Posts Tagged With: traffic

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.

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

The Other Red River Valley

The old Western song notwithstanding, it probably never occurred to you (why would it?) that the literal translation of Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi means “between the rivers”, the rivers in question being the Nhue and the Red. Parts of the city are periodically flooded because of this, and there are actually dikes that run through part of town.

We arrived this morning, met at the airport by our group lead Phuc Nguyen, who wisely goes by “Phil” to avoid three weeks of puerile jokes from his American charges. Phil is a handsome, trim 40 year old who like all OAT tour leads seems to require no sleep whatsoever and has an inexhaustible supply of cheery enthusiasm and useful information.

Hanoi has a population of 7.8 million, who get around via a mere 600,000 cars…. augmented by approximately 11 billion motor scooters. The latter are absolutely everywhere, the streets and even the sidewalks choked with weaving phalanxes of them and the air filled with the ceaseless din of their honking. Interspersed among them are the occasional bus and tourist-bearing rickshaw.

Those scooters, despite their tiny engines, clog the streets in such vast numbers and operate with such  inefficient combustion that air pollution is a real issue. The humidity is very high here — it is monsoon season — and the combination of the water vapor and the scooter exhaust creates a hazy blanket over the city through which a watery sunlight filters.  Phil describes Hanoi as a “second world” city: visibly more advanced than a less developed country but still trying to break into the First World big leagues. They’re working on it: the downtown area includes a lot of very modern high end stores (e.g., Prada, Lamborghini) that would be quite at home in a European capital city.

And indeed, Hanoi does present itself as a struggling-to-be-less-seedy European capital. The architectural DNA of its French colonial history is obvious: broad boulevards, ornate cornices and eaves, tree-lined avenues. The trees are stout, leafy, and old; they clearly weathered the bombings of the war, now 50 years ago, just fine. You still wouldn’t mistake it for Paris, though. Traffic is random and dangerous, and that French architecture often overlooks odd, densely packed storefronts selling all manner of jumbled up, vaguely unsanitary looking stuff ranging from random electronic gadgets to food of questionable provenance. (My characterization of the latter did not stop me from buying some delicious still-hot deep-fried dough balls with custard centers.)

Our hotel is excellently situated in the center of town, very near some of the street markets and major  sights (e.g., the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held, which we will visit tomorrow). It’s also a several block walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a small (600 x 200 meter), shallow (1.5 meter) freshwater lake surrounded by an elaborate legend involving a magic sword and a giant turtle. The weird part is that there are giant turtles in the lake, a species of rare soft-shelled turtles nearly six feet long. Or at least there were; the last sighting of one was three years ago.

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At the northern end of the lake is a Buddhist temple where all manner of activity was going on when we arrived, having walked the mile or so from the hotel. People were lighting incense and praying at the censer; others were posing in rented traditional costumes; and some kind of presumed Ladies Auxiliary were selling something whilst in costume as well.

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We kept walking north past the lake and found ourselves in a no-kidding Asian market district, block after block of crowded storefronts and makeshift sales counters, this street housing a dozen consecutive shoe stores, the next redolent of marinating fish from 20 different vendors. Scooters clogged the sidewalks, vendors spread their wares on tables, on blankets on the ground, on makeshift counters, in Plexiglas display cases on spindly legs.

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The smells were exotic, the colors all saturated, the hubbub nearly impossible to navigate. It was a hoot, the kind of thing you can only experience in a not-altogether-developed Asian or African country.

We walked back to the hotel, at this point drenched in sweat from the humidity. (The weather today was several degrees cooler than in Hong Kong, but the humidity just as bad and the afternoon punctuated with a downpour.) We’ve been going through our clean clothes way faster than planned, and are thus about to drop a small fortune on the hotel laundry service. This is some kind of karmic balancing for the fact that restaurants here are extremely cheap, our nice meals coming in at about five bucks a person. (It takes an active act of calculation to realize this is because the Viet currency, the dong, is of microscopic value: the exchange rate is about 23,000 to the dollar. So one suffers a moment of confused sticker shock when a restaurant tab for two people comes in at 196,000 dong and it takes you a moment to realize that you just spent all of nine bucks.)

Phil took us all out for drinks at about 7 PM, both to show us some typical night life and to teach us how to cross the street without getting killed. (Hints: safety in numbers, and do not waver from your path despite the vehicles weaving around you within inches.) Here’s half of our group, including Alice at lower right. The woman in the red teeshirt is the waitress.

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The Vietnamese love beer, and there are a couple of native brands that flowed freely. Our snacks were also typical for the locals: steamed peanuts, pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, and fried tofu. (I liked two out of three; tofu and I are generally not on speaking terms.)  Afterwards we went out to one of those wonderful $5 dinners and called it a day.

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

Eclipse-ward, Ho!

By now, unless you have been living in an undersea lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you are aware that there will be a total solar eclipse tomorrow, August 21st. We have planned our eclipse expedition for about a year and a half and have made our way to central Oregon, since the state is more or less bisected by the totality path.  We flew into Portland last night and made the three hour drive to our unexpectedly lovely AirBnB in Bend, which is about 40 miles south of the center of the totality path. Later today we will make our way to the normally sleepy hamlet of Madras, which happens to be almost dead center on the totality path and is expecting its normal population of 6500 to swell to slightly under 11 billion. See the map!

Totality Map

Oregon and neighboring Washington (part of our flight route) are home to a number of famous peaks, starting with the iconic Mt Ranier, which practically waved to us as we flew over it yesterday. Here’s Alice’s photo of it, taken with her cell phone:

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More notoriously, Washington hosts Mt Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes.  Here was our view of the guilty — and clearly headless — volcano.

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Prior to our departure from Victoria, the local TV newspeople insisted on regaling us with horror stories about the crowds descending upon Oregon to view the eclipse. Thirty mile traffic backups! Cannibalism in the airport! We witnessed none of this. The airport was certainly busy, but not pathologically so, and the good folks at Enterprise Rentals had laid in a large supply of extra cars so that we were even able to upgrade our vehicle.

That last was not a trivial consideration. Traffic between Bend and Madras tonight and tomorrow is pretty certain to fulfill all the dire warnings, so we have elected to get there a day early and sleep in our car tonight. This put a premium on obtaining a comfortable vehicle, and the Enterprise folks delivered in spades. We are now the proud renters of a jet black Dodge Durango, a hulking 23 mile-per-gallon behemoth that has its own telephone area code and is fueled by testosterone instead of gasoline.

With reluctance we will shortly depart our comfy B&B in Bend, called Duck Hollow, operated by the delightfully New Age-y Debbie and Kevin. We have our own good-sized paneled cabin with a full kitchen and sitting room, and a hot tub. Not so easy to trade for the back seat of the ManlyMobile, but we’ll be back tomorrow night. (Debbie and Kevin have kindly supplied us with sleeping bags for our night in the car.)

That’s about it for now, since I doubt I will be able to post from Madras, whose communications infrastructure is likely to be strained to the breaking point. But before I go, please bear in mind these Important Eclipse Safety Tips:

  • Smear SPF 50 sunscreen on your eyeballs so that you can look safely at the sun. (Ignore the stinging, burning sensation: that just means its working.)
  • Remember that water magnifies sunlight, so do not drink any liquids during the eclipse. Also, if you have goldfish, wrap the bowl in tinfoil.
  • Remember that the demon god Zuul demands blood sacrifice in order not to permanently consume the Sun. Sharpen a big knife, find a slow neighbor, and get busy.

Hey, stop looking at me like that. These aren’t any dumber than a lot of stuff that’s circulating on the web.

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Maximum Fish, and a Mad Scramble

A lot of images spring to mind when you hear the word “Japan”, and for Alice and me one of those words is “sushi.” And like the old saying goes, “Teach a man to fish, and he will eat a lot of sushi.” Something like that. But anyway, as you doubtless know fish is a very big deal in Japan, and consequently one of the major go-to sites in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is where it all happens: the tuna and other catch brought in during the predawn hours of every morning and auctioned off to the wholesalers. It is possible to see the tuna auction itself — that’s the biggie, with the biggest fish going for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that is not a typo) — but it isn’t easy. They only allow 120 spectators in, and demand for a seat is high. The auction starts at 5 AM every day and it is recommended that you show up two hours before that if you want to have a decent shot at getting a seat in the gallery.  So naturally Alice and I, intrepid travelers that we are, looked at each other and said…. “Uh uh.”

