Friday, June 29, 2012

Exploring Vietnam - Day 4: The Thirty Hour Day

My sleep was very spotty our first night on the train- I was very restless- full of anticipation, excitement and something strange, overwhelming and difficult to put on paper. I have journal entries recorded at 11:35p, 2:38a and 5:56a. Amidst my tossing, turning, peering out the window into the blue darkness and occasional writing/ sketching, I also ventured out to the restroom. Train bathrooms are sketchy. Train bathrooms in Vietnam are excessively sketchy. Train bathrooms in Vietnam at 5-something-AM are chaos.

Allowing yourself to look like THAT on camera is some serious guerrilla journalism, my friends.

From my journal- 5:56a
"I've been awake since before sunrise by myself, positively tweaking out at how stunning the scenery is. Tress, mountains, plains, rice fields- exquisite. I've discovered that the bathrooms are the only opening windows in the soft sleeper cars and I've been taking photos out of various bathroom windows for the past hour."

Propping myself and my camera precariously between the window ledge and squat toilet handles (the other bathroom had a seated toilet but the window didn't open as far), I took hundreds of shots of the Vietnamese countryside as it awoke that morning. Hot, smelly and uncomfortable, but completely worth it. None of these photos have been edited.

After thoroughly covering myself in every sort of germ known to man, I returned from my bathroom photo shoot to find Joe staring at his laptop, aching to write... something. 

I know the feeling. 

The train stopped briefly in a small town (one of many) and Joe hopped off and grabbed us some ca phe and bahn mi for breakfast.

I could get used to this...

The "air conditioned" cars were... well... not. At least, not always. Sometimes it was cooler to leave your door open, which at least allowed for some ventilation.

This also afforded views of the exquisite countryside on the other side of the tracks. 

Standing in the small corridor outside your bunk- a popular pastime....

And an awesome way to meet new people. The gentleman was one of our bunk mates, and this mother and son were lodged a few bunks down.

You should know that if you leave the train doors open, you will get visitors.

... in your bed....

This little dude and I could not understand a single common word, but we sat together and drew pictures in my notebook for about 30 minutes. Art- the universal language.

I would draw something and tell him the English word, and he would crack up and try to repeat or tell me the Vietnamese word. News spread fast that I was giving impromptu English lessons, and a crowd formed...

We had a paper airplane battle, which was pretty one-sided as he was the only one with a paper airplane...

And then he tuckered out and went back with his mom. Joe and I settled in to kill some more time... 


There's a hot water dispenser on the train, so at another stop Joe grabbed us some ramen noodles and we chowed down...

It began to rain in the late afternoon, and around 3p I fell asleep for.... 13 hours. I was dehydrated and exhausted and it caught up to me!

Tips from Day 4:

-Bring snacks, beverages and cup-o-noodles for the train. There are vendors at most stations but the stops are often quick and unless your Vietnamese is pretty spot on, you'll probably miss most of what the conductor is saying. You DO NOT want to get left at one of the smaller stations while your travelling partner and belongings head off to Hanoi... There are also a few vendors on the train, but their selections are a bit sporadic and if you miss them passing by, you won't see them again for several hours.

-Diversify your on-train entertainment. Seriously. If you're doing the 30 hour haul from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, you will NOT want to look out the window or read or take pictures the ENTIRE TIME. Don't get me wrong, the countryside is gorgeous enough to daydream about for several hours on end, but you have thirty of them. I wrote, sketched, did crosswords, listened to podcasts, read and photographed.

-Be open. In the most broad sense of the term. There is a very tangible feeling of community and interconnected-ness in Vietnam- people are very aware of their surroundings and interact with everyone around them- especially those who seem interesting. And if you're a Western-looking tourist, you WILL seem interesting. On several occasions, people walked right in to our cabin, sat down on our beds and smiled. Use common sense- naturally lock your cabin when you're sleeping and unable to watch your belongings, but trust me,  you'll have some pretty magical interactions if you don't let the Western "get out of my space, stranger!" instinct close you off. 

-If you do the full HCMC-Hanoi ride in one swoop, book the soft sleeper car and request the bottom bunks. Trust me. Just do it.

In case you missed them, check out:

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Perfectly Simple with ZonePerfect Event

A few weeks back, I had the privilege of joining the ZonePerfect team and several local bloggers/ writers for a relaxing morning at the beautiful Chelsea Piers. I snapped several pictures but sadly had my first (and hopefully last) experience with corrupted files at the end of a full memory card/ low battery, and I can't view any of them. The ZonePerfect team had my back, though, and sent me these images to share!

