Tuesday, May 3, 2011

April 8-13: Alone in Kathmandu

When I bought my amethyst ring in LP Ian teased me “Becoming Bonnie?!” Now that I’m here I really feel like Bonnie – checking up on everyone and where the money is going.

Ian meanwhile is diving in Thailand on a three night live-aboard cruise.  He will join me here in a week.  
On Sat a.m. I walked up to Arubari. Pleasant surprise – the road from Boudha is laid with flagstones, very nice. There’s only a small piece of rough road left. But it still takes about 30 minutes to get to CH.    
I met Sabina and Sujan on the road. They were on their way to his school to get his final marks for the term. Sujan is 11 now, seems tiny to me and is missing his front teeth. But he still has a radiant smile.
CH was almost empty. Most of the didi’s took a long day trip to visit a temple and many of the children were away at their families for school break.
I saw a few of the children – the ‘bad boys, 15 – 16 year olds  - Padam, Damodar, Raju.
Kabita with the dimples. I reminded her of when she played ‘sano hati’ in the Just Like I Am play. Her face lit up! Kalpana, still on guard and fearful. Rabita, Anju, Bimala, Sunita, Ritika.  
Binita walked me over to Krishna’a house. When they opened the door and saw me it was as though Lord Krishna himself was appearing to them. A very, very warm welcome.
Krishna is a star – first in his class for grades 6 and 7. He won a national poetry competition. I’m relieved to be able to tell Doug that he’s ‘backing a winner. I tried to focus on Kabita too. She’s 4th in her class.   
Arjun and I met with Sajan and Sabina to encourage him to pull up his socks. He’s leaning toward the ‘bad side’, hanging around with the tough kids on the street. We’re in a dilemma about whether or not to continue supporting him.     
One day walking back down the road to Boudha I saw a dog, one of many. This poor fellow was inching forward on his belly (probably a broken back). He’d put one front paw forward a couple of inches and then bring the other one forward. His hind legs dragged along the pavement behind him. He was a medium size dog, looked well fed and didn’t seem to be in pain. He kept his big handsome head up; was stoic and persevering. My heart was breaking. Of course, being where I was (monks and stupas as far as the eye could see) I couldn’t help but think of Karma. I’ll never forget the image of him crawling across the road one paw length at a time.    
Many of the same beggars are here. The chubby, legless, smiling man in the wheelchair; the contracted wry neck man who moves in a jerky squat; the blind leper wrapped in rags; the young monk who sits cross-legged rocking from side to side reciting prayers and chants.     
Marsang and I went to VFS together. The visa process seems straightforward. The VFS woman was helpful and told Marsang to use the computer in the office. The idea that we would sponsor her seemed ordinary and usual. I was relieved.    
I’ve bought a lot of stuff to sell at home – silk, fine wool, cashmere, felted wool stuff. I hope friends at home are in the mood to shop! 
I’m staying at a Tibetan hotel in a Tibetan neighbourhood in the stupa enclosure. I’m sitting on my bed, door open, prayer flags fluttering from every rooftop. All those prayers going to the gods and still most Nepalis are impoverished and the Tibetans are in exile.       
Tibetans seem to like dogs. The building across from me has balconies and there are two lovely pooches that I like to watch. One has a reddish bristly coat and short fiddle legs. His legs look too small for him and his voice gives it away. He really is a big dog in a small body. He has a deep, chesty bark. The other dog is a white long-haired pretty thing!     
April 13: New Year’s Eve        
Walking around the stupa dusk to dark. Everyone keeps up a good pace – an odd combination of tranquility and purposefulness. The sounds: children’s playground noises, a successful cocktail party, chanting, talking in tongues, clanging bells, crashing cymbals, pounding drums, blaring horns. Oddly, amidst the reverence, the roar of the garbage truck and the urgent TWEET, TWEET, TWEET of the rubbish collector’s whistle.   
Someone hands me a candle and I go round and round trying to be meditative and calm but being stimulated by everything. I notice things about the stupa that I’ve never noticed before. Small niches in the wall (about the size of a very generous piece of pie), inside each niche a very ancient-looking Buddha image. People put candles inside the niches – one, two, three, even four candles. Candles everywhere on the stupa, high and low. A small shrine in the side of the stupa about six feet square, monks spilling out of it chanting, clanging, crashing, blaring.     
What do the Tibetans-in-exile wish for on a new year’s eve? This week two young Tibetan men – sons of men who came here as children in the 50’s and 60’s – spoke to me about their homelessness, statelessness. Unable to leave here but unable to feel at home in the place where they were born.
Pacing round and round the stupa I remember the undeniable blessing of the life I have this time around.   
The chaos of the old market area of Kathmandu:
Narrow streets, no sidewalks, shops opening onto and spilling out to the streets. Copper, brass, stainless steel, saris, shoes, shawls, flutes, icons, brassieres – all of it pushing out toward you. And shoppers, hawkers, gawkers, rickshaws, motorcycles and the odd car pushing, pushing.     
And in the midst of it all, a road crew repairing the huge holes in the road. First shoveling rock out of the back of a truck that is almost completely blocking the already narrow road.  The rock goes into rickety wheelbarrows with flat tires and gets wheeled to the holes. Then dribbling hot, black, sticky, liquid tar from paint cans with holes punched in the bottoms onto the rocks. Then laying black chunky stuff (asphalt?) over the sticky tar. Finally rolling over it with a hand roller to press it flat. By the time the last step is done the new parts have cigarette butts, pink binding tape, wrappers of all sorts, paan spittle and marigold petals pressed into them. I thought, ‘Why not close the road for a couple of hours?’ Sure enough at the top of the street there was a metal barricade and two fresh-faced young ‘officers’ in some kind of uniform all intended to close the street and all being pushed aside and ignored. Vendors and buyers rule!      
I went shopping with Marsang to buy saris for her mom and grandmom. Both sari shops were about the size of a queen size bed. I sat silently while I watched the sari seller unfurl at least a dozen saris. As the saris unfurled,  noxious gasoline-like fumes filled the small space. The seller was up to his knees in saris. Much chit chat back and forth and then Marsang gave a slight jerk of her head and walked out.     
The ritual was repeated at the next place. The sari seller was my age and the only word Marsang spoke that I got was ‘uncle’. Much comparing, discussing, bargaining and calculating and finally consensus. I paid and as we left I thought I was the only one who was satisfied. Marsang thought I should have paid less and uncle thought I should have paid more. I was just happy it was over.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 14 -24: Nepal to home

