A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Okay, so in the last post when I said that it was my last one in a while (mainly due to the fact that I've heard that internet can sometimes be iffy in Cambodia), I lied. But really, the only reason for that is that I forgot a few things that I wanted to talk about. Okay, one ever-important thing: my culinary adventures in Thailand.

I know that I tend to care about food more than most of you (I did write a whole thesis about it I suppose), but I thought I'd share on the off chance that it interested the rest of you.

Here in Thailand I've tried two new snacks that I quite enjoy. The first was snot on bread. Okay, so I exaggerate a little bit, but the sauce looks and feels remarkably like snot. As I'm not selling this well, let me backtrack. I was walking down the street in a random part of Bangkok not usually frequented by farang as far as I could tell and stumbled upon a street vendor with little pieces of bread on display in her cart. I thought to myself, 'huh, I wonder what that's for,' so with lots of pointing (which, BTW, I think is culturally inappropriate which I realized later) I was able to communicate that I wanted "the bread thing." She put the bread in a steamer pot (which surprised me, I might add, although I didn't know what to expect) and spooned some green goo into a plastic bag and added condensed milk. After a short time she took a metal funnel and funneled the bread chunks into another plastic bag for take away. I took my bags to a bench next to the main river that runs through Bangkok and tasted away. The snot I used as a dipping sauce for the steamed bread pieces. It was sweet and quite delicious. I later found out that the reason for the green color is a leaf that is commonly used in Thai cusine that acts much like vanilla. It's called pandanus (pronounce as you see fit). In any case, the whole dish gets 1.5 thubs up, as it was almost too sweet. I did like the lightly steamed bread idea though.

The other sweet snack that I enjoyed was corn. Sweet you say? Yes say I. At the same place the next day, after missing our bus stop and having to continue on to the next one, we happened upon a corn vendor. He took kerneled corn, added butter, cream, sugar, and a dash of salt, mixed it together and put it in a cup. For decoration it was whipped cream and blueberry syrup. Overall, an enjoyable combination. Who knew that blueberries and corn went together?! I have to admit that one of the reasons that I like Asia is that its desserts (or at least sweet things) tend to surprise me. Before, in China and Japan, it was the sweet beans that impressed me. In Thailand, the sweet corn.

As far as more traditional Thai dishes go, I'm quite enjoying the tom yam soup. It's a spicy soup traditionally made with prawns, lemon grass, and ginger. I think I'm renaming it yum yum soup, but maybe that's culturally insensitive or something :o).

Now go eat!


The Great Escape

I'm here braving the wilds of a Bangkok internet cafe/computer game emporium to bring you what will probably be my last post for a while. I must admit that I think it is noisier in here than it is out on the street (which for Bangkok is saying a lot) because there are boys with loud speakers shouting and shooting each other via computer game behind me. Sometimes airconditioning is just worth it though. I was able to tune them out a bit by focusing on uploading a whole slew of photos to my photoblog, Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR. They're not exactly in a sensical order, but I think you'll enjoy them just the same!

If all goes according to plan, tomorrow much too early in the morning, the three of us adventurers will be off on the required pilgrammage to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I'm preparing myself for a crazy day tomorrow getting into Cambodia. Originally, I hadn't realized quite how difficult of a task it was going to be, but I think I'm armed (with information) and ready. You can check out the website Overland Travel Between Bangkok and Siem Reap if your curious what we're up against. Not only do we have to deal with regular every day scammers, we also get to try not to get jipped by corrupt government officials. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

As I suspected, Bangkok is starting to grow on me. I still think that it's a Taibei wanna be, but at least now, after really taking time to explore the royal tresures I can start to appreciate Bangkok and Thailand for what it is. The Thai royality did Thai and European fusion very well, at least with regards to architecture. The Thai royalty definitely had resources and exposure unseen by their neighboring Lao. It's also been interesting to start learning a little bit more about their culture. I hadn't realized that the Hindu influence was quite as strong here as it appears to be for example. I've also seen a lot of cool Chinese statues that were brought to Thailand as ballast in the bottom of ships that you can't find anymore in China (thank you Cultural Revolution!).

At the same time, after spending almost an entire week here (the same amount of time we spent in the entire country of Laos, which was most certainly not enough time), I'm ready to get back on the road. I'm sure Angkor Wat will be well worth the visit AND the extremely expensive $40 entrance fee (the temple is owned by a petrol company, but at least some of that money is now actually going to the upkeep and maintenance of the place, which is better than the nothing it got before!).


