Exploring HDR processing of a single RAW image

You don’t have to research HDR much to find the common questions about how best to process a single image into an HDR. Some people suggest taking the photo and running it straight through Photomatix, letting it do all the legwork. Others suggest taking the image into something like Lightroom and exporting different versions of the image with the exposures set at the different increments to mimic exposure bracketed shots.

For a long, long time I was in the first camp. The thinking says simply that by adjusting the exposure you’re not adding anything to the image. It suggests that since all of the data is contained in the original image, exporting differently exposed versions of the same photo is just presenting that data in a different way.  However, I have recently discovered that this assumption is wrong. Amazingly, many of my assumptions on what was happening with the data in my photographs turned out to be wrong, and overly generous. I put too much faith in the software, assuming it would do things in the most efficient way because that was the ideal way to do it.  Unfortunately, the truth is that Photoshop and Photomatix do terrible things to your photographic data, and I will show you this fact here.


A few months ago I was on a boat with my wife, and as is normal in San Francisco summers the fog was rolling in past the Golden Gate Bridge. There was a lot of movement on the boat so I couldn’t take a bracketed set. I didn’t care though. I assumed Photomatix would let me balance these extreme lighting conditions with no sweat. The photos I took on that boat were the beginning of my discovery that I was giving Photomatix too much credit.

Here is an original photo taken on the boat with a Canon T3i at 14bpp raw:

The untouched file, default settings.

The untouched file, default settings.

It’s not immediately obvious that the The Golden Gate Bridge is in the background, but you can barely see it on the left. This type of situation is where I was hoping that Photomatix would solve my exposure balance problems. When I looked at the RAW file in Lightroom and dropped the exposure down I could see the bridge.  I imported the single image into Photomatix Pro 4.1 and did a default tonemap, hoping to bring out the details that were lost in the highlights. Here’s what Photomatix produced:

Tonemapped from DNG in Photomatix using default settings

Tonemapped from DNG in Photomatix using default settings

That’s interesting, but it’s not exactly helpful.  Specifically, you still can’t see the bridge and other features that exist in the RAW data.  In its place is a smooth, unrealistic, grey sludge.  Clearly Photomatix has thrown away some important data that would have been very useful.  At this moment I realized that the technique of exporting a single RAW image with different exposure settings in fact does allow you to create better HDR images in Photomatix because it was obvious to me at that point that Photomatix was throwing away useful data when working with data from a single RAW file.

After doing an hour or so of research on gamut and image formats, trying to get a grasp on their differences, I thought “my camera is only 14 bits per pixel, but PSD can be 16 bits per pixel, so surely it must be able to store all the extra information that Photomatix is throwing away!”  I converted the DNG to a PSD, imported that into Photomatix, ran it through the default tone map settings can came out with this:

Tonemapped in Photomatix from PSD using default settings

Tonemapped in Photomatix from PSD using default settings

Despite the fact that many of the important details are still missing, this image is better than what I got while running the DNG file straight into Photomatix.  This means that Photomatix is bad at handling what is purported to be THE raw format for digital photographs from all manufacturers, the Digital Negative.  DNG supports data from more RAW images formats and more types of metadata than any other format.  There is a free converter with a graphical UI and a scriptable CLI interface, a freely available SDK, and it even has the ability to store the original RAW file inside of the DNG in case you simply don’t trust what it’s doing with your RAW data.  It’s remarkable that even with all of that available, Photomatix still can’t transpose the 14 bit raw data into a 32 bit radiance file without losing significant amounts of data.

I also thought it was peculiar is how Photoshop itself was unable to show the extra data.  When I converted the DNG into PSD, I had similar results as I did with the DNG file.  This led me to do another hour or so of research, and I eventually found out what was going on.

RAW data is storing information about all of the light that came into the camera and hit the sensor.  This data includes parts of the image that are outside the perceptive range of your eyes at any, shall we say, iris exposure setting.  That is, when the iris of your eye opens and closes, it allows you to see brighter or dimmer things, but you cannot see the whole range of luminance at once.  Your eyes are limited to a medium to low dynamic range, thus the need for HDR and tone-mapping to display all of the information.  RAW images store data that is beyond the limits of the whitest white and the blackest black that you can see in a properly exposed RAW photograph.  Photomatix also has several formats in its arsenal that are also supposed to do that, and they very well may do so, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.  PSD does not store this extra data.  Tiff doesn’t either.  JPG certainly does not.  These image formats are storing color values between white and black.  White is the brightest point that your eyes can see and can be displayed, and no information past that point is stored.  Black is the darkest area your eyes can see, and no information beyond that point is stored.  These formats are rasterized.

On a side note, this explains why you can’t gain anything if you were allowed to convert rasterized image like PSD or JPG into a DNG file.  Since you’re not gaining any extra data when you attempt to convert a rasterized file to a RAW file, you might as well just use a TIFF or PSD, and in fact the DNG Converter will not let you create a DNG from anything but a RAW file format.

What’s interesting to me is that professional photo editing resources toss this rather important detail out all the time and put PSD and DNG on the same level.  Matt Kloskowski from Adobe constantly gets hassled at Lightroom Killer Tips for going back and forth between Lightroom, an app with a purely RAW format based workflow, and Photoshop, which works with rasterized data which truncates lots of important information from both extremes of the radiance spectrum.  Professionals like Matt are, in essence, teaching us techniques that are severely sub-optimal and disregarding this data loss issue entirely.

Moreover, Professional applications like Adobe Photoshop and Photomatix Pro are also silently truncating important data at both ends of the radiance spectrum when they are supposed to be doing exactly the opposite.  Photomatix has one primary purpose, to compress images that have a wide radiance down into images of narrow radiance so our eyes can see the features beyond our visual perception.  Nobody who uses this app expects it to simply throw away the parts of the image that can’t be seen.  If we needed that, we’d shoot in JPG or TIFF and use shadow/highlight in Photoshop.

So, after all of this thinking and researching, I did a final experiment. I used Lightroom to create three versions of the same image and merged them in Photomatix Pro as if I had taken an exposure bracketed set.  The three images are -4EV, 0EV, +4EV. Only the exposure was changed, and the watermark wasn’t included in the test.

Adjusted in LR to -4EV

Adjusted in LR to -4EV

Default settings in LR, 0EV

Default settings in LR, 0EV

Adjusted in LR to +4EV

Adjusted in LR to +4EV

I merged these in Photomatix and used the same default tone-mapping settings as the previous photos.

Tonemapped from PSD's at -4EV, 0EV and +4EV in Photomatix using default setings

Tonemapped from PSD’s at -4EV, 0EV and +4EV in Photomatix using default setings

In this final set you can see the extent of the information that was being thrown out by Photoshop and Photomatix.  Specifically, the entire Golden Gate Bridge was captured by the camera, but was invisible to both applications using their standard import methods.

And with that, I am now on the side of the people who recommend exporting exposure bracketed versions of a single exposure when using Photomatix to tonemap a single image. Science, logic and truth prevail, revealing to everybody the Golden Gate Bridge.

Quick flickr tip about shutter actuation count

If you want to see how many photos your camera has taken, take a photo and upload it to Flickr, then look at the EXIF data.  The “Image Number” field is the number of shutter actuations of the camera body that took the photo.  This is a useful piece of information when reselling a selling used gear, and generally neat to know if you take a lot of photos.  I’m adding a graph of actuations vs time to my to-do list for flixplor.com.

Update from normalcy SF

Since I haven’t been traveling, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually written on my blog.  Right now I’m sitting on my front steps in Chinatown, SF, sipping on cognac and waiting for my wife to come home with the key to our front door.

I’ve been working back at GWOS where I was contracting before my last trip to Asia.  Tien is going to cosmetology school here in SF and we’re waiting and waiting on immigration to give Tien a green card.  Contrary to what I believed, getting married does not solve any immigration problems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about life and about traveling lately, comparing my–our current situation to what it was like last year.  This time last year Tien and I had just arrived back in Binh Hoa from a trip to Da Lat.  It was still my second trip.  Near the equator the daylight does not go away in the winter time, and in Vietnam there is no daylight savings time darkening your evenings. I can’t imagine why on earth they call it daylight savings time when it takes your daylight away…

As for photography, it’s been a little tough to remember to photograph things every day. The life of a technologist is not the life of a photographer, only one can be primary. Logical thought and art use two separate parts of the brain, and creativity in the visual, optical sense has almost nothing to do with the abstract, logical sense. I must admit, I’ve cheated on my 365 project twice this year… thanks to my technologist side, nobody will ever know which days I cheated on, as I’ve fixed my exif data.

I’m looking forward to traveling again, anywhere, but for now it’s time to sit tight, save money and let things that need to be accomplished be accomplished.  Tien needs to finish school, immigration needs to do its thing, and the holidays.. oh the holidays. I want to say that winter needs to get the hell out of the way, but I know that if I just sit back and enjoy it then I may actually have a good time.  Luckily for me, San Francisco winters are warmer than the summers, if not a bit more wet.

On the topic of travel, since Tien is technically in the country illegally since her visa has expired and the US has no (to my knowledge) intermediary status between on a fiancé visa and legal resident, we can’t really travel outside the country. This is one of the many problems with immigration… they say it’s legal if you’re here as long as you’ve filed your paperwork, but there’s nothing to show that you’ve filed your paperwork, so as far as anybody knows she’s illegal.  Anyhow, we can’t travel outside the country, and it’s risky even traveling inside the country. When we do travel inside the country I have a few places lined up…

I want to visit Hawaii.  I’ve never been there even though everybody I know has told me to go there.  It’s beautiful, the ocean is warm, it’s a photographers dream.  To top it off, I have a friend or two there who wants to show me the local spots.  Sounds great!  Line that up for 2011.

I want to visit NYC.  I’ve always wanted to.  Last time I had a plan to do so was just before 9/11.  In fact, my travel arrangements to the east coast were on 9/18, the first day you were allowed to fly after 9/11.  Needless to say, I canceled my plans to visit NYC and stuck to the easy stuff, although a 6,000 mile drive home wasn’t exactly easy, even without the thieves and luggage rack coming undone on the freeway.  So, I’ve never been there but I’d love to go.  I have a few friends who live there, and a few friends in the not so nearby cities like DC and Boston, which means NYC deserves a good chunk of time above the good chunk of time that NYC already deserves.

I want to visit Alaska again.  It’ll be my third time, Tien’s first.  Alaska is breathtakingly beautiful.  Just gorgeous.  My aunt lives up there and I fully plan on visiting her next summer during the solstice, which is a photographers dream come true.  The sun goes across the sky at a severe angle, never straight above, which leads to hours upon hours of evening and morning light conditions.  The landscape is wonderful, the weather is wonderful, the people are wonderful, the outdoors are wonderful.  Can’t wait to get back to Alaska…

Which brings me to a slight digression from domestic travel… I met My while I was in Alaska, an her family graciously hosted me while I was in Thailand.  I regret not having spent more time there… My schedule wasn’t planned, I never knew where I’d be from day to day, and I skipped out early on Thailand to spend a few days in Laos before returning to Vietnam, staying for a few weeks and flying off to Malaysia for a week.  I *seriously* need to revisit Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, in that order, proceeding on to Sapa and the rest of northern Vietnam.  Maybe even stop off in Burma for a while…

So, back to domestic travel, there are a few other places I’d like to go that I’ve never been.  Mt. Rushmore, The Grand Canyon, Florida, even Yosimite for heaven’s sake.  Hmm…. Maybe I should drive there this weekend or so… before selling the car, of course.  Tien and I bought a scooter and it’s wicked cool for getting around the city.

And of course, back to Colorado for the holidays.  That’s the next plan, with a possible jaunt down to San Diego for Thanksgiving.  We’ll see…  But just writing about my travels has perked me up.  And of course the cognac had something to do with it, I’m sure… But I do miss traveling, and I do miss SE Asia and the warm weather.  On the cold days, I dream of floating in the Bai Sao waters where it was hard to find a spot cool enough to swim.  I look at those photos and wonder what on earth I’m doing in dark, cold San Francisco…

Saigon, Consulate, Hospitals and Hotels

A lot of the days in Binh Hoa blur together with very little highlights. Most of the time is spent playing Wii, PvZ and Marble Mixer, going out for coffee and tea, and laying around in the heat drinking fresh fruit juice. This is how most of the time was spent between arriving in Binh Hoa and the morning of June 9th. That morning we woke up at 3:45 to catch a bus to Saigon to spend a few days working on immigration stuff.

