Friday, December 31, 2010

Cambodia - Phnom Penh and Battambang

The bus Saigon to Phnom Penh gave us a nice ride – enough leg room, stops every two hours (but toilet on the bus just in case you wanted to use the smallest toilet in the history of the world), great scenery, working aircon, part of the time four seats between the three of us, good “tripnic,” easy driver going smooth and slow, easy border crossing – all good.

We got a tuk-tuk to Samnang’s house near the Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) and then we were on the small street that used to be dirt, used to be full of flies, used to carry the stench of blood and raw meat from the “wet” market two blocks from the house, but now is paved and now has no wet market. Samnang came out to greet us – a great relief as he’s been unwell for several years; then Sokhom, also a relief as she’s had some serious health issues in the past year. Back up the steep stairs (mother cat and four kittens ensconced on the landing at the second floor) to the third floor room where we’d stayed before, back to our little place in Phnom Penh, a city that 30 years ago was a ghost town, empty of all but a few returning people stumbling into the ruins of a deserted city, and now full of people, full and for me, because I wasn’t there (just a shore where some found refuge) it’s like it all never happened. Streets full, shops busy, people, tuk-tuks, motos, cars, trucks, fewer beggars than five, even two years ago, fewer children grubbing in the garbage, Phnom Penh.

David gave me this gift: Downpour

We settled into the pattern from several years ago – breakfast (like the other meals, prepared by Juedi, a cook among cooks), then walk to the Russian Market or go somewhere else like the Okay Guesthouse for a bus ticket to Battambang or the National Museum, then lunch, another walk with my wife like the Energizer Bunny go go go, dinner with Chanmony (Mony), Sophea, Leslie, David, Juedi, Samnang, playing games with the mangosteens – good times. Photo above: On a tuk-tuk

The third day I took a bus to Battambang to visit Lance and Chharvy – another hypnotic bus ride. All SE Asian buses have a video monitor playing too loud music, movies, etc. At first it was pretty good Khmer music, but later, not so good, and another world unfolding … a policeman standing in the street reading a newspaper as he sort of directs traffic … bumpy road, stopping to pick up more passengers, the bus filling

with passengers, stopping to get air in the tires … and as we get to the outskirts of town, more and more traditional wood homes and women wearing sarongs and krama … a few horrific but small slums of thatched and cardboard walled houses standing in layers of garbage and unimaginably filthy water … the driver’s assistant passing out little black plastic bags for people who might be feeling queasy from the rocking/rolling ride … stopping along the way in villages and small towns to pick up more passengers and the people getting on now are country folk, smelling of hard

work (sweet summer sweat), smoke, fish and I’m inhaling it like it’s life itself and iPod perfect: and it stones me to my soul … fields dotted with palms stretching away across space and time. Photo: Inside the Russian Market

Is this the people’s bus? Did we just stop at the bus stop where the women walked to a nearby fence-line among the bushes and the men walked to a further place, all of us urinating on the ground – except a couple of men (the cads) using the closer area and on the way back from the further place I pass the actual toilets (latrines) and no doubt, the bushes were better. It's 9:50am. Photo: Bus stop food

It’s harvest time, people working in the fields, unhusked rice spread out on plastic squares in front of homes. We pass a wreck – a truck with the front end badly smashed and then another truck with a man slumped over the steering wheel. Off in the distance a low mountain with pagoda spires white and gold. Photo: Drying the rice

Almost all the houses I see now are made of unpainted, weathered wood, galvanized roofs, a few tile roofs, some houses of thatched walls and roof, some with bougainvillea in amazing cascades of magenta, pink, red, all the yards are dirt, water buffalo, banana trees, kilns, ducks, huge water jugs, TV antennas, bus horn blatting, creamy yellow stucco schools built in a U with shaded courtyard/playground, stores open to the highway (really a two lane tarmac) between the two
largest cities in Cambodia, gas for sale in recycled liter bottles anywhere from 5-12 bottles at any one stand, trucks and wagons (some ox-drawn) loaded with great bags of rice. Photo: The girls who take care of the latrine