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Thailand the Tame

We've now been in Thailand for just under a week and have decided to chill for a while where we now are in Bangkok. I have to admit that, although I'm still quite enjoying myself, Thailand has not yet lived up to my expectations for it. Well, Bangkok at least.

I think when I came here I was expecting to find a crazy, sparkly city pulsing with life. A city that was tripping on yaa-ba (meth). By that I don't mean the people all on yaa-ba, but more that I would get this highly energized feeling from the city. A town where you couldn't let your guard down. I think I've seen too many Hollywood movies and taken the Lonely Planet too seriously. As far as the Lonely Planet is concerned, all the Thais in BKK are out to somehow trick the unknowing farangs (foreigners, derived from the Thai word for 'French' the first foreigners in Thailand one would imagine). I'll admit that the tuk-tuk drivers constantly asking "where you going?" so that they can, presumably, convince you not to go there and take you instead to a gem store where they get a comission, presumably, gets annoying, but it doesn't seem much different than Laos in that regard.

Really, I think that once I get over my expectations, I'll start to enjoy BKK for what it is. I've managed to have some fun wandering around some various quarters here and exploring. It was particularly interesting wandering around some back soi today and seeing people living in stilt houses on a canal. Although I'd seen a similar set up before, I wasn't expecting it in downtown Bangkok. I also enjoyed China Town, and thought the commercial district was okay (though again not as new as I was expecting).

The best way I can think of to describe Bangkok is as a Taibei wanna be. I know this doesn't particularly help those of you that haven't been there either, but maybe it will help others. The weather seems about the same. They're both littered with 7-11s on every corner (although I'll bet you that Taibei has more). Their respective cultural monuments are grand in scale (though I think Bangkok might win on this one. The Royal Palace is simply spectacular, and I'm enjoying its wats more than Taibei's temples.).

But basically this town is how I imagine Taibei just a couple of years ago. The difference seems mainly to be that Taibei has picked itself up by the coat tails and is starting to boom again. Bangkok is limping behind. Taibei now has the tallest building in the world. Bangkok's commercial center, Siam Square, was built in the mid seventies. Taibei now has a very functional MRT system. Bangkok has two sky train lines that don't go all that far. Taibei will soon finish a project to install wireless internet covering the whole city. I can't even imagine that in Bangkok.

Maybe it's not fair to compare cities like this, and I should enjoy each for what they do have to offer, but this is honestly how I'm seeing it. I might also add that I think that I prefer Taibei mainly because it doesn't have as strong of a tourist element, and because it has a stronger Japanese influence which I do enjoy.

Anyway, as for some Bangkok tales, I don't have much to recount other than that I have learned my lessons and was able to thwart a taxi driver trying to rip me off.

I had gone out to visit a friend of mine and my mother's who was touring around SE Asia this past month as well in her hotel that was half way out to the airport. I suppose it probably only cost like $35 a night or something, but I'll tell you that goes an extremely long way here! It was an impressive hotel! Anyway, I went out there at about 8:30 at night for a drink. It was good to catch up with the friend, but then it was 11:30 and time to go back into the center of town for the night. First, I went to the concierge to see what my options were for how to get into town. After I ruled out the limosine option, he called a cab for me. What he couldn't seem to understand was that I was not a customer of his hotel. He kept on wondering when I was coming back, and if I needed the taxi to wait for me, etc. I tried to explain I was staying somewhere else but he wouldn't listen. Finally he asked me if I had an "appointment" (which I take to mean either a meeting with a prostitute or some sort of drug deal, probably the former. I had told him that I was going to KhaoSan Road, the main tourist road of BKK.. I told him I had just so that he could create a reason for himself why I would be going into town that late and not coming back.

Anyway, the cab came and I got in. He started going down the hotel's half-kilometer driveway and asked me "how much?" I was like "how much what?" He replied, "how much to take you to KhaoSan Road. I'm sure that whatever you want to give will be fine." I thought to myself, "yeah probably not since that would be more like 100 baht," so I asked him how much he thought. He hesitated. Asked me again how much I would pay. I retorted "as much as the meter says." He said, "no, no. How much did it take you to get out here?" "150 baht." I lied, it had taken me 165 baht. "Oh no," he said. "Turn on the meter and we'll find out," said I. He refused. "Turn on the meter or stop the car!" I insisted. He turned back around and dropped me back at the hotel. I scoffed and explained to the concierge that he wouldn't start the meter. The concierge tried to coerce him but he resisted. I said, "Fine, I'll wait for the next taxi," and that was that. I made it back into town on the meter for only 130 baht. That first taxi driver just saw a rich foreigner he could take for all the money he could, and that still frustrates me, but I try to imagine the Thai side.

