Thursday, June 15, 2006

We'll never forget the elephants

They say a picture is worth is a thousand words, so ours should speak volumes on the four days we spent living with Asian elephants outside of Chiang Mai. Or at least more than I can write as we're scurrying and hurrying to get this blogged before heading off to Burma. Myanmar. Whatever. Anyway, look at the smiles on our faces as a baby elephant nuzzles our faces with her trunk, or Andy feeds one fruit or I scrub an elephant teen in the river. Our smiles are big, truly awesome, natural and unrestrained.

One of our most favorite events of this Extravagasia was our swim with dolphins, something about interacting with mammals in a wild, natural setting unnerved and exhilarated us and we wanted to do it again. Andy and I read about Elephant Nature Park in National Geographic, and our new travel friends Gordon and Lucy had visited the park and given rave reviews. After all, where else could you help bathe elephants in a river?~> read more

  Certainly not at a zoo. We signed up and headed off to a sprawl of jungle and river in the northwest of Thailand that's a reserve for domesticated Asian elephants called Elephant Nature Park. It's a non-profit rescue organization started by an amazing woman-soul named Lek Chailert who wants to better the treatment of Thailand's national symbol, the elephant. When we arrived, chaos reigned. Animal Planet was there with a crew filming a documentary, volunteers madly unloaded hundreds of kilos of bananas and pineapple in a human chain, construction workers were hammering at bamboo pavilion to repair destruction from an overnight elephant raid, cute but mongrel dogs barked about and elephants of all size and color roamed about in lush green grasses with the occasional majestic, sureral trumpet like a safari dream come to life. We were awestruck.

And we stayed that way for four days. The elephants suck you in with their playful, incredible, unique trunks and you can just sit around and watch them for hours. We certainly did. Watching them play and wrestle with each other, their trunks looking like arms and their tails swishing about in glee like a toilet scrub brush gone mad was better than any movie. They're so huge and wrinkly, their their ears flapping constantly like wings, but have eyes that are utterly human. Pinkish and brown, the giant creature can look eyes with you and make you feel connected, probably just in a mammalian sense but it really feels like a mythical one. Gazing at them at they gaze at you, their trunks shimmying in a teasing dance, you feel special. It sounds corny, but you really do. Andy and I frequently looked quickly at one another and said, "Did you see that? Did you see how the baby, the mama, the giant, whomever, just looked at me?"

Elephants are extremely human creatures; they have routines, families and relationships just like we do. The 30 elephants we lived with at the park chose family groups for themselves and by themselves, and sleeping, playing, bathing within these groups of moms, aunts, babies and teens. Older female elephants are gray aunties to the younger ones, and they fiercely protect their young. The females also protect each other, and one giant pink-gray lady named Mae Perm adopted an older abused and blind female, Jokia, and trumpets, growls, hisses, calls directions to her, plus peels her bamboo stalks, as if she were a human good samaritan. Like us humans, elephants love treats. Twice a day, the herd of elephants are fed by hand -- by us and others, not just their mahouts (trainer) -- bunches of bananas, pineapples, pumpkins and cucumbers. You've never seen anything as amazing as when an elephant's trunk curls out and around a whole pinapple in your hang, feeing it into it's mouth while holding onto the prickly leaves with its trunk and snapping those off efficiently with a crack! It's amazing!!! The dexterity elephants have with their funny, animated and expressive trunks is truly impressive.

Our favorite time as well as the elephants, was bath time. Twice each afternoon, Andy and I, the other visitors, volunteers and mahouts, trekked down to the brown-geren river and scrubbed away on the gentle giants.

for now, that'll have to be enough; we have to head off to burma for 3 weeks (incommunicado), but we really hope you enjoy the photos, which are here:


Thai Us Up, Thai Us Down

I'm just going to say it: We are Thai food snobs. No bones, no tofu about it. No excuses. No apologies. And the longer we travel, the worse it gets.

My discriminating palate was bad before because Denver's climate doesn't offer the tropical growing season necessary to harvest kaffir lime leaves and thus Thai food was never "quite right" in the Rocky Mountains. I'd whine about this to Andy and he listened patiently while enjoying his Tom Yum Koong with three chilies, not really understanding my dismay and prejudice. Then I corrupted him, kidnapped him to Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, New Zealand, Vietnam and next Myanmar, and it's all changed.

Andy has tasted the ambrosias of Southeast Asia, the pastiches of hot-sour-salty-sweet, multiple basils and fresh nutmeg, spicy-rich curry pastes, rice puddings oozing coconut cream, the best mangoes on earth and noodles lovingly fried and tossed with spring onion and egg by hand. Mmmmmm.... ahhhhhh......sighhhh. I've created a monster (albeit a very cute one!), and together we're a two-headed monster with difficult, discerning palates for Thai food.

How could it be, you ask? Let's just say the man now has a taste for fresh baby corn (who knew this even existed?) and watches the Thais like a hawk when they make his papaya salad~> read more

 , with 3 hotter than thou mouse dropping chilies, thank you very much! Andy is even on board with me purchasing a stone mortar and pestle before we head home. Hell, he might even carry it for me because it makes the best curries!

Hmm, you might even starting calling us monsters Khing (ginger) Koong (shrimp). I digress... It's not going to be pretty when we're back in the States and searching for authentic food to appease our appetites for nam plaa, som tam and phat thai. You should already hear us now when we've eaten away from Thailand and our taste buds were disappointed: "this soup doesn't have enough coriander root in it", "she used way too much fish sauce", "this needs a lot more lime juice and palm sugar", "they call this Penang curry?!"

Worse yet, we're actually putting our money where our mouths are and taking more cooking courses.

Chiang Mai, where we're kicking it now and enjoying all that the smallish but uber-atmospheric town has to offer with temples, bazaars and it's own moat, boasts more cooking courses and food per capita than anywhere in Thailand. There's so much here to eat, whether on the streets or at a nice table, from early morning to late at night that it's hard to have enough appetite. You step out the door from your guesthouse to put back on your shoes and see they offer a cooking course, and so does everyone of the competitors along the small soi.

Plus, Chiang Mai is home to the legendary black sticky rice pudding -- one of my top ten favorite foods so I wanted to understand once and for all how to make it. What in the hell is that you ask? Think rice pudding, coconut cream and tapioca all blended into one deep purple pudding and served warm. SO delicious. I think Andy also wanted me to learn as to alleviate any future cravings and whining about its omission or poor substitutions on Thai menus back home. He's worried about curry pastes and whether we can purchase anything close to perfect in an Asian market, so I wanted him to see what was involved in that because that is not your average kitchen endeavor.

Do you see? Homemade puddings and pastes! We are BAD NEWS! The even badder news: we're researching cooking classes and asking for private lessons--not just signing up for your average tourist course! Hello, high maintenance!!! Fortunately, we found Baan Thai and Boom. I researched online and found Baan Thai's cooking school, then Andy and I went to inquire if we could choose the menu and cook/geek out alone, and Boom worked with us to create what we wanted and made it happen. Yes, Boom, our petite and smiley Thai instructor -- though she says "Boom" with an attractive lilt of rising and falling tones that makes it sound a lot prettier than the boring onomatopoeia it is in our language.

We spent an awesome day with Boom learning more secrets about Thai cooking, and expanded our repertoire to include clay pot cuisine and a Chiang Mai noodle specialty called khao soy. Khao soy is unique to this area and unique in flavor because it's a melange of Thai, Yunnanese, Indian and Burmese ingredients. Chiang Mai is actually a centuries-old market town and the crossroads for caravans from all over SE Asia; these cultures trekked in from around the continent to meet and trade at the colorful bazaar that still runs nightly and khao soy's sweet-hot curry flavor with both crispy and soft noodles has an exotic taste you just can't quite put your tongue upon, except to know its delicious.

And yes, our desires for black sticky rice and Penang curry paste, in food form as well as written form, were satiated. Boom got the recipe for my ultimate comfort food/sweet craving from Baan Thai's owner and we soaked, sugared, boiled and blended it to perfection in the outdoor kitchen. While eating and swooning, I made meticulous notes...though the proportions are never exactly right. A Thai tablespoon is one of the those short-handled flat spoons that come with soup at Asian restaurants. There's never a Western tablespoon in sight, but I'll muddle through that through delectable trial and error. The three of us made a curry paste by hand, though Andy's hand got the worst of it because he had to mash and smash it with a granite pestle for over twenty minutes! It was a lot of work, although fragrant work because the smell of freshly pounded chilies, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and lime make a beautiful perfume.

Indeed, those damn kaffir limes are going to be a problem. You need some of the tart fruit's knobby, emerald peel in fresh form for the paste. We may have to take our snobbery for Thai food to another level and start growing some of our own ingredients!?!

