Sunday, June 04, 2017

Going home

Well, we knew this day would come. After two of the most enjoyable months of our lives (and a full fifth of Mimi's life), we were heading back home.

We woke up the morning of June 3rd in a funk that could only be cured with one last Vietnamese coffee. Which meant that we were walking. The upside of staying in a hotel that caters to westerners is that we always had fried eggs and pancakes. But the downside is that the coffee now seemed watered down and burned. This trip ruined us on regular coffee.

So we set off on a walk to find a cafe. We crossed the street without waiting for a break in the traffic, and the oppressive humidity barely registered. We had fully completed our transition to honorary locals.

We walked past people exercising in the park, and saw the usual assortment of motorbike merchants heading to work.

We're really going to miss this place. The people are wonderful, the food is outstanding, the history is fascinating, and the scenery is jaw dropping. This was nothing short of the perfect vacation, and even more so because Aimee and I got to spend so much time with Mimi at such a critical time in her young life. She's going to be in for a rude awakening when she realizes that grandmas won't always come out from behind the kitchen to hold her, and drivers won't always stop their motorbikes to fawn over her.

Speaking of the perfect vacation, this trip wouldn't be complete without at least a couple of intestinal anecdotes. But despite the open air markets, street kitchens, and lack of any visible sanitary oversight, the food always seemed clean and safe. Only twice did my belly revolt.

The first time was while walking around Hanoi towards the end of the trip. I was sitting down eating some lunch when my gastrointestinal timer suddenly started counting down in seconds, not minutes. I waddled to the closest hotel and asked the front desk employee if I could use their bathroom. He looked at me like I had cholera, and pointed me around the corner without missing a beat. And when I got to the bathroom, I saw what he saw. My shirt was soaked with sweat from carrying Mimi, so I looked horrendously ill. It's a small wonder that he didn't call me an ambulance.

The second GI episiode was self induced. I couldn't help myself. I had five super-spicy banh mi sandwiches in one day, and I paid for it. Choices have consequences, Myles.

But the day of our departure, we all felt great. We walked around a bit and had a second coffee, probably because we knew that our addiction was about to get cut off cold turkey. But this particular coffee was a bit different. One of the traditional Hanoi coffee variations uses a whipped egg in place of milk. It was delightful.

Lunch was at a com (rice) restaurant where strangers predictably lost their minds over our daughter and proceeded to feed her some type of root vegetable.

But this is exactly why we travel. There are so many right ways to do things, and it's (almost) always a pleasure to see how other people live their lives. The contrast is particularly striking when raising a child. Oh, you can teach kids to eat strange green vegetables? You can potty train them before 12 months? You can teach them not to throw food on the floor? We wouldn't even know that this was possible without traveling here and seeing it in person.

Have I mentioned that we're really going to miss this place?

We were flying out at midnight, but had decided to extend our hotel reservation into the next day. Spending an extra $30 seemed like chump change to allow us to start getting Mimi ready for bed and take a shower before our 28 hours of flying.

We did the usual bedtime routine with Mimi, but she knew that something was up. 8 pm rolled around, and then 9 pm, with Mimi wide awake. We knew we were on borrowed time, and lied to ourselves about how she now might sleep better on the plane instead of turn into an overtired gremlin.

Our Sue-arranged van picked us up at the hotel around 10 pm (Mimi was still wide awake), and navigated the late night traffic to the airport. At the airline counter, we did our usual "yes our daughter has a ticket, something weird happened with the computer reservation" dance when we checked in. Three employees, two managers, and twenty minutes later, we had tickets in hand and made our way through security. Thankfully, there wasn't much of a line at midnight (although more than I would have expected), so we had plenty of time. We thought we'd try to prevent (or at least delay) the gremlinitis with some yogurt and fruit.

Our daughter was above and beyond her usual level of adorableness, which only made Aimee and I fear the inevitable breakdown that much more.

Here you go, Ya Ya. You can play with her for a bit. Come find us after the flight.

We made it on the plane without any trouble, and again found ourselves in the bulkhead row! But right about the time that Aimee and I started to congratulate each other, our daughter turned into the emoji with the red face, sharp teeth, spiky hair, and devil horns. Saw that one coming. She went from angry to loopy to exhausted in the time it took us to reach 10,000 feet, and thankfully fell asleep before the fasten seatbelt sign went off.

