Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pearly white skin

Most Vietnamese women will go to any length to avoid getting sun on their skin -- and by extension, getting it the least bit tan and implying to everyone that they do manual labor for a living.

This woman is wearing a face mask, helmet, arm coverings, and long pants, even though it was a sweltering, 100+ degrees, incredibly humid day.

I've lost count of the number of Vietnamese who look at Westerners in shock when the latter go out onto the beach to lie in the sun and get a tan. I can practically hear them thinking to themselves "Those foreigners are crazy! Why would they ruin their white skin by making it darker?"

Ah, the things we do for beauty. It seems like the only rule for true beauty (one that cuts across cultures) is that it must be nigh-unattainable by the vast majority of the people in the community.


Store in a Box

Here's one option if you're an entrepreneur in Vietnam: first, you get this mini shipping container-looking thing and plop it down in the middle of the street. Second, you open for business!

I really like this concept. It's a cheap, modular store in a box, and safe, too -- the owners padlock them every night and put these sturdy iron bars across the doors. Products I've seen being sold out of a store in a box:

All sorts of food (veggies, meat, eggs, etc.)
Live birds (canaries, parakeets)
Bike helmets
And basically everything else you can think of.

These containers also seem easy to move -- you'd just need to hook it up to a truck w/ a trailer, and off you go.


Lenin's grim visage

I tried to go see Uncle Ho today, but alas -- the lines were too long. I asked a security guard if I could get in before the tomb closed for the day, and the man laughed in my face.

In the tradition of great Communist leaders everywhere, Ho Chi Minh is entombed in a plexiglas case, and thousands of Vietnamese come every day to pay their respects. From the little I've read, this was an amazing man. (Fun fact: Ho Chi Minh actually wanted to be cremated, but they ignored him and decided to preserve his body for posterity instead.)

While I didn't get to see Uncle Ho, I did come across an interesting statue of Lenin:

This man looks singularly humorless to me. I wonder what his favorite joke was. Probably something to do with how many bourgeoisie it takes to screw in a light bulb. ("One to screw in the bulb, and ten more to own the means of production! Har!")


The caves in Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay is full of spectacular karsh rock formations, similar to the ones in Yunnan Province in China.

However, there's more: inside the rocks are some of the most incredible caves I've ever seen. These caves were truly impressive. Some of the stalagmites and stalagtites went from the floor to the ceiling, as if they had melted and then sloughed to that position over time.

For those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans, it reminded me of that moment in Fellowship of the Ring when the party is in Moria, they walk into the Dwarrowdelf, and Gandalf shines the light from his staff, illuminating a gigantic room filled with stone columns.


War trophies

At the Army Museum in Hanoi, the Vietnamese have gathered quite a bit of hardware that they have either captured or destroyed over the years. Most of it is from the French and the Americans.

This piece in particular caught my eye -- it's a chunk of a B-52 bomber that got shot down during an air raid:

One reason this museum was so fascinating was that it gave the specific history of each item. For example, the caption of an AK-47 wouldn't just say "AK-47." It would say something like "This AK-47 was used by the hero Le Trang Nguyen to kill 4 enemy soldiers and capture 10 more during the assault at Dien Bien Phu."

Every item, from the canteens to the pieces of artillery, had these sorts of descriptions.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Teddy Bears

On my bus from Hoi An to Hue a few days ago, I noticed that the driver had put a pair of teddy bears on his dashboard. One of them is holding a red heart saying "I Love You."

One of the things I love about traveling is that it stimulates my imagination, and whenever something catches my eye that I can't explain, I invent an intricate and complicated backstory. For example, who gave these bears to this man? His wife? A mistress? His kids? What was the occasion, and how did he feel? Was he 100% happy, or was there a tinge of melancholy to this gift? Maybe someone saved for weeks to buy these bears. Or, perhaps they were handed down from someone else.

There's a short story in here somewhere.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Stretchy the Condom

I love this poster. I found it on the wall of this decidedly seedy bus station next to the toilets.

The figure in the middle, who I'm calling Stretchy the Condom, has his joyful, well-lubricated arms around a happy family, protecting them from the evils of HIV.

He's like the condom version of Smokey the Bear.


Lonely Planet

I wonder if Lonely Planet intended to become the economic sledgehammer for tourism-related businesses in the developing world that it is today.

Here's the context: while most backpackers would describe themselves as "shoestring," they rarely are compared to the places they visit. In fact, most backpackers in Vietnam, myself included, are carrying more value on their backs than most local families make in a year. These travelers have money to spend, and for those that are new to the country (most of them) they look to their Lonely Planet (or a handful of other guidebooks) to give them an idea of where to shop, eat, and stay, and which guides or touring companies to go with.

