Rainy Day in Hanoi

I hung around Starbucks until almost noon over coffee and a blueberry muffin. It was raining and seemed like it would not stop just for me and my desire to walk another direction and take some photographs. But the FujiFilm camera does okay in the rain and clothing and old retired body is fine so out I went. I walked through what is called the French Quarter which is the magnificent old architecture and state and federal buildings like embassies and consulates. I saw the French Embassy today. I don’t remember seeing that one.

Yet it rained still and thunder rolled across and I was starting to wonder if I should stop at one of the literally millions of coffee shops and wait it out. Then the rain started lessening but I had been taking some photographs no matter what. It was one of those “tweener” days. It rained until about 2pm and then as I was negotiating the turns to get back to Hoan Kiem Lake and do some other photography  that I did not know I wanted to do until I got back it stopped. The skies were still dark but I headed to one of the places I go for beer after doing about 12k steps.

Here are a few results of my labor. You see? I’m here for you. Hanoi is yielding all those secrets but keeping a lot more. Even after months I will not have seen the city. Its too vast and mysterious and I am but a two legged retired guy who cannot turn down every street.

All in all, a nice day to be out even if I got rather wet.

Other travel plans and places to go…

I also booked a trip in July to go to Con Dao for a week. I will fly from Ho Chi Minh City there for some time on the beaches, inspecting the historic sites, and just doing what my prime directive is. That would be eating and drinking and subjecting you to my photography across Vietnam. To say that I love this country would be accurate. Food, people, culture, places. I’ll be sorry to see my six month visa wind up in September. Never fear though. I have a number of places to still record on this blog in northern, central, and southern Vietnam. Just sit back and relax. This tour is far from over.

Dinners in Hanoi

Since I’ve settled into life kinda sorta in Hanoi, I also have something of a routine for eating. I normally do two things around food each day.

Late Breakfast. Around 11am or so I stumble to Joma Bakery, Mint Cafe, or Starbucks or a few other places. I have a piece of pastry and a coffee. Usually costs less than $5.00 except at Starbucks. I study the Google Maps on the free WiFi they all provide and decide what I will do for the day while sitting with the coffee and pastry. I usually sit around an hour or so dawdling and reading. This is a good time to read news, get caught up on facebook or whatever. I may have a general idea about where I want to go in Hanoi with my camera.

Out and About. No food. Usually water. I usually am out from about noon until 3pm walking the city and taking photographs here and there. No eating then. Only buy bottled water and then end up at Hoan Kiem Lake reading on my kindle. At about 4pm its beer time so I end up at a few places that I like for a few beers. Its beautiful then an the day is sliding toward evening. I start thinking about dinner. I often go back to my hotel first and chill for about an hour and decide then what dinner should be.

Dinner. My normal dinners are at street food places where I spend less than about $5.00 for a full plate of stuff. Usually its Pho or Banh Mi or some noodle dish. Tonight it cost me all of $3.07 for a plate of delicious noodles stir fried with beef and a cold Hanoi beer. The place is about a 5 minute walk from my Hotel so getting around to eat is pretty easy. I have a favorite places now that I will go to for Pho and Spring Rolls or Banh Mi. I just sometimes want the expected so I go there. Other times I find a place where all the local people are eating. There’s a place right outside my hotel which has Banh Cuon which is simply delicious. None of this so-called street food costs more than $5.00 for everything including beer or water. Other times, I splurge and get a Pizza or a burger or Indian food. Perhaps twice a week I splurge and spend somewhere around $7.00 for dinner or more even. I don’t keep track besides out of idle curiosity to see what a thing cost. The Indian place I went last night I came away feeling less than impressed. The AC was not on that I could tell and the person tried to talk me out of getting Garlic Naan. I will not be going back there. There are so many choices for food here!

Budgets and Costs

One of the things I had good intentions before leaving in February was finding a Google Spreadsheet to track my spending. I decided to be vigilant and cost effective starting with Vietnam. Japan was hopeless since if I wanted an expensive dinner I could drop a lot of dollar. I never did that though. I ate really reasonably at budget noodle places and often fast food for lunch.

But I had decided I should budget my money and track every expense. After almost two months here, I never did do that. I just spend what I am going to spend on things. I have beer in the hotel fridge, plenty of bottled water and I just ate a delicious street food dinner for about $3.00.

