A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Al Jam

Hello Hanoi

We arrive in Hanoi, our last city in South East Asia and get ready to sail around Halong Bay...But not before some tasty, white-feathered goodness.

overcast 21 °C

It’s amazing what you can fit on the back of a 100cc scooter. Besides a family of 5, I’ve seen a cage of piglets, mini-fridges, whole pigs for roasting, and anything else that a logical and sane person would consider using a 3 tonne truck rather than something that’s a step up from a bicycle. This is just one of the visually stimulating things that pass us by as we whiz towards the old town of Hanoi.

2x4 Delivery

2x4 Delivery


Although considered the Capital of Vietnam, Hanoi seems to be less hectic than its southern counterpart, Ho Chi Minh City. When I say less hectic, I mean that there is a slightly less chance of getting run over as Sam and I make the mad dash across a busy street, backpacks and all towards our hotel. We are pretty much in the heart of the old part of Hanoi, with its narrow streets lined with small specialty shops and restaurants decked with even smaller plastic chairs and tables you would find at a kid’s Birthday party. But before we go out and experience Hanoi, we organize our overnight Junket Cruise around beautiful Halong Bay for tomorrow. We decide to spend a bit extra on the cruise as we’d heard some horror stories on backpackers deciding the cheaper route and ending up in roach infested boats. My days of slumming with the roaches in backpacker style accommodation are well behind me and I’m happy to spend my hard-earned rat race pay packet to avoid accommodation that would have been considered a war crime. The seafood dinner sold me as well.

Live each day like it’s your last, right?


Armed with our Lonely Planet guide, we work our way to the street with the highest concentration of local restaurants. Unlike the south, a majority of the Northern cuisine is fused with French culinary style and I’ve been looking forward to it like a person who has watched over a dozen travel and food shows on Hanoi…OH THAT’S RIGHT, I HAVE watched that many travel shows on Hanoi! So we choose one that looks like it has the highest concentration of locals and sit ourselves on ‘comfortable’ plastic stools. We both crack open a beer and toast to now and the future. “I can’t believe our trip is almost over” Sam says, as I look around for the waiter, stomach rumbling. “Stop thinking about it, we still have Halong Bay and Japan to go!” Sam is always thinking about the end of a trip. I remember one time she started dreading the end of a trip before it really even got started. I’ve learned not to. Live each day like it’s your last, right? I convince Sam to share the duck with me. There were plenty of other things I could have ordered but there were other reasons for it and Sam knew it. “So, the duck looks good” I say. “No! I’m never eating duck after seeing those cute ducks at the market the other day”. Getting the reaction I wanted I start laughing and after a bit of coercing, I convince her to share a cute but tasty duck.


We try and work out what else we want to check out tonight. I had been up since 4am and we had been traveling all day but we only have 2 nights in Hanoi. I’m feeling tired but that’s nothing new to me when traveling this long. I decide to chill out at a bar and do some people watching whilst Sam does some souvenir hunting. The little bar is a good mixture of locals and ex-pats. Visitors come and go after a drink whilst the regulars ignore them and go about their business of good company and much needed drinking. I can sit for hours by myself and people watch, having a drink and not saying a word to a single person. Not many people can do that but I enjoy it. In a world where you are constantly bombarded with social media, marketing, pointless conversations and unnecessary distractions, wouldn’t you take advantage of being able to enjoy your surroundings without interruption or having to devote your attention to someone else? ... Look at that couple. She’s way too hot for that guy. Every guy in here is ‘People Watching’ her. No rings yet, it’ll never work out.


“Hey!”. I turn and face Sam, nice interruption. I do the quick visual inspection whenever Sam says she’s going to look around the shops. No large shopping bags, good. Next step, the interrogation. “So what did you get?” Satisfied that we still have enough money for Japan, we wander toward Hoan Keim Lake, which is the centrepiece of Hanoi. We stroll around the lake and cross the Huc Bridge and check out the Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake. The backdrop of the city lights on the lake is absolutely stunning at night. Exhausted but wanting to make the most of the night, Sam and I head to one of the vantage points by the lake. A chain café (much nicer than Starbucks) has a great view of the lake and the surrounding streets so we decide to have a nightcap as I take a few shots. Knowing we still have another night in Hanoi after Halong Bay, we decide call it a night.

We stock up on snacks and water on the way back to the hotel in preparation for the final leg of our South-East Asia travels…Halong Bay.


Posted by Al Jam 19:26 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (0)

Even the Sun needs a break

...But why choose the 2 days when we are on an island resort?

rain 20 °C

The outlook is looking grim. The sun hasn't shown itself since we left Hoi An. We pull up to the small pier after two hours on the road heading south along the coast of the China Sea. Sam and I grab our bags and thank our driver. We are greeted by our boat driver (driver? Can you be a captain of a small boat) as we board and transfer to a small island off Tam Hai.