April 14 

Baisakh 1 in the Bikram Sambat calendar. I hesitate to say Nepal new year because there is also Nepal Samvat and that new year is in November. I think Nepal Samvat is restricted to the KTM Valley – maybe it’s Newari, the ethnic people of the valley. Then there is the Tibetan new year which is in February (the lunar Chinese new year perhaps?)

April 15-16Kavre District Thulo Parsel

Up at 5 a.m., meet Bahadur and family at 6 a.m., to catch the 7 a.m. bus to their village.

[As we left the hotel there was evidence of an ‘incident’. Some large terracotta pots on the landings were overturned and cracked. In the lobby a large stainless steel floor ashtray (remember those?) was overturned. In the passageway from the lobby to the front door there was a scene of multiple decapitation! The passageway is decorated with four-foot dolls in traditional Tibetan dress. Two or three were knocked over with their heads lolling beside them. A mystery!]

The bus ride was hellish mostly because of the screeching Indian music. The women singers sounded like Alvin the Chipmunk with his balls caught in a mangle. Add Mantovani violins and bombastic John Williams arrangements – mind-numbing even with ear plugs.

After we left the paved road Ian got on top of the bus! A young man took his seat and struck up a conversation with me. How did he think that was possible?! Ian enjoyed the top of the bus and took lots of pix. The drop-offs were shear, long and unprotected. Because the road is so narrow the front of the bus actually goes over the drop-off while the front wheels stay on the road.

Six and a half hours later we arrived. A big change from 1989 when it took a 2 or 3 hour bus ride and two days trekking.

A big change at the farm is that they have a bio-gas plant. They use buffalo and ox dung to create gas for cooking. They still burn wood and corn cobs too but much less than before. A Dutch NGO put lots of them in the village. Two buffalo and two oxen create enough gas to cook for 4 or 5 people for a day.

Another change is that the village is wired for electricity. They only have it about 6 hours a day (load shedding) and only have 8 light bulbs (no espresso machines) but it’s progress.

We watched 3 or 4 women harvest a wheat field beside Bahadur’s house. They used small hand scythes. They cut and bound the sheaves and lay them down where they cut them. Eventually they made piles of sheaves about 5x3x3 feet that they bound together then lifted onto their backs and carried away. The field was about the size of baseball diamond. They worked from morning ‘til night and part of the next day.

Ian walked with Phursang when she took the goats out to graze. He didn’t know what he was in for! They came back about three hours later. Ian was exhausted and he wasn’t carrying a huge basket of fodder on his back like Phursang.

Later in the day Phursang was helping her friend. They were carrying big bags of sand on their backs. All the portering is done with the load suspended from a band around the forehead. It gives me whiplash just watching.

The village, fields and terraces were mostly brown. Planting will start after the rain starts.

