SE Asia

SE Asia Trip, 2017-2018

Vietnam Homestays: Vu Linh and Sapa

We spent 4 nights each at 2 different “Homestays” in Northern Vietnam. One was near the town of Vu Linh, a ‘Dzao’ (aka Dao or Yao) tribe village, and Ta Van, a Hmong village. Both were very interesting, and I recommend the experience if you don’t mind ‘roughing it’ a bit. Both were fairly expensive relative to staying at a hotel in town considering the comfort level, but comfort is not really the point.

The total cost for lodging, food, and a few beers, and a couple guided walks worked out to $130/day in Vu Linh, and about $50/day in Ta Van, Sapa. Food was surprisingly similar in each, tho the coffee was much better in Vu Linh. The homestay family was much friendlier and more informative in Sapa. We even got to see a pig get slaughtered at our homestay in Sapa. Quiet a different technique used than I saw at Oscar Mayer when I worked there in 1980.

Here are the links to the places we stayed:

Some Photos of each are here:

Of course one should not over generalize based on just these 2 experiences. I think the lesson is to do quite a bit of research before you go. The place we stayed in Vu Linh was definitely not worth the cost. Both areas did have cheaper options, but you do end up paying more for places with good English.

More on Sapa

I recommend avoiding the town of Sapa completely at the moment. Its a huge construction site, and fairly expensive. If you do stay there, stay near the lake, which is quieter.

I would stay in the small village of Ta Van, about 8km outside of Sapa. Somewhere near Luckydaisy’s Bamboo Bar would be good. We stayed in the next Village over, which was a bit too quiet for my taste. If you play an instrument, and don’t might walking up a steep hill, definitely stay at the Musician House.

Note that everything is more expensive in Sapa compared to Hanoi. For example, the standard price for a beer was 30K VND ($1.50) in the Sapa area instead of 20K in Hanoi. Still cheap, I know….

Overall, you might want to just skip the Sapa area completely. It’s too crowded with tourists, including on the trails, and too many women following you around trying to sell you handicrafts. But it is really beautiful, and we met some great people (both travelers and locals), so its a tough call.

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Japan Summary

I finally found some time to write up some summary impressions from Japan. I lived near Kyoto from August 1985 till March 1987. Many folks have asked me what has changed since then. Here are a few observations:

  • Gaijin (foreigners) are no longer ‘special’. No one asked us to practice their English, and no more groups of school kids saying ‘haro, haro’.
  • There is much less traditional architecture: older building have been replaced with modern building, not refurbished as they would have been in the US.
  • People are noticeably taller! I was no longer the tallest person on the train.
  • Men wear fewer ties, but overall fashion has changed surprisingly little. Women still favor baggy clothes.
  • There are far fewer greeters in stores; Department stores used to have a young woman at the top of every escalator bowing and welcoming you as you got off. No longer.
  • Kawai (cute) is still the rage
  • People now seem to expect you to speak a bit of Japanese, where 30 years ago they would compliment your Japanese skills if you knew ‘konichi-wa’.
  • J-pop still awful, their Muzak versions of western pop is even worse than ours, but you often hear good jazz in background at restaurants.
  • They have started using ticket machines for everything, including restaurants.
  • Clean public restrooms are everywhere, and include fancy toilet seats! Like REALLY clean.
  • Where did all ‘manga’ go? There used to be stores with huge piles of manga (comics) for sale everywhere, and everyone on the trains was reading manga. Looks like all manga now is digital, and read on a phone.
  • Convenience stores in Japan are fantastic! They are everywhere, mostly open till midnight or 24hr, and sell good, fresh food, good coffee, cold beer, all at a reasonable price. The rest of the world should copy this!
  • There are more international restaurants than before, but still surprisingly few.
  • The county is still amazingly clean and graffiti free.
  • Overall prices in Japan have not changed all that much in 30 years. The Shakey’s pizza ‘all you can eat’ lunch special has gone from 500 yen to 740 yen tho. I used to eat that pretty often when I lived here before, but skipped it this time around. Squid and corn pizza was always my favorite.

In general, I think the USA, at least in urban areas, has changed much more in the last 30 years than Japan. Food has changed more. Fashion has changed more. Attitudes have changed more. Japan has always been and will always be much more traditional. That is part of what makes it such a fascinating place to visit.

Also, Japan’s reputation for being an expensive place to travel to is no longer true, and hasn’t been true for a while. We averaged $1600/week for 2 people, not including airfare, but including a 3 week rail pass, sumo tickets, and baseball tickets. Definitely cheaper than traveling in the US or Northern Europe.