Typing that, I'm worried we'll become slaves to our palates and won't ever find jobs since we'll be too busy planting kaffir limes and pestling currry pastes by hand. That could be a problem. Or maybe this is all nonsense and we'll return to the States and forget about this Thai food obsession? Our tongues will get shocked back to semi-bland and forget about the zones that taste hot-sour-salty-sweet all at once? We'll just subsist on Chipotle burritos for him and Whole Foods goat cheese spinach salad with candied walnuts for me instead? Perhaps Andy is just humoring me by saying he tastes the difference between smashed versus processor-pureed curries so I focus on the purchase of one perfect mortar and pestle instead of 18 perfect items in Thai silk? Maybe we'll never cook at home and all of these classes will be for nothing?

I guess the proof will be in the pudding, but my hope is that it's going to be black sticky rice!

7 more fun pictures here!: http://bitjug.com/gallery/CMCooking

Home, home's all deranged...

These days, Bangkok is home.

As we landed at Don Muang Airport for the fifth time on this trip, we knew the drill and it feels great. We know which Customs lines are the shortest, where to get our luggage cart and go to the restroom, how to dodge the dodgy private taxi touts, and we always have directions to our guesthouse in Thai available for the metered taxis. It's easy. It's nice. Familiarity is nice. When you have constant change on perhaps the most constant basis as ever before in your life, you crave easy little pieces that click into place without hassle or thought. And Bangkok always delivers.~> read more

Back again to New Siam Guesthouse we go. Back to our regular room with air con, our locker for 10 baht a day that houses precious purchases and guidebooks, which is locked securely with Andy's new favorite brand of Chinese locks -- purchased at, where else, our favorite grocery/hardware store in our Banglamphu neighborhood of Bangkok.

We've spent two weeks in five visits to Bangkok and carved out a routine that soothes and satisfies. The only normalcy of this trip, besides each other which is questionable at times, entails New Siam, our locker, a trip to the post office to mail things home to the US (mostly purchases I've made, but Andy's caught on to shopping too!), a trip to the grocery/hardware store for replenishing random things like Dove soap and Duracell batteries, a stop at our favorite juice cart for awesome fresh fruit shakes for 20 baht (50 cents US...you can see why we dread Jamba Juice prices) and selling the last country's Lonely Planet guide plus any fiction at our favorite used book store where we know the man and Andy and he a enjoy refined barter with gentle smiles, patience and logic that always ends well.

Then, in the final and favorite leg of our routine, we're off to KC Guesthouse, which Andy and I discovered on our own wandering around one morning in December. It's our favorite place for food in Bangkok. That's saying a lot, I might add, because we adore the food here, but the ladies of KC make a fantastic, mouthwatering, spice-satisfying, "dry" (only a bit of coconut cream and milk) Penang curry that tempts our tummy and curls our toes. We also love their cold drinks, which are always served with a purple orchid, and the pad thai because it comes in a copper skillet and you can watch one of the old ladies make it with love in a primitive outdoor kitchen that clucks with the chatter of matrons -- and the clucks of live birds. Our most favorite waiter is a young Thai male, tall for Asian standards, who's shy, sweet and giggles quietly in the way of the Thais when he forgets something like sugar for our tea or we notice his new haircut. KC has absolutely no atmosphere; like most places in Asia, the worse the atmosphere, the better the food. But it's not about the backdrop, it's about the fact none of this has changed in six months and that pleases us immensely.

Ah, Thailand....this really is our favorite country so far! In some ways, it hasn't gotten its due on the blog because we're frequently in transit here, need to catch up from other countries with poor or expensive internet, or have missed something it offers (like the best food in the entire world!) so we're off treating ourselves immediately instead of blogging. But every time we return, we're happy. The people are kind and un-pushy, and there's a lot of status quo which neither of us appreciated about life before, though we understand its value now.

But even in Bangkok, Andy and I are strangers in a strange land. It's odd to think that if we were Dorothy, we're not sure where we'd click our ruby heels to in request. Yet we're not exactly homeless. I like to think we're travelers (vs. expats vs. backpackers with dread locks who spend more on beer than lodging vs. locals vs. natives). Being travelers means constant transit, most all of which is good but sometimes throws your sense of time and place. When all of your favorite shoes are in storage, you can't drive your Porsche, you have no paycheck, no routine and can't pick up the phone immediately and call whomever you want to just to chat, life is different. In a fantastic, fabled way and in an odd way. Expectations are different too and we often remove them in order to live more in the moment and experience places, people, cultures freely and without prejudice.

In Bangkok, however, we know what to expect--if only for a few days or hours--and we're thankful. While we (and especially I) wanted to go on this trip to experience the unexpected, it's good to have little doses of the common once in awhile so we can better appreciate the unknown. Once upon a time I never believed I'd crave ordinary, but that's the pleasure of the unexpected.

History and Hassles, then Redemption!

Central Vietnam has a variety of different experiences for the traveller. The city of Hue is perhaps not as culturally attractive (museums, architecture, etc) as one might hope, so we took a day trip by "dragon boat" outside of the city, on the Perfume River. Hue is unique in having a lot of attractions along a river, making a boat tour a viable option. And it was only $1.50 per person, which seemed to good to be true. More on that later.

Looking back at the photos, I see some beautiful tombs built for various generations of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled from the citadel in the center of Hue. Unfortunately, the citadel is not what it once was due to bombing during wars with the french and americans.~> read more

  China and Vietnam have had a long and complex relationship, most notably that Vietnam was part of China (or occupied by, depending on who you ask) during 110BC–AD40, 43–544, 602–906, and 1406–1427. before, after, and in between, Vietnam has been independent but not always ruled by the same groups.

Because of this long relationship, we noticed Chinese influence throughout Vietnam, and this was unexpected for us, because we did not know about the long relationship but also because the 3 nearby countries we have visited have little Chinese influence visible. This boat trip certainly enlightened us!

However, the boat trip enlightened us in less pleasant ways that at moments made the beauty of the tombs and pagoda harder to enjoy. The aforementioned $1.50 fee for a full-day tour was indeed too good to be true. As soon as we boarded the boat early in the morning we were asked to order basic vietnamese dishes for lunch at $5 each, where these things normally cost around 1 dollar in restaurants. Lunch was supposed to be included in the ticket price, but it was said to be "only tofu, very small!" While we didn't expect a fancy lunch in the tiny price of the tour, neither did we plan to be 5x overcharged for a meal! We initially acquiesced, then I decided against it and, to my suprise, was able to talk the money back.

The first tomb was too far from the riverbank to reach on foot, especially within the total 45 minutes we were alloted for our visit. we climbed the steep path from the riverbank, and ran headlong into what can only be described as a motorcycle mafia. This thick band of men were backed right up to the end of the road, revving the engines and waiting for tourists to get on. The trick is, you have no idea what the trip is supposed to cost, and if you don't negotiate a price ahead of time, the price given after the service has been provided will likely surprise you!

We already knew this, so I negotiated a price of 20,000 dong for a trip we had been told by our boat crew was about 4 km. We prepared to both get on the back of this driver's bike, which is totally acceptable for the Vietnamese, and for tourists as well in cambodia. you can see 5 people on a motorbike quite often in some places. This was met with yells, the kind of verbal noise that could only signify an impending fistfight in America. No, this cartel was dead-set on employing one driver per tourist. OK, fine.

Of course, when we arrived at the tomb, which in fact was around 1/8th as far away as our boat drivers had told us, each motorcycle driver demanded the 20,000 for the one-way trip. Tiffany was just about hitting her limit on vietnamese scams at the time, and she basically told them they could each have 10,000 or stuff it. (Those of you who know her realize that she still did it in a diplomatic way). One of the drivers appeared to turn red and turned away in a huff. We also walked just about in a huff into the walled tomb area, after paying an exorbitant entry fee to the provincial government (and who knows who else is taking a cut) and tried to enjoy it, which we actually did. Upon return, suprise of suprises, we easily found our drivers and just hopped on the bike. They took us back to the boat in short order, and of course then demanded 40,000 for each driver. We told them no, it was far too much (which it was), and gave them each 20,000 and walked off.

At the next tomb, we opted out of the moto and ticket extortion (and therefore the tomb visit) and rested in what shade we could find, because we had been showed the night before by a nice deaf-mute guy who runs a restaurant in town that this one wasn't worth it. The best part was, when we got back to our boat, the old lady who drives the boat was on us like a rash. she was saying "tu duc tomb, you don't pay enough." We had no idea what she was talking about, since we had paid the clearly posted, though exorbitant, 55,000 dong for entrance. "No, for motorbike" she said, clearly angry. Keep in mind, we were miles away from the original moto drivers by now. She said "You pay another 40,000!" We told her politely no frickin way. We eventually figured out that though we had never seen any contact between the boat driver and the moto drivers (and we had paid attention), There is a kick-back scheme involved, and in fact multiple drop-off points for the boats to find the particular moto drivers they are in kahoots with.

