Monday, December 28, 2009

Hue and Hai Van Pass

These are two places that I haven't visited in quite a while-something like 3 or 4 years. And, Hue was where the overnight train led us.

Hue is one of Vietnam's ancient capitals serving as its imperial seat since the early 1800's. Here a citadel was built containing the Purple City-Vietnam's version of the Forbidden City. Also, the countryside surrounding the town is speckled with temples and mausoleums. The later of which either pays tribute to one of the emperors or serves as another's resting place. These, and taking a boat tour of the Perfume River, are the tourist attractions. When I was last here I signed up for the King's Mausoleum tour and found it rather enjoyable.

But this time I figured it would be more fun to get a map, rent motorbikes and tour these sites ourselves, with the opportunity to get lost and engage with the locals being the added bonus. Here is a little of that scenery. The highlight of which was one of the river crossings where the local ferry/boat, transported the lot of us and our motorbikes across the Perfume River. (The music is by Charlie Yoon.)

Hue 12/09 from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

The weather was perfect-nice and moderate during the day and warm at night. We spent most of our time off the motorbikes walking around the city down near the parks that line the riverbanks.  As Joel and Jorge were fond of saying, "this place is so romantic!"

Equally romantic was Hai Van Pass, down above the city of Danang.  A place that I've often referred to as the Big Sur of Vietnam. The Pass is, to quote Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, "a ribbon of perfection" winding its way above the hills overlooking the South China Sea.

At one time this was the only way to travel to the north from the south and vice versa, over the Truong Son Mountains, as I found on my first trip back in 1996.  It was a treacherous journey for all tourist buses and semi-trucks alike because Vietnamese drivers are not known for their patience of standing in line, any line. Now they've built a 3 kilometer tunnel  thru the mountain leaving the Hai Van Pass road nearly deserted but for a few tour buses, locals and adventure seekers like us. Check it out.

Hai Van Pass from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

We left Hoi An around 10:30 am after a night of drinking where Joel and Ric preceded to take over the bar of a local restaurant making drinks for everyone, including the other guests. 10:30 was a little late by my estimates but we braved on making it back to the outskirts of Hoi An as darkness fell.

This map shows our route thru Danang, a critical navigational tool if you were make the trip yourselves. We kind of weaved and bop our way thru the up-and-coming metropolis on the way out and found the much easier path on the return.

If you're traveling thru Vietnam and do make it down to the Central region, do visit Hue's monuments and do opt for a drive over Hai Van Pass, whether it be on a tour bus or rented motorbike.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Traveling Mishaps

Just recently Joel, Jorge and Natalia came over from the US for a little traveling. So, it is completely appropriate to show them the sites. First on the list is the gorgeous Ha Long Bay area.

Now a thing about traveling. It is often said that the journey makes the trip and not so much the destination. Well, I have to say that getting there is half the battle and if you are lucky you will happen upon some great adventures, as was the case with us.

Getting from Hanoi out to Cat Ba Island is really a chore. Normally we would have about four transport transfers from big bus to little bus to speed boat to little bus until we get to the town of Cat Ba. But, this being the winter season and in a country that is in constant flux, I was thrown off course a wee bit. Our normal big bus let us off in the middle of Hai Phong City where upon we had to hike out to the ferry terminal-a local ferry that takes us directly into Cat Ba town. Now you're saying, "that sounds convenient!" I was thinking of the same thing but upon seeing the ferry boat for the first time, I was kind of nervous. There was this mad rush of humanity along with livestock, motorbikes and hug bags of goods, including fresh rice noodles. To say the boat was packed is an understatement. Stuffy doesn't begin to describe it.

Luckily we found ourselves out on the bow of the boat where at least there would be constant airflow. Here we found other westerners looking for the same thing. (In fact, this was where we met Ric and Deanne and asked them to join us on our adventure.)

As the boat motored out of the harbor and out to sea more locals came up front to get some fresh air, and we, really my friends minus me-being a normal yellow face, became a curiosity. Serving as interpreter I helped the two groups communicate:

"Where are you from?"
"How old are you?"
"Would you like a smoke of fresh tobacco from my bamboo pipe?"
"How about a taste of our home made rice whiskey?"

