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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 2 – Hanoi

We woke up at 6:30am to be ready for breakfast at 7am. We had a full day of walking around the city to do, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was only open until 11am, so we wanted to get there quick.

After enjoy our pho breakfast (with fresh juice and a tea / coffee and some fruit), we set off on foot to the Mausoleum to pay our respects to the famous Vietnamese president. The mausoleum is open for 10 months of the year – the rest of the time it is closed for maintenance, and we were lucky enough to arrive shortly after its re-opening. It’s a bit of a walk from out hotel, and we got lost for a little bit as well since the streets are not in a grid format, but we eventually found our way there. The area around the Mausoleum is very large, and there’s a beautiful square out front which no one is allowed to tread on. If you ever plan to visit this place, remember to bring something to cover up – shorts and tank tops are not permitted. Cameras and electronics are not allowed as well, and large bags need to be checked in. There are guards everywhere, so you always have to follow the rules and they make sure you don’t wander anywhere you’re not supposed to be. We got in trouble for whispering as we approached the Mausoleum, and were motioned to keep our hands by our sides at all times.

The visit isn’t just for tourists though, several locals come to pay their respects often. The queue for this trip is quite long, so make sure you arrive around 9am. There are several other areas to visit once you’ve gone through the Mausoleum, including the stilt house that Ho Chi Minh used to live in, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There is also the beautiful One Pillar Pagoda in the area as well.

After our stop there, we made our way to the Temple of Literature. The site of the first university in Vietnam, this place holds several stelae (large stone tablets) used to track the names of exceptional scholars, all of whom were given their examination questions by the King himself. The Temple is also a place where locals go to pray to Confucius and his four favourite disciples in hopes that their children will have good grades and excel in school.

A was very confused to see several Chinese characters here. All the stelae were engraved in Chinese, as well as the phrases above the doors and gates. Every time I asked for a translation, he said it didn’t make any sense. I claimed I had a faulty translator, but there was nothing we could do about it. After visiting the temple, we walked to a highly recommended restaurant in our guidebook called KOTO for a quick bite.

From there, we slowly made our way to the French Quarter on the other side of the lake. I commented about how we hadn’t seen very many schools in the area, when we turned a corner and obviously, there was a school. We also wandered into what we thought was a department store, which turned out to be an electronics store and people followed us around until we left. We finally found the famed Hoan Kiem lake, where the emperor Le Loi received a magical sword from a golden turtle, which helped him fight off the Chinese. The turtle is one of the four prominent animals in Vietnamese culture, representing wisdom and patience. I thought that was pretty funny, since I had said that A’s mascot is a turtle, but more like this one. We tried to get tickets to the water puppet show (thinking it’d be a good rest), but they were sold out for the next two days! Now I’ll never get to see it :(

We took pictures at the Opera House and walked past the Metropole Hotel before finally deciding to take a break and head back to our hotel. After a quick bit of research, we jotted down the walking tour recommended by our Lonely Planet book, as well as an address for what a local blogger said was one of the best bun cha stalls in the city. Excited about food, we made the trek back out and walked up and down several streets, which mostly consisted of shops and stalls separated by their wares (an entire street devoted to toys or tin or altars). The baguette & chocolate place recommended in the guide book was nowhere to be found, and the bun cha place was not open. Defeated and hungry, we wandered back to our hotel area where I spotted a banh mi store. I quickly picked one up to tide me over until dinner.

We went back to our hotel and asked the receptionist where I could get some bun cha. She recommended a stall down the street that closed at 7pm, so A and I hustled down to the place for a quick dinner. They apparently charge more for tourists, since the couple next to us got coke and the same meal for only 100,000 VND whereas A and I paid 120,000 VND for just the meal. That aside, the food was so delicious that I ordered it again the next day (except I had the receptionist call ahead for us so we could get the local rate).

Pretty sure the rest of the night was spent doing nothing, since I don’t remember anything happening that evening.

