Sunday, December 21, 2008

Last Sleeps

We are now back in Saigon for a last sleep and a half before heading home. Cambodia is a fresh and treasured memory. The bustle of Saigon has reminded us of the differences between the two countries. Buddhism is much more present in Cambodia and greetings are always punctuated by pressing hands together, something that has never happened in Vietnam and something I had a hard time breaking myself of after returning here this evening.

The first impulse is to compare the two places and there are sharp differences between the two. Apart from the religious differences - Vietnam having more Christians - there are also significant economic differences. Vietnam seems to be much better off. Both countries are developing quickly but it is hard to tell which is faster.

Cambodia is getting a bigger helping hand from foreign aid agencies, who have not only lined up their larger institutions to help around the ruins, but also in the form of smaller donations to build wells for people who are barely getting by. Throughout the trip, especially in Cambodia, there were thoughts tumbling through my head about the economic differences I was witness to and the centuries that you could freeze in your thoughts with each blink of your eye.

As the weeks have turned to days and then to hours I can't help but feel an affection for these places and cheer them on in their quest for prosperity and a better life. I have a feeling though that the Vietnamese are looking for something that may be measured with numbers and that Cambodia, with its honoured and treasured cultural assets can move forward a bit more confidently, despite its more horrific past, and achieve much more on a lifestyle level rather than merely economically. I ask myself how dare I say such things after just three weeks of glimpses, but it is merely an observation to float out there for consideration. My time here is almost over but there will be plenty of time for the experience to ferment in my thoughts and give me a chance at understanding it all or investigating it a little further.


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Wat

Today started with a 4:30am wake-up and a pilgrimage to Angkor Wat in the cool and dark of the pre-dawn. We joined a stream of others to the banks of the moat surrounding the Wat. I had a feeling that we would come as strangers in the dark, but come away will a new familiarity by the light of day and the shared experience in the shadow of stone. It was not the case and that is in no way a denigration of the experience. It was a private moment despite the crowds around us. After we were satisified with what we saw of the break of day, we peeled off to explore the ruins and wonders of Angkor Wat.

The Wat is very much in a state of transition as natural does battle with the best minds and NGO's who have come here to stem the assault of time. The Wat, like many of the other sites in the area, is partially under a scaffold and surrounded by many of its own misplaced stones. In some cases, there is clear evidence of the effects of time on one stone as it takes its rightful place from a millenia ago but shows its separate ravages from lying on a lawn somewhere damper or at the top of a pile where it was more exposed to the elements. The stories that each striation, bit of lichen or moss, the extra erosion could tell of each stone and the efforts - good and bad - people have made over the last thousand years are breath taking. The same could be said of every inch of the region.

We definitely got our temples in today. We squeezed in breakfast around 10am and got through the rest of the day in theis heat on a pineapple and a mango. We wrapped up the day at Ta Prohm, which has also been ravaged by the jungle. At the last three temples we visited in the afternoon, trees of the jungle had extended their roots through the stone walls and split the walls and stones in dramatic fashion. In others the roots and trees had just consumed them in a gnarly gulp. In some places the roots even seemed to be wrapping its grips around the inventories of stone that people want to put back into proper order, as if to say, "Do whatever you want, I'll keep these little ones here. Best of luck."

Nadine was in her rapture at Ta Prohm, her favorite from her previous visit here. Normally quite prone to being "templed out"she could not get enough of the place. To my relief, I happened to find the echo chamber that Jack told me about before leaving. We were at the last temple of the day when I realized that I would have to get help if I were going to find it. Just when I was plotting a plan of attack to find it the next day, I'd heard a silly self-flagelattion festival from a Korean tour group and closed in on the stone room they were in. I waited for them to move on and squeezed in for my turn. No matter what sound your try to make or create there is very little acoustic response from the room. The sound is made, but it dies quickly. The strike of the chest, however, creates a resonant echo. An attendant at the temple explained that people give thanks and make a wish when strike their chest in this matter. I was relieved to find it and made note of the synchronity of the occasion. Thanks to Jack.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Angkor Wat

Today has been marked by the slow, respectful pace of admiration and wonder as we have made our way from one part of the Angkor Wat complex to the next. My eyes have been met with competing beauties from the ruins, the tangle of roots reaching across the jungle floor like old hands, trees that have wound their way around one another and anything else that has stood still long enough. (This is not to give you an Oz-like nightmare - time here has plodded in centuries and the encroachment of the jungle on the ruins of the various Buddhist and Hindu ruins has taken that kind of time.)

