Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Hanoi Apartment

It has been getting tiring staying in multi-bunk dorm-style places for the past few months.  Don't get me wrong, the ready camaraderie is nice to have at one's hand, and it is cool to get perks like free breakfast and all, but the lack of space and constant interruptions can take its toll.  So I decided to seek out my own place for a while, especially since I am now planning to stay in Hanoi for a few months while I study French and Vietnamese.  Talking to some people around here, and checking sources online, it was apparent that there is a steady source of cheap furnished apartments that are available for foreigners who want to stay on a short-term basis, but longer than your average holiday stay.  Most apartments of that type here in Hanoi will rent month-to-month, asking a minimum of a three-month commitment, but people are able to leave early if they want by soliciting someone to take their place on one of the online forums devoted to Hanoi life. And that is how I got my apartment.  There was a guy named Christian from Ireland looking for someone to take over his apartment as he wanted to leave a little earlier than his commitment was for, and I jumped on it.  The apartment is four million dong a month, which translates to about $180 in US currency, and my only other expense associated with it is the electricity; the water, cable and wi-fi are included. It is on the third floor of the building.  The washing machine and clothes drying area are on a covered rooftop deck.  I have a lovely view of a tree-lined alley out my window.

But let me back up just an eence.  A few days before I moved in, I was staying at the Hanoi Central Backpackers Old Quarter Hostel.  This place is probably one of the biggest party hostels in Hanoi, bolstered by its nightly free beer and then pub crawls after the hostel bar closes. And it doesn't hurt that it has its own built-in travel agency that arranges tours to just about any other place in the country you could set your sights on visiting, and those tours are incredibly cheap by Western standards.  I took a couple of tours, and the costs to me were probably between twenty and thirty bucks a day.  And they are even tacking on a bunch.  But they took care of every detail.  During each tour, I was passed to multiple operators along each way fairly seamlessly.  Most, but not all, spoke pretty good English, and even with those who didn't speak English at all, there didn't seem to be any problems or barriers.

So I was in my hostel room, and for once, I was fortunate enough to get an underpopulated room.  When I came back from my trip to Sa Pa, I entered a room that only had eight beds but one other guy in it, so most of the beds were empty.  That was the first time that had happened at this hostel, since it is usually fairly full.  Alex was a vibrant guy from Atlanta, Georgia, with a bushy beard. He was only staying for another day because he had gotten an apartment in Tay Ho and he was super stoked about it.  He told me that he found it on a Facebook group called “Hanoi Massive – A New Era.” So I ended up joining the group and looking for housing opportunities.  It didn't take long at all for me to find something. Christian put up his post about the apartment he was vacating and I jumped on it.  But, the problem was, I was just getting ready to take a three-day trip to Ha Long Bay. I told him that I was interested, and if nobody took it before I returned, I would get back with him.

Luckily, after my trip, I checked in with him again and he said nobody had grabbed it.  So I met with him, looked at the place, and decided I would take it.  He already had another place to go to, so he said he could vacate it as soon as he got his stuff out. A couple of days later, I was filling out the paperwork with the landlord and moving in.  I don't have much stuff; just a big backpack, and also a smaller backpack that I can wear on my front with mostly food in it. I repacked my bags and took the big backpack from the hostel to the apartment on foot; it was about a four kilometer walk.  I just kept behind the stuff that I would need at the hostel overnight in the smaller bag, which I walked over the next day.

The apartment is basically a studio with an attached small bathroom.  For cooking, there is a hotplate with one burner, a rice cooker, and an electric kettle to boil water with. Not much, but it'll probably do me.  There are also a few dishes, some pots and pans, and eating utensils.  There is a dorm fridge, and a TV with cable.  I haven't watched much of the TV yet...the only two stations that I have watched are CNN International (which I watched the debate on the other started at 8 in the morning here), and a French channel, TV5Monde Asie.  There was only one desk-style table by the window, but Christian suggested that I ask the landlord for another one to put the cooking stuff on, because it was all on the floor...he said he never minded it, so he just left it like that.  So I got a second table to put the cooking stuff on.

