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Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Aside from the Sunderbans in India, Ha Long Bay was probably the most disappointing destination for us. Considering that it tops many “must-see” lists (it was also named one of The New York Times top destinations for 2012), we were pretty excited to see the UNESCO World Heritage site.

And yes, it is beautiful. The 1,600 limestone islands and islets rising out of the Gulf of Tonkin waters into craggy towers are certainly a haunting site to see. I’m not sure it is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World…but it certainly is magical.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

So why were we unimpressed? Well, for one, we had crappy weather. This made for some atmospheric fog, but in general it’s not that fun to be on a boat on a cloudy, cold, and rainy day. Or two days. But the main reason we were so disappointed in Ha Long Bay is the available ways to experience it. It has become so commercialized that almost the only way to experience it, and certainly the easiest way, is via a tour company. While we are generally not ones for tour companies, it is possible to have a good experience on one. But that unfortunately was not the case at Ha Long Bay. As far as we could tell, the only trip on offer was virtually identical from all the companies. If you walk into any hotel or tour company in Hanoi they will happily set you up on one. After searching around and finding little difference (although we did hear stories of getting stuck on crappy boats) we booked through our hotel with Christina Cruises. This means that the bay is full of identical-looking boats and each group goes to one of two caves (which are super cheesy–we went to “Surprising Cave”), rents kayaks from the same few companies in the same place, and then heads to Cat Ba Island for a hike–it was pouring during ours–and a night at a subpar hotel. You’re also stuck on a boat for two days with a bunch of random people–could be great or could be annoying. In our case, it was mostly annoying, although we did chat a bit with some Vietnamese tourists visiting from Ho Chi Minh City. And did I mention the food is very average?

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

I know, I sound like an anti-social grump. But Ha Long Bay really is a special place and the tourist industry is turning it into a Disneyland of sorts, which is really so unfortunate. I would happily pay good money to go out on a small boat with a captain who could show me some sites that aren’t full of a bunch of other people. But that just didn’t seem like an option. If anyone has done Ha Long Bay this way, please let me know!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

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Vietnam: Finding Peace in the Hustle and Bustle of Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam

When we planned this portion of our trip we looked into various ways of getting from Laos to Vietnam. There are several border crossings, but everything we read seemed to indicate that these were somewhat unsafe and extremely inconvenient. In the end, we opted to fly, even though the short flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was fairly expensive, we decided it was worth the extra time in Vietnam and lower stress level.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Friends had recommended the fantastic Charming Hotel, and we were incredibly pleased with our stay there. Many travelers we met along the way who had already been to Vietnam mentioned that Vietnamese people are unfriendly, but no one could ever say that having been to Hotel Charming. The staff are always smiling, they are extremely helpful, and the rooms are small but clean and modern. Even outside of the hotel we found people to be very nice; our theory is that after spending time in Thailand where people are constantly smiling and laughing, Vietnam may seem staid to some people. But we found that if you are polite and friendly, most people will be the same to you. That being said, two women did try to “hustle” us when they grabbed us and put their hats on us and gave us their baskets, offering to take our photo. Since we couldn’t resist, we said okay and were prepared to give them a few dong (Vietnamese currency). Instead, they asked us to buy a bunch of bananas from them, which we were happy to do until they wanted us to pay $5 for them! To be clear, a bunch of bananas in Hanoi would normally cost about 50¢!

Hanoi, Vietnam

In our brief stay there (4 days with a trip to Halong Bay in between), Manor and I both kind of fell in love with Hanoi. On our second day we agreed that aside from Mumbai this was the first city we had visited that we felt like we could live in for several months. There is just such an exciting energy that permeates the city, much like Mumbai and New York…hmm, I guess we like big, colorful cities!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam motorcycles

The streets are always full of people walking or on bicycles or motorcycles–in fact, the motorcycles kind of take over the city, which can be rather overwhelming at times and we found ourselves again unable to navigate crossing busy streets, just like in Mumbai when we first arrived. It was interesting to learn that the two cities have very different methods of crossing the street: in Mumbai, you basically make a run for it and hope the autorickshaws don’t mow you down; in Hanoi people seemed to walk across the street very slowly, letting the motorcycles whiz past them on either side, until they successfully wove their way to the other side. We soon realized the best way to cross a busy street in Hanoi was to follow a local’s slow, deliberate weaving movements and try not to panic!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Perhaps the city’s chaos is best exemplified by it’s telephone and electricity system. Tangled wires criss-crossing over the narrow streets in the historic district are so iconic, they even grace touristy t-shirts. But the locals seem to find places to relax wherever they can manage, setting up games on the sidewalks.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

There are a few quiet places for some respite from the busy city and we enjoyed exploring them when we needed a break. The Temple of Literature has a beautiful garden and Temple of Confucius and is composed of multiple courtyards in the middle of the city; it also the home of Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy, which opened there in 1076.

