Archive for September, 2004

trivia question for the whole family

Question: what is in my mouth right now?

Answer: A bagel, motherfuckers. And it is the best bagel ever, by virtue of being the one that’s in my mouth right now.

Yes, we’re back. Touched down at JFK around noonish, and breezed through customs without so much as a raised eyebrow. (Damn, shoulda tried to smuggle some mangosteens in.)

I am now happily sitting on my couch and catching up on about a million years of internet stuff, and enjoying (if that’s the word) the head-swimmy sensation of 13 hours of jet lag filtered through 22 noncontiguous hours in coach class. Holy god am I looking forward to not taking any form of transit any more complex than the A train any further than 42nd Street for a few days.

Last trip stories once I can focus a little bit.

sic transit transit (a final thought before the final thoughts)

Well, the hour grows late and here I am in Hanoi, taking one last surreptitious internet break before packing the last of the clothes and taking the cab to the airport. I have been an embarrassingly lazy sod as far as the writing is concerned; I’ll just have to write up Hue and Hanoi once I get back to the states tomorrow.

In the meantime, a final anecdote:

Last night, Miranda and I decided to go slightly upscale for our Last Dinner In Viet Nam: a popular Hanoi place called Opera that does fancy-schmanzy Viet food for the local nouvelle riche and the international crowd.

Dinner was fab (food porn blogging re that later), but somewhat unfortunatly, we were seated next to a table of four NGO workers who were having a long, animated and somewhat loud discussion about… the American presidential election.

I travel halfway across the world, and still George W. Bush can find a way to nearly ruin my dinner.

The subject had, of course, come up a fwe times before in some of our conversations with (mostly Australian) other tourists here, but for the most part I’d been able to gently (and sometimes not) move the chatter on to other topics. Let met tell you: two straight weeks of not thinking about American politics has been beyond a relief: it’s been like having an extra hundred pounds I never realized I was carrying suddenly liposuctioned out. Listening to our neighbors at the restaurant, I could feel the weight starting to settle back over my shoulders.

It got me thinking a bit about the last two weeks. What I miss, and what I don’t.

I miss New York City. I miss my family and my friends. I miss (hey babe). I miss bagels. I miss sushi that I’m not too scared to eat.

But I don’t miss America at all.

And that’s a nearly unbearably sad thought.

Oh well, nothing for it. Time to go home, for whatever value of home is on offer.

Cue travelling music:

125 MPH
(Sullivan/Heaton/Harris) 1987

I’m heading north, I’m heading home doing a hundred and twenty-five
I close my eyes and count to ten — Ha ha, I’m still alive
Perfect, perfect tunnel vision, razor sharp and racing, racing
These moments, immortal,
No one touches this

These things they flow as blood must flow
Dust to dust and wind must blow
Nothing that I need to know or ever understand
These things they flow as blood must flow
Dust to dust and wind must blow
You can die before you get old
But me, I’m going to live forever

The music plays, the party swings, the gaiety walls come closing in
I catch your eye, you take my hand — out into the night we run
Dancing down those dead-end streets — howling at the moon like little kids
Out on the grass at the top of the hill, your breath tastes sweet …

These things they flow as blood must flow
Dust to dust and wind must blow
Nothing that I need to know or ever understand
These things they flow as blood must flow
Dust to dust and wind must blow
You can die before you get old
But me, I’m going to live forever

And if I say I hate this place, don’t take it as personal
And just because I want to kill somebody doesn’t mean to say that I will
And I don’t think that that makes me crazy and anyway I’m way past caring
There’s a ride leaves out of here at nine. What do you say? What do you say?

Tonight we’ll flow as blood must flow
Dust to dust and wind must blow
Nothing that I need to know or ever understand
These things they flow as blood must flow
Dust to dust and wind must blow
You can die before you get old
But me, I’m going to live forever.

interlude the second: up up up up up

There is a section of Viet Nam’s Highway 1 which is immaculately paved. It has marked no-passing zones that people actually obey. Drivers take this road at a steady, even appropriate pace, and there are very very few mopeds on it, and no cyclos.

And yet, it is still terrifying.

Because, of course, it is the High Van Pass: a 30-km long stretch of highway that switches back and forth as it goes up the Ai Van Mountain Range, which divides Viet Nam neatly at the center. The views from a bus window are amazing: deep chasms and falling streams. They are also terrifying: the road has no shoulder, the mountain drops off instantly past the flimsy lane barrier, and despite the relative lack of traffic, there are still dozens of moments where three or more busses are all contending for the same spot at the same time, usually in order to pass around another bus that has broken down at the side of the road, with the driver and mechanic staring sadly at the drivetrain that they have removed from the bus in a bit of impromptou roadside maintenence.

At every instant, you are one bad sneeze on the driver’s part away from a spectacularly messy death, so it’s a good thing the views are so nice.

At the top, all the busses stop for a short break at a rest area that features breathtaking views, passable toilets, and the most persistant postcard hawkers in all of Viet Nam, which is quite saying something.

Then you get to do the whole thing again, but going downhill, and therefore faster.

Every time I think I’ve gotten used to the traffic here, they figure out another way to scare me. It’s kinda cool.

a close to cuteness: Hoi An pt 3

Our third and last day in Hoi An began early with a mercifully spider-free shower, and then a dash out to find a bahn mi: the ubiquitous roadside sandwich in Viet Nam. The first likely-looking stall we found was serving bahn with chicken, fish sauce, veggies, chilis and some sort of bbq sauce: we ordered two and munched them happily as we headed out toward the morning’s destination: Chuc Thanh, Hoi An’s oldest pagoda, which is a few km outside of the town proper, down what the Lonely Planet guide described (roughly paraphrased) as “the sandy path past the end of Doung Le Loi.”

Of course I got the directions completely wrong, and we ended up spending a good hour wandering around completely lost in Hoi An’s rural residential section, much to the amusement of all of the locals. (Why Miranda ever consents to let me navigate anywhere is some kind of testament to the triumph of optimism over experience.) Eventually we realized that we had been supposed to take a left at the end of Le Loi before getting onto the sandy path, so we backtracked to the town’s outskirts and got ourselves headed in the right direction.

On our way there, we were joined by two 16-year-old boys sharing a bicycle, who spoke a little English, and spent the time chatting us up with the usual questions: where did we come from, how long were we in vietnam, were we married, did we have kids, did we like vietnam, etc etc etc. They guided us to the pagoda, which was a weatherbeaten but still impressive affair, tucked away in the semi-jungle, with a very few sleepy monks and attendants still patrolling the grounds.

The boys stayed with us as we walked back, and sadly their purpose became clear at the end: once we reached the town, they declared that they were “very thirsty” and demanded that we buy them drinks at a nearby cafe. Their previously expansive English vocabulary dwindled to repetitions of “very thirsty now” and “just one minute” as Miranda extricated us from the situation (I was wavering: it was hot, and I had appreciated their company) — apparently this is an all-too-common scam all across Asia, and the unwary westerner who falls into it will find him or herself presented with a massive bill for the drinks (and often soundly thumped if they try to refuse payment). We left to what was presumably a torrent of abuse in Vietnamese from the boys, and trudged back into town. It was a little thing, really, but it cast a bit of a pall over the next few days, as all of the touts and hawkers started seeming a lot less harmless and a lot more irritating.

On the bright side, our last mission in Hoi An was to pick up our clothes at Ms. Lan’s. As usual, the service was impeccable: this clothes that had needed alterations were ready for us to try on, and everything else was being packed. Ms. Lan decided to do a few last-minute alterations to Miranda’s dress, but everything else was perfect. Realizing that we’d bought a rather heavy load of stuff, we inquired about getting it all shipped to the states, but it was basically a nonstarter: air shipping would have cost over $250, and surface shipping would have taken over three months! Luckily, Ms. Lan had a solution: for $7, she could have the clothes shipped to our hotel in Ha Noi, 7 days hence, so we would just have to deal with schlepping them to the airport — we were more than happy to agree.

After an extended series of goodbyes, we grabbed about a dozen of her business cards to distribute at home, and went back to our hotel to wait for the bus to Hue.

On the way back, we stopped for one last bit of street food: Banh Xeo, Hoi An Pancakes, which are basically a rice-flour batter pancake made with beansprouts, rolled up into a sheet of ricepaper with cilantro like a spring roll, and eaten dipped into peanut or chili sauces. The stall was one of those ones that took a bit of aggressive suspension of disbelief about the sanitary conditions (the chopsticks were “cleaned” by wiping them off with a rag that had obviously been in use for a very, very long time, and there were rather a lot more flies around than I might have preferred), but the pancakes were straight out of the frying pan, very hot, and very good. We ate about a dozen and headed back to the hotel to sit in a kind of stupefied silence while waiting for the bus to Hue.

death by cuteness: Hoi An pt. 2

Our second day in Hoi An started with me carefully poking my head into the bathroom to check on Boris. He was no longer hanging out on the wall where he had been, so I slipped the rest of the way in and made an inspection: no spider to be found anyway. Hopeful that he had slipped back out to wherever he had come from, I showered and shaved, and then surrendered the bathroom to Miranda.

No sooner had I walked over to be bed to begin dressing then there was a bloodcurdling shriek followed by a high-velocity Miranda escape from the bathroom. Apparently, while we were sleeping, Boris had taken up residence behind the towel rack. Specifically, behind Miranda’s towel, and when she had lifted up the towel, she had discovered a very large and disgruntled spider quickly scuttling its way up the way away from her.

Hm, so far this narrative contains a lot of Miranda screaming at the spider and me getting to be calm and collected about it. For the record, if Boris had been hiding behind my towel, I would have had to be removed from the ceiling with a spatula and then defibrillated.

We ventured back into the bathroom to find that Boris had scooted up the wall to the corner of the ceiling, and figuring that it was a good sign that he was running away from us when disturbed, Miranda took a very careful shower, and we then headed out toward the day’s first adventure, a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School.

Miranda already covered that one in detail in her journal, and I am days behind in this narrative as it is, so I will limit my commentary on the class to this:

A. It’s kinda difficult to cut vegetable flowers with what is, essentially, a slightly sharper butter knife. But we managed.

B. Phear my 31337 rice-paper making skillz.
After the cooking portion of the class was over, we relaxed on the restaurant’s veranda while attempting (with modest success) to actually eat the enormous amount of food we’d cooked, and fell in with chatting with our fellow students, who were almost universally from Australia: apparently in the aftermath of the Bali bombings, Viet Nam has become the new almost default location for Ozzies looking for an affordable vacation somewhere. One of our companions, a police officer from Perth, had already been to Viet Nam twice already this year: he opined that in 3 years Hoi An would be indistinguishable from Kuta, a prediction that was to haunt me for the next several days…

After being boated back to Hoi An (and passing a fishing vessel that was obliging enough to stage a few net-casting shots for the shutterbugs in the crowd… which would, um, include me), we spent the rest of the afternoon poking around Hoi An’s “ancient town”: the preserved downtown area that is all restored 400-year-old trading houses.