I am not a morning person, and sleeping on buses is not fun, but somehow I manage to do it when I’m really tired. I managed to sleep for a few hours in the bus before we stopped for breakfast. Just after breakfast I realized that I had lost my iPhone. As I had been miserably trying to sleep I wasn’t really paying attention to what was in my pocket, and had no good idea of when I could’ve lost it. We searched the floor and seats in the bus, and in my pockets, and it was clear that I’d lost it. Tien switched to Vietnamese mode and began chatting away with the guys in the front seat, then she made some phone calls and when she turned back to English mode she’d located my phone and it was safely at the bus station in Long Xuyen. I’d lost it in what a car that belonged to the bus service that had taken us from a meeting point to the bus station. The driver found it and turned it in. That was mighty nice of him, though he couldn’t do anything with it since it was locked and armed to wipe the data after 10 failed attempts. I had actually given it up for loss, accepting that I’d simply have to buy an iPhone 4 when I got back to America, but it would be useful to have. Honestly, my iPhone is more useful than the iPad is because it fits in my pocket. I’d take my iPhone over my iPad any day.

Once we were in Saigon we headed straight to the visa service that Tien was working with to handle the final details of the process. We spent the morning there doing paperwork. Actually I mostly played Freecell on my iPhone while Tien did paperwork, but I ended up having to dig up some financial records off my laptop and the internet. I did get a little worried when I plugged my USB containing PDF files with all of my financial data and it was immediately attacked by a virus. I don’t know all that happened, but I spent a few minutes back on my Mac doing some CLI-fu to delete all the .exe files that were now scattered around my USB drive.

Over lunch I explained to Tien exactly why a service than handles the personal details of immigrants, including all personal details, should take extra care to keep their computers free of viruses. I explained that how an infected computer is “owned”, meaning the people controlling the virus have more control of your computer than you do, and thus have access to all of your data. I explained that it was possible that the virus had taken my personal financial information that was all neatly contained in two PDF files, one from Ameriprise Financial and one from the IRS, and sent them off to another computer where somebody could use them to do anything I could do with my finances, like open new lines of credit or transfer funds to other bank accounts. Her expression was something of a horrified wonder, and she said she had no idea it could be so complex. I told her that a lot of people don’t understand that, like the people at the visa service, which is why online crime is so easy. I didn’t tell her about the millions of dollars I’d made… er… nevermind… *ahem*

Since we’d be spending more time near the consulate we found a hotel nearby there and relaxed for the rest of the evening. Our room had two twin beds, a comical feature to us both.

June 10th was spent mostly at hospitals. Tien had to get some blood work, shots, x-ray’s and some other medical tests for her immigration. We both spent most of the day waiting in the lobby. I watched all the people going here and there doing their exams, and found it funny when one girl took off her high heels shoes when she got weighed, but put them back on before they measured her height.

That night we went to a nice restaurant on the 12th floor of a hotel with a view out over district 1 and had a nice dinner. The food was good, as was the wine, and we were the only people there so it was nice and quiet, a rare experience in Saigon. The waiter spoke in an interesting accent, and it almost sounded more Chinese than Vietnamese. I wished more Vietnamese people spoke that way because it was easier for me to hear the structure of the language. Tien said that it was the polite way to talk to people you don’t know as opposed to the friendly banter where linguistic rules and elocution are tossed aside.

From Hanoi to Binh Hoa

Because our flight had been changed and was no leaving that night, we had another day to kill, so we took no care to wake up early on June 2nd. Tien was craving bao cake so we went and got that for breakfast, and of course coffee. While we were lounging around wasting the morning that we had hoped to be traveling, I got another disappointing e-mail, this time from the Consulate in Saigon. It said they were raising the prices of the visa application from $131 to $350 taking effect 8 business days before Tien’s interview. At least it wasn’t worse, saying they were no longer taking interviews or something like that.

We checked out, walked around and hired a bus to take us to the airport later, then went back to the ol’ Quintessence of Hanoian. It was a nice, cool day, perfect weather. Overcast enough to keep the temperature cool, but still bright enough that it wasn’t gloomy, with a cool breeze to keep the air fresh. Perfect weather to while away a spare day drinking coffee by the historic lake that Tien used to dream about as a girl. Unfortunately we had too much time, and that cafe had no wireless, so we went to find another place to stay. We found ourselves at the best ice cream shop I’ve ever been to. Fanny Ice Cream. If you’re ever in Hanoi, go there. It’s amazing. They don’t have food though, but somehow Tien and I managed to stay there for hours surfing the net, eating ice cream and drinking fruit juice. The food part as a poor decision because we ended up not being able to get food before it was time to leave for the airport.

Traffic on the way to the airport was typical Hanoi traffic, too many cars on narrow roads. There was an accident with a car and a moto, and one with a bus and a cow. I actually enjoy sitting in Hanoi traffic though because looking at the scenery is fun. The architecture is great, and for some reason the whole city is just eye catching to me. If Tien and I ever have to move there for work or something, I will not be disappointed.

We finally got a chance to eat after checking into our flight, then we went inside the secure area to wait for our plane. I decided to stand since I’d been sitting most of the day, and it was interesting to see what everybody was up to. I saw a man with a bright duffel bag full of souvenirs, and it suddenly dawned on me that the tourist people on my first trip to Hanoi who had given me a bag intended for me to use it to fill with souvenirs. My progressive minimalist mindset hadn’t even considered that fact. I wouldn’t have bought anything even if I’d realized it, but it was amazing that a year later it suddenly made sense.

On the plane I read the first digital version of Wired on my iPad. Magazines just seem so disorganized, but I like the way they’re going with this. If they make it easier to navigate and somehow make order of the smaller articles it’ll be very appealing, but otherwise I’m still happy with RSS. I also played a lot of Plants vs Zombies. I finally made it back to about the point I was at before Tien’s nieces unwittingly deleted my user, not understanding the word “delete” in the menu.

We arrived in Saigon at about 10pm, but our bus didn’t leave until midnight, so we again took the slow approach to travel. We went outside the airport and sat down to have a drink and some snacks. The air down here was also nice and cool with a slight breeze, and I wished the weather in VN could more often be like that. Tien and I talked about America and what we’d do when we got there.

Our taxi to the bus station had a car stereo with built in karaoke features, though we didn’t use them.

Our bus to Binh Hoa left at midnight and we arrived home at about 4:30am, just before sunrise.

Extra time in Hanoi

Since we had bought our tickets for June 2nd, June 1st was an open day to do anything. We spent the morning being lazy but eventually made it out to enjoy the city. 32::AM::143We found no shortage of camera shops, which was great because a lot of them had vintage gear that was neat to see. I stopped into one and priced an SD card to help me hack the Wii, and ended up going back for it later when I found out it was the best deal.

We strolled down to the cafe by the lake that we’d eaten at last time we were in Hanoi. Its “The Quintessence of Hanoian”, though I can’t remember the name. The cafe is nice but there’s no internet, which kinda sucks, especially when there’s an e-mail waiting in your inbox that tells you that your flight on the next morning has been canceled and you’ve been put on a flight later that evening. I got that e-mail when we eventually found internet elsewhere, but it was too late to check out of our hotel that day even if we could get on a flight that evening, so we stayed. We did call them on the phone to plea with them to reconsider, but the best they could do was put us on a flight at 8pm, not 9pm. So much for arriving home at a decent hour.

That evening we decided to check out a western restaurant. I had seen it while we were walking around and decided to check it out to get away from the continual asian selections we were surviving on. This night I got pizza, nachos, and sangria, and Tien got honey chicken. None of it was the best I’d had, but it was delicious and welcome to my taste buds.

After dinner we went down to the lake to watch the sun set. We missed the most beautiful parts of it, but it was still nice and we sat down there for a while taking photos and just watching the world. Just before we left, power flickered on and off in a large part of the city, and when we got back to our neighborhood the power was out on the entire block. Tien didn’t want to go into the hotel because it was dark and scary and probably too hot, but I wanted to make it to our air conditioned room. Sure the power was out, but it hadn’t been all night, and the room was probably nice and cool. In fact, the room was nice and cool, and the power came on just after we found our way up the candle lit stairwell and into the room.

Returning from Cat Ba Island

After the previous days excursions, May 31 was a somewhat sore day. I actually wasn’t as sore as I was expecting though, which was nice. Tien and I were thinking about finding more things to do on Cat Ba Island, but instead we decided to head home. We chose this over our tentative original plan, which was to take the bus back down the coast and see things along the way. I think it was mainly because we’d been traveling for about a week so far and were just a little tired. In hindsight, I think we should’ve just taken a day to rest, but heading home wasn’t a bad choice either.

We grabbed breakfast and then took a stroll by the waterfront businesses, looking for a travel agency to get us as close to her home town as we could. We found ourselves in a travel agency with a girl sitting in front of a piece of paper with a telephone. She talked and talked forever, and Tien talked back. The woman made a phone call and talked some more, then made another phone call and talked some more. When ended up being the story was that the people on the other end of the phone were away for lunch, and we weren’t making any progress with our flight plans. I should’ve known something lame was going on because I felt that same kind of boredom I often felt as a kid in church or school, like I’d rather die than continue sitting there doing what I was doing.

Eventually we got tickets on a boat and bus to take us to Hanoi, plane tickets would have to wait. Back at the hotel we packed, checked out and sat down at the cafe where Paul was talking with two young brits. He told us the story of their trip to sleep on and island. They had chosen monkey island. They slept under a mosquito net on the beach, but got rained on in the middle of the night. Instead of trying to sleep in the rain, they hiked to the peak of the island in the dark to watch the sunrise, then hiked back to where their kayaks were. Just as they were about to leave they got attacked by a group of monkeys and had to defend themselves with their paddles, jump into the kayaks and row away from shore. It was quite an exciting tale, one of the best I’d heard in my travels. The other two brits he was with were on the island with him and they all thought it was a pretty funny, enjoyable time, monkey attacks, rain and all.

We all ended up on the same boat and bus to Hanoi. The bus took us up near where Tien and I had gone on the motorbike the first night, way off into a marshy area with salt percolation ponds. On the way the bus actually scraped another bus while trying to pass it on a narrow gravel road on the side of one of the karsts. On top of that, our bus was probably the worst automobile I’ve ever had to ride in. It stalled at the top of a hill and a guy got out, I assume to put rocks behind the wheels so they could start it and get it back into gear without it rolling down the hill backwards. I thought about that scene from romancing the stone where the bus breaks down and everybody on board just gets out and starts walking. That scene had never made so much sense to me as it did right then. The bus stalled a few more times on the way to the boat, but we eventually got there.

The boat was not one of the hydrofoils or junks that we’d taken for transit in other places. This was a boat like you’d find in America on a lake, but longer and made for carrying people. There was an inside cabin with rows of seats, and an outside deck with an awning and a bunch of the ubiquitous Vietnamese plastic chairs. Paul, the british kids, Tien and I sat on the deck with a bunch of other people, including a child who kept pulling the hair on my leg. There was also a lot of luggage on the deck, and a motorbike.

After a short ride that was always within distance of land, we arrived in a very industrial place called Dinh Vu. Once off the boat we were divided up into a group going to Hanoi and a group going to Ha Long City. The bus going to Hanoi was blaring loud techno music with the lyrics “who the fuckin who the hell is ringing at the bell right now,” chosen by two slender guys in pilot shades who were in charge of that bus. We drove through some places I had never seen, mostly industrial, and made a bus in Hai Phong to a bigger, higher class bus.

Tien gets carsick depending on the quality of AC that is in the vehicles we drive in. Sometimes she’s fine, sometimes she immediately gets nauseous. Sometimes the nausea comes on gradually with carsickness. This bus was almost immediately nausea inducing. Actually I even got a little bit sick. I looked it up later online and found nothing specifically relating to AC, and it was interesting to me that the condition was so reproducible but nothing online mentioned it. Tien sickly tried to sleep most of the way, I played a lot of Plants vs Zombies.

