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What are you talking about? That water is BELOW freezing!
Dec 9th, 2009 by Tessa
Dad and I diving "Rico's Wall" at about 12 meters - check out my awesome 5mil wetsuit - I was STILL FREEZING!

Dad and I diving "Rico's Wall" at about 12 meters - check out my awesome 5mil wetsuit - I was STILL FREEZING!

I was in debate on whether I should write about my scuba diving adventures or not- because, frankly, scuba diving doesn’t make for the most entertaining subject. But due to lack of ANYTHING ELSE super funny happening in the last couple of weeks, (besides the fork episode, of which I will post next) I will proceed to inform (and hopefully mildly entertain) you on the vast array of scuba diving equipment.

To start off, they give you a book. In the 3 hours I had before I went to bed, I had to read 175 pages of- not exactly the funniest book I’ve read (but the dive instructor did complement me on my artistic talent that I displayed on the margins- he also commented on my notes arguing with the ways they explained the laws of gravity and my notes saying that liquids, could indeed be solidified under extremely high pressures that caused them to compress. He responded by saying we were not going anywhere that was near absolute zero, so I would have no need to worry.). I then went back to the dive center and watched 3 hours of factual “how to take off your mask” videos that were periodically interrupted by a tourist on the screen (obviously an ignorant American ^_~) doing all of the WRONG things.

In the afternoon I was told to do 200m of straight laps and then tread water for 10 minutes. After passing both of those, they tossed the mass of equipment into the pool and had me demonstrate the skills I had learned on the tape/reading the book.

Finally on the second day we (my dad the instructor and I) headed out to the REAL Ocean. The sea churned the in the same way someone would imagine a witches pot to. The gray sky started to drizzle, and everyone moved to the back of the boat to avoid the spray of the waves that lashed out like arms over the front of the boat. Everyone suited up in there 3 millimeter wetsuits, and I got into my 5millimeter. My dad informed me on more then one occasion that 5millimeters weren’t for tropical oceans, they were for places like; quote: “I don’t know CANADA?” I told him that if I was ever going to go diving in Canada, I would have a custom made arctic dry suit. The dive instructor thought that was really funny. He also laughed at my habit of eating butter right out of the container or having butter, a can of tuna and a bushel of leechee nuts as my lunch everyday.

On the dive trip (once I got used to how COLD the water was) we practiced dive routines like filling up my mask and clearing it, The CESA, and calculating how long we could stay underwater without freezing too much nitrogen in our blood so that when we go up to the surface it doesn’t boil in our veins (charming- isn’t it?). We didn’t see much because we were practicing our emergency routines.

The next day, we had to get our equipment read ourselves. So I got all of my stuff (fins, goggles, snorkel, BCD, butter, leechees, wetsuit, etc.) and put it on the boat. If yesterday the witch was churning the ocean, today she was whirling it with a mad passion, laughing hysterically at the poor little people on boats. The sea frothed and I suddenly felt bad for the people who had to stay on the boat while we dived… And for the 20 people sitting on, what looked like a small bamboo raft that was being paddled out to the sea. Well… that was Vietnam for you.

The visibility was horrible that day, and my dad says we passed by him quite a few times before we actually SAW him. Never the less, the ocean was very beautiful (and cold, but also beautiful). Plus, we weren’t actually scuba diving for pleasure; we were more scuba diving to get me certified so that in better places (in BETTER weather) I could go scuba diving with my dad- which is exactly what we did in the Philippines.

A coral head in the Philippines - check out all the zillions of little tropical fish in the background!

A coral head in the Philippines - check out all the zillions of little tropical fish in the background!

"I shall call him Squishy, and he shall be mine!"  (a sea slug really, but isn't he cute!)

"I shall call him Squishy, and he shall be mine!" (a sea slug really, but isn't he cute!)

The Philippines was wonderful! The sea was clear- the locals had a fishing law so the reefs were protected! Boulders of brain coral anchored themselves to the sandy plains. Fields of anemone like animals thrived over table coral and colorful fish meander across the sun like swift silver clouds. It was almost as wonderful as hanging up silk curtains of every color all right next to each other, and then standing right behind them while the wind picked them up and swirled them around you.

There were this many fish (sometimes more!) everywhere you swam.  The colors were insane!

There were this many fish (sometimes more!) everywhere you swam. The colors were insane!

