Travelogue: Thailand and Viet Nam 2002
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Thailand-Vietnam 2002 Photo Itinerary: 12/3/02-12/8/02: Bangkok, Thailand
12/8/02-12/17/02: Phuket, Thailand
12/17/02-12/23/02: Hanoi, Viet Nam
12/23/02-12/27/02: Bangkok, Thailand
by Andrew Sigal

 More photos from this trip


Book List: Lonely Planet Thailand
Fodor's Viet Nam
Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrasebook

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Once upon a time (before a fateful September 11th), in planning this trip I would have tried to arrange for nice tight connections, later flights, and shorter wait times. Since 911, and since my painful series of missed connections coming back from Scandinavia in August, I am now opting for the opposite. I was being particularly cautious on this trip as I was meeting my friend David at the airport in Tokyo. I didnít want to have a delayed flight or missed connection screwing things up. So, though the United Airlines agent recommended the 9am flight from Denver to Los Angeles with only a 50 minute connection, I instead insisted on the 8am flight, giving me almost 2 hours to make the Los Angeles connection. In addition, I made sure I would be at Denver International Airport the full two hours in advance, even though Unitedís recorded announcement now says that only 1 hour is required. Of course, all these precautions come at a price: I had to get up at 4am. Oh well, it was worth it for the peace of mind.

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My friend Johan drove me to the airport bright and early. I got there by 6am, checked in with no problem, breezed through security without being stopped for the body-cavity search, and waited in the pleasant Red Carpet Club for my flight. The Denver to LA flight was uneventful in an updated Boeing 767. I spent an hour in LA at the (crowded) Red Carpet Club there, then boarded a 747 for the 11 hour flight to Tokyo. Fortunately I was able to use mileage points to upgrade to business class; I do love the upstairs business section in a 747, especially the window seat which gets you the convenient window boxes to put your stuff in.

In Tokyo I showered, shaved and relaxed at Red Carpet Club while waiting for Dave. Unfortunately his plane was late, but he made the connection just in time. After traveling for 18 hours itís hard to believe that youíre gonna get on another plane for another 8 hours. Ugh. It was an uneventful flight on a Boeing 777. We arrived at Bangkok with no problems, got our bags, and took a taxi to the Royal President Executive Serviced Apartments at 43 Sukhumvit Soi 15 (02-253-9451, www.presidentpark.com). We were sharing a two bedroom suite in the "Court Wing" for 3100b (US$71) per night, including breakfast. What with the taxi ride, unpacking, settling in, etc., I got to bed around 2am local time. Still, I felt pretty good, considering.

 

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Because of crossing the date line, this day did not exist.

 

Thursday, December 5, 2002 (the Kingís birthday)

I woke up at about 8am, after a fitful night. Dave, getting over a cold, slept straight through till about 8:30 when I inadvertently woke him up. The last time I stayed here I was on a fairly high floor, and it was relatively quiet. This time we are on the second floor, and it appears that the tiny street on our side of the building is a major short-cut for every taxi in town. This made the room pretty darned noisy. Oh well. We went down to the hotel restaurant for a decent breakfast of eggs, bacon and fruit (included in the room rate.) Afterward, neither of us were really thinking clearly, and we couldnít decide what we wanted to do. It took quite a while to get it together. Finally we headed out around 11am. We walked to the SkyTrain, which we rode to the river (Sampan Taksin station). By this point it was close to lunch time. I recalled an excellent meal that I had had near there a couple years before, so we walked about 15 minutes to Tongue Thai (18-20 Charoen Krung, soi 38, 02-630-9918). Had I realized that it was quite that far, I think I would have taken a taxi. The place was still excellent, very attractively decorated, and completely empty. Dave had the spring roll appetizer, which was crispy and good, then Tom Yum Gai, which he said was spicy and very fine. I had Duck with Morning Glory, which was terrific.

Afterwards we walked to Oriental Pier and took the river boat to the flower market at Pak Klong Talad (10b each - as far as I can tell, ticket prices for foreigners on the river boats are completely arbitrary.) The flower market was mostly closed up due to late hour, but was still pretty interesting. From there it was a short walk to Wat Po to see the reclining Buddha. It was incredibly crowded due to the Kingís Birthday holiday. Continuing up the river we walked to Wat Phra Kaeo. It was absolutely jammed with Thai people making offerings for the Kingís birthday. Furthermore, most of it was closed off due the holiday. The heat, humidity and crowds were intense. We tried to get in to see the Grand Palace, but it had closed early. Walking around there were throngs of people everywhere, getting themselves settled in for the birthday parade and fireworks to take place later that night. We decided not to stick around, and so walked back to the river. The river boat didnít seem to be forthcoming, so we bagged it and took a taxi back to the SkyTrain, then returned to the hotel.

Since this was our first night in Thailand, I decided to take Dave to a restaurant serving Thai cuisine that is basically unavailable in America. We went for a meal of Isaan and Lao food at one of my favorite Bangkok restaurants, Vientiane, located at Shukhumvit soi 36 (02-258-6171.) We ordered two of my favorites, neua daed diew (fried sun-dried beef) and niang pla chon (fried snakehead fish with aromatic herbs.) The neua daed diew was fantastic, and the niang pla chon was wonderful as always, but this time it was served with lettuce leaves, not usual cha plu leaves, which was definitely not an improvement. Part way through the meal the waiters came around to each table handing out candles. At 7:30pm the lights were dimmed and everyone stood and lit their candles in honor of the Kingís birthday. The national anthem was sung as well as the Kingís royal anthem. It was a very interesting interlude. The waitresses and Thai diners seemed to appreciate our playing along.

 

Friday, December 6, 2002

Dave and I enjoyed another breakfast at the hotel, and then we took a SkyTrain plus taxi combo over to Phantip Plaza, Bangkokís computer super-mall. Dave was blown away. Hell, Iíve been there 10 times and I was blown away. The combination of endless hardware and software, plus all the pirated disks you can eat is truly overwhelming. Afterward I went off to run a couple errands and take a nap (jetlag was catching up). David continued on his own to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, which he reported as excellent.

That evening we regrouped for a quick and easy dinner at Suda (Sukhumvit soi 14). Fortunately, the food at Suda seems to have improved again. The gaeng kiew wan gai (chicken green curry) and fried tuna with cashew were both excellent.

During my many trips to Thailand, I had never managed to see Muay Thai, Thai kick-boxing, at the big kick-boxing stadium in Bangkok. I had seen some Muay Thai in Phuket, but it was clearly a demonstration to encourage tourists to come in and drink beer. I had been told that the Lumpini Boxing Stadium in Bangkok was the place to see Muay Thai - anywhere else was just imitation. Dave was keen to see it too. We learned from the concierge that the boxing was happening that evening, and ran from 6:30pm to 11pm. Due to the language barrier, we were unable to determine if we needed to show up right at 6:30, or if we could arrive any time. (Those darned verb tenses!) Throwing caution to the wind we headed over at about 7pm. When we got there we found that there are many bouts throughout the evening, and that one certainly can arrive any time. The admission turned out to be a lot more expensive than I expected, costing about US$20 each for ring-side seats after haggling over the price. Even the cheap seats werenít cheap. Iíd seen much lower prices noted in guide books, so I couldnít help wondering if the taxi had taken us to the "soak the tourists" door, instead of the "reasonable prices" door. Hmmm.

Anyway, we decided to splurge for the good seats and went on in. We were seated front row, right next to one of the two fighterís corners, just as the third bout of the evening was starting up. At first glance it looked like we had truly excellent seats - the view of the ring was excellent, and we got to watch the fighter in our corner get cleaned up between rounds. Certainly the VIP ringside seats were substantially better than the lower price seating above. Unfortunately, there was a big liability to our particular spot. It seems that the fighterís friends, relatives, coaches, and general well-wishers stand in a box several feet from the corner of the ring. Of course, they all want to yell instructions to the fighter all through the fight, and they do so with astounding volume. During the fight traditional Muay Thai music is played, very loudly. Personally, I hate Muay Thai music - itís just a lot of banging on pots and blowing through whining pipes to me. Overlay on top of that a noisy audience. Now, put right next to your ear a boxerís coach shouting instructions loudly enough that the fighter can hear them 20 feet away. Iím sure I lost a measurable amount of my hearing during the evening, even though I spent most of the time with my hands clapped over my ears. Ah well. We stayed for about an hour and a half, then left.

Overall Muay Thai at Lumpini wasnít substantially more impressive or exciting than the tourist version in Phuket. Other than the volume and the price, it was pretty similar. Lumpini Stadium is at Rama IV Road, 02-252-8765. Fights are Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights with a matinee on Saturday afternoon. If you find a door with cheap prices, let me know.

 

Saturday, December 7, 2002

David and I again started our day with the now very familiar breakfast buffet at the hotel. We each wondered how we would manage to wake up back at home without a big plate of bacon, which the Presidentís restaurant does particularly well. Dave also reminded me how much tastier eggs are in Thailand than in the United States. Letís face it, happy chickens that wander around farmyards eating bugs, seeds, and grubs produce better tasting eggs than Americaís bored factory birds. Unfortunately, while we were eating the skies opened up with a major rain-storm, so we retreated to the room to watch Muay Thai on TV and wait it out.

Finally around noon the rain passed, so off we went. We took the SkyTrain to the Chatuchak Weekend Market (SkyTrain station Mo Chit.) With the clouds gone, the sun blasted down on the wet world, turning Chatuchak into a large-scale outdoor sauna. Chatuchak market is vast to the point of overwhelming and jammed with shops, produce, animals, and people. Add to this 100 degrees of temperature and 100 percent humidity, and you have quite the Bangkok experience. Dave and I shopped extensively for silk scarves and wall hangings, looked at carved ornaments, played with dogs, baby bunnies and birds of all sizes. I made my usual fruit purchases, and introduced Dave to the weirdly flavored home-made popsicles that I have developed a taste for. I also spent a lot of time shopping for seeds that I hoped to take home and grow in my greenhouse. [Side note: Unfortunately, I didnít have the appropriate documentation for my horticultural treasures, which were all confiscated by US customs on my return. Sigh.]

After about 4 hours we were both totally withered and starving, so we headed back. Along the way we stopped at Siam Center to get some food and take a look around. We had some really nice, mild, duck on rice in air-conditioned comfort at the food court in Siam Center. After eating we decided that we were both too exhausted from the heat and madness, and headed back without checking out the Siam Center area at all.

That evening we went for dinner at Kuppa (39 Sukhumvit Soi 16, 02-663-0450). Though it was still a very hip and happening place for Thai yuppies and ex-pats, the food was not as good as during my previous visit. David had the wasabi salmon, I had deep fried soft shelled crab. It was good enough, but Iím not rushing back.