Then it was time to unpack, or at least get out the essentials.  I was a bit worried because I had kept some fresh turmeric root in my backpack ever since I left the Philippines, which was almost a month ago.  It had just been sitting in my backpack the whole time, and I was terribly afraid that I would find a moldy mess having taken over my backpack.  But, apparently, the storage conditions were just about perfect for it in there, and some of the turmeric roots had even started to sprout a bit.  It actually thrived in there.

There is a supermarket about a kilometer away, so I set off to get my first bit of food for the apartment.  I have so far made three shopping trips, each time taking my small backpack to the store with me to carry my purchases in, in lieu of a bag.  Also, all the light fixtures (except for one long fluorescent tube), had incandescent, old-style filament bulbs in them.  So I picked up some LED bulbs at the store to replace them in one fixture; the other one has smaller candelabra sized sockets that I haven't found LED bulbs for yet.  The LED bulbs are incredibly cheap; they cost about a buck each. But the rub is, that to get to the store (or from my apartment to just about everywhere), I have to cross what is basically a freeway-style road packed with motorbike traffic that never lets up.  During rush hour this is super harsh.  And I don't even want to go into what this is like at night, in the dark, especially since many motorbikes don't have headlights, or often start by going the wrong way on the road until they themselves can inch their way over to the correct side.  Since the traffic will never let up, you just have to at some point just dive in to the morass (usually after a minute or two of “oh shit”-style contemplation), and make your way across, slowly, while keeping your eyes on every vehicle that is zooming around you.  Nevertheless, it takes a while to cross. You have to just look for the next opening and inch forward a few feet.  Hanoi drivers are at least fairly adept at moving around pedestrian (and other) obstacles, so they don't just purposefully or negligently run you down, as would happen if you crossed an interstate highway in the States.

After going to the store for the first time, I cooked my first meal in my apartment.  I made a mix of rice and split peas in the rice cooker, and after about ten minutes, I added a bunch of chopped vegetables, some minced ginger, garlic and turmeric, some chili powder that I had bought in China, and some really tasty hot curry powder that I had bought in Korea. I put in about a tablespoon of coconut oil, and a few minutes before it was all done, I put some chopped up tofu to steam at the top.  Once the rice cooker signaled that it was done, I mixed it all up together and made little nori rolls with the mixture in some nori sheets that I had bought in Japan. Man, it was good.  But, note to self, I gotta get more spices here.  Gotta have some kinda mix that includes coriander and cumin (though they might have been in the curry powder). And some hot chiles.  Gotta get hot chiles.

All the citrus here that I have seen has green peels.  It doesn't matter whether it is sold on the street, or in a store.  Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits all are green on the outside, but then when you open them, there is color on the inside. I haven't yet seen an orange-colored orange, but they are orange on the inside, just like grapefruits are yellow or pink on the inside, even though they are colored dark green on the outside.

The alley on which I am living comes off the afore-described chaotic freeway road, which is Au Co street; it has secondary access roads that run along side it on both sides.. The alley is big enough for cars for a couple of blocks, and then it gets too constricted for a car to continue on it, though there is motorbike traffic after this point.

As of this point, I have no idea yet how the trash collection works. I'm starting to think about that because I'm starting to generate some trash and at some point, I'll have to figure out what to do with it.  I don't generate a lot, but I've bought some stuff at the store that has wrappers, and had to throw them away.  Also minor things like toilet paper tubes, drink containers, etc.  And you can't flush your toilet paper here, you have to throw it away.  So I bought two buckets for trash; one is in the bathroom for the used toilet paper.  I lined them both with trash bags. I bought another bucket to use as a combination wash/mop bucket and laundry hamper.