At the next stop the little girl latrine attendant asks me for my ballpoint pen. I give her a princely (or princessly) 500 Riel note (about 12.5 cents) and she thanks me, a silent and deliberate somphea.
Hammocks slung under houses, spirit houses, ponds with water lilies, lotus, the video is the awfulest variety show, the 4 year-old Chinese girl up and across from me staring at the heavily made-up woman across from me, cafes in towns, one table open-air pool halls with dirt floors, Kompong Chhnang, Kratie, Pursat, nameless places. Cambodia. Photo: Canal outside of Battambang. Photo below: road outside Battambang

Yesterday I saw a Rolls Royce parked in Phnom Penh and on the dashboard two gold-encrusted general’s hats and I thought, who wouldn’t like to fight a war against an army with generals who ride around in Rolls and live in palaces.
Battambang was good. Like everywhere else we’ve seen, more prosperous than before. We were hanging out in Chharvy’s internet café and Lance was playing his guitar and I couldn’t place the tune – just that it was very hip, then, of course, Visions of Johanna. Some of his expat friends came for dinner sitting at a table on the sidewalk in front of the cafe,
smoking Cambodian cigarettes, telling stories of fevers, parasites, and the like, and one man, thin with frequent cough talking of the older days, 25 years ago, Aeroflot flights, DC-3s and dirt runways, all of which I dug hearing as I’m ever more appreciative of reminiscing, even when not my own. Photo below: Wat Ek Phnom, Lance, beggar

In the morning I had curry and bread from the White Rose – ahh. Then we took a tuk-tuk along a winding riverside countryside road to Wat Ek Phnom, a collapsing 11th Century ruin with a drooling, mentally retarded boy scampering on hands and withered legs along with us.

On the way back to town we stopped at a Pepsi bottling plant, deserted since the war, a little eerie … riding on through 100s of school children, shady road, old houses, and back into Battambang where I waited along with a Japanese backpacker, a monk, and a glue-sniffing street kid for the bus back to Phnom Penh. Same bus same deal coming and going and back to the house after 6. Photo above: Woman in Phnom Penh

The great meals, the walks continued, along with good conversations with David and Samnang. One night we had my internet friend Henning and his girlfriend Ment over for dinner.

We thought the plan was to have pretty much what was on the café menu – not hardly. We had rice, chicken with cashews and mild dry chilis, luc lac, raw beef salad, amok (fish curry), red curry (chicken) with baguettes, Tiger beer, green(!) Fanta – what a feast! Henning and Leslie got on very well and a good time was had by all. Photo: Samnang and David

Tuesday morning after breakfast David took off for Cali – it was an emotional goodbye for Samnang and Sokhom, knowing as they did that it might be a last goodbye. After lunch with Than and Juedi, Leslie and I left for Bangkok – a difficult parting, for the same reasons as the morning.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Saigon: Porkstock 2010

How perfect is this. After negotiating a decent taxi fare (140,000VND or ~$7USD) to the area where we planned on staying, the taxi driver loaded our bags into the trunk and then closed the trunk on his keys so they were trapped at the top of the lid. Bags in trunk, keys in trunk, our destinies entwined; and after much ado, the keys released. Photo: Truly, the Breakfast of Champions

We did what we’ve done every other time in Saigon – leave Leslie (and this time, David) in a café with our bags and I struck out to find a place to stay. I went to several places, including two (Kim Hotel and Saigon Comfort) where we’ve stayed before, and came back to the café to discuss what I’d found. I hadn’t taken off my heavy daypack and by the time I got back to the café my back was soaked. Leslie went across the street to look at the Kim and told Mrs. Kim, yes to a 4th floor $23 triple with a balcony over the alley/lane. Photo: The pork chop lady with a friend reading my note to the lady, thanking her for great breakfasts in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010.

