Author Archives: richandalice

Freezing in Hawaii While Chasing the Milky Way

Yes, yes, it’s wonderfully warm and tropical here all the time… at sea level. The Big Island is built out of 5 volcanoes: 3 active (Kilauea, Hualalai, and Mauna Loa), one extinct (Kohala), and one dormant (Mauna Kea, recently compressed into a single word, Maunakea). The two “Maunas” are nearly identical in height:13,800′ or 4200 m. That’s a fine altitude at which to build observatories, above 40% of the atmosphere and almost all of the water vapor. (Water is great for taking showers but a major impediment to infrared- and millimeter-wavelength astronomy). Since Mauna Loa is an active volcano, it would be a little foolhardy to build a telescope there, leaving Maunkea as the premier astronomical observing site on the planet. Observatories have sprouted there like mushrooms, to the increasing distress of the local population who see them as desecrating the mountain.

All of which is a lead-in to the fact that Maunakea is a great place for stargazing… the very greatest, in fact, at least to a professional astronomer. (I did my postdoc there in the early 1980’s.) For the more casual observer, it can be challenging: winds can be high, and the higher you go, the colder you get. Fun fact: on average, temperature decreases by 6 degrees Celsius per kilometer in height, which for the non-metric among you translates into 1 degree Fahrenheit per 300′ in height. So you expect the summit to be about 50 degrees F colder than the beach, and trust me, it is.

And that is why at 4 AM today I was freezing my okole (the Hawaiian word for butt) in order to get these two photos of the Milky Way.

I hired local photographer Don Slocum, whom I’ve known for a couple of years and who for my money is the best photographer on the Big Island. (See his website: http://www.donslocum.com/) He’s got a four wheel drive pickup truck and knows several good off-road spots on the slope of Maunkea, at an elevation of about 9000′ (2700 m) to get shots like these. (The road to the 4200 m summit is closed off after sunset so that visitors do not interfere with the telescopes.) We set up our respective gear in the wee hours in temperatures that were slightly above freezing, in a 20 mph wind, and miserably enjoyed ourselves for about an hour and a half to get these shots.

The bright object just above the edge of the foreground hill is Jupiter. The dark clouds adjacent to the brightest part of the Milky Way are not earthly clouds but actually clouds of interstellar dust that obscure the central, star-dense core of our Galaxy. Many of them are stellar nurseries, hotbeds of star formation. I have spent literally years of my life peering into them with radio and infrared telescopes, and seeing them in a photo like this — especially one that I shot — still gives me a thrill.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Down in the Valley, Big Island Style

We’re back in Hawaii for our annual escape-the-winter sojourn, and we returned today to one of our regular stops on our “ferry around our visitors” circuit.

One of the iconic images of the Big Island is the overlook at Waipi’o Valley (the name means “curved water”) near the northern end of the island. You’ve seen it on any number of postcards, and here’s how it looked today.

Those cliffs across the way rise to 2000′ (600 m) above the valley floor and its black sand beach; you can hike the ridiculously steep road down to the bottom but unless you’re a fitness freak or a masochist you will hitchhike back to the top. (In my salad days, 35 years ago, I walked that road up and down a number of times. Not the craziest thing I’ve ever done but it’s definitely on the list.) More about the road shortly.

Waipi’o was the capital and residence of many of the early Hawaiian chiefs for the first few centuries after the islands were settled from Polynesia. It became less central in the 15th century but has always been an important farming area for the locals: avocado, guava, and most importantly taro. Here’s a taro farm in the valley.

When I lived in on the island in the early 1980’s there were — and still are — only a few dozen residents in the valley, almost all living without electricity. At the time you could divide most of them into three categories: farmers (mostly taro), marijuana growers (the Hawaiian word is pakololo), and crazy-eyed Vietnam veterans retreating from the world. There aren’t any Vietnam veterans left, but the taro farmers are going great guns; I don’t know about the pakololo growers. (Hawaii has a medical marijuana law.) But farming can be a risky business: although the valley is ridiculously fertile, a tsunami sends a (literal) wave of ocean (i.e. salt) water up along the length, essentially poisoning the soil for ten years at a time. This has happened in 1946 and 1960.

