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Ninh Binh

After another night in Hanoi, we hired a car to take us to Ninh Binh, roughly three hours away. We wanted to spend more time with Huyen, and to thank her for all she had done for us. She met us in the morning, along with her cousin Huang, as well as three other university friends who we were not expecting. No matter, we all managed to squeeze in. They are such a great group of kids, seemingly much more mature than college students in the US. They all seemed excited to spend time with us, despite the age difference, and generally their English is quite good. Huang, the oldest at age 29, took charge of the whole day, and made all of the arrangements.

The small town of Tam Coc is famous for its goat restaurants, and we had an enormous lunch with all the local specialities. I won't attempt to describe them in detail, but suffice it to say we had goat and veggie spring rolls, goat with peanuts, goat with green onions and potatoes, etc. You get the idea. All washed down with the local brew. It was not for the vegetarian faint of heart, but it was delicious. Huyen and her friends insisted on paying. We somewhat guiltily noticed all the goats roaming around after the meal, minus one that is.


The primary reason we were here, however, was not to stuff ourselves full of goat meat. It was for a two hour boat ride through a series of limestone caves and karst mountains on the Ngo Dong River.




On our sampan, were gently rowed by a middle aged woman, who alternated between rowing with her feet and hands.


We needed two boats because there were so many of us.


As is obvious from the pictures, the scenery was outstanding, the ride, relaxing.


At one point Huyen, who came with us, tried her hand at rowing. It seems she could use a little more practice.


Nanette bought a few embroidered pictures made by our rower, who then brought us to her house to meet her 92 year old mother, who had also made one or two of the pictures. After the boat trip we drove over to Bich Dong, an old 15th century pagoda.


It is located in a beautiful setting, white storks flying in a nearby field.




Huang asked if we wanted to go to see more of the storks and of course we said yes. She hired a local man to accompany us in our jeep. The ride was on a narrow road that was still in the process of being built. We soon found out why. After 20 minutes or so, we came to a road block. Huang got out to negotiate. As it turns out, not far up the dirt track was a large resort, smack in the middle of the jungle. Although not yet open, they demanded the equivalent of about $8 for each of us, just to drive further up on the property to view the storks. Huang was furious. Something that had just been a natural event, was being turned into a tourist rip-off, open only to the rich. So typical, she said, about what is happening all over her country. We decided that it wasn't worth it and turned around. On the way back, she argued with the local guide, who must have known that this was going to happen and didn't say anything.


On arriving in Hanoi, we made a stop for Pho Bo, (beef and noodle soup) in their favorite Pho shop, which are ubiquitous here. This one they said, was special. And it was the best.

The next day, Huyen remembered it was Nanette's birthday, and brought over a cake to Thuy's house. We celebrated with her three children and a neighbor, who all loved it, as did we. It was a great send-off before we left for the airport for Hue. We felt very grateful for Thuy's hospitality, and for introducing us to Huyen, her cousin and her friends. Huyen reminds us very much of Sunny, our favorite Chinese student, who we recently visited. She is a delightful, engaging, and bright young woman.

Posted by jonshapiro 13:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people boats Comments (1)

Halong Bay

We went out to Halong Bay for two days and a night, after booking with a small travel agency in old town, Hanoi. I would guess they all sell the same tours on various boats with slightly different prices. Unfortunately, we didn't really get as far as Bai Tu Long Bay, as they said we would. This bay is much less crowded than Halong, which is full of tourist boats out to see the karst mountains jutting straight out of the water. As a result of all the traffic, it is far from pristine. We saw a considerable amount of floating garbage, and I'm sure that many boats just dump their waste in the water. Despite that, and the less then ideal weather, it was still quite beautiful. The fog added atmosphere to the limestone crags looming in the azure and tranquil sea.


We made the typical stops to a few of the islands, including one with a sizable cave, another with a small beach, and one with a tower on top of a mountain with a commanding view of the bay.



I couldn't resist

While walking around, and even on board, various passing boats were eager to sell us food and souvenirs. People actually live out on the bay, and there is even a floating school.