Hoi An’s downtown is essentially one big museum, and it works on a somewhat convoluted ticketing system: at one of a number of spots around town, you can buy a daily ticket, which entitles you to go to one pagoda (out of three), one congregation hall (out of four), one historical house (out of three), one museum (out of two) and one live performance (out of two). Since pagodas and assembly halls do tend to be somewhat similar, I suppose for normal humans this is a perfectly reasonable system: mutants like me, who could happily spend the next lifetime taking photos of roof details on pagods, find it a bit limiting.

In any case, we browsed through the Fujian Chinese Assembly Hall, and then the Covered Japanese Bridge, which was in fact a stunningly picturesque footbridge, with a tiny Buddhist temple built into the side, built by the local Japanese trading population before the Shogun closed Japan and ordered them all home. This was followed by the ceramics museum, which showcased fragments found in Hoi An’s archeological digs dating from as far back as the 1400s and from as far away as Portugal.

Then, the Tan Ky house, a Chinese merchant family’s home that has been in the possession of the same family for now 7 generations: the current owner is 92! (But didn’t look a day over 1,200.) 92 years in Viet Nam is an almost unimaginable (for an American, at least) amount of history for a single human being to live through: I felt kinda happy that he had lived to see his country recover a measure of peace and prosperity — for a great deal of his life, that must have seemed like an unattainable goal.

With an afternoon of touristing pretty well exhausted, we first went briefly back to the hotel to drop our bags and change our rather sweaty clothes, and then headed back to Ms. Lan’s (with, really, an unseeming amount of enthusiasm) to try on our clothes. We walked into her shop to be asked: hadn’t we gotten her message? We both blinked emptily at her: apparently, it came out, our clothes had been ready for fitting at 10am, and she’d called our hotel to try to get the front desk to inform us. Nope, no one at the hotel had told us either in the morning or afternoon: Ms. Lan clucked at this in a manner that was either expressing exaperated dismay at the hotel’s lackidasical manner, or indicating that the entire hotel staff was soon to wake up at the bottom of the river… it was a little hard to be sure. (If it turns out to be the latter, um, well, I apologize to everyone concerned, but holy god what were you thinking not obeying any request this woman made of you to the letter?)

In any case, what followed was a near-orgy of consumerism. Uncle Ho would not have been amused. But oh my god was it fun. Fun and, really, really hot. I’d gone kinda overboard on the dark wool suit tip: a double-breasted black herringbone suit might sound like a great idea when you’re looking at a picture of it in a magazine, but it’s another matter altogether when you have to struggle into it in a shop that while, by Vietnamese standards, is certainly cool and breezy, is still not at all air-conditioned. By the time I’d tried all of my clothes on and gotten them all marked for their alterations, I was near fainting: Ms. Lan had one of her assistants fetch me a can of beer without any prompting, and I have never been so glad for a lager in my life.

(I know, I know. Your hearts bleed for my trials and tribulations here.)

Once the last chalk mark had been made, we stumbled out into the now-dark night in search of food. Figuring that we’d done enough business with the local tourist restaurants, we hunted down the side streets in search of vendor food. After a little walking, we found a woman serving com ga — chicken rice. We sat down on her tiny, tiny stools and were both handed big plates full of rice cooked in chicken broth, topped with braised chicken meat, assorted herbs (cilanto; mint; a few unrecognizable ones), and bean sprouts. It was really, really good, and I think it cost about 6,000 dong each. I got a second helping, and we went through about three glasses of green tea.

We stumbled home to the hotel to find that (a) Boris had taken up residence in a most unwelcome place: just behind the toilet; and (b) there appeared to be a leak from the ceiling, dripping water onto the sink and floor. Now, we both try to be relatively low-maintence hotel guests, but a water leak seemed like the kind of thing the hotel would probably want to know about, so I ambled down to the front desk and tried to explain things. This was predictably not entirely successful, but they got the idea that something was wrong, and dispatched the hotel handyman to follow me back to the room. I pointed the leak out to him, and he scratched his beard a bit, squinted at the ceiling, and eventually just shrugged his shoulders at me and made an “eh” noise. Oh well, their problem. Figuring that while he was there I might as well at least ask about the Boris issue, I pointed down at the spider, who was still happily hanging out behind the toilet. The handyman giggled a bit to himself, bent down, flattened his hand and: whap. R.I.P. Boris. He then proceeded to show me the flattened spider on his palm, still giggling, and I was incredibly happy that the one light in the bathroom was very, very dim. Still cackling, presumably at us lily-livered americans, he left, and we retired.

the process

You get used to it all.

You eat your meals on a stool 4 inches off the ground, as motorbikes zoom past a hairsbreadth from your back.

You sweat through every item of clothing you have, and don’t care.

You reflexively counteroffer at a quarter of every offered price, and smile as you get argued up to a half (which is still a 200% profit).

You stop noticing the noise.

You get the tones right when ordering coffee. Occasionally.

You dodge from sidewalk to street to shopfront and back, to avoid scooters or walk in the shade.

You eat noodles for breakfast. And love it.

You get really good at blowing off touts and hawkers.

You realize just how much you were overcharged for water when you first got here.

You love every minute of it.

And then, of course, you have to leave.

(On the other hand, I could murder a bagel and lox.)

and by the way…

Mazel Tov and Congratufuckinglations to and on the birth of their son!

death by cuteness: three days in Hoi An (pt 1)

Before we return to our story, another pointless digression!

Things for which I should have my head examined for packing for a trip to southeast asia:

  • Shoes and Socks

    I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. Between the brutal, unrelenting heat and the tendency toward sudden, sidewalk-street-and-storefront-flooding downpours, I haven’t worn anything but my tevas since I touched down in Saigon, and having already had what will probably be my fanciest meal here, am unlikely to wear anything else the rest of the time.

  • Both of my cell phones.

    I swear to god this made some sort of sense in my head at the time. I wanted to have my normal (Verizon/CDMA) cell phone with me on the last day in the states in case Miranda called, and I had this plan that I’d take my old (GSM/triband) cell phone with me here and buy a local SIM chip for it, and somewhere I’d heard rumors that Viet Nam had a CDMA network of its own… Yeah right. Dead weight theft-bait in my backpack, the whole time. I plead insanity. (Interestingly, VN does have a CDMA network in addition to the normal GSM one, but either Verizon has no roaming agreement with them or — more likely, given the willfully stupid nature of the US cell service market — they’re CDMA on an incompatible frequency.

Things which I wish to god I’d brought:

  • An ultralight laptop.

    This may also count as total insanity, but god would it be nice. It’s not that Viet Nam is short of internet cafes — quite the opposite in fact — but despite the fact that I bought a spiralbound notebook and a waterproof pen for the trip, I’ve found it almost impossible to take notes on the road for writing, and so by the time (often days later) when the gods of logistics, travellers’ stomach and jet lag have deigned to allow me some uninterrupted writing time at a computer, I’ve already forgotten half of the names of the places I’ve been, or food I’ve ordered, or interesting anecdotes I meant to relate. A laptop small (and light) enough to fit in my backpack during the day so that I could just type out my notes in the room before going to sleep would be just the best thing ever. Maybe I’ll start crusing ebay for old toshiba librettos or something.

  • Another 2 (or 5… or 10…) compactflash cards
    I’ve, um, filled up two gigabyte CF cards already, and we haven’t even hit the royal tombs outside Hue yet, much less Hanoi.

    Luckily, while CF cards for sale in Viet Nam are incredibly rare and viciously overpriced when they are, a number of enterprising souls here have hit on a very useful solution: “digital developing.” Basically, you walk into just about any random photo processing place and hand them your memory card, possibly put down a small deposit, and come back an hour or so later to find your pictures all burned to CDs for you. It’s a little nerve-wracking for a control freak like myself (what?! if?! they?! break?! something?!!!! yes I’m an idiot), but it beats shelling out $60 for a 256mb CF card, or finding oneself out of space 2/3 into the trip.

But boy, do I ever digress.

The train from Saigon pulled into Da Nang at about 1 in the afternoon, and we stepped out of the car, walked through the station, and into a literal wall of taxi drivers, all in identical green and white uniforms, all clamoring for our attention. We were, I think, about 2 seconds from being trampled to death by their helpfulness when Miranda noticed that standing to the side was a man holding a welcome sign for a Mr. Vinh…from the hotel where we were staying at. Figuring there was a chance we could cadge a lift from them, we made our way through the taxi drivers, introduced ourselves and explained that we were staying at their hotel, at which point they quickly guided us through the crowed and over to their waiting minibus, and immediately took off toward Hoi An…

…without Mr. Vinh, which prompted some worried inquiries from us. In response, we got a somewhat convoluted tale which, modulo fractured English (and, in fairness, no Vietnamese on our part to supplement), seemed to indicate that Mr. Vinh’s schedule had changed at the last minute and that the hotel had drivers waiting for him at both the train station and airport, and that this driver believed Mr. Vinh was probably coming by air. This seemed a little odd, and the oddness was compounded by the greeter then asking to see — and then keeping — our train tickets. The whole thing seemed a little dodgy, and we’re certain that they pocketed our fare directly, but they charged us the going rate for the trip ($10), and if there’s some involved tax scam in Viet Nam involving foreigners’ train receipts, I guess it’s not my problem.

The drive itself was about as uneventful as any drive in Vietnam is (central VN being nowhere near as densely populous as Saigon) except that — and I want to stress here that I am not making this up — our driver had Tourette’s syndrome, or some other related palsy. We noticed it at first when his cell phone rang and before picking up the call he rapidly snapped his neck left and right as if to stretch it, but then after the call was over he repeated the same motion dozens of more times over the trip, generally not even breaking his conversation with the greeter to do it. This was a little nerve-wracking at first, but the tic never seemed to involved his lower arms or hands that we could see, and in general he wasn’t any worse a driver than anyone else in Viet Nam — take that as you will.

We arrived in Hoi An in about an hour, and piled into our hotel, a very new (almost gleamingly so) and very cute three-story affair called the Phouc An (“…Garth” added my internal voice, instantly), built to somewhat resemble an old Chinese trading house, with tiled floors and dark carved wooden beams and ceiling supports everywhere. After dumping our bags, we set out on our first mission in Hoi An: to find a tailor.

