Archive for February, 2008

What’s up team,

I  am now in a town in the central highlands of VN called Dalat. I am tempted to stay here forever, as it is a) unbelievably beautiful (think the Alps, but in VN) b) incredibly temperate and amazingly un-polluted (best air I’ve ever inhaled and basically perpetual spring — no kidding) and c) there is tons to do here. I spent 7 hours yesterday hiking through Tiger Falls park, and there’s a plethora of mountain biking, climbing, canyoning, and anything else you can think of… it’s like heaven for the outdoors. I’m looking for work…

This is a pattern I’ve been running into: staying in places (much) longer than I intended to. This started out as a 5-country trip; it’s quickly becoming a 2.5 country journey. Not that I mind — I’ve already told myself I don’t want to rush through places, spending a quarter of my time on buses and trains, making arrangements, etc — I just want to enjoy each place I visit until I’m ready to move on. I guess what it comes down to is whether you want to see everything, or just see ‘everything’.  Once again, I have magical timing (and horrible time management — but that’s another story).

On to the bane of south-east Asia: The ubiquitous cockroach and the ever-present stream of Europeans. It’s may seem odd that I’d group these together, but there is a reason, my friends: both can be avoided, and managed, despite their ability to creep into every hotel/restaurant/city I’ve managed to make it to. First, the European… while I’m usually not one to make generalizations, it seems most EU citizens truly are at the center of their own universe. I’ve met a plethora of very nice Czechs, Germans, Dutchmen, Danes, English, Swedes, one very nice Serbian and even a polite Frenchman or two, but by the by, they are the rudest, least considerate people I’ve ever met. I’ve seen with my own eyes, on three different occasions, French people rudely arguing down the room rate at various hostels and hotels with trivial amounts of money involved. The first occasion was back in Beijing, when a Frenchman (who was quite rude to me when I tried to strike up earnest conversation — this was afterwards) went into his room (the rooms here were very nice and 50 RMB per night — that’s $6.90 and about 4.67 EUR) and came back to the counter, claiming his bed wasn’t soft enough or some damn thing, and demanded his room to be 45 RMB instead. 5 RMB is .46 EUR. You have to be kidding me… this dude has the most powerful super-currency on earth and he’s bitching about .46 EUR? This has to be a joke…

But then I got to Hanoi, checked into a decent place called “Cafe Real Darling” (it did not live up to its name, unless real darling’s have paint peeling off their skin, flickering eyes and leaky plumbing) and sure enough — the EXACT same thing. The room rate here was 140,000 VND ($9) for a double-double or 70,000 VND for dorm-style hostel action. Again, a group of 4 french folks were arguing –quite rudely– that the double-double room was only worth 110,000 VND per night. 30,000 VND is, in fact, 1.24 EUR. These people must be pumped from their 32 hour work week, because they clearly have no end of energy to complain about the cost of half a baguette in a land where 47% of the GDP is tourism… God forbid 1.24 of your precious currency should wind up in the hands of people who actually fucking work for a living. Argh! This makes me so pissed off… in the words of Monty Burns (whilst offering coffee to his lawyers), “Black, right, to go with your hearts!?! Oh, I hate you all so much!”

This is, of course, not generalized — it’s just a trend I see WAY too often. There are many exceptions, and as I type this, I’m sitting next to a very nice Frenchman named Raoul who I keep running into at cafes and drinking wine with. So… I guess there are just assholes everywhere. Go figure.

These people work for a living. Most work 7 days a week. Of the waitresses that I’ve talked to, the average salary seems to be in the neighborhood of 800,000 VND per month, or about $50. I tip everywhere, but no one else seems to… and this really breaks my heart. The separation of wealth is very real here, and when you order a beer, you can be sure that almost none of that money is going into the pockets of the staff. So… what the hell? I’ve got super-currency too (even though it’s getting less ‘super’ by the day) and I usually tip at least a buck on general principle, sometimes much more if I’m there for a couple of hours. Other tourists get a very confused look on their faces when I do this… “you don’t have to tip here, you know” is generally the verbal response.  “but… I… am….”  It’s what separates us from the animals, I guess…

