Archive for November, 2008

Hanoi

November 26, 2008

Okay, I’ve given up. I’ve been trying for two hours to post pictures with this entry and it keeps merging captions,creating large spaces, moving paragraphs and just randomly making photos disappear. I can’t look at it anymore so if it doesn’t make sense, I apologize. I’m going to post the shots on Facebook and see if I can open it up to everyone.

We left Hue much as we met it – in a deluge of rain. We hit the Hue airport (a small place with pretty much nothing to do or see during our hour and a half there) and flew to Hanoi.

A couple of things I forgot to mention about our Hue experience. On the day we arrived, we went for a walk and noticed a bunch of people standing on the shore looking out at the water. Vietnam is renowned for its water puppets so I suspected that’s what they were looking at and we went over to check it out. No puppets, just a few small boats that really shouldn’t have been getting all the attention they were getting. Then we noticed some divers and, sure enough, after about 15 minutes they pulled up a dead body from the river. Welcome to Hue.

The search crew regroups

The search crew regroups

While we were in the Citadel, Hue’s most famous landmark, Jesse and I were wandering through various rooms and displays, as one does. We “somehow” (Jesse did it) wandered into a prop room of sorts, with elaborate costumes from the period of the emperors. We’d seen pictures of tourists dressed up in the costumes so I’m sure they weren’t ACTUAL period pieces but I suspect this room wasn’t part of the standard tour route either. Now, my closest friends will know that throughout my childhood my mother often said to me in her sing-songy West Indian accent, “don’t touch de people dem tings” and I ALWAYS listen to my mother. So it’s highly unlikely that I put on one of the emperor hats in this costume room. And it’s even more unlikely that I had some trouble hanging it back up. And it is certainly not possible that the hat split into two pieces in the process. No. Because I never touch de people dem tings.

 

 

 

 

So on to Hanoi… When we arrived it wasn’t raining! That’s a plus. I was surprised by how less urban Hanoi is compared to Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is an old cultural city, not a commercial hub, so there were very few big towers. It’s big and yet it’s manageable. And, as with the other three cities we’d visited, everything was cleaner and less run down than Colombo.

We arrived at my friend Steve’s place, another VSO volunteer, where we’d be staying for the rest of the trip. VSO living in Hanoi is very different from Colombo. Sattelite t.v., hot water, king size beds… you call this roughing it? Oh, that’s right, no, Steve doesn’t call it roughing it at all. I would make fun of his pansy-ass gold-plated volunteer stint if I wasn’t jealous.

There is one thing he’s got that I don’t want… rats. After I noticed this large metal cage in the kitchen, he showed us the huge hole in the wooden ceiling of the cupboard that a rat ate through to get to the food. And the plastic lid of the blender that now has a fist-sized hole after a rat ate through that too. I comforted myself with the idea that, like most Vietnamese houses, Steve’s is narrow and multi-storeyed and there were two floors between my room and the kitchen.

After dropping off our stuff we headed to a little open-air food-stop for some pho. There are tonnes of little food stalls like this, all serving delicious stuff. You sit on little plastic stools that we use back in Canada as step-stools to reach the top shelf of a cupboard. They are about 6 inches off the ground and the little tables you sit at aren’t much higher. It’s like you’ve been relegated to the kids’ table at a party, but everyone is an adult. Next we went to his nearby mall (A GENUINE MALL!  Pansy.) Steve lives in a suburb so we hopped on motorbikes and booted into the city so that Jesse and I could buy tickets for a two-day trip to Halong Bay the next day. Riding motorbikes in Vietnam is super fun. Steve explained that driving them is kind of like skiing: you’re responsible for what’s in front of you. So you can cut people off and make turns without signalling and the people behind you just kind of accommodate your moves and you do the same for the people in front of you. It sounds crazy – and maybe it is – but it seems to work (although I think we saw one accident every day while we were there).

A country that appreciates its cheese puts anti-theft locks on each package

A country that appreciates its cheese puts anti-theft locks on each package

 

Jesse rides a real Xe Um (motorbike taxi)

Jesse rides a real Xe Um (motorbike taxi)

 

 

 

 

 

Steve and I blow by him

Steve and I blow by him

With our tickets purchased, Steve took us to Green Mango for drinks. It’s a swank restaurant bar that still had a laid back vibe. I drank a lot. It was happy hour, what can I say? Next we hopped on the bikes again and went to another roadside restaurant. I don’t know what we ate but I know I liked it. I asked the waiter to take a picture of us and this is what he did. Steve says that’s really common here. For some reason, centering is not a Vietnamese forte.

That's a lovely road you've taken a picture of.