As Nadine and I poured over a map this morning I noted a UNESCO office with a comment that compared it to sports broadcasting. Basically if you are working for UNESCO in the Angkor Wat area you, like a sports broadcaster, have to be really enjoying your job. You don't end up doing this kind of work as a waystation to bigger ambitions or because you are looking for something to fall back on.

The intricacies of the ruins, both in their original incarnation and in the form that they have been restored or preserved in has the indelible imprint of patience, commitment, love and awareness of a higher power. The effort by the people over the last millenium, despite or because of the separation in time, is humbling and deserves great reverence. The people in the area and most of the visitors here have demonstrated it.

Nadine and I still have not visited the Wat itself. We wanted to build up to it. We had a glimpse of it tonight from the vantage point we watched sunset from. Before heading there, we started out further afield, visiting an area which has some idols and figures (I'll spare you the names) carved into the rock of a riverbed. Who knows how long they will stand up to erosion. We also visited three other locations before stopping for sunset. The penultimate will require another visit. I doubt we walked a fifth of it in the 20 minutes we stopped.

Throughout the day we also had a chance to watch the lifestyles of those who live in the Wat area. People were leading subsistence lives, eking things out of the land the best way they could and living in shacks with thatch roofs. The day was a blur of kids, pedaling bikes they werer five years from sittingon and braking with their barefeet on the ground, breastfeeders, farmers, lazing water buffaloes, frantic chickens, roadside stands of gas in Sprite and Pepsi bottles, smiles, palm trees, haze and fellow tuktuks and bikes loaded with whatever could be carried to get people through the day's business or life.

Back in town we tried to get a feeling for the pulse of the place, but before we had a chance the power went out for about 90 minutes. We wandered the streets for light to read our map by and even a place with its own generator and a menu. We finally found one that served basically a Khmer hotpot. It was a feast of meat and vegetables that we made at our table. We were stunned to be asked if we needed more meat. In our experience more rice, more cabbage, more soup, more lettuce yes. MORE MEAT?! We had to gratefully decline.

Tomorrow we will head for the Wat for sunrise and more of the highlights of the complex. This is far from complete. For one thing, I got monk shots.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ha Long Bay

It might be easy to say that watching our cruise boat be hit by another vessel just as we were boarding it was an ominous sign of things to come, but by that point we had already enough indications that the trip was not what we had expected. Rather than an omen, it was more of a confirmation that, yes, we were being screwed. To cut a long story short (or try). We had paid for a higher level tour but were bumped off that boat because they had overbooked it. Our "hosts" tried to tell us that the two boats and tours were comparable but it was pretty clear that it was far from the case. Our cabin door let in more light than my sunglasses and the critters scratching around the ceiling at 4:30 am confirmed that it was not what we bargained for. If you happen to be looking for travel advise, DO NOT book your tour with Halong Phoenix Cruises. They tried to lie their way out of their misconduct at every turn. We did get a refund for the difference between the two trips, but we were left with further evidence that the Vietnamese travel industry is crowded with a few too many ne'er do wells to guarantee that your experience there would be one that would be considered pleasant or hospitable.

It may be a consequence of too many urban legends floating up and down the Mekong and other parts of the country about foreigners drifting through willïng to pay strange amounts of money to go to places that the Vietnamese take for granted. "They wanted to go where?" "They paid how much"? "These people have more money than brains."
At least that is my guess behind the thinking of some operators, and I mean real operators, who have jumped into the industry to make a quick buck. Hopefully they will disappear before they do too much further damage to the reputation of their nation's travel industry or the government will demand higher standards.

That said, we are in Cambodia now and the first few hours here have been pleasant. A great foot massage will put you in that frame of mind.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The "Jeopardy" Version

Today we are still trying to sort out our mixed feelings about the last day and a half. We are heading to Cambodia tomorrow, and really looking forward to it. Rather than turning this entry into a rant I'll just put down some of the questions that have been going through my head for the last few hours. If you find yourself struggling to read between the lines, bear with me. I'll get into more detail later. Some of the questions are rather contemplative and others will speak for themselves.

Did I come here with unreasonable expectations?
Have I been impatient with the cultural and economic differences?
Would I have had a different, better perspective of Vietnam if I took a path the rather a block away from the one I've been on?
Have I been looking to save a buck everywhere I could or have my hosts been looking to gouge me for every buck they can?
Was it something I ate?
Did they just park a motorcycle here in the lobby?
Do travel articles ever rant about places shortcomings or do they always insist an portraying them as idyllic destinations of perfect sunsets etc.?
Did I come here too late or too early?
Do I still have jetlag?
Was that really a rat I heard scratching the ceiling of my cabin last night?
Should I have taken the package tour?
Have I been open? As open as I am capable of being?
Have I gotten to know people here?
Have I gotten to know good people here?
Have I listened to the other travelers too much or too little?
What would I want to change about this place?
Would it make life better or worse for everyone here?
Is it still -35 in Calgary?!

