Sunday, December 15, 2013

“You call it liver. I call it karma.” (But it was worse)

As we left the Kim Hotel in Saigon, standing where our alley meets the street, one of the young women who works there hugged Leslie – and patted her on the bottom. Sweet.
Wat in Chiang Mai
Easy flight to Bangkok on Vietnam Airlines, good seats that got better when we moved to an empty row, then a stressful taxi deal that was a small screwing. Got to the Drop Inn on Sukhumvit Soi 20, checked in, and moved rooms to escape cigarette smoke. The Drop Inn is as close as we get to a splurge - $44/night.
Ladies of the night in bar across the soi from our hotel

We caught the bus to Tops where I had pork fried with chilies and a handful of basil leaves, and then a generous plate of mango with sticky rice and coconut milk (let the good times roll!) and Leslie ended up with rice, noodles and (oops) chicken gizzards and livers with chilies – “He said it was chicken; he just didn’t tell me which parts.” It’s been two weeks since we’ve had a salad and Tops has a salad bar, so we got salad to take back to our room for dinner. Shared a Beer Chang on the little patio in front of the hotel. Salad in the room. Listening to Brandi Carlile, REM, 10,000 Maniacs, and so on on the computer jukebox. Even when the travel is easy, it’s tiring for us.
Sick tourist in Bangkok

Leslie talking that trash: “Pure tabaccy” and “That’s the way I roll.” Where does this stuff come from? I don’t know.

Little bitty waitress at "chicken street" stand 
In recent days there have been demonstrations against the current Prime Minister in Thailand. A number of government offices have been occupied, streets closed down, and some violence (five people killed so far). This fits with our last few visits to Thailand. The last time we were here the police raided some guys making bombs about a kilometer from where we were staying. One of the bomb-makers ran out of the apartment and threw a grenade at the police. Oops, it hit a pole and bounced right back at the guy, blowing him to smithereens. The time before demonstrators shut down the Bangkok airport for several days. We were on the first plane (literally) into the reopened Bangkok airport. This time the street we’re staying on (Sukhumvit, Soi 20) has been all or partially shut down several times. And I just remembered that a long time ago we stayed with an army officer who was part of a coup d’ etat while we were at his house (he was gone for several days, needless to say).
Grilled chicken, something like laab, sticky rice, peanuts from Indian guy

We made yet another expedition to the amulet market near Thamasat University – red 25 bus through Chinatown, through Indiatown, past Wat Phra Keo and then the crowds near the market. While we were waiting for the bus back, a woman brought me a chair (Leslie already sitting down). Basically It is one loooooong bus ride back to Sukhumvit. Hot, noxious road air, but actually good times with Leslie. Every time we’ve been on a crowded bus, someone has given their seat to Leslie. I, on the other hand, am never offered a seat.

Very nice moment: Bangkok buses all have a driver and a person who circulates through the crowd, collecting fares. On one bus there was a sick toddler asleep at the front of the bus – the fare collector’s child. Apparently fare collectors make very little money… One of the passengers gave the collector 50 baht for the child. Lot of nice people here.
Sick child on the bus

We ate at “chicken street” one night. This was where we were, sitting on stools along the sidewalk when Leslie made a famous comment re a rat running by less than 3 feet away – “But it’s going the other way.” No rats this time, but an awesome cat circulating.

As I said in an earlier post, we seem to be mostly repeating ourselves on this trip, going where we’ve been before, eating tried and true things… Oceans of memories memories memories memories….oceans… of memories… together.
Monk's laundry at wat in Chiang Mai

We flew to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Staying at the Roong Ruang Hotel near Tha Pae Gate. Made a songtaew run to the Central Airport Plaza, which sounds like, why would anyone go there? Unless you’d been there, to the food court where there isn’t a word of English on any sign and where there in khao soi to end all khao sois… red curry soup, noodles, fried thingies, chicken and add lime juice, chili oil, shredded cabbage, holy basil, shallot, sour vegetable, and whatnot. Another bowl please. On the way out, pick up – you guessed it – mango and sticky rice with coconut milk. On the way out, commenting on foods available at one place. Leslie says, “Blobs and squiggles.”
Buddha image at wat in Chiang Mai

On the way back to the Tha Pae Gate we were packed into a songtaew (pickup truck with benches in the bed and a canopy over) and there was an Englishman in his 70s or 80s sitting across from us. We were talking about this and that. Noticing he was wearing a wedding ring, Leslie asked about his wife. He said she had died 20 years ago and he said some things about her to Leslie that couldn’t hear.