Actually, I think that's the most frustrating stereotype of foreigners all over Asia. They have money. It makes for a frustrating time if you actually live in a place like China. Coming home from the airport or train station in Kunming they keep insisting on paying 40 yuan when it should be 20-25 max and you know it. I guess there are worse stereotypes.

And with that I'll end my somewhat wandering post :o).


Sunday, January 23, 2005

It's a small world after all...

Here we are Sunday afternoon in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. It's a beautiful day outside, and yet the fans in the internet cafe were just calling, so here I am :o)

Chiang Mai seems like an interesting enough of a town, although after Luang Prabang it doesn't seem all that special. It's apparently a good place to take different types of classes, so Chesa and I took a Thai cooking class which was quite fun last night. We were the only students, so it made the class much more fun. We learned very important things like it's important to wash your hands after handling Thai peppers but before going to the restroom, and we made some delicious food too. I think my favorite was a very simple dish of fried morning glory (a type of plant here in Thailand and Laos). I really like the complex flavors in the food here, and so far I haven't died from eating anything too rediculously spicy.

On another food note, this town won my heart last night while browsing around the night market. We were just walking down the street, fate beckoning. We walked past an ice cream shop and I was like, hey that looks like a Swensens (really good San Francisco ice cream company that we used to have in FoCo and where my parents always would take me for a treat if I got good grades in school). Lo and behold it was. I mentioned that I liked the place, then looked down at the menu out front and noticed that it was open to a picture of a Mr. San Francisco (a scoop of ice cream on a plate with a cone stuck on as a hat, a cherry on top, and a collar of whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles). It was what I ALWAYS used to get as a kid (with bubble gum ice cream nonetheless), but I haven't had it for ages since Swensens closed in FoCo, and they didn't have a Mr. San Francisco at the Swensens in Taibei. So, waxing nostalgic I went in and got one and was just all smiles for the rest of the evening.

But really that's just the beginning of the "it's a small world" stories. Actually, just before we discovered Swensens, we ran into another teacher from Kunming who had recently arrived here as well. Random.

But even crazier is what has happened to our other friends Joelle and her Mexican husband Salvador who are both teachers in Kunming and with whom we met up in Laos. After a somewhat harrowing seven hour speedboat ride up the MeKong River (it was crazy, loud, fast, and super cramped. Just imagine sitting in the bottom of a cardboard computer box hurtling at great speeds down the river, getting splashed in the rough spots, and meanwhile having a jet enjine humming right next to you, and that's about the experience!), we made it to the Lao-Thai border with about 45 minutes to spare before it closed. We all exited Laos, hopped on a ferry across the river, and the three Americans and the French went through. Salvador (henceforce Chava) was the last because he was being slow, and when he presented his Mexican passport for inspection, he was told that he needed a tourist visa to get in to Thailand (the rest of us were able to just get a tourist stamp visa on arrival for free). None of us could believe it. Joelle and Chava had gone to the Thai Consulate in Kunming to check if he needed a visa before coming, and the woman there told them that he did not.

Unfortunately there was nothing that they could do, and they were sent back to Laos. They were told that the nearest place that they could get their Thai visa was in Vientiane (the capital of Laos), which is at LEAST a two day trek back from the absolute middle of nowhere that we were. Luckily, we just got an e-mail from them saying that the Lao government was happy to uncancel their visas, so they didn't have to go through that hassle. And when they were in the tiniest of burgs called Huay Xai which is serious podunkville like I can't begin to explain, they were approached by a girl that started speaking to them in Chinese. It took them a while to figure out who it was, but then it hit them that it was the Lao girl from the Chinese class back in Kunming (though they hadn't known she was Lao). She helped get them a good guesthouse and what not, and having such luck kind of helped smooth the situation down a bit. They're now back in Luang Prabang, and we'll hopefully all meet back up together in Bangkok.

