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Asia Trip 2011: Day 5 – Halong Bay and the Overnight Train

I didn’t wake up for the sunrise at 5am, but finally dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 for a tai chi session on the deck. It ended up being just the Indonesia couple, Jeff and Kathy, and myself. We had a lot of fun, and we could see in the distance that several other boats were conducting morning stretches as well with their passengers. Breakfast was at 7:30am sharp, and everyone gathered for the usual eggs and toast. But shortly after that, we all had to pack and empty our rooms by 9am. We said our quick good byes to a lot of the passengers as they were going off to the town for an overnight sleep as part of the 3 day – 2 night tour. Jeff and Kathy, as well as two other couples stayed behind and we basically sat around on the deck for almost an hour with nothing to do since the guides left with the other passengers on the small boat to drop them off. It was a bit confusing, since everyone was gone and we were left on the almost-deserted boat with no schedule as to what was going to happen next.

We took some silly photos (of course there had to be a Titanic shot, how could there not?) and Jeff and Kathy took a short video for their trip, and we lay in the sun until finally we saw our guide boat in the distance. After they got back and settled in, we had a spring roll making session. It was a bit of a cheat, since all the vegetables were cut up for us already (which is the hardest part), and all we had to do was roll them up, but it was still fun. They ended up being in our lunch menu, so I’m glad we put some effort into them! The boat slowly made its way back to the bay and when we docked, we ate our midday meal amongst a gazillion other junk boats in the polluted harbour with exhaust fumes rolling in from the window. The plumbing water was either turned off by then or something, because the communal toilet stopped flushing and the water stopped running. I guess it was alright, since it also ran out of toilet paper. We stood around for another half an hour until we were shuffled to the smaller boat and brought to shore.

After a bit of confusion, we finally made our way to a bus that we shared with another group of tourists coming back from their Halong Bay tour. As we were getting dropped off in the city, we arranged with Jeff & Kathy to meet up at the train station in hopes of bunking together for the overnighter to Hue. A and I ran some quick errands in the city – I went and bought myself several banh mi to last the train ride and ordered one last bun cha while we gathered our info for the next leg of our trip.

Confusion: when you purchase train tickets through your hotel, you are given a postcard-like piece of paper with a picture of Hanoi on it, and a little slip of paper stapled to it saying you need to redeem it at the station for your train ticket. People who don’t pay attention immediately think this is their train ticket, and then get really confused when they try to board. People who do pay attention arrive at the station at the designated time on the paper, only to be equally confused when no one there speaks English and no one knows what this paper is. Imagine our panic when we tried to get someone to look at our receipt, only to be sent in different directions each time. Even more strange, once the train arrived and all the locals started boarding, it became apparent that only the tourists were left standing in the station wondering what to do with this paper.

Half an hour later, a girl rolls in with a stack of tickets and starts reading confirmation numbers out. We traded our receipt in for a ticket, and found out that all the tourists are bunking in the same carriage, which is comforting to know. Jeff and Kathy asked their roommates very sweetly to swap with us so we could hang out together for the night, and they were so kind to agree.

The train car held about 6 cabins, each cabin holding 4 beds. There were also extra small cabins at either end of our car (about a third of the size of ours at the most) that crammed in three local riders. I felt as though the quality of the bedding and the cleanliness of our cabins, though still nowhere close to our comfort levels, were probably at the tops in comparison to every local resident riding the train. We ate our dinners and slowly settled into our beds for the night.

The train ride was fairly uneventful except for two incidents. One, the train pulled into a small town in the middle of the night and came to a stop for a half hour. The braking movement jolted me awake, and in my sleepy state, I decided to try and use the washrooms. Apparently, trains lock their bathrooms automatically when they stop in the station. I suspect it’s to ensure no one sneaks into the bathrooms to ride the train (or more specifically, no one sneaks into the tourist car to use our bathrooms?). So I flagged down a conductor and explained I needed to use the washroom. After making it pretty clear I couldn’t wait much longer, he took me to a different car (rammed to the brim with locals) and let me use the washrooms there. Which were pretty gross in comparison to our tourist one. Preeeetty gross.