On our small junk, we had a fun, international group of people ranging from a Mexican psychology professor to a young couple from Corsica, a Finnish couple, and a Quebecois from the city of the same name. William, in his mid 30's, was enough to change my mind about professional soldiers. They are not all mindless killers. He had been to Afghanistan a number of times, and was going back there for another six weeks to finish his tour of duty. He clearly cares a great deal about the Afghani's, and is there because he thinks that he can do some good for the country. He is hopeful that when he and the Americans leave, the people will be better off, and there will be peace. We shall see. In any event, he was a delight to talk to, and had a great sense of humor to boot. We drank snake wine together, which is as awful as it sounds, and we went garbage fishing in the bay at night. What is that, you might ask? Well, the crew gave us fishing rods to catch fish, but all we managed to do was to snag pieces of floating debris. Others, including William also sang Karaoke. I abstained, given my inability to carry a tune.

Our group, inside the cave. William in shorts/white shirt, center left

It was a great experience spending the night on the boat, with occasional views of the moon behind the clouds and mountains. The food was also exceptional, and though this was far from a luxurious boat, they treated us well.

Not ours, but it was similar


The bus ride back to Hanoi was long, and then our cab driver in Hanoi got lost in the insane rush hour traffic. Luckily we were able to call Thuy, our hostess, and she was able to speak to and direct him. At a certain point, we had to get out of the taxi because we couldn't move. We had to walk several blocks on a main street, which was jammed with motorbikes, cars, regular bikes and people, so much so, that it was difficult to maneuver around without getting hit by someone. It was a relief to find our way through the maze of side alleys to Chez Linhlinh.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people boats tourist_sites Comments (3)


We have spent four busy, fascinating, days in Hanoi sightseeing and getting to know several local people. This vibrant but polluted city, is a mix of stately, yellow, French colonial houses in various states of repair, a few wide boulevards, and many neighborhoods of alleys, shop houses, crowded low rise tenements, and smaller houses in close proximity.

Old town street scene, an area popular with tourists

Luckily, we arranged for transport from the airport to our comfortable home stay, located on a tiny alley in a non-touristy area. We would never have found it by ourselves, and it was always an adventure finding our way to other parts of the city and back again. Our host at Chez LinhLinh, Thuy, has been an absolute doll, giving us all kinds of info, lending us her phone in case we got lost, something we made us of, and even finding us a free local guide, a university student.

During our first day we explored the city on our own. Our home stay is somewhat outside the center, and there are few westerners here. Instead the maze of tiny alleys are chock full of various food vendors selling fresh veggies, and Pho. They seem to come and go, depending on the time of day. Some are open for breakfast, others lunch and dinner. The table and stools are tiny, much like the tea stalls in Burma. They are not made for long legged Americans, but the food is usually fresh and cheap.

After struggling to find our way out of the maze, we walked a long time, passing embassy row, and then arriving at Ho's mausoleum, which was closed. We did manage to see his house and walk around the extensive grounds.

Ho's Mausoleum

Houses on Ho's compound

Uncle Ho is still very much of a revered figure here, and his residence and mausoleum are hallowed ground. There were many Vietnamese as well as foreigners. Finding our way back was even more difficult. At one point we stopped at a small hair salon and showed them our card from Thuy, in Vietnamese and English. Each patron pointed a different way. One person seemed more sure of herself, and luckily, she turned out to be right. We were only two small streets away, but if we headed in the wrong direction, I might not be writing this now. The traffic is without exaggeration, insane. Totally over the top, especially at rush hour when there is not enough room to move, even on the narrow sidewalks. Motorbikes buzz like angry bees, and head in every direction at once. There is an occasional light, but you can't count on anyone stopping. Crossing the street is very much a game of chicken. It took us a couple of days to get the hang of it. Don't look at anyone, try and cross with others, and above all act fearless. Hanoi may be a perfect illustration of Shapiro's traffic rule number one. The more repressive the government, the more people act out (with tacit permission) on the road.

Later that evening , auspiciously on the last night of Tet, Thuy took us to the local Buddhist temple to make an offering to her ancestors. She then gave us some chocolate coins, not unlike Hannukah Gelt, a good luck New Year's present.

Nanette, Thuy and her three lovely children

We walked from there to her nearby parents house, where they plied us with all kinds of local food, as well as beer and rice wine. Her father, who spoke almost no English, kept refilling my glass, despite my protests. I think however, like most asians, he couldn't hold his liquor as well as I, a westerner, could. Thuy acted acted as translator, and her three girls, age 16 months, 6 and 8 provided plenty of entertainment.

The next day, Thuy introduced us to our very own tour guide. Huyen, a sweet 20 year old English student, took us to all to kinds of local places that we would never have found on our own. We started out in one of the nearby alleys with banh cuon, a kind of dumpling with mushrooms served in a pork broth. Delicate and delicious.


