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#52 Hong Kong N°2 – Temples, Buddhas and a smelly village

The city of Hong Kong is surrounded by hills, islands and beaches, all of which are easily reachable by public transport.

Picking our spots, we decided against the beaches as we thought the Philippines will have something waiting for us in that regard.
One day, I headed to Lantau Island to visit the Tai O Fishing Village as well as the Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery in Ngong Ping. The metro brought me to the island, from where I caught a bus that dropped me in the village about an hour or so later. I was expecting a cute, well preserved little town. Instead, Tai O was rather shabby if I may say so; besides the traditional housing of the fishermen, the streets were uninspired and lined with nothing else than raw and dried fish, not exactly an olfactory treat. After walking around for about thirty minutes I had enough and decided to take the next bus to Ngong Ping. I was also sure that I wouldn’t have fish for dinner.

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Can you smell it?

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Ngong Ping was only about fifteen minutes from Tai O. It’s also possible to go up there by cablecar, which unfortunately wasn’t running that day.
268 steps led me up the main attraction, the gigantic bronze Buddha statue called Tian Tan, prominently positioned atop the hill, and down again to the Po Lin Monastery.

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Hey there!

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Goldilocks

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The other day, Barbara and I left the city to the north, changed the metro a few times and sweating considerably walked up the path to the Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin. Hundreds of statues line the way up and like the thousands of smaller Buddhas in the main temple, every single one of them is unique, differing from all the others in facial expression, clothing, gesture etc.

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View to Sha Tin

On the way back to the city, we made a little detour and also paid a visit to Nan Liang Garden in the Diamond Hill district, home to the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Golden Pagoda. It’s a relaxing walk through the beautifully laid out garden surrounded by contrasting skyscapers.

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New member of the Chi Lin Nunnery?
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Golden Pagoda with a modern backdrop

The last stop before finishing our sightseeing day, was at the Wong Tai Sin Temple. The Taoist structure is a busy place, bustling with worshipping locals and curious tourists alike.

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Clearly, we could have spent way more time around the city, exploring additional Islands, the beaches of Sai Kung, Disneyland Hong Kong etcetera etcetera. But when our time in Hong Kong was up, it was time to pack our bags again, enjoy a last ride on Hong Kong’s smooth underground transport system and board an airplane to the Philippines.

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#51 Hong Kong N°1 – Big City Life

Hong Kong wasn’t part of our initial plans, but in order to avoid needing a visa for the Philippines which allows only 30 days without one, we decided to spend five days and six nights there. And sometimes these itinerary adjustments turn out to be a great thing; Hong Kong is awesome!

First of all, it was nice to be back in a place where things are organized and work as they should. Our accommodation was in Causeway Bay, a few metro stops away from central Hong Kong, but with its many shopping malls, restaurants and whatnot, the area still felt very much central.

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Causeway Bay by day
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Causeway Bay by night
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Breakfast at “home”

On our first day, we joined a free walking tour through some of the city’s most important neighbourhoods and streets. Our guide was a jumpy Englishman who has been doing the tour for a couple of months. It was definitely a good start to our stay and he gave several useful tips on how to explore other parts of the city.
We also did some sightseeing on our own in and around the city during the next few days. To keep it light, we will publish an additional post for the things to do outside the centre. Must sees within the city limits include the harbour area, Victoria Peak, Temple Street night market and street food as well as the mandatory enjoyment of one of the fantastic rooftop bars.