We approach our Island resort, La Domaine where we will stay for just one night. It is almost 1pm and I can sense the disappointment in Sam's face. The wind is starting to pick up and the cloud cover meets the ocean horizon. Sam had organized for us to stay for 2 nights on the island but with the weather being so bad, we had decided to stay in Hoi An for an extra night, leaving just tonight on the Island.


We step out onto the island pier and are greeted by a French concierge. He leads us through the resort, which has done a great job of minimizing it's 'footprint' so that it feels very natural. The bungalows are hidden through the palm trees and there are no obvious paths. "Sorry for the weather, we are suppose to have good weather tomorrow" he says with a lisp and heavy French accent. We explain that we are only here for one night and he tells us that we are the only guests on the island...


We drop our bags in the room and check out the rest of the resort. No joke, we are the only ones on the island besides the skeleton staff. We make our way to the bar, order some drinks and settle down on the lounges and chill out. It starts raining. I feel really bad for Sam but what can you do? People who complain about the weather during a vacation are just obnoxious and Sam and I have traveled through enough bad weather to know there's nothing you can do but make the best of it. So we catch up on some reading and reminisce over our travels so far. The conversation turns to what the future holds, as couples on an island resort do. I start thinking about 'downshifting' again. The darkness comes upon us quickly as the sunset is nowhere to be seen. Time for dinner.


There was no question that we would eat seafood for dinner. The Tiger Prawn is the size of a small child's forearm and is quite possibly the best I have ever had. Fresh, grilled and just the right amount of garlic. We decide to stay in the bar on the lounges rather than move to the formal dining room, which like the bar, was basically a huge hut on the beach with no floor so that you could walk the whole resort without any footwear.


Finishing off our bottle of wine, we head back to our bungalow and I decide to take the opportunity to do some laundry. Not quite the romantic setting Sam had probably hoped for but she is already in bed watching TV and falling asleep. I tuck in the mozzie nets and switch on the sleep timer on the TV. Oh well, at least Sam got her wish for an outdoor shower.


Next stop, the Northern Capital, Hanoi.

Posted by Al Jam 16:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam la resort tam hai domaine Comments (0)

Village life through a lens

A photographic journey of people and life in a Hoi An fishing village

overcast 24 °C

As you can probably tell by now I have a bit of an interest in Photography. I wouldn’t call it a passion, as of yet. I don’t have enough time at the moment to upgrade it to a passion, although I always question myself on where all my time goes.

We leave Hoi An in a couple of hours but I have decided to pay $30 for a Photographic Tour of a fishing village just on the outskirts of Hoi An. It’s an early start, hoping to catch the sunrise at the fish markets and village. As we cross on a riverboat with the local early commuters, it is obvious that there would be no sun. Just grey clouds and the constant threat of rain, which is a bane for most photographers


There are six of us, including our French guide, Ettiene. He had moved here with his Vietnamese wife and decided to start his own Photographic Tour in Hoi An. I start asking myself if I could do the same thing. Move to a small beautiful town like Hoi An, buy a large comfortable house in a village, lead the simple life and start off my own Photography business…

We dock on the other side of the river.


Most of the boats are tied to the docks as we move down the pier, taking opportune photos of the boats and some of the fishermen we encounter. The seas are too rough to go out and so the fisherman are sat around drinking Vietnamese coffee, smiling, making smart ass comments about the ‘tourists’. There are no tourists here. It is too early, and it is too ‘local’. Ettiene has built trust and some friendships with them and most are very receptive to us taking photos of them, especially the kids.

Some pose, some act shy


Although the markets are lifeless, there is no shortage of interesting locals to take photos. The contrast between the young and old is something I always keep an eye out for as a photographer. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of photographer I am, but judging from my work (if I can call it that), I’m taking a liking to travel and street photography…Now THAT would be a dream job.


The young ones smile and play, the old ones smile and reflect. They’re all captured through my lens. Ettiene does his best with his broken Vietnamese to translate for us and we do our best with hand signs and gestures to communicate with them. Some pose, some act shy. Most just go about their village life, sometimes looking up to shoot back with a knowing smile.

Need Coffee!!


