"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)
Friday, May 28, 2010
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The next morning I woke up at dawn to the sounds of various farm animals, which was fine since we were slated to take a sunrise boat trip on the lake to "see how the local people are living," in the oft-repeated words of Mr. H. More specifically, the myriad ways of fishing which are practiced on lakes and rivers in Vietnam. There's the traditional casting of a net, and of course the even more basic casting of a line. Or there's smacking the water with oars to scare the fish into submission. And then, the ever-mysterious giant net floating above the water on poles, rigged somehow to fall at catch fish after attracting them with its waving in the breeze.
After the boat trip, which was conducted, incidentally, in a dugout canoe that Native Americans would've been proud of, it was time for breakfast. The French, who colonized Vietnam, left a legacy of architecture and baguettes. And Laughing Cow cheese. Unfortunately, the baguettes are crusty and a little too airy. But still better than Korean bread, and a good thing to have around for a snack, or breakfast.
The morning was spent on another lovely ride through the countryside, punctuated with stops to observe brick-making, quarrying (a roadside operation involving 3 guys, some chisels and hammers, and huge chunks of rock recently blasted out of the nearby cliff), sugar refining and rice noodle making. The rice noodles are made much the same way I used to make Play-Doh spaghetti-- a dough put into a giant press, which is, of course, pressed, and the noodles are squirted out into hot water, where they are instantly cooked.
For lunch, we ate a picnic of fruit, baguettes and cheese at a park before visiting some waterfalls. I got to swim in a beautiful, primordial pool where there was no sign of humans or human influence. Then it was back on the bike. We got to the hotel around dinner time. I had a nice room, nicer than most places I'd been staying, with air conditioning and cable and a big, comfy bed. Which is really nice after a long day on the back of a motorbike. After a glorious shower and rest, I met Mr. H. in the lobby to head to dinner. We went to a place where you roll your own spring rolls, which was super fun, and delicious. They used strips of lettuce, pork, noodles, cucumber, starfruit and green banana, which we wrapped in fresh rice paper and dipped in a peanut-y sauce. Yum.
When I got back to the room, there was a baseball game on. Yankees vs. Red Sox, but I still watched it, and found out that the Mets game was on the next morning, starting 1 1/2 hours before I was supposed to meet Mr. H. for breakfast. So, I set my alarm and fell right to sleep.
So I set off the next morning, just me, a motorbike, a driver and, of course, my backpack wrapped in layers of waterproof tarp and strapped on the back of the bike. We left at 8 am, and in just a few minutes we were out on the open road.
The first leg of the trip was on a local highway that wound through villages and rice paddies that were framed by mountains. The sun beat down on me, but the breeze was enough to keep me cool. Already, after about 10 minutes, there wasn't a sign of tourists or tourism, or English, for that matter, unless you count the occasional shouted commentary coming from my guide/driver, Mr. H.
An hour outside the city, we stopped at a village Mr. H. introduced as the Chicken Village. It has a giant (and I mean giant) statue of a chicken in the middle of what would normally be another small, rural minority village. Now, it's in the tour books and part of some package day tours. And the reason has less to do with chickens than one would think.
The story goes something like this. Years ago, a young woman and a young man fell in love. They wanted to get married, and their parents agreed, but the man's father had one condition. He was a cock fighter, and he told the woman to go up into the hills to catch him a rooster to fight with. She did as he asked, but after weeks of searching, she couldn't find anything. Instead of coming back to admit defeat, she killed herself. Her lover went up into the hills to find her, found her, and died of a broken heart. So, in an obviously relevant move, the government gave the village a statue of a giant chicken in commemoration.
My guide showed me around the village, and told me about how the people lived and farmed. Some of the villagers greeted us, shouting "hello!" out of doorways. I met one woman who was undergoing the traditional treatment for the flu, which was blood-letting from little pinches in the neck. Leaving her neck spotted with purple welts. She told me "If I did not do this, I would die." Well. Next time I have the flu, I'll take that under advisement.
Then we started what I like to call "Vietnamese Cottage Industries 101." In other words, when my guide stopped at random houses where he happened to know that people produce some kind of homemade goods. The alternate title for this course is "Microeconomics of Developing Asian Countries," but that's a little pretentious. I obviously had a lot of time of think on the back of that bike.
Anyway, the first stop of whatever you want to call it was a temple where I learned how they make incense. Which is pretty cool. They make this dough-like substance out of sandlewood, sawdust and other aromatic substances, then roll it onto thin bamboo sticks, then lay them all out into the sun to dry.
Let's see, what else did I learn how to make/grow that day? Mushrooms (which is a pretty cool process involving complex marshmallow-looking bags of stuff hung under a tent from which mushrooms grow like deformed ears), separating the good rice from the bad rice when you pick it (pour it onto a tarp in front of a fan- the good stuff falls down, the bad stuff blows off the tarp) and smashing up leaves from the forest for dinner with a seriously gigantic mortar and pestle.