Speaking of animals, about these cockroaches I’ve been seeing and bunking with: they are plentiful, they are everywhere, and they outnumber us a great deal. Back in Hanoi, Una told me her theory:

“Cockroaches really used to bother me… but then I realized I don’t have to kill them. Now they don’t really bother me anymore…”

Huh. This had never occurred to me. I don’t have to kill them? Really? I chewed on this for a while, but I never really had to deal with many of them until I got to Saigon, where its perpetual summer, and roaches and rats pretty much run the city at night. The rats are comically huge — like the size of a large house cat — but they are quite nimble and the sheer number of them is almost hard to grasp. The cockroaches, in a similar vein, are the biggest, fastest, smartest things I’ve ever seen in my life. One night I awoke to find one in my bed, and sure enough, it was a good 3″ or 4″ long — I mean, I’ve never even seen something like this. I did, in fact, scream like a little girl and leap up onto my feet. I thought about Una’s word for a good half second or so, but believe me — I HAD to kill this thing, there was just no road to a peace accord between us. You have crossed a line, cockroach — specifically, the door to room 208 of 248 D De Tham Street. I have never seen something this large move so fast; it covered 10 feet in 3.5 seconds, no problem. I’m throwing books and bottles of water and anything I can get my hands on, and eventually I nail the fucker with my copy of ‘Mr Nice – the autobiography of Howard Marks’ (which is pretty good, by the way). Sweet victory…

I vaguely recall a running theme in a comic book I used to read ‘Jonny the Homicidal Maniac’, where the main character (he’s a homicidal maniac — duh) is convinced that the cockroach in his house (affectionately named Mr Samsa) keeps coming back to life after he kills it, over and over.

“…like this bug! I keep killing it, and it keeps coming back!”
“Don’t you think there might be more than one cockroach in this house?”
“What? Don’t be silly. I’m sorry, Mr Samsa, but I’m afraid I must kill you again…” [squishes bug]

I’m sorry, Mr Samsa.

More tales soon; gotta go ride some trails now (the bikes actually aren’t that bad here)…

Cheers,

~nich

some pics:

a cool statue (everybody has to strike a pose sometimes)

a woman getting stuck in a sniper hole at the Cu Chi tunnels (a huge network that allowed the VC to pass directly underneath all 4 US bases outside of Saigon) and some reactions…

fishing territory in Mui Ne

and a wonderful day hiking outside Dalat

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Hola amigos,

When I last rapped at ya, I had left the glorious motherland of Red China destined for a much greener communist locale — Vietnam.  Things are, to say the least, much easier here; the people are shockingly friendly, as I’m sure the following tale will illustrate well… overall, it feels like the polar opposite of China in terms of atmosphere (both for this White Devil and otherwise).  Oh yeah — it’s warm here. Yay.

I guess I need to rave about the food first — it’s just freaking awesome.  Aside from the restaurants, street competition is alive and well.  It’s commonplace to see a woman with a “scale of justice” on her shoulder, containing a pot of broth, noodles, meat, veggies, cookware/dishes, and even plastic stools and tables.  They walk around with their whole livelihood on their shoulder…  You just flag em’ down if you’re hungry.  Other people have more “rooted” operations, set up on the sidewalk with with same accouterments — almost like a rogue restaurant — and sometimes being open 24 hours a day.  This is how to eat cheap; a bowl of Pho will run you about 15,000 dong (90 cents or so) and I’m talkin’ about a serious bowl here, not some dinky thing you give cereal to a 6 year old in.  Also awesome is the fact that there are, naturally, no menus at these places; there would only be one thing on them anyway.  Even lots of “established” restaurants (read: storefront) are the same way — you’ll say “Ga” (chicken) and they’ll just respond, very matter-of-factly, “Bo” (beef).  This, apparently, is not negotiable.  It also varies day to day, even at the same places.  You do, however, get a humorous response from asking for a menu (a chuckle, then one of the flavors mentioned above).  Of course, this isn’t the only thing to eat here, and –miracle of miracles– bacon and eggs is on every breakfast menu (at the restaurants that have them) including a baguette (a damn good baguette, actually).  I generally consume what I can only assume is around 8,000 calories a day or so…

