Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Saigon: "They're friendly harassers"

Note to self: change file names photos Saigon.

Sign on the wall at internet cafe: "Please do not enter to the restricted websites which containg sex stuffs"

Flight Hue to Saigon easy. Walked out of terminal Saigon airport and were (what else) besieged by taxi drivers, all wanting $10 for ride into town. We sat down on bags and waited until all the customers had been driven away and then started bargaining. Finally got a ride for $6, which was only a few dong less than what the meter read, so fine. Headed to Happy Tours in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area, but they had moved, so parked Leslie in a coffee shop with our bags, and walked to the "backpacker alleys" to find a place. We ended up at the Kim Hotel - $18 for aircon room with hot water, icebox, lift and computer downstairs (all the places include computer now as they all have to have internet so they can keep the government up to date on where everyone is). Photo: homework on the lane

Had a good dinner, walked around some, got a mango shake, and to bed. Up early for com tam thit nuong (rice with pork chop and egg on top + a few veggies) and several glasses of cafe sua da (ice coffee with sweetened condensed milk) - I'm a cardiovascular adventurer, that's for sure - atherosclerosis, I sneer at your threats. Walked to Ben Thanh Market where I got a The North Face copy pack for $13.

Kind of in the center of Ben Thanh there is a food court area, where all sorts of wonderful food is sold cheap. When you walk by or into the food court area, women pull at your arms, "Here, sir. Here. Good food. You want menu - you sit down here."and so on. You have to just keep walking (unless something looks/sounds good), "No thank you. No thank you." VN is not a place for people with body space issues, that's for sure. We ended up with more pork, more coffee and some jackfruit (78000 dong for all - less than $5USD). Photo: Bui Vien Street - the main street through the Saigon backpacker area

Saigon is a kind of resting place for us and here is our scene there: enjoying seeing the everyday life that goes on everywhere, sidewalks and streets and many homes opening on to the sidewalks. Today the cops came to the flower sellers section just as we also arrived. People running every which way, frantically throwing flowers and cuttings and arrangements into their shops. "Clearing the flowers off the sidewalks so more motos can park," says the sarcastic Ms. Leslie. Anyway, our joy is seeing parents caring for babies, children getting out of school, boyfriends/girlfriends, old people and just everyday stuff - people making deals, pedicure ladies doing their thing on stools on the sidewalk, sidewalk teashops & coffee shops, sidewalk cafes in carts, each one selling 1 or 2 specialties - (Just another cafe on a mist-swept alley & we were all in love with Hoang's 2 sad daughters - derived Robert Earl Keen)

Breakfast in an alley off Bui Vien - where we ate several times our last time through - com tam thit nuong (charcoal pork on rice, etc.). I shared a table (perched on a small plastic stool) with a father and 3-4 year old daughter. He had a big bowl of assorteds, like big rectangles of clabbered blood (as Miriam called it), something really gooshy, several bones and who knows what all. The little girl had a smaller bowl with the blood (cut into small pieces) and gooshy stuff. I could hardly look at their food. Coffee was excellent, so I had another glass. Earlier I got a glass of coffee earlier at a place next door to our hotel. I paid, took the glass back to the hotel and brought it back 20 minutes later and walked away. The woman came running after me with the change I'd forgotten earlier.

Walking through a crowded market I felt Leslie reach forward to take my hand. I took hold of her hand, but instantly knew it wasn't her - it was a woman letting me know she wanted past. Another time a lady patted me on the bottom to get past. Well, okay. Photo: do NOT eat fresh vegetables or ice that's what most of the books say, anyway, but no problemo

Saigon (and Hanoi) are famous among travelers for crossing the insanely busy streets. It goes like this: see an opening (and we're talking very small here) in the first lane and start across at a steady pace, angling slightly against the grain, never hesitating, never reacting and let the motos, cyclos, bikes, cars, trucks, etc. find their way around you. Better to not look at what's coming - it's just too much for the faint-hearted. Once in the approximate center (you didn't think the center dividing line was anymore than a suggestion, did you?), do the same for the opposite lane. It all works pretty well and after a day or so you begin to feel confident, like yeah, I've got this sussed and never mind that traffic/pedestrain morbidity/mortality is a huge public health problem in VN. Photo: Kim Hotel - $18 double

(I just went to the toilet in this Phnom Penh internet cafe. Walked through the back, down a hall, into a bedroom where two young women lounged, languid on a sleeping platform and to the toilet in the corner of the room - an all-time 5-star clean rating with 7 or 8 toothbrushes in a cup above the sink.)

Today, like the market rats we are, we went to the Ben Thanh Market for Leslie to have a look at the gold stores on the facing street. Waiting for her outside meant look being a magnet for the beggars outside the market - a parade of the afflicted - walking, stumping, crawling; on crutches, on carts, on nothing; blind, weeping sores, babies limp. So I went into the market. There, after looking briefly at some trousers and telling the woman that I wanted to talk with my wife before deciding as she went lower and lower on her price, she pronounced, "You a bad man!" Photo: Welcome Travel on Pham Ngu Lao Street (http://www.welcometravelvietnam.com/) - An on the phone, Leslie looking at wedding pics

Leslie writing about same times in Saigon in an email to David: After I started this, we talked online so I'll just begin with later. We found Uncle Ned but alas, he no longer serves his rice and pork chop "a pla" (with egg) so your Dad had to have it plain. We got coffee across the street and returned the glasses after breakfast as everyone seems to be in business together so this is the custom. You just put together the meal you want from assorted places and then either you or the place you actually sit redistributes the dishes, etc. Seems to work great for everyone especially the customer who gets exactly what he wants. We did the same thing at the huge market for lunch - pork on rice with a pla from #1, bun thit nuong from #3, and cafe with milk from #3. We sat at #1 and they returned everything for us. Only one person collected payment, the total bill so I have no idea how that works. Maybe it's all just one giant company!