 

Sunday, December 8, 2002

We got up early, packed, and headed out. I made a classic mistake getting a taxi to the airport. Outside our hotel there were two brand new, nice, clean looking taxis. As we walked by they asked us if we needed a ride, and I said yes. We got our bags loaded into the taxi and headed out, whereupon the driver told me he wanted 400b to go to the airport. Ouch. I was so used to taxis using their meters that I had forgotten about the rogue drivers for whom the meter is just for show. I told him "no", and that I wanted to use the meter. Unfortunately, at this point we were already in the taxi, under way, with all our luggage in the trunk, so the meter wasnít going to happen. Keeping my cool and smiling all the while, I negotiated him down to 250b, plus tolls - somewhat more than it should have been, but not outrageous. I made up the difference by not tipping him for the bags. However, the lesson was re-learned: make it clear that you want to go on the meter before you put your bags in the car.

Dave and I boarded our Thai Airways flight to Phuket in business class. Even though the trip is only 75 minutes, the extra US$10 each way for business class is totally worthwhile. Business class is such a bargain inside Thailand, the only reason I can think that it isnít full is that people donít know about it.

From the Phuket Airport, the taxi ride to Patong Beach is now 550b, which is still a bargain by US standards, but is a lot of money for Thailand. The road from the airport has gotten better every year, making the trip quick and easy (about 40 minutes.) We were dropped off at the offices of Scuba Cat, my favorite dive operator (94 Thaweewong Rd., Patong Beach, (076) 293 120, http://www.scubacat.com). There we repacked our bags so as to leave the big bags behind and take only what we needed on the boat. That done we wandered around Phuket for some food, shopping, and a look around. Phuket appears to be even more built up, and cleaner than last year. I wanted to drop off some laundry at my usual place across from the C&N Hotel, but it is now a Thai Massage shop. The laundry place next door that one had also been turned into Massage spa. This in spite of the fact that there were already three massage places on this road, including one very large one. So now on Soi C&N there are 5 places to get a massage, two to get a haircut, two internet cafes, and nowhere to do laundry. It turned out that the grocery store across from the C&N now takes laundry and sends it out somewhere, so we left our dirty stuff with them.

It is such typical Thai business practice to over-saturate a market. I recall the first year I went to Phuket, when there were one or two internet cafes in town, each of which did a tidy little business. Then, the next year, every third storefront was an internet cafť, and none of them were making ends meet. The following year most of the internet cafes were gone. The craze this year appears to be Thai Massage, which was already a saturated market. As an American I couldnít help wondering if it wouldnít be better to be the only laundry in town, rather than running yet another massage place, but hey, who am I to say? Still, I expect that next year at least half of these massage places will have moved on to become tour offices, or fruit stands, or maybe internet cafes.

I had been dreaming of Thai seafood for months, so I dragged Dave to dinner at one of the open-air seafood stalls on Ratuthit Song Roi Pee road for my favorite dishes of black crab with yellow curry, tiny clams with curry, fried whole red snapper with chilies, and sautťed morning glory. It was way too much food, but I couldnít resist ordering it all. By this point it was getting late, so we jammed back to Scuba Cat for our dive trip departure at 7pm. On a pleasant note, they have changed the way they depart on M/V Scuba Adventure trips. Formerly, we had to take a long van ride up north to Tapla Moo or east to Chalong Bay, before boarding the boat. We now board directly in Patong. Nice.

We boarded M/V Scuba Adventure and settled in for the night as the boat steamed out to the Similan Islands. Dave and I were sharing an upstairs bunk-bed cabin. The cabins down below are a bit bigger, but I prefer being upstairs on the main deck, in what are theoretically the crew cabins. Here the windows are bigger (below they are just tiny portals), and in rough seas the boat seems to move less than down below.

I hadnít recalled how hard the beds are on Scuba Adventure. They are really just two inch pads of stiff foam on top of wooden bunks. They make the Royal Presidentís beds seem like serious luxury. I think next time Iíll have to try bringing a Therm-A-Rest mattress.

Travelers Tips: The room amenities on the Scuba Catís boats are pretty meager. One should definitely bring a towel - the one provided on Scuba Adventure is quite small, and none are provided on M/V Scuba Cat. Also, the only bed linens supplied are a single, thin blanket. Though this is plenty given the hot weather, if you like a bed made with sheets, youíll need to bring your own. Finally, they provide soap, but no shampoo. Again, it is worth bringing your own.

 

Monday, December 9, 2002

The crew woke us up bright and early at 7am for our 8am first dive. Apparently Dave couldnít sleep and was already up by 5am; sunrise was about 6am. We had coffee, toast, and our first dive briefing. Dive briefings on Scuba Cat boats are great. They have terrific hand-drawn maps of the dive site, with lists of the kinds of fish and animals we might expect to see. A far cry from the pathetic dive briefings I experienced in Honduras the month before. This morning we were in the water at 8:02am at a site called "Beacon Point". It was a really pleasant first dive, just drifting along looking at stuff. There were huge tunas and parrotfish, trigger fish, interesting starfish, a big grouper, and a small but feisty lobster with huge antenna. I put my face right up to him and he didnít back off. As with everywhere in the Similans, there were lots of lionfish (both black and red) and a good variety of coral.

Live-aboardís are great. We came up from our first dive, got dried off, and immediately the crew was refilling our tanks for the next dive. Minutes later we were called to breakfast - functionally a second breakfast since weíd had coffee and toast already. Breakfast was omelets, bacon, toast, and a huge plate of excellent fruit. After the bogus time I had had in Honduras, this was so nice!

The second dive was at 11am, at Christmas Point. The dive started out with nice leopard shark, then we hit the current. For god knows what reason PJ was gunning for distance and turned it into an Olympic swimming event. I failed to get Dave to hang back with me. Everyone got worn out, and it was not a good dive. We saw very little just trying to fight the current and stay somewhere near the group. Ugh. There were some nice giant clams, though.

After diving, I took a short nap, then had a fine lunch, then napped again.

Our third dive was at "North Point" at 3pm. We had a tough surface swim that winded Dave before we began our descent. We didnít wait long enough at surface for him to recover so he used tons of air in the first few minutes at depth. Thus, we went shallow quickly and had a relatively short dive. The dive started with another big leopard shark. Later we saw a baby nurse shark and a fair sized turtle. There were spotted rays, a nice swim between tall boulders, and zillions of colorful little bleny/damselfish-type fish hiding in among the coral arms. There is quite a lot of coral damage still, but it is recovering (better than last year).

Back on the boat we relaxed for a while, then had a Thai dinner, followed by a night dive at 7:30pm at "The Boulders". It was a great night dive. At the beginning of the dive, we found a huge ray sleeping on sand at the base of the mooring line. No one knew what kind it was, and later we couldnít find it in the book. Perhaps some kind of bull ray? The dive was particularly cool because the water was full of bioluminescent algae! We turned off our lights, and swung our arms around, watching everything turn into a world of stars. It was truly magic. The site was full of every kind of shrimp and crab known to man, cleaner shrimp, arrow crabs, big crabs, small crabs, colorful crabs, drab crabs, as well as brittle starfish, lobster, lionfish, and scorpionfish.

After the dive and some conversation, I hit the hard bed for a much needed sleep.

 

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

We were up again at 7am for the standard boat morning. The first dive at 8am was at Koh Bon Pinnacle, a dive that is only offered if conditions are good and the divers on the boat are experienced. There were two manta rays swimming around. This was my first Manta dive. Unfortunately the visibility was really poor (of course, bad vis means good mantas, since the mantas are attracted by the plankton clouding the water). There were also a couple beautiful anemones, another leopard shark, one lionfish, and a huge sponge that was as big as a hot tub. It was a deep dive - I went down to 40 meters with my camera even though my dive enclosure is only rated to 30m. Fortunately it was OK. However, I had some trouble getting down so I got out of breath from the tough descent (I had a bit of air in my BC - oops). I used up air fast at the deep depth, so overall it was a short and tiring dive.

The second dive was 10am at Koh Bon West Ridge. We had another manta ray, which came really close to me. I got a great photo. The group wanted to follow, follow, follow the manta, so Dave and I broke off to explore this interesting dive site. This site is noted for its beautiful soft corals all over the rocks. There were also sea cucumbers, tiny red dotted crabs, two mantis shrimp, and swarms of tiny orange fish. It was a really nice dive, and far too short. I didnít want to go up, but I had used up too much air chasing the Manta again. Mantas are cool, but I like the little stuff too.

After the second dive we steamed off to Richelieu Rock for another standard Richelieu Rock dive: fantastic. I felt really comfortable on this dive. There were some morays, more lionfish than you can believe (4 in one spot) and lots of scorpionfish on top of the rock. The "octopusí garden" (the grassy area on top of the rock) was so clear and full of fish it was like swimming in an aquarium. We saw huge barracuda and two small morays in one hole (one green, one spotted). However, there were not as many schools of tiny fish as in prior years. Apparently the small fish are cyclical.

The day proceeded as usual with lunch then another great Richelieu dive. There are fewer "fish-pots" than last year. Some interesting schools of fish. We played around a lot and had a great time. The dives are better now that Dave and I have left the fast group and gone off exploring on our own. I donít know what has gotten into PJ that he is swimming so fast and covering such ground. I really prefer to go slowly and see things closely. Unfortunately, during the dive, the waves started up on the surface making it difficult getting back onto boat.

Due to the weather, and the nature of Richelieu Rock, we didnít have a night dive.

 

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Our first dive was a wonderful morning dive on "the rock." There were cleaner shrimp cleaning the gills of angel fish, lots of lionfish, scorpionfish, etc., and endless anemones. I put my hand on a rock causing a black damselfish to attack me, toothlessly biting me repeatedly. The little guy had spirit! Towards the end, there were two octopuses out and about (not hiding in rocks like usual.)

After this third Richelieu dive we headed back in, stopping at Tachaiís Reef (one of my other favorite dives.) Again, we spent too long at depth, so it was a relatively short dive. Visibility was pretty poor, even for Tachai's. There were a couple pretty purple nudibranch-worm things. There was a really big surgeonfish that "owned" a hole in the rocks. Lots of glass-fish (I guess this is where they come when they are not at Richelieu). During our safety stop we watched the batfish cleaning station, and were circled by unicornfish. This is a really interesting site - too bad about the visibility.

The final dive was was Koh Bon (the island with the hole in it.) Again, a really nice dive site and quite interesting. A mostly manageable site, but there was some extremely strong surge at points. Saw more of those odd, purple, nudibranchy-wormy things ("dragon worm?"), lots of glass fish, and an unbelievable neon-red brain coral.