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Hanoi and Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Some obversions on Hanoi:

  • There are almost no pedestrians or bicycles (and no subway). Everyone gets around by scooter.
  • Restaurants in the old town mostly serve just 1 dish, and often do not have tables, just stools (1 stool to sit on, and 1 to put your food on, or just hold the food in your lap). Most meals are $1 to $1.25. But places with tables and bigger menus for tourists exist too.
  • If you go to a movie, the time printed on the ticket is the time they let you into the theater. The movie starts 15-20 minutes later. Seats are reserved. (This is based on seeing 1 movie, so this might not be true everywhere…)
  • We have not seen a single beggar, nor a single homeless person.
  • Most women on scooters wear pollution masks, but almost no men do. I’m told its also to keep the sun off.
  • Everyone in the tourist industry has been extremely helpful and friendly, and not out to rip you off (mostly).
  • My $5 haircut came with a 30 minute head/face/neck massage and wash that was amazing. Highly recommended. They even clean your ears!
  • Beer often comes warm, but with a glass of ice.
  • A scooter can carry an insane amount of stuff if you know how to load it. Here is a great collection of photos.
  • Sidewalks are for parking scooters, not for walking. You must walk on the edge of the street.

Hanoi photos can be found here.

After Hanoi we went to Cat Ba Island to see Halong Bay. We heard that Cat Ba is way less touristy than other parts of Halong Bay, and that was true. We stayed in a fantastic hostel with a pool and amazing views from the room for only $25/night. We also got to try dog meat in Cat Ba.

Photos are here.

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Kiso Valley, Kansai, and on to Vietnam

We’ve left Japan and moved on Vietnam. I’m finding it hard to update this blog, as we’ve been doing a lot everyday. Find me on Facebook if you want more regular updates. But I’m hoping to have more free time starting with our next stop: Cat Ba Island.

After Tokyo, we went to Kiso Valley (highly recommended!), Kyoto, Amanohashidate, and the Osaka area, including Nara, Himeji, and Kobe.

Follow the links below for a selection of photos from each.

Hanoi is a very intense city, but feels very safe. And its really affordable! Sample costs: Hotel: $25/night. Taxi for 2-3 km: $2. Beer: $1. Good coffee: 40c. Cheap meal: $2. Nice meal: $10. Air pollution is horrible tho. Be sure to get a mask.

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Baseball in Tokyo

I’ve never heard the cheer of “Rets (sic) go Giants” so loud at a regular season game as in Tokyo. The Yomiuri Giants, the most popular team in Tokyo, has really great fans. SF Giants fans are great too, but nothing like this.

As you can see in the photos, our seats where not all that great, so we spent much of the time in the ‘standing room only’ section next to the ‘Giants cheer seats’, which was fantastic. Check out the videos of the cheers that I took. Basically they cheered non-stop whenever the Giants were at bat.

The food and souvenir selection was quite interesting too. Giants chopsticks anyone?

Also nice was the cute women (all probably 19-25 years old) who sold beer and snacks. They must be in good shape to lug that small keg of beer up and down the steps all night!

See this article for more reasons to go to a game. If you go, be sure to hang out in or near the ‘cheer seats’.

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Tokyo, Japan

After Hokkaido we took the bullet train to Tokyo. In 2016 they started running bullet trains all the way to Hakodate in Hokkaido, and eventually it will go all the way to Sapporo.

We spent 11 days in Tokyo, much if it hanging out with our friends Tim and Liz. Photos are here. Highlights included the hedgehog cafe, the robot restaurant, the Tokyo Sky Tower, Tsukiji market, Sumo, and baseball. See the next blog entry on baseball in Japan. We had a nice, tiny AirBNB apartment near Shinjuku for about $65/night.

Tim and I found a Gargoyles record in a record store in Tokyo, which we of course had to sign.

Christine went to Mt Fuji.

Tokyo is a paradise for those into certain types of collectibles. I have no interest in owning any of this, but they are fun to look at. Here is sample of whats available.

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Hokkaido, Japan

Week 1 of our trip was spent in Hokkaido, where we went to Sapporo, Otaru, Lake Shikotsu, and Hakodate.

Some photos highlights can be found here.

Catching/eating live squid was particularly fun. We even got to try ‘wata ika’, or squid intestine, which was really good. If you want to know more, this show explains everything about Japanese Ika.

After some effort we found an Onsen (hot springs resort) that allowed tattoos, which are banned at most Onsen because tattoos are associated with Yakusa (mafia) in Japan.

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