The Southeast Asia Journal: 2013 Travel in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China
This Asia travel journal shares two weeks of visiting: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam; and Shanghai, China. It includes thoughts on the food, hotels, tourist attractions, temples, and other sights.
The Southeast Asia Journal: 2013 Travel in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China
The Southeast Asia JournalMay 29-June 12, 2013Singapore – Kuala Lumpur – Singapore – Bangkok – Hanoi – ShanghaiBy David Berkowitz* Note: go to the last page for a list of highlights and recommendations for all places visited
Friday, May 315:16pm Singapore timeRaffles hotel, 263I took off from New York about 36 hours ago, leaving a meeting more than 40 hours ago to head to theairport. It was rough leaving home, knowing Id be gone for two full weeks, not having ever been awayfrom C for that long. I havent traveled on my own like this at all in ages, not since the week in Budapestand Prague the summer before meeting C.There was little traffic cabbing it to JFK. I wound up at Terminal 1, the odd UN depot of a terminal weencountered going to Poland on LOT Airlines. Lines were generally short, with a slight slog at security,and I wound up with a lot of downtime. I did find an odd Turkish-Greek sandwich spot and had a kind ofTurkish stuffed bread that I cant pronounce. It had minimal stuffing, but the chicken and mushroom in itmade for a good combo, and better than usual airport fare.Soon enough, I boarded the 4:30pm flight to Shanghai on China Eastern, putting one backpack in theoverhead bin and the smaller backpack under my seat -- presumably all I need for two weeks. Aftertalking a bit with my seatmate, a native Chinese woman who has lived in NYC for 20 years and, likeme, was wearing orange (her observation), I passed out. She woke me for dinner - fine, though I wasntthrilled - and I had my fish and rice, then fell asleep soon after. I woke again at 3am EST, but not for morethan an hour, and then slept another four hours or so, missing whatever other meal came around. Andwhat was the meal? It was 7am in NYC by then, but around 7pm in China. Really, what would they serveat that hour?
The plane was overwhelmingly filled with Chinese passengers. A young girl, maybe 2 or 3, was with herparents who seemed beyond worn out and didnt bother quieting her when all she could do was screamanything she wanted to say.At the Shanghai airport, where transferring was easy though it included navigating a ghost town of amaze, I went to Sunrise Cafe or something like that and had some delicious noodles and baby bok choyin vegetable broth. Also turnip cake, and a lemon Perrier. And malt balls for dessert.(now 8:59pm)I slept most of the 5ish hour flight from Shanghai to Singapore, landing in whats now considered thenicest airport in the world, and it was rather pleasant, with easy immigration and cab lines, though it wasalso 5:30am. I lingered a bit and enjoyed the WiFi since it worked well there. Then I got a cab driver (anative Singaporean; he noted all cab drivers need to be citizens) to take me to my hotel.Raffles makes it seem like the heyday of British imperialism is still here. Perhaps you can still grab a drinkwith Rudyard Kipling after all. I arrived close to 6, and they were able to get me a room at 8:30 -- not toobad given the very early check-in. I met John the butler, who showed me to my room and gave me thegrand tour, replete with a spacious living room and dining room in one of the cheapest rooms they havehere.The spirit of British colonialism is alive and well at Raffles
The first tourist activity was indoor skydiving. I booked a time slot this morning and got a cab driver to theJurassic Park-esque Sentosa Island, a massive theme park for adults and children. The driver wanted toconvince me to stay on Sentosa next time I come; he must think tourists prefer it to the city.Singapore mascot Merlion greets visitors to Sentosa IslandHe took me to the wrong entrance, but I was plenty early, and after checking in, I still had time to grabbreakfast nearby - classic Singapore toast, with kaya (coconut honey), plus two soft-boiled eggs, and teawith milk (I had some great English breakfast with milk while I waited at Raffles too). Then I joined a groupof about a dozen skydivers, ages ranging from 6 or 7 to around 40, as we got our crash course in training.The training focused on what the best body position is, and what signals you need to watch for as theinstructor tells you what to do. What isnt mentioned is that its far easier to get into the right body positionoutside of the wind tunnel, and its pretty much impossible to consistently see the instructor while youreflying around the tunnel. It wasnt so much that it was more challenging than it looked. Rather, the trainingsimplified it so much that it was somewhat unnerving going through a simulation of a free fall from 12,000to 3,000 feet while getting the body position right. It was damn good fun though, and Im glad I did it. Itsnot something I need to do again, unless I went with a smaller group and could go more often in a singlesession so that I could actually get the hang of it.
Remember to smile for the camera when free-falling from 12,000 to 3,000 feet in this indoorwind tunnelI took a shuttle bus from there, following getting a fruit and ice smoothie (hydration is critical here), to thecable car area, though its hard to find the cars tucked behind the souvenir shop. At least today, no oneneeded to share a car; mine even had beautiful purple flowers hanging in it. Perhaps the car had beenused by someone more esteemed, as I didnt see others with the garlands. The views of the growing citybursting through the forest and greenery were stunning. I was even drawn to taking photos of all theshipping containers; driving over to Sentosa, it seems like half the worlds goods must pass through thisport.
The beauty of commerce: Singapore is built on its shipping containers
Taking the cable car to some mountain on the other side, it was too hot to risk trying to hike down,especially without knowing where I was going or how long it would take, so I took the car back to themidpoint at the harbor, and then, with minor difficulty, got a cab to go to Chinatown. The driver at firstdidnt seem very knowledgeable or helpful, but he was clutch today. He took me to some randomshopping center, not labeled as anything at all, and told me to go to the second floor. So I did, and woundup in a massive shop selling Chinese DVDs and VHS tapes. Then I went through part of the shop towhere I saw an old Chinese man at a table eating. Walking beyond him, I soon found myself dizzied byscores and scores of food stalls, none exactly like the next, and most specializing in one food or another -pork, duck, fish soup, vegetarian food, cow car water (see the photo below). I wound up getting somenoodles for 1S (about $0.75) and then another stall owner invited me to try her spring rolls - 2 for 3S. Thenoodles, very thin, were absolutely delicious and I had to slow down while eating them lest I choke, andthe splash of hot sauce was a great accompaniment. The spring rolls were unusual - not fried at all, justwrapped as if with a warm tortilla, and cut into five slices like a sushi roll. It had some fried crunch inside,and I think some peanuts, and it was probably the best spring roll Ive eaten. I washed it down withstrawberry tea in a can.It’s like Jack Welch said, you need to define your category to be the best or next best player
I walked more around Chinatown and stumbled upon this massive pagoda housing perhaps the mostincredible temple Ive ever seen (the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple), with the one giant, golden Buddha,100 pretty large ones a couple feet high, and around 7,000 small ones (I believe they were numbered inorder). A dozen or so older women were seated nominally praying or studying, but presumably mostlygossiping with each other. Some monks were on the other side. I cant possibly do this place justice withwords, but wow - how is this not the #1 attraction in town? (Granted, Ill tell more people I went skydiving.)I kept on walking, well past Chinatown, viewing some stunning architecture here and there. The streetsare clean but not immaculate; litter is common enough, as are cigarette butts. Its not quite the pristineDisneyland that I thought it would be based on others reports. Thats probably a good thing in manyways, and it does make Singapore feel less other-worldly – more like its own fascinating city. One randomnote: along the walk, I grabbed a cup of cool fresh-squeezed orange juice... from a vending machine (2S).However they pull it off, it is so delicious, and I wish I had access to one at home.It kept looking like it was going to rain, but it didnt. Winding up near the hotel, I dropped off a few things,including the souvenir of Merlion I got at a cable car stop (the mermaid lion is a mascot of Singapore),and soon started walking to Orchard St. It is a massive shopping thoroughfare and not anywhere near asinteresting as others seem to say; its more of an emblem of Singapores commercialism than anythinginteresting in its own right, even for people watching.I waited in a long cab line to head back to the hotel. I might have been able to hoof it, but I was spent,especially with the heat, and without my hat, which I kept forgetting in my room. I waited, and got my cab.And then it started to rain, right as I entered the cab.
And then it poured. For hours. It started to let up some around 6, when I wanted to go to the Night Safariat the zoo, but the hotel still didnt give me my ticket, and I wasnt sure if the safari would be on.Around 6:30, I was handed the ticket, and the receptionist noted it had stopped raining. Well, it hadntstopped; the rain was still coming down. And then, as my loquacious cab driver with particularly poorEnglish skills kept charmingly yammering along, it started pouring. This was a flash flooding downpour.Finally, I had to call it off - no zoo for me. And it was the right call; the rain only started to ease up aroundtwo hours later, and it wasnt clear if any animals would be out, let alone visible. The driver took me toLittle India, to some decent sized mall (Mustafa Center) that was a pretty boring mall, though an easyplace to get an umbrella. It was at least a real taste of India; it felt like any small Indian city, without theelephants and monkeys (dang).Walking along, it wasnt clear where would be good to eat, until I passed by one open-air restaurantwhere an older Indian man asked what I wanted, and I went with it - chapati, chicken curry on the bone,rice, plus a Tiger beer (supposedly award winning but really their Coors Light). The food was very good,though may be contributing to my Delhi belly right now.I kept walking along in the not-too-awful rain that finally let up around when I got back. I got some ChocoPies at a 7-Eleven. Now back here. More to share Im sure but must stop somewhere.Saturday, June 1 (almost wrote May)10:24pmRaffles 263For a day with some downtime, it was incredibly packed, starting with a typical travel move (usually whilewith C) of changing plans significantly and winding up better off for it.I woke early today - too early, not long after 5. I got 7 or so hours of sleep, which wasnt bad, though notnecessarily enough given the heat, potential for jet lag, and other demands of travel.I walked to Purvis St nearby a bit before 8 and grabbed a bite to eat at a Chinese place catering to locals.All they served were coffee or tea (I had a very sweet milk tea, with what seemed to be a mix of milkpowder and sugar sediment lining the bottom), and toast with kaya. It was perfect.I waited for awhile in the hotel lobby for my city tour pickup. They were considerably late. While I wasthere, the concierge kindly offered me a map of Kuala Lumpur with highlights of the hot spots. Verythoughtful. While I questioned my own plan of breaking up the Singapore trip instead of going to KL rightupon landing (the idea, not unreasonably so, was that Id be too drained and jet lagged from 24 hours oftravel, most of it flying, to function in yet another country so soon), it will be fun repeating the Barcelonaitinerary in a way where I will return to Singapore tomorrow night as someone who has already beenhere. It will be my second time, which makes a massive difference when visiting a country. Ones entirementality and all of ones senses shift when going to somewhere theyve been before versus someplacethats entirely new.I got in the van with some other tourists, and the late-middle-aged Chinese woman had us get off at thetour bus station by the Ferris wheel (Singapore Flyer) and head to our tour buses. I got on mine, and itwas a massive bus packed with dozens of people who I didnt care to spend a half-day with, and I wasntup for revisiting places I had been - not in this manner. So I got off the bus, told the stunned Chinesewoman, got my ticket for the Flyer (that, plus the ride to it, equaled almost the entire tour cost) and wentoff on my own.