Settled in to Chiang Mai, enjoying the smaller (than Bangkok) city with wats all around. As before, true that a big effort to get to the more famous ones hardly worth it as several lovely wats are a 5 minutes slow walk from our hotel.

These are the days.
Roong Ruang Hotel (old section) in Chiang Mai

Leslie connected with a woman at the hotel desk, Nan, and we’ve gone from having to stay in the older section for four days to one night in the newer section to three nights in the newer section and one elsewhere to all four nights right here in the very comfortable and quiet room. The old section is something from days gone by with old-fashion doors, kind of uncomfortable beds, kind of a dank atmosphere, kind of moldy, kind of cool. The way this hotel worked out was when we got to Chiang Mai I hiked all around inquiring about rooms, and in the sweaty end, the Roong Ruang, even the old section, was the best I could find. So after I did that part, Leslie took care of negotiations. Pretty good teamwork.
At Erawan shrine

We’ve gone to the Airport Plaza every day for lunch – 20 baht ($.64) songtaew ride. Sometimes downstairs in the people’s food court, perched on stools, getting down on khao soi, and sometimes upstairs in the more upscale area (where seats have backs and menus have English subtitles – but prices are still good. One day upstairs we had chicken panang, pork satay, cucumber salad, and rice all for less than $3 USD. A brilliant lunch for $1.50 each. I’ve gotten mango, sticky rice and coconut milk every day. Bliss.

Tomorrow we fly to Bangkok. Hope we can get past the demonstrations. Two weeks left in the Asia part of the trip. These are the days.
Beer with ICE in Bangkok, peanuts from Indian man

Every evening in Chiang Mai and Bangkok we’ve sat outside and had a beer together – “happy hour.” I’ve been to more malls and 7-11s in Asia and drunk more beer this trip than in the past 10 years. The mall food court scene is basically street vendors moved inside with cleaner dishes. 7-11s in SEA are unlike 7-11s in the US – prices are good and they have more stuff. Beer is Chang.

Things we’ve eaten in Thailand so far this time around (it's extravagant and cheap):
Here it is - mango with sticky rice and coconut milk
• Mango with sticky rice and coconut milk almost every day for me
• Pad Thai, vegetarian and with shrimp (little dried ones and fresh)
• Pad see eu
• Krapow, chicken and pork versions
• Green curry
• Panaeng curry
• Red curry, several variations
Woman vending panaeng and satay at mall 
• Masaman curry
• Khao soi – a lot
• Satay, several kinds
• Grilled chicken, several different – some as good as what we used to get in the Shell station parking lot way down Sukhumvit a long time ago
• Gyoza
• Mushrooms wrapped in ham and grilled
• Fried bananas – 10 baht buys a lot
• Jook (like congee with tons of garlic)
• Laab, several kinds
• Tom kha
• Tom yum
• Chiang Mai sausage
• Western salad from several salad bars
• Chicken fried with basil and garlic; also pork the same way
• Peanuts fried with citrus leaves and garlic
• Papaya salad
• Chicken with ginger – ginger not as a flavoring, but a vegetable
• Khanom jeen nam ngiaw – this is a spicy stew with clabbered blood – a detail I didn’t know about – not good. At first I thought the blood was liver. Leslie said, “You call it liver. I call it karma.”