Maybe others are more disciplined than I and can do the budgeting and tracking. I cannot. So I gave up or perhaps I would have made myself miserable. Retirement is not about being miserable and the truth is with the money coming in and what I have, there is no real reason to worry about either splurging or regular meals. Vietnam is a joy for eating and living you see 🙂

Today in Hanoi in Pictures and Plans

I slept in this morning until after 10am and then decided to go the local coffee place called Mint Cafe. There are down the street and easy to get to and I like the people there. They like asking me my plans for the day and get me a second coffee almost unbidden. I sat awhile and considered where to go and what to do. I decided on a walk that would take me past all the embassies and official residences to a new route back to the old quarter.

The other thing was to to test and play with and learn some settings on the camera. Specifically I wanted to shoot in F/11 which seemed reasonable given the nature of the day, use the Classic Chrome film simulation mode, but change up some other settings based on what I wanted to take pictures of. I used the Shadows, Sharpness, and Color Q menu settings and just dialed up what I thought I wanted to see. Making changes to shadow highlights means that the picture gets more contrasty and shadows are more pronounced. Changing the color brings out the basic colors. Sharpness edges up the contrast and sharpens the image. All very interesting but I wanted to look at each photograph I wished to take and make a call on what I thought it should be. Should it be +1 or +2 for color? Time to play!

So the pictures are interesting and the walk and beer rewards were even better! Here’s a few of them. Notice the buildings and other stuff seems more richly textured. I focused on a specific thing in the photo I was taking.

The goal here was to enrich the color or sharpness or shadow highlights to bring out he parts of the image I wished to focus on. Since I am forever learning I will go back tomorrow and do the same in another direction in Hanoi.

Its all fun and I get the walking in that makes me feel good and the camera is there to record the places. Photography just happens to be the bestest thing for the walker in me.

Conversations are Places

Today I went to the Starbucks here for some coffee and a croissant. I like to sit and read on my phone even though they only give an hour of internet for each thing you buy. I have a good cell phone provider so I don’t mind crunching up some cell data. I will need to buy a scratcher for Viettel next few weeks and “top up”.  Here you just find a place with the logo and buy the little card and then send the code in and you get the goodies. Happens there is a place down the street from my hotel that has them. Easy peasy.

I lingered over some beers at one of my usual places and listened to all the people mostly tourists exchanging their map ideas, places to go, things to see, food to eat. I had decided to go get a Banh Mi or two at my favorite place called Banh Mi Pho in the old quarter. I get two sandwiches for about $2.73. Cheap but delicious dinner! Now I am working my way through the second one and will soon have a beer carefully stored in my hotel fridge.

This morning whilst at Starbucks I met an Australian retired couple traveling for a few weeks. We discussed old cars, travel, how to find things to do, food to eat, places to go. They were an interesting pair and the guy probably would have stayed longer but I think his wife was gently urging him to not waste more time on conversation. So off they went. Its amazing to me of all the people I meet how little time most people decide to spend here in Hanoi. To me, Hanoi is this wonderful place with culture, food, history and streets that lead to other streets. A novice and hobbyist photographer’s extravaganza! But people have their schedules and timings. Three days here and 4 there. See only the old quarter. What? There’s more? I told them a bit of the history of Long Bien Bridge and how they should get there since its not terribly far from West Lake at least by my foot wandering.

But lets face it. Conversations are places. You come from a place and are going to one. Your path on that route crosses another and they have a place to tell you about. Its all about the conversation and the place. You know you have a story to tell that is made up of intricate and wonderful things called places. Your memories strike the iron foundry of yesterdays and perhaps are captured by a photo gallery or a journal or a blog. But each way station reminds me the journey is not complete. You may meet another that is traveling a path not so similar. They perhaps are going to a place that you will not or their conversation is about a whole bunch of yesterdays that you can never share. Those places are locked away and no matter if you visit one, it will be different.

So I left that conversation and it dawned on me. Each time we talk to another we are exchanging not only ideas but places. Perhaps at first it comes slowly. You try to find common ground. There are always good things to start with. Food, travel, home. But soon the vagabond in you strikes out and so do theirs. You know their mysteries are not yours. You will travel a grand road made of turns and hills and dips and stops. Their road can never equal. No matter how much you want, the vaunted goal of commonality is perhaps jaded. In the end you each come from a place so unique that with a touch and a smile and perhaps a laugh and a story you find a place that each can meet at.

Other times there is no connection and no commonality. The words are slow and the other person will not meet you at a common place. Its easier to just move on. Find another place. Maybe its a solitary one. A place where its you and a thing. A sunset. A cliff. A limestone karst in Halong Bay.

