Sapa – Vietnam Part III

We begin with an apology, the third post from our Vietnam tour should have come weeks ago but things have been insanely hectic.  However, now seems like the best time possible since we recently returned from Thailand. (Thailand post coming soon.)

One of the great features of Hanoi is that you are just an overnight train away from Sapa.  Sapa is a mountainesk town frequented by hikers, adventurist and those looking to see something other than the busy buzzing streets of Hanoi.

We boarded a train departing Hanoi and headed up into the mountains.  The train was interesting, close quarters where we shared a pair of bunk beds with a couple we had never met from the Netherlands.  We arrived in Sapa after sleeping on the train and an hour bus ride into the hills of seemingly endless rice patties.

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We quickly showered and changed, ate breakfast and then went on an all day hike.  We were lucky enough to meet people from two of the ethnic groups in the Sapa area, both the Black Hmong and Red Dzao.

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Along our journey on the first day we encountered many homes and people who were kind enough to chat with us and tell us about their lives in the hills.  It was truly an eye opening experience that made you realize how much we all take for granted.  These people have so little in comparison to many of us and yet seem very content and happy with their standard of living.  Honestly, they lived at a level of poverty that is dramatically below what you the average American think when they hear the term poverty.

Children seemed to spend most of the day hiking in order to get to town and try to sell goods or meet with friends. They walk long distances and play with sugar canes, plastic bags and raggedy dolls. The highlight of the day certainly was being invited into the home of a local family. They made an amazing meal from scratch and then served us in their “living room.” The food was cooked over an open fire and the home was simply decorated with a small wicker basket containing all five toys their son had to play with and three plaques on the wall, the first a certificate of marriage, the second the birth certificate for their son and the last was the deed to the home and land. They invited us to share rice wine and eat pork with an array of Vietnamese vegetables and dishes. It was very elaborate and delicious.

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We also spent some time walking into and exploring some caves.

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Our second day included more hiking.  This time we came across a waterfall in addition to more rice patty fields.  Again we had a chance to meet with another family and their children.  Sapa is a wonderful place to visit.  It is a quaint little mountain town full of very hospitable people who work hard to make an honest living. Sapa has a nice downtown area were one can go to various restaurants and cafes or shop in the town center, but it’s the hiking and the people that are the major attractions.

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When the VPN Goes Down

We live in a country that has a lot of censorship. When you come from a country that is against government censorship, having information blocked can be very frustrating. So we rely very heavily on a VPN (virtual private network). You may use one with work, as many business use VPNs in order to keep all of their private files on their network. While we don’t understand all the ins and outs of a VPN we do know that is allows websites to think we are browsing from another country. That way, we can access all of our favorite websites without any censorship – facebook, twitter, youtube, google, nytimes.com, and of course wordpress so we can blog. 

As you can image we heavily rely on our VPNs, for both work and fun. Yesterday our VPNs went down. A’s happened in the middle of showing a short youtube video in class and so, as you can imagine, resulted in many disappointed students. You would be disappointed too – it cut out right in the middle of Conjunction Junction. Who doesn’t love School House Rock?

It seems as if our VPN provider is having trouble in most of China, though luckily ours seem to be working at the moment. So much has changed in our lives in a short 8 months. We think about the big things all the time and are so thankful for these opportunities. When the VPN goes down it is a reminder of how even the little things have changed. Without a VPN the internet is not nearly as fun!

Halong Bay – Vietnam Part II

Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site, is a breathtaking bay filled with 2000 limestone islands that jut out of the water in an almost mythical way. The legend is that Halong Bay was created by a great dragon that came from the mountains. It flew towards the coast and its powerful tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. Then, when it plunged into the sea the area filled with water, leaving only the tops visible.

We spent a wonderful day and 1/2 on the water. Enjoying the beauty of the landscape and the peacefulness of the water.

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There were many floating villages, where locals survived off of fishing and tourists.

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A beautiful sunset.IMG_5166

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A view from a short hike:

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And, because Asian fashion can be awesome.

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It was a beautiful sight that is definitely worth seeing if you happen to be in Vietnam.

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Hanoi – Vietnam Part I

Two and a half weeks after returning to work we found ourselves packing our bags once again – thanks to Chinese New Year we had 10 more days to travel. This time we headed to Vietnam.