One challenge is getting any coffee or tea without sugar or condensed milk. Black coffee as listed on the menu (and distinct from coffee with condensed milk) is so sweet it hurts my teeth. I have given your Dad 3 cups of coffee so far today as I have not been able to order successfully. He's happy and has a great caffein rush while I've had none! So a girl who works at our hotel just wrote for me "Coffee, no milk, no sugar, no nothing (her words)" and the same for tea. Now I'm armed and ready for tomorrow so we'll see. Photo: food court at Ben Thanh Market

After breakfast we headed for the Bin Thanh Market (sp?) which is a great one. We looked around and then went out on the side where the florists and backpack shops are. Your Dad found a North Face copy that he really likes for $13 USD so it was a successful trip. I got mired in the middle of a conversation between a sunglasses salesman and a young couple who had just discovered that they paid $54 USD for a pair of RayBan copies and were not happy campers. But certainly here, the slogan "Buyer Beware" is not just a motto but a creed here so too bad for them. But then I wound up getting my copy sunglasses for $1 USD - I told the guy from the get go that I paid $1 in America and wouln't pay another dong more here. He came down to $30, the $10, then $5 with me saying "Read my lips - $1, no more!" As I turned to walk away he said "OK Madame, $1, OK?" Sold to the lowest bidder. When you go the the Russian Market I'll do your bargaining if you want - I discovered when I bought the Highlander that the trick is to not care if you get it or not. Just decide what you're willing to pay and hang tough. If you don't get the one you're looking at, the next vendor/salesman isn't far behind. Photo: market

We also saw some stunning floral arrangements that the florists put together as the customer orders exactly what she wants - the wedding bouquets are amazing. I wonder how many kinds of orchids they grow here? Then the Police came and made the florists move the displays off the sidewalk, surely so more motos could park there- but as soon as he turned the corner, the flowers came back out. Victory for the people! We are getting ready to nap now and maybe then your Dad will go to an internet cafe to upload pictures. Let's try to talk again tomorrow my morning as we did today. You haven't mentioned the IPod so I want to see what's up with that and also the interviews. I love you son. See you soon. Mom Photo: Santa's Little Helper

CK here: walking along Pham Ngu Lao street, I saw one of the young women (An) who used to work in Happy Tours. She was pretty shocked that I remembered her. We talked for a bit. The next day I brought Leslie by her tour company (Welcome Travel - http://www.welcometravelvietnam.com/). Had a look at her wedding photos - good times. Took off through a narrow alley cutting through the block, narrow, people doing what they do. Vietnam, good times.

Bus leaving for Phnom Penh tomorrow morning at 8. Here we go again.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hue (a little Hoi An)

On our last day in Hanoi we met Alison and her two children, Alex and Rose - two true Australian teens - for breakfast. One day I guess we'll have a bad experiencve with an Australian, but so far, over a good many years it's been all good. Had a good time, packed, had a last cafe sua da and away to the airport. Photo: Perfume River in Hue

I made a really goofy mistake booking tickets Hanoi to Danang. For some reason I was under the erroneous impression that there were no flights to Hue. So we were thinking and scheming - maybe spend the night in Danang; maybe catch bus to Hue. We finally figured out what to do after landing in Danang - was talking with Terrance, a young man from Malaysia (the one who gave his seat to Leslie), who said they were going to Hoi An. I immediately knew the way to go, and we shared a taxi from Danang to Hoi An. So here we are in Hoi An, where David and Jeff and I had some seriously good times in 2005 (uh-oh, just discovered that my photos in VN 2005 site are gone - something else to sort out when we get home). We're staying at the Vinh Hung 3 Hotel ($22/night), which is nicer than our usual, but we're getting in touch with the realities of the limitations that have visited us with age - no more people's buses, no more non-aircon $2 GH rooms (the worst was one in Rangoon where the walls went up about 6 feet, then chicken wire to the ceiling), no more 8 hour hikes through weird places, etc., etc.

Had some okay shrimp with garlic and tomatoes, decent french fries, and good sauteed spinach for afternoon meal. Later we got chicken quarters with rice, noodles, papaya, that strange-tasting VN leafy vegetable, chilis, lime garlic and a little bowl of blood soup (I didn't realize that's what it was until I tasted it - hmmm). The chicken was 30000 dong (less than $2USD); the shrimp etc was 80000 (about $5USD). Eating the chicken we were accompanied by 2 dogs under the table, using their noses very gently to remind us to drop some scraps on the ground. Photo: Imperial City

So tomorrow we catch the $4 tourist bus to Hue - a 5 hour trip, including an hour stop at a beach somewhere - one more swim in the South China Sea for me. The tourist bus is about 70/30 Vietnamese and travelers. Very nice reclining seats (that did not sit up, so it took a pack and other stuff to kind of sit up. The most comfortable bus ride ever. It's raining and Leslie tells me Van Morrison is singing, "Oh the water, Oh, oh the water, let it run all over me ..." (Problem - no good photos from bus)

The stop at a beach is not a stop at a beach, but a restaurant near a beach. Leslie goes to the WC and comes back to give me her purse. "I don't think I can do this while I'm holding anything." That is, it's a squat toilet. While she was waiting to use the toilet and talking with two young women from Singapore, two Vietnamese women slipped ahead of them in the line (because Leslie and her acquaintences didn't keep the line closed up. "I'm glad this isn't my first rodeo." She says, "Not good to be learning these things at our age."

It's raining and we're driving through padi and garden land with houses pastel blue, blue, green, yellow, cream, white, violet, orange, pink - in that Vietnamese style and sense of style. Photo: Imperial City

Oh! 19th Nervous Breakdown from Got Live album just came on my iPod and I flash back to being a few miles north of here, in my last few months in Vietnam in 1967 when I was in a "psychological operations" unit and we'd go on large operations with Marine units and (listen, this is true) broadcast Buddhist funeral music on big portable speakers that we'd hauled up into trees and there was a Vietnamese guy who went with us and he'd talk to the other guys (NVA) and tell them to give up (chieu hoi) and we'd get bored with that and we had these tapes, including a Rolling Stones tape from the Got Live album and we'd play things like, Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows and 19th Nervous Breakdown really loud in the night at the DMZ and sooner or later the NVA would start shooting (yeah, they'd give up about like we'd give up - Marines that is, not America) and around midnight one of us would crawl out and lower the speakers.