The wi-fi in my apartment building is free, but is intermittent and janky.  For the past three days, I had almost no connection, but then it would sometimes kick in, at times just for a few minutes.  The only device I tried to connect with at first was my cellphone, and I din't have much luck.  There are three wi-fi points I can see on my phone in different parts of the building; two are password-protected, and one is an open connection with no security or password.  The open connection is the only one I have physically found the broadcast point for; it is in a tiny closet on the staircase up from the first floor.  Sometimes I can stand right next to it and get a connection, but sometimes I can't. And when I connect with a device on any of these connections (one of the secured ones seems to be the strongest in my apartment), my device will always tell me I'm connected, but then sometimes, it won't actually make the connection to the internet.  But, strangely, today my phone has suddenly been connected almost all day. But then I tried to connect my laptop, and it would not connect at the same time I was getting a connection on my phone.

Speaking of phones, since I had no data in Vietnam on my phone, and since my wi-fi connection at home is obviously going to be unreliable, I went to Viettel (which is the main cell phone company in Vietnam) and got a smartphone with a top-up SIM, so I can have some data.  The phone itself cost about 37 bucks, and it is not the greatest smartphone, but is still one hell of a bargain.  The top-up deal I got is about $2.50 for 3 gig of data for a month. Again, a pretty good deal.  So I won't use it for videos or much audio...I can hold out for wi-fi for anything more data-intensive.  There is a good wi-fi connection at the French institute, and many cafes also have it. And the new phone is just strictly for data at this point...I turned down phone and texting for this round, but if I top up again, I may look into it; I bet it is super cheap.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Apartment And An Accident

I am pretty sure I have found an apartment in Hanoi starting this weekend. It'll be about four million dong a month, or the equivalent of about $180 a month.  It is completely furnished, and has about all the pots and pans, dishes, and eating utensils I need. It has wi-fi and cable thrown in, and the water and electric are a little extra (the guy moving out says he pays about $15-$20 a month). The apartment is in the Tay Ho neighborhood, which sort of has a reputation as an expat enclave in Hanoi. But it also has many Vietnamese living there as well. The expats tend to get clustered together in the same buildings, because apparently there are some restrictions on where foreigners  can live, so landlords end up having buildings that are just for foreigners. It looks like a really cool neighborhood, it is right off the east side of West Lake.

Walking back from checking out the apartment, there was a motorbike accident right behind me. I was walking down the street, pretty much among all the other traffic, because the sidewalk was taken up by parked motorbikes and merchandise (as it usually is). And a woman on a motorbike right behind me careened into the back corner of a panel truck that was parked. I didn't see it, because it was behind me, but I definitely heard it, and turned around to see her motorcycle whizzing and spinning down the street, right next to me. Jeez, that could have taken me out from behind if it had just spun about seven degrees in my direction.

So I walked back there to see if she was OK, and some local people were helping her to her feet. She shook all her limbs, and it didn't seem like anything was broken, but she had some nasty abrasions, and the other people there helped her inside. I couldn't do much because of the language barrier, but I stayed around until she had gotten on her feet and gotten inside.

Usually vehicles like cars and trucks just park in the street, since there is no room for parking. So the truck was parked blocking the lane, and cars and bikes just went around it on the other side. You have to realize, though, that traffic lights, stop signs, lines on the road, and the directionality of traffic here are treated as merely advisory, and people go through intersections helter-skelter, from all directions, and the traffic (pedestrian, bike, motorbike and big vehicles) just flows around that constant chaos. When you are crossing a street, you move in this slow dance across the street...if you do it skillfully, you don't ever stop, and you keep in your consciousness where all the other vehicles are, and their trajectory. I imagine it is a lot like being an air traffic controller.  I have heard that often when there is a wreck, it is caused by one of the motorbikes that is riding on the wrong side of the street. So you have to keep your eyes out for anything going the wrong way, too.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Scenes From The Life Of A Black H'mong Woman

On the second day of the homestay trek from Sa Pa, there were only two of us left; me and Scott from Vancouver. So we asked our guide a lot of questions about her life as a Black H'mong woman in Vietnam, and this post is based on the answers she gave us.

I really haven't had much contact with the H'mong men. I think a H'mong male was a bus driver on one of the treks I was on. But he didn't say much. The H'mong women are ubiquitous as guides on the tours.

