Travel highlights: Northern Vietnam

It's been almost four months since Vietnam and I still salivate when I think of the food. Vietnamese knocks the socks off Thai, but you didn't hear me say that. A woman I met there and traveled with some came through Bangkok recently and we couldn't resist going to a Vietnamese restaurant...thought it would help with the reminiscing. Speaking of reminiscing...

The flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was certainly interesting. I flew Laos Airways, which is often the target of chuckles when travelers toss tales of sketchy flights. A rattling noise commenced during takeoff and persisted for the first half of the flight (strike one). When the flight attendant came around with drinks, I lowered my tray table and it fell off in my lap (strike two). At that point, the man across the aisle said, "Uh oh, what's strike three?" and those of us in the row held our collective breaths until we landed. That was one big sigh of relief. By the time I checked into the hotel - family-run Tung Trang, by the way, if you're looking for good location and hospitality at a reasonable price - it was nightfall. Sweet-tempered Snow, the receptionist, steered me toward the closest streetside pho restaurant, where I sat down for my first big bowl of the quintessential Hanoi dish - noodles, sliced meat, herbs and broth.

Pho restaurant during daylight hours:

Properly fueled, I set off on my first stroll around the Old Quarter:

If you only do one thing in Hanoi, meander the streets of this vibrant, chaotic area with its myriad shops, cafes and art galleries. I could have spent my entire time in Hanoi getting lost in the maze that's the Old Quarter - and nearly did. It was completely overwhelming at first - seemingly impenetrable motorbike traffic that makes crossing the street an extreme sport, a constant stream of solicitations by cyclo drivers and street vendors, obstructed sidewalks that force you out into the street - but you gradually get used to it. In fact, when I got back to Bangkok, I was bewildered by what I perceived to be an eerie quietness. Where's all the noise I once thought defined this city? For about a week, I would question friends: does it seem especially quiet here? Now, I'm happy to say, I've adjusted and live life appropriately annoyed by my surroundings.

In the Old Quarter, shops selling the same type of goods are generally grouped together on the same street. The street names reflect what's sold there now or what was historically sold there, as far back as the 13th century, when artisan guilds began sprouting all over the area. Street names begin with "Hang", which means shop, and end with the specific merchandise, so you can get your silver on Hang Bac, baskets on Hang Bo and silk on Hang Dao.

The numbers you see in the picture below are spray-painted all over the facades of Hanoi and were a mystery to me for a while. I asked the woman below and was given the hand gesture for opening a lock with a key. Several other inquiries didn't lead to further enlightenment, but I finally got my answer. They're phone numbers for people in the repair/service industry. Seems if you need any kind of maintenance work, you just pick a number off the wall and dial.

One day I wondered over to Ba Dinh Square for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and One Pillar Pagoda. The mausoleum's forbidding form and a daunting line under the hot sun initially quelled my excitement for visiting dear Uncle Ho, but the succession of ants moved steadily and soon enough we were inside the cool, dimly lit building. There, the adored former leader looks as if he's just down for a nap, save the glass case enclosing him - a pretty cool sight. Okay, don't leave Hanoi without seeing the Old Quarter and Ho Chi Minh.

The streets of Hanoi teem with motorbikes, many carrying three or four people plus a huge box, or maybe even a TV. Trying to cross the street is like being in your own Frogger video game, but walk confidently, steadily, with no sudden stops, and the system works.

I discovered that Britney Spears' meltdown saga hasn't affected her popularity in one country. She's huge in Vietnam and these tables covered in her mug aren't that uncommon:

My first mini-excursion outside Hanoi was the famously stunning and ethereal Halong Bay:

I booked a two-day tour with a travel agent and ended up on a boat with this fine crew:

While there, I went kayaking for the first time. It's either harder than it looks or my arms are wimpier than I thought, but it made for an incredible experience. Eight of us went, our destination this lake surrounded by limestone karsts like the ones shown two pics above. For a while, we were the only ones there, treated to an amazing stillness. I didn't take my camera for fear of drowning it, but hope the image of that lake is sufficiently burned into memory. I remember lying back in the kayak for a breathtaking view of only karsts and sky.

The next day, the entire group went on a walk through the "Surprise" Cave, named so because of its surprise ending. Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!

I also ventured up north to mountainous Sapa from my base in Hanoi. The overnight train spit me out at the northern most stop and from there I took an hour-long van ride to the former French resort town. In the van, I conversed with an older gentleman who's originally from Vietnam, now living in Canada. Born in South Vietnam, he was touring the north for the first time like me. He noticed the thin jacket I was wearing and asked if I had brought something warmer. I had not. As it's quite cold in Sapa, he insisted that I take one of his sweaters. I tried to decline the kind gesture, luckily unsuccessfully because I would have frozen without it. As he suggested, I returned the sweater to the front desk of his hotel before leaving town. Some people are just so nice, they really make up for the jerks.