The second incident happened somewhere in the middle of the night while we were moving across the countryside. I woke to a frantic but quiet scream as Kathy said she felt something crawling across her arm in the bed. We turned on all the lights but couldn’t find anything. She ended up staying with Jeff in his bed for the rest of the night as I had a restless sleep worrying about unknown critters myself. A slept through it entirely. :P

We arrived in Hue the next morning and sadly said good bye to Jeff & Kathy as they continued on their journey to Da Nang. A and scrambled off the train and trekked our way to the hotel (a lot further than I had thought when I booked it). Hello Hue!!

Asia Trip 2011: Day 4 – Halong Bay

Having done some exhaustive research the last few days, I decided that I wanted to splurge on my trip to Halong Bay. It would be a once in a lifetime deal, and if they made it to the New 7 Wonders of the World, the prices would surely inflate even more. We settled with the Galaxy Cruise at a price of $111 USD per person. It wasn’t our first choice, but since the boat was brand new (on the water since March 2011), we felt it was a good bargain.

We checked out of our hotel early that morning, and the payment process was relatively painless. We learned then and there that a 3% charge applies to all credit card transactions, but since we didn’t have enough cash to cover our entire bill (the three nights plus tour bookings plus train ticket to Hue), we had to shrug our shoulders on this one. The tour guide came to get us and 8am and seemed to be extremely rushed – I didn’t have time to use the washroom before I left the hotel. I mentioned to him that I would like to go before we set off, and he kept saying “20 minutes”. Finally, after an hour and a half of him saying “20 minutes” (and from the original estimate we should’ve been at the rest station by then), I told him I had to go. He didn’t seem very pleased, but asked the driver to pull over for me to use a WC. We ended up in a gas station. With the most vile toilet I’ve ever seen.

So I’m not complaining about the tour company and all, since I know they can’t control the state of washrooms outside of their specific rest areas, but seriously. This was terrible. If you’re eating, you should probably read this later. Basically, I went to the washroom assuming it’d be some squat hole, but it turned out to be an actual toilet. It smelled terrible, but that’s the norm. The warning bell rang when I looked to my right and saw a pile of crap that someone had just left there, on the ground. Right next to a toilet. Of course, curiousity got the better of me and I decided to look into the toilet, that apparently hadn’t seen running water in a long time, to find it completely infested with maggots. Most. Disgusting. Thing. Ever.


I ran out of there as soon as I could, and lo and behold the rest station was 20 minutes away. With proper clean toilets, with running water. It was like paradise. I wish I had brought my wallet in with me, because there was a fruit stand in there, and their produce looked delicious. They had baby pineapples (peeled and cut up) for 20,000 dong! I made a mental note to bring my wallet on the way back the next day so I could buy one.

We finally made it to Halong Bay by 12:30pm, and had to do some waiting around while the company shifted people from the previous cruise off the ship. It’s interesting how they keep everything moving, and you don’t understand what’s happening until you’ve gone through the entire process. Basically, they have people on the ship from the previous cruise waiting until the van arrives. Only then do they let those passengers off the cruise via a smaller motorboat and they swap places with the people on the van.

The boat party consisted of an Irish / Thai couple, a married couple from Indonesia, a young and old couple from Germany (who don’t know each other), two backpackers from somewhere in Europe (I didn’t get a chance to chat with them), and an Australian couple. It was small, and it was comfortable. It seemed a bit disorganized at first, with the waiting around, but once we got on the boat and got introduced to everyone, things started to settle down a bit. The food they served was okay. I read a lot of reviews from travellers saying that cruise ships in Halong Bay serve fantastic food, with great portions. But I didn’t really notice that. The food was good, I liked the variety and presentation, but we finished everything they served, and I’m sure A could’ve eaten more. We spent our lunch with the couple from Thai, and had a great time learning about their jobs as teachers there.