After a decent nap for all three of us, we arrived in Tokyo at 7am on Sunday. And by a coincidence of layover timing and crossing the international date line, we also arrived in Dallas at 7am on Sunday. Both flights were relatively easy. For the Tokyo to Dallas flight, we sat next to a Nigerian born, British raised, US educated resident of Tokyo who is the country's main banana importer (most interesting man in the world?). He was on his way to Ecuador for work, and we spent mot of the flight picking his brain on how to travel with kids (his two daughters had unsurprisingly been all over the world). He had a few good tips, but most importantly mentioned that Mimi was the best kid he's ever sat next to in decades of very frequent international travel.

"Who, me? Yeah, I know. Now whenever you guys are done yapping, could you pass me a Wall Street Journal? And this sippy cup won't fill itself."
We cleared US immigrations and customs without any trouble. Our baby charmed all of the officers, and our suitcase full of coffee didn't set off too many alarms.

As usual, it was nice to be home, but this trip really left an impression on all three of us. The country is fascinating, almost mystical. We were already missing the place before we even unpacked our bags. Aimee and I are talking about our next trip to Viet Nam as if its an inevitable certainty, and we're scouting out places at home to buy rice noodles and Vietnamese coffee. It's no replacement for actually being there, but it'll soften the blow.


Goodnight, Viet Nam. We'll see you again soon.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Apple swans, Chinese tourism, and night markets

If there’s a nicer place to wake up than on a boat in Ha Long Bay, I haven’t seen it.

Jimmy had arranged to have Tai Chi on the ship at 6:30 and a morning Kayak ride at 7:45. We elected for the unmentioned third option of moseying on out to the viewing deck with a cup of coffee around 8:30.

Thank you, Jimmy, but we’re on a slightly different timetable.

The late morning activity was a cooking demonstration by the boat’s chef. After our amazing cooking class in Hoi An, I was skeptical that this one could compete. But it was an entirely different animal. Literally. Wait for it.

The chef brought out an apple and a cucumber, and began to silently whittle away with a paring knife for 5-10 minutes.

None of us had any idea where he was going with that until he started to push up the slices that he had been cutting.

A couple of toothpicks later, he had assembled his creation.

Which, of course, was immediately smashed by the queen of the ship.

Sorry, Jimmy. But you couldn't have expected that to play out any other way.

The demonstration was followed by another decadent meal. Six courses for lunch is a little over the top, but I wasn't complaining.

The ship's purser came around to settle everyone's bar tabs ad we sailed into the harbor. There was a clear melancholy hovering over the ship as we all wondered if there was a three night option for next time.

We took the ship's dinghy back to the dock, and waited in the harbor building for our bus to arrive. We watched the efficiency of a dozen crews cleaning a dozen ships to get ready for a dozen busses carrying tonight's guests. But despite the buzz of the crews--and the bay's well-earned international reputation--the bay never felt overcrowded. Viet Nam (and Unesco) deserve a lot of credit for doing an excellent job managing the flow of visitors.

The open-air harbor building was crazy hot, and the humidity was starting to mess with my brain. For a brief, fleeting second, I stopped dreading our flight home the next day. I still wasn't ready to leave this place, but I wasn't terribly broken up over returning to dry heat and abundant air conditioning.

It didn't help that I was waiting for the bus in the middle of the parking lot. Four hours on a minibus with a macrobaby is no walk in the park, and I wanted to make sure that we had primo seats to make the journey a little easier.

The sacrifice paid off, and the ride home was just as easy as the ride there. At the mid-point, we pulled in to the tourist trap to end all tourist traps. Seriously, there is no way this will ever be topped.

First, it was a literal jobs factory. The first thing you see when you enter is forty people making the crafts on sale throughout the rest of the store.

It was not immediately clear if they were artisans or forced laborers.

Not an artisan? That's ok, hang out with your friends in the clothing section.

There was an unbelievable array of goods on sale at this place. All I could do was incredulously run around the store and snap photos. This was no ordinary truck stop.

Need some fine jewelry?

Imported liquor?


Jade something-or-others?

A $9,000(!) ceramic vase? Or a porcelain mannequin wearing an au dai? I'm sure they'd sell you that, too.

Regular leather not good enough for you? How about ostrich, crocodile, python, or stingray leather? And I'm not sure how making a wallet out of a stingray is even possible, let alone legal.

I've never considered Pringles a luxury item. But sure, whatever.

This was all just too much for Mimi.

At first, I imagined that the party official who oversees tourism sales must see all Westerners as bottomless pits of money and bad taste. But after processing it all and talking to some tour guides, I realized that it wasn't for us. It was for the Chinese. Their country is going through the same middle class boom that our's did in the 1950s when we first started traveling the world en masse.