A second benefit from the bio-gas plant is that the dung is still available as fertilizer after the gas is extracted. The mechanism ‘vomits’ (that was Marsang’s word) the used dung into a holding ‘pond’. It’s shoveled out, dried out and then carried to their fields. Ian and I marveled at the fact that ‘poor little Nepal’ is using such sensible practices while at home we use one valuable resource – water – to get rid of another valuable resource – shit. The Fraser Valley could produce masses of energy with all the cattle, horses, chickens they have.

We saw a man ploughing his field (two oxen and a wooden hand plough). I asked Bahadur why he was doing it so early. He had put his dung on the field too early and had to plough it in before the wind blew it away.
Bahadur killed one of his roosters for dinner. It was tasty and surprisingly tender. I didn’t witness the slaughter but was surprised to see it with his head still on.

I learned that nanny goats have litters. There were lots of kids around but only three nannies. I asked if they bought some kids. Marsang had to explain the facts of goat life to me.

Mom, Bahadur’s mother, took our facial features one by one – nose, chin, eye, the other eye, cheek, the other cheek in her fingers and then kissed her fingers. Then one breast, the other breast, then my crotch. She showed some discretion in not going for Ian’s crotch!

Ian and I were having a lie-down. Mom came into the room and motioned for me to kiss Ian. I did. Mom laughed and cackled and ran out of the room. I felt like a porn star.

Bahadur took us to the village temple. Someone unlocked the door for us and before too long a monk showed up – kind of a rough, countryside monk – no fancy manicure like the guys in Cambodia. There was an icon of Bairab. I’ve forgotten what his role is but I’m curious to find out.

April 17: Boudha

We hired an SUV for the return voyage – 3 hours in blessed peace and quiet. When we got back to Boudha there was some festival underway around the stupa. Apparently a 3 day Tamang affair that goes from Boudha to Swayambu to who knows where.

Ian and I went out – just to walk 100 meters to a coffee bar. We got caught in a bottleneck of humanity. I felt panic rising. I thought about people being trampled to death and understood viscerally how that’s possible. Just as the panic was rising the bottleneck eased and we were spilled into an open space a few steps from our destination.

The festivities went on until 10 p.m. It was more carnival-like than spiritual – dancing, screeching music from enormous but ineffective sound systems, popcorn, food stalls, flute sellers. But there was also a lot of rice being strewn about and burned, incense and chanting. We learned that it’s mostly a Tamang women’s thing and it is about honouring dead relatives and ancestors.

April 18: Women's Foundation

Ian and I emerged from our hotel on Monday morning feeling safe – that the revelers had moved on to another holy site. But … there was another event underway! Purnima, the monthly full moon hoopla. More chanting, burning and drumming.

Ian and I went to Arunima Secondary to meet Kesab Joshi. He was proud and happy to show us nothing – classroom after classroom with nothing in them except some old wooden desks. He’s looking for help to attract English speaking volunteers.

Then on to the Women’s Foundation just to say hello. Suzanne mentioned something about a video and – BAM – we were right into it. We worked from 1 to 6 p.m. shooting the Production Center, the office, Mother’s Home. The more I see the more I realize that the need is bottomless. And that’s only in social services – education, housing, health.

All the children at Mother’s Home have been sexually abused and have been rescued, apprehended from their abusers. One girl was gambled away by her father to a man who married her to his leper son! The WF mobilized the government to intervene and annul the marriage. 

April 20, 21, 22: Ayurveda Health Home

The cast: 
  • Vladimir, Russian PR tycoon with a New Age twist. Bald, shiny head, intense blue eyes and a very smooth, deceiving complexion. He had some laser treatment to decrease the prominence of some scarring on his fright jaw and now he looks about 25 though he is 40.
  • Sylvia and her 13 yo daughter Milena. Sylvia is an Ayurveda junkie and comes every year from Austria for an overhaul.
  • Gerry. Rich American Maharishi devotee with bad skin and a proselytizing bent. I heard her discussing (read lecturing) various people about TM and the Maharishi and the Vedas and diet and basti (enemas). She even cornered Ian and somehow connected concern about some modern day plague like pollution to the myth of Ravenna and what the Maharishi said.
  • Mary, Gerry’s companion and caregiver. Also a Maharishi devotee but toned down and doing her own thing while Gerry does the full meal Ayurvedic deal.
Gerry and Mary – 6 weeks and counting.
Vladimir – 28 days.
Sylvia and Milena 14 days.
Us – 3 days!

They are very into Ayurveda, enemas and all. Ian and I just want to relax and get the smog out of our lungs.

April 23:  Child Haven

In the p.m. we went up to Child Haven. We saw lots of kids and didi’s. It was humbling to realize that everyone didn’t remember my name and hadn’t been thinking of me non-stop since 2008! But we got a warm welcome regardless. I was very happy to be there. Ian said I was radiant!