A H'mong woman will usually go through primary school and secondary school (secondary school is analogous to junior high or middle school), which is provided for free by the state. But high school costs money. So most H'mong don't go to high school. And very few go to university.

There are very few H'mong who have been outside the area where they grew up. Very few have been to Hanoi. Even less have been out of the country of Vietnam, though it is possible. If a H'mong does not make it through high school (mostly because of the cost), then there is a choice of either continuing with the farm that is in the family, or trying to find a job. And if the job is chosen, then money must be paid to secure the job in many cases; the H'mong often have to save up money to buy their way into a job.

There are rules about how their property is passed down through the family, and family members who did not inherit and have not been able to get an outside job are usually cared for on the family plot of land and assist with the subsistence farming. The small amounts of land the H'mong own have usually been passed down for many generations, and it is the bulk of their wealth. Our guide told us they only harvest one crop of rice a year. I don't know why that is, because in Japan, they often harvest two crops, and Vietnam is even more temperate, being able to grow vegetables through the winter. But they don't usually have enough land to go beyond subsistence farming. They only grow enough to feed their families and animals, and cannot grow a surplus to sell. The meals they prepare are usually from the grains, beans, and vegetables that they grow, and from the animals they raise, so you almost can't get a more locally sourced meal.

A Black H'mong woman is expected to awake before anyone else in the household, as early as four in the morning. Especially if parents of either the woman or the man live in the house.  If the Black H'mong woman does not wake up to work on the farm and cook meals, she is considered lazy.

Most Black H'mong women are married between the ages of 15 and 17. If the woman is not married by her 20s, she is considered to be lazy, and unmarriageable.

Black H'mong women are expected to make the clothes for the family. If they don't make the clothes, they are considered to be lazy. There are a lot of points on the Black H'mong flowchart that lead to lazy, and that is not a good thing in the Black H'mong ideology.  Keep in mind that this "lazy" thing is not a value judgment I am making, but the description given to me by the guide.

Despite all the rigidity in what is expected of the Black H'mong, and despite the fact that they are desperately poor, work very hard for almost nothing, and they are not treated so well by the ethnic Vietnamese (who are the majority in Vietnam), the H'mong seem to be very happy, and some of the most carefree and spirited people I have met. They seem to survive through the strength of their will and the force of their collective character, and they don't seem to nurture so much a sense of grievance about their position in society or of any perceived wrongs that have been done to them. They seem to take what they have and really maximize it. Their lives are fairly uncomplicated.

There is a lot of hemp grown by the H'mong. It is spun into thread for clothing by the women of the tribe, who then make it into cloth.  They then dye the fabric black by soaking it for several passes in a solution made from the indigo plant. Once they have made the cloth, they then will sew clothing from it, and the clothing is heavily embroidered. The black cloth that they make the clothing from is where the Black H'mong get their name. Though they make most of their clothes, they do buy some items of clothing (our guide was wearing a windbreaker she bought), and they usually buy shoes.

The guide I talked to had never been to Hanoi, and neither she nor her husband owned any transportation vehicle, not even a bicycle.  Mostly she walks everywhere she goes, between the various villages in the close-knit area where she lives, with the exception of riding with the caravans that bring in the tourists. Though many of the guides learn to speak English to be able to guide tourists, they may not be able to read it at all

Friday, September 16, 2016

Trekking in Sa Pa

I had been really sick for a couple of days. I had allowed myself to get too dehydrated, and then I got some stomach virus that just knocked me on my butt at the hostel in Hanoi. So I was laid up in bed for a couple of days. And during that time, I decided to plan a trip to Sa Pa, Vietnam, hoping I'd be better by the time I took the trip.  I set up a journey of four days and three nights through the travel desk at the hostel.

