Friday, December 29, 2006

Zen and the Art of Crossing the Street

I'm here in Hanoi and beginning the final stretch run. The idea of having to go back to work sucks pretty much, but what can you do?

I spent three days in Hue, which is in central Vietnam. Hue was pretty cool. Lot's of cool stuff to see (albeit a lot of it under renovation). The first day I wandered around on foot for a few hours. I went to the Hue Citadel, historically the center of politics and religion in ancient Vietnam and the scene of some of the hardest fighting during, as they call it here: the American War(see, I can read the plaques and brochures). The place is huge, and surprisingly serene. There are the obligatory rusting hulks of captured American armored vehicals in areas outside the Citadel. What surprised me to a certain extent was that there was no mention of the war at all once you got inside the complex itself. The whole thing was interesting but wore thin after about the third hour of walking, so hoofed it back to the hotel for a shower and some dinner.

The next day I hopped on one of the boat tours up the Perfume River to some of the tombs and temples. This was a fun trip that lasted just a tad too long. The boat trip itself cost only $2, but they don't tell you about the ancilliary costs such as the entry fees to the sites, the "free lunch" on the boat, etc. I think I ended up spending something like $25 all told. Some of the tombs and temples are really quite impressive. One tomb site (which I can't remember the name of and probably couldn't spell it if I could) was a fairly sprawling complex amid small lakes and trees that was very peaceful. It was the kind of place that, if not for the time contstaints of the tour, I could've lingered at for quite some time. The other impressive place was the tomb of the last emperor of Vietnam. The outside is a huge structure built in the side of a mountain that is impressive in itself although covered in the pervasive black mold that covers so many buildings here. Inside, however; is almost overwhelming. It is guady splendor in all it's glory. Every wall and surface is covered with fantastically ornate glass and ceramic bass relief imagers of dragons, flowers, birds, and gods. I did manage to sneak one picture even though you're not supposed to photograph anything ( I'm a baaaad boy).

The one glitch on the trip happened on the way back to the boat from this tomb. Somehow I managed to lose the money I was carrying. I'm not sure how it happened, but it led to the embarrassing spectacle of me haveing to borrow money from a guy on the tour, so I could pay the motorcycle guy who brought me back from the tomb to the boat. Granted, I only lost the equivalent of about $4, but still. There was one more stop after the emperor's tomb which I didn't go to, but by that time we were 7 hours into the tour and things were wearing a bit thin. I think everyone on the tour was pretty happy when we finally got back to the docks and got off the boat.

The coolest thing that happened to me in Hue was meeting Mr. Ti. As I was walking back to my hotel after the boat tour, a guy pulls up next to me on a motorcycle and asks me where I'm from. Having been asked this question 10,000 times from guys on motorcyles I said, "No thank you!" This has become an almost standard response to just about anyone who approaches me (unless it's a bartender). The guy persisted saying that I reminded him of his brother-in-law in America and wanted to know if I was American. I'm thinking to myself, "Oh Christ. This one's going to be hard to get rid of." But he finally said that he didn't want my money, he just wanted to talk. Still a bit suspicious, I hopped on the back of his scooter and off we went.

Mr. Ti turned out to be a very pleasant guy of about 50 or so (who can tell how old these folks are?) who did genuinely just want to talk to an American. He took me to a small cafe and plied me with food and beer. We talked about his rather extensive family (many of whom live in the States), his hopes for travelling, the state of Vietnam's growing economy, and a number of other subjects. After about eight beers and some shrimp and squid, Mr. Ti asked for my e-mail address, said he had to go pick up his daughter from school, and drove me to my hotel. I hopped off the back of his bike, said good-bye, and stood there for a minute or two thinking to myself, "How 'bout that?"

The one thing the has impressed me so far where ever I've been here, is how truly friendly people are. Nobody snarls at you like they sometimes do in Korea. Even the touts aren't nasty when you turn them down (In fact, it's become a kind of game with me to find creative ways to turn these folks down without using "No thank you").

Now I'm in Hanoi. It's been fun so far. I went to Minh's Jazz Club last night for some live music. The place was a bit on the expensive side (as things go here), but the band was smokin', so it was all worth it. I found a cool bar in my wanderings today called the R&R Tavern. I chatted and played pool with an old pot-smoking vet from Nebraska named John, and I'm going back over there after dinner because they have a rock band that's playing tonight. I also talked briefly with one of the owners of the place, and he said it's a teacher hang out, so I might finally get some info on what it's like to teach here.