Well, I think that's all for this side of the globe at the mo. I'm going to put up a photo or several on Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR after this if I can figure out how.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Luang Pra’baaaynngg

I think that last time I posted I mentioned that we are now in northern Laos in a town called Luang Prabang. Now, all three of those a’s are long, but I have to admit that I’m having a great time calling it Luang Pra-baaang, and giving it a good American twang. It’s just too fun a name.

It’s also turning out to be a pretty fun city. Although I still maintain that it’s a tourist trap, I can now understand why. In Laos you really can’t walk a block without running into at least one temple. Now, this makes sense considering that every boy in the country has to ordain as a monk for at least a couple of days, but Luang Prabang seems to have gotten more than its fair share. One reason for that is that is that it’s a former capital. And really here the temples are quite spectacular and elaborate. Each is painted carefully in gold leaf so that it shines in the sun. The town is also full of monks, and one of my favorite sights was when monk school went on lunch break and all of the boy monks were going somewhere for lunch in their orange or brown robes, there were many who had matching umbrellas (one must realize that umbrellas are used all over Asia to protect from the sun. Actually, the root of the word has shade, ombre in Latin, in it, so that was its original purpose). It looked almost like a parade down the street. Luckily I was able to snap a pic (though not with my digital so I can’t show it here yet).

So, yesterday we spent the day exploring the town and its many wats (temples) on foot. We ended the evening with a traditional Lao dance performance (which was even free, yay!). In other words we took it pretty easy. Today on the other hand was adventure day. Yesterday evening own of the boys about our age who works at our hotel offered, after we were complaining about too many tourists, to take us to see his home village where hardly any outsiders ever go/have been. We took him up on the offer, and took an hour-long tuk tuk (a pickup with benches and a tarp roof in the back) ride out to his town.

We stopped in the middle of a dirt road and my first reaction was “so where’s the village?” I hadn’t noticed that there was a tiny dirt path leading off the side of the road. We hopped out, crossed over the Mekong River on a rather rickety bridge that he explained was rebuilt every year because it was always washed away during the rainy season. A short fifteen minutes we arrived at the first village (not his). We found them in the middle of reconstructing their town temple. We had come to see the school, but they had just had a big test yesterday so were not in session. We found the headmaster though, and gave him some exercise books, pens, and pencils for the students. We also, of course, paused for a photo op with the kids. Then it was across the river on a boat about the size of a two person kayak (there were seven of us in it at the time) to his village. We stopped at his brother’s house (his former house) for tea, then continued on to the rice paddies. We walked all across the fields their and it was one of the most amazing sights that I have seen in my recent memory. We wound our way along the walls of the paddies, and ended up at a river that we had to ford. One of our travelling companions is not so confident about her balance, and had a hard time on the thin mud walls. She had had enough by the time we got to the river, and was not looking forward to the prospects of crossing it on a half submerged dam. But we all worked together to get everybody across. I keep telling her it was a growing experience, but maybe that’s just the American in me talking. I had a blast.

On Friday we’re off to Thailand via speedboat (six hours on a small bench in front of a roaring motor, whooo fun!), so I’ll end with a few general observations about Laos. First, I really like the relaxed pace of life! It’s really a nice change (with perhaps the exception of slow food). Second, I don’t know that I’ve met a friendlier people (not to overgeneralize now). I think it has to do with their greeting, sa-baii-di! You just can’t say that last ‘di’ without smiling. Such good planning on their part! :o)


Monday, January 17, 2005

Laos or Bust

Well, it’s only been three days here in Laos, though it feels like so much more!

We cheated a bit due to time constraints (that and the prospect of a 20 hour plus bus ride didn’t sound all the appealing) and took a flight from Hanoi to Vientiane, the capital of Laos on Saturday morning.

We made it to a hotel where two of the other teachers from Yunnan University were staying, and we checked in. As our official, yeah, we’re in Laos now, welcoming, Chesa opened her cupboard in her room and found a bag full of pot… As there is the death penalty here for drug possession (although I’m not really sure how enforced that is), she just decided to get the receptionist to take care of it. I’ll bet he was happy…

After that, we went exploring, and let me tell you that after the hustle and bustle of fighting motorbikes in Hanoi, calm, peaceful, somewhat sprawling Vientiane. I could hardly believe it was the capital of a country! In some ways it reminded me of Marrakech in Morocco just in pace and what not. It was also quite warm which made all three of us VERY happy.