There is also a lot more tourism into the valley than there was 35 years ago; there are a couple of companies operating four wheel drive tours of the place, which is how we got down here today. That is far and away the best way to see it, since half the land is private and the road down is a recipe for disaster for the inexperienced 4WD driver. Take a look at this picture from the valley floor, looking up towards the hillside:

Look at that seeming slash in the hillside, pointing to the upper left from about one-quarter of the way up the middle palm tree. That’s the road, the steepest public road in the United States. It has an average grade of 25%, and the steepest part is 33%. From inside a vehicle, a 33% downhill grade looks like you’re driving straight down a cliff, which you more or less are. The road is only about 1 1/2 vehicles wide, very poorly paved, and sporting a guardrail that is best described as decorative. Uphill vehicles have the right of way, and an elaborate vehicular minuet ensues when a descending vehicle meets an ascending one. The real fun happens — and we actually saw this — when a naive first-timer in a rented Jeep gets halfway down the road, realizes belatedly that he has bitten off way more than he can chew…. and tries do to a U-turn to get back up. That is to say, he tries to turn around on a road whose width is more or less equal to the length of his vehicle, with a vertical wall on one side and 500 foot drop on the other, waiting for him to make a mistake.

We, happily, made it to the bottom without incident thanks to our very experienced tour guide, and we repeatedly forded the Wailoa river as we made our way towards the back of the valley. Here are a couple of scenes for context.

 

The tree in the upper photo is a monkeypod, which is actually of African origin. But see the waterfall in the distance at the far left of the panorama? Here’s a better view:

That is Hiilawe Falls, at about 1200 ft (350 m) the tallest waterfall in the state of Hawaii. (There is some dispute about its height, with some claiming something like 1500 feet.) The flow used to be bigger but has been reduced due to some upstream irrigation.

If you’re inclined to rough it, you could live pretty well and far off the grid down here. The Wailoa river has fish — in particular tilapia, which are not native to Hawaii but which escaped into the wild and are now plentiful. There are a number of underground springs providing fresh water, though you’d have to know which ones are infected with leptospirosis, which is a bacterium found in infected animal urine. And of course there is an abundance of fruit and taro. So your daily routine would involve scenes like the ones above and this one.

It’s all very idyllic-seeming, and back in the 1980’s I actually knew a pair of biologists (graduate students) who lived here, and whom I occasionally stayed with. They loved it down there, occasionally venturing up the cliff side into town in a rusted-out 1961 Jeep that didn’t have a second gear. When they left the island to finish their degrees they sold me the Jeep. A year or two later when I left the island, I in turn sold it to a local stoner who was altogether unsure what day of the week it was but was quite certain that it would serve him well in his own pakololo-related adventures. He offered to trade a kilo of local weed for it, which was more than fair, but I took $300 in cash instead and avoided eventual arrest.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Things Are Looking Down: The Show

The title could well be a comment on the current state of American and international affairs, but — accurate though it may be — is in this case the title of my first solo photography show at an actual art gallery.  I first posted about it here almost exactly a year ago (on January 19, 2019 to be exact) shortly after I was offered the show, and now it has come to pass.

Readers of this blog come from over a dozen countries; realistically, only readers local to me (near Annapolis, Maryland) might visit the exhibit, so I am hereby saving you enormous expense and inconvenience by posting the photos here.

The title of the show comes from the fact that it comprises entirely drone photos, a medium I’ve gotten heavily into over the past two years and which now heavily influences my travel photography. You’ve seen quite a few of these already in previous blog posts. So here I am with my ego on full display:

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…and here is a panorama of part of the gallery, shortly after we finished hanging the photos. (You can see some debris on the left, plus a glimpse through the doorway of more photos hanging out in the hallway.) At the right hand edge of the panorama you can see a blue video screen; it plays a continuous 8-minute loop of short video clips from some of my drone flights.