A and I had a lovely room on the lower deck. The roof deck had lounge chairs for sunbathing, and the middle deck had an open sitting area by the front. Overall, the boat is in great shape. Our two tour guides were very nice, and chatted with us a lot. After taking a small break to chill, we took the smaller boat out to the Surprising Cave. It’s basically comprised of three caves, with a lot of random rock formations. It’s beautiful inside, though some of it is artificially lit with colourful lights, ruining the atmosphere a bit. The views from the cave opening are splendid though. After exploring the cave, we got the chance to go kayaking around the area. The tour guide told us we had until 4:50 to kayak (it was 4:10 at that time), so we went off exploring as soon as we got into our boat. Apparently, right after we left, they changed their minds and told everyone to be back by by 4:30. Soooo A and I were kayaking around until well after it had gotten dark, making the most of our time on the kayak (that we were terrible with, it constantly veered left, and it was such effort to make it turn right). When we got back to the docks at 4:50, completely pitch dark, we found that everyone was already sitting in the travel boat waiting for us. They all thought we had gotten lost, and they seemed a bit grumpy. Whoops.

There was an option to swim when we got back to our boat, but it was completely dark outside and the water didn’t seem very warm, so no one took the option. I wonder if anyone on any boat would take the option to swim in such dark conditions. I also didn’t feel like the water was very clean… but maybe that’s just me. Instead, when we got back to our boat we took a break and settled down for dinner. This time around, we sat with with the couple from Indonesia, who were both vegetarians. I felt bad for them, since their food options were extremely limited. Most of the time they got tofu in supplement for our amazing display of pork or beef. Even they seemed really unimpressed. We also noticed a new couple that had joined us at the next table over. They had just come back from a two-day kayaking tour and were headed back to land with us. After dinner, we chatted with them and found out they were from Calgary! We ended up hanging out the rest of the time on the boat the next day.

The entertainment post-dinner was either karaoke or squid-fishing. While squid-fishing sounded really appealing, Jeff and Kathy (the Calgary couple) found from the tour guides that it was well past squid season, and the chances of us catching anything are next to nothing. But it seemed like karaoke was a pretty poor alternative, as the room quickly cleared out and the only people who were singing was the tour guide (a VERY bad rendition of Hello by Lionel Ritchie), and the bartender. We tried fishing regardless, but I was feeling pretty tired and congested, so I went to bed early out of fear I had caught a cold.

All rooms had A/C, which is great because every boat in the harbour left their engines on, and the air outside reeked of engine fumes. The beds were extremely comfortable, and the outlets accepted North American plugs, so we could charge all out stuff while we slept.

Asia Trip 2011: Day 3 – Perfume Pagoda

We both decided the day before that we had had enough of the traffic and congestion and pollution within Ha Noi, so we opted for a day trip to balance off the rest of our stay. For $17 USD, we received the following:
- pick up from hotel at 8am
- drop off at hotel at 5pm
- air-conditioned bus
- English speaking tour guide
- boat ride down yen river
- entrance fee to Perfume Pagoda
- lunch

A gondola ride one way (either up or down) to the pagoda will cost an additional $5 USD, two days for $10. The bus ride out to the river drop-off was about an hour, and the boat ride (rowed by some pretty hardcore ladies) was another hour. On our tour, we met an older Vietnamese couple from Mississauga and chatted with them about Vietnamese history and culture (their English was much easier to understand in comparison to our guide). They told us that the Vietnamese used to used Chinese characters as their written language, but didn’t form sentences the same way as the Chinese. This is the most likely explanation for why A’s translations around the city weren’t very good. His hurt ego returned to normal after hearing that news!

Overall, a day trip to the perfume pagoda is fairly fun. It’s a lot of sitting around though – 1.5 hours by van followed by 1 hour sitting on a boat. The boat ride itself is very relaxing and the scenery is beautiful. We had a slightly heavier boat so the majority of the trip was spent not being able to move very much and I ended up getting numb in one leg trying to ensure the boat stayed upright (I’m sure the five other people felt the same way).

Another interesting thing to note is that I read several reviews saying that people were hassled for money throughout the whole trip. I should be wary of thieves, of scams, of pushy sales people. I experienced none of that, and thought it was very odd. Actually, the trip seemed extremely quiet (very few tourists), and the entire walk up to the pagoda was completely deserted except for two or three stores, where the owners didn’t even bother asking you more than once if you wanted to buy a water. It was completely dead. The empty stalls covered up with tarps were a sad sight to what could’ve been a very lively area.

On the way back, the boat ladies hassled us for tips, but left us alone when we told them no. It didn’t seem at all as bad as I had read in reviews. The only awkward moment was when the Vietnamese couple from Canada asked the entire bus to tip our guide. Several people said that they would tip on their own as they see fit, but the couple continued to remind people (and us) as we got into the city.

