St Cosme - Original

Whether it’s remotely logged into work, waiting hours to switch between email messages in Outlook (literally, I’m not exaggerating {all that much}) or watching muay thai fights while I bounce the wee one up and down to keep him happy, I have spent a lot of time on this laptop over the past six weeks.

In the last few days, I decided I should figure out how to use the Photoshop software I’ve had for about six years and have only used to resize or crop photos. Yes, I have a sledgehammer when what I really needed was a pair of tweezers.  Oh well. Thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of tutorials, I’ve put a few to work. Continue reading

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Last year for Christmas, a group of us went to Ha Giang Province. You might have missed that blog post because it didn’t make it onto the website. I’m going to try to do better with this one and get it up during January.  More relevant than being a year late in writing about Christmas in Ha Giang in 2011 is because of that trip in December we had planned to come back in the Summer time to see the green rice terraces and be in the warm air. Well, we were late. At least not as late as the yet-unpublished 2011 Christmas in Ha Giang post. Instead of Summer, we arrived on the 28th of December. Needless to say, it was chilly.



How chilly? Well, I can’t give you a temperature, but let’s just say when the plan for the next three days is to ride motorbikes through the mountains on windy roads, there is little thought of being warm. Let me clarify the plan, though. See, the plan was actually to ride two 100-mile legs on two separate days. Because the roads were windy, the visibility less than good at times, and some of us were terrified drivers (mainly me) it took about 6 hours of riding to get where we needed to go.  Same held true for day 3.

The point is, even with all my clothes on – long john’s, pants, rain pants; ice breaker wool long sleeves, undershirt, t-shirt, sweater, sweatshirt, windproof jacket, and backpack (front and back); gloves, balaclava, and helmet – I was still cold.  All of us were cold. It just reminded the three of us who had gone to Ha Giang for Christmas last year why we resolved to come do this motorbike trip in the Summer when it was warmer.

The merry band was six crazy folks who decided riding motorbikes through a remote province in along the border of China and Vietnam would be fun. There was actually no question about whether it would be fun. The only question was how terrified would I be riding on windy roads where I could become an unwanted ornamentation for a truck or bus barreling around a blind corner.

We made it. There’s no point for the blow-by-blow account of the trip. It pretty much went without a hitch.  That’s what happens when things are planned well and there are no road fatalities to report to the duty officer. This is a good thing.

Highlights, though, were the following:

I became an even older man on the trip, celebrating my birthday early with cake and egg nog from Don’s. Thank you to my wife for being brilliant enough to have me pay for it by disguising the exchange of money with our friend as ‘it’s a baby gift I’m splitting with Jessica’.

Our drivers were both crazy. The driver on the way up had the slimy snake-skin oil salesman aura ooze from him as he less-than-casually told Adam that business was bad and he needed more money … after our contract rate had been set at $125. The driver on the way down was slightly deaf and decided to stare down (and run off the road) a grandma-grandkid on a motorbike who did not move out of his way after he honked. And he mumbled to himself, a lot.

The scenery was stunning.

Pass looking toward Meo Vac There were only two tumbles off the bike. I scraped my shin as a result of one and the last of the eggnog was shattered and splattered on a foggy mountain road. The mountain gods were jealous and took what they thought should be theirs.


Selling Stuff

The morning market in Meo Vac was interesting, but not as colorful as the one in Hoang Xu Phi. Also, one of my friends later learned that Meo Vac is the place that Vietnamese parents threatened their kids with. Or perhaps I should say, “You had better eat your swamp vegetables because there are starving kids in Meo Vac.” Yes, sadly, the karaoke house operator gave us bum info when he told us Meo Vac was more developed than Dong Van. Perhaps next time, we’ll not consider the person who runs a karaoke ‘room’ from the front of their house as the best source of information on what’s happening in the next town.

In Meo Vac, we tried to find a bar, could not, so wound up drinking a beer at the café on stilts right next to the restaurant where we ate dinner and directly across the street from our Nha Nghi.

Daily Trudge

The poverty of the people living in the hills is soul crushing. I have seen quite a bit of fraud in Vietnam, but little comes from a place like Ha Giang. Why is that? You need some resources and some hope for a fraud scheme to work out. The folks there don’t have a glimmer of hope for a better life and surely don’t have the resources. Depressing that this beauty can’t be better tapped to provide a living for these hearty folk who live in the mountains and mostly walk places with heavy loads on their back.

Surprisingly, there was little traffic. There were a few big powder-blue trucks that looked like they had rolled out of the 1950s, a few mini buses, but otherwise, very little traffic. It just reinforces the perception of poverty. At least if there were commerce, there would be more traffic. There is nothing.

Rather than end on such a downer note, let’s pick back up the pep and remember the grilled, seasoned pork that they served at the Truong Xuan Hotel. Absolutely one of the best meals in Ha Giang. I’d even argue it was probably some of the best meat I’ve had in Vietnam.

And with that, I’ll sign off.

Hẹn gặp lại

Hẹn gặp lại

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Marjie woke me up: “Chris, it’s 4.40!”I practically jumped out of bed. “How? I must have turned off the alarm I was so tired.” I distinctly remember setting the alarm for 3.45am. I hear gnats farting at night, how did I miss my iPod’s melodious cricket chirping? It turns out, that I set the alarm for weekdays, not saturday, so … we had 20minutes to get to the bus station.

Somehow, we made it. We did manage to leave most of our snacks and water behind, but at least we’d be out for a fun weekend. We arrived right at 5am, the designated meeting time with the VietClimb group. Luckily, the bus didn’t leave until 5.20. A few hours later, we arrived in Haiphong, transferred to the ferry, then back to the bus for our 30minute drive to Cat Ba city center. That was about 5.5hrs. It was relatively painless, though. Hoang Long bus service provides a door-to-door service.

