Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ENOUGH! (actual)

June 1: I titled the scheduled-entry at the end of my stay in Hanoi as a joke, but it turned out to be quite accurate. We arrived in Hanoi much earlier than originally planned because of the switch from 13-hour train to 1-hour flight. Our hotel was accommodating, as has been the case throughout Vietnam, but the room was not ready. They held our bags and we set off to see Hoa Lo Prison, aka The Hanoi Hilton.

Hoa Lo prison was built by the French during the colonial period and was originally used to punish Vietnamese insurrectionists. Because of this, most of the displays are about how tough living conditions were for them, how they were tortured by the French, and their valiant struggle to survive and overcome. There are several rooms with nothing but names on the walls of former inmates and the years in which they were imprisoned. I'm telling you, those Communists love their martyrs. Also on display is Senator John McCain's flight suit and other personal effects, but there isn't too much about the American War here. Most of the prison has been demolished and replaced by a modern office building, but part of the deal was to preserve the remainder as a museum. And much of what they preserved tells a pretty grim tale.

The next day, we got up early and took a cab over to see Ho Chi Minh, Uncle Ho himself. Contrary to his wishes, Ho's body was embalmed (he wanted to be cremated) and is now on display 6 days a week in a huge marble museum. You can only get in to see him between 8 and 11:30am, and since it was Sunday, we tried to get there early. The line, when we arrived, was at least a mile long. I'm not a good judge of distance, so it easily could have been two miles as it snaked around and down several city blocks. This is where we got our first taste of how rude Hanoians would be. Just after we got in line, a woman jumped the rope in front of me and proceeded to then usher her entire family into line with her. I asked her, in English, if she would like to invite the rest of the city to cut in front of us, but she didn't understand. When her son translated for her, she turned around and smiled/laughed at me (according to tattoo-girl) but I didn't see it. I probably would have punched her in the ovaries if I had. The next bit had to do with the baggage-check station, where backpacks and purses had to be dropped off for pickup after viewing the body. There is no order to this process however, so people would push and shove their way to the dropoff window. I managed to elbow several people trying to elbow me out of the way. One woman was trying to check-in a plastic shopping bag full of fruit. When it was obvious that she wasn't going to get her body in front of me, she tried reaching it over my shoulder, hitting me in the head several times. I gave her a very loud verbal chastise, but to do any more would have given the others room to push in front of me. Total, absolute, goddamn chaos. Back in the main line, people continue to try to circumvent the line, pushing forward. The only conclusion to be reached is that Hanoians are the rudest fucking people on the planet. This conclusion is shared by everyone I've ever met who knows anything about Vietnam. Talking to local shopkeepers (not to mention tattoo-girl's family) here at home before the trip, we were warned that the North sucks and we'd hate it. We were beginning to agree.

After that fun, after about an hour and a half of standing outside in the heat (although slightly less hot due to a slight drizzle, but still humid, duh), we were allowed into the mausoleum to see Uncle Ho. The air conditioning is cranked WAY up in here since it is, after all, a refrigerator for a guy who has been dead for 40 years. Soldiers with AK-47s keep the line moving, so the total time in here is less than a minute. Ho is laying down inside a glass enclosure with dim lighting. There are slightly yellowish spotlights on his hands, feet, and face. The effect of the lighting on his waxy, embalmed skin, combined with the drab clothing and dim lighting really makes him look like a hologram. Kinda cool but a major anticlimax after doing battle and standing in line.

We then went over to the Temple of Literature, which is where doctoral students would take their final exams long ago before being allowed to serve the emperor, government, etc. Now it is just a collection of large (6-foot tall) stone tablets upon which the names of those who passed their exams are enscribed. There is a similar museum in Xi'an, China, except that the Chinese tablets are more protected than the Vietnamese ones. It is apparently common practice for Vietnamese students to come here and touch each of the stone tablets for good luck. Unfortunately, touching these things DESTROYS them. The oil and dirt from hands erodes the stone much faster than would happen naturally so, once again, a precious piece of Vietnamese history is disappearing. There were hundreds of schoolchildren of all ages running around, screaming, touching everything they could get their grubby little hands on, so we looked around pretty quickly and left in disgust.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More reality

Photo: One of the most common questions asked is, did we eat dog? No, but this puppy looks good.