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Harbour Area
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Railway Clock Tower
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Sideview of Hong Kong Cultural Centre
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Golden Bauhinia Square
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Hong Kong’s most famous export
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One of a gazillion places to eat Egg Puffs
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Korean Fried Chicken
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Street market
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Haiphong Road Hawker Bazaar
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Temple Street at night
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Streetfood corner

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One of so many shopping centres
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Bank of China Tower
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View from Victoria Peak

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Wooloomooloo Roftop Bar

Barbara has done her research on food options and restaurants worth trying out. Clearly, Hong Kong has more to offer than we can try out in just a few days. Additionally, travelling for such a long time also means that the budget doesn’t always allow you to splurge on all the excellent food out there. Nevertheless, Tim Ho Wan made it possible for us to try out world class and Michelin starred Dim Sum for very little money. The cue at the entrance was small when we arrived at around 2PM. The order is placed on a sheet of paper where one is supposed to indicate how many units of each available item are desired. As the instructions were not printed in English, we didn’t quite understand that we were ordering whole portions instead of single units. The waitress didn’t correct our very obvious mistake and so we were a little surprised when we received ten portions, each with three to four items.

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Not only the skyscrapers are stacked high in Hong Kong

Well, it was good food and we were not going to waste it. So, we asked them to pack the rest and took it home. With a little modification of the takeaway boxes and hot water from the tea cooker we steamed them once again for dinner.

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Necessity is the mother of invention – or adaptation

As mentioned above, we also went on to explore a few things outside the centre. Check out the next post for the beautiful temples and cultural sights in Hong Kong’s surroundings.

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#50 Ho Chi Minh City – Or was it Saigon?

Our last stop in Vietnam was history-loaded Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. There seems to be no real concensus what name should be used, even among the Vietnamese. Depending on who you talk to and in what context, you will come across both names. We had quite a full schedule here with daytrips to the Mekong Delta and the notorious Cu Chi tunnels. That is why we didn’t get to see a whole lot of the city itself. Even so, I managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing and coincidentally, François, a good friend of the family with business in China, turned out to be on a trip to Ho Chi Minh during the same time.

The country’s biggest city has a lot to offer when you know where to look for it. We didn’t. And we didn’t put the time in to figure it out, so we just stuck with some of the better-known attractions. While Barbara enjoyed a relaxed day in our comfortable hotel room, I roamed the backpacker street Pham Ngu Lao with tons of travel agencies, to figure out our program for the coming days. I found a guy with his own little office that looked trustworthy enough and I arranged both the Mekong Delta tour as well as transportation to the Cu Chi tunnels with him.

With that settled, I had some time to walk around. I visited the market, the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The latter is basically one big, grim indication that Vietnam still has a long way to go to get closure on its war history. The museum displays American war machines, inumerous photographs of people wounded by weapons, burnt by Napalm and deformed by Agent Orange. I surely wouldn’t want to justify the US involvement in the conflict, or any of the cruel war-crimes committed during the time for that matter, but waging such one-sided propaganda against a country while completely omitting the home-grown problems leading to the conflict in the first place and the cruelties committed by the Vietnamese against their own people doesn’t appear to be an ideal way to deal with the past in my view.
Not much more knowledgeable, but definitely shocked, I wandered back to the hotel.

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Sidestreet
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Walk-in hair salon
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Ben Tranh Market
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Ben Tranh
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Reunification Palace
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North Vietnamese tank that crashed through the gates of the Palace in 1975 to end the war
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War Remnants Museum
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War machine exhibition
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Mural of destruction
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More war machines
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“Agent Orange aftermath in the US aggressive war in Vietnam” – a telling introduction
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Explicit images of horror

Properly exploring the Mekong Delta would take several days. Due to the limited time available, we opted for an arranged tour that would give us an idea about the culture and the life of the people inhabiting the region as well as the landscapes. As we haven’t heard very good things about the tour we didn’t have any expectations and were ready for everything from death-defying bus rides to ferociously overcrowded tourist traps. The good news is that the bus rides were fine. The rest of the tour wasn’t spectacular, but we met a few nice people and had a fun day riding boats on the Mekong, visiting a Coco Candy factory, a fruit tasting accompanied by folklore music and being ferried up a sidearm of the river crammed with boats full of locals and other tourists. And although I wouldn’t say that it’s a must to visit the Delta, no matter what many of the tourist guides think, we didn’t feel ripped off paying 11 USD for a full day’s program either.

