Not Really a Blog

February 25, 2012

Ninh Binh

Filed under: Ninh Binh, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , , , , — jesus @ 12:00

I was hoping to go south seeking warmer climates and different scenery, but Amy and Mike recommended me to stop in Ninh Binh for a couple of days to explore the area as it supposed to be pretty. They were right.

Ninh Binh 1

The city itself is like 3 hours south of Hanoi by minivan, with not much in it and not many foreigners. They come usually on a day-long trip so they don’t usually stay overnight. You can tell because there’s nothing for tourists in the way of restaurants, bars and other tourist oriented establishments. And that’s good, because you get to experience the Vietnamese style. On the other hand, once it gets dark there’s absolutely nothing to see or to do. Zero, Nada, Kaput!

Like the eatery I found on my rented motorbike. I was going around and I saw this dodgy-looking eatery that was full of local people, so I decided I had to tray that. If it’s full of locals it has to be good.I was welcomed  by big smiles and fascination looks as I think they must not get many foreigners there. The food was really good and I kept coming back for the rest of my two days, as good food plus beer for 42000 dong ($2), what can possibly go wrong? I even took Santuu and Ella, a finnish couple I met at my hostel there so they could enjoy it and come again if they wanted as they were staying in Ninh Binh for longer. :)

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The machine!!!

There are a definitely a few interesting things you can visit in Ninh Binh.

The city of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital, was the capital of the old Vietnam back in the day. There you can see a few temples and other random ruins. It’s interesting to note that it’s full of Chinese tourists. Dunno why. Interesting for a couple of hours, better if you get a guide who explains the history to you.

Ninh Binh 4
He took a photo of me, I took one of him


Ninh Binh 5

But if you are interested in landscape and nature, you definitely have to visit Tam Coc and Mua Cave.

Tam Coc is this river across mountains (same style as in Guilin) where  you can hire a boat and you get taken around this river while you look at the fantastic scenery and go through a few caves, one of them is 120 metres long. The fascinating thing apart from the scenery is that these guys row their boats with their feet. Yes, feet, not arms, so it makes for a nice photo moment.

Tam Coc 1
Feet rowing

Tam Coc 4
Isn’t it amazing?

Tam Coc 6

Tam Coc 9

Tam Coc 10
Getting out of one of the caves

Tam Coc 15
A shame it’s not sharper

Tam Coc 17

Not just photo moment, it’s just mesmerizing to look at them how they do it, as they are really really skilled. Totally recommended.

If you have a look at wikitravel and/or the Lonely Planet Guide, they warn you about people trying to hard sell you things on your return trip (on the boat) and getting really aggressive and rude if you don’t buy anything. Not my experience though. True, there are people there who try to sell you stuff, but if you refuse politely all is good. All you need to do is give them a small tip at the end of the trip and that’s it.

Tam Coc 3
One of the vendors

There’s this other place called Trang Ang Which is basically like Tam Coc but less crowded and apparently nicer. I didn’t have time to see it but just saying in case anyone wants to pay a visit as they say it’s less crowded than Tam Coc and you get to see the same kind of scenery.

Mua Cave is this cave at the bottom of one of these mountains. A bit difficult to find actually, so you’ll need a scooter or a bicycle and, armed with the map, ask locals for directions. The cave itself is not really great, to be honest. Just a hole at the bottom of
the mountain which lets you get literally to the other side.  It’s just like 60 metres at most.

Mua Cave 18

Mua Cave 15
What you see is Tam Coc

Mua Cave 20

But the interesting things for me were the pond at the bottom where I could take some amazing pictures (lucky me) and the stairs to the top of the mountain.  I arrived late in the afternoon when it was getting closer to the sunset and the pond, with its lighting and crystal clear water it seemed fantastic. Just check the photos! :-) (more on flickr)

Green Reflections III

Mua Cave 1

The stairs have around 500 steps that take you to a kind of sanctuary on the top of the mountain. There you have an amazing view of Tam Coc (the river on one side) and rice fields (on the other side). Really really nice! (Big warning, there are mosquitoes of the tiger variety, and this was Vietnam’s winter, so be warned if you go in the summer.

