Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: October 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

You Buy From Me!? (Vietnam, Update #3)

High Country
When we disembarked after dawn in the highland town of Sapa, we were met by the infamous packs of local H'Mong and Dzay women selling handicrafts to foreigners. Birdlike, they call out, "You buy from me!"
A trio quickly attached themselves to the hapless Jon. For the next 24 hours, each time we stepped out of a restaurant or off the steps of our hotel, the same three girls would materialize, enveloping Jon, chirping their question and statement, "You buy from me? You buy from me!"
During our usual town wandering, I found the local school and without hesitation, entered to distract the kids. After disrupting all the classrooms, the english teacher approached me and introduced herself (her proficiency did not make her position apparent) and invited me to her class.  She showed me the lesson plan for the next 45 minutes, and I began.  Ninety minutes and 50 students later, I had taught two classes. The kids were really impressive, especially how outgoing they were, in contrast to East Asian kids who I understand to be very shy and unwilling to volunteer. We made up some vocab games after the lessons, such as "What's the word for this? Now draw its picture on the board." and "What do Mike and Jon do for work?". After guessing teacher, construction worker, singer, artist, and writer, they got me as an engineer. They never did guess Jon's job (lawyer).
Trekking the heavily terraced river valley, passing indigenous minority groups with our H'Mong guide Su was a bit surreal: Usually ruins are indigenous and the inhabitants are immigrants; but here the local indigenous groups live in and around ruins from the French colonialists, who left long ago. On our second day of trekking, after a 5 hour morning in the mountain sun without shade or sunscreen (we expected clouds and rain the entire trek), Jon's fair skin was incandescent. I wasn't so burned, but was definitely feeling sunstroked as we approached our pho' hut for lunch. My headache got worse all day, and that evening I nearly lost it during a cramped bus ride down a sinuous mountain road to the train station. It didn't help that I had eaten my first duck-fetus egg that afternoon.
Early to Rise
After another overnight train ride with an ungodly morning arrival time, we were in Hanoi. Fortunately we could drop by the local 'gym', the large Hoan Kiem Lake and city park, to see how the locals stay fit at dawn.  Hundreds of people jogging counterclockwise around the lake (and they call themselves Buddhists...), dozens of women doing synchronised tai chi aerobics to music, and dozens of men pumping home-made cement barbell weights.
Travel Advice
Yesterday when I went to ask a local tourist agency where I could find a restaurant that served dog, I noticed his flash new iPad on the table. When he saw my eyes light up, his eyes lit up, and wordlessly he plopped it on the table between us with a foosball app already loaded. After 5 minutes of intense competition, I realized when I heard the door open behind me that Jon had been waiting on the street the whole time for my 'quick question'. After another game, I got the advice I needed.

We fly to Myanmar this afternoon for three weeks. I'm not very optimistic about internet availability there. It certainly could not compare to here, where nearly every hotel has free wifi!  I'll try to at least post photos along the way when possible. Check out the photos to date including ones from the trekking, by clicking the thumbnail above.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Following the Compass Needle (Vietnam Update #2)

Easy Riders
There is a special episode of Top Gear where the hosts buy old motorcycles in Vietnam (cars are too expensive here) and ride north up the country. One of the two most spectacular places along the way is the 150km coastal/mountain road from Hoi An to Hue. I was determined to do this ourselves. Everything came together the afternoon beforehand, as it usually does for me, and we even had a free guide, Thonh, for some of the ride. He is a member of the famed Easy Riders group that show people around the country on the backs of nice cruiser bikes.
Along the way we learned that:
- Sunscreen is a good idea (my chest is charred);
- Driving behind a chicken truck is a bad idea (feathers were blinding us, and the ammonia was suffocating us);
- Riding on the shoulder is a good idea (oncoming semi trucks would pass each other on the two-lane highway, forcing all opposing traffic onto the shoulder); and
- Navigating the chaotic sea of motorbikes in Vietnamese cities is even more challenging than it looks.  Drivers here have my respect.