Needless to say, this was all a bit stressful and making us wary about the whole thing; we would have rather spent much more on a no-nonsense boat ride but that just isn't the way it works. Sitting around our tiny tofu lunch (which was acutally quite tasty), one of the vietnamese tourists on the boat, who were apparently used to this sort of thing (and I guarantee they paid nowhere near 20,000 each for motorbike rides), offered us some pineapple she had bought, and pushed her rice bowl our way in case we needed extra. She offered us a toothpick at the end of the meal, as well. I'm sure she was from another town since she was sightseeing, but otherwise she looked like so many other middle aged vietnamese ladies we had seen in every town. She didn't speak a word of english, but continued to make gestures to give us a place to sit, and offer little things (like a wet-napkin you might get at a BBQ restaurant) along the way. This little bit of kindness, generosity without expectations cracked the hard shell we were building up against vietnamese people, just when we needed it the most. She inspired us to look further and make an effort to talk to people about things other than "business", and showed us that even in difficult circumstances there are almost always great people around.

A few more photos of this river trip are here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Hue

Inside the boat at lunch. The lady next to Tiffany is who I spoke of above.

Where the dragons descend into the sea...

Local legend says that long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long Bay (hence the name "Bay of Descending Dragons") and began spitting out jewels, pearls and jade. The jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, and jade became the labyrinth of crystal water channels. The elements linked together to form barriers against the invaders and the people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam.

Reading this, you can imagine why Andy and I couldn't miss out on seeing Vietnam's most important natural wonder! And neither the legendary landscape of dragons and pearls, nor the fact we splurged a little and saw it in style on a Chinese junk, disappointed.~> read more

  It was very touristy, especially when you consider that everyone must float on some type of vessel to get out there as it's completely protected and patrolled by UNESCO, so that should limit numbers but it really just increases the junks on the water. But it was worth it because the landscape is something foreign to our North American eyes. Plate tectonics and the Ice Ages just didn't do the same thing in the US that it did over here in Asia.

Halong Bay is a fantastical archipelago of limestone islands, monoliths, caves, grottoes that rise majestically from the Gulf of Tonkin, and truly look like the scales of a dragon's back because they're spiky and covered in reptilean green vegetation. To best explore the area, one needs to be on a boat -- so why not get native and try out a Chinese Junk? Exactly. Yes is what we thought too, so Andy and I signed up a for a small tour that included two days plying the jade bay, sea kayaking through the grottoes and one starry night aboard the junk. Cruising around on a wooden boat with a carved dragon's head pointing out to sea instead of the typical blond, barebreasted woman on its bow was great. Climbing up 422 steep, curvy and rocky stairs to a pagoda with a view for miles and miles of the thousands and thousands of islands was tiring but beautiful. We have photos and you'll see we're "glowing" and it's from sweat and not the view.

Sea kayaking among sheer limestone pinnacles that sprint out of the jewel-green water toward the sky and were carved by wind, rain, water and time to form curves, caves and holes was awesome. We kayaked to some hidden beaches and lagoons and frolicked in the water, even watching the sun throw light and shadow off the dragon scales as it set. We also learned our previous kayaking in Laos and New Zealand paid off as we completely dusted our fellow tourists and even our guide (who was paired with a newbie) in the bay, and managed a few moments alone in a secret grottoes where it was nothing but us, the rock, waves and sky. Most excellent!

Halong Bay has a few giant caves, and I mean enormous as in the size of cathedrals, that are molded, mottled, hollowed and curved, all dripping with limestone stalactites and schist rock. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the Vietnamese spotlight many of the formations within the cave, especially the ones that look like animals or Buddhist figures, with canned gel lights and there's now a Disney-esque feel about it. It's good because you can see the formations, but bad because you laugh when you see stone showered in unnatural pink and green light. After all, this is supposed to be a deep, dark cave!

And they take their cave formations VERY seriously here. Trust me! Our guide Phoung, who preferred for whatever reason to go by her nickname Little Mouse, was anal in her efforts to show our group the rock formations. She was frustrated if we lagged behind and scolded when we didn't participate in her lectures and quizzes asking frequently, "What an animal do you see in over there in the rock with the turquoise light?" Little Mouse kept at us and I finally joined in when she asked what animal did we see, way over there, one that's small and not as pretty as others...? I looked at it and said, "A rat!" BIG mistake. Huge! Little Mouse whipped around in shock, scowled at me and then reprimanded: "It is a NOT a rat! A rat is very, verrry beautiful animal? Why you say rat?" Stunned, I just shrugged and squelched my smirk. Andy later found out her age and birthday, and it turns out that Little Mouse was born in "the year of the rat" according to the Chinese calendar and that's where her nickname comes from. Whoops!!!

We have 7 other photos of halong bay you can view here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/HalongBay

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Vietnam Tunnels Photos

While we hope to say more about our thoughts about the vietnam war from visiting the country, for now I want to share some photos from the tours we did to the tunnel areas.

On the first tour we visited the main Cao Dai temple, which is a unique religion in vietnam that fuses elements from many popular religions, most noticeably christianity and buddhism. They have a really wild temple.

On the same day, we visited some truly tiny tunnels used by Cu Chi guerillas who sympathized with the north, at the same time the south was 'secured' by the American army. These guerillas lived in the villages during the day, and fought from these tunnels at night. The Americans could not tell who in the villages was a guerilla.

A few photos from these sites are here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/CaoChi

Later on in central vietnam, we visited the DMZ area, which of course was anything but demilitarized for a lot of the war. The main surviving attraction is the Vinh Moc tunnels, which many vietnamese lived in for months at a time, contributing to the north vietnamese side strategically. These tunnels are bigger than Cu Chi, but you have to remember they were lived in for extended periods. I kept looking for the underground "rooms," but there were only small enclaves (like, maybe the size of 2 dishwashers) off of the main tunnel, and places where the tunnel got slightly wider for meetings. There are also a couple of photos in this set from a new museum at Doc Mieu firebase which you may remember from the war effort under Lyndon Johnson.

Here are these photos, with captions: http://bitjug.com/gallery/DMZ

So, you think you need an SUV?

THINK AGAIN! (many more): http://bitjug.com/gallery/VietSUV

Buffaloes in the Mist, Pastries by the Fire

You might say we got Sapa wet. We arrived in Lao Cai, one kilometer from the Chinese border with Vietnam, at 5:17am in a foggy-wet rainstorm and it didn't quit for 2 1/2 days. Good thing we'd hauled the raingear around for over five months -- now we could use it! And did we ever. Sapa was still stunning the rain and we had an excuse to drink warm beverages as we tried to decipher mountains through the layers of mist. Plus, we bargained for a hotel room with a basic kiva-like fireplace--who would've thought we'd want one of those in Asia!? We also got hot water for tea from the restaurant and found a French patisserie (Bless the French!), so we had our first "room service" in months and delicious, crackling fires that had us smelling like Hickory Farms sausages upon our return to Hanoi. Check out the photos!

Sapa is a picturesque village-town in the northwest corner of Vietnam. A former French hill station for wealthy French Indochina colonists who needed a break from, ahem...the heat and luxuries of Hanoi?, Sapa is nestled in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range (dubbed the Tonkinese Alps) and defines what I would have thought to be an oxymoron: a tropical-alpine climate. Who knew? These Alps climb to over 10,300 feet at their highest, the supposedly majestic peak of Fansipan -- we don't know as it never popped out of its heavy shroud of mist -- and they're utterly covered by a chromatic shades of green. Forests of trees, patches of slippery moss, terraced rice paddies, cornstalks, tapioca plant crops, leafy plum trees and rambling roses. The only interruptions of this incredible green are slick slices of ochre (nerve-bending, mud roads) and woven squares of basket-brown (extremely primitive village huts). This spectacular landscape is cut into the sides of hills, through valleys and carves up toward the mountain peaks, and you feel small and obvious exploring the natural splendor.

Sapa is also the land of the Montagnards. French for "mountain people",~> read more

 then bastardized by the Vietnamese to become a derogatory term for hill tribe peoples, Sapa is home to the greatest concentration of Vietnam's nomadic ethnic minorities, some of which exist elsewhere in southeast asia s well. The northwest provinces are a crossroads of tribes from China, Thailand, Burma, Tibet and Vietnam, and around every corner of Sapa you spot different native dress, levels of cheekbone, colors of skin and slants of eyes. And it's a primitive, exotic rainbow of colors that feels a bit like you stepped into Cost Plus, yet somehow vividly authentic. Groups like the Black H'mong, Red Dzao, White Thai and Flower H'mong live in villages around Sapa, farming the land and milking-ever-so-gently the burgeoning tourist industry. Luckily, that hasn't happened too fast and you can still visit the people, their villages and tribes and feel like a visitor instead of a voyeur.

Andy and I spent a few days on a rented moto (what we'd call a moped or scooter at home) in between the rainstorms and fog, exploring the velvet green hills and basic villages that are mostly untouched by time and progress. Yes, there are now food stalls that sell bottled water to tourists in each village, and many of the women know "tourist English" and French and pedddle gorgeous, intricate embroidery to visitors, but for the most part, the tribal families farm the land and carry baskets of their crops, their babies and tools on their backs. Water buffalo are the tractors of tribes and rice paddies plowed by hand, planted by hand and picked by hand. So many times, we turned cautiously around a muddy, blind corner in the misty mountains with our horn honking as an arrival announcement, and come upon a slender man in indigo hemp shorts slogging through the mud in barefeet behind a water buffalo and wooden harrow. Or, we'd run into women with the most leathered, lived in skin that contrasted sharply with their colorful, to us fanciful headgear as they headed home to most surely cook a full meal after they'd worked hard with their bare hands in the fields. A very different, almost timeless way of life, for sure. I can't say romantic or idyllic, even though so ascetic, because it just looked like hard, hard work.

