One month in Vietnam, eight guesthouses, most of which really impressed me. When you look at dollars spent, the quality of Vietnam’s accommodation far surpasses what we got in Thailand and Laos. Some guesthouses have gone so far above and beyond the measly $12 we paid them per night that I thought I should give them a mention, along with the not-so-stellar places, too.

Hanoi: Hanoi Guesthouse, 14 Bat Su St.
The crème de la crème. I don’t know where I heard about this guesthouse, but it was somehow book-marked in my computer. This place was incredible. Spotless rooms decorated with dark furniture, room cleaned everyday, awesome cable TV (with the Discovery Channel! Whoo!), and a fridge. Add to this free breakfast and free WiFi Internet. What pushed Hanoi Guesthouse over the top was the treatment we got from the staff. I have stayed (hell, I’ve worked) in 5-star hotels that didn’t have customer service that was as inviting and obliging as this guesthouse. They greeted me by name every time I walked into the lobby, made all of our travel arrangements, invited us to their Tet party, gave great tips about Hanoi, and in general, made our guesthouse a place where we wanted to be. All of this for $12 a night.

Sapa: Royal View Hotel
Another incredible hotel. Our room felt like a cozy chalet, with nice furniture, warm, pink walls, and a canopy over the bed. We had a bathtub in the bathroom and a (non-working) fireplace. The views into the valley were awe-inspiring. No breakfast or Internet, but the $15 we paid was very worth the “luxury” of this hotel.
Sapa: Lotus Hotel
At $6 a night, this place was good value, but of course not as luxurious as the Royal View. However, the room was spotless, huge, and well-appointed. No complaints here and I’d definitely recommend this hotel to budget-travelers.

Ninh Binh: Thuy Anh Hotel, 55A Truong Han Sieu
Affiliated with Hanoi Guesthouse, we booked this before arriving in Ninh Binh. As the hotel was bursting with raucous European tour groups, they barely had any rooms left. We paid $15 for a quadruple that was far too big for us, but was nevertheless very clean. The cable had MTV, too. Breakfast or Internet wasn’t included. The owner was a true professional – always in a suit, immaculate English, and 5-star guest treatment – and his wife was lovely, too. We did encounter some frustration with indifferent staff at reception and in the restaurant. Speaking of which, the food in the restaurant was awful. Not a bad stay, but if we could do it over again, I’d have chosen a different place.

Hue: Binh Duong I, 4/34 Nguyen Tri Phuong
Yet one more gem. This hotel is Japanese-owned and all of the bubbly staff spoke great Japanese. Rooms were very clean and bright, with the luxury of a bathtub, in-room Internet, a fridge, and satellite TV (with the Discovery Channel, HBO, and Stars!!!) We paid $12 for our room, which I thought didn’t include breakfast, but after talking to some other people who stayed there, it might have. (Didn’t matter anyway, since we became morning regulars at the too-cheap family restaurant next door.) Our room was cleaned everyday, too, and there was even one day when the housekeeper folded my pajamas that I had haphazardly strewn on the bed.

Dalat: Dreams Hotel, 151 Phan Dinh Phung St.
We’re torn between here and Hanoi Guesthouse as our Vietnam favorites. Dreams Hotel was our dream come true (I’m sorry, you had to see that coming.) Once again, squeaky clean rooms, tasteful furniture, fridge, TV, WiFi, and shower booth. The owners were incredibly friendly and helpful. Best part? The superb breakfast! Served communally at a long table, we shared baguettes, eggs, fresh fruit, yogurt, juice, coffee, and spreads of the world (peanut butter for the Americans, Vegemite for the Aussies/Kiwis, Marmite for the Brits) with our fellow travelers. We were devastated to leave. By the way, a room with a shower booth is normally $15, but because of a booking error, we got it for $12. Whoot!

Saigon: Yellow House Hotel, 269/19 De Tham St.
The only real pox in our month in Vietnam. This hotel is also affiliated with the Hanoi Guesthouse, but what a disappointment! Although free internet and breakfast were included, the “satellite TV” actually had only local Vietnamese channels and the window didn’t lock. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t paid $14. But amenities be damned, the biggest determinant of satisfaction in a guesthouse is cleanliness, and Yellow House failed miserably in this department. The lobby was dark and uninviting and the rooms were small, shabby, and dirty. This guesthouse obviously suffers from Lonely Planet Syndrome, a disease marked by a decrease in quality once an establishment is mentioned in the Venerable Book. Boo.
Saigon: Luan Vu, 35/2 Bui Vien St.