Asia Trip 2011: Day 1 – Hanoi

After many months of talking and researching, A and I finally bit the bullet and booked ourselves a trip to Vietnam. It worked out fairly well for us, my parents were headed back to Hong Kong for an extended vacation and we would make our stop there first to drop off luggage and see family we haven’t visited in over 5 years. From there, we would fly into Ha Noi and begin our Vietnam / Cambodia adventure for two weeks, before heading back to Hong Kong, and then home.

Hong Kong was definitely a good place to stop over before heading to Vietnam. We were able to adjust to the time-zones better, we had a place to stay, and we always people to see / things to do / places to eat at. I was a bit sad to leave Hong Kong for our trip, but I don’t think I would be saying such nice things about the city if I was visiting there for a month. The traffic and amount crowds require some getting used to, coming from my relaxing city in Canada! But it was nothing compared to Vietnam!

When we arrived in Ha Noi, we had arranged for someone to meet us at the airport. The airport is 45 minutes away by car from the city, so some hotels offer free pick-up service if you stay three nights. Definitely worth it, since I heard so many stories of taxi scams. Traffic here is madness. Cars and scooters and motorbikes (the main modes of transport) all drive between the lines and take up lanes and cram into whatever small spaces they can just to move forward a bit. Honking is the common language here and everyone lays on that horn. The city is noisy and even more crowded than Hong Kong, and was very overwhelming when we arrived.

Something we found useful was to have a city map downloaded onto our iPad with the GPS on, so we could see where we were going in the car to the hotel. It helped us familiarize with the area a bit and gave us a good sense of distances to different areas of the city.

We stayed at the Charming Hotel (#15 Yen Thai Street, Hoan Kiem District). It’s off a small street that looks like an alley way, with several other small hotels surrounding it. The place was cute, the room was small, but it was clean and comfortable and the people were very friendly and helpful. We arrived too late to make it to the train station, so the hotel offered to book us our train tickets while we explored the city the next day. They also exchanged VND for USD at the going rate on the Vietcombank website. We ended up booking an additional Perfume Pagoda tour and Halong Bay overnight tour through the hotel as well, to save us the trouble of having to find tour companies.

Also, Charming Hotel offers free breakfast. There is the regular continental (toast and jam), the American (the continental with eggs), and pho. A and I picked the pho breakfast for each of our three days there, but it varied from day to day and the second day was probably the best bowl.

As it was starting to get dark, A and I decided to do a quick walk around the block before calling it a day. We wandered only two streets away when it started to drizzle. The locals began pulling off to the side, which was probably a warning sign for us, but we continued to walk because what’s a bit of rain to Vancouverites, right? Wrong. It began pouring, and we were drenched within seconds. The locals were apparently prepared for rain, and they began pulling out a rain poncho that not only covered themselves, but also covered their scooters. Then they got right back on the road and continued driving. The rain got so bad, that the streets started to flood up, and soon the road was probably ankle deep with water. We hid under a shop awning for about fifteen minutes, and when we realized the rain wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, we hoofed it back to a restaurant we saw while walking that had a few backpackers in it. Turns out, quite a few other tourists had the same idea, and we were lucky enough to pick up the last table.

When the rain let down after 45 minutes, we made our way back to the hotel, picking up some water on the way, and the day was over by 9pm.

CASI 2010

At the Statue of Liberty tour:

Tour Guide: where are you all from?
Min: um… Seattle
Matt: oh, I see how it is.
Min: there was a war?
Tee: the War of 1812?
Min: what?
Tee: 1812? You learned this in highschool!
Min: um, yeah. yeah I know. The War of 1812. We won, didn’t we?
Matt: I don’t know who you mean when you say “we” anymore.

NYC was a fantastic trip – I had the most amazing time! Even though Wayne didn’t bust out any of his old dance moves, we had such a blast gathering together to celebrate the next step in life for our friend Lisa. Her wedding was breath-taking! From the views at Steiner Studio Stage 6 to the food to the decorate your own take-home cupcake to the mustaches, it was all crazy fun. I’m sure by now you’ve seen the gazillion photos of me and friends in our sexiest mustache poses (including unibrows, eyebrows, chest hairs, sideburns, etc.), but in case you haven’t, you can see them in the photos section.