We spoke with Ruth, a volunteer from Sydney, BC. I liked her attitude.

Who did I see? Nirmala, still very quiet.
Kalpana, leaning toward fashion design of all things! She and Priyanka mimicked Ruth and me and were howling with laughter.
Shreejana, wearing stylish glasses now. She made a point of giving us a serious, heartfelt goodbye at the gate.
Damodar walked out with us. He’s starting grade 10 and doesn’t seem very optimistic about his future.
Raju – Ian told him he’d be a good model – so good-looking. I think he actually blushed.
Tiluk – tall, confident, handsome, despite his scars. I told Ruth what a creative artist he is.
Lalit - wouldn’t come close.
Iswora – adolescent stand-offishness
Meera, Neeru, Padam and Dolma and many more I didn’t know.
That ol’ bottomless need.

April 24: Last half day in KTM

6 a.m. to Durbar Square – got to get some tourist activity in.
Puja, puja, puja. Incense, marigolds, bell ringing, vermillion tikkas.
In Boudha it’s Buddha, in Kathmandu it’s Kali and Krishna – but it’s all devout, ordinary and integral.

Thunder and lightening storm when we arrived in BKK. A dark and stormy night, the sky lit up pink with sheets of lightning.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 7 Bangkok to Kathmandu

One night in Bangkok we went to a very busy farang area near Khaosan Road – a guidebook recommendation. Bars, massage parlours, souvenirs, restaurants chock-a-block. We had huge grilled prawns.

As we were walking down the street on our way to find a tuk-tuk to take us home we heard a blues guitar riff. A bar with small tables on the sidewalk, a man on guitar and a woman singing. Janis, Stevie Rae, Honky Tonk Woman, Born Under a Bad Sign and more. Every now and then the woman’s Thai accent came through …”…drinking from Flyday night to Sunday morning”. She wore black jeans, high tops, a big t-shirt, very un-Thai-like.

The man was unidentifiable – he could have been Afro-American, Latino, Samoan or all three or something else entirely. Long, fuzzy, ugly hair, huge head, big nose, scarred face and a smoking fag hanging from his bottom lip, smoke curling into his eyes.

We sipped Jameson’s and loved every note. Then a wild tuk-tuk ride home. The driver was probably on yaa baa (Thai crystal meth). We learned a lot about Thai ‘culture’ from John Burdett!


On Sat a.m. I walked up the road to Aru Bari. Pleasant surprise - the road from Boudha is paved with flagstones - very nice. There's only one samll piece of unpaved road.

I met Sabina and Sujan on the toad (FORGIVE THE ERRORS - MOST OF THE LETTERS HAVE RUBBED OFF THE KEYS) oops! Sujan is 11 yo now, seems tiny to me and is missing some front teeth but he still has a radiant smile that melts my cold cold heart.

Child Haven was almost empty. The didis were off on a one-day visit to a shrine and many of the children have gome to their families - school break.

I saw a few of the children - the 'bad boys' - 15-16 yo's and some of the others Kabita with the dimples. I reminded her of when she palyed 'sanu hati' in the "Just Like I Am' play. Her face lit up! Kalpana, still guarded and fearful. Ramita, Anju, Sunita, Bimala, Ritika.

Benita walked me to Krishna's (it seems everyone has moved to berrer digs). When they opened the door it was as if Lord Krishna himself was appearing to them. A very very warm welcome.
Krishna is a star - first in his class for the last two years and winner of a national poetry competition. I'm relieved to be able to tell Doug that he is 'backing a winner'. I try to focus on Kabita - she's fourth in her class!

Arjun and I met Sajan and his mother to encourage him to' pull up his socks'. He's leaning toward the bad side. I'm in a dilemma about supporting him.

One day walking back to Boudha I saw a dog - one of many. This poor fellow was inching his way across the pavement on his belly (broken back?). His hind legs were dragging straight out behind him. He was well-nourished and didn't seem to be in pain. He was stoic, persevering. My heart was breaking. Of course being where I am (stupas and monks as far as the eye can see) I couldn't help but think of karma. I'll never forget the image of him crawling across the road.

Many of the same beggars are still here - the chubby legless man in the w/c, the contracted wry neck man who moves in a squat, the blind leper wrapped in rags.

Marsang and I went to VFS together. The visa process seems straightforward. The woman at VFS was very helpful and encouraging.

Kathmandu is without electricity about 12-16 hours per day. Imagine Vancouver in the same state. There is always the steady rumble of generators in the background. Energy is energy. Generators take fuel too. I wonder if the minister of energy has a sideline in selling generators! He was attacked the other day with a kukuri (big blade) - injuries to head and hand. No wonder. I'm sure people trying to go about their day-to-day lives would like to be able to rely on electricity. I'm certainly put out - I tried to order an espresso the other day but there was no electricity for the machine!