From there, we hopped on a boat, grabbed the kayaks, and had lunch on the way to our climbing spot. Yes, climbing. VietClimb organized a deep-water soloing tri. What is deep-water soloing? It’s when you climb up the limestone karsts all around Cat Ba island without ropes and jump into the water when you’re done.

I managed to do a bit, but wow was I a wimp. I hate falling. I don’t care if I’m on a top rope, I don’t care if it’s water, I hate falling. It’s a healthy fear that is augmented by my overdeveloped evaluation of the long-term future consequences that arise from sport-related mishaps. I think it’s why I was never destined for greatness in sports. I’m just not a risk taker.

Yet, here I am, 30 feet over the water, thinking about how burned up my forearm muscles are and I haven’t even gotten to the hard part of the climb. I thinking: “can I cross my legs before I hit the water without making too many girly noises?” The answer turned out to be yes.

In my second climb, I lost my nerve a bit. I couldn’t get beyond the easy part, again, and I couldn’t just jump straight into the water. What now? About 10 minutes of dithering while the next climber impatiently waited for me to get out of his way.

Luckily, we found something more my speed. Hanging upside down in a cave about 4 feet above the water. Even though I wasn’t strong enough to get all the way through the route, it was still fun to try and certainly less terrifying to fall.

We did a few more climbs, then headed back to the floating house where we would spend the night. Of course I have no photos, and in retrospect, of course I wish I had taken more. Instead, you’ll have to use your imagination. The house floats on all sorts of styrofoam boxes and the like. Surrounding the living quarters are nets where the keep fish, squid, and crabs. It’s basically a farm at sea. There was a massive grouper like fish in one of the pens, these fish that were ready to eat you in another.

The best part about the trip was the karaoke. None of the climbers really wanted to karaoke, but the boat captain did. So at 9pm, when most people wanted to pass out, he dragged folks from the boat to their house where boot-leg moonshine was passed around and wretched music was sung horribly.

Around 10pm, the skies opened up, dumping tons of water. It was part of some storm that swept across SE Asia. Let me tell you, the rain on the corrugated tin or aluminum roof was deafening. Luckily it made it easier to not hear the music. There was lightning, massive booms of thunder, then the slow steady drip of water from the ceiling into a spot about 3 inches from my space. That wasn’t annoying at all, or wet.

The next morning, it was a bit breezy and the water was pretty choppy. A few folks got a bit seasick. Rather than put the boats at risk crossing a wide open channel with large white capped waves, we headed to a protected lagoon. Eventually, the wind blew the clouds out to sea and we had a gorgeous day.

Here is the link to Tim’s collection of photos. He’s a professional photographer, so, his photos are nice!

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So, I organized a trip to Cắt Bà Island, just off the coast of Hải phòng. It was a group of eight in total going for two nights and basically two days on a boat in the karst filled bay just to the east of the island. You’d think that the planning wouldn’t take too much effort, but if you want to do something fun that isn’t exactly by the book, you need to organize, organize, organize. And so, it took about two weeks of back and forth between the guy who helped me sort out the details on Cat Ba and the folks going on the trip to settle on a plan. That’s two weeks right before we left, but the initial planning started about four weeks before that … for a two-day trip.

After all that work, a crap ton of emails with specific requests, types of cars, when we were doing what … the driver showed up on Friday with a Ford Everest that had exactly seven seats for seven people. Except, if you try to cram seven tall Americans into a Ford Everest for a 2.5hr drive, you have a smelly cranky bunch. Why fuss? Oh yeah, I had asked for, and we paid for, a 16 passenger van. No blame – these things happen, but it doesn’t make them any less frustrating.

OK, a little blame. The driver seemed very nice, but when he talked to me, he said he called a car and it was close by. When the person who booked the driver talked to him, he told her that we refused to get in the taxi she requested him to pay for. First, I hate bastards who lie for money, which would apply to that driver. Second, it’s rush hour in Hanoi. Nothing happens quickly.

One hour later, the second driver arrived. At least it was a nice, clean car driven by a very conscientious man. He used all the signals, followed the speed limits, and stayed in his lane. He beat the other driver who apparently drove like a madman.

Unfortunately, the hour delay meant that when we arrived at the bia hoi in Haiphong – Cang tin 74 aka Vươn Dừa (Coconut Garden) – they had sold out of all the food I was looking forward to. No squid, no tofu, no sea fish, no pumpkin. Instead we managed to eat some beef, dirt-tasting river fish, different green vegetables vegetables, and some clams. It was tasty, aside from the dirt fish, but not the meal I had in mind. Ah well. So much for the plan.

At least the Hoang Hai hotel was solid. They had been super attentive in their correspondence with me, going over the room assignments multiple times, calling me on the phone multiple times. And we sorted the whole thing out in Vietnamese. Crazy that I feel comfortable doing that.

The next morning, the plan was that we’d be on the 45 minute fast ferry to Cat Ba. Unfortunately, we wound up on the 2hr regular ferry. Why? Because the people taking the tickets don’t actually care to look at them and point you in the right direction. Employees in the harried tourism business only tell you when you’re not supposed to be somewhere. In this case, the company operated two ferries, one slow and one fast. Either was fine with the ticket we had, but I suspect we overpaid for the service we did receive.

Haiphong Port

Haiphong Port

Luckily this slow boat to Cat Ba turned out to be a good thing. Folks enjoyed watching the port of Haiphong pass slowly by. The weather was nice, the sun threatening to peak out from behind the clouds. And we were able to be above decks to feel the humid river air rush on by.

Unfortunately, the hour delay (there seems to be a theme developing) meant that instead of being able to climb where I wanted to climb – Tien Ong cave – we stayed much closer to the Viet Hai boat landing. I suspect we probably could have made it to Tien Ong, but neither the captain nor the Cat Ba island organizer wanted to burn the gas. Who knows? Regardless, we had fun.