Trip Advisor Review: We stayed at the Kim Hotel in 2007 and it was a good value. We’re here again in 2010 and it has become a great value. The hotel has been renovated, but remains a family-run and family-oriented place. All the people we’ve seen staying here are couples and families – no prostitutes and no rowdy gap year groups of guys. The rooms are decent size (ours holding a queen-size bed and single added bed comfortably) with good aircon, wall-mounted fan, and small balcony. Wifi is good and there are also 2 computers downstairs for guest use.

Staff are friendly and helpful, Mrs. Kim remains pleasant and helpful, and the bill was accurate.

The location is on a (relatively) quiet “backpacker alley” which is clearly seeing a lot of upgrading so that soon this will be pretty much a flashpacker and mid-priced alley. It’s a 1-2 block walk to the grittier environs of De Tham and Bui Vien main, and a 6 block walk to Ben Thanh Market. Altogether the Kim Hotel a good place and a good deal.

Our first morning David and I went to breakfast at the place where we'd eaten before. A great breakfast – rice with pork chop, egg, and some vegetables. To me this is the best pork ever. Oh, and a powerful café sua da and then another. Truly, The Breakfast of Champions. Leslie had planned on eating at another place, but our report was so glowing that she wanted to go see the pork chop lady. I believe I’ll have another café sua da. Back to the room to rest and then to Ben Thanh Market with David to walk around and then, no surprise here, bun thit nuong and banh cuon. David bought some Christmas presents and then back to hotel to rest and then to the streets. Dinner in a café on the alley and around the corner to De Tham Street for shakes (one mango, one pineapple). Photo: Bags of shrimp in various sizes and grades

“Goodnight Dad.” How sweet to hear those words. We met David at the Hanoi airport and since then we’ve been together, again, in Asia, from Hanoi to Hue to Saigon and on to Phnom Penh. Together, comfortable in the sorts of budget places we like, eating on the street, in backpacker cafés, walking, walking through the teeming streets. “Goodnight Dad” – grateful that I learned from Leslie how to be a good parent, that I wanted to know, that I worked to reverse my

karma that would have been my son’s karma and now isn’t. “Goodnight Dad.”

The next day the porkathon continued with the same breakfast, later back to Ben Thanh for shrimp on sugar cane and pork satay. Leslie bought some pepper and got so mixed up on grams and dong that she asked me, “What should I do?” We went back to the hotel to pick David up and to Bui Vien Street for pho from the Pho Bo café that’s been around for awhile. This is pho definitely made with ox tail stock – the real deal. The days blurring now, with the one constant being the pork chop lady. Photo above: Food court at Ben Thanh Market

On our last morning we got coffee from the place next door to the Kim, six egg sandwiches on

French loaves (3 for breakfast and 3 for Leslie’s obsession, the “tripnic”) on French loaves from a street vendor on the corner, and away we go on the bus Saigon to Phnom Penh.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Beautiful Hue

Photo below: Vietnam coming right at you

As we travel I’m dreaming more than I have in several years. For example, there was a man named Paul who I’d known in the past and who was now dead. I met his daughter and then his son-in-law at a used bookstore and they were talking about him and how he’d cared about me a great deal, but I couldn’t place him. The son-in-law climbed up a display and got down a book by Paul. It was a large “art book” and when I turned it sideways I could see Paul's image on the book and then I knew who he was.

I remembered him well and with affection. He had been a good man; a good man and a tragic man like Larry of Larry and Nina. I opened the book and realized it was about seeing – as in seeing/experiencing the essence of things. I bought the book for $25 though it was too big to be carrying in Vietnam. I could tell his daughter and her husband really loved him.