The first couple of questions were asked to find out if the westerners were friendly enough. Then, when it was determined that we were, the locals proceeded to get us drunk and high. These tobacco pipes are common everywhere in the north. They offer smokers a way of concentrating the tobacco flavor and potency. Ric attested to this. Then there was the whiskey which needs no explaining. Though, I will have to admit that I did indulge in the stuff. Normally the smell of this is so nasty that a mere whiff would send me overboard, but this didn't smell like turpentine. It was mildly alcoholic in aroma and just sweet enough going down. It was great and I later found out that because of this "great" taste many expats considered this the most dangerous of the local brew. Why? Because before you know it you're bent over the toilet regretting that you are an adventurer and cursing at the bedeviled natives who are trying to kill you.

This didn't happen of course to us but the stories of traveling expats getting completely smashed with the locals are legendary amongst the Hanoian community. I'm sure the local vietnamese are circulating the same such stories too.

Anyway, we had a really nice time out on the bay. I've been taking folks to this little beach with a bunch of bouldering. Nearby we could kayak through limestone archways or explore the little lagoons.

Cat Ba, Lan Ha, Ha Long Again from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

After getting back to Hanoi we immediately headed to the train station to catch the overnighter down to Hue, our next stop. This is where the next mishap occurred and it was entirely my fault.

Before leaving for Cat Ba it would've been smart to buy our train tickets but I figured that we'd have 4-5 hours to buy these before the train departed. But, 4-5 hours were not enough to get the soft sleeper cabins. These tickets were already sold out. We'd have to sit with everyone else in the coach lounge for.....10 hours. Now ten hours doesn't sound bad when you're flying half way around the world but 10 hours to just go 300 miles? I began to panic with the thought.

Luckily the others offered no criticism of me nor sympathy for me. They simply said, "if that is all they have left then we'll just go."

So we regrouped back at my house before returning to the train station later that night. Yet as we were walking out of the station I heard this loud and obnoxious local screaming into his mobile oblivious to others around him. I could tell he was drunk by the way he slouched in his seat and the way he was waving his hands wildly. And as we were waiting for a cab out in front of the station the lout came out front but this time not screaming as loudly. Maybe someone annoyed with him inside told him to go outside and talk? I don't know.

And when we got to our seats inside the train, minutes before it was to head south, who did I find across the aisle from me? From here on out I will refer to him as Native Son.

Son is a Hanoian. He was traveling south to look at some business prospects and see some old friends. And as we got to know him the misperceptions and the mild "coach" discomforts faded away and were replaced by the sense of adventure that all travelers get when they, as Joel and Jorge were fond of saying on this trip to Vietnam, "are deep!"

Here is Son making a newspaper cigarette.

Native Son from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Let me clarify this next one. Son was in the army and from what he told us knows many patriotic songs. When he saw the group of sailors at the front of our cabin he asked if they had a guitar, apparently like all army troupes here do. He said, "since you're all going to sea I'll serenade you with a few songs."

What followed wasn't noisy locals annoying us like many do because to Vietnamese and many Asian societies, being loud with friends means they're having a good time and a good time needs to be shared.

Vietnam Railways from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

This to me was a great big epiphany. Traveling mishaps will push one's conventional boundaries towards, get closer to, those of the people and places you are traveling in.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Food and Americans

Provocative, right? The title? Well, it's true in my world that Americans have made me a glutton.
I was looking forward to being back in Vietnam and eating healthy, fresh food. And, I was doing so well....until my American friends came over. Case in point. Have a look at these photos:

This is Elizabeth, former chef from San Francisco, at lunch-Com Binh Dan in Hanoi, which literally means "common people's food".

And here I am with Mike and Nancy at fancy Mango Rooms in Hoi An-excellent and original plates made from fresh local ingredients.

Here I am with Joel, Jorge, Ric and Deanne. The later two being newly adopted into the American eating family. This was lunch at the base of Hai Van pass. Another Com Binh Dan.

You see. All we do is eat. Sure there are the sights to see like Hue's ancient Citadel, Ha Long's amazing grottos and Hoi An's architecture, but each and every person has uttered the words, "what are we eating next?" And shortly thereafter complete carnage ensues.

This was lunch at Bale Well. A great local bbq place in Hoi An, where pork skewers, fried spring rolls and banh xeo-vietnamese crepes are served with a garden of fresh greens and rice paper to individually wrap and dip into a tangy, full-bodied fermented soybean sauce.