Many people, especially the children, smiled at us right away and called out "hello, hello!" as we zoomed along. Picture Andy on the front of a chinese knock-off of a japanese moto intensely focused on navigating slick rock and mud roads, while I sat on the back in my red slicker waving and calling out "hello!" and then asking some if I could take their photo. Many obliged, and I think we got some awesome smiles, crooked teeth and faces that tell a story. We hiked into one village and worried we were truly on in the mixing ground of bird flu. Chickens, pigs, ducks, chicks, piglets, feces, water, mud, humans and trash all intermixed around us. Very near our feet and hands as we climbed the steep paths in the rain. It was a bit unnerving and while we rationally knew we likely wouldn't be infected with anything, it couldn't help but underscore that people in this part of the world live with their animals and waste and land very, very differently and that culture and lifestyle are so embedded in the epidemic that it's no wonder there's a problem in fighting it.

My favorite part of Sapa was during our last minutes in the village-town as we waited for the bus to Lao Cai. Andy and I sat leaning against our backpacks in the first yet last sun of the day. A group of Black Hmong women walked up to offer handicrafts; we could tell their by their indigo skirts, colored cloth belts wrapped in numerous loops, the leg warmer-ish wrappings on their brown legs and grams and many grams of silver jewellery. We declined, but one lady named something close to "Mae" plunked herself and her wares down next to Andy on the step and started talking in tourist English. She asked us both "Where you from?", but she seemed most interested in Andy and I sat slouched back into the cushion of my pack and enjoyed the moment. She gestured with her brown but indigo stained hands in animation with Andy, and he sweetly answered and asked questions right back in simplified English with a good dose of pantomime. Mae was one of 11 children, over 44 years old and had brothers who fought in the American War. She cackled at Andy's age, "You SO yuuuuuhhhhnnnggg!I Ohhllld!!" He blushed, smiled, laughed and clucked right back, "You look so young!! NOT old!" Then she blushed, it was visible even beneath her worn, tamarind colored skin, smiled and laughed too. And I smiled and laughed. Indeed, we're not all so different after all.

we have some photos here, there are more than a few but we hope you enjoy them!


Our Hanoi Survival Guide: 10 Tips

Hanoi was once the grand dame of French Indochina. Though its facade is now cracked with age, grimy from motorized progress and tattooed with Communist propaganda, Hanoi's unique and charming beauty is umistakable.

Hanoi sprung up among the green lakes at the Red River's bend and water is part of the culture. Spirits and pagodas lurk in the lake, and lovers nuzzle and kiss in the shade of sago palms and government billboards warning about AIDS. The Old Quarter is like New Orleans, except with air-dried laundry handing off the balconies instead of beaded revelers. Life is vibrant, humming and honking on the streets; people are so busy and so eager to do business that it's hard to tell if they sleep. Grilled meat on charcoal braziers made primitvely, portable fro claypots and metal racks dot the street like low statuary. Herbs prick the air with a basil-mint aroma, and the rainbow riot of Vietnamese silk beckons from nearly every other window.

You want to walk, walk and walk some more in Hanoi, looking up and down, left and right because there's a lot to see. And much to watch out for. Motorbikes with baskets of chickens and sludgy, wet gutters are only the beginning. Hanoians are hospitable and helpful, but others are cunning and ready to shed you of Dong. "Buyer Beware" is not exaggerated or naive. We loved our time in Hanoi, but also battled some hot moments of frustration...which thankfully led to cool moments of solution and rejuvenation.

Here are our tips for enjoying, surviving and embracing Hanoi....

1) A Name Is A Name -- Unless it's a Fake~> read more


Vietnam is notorious for knock-offs, and it's NOT always clothing, housewares or electronics. The names of business establishments, whether hotels, travel agencies, restaurants or stores, are copied left and right, next door and the floors above, and it's essential you know the exact address (e.g. 44/1a) of the establishment you want to patronize. The "fakes", which have copied the name exactly or changed it just ever so slightly (e.g. Lotus Cafe and Lotus Cafe 2) and often a fake "recommended in Lonely Planet" sign too. Vigiliance is essential as most of the knock-off places have seemingly helpful citizens outside trying to direct you right into their business instead of your intended choice. A lot of times the knock-offs have the exact same menu, rooms, tours or items, but Andy and I felt it was the principle and didn't like being conned. Thus, we always double-checked the exact street numbers when we had them and were fine, though it keeps you on your toes.

2) Forget About Curbside Appeals

Hanoi has a maze of streets that twist, turn and change names...and have millions of motorbikes. And that's not an exaggeration; Vietnam has 10 million motorbikes and most carry at least two or three people, and maybe some pigs or chickens, on one moto! Plus there are bicycles, cyclos, and yoke ladies--all without lights and traffic rules--to add to the obstacle course. Needless to say, it's intimidating to step off the curb to cross the street. In Saigon, we tried waiting for openings or stepping off the curb and hoping drivers would yield. Ha! No way. In Hanoi, we learned to just step off and start walking into the moving chaos and they'll make room for and around you. At first, it seems reckless to walk into a dark street and feel eight lanes of oncoming motorbike lights coming at you, but then you see they weave and twist and zoom by without ruffling a hair. Soon, you're emboldened, diving right into the madness and feeling like an Ice Capade skating through a crossover routine as you dance and the motos shimmy about. After that, you find it fun and look forward to another death-defying feat on the street.

3) The Yoke Doesn't Have To Be On You

The yoke is ubiquitous in Vietnam. Women carry them in every city and the woven baskets dangling off each end hold everything from flaming hot braziers to lacy bras to ripe bananas. Yokes are the department store, restaurant, supermarket and 7/11 of the country, and many people say the shape of Vietnam itself resembles the yoke. The yoke is no joke, but you must be wary as they're more than a double-edge stick in Hanoi. They can be a double-edged sword. Crinkled, wrinkled old ladies carry them with ease, even though the baskets seem to defy gravity with how many pounds of fresh greens and morning glory they hold. Even though these grandmas smile sweetly and beckon you in Hanoi's Old Quarter, watch out! Some of them really want to put the yoke right on your shoulders and be photographed so they can ask for money. Rather aggressively, I might add. Young women with flowing black silk hair carry yokes bursting with fruit and cheerfully sell it to you...at ten times the normal price. I wanted some pineapple and asked the first yoke lady I saw and she told me "20,000 dong". My mouth fell open like a teeter-totter in disbelief and I responded, "No!!! 2,000 dong and no more!" She and the yoke shook negatively and I started to walk off, but then she called me back dejectedly and said, "OK, 2,000. Don't tell anyone -- special price for you!". Ha, victory!!! I'd been traveling in Vietnam for nearly one month and this time, the joke was on her and not me!

4) Beware Of The Fair(skin) Price

On the same note, buyer beware in Hanoi! In most of Vietnam, there is the Vietnamese price AND the foreigner price. And they are very different. Even if the price seems fair for an ice cream bar, tissues or a taxi ride, the Vietnamese are paying significantly less and your white skin, backpack or foreign accent means you pay a premium. Hanoi was the worst of it, yet conversely, it was the best city and we just rolled with it and acted tough to win certain battles whenever possible. At cultural places, we don't mind paying more for tickets but for basic items like bottled water, it kills us. Andy and I started watching what the Vietnamese were paying for mangoes, spring rolls and toilet paper, and then tried to have that exact change ready and smile sweetly saying, "Vietnamese price" so we weren't screwed. Many times it worked, other times it didn't; at least you feel better trying.

However, I had my lowest point of the Fair(skin) price at the National Museum. Desperately hot, sweaty and surrounded by Saturday visitor locals, we needed water and waited in line at the snack bar like everyone else. I watched and saw people (Vietnamese) paying 5,000 dong for water and was on guard, as was Andy. When it was finally our turn (we'd been passed over at least three times), we asked for the water and how much it cost. "8,000 dong" was the curt answer. Already hot and cranky, I got riled and started arguing about the price change and said we'd seen others paying only 5,000 dong. The woman continued to protest, shake her head and turn away. As Andy and I steamed, she helped others and got distracted. We asked again for a bottle of water and she placed one in my hands as Andy laid down 5,000 dong, and she ackgnowleged the bill. But then, seeing his hands and looking up quickly, she realized we were the foreigners and started saying "No, 8,000 dong!!!" I got mad -- I'll admit it -- and it was not my finest hour. I clamped my hand onto the slippery, frosty top of the water bottle and held on tightly. She tugged back and I held on with determination and relased a firm, indignant litany about the real price, the foreign price, getting screwed and we're smarter than you think...and won the tug of water bottle! The lady was horrified, threw up her hands and turned around as I'm sure I committed a major faux pas in the Asian obsession of "face" but I didn't care. I was tired of being insulted (that's how it felt to me) as I'm certainly smart enough to see what other people pay and know when someone is lying and probably being dishonest. Think about it -- who would know she'd charged me 3,000 dong more? Anyone? Or was it just cream for her? Did it really go into the museum's coffers? Doubtful. Prices are RARELY posted in Hanoi, save for menus, and sometimes getting treated fair-skinned instead of fairly gets you down.

