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!

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!”…

December 26, 2006

Written in Stone

Forget the piece of flimsy, tiny paper shoved into a cardboard holder.

Now this is a Diploma!

In the central courtyard of the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first University built in the 11th century, are 80 of these stone stelae mounted on the back of turtles, erected for each graduating class. Each graduate has their name etched into stone as they pass their strenuous exams after five years of study. And in the spirit of learning, I discovered that Chinese characters were used in Vietnam until the 17th century, when a Portugese missionary phonetically translated Vietnamese into the roman alphabet.

There must be a hidden academic in me somewhere. I love visiting universities. I love the tranquil atmosphere, and the idea that people (well, only men) a thousand years ago traveled thousands of miles overland by foot to obtain knowledge. It was thrilling to visit the first university in Morocco, built in the 9th century, as well touring the very new Kathmandu University, built in 1991. Knowledge and education flourish only in times of peace and prosperity.

And so, a wish for peace and prosperity in this holiday season, and a happy and bright New Year!

December 14, 2006

Zen and the Art of Dodging Motorscooters

Arriving in Hanoi felt like we jumped in a time machine that zipped us back 25 years.

As soon as we left the gates of the modern international airport, we were surrounded by rice paddies, with people diligently working in fields, actually wearing those classic conical straw hats! The concrete highway cut through the landscape dotted with farmers harvesting rice, by hand(!), and the occasional water buffalo.

We soon came to the city limits and were surrounded by fleets of motorscooters, carrying entire families or strapped down with furniture. The scooters outnumbered cars at least 20 to 1. Not a helmet in sight, the scooters weaved in and out of traffic whereever there was a space. And it seemed every single one of them needed to honk to let us know they were passing us. The greatest thing was that most of the women wore wide brimmed hats, and hankerchiefs covering their noses and mouths, looking like bandits about to make a getaway.

The streets of Old Hanoi were equally clogged with these scooters, and with the narrow sidewalks covered with vendors, beer stalls, parked motorscooters, people cooking meals with only one pot, tiny plastic stools, and souvenir stores, it was impossible to walk on the sidewalk down an entire street. The sounds and smells and sights were overwhelming at first – it was hard to know which way to look, or which way to move to get out of the way. (Check out Jonathan’s nice collection of pics of Hanoi).

As a result, crossing the street was a slow motion zen experience unlike anything I’ve experienced. Without traffic lights or stop signs, the motorscooters and cars have no reason to come to a stop. If I stood on the edge of the sidewalk and tried to wait for a clearing, I could stand there for hours. As the locals demonstrated, the only way to cross is to become one with the traffic, to join the flow.

Leaving the relative safety of the roadside, I made eye contact with drivers coming towards me. I watched as scooters gauged where I was and simply continued, full speed, to swerve around me. This gave me a big enough gap in the traffic to move forward another foot or so. At all times I maintained eye contact and kept my movements slow and predictable. While standing still in the middle of oncoming traffic went against all my instincts to escape death, making a mad dash to the other side would have ensured I become splattered on the concrete.

And however crazy it was to be a pedestrian in Hanoi, hopping on the back of a moto taxi (scooters with a driver who will take you where you want) was fantastic, zipping along the narrow lanes, the wind in my hair and the street stalls whizzing by.

Way more fun to be on a motorscooter than trying to avoid them in the road…:)

December 9, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam (whether you like it or not)!

I felt like someone had put my head inside a drum and started to pound on it.

I had spent a sleepless first night in Hanoi, battling with Jonathan for the barely large enough sheet, listening to the incessant honking of motorscooters on the street, hearing the clanking of the airconditioner, and sleeping with my head underneath a towel to block the hurricane force wind directed at my head from the ceiling fan above. I finally fell asleep, earplugs snugly in, at what felt like 5:59 am.

At 6 am, on the dot, a woman’s voice began blaring in Vietnamese. The Voice was everywhere inside the room, bouncing off the walls. I was so startled that I jumped out of bed and peeled back the curtains to look on the streets, expecting maybe a bomb threat, crazed pedestrians running in all directions. Instead, all I saw were some bleary eyed vendors, sitting uneventfully on the side of the street. I tried to identify where the horrible voice was coming from, but couldn’t see anything. This went on and on, until the Voice was replaced with some truly terrible upbeat muzak.

I was furious. I was out of my mind and in a sleep deprived rage – anything to stop it. Jonathan, with his earplugs, stunningly didn’t hear anything. I looked out in the hallway, seeing if any hotel staff were around, but no one was in sight. I gave up and sat miserably in my room until 7, when the thing mercifully stopped.

Later on, I found out it was the “Voice of Vietnam”, spewed from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles all througout Vietnam, courtesy of your friendly Communist party. It turns out there was a loudspeaker about 10 feet from our room. When I asked the hotel staff what was going on, he seemed surprised that I was so startled by it, it was so commonplace. This particular morning, he informed me, was a message telling people to wake up, be virtuous on the weekend, to clean their houses, and get a start on the day!

One more reason to be grateful for living in a democratic nation…