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Hanoi and Vietnam- Living Day to Day

a travel blog by Mike_Veine

This blog is a follow up to the Top Gear Adventure 2- Vietnam Boogaloo and deals with day to day living in Hanoi and my further adventures in Vietnam!
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My Third Week in Hanoi 7-18-13

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hi Family and Friends- It has been a long time since my last blog entry and I have been absorbing the sights and sounds of daily life in Hanoi since then. After I arrived here I stayed two nights at the Sheraton Hotel and celebrated the end of the Top Gear Challenge of successfully riding a small motorbike from Ho Chi Minh City in the South to Ha Long Bay in the North and then to Hanoi. I lived large soaking and sunning at the pool and enjoying the complimentary breakfast buffet and the nightly cocktail and hors de voures reception and eating steak and pizza with nice red wines! Tough living!!! My goal was to find an apartment and live here in Hanoi for a month and take lessons in the Vietnamese language and Iam happy to say I have succeeded on the apartment front, but unfortunately I have not had any success in enrolling in language lessons that would help me. I signed up for one class and anticipated it all weekend only to have them cancel on me and return my deposit on Monday when I showed up for my first class and this put me a little off of the whole thing sadly.

I live on the fourth floor of a seven story hotel called the Lotus in an area that is near the big lake and close to the Sheraton hotel, but still fairly far from the backpacker/ tourist center of Old Hanoi so there are very few westerners around me. My apartment is one room with a bath and a kitchen sink, hot plate, electric kettle, microwave/oven combo and wifi and cable TV. Also A/C and a wall mounted oscillating fan. All utilities except electric are covered and the apartment is cleaned for me three times a week and fresh bed linens provided. My view is mostly the blank wall of a six story building next door and some surrounding buildings that are smaller and the sky where there are lightning storms almost every night! The windows are very large and open so I can hear the thunder and feel the temperture change as the rains come if I want to. My apartment is very new- all new tile and all the appliances still have their stickers on them so I may be one of the first occupants!

Parking is on the first floor and is a locked garage and the lobby is one level up and seems to usually have someone on duty all the time. They have a small bar area and a cooler with drinks you can buy and a menu for delivery pizza I have yet to use.

I am on a large and busy street, but off the street are tiny alleys with residences and shops and market stalls where I buy food and vegetables from street vendors and haggle over the price of cabbage and how many tomatoes I can get for 5,000 Dong. Fun. I am still the curiosity even after three weeks and there is good natured laughter and banter as I shop and mostly smiles- not bad.

I've been cooking much of the time and eating in and my appetite has been very suppressed probably because of the heat. I rarely eat the street food and sometimes buy prepared meat like BBQ Pork chop and cut it up into my rice or other things I prepare. I've been craving western food and have tried Vietnamese Mexican at one place that was not Mexican at all and a hamburger at another that was highly recommended but not as good as a Burger King Whopper! My best meal I cooked was rice/beef stuffed cabbage rolls in a stewed tomato sauce with onion, garlic and basil that I made from scratch with mashed potatos. Some basic things are tough to find here at least where I shop- like butter, milk that is not sweetened, and ketchup or tobasco sauce. Just not in their diet here.

I try to walk ten kilometers every day and most of the time walk part of the way around the large lake and combine this with a taxi ride either out to a sight to see or back home. Cabs are pretty cheap and I pay about 5 bucks per ride including tip so very worth it to me to avoid the traffic/parking and navigation problems of the big city and when combined with my walk gets me some of the exercise I need.

The lake is very cool with little cafes and coffee shops all around it and you can watch fishermen toss their lines in reel up their catch. There is a nice breeze in the evenings and it is quieter there than the other more hustley-bustley areas of the city. Sights I have seen include the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton), the Women's Museum, Peace Park, Lenin's Park and the National Fine Arts Museum. Still on my list are the Military Museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where Uncle Ho lies mummified. That closes really early so I've missed it so far. I will be in Hanoi until July 31st so there's no real hurry!

