Monday, July 18, 2005

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Hey All,

Techincally I'm in Tokyo while writing the first part of this (or just outside of it) and I just dropped $13 on noodles and a ginger ale... good bye Vietnam discount, hello Japan!

I could not bring myself to schlep into Tokyo at 7:00am after two hours of plane sleep so I've been kickin' it here at the airport. Crashed out in a day room for some horizontal sleep and am now updating the blog. I can't save pictures from here so will add those when I'm back home.

On to our last two days in Hoi An.

Saturday, we took a tour of My Son, a sacred place of the Champa people back in the 1st through, oh, did he say 6th? century. It's a bit like Macchu Pichu, in that it is ruins that people are still learning about. It is also similar in that hundreds of people are walking around snapping photos and sweating their asses off. Despite the crowds, I managed to lose my group (while I was inside one of the buildings trying to take artsy photos) and wandered around in a semi panic as the person I chose to ask for help was Bob Geldof's French cousin who could only tell me, "In zee end zay all come eere". Frankly that's a longer sentence than I could manage in French, but still it didn't help.

I eventually found them looking at the last of the sites. It had been the grandest of all the pagodas but was bombed by the Americans in 1969 - yet another reason war sucks. Now it is being painfully restored under the guidance of Unesco. It's hard to recognize the granduer of it now, you can only recognize it's size. Upon our return I power shopped my way through the streets of Hoi An. Back to the cloth market for final fittings and clothing pickup, off to the art gallery to buy a crazy painting that will not fit in my house anywhere and yet I love it so.

We met two women who said we looked Vietnamese, though it was mostly the hair that had them going... "same same, but different" (seems that phrase has leaked over from Thailand). They gave us bananas from their mother in the market and then charged me too much for coffee. While most people in Vietnam were very friendly to us, it was hard to tell how much of it was genuine (I know some of it was) and how much was designed to soften us up for a hard sell? I imagine the answer is a little bit of both, but I prefer to think my spending power has nothing to do with it.

In one case, a waitress at a restaurant told me I looked Vietnamese (and what's in it for her to lie?) and then we joked about her helping me pick the lock on our bikes since I was waiting for Mary Kay and our bikes were locked together. When I left, she made me a crane from a beer bottle label. Now that's just precious.

Saturday night, we ate on the balcony of one restaurant overlooking the river watching it all pass by. Tourists out for a stroll, teens out cruising, fishermen on the river with headlamps. Hoi An was a good choice of final cities.

Our best choice was to scooter down to the Victoria Resort on Sunday afternoon and pay our $10 day use fee for their pool and private beach. It was niiiiiiiice.

A little swimming in the ocean, a little swimming in the pool, a little laying out while the cabana boys run around. It was a good way to spend Sunday before what will be a 32 hour jouney home. (ugh)

Mary Kay has two weeks of traveling left and I must come home and see about putting all the footage together to get something she can use to promote her project, and then a record of our trip.

I won't miss the heat and humidity but I am definitely going to miss the coffee. I'm bringing some back, but you might want to wait until I figure out how to make it before accepting a cup.

It' been a pleasure sharing my trip with you. If you ever go to Vietnam, let me know and I'll gladly share details and tips!

Hen gap lai (see you again)!

Miss K

Voila! The HOPE Project Video!

Friday, July 15, 2005

You Have Big Bum...

said the seamstress in the cloth market as she patted my ass and we watched a rat scurry across the floor.

Getting clothing made in Hoi An is apparently "the" thing to do and because I am in Hoi An (and easily get caught up in the fray) I am doing it. Mary Kay and I arrived in Hoi An Wednesday afternoon after a 3.5 hour ride on a "tourist bus" with ever gabbing (and Australian mocking) spice girls and none of the promised AC. Our driver wouldn't pass a cement truck on a flat straightaway, yet became Mario Andretti passing people as we drove up a curvy mountain road. One passenger was getting sick... no problem... barf in the stairwell and then they'll open the door (while we still drive up said curvy mountain road) and use some water to wash it out. Upon further bus travel in Vietnam, I apologize for being so harsh on our local bus to Ninh Binh.

Hoi An is great! There is a small old town, which reminded both Mary Kay and I of Lijiang in China. Lots of shops, restaurants, art galleries and right along a river. We have been eating fish wrapped in banana leaf, "white rose" (steamed shrimp wrapped in rice paper), and lots of noodles and fruit.

