Tuesday, July 31, 2007

July 28-31th: Constant movement

So we’re a bit behind on our blog posting and we promise to catch up—it has just been a bit difficult as we have spent the last several days in a state of continual movement – some relaxing, some not so much. First, we took a scenic and mostly tranquil overnight cruise in Halong Bay, a tidy three hour bus ride from Hanoi. And yesterday/today, we spent roughly 30 hours en route from Hanoi to Bejing, confirming by bitter experience that the pleasures and vagaries of air travel are universal.

Day 1: To

Not to be denied a breakfast in the capital, we got up early to grab a couple pastries and Pho Bo (beef soup) before hopping in the minibus to Halong. The trip was a trip. It’s not easy making your way through Hanoi’s clogged streets in a bus nor navigating among the trucks and mopeds that crawl along the highway, and our driver’s primary weapon in the battle was his horn, which he used somewhere between frequently and always. Wayward pedestrian? Honk. Passing a moped on the right? Honk repeatedly. Slow truck blocking the way? Sustained honk. Empty intersection ahead that might just possibly provide an opportunity for someone to cut in? Honk. Cow in the road? Slam on the brakes and honk. And so it went. Our group was a mixed bag of Euros and two Thai women with a German man in tow (we liked this crew – the Thai ladies had orange Lance Armstrong bracelets that said “Long Live the King” and could/did play most of the US Top 40 on their cell phones). As various sources had promised, we stopped halfway to Halong at a “Workshop for Handicapped Children,” where we – along with maybe 50 other minibuses full of trekking Euro and Asian tourists – could buy all the latest Vietnamese souvenirs for a mere 500% markup. No handicapped children in sight.

We arrived in Halong, along with several hundred other minibuses, and got marched like tourist cattle onto one of several hundred wooden junks, jumping and weaving from ship to ship to get to ours at the far end of the pack. We noted the designation by the local tourist authority (see picture) – had that third star fallen off, or been forcibly removed? Ultimately a good symbol of our journey – a sneaky two-star downgrade of a three-star experience. But quite a lot of fun nonetheless!

After sitting around at the dock for an hour and a half for no apparent reason, the boat took off for Halong Bay. The bay itself was, as promised, gorgeous with Dr. Seuss-like cliffs rising straight out of the water. The sun was shining and we sailed along, making a couple stops for a visit to the amazing/surprising cave (these are actually 2 different caves but our medium knowledgeable tour guide called the one we visited both) and for some kayaking. Finally docking for the evening mid-bay, we jumped off the roof of our junk (we’ve all got our junk, and our junk was not that nice but good enough for 2 days in the sun) and swam in the extremely warm bay waters. The water temperature was perfect by Babi’s standards.

We finished the day off after a beautiful sunset and a mediocre dinner by falling asleep on the roof of the junk, amid the stars and the still water (and ignoring the errant cockroach). Quite lovely.

Day 2: From

The morning got off to a tense start. After a meager breakfast of untoasted bread and a little egg (again, cooking was not our boat’s strength), our guide announced that we would be cruising to a beach for a different swim – only to aim the boat a mere 500 yards away from where we’d spent the night. We rose up in tourist rebellion and got ourselves instead a morning-long cruise around the wider bay – which is huge – taking in some of the thousands of islands and observing the local floating fishing villages/villagers at work. Along the way, we picked up a few folks who’d spent the previous night on Cat Ba Island (one of whom, it turned out, had just finished at Oxford, where he had an acquaintance of EB’s for a prof, and was about to start work at Bain), got checked out by the local police, saw a boat full of extremely drunk Chinese tourists (at 11:30 am, mind you), and then cruised back to the dock to meet our return bus toward Hanoi. No major incidents on the return, other than a fuller bus and a second stop at a second workshop for handicapped children.

Back in Hanoi mid-afternoon, we raced to squeeze in a reprise of all our favorite Vietnamese foodstuffs – the bun ca, the pho, the cha ca, some jackfruit and custard apple, the thick-as-molasses (and tasty) Vietnamese coffee, some fried duck spring rolls, did some shopping and wandering, and collapsed, full and happy, at the hotel.

