Saturday, September 24, 2011

Adventures in Vietnam: Part III

I should probably admit that even though I did enjoy Vietnam, it took me some time to warm up to it. One major reason for this was the weather. Vietnam is hot and brutally humid during the summertime. High humidity is probably the kind of weather I have the least tolerance for and I was pretty crabby when we'd be walking for a couple miles or even just a couple blocks between museums and such. We were both drenched in sweat as soon as we stepped outside and showered  at least twice a day just to get rid of that sweat/sunscreen/bug spray film inevitably building up on our skin. There are places in Vietnam I would love to go back to and places I would still like to explore but I would definitely do so in the fall or winter next time.

Another thing that made the first few days tricky was the lack of good food. It's not that there aren't tons of delicious restaurants in Hanoi, it's that were weren't finding them. With a couple exceptions, the places we did eat at were either overpriced, delivered very small portions, or just weren't that tasty. One night after finally tracking down a place for dinner, I ordered pasta with plain marinara sauce from an English menu and upset the waiter when I tried to explain when he brought it out that I hadn't realized it would have seafood in it. I felt like an idiot for the confusion and in the end the dinner wasn't very good anyway. And I know that I'm so lucky to be able to travel like this and shouldn't be whining about bad dining experiences but I'd be lying if I didn't say that despite that they didn't put a slight damper on the first couple days.

So it wasn't until Monday night that I think I finally started to enjoy myself. After taking a rest in our gloriously air-conditioned room, we finally managed to find the street on our tourist map that supposedly has the best Italian restaurant in Hanoi. Or was it that after eating there we decided it's the best Italian restaurant in Hanoi?  Well either way it is!
The Little Hanoi Pizza Inn on Dinh Liet St. serves up some delicious pizzas and pastas (and a very tasty chocolate mousse for dessert! Actually this area has lots of good restaurants so if you're in the city and looking for some good eats then head this way. There are also tons of souvenir shops on this street selling everything from paintings to handbags to jewelry so I really can't recommend enough taking a walk down Dinh Liet.

As we were eating dinner it started raining and since we were sitting close to the balcony (not actually on the balcony though since it looked like it was hanging on by a thread) and enjoying our meal so much that we decided to order a few more drinks and just wait out the rain.

Except that that hot and humid weather I mentioned is also a sign of monsoon season. So the steady downpour soon turned into torrential rain. We watched the shopkeepers across the street first extend their awnings to prevent the rain from coming in, then saw them move their wares closest to the street inside and finally noticed that everyone was simply closing up shop. Further down the street the road itself started flooding and several scooters that went by had water almost completely covering their tires. We realized it was time to head out before the water could get any further up the street. But in the few minutes it took us to get downstairs our end was flooded too!

We managed to get partway up the street by sticking close to the edges but at the main intersection there was really no avoiding having to wade through several inches of water. I didn't have my camera and was regretting not getting any pictures of how insane this flood was but at the same time I'm glad I didn't risk ruining it in that weather. The storm drains in the road had massive amounts of water bubbling out and if we didn't have umbrellas I think we would have been soaked through in about 10 seconds.

Weather like that can be pretty scary but we knew that Vietnam experiences this kind of thing and that it wouldn't last all that long. So actually it was kind of fun running back to the hostel through that craziness. I did notice that night and other times when it began to rain that what most people do is find an overhang or something close to the sidewalk and just wait it out. Usually though the rains would last for a good while so this was surprising. In Korea you'd be hard pressed to find someone not carrying an umbrella in the summertime so that they can keep going on with their day despite the weather, same in the US basically. Maybe we're just in more of a rush though? It wasn't like the Vietnamese I saw waiting out the rain didn't have umbrellas, they just chose to wait for it to stop instead. Just a different mentality I guess.

Tuesday began with a walk to Quan Thanh Temple.
I liked this temple a lot. It was small and quiet but in a peaceful way and the few other people there weren't hurrying in to get their prayers over with but relaxing and taking their time. It was nice. 
Since coming to Korea and doing a bit of traveling I've been to a lot of temples and have seen lots of offerings left on the altars. Usually it's fruits and such which is why I was so amused to see the following items at this temple in Vietnam. It's not so much the fact of someone leaving boxed goods that I find funny because hey, food is food right, but that it's a box of Choco-Pies.

Choco-Pies are like the Twinkies of Korea. They are super popular and super disgusting. They're similar to Moon Pies or Zebra Cakes with a chocolate coating over cookie and marshmallow. Whenever we bring snacks into school for the kids we bring in Choco-Pies and they devour them. Last term when I gave them to one of my older classes I asked my students why they liked them so much and they were like, "Choco-Pies are a Korean National Treasure!". Apparently this photo is proof that they're held in high esteem in Vietnam too.
(At least the folks getting the items at this altar got something a bit stronger)
Across the street from the temple is a small park right on a lake and we discovered there a fleet of paddle boats and decided to take one out for a ride!
It was so pretty on the water and we kept ourselves turned so that we could get a reprieve from the sun. I hadn't been on a paddle boat in years so I was pleased we got to squeeze this in.
 (I tried not to consider the likelihood of these life jackets actually working as flotation devices...)
When our hour was up we paddled back in and had lunch at the restaurant next door.
Mike tried pretty much all of the local beers during our trip and I want to say that this was one of the better ones? I don't remember too well and this might not even be an actual Vietnamese beer but I know for sure Vietnam has better beer than Korea! Not that that is such a difficult feat to manage.