If only I had some sushi…After coffee? Maybe not

We are taken to a local bar café. We’re the only customers at 7am in the morning but we all take a kiddies plastic seat around a kiddies plastic table, the standard outdoor drinking furniture in Vietnam. We talk shop about camera equipment, shooting techniques and catch up on where we’ve been and where we’re heading, all over some awesome Vietnamese coffee. This is traveling! The owner’s children come out and they know the drill. The act shy at first but it only takes a couple of snaps to realise that this is their Method of Operations, because it’s not long before they start posing.
The sun is trying to break out


Ettiene takes us to a Soy Sauce factory. Well it IS Vietnam, and it IS a fishing village. It’s not so much a factory but more like house, with a lot of Soy Sauce. It takes a minute or two to get over the smell, and then I can start taking shots without camera shakes due to gag reflexes. If only I had some sushi…After coffee? Maybe not. We make our way back to the boat and cross to the other side where there are bicycles waiting for us to ride back.


It’s a nice ride as we follow the river back into town. What a brilliant way to start a day. Sam is waiting for me in the restaurant as we have our breakfast before heading to our little island getaway. Now, if only the sun would make an appearance.


Posted by Al Jam 13:19 Archived in Vietnam Tagged fishing village photography hoi an Comments (0)

The Ancient City of Hội An

A UNESCO declared World Heritage Site, its ancient architecture, cobbled stone streets and famed paper lanterns make it a pleasant break from the hustle and bustle of the big cities...And there's a Beach just a cycle away.

overcast 27 °C

I wasn’t even thinking about the size of the taxi when I was negotiating a price for a ride to Hoi An. As Sam and I cram in the back of the taxi, I’m kicking myself for not looking for a larger one. The boot is so small that we have to place one of our backpacks on the front passenger seat. It’s only a 45-minute drive so I quickly forgive myself.

We afford him the opportunity of showing us their Pièce de résistance, their honeymoon suite

It’s good to be on our own schedule now after leaving the group last night from Ho Chi Minh City. No more having to get up at a certain time to catch a certain bus to go to a certain city. Hoi An is our next stop after spending no more than 10 hours in Da Nang. I’ve been looking forward to Hoi An after seeing photos of the old city. Fortunately it was left untouched during the Vietnam War. The old town was declared a UNSECO Heritage Site in 1999.


We haven’t booked any accommodation for Hoi An but have a list of hotels to check out. Fortunately for us, the first one we check out is perfect. The hotel manager shows us the different types of rooms, starting with the basic room, which is quite impressive. “This one is $35 a night” he says and Sam and I trade a ‘not bad’ look with each other. The next one, even more impressive had a balcony overlooking the pool and is “$45 a night”. I’m quite happy with this one but we afford him the opportunity of showing us their Pièce de résistance, their honeymoon suite. The room is awesome. There is a bar, balcony, a separate King size room and a bathroom almost as big as some of the rooms we had stayed in. It also has a sunken Jacuzzi. Thinking this would be in the $100 range, I don’t bother asking how much but when he says “$55 a night” we respond, “We’ll take it”. Now it feels like a real vacation and we can spoil ourselves a bit. I instantly explode my backpack, taking advantage of the space we have.


We don’t spend too much time in the room, wanting to head to the beach. We grab some bicycles, compliments of the hotel, and set off for Hoi An Beach 3 miles east. We ride down to the riverfront and before we know it, we are out of the old city and into the Vietnamese countryside. Traffic isn’t too bad on the two-lane road and it’s mostly scooters and other cyclists with the occasional hairy moment with a car or truck. We pass a couple of small villages and rice paddy fields. Although it’s warm, it is overcast and hoping it will clear when we arrive at the beach. Luckily for us, it does.


We walk up and down the beach to find a spot and fortunately it’s not too busy. We pull up some beach chairs just out the front of a row of beach restaurants and order some well-deserved beers. The cycling is the most active thing we’ve done for a while and so the sun, the beach and the Saigon Beer is perfect, and so for the rest of the afternoon, we laze on the beach and relax. Although Sam loves to travel and experience new cultures and has no aversion to roughing it out (She did camp in the Serengeti for 5 days), this is her idea of a vacation, and I totally agree.


At night we enjoy a very nice, but relatively expensive meal just a couple of doors down from the hotel. It’s empty except for Sam and I as it’s currently low season. We talk over our plans for the next couple of days as we have booked a beach front Bungalow on an island resort 2 hours south. I want to stay another day in Hoi An as I feel like we haven’t really explored it and the weather hasn’t been ‘island resort’ weather. After going over the pros and cons and some convincing from me, Sam agrees to stay another night in Hoi An, spend one night on the Island and skip the city of Hue. There just wasn’t enough time.