This morning we took a cooking class through a restaurant that gives a portion of their profits to the World Wildlife Fund and uses part of your money to clean up the river. The class started with a very educational trip to the market. The people on the inside sell fish from the ocean, people on the outside sell fish (and assorted water things) from the river. Old women run string around pineapples because poisonous snakes like to eat the edges and if they don't pull those parts off, well you'll be poisoned. Bitter melon is good for your eyes, painted would chopsticks will give you led poisoning and encourage the locals to chop down trees when everyone is better of using the plentiful bamboo. Whew!

After the market, we took a boat ride down the river to the restaurant/school. There are these huge nets strung up on sticks in the river. At night, the fishermen let the nets drop into the water, turn on a light in the middle and when all the fishies come to see what the light is about... they start rolling up the net to capture them all. (On another note, did you know geckos make croaky sounds sort of like frogs or birds? That's what the one above my head on the wall just did).

At the school we learned how to make warm squid salad, an eggplant dish, Hoi An pancake and shrimp spring rolls... using rice paper we made by hand! Luckily, I learned the trick of softening store bought rice paper, in the event that I can't be bothered (or remember) all the tricks to the hand made. We learned how to make a tomato peel into a rose... hopefully picture is attached (I'm having issues at this computer and will try to add the photos tomorrow). After that, we all sat down and ate our lunch. It was in an amazing setting, right along the river with big palm trees, rattan furniture with big pillows and a very attentive staff. All this for $12.

We're staying at a $12/night hotel that is spectacular though just out of town. The hotel lets the guests check out bicycles to ride into town or to the beach. They give you a lock, though what would possess anyone to steal these bikes is a mystery. They are like IV cruisers. Rusted as hell, wheels wobble as you ride, breaks don't really work. However, they do the job and are much faster than walking.

The cloth market is an experience. Jam packed full of workers, material, and yes, rats that run back and forth across the floors - no wonder all the workers take naps on their tables. My guess of why there are so many rats there is that they use all the material for nests. Yesterday, I saw a rat scurry out, grab some clothing scraps and then run back under the table (although nobody dare say my theory right...)

As for the process, you thumb through some catalogues get measured and return the next day for a fitting. While you're going through this process, women come in and give you massages (in the hopes that you will come to their shop for a full massage later... 1 hour = $5... I will go before I leave), other ladies come in trying to sell you the Hoi An version of peanut brittle and little kids come in with plastic bags. It did not take me long before I could talk to them before they talked to me, "no postcards, no necklace, no tiger balm". One must be vigilant.

I'll get you caught up on My Son and our last day probably from the airport. I'm trying to add pictures to this so we can head to the beach!

Miss K

P.S. For those of you in SF (or close to) don't forget to come check out my solo performance at Laborfest!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Touch My Monkey

Hey All,

Let's wish me better luck with this today than last night when I spent the better part of an hour typing only to have the save not save. Lordy!

As we wait to catch a bus to Hoi An, let me get you caught up on the last few days.

On Sunday, back in Ninh Binh, we went to Cuc Phuong to see the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. Filled with langurs specific to Vietnam and gibbons rescued from the animal markets, they are kept in cages (suspiciously like a zoo) while they are nursed back to health. Afterwards, they are released into the surrounding area then separated from their caged breatheren by an electric fence. (What?) You take a 20 minute tour with a guide, make you donation, snap some photos and are on your way.

Afterwards we went for a hike in the rainforest. While only 6km, the heat, rain and mossies (said an Aussie) made it more of a trek than a stroll. The highlight is a 1000 year old tree at the halfway point of the loop. While we tried to be impressed, it looked like a tree, similar to the ones we had seen for the past 2 hours. Sadly for the people of Vietnam, we were more impressed with the sign of tree begging two young lovers not to carve a heart in his trunk.

We came home for a goodbye dinner with the entire Le entourage. Many promises of seeing people in CA and on return trips to Vietnam. I know Mary Kay and I will see the Le's back in Sacramento as we have already promised to host them for dinner to repay all their kindness and taking responsibility for us while in Ninh Binh.

Our journey then sent us back to the hotel to wait for our overnight bus to Hue. It was due to come at "9:00, 9:30, maybe 10:00". At 10:45pm it finally pulled up, crowded with travelers from Hanoi and only two seats left. I sat amid a touring group of chipmunks who chatted, play video games, sang songs at 2:00am and generally were unsupportive of the concept of, even if you're not sleeping, please close your eyes and shut the #$@% up. Someone please remind me that I never need to do that again.

