January 26, 2007

Styrofoam Floats (11/18/06)

Talk about making lemonade when life hands you lemons.

In Ha Long Bay off the eastern coast of Vietnam, an entire village floats on water. One room wooden houses sit atop a framework of 2X4s tied together with rope, all kept afloat by big blocks of styrofoam wrapped in blue tarp. Children run along the planks as sure as if they were in their backyard, while dogs patrol their houses, barking at intruders. Laundry hangs on neat lines strung between posts, while small rowboats tied to the edge of the planks float lazily awaiting passengers.

These permanent dwellings are a result of a people who were driven from their land by a combination of bad land management, bad weather and unfriendly governement policies. What happens when you shoo farmers onto water? You make them… fish farmers!

With support from the Vietnamese government, the villagers have been sucessful in making a living with no land at all. In between the homes where a lawn might be are fish farms. A large net hanging below the surface keeps the fish from escaping. Touring the village in a kayak, I watched as men simply threw a spear downward into the pool and came up with a fish that was HUGE – almost a foot and half long.

Instead of convenience stores, small row boats laden with fruit and vegetables from the mainland paddle their wares around. From the rowboats that hovered around our big tourist boat, we could even buy beer, Oreos and Mars bars.

And this seemed to be but one example of preserverence, of survival and of the optimism of the Vietnamese. The sense of a better and brighter future was projected in all the people we met. We were told, over and over again, how Vietnam had just surpassed the US to become the world’s second largest rice producer. This is even more incredible when I realized that it is all using manual labor, with no machines.

Now, perhaps the next step would to open some “row through” fried fish restaurants…:)

January 23, 2007

Food Stall Hopping (11/21/07)

After 2 weeks in Vietnam, we finally worked up the courage to eat at the street side food stalls.

We set out with determination, along with a nice guy we met on a trip, David Kim. We figured we would have acclimatized to the local bacteria by now, and fervently hoped that we would not get food poisioning.

Initially, it was a little intimidating. When we sat down, we got a few bemused looks from the locals. The stands are very simple affairs, with short with squat plastic stools and low plastic tables strewn with squeezed lime peels, smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Locals plunk down and slurp bowls of mysterious looking food. A single bubbling pot, with colanders full of noodles, vegetables and puzzling looking meat products would surround the single cook. There is no menu, and no English spoken.

But this was, by far, the most delicious food in Vietnam! For some reason, restaurant food is bland, overcooked, or both. We speculated this was because only tourists can afford to eat in the restaurants, so not only do you have unknowledgable customers, you only have to get them in the door once.

And oh wow is it cheap. The first stall we tried Cau Lau, a local Hoi An specialty, consisting of thick rice noodles, spicy soup, fried pork and bean sprouts. 3 huge bowls garnished with fresh lime and 3 huge beers -$2.50.

We were still a little hungry, and drunk with our newfound power of eating at a stand, we moved on to a second stall and sampled the fresh steamed buns, containing sausage and whole quail egg. – 3 buns, $1.

While walking and stuffing ourselves with the buns, we came upon the third stall, and tried some Chao Vit, a rice porridge containing roast duck, and had 2 more beers – $2

By this time, we were rolling around holding our stomachs. It would be worth it even if I did get food poisioning. (We were fine).

I was only kicking myself that we didn’t start eating like this this earlier!

And I’m back! (1/22/07)

Although I am woefully behind on my blog – which would leave people to think that I am still in Vietnam somewhere – I am happy to report that we have returned to the States, safe and sound.

The flight home is not something I would recommend to anyone actually needing to get between two points in any sort of timely manner. Due to last minute changes on a ticket bought with frequent flyer miles, the flight home now included 3 red eye flights on 3 separate days.

Starting Jan 16 and finishing at 6:30 am on Jan 21 in Los Angeles…Tawau, Malaysia->Kuala Lumpur-> Seoul->Tokyo->Honolulu->Los Angeles. Phew!