This was my first time flying by myself since I developed my anxiety issues, and strangely I felt extremely confident. It’s extremely stressful as you board and before you take off, because every step is a step in the direction away from what I define to be safe area (in this case, the solid ground). I know statistically speaking planes are more safe than automobiles, and tons of people fly in planes every day and nothing happens to them, but something triggers inside you and you always feel like you’re the sane one, and why don’t people realize how dangerous this is! It’s silly, but it’s how my brain works. :(

But anyways, the NYC trip was great, and I think it’s something that I really needed to do. I got to see some great friends, have some deep conversations over beer, and spend some time figuring things out for myself. I’m so blessed to have people who care about me despite the fact we don’t see each other often. After spending five years together in study madness, you develop a close bond, I think. Matt has told me (and it’s something I’ve used a lot lately) to always think of what I know to be true. He used it in a more spiritual sense, but it seems to work well for more practical things. When I’m out canoeing on the water and it gets a little wavy and I start feel nervous, I always ask myself “what do you know to be true?” and then I’ll answer it: “the boat will float if it tips over. even if you can’t right the canoe straight away, you can hold onto it. there really isn’t anything in the ocean that finds you remotely interesting. there are boats around that can come to you if you start screaming for help.” those sorts of things. I used to be upset that I would have to remind myself about these things, because it basically meant that my mind is being occupied by worries, whereas before I never gave it a second thought. But now it’s just become something I do. I find myself to be more cautious, and I take less risks / chance in anything I do, and that in itself is pretty sad, but one step at a time.

Anyways, this year’s NYC trip holds a special place in my heart. It not only gave me time to bond with some special people (all of whom were at my wedding, but I just didn’t have time to have heart to hearts with them!), but it gave me time to figure myself out, and to push my own comfort zones. I always feel like I can’t do something, until I actually do it and then I realize it’s not so bad. But that first step is always the hardest. I hope that when I hit another one of those hurdles, I will have the willpower to take the next step forward, and then the next.

Polkaroo Wedding

Two things which I remember and love from Elaine’s wedding:

“It’s coming all over the place!!”
- Elaine, referring to her veil not staying in place and the fact that it was windy outside.

“I’m so happy my daughter has finally found the white man”
- Elaine’s dad, whose Chinese accent had us all cracking up at the head table as he described Nathan to be the right man for his daughter.

All in all it was a great wedding. It was probably one of the few times I actually got to see her new husband three days in a row (usually I’d see him… never), and it’s been years since I’ve seen Ivano. I also got to see the newlywed couple the next day and boy were they hungover. And it’s really amusing to see a bunch of peppy old Chinese people, and a bunch of young hungover adults trying to eat lunch together at a busy dim sum restaurant. Congratulations to the new Mr. & Mrs.!

Tandem for one.

Ed visited Vancouver over the weekend where we spent a fair deal of time (but not enough, imo) eating and doing touristy stuff. The schedule went as follows:

  • Ed arrived at 9:00am
  • After much indecisiveness, I decided to go to Nu for brunch
  • We get there at 10, only to find that it doesn’t open until 10:30. fail.
  • We bum around until 10:30, get inside and sit on the pretty patio. I am freezing. Ed takes a total of two work phone calls while eating.
  • We finish eating and Ambrose heads off to do manly things while Ed and I decide to rent a bicycle and ride around Stanley. We head down Robson Street.
  • Find some random bike rental store on Denman and rent a tandem after perusing some of the sweet-looking ones outside. What they give us cannot even be called a lemon, it was so busted. Ed takes another work phone call.
  • Try to bike around the block on it and it’s a bazillion times harder than it looked. Most likely because our bike was old and the seats were all off and disproportionate to the handle bars. We were a danger on the road, and I thought we would die on several occasions.
  • Took the bike back to the shop and decided to get two single bikes. I requested a cruiser. They’re so much fun!
  • Made our way to Stanley and biked around, stopping at many random tourist areas and debated running through the water park. Ed got freaked out with all the rock sculptures. Ed takes three work phone calls.
  • The bike took us 2 hours, and then we walked down Denman to Mondo’s for 6 scoops of gelato.
  • Back home for a short bit, and then off to visit the Vancouver branch of his company.
  • We ate dinner at Samurai on Davie. He apparently loves wasabi to the point where its disgusting.
  • Hung out at night with some of his work people at Doolin’s.
  • Woke up bright and early the next morning to hike the grouse grind. I still suck at it. A lot.
  • Didn’t have time for ramen lunch, so we said our goodbyes and he went off to the airport all sweaty from the hike