May 27th
- Leaving Hoi An behind, we got a ride back to Danang but this time to the train station. We didn't spend any time in Danang and after passing through the city, didn't regret that decision. Tattoo-girl was born in Danang, but wasn't really even interested in looking out the window. When we passed a large hospital in the center of town I remarked that she might have been born there. She nodded with a shrug. She has lived her entire conscious life in Houston and doesn't feel any connection to the country of her birth. To her, Vietnam is just a hot, dirty place where people speak the same language she does (at home).

We took the train over the central mountains, from Danang to Hué, but the trip was longer than advertised. For one thing, the train was at least 30 minutes late, closer to 45. For another, the non-stop train stopped several times. I thought asian communists (or are they communist asians?) ran on a tighter schedule. The only other train I've been on, other than the PATH between New Jersey & Manhattan, was in France so my experience is somewhat limited, but the SE6 train from Danang to Hué was a pretty bumpy, noisy, smelly affair. It was tolerable to me, but tattoo-girl sat on her bunk on the verge of tears again, with a wet-wipe over her face. Part of the problem was just being hot & tired, despite our compartment being air conditioned, albeit lightly. The other problem was that the restroom, shared for all compartments on our car, was right next to our compartment: It was not what one might call "clean." Further compounding the issue was that every time the train went through a tunnel, the diesel fumes would back up into the cars, making me a little nauseated as well. We shared our 4-bunk compartment with a 20-something (maybe late teens?) Vietnamese couple, both of whom had iPads and kept quiet for the entire trip. The guy also had a professional-level Nikon with some serious glass, but he was way too young & immature to have actually been a professional photographer. More than likely, they live in America and spend their summer(s) in Vietnam with family. The view out the windows was heart-stopping, both beautiful and frightening at times, but I enjoyed it. Tattoo-girl describes both the train and Danang station as "disgusting" but it really wasn't that bad. Upon arriving in Hué, she resolved to discard the tickets we'd already purchased for the trip 2 days from now for the train from Hué to Hanoi. Our hotel in Hué arranged for us to fly instead, and it was actually cheaper than the flights I had bought from home. I had expected to get hit with a huge "last-minute" penalty.

Arriving at the Hué train station was easy and we found a taxi to take us to our hotel. Hué is a very attractive, smaller city with an ancient past. We had a suite with a view of the river for $35/night. That night, the streets were ablaze with hundreds of tiny fires as it was the night before the Buddha's Birthday, called Le Phat Dan in Vietnamese. The next morning, we arranged for a private car & driver to take us to the Emperor's Tombs, the Citadel/Forbidden City, and Thien Mu Pagoda. We saw 3 different emperor's tombs, including the tomb of the last emperor's father (the last emperor is buried in Paris). With the exception of the newest one, the tombs and citadel were in a pretty sorry state of repair. Although the guidebooks and plaques suggest that this is due to the Americans dropping ton after ton of ordinance on the country, I think that the Vietnamese people just don't care enough about their history to repair or maintain anything. They tell stories about their glorious history, ousting the Chinese, French, and Americans, but the respect that the average citizen shows for historical monuments tells another story. There is not a pond, well, moat, or other historic hole in the ground that doesn't have at least one plastic water bottle and several plastic bags floating in it. Historic sites in Vietnam are either crumbling, poorly restored, or over-restored. It's not uncommon to read something such as the following at a temple:
A temple was originally built on this site in the year 1400. From 1420 to 1700, this temple was the most prestigious center of Confucian learning in the Annam empire. The current building dates to 2006.

Thien Mu Pagoda was just ok. The view of the nearby Perfume River is much better than the temple itself. The monks were chanting when we got there and there was a lot of joss (incense) burning for Le Phat Dan. As with other sites, the Vietnamese visitors were not terribly respectful of what was going on, and the celebration was a poor comparison to the one I witnessed in Beijing back in 2004.

