Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Playing Around in Prague

I arrived safe and sound in the beautiful city of Prague. It is so lovely here, every street is cute and cobblestoned, and around every corner is an impressive looking gothic church. It would be so different to live in a city like this - though I think I think that about every non-North American city I visit.

I arrived last night after a pretty easy travel day (thanks to Jerry and business class aeroplan tickets!!) LOVE the business class seats that pretty much recline flat. And the airport lounges with free food and drink. So nice.

Leaving the airport, I took a bus, a subway and a metro to our hotel (easier than it sounds). The hotel is nice and modern, which is basically why I picked it. It's called the Red and Blue Design Hotel, with each room decorated in - you guessed it - red or blue. (We're in a Red room).

After I checked in, it was about 8pm so I headed back out to make sure that I stayed up until a reasonable hour before going to sleep. I walked down the major street near the hotel and checked out the big new shopping center around the subway station. Our hotel isn't in the main part of town, just a little bit away, so there isn't much going on right around it. After peering in a bunch of restaurants and looking at menus, I found a tiny cafe where a cute family was eating, and figured it was a good starting place to have dinner. I ordered smaszeny syr, which is basically battered, fried cheese. Yes, it's like my dream on a plate. It came with potatoes (apparently they could be served many different ways, I ended up with crinkle-cut fries), and mayonesa, which was actually a delicious fresh tartar sauce. Also, I had a nice sparkling raspberry juice. Not bad for about $4USD. I will try to upload a photo of the cheese soon, but you can probably imagine it - it's like a large, rectangular mozzarella stick. I couldn't finish it though, partly psychological (really, should one eat THAT much fried cheese in one sitting?), partly because it was just really filling.

After a quick stop at Tesco (a giant supermarket) for water, it was then back to the hotel to bed. This morning I woke up and had breakfast at the hotel (a decent buffet) and forced myself to go out and walk around. I was actually pretty exhausted from jetlag and the travel, so it was very tempting to just go back to sleep until Donald arrived. But I'm glad I went out, because it was is so enjoyable just walking around this city. Plus (a huge plus), the weather is awesome. It's quite cool right now, mostly sunny and not muggy nor rainy. Perfect sightseeing weather.

I walked from our hotel area (Smichov) up into Mala Strana (the are beneath the Prague castle) and then across the Vltava river via Karlov Most (the famous Charles Bridge) into Stare Mesto (Old Town). I didn't do much stopping/reading the guidebook/picture taking because I knew I'd just be doing it again with Donald.

I had lunch at a reastaurant that seemed a bit "off the beaten path" and had a lot of locals. I ordered a pork noodle dish that had no noodles. Sigh. I don't think Czech food is particularly tasty in general - hearty and filling, yes, but not really nuanced. (Yes, that includes the big slab of fried cheese I happily tucked into last night). And vegetables... hm... where are they? There is often one slice each of tomato and cucumber with your entree but that's about it. Let's hope I am proven wrong over the next couple of days!

I walked back over the Most Legii (a bridge south of the Charles bridge) and back to the hotel, where proceeded to wait for Donald's arrival (i.e., take a nice long nap). Donald came and we set out pretty much immediately for the Nove Mesto area, as we wanted to get tickets for a concert tonight. There is a summer music festival called "PROMS" on, and tonight they were playing Mahler. We go the tickets, then did some sightseeing around the concert hall. We went up the astronomical clock tower (probably the most commonly taken photo in Prague is of the clock), and walked around the Old Town Square. The concert was in the art nouveau Municipal Theater, which was recently renovated and is really quite beautiful. The concert was good, though I always wonder how people can fall asleep to something like Mahler, with all the sudden crescendos and accents.

After the concert we ended up at a microbrewery recommended by our guidebook. I'd gotten it into Donald's head that we should eat pork knuckle, a specialty here that I'd attempted to eat when I was last here 10 years ago. We got some (and picked it clean, all 1700 grams of it), along with some sour cherry beer (not bad!) and the ubiquitous dryish bread that is served here. (Again, bread, not a strong point of the Czech culinary scene.)