If you have a free day and are done with exploring Ha Noi, I suggest that this go into your itinerary. If you’re fit, you can certainly walk both up and down to the pagoda (they say it’s 45 minutes but it didn’t take us more than 30).

After being dropped off at our hotel, we asked the receptionist downstairs to order us some bun cha. She got us our dinner at the local rate, and we gladly ate it in the comfort of our hotel dining area. The day ended here, and we went to sleep excited for our Halong Bay trip the next day.

Tetleytee is back online!

So for some reason, my blog died somewhere in May and then my domain expired, and I finally switched it over to another hosting site so everything is now up and running (with about 5 months of nothingness).

That’s not to say I haven’t been busy! Read about my last four months after the jump.

Cookery Update!

I probably should’ve linked this to the last post, but that’s okay.

An update to the newer dishes I’ve made (of which I haven’t uploaded any of the photos yet).

  • strawberry, mango, avocado salad
  • Chinese cold noodles
  • cinnamon sugar pull-apart bread
  • drunken steamed prawns
  • drunken sambal stirfry prawns
  • stirfry chicken and cucumbers

5 more dishes to go! I head back to Toronto today to visit family, so that’s a week off. We’ll see if I meet my goal by month end! :)

Are small apartments the new cool?

Because if so, it’s about time. I’ve been uncool for the last two years.

I get a lot of strange looks when I tell people how small my apartment is. In all fairness, I complain about it a lot as well. I whine that the kitchen is tiny, that the appliances are old, that we don’t have enough places to store things and on and on and on. But recently I’ve been seeing more and more posts about how cool small apartments are. Of course, they’re some pretty decked out small apartments, with bathtubs that turn into tables that turn into a bookcase or something crazy like that.

My current place is 330 square feet. It’s in between the ones being shown online (marvel at the 258sf one here, and the 344 one here). From what I can tell in the videos, the only catch is that my place holds two people, instead of one. Now, I’m not saying I’m awesome (there are lots of people who live in even smaller conditions), but I just want to say that it’s completely doable.

My thoughts:

  • Be honest. Don’t take a small space because you want to change the world or feel good about making a difference. That will most likely lead to resentment and possible claustrophobia. Ensure you have a plan when you sign the lease or paper with what you’re going to do, how you will set things up, and what you will sacrifice.
  • Be realistic. It’s okay to look at a large space and dream about the days you can live in your perfect house with a sprawling lawn by the water. But how much space do you really need? What rooms are most utilized in your place? You’d be surprised what you can live without. The most difficult thing for me to let go was my dining room table. I complained that getting rid of it would mean I would never have guests over ever again. But it was true that I never had dinners at our old 1 bdrm apartment either, so it clearly wasn’t the dining room table that was stopping me from having guests. Now I have dinner parties in the common lounge in the building, and it works out just fine.
  • Be focused. Making the commitment to a small apartment takes a lot of effort. The place needs to constantly be clean otherwise it looks like a war zone. Counters need to be cleared because you only have so much room. Clothes need to be put away as soon as the laundry is done. It’s also a great opportunity to throw away things you don’t need. A small space means you have less opportunities to keep junk around. Previously I hid a lot of junk in shoe boxes under the dining table (again, another indication I bought a dining table for no reason). When we moved to the new place, I threw out / donated / sold a lot of randomness that I realized I’d never use. And while it made me sad at the time, I honestly haven’t ever had a need for 3 aprons, 2 santa hats, a gazillion girly thank you cards, and all that other stuff.
  • Layouts are everything. You’ll notice in both those videos that despite the small rooms, they give the illusion of a large space. The most awesome article is for the apartment in Hong Kong, where it shows the previous layouts of the space since 1976. You can see how it went from a really tight space with walls everywhere into a more open multi-purpose room. Ensure your small space doesn’t have a lot of narrow hallways (I guess this goes for any space).