Oh yeah, I’ve got a partner in crime for a week or so, Beijing Bill’s roommate Una.  She’s Serbian and has been working on her masters in linguistics in Beijing for 2 years, with another two and a half to go (she speaks 5 or so languages).  At long last, there’s someone far more advanced in language than I who’s linguistically equally useless here (none of those 5 are Vietnamese).  She mentioned she wanted to see Vietnam on her break, and I replied “well, I’m headed that way” (“that way” being “South”).  It’ll be nice to travel with someone else for abit…

Anywho, we came into Hanoi, promptly saw the sights there, and decided it was still too cold.  So we hit up the first (of what I’m sure are to be many, for me anyway) “Hell Bus” to Hue — 12 hours or so with some other guy’s seat dug into your knees is truly lovely.

Hue is a beautiful place, despite the tons of bombs we managed to drop on it for a decade (it is the most bombed city in VN).  Una and I each took a “me day” and I rented out a motorbike… for which you need absolutely no credentials at all.  I was expecting paper, maybe even an explanation of use of some kind.  This was not the case; she simply asked me where I was staying (I didn’t even have to pronounce it — I just pointed in the direction of my hotel.. she nodded), took my 50,000 dong and handed me an iridescent pink helmet and a key.  I looked at the helmet for a second and looked back at her.  Ear to ear… clearly, she hand-picked this one just for me.  I nodded and smiled.

So I hop on, armed with yet another mediocre map (only major roads listed) and a compass I picked up in Beijing for 5 Kuai.  I then proceed to acquaint myself with this infernal machine; it’s not really a “motorbike” so much as a 4-speed, clutch-less scooter designed for those who are 4’5″ to 5’8″, which of course I look/feel quite silly on, pink helmet notwithstanding.  It’s very uncomfortable, but by sitting on the “back seat” of the thing, arms stretched like I’m on some silly little kids chopper, I get the hang of it pretty quick (no pun intended).

After having my primary transportation be my legs for the last month, I have a serious problem adjusting to just how much ground I’m covering on this thing.  I wouldn’t call it “fast” per se, but with 4 speeds, it gets going, and hits 40-50 Kmph pretty quick.  This, admittedly, is outrageously fun, and I totally forget about any so-called destinations I had in my head — I just ride around, taking random turns at wherever the hell I feel like, rain pelting me, up-shifting, swerving, and generally being Vietnam’s answer to Hells Angels.  50cc’s of pure rock fury growl under me; I suddenly wish this thing had a stereo or a tape deck or ANYTHING I use to play some fuckin’ Eddie Van Halen or GnR on.  Hue is just not big enough for me and this feeling…

…so I got lost.  Utterly, completely lost in these gravel, pothole-ridden farm streets — I mean, retracing my turns is completely unthinkable, partly because of my ignorance for my surroundings, and partly because the streets here were, seemingly, built long before anyone had a working compass or cared whether they were the least bit straight (none, I mean NONE of them go in a straight line).  The term “grid” will never exist here.  So I keep riding…

I cannot describe the look on peoples’ faces as I pass them.  It’s not so much astonishment as just pure confusion — who is this man, this man who clearly does not fit on his steed?  Where could he be going?  Why is his helmet so… pink?  this is farmland — clearly not an area where westerners have any business at all.  No one is hostel at all — they’re all smiling amidst their confusion, and I smile back.  I look at a map every time I reach an intersection, but none of the streets are listed… generally not a good sign.