It was down to the wire, but luckily I was much better by the time it was time to depart. But in the meantime, I had a French placement test scheduled for the French class that I am hoping to take in Hanoi. The Institut Fran├žois de Hanoi has a really great French class that is amazingly cheap. They also have a Vietnamese class, and I'm thinking about taking that there too, but I'm not certain about that yet. So I had to drag myself out of bed, hellishly ill, and walk across town to take the placement test. I don't think I did too badly, and probably ended up about where I should. I hope. The first four or five pages were pretty easy, but then it started asking for long narratives about really specific things, and that's where I didn't do as well, definitely. I was blanking out on a lot of words that I thought I should have known...obviously, I didnt know them well enough. After the test, I went back to the hostel and just crashed for the rest of the day, and I felt much better the next day.

So I was well-rested and well-hydrated, and feeling really good when it was time to go to Sa Pa. I checked out of the hostel in Hanoi, and got to see my Vietnam visa for the first time in my passport when they gave me my passport back. They had kept it when I checked in, after I had arrived straight from the airport (where I had an ATM-card losing fiasco), and they don't give it back until they get the room key. Sucks, but I guess that's what they do.

All of us who were on the Sa Pa trek made our way down to the lobby, and we were led down the street by someone from the hostel to where we would catch our bus. The bus arrived after a few minutes of waiting, and we all clambered aboard. It was an overnight sleeper bus, with sleeper pods instead of seats. We had to take our shoes off and put them in a bag upon boarding. The sleeper pods were about the bare minimum space that I have seen allocated for a human to sleep in. There were two levels of pods, six long. There were three rows of these twelve pods on the bus, two on each side, and one in the middle. I had brought a small pack on the bus with me, and there was no room for it in the pod with me. Luckily, I was on the bottom row, so I put my pack in the aisle. Somebody told me that sometimes these buses get so full that people are sleeping in the aisles. There was a very compact bathroom in the back of the bus, but I was not aware of that until the next morning, when I spotted someone coming out of it, which was great, because I had been lying there needing to go badly and thinking there was no bathroom. The bus was to arrive at four thirty the next morning, but we were instructed to stay in the bus until six, when someone would come to meet us.

And, as we were told, at six am, Mr. Hung showed up to pick us up and take us to our hotel.  At this point, I came to the realization that I know very little about what the sequence of events was, and what would take place was largely a mystery to me. But did I really need to know? Couldn't I just go where someone told me to go and see what happens? I knew there would be two nights of homestay and one night in a hotel, but I didn't know whether the hotel was first, nor did I know much about what was going on. 

We drove to the hotel and ate breakfast. We just left our things at the hotel; I was not staying there until the third night (and some on our tour didn't stay at all because they were only doing one or two day tours). our group's guide, Van, showed up to take us on a trek to the first homestay. But she told me that me sandals would probably be inadequate and that I would need a raincoat. I wasn't going to change my footwear at first, but she was very insistent. So she led me across the street to rent some mud boots, and then I also bought a raincoat and some rain pants to take on the trek.  Sa Pa is about 25 kilometers from the border with China, at the very northern end of Vietnam.

So we headed down into the mountains. It was raining quite a bit, off and on. For a decent while, it was the craziest hike down a steep, narrow path that was completely made of slippery mud. At times, I would look at the next ten feet, and think, "No fucking way." And this happened about every ten feet for the first half of the hike. And in some places there were some truly precipitous drops right off the edge of the muddy, slippery trail. I couldn't even take pictures for this part of the hike, because I was concentrating too hard on making sure my feet met good footholds, ensuring I didn't tumble off a cliff, and trying not to fall on my ass, like many people in my group did on the slippery mud, some several times. I couldn't take pictures of an amazing waterfall we passed, nor of a place where we crossed a deep abyss on two bamboo poles, let alone many other amazing sights. But at least I kept my footing and never fell; I saw others with some scrapes from slipping on the mud.

