Thursday, March 9, 2017

Vietnam - The Halfway Point And A Place To Call Home

The following is a series of random paragraphs of thought. This post is not chronological or in any kind of order, but rather a compilation of memories or inner thoughts and ideas of the weeks past. It may be long-winded, so just come back for bits and pieces if you have to. But finish the read. It will make me happy and useful. Haha. There are lots of pictures!

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There is so so much comfort in having someone around who speaks a language not your own in a country they call home. There is a sense of ease when you can call a place your home while on the road and have family take care of you, show you, and direct you to anything you want and desire. There is gratefulness for the conveniences you've been given, and there is a debt of gratitude which is difficult to relieve because the lengths have been so great to which people have gone to make you so welcome and happy.






These are the thoughts and feelings I've had after spending time at my wife's family's home in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam). Her aunts, uncles, and cousins have openly invited and cared for us each day of our stay. They provided advice, food, direction, negotiation, and countless other intangibles to/for us and for our convenience. Their hospitality is boundless. In a way, we are so lucky, because we've been given so many freedoms in a place where freedom is limited. What a dichotomy.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Ho Chi Minh City

Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower).

Saigon by night. View from Air 360 Sky Deck in the Ben Thanh area.

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Ho Chi Minh City is full of history. Sadly, however, it's predominantly related to the Vietnam War. Numerous tourist sites offer their version of the war (and its outcome), and it seems a bit controversial. I say this because my wife's family's perspective is that of a Southerner (the North won, obviously). The stories they've heard about the war and fleeing communism are completely opposite of anything depicted in the museums. The emotions that were evoked were strong. My wife, her cousin, and other family member expressed their disgust with how the Southern perspective was completely omitted from history. But I guess that's what happens when you lose. Your story is untold and hidden from the history books or any other form of documentation. This is where storytelling and word of mouth flourish. It's the only way a life's experience can be relayed for the future generations. It's the only way some truth (and, of course, opinion) about the past can be shared for others to learn from. But textbooks will certainly differ. So as my dad always said to me, "there's always two sides to a story" and that's why you must take everything "with a grain of salt."

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Riding around on a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City is really intense. The sheer amount of people in the streets at any given time of the day is amazing. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, motortrikes, pedestrians, street food vendors, men, women, children, and even animals all crisscross the streets, intersections, and what's left of the sidewalks. Motorbikes sometimes come up the wrong side of the street while pedestrians and cars play frogger across the road. U-turns can happen at any moment. Cars and bikes swerve to avoid some kind of traffic and everyone behind follows suit. Motorists don't even bother looking before making right turns. Some use turn signals; other use hand signals. The more skillful talk or text while driving their motorbikes with one hand. Most drivers have 1-2 additional passengers riding with them. In some cases, you might even see 4 to a single bike! Some have passengers and goods being transported. You can see anything from boxes of noodles to hoses wrapped around the driver to poles and shovels to 1000 eggs or even some chickens. But somehow everyone maneuvers their way through the chaos mostly unscathed.

Cross street near our Ho Chi Minh City home.

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We did pay a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels to see what it was like for the combatants of the war. I definitely did not fit and didn't bother to try to crawl through. Though Jenn and Carolyn gave it a GO. By their description and by the tour guide's knowledge base, the tunnels are stuffy, tight, and difficult to navigate. They were geniusly constructed otherwise, with plenty of uses besides moving from point A to B underground. There were kitchens with smoke stacks. There were air vents strategically placed. There were labs for building bombs, shoes, clothing, weapons, and other wartime necessities. I found this to be the most interesting war related tourist site we visited albeit still biased for the North perspective.

Demonstration of how small the Cu Chi Tunnels

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The Mekong Delta region of Vietnam is still so poor and living in the past. Modernization is taking its time reaching this Southern area. I don't necessarily understand why either. Is it the government withholding information? Is it the people unwilling to adapt? Maybe a combination of both? Some would say if it ain't broke then don't fix it. But I say, improvement is not necessarily fixing nor is there an identifiable problem. It's just about making lives easier and better. But I suppose there is a large hurdle to overcome. Money.