View Cat Ba (Aug 2012) in a larger map

See, the whole reason I wanted to go to Cat Ba was to recreate the climbing weekend I had in early July. I wanted to go with more of my friends and focus on climbing. As different friends joined and dropped out, made requests, and offered great suggestions, the trip morphed a little. Still, at the end of the day, we were going climbing. As such, I wanted to go to places that were easy for my sake – climbing with a moderately broken toe – and for my friends, most of whom have climbed little or never.

The joy of climbing around Cat Ba, from a boat is that you don’t need ropes. Just climb up, jump in to the water. It’s that fun. It’s deep-water soloing.


Kayaking to Lan Da

Unfortunately, the tides were a bit low. This made getting on the routes more challenging. The action of the tides has worn away the base of the big limestone karsts that we’re trying to climb. When you’re trying to get from a kayak that’s basically about six inches about sea-level onto something about four or five feet above you, you’re looking at something that’s pretty overhung to start with. If you’re not used to it, it’s a pretty tricky start. Which is why, a bunch of my friends were unable to get up at either Lan Da or Hai Quan climbing spots.

Viet Hai Village – Whisper Nature Ecolodge

Jean at VietClimb who helped organize the Cat Ba side of the trip recommended we stay at the Whisper Nature Bungalows/Eco-resort. Again, folks in this part of the world seem to throw the word resort around a lot. I think they realize Westerners have an idea of what a resort is – pampered living – and often the Asian ‘resort’ falls far short of this.  Whisper Nature is a  very cool place, but it is not a resort. Not that I wanted a resort, but I do find it amusing that it is called one.

Viet Hai View

Viet Hai View

The bungalows are concrete blocks that have wood-paneled interiors, thatch tops, a basic bathroom/shower setup, and an A/C unit. Most importantly, they have mosquito netting to protect you from the bugs that can come in during the night.  The manager and his wife at the bungalows were super friendly and made a great meal for us.  Basically, the husband talked to one of my friends and kinda asked him what he wanted, then he ran off to the market to buy it.  What’s amusing is that the wife is about eight months pregnant, yet she is the one who needed to be in the kitchen and waiting for the last guests to arrive.

Viet Hai Biking

Viet Hai Biking

The next day, we road back to the pier. Did I forget to mention that the Viet Hai village is inside the Cat Ba National Park and is accessible only by boat at the pier, then a 6km bike ride, or by hiking through the park?  We didn’t know about the bicycle part; for some reason I thought motorbikes were going to take us to the Bungalows.  No, the motorbike was for all our gear.  Luckily, we knew about the hills on the way back, so we could prepare mentally for the trip.

We headed to One-Pillar Pagoda, then onto the Fish Cave (Hang Ca).  At One-Pillar Pagoda, the climb was easy enough that everyone could get up to a ledge to jump the roughly 15 feet into the water. We spent most of the morning here before heading to the Hang Ca climbing area. I didn’t remember Hang Ca being filled with lots of garbage a month ago, but it was filled this time.  The climbing area just on the other side of the cave was scummy on the surface and had lots of debris floating around.

One Pillar Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda

I tried the same route I tried the previous climbing trip. I climbed up no problem and even managed to jump into the water without too much difficulty.

And that’s about it. The ride home was pretty painless. We had a 16 passenger van, so we could all ride together. We stopped in Hai Duong for the original 9 Minute Chicken from the Ga Hoach Manh restaurant. Stringy because it’s gà đi bộ (a chicken that spent a lot of time walking around).

(All photos courtesy of Spencer.)

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We went for our pre-summer vacation to the tropical island of Phi Phi somewhere in the Andaman Sea between Krabi and Phuket (see the map below for a better orientation).  Vietnam celebrates “Reunification” Day on April 30, marking the fall of Saigon in 1975, and International Labor Day on May 1. That means we in the embassy, who also observe local holidays, got a four-day weekend.  Marjie and I chose to extend it through the end of the week, allowing us to get to Koh Phi Phi.

View Larger Map

We went with some of our friends with the express purpose of diving.  The last time I had been diving was in the Red Sea back in June 2005 when I hoped to find the sea filled with fish. Sadly, I didn’t and I hadn’t had an opportunity to dive since then.  Marjie has also talked often about wanting to learn to dive, so going to Phi Phi right at the cusp of the low season where weather conditions conspire to limit visibility seemed like a no brainer.

We went with two of our friends, taking a stop in Bangkok on both ends of the Island experience. The last time I was in Bangkok, I was a backpacker, staying at The Atlanta Hotel down off Soi 2 Sukhumvit Rd. I used the Atlanta as my home base while I toured around S.E. Asia. I also dreamed about the next delicious meal I’d eat in their restaurant.

This time, we stayed elsewhere. We stayed at Aspen Suites, down off Soi 2 Sukhumvit Road … yes, just down the block from the Atlanta.  This was Marjie’s first visit to the city, so she was excited. There was shopping to do and pad siew to eat.  I was equally excited, though shopping was not my main motivator. The food was. Despite Hanoi’s proximity to Thailand, the food doesn’t cut the mustard. This is not to say Hanoi doesn’t have good food, that would be a lie because it does. Rather, I haven’t heard or tasted good Thai food in Hanoi. You can’t fool a native (our Thai friend) and unless you’re authentic, you can’t compete with the Thai restaurants in DC.

Luckily, our Bangkok-local friend and foodie, recommended Som Tum Nua at Siam Square. Her husband regularly gets sticky rice, bbq chicken, and some other dish I can’t remember. The restaurant serves the spicy food of Isaan in the northeast part of Thailand along the Lao border.  After having read a few Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett novels, I had a new appreciation for Isaan and enjoyed every last bite of the dishes we ordered.