Yesterday we ran into Danny and Marloes (the people from Amsterdam we’d met at Halong Bay) in a market alley off Ta Hien/Dihn Liet Street, where people would ride up on their motorcycles to shop for underwear and what have you. We went to the bun cha place on Hang Manh Street where we feasted on bun cha and nem – what else - and then walked to the Intimex Store. While David, Leslie, Marloes, and Danny were shopping I had an espresso in the nearby coffee shop. Then the Dutch contingent was off to take the long bus ride

Hanoi to Vientiane to Luang Prabang and we walked back to the hotel. Photo: David and Leslie near Hue

Our last night in Hanoi David and I again ate at the King Café, where Leslie and I ate several times in 2007. I think we had chicken with chilis, pork with garlic, rice, and beer.

Here is what I wrote on Trip Advisor about the Camellia 4 in Hanoi (written in Hue):

We stayed at the Camellia 4 Dec 4-13 2010. We first stayed 2 nights at another hotel (Sunshine 2), but Camellia 4 was a better deal (larger room,

quieter area, better breakfast buffet, more helpful staff). The room was $25USD (including tax) for a double and went up to $30 when another person arrived and we changed to a triple. Photo: Roadside cafe, the whole thing carried by one woman

The area was good in that there was tourist infrastructure, but most of the businesses were Vietnamese-oriented. It was quieter than (for example) Ma May Street, but really there are few or no quiet areas in Hanoi.

When we went to Halong Bay a mistake

was made with the room we were supposed to get on our return. The night manager was creative and effective in figuring out a solution to solve the problem - very impressive. All the staff were helpful and in pleasant - especially the two women working the desk, and also housekeeping and food service. Photo: The woman in the white shirt patted Leslie as we passed

None of the staff pressured us re booking tours or onward tickets. In fact, the quieter of the two agents explained costs that a better-known travel agency (Hotels-in-Vietnam) intentionally glossed over. Basically the Camellia 4 agent gave us full disclosure and a good trip. He also responded appropriately to a problem with part of the tour.

We flew Hanoi to Hue. The airport for Hue is at Phu Bai, about 10 miles from the city. Phu Bai, where many years ago the Marine Corps had an air base. One night Jeff and I were in a tent, drinking, and a Sergeant told us to quit. He and Jeff came to blows almost instantly and Jeff not only beat him down, but the Sergeant also stepped on a lighted heat tab, which stuck to his foot and gave him a bad burn. The outcome was that Jeff was sent to Khe Sanh. Phu Bai, where I ran to jump on a plane that was taking off for Khe Sanh,

and once on discovered that it was full of 55 gallon drums of aviation fuel, a doubly bad thing as all planes flying into Khe Sanh were fired on by AA machine guns. Phu Bai, where I went for a plague shot when I was supposedly exposed to plague and of course I wasn’t current on my plague shots. Photo: Thieu Tri tomb

On the road into Hue through light traffic we passed the usual series of small shops, many small temples with the elaborate roofs of Vietnam, markets – Vietnam. Our hotel was the Binh Duong III, a nice place in a backpacker alley too narrow for anything other than motorcycles, bikes, carts, and people walking; and 10 steps across the alley is Cafe on Thu Wheels,

a classic backpacker café. The Binh Duong III is a flashpacker hotel – clean, quiet, hot water, aircon – a solid $20 triple room hotel. Photo: Thieu Tri tomb

Our first full day in Hue, Leslie and I walked across the Perfume River bridge to visit a grocery store where we’d been before, while David stayed at the hotel finishing a paper for school. It was a good walk, though hot, and coming back, a sweetness when a woman walking past us carrying one of the sticks with a heavy basket hanging from each end reached out unbidden and patted Leslie’s hand. It was this same bridge that a few years before a girl riding past me on a bike reached out and slapped me softly/firmly on the chest – the wide Suong Huong (river) flowing below.