I shared the Flyer cabin with a Mumbai AmEx employee traveling with his wife and son, though his wife isacrophobic and stayed behind on this attraction. It was a pleasant way to see the city, though theMumbaier noted it was way too slow, and it was. It makes me appreciate how well the London Eye worksby comparison. While similar in duration and probably very close to the same height, the Eye has theinteractive maps and guides on tablets that let you explore more of the surroundings. I spent way toomuch of my ride trying to find the Merlion fountain below; its massive on the map but tiny in real life,especially given the distance away.[Researching this further, Singapore is the world’s tallest at 541 ft, followed by one in China, followed byLondon at 443 ft. The table below is via Wikipedia -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferris_wheel#World.27s_tallest_Ferris_wheels ]
From there, I headed to the Marina Bay Sands, which people recommend doing for cocktails but I insteadhit up earlier since I was in the area. Its a stunning building, one I noticed well before I knew thats what itwas, and it has some great aerial city views, though the structure is more interesting from below andoutside it.
Not only is the Marina Bay Sands striking, but the ERP sign below denotes a congestion pricing zone –one thing Singapore’s top-down government enacted in a way NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg couldn’t
It was scorching hot, so I didnt linger long on the 57th floor. Fearing the heat would sap me, I got a gingerbeer. At least today, I remembered my hat.Then I walked on to what I later learned was the Skywalk at Gardens by the Bay, a fascinating, sci-fi-esque series of massive metallic flowers about 7 stories high. Granted, with the heat, I could only spendso much time above Singapore. Along the way, I encountered the glass bubble domes that stand out likethe Sydney Opera House, and the lines of sight just approaching them were captivating (though the heatmeant I couldnt linger too long outside them). On a whim, I got a ticket to one of them and went in theCloud Forest. Wow. Right away, getting hit with the cool air by the 7-story waterfall was this heavenly gift.And the sculptures around, like the Mama Alligator one - most of the ones I noticed were from East Timor- were so beautiful.I spent some time exploring the indoor forest, more for the design and feel of it, and also the sculptures,but hardly at all for the plantlife and ecology. For me, the greenery was just a medium for the art andarchitecture. What a great use of the medium though.
And then a cab to the Maxwell Road food court for more hawkers. The driver mostly discussed howexpensive everything is, especially for cars, which cost S100K just to get a permit to have a car, and thena good S70K for a no-frills Korean car. I in turn explained a bit about the NYC taxi medallion system.Traveling alone, I am reminded all the more how much I appreciate cab drivers, and here they are aparticularly talkative lot if you get them going, or if they are feeling particularly conversational. A youngerdriver later would tell me that while its very difficult to keep up with the rapidly accelerating cost of living inSingapore, and people complain about it a lot, no one tries to do anything since the government takescare of all that, and people dont have a say. He seemed totally happy with that arrangement, noting hesdoing well enough to get by.
Marshall Center: another dizzying sight a la the Chinatown spot yesterday, though perhaps a bit smaller.Barely though. So many stalls and unique dishes. The curry rice and chicken rice had the longest lines,so I went to one that seemed popular with locals, Tian Tian. Id soon discover the long line was related tothe spots fame; Anthony Bourdain was among many who seem to love it. I was less impressed, with thecold and not too flavorful chicken adorning some better rice, with a nice little cup of chicken soup on theside. Well worth the S3.50 to try but not a great dish. The sugar cane juice (S2 - S0.50 more for no ice)was great though.I got another cab to Arab St, which is yet another ethnic quarter and fun to stroll through but nothing tootoo special, until arriving at the Sultan mosque. Prayers had started, so I couldnt go in to look around foranother hour. It was too hot to linger, and the mosque had been rebuilt less than a hundred years ago, soits historic significance is important to Singapore but I was doubtful that it was one of the great mosques Icould see. I admired the exterior and then, with a bit of difficulty, found a cab to return. Hailing a cab onthe street is not easy here, as drivers arent supposed to stop outside the taxi stands, but the standsarent always frequented by drivers.I went back to the hotel and rested some. First, I couldnt resist hitting up the McDonalds across thestreet to check out their ice cream. I got a fizzy passion fruit drink and a wonderful Oreo McFlurry. I was alittle embarrassed to walk into Raffles with it; fortunately I can get to my room via the more discreet sideentrance.
After a bit of unwinding, I hit the pool. The water was pretty warm. A couple of young children were therewith their parents making a fair amount of noise, and it was fine for me, but somewhat unexpected atsuch a prim and proper establishment.Used the internet for a bit. Got my Ferris wheel pics. Checked into my KL flight tomorrow.At one point I ran into my butler and greeted him by name. You dont forget the name of your butler.I showered and then went up to the Long Bar. It was packed but I got a small table. It definitely hascharacter, and the peanut shells lining the floors are a nice touch. They charge handsomely for theirsignature drink though - the Singapore Sling is S26; all the cocktail and drink prices were outrageous (dueto high taxes on alcohol). It was damn good, but its hard to enjoy it as much when paying that much forthe privilege.Iconic Singapore: a Singapore Sling at the place it was invented, the Long Bar at Raffles
I planned on hitting the night safari later but was worn out after a long dinner at No Signboard, arestaurant I found in the red light district that was highly recommended by some food writer who focusedon Singapore. Its said to have the best chili crab, and it was something, but whoa do you need to wait. Iwas mostly ignored there during my two hour visit that shouldnt have been more than one. I liked some oftheir touches, like serving the shit beer Tiger on a cart with a bucket of ice, like champagne. And Imstarting to see things so I will finish this tomorrow.Singapore’s classic chili crab: a hot mess, and so, so goodThis sign at the restaurant No Signboard is unintentionally poetic
Sunday, June 29:08amChangi International - SingaporeAwaiting Tiger Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, gate F41And Im off to my second country of the trip, though I did have a meal at the Shanghai airport. No stampfor that. The concierge greeted me this morning with more helpful tips about navigating KL, and I had aparty waving goodbye to me as I got in the cab. Its okay, folks, Ill be back tomorrow.Last night, the chili crab was phenomenal. At first, I didnt quite get what was so good about it, but as Ikept breaking off more of the crab, getting my hands and mouth messy like a one-year-old eatingchocolate cake (and getting many stares from Chinese patrons), I was enjoying it more and more. Eventhe Tiger beer tasted alright with it, and when I finished the bottle, I had a fresh Siam coconut to wash itdown (seemingly the other most popular drink there). The scene was a lot of fun - open air, a sea oftables, popular for parties with many tables there celebrating amply, one with a number of bottles of liquoron the table (and a group of young patrons no less). They specialize in tasting menus for tables of 4people and larger parties. Oh, I also had a fried baby squid dish, which was pretty good as an appetizerwith appealing sesame flavor, though nothing too too special. After I finished, I was finished.The 5am day, travel, sun, Singapore Sling, and Tiger beer caught up with me. I still will try the nightsafari tomorrow night or Tuesday night, whenever I can slip away from the conference-related affairs.Perhaps it will be less crowded one of those nights.I had a red velvet cake hunk and a fruit smoothie (a local version of a Naked drink) at the airport, theworlds best - and the koi pond was really lovely. Lots of areas to relax and unwind. Not a bad thing theyhave going on, all things considered.Heading to Kuala Lumpur, my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, is adjacent to the world famousPetronas Twin Towers
In Singapore’s airport, this is one touchscreen I don’t want to touch
Monday, June 3~3pmLow Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), Kuala LumpurT3Awaiting Tiger Airways flight to SingaporeLast night, I thought Id write up the day in Kuala Lumpur, after enjoying a dinner either at the PetronasTowers food court or Hawker Street. I did none of the above. Instead, I wound up mercifully falling asleepas early as I could, sometime around 8:30. I woke a bit from 3-4, but beyond that mostly slept untilaround 7:30, with the headache gone but a memory of it lingering enough that I took some Tylenol andthen took some more before leaving for the airport.Despite the night ending with me cringing in pain and my not having a proper meal that day in KL, it was apretty great day nonetheless, and one that more than justified the jaunt over here. All in, it was a no-regrets 24 or so hours on the ground here, and a perfect tasting platter of the area that makes me want tospend more time in the vast country here.Yesterday, I made my way back to Singapores Changi airport, as noted above, and then, with a slightdelay, I got on the brief Tiger flight to KL. Immigration was easy, especially as I rushed ahead of not justmy fellow passengers but all the passengers from another flight, and then I prepaid for the cab, as theRaffles concierge smartly recommended. An hour or so later, I was at my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental,which the concierge noted was the best in KL. It was not only adjacent to the Petronas Twin Towers; Ihad a room (1413) with a view of them - a nice touch, and I cant recall if I specifically paid for that, or theyjust had it open.A room with a view
It is hot in KL, "Africa hot," as Neil Simon noted in “Biloxi Blues.” With the temperature hitting around100F, it doesnt quite feel as hot as it is, which is even more dangerous when it sneaks up on you. Ihydrated alright, but I guess one cant hydrate enough. What I found more surprising was that the localsrepeatedly complained about how hot it was. The cashier at the Bird Park today was visibly distressed byit, and the cab driver from the Park and to the airport (the same older Chinese guy) kvetched about it, andboth of them were indoors in a fairly comfortable environment away from the sun. Usually the locals cantolerate things better, so I felt somewhat better about the day ultimately ending in pain.But I digress.At 1, I went to the lobby and met Lawrence; the guide I booked through Viator, Zach Hatta, had anemergency with his kid and sent his partner. Lawrence proved to be a good guy - a knowledgeable, localguide who gave me a fair amount of color on the region. He wouldnt play the game I like to play: gettingguides’ stereotypes of tourists from different nationalities. He said its part of the Malaysian attitude to notrock the boat and to be equally friendly to everyone. It might also come from a culture where dissent, atleast against anything and anyone official, can lead to imprisonment, the end of your career, and othermisfortune.An hour later, we arrived at Putrajaya, the government capital that had moved from KL starting in the1990s; it aims to be completed by 2020. Its a beautiful city, where one of the more noteworthy features isthat the lampposts have different designs reflecting national symbols. The city, designed to reflect mansconnection to God, man, and the environment, is remarkably green; its as lush as the whole resort islandof Sentosa in Singapore. The challenge, as noted by Lawrence and also the older Chinese driver, is thatall it is a government district. Everyone who lives there is a civil servant. I mentioned to Lawrence that itmust be hard for people there to date outside of their profession. The cab driver thinks its a terrible idea,moving the government away from everyone else. One of the ideas behind it was to bring the governmentcloser together and out of the already traffic-clogged KL, which has some merit, as the traffic seemedconsiderable today (not yesterday, a Sunday). But Lawrence noted that it means everyone in KL whoneeds government services must go out of their way to this new city as nothing is left in KL. Thats fine forthe younger citizens who can access most of what they need online, but older Malaysians find this aburden.The star attraction in Putrajaya is the Putra Mosque, designed in an inviting pink stone with a gorgeouspink dome. The designers ran computer trials to figure out which color is most pleasing to the eye in allconditions - time of day, weather, etc. It turns out pink won, and so the pink mosque was born. Its a truewonder, next to the executive branch offices, and it is worth the trip outside of KL to see it.