And this is what happens after the American invasion. Only if the American army had the ferocity of battle as the traveling Americans did with their devouring appetite of the vietnamese food.

Truth be told. Bale Well did serve all you can eat meals. Phuong sandwiches on the other hand, sells banh mi, vietnamese baguette sandwiches one at a time for 10,000 vnd each.

These are made with the most exquisite bread-crunchy on the outside and soft and airy on the inside. It's filled with pork of all varieties-sausage, boiled and stewed, mayonnaise, fresh pate, greens, hot sauce and the juice from the stewed pork. And at a bargain price we, the Americans, rarely ordered just one. In the picture above you can see seven-a normal amount for 4 people.

Often when we're ordering these at the stall, there would be the lot of us and a hungry throng of Vietnamese locals waiting their turn.

To our credit though, we were told that the more food we ate the better our hosts would feel.

In the Hoi An market we met Aunt Lan. She runs one of a handful of food stalls there. Mike A and I wanted to try the local favorite Cao Lau. We sat down at her stall. Ordered a couple bowls. Looked at what else she was serving and kept ordering-roasted chicken, fried and stewed shrimp in bacon and several kinds of fried greens. She loved us so much that she invited us over to her house for a family meal later that day.

Gluttony. And then some.

In Hue, Vietnam's ancient capital, I got hungry for dinner a little earlier than the others. So while I waited for their appetite to return I ventured out to withdraw some money. On the way back I spotted this Bun Bo Hue stall across the street from our hotel. I couldn't help it! I sat down and inhaled a bowl of this central region's version of pho. It's made of a beef base broth, spiked with lemongrass, tamarind and pineapple juices. The meat provided are pork slices, sausages and hocks. The noodles are big, round and ever so slightly al dente. It is my all time favorite vietnamese dish, one that my mom used to entice me home for dinners.

I liked it so much that later that evening, a mere 30 minutes after having my first bowl, I took Joel and Jorge back for my second bowl. The proprietor simply looked at me.... and smiled.

By now you're probably thinking that it's not just the American appetite but the great Vietnamese food. You're right! Sure the food is fresh and delicious, yet the amount I've consumed is over the top.

Vietnamese food and Americans-the two together will be the death of me...and you. All my American friends, You have been warned!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More Hoi An Abstracts

So before I give you all the lowdown on the second group of friends that just came over for a trip, I thought to continue with more images from Hoi An. This time they are stills. Or, are they?

On our way back down to Hoi An, we stopped off in Hue to visit the ancient mausoleums and citadel, to hangout with my friend Minh and to look at a motorbike. Minh is here studying photography and art at one of national universities. His father, who passed away last year, and I are old friends. If you remember Tu Duy had a gallery in Hoi An. Anyway, Minh is following in his father's footsteps.

He had just acquired an Iphone, courtesy of my US connections. So he proceeds to show me some images he had captured at sunset. One of them had this holga/swing and tilt quality. It was all I needed to get me going again.

Needless to say, I went crazy when I got down to Hoi An. I'm sure the photo count was close to 800 shots. Luckily this is digital. Anyway, here are a few for you to enjoy. For more go to this Picasa link:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hoi An-abstracts

Another reason for loving Hoi An has to do with it’s inspiring architecture.  The city was founded a long time ago in the 16th century as Vietnam’s first port town. As such, the first foreign visitors setting foot on its land left their individual cultural landmarks in the shape of its buildings. They are either old Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese or French, all mixed in with one another in a medley of randomness.

Over the years the paint as cracked and faded with some getting refurbished and others left to patina with time. The colors are vibrant as to inspire bright thoughts on a gray, cloudy day.

Walking the town’s narrow alleyways allows one to get up close and personal with these details. And this little film was made with this in mind.

Hoi An-Abstracts from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hoi An-Trip #2

As far as sites to see in Vietnam are concerned, Hoi An is right up there at the top of the list. For me it might even be number one.

The city has the old charm preserved in its architecture, its food and its people. I’ve been coming here at least once a year for the last 10 and if I’m lucky, I will have visited Hoi An three times this year alone.

I’m still traveling with Mike, Nancy and Megan. Joining us is another American friend Mike Ayon, also a climbing buddy. Like us, Mike A also loves to eat, making him the perfect companion on these trips.

