Back to Vietnam ... Central that is

Vietnam's torso is, appropriately enough, where I ate the best food. If I could only return to one region, I think it'd have to be Central for this very reason. (This said, why no food shots? Perhaps I was enjoying the meals too intensely to consider documenting them. You may also find it curious that my first food story is completely unappetizing. Good thing the meals got better.)

Heading south from Hanoi, I got off the train in Ninh Binh (not quite Central Vietnam yet, but nevermind, I haven't talked about it yet). I arrived in the evening and the next morning joined up with two German women to tour the area in a private car. Our driver spoke very little English so we were at his mercy, getting out of the car when he stopped and walking in the direction of his index finger. First up, a boat ride down the river:

We stopped off at a big Catholic church, which sported a kitschy little market out front with a wide assortment of plastic Mary and Jesus paraphernalia:

The folks here row their boats with their feet. Looks like it takes incredible control:

After the boat tour, our driver took us to a local restaurant for lunch. No one there spoke English so we managed enough Vietnamese and hand gestures to order any two dishes of their choosing. One was a mysterious meat, darkish in color and a little tough. The waitress demonstrated how to put the meat on a lettuce leaf, top it with some other herbs, roll it up and dunk it in a sauce. It didn't taste like any meat I'd eaten before, but as skeptical as I was, I was that much hungrier.

Back in the car, the three of us began pondering aloud the possibilities of the mystery meat. At the mention of dog, our driver hooted and managed through laughter: "Dog, dog, yes, dog. So sorry. So sorry." So, there you have it. I ate dog. Sorry Lucy. But it really is just point of view, right? Pigs make great pets as well.

An afternoon trip to Tam Coc for the paddle boat ride through caves and by stony outcrops was worthwhile even though the drizzle never let up. The next morning was just as soggy so I moved on to Hue. An overly talkative guy who had been pestering me at the guesthouse in Ninh Binh did me a favor in the end by introducing me to the two Kiwi gals below at the train station. We became fast friends and booked a place together in Hue.

Hue is renowned for its cuisine. There's a story about a picky emperor who demanded that 50 new dishes be created for the royal menu, leaving a legacy of rich creations. Or something to that effect. I can only vouch for the present-day culinary situation and I say it's worth going to this city if only to dine. As I don't have any food shots, I'll insert Vietnamese coffee here. This stuff is addictive and found up and down the country:

Hue is painted in bold, vivid colors. Bicycles are a popular mode of transport in the mid-sized town:

After Hue, it was on to Hoi An, where you can't spit without hitting a tailor shop. This is the town in Vietnam for having clothes tailor-made. If you allot two days for this town, better make it five. You'll get sucked in by the savvy seamstresses, river-side restaurants and photographic street scenes.

Lantern shops like this one give the town a romantic feel:

The Japanese covered bridge is a beauty:

Only 3 kilometers outside town lies the Thanh Ha Pottery Village. These women were so warm and welcoming and let me take photos of them in action. Talk about fancy footwork.

Bowls drying in the sun:

One day, Andrea, Cat, Pam and I took a bus to My Son, once a holy city for the Cham people. It was fun to wonder through the ruins but I've heard there's much better Cham architecture elsewhere. Considering the time and cost and what's to see while there, I wouldn't do it a second time. But okay, it was a decent enough experience to have once. A horrifying experience actually happened on the way there. The bus in front of us struck and killed a motorcyclist. Andrea is a doctor so she got off the bus to assist but it was too late. After some time, several shaken tourists from that bus joined us and we moved on, though in somber moods.

After another day or so in Hoi An, the other girls headed south - where I would meet up with them again - and I moved to nearby China Beach (yes, the China Beach). I only stayed a few days, but could have easily stretched it to a week or longer. I stayed at Hua's Place, which must be the chillest place on earth. There's Hua with his wife in the picture below along with me and a couple of English travelers. You get to know the others staying there pretty well - if you want it that way - because dinner is served family-style. Dishes vary from night to night and you eat what is served, which is generally very good. Everything is on the honor system so when you grab a beer from the fridge or order up a banana pancake, you write it on your page in the guest book.

And then there's this little treasure:

I had the long stretch of beach nearly to myself during morning and early evening walks. One evening as I sat down there reading, three giggling women dropped their belongings on the sand and ran for the water fully clothed. They dunked themselves once and then splashed back to the shore, picked up their things and left the beach still giggling. I guess joy doesn't have to last long to be real.

I reluctantly bade farewell to China Beach and headed for a beach further south. More later...as in after my trip to Trang...less than three days til I'm on the train!

Wardrobe malfunction

When teaching conversation strategies, I often give students hypothetical situations in which to use the new language. For example, after learning "That's too bad" and "I'm sorry to hear that," they may pretend they've broken up with their sweetheart or dropped their cellphone in the toilet. But sometimes life provides real situations to truly demonstrate the usefulness of the language. The other day I was teaching phrases used to express disbelief or surprise, such as "You're not going to believe this...", "Oh my god", "You're joking!", "Are you serious?" and so on. At that point the wrap dress I was wearing - usually very secure - came undone to a roomful of bulging eyes and open mouths. After a few seconds of recovery time, they responded with impeccable English and I could only applaud their proficiency with a beet-red face.


Bangkok's in the Christmas spirit

Thailand may be 95% Buddhist, but that doesn't stop Bangkok from giving an excessively illuminated nod to Christmas every year, starting as early as October. Especially puzzling this year are the other familiar characters and symbols joining Santa in the Yuletide spotlight. Snow White and her dwarfs, Cinderella's carriage and shoe, and certain Disney stars commingle with St. Nick and his reindeer outside some of the larger shopping malls. (The reindeer are actually pulling the slipper in the picture below.)

While walking around in today's 90-degree temp to the tunes of Jingle Bells, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Frosty the Snowman, I had the out-of-the-blue and irritating realization that winter is here and I still haven't finished writing about my trip to Vietnam in April (which probably bothers no one but me as I doubt anyone's still reading this blog, but I'd like to record the entire trip so I have some reference for future reminiscing). Then I found comfort in other thoughts: although I've been a slacker at blogging, I've had some other meaningful accomplishments lately. For one, I discovered pistachio macaroons, these little mounds of heaven I could eat by the bucketful. I met some friends for lunch today at French cafe Lenotre, scene of the initial discovery. For dessert, we split the icecream sandwiches. Five macaroons - pistachio, raspberry, vanilla, butterscotch and chocolate - are halved and stuffed with same-flavored icecream. I think I must go back tomorrow for another one - only because I didn't photograph it and that's not fair to you. Okay, accomplishment #2. I've been reading even more than usual lately and finally started Fountainhead, which has been on my list for years. I have two close friends in my building and the three of us rotate books like there's no reading in 2010. I've also made a career decision for what's next after Thailand, but I can't share it because these decisions tend to change and I need to make sure this one sits prominently for a while longer. And I just planned my winter-break vacation, which starts this Saturday. Nabeel and I are going to some islands down south that look incredible. We'll be there for two weeks and then I'll spend the third week of vaca in Bangkok with a surprise visitor. I'm afraid if I disclose the name of the visitor, I'll jinx it and she won't be able to come. Of course you'll get more on that later...like next March perhaps.

Will try to finish up Vietnam bit before Saturday...But must also work and do washing and paint toenails and shop for a new camera lens (I may treat myself with end-of-year bonus!), and meet some fellow ladies out for free margaritas Thursday night...