On the way, we passed by Cyberjaya, one of two fully wired cities in the KL area designed for high speedinternet access, appealing to multinational corporations. Its part of the high-tech corridor that Malaysiacreated. (Random note: apparently saying "bless you" to people of other nationalities who probably dontspeak English doesnt do anything for them, but I guess its good not to break the habit.) I think it would befun to live in a place named Cyberjaya.Then it was on to the main attraction yesterday: the Batu Caves. This shrine to one of Shivas sons wasdiscovered by a Brit in the late 1800s and turned into a major holy site and tourist attraction, with amassive golden statue of Shiva’s son, Lord Murugan, standing guard over it, beautiful Hindu carvings allaround, vast caverns 272 steps up (all flights of 17 stairs each - 16 flights), and in the middle of the wayup, its a prime place to catch some monkeys up close. Theyre frisky ones, who will steal anything youvegot and will hiss at you and bare their teeth if they feel threatened; I was sad to see some people tauntingthe adorable and incredibly expressive cousins to mankind. Oh yeah, and there was some Hinduceremony going on too. The Caves are undoubtedly what killed my head yesterday, but I wouldnt tradethe experience for anything. The long tail Macau monkeys didnt hurt my enjoyment of it.
The world’s largest statue of Murugan, Ganesh’s brother, stands guard over the Batu Caves
Sculptures of Ganesh and others adorn the templeAfter grabbing a couple souvenirs there, I met Lawrence at stall 10 down below where I had a fresh, largecoconut (unfortunately they didnt bring a chilled one) and a delicious dosa with some great saucesaccompanying it.Then we went on, toward downtown, where we made a few stops:- Istana Negara, the new palace- The modern new blue mosque, one without a round dome but rather some blue pointy star-shaped thingon top; another mosque closer to the city center didnt have a minaret because the Twin Towers areconsidered the minarets for it- Passing by the garden district, one of the better gifts from the British; it ultimately made me decide to hitthe Bird Park as my attraction for this morning- Independence Square, designed by the British in the 1800s when this was just a tin mining town; theMoorish architecture was another one of the better gifts they left KL- The confluence of the two rivers that gave Kuala Lumpur its nameSoon enough after that, Lawrence dropped me at the hotel. I did ask him about the observation deck forthe Twin Towers, and he said lines start around 6am; if I waited as late as 8, I might not get to see it. Iwasnt determined to wake up early, but it was good to know in case I was up anyway.Then the headache hit in full force, and the night went on as described above. Lets not relive that anymore than we have to, eh?
Making friends with the palace guardAmong the better gifts from the British, the Moorish architecture downtown is stunning
Just what I needed on a cold day – a record-setting pewter beer mug at Royal Selangor. In theoriginal journal, I neglected to mention the visit to the world’s largest pewter manufacturer andretailer founded in 1885, but it’s where I did the best shopping the entire trip.This morning, I was up at 7:30 and got my bag packed. I called C, and, hungry, went over to the TwinTowers. A guard pointed me in the direction of the ticket office. A second guard said it was closedMonday, which I found hard to believe after what Lawrence said. A man outside taking photos said it hadto be open. I said I couldnt get a straight answer, and he said, "Thats the Malaysian way - no straightanswers." When I finally found the ticket office, sure enough, it was closed Mondays. Thanks, Lawrence.At the towers, I went to the food court (thanks, Lawrence - in a good way) and found a spot that localsseemed to be lining up at, Hameed Nasi Kandar. I had a roti with egg, and another with fish (though couldbarely taste the fish), and a great lentil soup of sorts as a dip to accompany it - so good, and I hadanother roti to go with it, plus an overly sweet can of chrysanthemum tea that said “not too sweet” on it.
Then I stopped back at the hotel. I considered going to the Communication Tower, perhaps the talleststructure here, with its own observation deck (plus a pricey restaurant and a banquet hall). But then, mostof the best views are from the exterior; the view from above - whether the John Hancock building inChicago, CN Tower in Toronto, or Communist-era Culture Palace in Warsaw - tends to be something todo more because its there.11:20pmRaffles 263 (again)I got cut off earlier, as my express pass with Tiger allowed me to be the first one to board the plane - asomewhat odd experience when it means walking outside along a passage to find your plane, and theresno one to point the way. With only an under-seat bag, I didnt even need to board early, but instincts kickin when its time to board, and its almost always better to board first so theres room for your stuff andthere arent any unexpected surprises when you get there. As it turns out, I had the second row on myside all to myself and was able to relax and read much of my book (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) alongthe way. That also led me to jump far ahead of my passengers at Singapore immigration, which waseasy, and I jumped right ahead to the cab line. Traffic was not as bad as I expected given the torrentialdownpour. Fortunately, that stopped more or less by the time I returned to the hotel, re-checked in, andgot my old room back - albeit with a new butler this time (I didnt really take advantage of my previousone).But Im all out of order today. Back to Kuala Lumpur:
Instead of hitting any kind of tower, I went to the Bird Park in the garden district. What an experience.With most attractions, I can go in and out really quickly, but here, I wanted to retrace my steps and makesure I didnt miss an inch of it. Its not every day that I could get my photo taken with a hornbill (and petthe prehistoric looking thing), get bitten by an ostrich (it stung a bit - a greedy one was trying to get all thegreens himself and was literally taking them from others mouths), and practically trip over peacocks,storks, and birds common and exotic. They were all fascinating, and so many were out in the open, andnot particularly shy. Certain ones, like the rhinoceros hornbill, the southern cassowary, and the scarlet ibiswere unlike anything Ive seen, while others mesmerized me just due to how close I could get to them. Iprobably could have stayed there all day. Given the heat, its better I didnt anyway.They’re real, and they’re spectacular
Here’s one shy, beautiful flamingoThe Southern Cassowary looks downright prehistoric – just look at those claws
Made for YouTube: ostrich bit my fingerNext season, all the birds will be sporting eyebrows like this owl
An older Chinese driver took me back to the hotel and agreed to meet me at 1 for the ride to the airport.The drivers continue to keep great company, and I regret not being able to spend more time with themoutside of the ride. The KL driver noted that he was from somewhere outside Shanghai (I couldnt quiteunderstand where) - a big factory city now. He had tried to go back home to visit, but the authoritarianMalaysian government was extremely anti-Communist and threatened to rip up his passport if he left, sohe didnt go back. His brother did go back home, and his passport was indeed chopped up. It is oftendisconcerting hearing of stories like this, whether relating to the relatively recent history (Malaysia andSingapore only came into being as we know them in the 1950s-60s) or current affairs, as there is somuch beauty and there are so many people prospering, but there are heavy prices people continue topay, even if, say, First Amendment rights arent the top priority for a lot of people living here. Other issueslike the economy just happen to be more important, so if you cant rock the boat and protest something,well, people have made worse bargains.I made it to the airport ahead of the counter opening at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (I didnt love beingin the B group). I was the first to check into the flight, and then security went fast - though some peoplereally like cutting lines, and I dont quite get it. I had some chicken rangan (???) wrap of sorts from aMalaysian crepe vendor downstairs, and awhile later boarded the flight.Back to today.Arriving at the hotel, with my disheveled look, the greeters seemed somewhat surprised that I was aguest, but they let me through the door.After getting to the room, I walked over to the first-ever World Street Food Festival; apparently AnthonyBourdain came in for it. While they had a bigger event around it, its S28 for access including S20 in foodvouchers. I wound up enjoying it so much that I bought two S10 bundles of more vouchers, giving the lastS6-7 to a surprised young American couple; I told them the vouchers werent worth anything outside ofthe venue so they should enjoy it, and declined their offer to pay cash for it. I had some great dishes:- Vietnam: a shrimp and langoustine on skewers, with delicious potato gnocchi balls- India: chicken 65 - a very flavorful, spicy fried chicken dish- Vietnam: noodles, squid, and chili crab - really though its their take on a Singaporean classic; theowners were excited I was coming to Hanoi and invited me to their restaurant there (I didn’t wind upgoing; there was too much great actual Vietnamese food to eat)- Thailand: banana, sweet potato, and taro fritters - I mentioned I was up for dessert, and they said its notdessert - its an appetizer. I said, "Well, its sweet, right?" Oh well. [I wound up snacking on fried bananaevery day I was in Bangkok, even if my local stand wasn’t open late enough to count as dessert]Also two cups of lime juice. Mmmmm.