 

Thursday, December 12, 2002

This morningís dive was at Elephant Rock, where we did several swim-throughs. There were big trevally, several other big fish, and a small white tipped reef shark. After the dive we ate, packed, and transferred to M/V Scuba Cat, the big catamaran, where we will be spending an "extra" night. Dave loves diving, so he wasnít satisfied coming halfway round the world for only 4 days on M/V Scuba Adventure. Scuba Catís schedules for their two boats allow passengers to add additional days on M/V Scuba Cat onto either end of M/V Scuba Adventure trips.

There are a variety of tradeoffs between the two boats; M/V Scuba Cat is a much bigger, more stable boat. It has bigger rooms, and each room has a good size window (as opposed to the tiny portholes in Scuba Adventureís downstairs rooms.) However, being a bigger boat, it has capacity for many more passengers. Iím sure when this boat is full it is an absolute nightmare. Also, 100% of the rooms are set up with bunk beds. There are no double beds for couples or oversized guests. Furthermore, there is less privacy: the bedroom walls donít go down to the floor - there is a one foot gap. If one person on the boat snores, everyone hears it. The air-conditioning is very weak, and is not controllable on a room by room basis as on Scuba Adventure. On Scuba Cat no towels are provided, you must bring your own (fortunately we did.) Worst of all, there are only 3 bathrooms for this entire huge boat! During our stay there were only 5 guests, so it wasnít a big deal. Apparently there are always long lines for the heads when the boat is full - ugh.

As for diving, M/V Scuba Cat has a much bigger, better dive deck than Adventure, which is really nice when itís time to suit up. Even with only 8 passengers, the dive deck on Scuba Adventure feels crowded. But that is where the Catís advantages end. Because Adventure is a smaller, faster boat, it goes out to sites that M/V Scuba Cat just canít visit, such as Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock. Furthermore, it is easier for M/V Scuba Adventure to move around to take advantage of changing conditions or sightings of mantas and whales sharks. M/V Scuba Cat pretty much just sits in the protected bays of some of the Similan islands.

Because it is a serious live-aboard, most of the divers on Scuba Adventure are quite competent and experienced; on Scuba Cat there are more likely to be new and inexperienced divers. Scuba Catís onboard compressor has a pressure-relief valve set at 220 bar, so you never get more than 220 in a tank, and itís usually more like 200. For Nitrox divers, the tanks are filled upstairs causing three disadvantages: the tanks are filled in the hot sun, so after the tanks cool, thereís rarely more than 200 bar in the tank; you have to carry your Nitrox tank down the stairs and along the full length of the boat to the dive deck; and you have to switch tanks every dive. Scuba Adventure is better organized with a hose from its Nitrox compressor that runs down to the dive deck, allowing Nitrox fills in-situ.

On the Cat, the first dive is at 7:30am, and wakeup is at 6:30. On Adventure you get to sleep another Ĺ hour, with wakeup at 7am and the first dive at 8am. The flipside is that the Cat offers 5 dives a day (if you can stand it), whereas there are only 4 dives per day on Adventure (sometimes 3 if they are in a place where a night dive is not possible.)

Finally, M/V Scuba Adventure feels cleaner - I think the dive masters on that boat have more of a sense of ownership, and Adventure goes in to port every week and gets cleaned up. M/V Scuba Cat just sits out there like a floating hotel with scores of people coming and going.

Our first dive on the new boat was a repeat of Elephant Rock. It really was the same exact dive. The white tip reef shark from the previous dive hadnít moved an inch, nor had the lionfish nearby. Still, itís a nice site and neither of us minded doing it again.

At 2pm we did a dive at "Mornings Edge" (aka "East of Eden.") This is truly a top 10 dive site! It was such a great dive, I didnít want to leave. I'd happily dive here over and over. A wonderful site of scattered coral bommies covered with fish, beautiful shelf corals, stag horn corals, lettuce corals, brain corals, etc. There were clown triggerfish, small green damselfish mating, tiny nudibranchs, various kinds of stars, triggerfish, goatfish, one of the biggest lionfish I've ever seen, some amazing anemones, enormous sea fans, and tons of glassfish. We watched a triggerfish digging a hole, moving pieces of coral; perhaps nesting? Sadly, "Miss Scarface", the friendly moray eel from last year, is gone.

At 5pm we dove "Hideaway", a really pleasant dive. There is a very cool bommie with startling neon orange bubble-anemones on top. We watched several lionfish together plus a moray eel and some huge sweetlips. I found the most amazing swirling-colored nudibranch I have ever seen. There were also garden eels, two spotted stingrays, and two big barracuda. A really nice, pleasant, comfortable dive. I felt really good.

That evening there was a huge storm, but eventually it passed, allowing us to do a night dive at 8pm at Hideaway Bay, near our prior dive site. There was not much to see, but we saw it all. One small lobster, one big crab, some shrimp, lotsa sleeping fish. Dave and I enjoyed more great bioluminescence, and watching lightning while under water was very cool.

 

Friday, December 13, 2002

We got up at 6:30am for a 7:30am dive at a site called Deep Six. I had done my PADI Advanced Open Water "deep dive" there a few years ago, but couldnít remember anything about the site itself. It turns out to be an interesting spot, but areas of very strong current and surge made this a challenging dive. Much of the good stuff is very deep, which limits dive time. The shallower areas had strong surge, and not as much life. At the beginning of the dive there was the biggest school of angelfish I've seen. Towards the end, an enormous triggerfish with a mouth full of Howdy Doody teeth passed. At the safety stop a turtle swam by at 5 meters with a batfish following him. Nice.

The next dive was Beacon Beach. The big feature here is the recent wreck of the Atlantis live-aboard boat which went down 4 months ago. Honestly, itís a boat underwater - whatís the big deal? They had nicer mattresses than on Scuba Cat and Christmas lights - whoopdy doo. Instead of joining the group inspecting the boat, Dave and I spent the time looking at two octopuses which were really cool. I passed about 5 minutes with the second octopus trying to convince it to come out. I made dancing motions with my hand, in response it flashed colors from brown to white. Fun. There were lotsa nice batfish, and a tiny spotted moray. A friendly turtle showed up and swam by each of us really close, probably looking for food. The dorky Hong Kong guy reached out and grabbed it. Geesh! Thereís always got to be some idiot whoís going to touch the wildlife, no matter how many times you tell them not to. Amazingly, the turtle didnít swim away until it had convinced itself that we didnít have anything to feed it.

We packed up after the dive and got the transfer boat back to the mainland. In the end, the switch from Scuba Adventure to Scuba Cat got us an extra 5 dives. A good deal!

The transfer boat took about 3 hours to get us to Tapla Moo on the mainland. From there we took a 1 hour van ride to Patong Beach, picked up our luggage from the Scuba Cat office, and proceeded to the "luxurious" C&N Bungalows on Rat-u-thit Song Roi Pee road at soi C&N.

Craving more fantastic Phuket seafood, I took Dave to dinner at Chiang Mai Seafood, tucked away in a tiny unnamed soi off Soi Bangla.

 

Saturday, December 14, 2002

I woke up on the morning after the dive trip with the boat still moving. Ugh. Five days on a boat really screws up my equilibrium. Oh well, it was worth it. The C&N is pretty low budget, but amazingly quiet considering it is right the he heart of everything, and quite a deal at US$35 per night in the high season. Unfortunately the beds are stone hard. I had been so looking forward to a soft bed. Sigh.

I introduced Dave to the typical Thai breakfast of Kao Thom (rice soup) at Number 6 restaurant on Song Roi Pee road, basically across the street from C&N. We picked up our laundry, walked around town, did some shopping, and finally headed to the beach. There, we went to Number 6 Restaurant on the beach for lunch (not to be confused with Number 6 on Song Roi Pee road). It seems to have improved since last year - perhaps because someone new has bought it out. A pleasant afternoon passed as we hung out on beach, swam and read. I had a massage on the beach, but I couldnít convince Dave of the value of this $6 respite.

We went for dinner tonight at Baan Rim Pa, Phuketís Thai "fine dining" restaurant. It was excellent as always, and though very expensive by local standards, it was still reasonable by US rates.

 

Sunday, December 15, 2002

After breakfasting at Number Six, Dave and I agreed that we were still too exhausted from the diving to push ourselves to do anything. I made reservations for my upcoming trip to Hanoi, and Dave booked himself a room for his final night in Bangkok. We also arranged for booking on the Sea Canoe trip to the islands of Phang Nga bay for the next morning.

Afterwards it was a day of wandering around, shopping, eating, sleeping, and relaxing. I wanted to make sure that Dave didnít leave Thailand without an authentic plate of Som Tam (green papaya salad). Som Tam is available in the US, but it just isnít the same. I took us down a dirty side road off Song Roi Pee road, near the 7-11, to find a really authentic Som Tam stand. Using sign language and a tiny bit of Thai, I got us a plate of "the real thing." Mmmmm, mmmm, good, with genuine fermented fish and raw land crab - you donít get that in America. We spent a little time on the beach in the late afternoon, had dinner, and packed it in.

 

Monday, December 16, 2002

Dave had wanted to get out of Patong Bay to see more of Thailandís nature, so we went on a trip to visit the limestone islands and hidden lagoons of Phang Nga bay. I had done this trip once before, and had had a good time. Since Dave is a paddler, he was very into this excursion. "The Original Sea Canoe" is said to be the best tour company for this trip, and I had gone with them last time. Even though there were several other operators offering similar trips, we decided to spend the extra couple bucks for the best possible experience.

To my surprise, the trip was even more fun than last time. On my prior tour, the weather was poor getting out to the islands (though it was fine out there), so the pickup at the hotel was very early, and the voyage on the transport boat was slow and painful. This time the weather was great, we were picked up at our hotel at a very sane 8:45am, the van ride to boat was 45 minutes, and the boat ride out to Phang Nga bay was an easy and comfortable 1 hour. Our guide, J.J., was great. He spoke excellent English and knew quite a bit about the flora, fauna and geology of the region. The islands that we visited this time were even more interesting than last time (they visit different islands on different days based on the tides and conditions.)

The limestone islands, eroded by eons of rain and surf, are carved into truly spectacular shapes. Hidden inside many of the islands are lagoons which are accessible through shallow caves that are only passable for short periods of time each day. At low tide the caves are dry, though one cannot walk through due to the razor sharp oyster shells that cling to the limestone. At high tide the caves are under water. Thus, it is only during mid-tide that one can paddle through. Inside the lagoons, tidal mudflats are home to mangrove forests, lizards, snakes, fiddler crabs and amazing mud skipper fish. The flora is lush and exiting. It really is a great trip.

In addition to touring the islands we were served a lunch of Thai food on the boat. The food was good, but not spicy enough. At the end of the day we were dropped off on a beach for an hour, at which point one could sunbathe, swim, or paddle around in a canoe. While I was swimming I randomly reached down and picked up an oyster shell from under the water. To my surprise there was a tiny octopus hiding in it! It was very cool, and I looked at it for quite a while, but couldnít coax it out. Dave and I were pretty astounded, as I had been having uncanny luck finding octopuses during our dive trip as well. It turned out that the beach was only about 15 minutes from Phuket, so it was an easy boat ride in to the dock where we got on the van to go back to hotel. We got back at 5:30pm.

