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.

Exploring Nha Trang

The winds howled through the cracks of the door and windows of our hotel room all night and the next morning was very breezy. I spent a large portion of the morning catching up on all the internet stuff I’d missed during my offline stay in Mui Ne. Most notably, a 3D mandelbrot set had been discovered and rendered into some impressive images. I also noticed that I had exactly one week left in Vietnam.

I was feeling significantly more I’ll that morning, but I thought I might only have a sinus cold or something lame and trivial so I didn’t pay much attention to it, expecting that it would go away in a few days

The cold water In our bathroom was broken so that only boiling hot water came out of the shower until there was no more, then it went to only cold water. This behavior would continue throughout our stay there, requiring us to take cold shower baths.

Nha Trang waterfront from the Manchester Hotel

We got breakfast late that morning at the place directly next door to The Manchester that I wouldn’t recommend. Over breakfast Tien and I talked a lot about humor and jokes. Even though there seem to be a lot of differences between Vietnamese and American humor, there also seem to be some global constants to humor. I tried to explain things like Knock Knock jokes, one-liners, and other types of humor. Most jokes in Vietnamese are longer jokes with a lot of context. This goes hand-in-hand with their love for comedy theater.

After breakfast we took a walk down the beach where it was incredibly windy. It was nice though to be out in the sun. The wind wasn’t cold either and that was nice. The weather looked stormy though, the waves were huge and the water was really rough, so I wasn’t too hopeful about getting to swim.

We found our way back onto the sidewalk by the main road and passed an area where there were about 50 large dragonflies hanging out. I thought about photographing them, but didn’t because I didn’t have anything that would make it easy to get a good shot. We also found many shops that were selling seahorses, both alive and dead and in various containers. Some were floating in liquid, some were dried and ready to be eaten whole, and some were in fish tanks with nothing more than water. Tien said that seahorses are supposed to have amazing medicinal functions, just like eating live lizards. Lore is always a little humorous to me.

Boats in Nha Trang The destination on our walk was a place called the Vinpearl, and it was amazingly difficult to walk there. We actually had to walk beyond it over a hill and then come around back to it, winding in the roads of its campus that had no sidewalks. Clearly this place was made to be traveled to and from by motor vehicle.

The Vinpearl is actually a huge island theme park with a lot of attractions. We didn’t know this when we set out to go there, but discovered it when we arrived at the mainland side of a gondola that takes people to and from the island. There were also boats of various size that would ferry people back and forth. I was feeling pretty tired from my illness and the walk and didn’t feel like I had the energy for a theme park, so we opted to go back another day and instead spend our day on the mainland. We intended to visit an aquarium, but when we got into the taxi and told him to take us there he said it was on the Vinpearl island. This was another mistake of not doing research and not using the guidebook. I’m never going anywhere without the guidebook again.

Tien at PonagarInstead of going to the aquarium we went to a place called Ponagar Tower that was an ancient stone temple. It was a bit like something you’d find at Angkor Wat. It was a small temple but Tien enjoyed it much. There was an older Japanese man doing tricks with tops, swords and yo-yo’s on the upper landing of the complex. He was pretty funny, partly because he kept messing up. He would say everything in Japanese and there was a translator and a few drum players beating on tribal drums for dramatic effect as he did things like accidentally throwing a top larger than my head, nearly hitting a bystander.

I was feeling increasingly ill and tired so we headed back to The Manchester for a nap. I was developing some flu like symptoms like fever and sore throat, so I assumed that’s what it was. We went for dinner and found an absolutely delicious pho place at the end of a dark alley and conveniently near a pharmacist. We had our dinner and picked up a cocktail of medication for my symptoms.

A Tour of Đà Lạt

Friday morning I woke up to the delightful news that all but one of the files on my corrupt hard disk had been recovered and I knew I had that file, a photo from last new year, back in america.

Tien and I went outside and had breakfast on the terrace in front of the hotel entrance. It was cold out there but the only place to sit was outside. We needed to find some warm clothes.

After some small interactions with the hotel staff I thought about how at one time I thought that you would know you knew a language well if you got their jokes, but by this time I knew I was dead wrong. Humor exists outside of spoken language and is sometimes the first thing you find to communicate with somebody.