A word or two about Hoi An:

Hoi An has been a trading town for longer (much, much longer) than the US has been a country. Situated about midway up Viet Nam’s east coast, with a wide river dock and generally pleasent weather (assuming your definition of pleasent expands to “punishingly hot” from time to time), Hoi An was the site of several full-time trade delegations from Japan, China, and as far away as France and Muslim Spain, from as far back as the 1400s at least. The various (primarily Chinese) resident delegations were allowed to build the community halls which are now among the town’s core tourist attractions, and a quirk of the Imperial tax laws (wherein houses were taxed on width more than height or depth) caused the streets to be lined with narrow, long merchant houses. Miraculously, Hoi An was spared any significant bombing during both the French and American wars, and just as miraculously, the early Communist regime didn’t raze the place to the ground to build cinderblock factories. As a result, shortly after Viet Nam’s re-opening to private enterprise, Hoi An became VN’s first UNESCO world heritage site, and money flooded in to restore the buildings that needed it, followed shortly after by a flood of tourists.

Because Hoi An is cute. Really, really cute. Hoi An is the central charm reservoir of a country that tends toward charming in most places to begin with. The trading sailors of old are long gone, but the houses are now filled with enterprising tailors, woodworkers, marbleworkers and restaurant upon restaurant. The buildings are a snapshot of a bygone era, and most amazing of all: cars and trucks are banned from the streets. There are still cyclos, scooters and bicycles aplenty, but more than any other place in Viet Nam, it’s possible to cross the street without fearing for one’s life.

(And none of the above is even close to the cutest thing in Hoi An, but we’ll get to that.)

Besides its obvious charms, the other thing that Hoi An is famous for is its local tailoring industry: much as in Thailand, dozens and dozens of local entrepreneurs (some far more shady than others) have shops that promise to, in hours or days, whip up custom-tailored clothes of any description, including duplicates of anything you can produce a reasonable picture of, for a fraction of the cost of such a thing anywhere in the west.

(In response to the obvious questions: what we saw of the general working conditions appeared to be comfortable, and I’m inclined to think that spending the money directly on the labor and materials in SE Asia is probably far less exploitative than buying off-the-rack in the US, which is also assembled in the far east, but in what I believe are substantially poorer conditions and certainly poorer wages.)

Both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide had made prominent mention of Hoi An’s tailor shops, but hadn’t given much of a guide to which one to pick, and there are probably close to 200 scattered over the town. Luckily, a bit of googling turned up this web page, which contained detailed customer reports along with (indispensibly) pictures of the assorted tailors. Based on the reports, we picked Le Thi Bich Lan at 23 Tran Phu Street. Making our way there involved passing some rather persistant touts for the other shops (including one woman who followed us on a bicycle for several blocks), but we eventually made it there, and her shop was a wonder: a restored old Chinese merchant house with a ceramics shop up front, an open courtyard in the middle, and then the shady, comfortable tailor shop in back, surrounded by elegant mahogany shelves full of fabric of every description. Usefully, we arrived just as an Australian family was there picking up their clothes for final fittings, and what we saw on them looked fantastic.

Mrs. Lan was a consummate professional (and indeed, appeared to be a bit of a local operator: locals would occasionally dash into the shop to ask her some question which she dealt with quickly and efficiently: the overall impression was a bit like Martha Stuart crossed with Maggie Cheung, and I don’t doubt that anyone foolish enough to get on her bad side would quickly come to regret it deeply), and had obviously figured out how to deal comfortably with wide-eyed westerners: she answered all of our questions, promised nothing she couldn’t deliver, made helpful suggestions, and quoted fair and firm prices. Miranda and I had both brought some pictures of outfits culled from assorted fashion magazines to work from, and Mrs. Lan also provided us with several sample books to look at. After narrowing down our choices and selecting fabrics for each one out of her extensive stores, we were measured in about a dozen dimension each, and then sent along our way with instructions to come again at 4pm tomorrow.

We’d made brief chatter with the Australian family while they were in the shop, and they’d recommended in the strongest possible terms that we try a restaurant called “Mermaid.” Not having any other destination particularly in mind, we looked it up in the guidebook and found that it was just a few blocks from the shop. (Of course, Hoi An being no more than a mile square, pretty much everything was a few blocks from everywhere else.) We made our way there and had a staggeringly good meal primarily featuring a local delicacy called “white rose” or hoanh thanh: tiny rice-flour-dough dumplings filled with shrimp and garlic, served in a piquant fish sauce. I recall that I liked my entree, but damned if I can remember what it was versus the hoahn thanh.

Full but a little tired, we made our way slowly back to the hotel, only to be nearly killed by cuteness. See, we’d sort of noticed that we were approaching the Mid-Autumn Festival on the calendar, but other than the vast number of roadside stands selling mooncakes, we’d not really known what to expect as a result of this. Well, it turns out that the Mid-Autumn Festival functions like a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween for children in Viet Nam: on the night of the holiday, troups of kids aged between (we gathered) 7 and infant patrol the streets doing Chinese-style dragon dances, for which they are given small amounts of money by appreciative elders. (This understanding of the festival’s function gleaned from a terse mention in Lonely Planet and a somewhat fractured conversation with a hotel clerk; corrections not only accepted but actively solicited.)

Now, dragon dance performances are a little more involved than just dressing up in a sheet for a Halloween costume: you need to practice. Which means, apparently, that in the nights leading up to the festival, the streets are filled with juvenile dragon dance troups practicing their routines, and hordes of their friends, cheering them on. And it was just this that we ran into on the way back to the hotel: a troup of five children (three in the dragon, one drummer and one masked man that the dragon interacted with) surrounded by dozens of yelling and laughing schoolchildren, all under the dim streetlights of Hoi An, marching down the street with the drummer being pulled along in a wheelbarrow.

Cute? You don’t know the meaning of the word. We followed them, enchanted, for about five blocks before they took a break and the crowd dispersed. And wandered back to the hotel, grinning uncontrollably.

A few slightly less cute moments followed once we got back to our room. The packet of rice crackers that we’d stupidly left sitting on the desk had already attracted visitors: Miranda found several tiny roaches rummaging through it, one of which flew away from her as she attempted to swat it. But that was nothing compared to what we were to find in the bathroom: a yipe and a high-velocity exit was to be my first indication that Miranda had made the acquaintence of Boris.

Boris was, of course, our very own Extremely Large Spider. About the size of my palm, with armored forelegs and a quarter-sized body attached to a nickel-sized head, he had taken up residence next to the towel rack.

A hurried consulting of the guidebooks turned up no mention of poisonous spiders in Viet Nam (although the Lonely Planet unhelpfully mentioned that VN was full of as-yet-undiscovered and unclassified species of arthropod), and our careful forays back into the bathroom did not show Boris to be much inclined to move, so we decided to suck it up and share the room with him for the night: we brushed our teeth very deliberately and making no sudden moves, and inched out the door and closed it behind us when we were done.

And thus ended our first day in Hoi An.

interludes and examinations: a night on the rails

Before I get to the train story (which is a short one, really), a brief, extremely geeky digression about internet service in Viet Nam:

At the first internet cafe that Miranda and I used here, we were dumbfounded by the speed of the connection. I had to download an ssh client in order to connect to and check my email, and was expecting this to take (as it did in China in 2000 and in Thailand in 2001) a good five to ten minutes, and then expecting the actual connection to be unbearably slow and to cut out every 30 seconds. Instead, the copy of Putty downloaded in 3 seconds, and my connection to my server, while occasionally a touch laggy, was rock-solid, leaving us wondering if we’d somehow walked into the one cafe in Viet Nam that had somehow managed to buy, bribe or extort their way into a functional T1 circuit.

So imagine our shock when every internet terminal we tried was like that.

The answer to the mystery took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. See, every internet cafe in Viet Nam advertises itself as having “ADSL Connection”, but I barely even noticed this, since every cafe in Thailand had claimed the same thing (or sometimes ISDN), but of course had turned out to be the usual cluster of 6-year-old PCs all sharing the same flaky 56k modem line. It wasn’t until last night at our hotel in Hue that I thought to look behind the computers and found…a Zyxel ADSL modem. Chalk one up for late-adopter syndrome: apparently Viet Nam has managed to leapfrog pretty much the rest of southeast asia and deploy broadband widely enough that you can’t walk down any street in any town of medium-to-large size without tripping over a dozen high-speed internet cafes.

Knock me over with a feather, etc.

Oh, and something I forgot to mention about Cantho. In Cantho we saw, or rather heard, what we think was one of our few glimpses of Stalinist-era Viet Nam: on several street corners downtown, there were loudspeakers attached to the telephone poles, from which strident voices for about half an hour in the evening exclaimed, er, well, something. Actually for all I know they were advertising phone cards and lottery tickets, and I apologize for not having the presence of mind to ask anyone who spoke Vietnamese about it.

Anyway, back along the proper continuity line, Miranda and I had just been dropped off at the train station to take our sleeper train from Saigon to Da Nang (our final destination being Hoi An). Getting onto the train was stupidly easy because, well, there is only one train track in all of Viet Nam: a single line that stretches from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. There being only one track, there was only one train, and it was waiting for us in the station. We identified our car (number 9; number 9; number 9; number 9…), climbed aboard after showing our tickets to the conductor, found our berth (number 6) and opened the door.

The Vietnamese train system, like pretty much all the other ones in Asia that I know of, has four classes of tickets: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. For a long time, foreigners were only allowed to buy soft sleeper tickets (the most expensive by far) — now you’re allowed to buy tickets in steerage if you want to, it’s just a very bad idea. Our berth was spartan but clean: four bunks on either side (with sheets and pillows neatly folded) and a small table in the middle. We stowed our bags and took our places, myself above and Miranda below and across diagonally. We were shortly joined by our companions for the trip: a Vietnamese businessman and a Japanese tourist, neither of whom spoke much English.

Just after we’d all gotten aboard, a speaker in the car started blaring extremely loud Vietnamese easy-listening music: luckily after a few minutes searching we found a button to turn it off, but not before I’d started seriously considering breaking out the leatherman and risking whatever hellish fine or jail sentence might be incurred by snipping the lead wires.

The train departed on time at 11pm, and after a few minutes of watching the cityscape go by, we turned out the overhead lights and went to sleep. Or tried to, in my case: while the bunk was, weirdly, actually substantially more comfortable mattress-wise than several of my hotel beds so far, it was not really built with 6‘1” honkies in mind, and the only way I could stretch out was diagonally across it, with one foot hanging off. Also, this was my first time on a sleeper train in any country, and while many people describe the sensation of sleeping on a train as restful, my hindbrain was having none of it: every time the train would make a particularly large lurch, I’d snap awake convinced that we were derailing.

It was not the most restful of nights. But chalk it up to poor technique on my part: everyone else, Miranda included, slept like the dead.