Mua Cave 12
The start of the 500 steps

Apart from these, there are a few other spots you can see close to Tam Coc, like a small pagoda and temples in a cave on a mountain, not much, but you can climb to the top (with someone who will take you up there for a small fee) where you can get a pretty good view of the area. Difficult and  dangerous (really) but worth the visit, as you get a nice view of the area (which must look amazing if you get it on a clear day)

Let me take a picture of you
They get the ‘let me get a picture of you’ treatment :-)

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Ninh Binh 34
Our ‘guide’

There’s also a set of temples around 25 km away from the city.  That’s the Bai Dinh temple area. It’s interesting because it’s got a pagoda in construction. And they seem to be building this huge complex to visit it, including a road through some tunnels across nearby mountains. But you’ll definitely need a scooter to visit it.

Ninh Binh 20

Ninh Binh 21

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Ninh Binh 19

Ninh Binh 27
Before you say anything, have a look at the history of the Swastika

In summary, I liked it. I thought it was pretty and interesting to see, plus the city is mostly interesting as it doesn’t have almost any tourists, so you are seeing a real Vietnamese city!

Mua Cave 22
Bye, bye. See you next time!

February 24, 2012

Halong Bay

Who hasn’t heard of Halong Bay? Or who hasn’t seen a picture of Halong Bay? Well, I had, and I had felt fascinated by it, its ghostly waterscapes, so much that I wanted to visit it badly. Having seen amazing pictures on the internet had made my desire grow stronger. I just wanted to take my camera with me and shoot away at the amazing scenery, hoping to have great weather and perfect images, combined with a nice stay in the area.

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The place looks like this

As it happens the place is a tourist trap and for this and other reasons it was a bit disappointing. The weather wasn’t good at all,  with temperatures dropping to a maximum of 13 Celsius precisely the day I was going there, so enjoying Halong Bay in the typical way, standing on the top of a boat while you go around the thousand islands was no longer an attractive option. Also, being it a tourist trap, the place is overcrowded with boats targeting all sorts of tourists, from the party-alcohol-fuelled-goer to the more senior-citizen holiday kind of thing. Water is dirty on many spots due to the large amount of boats leaving diesel residue behind. If you add to it the possibility of drowning on one of these poorly maintained boats, then choosing whether to go or not is no longer a simple question.However, the place is fantastic, and deserves a lot of praise regardless of its shortcomings. So I went!

Cold Halong Bay
It was this cold

Upon arriving to the main dock you realise how big this tourist trap is, seeing hundreds of boats coming and go, buses loading and unloading tourists without stop. And, all of this during off-season. I can’t really imagine what this must look during the peak season. Shortly after arriving you aboard a small boat that takes you to the main pirate boat, one of those that has a resemblance with the typical Chinese junk-style boats (mind you, they are just modern boats).

Halong Bay 1
Tourist Trap Alert

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You usually get to one of these boats using a travel agency in Hanoi who offers you a tour/package in Halong Bay, where you can choose whether to stay one or two nights being the second night on an island or again on the same boat. There are prices for everyone, but everywhere you search on the internet (and on the lonely planet guides) it recommends not being tight with your money as getting one of the $50 dollar-mark tours can very well leave you on a boat infested with rats and cockroaches, and a horrid experience to remember. From there you can go up to more than $400 for just 2 nights although most tourists settle for something around $130, which is fair enough for the amount of staff you get (apart from accommodation, you get food and transport, but not drinks). Some tips to book Halong Bay tours here.

Halong Bay 49
You will be in a boat like this

Mine was called Party Boat and despite what our agent had sworn (no party, it’s just the name) there was some party. Mainly because all of these tours are led by a guide who’s not only a guide but also someone responsible of making everyone have fun, which on a boat called party boat involves putting loud music and trying to get everyone to dance and sing all the time. I guess that you know the type.