Before coming here Mike A had expressed that, through his research, he wanted to be here for the Full Moon Festival, or what locals refer to as the Old Town Festival. It happens once a month but not on the actual full moon as we know it or as it’s often depicted on a Julian calendar. One needs to refer to the lunar calendar that Southeast Asian and Chinese Buddhists use. The operative word being “Buddhists”. This calendar has 28 days per month and Hoi An’s Old Town Festival falls on the 14th day.

It is a small but a very important detail. Mike A ended up missing the festival because of this, and I’ve made the same mistake in the past by asking my Catholic relatives which day the full moon falls on. Now I know better but this is what Mike A missed:

Full Moon Festival from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Fluorescent lights are turned off and only incandescent bulbs and candles illuminate the town this night. Motorized vehicles and bicycles are banned on the streets of the Old Town allowing for only walking traffic. And the music heard is that of the traditional Vietnamese countryside.

So on this evening the four of us, without Mike A, strolled the streets of the town, took a boat ride on the river and had desert in one of the colonial French houses. Oh yes, we also released candle lanterns into the river.

Some may think that this place is too touristy. There are only two real bars in the old town and they shut down about midnight or one AM at the latest. At any given time one could be inundated by schools of tourists crowding the narrow streets, clad in requisite matching hats or shirts and led by a native tour guide. Too many storefronts sell the same familiar collectable wares-Bia Saigon t-shirts, bamboo bowls and silk scarves.

But if you look past these inevitable signs of progress for a people needing to put more on their table than just food-like education for their children, you will see that as they require an increase in quality of life they too want to preserve the virtues that got them here.

For example, yesterday we had lunch at Ba Le Well, a place serving the local specialty of BBQ pork and shrimp, fried egg rolls and Vietnamese crepe all self wrapped in rice paper with fresh vegetables and dipped in an amazing savory soybean sauce. (Not to be mistaken with soy sauce.) The proprietor came over and showed us how she rolls them then proceeded to hand us roll after roll of perfectly proportioned wraps. But, as we ate and ate it never seemed like we were making a dent in the portions. Because in our frenzied chow session, like sharks feeding on their prey, our eyes too were rolled up in our brains blissfully unaware that the owner kept ordering more and more meat and wrappers.

“What makes me happy is that you are enjoying the food?” She said to me. “And however much you eat the price is always the same-60,000 VND.” For all that food, it only cost us $3 per person.

She is proud of her food just like the other locals here who are proud of their city. And pride is shown through a willingness to share. And sharing makes visitors feel welcome. This is why I keep coming back. This is one reason why I like this place so much.

Ninh Binh

A couple of weeks ago, my good friends Mike, Nancy and Megan Tsoi came over for a visit. Mike and I are old climbing buddies and at a time when I was homeless-being that I didn’t want to have my own apartment from too much work travel, he took me in. On his couch I was surfing for quite some time. Anyway, he met Nancy and decided to sell his condo to go traveling and out I went. Shortly thereafter they got married and soon bore this little angel name Megan.

This I believe is the Tsoi family’s first international, real traveling experience. Vietnam and I are very to lucky to have them. The goal was to see the sights and eat. The sights are first and the food segment will appear in a later post.

The first stop on the traveling itinerary were the sites around the city of Ninh Binh, less than 100k due south of Hanoi. The guidebooks describe this area as being very picturesque, the Guilin of Vietnam and Ha Long Bay on land.....They are so right!

Trang An-Ninh Binh from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

On day one we were encouraged by the hotel staff to visit Trang An, a labyrinth of caves and grottos connect by a crystal clear waterway. Our immediate impression was how spotlessly clean this park is. The boats are human powered so the water did not have that oil slick sheen. Our boat had a trash can and the local operator was adamant that waste be disposed there even though we had our own trash bag. When we set foot on land for a brief hike up to a viewing spot high on the mountain side, there were signs everywhere extolling the virtues of keeping the park clean of trash. I was astonished. Still am. Only if these standards are imposed throughout Vietnam this country would be even more beautiful!

Anyway, this trip through what Megan referred to as “time-tunnels” was fabulous, a must-not-miss when visiting the sites around Ninh Binh. 