Enough of my disguised rant. A few highlights as our journey northward ends.
1. Breakfasts in Dalat.
2. The central markets. (except for Hue's)
3. KOTO, Take and Hoa Sua, the restaurants that have been focused on helping street kids here establish careers in the food industry and the shop where we met disabled women who made greeting cards.
4. Cooking school in Hoi An.
5. Meeting our fellow travelers.
6. Meeting a brilliant photographer in Hoi An.
7. The silk factory.
8. The tunnel rat (a guy, not a rat) who we met while touring the DMZ.
9. The weather.
10. The various states of decay or mildew that every yellow wall seems to be in. (There is A LOT of yellow here.)
11. Making it across the street.
12. Comparing the spring rolls.
13. Walking away from a bad haggle.
14. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

Take these ten things, remember I'm taking them in in good company and things are humming along. Still, I'm looking forward to be home.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


It is 7:30 am and there is some martial theme blaring down the street from our hotel. We've been up for 90 minutes at least - thanks in part to the expectoration rituals of somebody in the next room.

Today we head to Ha Long Bay, for the honeymoon part of our honeymoon. A romantic ocean setting dotted with sights of wonder. The day will feature a boat cruise, sunset, leisure, kayaking, complimentary wine, and, AND no hiking. Just the day Nadine has been looking forward to. And I start things off by locking her in the hotel room. (Insert evil cackle and twirl of mustache here.) We just happen to have one of those doors that needs to be locked and unlocked from both sides and I took the key with me to check on reservations for Cambodia. When we get there Wednesday we will be staying at that bastion of Khmer culture Molly Malone's. Surrealist updates will be coming soon with a plate of fish and chips.

Hanoi, Day 2

A good stretch of the day was spent walking around and fitting our schedule around Uncle Ho's opening hours. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was closed because he was off somewhere touching up his taxidermy but we did get in an afternoon visit at the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which basically traces his life's accomplishments. The museum was a bit disorienting at times with the displays that were featured. The first thing I wandered into was essentially a hall of mirrors with a few pieces of art and stock images to set the era in context. I started off with a lost feeling.

The content at the museum was all a bit overwhelming and I found myself making a false start after realizing that he was not born Ho Chi Minh. I was curious about all that he had done, but found the setting, with all of its surfaces of aluminum, plexiglas and the like dated before the construction was even completed. The architect responsible for the building better have a very thin portfolio. There was a sense that the place needed to be redone, but maybe there is something about communism, dictatorships or personality cults that invites that kind of interior.

The was one of the first really where we had a chance to slow down to a contemplative pace. We visited a few temples (to kill time during the lunch break at the Ho museums) and found ourselves wandering and abandoning any track of time. At the Temple of Literature, the ground were quite substantial and we had no problem whiling away our time taking pictures of the lilies in the ponds. It being Sunday, the temple was crowded with locals who were out to take pictures. There appeared to be a few wedding parties out to take pictures and there were clutches of young women, their ao dai dresses the colour of Easter candy wandering around taking pictures of one another.

We managed to avoid the cyclo drivers today and had a bit more tolerance for the noise and energy of the streets. Tomorrow we will head to Halong Bay for a 2 day 1 night tour and cruise. Add in Angkor Wat from Wednesday through the weekend and it seems like we are ending the trip with the big highlights.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hanoi, day 1

We have arrived in the bustling capital of the country and we are staying in the Old Quarter. The streets are brimming with life and business as everywhere else. The immediate point of reference is Saigon and everything seems a bit more frenetic in the streets and a bit less sensitive. (Maybe we've lost our touch crossing the streets during our time in the smaller cities.) Still when some guy near runs over Nadine while trying to get his motorbike onto the sidewalk, it can't all be a matter of our reflexes or radar going awry.

The Cyclo drivers badger us to take a one hour ride and we have not quite mastered the appropriate gesture to discourage them. Throughout the trip we've had multiple requests from individual drivers, all of whom must have read some report about the diminished attention spans of TV-addled Westerners or the like. They add to the colour of the streets. Today we've also had the street vendors offer Nadine their bamboo brace to pose with their load for a picture. We've waved them off as well and I've been a bit more cautious about aiming my camera at someone who will turn around and knock me up for a buck or two. That would get bloody expensive the way I shoot.