At each stop during the tour we saw similar boats run by each of the other tour operators, causing me to wonder about the difference between the different tours, since they have widely divergent prices. The word is that a serious paddler and environmentalist named John Gray started "The Original Sea Canoe" many years ago and mapped out the islands and their lagoons. In establishing his company he worked hard to hire local people and instill in them sensitivity to environmental and social issues. In the interim, many other operators popped up to offer the same tour, but (I am told) without such concerns. Some time ago Gray decided to leave Thailand and sold "The Original Sea Canoe" operation. Subsequently, a group of his former employees left The Original Sea Canoe and implored him to start up a new operation in Phang Nga bay, which he did. [This info comes from The Original Sea Canoe, the Original Sea Canoe web site and promotional materials, the John Grayís Sea Canoe web site, and an interesting email I got from an employee of John Gray.] Having done the tour with "The Original Sea Canoe" twice, I can affirm that they do a great job, have knowledgeable guides, and are very environmentally conscious. I assume that taking the tour with John Grayís Sea Canoe (the new operation) would be very similar. Knowing the way things tend to go in Thailand, I suspect that the other tour operators are likely just trying to make a buck. Thus, it is probably worthwhile spending a little bit more to go with either The Original Sea Canoe, or John Grayís Sea Canoe.

That night we went for one final seafood meal at Chiang Mai Seafood. I insisted on over-ordering again, knowing I was really going to miss this!

 

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

We got up, packed up, had a final breakfast at the Number 6, and took a 500 baht taxi to the airport. The flight to Bangkok was smooth and easy. There I left David, who spent a final day and evening in Bangkok, while I flew off to Hanoi, Viet Nam.

Side Note: Since Dave only had one more evening in Bangkok and was heading out the next morning on the 7am flight, he decided to stay at a hotel near the airport instead of heading back into town. There were only three choices that we were able to find. One is the Amari Airport Hotel, which is physically inside the airport. I had stayed there on the final night of my first trip to Thailand, but I had gotten a special American Express rate of $100 per night, which is pretty worthwhile given its convenience. Other than its location, the Amari Airport is not a very good hotel. Currently they are asking $200 per night, which is basically ridiculous. Dave and I searched online and found two others, The Asia Airport Hotel †and the Quality Suites Airport (which had some bad online reviews.) He ended up choosing the Asia Airport Hotel for about US$40. Here is what he had to say about it:

It is by no means a great hotel, probably not even a good hotel. It is located in a mall, though I did not have time to investigate it. There is an ATM machine right outside the hotel lobby. †It is 18 floors, with a big hollow from the 10th floor up, to hold the swimming pool. I was on the 17th floor. The hallways in the hotel are not air conditioned, but the rooms are. It was a bit like a dorm room in terms of furnishings and room size; fairly clean, but a couple of stains on the rug, and marks on the walls. Some of the wood trim was very poorly installed.

If all you want is a place to dump your bags before you go into town for the last night, it isn't too bad. The staff were very friendly, and the shuttle from and to the airport is free. †It took about 20 minutes to get to the hotel from the airport, but half that time was just turning around and leaving the airport. The shuttle from the hotel to the airport took less than 10 minutes, but it left at 4:30 to make the 7:00 am flight (ugh). They did have a wake up call, but it was about 10 minutes late.

There was a limo kiosk between the hotel lobby and the front door. I couldn't tell if it was connected to the hotel or not, but it was a complete rip off. They wanted 800 baht to go into town, even if I just wanted to be dropped off at Nana Skytrain station. I went out front and found a taxi meter for about 250 baht with tolls and tip.

Business class round trip is only $50 more than economy! The business class section was all but empty - economy was almost full. Business class was definitely a great deal. While waiting for my flight my laptop died in the Red Carpet Club. Yikes!

Fodor's says that the airport is ancient, but mentions that a new international terminal was scheduled to open. It looked like it had happened. Though it is an amazingly small airport for the capitol of a nation, it is modern, clean, airy and pleasant.

Various men approached me to get me to take their car to the city. Everyone was asking the same price, US$10. Since I didnít know Hanoi at all, or how safe or efficient these guys might be, I decided to go out to the queue for regular taxis, also charging US$10.

The roads heading in to Hanoi border on being dirt paths. The trip took 45 minutes and was pretty painful. On first impression, this place felt a lot more like Cambodia than like Thailand.

I had decided to stay at Hanoiís most historic hotel, the Metropole, which is now owned by Europeís Sofitel hotel chain. The place is quite attractive in a refurbished colonial kind of way, and very conveniently located. I had a funny experience while checking in - I gave the receptionist my usual checkin line: "I trust you have a nice quiet room for me."

She got a horrified look on her face. "Oh, have you stayed here before?" She asked.

"Uh, no," I replied, not quite sure of the connection. She called over her superior and there was a flurry of activity.

"Weíve put you in a different room, sir. Itís not as modern, but it is quieter. I hope you appreciate character," said the supervisor.

While leading me up to my room, the receptionist explained to me that there is the original building, which I was going to be in, and the new wing. The old wing rooms have character and charm, but lack some modern amenities, the new wing rooms are more modern but less appealing, and, apparently, noisier.

The room was indeed charming, very spacious, and attractively furnished. Unfortunately, in spite of French influence, the Metropole has fallen victim to the Asian "bed-of-steel" syndrome. Ugh. Next time I come to Asia I will have to remember to bring an air mattress with me. There were also some strangely cheap and flimsy artifacts, such as the door handle and the lamps. Oh well.

After unpacking I walked around the lake to the ANZ bank to use the ATM, one of just a couple in all of Hanoi. I felt that there was a crazy energy here. Everyone was zipping around on motor bikes, constantly honking their horns. Kids sat on the park benches surrounding the lake to making out. The night felt vibrant and alive.

 

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

I was awoken by a very odd, loud ticking noise coming from the air-conditioning. It sounded like maintenance going on or something. Then I was repeatedly scalded and frozen in the shower. The water temperature was totally unstable. Yikes. I suspected that every time anyone in the entire hotel flushed their toilet it screwed up the temperature. Before breakfast I went to the front desk to inform them about both problems.

The breakfast spread at the Metropole is excellent. The options ranged from Asian items including dim sum, congee and sushi, to French cuisine, pastries, fresh fruits, cheeses, and omelets made to order. It was hard to choose and easy to fill a plate.

I had arranged the night before for a half day tour of Hanoi. The Metropoleís concierge desk has a wide variety of private tours available, but almost nothing in the way of group tours. Thankfully the private tours are relatively inexpensive, even with just one person. My half day tour was US$33 for a guide, car and driver, and admission to all sites. This price is ridiculously opulent by Viet Nam standards, and seriously cheap by US standards. When you consider that it costs US$78 for a lift ticket at Vail, the tour sounded like a good deal.

We started with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which was weird and eerie. I had never before seen an actual body lying in state; I had been expecting something more like Napoleonís tomb in Paris. No cameras are allowed in, so I gave my pack with camera to my guide, who waited outside. After cueing up to enter, I an a stream of other gawkers promenaded single file into the huge rectangular, block like building and past the sleeping Uncle Ho. A guard upbraided me for failing to take off my hat. Stopping was also forbidden, so the whole process took only about 2 minutes. More than enough time if you ask me. Apparently Ho Chi Minh was very specific in his will about the treatment of his remains; he was to be cremated, with half the ashes dispersed in the north and half in the south. Evidently the Vietnamese were not impressed with Hoís desires, following instead the example of their Soviet brethren. My super-patriotic guide had us spend a lot of time in front of the mausoleum building as he told me about Hoís life, translated the text on the front of the building, and encouraged me to take lots of pictures.

I was plenty ready to move on when we finally walked around the block to see Hoís house - again, spending too much time. I found Ho Chi Minhís house moderately interesting - it was much more interesting conceptually than in practice. Apparently Ho insisted on living very simply in a rustic farm-style house. The people of Viet Nam wanted to build their hero a palace, but he refused. The net result is a structure that is interesting in principal, but not really worth seeing. Still, youíve gotta respect the guy for practicing what he preached.

Leaving Hoís house we were blocked for several minutes by a long line of school children following their teachers on a field-trip. As they passed each one waved and shouted "hello" at me. Our next stop was the Pillar Pagoda - which again was more interesting conceptually than in reality, since the original was destroyed by the French, and the current building is a relatively modern re-construction. Still, I made an offering to the Buddha in the hopes that my children will be boys.

Next up was the Hanoi Art Museum. We spent a lot of time examining the prehistoric relics and early religious iconography on the first two floors. I asked my guide how we were doing for time; he indicated that we were fine. However, as we were finishing the second floor he told me we had to get going because the driver had an appointment to pick someone up at the airport. Oops. He tried to convince me to skip the third floor, but I insisted that we go up for a quick look. Needless to say the third floor was the most interesting to me, displaying some excellent wood block prints and silk painting. I whipped through much faster than I would have liked, then left. Finally we did a super-fast tour of the old quarter, seeing virtually nothing. Oh well. Based on our drive through Iím not sure what my guide could really have shown me that I wouldnít see walking through on my own.

I had read in Fodor's about a place called Dac Kim Bun Cha at 1 Hang Manh, (telephone 8-285022.) (Warning: accent characters are critical to the meanings of Vietnamese words. I am unable to add the accent characters into this travelogue, so be sure to look up names and addresses of referenced places for yourself and add the accents back in before trying to get a taxi to take you there.) Wow! The food was wonderful. It turns out that Bun Cha is a style of food, consisting of blobs of ground pork formed into little log-shaped patties, some wrapped in an herb leaf, charcoal grilled and then served in a broth. [note: the herb in question is la lot, the leaf of an Asian plant whose Latin name is piper lolot. Interestingly, the Piperaceae family also includes piper betel, the betel nut leaf, and piper negrum, which gives us both black and white pepper. Though this sort of trivia fascinates me, it clearly does nothing to effect the wonderful flavor of the cooked product.]