That is all for now. See ya!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve, Hoi An, Vietnam

Well, it's been an adventure since I last wrote.

My trek north started on the 19th (I think). I took the new express train from Saigon to Nha Trang (the Vietnamese are quite proud of this train). The trip started off on a bit of a bad note simply because, a) It was 6:15 in the morning and, b) the minute I got out of the cab at the Saigon train station, I was assaulted by touts. For most of this trip I've been very patient with the constant stream of people in my face giving the hard sell for everything from postcards and motorcycle rides to prostitutes and pot. However, in the morning, still dark outside, brain somewhat on the fritz, these guys are just a bit too much to handle. Needless to say my frustration broke it's bounds a bit. I mean really, I had just gotten out of a cab at the train station. Why in the hell would I need a goddamned motorcycle taxi! Once I finally figured out how to get INTO the train station and then on the train, things calmed down a bit. I had great hopes of being able to watch the countryside go by from the train (one of my favorite ways to travel anywhere), but the minute the train got going I was out like a light. I slept almost the entire seven hours. I must have been snoring quite a bit as well because eveytime I woke up, the people working the train would give me these amused smiles that said, "You are a funny guy when you sleep."

Once I got to Nha Trang, I checked into Le Suisse Hotel. I highly recommend this place to anyone traveling through Nha Trang. The people who work there are fabulous. They are extremely helpful and friendly. One of the women there basically got me set up from there to Hanoi with train and plane tickets, plus hotel reservations in Hoi An and Hue. The beauty of it is, it all cost about $60 (including the flight from Hue to Hanoi). I LOVE this country!

After settling in, I went wandering around Nha Trang looking for something to eat and a cold beer. At first, I thought Nha Trang wasn't really all that, just a bunch of bars and hotels. That all changed the next day when I went down to the beach. I love the ocean, always have. But in the last few years, most of the beaches I've gone to have been protected by reefs or harbors. This means there are no waves. Nha Trang Bay is open to the elements. There have also been a number of storms recently, so the waves were HUGE! I walked down the beach for about four hours listening to the crash and boom, and feeling the surf flow around my feet. With each wave, I could literally feel the stress washing away. It was glorious. Apparently the water of Nha Trang Bay is a pristine turquoise blue, but at this time of year, the run of from the rains into the bay turn it a kind of greenish brown color. This, however; simply is...who cares, lol. It was windy and cool, and the water was warm.

After my day on the beach, my whole attitude towards Nha Trang changed. I was completely revitalized. I went out that night and had a great time stopping for food and various places for beer and some pool. One place I stopped in is a bar called Crazy Kim's. This is a cool place for a number of reasons. The atmosphere is quite mellow, the food is good and the beer is cold. I even met someone from Daejeon while I was there. The really cool thing about this bar is how active the owner and the staff are in the community. Kim, the owner, has been running a one woman campaign in Nha Trang for the last few years to help eliminate child prostitution in the city. Her campaign, "Hands Off The Kids", has gained international recognition. The bar also runs free English classes for street kids staffed by western volunteers (both vacationers and people that live there). 15% of all the proceeds from the bar go to her various charities, plus all of the money from t-shirts and other souvenier items. It's pretty impressive. I didn't buy a t-shirt, but did put in about $20 for a Christmas toy drive they had organized at the bar. Figured it's the least I could do.

My last day in Nha Trang was spent doing the touristy things like going to the Po Nagar Cham Towers, and the monster sitting Buddha, both of which are pretty cool. I did get totally suckered at the Buddha though. I got out of the taxi and was greeted by to kids with tour guide badges who were quite friendly. They offered to take my picture in front of the Buddha for me, all the while saying that because they were orphans working for the site, they wouldn't run off with my camera or anything. For some reason, my normal suspicions of, "what's the catch" (there always seems to be a catch), left me. Needless to say, by the time I left I had an abundance of postcards and a bit less money. The girl who led this little tour had enough English to appreciate my joke at the end that she'd hooked a great big fish.

The next day, I got on another early train (5:40 am) for the 12 hour trip to Hoi An. This was not the express train. I was booked in what is called a "soft sleeper". This is a four bunk berth which is supposed to be great because it has a door. I felt a little weird as I plopped my stuff on the bunk with two people sound asleep across from me. After the initial weirdness wore off, I laid down and fell asleep (worried even more that my snoring would wake the others in the berth up). However, it turned into a fairly pleasant trip. My companions were a nice Vietnamese couple on there way to Hoi An for Christmas. They spoke enough English so that we could have a conversation. I also was awake for most of this trip, so I got to see some of the countryside.

