Category Archives: Transit

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: Another Boat Ride

After spending a night in Luang Prabang we decided to head off again and postpone our time in Luang Prabang for a few days. We decided on Mong Ngoi, following a recommendation from a friend who was there last year. Mong Ngoi is only accessible by boat so after a several-hour van ride to a small town called Nong Khiaw we managed to get on one of the last boats going to Mong Ngoi, which happened to be full of children heading back to their river-side villages after school. It was great to experience some local culture and beautiful scenery–and we got to make use of the cushions we had bought for the Mekong River ride, as these seats really were just thin wooden slabs!

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Laos: Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

One of the most popular activities in Laos is to take the two-day boat ride along the Mekong River from Huay Xi by the border with Thailand to the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. While in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after much deliberation we decided to go with a tour company rather than cobble together the itinerary on public transportation ourselves. The company took us from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong, via Chiang Rai and the White Temple. We were then put up at an extremely average hotel in Chiang Kong for the night, and the next morning made the border crossing into Huay Xi, Laos, without much assistance. The price included the ticket for the two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang from Huay Xi and for this part we were glad to have the guidance as things were rather confusing. There are dozens of companies offering this package in Chiang Mai and we investigated quite a few–as far as we could tell they all seem basically the same for the same price, which is only a little bit more than if we had done it ourselves via public transportation.

Mother and child in Huay Xi.

Liquor bottles with snakes and other creatures were for sale in Huay Xi–a little apertif for the boat ride!

Once in Huay Xi, we and our new Norwegian friends were determined to get to the boats early–we had all read many accounts of how uncomfortable the slow boats could be and that if you didn’t get there early you’d get stuck sitting on the floor in the back next to the very loud engine. We had even bought cushions in Chiang Kong in anticipation of the wooden seats we had heard were so uncomfortable. But all our rushing across the border (which is done by boat across the Mekong) and beating the lines were for naught; we then simply had to wait on the other side for the rest of our group.

When we finally got to the docks, we saw that there were multiple boats with not only plenty of room but real, cushioned seats! Upon closer inspection, these seats turned out to be car seats that had simply been lined up inside the boat–they weren’t nailed down to the floor in any way. We quickly grabbed seats and moved them as far back as possible to give ourselves maximum leg room, and also realized the cushions we’d bought in Thailand were completely unnecessary. Nice racket they got going, though.

The ride itself was smooth and pleasant and there was some very beautiful scenery along the way. Beer and a a few simple snacks are for sale on the boat, but all in all there’s not much to do besides read, chat, and play cards–our Norwegian friends introduced us to the game 500, which quickly became a staple of our trip. At the end of the first day the boat moors in the small town of Pak Beng. There’s really not much to see or do there except have dinner and find a cheap and not too disgusting place to spend the night!

The boats leave very early the next day to complete the journey to Luang Prabang, the beautiful ex-capital city. These boats are a great way to relax and take in the Laotian scenery along the Mekong. It was perfect for us because my foot was still healing so it gave us an excuse to stay still for a few days–something that’s not so easy for us!

There are definitely fancier (and more expensive) cruises you can take, and there is also a fast boat that will get you to Luang Prabang in a few hours, but we read multiple accounts of the danger of the fast boats. These simple slow boats are affordable and a comfortable enough way to travel down the Mekong, a classic activity when in Laos.

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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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India: The Nature of Kutch Inspires

For our last week in India at the end of January we decided to venture to the Kutch region of Gujarat. Not highly touristed, most visitors to India don’t make it to this desert area known for its exceptional textiles and handicrafts. (Although they do have an aggressive ad campaign with Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan touting “the silvery sands of Kutch.”)

We were excited about visiting small villages and seeing beautiful handicrafts, but we had no idea that the area had so much natural beauty. We arranged an autorickshaw driver to take us to some of the villages surrounding Bhuj, the largest city in Kutch (which means it was still pretty small). Our driver, Bharat, turned out to be excellent, taking us to villages and areas we surely would not have seen without him. As we drove away from Bhuj and into the desert outback, we soon realized we would be driving through one of the most beautiful areas in India.

Castor oil plants are abundant in Kutch and treasured by the population.

Bharat soon taught us about castor oil, whose fields we kept driving by. Castor oil is produced by drying out the flowers (the spiky green things) and then crushing them to release the seeds. The seeds are then crushed to reveal a waxy, oily substance–castor oil–which as you probably know can be used for myriad medical treatments, lotions, and other remedies.

Dried castor oil flowers.

Bharat shows us the castor oil seeds.

After some more driving we came upon a watering hole, surrounded by camels and water buffalo. It really was beautiful and made me want to go to Africa even more!

We also drove through some gorgeous marshland filled with exotic birds.

On our second day Bharat took us to this gorge he knew about. Honestly, I don’t even know where we were, but suddenly he had us climbing down into a canyon!

I certainly had no idea something like this exists in India! Did you?

We also some interesting birds nest and had an adventure getting our autorickshaw through some water.

But the grand finale was seeing the “White Desert”–those silvery sands that Amitabh touted. Kutch is home to the Great Rann, reputed to be the largest salt desert in the world. It takes up a large portion of the Thar desert and goes straight across the border to Pakistan. Bharat told us the only way to traverse the white desert is via camel and after seeing it–and walking on it–I believe him. Some of the salt is dry and hard but the further in you go the more marshy it becomes and soon you find yourself sinking into the desert.

Doesn't this salt chunk look like the shape of India?!?

Check back soon for posts about the villages and handicrafts of Kutch!

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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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