Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Into the countryside: Hoi An

Our next stop was Hoi An, a smaller town along the central coast of Vietnam known for its tailor shops, where Guillermo and I spent more than a few hours pouring over fashion magazines and books, picking out fabric and getting measured for a few made-to-order suits and jackets (after all, I will eventually need to get a job!). As fun as this decadent, sartorial tour was, it does not make for gripping storytelling -- or photos.

However, I did take a bike ride into the surrounding area, which was a gorgeous mini adventure. Winding my way around the raised earthen roads that ring the marshy, and amazingly green, rice fields, I met a family of water buffalo and countless small children who eagerly ran out of their houses waving and practicing their English. "Hello." "Heellloo!" "Hellloo-oo!"

For those of you who love small fuzzy animals as much as I do, you can find lots more photos of the baby water buffalo here. Please note that he puts the "cow" in cowlick. Holy hair swirl batman!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ha Long Bay

Just a few photos of our day trip to Ha Long Bay, which is a few hours northeast of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its limestone karsts -- literally thousands of the rocky formations (shown in the picture on the left) jut out of its waters.

We spent a day on a tour boat weaving our way around the karsts, which are huge and tower over everything. It's always hard to capture the scale of things with a camera, but if you notice the boat in the middle of the two large karsts -- right in the center of the photograph -- that boat is a small rowboat with a man standing inside. That should give you a better idea of how big these things were. (Yes, its there. Tiny, but there). The huge scale of the karsts, combined with the slight bit of misty fog that covered the bay, really made it seem almost other worldly.

In addition to the majestic scenery, I also really loved the small boats laden with fresh tropical fruit that sidled up to us in hopes to sell their wares.

I bought a fresh coconut from this lady in homage to my good friend Kate (who downed countless of these on our adventures in Guatemala and Costa Rica). In order to enjoy the juice inside the coconut, the woman hacked a small hole into the top of the coconut with a large knife and placed a straw in the new opening for me. Now that's a tropical cocktail. Yum.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Urban Aggolmeration

Planners often use the term "urban agglomeration" to refer to a metropolitian area that is actually a collection of several smaller cities and towns that have grown together to form one large urban entity. Los Angeles is a perfect example of this. For example, you might live in South Pasadena, or even -- gasp! -- the Inland Empire, but you still belong to the urban agglomeration that is LA.

Sometimes I like to think about the term "urban agglomeration" in another way -- where the "agglomeration" refers to collections of like things within the urban environment, not simply the cities themselves. I used to contemplate this quite a bit when driving up and down a stretch of Robertson Avenue near my old apartment in Los Angeles, where there are over five stores selling fancy, imported Persian carpets and rugs in a matter of mere blocks. (I guess you need something to cover those gorgeous hardwood floors!).

It's fascinating to think about all the reasons that certain types people, shops and businesses gravitate towards each other. There of course are economic factors: proximity to customers, employees and materials; transportation costs & technologies; etc. And then of course there are cultural and historical reasons for these agglomerations too (though historic factors are usually just economic and political factors from previous eras).

Hanoi's historic old quarter is a perfect example of the past's effect on modern day life and the layout of cities, and wandering through this area was definitely a highlight of my visit.

In the old quarter there are whole streets and areas dedicated to selling or making one type of product. For example, on one series of streets nearly all of the store fronts are selling shoes, and in the next block only towels and fabrics, or in the next only candles and other religious supplies. And the streets aren't just limited to finished goods either -- there was a block with metal works shops (welding and the like -- right on the street!) and another dedicated to engraving headstones (replete with photo-style portrayals of the deceased).

Acording to my guidebook and a bit of online research, the agglomeration of these merchants is a holdover from the artisan guilds which began to form in the early 13th century.

Craftsmen from villages came and settled together in the quarter, generally choosing to live with other crasftmen from their home village. Eventually they formed guilds and developed cooperative systems to transport merchandise from their village to the Old Quarter. Thus, staying close together (or agglomerating) in one geographical area just made this transportation process easier, and because each village generally had a special craft or trade, these areas often focused on one type of finished product or trade.

The photos included here are from Long Ong Street, which is dedicated to spices and herbal medicines. If I had to pick a favorite section of the Old Quarter -- this would be it. Cinamom sticks the size of small baseball bats (pictured above), piles and piles of aromatic herbs, and jars of special medicine with various snakes, scorpions and snakes holding scorpions in their mouths -- it kept me entertained for hours.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Goodbye China, Hello Hanoi!

I'm missing a few photos from my last days in China due to some unfortunate circumstances, but once Guillermo gets around to posting his pictures from our last few adventures in China (a trip north to the Deqin area near the ominous -- if gorgeous -- snow-capped mountains in Fa La Si and a short jaunt through Kunming), I'll add some here.

We arrived in Hanoi safe and sound, if a bit exhausted. Our journey from Kunming, China to Hanoi, Vietnam took over 24 hours and included an overnight sleeper bus from Kunming to the border of Vietnam, a 3+ km walk across the border and to the train station, and then another 8 hour train ride to Hanoi.

