Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Road Less Traveled By

I have not the time, nor the heart, nor the courage to ponder upon where the road not taken will lead me - for I am, right now, hurtling blindly down the road less traveled by. I know not where it goes, nor if I would end up where I aspire to be. I only know that the journey will be long, perilous and extemely difficult. I know I may become demotivated, despaired and desperate, perhaps repeatedly, along the way, but I will need to press on.

For I have chosen this road, and there is no turning back now.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Ha Long - Descending Dragon

A long time ago, the first emperor of Vietnam arrived at this land with his entourage, and saw a dragon flying up towards the sky. A dragon symbolizes the ruler of a land, and the departing dragon symbolized the vacating of the throne of this land for the new ruler. Therefore, the land was named Thang Long - the Ascending Dragon, now Hanoi. The dragon which ascended from Thang Long descended at a bay and became rock formations. This bay is called Ha Long - the Descending Dragon. (many thanks to our wonderful guide, Tuan, for this story, and many others)

We rose early to breakfast at the hotel, and was ready by 8am Hanoi time for our Ha Long Bay tour. Our guide for this tour, Tuan (pronounced duen), met us at the hotel. He spoke relatively good English - in fact, the best English we encountered in the entire vacation. He told us that he is an Economics graduate, worked as a tour guide part time, and aspires to do an MBA in the future (good for you, young man!) We boarded the tour bus with several other tourists for the ~3-hour journey to Ha Long City.

In the bus

The bus stopped for a brief half hour at a complex which sold a variety of souvenirs, including (but not limited to...) ceramic ware, figurines, silk and silk products and embroidery. Embroidery! There was a section where the embroidery staff worked, some of them mere kids! The stitches were so delicate, fine and neat that the embroidered pieces looked like beautiful paintings. The temptation to buy definitely was strong, but for an even stronger deterrent - the prices were quoted in USD (!!!).

The embroidery section

The only things I got from that place were some postcards, at VND10,000 per pack of 10. As we were about to leave the place I found out that our No 1 kaki shopping bought a whole bag of goodies - Vietnamese coffee and their famous green bean cakes - from a little cafe adjoining the complex. (argh!!! *envious*) She was a little concerned about the cakes' freshness as the expiry dates were just a couple of months away, but couldn't articulate that concern in the language that the cafe staff could understand. She raised the matter to Tuan, and he immediately escorted her back to the cafe to inquire. Later, I was told that she failed to get 'fresher' goods, as the staff there were way louder and fiercer than our meek and gentle guide. Sigh.
We continued our journey for another 1.5 hours before reaching the jetty at Ha Long City. This was where the cruise to Ha Long Bay began.

Ships at the jetty

It was a Sunday and the harbour at Ha Long was very crowded with both locals and foreigners. We, however, were well-prepared to brave them, because Tuan had previously warned us of the immense number of tourists, and told us to stick close together, so as to not get lost. After a short wait, we embarked on our boat.

Got a chair to step on...

The boat was to take us out to the sea to explore the bay and its many curious, wondrous, glorious, *yawwwwn*, natural rockly isles and rock formations. There were so many - wave-corroded, wind-cut, strangely-shaped, extraordinarily-coloured - very much like those we saw at Phang Nga Bay at Phuket, but of an area more vast. The journey itself was great. The boat went slowly on for a couple of hours until lunch.

Lunch was served on the boat but it was nothing to shout about. I was personally a little surprised when our own tour guide Tuan served us, because the boat had its own staff. The first dish that came was a plate of prettily-trimmed cucumber, raw or pickled (I don't know because I don't eat cucumber raw and/or pickled), and the second was a plate of 6 large, juicy-looking, yummy-smelling prawns. Notice that I didn't use the word taste. That is because we didn't really get to taste those prawns. Less than a minute after the dish was placed on our table, Tuan took it away again, mumbling an embarrassed apology. The prawns belonged to another table of tourists... who probably bought a more expensive package. Gah! I don't remember what other dishes followed - too upset about the prawns. Later, one of my friends informed us that she overheard our poor misinformed tour guide getting a scolding of his life. Poor thing. Luckily we didn't dig right in before he had the chance to right his wrong (else... well, I don't want to imagine what would had happened)

After lunch, it was a relaxing couple of hours out on the decks, enjoying the scenery, taking photos and being blown into a bad-hair-day by the cool sea breeze. Tuan engaged us with very entertaining tales of the legend of Hanoi and Ha Long, and talked about life in Vietnam in general. It was great conversation, though not without random moments of difficulty. Some of those moments:

#1 Tuan said that it was not safe to swim at Ha Long Bay because there are sharks. The sharks there don't eat Vietnamese. Instead they like to eat foreigners and Malaysians because they are fatter. It was supposed to be funny, but I didn't really get the joke at first because I was still digesting his accent. And my friends, who saw that I had no reaction, gave no reactions as well. And poor Tuan didn't know how to react to his joke that tak laku. Sigh.