We made our way to the Hoa Lo Prison or "Hanoi Hilton" as John McCain and other POW pilots called it. I've had an urge to see the movie of the same name, but it was interesting to take in the artifacts. The prison was originally used by the French colonials for the first half of the century before they Vietnamese managed to unload them. The atrocities the French committed were contrasted with an exhibit on the Americans which showed the POWs uniformly smiling and relatively content for the 26 seconds or fractions of seconds of the 6-7 years that the Americans were kept. An interesting visit.

The highlight of the day and yesterday for that matter was visiting a couple of restuarants that are run to give, in most cases, street kids a chance to train in the restaurant industry to get a job. The restaurant we visited in Hue was a smaller operation than this one in Hanoi. Tonight we went to a place that was five levels and is developing a strong international reputation for its work. We were there relatively early and had a chance to get to know the students a bit, where they came from and how they are progressing. Our waiter tonight came to Hanoi when he was about 7 years old and he started off doing the Dickens routine - shining shoes and the like and has been at the restaurant, named KOTO, for a little over a year. He is halfway through his two year program. There were five wait staff on our floor of the restaurant and we got to talk to them a bit, help them with their English and get a few pics as well.

There are quite a few more CD/DVD shops here than there appeared to be in Saigon - probably a matter of what neighbourhoods we got to. Another intriguing thing here is that there are clearly identifiable neighbourhoods that are a bit more upscale with the merchandise that they sell. There is the inundation of places with the Uncle Ho and Tintin in Vietnam T-shirts for sale and the like but there are a lot more boutiques that cater to more discriminating customers. While booking our trip to Ha Long Bay, Nadine stumbled upon (thanks to her 6th sense) a place that caters to her pottery habit. She'll head back there on Tuesday night to load up.

Friday, December 12, 2008


I'd love to show you some photos here and on Flickr. The computers here are a bit too slow for a convenient upload. I will get them up ASAP.

Slowing down

We've been in Hue the last two days and tonight we will be taking the overnight train to Hanoi. From then on, we will be jetting around and that will make the second half of the trip that much more manageable or less taxing.

Today we wandered the streets of Hue, and visited the market, which was a bit grungier and smellier than the ones in Dalat and Hoi An. There has been an odd feeling that nothing is happening in Hue, that there aren't many people which is a strange sensation considering that its population is much much greater than Dalat or Hoi An. It might be a matter of there not being a downtowncore to the place that people congregate to. Hard to say. The market's grunge left me with the feeling that it was for people who were less well off. We wandered around the Citadel a bit as well and strolled up and down the river.

The DMZ yesterday was interesting. The tour, however, was not as revealing as we would have liked. We visited a tunnelcomplex, which was an interesting highlight but the other sites are overgrown now. The frustrating thing was to drive by countless scenes of farm life and only have them blur by the window. The tourism industry is in a state of flux as a large number of players get involved and shake out what will become of "the industry."

Other thoughts...

There is little to get people here singing to themselves. If people are working, idling a way a moment, anything, there seems to be a song on people's lips. Not just humming, but song. There are several people who have been talking about Lionel Richie and his song "Hello." (I hear he has a good voice and a good future ahead of him.) Meanwhile, I have Abba's "Happy New Year" (forgot it existed) and "Casablanca stuck in my head. As much as I might say about having an iPod right now it is good that music still as a communal component to it. I think that kind of spirit is what hashelped this country over the last 50-100 years in the face of all it has encountered. A last reference to the war before I close. I happened to be reading a book called "Voltaire's Bastards" yesterday - that last book that one might grab off the shelf for the road - and found a number of interesting references to Robert McNamara's role in the Vietnam War as the US Secretary of Defence. In short, he implemented an approach to military staff training that was similar to those used in industry (when he worked at Ford) and it effectively discouraged the leading officers from making the sacrifices necessary to win a war.

PS: I've been struggling with the similarities between "sorry" in Japanese (Gomen) and "thank you" in Vietnamese (Gaam ern).

A demain.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Two days ago a barber offered me a hair cut. I don't know the price. For those of you who aren't puzzled by this I shaved my head before leaving Canada.