Furthermore, the effect is multiplied when other tourists see LPers patronizing a business, and they decide to go with that business as well. The herd can't be wrong, right?* I've seen this during my trip on many occasions -- one cafe will be busting at the seams with people, while the one right next door, from which it is truly indistinguishable (dishes/prices/decor are the same), is sadly empty.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions. How does Lonely Planet choose which businesses make it into the book? Do the businesses have a say? Can a business convince LP that it should get listed or is being listed entirely based on" merit," i.e. the secret opinion of the author? (If I were in the developing world tourism business, I'd try to get to know the Lonely Planet folks REAL well.)

Here's a tailoring shop that's bragging about its listing in the Vietnam LP:

You can't really see it b/c the photo is crappy, but the piece of paper says "Shop Thu Thao. Listed #1 in the Lonely Planet Guide."

The strange thing is, the sign kinda worked. I look more at that shop than I did at the 20 identical shops around it.


*My mom uses the crowd technique to decide which Chinese restaurant to eat at when she's in a new area. If a bunch of other native Chinese are there and look like they're having a good time, she trusts that. BUT, I think this technique applies to Chinese restaurants more than, say, American/Western/European restaurants.**

**This is because when it comes to food, most (southern) Chinese don't care about decor, service, ambiance, or cleanliness. What they care about is the quality and freshness of the food. If the food's awesome, they'll happily eat it sitting on a dirty plastic stool in someone's garage. You couldn't say that about the Western-ish restaurants I mentioned earlier, because their standard clientele DOES care about elements of the dining experience beyond the food. Ergo, you could use the crowd technique, but then your error rate goes up, because then there are many other variables at play beyond the food.***

***Hypothetical Italian restaurant: Maybe the couple in the corner likes the candles and the dim lighting. Maybe the single old guy has his eye on the waitress. Maybe the big family celebrating the birthday knows the chef. Point is, whatever it is you want to prioritize in a restaurant -- and it doesn't have to be food quality -- you may not be able to get from the crowd technique unless you know that the patrons all used a similar decision-making process when they chose the restaurant.****

****Jeez. This went way beyond a reflection on Lonely Planet. This is what happens when I begin typing stream of consciousness style rather than having a clear goal in mind. These endnotes and PS's are death to me as a writer -- I love them, but they're bad for me.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Coffee, Weather, and Travel

One small benefit of France's colonization of Indochina is that Vietnam has AMAZING coffee and baguettes. In these parts, everyone drinks this super-strong espresso-ish coffee in the morning.

So, you pour a little condensed milk into the cup, laythe filter on top, put in fresh coffee grounds, and fill it with boiling water. Then, coffee dribbles down, and when the cup is full, you add as much ice as you like to regulate temperature and dilute the strength of the coffee as needed. It's sweltering here, so an iced coffee every day hits the spot.

Let's talk about the weather in Hoi An a bit (a fascinating topic, I know). Apparently, this town gets hit w/ 8-10 typhoons every year. They flatten a whole bunch of fences and small buildings, and they the Vietnamese just stoically rebuilt them again. Yeesh. I suppose the commercial and tourist value of this city (it's the tailoring capital of Vietnam, where you can get a high quality, hand-made suit for $100) makes it worth it, but still...everywhere I go, there are sounds of jackhammers burrowing into the ground.

As for the heat: it reminds me of the opening scene of that movie Sexy Beast (where Ben Kingsley plays this mad-dog gangster). The main character, played by Ray Winstone, is intentionally getting sunburned by the pool, and he's saying in a rough British accent:

"Aw yeah. Awww yeah. I'm roastin' here. Really roastin'. Boilin'. Bakin'. Swelterin'. Aww yeah."

The only difference is that he's enjoying it, and I'm not. The sun is like a hammer, and the instant you step into it, you're covered in sweat and your shirt sticks to you like glue. On the other hand, there are some amazing sunrises in the mornings:

This was taken on my bus from Da Nang to Hoi An, after I got off a rather horrific sleeper-train ride where my cabin was filled with this sewage smell and the train rocked back and forth and slammed my head against the walls as I slept on my dirty bunk. Ah well. "All part of the experience" as they say.

Believe it or not, I still perversely enjoy traveling cheap, especially when it's a bit rough and uncomfortable. That said, how I travel is still light-years more comfy than how the average Vietnamese person travels. But it's all relative, so I'm gonna give myself a break on this one.


The Vietnamese in general

To generalize a bit, the Vietnamese seem like an incredibly hardy people. They'd almost have to be to have such a (seemingly?) successful and vibrant country so few decades after the "American War."

Fun fact: the Vietnamese think it's lucky to run into a funeral procession in the morning. Why? Because that person is dead, and you're not -- at least for now.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

I'm an uncle!

My sister Joanne gave birth to her daughter Cecilia a day or so ago. I can't remember the last time I looked forward to something as much as I'm looking forward to being an Uncle.

Everything else pales in comparison.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Masses of humanity in Saigon

There are more motorbikes and scooters in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City than I ever could have dreamed. Saigon contains a population of ~10 million, and it seems like 8 million of them are riding a motorbike at any given time. (Note: the pic below doesn't do it justice by far.)