5) Check In To The Hanoi Hilton

Ironically nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by its tortured American inmates, Hoa Lo Prison is another sad monument to The American War. Unsure of visiting because we were honestly depressed after our day in the DMZ which spurned complicated thoughts on our country's history and future, plus saturated us with the war wounds of both sides, we ended up near the Hanoi Hilton after purchasing train tickets. So, we casually stopped by and had one of the most memorable, jarring and perspective-giving events of our time in Vietnam. Built by the French in the early 20th Century, Hoa Lo has a history of torture whether of Vietnamese by the French or Americans by the Vietnamese. It's solid, squalid and dark with a flat energy that screams to your senses "something very bad happened here". Walking around, Andy and I saw leg shackles, cells that fit a body and nothing more, crinkled and torn photos of former prisoners, and a lot of propaganda on how nice the treatment of US prisoners was. We also happened upon three men talking in one of the solitary confinement rooms, one of whom was tall and spry with snow-white hair, sparkling blue eyes and looked to be in his early 70's; all of the men spoke with American accents. There were no other Western tourists at the Hanoi Hilton that day, and we started talking and learned that we'd stumbled upon Admiral Robert Byron Fuller's first return to Vietnam since his release from the same gate we had entered through in 1973 after 5 1/2 years as a POW!!!

We were stunned. Stunned soon became numb as we listened to the abbreviated version of his story. Tortured, confined in solitary darkness for over 2 years, learned the secret language used by Stockdale and McCain that was a morse code of sorts with broomstick and wall tapping for mental survival, believed dead by his family for three years, released at the end of the war and becomes highly decorated Rear Admiral of the USS Nimitz. Whoa. All from the tall man with thin legs in white socks and sneakers, with Santa-like hair that matched in brightness, who was kind and curious about our travels and seemed like anybody's favorite grandfather. Unexpectedly standing before us was a real hero, who lived through hell but moved on to normalcy and greatness. It was humbling. Meeting Admiral Fuller on the surreal set of the Hanoi Hilton reminded us that so many things in life are insignificant. It was inspiring. Because you so often lose perspective in your own reality and can't remember what's up from down, lucky from unlucky, important from not so important, life from death. Finally, something about America's sad, complex war with Vietnam that was truly black and white.

6) Go See Ho

Ho Chi Minh is a national hero and though he passed away in 1969, you can still see him in the flesh!!! Yes, the Vietnamese government, in all its communist, propaganda-spewing, symbol-loving glory exhumed his body, shot it up with God knows what for decades of embalming (it looks heaping doses of varnish, wax and Revlon liquid concealer to me), lit it with ghoulish lights in a mausoleum that feels like a hybrid of Disney's Haunted House and a shopping mall, and created a mecca-like pilgrimage for its proletariat. It is bi-zarre!! Gazing at his long whiskers and waxy face, you think Ho Chi Minh must have outsmarted Madame Tussaud instead of the US Military since he's here and not in London. But no smirking because you're filing past his spooky body with thousands of other patriotic Vietnamese who adore, admire and bend low in respect to Uncle Ho! Ho is only open a few days a week, for a few months a year, because his body is sent to Russia to have work done!!?? We're not sure what that means, but to us it conjures an entirely different form of plastic surgery.

7) Life is Sweet with Sweet Milk

Vietnam is one of the largest coffee bean exporters in the world, but in Andy's opinion, they should send their recipe for the perfect cup of coffee abroad instead. Ka Phe Sua (cah-fay-sue-ah) is the Vietnamese term for coffee with milk. But it's so much more than Starbucks-au-lait. It's deep, dark, roasted-chocolate, slow-filtered ambrosia with an inch of creamy, sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. Served authentically, it arrives in a glass mug with a stainless steel filter-cup on top and a tiny spoon alongside for swirling the caffeinated sweetness to perfection. In fact, often when it arrives only a few drops of cofee have splashed on the thick layer condensed milk at the bottom of the cup, and you must wait for the rest of the water to percolate from teh filter-cup. Andy learned from solicitous waiters that there's a special quick-whisking hand motion necessary to get the thick coffee and sweet milk whipped into blended balance, and he was a pro by the time we reached Hanoi. Even me, who likes nothing about coffee except that its popularity has increased the availability of hot tea in a big to-go cup, became infatuated with Ka Phe Sua because it's smell is like the darkest of chocolate instead of a burnt Denny's carafe, and because there's an entire ritual around ordering, brewing, filtering, stirring and sipping. I'm all about rituals and fancy hot drinks so in Hanoi, where there was tea beyond Lipton and Caphe Sua in every cafe, restaurant and street stall, Andy and I drank well. Whenever Andy ordered a Caphe Sua, I watched the server's face and inevitably, they smiled with pleasure at Andy saying with a deep smile and respectful head nod, "Ahh, Caphe Sua. You like Vietnamese Coffee!!!"

8) Fun With Strings Attached Is Good

The best $2.50 you can spend in Hanoi is to purchase a ticket to the magical, one-of-a-kind water puppets at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. We saw a small show in Saigon but it's minor league compared to the real thing in Hanoi, and I was like a little kid at the big show. Just ask Andy, he was too. In Hanoi, there's a live orchestra, comprised of simple but melodious wood instruments indigenous to Vietnam, and glamorous, silk-clad female singers serenading the puppets' performance. And the stage, which is actually a milky green pond with curtains across one end and floating lotus blossoms and palm trees along the side, is at least 15'x15' and lit dramatically like a rock concert (really!). Vietnam's water puppets are wholly native to the country and developed by the rice farmers as a way to entertain children and adults in the paddies during the floods. The puppets are made by hand of wood, coated in colorful lacquer and have strings and rods that push and pull from below instead of above like traditional marrionettes. The puppeteers, both male and female, stand waist-deep in the water behind the curtain to manipulate the puppets making them move, dance, slither and slide on the surface of the water. The water serves not only to hide the puppeteers and strings of the puppets but also to create a trembling stage full of reflection that utterly absorbs its audience. Suddenly the water ripples and shimmers, and firecrackers pop with a startling, smokey bang! Five dragon water puppets surface, water spurting from their mouths like frothy fire breath, and their colorful, 3' foot long and scaled bodies twist and turn in a serpentine dance on the water. And that's just the opening act...!

9) Use Your Noodles

Hanoi is home to the legendary Pho, a soup so full of noodles the broth is barely visible. A staple most often favored for breakfast and served at tiny tables on the street, Pho is the food of life for the Vietnamese. You see families squatting together, huddled over steaming bowls of Pho in the morning light, quiet in their chopstick kinetics. And yet with this cult following, Pho is never, ever exactly the same. You flavor it to personal perfection each time using piles of fresh herbs, handfuls of mung beans, splatters of chili-spiked fish sauce and flicks of a finger-mixed pepper and lime paste. The noodles of Pho are always fresh from the morning's wet market, and a noodle knocker often rides up and down the street chiming the announcement of Pho for sale. Could anything be more timeless and bewithcing than a noodle knocker that signals the readiness of homemade soup? Pho seems a way of life in Hanoi, and we happily embraced the tradition with open mouths.

Note: Pho's pronunciation is also ledendary; no one with a Western tongue can say it properly. Andy and I were told to say "fur with a soft 'r' sound"...whatever that means. Luckily, the Vietnamese are used to our butchering and reward anything close with a steaming bowl of the noodley brew.

10) Get Thee To The Metropole

The Metropole Hotel is Vietnam's most elegant hotel. A Raffles, Georges V, Savoy and Motel 6...with air conditioning...all in one. WHAT?!?!? One can easily grasp that the Metropole is rife with history and harbors an atmospheric teak bar once graced by the most important players in Indochine like Raffles in Singapore. Similar to the Georges V in Paris, it's an architectural landmark with exquisite courtyards and balconies, all nestled in the most quiet yet most historic neighborhood of a majestic city. As with London's Savoy Hotel, the Metropole delivers a classic high tea service complete with white china, pianist and fine finger sandwiches of cucumber and dill. And all of the above comes at a Motel 6 price of $8 USD per person!!!