I looked down into the courtyard and saw a man by a Motorcycle with an easy rider logo on it.

Tien and I decided it would be a good way to see the city if we took a tour. After breakfast a bus came by the hotel and took us off to where a tour had just started.

Thiền Viện Trúc Lâm We were greeted by a tour guide who was incredibly hard to understand. Most of what he was saying I could derive from the context and surrounding sounds, but it was the important bits, the things I didn’t know and thus had no context for, that I was unable to understand.

The first place we went was a temple called Truc Lan. It was a meditation center where people came from all over in order to study. We didn’t stay long and it began raining shortly after we arrived.

Stop 2 was a waterfall called Datanla. The parking lot was at the top and we were given the option to ride a roller coaster to the bottom or walk down. Despite the fact that last time Tien had been on a roller coaster she went into shock I asked her anyway if she wanted to take it. Of course she didn’t and so we walked.

The waterfall was beautiful and pretty big compared to all of the waterfalls I’ve seen in recent years. The path to it went through the forest and under the roller coaster a few times.

Back at the top there were shops that I had ignored on the way down. There were women knitting hats and men carving wood into various shapes. Tien bought a black knit beanie with a white flower on it. I went to look for a drink and discovered that beer was only 9k compared to 15k for a pepsi. We were just getting started on the day so I bought a pepsi.

Stop three was the Lat Kings house. I listened to the tour guide talk for a while and made out much of what he said, but in the end I decided it wasn’t worth even listening to him and gave up.

Tien and I took a bunch of photos in the kings house and I really wished I had more of my gear or a d700 to widen the perspective of my PC-E 24mm lens. Some girl from our tour seemed to always be standing in my way talking on the phone so I eventually skipped ahead of her. We ended up with not enough time and were late getting back to the bus, but were somehow the first ones there.

On the way to lunch Tien said that nothing has changed in the 11 years since she was past in Da Lat. This was remarkable because it seems like they’re always doing construction everywhere in Vietnam. Colorado Springs would be so jealous.

Stop four was lunch. The restaurant was playing instrumental anthems like Chariots of Fire, Crockett’s Theme, and a dream rock rendition of I need Your Love. The sauce with the chicken had a tinge of MSG, but otherwise the food was remarkably delicious. Even the beef that came in a tin foil packet that shouted to us that it was made another and reheated for our lunch was incredible.

Stop five of our tour was a big Buddha statue that the tour guide claimed was the biggest Buddha in Vietnam. Tien and I disagreed silently, knowing that the Buddha on Mt. Cam was bigger. I just smiled and nodded through the rest of what he said about the monks doing something and some other people that seemed really important had done something else.

Suspended Animation Stop six was called The Valley of Love. It was a sad, wet, cold place where pale colored carnival rides sat motionless in the mud under a crying grey sky. There was a monkey chained up in a cage by himself going crazy and a metal lattice awning without a single flower growing on the one vine resilient enough to withstand the gloom. There were some miserable horses and yet more construction.

As we were leaving this last sullen stop on our tour I thought about the catch 22 of tourist places. Here in Da Lat I didn’t have a thousand eyes staring at me everywhere I went and random people saying hello to me as I walked down the street. The flip side was that it was not as genuine and the prices were obviously geared towards foreign travelers.

We returned to the hotel and crashed, tired from all the walking. It was evening when we awoke. We got some dinner at a place that had only one thing available, then bought and umbrella and went for a walk down by the lake. We found a market where I bought a knit hat and an Adidas jacket and immediately felt much warmer. I thought it was weird that I had to buy a jacket in Vietnam, but I guess that’s how it really is. We also bought some pistachios and a bottle of wine, then moseyed on back to the hotel for the night.

A short stay in Binh Duong

While we were in Vung Tau Mai was on the phone quite a bit talking with a friend of hers who she knew online and he invited us to stay at his place in Binh Duong, which was on the way to Saigon, so we decided to go. Unfortunately when we found the bus station there was no bus directly to Binh Duong so we had to take a bus to Saigon, then go back on another bus. This was OK though because Tien and I wanted to go down to the consulate and ask them some questions about the visa stuff.