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And here is a 4 1/2-minute video walkthrough of the show itself:

There are 29 images in all, all printed on metal (aluminum with a semi-gloss finish): 10 from the local area, 8 from Hawaii, and 11 from Iceland. And here they are, in convenient scroll-able form:

Hawaii

EotW Aerial 3

Big Island: “End of the World” near Kona

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Big Island kayakers

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A raft of kayaks

Upolu Point 0973

Upolu Point windmill, northernmost point of the Big Island

Waipio Pano

Waipi’o Valley, Big Island

Kealakekua Pano

Kealakekua Bay Marine Reserve and Captain Cook Memorial, Big Island

Hapuna Beach Pano

Hapuna Beach on the Kona coast of the Big Island

Koko Head Drone 2019-24-Edit

Hanauma Bay, most popular snorkeling spot on Oahu, not far from Honolulu

Iceland

092-Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-017-Edit

Unusual clear skies on the northeast part of the Ring Road

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-026

Nearby snowcapped hills in September

Blue River Iceland

A river blue with suspended silica. This photo won an Honorable Mention in the Washington Post 2019 Travel Photography Contest

109-Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-009

Same river, looking downstream towards the Arctic Ocean

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 011

Same river, looking upstream and catching the glint form the sun

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-012-Edit

Fjords at low tide at Borgarnes

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

Highway crossing the Borgarnes fjord

Iceland Myvatn Cinder Cone Drone-002-Edit

The Hverfjall cinder cone, nearly 400 m (1300′) high

Iceland Myvatn Pseudocraters Drone-02

“Pseudocraters”, actually huge popped lava bubbles, at Lake Myvatn

Iceland Vatanjokull Glacier Drone 01

Face and tongue of icemelt of the Vatnajokull Glacier

Iceland Terrain Drone 2018-001-Edit

A lonely road in eastern Iceland

Annapolis and Environs

Annapolis 2018-07

Downtown Annapolis, looking west. The complex on the right is the US Naval Academy.

Annapolis 2018-05

Downtown Annapolis, looking east towards the Chesapeake Bay

Vertical Marina

One of the many marinas in or near downtown Annapolis

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Snowy farm near sunset, about 5 km from home

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Snowy farmhouse

Davidsonville Snow Fields 028

Snow-covered field, with a little Impressionism applied

Drone Triton Beach-2

Beverly Triton Beach, on the Chesapeake Bay

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An ice-clogged estuary at Kent Narrows, at the northern end of the Chesapeake

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More ice at Kent Narrows

Kent Island Snooze

Southern end of Kent Island near the northern end of the Chesapeake, an area called “Hollicut’s Snooze” for some odd historical reason having nothing to do with taking a nap

That’s the entire show, in digital form. Our next outing will be a tornado-chasing expedition will be to the Texas-Oklahoma border in mid-May. Our hope is to find a twister and get close enough for some exciting photography while remaining far enough away to avoid too much excitement. If we’re successful you’ll see the results here.

Categories: Hawaii, Iceland, US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Vietnam and Hong Kong: A Pile O’ Pictures

As you already know or have figured out, photography is quite important to me when we travel. So here is the set of Flickr albums that, collectively, have all of the selected and edited photos from the trip. There are roughly 600 photos in total, divided among a dozen albums that more or less reflect the chronological order of the trip. Just click on the name to open a tab with the photo album.

I will also at some point be posting some of these on my photo sales website which you are of course welcome to visit if you are interested in prints and such (or just to look).

FYI I also have a YouTube channel where I’ve posted most of the short videos that appeared in the blog post, to which I will likely add.

Categories: Hong Kong, Vietnam | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Vietnam: Random Stuff That I Forgot About Earlier

I always think of stuff that I should have written about a couple of days after I publish a blog post. So now I have collected several of them from various stops in our trip, and will dump them on you all at once. Starting with the observation that Vietnamese seem to eschew carpeting: every floor surface, everywhere, seemed to be tile, especially tile with the same coefficient of friction as Teflon or black ice. Which makes walking around after you get out of the shower a disaster waiting to happen; I would be interested to know how many deaths and serious injuries are incurred by falls at home in Vietnam, compared with some arbitrary other country.  Raising the danger into the stratosphere is the fact that bathtubs are influenced by French interior design: tub walls are very high, much higher than in American tubs. If there are no grab bars present — and they’re usually not — then you’d better have some training with Cirque du Soleil before climbing out of the tub, or you are facing doom.