The party boat
Halong Party Boat :-/

However, as the weather was not that nice and the bunch of people aboard were closer to 30 than to 20, most of our guide’s efforts were futile. Good. Except there was a fairly large group of young Australians during the first day who were generally nice, but there were two dudes in this group who wanted to make a career at annoying people. They decided they wanted to piss everyone off and so they did put the karaoke system on full power late at night, trying to sing every song in the most ridiculous and stupid way, screaming and yelling and generally trying to keep everyone awake while they were getting high on booze. To make you an idea, they even tried to sing Dido’s Here with me. I was considering the option of making them walk the plank into the sharks…cold water. I survived that and learnt a couple of card games from fellow travellers!

Anyway, apart from these two, we were a nice group. A couple from the UK who just got married (Amy, Mike and their friend Sally), another couple from England and Germany (Laura and Dennis) and a few other made the group we were in. And we had fun in this group :)

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Amy and Sally

Halong Bay 41

Halong Bay 27
Dennis and Laura

And Jeremy, our tour guide (Jeremy was his chosen western name). He was trying desperately to rock us (come on, party party) while we had cold-stone faces (What are you doing dude?). I think he felt really frustrated that we were not responding.

Halong Bay 4
This is not Jeremy, though! :-)

But hey, it was frikking cold outside and he wanted us to party on the boat, play sports on the beach and get ourselves wet in the freezing water, as if it was summer. No exception ;-) Funny though.

Halong Bay 25
He managed to convince Mike to play football

Mike, cold
But later he was recovering like this

I chose the two nights/three days tour. It’s the right amount of time, methinks. If it were not because I had to use three blankets at night to keep myself warm in bed ;-).

You typically stay on the boat while they wander around taking you to nice spots and cool beaches, mixed with activities like hiking the hill on one of these island, playing beach football or kayaking.

Halong Bay 21
Hike to the top

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kayaking if you wanted to get your ass wet

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This would have been so nice being warm and having a mojito in my hand…

At the same time you are taken to floating villages, caves and pearl farms which makes the experience interesting.

A pearl

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A vendor on a boat

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Halong Bay 40
Did I say it was cold?

It was a shame that it was very cold, because the colour of the water invites you to jump in, no matter what time in the year it is. Watching the sunset and sunrise was magical nevertheless. Sure I didn’t see the sun (for three weeks) and couldn’t get the amazing colours you see on photos everywhere, but still the light seemed kind of magical. You just fantasize you are in a pirate boat and this is your little empire ;-)

Halong Bay 7

Anyway, Here there are a few photos I took in Halong Bay:

Halong Bay 28

Halong Bay 39
Decorated food

Halong Bay 37

Halong Bay 56
Supposedly squid fishing, but bullshit actually :-D

Halong Bay 57
Night shot

Crew member

Halong Bay 14
Your own private beach

Halong Bay 15

Halong Bay 8

Halong Bay 60

Halong Bay 53
Want to jump into the water

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Halong Bay, captivating, relaxing, awe-inspiring despite it being a tourist trap. I worry that the Vietnamese will convert this into a full-scale tourist-exploitation system and break the ecosystem and destroy nature here which is what attracts people here in the very first place.
I have to come again, spring time, or in warmer climates, for sure! :-)

February 16, 2012

Hanoi, crossing the street

Filed under: ¿Pero qué coño?, Hanoi, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , — jesus @ 06:14

If you guys have been to Vietnam, you’ll know that traffic is chaotic and that there doesn’t seem to exist any kind of traffic rule.

Well, the rule for crossing the street among the millions of scooters passing by is just walk, at a steady pace and don’t stop. They’ll see you and they’ll avoid you. Sounds scary, but it’s easier than it looks like.

An example:

Images from Hanoi

Hanoi 2

Hanoi 4

Hanoi 8
street eating

Hanoi 10

Hanoi 13


Hanoi 23

Hanoi 26

Hanoi's Water puppets II
The famous Water puppets!

Hanoi traffic II
Crazy Traffic

Hanoi traffic IV
More Crazy Traffic

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Hanoi 37

Hanoi 39
Street eating II

Noisy, alive, chaotic, commercial, Hanoi won’t leave you indifferent. Rich with street food, dangerous for the driving, crossing its roads is an interesting experience. Will come back.