The train ride to Hanoi was a bit of an adventure on its own since we didn't get regular seats, but rather were smuggled onto the staff car. Hard-core travelers might purposefully seek out this option in order to save a bit of cash and meet some locals, but I can assure you -- we are not that hard-core. I would assume that if one wanted this sort of arrangement, you would discretely ask the porter, or some other official, while simultaneously waving a bit of cash around. Surely, if you walk up to the official ticket counter at the train station and ask to buy a ticket you can be assured that you won't be stuffed into the last dingy car on the train (luggage and all) with 4 to 5 curious and giggling staff members and then escorted like contraband through the back gates of the train station in Hanoi (with nods and winks from the complicit guards). Or maybe, inexplicably, you will.

The train ride ended up being a lot of fun -- after we got over an initial bout of grumpiness and stopped mooning over the posh sleeper cars ahead of us. The staff brought us noodles, showed us pictures of their kids, and taught us how to count to 10 in Vietnamese. We also managed to have a very basic conversation using the small language section in the back of our guidebook.

The photo above is from the streets of Hanoi's old quarter, and I think it does a good job of capturing the motion of the city. Motorbikes, bikes and cyclos are everywhere here and there are very few traffic lights to actually stop the flow of traffic. They move forward like water -- finding the path of least resistance (yes, even if that means the sidewalk), avoiding stationary objects (i.e. tourists frozen in the middle of the street), and slowing down to negotiate cross traffic. It is an improbable ballet of chaos.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Herding Yaks

While having a hot chocolate the other day, we were lucky enough to meet Eleanor, an Australian woman who lives here in Shangrila and works for an NGO called the Eastern Tibetan Training and Language Institute (ETLI). As part of their mission, ETIL runs a school that teaches English and other hospitality-focused skills to a growing number of local children (about 50 this year).

Not only did Eleanor invite us to a great birthday party at the bar later that evening, but she also invited us to visit their school, have dinner with a local family, and -- herd yaks!

It was wonderful experience. We took a short bus ride out of the city center and then walked about 20 minutes through a small village and grazing fields to a wooden home that the family uses in the warmer months (so they can be close to the herd of yaks). The farmer gave us handfuls of salt powder to pour on our hands and lure the yaks in for the evening. He also taught us the herding call, which sounded something like "Nyn-yhh, Nyn-yhh", but the salt was far more effective.

We then had a nice dinner of beef (yak?), tomatoes and eggs, cabbage, rice and the signature drink in these parts -- yak butter tea. I wish I could say that I love it, but it really does taste like a stick of salty butter was melted and poured into the cup. Rich is an understatement.

After dinner we went to the school and met with the kids who eagerly showed us around their school and practiced their English -- once they got over their initial bout of shyness.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Dog's Life

Meet Shi Lo (Chinese for "small deer"), the lanky mutt with incredible ears that is the Director of Goodwill for the Raven, the bar across from our guest house. I have already enumerated Shangrila's many other charms, but the arrival of big dogs is yet another one. There are huskies and golden retrievers and all flavor of other large mutts that have replaced the small lap dogs, toy poodles and chihuahuas that dominated Beijing.

Anyway, even though I love big dogs (according to my mother I've been introducing myself to random, large dogs on the street since I was at least 3 years old) I would not have posted anything about them except that Shi Lo's story is just too good not to share.

Most of the time we would see Shi Lo out on the porch of the Raven -- regally overlooking the cobblestoned street in front of her, indulging the occasional pat on the head, and barking at any strange dog who wanders by. One day, Guillermo noticed that she left and came back with a half eaten sausage. Well, we found out later that day (confirmed twice), that she has a tab at the small food shop about 3 blocks down. Apparently she wanders down to get a sausage when she feels like it, the shopkeep adds it to her tab and her owner pays it off once a month!

I was amazed when I heard this story -- especially since most dogs I know would be at the shop getting sausage all the time. But, when I asked someone this ("Why isn't she there all the time?"), he just looked at me and said simply, "Have YOU had Chinese sausage"?

Touche. I have not. It looks gross -- but apparently just edible enough for Shi Lo though. On occasion.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Shangrila Monestaries

Shangri-la is on the edge of Tibet and a good place to get the feel for Tibetan Buddhism if you can't make the trip all the way to Lhasa (at least that is what we are telling ourselves).

So far we've visited two monasteries in the area. One, the Songzanlin Monastery, is a large and famous complex of several temples built slightly outside of Shangri-la. The other was a smaller temple we spied on up on a hillside near Old Town.

I couldn't take pictures inside the temples of Songzanlin, which has amazing brightly colored murals and huge golden Buddhas draped with silken katas, but here is one of the outside of a temple (prayer wheels shown above):

The second, smaller temple was not nearly as elaborate as the Songzanlin complex, but the hike up to it was pleasant -- hundreds of colorful prayer flags draped from high points fluttering in the wind and some gorgeous clouds in the sky -- and the location was fantastic. The small temple is on ridge with a view of Old Town on one side and a valley with a small farming village, fields of crops and livestock on the other. On the way up we hiked through a field of fresh mint, which smelled amazing as we crushed it beneath our sneakers (mojito, anyone?).

On the way down we ran into three older men who were guiding their yaks in for the night and singing as they went.