Day two dawned foggy but by the time we drove over to the township of Tam Coc, the sun began to peek through the clouds. The boat landing was a bit more touristy than the boat launch at Trang An. This is a much older attraction and has had time to “develop” the tourist support system, i.e. open more gift shops and vendor stalls. But after about a dozen pulls of the oars we were in a dreamlike state floating amongst limestone towers that are thrusting up through the swampy landscape. This trip did not have as many caves. Three in all really. But between the caves are vast expanses of craggy hillsides and lakes. The left over scattered, thick clouds from the morning fog made for incredibly dramatic lighting.

Every once in a while mountain goats could be spotted prancing the hillsides. Gaggles of ducks were seen waddling on nearby shores then hopping into the glassy lake. Women were scouring the lake bottoms for snails while men were trolling for tiny shrimps, waist deep in the water. All around them danced rays of the sun, dabbled by the clouds. can see it all right here.

Tam Coc-Ninh Binh from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Towards the end of the boat ride we began to acquaint ourselves with the two local rowers, family members of Tam Coc village . They like many families in Tam Coc are registered with the local tourism board on a lottery system. Over 500 families have permits to take tourists out on their own boats, costing $300, for a measly $3 per head. The boat ride takes two hours and because there are 500 families they are lucky to receive three callings per month. I found this out when I asked if they ever get sick of this wonderful view. “Well we don’t see this all that often.” They replied. They normally farm rice and on the side they do embroidery work. And fine work they did two. We were more than happy to give them our money for all their hard work.

The price to pay for all this beauty is rather inexpensive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cuc Phuong National Park

Just south of Hanoi is Vietnam's very first National Park. Established in 1962 and christened by Ho Chi Minh himself, Cuc Phuong National park was mostly a tropical jungle teeming with wildlife once upon a time. Now it's filled with with the bloodsucking critters such as mosquitoes and leeches.

My fellow victims to these vampires this go around are Daria, Kim, Kristi and Vianney. With four motorbikes we braved the outskirts of Hanoi to find beautiful roads through a picturesque landscape of limestone hills and river ways,as you can see on the video.

The weather had just begun to cool in the north making for perfect motorbike touring temps. So, when it came time to rent out bikes there were none to be had. Kim and I searched for the entire week prior to leaving, and it wasn't until the night before that I was able to secure one.
Anyway, it was a great bike ride. We listened to the advice of Hanoian friends and took some detours around the larger cities. Most of the roads were smooth and comfortable but just before the park there were about 20 kilometers of rough riding. Then once inside the park we were rewarded with another 20k, but this time it was 20k of concrete perfection. It twisted, banked, climbed and descended through a paved path that cut through the thicket of jungle that at time encased the road in a canopy of green. I wished we had more video footage of this. Somehow most of filming was done with the camera off. Oh well. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
As you can see, we went on a little jungle trek with two Muong guides. Both were born within the park boundaries and naturally knew the terrain very well. All together we hiked for 8 kilometers, more or less. It was humid, a little buggy and full of leeches. The pictures of our pant legs tucked inside our socks was our protection from the blooksuckers, while the guides had their own special gaiters.
Up until we set camp, it never dawned on any of us that we might face inclement weather. Yet it began to rain. So, out of the two tents that the guides brought, they slept in one-the leaky one, and all five of us cramped into the other. What ensued was a night of tongue-twisting games to tease the lone Frenchman, Vianney and not too much rolling around in the small space.
For most of the night and into the next morning the rain came down in increasing intensity. The climax happened as we drove out the 20k to the park entrance. All of us agreed that it was the heaviest downpour that we had ever driven in. Good thing the park road was virtually empty.
For obvious reason, we don't have footage of the heavy rains. What you will see at the end of the movie though is the return of the good weather with the dramatic landscape.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Untitled from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