I've been to the main tourist/backpacker area at night once and it was amazing to see all of the Westerners! More than I've seen in a month in one night!!! My area is very quiet at night and I like it and the more local feeling I get there. There is a KFC near that area and I guess I will go there when I want fried chicken sometime and I just heard on the Asian news that Mc Donalds will be coming to Vietnam next year so the West continues to assimilate this culture slowly...

Some of the very cool things near me are a farm right off the main street where rice and vegetables are grown and fish raised and at night there are small bats all over that area eating the little flies and bugs. I've seen women harvesting herbs from the smallest areas that look like weeds, but are actually carefully planted- these people are industrious and waste not- want not oriented.

Overall I am having a vry good stay here and getting fit and resting up at the same time. After Hanoi I will travel North to Sapa near the Chinese border and try to climb the largest peak in Vietnam, Mount Fansifan- 3143 meters and a bit of a hike as well. That trip will be guided and I hope to see some ethnic minority villages there as well. Then I will drive South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail which is the inland North-South artery and will be all new scenery for me since I came up the coast on Highway 1.

Then out of Vietnam and into Laos.

More on Hanoi living next time....Peace, Out!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on July 18, 2013 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Hanoi and Vietnam- Living Day to Day
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Last Night in Hanoi 7/31/13

Hanoi, Vietnam

My Last Night in Hanoi
I have not really bloggd much here because I am just living day to day- watching TV, sleeping in, taking long walks around my neighborhood.In short, Hanoi is just like anywhere else when you live there!
There are cultual and language differences, but nothing insurmountable and with so many people here, especially so many Expatriots and Westen business people you have many oppotunities for good connections.
Highlights for me include my neighborhood market owner who always invites me to have a cup of coffee with her, a German burrsinessman who shared a ton of his friends wih me and opened up some doors and an English woman working on her Masters Degree who is changing the World in a great way!
The weather has been hot and humid mostly so my Aircon is essential, but there have been some wild thunderstorms and gulley washer rainstorms as well and it is now cooling off in the nighttime.
For enertainment and food you have the choices of any national capitol city, all styles and choices are represented with some outstanding restaurants and first run movies in the theaters. I did not find a motor racing scene, but the way they drive everyday is close!!
I liked my modern apartment and the included cleaning service very much- if I were livng here the kitchen would be too small though! And it might be nice to liive with a roommate or two for the company :)
Like many places you live you look past some of the negetives and focus on what's in front of you at the time- as they say in Hanoi- if it's snake eating time you eat snake! (Disclosure: I am not sure if ANYONE here actually says that, but I do!)
I may be back here someday, they pay well for English teachers and I have enjoyed my visit so definitely keep Hanoi on a list of Places to See if you come to SE Asia!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on July 31, 2013 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Hanoi and Vietnam- Living Day to Day
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Climbing Mt Fansipan 8/10

Sa Pa, Vietnam

A Climbing Mt. Fansipan

Up at 2:30 am, fell asleep at 9:30 last night and I need to pack for the climb of 3400 meter Mt. Fanispan and pack up my room to store my excess gear at my hotel.

The hotel staff arranged the climb which is costing me 1,400,000 Dong inclusive of meals, guide/porter, transportation, and sleeping gear. The climb is a 2 day affair where we begin at around 1600 m and climb to.a high camp at 2800 m overnight in a steel shed then summit run early am weather permitting and back to Sa Pa.

The bus picks me up at 8 am and it is jammed with Vietnamese climbers- as the foreigner on the trip they kindly give me the shotgun seat while they pack them in like sardines behind me.

We have a short ride to the National Park that Fanispan is in, but I still almost get car sick from the way the driver throws the bus through the corners of the,winding mountain road- nice way to start a climb!

Mt. Fansipan requires a permit to climb it and it is very difficult to get permission to go without a guide, maybe impossible even, and as I leave bus I am introduced to my guide, Mr. Xing (pronounced sing). Mr Xing will carry my group gear and food and cook for me and make sure I make it in one piece out and back. As,with any climb you can't guarantee a summit since fitness and weather play a huge roll in your success.