The bus driver is going slow through the rain, past these houses, past a funeral, past a wedding, houses and garden and padi all green and it's edging toward psychedelic here. Green! Vietnam! Photo: Imperial City

Through mountains and there goes the train on our left and on the right the South China Sea and there went the remnants of a French blockhouse - High Flying Bird and then Barricades of Heaven, a song about a place in time, not geography- "Oh the world is shining!" Water buffalo, padi and muddy dikes like I've walked a thousand times, some of the padi ready to plant (all is wet and watery and muddy), buffalo boy riding a buff, wearing a sheet of plastic sheet and conical hat. Cane, chickens, pigs, ducks; Leslie points out a vast cemetary set into the side of the hills on our left. And we go bumping, the bus swaying and across a one lane bridge.

Goin' Down to Old Woodstock, Bullet the Blue Sky, little girl on a pink bicycle, holding on to her straw hat, riding down a dirt path. A temple, another river, another temple, another wedding all the bridesmaids wearing pastel orange ao dais, looking good (I said something earlier about the Vietnamese sense of style, right), through a beautiful tiny town, lanes and rectangular pools of water, ducks, children playing, people having tea, all the houses open in the front, Lady With a Fan/Terrapin Station, duck farm with many ducklings destined for a dinner table, maybe a wedding table.

All the everywhere now muddy. Woman sitting in her front room sewing, people having tea, a midday meal - Oh! An arbor! Chickens on a front porch, another river. If this is a tourist bus, how come most of the people are Vietnamese and there's a Chinese action movie in Vietnamese on the TV - on the other hand, the movie isn't really blaring so that's a check in the it's a tourist bus column. Altars at most of the houses along this road. Leslie just gave me some of the vaselin (no e on this brand) she bought in Hanoi. Small temples along the way, water cokes beer etc. for sale and there's another river and here comes the market, Cho Phu Bai. Photo: The people's bus at Hue market

I was in Phu Bai in 1967. That's where a small contingent of men from C Company stayed while the rest went to Khe Sanh. I went to Phu Bai to visit my friend Jeff and we were drinking in the squad tent that the REMFs had there and had a can of C-rats cooking on a little heat tab stove and a sergeant who was also in the tent told us to quit. We didn't and he got agitated and he and Jeff ended up fighting and in addition to Jeff beating him down, the sgt stepped on the still lit heat tab, which stuck to his foot giving him a pretty good burn. The outcome of the whole thing (in addition to the interrupted party) was that Jeff got sent to Khe Sanh, which was okay with him, except that he was wounded at Khe Sanh, but not badly, so no problemo. Miss Sarejovo (Miss Saigon).

Still on the road to Hue: old mossy Catholic church built by the French, haystacks, lots of chickens, tiny market, laundry still on the line - hey, it's getting wet, cemetary, dogs, Kwan Yin - Our Lady of Compassion, another old blockhouse, gun ports empty for a long time now.

Wish list: "I wish I was a sacrifice, but somehow still lived on."

Leslie is plotting and scheming on how we can get back to Hanoi in another year or two. One really nice thing about here is the lack of discernable prositutes. Photo: Hue market

Hue: bus stopped at a big hotel. Leslie went up to look at a room, but the best they would was $22, which seemed high. Then I went off with a guy on a moto and came up with a place for $10/night (Ngoc Binh Hotel) in a backpacker alley. It's okay, not great - your basic $10 room, I guess.

Somewhere along the line, after another interaction with yet another charming person I said to Leslie, "I wonder if people think we're goofy with our pretty constant (unspoken) 'Oh man.'" She said, "We may be among the happier travelers they see (so our responses may not be so typical)." And I'm thinking about that for a couple of hours and thinking, Maybe so. But not happier, I think than the two Canadian travelers we've run into several times - one big old, good old boy and his friend, drinking beer and smoking them cigarettes.

Leslie arranged for a slightly more expensive room ($12 vs. $10 and nicer - aircon, hot water, internet in room) at the Binh Duong 3, still in the same alley and across the street from a classic backpacker cafe with good music (REM, Bob Marley, U2, etc.) - Thu on Wheels, operated by the frenetic, husky-voiced Minh Thu.

Monday: up early after sleeping like a log for 10 hours. Back to Thu's for coffee, banana pancake with honey and mango shake - classic backpacker cafe fare (think I'll have the same tomorrow). Started walking to VN Airlines to book a ticket to Saigon. Of course that and changing money took longer than you might think. Then we got completely lost and wandered, fortunately, in a circle. Met two transcendentally cute Viet students who tried to help, but didn't know where to tell us to go. Later, as we continued our circular walk, one of the students dashed across the street to try again, but by then a young woman at a beauty shop had walked with us 1/2 a block to get us on the right track. Photo: Market in Hue

After lunch Leslie went to the room and I went on a walk to the huge Dong Ba Market. People I encountered on this walk included a pretty gross guy who had sex on his mind. Then an alleged university student selling toothpicks (she said) to benefit the blind. Then a Viet woman from Germany whose photo I took (with her camera) on the bridge. A little further along the bridge a girl on a bicycle gave me a soft/firm slap on the chest (and then a gale of giggles) as she rode past with her friends. I was very tired when I got back to the hotel. Dinner was at the Hung Vuong Cafe - baguette sandwich and salad. Hope the salad doesn't do me in.

"Keep it tidy"

Tuesday: no ill effects from the salad - think I'll do it again this evening. "Keep it tidy" indeed. On this day I endured comments about (1) me splashing too much when showering "Why don't you keep it tidy," (2) me drinking straight from (my own) water bottle, (3) "I think we should spread up the bed a little bit - I don't want them to think we're complete aborigines - though one of us is," and (4) my propensity to step in water puddles while walking. I wish I was Muslim so I could have 3 more wives - YEAH! Photo: don't eat the fresh vegetables

Breakfast at Cafe on Thu Wheels: banana pancake (10000 dong - 16900 dong/$1USD) and cafe sua da (5000) for me and a baguette with veggies and cheese (10000) + coffee for Leslie. I think I have the banana pancakes figured out and it does not include any pancake recipe.