The river through Hoi An is illuminated with giant paper animal lamps. It illuminates the riverfront restaurants and shops and is complimented by the colorful paper lanterns that line the bridge and streets. We wander through the Ancient town, paved with cobblestones and lined with restaurants, bars and shops selling all kinds of goods. Hoi An is famous for the Tailoring Shops and a tailored suit will set you back a massive $70. With the minimum US men’s size one size to large for me, it is tempting but how am I going to travel around with a suit in a backpack. It just wasn’t going to happen. “C’mon Al, I can wear it for Josh’s bar mitzvah“ pleads Sam, pointing at a yellow dress. It does look nice and who am I to say no, so Sam gets herself a nice tailored yellow dress and I get 3 tailored business shirts all for less than a meal out in Sydney. That’s my souvenir shopping done! One beer at a popular bar for travelers and we were ready to call it a night


Waking up to clouds and light rain gives us a bit of comfort in thinking we had made the right decision to postpone going to the island resort. It doesn’t stop us though, from exploring Hoi An in the day. Yellow and red are the predominant colors in the Ancient Town. It’s a photographers dream and the grey, overcast condition doesn’t stop me for taking dozens of photos of the architecture, the locals and even the locals of the four-legged kind.


We visit a couple of small temples and head toward the local market. “Oh look at those cute ducks” Sam comments, pointing to some stunning white ducks, all sat in a row, when all of a sudden a lady picks one up by the leg and they all come up together upside down. “Well what did you think they were selling them for? Pets?” I try to stop myself laughing as Sam looks in horror. I see that she is actually very upset and I try my best to hide my smirk. “I’m never eating duck again!” she says walking away. The incident reminds me that I’m hungry and so we try some local street food called Banh Mi, which is basically a Vietnamese Baguette containing grilled meat, pâté, cucumber, pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and a sauce combination of chili, soy and fish sauce. With the freshness of the baguette and the combination of various spices and flavors, it’s the best 50c meal I have ever had. All those Vietnamese rolls back in Sydney have nothing on this one-man Banh Mi street stall operation.


It starts to drizzle again and we head to the Cargo café, recommended to us by Jenny. We order some coffee and pastry sweets they are famous for. While Sam takes up our favorite pastime of people watching, I take the time to catch up on some ‘heavy’ reading, “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Being a motorcyclist, I can relate to parts of the book but the philosophical side of the book is interesting but slow going, and I’m not even a quarter of the way through. It’s getting late in the afternoon and we decide to head back to the hotel and enjoy our ‘Fit for a King’ accommodation. I grab a Hoi An Photography Tour brochure that looks interesting and put it in my pocket to read later.


Dinner tonight is at Hong Phuc, a small local restaurant on the riverside, another recommendation by Jenny. Looking it up in Trip Advisor, it basically says what she told us: Try the Grilled Fish in Banana Leaf. Of course we did and we were not disappointed. The food in the south of Vietnam did not impress me as it has here in the mid-North and with Hanoi still to come, my mouth is watering just thinking about it.


We spend the rest of the night checking out some bars such as the Mango room, which is more westernized but still has a nice balcony view of the river. On the other end of the spectrum is a local bar, also on the riverside but is the Vietnamese equivalent of a dive bar, but WITH the charm. Unfortunately, the owner isn’t as charming when he almost comes to blows with one of the patrons after being accused of ripping them off. The patron looks quite drunk and his friends try and calm him down. After a few angry verbal exchanges, the owner shouts ‘Puck You” and storms off out the back. Everyone is silent but the drunken guy and his friends stick around and continue drinking. The owner comes back after a minute and starts taking orders from other patrons as if nothing happened. With the ‘entertaining drama’ quota being filled for the night, we head back to the room and before I hit the sack, I do a quick sanity check of my camera equipment for an early start for the Photography Tour tomorrow


Posted by Al Jam 10:59 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hoi an Comments (0)


Fast Forward to Now... A break from my vacation blog.

snow -5 °C

So I thought I'd throw in a bit of an intermission here in between my travel blog. I haven't had a good rant in a while and writing in a first person narrative, AFTER the fact is taxing on the brain and emotionally draining. Emotionally draining because I sit here writing these travel blogs about beaches and tropical weather in my tracky dacks with the temperature outside at below freezing. I sometimes have to close my eyes, sit next to the heater and imagine feeling the sun on my face just to remember what I did on my vacation. It's snowing again after a brief reprieve from the sub-zero cold, with the temps rising to a sweltering 50 Fahrenheit for one day last week (10 Celcius). It took a while to figure out that warm sensation on my skin was the sun. Trust me, coming from freezing temperatures, you become sensative to natural heat so that you can almost feel the sun's heat reflecting from a full moon!


