January 25, 2012
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It was time to take care of my return flight to Europe. My next stop, Japan, was also my final destination and the flight back home had to be from Tokyo. Some friends that lived in Japan had recommended using the services of H.I.S. Co (a big Japanese travel agency). Since H.I.S website offered online booking, I was done with it in no time.
…well, if that’s the way it actually happened, it would be one blog post less here.
Step #1: Things don’t quite work out as expected
Compared to other online booking sites (such as Expedia), H.I.S offerings were indeed better. I’d already booked online several times throughout this journey without a hitch – even with Laos Airlines, so doing it with a major Japanese agency seemed simple.
But the H.I.S online booking system would only allow me book a two-way flight. A note said that for one-way ticket requests I had to fill in an online form with my desired destination (and some extra details) and wait for an answer. I did. On the next day I got this:
“For your inquiry, we need more information from you directly as we are unable to communicate for booking ticket by e-mail. So, please “CALL” us.”
Step #2: Making the call from my mobile
I tried to “CALL” them right away using my mobile (which now had a Chinese SIM card). I heard a message in Chinese and then in English “It is not possible to make international phone calls. For more information call 10086”.
Step #3: Calling 10086
I dialed 10086 as instructed. This time there was no English version. I listened to some pre-recorded message for over a minute and it was all in Chinese. I handed over my phone to the girl at the hostel reception and asked her to translate for me. “Your SIM card is no good for international calls”, she told me. So why was it in the first place that they’d told me to call 10086?! How could I enable my card for calls abroad? Where could I get a SIM card that worked? The girl at the reception had no clue. Instead she suggested searching for a street phone kiosk. Read more of this post
January 23, 2012
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Nanning, China. Courtesy: Rex Pe @ Flickr
As agreed the previous day, in the evening Sammi (the Chinese girl I met on the bus from Hanoi) and a friend of hers living in Nanning met me at the hostel and we went to have a dinner together at a nearby restaurant they’d chosen (side note: crossing big streets in the absence of a traffic light in Nanning is about as intimidating as in Hanoi). The place was big (or was it really? The word ‘big’ in China tends to wear off quickly) but somehow cozy. It was a Saturday evening and there was hardly an empty table (expecting this, Sammi had called earlier to make a reservation).
We were taken to our table, seated and given a menu. Around us Chinese families and companies were already enjoying themselves. Traditional music from the restaurant’s sound system blended with the hundreds of conversations. Cozy the place was, but quiet it definitely was not.
About a third of the items in the menu were translated in awkward English (just restaurant managers trying to boost the place’s ‘coolness’, I presume, since it was Chinese people all around). Each of us selected some dishes that we’d then all share. Helped by my two giggling companions, I picked items from the menu with a hope-for-the-best-prepare-for-the-worst feeling. The tree of us together went for: a soup for each, rice, chicken, fish, pork, beef steak, some weird vegetables, beer and tea (I’ll fast forward and say that the whole dinner cost $20 total).
A copy of our order was left on the table and each time a new dish came, the waitress stamped a small sign next to the item to mark it as delivered. Read more of this post
January 13, 2012
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When I woke up in the morning, I certainly did not anticipate any more surprises on that trip. After all, I’d arranged to stay with my current group, do whatever more sight-seeing there was to be done with them, and go back to Hanoi.
But during breakfast our Vietnamese guide came in the hall and announced that our boat would be heading back to Halong main pier. A typhoon warning had been announced on the radio. The original program for the day was to be cancelled – or at least significantly altered.
The water in the bay was deceptively calm, but the sky was not (for another such extreme marine adventure in Thailand, read my earlier post here).
As our junk boat drew nearer the pier, we joined dozens and dozens more junk boats headed the same way. The ocean waves looked innocent enough because the bay subdued the force of the elements but the weather was progressively getting worse. The junk anchored offshore in a line with many other junk boats and we began waiting. Finally, a motor boat arrived to pick us up and tranpsort us to the pier. We were then told to walk to the big souvenir/snack covered area some three hundred meters from the pier and wait (until a transport would become available to take us back to Hanoi). More tourist groups came after us, flooding the place.