There is not enough money to make such improvements in this area. And it's fairly evident. As you drive through the neighborhoods from Saigon to this area, there are few buildings or any real infrastructure aside from the 2 lane roads leading to the delta. There are many poorly built houses with poor street stands and vendors along the way. There is garbage everywhere and sanitation is certainly a question.

But where does all the money from tourism go? I have to assume that thousands of people visit this area every day/week/month/year. Why isn't the money spent in this area used to improve this area?

Or do the people here just not care? Are they satisfied with the lives they live? Do they not see a problem? Will this mindset outlive this generation and future generations?

I believe there are people who want to improve. But the the army is tiny compared to the masses of those living at par for the course.

Bridge crossing the river in the town of Ben Tre.

Typical boat on the Mekong River at the floating market.

The bamboo stick with all the goods identifies all the fruits and vegetables this vendor has to sell.

Floating grocery store. 

A happy family vending on the river. 

If you only have 1 product to sell, you can drive your small boat around from boat to boat to make sales. 

Transactions can be done along the shore as well. 

Carolyn, myself, and Jennifer with our tour guide and captain on the Mekong River.


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At one of our homestays in the Mekong Delta region town of Can Tho, we met some really friendly people who have practiced their English and gone to university. They run the homestay that is very popular amongst tourists, and now we know why. It is on a farm in the countryside with Mekong River canal offshoots running through it. The area is peaceful and remote, but close enough to the city and main river docks to take tours. The accommodations are rustic but well maintained with plenty of space and open-air to really absorb nature's finest beauty. In the morning, you hear the crow of the roosters. During the day, you feel the swoosh of the canal waters from the boat vendors. At night, you hear the chirp of the crickets; the darkness is illuminated by the fireflies; and the light breeze rustles the coconut trees and other vegetation.

Our homestay in Can Tho straddles the canals of the Mekong River. We are on our way to the "lobby" for a home-cooked meal. 


Free bikes for use from our homestay.

Boats that are impossible to paddle for any old human. Professionals are required to paddle and navigate the canals. 

So we just used the kayak.


And we got these 2 little pups to play with to boot. On the left is Mekong. And on the right is Delta.



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In the Mekong Delta region, waterside property is not valuable like in the United States. It's where the poorest people live, bathe, wash clothes, and brush their teeth. They survive on less than $100 per month. Meanwhile, property on the Hudson River is in the millions $$$$.


Some people make rice paper from scratch the old fashioned way to make money. 

Rice paper is steamed to be shaped and cooked, but then sun-dried to be ready for sale. 

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There is plenty of French influence in Vietnam. Coffee, pâté, French bread, architecture, even some words. It was funny realize this after a conversation with a local Frenchman.

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The island of Phu Quoc is famous for few things. One is that they produce some of the best fish sauce in Vietnam. The boats go out and fish for anchovies and they are processed at the facility to ferment for one year. The scent is amazing (if you like that old rotten decomposing smell). We learned that the fishermen could be out to sea for indefinite time periods. They have no schedule. One day they will just show up in port and unload and head back out if necessary.


#islandlife



Phu Quoc is also known for their beaches. But to my surprise, they are not so crowded. We saw the beginnings of more beach resorts and other such establishments. Tourism has not taken over this island yet. Our prediction is that in the next 5-10 years, Phu Quoc will be a can't-miss destination for travelers visiting Vietnam. For now, infrastructure is improving; beaches are still somewhat barren and unkept; and there isn't a real good transit system around the island yet. That will change when the big resorts really go full force to attract customers. Apparently, a Marriot is going up on a part of the island. Consider that the beginning of the end of peace, quiet, and rural life on this island.