• Several things I don’t know the name of; things I’ve forgotten

Rugged stuff - blood on right side of bowl
Bangkok: at this point in the trip everything is a big effort. Basically we’re just being in BK, eating fabulous food, having “happy hour” every evening on the porch of the hotel… 50 years on… 

Malls. Really, who would have ever thought I’d go to a mall, much less know something about several!. Here is the deal on mall food in Bangkok: They have collections of vendors who, in days gone by, would have been street vendors. So the food is as good and authentic as you can get from a street food perspective. They are air-conditioned (not an insignificant factor in Bangkok). Most have chairs with backs. Clean restrooms with toilet paper. Here are some malls on or near Sukhumvit Road:
Great food - khao soi

Siam Paragon: A huge upscale mall with the greatest food court ever. SP was the world’s most instagrammed location in 2013. Really a fabulous and extravagant place.
Tops: A much smaller place up the road from our hotel. Good grocery store, nice inexpensive food court and okay salad bar.
Big C on Rama IV: The people’s mall. Today we had masaman curry, sticky rice, and laab for 100 baht (less than $1.50 each). Some of the food at Big C requires culling and discarding of less desirable parts, but well worth it to us.
MBK: Huge, cheap discount mall. We had a poor experience at food court there.
Emporium: Upscale with hard to find and not so great food court (but when you think about it, so much better than anything in the states), but the best salad bar we’ve found.

Erawan Shrine to Lord Brahma

At Erawan Shrine
We visited the Erawan shrine to Lord Brahma today (Sunday). Many people there, heavy clouds of incense, traditional music, classic Thai dancers, flowers, and worshipers. From my book on culture and health beliefs and practices: Many Thais and Laotians practice a mix of Theravada Buddhism and Brahmanism or Phram. The practice of both, as well as belief in spirits is seen in the relatively common approach to shrines: Inside the home is reserved for the Buddhist shrine; while outside may be found a spirit (Phi) house (small house or shrine on top of a pole or column). Offerings of food are to spirits, while offerings of flowers are to Phram.

A poem from Michael Montague:
Up Lad; thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns a bed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.
Clay lies still, but Bloods a rover
Breath’s a ware that will not keep
Up lad; when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough to sleep
A.E Housman

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saigon, a little Hanoi, some Sapa

Saigon: We’re staying at the Kim Hotel in a backpacker alley off Bui Vien Street in the Pham Ngu Lao area. $18/night with aircon, fan, hot water, etc. It’s hot in Saigon. Haha, of course it’s hot; it’s the tropics. 
Alley where our hotel is (Kim Hotel) 

We’re mostly just repeating ourselves now – pork chop and egg on rice with tomato and cucumber and café sua da every day for breakfast; walk to Ben Thanh Market across intersections of no mercy, through the park where someone has set up a bizarre Holland exhibit of street, store, café, and garden facades so people can take photos of one another as if in Holland and of course they do take the photos. Across another stressful street, cut up a side street toward the market to discover that this is a largely Muslim street now so when it’s as hot as hell their women can be covered and “protected” while the men are comfortable in short sleeve shirts. Right.
Another alley, where we eat breakfast every day. Leslie on the left.

The market is as before – hot, crowded, some stuff for tourists, some for locals, and one of the world’s great food courts. For me, bun thit nuong with a very generous amount of pork right off the grill and for Leslie a return to the banh cuon stall where about two years ago the woman came out from the stall to hug Leslie and this time the woman (Hue) sees us across the way and breaks into a smile of recognition. Incredible. Good banh cuon for lunch with a fried shrimp pastry. I got Hue’s email address and sent her a photo I’d taken the time before. Here is her email to us:

Dear A Good Couple,
Thank you for your kindness and thanks for coming.
Breakfast of Champions!!!

What can I say? Vietnam has been full of these graceful moments. I’m grateful.

Two nights in a row we’ve eaten at JJ’s Fish and Chips, a small street cart with two tables and four chairs run by a British guy and his boyfriend. Basically, they make the best French fries ever and the fish is outstanding as well. Sitting on the sidewalk next to some open-fronted bars with bar girls sitting outside to entice men and we’re drinking Saigon green label beer over ice (hell yes, just like in the old days) and eating fish and chips.  
Family moto

I made this forum post on the Lonely Planet site: Vietnam scams: We’ve been in VN about 10 days now, mostly Hanoi and Sapa, and now in Saigon. As on previous trips to Vietnam, we are unaware of being cheated – except for today. I was making a small purchase on Bui Vien in the heart of Pham Ngu Lao (the main backpacker area) and handed the woman a 500,000 dong bill instead of 50,000 dong. She said, “OO! No!” and gave it back. So, so far, the only cheating has been totally my own doing. What a numbnuts!