32::AM::142We arrived in Hanoi ahead of a storm that was making beautiful clouds and a rainbow, and a sunset that was throwing lovely colors at it all. Tien, the brits and I tried to get a taxi, but we couldn’t all fit and so they chose to go with Paul for a while before he caught a bus to somewhere else. Tien and I said goodbye and took off in our own taxi heading to Ngo Huyen street.

When you say goodbye to other travelers, you never know if it’s the last goodbye. We didn’t see Paul again after that.

Tien and I went to the place we thought we’d stay but it was full. We quickly found another place that was nice and cheap. This neighborhood was undoubtably much better to stay in than our previous area. This was the Pham Ngu Lao of Hanoi, the backpacker’s street. Before I had started traveling last year, Lila had told me that in every city you willfind a place where the backpackers go. You’ll be able to find cheap accommodations, good food, good conversation, and everything you’ll need to keep traveling. She was definitely right, and we’d found that spot in Hanoi. It felt relieving to not have to worry about all the little things.

Tien and I left the hotel and went to get dinner, but two doors down we ran into the brits. We had a funny exchange where they said they had just gone to a noodle place, but I thought they said nude place, and had thought “damn, these kids don’t waste any time partying, but where on earth did they find a strip club in Vietnam??” That was the last time we saw them.

We got dinner at a place playing kung fu movies. There was a refrigerator with a sticker that read “Hybrid plasma toshiba refrigerator.” Quite the technological accomplishment.

After that we haggled with a travel agent for a while and ended up not getting our tickets there. We checked the internet and found cheaper tickets, went back out to see if we could find some cheaper around nearby, but after talking about it over some smoothies we ended up buying our tickets from jetstar.com. We decided to stay an extra day in Hanoi so we could get an early flight to Saigon on June 2nd then catch a bus back to Binh Hoa and arrive at a decent hour.

Geocaching on Cat Ba Island

May 30th was another rainy morning on Cat Ba Island. My hair was getting longer than I liked so I decided to shave my head, but when I went to use my electric razor the battery was practically dead. To top it off, I soon found out I had killed the charger by plugging it into a 220v outlet that it was not made for. So long, electric device, another casualty of world travel.

Tien and I decided to go after the only geocache on the Island which was located somewhere in the center of the island. I tried to find a good map of the island but couldn’t, and the topo maps available via the Geocaching iPhone app were pretty poor. This sucked because the iPhone’s assisted (aka, retarded) GPS doesn’t work unless you have cell reception, which I do not since my phone is locked to AT&T’s network. With that in mind I read all of the hints and logs, and found out that the geocache was located at the bottom of the very tower I had joked about climbing to the top of, on top of Ngu Lam Peak.

Hiking the wrong trailWe mounted our moto and headed out for the park where the trailhead was. Unfortunately I was thinking like a n00b and totally forgot to bring food and water. On top of that, we ended up on the wrong trail, one that went up and down steep rocks through deep jungle. There were a lot of butterflies and some animals in the forest making some crazy sounds like a digeridoo. Eventually we ran into some folks who were coming the other way down the trail and when Tien asked them if we were headed towards the tower they said no. They told us where the right trail was, we hadn’t taken the right exit off the main road. We turned around and headed back to the bike, hiking about half the way with the other party.

Looking up to Ngu Lam PeakOnce we got back to the main road, where we were in clear view of our destination, we turned towards home and immediately passed a huge gate with people selling food and refreshments. It was the gateway to the right trail. I made a joke about going to climb it, not really being serious because our energy had been pretty spent on the wrong trail and we still hadn’t eaten anything. Tien said she was up for the hike though, and with several verifications that she was serious we parked our bike and got some refreshments. The sun had just come out, having been hidden behind a nice layer of low clouds all morning, so we walked for a short while in the sun before disappearing back into the jungle and up a steep incline of steps.

A little ways up the trail was a sign that was pretty confusing, but we figured out that it basically said “left is the shorter hard way, right is the longer easy way.” We went left into what was hardly recognizable as a trail. Muddy rocks, frogs, butterflies, crazy vines and deep jungle going up steep, jagged rocks. We encountered two girls who were coming down and talked to them a little bit about what was up ahead. They said it was a lot of the same, and since it was manageable we continued. It soon became much less steep and merged back with the easy trail.

I found a blue gorilla pod that was placed on a rock on display, probably put there by the girls to be easy to spot by whoever lost it. I figured this was a bad idea so I took it and hung it from my backpack, expecting better chances of running into the owner along the trail, but never found them.

One thing that was odd was that there were crabs running around on the rocks. I had seen a few on the previous trail too and thought it was odd, I’d never seen crabs anywhere away from the ocean, and this was far, far from the ocean.

We ascended a few metal ladders that were bolted onto some steep rocks and peeked out of the forest to see a grand view of the island and its many steep hill tops. I recalled that the cache hints had said it was near that spot, so I consulted them and we doubled back to look for it. It was easy to find once we were in the right spot. There was a travel bug inside of it that had been there for two months, so even though I had nothing to leave, I took the TB to remove it from its exile. It wanted to visit zoos, so I made the plan to take it to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, almost on the exact opposite side of the planet.

With our objective complete, Tien and I continued the short distance to the top of the hill where the tower was. It was a rusty metal tower from the war in the 60′s. It hadn’t been noticeably repaired, and there was a sign indicating that it wasn’t safe for more than 4 people. While Tien and I were at the cache a european couple passed us, and now they were up on the tower, so that made four of us.

Looking down from Ngu Lam TowerTien and I started up the stairs that circled around the core of the tower, but her acrophobia kicked in and she got pretty scared and by the second landing she said she was too scared to continue. I was certainly not going to force her to climb this scary spectacle, but I myself was not about to back down, so I left her there knowing she could make it back down on her own as I continued to the top. Tien and I at the top of Ngu Lam Tower When I got to the top the european couple was up there admiring the scenery, which was incredible. It looked like an unrealistic landscape that some novice would make in Bryce 3d. I exchanged photo taking duties with the couple, and right as they were finishing taking my photo Tien appeared on the stairs, she had overcome her fears and made it to the top. Looking out over Cat Ba Island They took some photos of the two of us, and I took some panorama and HDR sets, admired the view with my own eyes, and then we started down. Just as we were starting down, the european man remarked about how he was a structural engineer and seeing the state of the rusty metal made him want to get off the tower as quickly as possible because it was not safe. It was at that brittle stage of rusty, where you can break off parts of the metal. They went quicker down the stairs than Tien and I did, Down the towerand I let Tien go ahead of me so we weren’t all on the same stairwell, spacing out our weight so as to not overbear this artifact.

Below a rusty towerWhen Tien and I got to the bottom we were all alone again. We had some snacks from the gateway at the bottom, so we took a break to eat bananas, drink a coke, and clean out the potato chips that had spilled in our bag. Everything that was in the bag now smelled like imitation crab. Who ever heard of crab flavored pringles?

While we were eating, Tien and I talked about adventuring. She said this was the first time she had ever done this sort of thing, and I was proud of her. Not only did she do it, she did it after having taken the wrong trail where we had no food, farther from her home than she’d ever been before on and island with steep rocky terrain through a dense jungle crawling with crabs.

Just as we started down we ran into a group of young adventurers who had come up the easy way. We checked with them how to get there, and once we found it it ended up not being too much easier than the hard way. Sure it wasn’t as steep, but it had rusty metal handrails that had broken apart and become javelins waiting to impale you if you slipped on the muddy rocks. Tien did slip, and thankfully she did not impale herself, but she broke the band of her engagement ring in half when she caught it on a sharp rock. I was glad she hadn’t cut herself open in the process, but we were definitely going to have to get it fixed. The rest of the way down was easier than I expected, given the terrain, and at the bottom was a man with a shop and a deep well where he drew buckets of cold fresh water for us. We bought ice cream, water and beer and relaxed before plodding back to our motorbike.

On the way back was Hospital Cave, a cave that had been converted into a secret hospital for troops during the war. I really wanted to see what it was like, but after two trails we were dead tired so we skipped it.

AutoswimmersBack at the hotel I took a shower to wash off the buckets of sweat and caked mud on my legs, then we headed back to Cat Co 2 for a swim to cool down our muscles. The water was a bit chilly, but worse than that, it was really dirty. There was trash of plastic and organic kinds floating in the water all along the beach. I thought about the clear, warm water of Phu Quoc and wished we were back at Bai Sao. We took some photos and left, this Cat Co thing was not our idea of fun. Instead we went back to Bamboo and had dinner while most of the island was without power. It was funny to see the mainland all dark while the floating restaurants and hotels in the bay were all lit up, powered by their boat motors.

Child CycloThere was a boy riding a child-size cyclo up and down the street giving other kids rides.

A few kids came riding by on bikes emblazoned with the word “exercise.”

Back at the hotel we went upstairs, realized we’d forgotten the key at the front desk, and on my way down to get it I slipped and fell on the stone stairwell, bruising both of my forearms.

The silence and whir of the fan told us how the power flickered on and off all night long

A Trip to Cat Ba Island

On the morning of May 28th our alarm failed to go off, or at least we didn’t hear it, but I somehow managed to wake up about 15 minutes before our bus arrived. We hurriedly packed and got downstairs with just a few minutes to spare. Tien tried to find us some breakfast but the neighborhood we were in was mostly construction type shops so she only managed to find some snacks before the bus came and took us away.

There were many europeans on the bus, it was almost entirely full of white folks. The narrow streets of Hanoi were already full of life and packed with motorbikes. We passed by the lake where a street was closed off for a festival that was just beginning. We stopped at a few hotels to pick up other folks, and then stopped at the cathedral to wait for somebody. It was at that time that Tien realized she’d forgotten her bag at the hotel. The bag that had the iPad in it. In her typical stressed out mode, she forgot all english and began blabbing away in Vietnamese with the bus driver and some other folks, and didn’t really say anything to me or answer any questions. She told me to wait, and went to hail a moto taxi. 32::am::138 I chatted with a girl from The Netherlands for about 10 minutes before Tien came back, relieved to have her bag in hand.

At 9am we headed out for Ha Long City. Traffic was heavy on the way out of Hanoi, and I noticed again how the number of cars just seemed to mess up the flow of traffic. Tien and I drank water and ate Oreo cookies for breakfast.

We passed the charred frame of a motorbike that stood up in its own ashes as if it had immolated itself at the side of the highway, probably protesting the rise of the cars.

We passed factories for Canon and Foxconn in the countryside.

We pulled off at a travel stop for 20 minutes. Tien and I got some pomelo and bananas. I was hoping to find a better breakfast, but they don’t know how to make breakfast sandwiches yet in Vietnam. I could make millions selling them… Millions of Dong.

We passed a few auto accidents along the way to Ha Long, one involving a motorbike and one where a car had driven up the side embankment and crashed into a pole, finishing sideways, squished between the pole and the hillside. It was a remarkable sight, I’m not sure if anybody died, but it looked like they should have but didn’t.

Soon after the car crash we arrived at the outskirts of Ha Long City where the bus dropped us off at the docks. Tien and I were the only two folks on the bus left who weren’t going on the cruise, and it felt kinda nice to be sitting there with just the two of us, ready to do whatever we felt like, far away from obligation. The tour guide from the group came over and asked us if we wanted to go on their boat to Cat Ba Island, which is precisely where Tien and I were headed, so we agreed to take their tour for 250k each. It was expensive for a boat ride, but included the Ha Long Bay tour, dinner and a cave tour, so it was a pretty good deal.

The boat we boarded was a typical asian junk. Ours had three levels: rooms downstairs, a dining room in the middle and an upper deck. Dinner was served shortly after taking off. Tien and I sat and chatted with some other travelers and it was good to be back in the company of english speaking, active people. Only one of them was from America, the rest were brits, french and other countries that I never learned. Tien was the only Vietnamese person on the tour that wasn’t working. She mostly listened while I blabbed away with the brits about traveling, culture, food, work, and destinations. One of them, a man named Paul who we’d run into many times on the island, was traveling from London to Australia to work. He’d been traveling for a few months and had a few weeks left. Local transport in Ha Long BayMost other folks were just traveling for fun, some for weeks, some for months.