At some points I just wanted to lay down in the water at the bottom of ocean, feeling weightless and fall asleep, but I knew that that was one of the signs of multiple illnesses related to diving, and that everyone would freak out if I just stopped moving. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Philippines hanging out on the boat and laying in the sun. It was a good day.

A Frog Fish.  These apparently are really rare.

A Frog Fish. These apparently are really rare.

This was eely eely cool

This was eely eely cool

Lion fish:  Pretty and DEADLY (dun dun dun...)

Lion fish: Pretty and DEADLY (dun dun dun...)

A good day on the water!

A good day on the water!

Flower and chickens and sofas – oh my!
Dec 3rd, 2009 by Kate
Typical view from our taxi window

Typical view from our taxi window

People in Vietnam make do with what they have.  Moving across town and you and your buddy only have scooters?  Move the furniture with your scooters of course!  Need to bring the kids to school and get to work?  Five on a bike and you’re there – no fossil fuel needed!  Marvels of  cycle engineering happen here every few seconds on the streets of Hanoi and HCMC.  It is awesome!  The best way for me to describe it is though photos, but of course, the BEST photo is always the one you missed.  So here are a few to give you a little taste, the others will just have to remain funny snapshots in our minds…

VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE!

Moving day... we also saw other family members with a diningroom table, 6 chairs (yes, on one bike), a file cabinet, and mattresses piled 3-high balanced between 2 bikes.

Moving day... we also saw other family members with a diningroom table, 6 chairs (yes, on one bike), a file cabinet, and mattresses piled 3-high balanced between 2 bikes.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are easily 500 cycles and motorbikes for every one car.  Yes, it looks like utter chaos from the safe-ish sidewalk, but here in Vietnam there is at least a passing acknowledgment of the rules-of-the-road (unlike China, where traffic laws are optional).  It looks totally impossible to cross the street with all the whirring bikes, but as we were instructed by new friends and other travelers – all you need to do is step off the curb and “JUST KEEP SWIMMING” and the bikes will part around you.  And it totally works!  Its like parting the Red Sea!!!

Bundles

Bundles

Plywood. We also saw 10 bags on concrete, 20 foot long pieces of PVC pipe and rebar, bricks, and shingles.

Plywood. We also saw 10 bags on concrete, 20 foot long pieces of PVC pipe and rebar, bricks, and shingles.

Coconuts

Coconuts

Chicken coop on wheels - there were about 100 live chickens stuffed into these coops before she unloaded them at the market!  Guess the song birds on top just out for a stroll!

Chicken coop on wheels - there were about 100 live chickens stuffed into these coops before she unloaded them at the market! Guess the song birds on top just out for a stroll!

Baby with Baguette - look mom, no hands!

Baby with Baguette - look mom, no hands!

Fish traps - there are about 300 traps on this bike!

Fish traps - there are about 300 traps on this bike!

While it seems impressive (and perilous) to have a family of four to be riding this scooter, it was not uncommon at all to see a family of five - SIX was the record... one adult and five kids- AHHHHH!

While it seems impressive (and perilous) to have a family of four to be riding this scooter, it was not uncommon at all to see a family of five - SIX was the record... one adult and five kids- AHHHHH!

She was delivering salad greens to the restaurant we were eating at!

She was delivering salad greens to the restaurant we were eating at!

More restaurant supplies - maybe he's on his way back from Smart & Final?

More restaurant supplies - maybe he's on his way back from Smart & Final?

What?  Only 3 chickens in the basket - these must be the lucky chickens!

What? Only 3 chickens in the basket - these must be the lucky chickens!

water bottles

Fake flowers

Fake flowers

My personal favorite - warm baguettes - I bought 4 for 50 cents!

My personal favorite - warm baguettes - I bought 4 for 50 cents!

Our bargain tour of the Mekong Delta
Dec 2nd, 2009 by Tessa
Mekong River tributary & the bow of our boat
Mekong River tributary & the bow of our boat

Mekong tessa 2

So, we continue on with our adventures… Since no trip to Vietnam is complete without seeing the Mekong Delta (and since Phoebe had been assigned the “homework” of researching it) we decided to try something different and go on one of those organized tours.  We found the “exact” same tour offered from $9 a person to $46 a person, so being the budget travelers that we are, we of course chose the $9 tour. 

