Archive for October, 2004

a quick two-fer

empire morning


Empire State Building in reflection; Bryant Park, 8:49am

(click for hyoooooge version — dialup users beware)

shameless exhibitionism

helpful hints

So, having been up until 1:30am last night dealing with three different sets of police officers and the insurance company, I have a few small tips for those of you living as-yet-unburgled lifestyles:

1. Serial numbers. Get a pen. And a piece of paper. Write down the make and model names, but most importantly the serial numbers for anything even remotely valuable. Make several copies of this piece of paper.

2. Photographs. Put a white sheet down on your bed. Arrange all of your valuable jewelry on it. Now take photographs of all of them. Stash the photos.

3. Your locks probably suck. If they aren’t Medecos or Smith+Wesson, they can probably be picked in under a minute, or duplicate keys ordered over the internet. Even if they are difficult to pick, your door can be forced with a crowbar. Get a real lock and a support bar.


you can pick your friends and your nose, but not….

One way to brighten up an otherwise bleak and annoying day: open up one of your favorite blogs and find a long and excellent interview with your uncle.

(Well, “uncle” — Andrew isn’t related by blood, but he’s been Family since I was 12.)

ah, family


“I could never tell my grandfather,” Knox allegedly replied; “It would kill him.”

The alleged speaker? Jennifer Knox, currently running for a district court judgeship in North Carolina.

The thing she can’t tell him about? That she’s living with another women.

Her grandfather, who not incidentally is campaigning for her?

Jesse Helms


Bloomberg to Little People: Drop Dead

For a good chunk of the last few years, I’ve been — relative the the standards of my general peer group, anyway — something of an apologist for the Bloomberg administration. It would be a stretch to call me a supporter, but I didn’t feel like the city was being particularly ill-served by him as a Mayor, and I even approved of a few of his initiatives. It basically boiled down to:

  • After Giuliani, anyone could appear calm and reasonable in comparison.

  • Selfishly, I like the smoking ban.

  • The NYC Democratic party ran a disgracefully incompetant campaign, and apparently still needed a wake-up call after 8 years of Giuliani.

  • …and Bloomberg campaigned as, and seemed largely to be, a Republican-in-name-only, to wit:

  • A billionaire businessman Republican who was willing to ram through a 20% property tax increase in response to a budget deficit (thus actively pissing off his natural political constituency in the name of fiscal responsibility) was my kind of billionaire businessman Republican.

Well, the last six months have been a harsh jab in the face from reality in re all that. Mayor Mike might personally be far to the left of the national Republican Party, but he’s still chosen membership in that Party, with all that it entails.

First, we had (and continue to have) the insane plans for a sports arena on the west side. We’re closing schools, raising subway fares and closing fire stations, but apparently we have half a billion dollars to hand to the New York Jets.

And then, when the Party bigwigs came to town, they didn’t even have to pull on his leash to bring him to heel, and he was more than happy to bring us the lasting shame known as Guantanamo on the Hudson. Then, to add insult to injury, it was seriously mooted to keep it open after the convention.

This is all old news, of course: I’m mostly just posting this to let a few friends know: you were right, I was wrong. Never trust the fuckers. Ever.

The thing that happened to remind me that I needed to post this was a much, much smaller issue, but one that (to my tiny trainspotting heart anyway) perfectly encapsulates the arrogant, disconnected and incompetent nature of the Bloomberg adminstration even when they are doing something nominally good:

This week, you see, was the 100th Anniversary of the New York City Subway. The MTA has been having a pretty bad year of it, what with being caught completely faking their financials and having back-to-back fare hikes. A little positive news, a little focus on the subway’s happy history would be just what the doctor ordered. And so, as part of the celebration, they briefly re-opened the famous Old City Hall Station, an architectural masterpiece that has been closed to the public for nearly sixty years…

…opened it, that is, for an un-announced-to-the-public private party of City Government figures, MTA honchos and press, who were entertained by MTA employees dressed up in 1905 period clothes. Only when the assorted dignataries had left were any mere citizens let into the station, which was held open for all of two and a half hours, closing promptly at 4:30 lest anyone with an actual job outside of the City Hall area get any silly ideas about seeing part of their city’s history and cultural heritage.

The Bloomberg ethos in a nutshell: it’s our city, you plebes just rent here.

In the 1970s, many insolvent cities faced the threat of governmental takeover by state and federal authorities if they didn’t fix their budgets. If the NYC Democratic party can’t actually get their act together enough to sweep this gang of idiots out of office in 2006, the national party should consider doing something analogous and putting the city party into receivership.

Sheesh, You People™

So last night, and I made a thermos full of hot chocolate and spent the evening out in Inwood Hill Park, watching the eclipse. It was lovely. On the way back to our apartment, we found a gaggle of our neighbors parked on the corner of 207th and Seaman, doing the same thing, only with binoculars and cameras. We hung around and chatted. A nice moment.

In the fifteen minutes between getting back home and collapsing into bed, I had a moderately funny thought about a zombie Babe Ruth, so I opened up the laptop and blogged it. Then: sweet unconsciousness.

This morning, I woke up well-rested and sauntered into the office far closer to on-time than I normally do. First things first: open up the news sites. Whaddya know, the Sox won. Yay, I think to myself, I can finally start having conversations with 80% of my friends that will not involve baseball again.

Then, I check my mail.

Thirty comments on the Zombie Babe Ruth post, including play-by-play commentary on the last few innings. Obviously I had some karmic debt to pay off here.

I love you guys dearly. And I am very happy for you. But y’all are freaky. Just sayin.

random question

So… if the Red Sox win the world series under a blood-red lunar eclipse, does that mean that the corpse of Babe Ruth will rise from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living?

precisely 0.00023 minutes of fame

My inexorable march toward global media domination continues with, um, a shout-out at a blog by and for nerdy libertarian-leaning economists. Thanks, Steven!

A note to MR readers: the photo gallery is hosted on my asthmatic old Sun Netra server, connected to a puny little DSL line. So if it seems slow, that’s because, well, it’s slow. Sorry. Also, the travelogue is as-yet incomplete; check back in a day or two for the THRILLING CONCLUSION™ (will our hero overcome his food poisoning to achieve victory over his arch-nemesis, the Hanoi taxi driver?!) featuring a special guest Appearance by actual Famous Bloggers®.

great jumping zombie jesus

Did I just sit down and write something like 5,000 words in a single evening?

Yes, yes I did. Uh, sorry about that.

Now if only I could channel my glossolalia into something profitable, or at least publishable.

Hanoi, Rockily

Our first full day in Hanoi dawned with me in much the same state that I’d woken up at 2am in. And again at 3:30am. And again at 5am. A happy camper, I was not. Ready to explore and conquer a new city, I was nowhere close to being. In bed, I was staying.