#2 I wanted to know if there are crocodiles at the swampy areas around Ha Long Bay. Tuan didn't know what "crocodile" was, and we didn't know how to make him understand. I tried to sign it - held my fingers out like claws and clamp both arms down like chomping corcodile jaws - nope, he didn't get it. Erm, Crocodile Dundee? Nope, he'd never heard of it. Erm, what about that Aussie croc fella who was killed by a stingray? Nope, I myself couldn't recall the guy's name. Well, OK then, I give up. Next!

#3 Do Vietnamese believe in ghosts? Tuan didn't understand "ghost" either. He thought we meant "gods" and told us about gods they worshipped. Gah! OK, you know, spirits? When people die, and *arms stretched and eyes eerily rolled up* huhuhuuuuh? Still don't get it? Ghosts, spirits, vampires! Get it?!! Nevermind. (Coincidentally, later in the conversation, he got on to talk about what people do to ward off evil spirits. He mentioned the word "ghost" too, but in the unique Vietnamese accent that we understood only because it was spoken in context)

Another hour or two were spent in such manner - enjoying the view, taking photos, talking - till we reached our next destination.

A rock
Two rocks, that they say resemble two chickens kissing (well, you see what you want to see...)

Our next destination was the "Amazing Cave", or the Hang Sung Sot (I think, because there's a huge sign bearing these words at the entrance...). This cave was the spot the dragon in the legend descended, and there were signs of the dragon all throughout the cave - or so the Vietnamese say. There were curious scale-like formations on the ceiling (the dragon's spine and / or tail), perfect circular indentations (the dragon's scales), and stalactites and stalagmites that resemble dragon's head, beard, claws etc. As I have said before, you see what you want to see. It was a really nice walk through the caves though. The air inside was so cool and so fresh. And as I walked on, I can't help but wonder how such fantastic shapes could had been formed, and what a mysterious place our earth could be. Yes, I do get carried away.

Inside the Amazing Cave

Feet of the dragon
View from the top

We were mostly ascending when going through the caves and at one point, we were close to exiting into the open when Tuan pointed to the direction and said that it was the way to heaven. We looked, and indeed it was - with the sunlight bursting in straight rays into the dark caves through the mists - it was ethereal. We then ascended towards "the way to heaven" and along the way, was a deep cavern - steep, dark and unlit, enclosed by metal bars for tourists' safety. "Way to hell!" Tuan said, and laughed heartily. Ah, it's a joke. Yes, we got that this time, and we laughed too. :D

After the 40- or 45-minute long cave exploration, we went back to the boat and sailed away. It was a rather long journey to our final destionation for the day - Cat Ba Island, not made any shorter by the way our boat sailed so leisurely on.

Relaxing on the upper deck
We changed boats - boarded a smaller one - halfway through and continued on (slowwwly) until we reached Cat Ba. In the itinerary provided by the tour agency, it was stated that we will be given the equipment to fish, and have our catch (if any) cooked along with our dinner. I was just wondering when this was going to happen when Tuan came around and started talking to us. I asked him about it and he said there wasn't going to be any fishing. Following that was a blur to me - someone showed him the itinerary, several people spoke simultaneously for several minutes, a few phone calls were made - and then, we were told that we'd be going fishing after all! This can't be right, but well, I'm not complaining (yet!).

Cat Ba was essentially a fishing village. The island, probably newly opened to tourism, was still under development. The first thing I noted about the island was how bleak it looked - the sky was grey, the sea water was murky around the shores, the buildings were worn and the roads were dusty, all set against vast unfriendly, rocky hills covered partly by greens.

The mini bus which took tourists to the hotels on the other side of the hill was a rickety old thing. It was a steep climb up and down the slopes and while going down wasn't a problem, going up was a painful struggle. The engine roared then screamed, and still, the vehicle could only manage to go on at slightly slower than andante (what the... ahem!).

