Archive for April 2009

Hanoise by Mike

April 19, 2009

To see photos of this trip, click here and then on the Viet Nam album …

We’ve just returned from (oh, excuse me) Hanoi in Northern (honk, honk) Viet Nam and my-oh-my what a (watch out!) crazy city it (beep, beep, beep) is. This video I shot will give you a good idea of what the calm chaos of the traffic flow is like. There are pedestrians, mopeds, bicycles, pedicabs, cars and trucks flowing everywhere through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter where we stayed – and somehow, with very few traffic lights, no stop signs and copious amounts of honking, it all works. The rule for crossing the street is to take a deep breath, step off the curb and walk calmly into the human transportation river – not stopping, not speeding up and definitely not looking anyone in the eye because we were told that if someone has an accident because they were distracted by your gaze, then you are at fault. (We were also told that whoever has the most money is the one who makes restitution in an accident, so we were extra-careful everywhere we went.)

An accident on the streets of Hanoi could mean tangling with a bicycle holding stacks of woven baskets; improbable pyramids of enormous jackfruit or watermelons; layers of nested cooking pots; or bouquets of flowers. Meet the wrong end of a moped and you could find yourself buried under cages of chickens, smothered by an avalanche of green leafy vegetables, or tickled to death by hundreds of feather dusters.

Then of course, there’s the human traffic. Women in pointed bamboo hats make deliveries of fish, flowers, fruit and more by balancing a long bamboo pole on their shoulder with a laden basket hanging off each end. The sidewalks aren’t for pedestrians, they are essentially front yards. There is some type of food being prepared nearly every fifth doorway including the cleaving of raw unrefrigerated meat and steaming cauldrons of soup, rice and buns over small fires. Breakfast, lunch and dinner takes place on plastic kid-sized tables where the locals sit on even smaller red plastic step stools.

The Old Quarter evolved as the heart of Hanoi’s commerce and the winding, narrow streets were originally named according to what was sold along them. We saw aluminium street, zipper street, shoe street, eyeglass street, button and bottle cap street, gravestone street, stuffed animal street and underwear alley. Pretty much anything you can imagine is sold in this town in super-small shops that look very much like they double as kitchens, living rooms and sleeping quarters for the inhabitants.

Having once been a French colony, there are pockets of civility. We had the best coffee we’ve experienced in Asia and two divine dinners where the chefs were fusing French and local cuisine with expert alchemy.

Because I had something of a love-hate relationship with the place (loved the frenetic “go” of the place, hated the endless and omnipresent honking) I was only a little sad to leave for our three-day sojourn out in the country.

We skipped the usual tourist routes of Halong Bay and Sapa in favour of taking a four-hour drive south to the Mai Chau Valley. A good and bad decision. The bad part was, as you might have guessed by now, the drive. Either the van didn’t have enough weight in it, or the shocks were shot. So we basically bounced our way through the countryside. For four hours. (It’s hard to believe it was a weight issue actually. We were constantly told we were fat during the five-day trip, even to the point of me being asked “when I was due” and some man pinching Diane’s arm and then winking at me as if to say, “you got some good stock there buddy” while we were walking through a country village. But it’s impossible to be offended by their candor as the country folk don’t see “our kind” very often.)

The first night at our hotel was spent over a small lotus pond in a truly charming bamboo hut. Then, we were moved indoors to the hotel’s only suite that was charming for entirely different reasons.

We spent our days walking and biking through various “Hill Tribe” communities. Behind the hotel, set amid glowing green rice fields that formed the floor of the valley, was a White Thai village. Another day we went to a Black Hmong market and oggled the amazing fabrics that the tribespeople wore and sold.

It was truly a reminder about how many different ways there are to live upon this earth. In the Black Hmong village, we got invited into the home of a “magician” (something like the town medicine man) and saw how a family of 7 was living in a dimly-lit, dismal common room. No privacy, no windows and no indoor plumbing so Diane only pretended to drink the tea that was poured out for us. In the White Thai village, we watched people tending the rice fields, fixing their buildings, taking their water buffalos for grazing, cooking, and weaving vibrant silk scarves on the looms they all keep beneath their raised-on-stilts homes. They were involved in the basics of living – something I sometimes feel too far away from in front of my plugged-in, air-conditioned home. The TV was, however, pretty much omnipresent – even in the home of the magician in the middle of nowhere. In fact, when we were there, he was watching some type of Hmong tug of war Olympics.

Our last day we visited a huge cave just across the street from the hotel. The hotel owners have paved the floor in concrete and set up lights along the walls so the space could be used for meetings, events and even yoga. But it was all cave –complete with crystalline drips of water and a fluttering ceiling of bats. Our guide told us that the enormous subterranean space housed Viet Cong and spare munitions during the war and had a lake on its 3rd story! While I did follow the ladder to the second floor, I wasn’t brave enough to squeeze myself through the hole the bats were using as a highway to see much more.

Viet Nam may have a troubled past, but the country is clearly busy moving beyond that, trumpeting their arrival in the 21st century with the ceaseless honks of Hanoi.