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Quick stop at a Buddhist temple
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Happy Buddha

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Public transport in the Mekong Delta
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Raw material for the candies
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Candy production
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Rice spirit with snakes and scorpions
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Traffic jam
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Silly tourists
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A beer with a new friend

The next day we went to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, the famous underground tunnel system about 75km outside Ho Chi Minh City which has been built and used by the north Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. As the site can get extremely crowded once the tourist buses arrive we hired a private driver for the day and made sure we would arrive right when it opens. Once inside, a guide led us into a hut where we would watch an old propaganda documentary praising the Vietnamese fighters that killed so many Americans with their traps and coming out of the tunnels seemingly from nowhere. At one point, the visitors can actually go down and squat through a section of the tunnels. After about 30 metres I had enough and took a side exit. Although they have already been slightly enlarged for the tourists, it was still very tight and way too hot. It is hard to imagine how they could work, cook, sleep and move around in these tight spaces for so long.

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Getting a slightly biased history lesson

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Vietnamese fighters recycling bombs
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Putting a good face on the serious matter
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Traps

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In the evening of the same day, François arrived in Saigon. He was visiting the local agent of the company they both work for and they arranged a room for him in the same hotel Barbara and I were staying in. Right after he dropped his bags, the agent and his younger brother escorted us to a local restaurant. The rest was simple; they ordered food and beer, we ate and drank.

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The next morning, we met for breakfast and then it was time for all of us to move on. François had a day full of meetings and factory visits and we headed to the airport. Destination: Hong Kong.

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#49 Hai Van Pass – Exploring central Vietnam

During our visit to Hoi An, Barbara and I learned that there are several attractions not too far away. The best way to discover the area it seemed, was to rent a motorbike. And that’s precisely what we did. The rental I found online turned out to be sort of a hidden gem; our bike was a new 150cc Yamaha, the helmets were also new and they even provided gloves and a local cell phone for emergencies. Well equipped, we dared venturing a day on Vietnam’s usually crazy roads, although I have to admit that once outside the more densely populated areas, it gets much better.

So we strapped on our helmets and off we went. Our final destination, or better the point where we would turn around, was the Hai Van Pass about halfway between Hoi An and Hue in the north. Leaving Hoi An, the road led us through smaller villages and rice fields before reaching the coast. The beaches around Da Nang, the city we would pass through on our tour and also the biggest one of central Vietnam, have become quite popular tourist destinations in recent years. It was impossible to ignore the large amount of first class resorts being built right now.

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Da Nang Beaches

Our first proper stop was at Marble Mountains, a system of Buddhist temples and caves on top of a gigantic rock in the otherwise pretty much flat coastal area. The sun was strong and the heat brutal. Therefore, we decided to take the elevator up, and the stairs back down. We didn’t expect much and were amazed by the number and beauty of the things to explore.

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North of Da Nang, we took a little detour and drove up to Son Tra, or Monkey Mountain. At the top we were rewarded with a nice view and the possibility to play a round of Cờ tướng (Vietnamese Chess) with a true local. We didn’t find out why it was called Monkey Mountain until we drove back down again, when suddenly three of our close relatives crossed the street just a few metres in front of us.

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Monkey Mountain

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I feel like he’s not gonna make a move before his time is up…

While we didn’t know about it before, there was no way one would miss the gigantic Lady Buddha statue. On top of a hill next to the coastal road, it was visible from far. We stopped and walked around for a bit, having a look at the statue and the temples surrounding it.

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Lady Buddha

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Then finally, we reached the bottom of the Hai Van Pass, supposedly one of Vietnam’s most scenic roads. Since 2005, when the tunnel through the mountain was inaugurated, only a few cars and petrol trucks which are not allowed to use the tunnel use this route. The weather was beautiful and the winding road leading up the mountain made us remember some of our motorbike tours through the Swiss Alpes.
Once we arrived, we enjoyed some desperately needed refreshments and relaxed a little before making our way down and back to Hoi An.