The hotel was at the side of a relatively broad street, probably the main street, probably the only properly-paved street - and it was a tall, narrow building (as usual). The reception there was one of the worst I'd experienced. First of all, the young man behind the counter was ugly and sour-faced. He was perpetually scowling and was harsh and rude to our gentle and polite Tuan. He even had the cheek to suggest that one of my friends share room with a couple of other tourists. It was too damn much! In the end, instead of 3 rooms like we wanted, we got 2 - one for the 4 girls, the other for the 2 guys. Fine!

Dinner was served at the hotel, and it was the lousiest meal of the entire tour, taste-wise. I'm not even going to spend any time right now describing it!

After dinner, Tuan took us for the promised "fishing" trip. Yes, you noticed I placed the word inside quotation marks. Soon, you'll understand why. One of the rickety old bus took us back to the pier and we boarded a fishing boat. It sailed out, only to stall and park about 100m away from the shore. There, we were given reels of fishing lines (yes, lines wound onto hand-held reels - no rods) with clumps of pork on the hooks as baits. Well, I may not be an expert in the art of fishing, but I could very well tell we'd been taken for fools. Firstly, with all the traffic around us, the roaring engines and loud music (yes, our boatmen had the cheeks to blast music while we were "fishing"), no fish in their sane minds would linger there to take a bite. Secondly - well, I don't want to state the obvious but - pork was hardly the ideal bait because pigs don't live underwater! Gah!

After about half an hour's predictably futile, fruitless "fishing", the group of waterfish (us lar) were brought back to the island where we spent another half hour or so walking along its main street with our tour guide, before retiring to our rooms.

The room we stayed in at the hotel was awful compared to the ones at Hanoi. The mattresses were too soft and totally without elasticity, the door had several see-through cracks, and the bathroom was dimly lit and had ugly patches of rust or whatever all over the faucets. The sprouts of water from the shower were so wild and uncontrollable that after the first bath, our toilet paper roll was complete soaked - and unusable.

My friend nonchalantly announced that she would call the reception and ask for a new roll. And she did - seemingly without effort. I was surprised, and I asked if they didn't have problems understanding her, to which she was quite confident that they didn't. *yeah right* About 5 minutes later, there was a knock on our door. "Oh, that must be someone bringing us toilet paper!" my friend exclaimed. I got up, opened the door, and I found myself looking at a young man, the hotel staff, staring back at me with a questioning look on his face. My eyes wandered involuntarily to his hands. No toilet paper. Instead, he was holding a screwdriver in one hand, and a spanner wrench in the other. I could hardly contain my laughter. I had to show him our wet and mangled toilet roll before he understood that we needed a new roll. Gosh!

I did not sleep well, if at all, that night, and looked pretty much like a panda crossed dead fish the next day. We were served a breakfast lousier than the previous evening's dinner, and then boarded a boat to begin our journey back. The boat ride from Cat Ba to Ha Long took a grueling 3 - 4 hours.

A view of Cat Ba as we were leaving it

Look closely and you'll see the orange-coloured formation admist the vast greyish mass which looks like a man standing, facing the vast rock islet. I stayed on the upperdeck of the boat, basking in the sun, for probably an hour, just to capture this on camera!

We reached Ha Long city at noon and were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. The building which was the restaurant had the narrowest doors I'd experienced in this vacation. My shoulders almost reached their entire width. The guys had to move through them 1 shoulder at a time. The huge Westerners had to go sideways and hunch at the same time.

After lunch, it was another 3-hour journey back to Hanoi. We made a stop at another crafts and souvenirs center, but no one bought anything this time. We reached our hotel at about 4pm and had a short rest before heading out for a pre-dinner meal - well, alright, a meal, at the herbal chicken shop which we visited on our first day at Hanoi. Here, we learned our first two Vietnamese words for food - ga which is chicken, and chim which means bird (quail, that is).

Our programme for that evening was watching the water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It took us about 15 minutes to walk there from the hotel area, and we were early to reach the place, so my food-adoring companions decided to pop in to Highland Coffee for some... well, coffee. The place was classy and modern, with dim lights and comfy sofas - much like Starbucks around here. We ordered a coffee each, and these were served with complimentary cookies. The coffees were so good we ended up buying some bags of ground coffee as well.