In Vietnam, when a loved one passes away a poster is hung upon the door of the household of the deceased. It serves as both funeral announcement and brief biography. And, I’m sad to write to you to tell you of the passing of my beloved mother.
Vo Thi Bong was born in the southern delta region of Vietnam just a short distance south of what is now Ho Chi Minh City, the same town I was born in-An Huu. Her birth date was June 15, 1945. 
She is survived by her husband and three sons, who were all by her side in her last hours. Also, by her side were her adopted son Marc, her daughter in-law Marcy and her nieces Diem and Phuong. She also leaves a wealth of friends and distant relatives. Her funeral will be at her Mission Viejo home on Saturday, the 14th of November.
She is best remembered for her warmth and kindness to everyone she came in contact with. It is not uncommon for me to meet someone for the first time to find out he or she is a close friend of my moms, even though they have only known each other for just a few weeks. At her side intermittently for the last two weeks were half a dozen of these good friends.
She is also remembered for her great cooking. She was a master of southern Vietnamese dishes and if there was something she had not made before, from that region, all that was necessary to reproduce the dish was to taste it. Her chicken curry was out of this world great. Fried rice, porridge, the multitude of stews and soups were also the very best. And, I’m not saying this because she was my Mom. Whenever she wanted me to come home she would simply call and say that she was making Bun Bo Hue-beef noodle soup from Hue. She knew that this was my favorite. Then again maybe this was how she kept all of us around-her fabulous cooking.
Over two years ago my Mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The prognosis initially was not too bad but upon further examination it was determined that the cancer was more advanced. She battled two rounds of chemotherapy and a myriad of complications associated with the disease. Her fight ended last night at 7:45pm.
I’m happy though that her struggle is over but I will be forever sad that she is no longer on this earth to warm our hearts with her cheerful smile and her great food. 
There is another Vietnamese term worth mentioning here-Chia Buon. It means to share sadness. The idea is that the more friends and family you have the more you can divide up your sorrow. So, please join our family in the mourning of my beloved Mother, Vo Thi Bong.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The One Minutes

As you can see by now from some of the previous postings, Hanoi is an urban city. As such it is filled with artists from the strictly traditional to the wildly experimental. The coffee shop/bar I've been frequenting is one of the city's epicenters for Hanoian artists nationals and expats alike.
Over a month ago, thru some thorough research, I'm told, the Dutch based group, The One Minutes, funded by the Dutch government and UNICEF came to Hanoi in search of artists to participate in their City One Minutes project and found itself at Tadioto, my local haunt. Here is info about the organization.  

Ever since forever, or should I say, ever since Eric was in film school at USC, I've wanted to do some film/video work. So, this was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Sander Lee from Holland, seen here with local artist Manh, directed this Hanoian filming project. He chose Hanoi along with Adis-Abba.  And like this north African city, we were to shoot 24 films depicting each hour of the day. The idea is to give a brief look at the city and all together there are 100 cities worldwide featured in this entire project, which is to debut in its entirety at next years World's Fair in Shanghai for the Holland exhibition. So for 60 seconds each, times 24, times 100 they've got quite a long film. Here is a look at most of them:

Somewhere in here are the Hanoi films but below is the one I shot.

13-14 Linh Nguyen - Lullaby from Sander Lee on Vimeo.

The music is by local avant garde singer Linh Dung. (More about here later. I promise!) For me this was a very special first go at filming. I had a great video tutor in Sander and a great vocal collaborationist in Linh Dung.

The hour I filmed is 13:00, 1 pm or what many here refer to as "rest hour". It is the most quiet time during daylight where driving around is unlikely civilized, for the crazy taxi drivers-moto and auto are deep in slumber.

I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to making more in the future.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ba Be National Park

Ba Be National Park is about 250 km from Hanoi and is maybe one of the most underrated places in all of Vietnam..….So, don’t tell anyone.

Motorbike touring is one of best things to do here in the North. The countryside is mountainous and full of great vistas. So famous are the roads and towns among Hanoian expats that full-blown bike clubs have been formed around this activity. Hanoi’s Minsk Club specializes in going on these tours with Belarussian bikes of its namesake. Another club, with a much longer name, says it all-Zoom Zoon, Let’s Go To The Countryside.

Our little clan for this trip is made up of two Asian/Americans and five Swiss ladies. We took between us five motorbikes with two teams riding tandem. We spent two days driving-one day up and one day back, and two days enjoying the sites of Ba Be.

Ba Be means three tanks, or three bodies of water, which I cannot really see that well by the map. But I’ll take their word for it. What I do know though is it’s beautiful!

It felt like being in Yosemite for the first time. There is a big valley with a big lake surrounded by tall walls.  And around dusk you can smell the scent of wood burning, not from campfires but from kitchen fires.

The local indigenous folks are White Tay, a gentle and likeable folk. Our guesthouse keeper is Tay and made us feel welcomed and comfortable. His place was the first guesthouse in the valley and it commands the best view, being on stilts and higher on the hillside.

For the rest of the photos click the above links.

I wont bore you with too many of the details because the scenery will speak for itself. But I will enlighten you on a little bit of the logistics.