Marjie fell in love with the Gourmet Market in the Siam Paragon Mall, which is about a stone’s throw from Som Tum Nua.  What did we love?  Just that they sold half-and-half. Of all the things to miss while living in Vietnam, milk has been the toughest to adjust to. We both love our coffee laden with cream or half and half, neither of which is available here. Some looking to split hairs would say you can get cream here, but no one can argue that it tastes the same as home and that it’s so heavily fortified with stabilizers, preservatives, and transfatty acids, it’s not worth drinking. Yet, here in a Bangkok supermarket, we have half and half. We didn’t buy any, but knowing it was there was enough.

Koh Phi Phi

The trip to Phi Phi was an early morning (6am) flight followed by a taxi to an hour and a half long ferry.  Talk about grueling. In contrast to Vietnam, though, the roads were not rutted and the poverty of the rural Krabi province didn’t seem quite as stark as the rural parts of Vietnam that I’ve seen.  It’s an observation that makes sense when you go looking for per capita GDP numbers and find Thailand’s is about USD8k and Vietnam’s is about USD 2.5k.

On Phi Phi, we spent the first few hours looking for good food. We wound up at That Orange Place and had probably the best meal for the entire time we were on the island. Later that evening we sorted out our diving schedule with Aquanauts, a dive operation managed by a laid-back Dutchman and complimented by a great staff of divers who have been on the island and doing their dive thing for years.  My buddy and I needed refreshers, while our wives need the full basic course.

Plans set, we began diving the next day. A refresher requires you to redemonstrate all your basic skills like fin pivots, buoyancy control and of course clearing your mask.  I absolutely hate having water in my eyes, so the thought of taking my mask off underwater did not excite me at all.  Ugh, but I did it with no need to repeat. In short order, my buddy and I were done and ready to enjoy the underwater world.

I was a little apprehensive about diving again, but after the first dive, I was ready to see some cool fish. My best diving experiences had been in Thailand and even the choppy, slightly murky waters of the low season did not disappoint us. We saw sting rays, sharks, a turtle eating a fish, and cuttlefish. Overall, exactly what I had hoped.

Moray Eel, Phi Phi Diving May 2012

Bad M.F.

Back on the island, we chatted with the dive staff who have been around since the 2004 tsunami.  I was in Bang Tao, on Phuket Island, shortly after the tsunami. I know it was hit pretty hard. The organization I was with eventually moved to Koh Phi Phi to help with rebuilding efforts, it had been hit much worse.  In 2012, the infrastructure – buildings, bars, beach, shops – all appear to have been rebuilt. The people, however, still live with the trauma of the tsunami.  Earlier in April or so, there was a tsunami warning. Our dive instructors said it was disheartening to see the Thai people freak out, showing that mentally they still live with the scars of the tsunami.  All is not well on the island paradise.

Sunset Clouds, Phi Phi May 2012

Clouds at Sunset

Phi Phi is definitely a backpacker haven. There are bars with loud music. Not my scene. It never was and never will be.  Luckily, where we stayed – Aryaburi Resort (a resort in name only)  - was quiet. I think they simply added resort to their name so they could charge people who don’t know any better (i.e., us) more money without providing much. Breakfast was fine, but nothing special.  I usually eat eggs.  I get to do a lot of travel in Vietnam with work and I’m used to being able to explain what I want in Vietnamese. It was very strange to be in Thailand and not be able to explain in Thai.  I felt a little vulnerable and very much the foreigner.

Overall, we had a great time. It was nice to have some activities, have some down time, and have some friends to share everything with.

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So, this past weekend, the guy who runs the VietClimb climbing gym organized the 2012 Gravity Games to highlight the urban sports in Vietnam.  The opening ceremony had some folks demo their skills riding their BMX bikes, doing their parcour flips, working their push hands, precisely inline skating around small obstacles, and juggling the soccer ball.

There were more activities, but … climbing is what consumed most of my time.  I entered the competition to show that Hanoi does have a climbing community. I’m happy to say I completed all the routes I attempted, which put me in the final 8.  Yes, the final 8. Before you think that means I can actually climb well, let me attribute it completely to a slightly strategic series of decisions on my part to take advantage of the scoring system.  There was no value in trying a hard route you couldn’t complete. If you didn’t complete the route, you got no points.  I completed much easier routes and got points every time.  Like I said, there were much better climbers than me who should have been in the top 8, but I didn’t push myself like they did … and I was rewarded.

Just to be clear though, there were 9 competitors  …. Just kidding. We actually had about 20 or so men and women.  It was great to see.  The original plan was 10 routes, but then Jean cut it to 5, then to 4 due to time constraints.

Between rounds of climbing, I did manage to see a few of the other events going on.  There were parcour kids jumping over obstacles, BMX and in-line folks doing the half-pipe bringing back childhood memories of not ever being able to skateboard.  There were also the skateboarders.  What was neat, for me at least, was that the folks doing this really were kids.  Just give them about 10yrs and they activities that put them on the fringe of Vietnamese culture and society may become quite mainstream.

I got this clip of some kids in the popping (I think that’s what they’re calling it) demo.

At the end of the day, you could see the traditional Vietnamese culture pressing on the urban sport culture.  There is little open space in Hanoi, so people squeeze their activities into any space they can find, hence the appeal of activities like parcour, climbing, and theatrical street soccer skill displays.  The more traditional Vietnamese past times, by traditional I mean what I see everyone doing since I’ve arrived, include badminton, walking, and gyrating in unaesthetic, inathletic ways that leave me wondering how they haven’t dislocated their back or shoulder.

The two worlds collided when the skaters had to move their platform to make way for the folks setting up the badminton nets. The park which had been open enough for skaters to get speed quickly filled with people from the neighborhood using the park.

