Monday, January 31, 2011

Vietnam - Day 2

Slept like a baby. Thank God all the street noise (ie. CONSTANT honking) dies down around 10:30pm.

The hotel provides a nice breakfast selection: I had a ham & cheese omelette, toast, and coffee, pretty much just like in the US. The staff here are extremely friendly.

I had planned to follow a walking tour suggested by my tour book, but I only did about half. There is just no way to describe the chaotic streets here in Hanoi; your senses are absolutely overloaded by the traffic, the crowds, the street vendors, aaaah! I can't wait to post the videos when I get home.

I got up my nerve to eat lunch at a street shop that the locals eat at, but that appears intimidating to most tourists. I had a tasty lunch of bún chả (soup with grilled beef, noodles, and lots of different veggies) and nem cua bể (fried spring rolls). The proprietress wasn't overly friendly, but the food was good so who cares, right?

After lunch I walked and walked, taking in all the craziness. One small shop caught my eye, and I'm so glad I stopped, because inside was an old mahjong set with wood-and-bone tiles. I was very interested in it, but wanted to make sure it had all of the pieces. The woman running the store was quite friendly and started helping me remove the pieces and sort them out.

During this time, a group of about 6 tourists (they spoke Chinese, and English with a Singaporean accent, so that's where I'm guessing they were from) came in the tiny, tiny shop, and here I was crouched down in the tiny, tiny aisle, trying to sort out the mahjong pieces. At first I felt bad kind of being in the way, but then a couple of women in the group were getting very pushy with their haggling, so the shop owner seemed relieved when they left.

I asked the price of the mahjong set (500,000d), which I was willing to pay since I just had to have it. However, this was the kind of store that one should haggle at. I felt a little bad because the other customers were kind of rude, so as friendly as possible I offered 400,000d. She countered with 450,000d. I said OK, as long as she threw in a nifty drab-green Socialist cap with the red star in front. We had ourselves a deal.

Now I was on a shopping roll. I bought postcards and stamps, then found a shop selling propaganda art so I picked up a poster for my apartment.

I headed back to my hotel room to write postcards (2 hours?!). Now it was getting time for dinner. I walked to a restaurant that was recommended in one of my brochures, but they said they were all booked up for the night. So I wandered toward the Hoan Kiem Lake area. Again, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the people (including tourists) and street vendors. I found the answer on Hang Hanh street: A massage place.

The guy who got me to go to this place even had brochures printed with the prices, so I figured it was legit. However, I started to get nervous when he led me down a long, narrow passage between buildings. At the end was a small staircase, and I was instructed to go up to the third floor. I was really nervous at this point, but I was here for an adventure, right?

Anyway, The place had 6 massage tables, soothing music (thank God it wasn't Viet karaoke) and the smell of aromatherapy in the air, so I relaxed. I got a fantastic, relaxing one hour full-body Thai oil massage; the masseuse even walked on my back. I'm going to try to go again before I leave.

I had dinner a few doors down, at a place called Rainbow. Yuk. I paid way too much for some beef dish that had no flavor until I drowned it with chili sauce. I say 'way too much', and 95,000d does sound like a lot, but actually that's less than $5 US.

Walked to Bistro Frank and had a mint cappuccino for the second night in a row.

Now it's time for bed, then Halong Bay tomorrow.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Made it to Vietnam

I'll post photos when I return.

It's Sunday afternoon, just checked into my hotel. Can't seem to access Facebook (maybe that's a good thing) so I'll make a quick blog post.

The plane flight was uneventful (thank God). I had arranged and already paid for someone "from the hotel" to pick me up. Two guys (Tom and ??) were waiting with a sign with my name and the hotel address, but I grilled them just to make sure I wasn't getting ripped off. I felt like an ugly, snobby American, but all the advice said to be on guard. Tom phoned someone, then told me the name of my hotel, but he said the old Vietnamese name (Chiang My), not the current English name (Harmony Hotel). Fortunately, I had seen the former name mentioned on Trip Adviser, or I wouldn't have trusted them.

I wrote "from the hotel" because they didn't actually work there. I guess the travel agent arranged it. The guy who spoke English (Tom) tried to make conversation, but I was still wary and being short with him. When he asked about me exchanging cash, I got suspicious again. He took out his phone and showed me exchange rates from the internet, so I relaxed a bit and tried to make small talk.

