Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Short Circuit" in Sydney Leads to Roadtrip Thru New Zealand

(2/24 – 3/9/2010) After Vietnam, we had tentatively planned to go to China as it seemed the natural choice in terms of its close proximity in the region, coupled with its obvious allure as a destination. Ultimately, however several factors militated against it: First, we had been living “out of our suitcase” for more than 5 weeks in Vietnam and it was beginning to wear on both of us. Unfortunately, China would have to be the same not only because of similar impracticalities of renting an apartment as we encountered in Vietnam, but also because there would be so many places inside China we would like to travel to and see. Second, there would be the hassle of obtaining a Visa. It would take too long and cost too much to apply for one in Vietnam, so the next best choice was to fly to Hong Kong, where our research indicated a Visa could be obtained within a couple of days at a reasonable cost. However, as a destination Hong Kong we learned is INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE … even for just a few days visit. Third, speaking of expense, then we would have to contend with travel within the interior of China, which because of the vast distances and poor ground transportation options, would mean multiple domestic flights. Bottom line, after being worn down by Vietnam on all fronts, we chose to forego a visit to China at this time.

So, our dilemma, where to go next? Turn around and head back West – perhaps to Turkey or Greece? Bit too early in the climate category. Continue our path East, somewhere in the Pacific or all the way back to South America or even westcoast USA? Looking at the Map, Sydney Australia immediately came into focus. We had heard great things about it from others during our travels, as well as from our good friend Mike Shaker. So, desiring to leave Hanoi pronto, we booked a flight to Sydney without making our usual advance inquiries regarding accommodations. We assumed that being a large city in a western-oriented English speaking country, it would not be difficult to find a reasonable apartment for rent where we could stay for a couple of months. We could not have been more mistaken. Although we sent out dozens of email inquiries after booking our flight, all of the replies were negative. It seems that besides being "high-season", our scheduled arrival also coincided with Sydney's annual sailing Regatta and an international art and music exhibition. Apparently, a big deal there and everything was booked solid. So even before we left Hanoi, our plans had to change once more. Next best thing to Sydney -- we decided to book a short and relatively inexpensive flight to neighboring Auckland New Zealand. Surely, we could find reasonable accomodations there -- Wrong Again!

But we had another hassle/problem to deal with even before getting to New Zealand. After arriving at Sydney's Airport after an exhausting flight, we proceeded to the Check-In Counter, we encountered our next major problem/hassle. The Airline Rep. Refused to check us in without documentation of an onward flight from New Zealand, claiming that New Zealand Immigration Authorities would absolutely insist upon it when we arrived or we would be deported back to Sydney. Despite my protestations that we had heard the same ‘cock and bull’ at many other destinations during our travels and had never had a problem anywhere, the Airline folks said New Zealand was ‘different’ and ‘very strict’. So, I was forced to get out of the ‘miles long line’ at the Check-In Counter, get on the Internet and book another ‘one-way’ flight out of New Zealand (without really any intention of using it, since we had no idea how long we would stay in New Zealand, or where we would go after that). Of course, I paid 4times as much to book a “refundable” ticket, but ultimately still had to lose a $25 booking fee in the process. Not to mention, literally running around the airport to find a place to print the documentation, and barely getting back to the Check-In Counter in time to make our flight, with a little help from “express” passes given to us by the Airlines to get through Security, and Immigration Exit.

Of course when we arrived, we passed thru New Zealand's Customs and Immigration, no questions asked -- just as we have throughout our prior travels. So, the whole hassle at Sydney's Airport was B.S. just like I knew it was. Unfortunately, that was hardly the end of our problems. Now after nearly a full day of traveling, we then spent another 4-5hrs at Auckland's Airport on the internet and telephone, trying desperately to even book a reasonable Hotel for a couple of days while we continued our apartment search. Again, 'high-season" was the excuse, coupled with one festivity or another. We could find nothing better than a 1-star hotel for anything less than US$100 – far above our budget. We finally bit the bullet, and stayed at some dive of a Motel a few miles from the airport. Next morning, it was back to the Airport where we at least had internet capability not provided at our crappy Motel, and it was back to the drawing board. After spending another 4-5hrs of internet research and phone calls, we were feeling defeated and just about ready to give up on this part of the world, and just head on back to the Americas. But then a thought occurred to us, why not rent a car and just drive around the Island. Presumably, once outside the major city, at least Hotel accommodations should be a bit easier and less expensive. So, we spent another couple of hours trying to find a reasonable rental car value – another major hurdle, but somehow finally got lucky and found one we could rent starting the next morning for a couple of weeks.