Finally just as I was managing to drift off a bit more permanently, the berth door slammed open to reveal a train attendant passing out noodle packs for breakfast. I opened my eyes blearily to see that it was bright daylight outside. After stumbling to the restroom at the end of the car, I decided that desperate measures were probably required here, and dug out the complimentary Singapore Airlines blindfold that I’d presciently kept ahold of from the flight over, along with a pair of earplugs, and climbed back into the bunk and threw the sheet over my head. Thus armored, I was able to get five or six hours of actual sleep before we pulled into Da Nang.

Which is, of course, another chapter.

never get off the boat. goddamn right. (mekong delta, pt 3.)

Day five dawned in our hotel in Cantho bright and early. Very, very early. We’d set our travel alarm for 6am, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary, as our room faced the rear of the hotel, which turned out to be the home of the hotel owners’ chicken coop. There appeared to be two roosters in residence there, because starting the instant dawn broke at 5am, they proceeded to engage in what turned out to be a three-hour long call-and-response crowing match.

It was actually a kind of fun way to start the morning, but it didn’t stop us from trying to order coq au vin at the complimentary breakfast that morning. No go, but instead I was served something called (from memory here; probably butchered) banh shu mai, which turned out to be a wonderful french baugette with a pair of simmered pork-and-cilangto meatballs. Tear baugette in half, insert meatball, chow down: delicious.

The bread, in general, everywhere in Viet Nam, is deserving of special mention: there isn’t a roadside stand anywhere, even in the dingiest rest stop on Highway 1, that isn’t selling the ubiquitous banh: roughly foot-long mini-baugettes that are easily 90% as good as anything I ever had in Paris, usually for an amount of money that — even assuming they’re adding in the usual 300% roundeye markup — is so close to free as to make no difference. Apparently while the Vietnamese detested the French colonists, they knew a good thing when they ate it, and were quite happy to keep the bakeries going long after the last beret had been unceremoniously kicked out.

After breakfast and the inevitable iced coffee, our group piled onto the waiting tour bus to be driven to a boat. This one was uncovered, making me extremely grateful for the whiz-bang sunblock (sunblock plus zinc oxide) that I’ve been applying liberally every five minutes here. But the lack of a cover was a good thing, since we were heading into the Cai Be floating market at the market’s peak, which was a sight worth risking a little sunstroke for.

Cai Be isn’t quite as picturesque as the floating markets in Thailand that you see in all the guidebooks, but that didn’t keep it from being enchanting. Hundreds, maybe thousands of boats all congregate in a wide section of the Mekong river, each one flying a staff with one representative item out of their cargos affixed to it: a banana, a coconut, a cabbage, what-have-you. The big boats (really the same size and shape as the local fishing vessels: about 40 feet long with a cabin and engine in a house on the back) slowly clump against each other and pull away, and meanwhile little open boats zip between them, either transporting cargos or selling from smaller stocks of their own. Some of the small boats are little floating restaurants, selling sandwiches or soups or even iced coffee and soda — one or two of these floated alongside us to try to make a sale.

We spent about an hour cruising in, around and through the market, darting between the big ships and cruising by the little ones for photo ops. Afterward, we turned away to head up for a few hours crusing through the smaller canals and past a bunch of little villages. This was in some ways the best part of the trip: although I’m sure there were dozens of tourist boats out and about that day, there was so much available territory to cover that we never saw any signs of any others, and instead glided along peacefully, passing under bridges and past waterside houses, and then through long stretches where there was no sign that any human had lived there in the last century or millenium.

The morning’s requisite stop-off at a factory was even pretty interesting: instead of a dubiously souvenier-crusted ricepaper shop, we were led into a very, very real rice-husking mill. This was a two-storey shed along the river’s edge, inside of which was an enormous communist-era rice husking and polishing machine. The air was thick with rice dust, and we had to pick our way along a narrow path between twelve-foot-tall stacks of 40-gallon rice sacks (on top of which walked, leapt and occasionally swung the factory’s workers, each carrying at least one if not two of the rice sacks) in order to get close to the machine, which was a vast green assemblege of gears, pulleys and giant moving sieves, which served to seperate the rice kernels from their husks, and then polish the brown rice white. Our guide explained that the mill served to process the rice for the entire surrounding community: each family would bring their harvest in and pay by the kilo to have it husked.

Several happily sun-baked hours later, we pulled in to a boat dock on the other side of Cantho, and were all herded back into the bus for a ride to our designated lunch place. If there’s a definite downside to the packaged tours, this was it: they’d made the arrangements with the local restauranteurs long before, so we were pretty much committed to one place for most meals. Lunch was at a roadside cafe with an upstairs dining area: it wasn’t bad at all, just not really inspiring. As I didn’t feel like having chicken rice again, I ordered the frog curry. Frog, it turns out, does actually taste kinda like chicken, but getting the meat off the little bones is a difficult affair, and I kept thinking of that scene in The Muppet Movie… In any case, the company was better than the food: two of our companions joined us, Imad, a Lebanese-Canadian exchange student studying in Singapore (by far the most gregarious of the group, who were otherwise a bit clannish), and Taka, a button-cute Japanese woman in her early 20s who was on holiday from a job at the post office. They made for lovely company and we chatted away for a good long while.

Lunch finished, we boarded the bus for the trip back to Saigon. Now, um, I know I promised that I’d stop nattering about the traffic. But. Um. On the trip down the previous day, Miranda and I had sat toward the middle of the bus, so we’d been blissfully ignorant of what all of the honking and swerving had been about. This time, we made a supreme tactical error and sat a few seats back from the very front, affording us an all too clear view of our impending messy death.

Here’s the thing. The Mekong delta is Vietnam’s breadbasket. (Well, rice bowl, really.) The vast majority of the country’s food is grown there, as evidenced by (a) the unending ride paddies, and (b) the fact that nearly every single house we passed had several large plastic tarps set out in front with a harvest of unhusked rice kernels drying in the sun. Now presumably a lot, even the majority of that crop gets shipped by boat, but the rivers here tend to be narrow and silt-filled, making shipping by truck a fairly attractive option.

There is one, one highway connecting the delta to Saigon and the rest of the country. Imagine if there were only one road connecting the cornfields and cattle farms of Iowa to New York City. Now imagine that this highway is only two lanes wide. Now imagine that the only rule of the road is “the largest car with the loudest horn and the nerviest driver wins.” Now stab yourself in the stomach repeatedly and you have a rough conception of what the ride from Cantho to Saigon is like in the front seat. We spent the entire ride clutching each others arms and occasionally squeezing our eyes closed: on more than one occasion our driver would attempt to pass a slow-moving bus, tractor or lorry only to find himself locked into a game of chicken with one or more even larger vehicles (e.g. troop transport, cement truck, Mercedes Sedan full of Communist officials) approaching in the oncoming traffic.

(Yes, a Mercedes S-class full of CP apparatchiks outweighs a bus. The ability to have you and your entire family sent to re-education camps adds 5,000kg to any car’s weight. True and useful fact.)

Midway through the ride, we stopped for a bathroom break at what purported to be a bonsai garden, but what was actually a rather tired-looking mini-zoo attached to a big outdoor restaurant. Zoos in the third world are always unbearably depressing (as opposed to 1st-world ones which are only intermittatly depressing), and this one was no exception: a sad-faced baboon was lolling listlessly in a cage no more than 2ft by 3ft by 2ft, while several other monkeys swung continuous circles around a circular cage no more than 8ft wide. And then there was the baby macaque, about which the less said the better. Sigh. The only bright spot came when I was wandering around through the restaurant area, which was completely deserted (this being long before the dinner rush) and came across a table full of the restaurant’s employees eating: a group of teenage girls, they took one look at my hair and immediately collapsed amongst each other giggling and pointing.

I can only hope that I’m a bad influence.

The rest of the ride to Saigon passed as uneventfully as any ride which featured the near-death of a scooter driver every 3.5 minutes can, and we were eventually deposited back in front of Sinh Cafe at about 6pm. The Sinh people were, blessedly, willing to let us leave our luggage there, so we dropped our bags and hailed a meter cab back to Dong Khoi for a lovely dinner at Le Camarge, a tony French restaurant that was happily willing to overlook the fact that I looked like…well, someone who’d spent the entire day on a boat in the mekong and who had visited a rice-husking factory along the way. (The fact that the seating area was outside on a second-floor veranda, under very dim candlelight, probably helped a lot.)

(Food porn ahead; skip the next two paras if you’re allergic.)

I had an appetizer that managed to test even my love for foie gras: billed as a foie gras terrine on the menu, leading me to expect a pate of duck liver and, well, other stuff, what arrived was somewhere in the vicinity of eight ounces of nearly unadulterated duck liver. Now I love — love — this stuff, but even I had to take this one very, very slowly. This was followed by an entree of seared “St. Peter” fish with a tomato compote, which was simple, straightforward, and so delicious that I could cry thinking about it. (Note to self: find out what the heck “St. Peter fish” is. Buy tons.) We shared the only half-bottle of wine on the menu (I am blanking on the name, and was waaaaay too toasty to take notes, even before the wine), which turned out to be nearly sweet enough to be a dessert wine, but it sufficed. (For Miranda’s menu, see her journal.)

For dessert, we shared a “cappucino parfait with Dalat strawberries”, which turned out to be a sweet milky and slightly coffee-tasting froth with tiny strawberries inside. It was delicious and just light enough to not send us into an immediate coma. Or explode.

Thus (very, very) sated, and more than a touch tipsy, we strolled through Dong Khoi and back down toward Sinh Cafe, where we collected our bags and then spent a little time checking our email before hailing a cab to the train station.

…which is as good a place as any to end this chapter.

the glass teat, Mekong-style… (Mekong Delta,pt 2)

Before I was so rudely interrupted by my digestive system and my overpowering need for sleep…

When last we left our hero and heroine, they were about to retire for the evening in their hotel in Cantho. But one last obstacle remained: the requisite inspection of the local television options.

Oh. My. Dear. Lord.

We have positively identified the bottom end of the televised entertainment spectrum, and it is pretty conclusively located in far-southern vietnam. The TV options in Cantho consisted of:

1. Televised speeches by Vietnamese Communist Party officials, every single last one of whom looks exactly like Kim Il Sung. (So much so that it took us a little bit of watching to determine that we were not, in fact, watching an old speech of Kim Il Sung’s.)

2. Japanese costume samurai dramas, dubbed in Vietnamese. Or rather, dubbed by a Vietnamese, as every character’s voice, male and female alike was dubbed by the same woman, apparently an honors graduate of the People’s Glorious Institute for Monotonous Diction. The original Japanese soundtrack was semi-audible underneath the dubbing, and while the samurai and their enemies and lovers all were wailing and shouting, the overdubber calmly read off the lines in a manner that managed to convey profound distaste combined with near-fatal ennui.