I think the main protective factor is paying careful attention all the time and clarifying everything, which I usually do. But there are those moments of inattention and zoning out. Thanks lady! Vieeeetnaaaam!
Dong Xuan Market - the porter's area

Hanoi: Taking it easy in Hanoi, leisurely breakfasts, coffee and more coffee, into the flow now. Reading Shogun, a perfect travel book. This copy is an old one, brittle yellowed pages, front and back covers off. I have to keep it in a plastic bag.

Dong Xuan Market, mostly a wholesale market now, narrow aisles, insanely crowded and fast, where a few years ago I felt Leslie patting my bottom and looked around and realized it was an old woman wanting to get past me, where today, someone patted Leslie on her bottom, also wanting by. These weren’t customers but women porters who carry small to huge loads from place to place. I love it; it’s a little like a rave with all these people all together (not loving, but massively getting along – LOL).  
The Queen of Bun Cha

Bun cha for lunch with Leslie somehow knowing what street is what, guiding us through what some people call the “medieval streets” of the Old Quarter – streets that change names every 1-2 blocks and direction whenever, walking along the edge of the streets/in the gutters because the sidewalks are blocked with vendors and their goods, bales of this and that, stuff kind of spilling out of stores, parked motorbikes, and so on – and here in the streets we’re sharing space with countless motorbikes passing by literally inches away (with one person riding, two, three, four, carrying everything from huge loads of rice to a refrigerator, yep, a refrigerator), a few cars, xyclos, women carrying bamboo poles with baskets on each end (baskets of produce, baskets of tiny portable cafes – really, baskets of portable butcher shop, flowers, clothing, I mean everything), other pedestrians, stacks and bales of whatever – WOW!
This whole cafe fits in 2 baskets, each one carried at ends of bamboo pole 

She says, “If we go straight here and turn left, we’ll be at whatever becomes something.” Hahaha, that’s my wife talking as she takes us through these “medieval streets.”

Bun cha and crab nem for lunch and garlic and more garlic, garlic as a flavoring, garlic as a spice – you know you’re getting a lot of garlic when it’s hot like Tabasco. Acha!

She says, “Here comes a dead chicken” and sure enough, here comes one carried by its feet by a woman.
Why me? Taken in bun thang cafe in Hanoi

Leslie’s email to David: We're back in Hanoi after a nice visit to SaPa, a beautiful town with an abundance of even more beautiful Hmong people. The whole scene seemed more Nepalese than Vietnamese; surely all mountain people originated in the same place as they all really look alike. Two 12 hour train rides with only a night to recover was a bit much, but the train was better than I expected.

We leave here tomorrow for Saigon and are staying at Mrs. Kim's as usual. This time, we booked an airport taxi with her to skip the hype, cheating, and angst of doing it ourselves upon arrival.
Leslie throwing elbows in a plane scrum

CK at the fish and chips place in Saigon
All is well here. The two young women at the desk have been wonderful to us. We really got passed hand-to-hand from here to the train (someone from the hotel followed the taxi to redeem our receipt for actual tickets at the station) and then had a van driver waiting for us in Lao Cai for transport to SaPa. The return trip was even more interesting. The Paradise View Hotel booked a van to Lao Cai which deposited us at a Cafe near the train station; the proprietress obtained our train ticket and then sent a young man to escort us to the station and position us in the right line at EXACTLY the right time. Finally, when we got off the train in Hanoi, a young woman who was also a passenger on the train called the Camillia for me, and Huyen from the front desk brought a taxi to take us to the hotel. We just accepted everything on blind faith, not understanding anything until each step was completed. I can't think of any place in the world except Vietnam where all of this could actually work out successfully. Amazing, really!

Hope all of you are doing well. It must be nearly Thanksgiving; we miss being there with you. Give our best to Charles and a big "woof" to Jake.
Motos in the night. Photo taken from the fish and chips place.