After dinner most of us went up on the deck to take in the sights as we approached the islands of Ha Long Bay. The boat pulled into a bay and docked with a bunch of other junks and we all got off to explore Thien Cung cave. It was a cool cave, but there really isn’t much to see inside most caves. There was an opportunity to go to another cave, but Tien and I declined and instead went to take some photos and relax.

Everybody returned to the boat and we traveled onwards, through the islands and into a market area where there were many floating houses that were used as a fish market and other business related things. There were girls floating around on boats with their fruit all laid out for sale. They paddled up next to us and shouted out, sounding like retarded people with a heavy lisp, saying “eck-u me, pine-appo” and things like that. It was cute, and their boats were beautiful with the colored fruit, but Tien and I already had some fruits we’d bought earlier so we didn’t buy anything. Instead, we decided to go with a small group on a little tour of an enclosed part of the bay, completely surrounded by cliffs, almost like a lake except it was salt water. We took a small local boat in and a few of us swam around for a while before returning through another natural tunnel.

A short rest on the boat later we were pulling up to Cat Ba Island, which looked like a pretty treacherous place, and seemed like it would be more than one island. Indeed it would be if the water were deeper, the landscape rose and fell just like the islands sticking out of the water, but came down to land at the bottom.

Anybody who wasn’t sleeping on the boat was dropped off on the island. We were, once again, dropped on the completely opposite side of the island from the town. Tien managed to negotiate some kind of bus ride, still with the tour, and after sitting for 10 minutes or so a group of us got in and headed over the crazy terrain.

Cat Ba backroadsThere was one sign at the front of the bus, and it was written in Korean. I’m sure nobody on the bus knew what it said. The ride took 30 minutes and we passed by many, many beautiful views. The steep hills fell down to flat fields where different foods were grown, some ponds and rivers, and countless steep hills. On top of one of the hills was a tower standing tall, and I made a joke about climbing up it. A lot of other people were blabbing away in their native languages, and a group behind us was chatting in english about their travels.

As we pulled into town, Paul and some of the folks he was talking to were trying to find a hotel in the guide book. We all got out right at the main intersection of the town, and after looking at one hotel that had no vacancy I decided Tien and I would probably be better off walking around trying to find a hotel. We went one block and found a place where we negotiated with a slimy guy who I didn’t like much. Tien said she also didn’t like him much because of some things he did or said that showed he looked down on her. The hotel room actually kinda sucked too, no AC, no internet, and a bed wrapped in plastic with a tiny blanket.

We took a short rest and then went out for dinner. There were a lot of people riding tandem bicycles around and we thought about getting one, but decided to do it another day. Instead we returned home and fell asleep. Some time during the night, Tien got up and found some towels to use as blankets. The next morning we woke up and the power was out. 32::AM::139 It was a dreary morning. We decided to find a new hotel.

Finding a hotel has become much easier now that I know to use my iPhone to do it. I don’t look it up online, that’s pretty tough over here where there are no centralized review sites like yelp. Instead, I go into the network settings and look for wifi hotspots with hotel names, then I go to that hotel. Any hotel who has wifi that my iPhone can find from the street has got to be good. The only downside to this is that sometimes these hotels are expensive, but at least it helps weed out the crummy places.

We walked out to the end of the pier that stuck into the bay where dozens of boats were docked. Some were fishing boats, some were floating hotels, some were restaurants. It was a good way to get a view of the shops that went along the waterfront.

We had a disappointing breakfast in a restaurant that seemed like it was closed. I was getting tired of fake coffee. One great thing though was we invented a new food. It’s the stir fried beef and noodle egg breakfast sandwich. Tien orders stir fried beef and noodles, I order egg with bread. I put the egg in the bread with some soy sauce, and she puts some beef and noodles in with it. It is *so* delicious, I’ve been eating it frequently ever since.

We went back to a place we saw the previous night while walking around looking for dinner. It was a hotel that was built into the rock cliff. There was a big room with two beds available for not much money, and we took it. We didn’t need the second bed, but it’s nice to lay things out on when you’re organizing, and for lazing around on like a couch.Tien and the bike at Cat Ba So, we spent the mid day heat being lazy at our hotel room.

We went to rent a tandem bicycle, but the prices were like 20k for 1 hour. A motorbike was as low as 60k a day. We had already paid the girl before we knew it was per hour, and I finally decided to let her keep the damn bike and the money because we didn’t need a bike for an hour. She finally gave my money back as I was walking away. Instead of a bike, we decided to get a moto from our hotel though, for 100k a day.

We cruised some local beaches and then headed northwest on the island into territory we hadn’t seen yet. We found a place where they were filling in a bay with mud to build a golf course. Beyond that there were beautiful, natural places, some caves, farming villages, roaming goats, and eventually a beautiful pink sunset. Finding the rural Cat BaWe stopped a lot along the way and took photos, and at sunset we decided to speed back to the town to go swimming at the Cat Co 2 beach. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the water was off limits, so we sat and had some drinks on the beach instead. I dipped my feet in the water and was suddenly not disappointed that I couldn’t go in, the water was cold. Too cold to enjoy a swim in, that’s for sure. It was a huge difference from the beautiful, clear, warm waters of Phu Quoc. Instead of sticking around, we headed back to town to get dinner at an awesome spot on the water front called Bamboo. It was recommended in the guidebook, but also looked appealing. The staff was nice and the food was great, and it was a very satisfying end to the day.

Tien’s first day in Hanoi

On the morning of May 27 we woke up, rented a motorbike and immediately got lost in old town Hanoi. We got really lost too, and didn’t find our way back to the lake for about an hour or two. When we finally did we stopped for breakfast. I had a western breakfast, a delicious omelette and a cappuccino. It was delicious, and a welcome change to the otherwise mediocre breakfasts I’d been subsisting on.

I managed to avoid getting a ticket for riding our motorbike on the sidewalk when Tien spotted the cops who were pulling people over, then continued on to the Ngoc Son temple. Tien had seen Hoan Kiem lake in a lot of books and on TV as a child and had always wanted to go there, and now she was finally there. It’s a special place for Vietnamese people because it has historical significance dating back a few centuries.

32::AM::137We went into the Jade temple and looked around. Tien went to the buddha’s and prayed in the standard way, with her palms together, raising and lowering them three times towards the statue. Watching her, I got a great idea for an iPhone game that would use the accelerometer. You’d run around a temple and pray to as many buddha’s as you could as quickly as possible. I’d call the game Buddha Blitz.

We proceeded on to the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh was, but it ended up being closed. I was having fun riding the moto though so I didn’t mind so much. I had sold my last motorcycle a year prior and had missed riding most of that year. We cruised by some other spots on the way back to the hotel. It began raining just as we arrived, so we stayed in for the afternoon and geeked out.

We had dinner at a small restaurant that sold mostly chicken and rice, and I thought about self identity. I saw a man come in with tattoos and piercings, two things that I had at one time wanted but never gotten. I thought back about how I’d wanted to dye my hair and pierce my ears, but my parents didn’t let me do that when I was younger. By the time I was old enough to do it I didn’t want to anymore, it wasn’t part of my identity. I thought about how this detached my physical appearance from how I perceive myself. Because I couldn’t distinguish myself when I was younger, I lost the will to do so. I remembered a daydream I had while driving down 280 a few years ago. I dreamed I was running through the grass fields of the Stanford Campus by the dish. What was remarkable though was that it was the first time that I could remember since I was a kid that I saw myself from a third person perspective in a dream, I usually dream in the first person perspective. I have ended up with a weak style of physical appearance for expression, and primarily a sense of style for what is easy for color blind people to do without thinking about it. I thought about how this related to my disconnection from a lot of my own people, white american men or white people in general, and a disconnection from what people my own age “ought” to behave like.

On the way home we got Oreo cookies, potato chips, juice and beer. I got online with the wired ethernet cable I found coiled up outside the door to our room while Tien went and booked us a bus ticket to Ha Long City leaving the next morning at 8am.

Consular BS, Interview Date, Traveling to Hanoi

On May 24th Tien and I woke up with a plan to head to Saigon. We booked a bus for 3pm and spent the morning playing more Wii and PvZ. We played PvZ all the way until the bus to Saigon was right outside Thu’s house honking its horn waiting for us to get onboard. We got on and headed straight away, getting across the My Thuan Bridge in only 2 hours and 15 minutes.

As we were crossing the bridge the Kid Koala remix of Moon River came on, and I began to miss 4211 Moraga. I first saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s when I was living there, and I remember thinking that it was the most accurate example of how the parties at 4211 would go. Full house, people dressed up, climbing in and out of windows onto the fire escape, etc.. I really loved living there, I think we had something that not many people find in their life, and it was great. This week, a year after everybody else moved off the block, Lauren is finally moving away.

We stopped for a snack and then drove on towards Saigon. Night fell and I put on The Kleptones 24 Hours album. I looked out the window and found it hard to tell that I was in Vietnam. Between the mashup music and samples transporting my mind to somewhere in the Western pop culture ethos, the landscape was also changing. We found ourselves on a highway like no other highway I’d been on in Vietnam. It was raised up on a berm with a view out over the dark trees and neighborhoods. There were even green markers with white numbers ticking away the km. It was a smooth highway, and there were no motorbikes allowed here. It felt like we were in the midwest of the USA.

It was also an extremely efficient way to get to Saigon, as we got there in about 4.5 hours, which is less than any other trip we’d taken. We ended up at the same bus station on some back road of District 5 as when I had left Vietnam last November. It’s essentially a garage on a dirty side road off a main street. I think we even took the same van to get to the hotel that we took last November to the airport. We checked into a room on the 7th floor of the Bui Phan Hotel and went next door to Viva Coffee for dinner, then retired. We had an early morning at the consulate to look forward to.

We got up early on May 25, got breakfast and tried to find a motorbike to rent. Nobody would rent us one though since we didn’t have our passports since they were at the hotel front desk. We had planned to take a motorbike to the consulate, but ended up settling on a taxi since we ran out of time before finding a moto.

We first went to a service that Tien’s sister had hired for her to help handle the consulate procedures. I sat and played Angry Birds on my iPhone and waited there while Tien went to get a letter from the consulate that would tell her when her interview date was. This was a significant piece of information, a huge puzzle piece in the nebulous, infinite maze of US immigration procedures.

And of course they didn’t give it to her. It can never be easy with immigration.

They apparently needed her to have a different address. Why on earth it makes such a big deal which address they have on file, I will never know. It is probably the same illogical reasons that banks use when they require you to have a physical address on file instead of a PO box, even when you don’t have a permanent physical address. They’d rather have inaccurate info that fits within their broken rules than accurate information that doesn’t apply to hoi polloi.

So, I went down to the consulate and stood in line. While I was waiting a security guard walked directly over to me and asked me if he could help me with anything. I don’t know why he picked me out of the whole crowd, maybe he didn’t like my looks or maybe I was unknowingly giving him a threatening look. I told him my business and he walked away.

When I got to the window where you can ask information and asked them for the date of Tien’s interview they said they would not give it to me. They needed updated address information for her file. It’s just so fucking important that they know where you *say* you live even if you don’t spend most of your time there. So, so, so fucking important. And that got me really fucking frustrated. Dealing with immigration is the most painful, frustrating thing I’ve had to deal with in I can’t remember how long, perhaps my whole life. It makes me livid.

We went back to the service, Tien talked to them while I sat there and steamed, we got a piece of fucking paper with some words on it, walked down to the consulate and they gave us the info just like that. I should’ve been really happy, but actually I was just really fucking pissed off at how asinine this whole damn situation is. They *really* needed her address updated that badly? It’s not like they know how to send letters anyway, none of the shit they sent us ever arrived at her cousin’s house when she was living there. What makes us think that if they can’t successfully send mail across the fucking city that a letter will ever arrive in a tiny farming village in another province near the Cambodian border? WTF ever, they got their info and we got ours. It was an intel hostage exchange that we had successfully negotiated by complying with the perpetrators every demands.