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We had some really interesting true life discussions about Vietnamese families. One of the conversations we had with a couple of locals was of how the maturity Vietnamese children is so slow in comparison to other children around the world, namely French, American, and Filipino. Consequently, the process for parents to let go of their children is equally slow. The combination causes some strange social issues of empty nest syndrome (for parents) and inability to separate from the parents (for the children).

Much of the cause of this social issue is the culture of families here in Vietnam. There is a respect that must be given to elders (not different from other cultures, but deeper in meaning and value here). There is also the notion of debt of gratitude that is paid back over an entire lifetime. Additionally, there is a fear instilled in the children here by the parents, more-so the mothers, who are always correct and know best. Children then have a difficult time in combating them even when the parent is incorrect or can be taught new/better things and ways of thinking. In my mind, the things that should be so easy are so difficult and adulthood is an elongated timeline. Whereas kids in other countries are up and out of their parents house by age 18, here in Vietnam that doesn't happen until late 20s or even early 30s.

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The types of conversations had around a red plastic table, sitting on tiny, blue, backless plastic chairs for the evening's dinner in Hanoi reminded me of episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations or Parts Unknown. I've enjoyed all the meals taken alfresco.



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We loved Hanoi! There is a stark contrast between this city and Saigon. It's polar opposite of each other almost. At this time of year, Hanoi is relatively cold (I had to buy sweatpants because I left my pants in HCMC). Saigon has 2 climates - hot and hotter. Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is more calm. Trees line the streets. There is less motor activity. It's easier to cross the street! And the city is much more walkable than Saigon.

The people are quite different too. I felt a more serious tone or matter-of-fact type conversation. It was especially evident at the food establishments and other service related places. But at the same time, I felt like there was a happiness in the people who lived in Hanoi. Every weekend, the roadways that surround Hoan Kiem Lake are closed off to motor traffic and allow only pedestrians. It allows the people to use the streets to convene, play games, perform music and dance, kids to run freely, and food to be sampled all around. It's a real spectacle to see the locals come out and play on an evening during the weekend. Ho Chi Minh does something similar, but on a much smaller scale and only in 1 of the many districts. It also feels more touristy and showy.




Old and young. Traditional and modern. All living side by side in Hanoi. 


A crazy game we watched at the park. It's basically like badminton but with your feet. 



I think my wife and I completely agree that the food in the North is of no comparison to the South. It's better in the South.

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I believe that Vietnamese food in the United States is that of the Southern Vietnamese. And it makes sense. Southerners fled the country and communism. How do I know though? Easy. I ate numerous meals up north. For example, pho is an iconic dish in Vietnam. It probably what they are most well known for in the culinary world, besides banh mi. In the South of Vietnam and in the US, pho is somewhat self-assembled, the fixings I mean. You add lime, hoisin sauce, mints, hot peppers, bean sprouts, hot sauce, and anything else your tongue desires, though those are the basics, in whatever quantity you choose. In Northern Vietnam, you take what you are given. You have no choice. It seems so communist and fitting that it's served that way. They build it; they give it to you. Take it and eat it, or get out. Plenty of other foods are served the same way. And then there are numerous other dishes that never made it to the US because they are typically Northern dishes (i.e. Bun Cha, egg coffee, etc.). I find it fascinating how food has traveled around the world.

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Southern Vietnam has all the fresh fruits it seems, while the North needs their fruits imported from the South or from China. The plethora of fresh fruits in the South is magical. All of them are so sweet. Tough to recap what I've eaten, but I'll try:

- custard apple or sugar apple
- papaya
- banana
- mango
- dragon fruit
- passion fruit
- pomelo
- pineapple
- watermelon
- sapodilla
- jackfruit
- coconut

My favorite was custard apple and jackfruit. And fresh fruit in the morning is hard to beat for breakfast.

I've had a hard time taking pictures of all the fruit because I usually devour it before I'm able to photograph it. Haha.

