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.

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