A Travellerspoint blog

April 2009

Shock! Horror!

Culture shock and cultural highlights in North Vietnam

Just before we left New Zealand, Pete’s mum and dad bought us this fabulous book:

First-Time Around the World: we highly recommended this book if you are considering a trip of your own.

We love it! It’s full of great advice and has been invaluable on more than one occasion, so thank you, Pat and Joe. I knew I was going to enjoy reading it immediately, ‘cos the first thing I found when I was skimming through was this:

A friend of mine would never leave a place until he’d had a good time there. Another friend would not leave a destination until he had learnt something encouraging about the people and their culture. Both are currently stuck in Brisbane.

Cruel, but funny.

Anyway, I mention this book for a reason, bear with me…

First Time Around the World has this to say about Asia:

To some travellers, Asia is the home of the most exhilarating natural landscapes on the planet. To others, it’s a collection of frenzied cities and remote cultures connected by rough local transport through countless terraced rice paddies.

I have to confess that when I first arrived in Vietnam I was very definitely of the latter opinion. In fact, for the first couple of days I positively hated it! It was just so different from anything I’d experienced before, and I really wasn't prepared. From the moment we passed through customs and into the main lobby of the airport, everything was an all-out assault on the senses. We were followed by crowds of pushy locals trying to get us to buy stuff or hire their services, the traffic is just insane (and warrants a blog entry all of its own), and the cities are noisy, crowded and dusty. Two days in and I was already planning my escape.

Pete, quite rightly, was having none of it. For a start, we’d just paid $300 (US) for two expedited visas, and he also wanted to see the country before we went elsewhere. But he is a sympathetic fella, my Pete, and, seeing how stressed I was, he suggested we leave Hanoi a.s.a.p. and head for somewhere quieter.

He didn't have to ask me twice!

Pete at the one tourist destination we visited in Hanoi: a shrine in the middle of a lake.

We had an interesting time leaving the city. Vietnam runs a series of ‘open buses’ which are aimed at tourists. They are relatively cheap, so we thought that this would be a good way to get to our next destination, Ninh Binh, some hour and a half away. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The open bus that collected us was taking other passengers on a day trip. Once the guide realized we just wanted a one-way lift to town, he took us off the open bus, hailed a local Hanoi bus and told us we were going the rest of the way on that. This was kind of annoying: the local bus was crowded, so we couldn’t get proper seats, and there was absolutely nowhere to store our enormous backpacks which got in everyone’s way. Plus, we’d already paid the more expensive fare for the open bus. It wasn’t so bad in that we got there in one piece, but I still have bruises from that trip. It’s not really an experience I want to repeat.

Things improved considerably once we reached Ninh Binh. It is a smaller town, so there was less noise and fewer people, and we also got lucky with our hotel. We hadn’t pre-booked, just chose the first decent-looking place we came across. It turned out to be a really nice establishment. They also ran a series of day trips, complete with English-speaking guides, which were excellent value for money.

We took two tours:

The first was a river boat ride through three famous grottoes (Tam Coc), followed by a couple of temples, and a look round Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital. The following day we visited a rescue centre for endangered primates, explored a really stunning cavern in the mountains, and had a motor boat trip to see traditional Vietnamese life in Kenh Ga floating village. (Kenh Ga = chicken canal, so called 'cos there used to be a lot of wild chooks in the area.)

Our guide was wonderful. As well as the history of each place we visited, she told us local myths and legends, so we came out of it with a mixture of names and dates, plus stories about dragons, kings with 1000 wives, treacherous priests, star-crossed lovers and Buddha, who reaching enlightenment sitting under a tree. She was also a great entertainer - like Robbie Williams, eh, Joe? (*) - instigating games when she thought we were getting tired and singing songs. At one point she taught us a children’s song in Vietnamese, the only word of which I can remember is “quack” ‘cos it’s the same in English.

Me with our fabulous tour guide. I can't remember how to spell her name exactly, but it's roughly pronounced 'thou', as in the word 'thousand'. That's what we called her, anyway. If we got it wrong, she didn't seem to mind.