We all had these amazing Hmong women as our guides, who stuck to us like Secret Service agents stick the the US President. There is very little chance I would have made it through this hike, much less even survived on this steep, muddy slope, if it had not been for my superbly skilled personal Hmong guide, Ngo, who didn't speak any English, but anticipated every need I would have, and took me down this insane path with surgical precision. And she carried a baby on her back the whole time.  She scampered over slippery, muddy terrain like it was nothing. Sometimes she and the other Hmong guides would just Each of us who were hiking in the group had a Hmong woman beside them leading them through the most intense parts of the hike. Each of us who were hiking in the group had a Hmong woman beside them leading them through the most intense parts of the hike. Sometimes Ngo and the other Hmong guides would just run up a boulder above the path, and scamper ahead to pass us and be in the location they needed to be to guide us to the next place. She and the other guides helped us all get through this hair-raising, rollicking, stupendous hike through the mountains. She would anticipate when I was going to need help, and then she would be instantly next to me, firmly gripping my hand and moving me onward. When needed, she would point to me the precise location to put each foot, step by step, to find the most solid footing in the slippery mud. After the roughest part down the muddy cliff, most the rest of the hike was fairly easy to accomplish, and my guide Ngo only appeared by my side and grabbed my arm for a few dicey spots.

The scenery was absolutely spectacular. There were rice terraces all up and down the mountains and in the valleys, potbellied pigs and water buffalo all along the trail, and we would pass through tiny traditional villages as we made our way on the trek.

After the hike, Ngo offered some of the items that she had made for sale. I was only too happy to oblige, since she had just spent all day guiding me down a mountain. I bought a couple of small purses as gifts for my daughters. Ngo and the other individual Hmong guides left at this point, and we were left with Van as our group guide. First we stopped at a restaurant in the little village to enjoy a communal lunch. Then we trekked several more kilometers to get to the first homestay. A woman from another tribe in the area (not Hmong) decided to shadow me and pester me to buy something; I ended up buying a little carrying bag from her after she had walked several kilometers along side me, which I needed anyway to carry some items I had just stuffed into the pockets of my jacket.

The first night we spent at a homestay near Ta Van.   It was a pleasant little house with several beds upstairs in an atmosphere that was like the attic of a barn. The beds were draped in mosquito netting.  The homestay was right next to a bubbling creek, in the valley. We had a delicious dinner there, and then settled in to sleep for the night.

In the morning, we headed off on the second day's hike.  Most of the group only hiked for a short while to the bus stop, as only two of us (me and a Korean-Canadian guy named Scott) had signed up for the next day's journey. So we hiked about 5 kilometers to the bus stop, dropped off the majority of the group, and then Scott and I, with Van as our guide, embarked on the daylong hike to the second homestay.  This was a longer hike than the first day's hike. It was not as difficult, though it definitely had some challenging moments, including one point when we climbed down a cliff made of mud, and we had to tread carefully to find useable handholds and footholds to make it down.

While on the trail just a few meters short of the second homestay, I lightly brushed my arm against some thorny tree, and it put a big jagged deep cut on my arm. As I was walking up to the homestay, my arm was bleeding so badly that it was dripping off the ends of my fingers. But the female host of the married couple that ran the homestay grabbed a handful of some herb; the guide, Van, said it was to stop bleeding. Sure enough, after I held the herb on my arm for a few minutes, it stopped the flow of blood.

The second homestay was in the village of Ban Ho. Ban Ho is mostly populated by the Tay people.  Once we settled in there, I went off on my own to explore the town and the surroundings. I walked around for a while, but I was getting some serious blisters and sore points on my feet from the poorly-fitting rain boots I had rented. Mostly I had just been trudging through the pain; at least it would only be another day until I wouldn't be wearing them any more. I had left my sandals behind at the hotel in Sa Pa in my haste and confusion when we suddenly had to leave to the trek, so the uncomfortable boots were the only footwear that I had with me. At least they had a good grip on the muddy ground and had kept me from falling. But my feet were in some serious pain by this time, and for the rest of the journey.

The rice harvest was going on in Ban Ho while we were there. The villagers would go out into the field to cut the rice, then shake it out and leave the kernels to dry on big tarps. They were doing the same with corn and other crops as well.  Most of the people in this whole region are subsistence farmers, and just grow enough to feed their families and animals. They also grow their own soybeans and make their own tofu, so each village has its own distinctive type of tofu. They grow the vegetables for their meals as well, so all the meals we had in this area were about as local as it gets. After the rice is dried on the tarps, it is then machine milled.

