Vietnam Photo Gallery

Some additional photos from my time in Vietnam:

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Engagement vs. Observation

November 30, 2010

Time’s been going quickly- today is Wednesday, at least here, and Saturday I board the plane for the 20+ hour journey home.  I’m definitely ready.  As we’ve traveled south through the country, we’ve found a much heavier Western influence and the areas have become more touristy, almost freakishly so.  We spent three days in Hoi An, a town known for its tailors and silk products.  Three days was a bit much for most of us, but for those that wanted to have custom clothing made, it was necessary.  One of the Australian guys is 6’6″ and took advantage of the suit-making opportunity, and most people found a few things to help stimulate the local economy.

One of the other guys here (Chuck, who happens to be from San Francisco) is also a “travel with a purpose” sort of guy, although he’s done primarily disaster relief work and also sustainable energy infrastructure work in developing countries, so we’ve been comparing notes about this type of tour experience.  We’re both getting restless.  Now, I’m not saying I miss mixing concrete in stifling heat, but…  well… maybe I sort of do.  I don’t consider myself an extremely goal-oriented person, but the wandering and observing and buying and eating is losing my interest a bit.  I don’t feel engaged with the country anymore, I feel like… gulp… a tourist.  An observer.  In the worst cases, a voyeur.  The other people in our group have made similar comments, so we think it might be because the towns have become more and more tourist-centric, so finding a more authentic experience is much harder.

We’re now in Nha Trang, which everyone agrees is our least favorite destination so far.  The city is kind of seedy and there are loads of Westerners wandering around, which means there are loads of women hocking wallets and cigarettes and sunglasses and postcards.  They’re quite forward and have all learned the same phrases to spout off (“Hey lady, you buy wallet?  Very cheap for you.  Happy hour.  You very beautiful.  Buy one get one free.”).

A few choice signs we’ve seen:

Bike Tours!  Funny Time on Wheels!
Happy Hour 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.
Com See Out Roof Top Bar
Cheap Foods, No Rip Offs
Free Mojito and French Fries for Lady

We took a motorbike tour of the countryside in Hue, which included a visit to a woman who makes Poem Hats.  They look like the traditional conical hats that a lot of people still wear, but in between the layers of dried leaves she puts a layer of newspaper into which she’s cut some images and a silhouette of a couple holding hands and a short poem.  When the sun shines on the hat, you can see the pictures and read the poem.  I thought it sounded like a lovely idea- a hat with a hidden poem in it!  I asked my motorbike guy Cat what the poem translated to, and he said, “When you visit the romantic city of Hue, you should buy a poem hat for every person in your family.”  I felt like Ralphie when he finally got his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin and got a message about Ovaltine.  “A crummy COMMERCIAL??”

I didn’t buy a poem hat.

A few photos attached- the first is a Royal Tomb, or the ruins of what used to be a Royal Tomb.  The second is from Bunker Hill, an area used by the Americans to stockpile weapons (I think… our guide’s English was a little baffling to me), and the third was at a pagoda.  The red spirals are long trails of incense with a wish hanging in the middle, and as the incense burns, the smoke carries the wish up to the Heavens.  Each coil takes about a month to burn, so you get a month of wishing for one low, low price.

Looking forward to being back.

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Abdication of Responsibility

November 23, 2010

Greetings from the North,
Well my cement-mixing, brick-chucking days are over, at least in Southeast Asia.  I said goodbye to my building crew Friday after work, caught a car back to the Ho Chi Minh City guesthouse, caught another taxi to the airport, had a two hour flight up to Hanoi, and around 11:30 p.m. got a ride in to a very posh hotel for the night.  I was most excited about using a full-size bath towel again, because I’d been using my little camp towel for two weeks (see also, Skin Exfoliating Water Pushing Not Super Absorbant Towel).  I had planned to take a cooking course Saturday morning before meeting up with my tour group in the evening, but unfortunately I was not feeling well when I woke up, so after some agonizing consideration, decided to rest instead.  Also, it’s hard to make spring rolls with your head in the toilet.  Friday had been a long and intense day, and I think I was a bit worn out and dehydrated.