I've bought a lot of stuff to sell at home. I hope everyone is in a mood to buy!

I'm staying at a Tibetan hotel in a Tibetan neighbourhood. Sitting on the bed with the door open, prayer flags fluttering from every rooftop. All those prayers going to the gods and still too many Nepalis are impoverished and the Tibetans are homeless.

Ian is coming to Nepal tomorrow - the blog will improve with his photos!!

Friday, April 8, 2011

March 30 Luang Prabang, Laos

March 30 to April 5: Luang Prabang, Laos  

Luang Prabang, city of markets. There’s the morning market, the night market, the Phousy market, the Hmong market and more. The morning market takes place in quiet, residential streets near our guesthouse. It’s mostly for food and mostly for locals.

One of the more interesting food products was a creature residing inside a hard brown sphere the size of a baseball. We passed a woman holding a brown ball in the palm of her hand and hitting it very precisely with a heavy blade. She hit it a few times, cracking the ball in half and there nestled inside was a live, ugly, translucent, grayish-yellow, scaly, articulated bug. It was the size of a small apricot. It was only after watching the ‘extraction’ that I noticed she had a large bowl full of them for sale.

I asked our guesthouse woman about them and she said, “They lib in buffalo seet.” Buffalo shit!! And people eat them! She had one of the hard brown balls in one of her plant pots. She was keeping it until it was ‘ready’ to show her four year old. Apparently, the bug makes the hard ball out of sand. She doesn’t eat them but I guess she thinks it’s an important life lesson for a four year old. I didn’t ask about the readiness of the ball.  I thought of dung beetles, scarabs. These creatures didn’t look like any scarab amulets I’ve ever seen.

The night market is set up on the main street that runs in front of the national museum. It runs for about three blocks and forms a tunnel of free-standing red awnings that tourists are funneled through. There are hundreds of vendors and from what I saw very few buyers. The vendors set up every day from about 4:30 to 9:30. They take great pains to lay out their wares very precisely and neatly. They sit there patiently, chatting with each other, eating noodles, child-minding, waiting for a sale.

Lao used to be called the land of a million elephants and though there are fewer than a thousand now they are a big tourist draw. Entrepreneurial Ian made a deal with an outfit – a video for 2 days at the Elephant Village. The Elephant Village is a for-profit tourist business but they have a humanitarian role in rescuing elephants from the logging industry where they are worked, often, to death.

The ‘girls’ at Elephant Village are living the good life now. They do tourist rides in the morning and then they get walked into the jungle and get tied to trees with very long chains where they are free to eat the 250kg each of veggies they need. Eleven elephants x 250 kg. every day – that’s a lot of salad.

Riding an elephant requires flexible hips and knees so I limited my time atop and admired them from the ground. I was most captivated by the shape of their skulls. I guess too many cartoon elephant images made me think they have a domed, spherical head and a rounded back.

Wrong on both counts. The top of an Asian elephants head has two bumps and moving down toward the trunk there are deep depressions where we have temples.  There’s a thick hard ridge running along the back. The howdah seat is built so that it doesn’t rest on the centre ridge.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 23 Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi (3 H club)

March 23, 24  Hoi An

Travelling here is smooth as long as you relax and trust people. That's easy if you're not on a tight budget like many of the 'real' backpackers are. (We met a young man from Ontario in MuiNe who told us he had $100 left and he was going to work at a disco to pay his way.)

The second we walked out of the train station in Danang a man approached us to ask if we wanted a taxi. "Yes, to Hoi An."  "Ten dolla in ten minute. sir. You wai hia." We told him we would wait at the coffee joint across the street. "Oh sir, too esspensih coffee. Go otta cona."

The other corner sidewalk was thronged with young men sitting on low plastic stools drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. VN pop music was blasting from the many speakers. We had ice coffee and in minutes a driver pulled up and whisked us away from the smoke and din.

We went to the An Huy Hotel where we had made a booking. No booking. "Maybe An Hui Hotel, sir?" We went there. No booking but they took us anyway.
I've made no effort whatsoever to learn Vietnamese, with the exception of 'thank you'. I know it's jingoistic or racist or whatever but it seems to me that there are too few words in the language.

Reading the signs everything looks the same to me! Huy, Hui, Hu, Hi. I guess if every word can have five tones and five meanings it's an economical language.

I have a new appreciation of how difficult it must be for VN to learn English with its hard consonants. "Fre mi" (fresh milk); "Co bia" (cold beer); "Toe" (toast); "Massa" (massage).