Mr Xing is about 5' 2" and probably 100 lbs soaking wet. He carries the,gear in a woven basket with thin nylon straps to go over his shoulders. He is wearing calf length black cotton pants, a black mid sleeve synthetic t shirt and plastic shower sandals. I estimate the weight of his basket at 30 lbs easy, maybe more.

Mr Xing and I set out ahead of everyone else and of course instead of going up we begin to go down on rocks and mud to a stream. Mr Xing casually trots down a slick 30 degree rock section while I carefully watch where he puts his feet and slowly move down it. I realize I am in for a wild ride!

The trail is very wet and muddy and st times we are literally climbing up waterfalls and walking in running streambeds and it will almost surely rain some more today.It is a tree enclosed jungle we hike through with bamboo and sticker bushes on either side for some stretches. You will come to a steep scrambling section that climbs 100 meters and then hit a ridge and descend and lose 75 and that is the hlike to snack camp in a nutshell.

At snack camp I sat in a large tarp shelter that could accommodate 20- 30 climbers, because we left first I had it all to myself! Mr Xing brought a tray with sliced tomato and cucumber, two baguettes and two fried eggs for my "lunch" and while I was eating a trio of French trekers arrived and behind them a gaggle of Vietnamese climbers of assorted aged men and women.

Mr Xing and I left before the French, but they caught us on the second steep climb and went ahead. Right after they passed me a Mountain Goat walked onto the trail! He was black and grey and had curling horns like a ram should. He was fairly small, but much stockier than a billy goat and had a big chest. He eyed me for about 4 seconds and then walked off the path and back into the brush. We also found a two foot long earthworm on the trail who was a centimeter across at the middle with a pinkish-purple band around his otherwise grey body at precisely his mid point. Did not touch him, but was tempted....the only other animal encounters were dogs, puppies and a very friendly cat at the snack camp.

The climb to high camp was very steep proceeding up and over a series of progressively larger peaks with short descents between each peak. There would have been spectacular views, but we were shrouded in clouds with drizzle and occasionally raindrops as our companions.

After two hours of climbing we reached the High Camp just as the skies opened up with a torrential rain that would last all night and well into the next day.

Our high camp shelter was a metal shed with a wooden plank floor and raised platforms on either side of s central aisle.
There were lines strung over the center to hang set clothes onto and I quickly shed my raincoat and shirt.and t-shirt and hung them over my corner spot where Mr Xing had my gear.it was dark inside the shelter and the steady beat of the rain accompanied the tapping of my keyboard as I made notes. I was still feeling very cold despite changing so I asked the girl who maintained the hut if she would make me some hot tea. For 30,000 Dong she made me a glass of hot tea and promised one hot water refill as well which was good because I managed to knock the glass over when it was still half full as I took off my soaking wet socks! My boots were thoroughly drenched- sopping wet in fact. The tea warmed me up and by the second cup I had my sleeping bag pulled over my legs and my music player going and headphones on and I relaxed and watched the soaked stragglers wander into camp. Inspite of my poor condition I had beaten the majority of climbers to camp by a wide margin, so I guess they had a party on the trail and didn't invite me!

It was pitch black inside the shelter when the guides started bringing our dinners in. Each party seemed to be getting different foods with some getting fried foods and others (like me) getting sticky rice, cooked chicken and boiled greens. It was delicious as only camp food can be and the guides lit candles to provide a bit of atmosphere and light for the occasion.

Mr Xing sat with me and filled my bowl first and then I would gesture for him to fill his bowl or he would not eat; he had brought a bottle of ice tea drink that he poured into glasses for us and I was very happy because I was basically out of water (they only supply one bottle a day) and was very thirsty. Imagine my surprise when the 'tea' turned out to be rice alcohol! Mr Xing smiled and toasted and we drank it down, but all I really wanted was water! There was way too much food so I ate my fill and dinner ended with Mr Xing carting the tray out and me watching a movie on my phone before trying to sleep.

Sleep was tough to come by with 25 other people crammed in with you and my provided sleeping pad was flat and leaked- not comfortable- I tossed and turned all night sleeping maybe three hours.