Dissatisfied with Yellow House, we moved down the street to Luan Vu. Great decision! The rooms here, while small, were very clean, with a TV, fridge, breakfast, and WiFi access. The staff were so smiley and warm; when we checked in in the morning, they offered us breakfast, even though two breakfasts weren’t included in the $12 we paid.

Phu Quoc: Beach Club
Not so much a guesthouse, as a boutique beach resort. I really liked the vibe of this place – small, quiet, and intimate. The facilities like the beach chairs and umbrellas were in great condition. Our room, a simple but tasteful affair, cost $15. With no air-con or hot water, the price was a bit steep, but what can you expect from an island resort? The food, however, was expensive and just so-so, so we walked 5 minutes up the beach every morning and night to eat at the Thousand Stars Resort, which, while incredibly cheesy, had friendly staff and good-value rooms, or so we heard. The food was good, too. I have mixed feelings about Beach Club. While the staff were friendly, they didn’t really go out of their way to be helpful. Plus, I didn’t really feel that I got the same bang for my buck as other places in Vietnam. The problem, however, is probably more in my expectations than in Beach Club; they simply don’t aim to accommodate the backpacker crowd.

Overall, Vietnam’s accommodations rocked. In Bangkok, we paid $12 for a fan room with no hot water; in Vietnam, we got the works. In addition, in Vietnam, we didn’t feel like backpackers. Even though we were only paying chump-change for our room, most guesthouse staff never treated us dismissively. I will be very sad tomorrow when we say goodbye to Vietnam and its in-room WiFi Internet access and satellite cable TV.

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Snorkeling in Phu Quoc

March 5, 2007

So there I was. Clutching the ladder of the boat, peering down to the surface of the water three feet below, and the brainy mass of rocks and coral in the sea five meters below that. Shin was treading water, impatient for me to just jump in already. Finally, when a fellow snorkeler looked like she wanted to descend into the water as well, I realized I had no choice…and I leapt.

Before today, I had only snorkeled once before, in Koh Samui, Thailand. At that time, the rocks deep under my body and the vast nothingness of the ocean had freaked me out and I’d doggy-paddled frantically back to the boat only five minutes after going in. But, I love coral – its colors, its craggy asymmetry – and I desperately didn’t want to be afraid of the ocean’s depths. That’s why I decided to give snorkeling another try here in Phu Quoc, an island off of Vietnam’s southern coast.

The water was more refreshing than lukewarm and a deep aqua. I gasped for breath when I resurfaced seconds later. The flippers make treading water a clumsy exercise so I had to clutch onto the side of the boat as I adjusted my mask. Finally, I was ready. Gripping Shin’s hand, we headed to the reef.

The morning was overcast, making the water mysterious and gloomy. We saw a fish; I nearly cut off Shin’s circulation. My breath came fast and Darth Vader-esque out of my snorkeling tube. At times, the coral was so shallow that I nearly skimmed it with my belly. Sea urchins lined the bottoms and sides of the rocks, their menacing spikes – sometimes over a foot long! – waving to me like witches’ fingernails. There were a few times when Shin thought to let go of my hand; I whined like a scared puppy. I returned to the boat early, but I’d made it longer than my time in Koh Samui, of which I was proud.

Reluctantly, I promised myself I would go in again when we reached our second coral reef of the day, without the cumbersome fins. This time, it was glorious. The reef was deeper, with the intimidating sea urchins out of the way, and I got to see what the sea is really made of…

Fish, of course. Striped clown fish, dazzling blue and green fish, little minnows. Coral. Twisted brain coral, green coral, lavender coral with white tips, plateaus of coral that looked like giant shiitake, other coral that looked like Chinese ear mushrooms. Anemone billowed in the current. Little particles floated everywhere. The water sounded fizzy, like Pop Rocks.

The ocean is so accepting. We were intruders, barging into a world where we were more foreign than any stranger in a strange land, yet the fish didn’t mind. They darted around me, oblivious. I’d assumed they would hide. Feeling slightly like the Little Mermaid, I studied my foot against the turquoise backdrop; it seemed so out of place.

By the third coral reef, I was a pro. I swam out on my own, marveling at the ocean floor in a state of nirvana. It was bliss. That is, until the boat started its engine and took off, leaving seven of us watching it silently like a disbelieving pack of dolphins. Suddenly, the ocean wasn’t so benign.