But before I can realize any real conclusions, I’ve come to an intersection where 3 Vietnamese guys yell out “HALLOO!” from an odd concrete structure, like a half-finished veranda.  Shit, maybe THEY know where I am, huh?  So I hop off the bike and walk on up.  They’re all smiling, smiling confusion just like everyone else.  I’m not really that shy, but I have no clue, not the slightest idea where I am.  I produce a pack of 555s and light one up, then offer them each one.  They accept.  We smile.  Of course, none of them speak any English at all.  I whip the map out and sort of motion towards the intersection in front of us, then back at the map, with a sort of “where the fuck am I” look on my face.  All three furrow their brows and glance intently at the map for some time.  They all reach the same conclusion; their shrugs can only tell me one thing.  I’m not on the map at all…

Of course, they mutter to each other this whole time… I sigh.  The little guy grabs a chair and puts it in front of me, pointing.  I wave my hand, figuring I’ll finish the cig and start moving.  This does not fly with them.  They all point now, smiling… I have a seat.  Laughing, then more smiles and conversation I will never possibly comprehend.

One brought out some food, and set it on the card table in front of us.  A salad of some kind, with several ingredients I’d never seen before, and a stew that I cannot identify the main ingredient to (looked like jello, tasted like meat… meat jello? not bad…).  This was accompanied by a bowl of reddish oil, so hot that it was very good at removing nose hair via your sinuses.  Good stuff.  Another grabbed several packs of cigarettes and a tiny glass — smaller than a shot glass, probably less than an ounce.  I think I see where this is going…

The third one, a heavyset man with a broad face, broad shoulders… a broad man, I suppose, produced a clear plastic bottle of clear liquid.  No label.  He pointed to it and smiled so big I thought he was going to tear his jaw.  We all laughed, then more smiles.  During this time, several others had come to join us, I’m guessing all around the same age (23-25 or so) except for one older man, mid-forties perhaps, who never smiles but seems happy with my presence just the same.  Now there are 6 people sitting around the table, all smiling broadly (minus the older man), like they know what’s coming.  A pair of sticks get shoved into my hand.  “Eat”, says the broad one, and points to the food.  The shot glass is filled and passed to me.  It’s basically moonshine, derived from what I assume is rice.  I really love how things here are “same-same” but different over here; the Japanese ferment rice and get sake, the Chinese distill rice and get baijiu (practically paint-thinner) and the Vietnamese do… something else?  This shit is strong, stronger that baijiu but tastes better, and the one shot glass floats around the table counter-clockwise until the bottle is cashed, which happens surprisingly fast considering the size of the glass.  A small wave of relief washes over me… but about 15 seconds later, another bottle is produced.  More smiles.  One points around the corner into another room.  I glance around, and see an entire rack of bottles; maybe 10 or 15.  Good lord, see me through this…

One man who has shown up at the table speaks a few phrases of English and we begin the process of (albeit quite base) exchanging information: age, professions, family orientation, etc is learned and told.  More food arrives; dried squid and cured fish.  It’s delicious.  Another bottle passes around and is emptied.  I stay for several hours, just hanging out, communicating as best I can.  I roll them cigarettes from my last pouch of Bali Shag, which they seem to enjoy immensely.  At one point, money is changing hands between those at the table.  I figure it’s a beer run or something, and pull some dough out of my pocket.  This is met by screams of “NO” and the old man literally pushing my right hand, clutching the cash, back to my right leg.  It’s almost as if their offended by the idea of financial compensation; I am their guest.  A bit later, I remember how I got here, and that I must (at some point) get on the bike and make it back to town.  When the shot glass comes around again, I make a “no dice” gesture with my hands, which is met with looks of mass confusion.  I put my hands up and make the “vroom vroom” motion by twisting my right hand as if throttling.  They all go “ahhh” and nod.  The older man pats me on the leg, gives a thumbs up to my decision, and says “eat… eat more”.  I follow instructions well now…

It’s getting on 7pm, and I’m supposed to meet Una for some curry.  I figure it’s best to leave early, given the fact that while the experience is awesome, I’m just as lost as I was when I sat down… although I feel quite confident in situation.  The old man pats me on the leg, and without changing his facial expression one bit (I’ve gotten used to this now — man’s got a serious poker face) says “tomorrow… again”.  These people, this whole family showed my the utmost kindness and respect, refuse my offering of money, and request my presence again.  I can hardly refuse… I mean, I need to feed them some whiskey, after all.  Although, I will have to figure out how to get back to this place.  We shake hands and I roll out, waving goodbye to smiling faces.