I’ve discovered that I like doing things that confuse Asians (ie things they don’t think laowai would/should do), so in keeping on that theme, Chesa and I rented a bike with one seat on the back tire, and I peddled her around all afternoon. It was fun and we got quite a few stares. My other favorite thing that has been fun has been telling people that we live in China. The first reaction almost always tends to be “You think I’m Chinese?” It takes us another five minutes of looking in our phrasebooks to explain that, no, in fact we know that s/he is not Chinese but rather Vietnamese/Lao and that it is in fact us who are living in China. Good times!

There wasn’t a lot to see in Vientiane, although I think my favorite, just because it makes me laugh, is the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. The best part of the story is that after the US bombed the hell out of the country and we were all friends again, we donated cement to be used to build a new airport. They used the cement for the arc. :o)

As there wasn’t much to see in Vientiane, the next morning we got up early, and travelled by public bus up to Vang Vieng. The town was tiny, and apparently a drug haven (they actually had marijuana and opium on our menu this morning), but very relaxing. I felt at home as we went wading in the river. It was a beautiful day and we wound our way upstream to a bamboo bridge with a sign saying “cave this way.” We decided to go, and ended up spending two hours in the depths of a karst mountain. It was the coolest cave I’ve ever been in because it has yet to be lit and fitted with tourist paths and what not. We just had a guide and a headlight and we were crawling up hydrotubes and under low ledges and whatnot. It was breathtaking!

Today we headed up north to LuangPrabang. I was excited because I heard it was an amazing town, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Town (didn’t know they had those), but it seems like a big tourist trap. Don’t get me wrong though, the scenery is gorgeous!

We’re continuing on to the night market, so I’ll leave you now with a few fun facts about Laos:

  • 30%- The percent of the Lao population that doesn’t actually speak Lao. They speak minority languages, the Hmong people being among the highest percent.

  • 1/5- The amount of the population of Vientiane that was Soviet supervisors and expats before the fall of the USSR.

  • 1- The number of hours that it took for us to get our food at an organic farm restaurant in Vang Vien. A bit longer than other places, but it’s proving about typical. Granted, the food is really good!


Friday, January 14, 2005

Good Bye Vietnam

Well, I don't think that I'll necessarily updating my blog so often during this trip, but I thought that since I still have free highspeed internet access for one more day that I'd take advantage.

First, let me direct your attention to my friend Chesa's blog (also listed under the links to your right as this_wayfarer). She has been posting about our trip together in even more detail than I if you are actually that fascinated by our journey that much.

The last couple of days have been an experience. On Thursday we wandered around Hanoi exploring on our own. I also had to swing by the American Embassy for I had managed to run out of visa pages in my passport, and needed to add some more. Nothing special to report here except that it was surprisingly quick and that the hand sanatizer that they had at each counter struck me as particularly American and made me smile. In addition to the Embassy, we also went to the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology, saw the Temple of Literature (an amazing temple/university in downtown Hanoi), the outside of Ho Chi Mihn's Mausoleum, and the One Pillar Pagoda. We dined on wonderfully fresh seafood in the evening in a little hole in the wall we found on the walk home.

Of course the reason that we had decided to walk home is that we had had a couple of bad taxi experiences earlier that day. The major one consisted of a taxi driver who started the meter too high, drove us around, went the the wrong American Embassy (even though we had specifically showed him the address, and not like there are two I would imagine, so it must be have been an extra consulate or something), drove us around some more until finally dropping us at the right place. Needless to say, we refused to pay him what the meter said, and got in a rather large argument with him about it until one of the security guards came to help us out. I think we might be a bad trio together, as we don't like getting scammed, something which seems to happen to us quite a lot neverthess, unfortunately. It means that we've created at least three and a half scenes already... Chesa pointed out that we don't seem to be making friends well here in Vietnam, and I think I'd have to agree.

As for today, we took an excursion down to the Perfume Pagoda. The pagoda itself wasn't all that extraordinary, for it was more like a little shrine tucked away at the back of a cave, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly. We got there by a small shallow boat that was rowed by a Vietnamese, then hiked through the forested mountains to get to the actual pagoda. It felt like a real adventure, and it was nice to get away from all the crazy tourists with which we had been surrounded here in Hanoi and at Halong Bay.