We spent an afternoon in Tokyo – had a sushi lunch, walked around downtown. Freezing!
We also got to spend 41 hours in Waikiki. Very lovely, but much more touristy than I imagined. It was strange to be back on US soil, and we faced huge sticker shock coming from southeast Asia (the $5 hot dog and the $7.80 Quizno’s sub). I was surpised to find that I was “cold”. After being in 85-90 degree temps with 95% humidity for the last month, Hawaii seemed barely warm.

My circadian rhythms are completely chaotic, with my body thinking it was a good idea at 2 am local time to have some cereal, and fall asleep around 6am.

I will work hard to get out the rest of the stories from the trip in the next week, because I know that “real life” will take over soon (house search, job search, car search, etc), and it is all still fresh in my memory.

What an amazing adventure this trip has been!

January 6, 2007

Talk to the hand!

We signed up for a trekking trip through the hills of Sapa in northwest Vietnam, to take in the scenery and to see the traditional way of life of the ethnic minority groups, such as the H’mong and Dzai. (Check out Jonathan’s photos)

Sapa seemed overrun by western tourists, and we initially worried that we wouldn’t meet any locals on our trip. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. Dozens and dozens of girls and women in traditional dress sought us out, hawking all manners of handmade goods – cloth, embroidery, purses, wallets, bracelets. Although heavily accented, their English was startlingly good. Usually as soon as we left the hotel lobby we were quickly surrounded by groups of women and girls, some as young as four years old, thrusting goods in front of us and chanting “Buy from me!”

One big bonus was that I, personally, was largely ignored by the locals, who concentrated on the rest of the group. My tour guide cued me in – “They think you’re Vietnamese,” he whispered. “Vietnamese never buy anything.”

We hiked down through the amazing terraced rice paddies that lined the hillsides. From above, the rice paddies look smooth, seamless and perfectly sculpted. From ground zero, I saw that each paddy actually has a lip, and thus creating a small pool to to keep water in. I discovered that there were small channels of water running systematically downhill, sometimes powering wooden rice mills designed to separate the grain from the husk. Wildflowers lined the edges of the paddies, while pigs wallowed in the mud to keep cool, and ducks swam in the little pools. Completing the perfect pastoral scene were water buffalo munching on hay, chickens pecking the ground, and little boys playing with sticks and hoops.

After dinner, we went with our fellow trekkers for a drink at a very non ethnic minority English pub, complete with blaring music, bar stools and a pool table. To my surprise, 3 H’mong girls (we found out later they were actually 18-24 yrs old) in full traditional dress were wielding the pool cues with ease, sinking stripes and solids with attitude. They were so out of context for me in that bar, it was like walking into a bar and seeing a giraffe calmly chewing on a leaf. One table near by had several more H’mong women sitting quietly playing cards. No one was drinking alcohol, but they seemed very at home there. After a few interactions, we found out that they were saavy, spoke excellent English, and worked as local tour guides for their villages.

The influence of over 10 years of constant tourist interaction was clear – they could play pool, exchange insults, and talk trash with the best of them. They’d met people from all of the world, and knew quite well what was fashionable – one of them was out of traditional dress, in a spaghetti strap tank top and a miniskirt and silver hoop earings. This all from villagers who have only intermittent electricity, no running water and only one TV in the whole village.

After a heated debate about whether a ball was fairly sunk into the hole, the most hyperactive H’mong woman screamed at Jonathan “Talk to the hand!”, with perfect hand gesture and intonation. We all watched, fascinated.

I left the bar thinking about what a strange line these women walked. They lived in a traditional village, farming rice and taking pigs to market, and yet were irreversibly changed by constant exposure to tourists and the outside world. It made me think of the book “The Ladies Paradise” by Emile Zola, depicting the lives of shopgirls in 19th century Paris. The shopgirls were trained with the mannerisms and the taste to be able to interact with the wealthy aristocracy, but would never be one of them. They stradled two worlds, and were not fully content in either.

How does it affect village life? It is the women who earn the living, who make the traditional crafts that tourists buy. It is the women who go out and hawk them. It is the women that have the exposure to westerners and their ideas.

I can only imagine how bewildered a Hmong man might be if his wife suddenly put her palm inches from his face and shouted out “Talk to the hand!”…