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Crazy Frog riding…

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I think it says we arrived

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It was a great day with so many things to see and we were happy to arrive home safely and to return our motorbike in one piece.

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#48 Hoi An – Delightfully full of light

Hoi An is the tailor capital of Vietnam, but even if you don’t go for the clothing, the charming town is well worth a visit and a good starting point for a sightseeing daytrip to the attractions around central Vietnam’s capital Da Nang.

We started our four-day stay with a good Vietnamese coffee and a relaxed stroll through the narrow streets of the town. Most of the businesses are tailors where they measure you up and make any piece of clothing you could wish for. Quality is good and the prices are very reasonable, too. But a little more on that further down.
Between the 15th and the 19th century, Hoi An was a trading port, and some of that can still be seen in the form of old merchant houses and the trader’s beautiful hangout places that can now be visited. The Japanese bridge in the heart of the city is another reminder of different times. Nowadays, it’s one of Hoi An’s main tourist attractions and a popular motive for photographers. In 1999, the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Tailor store, not exactly a rarity here

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The classic Hoi An shot

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Merchant Hangout spot

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Merchant family house of Tan Ky

Barbara’s distrust in the Vietnamese cuisine has reached the point of no return and so we mostly had dinner in two different Indian restaurants. Not a bad choice after all, they both served delicious food. One night we still went for some local food and we found a restaurant called Secret Garden. As the name would suggest, it’s a green place hidden in the back of one of the main streets. And this time, even Barbara enjoyed a Vietnamese dish and actually liked it.

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Hoi An is charming during the day, but it shows its true face only after sunset when all the restaurant and shops lining the roadside turn on the lights. Most of the centre turns into a pedestrian zone and the bars and restaurants start to fill up.

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On the second day, I found myself a tailor. Although the temptation is huge to renew your wardrobe and stock up on some things, we decided against it. But even though I didn’t go for a suit, I couldn’t resist and took the opportunity to get two shirts done with the idea to make sure they fit perfectly and then be able to order more when I am back in the office one day. First, I chose the material and then let one of the ladies measure me up. She almost got a ladder.

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Before they can get to work, you want to make sure they know exactly what you are looking for and how you want that shirt or whatever piece you are getting made. They can do it all, they just need the right instructions.
Over the next two days, I would go back twice for fittings and point out a few details to improve. The result was more than worth the USD 35 I paid for each shirt.

What I also didn’t regret was getting two fruity shirts from the rack for a few dollars and the matching hats, but you’ll see. Just remember that part for when you read the posts about the Philippines.

Usually, we didn’t see much effort being made to recycle garbage in Vietnam. Hoi An was an exception to that; here, they even recycle the tourists they have no use for anymore. Probably because they ran out of money…

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We didn’t dare looking inside…

Our visit to Hoi An fell on the dates of a public holiday, the Liberation/Reunification Day right at the beginning of May. That night the streets were busier than normal. People would light candles and float them on the river, take a short boat ride or play some rather odd parlor games, not all of which could easily be understood and followed by ignorant tourists like ourselves. One we managed to figure out went like this: for a small fee, the participant would get a chance to blindfoldedly approach a ceramic jar hanging head high on a rope and try to smash it with a wooden stick. People, including us, had a blast when they made a fool of themselves.

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Missed it!

In the next post, we’ll tell you a little about our motorbike day tour we did while in Hoi An.

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47# Halong Bay – Dice, Beer, Squid and Karaoke

Whoever goes to Vietnam will not get around a visit to Halong Bay in the southeast of Hanoi. The island landscape is the country’s #1 tourist destination and basically a must on any traveller’s itinerary.

There are several ways to explore Halong Bay. The most common and convenient being a two or three-day cruise on a small to medium sized boat. We had enough time on our hands to go for the three-day option. Our transport from Hanoi picked us up at around 8AM and took about three and a half hours to get to the port. On the small tender which brought us to the cruise boat we met most of the passengers including George and Freya, our companions for the next three days.