We took xyclos to the Citadel (20000 dong each) across the Perfume River (Song Huong), along the river and into the fort, past the fort to the gates of the Imperial Enclosure. We had talked earlier this morning with a man from Manchester who told us he had found the Citadel unremarkable, but we found it pretty great, not in a monumental way, but beautiful and in the rain, perfect. We walked from one end to the other, having a good time in the rain and some mud. Photo: Thu's cafe - a classic backpacker place

In 1967 I was one of the few Americans to go there. I caught a truck from the base at Phu bai, then a cyclo to the Citadel. It was almost completely deserted and I walked around inside for several hours andf outside for several hours. It was a lasting and wonderful memory to me. A year later, the VC executed more than 4000 civilians in the streets of Hue and after the slaughter had them buried them in mass graves. Hue is a city with too many ghosts.

We left around noon and shared a cyclo to the Dong Ba Market - "What a sight we must be" Leslie said. It was a memorable ride in the steady light rain. At first I had my head under Leslie's umbrella, then, hey hey, let's go, I got out from under and enjoyed the rain and the ride. The cyclo driver said, "The people of the world, they like Obama." We walked around in the market for awhile, then to a new adjoining department store and grocery, both pretty empty.

We walked across the bridge and on to our hotel. Lunch at Thu's: water spinach, spaghetti & garlic for Leslie and one banana & pineapple pancake and one banana pancake with honey and two cafe sua da for me. Photo: taken from Thu's

Tomorrow we leave for Saigon. As it turns out, flying is about $20 more per person than the train and, needless to say more than $20 more convenient/faster and less demanding, so here we go on Jetstar Air (after more banana pancakes - I was telling Leslie that there is a snobbery in some quarters re banana pancakes, because, I guess, they are so prototypically backpacker fare - what foolish snobbery).

Friday, December 12, 2008


The Green
I'll write a few lines and then paste in an email Leslie wrote - Leslie, who said a little while ago, "I love Vietnam. It's fun. It's clean. Smells good. The people are nice and seem to be honest. And the food is unbelievable."

Flying into Hanoi I wonder if other Americans (and French and Australians, who also fought in Vietnam) are as affected as I am at just the idea of being here. After we land, Leslie tells me that the Vietnamese woman in front of me has been crying hard since we touched down. Ahhh, Vietnam, a country of little sentimentality and deep emotion under the surface. Listen to the music, watch people in unguarded moments if you don't think they they don't know well what the blues are.

Into the city - our first time in Hanoi, we drive through industrial areas, into the city and then into the Old Quarter with ever narrower streets, beautiful old buildings and people everywhere. We're staying at the Classic 2 at 49 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street - $22/night. Photo: Old Quarter

Leslie: Good Morning All,
We've spent 4 wonderful days in Hanoi, a beautiful and exciting city of 4-5 million people - most riding motorcycles! After a gorgeous room with a balcony that promised a terrific view of the city (and it delivered that + unbelievable noise) we moved to a "standard" room on the back side that is quiet and cool but no view - thankfully we old people don't require the whole enchilada! Photo: Spice for sale

Yesterday we spent the day on a tour in a Ford (go figure since about 80% of the vehicles are Toyotas) mini-bus going to and from a town called Tam Coc, famous for limestone mountains rising from a very shallow lake that could be used for rice paddies. We traveled 2 to a row boat the length of the river (about a 2 hour ride) paddled by some incredibly tiny but super strong Vietnamese men and women. It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen - grottos thru the limesone mountains that we paddled thru in darkness and complete solitude as well as ancient crypts and stone carvings and pavillions on the shore line. We had a great time (0745-1830) and had fruit for dinner in our room. But lunch (almost always a yucky experience on tours like this) was at a large, new hotel in this tiny town and was a delightful cooked-to-order buffet (I even got a lady to fix a tiny bowl of soup called Pho that really only is served in the large economy size). We met lots of interesting travelers from all over the world and spent a large part of the day with a retired Israeli man who has traveled extensively all over Europe, the US, India and Asia. He has a son who works at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok so is headquartered there when in SE Asia but was traveling alone as his wife cancelled to stay home to be with her 98 year old mother following the death of her Dad 2 days before departure. So all in all it was a good way to spend a day. Charles will post stunning pictures in his travel blog later. Photo: Tam Coc

Tomorrow we go to Hue, another ancient city (very small compared to this) which has a site preserved by UNESCO and supposed to be elegant and very beautiful. After a few days there, we fly to Saigon (the fare seems to be $22 USD for the 2 of us, go figure, on Quantas' budget airline which means no food service (but then United barely had food for $2700) and open seating like Southwest (again, United might as well have since they changed the kind of plane we were to use at the San Francisco airport the morning of departure and none of the prearranged seating was good). So all in all a good value!

After 2-3 days in Saigon, we'll go by bus (10 hours I think) to Phnom Penh where we'll meet David for most of the remainder of the trip.

Please tell Dad we are doing really well. We haven't had a moment of illness and have been super safe thus far. How are things at home and what are the plans for Christmas day? I know you're all busy - I miss you during the holidays so take good photos.

So take care all and I'll write again form Saigon if not Hue. It isn't always easy to find an internet cafe (here we have it in our room - ah bliss to be able to write whenever we want! I started this about 4:45 am and Charles can just keep sleeping.

I love you all. Leslie

PS Shirin, is Judo behaving? And how is Chris? I wasn't keen on him getting licensed to drive a MC Humvee and hope it means that he gets to drive around and impress the girls in San Diego but I somehow doubt that's what the Marines have in mind! Photo: Tam Coc

CK here: we're staying at the Classic 2 Hotel, recommended by Alison, an internet friend who is often in Hanoi creating new realities for poor and blind young people here. Rooms nice, aircon, internet in room, breakfast buffet (here he goes again with the food) of some kind of fried garlicky Vietnamese roll, eggs to order, ham, cucumbers, tomatoes, noodles, baguettes, New Zealand butter (for a flashback to our first trips to Asia), and strong coffee.