And then you know. You can reach 1000 miles but sometimes the other person is just out of reach. Maybe you have a moment like I did. The words come easier. But soon the coffee cup is empty and the wife is telling him gently but brooking no argument its time to go.

So ends the places you went of that one conversation. Is there another? Who knows. Time will tell. And its fickle and it does not give away the happenings to come.

Stay tuned and perhaps you will see.

Does your camera offer fun?

I imagine from the Nikon’s and Sony’s and the other cameras around Hanoi that photography is an important thing. People invest money in lens and bags and camera bodies. Then they invest more in time in learning how they all work. I watched a guy today overloaded with camera gear as his wife wanted another lens from a bag he was carrying. He hunts through the camera bag and meanwhile misses a hundred interesting street moments. He finds the lens and his wife snaps one off and the other on and puts the old one back in the poor guy’s bag. I kinda wonder how all this works. I don’t have a camera with a prime lens and a body and all the stuff. How does one do it all? Isn’t that bag kinda heavy and you always have lens envy? What happens when you want a shot that’s in a moment and the moment soon disappears? I am not chiding the significant number of people carrying big gun lens and cameras. No. And I am not deriding or lowering their abilities. I’m sure they shoot better than me with all that gear.

I travel light you see. My gear is a FujiFilm X100F camera which fits into a smaller bag and lets me get the street or urban shots I want. But here is the main thing. Its fun! Let me tell you how. Fuji included film simulations on the camera and different enhancement possibilities with color, shadow, etc. One can dial in a new film simulation but then also start changing default shadow, color, sharpness. A single shot can take on multiple personalities. One can go out in a day in Hanoi and practice a single thing. Like today I started shooting with the Astia simulation but then bumped color and shadows to +2 for the halibut. Suddenly the shots got sharper with deeper colors and it was…


Fun because you can change the elements of the camera and make it do things that are fun and strange and weird. It makes a day out with the camera an exploration of a film simulation and then more fun with the different effects you can dial in. So its not just the photography which may be serious or not; its the fun of trying new things. Here’s a few I did today of the Astia, Classic Chrome. and Provia simulations with different sharpness and color at +2. I shot a few at the Hanoi Historic Water tower with various settings.

Notice the subtle changes in color? I had moved up color to +2 and sharpness to plus +2 and I was shooting with the Astia film simulation. No matter what, its fun. The camera is fun folks.

Now I’ll share some others with the settings changed here and there around Hanoi.

As I looked at the JPEGs, its dawned on me. I don’t need Photoshop or Lightroom. I have these special film simulations that the good folks at Fuji gave me and I have the Q button to change different sharpness and contrast settings.

I don’t own a Nikon or Sony or something. I have this FujiFilmX100F. I’m curious if the other cameras with the bags of lens and filters and what not are fun. Do those cameras have these different custom settings which can effect how the JPEG rolls out?

For me, its a difference of night and day. I go out each day and experiment and have fun with this camera. I keep all the photographs and upload them to Google Photos. Some good. Some not so good. Its all in the learning.

In the learning and in the fun.

Trip to Come in Wonderful Vietnam

I just returned from the tour of Halong Bay and loved it but I’ve come to realize after a lot of reflection on the crowded bus ride home that I am not really meant for package tours and individual exploration is probably the best for me. I’m old and set in my ways I fear and traveling with 30 other people is not how I really desire to see places. Granted, Halong Bay would be difficult to do on my own so I booked a tour. My best way is setting out on foot, camera bag over my shoulder and exploring.

When I got home last night, I had started looking at my calendar of time left in Hanoi and other places I may want to go. One place came bubbling up. I really want to go to Huế . Why you may ask there?

Huế has a wonderful history of events in Vietnam and its easily reachable by air from Hanoi. So last night, in looking at my calendar, I decided to book the travel there. Its quite easy traveling around in Vietnam domestically. One finds a place to fly to and then looks for cheap airfare. Vietnam Airways offers pretty decent round trip tickets to most places and my destination is a little over an hour away.

Then I find a hotel room either on Booking or Agoda. I can search for the cheap rooms up front. In the case of  Huế found a room for a total of $40 for all the nights. Booking takes care of the logistics of booking and you don’t pay until you arrive.

I will need transport from the airport to the city so will hunt up a shuttle to take or something next or maybe the hotel can arrange something. Given the price of everything else here, I’m pretty sure that a shuttle to the city center should be cheap.