Hahaha, there are little bitty ants crawling along on my computer screen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sapa, Hanoi 2013

It makes perfect sense to be sitting here on a tiny tiny chair on a sidewalk in Hanoi in the mist having a cup of strooong espresso with sweetened condensed milk. Happy me.
Young hill tribe women

The journey to Sapa began with a taxi ride to the confusion of the Hanoi train station. We did what we were told and ended up in a 4 person “soft sleeper,” which wasn’t very soft. Leslie and I were sitting on her bunk (she had a bottom bunk and I had a top) across from a middle-aged Vietnamese man and his daughter when a woman kind of pushed past Leslie to join us on the bunk. My lame-ass “She’s a nice looking lady” got me one of those looks from Leslie, so I didn’t have anything else to say on that matter and meanwhile, the woman was lounging on Leslie’s bunk, leaning back on the pillow and one foot on the bunk and I thought my best bet is to lay low except there’s no place to hide out. Oh well.
On the train - woman slips in beside Leslie. Make yourself at home.

The middle-aged man’s daughter left, but the woman stayed, and then the woman also left and we moved down the bunk to block her return to our space like there’s an “our space” in Vietnam LOL. When the woman came back she did a spectacular climb up to her top bunk above Leslie. Whew.

The lonesome whistle blew and the train began to move. I brought my pillow and comforter (supplied by the train company) down and we leaned back in complete comfort and Vietnam passing by outside in the darkness. We were sharing the new iPod, with one ear bud each, my arm around Leslie… “as we sail into the mystic… let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic…” picking up speed, clacking, rumbling along and here’s Robert Earl Keen, headin’ down that dusty trail again, Ohhhh yeah, sharing a Hanoi beer… Now…
Sapa town

“Seems like yesterday, but it was long ago, Leslie was lovely she was the queen of my night, there in the darkness with the radio playin’ low, and, and the secrets that we shared, the mountains that we moved… and I remember what she said to me, how she swore that it never would end, I remember how she held me oh so tight… we were young and strong, we were runnin’ against the wind…” (a tip of the hat to Bob Seger)

We sat there a long time. Sweet. Into the Now. And then I climbed into my top bunk and fell into a rumbling fine train sleep. Pulling into Lao Cai in the early morning. Someone took us to our bus and away into the mountains, into Sapa. Get out, walk up the street to the Paradise View Hotel – 15 rooms and ours on the ground floor in the back. Perfect...
Cloud at night in street

Sapa, where the sun is shining one minute and literally the next minute clouds rolling right through town for a few minutes and blue skies again and in a little while clouds again so that you can see 50-100 feet ahead and then sun and the mountains revealed, cloudy themselves…
Sapa, where indigenous people walk the streets, looking nothing like the lowland Viets, distinctively mountain people, a little Tibetan in appearance, the women with incredible clothing with fine cross-stitched details, head-dresses, leggings, and many wearing… wait for it, rubber boots, many with a basket on their back, some peddling hill tribe crafts (some very insistently – “I follow you forever, to your village if no buy from me.”). There’s something about mountain people, whether in Nepal or Vietnam or America, something different, maybe a sense of specialness, I’m not sure.
Playing in the street

Sapa, a little like Nepal, with houses clinging to hillsides and when we went a little higher up, houses clinging to mountainsides, terraced fields, the harvest in now, the road winding up and up, past a high waterfall, and on to a high pass overlooking mountains and clouds…

Sapa has expensive food, though we were able, as usual, to find some good noodles at a good price at the Cozy 2 Hotel. Our hotel had an outstanding breakfast included, with more good Vietnamese coffee. Overall (except for the hotel breakfast), not a great food trip.
Taken from room balcony at Paradise View

When it was time to leave for Lao Cai and on to Hanoi, we got on a bus for a real death ride down the winding mountain road with the driver taking and making phone calls and at one point holding a phone in each hand. Tailgating? We’re talking extreme tailgating – honk honk honk honk and finally out of the mountains and into Lao Cai, taking a detour to let a bunch of people out who knows where and on to the train station.