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We made the trip to Bai Tu Long Bay along side Ha Long Bay. And we did it by luxury cruise boat with a luxury shuttle van transfer from Hanoi, a 3 hour journey. On the way to the port, we made a pit stop at a "rest area" to use the facilities, but like all Asian rest areas, this doubles as a shopping area. It's almost like having to pass through the Duty Free shop in the airport before you can get to your gate. Asia is notorious for setting up their pathways and roadway and itineraries to get you in front of the sales people.

Anyway, we love the water. The cruise was one of the smoothest sails we've ever been on. The bay is shielded from the currents of the Pacific Ocean by all the land formations. The most interesting thing I learned about the rock formations is how they came to be. Contrary to logical thought, volcanic activity played no part in this puzzle. As it was explained to us (albeit in much simpler terms), there was a time when this entire area was dry. Then it was followed by a period of constant rains. The rains carved out the limestone to create various formations. This was aided by a time when the ocean levels rose drastically and further carved the stone. Combined with tectonic plate shifting, these processes repeated until the present day. We're talking about 10s of thousands of years. It's now a picture perfect example of the power of nature and water. There are caves that depict how water levels have changed over the years. It's truly marvelous to see.

Our luxury cruise on the Dragon Legend through Bai Tu Long Bay. 

It's easy to feel small out in the open water. 

Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay is filled with these formations that resemble a dragon's back. 

I went for a swim in this really cold water. Haha. Apparently there was a dangerous jellyfish swimming next to me.


Whale Island. Do you see it? 

The figurehead of the Dragon Legend.


The 2 days and 1 night on the boat were an excellent getaway from city life and from the backpacker life we've been leading. We drank wine, slept in luxurious beds in beautiful cabins, and ate well prepared food in a sit-down setting. We met some great people, the most Americans we've seen in a while. And we relaxed in a setting that allows you to breathe the fresh air and take in the beauty of nature. And when we looked to entertain ourselves, a couple rounds of Jenga did the trick.

We also spent one night at a homestay in a local village called Yen Duc. It's a strange arrangement this village has. It's become a tourist stop for those coming from Ha Long Bay. The community organizes water puppet shows. So people end up coming to see the show and touring the village if they have some time. For us, we decided to stay a night in the village and learn about the locals.

Rice farming in Yen Duc Village in the countryside. 

The Yen Duc Village community is very proud. 


The first afternoon we spent with a local fruit farmer, who also had a large collection of bonsai trees. Apparently, ownership of said bonsai trees is an indication of wealth. His fence / wall around his property is abnormally tall to keep out the thieves. He share his fruit with us and just wanted to meet us and to learn where we were from. This man was so welcoming, and all without any benefit to him. We were informed that he received no money from our visit. He just wanted to be exposed to us.

We went for a bike ride around the village. There are no cars in this village. It's very easy to get around. 


Afterwards, we visited what seemed to be the tour grounds where the water puppet show was practicing. Here, we learned how to process rice with manual tools, an arduous process. We also had the opportunity to learn how locals used to fish in the ponds with bamboo baskets. The girls had a good time testing their luck in the murky waters. I was certainly amused as a photographer.



On our second day there, we were taken to another local's house. Our host was 70 years old, and her job was to make brooms out of the dried rice stalks left over from after the rice was harvested and processed. She was a delight. She was so happy to meet us and was a great teacher. She instructed us how to make a small broom. The process was tedious but you could see each step that she took with the limited supplies she had. The process is completely manual in that you wound each thread and really formed every piece of the broom from handle to bristles. The lady was engaged completely in showing us all the intricate steps to complete our brooms. It was such a fun project. Our guide told us that she is the poorest woman in the entire village. She earned only 30,000 dong ($1.15) from this visit and her brooms would fetch anywhere from $1 for the smallest to $5 for the largest. Her family was unable to help her because they were all farmers and did not make as much money either. Our heart went out to her, but there was nothing we could do to help her. So we thanked her, hugged her, and took a photo with her which made her very happy. It's sad to learn how poor and difficult life can be through first hand interaction, especially when you're on a formal tourist tour.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

I've run out of Swagger!