At least the high tea part does, and the chocolate buffet as well (you read that right, un buffet du chocolat...ooh, la,la!)-- and that's what matters! Hanoi's Metropole was our haven from the storm of motorbike horns, yoke ladies and monsoon rains. Here, we processed the ugliness, senselessness, depressingly eerie contemporary resonance of the American/Vietnam War. And decompressed from scams in the soothing cool of the Metropoloe's air conditioning so they didn't taint our time in Hanoi. We also rubbed the shiny sweat and sunblock from our glistening faces with REAL cloth towels in their large, spotless bathrooms that sported marble sinks and two handles for cold AND hot water. Andy and I rejuvenated from 5 1/2 months of backpack travel during high tea at the Metropole on three different occasions. Imported darjeeling, warm scones, clotted cream, tiny tarts with perfectly fluffy yet crisp meringue, low-volume music and service with a smile--and without a language barrier--made us human again. Just look at the photos of us at the Metropole...we were in heaven and all for only $8 USD!

We've posted just a few more photos from Hanoi here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Hanoi

Monday, June 12, 2006

Getting Train-ed

I have a love/hate relationship with the train. Every time we book a ticket, and most especially when we reserve a sleeping berth, it sounds romantic and fun -- such a charming alternative to the bus. Then we board the train and everything changes. Romance is out the open window and splatting unattractively on to the tracks like the sewage from the bathrooms.

Inevitably, there is someone in our seats. From India to Vietnam, we've experienced this and it's so awkward. First, we're always some of the only Westerners on the train, so you're self-conscious as it is and don't want to seem rude by appearing inflexible. Plus, you're guaranteed to be asked "Where you from?" and I never want to perpetuate bad impressions of Americans abroad, so there's more pressure. But, Andy and I try to book specific seats for windows, or a top and bottom bunk so we have a place sit and sleep for the 15 hours on board, which are small things but can be hugely important when swaying aboard a foreign train for hours on end. In Goa, we did the "nice" thing and switched seats with a giant Indian family, only to end up in a section where another family stowed two extra children away, hiding them in the top bunk behind boxes and luggage when the conductor came, and thus we sat eight people in a six person space for seven hours!!!

The ride from Hue to Hanoi on the "Reunification Express" was no different. We waddled onto the tracks with our packs and struggled up the steep steps into our air conditioned "soft chair" car. No, I'm not kidding! The trains in Vietnam are classed in the most honest way by the following categories: hard chair, soft chair, hard bed, soft bed. Needless to say, we're all about the softness here in Asia. The Asian beds and toilet paper didn't portend hope and comfort to me, but since we had a 15 hour ride, we went for soft chairs. This time, we found a Vietnamese lady with her top askance, sporting a lot of breast and nursing her young son..~> read more

  She wanted nothing to do with us, ignored us for a bit and then waved us forward to other seats. As Andy double-checked our tickets and I made sure she was indeed in our seats, I kept seeing nipple out of the corner of my eye and it was disconcerting...to say the least. You don't plan to have a confrontation with a total stranger who's half topless with a cute baby!

We were at a loss and weren't sure what to do as we looked around the car which had at least 50 other Vietnamese, a ton of conical hats hanging from hooks by the windows and overhead bins bursting with everything from hanging plants to rice bags. A man jumped forward and spoke to us in English, saying that the lady wanted our seats and could we please sit in hers, which were a few rows up. Unfortunately for her and us, these seats faced other people head-on (not front to back like ours) and posessed a lot less leg room. We'd be riding directly below the blaring tv and staring at strangers two feet in front of us for 15 hours. I wavered but Andy, bless him!, held strong and politely explained that we wanted to keep our original seats. The lady wasn't happy and wouldn't get up, but Andy showed the man how much less legroom there was in her seats and showed him how tall we were in comparison to pretty much everyone in the whole car. She finally pulled her son off her breast, straightened her top and stood up. Soon, she was talking loudly to the people in the row in front of us and displaced them into her original seats and she sat in front of us with her toddler daughter, baby son, frequently exposed breasts and a pouty look on her face.

Sigh... Bygones!!! Sometimes, you have to do what's best for yourself. And I think a 15 hour train ride warranted it.

As the train rolled forward, we settled in for the ride with books and earplugs. Our car had two tvs mounted from the ceiling and they blared louder than an amp at a Metallica concert. Only the music was much, much worse. The tones of Vietnamese are high and clashing to our Western ears, and at a piercing volume in an enclosed space, it's murder. The programming was an ecelctic choice; I'll give Vietnamese Rail props for that. First, they played a B movie with Vietnamese dubbed above (not replacing) the English, then it was a BBC travel show. Next came Kung Fu and finally, the last straw for us, cartoons! Stupified and forlorn, Andy looked over at me and said: "I never thought I'd be watching 'Tom and Jerry' in Vietnamese!" It's one thing to watch Looney Tunes, but it's another thing to watch them when you feel like you're about to go looney tunes!!! Empowered by the fact the tv was blaring louder than the conductor's announcements, I went back to the rail worker in a blue uniform in our car and asked if he spoke English. His head wagged negatively, so in a sudden moment of non-verbal inspiration, I clapped my hands over my ears and made a painful, wincing expression with my faces. He understood immediately and went back to the control panel and turned it down. Yeeessssssss!!!

However, just as I reveled in my victory in my soft seat, the meal carts rolled into our car. As did the unmistakable smell of meat. Damn it! Such a shortlived triumph. Soft seats and soft beds include meals in Vietnam a nice touch but mixed blessing. Normally, a man in a blue outfit similar to a postman serves a partitioned tray of food as on the airlines...in the old days. Usually there's rice, mixed meats in a stir fry, soggy vegetables that smell vaguely of formaldahyde and soup. This was the same...but with an unbelievabe addtion. Behind the tray cart, came the grilled chicken cart! And this was not a cart with sanitary plastic containers of chicken; it was a full banquet cart with chicken legs, wings, breasts and god knows whatever else, heaped to spilling on an open platter. No saran wrap, no foil, no lids, no net, nothing. It seemed they'd had a massive barbeque in the caboose and us passengers could now purchase grilled bird flu to eat over the rice. It was too much for me. Truly the pinnacle of our train travels and travails. As the open chicken cart greasily skimmed by my elbow in the aisle seat, I took a photo. The porter/chicken roller gave me a puzzled-peeved look, but continued pushing on precariously down the aisle, both cart and train jiggling along the tracks like jell-o. As the bird flu on wheels disappeared down the aisle and through the doors into the next train car, I thought with wonder and relief, "That is something you'd never, never-ever see in America."

Thus, just as I'm grappling my dislike of the train, similar to how I grapple with the handrail while squatting to go to the bathroom without falling in--vigorously-- something wonderful happens. And it seems to happen every time we're on the train! Andy and I are just about at the end of our good humour, and suddenly a local shyly but proudly talks to us in English. Or offers us to share in their cup of tea, or try a homemade biscuit. On the trip to Lao Cai, we met two agricultural inspectors heading north to manage the influx of illegal plants from China. Despite the fact they were sleeping in their business attire and had to get off the train with at 5:30am and go directly to work, the men stayed up late and told us about their lives in Vietnam plus gave us tips on where to visit in Sapa. Another gentle old man, who looked a lot like Uncle Ho, made sure we got our complimentary bottles of water and baguettes for the overnight ride. Many of the locals are thrilled to practice their English and it's fun for us to break down our own language to its simplest form to ask questions and answer others return. And even the ones who don't speak any English at all, like the grizzled old couple of at least 70 that looked like elves to us in size, bowed their graying heads and said "thank you" and "good bye" with bashful pride when we parted ways outside of our berth since we'd switched places so they could sleep above and below each other.

The train makes companions of total strangers who don't share the same language. We're stuck in the same 'soft' place for numerous, sometimes innumerable, hours and it's our best, most pure opportunity to interact with local people. On our 14+ hour ride to Hanoi that started off poorly, I had a moment that derailed my negative feelings o the ride. A young, moon-faced college girl sat behind me and finally worked up the courage to speak to me after Andy went off to explore the other classes of service. Shyly, she asked to talk with me in English and questioned where I was from. When I responded, "America", her face lit up brighter than a full lunar eclipse and a look of longing and hope making her black eyes shimmer-shine. "Oh, America!!! I want so badly to go to America! I know of Hollywood and the big cities and I want to eat pizza. And Bill Gates...I admire him so much! I don't think I ever get to go, but I hope and if I work hard and study hard, then maybe."

Oooofff! I felt kicked in the gut. A few sentences of heavily accented, imperfect English and I'm rendered speechless by the impact of the words. Pizza. Hollywood. Bill Gates. America. I can eat pizza every day, visit Hollywood any time I want to brave LA's traffic and get to live in America. Forever, if I so choose, and travel any where else with my American passport. All without having to work and study too hard. Bill Gates, well I probably take his brilliance for granted, as he's VERY popular in Asia but that's excusable since I adore Apple products.

Hearing the young woman voice those simple, innocent things as velvety green rice paddies, dotted with straw-hatted peasants bent over in work, whipped by reminded me of how lucky I am. And how easy it easy is in my 'real life' to lose perspective on that. As we've traveled about and encountered America's past and present, especially in Vietnam, I've found I sometimes have a love/hate relationship with my country. But that's mostly the politics of today and the actions of yesterday. Distilling things like citizenship, fortune and opportunity in to their most basic form, I'm grateful to be American. Trite as it seem, there is truly much to love about carrying a navy blue passport with the United States of America stamped indelibly on it in gold.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Bridge or Dock...the name didn't matter

We're on a roll again in Vietnam, a spring roll that is...