They're the new group of people rolling through a foreign city in a huge bus, stopping for an hour, and dropping significant amounts of cash. Locals simultaneously roll their eyes and count their money. And like us in 1950, the Chinese can't get European wine, African diamonds, or American Pringles (sigh) back home. So they compliment their Vietnamese group tour with a few foreign luxuries to show their friends when they return. It's easy to judge that kind of gaudy, cookie cutter tourism, but there are about a thousand French cafe owners who will tell you that we're not much better.

After about 30 minutes, the bus picked us up on the other side of the store (like cattle through a slaughterhouse), and we headed home. Jimmy continued to charm us with bad puns and interesting anecdotes, and Mimi spared us from another minibus diaper change.

That night, we took Jimmy's advice and went out the Hanoi night market. Just like the name implies, it was three blocks of street vendors selling everything from t-shirts to night lights. The crowd was equal parts locals and tourists, and the whole experience was unquestionably Vietnamese.

But good God, it was hot. Still. At 8pm. So Aimee and I used Mimi as an excellent excuse to take a 3/4 mile cab ride back to our air conditioned hotel.

Paradise can be so hard sometimes.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Ha Long Bay

Our drive back to Hanoi after the river boat ride was delightfully uneventful. Dinner was at a corner restaurant with amazing bun cha (rice noodle salad), but shockingly warm beer. It was our first non-ice-cold beer in the country, and we almost fell out of our chairs in shock. We figured that the young women running the restaurant had never drank a beer before. There was no other acceptable explanation for serving a light beer at room temperature in 98% humidity.

The only other event that night was Mimi learning that there are consequences for being so adorable. As we were walking home, she starting crying out of the blue. At first, we assumed it was the gremlin coming out because somebody was out past her bedtime. But this cry was stronger and louder. We looked her over from head to toe, and she looked fine. Then we recalled the bun cha chef/grandmother coming out from behind the kitchen after chopping vegetables. We figured that she must have been cutting some chilis before hugging Mimi, and Mimi must have just rubbed her eyes.

But a day later, it appeared that Mimi wasn’t going to let some chili oil keep her down. She went right back to her old ways; this time, charming people from a moving vehicle.

We were headed out for our last adventure of the trip. And this was the big one. We were going to Ha Long Bay, a true wonder of the world, and one of the destinations that we built our entire trip around.

On the advice of multiple fellow travelers, guidebooks, and even Sue herself, we were going to spend the night in a boat on the middle of the bay. I couldn’t have been more excited. But first, we had a three hour bus ride to get there. Hence Mimi charming half of Hanoi from a moving vehicle.

Our guide for the trip was Jimmy, a charming, extremely energetic, late 20-something that frequently referred to himself in the third person. “Jimmy’s going to tell you the history of Ha Long Bay.” “Can Jimmy get you any water?” “Jimmy wants everybody to have happy vacation.”

We made a couple of pit stops on the way out, but the drive was surprisingly easy. Although, changing a diaper on a minibus is just as challenging as you might expect. Sorry, fellow passengers.

We arrived at the docks of Ha Long Bay around noon. There was the usual blend of 1970s Soviet buildings, brand new resorts, and the decaying bones of construction projects stopped in their tracks after the frame was built. It was delightfully charming.

After the previous wave of passengers disembarked, we took a little dinghy to our ship.

You can see one of the halted construction projects over Tom’s shoulder.

There are dozens of ships that tour the bay. Travelers can choose from simple day boats, floating four star hotels, and everything in between. And when in doubt, let Sue pick. I told her that we wanted something comfortable, but not too fancy. As always, she came through in a big way.

Yes, that's a crib. On a boat. You’re too good to us, Sue.

Unsurprisingly, our water baby Mimi was excited to explore the boat. But first she had to get hydrated.

There were 16 cabins on our ship, and about 20-25 passengers. After everybody dropped their bags off in their cabins, we had lunch with the captain and learned about the ship. Short version: life jackets over here, full bar over there. That’s all we really needed to know.

With the introductions behind us, we sailed off into the bay. Our boat pulled the dinghy behind it, and we re-boarded it around 3pm to take a couple of excursions to various islands.

The first stop was a series of limestone caves carved into one of the islands. But before we hiked down into them, we climbed up to a beautiful lookout over the bay. This was our first real look across the entire Ha Long Bay, and it was nothing short of breathtaking.

You might want to sit down for this.