Firstly, it is unlawful for anyone to drive a motorbike in Vietnam without a license. But, I was told, when getting pulled over by the police in the North, just speak English. They will get frustrated after a little while and let you go. Not too many of the older folks in the North, especially the countryside, speak English. We never got asked to pull over.

Secondly, the roads are very dangerous outside of Hanoi before you’re out in the countryside. As a motorbike driver you’re competing with semi-trucks, kids on bicycles, farmers driving horse or cattle drawn buggies and bus drivers, the worse of the lot. Luckily I think other motorbike drivers know this too because they are also careful out here. God knows what would happen if motorbike drivers in Hanoi came out here and drive the same chaotic way they do in the city. Actually I do know. I think they’ve been scared straight with stories of death on the asphalt.  We survived almost unscathed. Sonja got cut off within Hanoi city limits and hit the pavement. She escaped with minor scratches and bruising.

Lastly, leave early. On our way out we left Hanoi late and ended up getting to Ba Be shortly after dark, which was little scary as a storm was brewing. On the way back however we left early enough to make several stops to enjoy the countryside. We had sticky rice prepared several ways at a few roadside stands. One version was cooked in bamboo and a couple of the others were wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with meat. We even bought local bananas.  And because we were early we could afford to be lost, driving thru a local Tay market and being the town spectacle for a brief moment. (You can see this on the video.)

Remember. Don’t tell anyone about Ba Be.

Lan Ha Bay/Cat Ba National Park

This area, a few hours East of Hanoi, is gorgeous!

It would not be totally fair for me to say it's Ha Long Bay, but Ha Long Bay is right next door. The two areas are separated by an invisible line through the limestone islets. On our first trip, we even went into Ha Long Bay proper to climb and kayak for a morning.

Anyway Lan Ha is just as beautiful and from what they say it actually has many sandy beaches while Ha Long has a few. I've posted a some pictures here and to get more go to my Picasa link.

My friends here in Hanoi have jobs during thee week so these trips were done over the weekend. We'd wake up super early on Saturday morning, at 4:30 am, to catch a bus to port city Hai Phong. From there we transfer to a smaller bus to the hydrofoil terminal to catch said hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island, where we once again get on a small bus and drive to the town of Cat Ba. The trip takes about 6 hours. By 11 am we're on the rooftop of the boat floating amongst the islands, trying to get our heads to stop spinning.

We rent an entire boat for ourselves. They cook for us and take us to wherever we'd like. At night we anchor in a small bay amongst local fishermen and their floating houses. There might be one or two other tour boats nearby, unlike Ha Long where one would find a fleet of tour boats in a small bay singing Karaoke all night.

The first trip was mostly deep water soloing and the second was spent climbing on the nice beaches. It is very relaxing out here and no one wanted a mention of chaotic Hanoi. It is nice to know that we have a such a great escape.

Untitled from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Here is a little video I made. There is no sound because the music is copyrighted. (Other videos from here out will have sound.)

For the next two months or so the Bays will still be nice-the air cooling off and the water warm. Come December and January, the air temps and water temps cool off enough that swimming can be uncomfortable for all except the hardy Northern Europeans. Feb, March and April will fill the bays with midst and fog. So, we're enjoying it now...while we can.

*Photos courtesy of Kim Sanders
Hoi An again. Yes!

I love this place. It’s historic. It’s near the ocean. It’s got great food. And, I have many friends here. In past trips, I’d stay for at least a few days but on this particular one I could only afford two. I have to rush back to a good internet connection in Hanoi for the beginning of my online English teaching course.
Still getting out of the bustling city for a couple days was a great welcome. The weather is cool and there is an ocean breeze.
I’m here with Daria, Cecilia and Julie. All are Swiss friends. Cecilia and Julie are on vacation from Europe while Daria, living in Hanoi, works for the UN. Daria loves it here too. This is her fourth or fifth trip since being “in country” as of February.
Anyway, here are some older shots of Hoi An.

These though are of a peninsula in Da Nang that was a former army base now opened to the public. Julie had read somewhere that there was big Buddha statue near here. I knew nothing of the sort until we, my friend Minh and I, drove around the corner of the peninsula. (Some of you may remember Minh from last year’s trip. His father, my good friend, Duy past away last year.)
This is Quan Am, Mother Goddess of Mercy-one of Buddha’s many forms.