The rice paper-wrapped goodies are native to Vietnam and we're finding them on every menu, in every form -- fresh, fried and hand-rolled. They're delicious, organic, and interactive. It's pure genius to serve 'only-seconds-ago' grilled meats and vegetables with homemade rice noodles, fresh rice flour pancakes and the biggest pile of fresh herbs you've laid eyes upon outside of your local farmer's market. Mint, basil, lemon basil, cilantro, horseradish leaves, mustard greens and lettuce crowd cucumbers and bean sprouts on stainless steel platters, and once these items are plunked down, you roll with abandon, dip in nuoc cham with anticipation and chomp with satisfaction.

But, as far as we're concerned, spring rolls the high point of local cuisine.

Honestly, we've been disappointed by the food here in Vietnam, each of us in different ways.~> read more (with lots more fun and photos!)

  I'm freaked out by the fact pork is the salt of Vietnam! I mean it's everywhere, in everything -- even in items on the "vegetarian" section of the menu -- and the dishes I order without MSG (bad for the migraines, as I quickly learned here) aren't flavorful and I'm now salting my food, shall we say liberally, by opening the shaker and sprinkling grams of grains on food with my fingers! Andy is dismayed by the copious uses of fish sauce, a common herb that tastes of fish, another that tastes of soap, oyster sauce, pork bellies and non-spicy stir frys that stem from China's deep roots in the history of Vietnam. Perhaps our palates are completely shot from their spoiling in Thailand? Or we've gone soft (like our middles) after months of traveling and can no longer taste the nuances? Regardless, we're just not connecting as passionately as we hoped with the cuisine.

Fortunately, one thing in the realm of cooking did not disappoint: our lovely, atmospheric class at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An. It started at the Hoi An "wet" market, wet because it has a water-slicked cement floor from the baskets of just-caught fish and freshly-washed vegetables that leak on to the floor. A colorful mayhem bustling with ladies in cotton pajama outfits and conical hats who preside over fruits, vegetables, fragrant spices, raw meat and smelly fish, our guide Phi lead us through Hoi An's market maze and taught us about Vietnam's key ingredients. Fluffy piles of herbs and lettuces, electric orange pumpkins and royal purple eggplants, clear amber fish sauce, bushels of rice grains in ten different shapes, dripping wet white noodles in sizes from bedsheets to toothpicks...and meats. I tried to be tough, but the blood of pork, beef and chicken, and fish drying in the heat did me in. This part of a market officially makes me weak in the knees and I was dry heaving something fierce, so away I went to chill out by the basils. Andy enjoyed the rest of the tour unaffected. Lucky!!!

(our guide holding fresh squid in the market. See any fridges? Check out how long his nails are too.)

From the market, we boarded a large wooden sampan and sailed up the busy blue river that breathes life into Hoi An with shipping, trading and fishing. As the car motor powering the boat putt-putted gently, we watched the residents of Hoi An go about their day: hauling up giant nets of fish, driving longtail boats laden with rattan, dredging by hand the ever-flooding river before monsoon season. Wooden shophouses washed in watercolor-like paint, graceful colonial hotels and serene verandahs with oversized rattan furniture drifted by us. Andy and I sat under the sampan's wooden cover absorbing Hoi An's simple charm as a whispering breeze cooled us and rustled the riverbank's grassy reeds. Soon we spied a bright, Chinese red...dock (not bridge??? I guess the red dock cooking school sounded less romantic?)in the distance which floated next to a grassy knoll where cushions and grass mats beckoned you to sit for a glass of lotus tea. An enchanting open air pavilion with a pagoda styled roof, dangling fabric lanterns and 12 work stations with gas burners and bamboo bowls lay to the left...and that's where we were headed to learn about and make Vietnamese cuisine!

As we stepped on to the red DOCK, the afternoon unfolded into four hours of lovely learning, delicious laughter, artful cooking and gastronomic indulgence. Our chef was an animated man in his mid-twenties who gestured madly with his hands, even when they contained a cooking utensil, who'd learned to speak English from the movies. He cracked jokes about his lack of a girlfriend, his overbearing mother and love of cooking in a voice that blended Cary Grant's delivery and Billy Crystal's "you look mahvelous" pronunciation. As our Aluminum Chef (what the Vietnamese woks are made of) chopped away on lemongrass, he warned for us to careful when cutting up herbs as the food would no longer be vegetarian if a finger fell in! And, as he carefully turned a ripe red tomato into a beautiful lotus blossom, our chef confided in us that this trick helps him get the girls, but they never stay long enough to make him mother happy. It was hilarious! Andy and I looked at each other over our recipes numerous times, laughing so hard at this Vietnamese twist on comedy.

After Aluminum Chef's opening monologues, Andy, the other students and I were assigned to our cooking stations for real life learning. We dripped rice batter, flipped rice pancakes and steamed our own rice paper. We chopped the potpourri of herbs that make Vietnam's spring rolls so uniquely delicious and hollowed out pineapple boats in which to serve our slightly sweet, slightly sour squid salad. The best dish came in a surprising form and we never found it again on menus in Vietnam, so I'm glad we got to try it! Iron Chef showed us how to simmer lemongrass in a rich fresh tomato puree, then cook eggplant and other light spices in it for a lovely ragout that tastes rich but with the slightest scent of citronella perfume. My most favorite part was learning how to make fruit and vegetable garnishes as Aluminum Chef believes presentation and plate decoration are very important. We slivered cucumbers and spread them into an Asian fan shape, made roses of carrot skin and even learned how to turn a tomato into a lotus! Andy, master of the knives in our kitchen, proved to be quite a whiz too -- check out his designs in the photos!

And all the while, we cooked and learned along the water's edge. A gentle breeze from the Hoi An river drifted through the pavilion, ruffling palm and banana fronds, and cooling some of the sweat that rolled down our necks as we fried up the goodies for fresh spring rolls over a hot flame. The Red Bridge staff plied us with cold ginger juice and lotus tea -- and even a mocktail of their own making called the Red Bridge Breeze involving orange, lemon and pineapple -- and Aluminum Chef inspected our works (and woks!) of art in progress.

In the end, as I licked my fingers of the juice from fresh dragonfruit, I knew our meal was excellent...though both Andy and I still missed the zesty heat chilies and salted our food. I guess we're just fit to be Thaied, wherever we eat. But, for that day it didn't matter. Even if the red bridge never materialized, the slogan that adorns the Red Bridge Cooking School and Restaurant's menus and recipes is dead on. A "charming oasis of gourmet delights", indeed!

We have a few more photos from this episode on offer here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/HoiAnCC

A Perfect Fit: Making Clothes (and friends) in Hoi An

Hoi An just might be our most favorite small town in Asia. It's charming, it's romantic. It has a clean blue river and exceedingly cool, unique architecture. Hoi An even has it's own special noodle made with sacred well water called cau lau. But most important of all, Hoi An has tailors! Tailors, tailors, tailors, sewers, weavers, lace makers and more tailors. They beckon at EVERY street corner, plying you with custom clothes made of silk and sewn in mere hours for your whim and desire.

Reflecting on that now, I should probably change my testimony from above and say that Hoi An is evil and seductive with dark dangerous stores that suck you in for hours and wreak havoc on your ATM card. But at least it's in the most decadent, creative, fun and practical way. I mean, really, now Andy and I have new clothes to wear as souvenirs from Vietnam! SO much more practical than a fabric wall hanging, Communist t-shirt or conical peasant hat.

We were lured in to Hoi An by its reputation for beauty and charm, and it lives up to every recommendation! Which was a welcome treat after a stressful bus ride from Danang~> read more (with photos!)

 on which we were purposefully overcharged three times more than all 82 of the other Vietnamese on board, squished between a bald Buddhist nun and ten rice field workers in its dusty, un-aired backseat, clinging to our backpacks and clueless as to when to get off. Fortunately, repeating "Hoi An?" with big eyes and a questioning look worked as some of the human cargo told us where to get off and we waddled through the crush of people with our backpacks, steaming from both the heat and the idignity of being flagrantly ripped off. Luckily, our new British friends from Saigon, Gordon and Lucy, were a day ahead and did the leg work on finding a clean, cheap hotel in Hoi An and we were soon off with them to have a semi-cold beer in an old shophouse with a candlelit view of the river. Ahh...sigh...Hoi An!

Lucy and Gordon also did the leg work on researching Hoi An tailors (literally, by walking around), and after dinner, we set off to Thinh Thanh for a fitting of their new clothes ordered only hours before. Now I will admit that I was guilty of 'pre-meditated clothes making' as I'd heard from a Canadian in Queenstown, New Zealand about wool coats and silk pajamas for a pittance and felt I might "need" one of the aforementioned. And, okay...so I'd splurged on an In Style magazine in Phuket and saved a few pages of ideas for a possible 'knock off'. But I had no intention of going crazy and designing my own things. None whatsoever. All of you who know me, know that I need a new pair of Chinese silk crop pants like I need a hole in the head. Be that as it may, thanks to Gordon and Lucy, Thinh Thanh and Vietnam's fabulous culture of sewing and fabric, Andy and I now have 18 new items between us!!!