When you enter the place they seat you communal style on little plastic stools at one of the rows of long, low tables. On the tables are various plates and bowls. Apparently the plates closest to you are "yours." One plate contained a mixture of leafy greens and herbs including lettuce leaves, shizo, basil, diec ca (the leaves of houttuynia cordata) and cilantro. A second plate was heaped with a mound of thin, white, rice noodles. There was also a container of peppers and cucumber pickled in vinegar. The only question I was asked was what I wanted to drink. There were only two options - beer or ice tea. I had the beer, which was Singha - again no choice. After about two minutes a plate and two bowls were placed in front of me. On the plate were two rice paper rolls stuffed with shredded vegetables and shrimp (goi cuon.) One bowl was full of broth and the bun cha meat balls, plus some slices of cucumber and carrot, the other bowl was just more cucumber, carrot and broth. The broth, a light golden color, is made from fish sauce, sweet vinegar, water, and lime juice. I watched a Vietnamese man who was served just before me and tried to follow his lead. I hoped he wasnít toying with me. He took three or four of the meatballs and moved them from the one bowl to the other. Then the filled the gap in the first bowl with noodles and bean sprouts, and added some sprigs of basil to the other bowl. He then inhaled the whole business, eating about as quickly as anyone I have ever seen, pausing only occasionally to add some leaves from the vegetable plate or some noodles from the noodle plate. He didnít touch the pickled peppers. I did pretty much as he did, but savored my meal slowly, and I found that overall the addition of vinegar and pickled peppers improved the broth. To each his own.

While I was eating many people came, ate, and left. Evidently bun cha is fast food in Viet Nam. I watched people paying for their meals. It looked like locals were paying with 5000d notes (US$0.33) and getting change back. When I went to pay, my bill was 27000d (US$1.80). Still a bargain.

After lunch I went to an internet cafť. There are a dozen right near the bun cha place. Earlier in the day I had checked at the hotel and found that their rate for internet access was 20 cents per minute. The going rate for internet cafes in town is 20 cents per hour. I know hotels mark up their services, but by a factor of 60? Give me a break.

One of my chores for the day was to try to get my laptop fixed. While online I found the names and addresses of two places that do IBM repairs and support, and called them from the internet cafť. The main computer repair place in Hanoi is FTP Computers, (1 Yet Kiew, 9-421792). I returned to the hotel, grabbed my laptop out of my roomís safe and hopped a cab over there. They determined that it was just a stick of bad memory. Whew! What a relief.

It turns out that FTP is the biggest chain of computer stores in Hanoi, offering sales, repair, and training. Initially I asked if I could rent a machine during my time in Hanoi. They offered to rent me the exact machine I have (which meant I could swap the hard disks) for US$20 per day, which is pretty reasonable. However, they wanted to know how I was going to prove that I would bring it back. I handed them my American Express card and told them to just take an imprint. They looked at me like I was from Mars. They donít take credit cards - cash only. Apparently people here pay for computers with cash. Considering the low value of the currency, they must bring wheel-barrow-fulls of bills with them. I donít think anyone at FTP had ever seen an AmEx card before. I tried with my Visa card, same result. The idea of guaranteeing a rental with a credit card was totally foreign (literally.) They suggested that I leave them my passport, but it was back at the hotel in the room safe. In the end they were able to fix my machine, so the whole thing became moot, but it was pretty interesting observing our conflicting preconceptions. Also, they didnít charge me for fixing my machine. Nice.

I returned to the hotel to drop off my now-repaired machine, then headed out to walk around the Old Quarter. It was a very long walk. The Old Quarter has a truly stupid system. One street is all shoe stores, then you turn the corner and itís all musical instruments, then all leather goods, then motor bike repair places, then cookware. If you have a shopping list of items to pick up, you have to travel all over town. That helps to explain the unbelievable numbers of motor bikes going everywhere, all the time, honking their horns continually.

On one street near Tran Nhat Duat I found places selling cooked dog. At first glance it looked like roast duck, but no, it was indeed dog. Hi ho. I didnít sample it, despite the vendorsí gleeful offering. Iím sure they get plenty of tourists that are either shocked or enticed by the opportunity to eat dog, and the vendors probably enjoy both reactions equally well.

The noise got very old very quickly. It seems like it never occurred to anyone to use their eyes, nor to wait their turn. Everyone honks their horns all the time, cutting in and out with no margin for error. Drivers turn on their horns through every intersection as bicycles, cyclos, motorbikes, cars and trucks go every which way, on the right side of the road, on the wrong side, on the sidewalk, whatever and wherever. No rules, no yielding, just pandemonium and non-stop honking. People had told me that Hanoi is beautiful and quiet in comparison to Saigon, but that seemed inconceivable.

Apparently just five years ago everyone rode bicycles everywhere. It must have been very nice. What a waste.

I went for dinner at Hue Restaurant (6 Ly Kiet St. 04-826-4062). I had various kinds of spring rolls and other appetizer-like stuff. It was good, but not great. The pork pie that Fodor's called "culinary nirvana" is not on the menu, and no one spoke any English, so I wasnít able to find out what the story was on that one. I had a dragon fruit drink. It turns out that in spite of my friend Tedís recommendation, I donít like dragon fruit any more in a drink than fresh. Hmmmm.

After dinner I went to the famous water puppet theater at the top of Hoan Kiem lake. Even though it is said to sell out daily, and I had just made my arrangements that morning, my seat was front row, center. Perhaps the Sofitelís concierge has some pull. The ticket was 40,000d, plus 10,000d to use a camera (US$3.33 total.) Vietnamese water puppetry is very famous, and people in the audience seemed to be enjoying it, but I couldnít get into it. I mean, itís marionettes on water - how exciting can that be? OK, so the rods controlling the puppets are semi-hidden by the dirty water, instead of having puppets controlled by strings from above. Whoopee. Some of the scenarios had singing narration in Vietnamese, which I donít speak, others were instrumentals. The music was very, very loud. The themes were all about growing rice, fishing, animal husbandry, hunting, and sex. For example, two Phoenixes come out, dance around each other for a long time, then an egg pops up out of the water. Everyone laughs and applauds appreciatively. Yeah? And the big surprise is what? Now the Phoenixes and the egg all dance around and bob up and down. After another long time doing this the egg pops open and out comes a baby phoenix marionette. People chuckle. Boy, I never expected a baby bird to come out of an egg. Pretty clever! I felt like I was watching someone elseís kidís dance recital. As you can guess, I left about half way through with a nasty headache. Perhaps Iím just jaded.

Back on the street I walked around the lake. Young people gather here every evening to make out on the benches and on the backs of their motor bikes. It was much more entertaining (and educational) than the water puppetry. I stopped in for some yummy sorbet at a place called Fanny on Trang Thi, right near the lake, the water torture a distant memory.

 

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Neither the ticking air-conditioning nor the water temperature problem had been fixed. I complained again, went into the restaurant for another fine breakfast, then headed back out for more sight seeing.

It was only day two and already the incessant honking had gotten to me. The relentless touts and hawkers also managed to exceed my pain threshold. Somehow I invented a peculiar way to keep the hawkers and beggars at bay - I ignored them and began talking to myself. I found myself walking down every street talking to myself, occasionally laughing out loud at my own jokes. The hawkers and beggars thought I was insane and left me alone. The only problem was that I feared I may in fact have been going nuts. After a while I couldnít think of anything to say, so I started to make honking noises at the traffic. Iíd never before come up with such a weird method of keeping off pests. I started thinking, "Iím not sure I like this place."

The tourist infrastructure in Hanoi is pathetic in comparison to Thailand. In Thailand, everyone wants to sell you every kind of tour imaginable. By contrast, in Hanoi there is very little on offer besides the expensive private tours that my hotel provided. If I had wanted to take a tour to the Perfume Pagoda without paying for a private car and guide, I wasnít sure how to arrange it.

I took a taxi over to the Botanic Gardens seeking peace and quiet. The driver took me on the grand tour of Hanoi - Iím not sure he could have found a more circuitous route. Sigh. I would have paid him more to get me there quickly, but thereís no way to explain that. Botanically, the gardens are not terribly interesting, and even here you canít get away from the traffic noise. The botanic gardens are going to get noisier too. Currently they are surrounded by a crumbling brick wall, but that is being torn down and replaced with a wrought iron fence, which provides no noise blocking at all. Oh well. Anyway, the Botanic Gardens are an OK place to visit, and there are some very interesting sculptures here.

Be warned, there are many restrictions for visitors to the gardens, among them: it is forbidden to carve ones names in the trees; it is forbidden to string badminton nets across the paths; it is forbidden to climb the trees or break off branches; and it is forbidden to defecate in a topsy-turvy way. Whoa! Good thing I read the rules before I went in, because once I get defecating, topsy-turvy isnít the half of it.

Travelers Tip: Almost all museums in Hanoi close from roughly 12 to 1:30 for lunch. Some close a bit earlier, some a bit later. It would be nice if Fodor's pointed this out.

I took a motorbike taxi to West Lake with a driver who had no idea where I was going. I wasnít sure if he was just clueless or if it was my poor pronunciation. Unfortunately, by the time we found it the pagodas there were both closed for lunch.

Hanoi is really annoying. You canít sit by a (noisy) lake for a couple of minutes without a cyclo driver latched onto your shoulder. I wanted to just sit there and collect myself, but this pest wouldnít leave me alone. Finally he drove me away and I found a taxi. I refuse to patronize these pests. Maybe if no one else does, theyíll eventually go away.

Since nothing was open, I went for lunch. Both Fodor's and the hotel concierge recommended Brotherís Cafť (26 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.) in the Ba Dinh district. (Side note: in Fodor's, the address listed in the text is correct, but on the map it is shown in the wrong place.) Brotherís has a lovely open courtyard in back, and serves a buffet for lunch. There are also stations where women prepare various Vietnamese specialties to order - dishes such as pho and bun cha. The courtyard was a pleasant respite from the madness outside, but none of the food was interesting. I tried virtually everything, and found it uniformly spiceless, flavorless, and boring. Brotherís was a waste of a perfectly good case of hunger. The price (with beverage) was 93000d (about US$6), a princely sum for lunch in Hanoi.

After lunch I went to the Art Museum to see the 3rd floor which I had blazed through the day before. Itís a little depressing because the museum does not have any dehumidification or other kinds of environmental controls. As a result, many of the oil paintings are being destroyed and show cracking and flaking of the paint. Perhaps itís a good thing that the government canít afford to buy any more art (nothing in the museum is newer than 1993.) On close inspection the work on the 3rd floor was not as exciting as I had thought during my brief visit the day before. The best things are the silk paintings (water color on silk), and the wood block prints. Far and away my favorite work was "A Fleeting Memory", by Nguyen Van Cuong. Overall this return visit took much less time than I was anticipating.

After the Hanoi Art Museum I did the very short walk to Chi Lang Park, home of the Lenin Memorial. I felt uncomfortable walking through the park behind the statue of Lenin. The place was full of old Vietnamese men and women sitting on benches. They stared silently at me as I walked through - it was the only place in Hanoi where I truly felt unwelcome. I didnít linger. The statue of Lenin is a stark, unadorned reminder that this is a communist country - something that the busy marketplaces and brisk commerce make it easy to forget. Behind the statue, Chi Lang Park, though off-limits to me, was shady and cool. In front was simply a big, blazingly hot field of stone. I had about 45 seconds to reflect on all this before the hawkers, beggars, and taxi drivers descended on me like a cloud of biting flies. I made a hasty retreat into the whirling traffic, then across the street, and still pursued by my entourage, through the gates of the Army Museum.