We arrived in Hue at 10:30, promptly got some food and then went to bed. Everywhere we go, the temperature is 35 degrees. This makes for an occasionally cranky traveler. Sitting along the Perfume river I couldn't appreciate the dragon boats lined up to take passengers or the pagodas in the distance. I only noticed that there were ants on my pants, my feet had swollen to elephant size (where did my ankles go?) and I felt like a boiled chicken, and not just on the inside, I'm talking to the touch baby!

Luckily, we spent the next day touring around and my faith in humanity and travel is restored. We met two scooter drivers, who we agreed to take a tour with (after their persistent stalking finally paid off - you can't walk two steps before you have 40 offers of rides on scooters and cyclos - some people try the clever "remember me from yesterday?" line hoping that your confusion of seeing 100 men with scooters and baseball hats will convince you that you already talked to this guy).

Anyway, we got on scooters and drove all over the city. To the citadel and forbidden purple city (which is not purple but was the seat of the Nguyen emperor), various tombs and pagodas. At one pagoda we saw a procession of monks going to lunch and chanting before eating. The biggest question we had was... who was the white chick at the end and why didn't she shave her head?

One of our drivers invited us to his home for lunch and we went. He used to be a teacher but spent two years during the Vietnam war (or American war if you're over here) repairing airplanes for the US Army. It wasn't enough time to grant him passage to the US after the fall of Saigon so he's still here, unable to teach and driving tourists around on a scooter to send his kids to school.

You may think he is bitter but he's not. He has befriended a lot of Vietnam vets who visit him on ocassion. He's got a sister in Mass and loves to meet Americans. We had a good lunch at his house and will send him photos upon our return.

The best part of the tour was getting to see life in Vietnam in between all our stops. People are either sitting, selling something or watching the world go by or transporting something from one place to another... rice, pipes, fruit, cardboard, furniture. It's truly amazing.

I have also decided scootering is the way to go. My coworker Thanh was right... the women on scooters all look like ninja turtles with their faces covered. They use either masks remeniscent of SARS, bandannas like Jesse James or, the fashion craze that's sweeping Hanoi, shirts with collars that velcro over your face. I love that look so much, I had to buy one! Now I'm ready for the streets of SF!

The other great thing about scooter travel is you get to see, hear and smell what's going on. While the sounds you hear consist primarily of honking, you smell food, dust from the ever present construction, incense and heaping piles of water buffalo dung (and I mean HEAPING).

The oddest thing I've seen (or heard) so far is last night when I was typing this... a vendor selling popcorn went by. Much like the icecream man, she has tinny music to announce her presence. What was odd about it is that she was playing a medley of xmas songs. Who expects to hear "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" in the middle of Vietnam in the middle of July? Not me.

That's it for now... I'm sure I'll check in again from Hoi An. Since we will be there for 4 days, we're going to try and splash out and get a hotel with a pool (though they all seem to be indoors).

Thanks for your comments and I'll catch you later.

Miss K

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Highway to Hell (honk, honk)

Hey All,

(Warning: this is a long one)

You will be thrilled to know that Mary Kay and I have taken a ride on the bus with the loudest horn in all of Vietnam, perhaps even all of Southeast Asia (I will consult with Mr. Guiness upon my return).

We have spent the past few days on a triangle tour, up to Hanoi, over to Halong Bay and then back to Ninh Binh via a local bus we picked up in Hai Phoung. I now know what the soundtrack of my nightmares will sound like. Coming from the tv on the bus, very, very loud Vietnamese music featuring a particularly disonant riff on the Vietnamese version of the sitar. I think we were watching Vietnamese Lawrence Welk show... a little schmoozing with the host, a lot of schmaltzy duets. Punctuate this all with blasts from the horn and you start to have a sense of it all.

I started counting the time between blasts (like the time between thunder and lighting). In the city he honked every two seconds, every 7 at the very least. Sometimes when we got out of town he would go 20-24 seconds without honking. At first I thought, there can't possibly be that many people in our way (the primary reason everyone in Vietnam honks while they drive). Then I realized, we were also advertising for passengers, "Hey (honk, honk) we're going to Ninh Binh (honk, honk, honk). Hey, hey, need a ride?" Can you imagine if MUNI drivers honked that much? "Hey (honk, honk) we're gonig to City Hall (honk, honk)" Lordy.

But you know what? We arrived back in Ninh Binh safely and that's really all that matters. Plus, we ran into Singh (part of the entourage) on the bus. She helped us jump off a stop early and then got us two scooters back to the hotel.

The back of a scooter is my new favorite way to get around, despite the fact that we passed the scene of a fatal scooter accident on the way from Ninh Binh to Hanoi. Now let's get you caught up.