(I first had baguettes in Vietnam in 1967. The first 7-8 months of my tour I was in a Marine infantry company out in the countryside, patrols, ambushes, operations, and so on - in the last 5-6 months of my tour I was in a different sort of unit and went into Danang for about a week each month and then (as now) walked around, checking out the scene and I discovered that the Vietnamese make great baguettes - what a great discovery!)

We walked to the Dong Xuan Market - 3 floors of everyday stuff, mostly clothes, some food and household goods - such narrow aisles, so many people. Leslie bought some vaseline, a calculator (try converting 16,800 dong/dollar in your head), a bottle opener and some pepper - altogether about $4USD. Photo: intersection, no lights, no stop sign

It's a well-known fact (research has shown) that Vietnamese pork is good for you and so we head to a bun cha restaurant on Ta Hien Street for (surprise) bun cha. Bun cha is a signature Hanoi dish: charcoaled pork in a fish sauce based soup, with cool noodles and mint, cilantro, lettuce, etc. - ideally served with fried spring rolls (nem). Oh, did you say you wanted to see a bun cha recipe? Okay, you came to the right place:

Sauce: Mix nuoc mam, rice vinegar, lime juice, water, sugar (maybe warm this mix). The proportions I like are 1 nuoc mam, 1/2 rice vinegar, 1/2 lime juice, 2 water and sugar to taste. Serve with thin-sliced vegetable like jicama (maybe susu or su hao in Vietnamese can also use kohlrabi, chayote, daikon radish). Some people like shredded carrot.
Pork patties:
Mix chopped garlic & shallot, nuoc mam, sugar (palm sugar is nice) and egg with ground pork Make small patties and charcoal them.
Pork strips: Mix chopped garlic, shallot, nuoc mam, sugar (palm if you have it). Marinate thin sliced pork chops in more of the mix. Charcoal, let rest for a few minutes and slice.
Serve meat in a bowl with juices. Some serve with the sauce and some just in the juices. In either case the meat will end up in the sauce you've made.
Serve with cool thin white noodles, lettuce, mint, basil, sprouts, chillis, slices of lime
Sides: chilli sauce, vinegar with garlic, unsalted peanuts bean sauce, whatever is around.
From Noodle Pie (my VN food guru): There are a couple of 'secrets' to a good Bun cha, most important is the fish sauce. Learning how to gauge the right amount of sugar, vinegar and nuoc mam (fish sauce) is the tricky bit. The line between fish sauce heaven and a big bowl of crap is a fine one. I like mine a little stronger than Quan Ho Tay offered up, but then that's why there's a pot of vinegar with garlic on the table. The other secret is how the meat is grilled. It needs an extremely hot flame and should be charred on both sides. When it is placed in the bowl small flakes of black char fall off and dot the fish sauce. Standard Bun cha comes with small bites of grilled sliced pork. Photo: bun cha cafe

So we're walking around the Old Quarter seeing, once again, how Vietnamese cities are deep, with tiny lanes cutting through solid blocks of 2-3-4-5 story houses and shops deep and dark and people everywhere, reserved, polite, friendly enough (that is to say, there is an abundance of gravitas here - not to mention beauty). Endless alleys and shops and people selling prepared food, fruit, vegetables, baguettes, flowers, coffee, clothing, cigarettes, beer, and on and on. Sidewalks crowded with parked motos and bikes and streets crowded with motos beep beeping along, bikes and (thankfully not too many) cars and trucks. Women walking, trotting along in that way they move with don ganh (sticks with a basket on each end - often very heavy) selling everything imaginable (today we saw a woman selling live eels, another teapots, another bras, many selling vegtables and fruits - like one woman with one basket with limes and the other with red chilis, ginger, shallots and garlic - "everything you need," according to Leslie) - a moveable feast, a moveable market. Different foods on sale at different times - pho in the morning, bun cha midday, and other things later.

Whew, long post. Did I mention fried bananas for 4000 dong (less than $.25)? Or cafe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) for 10000 dong (about $.60)?

I was thinking today that the first time I remember understanding how beautiful Vietnam is was in 1966 on patrol near Hill 55, taking a break and I was in the open side of a dirt floor hooch, sitting on the floor smoking a cigarette looking out on the green padi (you ain't seen green until you've seen Vietnam) framed with banana trees and there was a little girl beside me, chopping vegetables with a huge knife and I'm thinking, I hope I can come back someday, someday when the killing stops and here I am, with my life partner, the woman I love. Thank God

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Post expanded 4 days after initial post. All kinds of computer challenges, so apologies for incomplete post.

The flight to Bangkok was only about 1/3 full and the airport was pretty much derted except for security people and pretty girls holding signs for taxis, etc. We've been through this airport many times at all hours of the day and night and have never seen it like this. Strange feeling.

We had initially planned on the usual slow procession through immigration and security, just staying at the airport for a few hours until morning, and then on to the guesthouse. It all went so fast, though that we called Suk 11 (pronounce souk) GH - they had a room and we took a taxi into town. We walked up a little lane, through a lot of plants and into the Suk 11 reception area - old teak walls, altars, tapestries, farming implements, big water pots and all sorts of assorteds everywhere. Much of the place is put together from traditional Thai houses, like the steep steps/ladder leading to the first floor. We were on the 3rd floor, past more stuff (including a large altar and improbably, an old rickshaw), along a wooden walkway between the walls of old houses (now GH rooms) and finally into our nice - not to mention aircon - room. Central Market (Dallas) sweet spicy Cajun mix and water for a 1 or 2 am dinner and fall on out. Photo: entrance to Suk 11

In the morning we went downstairs for breakfast of coffee, bread/rolls, papaya, pineapple, curd, preserves - sat with a young Australian couple and had a nice conversation.