That is one nice road

The next morning Jesse and I made our way to the travel agent where we’d be picked up by bus for our Halong Bay trip. The trip is an overnight boat tour of the bay and is supposed to be spectacular. We were wedged into a mini-van like sardines for the three hour drive, then, when we arrived at the Bay, we were informed that a) we needed our passports to participate in this trip (Jess didn’t  have his) and b) we’d been registered to stay at a hotel, not sleeping on the boat which is what Jesse and I thought we’d booked.

We suck at day trips.

We argued and whined and were able to secure our places on the boat in the end. I’m so glad we did. Halong Bay is a series of giant rock formations in the water. I think there are something like 3,000 of them but that could be completely wrong. There are probably 3,000 boat tour boats though. Still, it’s a serene and beautiful ride on these old wooden junks. We were brought to a fishing community on water – about 30 little floating shacks that each had only about 5 feet of wood surrounding them and yet several of these houses had dogs. Where do they run?

The bay, the boats and the fishing community

The bay, the boats and the fishing community

 

We then disembarked at one of the rock formations for some reason (I wasn’t sure what… I was just going with the flow on this excursion) and climbed a hell of a lot of stairs. We handed our tickets to a surly woman, climbed some more stairs and then entered the most spectacular cave I’ve ever seen. I actually exclaimed like a six year old “OHHHH, WOW!!!!” when we walked in. It was like walking into Superman’s ice fortress, except it was all rock and about 20 times bigger. I would have paid twice as much money if I’d known that was what we were in for. Unfortunately my pictures can’t do the place justice. It was absolutely stunning.

 

 

 

I don't know if you can see the people but there's people in this shot

It's a big freakin' cave

Dinner on the boat was fabulous and bountiful and, much to my surprise, the sleeping cabins were really nice too. It was sublime to just sit at our porthole and watch these massive outcroppings drift by the window as the sky darkened. The next day was more of the same. You can’t help but be relaxed after a trip to Halong Bay. And good thing too, because Steve had a whirlwind of activity planned for us.
We got back in the early evening and ran into Steve as we were returning. He was at a road-side barber – just a guy on the street with a chair, a mirror and a razor – so both he and Jesse got haircuts. The barber offered to shave my head for free but I didn’t take him up on the offer (sorry Terry).  

Steve gets his head shaved. I do not.

Steve gets his head shaved. I do not.

Steve, his friend Ngan (pronounced – I think, we never quite got it right – “nyun”), Jesse and I then went out for a dinner of Cha Ca. It’s a meal where you grill/fry fish at your table with some herbs and you add the fish to your rice with other condiment-type things. Afterward we went to a cute little hole-in-the-wall hipster bar. Hanoi seems to be all about the hipster bars. The city is overrun with hipsters and hippies — whether residents or tourists. It’s like stepping into Queen West West again. It’s simultaneously awesome and off-putting. After a rousing game of foozeball at the bar, we called it a night.

Friday, Jesse and I walked around the Old Quarter, which is really very friendly. It is full of stores set along themed streets. Shops on a given street often sell the same thing, so you walk along electronics street, then turn onto gravestone street, then hit party favours street… you get the idea. My friend Adrian had suggested that we eat at a restaurant called Koto so we wandered around until we found it. It’s a not-for-profit Jamie Oliver style place, where formerly homeless and poor kids have been given culinary and hospitality training. It was really lovely. After that, we got massages together (Jesse and I, not the homeless kids). Strangely, Jesse got the female masseuse and I got the male. 

In the evening, we joined Steve and all of the Hanoi VSO volunteers for a big goodbye dinner – a banquet really — for two of the volunteers. The feast included chicken (the whole chicken, head, feet and all), fish soup, pork, rice, spring rolls, the list goes on. Once our bellies were full, we moved on to hipster bar number three, Studio, where we met a bunch of Steve’s friends. At one point in the evening a giant bong was brought out and people (not me) passed it around and took a pull. Smoking the ‘shish is huge and legal in Vietnam.

Kuhn partakes in the hooka

Kuhn partakes in the hookaSteve blows... smoke, that is.

After that bar was shut down (the police close them at midnight… but for a little money, the officer we saw let it stay open until around 1 a.m.), we moved on to an after club called “6 A.M.” It was this dark, smoky dingy place by the water. I swear the kids walking in there were 14. No seriously, that’s not just a grumpy old “hey you, get off my lawn” 37-year old talking. They were toddlers. Eventually – as was bound to happen even though there were only about 20 people in the bar – a fight broke out. A hilarious fight.

Two huge guys who looked like Texan linebackers were minding their own business dancing to the techno beats and then a scuffle broke out between one of them and another guy. After pulling them apart, there were still a bunch of insults flying, seemingly all directed at the Texans. Then, after it seemed to die down a bit, some little French guy started screaming at them, “Get out! Leave! Get out!” Then he pivoted, took a drag of his cigarette and MOONWALKED across the floor. You know, nothing says “I could tear you in two” like a good moonwalk. But he leapt back toward the Texans, all 5 feet 5 inches of him. “GET OUT!” His friends tried to subdue him but he was all caged animal rage. The Texan who wasn’t in the scuffle kept trying to tell him to calm down and that they were leaving anyway but dude did not care. “GET OUT! GET OUT!” he spat at them. Then more moonwalking. “You cause my friend to get kicked out! You leave too!” More threatening moonwalking. It was utterly comical.