3. A Korean (we think) Dragonball-Z clone cartoon…also dubbed by the same woman.

After about ten minutes of being amused by this, we called it a night.

(continuing in another post lest this very spyware-infested computer running win98 decide to spontaneously combust)

never get off the boat: 2 nights in the mekong delta (days 4 & 5)

[A momentary lapse in continuity: I appear to have been instapunditted yesterday. Now how embarrassed do I feel that I haven’t bothered to update the minions site in over 4 years? A whole lot embarrassed. Obviously, insty’s politics are, um, about as far from mine as it’s possible to get and still technically share a genus and species, but hey… there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?]

Okay, I am getting very, very behind here, so I’m going to blow a few hours at the internet stand at the hotel here (600 dong/minute! cazart!) and try to catch up all at once. My apologies if it ends up being rushed and disjointed; I promise the pictures are good. All (so far) 700 of them. Phear.

Our fourth and fifth days in Vietnam were spent on a guided tour of the Mekong Delta, but a small digression before that. We’d actually planned out a few days in advance, and the idea was to take a one-night tour into the Mekong, and then come back to Saigon in time to take an overnight train up to Da Nang, and from there a bus to Hoi An. To do this, of course, we needed train tickets. We’d actually asked the Sing Cafe people about tickets when we booked the Cu Chi trip, but apparently you can only buy Saigon Rail tickets at the Saigon Rail offices, so we looked up the rail office in the Lonely Planet book, and set aside a little time the next morning to get the tickets. To do this, we:

1. Walked to the Saigon Rail ticket office, which was a clearly marked storefront on a major street.
2. Entered the ticket office, and were immediately handed a timetable with cities, times and ticket prices clearly marked.
3. Indicated that we wanted to buy a ticket on the overnight train to Da Nang in Soft Sleeper class.
4. Were quoted a price in both VND and USD
5. Handed over the prescribed amount of money, and were handed a printed ticket in return.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well…it was. Easy. Really easy. Stupendously easy? Why am I even mentioning this at all? Because three-odd years ago, Miranda and I attempted, in Shanghai, to book a 2-hour train ride from Shanghai to Nanjing: essentially a commuter rail ticket, and on one of the busiest lines in China. Doing this was a four-hour process involving first finding the ticket office (an unmarked office in a square concrete block of unmarked offices, nowhere near downtown or anything else of interest), and then stretching Miranda’s command of Mandarin (and both of our patience) to the breaking point in trying to communicate to the cashier that (a) we wanted to go to Nanjing, (b) we were allowed to go to Nanjing, and (c) we would not leave the office until we were handed a ticket to Nanjing.

At the time, I wrote off a lot of China’s user-hostility as due to them being a still-reforming Communist country, but now I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t underestimate the willful perversity factor by rather a lot: Vietnam has only been dipping its toes back into the market economy since 1994 or so, but getting around this country has been no harder than Thailand or for that matter Italy.


We arrived bright and early at the Sinh Cafe offices, which were swarming with backpackers being herded onto their assorted tour busses. After about a 20m wait, during which I availed myself of a few more iced coffees, they finally called out the 1-night Mekong tour, and we dutifully piled onto our bus. There were about 12 of us, the largest group of which were a gaggle of international exchange students on holiday from university in Singapore, plus a group of about four Spaniards, a few of the requisite Japanese tourists, and us.

After about a 2 hour bus ride past uncountable rice paddies and over dozens of bridges over the Mekong River’s assorted tributaries, we pulled over in a little town called Cai Be. at what appeared to be a small gas station, but which turned out to have a tiny boat jetty a few dozen yards past it. We carefully picked our way onto a long, narrow covered boat with a loud diesel engine in back, and began putting our way to Cai Be’s floating market. Unfortunatly, as the guide explained, the floating markets are primarily a morning activity, and by this time it was nearly noon, and in fact there were very few market boats on the river, and of those that were there, the crews were largely taking a (well-earned) afternoon nap. Still, the river views were breathtaking, and the boats themselves were quite interesting: with the exception of the government boats, they were all decorated with eyes on the front, allegedly to scare away crocodiles.

After about half an hour of boating through the open market area, the boat headed upriver a bit to visit a rice-paper making factory. This gave some context to something we’d seen in yards all over from both the bus and the boat: enormous bamboo drying racks with circular rice paper sheets drying on them.

Little side-trips like this were to be a constant feature of the Sinh Cafe trip, and I’m of mixed mind about them. On the one hand, they lent a certain staged aspect to the whole trip, as a whole troupe of bignoses (us) were led through the factories and given a canned speech by our guide while the workers tried their best to keep on with what they were doing… and often afterward there would be the gift shop. On the other hand, a lot of what was on display was fascinating, and with only 2 days to play with, it’s not likely that we’d have been able to find our way to them unaided.

From there, back to the boat, upriver for another half hour or so to our lunch break: a tiny outdoor restauranted attached to a longan orchard. The food was good if unmemorable, but the restaurant itself was nifty: in order to reach it, we had to walk about a kilometer from the boat mooring, down a narrow path through the jungle, single-file over incredibly narrow bridges spanning streams and drainage ditches, until suddenly the the path opened up onto the restaurant. Kitchy, perhaps, but effective.

Hm. I feel like I’m doing this trip a disservice by painting the boat rides as mere transportation. Really, the boat rides were the main thing: the factories, restaurants and such just served to break it up a bit and keep it from becoming monotonous. The delta is amazingly lush and verdant: banana and coconut trees tower over the riverbanks, which are dotted with stilt-legged houses, waterfront businesses and low bridges that uniformed schoolchildren ride bicycles over with such regularity that you’d almost suspect the tourist ministry was employing them for the purpose. I used up most of a gigabyte camera card on the river views, and was happy to do so.

Anyway, after lunch we spent another hour or so touring the river, pausing briefly for a stop at a coconut candy factory and a rice crispie factory. This may have been my Dumbest American Moment of the trip: I’d not quite realized that popped rice predated Mr. Kellogg. Oops. Anyway, the technique is actually fascinating: cleaned black river sand is heated in an enormous wok, and then a batch of rice grains is quickly mixed in with it. In seconds, they’re all popped, and then they sift out the sand with an enormous box sieve and dump the sand back into the wok to start re-heating. Rinse and repeat from 7am until 5pm: on a hot day in Vietnam, this is unimaginably sweaty work!

Then, our factory-touring ended for the day, we docked in Vinh Long to re-board the bus and head down to Cantho, the major city in the delta. Midway through the ride, we had to disembark the bus in order to take a ferry across one of the rivers: a bridge is under construction, but won’t be finished until 2005. The ferries were actually a nifty experience: three of them are all in service at once, picking up passengers and vehicles at an octagonal dock on each side of the river. For some reason you can’t stay on your vehicle, so about a block before the main entrace (at which point traffic is already well and truly stuffed up), everyone jumps out of their cars of busses (but not their mopeds!) and hoofs it, then when you actually try to board the ferry, there’s only one ramp being used by vehicles and pedestrians alike (although walkers can, at least, quickly take a gangway up to an upper deck once aboard), which is how I managed to nearly get run over by a moped while on a boat.

Due to a bit of poor timing, our group actually ended up taking a ferry several minutes in advance of our bus, so after disembarking on the far side we got to wait for a good long while in the sweltering sun… it was a very limp bunch of tourists who stumbled onto the bus when it finally pulled up.

A mere hour of honking and swerving later (and I am trying to not make this travelogue to be entirely about the traffic, but really, it is that bad), we pulled up in front of our hotel in Cantho, the name of which is escaping me at the moment. In any case, the hotel was a somewhat joyless affair with furnishings dating clearly from the communist era, so we quickly made an escape: the exchange students were pondering a group outing for dinner, but we decided to strike out on our own to a place that the Lonely Planet book strongly recommended.

Cantho is a port town with a lovely riverwalk downtown, and we spent a little time poking around the park surrounding the giant silver statue of Ho Chi Minh before finally retiring to Nam Bo for dinner, only to be joined there 5 minutes later by pretty much the rest of our tour group: apparently everyone else had read the same book. Oops. The food, thankfully, was lovely; and the building was a converted French villa with dozens of geckos hanging on the interior walls.

After dinner, we strolled around cantho a bit, finding what appeared to be the delta’s first shopping mall/supermarket, a brightly lit, three-storey affair with an enormous video arcade on the second floor, full of vietnamese teenagers playing bootleg versions of dance dance revolution.


now…where was I? (Saigon, Day Three, pt 2)

Places in Viet Nam that I have been nearly run over by a 50cc scooter, slightly edited:

— Streets, too many to count
— Sidewalks, at least two dozen
— Sitting down at a restaurant, four or five times
— On a boat, once (so far)

Greetings from Hoi An, Vietnam, where I am once again sitting in an Internet cafe, surrounded by children of apparent ages from 5 to zygote, all of whom are completely and totally kicking ass at CounterStrike. Remember this the next time some random person with an incomprehensible nickname hands you your head in an online game: it’s probably one of these kids.

But Hoi An is a set of stories of its own, and we’re not even close to there yet. So anyway, Cholon, continued.

We spent about half an hour wandering the central market in a heat-drugged daze, and then set out to explore some of Cholon’s pagodas. Although Saigon’s Chinatown is mostly Chinese by ethnicity only, Vietnamese being the spoken language everywhere, there are still some impressive Chinese-style pagodas there, set down as small oases of peace and tranquility amidst the extremely — extremely busy streets.

A full writeup of the pagodas, I’m afraid, is going to have to wait until I have both my notes and my pictures in front of me; suffice it to say that I took several dozen photos and am praying that most of them come out. The one that particularly sticks in mind was composed of a series of semi-open courtyards behind the main facade, and had thousands and thousands of ceramic figurines decorating the edges of all of the interior roofs. (We’ll see if any of those photos came out.)

Past the pagodas, we took a brief walk through Cholon’s fabric market, which was several square blocks of stores selling any fabric under the sun — but this being the beginning of the trip, with several more fabric markets in front of us, we opted not to buy anything yet.

Having had enough of the cyclo experience for one day or indeed one lifetime, we flagged down a meter taxi to take us back to Dong Khoi (district 1) and to the Jade Emporer Pagoda, probably Saigon’s best-known. This pagoda was a somewhat more sprawling one, tucked into a little side-alley by the river. The rain was just starting to mist down as we came in, and one of the attendants happily led us through the various side-rooms and up to the second floor, where an open balcony afforded a beautiful view of the courtyard and the clay-tiled roof.

