Hello Uncle Foreigner

tourism

Jan 3, 2018

Can you just pronounce us “married” already?

The pain of paperwork

People travel for many different reasons: to see the sights, to meet new people, to eat strange food. To have adventures; to find love or oneself; to swim with or jump off of something. We’ve been traveling a lot this past year, but for none of those reasons.

Until last July, about every sixty days for the year and a half before that, we had had to leave the country because we couldn’t prove that Peter and I were legally married. It was irritating. Some of it was our fault – Peter’s name had been backwards on our marriage license and nobody noticed it for six years. But mostly it’s because living in China as a foreigner is an exciting and unending stream of paperwork and changing regulations.

When it comes to visa runs, most of the time the cheapest and fastest thing to do is to hop over the border at Hong Kong. Usually, we’d race there and back in 2 or 3 days so I wouldn’t actually have to take time off of work. And wishful thinking had lead me to believe that each of these trips would be the last one. So each next one came as a horrible surprise.

The last time around, in April, I finally realized that while I couldn’t control the speed of the process, I could control how we prepare for it. So in early March — well ahead of time, comparatively — I bought plane tickets, took real time off work and started looking forward to an actual vacation in mid-April. And because it was an actual vacation, we thought we might try to find some actual fun vacation things to do: a concert in Chongqing and a boat in Shenzhen. That should do the trick.

What’cha looking at?

For the people of Luzhou, we have two big-sister cities: Chengdu and Chongqing. Both a short bus ride away, they each have an international airport, more shopping, better entertainment, bigger universities and more opportunities. It’s like people who live between Boston and New York – you’ve got two choices when you need a taste of big city life.

But Chongqing is by far the scrappier sister. It sprawls over nine districts, and it’s up and down topography give some areas a real “you can’t get there from here” feeling. We’ve carved out our own little area, but we definitely feel we don’t know Chongqing as well as we do Chengdu.

We were there to see Alcest, a French black metal shoegaze band, which sounded like something we’d like. We switched things up by staying at a 7 Days Inn right on the peninsula, nearer to Nuts Club, the only destination that mattered. The plan was: get in, see the band, fly out to Shenzhen.

But it was too nice a day (and too small a room) to stay cooped up in the hotel all afternoon. Peter was feeling napful, so I went for a Lonely Ringo-style jaunt around the neighborhood. This has always been my favorite way to see a place.

I was getting lost-on-purpose, down an old stairway, when an older woman asked me where I was going. “不知道 [I don’t know],” I said. “Are you looking for 十八梯 [shiba ti]?” She asked. I wasn’t – I didn’t know what that was – so we parted ways. I eventually made my way up to the Jiefangba central business district, a shopping area with a Uniqulo, an H&M, tons of Western-style bakeries and cafes.

But 十八梯 was on my mind. Was it a local way of referring to the subway? Was it a famous noodle shop I was missing out on? I always have room for a famous noodle.

OK, so according to the internet, 十八梯 was a famously old neighborhood that attracted local sightseers for many years. Now it’s a pile of rubble still attracting lookie-loos who haven’t heard the news that it’s being cleared out for a new housing development. There are still a few remaining restaurants boldly advertising their十八梯 connections, but mostly what’s left are street vendors, hawking everything from porn to hand-crafted silver. And I had been wandering through it all along without knowing!

What’cha eating?

In Shenzhen, we finally got back to our wandering glutton … I mean, gourmand … ways. We stayed in the tiniest, cheapest place (with the hardest bed, though they were nice enough to let us raid the linen closet for extra padding) so we could spend all of the money on food.

Now, we love Chinese food, but as our followers can tell you, something we really miss is the variety available to us in New York City. We’ve been spoiled to the point of thinking there’s nothing extraordinary in having Italian, Indonesian and Indian all in the same week. So when we travel to a bigger city, we live for the hunt of the different and new. And, boy, does Shenzhen deliver. (Not literally, though; there’s no way we were staying trapped in that hotel room.)

From favorite to fine, these were the meals we found: At the Bollywood Café, there was samosa chaat, paneer tikka, and a rich dal makhani. The Istanbul Restaurant served up chicken with cheese, hummus and a fresh Mediterranean salad. Then there was a Pizza Express, of course, which remains my favorite tomato sauce in southeast China/Hong Kong. McCawley’s Irish Pub offered decent pub grub. And I had a Starbuck’s gift card from work so we snagged a muffin and some iced teas; we don’t have a Starbuck’s in Luzhou, so this was my chance.