Not knowing what to expect, we were happy with the boat and our cabin, in which we wouldn’t spend much time in due to the high number activities ahead of us.

We started with a cruise through the bay, the perfect time for a first beer, and a stop at a small island with a 360° viewing platform over the bay area. The island was very busy and from the view it was clear that we were not alone; we could see dozens of other boats from up there. Later we could go kayaking in a calmer corner, an activity that not all the companies offer.

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Getting to the ship
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Our cabin
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Meeting the other guests
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Cruising through the bay
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Selfie time on top of the island
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Panorama view of Halong Bay
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Kayaking in calm waters

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Dinner was served after a short cooking class during which we were taught how to prepare the Vietnamese spring rolls accompanied by cultural insights from our guide on arranged marriages and the ongoing lack of women’s rights in Vietnam.  He somehow managed to squeeze that delicate topic in between the cooking steps “…so the women still have little rights and are sometimes forced into marriages. Then dip the spring roll in the sauce, enjoy!”.
The dinner table was full, there was something for everybody. Fish, chicken, rice, vegetables, seafood, pasta and more.

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Cultural cooking class

Once it got dark, a crew member mounted a strong lamp on the outside of the tender that was with us again and illuminated the water below. It was time for squid-fishing. The rods consisted of a thin bamboo stick, a cord and a relatively big trident hook. No bait was needed, as the squid got attracted by the light. The technique is similar to fishing Piranhas, you move the rod around constantly to get the squid interested, and once there is one close-by you whack the thing out of the water. It’s not an easy task and I’m not somebody that likes to show off, but I earned the nickname Squiddy-McGee as I was the only one catching any besides the crew member that must have slightly more experience.

We finished the night with some Karaoke which George clearly dominated, both with enthusiasm and talent. The songs available were pretty diverse, with loads of international hits to choose from. The background videos were a whole different story though. Locally filmed snippets of a man smoking, drinking coffee or walking around with a girl. It made for great entertainment in the moments nobody managed to keep up with the lyrics.

The second day started with some Tai Chi in the morning sun. After breakfast, we transferred to a smaller boat for the day and got a break from all the activities. We mostly just cruised around and stopped for swimming and to explore a cave. We spent the day on deck of the boat drinking beer and playing our new favourite dice game called Perudo that George and Freya introduced us to.

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Halong Bay before sunrise

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Sunrise in the bay

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Perudo vicionados (Babs, George, Freya, myself – FRTL)

The last day felt a bit too touristic for our taste as we went on to explore the inside of the archipelago’s largest cave system, called Morning Glory (the second picture below gives a clue on where the name comes from). Undoubtfully, it was very impressive, but the sheer number of people herded through the cave’s gigantic halls was insane.

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Just a fraction of the tourists

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Bay view from the cave

We were served a final lunch on the boat and then it was already time to leave. Overall, we were very happy with our experience and will keep very good memories of these few days.
Our van drove back to Hanoi and Barbara and I caught a Uber to the airport the same evening to catch a flight to Hoi An.

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#46 Sa Pa – Green fields and women in black

Sa Pa is a mountain village in Vietnam’s north, very close to the Chinese border. The reason people go there is that the region has some of the most beautiful rice terraces in all of Southeast Asia. Additionally, you can find a ton of small minority villages that, apart from a few Homestays and the odd restaurant serving local dishes, maintained their traditional atmosphere.

In order to get there, Barbara and I boarded a night train in Hanoi. We didn’t want to pay the tourist price (double or more of what the locals pay – which is around 19 USD) for the same level of “comfort” and so we shared our sleeper compartment with a young German and a Vietnamese mother with her little girl. The train left on time and the monotonous sound and movement rocked us to sleep within a matter of minutes.

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Cosy enough?