We ate this day, as every other day, at Thu’s – so much good food:

banana pancakes with honey of course, omelets, baguettes, pork many different ways, luc lac, pho, nem, morning glory, curry, shakes, café sua da, so on and so forth – all fixed in the closet of a kitchen by the same ancient woman as before, now even more stooped. Photo: A break in the rain at Thieu Tri tomb

The next day it was raining and cold, so we hired a car to visit several of the many tombs around Hue. The tombs are very small tombs surrounded by elaborate buildings, platforms, fences, and gates. The ride into the countryside was wonderful – rainy, green, narrow road, Vietnam. We first went to the Thieu Tri tomb, which isn’t listed in some guidebooks.

It was a little run-down and completely deserted. Perfect. Photo: David at Minh Mang tomb

The rain was really coming down and we slogged through mud puddles and made our way carefully across very slippery paving stone platforms, up stone steps, across more slippery platforms through amazing gates, to mossy buildings with dragon-cornered roofs and across more platforms and run-down mossy fences inlaid with latticed tiles overlooking lakes and beyond them more platforms and buildings and fences. Finally back to the car we were wet and happy.

The second tomb was Minh Mang’s, which was larger, more elaborate, better maintained, and with a few tourists around. It was still raining and cold (for lowland Vietnam), but we went through most of the area and came out pretty wet. We spent a total of about 2.5 hours at the two tombs + time getting there. We had clarified with the woman who arranged the tour that we would go for about 4 hours. The driver, however, wanted to bring it to a stop since we’d gone to the places on the agenda. We talked on the phone with the main driver,

who said that the woman didn’t say what I said she said, and then said, “I want you to help me” (by overpaying), but didn’t want to take a lesser fee for less time. They ended up agreeing to take us to a shopping center … to dry off and warm up and visit to the Big C food court for decent banh, bun bo Hue, French fries, pad Thai, pineapple shake, and bubble tea. Photo: At Minh Mang tomb

The next day we went to the Citadel, the former imperial city – a huge complex of old gates, halls, platforms, and so on. I was there in 1967 when it was utterly deserted. Then in 1968, the VC captured Hue from the

ARVN and executed at least 2,000 people. Marines then took the city back and in the process damaged some of the imperial city, where the VC where holed up. All the damage seems repaired now and of course

there is no acknowledgement of the massacres in any guidebooks. It was another rainy grey day. Leslie pushed us onward and we covered the whole complex. Whew. Photo: Bun bo Hue and some kind of banh

After this trek, Leslie was ready to walk to Big C to get some this and that. Have mercy! Away we went (David staying back at the hotel) for another trek, rewarded by seeing a woman apparently on her firsts escalator ride clinging to the rail with both hands, close to panic. Then Leslie had an encounter with an older woman (one of the few betel chewers we saw) who couldn’t turn off the water in the toilet -

and neither could Leslie, so of course some young women also in the toilet had great fun helping the old people. Apparently Big C is a destination for country folk, because several groups of young people approached us with, “Hello!” and then cracked up laughing. My response of, “Hello, what’s your name?” sent everyone into confusion and laughter. All in all a good time was had by all.

Tomorrow, Saigon.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Halong Bay, The Ship of (some) Fools

The journey began in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a maze of narrow streets, French colonial buildings, cafes, street vendors of everything imaginable, shops selling aromatic herbs, old people sitting in doorways, motorcycles, bikes, and wandering foreigners seeking whatever it is they seek walking incessantly along the streets. The blue bus picked them up one by one, two by two, three by three. There was the besotted banker from Hong Kong, barely able to walk,

sleeping or passed out for the entire bus trip. There was the simple-minded American “English teacher” from Saigon and his “student” who was accompanying him on this journey. There were two Portuguese couples, each with a Chinese daughter and each in Hanoi to bring home the Vietnamese babies they had just adopted. There was the serious Belgian Air Force officer making his way through Southeast Asia; the American family on their journey through Asia; the kick-boxer and her boyfriend from Amsterdam. And there was the Eurasian (she said, not me) woman from Hungary who had had too many cosmetic surgeries and injections and was too fond of drama.