Hoi An is charming - lanterns, small shops, ancient temples, old wooden houses and a lovely river. It also has more tailoring shops than Kellogg's has corn flakes! Nancy and I had fun getting stuff made only to be disappointed with the stuff at home.

I'd been wearing the same wrap-around skirt for weeks so decided to have another made. (The weather was so hot in Cambodia, Saigon, Muine and Nha Trang that I couldn't wear some of the things I have with me.) Ian ordered two shirts. That afternoon the temperature dropped by many degrees and it started to rain. I guess I didn't need the skirt!

An ATM kept Ian's card. There were three phone numbers listed to contact. At the first number a man told him to phone another number. At that number Ian got a live person who hung up on him twice. It was Friday about 11:55 a.m. and being the pessimistic alarmists we are we figured we'd have to stay in Hoi An until Monday.

We decided to go to a real bank to talk to someone in person. The bank was about three meters wide (not just the entrance, the whole bank) and had a metal accordion grill across the entrance with a small opening to enter the bank. Inside, the lights were out. Two young men were at a desk near the entrance. One was lying on the desk and the other sat staring at us with a glum face (the phone hanger upper?)

Ian launched into his sad tale with the ATM ID#, the address, the time of the loss etc. The young man continued to stare. Finally, "Luntye. Come ba laita." (In my mind I was thinking, Monday?) He said "One o'clock."

And sure enough, at one o'clock there he was with Ian's card in his hand smiling, polite, almost chatty!! I guess the customer service mode is reserved for business hours.

March 25, 26 Hue

Me on the right in my new jacket and plastic poncho... brrrr

Be careful what you wish for - you may get it! I have been so hot. I didn't intentionally wish for cooler weather but it must have been in the back of my mind. We took a car to Hue through cold drizzle and fog.

South to North the towns are: Hoi An, Danang, over the mountain to Hue. In 2008 the strip of beach from Hoi An to Danang (China Beach of Vietnam war and American TV fame) was pretty much undeveloped. Now there are big resorts and casinos and a lot of construction of more. The driver told us that some of the development is Chinese. Meridien, Sheraton and the like.

It was Friday afternoon around 2:30 when we drove through Danang. It felt like early Sunday morning. The traffic was almost non-existent and we hardly saw a soul. Eerie.

Internet booking is not all it's cracked up to be in this neck of the world. We got to 'our' hotel and "No booky." It seems that one VN company might have several hotels but use one internet booking service, one address, one phone number. The hotel we booked was actually across the street but the guy said "You tay hea, I gi you sa pry." Why not?

Hue Palace - looking into an ancient urn

Hue was so cold and wet we decided to go to Hanoi the next evening. We had to pay cash for our tix at the travel agent. I said "The ATM will only give us 2,000,000 Dong ($100)." The agent said (more or less) "Do 2,000,000 then 2,000,000 then 2,000,000 etc" Doh! Why didn't we think of that?! The service charges might be big but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

We took cyclos over to the market to buy jackets - genuine knock-off The North Face for $25 each - and socks for me. Then we were off to the Imperial Palace of the Nguyen dynasty. It's shabby but dignified. It's been bombed and restored many times.
There were many school children on outings. Some children were posing for a group shot for their teacher. I overheard a French tourist who was taking advantage of the pose say to them "Souriez pour la France!" I winced. It was France who bombed the palace in '47.

We went to La Residence Hotel (VN/Swiss) for lunch - sort of a birthday treat. The best part was that the hotel had heat!

March 27, 28  Hanoi
'Same Same but Different' is a common saying here. (I think it might refer to all the knock-offs that SE Asia is known for. Rolex anyone?) We had that experience with our hotel booking in Hanoi. The driver who picked us up said he was taking us to Hanoi View Hotel. We said we booked Prince Hanoi Hotel. "Same, same." ???

A traffic officer - a thankless job
The driver did not seem to be drunk (the driver in Hue smelled like Dean Martin on New Year's eve) but he drove on the white line between the lanes. Eventually he chose a lane and then accelerated to 110 kph. That doesn't sound very fast by Cdn standards but here!? I asked him to slow down. Within minutes we passed the first accident we've seen here. A motor scooter was crumpled in the middle of the lane. The driver looked at me like I had ESP!]

It turns out Hanoi View and Prince Hanoi are side by side and owned by the same company. They didn't have a room for us at the Prince so put us in the View for the night then moved us in the a.m. Egad!

We walked around the Old Quarter and went to the fancy-shmancy part of town. I found the IHT at the Metropole (paid for it this time!). Better luck with the puzzle, too. We had coffee and a sweet in a shop that made me think of Sweet Obsession - up-market with lots of women with their children.