By then it was about 11 and we want to get up early tomorrow to tackle the Castle, so we came back to the hotel. Now it's a little studying of Prague history, and bedtime!

I'll try to post some pics tomorrow (I actually brought the camera cord this time...). It's nice to have a (Donald's) laptop and wi-fi! Hope you'll Czech out my upcoming posts! Hehe.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Now it's Eastern Europe or Bust!

Tonight I fly to Frankfurt and then on to Prague tomorrow. Donald joins me on the 7th. We'll spend a few days in Prague, then 1 night in Cesky Crumlov, and then take the night train to Krakow. After 2 days in Krakow, we'll take another night train to meet up with Peggy and Jerry in Budapest on the 15th.

Brian arrives on the 16th, so we'll all have a nice weekend in Budapest before we get on the boat to cruise down the Danube, stopping at several cities/countries and finally ending up in Istanbul for a couple of days. It should be a wonderful trip with a lot of family time! Hopefully we will post while we're away, so keep your peepers peeled!

Living the Life in Hong Kong

After my time in Vietnam, Hong Kong was pretty much 9 days of luxury. Through my dad, I had arranged to stay with my aunt Adele and uncle Bernard (my mom's brother) in their apartment in Jordan, a pretty convenient/touristy area of Kowloon. It turned out however, that their place was quite crowded (my cousin Kelvin had come back for the summer) and so I actually ended up staying in a hotel just a few doors down from them. It was really lovely, because I got to have a lot of privacy and freedom but they were just steps away.

Let's be honest. I spent most of my time eating and shopping. Sometimes with relatives, sometimes on my own. I spent time with aunt Adele, Uncle Bernard and their daughter, Adele (her name is actually Catherine but she likes to go by Adele!), who is 4.5 years old. She is incredibly smart and polite, and it was lovely to meet her. She has a really vivid imagination, and seems to have a strong moral code already. Adele and Bernard are very busy (he is a popular doctor there, and they are putting together a huge charity event) but they graciously made time to see me. We had several meals together, and even spent a day in China (just across the border, in Shenzhen). I was really humbled by their generosity and kindness.

I also spent some time with my Aunt and Uncle on my dad's side, and my cousin Milly. It was wonderful seeing them too. I have actually seen them quite a bit because they are the parents/sister of my cousin Michael, who lives in LA with his wife Valerie and kids Brian and Sabrina, and whom I spent quite a bit of time with while I lived in LA. In HK, I had some great meals with them (memorable pineapple buns, egg tarts, dim sum, and Thai food) and went up to Victoria peak with my aunt and uncle. (I will talk more about the food when I post photos, I promise!)

I was also able to see a friend from grad school, Mo, and his wife Qiao Bing while I was in HK, which was great. Mo was also a psych grad student at USC, where he met Qiao Bing (a grad student in Social work). She is now a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he is working on some market analysis for his old advisor's husband. Small world! We had a dinner and a lunch together, and they showed me around the university which is a bit north of the city, on a hill, and quite beautiful. How fun it was to see friends in such a different context!

On my own, I did a little sightseeing - some temples, a nunnery, a pink dolphin boat cruise from Lantau Island. I guess I don't think of HK as much of a sightseeing place, more a center of commercialism. I'm sure that's unfair, and maybe I have some bias because I have been there before (last time was in 2005 for my grandfather's funeral). But don't get me wrong - I was happy to mostly just shop and eat this time around! It was pretty much exactly what I wanted after Vietnam. I'm not sure what it says about me - probably just that I like to shop - but I think in Vietnam because the country is much more poor, I felt funny spending money. In contrast, in HK where every mall has a Louis Vuitton, it felt much more... normal. Expected, even. Not that I spent THAT much money, but it was definitely fun to look! People would ask if I missed Brian or wished he was with me, and I would say, honestly, if he were here (in HK) with me, it would be a much different trip. I.e., not nearly as much shopping (but probably more eating!) and more sightseeing. That wouldn't have been bad at all, but I was really enjoying the trip I was on!

