Big Question Marks

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Bangkok!

We made it-- we're in Bangkok again. After 65 fantastic days in Vietnam, a place where we had so many good times, saw so many amazing places, and met so many awesome people, we're pretty sad to leave. Just as we were really getting used to the Vietnamese way of life, the language, the food, it's time to trade it all in for something new. Yarrr visas....

And it's definitely strange getting back in a place that's still quite familiar even after two years of being away. We arrived late last night, on a plane ride that took less time than the bus trip to the Hanoi airport. One of the nice things about Bangkok though-- polluted and sticky and hot as it is, you can show up at 12:30am without a place to stay and still have a million rooms to choose from. (In Hanoi you'd be pounding on the metal shutters of the closed hotel lobbies, waking up the staff who sleep in the lobby!) But it also means we're back to the stuff we forgot about-- teeny, basic rooms with shared toilets (though I swear there was toilet paper in the bathrooms the last time we were here!) Ew.

Ah, we'll get used to it. There's plenty to be excited about-- great food, smiling people, those fabulous beaches down south, and today, Chatuchak Market. It's the mother of all markets, it only goes on the weekends, and the stalls and the bargains go on forever. Now if only we could remember how the bus system works again....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hanoi Airport Haiku

Fresh from the mountains
Losing blood flow to his brain
He got hill-tribed up

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Blogging in the Clouds

Hello from Sapa, a cute little town high up in the mountains of northwest Vietnam! It's not very often we can say we're writing from the clouds-- but this is a very special place where you actually can open your hotel balcony door and they come creeping in.

A few days ago, we took the night train out of Hanoi (unbearably hot at the time) and arrived just before 5 a.m. in new world (a chilly one at that!): Lao Cai, where the train dropped us off, sits high in the mountains at the Chinese border. We deliriously hopped on a minibus (45 minutes) to Sapa, and proceeded to do the very thing we hate doing-- accept a room at the first hotel the minibus drops us off at (and makes big commissions for doing so). Usually the commission hotels are duds, but the Darling Hotel (yeah, nice name!) is actually pretty adorable in a kitsch kind of way, painted in a garish orange-and-green palette with a pine tree theme. The beds are fluffy as marshmallows and the rooms are decorated in hill-tribe textiles and photos. And then there's our tiny little balcony that looks far out into the clouds/valley, depending on the time of day. It was just too sweet too resist.

Sapa itself is still a relatively small place, and we were afraid (when booking our return trains) we wouldn't have enough to do to fill four days. Uber-touristy as it is, it's still a real trip to wander down the main street amongst a mix of modern Vietnamese people, camera-toting Western tourists, and tiny ladies from the neighbouring hill tribe villages wearing full traditional costumes.

And so we spent our first day completely enamoured with these little women, and not minding all that much that we were getting swarmed by them. Of the two main ethnicities seen around town, the Hmong women are the most dogged saleswomen. Though the Dzao ladies also sell their wares in their red pouffy headscarves and jingling ornamental coins, they don't approach tourists as much (we were told by a local kid they don't speak as much English). The Hmong ladies, however, wander in small groups, carrying big baskets on their backs and wearing indigo-dyed tunics and circular hats, their legs wrapped in something like black velvet legwarmers. Every one of them seems to have a heap of crafts to sell, and there's not really any escaping them-- even when sitting in the second floor of a cafe they'll call up to you with their sales pitches. That first day, we were followed all around town by a small group of these women, and no matter how much we ignored them or tried to lose them in a market, they kept reappearing. And strangely enough, somehow you never really feel like telling them to piss off, either-- something that would be a very different case if it was a group of motorbike drivers tailing us, anyway...

Since Sapa is pretty moody weatherwise, our second day was a bit of a write-off. Cold rains had us hiding in cafes, where we soaked up the scenery from behind glass. Today was a lot better and we hopped on a motorbike to do our usual somewhat-aimless tour of the countryside. Rivers flowing over the road evoked memories of flooded Aussie Outback highways, and as we descended further and further into the valleys, we wondered if this is what the Himalayas might feel like. Despite the erosion happening from farming the steep hills, and the occasional piles of garbage at some corners, the scenery is stunning in this part of the country-- fat water buffaloes plowing the green rice paddies, little muddy kids running around, and jagged mountain peaks barely visible through the clouds. And with our postcard-cliche levels back at full again, tomorrow evening we'll head back to Hanoi to enjoy our last two days in Vietnam.... before our Air Asia plane spits us out into the chaos of Bangkok again on Saturday night to embark on our next adventures!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

For Your Dining Pleasure...

There are many dishes to be sampled -- Adrian started the night off with a bang.

For Your Dining Pleasure... from BigQuestionMarks on Vimeo.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Back to the big city: Hanoi

Happy Easter to you all-- we hope you're eating lots of Easter chocolates to make up for the ones we're not. (We bought a KitKat yesterday to celebrate at least...)