June 16th.

Tien would have her interview on June 16th, and if she passed it she would get her visa to go to America to marry me on the 17th. This meant we could be back in America by the end of June. I thought about this and tried to focus on the happy things in the taxi back to the hotel.

32::AM::136We took a nap during the mid day heat, then went downstairs and rented a moto from our hotel. This was an idea that we hadn’t really thought of before, but I remembered our ease in renting a bike in Da Lat and got the idea from that. We cruised down to Highlands Coffee for lunch, then went back to the consulate to get the official letter that should’ve arrived at Tien’s cousin’s house however long ago they sent it.

After that we just cruised the city, at first because we got lost and then after we found our way we just wanted to keep cruising and see some sights. It was the first time we’d had a bike in Saigon. Tien had one while she was living here, but never while I was around. Before returning to the hotel we went and bought some plane tickets to Hanoi, some doughnuts and some sugar cane juice. We took them back to the hotel and watched Avatar on my laptop.

We lazed away the morning of May 26, spending a lot of time online in our air conditioned hotel room. My brother was online and he told me that my dad had almost died while choking on a chicken bone. He had passed out and gashed his head on the way to the floor, home all alone. He woke up covered in blood and called for help. My mom was with him at the hospital and he was doing decent, alive and stable and probably not permanently damaged. My brother and I decided to buy him a helmet since he seems to be making a habit of this kind of thing, having done something similar last Christmas.

Tien and I caught a taxi to the airport. That taxi hit a motorbike on the way there. Just gently though, and the driver bitched loudly as he rode off with his passenger. I wondered how Saigon would handle the influx of cars that would undoubtedly come with its current business expansions.

At the airport there were two girls talking in castilian spanish sitting behind us in the waiting area. The Jetstar flight to Hanoi was unremarkable, other than the fact that it was Tien’s third time flying. She did well.

I got an aisle seat in the bus from the airport to downtown, and aisle seats always suck. My shoulders are too broad and everybody hits them with their hips as they walk by.

This was Tien’s first time in Hanoi and I wondered what she thought of it as I recalled my last trip and took in the differences between the north and south. Things are more ornate up here. There is more dirt and more rocks. Most highways are raised up on berms or on bridges, and there are significantly more cars. The traffic didn’t flow nearly as well as it did in Saigon, and it was because of the higher number of cars. One car could be stopped and it would back up the whole flow, whereas in Saigon the motos just go around. Another thing I noticed was that people would drive their cars like motorbikes, driving into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the street, as if they could just slip by oncoming traffic as easily as they could on a motorbike. Traffic here would prove to be much more frustrating and less fluid than that in Saigon.

At the bus stop a man with a taxi offered to take us to his hotel. It was nearby where we wanted to stay so we went. We agreed to stay there, but the more I looked at things the more I realized we’d checked into a pretty crummy hotel. Not only that but after walking around our neighborhood we realized that it kinda sucked. Those two factors made Hanoi much less fun than I was hoping.

We went out for dinner and found something just as mediocre as our hotel, ate, then retired for the night.

A family gathering, video games

On May 22, Tien’s uncle rented a bus and a bunch of us drove over to where Tien’s cousin has just built a house. Many members of Tien’s family were gathering to remember the anniversary of the death of Tien’s grandmother. We grabbed breakfast in LX on the way and everybody was chatting away while I ate. It was strange to be surrounded by such lively and continual conversation of which I didn’t understand a word, and it made me remember that I was foreign.

Just before we got to her cousin’s house we got pulled over by the cops and had to stay there for 20 minutes or so while the police checked papers and things I don’t know. I was a tad worried that I’d need my passport, which I didn’t have on me, but they didn’t ask for it and we were allowed to go on with no trouble.

The new house was nearly complete, but still in a state of final construction. Many new trees of various kinds had supports to hold them up, and there were miscellaneous construction materials laying in the yard. There were a bunch of folks already there, some that I recognized and many that I did not. There were a bunch of older men sitting at a table drinking tea and talking on and on, laughing and looking into the distance. They invited me to sit and drink tea with them, and Tien said they wished that they could speak with me natively.

After a while, incense was lit and put into vases at little shrines, and everybody stood and sang a chanting song in honor of Tien’s grandmother who had died several years ago. Some people approached a photo and bowed to pray and give offerings in memory. Afterwards we all had a meal and there was a lot more conversation that I didn’t understand, but smiles and gestures go a long way on good spirits.

After lunch the family hung around and talked for a long time. I played with the kids a lot, since games don’t really need language. They were playing with a chicken that was tethered by its leg to a tree in the yard. It somehow managed to climb up the tree and over a branch and ended up hanging by its one leg from the tree itself. I shooed the kids away and untangled the string from the tree, but the chicken just lay nearly lifeless on the ground. I wasn’t sure if its leg was broken, but it certainly had no more will to flee the threat of man.

On the way home I slept, since I had a whole bench seat in the van to me and Tien. We went shopping at the mall in LX and I managed to find a helmet that just barely fit me. I also found WiFi on my iPhone, and got online for the first time in a while to respond to some friends and see what people elsewhere are up to. More and more I find that Facebook isn’t really good for keeping up on what people are up to so much as it is a place to waste time with other people who want to waste time. Twitter is even worse. Direct messages are almost the only ways I can really communicate and keep up with people, unless I happen to catch a piece of useful info in the noisy stream of jokes, links and statements of boredom.

On the way home from LX we turned up some dance music and had a fun, rowdy time in the car. I saw a banner for KFC and wondered if there would actually be one in LX soon… this place doesn’t seem like a good target market for that corporation.

Back at home we got back to feeding our addiction to Super Mario Wii. This can be really fun, but there is an extra level of frustration to that game when you can’t talk to your team mates. “Get on the @#(&*$#@ square or it won’t start moving!” “We have to fly up into that pipe up there!” “Everybody ground pound on three!” “Please don’t live inside the bubble, I might actually need to use it.” Then there are the things like gathering as many power-ups as they can, even when they don’t need them and you do, or pressing the power button on the Wiimote when somebody walks away, ending your game just before you get that third big coin by the end of the castle.

Yeah, communication is a key component of that game. We love it though, and we played it all the next day, along with iPad games. I bought Plans vs Zombies for the iPad, which was a hit. We’d also been playing a lot of Marble Mixer, Flight Control, Air Harp, Diner Dash and Magic Piano. The iPad isn’t good at a lot of things, but it’s sure great for gaming and entertainment.

Adventures on Phu Quoc and the trip home

On May 20 Tien and I woke up on the island of Phu Quoc, went downstairs for breakfast and then took the moto out to have a look around the town. We bought a proper swimsuit for her, some sunscreen, and tried to find me a helmet, which is a continual failure.

Sad, broken puppyRight as we were coming around the corner to one of the shops a puppy got run over by a motorbike that broke it’s leg. The dog lay in the street yelping for a few minutes as we all looked in with pity before a little girl came and helped the dog back to her shop. Tien and I went to the shop to buy stuff and the poor puppy looked so sad, yelping and crying and looking around scared. Poor thing. At least he was alive though, and not being eaten.

Back at the hotel Tien and I prepared to go back down to the beach to go swimming, but as we were leaving the hotel staff asked us why we weren’t going to bai sao, the prettiest beach on the island. It was 45 minutes away by moto, down the road we had taken the previous night. We decided to head there instead, which was a fantastic change of plans.

Boat on the western shoreOnce we got past the construction and actually by the coast it was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t believe how vivid the colors were. The ocean was emerald and blue all the way to a crisp horizon. The water was calm and reflected the large billowing clouds in the true blue sky.  Our motorbike was pretty good and had the larger tires so it handled well on the dirt roads. There were some rough places though, like a bridge with huge gaps between the metal plates that covered the construction going on below.

We found our way to a little resort by the beach where we ran into the man who rented us our motorbike. He gave me a keychain, which I thought was strange before Tien told me it was the same guy. We also ran into a girl from Tiens village who was working at the resort. She sometimes shopped at Tiens family’s store, and now we were buying beach towels from her.

The resort was a tropic paradise with clear waters on white sand, slow rolling waves over shallow waters that extended beyond a hundred meters. The water was warm, and later got hot enough that we had to swim way out to find the cool patches.

We rented two beach chairs and go. A menu. A little puppy came wandering up and we played with it a little before leaving it at the waters edge where it was scared of the waves.

Floating in the big bathtubWe swam in the shallows, most of the time less than a meter deep. I swam way out to find some deep water but ended up just getting stung on my foot four times while checking if I could feel the bottom. Even where it was six feet deep I wore my sunglasses because the water was clear and calm enough that I was t worried about losing them.

We grabbed the cameras and waded out to take photos, not scared of submerging them in the shallows, then went back to the shore for ice cream and cold beer. After a few hours we decided to get a real meal elsewhere, and as we were leaving I saw a sick man throwing up. I was glad not to know whether it was the food.

Tien and I headed to a stream that was supposed to be beautiful, but when we got there it was all dried up.  With that we decided to just grab lunch a the hotel and ended up napping the rest of the day away.

32::AM::131May 21 we woke up to rainy weather and ended up staying inside sorting through photos as we waited to leave. On the boat back to the mainland we played ipad games, listened to music while it rained and sometimes thundered out on the distant ocean. We also passed an island with a big white statue that looked like a saint next to what looked like temple gates.

The scattered rain kept up as we caught moto taxis to a bus station. I’m always glad the rain in SE Asia is warm.

We ate and had coffee while waiting for the bus. A woman let her child stand up on the motorbike to pick frui. From a tree. A girl came by wearing a shirt that said “Product Bros.”

The bus we caught was a big badass that everybody moved over for. Inside was a movie about children doing Kung Fu. Movies where kids do adult things like fight biker gangs and seduce bikini clad babes drive me crazy.

I noticed a stream of liquid running down the center of the bus and looked back expecting to see a toppled bottle, but
Kid peenstead I saw a man picking a toddler up from her squatted position in the aisle and putting her back on his lap. A bus employee got a newspaper and tried to clean up the urine.

We switched buses in LX and were dropped off right in front of Tiens parents house, then retired to thus house where we had dinner and slept in our familiar bed.

Heading to Phu Quoc

The morning of May 18 we woke up with no power and again made plans again to go to Ha Tien beach. We went to LX to have lunch and surf the net and check out the bus station schedule.

We passed a white man with a white trimmed beard and thick nerdy glasses riding a bicycle through the back streets of LX.

We decided to go to Phu Quoc instead of Ha Tien, and decided to go the next morning. We’d hoped that somebody from tiens family would come but everybody had reasons to stay so it was just us two.

Early on May 19 we woke up to catch our bus. There were men outside of thus house digging a ditch for a pipe of some sort. They were chiseling right through the tile on thus front patio, and not one of them was wearing protective eye gear.

Even though it was early I didn’t feel tired like I had for the previous few days and I remembered that my body adjusts it’s energy level for the pending activities. Now that we had plans I was wide awake and ready to rock.

As we headed out I got a feeling that I setimes get on motorbikes… The naked feeling that I should buckle in somehow, as if I’m in a car. Of course there are no seatbelts on motorbikes, and in VN there aren’t often seatbelts in cars or buses either. If they’re there they don’t get used.

On the ride to the bus station I saw a woman go to adjust the mirror on her motorbike and have it break clean off.

We left the station at 8:10 and before long we found ourselves driving on the wrong side of the road with a man hanging out of the open bus door yelling. We sped past two trucks on our right as a tinny voice blared out of a loudspeaker to our left and the sound of an alarm could be heard from somewhere ahead. Just another typical day of travel in Vietnam.

We stopped at a cafe where there was a sign with some Japanese fantasy character on it. The word “internet” was followed by some Chinese characters and then the words “Final Step 3.0″… oh squaresoft, look what you’ve done. Same to you, internet buzzword machine.

The bus continued it loud caper down the highway which parralleled a river all the way to the coast. There was a shrine on the dashboard and a spare incense holder affixed to the frame of the passenger side window.

We got off at Rach Soi and took motorbike taxis about 12 km to the superdong ferry in Rach Gia. The ferry only left twice daily and we were early, so we ate some food and waited. I noticed them loading motorbikes on and off of other boats and had tien get th price of what it would cost to take a motorbike. At 170k it wouldve been a much cheaper alternative. Next time.