To get to all of these places and more, we had to go to the mall, or someplace like a mall. It’s a fact of life we’re getting used to, that even while the mall is dying in suburban America, the mega cities of China are organizing their cultural life around luxury shopping centers. (Even little Luzhou has a Mix C and, word on the street is we’re getting a Wan Da in a few months!)

Cruising through Coco Park is not the same as wandering down a Parisian boulevard or getting lost down a cobblestone alleyway in Rome. For one thing, the lighting is a heck of a lot harsher. But its China, and they’re running out of room for charming. Or they’ve relegated it all to the fake old towns they keep building.

Where’ya going?

You can take the subway directly to the Hong Kong border at Futian, so that’s what we did. I love subways in China; despite the fact that they are generally pretty crowded, they’re really clean and the exits are so clearly marked. It’s a level of organization I’ve seen in no other Chinese enterprise.

After getting off the train, we followed the signs to the Futian checkpoint, and left for Hong Kong.

On the Hong Kong side, I bought a quick ham and cheese sandwich and some peanut butter M&Ms at 7-11. They don’t have the peanut butter flavor on the Mainland.

Then, we turned around and re-entered China, and Peter had his visa clock reset for another 60 days..

What the boat?!

Remember when I professed ambivalence about malls?

Sea World in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen is a riot of western and western-influenced restaurants and bars, staged around a plaza with a dry-docked ship in the center of a large fountain. The ship is also a hotel and German-style beer bar. Peter found it about a month before our trip, and since that time we’d been saying to each other, “It’s so silly, but we have to go.”

We have a well-honed strategy for days when there’s potentially a lot of food on the table: Eat a little at a lot of places. Our first stop was Tequila Coyote’s, because it was closest to where we disembarked from our cab, and it’s called Tequila Coyote’s. Mexican, that looks like a chain (though, as far as I can tell, it isn’t), but with a dining room open to the warm spring day. Worth at least a couple of margaritas.

The tacos al pastor came with real corn tortillas, a tasty green sauce and no cheese! (I love you Peter’s Tex-Mex, but sometimes I miss the real deal.) It was an auspicious start.

Counterclockwise around the boat, we found Pizzaria Alla-torre, where we kept it light with a salad containing fresh mozzarella and Parma ham. It was wonderful. Sitting on the outdoor deck, we had a great view of the boat’s bow. We watched babies attempting getaways into the water; people of all ages posing for selfies; the mini-train carrying bemused youngsters around the square. At the next table over, a new dad was hanging out with his teething baby while presumably the rest of his family was out having fun without them.

We had time to kill before the 7pm water and light show, for which we wanted to be up on the ship, so next was cocktails at Lucky Bar. These were fine and weird.

Finishing these, we were ready to head up to the boat. The German restaurant is on the top deck, perched just above where the magic happens. They also brew their own beer, so we ordered some of that, and a cheese plate. Here’s the thing about cheese in China, quite often you’ll end up with the most boring brie or an inoffensive camembert. Not here. Our cheese plate was a flavorful (if somewhat safe) selection: expertly mixing hard and soft, stinky and mild – complete with dried apricots and fig jam. And some saltines, because, of course.

The fountain show did indeed start directly at 7pm, with water and lights dancing up and down to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was stirring. At our location, we could also hear the crack of each jet of water as they went off, adding unintentional accompaniment. It repeated again at 7:30 and 8, with different music. I wouldn’t say you should travel to Sea World just to see it, but if you’re already around at the right time, it’s worth a peek. Especially with a cheese plate.

After this was a surprise that Peter’s research had not turned up. Latina is the newer one of two Brazilian-style churrascarias in the square. How good could a Chinese churrascaria be? No, really, we wanted to know. So we ponied up for the unlimited meats and buffet party … and it was some of the best beef I’ve had in China. Succulent, salty, with just the right amount of fat on, juicing up the place.

I tried to heed Peter’s warning — don’t fill up on the buffet — but he knew he had lost me when he turned around and I had two plates. In my defense, the second plate was a half-size, and I needed those black beans and rice. It’s my favorite. And the cauliflower, it’s also a favorite. The meat kept coming, and I, as the Brazilian saying goes, ate myself sad. It was glorious and I recommend it.