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

If you’re interested in some history with your peace and quiet, the ancient house on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter is the perfect thing. It’s a perserved home from the late nineteenth century, a two-story building surrounding a courtyard with idyllic balconies.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s some lovely French-colonial style buildings throughout the city, lending some charm to the chaos. Even some of the government buildings are in this style.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Another place to enjoy a little peace and quiet is the Hoan Kiem Lake, situated in the middle of the historic part of Hanoi. The lake is quite large, and there is small temple at one end on an island connected by a bridge. In one room of the temple is a giant stuffed turtle, believed to be good luck.

Hanoi, Vietnam Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi, Vietnam Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

There are actually several large soft-shell turtles living in the lake, although they are endangered, and it is considered good luck if you see one. We were lucky enough to be walking by one day when a large crowd was gathering on the shore because a turtle had been sighted. While we didn’t actually see the turtle, the crowd’s excitement and joy at their good fortune was very catchy.

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake turtle

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake turtle sighting

There are also a large number of couples taking wedding photos around the lake, most of them very traditional. But I loved this clearly funky couple the best!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Another way to relax? Smoke tobacco (or something else?) out of this giant pipe, like this guy we saw on the street. Apparently, this is totally normal, or at least no one else seemed to be gawking like we did.

Hanoi, Vietnam

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Laos: Temples in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of the former Kingdom of Laos and is located in northern Laos, where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers meet. It’s full of Buddhist temples and monks, making for a very lovely landscape. We had a couple days there, which were slightly dampened when one of our camera lenses stopped working. Otherwise, we enjoyed wandering from temple to temple and of course, sampling the delicious food along the way, which will be covered in the next post.

There are a wide range of accommodation options in Luang Prabang, including very cheap hostels and very expensive resorts. We opted for something in the middle, and were happy with B&B Guesthouse on Th Phommath. There’s a cute German cafe across the street with good breakfast and we rented bikes for a couple bucks a day, which is a great way to get around the city.

We started out at one of the markets, where we sampled several delicious fruits, including our favorite: mangosteens. Mangosteens are difficult to find in the US, and if you can find them they are expensive and not very ripe. We discovered them in Vancouver, where they are more available and affordable than in New York.

A beautiful dark purple outer shell encloses four or five pieces of soft, fleshy white fruit, in the shape of garlic cloves surrounding a lage pit in the middle. It has a mildly tropical taste and is quite juicy, but you need to eat about four or five to feel like you’ve actually had something remotely filling because they are quite small. We’d never had mangosteens ripe enough to peel with our hands; we’ve always had to use a knife to get through the hard outer shell. But these were soft and pliant–divine!

We started our temple tour at Wat Mai Souvannapoumaram (Wat means a monastery temple), which featured a beautiful gold mural, an emerald buddha, and long boats that the monks use for festivals. We continued to bike along the city streets, next stopping at Wat Sirimungkhun, which had a fantastic bell tower with a large drum inside it and a large gold buddha.

The nice thing about Luang Prabang is that it’s small and pretty hard to get lost. And even if you’re not sure where you are, there’s likely to be an interesting temple to wander into, which is how we found Wat Sop, which featured a small temple, but also seemed to be a monastery for young monks.

There were rice cakes drying in the sun, presumably to feed the student monks. Buddhist monks are not allowed to have money and therefore rely on donations from the people in the city to give them simple food. At dawn, the monks walk the city streets with bowls collecting alms of rice.

The largest, most famous temple in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, a large complex with multiple buildings and pavilions. Unfortunately, the main temple was being refurbished, but we were still able to get inside. We also visited the funerary pavilion, which was chick full of processional items, and small pavilion housing a reclining Buddha. The mosaics and paintings were detailed and gorgeous; you could easily spend hours here.

Palanquin for funerals.

Another popular attraction in Luang Prabang is to walk up a hill called Phu Si, which has a large stupa at the top called That Chomsi, as well as a great view of the city. It’s also the starting point for the annual Laos New Year procession in mid-April.

Because it’s a holy site there are flowers for sale near the top.



By the time we walked back down the city was setting up it’s night market, full of stalls selling souvenirs.

We also visited the Royal Palace Museum, which is an interesting insight into local history, before and after communism. The palace was built in 1904 as a home for  King Sisavang Vong and his family and is full of interesting furniture, musical instruments, traditional costumes, and gifts given to the king from various countries throughout the years. You must be dressed appropriately (no shorts), but a sarong will be given if necessary. Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed in the complex so I can’t share any here! But a highlight was seeing the royal collection of classic cars in the adjacent garage, as well as a photography exhibit on monks.

