Friday, August 30, 2013

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh to tourists

Our life of peace and serenity in Hoi An, Vietnam was once again about to take a turn back to the chaotic world of Vietnamese urban life. We had planned, and tried to book train tickets from Hoi An to Saigon, which was the old but very much alive and commonly used name of Ho Chi Minh City. The train in Vietnam was something that I really wanted to experience, and I had all but convinced Hannah that it would be an enriching experience. The name "Reunification Express" just sounds like something you have to do, at least that was my argument. The journey by train from Hoi An to Saigon would take at least 20 hours but we were prepared to accept that fate. Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones with that plan. All sleeper coaches on the train were sold out for days before and after our required departure and rather than sit upright in a cattle car for 20 hours we decided to make other arrangements. Luckily (for Hannah) flights from Hoi An to Saigon were inexpensive and quick, so that became the new plan.

We arrived Saigon without issue and our awaiting car took us to the center of the Saigon expat and tourist activity, District 1. We were immediately ambushed by blocks and blocks and streets and streets of literal chaos. Bars and clubs blared, restaurants (mostly makeshift or street food stands) bustled with activity. The Vietnamese seemed to take many things from their French influences including baguettes, smoking way too much, and setting up chairs in one direction along busy streets so patrons can sit, smoke, and drink while watching the chaos on the street pass them by, which is why Saigon is commonly referred to as "the Paris of Asia."

We had booked 2 nights in Saigon in District 1 at the Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel; in case you are wondering there are indeed at least another 2 of them. We didn't want to overbook our stay in District 1 as we had heard that it could be a crazy place and we thought we may want a bit more of a local scene during our stay in Saigon, so we left ourselves the option of booking the final few days elsewhere....which would turn out to be one of our trips missteps. Entering the Beautiful 3 we were indifferent...nothing to rave about but nothing to complain about. We didn't notice until the following morning that there were no windows at all in the hotel room, and we never thought to look or ask. We soon realized how much a window changes a hotel room. We would wake up each morning and have absolutely no idea where we were, what time it was, if we had missed the day, or we should just go back to sleep.

We dropped our bags and in the true nature of squeezing every bit of excitement out of a night in Saigon I convinced Hannah that we MUST IMMEDIATELY head to the Saigon Night Market. Night Markets in SE Asia were a staple of every city we visited. We were beginning to realize that you can transplant a Luang Prabang night market in the middle of Bangkok, and staff it with vendors from Saigon and it would be exact same market. They are all selling the exact same Chinese made trinkets and T-shirts. The only major difference is that the beer T-shirts have a different brand of beer imprinted on them. Hannah was in no mood for a night market and as soon as we arrived I realized that neither was I. We lasted 10 minutes and headed back to our hotel's busy street (which was getting progressively crazier) for our first Saigon street food experience.

 We sat down at a decent looking Pho Bo Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup stand and in 3 minutes were served an amazing bowl of Pho by the sweetest mother (~70 yrs old)/daughter (~50 years old) pair. We loaded up our bowls with hot chili, bean sprouts, and basil and went to town. At that moment Hannah and I both had a silent agreement that we be eating at this soup stand at least once a day. We hardly noticed that directly behind us was a bar that, like most bars in Saigon's District 1, was also a brothel.


We spent the following day wandering around several of Saigon's neighborhoods, checking out a few of the sites, but mostly just enjoying the diverse parts of the city. We were very impressed with Saigon, the Western and French influences were very prominent. The streets in many areas were wide with sidewalks that were comfortable to walk on, unlike Hanoi where it was probable to get killed (or burned) by a moped even when on the sidewalk. There were high end areas such as the Dong Khoi neighborhood that were reminscient of 5th Avenue in New York with a combination of high end shopping as well as plenty of opportunities to buy Mark Yacobs bags or Louis Wuitten purses. 

As you walked down these ritzy streets we were continuously offered manicures and pedicures by girls handing out flyers. We are quite sure that all Westerners look alike because it was not uncommon to pass by and say "no thank you" to the same person 5 times but still have them attempt to hand you a coupon. I began telling them that I just had 3 manicures and couldn't possibly have another, but they still insisted. Walking through the rain we were insistent on finding a local beer joint but we somehow ended up on top of the highest end bar in Saigon having 12 glasses of $12 wine. Sometimes it's hard to be a tourist.

Much as we have loved every other Vietnamese city that we visited, we also loved Saigon for many of the same reasons. We rarely found ourselves eating at a restaurant in Vietnam. Our meals were almost always grazing on street vendor foods as we walked around town. We did find a great restaurant through our brother in law Eric which happened to have locations in both Hanoi and Saigon called Quon An Ngon. We ate there twice in Saigon toasting Eric both times, but everything else that we had worth mentioning was at a roadside stand.