Vietnam has changed quite a bit since the war with America. In 1994 the USA lifted its sanctions and full diplomatic relations were restored. It is now a stable, growing nation where the standard of living is continually rising. However, Vietnam is a communist country and as such corruption is still systematic. Yet overall, as the economy continues to improve and standard of living rises the people seem happy (at least those we visited in the north.)

A long skinny country there is a divide between the north and south in both culture and weather. After hearing great things about the country we decided to spend our holiday in northern Vietnam. We visited Hanoi (the capital), Halong Bay, Sapa and the Ninh Binh province.

It was all amazing and so we have decided to break up our posts. Today is all about Hanoi.

Thanks to a long delay due to air pollution in Shanghai we arrived at our hotel at 11:45pm on New Years Eve. The Vietnamese also celebrate Chinese New Year – but they call it Tet. Before checking into our hotel, our hotel staff immediately took us to the Hoan Kiem Lake (locking up the hotel) to watch the fireworks.

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They were beautiful. However, Asian policies for fireworks probably don’t meet the safety codes in the US. We watched as sparks came down and ash fell on our head. It was a great experience to start our trip in Vietnam.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake districts are full of small alleyways, cafes with delicious coffee and croissants, motorbikes, crazy electric wires, and birds serenading you from their birdcages.

Hoan Kiem Lake means Lake of the Restored Sword. Legend is that in the mid-15th century Heaven sent Emperor Le Thai To a magical sword, which he used to drive out the Chinese. After the war, one day he came across a giant golden turtle swimming on the surface of the lake. The turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared. The turtle restored the sword to its rightful divine owners.

The decorations around the lake.

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Ngoc Son Temple on the lake.

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St. Joseph’s Catedral. Many of the Vietnamese are Catholic, a legacy from French colonization (as well as the amazing bread.)

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The tangled mess of electric wires!

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Some city shots.

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The markets: selling meat on the street.

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More crazy electric wires and a packed motorbike.

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A balloon seller taking a break.

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This is Hao Lo prison, a prison used by both the French and the Vietnamese, previously was the residence of John McCain when he was a POW (His Air Force suit is part of the display). The propaganda throughout is very interesting. The American  War (as it is called in Vietnam) portion of the museum showed all the demonstrations against the Vietnam war all over the word. The next section showed the POWs playing basketball, cards and going to church. While all of that may have happened, it doesn’t quite line up with the whole truth. A good reminder that we were in a communist country.  The other halls showed how violent Vietnamese prisoners were treated by the French.

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A crazy traffic circle by Hoan Kiem Lake. Due to Tet it wasn’t too crazy when we took this picture.

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Motorbike city!

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A view from our balcony.

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Bird cages everywhere!

Hanoi is also called the city of lakes. This one is West Lake.

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Just outside the Dong Xuan market.

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Homes right next to the train tracks.

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Oh and there is also the food. From fancy restaurants to street food stalls the food in Hanoi is amazing.

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This is a famous Banh Cuon place that has been owned by the same family for generations. Banh Cuon is rice paper filled with minced pork and mushrooms and topped with friend shallots. It is served with sweet dipping sauce and is oh so delicious!

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We also had barbecue local style, by sitting on the street with some friends.20140209-120434.jpg              20140209-120426.jpg

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And no meal would be complete without dessert!

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Chinese New Year

Xing nian kuai le!

chinese_xin_nian_kuai_le_2014_new_year_horse_card-r9c79b05b3cc24b91a5f274cbd129e0c0_xvuat_8byvr_512The year of the horse is quickly approaching! Here is more info on Chinese New Year from the History channel. The Chinese celebrate the New Year in many ways, but fireworks are a big part of the celebration. In fact, the Chinese set off fireworks to celebrate everything. We probably hear or see fireworks 6 out of 7 days of the week.

Last night we were enjoying delicious Belgium beer at this tiny bar on the Puxi side of Shanghai. A happened to look outside and saw someone light some fireworks. That is when everything went wrong. The firework box fell on its side and the fireworks went in every direction, but up. Hitting the window of our bar and entering into the connivence shop across the street. That’s right, I said the fireworks went into the connivence store.