We got on a bus and headed for Saigon. Like many busses, this one had a TV playing random entertainment. This bus was playing a DVD with some apparently famous Vietnamese people singing. It was called Paris by Night 25th Anniversary. Mostly it was people singing, but there were interviews with the set crew and some other entertaining scenes. At one point a girl had a dream that she woke up and found a genie lamp, but when she rubbed the lamp Osama Bin Laden came out instead of a genie. I’m not sure about all that happened since it was in Vietnamese, but by her second wish Bin Laden laughed maniacally and shot off his AK47 in the air and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Shortly after that scene the DVD began skipping so the driver turned it off and put on music set composed of 8 songs on repeat. One of these songs was Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You” and I couldn’t help thinking of the European commercial about english lessons.

When we got to Saigon we caught a taxi to the consulate. I asked them some questions about visas and was dumbfounded at how ridiculous the situation was with Tien’s visa. It was such a load of bullshit I thought there had to be another way to do it. She said I had to go to American and file for Tien’s visa there. This was astonishing because I was not in America, nor did I have the time or money to fly there. This was the first bit of a mountain of bullshit concerning American visas for Vietnamese citizens. I left the consulate thoroughly pissed off at how asinine the situation was and had a new perspective on what Mexicans probably have to put up with frequently.

We went back to the bus station, got on a crowded and hot bus and headed to Binh Duong. I tried to sleep but ended up just marinating in sweat. We exited the bus and I continued marinating while standing on the sidewalk, then I was chilled for a few minutes inside a taxi, and marinated again on another sidewalk and on the back of a scooter.

When we arrived at Mai’s friends house I took a shower. The first thing I did when I got in the shower was break the handle off the water faucet in the bath. I have a real knack for breaking things, and it really shines over here in Asia. After showering we ate a small meal to hold us over until we got a better meal, then went out for a walk.

I soon was grateful that I ate that little meal, because the sight of half of a cooked dog hanging by his teeth in the market right outside our guest house destroyed my appetite. I was also glad I had eaten eggs since they are unmistakeable. Mai’s friend was a slick kind of show off guy who liked to have fun, so later on when we were eating I half expected him to say “that’s not chicken, it’s dog!” Then I thought “so what if it is? It tastes good…” As far as I know though, I never ate any dog meat.

It got dark and we went to sleep with the intention of waking up the next day, but ended up getting up after an hour or so to sing some karaoke. There are never any english songs in the karaoke books so I mainly get to watch other people sing. Tien sings Camly songs and people say she looks like her too.

After karaoke we did end up going to sleep. On the floor. It was probably the worst night of sleep I’ve ever had. It’s certainly the worst night of sleep I can remember, but who knows, maybe I blocked out the really bad nights.

In the morning Tien gave me a massage to help my aching back, then we walked to breakfast. We walked like 15 blocks. I didn’t mind though because I was hoping to get away from the market where they were selling dog meat. We had pho and of course I wondered what that meat was…

After breakfast, Tien, Mai and I caught a taxi to Đại Nam Văn Hiến, a safari style theme park inside of big castle walls, complete with its own real temple, a few artificial mountains, and all sorts of other assorted fun stuff.

The first thing we did was get on a train and go to hell. Or rather, a haunted house style thing inside of 5 big chinese dragon heads that was like a trip through hell. It was so dark inside that my eyes never fully adjusted. It had ghouls flying at you in the air, from behind cages, people grabbing at your legs in the dark, and tons of voices screaming, crying and shouting in Vietnamese. I thought about the Vietnam war and S21.

Đại Nam Văn Hiến Temple GateThe next thing we did was rent a tandem bicycle. Two seats and two sets of pedals for three of us, complete with a triple ring in front and seven in the back. I didn’t have much trouble working the bike and it felt good to be back on a bike since I love biking and haven’t done it in over two months. We biked to the temple and went inside. It was a big compound with water fountains and a very large room for the temple itself. It was probably the largest temple I’ve been in and it was nice that it was real, not just some tourist attraction.