 We woke up early in the morning and walked to the “bus parking area”. Our guide passed all of the big fancy busses full of German tourists, until we finally arrive at our little, broken down “special” bus. Laughing about our bad bus kharma (and at our cheapness), we boarded the bus and set off for a 2 hours ride to the Mekong Delta.  My mom had the illusion that once we got out of Ho Chi Minh proper, that we’d come across quant rice fields and banana fields, but it was like one giant suburb all the way.

Coconut Boat

Coconut Boat

Coconut candy making factory, when its done it's like a coconut flavored "Bit-o-Honey"

Coconut candy making factory, when its done it's like a coconut flavored "Bit-o-Honey"

We arrived and got into some small boats that took us to a coconut candy factory; As our group learned the process of making the coconut candy, I hung in the back and proceeded to eat all of the samples I could get my hands on. They use every part of the coconut to make the candy, they even use the husks as fuel for the fire that they cook the over. We also learned that if you bought 5 bags of the candy (each with about 50 pieces in it) you get one free! =D What a deal! I reminded my dad that us buying the candy helped the local people, so now have 300 pieces of candy – sucker!
Maggot tea!

Maggot tea!

 We got back into the boat and went to the honey farm. They poured bee pollen, fresh honey, lime and tea into my cup. Gazing over the rim, I couldn’t help but notice (and  announce) that there were maggots in my cup! I flicked them out onto my plate and watched them as they crawled away. Well, now I had something interesting to write about… Mekong boat w fam

 We got back into another little boat, with two paddlers that harassed us whole way for tips and “big money”.  But my mom was okay with it, because Phoebe and I got to finally wear those cool pointy hats so she could take our picture in them. The next stop was our lunch place. Because we didn’t order the giant fried fish that was 15 dollars (and kind of freaky looking – they stood it upright in this dead fried fish contraption) and everyone else did, we were the last to get served (but who cares ^_~ cause we had coconut candy!

After lunch, Dad fell asleep in a hammock and almost got left behind, and on my 5th piece of post-lunch coconut candy I managed to pull a tooth out!

 When we get back to the bus, we are tired and worn out.  After about 15 minutes on the bus, the driver pulls off on the side of the road into some random parking lot and the tour guide says “everyone who is on the 2 day trip, stay on the bus, everyone on the one day trip, get off the bus.”

 One day trip… right that was us!

 We got off the bus and the guide brought us over to another bus. All 14 of us clomped down the parking lot to find that the new bus only had 2 seats open.  “Hmm. That’s strange,” the guide said, and then he went to a 2nd bus to see if they had and seats open.  The driver said he did – and so our guide said “BYE” and with that, he jumped onto the bus and drove off, leaving 12 of us in the parking lot without a bus!  Well apparently the other bus didn’t really have any seats, as they said “sorry” and drove off without us too!!!   There we were, stranded in the middle of the Mekong Delta suburbs with no ride home.  Not to fear though, we wouldn’t starve (after all, we DID have about 250 pieces of candy left) and one of our new friends from Australia (hey Ian!) reminded us all that we weren’t really stuck – because in Vietnam we are RICH and could just hire a taxi all the way back if we wanted. The adults dispersed and started waiving down other buses that passed, asking for a ride. Eventually we found one of those “luxury” buses that had room on it and we drove back to the bus area in comfy leather seats and air con.  So yet again – it all worked out great!

View from the train…
Dec 1st, 2009 by Kate

No more horrid overnight buses for us – at least not in Vietnam!  We happily board our (3 hour late) train in Na Trang and headed  eight hours south to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)  -the city formally (and still to most people here!) known as Siagon. 

The country side in Vietnam is really beautiful.  Our ride from Hanoi to Hoi An was mostly along the coastline – and I mean ALONG the coastline.  The scenes from our train window reminded me of the landscapes up around Big Sur and Pepple Beach in California but more tropical.  The land met the sea at a right angle, with massive rock littering the coastline making for crashing waves and beautiful scenery.  Every once and a while you’d catch sight of a strip of white sand beach.  I’m sure if you could get to it you’d think it was the most beautiful beach in the world.