Terraced fields after harvest
He let us out at a café near the train station where a woman in pajamas took our train ticket voucher, “Sit down. You wait 5 minute,” and sure enough in 10 minutes (i.e., 5 minutes) she was back with the train tickets and getting a kiss from Leslie, and there we sat for an hour or so, having a beer, watching the street unfold. Really, it doesn’t get much better than this. At one point we got up to go to the train station, but a man came over and told us to wait. Finally, a young man we’d never seen before walked up and took our suitcase and away we all went to the train, to the right car, to the bunk, our 4 bunk compartment shared by a German social worker (what are the chances that two social workers would end up in the same compartment!). As before we sat together on Leslie’s bunk, happy as hippies, listening to her iPod while the world slid by outside. Rolling, rumbling, shaking on down the tracks. Hahaha, “Red lips, red hair and fingernails, I hear you’re a mean old Jezebel” and the Dixie Chicks singing that “Earl has to die!” Hell yes.
Women and children

Back in Hanoi standing outside the train station Leslie asked a young woman to call the hotel for us and in about 10 minutes, here comes Quyen across the street. Talk about a welcome sight!

Banh cuon + roast pork with cinnamon for breakfast (it’s a well-known fact that you can’t get too much garlic), and for lunch we were invited to join the hotel staff for a nice meal of bun cha, small whole shrimps (head, antennae, carapace, legs, etc.), noodles, vegetables, peanuts, etc. Good food, good company, good times.
They wanted a photo with me in it. Sure, great idea

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hanoi 2013

Looking out of temple entrance on bamboo street
(I don't know what's up with font changes. I have no control over that.) 

Last night (our first night back in Hanoi) we went to the King Café for a toasted cheese and onion sandwich, French fries, and Hanoi Beer. While we were waiting for the food I walked outside to the narrow busy street and shift, I was there, all the way. A young woman told the man she was sitting on a motorcycle with to move up a bit so I could walk past easier. Such a small transitory action – and it opened a window for me to again feel the magic of Vietnam. I thought, my God, these people!
Passageway inside a temple
From email Leslie to David: We arrived in Hanoi last night earlier than we expected, but getting through airport immigration, etc. is a very lengthy process. The Camellia Hotel driver was waiting for us (Hallelujah!!) so finally got to the hotel about 9:00.
The night club next door is back in business and combined with
a Saturday night street crowd was LOUD! But they must have a midnight curfew, at least on clubs and bars, and all was quiet after that.
We have a balcony that looks out over a nice neighborhood from a bird's-eye view, beautiful old multi-floored/multi-layered building that looks exactly like you'd want a VN building to look like: green and red tiled roofs, balcony railing with the green porcelain tiles like at the Citadel, and an ancient old woman sitting on a balcony, looking out…
We have no onward plans yet but will keep you posted. Your Dad wants to go the Delta area so hopefully the weather will allow.
I hardly ever remember my dreams. Last night I had the longest most complex dream I’ve had in many years.
Leslie and I were standing outside the old Ross Avenue Sears. I asked her if she wanted to go in and she said no. Then I was nearby in a place like a park, with huge ancient trees, birds all around, and a male cardinal on the ground strutting his stuff, making his wings flare out and forward, singing for a female and the female hopping amongst the leaves making sweet little cardinal sounds,
Then I was running toward my car, up an incline that was getting steeper and steeper and then I was climbing and the ground was unstable and there were two people below me and a black woman to my right, digging her hands into the dirt to keep from falling and I was wishing the people below weren’t there because if either the woman or I fell
What a load; what balance!
we’d take the others down with us and I was wondering how the car got to where it was and what I was going to do if I got to it.
Then I was in a car with a couple about 60 years old and a boy about 8. The boy was explaining to the couple how Obama is a very bad man trying to destroy America. One of them asked where he got that idea and he answered, from “a 4 hour DVD.” They were patiently talking with him, trying to help him understand that maybe he’d been misled.
Then I was somewhere else and saw the couple. I was telling them how impressive their patience was. We were talking about how we never saw that sort of political or religious indoctrination when we were children. But then we realized that when we were children, at least for the middle class, America was basically all right wing and we were all being indoctrinated all the time.
Bun cha and nem (see below)

