Saturday, April 30, 2011

Happy Reunification Day!

Hien and I woke up a little after six this morning and lazily got ourselves ready to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are a bit far from the city. We left the house around 7:00 and trudged over to the bus stop. Getting to the tunnels involves taking three buses (bus fare 4-5,000 dong) and about two and half hours.

After we took the first bus to its terminal stop to switch to the second, we got some breakfast to go and scrambled into the second bus Asian-style, or in other words, show no mercy. In fact, any show of mercy or chivalry will be greeted with raucous criticism from behind you.

A couple of old ladies who managed to get a seat saw the gauze on my leg and offered half a butt cheek’s worth of space. However, since this area was also occupied by the armrest, it wasn’t much more comfortable sitting than standing, so I opted to sit on the armrest instead. The ladies left a few stops later, so Hien and I had the seat to ourselves, which was nice.

We took this bus to its terminal stop, where a moto driver persuaded Hien to let him take us the rest of the way. I assume this was the right call, as it wasn’t expensive, and he waited for us to finish our visit at the tunnels to take us back to the bus stop as well. Otherwise, we might have waited for the bus for quite some time in both directions. The total price for both of us for the round trip was 150,000 dong (or $7.50). We arrived at the tunnels at around 9:30.

The Cu Chi Tunnels (admission 20,000 dong or $1.00) are a network of layered tunnels used by the people of this one Vietnamese community during the Vietnam War. The first level is one meter beneath the ground, the second is six, and the third is ten. You can only visit select portions of tunnels in the first layer, which have been widened for tourists. The original tunnel dimensions were about .8 meters high (2.6 feet) and .5 meters wide (1.6 feet). This is small even for us Asians and makes me think that even if the GIs could find the tunnels, they wouldn’t be able to enter them anyway (though obviously other means of attack would be plausible). This web of tunnels included kitchens, dining and meeting areas, medical clinics, workshops for building weapons, residential areas, and bomb shelters (in the deepest layer).

There were several attempts made by American forces to find the holes to these tunnels, but between the booby traps and the Vietnamese figuring out ways to get around these tactics, there was no hope of success. For example, the U.S. troops tried to use dogs to sniff out the Vietnamese through their ventilation and entry/exit holes, but the Vietnamese caught on quick and took the clothing off of dead American soldiers and put them near the vents, so the dogs would take a sniff and keep on moving.

This is apparently a jack fruit tree, which I have never heard of.

Booby trap covered by a camouflaged door. The idea is not only that it traps the poor guy who steps on it, but also his leaves his army pals vulnerable to ambush when they come to help him.

This is the size of a manhole to enter and exit the tunnels. For your reference, Candide is not large.


One of many types of booby traps

Again, Candide is not large, and this is a widened tunnel for tourists.

Underground kitchen

Tapioca, which itself is relatively flavorless, and a sugary peanuty powder to dip it in

Ventilation from the kitchen, which would be located about 50 meters away, so that you couldn't tell where the kitchen was. They also cooked in the morning, when the smoke would blend in with the fog.

We fell asleep on the bus ride back to Hien’s and had a quick lunch before heading home to rest. We were pretty tired, so we cancelled our plans for the Mekong Delta, and I think it is better at this point to let my leg rest every now and then so it can grow some proper skin.

Banh cuon - pork wrapped in rice "paper" that you top off with a tangy sauce (to which you can add chili as per usual)

We told Ha we would be in the city tonight, so we decided to meet up at 6:30 for dinner and then watch the fireworks for Reunification Day (today, April 30).

Hien took a nap from 3:00 to 5:30, during which time I sent some requests to CouchSurfers in Hanoi, who thus far have been completely unresponsive with the exception of one person. I also contacted my host and another CouchSurfer in Da Nang, as I will be arriving there tomorrow night. I also caught up on Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother. (I know, I know, an absolutely riveting afternoon. When you’re travelling for a long time though, you need to relax every now and then or you’ll exhaust yourself before the trip is even over.)