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Thailand: Wat Rong Khun aka The White Temple

We finally left Chiang Mai after five days and began our journey to Laos. After much deliberation of whether to go with a packaged tour or make the journey via public transportation, we decided to try one of the dozens of tour companies offering transportation to the Thai border town of Chiang Kong, an overnight stay at a hotel there, and then crossing the border to Huay Xai, Laos the next morning to get on an early morning boat. Our goal was to cross the border and take the popular two day “slow boat” ride down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang and using a tour company seemed like the easiest way and was only a little bit more money that using public transport.

When we purchased the package we were informed it included a stop at Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, in Chiang Rai along the way. At first were annoyed at having to stop, plus we were feeling a little templed-out, but my friend Mike assured us it would be worth it.

The temple is an ongoing project by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipa and it is quite fascinating. The grounds have all sorts of ghoulish sculptures and you have to cross a bridge to get to the Abode of Buddha, representing the cycle of rebirth with the depths of hell below. There are all kinds of creepy creatures who haven’t managed to obtain entrance to the Abode of Buddha yet, as well as hands reaching out to escape from Hell. But once you cross the bridge, you reach the gate of heaven, guarded by Death, and the temple in all it’s white and silver glory. I’ll allow the pictures to speak for themselves:

The world’s most resplendent public toilets? I think so.

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the main temple, but things got even weirder, with murals of the 9/11 attacks, scenes from Avatar, and even Michael Jackson. Construction is ongoing at the complex and only time will tell what new, other-worldly creations will be added.

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Thailand: Grand Palace in Bangkok

Because we only had one real day in Bangkok we decided to spend it at the Grand Palace, which we’d been told not to miss. Luckily, our friend Mike warned us not to listen to anyone who tried to tell us the palace was closed. As if on cue, as soon as we got out of our rickshaw near the palace a man claiming to be an official tour guide (he showed us his ID tags and everything) tried to convince us the palace was closed until after 1 pm and we should go with him to see the Reclining Buddha in the meantime. Just as we were starting to believe him I remembered what Mike said and we quickly realized people were still streaming into the entrance. As we started to pay attention we heard an announcement on loudspeakers stating the hours of the palace on repeat. I guess people claiming the palace is closed is a serious problem there!

A few minutes later we noticed the same man talking to an older couple so I quickly went over to tell them not to listen to him and that the palace was open! It felt good to do my good deed for the day. You also have to be dressed conservatively (long pants and sleeves), but you can rent clothes inside the palace. Although wearing so much clothing in the sticky heat of Bangkok is no fun!

The Palace is indeed beautiful and we enjoyed wandering around the massive grounds and seeing so much gold! It was also very special to see the emerald Buddha (which you are not allowed to photograph!) inside the Wat Phra Kaew temple. It’s actually made from jade and is a beautiful deep green color.

Can you glimpse the Emerald Buddha inside? It’s cloaked in gold.

Five-headed Naga.

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India: Udaipur

The Rajasthani city of Udaipur is called the Venice of the East, supposedly due to its lakes. While I’ve never been to Venice, I am pretty sure Udaipur is nothing like it.

Udaipur is beautiful in an Indian way; meaning it has lots of old buildings with elaborate arches, but the streets are still dirty, there are still many poor people around, and those lakes? Their shores are full of women doing laundry, which is of course typical in India and beautiful in its own way.

But Udaipur does have some beautiful structures, notably Palace Hotel, which floats in the middle of the lake and is where the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed, as anyone or any sign will tell you.

And of course, there is the City Palace, where members of the royal family still reside. While non-guests of the Palace Hotel aren’t allowed on the island, the City Palace is open to visitors. It’s worth getting a tour guide as the building is quite large and full of exquisite details, including finery imported from all over the world.

You can also take a lovely boat ride (more like a ferry than a gondola) around the lake and to Jagmandir, or the pleasure palace as it’s known. It’s actually not a palace, but more like a fancy island playground, complete with expensive drinks and spa (which a worker insisted on giving us a tour of). When we visited they were setting up for an event that looked fabulous and we had fun imagining what Judy’s upcoming wedding would be like if it was held there.

Udaipur hosts some gorgeous sunsets and most of the hotels advertise their rooftop restaurants with beautiful views of the lake. Of course we had to go the one called “The Highest Rooftop in Udaipur” and resisted the one across the street that claimed, “Better than the Highest Rooftop.” It was nice to have almost every meal with a view, though!

The food in Udaipur is very good, thanks to a healthy inflow of tourists. We loved our dinner at The Whistling Teal, which is actually the only non-rooftop place we ate at! But it does have a lovely garden setting and excellent food and service.

