WELCOME!

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I made this blog to share photos and stories about my trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong. My daughter Melanie and I spent 2+ weeks exploring and snapping these great places. Check out the “blogroll” links to learn more about the places we visited. Feel free to leave comments, I’d love to hear from you. Enjoy!

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VIETNAM SOUNDTRACK

•1.16.08 • Leave a Comment

OK, I have to admit it — I really don’t care for Southeast Asian music. Something about the tones feels just plain disharmonious and the singing, decidedly shrill. Did my negativity somehow invite the whacky Western soundtrack that seemed to follow us everywhere in Vietnam?

We arrived in Saigon on Christmas eve. I guess it’s fitting that slim Asian Santas, kids dressed up in red pajamas and hordes of motorbike riders in Christmas hats be accompanied by the old familiar carols. On the front steps of our hotel, a DJ and chorus of teenage girls in short red skirts belted out pop-rock versions of Jingle Bells and Joy to the World. And that was just the beginning.

The next day we picked a nice, authentic cafe for lunch. No sooner had we ordered our noodle bowls, than a vaguely familiar wall of sound washed over us. Could it be…ABBA?? We had a good laugh and chalked it up to an aberration. Until the next day. As the car we had hired wound its way toward the Cu Chi tunnels, our guide turned from the front seat with a big smile and asked, “Do you like oldies?” Thus began a musical walk through the 70s. The Bee Gees. Chicago. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head. It occurred to me that this might be part of the American GI legacy — a musical selection frozen in time.

Then there was our hot stone foot massage. Up two flights of stairs from the chaotic Saigon street, calm prevailed. Under dimmed lighting, the water in our foot soaking tubs gurgled and our masseuses whispered pleasantly to each other. This lovely bubble burst with the arrival of two new patrons. As the couple settled into the chairs next to us, a monologue began. The woman apparently had an ingrown toenail, which she seemed compelled to describe — in English — in minute detail. Her massage began and moans of pain accompanied by many “ow”s ensued. Her husband, head back and eyes closed, seemed blissfully unaware of this continual stream. We, on the other hand, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I wish I had taken notes. This soundscape continued in one interesting way or another throughout our stay. But you get the idea. Last and certainly not least was our massage experience in Hanoi. We were so excited to find a place I had read about on a travel message board — one hour for $10. Nestled in my little cubicle with white sheet walls billowing gently, the sweet scent of oil wafting toward me, I was totally relaxed with anticipation. It started so quietly I thought I was imagining it. Then someone must have turned up the volume. Techno-muzak. American rock songs. Why was I not surprised?

CITY STREETS

•1.15.08 • Leave a Comment

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Frenetic, fun and sometimes overwhelming, Saigon (most locals never transitioned to the name Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi are a trip. Life is lived on the streets here. Maybe because real estate is expensive, shops and living spaces tiny. Maybe because the climate is conducive (except in the rainy season which can really disrupt business). Maybe just because. It’s a characteristic I found in Nigeria too; from what I hear it’s the same in all developing nations. And as chaotic as it can feel to outsiders, there’s something very communal and neighborly and lively about it.

On Vietnamese sidewalks, commerce and motorbike parking take priority over pedestrians. Tiny cafes are everywhere, proprietors serving steaming noodle bowls to diners sitting on doll-sized stools. Old women squat, cooking snacks over hibachi-like stoves or cutting up fruit or just chatting. Merchandise of all kinds spills out of storefronts. Old men gather for a game of cards. Kids play. You wind around them as best you can — and when you can’t, you simply walk in the street. Which has its own hazards. Traffic is an intricate, fast-paced dance of free-form darting, weaving and passing. Lanes are nonexistent. Traffic lights are scarce and even then, most motorbikes ignore them. (Apparently the police overlook these infractions, preferring to ticket cars, whose wealthy drivers provide a more lucrative opportunity.) The only traffic rule seems to be that you signify your intention to make a move by honking, so there’s a wall-to-wall peppy little horn accompaniment. Through it all, drivers and passengers are unperturbed and silent behind the cotton masks that protect them from fumes and dust.

These two cities hold a fascinating mix of architecture: from broken down dwellings to spic-and-span government buildings, from tall and skinny “tube” houses to rambling French Colonial villas — all connected to a scary-looking electrical system of twisted wire skeins. Ancient temples sit next to electronics stores. Spacious lakeside parks next to teeming commercial districts. What’s your pleasure? Crass souvenir shop or trendy boutique? Five-star hotel or five-dollar-a-night hostel? Vietnamese street food or French haute cuisine? Modern paintings or traditional crafts? Whether on twisting lanes or tree-lined boulevards, you’ll find it all on the city streets of Vietnam.

THE THINGS THEY CARRY

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It’s just incredible what you can transport by bike, whether motorized or pedaled. In a country where most people can’t afford cars (auto purchases are taxed 100% by the government), zippy, gas-friendly motorbikes are everywhere. We braved an xe om (roughly translates to ‘motorbike hug’) taxi ride and it was great fun — although hug is a misnomer since no one holds on. Except for young couples on a moto date, who circle round and round the neighborhood taking advantage of the chance to get close.

We saw every combination imaginable of people and objects. Kids, often asleep, squashed between adults. Babies in special seats mounted in front of drivers. Whole families (Vietnamese people are really small). Stylishly suited women in high heels. Elderly men smoking cigarettes. People texting on their cell phones. Grandmothers in traditional dress. Students, two or three to a bicycle, their plastic backpacks making a colorful splash against uniform blue and white school jackets. If a moto or bicycle was light on passengers, it was likely loaded down — and I do mean loaded — with the stuff of life. Here’s just some of what we saw. Many things flew by too fast to capture.

 

MARKETS

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A riot of color splashed along indoor corridors or tumbledown sidewalks. From the gorgeous to the icky, textiles to edibles and everything else on earth — Vietnam’s markets are a study in the solo vendor economy. What I want to know is: if most people are poor and most people are selling things, who’s buying? How can each entrepreneur on dried fish row or shoe street be marketing the same things as everyone else and making a living?

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PEOPLE

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A beautiful medley of old, young and in-between. The faces of Vietnam hold ancient wisdom, profound struggle, sturdy determination, bald opportunism, growing optimism, eager friendliness and sweet innocence.

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CRAFTS & ETHNIC VILLAGES

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“By hand” and “from scratch” are the watchwords for many things in Vietnam. The prices of food, decorative items and clothing belie the painstaking craftsmanship and time-consuming processes. Making lacquerware, for example, takes something like 18 separate operations, including multiple painting, washing and sanding steps.