A note about food - I ate well in HK but it was definitely not on the level at which we attacked food in Japan. I guess because I was eating with relatives most of the time, I didn't really seek out specific places or even necessarily types of food. I had lovely Chinese pastries though (bakeries are all over the place, and everything is good!), several dim sum meals, and plenty of street snacks (fried squid tentacles in a paper bag, curry fish ball skewers, and pan fried noodle sheet rolls, to name a few). Oh, and probably the best wonton noodles I've ever had - chewy, toothsome, flavorful. So good.

By the end of my time in HK I was definitely ready to come home, but I also knew that I would miss the life of luxury I had been living! It certainly helped to know that I was coming home to my summer off and that I wouldn't have to go to work anytime soon, but it was a bit of a hard transition! Of course, it has been great reuniting with Brian, continuing to settle in to our new apartment, and seeing Chicago friends. Also, preparing for the next adventure in Eastern Europe!

Thanks for sticking around for the trip report on Vietnam and HK. I'll post when I FINALLY insert photos into the posts.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One night in Saigon

So obviously I am back in Chicago while I'm writing this - my last couple of days in Vietnam were quick and then I had limited internet access in HK, so I didn't really get a chance to update the bjourn. I'll try to finish up about the trip and then post some photos, so here goes! **Ummmm I am writing this a few hours before my flight to Prague, so it is unlikely that I'll get those photos posted anytime soon. Sigh. At least I hope to finish writing about the trip before I go(HK post next), and then I'll go back and insert photos - hopefully - soon!

I forgot to mention in the last post that, on the way back to my hotel from the opera house in Ha Noi, I stopped in at a popsicle store - not just any popsicle store, but a very popular stall where people were mobbing a few ladies standing behind coolers filled with fruity popsicles. There were actually a couple of storefronts right next to each other, with tons of wrappers and used sticks littering the street in front. Heading home, I was emboldened by the heat, and pulled out a 5000dong note (about 35cents) and joined the fray. I basically just pushed myself into the crowd, smushing in amongst a lot of sticky, sweaty skin, and held out my money hoping one of the ladies would help me. When I made the much-coveted eye contact, I ordered: "mot sue dua" (one coconut). She gave me a taro one and I firmly shook my head. "Khong, sue da". She gave me the right flavor, and I extracted myself from the crowd triumphantly. It melted quite quickly on the way home, but I was pretty proud of myself!

The next day I woke up for my early flight to Saigon, but found that my flight was delayed a few hours. Rescheduled my transfers, then went back to sleep. I got in to Saigon easily, and then went to get my hair permed. I had intended to get a digital perm like what I have been getting (and loving) back in Chicago for the past year or so, but it ended up being...not so great. Let's just say it did not turn out like I had expected nor wanted. It was much cheaper than in the US, but I guess you truly get what you pay for. Anyway, after the perm I called the girls from Habitat - Sengmin and Cathy, and arranged the evening's activities. Sengmin picked me up at my hotel - she is adorable. She's a student in Korea but taking a bit of a break to work for Habitat in Saigon. Cathy is actually a Vancouverite who has been living in Saigon for the last 4 years, freelance writing for various charities. They both came to My Tho with us and worked on the build. I was pretty excited to spend my last night in Saigon with them.