After this exciting afternoon, we left for District 2, where Hien had never been before, on account of its being a more suburban area of the city where foreigners and Vietnamese returning from abroad live in grand villas. Ha had intended to have me try a sort of pancake for dinner, but the shop was closed on account of the holiday, so we stopped by a hawker stand for com tam instead, which is rice (or rice noodles, depending on your preference) with a slab of pork, some cucumbers, and a very sweet oily sauce (to which you may add chili) that you can pour over everything.

You'll find that people rarely eat fruit on its own in the region. It's almost always dipped into some sort of powder mixture, whether it's peppery or salty or sour or spicy, or a combination of these flavors.

Once we finished dinner, we stayed at Ha’s house for a while (where there are a great variety of pets) and then headed over to the bridge to watch the fireworks. We took a taxi, but it could only take us so far before it met a road block a bit of a distance from the bridge itself. Motorbikes could get through, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a motorbike due to the sheer number of them zooming in and out. You might not wind up with good visibility. Walking to the bridge was very similar to walking to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to watch the Fourth of July fireworks in that you rarely see so many people on foot headed in the same direction.

After the show, we waited for several minutes for the horde of motorbikes to whoosh past us (but finally just crossed the street) and stopped at a milk tea place (8,000 dong, or 40 cents). There was no way we could get a taxi until we had walked a decent distance from the bridge, but at any city event like this, that’s to be expected. Hien picked up her motorbike from Ha’s place, and we headed home.

As a general note, I’ve noticed that I’ve become accustomed to using Globish, which is to say English at its most basic level. If a word has no meaningful purpose in a sentence (i.e. it is only there for grammatical reasons), you eliminate it. You do not conjugate verbs, either for subject-verb agreement or for tense. So for example, instead of saying, “I went to the market yesterday and bought three pairs of pants,” you say, “Yesterday I go to market. I buy three pants.” You also need to listen to how the locals speak English and use their vocabulary. For example, “America” is much more recognizable than “the States,” and “toilet” is more understandable than “bathroom” or “restroom.” It also helps somewhat to have an American accent, which I believe to be a result of the popularity of American films and TV shows. (If you’re from New Zealand, you might as well be speaking Swahili. Sorry kiwis.)

You’ll also notice throughout the region that there are motorbikes with megaphones that play a recorded message or song. In every city, the locals will recognize what the purpose of the motorbike is by hearing the sound. A certain song will mean it’s an ice cream moto; another will mean it’s collecting recyclable materials. This is true in China as well, where the slogans are from decades ago and use vocabulary nobody uses today except for in these messages.

Also, they have socks in Viet Nam that separate the big toe from the rest of the toes, specifically so that you can wear socks with sandals. Somewhere, Coco Chanel is having a heart attack. Unless she died already. In which case, replace Coco with any given gay fashion icon (which is to say any fashion icon).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Random cultural things

Last night we had planned to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels this morning, but Hien forgot that she had English class, which is just as well, since if you tell me I can sleep more in the morning, my brain shuts back down immediately before any other options are considered.

She got back from class around noon (at which point I had been up for a while but had not yet brushed my teeth because no one can smell your breath over the internet), and we decided to head for the tunnels after doing laundry. You don’t realize how much forearm strength modern people have lost until you do laundry by hand. (It is also possible that I just have no upper body strength whatsoever. Actually, that’s definitely true. So the other thing may or may not be true.)

Anyway, as I was hanging up my clothes to dry, it sprinkled for just a tiny bit. I told Hien, and she said we’d better not go then, because it was likely to shower in the afternoon as it often does in Saigon. (Sure enough, it did.) It wouldn’t be safe to go by motorbike in the rain due to both lack of visibility and road conditions, so we decided against it.

Instead, we started off for another day in the city. We went to lunch at the same place as yesterday, where I got curry chicken and the veggie of the day was eggplant.

Afterward, we headed over to the local market because I needed new flip flops. (My non-heavy duty ones are so thin that I can feel the texture of the ground.) Hien parked her motorbike with these two old guys who were playing a blind version of Chinese chess.

The pieces are flipped over and covered by soda bottle caps.