Miraculously, I find my way back to a main road the same way I got lost — taking random turns.  Instinct can be an obscure thing.  I make sure to retrace my steps so as to find my way back, and the whole journey from the hotel (given this route) should be no more than 8 minutes on the motorbike.  Perhaps I’ll take a bicycle instead…

I did, in fact, return the next day, and bestowed them some Jim Beam… which is pretty much the best thing you can get here as far as whiskey is concerned.  We had another good time.  They fed me some hot pot on this day ubiquitous throughout Asia, but this is the best hot pot I’ve ever had — the broth is amazing, and the other offerings are second to none.  I have to catch a train to Nha Trang, however, and we must part much sooner than I’d hoped.  We shake hands again, and they make me promise to return as soon as possible.

I’ve made so many friends on this trip, and one thing never really gets any easier: leaving them.  A necessary evil, I suppose.
Ževali, (‘cheers’ in Serbian — it translates literally to “let’s live” which I think is pretty awesome),

The Hue crew — from left to right, Dố, Long, Tuấn, Thấn, Mēo, Huňg.  I didn’t catch the womans name.

Also, some random bowls of pho, and a serious drink available at at bar whose name I can’t recall (go figure).


I shot an arrow in to the sky…

Posted: February 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

…and when I woke up, I was in Hanoi.  More on that soon… but first, some words on international language:

Smiles
Truly the most widely accepted “international language”, the smile is simple, unwavering, and requires only 17 muscles in your face.  It’s relatively contagious, occurs widely in children, and (at least in Beijing) is a virtual sign of respect… at least to us North American scum.

Car Horns

Spend some time outside of North America, and this language will creep into your head like systemic brain abscess.  Even as I write this, roughly 14 horns are being honked at any given second… and that means it’s a pretty slow day (figures; it’s Tet, after all).  I can use them as a fully functioning clock now; not just as an alarm, but sort of like a sundial — the more honks per second, the closer to noon it’s getting; the louder the horns, the more trucks are out, meaning 2pm-5pm, and so on.  As I don’t own a watch or an alarm clock, this is very useful.  Also, in Asia, the horn is almost artistic — In US cars, all horns are in the key of F.  Here, there are a whole galaxy of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers, ascending and descending sine waves, even songs.  Yesterday in Hanoi, I ever heard “La Cucaracha” (you better believe I audibly gave a little “woo hoo”).

Dancing

I don’t really need to explain this one, do I?  It’s pretty obvious that anything with hips can communicate just fine between 72-120 BPM…

And my personal favorite:

Explosives
My last night in Beijing was February 6th… Chinese New Years Eve.  This is mostly a family Holiday, but believe me — these people know how to blow shit up.  In America, the mortar is pretty much the holy grail of fireworks, and rightfully so… but that shit is old hat over here, and basically everyone buys a few bazillion of them (and I mean everyone — after 6pm, it’s 360 degrees of sky-flowers anywhere you go), along with your general variety of powder-filled awesomeness.  M-80s are pretty cool, sure… but I saw some shit here that just dwarfs them completely, things that leave 15″ divots in concrete, set off car alarms 5 blocks away, and have a shock wave you can feel inside the 6th floor of a building — literal half-sticks, I figure.  But that’s just the beginning… the smallest string of firecrackers I saw/heard was a meter-long roll, and they are not shy about lighting them and just tossing them in the street/parking lot/out of a window/on to your feet.  Then it gets to be about 11pm or so, and the 360 degree thing I mentioned just.. keeps… coming…