But first, let me back up, and explain why Hoi An is charming outside of the tailor shops. Once a bustling, vibrant center of international trade, Hoi An was home to Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese and Vietnamese merchants who peddled their wares from the 16th - 18th centuries in quaint hardwood shophouses along the Thu Bon River. In these days of yore, tall-sail ships and wooden junks cruised in from the South China Sea and unloaded porcelain, perfume, spices, silver and more for sale and export at Hoi An's port-market. This cross-cultural buying frenzy bore a potpourri of architecture that mingles covered bridges, pink pagodas, teak shutters and French balconies in washed tones of maize, turquoise, aqua, caremel and ruby.

There is something intensely romantic about Hoi An. Girls bicycle by in flowing white silk ao dais, the traditional pajama-tunic dress of the Vietnamese, and grandmas in Chinese coolie hats barter animatedly for mangoes and dragon fruit at the outdoor market. Men with skin as warm and brown as tobacco fish in barefeet from primitive basket boats or wooden canoes, and the incense sticks burning inside of Hoi An's old pagodas are so pungent that your eyes crinkle and nose crumples from the sweet, smokey scent. When strolling at night, fabric lanterns dangle from shops and porches, throwing a color and light show on the black-mirror river surface like silent fireworks. In Hoi An, I feel like I stepped back in time to a Vietnam without war and occupation and glimpsed how things were meant to be.

But back to the clothes...

Andy and I were cautious at first. We watched as Gordon got measured for cotton business shirts ($7) and Lucy tried on the a 'first draft' of her black and gold Chinese dress ($12). I eyed the fabric choices while Andy sat sweating from the heat AND the anticipation of how much I'd be spending. And we both met "Daisy" (that's the English translation of her Vietnamese name, which is MUCH harder to pronounce), who is the front-woman for the Thinh Thanh. She speaks the best English of her multi-member, magical sewing family which includes two sisters, one brother, three cousins, a dog and baby. She asks us casually with a bright, crooked smile and even brighter black eyes that flick back and forth between us and the tv blaring a Vietnamese nighttime soap, "You want to buy sum-theeng?" and points to the styles that adorn bust-and-torso only mannequins. We casually respond, "Not now, thank you. Just looking, but maybe tomorrow."

Frankly, at that moment, I was a little overwhelmed! Thinh Thanh, which probably measured no more than 15' wide by 10' deep, and was the front part of the first level of the family's centuries-old home, literally burst at the seams with fabrics of all color, texture and shine. One one side, worsted-wool with pinstripes and houndstooth for men's suits is piled high, and on one half of the back shelves is floor to ceiling high with cotton broadcloth for tailored work shirts while the other half of the back is a riotous rainbow of Asian silks...some flecked with golden bamboo and dragons and others raw with nubby threads and beautifully pure in their solid colors. The left side of the shop has bolts and bolts of cotton for women's dresses and rolls of wool for coats or skirts, and the center of the store holds extra bolts of random fabric and a tiny glass table, with even tinier metal chairs, where you do your bidding and bargaining with Daisy over a calculator and complimentary bottled water. I wasn't sure how I'd ever begin to choose what I'd like to have made, and I wanted to go home and think about it...and then test the waters to see if I felt custom-clothes were a good fit for me.

So, the next morning, after a cheap breakfast of eggs, baguettes and the best strawberry smoothies ever, Andy and I circled back through the slant-roof shophouse-lined streets to Thinh Thanh. Daisy and one of her sisters, who had a gorgeous oval face and creamy skin which blushed when I complimented her on it, were ready and waiting to relieve of us of our money and inhibitions. Andy and I had a few ideas of what we wanted: some Ben Sherman style shirts in fabric of his own flair and business slacks; a Chinese top in magenta and butter yellow silk and a floaty cotton dress for me copied a style of one I had in my backpack. As I slowly explained what I wanted and expressed my concern about their ability to sew for women with curves (over here, that's any female who is not Asian), but Daisy just smiled, nodded and flapped her hand saying, "Can! Can! Can!" She measured Andy and I with an old-fashioned orange vinyl tape and barked out the numbers in Vietnamese to her sister who sat at the tiny glass table writing our dimensions down in a dog-eared paper book. And told us to come back around 5:00pm for another fitting. 5:00PM!!! That was about 5 hours later, but we did as we were told.

At 5:03pm when we walked in the store, totally sweaty from our sightseeing, Daisy greeted us by pointing to our clothes hanging along the bolts of fabric by the one mirror in the store, and her sister got us bottles of cold water. Which I can never seem to unscrew properly without spilling as many SE Asian companies use the cheapest, squishiest plastic and when holding the bottle to unscrew the slippery lid, water inevitably squeezes out on to me and the floor. I guess Daisy's sister witnessed this in the AM, as she took over opening my bottle for me to avoid any spills...and most likely, to protect the silks in my vicinity. Andy's shirts looked awesome on the hanger, but seeing how sweat-slicked he was, I tried on my things first. Try to imagine sliding into satin and silk when it's 100 degrees and you're already moist and sticky with sweat. It's not pretty...trust me! I managed to get my Mandarin-style-with-a-twist top on, but couldn't get the silk frog clasps closed, so I stepped out of the dressing room (which was a curtained-off area below the stairwell to family's living quarters) with the top open and some of my bra showing. Daisy saw me as I entered back into the store and practically leapt across the room to cover me up and get the fros clasps closed. Obviously, the Vietnamese are very modest and I committed a faux pas, so from then on I was careful -- and she was careful. Every time I needed a zipper pulled down, she did it, then held the article of clothing tightly closed and walked me back to the dressing area. Whoops!

Our clothes looked and fit great, save for a few final nips and tucks, and we finished that up with Daisy pinning things and calling out orders to her sister to write in the old notebook. We had a funny moment of confusion where I wanted something adjusted and she said, "I think more low." Puzzled I looked at the already-low line of the top, and my bust, and couldn't imagine Ms. Conservative wanted me to sport serious cleavage! I told her that I thought it wasn't too low, and she looked back at me with surprise and said, "I think more low is more lub-ly." Andy and I looked at each other trying to decipher that one, and then I realized that Daisy meant "more loose" but says "more low". Once we got through that, which could have been a major clothing debacle if I'd ended up with an ultra-low cut, tight fitting top that embarrassed them the second I walked out of the dressing room, so that was a relief. And that translation came in handy for Andy when getting his slacks altered as "not more low" saved dire consequences!

Back and forth we went from Thinh Thanh to Hoi An's sites, fitting the UNESCO World Heritage treasures of Hoi An in between our fitting schedules. Our initial order of clothes turned out so great, in price and artistry, that we ordered a few more. And more. And more again. And one last item that had me overthinking and obsessing and then deciding with Andy's sweet encouragement, "What the hell?" and designing something of my own in chocolate raw silk that has elements of Burberry, Chloe and BCBG. Each time we visited Thinh Thanh, we spent more time with Daisy and met more members of her family. One sister, who spoke little English, but sewed a lot of my things including some skirts that I had copied out of a Singapore fashion magazine with my own 60's flair fabric, and I pirouetted around the store barefooted in glee when they fit perfectly and looked spectacular. Her face lit up and I hope it was because she knew I was happy instead of crazy. Daisy and her family also adored Andy (who wouldn't?) and I think it's because they rarely have a male client who comes to the store and has his own ideas of style that involves cool colors and fabrics beyond boring, basic broadcloth.

Each time we created, deliberated and were meausured, Andy and I got more time with Daisy and her family. One time, they fed us watermelon as we tried on drafts of clothes. Another time, Daisy asked us how old we were and hearing that I was older, she told us of her first love and almost marriage to a younger man that hadn't worked out because he'd left their town to get work and met someone else. Another time, as her brother raced off on a motorbike to get a shirt from its final alteration for Andy, Daisy told us about her life with her husband, daugther and family, and said how happy she was that everything had worked out, despite the heartbreak of her first love, and how happy she is. The three of us talked at lenght, albeit in simply, animated and abbreviated English so all could understand, about the importance of being happy in life and how grateful we are for good fortune. It was all, as Daisy might say, "quite lub-ly." When Andy and I finally said good-bye to Daisy and her family of Thinh Thanh, we felt sad. Our arms were laden with beautiful packages, but as we walked up the ancient street lit by blurs of lantern and flourescent lights, it seemed like we'd left something behind. I think it was our friendship with Daisy. Over the last four days, Andy and I enjoyed Daisy and her family's company and craftsmanship, we laughed over common feelings and each shared a little life history. Who knew getting fitted for clothes in Vietnam could ever be so intimate?

We have several more photos from Hoi An that we hope you will enjoy posted here (2 pages of photos): http://bitjug.com/gallery/HoiAn