From there, I got a cab to the Night Safari by the Singapore Zoo, one famous attraction many peoplerecommended. The cab driver said, "Thats far!" I said, "Yeah, thats why Im not walking." It was morethan a half hour drive away though - he wasnt kidding. On one hand, its a reminder of how big the placeis - a state, not just a city. On the other, in any major US city, it takes an hour to get from one part to amore distant one, at least with traffic. The safari was a lot of fun, though much less so having been on thereal thing in Africa. Seeing the animals up close from the tram was great, with the color commentary(though a little hard to understand, especially with unfamiliar words like animal names).There were some marvelous creatures I hadnt seen elsewhere, like the Asian rhino and the tiger, thoughwith larger animals especially, I felt bad that they didnt have more room. Granted, it beats being poachedto extinction. Then there was the Creatures of the Night show where I had a great seat for the fun, and itincluded acts like a wolf howling (actually, the wolves during the tram ride were downright eerie - theysounded human, while extraterrestrial at the same time, and at first I thought the noises were comingfrom people on the tram making fun of them) and otters recycling. It was better in person.Winding down now. Must rest for tomorrow. Until then...Wednesday, June 5Skyview Lounge, Changi International11:36amOkay, so I lied. I didnt get to write yesterday. It wasnt quite as full as other days, but another mostly goodday in Singapore.I woke up, started getting my act together, touched up my presentation in the business center, and thenwalked a couple blocks to the Crowdsourcing Week conference at Singapore Management University(yes, a very different SMU from the one in the US). It was a bit odd wearing a button-down shirt, leavingthe hotel looking more respectable than I had in the past. A cold was coming on, so I was on DayQuil,which made me a little spacey for the event - really the entirety of it - but fortunately didnt have anyadverse effects, and most importantly, I stayed awake through it all.One perk of having an event in Singapore is the food. Morning coffee included curry puffs, I had a ton ofmini eclairs during the day (okay, not very Singaporean), lunch had rice noodles and some decentchicken dish, and cream puffs came up at another point (ditto to above). Yet they didnt have cold drinks,so during the coffee break, I ducked out to try to find them. Of course, its always harder to find somethinglike that when you need it, and I found a Subway a few blocks away near another SMU building, where Ipicked up a water, Minute Maid orange pulpy (even less juice-like than their US concentrate, alas), and aCoke for some sugar and caffeine.The food wasn’t the best part of the conference, but it was a great bonus
Then I came back and soon after gave my talk on crowdsourcing in advertising and marketing. It wentover well, including some local references, like comparing myself coming down the aisle to the animalacts at the Night Safari, and noting my love of Merlion - an image that I couldnt comprehend when Iinitially pulled the deck together. Later in the afternoon, Id join a panel discussion.After the conference, I went back to my room at Raffles and couldnt get in; neither could the turndownguy who was trying to get in at the same time, and then after waiting for other staff - the butler, themanager - no one else could. They were able to reset it electronically after a wait, which I guess beatscalling a locksmith. Then they noticed my bag was dripping. It turns out the water bottle had opened andhad poured out into my bag, getting into a number of my things, including my good Canon camera, whosecase somehow absorbed a ton of water and spared the camera well enough, and the Kindle whose caseensured it didnt get a drop on it. Later, Id rig up the hair dryer by wrapping the bathrobe belt around it tohold the power button in place, and then put that in the closed backpack with the camera case to dryeverything; it worked pretty well.I joined KC from the conference and cabbed it with him to Lau Pa Sat, a renowned food court thatexpands as of 7pm with a number of other stands grilling fresh satay on a street that closes down. Wehad a number of local delicacies, including some great crispy cup with seafood paste. I had wanted to gothere anyway to try the char kway teow, the Singapore rice cake noodles, though the kind we got werentvery good (KC said they were the Indian ripoff, not the Chinese authentic version). Later, Id go out insearch of the real thing, and KC found me the local stand that had to be THE one - with the long line tomatch, and all the best of notices on the stall. It was fantastic, with a bit of heat to it, and clearly the dishthat Singapore is so famous for. Over pitchers of Tiger beer (which must cost a fortune - alcohol is taxedso high that drinks are routinely S15 or so a glass, or more), I bonded with others there.
Then I walked 25 minutes or so back to the hotel on a lovely night, though out here, even the most lovelynights get muggy and the heat adds up. I passed by Parliament and other familiar sights once I crossedthe river, made it back to the hotel, dried off and packed my stuff, and packed awhile after. Before, I madea pit stop in a nearby mall to check out the hubbub, visit a grocery store there which was the mostAmerican grocery store Ive been to outside of the US (even compared to the Caribbean), and get somechocolate bread (not quite rugelach, though it looked similar) and a delicious sponge cake (pillow breador something like that).On to this morning:Slept until 9, skipping breakfast with the orangutans at the zoo in favor of sleeping in and trying tominimize my cold, which still lingers, though isnt too bad.I packed up, said farewell to Roslee, the kindly concierge, who gave me his card and invited friends ofmine visiting to see him, even if they werent staying at Raffles. Then I checked out, stopping by ZhangSweekee for a rather proper, civil breakfast of milky sweet tea and the best kaya toast Ive had yet,reading the Straits Times to learn about travel apps, see how they want to have an open internet that stilllimits incendiary speech, and read about the honorary degree bestowed upon Singapores first primeminister who at 90 remains in the spotlight.A fond memory of Singapore: kaya toast (with coconut honey), milky tea, and The Straits Times
I got a cab to the airport, saying a final farewell to my Raffles friends, who all seemed so friendly this a.m.The cab driver asked if I was from the UK. When I said USA, he asked if I was from Massachusetts, andthen noted NYC was close enough. Before I left, he asked how far it was from NYC to Harvard. That wasall he really wanted to know. I asked why Harvard, and he said because its the best.Thank you, Singapore.I breezed through immigration and am now in the Cathay lounge, where I enjoyed pineapple juice and willhave some cup of tom yum noodle soup. I will miss this place.10:08pmLebua at State Tower, BangkokRoom 5129Its either a really good or bad sign when you cant remember what room youre in. I knew the floor, andsomeone up on the 51st floor asked me which room, and I had to ask him where the business center wasbecause I knew I was close to it.The flight was easy. Heavily populated with Indians, they all seemed to be a chatty bunch, as if there wasan enclave of Little India scattered around the plane. My cold didnt bother me too much, and while Ialready had a delicious cup o tom yum soup in the lounge, plus a few dumplings and pineapple juice, Ienjoyed some chicken and rice on the plane, with some bread, plus a horrible chocolate cake. I finishedBeautiful Forevers - wow, had no clue it was non-fiction - and started 500 Days, which should be a pageturner (it was).Immigration at the Bangkok airport took awhile; I was bound to get a long line sooner or later. Reading500 Days about the 9/11 aftermath made me somewhat paranoid when I was just behind two men whonot only were taking some time getting their passports checked but ultimately were pulled aside for somekind of extra screening, if not detention. And yes, I was just reading about the hijackers going through USsecurity at the time. Great choice there, Berko.I found an ATM at the airport and had options of 500, 1000, or 20,000 Thai Bhat, or a custom amount. Ihad glanced at the currency exchange board and saw it was about 30 dollars to the bhat but couldntprocess what 20,000 was while getting oriented. So yes, I defaulted to the largest amount and now haveabout $600 on me in a country where things dont seem to cost much. Food on the street tends to go forB30. The long taxi ride from the airport went for B400 and I gave him B500. To rent a taxi for the day, theposted rate is B2,500. So for the standard max amount that one can take out from the ATM machine, onecan rent a taxi for 8 days - not bad. Try doing that in New York with the $400 withdrawal. Whats fun isthat one can feel very generous here. The B30 fried chicken? Take B40. The B150 tuk tuk ride? TakeB200. I wont notice the difference in the 1 or 2 dollars, or even less, and it will make a far biggerdifference to them. Plus, when it comes to someone like a tuk tuk driver, I like encouraging honesty whenthey have the opportunity to cheat me. He could have doubled the rate, and I wouldnt have haggled, so a33% tip is a fair reward for good behavior. Note that tuk tuks are unmetered, as opposed to the cabs.After taking my time settling into the room, I got moving around 5:30pm, got a map of the city and somepointers from the hotel concierge, and then headed out the back door to the streets of Bangkok. Wow,what a rush. The hotel is right in the center of, well, everything. It was incredibly local. Lots of street foodvendors selling so many things I couldnt understand. Piles of durian outside a shop. People everywhere.Few crosswalks and clear places for pedestrians -- this is a city teeming with people but designed to bedeferential to those on anything wheeled, whether a car, tuk tuk, motorcycle, cart, truck, or somethingelse. I sampled a bag of fried banana at one food cart, and it was so incredible - maybe one of the bestthings Ive eaten. Just perfect. I was trying not to eat the whole bag because I wasnt starving to beginwith and wanted to find dinner somewhere, but it didnt help that I couldnt find a trashcan of any sort.
With some trial and error, I made it to the pier, not too far from my hotel if one knows where one is going. Iwas giddy on the boat ride down, a free ferry speeding to the gentrified upscale shopping and nightlifehub Asiatique, sort of a South Street Seaport, perhaps with a bit more going on after dark. Arriving rightaround dusk, I headed to the Ferris wheel, my third Ferris wheel in three different countries in threemonths. I had a private car on this one; few were heading there tonight though it was a full ferry goingdown. It made a pretty fast rotation, pausing some at the top, and once was plenty. The second time I putaway my camera and soaked everything in. And then it went around three more times. Hey, what else didI have to do? B250 - $8 well spent.