We then walked into the main part of town stopping to look at different pagodas, before going into another tiny alley to get to a famous student coffee shop, where they served egg coffee. No foreigners present.

Drinking egg coffee and eating sunflower seeds

Vietnamese students drinking coffee in outdoor coffee house in old town

From there it was on to Hoan Kiem lake in the center of town, with bridge and pagoda connected to a small island.


Grandfather and granddaughter sitting near the bridge

The lake is famous for a huge turtle which is only seen intermittently. We saw the carcass of a preserved one which had washed on shore several years ago. Apparently the lake used to have many more turtles, but now there is only one. Nearby, a rather phallic looking edifice, where, we were told, one can write messages in the sky to one's departed relatives.

From there we stopped in the Vietnamese version of a drive in ice cream place, a sort of A&W, without the burgers and the root beer. It was packed with young people and motorbikes. We ordered coconut ice cream pops, kem sua dua. Love to say that word. We each had more than one in fact. Hard not to at around 25 cents each.


While Nanette popped into an art gallery across the street, I took pictures of the ice cream police, as I call them. They seemed intent on giving tickets to all who parked their bikes on the sidewalk. Well, not all. Those who could cough up an immediate bribe were spared, at least that is how it appeared. Considering that I never saw anyone receive a traffic ticket for going through a red light, it seemed like a scam.

Ice cream police truck

Street scene outside of ice cream store and gallery

In the gallery, Nanette found an abstract artist whose work she really liked, and made arrangements to visit her studio the next day. We then took the scenic, aka long way back, past West Lake. We stopped to take pictures of Huyen in front of her imposing French colonial high school, and talked with her about school and her family.


Like many of our former Chinese students, she loved the opportunity to practice her English and seemed to really appreciate that we had come to visit her country. She was outgoing and open about her life, and in many ways seemed more mature than her age cohort in the states. By the time we got back our feet were killing us, but so what. We did manage to make our way to a nearby Pho place. Exhausted, we made it an early night, whereas Huyan was off to her belly dancing class. The next day she had classes at university, but she invited us to have dinner with her family in the evening.

In the morning, after a bit of confusion we were picked up by Nguyen Tam, the agent of the artist, who took us to see her studio. Ngo Hai Yen's was am attractive, vivacious woman in her 40's. She and Nanette seem to hit it off at once. Her abstract lacquer paintings were an intense mixture of colors, with bits of gold and silver leaf added to increase the layering effect. When Nanette saw she had some smaller works, she couldn't resist buying one. We were then invited to her house to see her canvas paintings, which we were more than happy to do. Nguyen, also her best friend, and an interesting woman in her own right, acted as translator. Before long the artist was cooking up a storm and invited us to stay for lunch. Some how we got started discussing classical and latin music. It wasn't long before I took out my phone to play Congo to Cuba while we ate lunch. As we shared more about our lives, they both told us they didn't have much in common with their husbands, something Thuy had also made a point of telling us. They are engineers by training, and as is often the case, they are not very communicative. Thuy's husband on the other hand, is a travel agent. The women were very revealing about their personal lives, perhaps because they might not see us again?

After lunch Ngo, the artist, asked if wanted to go dancing in a club. In the afternoon we queried? They nodded, and although her friend didn't know how to dance at all, it wasn't long before we piled into a cab and went off to the club. It seems as though ballroom dancing is a popular pastime in Hanoi, though the place was relatively empty at this time of day. I pranced around in my usual, half assed, 60's free form manner, but Ngo was a fabulous dancer. There were a number of young men who were eager to be her partner. Professionals? Gay? Perhaps, but they could really move to those latin beats. Nguyen was happy to sit on the side, except when I took her up for a whirl. I'm sure we looked ridiculous. I also managed to dance with a couple of the older ladies who attempted, with little success, to show me how to move properly to the music. Quite an experience. It was nice to see a range of ages, all dancing with one another.

Ngo with one of the professional dancers

We returned in late afternoon, just in time to shower and go next door to Huyen's house. She had invited her older cousin and a friend, both of whom spoke excellent English. While they prepared a huge meal of snails, clams, fresh spring rolls, etc., I chatted with her very young looking father, (mid 50's) who runs an IT company with 70 employees. Considering this, they live in a very modest house and obviously don't have much money. Hong was educated in Hungary during its communist days. He speaks Hungarian, and also spent a year in Russia, so naturally he speaks Russian. He also speak a bit of Mandarin as well as English. His parents, now dead, moved to Hanoi from Hue in between the French and American wars. The American War, is of course, what we call the Vietnam War. During two periods of heavy American bombing, Hong was sent with several hundred other children, to live deep in the jungle. There was rarely enough to eat, and they often had to catch fish and insects by themselves. His other three brothers were sent to different sites, apparently because there was less chance they would all be bombed at the same time. In between bombing episodes, he returned home to his family.