Overall I have much enjoyed myself here in Vietnam. When the people aren't scamming us they are very friendly. I also think that their artwork here is simply spectacular. If I had the room and the money I would buy a whole kitchen's full of bamboo lacquerware! But now it's off for adventures in Laos! It's been so cold here, so I'm looking forward to the warmer weather that is expected there!


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Halong Bay

Well, as promised, I'm back in Hanoi after an almost three day trip to Halong Bay in northeastern Vietnam and so it's time for an update. Above is a picture taken of the bay (though not by me or anyone that I know. It's something I saw though, so I thought it was good to give y'all an idea of what it looks like). It's winter so it was overcast (sometimes foggy) all three days that we were there. Today it was even downright cold, but that doesn't really reduce the beauty of the place. I've always maintained that I like fog, it makes things mysterious, and this was no exception.

We left for the bay on Monday morning, and after a threeish hour trip out there, we took a boat out to tour the bay. It was a good boat trip, as we managed to make friends with a couple of Koreans as well as the apprentice tour guide on our trip. It was his first trip, and so he was more than happy to help (though he couldn't really speak English, which was a detail). I actually found myself in somewhat of a laowai overload. I haven't seen so many westernerns in the same place in ages! Right now they're actually still more of a "they" than a "we" in my head, but I guess that's what living in China/Taiwan for too long has done to me.

Anyway, Halong Bay is an ocean bay with many small rocky islets jutting out of the water at sharp angles. It's a fairly old place (geologically speaking), and so the water has had it's fair share of time to erode away many of the rocks. Thus, our first stop on Halong Bay was "Surprising Cave." It was one of the biggest caves I've ever been in, and the patterns that the water left on the roof of the cave were simply spectacular. It was named "Surprising Cave" by French explorers, and in what I would consider typically French humour, I believe the reason for this to be a rather giant phallus in the middle of the biggest of the three attached caves...but maybe we can be generous and say that it was simply because of sheer grandeur of the caves.

After that it was off to Catba Island which is known for its beauty and even has a national park on it. However, we did not step foot on the island that evening. Instead, there, we rendez-voused with another ship on which we spent the night. That was an adventure in and of itself, as we were aboard with two French-Canadian women (with whom Marie-Liesse and I obviously started a conversation for as to speak French. Though I must admit that I had trouble understanding them sometimes because of their crazy Canadian accent!) who had paid way to much for a trip out to the bay, and were not getting the tour they had expected. They were making somewhat of a fuss about the accommodations (which were not at all what they had been promised) and so I proposed getting a bottle of wine to settle everybody down. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect as it was not opened before us, and what was supposed to be a Bordeaux was most certainly not. At $12 a bottle, we found that we couldn't let it pass, so we told them (Chesa used her Vietnamese phrase book to write words down) that it was horrible and that we wouldn't pay for it. In the end, we didn't, but only because a Slovenian (or maybe Slovakian, I never had a chance to actually talk with her) paid for it because she said she was embarrassed, although she did not understand the situation at all and shouldn't have gotten involved!

In any case, after a night on the boat, which I would imagine in the summer would have been quite lovely and would have involved swimming and star gazing, but in the winter involved drinking a little bit and going to bed, we spent the next day back on Catba Island. We took a kind of short hike in the national forest in the morning, and went kayaking in the afternoon. The kayaking was super fun! Although I have been canoeing often, it was my first time kayaking. Chesa and I were together, and at one point fought hard against the current to pass through a little opening/cave in the rocks into a small inlet. It took us like five tries, but the effort expended was quite worth it as the inlet was so peaceful and full of interesting coral. We also explored briefly another island on foot, which we renamed Cheffa Island.

Today it was mainly getting back to Hanoi that took most of our time. All in all it was a good trip, but I wonder if we could have done it better without having bought a tour. We did learn a couple of good lessons though, and kayaking around the bay I will certainly remember.

As for my Vietnam experience in general, I think I forgot to mention in my previous posts that I was surprised at how related Vietnam is to China. I suppose that if you live under their rule for 1000 years you learn a thing or two... The languages, although there are more tones in Vietnamese than in Chinese are even quite similar. Whereas we just went to Halong Bay in Vietnamese, it would be XiaLong in Chinese. Whereas we are currently staying in Hanoi in Vietnamese, the name actually comes from the Chinese HeNei meaning inside the river. Who knew?

