Vietnam

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Saigon IMG_9066

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.

Dalat IMG_8849

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

Dalat IMG_8854-Pano

Dalat IMG_8865

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.

Dalat IMG_8927

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.

IMG_8587

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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Russian to Nha Trang

We left Hoi An yesterday morning (Saturday Sep 28), heading back to Da Nang to pick up our flight to Nha Trang. But traffic was worse than our driver had anticipated and we were cutting it kind of close by the time we arrived at the airport. We felt pretty rushed to get checked in and through security, which is basically identical to the security at an American airport except that our Global Entry/TSA Precheck designation does us no good here. We made it to the gate just as boarding was starting.

Never heard of Nha Trang? That’s because you’re not a Russian tourist. It’s a big beach resort town, very popular with Russians. It’s also been a big deal since the war because it is the home of Cam Ranh Bay, considered to be the best sheltered deep water bay in Southeast Asia and thus the idea spot for a naval base. Indeed, one of the many specious justifications for the Vietnam War was that the US Navy must hold on to Cam Ranh Bay because otherwise the Russians would get it and hoo boy, pretty soon there’d be Russian amphibious craft landing at Waikiki.

Well, the Russians did get it and somehow neglected to take over the Pacific. They left several years ago and it’s now a Vietnamese naval base, which they are considering turning into a civilian facility to service international shipping traffic. This is actually a pretty canny move because the area undergoes continual encroachments by the Chinese navy, which as you may know has a lot of expansionist designs in the region. Chinese vessels harass and frequently sink Vietnamese fishing boats.

Anyway, Nha Trang is now a very modern-looking beach resort town with a lot of Russian signage. We are staying in the Yasaka hotel, a pretty nice high-rise that is actually owned by the Vietnamese government. That fact leads to a lot of stereotypical mental images and obvious jokes, but other than having somewhat mediocre food (we have gotten really spoiled on this trip) it’s perfectly comfortable, up to date, and attractive. Here’s the view from our room.

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Doesn’t exactly scream “Third World”, does it? Take away the mountains and it could be Miami Beach. The night scene is all glitzy neon along the beachfront hotels; there’s even a big casino.

Around 5 PM Phil convened the group for a cultural discussion, in particular a lesson about the plight of the so-called Amerasians, the children of American soldiers and local women, sired during the war. There are something like 77,000 of them and they did not have an easy time of it here. Utter social outcasts, 90% eventually emigrated to the US. Many tried to track down and contact their fathers but, this all having happened decades before DNA testing, only 6% succeeded.

Following this rather somber discussion, we hopped back onto our little bus (did I ever mention that there are 15 people in our group?) and headed out to a “street food” dinner. It was a large unadorned hall, very smoky because of the small charcoal hibachis at each table. Here’s the scene:

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The lower photo is part of our group: Dave, Karen, and Yvonne (who is getting smoke in her face). As you can see from what Karen and several people in the upper photo are doing, in the US you would call this either Korean barbecue or Japanese teppanyaki. Here they just call it barbecue. They brought us plates of vegetables, beef, tuna, calamari, and large prawns as well as rice and a couple of dipping sauces. Phil cautioned us not to undercook the food for reasons that do not need explaining. (Eating sushi around here would be a very high risk activity.) But it was fun, it was tasty, and it forced you to shower back at the hotel because you and your clothing smelled like smoke afterwards.

Rather than returning to the bus, we elected to walk back to to hotel, less than a mile away. That was a good choice: we cut through some small side streets to enjoy the sights of a food vendor…

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..a cafe…

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… and a funeral. Wait, what?

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Yes, a funeral. Or at least a wake. The seated guy in the back wearing the FILA teeshirt is playing a keyboard, and the people in the building are paying respects at a shrine honoring the deceased. It was quite the hubbub, and the music was pretty loud (there was a drum track going too); if Phil had not told us that it was a funeral, we would not have guessed.

The street cut through to the beach, which we followed back to the hotel. There were a number of groups having parties on the sand. The walkway itself was a palm tree-lined promenade that would past small open gathering areas that sported benches and even exercise machines. It could have been a night beach scene from anywhere, and it was doubly pleasant because the temperatures had dropped into the upper 70’s.

We got back to the hotel at about 9 PM and crashed. That ‘s good, because today was a long day, a “Day In The Life” as Phil called it, that included motorbike rides, cooking, and other local real-life activities. I’ll write about it in a day or two.

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The Language From Hell

OK, I have been grousing about the Vietnamese language for over a week now, so it is time to tell you something about it. Here are some important characteristics that make it next to impossible for a Westerner to master. In fact, as nearly as I can tell it is basically impossible for a Westerner to even get the basics right.

First, it is tonal like Chinese. Chinese has five tones (including the so-called neutral tone); Vietnamese has six. Some of these are readily apparent to the Western ear (by which I mean, me); others sound indistinguishable from one another, so right off the bat you’re in trouble. You can’t even hear the differences among the tones, let alone say them correctly. Each of the tones is represented by a particular accent mark.

Second, the variation in meaning associated with the differing tones is vast. You know about pho, the Vietnamese soup, which is actually ritten phở  and pronounced sorta, but only sorta, like “fuh”. (And note that last letter: it is an o with two accent marks. More on that in a moment.)  Do not confuse this soup with the word phò, which with its different accent (and only one them) over the means “bitch” or “hooker”.  It’s pronounced more like “faw”, with a tone going downward.