His father was fairly high up in the North Vietnamese army, but apparently didn't know how to use a gun. Whether this meant he really was never taught, or if he just couldn't bring himself to use it, is not clear. Hong told me about a time his father was in the jungle with another officer. It was hot so the other man slept at the entrance to the cave. In the night there was a bombing raid, and the other man was killed while his father was okay because he was sleeping deeper inside. Just lucky, he said. He also told me another story about how an American bomber was shot down and landed totally intact. Both the Russians and the Chinese wanted to get their hands on it. This made it very difficult for Vietnam. Eventually, they gave it to the Russians in exchange for 300 bombers, but the Chinese were very angry. At the end of the war, when the Vietnamese fought Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Chinese were also angry, and started to bomb the border areas in the north of Vietnam. At this time Hong was in the army, and like his father, did not know how to shoot.

He, his family, and other many others in North Vietnam seem to harbor little resentment of the Americans as well as the French. It is largely a country of young people though, and so they have little direct experience with the wars. The one group that seems to engender some anger is the Chinese, perhaps because they occupied the country for more than 1000 years. So much for the domino theory.

I let Hong know that I was opposed to the war, and although it was hard to completely gauge his feelings, based on his hospitality it was obvious that he could distinguish between the US government and individual people. What an incredible waste of human life and so much suffering. Ten million Vietnamese died he told me. After this somewhat heavy discussion, (despite the beer we shared), dinner was served to the delight of all. It was quite a feast, and a good time was had by all. We took many pictures of one another.

The gang's all here: Huyen with family members and friend

Hong and his wife with Nanette and Jon

Later, Hong showed me an old one of his father that he was obviously very proud of. Hard to imagine that 50 years ago there was so much killing, and now it is like it never happened.


The following day we were on our own again, but it was much less hectic. The water puppet show, which tells the story of the founding of Vietnam, was the highlight. Tomorrow we go off for two days to Halong Bay on a junk.


Posted by jonshapiro 07:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food cities_postcards Comments (4)

Thaton to Chiang Rai

On the return trip to Tathon, we happened to be accompanied by a Russian, Jewish couple who emigrated to Australia some 18 years ago. This was their first real trip abroad, after being encouraged to hit the road by their British son in law. Also on the songthaew, was another emigre to Australia, this one from China. We traded stories with him about the 60's demonstrations against the Vietnam war, both in his adopted country and in ours. He is 70 and was quite active in the antiwar movement in Australia. Sitting next to him was another Chinese man who had travelled overland for a month starting in Kunming. He spoke only Mandarin, and unfacetiously said to the Chinese/Australian gentlemen that if it wasn't for the Party, he would never have been able to travel. Perhaps he worked for the party. It was, you might say, quite a multicultural ride. After returning to our guest house by the river, we waited until the sun was descending before starting out on a walk to then near by Wat, at the top of a steep hill. There was a small road to get there, but not having wheels, we hoofed it up the many sets of stairs. On the way, we passed this statue of the Buddha.


And this one at the top.


Below us, the town and the river valley were part of the panoramic view.



This was a handheld shot of the guest house path, as night came on quickly, as it does in the tropics.


In the morning, we left on the long tailed boat ride for Chaing Rai. A Dutch couple our age, who were staying at our guesthouse and biking for a month were also on the boat, and then we stopped to pick up Travis, a young American who was on the road for more than a year. He had been all over South America, Indonesia and many parts of Asia , as well as New Zealand. How coud he take this much time we asked. He had his own business repairing various technical machines (not computers) which he had started at age 20. Now at 32, he was taking off some time and letting his partners manage the business. Pretty impressive. The ride was quite enjoyable, with green hills all around, and even some rapids in the bony river.


We passed several large and small dredging operations, and stopped in a Lisu village where they stared at us and we stared at them. They even had a picture station set up with a cutout figure of a hill tribe couple. We couldn't resist the ridiculousness of it, but they then demanded 40 baht for the priviledge. A bit like Disneyland.


After four hours or so, we arrived in Chaing Rai, which is pleasant enough, if somewhat on the nondescript side. While there are plenty of farang, the place does not feel like a tourist town.