The boat ride was pretty smooth and we passed many small islands. The seats were pretty small though and I was glad when we finally arrived. The boat hadn’t let us off where I thought it would. I thought it was dropping us off in the city and so we hadn’t bought a bus ticket to te town. We ended up getting a taxi for not too much more who took us to a decent hotel where we got a room and rented a motorbike.

We were hoping to go swimming and so we headed off in the bike to cruise the coast in search of a nice beach, but it was too dark and the road was under heavy construction which made it hard for us to navigate. We ended up going back to the hotel and taking a quick dip in warm, dark water with rapidly breaking waves. The swimming conditions weren’t good so we headed back to the hotel, grabbed the bike and heade to the night market for dinner. The night market was small and didn’t have anything interesting, so we had our food and retired.

Over dinner I thought back to one year ago when I was preparing for my first trip to VN. it was strang e to think that in one year, trawling internationally, staying at random hotels in random places and discovering new areas has become normal. It wa strange to think back to a time when my comfort zone was so small that each night I wanted to be in my own bed. Now I don’t even own a bed, much less care where I sleep.

Lazing around Binh Hoa

On May 14 Tien and I went to the market for breakfast. Her family had moved their shop one door down to the entryway where the food stalls are. Hanging in their shop was a shirt that said “Chicago holiday in member recruitment we require oral interview.”

We had a familiar breakfast there before returning to the house to play some Wii. After lunch the power went out, and we spent the rest of the evening playing games on the iPad, eating fruit and playing badminton in the street behind Thu’s house.

A lot of folks passed us on the street and gave different expressions, from happy smiles to uninterested expression. One girl was wearing a shirt that said “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

On may 15th, like many days to come, we woke up with no power. Nhi and Ngoc spent the morning singing You are my Sunshine and playing it on the iPad Air Harp. It was a pretty lazy day, with a few more to come. I thought about a video I saw on the plane that used the same phrase as the Lonely Planet book when describing Vietnam: Life in the fast lane. As I lay in a hammock eating cake and drinking fresh squeezed orange juice in a house with no power I failed to find any fast lane.

Tien and I decided to go to LX to cool off in a cafe and surf the net for a while. On our way we passed a man missing both legs from above his knees. He was shuffling slowly down the side of the highway using two blocks of wood under his thighs as a sort of shoes.

We went to a new cafe just off the main street. There was a No Kissing sign by the door and a photo of GW Bush in the bathroom with his fingertips touching his head and the text “in Texas we call this a brain sucker starving.”

On the way home we went by an electronics shop to pick up a headphone splitter and price a 110/220v converter to hook up the Wii and the WiFi at the same time, but ended up not getting it because of the price. Limited technology isn’t a bad thing.

On the way home I saw a whole family on a motorbike. Dad was driving, mom was cradling a sleeping child on the back and the family dog was resting its from paws on the handlebars.

There was still no power when we got home. Luckily rain came and cooled everything off.

Tien and I made some plans to go to a nearby beach, Ha Tien. We talked about leaving the next morning, but instead spent the next few days lazing around Binh Hoa playing Wii and iPad and badminton. Still can’t find that fast lane.

Hanging in Saigon, choosing Binh Hoa over Nha Trang

On May 12 Tien and I got an early breakfast and decided to walk down to the river. It looked nicer on the map than it actually was, due to construction and heavy traffic, but it was nice all the same. We ran into an Australian couple and asked them to take our picture, then chatted about traveling Vietnam for a while. They said they were staying at the foot of a very large, impressive skyscraper that was being built nearby that I’d been talking about with Tien earlier. It’s a financial tower, and I was talking about how its presence will definitely change the surrounding areas, which were already showing a heavy western influence.

We found a cafe and sat for a while, watching Hero, drinking smoothies and playing with the iPad. The walk back to the hotel was longer than I’d remembered, and by the time we got there it was time for lunch. We went back to the restaurant we’d eaten lunch at the day before and this time I took time to scrutinize the menu a bit more. It had some very interesting things, to say the least… Sauted [sic] noodle w. 3 special objects, Cow marrow ommelette [sic], Sauted [sic] ox pennis [sic] w. Satay, Grilled bloody clam w. fat & green onion, and Grilled crocodile file [sic] w. fish sauce were some of the highlights.

We watched a movie, then went out for doughnuts. They gave us a receipt.

On the way back I saw a lingerie store with two half naked mannequins in the front window. A sign read “50% off.” Indeed.

As we entered the hotel the man at the front desk lowered his cell phone, which he was holding facing the door, and greeted us. It was interesting because I’d seen him do that before and thought he might be taking our picture. Also of note was that nobody at the hotel was familiar. Tien had gotten to know the staff before and they recognized us every time, but this time nobody knew us, and here was some guy doing something potentially creepy. It weirded me out and I mentioned it to Tien in the elevator.

On May 13 we headed to our usual breakfast spot and sat upstairs looking down on the intersection. I watched all the different people passing by and thought about all the different ways of life in Saigon, and the world in general. I wondered which of my friends would enjoy coming to Saigon and which would have a hard time adjusting. Tien and I talked a lot about cultural differences and how hard it is to give people insight into what a foreign place is actually like, and I said I couldn’t really think of much to show her what American culture would be like.

The original plan was for us to take off to Vung Tau, Mui Ne or Nha Trang for a while, but we decided to go back to her hometown and then go off to Ha Tien beach instead, so we booked a bus home and headed out. The bus driver was really fast and we expected the trip to only last 4.5 hours. The music was loud and there was an intermittent sound of one of those really irritating alarm clocks. We also passed the scene of a motorbike wreck that had just happened. Fluids were still flowing across the highway from the mangled wreckage and a bleeding man was in the arms of another man on the back of a motorbike that was just taking off down the highway.

When we came upon the wreck, Tien had been in the middle of telling me a joke, which she told like this…

“There was a blue and a red monkey sitting in a tree. The blue monkey jumped into the river, which one was left?”
“The blue one.”
“No, that would be too easy.”
“WTF, is that the joke?”
“People here think it’s funny!”
“I think it’s retarded, that’s not remotely funny. So that’s the punchline? ‘No, that would be too easy’?”
“No.”
“Then how does it go??”
“There’s a blue monkey and a red monkey sitting in a tree. The red one jumped into the river, which one is left?”
“The blue one…”
“Nope, the right one.”
“WTF, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it’s the opposite!”
“The opposite of what…? Left? Wrong?”
“No, of wet.”
“Right is not the opposite of wet. Dry is.”
“Oh, yeah, the dry one.”
“…”

It took us 2 hours to get to the other side of the big bridge in Tan Hoa, something I’d never timed before but wanted to do because it always seems to take forever to get from there to Saigon. There was a cute little kid sitting ahead of us that I’d been playing with from time to time. He was really shy, but he warmed up to me and began playing little games with me. Then he began spitting, and all the sudden he wasn’t cute at all anymore. He was just a rude little bastard that I wanted to smack. I didn’t though, and eventually his mom did so for me and made him behave.

Right as we left Long Xuyen heading for Binh Hoa it began to rain heavily. We passed two people on a motorbike and sprayed them with water, and to top it off, one of the employees on the bus opened his window, pointed at them and laughed at their misfortune. I found this doubly hilarious.

I started adjusting my things to get ready to get off the bus, when I noticed that my wallet was missing all of the US dollars that had been in it. When they were in it, I don’t remember, but they were missing then. All that I knew was that my wallet had been in my pocket since we left the hotel, and that meant that somebody at the Ruby Star had been the one who took it. Maybe that creep with the cell phone, maybe the cleaning staff, I’ll probably never find out. I’ll probably never go back to the Ruby Star either.

It was right as soon as I settled on that when we realized the bus had missed the stop in Binh Hoa and was crossing over the bridge into the neighborhood on the other side of the river. Tien argued a little with the bus folks and they ended up dropping us off on the other side of the bridge where rain water was flooding a business at the side of the road. We crossed to a cafe on the drier side of the road and got some coffee. Tien’s sister was busy fighting a leak in the roof of her new house and said she’d come get us when the rain stopped.

Tien and I sat and talked a while with the family who owned the shop. They wanted to talk to me and asked a lot of questions about where I was from, how we knew each other, and said I was handsome. This tends to be the standard set of interaction between Tien, me and interested strangers. She thinks it’s remarkable how everybody says I’m handsome, but I think it’s probably just custom.

There was also a family next door to the coffee shop who knew Tiens family, so we went over there and visited for a few minutes before Tien’s brother and sister showed up on two motorbikes to take us back to the village.

We arrived at Thu’s house, which I had never seen before, and relaxed with the family, finally home. We ate some doughnuts that we’d bought in Saigon, and some chocolate I had brought from America, and tried to find batteries for a remote controlled helicopter that I’d brought as a joking gift for Tien that stemmed from a conversation we’d had online about flying over the puddles. The helicopter ended up being a lot of fun though and I’m glad I brought it. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the Wii that I brought though. Tien said she doesn’t know anybody in Vietnam who has a Wii, and had never seen one before I showed it to her online a few weeks back.

From Taipei to Saigon, and more importantly, to Tien

On the flight to Saigon I sat next to a nice Vietnamese man from Canada who was going home to visit family. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but he did mention that Saigon is different every time he goes back, always expanding and always building. He’d grown up in Saigon but had been living in Canada for over 20 years, which means he’d seen quite a lot changes.

The flight had the standard in-flight entertainment systems on the back of each chair, and I watched people trying to touch the screens as if they were interactive. Then, miraculously they were interactive. They were so slow to respond it was hardly usable, and you couldn’t do gestures like so many people were trying, but you could in fact touch things. This made up for some of my gripes about this system from my travels last year.

When we landed and gathered our things, waiting for those ahead of us to deplane, the man next to me laughed, opened up a plastic bag he was carrying and pulled out a whopper hamburger. He said he had 9 more in the bag that he brought for his family.

I had arranged for a landing visa when my landlord Brando from my place on Telegraph Hill had suggested it to me. He said it was quicker and cheaper. It was cheaper, and significantly easier, but because there were so many other people waiting for them it didn’t necessarily end up being quicker. It wasn’t the longest I’d had to wait to enter a country though, so I certainly couldn’t complain.

32::AM::121 - Tien in the back of a Saigon TaxiAfter about 45 minutes of waiting I finally made it into the country, fetched my box of gifts and passed through customs without a hitch. I saw Tien before I even made it outside. She was standing in a crowd beyond a glass wall looking beautiful in a black skirt with a bouquet of roses. She spotted me and waved, motioned and ran off through the crowd to get to the fenced area where arrivals are greeted by their loved ones. I set my things down and picked her up in a huge embrace, happy to be back together after more than five months apart. Mai was also there waiting with her, and the three of us caught a taxi back to the Ruby Star. We relaxed for a while and ate some chocolate that I’d brought, then went out for lunch at a place a few doors down that Tien and I had seen but never eaten.

Mai headed home after lunch, and Tien and I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with lost time and napping. We had dinner and went for a walk through the heart of Pham Ngu Lao. We heard mexican music playing in the park where some people were dancing, and a few other live bands playing english songs, which could’ve been awesome if I’d been gone longer.

Back to Vietnam in 2010

Friday, May 7th was my last day working my contract at GWOS. I had thought my contract ended a week earlier, and had bought a plane ticket for that timeframe. That detail was an oversight on my part, and it cost me nearly the price of a plane ticket just to get it switched. Honestly though I was happy to work the extra week because projects were coming together and I got a lot of work done that week. My boss Dr. Dave Blunt was on vacation in New Zealand, so on Friday I trained a temp guy to pick up some of the slack while another co-worker, Thomas Stocking, was going to be handling the bulk of the IT duties. A few of my co-workers invited me into Thomas’s office for a glass of fine scotch to finish the work day off.

After work I got in my car and headed to REI to pick up a hat and a light colored, long sleeved shirt, two things that are priceless in SE Asia.  I didn’t immediately notice that the hat, like my backpack I’d bought for my first trip, was made in Vietnam.