We decided to look for another place. Suk 11 is hip and super nice, but the stairs were too much for us. I took off walking and came up with two contenders. Leslie and I talked and I went to register at the nicer place, but as I walked in, realized that there was a huge construction site next door, so I walked around to Soi 11 and registered at the slightly tatty Miami (pronounce mee ami). Lonely Planet says of the Miami, "Bearing the mark of the GI days in miore ways than its name (i.e., still many prostitutes there), the Miami has a strange down-and-out charm. The kathoey desk clerk, poolside lizards and lumpy beds ..." So here we are, as happy as two geckos on a wall.

We walked out and got on the Skytrain to Central, where we went to a food court for a late lunch: ground pork with garlic and chilis (the same that we stunk up Stephan's apartment with a year ago), rice with red and green curries, peanuts, water. Back to the hotel for a nap and then back out for dinner from street vendors: pork with chilis, pad Thai, satay, mango with sticky rice and coconut.

Leslie told me the prostitutes aren't allowed to use the lift up from the lobby. It's the stairs for them.

Slept well, except for, you know. Breakfast was an almond roll with peanut butter, mango, sticky rice ... When I walked out on the street this morning around 0730, there were about 30 people (most westerners) sitting at little tables, drinking and having loud drunken and no doubt speed (ya-baa) conversations with one another and themselves and some looking pretty stuperous. Whew, seems like a tough lifestyle. Photo: inside Suk 11

Later we got BBQ chicken from a street vendor for Leslie for breakfast. saw 4 of the party peeps drinking beer and talking talking talking in the Miami coffee shop.

We made a Siam run - today being our first full speed ahead Thai food day: tom yum (hot and sour soup), green curry, pad Thai, Chiang Mai sausage, pad see euw, chicken satay, pork satay, mango, sticky rice (I know, it's a sickness, it's out of control, and I don't care). Next day, green papaya salad, more noodles, more satay, on and on.

Tuesday, up earlysame thing for breakfast. Leslie went downstairs and witnessed a screaming desk clerk berating a guest. Taxi to airport and on to Vietnam.

This time around Bangkok was mostly a place to rest and to feast. We were tired and BK is incredibly difficult to get around in - it's one of the world's megacities, completely unplanned, and barely regulated. Over the years we've been to most of the temples and other sites, so rest, eat, more rest.

Leslie (an email): We are settled in Bangkok and happy to have been able to complete this leg of the trip. Bangkok is a major connecting point over here and it's hard to go forward without connecting here. We stayed the 1stnight (midnight to 9:00 am) at Suk 11 recommended by David and his 2 traveling friends Ben and Magera. It was really friendly andcomfortable but we were on the 3rd or 4th floor in the birds' nest with no lift so coming and going was difficult. Hauling the bags is a major production even tho we're traveling lighter than the last trip -but Suk 11 is for bare bones backpackers (we were at least 40 yearsolder than the other travelers) so we moved to the Miami Hotel aroundthe corner and plan to stay put here. The air conditioning works well and the hotel is almost empty - tourists are avoiding Bangkok because of the problems at the airport so most hotels and other related industries are really suffering. The + side is for folks like us who are getting a comfortable bargain priced room and not having to stomach the groups of "sex tourists" so well-known here.

So far it's been the best trip to Bangkok in recent past. The weather is cooler than we've ever experienced here and in Hong Kong- hope springs eternal that it will be that way in Cambodia which is 1 hot place! This morning I'm sitting by a patio door at the computer with a cool breeze blowing away the mosquitos - so nice! And the street vendors are already grilling chicken and fixing mango and sticky rice, Charles' favorite so I think that's what we're having for breakfast. The food here is very cheap and safe to eat (not so the water) and some of the best in the world. We are next door to a Family Mart where Charles can get 2 cans of Nescafe Expresso for 22 Baht,about 60 cents to go with these other treats. Photo: papaya salad with satay sideways - what can I say?
You are not expected to read all of this - when I email I use it as a way to journal so that Charles can include mine in his blogs - so slow and lazy when it comes to typing! Hope all is well at home. Things are great here and we fly to Hanoi on Tuesday so are hoping the airport situation has been completely resolved. The Thai king celebrated his 81st birthday Friday so it should be stable until the festivities are over. However, he is gravely ill and cannot speak on national radio so soon there will be some sort of transfer of power to the Crown Prince or Princess who will be handed the problems to sort out. I love you all and know you're busy preparing for Christmas. We'll bein Phnom Penh with David for Christmas - it doesn't get any better than that for us, YEA! Love, Leslie

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Leaving on a jet plane, San Francisco to Hong Kong

So we're in the United departure lounge and a line forms well before boarding time. Hmm, what's going on? Nobody knows. An employee is walking along looking at at boarding passes. I step in and show her mine and she says, "You're okay." Well, okay! There is a garbled announcement about changing the type of plane and thus seat assignments. I get back in line. The woman behind me is talking about being in line upstairs and now downstairs - "Ridicerous." Yep, it is that.

We had some of the best seats on the plane - 2 vs. 3 abreast where the fuselage starts to taper at the rear, but the switch in plane results in us being in a 3 abreast row (aisle and middle seat) and, what else, "the world's biggest Asian" (Leslie's words) in the seat in front of Leslie.

The first meal was okay - about on a level with China Air (which ain't great) - meatloaf, mashed potatoes, salad, roll. After the meal the stewardess came down the aisle selling wines and liquors, saying, "Wines? Lick yours?" Okey dokey. Photo: HK harbor/Central

Meal #2 was (what can I say) ridicerous - a bowl of ramen noodles. Sheesh. Meal #3 was okay - a hot turkey and cheese sandwich - I'm always grateful for my Tabasco - and before we know it (14 hours and 35 minutes later we were on the ground in HK. Photo: inside the Chungking Mansions (much brighter than in the past)

Customs/security was easy, changed $50, bought Octopus Card (debit card for transpo), and after some walking around found some Air Asia staff who could tell us nothing except we wouldn't be getting any money back on the tickets we had to Bangkok.
Pretty tired by now, we walked down the walkway to the bus stop and took off for the city. Straightaway a woman (Filipina?) offered Leslie a snack - yeah, we needed something good to happen. Got off at the Mong Kok MTR, walked around corner and down 2 blocks to the stinky tofu place and into the Sincere House and on up to the 7th floor and into the more or less lobby of the Dragon Hostel. They were holding our room and Leslie checked it out as "OK." Registration came to a sudden stop when Leo, the desk guy said he couldn't change our traveler's checks - after I'd counter-signed them. This yielded a high degree of angst on my part, phone calls to Stanley, the owner, and finally, a plan for someone from the Dragon to go with me to their bank to explain why the checks had already been counter-signed. Stanley says to Leslie, "There's nothing we can do tonight. Go take a shower, relax, have supper. I told Leo to think about this and he will come to you and explain what is next."