Sure, there were nearby islands and rocks where we could have taken refuge. But we had just been abandoned in the equivalent of Pluto, for all I knew. Terror snaked its way through me, and if it weren’t for my companions who shrugged it off and kept gazing at the abyss under our torsos, I probably would have begun sobbing. Fortunately, our boat returned ten minutes later, after picking up the passengers of another snorkeling tour whose boat had broken down.

I understood a new sense of awe and terror today. As beautiful as the ocean is, humans don’t belong there, and it can swallow us with nothing more than a wave. With that lesson learned, I plan to seek vengeance in the seas of Thailand when I’m there is a few weeks.

Dalat: Just Desserts

March 1, 2007

We’re in Dalat, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It took us 25 hours to get here from Hue via bus, but it was worth it.

With its careful landscaping, pine-encircled lake, and stately French villas, Dalat feels strangely non-Vietnamese. The temperature here is mild (it’s called the City of Eternal Spring), again making it a rarity in a country where February brings on 90-degree weather. Dalat’s climate and fertile soil means that it can grow fruits and vegetables year-round, which makes for some good eats.

Other than produce, Dalat boasts great coffee, tea, wine, and other fruit-derived products. Souvenir shops burst with dried and candied fruits, coffee beans, artichoke tea, strawberry syrups and jams, and the ever-(in)famous Dalat Wine. (Side note: they also have a brand of wine here called Langbian, which makes me double-take every time I see the bottle!)

Also, it’s dessert paradise. On Highway 3 Thang 2, close to the intersection by the market, there are three bakeries loaded with goodies – American-style cakes with colorful icing, savory breads, Chinese cakes, puddings, cookies. I had a mocha cream cheese cake, banana cake, and chocolate tarte (not at the same time!), and all were fab-u-lous.

In the central market, they sell every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. At the food stalls on the second level of the vegetable market, I sampled avocado ice cream – a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of sweetened avocado puree. Surprisingly, the creamy, green goo worked, although after half of a mug, I began worrying about the fat content.Strawberry ice cream

Also, as Dalat is uber-famous for its strawberries, I couldn’t not try the strawberry ice cream. I was a bit disappointed since I had expected big chunks of berry. Instead, the ice cream is made with strawberry syrup, another local specialty, which gave it a sickly, artificial taste. Breyer’s is better.

There’s also sweet soymilk, scooped warm from cauldrons at street stalls. I was surprised I liked it because I normally hate the grassy drink. Just goes to show that I’ll eat anything if there’s sugar in it.

Speaking of soy, today I sampled dau hu, i.e. tofu. Here, it’s soft like custard. Ladled into bowls and topped with a sweet, ginger syrup, you eat it with a soup spoon. Very refreshing (and healthy too!)

Lastly, in the non-dessert, honorable mention category, I would like to mention the paté sandwich. In Dalat’s, there’s a paté sandwich stand on every corner. This miracle food I discovered in Laos and, as Vietnam was also a French colony, I’ve been able to feed my addiction here, too. Yes, a paté sandwich is exactly what you think – a baguette sliced open, spread with paté, filled with other weird luncheon meats, fresh herbs, and pickled carrots and radish, and topped with chili paste and soy sauce. It’s one of those mutant foods – like biscuits and gravy or peanut butter and pickles – which, in theory sounds heinous, but is actually a symphony for the taste buds.

It’s almost dinner here and I’m salivating as I write this entry.

P.S. I have done other things here besides gorge myself.

Linguistic Fun Park

February 27, 2007

Most travelers to SE Asia never learn any of the local language other than “Hello” and “Thank you.” Some may forward their language skills to “Sorry” and “How much?” but, in general, English is the langua franca between tourists and locals.

I can be counted amongst this group of the linguistically challenged. I would like to speak, of course. I just feel like a schmuck making the words come out of my mouth. With all of those tonals, the pronunciation is impossible! I’m the gringa, the gaijin, and, call it pride, but I hate that feeling.

My boyfriend, Shin, on the other hand, doesn’t. On our first day in Thailand, he bought a palm-sized South-East Asia phrasebook, which covers the basics of all the region’s languages, from Burmese to Vietnamese. He uses it with glee. Before we enter any new country, he’s already gotten the numeric system memorized. He knows how to say the requisite “Hello” and “Thank you.” He’s even tried to memorize the phrase “No MSG please,” but most of the time, that’s beyond his linguistic level.