Picturesque Sapa is hot on the tourist trail. It's undeniably beautiful, but seems a little contrived with all the Westerners and people selling goods to the Westerners and not many beyond that. I'd recommend just a night or two here and then more exploration of the Lao Cai province. While in Sapa, I did go on one of the easier treks for this incredible late afternoon view:

Sapa is home to many ethnic minority groups such as H'mong and Dao. They pour in every day, dressed in their colorful traditional garb, to peddle goods such as textiles and silver. This woman from the Black H'mong group took a liking to me, which translates to saw me as an easy target. She's intuitive because I did way overpay for a pillowcase. Nevermind, though. It was a good price for interesting conversation.

From Sapa, I ventured to Bac Ha, much quieter than the former except on Sundays when tourists and hill-tribes living in outlying areas swarm the town for the hugely popular market. Most of the market vendors are Flower H'mong and don the most vibrantly hued clothing.

The action starts around six or seven in the morning when locals arrive with livestock, textiles, silver, food, you name it, to sell. They're there to work but you also get the feeling it's the big social event of the week as groups gather to chat and possibly make fun of the poorly dressed tourists. I don't know, I'm just guessing.

I tasted some of the rice wine this woman is selling. Holy stomach burn, this stuff is strong.

The next day, it was back to Hanoi for one more night and some cha ca, another dish that's full-on Hanoi. White fish and greens are cooked in a hot pot and then mixed with cold rice noodles and shrimp paste. Delicious and a nice farewell to a city I missed the minute I left. So many big cities these days are generic enough to place them in just about any country. But, Hanoi - absolutely oozing with personality - is unmistakably Vietnamese.

That's my love letter to Hanoi and surrounds...next time we'll see how many memories I can recall from Central Vietnam...


Koh Phi Phi chilled

Aaaaahhhh...choooo... Whew, hello there. Things look about the same around here. But the least you could've done is dust a bit while I was gone. Well, that's okay, can't say I blame you. Let me just sweep a little here and, yes, I'll just brush these cobwebs out of the corner. Aaah...much better...

Now where were we? Ah yes, Vietnam. But before I get to that, please allow me to interject my latest trip. Because I write so infrequently, I suppose it seems all I do is vacation, but there really were some toilsome weeks of work in between. The term ended on the 24th and Nabeel and I hopped on an overnight train to Surat Thani. From there, we took a bus to Krabi, then a ferry to Ko Phi Phi, and voila - well, almost 24 hours later - we were lounging on one of the most spectacular islands in the world. Because of its beauty, much of this island has been grossly overdeveloped and gets a bad rap as a tourist trap. But here's the secret to paradise found: go during off-season and flee the main beach for the tranquil east coast.

We went straight from the pier to Pak Nam Beach and its only resort, Phi Phi Relax Beach Resort, which offers clean, modern bungalows with little daybeds on the porches from which to gaze at the ocean. The beach there is nice as well - a long enough strip of sand for a decent walk. The water all along the east coast is calm and ideal for swimming.

If I'm on an east coast, I love getting up for sunrise walks on the beach. At least for the first couple of mornings until the novelty wears off and sleeping in takes precedence.

After a couple of days on Pak Nam, we moved a couple of bays down to Rantee Beach, probably my favorite. The sloppily built bungalows are about as basic as they come but comfortable - if you don't mind the occasional critter stopping by. In a bit of irony (and bizarre design choice), these tiny shacks boasted the best toilets around - gleaming white porcelain with an automatic flush. The best part about Rantee was that with only a few other bungalows occupied, we felt like we owned the beach. I could have stayed a lot longer than the three days we did if not for tiring of the limited food options.

In the end, culinary boredom is what drove us further south and around the bend to west-coast Long Beach. More crowded than the previous two, but not nearly the party of Ton Sai, this beach offers a nice compromise. There are a few good Thai restaurants to satisfy the palate and the beach is quite peaceful in the mornings and late afternoons (of course, this is off-season - not sure what it's like during tourist time).

The views from Long Beach are truly stunning.

Long Beach's greatest perk, though, is that it's easy to leave. It's located toward the end of the peninsula so you can cut over by land to to its parallel neighbor on the east coast. And this beach happens to be the best of all. There's no accommodation whatsoever, only a little snack shack and a long stretch of beautiful sand. By hiking over there in the late afternoon and early morning, we had hours of being the only people there. I had a hard time believing this was the Koh Phi Phi that's constantly accused of being too overcrowded.

After a good eight days of reading by the ocean, swimming in the calmest and clearest of emerald waters, and sipping mango lassis and spiked lemon shakes, I was as relaxed as I've ever been. That was a true vacation and one I didn't want to see end. But inevitably it did and now I'm back at work, already brainstorming about the next holiday. Hmm...