Once we actually started going out and doing things, my attitude began to change. Vietnam is actually an exceedingly beautiful country, and I have finally started to appreciate just how different it is from anything I have seen before. There are still aspects of the Western culture that I miss, but I’m learning to think less about that and concentrate on the good and positive stuff here. There are things that you just don’t get to see in the West. Yesterday evening we were enjoying a beer at a café when we saw half a dozen cows wandering down the middle of the road. The locals didn’t bat an eyelid, just swerved round them and carried on their way. The amount of stuff that people manage to pile onto their motorbikes is also amazing. Bags, boxes, whole families, you name it; they all somehow manage to balance it all and still drive. (The dodgiest thing I’ve seen is two guys balancing several large panes of glass between them. You’ve just gotta hope that they didn’t get into an accident!)

So, the upshot is, the worst of the culture shock has passed and I no longer want to go home. I am missing Western food terribly (heaven help the person in Europe who tries to get between me and a granary loaf!), but I am also enjoying the novelty of Asian culture. You might remember that in Japan Pete and I started playing the Mystery Food Product game, buying random, unidentifiable items from stores. Well this has been taken to the next level here in Vietnam, where we are now playing Mystery Menu Items. We recently left a beach resort called Sam Son (more on this later). It was a nice enough place, but unfortunately it is where the Vietnamese go for their holidays so it’s not really set up for Westerners at all. Very few people spoke English, and none of the menus were in English either, so we simply had to make educated guesses and select things that would hopefully turn out to be edible.

In the end we got smart. We booked an hour at an Internet cafe and made a list of all the common foods and their Vietnamese translations. Now we are able to at least identify the main ingredient in each dish (and avoid the less appealing ones like frog, dog and snake!) We've added a dozen other useful words and phrases, too, and I reckon that this page is going to be one of the most read pages in my notebook. I wish we'd thought of it sooner.

(*) Pete's dad has never forgiven Robbie for butchering the song 'White Christmas'.

Posted by Julie1972 20:24 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Thoughts on Japan – Part II

Out and about in the city

Getting around

We saw a large chunk of Tokyo while we were there, and did a lot of walking (sometimes 6 hours at a stretch), but we found that the best way to get around was to use the underground system. Tubes and trains are excellent in Japan: clean, cheap, and devastatingly efficient. They always turn up, and they leave on the dot. The station signs are in both Japanese and English, so finding your desired stop is easy.

Outside of the stations, however, things were a bit different. The problem, in a word, was bicycles. They are everywhere… and by ‘everywhere’ I mean ‘in the blooming way’. See, cyclists in Japan aren’t daft – they know they’d be crazy to ride on the road with all the cars, so they ride on the pavement.

As well as a nation of cyclists, the Japanese are also a nation of smokers (which came as a surprise to us), and they have cigarette vending machines on every other street corner. Just to shake things up a bit, the councils or whoever paint big Do Not Smoke and Walk signs all over the streets. Being good, obedient citizens, the Japanese have found another solution to this light-up ban: they smoke and cycle instead!

All this makes the simple act of nipping to the corner shop quite an adventure, I can tell you. If you make it back to your hotel without being run down or burned, you are doing very well indeed!

Tokyo city

The city itself is a bizarre mish-mash of old and new. Much of it is very urban – crowded streets, lots of tall buildings, nothing remarkable:

Tokyo street scene.

But occasionally you’d peer down a side street and see something like this:

An unexpected shrine.

One area that particularly stood out was Akihabara, which is a major shopping area for electronic, computer and anime products. Compared to the rest of Tokyo, this place was overwhelming: bright colours and lights, and so, so noisy. Apparently it is the 30th anniversary of Space Invaders this year, a factoid which made us feel our ages as we both remember when the game first appeared in amusement arcades. Time for us to start reminiscing about The Good Old Days, I guess… Anybody got a spare Zimmer frame?