Although I love Vietnamese cuisine and frequently eat Bun Bo Hué (Hué-style noodle soup) at home, I was disappointed that we didn't really get to try it here. The restaurant we went to for lunch had sold out (not uncommon here at home) and rather than walk the scorching streets again, we settled for other fare. We had one small bowl as part of a 7-course dinner, but as with the other food we've had here, it was bland (compared to home) and disappointing. We dined in a fairly nice restaurant (total bill $12) and were serenaded by musicians in traditional garb. As an open air garden restaurant, there was nothing to stop the bats from swooping in an making high-speed passes. There are lots of bats here in Vietnam, which reminds me of home. Later that night, a small boy peed in the street, splashing a bit on tattoo-girl's leg.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Home, safely

So the possibility of blogging from beyond the grave never came to pass, as I did make it home safe and sound (sound being relatively-speaking, after all). Although I had pretty consistent internet access, I wasn't really able to blog. You see, I was not travelling alone, my companion doesn't know about the blog, and I still maintain a pretty strict separation betwix blog & real life. I don't have all my pictures organized yet, but I'll pick up where the unscheduled entries left off and post some pictures later...

May 24: Took the day off and laid on the beach. Played in the bright, blue water and got a slight-to-moderate sunburn. Had a basket of grilled seafood again, though not as good as last night's. The grilled prawns here (all throughout Vietnam, that is) taste like crawfish back home, which is probably not a good thing, but they're damn tasty. There is also a small, white clam about the size of a silver dollar that I really like. I'll eat a lot more of these before I leave.

May 27: Honestly, Hoi An was a let down. It was supposed to be this charming, ancient town full of old houses and character. It wasn't contrived but it didn't remotely live up to the guidebook hype. One review that I later read said that the town died of tourism. The most interesting thing was the cha gio (eggrolls) which use a glass-thread noodle wrapper instead of the traditional rice paper. Interesting and yummy, but not worth visiting the town. There is trash/litter everywhere, like most of Vietnam, but there's also actual dirt on the streets here. It's easy to spot tourists in this country: They're the only ones using trashcans. It is unfortunate that the average Vietnamese has so little civic pride/social responsibility that he throws his trash in the streets. They are, quite literally, living in their own filth.

There was a last minute change of hotels. When tattoo-girl saw the "budget" hotel (that she picked, by the way) she had a total meltdown. The hotel was doing some renovating and the smell of paint fumes was very strong, but overall the hotel was not as nice as the others we had stayed in, especially having come most recently from a Novotel. "It's disgusting and primitive," she said blubbering, although I contend that it was adequate: It had air conditioning, a regular toilet (not a hole in the ground), and a door that locked. But she was unconsolable, so we found another place in town and they were able to accomodate us. The replacement hotel was twice the price (still way cheaper than anything in America) and very nice, set up kind of like little villas with a very nice pool as well.

Down the road was a little shop advertising "Snake 7 Ways" but I couldn't find anyone to go with me. Hoi An also has a beach nearby, but having just spent two days in Nha Trang, I wasn't too interested. Along the road back to Danang is an area called Marble Mountains. The Hyatt Regency and a few others are in the process of building some HUGE resorts here and in a few years it'll be completely overrun. It is a beautiful area, so I completely understand wanting to develop it. On the other hand, it'll exploit the local population even more, further widening the divide between those with money and those without. Maybe there is something to all the rhetoric about overthrowing the bourgeoisie and advocating a proletarian revolution.


Friday, June 04, 2010

Home crap home (scheduled)

Assuming I've survived, which is a big if, I should be back on the ground in Houston right about now. I left Tokyo 2 hours from now. (yes, you read that right, I'm a time-travellin' motherfucker!) It just occurred to me how cool it would be if I didn't survive some part of the trip, and these pre-scheduled blog postings continued to come after I died. Blogger would have no way of knowing and my account would just sit idle waiting month after month for me to post again. But that part is normal, since it's not uncommon for me to go several months without blogging. Anyhow, I promise not to haunt you.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Oh, hai again (scheduled)

Leaving Vietnam from Hanoi, I am once again in Japan. This time I have a 9-hour layover, so if I can get through customs quickly (it is 7am local time, after all) I should be able to jump on the express train from Narita to the city, stroll through the Imperial Gardens, grab a little lunch, and make it back for my flight home. To say that this has been a massive trip is surely an understatement.

Faults and all, I'll see you soon, my beloved US of A.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

ENOUGH! (scheduled)

That's enough of Hanoi. Right about now, I am boarding a Chinese-style junk and am setting sail across Halong Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Tonkin that has something like a thousand little islands. This is a 3-day, 2-night, all-inclusive cruise in one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen pictures of. Until I get back and upload my pictures, you really should go to Flickr and search for Halong Bay. I can't wait to tell you how great it really is, but I really need to get back to the sundeck.