In need of a toilet, I found a public one and promptly went in for relief. Upon exiting, a man cheerfully said, "One dollar." Never before have I considered my dignity so overpriced,

On December 10th two years ago, Nadine and I met. A year ago we were looking at hotel deals for our wedding. Today, she wants us to go to the DMZ. Hmmm.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Eat everything on your plate

Nadine is forwarding to some of you indication of the commitment with which I follow my mother's advice to eat everything on my plate. I'll tell the rest of you a bit further down the page.

Most of the day was spent at a cooking school down the river from the main part of Hoi An. We started off visiting an organic herb farmer to get a first hand look at some of the herbs we would be using and getting a better idea of the differences between mint, Vietnamese mint (also known as Asian basil) and the other greens we were using. I'm not a good student and spent most of the morning at the back of the pack firing away with my camera at the farmers and the scenery. I did more of the same when we went to market to shop for the fish, herbs and shrimp that we would be using. I did slow down to see the demonstration of some of the traditional Vietnamese knives and cooking utensils and some of you will see me doing infomercials with them if other lines of employment don't open up soon. "And, look here I won't even cut your finger."

"What's with the band-aid?"


After that we settled down for our cooking lesson at a nice restaurant set along the riverside surrounded by bamboo and farms. We were joined today by four Americans - a couple from California and two women from Michigan marking a 40th birthday. We had a good time together and were guided through the meal preparations by a cook who smattered his broken English regularly with Aussie turns of phrase.
We did an adequate job on the first course, a beef pho which involved noodle making as well as the broth. After finishing that up we got our sleeves back up again to make a salad, a shrimp dish grilled in banana leaf and a mudfish hotpot that even Nadine (fish lover she is - Let them live!!) ate.
The humbling moment of the meal was when I tried to eat the banana flower leaf that my salad was in. I just figure I ought to eat everything on my plate. I did not eat my banana leaf or the hot pot.
We sailed back up the river to tie up downtown and wander the streets. Nadine did a bit more fair trade shopping, I bought a few more postcards and a 5x7 by the photographer I met yesterday. Dinner? I have neither an idea nor the room at the moment.


A big, big PS. We saw sunlight today. It was a little hazy but there were shadows and everything. A nice respite from the cloud and rain.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Hoi An

Hoi An has been a chance for us to hit our tourist stride. I'm writing in the traditional this-is-Asia! lobby of our hotel. It is defined by high ceilings, lanterns and local paintings that somehow give it a Vietnam feel despite the barking dogs performing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on TV.
The highlights have been the old town and the seaside location, just the invitation required to see the life of Vietnam as it relates to the ocean. As we cabbed down from Da Nang before dawn there were barefoot, early morning bathers making their way back from their predawn swims dashing across the highway. Life in that area will change dramatically, however, with the beach development that can't see a good beach go unruined. There are walls along the highway fencing off areas for development, including Montgomery Links, a golf course built by or trading on the name of Colin Montgomery. Hoi An is another world away from that.
We started the day by sleeping off the remnants of our train trip with the not-too-distant crowing of a rooster outside our window. A few metres down the road was the market, which featured more souvenirs than the others thus far. Like Dalat, Hoi An was spared by the war and offers a charming look at a much older version of Vietnam. We've enjoyed Hoi An and made our first assault on the souvenir lists. For those of you who fear losing your social lives to the arrival of your children, your greater fear might be getting gifts aimed at your kids instead of you. : )
Today seemed very much an opportunity to make connections. We hit the fair trade dealers in Hoi An and heard the stories of the people working there. I found a photographer who does tours and takes bloody good pictures of the place as well. I happily bought post cards of his work. At the end of the night we met a Quebecois here in the hotel who is traveling south and eager to exchange notes with us about what we've seen so far.
We SPLASHED OUT on dinner at an Italian place tonight for a grand total of $25 (if that).

Transit from Dalat to Hoi An

8:55pm December 7
We're in transit today and all things said we were happy to spend as little time as we did in Nha Trang and making the bestof a day in transit. Right now, Nadine and I are bunking on the Reunification Express, an overnight train heading north. Below are two Vietnamese women who are more discomforted by the two foreigners above them (in bunks) than we have been by the events of the day. We started with a bus from Dalat to Nha Trang, which was stopped twice by incidents on the road. The bus ride has given us another spectacular view of the country side and mnore evidence of how this country is still building its infrastructure by hand. It was a rainy day fgor much of the trip and at one point the fog was so think that it rendered the mountains at trees vague erasures that we might have only imagined.
As we went through a cluster of a half dozen houses there was a body lying in the the road. The first sign of life was the movement of the body toward the middle of the road, as if in protest. Eventaully with a bit of kicking and fussing a few others removed her. About an hour later we were stopped by police to determine fault in an incident involving a cyclist with an overloaded bike. There was a hole in the engine grille on the back right corner of the bus and after the driver and police discussed matters we were shifted into mini vans for the rest of the trip.