By this time, we were pretty thoroughly pagoda-ed out, and decided to try to find one of Saigon’s attractions that the people had raved about: Fanny’s Ice Cream parlour. Unfortunatly, while Fannys was listed in both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books, neither one of them saw fit to actually mark it on their maps, and after wandering around somewhat fruitlessly for about 20 minutes, we finally asked a shop attendant who gave us directions…which could charitably have been called crack-addled. After walking about another two miles based on her description, we gave up and flagged down a meter cab, showed him the address, and were promptly ferried to a location less than 5 minutes’ walk from our hotel. Sigh. The good news is that the ice cream was excellent, and I devoured a concoction made from chocolate ice cream, Vietnamese coffee, whipped cream and Kahlua that was more than enough to restore me to functionality.

After meandering back to the hotel by way of some of Saigon’s tonier shopping streets, we changed shirts (uh, did I mention that Viet Nam is kinda humid? in the same way that Antarctica was kinda cold?) and walked over toward an alley behind Ben Tranh Market to sample some of what was allegedly the best Hue-style cuisine in Saigon.

This was a small tactical error.

Those of you who know me are probably well aware that I have…trouble with foods of a certain gelatinous texture. Eggs, jello, aspic, certain puddings and especially those awful agar-agar jelly shot things — at my best, I can quickly swallow them without gagging. At worst, well, we won’t dwell on that.

Hue-style cuisine, of course, turns out to rely almost entirely on demitasse-sized cups of congealed rice starch, topped lightly with things like dried shrimp paste and small bits of pork rind. It is beautiful to look at: the shrimp paste looks almost golden suspended on top of the white jelly. But alas, if ever there were a food designed to press against the limits of my culinary adventurousness, this was it. I’m pleased to say that I didn’t embarrass myself: I finished most of it and didn’t make any noises to offend anyone else in the restaurant, but I can’t say it was a terribly enjoyable experience.

We topped the evening off with drinks on the Rex Hotel’s rooftop garden, scene of many an after-hours journalists’ drinking binge during the American war. We treated ourselves to crepes flambe (prepared tableside, no less), toasted to an excellent trip, took a few photos of Saigon from the roof’s edge, and then retired early in order to make the next day’s trip to the Mekong Delta.

Which is another day’s post.

a very brief…Saigon, Day Three (pt 1)

This may not be the most detailed or comprehensible of posts: we have just returned from a 2-day tour of the Mekong Delta with a busload of obstreperous exchange students, followed by a lovely, and long, and wine-enabled dinner at one of Saigon’s better French restaurants, and are about to jump a night train up to Da Nang.

I am, in short, battered, fried and salted.

Day three began with us making our way over to Sinh Cafe again to book our tour to the Mekong, as they’d done a reasonable job with the Cu Chi trip. That accomplished, most of the rest of the morning was spent writing up the last two posts and catching up on email at a local internet cafe. The cafe itself is of some note: hosted in the lobby of one of Pham Ngu Lau’s backbackers hotels, it appears to be sitting on one of the few actual T1-class connections in all of Viet Nam: I was able to download a copy of Putty at nearly 768kbps, which is unheard of here. Geek digression ends.

After email, we headed over to Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, to check out the market and a few pagodas…

…by cyclo. One of the more insistant cyclo drivers had cornered us as we made our way toward the internet cafe, and I’d tried to brush him off by saying “We’re checking our email now, maybe later.” Foolish, foolish me, this meant of course that he and a friend were both waiting for us when we stepped out 90 minutes later. Figuring that I’d been made and that we might as well try it anyway, we spent some time haggling out a price and then climbed in and headed off.

Taking a cyclo in Saigon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both in the sense of uniqueness and in the sense that you could very easily die a spectacularly messy death at any instant along the way. A cyclo is basically a (somewhat) padded seat mounted on the front of a three-wheeled bicycle, so as you are pedalled along, there is nothing but air between you and the sights of Saigon…prominently among them the enormous waves of oncoming traffic, all of which is moving quite a bit faster than you and often at cross angles or head-on. I took several very good “here, I am about to die” photos from this vantage.

Miranda’s driver spoke fairly good English and was able to answer many of her questions as we drove around, but sadly mine was…not so adept, and indeed seemed to have at best a set of about ten stock English phrases to use: by two minutes into the trip I’d learned that he’d fought for the VC during the american war, and that he had many friends (customers) from all over america, and that he had two children, a boy and a girl, and that he was very happy to be working as a cyclo driver. Twenty minutes later, despite attempting to draw him into discussion on the traffic, landmarks, climate etc etc etc, I had been informed of those facts several more times over, and I eventually gave up.

Still, the trip was more than worth it, because Cholon is completely off the hook. As frenzied as downtown Saigon is in comparison to anywhere in the states, Cholon is that much crazy yet again compared to downtown Saigon. The density of people, scooters and trucks was easily twice to three times that of the rest of the city, and every single available square inch of space on the streets was taken up by some kind of shop, hawker or food stand.

We started out at the Cholon central market (which has a precise name that I am forgetting at this instant, and my notes are not at hand), which was laid out in a series of square buildings around a central courtyard. We found here Saigon’s Shoe Event Horizon: one entire quarter of the market seemed to be devoted to nothing but shoe stores, although mostly of the practical sandal/thong variety.

(…argh, perhaps not so brief. To be continued: we must head over to the train station in the very near future.)

I don’t see…any method at all. (Saigon, Day Two)

The Asian conception of a mattress just doesn’t seem to translate well for western bodies. Our bed at the Rex Hotel is, technically, “soft”, but it’s a thick foam mattress that, with a body’s weight on it, compresses down to a rather unforgiving density. Add to this 13 hours of jetlag, and you have a recipie for some tossing and turning during the night: find a comfortable position, doze off, wake up 2 hours later with no blood circulation in any body part touching the mattress, turn over, doze off, rinse, repeat.

Day two began bright and early: we’d falled asleep at around 8pm, so we set the alarm for 5:30am, in order to have plenty of time to shower and dress before being picked up for today’s tour. Despite allowing nearly 10 hours for sleeping, we were both a little groggy and slow-moving as we hit the hotel’s breakfast. Luckily, breakfast was good: coffee strong enough to wake the dead, assorted western-style breads, rolls and croissants, plus Vietnamese congee, soup and dumpling, and a vast assortment of local fruits, including dragonfruit and rambutans.

Thus fortified, we were picked up in the lobby by the tour bus. Now, I’m personally kinda cool toward the group/guided tour thing, but the itinerary was one that (a) is pretty much required for any first-time visitor to Saigon, and (b) would be fiendishly difficult to do on ones own, as it involves a great deal of travel through Saigon’s more far-flung distances… which means driving. In Viet Nam. I am brave but not stupid, and we took the tour bus. The tour was led by a Mr. Son, who had obviously been doing this for a good long time: he had his speeches down pat, and knew enough English to joke around with the passengers. The group was actually mostly Japanese, with one Australian guy and, well, us making up the contingent of anglos.

It took about 90 minutes for the bus to bounce around to the first destination, the Cao Dai Temple. The journey was, for me, almost as fascinating as the destinations themselves. Once you get out of Saigon’s upmarket center, the city stops resembling a Shanghai/Bangkok-esque megapolis very quickly, and starts looking a lot more like, well, a third-world city. Saigon sprawls: we drove for an hour or more before seeing our first rice field, and most of that time we were driving through what seemed like a nonstop frenzy of new construction. The sides of the street were being dug up, apparently to sink a sewer line, and new houses and buildings were going up so fast that in several cases the front facade of the houses had been built before anything else, lending a very surreal movie-set aspect to the whole scene.

Although the city’s outskirts look superficially a lot more like Cambodia, there’s an almost instinctively different feel to it. The countryside is poor, yes, but you can almost feel it getting less poor. You can’t take more than a few steps without encountering a shop of some sort, and while the streets are often unpaved and the sewers open, every shopfloor seems meticulously well-swept, and the streets are full of Vietnamese schoolchildren who seem to have a nigh-miraculous ability to traipse around in white silk ao dai dresses or startched white collared school shirts without getting a speck of dirt on them. (We suspect that this is some generalization of the local principle of physics that allows 12-year-old boys to stage soccer games next to and occasionally in traffic without suffering any apparent injury.) It doesn’t feel dirty, just busy and in transition.

Once we got out into the countryside, the inevitable rice fields alternated with the enormous domed kilns of the brick factories that seemed to be the main non-agricultural business of the area. We passed at least a dozen of them, each with enormous piles of thousands of bricks outside, drying in the sun. Their position in the local economy is immedately visible: nearly every other structure we passed was made out of the same bricks.

After a few short breaks that seemed suspiciously tied to Mr. Son’s need for a cigarette (not, given the state of the bus seats, that I am complaining), we arrived at the first stop: the Cao Dai main temple.

Cao Daism is a young religion, and one native to Viet Nam. Deliberately syncretic, it’s a synthesis of the three major Asian faiths (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism) and Christianity. God is represented by the Universal Eye, which looks similar to the eye-in-the-pyramid logo on U.S. currency. The religion claims 3-4 million adherants in Viet Nam, plus a smattering in Thailand, Cambodia and Australia, but mostly it’s centered in one province just outside Saigon, which the church pretty much completely controls, in an often-uneasy truce with the central government (whatever the central government happens to be at the time).

The main temple of the Cao Dai beggers easy description. Even by the standards of Buddhist and Hindu religious architecture, it’s frenetically busy: the main hall is painted in bright yellows and pinks, the saints, icons and dragon motifs cover just about every available square inch, and the altar is dominated by a giant globe of stars with the Universal Eye motif in the middle, staring down. The Cao Dai monks are almost unnervingly at ease with their position as a de facto tourist attraction: they were even happy to lead me to places inside the temple where I could get better photo angles. The attitude toward the hoard of tourists is refreshingly no-nonsense: you can wander around and take snapshots to your hearts’ content (and of anything and anyone), until the service actually begins, at which point you are expected to kindly remove yourself to the overhanging gallery and stay the heck out of the way. At noon the mass started with a procession of brightly robed adherants making their way up the main gallery and bowing to the Eye at proscribed times: it was beautiful and striking.

Sadly, we weren’t able to stay for the whole service, as we needed to drive another two hours toward the Cu Chi Tunnels, Obvious Destination Number Two.

Cu Chi is a mostly rural district about 5km upriver from Saigon proper, which during the “American War” was pretty much entirely controlled by the Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, AKA the Viet Cong. The ARVN and US Army attempted to deal with the problem by turning Cu Chi into a “free fire zone” and regularly saturating the place with bombs and defoliants. Instead of abandoning the area, the local guerillas responded by literally digging themselves in: a 6 sq-km network of tunnels were built (with hand-axes and bamboo baskets) 3-4 meters undergound, complete with kitchens, field hospitals, arms factories and meeting rooms. In the tunnels, upward of 15,000 VC soldiers lived for several years, emerging at night to set traps and engage US troops.