Other than the king, who is visible, the initial setup is completely random, so you don’t know which piece is where. The first movement of any given piece is based on its initial location, so if it starts where the rook would be, you move it as if it were a rook. Once you move it, you uncover it, and once it’s uncovered, the piece moves according to its actual identity. So if it turns out that it’s a knight, you move it as a knight from that point forward. Any piece that is taken by your opponent is revealed. Unlike with regular Chinese chess, the river is not a boundary that some pieces can’t cross, which makes sense, because your bishop might be revealed across the river, where, according to traditional rules, it’s not even allowed to be.

After some brief observation of their game, we moved on to get my flip-flops. I got a pair with non-slip soles for 35,000 dong (or $1.75), and having worn them all day, I can say I like them a lot.

After this, it started showering, so we took refuge in a small clothing store, where I tried on a bunch of shirts, but none of them were particularly flattering, so I didn’t buy any, which seemed to annoy the shopkeeper. Tough nuts.

I believe this is derriere-enhancing underwear.

When the rain slowed to drizzle, we were heading back to the motorbike when Hien saw a dessert cart and said I should try it and stopped. I thought it looked an awful lot like flan and was surprised to discover that it was, indeed, flan. (In my mind, flan is associated with Spain and Latin America, so I wouldn't expect to see it in Southeast Asia except perhaps the Philippines.) Hien thought it was French, so that explains how it got here.

I don't think they'd ever serve it like this in Spain, but it's good.

Our next destination was to meet up with Hien’s friend who is leaving on May 1, but we passed by Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, so we stopped by for a look. The temple is Chinese in style, and all the signs and carvings were in Chinese as well. It was apparently prayer time, since there were a lot of monks and people with what I suppose is the Buddhist equivalent of a hymnal.

Evidently the gods are big fans of Choco-Pie.

After this quick detour, we went to New Pearl restaurant to meet Hien’s Vietnamese-German friend. His family fled as refugees to Germany when he was one. For some reason I didn’t quite catch, his parents moved to California to stay with relatives, leaving him and his sister in the care of a sort of surrogate mother in Germany. Since then, he’s only seen them for one ten-day trip to the States. He is now 32 (although he looks 24). He said he has two sisters in the States, so my assumption is that they were born after this separation, though I don't know for sure. As a result of his family situation, he doesn’t speak any Vietnamese (his English carries a slight German accent), and until three or four years ago, foreign Vietnamese who visited Viet Nam were often not allowed to leave, so it wasn’t until now that he decided to visit. His six-month trip was originally slated to include China and Korea, but the way things worked out he ended up staying here.

I have no transition to these photos.

After he had to go, we met up again with Ha to go to a tailor so I could have an ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) made. I realize I will only be able to wear this on the rarest of occasions, but I really do think they look beautiful, and it’s not like I’ve got any growing left to do, so I think it’s all right for a one-time expense. We went and got the fabric, where I was charged an extra 50,000 dong compared to the normal price essentially for being a foreigner, but that’s to be expected. (The total was 250,000 dong or $12.50.) The tailor’s labor on a rush order was 370,000 dong (or $19.50). It will be finished on May 3, and then Ha will mail it to her cousin in Hanoi, where I will be until the 10th or 11th. I failed to take a photo of either the fabric shop or the tailor's. Oops. If it makes you feel better, I also forgot to take a picture of my burn wound after I cleaned it to track its progress. No, I don't know how that's supposed to make you feel better.

Our last stop for the day was dinner. We had a typical southern Vietnamese meal (pho is better known in the north) called ho tieu, which actually comes from China, though I’ve never seen this type of noodle, so it must be found in the south or something.

Saigon at night on a motorbike

We headed home after that, because we’re going to try to hit the Cu Chi Tunnels tomorrow morning and then head for an overnight trip to the Mekong Delta. We come back in the morning the day after tomorrow, and then I go to the airport in the afternoon, so I'm not sure when my next blog post will be up. Possibly tomorrow, possibly May 1 or 2. But regardless, I need to get up at 6:00. Gross.