If like us you are sane enough not to go to the auction, your next best course of action is to show up at  the much more congenial hour of 10 AM, at which time the wholesale floor opens to the public. The wholesale area is a huge warehouse, a good one or two city blocks in size, shaped like a giant Quonset hut with endless banks of incandescent lights receding into the gloom above you. As you enter — being careful not to break your neck on the perpetually slippery floor as it is constantly hosed down — you pass through the loading area, dodging the little electric loading trucks as they barrel heedlessly past you.

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“Hey, does this place smell fishy to you?”

Once past the loading area, you find yourself in a maze of stalls, navigating past the vendors on narrow passageways which, somehow, the delivery flatbeds still manage to squeeze though without killing anybody. No matter which passageway you turn down or which direction you look, you are likely to see scenes and characters like this:

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They sell every fish you have ever heard of, and a fair number you have not. There were more than a few specifies that neither of us could identify, but there were plenty that we could: tuna, eel, gar, snapper, clams, scallops, mussels, octopus, whelks, crabs, shrimp, and on and on. It was pretty impressive, and a lot of fun to behold. Some of the vendors have all their wares on ice; others have them displayed live in tanks. There are hoses and Styrofoam bins of crushed ice absolutely everywhere — and a few stations manned by guys whose sole job was to continuously wrangle suitcase-sized blocks of ice into giant ice crushers.

The complex is ringed by countless tiny seafood restaurants — some seating ten people or less — and street vendors, all offering fresh-as-fresh-can-be seafood in its many forms, prepared in as many ways. Radiating out from the ring of restaurants is a network of crowded market alleyways, also thronged with people, seafood restaurants, and sushi vendors. So here is our lunch being prepared:

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That’s about eight different kinds of fresh seafood — at least one of which we couldn’t even identify — steamed and then braised with a blowtorch over the grill, and served on a big scallop shell with a pair of chopsticks. Seriously good.

That evening, we did the Shibuya Scramble.

The what?

The Shibuya Scramble is not a dance, though it sort of sounds like one. Although come to think of it, it actually is a sort of dance, as you will see in a moment. More narrowly, it is a place, officially known as Shibuya Crossing, an enormous intersection in front of the Sibuya train station in central Tokyo. Five streets come together in a very broad intersection ringed by over-illuminated multistory department stores, pachinko parlors, restaurants, and everything else, all with animated light displays. It looks like this:

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Even the side streets get into the act:

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So the name of the game, as elsewhere in Tokyo, is “sensory overload”. But what makes Shibuya Crossing special — and it shows up in most “Top Ten” lists of things to see in Tokyo — is the traffic flow, which would probably not have been your first guess. The thing is, that because of the stores and the train station, an exceptionally large number of pedestrians flow through this huge multi-lane intersection at any given moment, and the traffic lights are timed such that everybody crosses in every direction at the same time. The lights turn green and the scene suddenly looks like an explosion in an anthill:

shibuya-005 Hence the name “Shibuya Scramble.” At ground level, in the middle of the crowd, here is what you see as you cross:

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If you want to see this in action, check out this YouTube video. And if you want to watch it as it happens, there is even this live feed webcam. There is a weird anticipatory pleasure as you watch the ebb and flow of people, watching the car traffic pass through the intersection as you wait for the magic moment when the light turns and those hundreds of people all surge forward at once. It’s sort of like watching the waves at the ocean.

In short, the Shibuya Scramble is utterly lunatic and it is enormous, incomprehensible fun to be a part of… I’m not altogether sure why. It is, in its way, quintessentially Japanese: a detailed, choreographed aesthetic overlaid with a veneer of batshit craziness. Or maybe the other way around. It’s Blade Runner meets the Bolshoi. We’re really glad we went.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Looking at Lucca: Up Against the Wall

Yesterday was something of a lost day as we discovered that May Day – the European equivalent of Labor Day, squared, when pretty much everything is closed – is a really lousy day to drive on the Autostrade. It is not only commerce that grinds to a halt: highway traffic grinds to a halt as well as everyone hits the road for the holiday weekend. That proved to be bad news for us, as we had gotten a late start and basically blew the rest of the day on what ought to have been a two hour drive from Modena to Lucca.