We began the day with a brief but relaxing yoga session led by Lisa Kirchner, who combined aromatheraphy with some soothing poses to get us centered.

After the class we were escorted to lunch where we enjoyed delicious salads and sandwiches and settled in to listen to the day's speakers.

Bonnie Dewkett, CPO and owner of the Joyful Organizer, LLC, offered some tips on our relationship to stuff and gave us three principles of organization to live by: 

-A place for everything and everything in it's place.
-Do a ten-minute-tidy daily.
-Do one thing a day that helps you meet your organizational goals.

Bonnie gave us a copy of her book, 50 Tips to Get You Organized in 10 Minutes or Less! which I cannot wait to read!

Kathy Alcoba, a CPT, spoke about efficient and sustainable ways to stay fit, including lots of gym-free options (stairs, dancing, boxing, resistance bands, stability balls) and stressed that no matter what you do to get sweaty, you MUST enjoy it, or you simply won't stick with it.

Heather Bauer, a RD and CDN, author of The Wall Street Diet and Bread is the Devil, spoke to us about simplifying nutrition. You can take control of your diet in a major way by doing some simple pre-planning- especially when traveling/ dining out. 

Heather gave us copies of Bread is the Devil- I'm psyched to dive in once I finish my summer reading for school. 

We were given samples of the new Perfectly Simple Bars- Cranberry Almond, Peanut Crunch and Toasted Coconut. These bars are delicious, and with only 10 ingredients, appx 170-200 calories and 10g of protein, these make excellent snacks or small meals (paired with a piece of fruit or a yogurt). 

Many thanks to the ZonePerfect team, guest speakers and other bloggers for an awesome morning!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Beach Run in the Rain!

Sometimes, when life overwhelms you, you've just gotta ignore the pile of work in front of you, set your timer so you're back for your Skype meeting in 45 minutes, throw on your swimmies and running gear and hit the beach! I had done some strength earlier today and wasn't planning on doing any cardio, but when the great outdoors calls, you have to answer. Evening when it's raining.

When's the last time you dropped everything for a quick sweat session? What'd you do?

Exploring Vietnam: Day 3: Sidestreets in Saigon and the Train to Hanoi

After the hustle and bustle of the previous day, Joe and I decided to head off the tourist track and veer away from the map's suggestions. We picked a direction (South), put away the map and started walking!

If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you'll know that Joe has been a long-time manager/ operations assistant/ social media guru/ wafel-slinger at Wafels & Dinges here in NYC. When we came across this sweet lady selling Vietnamese street wafels, we HAD to give them a try! 

The US Wafel Ambassador meets with the Vietnamese Wafel ambassador to discuss tricks of the trade. 

 Sweet, chewy, delicious!


The further away from the tourist district we wandered, the more colorful and exciting things became!

After purposely getting lost for an hour or so, I convinced Joe to stop at a sidewalk cafe for some ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk).

Everywhere you go in Vietnam, you'll find plastic kiddie-sized furniture and a sweet old lady serving up some frosty beverages!

Notice all the men relaxing in the background? This is a common theme in Vietnam- a sentiment echoed to me in conversations with both Vietnamese men and women- anywhere you see a man relaxing, you'll see a woman hard at work nearby.

Though we had a serious language barrier (my Vietnamese is terrible and she spoke no English)- the lady running this little sidewalk corner joint took good care of Joe and I, moving us out of the sun when the clouds moved, making sure we had comfortable chairs, showing me how to properly tie the scarf on my straw hat, and attentively watching as I applied sunblock (which she thought was hilarious). And probably the best part of all- not overcharging us. I think we paid 24,000 VND for two iced coffees (appx $0.70 USD each)- it's common to charge Westerners up to double for the same services and goods- considering the average income of a Vietnamese family (even when adjusted for cost of living), this may be more fair than you think, but no one likes feeling like they're getting ripped off. As I stood up from my table, a gust of wind blew my hat into the middle of a treacherous intersection, and out of nowhere, a bystander dashed into the road, dodging motorbikes left and right, swooped up my hat, returned safely and dusted it off before placing it on my head for me, smiling and walking off. Hospitality at its finest, folks.

After an adventurous morning spent among the locals, we wandered back to the tourist track to freshen up, check out of our hotel (the front desk kindly agreed to hold our bags) and set back out for more sightseeing.  

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum is housed in the former Gia Long Palace and contains some beautiful antique pieces from private collections.