- The age-old Vietnamese saying goes:”Typhoon warnings good for souvenir business”
In the meantime our guides were making phone calls to their company’s headquarters and talking in high-speed Vietnamese. Finally we were told that they’d arranged a van to pick us up. It would be here in about an hour. The catch: it could not fit everyone and two people would have to wait for yet another transport. In the meantime, those who would be picked by the van would have their scheduled lunch in the snack area.
Wouldn’t there be any compensation for the failed second-day program? – the Western European tourists began asking (the elderly Singaporean couples said nothing). The question kind of pissed the Vietnamese guide and he said “you signed for a two day-trip, and the second day you were supposed to have lunch on the boat, right? Now you will have it here, but this is all the difference. What compensation?” Read more of this post
January 4, 2012
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Food, food, food…
Hanoi Restaurant Entrance
I made this shot near the Ethnographical museum in Hanoi. What is it that a foreigner would see here? Let’s count.
1) A goat, tied to a tree in front of the restaurant entrance
2) A logo of the restaurant, featuring a goat’s head
3) A text in Vietnamese (incomprehensible to me).
The seemingly inevitable conclusion: it was a restaurant where they served goat meat, and the poor animal was a fresh delivery destined to end up in the kitchen. Whether this assumption was correct or not, I leave it up to you to check (by typing the text in an online translation tool or sending the photo to a Vietnamese friend). As for me, I will get back to this photo later in this post.
What I ate in Vietnam is mostly a big mystery to me. Of course, if I’d been dead set on avoiding eating strange stuff, I did have a choice – eat a buffet in the hostel I was staying at. Once you stepped out , the situation was more or less like this: Menu lists were non-existent. If they were, they would be in Vietnamese and would have no photos of the food. If photos were present those would be too small and the foreigner could not grasp what was there. If there would be an English version of the menu, the translation would be quite vague. Etc. And the people – smiling and friendly, but speaking no English.
In a situation like this I decided it was preferable (and frankly, quite amusing) to just pick up whatever I reasoned might be good. And I were often wrong. Read more of this post
December 30, 2011
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More snapshots from the streets of Hanoi. If you did not see the first batch, you can do so here.
An excellent photo (made by someone else, not me) of a major Hanoi street outside peak hour (I am totally baffled what time of the day the photo was shot, as peak hour never seems to end in Hanoi). Note the red banners on top, I will get back to those in one of my other photos…
A bonsai exhibition, Hanoi city center
An open-air bonsai exhibition near Hanoi city center. I came across it by accident on my way to a tourist agency to buy a bus ticket to Nanning (China). At the time I passed by it was closed – hence you see no people. The exhibition banners were only in Vietnamese, and the only information I could understand was a date. The date was two days from now. I suspect that it might have been the official exhibition opening day. On a side note – I am not an expert and I just assumed it is a bonsai exhibition coming from Japan. But one has to be careful with assumptions. While I was preparing this post, in Wikipedia I came across the statement that the art of bonsai originates from a Chinese predecessor called penjing. Either way, it was nice.
Hoan Kiem Lake park, Hanoi
What is that? A Native Vietnamese bonsai to counter the Chinese original? Read more of this post
December 27, 2011
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I’ll devote this post to something one notices a lot on the streets of Hanoi yet I did not include it in the previous post, saving it for a separate blog entry. Here it is:
These fotos aren’t mine but I too could confirm the massive numbers of dressed-up young women riding scooters in Hanoi. So much so that at one point I too gave in and immortalized this phenomenon: Read more of this post
December 27, 2011
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I am neither the first nor will be the last to point out that the Vietnamese people are able to do just about any activity on the street sidewalks. Here are some random photos I took while walking around town.
Need a haircut? Your friendly street barber who sets his office in the morning and packs it in the evening will fix you promptly.
Whether to hide the haristyle you just got or to simply relieve your brain from the heat – you could get a hat and look like a true Vietnamese.
Well, if you did not buy that hat you’ll be sorry by now because the heat is just killing you. But a cup of green tea with a piece of ice will bring you back to life – a refreshing ice-tea Vietnamese style. Vendors have a kettle with tea and a thermos flask with pieces of ice (such as the old woman on the photo). The ice melts in seconds and cools the tea. You can sit right on the sidewalk (or on a minute plastic chair if no-one else is sitting on the two or three usually available) and watch the traffic go buy. Tea costs 2000 dong (10 cents) and is delicious. Once you are done, you return your glass which is dipped in a bucket of water for sanitizing and ready to be used by the next customer.