We biked around some more and I took a bunch of photos and then we went to an Italian restaurant and got food. I got an incorrectly made but delicious club sandwich. Tien got some of the worst spaghetti I’ve ever tasted.

We checked out the go-kart track that was near the restaurant, but Tien didn’t want to race so I didn’t bother. It was a neat track in a figure 8 with a bridge over the intersection, the first I’d seen for go-karts. The cars were minimal, and they didn’t seem to give anybody any training on how they worked before throwing them on the track. It looked fun, but instead of that we went to Snow Land.

I was pretty skeptical of snow land, it was over 90ºF outside. They gave us rain boots, jackets and gloves, but no hat. Then they let us inside to snow land, a freezing cold sledding hill with an assortment of tubes. I couldn’t believe there was actual ice created by these air conditioners when it was so hot outside. I quickly got very cold without a hat, but Tien and I had fun sledding down a few times. She had never seen real snow, and technically she still hasn’t since this was some of the worst spring snow you’ve ever seen. Still, it was entertaining and fun.

It was late in the afternoon so we headed back to guest house and hung out for the evening, figuring out our travel plans. For some reason we decided to take a 1am bus to Binh Hoa instead of a 5pm bus. I decided to get some sleep before then since I can never sleep on those busses.

More Thailand

SE Asia has very deep roots in Buddhism. I didn’t know this when I came here. I’m beginning to see that pretty much everything in the history of Asia revolves around politics and religion. I don’t think that there is anything to see that is not modern that isn’t a religious site of some sort.

Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun Today we first went to Bang Pa In. This was a collection of historical buildings. There were many buildings called mansions that were as small as a large apartment. Like many important buildings, you had to take your shoes off. And you weren’t supposed to use your cell phone. And you couldn’t take pictures. All I could think of was “no fun allowed”, and that may have been the case since it wasn’t really a fun place, but just an ornate and awe inspiring place with a rich history.

We had lunch at a restaurant above a river where big collections of plants were floating by. Afterwards we went to a few more temples, then drove home in the rain with a beautiful sunset beyond the scattered towers of Bangkok.

I saw somebody living under a bridge in a makeshift tent with laundry hung out to dry and pictures hung from the laundry wires and posted on the wall of the underpass.

The next morning My and I got up and caught a taxi to the Sky Train and headed downtown to Siam Square. This was a big departure from what I’ve been used to as it involved things that weren’t hundreds of years old. It was a modern train and modern buildings with modern fashion and chain restaurants.Mall shapes There were people going to work in suits and hundreds of school kids dressed in uniforms. There were big theaters with laser lights in the lobby playing techno.

There was a collection of malls, not just a single mall. It was like six malls, all over 6 stories tall. There was so much fashion to shop for I don’t know if some of the girls back home would’ve come out alive. At one point we found ourselves in a market area on one floor filled entirely of mobile phones. I’d never seen so many mobile phones in my life. Literally there were thousands and thousands of mobile phones being sold at hundreds of little shops that were all exactly the same. I thought I was in tech purgatory.

At one store I saw what I thought was an iPhone for a really cheap price, so I asked to see it. It was a fake. It looked almost exactly like an iPhone, but it had a micro USB slot instead of a dock slot. And it took two SIM cards. And it had a replaceable battery. And the OS sucked. And it required a stylus. And you had to go into the ugly preferences to configure things like UART. It made me wonder why on earth people would go to such lengths to copy merely the physical style of the iPhone yet miss all of the functionality in the user experience, which is where the money is. But then I looked at those oceans of Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung phones and thought “Apple has no market here anyway…” Then I thought “an app store for something like Nokia would be a huge boon for the Asian market.”

I saw a guy with a shirt that said “I fantasize about the ups man.”

I saw a girl with a shirt that said “I look good when turned upside down.”

I saw a man on the street with no shirt wearing ripped up shorts and gold high heels.

On the way home in the Sky Train I told My about the Bart Swing 2009. The Sky Train is too crowded to actually do something like that, but that didn’t stop us from dreaming up the next iteration on the idea… Sky Cradle 2009™, the best way to catch up on your sleep while commuting home.