Thailand: The Beginning

Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.

Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.

After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.

Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hanoi, Vietnam: A Trip up North

        After being in Vietnam for a couple of weeks, I really had no idea what to expect when we reached the Capital. We were not so much drained from our aforementioned travel to the North, but more mentally stimulated and unremittingly perplexed at the same time (if that makes any sense – I do not know). The series of bizarre events and cultural oddities that made their way in and out of my life throughout that brief time-frame had caused somewhat of a short-circuit in my brain. We had been traveling strictly by ground – ground that had never fully-recovered from the horrors of the Vietnam War. Roughly 2,000 kilometers from the commencement of our journey to the Capital was jam packed with quick turns, honking horns, and road craters sending me from seat to ceiling. It can be difficult at times to read between the lines in culturally foreign environments. If you’re uncomfortable, lost, or frustrated, the land on which you lay your feet can be a simple scapegoat. Like anything, it takes practice and patience to learn that in some places, it’s best to do nothing except wander. Forget about every bias you have; every thing you know; put away your iPhone, iPad, iPod, and iTouch; and just appreciate how a city can absorb your attention. Give in to the experience. 

Hanoi is an amazing city. I can honestly say that the highlight of Hanoi is the mere fact that there was no single headline activity that defined our trip. We did not go skydiving; we didn’t pay for a tour of the city; we didn’t ride elephants in a jungle; we didn’t go to a nightclub with bottle service and go-go-dancers … we just walked around. We explored the city by hitching motorbike rides, finding cheap taxi fares, and mostly by our own two feet. The result was an unforgettable experience filled with random happenings, hilarious frustrations, interesting conversations, and endless wandering. We left that city with even more passion for simple traveling. Hanoi is authentic and overflowing with culture. You will get lost; you will scratch your head about many things; and you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. Go check it out!

We stayed at the Hanoi Asia Star Hotel. The place had an incredibly friendly staff, cheap (in price) yet classy rooms, and a culturally prime location. Located in the heart of the Old Quarter, you step out of the hotel and find yourself in a whirlwind of skinny streets. Picture New York City as a well kempt grid of parallel roads, similar to a set of teeth after a stint with braces. Then, pick your favorite superhero, superhuman, animal, or beast capable of shifting the Earth’s plates by smashing his, her, or its fists on the ground (for the sake of this hypothetical situation, we will choose two super humans: Andre the Giant and Arnold Schwarzenegger). If Andre and Arnold were to clench their fists and bring them down upon the streets of NYC – creating a seismic shift in the Earth’s plates as briefly mentioned above – you would be looking at the layout of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Streets merge with alleyways, hundred-year-old trees sprout out of the sidewalk, motorbikes drive both ways down one-way streets – there is no real way to describe it; it’s just what a big city in Vietnam is.

What makes the city so cool is that it kind of looks like it’s frozen in time. The people of the city have let nature do its thing and become one with the city. Vendors and hustlers hang out around the city’s massive man-made lake – West Lake – which is nicely decorated with a giant stone hand holding a globe. Tons of people can be found jogging, taking photos, chatting, relaxing, eating, and sipping coffee around this area. Apparently, if you are fortunate enough to see a turtle swimming around in the lake, you are the lucky recipient of good luck. Emily and I saw a dead turtle, so I’m not sure what that means, but we’ll just go ahead and stick with the whole good luck idea.

We were lucky enough to stumble upon some really cool people around West Lake. We filled out a city survey from a Vietnamese college student studying English. She was interested to speak with foreigners about their opinions on the city as well as show off her bilingual abilities to all who would listen. It had only been a few hours since we arrived, but since our initial impressions were great and she was super friendly, that’s 5s across the board in my book! Then, we bought some pretty cool pop-up Greeting Cards from this dude who was a stellar salesman. Sometimes hustlers can get kind of annoying and a bit pushy, but this guy was friendly and had a cool product. According to him, he made all these cards himself, so in our minds, they were perfect parent and grandparent presents to send home. It wasn’t until we were in the city for a couple more hours did we realize that he was indeed a great salesman and these “homemade crafted greeting cards” were widely available throughout Hanoi. Coincidence? … Maybe not.

The third group of people we came across at the pond will get their own paragraph because they are that cool and the preceding paragraph was getting a bit too long to add this new, awesome content. They were a group of maybe 10 students – right around 18 years old – part of an “English Club” with their school. I have no idea how we started chatting. Their English was pretty good, so we talked about tons of random stuff. Before we knew it, everybody was having fun getting to know each other, snapping photos, and “Facebook friending,” when they invited us on their trek to go get ice cream. It was indeed phenomenal ice cream for the jaw-dropping price of 8,000 Dong (roughly 30 cents – and although it is incredibly hard to overlook the fact that their currency is indeed “Dong,” we must move on). We chatted some more over ice cream and then we had to part ways. They were awesome kids and it really goes to show how much friendly foreigners can make your day when hanging out in an unfamiliar place.