After we had eaten a delicious dinner and slept the night, the next morning we hiked to a spectacular little waterfall and pool on the river nearby.  There were also other tour groups who went to this location as well, so there were a number of tourists there. Some of the more adventurous jumped off the cliffs nearby into the water, but I just relaxed there. While we all swam and relaxed on the rocks, all of the Black H'mong women who were our tour guides chatted among themselves and worked on embroidering their clothing.

After the waterfall swim, we then hiked to the bus stop where we took a bus back to the town of Sa Pa.  It turned out that i was the only one of our original group who had signed up for a third day of trekking...Scott was due to take a bus back to Hanoi, while i stayed in Sa Pa. When we got to the bus station in Sa Pa, I took a second shuttle, a much smaller bus, back to the hotel, whereupon I promptly returned the rented mud boots that were destroying my feet. It was good to trade them back for my sandals,  and my feet appreciated the increased comfort and the chance to heal. This was the first opportunity that I had had to explore the town, so I spent a good deal of the day walking around the town. And it was the first night that I had spent in a hotel in a long time; this was the hotel where I had left the bulk of my luggage while I had been trekking for the past couple days. The hotel room was a gorgeous and expansive suite, with a prime view of the mountains just outside Sa Pa.

That evening, I met and had dinner with Paul, who was a friend of a friend living in Sa Pa I had been introduced to via Facebook. He stopped by my hotel suite, indicating that he had stayed in the same room a while back. We walked down the street and had a really nice dinner at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the mountains, but I faded fast after two days of long hikes, and unfortunately I was not much for conversation after as I was terribly tired. I had to excuse myself and head back to the hotel, where I had a good night's sleep.

Upon waking up in the morning, I headed down for the free breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and prepared for another day of trekking. I had to check out of the hotel, so I put my luggage back in the hotel's luggage storage area. Today we were going to the village of Cat Cat. I was the only one on the third day trek, so I was grouped up with another group. I was impressed how seamlessly this happened. Since the beginning of this trip, at many different stages I had been handed over to another sub-operator of the trip over and over again. An this happened throughout the entire tour, planned out by the tour operators.

This place was a little more touristy than the other villages. You had to buy a ticket to enter the village, and the path was lined with many souvenir booths and snack kiosks. We hiked around for the morning; it was a slow hike because there were some beautiful sights in the valley to explore, and because some wanted to shop at the many pavilions we passed by. We stopped for a half-hour break in an area where there was a raging waterfall that was at the confluence of two separate water streams. It was enchantingly beautiful. Then, I ducked in to watch part of a folk dance performance in the town auditorium. I also munched on some local food while I was there. I was particularly struck by a piece of grilled corn I had. It wasn't sweet like most corn I have had back in the US. It was more starchy, almost tasting like rice. It was good, but different to what I was accustomed to. It also made me realize that we are probably losing all kinds of seed that local cultures have used for a long time. Most of the agriculture done around this area is not the kind that is invested in big agribusiness, but rather, dependent on long cultural traditions. Clearly, some things have changed, such as machine milling of rice rather than using stone grinding mills, but the seeds are mostly from local stock and so far not as affected by hybridization and genetic modification.

After lingering in the village for a while, we kept hiking for about an hour, then we had to make our way up the steep hill that we had originally descended to get down into the valley. They offered people rides for those who wanted them, but I chose to walk back out up the winding road. It was probably about an hour and a half of constant climbing. Motorbikes and buses would stop along the way to see if any of the fatigued tourists would want a ride, but I just went ahead and finished the walk back to the hotel. At the hotel, I took a short nap in the lobby, and then boarded the shuttle to the bus station, and then the sleeper-type bus back to Hanoi. I had reserved a room back at the hostel when I returned, so I checked back in and went to sleep shortly after arriving in Hanoi.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Hanoi Pedicure

Today I went on the walking tour offered by my hostel, so we spent a couple of hours walking around Hanoi.  Since I've been here for over a week now, I had seen many of the places already (I usually find the good stuff). But there were some places I hadn't been to, such as a 900 year old temple, and the largest cathedral in Hanoi. I also hadn't been to the indoor market, which was filled with stuff that I didn't at all want to buy, but it was interesting to see. At the end, we stopped in a local coffee shop so people could sample the local egg coffee.