And, so began our “Road Trip” around the north island of New Zealand. Truthfully, it was a whirlwind of images as we drove each day for most of the day from one destination to another. Unquestionably, New Zealand is a beautiful country, from pristine coastline lined with rocky cliffs, to miles of sandy inviting beaches, to rolling pastures greener than nearly any I have seen and most covered with thousand upon thousands of grazing sheep. Its people seem laid back, happy and friendly. But alas, nothing is perfect. The big “Flaw’ is this is one very expensive place to live (or visit). I’d say prices were on par with New York City, which for us is a major drawback, when living/traveling on a fixed budget. So, we sort of ‘lived out of our car’ it seemed for most of our visit. Searching long and far for reasonable Hotel rooms, and restaurants where we could eat without going broke. Naturally, we had to skip any ‘touristy attractions’, and just enjoy the view … much of it from our car window. Not quite sure how the locals can afford to live; and, we actually asked several exactly how – are they paid a higher wage or what? The answer was never clear, but they definitely denied being paid a higher wage. I suppose this would be a good place for us to live too, if we could get jobs paying us enough to be able to enjoy it. Then, of course, we would also have to contend with obtaining a resident Visa, something we understand is extremely difficult for USA citizens. Whatever, that’s for another time. Ultimately, we covered the entire north Island, from Auckland north thru Whangier and up to the very tip, and then south through Hamilton, New Plymouth, Taupo, down to Wellington, back up through Hastings and Napier Gisborne, and Rotorua. We had hoped to also travel by Ferry to the south Island, but not surprisingly it turned out to be cost-prohibitive – they wanted something like US$450 for roundtrip with our rental car. Sorry, but don’t really have much more details to provide, because as we said most of our visit was literally seen through a car window. So our Photos will have to mostly speak for our time in New Zealand. But, all-in-all it was a pretty decent Roadtrip.

Time to head back to the Americas – starting in our favorite City to date – Buenos Aires.

Friday, March 12, 2010

VIETNAM - Land of Two Faces

(1/20 - 2/23/2010) For us, Vietnam would perhaps best described as the ‘Land of Two Faces’. The first face, manifests itself in its physical appearance and geography, because it is unquestionably beautiful. With its lengthy coastline and endless sandy beaches (mostly undeveloped) alongside the fabled South China Sea, its misty lush tropical highlands, its fertile delta cross-crossed with bountiful rice paddies, and its quaint ageless villages where the people live the same as their ancestors have for more than a thousand years, together with its enchanting yet mysterious northern cultural capital of Hanoi, it is absolutely a destination that should not be missed – at least once.

But then there is the ‘second face’, the face of its people. In stark contrast to its close regional neighbor of Thailand, where we found the people there to be incredibly gracious, gentle, warm and welcoming, unfortunately the Vietnamese are markedly the opposite. Certainly with some notable exceptions, we found the people here were generally very aggressive to the point of belligerence, and anything but welcoming to foreign visitors especially westerners. The locals were openly discriminatory and oftentimes display outright hostility towards foreigners. While some would erroneously claim this is just a little anti-Americanism left over from the War, that is simply not the case. The Vietnam War (or, as it is known in Vietnam, the American War), is really ancient history to most Vietnamese with the vast majority of the population under the age of 30. The Vietnamese were at war with the French immediately before that, and much more important to their psyche, were at War with China for nearly a thousand years, so our War was a mere blip in their history and really of very little consequence to shaping their societal norms. We also know that their attitudes towards western foreigners is across the board, and not limited to Americans (nor, the simple product of our own personal experience) from our dozens of conversations with fellow travelers from many other western countries who we met as we roamed throughout Vietnam.

As for our personal experience, perhaps contributing to our feeling was the fact that for the first time in our travels we were not able to rent an apartment and actually live among the population as co-residents. But that too, is really a product of a still very much closed Vietnamese Society, that makes it virtually impossible for an individual western foreigner to consummate any relatively substantial commercial transaction (such as renting an apartment). This is due not only to the language barrier as very few of the locals speak English, but also because of the total lack of legal protection afforded to a foreigner, coupled with the inclination of the locals to take advantage of a foreigner any way they can. So even if you could find an English-speaking Vietnamese willing to rent an apartment to a foreigner, you would be a damn fool to do so because you are undoubtedly going to get cheated or worse, and will have no legal recourse whatsoever. Therefore, we were relegated to seeing Vietnam as “Tourists” rather than temporary residents, and had to endure 5 weeks living out of our suitcase, constantly moving to one Hotel after another, unable to cook our own meals or ever relax and feel like we are at ‘home’. Certainly, that tended to grate on our nerves, and tainted our stay in Vietnam. But, in all honesty it doesn’t change the accurate description provided heretofore of the Vietnamese people and their relations with foreigners.

We began our visit to Vietnam spending nearly three weeks in Hanoi, the former capital of North Vietnam and the current cultural capital of the country. Setting aside the ill-will created by the locals, we actually liked Hanoi very much. As per its reputation, it has a certain European charm to it undoubtedly attributable to its former French colonial rulers. But then its mysterious Asian side becomes evident, most notably from the maze of long narrow tunnel like alleys, plied by its local populace on foot and amazingly also on motor scooters barely able to pass between the walls. There is a virtual hidden ‘city-within-a-city’ of shops and residences and who-knows-what-else within these tunnel-alleys, de facto off-limits to all foreigners (especially Westerners). But that does not detract from the city, rather it adds to its aura, and there are plenty of shops, restaurants and other venues of interest out in the ‘open’ for foreigners to see and visit. With its French influence, Hanoi is a true international destination with some first-class dining and entertainment for everyone to enjoy. The Old Quarter, which I have pretty much been describing, is where most visitors spend their time and its fun to roam the streets for days throughout the area, which has at its heart a large peaceful lagoon that you can peacefully stroll around. (For the faint of heart and to fellow animal lovers, my apologies for the picture of the skinned dogs but I wanted to show a part of Vietnamese culture so different from ours – some folks really do eat dog in northern Vietnam and consider it a delicacy).