People always look at me funny (and not in a good way funny) when I tell them I live in a small place. And I don’t like it too sometimes. I’m embarrassed to tell people how small my place is, I’m sad I can’t have dinner parties or have people crash on my floor when visiting (well, I’ll let people crash on my floor, but I suspect it’s pretty awkward for them). But I have an end-goal in mind: A and I will move back to Toronto at some point in time, and when that happens, we will have saved enough put a significant down payment on our new home. I have my eye on the prize, and I know that this is worth it. Besides, small places are only small when it’s pointed out (either by yourself or by others). The rest of the time, it’s just another place to live.

The Last Lecture

If you haven’t seen it, there’s this talk that’s been uploaded onto the internet for a while now that I highly recommend. It’s called The Last Lecture and it’s by Prof Randy Pausch. He talked at Carnegie Mellon University for a series called Journeys (previously called The Last Lecture series) and it basically provided professors to speak about personal experiences and lessons learned that they can impart on the students and brains of the future.

Randy was scheduled to present his talk in September of 2007. But that August, he was diagonised a second time with pancreatic cancer and that he should expect to only have three to six months of good health left. Despite this news, Randy prepared and presented his Last Lecture during his scheduled slot. His main reason for doing so was simply to have a recorded memory of his best advice so that his kids (at that point his oldest child was aged 6) could see their dad in his best element.

His amazing story comes with many lessons that we can take away into our every day lives. He tells this story about how he wanted to take this job outside of the university that was quite difficult for him to obtain. And the lesson was that there are always brick walls in life. Brick walls are there to show yourself how truly bad you want something; it’s to filter out those who aren’t as passionate. How amazing! How many times have I looked at a daunting task and turned the other way because I felt my efforts would get me nowhere? How fantastic it is to have this lesson retaught to us – I know I forget this sort of thing in every day life.

Randy also wrote a book before he passed away in July of 2008. The book is also entitled The Last Lecture, and I’m only half-way through reading it but I love it. The day the doctor told him that his time left was less than a year, he and his wife cried in the doctor’s office. After all the discussions, they left together and Randy thought about what he had told his wife just before going into the appointment:

“Even if the scan results are bad tomorrow, I just want you to know that it feels great to be alive, and to be here today, alive with you. Whatever news we get about the scans, I’m not going to die when we hear it. I won’t die the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. So today, right now, well this is a wonderful day. And I want you to know how much I’m enjoying it.”

I want this to be how I live my life, every day. And while I work towards this, I will also look to finding a brick wall I feel is worth it for me to climb over.

Please watch the lecture if you haven’t already.

eight freaking four!

Up yours CS450! Woooooooooooooooo!!!!! One last walk to the SLC on Saturday to have my $101 textbook rejected because it was missing a CD it never came with, and that was the end of UW. *sigh*

I will miss you Waterloo, in all your nerdy glory. I will miss the sunsets and sunrises in the SLC, in the 2nd floor UNIX lab, the 3rd floor UNIX lab, and the 6th floor UNIX lab.

I will miss all the birthday pieing and random pieing and the memory of when pi day really meant free pie.

I will miss the potlucks where chan always brought a chicken from sobey’s and elton always brought dumplings.

I will miss the classrooms where we used to save a whole row of seats, poking wes when he got sleepies, getting poked by wes for no reason whatsoever, dominating the cs245 tutorial class, the sci206 class in 4th year that was like cs reunion.

Very little time to think things through. It’ll all hit me when I’m back from Europe I’m sure.

In the meantime, I leave you with a picture of me and the knapsack that I will be lugging around across Europe.

30 pounds of I don’t even know what. I swear it’s not all clothes!

so you like the runs eh?

I had dinner with bryan tonight. our five year friendship has been pretty amazing, we’ve stood through many ups and downs and he’s still by my side. we always have a good time when we’re together, and our maturity level always falls a few notches. I’m not old!

happy belated birthday dinner!!!

I threw out my back

bryan: how the hell did you do that?!
me: I was … stretching.

seriously. I threw out my back attempting to stretch. first I stretched forwards, touching my toes while standing. and then I stretched backwards, arching my back 90 degrees. and when I stood up again, I had a quick spasm of pain. and then suddenly, I couldn’t twist.

basically any movement that involves turning my chest to anywhere that’s NOT directly infront of me causes rediculous amounts of pain. all my muscles are strained.

and I hate telling people how it happened. so you all know. stop asking. :(

and the conversation starter

what’s your favourite four letter word?

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