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Grin and bear it…being hustled for transportation at 5AM is not one of my favourite things in the world

The train reached Lao Cai at around 5AM. From there it was another hour or so in a full van up the foggy mountain street. Once we reached Sa Pa it became clear that, like several times before, the town itself was not a place you want to spend any more time in than necessary. That is why we got busy checking what to do as soon as we checked into our hotel. We met a nice Irish couple going by the names of Conor and Fiona in the lobby and spontaneously decided to figure it out together. I talked to the receptionist and told him that we wouldn’t want to do any of the pre-arranged tours as we kind of had an idea where we wanted to go. He organized a private driver for the four of us which would drop us off at the first town called Lao Chai and pick us up again in the late afternoon at the last destination named Giang Ta Chai. Paying about USD 7 each, we thought that was quite a good deal.

We have heard before that the local women can be quite insistent trying to sell there handycraft bags, hats and whatnot. Still, it was a little shocking to have not less than six women dressed in the traditional clothing of the Black Hmong minority jumping at the van as soon as it stopped. They learned a few words in English from the tourists over the years and they used every bit of it trying to sell their merchandise. We thought that making it clear that we are not interested in buying anything, they might lose interest after some time. Ha! Fools! They stuck with us and from time to time launched another sales pitch. “Later you maybe buy for sure, yeah?” they said with a smile all over their faces.

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Sa Pa center

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In case you were wondering: yes, that’s a Samsung in her hand

Our little hiking group wandered through towns and rice terraces with water buffalos plowing the immersed fields. That’s what we came here for, and it was beautiful.

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The path was not always clear, and we received differing opinions from the locals on where to go so we ended up choosing our own way, which got a little muddy at times. That was where the Black Hmong ladies came in again. They took us by the hand and helped us through the difficult terrain. In the end, we thanked them and gave them some money for their families.

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They look so friendly…

The four of us went for a beer in what ended up being some kind of Bob Marley sanctuary and had dinner at a small restaurant. The bar we chose for our night cap wasn’t what we expected either; the outside wouldn’t give away that inside there was a hardcore electro-house party going on…without guests. But the guy behind the bar, hardly tall enough to see the top of the counter, apparently enjoyed himself.

In the evening of the next day, we caught a train back to Hanoi. The trip down, once again crammed into a full van was horrifying with several tricky moments and at least one near death experience for a bunch of people sitting on the side of the road when a heavy truck overtook us just before a blind left curve through which an SUV was approaching. Only a brutal manoeuver not fit for a truck that size averted the worst.

This time Barbara and I had a full sleeper cabin to ourselves. Nevertheless, we were hopelessly outnumbered. Happy cockroach hunting!

We arrived in Hanoi at 4:30AM, way too early to deal with the drivers trying to haul you into their taxi. We waited in the station until most of them were gone and then walked towards our hotel. Walking down the street, tired and not too motivated I had my head down when I suddenly saw what appeared to be money lying on the sidewalk right in front of my feet. That’s how 1’000’000 VND (around USD 45) found a new – temporary – owner. First time in a while that I made some money…

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#45 Hanoi – Welcome to Southeast Asia

After a trip almost 36 hours long, including connection and short city tour in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, we finally arrived in Hanoi, the heart of northern Vietnam.

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Taipei 101
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Shida Night Marke in Taipei
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Street Food

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Shida Night Market

Our hotel was somewhere in the middle of the Old Quarter, Hanoi’s historic and cultural city centre. The room had no window, and we were glad it didn’t. The city’s charm if you will, lies in the hustling and bustling of hundreds of thousands of motorbikes whizzing through narrow streets lined with street vendors, restaurants and people using the sidewalk for anything from sitting around, drinking and eating to cutting huge steel sheets for the manufacturing of new kitchen utensils. There is only one thing you can’t do on a sidewalk in this city; actually walk. That’s what the street is for, a crammed place you share with scooters, cars, buses, bicycles and rikshaws.

