Thursday, May 12, 2011

Week 28

Hi everyone! It was Mother's Day in the U.S. this past weekend, so we want to wish all of you mom's out there a very happy Mother's Day, hope all of you had a wonderful day!! Summer has already begun here in Shanghai and it is starting to get really uncomfortable!! Today it was 85 degrees, sunny, and the humidity can make going outside feel like entering a sauna. Can't say I'm used to it yet, we'll see as time goes on.

I wanted to take the time to respond to a couple of comments from you guys. @S.K. from Cali, I've never been to the U.K. so I'm not sure how the Chinese guards compare to those at Buckingham Palace. From what I've heard, however, the Chinese guards are a little more responsive to people, and some will even crack smiles (such as when I took a picture with one at the Chinese Pavilion). @About Nicky, thanks so much for checking out our blog, we've been looking at yours and love the material! @Maria (a.k.a., Greasy), haha, life is good without many English speaking channels, although I have to admit I went through ESPN withdrawal in the first few months. Glad to hear everything is going well back in LA, tell Ahman that Tiffany and I say hello!

The last time we posted, both of us were in different countries. We both made it back safely from our visa trips and are happy to be back in Shanghai. From what I can tell, Tiffany had a great trip that didn't just consist of poolside service and shopping, haha, but I'll let her tell the story a little later.

After my mishap on the first night (see our last post), my trip to Hanoi got much better. This was my second trip to Vietnam but I had not yet been to Hanoi. I don't like having to pick up and move my stuff from place to place as I travel, nor am I the kind of person who travels somewhere simply to say, "I've been there." So that's why I slotted 10 days solely dedicated to touring Hanoi and getting to know the city and its surroundings. The weather was a bit more humid than it has been in Shanghai so that wasn't too much fun, but I was able to do a lot while I was there. I had enough time to do normal tourist stuff such as touring the old prison where the North Vietnamese kept POW's, seeing one of the first Universities in Vietnam, traveling to an old village outside of Hanoi known for its pottery, attend a manufacturing trade show, and see the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in the Old Quarter. But I also had time to chill out with some of the locals and play badminton in the park, do some shopping at the Dong Xuan Night Market, and spend a lot of time reading around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake.

If anyone is going to Hanoi, I would like to recommend staying at the Hanoi View 2 Hotel (you can find it on this website). I had a really good experience there and promised the concierge I would mention them on the blog. The rooms were very clean, it's really close to many attractions and, best of all, the service was superb. After a long day of touring the city, I came back frequently and told the guys at the front desk what kind of food I wanted to have for dinner/lunch, and they would go out on their scooters and get it for me. They also took me around a few places and made sure I got there safely. After feeling like I wanted to turn around and go home on the first night, the people at the hotel helped change my mind about staying.

I also wanted to give a big thanks to my friends, Diem and Tam, at Hanoi Free Tour Guides. This organization is made up of about 100 college students who volunteer their time to show tourists around Hanoi, free of charge. Diem and Tam came from smaller towns in Vietnam but are in Hanoi for school, and they were eager to show me around while practicing their English. It was a lot of fun, and I'm glad we had a chance to spend the day together talking about Vietnamese history and get their input on all the attractions we saw. Although the service is free, the guest (i.e., me) is expected to pay for transportation costs and any admission tickets for everyone (although they get reduced bus tickets and didn't really have to pay for many admissions anywhere because they are students). A tip at the end of the day is also very appropriate, especially because they gave me insight that I would not have otherwise gotten on my own. Thanks again to Diem and Tam for a day of showing me around Hanoi, I really enjoyed it!

After my one-day excursion with Diem and Tam, I was on my own for the remainder of my trip. It was a bit difficult getting around because I don't speak any Vietnamese, so rather than using cabs I found a lot of places on my own with the help of my hotel concierge and a good map. It was easier using a map in Hanoi as compared to Shanghai because the streets are represented by alphabetic letters as opposed to Chinese characters, so that was nice. One reason I tried to avoid using cabs is because it can be frustrating. There are so many different cab companies that charge different rates and it's hard to gauge how much a ride will cost. Another frustrating thing that happened a couple of times was having the cab driver flip some sort of switch on the meter that made it run faster than normal (i.e., costing me more money). Apparently this is not an uncommon thing that happens to foreigners. Very frustrating, and I was still a little upset about being duped by unscrupulous cab drivers on my first day, so I tried to avoid taking cabs.

Traffic in Hanoi, and much of Vietnam I suspect, is dominated by gas-powered motorbikes and there are excessive amounts of them on the roads. (FYI - I shot a video of a ride I took on the back of a scooter on the way to the Old Quarter. I didn't include in the blog but if you want to see it, you can watch it here.) Watching them all go through intersections should be considered a tourist attraction in and of itself, because I haven't seen anything like it here in China or anywhere else. The traffic signals seem more like soft recommendations than actual laws. The buses were also kind of funny, like the one that took us to Bat Trang village. As we stood on the curb waiting, Diem and Tam told me to start getting ready because they could see our bus was approaching. So I started gathering my things and they told me to go a little faster. Then they started running alongside the curb, which I was a little curious about. Then I realized that the bus wasn't going to actually stop, it was merely going to slow down for us. So I started laughing because I thought it was odd that they called it a bus 'stop' (unfortunately the people jogging behind me didn't find it that funny).