There are many museums in Tokyo – too many to see in only 11 days – so we got recommendations from other travellers we met in our hotel. We were particularly impressed by the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which explains the history of the city. The place is a huge, barn-like structure, and inside they have constructed life-sized replicas of buildings (I remember a traditional Japanese house and a theatre). They also had the most intricate model villages I have ever seen – so much detail in such tiny figures. The thing I shall remember most about the place, though, was the escalators you had to use to access the upper floors. They were practically vertical! If you don’t like heights, I recommend you just grab the handrail tightly and try not to look down!

Pete in a palanquin at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. We’d been walking all day, and he decided he wanted to be carried. Unfortunately he’d forgotten to bring his half-dozen servants with us to lift the thing, so he had to get out and hoof it along with the rest of us commoners!

Oh, yes, I nearly forgot:

The one reason I really wanted to visit Japan was the cherry blossoms. The Japanese are exceedingly fond of cherry blossom. It turns up in pictorial form everywhere (including manhole covers), and they hang fake blossoms from street lamps. Pete can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “They’re cherry trees,” he says. “Blossoming is what they do!” (The old misery!) Me, I like trees, so I was absolutely delighted to discover that we were visiting at the start of the official Cherry Blossom Season. Even better, our hotel was just a few tube stops away from Ueno Park which has long avenues of cherry trees. One night we decided to go to the park to see the trees lit up by Japanese lanterns – very pretty. This was about 8.30 in the evening, so we expected things to be fairly quiet. Not so! The place was heaving. Groups of people sat on tarpaulins beneath the trees, having picnics and getting drunk. Some of them had obviously been there all day, and we saw more than one neatly dressed businessman staggering down the road with his briefcase. It was quite strange to see.

Just me and my cherry blossoms… and twenty gaziilion other tree-huggers!

And speaking of drunkards, we also discovered that talking to Aussies and New Zealanders in pubs leads to humungous drinking sessions and equally humongous hangovers. I was introduced to a pleasant enough tasting liquor called ‘Soju’. It went down easily enough, but its after-effects were so disturbing that I had to conclude that it was some local variation on metholated spirits. I later Googled it and found this description:

Soju - a South Korean drink made from rice, yams or tapioca, described by the Lonely Planet Guide to Korea as being as "potent as toilet bowl cleanser.”

Needless to say, I won’t be drinking it again!

In conclusion:

We both enjoyed our stay in Japan very much. It is a safe, clean country with a low crime rate, so we felt that it was a good place in which to experience our first foreign culture. We now know that we can generally make ourselves understood even if we can’t speak the language, and we learned enough of the local customs to keep ourselves out of trouble.

The downside, I feel, was the cost. Things were very expensive – we couldn't check our bank balance without wincing! It was worth it though. It is a fascinating country and we would like to return later in our tour to see the rest of the country (even if it means robbing a bank or two first!) Happily our next few destinations are in Southeast Asia which is notoriously cheap, so we should be able to recoup our losses a bit.

More very soon, 'cos I now have a proper Internet connection in my room - yay!

Posted by Julie1972 23:24 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Thoughts on Japan - Part I

You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?

At last! The Japanese update, three weeks late. How rubbish am I? (Don't bother to answer that, by the way; I already know.)


We spent a total of eleven days in Tokyo, being ready for a break from all the dashing from place to place. It is an intriguing city, and although we got to see a large chunk of it, we would have needed another week or so to do it all.

The accommodation

Japanese hotels are different from Western ones (says Little Miss Stating-The-Blooming-Obvious). We initially stayed in a hotel that catered to tourists. There we had a “twin room” – basically two singles that had been knocked through to make one big room. There were Japanese style beds: a roll-out futon on a tatami mat, plus a pillow that felt like it was filled with dried peas or something. (I swear, never have a pillow fight with these things; one of you will end up with concussion!) This, basic as it seemed at the time, was actually quite luxurious. We then went on to spend the majority of our time at a traditional hotel that had quite a lot of businessmen as clients. This room was… a cupboard. A large-ish cupboard, true, with room for two mattresses - which were the thickness of tissue paper - and not a lot else. On top of that, this was a whole new ballgame for us because we had to learn Japanese hotel rules: taking off outdoor shoes when entering the lobby; the etiquette of using the public bathing area, etc. Actually I’m sure we made a mess of things a dozen times a day, but everyone was very understanding.