The water puppet show was really great, despite us not understanding a single word said and sung. The theatre, instead of having a stage, had a waist-deep pool of water at the front. The end of the pool furthest from the audience had bamboo curtains, behind which the puppeteers worked. On one side of the pool, the musicians sat with their instruments - traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. Two singers narrated and sang through the show. The puppets, attached to long poles held by the unseen puppeteers, danced and jumped in the water. It was a truly unique and spectacular experience.

Some puppets on display at the water puppet theatre

After the show, it was supper time (ahem, you would've guessed). Life is good when you're with people who made sure you're fed every two- or three-hourly. We went to:


We'd intended to have KFC the moment we saw it there, right on our first day in Hanoi. You would've noticed the Vietnamese word ga there on the sign. That's "chicken", which means ran must be "fried"! (yup, we learned another Vietnamese word!) The menu there was slightly different from what we have here. We ordered 3 different meals to be shared by everyone, and my favourite was this wrap called Sot Caesar - its filling included fresh veggies, dressing, cheese and ga chunks. Delicious!

Appetite satiated, it was back to the hotel to call it another day!

*previous* -- *next*

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Hazy Hanoi

The flight to Hanoi from KL took 3.5 hours and at landing, the pilot reported poor weather with low visibility. We noticed the "low visibility" the moment we stepped out of the plane - the sky, seen through the window, was grey and gloomy and distant buildings seemed shrouded in thick mist. According to Yahoo! weather forecast, it would rain 4 days out of the 5 we would spend at Hanoi, and the foggy view did little to reassure me otherwise. I therefore turned my attention to some other sort of view - I had for a long time heard that Vietnamese girls are slim and beautiful. I wasted no time in scrunitising every girl in sight. True enough, the few girls I saw in the airport were slim, and had long, slender arms and legs. Some were gorgeous, others not so, but there weren't any that I'd term "ugly". (I came to realise later that there are NO fat people in Vietnam... even the plump are scarce)

We headed out of the airport where a van was waiting to take us to our hotel. After loading our luggage, we walked to the left side of the vehicle, only to be herded by the driver to the right side to board it. We were momentarily shocked when one of our friend actually sat in front, at the driver's seat (oi, you're driving kah?) but then we noticed the missing steering wheel - Vietnamese drive on the wrong, ahem, I mean left side of the vehicle. This first ride through Hanoi was really weird as we're so not used to seeing cars coming from the other side, not to mention that the other vehicles kept honking at ours. At first, I thought it was because our driver wasn't driving properly (slowing down and speeding up at his own timing and liking, swerving left and right and hovering in the middle of two lanes etc.) but very soon I realised that all Hanoi drivers don't drive properly - they drove with one hand permanently on the honk, wherever and however they pleased, and obeyed traffic lights only when it suited their mood. It was quite exasperating (especially the constant, incessant honking!)

Hanoi driving style: one hand on the honk, the other composing SMS

Our hotel was about 45 minutes' drive from the airport, and located in a red-brick road which was inaccessible by car. So we were dropped off by the main road, and had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. It was a rather neat little place, narrow and tall, like all other buildings in Hanoi (perhaps this suited the slim people there). It had 6 floors, and no elevators (we think that very few several-floored buildings in Hanoi had elevators, which probably contributed to the fitness of its people... heheh) and width of the staircase was probably 2/3 of the width of regular staircases in Malaysia (the doors of some buildings were that much narrower too). I bet foreigners (including some of us) can't help feeling a little overweight there...

Typical Hanoi structures

Just don't touch...

The first thing we did after placing our luggage in the care of the hotel (check-in time wasn't until later) was to look for food. We were extremely hungry, as we flew AirAsia, and being stingy enough to want to fly budget, we didn't buy any food nor drinks during the flight (of course!). We got some "directions" from the hotel staff (go left, left, then right then left and left...), walked all the way around the block of buildings surrounding the hotel only to end up back at the hotel. (ish) We decided not to risk our gastric juices burning holes in our tummies by going on another wild goose's chase, and went into a nice little corner cafe very near our hotel, eagerly anticipating our first local Vietnamese meal. What we didn't anticipate was the humongous language barrier we were about to face.

