Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Warming up to New Year's in Ha Noi and Tourista

SEE ABOVE: Just wanted to share a few photos of the last week or so in Ha Noi leading up to Tet, the Chinese/Vietnamese New Year. It's been about three weeks since we bid farewell to Louis, Kimiko, and Sonny and just as we recovered and got back into the groove, Ha Noi, and the rest of the country for that matter, started gearing up for the Lunar New Year.

Tet Nguyen Dan is the biggest and most important holiday in Viet Nam. Naturally, this means that in the weeks leading up to Tet things get a bit out of hand. The crazy traffic gets even crazier, the markets more jam packed, and the all the special Tet goods, from peach blossoms to banh chung (the special sticky rice, mung bean, and pork dish wrapped in leaves and boiled for 12 hours.) Gifts for all the important people in your life must be carefully planned and accounted for as soon as Tet begins everything, literally everything shuts down.

Huyen and I spent several afternoons and evening running around buying things for the three family altars as well as tons of sweets and snacks that must be on hand for the guests everyone receives in their houses. It's definitely not relaxing, but the atmosphere is so festive and everyone in such high spirits that it's hard not to get caught up in everything. So, two days before the New Year, Huyen and I packed our things and headed to the bus station barely able to carry all the stuff we were bringing to Thai Binh to celebrate the New Year. . .

SEE BELOW: I posted these three slide shows below without much explanation, so, better late than never, a description. We spent half of December traveling around Viet Nam and Cambodia with our good friends Kimiko, Louis, and Sonny.

Louis and Kimiko arrived in Ha Noi on the 14th of December and spent 5 days in North Viet Nam with us. Touring around the city eating pho at 5 at my favorite joints and just hanging out it was a blast. Sonny joined us on the 17th and I had time to change his mind about dog (if at first you don't like, eat, eat again, I always say) with the help of my good friend Minh before Louis and Kimiko returned from their romantic getaway to Ha Long Bay.

Despite a rough start thanks to flight schedule changes and mechanical delays we made it to Ho Chi Minh City and a quick transit to Siem Reap to see all the ruins of Angkor. We spent really great days in Cambodia and ate some surprisingly good food, and despite the fact I'd been there three times before, Angkor never fails to amaze me. If you haven't been there, you MUST go sometime in your life. It's really an amazing place in a country with such a recently terrible past.

Back to Ho Chi Minh city just into for my friends Kym and Trang's engagement dinner and three fun filled days hanging out topped off on Christmas Eve when Thailand beat Thailand in the first of two games in the S.E. Asian Suzuki Cup. The town which is crazy on Christmas Eve under normal circumstances was absolutely a mess that night. Crazy fans racing about the street till they hit the walls of traffic that made it impossible for motorized movement in the center of Dist. 1. We slipped into an Irish Pub with a life band of over the hill ex-pats singing covers and had a great time putting away Irish car bombs and getting silly with the camera.

On the 26th of December Sonny parted ways with us and Viet Nam off to his own adventures in Hong Kong. The rest of us went North up the coast to Nha Trang. Unfortunately, as is oft the case in December, Central Viet Nam was cloudy and rainy. So, we did not get to enjoy Nha Trang's famous beach or islands, but we did get to eat some good and cheap seafood and Nem Nuong from Nha Trang, which is a favorite of mine ever since Sonny introduced me to them at Brodard in Westminster many many moons ago. We also caught a small break in the weather to enjoy the Thap Ba mud baths and Hot Springs as well as a not too shabby couples massage. From Nha Trang we hoped on to an overnight train heading to the old Imperial Capital Hue.

The weather wasn't improving but at least there was not a beach there to taunt us. Instead we toured around some of the Nguyen Emperor's Tombs, the Imperial Palace, and the Thien Mu Temple, skipping the boat ride back on the famous Song Huong (Perfume River) as we were all soaked and tired. We did enjoy Banh Khoai (Banh Xeo for those of us not from Central Viet Nam - or the thin crepe like dish served stuffed with fatty pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts) for lunch one day. A dish of Bun Bo Hue (Hue's famous spicy beef noodle dish with it's buccatini like noodles) and dinner of some of the dishes developed in the Imperial Courts. My favorite being Banh Beo, small steamed disks of rice topped with shredded shrimp and a lardon of cripsy pork skin, or as Louis had to call them, chicharrones. We also got to see Viet Nam seal it's first win ever over Thailand with a stunning goal in injury time at a cafe where everyone was crowded around the T.V. and it was understandable hard to get served. Again the victory resulted in the youth of the city jumping on their motorbikes and tearing about the city, flags and banners waving violently behind them. However, since Hue is a very small town compared to Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi we to make it back to the hotel without needing to make any detours. The next morning we caught a taxi cab to a waiting Sinh Cafe bus that would take us back South to Hoi An. The city Kimiko had been dying to get to ever since they started planning the trip . . .

Rain, rain, and more rain in Hoi An. Even worse we had splurged on the extremely nice Victoria Resort with our beach front suites mere steps from the beautiful raging cold and gray ocean. This time only a strong sense of self preservation and a desire to get shopping in the towns innumerable tailor shops stopped me from donning my swim trunks. Unfortunately, Kimiko and Louis did not need the extra suitcase I predicted they might before our arrival, saving their funds for the handbags of Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Thanh Market. Louis and I did get matching (couple) hats for a buck each at the town's main market, but it was Huyen who made out like a bandit, with two custom made dresses and a skirt. I also fumbled my way to four dress shirts for my step-father David despite having about a tenth of the measurements they required. The resort provided us with a bountiful buffet breakfast every morning, and we had one dinner of very disappointing hot pot, though the next day we managed to put away four regional specialities in one rainy lunchtime. New Year's Eve at the hotel was an adventure as the rain and wind were so strong Huyen and I packed our nice clothes into a back-pack for the two minute walk to the lobby and restaurant. Changing in the lobbies' restroom rather than soaking or finer things. Dinner was unspectacular, except for the fact they had foie gras with hot rolls, which made up for any other disappointments. The next day we parted ways with Louis and Kimiko at the hotel as yet another flight schedule moved their flight 6 instead of 2 hours later than ours. And, just like that our trip was over and we were back in Ha Noi. Looking through the thousands of pictures and creating the slide shows below I can remember all the fun the 5 of us had. Memories for a lifetime . . .

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