As the night went on the storm only got stronger and by sunup it was a full on monsoon with wind and lashing rain. It was not ideal conditions for sumiting in fact pretty dangerous just to climb down, and I had let Mr Xing know the night before that if it was storming I would not climb up and he could take me down early. By 7 am we were ready to go and for the next four hours we made pur way down trails that were now rivers and rocky descents that were kin to waterfalls. I made use of every hand hold I could find which in many places was bamboo that would dump water on my head when I grabbed it in retaliation! Finally with muscles aching and completely and utterly soaked to the bone I made it back to the park headquarters! I thanked Mr Xing for getting me down safely and tipped him discretely since I was unsure of the cultural aspects of that. I left Mt Fansipan satisfied I had done my best and ready for a nap!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on August 14, 2013 from Sa Pa, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Hanoi and Vietnam- Living Day to Day
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Leaving Vietnam for Laos and New Adventure

Vientiane, Laos

The border

They won't let me cross with bike!!!!!
Think it is driving across, not a technical problem with ownership- they don't let any bikes across hete!
Maybe I could hire a truck to take it and me across?

That didn't work out. Went back to guesthouse and sold the bike to the innkeeper. Got 150 bucks and a free night for it. He also called a bus company for me and booked me on a bus to Laos. Originally I thought I would leave at 1 am but it became 6 am instead. That's the pattern here , things take time and schedules are flexible. The innkeeper's family invited me for dinner and so my last meal in Vietnam was homecooked, we had roast pork that was sliced with boiled onions and cucumber, tofu that was fried with some hot spices, a very spicy fried fish, soup with greens, and sticky rice. They also gave me a beer, but I was the only one with any kind of beverage so that felt weird.

Up to bed for a few hours sleep and in the morning when I went downstairs the innkeeper was crashed out on the,small sofa in the sitting room/lobby. I shook him awake and he went to his phone and texted someone then made a phone call and after that he said we would wait for a phone call and then go. Around 7 am the call came in and he gave me a lift on his scooter to a main corner on the town and waited with me until the bus came. The bus was a 20 passenger model that they were cramming 30 or more into and cost 150,000 Dong for the trip unto Laos. When I paid I thought this was pretty cheap to go all the way to Vientiane, Laos capitol city about 450 k away and they had saved me a one person seat on the right side of the bus so for a little while I had my own space. Away we went stopping in smaller hamlets along the way to drop off or pick up passengers and once for a short breakfast stop. After that we began the trip up into the mountains that line the border here and the air began to cool off and the hamlets fell behind as we climbed higher and higher. You first know you are at the border when you see a cobbled together shack flying a large Vietnamese flag. The actual border immigration control building is more modern. We filed off the bus and there was a mad rush to the 'DEPARTURES' area where you slid your passport across a counter and under a glass partition to a guard who watched another guard process it. When they took mine the guard said " No Moto", and I assured him that I was on "xe buyt" not on a motorcycle. It was pretty busy at the counter with people cramming in behind and around me shoving their passports,under and speaking to the guard. I saw,my bus drive through a checkpoint behind me and got just a little worried about being left behind, but there was a whole other process to go through on the Laotian side so I relaxed and let it all unfold.

Eventually the one guy who was working the computer got to my passport, ran it through the computer, squinted at it a couple of times and stamped and returned it to me.

After that I walked through a border checkpoint and showed my processed passport and left Vietnam.

It was a short .5 k walk past my bus, which was waiting to be checked in to Laos, to the Laos Visa on Arrival Office. I was the only one in this line happily and got the forms I needed from an unsmiling young bureaucrat. They required a passport sized photo and fortunately I had purchased some in Australia, after a short delay they issued my 1 month Visa for 38 US dollars.
Next stop was the Currency Exchange where I converted all my Vietnamese Dong to Laos Lip and got what I think was about $300 and left there for a little store by the roadside where I bought a Coke for 5,000 Kip and waited for my bus which I could see in line at the Laos border checkpoint.