After 2 nights in the crazy District 1 of Saigon Hannah and I were looking for a more local, less touristy scene. We did our normal extensive due diligence and decided it best to stay at a hotel located in a neighborhood further out of the center. As the taxi drove us to the hotel we tracked diligently on Google Maps. We were a bit surprised and unsure what was happening when the taxi passed the hotel, or what we thought was the hotel and continued driving for another 20 minutes. We finally arrived at the hotel and Hannah and I both looked at each other with that common unspoken phrase, "have we made a huge mistake?". The hotel was not only 20 minutes by bus from anything that we'd want to see or anywhere we planned on going, but it was also accessed by back alleys. As we walked along the alley to get to the hotel chickens roamed freely on the streets, the screen doors of the local homes were open and the residents laid in plain view on mats on the floors, and women sat in the streets washing dishes. The hotel itself appeared to be very nice, and the hospitality of the manager was very welcoming. We explained the truth, Google Maps had told us the hotel was 20 minutes closer to the city center, and this probably wasn't going to work for our 3 nights remaining in Saigon. She was fully understanding, refunded our money in full, and within 30 minutes we were back in a taxi headed back to District 1.

My trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels was another great way to see the Vietnamese propaganda machine in action. The tunnels hold complex mazes and underground structures used by the Vietnamese when fighting the Americans in Saigon. We learned about all the ways traps are constructed and many other tactics the Vietnamese used to defeat the American invaders. The best part of this excursion was being able to shoot whatever crazy automatic machine gun I wanted to. I chose an AK47 and M60 machine gun. I have absolutely no idea if I even came close to hitting the targets, but it was a blast regardless.

Here I am doing my best to fit into a hole made for much smaller people.

Here is a video of me shooting a massive machine gun and hitting nothing but loving it.

For the remaining time in Saigon we continued to eat incredible food on the street, having a regular dinner at our favorite Pho soup stand. We visited the War Remnants museum where one can see the finest in captured American artillery and weaponry including planes, tanks, and more, displayed in the proudest fashion by the Vietnamese. Also on display were room after room of pictures of the damage done by Agent Orange, not an uplifting exhibit to say the least.

We also took in a cockfight.

I also exercised my alter ego and played Adam Sandler for a couple of star struck Vietnamese girls.

Saigon marked the end of our amazing adventure in Vietnam. We have loved Vietnam, loved the food, loved the craziness, and the overall organized chaos that makes a country like this so exciting. We definitely would like to return to see more of this country and eat as much as possible.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hanoi, Vietnam - So long and thanks for all the fish


After narrowly escaping the trinket disaster in the Luang Prabang airport David, Hannah, and I settled into our seats for our quick one hour flight to Hanoi. We had picked up another traveler who would be joining us for the rest of our trip together and would travel on with Hannah and me. His name was Lao and he was a female figurine that Dave bought against his will, still in a package, missing a leg, holding his Lao baby.

We arrived Hanoi after dark and were met at the airport by our hotel driver. None of us had been to Vietnam but we were all excited to experience the culture, eat the food, and enjoy some good old fashioned communist propaganda.

We got to the Tirant Hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi sometime around 7pm and immediately regrouped and hit the town for our first Vietnamese foodie experience. We took a recommendation from Trip Advisor and other travel guides and headed out for some Cha Ca, which is sautéed fish served with green vegetables cooked on a hot skillet at your table. The restaurant we chose, Cha Ca La Vong, is so famous and established that the street on which it sits is named for the restaurant itself...that piece of history we learned several days later. What happened in that restaurant will go down in our own personal history books as embarrassing, humiliating, and frustrating.

It started when we sat down and ordered 3 and 3 Hanoi beers. Three simply means 3 orders of the dish of the house. A placard on the table told us it cost 170,000 VND (about $15) per person....pretty pricey for a meal in Vietnam, especially at a place that looked as dirty and dilapidated as this place. The woman supposedly serving us brought over 2 warm beers and 1 cold and didn't open them. She then proceeded to cook our fish at the table and mix in green vegetables, showing us what she was doing and how to prepare our rice bowls for the upcoming feast.

Hannah also prepared for the feast.