Think of a hundred motorbike dealerships having all of their bikes on the move, all at the same time. That's what it was like. In order to cross this neverending human/mechanical river, you need a blistering combination of faith and bravery -- one must step out into the stream, walk consistently, and most importantly, have faith that somehow, it'll all work out. (And it has -- so far.)

One more interesting photo:

Look at that massive cluster of power/phone/whatever lines! I think the fire marshal would have a fit if s/he saw it.


My midlife crisis

I've decided to have my mid-life crisis at least 10 years early.


Because I rode on the back of a motorcycle today, in Chau Doc in Vietnam, right across the Cambodian border.

It was shocking, joyful, unadulterated fun. Now I want to drive a motorcycle, and a mid-life crisis is a good excuse to get one. Riding on this motorcycle made me feel (cliche alert!) completely free, the wind in my hair, experiencing the majesty of the open road, etc etc.

And I had these feelings when I was riding on the back. Just imagine, if you will, what it'd be like to drive one of these suckers, weaving in and out of traffic, passing those who are tragically less cool than you, and living life on your terms. Yeah.

(Now I know why those jackasses on motorcycles insist on splitting lanes and speeding even when it's clearly dangerous.)


A tough life

Not to complain about my vacation, but it's pretty tiring to get up early and fill every day with loads of activities. Plus, there are long hours on buses, boats, and trains, and it's, like, really hot and muggy. *Violin playing a sad song, just for me*

That's why I decided to go on a vacation from my vacation -- Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia is an unabashed tourist beach paradise, where I relaxed, snorkeled, and read long novels. Of course, behind the facade was a horror of impoverished Cambodians scraping a meager living off of wealthy, pasty-faced tourists like me, but I managed to relax anyway.

Now that I've reread this post, I think the social commentary is getting a bit tiresome. I'll try to edit myself a bit more. Maybe as a stretch goal, to even post something that lacks liberal guilt!


Rarer than a white rhino...

Rarer than a white rhino is a seat belt on a Cambodian bus. I managed, at great risk to life and limb, to snap a photo of this elusive creature. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:

With careful husbandry, the population of seat belts in Cambodia will grow and become sustainable.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Caught in a rainstorm at the Royal Palace

It's the beginning of monsoon season, and sometimes when it rains in Cambodia, it pours! This street in Phnom Penh turned into a stream after about 30 minutes of some of the hardest rain I've ever seen:

Nothing quite humbles like an awesome display of weather.


Tuol Sleng

Spent yesterday morning in Phnom Penh. I started at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum -- a former high school that was converted into a torture center during the Pol Pot years. Then, I went out to see the Killing Fields.

These places defy description, so I won't try.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Angelina Jolie

Apparently, this is one of the temples that Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider in. I looked for her as we toured all the temples in the area, but surprisingly, she was nowhere to be found.

My imagination went into overdrive as we saw temple after temple. In particular, I was dying to replay that scene in Indiana Jones when he grabs the idol off of the stone pedestal, and then makes a run for it as darts shoot out from the walls and the place starts collapsing. *cue theme song* And then, I roll under the wall right as it sliding down, but wait! My hat falls off! But I reach in and grab it just in time before it closes!


On the list of all the things you'd never expect to be carried on a motorcycle...

All right y'all, check this out: a guy in on the road between Sakaew and Siem Reap in Cambodia, carrying several LIVE pigs tied up on the back of his motorcycle. They kicked and struggled violently (or tried to) whenever he passed too close to another vehicle or swerved too sharply.

This stuff is priceless.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wats, Wats, and More Wats

In Bangkok so far, it's been all Wats, all the time (Wats=temples). This one is called Wat Pho -- a pretty amazing sight. The monks' chanting was making my bones vibrate in a strangely pleasant way.

Many of the monks in this picture are teenagers. Can any of you imagine making a religious commitment and living as a monk at that age? I certainly can't.

Lastly, here's a photo I found hilarious, taken on Khao San Road, a nauseating-but-compelling tourist strip in Bangkok:

Apparently Ronald McDonald is a practitioner of Theravada Buddhism.


Monday, May 11, 2009

It begins!

I'm leaving for Southeast Asia this evening, and will return in mid-July. The most ridiculous thing I'm taking along:

8 lbs. of beloved (but soon-to-be-discarded) paperbacks, which will weigh down my backpack and probably leave me with a huge crick in my neck.

Thank god I'm going to a land where massages cost $5. I can't wait to get some wizened old Thai woman to scream "Hiii yaaa!" while she bends my arms back and grinds her heel into my trapezius.

Reflection of the day:

I've realized that I'm carrying all of these books because I instinctively dread boredom and expect constant entertainment out of life. This disturbs me in a quasi-spiritual sort of way.

I wonder which was the last generation to not expect (or at least sincerely hope) to have fun every minute of every day.