China after China

Filed under: China, Places, Travel — Tags: , , , , — jesus @ 05:21

So, I don’t really know why I chose to visit China in the very first place. I was mildly interested in it, but never had a massive interest in it. Maybe because my friend Pablo went there in March last year and he liked it. Maybe because it’s an exotic location which doesn’t see as many tourists as other places.

The fact is that I chose Hong Kong as the first destination in Asia (not having been in Asia before) so that my first experience would be a bit westernised and I wouldn’t suffer too much from the cultural shock. But going to China 5 days later was a big shock for me. Probably in a good and bad way. In hindsight, I think I should have visited other Asian countries which allow an easier entry than China before visiting China. The language barrier (buying train tickets is kind of a mission), the people staring at you and the customs and way the Chinese behave was a bit too much as a first option in the Asian continent. Still, I don’t regret it.

Will I come back? Yes, maybe. I don’t feel an urgency to come back, to be honest, but I know I’d like to be back at some point. But with somebody else. Having someone with you with whom you can share the good and the bad moments is good in a country where you can feel totally isolated, so that there’s a way to vent your frustration or laugh at it. I’ve had days in which I haven’t seen other westerner and haven’t interacted with people who were able to speak even a basic English.

I can’t really imagine what going to a more isolated country must be. Think Africa, for example, or India. Mind blowing probably.

Anyway, good experience, a bit too tough for me being a novice traveller in far-away countries. Will get better at this :-)

February 15, 2012

From China to Vietnam

I’m typing this sitting on a soft sleeper train, in the dark, on my way to Hanoi while a chinese guy is snoring next to me, as it’s 20:44 and I definitely don’t feel like I want/can sleep. Today is January 2nd. (yeah, I know, this is late)

My time in China is over and my Vietnamese visa started on the 1st of January for 30 days.

From Guilin there are different ways by which you can get into Vietnam. There’s obviously the airline possibility, but it’s always more
expensive and probably you have to fly via Guangzhou, so not really a feasible option. The other two options you have from Guilin is a night bus (I don’t know if there are sleeper buses for this) that takes 12 hours and an overnight train that departs from Nanning at 18:45 and takes 12 hours. I ended up choosing this last option because I hate buses (they make me feel sick) and I try to avoid them like the plague when I can.

Regarding these transportation means, there are sleeper buses. Think of them as normal busses where they have removed all the seats and all the decency and have put as many bunk beds as possible, leaving almost no headroom for you. And, of course, they come in Chinese sizes, so if you are tall, you are going to have a bit of a problem fitting in!  I have never seen these kind of buses in Europe.

Then, the trains here come in two varieties, well, they have two different cabins, to be precise: soft sleepers and hard sleepers. The difference is in comfort and number of people in each compartment.  The hard sleeper has 6 bunk beds and they have no door, just a curtain (and from what I’ve seen they have the light always on). The soft sleeper compartment has 4 bunk beds and a door that you can close. I paid 248 Yuan for the trip from Nanning to Hanoi, which is approximately £25, not bad.

In order to get to Nanning I took this morning a 5 hour ordinary train to Nanning. It was fully packed and the guy sat next to me kept leaning on me while he was falling asleep. You don’t always get a Chinese dude falling asleep on you. Joy. The interesting thing I noticed on these trains is that they sell instant noodles all around the train so you can buy them if you are hungry and then go to a hot water tap at the end of each car  so that you can get them ready to eat. That’s very nice. What’s not that nice is that everybody smokes in the train despite being forbidden. Well, everybody smokes in China anyway.

It is a shame because I couldn’t take any pictures on this ordinary train (It was too packed). Also, I took one on the night train to Hanoi, but a guy who works for the train company came and told me that I can’t take pictures. Don’t know why.