It was an interesting experiment, but not one either of us is keen to repeat at this stage. Honestly, I think we are still in Spoilt Western Mode, and things like proper mattresses and en suite bathrooms appeal to us. We’ll get over it – we have to if we want to go exploring in more remote areas, ‘cos I don’t think they have en suite bathrooms in yurts.

The people

Lovely, friendly, polite – pretty much every stereotype you’ve ever heard about the Japanese is true. Some spoke English very well, others knew only a few words, but everywhere we went people were helpful and tried hard to communicate with us. It’s also amazing how much you can say through ‘sign language’, too; Pete and a pharmacist had a fascinating encounter when we were trying to buy mosquito repellent. I wish I’d had a video camera, it made great viewing.

The food

I’ll admit to being a bit apprehensive about this, ‘cos I had never tried Japanese cuisine before (except sushi a couple of times), and I had only the vaguest idea of what to expect. On our first day in the city, Pete announced that he wanted to eat ‘local’. I eyed the many McDonalds, KFCs and other Western Junk Food Emporiums with more than a smidgeon of longing, and agreed with some trepidation.

Of course, finding a place we could cope with took a while. Restaurants are plentiful, but the majority of them had menus only in Japanese. Fortunately some of them had accompanying pictures, so we focused on those. That wasn’t the end of it, however, as the Japanese do love their technology, and even something as mundane as ordering lunch didn’t work the way we expected it to. Instead of going inside and giving our order verbally, we had choose a dish from the window, memorise the appropriate number, then get a ticket from a vending machine outside the building. This ticket was handed to the cook, and it all went from there. Apart from the fact that we spoke no Japanese, the lady behind the counter spoke no English and our orders came with noodles and other bits and pieces that we weren’t expecting and couldn’t easily express preferences for, it all went swimmingly.

Oh, yes… and apart from the fact that I am a fumble-fingered klutz when it comes to using chopsticks. And they gave me noodles. In soup. Are you getting the picture? Messy, isn’t it? Still, we got served one way or another, and I managed to get more food into me than I flung around the restaurant, so we are calling this particular experiment a success!

I’m glad Pete made me do this early on, though. As I say, Western-style food is readily available, and it would have been so easy to chicken out and simply order chicken nuggets! As it was, once I’d survived my first local dining ordeal, I was happy to try other Japanese places, so ate a wide variety of things I’d never tried before (*).

(*) I would like to point out that we did later try Japanese versions of McDonalds (pretty much the same as UK/NZ McD’s) and KFC (better selection than NZ and their teriyaki chicken burger was to die for!), plus we also tried the Japanese chain Mos Burger. In all cases the food was freshly prepared, but it was expensive and servings were small. There ain’t no Super-Sizing in Japan!

Supermarkets were also great fun, ‘cos each time we went we grabbed an MFP: a Mystery Food Product. There were many interesting looking items lining the shelves, and of course we couldn’t read a word on the ingredients list, so we just chose one at random and hoped for the best.

BTW, this is a picture of a Japanese microwaveable ready meal:


Pete assures me that it was every bit as delicious as it looks.

And just to prove that we really did sample the local cuisine, here is a picture of Pete bravely tasting the local brew:


He was so brave, he had several ‘tastes’ one after the other!

To be continued, so watch this space...

Posted by Julie1972 05:01 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Bangkok: More of a ‘fizz’ than a ‘bang’

In which we recount our non-adventures in Thailand

As certain people have pointed out (yes, I am looking at you, Hrvoje), it has been a while since I last posted anything. This was not my intention, I assure you: my plan was to write my entry about Japan whilst on the flight to Bangkok, then post it as soon as I had sorted out the photos and could find a decent Internet connection. I actually did write the thing, but everything after that went a little bit pear-shaped. As a consequence, the next few posts will be out of order. I’ll give you the Bangkok update now, and will post the Tokyo entries tomorrow.

So, as I said, things went haywire pretty much on landing. I became ill, developing a miserable cough & cold which I generously shared with Pete. This meant that we were both too sick to travel or do anything much for the best part of a week, apart from sit around the hotel, moaning, coughing and surviving mainly on the contents of our room’s mini bar. (It will be some time before I am able to face another packet of salted cashews!)