For dinner I grabbed sushi with Blake and Lily on Castro St, and after that I drove down to Lila’s house to stay with her family for a while. I spent a lot of time there playing on the iPad with Maks and trying to find the best way to pack some gifts for my trip. The best way ended up being to keep my expensive and fragile things in my backpack while putting heavy and liquid things into a cardboard box for check-in at the airport.

32::AM::118The How Weird Street Faire was on Mother’s day, which was Sunday, and I had planned to go but ended up not being able to make it. That’s my favorite SF electronica festival, but it just wasn’t going to fit into my schedule and it wasn’t high enough priority for me to really make it happen. Getting packed for my trip and making sure I had everything I needed was my main focus the last few days. Late Sunday night Lila and Maks dropped me off at SFO. Check in was easy, but the last bar closed at 11pm and I was just a few minutes too late to get any service, so I ended up waiting at the gate, tired but trying to stay awake for the last few hours.

Just after 1am on May 10th, China Airlines flight 3 from SFO to Taipei boarded, and it would be the most uncomfortable international flight I’d ever taken. The plane was shoddy, the seat was uncomfortable, the food was bad, there were crying babies, there was what seemed like a VHS tape hooked to a 1990′s projection style TV for us to watch a movie on, and no personal entertainment systems on each chair (which was fine by me anyway, those things all suck.) On top of that, I had an aisle seat so people kept running by and brushing my arm or leaning against me to let other people pass.

I slept for most of the flight. I thought about watching a movie on my iPad, or listening in on the in-flight movie, but remembered that it is disconnecting and weird to lose myself in a fictitious plot when I’ve got my own new story going.

I remembered that I’d forgotten to pick up a travel bug to take to Asia. Oh well. Next time.

One good thing I’ll say is that the coffee was good. I think I like Asian coffee more than what we usually get in America. I’d have traded the better than average coffee for a comfortable seat though.

The in-flight GPS display came up on the big screen and showed that we had just flown over almost all of Japan. It then switched to a display of “breathing exercises for relaxation” where a girl was sitting calmly on a chair at the end of a dock on a mirror lake with what looked like Mt. Fuji in the background, though I suspect it was some Chinese mountain. 32::AM::120 - 45 minutes at the Taipei AirportThe video had just begun to explain to us how to relax when the girl was torn from her serene location by static and color glitches commonly seen when you pause a VHS tape. The captain had an announcement.

We landed in an overcast Taipei that was mostly unremarkable. What I could see of the airport outside was foreign and neat, but beyond it was just familiar green vegetation and grey skies. I spent no more than 45 minutes there before being seated on flight CI0781 to Saigon. Maybe I’ll go back for a longer visit some day…

Preparing for my third Asia trip

Time spent on San Francisco trainsRight now I’m on the L-Taraval on my way to the sunset. Rob is in new York looking for a place to live and I’m crashing at his place while he’s gone.

I just finished a crazy, long day at work with network config, server upgrades, Linux active directory authentication problems relating to a windows server meltdown that also caused DNS and VPN meltowns. This infrastructure is not exactly high availability.  It started at 6am and here at 10pm it’s almost over… On top of that I managed to work out the details of a landing visa for my trip to saigon next week and line up a small crew for how weird this Sunday.

It’s such a foreign world here in SF compared to the remote Mekong farm village where Tien grew up and is staying these days. I love technology, and I need to make money, but I have to find a balance.

I need immigration to approve Tiens visa.  It’s been over five months since I last saw Tien, which is a long time to go without seeing anybody, let alone your fiancé. Too long.

Last weekend I went to San Jose for Sadeks birthday and caught up with a ton of folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’ve managed to fit in quite a few good visits in my last few weeks here, though unfortunately a few have not come through.

It’s strange to consider the levels of anticipation between my trips. The first time I left I was burned out on work, going into the unknown ready for whatever. The second time I was lovestruck and impatient for things to move on freely. This time I seem exhausted and underwhelmed. I’ve been so focused on projects at work and dealing with the details that I feel like I’ve lost touch with the joys that I’m pursuing.  When I stop to think about the situation I am either emotionally swelled with missing Tien or incredibly frustrated and nearly broken over this ridiculous US immigration saga.

I need a vacation, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll go back to Nha Trang…

It’s weird to think back to a time when I cared where I slept at night.

Catching up from Vietnam to Telegraph Hill

The View from The RoofMuch has happened since last time I wrote. I’m currently living at 425 Green Street on Telegraph Hill, but will be returning to Vietnam to be with Tien in two weeks. Before I get into the present and future, I should probably dive into what’s been going on since I got back to America.

Look Ma, no hands!When I got back from Vietnam in Nov , I spent a few days here in America, had Thanksgiving with my friends Rob and Nicki, then drove to Colorado. The drive was tough because I was of weather and because I was pretty tired. I even slept for several hours in my car at the side of the road, but that didn’t help much. I80 East on Donner Pass, Colorado bound I finally arrived in Silverthorne Colorado where my sister was spending the holiday weekend with her husband’s side of the family. We went sledding and ate leftovers and I got to talk to a lot of people I had never met or hadn’t seen in a long time, like Tom Tonelli, Tom Burns, and Holly. I spent the night there and left the next afternoon to continue on to Colorado Springs.

I got pulled over for speeding by the police in South Park. The officer was really nice and let me go even though my California plates were expired and I had no proof of insurance. This was an extra nice gesture since most police were on edge this day due to an event that had happened earlier where a man walked into a coffee shop in Washington State and opened fire on some police officers.

Me and my four niecesI spent the next month in Colorado with friends and family. I caught up with Jake and Rachel, who had just bought a new house, my brother, who was now back from Iraq and out of the Army, Aimee Rich, who I hadn’t seen almost since high school, and a whole bunch of other folks from Colorado Springs. I spent several days in Littleton with my sister and nieces, which was great because it seems like I don’t often spend long periods of time staying with them. While I was in Littleton I finally met up Bridgepix, a fantastic photographer and master of HDR.

Dan Fava, December 2009 Helen, December 2009I went to Aurora and stayed with Dan and Cass at their place for a few days. They took me out to a nice dinner and then to a The Clocktower Cabaret burlesque show that was really entertaining and fun.  They also had a little get together and my good buddy Nathan showed up and we all played the new Super Mario Wii game, which is highly addicting. After that I met up with an old friend Helen who is a fellow world traveler and another person who I hadn’t seen in years.

Padre's 100On December 2nd my dad called from the hospital and said he had a tiny accident. Actually, he had had a pretty big accident involving ice, a stairwell with no handrail, a rock shaped like a pyramid and his head. It ended up with 100 stitches and him high as a kite on pain killers. I went to get Jeff in my car to pick up my dad’s truck from where he left it before being carted off in an ambulance, but on my way to pick up Jeff my car window rolled down and wouldn’t roll back up. The fun part of the day ended hereCold weather and stupid cars be damned. Luckily Jeff Foster’s room mate Jeff Chamberlain is a car mechanic and was available for an hour or so to whip my window back into somewhat working shape.

On December 15th my brother and I got his car stuck in the snow by The Crags and had to shovel snow with the police for like 8 hours, well into the night.

EmilyOn the 19th Jeff and Chelise hosted a Christmas party at their house. I met some new folks and caught up with some old friends there.

G and MissySince my family usually celebrates Christmas late because it’s easier to schedule, my brother and I have a tradition of going hiking on Christmas day. We continued this tradition, meeting up with Gerald and his girlfriend Loridna and her dog Misty.

Wine Jug LampI actually had way too much free time on my trip. The weather was terrible and I had continual schedule conflicts with people. I worked on some projects like the christmas light wine bottle lamps for gifts and some whitebox product style photography. Christmas was fun. Tien joined my family over Skype from Vietnam since she was still in Vietnam.

Upside DonnerOn the 28th I headed out of town for that long drive back to San Francisco. It’s funny how the details of such a long drive can disappear completely. I do remember sleeping in my car in the middle of a snow storm in the middle of nowhere. I also remember getting to Donner Pass and being refused passage because I had no snow tires or chains, so I had to wait for a few hours for the weather to get better.

ForistaWhen I got back to San Francisco I headed to BLT’s place and met up with Donna, who happened to be in town.  I spent the next month and a half there, subletting a room from Brianna who was trying to save money. Blake’s buddy Scotty was in from Denver and we hung out for most of New Years Eve, but I ended up retiring early this year.Terresina Polizzi, January 2010

I spent most of January trying to figure out how to get my photography rolling on a serious, profitable path. I did some marketing work for Tara at GroundWork, but other than that it was all charity work and portfolio building with Terresina.

Wil SinclairFor the second half of Feb Lila and Wil let me stay with them, which is always wonderful. I was running short on cash and needed to make some money quickly. I hadn’t had a steady job in 9 months. Julian Ostrow on the guitarOn top of that, I had some car repairs that needed to be done. My mechanics was right next to Julian and Sadek’s place, so I took the opportunity to stay with them for a few days and catch up. It was good times like when we all used to work together.

32::AM::99At the beginning of March Tara referred me to an IT position at her company.  It fit my schedule perfectly, and I managed to land that and get my current sublet on Telegraph Hill for the same amount of time within a day of each other, so for the past month and a half I’ve been back to the daily grind of 9-5 IT work, catching up on finances and patiently waiting for immigration to contact Tien about when she will get her K-1 visa interview.

Dan Lopez, March 2010HanikI’ve had some good social times in there, but no traveling. In fact, I don’t even drive my car anymore except to move it from one street cleaning zone to another every week or so. My friend Dan Lopez hired me to photograph him for some media stuff he had coming up with Linux.com. I finally met up with Hanik, a local house DJ that my friend Jonathan knows.  SugarCon was this week, so I caught up with some old friends there, and also happened to run into Chris Nojima on Market Street.

A few days ago my good friend Rob got hired on at Boxee and will be moving to New York, so that will surely be a trip I will be taking in the next year.

I bought an iPad after a lot of back and forth and waiting a few weeks from its release. I’ve always loved the tech, and always wanted a tablet, but aside from that I think it will be very useful on my trip.  It fits my travel needs, which are pretty lightweight compared to what I do with my laptop, and I can probably sell it in Vietnam for a profit since they aren’t for sale there yet.

32::AM::91At the beginning of the month I had called USCIS about the status of Tien’s visa, and they referred me to the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. I contacted them via e-mail, their preferred method, but never heard back. I called them after a week and a half, but they said they couldn’t answer questions over the phone. Luckily Tien is living in Saigon now, so a few days ago she went down there and discovered that they had sent her interview letter in February, but it just hadn’t arrived. This was both good and bad. It sucks that we’ve wasted two months, but also in that time I’ve been able to make some money and some good business contacts.

Today I began shifting back into traveler mode, focusing on what technology I need to bring on my trip, how to go about packing my day-to-day things back up, and things of that nature.  I have exactly two weeks to finish my job and move out of my apartment.

My plan is to travel to Vietnam and see my fiancé who I haven’t touched in 144 days. We’ll travel north to Hanoi and Ha Long, and hopefully hit Danang and Hue on the way back south, then return to her home town to see her family. I’m thinking we may go to Ha Tien beach, and maybe to the island of Phu Quoc that we had considered going to last time.

That being said, now that we’re back in touch with NVC things could change, especially if Tien gets her visa interview soon. Either way, I’m planning to return to my where my girl is and live happily ever after with her by my side, not 8,000 miles away in a country on the other side of the planet.

New Focus

It’s a month into 2010 and my focus in life is moving away from the dazzle of travel back to the grind. Along with it, I’m moving the focus of this blog away from travel and into what I had originally planned for it, primarily photography and its current surrounding concepts, and secondarily colorblindness. Of course my travels will still end up here in the travel category, so if that’s all you want to read feel free to bookmark that RSS or whatever it is you do.

Photos and photographic theory will soon follow… :)

My last day in Binh Hoa

On Nov 22nd we woke up in the familiar Ruby Star, pretty much a third home by this time. My stomach was a little bit upset, probably from the meds, but it was better than the alternative.