Na Trang to HCMC was right out of a Vienamese country-side postcard… cloud-shrouded purple mountains way off in the distance and water-filled rice fields for as far as the eye could see.  Back when were were in the Bahamas, I decided I wanted to make a box of crayons that would capture all the shades of blue in the water and sky there – here in the south of Vietnam, I could make a whole box of greens.  Every so often there are islands of mango, banana and palm trees with tiny little houses on them.  Farmer with their conical hats dot the fields, as do their water buffalo. 

The only thing breaking breaking up the sea of greens were the jolts of color that caught my eye every so often – shrines and very elaborate family burial plots.  They looked like odd fancy birds – large and bright and much bigger than any of the very modest farmer’s homes.   The time, energy and resources it must take to build one of these burial shrines in immense - and there were thousands of them dotting the fields!

Other travelers that we’ve come across have commented that rural Vietnam looks like China did 15 to 20 years ago.  I hope not, as there is very little beauty left in the China, and I would hate to think of this marvelous place getting lost in the smog.

More on Hoi An (sorry – I got distracted writing about the food!)
Nov 28th, 2009 by Kate

A few shout outs are in order for Hoi An before I move on to Na Trang…

First and foremost – we connected with a great guy that lives in Hoi An through www.couchsurfing.org named Randy.  We didn’t end up staying with him, but he gave us a lot of invaluable insider tips on the ins-and-outs of Hoi An – PLUS he let us borrow his Kindle cord (ours got confiscated by customs in China!)  which was mighty kind and trusting of him.  If you are ever passing through Hoi An, I highly recommend stopping by his cool bookstore called Randy’s Book Xchange – he has the biggest selection of English language books I’ve seen in Asia, plus they’re used so you’re doing a good deed for the trees of the world.

One of the highlights of our trip to Hoi An was going to see Marble Mountain on China Beach (yes, of China Beach fame).  It is yet another giant limestone karst, but this one is climbible by some darn steep stairs.  But you are incredibly rewarded up towards the top with a massive cave that is the home to a beauiful and solumn Buddist Temple.  It is one of the most spiritual looking places I have ever seen.  Forget the great cathedrals of Europe and the massive Temples in Japan – this place is where you go if you want to chat with your God. 

Interestingly, it was used by the Viet Cong during the war as a hospital.  They were moving people in and out of the caves right under the noses of the American GI’s who were taking their R&R across the street at the beach.  I took some amazing photographs, but unfortunately I had a spaz moment in the market the next day and erased all my photos of Marble Mountain.  Its okay though, I’m going back again someday and you really should see if for yourself anyway.

Tessa enjoying a good book and some shade at La Plage on An Bang Beach

Tessa enjoying a good book and some shade at La Plage on An Bang Beach

Lastly, I want to mention the beaches in Hoi An.  They are a reason in and of themselves to visit the area.  White sand, great shells, lots of little shacks on the beach with cold beer, fresh fish, and comfy lounge chairs.  Our favorite beach was ”Bien An Bang” (An Bang Beach) and our favorite beach shack was La Plage Beach Club  (5th shack on the right if you are looking at the beach from the end of the dirt road.  The fisherman here fish out of boats that look like big round baskets (about 12 feet in diameter).  A few of the bigger boats cast these giant yellow nets and they look like ballerinas from the shore. 

***Note:  Add Hoi An as one of the places to check out to retire to…

Food, glorious food! And of course lovely Hoi An!
Nov 27th, 2009 by Kate
Fresh, hot baguettes by the giant basketful!

Fresh, hot baguettes by the giant basketful!

We are pretty much eating our way through Vietnam.  The food here is SO good.  The seafood is probably the best we’ve ever had.  You can get white meat chicken (non-existent in China), and when you order pork or beef, you don’t need to worry about getting what we not-so-affectionately call “inside meat” (brains, organs, etc) that is so popular in China.  Aside from breakfast, Tessa has had squid, clams or mussels for every meal for six days.  I am not kidding. 

 In China, we stuck very faithfully to our “no ice or water, veggies and fruit only if cooked or peeled” mantra.  By our second meal in Vietnam we threw that rule out the window.  It just seems cleaner here and SO much of the cooking is done right out in the open you have a better feel for what you are getting.  Plus, all the food looks so good and fresh on the plates being served around you – you feel like it would be a shame to miss out on the fresh spring rolls and the tasty fresh herbs they are piling onto everything.