We went over to Vincom Center, which is the huge posh shopping center downtown. Cathy and her friend were at Carl's Jr. (Yes, Carl's Jr. It is the first fast food burger place to open in Saigon - possibly the country - and it had just opened a couple of days earlier, so it has been mobbed. I only then realized that there were no McDonald's anywhere that we'd been. Apparently they do not pass the "local needs" test that is required of foreign companies that want to come to Vietnam, so they haven't yet infiltrated the country. Amazing!) Both Cathy and Sengmin talked about the things they miss in Vietnam - fast food, doughnuts, Starbucks, etc. I guess I actually enjoyed this about the country - that every restaurant was a one-off, not a franchised pre-fab. All the food is incredibly fresh, whether you're eating in a fancy, air-conditioned tablecloth restaurant or right on the street on a plastic stool. I can see their point, I guess, that after a while sometimes you just want the not-so-good-for you greasy stuff, or the coffee that you know will taste the same no matter where you are. (Who needs starbucks when you have Cafe Sue Da, the amazingly strong vietnamese coffee served with 2 tablespoons of condensed milk?? Mmmmmm. (On the build some of us wondered why we weren't losing weight. I'm sure it had nothing to do with drinking 2 or 3 of these a day...)

We ate dinner in Japanese cafe in the same building, then spent some time in the supermarket (also in Vincom Center), picking out Vietnamese specialties (coffee, tea, candies) for me to take as gifts. After that, we walked down to the Majestic Hotel and had drinks at a bar overlooking the Saigon river. Quite a nice way to finish my time in Vietnam!

Back to the hotel, I packed up and got ready to move on to Hong Kong. What an amazing 3 and a half weeks. Vietnam can be both beautiful and difficult. I am so glad I went there, but I am not sure that I need to go again (given all the other places in the world I haven't been yet). I am especially proud to have been part of the Habitat team, because I feel like we did some great work and forged some terrific friendships that I look forward to developing. In fact, a great couple (Andrew and Emily) live in Chicago and I hope to get to know them better on our own turf. I hope to see Michal and Basia, two teammates from Warsaw, in Krakow in a couple of weeks. And when I go to LA in September I will call up Farhan and Amin, two more teammates who live there. I guess building houses, and celebrating with dance parties and karaoke are pretty great ways to make new friends!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Having a ball in Ha Noi

**Crazy, I apparently wrote this while I was in Ha Noi, but never got around to publishing it...**

Yesterday (5/29) went really smoothly, which was nice given that we did a lot of travel. The bus/ferry trip from Cat Ba back to Ha Noi was really easy (just like on the way there, but today we weren't all discombubulated because we'd just gotten off the night train. If you ever do that trip, I highly recommend the Thanh Luong bus company - only 180000d/person (about $9 USD) and it's really easy. Don't bother going on a tour just to get to Cat Ba!

We arrived in Ha Noi around noon, and cabbed to my hotel. I had found this hotel through my guidebook and some online searching, and it seems to have been a great find. It's not super cheap but again, I think I am past the backpacker/hostel phase, and I have to admit that I like the details, like good service, king-sized bed, etc. Beth was flying out in the afternoon, so she came with me and stashed her stuff in my room. We went for lunch at a wonderful place called Sohot, which had a really nice decor (lots of floral, damask, pillows, etc.) and actually quite good, seemingly authentic food.

After that it was basically time to say goodbye, so Beth got in a car and off she went to the airport. I was on my own! A strange feeling after 3 weeks of traveling with other people. Before I started on this trip, Beth and I had actually emailed a bit because we both knew the other was going to travel after the Habitat build. I was always too busy and hadn't done any trip planning, so we didn't really have any firm plans to travel together when we started the build. I kept thinking that it would be nice to travel with someone (if they were cool!), but that I would be just fine on my own. I'll just say that I am so so glad that things worked out the way they did. Beth and Casey were great travel partners, and in the end I am relieved that I wasn't on my own. This country has a lot of wonderful qualities, but it can be hard going at times, mostly because of the communication difficulties you encounter everywhere. I think I would have been quite intimidated and lonely had I been alone this past week, even though I think of myself as a fairly smart, intrepid traveler. Since we'd had a great week of travel after the build, though, I felt fine after Beth was gone. I'll miss her of course, but I was looking forward to having another go at Ha Noi.