Day 3+: In Between

It all started on such a good note: we got up good and early (we had to leave for the airport at 6:45), saw a wide range of Vietnamese morning exercise rituals by the lake (from badminton and group tai chi to an impromptu lakeside freeweights session and miscellaneous nonsensical repeated gestures – anyone know the health benefits of whacking your arm against a tree or vigorously rubbing the underside of your throat?), and even squeezed in a last pho run before getting in our cab. The cab ride itself was a caricature of third-world driving – constant beeping, wildly creative maneuvers, blatant disregard for traffic signals and common courtesy, all choreographed by a driver no more than 19, singing along all the while to Vietnamese and then American top 40. At the airport, we got right through the line, more or less right on the plane, and right off the ground on time. And that was about the extent of the things that went right.

Turned out our flight had a stopover in Guangzhou – no problem there, just get off the plane, go through customs, get back on and off to Beijing. Only once we were back on, we sat on the runway for 3 hours (then and throughout the subsequent adventure, we had to press hard for any information). We then flew to Beijing, only to circle above the city for an hour after they announced we would be “landing shortly,” and then found ourselves diverted to…well, somewhere else…to land. An hour of sitting on the ground followed before they let us into the terminal to wait (turned out to be Shijaizhuang, a small town of 3 million about 300 km from Beijing). There, we spent the next six hours in a constant state of anticipation while our Chinese co-travelers got increasingly aggressive and nasty with our airline stewardesses-cum-captors. And of course the bilingual announcements had stopped when we got off the plane, so we got our limited information through my (Josh’s) very limited Chinese and second-hand information from a few kind travelers – a bonding experience between us and the one other English-speaker, a woman who headed UNESCO’s efforts in Vietnam and a bright spot in a dark trip. Finally, around 1 am, they told us we could either terminate our flight and find our own way to Beijing or take a hotel for the night. We opted for the latter, took an hour-long bus ride into the city, shoved our way to the front of the mob to get a key to what turned out to be a truly nasty hotel room, and spent an unpleasant 3 hours (~2:30-5:30) “sleeping” before heading back to the airport for our delayed flight. Just to add insult to injury, that flight was 30 min late off the ground – and when we finally landed, it took them another 30 min to get us a set of stairs and a passenger bus to head to the terminal. But in the end, we succeeded in getting to Beijing, and we couldn’t have been happier as we haggled for our long taxi ride to our hotel.

More on life in Beijing to come in the next installment…

Monday, July 30, 2007

Waylaid in Podunk

On Saturday and Sunday, we had a lovely outing to the extremely scenic Halong Bay. We have a similarly lovely full blog entry along with photos that we will publish for that.

But in advance, we had to report some late breaking news from Josh's blackberry. Today (July 30) was travel day, as we flew from Hanoi to Beijing to meet up with Jon and Amy. Now, five hours after our arrival time in Beijing, we are instead marooned (temporarily, we hope) somewhere a few hundred kms to the South.

We thought we were on a direct flight, but it turns out we had a brief stop in Guangzhou where we went through customs and got right back on the same plane. After waiting on the plane for an hour, the flight attendants (reporting in both english and chinese) told us that bad weather was delaying our departure for 2 hours and we could not get off the plane. We finally got off the ground, but three hours later, we found ourselves circling...and circling...and circling...and now here we are, along with two hundred of our new non-english-speaking friends, in an airport terminal in...somewhere.

Updates to follow. In the meantime, at least we know that interminable flight delays are a universal form of suffering!