Lovely Hoi An

Lovely Hoi An

 

Hoi An's waterfront - looking towards the Morning Market

Hoi An's waterfront - looking towards the Morning Market

After our week on Cat Ba Island, we head down to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An.  It was for centuries the largest seaport in Vietnam, and the buildings there have strong Chinese and Japanese influences, with enough French influence too, to make it quite pretty in a really old city kind-of-way.  Hoi An is known for its food – and having been in the country for two weeks at this point (and having eaten at places you can not even fathom in the States), we didn’t even pause for a second eating anything that caught our fancy.

 And the prices for food – it is almost shameful how little things cost, even in really nice, hip, well decorated, clean restaurants.  We could easily enjoy an appetizer (almost always fresh spring rolls – we loved tasting the different ways they were made), beers for the adults and fresh juices for the girls, four entrees, dessert and coffee for $12 out the door.  And this was not for a couple of sandwiches – I’m talking snapper in passion fruit sauce, tuna in tamarind sauce with veggies, chicken with chili and lemongrass (one of Jeff’s favs throughout Vietnam), and a lovely curry or claypot, PLUS some insanely good dessert like fresh coconut ice cream or mango with sweet coconut milk rice (my fav!).

 And the coffee here – OMG!  Yes, I know I’m not supposed to be drinking coffee.  They typically serve it here very very strong with sweetened condensed milk.  Jeff has at least one at every meal.  I have been cheating on my no caffeine rule in the mornings, I order a coffee, split in half, then fill up the difference with “fresh milk” that actually comes in a box (I turned up my nose at first but now I actually kind of like boxed milk!).  It is SO tasty.  Coffee farming in Vietnam is an important part of the economy in the mountains, and I hope that next time you’re shopping for beans that you’ll consider trying some Vietnamese Fair Trade java.  Pick up a can of sweetened condensed milk (or put aside a bit when you’re making those pumpkin pies this week) and combine an ounce of the milk with a few ounces of strong coffee, drink up, and think of us!

We went to the Moon Restaurant the first time because the building was just so darn cool (yes that is real moss growing on the outside), we went back (over and over again) because the food was OMG GOOD!

We went to the Moon Restaurant the first time because the building was just so darn cool (yes that is real moss growing on the outside), we went back (over and over again) because the food was OMG GOOD!

 A few of our other favorites in Hoi An from our favorite restaurant called “Moon Restaurant and Lounge” were carmelized eggplant in a clay pot (clay pot cooking is one of the local specialties), squid in coconut milk, mussels in lemongrass broth, and crepes with bruled bananas and pineapple with vanilla gelato.  I became obsessed with the fresh spring rolls and the divine dipping sauce.  I inquired about what was in the sauce, but we had a bit of a language barrier so they to me to come back tomorrow morning and make the sauce with them.  Phoebe and made our way back the next morning and we spent a lovely hour in the 8×8 foot kitchen chopping, sautéing, mixing and tasting.  I was so happy to be in a kitchen.  When we get back home we’re going to have a big party and this is going to be one of the tasty things we serve for sure.  Right now, Phoebe thinks we should keep it our secret recipe – but I’ll keep working on her and see if she’ll give it up – and I’ll post it for sure!

Ducks in the Morning Market

Ducks in the Morning Market

One of 100 market flower ladies

One of 100 market flower ladies

 On our last day in Hoi An all four of us took a cooking class from the Red Bridge Cooking School.  Our morning started with drinks at their restaurant in downtown Hoi An, a trip to the Morning Market with the chef, a charming boat trip to the cooking school, and then four hours of observing the chefs, learning some of the tricks-of-the-trade of Vietnamese cooking, and practicing our new skills (oh yes, and then feasting on everything we made!). 

Cooking School - I've learned yet another way to make eggplant (yippee!)

Cooking School - I've learned yet another way to make eggplant (yippee!)

The best part of the cooking lesson was we learned to make rice paper.  I didn’t even know what rice paper was when I was 12.  Watching Tessa & Phoebe over their pots of boiling water flipping their rounds of paper was a really good “this is why we are doing this crazy trip” moment.

Phoebe after finishing the "garnishing" lesson at cooking school - oh so Montessori!

Phoebe after finishing the "garnishing" lesson at cooking school - oh so Montessori!