Getting to Hoi An was the easiest part of my trip because the woman at Le Suisse had arranged for a car to pick me up in Danang (where the train stopped) and drive me to my hotel. Hoi An is a pretty quiet place and obviously the tailoring capitol of Vietnam. Yesterday I spent some time getting measured for shirts and a pair of shorts which I'll pick up today. I constantly get comments on the size of my belly, but even I had to laugh when the tiny seamstress tried to reach around to measure my waist. She had to get pretty up close and personal and still couldn't do it.

Anyway, I'm off to find some breakfast and then wander around some more.

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A lazy day

First before we get into what this whole is really about, THE REDSKINS WON!! Go figure. They can't stop the bad teams, but when it comes to the highest scoring offense in the league, they smack 'em right in the kisser. I'll never understand this team. They play their best football for nothing...sigh.

Anyway, today is my last day in Saigon, and I'm taking it very easy. I got out of bed around 9am and watched the first half of the Colts game before wandering outside for some breakfast. Found a great place, La Cantina, which serves a mean western style breakfast. I have to catch a train tomorrow at the ungodly time of 6:15 am, so I'll probably be in bed fairly early.

Yesterday was spent on a one-day tour of the Mekong Delta. It was pretty interesting, in that we saw a coconut candy factory (oddly situated in the middle of what appeared to be a cemetary). The tour also touted it's honey bee farm, which turned out to be one dilapidated hive next to the candy factory. They also had a boa constrictor for people to hold and take pictures with. It's really amusing to watch how squeamish people are around snakes. Two girls in my tour group wouldn't take pictures wit the snake unless I held it. It was quite funny. The last part of the tour was taking small canoe-like boats up a channel through the bamboo groves to another little tourist hideaway (trap) to eat local fruit and be serenaded with traditional Vietnamese music, which included a two-string banjo rendition of Jingle Bells...sigh).

After that, we hopped on our main boat and headed back to the bus to take us back to HCMC proper. I would've enjoyed this trip more if they had skipped the touristy parts and just stayed on the river. For one, it's much cooler on the river, second, I would've rather floated around in the bush. But that's just me. The other problem with this tour was the 4 hours spent on the bus (2 hours each way up and back), but again, for $6, who am I to complain.

Well, I'm off to find a place in the shade to drink a few beers and watch the traffic. For those of you who haven't been here, traffic in HCMC No...mind blowing might suffice. I'm amazed by the simple fact that I've seen no accidents. Crossing the streets is an exercise in calm. It's almost zen-like. If you hurry, you're gonna get creamed. You have to move at a moderate, patient pace, with motorbikes and cars whizzing by you on all sides and from literally all directions. The key is not to stop. You keep moving and the drivers adjust (most of the time anyway) to your direction. And I thought Bangkok was crazy. Ha!

See y'all on the flipside!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Here it is, day 3 of my excursion to Vietnam. It has been pretty damn cool so far. I got in Friday afternoon around 3pm. I had my first Korea-in-Vietnam moment while getting a cab from the airport: the taxi driver insisted on pointing out my relative girth (you just can't get away from it).

Anyway, I'm staying at the Le Le Hotel (recommend it highly) in the Pham Ngo Lao area of Saigon. For $20 a night you get all the amenities, plus a really great location from which to explore the city. The first day I just wandered the neighborhood near the hotel, had a couple of beers and turned in fairly early.

The next day I was up at 6 am, showered, had a cheap breakfast of greasy eggs and bacon (I had Vienamese noodles (pho) for breakfast today, and I'm sticking with that from now on), and went of exploring. The Lonely Planet guide suggests a walking tour of the sites, and I decided to do that. I made my own version of the tour (meaning I got lost several times) and eventually found the Independance Palace, the History Museum and City Hall. The history museum was fairly interesting with different photo displays and artifacts. There is of course, a very pro Vietnam slant to all the displays with their references to imperialists, valiant comrades, and what not. The one thing that troubled me was the gift shop. This is because they sell many vintage zippo lighters as well as US military dog tags. Somehow I just don't think these things were willingly donated for the edification of the museum. How supremely odd it would be to actually buy something like that?

After checking out the Independence Palace (which by the way has a very uninteresting tour through the underground bomb shelter) I was waylaid by Sit the cyclo driver. Now Sit is a very persistent guy and if it hadn't been for the fact that I'd been walking around for about 4 hours in the heat (oh yeah, IT'S FUCKING HOT IN VIETNAM), I would've blown him off.