Then we got better, finally looking forward to seeing something other than the interior of our hotel… and all hell breaks loose in the city. You’ve probably heard about the Thai anti-government protests in Bangkok – it’s been all over the news. Fortunately we were quite a long way from the riots; unfortunately all the interesting stuff we wanted to go and see was in the danger zone. After half a dozen urgent emails from both the British and New Zealand government agencies declaring a state of emergency in Thailand, we decided we wanted out and arranged for expedited visas to Vietnam.

Exciting reading, isn’t it? Well, I did warn you.

To be honest, we didn’t have a lot of luck in Thailand generally. Our first hotel leaked like crazy during a thunderstorm (we are lucky we still have a laptop!), and our second one, despite being advertised as an oasis of peace and calm, was a nightmare: two days of twenty-odd horrible teenagers running up and down and making a racket, followed by two days of drilling and building works immediately outside our hotel door. (You should have seen the customer feedback form I submitted at the end of that little adventure!) Our third hotel was, happily, a nice environment, and we would like to go back there when we return to Bangkok (*).

So, enough with the whinging already. We did get to do odd bits and pieces while we were there, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Bangkok is proof that the however bad the economy gets, consumerism is still alive and well. I have never seen so many malls in one place! And to get to these shopping centres, you often have to elbow your way through a crowded street market or two. And you can forget walking on the pavements with any ease, ‘cos they are all packed with street vendors.

I’ve probably mentioned before how much we hate shopping, but there was one acquisition that we are very pleased with:


Our little Cube speakers – perfect for upping the volume on our Netbook, but small enough to pack away and transport easily.

The only other photo we took in Bangkok was this one:


It’s rainy season in Thailand and although it's hard to see it in the photo, the rain was bucketing down! We took it when we got caught out in a storm and were forced to take shelter along with a couple of sensible locals. It turned out we were the tourist attraction on this occasion, ‘cos passengers on the buses kept waving and laughing at us. Personally I don’t see what’s so funny about a couple of damp foreigners, but I’m glad they were enjoying themselves!

The other event that happened while we were there was the Songkran festival, otherwise known as Thai New Year. One of the main parts of this celebration is water-throwing: people line up at the side of the road with hoses, super-sized water pistols and buckets, and give each other a good dousing. It’s all in good fun, and although they obviously really like getting tourists, they will leave you alone if you ask them to. Pete and I got ‘splashed’ (i.e. drenched) a couple of times, but we had to ask them not to after a while ‘cos we ran out of dry clothes!!

Probably the most powerful memory we will take away with us from our short time in Bangkok is this: on TV we watched protestors clashing with the police, the army, and each other, yet downstairs in our hotel lobby the girl receptionists were squealing ‘cos the bellboys had ganged up on them with water pistols. It was like two different worlds, very hard to reconcile.

This state of unrest is predicted to hurt the Thai tourism industry quite badly, which is a real shame. We both liked the little we saw of Thailand, and intend to return once the political situation has been resolved. It was unfortunate that we had to leave before we got to see much of the country, but we both agree that this was the smart thing to do. We are now in Hanoi, Vietnam, and are hoping to take a road trip down the east coast of the country, starting tomorrow. I promise not to get sick again and will update soon (including interesting pictures!)

(*) For anyone reading this hoping for travel tips, the place we hated was the Anda Boutique Hotel on Ramkhamhaeng Road in Bangkapi. They are in the process of remodelling, and although it will be great when it’s finished, it really isn’t habitable right now. Aside from the noise and the dust, many of the facilities were not available (e.g. room service). The one positive thing we would like to mention about Anda is the staff. They were consistently courteous, helpful and professional, and managed to do an excellent job in difficult circumstances, but I still highly recommend checking to see how their renovations are going before booking.

The place we liked is the Sawasdee Sukhumvit Inn in Prakanong. These guys have reasonable rates and are perfectly situated for easy access to the city, plus they have lovely staff and a restaurant on-site.

Posted by Julie1972 04:16 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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