At the last minority village of the day, after crossing an awfully sketchy bridge, we were invited into a communal longhouse for a drink. The sun was setting, and most of the village was gathering for a party- a celebration of a good rice harvest, with, of course, homemade rice wine.
The host was an ancient man, a former interpreter for the Americans during The War, who seemed to not have spoken English since. Which made him all the more enthusiastic to speak English, but not any more comprehensible. So, I drank the rice wine, and learned a few things about partying, villager style.
1) Everyone drinks the same amount of wine, so as to promote equality, but
2) The men and women sit on different sides of the room.
3) A direct quote from my host-- "When we have a party, we don't eat. We drink. Because when everybody drinks, we can all know each other more." I like his thinking.
4) There's no chance of anyone drunk driving, but drunk walking over sketchy bridges is only slightly safer.
That night, I slept in a longhouse in another village on the side of a lake. I sat on the porch and watched it rain in the twilight, as all kinds of free-range farm animals sought cover under the houses and kids ran around under umbrellas. Then, I slept soundly under a mosquito net.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Anyway, enough complaining. I wish I could write updates of everything I've been doing...it's been a great past week or so that I haven't written about, but every time I finally search out a computer, I get a headache from the frustration. I know, I'm not the most patient person, but there it is. Slowness, or being surrounded by loads of Vietnamese kids playing and arguing over online games. So, it may be a few weeks until I blog again. I'm headed to China next week, and I'm not too optimistic about the internet there, since it's government-controlled and censored anyway.
I promise, many stories and commentary once I get to a decent internet connection, but realistically, with this backup, it probably won't be until I get back to Korea in 3 1/2 weeks. Urgh. Maybe I'll get lucky.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I finally stayed in a hostel with a dorm, which I prefer because its easier to meet people. Which I did. The first afternoon in Saigon, I was sitting on my bed, trying to organize my trip from there, when I met a guy from Canada who asked if I'd like to come with him and another guy to find the old American Embassy...the one from the war where they supplied by air when Saigon was under seige, and where they had to airlift hundreds of people out right before the city fell. We found moto drivers who said they knew where it was, but they took us to the new Embassy instead. The guard at the embassy told us the old one was destroyed, so we just wandered the neighborhood of the emassy and beyond.
We ended up walking down some residential alleys, and getting a good feel for the city as the locals live it. We stopped for a soda at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with plastic chairs and metal tables on the sidewalk. The Canadian guy (sorry but I forget their names!) ordered some chicken by randomly pointing to the menu. I just stuck to my soda.
After we made it back to the backpacker area, we had a few beers at another hole-in-the-wall place, this one with similar seating, but selling just beer, especially the local tap beer that comes in huge metal kegs. You get it in a plastic jar...1liter for about 50 cents. It's not bad, either. Anyway, after a beer, I went back to the hostel to take a nap, then came back out, met up with the same people again, at the same place, for some more beers. We ended up meeting lots of other people, because the old woman who ran the place would push people into sharing tables, and continue to add seats and tables that spilled out into the street. It was a nice night, great to talk to some people after those few days more or less alone in the Delta. But, the next day, I was getting tired of the city and the tourist areas, and headed on a bus north to Dalat, in the Central Highlands.
Today, I was in Dalat. I took a great motorbike tour through the mountains, visiting a waterfall, a minority village, a coffee plantation and other sites. The guide was part of a group called the Easy Riders, who tour people around on their vintage motorcycles (which are awesome!). I had such a good time, I agreed to a 5-day/4-night tour through the mountains, including one night homestay, a boat ride on a lake, some waterfalls, and countless other stops in rural Vietnam. He had a book of testimonials from other tourists who had gone with him, and there will be other tourists doing the same thing, that I'll be with in the restaurants and guesthouses, and some of the stops. I'm really excited...it sounds like a great time, and it'll be nice to get off the tourist trail and where people aren't constantly trying to sell me something. I'll be on the road until Monday night, my time, at which point I'll be in Hoi An, an old city on the coast that I was going to anyway.
Well, off I go. I'm sure I'll have plenty to write about when I get back....and photos to put up, if I EVER find a computer that can read my memory cards! :)
We got to Chao Doc, Vietnam, which is in the Mekong Delta. However, the three of us immediately caught a minibus to Can Tho, where there is more to do and more hostels to stay at. A few hours later, exhausted, we arrived. I found a decent hostel and checked in, also booking a river tour the next morning to see the floating markets and the canals.
The next morning, at 5:30 am, I was picked up on foot by the driver of my boat, who spoke very minimal English but was very kind and good at communicating with what he knew. We stopped at another hostel to pick up two more people-- a Canadian aerospace engineer and a British student-- and headed to the docks.
Our trusty craft was a small wooden boat with 2 benches facing forward, with no roof. The driver stood on the back and ran the motor and steering system. The sun was rising, and the river was coming to life, bathed in orange light.
The first two stops were floating markets. These entail boats of all sizes, stationary and in motion, buying and selling mostly produce, but also some clothing and meat. Women in triangular rice paddy hats stood on the front of their small wooden boats, paddling around each other and pulling up beside a boat to make a sale. Boats were laden with one kind of fruit or another, filled to the brim. People bargained, gossiped and weighed produce on the boats, simultaneously selling their goods and buying supplies for their own houses.
Next we went on through the canals, past wooden houses on stilts, people bathing, swimming and cleaning laundry in the river. At one point, we got out and walked around in a village, and our guide showed us fruit trees, a duck farm (where all the ducks had been dyed pink...I'm assuming to keep track of them), and then let us walk down the path by ourselves, while he went ahead and waited for us farther down the river.
Lunch was at a nice little family-run place on an island, with tables under huts outside. Just when we got there, it was starting to rain. While we ate, it poured. Though we stayed mostly dry under the hut, I was chilly for the first time in weeks.
That didn't last long, and soon it was hot again. However, apparently we had had a folding roof on the boat the whole time, which the driver put up as soon as it started to rain. It would have been nice to have that in the hot sun! Oh well, though. It really wasn't too hot.
Later that afternoon, after we finished the tour, I got on a bus to My Tho, another small city in the Mekong Delta. I was planning on going from there to Ben Tre, which is an island across the river, and supposedly less touristed and more relaxing. But, I arrived to My Tho in the evening, so I decided to stay there for the night. The hostel was nice...I was on the fifth floor, and had a great view of the river and canals, illuminated in the setting sun.
The next morning, I headed out for Ben Tre. A bridge had recently been built to the island, so I wouldn't have to take a ferry. I took a cyclo to the bridge with a very nice older man. A cyclo is basically a bicycle with a carriage seat on the front, so you sit in front while the driver bicycles from behind. It's a pretty slow way to go, and I always feel bad for the driver, but this one was nice. He had been an interpreter for the American Army in the war, and spoke excellent English. We had a great conversation on the way to the bridge, where he dropped me off and waited with me for the city bus...much cheaper than a moto taxi (on the back of a motorbike) would have been. However, before the city bus got there, a moto driver came to offer to take me. He started at an exorbitant price-- 50,000 dong, about 4 dollars-- but my cyclo driver talked him down to 10,000--about 50 cents, and maybe 10 cents more than the bus. I took it, since he would drop me right at the guesthouse.
I checked into the guesthouse, then wandered around the city. At this point, I hadn't seen another tourist since I got off my boat tour the previous day. It's low season, and tourism in the region is suffering from the bad global economy and also the instability in Thailand. Many tourists use Bangkok as a base, and fly in and out of the airport there. Since there were protests a few months ago, and a crowd of protesters occupied the airport in December, tourism has dropped sharply. Thailand is the most developed and stable country in the region, so if people don't feel safe going there, they won't go anywhere in the region. (Don't worry...it's perfectly safe as long as you're not stupid, it's just peoples' perceptions)
There wasn't much to do in Ben Tre, and the boat tours were way more expensive than the one I had taken. So, I had a nice, relaxing day, reading in a park by a lake, and spending a lot of the afternoon in an outdoor cafe that for some reason was showing Tom and Jerry on a flatscreen TV. It's a universal show...the Vietnamese people in the cafe thought it was hilarious. I must admit, it was pretty funny.
The next day, I took another minibus to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Back to a city, but only for a short while.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
The National Museum is housed in a beautiful building in traditional Cambodian style, and houses mainly scultpures and statues from the pre-colonial period. Including many of the pieces that would have filled the temples I had just been to, and relics from before that time. It was nice to see what would have filled the empty altars I'd seen, and to get a sense of where all that architecture and style came from. The building also had a beautiful courtyard.
After that, I had lunch at a great restaurant that doubles as a training school for street kids...they have a few restaurants, and a school for kids, too. The place was great...very delicious food, and it was nice to feel like I was doing something. There are beggars all over the city, and you just can't give everyone money....
That afternoon, in the driving wind and rain, I took a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields. The Killing Fields is a memorial on the site of former mass graves from the Khmer Rouge regime that terrorized the country for years and killed thousands of citizens in the name of a communist revolution. It the sad story that, unfortunately, has happened too many times. International forces that could step in frozen by their projections and interpretations of the situation, and how they interpret their best interest. The memorial was sobering, to say the least. It was still a dreary day, and the field was filled with pits where they dug up the mass graves. There were, apparently, bones still showing up in the dirt. I didn't see any. Luckily.
After that, I went to the genocide museum at a former detention/torture center. That, also, was sobering. And depressing. You walked through the old cells, where you can still see dark stains on the floor from blood, and old bed frames and torture instruments. They have massive displays of photos of all the old prisoners there, that the Khmer Rouge had taken when they came in. Their expressions ran the gauntlet from scared to surprised to angry to defiant. It hard to deal with, but something I know I'll have to deal with in my life, since one of the things I'm thinking about for a career is war crimes prosecutions, and dealing with the aftermath of genocide and other human rights violations. It's something I know would be hard, and this didn't put me off it, but it was still sobering to see these things in real life.