So after Beth left I headed back out to do some shopping - I haven't really seen much that I want for myself (everything we get in the US is made here anyway, so there's nothing really unique! Kidding, but nothing much has struck my fancy except the big paintings I bought in Saigon). But I wanted to find some things to bring to my relatives that I'm visiting in Hong Kong. There really isn't anything here that they can't get in Hong Kong, so I know it's kind of silly, but it's one of those things you must do, and I didn't have much room in my bag to bring anything from Chicago. So I bought some things for them (and maybe a couple of small things for me ;) ) and walked around the old quarter again.

I bought a ticket to the Water Puppet show at 6:30pm (first class for $3), and had about an hour. I decided to get a snack, and then if I was still hungry after the show I could eat later. Really close to the water puppet theater there was a mob of Vietnamese people sitting on the sidewalk. (Well, on teeny plastic stools). They were all eating the same thing that was being made by a woman with a mobile stand, a small plate of what looked like a salad. The distinct smell of nuoc mam (fish sauce) emanated from their plates. I jumped in, and sat down. Immediately a young woman came up and asked what I wanted. I pointed to the plates of someone near by, and said "mot, mot" meaning, one (pointing to a salad plate), and one (pointing to a fresh spring roll). She ran away and a few minutes later I got my food. The spring roll was great, and the salad was pretty good too! Crunch green papaya, peanuts, nuoc mam, lots of herbs, bean sprouts, and some beef items. There was something like flat, thin beef jerky (I saw the woman snipping it with scissors), pieces that were more like bbq pork, and then some other really chewy ones that I didn't love. It was quite tasty though, and quick, and only 70000d (3.50 USD). I loved sitting right there, almost on the ground, eating with the locals. Other foreigners walked by and commented on how tasty things looked, but I think they were too intimidated so they kept on going. So fun!

The water puppet show was not that great, mostly because of course it was all in Vietnamese. And it had pretty low production values - so most of my laughs were at the fact that I could see the puppeteers' hands pulling back the curtains, etc. It was fun though, and the little kids in the audience seemed to really enjoy it. For $3, as Casey said (he went to it a couple of days before), who can complain?

After that I walked around, and had dinner at another place near St. Joseph's Cathedral. Hue beef noodles with some spring rolls. Since Beth, Casey and I had had a lot of "western" or french food recently, I was trying to think if I felt like I'd had enough authentic Vietnamese food. I'm pretty satisfied with what I've had - especially because that's about all we were eating in My Tho during the build. Not a ton of street food, but enough, and I think for the sake of my GI system, it's been the right amount. So I'm quite happy with my eating on the trip (whew!) And of course, Hong Kong is yet to come so the good eats will just continue on.

After dinner I walked around the lake to the Opera House, which was built by French colonialists modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris. It is quite pretty, and is right in a really busy traffic circle so it was quite the urban scene. Can't wait to post photos of everything.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Totally relaxed in Cat Ba

Our last day in Sa Pa was really foggy and quite rainy - still felt like a relief from the heat of Southern Vietnam! Casey and I went on a "trek" which was really just taking a minibus up to a waterfall, climbing up some stairs (quite a few) around the waterfall, coming down, and going back on the bus to a higher point, the Tram Ton Pass. Unfortunately visibility was about 2 feet from there, so we couldn't do the trekking bit that is supposed to be nice around there. We got back on the bus and headed home! The rest of the day was just running around, getting prepared for our night train back to Ha Noi.

The night train was much better this time, as the a/c was working fine for the most part, and the train was cool when we got on. Thank goodness! We arrived in Ha Noi at 4:50am, where Beth and I parted ways with Casey (sniff sniff). He was staying in Ha Noi for one night and then flying out of Saigon the day after - though he just told me via facebook that his flight to Hong Kong was canceled so he's in Saigon still. Weird! That's the same flight I take on Monday, so I hope it was just a fluke that his was canceled.

