Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saigon, a little Hanoi, some Sapa

Saigon: We’re staying at the Kim Hotel in a backpacker alley off Bui Vien Street in the Pham Ngu Lao area. $18/night with aircon, fan, hot water, etc. It’s hot in Saigon. Haha, of course it’s hot; it’s the tropics. 
Alley where our hotel is (Kim Hotel) 

We’re mostly just repeating ourselves now – pork chop and egg on rice with tomato and cucumber and café sua da every day for breakfast; walk to Ben Thanh Market across intersections of no mercy, through the park where someone has set up a bizarre Holland exhibit of street, store, café, and garden facades so people can take photos of one another as if in Holland and of course they do take the photos. Across another stressful street, cut up a side street toward the market to discover that this is a largely Muslim street now so when it’s as hot as hell their women can be covered and “protected” while the men are comfortable in short sleeve shirts. Right.
Another alley, where we eat breakfast every day. Leslie on the left.

The market is as before – hot, crowded, some stuff for tourists, some for locals, and one of the world’s great food courts. For me, bun thit nuong with a very generous amount of pork right off the grill and for Leslie a return to the banh cuon stall where about two years ago the woman came out from the stall to hug Leslie and this time the woman (Hue) sees us across the way and breaks into a smile of recognition. Incredible. Good banh cuon for lunch with a fried shrimp pastry. I got Hue’s email address and sent her a photo I’d taken the time before. Here is her email to us:

Dear A Good Couple,
Thank you for your kindness and thanks for coming.
Breakfast of Champions!!!

What can I say? Vietnam has been full of these graceful moments. I’m grateful.

Two nights in a row we’ve eaten at JJ’s Fish and Chips, a small street cart with two tables and four chairs run by a British guy and his boyfriend. Basically, they make the best French fries ever and the fish is outstanding as well. Sitting on the sidewalk next to some open-fronted bars with bar girls sitting outside to entice men and we’re drinking Saigon green label beer over ice (hell yes, just like in the old days) and eating fish and chips.  
Family moto

I made this forum post on the Lonely Planet site: Vietnam scams: We’ve been in VN about 10 days now, mostly Hanoi and Sapa, and now in Saigon. As on previous trips to Vietnam, we are unaware of being cheated – except for today. I was making a small purchase on Bui Vien in the heart of Pham Ngu Lao (the main backpacker area) and handed the woman a 500,000 dong bill instead of 50,000 dong. She said, “OO! No!” and gave it back. So, so far, the only cheating has been totally my own doing. What a numbnuts!

I think the main protective factor is paying careful attention all the time and clarifying everything, which I usually do. But there are those moments of inattention and zoning out. Thanks lady! Vieeeetnaaaam!
Dong Xuan Market - the porter's area

Hanoi: Taking it easy in Hanoi, leisurely breakfasts, coffee and more coffee, into the flow now. Reading Shogun, a perfect travel book. This copy is an old one, brittle yellowed pages, front and back covers off. I have to keep it in a plastic bag.

Dong Xuan Market, mostly a wholesale market now, narrow aisles, insanely crowded and fast, where a few years ago I felt Leslie patting my bottom and looked around and realized it was an old woman wanting to get past me, where today, someone patted Leslie on her bottom, also wanting by. These weren’t customers but women porters who carry small to huge loads from place to place. I love it; it’s a little like a rave with all these people all together (not loving, but massively getting along – LOL).  
The Queen of Bun Cha

Bun cha for lunch with Leslie somehow knowing what street is what, guiding us through what some people call the “medieval streets” of the Old Quarter – streets that change names every 1-2 blocks and direction whenever, walking along the edge of the streets/in the gutters because the sidewalks are blocked with vendors and their goods, bales of this and that, stuff kind of spilling out of stores, parked motorbikes, and so on – and here in the streets we’re sharing space with countless motorbikes passing by literally inches away (with one person riding, two, three, four, carrying everything from huge loads of rice to a refrigerator, yep, a refrigerator), a few cars, xyclos, women carrying bamboo poles with baskets on each end (baskets of produce, baskets of tiny portable cafes – really, baskets of portable butcher shop, flowers, clothing, I mean everything), other pedestrians, stacks and bales of whatever – WOW!
This whole cafe fits in 2 baskets, each one carried at ends of bamboo pole 

She says, “If we go straight here and turn left, we’ll be at whatever becomes something.” Hahaha, that’s my wife talking as she takes us through these “medieval streets.”

Bun cha and crab nem for lunch and garlic and more garlic, garlic as a flavoring, garlic as a spice – you know you’re getting a lot of garlic when it’s hot like Tabasco. Acha!

She says, “Here comes a dead chicken” and sure enough, here comes one carried by its feet by a woman.
Why me? Taken in bun thang cafe in Hanoi

Leslie’s email to David: We're back in Hanoi after a nice visit to SaPa, a beautiful town with an abundance of even more beautiful Hmong people. The whole scene seemed more Nepalese than Vietnamese; surely all mountain people originated in the same place as they all really look alike. Two 12 hour train rides with only a night to recover was a bit much, but the train was better than I expected.

We leave here tomorrow for Saigon and are staying at Mrs. Kim's as usual. This time, we booked an airport taxi with her to skip the hype, cheating, and angst of doing it ourselves upon arrival.
Leslie throwing elbows in a plane scrum

CK at the fish and chips place in Saigon
All is well here. The two young women at the desk have been wonderful to us. We really got passed hand-to-hand from here to the train (someone from the hotel followed the taxi to redeem our receipt for actual tickets at the station) and then had a van driver waiting for us in Lao Cai for transport to SaPa. The return trip was even more interesting. The Paradise View Hotel booked a van to Lao Cai which deposited us at a Cafe near the train station; the proprietress obtained our train ticket and then sent a young man to escort us to the station and position us in the right line at EXACTLY the right time. Finally, when we got off the train in Hanoi, a young woman who was also a passenger on the train called the Camillia for me, and Huyen from the front desk brought a taxi to take us to the hotel. We just accepted everything on blind faith, not understanding anything until each step was completed. I can't think of any place in the world except Vietnam where all of this could actually work out successfully. Amazing, really!

Hope all of you are doing well. It must be nearly Thanksgiving; we miss being there with you. Give our best to Charles and a big "woof" to Jake.
Motos in the night. Photo taken from the fish and chips place.

Hahaha, there are little bitty ants crawling along on my computer screen.

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