Saturday we got to sleep in then we headed into town with Steve to have breakfast/lunch at a cute little restaurant called So Hot. Again, another cool place with a really nice vibe. With our full stomachs, we headed to the much maligned (by Steve’s friend Paul) Hanoi Music Festival.

I try to get my sk8r chick on

I try to get my sk8r chick on

The festival was smaller than I thought it would be but still had a thousand or so people there and it was lots of fun. We flip-flopped between the main stage and the dj tent. The best act of the day/night was this Vietnamese human beatbox guy. He blew everyone away. The worst, by far for me, was an Australian “band”. Two guys with an Apple computer and an electronic keyboard. They had this nice loungy Cafe Del Mar music programmed on their computer. First of all, much as I love it, lounge music is not main stage material at a music festival. Second, they’d press a button, the music would play and then they’d add some completely useless, random percussion instrument, like a coconut shell and a stick, to make it seem like they were performing. Most of the time you couldn’t even hear it. Honestly at one point I SWEAR the guy was just shaking an avocado. And the audience just danced and bobbed their heads in approval.

I was hoping that this was an absurdist performance act and they would keep pushing the envelope to see how far they could get before people twigged in. I figured a wet towel would be the next “instrument”. I would have laughed if it was the greatest musical mockery of all time but it wasn’t. These guys were a pair of self-indulgent boobs. When the wet towel didn’t materialize, I just got pissed off and went to the dj tent. There, Jesse got accosted by one of the VSO volunteers who was, let’s say, an enthusiastic dancer.

That look you see is fear

That look you see is fear

 

Next up, a house party with the hipsters from Studio, and then on to Solace (which everyone pronounces “so-lass”). So-lass is a bar on the water pumping out the R&B/Electronica for a bunch of locals and tourists. It’s cramped, loud and I believe it’s an institution. We stayed there until 3 a.m.

Which is why it hurt so much to be up at 6:30 on Sunday. But I was happy drag my butt out of bed for this reason:  Although we’ve never done it in Canada, Steve and I (and Jesse and a bunch of other VSO volunteers) were doing the Terry Fox Run that morning! That’s right, my first TFR was in Hanoi! And it was great. 8,000 people turned out in the rain to do laps around the lake for an hour. There were groups cheering and chanting and generally making an amazing ruckus. I loved it. 

 

After the festival we went out for make-your-own meat sandwiches at another local dive kind of restaurant that serves awesome food. Then on to Seventeen Saloon, which is the Vietnamese attempt to create an American western bar. Think karaoke meets Coyote Ugly meets a kitschy Disney Wild Wild West ride. That’s Seventeen Saloon. It’s awesome.

The VSO TFR Team.

 

Another First-Timer

Another First-TimerTF cheek tattoos and everything!

Afterward we went for a breakfast of croissants at another culinary school for poor kids. This was obviously a substandard school because when we went to order our breakfast they told us they don’t serve food in the morning. Why else would we have come to the restaurant? So we went down the street and bought croissants and then brought them back and had coffees and teas at the restaurant. Of course, my tea didn’t arrive. When I finally gave up on them bringing it (they had been bringing drinks one at a time and I kept holding out hope) I ordered again and eventually got a cup of black tea. So I asked for milk and sugar. Eventually I received milk. I asked again for sugar. I was sure I was going to have to ask for a spoon next since I hadn’t received on yet but thankfully they wised up.

After a too-brief nap, we went with Steve to his play rehearsal. He’s joined an expat theatre company (You guys have your ownTHEATRE COMPANY!? Pansy.) They are putting on the play Blood Brothers so we got to watch them do the first run-through of act two. It was interesting but since it was also a four-hour rehearsal, we skipped out for a bit to wander and grab something for Jess to eat. Every restaurant we went to had no food, and I was wondering if this was some kind of food-free holiday or something. Cruelly, when we returned to the play rehearsal, there were empty pizza boxes where no pizza boxes were before.

After the rehearsal we hopped on another motorbike and went to another awesome restaurant with a laid back vibe. We had to take off our shoes and sit on cushions the floor. We were joined by Kuhn, a Dutch volunteer who would make Petra, Antonia and Leon drool, and had a nice time. Then we all went to the Cinemateque to watch the movie “The Visitor”. (You have a Cinemateque that plays great art-house films?!? Pansy.) The Visitor was awesome. You should check it out if you haven’t already. Unfortunately I drifted in and out of wakefulness through the film but I caught most of it. Regardless, it was a nice way to end the day and the trip. The next morning we bid farewell to Steve and headed back to Colombo.