From a harbor with a faint smell of urine (or strong, depending on where you stood),

they set sail on the Angelina, this ship of fools, sailing into the mist. La-la-la-la-la.

I walked up to the salon, where the Eurasian woman, Christina was sitting with our tour guide, Lucky. “I want to ask you,” she said, “Do you have medicine for me? I have, what do you call it, the sickness of the ocean. I want to womit.”

“No, I don’t have any medicine like that.”

“They have no medicine for the womit! No penicillin, no paracetamol. They have a bad business. They boolsheet.” She sits, rigid, staring into space.

What could I say? “Yeah, well, uh.”

Other people began filtering into the sal0n, each one queried similarly, until the man from Amsterdam said, yes, he had some of the medicine she wanted. She took 1 pill (of ginger, it turns out) and was miraculously healed in less than a minute – and stayed sickness of the ocean-free for the rest of the voyage. Meanwhile, the gala welcome meal began, with the waiter taking drink orders.

“I thought non-alcohol drinks are included.”

“Drinks not included."

Course by course, plate by plate the food arrived. There was cucumber and tomato salad, seafood soup thickened with a lot of cornstarch, weird little cutlets, tofu with fish flavoring, a whole fish – enough for each person to have 2, maybe 3 bites since the English teacher didn’t eat fish. “I take many medicines and they don’t agree with fish.” As we talk about places we’ve been we discover that he’s taught English in Vietnam for 11 years – 3 months on, 3 months off and has never been to Hanoi or Cambodia. “Do

they eat a lot of rice in Cambodia?” he asks. I can see we’re going to have some heavy philosophical discussions.

Christina continues to complain, the Vietnamese student is basically mute except to ask for chili sauce (via the “teacher”), my wife is starting to snarl at Christina, and the Belgian man is monosyllabic – leaving me, the least social person on the bleeding boat bravely trying to carry this shipboard conversation. “Where have you been? Oh, where are you going?” And so on.

By now we’re into Halong Bay, where several thousand

limestone islands rise up, often vertically out of the green waters of the gulf of Tonkin. I’ll let Lonely Planet describe it: “Magnificent Halong Bay … is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Vietnam’s natural wonders. The islands are dotted with innumerable grottoes created by the wind and waves … Ha long means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea.’” It is breathtaking, unfolding near and far slowly as the boat glides through the water.

After the meal we rest in our cabin to talk about the other passengers. It may just be a two day cruise, but we’re quickly into the spirit of cruises.

“Why don’t you try to be nice to Christina?” I say. “Oh please,” my wife answers. “Why should I?” “I don’t know. Because it’s nice?” She shakes her head, saying in essence, because she’s a “boolsheet” person. “Well, it won’t hurt.” She just shakes her head. Our son leaves on an excursion with most of the other passengers to climb 142 steps to a cave and go kayaking and swimming.

Then it’s time for dinner! More sparkling repartee! Christina is sitting where I sat at lunch, at the head of the table and seeing my wife’s Belgian-like one word responses to Christina, I switch places with her. Good move, CK – weird on my left, wife on my right, and the Belgian man having almost nothing to say across from

me and then the English “teacher” ... I was thinking about Mick Jagger singing, “If I could stick a knife in my heart, Suicide right on stage.” Another cucumber and tomato salad, fried fish, fried potatoes, rice, vegetables, and the piece-de-resistance, another whole fish – another 2 or 3 bites for each person. Really, pretty good. After dinner I go back to our cabin to read.

