Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Photos from Vietnam

The alter of the Communal Jeweler's Heritage Home, Hanoi.

Writing in the wall at the scholar's temple on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Grab a bite to eat at Tamarind Cafe in the Old Quarter, Hanoi

The Temple of Hoan Keim Lake, Hanoi

Gathered Prayers

All photos copyright Kathleen Broadhurst

Friday, August 26, 2011

Across the Border

By Fiz
Photos: Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst
A monk has his picture taken
So having been in Phnom Penh for a couple of days we have noticed a few things.  The first is that the money here doesn’t have silk sweatshops on the backs, and the second is that the architecture is a pleasant blend of modern and traditional.  For example the hotel we are staying in is a concrete rectangle seven stories tall, though the shape of the roof is traditional, and so are the tiles.

I can’t see the roofs of only a handful of buildings when I look out the window of our room on the 5th floor, and most of those are still under construction.  Phnom Penh is a huge city that has, very literally, recently started exploring new heights.

Between the broad boulevards and well lit roads lie small neighborhoods of the less fortunate, with dark, winding alleyways between corrugated steal roofs, which seem to be the only modern part of each house. Many of them are built on small stilts, as the flooding here certainly gets high enough to be a problem.

Birds for sale at a temple
Polka-dotted between the steel roofs the traditionally tiled roofs, some with a white trim, stand out in stark contrast in the afternoon sun.  But what stands out even more are the sleek new shopping centers popping up by foreign architects, attracting fast food restaurants like KFC like flies. 

Buddha on a gate of the Grand Palace
Inside these malls you could forget you are in a third world country, forget you are in a world which only 15 years ago was torn apart by a regime bent on the destruction of its own people, even forget that you are in a world still recovering from the Khmer Rouge.  But as soon as you walk out the doors, and the refreshing AC can no longer keep the oppressing heat at bay, you remember where you are, even if the people around you don’t.

There is a curious phenomenon amongst the younger generation of Cambodians, they hear stories from their parents about the tragedies they lived through and witnessed, they can see the killing fields where their countrymen were slaughtered.  But few of them really believe it happened.  They think the experiences of their parents are ghost stories, like we think of the tales of the Boogey man.

Since Pol Pot was removed from power there has been no conversation, no discussion in schools or colleges about the atrocities committed not two decades ago.  Although this is starting to change, many are concerned about the affect this will have on the future generations, they worry that the fun, peace loving youth of today will harden, becoming more aggressive.

The Cambodia of today is a safe place, for anybody to come to, although it was not so some ten years ago. Today I was listening to a story told by an Aussie fellow who has been coming to Cambodia since 1994 at first for pleasure, then for work, and now to give back to the country he fell in love with, giving money to NGO’s and charity organizations.  The story he told was from one of his first visits to a friend of his who lived here in Phnom Penh. 

Getting dinner
He sat down to dinner at said friends house and he noticed that his friend had an AK-47 in his lap. Why? He wondered out loud. He found out that his friends house had been broken into eight times while he was at home, hence the 3 inch solid steel door.  They went for an after dinner stroll, and everybody who was invited to dinner was handed a pistol, with extra clips, just in case.  His friend still carried the AK.

But as I said earlier, Cambodia is safe these days.  Sure there are pickpockets (our first night here we ran into a guy who’s bag got stolen off a bus), and Tuk Tuk drivers who will try to rip you off, among other hazards that every city seems to possess, but you really have to do something rash to warrant any hostility.

The beggars are tame, and so are the street vendors, a shake of your head is all it takes to get somebody off your tail.  A smile goes a long way here, so does common curtsey.  Don’t be shy to have a conversation with the Tuk Tuk driver you employ for five minutes, you wont ever see him again in the throngs of people, and you might just enrich both your lives.

In this country you really do get what you give.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Toll of War

By Kathleen Broadhurst

We have arrived and safely installed ourselves in Phnom Penh. Cambodia seems pretty rad. But before we get to the joys the ‘kingdom’(of Cambodia), let us wrap of Viet Nam.

I don’t know if it came across in our posts, but we didn’t have such a great time in Vietnam. Now, before I begin, I would like to say that everyone has a different experience traveling and our opinions are just that, ours, no one else’s. There are many people who have had and will have completely different experiences in Vietnam and we do not intend to discourage others from seeking their own adventures. That being said;

While we found Viet Nam to have some serious highlights, the food was amazing the architecture was like a mirror in time and the land seemed itself immortal and unchanging, like seasons, our interactions with the local Vietnamese were, most of the time unpleasant.

Unpleasant means in this case a variety of things from outright hostile to just more frustrating than usual. There were exceptions to this of course, as there always are but except for some great people at our guesthouse in Hanoi and a friendly high-schooler on the all night train, most smiles were met with a frown.