Seahorse and Weasel

November 17, 2008

This is the second post I’m putting up today so if you haven’t read about Hoi An, you might want to start below.

After our plush and comfy bus ride to Hue (pronounce “hway”), we were deposited in front of the Thai Binh hotel. It was still pissing rain everywhere and I was trying to get my bearings. According to the map book, the Thai Binh was located near the hotel that I had intended for us to stay at (although not booked… again). But I couldn’t see it — or any of the other hotels that were supposed to be there. Various men came up to us, shouting about their hotels and how nice they were. No amount of telling them thank you but leave us alone while we decide would stop them. 

Jesse was shown a room in the Thai Binh but it was out of our price range. When I started to walk to find the other hotel one of the men insisted that I go with him to check out his. So onto his motorbike I hopped, saying farewell, possibly forever, to Jess. The hotel was ramshackle and I wasn’t interested. He took me back to the Thai Binh, which apparently had another hotel (number 2) with less expensive rooms.

The hotel bussed us to number two and that’s where we booked in. We couldn’t let the rain keep messing with our trip so we ventured out to find someplace to eat. We had a nice meal at a nearby diner where the waitress flirted with Jesse in a hilarious way. Every waitress asks if we’re married and then seems very upset if we’re not. I guess some things don’t change from country to country. After, we wandered around in the rain getting our bearings but then finally had to return since we were soaked through.

As we continue to eat our way through the country, we had a lovely dinner (duck confit!) and then went to another bar to play pool and watch soccer. Like everywhere in Vietnam, you constantly get offered rides on motorbikes or cyclos. It’s tiring and I want a shirt that says “No thank you, I’d like to walk.” On our walk home, at midnight, it was no different. Well, it was slightly different. Every cyclo driver who offered us a ride then offered us some pot. 🙂 Strange.

After dodging some enormous rats we made it home safely. But when we got back to the hotel the doors were locked. Great. Then a guy got up from a mattress we hadn’t noticed in the lobby and let us in. This is a much better system (for guests anyway) than the one in Hoi An. In every hotel you’re asked to leave your room key with the front desk whenever you leave. In Hoi An, they just left all of the keys in a box on the front desk  during the day and, even more disturbing, on a chair in the driveway at night. I was happier with Hue’s waking-up-the-night-guy system.

The next morning the rain had broken. We rented some bikes and set about to have a Big Day. We were going to check out some Emperors’ tombs. Bike riding here is surprisingly easy considering how crazy the roads are. As we pulled out of the lane where the hotel was, our waitress from the previous day yelled out at us and then hopped on the back of Jesse’s bike. He gave her a ride (easy, dirty minds) and then we set off on our real trek.

The tombs are outside of the city. It was a gorgeous day and fantastic to be biking through the countryside. I don’t know if you’ve heard (you probably have — it seems to be BIG NEWS here) but there’s a black girl in Vietnam. Holy crap, the number of stares and points and “HELLO!!!”s and laughter and “OH-HOO!”s I got were insane. I’m pretty sure some of them were insulting but some of them definitely weren’t. It was just shear fascination.

As we rode along, I discovered that the map we had was virtuaally useless. After a few wrong turns, we eventually found Tu Duc’s tomb (sheer luck).

When I say tomb, I’m talking about a massive multi-acre complex with buildings for wives and children and entertainment. In fact, it has everything but Tu Duc, who was apparently buried in a secret location so that people wouldn’t steal the gems and stuff that were buried with him. All of the servants who buried were beheaded so that they couldn’d disclose his whereabouts. That’s some serious commitment to keeping the gold. 

The complex even had space for Tu Duc’s many concubines and eunuchs. “What’s the difference between a concubine and a eunuch?” Jesse asked. I explained.

“Hmh…” he answered. “I always get eunuchs mixed up with… not seahorses.” I burst out laughing. It was the strangest sentence ever and after I caught my breath again I got him to explain. Unicorns (not seahorses). Eunuchs and Unicorns. Still funny. (“You know unicorns aren’t real, right? So I’m pretty sure the emperor didn’t have any…”)

After finishing walking around Tu Duc’s grounds, we hopped back on the bikes toward Minh Mang’s tomb further out of the city. After consulting the map and riding for a few minutes the road we were on ended at a field. Stupid &^%$ing map! We turned around and asked some tour operators and the directions they gave us made no sense in relation to the map but three separate guides pointed us that way so that’s where we went.