A word about driving in Italy. A couple of our friends reacted in horror at the prospect of our driving in Italy at all, doubly so since we had made clear our intention of using the Autostrade. This is rather overwrought. For one thing, Italian drivers are no more aggressive than Washington DC area drivers. (This is admittedly a weak statement, like declaring that a PCP-crazed honey badger is no more aggressive than a rabid mountain lion. But the point is that we are used to it.) In addition, Italian transportation infrastructure is quite good. The Autostrada is efficient and well-maintained, though it struggles to handle the volume of holiday traffic. Especially since the authorities ramped up electronic enforcement a few years ago, drivers are pretty good about adhering to the 130 kph (80 mph) speed limit. In the cities, streets are often narrow but the lane signage is good and our GPS easily keeps us out of navigational trouble. So driving has really been quite easy. (That said, it helps that I have Alice in the passenger seat as a full-time navigator so that I do not have to divert my attention from the road to the map display.)

My only real gripe with Italian roads is roundabouts. Generally speaking I have no issues with roundabouts, but Italian road engineers seem to worship them. If you are driving in a city or suburban area you can count on traveling not more than about 500 ft between roundabouts, to the point that it starts to feel like you are on some kind of grand scale go-kart track.

After enduring a series of lengthy backups on the Autostrade – the longest being a good 10 miles, although the word “good” hardly applies – we arrived in Lucca at about 5:00pm and after some casting about eventually located and checked into our flat. Although well-organized and reasonably equipped, it could well serve as some kind of living module on the Space Station, compact to just short of cramped. (The kitchen is by actual measurement 9’ x 4 ½’ in size.) But it’s clean and reasonably comfortable and suits are purposes. Most importantly, it is very close to the heart of Lucca, the old walled city.

We love Italian food – after 2 ½ weeks here, we’d better – but it was impossible to overlook the temptation of an actual Chinese restaurant just down the street from the flat. Called New Hong Kong, it could pass pretty easily as a garden variety Chinese restaurant in any American town. It was perfectly good and a welcome change of pace.

Lucca is not as nearly well known as its famous neighbor Pisa, only 12 miles away. But it is a real gem, an ancient settlement dating back to the Etruscans in about 700 BC. The Romans took it over about 500 years later. Although the city as a whole is home to about 90,000 people, the real attraction is the walled center, a very compact oval-shaped area about 2 ½ miles in circumference. The wall is fully intact in part because of its relatively recent construction; most of it dates from the early 17th century. It’s about 30 feet high and you can stroll atop it around the entire perimeter of the city.

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And if you do take that stroll along the ramparts, as we did, you get a number of nice views back into the town.

Lucca-18It was a drizzly morning, and we entered the city through one of about 8 gates, our entrance portal in this case lined with vendors since today was market day. You can see the archway at the right of the photo.

Lucca-03A lot of the vendor stall were a little rough-and-tumble, the outdoor equivalent of a dollar store, as this image correctly suggests:

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Lucca’s “local boy makes good” story is Giacomo Puccini, the guy who wrote Madame Butterfly and La Bohème. His house is of course a museum. Outside of that, the town — remember, we’re talking about an area roughly one mile by half a mile in size — is crammed with something like 100 churches and a large number of palazzos. We poked our noses into a number of the former and toured around one of the largest and most elaborate of the latter, the Palazzo Pfanner, formerly owned by a German sculpture collector and physician. It is graced by a formal statuary garden (Athena, Hermes, all your favorites) that includes a very large number of lemon trees, every one of which seemed to be bearing fruit today. The guy must have really loved drinking whiskey sours.

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When life hands you a palazzo, grow lemons.

As befitting its age, the streets of old Lucca are narrow with tiled stone surfaces and punctuated by large squares, the latter usually lined by restaurants and shops. The side streets offer tiny grocery stores, wine shops, bakeries, and people on bikes shopping at all of the above.

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Lucca-22We spent most of the day wandering around the city, variously on and off the wall, breaking for lunch (and of course gelato), looking up at bell towers, and making brief forays into churches of varying ages, elaborateness of decor, and general medieval creepiness. (One had the fully dressed mummified body of some saint or other on display. Great for terrifying your children into following the proper spiritual path.)

There is also a small — very small — botanical garden, which we pretty much exhausted in about 25 minutes, thereby closing out our exploration of the city.

Tomorrow we move on to La Spezia, near the Cinque Terre hiking area on the coast. We’ll pass thorough Pisa along the way, so expect a photo of you-know-what in my next post. However, I caution you in advance that there will be no, repeat no, cutesy forced-perspective photos of one or another of us seemingly holding up the leaning tower.  My photography snobbery does extend at least that far.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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