Miranda went out with my blessings to go in search of food and generally check out our new surroundings. I spent most of the morning asleep. The parts of the morning I did not spend asleep do not bear recounting, so instead I will take this space to shoehorn in a few random observations about Viet Nam that I either never managed to find an obvious place in the narrative for, or which I forgot to relate at the appropriate time:

  • Like most airports, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) International Airport has a large duty-free market immediately adjacent to the baggage claim and arrivals hall. Unlike most such shops, the duty-free in Saigon seems to concentrate largely on…large household appliances? Indeed, the Saigon duty-free was stuffed to the gills with (mostly Korean, but some Japanese) air conditioners, washing machines, televisions and DVD/VCD players. This struck me as incredibly odd, but Miranda explained it handily: it’s so that Vietnamese expatriates (American, Australian and European) coming back to visit can buy appliances for their relatives. (Korean appliances in Vietnam: stupidly cheap by western standards, astonishingly expensive by local ones.)

  • In just about every city in Vietnam, there is a street called Le Loi. This is for pretty much the same reason that there is a Washington street in every city in the USA: Le Loi was the first emperor of the Le dynasty, and what he was famous for was forcibly ejecting Kublai Khan’s invading mongol army from Viet Nam— on three separate occasions. Le Loi’s rule began in 1428. Dozens of other Vietnamese folk heros are venerated for pretty much the exact same reason: kicking out one or another foreign invader. And Roosevelt thought we could just give them back to the French after WW2?

  • Our guide through the Mekong Delta tour was a personable young man from Sinh Cafe Tourism named Mr. Le. He was prone to koans: unprompted on the tour bus, he recited “a riddle” that asked which of your father, your teacher and your king you should save from drowning if you could save only one. (When prompted at the end of the tour for the answer, he got a small smile on his face and averred that there wasn’t one.) He wore a shirt with a Polo logo on the breast…and a Diesel logo on the collar.

  • I spend a lot of time in this chapter grousing about the meter cabs in Hanoi. I feel like I should point out that in every other city we visited, the meter cabs were our preferred means of getting around. Everywhere outside Hanoi, they were clean, honest and hassle-free.

  • Although Vietnam is, seemingly, eternally and endlessly under construction, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of local heavy industry yet: we saw cranes, bulldozers, streamrollers and concrete mixers aplenty, but they were mostly Daewoo and Hyundai, with the occasional Mitsubishi or Yamaha thrown in for good measure.

  • In contrast, while there did seem to be plenty of local manufacturers of scooters and mopeds, “Honda” has become to two-wheeled transit in Viet Nam was “Xerox” is to photocopying in the US: a brand name that has transmigrated into a generic noun. A moped taxi is a “Honda Om”. A scooter repair stand will be marked by a sign saying merely “Hon Da”

Around 11am, Miranda returned, having spent a lovely morning wandering through Hanoi’s old quarter, and bearing breakfast: a pair of perfect baugettes snagged from one of the dozens of bakery vendors who are everywhere in Hanoi. By this time, I was woozy from lack of food but not actually hungry, so white bread was just about perfect. I chewed slowly and considered my options: my GI tract was still a mess, but checkout time was at noon and we needed to get across town to the hotel we’d booked for the last two nights in Hanoi. A much, much nicer hotel. Visions of hot showers and unflooded floors beguiled me. Thoughts of braving another Hanoi taxi ride in this state chilled me. Really, it wasn’t much of a choice: I popped a handful of Imodium and prayed that my abused gut would cooperate.

We wheeled our luggage out the door and into the piercingly bright Hanoi morning. Our hotel was on a small street filled with other hotels, internet cafes, vendors… whatever, whatever, whatever, was there a cab anywhere nearby? Thank the god of sick travellers, there was a meter taxi parked at the end of the block. We took off toward it to find the driver snoozing inside: I rapped on the window and he popped the trunk. As we were loading our bags in, he sauntered over and asked where we were going: Miranda gave him the address, and he smiled:

“No meter. Seven dollars.”

Oh, the taxicabs of Hanoi. Apparently it’s never too early for a laugh. Miranda and I both pointed bluntly at the “meter cab” sign on top of the car. “Meter,” we insisted. He demurred again, and my patience expired: I stared lifting my bag back out of the trunk. Another cab was, miracle of miracles, passing by the intersection. I waved at him, hefting the bag.

Suddenly, our cab was a meter cab again. He took a leisurely route to our new hotel, and it still cost less than three dollars. Just to make the circus complete, he tried first not to give me any change, and then, when I insisted, to shortchange me. I began to despair that I would never be able to tip a cabbie in Hanoi.

We had, finally, made it to the De Syloia Hotel. This was a hotel that Miranda had done an inspection of in her former job as a tour operator, and it was her favorite of all of the hotels she’d had to see in Hanoi. When we booked the trip, we’d figured that by this time we might be in need of a little luxury (and besides, this was an anniversary trip). The moment we walked in, my head aching and stomach rumbling, I decided that this was the best decision we’d ever made in our lives. The room was gorgeous, spotless and immense. The bed had chocolates on it. The bathroom was larger than several of the hotel rooms we’d stayed in previously. I fell in love. Then I fell down.

After resting for another hour or so, it was time to face the question: was I a man or a mouse? We only had two nights in Hanoi, so losing an entire day to travellers stomach seemed out of the question. We poked through the Lonely Planet for something suitably unchallenging. Ho Chi Minh’s tomb was closed, and I was not feeling anywhere near being up to a walking tour of the old quarter. Hm… Temple of Literature? Sure! More Imodium? Yes, please!

Not feeling like doing battle with another taxicab, we spent a bit of time in the room poring over the map to pick out a route to the Temple. It looked pretty simple: half a mile down Pho Tran Hung Dao from the hotel, then jog right at the train station and left on Nguyen Khuyen, then down two blocks and you’re right there. Simple, right?

Well, almost. We ran into two problems almost immediately. First, Nguyen Khuyen either had no street sign, or we somehow missed the sign. (More likely the latter: one of the nicest things about Viet Nam for the western traveller is that street name signs are usually well-posted.) Second, the Lonely Planet map was a bit tenuous in its relation to street-level reality. Third, suddenly there was a big honkin’ statue of Vladimir Lenin in front of us when we knew for a fact that we’d been walking away from Lenin Park:

We later figured out that the Lenin Memorial and Lenin Park are completely different things. Oops. No matter: a few blocks past Vladimir Illyich, we found a marked intersection that actually showed up on the LP map, and we were off again.

The Temple of Literature is, for an American, almost inconceivably old. It was founded in 1070, and became the site of Viet Nam’s first university in 1076. A series of courtyards, lakes and pavilions, it contains stone stele, carried on the backs of stone turtles, on which are carved the names of graduating doctoral students…from 1442 onward.