Back on the bus and the two fellows next to me laughed and tried to start a conversation and one of the whistled a tune so I thought, "why not sing some bus songs"? and started with " the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round" which cracked up half of the bus because I think they know this song! The other half looked at me like I was nuts and possibly dangerous, so I switched to " 99 bottles of beer on the wall" but that didn't take off like I had hoped, but my seatmates were amused and pleased all the same.

Now the bus seemed to have climbed to a plateau and there was a beautiful clear river running beside us on my side of the bus. This area looks much poorer than Vietnam, but maybe that is the Bordertown nature of it. We drive on to very small villages and one by one my fellow travelers exit the bus to family and friends.
I believed that the bus was going to Vientiane, the Captiol of Laos, but I was mistaken and the bus dropped me off at a local bus stop still 400 k short of my destination.

The bus stop was a roofed over concrete pad about 30 by 30 meters with rough wooden benches and a little snack area run by three girls who were BBQing meat skewers over a small open flame. There were about 20 people waiting in the area and every so often a small pickup with benches in back and covers over the bed would back up to the pad and people would jam in and load packages of various kinds, mostly old rice sacks filled with ????? on top of the roof cover. Often the driver would throw a tarp over the "luggage" before driving off. As the people jammed in they would also bring parcels and suitcases in the back and try to fit them amongst their co-riders. The impression I had many times were that I was seeing large families traveling together so they were fine with the crowding.

I found a blackboard that had departures listed and I could see that the bus to,Vientiane didn't leave until 5:30 pm and it was 11:30 am now, so I had a long wait ahead. I spent the 6 hours walking around and buying snacks occasionally and just watching the scene.

Finaly 5:30 rolled around and I was on the bus with a row to myself. I soon figured out a way to stretch my legs across the aisle and caught a nap that way. The bus stopped for a quick dinner in a town that had bonfires burning in the street, very Mad Max-ish! They sell incredible BBQ meat on a stick! They had a whole pork chop on a stick even! I bought some BBQ that was on a kind of bamboo string in loops. Very tasty.

Back on the bus for a total of 6 hours and finally getting into Vientiane at 11:30. The Tuk Tuk driver wanted 100,000 kip jut to run me downtown and since it only cost 85,000 to come over 400 k I said "No thanks" and he, like a smartass pointed at the bus benches in the station. That was,fine with me and I explored the station and realized they had a roach motel there so I got a room for 60,000 kip (no aircon or hygiene in particular) giving me the last laugh obtuse Tuk Tuk driver!

The next morning I set out for downtown with my monster sized pack on my back and my small pack in my hands. At 8 am it was 90 degrees with 90 % humidity so after 2 k I was rethinking my plan in a bit of distress when a bus pulled up next to me and the driver motioned me in. For 3,000 kip I got my ride downtown in an airconditioned bus full of women going to work. I was kind of a mess since the motel bathroom had no shower or sanitation to speak of so I felt sorry for the girl in high heels and makeup next to me who probably was wondering how this had happened to her. Extra offerings to the commuter God probably followed the next day!

Now I was downtown but I still had no idea where the backpacker area was and even the Tuk Tuk drivers didn't understand what I wanted, so I ducked into a place for breakfast and eventually, after a couple of tries, found something on the menu they would make for me (scrambled eggs) and kicked back with an iced coffee. The coffee here is nowhere near as good as Vietnamese coffee. I guess they just don't appreciate it as much. After eating I once again threw all my stuff on my back and set out into the inferno.

I walked one block and coming towards me was a Western girl with a map and I immediately glommed onto her like a long lost twin.her name,as 'Amanda' and she was in Vientiane getting her Thai working Visa for her job teaching English in Chang Mai. She was heading to a hostel and she let me tag along. It was a long walk, but worth it and I was able to get a single room and they even have a pool and BBQ's a couple of times a week for cheap. Awesome!!

On that note I will leave you wanting and tease you with the title of my next post-

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on August 23, 2013 from Vientiane, Laos
from the travel blog: Hanoi and Vietnam- Living Day to Day
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