The process to get into Vietnam includes one stop at the Chinese side of the border, clear immigration and getting your exiting stamp. This happens in the middle of the night at the Chinese border station, where you have to get out of the train. The funny thing is that it was foggy, and looked like a Russian movie, while Chinese border officers look at you funny.  After you’re done with this, you wait there for around 45 minutes while they change locomotives or something, and then the train moves a bit more for half and hour to stop at the Vietnamese side of the border. Rinse, clean, repeat… The same operation here, the same looks at you, except that with different   uniforms, and a bit more interesting. Same same, but different different.

You know, the train stops, in the middle of nowhere, and they ask you to get out of the train. Same thing as with the Chinese. But hang on a minute, it’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere, and it’s dark, like, literally nothing. So, here we go, a guy guides us in the dark with a torch into a building where there’s no electricity. Interesting as it might look, it seems a bit confusing, and scary. A lot of people are waiting there too, all of them Vietnamese and Chinese. Only a handful of westerners, all with the same poker face. Nobody tells us what to do so we wait. 10 minutes later, electricity comes back and we see that the place actually looks like a Vietnamese border office, but nothing compared to the Chinese border. More decrepit.

Now, this is the funny part. A drunk Vietnamese officer asks us to give him our passports. Drunk because you could smell the alcohol in his breath and feel that he was drunk. It got even more interesting 10 minutes later when he came back with a bunch of passports, giving them back to people, but using a young Vietnamese girl to dispatch them, at the same time he’s joking around with her. He’s handing them in to this girl and  telling her (and other people) things which apparently are funny as she’s giggling and everybody is laughing. Everybody except us westerners, of course, as we don’t understand a fucking word of what he’s saying in Vietnamese.

After a while, he grabs my passport, opens it and tries to read my name, which he can’t, and then says something in Vietnamese, to which everybody in the room laughs. Nice, I’m being laughed at, at the Vietnamese border, by some random officer who’s too drunk to read my name. But at least I got my passport, stamped.

It got a bit worse with Laura, a girl from Scotland who was traveling on this train, when he tried to read her full name in her passport. He couldn’t, the Vietnamese girl he was giving the passport to couldn’t either, and then, after asking me and Laura to say aloud her name, he refused to give it to her and took it back to the office. All while Laura was looking at him astonished. A bit silly, and a bit scary at the same time, as the dude was drunk, and we didn’t know what he was saying.

In the end, this dude repeated this prank 3 times and finally Laura was able to grab her passport off his hand, at which point we  quickly run to the train for our final leg of our China to Vietnam trip. All good so far.

Arriving at 5 in the morning in Hanoi, Laura, Dennis (Laura’s bf) and me jumped on a taxi whose driver asked us to pay him a fixed $20 flat rate to get us to our hostel. We told him to use the meter as $20 sounded like a complete rip-off (We had done our homework). 20 minutes later we arrived to our hotel and final fare was $7.5.

Welcome to Vietnam, where everybody will be trying to get money off you!


Filed under: China, Guilin, Places, Travel — Tags: , , , , , — jesus @ 17:42

Yangshou is this little town south of Guilin which is famous because of its fantastic landscapes, the Li river and because it’s a climbers’ paradise.

Yangshou 2

To get there you can take a bus that takes 1 hour and a half. Or you can get a tour through the Li River, which is what I did. With this they pick you up from your hostel, drive for like an hour and then you get on a bamboo boat for another hour, then another bus to Yangshou. Well, actually it’s not a real bamboo boat, it’s one made of plastic I think which imitates the original one, but this has now become a big business and these are safer and better.

Yangshou 4

Bamboo boats

Yangshou 6

The trip goes down the Li River through a fantastic landscape, with weird peaks along the way. They appear on the 20 Yuan notes and are famous for this. Again, come visit in spring time or summer, I’m sure it’s way more beautiful than now.

Yangshou 7
You see lots of boats across the river, with friendly people on them

Boat drivers exchange money!

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It wouldn’t be a total Chinese experience if it didn’t stop in the middle of the itinerary where a bunch of locals are awaiting you trying to sell you absolutely everything. From fruits, to fried fish, etc. So you stop for a bit, and while you try a bit of that food, you wonder how it must look in better weather, when everything is green and good.