All the old French colonial buildings - elegant, yellow with white trim, tall green shutters - have been taken over by the VN government. They are still yellow and white but now have utilitarian red signage with yellow writing and huge VN flags - red with a yellow star.
 Ian negotiating a crowded sidewalk

The French Quarter is only a small enclave serviced by wide boulevards.  The rest of downtown is a maze of narrow streets with motorbikes crowding both the road and sidewalks.

Look up and signs of an elegant past peek through the shabby storefronts and snake-pits of electrical wiring. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 15 Saigon

The only interesting thing about the bus ride to Saigon was the border crossing and even that was pretty smooth. The bus concierge or conductor or whatever the title handled everything. He collected everyone's passport. That was difficult for some farangs who've probably been told never to let their passport out of their sight. I could hear him patiently (with a minor bit of exasperation) explaining that it would be a lot easier for them if they let him handle things.

We were sitting beside a 60-65 ish American with motorcycle boots and a thin grey ponytail. At the border crossing he was pulled aside and held us up for about 15 minutes. When he finally got back on he seemed peevish and said "They know me here." Now what could that mean?

We arrived in Saigon on exactly the same street that Nancy and I stayed on in 2008 - Pham Ngu Lau. It's the 'backpacker area'. That means taxis, rickshaw's, travel agents, tour companies, cheap restaurants, bars, sidewalk vendors, massage joints/spas chock-a-block. Every bar and restaurant has one or more touts standing outside luring you into their place. Tense.

We are travel weary because neither of us really wanted to see a thing in Saigon! I told Ian about the War Remnants Museum but we both thought it was too grim. We walked to the old post office which I think is a very beautiful building - French Colonial.

We strolled around a nice park, had coffee and a crepe, watched the brides having their wedding photos taken. I couldn't bear the idea of going back to PNL street again. I saw a beauty salon and decided to get my hair cut. Ian left.

Before I could even sit down he was back and we each had shampoo, massage and hair cut. It certainly improved our collective mood. We actually hadn't realized we'd asked for the massage bit - in fact, I'm pretty sure we hadn't! But, oh what a treat. Shampoo, facial scrub, facial massage, head massage. Move to the vibrating tables and more massage. About an hour in all.

Then the hair cuts. The man who cut our hair, Mr. Vinh, is immigrating to Fredericton NB!! He loves Canada - "clean, green, quiet". I almost wept.

Mr. Vinh told us he has to have $300,000 to buy a business in NB whereas a business in BC would be $800,000. We talked about Cdn immigration. He was well-informed.

We ate at a Pakistani place that night. My few words of Urdu came in handy not for any practical reason but for diplomacy. The owner is from Pakistan as were a few other diners. He was thrilled we'd been there and could chat about this and that. He is actually from Kashmir ... "the Pakistani part." I realized that I feel more affection for South Asian culture that I do for SE Asian. I'll have to ponder that.

We left Saigon early in the morning. Well, not so early - 7:30 bus that left at 8:45!

March 17 - St Patrick’s day To Mui Ne

It must have been the luck of the Irish that kept us alive! I tried to keep my head down and focus on knitting (I’m on my second sock – not a match for the first sock). Every now and then Ian would look at the road and I usually heard a deep intake of breath and then “Oh fuck! That was too close.” It seems that passing another big bus and forcing oncoming cars onto the shoulder is SOP. Or, the other manouevre I marveled at was the car passing us on the right just as our bus driver pulled out to pass the big vehicle in front of us. I wondered how we’d merge in front.

We got off in a small beach town called Mui Ne. It’s very close to Phan Thiet where Reece went with his father. It’s a very long arcing strip of pale sand with lots of high end and low end ‘resorts’ along the shore and working class Vietnamese trying to make a living off of fishing and tourism.

The music in the open air restaurants was very annoying – but it seemed only to us! I can just see Frank rolling his eyes! Sometimes it was trance music and other times high-pitched Asian bubblegum pop.

We went to a little bar run by a French couple. They favored the trance music or improv jazz. But they were sweet and trying hard to make a go of it. Ian had some red wine which as usual came ice cold. He thought French people would be more ‘in the know’ about wine but when he asked she shrugged and said “I know, I know but ...?” I guess it has to be either too warm or too cold.

March 19, 20, 21   Nha Trang      

Ian described Nha Trang as the Acapulco of Vietnam. Well it is a city on a beautiful beach and it is a holiday destination for Vietnamese as well as foreigners. I’ve never been to Acapulco but from photos of it I’d say Nha Trang is way better. Maybe not for much longer as there is a fair bit of BIG hotel construction going on along the road in front of the beach. Thankfully the beach side of the road is being spared any construction.