So for this new trip, I paid $150 for the round trip airfare and $40 for the room. I will for food and drinks and stuff while there but I doubt I will spend $300 for the whole thing.

Getting to the airport and back is easier now that I found a honest cab service that picks me up at the hotel and then holds a sign with my name when I get back. Very easy to arrange now that I met Lucy :-).

Just to recap…

I have a trip to Hoi An coming up in Mid May, a trip to Hué in early June, and then I leave for Hong Kong in mid June to do the Visa run thing. Getting back, I ride the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Undoubtedly will find places to visit down south when I get there and doing these trips is so easy.

If you want a country to explore that has friendly people, has an interesting history and food and culture, I highly recommend Vietnam. I especially like the food culture here and the choices in Hanoi one has with eating. I would also pitch longer stays and then do the trips to various locations and use Hanoi as the base camp for your travels. My long stay hotel here is $360 a month and its in the old quarter so easy to get around to restaurants and also escape the old quarter when the need arises.

Another pitch for Vietnam is if you are on fixed retirement income. Money goes a lot further here. I stopped trying to record my daily budget for food and ended up just wanting to enjoy things. Its easy to find the services you need too. I have a barber shop within a mile that is top notch and getting laundry done is across the street for about $2.00 a week. Having cell service does require you to have an unlocked phone but getting a SIM card is as easy as finding a place that’s marked or just getting Viettel. Its the best in Vietnam and gave me service pretty much all over Halong Bay. I guess because its owned by the government that things just work better on the service. 4G LTE is all over by the way and rarely does my phone go down to 3G. To renew you buy a scratcher card and send in the code number and you get more service.

All of this stuff is built for the traveler in mind to me. Services that are easy to find and use. Connectivity and travel. Vietnam really has a nice and affordable baseline for the person wanting to live a reasonable life in fixed income.

Three days and Two Nights on Halong Bay and a Bungalow

So, the three days went by and I took over 250 pictures of the bay and the rather interesting bungalow I spent a night in on the second night. Rather than make a glitzy collage, I’ll just share the album here. On the first day blue skies and that emerald green water. Man. That is some sight. Then you have all those limestone rock outcrops. The first day was cruising and a few activities I did not partake in. I wanted to sit on the sundeck and just see the place without having to go do things.

On the second day, we visited the Surprise Cave and its numerous huge grottos. Its a wondrous site knowing that as you go you are seeing basically the result of erosion and deposition inside the cave and the beautiful colors etched into the limestone. I really liked the cave! The weather was a bit overcast so the things that really stood out is that water. I have never seen water like that anywhere. I stayed the night in a Bungalow over on Cat Ba Island which is part of another beautiful bay with even more limestone formations.

As you can see, the area is just dotted with these limestone outcrops, little grottos, small fishing villages on the bay. Its almost dreamlike as you sail along. The fog on the second day hugged close to the surrounding areas.

I ended the second day sitting under an umbrella at the beach watching the waves comes in, people playing in the water. It was generally very quiet at the Bungalow we were at. At the next door bungalow though, people were partying down with music and singing. Its so quiet at night you can hear the individual voices of people.

Then the third day rolled around and our last. I was ready to get back but the things take time. Its a 3 hour bus ride from Halong City to Hanoi and by the time the tour bus just got close to the old quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake, I was off that bus and walking to the hotel.

Then went out and had some Pho Bo and came home. I had been wanting some Pho all the trip but they fed us much better than that I guess.

So there you have it. My first tour here is done. Coming up in May I go to Hoi An for 4 days and pretty soon after that I leave Hanoi. All of the people I met were doing 3 or 4 days in Hanoi. I don’t know how someone can see a city like Hanoi with only that much time. I think living here for months is the best way for me.

Now i’m home and thinking about watching a YouTube movie later and sleeping in. On the cruise we were up early to get everything done. I really don’t like getting up early any longer.

Reporting from Halong Bay

Today boarded our three day two night cruise on Halong Bay. I sat on the sun deck forsaking the optional activities in favor of the solitude and views from the deck. Halong Bay is one of those places to get to. Emerald green waters, limestone cliffs, cool sea breezes and wonderful food await.

Leaving the hustle and bustle of Hanoi took about three hours and we boarded our boat with a wonderful and funny crew. We had 5 course lunch and dinner and drinks and now I sit on the sun deck st nighttime. It’s been the wonder number 1 of this trip. A place I dreamt and wondered and wanted. For years. Now I have one more night in an island bungalow and then Friday back to busy Hanoi.

Words do not do justice to the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Get here if you can!