Around 11:30 or so, we rolled out of Bills house, after a fantastic Atlantic-to-Pacific smorgasbord of delightful food (8 people just formed like voltron and started cooking — the pasta and garlic bread was mine) with plenty of Yanjing /Jim Beam in tow, and hiked over to the lake near Bill’s house, Xi Hai (it’s like Hou Hai’s little cousin).  Here, you get a pretty good view of the second-ring of Beijing or so, without the obstructions of buildings… and the scene is absolutely astounding.  The sky is lit up for two hours — in every direction you look, at any given second, mortars are going off, and going off, and going off…. the atmosphere is amazing.  Someone 5 feet away will light up a 20-tube 40-shot orgasm of fire and sparks; ash and noise rain down like a torrent.  It’s virtually impossible to capture it on film — although I tried as best I could — but it makes the 4th of July look like a pithy little joke, like .005% what it could/should be.  And it’s cheap, too!  In order to meet stringent Chinese Anti-Safety regulations, they’re made in quantity, not quality… so hey, they may go off only 40-50 feet in the air, but no worries, ’cause they’re only 25 cents a mortar and you’ve got plenty more where that came from…

We were standing there chilling and drinking for a couple hours.  You keep thinking “okay, this is the finale — it’s gonna slow down soon”, but that threshold never comes… it just keeps blowing up more and more.  How many mortars did I see?  Thousands for sure… maybe tens of thousands?  A hundred thousand?  It’s hard to say — like I mentioned, it’s 360 degrees and it just keeps coming.  And this isn’t just around the lake, mind you — the whole city, every city is like this (I’m told it’s particularly dense and spectacular in Pingyao — not sure why).  At some point, Bill and I are sliding across the ice, doing “human luge”, and when we get up, I look at my hands — and they’re fucking black.  Not just dirty, but just caked in ash and soot.  The rest of my body is, of course, the same… actually, the rest of the city is like this.  It’s just weird to see ice make you filthy…  That’s Beijing, I suppose…

Even on my flight the next day, flying into Guangzhou, I got to see it all over again — this time from the sky, a sight I’d never seen before.  They look… well, smaller.  But just as amazing; the density of them is really hard to describe…

Vietnam is amazing.  Particularly coming from a grey Beijing, it’s warm, green, lush, there are actually birds in the sky, everyone’s friendly, it’s easy going, no one’s pushing, the language is still a shouting language but the barrier is MUCH easier to cope with, and it’s a bit cheaper.  Welcome to south-east Asia…

But mostly, the people are just amazing… some of the happiest, nicest people I’ve ever met.  My story of getting lost outside Hue (and then found) coming soon…

Pictures —

The crew for dinner

random shots of the crazy hostel driver being crazy — not pictured, the more insane cook who was lighting off M-80s and throwing them at people’s feet from the second story balcony, then laughing hysterically (that guy was rad)


One halfway decent shot from Xi Hai — it’s hard to capture what it looks like without a tripod and way mo’ ISO…

I have magical timing

Posted: February 2, 2008 in Uncategorized

So…

My arrival in Beijing coincided perfectly with the Winter Break/Spring Festival, which centers around Chinese New Year and Christmas (for them, at least — there seems to be some confusion here as to what day Jesus Christ was born).  This means that roughly one-third of the country is on the move, going back home to see family or (in many cases, especially students) migrating to other areas to work for their break.  Combine this with the worst winter China’s ever seen (costing them $4.5 billion and counting), and 40 million people are stranded at train stations and airports across the country.  The result — I can’t get anywhere in this country.  They literally laughed at me when I tried to book a 3-stop ticket, going from Datong to Xi’an and then south to Kunming (where it’s easy to cross a land border into Thailand or Laos).  You really DO NOT want to get stuck in Datong or Xi’an; Datong has some awesome stuff to see, but it’s a major coal mining town, so the air is literally soot (instead of mostly soot, like here in Beijing), and Xi’an is cool, but it’s in the middle of the country, where the worst weather is hitting right now.  So, I’ve just kinda been chilling in Beijing… not that I mind being stuck in the cultural mecca of China at all, just that there’s no way to get anywhere else.

It’s time to move.  I can’t see any more of China right now (at least not without a HUGE headache), so I’m flying into Hanoi on Thursday.  But guess what’s in Vietnam right now?  Oh yeah, that’s right — Tet Holiday.  I’m a destination genius, no?

Anyway, it’s a balmy 57 degrees and raining in Hanoi right now, which is downright sweltering compared to Beijings 15-30 degree action… southward ho!