The Nha Trang experience was quickly summed up by a little street urchin with a baslket full of stuff she was trying to hawk. She started off with a rapid fire patter of war-era charm and chat, telling Nadine that she was beautiful and 23 and that I was 24. We thought about buying some postcards from her but bawked when seeing the product. Dated images that looked nothing like the Vietnam we had seen thus far and all in that cheap looking 1970's Kodachrome that tries to be colour's answer to sepia nostalgia but just gets the colours all wrong. If I bought them and mailed them to you, your response would be, "Vietnam, huh? I'll pass."
Nha Trang's beach was nice despite the cloud and wind. The city seems a bit crass and along the beach it was a bit too western. Away from the beach and toward the market things were much livelier with the kind of bustle and active street life we enjoyed in Dalat our second day. We had a chance to wander unaccosted and smile back at the meek curiosity of those whose eye we caught.
Ultimately Nha Trang was thankfully brief.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dalat, Day 2: Down and Up

Today turned out to be a good one. We just planned to walk around the city and take in the sites that were central to the town. However, when I got up in the morning I wrote this:

Jetlag has not hit us with the classic lolling off to sleep in the middle of the day routine. We got up this morning at 5:30, after an uninterrupted night - our first. We have been dead tired by the end of the day though and we are still trying to sort ourselves out. Energy levels, feelings about our trip so far are not quite where we would like them to be.
Last night, we had a pizza at a restaurant that left me feeling that we were just taking advantage of a lower cost destination. A nearby table of Europeans was taking advantage of the smoking laws and kept their eyes focused on the Fashion TV programming that was the visual muzak to accompany the MIDIed Christmas carols that were piped in. It was the kind of thing that made me believe that it was quite easy for anyone to isolate themselves from the place they are in.
On top of that, or because of that we have not quite be grabbed or enchanted by Vietnam so far. Saigon was too noisy, dirty, humid and smoggy. Dalat has been a temperate reprieve but has been dull and cloudy - not a big issue in the grand scheme of things when all is said and done. Nadine wondered if we were 10 years too late coming here. At this point, it might also be a matter of spending too much time looking at it all from a bus window or, in my case, from over someone else's motorcycle helmet.
Perhaps there is a tinge of culture shock as well. Everything has appealed to the eye, but perhaps the shattered sidewalks, stench of open sewers or clots of garbage that ought to be plucked away from such potentially pristine places has been a come down. Vietnam has a way to go yet, despite all its promise and the question is which direction does it want to go? This is a communist country but education costs 50000VND a month (about $3.50), there is relatively little safety net for the unemployed and there are those shiny expensive cars trolling the streets.
Once again, I realize that a visit to another country is more and more about what that country is like at this given moment. Things are so much more fluid in a country that is trying to make something more of itself rather than furthering its comfort or adding to its wealth.
One split second is still burned into my mind from yesterday. A tarpaulin of drying coffee beans actually stretched out into the road. It was along that rural drive where the farms and lives lead right up to the asphalt and I found it intriguing. There was every possibility that it was an isolated crusade by some anti-car crank but there were so many similar situations where the community or the home came right to the road that I wondered if the road was tolerated and shared rather than a place of profane entitlements. The car and bike horns that blare so loudly have a "heads up" cheer to them rather than the "outta my f--king way" tone of home. Even in the city, the road is a space that is shared and used for many things. There is one little sign shop down the road that uses the road and the sidewalk for welding signs together.

About an hour after that uncertainty about how the trip was going, we headed down to the central market. Picture your favorite Farmer's Market on a Saturday morning on steroids. This would be a daily affair, however. The market was crammed with people selling all sorts of food. The sight of dog sent a visceral chill through me that weakened my legs, but I quickly let it slip away as I waded into the bustle of market and even got in the way of a housewife who saw fit to prod my along ahead of her, just like an old Japanese woman who found me between her and her seat on the train. NOW we are getting into it. There were no other tourists around and there weren't too many people trying to sell us stuff. We did buy a few things, some dried mulberries, strawberry candies, jackfruit chips and some cashews. That shopping expedition sent us and our vendor flipping through the phrasebook to sort out what everything was and what wasn't available. We had a chattier lunch too as we talked about the foods we had seen but could not name at the market and talked to our waiter about his education. An attempt to find a Catholic convent left us off track and wandering through a neighbourhood that was not on the beaten track, all the while pushing the kids to say a little more than "hello." We got up to "What's your name?" with one and "How are you?" with another. That's a bit more like it.
We arranged our trip out of Dalat - no small feat - and we will be heading for the coast tomorrow to catch an overnight train from Nha Trang to Hoi An.