Cu Chi now is largely dominated again by rice fields and rubber plantations, but a section of the tunnels has been preserved as a war monument and tourist destination, and the tourists come by the truckload.

Before seeing the tunnels themselves, you are first treated to an authentic bit of 1970s communist agit-prop: a shaky, black-and-white propaganda film (lovingly transferred to 4-generation VHS) about the “brave Cu Chi peasants” who took up arms against the Yankee invader while still finding time to till their rice fields between battles. Despite the film’s obvious bias (and production shortcomings), it’s still pretty impressive, as it shows off the guerrilla’s skills at converting local objects (fish-hooks and scythes) and found American leftovers (tires, grenades and unexploded bombs) into truely gruesome anti-personnel traps.

After the film, we were led to a small clearing in the woods, where a government guide who’d joined us brushed away a few leaves to reveal a trapdoor in the ground no more than 12 by 9 inches in size. Popping off the cover revealed a tiny hole leading down into a tunnel below, which the gov’t guide promptly vanished into without a trace. Mr. Son brushed a few leaves back over the top and there was no sign left of the entrace until the guide popped back out a few seconds later.

Then, we were led down a path between bomb craters, past a burnt-out American tank, to what Mr. Son referred to as the “five-star tunnel” — a 100-meter long section of the tunnels that had been enlarged, cleaned out (relatively speaking) and lit in order to accomodate western tourists — and invited us to go in.

I am not, by nature, particularly claustrophobic, but I take no shame in saying that this was an entirely unpleasant experience. The “enlarged” tunnels were still about 3.5 feet high at best, and not much wider across than I am. The path twisted, turned, rose and (often very suddenly) dropped, and after about 30 meters of scraping my head, hands and shoulders against every possible surface, and barely being able to breathe the humid air, I was more than happy to avail myself of an early exit that had been cut into the tunnels along the way. Humbling, to say the least, especially since the only other people to bail out early were — perhaps predictably — the other whities.

(There was, apparently, a contingent of US Army troops who were specifically tasked with going into the tunnels to try to flush out the VC troops, often engaging them in hand-to-hand combat inside the tunnel walls. They were called the Tunnel Rats, and I’m pretty sure that counts as the single worst posting in a completely insane war.)

Oh, I nearly forgot: also on the site of the tunnels is a shooting range, where for US$1/bullet (5-bullet minimum), you can try your hands at “the weapons so popular during the war” — a set of somewhat beaten-up looking M16 and AK-47 rifles. We all demurred, but other groups were not so reticient, and the sound of automatic weapons fire, easily audible across the entire site, added a certain…vermissilitude to the entire experience.

After being allowed to wash our hands and poke through the requisite gift shop area, we were efficiently ferried back to central Saigon and dropped off at our hotel, where we changed shirts and headed out to dinner.

Dinner was at Com Nieu Sai Gon, which we’d seen featured in the Saigon episode of “A Cook’s Tour” and which I’d seen several members raving about. It entirely lived up to the hype: buried on a side-street in District 3, it’s a partially-enclosed, partially-open-air restaurant, with the open-air section dividied by an alleyway down which mopeds roar at regular intervals. The house specialty is com dap: crunchy rice cooked in a clay pot, and when you order it, one waiter at one end of the alley smashes the pot open with a hammer, catches the rice in an oven mitt, and launches it in the air (often over the strung lighting) to a waiter on the other side of the alley, who catches it in a plate, flips it in the air a few times for good measure, and brings it to your table. In addition to being wonderfully theatrical, the operation also serves to (er, mostly) divest the rice of any bits of shattered clay pot and cool it down slightly.

Along with our rice, we ordered (from memory here; I wasn’t smart enough to take notes):

— braised shrimp with shallot shoots
— banana flower & chicken salad
— crabmeat and black mushroom soup
— deep-fried mullet with tamirind sauce

…along with a fresh coconut milk and the inevitable iced coffee. The meal was amazing: the salad was sweet, crunch and piquant; the soup was deeply crab-flavored; the mullet was obviously fresh and blazingly hot; and for my money the shrimp and shallot shoots were the winner: delicately flavored, warm and amazingly satisfying.

We lingered over dinner as the restaurant closed up and the waiters served themselves, and then wandered out into the warm night to find a cab.

More later. Pictures, and lots of them, when I get home.

the madness, the madness… (Saigon, Day One)

Candidates so far for the most insane thing I have seen on the back of a 50cc Honda motor scooter in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City:

  • An entire family of four, sharing a single poncho in a torrential downpour.

  • A 2’ by 4’ double-sided, internall lit restaurant sign.

  • A 2’ by 5’ glass window pane, being held vertically between driver and passenger.

  • Somewhere between 8 and 10 100-roll soft packs of toilet tissue and paper towels.

Greetings from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, where the engine of Vietnamese commerce has been distinctly identified, and it’s the Honda Cub. There are literally millions of the things here, clogging every street, sidewalk and occasionally restaurant interior in the city. Crossing the street takes nerves of ice and bowels of titanium; walking on the sidewalks diminishes but does not eliminate your chances of being turned into roadkill by an errant scooter (or city bus).

I kinda like it here.

Okay, the story thus far: we arrived on Friday morning after a 90m flight from Singapore. Saigon’s airport is neither the burnished monstrosity that Singapore, Shanghai or Bangkok are, nor is it quite the welcome-to-1955-motherfucker shock that is Cambodia. It’s small but functional, and we breezed through customs in no time at all.

From the air, Saigon has a sort of Lego aspect to it: all of the houses are two or three stories, blocky, and painted in pastel colors, often alternating between floors. From street level, in the cab to the hotel, it’s sometimes a bit shabby-looking, but very obviously in the grips of a sea change. Just over a decade ago, the Vietnamese government insituted the local version of Perestroika (doi moi, I believe), and Vietnam has been rocketing along from the 19th century to the 21st ever since. Currently, they appear to be roughly in 1987, but give it another few years…

Anyway, we’re staying at the Rex Hotel, a vast colonial-era enterprise that was, famously, where the US Army would give its daily briefings to journalists during the war. After dumping our stuff there the first morning, we were famished, and wandered a few blocks to Saigon’s largest market, Ben Tranh, for lunch.

Just walking down the streets here is a full-body sensory assault. The sidewalks are littered with open-air cafes, lunch carts, porta-grills, hawkers, cyclos, scooter taxis and just people hang about, all of whom you must pick your way through in order to reach…the intersections. About which, a word or two.

Miranda observed that if Rome and Shanghai’s drivers were to breed, Saigon would be more or less what would result. There are, I think, maybe 30 traffic lights in the entire city, of which no more than 50% are operational at any time, and which are considered advisory (at best) by cars and busses, and completely decorative by the scooters and cyclos. To cross the street, the method appears to be to simply wait until traffic thins out a bit (there are generally no “breaks” as such), and then to simply step off and walk, maintaining a constant and deliberate pace. Slowing down or stopping is ill-advised, and reversing direction would be fatal. It takes a bit of getting used to.

So yes, Ben Tranh Market: the size of a New York City block, Ben Tranh is a huge enclosed building with a clock tower in back. Internally, it is divided by two main, wide “avenues” crosswise north-south and east-west, but each quarter block thus demarked is itself built out of hundreds of little stalls and shops, with incredibly narrow passages in the negative space between them. Picking your way though them is a delicate process, especially since the shop owners tend to perch on the floor in front of them — rarely, even in Asia, have I ever felt so conspicuously outsized. The market’s quarters each vaguely specialize in one sort of mechandise — clothing and cloth, prepared food, groceries, housewares, etc — but there’s a lot of overlap and cross-pollination.

Lunch at Ben Tranh was at one of the ubiquitous bun stands: wide, slightly udon-like rice noodles with a tasty broth and whatever accessories (chicken, shrimp, beef, tendon, tripe, peppers, veggies) that you care to point at. It was beautifully refreshing, and happily my stomach seems to be dealing with the local flora and fauna without complaint.

As we were in the market, the afternoon monsoon started to come down, beating out a cacophany on the steel roof, so we stayed inside for a bit longer, poking around the stalls to the general amusement of the locals.

After the rain let up, we picked our way back to the hotel through some back streets, finding a defunct Hindu temple and a great number of t-shirt hawkers. From the hotel, we took a cab to the day’s big objective: the Ho Chi Minh City Institute for the Blind…and Massage Academy.

Training the blind to be masseurs is, apparently, a long-standing tradition across Asia, and Saigon is no exception. For a shockingly small amount of money (by western standards anyway), we were led into (seperate) air-conditioned rooms and completely and thoroughly worked over for an hour by a succession of masseuses. After the nearly 24 hours of continuous airplane travel in coach, this was indescribably wonderful, and we wobbled out of the place on somewhat shaky legs.

The plan after the massage was to make our way over to Saigon’s backpackers’ district to book a tour to the Cao Dai Temple for the next day, but the weather had other ideas. We’d gotten about two blocks down the street when the skies opened up and commenced with a deluge of biblical proportions. We quickly skipped into a camera/film store where a very bored looking young man was putting all of his attention into a series of comic books, and waited out the storm. And waited. And waited. As we watched, first the storm drains backed up. Then the street flooded. Then the sidewalks flooded, the whole process taking no more than 20 minutes, and the rain still coming down in sheets. Staggeringly, the rain did not deter the traffic in the slightest: Saigon’s scooterists simply threw rain ponchos over themselves, their passengers and their bikes (or didn’t) and blasted on through. Despite a general approach to the conditions that would have given my MSF teacher a coronary embolism, there were, amazingly, no accidents that we saw.

After about an hour, the rain began to let up a little bit, and we decided to make a break for it. I rolled up my pants to the knee, thanked the gods for my decision to wear sandals that day, and we headed out. To our embarrassment, we quickly realized that we were no more than a block from the travel agency, but getting there involved crossing a street that was at least a foot deep in backed-up rain sewer water. Praying that we had no open cuts or blisters, we tromped on through it.

Setting up the tour was a quick and painless process (props to the people at Sinh Cafe Tours), and afterward we walked out to see an empty meter cab on the other side of the street. We attempted to wave to him to wait for us, but he misread our intent and quickly pulled a u-turn through oncoming traffic to get over to us. (Repeat to self: this is normal. this is normal. this is normal.) No fatalities caused, we piled in and headed back to our hotel, detouring around flooded streets as necessary.