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Central Hanoi
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Between a scooter and a hard place (happening to be another scooter)
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Busy Bees

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Old Quarter

We had about four days here, which is definitely enough, maybe even too much. If it were not for our favourite street corner bar where we would sit, sometimes for hours, on our plastic chairs, drink beer and just watch the crazy traffic on the junction, it might even have gotten a little boring…OK, probably not.
I like beer. A specialty in Hanoi, although it can be found in other parts of the country as well, is the Bia Hoi; fresh and light, not pasteurized home brewed draft beer with a crisp taste. It’s a good idea to drink it in a well frequented place as hygiene in regard to the beer dispensers can be an issue but otherwise “go for it!” and have several, it’s very cheap and cointains only about 3% alcohol.

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Freshly brewed Bia Hoi
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Our street corner
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Common expression when observing traffic in Hanoi
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smoking, driving and carrying a tray with tea – and people say men can’t multitask

Once or twice there was police patrolling in an effort to tidy up the streets and we had to move our table from the street into the tiny bar. That usually didn’t have a lasting impact as we were told that we could sit outside again as soon as the police turned around the corner. And although the bar wasn’t much bigger than an oyster, it had a toilet which, much like the sidewalk, was also used for other purposes than initially planned. In this case, the lady washing the clothes of guests of a nearby hotel had to evacuate before I could relieve myself of a few beers.

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I gave it my best but I really can’t promise it didn’t splash a little…

In terms of sightseeing, Babs and I didn’t go nuts. We went to see the most important things, like the Den Ngoc Son temple located on a tiny island in the small lake in the Old Quarter, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, the Literature Temple and the remaining parts of a prison complex dating back to the French colonization which was later used to imprison American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It is also referred to as the Hanoi Hilton, apparently because of the extremely nice conditions the Americans faced while imprisoned. Propaganda pictures show them playing table tennis and enjoying movie nights etc.

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Den Ngoc Son – Temple dress code
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Den Ngoc Son Temple
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Turtle Tower
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Former President Ho Chi Minh’s residential pond
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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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I wouldn’t have been surprised if he drove around like this
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Ho Chi Minh Museum
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Temple of Literature
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Inside the temple
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Hoa Lo Prison – Hanoi Hilton

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Coincidentally, our friend Patricia who has lived and worked in Hanoi for the last four years but recently moved back to Switzerland was back in the city for the weekend. That was a great opportunity to head out of the centre and to the shores of West Lake, the up and coming area where many of the newer and posher apartment buildings and hotels are located. We met her and a few of her friends in the Sunset Bar of the Intercontinental for some drinks and later headed back to the old town for dinner together.

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The Continental on West Lake – boy, did I enjoy that sunset!
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Dinner at Madame Hien

Food is a topic often discussed here. While many people are openly enthusiastic about the variety and freshness of the local cuisine, not everybody shares that love. Barbara for one didn’t. The wide use of cilantro and questionable hygiene in many places ruined the tasteful adventure for her. I myself wanted to know more and participated in one of the many street food walking tours guided by a local. And although I have found several dishes that deserve some recognition, like Pho, the classic breakfast noodle soup with chicken, or the Dry Beef Salad with Mango, I will not be the “OMG, Vietnamese food is so awesome!”-type of guy.

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Pho Bo – Traditional Vietnamese noddle soup with beef
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Food tour

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Of course generalizing is literally not the most distinguished thing to do, I think it’s alright to say that the Vietnamese are coffee fanatics. People drink it black, but much more common is cold coffee with condensed milk and ice, Café Sua Da. And if you feel fancy, just go for an egg coffee, basically coffee with something I would describe as liquid custard on top.

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Black coffee dripping down slowly
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Egg coffee
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The Note café

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Our first Vietnam adventure outside Hanoi took us to Sa Pa. Have a look at it in the next post to follow shortly.