Just wanted to get that off my chest. Some more geographically-specific items:

  • Nha Trang is a Navy town because of the Cam Ranh Bay naval base, sort of like San Diego in its way. (And like San Diego, it is a big tourism and resort town as well.) Unlike San Diego, however, the residents — and this includes unsuspecting tourists staying in high-rise hotels — are awakened at 5:30 AM every morning by Reveille being played over loudspeakers in the street. (Well, not exactly Reveille but close enough: it’s a military fanfare played on a bugle.) Seriously people, I am not only not on duty, I am paying money to be here. Could you please let me sleep?
  • Saigon, of course, was the last outpost of the American-backed government, and fell to the Communists in April 1975. It is likely that you have seen this photo of the last helicopter leaving town, taking off from the roof of a nondescript office building that, not at all coincidentally, was a CIA command post.

Well, the neighborhood has changed a wee bit since then, so here’s that same building today:

No skyscrapers in 1975 Saigon!

  • Hoi An is where I ate silkworms for the first — and I assure you only — time in my life. The skin kind kind of pops a little bit and then they are squooshy. That cringey feeling that you are now experiencing is about right.
  • Major cities have a ride-share service called Grab. You use your phone app to call for a ride, and you can also use it to deliver food from participating restaurants. You would call this Uber and Uber Eats. In Vietnam it is called Grab and Grab Food. Oh, and I should probably mention one other difference besides the name. Here are the vehicles and the drivers:

…and that about wraps up Vietnam for us. Tomorrow I’ll put up a final post with Flickr links (just images, no words) if you are interested in seeing a larger set of photos than appeared here in my blog posts.

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Cu Chi Cu Chi Cool

If you are old enough to remember the war, you may recall that the region near Saigon was bedeviled by the ease with which the Viet Cong were able to move around and disappear from sight via a network of tunnels. The largest and most elaborate of these by far was the Cu Chi tunnel network, only about 20 miles from the outskirts from Saigon. Total length of the tunnels in the complex was, amazingly, close to 100 miles, which as you might suppose took some time to accomplish; the work began years before the Americans showed up, when the French were the bad guys. (And make no mistake: they were.) The tunnels were built in an elaborate multi-level structure to protect against bombing, flooding, and gas attacks; the Americans and others knew about them but their architecture and extent were so elaborate that despite deliberate flooding and gas attacks, large sections remained intact and operational.

Life in the tunnels was claustrophobic, dark, badly disease-ridden, literally suffocating, and generally exceedingly nasty.  Air was supplied through vents poking up to the surface, disguised as anthills and termite mounds. And surface exits were very well disguised trapdoors. Here’s our tunnel guide doing a disappearing act; he popped up again through another trapdoor about 100 feet away.

And here I am following him because, well, that’s what we’re here for, right?

It was rough going down there, strictly hands-and-knees territory. There were side branches into rooms that variously held supplies or medical facilities at the time. But it was all very primitive, dark, and grungy. It is amazing that thousands fighters spent long stretches of time down there; injured fighters requiring extended medical care could be underground for months. At any given time half the tunnel denizens had malaria and 100% had intestinal parasites.

Some of the tunnels were less cramped than others, and these have been tourist-ized — lit, dried out, and the floor sort of semi-paved — so that everyone could get through without a debilitating amount of crouching or crawling. Here’s Alice emerging from one section.

The region around the tunnels was heavily booby-trapped during the war, and a display area at the tunnel exit contained some samples of these, mostly trapdoors in the ground in the form of disguised rotating or swinging panels that dumped you onto assorted kinds of extreme pointy nastiness. The idea was not to kill, but rather to maim, thereby not only taking the combatant out of action but forcing the enemy army to spend time and resources taking care of him.

So not your typical tourist attraction. And in keeping with the surreal theme, once you exit the tunnel areas you can buy ammunition and rent various weapons to vent your frustration at a nearby shooting range: M-16’s, AK-47’s, and heavier stuff as well so you can get all that pent-up hostility out of your system in a big way. (I can imagine “Build Your Own Booby Trap” workshops as well, but they don’t actually have that.)

Speaking of catharsis, our visit to the tunnels was followed by lunch with two former Viet Cong officers, a major and a captain, at the major’s beautiful home. (He is now in charge of veterans’ affairs in this part of the country.) Neither spoke English; our tour lead Phil interpreted.