Some photos:

Best of all, the Temple had many, many park benches scattered around its ornamental ponds, where I was quite happy to sit down for a while and rest.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped off at a small restaurant outside the Temple called “KOTO” (an acronym for “Know One, Teach One”), which is actually a charitable foundation that serves to employ and educate Hanoi’s (large and, sadly, growing) street kid population. I wasn’t feeling up to actual food, but they had something wonderful on the menu called a “tea toddy”: a kettle of ginger tea steeped with cloves, cinnamon and other herbs. Mixed with a strong shot of honey, it was about the perfect thing for my stomach.

Hanoi Rocky

We arrived at Hanoi International Airport somewhere around 9pm. Another 20 minutes got burned waiting for our luggage to be extracted from the plane, and then we were off to find a cab.

Oh, the taxis of Hanoi.

Getting the cab was no problem: there was an actual, orderly taxi queue at the airport, where a white-shirted attendant helped us into the first available car. We’d prudently written down the name and address of our hotel on a card to hand to the driver, and all of Hanoi’s airport cabs are a flat US$10 fare anywhere into the city, so there was no haggling: away we went.

The first 20 minutes or so were down the airport access road, which was a shocking sight: a four-lane highway with an actual center divider! Of course, this didn’t mean that our cabbie paid any attention to the lane markers on our side (he did not) or that he didn’t spend half the trip tailgaiting much larger vehicles while holding down his horn (he did), but the highway itself was still an amazing sight.

Of course in true Viet Nam infrastructure style, the highway peters to a dead stop just on the outskirts of Hanoi, and the rest of the trip into the city is spent on the usual twisty 1.5-lane streets clogged with scooters. Adding to the list of amazing uses that the Honda moped has been put to in Viet Nam, several of the ones we passed that night were loaded up with what appeared to be an entire farm’s harvest of green onions! The scallions were bundled up in blocks comprised of two or three hundred onions, and each bike had about seven or eight of the blocks carefully secured on the back as they zoomed past us.

By this point, it was nearly 11pm, we were dead tired, I was feeling increasingly dyspeptic, and we wanted nothing more than to get to our hotel and collapse onto anything that could conceivably be called a bed. So we were extremely happy when we pulled up in front of a hotel…

…and not at all pleased to realize that it was the wrong hotel entirely.

Here, see, is the problem with the taxis of Hanoi: they are clean, they are polite, and they are all on the take. Each taxi is paid kickbacks by a number of hotels that they’ve contracted with to bring tourists there. Sometimes, they will tell you that the hotel you want to go to is closed, or has burned down, or is full. Sometimes, like our driver, they’ll just play dumb and drive up to one of the hotels they’re touting for. Often, by the time the confused tourist realizes what’s going on, the hotel’s bellhops have unloaded their bags from the taxi, at which point you may have to ransom your bags back before you can even try to find another taxi.

Having been warned in advance by the woman we’d made the hotel reservation with, we were having none of it. We handed the driver the card again. He put on a confused look. We opened up the Lonely Planet guide to the Hanoi Map and showed him the intersection. We firmly and politely insisted that we wanted to go to the Stars Hotel at 26 Pho Bat Su. He shrugged, and after about five minutes brought us to…

…another hotel that was not ours. This time, we were perhaps a little less polite, and a little more insistant. We also saw the bellhops angling toward the trunk, which may have added a touch of hysteria. “No. Stars hotel. No no no. 26 Pho Bat Su!” Another shrug, and off we went… to a third hotel that was not ours.

I have never, in all of my travelling around my own country and others, lost it. I have never snapped. I have never yelled. I have never slapped the attitude out of someone who desperately deserved it. This is a matter of some pride with me, especially when travelling in eastern countries, where Americans are smelly barbarians, and maintaining face is everything. This was as close as I have ever come.

This time, the wrong hotel was on Pho Bat Su at least, but it was obviously several blocks away from our actual destination. By chanting “26” over and over again, and making it very obvious that we were not leaving the cab until #26 was where we were, we somehow managed to convince our driver to start the engine up one last time and take us the rest of the way there.

I think that the next time I go to Hanoi, I’m going to get special business cards printed up. They will say, in English, French and Vietnamese:

Hello. I am an American. Specifically, I am from New York. What this means is that I will, reflexively, tip cabbies between ten and twenty percent. But if, and only if, you do not go out of your way to fuck with me.
I understand that part of the problem is that there’s no easy way for a Vietnamese cabbie to tell the difference between an American (who will tip lavishly), a European (who might tip or might not) and an Australian (who will likely never tip a cabbie), but dear lord: did this man think that if we didn’t fall for the first hotel, we might give up after two or three more tries? Apparently so, and since it was a flat fare trip, everyone involved got to go home with the feeling that a great deal of their time had been wasted. Sheesh.

The Stars Hotel turned out to be a narrow backpacker joint with two or three reasonably large rooms per floor. We lugged our bags up to our room on the third level only to find that something in that room had leaked all over the floor. Well then, on to the fourth floor, and by this time I think we would have happily slept in the bathtub as long as it was dry. Two twin beds were pushed together to form a kingsize, and we gratefully dropped into it after the bare minimum of preparation. Soon, we were fast asleep…

Until I wasn’t. Somewhere around 2am, I woke up with that odd prescient aura you get when your body is getting ready to let you know that it’s well and truly unhappy with something. Once consciouness actually filtered in, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what that was.

Let’s just elide the gory details right now and call it Emperor Tu Duc’s Revenge. Foreshadowing is a bitch, and pride goeth before a fall. Or, in my case, a lengthy sit-down.

The night passed…fitfully.

Tour Boat Veterans for Truth (Hue, Pt. 6)

After being ferried back from Khai Dinh’s tomb by another scooter taxi, and having to dodge the “buy me a ridiculously overpriced drink” scam again, we loaded onto the boat, by this time well and truly shagged out, for our last stop: the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang.

The polar opposite of Khai Dinh’s tomb, Minh Mang had opted for a graceful, elegant collection of lakes, pavilions, gardens and temples, set directly on the riverside and surrounded by lush forest. Even with dozens of tourists clambering about, the complex was serene, peaceful and beautiful:

Finally, having had about as much Imperial Tomb-age as one could reasonably require in a lifetime, nevermind a single day, we staggered back to the boat for the long ride back to Hue. Despite the still-stunning river scenery, Miranda and I were both completely wiped out, and spent most of the trip back catnapping. Miranda dozed off so hard that she failed to notice that the World’s Cutest Child was using her back as a helicopter landing pad:

When the boat finally pulled in to Hue nearly an hour later, it was mid-afternoon and we had an evening flight to catch. Needing additional coffee to fortify ourselves, we found the closest cafe to the boat jetty and sat down, whereupon we were instantly joined by three other tourists who’d been on the boat with us: a mother and daughter from Australia, and one of the few other Americans we’d met on the trip, a young woman from California. The ozzies had just arrived the day before, and we got to play Old Hands, encouraging them to try the street food and giving them one of Mrs. Lan’s business cards since they were going to be in Hoi An later. The daughter looked a bit askance at my iced coffee, and asked if it was really safe to have iced drinks, since all the tour books warn you not to. Towering pillar of self-assured masculinity that I am, I poo-poohed this, and assured her that I’d eaten ice all over southeast asia with no ill effects.