Also, as an addendum to the post involving the creepy host from Phnom Penh: When I went into the room to sleep (on a mattress on the floor), he repeatedly said I could join him on the bed if I wanted, despite my repeated insistence that I was fine where I was, citing his feeling bad about me sleeping on the floor as the reason. I think you can chalk a certain amount of touchy-feeliness up to being southern European, but dude. Seriously. A random midnight massage after you've already gone to bed and tedious invitations into said bed? I could understand a simple, "I don't mind if you want to share the bed, but it's totally up to you," but it's really not the type of offer you insist upon. So yeah... I don't think so, buddy. This is not just me being all American about my personal space. This is definitely you being a weirdo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Downtown Saigon

Woke up around 10:00 and waited for my host to get back from her English class, after which we headed to lunch at a nearby hawker stand. Hawker stand is evidently the phrase I should be using instead of “small restaurant.” They are usually not completely enclosed (no fourth wall) and thus not air conditioned, typically furnished with really cheap foldable tables and plastic stools or chairs. This particular hawker stand sells a standard work lunch, which is to say steamed rice with two sides. I had an egg and pork with carrots and radish. The other side was some kind of veggie. (Ok, I don’t know my vegetables. They all look the same to me. Green with leaves. The only one I know is cilantro, because it makes me want to die inside.)

One of her friends happened to be there as well, so he decided to join us on our trip downtown. He also happens to be a tour guide, so this was pretty lucky.

Our first stop was the main post office, which sounds weird, but the building is one of the first two built by the French, and the architecture shows it.

We were also meeting Ha here, whom I was introduced to over facebook by Abbey from KL. While we were waiting for her, I went to use the bathroom. I’m used to bringing my own tissues for use as toilet paper, because very few bathrooms in China are stocked with it, but I’m not used to paying to use the restroom, which is fairly common down here. So I left my bag at the post office with my host and her friend and only brought tissues. When I came out of the restroom, this old lady said something to me on the way out, and I realized this was a pay restroom. I told her I didn’t have any money with me, only tissues, and flipped out my pockets to illustrate that point. She gave me this look like I was the devil incarnate for having come to the restroom without any intention of paying. Seriously lady, 2,000 dong is 10 cents, and that doesn’t go far even in Southeast Asia. In fact, the only thing it could get you is a trip to the bathroom. Usually one with toilet paper. Unlike yours. So after giving me the evil eye for an unnecessarily long and completely ineffective amount of time (as if I would be like, “Oh, I forgot, I happen to have 2,000 dong in my mouth,” or “Allow me to perform for you instead 2,000 dongs’ worth of interpretive dance,”), she goes, “Ok, you come back.” This was the obvious solution to begin with; I don’t know what her evil staring was supposed to accomplish other than make me look at her like, “What exactly do you want from me?”

Anyway, Ha arrived when I returned, so we crossed the street to take a few quick photos at Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral, the other of the two initial French buildings constructed here.

From here, it was a five minute walk to Reunification or Independence Palace, where my host’s friend’s tour guide skills kicked in. Admission is 30,000 dong (or $1.50 USD). In case the name isn’t self-explanatory enough, this is where the Vietnamese were liberated and the north and south reunified.

Well I guess someone's in a hurry.

A symbolic Vietnamese flower

President's office

The most interesting part of the building is the basement, which doubles as a bomb shelter. There are radio rooms and war planning rooms and a secret staircase to the president’s office.

The next sight I wanted see was the War Remnants Museum. I was intrigued because I thought it would be really interesting to see the contrast between the way the Vietnam War is presented here and in the U.S. My personal experience is that we didn’t really cover it in school at all, although I realize that’s not necessarily true everywhere. We certainly did not see any horrific images of the war as we did with the Nazis in WWII.

This museum is small, but the photography it showcases is poignant. You see images of protests held all over the world against U.S. aggression in Viet Nam (as it is known here, if not elsewhere) images taken during the war itself, and others of victims of Agent Orange decades later. The last of these churned your conscience the most; children today are still born with severe physical and mental disabilities, a price very few in the U.S. have had to pay. The vast majority of those affected are civilians who happen to live in affected areas (and even if it were the military, their future generations have nothing to do with anything). I think any American visiting Saigon has some obligation to see this museum, because rarely are Americans faced with images of the brutalities committed by our own country; we simply gasp in horror at the acts committed by others, forgetting that our defense of liberty and equality tends to stop at our borders (and for some people, within them).