Why is it so hard to find deodorant in Ho Chi Minh?!?! I looked up grocery stores on Google Maps and began my walking journey around our neighborhood in search of this 1st world necessity. 

My first stop was Big C. For sure I would be here. According to Google, it's a major supermarket with plenty of products. It's the size of a hotel on the map. As I approach the address, I don't see many cars or people. And as I get closer and closer I see why. The building has been partially knocked down! Fail.

Option 2 is a smaller market called Nam An Market. It's around the corner from the supposed Big C. As you know, traffic is crazy here. It's like Frogger to cross the street. So anyway, I get there and it's a really small high end market with organic everything. Surely they have deodorant. I walk up and down every aisle only to find expensive imported foods and cleaning products. But no deodorant.

I continued my quest for deodorant. I stopped by 3 mini marts and a pharmacy. Apparently, like contact solution, deodorant is not sold in the pharmacy! And the mini marts only carry Axe body spray! WTH is that? That's not deodorant!

Where can I find my Swagger?!



I had to Google it again. And I found a place called Sunflower Market very far from where we are that possibly sells Old Spice. But do I go all the way over there to buy my brand of deodorant? Or do I wait and test my luck, hoping to find it somewhere else and maybe perspire a bit more?! LOL. Should I try my luck in India?!?! Hahha. 

My search continues...

Monday, February 13, 2017

We made the trip to Kampot, Cambodia and this is what we learned.


  • I am still afraid of flying. As many times as I've been on an airplane, something still scares me. In this particular instance, I think it was flying out of and into small airports. Although our plane was relatively large (Boeing A-330), I still feared something. Was it because it wasn't a full flight? Was the plane underweight? Was it balanced? Are small airports even on the radar? Etc, etc, etc. 
  • Cambodia is a country in the group of countries previously known as Indochina. The term refers to the land between India and China, now referred to as Southeast Asia. It includes Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. 
  • English is well spoken here also. Some still speak French, and many also speak Mandarin. I have to imagine that's due to the history of this area with French and Chinese influence.
  • The USD is widely accepted but their own currency the Cambodia Riel is also still around. You don't even have to exchange your money. Literally every place takes USD. Is that because of tourism? Is the dollar that strong that it can basically take over a country's use of their own currency?


Poor, but honest. 

As poor as people are here they still can find some kind of work. We didn't see any homeless people. Everyone had some kind of job, whether selling fruits or cheap snacks on the side of the road or driving a tuk-tuk. For example, our tuk-tuk driver worked hard for his money. We negotiated for a sunrise viewing in Angkor Wat and rides to 4 temples. That's about 9 hours of work, not to mention waking up well before dawn. And we were able to pay only $16 USD. Our haggling started at $20, that was his price. We countered with $15 and didn't budge. The driver went from $18 to $17 and we finally settled on his final offer of $16. Even for a single greenback negotiations persisted. The people are poor but honest and hard-working.

Sihanoukville (the little town we flew into today) is a lot poorer than I expected. I see shacks and tin roofs and garbage. But amongst it all are casinos and hotels and construction of all sorts. There is a huge disparity in income here. I even see a Lexus and Audi around next to modified cars used as tuk tuks.

Carolyn and I decided to skip Sihanoukville as it sounded like a party / beach town.


Stranger Danger?
Yesterday's thoughts and notes from during the day.

When you're traveling sometimes you have to go against the very first rule we were taught as children when venturing out into the world. Back home we know it best as "stranger danger." If not for the educational purposes of learning from others on the road or finding out how to get from point A to B, then that rule might remain unbroken. But travel life has taught me that strangers can and will be helpful in every aspect of globetrotting.