Dhungar Maas, a smoky curry. Kathi rolls in the background!

Elaichi Shrikhand, cardamom-flavored hung yogurt.

We wanted to love our meal at Millets of Mewar, a health and eco-concious cafe, but while the food was mostly tasty, the service was abysmal. Aside from interminable waits for the food, when it finally came most of it was wrong. We did go to one local place, a bit outside the main part of the city, called Natraj Lodge. The name of the game here is thalis, namely Gujerati ones. Thalis are platters with multiple bowls that keep getting refilled with curries, vegetables, dal, yogurt, rice, plus pakoras (fried bread balls), rotis, and a sweet, cardamom mini flatbread. You soon realize that you probably don’t even need the refills! Oh, and did I mention this all costs a little more than $1?

Serving up the curries until you tell them to stop!

Judy's first thali!

Fresh gulab jamun is one of India's finest treats. They can be found streetside in giant pans like this, or in most restaurants.

But the food highlight was taking a cooking class on our last morning. There are dozens of options to choose from, but we ended up with Sushma’s. It was just the three of us and Sushma, the instructor. She had a great menu planned and took the time to go over the classic Indian spice box and even taught us how to make chai! We made a sweet and sour pumpkin similar to what we had at Gunpowder in Delhi, a yummy curry with fresh paneer (fresh paneer is amazing, a super easy to make! I can’t wait to try to make it at home), fantastic yellow dal (lentils), and of course rotis. I was curious about how to make parathas, both stuffed and plain, so Sushma showed us that as well. I never would have guessed how you fold and roll the plain paratha dough to make it flaky. And, all the recipes were printed out and ready for us to take home.

Fresh paneer curry

Sushma demonstrating how to make sweet and sour pumpkin.

Trying my hand at roti rolling.

After letting the roti cook in a pan briefly, you then put it directly on a flame so it puffs up. But careful not to let it burn!

To make a plain paratha, first you cut a slit in the flattened dough and then roll it around into a cone.

Next, you pull out the cone into a sort of flower, before flattening it again with a rolling pin. This gives it the yummy, flaky layers after you bake it!

A delicious homemade lunch!

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India: Jaisalmer

After driving for hours through the mostly barren Thar Desert of Rajasthan, the golden fortress walls of Jaisalmer are a stunningly romantic sight to see. Jaisalmer was founded in 1156  by Jaisal Singh, a Rajput king, and it is quite obvious why it is called “The Golden City.”

When we first walked toward the fort I was somewhat taken aback with the aggressiveness of some of the sellers lining the entrance, but I soon learned that in well-traveled Rajasthan almost everyone is trying to make a buck off of tourists. We soon became tired of everyone asking “What country?” and then as soon as we answered them trying to sell us something. Living in Mumbai and having traveled to less touristy places like Kolkata and Aurangabad we had somewhat avoided this side of India until now.

However, as long as you don’t let it get to you and sometimes make the effort to observe and have a real conversation with people it becomes manageable. Waking up early helps, as evidenced by Manor’s photos from his morning excursions.

Inside the fortress walls are of course many shops, but there are also lots of beautiful Jain temples and the architecture of most of the buildings is very beautiful and keeps to the ancient carved haveli (mansion) style that is popular here.

View from Canon Point

Jain Temple

Jain temple

Jain temple

Jain temple

Jain temple interior dome

Jain temple interior monkey detail

Jain temple god hand detail

Jain temple god detail

Jain temple marble gods

Everything is not inside the fortress, however. Aside from our lovely hotel (The Hotel Tokyo Palace), there are several ancient havelis, or mansions. These havelis mostly belonged to very wealthy families and have now been preserved and turned into museums. We went to the Patwon Haveli, which was indeed very beautiful, plus it provides a good way to learn a lot about how families kept their homes.

Patwon Haveli

Patwon haveli painted wall

Patwon Haveli perfume bottles

Patwon Haveli turban room

Also outside the fort is a lake across the road, which makes for a lovely sunset spot. There is a small hill from which you can see the fortress and there were a bunch of boys flying kites in the fading light.

Every night at 7:30 the Desert Cultural Centre & Museum puts on a traditional puppet show so we decided to check it out one night. The founder of the museum is the one who introduces each piece, and he pointed out (as did several signs) that the museum is the effort of a single man (himself). We chuckled at his introductions for each piece, which were quite long in Hindi and the English always included the phrase, “This is a very interesting program.” The puppet shows were accompanied by live traditional music and the puppets’ “moves” were actually quite impressive, like a young boy throwing a ball and a man riding a horse in many different positions.

Although getting to Jaisalmer takes some effort, its uniqueness is rewarding and it’s golden beauty can’t be topped.

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