“Be sure you leave the key in the door” my wife said, so, after reading awhile I put the key in the outside lock Homer Simpson style and hang around outside to see her reaction. She was slow to come back, so missed my joke. While I was gone the Belgian man had opened up and turned out to be an interesting companion, which was good because from the start he seemed like a good guy. Our son had gone up to the top deck, so I joined him up there for awhile, talking

quietly in the foggy night – another memorable time. Photo: The freshwater lake in the middle of an island

In the morning my wife stayed with the Portuguese people to play with the babies (in her natural habitat) while my son and I went off to visit another cave. As caves go it was okay, but past the cave we hiked up a trail to an overlook above a freshwater lake in the middle of the island and surrounded by steep mountains like in an Edgar rice Burroughs book where pterodactyls might swoop down and fearsome creatures rise up out of the water and somewhere along the way the Belgian man told Christina to quit complaining, so she starts talking to me about what a rude

person he is, “I tell him he boolsheet!” and I’m like, “Uh, what can I say?” And she’s quivering with indignation, sitting at the back of the little boat (but at least she didn’t womit on the ride back

to the boat) keeping on with the breast (or should I say, falsie – why she didn’t have them babies embiggened I can’t say) adjustments.

Back from the excursion we all gather in the salon, my wife and I sitting at a different table, soon joined by you-know-who, complaining and me with my stock answer, “Uh, I don’t know, what can I say.” And finally she moves to the end of the table, thus ending another stellar interaction.

We cruise through the bay, across open water, and

into the harbor for (another gala) meal, this time at a restaurant with a vague smell of urine about and several big, wide bottles as in 2-3 feet high full of pickled cobras and assorted snakes with the tops of the bottles covered in something like Saran Wrap (I’m not kidding), this time with the kick-boxer and her boyfriend, both of them fun and nice, the vastly more conversational Belgian, and “Do they eat a lot of rice in Cambodia.”

Ah, the bus ride back to Hanoi. It starts with a new “tour guide” telling my wife and me that we need to move to the back of the bus because “Two people get

car-sick. Cannot sit in back.” My wife, diplomat that she is, says, “No.” The tour guide says “Seats in back good,” and my wife says, “No.” Guess who wanted to displace the two older people? Yep – Christina and her new buddy, the banker. So we didn’t move and the “guide” figured out how the two darlings could sit in front, Christina directly in front of me, ever ready to start it up again.

We stopped at the typical SE Asia bus way station for people to use the toilet, buy drinks, snacks, and of course there were any number of sorry-ass souvenirs. Back on the bus, Christina gets out some “pearls” and “jade” she’d bought and a cigarette lighter, holding her new treasures over the flame to test their authenticity and

when she wasn’t doing that she was fiddling with her hair and adjusting those remarkably movable breasts.

It was raining and traffic started stacking up and the bus driver tried a muddy side road, which didn’t work so there we were, backing up and around as people honked and motorcycles flowed around us in a never-ending stream. Back on the main highway, designed for two-lanes, but now create-a-lane 3 and 4 lanes wide we were part of an endless maneuvering for advantage, sometimes coming to enough of a stop that people were getting out

of buses and cars and milling around the highway and Leslie talking with the Dutch couple and me with some young men from Ireland and I was so happy that I’d dehydrated myself and didn’t have to use my pee bottle and in the back the Portuguese families singing and playing games with their children (these were some truly outstanding parents) and then, from behind the Dutch couple and behind our son sitting behind them next to the Belgian man, we hear the English teacher and his student, “la-la-la-la-la” as they work on singing happy birthday in Vietnamese and our son, the Belgian man, and the Dutch couple cracking up.

And, in a perfect ending to the trip, the bus driver and his accomplice, the “tour guide” started letting people off in more or less random places, saying things like, “One way street, cannot go. Hotel very close.” My wife said, no surprise if you’ve paid any attention at all, “No.” the guide says, “Street too narrow. You can walk in 5 minutes.” “No.” So we ended up back at our hotel, several hours late. La-la-la-la-la.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hanoi 2, days of magic