Both readily answered questions, the most obvious one being “Aren’t you, like, pissed off?” But they aren’t, which may not be too surprising since they both ended up in very comfortable situations. But the major (on the right) has a son who was disabled by exposure to Agent Orange, and if he is bitter he is hiding it well. He stated (through translation) that they weren’t looking for regret or apologies; they were looking for science and technology, and medicine, and tourists, and investment. All very politically correct, but no doubt true as well.

We had three veterans in our tour group, though only one of them was at this lunch (the guy in blue at the end of the table in the above photo). And at the end of the afternoon, as we shook hands with our hosts, this is what he and the major did:

I asked Phil later about this and other war-related personal encounters. In keeping with OAT’s cultural immersion orientation, we met a number of former Viet Cong and South Vietnamese fighters on this trip, and the meetings were all “kumbaya moments” of one sort or another, all sincere I’m sure, but nonetheless planting a seed of skepticism in my cynical soul. So I laid it out to Phil: we killed roughly a million Vietnamese and basically laid waste to the country for a dozen years. Surely there must be a significant contingent of locals out there who, speaking honestly, would say, “Yeah, Americans killed half my family, and I hope you all die.”

Phil’s answer was enlightening. He agreed that yes, surely there are still some Vietnamese that feel that way. But Americans were only here for a dozen years and despite all the violence that happened during that time people feel that we were basically a historical blip in the grand scheme of things. Before the Americans there were the French (for a century!), and before them there were the Chinese, and before them there were, well, each other. There has long been significant enmity between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam; the relationship mirrors in several eerie ways that between the American north and south, with the latitudes reversed. Southern Vietnam is much more economically developed, technologically advanced, and outward looking; they view the north as backwards, and the people as yokels. There is even a distinct northern regional accent which when heard in the south marks you as the Vietnamese equivalent of a redneck. Phil cited all this, and said it was a civil war, one that had been going on for centuries and which in some ways — very low-key, and without the shooting — continues today. The Americans made it worse, everyone felt, but in the end they were just part of the mix that was a much larger and longer conflict. Which in the end makes it much easier for them to forgive us; better to forget the whole thing and get America to help Vietnam move forward. And if that actually happens — which it seems to be doing, at least in some areas — then those officially-counted 58,220 American deaths might possibly have been worth something after all.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Mekong Delta

We have been home for exactly three weeks as I write this, and I still have a couple of Vietnam destinations’ worth of blog posts in my notes. Normally I try and write these up while we are still in country, but time and energy levels did not really allow that, so these are all rather after the fact. But hey, I’m here, you’re here, so let’s go.

The Mekong Delta is sort of the Amazon Basin of Vietnam, a network of rivers that collectively create a cauldron of biodiversity. It was the scene of an enormous amount of bloody fighting during the war but is now a placid center of agriculture, fishing, and tourism. And coconuts. They are very big on coconuts there. In fact, the Mekong used to be home to the Coconut Religion, which I swear I am not making up. Adherents to the Coconut Religion — who counted John Steinbeck’s son among their number — advocated eating only coconuts and consuming only coconut milk. The religion, such as it was, was founded in 1963 and even at its peak numbered a paltry 4,000 followers. The authorities declared it a cult and banned it in 1975, possibly out of envy upon learning that Coconut Religion monks were allowed to have up to nine wives. (Historical note: 1975 is the year that Saigon fell and the country was reunified under the Communists. You might think that both sides had more important things to worry about that year, but somebody obviously was all hot and bothered about those priapic coconut cultists.)

Anyway, wives are more parsimoniously distributed these days, but the area is still big on coconuts. We visited a coconut candy factory: here is a photo of some gainfully employed but presumably very bored women, hand wrapping coconut candies all day long.

“Keep wrapping. We’ve still got to make 5,000 Almond Joy bars by sundown.”

 

(It would appear that this was Bring Your Child to Work day.) The machines in the background mix the mix up the coconut goop from which the candies are fashioned; everything is done by hand.

I should mention how we came to this place, which was via a pleasant boat ride on the Mekong River.

The lower boat is a cargo boat, not our little tourist barge. Note the traditional eyes painted on the prow.

You will be unsurprised to hear that adjacent to the coconut candy station was a gift shop, where pretty much everything was made out of or otherwise related to coconuts. The one exception to this were the whiskey bottles with the dead cobras and scorpions added to impart that certain je ne sais quoi venomous flavor.