Diane adds a final note:

All over Hanoi there are shops selling a mind-boggling variety of silks. (I even managed to get a local Vietnamese outfit custom-made in about 14 hours.) In hindsight, silk is the perfect metaphor for the city because Hanoi is raw, unfinished, sultry, shiny, vibrant, flowing, overflowing, washable and most of all, must be handled with care! I can’t wait to go back and feel the allure of it all over again.

Contrast in Cambodia by Diane

April 8, 2009

Note:  With this blog entry, we’re switching to displaying our photos on Picasa.  You can view all of the Cambodia shots, plus pictures of our recent trips to Puerto Galera in the Philippines and Sibu Island in Malaysia by clicking here when you’re done reading.

Like all tourists bound for Angkor Wat, we were captivated by the ancient temples.  Our photos, reminiscent of all the photos you have ever seen of this destination, capture only a small bit of the evocative, sometimes eerie, always enticing 12th century ruins.  Two things really surprised us.  First, you can literally climb all over these crumbling temples.  There are no barriers, no silk ropes; instead there are arrows pointing “this way” with tourists from all over the world crawling through the warrens of doorways, windows and half-walls in pursuit of that one unique photo.  I’m not sure how long this “freedom” will last, and it exists in stark contrast to the serenity of the place.  Still we found ourselves quieted by our own awe as we examined the intricacy of the carvings, the weathered color on the walls, and — most astounding of all considering the march of years — the symmetrically aligned doorways that invite your eyes to see from one end of the temple to the other, a distance you find unfathomable, while light falls and fades a dozen times along the path.

The second surprise was that most of the temples (and there are thousands, btw) are in the middle of the woods! The famous photos we’ve all seen never include the surrounding pine forests and tall wispy trees.  It’s gorgeous and flat and many of the temples are connected by scenic bike paths and stone bridges and are flanked by multi-story, multi-faced ornate archways.  Wow. The forests provided much of the “cover” that preserved the temples and hid them during the years of war that ravaged Cambodia – a place with the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country on earth.

Cambodia can appear to be a sad, sad place.  Wars have stolen whole generations of families and the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for unspeakable savagery.  We visited The Land Mine Museum outside Siem Reap, created through the efforts of one ex-soldier who planted land mines during wartime and has now dedicated his life to finding and defusing thousands of them, and helping survivors enjoy lives without limbs. Contrary to what you’d expect, it was an uplifting experience.

Everywhere you look it is either muddy or dusty and so very poor. What little water runs through the village is used for everything imaginable – and this is water that you and I would prefer not to wash our feet in.  Out of nowhere, there are suddenly bursts of color in the middle of monochromatic dirty, silty street life and you see baskets of chili, vibrant silks, decked-out tuk-tuks and ear-to-ear smiles on barely-clothed children. Cambodians could simply be broken people, but instead they are very busy people, busy rebuilding lives that have seen the worst that man can do to man.

It’s the first place in Asia that I noticed what I could describe as an absence of pride – very little attention paid to flourish or the indulgence of beauty – and in its place an abundance of humility.  It’s as though everything here is fragile and tentative and all can be lost again with the change of the winds.  It was also the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel sorry for the street dogs – I simply couldn’t muster enough empathy for animals when surrounded by so much collective human suffering.

A thought struck me on a ride through the countryside – the idea of geographical or psychological relativity – if you don’t know your life is hard, then it isn’t.  What looked grueling to us was far better than the alternative that Cambodians have known.  And that’s what gives the country its unique vibe – people are brimming with gratitude for the little they have.  I felt, time and again, we were witness to the beauty and endurance of the human spirit.

And thankfully, the world is helping out.  We saw many US and European-sponsored homes that were part of a clean water project.  We visited a small orphanage and brought rice, noodles, cookies and school supplies and the surprised and grateful faces of the children will live long in our memories. There are lots of projects and ways to help and peace has finally come to this simple country.

Some final thoughts…

We were amused that along the roadside, almost all of the containers used to sell gasoline were Johnnie Walker bottles! (Black, Red, Blue labels – maybe that’s why these Cambodians are so smiley!) Outside the city, in front of many houses you see enormous steaming cauldrons of boiling sugar cane that’s being reduced to a type of brown sugar candy that’s a national favorite.  Michael donated a pint of blood at the hospital and he was treated like a celebrity – they just couldn’t thank him enough.  The joy of Obama is still ringing loudly in Cambodia, a country of underdogs sees themselves in him.  We saw many ornate staircases – wide, wooden, carved and fancily painted staircases – really expensive looking steps that connected bare ground to a simple wood house on stilts; I could only imagine that it was symbolic of connecting heaven and earth.  And on a ride back from too much “templing” we saw two men on scooters, each with a full-size live pig tied upside-down on the back, clearly en route to its “final destination.”  I was struck quiet by the sight and I realized that it is hard to witness the last minutes of any life, even a life that would be feed so many.   And that’s what Cambodia was for us – a country of constant contrasts.

Click here for photos.