Third, the alphabet, though using Roman letters like our own, has 29 letters including eleven vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, o, ô, ơ, u, and ư. There is no F, J, K, or Z. Now at this point you may be thinking, “That’s not 11 vowels, it’s just the usual 5 plus some with accent marks for different tones.” Nope. Those accent marks are not the ones that indicate tones; they are a different set that differentiate separate vowel sounds rather than creating a “new” letter with a different appearance. You can apply an additional tonal accent mark to most of those vowels, as in phở as I mentioned above. In this case the last letter is the ơ from the list of vowels above (the 9th of 11); the little thingy that looks like a question mark on top of it is the tone indicator.

Because of the multiplicity of vowels and tones, there are words that can be pronounced eighteen slightly different ways, all with different meanings. We got a small taste of this during an impromptu language lesson that Phil delivered on the bus, which included a handout that listed the six possible tones and meanings of the word ma, to wit:

  • ma (ghost)
  • (mother or cheek)
  • (which, that)
  • mả (tomb)
  • (horse)
  • mạ (rice seedling)

Good luck with that. Phil read them off, had us practice, and then quizzed us. He’s a total sweetheart who always treats us with the greatest affection and respect, but even he couldn’t hold a straight face as we mangled the list; he actually burst out laughing at our pathetic pronunciation attempts. One implication is that those handy dandy phonetic “Common Words and Phrases” lists that you see in guidebooks are utterly useless; the odds of those phonetic lists guiding you to a successful enunciation of a desired Vietnamese word or phrase is essentially zero.

So how did this all come about? I mean, China is right next door so why doesn’t Vietnamese writing resemble Chinese? The answer is, that it used to. It was the missionaries (it’s always the missionaries, isn’t it?) who needed something that they could read to guide their pronunciation and be able to learn the language so that they could convert the heathens. The effort was spearheaded by Portuguese missionaries in the early 17th century, but it took a good 150 years before it broke out of clerical circles and came into wide use by the general population. By World War II it was the de facto official script. So in other words, it’s pretty recent, in general use only since the 1890’s or so.

The upshot of all this is that looking at all the signage on any Vietnam city street is to understand what severe dyslexia must feel like. You see all the letters and words in an alphabet that looks familiar, and your brain keeps involuntarily searching for recognizable words and syllables and coming up empty. Your brain, of course, does not know that the roots of all these almost-familiar letter combinations are in Chinese; it looks like there should be familiar words in there somewhere, but there aren’t. So far I have come across only three Vietnamese words that resemble their Indo-European counterparts, interestingly all of them beverages: bia (beer), trà (tea), and cà phê (coffee). That’s a pretty short list.

So the result for us is that, unlike on all of our previous exotic trips we will end this one exactly as we began it, linguistically, which is to say in complete ignorance. After ten days here, all I can say is xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you), and xin lỗi (sorry, pardon me), all of them so atrociously as to be barely recognizable to the locals. But it’s all good… we’ve been eating so well, and so much, on this trip that we can’t speak with our mouth full anyway.

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My Son

Actually I have two sons, both exceptionally fine human beings whom I love and am proud of beyond words.  But this post is not about either of them. In fact, it is not about anybody’s son. It’s about a place called Mỹ Sơn, written with all those accent marks that make Vietnamese a special kind of nightmare. I just left the accent marks out of the title so I could have a moderately clever opening line. (And at some point down the line I am going to write a post about the Vietnamese language, which is an utter beast.)

Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a complex of temples and other buildings created between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Champa people, whom you have very likely never heard of. It’s considered to be one of the longest inhabited archaeological sites in Indochina, comparable in appearance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ayutthaya in Thailand.  We spent yesterday morning and early afternoon there; it’s about an hour’s drive from Hoi An.

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Naturally, this being such an important site, the US bombed the bejeezus out of it during the war. Much of it was destroyed, and the path among the ruins is pockmarked by 50 year old overgrown bomb craters, perhaps 30 feet wide and still 8-10 feet deep.

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The Champa people were an extensive and aggressive group who were a big deal in central and southern Vietnam from about the 2nd century AD for a good thousand years or so. They were Hindu, not Buddhist, in particular venerating Shiva, part of the Hindu trinity that includes Vishnu and Brahma. In keeping with the whole yin-yang paradigm, and oversimplifying by about 2 billion light years, Vishnu is female, the creator, symbolized by the yoni (representing the female genitalia); Shiva is male, the destroyer, symbolized by the lingam (representing the male genitalia). There are stylized versions of each scattered throughout the complex; here is a yoni:

My Son IMG_8423 If your lingam persists for more than 400 years, consult your doctor.

There is a path that meanders among the ruins, a number of which have armless, headless statues of Shiva in and around them. The arm- and headlessness of the statues are one of the many gifts of later Western occupiers, notably the French.

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You will note from all of the above photos that the structures are made almost entriely out of brick. That is pretty remarkable in itself: it is very difficult to make bricks that will last for ~1500 years in this hot, wet climate. In fact, it is so difficult that no one knows how the Champa did it. The composition of the bricks is well known through various assay techniques, but the manufacturing process is still a mystery. Replacement bricks have been made as part of a partial site restoration process; you can see Phil pointing out some of the new bricks in the photo below. But these will not have anything like the longevity of the original structure.

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At about the halfway point of the path through the complex, we came to a small open area that is used for a folk music performance, using traditional instruments as we have sen before, and dancers as well. They played for about 10 minutes and we continued on our way.

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If you look carefully, you can see that the elaborate headdress worn by the dancer in red in the middle has a burning candle on top. Here’s a better view.

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We continued along the path, which looped back to the starting point. There was a pavilion there where we saw yet another performance, this time more directly tied to the Champa and having a distinctly more Hindu flavor, albeit a little sexed-up for the tourists, e.g.:

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By this time we were dance-performanced-out and, in keeping with our typical day here, drenched with sweat. So we retreated back to our hotel, Alice to get a massage (which costs about one-third here of what it does back home,) and me to take advantage of one of the hotel infinity pools.

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