Were people upset? Well, maybe a little, but overall people were pretty calm. A police car even drove by 30 seconds after the fireworks went off and just kept on driving.

Sadly, we were only able to catch pictures of the aftermath:

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Our Impressions of Bali

After spending a brief, but wonderful week in the States, we boarded a plan and headed to warm and sunny Bali, Indonesia. As our tans begin to fade, we thought it was time to reflect on our trip to Bali.

We arrived and spent two nights in the Kuta-Legion beach areas. These areas are probably the most well known for their surfing. Rain thwarted our plans to take surfing lessons on our first day. So instead, we spent the day exploring the area. We were not highly impressed with the area. It is a very commercialized area with a surprisingly dirty beach (though the local newspaper highlighted that this is a seasonal occurrence.)

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We still managed to enjoy ourselves:

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We then headed to Nusa Dua, a resort area in the south of the island. It was peaceful, beautiful and relaxing. The beaches were spotless and the water was warm. We finally got our surfing in!

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We then headed up to Ubud, a funky little town full of yoga studios, organic cafes, rice paddies and boutiques. Our first hotel, 15 minutes from town, boasted rice paddy views and a private pool.

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We visited Monkey Forest, where the monkeys flock in order to grab food from you. This one even grabbed a water bottle from A!

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Our second hotel, 5 minutes from town, had open air hallways and bathrooms in the villa and also boasted a private pool.

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We took one day trip to see some temples, visit a coffee plantation, and enjoy beautiful views and waterfalls.

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Overall, we had a nice and relaxing vacation!

Home for the Holidays

In a few hours we will be boarding a 15 hour flight back to the States. The past five months have flown by, and yet it has been way too long since we have seen our family and friends.

We are looking forward to:

  • spending time with family and friends
  • going out and about without a mask, clean air! (even if its NYC air)
  • pizza, bagels and trail mix
  • drying our clothes in an actual dryer with a dryer sheet
  • drinking milk that is refridgerated
  • being able to clearly and accurately communicate with a taxi driver
  • being able to access all of the internet without a vpn
  • seeing snow
  • spending time with family and friends

Not looking forward to:

  • cold weather
  • doing laundry, dishes, and all other household chores
  • driving ourselves places
  • being unable to negotiate for everything (all prices final)
  • super long flights (airport life)
  • adjusting to the different time zone

 

The Half

Early on December 1st we set out to run the Shanghai 1/2 marathon. With one sprained ankle, a little too much smog, and not quite enough training we started the race.

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But we could still see the skyline as we got ready to run.

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It was a cold start, so we huddled to stay warm.

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There were dolphins?…

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and of course no race would be complete without a batman.

Shanghai Smog

It is no secret that over the past week Shanghai has been struggling with the worst smog in the city’s history. On Friday it was so bad that it it was “beyond index.” If you look closely our app said: “Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.”

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So what are expats to do when the smog is off the charts?

Step 1 – Stay inside! 

Spend as little time outside as possible! Luckily we live on campus so it is almost possible to spend 98% of our day inside. Of course on days like these the smog seeps inside.

Step 2 – Surround yourself with air-cleaning plants.

A has 7 big plants and 2 small plants in her classroom. B has a big plant in his office. Yet, our apartment – only had 3 plants so A headed to the plant market and bought these gems:

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Step 3 – Buy a mask. 

It is best to purchase a mask with a filter (we are working on that), but in the meantime get any mask you can find:

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IMG_2518After all, we still had to go to dinner!

1/2 Marathon Here We Come

B and I signed up for the Shanghai 1/2 marathon on December 1st. There is no better way to learn a city than to run it. As we have mentioned before we live in Pudong. A drawback of living in Pudong is that it takes us 40 minutes to get to Puxi (you can kind of compare it to Manhattan, and where we live to Brooklyn). It is a little less crowded in our neighborhood, but with a population of over over 20 million, it is still pretty crowded. However, there are some really nice running routes 5 to 10 minutes from our home.

Here are some shots of two of our runs:

This small street is only one away from a busy road. So much more peaceful just a few yards away!

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Building a new Metro stop.

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On a nice day it is a beautiful run

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If you look really closely at this one you can see some folks fishing.IMG_2373

There is even some trail running.

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A small taste of some of the traffic.

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Some more trail running

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