The shops were either mid/upper-mid local shops or souvenirs you could probably find anywhere, orthings youd find at Asia-philic stores in the US. I didnt trust the food to be particularly local or good,especially after my street food earlier. So I walked through, including the limited time dessert festival thathad desserts that were either too boring (most) or too Asian (most Asian desserts arent my thing, sorry)so I actually didnt buy anything. I went out looking for a cab, fortunate to have my umbrella with the rainhaving started earlier, and the tuk tuk driver picked me up, bringing me to the Patpong Night Market,another famous spot I had heard of and that was recommended by the concierge. Along the way, mydriver encountered a fellow tuk tuk driver friend, also with passengers – a couple of Middle Easternwomen, and the second driver asked me where I was going. I said the night market, and he said,"Shopping?" I said, "Just to look." He said, "Shopping for women?" No, thanks.The night market was crap. Total crap. Cheap souvenirs, knockoff clothing and accessories, uninspiringfood options, and lots of people promoting strip clubs, ping pong shows, and massage parlors.I escaped as soon as I could and got to a main road, passing through what seemed to be a sort ofJapantown street. The road was covered by stands selling local foods, souvenirs, routine items for sale,etc. When I finally broke through the awnings and checked out the other side of the street, there was highend shopping, including an Apple store. It was so strange to see the juxtaposition, and also crazy thatthere didnt even seem to be a break in the stalls for thru-traffic.I walked onward, trying to find my hotel, which was proving difficult since Google Maps said I should havebeen there already. Apparently Google was in a pranking mood tonight, and my hotel was a good halfmile or so beyond where it said. My print street map proved far more reliable. Before I went up to thehotel though, I looked for the fried banana stand - theres always money in the banana stand! - and it hadclearly closed for the night (if not moved on). Along the way, I picked up some mix of fried chicken andfish pieces - pretty good, especially the fish, and then some real fried chicken - great stuff. Then I hit up a7-11, which was fun to browse in its own right since they are good at adapting to local tastes. I got: aChang beer (terrible, terrible stuff - its motto should be "worse than Tiger"; I need to try a Singha), acarton of Pomegranate juice, orange Oreos that I thought were caramel, chocolate caramel cookies thatwere really chocolate caramel cookies, and salmon Lays that I didnt try yet.Now back. More tomorrow. Must sleep soon.The salmon Lays proved to be rather addictive; I’d get a few more bags of them during the trip
Thursday, June 6Lebua at State Tower 152910:10pmTheres a lot of activity in my suite tonight. I wish it was because of some happening party here, butinstead Ive got a plumber, an electrician, and two managers.Earlier, when I wasnt feeling well, I decided to relax and watch some TV this afternoon - something Icouldn’t readily do since the TV kept turning off every 5 or 10 minutes for a few stretches at a time.Granted, when watching a Stallone movie, it turns out you dont miss very much, but that also mightexplain why I had settled on a Stallone movie. I let the front desk know about the glitch when I left fordinner around 6, and they sent someone up to deal with it while I was gone, though thats in a manner ofspeaking. It turns out they sent someone up who couldnt replicate the problem, so they told me when Igot back that they didnt do anything, and to let them know if it happened again. Sure enough, as soon asI got back up, it happened repeatedly, at which point I told them that just because they couldntimmediately replicate the problem doesnt mean the problem doesnt exist, and that it basically assumesIm lying to them if they dont bother fixing something that I said was a nuisance.On top of it, it means now I get to deal with people in my room after 10pm rather than me unwinding. As Itold the manager, it doesnt even matter to me all that much since I watch so little TV in hotels, but thiswas going to happen for the next guest if they did nothing. Meanwhile, as I tried to watch a few of myshirts today in the sink, I noticed the water drained right away even with the sink stopped up, so I let themknow about that issue too - something I told them not to fix right now but what the heck, theyve got thewhole crew at my beck and call. Maybe theyll give it a fresh coat of paint while theyre at it. (As I wrotethis, the manager asked if the internet was working, and I mentioned it didnt work well in the bedroom -the joy of having a suite, so shes seeing if she can do anything about that.) At least they did finally giveme access to the balcony, which I already signed a waiver to access and yet it was locked. My instinctinitially was to try to pick the lock, but my MacGyver skills didnt do anything for me there. [Epilogue: aweek after I returned to NY, still fighting jet lag and not sleeping well, my phone rang at 4:50am; it was themanager of the hotel asking to hear more about what happened. I explained to him what time it was inNew York, and told him to never call me again. Yes, they’re that unprofessional there. Avoid them.]As for today:Woke up at 7, leisurely got ready, grabbed breakfast for a few minutes around 8 (nice spread - had someolive bread, pretzel roll, a couple dumplings, a delicious lemongrass juice/tea). Then I got to the bell manand asked for a cab. As one was coming, slow as it was, close to 8:15, I asked how long it took to get tothe hotel where my tuk tuk tour was starting, and they mentioned it could take an hour in Bangkoksmorning traffic. Google Maps said it would only take 15 minutes or so, marking yet another time Googletried to screw me here in Bangkok. (Now someoneis coming to install a wifi relay hub in my bedroomas they test the new TV that was brought in.) Theysaid the ferry would be faster, but Id still need towalk to and from the station, and I wouldnt knowexactly where I was going, so that might havebeen yet another challenge. Finally someonebrilliant suggested a motorcycle, and I went for it.A biker pulled up and said B200 ($6-7, $8 with tip)to get there. Perfect. I strapped on a helmet, heldon for dear life, and soon had the best views ofBangkok I could possibly get of any city, and itwas pretty smooth, except for an occasional needto stop sooner than expected. I was there in 15minutes - right around the time the tour guide wastelling the other guests I could be another halfhour longer, so more or less on time.
A view shot over the handlebars of the motorcycle taxiThen we were off in the tuk tuks – a Filipino sister duet laboring along with all the walking but doingalright, and very sweet; one is now in Malaysia and the other lives outside Dallas. Then there was a 60-something white Nova Scotian couple that loves New York and had gone to a wedding in Malaysia. Wehad 3 tuk tuks for the 6 of us, including the guide and I going in the one with the Disney floor mats. Thefirst stop was Santichaiprakarn Park and Phrasumane Fort to get a taste of Bangkoks history and how allthese Ramas (their kinds) connect with each other; the country currently boasts the worlds longestserving king, one who remains very active and very popular even as hes in his 80s. He and his wife arecurrently in the hospital, so a speedy recovery to them both.Then we headed to the amulet market. They sell quite a few amulets there. Bustling, fun market. Andstuff.Then came the main attraction today: Wat Pho, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. What (Wat) amasterpiece. Hard to describe much more than that, whether the Buddha himself or all the inventivestupas - even the Chinese flower made of broken teacups. Such a marvel of storytelling, and things likeall the paintings in Wat Pho get overshadowed because the sculptures are so overwhelming. Its alsohome to whats known as the country’s (worlds?) first public university, with the 1,440 marble inscriptions.I hope some photos do a bit of it justice, but its worth coming all the way over here just to see it.
Training for a backup career in case this marketing thing doesn’t work out
The reclining Buddha himself, though his pillow doesn’t look all that comfortable
An image from what’s said to be Thailand’s oldest public university
Then we hit the Temple of the Golden Mount, Wat Saket, once the highest point in Bangkok with itssweeping city views. The 318 steps were small and thus easy to manage; the first half of the walk is alsowell shaded, with waterfalls breaking the heat. I had my fortune told, and it said something like all mywishes will come true. Yay.Wish me luck
By the end, the cold was hitting me, and my nose was running way too much. I did a good job stayinghydrated, and I had to take some meds (DayQuil) during Wat Pho. I got back on the tuk tuk and had myleisurely ride (B200, +B50 tip - $8) back to Lebua. Before going up, sweaty and tired as I was, I still had tohit up the banana stand. There was a line, and the goods were being made fresh at the moment, so itwas a bit of a wait - but well worth it. I also learned I dont really like taro outside of chip form. The friedbananas were unbelievable though. I also got a spread: crepes with crab meat (fake) and chicken hotdog, steamed corn, and chicken skewers. Nothing was as good as the fried banana and sweet potato, butit was fun to sample and support the street carts here, and it ran me all of $4 - I think B130 for the wholespread, which could have fed two people.Then I did something rare here, something I didnt know quite how to do: I read a bit and napped, bothavoiding the heat and summoning strength. Thats when I discovered the TV was busted. It now clearlyworks, as does the internet. Yay. And soon I can use the sink again. A bottle of wine came up too, a 2011Cabernet Sauvignon from California, St George Select Reserve. Very good, but with my cold, Im notabout to partake too much. I just found it for $8.99 online, so even if theres some cost in importing it, atleast it wont totally be a waste if I dont drink much. There’s also a cheese plate.Once I got moving, with some effort, I headed down to report the TV issue, and then I asked theconcierge how to get to Thong Lo / Soi 38 where I heard there was some good street food. He keptwondering why Id want to go there, saying its far, and then that theres good street food in other areasnearby, and that Thong Lo was a very long street so once I got off the metro stop Id need to take a taxi(actually the street food area is right next to the station), and that theres good street food closer in areaslike Patpong (ugh), and that he could make a reservation somewhere good on Thong Lo. I tried to explainthat I knew where I wanted to go, and I just wanted to know the best way to get there, and if I was goingto take the BTS metro, I had never taken it before so I wanted to know how it worked. Ultimately, heobliged. I thought it was as much condescension as I could take for a week, until I came back to find outthey couldnt replicate my TV problem so they didnt do anything. Good cheese though.
This sign is almost as amazing as “Ladies Don’t Touch Monks” (see above)The street food was fine. Nothing special, but great atmosphere, and the area had one of the highestconcentrations of white folks Ive seen, though clearly locals were there too; it just didnt seem to be aspopular an actual neighborhood as perhaps the one Im in now, and this rougher street - fairly littleEnglish around, and not overly catering to tourists (the waitress spoke no English and understood just thebasics, like tell me how much money I need to pay) - was just off Thong Lo, a more sanitized, gentrifiedavenue that may not be Madison or 5th, but could pass for, say, Houston St or some stretch of 1st Ave.Unable to decide, I grabbed a table at the first one where someone actually offered me a table, in whatseemed to be someones abandoned driveway. The options were basically beef with stuff or pork withstuff, so I had some grilled and fried pork on rice, with a Singha beer (much better than Chang). The foodwas pretty good - nothing amazing, but it hit the spot.I walked on back, hitting up a 7-Eleven for some juice, ice cream, a bit of chocolate, and more salmonchips of course. I took the subway back, much easier the second time around, getting off one stop earlierso I could see yet another stretch. I had to keep playing the human shield game; one Thai gentleman atThong Lo even noticed and cued me when to cross. But I did get to cross a few on my own.Now its NyQuil time.