The last time we were in town I had seen a building I wanted to check out that looked like a great vantage point to take photographs from. We went out after breakfast and wandered around the streets looking for it. We never ended up finding it though. I had really wanted to take some tilt/shift photos from the top of it, which looked like it might be a restaurant.

That afternoon we caught a bus back to Binh Hoa and managed to score the front seat for once. I enjoyed the ride and the change of perspective from the typical bus rides we get where we have to sit in the back. I thought back to my first bus trip to Binh Hoa which was in the middle of the night. The roads were winding and bumpy with lots of short uphills and downhills. I had thought this was us driving through mountains, but this time I could clearly see in the daylight that it was just bridges over rivers and there were no mountains in sight.

That evening I felt like I may be having some unreasonable side effects from the medicine and so I decided to go off of them. This was a great opportunity for me to finish some wine that Tien’s family wouldn’t be able to, and that put me into a deep deep sleep that night.

The next day was a lazy day spent in Tien’s village. That evening we went out and cruised around the city with her sisters while they were shopping for some stuff. Tien and I spent a lot of time waiting for them to finish what they were doing. We occupied ourselves by looking for cool things to photograph and ended up down by the river. A little while later we met up with her sisters and we all went to eat dinner by the river. I got eaten alive by mosquitoes and the food was only OK. I was in a funk from that, the general mood of the evening and the fact that I’d be leaving the next day. I wished that something would be different, that we wouldn’t be spending the last evening waiting and riding around Long Xuyen on a scooter killing idle time. That’s how it was though, and after dinner we went home to Binh Hoa for my last night in the Mekong on this trip.

Leaving Vietnam in 2009

Nov 24th was my last day in Vietnam in 2009. My stomach was a little upset, probably from some meds I was still taking for my lingering strep throat, which echoed from my last trip home to the USA.

Tien’s sisters had prepared some gifts for my family and it was a puzzle trying to fit everything into my backpack. We managed to get everything fit in, though in less of a modular fashion that I would’ve liked. I try to leave my laptop and camera easily accessible right at the top of my bag, but that wasn’t possible this time because of some very odd shapes. We settled with that though and then took a nap, trying to get a head start on rest since my flight left Saigon at 6am which meant we had to travel all night.

It’s always interesting trying to find ways to kill that last unknown bit of time before the bus shows up, and this time around I loaded up Tien’s netbook with snes9x and all the ROMs I had. Tien’s nieces had never played SNES before, but they also didn’t read english. i tried to show them how to work the emulator but hand gestures were again exhausted and I’m sure they didn’t get everything I was trying to show them. I made a note to bring them back some USB controllers so they could play together without having to share the keyboard.

The drive to saigon was the same as always except our driver was notable bad. We arrived in Saigon at 2am, practically asleep. In fact, we did sleep for a while on a bench in some garage at some transit stop where the bus had ended up. I wasn’t sure what exactly the place was, but it didn’t look like a travel agency. A man offered to give us a ride to the airport, which was nice, but he dropped us off right outside the airport instead of taking us inside so we had to catch another taxi the last 1km.

It was 3:15am when we finally got to the airport. I left Tien with my bag outside and went inside to check into my flight, which took less than 5 minutes. Tien, Thu and I sat around outside visiting for the last bit of my trip, taking photos and trying to stay awake.

When it came time for me to go, Tien and I embraced one last time and she melted into my arms. I tried to be strong and positive, but nothing prepares me for that sense of disconnection when I let go of her hand and walked away, realizing that I was then separated by a growing time and distance. It only lasted a minute though, because I had to be ready to navigate immigration and the security checkpoints.

Security was easy this time around, but required a mandatory bag inspection at the gate. This was so inconvenient after the puzzle of packing that stuff into my bag, but I managed to the contents back in with little fuss. My flight left on time, and after sleeping most of the flight away I had a beautiful and clear view of Japan on our descent into Narita. Japan is an absolutely beautiful country and I really want to go explore it some day.

I got online for a while in Narita and chatted with some folks back home. I would be arriving in San Francisco only a few hours date-wise after my departure from Saigon because of the time difference, meaning I flew out at 6am and would be landing at 8am. Kyung asked me to pick him up some Japanese kit-kat’s, and I got some mochi for Lila. I also jumped on skype and re-activated my AT&T cell phone so I would have mobile internet as soon as I landed in the USA.

On the plane to America I was seated next to a scholarly looking Japanese girl. She was studying law of some sort and asked me to keep the window shut because she was allergic to sunlight. I had ever intent of sleeping the majority of the flight away and had no qualms keeping the window closed. Usually, in fact, the flight attendants ask you to do so. I soon fell asleep listening to Kaskade, and the sleep was welcome to my confused body that probably was ready to sleep at any time of the day or night.

When I woke up I started listening to an Audiobook I had picked up, The Forever War. It wasn’t really gripping me though and I found myself struggling to follow the story rather than let my own imagination wander away. I wondered why they didn’t have audiobooks as one of the features of on-plane entertainment, and for that matter why they didn’t have podcasts. This was the terrible entertainment system from my previous flight overseas though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole thing broke down to colored bars.

I put some music back on and began to wake up more, thinking about what I’d do in America. I became inspired to get my shit back on track, to do great things, to return to work and resume making money. I had taken so much time off in the last few months and was feeling an insatiable desire to get back to creative construction of art and technology. I decided to hit life hard.

Blake came and picked me up at SFO and took me down to Cupertino where Lila had my car. We went to Sugar and found my key on Lila’s desk, but she wasn’t there, so the two of us headed down to Barefoot Coffee to pacify my craving for western coffee. Barefoot is the best place to do this, by the way, because it’s probably the best coffee shop I’ve been to in the world. After western coffee the next order of business was to get a proper mexican lunch, which is another thing I can’t seem to find outside of North America. Kyung and Chris met us at Tres Potrillos in Sunnyvale and we all caught up on travels, technological bs, life and whatnot. It was great to be back with my friends in Silicon Valley.

We all went our separate ways and I headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some things I’d left there. Every time I get to her house I don’t want to leave because it’s so peaceful and beautiful, but somehow it seems that almost every time I get to her house I’m in a hurry to go somewhere else.

The drive to SF was nice, as always, and obviously very familiar since I’d done it hundreds of times before. It never gets old though, 280 between Cupertino and San Francisco is one of the most beautiful highways in America. When I got to SF my storage unit was closed, which sucked but wasn’t really a big deal. I also checked my post office box and retrieved my month’s worth of mail which did not include the receipt for Tien’s visa petition, known in the immigration community as NOA1. Later I would call them on the phone and find out that they had in fact sent it and everything was rolling along fine.

I headed a few blocks down to Crossroads Cafe where I had met the SF Flickr Social crew before my trip. It’s a quiet spot with cheap drinks and good parking. There’s no internet though, so I was happy that I’d hacked my iPhone and gotten tethering to work. Lily called me and then came down to meet me. I packed up and we went a few blocks over to Nova to get some drinks.

On our walk from the car we saw a man whose motorcycle had fallen and knocked two other motorcycles over.

It was good to see her and she caught me up to speed on a lot of the things going on in SF and in her life. She was actually on her way out of town so after a drink and a conversation I dropped her off at the BART station and headed over to the coast.

I sat there at the beach for a while, thinking about my position. No job, no home, nowhere in particular to be. This was freedom, but sometimes freedom comes with emptiness. Freedom longs for aspiration because without it stagnation pools. I didn’t want to be stagnant, but I was so exhausted I wasn’t exactly inspired either. Honestly I just wanted to chill out and relax for a while.

I called Rob and then rolled over to his house. He had just got a pizza and was ready to watch Inglorious Basterds in 1080p, and that was exactly the kind of night I was looking for. American cinema, beer and pizza with my amigo. The movie was beautiful, though a bit drawn out, but all in all it was a great time.

I headed back to the BLT’s house and nobody was home. That night I slept for 14 hours.

Strep Throat in Nha Trang, Back to Saigon by Train

Friday, Nov 20th, I woke early to a very rainy and stormy morning. Having less than a week left I decided to go ahead and figure out my plan for when I arrived back in America. Some of my friends were online since it was evening in the USA, and I figured out that I’d spend a few days in SF and then drive to CO just after Thanksgiving to spend some time with my family.

Tien was sleeping while I figured all of this out, and I was touched with a magic that so many other people in history have been touched with, that of being simply alive and doing normal activities while their love slept next to them, peaceful and in their own little dream world. It is a great joy being able to unobtrusively observe a peace that is completely independent from yourself. It’s almost like a third person perspective on your own joy, because that person is such a part of the happy parts of your own life but at that moment they are detached from the waking realities, such as being ill while on a stormy weathered vacation.

I did some research online and figured that I probably had strep throat, or a number of other more terrible things. The medicines I had been taking were mostly ineffective, but not entirely. At least I had been taking the recommended pain reliever, tylenol.

We had pho for breakfast at our dark alley pho place, which wasn’t so dark during daylight, and decided to go ahead and go to the Vinpearl since we wanted to do something wonderful on this otherwise ruined trip to Nha Trang. We went back to the hotel to pack up some things to take and instead of going we fell asleep. When I woke up I had a fever of probably about 102, which was just a guess compared to a measurement we would take after getting a thermometer.

I got online and told my bother about my sickness. Tien and I had managed to take a decent photograph of my throat and I sent it to him. Having been a medic in the Army stationed in Iraq he had seen plenty of sore throats. He took one look at the photo and recommended penicillin saying it was probably strep throat. The diagnosis was inconclusive without a lab test, but he said that no matter what I was diagnosed with they would put me on penicillin, so it didn’t really matter what I had.

I sent Tien down to the local pharmacy to get some meds and she managed to score some penicillin, which apparently is not a prescription drug in Vietnam. She also got some of other recommended medicine and a thermometer that we used to verify my fever. Needless to say we did not go to the Vinpearl and instead spent the evening inside with Tien quiet and worrying about me. I kept trying to make jokes and talk while she was caring for me but she thought I was delirious from my fever and just worried even more.

Eventually we both went to sleep, but having slept most of the day I was unable to sleep the whole night. I woke up at 2:45 and couldn’t sleep. I took some more meds and found my temperature to be 100. I stayed up for about an hour playing on my computer before I managed to become tired enough to get back to sleep. Tien later told me that she had drifted into consciousness and had seen me playing on the computer, but thought it was a dream and went back to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning it was 8am and I had no fever. After breakfast we figured out our travel plans to return to Saigon and spent the rest of the morning waiting for the train in our hotel room watching Terminator. Tien had never seen it before and she was pretty intrigued by it. I didn’t go into the fact that the robot who had traveled back in time to kill this woman was also the person who was running the state of California where she would be living within a year.

When we were checking out of our hotel the woman at the front desk chatted with us a bit and asked me to bring a man back from America for her. I chuckled, half out of politeness and half out of amusement that so many people in Vietnam say things like that.

We took a taxi to the train station and found that the train was delayed over an hour. There wasn’t much to do or eat at the train station so we wandered down the street carrying our bags and found a restaurant that looked good but ended up being pretty awful. I longed for yelp.vn so I could write a bad review of the place.

Blue Train in Nha Trang We returned to the train station and waited some more. I went to use the bathroom and the mens room was unavailable. The women’s room had no light and there was a lot of liquid on the floor, and who knows what else since it was dark.

When we finally got on the train the first thing I noticed was that it was pretty dirty. The seats were also pretty run down and rickety, but were actually pretty comfortable. Once we started rolling it was great though, so much more enjoyable than the bus. We didn’t get many great vistas, but we did pass a lot of beautiful landscape that I would love to photograph. Some of the landscape looked like jungle, but there were also mountains with rocks that reminded me of Colorado and Wyoming.

We played cards for a long time and listened to music. There was also the standard television entertainment. I saw an ad for a slim TV that was only like 18″ thick and was amused. A few weeks later I would go to a best buy with Dan Fava and find a television that was less than 2″ thick.

We rolled slowly into Saigon that night and got a new view of city life from the window of that train passing behind buildings, looking into bars and apartments and restaurants that we hadn’t seen before. I wished I had a camera that was better at photographing in darkness because there were some really awesome scenes visible from that window.

Tired from our travels, we did the usual routine of finding a taxi to drop us off at the Ruby Star.