Yep, they poured us samples into those shot glasses. Yep, we drank them. At this point you are no doubt wanting to ask, “OK Rich, how does Dead Cobra Whiskey taste, compared to the usual “reptile-corpse-free” whiskey?” And the disappointing answer is, that I have no idea. I am almost a complete teetotaler; I don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol and can barely — if at all — tell the difference between rotgut rum and single-malt Scotch. To me, all whiskey tastes like it has a dead snake in it, so there was nothing unusual about this stuff. Sorry.

Flushed with the warm glow of alcohol-infused snake venom, we bid our coconut enthusiasts goodbye and traveled a short distance via golf-cart-like shuttles to listen to a short performance from some local traditional folk singers. Here’s an excerpt, about 1 1/2 minutes long.

I call your attention to the women’s voices in particular, which they pitch to a high chanting timbre. You can hear the effect quite clearly starting with the solo performance about 45 seconds into the video. It appears to be quite typical; we heard a number of such performances throughout the trip, and the women usually song in that high, almost whining warble. I confess that neither Alice nor I find it particularly pleasant; you may feel differently.

I have mentioned in an earlier post that we seem to be experiencing quite the diversity of transportation modes on this. We can add sampans to that list, since that was our next means of travel after the singing concluded. A sampan by definition is a small flat-bottomed boat used on inland waters. Here in the Delta they’ve been weaponized as a means of assembly-line tourism, as we lined up, four at a time, to take about a quarter-mile trip down the river.

The woman in purple, our gondolier (so to speak), you would suppose would work quite hard to paddle people that quarter or half mile, a zillion times a day. And that is doubtless true, up to a point. But is there something you cannot see in the photos. In the bottom photo, hidden beneath the woman’s feet inside the hull of the boat, is a motor, which she turns on to power the boat back upstream after dropping us off. So it’s all a little, um, Disney World-ish. The boats are real enough, the motive power a little more modern than anyone lets on.

We returned to Saigon in the late afternoon and rested for an hour or two before climbing aboard our next transport device: Vespa motor scooters, for a nighttime tour of the city. The Vespas are slightly less throaty and rumbly than our earlier motorbikes, but the adrenaline rush of zipping through nighttime traffic in Saigon no less satisfying. Here’s Alice (red jacket and white helmet at left) behind her driver in typical Saigon traffic chaos.

Down main thoroughfares, and through alleys we putt-putted. Our first stop was a very-local-indeed seafood restaurant in an alley, a sea of formica tables amidst a hubbub of locals, where among other dishes we dined on squid beak. (Spoiler alert: it tastes like calamari.) I am also proud to report that it was in this venue that I won a chopstick-handling contest among our travel group, by transferring 15 spheroidal garlic-coated peanuts into a bowl in 20 seconds. Alice was a close second, but I am the one now in possession of the coveted Wooden Vespa, a nice little model about 8″ long that will no doubt end up in the hands of a grandchild in the near future.

Then it was on to Hồ Thị Kỷ Street, home to Saigon’s flower market…

…and a walk down an alley to try our handing at cooking a rice crepe over an coals. Not dropping the crepe into the coals is harder than it looks.

We ended the night with a drink on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower to get a panoramic view of the city, then a quick jaunt across the river to see the skyline.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Don’t Miss Saigon

“Saigon” means “cotton trees”, possibly referring to the kapok that used to grow in the area. Now, of course, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM, though the river that flows through it is still the Saigon River and people use the city’s two names interchangeably. By either name, it has 14 million people and looks like New York on motorbikes, only bigger. It’s a powerhouse of a city, the beating economic heart of Vietnam. Saigon’s GDP per capita is twice the national average, and its various industrial parks account for 25% of Vietnam’s entire GDP. This is not a city that you visit, it is a city that you plunge into.

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The view from our hotel balcony.  The spaceship-like building in the center is the tallest in Saigon.

We arrived at around 9:00 this morning after a short flight from Dalat and were immediately struck by the contrast with Hanoi. Saigon is very substantially and very obviously more modern, more Western-oriented, more orderly. (The drivers actually obey traffic signals here, at least most of the time, unlike everywhere else in the country.) Our hotel is right in the middle of District 1, the most upscale and busiest part of downtown; the streets around our hotel sport Dior, Louis Vuitton, and similar establishments.