I hadnít quite made up my mind whether I was really interested in the Army Museum, but since it appeared to be a no-mans-land for hawkers, I went for it. The first section of the Army Museum is devoted to the mothers of the revolution - mothers of men and women that died fighting in the war, and women that themselves participated in the fighting. It was very moving and saddening. It really brought home the terrible cost and devastation of the war. I couldnít help feeling doubly sad when I considered what they had won - the right to practice communism, a failed conceptual doctrine. All that death, destruction, pain and bloodshed over an ideal, and a flawed one at that. It was quite sobering.

Other than the tribute to the mothers, the museum was rather drab, and filled with unimpressive artifacts; bits of broken armaments, dioramas showing how booby-traps were constructed of sharpened sticks in covered pits, old maps and grainy photographs. There was English language signage, but it was not very informative. The strongest impression I had was astonishment that North Viet Nam won given their rudimentary weapons.

There was a section relating to attempts on Ho Chi Mihnís life. I sat there for a while and thought about how difficult it appears to be to kill one man. When the US government asks its armed forces to kill hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, itís all in a days work. But to kill just one man seems to be impossible: Hitler avoided innumerable assassination attempts. We didnít kill Sadam Hussein during the gulf war. Tracking down Osama bin Laden appears to be impossible. Idi Amin in Uganda, Aideed in Somalia, and on and on, the US military has failed when it targeted a single individual. One wonders how things might have been different if an assassination attempt against Ho had succeeded. Not that I approve of political assassination, mind you. Itís just interesting in the abstract what the military can and cannot do.

One item of note about the museum is its three tiered pricing system, with one price for foreign tourists, another for Vietnamese, and yet a third for foreigners of Vietnamese descent. Iíve been in a lot of places where locals pay less for things than foreigners (notably Thai marketplaces), but rarely is the discriminatory pricing made public, and never have I seen a third pricing group for a nationís ex-patriots.

After touring the whole museum, I stopped at a snack stand to drink a refreshing green coconut. Unfortunately, it was terrible. Iíve always enjoyed drinking a nam ma phrao (young coconut) in Thailand - I guess this is just one more thing that they donít do as well here in Hanoi.

 

Friday, December 20, 2002

I complained again about being scalded in the shower, but this time I demanded to see the manager. As a result they moved me to a new room. A really pleasant woman who spoke great French, but very poor English, showed me a selection of alternate rooms. I chose one in the new wing. It is less charming, and there is more street noise, but if the physical plant is likely to work anywhere, itís in the new wing. Itís worth a shot anyway. Everything in the room felt newer, cleaner, and better maintained, except the door handle which was just as cheap and cheesy as in the prior room. Iím guessing all the door handles in the place were replaced at the same time, and all with the cheapest possible crap. It makes a very poor first impression.

This room had an even harder bed. It seemed like it might have a soft side on the bottom (as I once found in a hotel in Thailand), so I pulled off all the bedclothes and checked, but it was an illusion - both sides were equally hard.

After the room change and breakfast, I took the cooking class offered by the hotel. The class runs each morning for US$45; this morning there were only two of us. The class started with a cyclo ride over to Hanoiís largest food market, Cho 19-12 or "Market 19 December." A cyclo is basically a three-wheeled human-powered bicycle with a covered passenger seat welded onto the front. This was my first cyclo ride, and wasnít nearly as scary as I expected. Somehow the wild, untamed, multi-modal traffic managed to zig, swerve, and screech around our snail-like progress, even when we made the fateful left turn across traffic and into the market. Putting my life in their hands did provide some nice opportunities to photograph the traffic coming straight at us.

The market was quite interesting, though between the noise level and the instructorís accent, it was often difficult to understand what we were being shown. After the market we took a taxi back to the hotel, where we descended to the basement kitchen for our cooking demonstration. It was disappointing in a number of ways, particularly when compared to the Thai cooking class at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. The instructor was not particularly exciting, none of the cooking was hands on (it was all demonstration), and the results werenít that impressive. Another proof that Iím just not crazy about Vietnamese food. Furthermore, I was a bit leery about eating some of the dishes she created. The first dish was chicken steamed in bamboo, which involved cutting up raw chicken and raw pork on the cutting board. The instructor gave the board and knives a quick swipe with a cloth, then proceeded to make an uncooked vegetable dish on the same cutting board with the same knives. I couldnít put my recent bout of Thanksgiving food-poisoning out of my mind as she invited us to try the raw salad. I had hoped that a cooking instructor would be more contamination conscious.

After class we were invited to go to the hotelís Spices restaurant for lunch (included in the class price.) However, since we had eaten so much during the class, I wasnít at all hungry. Instead I took an hour to arrange my new room before heading down to eat. Spices offered a buffet lunch that was similar to the one at Brotherís Restaurant, and almost equally bland. I sampled almost everything, then headed out.

Having become completely sick of the constant hawker assault, I asked the concierge how to say "no, thank you" in Vietnamese (a sentence that is sadly missing from both Lonely Planet and Fodor's lists of useful phrases.) It turns out that the magic phrase is "khong, cam on", which is pronounced something like "khom, cam (rising tone) ornh (falling tone.)" During my subsequent walks around town this proved to be less useful than "mai ow" in Thailand, but far better than just saying "no, thank you."

Since I had pretty well walked my feet off during the prior few days, I decided to finally take a cyclo ride on my own. For 20000d (US$1.33) per hour, I hired one of the hotelís cyclos to take me south to Lenin Park. I had hoped that this large park and lake would provide respite from the cities noise, but alas, even in the middle of the park the honking was still noticeable. The park was unexceptional, the water was smelly, the bench was hard. I sat and looked over the water for some 10 or 15 minutes, then headed back. For its part the cyclo ride was pleasant, somewhat interesting, and modestly scary.

Being sick and tired of Vietnamese food, I decided to try the cities French offerings. Since the French colonized Viet Nam for a long time, and Hanoi was their original capital city, it is reasonable to expect great French food. I looked in Fodor's and made a couple choices, but the concierge insisted that Le Beaulieu restaurant in the hotel was the best French restaurant in town. Being tired anyway, I went ahead with her recommendation. There were two prix fixe menus available in addition to a la carte. I decided on the "Tradition Menu" for a very reasonable US$35. There was a terrific petite starter, followed by an appetizer of egg soufflť in cream with caviar. Wow. Part way through my appetizer an excellent string quartet, made up of members of the Hanoi symphony orchestra, started playing. My next course was poached fois gras with pickled artichoke. Iíve never had fois gras poached before, and I gotta say, itís a winner. The fois grasí creaminess was an outstanding contrast to the pickled artichokeís bite. The main course was a Le Beaulieu signature dish - lobster with Madagascar vanilla. Yummy. It came served with ginger rice and pickled palm hearts. It truly deserves praise. Next, a fine selection of cheese was offered from a tray - I had an array of French camembertís, some blue cheese, and a lovely slice of Morbrier. Finally, desert was a magnificent mango sorbet with millefeuille of custard apple. While I have not eaten at any other French restaurants in Hanoi, I would be very surprised if there could be another that was better. An excellent recommendation from the Sofitel concierge.

As I was leaving the restaurant I met a group of ex-pats from various parts of the UK. We went into the hotel bar for a few drinks and had a fine time listening to the music there.

 

Saturday, December 21, 2002

It was a dreary, cool, overcast morning so I decided to sleep in. I missed breakfast at the hotel, so I went across the street to Au Lac Cafť where I had some fine strong coffee and an excellent banana muffin.

Viet Nam is famous for its fine artists, and Hanoi is full of galleries. I had poked my head into a couple during my prior walks. This would be the day for a full-on gallery walk. Of the vast number of galleries, some are supposedly reputable, others questionable. I made my way through virtually all of the ones recommended by Fodor's as well as those listed on the Metropolís tourist map. I found the whole process both disappointing and depressing. It seems as though there are only three or four artists in all of Viet Nam. Either that, or all the artists produce works in one of three or four styles, with all of their output virtually identical.

As I went from gallery to gallery, I kept seeing what seemed to be the same paintings over and over. When I saw the first set of paintings at the first gallery, I gave them serious consideration, enjoying some quite a bit. I found it odd that within an individual artists work there was rather monotonous similarity, but overall the pieces were worth seeing. I was surprised when I walked into another gallery, almost across the street, and saw a set of work that seemed indistinguishable from what I had just seen; the same set of glassy eyed oriental women on gold-flecked backgrounds; the same Chinese letter either in black on a red field or white on a gold field; the same oil paintings; everything the same, just more of it. When the third, fourth, fifth and sixth galleries showed me the same set of work all over again, I started to get annoyed. No one had anything new.

I couldnít help wondering how this came about. Perhaps there was a small number of artists each with their own style, turning out huge numbers of similar paintings, or perhaps this small handful of artists had been working slowly and methodically for years to generate these vast numbers of paintings, without managing to sell any. I considered the possibility that the ridiculous array of similar works was the result of numbers of painters all copying the style of a few innovators, or of counterfeiters producing replicas of well known works. When I asked at one gallery about this, they assured me that they were a reputable dealer and had certificates of authenticity for all the works. I couldnít get them to discuss the art situation in general, only the veracity of the pieces that they themselves were selling. By this point I was sufficiently disgusted with the whole business that I didnít feel like investigating further. Certainly I wasnít about to buy any of these silly duplicates, authentic or not, with certificates or not.

I did manage to find one place, Salon Natasha (30 Hang Bong St., 04-826-1387), which was showing unique, innovative work. Iím sure that by the time I got back to the USA, there were 10 clones of Salon Natasha, and its edge will have been lost.

The restaurant Dac Kim Bun Cha was close to several of the galleries I was visiting, so I wandered over there for another excellent lunch. I could get very fat on this stuff.

† After lunch I resumed my walking around from gallery to gallery. Shortly, I found the noise, pollution and hectic pace overwhelmingly oppressive. The first night I was in Hanoi it was somehow energizing, after several days it was completely exhausting. Defeated, I went back to the hotel for a nap.

I decided to give Vietnamese food another go, and asked the concierge for a recommendation on the best Vietnamese food in town. At first she suggested Spices, but since I had already eaten there she sent me to The Emperor restaurant, just a 5 minute walk from the hotel. The restaurant is in a very attractive historic home, with a lovely garden courtyard. All in all a very appealing place to eat. After considering the lengthy menu, I made a set of selections. The waitress, who turned out to be the head waitress for my wing of the restaurant, steered me away from all the items I intended to order. Initially I appreciated her making suggestions, but after a while it felt like she was pushing me towards all the most expensive items on the menu - mostly fish and shellfish. I wasnít in the mood for seafood, and we got into quite a discussion as she pushed me one way, and I pulled the other. Finally we arrived at a set of dishes that we both felt I would enjoy: hot and sour seafood soup, eggplant clay pot, and duck with mandarin sauce.