And then plan on fasting for the next two days, because you’re going to need it.

It was a long subway ride back to our sleeping box, with me moaning the whole way about being full. But totally worth it. And overall, we had a weird but fun time on our vacation. The day after Sea World, we took a late flight home, and Peter continued to be a law-abiding tourist.

But this time, I just knew we’d get that spousal visa sorted out.

May 10, 2015

Real-deal Đà lat, with Rot

Out into the countryside on a guided tour for non-tourists

Rot, the Dalat tour guide who will show you all the secrets
Tour guide Rot will whisk you through the countryside on a cloud of jokes and charm.
In the courtyard at the Pink House, getting ready for the tour
We gathered for the tour early in the morning in the Pink House courtyard.
The cricket farmToasted crickets with chili sauceThe cricket farm pig
As we learned at the cricket farm, these insects are one of the world’s most efficient sources of protein. I’ll still take the pork.
A house out in the countrysideSilkworms at the roadside silkworm farm
Left: A house out in the country; Right: SILKWORMS!
Rot explains the countryside market
A large majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist, and Rot explained to us that for them the death day is the most important day in one’s life. Even more important than a birthday. Each year, to commemorate the occasion, your relatives will burn paper representations of the things you might need in the afterlife; some solemn, some not so much. Here, Rot shows us a full package including glasses, slippers, a credit card, cigarettes and an iPhone. That should please the spirit of Great-great Grand Uncle.
Elephant Falls
While Peter’s seen it all, Emily thought that the Elephant Falls were quite impressive.
Rot's cousin explains some aspects of Vietnamese life
Rot’s cousin was part of the tag team that helped us hit the Đà lạt countryside.
Rot's sister's home
The home of Rot’s sister

Wherever you have a thriving tourist industry, usually at least one enterprising soul will come up with some sort of “not-for-tourists,” “real-deal” experience. Which still, of course, is patronized exclusively by tourists — but, you know, tourists who don’t want to be considered tourists. The cool ones. And sometimes, you just need a guide.

In Đà lạt, this venture is run by one Mr. Rot. And Rot is quite a character. Over the course of his “Secret Tour,” as it’s called, he filled us in on his life story: Born one of 12 children to a poor, village family, he was adopted by the family that owns the Pink House. They sent him to university, where he studied tourism. And now Rot gives tours to visiting foreigners, and does charity work and political activism for his birth village. And sings regularly at a night club in the city. He’s a charismatic showman, and somewhat of a trickster.

The tour is an all-day motorbike excursion out into the countryside. (With the option to ride along in a comfy Toyota Fortuner, which is what we did.) These days, Rot’s cousin handles the actual motorbike journey. Rot does not himself ride anymore, owing to a drunk driving accident a year ago. Among the many things he is, he isn’t a saint.

The tour encompassed a cricket farm, a silk worm farm, a coffee farm, and a curry farm. We stopped at the wet market in the small town of Nam Ban, where Rot goofed with the vendors and compared various vegetables to genitalia.

The Elephant Falls, outside of Nam Ban, was “the only place you’ll see other tourists on my trip,” promised Rot. But he insisted it was worth the stop. Both he and his cousin cautioned against buying anything at the falls’ souvenir shop; all trinkets were marked up to 3-5 times the nominal price.

There were tons of tourists there, all scrambling down the precarious rocky path to the bottom. But I thought the falls were quite beautiful. It was jungle-y and amazing. Peter and our fellow car passenger — an older European woman on a weeks-long ramble through Southeast Asia — were not quite as impressed. They’d seen better and more striking waterfalls elsewhere. We could all agree, however, that the phenomenon of young Asian women hiking these types of dangerous natural wonders in dresses and heels was pretty strange.

Lunch was at the countryside house of Rot’s sister. A Buddhist nun — Sister sister, if you will — she prepared us a simple vegetarian meal of tofu and choko over rice noodles with a soy chili sauce. We played drinking games with soda (though on past tours, I think this was done with actual alcohol). Rot and his cousin explained local customs. Crossing your fingers, a gesture of luck in North America, is a rude expression; the Vietnamese like big noses and big bellies. That kind of thing.

While at the house, we were lucky enough to meet some of Rot’s sister’s neighbors. A group of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Rot jokingly married them off to some of the guys in our group. He also got us all to say some inappropriate things in one another’s languages. Exasperated affection was pretty much the order of the day.