CRAZY SIGHT OF THE DAY: There was a van touting something to the masses - not the tourists - and they riding around dangling a length of snake from the passenger side and had a macaque tied to the roof. The poor thing was next to the loudspeaker no less. Sometimes, being a dog isn't so bad.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wind in my face at 47 km/h

Nadine and I emailed our mothers this morning with the horrific announcement that we were riding on motorbikes for the day.

Before venturing out we were treated to a breakfast replete with all of the fruits of the region: dragonfruit, passion fruit, papaya, mango and the only native strawberries in Vietnam. Good jam.

We did not ride the bikes ourselves but went on a tour with two guys from a group called Dalat Easy Riders who took us out of the city for the rural wealth of this lush part of the country. Dalat is in an area that used to be an active volcano and with that topography and its unique highland climate is home to a wide variety of agriculture. During our journey today we visited a coffee plantation, strawberry orchards, a silk maker where we could view the entire process from cocoon to loom (the socialists are ready to accuse me of some sort of sacrilege for that one), a greenhouse with oodles of roses and gerberas and AHEM... a cricket farm. Nadine's skin crawled and I struggled to figure out how many crickets went into the 350kg they produce a year.

The day ended off with the slightly HA, slightly phantasmagoric Crazy House. It is a Tim Burton movie set built by a woman who has a PhD in Architecture. I am not sure whether to regard it as evidence of how architectural training is resulting in worse and worse architecture or if it is a sign of playful whimsy that one would expect to miss in a communist country. Tomorrow we will wander around Dalat and firm up our plans for the rest of the trip.

As we

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Transit to Dalat

We spent most of the day on the bus to Dalat and all I can really report today are some snatches and glimpses of what drifted by the window during the 8 1/2 hour 300 km voyage...

A hand sprayed painted sign reading "Sim Card." Cell phones are in abundance and there are plenty of people shouting into them as they scoot by. A great leap in communications considered the infrastructure investment it spares the country. Another sight would be a household TV antenna propped on the end of a 10 metre bamboo mast.

This country is being built by hand. Sidewalks, storm sewers, you name it. Towering buildings being torn down with hammers and kicks. (Not sledgehammers, hammers.)

The roadside patina was a blur of coffee beans, corn husks and cobs, beans, grains and rice drying on tarpaulins in the sun.


Our groggy hosts were much more energetic today, bookending my day with a "bob's your uncle" before breakfast and upon my return from our walking tour of the city. We quickly got the hanging of crossing the streets with the appropriate sense of self-preservation. Before the morning was out, I was even guiding an older women through a roundabout. That ended any plans to cheast along abreast of the locals.
Saigon's streets throb with the corpuscular flow of scooters, which rule the streeets by their sheer numbers, despite the BMWs, Lexus hybrids, SUV's and other grand sedans that jostle for space relative to their apparent social status. (Yes, the SUV and BMW drivers act like they own the road here too.)
Whenever I pointed the camera, I obsessed with the conical straw hats and scooters and Nadine managed to keep me in tow throughout the day. I did, however, break my promise not to shoot while crossing the street - only once. I can hear our mothers now.
The street vendors set down along any stretch of curb they could to ply their trade or sell their wares. The cyclo drivers are prepared with notebooks of past endorsements from customers who came from all over the world. The "Oh, Canada, I know well" routine and the patter of vendors of fruit, art and coconut milk add to the sense of urgent capitalist thrust as the city looks to move ahead. Economic growth in Saigon was at about a clip of 11% this year - despite the recession and the city is eager to make more of itself. Sidewalks are being resurfaced and new hotels are grabbing swaths of skyline to brandish their international names to the skies and scare the touts at street level with the Real McCoy versions of the pirated or bootlegged brands. Communism and war rep aside, this is still a market of 84 million people. While visiting a museum, I saw wedding photogrpahers using it as a backdrop for a rather glitzy shoot. The brand names are in significant numbers and the stores are replete with the latest HD flatscreens.
We hit the War Remnants Museum and, like its counterpart in Hiroshima, it would shake your heart.
Our first day was a long one, all on 4 hours sleep no less. We quickly tired of the traffic, noise and pollution which forces many scooter drivers to mask their mouths to fend off the fumes. I find that it detracts terribly from the classic Vietnam image of a woman riding along in an ao doi dressing on a bike or scooter.
It might sound a bit negative but we are heading off to Dalat to get away from the big city first thing tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

En Route

December 1 somewhere over the Pacific

After all of the efforts to protect myself with the means, medications, injections and hand cleanser that we have assembled for whatever contingencies we may encounter we are on our way to this strange, faraway land, about to put ourselves into the hands of complete strangers. We will sleep walk through the familiar rituals of airport immigration into an unfamiliar beyond, hopeful that our hotel and taxi arrangements have held firm and that these people will be as courteous as we anticipate.