Since it had been more than 60 minutes since our last meal, we stopped for a snack at a little roadside shop. I asked what was inside these banana leaves and the woman unwrapped one and gave it to us. It was good so we asked for a couple more. Then she made us sit down, and proceeded to bring out dish after dish after dish. It was hilarious (and delicious) and we finally made her stop. After our snack-meal, we hopped back on the bikes and continued the search for Minh Mang.

We rode and rode and rode and then a woman yelled out “Minh Mang” and pointed and a guy stepped out to stop us. He told us we could park our bikes at his quasi-restaurant and the entrance was just a couple hundred meters down the path. It seemed suspect… so of course we did it.

“You park for free,” he said. “But maybe after you have some food and drink.”
“Well, we’ve just eaten,” said Jesse. Just as he said that, the guy’s wife came out from the building holding what looked like a petrified, cooked mongoose by the tail. She marched passed us and plunked the rodent on a roadside table.
“What’s THAT?!” said Jesse incredulously.
“Weasel,” said the man matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, we’ve definitely already eaten.”

We headed down the path, which seemed ripe for marauders to leap out and steal all of our goods. Some yoots were on the path and asked for a pen and then for some coins. We said we didn’t have either and they yelled. It sounded like they called out to someone. “This is where we get ambushed,” I said, but nothing happened. We got to the front gate and wandered around the tomb.

I was stealing myself for a showdown with the weasel guy when we said that we didn’t want anything to eat or drink but after stumbling upon him peeing in the bushes, he didn’t hassle us about eating at his place. We hopped on the bikes and rode home. That night we had an awesome dinner and for the first time since we’ve been in Vietnam, we both got our meals at the same time.

Today, we ate at a little restaurant across the alley from our hotel. The owner, Thu, is a spitfire. No nonsense and no cuddling. She said “you very beautiful couple. You marry?”
“No, we’re not married,” Jesse said.
“You have kids?” she asked.
“No, we laughed.”
“You no have kids? You shooting blanks?” she said to Jesse and got up and came over to him and waved her little pinky. “Maybe too small?” Then laughed, slapped his back and walked away.
We just stared at each other. “Well. You two became close very quickly,” I said. He was still stunned.

We rented bikes again today and toodled around the city this time. My butt is still sore from yesterday so I don’t think I could have endured another epic trip but it was still fun — even with the stares and laughter.

Hoi An

November 17, 2008

After a fun time in HCMC, we moved on to Hoi An, which is in the middle of Vietnam. Vietnam is a very long country so we chose to fly into Danang and then take a taxi to Hoi An. I hadn’t booked a hotel ahead but figured we’d find someplace once we got there since Hoi An is a big tourist destination and this is off-season. There was a hotel I had in mind from TripAdvisor.com and I showed the name and address to the driver to ask if he knew where it was. Even though he nodded I could tell by his face that he wasn’t taking us there.

As he drove us (like a madman) he kept making comments in Vietnamese – pointing out buildings – but we had no idea what he was saying. Then he stopped in front of a hotel called the Riverside. It was big and posh. The maitre d’ showed us a few rooms, all of which were super lovely and would have been a steal if we weren’t making no money. So we said we’d continue looking and got back in the cab. The driver made a face to the maitre d’ and I realized that he has a deal with them and probably gets commission from this hotel.

There were a couple of backpacker-ish girls across the street so we went and asked them where they were staying and if they liked it. They showed us a picture of the hotel that they’d taken and we showed it to the driver. “Do you know this place?” He said yes. And then proceeded to drive us to another obviously expensive hotel. “No, we want that other hotel.” He stop at the next expensive hotel. “NO. WE WANT TO GO TO THAT OTHER HOTEL.”

Eventually we got there and were booked in. Then we wandered around Hoi An. Hoi An is a quaint little waterside town. It’s really lovely, full of two-storey old buildings with Chinese and Japanese-influenced construction. It was a full moon that night and Hoi An supposedly has a big festival every full moon, but it wasn’t very exciting. Just some singers and some lanterns.

The unfortunate thing about Hoi An is how the tourism has affected the town. The tourists are great but the store owners are SUPER agressive. “YOU! COME IN MY STORE!” “HEY! COME HERE!” I’m serious. We got yelled at from across the street about 100 times. Store clerks would follow us, speaking a mile a minute, about the clothes/shoes/souvenirs they have in their store and how we MUST come in. NOW. It was really off-putting.

And then there are the walking vendors who are inexplicably selling whistles and tiger balm. All of them. And you’d better buy them too because otherwise they are going to say stuff to you in Vietnamese and I’m pretty sure it’s insulting. I just went with the insults.

That night, after looking for a restaurant that wasn’t ALL tourists (we couldn’t find one) we settled on a cute little place with only a handful of people. Turns out the group at the next table were also volunteers living in Hoi An — so they weren’t tourists after all — and through our conversatino we learned one of them is good friends of a friend of ours in Sri Lanka! Small world. We made plans to meet up with them again later in our trip.