Dong Da Park Around 5pm

Left is the Climbing Area, Right is the main stage

Overall, it was a beautiful day weather-wise and it was fun to be there, feeling the energy from the competitors and the participants.  Next year, mark the 2013 games on your calendar.

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Cao Bang Trip Map

Made w/ Google Maps

Over the Hùng Kings Death Anniversary weekend (aka, 3-day holiday weekend), we went to Cao Bằng province way up in the north of Vietnam on the border with China.  It’s only a 200km away (about 125 miles, give or take).  But, I think I mentioned our trip to Hà Giang in December. You know, 8 hrs in a car one day, 4 the next, then back home in another 8, douchey driver, gorgeous mountains.  Well, Cao Bằng has similarly rugged geography, so we were in for a treat.  I just didn’t know how special the treat would be.

But who are these Hùng Kings that they warrant a day off work?  Well, I don’t know them personally, so I looked them up on the most trusted reference website on the Internet … Wikipedia of course.  The article, which needs citations and rambles a bit, says that the first Hung King is the child of deities Lạc Long Quân (the Dragon King of Lạc) and Âu Cơ.  Apparently the marriage didn’t last because Long was from water (nước) and Âu Cơ was from earth (đất). So they parted ways, he going south, and she north. Each was followed by 50 of their children who had sprung from Âu Cơ’s magical egg sack. The eldest son who went north became Vietnam’s first monarch –  Hùng Vương.  So naturally, he needs a holiday.

In present day reality, the trip organizer wanted to transport us back into this magical time and land by having the driver loop from Hanoi to Lạng Sơn to Cao Bằng back to Hanoi through Thai Nguyen.  Take a look at the map I’ve posted of our three-day trip, except replace the word “trip” with “ordeal” and you’re closer to what it actually felt like.  None of us had really paid attention to the itinerary and location of any of the destinations on the itinerary.  Our trip organizer wanted to have us visit Pác Bó Cave, where Ho Chi Minh planned the revolution, visit the Bản Giốc  waterfalls, a cave near by, an ethnic village, and then head home.  All, great, except for the roads. The roads directly tie to the title and the math exercise we’re going to go over at the end of the post.

Truck on Side (Cao Bang, near Ban Gioc Waterfall)

Bumpy Road, yes, it's a truck on its side

Did I mention the roads were bad?  Apparently, no one told this driver, because they overloaded the truck so it could fall over onto its side when the uneven patches and bumped nudge the heavy load just past the chassis’ recovery point.  These guys are lucky. Lucky, their truck didn’t wind up falling off the side of a hill.  Better yet, they’re lucky they didn’t ride motorbikes head on into a bus. Yes, we saw all this on the roads in north Vietnam within the span of about 30 hours.


Over the edge

Over the ledge

What exactly did we see?  Well, we hit traffic between Lạng Sơn and Cao Bang town because there was a massive truck with a wench trying to pull a semi and trailer up a hill. The semi had gone over the hill a few days earlier. This was entertainment for the locals until one of my friends started passing out cookies.  Then he became the entertainment.

After we made it to Cao Bang, we headed to the Pac Bo caves, about an hour away, then headed home around sunset. We hit another traffic jam.  Up ahead, two bodies lay covered by a piece of cardboard, a motorbike, a small impromptu shrine with half-burned incense sticks, and a bus whose windshield had a head-sized shatter pattern on the driver side window.  According to the locals who gathered at the scene, the accident had been cordoned off since about the time we went to Pac Bo – around 4.30pm. It must have happened shortly after we passed by. The problem was the local police had been unable to fill out the accident scene report.  Part of the problem could have been that when one of the policemen was practicing his flame-spitting routine for the traveling carnival earlier in the day, but he got confused about whether to spit or swallow the alcohol, so he swallowed mouthfuls of pure grain alcohol and wondered why he wasn’t spitting flames. How do I know this was what he was doing?  Well, let’s just say if I had been smoking (which I don’t) when he came to tell me and my friend to get back on the bus, we would have seen the trick work from the alcohol fumes emanating from his mouth about 3 feet away.  In case the description is a little to tongue-in-cheek, the po po was wasted.

While ignoring the police man’s request to go back into the van, only after complying and watching him walk away to look officially drunk elsewhere, one of the bystanders told someone in our group the bus driver had left the scene and gone to the police. Our trip coordinator later explained Vietnamese law allows this because often times the family shows up to the accident scene and kills the driver of the vehicle that killed their loved one. Our trip coordinator also, with a straight face, told us she knew something like this would happen because we had passed by two weddings earlier in the day. It’s bad luck to not stop at a wedding. It’s also Vietnamese tradition to be wary of the ghost of people who die on the road. To help the hungry ghosts (ma đói) get home, the Vietnamese throw a little bit of money on the ground.

Our met our final road incident when we left the Ban Gioc waterfall, beginning our long, long, long bumpy return to the hotel in Cao Bang.  I don’t need to explain that load planning and road condition checks are not a regular part of the transportation industry’s pre-departure checklist. As you might imagine, really heavy, tall loads on bumpy roads that make things sway violently might lead to some tricky situations. Like the one where the load swing so far beyond the truck’s ability to counter balance it that the truck falls on its side. I’ll bet the guys in the cab were banged up and probably a bit dazed, but at least they were alive.  Again, locals gathered and watched as the traffic backed up in both directions.  They had no incentive or reason to help, so they joked and giggled as one of my fellow trip-goers began digging away at the high embankment (that you can’t see in the photo above) so our driver could pass.

You just have no idea how remote and isolated these places are until you get there. It simply reminds me how amazing the roads are in the U.S.  When I was growing up, we’d do a road trip to visit my grandparents in New Orleans. My sister and I always knew we were in Louisiana because the road quality went from good in Florida to the tha-thump of the Louisiana highways. Still, even these relatively poorly maintained roads would be diamond standard roads pretty much anywhere in Vietnam.  Heck, even the beach road in Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina was in better condition than some of Vietnam’s paved roads.  Distance becomes meaningless because the road conditions don’t let you drive with any appreciable speed.  Instead, you talk about how long it takes to get from one place to the next.