Oh, there was an adorable, golden cat outside a shop by my hotel that I played with. He was cravingattention and was SO happy for me to visit him before I headed to dinner. And a couple of adorablepooches were in a convenience store near my hotel as I was coming back.My new cat friend that I met on the street by my hotelFriday, June 7Lebua at State Tower, 51296:06pmThis morning, I woke up still battling a cold, and woke up too early - 7am. One bonus: it was the longest Iwas able to talk to C, getting a good half hour in. Its crazy to think that this two week trip has flown by tothe point that I only have a few more days to go, with one night here, three nights in Hanoi, and one nightin Shanghai, plus a long flight back from there - all with lots of travel in between that will make it go faster.What a trip though, to be able to see all these places, and to get comfortable in these different parts of theworld, and to not go totally crazy alone this much.
When I got moving, I first went down for breakfast around 9:30. I had a fun spread - another pretzel rolland olive roll, and some sushi, plus some tea and some pandanam leaf juice, which was a bit odd butpretty refreshing. Then it was time to hit the road, walking to the ferry station and buying a B150 daypass, likely more than I needed but not a bad deal ($5 – and I took enough trips to make it worth the daypass too). Weather and energy permitting, Ill take one more ride on the river after dark, which should hitin about an hour. It did help napping most of the ferry ride up to Tha Tien, before taking the B3 ferryacross.The first stop was Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, the Eiffel Tower of Buddhist stupas here, and a marvelof a complex. Its a rare one that you can climb, and the steps get steeper with each level, so its a slog inthe hot sun, and I tried not to go too far too fast, given my experience in KL. I also hydrated frequently,getting a couple boxes of pomegranate punch there and a root beer soon after, with more to come. Again,words wont do much justice to Wat Arun, so I hope the photos will add something here.The guardian of Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn
I ferried it back the other way and walked up along the water opposite the palace. There, several localstried befriending me - three different ones, in fact, to tell me that the palace was closed for a few hoursuntil 3 (they gave a few different times), with the likely scam being that theyd con me into going with themor their friend in the taxi to some other site, and then overcharging for that, and perhaps along the waytrying to convince me to go to some other souvenir shop, show, tailor, or something else. The first guyultimately seemed suspicious enough, the second guy had me for a second but then I saw people insidethe palace compound through a back door (he tried telling me they got tickets earlier but tickets were nolonger sold), and the third one was just a nuisance. On one hand, thats all it is - a nuisance. The third onewas actually trying to con me right outside a sign that said to beware of "wily" people (Im blanking on theword and was just trying to avoid him rather than take a photo) while an announcement was beingbroadcast in English to people near the Palace to not listen to any locals. On the other hand, for someonelike me, who only has a couple days in Bangkok and wants to see the single most important attraction(the combined palace and emerald temple), Id have had to totally miss it if I actually believed them. Andfrankly, beyond being a veteran tourist who also took his lumps getting conned elsewhere (namelyBeijing), it is so hot and tiring there, and its such a sensory overload, that a lot of people who might thinkthey know better must fall for this all the time, especially with so many people trying to prey on tourists likeme.When I left the compound, I got a cab driver who charged me B200 to go visit the famous red swing (anominal local monument) and then go to a ferry station not too far away, and he wanted to see if I hadtime for him to stop at someplace to get a stamp - but a place where it seemed he wanted me to visit hisfriends shop, and he was offering to drive me further for no extra charge, meaning he had other ruses inplace. He kept trying to work other angles. I would have held off paying the B200, but really, its $6, and Iwas beyond spent, and because the guy was an ass I didnt tip him (he didnt seem too appreciative thathe could only get B200 out of me - when I thanked him for the ride and paid him, he just stoically satthere, so I guess the good news is he expected to rip me off far worse). That kind of con is moretolerable, though not great, and frankly I could have waited for a metered cab or haggled. Its a realdanger though, since psychologically, I also rationally accepted that I only had the strength to turn downso many con-men, and if it was someone who was at least doing what I needed him to do, I accepted it.All in all though, Im far more okay with the idea of these people finding ways to pry tourists of their moneythan I am in having them deprive people of their potentially once in a lifetime chance to see one of themost famous sights in Thailand. Thats the piece that rattles me.His and Her Majesty should crack down on the con artists swarming outside their palace
Anyway... After escaping the con artists, I got my ticket to the palace and temple - B500, a relatively heftysum in this country -- $16-17, albeit at a place one could pass much of the day. I didnt see much openrelating to the palace itself, so that part was underwhelming, and I thought there would be more shopsand cafes too. Either I went the wrong way or they arent milking this enough. The temples were striking,covered ingold leaf, and one could spend weeks reading through the stories painted and drawn on all thewalls. There were also staggering numbers of sculptures, from the Chinese lions to the guardian warriors.Marvelous. And hot. Did I mention hot?
I paid around B250 at Haagen Dazs at the end of the compound for a wonderful caramel cookie crunchmilkshake - small, and value-wise, the most expensive thing Ive encountered so far in Thailand ($8). Butdamn was it perfect, and the workers there got a kick out of me putting the cup against my head. Notethough that everyone here also seems to be feeling the heat, so it isnt just a tourist thing. Enough of thelocals seem to be dying on this day where the heat index is topping 100.Got the cab to the swing (very briefly) and then the ferry, which took me back. A lot of vendors wereselling food around there. I got 4 fried chicken drumsticks from one, and a teenage son was serving themwith his mom in the back keeping an eye on things; I paid B70 for the B60 order, telling him to keep thechange. By paying just over $2 and giving a tip of $0.35, he not only thanked me sincerely, but I lookedback to see him and his mom beaming. I clearly made the kids day. I also needed that, going back todealing with the honest, hardworking laborers here who appreciate every bhat, rather than those lookingfor suckers to con. There are all kinds of people everywhere, and the chicken boy is the one I want toremember. A few paces down, I saw a woman selling empanadas that looked good, so I got twomushroom ones - B14, I paid B20. She was so appreciative and insisted on giving me a third rather thanaccepting a tip of less than a quarter. Another delight. Then I hit 7-Eleven to buy a stash of fruit juice (6small boxes since they had no big cartons of what I liked), Halls, some Kleenex, maybe another thing ortwo. Then I hit the fried banana stall, where the couple was making a batch fresh, and I was first on line.Despite the heat, and the added heat emanating from his pot, I had to wait for more of this. Actually, Ishould sample one now. BRB.Got it. Though they are so much better when fresh and crispy.Ive been at the hotel since, what, 1:30, 2? I had TV issues again, with it cutting out, and then some errormessage appearing on HBO while I was watching Ghost. Someone called me back from the hotel to tellme that it was because it was supposed to rain heavily. It still hasnt rained a drop here today. It issomewhat cloudy though. Also, my safe reset itself and I couldnt access it, so two guys had to come uphere and reset it manually. This place is the nicest dump I ever stayed at.
I tried going up to the roof to see the view. It doesnt open until 6. And the guy warned me not to wearopen toed shoes. Screw it. Im tired of this hotel letting me down. I did have a nice swim in the poolthough, and read a bit more there. Oh, and HBO returned after awhile so I could catch the end of Ghost.Time to go night boating. Then I can call it a night.11:12pmLebua 5129A fine evening. I took advantage of my day pass and headed up and down the river. It was peaceful,seeing the city lit up, and catching sights that were easier to miss by day, such as a white church, so plainby comparison to all the ornate Buddhist temples. At night, Wat Arun is particularly striking, but itsimpossible to appreciate without seeing the detail up close by day.On the way to the ferry, I passed by a bustling marketplace, indoor and outdoor. People seem to buy andsell anything here, and the whole nature of shopping has hardly been Westernized in full here (thoughwhats up with the Swensons ice cream shops?). I returned that way for dinner, and while most thingswere closed, I ordered a satisfying chicken and noodle dish from a shop that took quite awhile to prepareit. Then, 7-Eleven - more juice, and some ice cream (actually, at two separate ones). Another walk alongthe street, a discarded durian by the side of the road.Now in, talked to C, and readying myself for tomorrows adventure ahead.
