Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Vietnam, part 2: and then there's two

Well, that's almost two years without updating this blog. However, I'll continue where I left off, as I did start this blog entry more than a year ago but just never finished it. The rest of the things to be updated later.

So even before arriving in Vietnam, I contacted a vegan girl in VeggieConnection and asked about veg food and interpreters for doing user studies in the country side. It turned out she was an interpreter, and all-around super nice, so we ended up talking a lot on the phone during part one of this trip. Part two, then, is where I took the bus to her village to do the user studies. The girl is called Isabel, and I even stayed in their house, enjoying the wonderful vegan cooking of her mother.

This meant a five-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh city to a city called Long Xuyen in the Mekong river delta. The minibus ride included a half-an-hour lunch stop in a place with no vegan food, and a ferry-crossing where one could see these funny boats with eyes painted on them. She came by motorbike to pick me up from Long Xuyen. Now I'm not crazy about motorbikes, so a girl wearing a mask arriving by motorbike isn't the greatest turn-on for me, but I hopped on and we chased the sun on to her... town, perhaps, she called it a village but I was almost inclined to call it a city due to the apparently large population. I still don't know what the population is, but at one or two main streets I guess it doesn't really constitute a city.

I was lucky enough to come in time for dinner, and her mother was cooking. I was asked to carry the food to the living room, fine, but after I set the plates on the table they pointed out that this wasn't the Vietnamese way. They eat from the floor. Ok, fine, when in Rome... The food was delicious though, and everything served in the house is vegan! Awesome. The mother and one elder sister are vegans also, the rest vegetarian. Unfortunately Isabel was the only one speaking any language other than Vietnamese, so my communication was limited, but the whole family, including the husbands and children of her elder sisters, all live in the house. I was given a bedroom upstairs complete with a huge balcony. Before you go thinking it was immense luxury, let me point out that there was no bed. Just a bamboo-mat on the floor.
No deep sleep then.

Whatever light sleep there was got interrupted at 5 AM as a loud radio broadcast came on. At first I thought it was someone in the house, maybe using the radio as an alarm clock and accidentally turned it too high that morning, but then I noticed the noise came from the outside. It's a broadcast that's heard all over town, every morning from 5 AM to 6 AM, to get people up with the sun, apparently. This would set the pace then. Given that I wouldn't be able to sleep, I got up, and since Isabel was sleeping and I couldn't communicate with others, I decided to go for a run. On to my shorts then and off with everything else and running around the small town certainly did turn a lot of heads. I guess foreigners are a rare sight, and crazy ones even more so.

After a nice run it was time for breakfast and then to work. I set out heading to what seemed more like countryside with Isabel, after we printed out the forms she had translated. After the first interview it was already lunchtime, and given how long it seemed to take to get these done, I figured we should give some gifts to the people we interview. So after lunch we bought some small stuff and started to give those to all the interviewees. Just small things like drinks and snacks, but they were well-received. To my surprise Isabel had to do most of the writing on the forms as a large proportion of the people were actually illiterate! That I hadn't expected.

Anyway, we picked up pace in the interviews and got quite a lot of them done in the coming days. And it was just a lot of fun spending time together too, whether it was at the interviews, meals, going around by bicycle, or hanging out on the balcony at night. Some days later I was due to go to a workshop in Hanoi, so we celebrated getting the interviews done, and somehow the whole thing started turning romantic all of a sudden. Odd.

So we went for a hike up a small mountain called Núi Cấm near the town of Châu Đốc, close to the Cambodian border. Along the way there were lots of beautiful flowers, a small water-fall, and the above heart-shaped splash of water. Up on the mountain there is a big Buddha statue and a pagoda (Chua Phật Lớn), where we were lucky enough to arrive at dinner time and they offered us free food. All vegan of course. Unfortunately it was already getting dark and there wasn't really any way of getting back so we just stayed in a little hotel on the mountain.

Then there was a quick train trip to Hanoi and back... it takes 29 hours one way but is quite alright. You can get rice from the train but not vegan food otherwise, so bring something along to have with rice or bread that you can buy from stations the train passes by. It stops for 5 minutes or so, enough for quick purchases. After a quick and uneventful conference in Hanoi I returned south and joined up with Isabel again to go to Đà Lạt, a nice city of flowers that's considerably higher than much of Vietnam and hence has cooler temperatures. We had a lovely few days there, rented a tandem bike (that we decorated well) and went around. There are a couple of veggie restaurants in Da Lat also, but I don't have their details on me just now... message me if you need those!

After Da Lat it was time for Isabel's graduation from the university. And for that I needed something formal to wear. We went around looking for a sizable suit to rent in Ho Chi Minh city, and eventually found one at a wedding photography shop. Isabel wanted to try on a beautiful wedding dress she saw, the shop staff thought we were getting married, and on an impulse we decided to take wedding photos! That proved to be heaps of fun, not only at the moment but also later when sharing the photos with friends and relatives, some of whom really thought we got married, and also going through the photos just between us. That always put us to a good mood.

The graduation itself was a simple party with shows that seemed like primary school performances to me. Either way, I had been called by my boss to get back to China, and with that looming we went to a beach for a couple of days. One of the easiest to reach beaches from Sai Gon is an island called Vung Tau. There's a fast ferry service that takes you there in about an hour, and the town of Vung Tau does have a veggie restaurant so don't worry too much about food. The beaches are passable only though, yet, with Isabel that was lots of fun.