I might also add that on Sunday night we went to see a special art form here in northern Vietnam known as water puppets. I'll put up pictures later, but I must tell you it was the most spectacular puppet show that I've ever seen. I still don't quite understand the mechanics of it!


Sunday, January 09, 2005


Whew! My friends Chesa and Marie-Liesse (yes she's French if you couldn't tell) have made it safely to Hanoi, yay!

Originally we were planning on leaving on Thursday, but because I was behind with my grading we decided to wait until Saturday morning to take off because I was a little behind on my grading. It was an absolute rush for me to turn in my grades before we left on Friday, and it almost killed me (ask my friends, they said I looked like the walking dead. I guess staying up until 4 or 5 AM then getting up again at 10 isn't enough beauty rest!). I rushed to the English Department office at 4:30PM though, then rushed to the Bank of China to exchange money. That's a story in itself!

The first branch I was taken to, which I had been told was the main branch (and the only branch at which I could exchange money into dollars, d'ailleur) was closed. Then I thought to myself, 'hey, isn't there another big branch more downtown?' So, I hopped in a cab and told him I wanted to go to the big Bank of China on either People's Street or Eastern Wind Street, I couldn't remember which. Rudely he responded, "All you need to say is take me to the Bank of China." As if there was only one! He, of course, took me to the People's Bank of China, which I insisted was NOT the bank of China, however he persisted. Long story short, I ran the last two blocks to the actual BoC, for it was already 5:20PM. It was luckily still open, and I went in and the security guard showed me how to take a number. I asked him if that was what I was supposed to do to change money and he assured me that it was. I waited until 5:35PM for my number to be called, only to find out that I had to go across the room to another counter to change money...

Then the adventure truly began. I went across the room and first they insisted that I had to be Chinese in order to change money. I said "Well, I'm more or less..." and showed her my residence permit. "Oh, well, then, yes, you can exchange money here but we're closed, come back on Monday." I mentioned that I had been waiting on the other side of the room for half an hour (slight exaggeration) and that I was leaving the next day and she gave in and let me change money!

It may seem like a somewhat banal story, but I cannot tell you how Chinese I felt then. Not only was I Chinese enough to change money, but I also successfully argued in Chinese with the attendant AND she bought the arguments! Not to mention the fact that I was in an awfully sleep deprived state. Alright, I'll stop gloating, but it made my day.

The trip so far has been quite excellent. Due to several turns of good luck, we made it from Kunming to Hanoi in record time-faster than The Bible (aka The Lonely Planet) said was possible. We made it to the border at HeKou, turned left out of the train station to see what was there and found the border crossing. It was still open, so we decided to go through. It took all three border guards to check our passports (aka flirt with Chesa, the slightly Asian looking American who speaks Chinese). All in all, it took us an hour to walk across a bridge, which was nicely counter balanced by the fact that we lost an hour (time zone differences) in doing so. After arriving in Vietnam without any dong (the Vietnamese currency) we walked to the ga (Vietnamese for train station... I have my suspicions it comes from the French "gare" or train station) in a slight drizzle, got an over-night to Hanoi, et voila!

The train was nothing particularly out of the ordinary with the exception that our compartment-mate/conductor decided to give me a short massage (the karate chop kind) and slap me on the ass as a welcome when he saw me lying face-down on my bed trying to get to sleep. I decided an ass slap in Vietnamese must mean welcome...

Hanoi is quite interesting. I had no idea what to expect, but it's better than anything I had imagined. The French did wonders for this place if I do say so myself. The architecture is much more interesting than the utilitarian buildings of China! Our hotel room has a balcony with iron-rod railing and everything! The two most surprising things here though are: a) it's expensive. Well, at least compared with China. I mean, breakfast cost like $1.25! And b) the motorcycles/mopeds--they're everywhere! They fill up the entire street. It reminds me of Taiwan in a way, but there aren't many cars here.

As for tomorrow, it's off for a three day excursion to Halong Bay for kayaking, hiking, and sightseeing. I'll let you know how it goes!

To sign off, some Hanoi Fun Facts:

3.5 million- The population of Hanoi
550- The number of pounds that a tortoise pulled out of the lake in the center of Hanoi weighed when it died in 1968. Legend is that it is a tortoise that would return the sword of peace that was taken by one thousands of years ago. Although this particular tortoise had no sword, it was nevertheless embalmed and is now the center piece of a temple on the island in the middle of the lake.
19- The number of hours it took for us to get from Kunming to Hanoi. The book says to plan for 30!