Ahhhh…. Cat Ba…..
Nov 27th, 2009 by Kate
Limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay

Limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay

Cat Ba Island is located about four hours outside of Hanoi in Ha Long Bay.  It is amazing here.  One of the prettiest places I’ve ever been in my life.  Remember the limestone karsts we wrote about when we were back in China – the hills that stick up out of nowhere put all over the place?  Well here in Ha Long Bay – they stick up out of the ocean.

It took us one taxi, three buses and one boat to get to Cat Ba Island but it was totally worth the trip.  Phoebe thinks they should call it "Goat Ba" Island instead as these were just one of the many goat gangs we saw roaming the island.

It took us one taxi, three buses and one boat to get to Cat Ba Island but it was totally worth the trip. Phoebe thinks they should call it "Goat Ba" Island instead as these were just one of the many goat gangs we saw roaming the island.

On our way to Cat Ba we met a great young German couple (Inga & George) because Inga was the person whose lap Phoebe kept falling into on the bus.  They were great fun – and we decided to go in on a tour together.  Jeff had done some research and found an outfitter (www.slopony.com) that could arrange a boat and kayaking tour for us around Ha Long Bay.  Since we had hired for a private boat we all assumed we’d have small little boat, but we actually we had the same giant boat as the twenty person tour group.  It was a great – a wooden boat about 40 feet, two stories (see Jeff flipping off the top deck) and way more room that we needed.  Because we split the boat with our new friends, the entire day including the boat trip from 8:30am to 5:30 pm, a tour guide, a delicious lunch prepared by the boat’s crew, and kayaks ended up costing just under $20 per person!  Did I mention we love Vietnam!

Floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay

Floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay

Squid fishing boat - notice the glass lamps strung between the masts - they take these boats out at night and light'em up.  The squid are attracted to the lights (they fish for shrimp this way too).

Squid fishing boat - notice the glass lamps strung between the masts - they take these boats out at night and light'em up. The squid are attracted to the lights (they fish for shrimp this way too).

We caught the boat in a little port town, and headed out amongst the giant karsts and floating fishing villages.  The fishing villages were so interesting, they had houses, dogs, grocery stores (well, on boats) and even schools.  It was obvious that the fisher-families took great pride in their very modest homes – they were all brightly painted (greens, blues, and red trim were the colors of choice) and neatly kept with the giant bundles of nets neatly hung.  Some of these villages had up to 100 homes – they were quite elaborate operations!  We would also come across single family floating fishing operations (we decided these must be the anti-social fisherman) and clam farms too. 

On one of our kayaking outings our guide asked the men working the pens if we could come closer and see.  Thanks to the novelty of having a little blonde child with us, we were invited up into their house and they walked us around the pens and even pulled up some clam baskets for us to check out.  It was SO cool!  I was so happy the girls got see how the farms work from up close, and we decided that scrambling around the bamboo fish pen frames and chatting with the local farmers totally counted as school for the day.  All it cost us was having Phoebe and Tessa pose for pictures with each of the fisherman (they ALL had cell phone cameras of course).

Feeding the fish on one of the floating fish farms

Feeding the fish on one of the floating fish farms

We traveled through Ha Long Bay for a few hours and then dropped anchor in a large cove with a few other boats.  I was happy to learn from our guide that a large portion of the Bay is a protected sanctuary and that they only allow anchoring in a few areas.  The water was clean and warm and calm in the cove, the perfect place for exploring with our kayaks, swimming, and soaking in the scenery.  After lunch, we motored around the karsts – stopping a few more times to hop in the kayaks to check out even more secluded coves (and a few beaches) that were only accessible by our kayaks or by swimming. 

Floating in the waters of Ha Long Bay

Floating in the waters of Ha Long Bay

As the tide went out, natural bridges and caves were exposed.  We attempted to paddle into one of the caves that our guide Jessie knew about, and we were able to get about 100 feet in, but the water rushing out of the cave was like a river under us, and made it nearly impossible to paddle “upstream”.  It was just as well – we only had one decent flashlight, and Phoebe was in charge of it so we spent half of our them in the cave either in total darkness, with strobe effect, or with the flashlight blinding us in the eyes (note to all parents – flashlights are STILL toys to 9 year old children).

Tessa and Kate kayaking through a natural tunnel formed under a giant limestone karst to a small cove - it was amazing!

Tessa and Kate kayaking through a natural tunnel formed under a giant limestone karst to a small cove - it was amazing!