There was enough fish in the pan for 1 small person so logically we assumed that she was cooking each of our meals separately. We shared the fish, about 2-3 small pieces each, and waited for the next course....which never came. We sat there looking at each other wondering if we had to tell her we were ready or wait for her to cook us more. After about 10 minutes of us sitting there I finally asked where the rest was and she informed us that that was it....we had just eaten $45 worth of mediocre oily fish. I couldn't hold back, I got so visibly (and audibly) angry that Hannah and Dave both had to try to calm me down. An Australian passerbyer came up to our table and told us that was a Vietnamese portion (he didn't see our portion), to which I became even more angry, asking him how much he paid for his meal because he was with a Vietnamese family. It had been a long day and we weren't in the mood to have the police called over some fish so we did the right thing, after causing quite the scene, and paid our outrageous bill and got out of there. Later reading of the reviews of this restaurant expressed the same outrage I had about their portion sizes and rude least I wasn't alone.

Here she is cooking us too little food.

We walked around a bit to let our (read my) temper simmer down and popped into a great little Pho restaurant on the side of the street and had our first "proper" Vietnamese meal, a bowl of Pho Bo, noodle soup with beef, for less that $1. It was here that Dave and Hannah commenced teasing me for my outburst, randomly yelling out THREE.

One of, if not the, most daunting and exciting parts of Hanoi is navigating the busy roads on foot. There are about 90 million people in Vietnam and 40 million mopeds. These mopeds carry entire families of 4, refrigerators, 50 gallons of water, dead pigs, bushels of hay, or whatever else may need to be transported. These mopeds dominate the streets and follow no road rules, they cross all lanes of traffic, go the wrong direction, ride on the sidewalks, and when there actually are street lights or stop signs they are ignored. A wise man in Vietnam told us that crosswalks painted on the streets aren't actually crosswalks, they are graffiti. Crossing the street by foot, whether one lane or 8 lanes is an act of bravery. Any hesitation means you get squashed so you just step out into oncoming traffic and keep moving, somehow the sea of mopeds manages to swerve, honk, and (almost) always misses hitting you. Honking horns in Vietnam isn't an act of aggression, it is an act of notifying others that you are there is constant horn blowing. This is why I continuously screamed when crossing streets. For us, the true beauty in most Vietnamese cities was the pure mayhem that occurred in a somehow random but organzied manner.

This is a video depicting what it's like to cross a street in Hanoi....after a few drinks, with a wife who loves to dance at inopportune times.

The next morning at the obscene hour of 6am Dave met up with a Jiu Jitsu buddy in Hanoi who invited Dave into his Jiu Jitsu acadamey as a guest instructor. Meanwhile, Hannah and I slept in and spent the morning walking around the Old Quarter and the Hun Tiep Lake negotiating already cheap tank tops for Hannah who was desperately in need of a costume change after months of traveling. All were apparently manufactured by "Zara," or "Banana Republik." The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a lot to take, sensory overload in every capacity. There are endless shops selling endless amounts of garbage. There are aggressive shop owners trying to get you into their stores, and when you do actually go in you are literally followed around the store by the staff as if they expect you to take a $4 t-shirt and run out the door with it.

When Dave was ready to rejoin us we took a trip to the famed Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton). This is where we got a true sense of what it feels like to be on the "other" side of propaganda. There was a clear feeling of Vietnam's pride in the capturing, holding, and treatment of American soldiers during the "American War". Although the Hanoi Hilton is known as being one of the most brutal prison camps for American soldiers, famous for ruthless torture to extract information, there was a constant video reel running showing the prisoners playing and enjoying their captivity; playing basketball for fun, playing cards, laughing and joking with guards, and one of our personal favorites was where the guards were returning the money and personal belongings to the American soldiers as they were released. It looked like summer camp.

They are also very proud of John McCain's flight suit.

That evening we had possibly the most fun eating the best bowl of Pho Vietnamese Soup imaginable. Hannah found a local hot spot that was packed was locals and had a line out the door. This was definitely the Soup Nazi's pho. We cautiously approached the counter, put up 3 fingers to signify we wanted 3 of whatever they were serving, and stepped to the left to await our fate. There were no open seats but one of the people working there saw our confusion and made room for us by squeezing 3 chairs in between 3 slurping Vietnamese. We sat on the tiny chairs with our big American bodies in between the locals. We loaded up our soups with way too much hot peppers and hot chili sauce and before we knew it we were sweating, blowing our noses, coughing from the heat of the soup and heat of the chilis....and LOVING every minute of it.

Halong Bay

Whenever we ask anyone about their favorite things to do in Vietnam one of the most common answers is a visit to Halong Bay on a "Junk Boat." We were unsure why anyone enjoyed traveling on a piece of junk, and quickly learned hat this doesn't necessarily mean a "piece of junk boat." Luckily for us we booked through Indochina Tours...a one night cruise in Halong Bay to see the famed UNESCO world heritage site of Halong Bay, and had a nice boat.