It is so fricken cold here in Chicago. Did I mention that? Just our luck as well that in our second winter in Chicago, we experienced the third worst snow blizzard ever recorded. It's been so cold that when I would wait for the bus, sometimes I want to poke a burning stick in my eye just to distract from the pain of the biting wind chill. Then at least one part of my body would be warm, or at least would not feel the cold, or anything for that a matter, due to the nerves being cauterized. Chicago got hit with over 3ft of snow in one night, and to add to that, our dog Presley was suffering from bladder stones and so was pissing like a horse (where it pleases) everywhere in the house. Poor thing, but my hands were as dry as a dead dingo's donger due to the continuous use of surface spray cleaning up her accidents. The next day when it stopped snowing and safe to go out, I decided to go for a walk around the block to check out the carnage. Snow drifts had buried some cars almost to their roofs. There were cars stuck in the middle of the road under snow and every street looked like Charlie Sheen's coffee table on 4th July. So after being awe struck by the blizzard's carnage, I'm back at the house and guess what, I've lost my house keys somewhere along the way...AWESOME! and of course Sam is out of town...BRILLIANT! Luckily for me, but only after retracing my steps around the block, did I remember that I left the back door open! My forgetfullness saved me from my losefullness.


It hasn't been all that bad. Christmas was great as we shared it with some friends and fellow Aussies visiting from Oz. We built snow men, had snow fights, drank mulled wine and ate Turkey. NYE was a quiet affair with a small group of friends enjoying dinner and ringing in Twenty-Eleven. Our friend Janet from Oz also paid us a visit. We played tourist with her checking out some of the sights. I've even managed to hit the slopes, or more like a grade, just north of Chicago in Wisconsin. I dusted off my snowboard and cut through some 'slight inclines'. The Chicago Bears gave us almost something to cheer about but it in the end, it was false hope in the NFL playoffs. Well that's a bit harsh, but they fell one game short of going to Dallas and playing in the Super Bowl. As they lost to thier arch rivals, Greenbay Packers (who would go on to win the Superbowl) a big hush fell across the city, followed by the random and scattered sobs of grown men and the hushed comforting words of thier female partners. I was heart broken so I could only imagine what some of these die-hard fans were going through. Drink more beer I say. I've also had a chance to shovel some snow...wait, I think that signals the end of the "It hasn't been all that bad" section. PS I love you, garage.


Talking about loving, my love-hate relationship with the Red Line picked up where we left off. I love the Red (we're on first name terms) in only that it gets me to the office (which actually should be a reason to hate it) and that it also gives me some comededic material. At least in the winter, the smell of urine isn't so strong because it's frozen in the corner of the carriage, waiting for the spring thaw. Body odor is hidden under the 23 layers of clothing to keep warm and my gloves protect me from the slimy film on every exposed surface of a Red Line carriage. One day I dropped my 7 days CTA pass on the floor of a Red carriage. Before I dared myself to pick it up, I had to calculate how many days was left on the card and if it was worth the risk in picking it up...along with 543 different strains of bacteria, fungi, virus or protozoa (I googled the 4 major germ types), and of course urine. This weather has made me numb, I picked it up. I also don't understand, short of some fool falling on the tracks, what reason a train driver needs slam on the brakes every time it pulled into a station. It's not like the station appears out of no where! There's no 4 way stops to worry about and rats do not count as pedestrians. It goes forward, it goes backward. How hard can it be?

Throw in the 'Tea Baggers' and the likes of Sarah Palin and Glen Beck, and you've got yourself a National Lampoons Political special

US politics has kept me entertained in this 'stay indoors' weather. I won't go on any political rant, only to say that for someone who now lives here, but who lived outside the US during the Bush years, I can now see how someone like him can become President. For those Bush-haters outside the US who just couldn't understand how he became president, I think you have to live here to understand US politics and how something like that is possible. It's funny, it's outrageous, it's insane! Some of the stuff that comes out of the mouths from both Dems and Republicans are just absolute WTF moments, and I NEVER use WTF!!...WTF!?. Throw in the 'Tea Baggers' and the likes of Sarah Palin and Glen Beck, and you've got yourself a National Lampoons Political special. Sometimes when I flip through the TV channels, I find it hard to work out whether a show is about serious political commentary or a reality show about guidos from New Jersey.


So we're almost at the end of this intermission and back to a stressful first-person narrative. I want to end it off with some good news.
...One cold morning in January, I was woken up with with Sam shouting my name from the bathroom..."AL!!" ..."What?" I muttered, thinking I'm sure I put down the toilet seat. Little did I know that in that split second, Peter Pan would become Peter Man (Sam would comment later), As she burst out the bathroom and uttered those two life-changing words:

"I'm Pregnant"


Posted by Al Jam 09:42 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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