As we motored back to our little harbor, mist was starting to form around the karsts and the sun was setting.  We had a fabulous day and want to send out props to Jessie and the gang at SloPony for arranging such a great trip for us.

The island of Cat Ba is great too.  It’s very lush and green – very much a jungle.  It is the slow season so there were probably 50 other tourists in the whole town.  Our rooms (we got two cause we’re such big spenders) were $7 per night, we had an awesome view of Cat Ba’s harbor, and decided it was worth the five-floor walk up!  There were some really pretty beaches within walking distance of our hotel – and on the way we could buy fresh mangos and baguettes for about 15 cents each, and Jeff’s favorite Ha Long Bai (beer) for 20 cents.  The seafood there was insane, and we ate it for lunch and dinner every meal.  We decide that the squid there was better than anywhere in the world.  The one bummer about Cat Ba was that we only had electricity for half the time we were there, which meant flashlight and cold showers – but in spite of that we still stayed there for 7 nights!  Ultimately, with food and lodging, we spent about $40 a day for the four of us.

A million dollar view from our $7 room

A million dollar view from our $7 room

Beer Update – Yeah Viet Nam!
Nov 17th, 2009 by Jeff

Yeah, beer is better in Viet Nam! Viet Nam has embraced the micro brewery model and it is everywhere. I unfortunately didn’t get to try it here until we made it to Cat Ba Island. There I was able to sample the local Bia Hia Phong (Hia Phong being the closest big city to Cat Ba Island). There was a hotel next to the one we stayed at that had two large golden kegs on a kart by the street. See photo below. A cold glass of beer was a whopping 5,000 VND (or about $0.28 US). The beer was a light lager that had a definite floral finish, quite refreshing on a hot Vietnamese day (the power was out and is was a little warm).

A tasty treat after a hard day at the beach!

A tasty treat after a hard day at the beach!

Since then we have made our way to Nha Trang (where I am at this very moment). Here there is a microbrewery called Louisiane Brewhouse – right on the beach, no less. I have already enjoyed a cold Louisiane Witbier and their Dark Lager, both quite tasty. The Witbier is in the classic Belgian style with coriander, orange and a special yeast culture. It complemented my fish curry quite well. The Dark Lager was also quite good and I had it as my afternoon dessert. It was still a lager so not too heavy, but it had definite chocolate notes which added to the roasted hops flavor. I think I may spend a little more time here. The beer is a little more pricey here, $1.75 a glass, but the ambiance is well worth it (wifi equipped).

Cheers,

Jeff

More things I love about Hanoi…
Nov 16th, 2009 by Kate
There is a beautiful lake smack-dab in the middle of the old French Quarter with a pretty little red bridge that leads to a pretty little island with a neat little shrine dedicated to a mysterious lake turtle that has folk lore like the Loch Ness Monster.  The entire lake is surrounded by Royale Poinsetta trees that I am sure look stunning in the spring!

There is a beautiful lake smack-dab in the middle of the old French Quarter with a pretty little red bridge that leads to a pretty little island with a neat little shrine dedicated to a mysterious lake turtle that has folk lore like the Loch Ness Monster. The entire lake is surrounded by Royale Poinsetta trees that I am sure look stunning in the spring!

Every building has a beautiful balconey!
Every building has a beautiful balconey!  French Colonial Architecture – gotta love it!
And the locals look so elegant enjoying their views...

And the locals look so elegant enjoying their views...

Even the government buildings are beautiful.  Every single one of them is painted some version of this yellow - I affectionately call it "Vietnam Yellow".  It ages wonderfully and I plan to paint my house this color when I get home!

Even the government buildings are beautiful. Every single one of them is painted some version of this yellow - I affectionately call it "Vietnam Yellow". It ages wonderfully and I plan to paint my house this color when I get home!

They have my tile!!!  The buildings here have very narrow facades along the street, but go very, very far back.  Between each building is a long (usually very dark) passageway.  The passageways are all tiled with the colored concrete tile that I painstakingly had made for my bathroom at home.  I have about 100 photos of the different patterns I have found here - they are like flowers to me!

They have my tile!!! The buildings here have very narrow facades along the street, but go very, very far back. Between each building is a long (usually very dark) passageway. The passageways are all tiled with the colored concrete tile that I painstakingly had made for my bathroom at home. I have about 100 photos of the different patterns I have found here - they are like flowers to me!