Yangshou 14

Finally, you get to a small village and then grab another bus to Yangshou, where you try to find accommodation for the night.

Yangshou is not very big, and it’s very very touristy. This is an understatement. It has one street, west street, full of souvenir shops and bars. In the souvenir shops they sell everything overpriced (4 times more expensive or more, so they say) and in the bars, they play the music very very loud everywhere, while many of them have locals singing songs in Chinese. Finding a place to have a beer and be able to talk to people is a bit of a mission.

West street

The man you can trust

Yangshou at night II

The one thing that really annoyed my about this town was that it’s not really prepared for winter, or for cold temperatures for that matter. The temperature here dropped to 7/8 degrees Celsius which is not that cold in absolute terms, but because it’s very humid you get a nasty cold feeling. Also, it doesn’t help that almost every room lacks central heating (or if does have a heater, it’s not enough to warm the room, let alone the bathroom). So you end up in a place where you are shivering constantly. Oh well, cheap accommodation.

But the most interesting part of Yanghou are its surroundings, and the best way to discover these, is by renting a bike and cycle away on your own. Again, you have to bargain hard here to get a decent price.

Yangshou 30

If you rent a bike, there are a few bike paths that you can use. These go along the river, through really beautiful landscapes and remote villages. The only problem is that there are constructions everywhere. It seems the Chinese are exploiting this to the maximum and there are houses almost everywhere (or construction sites for future hotels),
which kind of spoils the whole landscape. You can get to some really nice places however, where you get to random villages. Again, it was kind of rainy and cloudy and very very cold, so it didn’t feel really nice biking. But it’s one of these places that must feel absolutely awesome during sunset and sunrise, when the light is that way.

Yangshou 32


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Bamboo boats on a truck

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Biking and traffic is interesting in Yangshou, well in China in general. To say that it’s chaotic is not to say much. It all seems like there are no rules, and that the natural order or preference prevails. When I say natural order I, of course, mean that the bigger your vehicle is the more you can do whatever you want. So, this means Lorries, Busses, Cars, motorbikes/mopeds, pedestrians.

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Lady cycling

I’ve seen about everything, from reversing a bulldozer, not looking backwards at the same time the guy is on the phone, to cars going in the wrong way on a main road. Turns and stop wherever you want, etc, you name it.

Apart from this, there are a few other interesting things you can do here:

Moon Hill

Now, this is funny, because you have to pay like 15 yuan to get into this place and climb to the top. Just when you’ve arrived you’ll be assaulted by a group of local farmer ladies who will ask you to give them 2 yuan. What they’ll give you in return, it seems, is to show you a path to the moon hill. But all they show you is a broken piece of the fence of the perimeter around Moon Hill so that you can jump it and get into it without having to pay the official 15 yuan. Cheeky. The problem with this is that the guards know about this and they usually patrol the area preventing people to get in…

The Moon Hill

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The view from the Moon Hill

Anyway, there’s a pretty steep climb using stairs to the top of the mountain where, when you get there out of breath, you’ll be assaulted again by other farmer ladies trying to sell you postcards or water.

Farmer Lady I

Farmer Lady II

As you see, this is like a mafia, they have the farmer ladies everywhere… Just joking, they are nice and they are only trying to earn a bit of money!

strawberry picking

This area is full of strawberry fields where you can either buy them directly from he farmer or just go and pick them yourself. The interesting thing about this is their taste. Very very sweet and quite different from the ones I’ve had in Europe. Really.


The boy and the sugar cane
Boy with sugar cane

Hot Spring and Water Cave

I went here on a day that was raining miserably. It’s actually a cave, very similar to the reed flute cave, illuminated in the same way, but it has a mud bath section (cold water, only opened in summer) and a hot spring, where you can get into and stay between 30 minutes to 1 hour. Nothing really exciting here unless you consider this exotic, but it looks kind of tacky and touristy.

Street vendor

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Steamed bread
Amazing red bean steamed bread. Yummy!

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