I awakened, realizing that what broke us out of the right wing rigidity were the Vietnam war and the consciousness revolution. I felt tremendous gratitude (not gratitude for the war, for God’s sake) that so many of us got out of that mind prison. I felt so sad about the terrible tragedies of that war. I thought what I thought last night on the street and what I’ve thought every time I’ve been here in Vietnam: why on earth would we ever go to war with these people.
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
Here we are, all under the same sky. Sitting here looking out of the hotel window across the rooftops of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
We were in the process of getting tickets to Hue this morning and while the woman doing the
On the street
deal was on the phone with Vietnam Air, Leslie fell into conversation with a Vietnamese woman who said it’s flooding in Hue. I went to our room to check the internet: 14 inches of rain in two days, deep water in the streets. Never mind about the Hue tix!
The woman who gave Leslie the heads up works with a foundation procuring books and o
Woman at Hoan Kiem Lake
pening lending libraries in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. She said an American veteran was the energy behind the foundation. He showed up and we talked. He was an 03 (US military designation for infantry). Pretty amazing encounter – two old veterans, both 03s, with deep connections to Southeast Asia, he with books, me with refugees. We got ready to go our separate ways and hugged, hard, “Welcome Home!”
Here is the Children’s Library International website. (For a real good time, check out the photos on the home page.)
We went on a banh cuon quest today and the place we were looking for was closed. My sharp-eyed travel partner had noticed people eating on the sidewalk a block earlier, so went back to that place, which turned out to be a stellar bun cha café 
with two menu items: bun cha and nem cua be. Bun cha is grilled pork and grilled pork patty served in a fish sauce and lime juice soup with daikon radish (or something like it) + cool noodles and a generous plate of cilantro, mint, etc. Chilies and garlic in vinegar complete the picture. More garlic! More chilies! Nem cua be is sort of like a square egg roll with a flaky crispy wrapper enclosing crab and assorted mysterious substances. What a feast! More on bun cha here

Another day… several things went wrong today. We used up too much time arranging for a trip to Sapa; we used up way too much time discovering that no bank in Hanoi will exchange travelers checks; we got a little lost; when we found what we were
Banh cuon
looking for we couldn’t find what we were looking for there; we got a little lost again; le sigh. The good parts of the day included time together in the morning, a motorcycle ride with a pretty Vietnamese woman named Quyen, trip to Sapa arranged, more bun cha, and through the frustrations we kept it together.

The next day. We found a bank that will change TCs. Breakfast (hotel buffet – including credible pho ga) with Leslie. Went to a coffee shop the man from Children’s Library International man. Later headed out on a banh cuon mission – it was great. We’re sweating garlic now. Nap. Another heart-stopping motorcycle ride with Quyen. She took me to apparently the last bank in town that will exchange TCs (1% commission on dong, 2% on USD). It’s interesting that she would take me. There was nothing material in it for her – maybe just wanted to help the old people. Taking it easy in our room. King Café for chicken with lemon grass and chilies, Hanoi beer.
Quyen and CK

From the Forward (by Gen. Schwarzkopf) to We Are Soldiers Still: “… we see the evolution of that country (Vietnam) and people as they find peace after a thousand years of war. And we see a surprising concern and tenderness for each other among men who once had done their best to kill each other. If those men, veterans of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, can become friends and pray together for all who died on that ground on both sides, then the war really is over and we can all be at peace.”