The food here is amazing!  There is NO WAY this restaurant would ever exist in the US.  There is an old lady rolling spring rolls on the sidewalk in front of the tables deep frying them in a massive kettle of oil over an open flame, and the lady kneeling next to her is rolling the meat patties you see in the pic.  They boil them there in yet another massive kettle and laddle them into bowls.  I have no idea where the  greens or noodle came from.  You throw the greens into the bottom of your bowl and then noodles and then meat with broth.  Its is SO tasty.  We waddled out of there - and our bill with drinks was $4US.

The food here is amazing! There is NO WAY this restaurant would ever exist in the US. There is an old lady rolling spring rolls on the sidewalk in front of the tables, and then deep frying them in a massive kettle of oil over an open flame. The lady kneeling next to her is rolling the meat patties you see in the pic. They boil them there in yet another massive kettle and laddle them into serving bowls. A lady washing dishes was out there too (they wash just about all the dishes in buckets out on the sidewalk no matter how nice the joint). I have no idea where the greens or noodle came from, they sort of appeared out of no where (and we decided better NOT to know). So, to eat this, you throw the greens into the bottom of your bowl and then noodles and then meat with broth. Its is SO tasty. We waddled out of there - and our bill with drinks was $4US.

There are approximately 500 motorbikes for every one car in Hanoi.  Yes the roads are this busy from 7am until well after midnight.  How do you cross the street?  You step off the curb given the slightest break in bikes, then you slowly but confidently keep walking.  You don't even need to really look over to see if you are going to be run over, you just keep walking slowly.  They all swerve around you.  I am amazed every time we make it across the street alive.  The girls can even cross by themselves!  It's like Dory in the ocean currents in Finding Nemo... just keep walking, just keep walking...

There are approximately 500 motorbikes for every one car in Hanoi. Yes the roads are this busy from 7am until well after midnight. How do you cross the street? You step off the curb given the slightest break in bikes, then you slowly but confidently keep walking. You don't even need to really look over to see if you are going to be run over, you just keep walking slowly. They all swerve around you. I am amazed every time we make it across the street alive. The girls can even cross by themselves! It's like Dory in the ocean currents in Finding Nemo... just keep walking, just keep walking...

Morning in Hanoi
Nov 16th, 2009 by Kate

We arrived in Hanoi before the sun that day.  Our taxi drove the empty streets as if the traffic lights didn’t exist.  He deposited us on the shuttered front stoop of our hotel in the old French Quarter. Vietnamese people of every age were emerging from the long passageways between the buildings in their pajamas and heading towards the lake in the center of the Quarter like it was Mecca.  The morning was cool, and the entire city had turned out for their morning exercises.  In mass, they walked around the lake.  The young people chatted with each other as they walked in small groups.  The elderly were the most serious about their exercise – arm waving, clapping, flapping, twisting and backwards walking were just a few of the many variations of calastenics in their routines.  Did I mention that everyone was in their pajamas?  There were probably ten to fifteen thousand people walking the lake.  I have never heard that many people be so quiet.  The sun finally broke the tops of building, and as if on que, everyone headed back up the spokes of streets that radiated from the lake and disappeared back down their building’s passageways. 

 Phoebe pointed out that it was the first time she’d seen the sun since Japan a month earlier.  Tess noted the blue sky and how pretty the palm trees looked against the candy colored buildings.  I thought to myself how great classic French architecture looks in the tropics, and then felt bad for about a second recalling the horrors of French Colonialism that influenced the gorgeous balconies and wrought iron flourishes on each building.

 Very shortly after, the roll-up gates of the shops opened one by one, and the motorbikes emerged down the ramps in front of every store.  Our hotel gate opened with a clamor, and no less than five motorbikes were wheeled out of the lobby and lined up on the street in front of the stoop we had just been sitting on.  A sixth bike came forth with a rider – a beautiful Vietnamese girl in a pretty pink “ao dai” – she was headed out to the market to get fresh baguettes and fruit for the hotel’s breakfast buffet. 

 We were so tired from our overnight train we decided to forgo breakfast and bought baguettes, mangos, and bananas from the old ladies on our corner.  The baguettes were still hot.  The cost 15 cents each.  The two perfect mangos and a bunch of bananas set us back another 35 cents…

 I have only been in Hanoi for 45 minutes and I love this place…

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