Tuesday afternoon, I guess it was, there was a presentation of the braille typewriters from Mary Kay to the Blind Association. Much speech making and little translation, but it all seemed quite wonderful. I videotaped the whole event even though I'm not sure what was happening. I will have to trade people dinner for some translation help upon my return.

Wednesday morning, we caught a ride to Hanoi with Mr. Le and 4 other people at 6:00am because some relative of his was going to the American embassy to apply for a student visa to study intensive English at UC Davis for a year. Here are some travel tips from Mr. Le (some of which I've already employed).

1. Restaurants are dirty. When you use the chopsticks, flip them around and eat from the other end. (I've done that)
2. When you drink from a mug with a handle, drink from the portion right above the handle because no one else does that except Mr. Le and now you.

A travel tip for you if you happen to meet Mr. Le when he is back in California... don't let your mind wander during an extremely long statement. More often than not, it will conclude with the phrase, "I think so. You think so?" and suddenly you have a question on your hands that you are not prepared to answer. Fortunately, there is so much difficulty with communication, you have that as an excuse and can ask him to repeat.

Hanoi: A very interesting, crowded and fast paced city. The traffic is some of the most confusing I've seen anywhere. There are no such thing as left hand turn signals. When the light turns green, if you want to go left, you just start honking and driving into the oncoming traffic. It's like when marching bands cross in between each other. From the air, I'm sure it looks like Esther Williams swimmers, only less synchronized.

Crossing the street is something that no amount of Frogger can prepare you for. You can not wait for a break in the traffic because there will never be one. What you must do is just start walking into the road, even though scooters and cars are driving right at you. The trick is to go at a slow and steady pace so people can honk, judge and manuever around you. Whatever you do, do not flinch, do not stop and never ever go backwards. It works surprisingly well despite the fact you are convinced you will be hit the entire time.

In Hanoi we had breakfast with Mr. Le at Hoan Kiem lake. Prices were clearly a ripoff since we had misters and a lake view. Two eggs with bread and a slice of ham was $1.50. Lest you think I'm kidding, we just got breakfast in Ninh Binh this morning... two eggs, bread and coffee for 3 people $2.50. Wild.

We saw the water puppets in Hanoi. Seemed like a terribly cheesy tourist thing to do (which it is) yet it is quite impressive. 9 people stand behind a screen waist deep in water, and manuever puppets on poles in front of the screen. They act out stories, there are dragons that shoot fire and coordinated dancing. Very cool.

Friday we had our second super cheesy tourist adventure to Halong Bay. A World Heritage Site since 1993, traveling there is a well orchestrated affair. Get on the bus, get on the boat, float out into the bay. Now you will eat lunch, now you will see a cave, now you will swim. It reminds me why I appreciate traveling a bit more independently.

Halong Bay itself is beautiful (and huge). There are several thousand (one person said 1969, one said 3000?) islands that come up out of the water. When you are not being told to swim or eat, you can float around and enjoy the scenery. What was less enjoyable was the heat. 35 degrees celcius, which I'm convinced is over 100 degrees farenheit, though I can't do temperature conversions in this kind of heat. The cabin was a sweltering sauna. I'm convinced I dropped 30 pounds just trying to lay in there for a few hours. Some people slept on the roof of the boat, but only until it rained.

It was a virtual G8 summit on our boat. England, Germany, Spain, France, Austrailia and us representing for the US. Although there was a karaoke machine on board, people opted to lay around trying not to move and generate any heat which was okay with me.

We also had an Amazing Race moment. In Hanoi, I booked a plane ticket from Danang to Hanoi for the 17th when I'm due to fly out. Yes, the ticket will be here in one day I'm told. The next morning, we were ready to leave for Halong Bay at 7:30am. No ticket. It takes two days. Perhaps we mail it to you in Hoi An? No, that doesn't seem good. Okay, we will have a guide bring it to you in Halong Bay Friday when you leave. It didn't seem like that much coordination was possible, but in fact it worked. Hooray!

The scenery along the roadsides is pretty amazing. Rice paddies as far as the eye can see full of people in conincal hats hunched over coaxing the rice through every stage of it's growth. Water buffalo being walked by little kids. In the middle of it all, the occasional cemetery or tall skinny building painted very colorfully on the front and left plain concrete on the side.

One thing I don't understand, and then I'll let you go, along a one-mile stretch of road there were pineapple vendors, sometimes only 5 feet apart. Perhaps 20-25 altogether. With that many vendors so close together, how do you decide who to go to and how does anyone make a living? This is really just one of many things I don't understand.

When Mary Kay gets back from her factory tour with Mr. Le, we will go to a market to see what's what. I may need to hose off at the hotel and lay under the fan again, delicate hot house flower that I am.