If you detect a note of foreshadowing in the previous paragraph, you are both astute and correct. But we’ll get to that soon enough.

After finishing our coffee and saying our goodbyes, we spent much of the remainder of the day at an internet cafe, catching up on email and trying desperately to bring our travelogues anywhere close to up-to-date. Then we took one last walk over the bridge into the old city, to be picked up at our hotel by an airport taxi. Hue’s regional airport is about 20 minutes of the usual gut-wrenching terror up Highway 1: in addition to the normal hazards of nighttime highway travel in Viet Nam, the mid-autumn festival was by this point in full swing, so when we weren’t playing chicken with troop transports attempting to pass people, we were frantically dodging packs of small children taking their Lion Dance routines from house to house.

Anyway, we got to the airport without incident, and then spent the next hour in the universal posture of People Waiting For a Flight, surrounded by several hundred other people in the same posture. There were only two flights out of Hue that evening, one to Hanoi and one to Saigon, and only one waiting room, so we got plenty of opportunity to study our fellow passengers.

Now, Vietnam Air has… how shall I put this? …a bit of a reputation. “The Aeroflot of Asia” would about sum it up, and indeed for many years they were notorious for irregularly departing flights on ancient, deathtrap Russian prop planes. Not being a big fan of wild turbulence, unexpected waits or sudden splattery death, I’m pleased to report that Vietnam Air has put those days long behind it: our flight was called on time, and when we filed out onto the tarmac, an air-conditioned shuttle bus whisked us over to our waiting plane, a shiny new Aerospatiale turboprop 50-seater. The only slightly unpleasant moment of the whole trip was on boarding, and I can’t blame Vietnam Air for the fact that Aerospatiale put the passenger door on this model directly behind the engine exhaust ports. Mmmmmmmmm…. hot diesel exaust! Kaff kaff. (I can, however, blame the French. So there.)

The flight was smooth, professional and uneventful, and we touched down at Hanoi’s airport precisely on time…which is the next chapter.

Tour Boat Veterans for Truth (Hue, Pt. 5)

Our first post-lunch, post-elephant stop: the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh. Emperor from 1916 to 1925, Khai Dinh spent most of his reign as a figurehead for the French, and his tomb, as a result, bears a great deal of european influence. Instead of being the spread-out collection of gardens, pavilions and pagodas that characterized most of the other tombs, Khai Dinh went for the serious more-imposing-than-thou treatment. The entire complex is built into a hillside, with each successive area being above and behind the last, leading up to the sepulchre itself, which stares back down the mountain.

You start at the bottom of the whole thing, staring up a long flight of stairs at the main gate:

Once you climb those stairs, you reach a small intermediary courtyard. Take a breather, you’re going to need it, because you’ve got more stairs to climb:

Are you getting the idea that the Emperor is bigger than you? Maybe a little higher up, too? Good, keep pondering that. Now that you’re in the courtyard with the statues of his servants, maybe you’d like to read about his life and times as you catch your breath? Luckily for you, we’ve got a 15-foot-tall granite monolith with his biography carved into it, tucked inside this massive pavilion:

Now that you’ve caught up on Khai Dinh’s achievements, guess what? More stairs, up to Thien Dinh, the Emperor’s tomb:

Sadly, no photography is allowed inside the tomb, so you’ll just have to take my word about the 12-foot-tall, hundred-foot-square statue of the emperor on his throne, cast out of solid concrete. What I can show you is the view back down:

Ahh, it’s good to be the king. Even if you’re a figurehead, and even if you’re dead.

Tour Boat Veterans for Truth (Hue, Pt. 4)

Now, where were we?

Oh right, somewhere on the Perfume River:

Our next stop was to be the Tomb of the Emperor Tu Duc, who reigned from 1848 to 1883. The Imperial Tombs in Hue are gorgeous, but betray a more-than-a-little morbid side to the Nguyen Dynasty’s emphasis on ancestor worship. Essentially, the Imperial Citadel in Hue was the Emperor’s main castle, and they might have a summer residence or two, and then there was the tomb: their after-death castle. Built during the lifetimes of the emporers they house, some of the tombs did double duty as vacation homes and administrative offices for the emporers while they lived. Nothing like having your own sepulchre be within walking distance of your office to motivate you to get to work in the morning, I guess.

Tu Duc’s tomb is a sprawling complex over several acres of mountainside forest, set back from the banks of the Perfume River by about 2km. Since we were on the four-stops-and-out-in-a-day tour (baaa. moooo.), a leisurely walk up the path from the boat dock to the tomb gate was out of the question, which meant… a honda taxi ride. With dozens of tour boats coming up the river every day, this is something of a cottage industry around Hue, and apparently anyone with a working scooter. an inclination to make a few dollars and no other regular means of employment can be found congregating at the boat moorings, waiting to ferry tourists over to the tomb. Also found there was a cow, for reasons only it knew:

When we’d bought the ticket for the tour, the desk clerk at the hotel had make a point of warning us about the scooter taxis at the tombs: “Only pay one or two dollars. Do not pay them until they take you back. If you pay before…” (here, he made the universal hand gesture for “buh-bye, sucker”) “…your driver gone, then you pay again to go back.” Sure enough, once we had climbed up the stairs from the moorage to the path, a dozen or more scooter drivers all crushed in, demanding $5 in advance to take us there. Negotiation was a pretty word for what ensued: the basic requirement was to just bullheadedly keep repeating “20,000 dong — pay on return” until one of the drivers finally gave in, at which point the whole crowd would go along with the new price.

Once the haggling was done, the ride was actually fun: about three minutes of high-speed derring do along partially paved roads, dodging other scooters and the occasional hay truck.

Some shots from Tu Duc’s Tomb:

(Click on any to enter full gallery)

After about an hour poking through the tomb, we marched back into the arms of our waiting motorcyclists, who zoomed us straight back to… well, not quite the boat, first. First it was time for a scam that the hotel hadn’t warned us about. A few hundred meters from the boat, there was a small open-air refreshment stand, selling soda and water. My driver pulled up in front of the stand, the proprietor of which immediately rushed out to greet him with a bottle of cold water in each hand. She quickly pushed a bottle into the driver’s hands, and attempted to hand one to me. Since I had a bottle of my own in my pack, I waved it off, and was a little confused when she kept asking “You buy water?” After a few seconds of gesticulating, the idea became clear: I was being asked to buy my driver a small bottle of water. For 10,000 Dong.

Now on one hand… d10,000 is barely 60 cents. On the other hand, the bottle in question was barely 10 ounces, and the going overpriced-for-tourists rate for that size bottle was d5,000. At a guess, I’d suspect that the local price was probably closer to d1,500 if even that. This struck me as a bit past what general good-naturedness required: I fixed a benign smile on my face and said “sorry, no.” This took a few repetitions, and then finally the stand owner made an “enough of this nonsense” noise and I was whisked back to the boat.