(Note: for any of you worried that we would go hungry, never fear - the airline has provided a fresher version of plane food to keep us at bay)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Days 4-5: Small seats, big appetities

Two straight days of pacing around the city, and man are our dogs tired. Here's one simple view of the last two days - a list of each of our meals:

  • Coffee and a sweet & sour apricot juice
  • Homemade munchkins (doughnut-like things from a street vendor)
  • Fried tofu and rice noodles (served 6" off the floor of a market butchery)
  • Dragon fruit
  • Pho ga (chicken)- one local's pick for the best in the city
  • Bia hoi (Vietnamese beer) and boiled peanuts (As an aside, almost everything we have eaten here has been great. The boiled peanuts are not great. They are mushy and tasteless. It was a bad idea to boil them. FYI Vietnam--let's get the folks from Yankee Stadium to come in here to give some tips.)
  • Fancy dinner - fresh springrolls with fish, beef salad, chicken and stickyrice cakes, eggplant in fish sauce, whole steamed fish
  • Buon cun - soft rice crepes with mushrooms
  • Pho with a bit of everything including fried tofu sticks that you dip in the soup
  • Peanut-covered noodles (served in a banana leaf package)
  • Fried spring roll
  • Bun cha (grilled pork with veggies and vermicelli)
  • Creme caramel
  • Bia hoi, peanuts, rice cracker, grapefruit
  • Bizarre custard apple fruit
  • Tofu with green onions, chicken with lemon leaf and pork ribs at a restaurant popular with the friday night crowd
  • Fried pork stick
Though it does often seem that all we do is eat, we have seen the sights as well. Yesterday (Thursday) we had a quintessentially communist experience, waiting on line for an hour to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. It was a big hit with the many Vietnamese people on line with us, though we found the disorganized standing in line and enormous building devoted exclusively to the glass-enclosed body of the former leader to be a little weird. After Ho we wandered through a couple new neighborhoods and saw the tiny narrow streets where people live (or sleep if it is mid-day--we seem to be the only people crazy enough to walk around in the noon-time sun).

A welcome reprieve from the bustling and horn-filled streets around it, we spent some time in the afternoon in the Temple of Literature, a series of buildings and gardens devoted to recognizing famous scholars in Vietnam's past. We wandered around from the Temple and through some more Hanoi streets just slightly further afield, ending up in the eyeglasses section of town. After excruciating cost comparisons and frame evaluations, we settled on a pair that were prepared for me (EB) and finished today. Another Hanoi shopping perk--cheap prescription eyeglasses.

Today we woke up with great expectations of a communist party celebration, as there have been banners up all over the City proclaiming 60 years of communism and July 27 as a special day. So far as we can tell, none of the 2 million Vietnamese communists (out of a total population of 80 something million) showed up for any celebration, and we are still holding our breath.

Not letting the communists keep us from having fun, we spent today on a major walking excursion, first heading to the middle of the main lake to see the temple (probably the most famous in Hanoi), then going north (or at least up on the map) to a market area and the giant west lake. The market was a wholesale produce market for the most part and though the stuff looked great, it was easily the worst smelling place either of us had ever been too. Once we'd left the market though and were walking by the lake, i was very relaxing and a nice break from the craziness of the old city.

After the lake and its temple, we hopped in a cab and headed south first to another market--this one overflowing with screws and bolts and springs, as well as everything else imaginable and then to a market where Josh bought some fabric for shirtmaking. New materials in hand, we went back to the tailor to get fitted into some of our things such that they can be done before we leave here very first thing Monday am.

Then off to dinner and a street food snack before bed. As Josh has suggested in the title of today, I must make a comment about the seats everyone sits in for eating street food. Carts and vendors set up literally everywhere on the sidewalk and block all traffic with their food prep and seating. The seating usually consists of tiny TINY stools that are roughly 8x8 inches and 6 inches off the ground. And though it appears to work for the Vietnamese, I'm sure the site of the two of us giant whiteys sitting on the stools much be hilarious for anyone who walks by.

Tomorrow morning bright and early we are off for a couple days to Halong Bay, so we may have to take a temporary breather from blogging. We'll be back afterwards, of course, so please stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Crossing the street in Hanoi--it's like Frogger, but with Pho

Today kicked off our first no-travel day of the trip and we hit the ground running. We woke up and watched the bustle of Hanoi's morning traffic from our balcony (credit to the Golden Lotus hotel) before we had a quick breakfast provided by the hotel.

Because on this trip the only thing to do when not eating is to spend money in other ways, our first stop was Co, a tailor who had been recommended to us on Nha Tho street near the cathedral. Though likely a little pricier than some of the other tailors in the area, we believe (or at least have convinced ourselves sufficiently) that Co does a better job with nicer fabric and so is worth spending a bit more money. We'll see. On Sunday they should be delivering two dresses for me (EB) and three shirts and pants for Josh.