Honestly, all the dishes were tasty, but basically uninteresting. I would have to call it monochromatic, under-spiced, boring, sustenance. In my late teens and early twenties living in Boston, my friends and I used to go to two different Vietnamese restaurants - Cow Palace and Viet Huong. Both places featured wonderful, flavorful soups full of exotic ingredients and novel combinations. Sitting at the Emperor, I wondered where in Viet Nam those kinds of dishes come from. Certainly not Hanoi. I was also surprised that there seemed to be no Vietnamese-French fusion restaurants. The Vietnamese restaurants were straight Vietnamese foods, and places like Le Beaulieu were solely French. Hmmm.

 

Sunday, December 22, 2002

It was another ugly day outside, and my last in Hanoi. After yesterday, I just couldnít face another day of careening motorbikes and honking horns, and I really wanted to see something of Viet Nam outside of Hanoi. I didnít make it up and out until 9am, so before I had breakfast I headed across the street to the Dan Chu Hotel (29 Trang Tien), where they have a travel desk that was offering a couple of interesting sounding tours outside of the city. To my pleasure there was no problem arranging for a private tour, even at that late hour. Of the out-of-Hanoi day trips, they recommended I take one that visited two historic pagodas and two "crafts towns." I made the booking, then returned to the Metropole for another excellent breakfast.

At 10am I was picked up by Nguyen, my tour guide, and our (nameless) driver. The drive out of Hanoi was just as odd as my taxi ride in, through tiny back roads, connecting to reasonable highways that then turned into dirt roads, and back into highways again. We had to pass through a couple of tolls, which are truly weird. We would pull over at the side of the road to buy a ticket from one of several uniformed ticket agents. Then we drive forward 100 feet to the toll-booth where we hand the operator the ticket that we just bought. He then raises the gate to let us through. It seemed mind-bogglingly inefficient. [I was subsequently told by a British ex-pat that this is just one example of Vietnamese work programs; according to him, in order to keep the whole population employed, they have all kinds of inefficient systems that employ multiple people where one could easily do the job. He says that if the communist government ever falls, half the population will starve to death. I asked him if they couldnít just employ these people doing something useful, like fixing the road. He said that they already have 12 people fixing the road where one would do. Hmmm.]

Past the tollbooth we alternately zoomed and crawled down the highway, facing down taxis, yielding to trucks and buses, being passed by Mercedes, passing dilapidated Russian diesel trucks. We went through a couple small cities, eventually leaving most of the hustle behind, arriving in a land of endless brick making factories. Brick making factories? Yup, brick making factories. I have no idea whether it was by government mandate, accident, tradition, or suitability of soil, but it appears that virtually every brick in Northern Viet Nam is made here, in large, red, kiln buildings made out of the same bricks that they are making.

After a while we arrived at Dau Pagoda, our first stop for the day. My guide lead me and attempted to explain the purposes of the flat, grey, steles perched on the backs of carved turtle statues. Unfortunately, his English was taking a turn for the worse, and the explanation was not getting across to me. I couldnít help noticing that he spoke English with a French accent, so finally I asked him a question in French. He seemed startled, but instantly replied in perfect French. Thus did I fall into linguistic hell as we transitioned back and forth between English and French depending on which language best suited us at each comprehension impasse. At some point in the process I revealed that I also spoke some Thai. When the driver found out he insisted on speaking incomprehensible Thai with me. It turns out that he had lived for five years in the Isaan region of Thailand near the border of Laos. The language he was speaking, which he called "Thai", a Thai person would call "Isaan", sort of a Thai/Lao/Khmere pidgin. While a fluent Thai speaker might be able to understand him, I didnít get a single word.

Dau Pagoda itself was only modestly interesting. Some of the statues and shrines were worth a look, but not much more than that. Our next stop was just down the road - the equally unimpressive But Thap Pagoda. Frankly, I was more interested in the fruit trees in the courtyard than in the Pagoda. Neither Dau nor But Thap Pagodas have anything on the temples on Thailand and Cambodia.

Leaving the Pagodas to the sleepy quiet of the Buddha, we continued on to the Dong Ho wood block printing village, a village devoted to paper making and wood block printing. There we visited the home/factory/shop of Nguyen Dang Che, master woodblock carver. The walls were covered with samples of his woodblock printing on rice paper, mostly sets of four prints depicting the four seasons in various ways, but also other classical Vietnamese and Chinese themes. The seasons were variously depicted in sets of four women in different poses, sets of four birds, sets of four trees, etc. It didnít take much arm twisting to get me to buy a set of four birds in trees for the princely sum of US$20, though Iím sure it will cost ten times that much to have them framed in America. As I was leaving I decided to make an additional US$10 donation for a hand-painted work depicting mice carrying gifts to a cat - a theme representing peasants bringing tribute to their ancient feudal lord. Che signed it for me and affixed his "chop" (name stamp.) We drank tea on the porch and talked about the roles of artists in society (with my guide translating) until it was finally time for us to proceed on to our lunch stop.

I wouldnít begin to guess where they took me for lunch, but it was great having a meal with natives. When we got there it was after two, and the restaurant was deserted except for us and one or two servers. As is typical in Asia, even thought they were effectively closed, they werenít going to turn away a sale, so they stayed open just for our party. We ate a variety of mystery dishes that varied from great to borderline inedible. I was pleased to see that my tastes seemed to mirror those of my guides - I was nervous that the dishes I hated would turn out to be local favorites.

Our last stop for the day was the Dong Ky furniture village. There we visited one of the many furniture "factories." Iím not sure if it is more correct to call them factories or sweat shops. Certainly it was the closest thing to a sweat shop I have ever experienced. The dimly lit, poorly ventilated storefront building contained five floors of laborers turning out intricately carved and inlaid teak furniture. The skills of the craftsmen, women, and children were truly astounding, but I found myself even more astounded by the twisted and contorted positions that the workers assumed, probably for hours at a time, while painstakingly chiseling away at table tops, bed posts, chair legs and bureau drawers.

Often there would be as many as a dozen tiny people hunched over a piece of furniture, rubbing and polishing with scraps of sandpaper. Their faces were covered with rudimentary dust masks, so it was often hard to tell if they were men or women, or what their age might be. Frequently they were so small that I had to believe they were children. Some parts of the factory were devoted to the grinding, cutting, and inlaying of mother of pearl, in others the rough cutting of large pieces of wood was performed, elsewhere pieces were stained and polished, with workers rubbing for hours on end. All the work was performed by hand, with no power tools anywhere.

According to the manager, workers come to the factory when they are "young" as apprentices, learning the "valuable skills" of wood carving, polishing, staining and inlaying. I noticed one woman kneeling on the floor, bent over a coffee table. I realized that she was very old, and had a sudden vision of her coming to this factory as a child, and being there ever since. I suppose itís better than a lot of other ways to spend a lifetime in Vietnam.

The manager was quite proud of a set of ornate canopied beds that they were making for a Norwegian aristocrat. The designs were based on a photograph that was provided to the factory of a bed in a Norwegian museum. Apparently the customer had been so happy with the first one, that he had ordered several more. Each bed was to cost US$7000, including US$2000 shipping to Norway, and took four men a year to make. It didnít take long to calculate that each highly skilled craftsman would make only US$1250 for the yearís work even if there were no materials costs and no profit for the factory (unlikely!) Chances are that the workers took home less than US$500 a year. Iím sure such a custom piece would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if made by American artisans. On the other hand, in rural Vietnam one can eat lunch for pennies a day, so maybe it is only the relative costs that are amazing.

Driving back towards Hanoi I asked Nguyen how he felt about Viet Namís mixture of communism and market economy. His answer was positive but non-committal. I opined that universal health care must be nice. But no, he told me, he works as an "independent contractor", so he is not eligible for health care, he has to buy health insurance, and the government hospitals are terrible anyway. Pressing further, I asked what would happen if he didnít have insurance and was hit by a bus in front of a hospital. He told me that without insurance he would not be helped. When I told him that in the US the hospital would patch him up and seek payment later, he was shocked. That isnít what he had heard about the USA. I asked about his government provided home. Nope, as an independent contractor he is completely outside the system and has to rent a place on his own. What about retirement, I asked. No again, the Vietnamese government doesnít provide anything like Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare. If he were a government worker, he would receive a pension. Being outside the system, he is completely on his own. I again surprised him by detailing the American "safety net" systems such as Welfare, Social Security and Medicare. By the time we got back to Hanoi, I was pretty well convinced that America was the communist country, and Vietnam was the land of capitalism. Go figure.

Later that evening I met up with the ex-pats that I had met the other night. They were having a drink at a cafť called La Place near the cathedral. I joined them there, but when I mentioned that I still hadnít had any of the famous "fresh beer" bia hoi, one of the Australians whisked me off on his motorcycle to his favorite bia hoi place. The beer was interesting, and pleasant enough, but very, very thin. Anyway, we had a fun time talking about Hanoi and travels, and culture shock. After a while he got a call on his cellphone that everyone was heading off to a place called Le Brique for dinner (6 Nha Tho, 9-285-638). It turns out that Le Brique was almost around the corner, so we had no problem meeting everyone there. Le Brique was a really pleasant, attractive, fun, and quiet restaurant/cafť/pub run by a Frenchman. The music was cool, the food was great, the group was excellent. I had a Vietnamese dish called "cha ca" (basically the fish-equivalent of bun cha.) My friends told me that there is a specific "cha ca" street in the old quarter, but that the cha ca is much better at Le Brique. Certainly it was excellent, and the atmosphere sure beat the old quarter restaurants. [Aside: for next time, <?> the restaurateur told me about a patisserie that was recently opened by the former pastry chef of the Nikko hotel. He couldnít remember the name, but it is at 49 Phan Chu Trinh. Iíll have to check it out.]