Hoi An is known for its clothesmakers and shoemakers. You go in with something you like and they can replicate it. Or they have lots of catalogues for you to look through, chose from and then have something tailor made. The next morning, after being badgered by this one girl every time we walked by her store – which was often because it was 3 doors down from our hotel – I went in and order a cute jacket and a skirt and top for a wedding Jesse and I are going to in January.

That was 11 a.m.
They were ready at 6.

I mean, completely done – tailored to my body and not a stray thread or jagged seam anywhere. Holy crap.

We’d spent the day wandering around and checking out the sites outlined in our guidebook. A lot of Chinese assembly halls, some pagodas and  covered bridge.  That night the rain started. And it didn’t stop. With one leaky umbrella between the two of us, there were a lot of wet arms and pantlegs. The next morning we took a day-trip out to My Son (pronounced “mee sohn” with a soft “n” at the end). I got money out BEFORE we left.  My Son is a series of ruins from an ancient city and it’s all outdoors, which is unfortunate because of the relentless rain.

I don’t have to tell you about my hair.

Our tour guide was good, but it’s always funny when people don’t have a full grasp of the language they are speaking. He kept saying “You will be interested” in a tone as if commanding/brainwashing us to be, when I think he just meant “it’s interesting.” We were supposed to take a boat ride back from there but the rain made everything grey and unphotographable so we returned on the bus, still soaked and cold after an hour and a half drive. With the relentless rain, our afternoon was a bust.

In the evening, we met up with the volunteers at a bar. It was so great to be in a bar! In a place where people go to bars! We met more folks, had dinner and a good time. It was awesome.

The next morning, we departed Hoi An for Hue, a couple hundred miles to the north. This time we took a bus. Imagine our suprise when we walked onto the bus and it was all beds. Not a chair in site. Awesome! Three rows of bunk beds designed so that your feet are under the elevated head of the person in front of you. It’s a comfortable way to ride (although probably not if you’re over 5’10”). Sweet.

Ho Chi Minh City

November 12, 2008

I love Vietnam. No the same way I love Paris or Toronto, of course, but there is definitely some significant ardour going on.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday morning after a red-eye flight through Kuala Lumpur. Our guest house arranged for a driver to pick us up, which made things wonderfully easy. Immediately I realized that people were not going to address me — Jesse was the one getting all the questions. Whether it’s a black thing, a woman thing or just a me thing, I’m not sure. I thought that would be annoying but it actually is quite freeing. 

I packed way too much for this trip. I brought a small suitcase and a big suitcase to Sri Lanka and a two-week trip requires a medium suitcase. Once saddled with the big suitcase I overpacked — not the best thing when your guest house has 5 floors, no elevator and your room is at the top. Lesson learned.

The streets of HCMC are INSANE but a great kind of insane. So many motorbikes – you’ve never seen so many in your life, unless you’ve been here (or to China probably). There is a lax adherence to lights and dividing lines. Whereas crossing the road in Sri Lanka is like one massive game of Chicken, crossing the road in HCMC is about bravery and trust. Once you step out the bikes make their way around you. Hesitate and you’re in trouble but just commit to the crossing and you’ll be okay. There are little old women in the conical hats walking with large baskets on sticks, men on cyclos (one-person rick-shaws with the passenger in front and the rider on back) and lots of people on bicycles. Oh there are plenty of cars too, but motorbikes are the norm here. At some point I’m going to hop on one.

On Sunday, we just wandered around and got our bearings. Checked out the market, the parks, everything. It’s so nice to be somewhere where there is public space and people use it. The evenings are alive here and that’s totally refreshing. I have been eating my way through HCMC. The food is so delicious, plentiful and I’m pretty sure it’s healthy. For breakfast, the hotel gives us baguettes (BAGUETTES!! HALLELUJAH!) and eggs. I’m managing about five meals a day and I’m expecting to return to SL shaped like the Buddha carvings I’m seeing everywhere here.

On Monday, we went walking and checked out the War Remnants Museum. The photos of the victims of the war are appalling — so disturbing that it will take a long time to shake them from memory. We also went to Reunification Palace — which isn’t really palatial but still kind of cool. Our tourguide was this sweet girl who seemed to have learned the tour script phonetically. When she spoke, she sounded like the computer-generated voices that repeat your credit card or phone number back to you when you punch it in to you keypad. She also made me laugh because everytime she talked about the president who was killed before his palace was rebuilt (he’d ordered it restored after it was destroyed), she kept saying very earnestly “He died. He was unlucky.” I’ll say.