Like this gorgeous hand-carved wardrobe, which I want, regardless of the fact that it wouldn't even fit in the front door of my tiny Brooklyn studio apartment. A girl can dream, can't she?

Like most places in Vietnam, where there's shade and relative quiet, you'll find an animal lounging.

One day, I will live in a home with a staircase as grand as this one...

...If only so I can pose like this at the top of it. 

Oh hai, water buffalo.

Joe won't admit it, but he wants these stairs, too.

Refreshed by the shady, slow-paced museum (complete with free clean bathrooms- BOOM!) we were ready to find some lunch! We wandered for a bit and then stumbled across Dong Hoa Xuan

I got the Bahn Canh Cua.

Joe rocked the Banh Tom.

Yes... that's my second/third-ish iced coffee for the day and it's only lunchtime, but who's counting? Check out the rice noodles, sprouts and lettuce wraps to start! Yum!

This soup rocked me to my core. Savory, sweet, a bit spicy and not too complex.

Check these babies out! Shrimp and sweet potato fritters. Self-explanatory. And obviously delicious.

Drink up! We were sweating so much that staying hydrated was a constant task! Mmm... coconut!

Joe shared a few sips of his coconut while I journaled away! I ended up writing about 56 hand-written pages during this trip. How often do we get to hand-write anything these days?

We did some more wandering post-lunch, stopping in a bakery to wait out some intense rain and meeting this breadigator. Yep. Alligator made of bread. Only in Vietnam...

We returned to our hotel, sweaty and exhausted. We had already checked out, so we didn't have a room to rest in, but the awesome front desk guys were very accommodating, letting us lounge obnoxiously in the lobby and offering the "shower" in the lobby-level bathroom. Most showers in Vietnam are simply a showerhead protruding from the wall somewhere in the bathroom near a floor drain- no tub, no shower stall; just you, a tiled bathroom, and a hose. I was so ridiculously swampy from walking around in the heat that I happily trotted into the service bathroom, stripped buck-naked, hosed off, dried myself with the used towel hanging from the door and put back on my dirty clothes. Backpacker-Keelie's hygiene standards are significantly lower than at-home-Keelie's. You've been warned- that was by far not the grossest thing I did in Vietnam- it only gets sketchier from here on out, folks.

We kept it simple for dinner and decided not to stray too far- we were on a time-budget since we had a train to catch that evening. We ended up at Pao Cafe

The service was great. The food was... fine. Not good. Not bad. Pretty unremarkable... and... there were tiny ants on my plate. Like, a lot. I noticed after I was done eating- I think they were coming from the greens served with my soup. At home, I would have FREAKED OUT. Here? I didn't even mention it to the waitstaff. I told you- my hygiene standards shift depending on what part of the world I'm in... And honestly, I really wasn't that skeeved out...

We taxi'd it to the train station an hour and a half early and settled in at the Highlands Coffee in the station to wait for boarding. We had booked our tickets online in advance through Vietnam Impressive- you can only do online advanced purchase through independent agencies, as the train service in Vietnam doesn't sell tickets online. We paid a bit more, but it wasn't unreasonable and knowing that we would definitely be in the soft-sleeper car for our 30 hour trip was worth it. Plus, they delivered our tickets to our hotel- simple as pie!

Can you tell we were exhausted?

COFFEE! We ended up taking ours to-go, as the train began boarding sooner than expected (about 45 minutes before departure).


-Communicate with your front desk staff- they're there to help! And in Vietnam, they were all very helpful. Our front desk held our bags, hooked me up with a shower and arranged all our taxi trips (you will pay a tiny bit more to have your trips arranged by the front desk- frequently you pay them and they in turn pay the driver, but the peace of mind is worth it). 
-To the best of your ability, learn and respect local customs, especially regarding clothing. Most backpackers in Vietnam (and let's be honest, in most of the world) pack light and comfortable, which usually equals dressing a bit slummy. In Vietnam, hardly anyone wears shorts or short skirts, tank tops or anything see-through- the dress errs a bit on the formal and conservative side. This is especially true of women, and I found that making the extra effort to blend clothing-wise was appreciated. Long-ish skirts, flowy gauchos and light-weight blouses pack quite easily.

-Get (relatively) lost! Use common sense to stay safe and enjoy seeing parts of your destination that most visitors won't ever see.

In case you missed them, check out:

Exploring Vietnam Day 1: The Long Haul
Exploring Vietnam Day 2: Ho Chi Minh City