Our first major spending of the day under our belt, we set off for an exhaustive tour of Hanoi's Old City (with just a brief visit to a French pastry shop to get us started). We began at St. Joseph's cathedral and walked roughly the lonely planet suggested walking tour in reverse, though with lots of diversions to interesting side streets and markets. The Old City in Hanoi is fascinating. It feels like one enormous outdoor market where each street is a different department specializing in one incredibly specific thing. There were individual streets for towels, tape, shoes, kitchen products, herbs, tin boxes and other metal stuff--basically you name it and there's a street in Old City for it. The streets are very narrow and you have to walk in the road because the sidewalks are filled with some combination of wares for sale, people cleaning and cutting meats and veggies (think chickens losing their heads and crabs losing their legs everywhere) or parked motorbikes.

Early into our walk, we were drawn into a little street food-y restaurant that made soup with noodles, meat of some kind and greens. It was yummy, though we required much help from our Vietnamese neighbors in ordering and figuring out that the little lime-like things you squeeze in the soup are actually oranges. Who knew?

Continuing along our walk we found several multi-story enclosed markets selling clothes, fabric, veggies, meat, china, shoes, electronics--sort of like a vertical version of the Old City around it. Also, much like the rest of Hanoi, it was sweltering hot inside the markets, so it wasn't hard to understand why the vendors were sleeping in every possible configuration (on the wares, under them, leaning up against the wall, prostrate on the meat counter) whenever they could. It certainly gave the shopping experience a more relaxed feel, with no one awake at the helm.

For lunch, we wandered over to the famous Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that serves only one dish--a fish fried with turmeric and greens (scallions, dill, etc.) in oil that you eat over noodles and peanuts. It was absolutely delicious. It was served to us at our table over the flame so the oil occasionally spattered out and blinded Josh, but I think he'd agreed it was worth it for the yummy meal.

Back out on the street, I must make an aside about walking around in Hanoi as it is clearly bringing out the New Yorker in both of us. On any given street, red light or not, motorbikes will be whizzing by with minimum 1 maximum 4 people on each going in all directions at top speed. They are mixed with cars, taxis, bicycles and the ubiquitous cyclo, the 3-wheel bike seemed designed exclusively for transporting touristas like us around. Every so often a bus enters the fray, and all in all it does give one an on-the-ground sense of what frogger feels like. Brave little road crosser guy.

After a stroll through a great food market, and a taste of some sort of duck spring roll thing and some jack fruit, we headed over to the lake and to the water puppet theatre for an early evening show. Water puppet theatre, invented in Vietnam 1000 years ago, consists of telling puppet stories in the water with the puppeteers hiding behind a screen. Though clearly a tourist magnet, the show was great fun and we are now huge fans. We're bringing water puppetry to Boston this fall. Plus how could you not love something that is described as follows in the guide book: "[The puppeteers] stand in the water behind a bamboo screen and have traditionally suffered from a host of water-borne diseases -- these days they wear waders to avoid this nasty occupational hazard." The use of waders--genius.

For dinner, we left the Old City and wandered just slightly further afield to Cam Chi, a street with lots of outdoor restaurants, most of which specialized in lau, or Vietnamese hot pot. We ordered one and as became painfully apparent to our teenage waitress, unlike the restaurant Josh and I do not specialize in hot pot and so she quickly took the reins and cooked, prepared and served the food. We did a fab job of feeding ourselves though--that we didn't need any help with. Dinner was yummy and included our first Vietnamese beer (though tomorrow we will go in search of bia hoi--local draft beer).

After a walk back through Old City and to our hotel, our first full day of turbo tourism was complete.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Day 2 - In Which We Once Again Travel Great Distances

So after what we judged too much relaxation on Day 1 - come on, a whole afternoon and evening in one city? - we end our day twelve hundred miles away in Hanoi, after two subway rides, two cab rides, and two flights. A good day's work.