If God, Buddha, Allah or whomever or whatever it is that you worship is willing, you too can one day enjoy this beautiful view in person.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hanoi-Street Food

If you were here with me, we'd be eating out almost every meal because it's way cheaper than cooking. Breakfast, lunch and dinner cost about 75 cents each. Here are some samples:

Bun Cha is a Hanoian staple-BBQ pork,a la bacon, and beef patties with rice vermicelli noodles, a garden medley dipped in a sauce made of lemon juice, fish sauce, sugar, lime and vinegar. This last bit, the sauce, makes one Bun Cha dish better than the next. Luckily for me, this shop is within short walking distance from my house and is better than the famous Bun Cha shop found in the Old Quarter. This was lunch with Sam, english teacher and one of my roommates.

This is Bun Rieu-a crab/shrimp soup base noodle with vermicelli rice noodles. The protein ingredients are pork sausage, pork blood cake, a la cubes, snails and fried tofu. The condiment that sends this dish over the top, depending on how you look at it, is fermented shrimp paste. So you can imagine by the name that it's an acquired taste.

Pho is of course ubiquitous here in Hanoi. And since this is where the dish originated, you'd think that it'd be hard to find a bad pho house. You see, I've been compiling a list of street stalls and restaurants on a google map that I will attach later. But when I asked for the best pho houses in the city I discovered that there are too many to list and it would be better to warn of the bad ones instead. Above is chain store that recently arrived here from the South. Now, usually anything food related from the South would be tastier than here in the North, Pho 24 however is not. It's watered down and tasteless. And as you can see, it's not really street food but a restaurant, completely sheltered from street life.

Another breakfast favorite of mine is this Vietnamese version of steak and eggs, cooked in a iron skillet and served with a demi-baguette. The version in the central part of Vietnam is better mostly because the bread is better down there and they pour on top of everything some kind of stock, giving the dish a moister flavor. Still, it's great to have this dish nearby. I'm enjoying this with world traveller and buddy Devin, from the states. (More with him later.)

All of these dishes above and a few more that I will share with you later are individual servings, a bowl or plate for each person. As it is you can enjoy these by yourself, so it is more common among Vietnamese that these are eaten in the morning, because lunch and dinner are dedicated to eating with your family, where you all sit around a table each with a small bowl of rice, dipping your chopsticks into plates or vegetables and meats in a communal manner.
More food later....of course!

Monday, August 10, 2009


Here are few videos of Hanoi's streets. Now don't get me wrong. This looks rather tamed, when in reality it's total chaos! More on that later when I get actual footage.
At the time of these films I had not yet gotten out into the streets on a motorbike myself. But now I"m a seasoned veteran. Mixing it up with the best of them. So, enjoy these for now because later it will not be so nice.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Hi Everyone,

Sorry to have taken so long to get back to you all via email. I wanted some time to live here, experience the place to be able to report properly.

It's been a little over a month now, the longest time span I've had in Vietnam and the longest I've stayed in one place outside of Long Beach. (Not counting the 3+ weeks I had in Salt Lake that year when I was stuck waiting for my van to get fixed from hitting a deer.)

My first impressions have remained. It's crazy busy here! I would dare say that it's Saigon busy, too. There are way more motorbikes and cars now than last year it seems. To top it all off, it's the height of the tourist season.

The Old Quarter is packed with tourists and locals. On weekend nights, two of the streets are closed off to motorized traffic and are opened with stalls for what is a "Night Market". (If you've ever been to Bangkok, it's like Khao San road.) No pictures here, sorry. But when I was down there one night I was overwhelmed-the mass of humanity and the heat!

Needless to say, I did not decide to live in the Old Quarter. Instead, I took a room in a shared house just 15 minutes south of the Old Quarter.

It's got a balcony looking down onto the alley way and new construction of a neighboring lot. The noise is manageable at this point. Otherwise the noise level in this neighborhood is really quiet. More about the neighborhood later.

The weather is hot! When it got hot in the states, sticky and steamy, I used to refer to it as "Saigon Hot". I'd now use the term "Hanoi Hot!" Luckily there is rain. The kind so torrential that the city's drainage system gets clogged. Leading to this:

I look forward everyday to the rain, for while it rains the temps are cool. And after it rains, even if the sun is out, the temps are cool. How cool, you might ask? Only "Saigon Hot."