Unlike me, Shin isn’t afraid to make an idiot of himself. Last night, we ate at a restaurant where there were no tourists. There was an English menu, but you can never make sense of them as they always translate the dishes to boring names like “pork on white rice” or “grilled chicken” when it’s really so much more. So he broke out the phrasebook, pointing to the translation for “What are your specialties?” Shin often gets mistaken for a local and I think they find it hilarious that someone who looks like them speaks such crap Vietnamese. In any case, our waitress was having the time of her life as we tried to order a hot-pot and a beer, finally taking it upon herself to be our teacher.

Mot beer, hai glass,” Shin says. One beer, two glasses.

Hai cai!” the waitress corrects him like a schoolmarm and runs off to get the glasses.

Our waitress was very concerned about us. We didn’t know how to eat the hot-pot, so she reappeared every few minutes, to put in more vegetables or drop in a bundle of noodles. Half-way through the meal, we wanted to express our gratitude and say that the food was delicious. Guong, in Vietnamese. Shin says “gong.”

“Gong?! Gong?!” our waitress repeats (Vietnamese people don’t really hide their confusion to spare the customer embarrassment.) Finally, she gets what we’re trying to say. Guong! Good!” And she cracks then up, goes off to the corner, and laughs with another waitress.

Shin asks for the bill, which he again pronounces wrong. The waitress hits his shoulder and corrects him. We spend two minutes practicing our Vietnamese intonation and then she disappears to get the check.

I admire Shin for his bravery. There are many backpackers who will risk grotty guesthouses and unknown food at the market. I’ve met very few who will risk the humiliation of butchering the local language. Embarrassment aside, the phrasebook has proved successful, even when we still can’t communicate. I think the locals appreciate our effort. It lightens the mood and prepares everyone involved for a linguistic roller-coaster ride.

An Inauspicious Day

February 23, 2007

Note to self: if a tour company in Vietnam tells you it’s not running a tour because it’s an “inauspicious day,” believe them.
dsc01277.JPGThe other day, we asked our hotel to book us a tour to Tam Coc, a town with picturesque karst mountains and rice fields lining a winding river. Tet break is over for most tour operators, but they tell us that the company isn’t running trips on that day. Apparently, it’s an inauspicious day to go pagodas, and a stop at a pagoda is included in the tour. Okay, we figure the tour company can believe in that hocus-pocus, but we’ll just do the independent traveler thing and see Tam Coc sans tour. Others have done it, so can we. And thus begins a series of bad luck that will plague us for the whole day.

It starts with inauspicious happening #1: We aim for the 8:45 train, which would get us into the closest town to Tam Coc by 11:30. We get to the train station to discover they just don’t feel like running the train that day, so we settle for the 10:00 train and wait three hours in the Hanoi train station.

Inauspicious happening #2: Once we’ve arrived, we get lost on the way to our guesthouse. No big deal. We usually get lost trying to find most things, but then there’s…

Inauspicious happening #3: We set out at 2:00 for Tam Coc. The hotel tells us it’s a simple 15-minute ride on a straightforward road. Actually, it was more like an hour-long drive winding through villages and rice paddies on rocky, potholed pavement. We made about a dozen wrong turns and had to ask amused locals where the hell we were in rudimentary Vietnamese, i.e. just repeating “Tam Coc” over and over again until they figured out where we wanted to go. Some of them didn’t even require words. They simply saw lost tourists and pointed us in the right direction.

Inauspicious happening #4: Did I mention we were doing all of this on motorbike? My boyfriend drove. He hasn’t driven a motorbike in six years and never one with gears. Oh, did I also mention it was my first time on any kind of motorbike whatsoever? Well, it was.

Inauspicious happening #5: It starts to drizzle half-way on the 2-hour rowboat ride down the river. There is no cover, nor do we have an umbrella. Luckily, it never full-on rains, but that doesn’t stop…

Inauspicious happening #6: After the roawboat ride, it’s 5 p.m. and we have about an hour left of sunlight. During our whirlwind tour through Tam Coc’s rice fields, we passed a pagoda high on a mountain with great views of the river and countryside. We decided to backtrack to our secret pagoda once our boatride was over. Never happened. As we leave the motorbike parking lot of Tam Coc, we see some local women giggling at us. “The tire feels weird,” says my boyfriend. You guessed it: a flat. One of the giggling women points us to a makeshift bike repair shed at the other end of the pier. We push our bike over, which is hysterical to a few men sitting in the shop waiting on their bicycles. And we wait. I decide to call the hotel from where we rented the motorbikes, just to let them know what happened and to ask them how much it should cost to fix the flat tire. Their English wasn’t too great, and my Vietnamese is nonexistant, so in the end they say “Wait there, we’ll come get you.” I’m sure you can guess what happens next…