Before dropping me off at the hotel, they took me to a place where I could exchange my money on Sunday, since the banks are closed. It's such a strange feeling to be on guard like that, not know who's trying to rip you off.

Anyway, it turns out he wanted to know what currency I was exchanging so he could find a place with the best rates. There are a lot of these exchange types of places near the hotel. I ended up getting 19,500 dong to 1 US dollar, which is a good rate because I just checked and it's 19,450 to 1.

When I got to the hotel, the front desk guy held my passport and showed me my room. I got nervous again, but I knew that they needed to do extra paperwork because the government keeps tabs on where foreigners are while here. Anyway, he said he'd return it right away (see below).

I had been in my room 5 minutes when the front desk called and said the driver wanted to talk to me. I thought, "Here it comes, they're gonna try to get money out of me when I had already paid in advance through the travel agency." I went downstairs, and it seemed like the driver was trying to get money, but with their accent it's difficult to understand their English. I looked to the desk clerk for help, but he seemed confused. I produced my receipt and asked to use the phone to call the travel agent. At that point, as if by magic, everything was squared away.

The driver kept just hanging around, so I figured he was after a tip. I didn't have any smaller dong (LOL) so I asked the front desk guy for change, gave Tom a tip (he did take me to the money exchanger, after all) and that seemed to make everyone smile. I gave him 50,000d and, not being familiar with such large amounts, I was afraid I had overtipped him. Later I figured that's like $2.50, and seeing that it was a 45 minute ride to the hotel and that he took me to the money exchange place, that's not bad.

By the way, I stayed in the lobby to write this to wait for my passport, and the clerk just now gave it back, so things are looking on the up-and-up.

Time to try to take a little nap, then venture out with my camera.


After trying to take a nap on the hard, wafer-thin thing they call a mattress--in all my clothes because the room was so cold--I went downstairs to explore my surroundings.

As I walked through the lobby, a different front desk clerk stopped me to tell me that my room was ready. Huh? It seems that I had arrived before check-in time, and so I had been put in a temporary room. My new room is much bigger, and has a bed with a real mattress, a large bathroom with a big bathtub, a balcony overlooking Lan Ong Street, and heating!

With my spirits lifted, I walked down the ridiculously crowded streets of the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake, and stopped at one of the many vendors to buy a t-shirt (I 'heart' Hanoi). I got my first experience in haggling here. The woman said the t-shirt was 100,000 dong. I saw 2 other shirts that I liked, so I asked if she could go lower than 300,000d for the three. She offered 270,00d ("only 90,000 each"), so I pulled out 250,000d and offered that. She hesitated a bit, but in the end took it. Perhaps someone else could have gotten them cheaper, but I felt good that I even negotiated in the first place. By the way, 250,00d=$12.80US.

After my t-shirt purchase I found a small pho shop called 24 Pho. I sat next to a couple of German women who suggested I see the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which I may do tomorrow. Anyway, I was anxious when I paid my bill, because it's hard to get used to these staggering dong amounts, and I'm always worried that I'm spending too much. My pho was 44,000d, but turns out that's just $2.25US.

I walked down some different streets to get back to my hotel. I wasn't actually sure where I was going, even though I had a map. I was hoping to find a cool cafe, and I did: "Barista Frank" on Phu Doan St. The middled-aged proprietress wearing too much make up was quite friendly, and I felt so continental drinking my mint cappuccino (delicious!) at a sidewalk table.

After my initial nervousness about getting ripped off by the driver and while exchanging money and my disappointing first room, I feel much better now and ready to explore more of Hanoi tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chinese New Year travel plans

courtesy of www.traveladventures.orgWow, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years have all come and gone without a post. Well, let's not dwell on the past. I intend to catch up, but not at the moment.

Big upcoming news is that I'll be leaving for Vietnam on January 30th to start my Chinese New Year vacation. I plan to cruise Hạ Long and Bái Tử Long Bays, and watch the New Year's Eve fireworks at Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi.

On New Years Day (February 3rd) I'm off to Cambodia to spend a few days wandering around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

I'll post my itinerary in the next few days.