Cao Bang Time Pie Chart

I like data

All this driving meant we were in the car for about 8-12 hours on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday – all three days of our three-day weekend in honor of the Hung Kings. Now for that math problem. More precisely than 3 days, which implies a full 72 hours, we left at 6am Saturday morning, so our clock starts then. We were back on Monday at 6pm. That gives us 60 hours. Let’s pretend we slept for 16 hours (8 each on Saturday and Sunday night), so we have 44 left over. Now take away the time in the car – roughly 29 hours – that leaves 15 hours not in the car for the weekend. A majority of that time was lunch, dinner, and waiting for the next “activity” to start. We spent about 5hrs doing activities in the North – like visiting the waterfall and visiting the market across from our hotel.  Please see the pie chart for visualization.

Between long stretches in the car, we did manage to see the waterfalls and visit an ethnic minority village.  I think they were ethnic Tay people, but what I loved was the massive tree marking the cluster of homes that were surrounding by big limestone hills and flat, greening rice paddies.  The setting was stunning. The girl staring blankly at a water buffalo is a stark reminder that we, the outsiders, get to go home to books, Internet, TV, and other modern amenities. They have few prospects for to leave the mind numbing tedium of village life. The women will work in the fields, cook, and raise children while the men occasionally work, often drink home-brewed rice whiskey, and join in the field at critical times.

Upper Falls

Bản Giốc, Upper Falls

Village Life, Bored

Village Life, Bored

We cut our trip to the village a bit short, mainly because we needed to get back to the hotel and the thought of riding on terrible roads in the dark was terrifying.  But, the entry of the town’s policeman into the home where we had already sipped down home-brewed rice whiskey, and his subsequent filling of the rice whiskey bottle helped precipitate a prompt exit from the man’s home.  There’s something just strange about a group of 8 men and boys sitting around at 5pm in a house sipping shots with no women to be seen except in the field.

Luckily, we made it back to Hanoi without incident.  Lunch outside Thai Nguyen was delicious, the road was paved, and the driving relatively smooth.  We passed two funerals, therefore our trip organizer knew, we would have good luck.  Why? Just like passing a wedding is bad luck, someone else’s death and mourning is your good fortune for getting to avoid more hungry ghosts.

Would I go back to Cao Bang?  Absolutely.  The landscape up there is the landscape that captured my imagination years ago and made me want to visit China. Huge limestone hills, rocks, and massifs dot a pastoral landscape.  It’s remote, the air is clean, and borders have all sorts of interesting things that happen there.  Next time, I’ll take more time.  Of course, I said the same thing about going to Hà Giang … so who knows.

Full photo set on Flickr.

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Vietnam has a lot of limestone. They use it to make concrete (as in scraping massive limestone karsts away bit by bit), they use it to make temples (as in, put a shrine in a cool looking cave), and we use it to climb on (as in, put in some bolts and let’s do a little sport climbing).
I’m hardly a good climber, but I do enjoy it. This weekend, I was able to go out with the folks at VietClimb for the first time to the climbing crag about 25km to the west of Hanoi in the rural district (huyện) Quốc Oai, right on the premises of the Hoang Xa temple (Chùa Hoàng Xá).
I took a taxi out there because I’m still a bit terrified to drive a motorbike through the traffic of Hanoi. It’s just too easy for me to imagine myself smashed up by an idiot truck driver or cut-off by some punk kid texting on his phone. Though many Vietnamese text while riding their motorbikes, young boys here, like in most places in the world, are the absolute most dangerous people on the road. Lucky for those of us in Hanoi, taxis are not terribly expensive. For me, the $15 cab fare in a Thanh Nga taxi is like insurance and well worth it.
I wasn’t exactly sure where the crag was. Jean, the owner of the VietClimb gym and the main architect of the bolted sport routes in Quoc Oai, said there was a map on the website, on the Facebook page, etc, but I couldn’t find it. At least I knew to look for the temple. As you drive out of Hanoi, though, it’s pretty flat. When you see a big limestone rock rise from the rice paddies, and it’s the only one around for miles, it’s probably a good guess that you’re in the right place.
It turns out, I was. I wandered around the town for a few minutes asking where the temple was and quickly found a group of folks crowded along a narrow dirt path, climbers aloft and belayers below. I was in the right spot.
I climbed four routes and then my forearms were done. Though I go pretty regularly to the VietClimb gym, climbing short indoor routes doesn’t necessarily give you the endurance to climb long routes up. It’s more incentive to do more outdoor climbing. Despite being weak, I enjoyed the routes because, for a beginner like me, there were plenty of big handholds to rest on. I made it to the top of three routes, and gave up on the longest one. Next time.
It was fun being outside, it was fun climbing, it was even fun hearing the man in the rice paddy yelling something at the water buffalo. I even enjoyed the view from up high a few times. Next time, I’ll climb up there with my camera.
What makes the spot special is not necessarily the routes; you can probably find more spectacular stuff elsewhere. Rather, it’s the setting. We’re in a rural village just outside Hanoi where life doesn’t appear to have changed much in the past one hundred years, except by what is in the shops and how people get around. Buildings are run-down, people work in the fields. There just isn’t a whole lot going on. Still, there was something really charming about the place.
What is charming about a town trapped in poverty? Nothing. Except perhaps their reaction to me, seeming to be the only westerner they’ve ever seen, when you consider these folks only live about 25km outside Hanoi, have motorbikes, and likely have been to Hanoi many times. After I finished climbing, I headed to look for a taxi along the big Thăng Long highway that runs into Hanoi. I walked through the rice paddies where people were bailing water from irrigation ditches into the paddies. At a bend in the path, there was an old lady, young boy, and a guy on a motorbike watching. The boy shouted “Westerner!” (in Vietnamese of course). I said, “Yes, there is a Westerner here.” The kid didn’t hear me because he was too busy pointing me out to his friend who just rode up, but a man on the motorbike chuckled. I should have asked, “Where?”
It seems strange that so close to Hanoi, the presence of a westerner can be the source of excitement. It must seem equally strange to someone living in Hoàng Xá that a big limestone rock that has been in their village forever would be the source of a westerner’s excitement.