My tour group is terrific.  Stumbling around Hanoi on my own didn’t feel much better than stumbling around HCMC, and knowing how to say “brick” and “concrete” and “Shannon is Number 99” doesn’t really help with the practical matters like food and directions.  I was also lugging all of my belongings in my backpack, less what I’d tossed out after the building trip, like my cement-caked shoes (not the mafioso kind).  Eventually I decided to get a taxi to the meeting point hotel and have a sleep.  I was tired and sweaty and ready to be led around and shown pretty things.

And what a revelation that is!!  Our Intrepid Tour guide is a Vietnamese man named Bon.  He grew up on a farm outside of Hanoi and taught himself English, and is very excited to share his country with us.  He *loves* to talk.  Loves.  Which is great, actually, because he can actually explain all kinds of cultural and historical references that we can’t get from a book.  The experience is quite different, and at first I was a little put off by being part of a tourist parade into restaurants with English menus, but it is also a huge relief to have someone giving suggestions and organizing the logistics.  Let’s face it, no one will mistake me for anything but a tourist anyway, so my feeble attempts at speaking the local language (newsflash: “noodles with beef” said with the wrong intonation is “prostitute’s train station”) were not terribly successful anyway.

We’ve visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which honestly I found a bit creepy and intimidating (security was more serious for that building than for the airport), but we’ve also seen The Temple of Literature which catalogs the top students of Confucianism, taken a cyclo tour around the Old Quarter, and most importantly, spent a night on a junk on Ha Long Bay.  It’s an incredible place, mysterious and beautiful and stirring to the soul.  And the boat had a full bar!  Woohoo!

In a few hours we’ll board the Reunification Express train and head south overnight to Hue, where we’ll visit some other cool stuff and eat more wonderful food.  I don’t know exactly what the plan is, and I don’t have to figure it out, which is glorious.  The people in my group are really friendly, and surprisingly the American contingent is the largest, including two guys from San Francisco.  There’s also a few Australians and a couple from outside of London, and we all get along famously.  We’ve really lucked out and are enjoying each other’s company immensely.  Part of our time is structured with activities and part of it is free, where Bon gives us suggestions and ideas for things we could do, and then lets us do our own thing.  He’s really on the ball and I look forward to everything else he will show us.

So, the few photos I’ve attached: A bridge across the lake in central Hanoi, the stone tablets listing the students’ names (I think) in the Temple of Literature, me on the deck of our boat on Ha Long Bay, and finally a Dragon Kiln, which is a long line of kilns built into a hillside so that the heat from the bottom kiln (the hottest) flows upwards and into the next kiln in a succession of steps, gradually reducing the temperature at which the ceramics are baked.  We saw the women painting the designs (amazingly quick and talented) and of course had the opportunity to support the local economy.

There has been serious flooding in the central areas of the country, so we may have some rainy days ahead of us, but things should be fine.  I stopped at a bakery and squirrelled away a baguette, an almond croissant, and some little cookies for snacks tonight and breakfast tomorrow in case our train is slowed by the rainfall.  We’re not really sure what to expect with the sleeper cars, but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?

To paraphrase some wise person, “Adventure is merely inconvenience properly regarded.”

Here’s to more wine and less shoveling….

P.S. The best news is that I will have the opportunity to take a cooking course down in Hoi An anyway, so missing the class in Hanoi and sleeping in Saturday morning was the right thing. I love it when a plan comes together!

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Language Barriers

November 17, 2010

Greetings and salutations from southern Vietnam.  The weather has been hot here (the supermarket sign said 37 deg C earlier this week, although that was in direct sunlight) and yes, we’re still mixing concrete.  We’ve also laid quite a few bricks and have been making great progress on the house.  The humidity tends to make it a bit more uncomfortable, because all the sweating I do (and I do quite a bit) doesn’t actually cool me down, it just soaks through my work clothes and makes the concrete dust stick to me.  So, who’s up for joining me next year??  I’m not doing a very good job selling the project, but I’m actually really enjoying the work and the way we all have to maneuver our way through the language difficulties.  And there are difficulties!

I only have a few days left on the building project before I head North to Hanoi and Halong Bay, and then tour down the coast of the country over the next 15 days.  I managed to buy my plane ticket here without any issues, but working my way through booking a hotel, getting transport from the airport to the hotel Friday night, and registering for a cooking class Saturday morning while I wait for my tour group to arrive has proven quite a task.  At one point I filled out what I thought was a booking form online, but when I clicked Submit, I was rewarded with a white page that said “Missing your message!!” in the upper left corner.  Umm, what?  I don’t know.

Because we are in an area that doesn’t get a lot of tourists, people here are not used to hearing poor Vietnamese, and as a result, our attempts at speaking the language are usually met with blank stares.  The intonations are confounding to me, but pantomime goes a long way.

On Sunday the other volunteers and I helped out with an English Club that meets every week by the river to practice speaking English.  We didn’t really get any instructions, but I soon had a group of young girls (10-13 years old) asking me about my favorite color, what types of music I like, and how old I am.  The great thing about kids is that they tend to not censor their reactions (“Oh!  Very old!!  Why not marry?”).  My girls were big fans of the American pop singer Justin Bieber (“He is very handsome!”) and the Disney crew like Hannah Montana and High School Musical cast.  My knowledge of these kids is limited, but I could at least identify them as pseudo-celebrities.

Eventually the girls asked me to sing a song, which caught me like a deer in headlights.  Instantly every song I ever knew slipped from my mind, except for one…  so I gave them an unfortunate rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, which is regrettable not only because I butchered such an awesome song, but also because I’m the last person who wants to encourage the use of double negatives.  Perhaps if I knew any Justin Bieber songs, that would have gone over better.  One of the girls, Phuong, asked for my Vietnamese cell phone number and has been obsessively texting me since then “What you do now?”  “What are you eat for lunch?”.

Last night for dinner we ventured down to a night market near the river for a culinary adventure that turned into a linguistic adventure as well.  I’ve seen quite a few things on menus that I haven’t tried (snake head soup and fried pig penis are two that come to mind), but last night we found a gem of a menu with fascinating English translations.  These are honest-to-goodness items on the menu:

Steamed Oysterdischarge
Positive Grease the Baking
Proud Baked Eggs Butter
Real Estate Fat Fried in Fat
Buildings Fat Fry Me
Interesting Buildings Post Discharge
Sheep Ink is Brittle
Mixture Fried Stock Breeding
Liver The Blood Cockle Fry
Hotpot Status
Gruel with Clam
Plasma Shell with Garlic

I went with the more mundane beef and broccoli fried noodles, which were great but came back to haunt me this morning.  Today was the first bout of illness for me and I’m feeling better now.  There are plenty of possible culprits around, including the ice I had in my beer last night and a “grapes smoothie” that was deliciously odd.  One of the other volunteers has vowed to go back and order Interesting Buildings Post Discharge just to see what in the world it is.  I can’t imagine.

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Bob the Builder

November 13, 2010

Hello all,

Just a bit about the work project here.  We’re a few hours southwest of HCMC now in a town called My Tho, down in the Mekong Delta area.  We’re rebuilding a home for a family of four.  The entire project will take between four and six weeks, depending on weather and other inconveniences, so unfortunately I won’t be able to see the finished abode.  I have, however, seen quite a bit of concrete in the past five days.  We have no mixers (besides our shovels), so we’ve spent many hours carrying buckets of sand (4) to mix with 1 bag of cement (50 kg) and 7 buckets of rocks, and enough water to make it into a nice cementy slop, which we then shovel into buckets and pour into our rustic cement forms.  We’ve built the foundation footers and walls and just Friday began laying some bricks.

Our Vietnamese builder has chosen the name Bob (many of our helpers here either choose a Western name or go by the translation of their Vietnamese name to avoid hearing us butcher the pronunciation), so we spend all day with Bob the Builder.  He’s quite a prankster and especially loves to toss water on some unsuspecting worker and then gesture at the tin roof under which we’re working and say “Mua?  Mua?”  (“Rain?  Rain?”)  He’s like a kid in that the joke never gets old, and he always laughs the longest and the hardest.  He also loves to pretend to eat the rocks.  Bob has a few helpers who don’t speak any English (Bob knows a bit), and I’m now able to recognize the Vietnamese words for measuring tape, hammer, nail, wood, water, and rocks.  And of course, “NO!” which Bob shrieks at the top of his lungs and then holds his belly and laughs.  He also loves to say “Bob Number 1!” and if we do something wrong, he’ll say “Bob number 1, you number chin-chin” which means you’re number 99.   Ah well.  The work is back-breaking and the humidity is stifling, but it is really fun.  The three other volunteers are all from Australia and we all get along very well.

As we walk through the streets of My Tho to and from work, people stare and look curiously at the dirty Westerners, and sometimes someone will shout a “hello!” to us.  When we say hello or xin ciao in response, they erupt in smiles and laughter.  I suppose it’s like when you roll down your window to moo at cows in a pasture… you don’t really expect a response, so when one actually acknowledges and/or answers you, it’s a bit of a thrill.  Ummm, not that I ever moo at cows while driving.

We have our evenings and weekends free, and we’re now getting past the exhaustion and going out to eat and see the nearby pagodas at night.  Today (Saturday- greetings from the future!) we took a boat tour of a few islands in the delta, which was a nice break from the hard labor.  Hard to believe I’ve already been here a week and a half.  I hope this finds you well.

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Greetings from Vietnam

November 8, 2010

Xin ciao!

I’ve arrived safely in Vietnam, with all my luggage!  My flight left San Francisco at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning and went to Taipei, and then from Taipei I flew into HCMC with an arrival of 11:30 a.m. on Thursday.  I’d arranged to be picked up at the airport, so after clearing customs and getting my visa approved, I walked out into the din and humidity of the city.  There were plenty of people about, and plenty of taxi drivers ready to overcharge me, but no one with an i-to-i Volunteering sign.  I had been told the taxi ride to the guesthouse should cost between $7-$10 dollars American, in case no one was there to collect me, so that helped.  The first guy wanted $35 and complained that a parking ticket was $7 and no one would take me for that little.  I told him ok, I’ll wait to be picked up.

Another guy approached me and I talked him down to $15 American, and he made a call on his cell phone.  He held onto my arm until a car came racing up and he told me to get in the back with my backpack while he slid into the front next to the driver.  They talked, he showed the driver the address, and then said, “Ok madame, you pay now.”  So I handed him the $15 and as the driver started to pull away, the first guy opened his door and jumped out, with the $15.  I didn’t think that seemed quite right, but what could I do?  The taxi driver didn’t stop, so I assumed he was ok with how things were unfolding.

HCMC street traffic is a complete madhouse.  I’d been warned by all the travel books, but still, being immersed in it for the first time (after 20 hours of travel) was incredible. Swarms of motorbikes overtake all the vehicles like water rushing around rocks in a riverbed, except that the water flows in all directions at once and is constantly honking.  People all seem quite ok with it though- we’ve hardly seen any accidents, and no one gets angry, they just slow down and then move forward/sideways/through/behind/in front when they can nudge through without hitting anyone, at least not too hard.  It’s chaos, but it works.

The streets were crammed with people and bikes, and the narrow roads are lined with tiny hovels of shops that I think double as dwellings for the shopkeepers.  People were sprawled out on the cement or across chairs, reading newspapers or languidly fanning themselves in the afternoon heat.  The shops were so small and cramped and oddly shaped that it looked like the buildings had been constructed for some other purpose, and then as an afterthought, people moved in and took up residence in the nooks and crannies of the city.  Our path was winding, down narrow alleys and through crazy roundabouts, with shop after shop after shop passing by my window, all distinct and yet without making any impression on me- I had no idea where I was.  I was quite intimidated, and for all the shopkeepers waiting and watching the traffic go by, I didn’t see any customers anywhere.  I still am not sure who buys all that stuff.  The whole scene had kind of a lawless feel about it, but I’m sure that had to do with me being unsure if I was about to be driven to the edge of town and relieved of my belongings.

After what was probably 25 minutes in the taxi, we abruptly pulled to the side of the road and the taxi driver nodded to me.  I half expected him to ask for another $15, but he didn’t- he opened my door, and seeing my uncertainty, pointed at the address on the paper I’d handed him and then to the same address on the metal gate across from us.  He nodded at me again and gestured to the building, so I thanked him and shouldered my bag.  No sign.  No logo.  Just a big metal gate and an address.  As I walked up to it, not sure if I was supposed to ring a bell or bang a tin cup against the bars or what, a young kid came and opened the door and immediately pressed his hand into mine and said “nice-to-meet-you, nice-to-meet-you!”  He led me upstairs in the empty house and pointed at one of the cots, so I set down my bags.  He said again, “Nice to meet you!” and left.  After standing there for a few seconds, I decided Ho Chi Minh City was a bit much for me to handle on my own, and that I would stay on that foam mattress and eat granola bars until someone else showed up.  What in the world had I gotten myself into?

So… enough of the melodramatics.  A few hours after I arrived, an English woman named Linda also arrived, and we ventured next door together for a dinner and a much-needed beer.  The rest of the volunteers arrived the following afternoon, which gave us time to explore a bit more, accidentally walk off the map we carried, and then find our way back into the proper district and a delightful French bakery.  Before coming out of the city to the Mekong Delta where my project is, we also visited the oldest pagoda in Vietnam, which was built in the 1700’s and has only been restored twice.

The inside was beautiful but I didn’t feel right taking photos in there, so you’ll have to take my word on that.


On the flight from Taipei I sat next to a small man with a few sparse but very long chin hairs. He took off his tennis shoes and folded his legs beneath him (on a PLANE seat!) the whole trip.  In this compact parcel of a human was such a warmth and sweetness though- he was definitely an Uncarved Block, for those who have read The Tao of Pooh.  He watched a cheesy kung-fu movie on his monitor, in which the bad guys were all Americans and loud, aggressive, and disrespectful.  Of course, by the end we’d all learned an important lesson about compassion and respecting the dignity of others even if they are different from us.  When the movie ended, the man turned to me and asked if I was staying in HCMC, and I said that I was.  We talked about my project, and he shook his head and said, “That’s very beautiful!” and told me about going to visit his mother in Nha Trang.  He asked if I had friends here, and I said, “Well, not yet!”  He chuckled and welcomed me to Vietnam, and when he stood up to get his bag from the overhead bin, I saw that under his hoodie he wore the brown robes of a monk.  I guess even monks like the kitchy kung-fu movies.

My Vietnamese is coming along very slowly.  At dinner with other volunteers two nights ago, we were finally told that we were using the wrong intonation for one of our words, so instead of saying “yes” we were actually saying “gun” (or maybe “shoot” based on the waiter’s pantomime).  Fortunately we hadn’t had occasion to give enthusiastically affirmative answers in any banks or airports.

Know that everything is fine and I’m enjoying my time here after an uncertain first few hours.  We’ve just started on the house we’re building, and met the family (the man has a heart condition and can’t work, and his wife sells fish in one of the open air markets, and they have two kids in primary school), and I’m working on my initial blisters.  Everything is as it should be.

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