After saying goodbye to Casey, Beth and I cabbed over to the Ha Noi bus station and caught the 5:20am bus to Cat Ba. Well, after a couple of bus transfers and one ferry ride, we arrived on Cat Ba Island. This is a big vacation spot for the Vietnamese, and it's quite lovely. Many people like to take boat tours from Ha Noi that go into Ha Long Bay, because there are huge limestone rock formations ("karsts") that rise out of the ocean. I don't think all that many foreigners make it to Cat Ba (a little farther away), but from here you can sail to Ha Long bay or Lan Ha Bay, which also has those formations. We came here mostly because Beth really wanted to do some rock climbing, and convinced me to do it too (!) So we arrived on Cat Ba and, after our little splurge for a nice hotel in Sa Pa, we had every intention of being a bit more frugal. We checked into the Noble House hostel, showered, and even took a nap on the rock hard bed. AFter that though, we grabbed a nice lunch at the Green Mango restaurant, and walked down to Cat Co 3 Beach, which is the home of the Sunrise Resort... big mistake! We had been debating all week about whether we should just stay there, as it is really lush. Once we saw it, we were hooked. It is definitely more expensive than other options here, but it's not that much since, after all, we're in Vietnam. And we asked for and received a deal. Anyway, it's great, there is a semi-private beach, pool, plenty of a/c, and good food.

After moving here the first night, we went back into town to attend a trip planning meeting at Slo Pony, the climbing/touring outfitters here run by Americans. Actually, it is the first and only climbing company in Vietnam, started by someone who went to Beth's university. At the meeting, we found out that several other people were interested in a climbing trip, so we were all set. Then it was off for dinner (yummy fresh crab, and noodles) and back to our paradise for a good night's sleep.

We didn't do much in the morning - I spent a good deal of time on the internet getting my flight back to Saigon, hotel in Saigon, etc.) and then we met up with the climbing group at 12. They bused us out to the site, we had lunch, and then it was up the mountain we go! I've climbed a couple times (literally, twice) and quite liked it, but it was a while ago, so I was pretty nervous. Beth is a monster in terms of all things sporty/outdoors, so she was really amped. I did 3 climbs, and had some trouble with the first (we thought it was the hardest!), but still finished it. The other 2 felt like cake in comparison. The hardest thing is to stop on the way up and get stuck, because it is so hard to keep going. But lots of shouts of encouragement from below were awesome motivation! Anyway, it was a really fun afternoon - and I've got a ton of shin bruises and scrapes to prove it, and the group we went with was pretty cool. Beth did awesome. The guides even set up an advanced climb and she did it without slipping. She's a maniac! [I think I mentioned that she summitted Mt. Fansipan in one day, when usually it's at least a 2 day affair. Her guide didn't even want to take her at first. When she walked in to book him, he said that her skin was so pale, he knew she worked in an office so he didn't think she could make it. I guess guides also don't like to take women... But she did it, and was amazing. We just met a couple who had her guide for a trek a couple of days after. They said he was very impressed with her, and even HE had to take the day after off, because he was so tired! She's legendary in Sa Pa!!]

When we got back into Cat Ba town, we stayed for the next trip planning meeting, where Beth was 'convinced' to go Deep Water Solo climbing. This means that you go out on the water in a kayak or boat, boulder onto a rock, and start climbing. No ropes, no harnesses, nothing. If you fall, you technically should just fall into the water. Pretty awesome, but quite scary!! They got a good group together and that's where she is right now. I of course bowed out because I probably wouldn't even make it onto the rock! Instead I opted for a very nice, relaxing day, which turned out to be amazing. I signed up for a boat tour (wanted to see those karsts!) last night, and this morning it turned out that I was the only one! Luckily there was no minimum so I basically got a private boat tour for 4 hours. I was able to tell the captain that I wanted to sail further than they normally go, not to stop for kayaking (I would totally have done it with another person, but we heard lots of stories of people getting lost/sucked into caves so I wasn't super keen to go at it alone), and to only spend a little time on "Monkey Island." The trip was superb. Lots of sailing, lots of karsts, a little beach time (with a short mountain trek), some monkey sightings, and a trip to a floating fishing operation that was really cool.