In wandering about, we also checked out the Opera House, the Post Office (why everyone visits that place, I’m still not sure, but it was teaming with tourists), the Assembly Hall and Notre Dame Cathedral. On our way to one of these places, as we were waiting for traffic to slow a bit so that we could cross, I stepped out into the road and was hit by a bike. Thank God it was only a bike (although I guess if it was a truck I would have heard it coming). He was going the wrong way on the major one way road. Ran over and cut my foot as well as left some cuts and bruises on my side, but I felt and feel fine. I think he and Jesse were more shaken by the incident.

That night we went to dinner at a bustling local joint. Awesome food. The guys who were sitting next to me struck up a conversation (with Jesse, of course). Unlike Sri Lankans, it seems that a lot of Vietnamese have very little knowledge of English. I’ve been spoiled by how well Sri Lankans can communicate. It was a real struggle to understand what Phap and his friend were saying, and I don’t just think it was because they were on their 10th beer (each) when they started talking to us. They were really sweet though, wanting to show us around and become friends. They took a picture of us all and emailed it to Jesse (whose name they couldn’t pronounce — they called him Gypsy :-). Unfortunately, I don’t have the cord for my camera so that I can’t post the pictures I’ve taken but I’ll do that when I get back to SL.

On Tuesday, we took a day trip out of the city to see the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cao Daism is a religion based on the idea that every religion is right (that’s putting it in super simple terms). It’s a meld of Confucionism, Buddhism, Muslim, Catholicism and some others. The temple is SPECTACULARLY gauche — it’s gauche-tastic! It’s awesome.  We saw the beginnings of one of their ceremonies, which take place four times at day at the 12s and 6s. This day was a bit of a disaster for us. We spent all of our cash the night before, but as we were in a rush to catch the 8 a.m. tour bus, we figured we’d get some money from a cash machine out by the temple or the tunnels. Well, the temple and tunnels are in rural Vietnam and that’s kind of like trying to find a bank machine in Algonquin Park.

Between the two of us, Jesse and I had the equivalent of $1.10, which would have been enough to buy one drink between us. We didn’t have any money for lunch or even for the entrance fee to the tunnels, which was the primary reason we’d taken this tour. We chatted up an American named Noah who offered to help us with the little money he had. He paid for part of our lunch, which we shared between each other (no drink) and then he had enough left over for one of us to enter the tunnels. It was absolutely mortifying to have to beg for money from a stranger. I let Jesse do the tunnel tour since it’s a war-related thing and he is into the history of it. Although you get to shoot some guns at the end of it and I was really looking forward to that. I may be a passifist but I take unexpected pleasure in firing a rifle. (That’s the end of confession time, kids.) The Cu Chi tunnels are a complex underground system of tunnels used by the VietCong during the war to survive and trick the Americans. They extended for miles and people lived in them even though (I’m told by Jesse) they were incredibly tiny. While he went on the tour, I wandered around. Lone black girl wandering the Vietnamese countryside attracts a lot of stares, let me tell you. It was like being in SL again.

When we got back to HCMC, we got money out from the bank machine and paid Noah back (double) and then went to dinner because we were STARVING. I was completely dehydrated, having had nothing to drink all day except half a cup of tea.  Did I mention Vietnam has awesome food? We gorged ourselves and drank like fishes and it was still less than $15. I love this place.

This morning we moved on to Hoi An, but more on that in my next entry.

Sports Star or Just a Star?

November 6, 2008

Yesterday, I had a date with my friend Ann-Sofie to play badminton. She’s working in Sri Lanka at a legitimate, paying job so she can afford to be a member at a gym. Most of the expat jobs are in Colombo but hers happens to be in the suburb next door to mine so she lives down here as well. It’s nice to have someone in this part of the woods but we haven’t really taken advantage of it until now. In general, there is nothing to do down here and I have been lamenting the lack of sports facilities outside of Colombo proper since I got here.

Ann-Sofie mentioned a while ago that she goes to the gym regularly and suggested that I join but 1) I can’t afford it and 2) I couldn’t figure out from her description where it was. She lives in a direction I never go so I don’t know the area. One day, as we were riding back to our area from the city, she recognized where she was and pointed down a street to say that that was where her gym was. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it would be in the completely opposite direction but it’s close to me! I pass the sign for it on the way to Jesse’s all the time but have never seen it. All this time…

So yesterday we went. And it’s GORGEOUS. This is not just a “gym”. It’s a posh club. Tennis courts! Swimming pools! Badminton! Pool tables! Exercise room! A restaurant! And probably loads of other stuff I didn’t see! All tucked away down a narrow laneway off the main road. Ann-Sofie and I had an awesome time whacking the shuttlecock back and forth. (We destroyed two cocks in the process. Erm, that doesn’t sound right…)  It was a great, sweaty workout and we enjoyed it so much that it’s going to become a standing date once I return from Vietnam. Yay, one more night that I won’t be paying to go into the city!