One of the best things I love about Vietnam is the fantastic cuisine, which is influenced in part by the French, Chinese, and Vietnamese cultures. I had so many good meals with flavors that are truly unique, and I must have drank a gallon of Vietnamese coffee while I was there, haha. There are some dishes I could do without (see Maybe It's Just Me), but in large part Vietnamese food is exceptionally good. Overall my time was well-spent and I had a lot of fun. I also took a lot of video so you guys can see what's good in Hanoi.

While I was touring the Van Mieu University I came across some post cards from Halong Bay, which I knew nothing about before coming to Hanoi. I liked the scenery I saw on the post cards, so I did some research online back at the hotel that day and decided that I really wanted to go. For those of you who haven't heard of Halong Bay, it is a group of 2000 islands in Northern Vietnam, all of which are made of limestone and are thousands of years old. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there is interesting Vietnamese folklore about how the islands came into existence. As the legend goes, during wars with the Chinese, the gods sent a group of dragons to help the Vietnamese fend off Chinese invaders. The dragons descended and spit fire near the Vietnam-China border, and those fireballs transformed into islands. It turned out that Halong Bay was crucial for defending Vietnam during this time, for various reasons, so the area has a special place in Vietnamese history.

I asked the concierge if they knew how I might be able to book a tour and, to my surprise, they knew everything because apparently a trip to Halong Bay is quite common for people visiting Hanoi, haha. The front desk set me up with a 3-day, 2-night tour that only cost me $100, so I left early on Friday morning. I planned my trip so that I would spend one night on a boat in the middle of the islands, and the second night was spent on Cat Ba Island. I had a choice to stay in Bungalows for the second night, but the concierge told me that I would be miserable if the weather was bad, so I chose to spend my second night at the hotel. I ended up regretting that decision because the weather was great and some friends I made on the trip were staying at the Bungalows. At any rate, I am so happy I made the decision to go because the three days I spent in Halong Bay turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Vietnam.

Tiffany also had a visa trip, but of a different kind. Her work sent her to Hong Kong.

The past couple months, I've been working on getting my work visa (also called a Z-Visa here in China) so that I don't have to leave the country every two months! The company I'm working for has sponsored me and helped me threw the whole process. However, it's still extremely long and involved. First of all, before applying, you have to visit a government clinic to get a health check. This involved numerous tests including getting blood drawn, an ECG, and an ultrasound. After submitting an astonishing long list of documents and passing your health check, you have to fly to Hong Kong to visit the Chinese Embassy. So while Mike was off exploring Vietnam, I was in Hong Kong for three days applying for my new visa. After finally receiving a temporary work visa, I came back to Shanghai, where I have had to visit a number of police stations, government offices, visa centers, etc. and will finally be receiving my one year, multiple entry work visa this week! The biggest thing I've learned through this whole ordeal is: Be Over-Prepared. It seems like no one knows, understands, and/or cares to explain the visa application in detail and therefore, lots of information gets lost in translation. So, if you find yourself applying for a Chinese work visa: Take multiple copies of everything you ever thought you might possibly need and some things you didn't think you'd ever need!

So now we're back in Shanghai and back to life as usual. Just want to update you guys on a subject from our last post. As you might remember, we were searching for an Ayi (maid) because we're getting a puppy and we'll need someone to look after it while we're both out of the house. We searched high and low, and found someone we think is going to be a really good fit for us.

Her name is Bonnie and she is from the Jiangsu province in China. Aside from being highly recommended by other expats, Bonnie also speaks great English and can help us as a translator and personal assistant! In fact, she's already put these skills to use by helping two of our friends visiting from the U.S. purchase plane tickets from a Shanghai travel agent, which probably would have been difficult, if not impossible, had they done it on their own. I would have to say that getting an Ayi is one of the best investments we have made so far, we'll keep you posted!

Things To Do in Shanghai

Visit the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China

For all you history buffs out there, the Site of the First National Congress of the CPC is the perfect place for you! Located right next to Xintiandi at No.76 Xingye Road, this historic site is a great place to visit. The building is a traditional Chinese Shikumen (stone-gate house) from the 1920s.  It became the birthplace of the Communist Party of China on July 23, 1921, when the First National Congress was held. The building is full of relics, artifacts, and pictures that tell the story of the beginnings of the CPC.  And what could be better? Admission is free!

Maybe It's Just Me

I was a little hesitant to take this photo because I was afraid that doing so might offend customers or the vendor. Of course I took the photo anyways, and then walked quickly to the end of the street, haha. I understand that, for various reasons, some people have strong feelings about cultures in which dog meat is consumed.

In the time that I've spent abroad, which has not been very long, I have always tried to keep an open mind about learning cultural practices that are different from my own. I sort of feel that the best way to understand another person is by trying to see the world through their eyes (Shout out to Dr. Alison Dundes-Renteln for giving me that belief). Having said all that........Maybe it's just me, but this does not look appetizing whatsoever.

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