But our first stop after arrival was a grim one, and of course a requirement for anyone coming to Saigon on an organized tour: the War Museum. (Technically, its name is the War Remnants Museum.) It is three stories of everything about the war, needless to say from the winner’s (i.e., Vietnamese) perspective.

Saigon IMG_9023-PanoYou might reasonably expect such a place to be a full-court propaganda press, but it’s much better than that, quite compelling and affecting. There is the required dose of propagandistic vocabulary and rhetoric — the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong are invariably “patriots” — but the displays for the most part let the facts speak for themselves: statistics on how many tons of bombs dropped, how many dead, and so forth, all copiously illustrated with photos and artifacts captioned in both Vietnamese and English. There is an entire room dedicated to the ravages of Agent Orange, particularly among children; I lasted about 10 seconds in there. There is a large gallery filled only with archival photos from well-known war photographers such as Robert Capa; there are many American weapons; and there is a gallery dedicated to documenting the American antiwar movement, including a lot of information about resistance among the American soldiers themselves. There is a replica of the infamous “tiger cages” where VC prisoners were held and tortured.

Saigon IMG_9038I was both impressed and moved. Unfortunately it all makes a very compelling case for how criminally stupid and cruel on a massive scale we as a nation behaved in that era.

More happily, the French influence on Saigon’s architecture is visible everywhere, and there are some very beautiful buildings. Among the more famous of these is the opera house and, unexpectedly, the Central Post Office. Here’s the former:

Saigon IMG_9060-Pano…and here’s the interior of the Post Office, which was built about 1890 and whose interior inexplicably resembles a train station (which it never was):

Saigon IMG_9048It’s a popular destination for visitors — people even get married there — so there’s a constant hubbub. You can see a souvenir marketplace in full swing in the foreground, with the actual post office counters at the back.

After a lunch of pho and some afternoon downtime at our hotel, punctuated by a ferocious thunderstorm and two-hour-long downpour, we went out to dinner and walked around the neighborhood with Phil. This included an amble through the conveniently located red light district, which is probably not part of OAT’s official itinerary. But it was well worth the diversion for its weird entertainment value. The area is a few square blocks, narrow streets full of restaurant and massage parlors with names like “Happy Spa”. The clientele is primarily visiting Japanese businessmen; there was quite a lot of Japanese signage. And the women were all clones, or so it seemed: every one had long straight hair, wore an ankle-length diaphanous dress in a monochromatic pastel shade, and sported voluminous pneumatic cleavage. At one point as we walked down a narrow back street, lit by Japanese lanterns fronting restaurants and “spas”, a phalanx of these women — at least 15 — came marching down toward and past us. It was like some shift change had happened and the clones were all going home, or maybe it was some kind of Macy’s parade, in either case displaying enough silicone to caulk every plumbing fixture in Vietnam. It was quite a sight, and I wish I could show you a photo of it, but taking a picture of them seemed like a really bad idea.

Tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta, and after we return we are scheduled to have a Vespa tour of the city at night. That should be a blast, at least if it doesn’t rain. It will also add to our list of “non-standard forms of transportation” that we have used on this trip. So far that list includes, in no particular order:

  • Funicular tram
  • Cable car/ski lift
  • Car ferry
  • Motor scooter
  • Tractor
  • Junk
  • Rickshaw
  • Dragon boat
  • Golf cart

Tomorrow we should add “sampan” and “Vespa” to the inventory.

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Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

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Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

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Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

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Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

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A Day in the Life, Vietnam Edition

Every OAT trip includes some kind of “day in the life” activity that attempts to give travelers a taste of what normal, non-touristic life is life in whatever country we happen to be in. These are unavoidably somewhat artificial (“Today’s activity will include contracting hepatitis while bathing in unfiltered sewage!”) but they do make an honest attempt given all the constraints of time, safety, etc. But we did pretty well yesterday, since our “day in the life” started with a big part of every Vietnamese’s life: getting somewhere on a motorbike. This was probably not the safest activity that OAT could have chosen for us — a couple of our group just straight-up refused to get on them — but it was probably the most fun one. So off we went in crazy city traffic…IMG_8716

IMG_8520That’s Alice in the red helmet at right.