It’s a beautiful city oceanside. There are frangipani trees, poinsettias, trees clipped into pyramid and cube shapes, coloured paving stones, sculptures and lots of happy people. There are a few cafĂ©/bar places along the beach – but low key places.

In the evenings around five o’clock the air cools considerably and people come out to stroll along the front. We saw people, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s doing exercise – qigong, calesthenics and jogging.

The Cruciverbalist Caper: On our first day in Nha Trang Ian went skin diving. Since it was Sunday I thought I’d try to find an International Herald Tribune Sat-Sun edition (for the NYT crossword). I knew from past experience that it can usually be found at hotels like the Crowne Plaza, Marriott etc. I walked all over town for the right kind of hotel with no joy. By 11:30 a.m. I was overheated and worn out.

Later I was telling Ian about my efforts and the lack of the right kind of hotel. He pointed and said “What about the Sheraton?” Gobsmacked I was! I didn’t feel optimistc but I could leave no stone unturned.

The Sheraton is on a corner with the main door on a side street and another on the beach road. We went in the main door. What austere, elegant emptiness. The lobby was enormous soaring three stories above us and with a tiny reception counter and an even tinier concierge counter. Both counters seemed to be suspended cream-coloured stone slabs. Behind the concierge desk was a beautiful smiling female VN automaton. A woman actually but rigid. I askd if there were any newspapers available. I tried French too (remember the good ol’ colonial days?). Her eyes darted back and forth – English, Vietmanese, French, Vietnamese. Finally, smile intact, she pointed far across the lobby to a woman in a black suit.

As we made the long journey across the lobby the black-suited woman walked out of sight. As we neared the spot where she had been we saw that it was the entrance to an austere, elegant bar. I thought the stuff on the counter was menus.  No! Be still my beating heart – the IHT!!

I picked it up thinking I’d ask to buy it or tear out the xword. Ian, in a complete departure from his usual ‘do the right thing’ stance said “Put it in your purse!” We snuck into a little alcove, I stuffed it in my purse and we scampered out the second door without seeing another soul! It’s true – addiction leads to property crime!

The puzzle was a difficult one (or I’m out of practice) and after three days I threw it out.


I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t taking anymore buses. The night train to Danang was full on Monday night so we had more time in Nha Trang. We went to the hotsprings for a mudbath a mineral soak and a foot massage. They tried to sell us a VIP private room with full body massage etc for $155. I can only imagine what hanky panky goes on in the VIP rooms.

We opted for a non-private deal. I wasn’t crazy about the mud part. They ran a tub for two with muddy water (or very watery mud) and we were supposed to sit in it for 30 minutes and then sit in the sun and dry out. I lasted about 20 minutes mudding and drying.

The we went to a mineral tub for two. The woman had a gallon thermos jug with her and when our tub was full she emptied the thermos which had boiled water and two softball sized herbal pouches. I sniffed and sniffed but I couldn’t tell what the herbs were.

She left us with instructions to sty there 45 minutes and then get up and put on the flimsy shorts and tank tops she left behind. She also left us some tangerines and water.

The tub was in a jungle environment, ficus, ferns eucalyptus, hibiscus. There was a bird or lizard that started out with a chirpy kind of sound that then turned into a creaking door sound.

The two women who showed up to do our feet were great fun. As Ian’s ‘therapist’ moved her hand up his thigh he gave me a furtive glance. The women didn’t miss a beat and in sign language with lots of hoots they made jokes about the male anatomy! Ian was very calm and cool about it. Then it was my turn. My gal reached over and rubbed my nipples. If I’m not mistaken she called them mosquito bites!

They asked if we wanted a full massage, not just feet. We hadn’t paid for that. “No worry madame. You pay us. But ssshhhh, no tell.” Then she dragged her finger across her throat like she’d get axed for taking our money.

This was the deal. The spa charges $6 for a full massage of which the masseur gets less than $1. Being one with the people we snuck the bills to them directly for a clandestine massage.

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An Asian pleasure I’ve always enjoyed is toothpicks. They’re on every table. Yesterday I noticed I was picking my teeth to the trance music! I have no idea how long I’d been at it when I ‘came to’.


Motorcycles and scooters are the primary means of transport. We stood on a corner looking at all the scooters going by with little children on them. I once saw a woman driving with one hand and holding an infant close to her chest.

Some people use a seat like a baby bar stool. The legs fit on the ‘floor’ of the scooter and the seat of the stool is about even with the seat of the scooter. The babies seem to have great balance and they know intuitively? not to move around. I guess they get nine months in utero training.

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Night train to Hoi An. A much better way to go especially with a little blue pill. We bedded down about 11:00 in a compartment with four berths – two up, two down. Our compartment mates were a VN woman going to a gender issues workshop and an older man.