We started the day off with a visit to the Radisson's swanky pool - isn't it fun when middling American brands go chichi overseas? - before a trip around the block that yielded a delicious streetside Bing (a sort of egg crepe with scallions) and two rounds of pork dumplings.

Porked out, we shadow-hopped our way through the heat and landed at the Urban Planning museum in People's Sqaure. It's a very cool museum - especially if you're willing to suspend all skepticism about Shanghai's rush to progress. Amazing optimism on all exhibit labels - e.g., suggesting that through the new suburbs they are building around Shanghai, "Man reaches unprecedented harmony with society and nature." 5-year plans abounded, with "gigantic steps forward" toward the inevitable end of establishing the city as THE dominant megalopolis for the 21st century. Skepticism aside, they're doing some pretty cool stuff - making changes in the greening of the city in the course of 2-3 years that New York is hoping for in 25, and building miles of new subways and countless residential buildings at the same speed. I guess it's roughly what would happen if the US directed all its energy at "modernizing" New York and LA (my Beijing and Shanghai, for a minute)...and also got rid of all the pesky neighborhood groups and political opposition. Highlight for me was a 360 degree virtual tour through Shanghai 2010, showcasing the bazillions of new developments and whole new cities-within-cities that will make up Shanghai in a couple years - guided by a gleeful fairy thing in 8-yr-old Chinese. Fun.

With our remaining time, we hopped a subway over towards the Old City to a street famous for streetfood and ended up with...more pork dumplings. These were the biggest so far, and pretty good, though we think we've reached our pork limit for the moment.

After a stop back at the hotel, we were off to the airport for our 2-flight trip to Hanoi. Felt quite familiar, really - both flights were delayed and there was lots of moving around. We did get there, however, and in the meantime befriended a Shanghai guy (call me "Harry") who we might meet for dinner when we're back - he helped us hitch a ride between terminals when we thought we were in a rush, and we paid a whopping $2US to give him a ride to his hotel on the way to Hanoi, so I think we're fast friends.

We're now holed up in our hotel (the Golden Lotus) in Hanoi, in the Old City. Quite cute - hotel and 'hood. Though it was 11:30 when we arrived, I (Josh) couldn't let a mealtime go by and so went wandering the streets, where I managed to land a delicious snail soup and a chicken porridge, and where I realized that - lo and behold - I speak no Vietnamese. Should be a fun few days!

[As an aside, we are having a bit of trouble uploading photos but we'll have our on-the-go IT department take a look at it and see what we can do. Apologies.]

we could not possibly be more connected

Just a brief note to say - maybe to prove? - that we are so totes futuristic that we are posting this very entry from my blackberry while sitting on a plane in guangzhou, about to take off to hanoi. Yay, technology!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Day 1 - Arrival in Shanghai

After traveling for roughly 22 hours door to door, we arrived this afternoon in Shanghai. The flight was mostly uneventful, save for the two kicking and coughing children sitting immediately behind us for the Chicago-Shanghai leg. But the highlight of our travels definitely had to be the maglev train from the Shanghai airport to the City. The train made almost no noise and sped along incredibly quickly, topping out at 430 km/hour (or roughly 269 miles/hour). It made the JFK air train seem a little sad.

Once settled at our spaceship-looking hotel in the People's Square right in the middle of downtown Shanghai, we quickly headed out for our first culinary treat. A couple blocks away from the hotel we headed for Jia Jian Tang Bao (90 Huanghe Lu), famous for its soup dumplings or xiaolongbao. 15 delicious pork dumplings later, we were off strolling some of the main streets of Shanghai, including Nanjing Lu, also known as the Times Square of Shanghai with many giant shops and restaurants. We also enjoyed some lovely grilled veggies from a street vendor on the way.

Our walk ended up on the Bund, where we got to see the futuristic architecture of Pudong on one side of the river and the historical grandeur (rapidly being turned into georgio armanis and pradas) of the Bund. We snooped around some of the fancier Bund buildings and then stopped off for a quick drink at New Heights, a bar at the top of 3 on the Bund, to watch the lights come on all over the city. It was an amazing show. As if flashing lights aren't enough, the buildings project text, ads and are almost like giant TV screens. That said, the oriental pearl tower building really takes the cake for space-age. It is totally bonkers-looking and apparently serves no real function other than to give tourists like us something to photograph.