As we prepared for the return trip to the city, Rot nipped across the road for a quick volleyball game with some guys he knew. We were giving him a ride back in the Fortuner, so we waited while he finished up. To be honest, Peter and I were a little worried about sharing so much private time with such an energetic guy, but it turned out that Rot seemed as tired as we were, after a full day of being “on.” We rode back to the city in near silence, reflecting on the world we had just seen.

Apr 29, 2015

Taking it easy further north

The relaxed, international flavor of Đà Lat

Peter, eating "bird" at Chu Quán.
Peter, eating “bird” at Korean-Vietnamese BBQ place Chu Quán.
Delicious tom yam soup and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.
It was a bit touristy, but we had delicious tom yam and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.

In contrast to Phạm Ngũ Lão, Đà Lạt’s backpacker scene was much more relaxed and integrated with the city around it. There was still a small neighborhood glutted with western bars, hostels, and restaurants — down Trương Công Định street, if you’re looking — but the gravity of the area was not so strong. We kind of spent our time in the city traversing between International World and Localville. We watched live one night — in a bar full of Russians — as CNN reacted to Jon Stewart’s departure from “The Daily Show.” But we also successfully stumbled through the all-Vietnamese menu at an up-and-coming BBQ joint.

Given Đà Lạt’s size — small — we did wander down Trương Công Định at some point just about every day. And our usual destination was The Hangout, a bar billed as the homebase of the local Easy Riders. In actuality, its clientele consists mostly of the enthusiastic, but inexpert young travelers who’d spent the day touring the countryside with the motorbike guides; their ripped up legs told the story of a lot of falling down. But it was a chill place for a beer or two. Decidedly less shady than the backpacker bars of HCMC.

Another regular stop, a few streets over, was the Liên Hoa Bakery. They offered a wide range of French-style pastries. Fruit tarts, fresh donuts, croissants, cookies, cakes … I had to limit myself to two per day. Mostly because I wanted to save some room for the bakery’s made-to-order bánh mì. Peter would go with paté and vegetables, while my favorite was the BBQ pork. They buttered their bread as well, which was a fantastic touch. Guys, I just love sandwiches.

But we found a lot of good meals, all around town. On the suggestion of our hostel owners, we had lunch one afternoon at Vinh Loi, a folding table and plastic chairs kind of place that specializes in doing the basics well. Back on Trương Công Định, we had dinner at Góc Hà Thành, a restaurant that trumpeted its Lonely Planet endorsement on a large banner out front. Locals do not come here anymore, if they ever did. But the food was really good. Peter and I shared a dill lemon chicken dish and a tom yam shrimp soup — which is actually a Thai dish, but whatever. It was super sweet and delicious.

Our favorite meal — one so nice, we ate it twice — was at Chu Quán, the aforementioned BBQ establishment. The owner, we read, was going for a Korean-Vietnamese fusion, and I’ll tell you, it worked for us. The showstopper there was the Bò Sặc, a spicy beef dish cooked on a hot stone at the table. Each time a party ordered one, the whole room filled with choking, acrid smoke. (In a fun way!) That was a little too intense for us, though, so we went with a dish our waiter translated into English as “bird.” The table next to us had one, and it looked good.

“Bird” is probably squab, and it was served in a caramelized spice rub. We cut it up ourselves with large kitchen shears, which was a little discomfiting. The meat was tender for such a little guy, but that spice really packed a punch. The dish came with soy and chili dipping sauces, and side of mint and cucumber as a palate refresher. “Every bite has a strategy,” Peter said.

Rounding out the meal was a noodle and vegetable dish that was pretty good, but was definitely overshadowed by “bird,” and some just-perfect French fries, Vietnamese style, with an orange chili sauce and mayonnaise. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention our starter: a black sesame rice cake with green chili sauce. Maybe one of Peter’s favorite discoveries of the whole trip. (Can you guess what mine was? I’ll give you a hint: It starts with bánh and ends with mì.)

We were truly sad to leave Đà Lạt. It’s just a really friendly, charming place. On our last full day, another Easy Rider chatted us up. When we told him that we were leaving, he joked-not-joked that a motorbike ride back down to Saigon would be way more fun that flying. He was probably right, but “not with my back,” Peter said. The Easy Rider laughed, mounted his bike, and zoomed off down the road.