The clock tower, on the other hand, is impresssive, particualrly at sunset.


We went Wat hopping, first to Wat Rong Khun, the white temple outside of town. Everyone raves about this new place, and it is a big tourist attraction for Thai and Farang alike. It is a bit too rococo for my taste, though some of the artwork is interesting.




My favorite was in the in town, Wat Jet Yot. About a 100 years older it is a much simplier affair , but the enormous gold cement Buddha is both imposing and calming at the same town.


Temple painting

In this Wat I met a Hungarian. We talked politics, in a not particularly Wat like conversation, but intriguing nonetheless. He is a nuclear scientist who spent two years working on Long Island.

Then it was back to the center of town for the best Tom Yam that we had in Thailand. It was from a tiny shop, really a street stall, whose prorietor seemed especially pleased that we liked his soup, which practically exploded with flavor and spice. We shall probably return for the same thing for dinner, along with some tasty baozi, Chinese steamed buns, though they don't call them that here.


Posted by jonshapiro 11:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged buildings people food cities_postcards Comments (1)

Book Five: Return to Southeast Asia and China



After the long flight, Hong Kong still felt vaguely familiar after a five year absence. Our hotel, the Panda, was comfortable enough, though kitchy in the Chinese way. When we had breakfast in a local place around the corner, ham and eggs and toast with the crust cut off in the British manner, we truely felt we had arrived. Shortly thereafter we made our way to the subway station, and managed to get lost several times, though we did make it to the mainland Chinese train station. It was not entirely uneventful, as I left my small day pack next to the information both in the subway. As we were purchasing tickets from a machine, the attendant came up to me and asked if I had left a bag. Initially I said no, only to realize a few minutes later that in fact I had done so. Luckily she still had it in the booth. A close call with a lot of imprtant papers.

In the main train station we found ourselves next to Peter from Montreal, who we chatted with about travel adventures and found we had been to many of the same places. In his late 40's, he had a business and a girlfriend which brought him to Guangzhou on a monthly basis. He kindly offered to let us call Sunny, our former English student, on his phone when we arrived, which turned out to be unnecessary. Sunny, who was only 15 when we last saw her was right there to meet us, and we recognized each other immediately. It was, after five long years, wonderful to see her again, as she was by far our favorite student in Xiamen.

Sunny in her apartment and next to revolutionary statue in sculpture garden

Guangzhou is a big,rather futuristic looking city with many new skyscapers, and a nice walkway along the Pearl River. On the day we arrived Sunny took us to the top of the Canton tower, some 600M high with a commanding view of the city. The tower was erected for the 2010 Asian games. Unfortunately the smog obscured much of the sunset. However, when the lights of the city came on after dark, the display of multicolored neon was incredible.

Taken through the glass at the top of the tower

The tower itself was alternately lit up like a rainbo, then red, purple, green etc. which was best seen once we descended.


As Sunny pointed out, the Chinese are very good at puttng on a show for others to see. Later in the evening we took a cruise on the Pearl River, and the lights on the bridges and tall buildings were like a well organized light show, also multicolored, as well as moving and pulsating. I snapped away wthout a tripod, eager to try out my new superlight camera.






For the first couple of days Sunny kept us incredible busy seeing all of the sights, and insisted on paying for many things. We ate up a storm, from local soups, to dongbei, hotpot, and dim sum.

Old monastery amidst the constant new construction

Finally we had to tell her that we didn't need to see EVERYTHING, and just wanted to spend time with her. This gave us time to just relax and enjoy each other's company. We spent one evening making jouza, dumplings, in her apartment, where we met her roommates, and an Italian man who Sunny had corresponded with, who was interested in studying Chinese in exchange for teaching her Italian. Another night we met her boss, David , a low key Brit who seems to appreciate her talents and is almost paternal with her. She works for him as an administrator, in a language institute which provides training to multinational corporations. Though much more mature than when we last saw her, Sunny is still the same free thinking, independent person she was five years ago. Despite the gaps in her formal education she has a very good and inquizative mind, and has blossomned into a responsible and attractive woman. Her English, complete with American accent, has improved to the point where it is possible to have a conversation with her about practically anything. We discussed many things including some heavy family issues, friendships, work, goals for the future etc. When and if she decides to create her own business, we can be the first, and as she put it, likely the only shareholders. I think we all realized that our connection to each other remains as strong as ever, despite the time and the distance. She has become, for all intents and purposes, like our third daughter, and we feel very protective of her.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:58 Archived in China Tagged skylines people photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

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