We just got in a car with someone who we completely do not know. We don't even know if we're supposed to trust this man. Our shuttle bus driver helped us find him in a parking lot across from an open air market. We are looking to get ourselves from Sihanoukville to Kampot, Cambodia. If you map it out, that's a 1.5 hour journey but the reality is closer to 2hrs. And this late in the afternoon there are very limited legitimate mini buses from town to town, the option we were hoping for. There are also no more flights coming in (we were probably the last) so that makes it even harder to find sharing situations. But we found this guy. He is not a taxi. There are no markings on his 2000s Toyota Camry (at least the car could be reliable). And he's not wearing a uniform. He seems to be an ordinary guy trying to make an extra dollar. Who after some hard bargaining was willing to take us for $20 (normally $30-40). He was able to get someone to share the ride so here we are in a car going to Kampot with a driver we don't know and another passenger who is a complete stranger.

My eyes are peeled the entire time. If I could have removed one and attached it to the back of my head, I would. However, the middle aged man and the guy who seems to possibly know this driver seem to be fairly decent people.

Sidenote: use of the car horn is rampant. But it's used properly each time. As a warning to drivers you are approaching from behind and to signal impending danger.

After the fact.

We made it. Safe. With our luggage. And we were delivered right to the front door of our guesthouse. We paid the man $20, thanked him, and wished him well.

Strangers aren't so bad after all. What do you think?


Salt & Pepper

Kampot is a town with a reach beyond its borders.  Two of the most basic ingredients in cooking are salt and pepper. In a single day, we were able to see the origin of both here in Kampot. First, pepper.

And when I say pepper, I don't mean bell; I mean peppercorns. I'm talking about the spice in your mills at your dining room table. But wait, peppercorns come in different colors you say. Yes! They do. But did you know that black, white, green, and red peppercorns come from the same plant? Peppercorns grown on a vine about 12-13ft tall.



The natural color of peppercorns is green. These are the fresh peppers. Cambodian cuisine uses the fresh green pepper in some of their cooking, the full peppercorn. It is slightly spicy and a bit tangy (to me) when you bite into it.

Red peppercorns are vine ripe peppers. This is a natural color. The processing involves boiling them, followed by sun drying. This gives it the more dark red or reddish brown coloring.

Black and white pepper comes from the processing of the green peppercorns. When boiled then dried, the green turns to black. And for white, the green pepper is boiled, stored, then run through streaming water to remove the "husk." The remaining color is white. This is dried and you have your white peppercorns.




That's the generic idea. I'm sure there's more to it, obviously. But isn't it interesting that it's all one plant? And all the work from start to finish is manual labor. We learned this from our free tour at La Plantation.

Now salt, another labor intensive process, once nature does it's work. What do I mean? First, ocean/sea water is let into pools. Once filled, these pools are closed off and allowed to evaporate under the heat of the sun. This leaves salt crystals in the pools, which are raked into piles each and every afternoon. The piles are then carried by woven basket into a storage warehouse alongside the pools and in a later process (which obviously we did not see) are shipped out to be cleaned, iodized, packaged, and shipped. Apparently salt is what Kampot is more well known for. Where is your salt from?







Great experience all wrapped up in a single day of motorbiking around Kampot. I'm impressed by the laborers and the process of it all. I'm so happy to have been able to witness the origins of 2 of the most basic ingredients used in our every day lives.


Kep, Cambodia





It was a day trip for us. We hopped on our motorbike and zipped down to the town of Kep, a seaside town well known for their crab market. It looks so easy, but we know it's hard work to fish for crab. We heard that there has been overfishing of these crustaceans and find it sad that one day this little town will lose a huge part of their livelihood.



If you know us, it's safe to assume that we tasted the famous crabs. They were delicious, sweet, and so easy to shell. Don't be mistaken by their size. Although they look small, these crabs pack a good amount of meat.