The next stop was a tiny Buddhist monastery built into the steep mountain walls overhanging the river. Hon Chen Temple was small: so small that neither Lonely Planet nor the Rough Guide saw fit to mention it. It was nonetheless charming; we’d arrived just before lunch time, and the monks and nuns were placing the noonday meal as offerings at the various altars. (After a time in front of the altars, the meals would be taken back and eaten.)

Some shots from Hon Chen Temple:

(Click on any photo to enter the full gallery.)

After we’d spent a few minutes poking through the temple, we were herded back onto the boat, which had retrofitted itself as a floating cafeteria: long tables had been brought out, and our chairs arranged around them. The included was aggressively minimal: rice and steamed vegetables for the most part. Miranda and I had ordered a plate of spring rolls to supplement it, and ended up having to playfully fend off the vulturing of our tablemates.

After lunch was done and we were sitting around waiting to get to the next location, someone looked out the side of the boat and said “Hey, look at those statues of elephants across the river.” Miranda and I hustled over to look, and one of the statues moved. Not statues. Elephants:

fear of an old planet

Things that in my entire life I would never have expected to see anywhere, much less less than ten feet in front of me:

Brigitte Nielsen, passionately kissing Flava Flav.

…but I guess that it’s no weirder than going to a Public Enemy / Living Colour show in NYC and realizing that the median age of the audience is probably somewhere in the vicinity of 35. Which in turn is no weirder than realizing that even the 35-year-olds in the audience are a decade younger than Chuck D.

Well, actually, I take it back. Flav tongue-kissing Red Sonja is still the weirdest of all of those things.

So, yeah, I’m old, my peer group is old, and the hot/edgy/controversial bands we liked in high school are also: old. So what do you do when your gold records are a decade behind you, Rolling Stone is no longer calling you for commentary on current political events, bald spots outnumber bare chests at your shows, and nobody under the age of 25 even knows your name anymore? Well, hopefully you suck it up, screw it on, and put on a monster show regardless, which is exactly what PE and LC did last night.

I’d never personally seen Public Enemy in concert before, so I’ve got jack to compare it to other than a dim memory of them playing Saturday Night Live. Still…they pulled it off like an old prizefighter who never got the message that his day was done. Most of that is down to Mr. Chuck D: he’s got a voice like an old testament prophet, the stage presence to match, still bounces around like a jackrabbit, and had enough respect for the audience to work PE’s back catalog with both enthusiasm for the old beats and enough embellishments to keep the attention hooked. Does “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” still rock? Yes, yes it does. Did a James Brown-style funk breakdown of “Fight the Power” work? Yes, yes indeed. Was a 5-minute long audience participation chant of “FUCK GEORGE BUSH” necessary? Hell yes. Res ipsa loquitor.

The “Security of the First World” dancers/bodyguards/whatever were kinda cool/menacing in 1989 when there were like twelve of them: the 2004 incarnation of the band is down to two, still wearing the same grey jumpsuits and striking the same poses, and suddenly seem a lot more Devo than Huey Newton. Terminator X is long-gone, but “DJ Lord” stood in well enough. Professor Griff is still onstage, doing…whatever it is that he does. (Seriously? Anyone? I mean other than stand uncomfortably and think bad things about Jews?)

And Flava Flav was, of course, beamed in direct from planet Neptune.

So yeah, after a good 90 minute set from PE, Chuck and the rest of the band cleared off, leaving us, the unsuspecting audience… alone with Flava Flav. And his three children. And Brigitte Nielsen. See, apparently, Flav and Brigitte now have their own reality TV show, called “Mad Love”. And this concert was to feature in an upcoming episode. So for a good 20 minutes after the set, we were treated to Flav canoodling onstage with Brigitte, introducing his kids, attempting to play a drum solo, trying to lure DJ Lord back onstage, trying (and failing) to play a beat on Lord’s turntables on his own, having his oldest daughter mercifully shut down the turntable, giving a shout-out to his ex-wife (who apparently was in the audience) and then doing about half of “Can’t Do Nuthin For Ya Man” a capella before being coaxed offstage by Living Colour’s road crew, who were not-very-patiently waiting in the wings to set up.

Oh, and did I mention that Brigitte was wearing fake all-gold Flava Flav teeth? And speaking with a lisp because of them? I could not make this stuff up if I tried.

How do you follow an act like that? There is only one answer: pretend it didn’t happen. Which is exactly what Living Colour did, thank all the gods.

I last saw LC live about two years ago at Summerstage in Central Park, which was actually their first live show in something like 7 years. For a variety of reasons, it basically stank. Part of it was that the audience was awful: most of them were there to see the opening act (Asian Dub Foundation) and they left in droves once Living Colour was on. But mostly it was the band: they sounded like… well, they sounded like a band that hadn’t played together in nearly a decade, which is exactly what they were. Vernon looked kinda embarrassed about the whole thing, and poor Corey’s theatrics couldn’t connect with a rapidly departing audience that was mostly still in grade school the last time he’d had a gold single.

This show was…not like that. The band was inhumanly tight from two years of touring and cutting a new album together. Vernon Reid tends to get most of the musical attention for the group for his “video arcade on fire” art-skronk guitar shredding, but for my money there may be no better rhythm section in the world right now than Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish. From the opening crunch of “Type” through the final, inevitable encore of “Cult of Personality”, they didn’t let up for one instant.

(Well, except for the new, Wimbish-penned “Terrorism”, about which the less said the better.)

An interesting consequence of going to a rap/metal show where there is basically nobody under the age of 25 in the audience: even when the band onstage is pounding your lights out, it’s almost… relaxing. No fights. No attitude. No teenage testosterone bullshit. Even the brief appearance of a slam pit during “Cult” was all smiles and happy nostalgia. Age has its privileges.

After the encore, the band hung around onstage to sign autographs and shoot the shit with their fans: a class finale to an excellent night.

stranger than science fiction…

Everyone is now officially wondering: what’s that weird bulge on Bush’s back?

(from, click to enlarge)

Well… I think I read that book already…

Maybe that pretzel did more damage than we thought? It would certainly explain the President’s chronic balance issues.

Tour Boat Veterans for Truth (Hue, Pt. 3)

[Sigh, apologies to both of my readers for falling down on the job here: between a week of jetlag, getting back to work, dealing with the enormous bolus of photos and coming down with a cold, my energy for post-facto travelblogging has been pretty minimal. I’m going to try to push through the remainder a bit quickly in hopes of just getting it done: hopefully whatever I lose in narrative coherence will be made up for by the presence of pretty pictures.]

Our last day in Hue dawned to a slightly cloudy but promisingly unthreatening sky, a somewhat superfluous wake-up call, and still no hot water in the shower. Oh well, cold showers are refreshing in a tropical climate, right? Well, actually not very much, at least not first thing in the morning. We chalked it up to the vagaries of a $15 hotel room, packed up our bags to leave at the front, and had a quick breakfast at the hotel buffet.