Train to Sapa tomorrow night. These are the days.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hong Kong November 2013

From Victoria Peak (Pacific Coffee)
Wow. Get up at 6 am Monday in San Francisco, awake all day, fly out of SFO at 11:45 pm that night for a 13.5 hour flight (THE best seats in economy, thanks to Leslie) getting into Hong Kong at 6 am, finally settle into a room at the Dragon Hostel at noon. Somehow I calculated that at 38 hours on the go. I slept for about 6 hours on the plane (the longest I’ve ever slept on a flight – thanks to zolpidem) and Leslie slept not at all. I was doing pretty well, but by the time we went to bed, Leslie had an hour of sleep in ~48 hours.  We may be getting a little old for this.
Dragon Hostel room. Photo taken standing in the bathroom
We’re staying at the Dragon Hostel, which is more a guesthouse than hostel. It’s in Mong Kok on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Mong Kok has the “highest population density in the world, with 130,000 people in one square kilometer” (Reuters, 2011). Here is a pretty good Mong Kok slide show from Reuters, though one of their photos labeled “a doorway” is actually, obviously, the entrance to a brothel. 
Now it’s Thursday morning. Awake around 5:30 am. Coffee in the room, talking in the dark, here we are again. The room is a little larger than a basic prison cell (6x9 feet) and has no window (window rooms get traffic noise). Small, cut off from the world, no problem. LOL, I was sitting on my bed with one foot propped on Leslie’s bed and my legs crossed and Leslie ran into my foot with her head. It really is pretty small.
From the Star Ferry
About the coffee: we’re traveling with a drip through basket, filters, immersion heater and enough coffee to get us through San Francisco and Hong Kong (HK has terrible coffee). We’ll buy a few kilos of coffee in Hanoi, some of which we’ll drink in Thailand (another coffee wasteland) and some we’ll take back to the US.
It’s a time of life when we seem to be repeating a lot. Today we took the #6 bus to the Star Ferry (smell the sea); ferry across the harbor; #15 bus up the Peak; coffee at Pacific Coffee sitting with a panoramic view over the city and harbor; Tsim Chai Kee for shrimp wonton noodle soup (shrimp with a wild, fresh taste, unlike what we get in Dallas); walking back to catch a bus to the Star Ferry, window shopping at Chow Tai Fook – a $2 million USD jade bracelet, similarly priced diamond necklace, all those kinds of things; back to the Star Ferry, talking about how we’ve ridden this ferry countless times; back to our little bitty room…
Entrance to Sincere House, where the Dragon Hostel is -
look past the head of the man at far right to barely see entrance 
Another day, more bus rides. But first, lying together in one of the little beds, then walk to Cherikoff’s Bakery (started in the 1920s by a white Russian refugee from the Soviet purges – his great-great grandson contacted me a few years ago) to pick up egg and ham sandwiches for breakfast in our room. Add some ketchup and Tabasco – alriiiight. Go down two levels of the MTR to put more money on the Octopus card.
Take the #2 bus to Chungking Mansions, one of the most international places in the world – on the ground floor a warren of money changers, halal curry shops, internet cafes, little stores of every imaginable sort (Need some clothes for a Nepalese wedding? This is the place), stacks of Chinese, Arabs, Africans, Bangladeshis (Hashish sir?), Nepalese, and of course plenty of western backpackers. Then there are about 15 stories of apartments, low-rent guesthouses, more cafes, little bitty factories, and a whole lot more. I love it; Leslie not so much.  
In the Chungking Mansions
Another Star Ferry ride, another bus ride (#7), more shrimp wonton soup, walking the streets, back to the ferry, bus, back to our room, and when it was dark, to the Ladies Market where we found nothing we wanted, much less needed.
She's coming out of the Sincere House
Later I went for a walk along a street that is blocked to vehicles so that people have the streets. There were musicians, portrait artists, photographers, jugglers, poets. and an astonishing press of people. Leslie calls this urban compression. I’m IN the flow, Aes Dana on the iPod, INTO THE FLOW. Is this good or what!

Saturday we had dim sum and shrimp wonton for breakfast in our room. On the way to get the dim sum, there were children on the streets soliciting for money for the HK Community Chest. Every time we’ve been in HK, we’ve seen children and teens doing this for schools and so on. We always contribute and in return, get a little sticker which I put on the little notebook I always carry. Talk about a good souvenir! Hanging out in our room, packing, talking, good times, the best of times.
Crossing the street
For lunch we went to Good Hope Noodles’ new café. Now the man who makes the noodles (traditional way, by hand) works in the window. Another great meal – braised noodles with ginger and scallion and shrimp wonton noodle soup.  
Hanoi, here we come! Dragon Air into the sky!