8,000 Dong Ice Cream Place

Besides the unique and beautiful scenery, Hanoi is home to some wildly bizarre markets and cuisines. With a heavy French influence, you do find some Western nuances making frequent appearances, but it is hard to turn a corner without seeing something weird. One of the tastiest bowls of noodles we had was in some alley where you could barely fit two people side by side (somehow motorbikes still squeezed their way through the crowds). The right side was lined with food stalls and people squatted on miniature, plastic chairs munching down some freshly prepared grub. You’ll often notice that a hefty majority of street food will have you seated at dollhouse sized tables and chairs – in an effort to bring you closer to the people you are eating with (cute, although more along the lines of hilarious for tall, lanky, white dudes like myself).

Really good noodle soup in this crowded alley
In addition to the alley, we spent one of our dinners on the slanted roof of a building on a busy street corner. The tables were all filled in the main “dining area,” so they led us up to the roof. There, we had the pleasure of enjoying some incredible people watching, while rats ran by our feet (no extra charge for the rats). We had a lovely bottle of homemade rice vodka, beef and potato stir-fry, and a surprisingly tasty plate of crispy noodles with pig’s kidney and heart. Although I was expecting some funky flavors, the heart ended up being very good, and the kidney was edible, yet they were a bit too generous with the portions. When all is said and done, there’s nothing wrong with a little rooftop dining with a couple of rats, some vodka, and some piggy parts.

Stir-fry beef, onions, scallions, peppers and potato wedges
Crispy noodles with green veg, onions, pigs kidney, and pigs heart
Grandpa's old cough medicine
Pig Heart - Surprisingly tasty
Pigs kidney - no jumping for joy, but glad I tried it
Rooftop Dining
Of course, with every good meal, you need something to wash it all down. As I briefly mentioned before, Hanoi does a great job of offering a nice variety of flavors of drink; something for all different shapes, sizes, and taste preferences. First of all, their coffee is something else. Bold, rich, strong, and sometimes chocolaty, their coffee is such a great alternative to a Western style cup of Joe. Instead of offering three or four sizes, they give you a small, highly concentrated serving of some outstanding coffee. When it’s finished, you actually feel the effects of the coffee without any of the additives or post-coffee chronic peeing from a watered-down, extra large Dunkin Donuts cup. And, one of the best parts about Vietnam’s coffee scene is its omnipresence throughout the country. Being that it is the second largest coffee producer in the world, in a city like Hanoi, you find coffee districts where blocks are filled with coffee shops, and random little stores scattered about, all offering a unique and cool coffee experience. One side-note that I feel is quite noteworthy is the notoriously elegant and illustrious Civet-Cat Coffee.

First cafe we stopped at in Hanoi
Best peach tea in all of the land
Cong Caphe Iced Coffe (back) and sticky rice, yogurt coffee
Sticky Rice Yogurt Coffee

Hands down favorite cafe in Hanoi
Known by the Vietnamese as Kopi Luwak, Civet Coffee is surely a cup from the finer end of the rectum – I mean spectrum. Civet Cats live in the jungles of Vietnam and they feast on the abundance of coffee berries that grow there. Inside the berry is a bunch of “fleshy pulp” (Wikipedia) that surrounds the bean. These cats love this pulp. I would if I were them – it sounds amazing. Here’s where things get weird. These cats have special enzymes that do something wild and crazy when it comes to fermenting these beans. Before you tell me this is a boring paragraph, they don’t stop there. Once it goes through the digestive process in the Civet’s belly, poop happens. And inside that poop, are the finest Asian coffee beans you can get your hopefully protected hands on.

I know fine foods tend to be weird and oddly expensive, but when I heard how much these beans can go for, “Holy Shit!” would be an unintended pun of an understatement. Depending on the quality of the beans, they can go for as much as $700 a kilogram. It’s gotten to the point where there are so many varieties and so many replica versions, you can get a lower grade poop coffee for the price of a normal cup. When perusing around the coffee scene in Hanoi, we found out that there are a ton of replica brands that aren’t the real thing. We tried a hybrid brand, which we were told was the real deal, but at a lower quality (the price was normal). The result was surprising: I really like Civet Coffee. It’s strong, bold, slightly smoky, and slightly chocolaty. If you have the chance, don’t think about it and try a cup. I must say it was the best shitty cup of coffee I have ever had!