We went downstairs, got 2 beers, back up to the room for snacks and beer and basically passed out.

In the morning we fixed coffee in the room (with our trusty 20 year old HK water heater), showered, and headed for the Fu Ho Cafe (Mimi's) for breakfast. On the way I saw a man picking his nose both nostrils at the same time - a finger in each. I never saw that before. Photo: they keep the lungs of fish inflated in the fish market

Beakfast was the usual - eggs, pink meat product, sausage (don't ask), toast, coffee. Mimi wasn't there, but nice to see her brother, who kindly stuck a finger in each glass of tea (the kind of tea that just comes with each meal). The 1st time we saw that was our 1st trip to Hong Kong - we thought the waiter was doing a number on us - now we know, that's the way they serve it in low rent cafes.

Now all we have to do is figure out what next with the Bangkok airport closed for the forseeable future. Some people are flying HK to Kuala Lumpur and thence to wherever, so that's one option. We could also take a train HK to Hanoi. Fly to Jakarta. Sit tight and hope the airport opens - which is our plan. It's a major hooraw trying to sort out tickets, flights, etc. Flying a budget airline like Air Asia has its downside for sure. Har Har Har, they have an English phone line, but you have to speak Chinese to use it. Photo: shrimp wonton soup and vegetables at Tsim Chai Kee Noodle shop

An hour ago a woman who works for Stanley took me to the bank they use to unscrew the traveler's checks, walking single file along the crowded streets. I changed the TCs - no problem with her help.

More futile phone calls - email attempts (oh sure). So we head for the airport where we discover that Air Asia has gone into hiding - no flights, so no employees! Of course it took almost two hours to find that out, waiting at the ticket counter with other hapless travelers.

Altogether, a complete failure, except we eliminated all options except hoping for better sometime later. The bottom line? We're frazzled, jet-lagged, uncertain, scuffling between the two of us ...

Back at the guesthouse we learn via trying to book other flights to other wheres, there aren't many flights no fully booked or not cancelled. I go for a walk to find something to bring back to the room for dinner. Walking north, past where I've been before except once, 3 years ago when I got totally lost, I find a pretty nice every-day stuff type street market. I buy a mediocre bun with a Chinese sausage in it from a street vendor, then go into a restaurant with some noble looking roasted ducks hanging in the window and get BBQ pork on rice to go - AHA! Caught a big-time winner on this deal - brilliant char sui rice. In the GH office we learn that the Thai Prime Minister has been ousted, so there is hope for the airport opening. We read for awhile, I fall out, Leslie goes to the GH office to call USAA back in the USA to start contesting the money we expect to lose on the Air Asia tickets. She ends up talking to "Frank in San Antonio" who reassures her that all will be okay.

Wednesday: today looks like our 1st actual day to just be in HK . Whew, so far, a hard trip. Breakfast at Mimi's Fu Ho Cafe - Gimme 2 a them Lumberjack Specials (pink meat, etc.). Caught the bus to Tsim Sha Tsui to make the Chungking Mansions scene. The ground floor is spiffed up to some extent - fewer angry looking young Middle eastern men milling around, hallways lighter. We ran into "the Everly Brothers" - two Pakistani men we 1st saw (and named) in 1978 on our 1st time though. Leslie talked with the younger brother - still skinny after all these years, now stooped, but still here. Anna, the Filipina internet cafe operator has gone to the UK, but her place is still going. We spent some time in a tiny elbow-to-elbow internet cafe (can listen to Qur'an for free while surfing). Then across the harbor on the Star Ferry - yeah - yeah - yeah, Allahu Akbar, man.

Walked through the massive IFC Mall and across walkway and down to Connaught Road to our favorite wonton (not hardly like your average American Chinese restaurant wonton) soup cafe (Tsim Chai Kee) for shrimp wonton soup and vegetables with oyster sauce. Photo: when in HK, always ...

Back across the harbor we visited a little up the narrow stairs Buddhist store, then caught the bus up Nathan Road to the Sincere House (where our GH is), falling out for an afternoon rest and then back to the same char sui restaurant for pork and duck on rice.

Thursday we took the train the the Tai Po Market to meet Phil K, an internet friend who lives in HK (see Oriental Sweetlips link). We hung out in a Starbucks talking, then walked around the market area and on to a huge dim sum place. We were joined a friend of Phil's, Regis from France. Thanks Phil! Good to meet you in person, not to mention Megan and Oliver (photo below - notice who took center stage).

Leslie and I were in HK in 1978 and ate breakfast most days at a Russian emigre bakery named Cherikoff's on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui - good food, good times - now it's a McDonalds and this evening on a small crowded lane in Mong Kok is another much smaller Cherikoff's - give me joy. I got 250 gms cookies which seemed expensive at $14HKD, until I tasted them - butter, alright. I'm walking along, past 2 hour hotels and related estblishments, happy and smiling - sweet. This discovery calls for a nice cold one - Kowloon Dairy milk (none a that 2% for me).

Friday (scheduled departure day): more pink product for breakfast and then to our room to shower, pack and hope. I go for a walk and discover a people's food court up stairs at the Fa Yuen Street market - there's even kind of a balcony! By now Leslie has figured out how to check flight status online and is doing so every hour or so in the GH office. She's also counting money kind of obsessively - we need this much for airport bus today and again in January, the ferry costs $1.7HKD, soup is ... so on and so forth.