Inauspicious event #7: I return, our bike is fixed and ready to go, and we now have to wait for the people from the hotel to show up. In the meantime, there’s a fist-fight down the road, which the local Vietnamese people leap onto their motorbikes to see. Not many exciting things happenings in Tam Coc apparently. Finally, the manager of our hotel shows up and takes us home. FYI, it cost about $1.50 to fix the tire.

But, no it doesn’t end there.

Inauspicious event #8: At dinner that night, a few men who have had way too many bottles of the local fruit wine invite me to join them in their drinking party. I decline. Then, they start rubbing their thumb and middle-fingers together, the universal sign for moola. Clued in by their lecherous staring and disgusting gestures, I finally deduce that they think I’m a prostitute and want to purchase me for the night. Which makes perfect sense considering I was dressed in my sexiest get-up of a formless, long-sleeved shirt, khaki pants, sneakers, and tussled, greasy hair.

And finally, inauspicious event #9: Nearly sprinting home from dinner and the pervy men, we run into a group of children, thrilled to see two foreigners. They are so thrilled that one of the little boys slaps his hands firmly on my butt and begins pushing me. Only after I start shrieking, does his mother call him away.

On the bright side, we did have a lot of fun that day.

Happy New Year, Vietnam!

February 17, 2007

It’s New Year’s Day, for the second time this year.

Vietnamese New Year (or, “Tet”) preparations came to a fever pitch yesterday. Motorbikes were everywhere. People scampered to buy last-minute chrysanthemums and peach trees and watermelons. Stores began closing, but the rush of traffic, if anything, grew worse. In the evening, the streets were lined with small fires, people burning the remnants from last year’s festivities. Street cleaners were in full force even at 1 a.m. to clean the city before the new year began (although, I guess at 1 a.m., they were probably too late.)

Happy New YearWe rang in Tet on the roof of our guesthouse. There was no countdown to herald in the Year of the Pig, only a massive fireworks display over Hoam Kiem lake in Hanoi’s city center. The narrow streets were so choked with people and motorbikes that it took us several minutes to walk a few yards. Families partied on the sidewalks. Firecrackers exploded well into the early morning.

And now Hanoi is silent. Everything is closed. A few motorbikes toot their horns in the distance but it’s nothing like the usual broken symphony. Vietnam is taking it easy, and subsequently, so are we.

Chuc mung nam moi! (Happy New Year! in Vietnamese.)

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

February 14, 2007

As a kid, I always watched the end of The Sound of Music and thought, “Damn, those Von Trapps were a sturdy bunch” as they climbed to freedom over the mountains of Austria. Coming from Miami, it’s hard to picture scaling anything that high, but today, I felt like the 8th Von Trapp child.

We’re in Sapa, a slice of heaven in Vietnam’s Northwest. Used as a hill station by the French, it now draws thousands of travelers with its stunning mountain scenery and colorful hilltribe population. Trekking here is big; in fact, other than the famous Saturday market, that’s really all there is to do.

I had my reservations about a Sapa trek for the following reasons:

1) Trekking, in general, seemed a distasteful endeavor. Going to hilltribe villages, gawking at their ethnic costumes and wooden huts, snapping photos as if they were animals in a zoo, clucking over the poverty then moving on.

2) Sapa in February is rainy and foggy, with temperatures often in the 30s. The heaviest piece of clothing that I brought was a cotton pullover.

3) I’m a wimp. Steep hills? No. Jumping across rivers via rocks in the water? Ha! Last, and certainly not least, homestaying in one of the hilltribe villages, where I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be provided with mini-bottles of shampoo.

I’m sure you can figure out how this ended: I had a great time.

Rice paddiesFirst, walking through the mountains of Sapa is like walking on a bridge through the clouds. Fog rolls in and out at lightning speed; it recedes and reveals colorful swatches of the town, yet thirty seconds later, you can’t see as far as the trees in front of you. The scenery, though, made me pause, shake my head, and wonder if I was dreaming. Terraced rice fields snake down the steep valleys, creating the illusion of swirling rock. They are even like ripples, and at the same time, chaotic like stalagmites. The weather was cool and mostly clear, punctuated by refreshing, warm winds.