We met David at the Hanoi airport this morning. Waiting for him was grand – people waiting for relatives, holding bouquets, greetings with smiles and tears, hugs, happiness. I’m thinking some people together after a long time apart. Being here at the airport as well as on the streets it’s like when I’ve been in Vietnam in recent years, thinking about what a shame about the war with these people – I mean, look at them! It’s not that I think we were necessarily wrong to fight the war (remembering the exodus and pain of millions of SE Asian refugees), but more that we were caught up in a matrix of karma related to colonialism, international communism, South VN’s struggle for independence, and

other factors. Whatever the issues and complexities, it’s sad to me that we were fighting these people (as if all war isn’t sad). So there I was at the Hanoi airport, waiting for my son seeing the smiles and flowers and tears and of course tears in my eyes. Vietnam! Photo: Proud relatives of one of the new PhDs (see below). This post begins and ends with beauty.

Walking around Hanoi we pass many women’s clothing stores selling some pretty bad looking clothes, but we hardly ever see a woman who doesn’t look good, showing that the woman makes the clothes rather than the clothes making the woman. The fact is, the huge majority of Vietnamese women are very very spiff, and a pretty large percentage are very good-looking.

We passed the French-fry alley today, right past

the bun cha place on Ha Tien (according to noodlepie, one of the best). The bun cha place is closed for the day and what was a place to eat is now a living room and what was an alley earlier in the day is now a hang-out for high school or college students eating fried potatoes and fried something else – just like the last time we were here. Just like the last time it’s the wonder of the streets that calls us. Photo: As I've told you so many times, do not eat vegetables and fruits that haven't just been peeled (leave 'em for me). This is bun cha, a great dish and good for you.

So, happily we’re together with David (who is tired after a stout flight SFO to Taipei to Hanoi), going to Halong Bay day after tomorrow, then flying to Hue a few days later. Trains in VN are pretty grand, but we’re getting a little old for a squat toilet on a train rocking along down the tracks.

At the moment DK and I are headed for a walk around the block and to the satay lady across the street. Well, that didn’t work out too well. Photo: The satay lady. You can dine in or take it to go.

When we first saw her she had plenty of satay left, but by the time we got around the block she only had 3 sticks and 5 pig feet left. So we got the satay on a bun for Leslie and left the pig feet for someone else. 15 minutes later the lady had packed up and left. We took the sandwich to Leslie and went back to the King Café and had pork with onion and extra garlic + rice. Can you get extra garlic in Vietnam? If you took the garlic, nuoc mam, and sugar out of Vietnamese food, the whole place would just collapse.

Listening to Jerry Garcia singing these Visions of Johanna ...

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it … Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, You can tell by the way she smiles … 10,000 or more Mona Lisas sitting straight and fine riding motorcycles through this city and if you could see the woman sitting on her tiny stool defining elegance as she fries the nem at the bun cha place on Hang Manh Street you’d know what I mean or if you’ve been to Vietnam with eyes wide open, you know what I mean. Photo above: On the street


At breakfast I talked with two (South) Vietnamese men from, wait for this, Mississippi on their first visit to Hanoi. There was also a table with some French women on their way to Saigon to work with an NGO. We’re Americans, one of us Khmer-American. And of course the people working at the hotel are Vietnamese from the north. We were like a microcosm of the past 50 years of VN and SE Asia history,

representing a lot of shed blood – by ourselves, our families, our people.

David stayed at the hotel working on a paper while Leslie and I went to the Temple of Literature (where for a 1000 years scholars took exams for higher learning based on Confucian principles) for an hour or so of sheer magic. It was graduation day for one of the universities and there were students all over the place, posing for photographs, laughing, having a grand time, unimaginably beautiful in their ao dais and happiness. They were more than happy to share with us, posing for our photos, sharing the joy. As we

went further into the complex we came upon a group of about 8 people in their 40s and 50s – PhD candidates in the final moments of receiving their degrees. Serious men and women receiving high honors in a country and culture that honors learning, families bursting with pride, an American couple deeply moved by it all. It doesn’t get much better than this either.

Dedicated to mrmookie and the joy and beauty of Vietnam. We're lucky alright.