The menu itself was in Vietnamese, with very minimal and basic English translation. The staff spoke NO English at all. There were two steaming pots and a counter facing out of the shop. A lady was there with a small child. The little one was eating some curiously-cooked eggs out of a plate and one of my friends commented on how good it looked and how we should order it. "What is this?" she said, pointing to the child's plate, and in reponse to that, the lady pointed to a basket of eggs (she must had wondered which kampung we came from... never seen eggs before?) We tried to order some food in every way we could linguistically but it didn't work. Nobody could understand anything we tried to say, and in the end, the lady pointed at her stoves, pots and counter, and then pointed to an item on the menu. It said Ky Dong steamed rolls. OK fine, we'll have some Ky Dong steamed rolls. What about the eggs? Well, maybe it would be cooked along with the rolls. Fine. But how much do they cost? "How much? *pointing* How much?" They couldn't understand "How much?". Gah! We signed "money" by rubbing our thumbs against our index and middle fingers while saying "Dong, Dong!" (Dong as in their currency, ahem!) and thank goodness, they understood that! Someone took out a calculator and punched in a couple of digits, with several zeros trailing and showed to us. I forgot exactly how much a set of steamed rolls was, but I remember it was cheap :P

Ky Dong aunty preparing Ky Dong steamed rolls, which didn't involve eggs. Gah!

We ordered 1 set of steamed rolls by pointing our fingers to the steaming pots, then sign "1" by lifting 1 finger. Somehow, we signed too much perhaps, and ended up getting two sets. I seriously don't know how it happened. We also ordered our coffees by pointing and signing.

Ky Dong steamed rolls

The steamed rolls were served with some fresh dunno-wat leaves, dunno-wat sauce with two pieces of dunno-wat in it, chillis and lime. The nice lady who prepared the rolls even showed us how to eat them by squeezing a section of lime into the sauce and using her best sign language to mean we should dip the rolls with some leaves in the sauce then put them in our mouths (so cham... don't even know how to makan!) The rolls were nice, but it was the coffee that really made us go Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh... It was so good! (Must buy, must buy, must buy!!!) Once we're done, it was time to pay and fortunately, signing for the bill wasn't as difficult as ordering the food. But understanding the total amount muttered in Vietnamese was another matter. Thank goodness for that little invention called calculator! What an experience!

Our next stop was... well, more food of course! With the experience we gained at Ky Dong (I found out as we left the cafe that this was its name) it was smoother sailing through the price-asking and ordering process. We had bread with egg and chicken in chinese herbal soup. The food here was so good we actually came back the day after the next for dinner!

Chicken in "Chinese Medicinal" (as was written in the menu)

Bread with egg

It was then time to explore the city. All along we had wondered if the city was really perpetually foggy (but it wasn't cold) or just plain polluted. A stroll through town confirmed it was the latter. Every breath we took was saturated with smoke and dust, and it was pretty alarming. Most of the residents there wore face masks, but especially those riding bikes and also the womenfolk who selling fruits or other produce (these were usually piled on two large rattan trays hanging at each end of a long pole balanced on their shoulders).

Several streets away from our hotel, in a section of the city they called Old Quarter was a huge lake (which name I can't remember, and can't be bothered to Google out). Calm and tree-lined, it was really beautiful, in spite of the extreme haziness. In the middle of the lake there was a temple, reachable from the bank via a red, wooden bridge. To get into the temple, we had to buy tickets, and they cost VND3,000 each. That's like... 60sen per person (waahahahahah! cheap!)

A view of The Lake

The entrance of the temple

The Vietnamese are mostly Buddhists and Taoists, and this temple was largely similar to our local Chinese temples. They used the Chinese language in ancient times, so there were many Chinese characters carved around their temples. The one little difference between their worshipping and ours here was the use of white lilies on the altars. Here, we use mostly cheap chrysanthemum - RM4 for 5 stalks, which is sufficient to make a pretty huge bunch (white lilies are very expensive and you only buy them for your other halves on special occassions like birthdays and anniversaries and Valentine's Day etc. :P) I don't know how much lilies cost in Hanoi, but there were LOTS of them (suggesting that perhaps they weren't as expensive as they are in Malaysia). We saw peddlers carrying big basketfuls all over the place, and they were used as offerings on altars and for decoration in many shops (even the run-down-looking ones) - they were practically everywhere.

After a good walk around the lake and the temple in the middle of it, it was time for... tea break! (yes, this group loves to eat). We went into a chic little cafe called Papa Joe's. Here the beers were cheaper than the fresh fruit juices, and the fresh fruit juices cheaper than the coffees. "Wahhh, so cheap! Order, order, order!" Well, not dirt cheap ok, but definitely cheaper than Malaysia la.