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Well, I saw this article on MSNBC, Thais hope the tourists return, and thought I'd share. For some reason I continue to feel compelled to defend myself on why I'm heading that direction after such a devastating event. The weird part is that nobody seems to be arguing with me besides myself. Hmmm... methinks I sense a bit of self guilt going on here. It seems wrong to profit (in a sense) from this horrible tragedy. But the Thais are saying they need tourists, and we will actually be able to find a place to stay--likely a nice one that is dirt cheap, and, and, and. Well, I'll just have to help out in some way in order to calm my troubled soul.

On a completely unrelated note, today I received like 7 pieces of mail which made me happier than happy can be. If you were one of those who was kind enough to send me an X-mas card or, gasp, package, I just want to say thanks much! Yours will be in the mail soon. Maybe from tropical Thailand where I'll be lazing on the sandy beach enjoying my winter... :o)


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

新年快乐!(Happy New Year!)

As effort number three-hundred and seventy-six to procrastinate grading more papers—but also because I love you all, of course—I thought I would take some time to wish everyone a happy new year. It’s been a rough start for some over on this side of the globe, and I hope that we can keep that fact in the back of our minds as we march blindly into the future. I know it may seem far away, and isn’t that always the problem, but death on such a mass scale cannot, should not, be ignored. May the unfortunate losses here help us all reflect more clearly upon our lives and help guide us throughout this new year.

As many (some?) of you know, I’ll be spending this winter break (I get like almost two months off!) travelling around South-East Asia. Right now the plan is to spend about one week in Vietnam (mainly in the north), one week in Laos (in Vientiane, the capital, and Luang Prabang further north), a little over a week in Thailand (ChiangMai in the north, Bangkok, and perhaps further south if we can help out in some of the effected areas), a few days in Cambodia (mainly to see Angkor Wat, the big temple seen in the movie Tomb Raider if that helps), and several weeks in the Philippines. I’m excited beyond belief. Although I enjoy travelling, I never actually expected to visit many of these countries. But I think it’s more fun that way—less expectations.

As I will be travelling soon to Thailand, it has been on my radar for a while, which is perhaps why the tsunami really seems to have struck me. I hope that we can help when we get there. Right now the main calls for help seem to be with donating blood, answering phones at international call centers, and KEEPING travel plans. Looking at Thailand’s entry in the CIA’s World Factbook, one notes that it is a highly service oriented economy. A full 46% of its GDP is based on services. Tourism is listed as its primary industry. They don’t tend to mention the other main service, but I digress. My point is that most of the tourism websites that I’ve been reading from Thailand say that the biggest way you can help Thailand is to keep travel plans. They need the money or their economy will tank. Seems like a good enough argument to me, but I don’t know that I can bring myself to sun myself on the beaches of Phuket island while relief efforts happen around me. We’ll see.

I was going to have an entry of things I learned in 2004 to really close it out (and maybe I still will if I have enough time before I leave, but I think that a better idea might be to share with you an answer that one of my students wrote on his final exam to the question: What is the best present you ever received? Sometimes my students surprise me with their insight. I hope it gives you warm fuzzies like it did me. Though Christmas is not a traditionally Chinese holiday, they seem to understand the spirit well (even if their idea of a good way to celebrate Christmas means donning pointy, shiny birthday/clown hats, spraying people with silly string, and going out to bars and drinking the night away…). The names have been changed to protect the innocent. I’ve also left the mistakes because that just makes it even cuter.

I have got my best present on last Christmas Day. Had it not been the very night, I would not have got it. Though it was Christmas Day, I could hardly felt happy becaust my girlfriend said goodbye to me just that very night. I was in a desperate state that I wished to die soon. It was Oliver, my best fellow, that stayed with me all that night, and tried his best to comfort me. His words came to me as the spring wind, and made me better. As you know, it was reasonable for anyone to enjoy himself on such a night. Yet he chose to stay with me and shared my sadness without any gift. Though I havn’t get any gift that night, I have just jot the best present in my life—friendship.

PS: Sorry I haven’t been good about updating my photoblog. I’ve been having problems with the program I use to upload my pics. I’ll try to get it resolved soon. Or, well, maybe after I get back from my grand adventure. :o)

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