Thanks for all your messages. I'll write again either from Hue or Hoi An.

Miss K

Monday, July 4, 2005

Oh Say Can You See?

Hey All,

Happy 4th of July to you on the 5th of July in Vietnam!

Since arriving in Ninh Binh Sunday night, we have been the responsibility of Mr. Le (the man working on the project with Mary Kay) and his entourage of family, friends and curious onlookers.

On the 4th of July, he wanted to celebrate the independence of his 2nd country, so Mary Kay and I sang the Star Spangled Banner before lunch. Everyone in the room clapped along in time. I've never thought of the SSB as a clapping song, but it does help you keep it moving.

After lunch we were told to go upstairs and take a nap. They were arranging for two ladies from the blind massage school to come over and give us massages. A one hour massage costs $1.00! There are parts of it that are nice, but there are also parts of it that feel like you laying on your stomach with a woman sitting on your butt punching you in the kidneys. That part is less nice.

We also went to the school yesterday. The walls and roof are up and it's looking good. We've got to meet Mr. Le at 2:30 today because some of the blind kids who will be attending the school will be coming. At least I think so. Mr. Le is our only connection to the English language and that connection is very tenuous. Last night I thought he was inviting us to Chinese tea, when in fact he was talking about charity. Today I thought he had pictures of the ocean, but no... they are pictures to auction at a fundraiser.

Everyone else speaks Vietnamese and nods and laughs even though we have no idea what's going on. My Vietnamese is not progressing very well, but I have learned "beautiful" which I've added to my list along with "very good". I figure if you can tell people hello and then point at things and proclaim them either "beautiful" or "very good", that must be the way to make friends and influence people.

Yesterday we went to Tam Coc and were paddled along in a boat down a river and into caves. It seems the people in the area hid in these caves when they were getting bombed by the Americans. No one seems to hold a grudge and they smile and wave when you say you are from the US.

Today, we went to Ken Ga... a floating village. People live in houses for a few months out of the year, then in their boats when the river floods above the house level. The women go into the mountains and work 8 hours collecting rocks which will be used to build homes and roads. For this they get paid 20,000 dong. Right now 15,700 is $1.00. I'll leave it to you to do the math. The men stay home with the kids.

Other people go out into the river in teams of two to fish. One person rows the boat with their feet (their arms get tired and if they row with their feet they can multitask) while the other throws a net off the back of the boat to catch fish, snails... basically whatever's down there.

The food has been good. Mostly fish because Mary Kay is a vegetarian (this is helpful). I ate some meat at our picnic lunch today... I'm not sure what kind. It looked like shredded wheat and I thought it was dried fish. Oh well.

I'm having a love affair with pineapple, it is so juicy and delicious here. There is also something called dragon fruit. It's kind of like a kiwi on the inside, it's got a white flesh and a lot of little black seeds.. it's good too.

I've decided I need someone else to be carrying the camera around. It's fun to take photos... but "I'm ready for my close up..." and how do I get that if I'm always behind the camera. We'll see if we can get an interview with Mr. Le later tonight. It's going to be a very cool movie. Danny, you will have a lot of work to do helping me with the editing. I'm convinced it can all be fixed in post production!

Now I will attempt to add some photos to this. We shall see.

Happy belated birthday to Mom and Kyle, happy birthday to John and happy cool, dry weather to the rest of you!

Chao! (goodbye)
Miss K

Friday, July 1, 2005

Departure's Eve

Hey All, Can you believe it's 9:08pm in San Francisco the night before I leave and I'm almost packed? Frankly, neither can I.

The other thrilling news is that I have learned how to pronounce words that start with "ng"! This is a huge step in my crash Vietnamese lessons that started a few days ago. Thankfully, my coworker Huyen has spoken some phrases on my digital recorder. Either I will listen to them all the way over, mastering the pronunciation OR I will play it for people instead of speaking... only time will tell.

Tomorrow John is giving me a ride to the airport in the morning where I will meet Mary Kay. We basically spend all weekend flying and arrive late tomorrow night: San Francisco -> Los Angeles -> Osaka, Japan -> Hanoi, Vietnam.

Mary Kay started a foundation called HOPE Project and their first project is building, staffing and supplying a school for the blind in Ninh Binh. We'll be paying the school a visit and I'll be taking lots of video to create a travelogue/documentary. It will be my first! Let's hope I remember to turn the microphone on.

I'll check in when I can and upload pictures if I can figure out how. Thanks for getting started with me.

See you in Vietnam!
Miss K