Almost forgot to mention, also during the stay Isabel's sister had a baby. And funnily enough my sister in Finland had a baby a few days later. We did visit the hospital. Christmas in Sai Gon seems to involve getting on motorbikes and sitting in a traffic jam for a few hours, then returning home. Supposedly they're going to see the Christmas lights in District 1, but no-one seemed to be getting anywhere. Nothing else going on really. One of Isabel's friends helped me convince her to come to China with me, so we got on a train north together. Alarmingly she was feeling cold as early as Hanoi, but we pressed on nonetheless.

The price of the international train tickets had doubled during the couple of months, so we decided to find an alternative. This turned out to be a bus from Hanoi to Nanning in southern China, and a train from there to Beijing. This drops the price to a third of the international train: it costs over 2000 CNY while the bus is 150 CNY and the train from Nanning around 500 CNY. Unfortunately with the timings one has to overnight in Nanning, but the cheap hotels around the railway station only charge 80 CNY a night. That is where we spent New Year Eve then. Oh well. By the way, there is a veggie restaurant in Nanning also, I'll put the address here later.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Vietnam, part 1: North to south

Hanoi seemed even more polluted and noisier than Beijing, which is quite a lot to say. Beside that, the wireless networks didn't really seem to work, or at least were super slow. But one day the amazing massage kitty knocked on my door. Or rather, meowed behind it. So I let him in, he explored the room for a moment and jumped on my lap. And that's when he started showing his amazing talent. He went on for at least 15 minutes, massaging non-stop! I figured no-one would believe me without a video, so here is one.

Beside talented kitties, there was a lot of rain in Hanoi. Soon the city was flooded, which at first was just a curiosity to me as I had never been in a flood before. It was kind of interesting to go knee-deep in water to the veggie restaurants. But later I heard dozens of people died in the floods, which gave it a much more serious tune. Nonetheless, I went of hiking in Sapa, hoping that the rain would cease.

As luck would have it, it indeed didn't rain constantly in Sapa, but it was pretty cloudy with occasional showers. This made it rather nice hiking weather, but these organised tours have very light hiking. The scenes were pretty great, albeit the place is very touristy and a lot of locals always follow around wherever you go and soon try to sell you stuff. They do it pretty effectively too, managed to even sell me a shirt and two bandettas! Otherwise it's worth the trip. Veggie restaurants I didn't find, nor really look for as food was included in the tour and they did make it vegan for me. Actually the tofu in tomato sauce was really tasty.

After returning from Sapa I just wanted to continue down south. Hanoi and surroundings were still mildly flooded and not too interesting anyway. I bought one of the open bus tickets that allow you to go from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city or the other way around and stop in key places along the way. This was in a sleeper bus, unfortunately one might say as the buses are slow, too small to really sleep in, and too small to sit in, just like the Chinese sleeper buses. The sales people convinced me these would be different, saying they're German buses, but whether they are or not they're just the same as the Chinese ones, don't believe them!

After a long and unpleasant journey I arrived in the city of Hue, just to be surrounded by hoteliers and motorbike drivers. After a short bidding competition I agreed to follow the first guy offering me a hotel in town, as it sounded about right. They drove me there by motorbike, and this was in fact the first time I've ever been on a motorbike. To my surprise the big luggage wasn't a problem. The hotel was good, but another motorbike driver who I at first thought was involved with the hotel kept on asking me to take his tour. Instead I wanted food, but as he was so persistant, I asked him if he knew vegetarian restaurants in town. He did and drove me to a very nice one, and kept on marketing himself. After the long sales pitch, I agreed to let him drive me around for half a day. Big mistake! The tour was ok but he didn't say a price, I overpaid, and thereafter he wouldn't leave me alone. Stalking outside the hotel constantly and asking to drive me wherever I was going. Had to leave town quick to get rid of him. Note to all: stay well clear of pushy motorbike drivers!

Fortunately the next city, Hoi An, was also nice. The hotel the bus dropped us in front of didn't have wireless so I walked a while and found one that did, and they had a swimming pool as well! With free drinks in the evening. So that and my Vietnamese book provided solid entertainment after dark. Before dark there's the beach, and on the way to the beach, there's a vegan restaurant in the most amazing location: a bamboo house with a pier on top of a lovely tropical river. The food might not be the finest in the world, but it's vegan and completely adequate, and the location is a killer! There's a couple of vegetarian restaurants in town also, but I wasn't too crazy even about the old town.

Next up was Nha Trang which seems like a big city, whether it is or not. They have beaches, supposedly nice ones, but I preferred the beach in Hoi An. No amazing restaurants either. So, onwards to Mui Ne then, there the beaches are awesome! I ended up in a beach resort that had absolutely nothing else, but the beach was enough for a weekend. Just swimming, sunlight, running on the beach, didn't really ask for anything more. Except some fruit juice, and they do have that. Note that if you get the open bus ticket that doesn't include Mui Ne nor Da Lat, you can still stop in one if you pay them a few dollars extra. But it's better to get a ticket that includes the stop in the first place, they're both really nice.

And then to conclude this first part of the Vietnam tale, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh city, also known as Saigon. Or actually Saigon refers only to Ho Chi Minh city districts 1 and 3, but that's only for the smartasses. Anyway, the initial reaction to the city was to run away, and it never really changed. As told by a local, the only good thing about the city is food, as ascertained by an American who had spent 4 months there and announced you can't find anything good here no matter which way you go as I was looking at the map on the street. I started by walking to a park, and had to literally run away from the "massage girls" that even grap your arms and try to cut you up with their motorbikes. But yes, the food is good, and the best of it is at Thien Tam, which is located on 443 Su Van Hanh noi dai, district 10. Tel: 08. 8630798. But more about that and other things in the next part. I also went to tango, they rarely have milongas but they do have regular classes so I joined one. Quite fun.