Now the next place I was going to go was the War Remnants Museum. However, Sit told me that the place was closed from 11-1:30pm, and it being almost noon, recommended a place for lunch (he probably gets a commision from the lace, but I don't care; i was hot, thirsty and hungry). The food was cheap and filling, the beer was cold, and Sit was quite companionable company. After lunch, Sit took me over to some Buddhist temple which was interesting enough if you're into that kind of thing. After the temple, I decided to leave the museum until the next day (I'm heading there after I finish this) and went back to the hotel for a shower and a nap. Sit, as pleasent and knowledgable a guide as he was, then of course tried to stiff me for the cost of the ride. Now I know that pedalling my fat ass around town is no mean feat, I still was not going to pay him the $40 he wanted. I managed to talk him down to a reasonable price (actually, the dickering back and forth was kind of fun). I still probably over paid him, but I am fat and it is damn hot. LOL

After a 4 hour nap, I headed out to find some food and a comfy bar to have a few beers. In this I succeeded quite splendidly, Having a wonderful chicken stir fry at a place called Eden Cafe and then playing pool (kicking ass I might add) and meeting people from damn near everywhere at Go Go2. The shock came later that night when I wandered back to my hotel to find it shuttered and locked up tight! Perturbed somewhat by this turn of events, I went down the street to another cool bar I had stopped in (Cyclo 163) to ask what one does in this event. fortunately, the solution was a simple ring of the doorbell, and after 5 minutes I was happily in the shower and on my way to a very sound sleep.

That is all for now. I'll have another update in a couple of days.

PS: Why can't students just accept their grades and quit whining like little babies. I only planned to come online to write this but nooooooooo. I had to spend 20 minutes answering emails from students as to why they got such and such grade. Grrrrr.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Well, the Skins made a game of it but...

I watched the whole Eagles/Skins game. I wrote the earlier post during the first quarter when it looked like the Skins were going to completely implode and get trounced. However, they managed to get back in the game by giving the ball to Ladell betts and dominating the Eagles on the ground. Jason Campbell, after to costly picks in the first half, looked poised in the second; converting a number of key third down plays and a pretty throw to Randle-El for a touchdown.

The loss, however, sits solely at the feet of the coaches. All throughout the game, Betts ran roughshod over the Eagles D. The Eagles simply couldn't stop him. Betts ended up with a career high 171 yards on the ground plus a few catches. All through the second half, the Skins D came up big as well with a number of key stops. What happens? On the potential game WINNING drive, the Skins get 1st and goal at the Eagles 3 yard line. How'd they get there? One trick play and pounding running by Betts. What do the coaches do? Replace Betts with T.J. Duckett: No Gain. Call a pass play: Incomplete. Call another pass play: 10 yard sack. Field goal. Sigh. Guess what? They needed a touchdown. A TOUCHDOWN WOULD'VE WON THE GAME!!! But no.

The play calling on that series was ultimately more damaging than the rookie mistakes made earlier by Campbell. Gibbs for the past two weeks has been calling for Redskins football which means RUN RUN RUN!! The team has done that between the 20s. However, in the past two weeks, when it counted most, the coaches abandoned the run and squandered the game. Could you possibly imagine the Gibbs Redskins of the early 80s with Riggo (or any RB for that matter) with a 1st and goal at the 3 not taking three shots pounding up the middle? Betts averaged almost 6 yards a carry today for Christs sake! Give him the damn ball and let the O-line do what it's paid for. I guarantee the Skins score.

The Skins have the highest paid coaching staff in the league, not to mention the fact that they have about 50,000 coaches on the sidelines, but they can't see the logic in good, old fashioned, gut check, smash-mouth football when it counts. Talk about too many cooks in the kitchen.



The Redskins simply and unequivocably SUCK.

Looks like it's going to be a few more years of quiet desperation as a Skins fan. Sigh.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Welcome to my weekend...

This lovely pile of stuff is what I get to tackle this weekend. Five classes, 125 students, and more fun than you could shake a stick at. Between final exams (starting next week), grading hobby projects (the picture), and getting all the grades, attendance sheets, and other miscellaneous bullshit in order, my brain should be on the fritz in no time.

Now, in order to approach this amount of work, one must prepare appropriately. What this means, of course, is that I'm going out tonight and getting absolutely shitfaced(Hey! It's Friday and the last day of classes!). One of my classes invited me out for an end of session dinner, so I can blame my future inebriation on them.

Regardless of all this crap, I'm very glad this semester is drawing to a close.