Ha Long Bay is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Our stop would have been worth it for just the views from the lookout, but the caves themselves were actually pretty cool, too.

Ok, one last look before we walk back down to the boat.


Our next stop was on a little island that was 50% beach. The remaining area was made up of steps leading 500 feet up to a historic pagoda. We went with the beach option.

A couple of days prior (at our Hanoi hotel), we had met an Australian family with a baby that was Mimi’s age. They had also been to Ha Long Bay, but then had to cancel the next several days of activities because their baby caught a bad stomach bug. The parents were convinced that she picked up the bug at the same beach that we were heading to. And even though their theory didn’t fully add up medically, it was still hard to relax at a beach while thinking about the potential for 36 hours of baby diarrhea while flying over the Pacific Ocean.

Unsurprisingly, Mimi loved the beach, and nobody got sick.

Around 6 pm, we took the dinghy back to our ship and got ready for dinner. And let me tell you, in a country full of amazing food, this meal was in a league of its own. We were served course after course after course of the most incredible dishes we had ever eaten. It was probably the best meal of my life. And on top of that, Jimmy and the crew kept Mimi busy the entire time, so Aimee and I could eat with both hands.

After we put Mimi to bed, Aimee and I grabbed a couple of gin and tonics from the ship's bar. We opened our cabin windows to let the sea breeze in, and we discussed the various occupational and lifestyle decisions that we would need to make for us to come back here again very soon.

We’re really going to miss this country.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ninh Binh

We woke up the next morning missing Hoi An. There really is something special about that city. The reality of our impending departure was bringing on all kinds of nostalgia, and we needed something to take our minds off of leaving.

Sue had just the thing in store for us. Before we left Hoi An, she had called up one of her tour guide friends in Hanoi and arranged a couple of side trips for us during our time in the city. The first was a day trip to Ninh Binh, a national park about two hours south of Hanoi.

Our guide (coincidentally named Binh) picked us up at the hotel after an early breakfast. We hopped into the van waiting for us, and made our way out of the city. Binh kept us entertained with stories of day-to-day life in Hanoi. He also has a daughter about Mimi’s age, so we immediately connected over that. And yes, Binh’s daughter is already potty trained.

But can she open a can of soda?

Our's can’t either, but she looks really cute trying.

Our first stop that day was a small group of temples and pagodas that marked the ancestral capital of Viet Nam (predating even Hue).

It was a beautiful, fascinating stop, but it was hardly the main attraction. The real reason that we made the drive was a lazy river that winds through rice paddies and granite cliffs.

The community at the mouth of the river has banded together to create a system for visitors to float down the river with local fishers. It’s a one of a kind destination, and we didn’t want to miss it. That said, the last time we took our baby on a boat in this country, it wasn’t exactly a pleasure cruise. So we rearranged our itinerary a bit to make two trips down the river, letting us keep Mimi's two tiny feet solidly planted on firm ground.

We sent Tom and Helen down the river first, while Aimee, Mimi, and I explored the nearby village.

It was a tiny little town that mostly served the visitors passing through. But there were plenty of locals going about their business. Like most Vietnamese towns this time of year, the main plaza was covered with rice husks.

We’ve seen rice harvested in scortching heat in Hoi An, and planted on the side of a mountain outside of Sa Pa. But for whatever reason, watching this woman separate rice from grass made me realize how labor intensive rice farming is.

And of course, Mimi attracted plenty of admirers along our walk.

Watching people melt over our baby never gets old. We could have saved weeks of language preparation, and just learned the words chin tan (ten months) and em gai (girl). We would have been fine.

After about an hour or so, we saw Tom and Helen float back to the docks with big grins on their faces. So we passed them our daughter and hopped on the next boat. It didn’t take us long to see what Tom and Helen were smiling about.

As we floated down the river, all I could think about was how unbelievable beautiful this country is.

The river winded through rice paddies and granite cliffs for about thirty minutes, and then appeared to actually go under one of the cliffs.

At this point, I turned 13 again. "What?! No way! We get to go through a cave?!"

Despite the darkness, you could have seen my grin from a mile away. After we emerged from the cave, we floated through equally stunning scenery for another ten minutes or so, and then turned around to head back up the river. Which, of course, meant another trip through the cave.

Before we get back to the docks, I should point out how the villagers row their boats.

Every one of the captains--young, old, man, woman--held the oars with their feet, laid back, and essentially pedaled down the river. It was pretty incredible.

The river journey was yet one more magical Vietnamese experience, and only deepened our preemptive nostalgia. We’re really going to miss this place.