At 8:30am sharp, our ride to the boat dock arrived: a pair of scooters. With a small prayer to whatever gods watch over backpackers about to do something incredibly ill-advised (with a small note of thanks that at least they weren’t expecting us to go three on a single bike), we climbed on back and took off. Hue’s traffic isn’t a patch on Saigon’s, and at 8:30 we had missed most of the morning rush, which still left plenty of room for the ride to be terrifying. Miranda’s driver was substantially more aggressive than mine, and I soon lost track of them as we wove through traffic. It’s one thing to see the moped riders in packs of 50 with no more than an inch of clearance between or betwixt them; quite another to actually be in the middle of it…

Actually, it’s kind of exhilarating. Maybe I should try bike racing some day.

Miranda had wondered when we booked the trip if the $2 tour if we would get to go on one of the dragon boats or if we’d be consigned to a normal tourist boat. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried: all the tourist boats on the Perfume River are dragon boats. They deal with the economy-class tours by putting them onto… a double-wide dragon boat:

This boat was owned and run by a single family, of which it turned out Miranda’s madwoman scooter-taxi driver was the eldest daughter. Dad navigated, eldest son dealt with the engine, mom (who had the most English) was the general tourist-wrangler, and the baby daughter cunningly distracted everyone from any rough edges of the trip by running around on-deck and generally being the cutest child ever.

Seriously, the entire gaggle of tourists spent at least as much time smiling and playing with her as we did looking at any of the stunning riverside scenery.

Around 9, the boat slowly putted out of the docks and up the river, past the Quoc Hoc or National School, Hue’s century-plus-old school that claimed Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh as attendees; Miranda and I immediately began referring to it as Ho Chi Minh High:

After about 20 minutes of moving slowly and noisily up the Perfume river, we arrived at our first destination: Thien Mu Pagoda. The temple (although not the current structure) dates from 1601, and is easily Hue’s most famous monument. Sadly, it is most famous to westerners (if it’s known at all) as being the homeplace of Thich Quang Doc, the monk who famously set himself on fire in Saigon to protest the suppression of Buddhists by the (Catholic, American-supported) Diem government in 1963. There is a small memorial to Thich behind the temple proper, where (of all things), the Austin motorcar he drove to Saigon in is preserved:

Unfortunatly, the pagoda itself, a 7-story monolith dating from the mid-1800s, is currently, uh, a little the worse for wear:

This is apparently a recent development: neither the guidebooks nor (ahem) the hotel had mentioned that the pagoda was currently hidden behind an impenetrable wall of bamboo scaffolding. It was a little disappointing, but at least the pagoda’s contents were still visible: they had largely been moved to a pavilion behind the pagoda where the monks still performed services:

After about half an hour of poking around the temple complex, we realized that we were running out of time before the boat’s stated departure time, and hurried back to the dock.

[Exhaustion and cold medication take their toll: to be continued…]

put down that pickle, Roccoco…

Walking over to the Loews 34th Street cinema last night in order to go see “Shaun of the Dead” with a bunch of the usual miscreants, Miranda and I were stopped in our tracks… well, I was stopped in my tracks, and Miranda put up with the delay, by a truly weird sight:

Nick Danger? Nick Danger? That can’t be…Nick Danger, Third Eye…can it?

My first thought: someone had finally put together the money to make a feature-length Firesign Theatre film. But that would be insane, not to mention unlikely. Plus, there’s that disurbing URL: Wear Nick Danger? Huh?

Well, it turns out that this “Nick Danger” is a line of… and I emphasize that I am not making this up… really ugly retro-70s argyle sweaters. Oh well, I guess it’s about the right era…

today’s lesson

The sound of ceramic floor tile being hand-cut and filed sounds exactly like fingernails on a blackboard.

Titanium fingernails on the biggest blackboard in the world.

My spine may never be the same again.

Still Life with Tourist

One thousand, one hundred and twenty five photos.

One thousand, one hundred and twenty five photos.

No wonder my index finger fell off.

A few warnings:

  • These photos are not yet captioned. I am going to do this, but for the love of god, not tonight. They’re roughly sorted by location, but if you’re looking for any kind of context, you might want to check back in a few days.

  • For some reason, the orientation on some of these photos is off by 90 degrees. Dunno what’s up with that. (Well, I have my suspicions, but they’re geeky and boring and irrelevant.) I’m fixing it. Slowly.

  • The problem with taking 1,125 photos is that you then have to sort, crop, rotate, resize, rebalance, touch up and occasionally outright trash… 1,125 photos. So I apologize for the worse than usual quality-control issues here. I will probably try to produce a “best of” gallery for the family. Later.

  • If stuff is loading really, really slowly, please back off and try again later. This is just my DSL line here. Have mercy.

A few lessons learned:

  • Time spent making sure the camera is parallel to the horizon is time well-spent.

  • Unless I’m shooting cloudscapes, keep extraneous sky out of frame lest I be called upon to crop it later.

  • That through-an-open-door-or-window shot I’m so enamored of? STOP THAT. Sheesh.

Yes, honestly, I will finish up the travelogue this week. But not tonight: unconscious beckons.

A few more shots I like:


I’ve always been unduly pleased with myself for hating Maureen Dowd before it was cool, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it too. Don’t think of it as following the crowd, think of it as coming slightly late to a party that’s just getting started, and where everyone wants to buy you drinks.

Why does MoDo still have her job? Inquiring minds want to know, so why not ask?

(Sorry, evidence of Dowd-hatred on my part prior to 2004 not only predates this blog, it predates blogging. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

I swallowed a bug: two nights in Hue (pt. 2)

Jeeze, these are long-winded. Time to start putting stuff behind cuts.

Our first full day in Hue dawned with us more or less waking up in time for our 6:30am alarm, which was a marked improvement in our jet-lagginess from the previous days, which had all involved waking up at 4:30 or so and then tossing fitfully until the alarm went off. Miranda had made reservations for a boat trip to the imperial tombs, departing at 8am from the hotel lobby, so we quickly tried to shower and get breakfast…

…only to find that (a) there was no hot water, and (b) the bathroom had a small ant problem. Well, actually a large problem of small ants. I took a rather abbreviated washcloth-bath, flicked the ants off my tooth and hairbrushes, and wandered over to the hotel restuarant (a charming semi-enclosed building inside a tiny chinese-style garden complete with footbridge) to quickly gulp down some coffee and rolls before setting out.

Or such, anyway, was the plan. The reality went a bit different: as I was working my way through my second cup of coffee, there was an enormous roll of thunder that shook the silverware on my table, and what had previously been a mild mist turned suddenly and irrevocably into a torrential downpour. Since we were allegedly slated to take motorcycle taxis from the hotel over to the boat dock, and I had not actually brought a rain poncho with me, this struck me as poorly timed, and I dashed back to the room to strategize with Miranda. We quickly came to the conclusion that getting onto the back of a moped in this kind of weather was not exactly the kind of excitement we’d had in mind for the day, and we were just wondering what the chances were of the hotel letting us re-book the trip for the next day when the room phone rang: it was the hotel travel desk, wondering if we’d like to re-book the tour for the next day? Problem solved.

That left this day free to poke around the old Imperial Citadel…if only the weather would cooperate. After about an hour of sipping coffee in the hotel restaurant, the rain finally slowed up to a steady drizzle, and we figured it was now or never. Luckily, the hotel was just a short walk and very pretty walk along the lily-filled moats to the citadel entrance, and we quickly got our tickets and entered just in front of a small horde of Japanese tourists.

Like the Forbidden City in China, Hue’s Imperial Citadel is a city-within-the-city, surrounded by its own wall (with seperate entrances at the front for mandarins, civilians, elephants and the imperial retinue), with assorted administrative (mandarin) and other (the imperial library, the empress’ quarters, etc) buildings surrounding a central core (the Forbidden Purple City) reserved for the emporer’s sole and personal use. Unlike the Forbidden City in China, the Citadel was bombed mercilessly for about 30 years: first by the French, and then by the Americans. Most of the Forbidden Purple City is just open fields and blasted wall fragments now, but enough of the outbuildings survive to give you an idea of how impressive it must have looked before the fall, and the ruined buildings have a definite “look upon my works ye mighty and despair” sort of majesty to them.

We spent most of the morning poking through the citadel, occasionally getting pinned down in one of the buildings when the rain started coming down harder again. The halls of the mandarins have been converted into museums and gift shops, and several large buildings in the eastern quadrant have become the Hue Academy of Music, so we were treated to the somewhat disconcerting (but highly amusing) sound of a trumpter and a pianist both practicing scales as we picked our way over the ruins. The rain and cloud cover both kept the temperature within relatively tolerable limits for once, and seemed to keep the number of other tourists in the area rather low, so it was actually a perfectly lovely time.

By 1-oclock, we’d managed to make a complete circuit of the citadel, and headed off into town to get some lunch, cash some travellers’ checks, make travel arrangements to Hanoi and do some shopping. We got as far as lunch: we’d just settled down for some odd but tasty meat-on-a-stick-wrapped-with-ricepaper things at a traveller’s cafe called “Stop and Go” when the rain got tired of fucking around and began to come down in earnest. For the next two hours, as we ate our food and sipped our tea, we watched as sheets and sheets of rain pounded Hue’s streets. Luckily for us, Hue’s rain sewers appeared to be made of sterner stuff than Saigon’s, so at least on the block we were on, there was no flooding.

About halfway through the storm, an older woman walked in off the streets, selling…rain ponchos! A few minutes of enthusiastic haggling later, I was the proud owner of a new, bright purple vinyl poncho, and the hawker was happily walking off with my money.

An interesting cultural observation of, as far as I can tell, absolutely no significance whatsoever: although Viet Nam and southern China are both prone to the same sort of violent downpours during the rainy season, umbrellas are virtually unknown in VN, while in China — or Shanghai at least — ponchos were almost universally abjured in favor of umbrellas. If I had to guess, I’d blame this on the Vietnamese enthusiasm for motor scooters (which they are quite happy to ride in the rain) as compared to increasingly car-centric China, but it may just be as simple as an unwillingness to pay for new umbrella after new umbrella after they are inevitably destroyed by the wind.

At long last, the rain finally slacked off enough to make walking possible again, and we toddled off in search of a travel agency to book our last leg of transit to Hanoi. Conveniently, there was one just about two blocks down, on a street that had had far less luck with its sewers and was now completely flooded out. After some perusal of schedules, we realized that another overnight train trip wasn’t in the cards: the next day’s boat trip was going to put us back in town no earlier than 4pm, and the next train that we had any chance of making wouldn’t put us in Hanoi until 2pm the next day. Luckily, Vietnam Air tickets to Hanoi weren’t actually much more expensive than the train, so we booked a pair, a process that involved going out into the rain and getting quite lost attempting to find the nearest branch of VietComBank in order to cash some travellers checks in order to actually afford the tickets. (A process that was almost, but not quite, amusing enough to warrant writing up.)

Tickets in hand, we spent the rest of the afternoon poking through Hue’s Dong Ba market, a block-square, indoor-outdoor market that sits on the shore of the Perfume River. Here, we were treated to an interesting scheme: a small boy came up to us while we were sitting down so Miranda could drink some sugarcane juice, and stuck out his hand for a donation. Not really feeling like encouraging begging for cash, I handed him one of the mangosteens I’d just bought. After a bit of back and forth, he gathered that I just wasn’t going to give him money, so he took the offered mangosteen…and turned around and sold it right back to the woman I’d bought it from, for 1,000 VND. Waste not, want not I guess.

A small comment here on Vietnam’s markets: One of the things I most love about travelling in Asia is the markets. They tend to be huge, sprawling, unbelieveably dense, and have literally everything from shoes to food to fabric to blacksmithing equipment for sale. I can happily wander through them for hours, just soaking up the kind of old-time direct commerce that you really don’t get in the States anymore. The meat and fish sections, however, can be a bit of an olfactory danger: there’s usually no refridgeration at all. The markets in Thailand and China tended to get a little gaseous after mid-morning, and the meat market in Siem Reap, Cambodia was hands-down the foulest place I have ever been in. The meat sections of Vietnam’s markets, however, were amazingly clean: even in the late afternoon, I never ran into more than a hint of rotting smell anywhere. I’m not entirely certain how they managed it, but it gave me a lot more confidence in the food I was eating, especially at the street stands.

On our way out from Dong Ba and back to the hotel, we stopped at a public phone in order to reserve a hotel for the single extra night we suddenly were going to have in Hanoi by virtue of taking the plane there. We picked a backpackers’ hotel more or less at random out of Lonely Planet, and when we spoke to them were sternly admonished to not let our taxi driver try to tell us that they were closed or full. This turned out to be sadly prescient, but that story gets told two chapters hence…

Back at the hotel, while Miranda spent some time checking her email and updating her journal, I sat at the bar nursing a tonic water, hoping to settle down a suddenly jumpy stomach. It was dusk by that point, and while I was sitting there, there was a sudden cacophany of shouting and drumming over by the restuarant. Wandering over, it appeared that the Mid-Autumn Festival was in full swing: a troupe of about seven boys, around 7 or 8 years old, had wandered in off the street and was performing a lion dance for the very amused staff and handful of customers at the hotel. I handed a few of my small bills to the boy playing the lion-tamer role, who dutifully put them on his fan and “fed” them to the lion. It was almost unbearably cute, and a great way to end the day.

I swallowed a bug: two nights in Hue (pt. 1)

Our arrival in Hue was inauspicious, to say the least. After three hours on the bus, we pulled in on a random street in Hue’s backpackers’ district, and were summarily discharged with our bags, to be set upon by ravening hordes of hotel touts. At least three of them were shoving their cards in our faces within the first 30 seconds after we’d disembarked, and one of them was so persistant that he followed us down the street trying to get our attention, even though we’d already said “we have a reservation” about a zillion times, and even his friends were trying to get him to desist. After the drinks scam in Hoi An and the postcard hawkers along the Hai Van Pass, it was a bit much, and Miranda and I were both getting unusually short with them very quickly.

After about a block of dragging our stuff and resisting the urge to stiff-arm the touts, a lone meter cab showed up. We could have kissed him. A few seconds later, we were on our way to our hotel, Tranh Noi (“Royal Garden” I think), a sprawling place in the old quarter. We checked in with no incident, to a room that was substantially nicer-looking than we were expecting for $15/night.

After dropping all my bags on the second bed, I poked my head into the bathroom to rinse off my face, turned on the light and exhaust fan, and made the terrible mistake of looking up: through the whirring blades of the fan, I had a clear and unobstructed view on up to the roofbeams. (Shades of the converted nunnery we stayed at in China!) It’s a weird quirk of my brain that unexpected views into a building’s non-habitable structures are something I find deeply creepy, and I resolved to keep my eyes at horizon level in that bathroom thereafter.

Poking through Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide, we found that most of the town’s restaurants were back in the backpackers’ quarter where we’d just been, and had no urge to return to. There were only two listed as anywhere near our hotel, and feeling deeply unambitious and a little tired after the long bus trip, we set out after the nearest one.

While the old quarters of Saigon and Hanoi tend to be the densest, most urban parts of the city, Hue is quite different: the old quarter is actually the old Imperial City, modelled (quite consciously, by the Nguyen emporers) after China’s Forbidden City. The old quarter lies on the far side of the Perfume River from the rest of the city, seperated further by 12’ tall and 8’ thick brick walls, with occasional breaks in them that, once sized for a single elephant, now serve as a chokepoint for the nightly traffic of scooters and cyclos. Inside the city walls, the streets are wide (by Vietnamese standards) and widely spaced, and many of the large blocks created are used entirely for parkland. The sidewalks are tree-lined (and often tree-in-the-middle-of-for-no-discernable-reason-ed), and traffic is light by local standards (there seems to be some restrictions on how many or what kind of cars can come into the old city): it makes for a lovely stroll in the evening.

…which was good, because after ten minutes of strolling, we determined that the numbering scheme on the streets made no sense whatsoever. I think that the problem was that the two sides of the streets were numbered independently, and numbering was reset at one of the avenues, but I wouldn’t swear to it. In any case, it took about 15 minutes longer than we’d expected to find our restaurant, and when we got there, disaster struck: it was no longer there! An apologetic gentleman at the house at the listed address handed us the restaurant’s business card, which listed a different address; apparently they had moved to a different location. A little disappointed (and a touch embarrassed at having barged into what appeared to now be just a private residence), we marched off toward the second-closest restaurant, a place called “Lac Thanh” by Lonely Planet, and “Lac Thien” by Rough Guide. Apparently a local institituion, it was purportedly run by a deaf-mute and his family, and one ordered by pointing and signing. Since this was pretty much how we’d had to order at every other restaurant in Viet Nam, this didn’t strike us as much of a hardship.

When we reached the listed address (which was just on the other side of the river, requiring the somewhat hair-raising process of walking through the one of the wall tunnels), the reason for the confusion between the two books became clear, and we got an illuminating example of how microcapitalism functions, Vietnamese-style: there were not one, but three “Lac Thanh/Thien/Thian” restuarants on this one streetcorner. All of them purport to be run by deaf-mutes, each one of them claimed on their signs to be the “real Lac (whatever)” endorsed by Lonely Planet, and of course all three of them were being hawked by a group of energetic touts. (To make matters even more confusing, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide disagree on which one of the three was the original one.) Normally by this point we would have turned right around and tried to find a likely street vendor somewhere, but it was late and we were famished, so we picked the one nearest to us (Lac Thanh, I think) and let the tout drag us to a table. Figuring that we’d be safer from the street hawkers, we took a table on the upstairs balcony…

…we figured wrong. Before anyone even tried to take our order, two hawkers who’d seen us enter the restaurant had followed us up to our table, and tried to sell us on, first, a set of watercolor paintings of local scenery, and then our choice of old chinese-style coins. The coins were demonstrated to us by ceremoniously dumping them all over the table in front of us, and by this time I could have happily committed murder for a spring roll.

Finally, after I’d very pointedly gathered up the coins myself and dumped them back into the hawker’s bag, we were given menus. We both order variations on the same thing: a dish comprised of roasted chicken, assorted greens and green banana slices, which we rolled up in ricepaper and ate as rolls with various dipping sauces. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either, and I was hungry enough that I didn’t care. I ordered a bottle of the local lager, Huda, which turned out to not only be cheaper than Tiger and 333 (Vietnam’s national brands), but also substantially better. The combination of full stomachs, beer, and a merciful lack thereafter of hawkers improved our moods enough that we decided to stay for dessert, and we both ordered the coconut ice cream with chocolate sauce.

When brought to us (by a waiter who made an elaborate show of signing to us when we ordered, and who then immediately returned to the next room to watch the Vietnamese national soccer team on the TV…with the sound on?), this turned out to be a pair of cafeteria-style single-serving sealed cardboard ice cream bowls, accompanied by a tin of chocolate syrup that had been perforated with a swiss army knife. Oh well, ice cream is ice cream, right? We both pulled the tops off the bowls, drizzled on a little syrup and dug in. Sure enough, it was coconut ice cream with chocolate sauce, and if it wasn’t homemade, it was still acceptably sweet.

After my first two bites, I noticed that there was a small green blob just below the surface of the ice cream where I was about to dig in. Figuring that it was probably green coconut jelly, or pandan, or something equally innocuous, I spooned it out and put it into my mouth…

…only to have my mouth, nose and sinuses suffused with the smell and taste of rotting corpses!

Trust me, there is no mistaking that taste for anything else in the world. While relatively dilute compared to my last encounter with the stuff, it was still monstrously noxious. I reluctantly swallowed, and informed Miranda that we were, in fact, eating Coconut Durian Surprise. But weirdly, her ice-cream appeared to be entirely durian-free! We huddled together and compared cups. Same logo. Same name. Same picture on the front. Idential ingredient lists. And yet: one cup durian-enabled, and one not. The best I can figure was some sort of horrible factory mix-up, although Miranda suggested that perhaps the durians of the world were trying to express their affection for me, a thought too horrible to bear much further contemplation. Luckily, the solution was obvious: we swapped cups, and Miranda happily enjoyed her rotting-corpse-coconut ice cream, while I returned to my happily durian-free existence.

And thus, basically, ended our first night in Hue.