The trek went mostly downhill, easy on the lungs, hard on the knees. We were endlessly followed by women and girls from the Black H’mong tribe, named for the predominant color of their clothes, black. Other characteristics of the Black H’mong women are their long hair that they wrap around their heads, the heavy, silver hoops weighing down their earlobes, and colorful embroidery that dons the sleeves, belts, and purses that they wear. They are smiling and friendly, and avid saleswomen of their handicrafts, which they never let us forget.

Down in the valley, we passed through a village called Lao Chai. As expected, theSapa school poverty humbled. Dark and dirty huts, a bare-boned schoolroom with only tables and a chalk board, clothes on lines, dusty and old. Our guide told us the situation had gotten better in recent years: many villages could now grow rice, whereas their main food source in the past had been only corn and cassava.

In this respect, I was able to see the value of trekking and tourism in these villages. We stayed in the village of Ta Van, which was very different from Lao Chai. Most host families had sparkling new toilets and hot-shower facilities for us. They had color TVs and DVD players and a few pieces of nice furniture. The clothes hanging on the line were colorful and new. I’m sure our host family could by no means be called rich, or even well-off, but our presence at least raised the standard of living somewhat in Ta Van. I was also pleased to see signs throughout the village communicating the rules: no taking photos or entering houses without permission, no drinking or gambling, no walking around the village after 10 p.m. We were encouraged to purchase handicrafts directly through the villagers, as opposed to the Sapa markets and boutiques. This way, the village retains the economic benefits of their handiwork, rather than splitting the profit margin with already wealthy shop-owners in town.

Perhaps because our host family welcomes a new group of guests in every night, they were indifferent about us. No one spoke a word. The kids walked by us as if we were ghosts. We ate dinner together; they spent the whole time watching a Vietnamese soap opera on TV. Oh, well. Outside, they kept several pigs, cows, water buffalo, and chicken. The smell of poop was so pungent it made my nostrils pickle every time I walked by. Once the family jetted out of the living room after dinner, we sat around drinking homemade rice vodka and eating Oreos. We slept in the second story loft, on cushy futons and thick blankets. Certainly, this couldn’t be called an authentic experience, but it was an interesting change from drab guesthouses nonetheless.

Best of all, I finished the trek with flying colors. No whining and crying this time. The steep hills, the muddy rice fields, the rocky streams, I took them all with gusto. My calves and glutes hurt, but I felt like I’d accomplished something.

Sapa ValleyAfter our trek, they drove us back into town. I saw the mountains and valleys that I’d crossed on foot and thought, “You ain’t got nothing on me, Von Trapps.”

Listen to the Sounds

February 9, 2007

How can two neighboring countries be so different?

Is the question that has been running through my head since we stepped off the plane from Vientiane, twelve hours ago.

In Hanoi, Laos seems but a memory slowly being wiped out by the revving of motorbike engines, the jackhammer, the cacophony of horns outside our guesthouse window. Shy stares and timid speech have given way to outright gawking and lots of yelling. Vietnam, or maybe just Hanoi, is all energy. People on the move. Thirty motorbikes coming from right and left and up and down all trying to push their way through the intersection. People don’t speak, they shout. Lao people nudged us out of the way. In Hanoi, even if you’re not in the way, people push.

We’ve already found ourselves the near-victims of two common tourist scams: the “your guesthouse is full so come with me where I’ll show you my own superior lodgings” and “you don’t know the exchange rate so I’ll weasel a few more dollars out of you.” This only in the first hour of arriving. In Laos, we just got overcharged ten cents at a few Internet cafes.

Despite this, I’m excited to be in Vietnam again. The energy here is consuming, which can exhaust after a few hours, but there’s always something to see. Ladies making Vietnamese coffee on the stoop of a shop. The twenty almost-crashes you see at every intersection. A woman in her bamboo conical hat, selling mangoes, starfruit, and pomelos. A motorbike with an enormous orange tree tied to the back weaving hectically through traffic.

I liked Laos. We had few problems with the locals, relaxed, enjoyed its spectacular mountains. But I felt like I didn’t do anything in Laos. I walked three blocks in Hanoi and was ready for a nap.

In our Laos guidebook was a saying that the French coined to describe the people of Indochine: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” Despite the gross generalization, part of that statement is definitely true. You couldn’t hear anything – much less the sound of rice growing – above the blaring afternoon traffic of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.