Our guide also explained what was going on with the announcements on the loudspeakers during the day across the city. There is some government propaganda, and patriotic songs, but it is also mixed with announcements about the day's pollution level, a traffic report, some light news, and other info. So it is not just propaganda, there is some information as well.

After the tour, I decided to get a pedicure. What the hell, these spas are everywhere, and the pedicures are super cheap. I think the one I got was a little over five bucks. I've never had a pedicure before, so I didn't know much what to expect. And my feet are super messed up, first of all, from being guy feet, and second of all, from wearing sandals all the time everywhere. The heels were a war zone, and the nails and areas around them...well, I felt sorry for someone who would have to deal with that. But I figured, it's that person's job, so they must see some really messed up feet.

And then there is the issue that many of these spas offer what you might call extra services. Really, I just wanted a pedicure at this point. Although, I do have to admit that a pedicure with a happy ending would probably be a more gripping tale (ok, bad pun). But, anyway, I wanted to find a place where I was not likely to find a beautiful woman with wandering hands, and me with a weak will and lonely travel soul having to say, "No, thanks", while biting my lip, or maybe even, "Yes, please..."

Anyway, I went into this place, and told the woman in the front I wanted a pedicure.  She led me to a woman inside who had me take off my sandals, and then had me put on some house sandals while she led me upstairs. Once again, I had no idea what to expect with a pedicure, since I've never had one before this. She had me lie down face up on a massage table, and put hot towels under my feet.

I was happy that there was no cringing at the sight of my feet, no expressions of disgust, no derisive pointing and laughing.  Nope, just foot work. I had thought it would be relaxing, somehow. I always have heard about how pampered one feels when one gets a pedicure. But parts of it hurt like a bitch. When they are scraping off big chunks of whatever, and pushing back the cuticles, and whatnot, that can be damned painful. I winced a lot. She did her thing, and told me she was finished after working on my toes. But I had wanted my sandal heels scraped down too, so I pointed to that, and she obliged.

She did ask me at one point if I wanted a massage. But it seemed legitimate, and I didn't want one, so I politely declined.
All on all, it was not bad. At the end if the pedicure, she asked me where I was from, and I told her I was from the US. She seemed surprised, and said she thought I was from Singapore. Now it was my turn to be surprised, because I can't imagine where that impression came from. But all in all, I think I could have done a slightly better job on my nails, and maybe even calluses, but I would have to have the right know, like a belt sander, and maybe a plane and ap hammer and chisel. But it was definitely not bad, and a bargain for barely over five bucks. And my feet definitely look much better.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Streets of Hanoi

Traveling around Hanoi for the last few days, I have noticed that there are streets that are devoted to different activities. Today, I encountered a toy street, an office supply street, a ceramics street, a metal cage street, etc. I have also noticed in the last few days, a purse street, a shoe street, a backpack street, a suitcase street, and various restaurant and cafe streets. There's a stuff made out of bamboo street. There is a cemetery headstone street.

I was walking down the street, and some woman came up to me and put her shoulder yoke, with two loads balanced on each end, on my shoulder and said to me, "Carry." I was surprised at how light it was, considering that there was a lot of stuff in the carrying buckets on each end, and it was well-balanced. It seemed lighter than the backpack I carry around. But I quickly said to her, "No, no", and gave it back to her. I have no idea why she did that.

But then a second woman tried to load me up with her shoulder yoke, and she said, "Picture". So I guess the deal is that they will take your picture with the shoulder yoke on, and then you give them a small payment.

I stopped in a pharmacy to see what they had available. It looked like you could buy just about anything without a prescription. They even had effervescent tablets, like Alka-Seltzer, that you dissolve in liquid, and have 30 mgs of codeine in them.