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#44 New York N°2 – A special birthday

On April 15th, the day after Washington DC, Bruna and the two of us went back to New York in order to celebrate Barbara’s birthday that was coming up. We wandered around the East Village, got a few drinks and went to a nice Sushi restaurant for dinner. Afterwards, we made our way down to Greenwich Village and had a couple more drinks, until it was time to cheer because Barbara’s age count just clocked up by one. By then we were in a pretty good mood. When the bartender started to become really friendly we figured it was time to call it a night.

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East Village
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East Village
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I think somebody just got older!

In the late morning, we went to Junior’s near Times Square for brunch. The aim was to get a nice piece of Cheesecake for dessert but nobody managed to eat another bite after the mains, even though Bruna and Barbara shared theirs.

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Brunch at Junior’s
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Pastramy Reuben – what a treat

From there, Bruna had to catch a bus back to Baltimore. Barbara had a special thing planned for the rest of our day: We would take a train and head up to Chappaqua in Westchester County to visit her host-family from when she was an au pair. They were so kind and invited us to their home. After eleven years, it was quite a reunion, especially when Barbara got to see Evan, the once two-year-old she took care of and who is now in his prime teenage years.
Ira and Alyzza prepared champagne, fingerfood and even a birthday cake. They were so lovely that even though Barbara had not seen them in such a long time and I had just met them, we felt extremely welcome and had a great afternoon and evening together. We even received wedding presents. Additionally, we also got to meet the family’s good friend Alan, a renowned painter and quite a character.

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Babs, Alyzza, Evan, Alan, Ira (FLTR)
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Birthday celebration

The extended aperitif was followed by a first-class barbecue. Time passed way too quickly and if we had the chance, we would have loved to chat well into the night. But unfortunately, we needed to head back to New York.

On our last day in NYC, Barbara and I had some time to ourselves again. We went our own ways for the day, did some sightseeing and some much needed shopping – I really needed some new boxers and a pair of trainers as the sole started peeling off my old ones. And of course there was some more sightseeing.

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Strolling through Central Park
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Lincoln Center
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High Line Park

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One World Trade Center and Ground Zero

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Flat Iron Building

In the evening we packed the bags for our flight to Vietnam the next day and thanks to Alyzza and Ira we had a pretty classy champagne dinner in our hotel room. Southeast Asia might be slightly different from New York…

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Sponsored Champagne and ordered Pizza
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The feast
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#43 Baltimore & Washington DC – Monumental America

I don’t know for how many years Barbara wanted us to go visit her cousin Bruna in Baltimore, Maryland. Now this time, it just seemed perfect and after a few days in New York, we sat in a Greyhound bus for three hours and drove down there. It was late when we got to their place, but early enough for a few beers with Bruna and her husband Berke.

The next day, I went out on my own to explore the centre of Baltimore on foot. Honestly, I had no expectations and was positively surprised by what I saw. A calm harbour area with shops, restaurants and several bars surrounded by a busier office and financial district. Walking around Federal Hill, close to where Bruna lives, was very nice, too. It was high time for me to get a haircut as I had my last one in Brazil a few months ago, and so I walked into a mom and pop’s barber shop where two elderly Chinese ladies served their clientele.

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Baltimore Harbour
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Harbour area
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Pastramy sandwich
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around Federal Hill

In the evening, Bruna took us downtown and we went for drinks in The Horse You Came In On, the bar where Edgar Allan Poe was seen for the last time before he was found delirious and brought to a hospital where he died a mysterious death the same night.

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The Horse You Came In On
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Bruna and Barbara

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Baltimore sunset

The morning after, we took a train to Washington DC. As a House Of Cards fan, I was excited to see all the buildings shown in the opening credits of the show. Barbara has seen it before, but I guess the National Mall with all its government buildings, museums and memorials never fails to impress.

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The Capitol

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Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument

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World War II Memorial
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Korean War Veterans Memorial
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Washington Monument
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The White House
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Jefferson Memorial

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