After that, I came back into town, had lunch (squid cooked with garlic - yum, though they don't really believe in cleaning seafood here so I had to take out the backbone, etc. myself) and came back to the resort. I just got out of a 2 hour massage (yes, 2 hours). It was heavenly. The masseuse was in all sorts of crazy positions - lots of mounting, walking on me, etc. and cracked many things I never even knew could crack. But I came out in a heady fog of bliss. Ahhhhhh.

Tomorrow morning we have one more delicious resort buffet breakfast (seriously, we are truly enjoying this resort) and then it's back on the bus/ferry to Ha Noi. I have one night there, Beth flies out in the afternoon), and then I have one more night in Saigon before I head to Hong Kong.

What a trip this has been! I am glad we followed up the seriously hard work with some seriously hard play. And Vietnam is so affordable, it's been nice to travel pretty comfortably without worrying about pinching pennies.

Oh, funny note - I am keeping track of how many times people say something to the effect of "BUT, you asian?" as in, they don't understand why I am "western" but look like them. (I'm up to 16 now.) It really confuses them. And they also lose interest, because I guess I'm not as exciting as a caucasian or european foreigner. We in North America (and other countries) are so used to being part of a multicultural society, but here, it's really not like that. They don't see many foreigners in general, I guess, and in particular "western" asians? It's really interesting. I've also been asked if I am Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese (not Chinese though!). So the Vietnamese don't seem to be able to distinguish among asians that well, either!

Well... time to sit by the pool and wait for Beth to return. Life is so hard!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chilling in Sa Pa

Literally, chilling, because it's actually cool here! Not cold really, but very comfortable. We are in the mountains and it's such a refreshing change from the heat of the city.

The night train was a bit of an adventure. The cabin is very small (as expected), and at first the air conditioning wasn't working. Very scary flashbacks to a fateful night train that Paula and I took in Morocco during my Europe trip. Luckily, it started working again and then I felt fine (cold, even) during the rest of the night. The night train got us into Lao Cai at 5am, and then we were shuttled here to Sa Pa by about 7. We had a whole day just wandering around Sa Pa, which Casey calls "quaintly messy Swiss-Vietnamese". It's cute, kind of mountain village like Banff. Beth is doing a one-day summit of Mt. Fansipan (pretty arduous!) today, but yesterday we just wanted to take it easy. However, we ended up trekking around a mountain, which was more up and down than I thought. IT was really cool though, and of course we were rewarded with nice views.

We are staying at a really nice hotel (all three of us in one room!) called Chapa Garden, which is centrally located but a bit off the main road, so it's quite relaxing. We are also eating pretty well, so last night we had dinner in the restaurant of the Victoria Hotel, the fanciest hotel in town. It's still very affordable (I had a local smoked trout appetizer, and pasta with a local mushroom sauce for about $25). There is more French influence up here in the North than in Saigon, so we've had a lot of western food recently. Today I had some pho which was only $1, and pretty darn tasty.

It is definitely relaxing here, which is great. We spend another day here and then head back to Ha Noi (one more night train), where Casey will stay for a day and then head back to Saigon to fly home. Beth and I will go from Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba island, where we want to do some water stuff (kayaking, touring the limestone caves), and some rock climbing. Then I have one more day in Ha Noi, one day in Saigon, then 9 days in Hong Kong.

It feels like I've been in Vietnam for a lifetime, and yet I still have so much more time on this trip. It's really been wonderful, but I'm certainly starting to miss creature comforts of home and being with Brian. Hong Kong will be great, because it'll just be relaxing and visiting relatives, etc. but I'm sure after a couple of days I'll be itching to go home!