Afterwards we had a nice walk back to the hostel. One cool thing about Hanoi is the enormous sidewalks canopied by huge trees. The shade is so welcome on a hot day and it makes for a pretty stroll.
Except for when a car suddenly comes along on the sidewalk. Rude.
I had thought Taipei was land of the scooters but I was wrong. Hanoi beats them any day of the week, it's scooter city. I was sure we would die trying to cross the street there but the travel guides said to just walk across without hurrying or stopping and the scooters will just expertly avoid you. It's true too.
That night we said a brief goodbye to Hanoi and headed down to Hue for a few days. The trip there was an adventure in itself though and will need to wait until the next post when I have the energy to mentally recount it!

Trivia of the Day: The Saola, Vu Quang ox or Asian unicorn, also, infrequently, Vu Quang bovid (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the world's rarest mammals, is a forest-dwelling bovine found only in the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos. The species was "discovered" by science in 1992 in Vu Quang Nature Reserve by a joint survey of the Ministry of Forestry and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The team found three skulls with unusual long straight horns kept in hunters' houses. In their article, the team proposed "a three month survey to observe the living animal" but, more than 15 years later, there is still no reported sighting of a Saola in the wild by a scientist. In late August 2010, a Saola was captured by villagers in Laos but died in captivity before government conservationists could arrange for it to be released back in to the wild. The carcass is being studied with the hope that it will advance scientific understanding of the Saola.

This... sounds like a made up animal. Or at least a made up Wikipedia article (shocking). Discovered "by science"? Kind of sort of no actual sightings? However, the pictures on Google images seem legit enough and honestly I could not resist a piece of trivia about a creature called the "Asian unicorn". 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

September I hardly knew ye

Cripes! The start of a new term at work, my internet throwing successive tantrums, a recent trip out of the country, and my general laziness and tendency to say, "Naw, I'll write something tomorrow" has led to an unintended two and a half week hiatus. Whoops. So I figured I needed to sit myself down and get something out before this month just completely passes me by.

First and foremost: Fall is here! It arrived exactly thirteen days ago on a Monday morning. How do I know this? Because fall is just that awesome. It comes with a crispness in the air and a coolness that you can feel even under the remaining summer heat. It's not pushy though like Winter which comes barreling in to set up camp for four months. It pops up, gives you a quick wink to let you know it's in town, and then lets Summer fade out. When I came downstairs that Monday morning I paused for a second and oh hey, there it was. Fall is the best season ever and I'm so so happy I'm abroad in a country that experiences a beautiful Autumn like the one back home.

And to ring in the harvest season, Korea celebrated Chuseok (추석) this past week. Chuseok is a three-day holiday that you'll hear most foreigners describe as the Korean Thanksgiving. Everyone goes back to their hometowns (or as most of my kids said to "grandma's house" wherever that may be) to spend time with family and in the words of my students to "eat yummy foods". It's one of the most important Korean holidays.

The holiday this year was from Sunday the 11th to Tuesday the 13th so a group of us girls from work took the opportunity to take a mini-vacation to Shanghai. You'd think that considering we'd only just started the new term we wouldn't be in need of a break yet but those first couple weeks are tiring so it was a more than welcome stay away. More on that adventure soon! That is when I actually finish up on Vietnam. Heh.

CDI always makes up missed class days though so I had to work both days this weekend which was not too fun. Luckily I only had one class today though that was out by 1:30pm so I'm spending the rest of the day relaxing and catching my breath. Literally. Somehow I came down with bronchitis and I have a real nasty cough and that obnoxious chest pain. Dr. Google and her associates however recommend basic home treatment like liquids and rest so I'm holding off on a trip to the pharmacy just yet. So far sitting next to my humidifier is helping a lot actually. In the event of needing more than just charades and coughing at the pharmacist though, this site seems to offer a decent Korean-English dictionary for medical terms. Or at least it's a Korean-English dictionary for medical terms. Whether or not those terms are accurate I haven't a clue...

So that's that in my life right now. I anticipate the next few months being pretty busy but I want to make sure to share some more of what's been happening lately. My first ever K-pop concert! Flying in style and delicious food in Shanghai! A visit to a house shaped like a giant toilet!

At least one of those adventures means I forever have the perfect ice breaker for awkward situations at parties. This really has been a successful year.

Trivia of the Day: Ganggangsullae (강강술래) is a 5,000-year-old Korean dance that was first used to bring about a bountiful harvest and has developed into a cultural symbol for Korea. It incorporates singing, dancing, and playing and is exclusively performed by women. The dance is mostly performed in the southwestern coastal province of Jeollanam-do. It is often associated with the Chuseok holiday and Daeboreum. Traditionally, this dance is performed only by women at night without any instruments. Young and old women dance in a circle at night under the moonlight. They go outside in traditional Korean clothing, hold each other's hands, make a circle, and start rotating clockwise. The lead singer sings a line and everyone sings the refrain 'ganggangsullae'. The song tempo progressively becomes faster. They sing about their personal hardships, relationships, and desires. During the dance, the women play a variety of games. The dance can last until dawn.