December 10:30pm Hong Kong Airport
A few hours ago I mused to Nadine about leaving first thing Monday morning and getting to bed in the wee hours of Wednesday. At first it was a calculation that took into account immigration, and the taxi ride but now we have to add in United Airlines delays. We have spent about 24 hours within the surreal confines of that netherland beyond the airport security check point. We've actually been through three and have obediently and patiently gone through the rituals despite the decreased necessity. We took off our shoes without being asked in San Francisco and smirked to one another as we dumped our "secure" Vancouver water in San Francisco and San Francisco's in Hong Kong, where we needed to be inspected before we could enter the airport's arrival area.
The 4 hour delay from Hong Kong to Saigon has left us tired and vulnerable to the uncertainties of finding or getting to our hotel at 2:30 am instead of 10pm. Will our arranged taxi wait the 4 hours we have been delayed? Will our email update to the hotel have reached them in time? Will they be familiar and patient with the vagaries of United Airlines insolvency-inducing scheduling policies? Will they greet us with a welcome and compassion for weary travelers or will their be a put-upon forbearance reserved for the wealthy white traveler who must be carefully harvested to ensure the profitability of the relationship? I dread arriving in Saigon to the challenge of knitting a route to our hotel with my phrasebook, map and travel-addled mind.

December 3 Ho Chi Minh City 2:30am
Upon clearing immigration, I promptly dug out my phrasebook and gratuitously issued "cam on" to all I could thank. Our cab driver was there and we got to the hotel quite easily. By streetlight we could see ther promise of vibrant colours of the store shutters, the typical airport sprawl of DHL, KFC, Qantas and Pizza Hut. There were a few homeless making do in the forgiving tropical night and cleaners sweeping the streets by hand with straw brooms. Traffic even at this hour was dodgy, leading me to answer the age-old "What side of the road.." question with "the top." Intersections were preluded by a fanfare of honking from the ailing horn of the cabbie's Kia, and it was largely ignored whether by cyclist or semi. We arrived at the hotel to rouse our hosts into a groggy stride to the door and through the check-in procedure. We crashed into bed after welcome showers.

I'm sure I'd miss most of the trip if I went into as much detail as this. Suffice to say we're here and okay.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Anticipation: Vietnam

On this coming Tuesday night, Vietnam time, Tuesday morning by the turnings of my biological clock, I will step out of the luxurious placelessness of an airplane and into the unfamiliar surroundings of a tropical country I've never been to before. While leaving work this afternoon, a Vietnamese expatriate was quite surprised that I would go there of all places. She said that she went back a few years ago but found it too hot and lacking in anything compelling to keep her around. She said that after two weeks there she lit out for Singapore to while away the rest of her time in Asia before coming back. I replied that she was not going to change my mind about the place - I was still going.

I still don't have a satisfying answer to the question, "Why Vietnam?"
The simple answer is that my wife and I decided that our honeymoon would be to a place we'd never been to. So why not Iceland? Or New Zealand? Or Tahiti? It would be easy to discount them, but it still would not explain what hold the place has over my imagination. It is not that I have any hankering to retrace the war. If I happen to stumble upon some ruins I'll likely stop and ponder the history, both documented and unknown, that lies there, but I won't be hunting for it. An encounter with the ruin bodies or minds that are the legacy of war will probably stab at my stomach with a visceral discomfort that I don't consider central to a vacation, let alone a honeymoon. I have nothing to exorcise and I seek no closure there.

Perhaps it is a chance to visit Asia once again and encounter the grit and grace of a corner of the world that is developing but still clings to the vestiges of its culture and its routine. The west has tried to leave its mark on the place but the images I've seen so far still assert that Vietnam is a world away from the high-tech trappings and uniformity of the airplane cabin, replete with its automatted dinners and touch screen selects of ten movies I wouldn't pay to watch.

The food, sights, history, scenery and life of the country will be compelling and beguiling. I can't wait.