We take off on a last Star Ferry/wonton noodle soup/Pacific Coffee run. We learn that Bangkok Air has cancelled all flights and HK Express has cancelled everything until 12/24. Pretty uncertain. There was weird moment in Pacific Coffee when they were playing a Bob Dylan song - Dylan & HK go together about like CK and Prado. Everything takes a long time and we're back at the Dragon Hostel about 1600 (That's 4pm, Leslie).

Saddle up and head for the A21 bus stopand we're off to the airport and an uncertain flight. When we get to the departure area we see that all flights to Bangkok have been cancelled - except for ours. Waiting, waiting, get boarding passes, on through secirity where they find my unsecured bottle of Tabasco. Was it my honest face? My handsome face? My anguished, "Noooo!"? The woman smiled. put it in a baggie and sent us on through. Waiting, waiting, boarding, and were in the air! Photo: market

This is the 1st time we've been to HK that it wasn't magical. I think it was a combination of uncertainty, anxiety, age, the potential for losing a fair amount of money, a complete lack of info from Air Asia, and general tiredness. Oh well, what can be great every single time? I'm hoping we can lay about in the aircon in Bangkok with expeditions to assorted food vendors, read, relax.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

DK & Berkeley

First, problems with guesthouse keyboard (only about 2/3 keys readable and most things in Chinese), so not my usual meticulous writing. Also, posts will be incomplete for awhile. And now I discover photo issues - maybe I can fix tomorrow.

Day 1. Up at 3am for 4am pickup shuttle to DFW. Buddy knew something was up - he refused to get into car to go to Shirin's. Finally picked him up and took him to Shirin's and he seemed okay once he was there.

Check-in at United was bad. The "customer service" person was unhelpful, impatient, and rude - and this for $2800! The flight to San Francisco was okay, except the service continued to be minimal at best and the man in front of Leslie was twitching, jerking, gesticulating and eating Pop Tarts the whole time. At first I was thinking uh-oh, we have a situation here and so was poised to go after him if necessary. But finally realized the problem was mental illness, so no problem (for me, anyway). The other guy in front of Leslie was coughing (productively) the whole time - so, so it goes in low rent seats. Photo: Thanksgiving dinner

At SFO we discovered that despite having paid ahead we were not (for awhile anyway) shuttle-worthy. Finally, after conversations with drivers and then shuttle HEADQUARTERS, we got on old #120 and on into SF and then Berkeley (the driver had no idea where David's street and here we are at David's apartment ...

Walking up the driveway past the beautifully detailed big house and up the stairs to DK's apartment set like a treehouse among magnolias, lemon trees, Japanese maple, lemon trees, pines and I don't know what all. Ahh, good to see you son. One oh my ears remains stopped up and painful despite compulsive yawning, gum chomping, and other attempts at unblocking.

I'm reading A Walk in the Woods (about the Appalachian Trail) by Bill Bryson. Really good and funny and inspirational - not in terms of the AT, but re long trekking.

Leslie fixed breakfast for us all - scrambled eggs, pepperoni, onion, cilantro, feta. I served up some cafe sua da ("the strongest coffee I ever had," said Katy). We hung out and then Leslie and I walked to Peet's - my favorite coffee chain in the world.. Then we walked around David's neighborhood - talk about inspirational! Our house/cottage garden is pretty unique in Dallas. In Berkeley, most of the houses in DK's neighborhood have cottage gardens - not to mention wonderful gates and fences and not to mention lemon trees, pomegranits, persimmons and tons of herbs. The houses are mostly wonderful with great detailing. I've never seen so many plants I don't know the names of.

The airport in Bangkok is closed because of demonstrations, which include fighting between taxi drivers and stupid yellow shirt people. It'd be great to jump into the middle of all that lot - no matter where you swung it would be good. We saw on CNN that civil liberties have been suspended in Thailand, so I think the soldiers will be headed in and the airport will be open in a few days - a week or so before we fly in (I'm writing from my notes - later found out I was wrong about this).

Meanwhile terrorists have slaughtered more people (125 and counting) in Bombay, no doubt shouting, "God is great!" Guess what guys, you are Hell-bound - for murder and blasphemy. Photo: corridor in Chungking Mansion

We (Leslie, David, Katy, and I) had Thanksgiving dinner with Holden and some of his family and friends in Holden's classic Berkeley house - for sale - 1000+ square feet for $565,000. Arts and crafts furnishings, everything very nice. It was a good time with good food (thanks Colin).

Friday: We got up early and walked to Peet's again, had coffee on a lush deck/patio . Then after breakfast (thank you Leslie) we caught a bus to Telegraph Avenue. On this holiday day it seemed like as many "gutter punks" and homeless people on the street as anyone else. Cody's Books, our main objective was gone. Caught a bus to College Avenue, more coffee, Safeway, and back to David's with a ton of groceries on the bus. David and Katy were studying as usual. Leslie cooked some more and I made a good beef stew with Burgandy wine. David and Katy ate prodigious amounts and my plands to freeze a lot came to naught.

Saturday: Leslie fixed breakfast and we walked to Safeway for more stew ingredients and asorted other food. We need top hurry up and get to Hong Kong so we save some money! Back at David's we started cooking - stew, spaghetti, cookies while DK and Katy studied and studied and studied. In the afternoon David went to play tennis and Katy to climb. Leslie fixed meatloaf and asparagus for dinner - tasty. Jared came by and we had a nice visit. Later I walked up the hill past the Claremont Hotel. From the hill I can see across the Bay, sparkling lights in the night.

It's been a joy to be with David these past few days. Our son has some good friends in Berkeley - good in terms of friendships and being supportive of one another and in terms of good working relationships. They're all working hard and seem perfectly focused in this first semester of law school. It was awesome to us that we (DK, his friends, Leslie & me) all spent so much time together.

In the morning Leslie fixed breakfast and we had more Vietnamese coffee. Watched a little CNN, but this isn't a good thing to do before an international flight - "Terror in Mumbai," Bangkok airport closed, recession, deflation. And away we go.