After washing off our feet, we headed back into the night for dinner; feeling tired and under-adventurous, we ended up at a touristy place called “Givral” a block from our hotel, which was sort of forgettable. A quick passegiata later, we succumbed to jet lag and collapsed in a heap in our room at 8pm.

so close we can taste it…

Greetings from the spotless halls of Singapore’s Changi Airport.

After approximately 10,438,377 hours in the air, we’ve touched down on the far side of the world, and have 2 hours in which to stretch our legs before catching our connector flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

I’d completely forgotten that Singapore Air connects all of its flights through Frankfurt, so after six rather uncomfortable hours on the plane, we were dumped unceremoniously into Germany for an hour while the plane was cleaned and the crew changed out. The only thing worthy of note there: the graffiti in the Frankfurt terminal’s mens’ room, which was a microcosm of multiethnic Europe: “Suck my dick” was rendered in at least five languages that I could count (including Japanese, annotated in English for anyone who didn’t get it), along with “Vive Argentina!”, “I love Iran”, “Freedom for the Basque Nations” and, just in case you’d forgotten that you were in Germany, “TOT ALLEN JUDEN” carved in big letters on the inside of the stall door. Hm, maybe Singapore’s policy of beating vandals senseless has something to recommend it after all.

(No, sadly I am not making this up.)

Changi has already provided one noteworthy experience: “Frozen Dragon Beard Candy”, which is an (allegedly ancient) Chinese confection made out of spun sugar around what appears to be almost paste. I’ll be bringing some of this home on the return trip, I think.

Okay, time to haul myself off to find more coffee. More (and hopefully more interesting) later.

and just like that, he’s gone…



I am, in a few short hours, outta this popsicle stand. Next stop: Singapore, then Saigon/HCMC. See you cats on the other side.

(, I appear to have been approved by a relative of yours?)

today’s lesson, with visual aids

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you make yourself a salad for dinner. Hey, it happens. And let us assume, also, that you like spicy stuff and happen to have some fresh jalepeno peppers in the fridge. So if, still speaking strictly hypothetically, you were to slice up one of those peppers to put into your salad, you might find the following advice useful. Or so I’ve heard.

After cutting up the peppers, wash you hands. Wash them really carefully. Use a lot of soap. Concentrate on getting the soap under and around your fingernails.

Because, and again I emphasize that this is entirely hypothetical, if you were to not do this, and were to then, say, remove your contact lenses for the night, you might have a small problem. The problem would not be that your eyes would burn from taking the contacts out: you’d just blink a few times and it would go away. The problem would be that the fat-soluable alkaloid known as capsaicin, which gives the pepper its heat, would get all over the contact lens you just pulled out, and would not be dissolved or diminished in any way by the contact lens disinfectant solution. And if, nine hours later, you were to put that contact lens back into your eye, something very much like this might happen:


This has been a public service message by someone who absolutely positively did not do this today. Really.

(Oh well, at least I finally have glasses that were purchased in this decade and are the same strength as my contacts.)

(Actual helpful hint: enzyme tablets will dissolve the capsaicin, although you may have to run them through a couple of times.)

a better class of movie, a better class of trailer…

Last week, the lovely , and I all finally bestirred ourselves to go see Zhang Yimou’s epic Hero.

What can I say about the film itself that hasn’t already been said? Visually stunning, sumptiously beautiful, grippingly kinetic, a triumph of the director’s craft, a rare example of Jet Li’s affectlessness being turned to useful narrative effect, a creepy implicit endorsement of hostile modern Chinese imperialist policy in re Tibet, Nepal, Xin Xiang and Taiwan… it’s all of that and more, wrapped up in some of the most gorgeous cinematography ever, and if you haven’t seen it yet… you should.

But of course: apres cinema, le blurbs. Well, actually first were the now-standard 15 minutes of commercials, about which I remember blessedly little save for a stunningly ill-considered spot for Coca-Cola C2, set to Queen’s “I Want To Break Free,” which technically speaking dug up Freddie Mercury’s corpse and repeatedly violated it. But once we’d rinsed out our eyesockets, we were treated to a series of quick teasers for…

After The Sunset — Otherwise known as “Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek file the serial numbers off of ‘Out of Sight’ and hope that no one notices.” But you know what? That’s kinda okay, because Salma is easily twice the actress that Jennifer Lopez is, even slumming, and Pierce Brosnan was George Clooney before George Clooney was. And hey look, they even stole Don Cheadle, which is also good because, duh, more Don Cheadle. Any movie that keeps Don Cheadle in the national consciousness by definition increases the odds of another Easy Rawlins movie getting made and is therefore good. Only cause for concern: directed by Brett “Dude, can you believe they let me remake Manhunter?” Rattner. In fact, it’s “A BRETT RATTNER MOVIE,” suggesting that somewhere, someone somehow thinks that this is a selling point.

The Aviator — Okay, could someone please figure out a way to break whatever occult hold that Leonardo DiCaprio has on otherwise sensible A-list directors? I’m willing to concede that “Gangs of New York” was an honest and well-intentioned misfire (and that as awful as Leo was in it, Cameron Diaz was worse), but there’s no excuse for making the same mistake twice. (Especially since Martin Scorcese is, as far as I know, straight.) But hey, it’s set in the 20s and 30s, so I might go see it just for the costumes.

Silver City — Four years ago, on the occasion of the coronation of George Bush the Second, my friend Satoshi opined that if there were any upside to the whole debacle, it was that punk bands were always better during conservative administrations. And lo and behold: a mostly-not-embarrassing explosion of garage punk bands, and a non-suckass album from Bad Religion. (Where’s our Dead Kennedys reunion though?) Is this relevant? Well, it’s been kind of a while since John Sayles made a movie that I felt compelled to see for any reason other than political solidarity, but this one looks like a corker. Blame Bush? Happily. Bonus: Kris Krisofferson being eeeeevil. No one does eeeevil like Kris.

Alexander — Colin Farrell’s bid for Russell Crowe-style sword-and-toga commercial domination. Well, he’s certainly got the pecs for it, but it takes more than looking good shirtless to survive starring in a late-period Oliver Stone flick: just ask Woody Harrellson. The trailer breathlessly informed us that Alexander of Macedonia was (in order) a: Warrior, King, Lover (cue dewy shots of Angelina Jolie and Rosario Dawson), Seeker, Conqueror, and Savior, but somehow seemed to lose track of the whole Raging Poofter angle, which diminishes my interest in the film significantly.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow — Ten thousand special effects technicans. One omnipresent bluescreen. A first-time director and screenwriter. No discernable script. Multiple obvious telltale Kiss of Death indicators, chief among them the presence of Angelina Jolie and the enthusiasm of Harry Knowles. Will I see it? Duh, it stars Angelina Jolie and Jude Law. I may have to wear headphones in the theatre, but I’ll be there, don’t worry. I am not proud.

Hm. Low general snark level this time. I’ll try harder in the future, I promise.

but wait, there’s more!


Gotta empty the camera before I head off to Viet Nam…

Also inside: ‘s birthday, the Billionaires for Bush Coronation Ball, the DeCordova Museum and Walden Pond.

I’ve done…questionable things.

in loving memory




I’m flying to Vietnam in 6 days.


head explodes

I should probably start packing or something.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

all the news that fits…

Okay, perhaps I was too hasty. After all, I’ve worked in the news biz myself, and I know that the morning headline choice can be a dicey business: you’ve got a lot of stories to choose from, each of which represents hard labor by one or more people who have a lot invested in the lead spot. Sometimes you just blow it and make the wrong choice. Nothing to get upset over: you dust off, accept a few ribbing emails from your competitors, and fix it in the afternoon edition.

Right? Right?

Well, maybe not…

The New York Times:

The Washington Post:

The BBC News Online:

The Wall Street Journal:


And for a point of comparison, here’s Fox News, the unabashed GOP booster and administration mouthpiece:

Now admittedly it’s a bit of a tossup which story in that layout is the “lead,” but it seem to me fairly visually obvious that the big center block represents the breaking story, while the left block is “Ongoing Convention Coverage Which of Course We’re Flogging Mercilessly Because Otherwise Rupert Would Feed Us to the Alligators.”


(Incidentally, if anyone could refresh my memory as to whether CNN did this during the Democratic convention, I would be most appreciative.)

satire’s death rattle

Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air.”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California, live on national television last night

Snark fails. Hell, snark curled up into a ball and started sobbing just from attempting to contemplate it.

Past the cut, courtesy of the indispensible Brad DeLong, a few foul gusts of what Ahnold found to be fresh air…

Nixon:…This is what I want. I have a project that I want somebody to take it just like I took the Hiss case, the Bentley case, and the rest…. And I’ll tell you what. This takes—this takes 18 hours a day. It takes devotion and dedication and loyalty and diligence such as you’ve never seen Bob….

Nixon:… Now do you see what we need?… I really need a son of a bitch like Huston who will work his butt off and do it dishonorably. Do you see what I mean? Who will know what he’s doing and I want to know too. And I’ll direct him myself. I know how to play the game and we’re going to start playing it.

Nixon: When you get to Ehrlichman now, will you please get—I want you to find me a man by noon. I won’t be ready until 12:30—a recommendation of the man to work directly with me on this whole situation. Do you know what I mean? I’ve got to have—I’ve got to have one—I mean, I can’t have a high-minded lawyer like John Ehrlichman or, you know, Dean, or somebody like that. I want somebody just as tough as I am for a change…. These Goddamn lawyers, you know, all fighting around about, you know—I’ll never forget….

Nixon: These kids don’t understand. They have no understanding of politics. They have no understanding of public relations. John Mitchell is that way. John is always worried about: “Is it technically correct?” Do you think, for Christ’s sake, that the New York Times is worried about all the legal niceties? Those sons of bitches are killing me. I mean, thank God, I leaked to the press ?during the Hiss case??]. This is what we’ve got to get—I want you to shake these [unintelligible] up around here. Now you do it. Shake them up. Get them off their Goddamn dead asses and say, now, “That isn’t what you should be talking about.” We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?

Nixon: Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No? Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute’s safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that it makes somebody else responsible….

All from Stanley L. Kutler, ed. (1997), Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York: Free Press: 0684841274), pp. 7-8.

We Distort. You Comply.

My morning ritual is a pretty simple one: sit down at my desk with a scone and a tall cup of iced coffee, pull down the “News” folder in my bookmark bar, and read through the headlines on half a dozen news sites.

The contrast, some mornings, is instructive. Behold, today’s crop of lead headlines:

The New York Times:

The Washington Post:

The BBC News Online:

The Wall Street Journal:


You know, I don’t lightly stop reading any news source: I’m a news junkie and not afraid to admit it. And conservative bias isn’t enough to turn me away: I happily read the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. But what I will not put up with is having my time deliberately wasted.

“President’s wife thinks he’s swell.” For this, Ted Turner got $87 Million?