If you’re not into coffee, why not tie on a nice buzz with a few shots of rice wine? Vietnam has a ton of it, and lucky for you, Hanoi and the surrounding villages are known for preserving certain things in their wine. By certain things, I mean bizarre bugs and animals. Throughout our days wandering, we came across many bars, vendors, and restaurants that had a collection of preserved animals soaking in jugs of wine. In the jugs, we saw everything from giant crows, to bee larva, to scorpions, to human heads. Every one of those things just listed was true except for the human heads. We never saw those. The most popular fermented wine in Vietnam would have to be Snake Wine, and the best place to go for that is an 8 Kilometer taxi ride out of town to Le Mat Village.

Snakes and crows in wine. Weird.

If you Google Le Mat, you’ll find many people go there to experience eating snakes. They have many restaurants and eateries that will offer snake on their menu. The price depends on the size of the snake and the largest snake that they offer – although it is not always “in stock” – is the King Cobra. If you choose to partake, you pick the snake of your choice from their selection. They proceed to kill the snake, drain the blood into shot glasses, and remove the heart. They offer the still-pumping heart to the “guest of honor” (whoever wants to eat it), and before you dine, you, along with the other participants all take a shot of rice wine and snake blood. Rituals like this are often seen as ways for men to increase their libido, although women are also invited to take part. The snake is then cooked in anywhere from 5-8 dishes, and you leave the place filled to the brim with snake.

            Capturing and killing a snake just so I can drink its blood and eat its heart seems a bit barbaric for me, unless of course that snake killed someone very close to me. Then I obviously would have to dedicate my life to avenging my friend or family member’s tragic death by traveling to Le Mat, Vietnam to kill and eat that heartless bastard. Luckily, that is not the case, so Em and I chose to just check out the village instead. It was just a normal village with a pretty significant “snake presence.” We checked out some of the restaurants just to see what they were like and happened to come across a very awesome discovery: O Sin.

            I had read about it online – the blogs had said that it is one of the better places to go to experience feasting on a King Cobra. I told myself that if I stumbled upon it, I’d have a look inside to see what it was all about. Low and behold, as Emily and I were walking down a random street in Le Mat looking for a cab to go home, we came across O Sin. We stepped inside to find an old, Vietnamese man sitting on a couch. He glanced up at us, absent of much emotion, and I proceeded to ramble on in English about who knows what. Like many people in small-town Vietnam, he did not speak English, but got a kick out of my ignorant attempts at English conversation. When the word “King Cobra” was mentioned, he just shook his head “No.”

            All I wanted to do was see one, but apparently, they were “all out.” Before we turned around to leave, he grunted to get my attention and pointed up at the wall behind him. I didn’t look close enough at first, but when I followed his direction, my eyes gazed upon a huge collection of animal fermented wine. It was a pretty impressive collection. After a moment or two, he directed my attention to a huge jug to the left of the couch. He pointed at the jug, then lifted his other hand and pointed to what used to be a finger. We weren’t speaking, but it was loud and clear that the massive King Cobra preserved in that jug was there because he had this guy’s finger. I really did not know what to say; I was speechless.

            After I came back to reality, he took one of the smaller jars off of the wall – the jar was filled with about 20 snakeheads. He strolled into the kitchen and got three saki-esque, china glasses, and popped the cork off of the top of the jug. As the wine left the lip of the jug and made its way into the glasses, I watched as the floating chunks of snakehead splashed in as well. Lowering his four-fingered hand, he picked one of the glasses up off the table and motioned for us to do the same. After looking at one another and taking a simultaneous deep breath, we followed suit. “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” was uttered at a volume slightly above a whisper and we tossed back the shots. I took the gulp and when I brought the glass down, I noticed I had failed to take the entire shot, leaving only a small amount of wine with floating snake shmegma in my cup. I gagged as I finished the rest and tears welled up in my eyes, but luckily held it all down. He motioned to the bottle asking if we wanted another, but we politely declined. It was time to go. We had a nice time with the retired King Cobra charmer, but our career as snakehead-fermented-wine juice-drinkers was over.

            The North of Vietnam is a great spot. With Hanoi being the home base for travel around the area, it is an awesome place to spend any amount of time. It’s too vastly spread out to see in a week or less, but regardless of the time spent, you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. Don’t look to hard for cool experiences in Hanoi, just be patient, explore, and let them find you.

Tasty Vietnamese doughnuts

Tobacco Bamboo Bongs - Smoking is a big part of Vietnamese culture

Cool cafe with 5 or so floors
Bobby Fat Cat Live from Vietnam

Freshly squeezed in a funny looking cup

Trees are way cooler when you can sit on them

This man is a multi-tasker: Fishing and Paddling at the same time
Take what you need and get out of here.

Public Park Bathrooms - always an adventure.

This chicken's High School Superlative was: "Most likely to be deep fried."
Movie night