When we arrived in the food capital of the country, Hue, we sat down for a quick dinner before our night train departed. Next to us, 3 Americans from Alaska were slurping milkshakes and in good spirits, and we watched to see what food they were having. First the plain steamed rice came out. They didn't waste any time, putting a bit of sauce on the rice and digging in as
they awaited their mains. But when they finished their steamed rice, paid and left, we could only scratch our heads and wonder aloud, "Who comes to the food capital of Vietnam and orders plain rice?"

Northern Comfort
We were warned that the warm southern hospitality of the locals doesn't stretch all the way to the north. In Hanoi we went to a famous flashy restaurant popular with locals. Despite the 40 staff members outnumbering the patrons, we received horrible service. Maybe the only positive from the American War was that they taught the south good service.
We arrived in the port city Hai Phong to get out to Cat Ba island, our jumping off point to the spectacular UNESCO protected archipelago of Ha Long Bay. We were accosted by an aggressive woman who followed us around asking for 3x the going price to bring us to the ferry terminal. She then intimidated the dozen cab drivers we tried to bargain with into not accepting any offers, or using their meter. One guy told us straight-faced he had no meter, and even stuck to his guns when I reached into his window and pointed at his obviously functioning meter.  We eventually found a great cabbie outside the station who charged us the right price (we tipped him for it). But at the ferry terminal we encountered another witch, who refused to smile (I asked for one), and put us on a slow-boat at an inflated price. At least it left on time!

On the island, we experienced a striking example of the East Asian concept of "face" (or reputation) when trying to arrange our tour to the archipelago. The Brits we met had found a tour operator with a good vibe, and we went to find out some more details before booking. The operator mentioned the captain of the ship was a family member and we were to meet him on the dock the next morning. To make sure we found him, I asked for the Captain's name. Our operator hesitated, stuttered and stammered, and became red-faced, as he was caught in a lie. We knew the Captain was not his family, since everyone here claims their coworkers are family. We didn't care! But he obviously did: He told us that in 15 years he'd never been asked so many questions and he no longer wanted to do business with us (worth $225!). He
stood up, shook our hands, and walked off. He'd lost face, and we were left sitting there, staring at each other in stunned silence, not sure whether to laugh.

Life in Ha Long Bay
We found another operator and chartered a boat for a two day tour of the striking, UNESCO-protected archipelago of Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Here, hundreds of limestone spires and mountains rise vertically from the ocean, some hundreds of metres. Our craft was a small diesel houseboat with two smiling locals as our Captain and First Mate (cook & guide). During our two days we witnessed the unique, simple life of the locals. They live on man-made floating islands in the bay, constructed from styrofoam blocks lashed together with bamboo and rope, tethered to opposing limestone cliff faces so they don't drift away. The many islands protect them from open seas, and if global warming raises sea levels, their homes will rise too!  They all farm fish in netted areas within the ocean, and grow clams and mussels in baskets of sand hung from the bamboo skeleton of their island. Each of the countless farms support one family in a tin shack built in the middle of the artificial island. We moored up to one of these islands for the night. 
Right before bed while spitting toothpaste into the water, we discovered the strong bio-luminescence of the organisms in the water. This is a beautiful phenomenon, not unique to Vietnam characterised by the water glowing green (like glowsticks) for an instant when you disturb it. It's mesmerising. I put my feet in the water and kicked up a glowing froth. Chris jumped in and swam, his arms tracing green wings around him like an angel, his feet creating a comet tail behind him. The effect is too dim to capture on film, but it's okay, because I'll never forget it.

During the day we explored caves on foot, hiked up an island peak, and kayaked in between, underneath, and even inside some of the islands: Our guide told us to paddle into a low, dark cave. We entered, dodged between stalactites, and continued into the blackness. As the light from the entrance faded, I nearly knocked my head a few times on the steadily dropping ceiling, now barely above my head. The Brits turned back, convinced it was a dead end. Then we noticed what seemed like light ahead of us. I was overcome with laughter as we went towards the light and emerged inside the island, to a lake half a kilometre wide, completely encircled by a crown-like limestone island.