Strangely, while I suspect much of this is due, in part to our American passports and accents, it did seem that the Vietnamese even when going about their own business, seemingly unobserved had scowls on their faces.

This has been the first time being someplace that somebody has actually knocked my camera away from me while I was taking a picture (of her beverage offerings nothing exciting).Or yelled at me when I asked a simple question (Where’s the bathroom?)

My first time in India was not great, and so I understand that first impressions can be misleading, however at least my first time in India left me wanting more. Our time in Vietnam left me supremely elated to be crossing the boarder in Cambodia. I had the sense of “ well glad that’s over” and “ hope I don’t have to do that again” which aren’t the best feeling to have after dropping a chunk of time and change on something.

In hindsight I think that our trip would have been smoother, or at least the attitude of people better understood, if we had journeyed from South to North, starting not ending in Saigon.

Saigon, exotic and romantic trading city of the east, (or at least it was, now it is more of a tangled concrete mess of motorbikes and neon signs) has very few tourist sights. A few pagodas, a fairly tame market that’s sells mostly t-shirts and the War Remnants Museum. The War Museum is really the main one, the one you have to see, the one you haven’t really been to Vietnam unless you have seen.

It didn’t take us long to get through, it’s not very big just one main building, the outside littered with forgotten tanks and helicopters, artillery and fighter jets. Inside is three floors of horrible nightmare memories, captured in black and white and color so the people of Viet Nam never forget the atrocities that happened to them. The atrocities that American’s inflicted on them.

The photography collection is one of the best photojournalism collections anywhere and should be seem even if the history of the war has no interest to you.  However, it is not the splendid exposure levels or the framing that will catch your eye, it is the macabre subject matter. Corpses blow to bits by nail grenades or charred beyond recognition by napalm, picture of babies ripped open by mines, or guns or knives. Snapshots of the faces of old men in terror, taken only moments before the gun blew their head off.

And then there is the collection that makes you reach out a hand to steady yourself, or sit on the floor, or a bench and cry (as some were doing). This is the gallery that showcases the depths of human sickness, the image of a man setting a match to the home of a peasant, the group of three young spoilers grinning as they sat around the beheaded corpses of supposed ‘viet cong’, the smiling solider in the process of witnessing torture.

Photos that showed you the darkest reaches of the human soul, the places we all try to ignore, to turn away from and to deny in the hope that maybe somehow never ever again will it surface. We are always wrong. Looking away from evil has never caused it to cease just as remembering suffering has never caused it to heal.

On the bottom floor was a gallery dedicated to those people, across the world, who had stood in solidarity with the Vietnamese or who had protested American involvement. Italy, India, China, Egypt, Russia, Norway, Great Britain, Japan. As many countries as there are there were represented. In one corner a picture from the Kent State massacres.

Earlier in our trip, while we were at Hoi An, we had met up with a woman who had majored in Culture studies, her focus on the American anti-war movement. She had been frustrated by the lack of recognition that was afforded to those Americans who had protested and advocated for peace.

I can sympathize with her, and her frustration, in this case and in many others, though I do not expect the Vietnamese to dedicate large portions of their museum to this subject. This was their story, not ours. What frustrates me is that our story did not more affect their story, that the protests and outcry did not reach the shores of Vietnam, or the doors of the White house. What frustrates me is that is still the case.
The museum in Saigon gave context to the rude and often hostile attitudes we encountered. It did not make me like Vietnam any better or to think that I, as somebody who was never involved with the “American War”, should have been blamed for these actions. It did not make me want to stay longer or to go back, but it did help me understand.

Understand that American citizen have to pay the karmic debt on the actions of our country’s government. That traveling abroad we become ambassadors for our country and we become, in local eyes, responsible.

Understand that to someone that has suffered a tragedy at the hands of war, invaded by a country far far away, one that they will likely never see, that any person from that place is as guilty as those who committed the crimes.

Understand that as I walked through the halls of the museum, shocked by the graphic photos of atrocities forty years in the past, in that same moment atrocities were being committed all over the globe. Are being committed right now.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, horrible things are still being done, will be done.  By guns and bombs and machines and robots, by Americans. And that our citizens have sunk into a state of silent acceptance.

The U.S has succeeded in leaving behind another legacy of pain and suffering of hatred and distrust. The world is less safe for future generations, future generations will find their travel more restricted that my own and that will in fact make them less free.

But staring at the frozen faces, across the silver of time, thinking about the Cultural Studies girl and the photo of the woman at Kent State. It made me understand that our silence is heard.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Babies on a Train

By Kathleen

The baby across the street has finally stopped bawling, just in time for me to be fully awake about a half an hour before I wanted to be.

But motivation strikes me early in the morning so, dear readers I will update you on our travels. Not having reliable fast internet means that often you are a couple of days behind us, which I apologize for but can really do nothing about. Also, believe it or not, we are supposed to be on vacation so the waking time is often spend trying to do just that, with obvious mixed success.

Last we left you I believe, we were in Hoi An, a beautiful historic city in central Vietnam. Its custard yellow lined streets and red hanging lanterns created a scene of beauty in the day and a magical romantic wonderland at night. I personally thought they should make all the visitors wear historic costumes ( yeah I know I’m weird) because it would have been really awesome then.

The food in Hoi An was, oh so good. With French fusion and really spectacular Vietnamese we were in foodie heaven for four days. Our favorite place Cargo Café was a café and bar on the bottom and a lovely restaurant on the top. The whole place was decorated in white and the food was… full of cheese. But really Lonely Planet totally overlooked this one, all they said about it was that it was a decent bar, clearly they never even went upstairs.

We left Hoi An two days ago and headed to Saigon. Remember when we said that if you were traveling long distances in Vietnam it was better to take the train not the bus? Yeah, well we were lying. Forget any long distance land travel. It’s defiantly better to fly.

Our train arrived on time, which is more than I can say for the bus and it did have bathrooms, they weren’t really usable and I think a graveyard was defiantly a step up from one of them but at least they were there right?

We had purchased a class of ticket called “ soft sleeper” by which we were told would mean soft flat bunks, one on top of another in a compartment. Sounded nice, sounded romantic, sounded like we would be able to sleep.

“Soft sleeper” class apparently means no such thing, instead we boarded our compartment only to find dirty reclining seats, like you would find on an airplane. The tickets assured us of AC but really it was more like sporadic wind and only worked as long as the train was moving quickly. In the dark, because they didn’t turn the lights on for new passengers, we had to find our seats, which was tricky because they were already taken. So we popped ourselves into some empty ones and hoped for the best.

I noticed a strange sweet smell, like warm popcorn coming from under my chair and looked to discover a bag of trash the last passenger had left behind. “Great, so they don’t ever clean this place.” I thought to myself.

The bathrooms were so revolting that Fiz almost threw up and I almost considered documenting them but decided that I would spare myself the memory.

About halfway to Saigon from Da Nang we were joined by the mommy squad. Three women with five babies, around the compartment eyes rolled. Soon all five were crying.

 Mom number one managed to subdue her two toddlers and then quite ingeniously with the help of some other ladies on board, hung a hammock from the overhead luggage rack. Once secured she placed her squalling little girl into it and swung her into sleep, which was great for everyone except the guy who was sitting directly behind her and so got his head knocked with each swing, bless him for not complaining.

The other mother got a family member to take her toddler and so turned her full attention on the baby boy in her lap who was crying hysterically.  He went on and on and finally I looked back to see her slapping him.

I don’t know what this was supposed to achieve but every time he let out another wail she would slap him vigorously across his legs, face, back, head, really any exposed part. This went on for a good long while, until, probably somebody leaded over and said “ um excuse me but have you thought to check his diaper” which she did only to revealed a huge mess, poor baby.

I don’t know if she changed it, I never saw her do so and they crying and slapping continued sporadically for the rest of the ride. Finally the baby must have realized the futility of his communication and it mellowed out to whimpers and an occasional sob.

Needless to say, it was interesting to watch the two different parenting styles at work. I think in the US we tend to admire different “ cultural” or “traditional” (meaning  not our tradition) parenting techniques, and there are many advocates for taking hints from peoples far far away.

But as this little example demonstrates, even far far away there a big differences between how individuals handle the same challenges and many “traditions” aren’t so great. I would hope that this shows that within cultures there is much variety and people from one place cannot be said to do everything the same. Looking inward to ourselves for answers is often a better gauge of how things should be done.

Our train finally arrived in Saigon a full 17 hours after it had left. “ Oh it’s 12 hours,” our guesthouse manager had told us. Right.

It’s worth the extra ten bucks to fly. To be fair this time we weren’t being cheap we had wanted to see some of the countryside. Well, we did, we say a lot of it. It was interesting and beautiful when we weren’t trying to sleep away the misery of the train.

I got to see a dragon fruit farm, strange cactus like plants growing on big pillars producing spiky magenta fruit. So, there is some upshot, but if you travel by train, go prepared, with lots of hand sanitizer, the light of the day confirmed my suspicious that no, it really hadn’t ever been cleaned.

Hoi An Snapshots

These are some shots from Hoi An.

Located in the center of Vietnam Hoi An was once a bustling trade city. Much of the old city is still entact today and you can walk amongst the centuries old homes and buildings.

The architecture here is influenced by China and Japan and at night the whole of the old city is alight with beautiful red lanterns.
 Hoi An is on a strip of land situated between a river and the ocean. The local culture still relies heavily on the waterways for both food and transportation.

This is a photo of a local fishing boat on the river, you can just see the mountains to the west in the background.
 Hoi An's multi-ethnic population means that many gods and goddesses are worshiped or have been worshiped. 

Here are some figures of Chinese Gods, as well as Buddha and some Confucian idols. As they stared out from the bars of this store window I had the distinct feeling that they were alive.
Some of the more colorful tourist boats that ply the river bring people to the nearby islands. 

 Water cultures worldwide can be very similar. For example, I find it interesting that there are eyes painted on the bows. It seems no matter where you go From Scandinavia to Vietnam people believe in giving their boats eyes, whether to ward off evil or give clear sight in bad weather.

All photos were taken by Kathleen Broadhurst, and for that matter this post was written by her too.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vietnamese Beach Day

Posted by Fiz

Friday turned out to be a bloody hot day.  It might not have been all that hot in actuality, but the humidity was through the roof.  We hadn’t finished breakfast yet when we noticed our clothes sticking to us like they were made of cling wrap.  There was no dispute about spending the afternoon at the beach.

The sky was blue when we left our guesthouse, which was the first time it wasn’t overcast since our arrival, and there was a good strong ocean breeze blowing inland.  We drove on our rental scooter the 5Km to the beach passing resorts and hotels that steadily grew larger and more swank until we turned a corner merged onto the beach boulevard, with the most grand of the resorts on one side of the road and their private beach fronts on the other.  We turned right and admired the pristine blue waters of the Pacific and the coconut palms swaying in the breeze. 

We just drove enjoying the views until we couldn’t drive anymore, because the resorts had ended and the beach boulevard had suddenly become a miserable gravel road in great disrepair.  So we turned around and drove back till we could find a beach for the public.  It didn’t take too long.

Unfortunately the first place I parked, which was right next to some motorbikes some Vietnamese guys had parked, I got yelled at and my attention was directed at a sign that said no parking.  No problem, I thought. When I asked where to park I got pointed up a small hill to a lot with a bunch of bikes on it. I let Kathleen off to grab us a spot under some palm trees.

So I drove up there and before I even could turn the engine off this nasty little shit of a dude tells me I have to go into the restaurant if I want to park there.  ‘Fine, whatever,’ I was thinking, ‘I just want to feel the sand in my toes.’  “How much for water?” I asked.

“50D.”  Compared to the 5D water is anywhere else, I felt robbed. 

Where do I park I inquired, the little shit pointed back the way I came.  So I go back, and when I parked next to some other parked scooters the same guy who had yelled at me the first time appears out of thin air with an obnoxious whistle between his lips waving at another sign saying, “You no see sign?”

Clearly I had but said no anyway, and gestured angrily at the other bikes parked.  He made a show of grilling some random dude about parking there but again only made me move.  Telling me to go back up the hill.  Someone must have taken pity on me because he pointed down the street we had taken to get to the beach peppered with seafood restaurants. 

So I went down that street, and parked in an abandoned lot between a store and a restaurant behind a fish kebab street vendor.  When found Kathleen on the beach I found out I was not the only one harassed, she had been told no less than four times that she needed to pay to sit where she was sitting. So to get them off our backs we got a fresh coconut, for 3 times the price of what it should cost, though it was definitely the best coconut water I have ever tasted.

When we decided to move out of the shade and closer to the water, the harassment didn’t stop, every ten to twenty minutes someone would come up to us with some God awful reason to guilt us into buying something, like “You buy from her, but not from me.”

The water and the view of the islands was wonderful, but our enjoyment of it was short lived because there was a huge thunder head that rolled in forcing us to get back to town lest we drive in a torrent. We didn’t outrun it.

All in all, not such a great time.

Lost in Hue

By Fiz
Photos by: Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst

Hue is a relatively young city sprung up in the country side of central Vietnam.  The monuments don't date back much farther than the early 1800's, though due to World War II and the Vietnam War the ruins look more like they were from the 16th century if they are standing at all, despite the best efforts of the large scale renovations taking place.

There are two real claims to fame in Hue that live up tho their reputation. The first is the Forbidden Purple City, which lies directly across the Perfume River from downtown, and the Tomb of the self-critical Emperor Tu Duc.  Another big draw is the food, because the members of the Imperial family had a bad habit of being picky eaters.  Every few years the royal cooks were forced to come up with innovative dishes to appease the members of the court.  They mostly took very simple meals from the surrounding country side and tailored them to the specific palates.  I must admit though, I was unimpressed.

Now there are probably over a hundred ruins around Hue, and many are worth seeing, many are not. Most aren't even on the tourist map, neither are most of the roads, actually.  we didn't know this upon arrival, or after we had taken a good long gander at the map, which wasn't in english.  In fact, the only time the map really was useful was when we were lost.  Not for the reasons one might suspect.

We set out for Emperor Tu Duc's  Tomb on a scooter we rented from our guest house, our map , and not very much water.  We naively assumed the map would be accurate, and that all the streets would have signs.  Within minutes it should have been apparent to us that neither was the case, but no, it didn't even occur to us.  Nothing seemed slightly amiss, even when the the roads narrowed and turned to dirt, even when we started getting queer looks from the locals in front of the few cafes and 'shops', even when we drove past this absurdly loud concrete monstrosity of a building right out of 1984.
It wasn’t until we were asked where we were trying to go by a guy on a motorbike driving his kid home from school that we realized that we had driven right by the left hand turn we were looking for, we didn’t know yet how far passed it we had come either.

So turn around we did and took what we thought to be the appropriate road.  It wasn’t. It went from asphalt to gravel, then got steadily narrower, and finally became a path of sand wide enough for two scooter to squeeze past one another.  At this point the flowering trees on both sides of the road gave way to soybean fields for miles in either direction.

We had to sop for a bit to take it all in.  beyond the fields were jungles, and beyond those were the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and to the west the mountains of Laos could be seen towering over the hills of Vietnam.

Still thinking we were aimed in the right direction we pressed onwards.  What we had taken to be wild growth turned out to be cultivated banana trees and other fruit bearing trees we never had even heard of before, or seen since.

Houses began to appear on the side of the road before too long, which we took to be a good sing, because the map said, from what we could decipher, to turn left at he village.

So we did.  The houses grew closer together and better kept till, out of nowhere a temple sprung up on the right.  We knew it wasn’t Tu Duc’s Tomb because according to the map the Tomb was on the left.

We had hardly slowed down before people came streaming out inviting us inside.  Curious we hopped off the scooter and allowed ourselves to be shown around by beaming men and women, children and grandparents.  Then sat us down after allowing us a moment to pay our respects to the temple deity (which I think surprised them).  And to our great surprise brought forth a meal with more courses and dishes than we had seen yet.

From the rice noodles in chicken foot soup to the crispy ginger noodle salad to the fresh mini bananas right off the tree, the meal was hands down the best yet.  Much to everyones dismay, ours as well, we had eaten lunch not 45 minutes before.  Still we ate a polite portion of each dish as everyone stood around us with huge toothy grins.

While we were eating one of he only people who spoke English was found and we got to ask some questions about the temple, and through him we got asked some questions ourselves.

Strangely enough it was only after Kathleen brought out her camera that there was any trace of shyness.  Pictures were taken and we showed them our map, this is where it came it handy.  After some deliberation it was decided that we were some three inches off the left hand side of the map, they couldn’t figure out anything more.

So off we set, backtracking to the main roads.  At this point we gave up on the map and after asking directions a couple more times we arrived at our destination two hours after we set out.

Knowing the area quite will at that point, when we decided to return home, it took us a measly 15 minutes.

Sometimes you have to get lost to find the most beautiful things in life.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hue in Pictures

Countryside outside of Hue

Fiz with the boy at the Temple

Forgotten temple

All photos credit Kathleen Broadhurst

Vegetables for sale in Hue's central Market

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cheap Seats

By: Kathleen and Fiz

Let it be said that in Vietnam you get what you pay for, there are no bargains over here. When we opted for the 20$ per person bus tickets over the 60$ per person bus tickets from Hanoi to Hue we figured it would be a bit less comfortable, perhaps less scenic, but we said “ hey, it’s a night train we won’t see much anyways,” and then we chatted about the terrible night train we had taken in Thailand, surely the bus couldn’t be that much worse.

It can always be that much worse.

 Unless you are feeling very adventurous, in every single sense of the term, or have a large bladder, do not take the bus from Hanoi to Hue. 

The 14 and a half hour bus ride (which  is about how long the plane ride from NYC to Hanoi) starts when the minibus that takes you from your guesthouse to the bus. It will invariably come late, at least an hour, and will leave you feeling anxious from the get go.

Then you will go to board the bus and do so on the side of the road in front of nothing in particular, leaving you to wonder how the minibus driver even knew where to go. 

If you have to use the restroom at this point, DO IT, though you may have to try a couple of places and buy a bag of chips to find one.  Do not naivly assume that a bus that will be traveling 14 and a half hours will have a quaint luxury like a toilet on it. Or if it does that said toilet will work, or that you will even be allowed to try.

When we asked if there was a toilet the bus equivalent of a stewardess pointed to a small porta-john with a padlock on it. S.O.L.

Also, do not assume that there will be seats. That would be silly, who would want to sit for 14.5 hours. No, expect bed like lounges, about the size and shape of coffins stacked on top of each other and no the top bunks don’t have seat belts… or walls.

Being as late to board as we were forced to get a seat on the top bunk and being on the top bunk neither of us could sit upright. Both of us are short in the western world, so chances are most people wouldn’t even be able to crouch.

 We were supplied with a blanket, that was too small for it to be effective or comfortable, and told to take our shoes off.

The onboard entertainment only was on for the first hour of the ride and was a sort of Vietnamese Idol competition.  Just as that was finishing up we stopped at a rest stop for dinner.

Of the 40 odd items on the menu 5 were helpfully described with pictures. Satay with greens, mush, noodles, mystery meat and fish balls, yeah that’s a pass.  Thankfully there was also a galaxy of snacks and drinks available from more than one vendor.

 We highly recommend buying junk food and a bottle of booze (though there is the bathroom issue, better just bring some sleeping pills) over a proper meal.  Now we don’t shy away from street food if we find something that looks appetizing, and the satay and stir fried greens didn’t look bad exactly, but a little kept saying ‘don’t, just don’t’ (or maybe that was Kathleen’s look of horror as she passed by the kitchen).

It only got better from here.  It must have been highway construction season because there were terrific potholes ever meter or so, meaning for kilometers on end we were bounced around, jarred back and forth, violently hurdled down half finished highway.

This only ended when we reached our second (and final) rest stop some six hours later. Rest stop is a strong word, what we were looking at as we groggily disembarked was actually a roadside graveyard shrine, more reminiscent of a parking lot than anything else, with no lights. 

The highway was running along a small river and where we had pulled over was a raised platform of concrete with knee high white blocks spaced wide enough apart for a person to stand/squat in between along 3 sides. 

For more privacy there is a bridge that leads across the river to the privacy of the graveyard!! (did we mention there were tombstones) It was after midnight and we still had well more than half of the trip ahead of us.

The men folk, equipped as they were, were able top just point and aim down the sloping side. The ladies however milled about deciding the best approach. Kathleen and some others crossed over the bridge in search of privacy saw the gravestones and decided that privacy was overrated.

Squatting over the edge was the winning choice. Kathleen thankfully was wearing a skirt and is not terribly picky about these sorts of things. It seemed, from the loaded of shit and toilet paper strewn down the concrete sides that they our bus was not the first to stop there.

The rest of the trip was more of the same, lots and lots of general discomfort.  The windows were caked with grime and the sky was cloudy so there really wasn’t much to look at.  We resigned ourselves to listening to our iPods and trying to sleep.

We awoke in terror to find us careening down a hill on the wrong side of the road.  The maniacal drive who either shouted at you or ignored you when you inquired about a bathroom break was driving probably 85 through the night.

The conditions made sleep near impossible. Thankfully traveling involves other people and a group of young British guys helped keep us sane with their humor and commiserating. Though the locals gave us dirty looks for talking.

Though the bus ride sucked mightily we were rewarded by glimpses of the countryside at dawn. Fisherman in traditional boats slinging their nets out over the water, their conical hats lit up by the coming sun.

We did arrive, safely, with full bladders, in Hue and disembarked into the sunshine, glad to be off the bus. We already have booked train tickets for the 12 hour ride  from Hoi An to Saigon(Ho Chi Minh City).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ups and Downs in Hanoi

Posted by Fiz

Traveling presents us with the best and worst of people and places. It challenges us as well as caresses us with different experiences. Hanoi is no exception and in one day I went from nearly getting in a fight, to receiving applause. Here are two stories that show the ups and downs of my time in Hanoi.

Down: Taxi Touts

After visiting the One Pillar Pagoda, which was a royal hassle to find, we decided it would be a good idea to get a ride from a scooter taxi. It probably would have been but we made a crucial error. We simply told the driver where we wanted to go, and hopped on. We realized this moments too late, and when I asked how much, I was conveniently ignored.

After we had been on the scooter less than 5 minutes and successfully, although narrowly, run 3 of the 4 red lights we arrived at our destination, the temple of Literature, we asked once again how much.

Our driver said 500 (at this point I was thinking 500 dong (yes the Vietnamese currency is called dong) which would have been totally reasonable, considering everything else is in the tens of thousands), but no he meant 500k which is about $25.

Kathleen and I both cried “What?” in unison. And he immediately dropped his price to 200k. We looked at each other in shock and awe because a 15 minute metered taxi ride from the hotel to the One Pillar Pagoda was 40k.

After arguing for significantly longer than the ride itself took, and a very intense and intimidating stare down on both our parts, we had managed to drop the price to 50k. I was ready to give the guy 40k just to prove a point, but when I went to give him the money, I accidentally flashed him all the money in my wallet, which for the reasons stated below was outright stupid. Our second mistake.
Keeping small notes in your wallet is a bad idea because:
a) People are much harder to haggle with if they can see how loaded you are, and
b) There is a nasty demographic in SE Asia that likes to run off with wallets when seen on the street specifically in Cambodia.

A couple of minutes later I acquiesced to his request and counted out 50k in smaller notes. And here is where I, specifically, made the third mistake. I accidentally handed him a 100k note instead of a 10k note. ‘How on earth could one mistake these two notes for one another?’ You might ask. Well for starters they are the same shade of green and look exactly the same except for three very minor differences:

a) Ho Chi Minh’s face on the 10k is pink, and on the 100k is the same shade of green.
b) The 100k note has an extra 0 (obviously), and
c) The back of the bill is different as well, but still the same color.

So instead of giving the guy 50k, I handed him a whopping 140k. And once again, I realize my error a moment too late. He had his hands on the bills, and didn’t let go when I tried to pull back. This went on for long enough for me to consider hitting/shoving/outright starting a fight with him, and decide that it would be a bad idea due to the helmet on his head that would knock me out cold if he decided to hit me with it. Fortunately when I gave up and let go he threw the smaller bills at me and walked away.

Noting that we had already gained ourselves an audience I decided to let it slide and not push him for the change he by rights owed me. That and he gave me a look that said I would knife you if it were 11pm. Looking back on it that would have been the perfect time to pursue the matter, because everybody watching was a foreigner under 40.

The lessons to be learned:

A. Settle on a price before getting in any form of transportation, or at least check that it is metered, you will get ripped off beyond words if you don’t.
B. Don’t allow yourself to get talked into going anywhere other than the decided destination. It is uncomfortable, and can be shady, especially if you have never heard of the place before.
C. Spend a good chunk of time in the privacy of your room getting to know the local currency, and organizing where you will keep your small change, the bulk of your daily spending money, and your backup stash. Do this as soon as you can and frequently until you’re comfortable with it, it will minimize the chance of you getting taken advantage of due to ignorance.
D. When haggling, the best method of lowering prices is to refuse to pay and just walk away, you will almost always hear a significantly lower number shouted at your back.
E. And finally, IF you feel unsafe for any reason, pay up, its not worth getting in a tussle for a few bucks, literally, in our case it was a matter of $2.50.

Up: Concert for Ms. Moon

 My Sitar survived the flight! Although it was clear she didn’t appreciate it one bit. Unfortunately the only other option for an instrument of her size is to purchase a plane ticket for it plop her in the seat next to you and buckle ‘er in.

At any rate as soon as we walked into Hanoi Guesthouse she got tons of attention, I was getting asked nonstop question about her, mostly what she was, what she looked like, and what she sounded like. Ms. Hang, an attractive young woman who worked the afternoon and evening shift behind the front desk whose name means moon, was by far the most interested and openly inquisitive. The room we were in was on the smaller side so I offered to play for her and the staff, and man did everyone on duty perk up, it was really quite sweet.

So Friday night after dinner I grabbed her down from our room and went about tuning her up.

It was about then that a string snapped before it was even up to tension and I realized just how unhappy my sitar was about getting flown across the world, and the climate change. (Note to self, give your baby some time to get used to the new environment.) Fortunately for me, the string that broke was the third string, a drone string, that isn’t unnecessary but isn’t crucial to playing.

Once my sitar was tuned up and, well, up to temperature I played for them for about an hour, which was well received, we even got a small applause. I had to turn down a request to buy me a beer more than once, which was followed by a request to make me a coffee or Lipton tea. Although it was passed 10:00 I accepted the Tea, because to refuse such an offer is just not done. So Lipton tea it was for me, with globs of condensed milk added to ‘cut the caffeine’. The young man who worked the graveyard shift, Mr. Hai, was so full of questions it was more than a little challenging to keep up.

To wrap up the night I must have walked around the block a dozen and a half times, ‘cus when I returned to the guesthouse feeling not quite tired yet a solid hour and half had passed.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Basket Case

A woman pauses with her Le thung ( basket and pole)
By: Kathleen Broadhurst

Today was a scorcher, the type of day you do anything you can to find a piece of shade. Looking for some cool we headed out of the Old Quarter to the Museum of Ethnography.

One temporary exhibit in particular caught my eye, it was about the life of a pole-and basket (Le thung)recycling women. These women, and they are all women, carry two baskets balanced on a long pole over their shoulder.

The recyclers, as the museum called them spend 10 hour days buying and selling scraps of metal, pieces of plastic and other rubbish that they either buy from others or collect off of the streets.

The life of these women is hard, working long hours in the heat they return home to a dorm that houses on average, 13 other recyclers. The space where they sleep, eat, wash and cook is about 30 square meters. That’s less than 3 square meters per person. In other words, not a lot of room.

Often these women have no medical access and little free time. The reward, for all their hard work is between 2-5 million dong (100-250$) a month. This money they then use to supplement their families income. The exhibit lets you pick up a pole and try it on. It heavier than it looks. That’s only with recycling in it, not metal scraps.

There are others on the street too, not just those who recycle, but women ( and some men too) selling fruit and other wares.  I can only imagine how heavy two baskets of bananas are. I left with a whole new appreciation for the women who I dodge on the street.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Glimpses of Hanoi

Here are some of the first glimpses of Hanoi, all photos by Kathleen Broadhurst.
Offering at the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake
Afternoon Monsoon
Fiz in a tree over the Hoan Kiem Lake
Hanoi traffic is an experiment in spacial relations.

Life in the Monsoon Lane

Posted by Fiz

So we lied in the last post, you can get on Facebook in Vietnam... it's just that 'facebook.com' doesn't get you there.  I'm not actually sure how to get it up as a page, it was up on the computer I sat down at lol. Perhaps there is a government re-direct here.

Anywho, pertaining to the title of the post, I got to watch people walk through an inch of rainwater in the streets today (It couldn't have been raining more than 30 minutes) for the first time ever. I can now say I have been in a monsoon! and man is 'raining' an understatement, it should be called 'sky-falling-so-hard-even-old-ladies-are-run-ing'.

I kid you not, businesses had to turn on their electric signs to be seen from the street. Water was coming down in sheets. It was interesting though, because before it started to come down, an old shop keeper came out side and cleaned the drain in front on his shop,  as soon as he finished unclogging the grate the first drops of rain hit.

As the rain started getting heavier people stopped what they were doing for a second and pulled ponchos out of seemingly nowhere and continued what ever it was they were doing. The pace of everything, picked up dramatically, but it seemed that the only people who hid from the world was the two of us, and every other foreigner around.

When the rain stopped, 30 min after it started, an old lady, came outside of her shop and took advantage of the inch of rainwater by cleaning the sidewalk in front of her shop. 

Not being so fond of getting drenched, it will be interesting to see how I take advantage of the regular rain...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hiding From The Rain

Posted by Fiz

We have been in Vietnam a grand total of thirteen hours, as I'm writing this, and I already feel ill-ish. Though I think that is due to the shot of super echinacea  plus or whatever the hell it's called. I also had some osha root in the same mouthful... For those of you unfamiliar with these two tinctures, they are vial and horrid, especially on an empty stomach. But they work. I had this dry cough a couple of days before we left, then on the long ass plane ride from JFK to shanghai the seat in front of us was occupied by a grandmother and her granddaughter who was had this deep super wet cough and was clearly sick. I woke up this morning and i was starting to sound something like her. The plane also looked like it was bought used from Indian air

Upon arrival at our quaint guesthouse we tried to log in to Facebook Vietnam and found it is mostly old US political figures... like Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln.
totally random...
In the time it took me to type this post it went from raining harder than it has this year back home in ma to not raining at all.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On A Jet Plane

We were flying low over the rice patties of Hanoi. The air was warm and the sound of the chopper... woke me from my sleep. It was then I realized that I was actually on an airplane, not a chopper and there were no rice paties to be seen, literally, it was pitch dark below us. Only small little lights glimmered here and there to remind us there was ground below.

We are officially in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. Can't say yet what's it's like as it's been a grand total of two hours and it is 2:30 AM here. What I can tell you is this is a city that sleeps. Not much of nightlife on a Wednesday from what we can gather, and no Facebook access :(

The flights were thankfully uneventful, long, but otherwise fine. We both slept through most of the first(14 and a half hour) leg. I don't think I could recomend China Eastern, the food is terrible and they don't have those nifty personal entertainment systems that let you watch old re-runs of House for hours. But everyone was pleasant.

Glad to be on the road again, the scent of Tropical Asia is heavy in the air. Its an aroma that I love dearly, cigarettes, concrete and the musky odor of palm trees, humidity and sweat. It reaks of paradise.

To sleep now so we can go out tomorrow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Move Begins

It really feels like we are moving now. I wake up in the mooring full of nervous energy and have to spend the rest of the day running around doing things in order to get it all out. They design it that way I think.

Almost everything is packed, we are renting a truck tomorrow. Everything for the trip is in a huge pile at the end of the bed waiting to see if it will fit in our bags. There's still some small things to get before we leave. Like a lens cap for my camera and travel insurance, you know little things.

I always get travel amnesia when I get back from a trip so by the time I go to leave again I am surprised at how much effort and work it takes to get  trip off the ground. The sheer paperwork alone is overwhelming. Copies of passports, getting visas, permissions, copies of important documents and print outs of room reservations. I have multi colored folders just begging to be labeled.

At this point I consider planing a long term-independent trip like this one to be about as much work as planning a wedding. Sure some things are easier, nobody is trying to influence what clothes I bring, but the paperwork! Canceling subscriptions and making doctor's appointments ( we've each had three in the last three weeks), buying the annoying things that you need for travel but will never use again, like pack-covers, is just as time consuming.

I have to remember its a labor of love. Truth be told there's a always this wall that we hit where we just want to leave, "the tension is building, lets go!" and I have defiantly hit that wall.

Looking forward to Hanoi, mainly because I will be able to say things like " When I was in 'nam"  at inappropriate times. I should probably go buy that health insurance now.