Since early last week--yes, we are the slowest travellers ever-- we've been kicking back in the lovely old city of Hanoi, walking endless laps around Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the Old Quarter (quite scenic!), avoiding cyclo drivers and pineapple ladies who persistently continue to try to sell us rides & fruit, and just generally trying to get a feel for the place.

We were going to take the overnight sleeper train up here from Hue but it was sold out for days, so we jumped aboard one of the supercheap ($18 AUD for a 12-hour ride) backpacker sleeper buses that we've managed to avoid all trip so far. They're hard to describe-- sort of a busfull of four-foot long bunk beds-- and they're really cheap because they depend on kickbacks from the hotels and restaurants they drop you in front of and strongly "suggest" you stay/eat there. We've read some bad stories but lucked out, at least this time. (But we're still greatly in favour of public transit with the locals instead!) After desperately trying to stretch our cramped-up legs, collect our backpacks, and dodge our way through the huge scrum of hotel touts that mobbed our bus as soon as it stopped (and this is at 5:30am), we checked out a few really scummy hotels, a few too-fancy ones, and finally found a cheapish, slightly shabby one with a giant room and a beautiful French-style balcony. Never mind the huge dead spider in the corner above the bathroom, or the disintegrating wood door stored under the bed, this place was pretty luxurious compared to some!

Though every city in Vietnam feels big and busy, Hanoi is definitely back to the big city. It's constant beeping, street markets every few blocks, and historical sights galore. Next year the city turns 1000 years old, and plenty of old quaint buildings dot the streets, though there's also many that have been ripped down (I just listened to an American realtor rant about this last night). What's really cool about the Old Quarter are the things you find hidden deep inside narrow laneways-- we've stumbled across a few tiny Buddhist temples, ornate as ever, down alleys barely two people wide and usually past a grandmother hanging up laundry. Bizarre! Apparently Hanoi is known for its "tunnel houses", characterized by long rooms and narrow entries (designed long ago to avoid taxes, which were based on the width of a building's frontage). Our Dutch friend Pim (who we met back in Nha Trang but is now staying in Hanoi for a while) led us to a little hidden cafe down one of these alleys-- no signage and up three flights of stairs, and there's a garden patio with a great view of the lake! But with all of this old charm, there's a definite flashiness to the city too-- though somehow the swanky bars, restaurants, and designer shops seem perfectly at home, even next to the street food stalls on every corner and chickens wandering between motorbikes.

But it gets weirder. Hanoi also plays home to the embalmed body of national hero Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho. We joined the long procession of mostly locals and uniformed army vets on Saturday morning to visit Uncle Ho in the flesh. No cameras allowed (except for the thousand or so we spotted in Uncle Ho's mausoleum) but you'll just have to trust us: seeing a pale old man with wispy white hair "sleeping" like Snow White in a glass box inside a dimly-lit and freezing marble building (guarded by armed guards still as statues) is pretty surreal. Cementing in the weirdness of it all was following it up with a visit to the nearby Uncle Ho Museum, chock full of photos of the Hoach posing with kids, composing poetry, and then lots of American War photos and destroyed remnants of U.S. bombers with captions explaining the embarrassing losses of "the puppet army", etc. And after this little bit of 'education' everyone heads back outside to eat ice cream with their kids... kind of like a really bizarro Disneyland.

Top that off with a night out drinking passionfruit and green tea martinis with the glittered-up Paris Hiltons of Hanoi at a fashion show/publicity event (yes, seriously, this was all the same day!) thanks to invites from Pim and his friend My, who owns a fashionable clothing store nearby, and you've got just about the strangest day ever! Or at least, the strangest one so far on our trip...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Getting Imperial in Hue

For the last few days we've been enjoying the old imperial capital of Hue. It was noticeably cooler-- rainy too-- when we stepped off the train from Danang (a beautiful three-hour train ride along the coast, high up on the sides of mountains) and we could definitely feel that we were out of the tropics and into the north.
Hue is built along the wide Perfume River, which we would cross every day by foot to get to the old walled Citadel (and the locals would look at us like we were crazy, as no one walks in Vietnam!). The Imperial Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and though bombed a bit in the American War, is constantly being restored, and wandering around within the high walls is a fantastic way to spend a day (even a rainy one!). The Imperial City housed the long-running Nguyen dynasty, who reigned in the 1800's and early 1900's. It's a real fairy-tale kind of place, with calm green moats and ornate palaces and pagodas within.
We also hopped on bicycles one day and headed outside the city limits to visit emperor Tu Duc's tomb-- more like an giant elaborate park than a tomb! It seems the life of an emperor isn't a bad one at all. (Though the life of a servant isn't so good... apparently all 200 of the servants who buried Tu Duc were beheaded, as to keep the secret of where he was buried from potential grave robbers.)
Among other things, the Nguyen emperors were known for being fussy eaters, so we splurged a little to sample some Hue-style cuisine at the often-recommended Y Thao Garden restaurant. We pretty much had to roll out of the restaurant after eating our 8-course meal served most artistically, with bean cakes shaped like roses and spring rolls served from a glowing jack-o-lantern peacock carved from a pineapple and carrot feathers. Too awesome.