The menu at Papa Joe's

On the way back to the hotel:

"Eh, what is that? So interesting... We want to buy!!!"

"We don't know what you're saying, but yes, we want to buy 3"

Yes, it's food again. I did say this group of friends really love to makan. This was a curious snack, with a piece of fish cake-like something sandwiched between two pieces of glutinous rice cake-like something else. Interesting, but not so tasty (in my opinion la).

By the time we reached our hotel, I was quite convinced that shopping in Hanoi wasn't half as interesting nor satisfying as I'd previously experienced in Phuket. First of all, the sellers didn't speak any English! They seldom used calculators to quote prices (instead, they fished out notes from their pouches and show the values!) and they had this no-bargain policy (!!!). Every time anyone of us got a price quote and indicated the want of a discount, it would be the strong "No, no, no!" (probably the only English word they know...) response, accompanied by a sour expression on the seller's face. Gah!!! The other un-shopping-friendly thing was the currency itself. Because the Dong was so small, everything there cost thousands or tens of thousands of Dongs. The zeros were really confusing.

To illustrate how confusing it could be, let me recount this one incident: the No 1 kaki shopping in our group was interested in some hats displayed in a headgear shop. She went in and took a really pretty one off the shelf. It cost 1.3+ million Dongs - to simplify, say VND1,300,000. She took a look at the price tag, mistook the figure for VND130,000 and computed the value to be less than RM30. "Hey, this is very cheap!" Sensing something amiss (because all the other price tags I glanced at showed figures way higher), I took a look. Good thing I did - at VND1.3mil it was >USD70 (we exchanged USD70 for ~VND1.1m as the group fund). Luckily we discovered the error before she took it to the cashier's counter! As if the many trailing zeros on their notes were not enough, we Chinese have this habit of using the word wan to mean ten thousand, and qian to mean one thousand (like 130,000 is "13 wan", or "130 qian"). Within the first day itself, the wan and qian were mistakenly interchanged so many times, created so much false joy / panic and utter bafflement, that thereafter, someone always double-checked when anyone else uttered a certain number postfixed with the word wan or qian. The need to do mental conversion of VND10,000 = RM2 all the time didn't help either.

We had a good several hours' rest in the hotel before venturing out again in the evening. As you would've expected, the first business in order was, of course, dinner. We knew about the famous Vietnamese noodle, pho - said to be very delicious, particularly the beef noodle. Unfortunately, half of the group don't eat beef, so we settled for duck instead. The noodle itself was really delicious - great texture and taste and all, but the duck was nothing out of the ordinary. The soup consisted of bamboo shoots, among other ingredients we don't know about, and had a really weird smell and after-taste.

Vietnamese noodle with duck & bamboo shoot

We were charged VND20,000 per bowl of noodle, which we knew was a rip-off because there was NO WAY that it can cost RM4 for that bowl of noodle in Hanoi (that's closer to KL price la ok!). We were told later (by our tour guide the next day) that the prices of everything in Hanoi is quoted higher for foreigners as compared to the locals. For westerners, they could quote as much as 50% higher. Sigh.

After dinner we undertook an odyssey to look for a popular night market, which only happen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (it was our only chance to visit it, as it was Saturday, and we'd be spending the following night out of Hanoi). You might think that the use of the term odyssey here is a little exaggerative. No, it isn't. The night market was located at the street Hang Dao. From our hotel, we only needed to cross over to the adjacent street Hang Bong, and walk along it to another one Hang Gai, which connected directly to Hang Dao. Sounds simple? Yes, it was supposed to be simple! However, the moment we started out on Hang Bong, we somehow headed towards the wrong direction. Several streets later, we decided that something was not right, that we should stop and ask for directions. We approached two policemen, showed them our map, and pointed to Hang Dao. One of them took a look and furrowed his brow. The two of them exchanged some sentences in Vietnamese and then the guy with our map and pointed at a location, "You are here!", and it was like . . . t h i s . . . far away from where we wanted to be! :(

The policeman then gave us some directions and we carried on in our quest. About 15 or 20 minutes later, we were still not where we were supposed to be. Again, we approached someone, showed the map and asked for directions to Hang Dao. "You are here!" and to our horor, we saw that we were still . . . t h i s . . . far from where we wanted to be, but from the opposite side! :''(

That's it! We got the new directions, and thereafter, at every turning we're supposed (or not supposed) to make, we approached someone and pointed at Hang Dao on the map. We must have consulted at least 5 or 6 people by the time we got to Hang Gai. Thank goodness it was a straight road from there! I don't know exactly how long the entire journey took, but it must have been close to an hour! We covered a good area of the entire Old Quarter and gained like 10x the courage to cross busy streets with wild, honking vehicles coming at all unpredictable directions.