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In November, I went to Huế to give a talk to physics students who are in a mirror program with the best university in the world. I am, of course, talking about the University of Virginia.  It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since I graduated from the school or how little I’ve contributed to any of the school’s funds, I love UVa and proclaim it pretty much any opportunity I have.

To be offered the opportunity to sing the praises of UVa and the Physic Department, as official business, well that’s an opportunity too excellent to resist.  My talk was not so blatantly rah-rah UVa, but more along the lines of my life experiences that brought me to be talking to the 40 or so students gathered around that afternoon.  The theme of my talk was that getting an education in physics is one step toward having a career outside the box.

I was not surprised that no one had heard about the “box” in Vietnam.  I actually planned on this and gave them concrete examples of what the Vietnamese student “box” is.  The box confines students to want to work in a bank or be a manager in a company after they have studied business administration, finance, or accounting.  The stereo type of “Asians” studying in the U.S. is that they study engineering, right?  The graduate engineering and science schools are filled with them.  But as soon as you start looking at where those Asians come from, you find they’re mainly Chinese or Korean.   The Vietnamese are in the MBA programs as far as I can tell.

As with all generalizations, there are always exceptions to the rule.  That goes without saying. But when you’re trying to define what the “box” is to a group of young students, making light of the fact that all their peers are looking to study business to do business is the best way to turn our overused metaphor (is it a cliche?) into something they could actually use.

I was surprised that when I went out with a few of them for dinner that night, that the “outside the box” thinking is what stuck with them the most.  No, I’m not narcissistic to be sad that they didn’t say my life was the most interesting part of the talk, but I didn’t realize that would be the part they would joke about later on.

Overall, the talk was fun.  As much as I try to encourage audience participation, there were only a few people who raised their hands to speak when I asked questions or asked for comments.  Later the professor who helped organize the event said “We have the same problem when the visiting professors come. The first week they’re very quiet, the second week they’re not so shy, and by the third week, you can’t shut them up.” Based on his assessment of the students, I should feel happy that I got any response on day one.

I talked about the student visa process, what a visa really is, and about some scholarship opportunities through the Embassy (Fulbright) and through the university (fellowships).

Aside from the talk with the students, which really was the highlight of the trip, I had some other related work that had me run around the city.  My impression of the city is that while it is scenic, it is depressed.  Vinh City in Nghe An province may not be a tourist destination, but at least there are car and motorbike dealerships all over the place.  There is obviously money flowing into the town.

Hue on the other hand, looks stagnant.  Even the taxi driver we had said there were no big companies or factories near by to employ people. Tourists would come for a day or two, then keep going to Da nang or Hoi An.  They would tour the tombs, but not really spend much money in the city.

You could see the taxi driver’s commentary backed up by the small shops and businesses that lined the streets.  There were no big-name shops, there weren’t really any big shops at all.  There were some places to buy motorbikes, but there weren’t any obvious car dealerships.  Traffic in general was not a problem.  At rush hour, there were lots of cars on the scenic bridges connecting the two sides of the city, but this was not Hanoi or HCMC.

What stood out in my mind was the hospital that we visited.  It is a huge facility in the middle of the city that has been supported by Japanese and U.S. donations.  There is a cardiac wing, a general ward, a ward for pregnant mothers, and has a full range of imaging modalities.  Basically, the doctors there said if you get hurt anywhere in the middle of the country, you’re going to wind up at that hospital.  It’s the best.  It’s probably better than most of the hospitals in Hanoi.  So, if there is any place to get hurt in Vietnam, it’s in Hue.

Although you would think that a large hospital like this would be an anchor for jobs and businesses in the area, the problem is that the jobs are mostly government jobs on low salaries.  So, it’s not quite the same as a hospital in the US that would have well-paid doctors and administrators who sink money back into the local economy.  Although doctors wind up getting paid in Vietnam, it’s not based on their salary, it’s based on the inducements required to facilitate expedient service (aka: no money, no treatment).

I’ll finish by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed being in Hue.  The city sits along a beautiful bend in the Perfume River, has a number of neat hotels that overlook the old citadel, and has some good food if you know where to find it.  That said, there is a poverty that lies beneath the surface of the nicer looking tourist areas.  Don’t be fooled, but enjoy nonetheless.

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Stylish Coat

The Stylish Coat I was Never Allowed to Wear, circa 2005

What can I say about Hoi An, the UNESCO designated World Heritage Town?  How about: “Deliciously relaxing, relentlessly sewing garment town?”  I came to Hoi An in early 2005 and loved the town.  I have to say it was one of the highlights during my travels through Vietnam.  Despite the local’s efforts to persuade you to buy, buy, buy, the town seemed like a great place to relax.

Six years later, just as many garment shops line the streets, with all their employees inviting you come in to have something made.  People selling tourist trinkets still demanded that you buy from them.  Western tourists – young backpackers and older, package-tour travelers alike – still mostly outnumbered the Vietnamese in the old section of town.  Little appears to have changed.

I don’t remember much from Hoi An the first time around except that I loved the food, I loved sitting by the river and looking at the boats, and I got a bunch of clothes made that I really didn’t wear much.  My better half always made fun of one of my coats, so I donated it to the New York Cares Coat Drive.  Now a needing New Yorker now has a pretty flash winter trench coat.  I also donated most of the rest of the clothes I had made in Hoi An, but I do still use the stuff sacks.