Shipping Amazon to Hanoi

Well not directly because Amazon does not do that. What I do have though is a mail service agency which receives my mail and packages and will then forward them to wherever via whatever international service I wish to use. I can ship via dHL FEDEX, USPS. The first thing I bought was a pair of cheap Wrangler Jeans because I really prefer wearing Jeans to long cargo pants. Jeans just fit my cosmopolitan lifestyle better and you cannot find larger sizes here. Some things here cost less like food and beer and lodging. Other things cost more and its harder to find. So here is what I did.

I ordered the Jeans on 27 March and had them shipped to my forwarding agency. Due to a mixup Amazon tried to deliver them on Saturday which will not work so I had them redo the delivery to a weekday. Amazon customer service is most excellent with this stuff guys. The person re-ordered the delivery and it came in around the 29th or so. I then had the forwarding agency ship the box to me which weighed about 2 pounds to my hotel in Hanoi. I shipped via the cheapest USPS which was international first class no tracking. I started counting the days. Today is 16th of April and it arrived. The box had been opened and inspected by customs and then carefully re-sealed. Expected that to happen given the realities of international shipping. So, discounting weekends and stuff, you can see how long it took to get here. Not a prohibitively long time but if you want something like “soon” you will pay to use DHL or FEDEX. For me, being at the same address another 1.5 months its no big deal.

Now that I know what to expect, I ordered one other thing which is hard to get here and it should arrive at my mail forwarding agency tomorrow. At that point US Global Mail and this is a pitch for them will box it up and ship it to me. I just want to digress on the importance of finding an independent service and not just using a UPS store or something. These guys are good and they tell you what it will cost up front on their website. Many of these services charge per piece of mail received. If you go over, you pay more. US Global Mail does not charge per piece. When a letter arrives you notified and you can have it scanned, trash it, or forward it. Very handy. If you get a number of boxes they will combine the boxes into one and ship. Again, very handy if you are an expat or retiree living abroad.  This is paid by the year for service. I paid $150.00 per year but of course custom things like mailing a letter or box cost more.

Its more about peace of mind and not relying on family or friends to take care of stuff you should really have planned out. I have felt that the mail is mine and having an ex-wife or child deal with it kind of absolved me of responsibility and put it back on someone else. I would rather pay for a quality of service like what US Global Mail provides and also have a centralized location for mail services. One thing I did do was to switch as much as I could to digital or paperless service and many of the services I had like insurance went away when the car went away.

Give it some thought if you are planning an extended absence. For me, I had looked long at various services and paying by the piece seemed a ripoff. Some of the expenses for the basic service were more than US Global Mail too.

I feel that I found a very reliable and honest service that I can use when needed to forward things where I need, preview and download scanned PDF files of mail, and also not depend on the good will of others to take care of stuff that is really mine to deal with.

This type of service should be added to your list of things to plan out and execute on when you are leaving. The other is banking. I don’t do credit cards so I wanted a second debit card. I went with CapitolOne 360 and linked my banks together. They are completely virtual and have been quite easy to work with traveling. I can make money flow by transfer within 3 days so I plan when I would want to have money in that account and transfer it. There are reasons to use the CapitolOne 360 debit card including international ATM fees.. There are reasons to not have credit cards for me. I distrust them and me. Its too easy to do things with a credit card that you will regret later.

So two things which I felt were necessary. The virtual mail and forwarding service is a big thing when you think of it. Financial services is big too. I feel like I put in some time planning how to handle routine things.

One thing of note if you use a mail agency is that you cannot change your address online with the banks to that agency. They are marked. You have to call customer service. They will willingly do it but want to talk with you. Once you do it, the change was almost instantaneous in my online banking records.

Today at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Park

I walked over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and park to get out of the old quarter for awhile and also visit some of the places I had not been to before when it was raining. The park is a huge open area which has a number of buildings including his home, cars, and mausoleum itself and beautiful grounds. It was so nice to be away from the normal buzz of activity in the old quarter!

The day started rather wet and in the morning it was raining with some authority so was not sure if I could get away for a longer walk. I had decided last night to try and get back to the park and open area so I could have some time away from the frenetic nature of the old quarter.

Also walking up to the Mausoleum is very peaceful. Wide streets with few people normally on them. Friendly guards with a lot of embassies along the way. I saw the Spanish, Polish, and at least one other embassy or consulate.

I ended up staying longer and seeing the house on stilts, his cars, and the home that was built for him that he did not live in.

Nice day out!