Night market @ Hang Dao

Destination reached! The night market stretched 2 whole streets (or more - we didn't walk all the way till the other end), with stalls along the middle and endless streams of people on either sides. The night market was not unlike our pasar malam here, except that there were no food stalls (though there were petty snack and drinks sellers at the sidewalks). There were souvenirs, handicrafts, clothes, shoes, bags... a true haven for shoppers! There were so many people walking there that the moment we paused to browse, hands and elbows would be pushing and nudging us from behind. It was really infuriating at first, but after a while, I got used to it, and even started pushing the people who stalled right in front of me.

So, was our hour-long night market-hunt on foot worth it? YES! Collectively, we must've spent about a million Dongs that night. Of course, our No 1 kaki shopping alone accounted for at least half of that amount (she spent all her money and borrowed all of whatever's left of someone else's money as well - and later regretted having not bought more stuff :O).

The walk back to the hotel after the night market shopping was brisk and wrong turnings-free (thankfully!). At the corner of the red-brick road leading to our hotel, my love-to-makan friends suggested to buy some Vietnamese kebabs for supper, which we did (if they admit No 2 for love of food, nobody would dare admit No 1, except perhaps Bee Ree).

That night was the night I rested the best of all nights in the entire vacation, largely due to the fatigue of having walked so much! Such, was our first day at Hanoi.


Friday, May 2, 2008


I walked into the CD shop I always purchase CDs from (because their collection is huge and complete, and they always give a discount of beberapa ringgit for each CD) and asked for Sarah Brightman's latest. The young man reached out to the familiar classical / opera corner and whisked it out - the brand new album in all its glory. And then he said to me "Do you want the original? I can copy for you for RM18" *wahhh* Of course I want the original! If I wanted a copy, I can download a copy and it won't cost me RM18! GAH!!!

And so I finally got it! Sarah's new album was, at long last, released in January, after an insufferable wait - her last album, Harem, was released in 2003. Although some compilation CDs were produced during the 4-year interval, they are just what they are - compilations of previously published material.

I had listened to the album in its entirety only several times thus far, and am loving most of it already. Although I miss her full, brilliant soprano voice, the way she sings with soft, tingling clear voice, is none less hauntingly beautiful. And the gothic-theme album artwork is superbly enchanting too.

Her flaming red dress contrasts so extremely well with the gloomy, stormy background (and I really like that vampirish look on her). As usual, there are some very sexy shots of her in the CD booklet which, as much as I love her, I'm not so fond of. Frankly, I believe her album will sell whether or not they display revealing photos of her on the cover.

Symphony's tracklist:

1. Gothica
2. Fleurs du Mal
3. Symphony
4. Canto Della Terra (duet with Andrea Bocelli)
5. Sanvean
6. I Will Be With You (duet with Paul Stanley)
7. Schwere Träume
8. Sarai Qui (duet with Alessandro Safina)
9. Storia d'Amore
10. Let It Rain
11. Attesa
12. Pasion (duet with Fernando Lima)
13. Running

The title track Symphony is more pop than classical, though overwhelmingly romantic, with a few somewhat high notes (though not nearly high enough for Sarah's usual standards). Canto Della Terra is itself a very beautiful song, and should be even more so being sung by Sarah and Andrea Bocelli, but for Sarah's not using her solid soprano voice to complement Andrea's powerful tones. I still love this version, but it could have been better. In fact, all the duets recorded for this album are so good I can't wait to learn to sing them, except for Sarai Qui (it's well-sung, but I don't like the idea of Sarah singing a pop song "classical-style" by translating it to Italian... that's for acts like Il Divo). Schwere Träume, Storia d'Amore and Attesa are very Sarah classical-crossover style, sung in that inimitable, unique, breathtaking Sarah way. There isn't a track in this album that I'd skip (except perhaps track 8...).

All in all, I love this album waaay more than I did Harem :)