This time, I didn’t really want any clothes made.  I’d like to say it has to do with an intellectual stance that stems from a graduate degree in development, talking with visa applicants in the garment industry, and reading Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, but really, it’s about being lazy.  You would think that getting good clothes in Vietnam would be easy.  Lots of the good stuff we wear in the US is made here, right?  There are tailors everywhere begging you to let them make beautifully fitted garments for you.  Your imagination is the limit.

Well, the global distribution chains preclude the good quality stuff from being available here in Vietnam.  Those clothes are made for export. Many companies even buy the cast-offs so they don’t wind up diluting the brand image by being available overseas.  And, then there’s the fact that I’ve done it once and remember the back and forth that goes with getting your clothes fitted – anything that isn’t super simple requires multiple fittings from people who really don’t care.  How can you when you’ve got dozens of different people everyday coming through your shop?  Well, OK, you can, but your pay is not determined by the perfect garment, rather the garment that gets that paying customer out the door and onto their next city.  Because when you’re on holiday, what are the chances that you’re going to come back and complain?  So quality, in general, and easy are kinda out.

Then you add in that I know that the person who made my shirt or jacket or coat earns about $200 per month, at most.  More likely they earn about $150 a month.  Yes, you read it correctly.  One hundred fifty dollars.  I have it on good authority – the workers themselves.  A group from Da Nang came through and I asked each of them what they made. That’s what they told me.

So, when someone says a shirt will cost you $20, you know the worker who spends say 2 hours making that shirt gets somewhere between $1.40 and $1.90 of that $20. The rest is materials, rent, wages for the English speaking staff who took your measurements, and of course profit.  As Pietra points out in her book, the girls in China who are working in textile factories are so much happier doing that in deplorable conditions than the alternative life they left on the farm, where mind-numbingly tedious repetitive tasks await them.  It’s likely the same for the folks in the shops and garment factories where they work in Hoi An.  Still, there’s something galling about the store-front person charging $20 when the person producing what I want doesn’t even see 10% of that.

ArchitectureSo, with all this in mind, I was happy to just look, enjoy the clothes in the windows, enjoy the architecture of the old town, and soak in the little bit of sun we could get before the tropical depression arrived. And arrive it did.  Before we get drenched, though, we got to do my favorite thing: eat.  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but eating is so much more pleasant when you’re not soaking wet.

My better half did a great job planning for the trip.  She found a highly rated cooking class at the Morning Glory Restaurant.  Let’s just say my faith in Vietnamese food has been revitalized by the delicious dishes we cooked.  I don’t know much about traditional Vietnamese cuisine, but the heavy use of sesame seed and oil, as well as the “Chinese 5 spices” leads me to believe that Chinese traders in the town left their imprint in the cuisine as well as the architecture.  Regardless of who can claim credit for the delicious cabbage soup, the to-die-for mango salad and barbeque chicken, or the bánh xèo, I ate it all and was very, very happy.  The pace of the class was good, as were the portions of food.  The only complaint is that the hard stuff – like some of the pastes and sauces – was already done for us.  But, if that’s my only complaint and the plate below is just one of the things we made and ate … I’m fine with that.



Back at the hotel, we rested and stayed out of the rain.  For the money, the Hoi An Pacific Hotel was just fine.  It was more expensive and lacked charm.  It was a big Asian hotel.  There’s not much more to say.

Bargaining with people was interesting.  Now that I speak some Vietnamese, it’s a lot more interesting and challenging.  It’s interesting because I can actually talk to them – a little.  It’s challenging because in Hoi An, they speak with the “yuh” of the south.  I would say something like “ow zai” and they would say “ow yai”.  You think that’s not much, but through it into a native speaker’s mouth, at the native speed, add in some weak everyday life vocabulary of the listener (me), and you’ve got a real mind bender coming into your ears when all you wanted to know was how much this thing cost.  It’s not a southern drawl to the New Englander’s ears, it’s a bit more like Spanish and Italian.

In talking and observing, I learned two things.  First, the girl working at the state-run shop selling lanterns and stuff has a ninth grade education.  She said her family had no money for her to continue school, so that was it.  Where is the nearest Blue Dragons office? And why didn’t someone put her there?  (Answer: Blue Dragons has the Hoi An Children’s Home that helps kids who would otherwise drop out of school, and I don’t know why she didn’t go to them.).  What change can this girl see in her future?  Marriage and kids.  That’s about it. I know what makes me sad – it’s not her choice to work in that shop, it wasn’t her choice to stop going to school.  She was born into a family that doesn’t have much money and she’s just stuck in that cycle.

The second thing I learned is that when you actually know what something costs, you’re much better at bargaining.  Let’s go back to dress making.  Marjie has a cute dress that she wanted replicated, except the dress is more like a Sunday outing dress than a work dress.  If you just lengthen the skirt part below the knees, then you could.  Easy, right?  We walked into one shop and asked how much it would cost to replicate the dress.  The employee said $55.  I laughed, said we bought it for $12 in Hanoi, and we walked out.

This simply proves my point. We know what it cost to buy it off the rack.  The other person didn’t. She took a wild guess for a price we might think is reasonable and came up way outside the bounds of what makes any logical sense given that we know about how much it should cost.  Even when you add in a premium for tailor-fit clothes, you would think the cost shouldn’t get much higher than about $20. Oh well.  Next trip, we might try to negotiate from the position of “This cost us $12 in Hanoi, can you make it for a competitive price?”

Though the 9th-grade dropout story makes me sad and the crazy prices of the shopkeepers irritates the crap out of me, I do love Hoi An.  Good food, cool architecture, and best of all, my better half bought 10 small lanterns for $4.  Now that’s a bargain.

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