After our drink, we hopped in a cab to the French Concession for dinner at Jishi (41Tianping Lu) a delicious Shanghainese restaurant. Based on recommendations we had read and those of the friendly older Chinese gentlemen at the table next to us, we had a wonderful meal of wild herbs with dried bean curd, eggplant, bean curd with mushroom (Josh loved the bean curd--I actually thought it was weird and a little like rubber) and then this amazing pork in a brown sauce that required peeling off about half an inch of fat before you got to the meat.

On our way heading back to the hotel, Josh decided to get that overdue haircut that he didn't have time for in New York. Josh's Chinese served him very well and, after clarifying that we are dating and not in fact brother and sister, he had a lovely chat with the people at the hair salon.
Cut complete, we hopped back on the Shanghai metro--very nice, even by the New York standards of the 4/5/6 train--and came back to our hotel.

All in all, not bad for a day that began by landing at 2:30 Shanghai time.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

T-minus 10 hours

T-minus 10 hours until we (Josh and EB) take off for the first part of our journey. Our first stop is Shanghai, where we will stay for just under a day and then off to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam for about a week. After that, we'll head back to China and meet up with Jon and Amy (fresh off of her domination of the California bar) for several weeks of fun and food in Beijing, western China and Shanghai. Next Josh and I hop to Tokyo for a couple of days of sushi and then back home to New York. And then finally off to Cambridge, our real new home, at least for the next three years or so.

To lay a few ground rules about our blog:

1. This is a group blog. So the "I" will be some combination of me (EB), Josh, Amy and/or Jon. That may be very confusing. Like when the blog says "I had a great time making everyone walk 12 miles through every interesting neighborhood in Beijing today. It was thrilling and everyone loved it." (Josh) is followed by "Today we went on a forced march through the hutongs of Beijing forever and I never got the foot massage I was promised and I am exhausted and hate this trip." (Jon) Just think of it as the real world, only the confessions are published on the Internet instead of shared on video in the closet.

2. This is a blog that will talk about food because eating is ALL that we do when we travel. So if you are looking for an interesting tour of historical China, I might suggest you pick up Jonathan Spence's "The Search for Modern China."

3. Please comment. We would love to hear how life is going back home in the States and what you think of our adventures.

4. Do not feel you have to read this blog. We are writing this so that I (EB) can add "international blogger" to my resume and have something interesting to tell my Harvard Law School classmates in a month and because we know people hate those oppressive giant e-mails about foreign travel. So please read or don't read as you'd like.

I'm off to finish my final bit of last minute clothing weeding out (perhaps 2 t-shirts per day for a month is excessive) and packing, but before I do I want to shamelessly announce the most exciting event kicking off our trip--the arrival of Josh's nephew Sam Olken, born today at 3:09 PM. Ni Hao Sam!! We promise to bring you back a baby panda as a playmate.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

oh look it does work.

I couldn't possibly study for the bar exam that takes place 5 days from now without knowing for sure.

Things I would like to do while in Asia:
1. Hug pandas.
2. Replace all knowledge acquired in anticipation of bar exam with useful phrases (e.g., "please may I have that dumpling thank you") in chinese, vietnamese, thai, and/or whatever language is spoken in cambodia. um, cambodian? anyone?
3. Take at least one group photo involving the great wall and/or forbidden city and some sort of "AOK" or thumbs up gesture. These gestures are universal and will certainly transcend any cultural and linguistic barriers such that we will fit in with the locals. provided there are locals. but really who lives at the wall, or for that matter, in a forbidden city.

Don't worry team I'm totally going to read my guide book on the plane.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Does this thing really work?

OK, I have created a blog for our great Asian adventure, which kicks off next Sunday. Since we'll be gone for a month and would rather not oppress people with constant massive e-mails about the ancient sites we've seen or bizarre food we've eaten, we have decided to keep a blog. Assuming we can actually figure out how to use it. Well, let's give it a try.