Only 400 minutes remaining on this boat.

This is where the niceties ended. This excursion will forever be referred to by Dave, Hannah, and I as the most annoying, painfully touristy, yet beautiful experience on our trip through Vietnam. What we had come to learn about Vietnam, and later was confirmed by a local, is that Vietnam hasn't quite figured out tourism yet.

This is Hannah making the most of the sweltering misery.

Rather than taking us on a nice, relaxing, tour of the amazing rock formations in Halong Bay, they instead guide the hordes of tourists like herds of cattle through a series of embarrasing (for everyone involved) side trips. Those that should be removed from the itinerary altogether include taking us to a beach and sticking you in a kayak for an hour, parading us through a fishing village as you are expected to gawk, point, and oogle at the squalid conditions in which they live as the local fishermen and their families try to live their lives and ignore you.

This is a piece I like to call "unhappy Kirsch".

Here is "fake happy" Goldbergs.

The final nail in the coffin was the forced hour long stop on the way back to Hanoi (halfway between Halong and Hanoi) to watch an unauthentic water puppet show. Who asked to see a puppet show? (Besides Dave anyway.) We asked to go to Halong Bay.

Instead of actually watching the performance we instead tried to capture the mood of several random audience members, aka tourist prisoners. We think a picture speaks a thousand puppets.

If that didn't convince you, see for yourself.

On the ride back to Hanoi I created a gallery entitled "how much random shit can we fit on a moped"....enjoy.

Back in Hanoi

After the Halong Bay interruption we headed back to Hanoi for Dave's final few days with us. This was when our time in Vietnam really took a turn. We got some amazing recommendations for restuarants and bars from Dave's Jiu Jitsu friend Tuan. This changed our experience and gave us exactly what we were looking for.

We spent the better part of the day hanging out in a great warehouse, art gallery district that Tuan pointed us to. Hiker Coffee Shop and Barbetta Bar were awesome and super hip. The decorations were all tastefully eclectic and the crowds were what we would have considered the Vietnamese equivalent of ourselves, aka, very, very cool.

Hiker coffee shop was a sigh of relief from the Starbucks in the old town.

These pictures say it all about Barbetta, probably the coolest bar in Vietnam and maybe on planet earth.

What's better for a sobriety test in a bar than an eye chart with only one letter!

The Barbetta mascot was nothing short of amazing.

We spent the day wandering in and out of galleries and trendy shops (read drinking beers), playing foosball at the bar, and playing our new favorite game, "guess the person in 21 questions". We spent hours during the trip trying to stump each other by coming up with the most obscure person and hoping 21 questions wasn't enough to guess who it was. The best part of the game was watching Hannah either panic when she had to come up with a person for us to guess or when she would panic that she wouldn't get hers both cases she was always nervous, yet would always surprise us by getting it right at the 21st question.

We even got the pleasure of seeing a Passover Seder being prepared:

That evening we decided to try another Cha Ca restaurant to try to get rid of the bad taste left by Cha Ca La Vong a few days before. This time we weren't dissapointed. Through another stellar recommendation from Tuan Ahn for a little known, but local place called Cha Cha Thang Long. This time the fish and the portions didn't disapoint. We also lucked out by being the last guests allowed into the restaurant before they started turning people away.

After dinner we returned to the Spy Bar, a spot we found earlier in the afternoon while trying to escape the insufferable heat of the city. As we left the bar earlier that day the owner told us about open mic night later that evening, to which I of course volunteered Dave to play his rendition of House of the Rising Sun. The owner of Spy Bar latched onto this and wouldn't let us leave without Dave promising to return later that night and play for the bar.

When we did return after Cha Ca Thang Long we quickly retreated to the small table upstairs that we occupied earlier in the day. Around 12am things got crazy. A hoard of people poured into the bar from the streets and we assumed they were there for open mic. What we found odd was that the curtains in the bar had been pulled shut and anyone that entered had to knock and be let in by the owner....we found it strange but thought nothing of it. Around 12:30am the police arrived. They walked into the bar and it was clear that none of us were welcome or supposed to be there. We quietly sidled downstairs, threw some money on the bar, and headed for the exits ignoring the obvious commotion ensuing around us. To this, the owner looked at us and told us to walk around the block and come back, the police would be gone soon. Apparently, the 12am curfew in Hanoi is strictly enforced, unless of course you grease the palms of the local police.

We didn't return, we got back to the hotel, packed up our bags, and got ready for our next adventure, which would, sadly, not include Dave. His time with us had come to an end. Hannah and I were headed for Hoi An, Vietnam, and Dave for Los Angeles.