This trip has been unusually smooth: None of the cons, arrests, bribes, getting lost, or falling violently ill, that usually enrich my trip. So I was excited when on our return trip to terra firma, in choppy sea, our engine broke down. Although I'd love you to

Just sit right back and hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from a tropic port,
Aboard a tiny ship

Another boat just towed us back.


P.S. When I had enough light to take photos. Or click the thumbnail at the top.

P.P.S. No more propositions of marriage. These northerners aren't nearly as friendly! Though one drunk guy tried to kiss me, before I fought him off, and he jumped on his motorcycle with three friends. They made it ten metres before crashing to the pavement in a ball of sparks.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

You Want Motobike? (Vietnam Update #1)

The Mekong Delta. The name carries with it exotic, dangerous, even haunting associations, from countless war movies. It was the first place in Vietnam I spotted, through my window.  From the air it appears a rich solid green, divided by hundreds of muddy, sinuous waterways. But the sun, reflecting strongly off this green, betray it's true watery state. Even what looks like solid earth is flooded rice paddies or sodden plant nurseries.  I knew we had to go see things up close, later. Before I knew it, I was approaching Ho Chi Minh City, which looked like a mat of blocky, pastel-coloured houses poking up like Lego bricks.

In HCMC, motorcycles rule the roads. They move fluidly past gridlocked cars in the congested streets. Hordes circle roundabouts like swirling schools of fish — especially when a bus approaches, like a shark, darting towards an elusive school that opens a gap only for an instant, the predator passing through unsuccessfully. The bikes outnumber cars at least 15 to 1. And people transport everything on them: sacs of instant noodles, saplings, air conditioners, framed paintings, porcelain toilets, fluorescent light tubes, granite tiles, 100L of water jugs, massive panes of glass, and Canadian backpackers.  Jon and I took our first trip 12km across town, on these "xe om" (literally 'hugging vehicle') motorbike taxis. We picked his driver because the man had a helmet with Che Guevara on it, and his name was Mao. How much more communist could you get? (Maybe if he wore a Kim Jong Il shirt)
Our next motorcycle-taxi ride a few days later wasn't as smooth. With rain imminent, the drivers were confident they knew our destination 12km away. I became suspicious when he asked me for directions. But he really revealed his bluff when he stopped outside a hotel and called a woman over to ask me where we were going. By this point we´d been riding in the pouring rain for 15 minutes, aimlessly, as these guys had no idea where they were taking us!

We left town to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an elusive 230km network of brilliantly engineered passages from where the Viet Cong based their attacks on American-held Saigon. The Americans never succeeded in driving out the VC, despite bombing, flooding, and gassing the tunnels. The ventilation system could be controlled to channel gases into uninhabited areas, the drainage system moved water back into the Mekong, the chambers were too deep for bombing, with too many hidden exits to block them all, and too narrow and booby-trapped for Americans to enter inside.  I climbed down inside one of these tunnels, 3m underground. It was winding, humid, stuffy, dark and narrow inside, only 40x90cm. To move forward, I had to shuffle while squatting. I'm not claustrauphobic; I work in dark tunnels underground. But after a few metres I wasn't too excited about turning the next corner. I decided to turn around. When I realized I couldn't (my femur is actually too long), I felt a tad anxious. I blindly squat-shuffled backwards out of the tunnel and was happy that I never had to spend 4 minutes, let alone 4 years living down there like the VC did.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the common sense approach to safety and the environment this country has. Bathrooms have soap, buses and trains leave on time, everyone wears motorcycle helmets, and cities abound with rubbish bins. While we munched streetside baguette sandwiches on a hot night in the Mekong delta, the sky erupted with a monsoon downpour. A rubbish collector -- a small woman in full raingear -- politely collected our wrappers and empty water bottles. She turned and walked two steps before chucking it all in the street-cum-river. Pointing down the street I inquired, "To the Mekong?". Beaming, she nodded, proud of her efficient work.

I´ve uploaded a few photos with captions to my Flickr by clicking the thumbnail above. Please indulge yourself. 

(Mostly typed via iPhone. These hotels have free wifi!)

P.S. Most ISPs in this country have blocked Facebook, so forget about contacting me that way.
P.P.S. I've had 3 women propose to me. So far.