Saturday, June 8Essence Hanoi, Room 30510:17pmThe Singapore-KL-Singapore-Bangkok-Hanoi journal reaches its fourth act (depending on how you defineit), though hardly a denouement, if today is any indication. Im here in the top rated hotel in Hanoi, basedon TripAdvisor, and its a lovely spot, very central in the old city.I woke up around 7 this morning, talked to C, and then had breakfast (more dumplings and olive bread)before checking out. There was a note on my room that the hotel manager wanted to talk to me before Ileft, but I told the receptionist that I just wanted to get to the airport, though I agreed he could find meoutside by the cab. It took at least 5 minutes, maybe 10, for the cab to come, but the manager never did -typical for Lebuas esteemed service.Checking in was easy, and lines were minimal around the airport today. I spent some bhat on a couplenice enough souvenirs but still wound up with more than half of my cash that I had taken out in Bangkok -more than $300 US. With Singapore and KL, I had predicted it far better, and wound up donating the restof those bills to the airport charity fund. Fortunately, I had a few hundred-bhat bills for the one vendingmachine I could find; Thailands airport - at least its international terminal - has the lowest number ofbathrooms and cold drink vendors Ive seen per square foot in any airport. I worked up a sweat trying tofind a bathroom. Meanwhile, drugged up and trying to hydrate while also craving sugar, I used my bhat-bills for a few bottles of lemon lime Gatorade and a couple packs of chocolate wafers.I crashed pretty quickly on the flight and woke up as we started the descent, which was painful enoughwith my cold. Soon enough though, I was down in Vietnam. From above, it was so picturesque - thegreen mountains, the brown rivers. It was pretty much everything I imagined it would be, and thats beentrue of much of my day here so far.It’s not hard to take beautiful photos of Vietnam
I exchanged my bhat for dong, which now go for around 20,000 dong to the dollar, so Ive got wads of200,000 dong bills, which - while only $10 bills - go a REALLY long way here. The hourlong cab ride wassomething like D400,000, maybe 450K, and I think Ill mostly be trafficking with 50s here.Got to the hotel. A receptionist was very courteous, walking me through everything from local highlights tohow the hotel and my room work. Its a charming place, pretty elegant - living up to its name - even if notquite as fancy as a five-star spot. Speaking of prices, the minibar prices are always telling. In Singapore,beer from the minibar went for something like $15. Here, the prices are in dollars, and full-size cans ofsoda are $0.80, beer is $1.50, and most snacks are more or less a buck. Yes, these are the jacked upprices. Also surprising: not only is there internet in the rooms, but there are IBM/Lenovo laptopshardwired. I talked to C on Skype with 0 disconnections.I got to the hotel around 2:45. By 3:15, I was off, getting a cab to the Hoa Lo Prison ("Hanoi Hilton) -D35,000 (I rounded it up to 50 - yeah, pimping it out bigtime here peeling off the 50s, yo). Its a movingplace, a museum mostly showing how the French colonialists tortured the Vietnamese, a few roomshonoring the Vietnamese patriots, and then a few fascinating rooms showing how relatively well theAmericans were treated when guests of the Vietnamese who shot down their B-52s and other planes(the showpiece: John McCains flight suit and parachute). Theres a lot of chest-thumping propaganda,but they also happen to be on the right side of history: foreign powers tried to meddle here and wereingloriously defeated, and Vietnam is now a thriving member of the global community. They won, we lost,and we shouldnt have been here to begin with, so let them tell their story and rub it in.McCain couldn’t check out anytime he’d like, but he could eventually leave
I found a taxi outside that was supposedly using the meter, but my guard was up when he started tryingto get me to destinations that were further out, and I knew his meter was rigged. It was going upridiculously fast, far more than my taxi coming over to the museum, so I had him pull over and urged himnot to cheat people. That wont do much good, but at least he didnt get a fare out of it.Then I wound up who-knew-where in the middle of Hanoi. Fortunately, having access to Google Maps onmy phone. I was within a reasonable walk of the B-52 museum, something recommended by the con-man, and it happened to be a good idea. The next person I found who was willing to take me around wasa motorcycle driver, so what the heck. He gave me a spare helmet, and we were off through the streetswhere motorcycles far outnumber cars, and traffic just does its own dance where there are few rules buteveryone knows them. Crossing the street as a pedestrian initially seemed daunting, but theres only onerule you need to know in a place where there arent traffic lights or walk signals: walk confidentially, andeveryone else will find their way around you. Thats essentially the main rule for anyone in the streets,whether on food, bike, motorbike, or in a car or some other contraption.In Hanoi, motorcycles are really the only way to travelWhats also surprising here is how many white people are around. Im hearing a range of accents, so itsnot clear which groups predominate, but Ive already seen more whites in Hanoi than I have in the otherdestinations. Perhaps Ill soon figure out why that is. [The closest thing I heard to an explanation was thatBangkok, now said to be the most popular destination for international tourists, is overplayed, soeveryone’s flocking to Hanoi. It reminds me of the Yogi Berra-ism – it’s so crowded, nobody goes thereanymore.]I loved the moto taxi ride, and wound up at the site of the downed B-52 remains in a small pond thatserved as a sort of town square; a poorer community was residing around it, so it was odd being a touristin this neighborhood. I hadnt known where that B-52 was though, and its literally off my map, so it wasgreat that the taxi driver took me. He and his colleague hadnt known what I was indicating, even whenshowing them my map, but when I waved my arms to indicate a plane crashing, they got it right away.Maybe I should play more charades.
While the heat was blistering and my head was still feeling too stuffed up (the plane didnt help there), Iwas determined to see more, so I tried navigating streets that werent even on the Google Map until Ifound some main road and got to the front of the B-52 museum, whatever its called. I couldnt findanyone working there, but its a massive building with grand columns, and a lawn covered with wreckageof planes, plus the anti-aircraft guns that shot them down. There wasnt much shade, and I followed someother young guy taking pictures there into the second story of the museum, but that didnt prove toohelpful since there wasnt any English.This is one museum the Vietnamese would love Americans to visitI went out, looking for a cold drink, and that again proved elusive today. I did find another moto taxi andwas off through the streets to the Hoan Kiem Lake, essentially Hanois Central Park, bustling with touristsand locals, with various sculptures dotting it. The biggest attraction was an old Chinese temple complexspanning either side of a bridge that went into the lake, and it was especially popular for Chinese goingthere to pay their respects to their ancestors and ancient heroes. Beautiful.Then I walked through the bustling old city - wait, I forgot the biggest highlight -- sitting at a cafe where Iwas able to get a cold can of Coke, with some effort (and there were a couple of ADORABLE pugsplaying around there; there are some really fun animals around, including one passive aggressive poochthat was feisty with me in the old city). the old city isnt what I was expecting. Its almost Middle Eastern -a whole breed of its own chaos, rather than a reverent and polished historical charm.
Okay, so it’s not exactly the vision of world peace that America envisioned in the 50s-70s
In Vietnam, if you want good luck, make friends with a turtle
I got to the Q Quan Chuong arch, presumably an old city wall, and wound up close to the Long BienBridge, a symbolic highlight here - a bridge the Americans bombed repeatedly but that kept gettingrebuilt. Lonely Planet said take a motorcycle taxi across. The problem was finding one when I needed it. Itisnt clear which is a moto taxi and which isnt, so I pulled out my map and tried looking like even more ofa tourist. Finally, one stopped for me. I motioned on the map that I wanted to go across the bridge andback, and he got the gist. He said D30,000 (I gave 50 - $2.50).What happened next felt like it was out of a movie. There is so much beauty here, from the rusting, ironbridge full of life - it houses train tracks and otherwise is designed for pedestrians, bikes, and motorcycles- no cars. Its massive, at 2.5km, so its a lengthy ride, especially given how you cant go incredibly fastwith all the traffic. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful settings Ive ever been in, right at dusk too -almost too dark to take photos, with the sliver of orange sinking behind the city before the darkness set in.Thanks, Hanoi, if only for that. You can do it by foot, but the moto adds that motion to it - that cinematiceffect. Thanks, Lonely Planet.
I got back sweatier than Ive been yet, which says a lot, especially since I changed shirts when I firstarrived at the hotel. I spent some time unwinding at the hotel, watching a bit of some Chinese teleplay ona TV that doesnt shut off on me.This writer better win some kind of Asian Emmy,and any actor who can own that line deserves a nomination too
For dinner, I considered exploring more, but the restaurant in the hotel, Essence Cafe, is one of the bestrated on TripAdvisor (now #2), so I gave it a shot. Outstanding - and actually, revelatory. The service wassweet - just enough English to get the gist, but enough of a stretch to feel like Im somewhere else. Itsbeen so rare that Ive eaten at restaurants at all on this trip, but Im glad I spent some time at this one. Igot a Hanoi beer (ehh, at least its local) and a pineapple papaya lassi (wonderful). They served shrimpchips instead of bread - a fun change of pace. It was hard to tell much by the menu - all English, and a lotof very European options, which is common enough here, but they had some great local fare listed. Still,the descriptions werent jaw-dropping, and they did not do justice to the food. I had the Huế spring rolls tostart (Huế being an increasingly popular tourist destination in central Vietnam), and they were so lightand fresh, filled with a bit of shrimp and pork supposedly but also fruit, some nuts, and greens, and thedipping sauce had just enough of a kick and so much flavor, like a fruity, liquid salsa. Perfect. And thencame the grilled fish, which really didnt sound that interesting but the waitress recommended it, and whata recommendation. The grilled fish would have stood out on its own, but it came with sheets of rice paperto use as pancakes, with vermicelli and green herbs to mix in (plus fried onions and nuts, which I didntuse much of), and that same dipping sauce. Ive never had anything like it, but damn do I hope to. Simplyan excellent dish that I may need to have again before I go home, especially if my cold breaks.Back at the room, and now its already Sunday. Must rest up.
Sunday, June 96pmEssence Hanoi, 305Less drugs, and rockin phoIts a good day when Im not quite as drugged up as I have been. Okay, I took three doses of Tylenol, butthats childs stuff, and I did the antihistamine this morning, but its some random drug from Bangkok, andIm not totally sure it works. It feels good to take something, but something less strong than DayQuil.Granted, getting out of bed this morning wasnt the easiest thing, and my head was pretty off (NyQuildidnt help there, of course). But Im in a better place than I was. So, yay.After waking seconds before my alarm, I got ready and went downstairs, where I met guide Tu at around8:15. C sent me a writeup on his food tours - perhaps in CNN Travel. Hes been getting a ton of publicityfor them and seems to be booked at a healthy clip. When I asked him if the recent coverage helpedbusiness, he was rattling off the top tier outlets, so the answer was basically, "Yes, but which one? I cantkeep track." He says hes been doing the tours for five years and has been in hospitality for 20, though itshard to believe, unless he was indentured as a child.We covered a ton of ground, and with the blazing sun (can I possibly go three paragraphs withoutmentioning the heat? Perhaps not, but its a defining factor of just about every experience, especially as Ican viscerally recall how sweaty Ive been at each attraction and event), it proved to be pretty depleting.Tu didnt want to leave anything out, and there constantly seemed to be more than what we bargained for.Tu hailed a cab and we made it to another Elegance Group hotel, the Ruby, to pick up R and K, twosisters traveling from Manila to Hanoi for R’s birthday. They had booked Tu already, so it was thanks tothem that they let me join in the celebration. They have a sister in NYC, and Im now Facebook friendswith all of them.Breaking bread (okay, soup) with my new Filipino friends
The day started with a delicious fish stew - bun ca - where we also learned some of the basics of eatingat local spots (cleaning the chopsticks with small citrus fruits, etc). Then it was a rice noodle pancake ofsorts filled with pork, mushroom, shallots, and more. We stopped for coffee somewhere where I had apassion fruit smoothie - this was the 8.5 floor “Being John Malkovich” spot, as I had to hunch over to duckdown on the second floor. We had some ice cream along the way, with cones so fresh that theyresembled crispy crepes - made daily (just like home!). We also passed by the lake, Truc Bach, whereJohn McCains plane was downed; theres now a monument recognizing it (this city wont miss a chanceto gloat about downing planes).The gist of this monument: USA surrenders as it goes down in flames (see the “USA” to the right)Then we hit the market, very much alive, where Tu gave us a lesson in fresh herbs, vegetables, andseafood that is, well, alive. We missed seeing some pig butchering and the like, but its safe to say thereslittle need for refrigeration of anything here.