Only about a 2hr drive from Hanoi, and therefore doable as a day-trip (though many prefer an overnight stay on a Junk boat), is the famed Hai Long Bay. We did the tour as a day-trip and it was more than satisfying. Joining us on the tour after arriving at the end of our 2nd week in Hanoi, was our now perennial visitor and close friend from Chicago, Mike Shaker. The Bay is absolutely not to be missed, its sheer beauty created by large rock formations that seem to simply burst from nowhere out of the water, covered in lush green vegetation and oftentimes shrouded in mist. Your Junk slowly cruises past the rock formations, as you enjoy fresh-cooked fish and other Vietnamese delicacies with a glass of wine. Later, you make a stop and wander through an awesome Cave complex, one of the larger we’ve ever been to. Truly a one-of-a-kind touring experience not to be missed.

Hanoi was without doubt the highlight of our visit to Vietnam (and, we believe our friend Mike Shaker would vigorously agree). However, we did venture south joined by Mike, opting first to take a short domestic flight to the central Vietnam mid-size city of Hue. We rented motor scooters and toured the countryside. Nothing particularly exciting either in Hue or around the countryside, but it was pleasant nonetheless.

We then charted a private Van to drive 5hrs to the town of Hoi An, and were fortunate to find a newly opened Hotel in the heart of the action that was really 5-star for Vietnam and still a great value at only USD $45/nite. Hoi An is quite small, but its central ‘Old Quarter” is quaint, safe, peaceful and a joy to stroll around, shop, drink and dine. It is also quite photogenic with a covered Bridge and a quiet river running through the center. We also rented motor scooters for the day in this town, and drove to an interesting archeological site known as Mai Son.

Unfortunately, we probably left Hoi An too soon, and even more regrettably drove (via another private charted Van) to south central city of Quy Nhon. Unbeknownst to us, the city was basically shut down on account of the Vietnamese/Chinese New Year, when apparently most of the country goes on vacation somewhere. This not only makes it very difficult to get good accommodations at a reasonable price, but as we also discovered most (all?) the restaurants close down (at least over the weekend) that we arrived in Quy Nhon. At least that is what we were told by Hotel staff and other locals. But, as we discovered for ourselves, the real (sad) truth of the matter is what they really meant is the restaurants are all (most) closed to Foreigners!

Taking a Taxi from our Hotel, against their recommendation, we drove to a part of town along the beach where there are many restaurants located, and found large crowds of Vietnamese enjoying their meals. When we tried to join in, several restaurants shamelessly (shamefully?) told us they were “closed”. At another, though we actually got seated, it was quite uncomfortable enduring the many hostile stares, some obvious unfriendly comments and talk behind our back. As for our dinner, well we never got past one appetizer and one beer each, as the wait staff then openly ignored us while we repeatedly went up to the owner requesting to order several dishes which never came, while later-arriving locals were promptly and continuously served unending dishes. This experience, of course, solidified our opinion of the Vietnamese feelings towards (Western) Foreigners. Quite outrageous in our opinion, especially when compared to similar festivities we attended in other countries such as our New Years Eve in Thailand, where we felt most welcomed to be a part of the celebrations.

Of course, we left Quy Nhon after only a 2 nite stay, and drove further south to the beach resort city of Nha Trang. Again, we encountered major difficulty (albeit expected now) in finding decent (or any available) accommodations (the one we found, and we were lucky to find any available, was substandard especially for our friend Mike who usually stays in 5-star facilities when on vacation). However, at least this City which caters to international tourists was otherwise wide-open, insofar as its restaurants, bars and other entertainment. Nha Trang is nice, if you are the beach-resort type, but otherwise it is quite pricey and has little to offer, save for good scuba diving and snorkeling coral reefs. After one day on an unexciting boat tour, we again rented motor scooters just to get out of town. Saw a few old temples and such, but nothing to write home about (or write about here!).

It was time for Mike to fly home, so he was heading back to Hanoi to catch his international flight to Chicago, and we had intended to head further south to see the Mekong Delta. Regrettably, we never made it to the Delta, because we ran into the same New Year’s difficulty. All flights south out of Nha Trang were sold out, and we only luckily found seats available to join Mike back to Hanoi. While we said our good-byes at Hanoi’s airport, Nancy and I went back to our favorite Hanoi hotel to ‘recuperate’ for a few days and make onward plans.

Although we originally had tentatively planned to travel next to China, we decided against it, since we would have had to continue living like Nomads in Hotels the entire time, the hassle and expense of obtaining a Visa into China, and the considerable expense of multiple internal domestic flights to see different places within the vast expanse of China. So, instead, we decided to fly on to Sydney Australia, where we assumed it would be relatively easy to find a rental apartment for a month or more stay. But, we were in for a surprise there too. Stay tuned for our next chapter.

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