to the one outside, thinking something was amiss, but they were close, if not identical. I paid (he offered the price of $5, I counter-offered 100,000 dong, not much less, and he smiled and agreed, simpering, "Alright, happy Tet for you."), left, and was on my way. I wanted the shirt then so I could take a shower and get my clothes cleaned.

When I arrived at the hotel again, I compared the two Tintin in Vietnam shirts I'd gotten, and then I found the difference. Not all merchandise in Vietnam is equal. In the case of the two shirts, the latter one is correctly sized and has a passable impression of Tintin and Snowy on it, but the one I purchased in Hanoi had a clearer, more accurate representation of the two, and had a single font for the text rather than two separate fonts. The difference is fairly stark when they're next to each other.

Further, the Lonely Planet guide I bought in Hanoi for the four countries initially on my itinerary, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, was photocopied. The quality was sufficient to read the text and probably use the guidebook, but the pages were in black and white, not color, as the Vietnam guidebook was.

The bottom line is that if you buy something in Vietnam, know what you're getting before you even start trying to barter. Once you start negotiating, the quality of the product is no longer in question in your mind, as you're experimenting and having fun haggling with a Vietnamese man. Whether the product is good enough or not isn't in question anymore.

You can definitely inspect merchandise on the street before buying it, and if you're not sure it's good, you can always walk away. Make sure you're getting what you want. If you're not, you should probably just walk, because I don't know how Vietnamese take lowballing.

That said, you can get good, real copies of Lonely Planet guide books or phrasebooks for really good prices, and sometimes you get a book which you don't really need the real copy for, as you'll read it once and give it away.

Anyway, I've still got something of a cold, despite a couple cups of ginger root tea and several servings of pho, some potato soup a couple of times, and the occasional pretty dang hot dish.

I'm well otherwise, and will try to keep you guys informed and updated.

As of now, plans are to remain here. Tet begins tomorrow, and hopefully I'll participate and enjoy it a ton. I've learned a bit about the customs during Tet, and I'll hopefully respect one or two of them.


February 14, 2015

In Which I Sort of Get Proposed To

So today was really rainy and unpleasant in the beginning, but then around two in the afternoon, the rain stopped and the outlook for the next several hours (weather-wise) looked good. It wasn't going to get sunny, but it was passable biking weather.

I decide about that time to pack up and head to the Bamboo restaurant, as I do; it felt a little weird because I would probably go there again in the evening, but I love it there. It's about as close to a home as you can get without actually ever sleeping there. I could go on, but I've got a story to tell.

Having gone downstairs, I was about to jump on Anna's bike and start riding, when she called me over and directed me into their kitchen; I hadn't been in their kitchen before, as the restaurant style seating is arranged in the reception area; usually I'd  just sit there. I'd wanted to see the kitchen when they were making food, but hadn't ever been inside before.

It wasn't particularly clean or impressive, but it was probably cleaner and almost as organized as the McDonalds in Dinkytown I used to work at. I'd love to organize and clean the place, but it obviously served its purpose.

They offered me a plate of rice and what I assume was grilled goat; there was lettuce on the side, as well, a trio of spring rolls, and a couple oranges parted out into sections. I prayed and begin eating, in front of them. They occupy themselves in the kitchen, the six or seven of them, but all the while they're talking, occasionally laughing, and at one point Anna mentions that one of the men there is her husband.

I'd been wondering this, honestly, but she had a sister. Plus, I wasn't really betting on falling in love and getting married to a Vietnamese girl. I just sort of constantly keep my eyes open for girls whom I might be interested in.

Anyway, a minute or two later, as I was eating orange portions (I think), Anna says something or other (her accent is pretty difficult), indicating her sister, and crosses her fingers. I'm sort of already on to her, but my brain is a bit slow sometimes, and this was one of those times. I asked her to say it again, and again I didn't really understand what she said, but her signing was slowly clicking in my head. At some point I got it and started protesting, in the most logical way I thought I could.

I've heard that Asians have a different idea of marriage than Americans, and that, in some respects, it's more of a business arrangement than an alignment of lives together toward a given goal. It didn't occur to me at this time to mention I was a Christian, but I doubt that would have dissuaded them either. Anna was persistent.

I told them all (Anna, her mother, father, husband, sister, and probably brother were all in the kitchen at this point, not necessarily focused on me, but attentive to the conversation at hand) that I had no job, no money, and no work visa (don't really know why I said this; it's more likely that Anna's sister is interested in American citizenship than myself becoming a permanent resident of Vietnam).

Anna said no matter for all three protests. I couldn't think of anything else on the spot, so I simply said no (as graciously as I could) and, having finished my meal, went back to my room.

I'm not certain any of them was completely serious about this, but I get the feeling that perhaps everyone but Anna's sister was pretty serious about it. That said, they were all smiles and laughter as we were talking about it.

Perhaps I shouldn't be taking this so lightly, but it just cracks me up; maybe one day my sisters will propose each other off to their suitors. That would be bomb.

I am sick in body, and raucously laughing in spirit. May you be at least as well.