IMG_8526We putt-putted and honked our way to the outskirts of the city, eventually making our way to the countryside, past rice paddies and temples.

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IMG_8593Our first stop was a place where guys hang out for hours, drinking and watching some entertainment. Your first thought is no doubt “bar” or “strip club”, but no, it wasn’t either of those. If you’re a Vietnamese city male, your go-to entertainment on a Sunday afternoon is the local….. bird cafe.

Say what?

Bird cafe. Songbirds are a very big deal here, in particular a type of bird called a bulbul, which is found throughout Asia but not in North America. It’s name is Persian for “nightingale” but it actually belongs to a different family. They sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars here, and at the bird cafes they hang in cages by the dozen, the staff moving them around from space to space to get them acclimated to their surroundings and keep them singing.

IMG_8534IMG_8536Notice all the guys in the lower photo, basically hanging around and staring at the birds. This goes on for hours. There are huge bulbul competitions, sometimes involving as many as 2,000 birds; they are judged on both appearance and the perseverance with which they keep singing. Hard to see this catching on the US. (“I’m heading out to the bird cafe to have a few glasses of lemongrass tea with the boys.” “Like hell. That’s the third night this week and I’m sick of picking feathers out of your clothes.”)

The next stop on our motorbike outing was the marketplace where, we were informed, we would have to go shopping for dinner. Phil gave us some money and a shopping list, and divided us into two teams: “Tiger”, and “Dragon”. I was the Dragon Leader, which is a title I have always coveted.

IMG_8575Various items were assigned to various people within the teams, but the catch was that we had to ask for all the items in Vietnamese. Remember what I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything correctly in Vietnamese? Now the linguistic rubber was about to meet the metaphorical road. My particular item was sugar, which in Vietnamese is Đường, which you pronounce by shooting yourself since you’ll never get it right. It’s sorta like doo-ong, except that the first syllable is spoken WAY down in your throat, and you glide into the second syllable all the way up top to your palate. Basically it’s the sound that a bullfrog makes, and I am proud to report that after three attempts Phil declared my pronunciation perfect. Off we went, me bullfrogging for all I was worth, and by golly we scored two plastic sacks full of sugar. Here’s more of our team in action, successfully buying a bag of limes.

IMG_8566Groceries in hand, we biked out to the countryside to a village where the headman was a former South Vietnamese paratrooper, Mr. Hoang. After the war he spent two years in a reeducation camp and was eventually fully “rehabilitated” into a position of responsibility in this small village.

IMG_8612He showed us around the village, which included a stop at a local family who derived their income from that most venerable and stereotypical craft, basket weaving. They put us to work. The head of this family was a former Viet Cong soldier.

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IMG_8624Then we went to Mr. Hoang’s house for lunch, where his wife put half of us to work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The other half of the group want out to the backyard to use that sugar we bought, along with limes and lemongrass, to mix up some drinks whose name I forget but which involved a whole lot of rum.

IMG_8628Drinks were poured and toasts were raised. The very first toast, in fact, was raised by the four men who actually fought in the war: Mr. Hoang and the three veterans in our travel group. That makes this a fairly remarkable gathering:

IMG_8633That toast drunk, more followed, with everyone getting into the act. Alice and I being teetotalers, our drinks were rum-free, but a couple of our group more than made up for our abstemiousness.

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Things got pretty happy, but everyone settled down for a lunch, which was of course yet another multi-course extravaganza. This one, though, was outdoors, in a shaded grove behind the house.

And then it was time to go. Hugs all around, especially among the vets, and everyone boarded the bus… except for me. Phil had cottoned to the fact that I am an adrenaline junkie — it may have been my look-ma-no-hands continuous camera-clicking from the back of the motorbike — and arranged for me to motorbike back the city instead of riding the bus. So I had my own personal tour of the back alleys, farms, graveyards, rice paddies, and other cool locales from my perch at the back of the bike.

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(The swastikas don’t mean what you think. They’re a very ancient Hindu symbol, appearing widely on temples and other structures throughout Asia. The Nazi corruption of the symbol came thousands of years later.)

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IMG_8684On we went, past the revolutionary statues in the city, back into the maw of traffic, and home again to our hotel. Helluva day!

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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