And if the tea got you hungry, walk some more down the road get some dessert.
Another activity to take up on the side walks is, of course, badminton- what else. Badminton fields are clearly marked with white paint. I am not sure who takes care of the net, but you can research it further. Read more of this post
December 25, 2011
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Now that I started writing about my stay in Vietnam, I’ll begin with a quote from the book “Old Path White Clouds” by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.
“Contemplate the nature of dependent co-arising during every moment. When you look at a leaf or a raindrop, meditate on all the conditions, near and distant, that have contributed to the presence of that leaf or raindrop. Know that the world is woven of interconnected threads. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This is born, because that is born. This dies, because that dies. [..] The one contains the many and the many contains the one. […] A chief cause is the first condition necessary to give rise to a phenomenon. For example, a grain of rice is the chief cause necessary to give rise to a rice plant. Contributory causes are supportive conditions. In the case of grain of rice, these include sun, rain, and earth which enable the seed to grow into a rice plant”.
The book attributes the quote to Buddha (from a lecture to his disciples on the nature of “co-arising”). I thought it was a good start for this blog entry, but I also like to check my sources (a habit from my university days). Thus I tried to find the particular sutra from where the text originated and use it directly. Despite all my efforts searching online I could not. The concept of “co-arising” is discussed in a number of sutras, but nowhere is any mentioning of raindrops or rice. In fact, the style of the quote is so different than the usual exposition in any Buddhist sutra that it led me to the conclusion that Thich Nhat Hanh extended the original sutra with his own additions (very much in the Eastern tradition which to this day considers the concepts of intellectual property and plagiarism somewhat exotic). Read more of this post
December 18, 2011
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OK, not la Countryside, but Lao countryside. Remember the gorgeous scenery that I saw while tubing down the Nam Song river? Back in Siem Reap in Cambodia one of the most enjoyable things was my bicycle ride around the vicinity. There were bicycle rental shops at Vang Vieng too. I went to the Spicy hostel, got a map of biking routs around town, went to the town center and rented a bike.
That heavily urbanized environment of Vang Vieng just forces you to get out, right?
There were several routes on that map, and I opted for the longest that promised to take me to a beautiful cave and something called the “Blue Lagoon” – seven or eight kilometers outside town. First, I crossed a bridge over Nam Song that was free for locals, but paid for the foreigners. What I really liked about it was that you only paid in one direction – the way back was ‘free’ :P.
Then the road turned to dirt and started going through rice fields and simple Lao villages where Lao people still lived off the land (although the first signs of the inevitable transition – guest houses and some shops had already begun to pop up). Along the road there was the occasional cow munching grass and it was really hot – perhaps this was one reason there were very few people around.
Look, Ma, no people!
By the way, now that I am looking back at my photos, I realize that I did not take any of the Lao village houses – which are very simple, yet in harmony with the environment that surrounds them. Judging by what I shot at, I’d fallen – again – for the more peculiar sights that popped up before my eyes. Oh, well there is always Google Images for the inquisitive mind. Read more of this post
October 10, 2011
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I decided to call this post on Siem Reap and Cambodia “Fragments”.
Courtesy: the Far Side
A quote attributed to U.S. musician Frank Zappa – “You can’t be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer”.
Angkor Beer – check!
In a similar vein. What do you need to have in order to be a Real Tourist place? A National Museum and an International Hospital for tourists, right? At the very least – Angkor National Museum at Siem Reap.
Visited it on the last day of my stay and spent a good three hours there. Museum featured seven thematically organized exhibition halls devoted to different aspects of Khmer heritage and history. Hinduist (e.g. Angkor Wat) origins, short flirtation with Mahayana Buddhism (Ankhor Thom), fights with the neighboring empires, hall of the thousand Buddhas to remind of the Theravada tradition…
A suspicion: most artifacts ended in the museum after first being hacked off and stolen, then hidden and sold off –eventually ending back in the hands of the government. Might be wrong, though.
Angkor Thom Main Gate Passageway
In the last hall of the museum on a huge screen you can watch a video of the sun rising above Angkor. Every twenty minutes or so. By the way, the International Hospital is just a couple of hundred meters away.
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