After our sporting time, I headed over to Paolo’s for a little election celebration. We ate, chatted and enjoyed some local booze. Yesterday was a very normal day here and I felt kind of like I do whenever I’m walking through the streets on my birthday — that this is an exciting day in my life and isn’t it strange that nobody else knows about it.

This morning, as I walked into work, one of my colleagues told me she’d seen me on television. Then another one did. And another one. Apparently there’d been a shot of Jesse and I on the news from the American Embassy event. He was also getting the “hey! I saw you on t.v.” comments too. This is the second time we’ve made it onto the news here and I’m beginning to think that as Colombo’s hottest couple we might just have to start looking for representation. I just hope I can cope under the glare of all this publicity. Honestly, I just don’t know how Brad and Angelina do it…  J 

Witnessing History from Miles Away

November 5, 2008

I didn’t think the day would come – at least not this early in my lifetime – when the U.S. would elect a black president (technically half-black people… let’s not eliminate an entire half of his lineage.) But today was the day and I am just overwhelmed with the electricity of it all. It’s one of the moments that you forever remember where you were when it happened. I get to say that I was watching it from a packed hotel ballroom in Sri Lanka.

 

This morning I got up early to watch the election unfold. The results started coming in at 6 a.m. our time. My friend Glenys, who I mentioned in a recent post, did a little reconnaissance earlier this week and found out that the American Embassy was holding an election event in the hotel where she was staying. It wasn’t easy getting there. Traffic is crazy at that hour here and our tri-shaw completely ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere (usually drivers have a reserve of gas in a 2L Coke bottle but not this driver.)

Glenys had checked with some people to see if it would be okay to crash the party. When she got a mild affirmation that yeah it would possibly maybe be okay, crash the party is just what we did. Buy “crash” I mean Canadian crash… that is, go up to the women at the front desk who have the guest lists, confess that your name isn’t on it and ask politely if you can go in anyway. Hey, it worked. After a thorough bag search, we were in.

The Americans went all out. There were red, white and blue balloons everywhere, life-size cardboard cut-outs of the candidates (see below), signs outlining the history of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, two giant jumbotrons showing CNN, buttons, stickers, food, a voting ballot and, oh yeah, a marching band. Yes.

The crowd was mostly Sri Lankans when we got there. By the time the election was called about an hour and a half later, I would say there was an even mix of white and brown faces. It was thrilling to watch history in the making. To see the cheering crowds on the screen and the tears on Jesse Jackson’s face and then to watch the concession and acceptance speeches was nothing short of moving. The energy around the election isn’t as high here but you could still feel it in the room once the decision was in.

I was thankful (again) for the wonder of technology too and my ability to watch it in real time and (because I had brought my laptop with me) to Skype along with the friends and family I’d be watching it with at home.  It was almost like being there.

So a change is upon us. The room erupted when the decision was announced and the band started playing again. It was a decidedly democratic crowd (Obama won the in-party election something like 216 to 36; although I think I was sitting next to two of the 36 – a sour looking couple who didn’t crack a smile all morning.)

I am sad that I’m going to miss all the post-election analysis. I wish I was back in Toronto on Wednesday morning (right now, actually) to watch the Today Show’s Matt Lauer pronounce the winner again. I wish Tim Russert was alive to give us his thoughts. But alas, I’ll have to read all of it on the web and just savour the excitement of this morning.

Change is good.

Yes they did.

Me, Barack and Joe

Me, Barack and Joe

Nope, Nothing

November 3, 2008

It’s been a week since I posted and I still have nothing to say. Nothing exciting is happening. On Friday night I went to Oktoberfest. Kitchener, Ontario is about an hour from Toronto, where I live, and it has the biggest Oktoberfest in the world outside of Germany. I’ve never been. I had to travel to Sri Lanka of all places to go to my first Oktoberfest event. Even though I don’t drink beer (I did that night) it was still fun. The event took place outside the Hilton Hotel in a giant tent. There was beer, of course, and delicious food (apparently — I’d gone for dinner beforehand) and a rather good oom-pah-pah band. The crowd was a nice mix of expats and Sri Lankans, all of whom seemed to be having a grand old time. There was dancing aplenty and Andy, one of the guys on the soccer team, was leading the charge. Andy is usually very earnest and sweet. On Friday, he was a dancing fool — and the man’s got moves! He was up on the table doing soft shoe, down on the dancefloor high kicking and when he wasn’t dancing he was doing less-than-magical magic tricks. It was all a lot of fun. If I couldn’t do Halloween, this was definitely a good second option.

In other news, we hired a communications specialist today and I’m really happy about it. I think she’s going to do a great job and we’ll get along well. It means I get to hunker down and really sink my teeth into this job, which is what I’m here for. I’m heading to Vietnam for two weeks on Sunday so she doesn’t start until I get back. Hopefully while I’m gone I’ll have lots of great stuff to write about to you. None of it involving cockroaches (fingers crossed).