The markets here bring new meaning to what New Yorkers know of as FreshDirect
And on we went. There were fried shrimp cakes - essentially deep fried English muffins with half of ashrimp on it (want the head or tail? you pick!). Perhaps my favorite stop was for Egg Coffee at Cafe Giang1946, though I had an egg beer, which explains why I liked it. Basically, its a sweet custard of egg yolk,condensed milk, and sugar, and then you pour beer into it. Its essentially a dessert michelada, orVietnamese eggnog. Here, Christmas comes even in June!We closed with a couple noodle dishes, one pork, one beef (the pork broth was my favorite), but I wasgetting pretty full at that point, and Rai was wondering if I had even tried my beef dish (washed down withHanoi beer; the egg beer was with Saigon beer). I mentioned to Tu that banh mi was pretty popular nowin NY, and he said those are good in the middle of the country, but not Hanoi. We wrapped up at a store,where Tu got R a present for her birthday, and I got a present for me. Excellent tour overall, and Idheartily recommend anyone reaching out to Tu if theyre coming here.
Heres Tus email recap:Thank you for choosing the street food tour with us. I hope you had a fun morning.Here are some links: Bun ca http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2011/03/fish-dish.html Banh Cuon: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/11/third_time_luck.html Cafe Duy Tri: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/01/barista_artista.html Market http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/market_meanderings/ Banh Tom: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/04/at_the_bottom_e.html Pho Tiu http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2005/07/there_are_not_e.html Bun Bo NamBo: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2005/07/wham_bam_thanky.html Egg Coffee: http://streetfoodtourshanoi.blogspot.com/2012/04/egg-coffee.html Quan Kien: 143 Nghi Tam Street Cha Ca Thang Long: 21-31 Duong Thanh Street Summit Lounge: Sofitel Plaza hotelHave a great trip and take careRegards,TuPS: if you have a few minutes, please visit our website and your comment will very much help ourbusiness.http://streetfoodtourshanoi.blogspot.com/---After that, I came back to the hotel for some precious AC, and then fell asleep pretty quickly, dozing offfor a couple hours. I mustered some strength to stir, and got a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, whichwas closed, but I at least got to see the compound, and the one-pillar Chinese pagoda by it. Pretty overallbut not terribly interesting. A few people wanted to pose with me for photos, and I obliged, but when theyasked if they wanted me to take a picture with them, I felt there was some kind of scam going on, so Iwalked away checking my pockets carefully and declining to engage with them further.This is part of a larger sign at the mausoleum, but I think everyone has to take this photo
Then I got a moto to the Temple of Literature, a beautiful Chinese complex considered Vietnams oldestuniversity - which was more interesting in conjunction with Bangkoks Wat Pho being their oldestuniversity. So basically Im just touring a lot of college towns. Literature wasnt the prettiest temple Iveseen, so I didnt dally too much there, but it was nice to check out while Im here. Then I declined a lot ofmoto and taxi requests as I walked over to the citadel complex to see some more Hanoi history. Therewas a fair amount of English, and it was fun seeing some of the old city walls and the like, but it wasnt awell put together museum or showpiece just yet. Theyre still doing a lot of excavation though, so itsprobably an exhibit that will improve with time. Then I took another moto to the Sofitel Plaza (one of twohere - I almost stayed at the other, in the French Quarter) for whats said to be the best views of Hanoi,and it didnt disappoint. The bridge in the distance is especially striking, one under construction - I saw iton the ride to the airport, and it should be a masterpiece. I had a lovely banana, pineapple, strawberryhoney smoothie while watching the start of sunset there, reading 500 Days on my Kindle. Even with thesun, I still had to enjoy the corner seat outside, though I was the only one who stayed out for long.Then I got a Taximeter back; Tu, the Essence staff and then Sofitel made it clear thats the only reallygreat, honest cab group. Thats why I stick to motos; they never overcharge. More fun too.Back at the hotel now. Water Puppet Theater coming up in a few. And dinner.Yet another beautiful spot in Hanoi: sunset over the Sofitel
The bridge that may soon define the Hanoi landscape
11:35pmEssence Hanoi, Room 305I walked out to Cha Ca Thang Long, per Tus recommendation. It was a bit hard to find based on GoogleMaps (damn you again, Google), but it was easy to navigate the menu. I had to go to the overflowrestaurant; really, its two identical spots almost next door to each other. In between, on the sidewalk,theyre preparing the herbs fresh right there. You get there, sit down at a table, and theres a portablestove on it, with a big pot of herbs and greens next to it, and then all the local accompaniments I gotfamiliar with today came out: some more green herbs, a bit of banana root or something like that, somered chili peppers, fish broth, white noodles, peanuts. I stirred a couple chili peppers in to the fish sauce toflavor it. Then they came by and turned on the stove, poured a whole mess of the herbs and greens intothe pan, added several chunks of marinated fish, and got it cooking. They took my drink order andbrought a Saigon beer. Then the waiter cut my bowl of noodles into manageable chunks with shears, andgave me a demo of how to assemble the dish so I could watch and learn. Then, eating. Wow. Just sowonderfully fresh, full of flavor, healthful, delicious. One dish, done perfectly. Quick, easy, delicious, justwhat I needed.If you only serve one dish, you better do it well – and they do
Then I walked over to the water puppet theater. It was fun for a bit, and I enjoyed chatting with a Germancouple visiting Hanoi as part of a few weeks in Vietnam. I didnt realize the Germans are not part of themore typical European approach to getting a ton of vacation; they have three weeks, and this couple usesit in one shot, sticking to getting to know one country well. Theres something to it, even if its not my style.The puppets were fun, and often endearing, and it was surprising to see the puppeteers were actually inthe water (isnt there an easier way?). There was enough on-screen translation. But the show had abunch of issues with it, beyond that its water puppet theater. They hide most of the musicians, and thatsperhaps the more interesting part - the live music and singing. The puppets dont have much of a range ofmotion; they have a lot of different puppets, but each one can pretty much just move their arms and legsa single way. And then the dumbest part is that the most interesting puppets - a dragon and somepeacock thing, with the dragon shooting water out of its mouth and doing all kinds of flips - is in the firstact, so it all goes downhill from there. The dragon doesnt even come out again in the grand finale. Whatthe @*$! is wrong with them? Didnt they win some award at Vietnams third annual puppet festival lastyear for best in show? What was the second place winner, a ventriloquist act? Theyve already importedCoffee Bean, KFC, and Coca-Cola; now lets get Spielberg over here. He shouldnt have the same causeto boycott it like he did the Beijing Olympics. There are no violations of human rights going on that I cantell - just violations of artistic sensibilities.Next door, I grabbed a cold Pepsi at some kind of fast food chain, Lotteria. It was so cold, I got a second.The ice cream wasnt so good though - NWTC*. (*”Not worth the calories,” in case I have no clue whatthat means when reading this years from now.) I paid them with a 200,000 dong bill, which is only $10.True to Vietnam, they asked if I had anything smaller. In case you missed it, they asked for somethingsmaller than a $10 bill!Got back, sweaty as ever even by just walking around a few minutes. The area by the theater reeked ofsmoke, so hopefully Hanoi isnt on fire, and it was just, well, reeking of smoke. Now its late. And Ive got aHa-LONG day tomorrow. Oy.
Monday, June 10Essence Hanoi 3058:10pmThe last full day as a tourist is winding down. Drained - not enough sleep, and perhaps 7 hours in a carwas too much. But today was wonderful - the scenes of the countryside, the rice, the tile murals again ofHanoi, Foxconn and the factory zone, Chinese pagodas intermixed with Christian headstones, tributes toor from Russia and China, unfinished bridges, duck farms, constant labor, constant towns shifting tofarmland and back again while always producing something, aimless drivers, a tour bus shifting to the leftlane and back to the right only to shift left again a moment later, an ambulance with its light flashing butdriving slower than anything else on the road, the manic Dong bus trying to overtake anything,Foursquare and Travelers Quest, limestone mountains, water, caves, boat, lunch, erstwhile guide whoguides little, driver who drives a lot.A 7:30 pickup, following a brief breakfast - croissant, a creme caramel, passion fruit juice. Lots of yellow.Got picked up, went into the big van. Not the most comfortable for such a long day trip, but it sufficed. Itwas pouring, and we ran the risk of getting turned around before the trip began. We picked up threeAustralians, all perhaps in their 60s - a couple traveling together (the woman: Betsy Ross; I shared abond of having a famous name), and another Aussie who happened to be staying at the same place. Thehusband - I forget his name - was quite chatty. A veteran of the banking industry, he spent some time inPapua New Guinea and other places not quite that exotic and had some good stories to tell. Hes one ofthose foreigners Ive encountered traveling who doesnt match up neatly with the American politicalspectrum; hed probably have voted Democratic in quite a few of the past American elections, but wouldline up with a moderate fiscally and socially conservative if such a candidate was running. Hes also oneof these breeds who probably isnt outright a bigot, but says a lot of things that get into that territory - mostobvious initially with gays, but then once he picked up on me being Jewish (perhaps just from hearing myname and making a few assumptions), he made increasing references about Israel (very pro-Israel, as henoted was the sentiment in Australia, albeit at the expense to some degree of Muslims, such as hismocking of a Muslim Aussie political candidate whos known as Jihad Sheila). His Jewish remarks thenreached a crescendo when he brought up something about Facebook and the dispute with theWinkelvoss twins over its founding, and he said, "Well, you Jews are always after the money." It was in atone Ive heard before - that veil of accepted anti-Semitism couched as humor, and I let it pass. It was onthe way down to Halong Bay where wed be in close quarters together for way too long. And much of therest of the conversation was quite pleasant, largely talking about various systemic differences in the USand Australian approaches to the housing market, healthcare, immigration, and other sweeping issues.The Bay is too pretty to let a little Australian bigotry ruin the fun