I had a great time with him in town. Pictures can be found on the tab at the top of the page. :) Thanks for visiting!!!

Family trips work as such.

You see relatives. And they say “wow, you look… so much… bigger. When is your wedding?”

You see your parents. And they say “why are your arms so huge? Have you picked a wedding date yet?”

You see your brother. And he says “gimme twenty bucks.”
You see your friends. And they’re awesome.

All in all, my trip back to Hong Kong was really fun, if not really tiring. I regret not convincing A enough to come back with me, since I had to bear the hounding of wedding-related issues by myself. If only he came and met all those relatives, then he’d realize how many people there are on my side of the family! HK Carmie would understand!

My highlights include Hong Kong Disneyland with Clo, the awesome wedding of my cousin Carrie to Leonard at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Serena’s one-night stay at the Langham which I got to mooch, Carmie’s appearance at our family dinner (she’s now the part of the family), and dinner with Rendy. It was so great to see family and friends again and be on vacation mode, it was like summer break. I completely forgot what that felt like, to wake up when I wanted, to go out and do stuff when I wanted, to not have to sit in an office waiting for the hours to tick away, to stay out til late, to hug my parents every day. I should take vacations more often.

On a side note, people in Hong Kong (even when working for a reputable global employer), work stupid hours til 7pm (on a good day), and Saturdays as well. When I told Petula that we get off work at 3pm on a Friday if we have nothing to do her jaw dropped to the floor. It was weird.

I got back on Saturday. Today is Wednesday. I’m still jetlagged. And thus this post has no substance what-so-ever. But now that every family member on the face of the planet has nagged me about my wedding and when it is and where it is and whether they’re coming with their children and their children’s children, I have vowed to bust my ass and get started with planning. Let the games begin!

Out of Office.

Thanks for your visit!

I will be on vacation from March 20th to April 6th inclusive to visit family and friends in Hong Kong with limited access to web browsing and e-mail.
For issues regarding wedding-related posts, please visit glamourthis, fabulously broke, or ten thousand only.

For issues regarding random links, please visit del.icio.us or xkcd. Issues on interesting topics can be directed to TED or surfthechannel.
And for all other issues, facebook will be able to answer your questions.

Thank you! I’ll reply to comments upon my return.

Eurotrip Recap

End of the trip, and this calls for a recap:
Paris hostels have nothing but cold and dirty showers.
Elton and Min witnessed a man taking a crap in the metro in Paris.
We went to see Les Mis in London :D
Elton nearly got smashed by a bus today by running into the road.
So did I.
I heart Gaudi.
Elton heart Titian.
Wayne heart Michaelangelo’s Pieta.
Elton and A both heart Bernini.
I ran into Stephie, Simon and Cammie in Paris!
But most importantly:
I come home tomorrow :D

I heart you Toronto!

Mid trip highlights

1. Wayne broke his digicam by dropping it on the floor of the Duomo museumnce in Florence
2. Wayne bought a new digicam in Rome and has since been taking an even larger number of photos than usual
3. Elton has gotten bird crapped on in every city in Italy (Rome’s may or may not count as he actually sat in the crap)
4. Wayne sat ion a radiator in a museum in Venice, it made a big cracking noise, and he was then followed by security around the rest of the building
5. Wayne got yelled at by Security in Florence for taking photos in a NO PHOTO zone
6. Wayne got yelled at by the laundromat owner for using too much free detergent
7. A got his wallet lifted with zero dollars in it
8. Tomorrow we hit Barcelona

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