We finished up the evening quite late back at Au Lac Cafť with deserts and coffee. Watching the traffic pass, I learned that one of my new friends was an agricultural consultant. He told me all about Viet Namís long history of agricultural mistakes. Evidently the central government planning has resulted in widespread planting products that the market doesnít want, or over saturation of markets, or failure in distribution, or any number of other blunders. He works all over Southeast Asia and regaled me with a well-known saying, "The Vietnamese plant rice, the Thais grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and the Laoís listen to it." He explained that in Vietnam they plant rice, but they fail to turn it into a viable crop. Conversely, the Thais have an incredibly successful agribusiness; not only do they grow rice, but they are the largest exporter of rice in the region. The Cambodians are so laid back that they are content to just sit and watch the rice grow, never giving a thought to harvest. Finally, the Laoís are relaxed to the point that listening to rice is plenty enough for them. Iíve never been to Laos, but his adage certainly reflects my experiences in Thailand, Viet Nam, and Cambodia. [Aside: in researching this saying Iíve learned that it is originally attributed to the French during their occupation of much of Southeast Asia. In the original it is "The Vietnamese plant rice, the Khmer (Cambodians) watch rice, and the Laos listen to it grow." Unlike my cynical friend, the French intended the quote to be complimentary to the Vietnamese.]

 

Monday, December 23, 2002

I got up bright and early, packed, checked out, and took the 45 minute taxi ride to the airport. It appears that the dirt roads are being repaired. This should improve the airport-to-city trip considerably, but right now the construction makes the trip a real ordeal.

While boarding the plane I got a chance to see the old airport building. It is easy to see why Fodor's was so critical of the old airport. In any event, the flight to Bangkok was uneventful.

Starwood was having a big sale on rooms at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, so I decided to splurge on my favorite hotel instead of going back to the President and its hard beds. To my surprise, the Sheraton seems to have replaced its beds, which are now Asia-standard rigid. Theyíre not quite as bad as those at the President, but still it was not the soft experience I had been looking forward to.

You canít walk 10 feet in Phuket without having someone try to sell you a custom made suit. For years I had been ignored such pitches, but this trip it had occurred to me that I no longer owned a suit that fit me. So, staring at an advertisement for "Narry.com" offering three custom made suits and two shirts for only $89, I decided that maybe it was worth checking this idea out. I assumed that suits would be cheaper in Bangkok than they were in tourist-central-Phuket, and while I hadnít had any free time in Phuket, there were several days remaining before I left Bangkok.

The first place I looked into was Narry.com at 155/22 Sukhumvit Soi11/1 (even in Bangkok they are not immune from the trend of adding ".com" onto any name.) Needless to say, the "three suits for $89" isnít for real. Ken, the salesman, explained to me that the offer was really for two suits plus one "summer suit", which (a) isnít really a suit, and (b) I wouldnít be caught dead in. I could make various comments about which nationalities might be found wearing one of Narryís "summer suits" in public, but discretion prevents me from such cultural epithets. Also, it turned out that the cryptically worded advertisement actually offered either a summer suit or two shirts. So, that amazing $89 offer is really just two suits and two shirts, which is still a good deal. However, when Ken showed me the fabrics that were available for the $89 offer, it became clear that the deal was no deal. Basically, $89 gets you a pair of suits made out of your choice of some of the ugliest polyester cloth imaginable.

Next came the "upsell." For $289 I could get a pair of suits made of reasonably handsome fabric, which claimed to be 100% wool (yeah, right) and two shirts. Then you add in vests, and I decided that I wanted to have one of the suits be a tuxedo, and heíll throw in ties and cummerbunds, and oh, what about that better fabric, and at the end of the day weíre looking at about $400. WellÖ US$400 for a custom made three-piece suit, a custom made tuxedo, all the tuxedo accessories, two shirts, and two ties is actually a fabulous deal, but I decided to think about it - after all, I had intended to spend $89. Besides, I have a built-in hatred of bait-and-switch deals.

It took a while to get Ken to let me go without a sale, but eventually I got out of there. I walked up and down Sukhumvit and in and out of a number of other tailoring shops, all offering variations on the same deals where the front window announces some impossible savings, and inside the store the real deal turns out to be something else entirely. Not terribly surprising actually. Interestingly, as in Phuket, all the tailoring shops are run by Indians. I wonder how Indians got the concession on tailoring in Thailand.

Eventually I stopped in at the seafood court at Sukhumvit, Soi 7. The crab with curry was good, but not nearly as good as down south.

 

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

After a fine Sheraton buffet breakfast outside by the pool, I went down to the concierge to find out where they recommended for custom tailoring. They suggested Embassy Fashion House on Wireless road, near Ploenchit Skytrain station. The place looked much bigger, cleaner, and more professional than Narry or the other tailors. However, the prices were proportionally higher.

The salesman at Embassy had a cute sales trick that was worth seeing (or rather, smelling.) He cut swatches of fabric from different reels (all of which said 100% wool) and burned them. The expensive cloth smelled like burning hair, and the cheap-o stuff smelled like burning plastic. All of this was to illustrate the fact that in Thailand, just because a bolt of fabric has "100% wool" written all over it, that doesnít mean itís wool, 100% or otherwise. It was also intended to show that my salesman was on the level and wasnít going to pull the wool over my eyes (my pun, not his.)

In the end, his fine, custom tailored, real 100% wool suit was going to cost over $400 for one. Still a very good price for a custom made suit, butÖ I really just wanted a suit because I hadnít bought one in years. I hadnít bought a suit in years because I hadnít needed one for years. Sports jackets and slacks have held me just fine for all my fine-groomed needs. $89 to fill a hole in my wardrobe seemed like a good idea. $400 for a suit and a tuxedo could make sense to take care of two missing couture pieces. But I just didnít need a suit badly enough to spend $400 for one. If I was a guy that wore suits all the time, Embassy would probably be the place to go for really good stuff and fair prices. But that just wasnít what I needed.

I poked my head into a couple more tailors in the area - they all seemed pretty comparable to what I had seen the night before on Sukhumvit. Eventually I gave up and sat down for a lunch of phad see yew at a place on the sidewalk. I mean, it was literally on the sidewalk, under one of the Skytrain staircases. Just a bunch of tables and plastic chairs, and a couple cooks turning out phad see yew, in your choice of chicken or pork. I was the only foreigner there. I sat down opposite a Thai man who looked quite amused and vaguely startled to see me. As I sat, he made some effort to explain in broken English what they served here, and was truly surprised when I placed my order in Thai. I felt really good that my Thai had progressed to the point that I knew what was going on. The food was excellent, and super cheap.

I did a little more shopping along Ploenchit road, then got back on the SkyTrain around Chit Lom station. For the first time ever I purchased a 1-day tourist pass, which provides unlimited rides for 100 baht (US$2.30). This turned out to be a very good deal, and throughout the day proved much more convenient than constantly having to get change and purchase one-ride tickets. I really wish Iíd done this before. Oh well.

I was pretty beat, so I went for a massage at "King and I" in Sukhumvit Plaza, Sukhumvit Soi 12, 02-252-5248. King and I is one of the best places Iíve found in the Sukhumvit area. It is only a little more expensive than the run-of-the-mill places that abound in Bangkok, but the masseuses are clearly trained professionals and it is clean and quiet.

Finally I decided to go back to Narry.com to arrange to buy a suit. I didnít think that they were any better than 90% of the other places I had looked at, but they were good enough, conveniently located, and all the negotiating was already done.

Since I was staying at the Sheraton, I decided to go for their huge, gala, Christmas Eve buffet feast for US$30. I had been there the year before for New Years and was really impressed by the spread. This Christmas fest was much the same, but for some reason I didnít really enjoy it much. I was tired out and didnít have much of an appetite. Oh well.

 

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

I got up bright and early to head over to the Oriental Hotel for their cooking class. The year before I had attended the class on a Thursday. At that time I had learned that they cover a different subject each day of the week. Last year I had learned about cooking techniques: steaming, stir fry, frying and grilling. This year, being a Wednesday, the subject was curries, condiments and side dishes. It was excellent, though still frighteningly expensive at US$120 per day.

Afterwards, I had a reservation at the Grand EGV "Gold" theater in Siam Center to see Lord of the Rings Part 2 on its first day of release. The Grand EGV Gold really is something else - each theater holds 40 oversized, electrically adjustable barcaloungers. The sound system is amazing. For something like Lord of the Rings, Gold EGV is the way to go. I also really like the fact that they take reservations, and you get a seat assignment, so thereís no camping out in line required as in the USA. The ticket price was US$10, which is only slightly more than the price of an ordinary theater seat in the US. This year they seem to have figured out that massive refrigeration does not add to enjoyment. The theater was a reasonable temperature, and each seat came with a blanket. Nice.

That evening I returned to Narry for my first suit fitting. Iíve never had a custom made suit before, so this was kind of entertaining. They put me in the partially made shirt, jacket and trousers, then the tailor made a variety of chalk marks. Ten minutes later I was back on my way again.

I returned to Cafť Suda, Sukhumvit Soi 14, for dinner, not wanting to reprise the Sheratonís Christmas buffet. It was good, but not quite as good as when I was there with Dave a few weeks earlier. Seems like the quality at Suda had become rather variable.

 

Thursday, December 26, 2002

I spent much of the day traveling out to a suburb of Bangkok where an old friend had moved. She had recently had a baby and moved outside of town. I hadnít realized when she gave me the address that it would take well over an hour to get there. Still, it was an adventure, and it was nice to see her, her family, and her new infant son.

When I finally made it back to Bangkok, I decided to pick up some gifts for myself and friends. I had learned of the "Phantip Plaza" of Thai crafts and chatchkies. Itís called the Narayana Phand shopping center, located on Ractchadamari Road opposite the World Trade Center. Just as Phantip Plaza is an overwhelming array of computer stuff, Narayan Phand is a ridiculous collection of Buddhas, tapestries, wood carvings, ceramics, pillows, teapots, and on and on. Woo hoo.

Later I picked up my suits at Narry, which looked good enough though the collars were a bit stiff, then went off for a final seafood dinner at the seafood court. So long Bangkok.

 

Friday, December 27, 2002

I got up at 4am and was out by 4:30. There was no traffic at all, so my brand new Toyota "Limo" taxi got me to the airport in just 25 minutes! Wow. At the airport they had a very silly baggage search going on. I had to open everything, but the guard looked at nothing. Geesh. The flight to Tokyo was pleasant and uneventful. Landing in Tokyo the conditions were clear. I had never landed in Tokyo without heavy overcast and rain (or dark of night.) This was the first time I had ever seen Mount Fuji. Itís a beaut.

I stopped in at the brand new Narita red carpet club, which was attractive, but clearly not well thought out. There were only 2 internet terminals - and a long line of people waiting to use them. The place has few clocks and, worse yet no departure info screens. Oh well, hopefully theyíll figure it out when United gets out of bankruptcy.

I was pulled out of line while boarding the plane to be searched yet again. This was the first time that had ever happened to me. It was the worldís most cursory search, except for my shoes. Another case of "what do they really expect to find?" How stupid do they think terrorists are? Inspector Clouseau could have smuggled a bomb past these people. I didnít feel like my security was increased one iota. Oh well.

The Boeing 777 continued across the Pacific. It was the usual "milk shake run" with tons of turbulence. The end of another fine Asia trip.

© 2002, Andrew Sigal



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