I’m not going to force graphic images upon you, but just know that American GIs of the Viet Nam war as a whole do not fare too much better in my book than any other perpetrators of massacres.

After the museum, we went to Ha’s university for dinner, since it would be cheaper to eat there than elsewhere. The traffic was insane, and it doesn’t make a difference if you’re on a moto or in a car. You’re not going to get through. You can also feel that you’re breathing in dust, and it makes the back of your throat taste like metal, which I’m sure is really good for you. Perhaps it provides you with your daily dose of zinc.

I had a noodle soup with chicken, to which I added a squeeze of lime and some chili. I wasn’t really in love with the lime + salt/pepper mixture in Cambodia, but I do like the touch of sour in the soups here. I do wish that they didn’t mix in the cilantro with the scallions, because then I can’t have either.

This is Hien's. That's why there's cilantro in it.

Having been a French colony, their floor numbering starts after the ground floor.

We intended to go to Ben Thanh Market, but it turns out it closes at seven, so we just walked through a small street market nearby. Hien (my host) informed me that everything here is generally intended for tourists and thus overpriced.

A cyclo

Closed market

Paintins on coconut something - bark, probably

Our last stop for the day (so we thought) was a bar that has live music every night (except Wednesdays for some reason) from 9:30 until late. We got there about an hour and a half before the music would start, so we just chatted and I flipped through her photocopy version of Lonely Planet Vietnam. What that means is the entire book is copied to replicate the original, including glossy pages in the front for the country map, highlights, and photos. You wouldn’t know from the cover or those first few pages that the book is bootleg, but the quality of the regular text is obviously a photocopy.

While here, I undid the top strip of tape on the gauze on my leg, and it looked worse than in the morning, so we decided to go to a clinic. I wanted a place that spoke English so I could ask questions and things, and there was a place not too far away that’s open 24 hours.

The fee for a consult was very high ($89), but thanks to Obama, I have health insurance, and the receptionist said that with my particular policy, I would definitely be able to get reimbursed for the consultation fee and medication.

They cleaned my wound with saline (and vigorously shook their heads when I mentioned iodine, so I guess the nurse in Cambodia did not receive the best in medical education) and put a topical disinfectant on it, then dressed the wound with non-stick gauze and another bandage over it that is cottony and sticks all the way around. They were not skimpy with the gauze they used to clean it or the cream, and in general this place was a lot more sterile (i.e. everything individually packaged), well-equipped with more advanced supplies, and, well in short, what you’d expect to see in the West.

They also had a tropical aquarium.

I was also able to talk to the nurse in English, which was comforting, so she could tell me that the yellow color of the fluid in my wound is normal and is not pus, and that yes, it’s slightly infected, but there’s no pus or blood, so it’s fine. She also instructed me on how to wash it and how often (asking me along the way to make sure I had the necessary supplies), and in general, it puts you much more at ease to get medical advice in your native language. (Incidentally, saline or “salt water” is what I kept asking the medical shop in Cambodia for, but they insisted on giving me H2O2.)

The nurse also had notably better English than the doctor, who came in for about 30 seconds, presumably to fulfill his duty of having seen the patient. Also, when I asked if I should wash the wound with soap and water when I’m at home, he said, no soap. Then the nurse was like, “Well she can’t use tap water either. We should really give her a bottle of saline.” And the doctor was like, “Yeah, I guess. Whatevs.” So yeah. The nurse was much more experienced than the doctor. I liked her.

Then we finally came home, where the sewing shop is still running like mad, so I guess they work 24/7 and just switch shifts. Or the set it on a really complex pattern and just let it run all night.

Other random notes:

- There are no McDonald’s in Thailand.

- The days are pretty early here, too. People eat dinner at around five.

- Also this: