Monday, January 31, 2011

Two Vietnam: Grey Skies Over Nha Trang

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It was on my bus out of Ho Chi Minh that I realized I had been living on a relatively small island for the past two years. The bus just kept going and going and never seemed to be going anywhere; it took us thirteen hours and around 450 kilometers to reach Nha Trang, and I kept thinking… where’s the water? Are we going in circles? On Panay Island, where I lived in the Philippines, 450 kilometers would have been sufficient to cross the entire landmass several times over. In fact, a list of land-routes in the Philippines exceeding 450 kilometers would be short indeed – crossing Luzon north-south and Mindanao both ways, and that’s about it.

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This was my first “sleeper bus,” though it was a day trip and I didn’t sleep. These buses basically have seats that recline almost to horizontal, which is great, but there’s no place to put luggage, which is not. Everything has to go in the compartment under the bus or, if you must carry it on, behind your seat… which prevents it from reclining all the way. I had my laptop and camera in my backpack, so I wasn’t about to let it leave my sight.

Even so, the sleeper buses are more comfortable than regular ones for long trips. I would much rather have taken a train, but I managed to time my trip to coincide perfectly with the two weeks before Tet, when Vietnamese all over the country are returning home to celebrate the holiday. The tourist scene has been relatively tame – I’ve had no problems at all finding accommodation and frequently I’ve been stuck with half a dozen restaurant staff staring at me as I eat, being the only patron in the place – but transportation has been a touch more complicated. I had hoped to ride some trains in Vietnam, but they seem to have been booked solid for weeks.

So buses it has been. I would say my sleeper buses (which cater to tourists) have been roughly two-thirds foreigners and one-third Vietnamese. I was seated next to one of the latter group for much of my trip to Nha Trang. We attempted to converse, and after a lot of scribbled notes and gesticulating we were still a long way from understanding each other, but it was an enjoyable way to spend several hours. Hai was a college student in Ho Chi Minh returning to her home in Phan Rang for either the weekend or the holiday. She asked me to help her with English, which I did awkwardly and inefficiently, and in return she taught me some Vietnamese phrases that I still can’t pronounce. We shared some food and laughed together at the sleeping Russian kid next to me – his tongue lolling and eyes rolling – and she made the usual comments about my hair.

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Nha Trang itself was different from what I’d expected, probably because the only really developed beach-resort-area I’d been to in Asia was Boracay. Boracay was a beach, with lots of hotels and resorts and restaurants and stalls thrown directly onto that beach. Nha Trang seems much more intentional: the beach is contiguous with a substantial city, but most of the structures are built off the beach itself and separated from the sand by a road. And the beach is more park-ish, with walking paths and playgrounds and whatnot.

The place was less raucous than I was led to believe – no doubt thanks to the time of year; Nha Trang certainly contained enough tourist infrastructure to host a Little Paris, Germantown and other suchlike transient international communities – and I saw nary a patch of blue sky during my entire stay. That was fine – it never got too cold, and the ocean was pretty in the greyness even if I didn’t swim in it. Mostly what I did in Nha Trang (this is going to become a tiresome refrain, I’m afraid) was eat.

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I stayed four nights – I hung about for a long time here because I wanted to relax and recover from a lingering illness – and I managed to avoid ever going to the same restaurant twice. Including coffee breaks and dessert stops, I probably hit at least twenty-five cafes during my time there, and almost all the food was good. Actually, the only thing that disappointed me was the pho, which was much inferior to what I had gotten in Saigon.

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I did explore the town to some extent and found some lovely winding back alleys. I was a bit skeptical as always about the foreigner-friendly market with its brand-name t-shirts. Sure, there were also rows of bottled and preserved scorpions for sale, but in context they seemed about as exotic as jars of pickles at a grocery store.

On a positive note, I also visited a photography gallery exhibiting the work of a local Vietnamese artist named Long Thanh. It was marvelous. His photos – which he takes on black-and-white film and develops himself – are stunning scenes of daily life in Vietnam. They’re exactly the kind of photos I admire most: the kind that recognizes the beauty in something mundane – the kind that shows the photographer’s love and admiration and respect for his subjects.

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My next destination was Hue, but I didn’t make it to Hue. After twelve hours or so on the road, we had to switch buses for the last stretch. As I and my fellow passengers stood in the drowsy early-morning air, waiting for the pickup, I looked around at the pleasantly old buildings and and thought… Actually, this looks good. And so I trudged off to find a place to stay for one night in Hoi An.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One Vietnam: Café Saigon

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The inescapable thing about Ho Chi Minh is the motorbikes. Every light change unleashes a flood – a deluge – of humming bikes, flowing three or four to a lane. Riders clutch bags, bunches of vegetables and small children as their mounts tilt and buck. Crossing streets in Ho Chi Minh (which is still often referred to as “Saigon”) requires a little bit of courage and a large amount of faith, but the effort is paid off by the magical feeling of deadly metal machines speeding inches from your body and the conviction that you could sit down and host a picnic in the middle of the highway without getting nicked by the skillful drivers. I saw people drop things from bikes, I saw them leaning at impossible angles, but I knew I’d never see one fall.

And technically I didn’t. But my bus out of Ho Chi Minh slowed at a bottleneck caused by a twisted, ruined bike lying meters from a white-sheet-covered lump. Bright red blood was seeping out from under the sheet as gawkers on the street and in passing vehicles stared.

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But in my personal experience, bikes will, with a minimum of fuss, swarm around pedestrians like ants skirting a puddle. What makes these scenes more striking is the sheer dominance of motorbikes as the preferred mode of transport; Manila’s traffic may have been just as chaotic, but its mix of jeepneys, motorbikes, tricycles, pedicabs, buses and private vehicles gave it a fitfully competitive atmosphere. In Ho Chi Minh, the bikes at times almost seemed to be running on rails and according to timetables.

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I didn’t get to witness this spectacle immediately because I arrived from Manila some few minutes after midnight, when the streets were quieter. As usual I had nothing booked in advance, my only guide being the words “Pham Ngu Lao (budget hostels)” scribbled on the back of an ATM receipt. Pham Ngu Lao was the section of town where one could, or so I had read, find cheap accommodation. I didn’t know where it was and I wasn’t even very confident about its pronunciation.

This did not go over well with the Chinese-Filipino student with whom I shared a cab. (He had approached me with the ride-sharing suggestion at the currency-exchange desk of the airport. I suppose I was the least-threatening traveler on his flight.) We made small talk during the ride and he (rather nervously, I thought) pointed out the hammer-and-sickle insignia that adorned walls and signs along the sidewalks. Maybe he thought I was a little bit cracked to be wandering communist Vietnam’s largest city after midnight without any kind of plans, but – in Pham Ngu Lao, at least – this seemed to be rather the norm.

I dropped into bed, exhausted, as soon as I found a hotel with somewhat reasonable rates. In mid-morning I got up, left my hotel, and started eating. I haven’t stopped yet.

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My first meal in Vietnam was, probably, the best pho bo I’ve ever eaten. Now, this was in a highly-touristed area and I make no claims as to its legitimacy as Vietnamese cuisine, but from that point on I craved the beef noodle soup at least a little every day. In form it was similar to pho I’ve had in the US and the Philippines – broth with rice noodles, onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime and cuts of beef – the main difference being that the broth was much richer than I’d tasted before. I had to force myself to eat other things. Luckily, nearly everything I’ve eaten in Vietnam has been either delicious or really delicious. The highlights from Ho Chi Minh were crispy fried Vietnamese noodles and ostrich steak. And oh, the coffee…

I’d never before liked Vietnamese coffee, which in its typical form in the US and the Philippines is a sickly orange mix of condensed milk and a bit of coffee, sweetened to candy-like proportions. Well, in Vietnam I’ve had coffee every day, and usually two or three times. The coffee is usually served sweet, but I hesitate to just call it “sweet coffee” because that implies (to my mind) an entirely different taste. Suffice it to say that I’ve never had coffee like it before, and that has been my loss. It’s thick and strong, cheap (a small glass in a little local cafe is generally about .50USD) and especially good iced.

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I did things other than eating in Ho Chi Minh, though they were rather minor in comparison. I visited the War Remnants Museum, which is essentially an account of the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Its displays are suitably graphic – photographs of dead soldiers and dying non-combatants, preserved fetuses deformed by chemical attacks, recovered guns and burst shells. Many of the war’s iconic photographs are on display, including perhaps the two most well-known of all: Phan Thị Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack, and the execution of Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem.

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I also had some happy reminders of the Philippines. Four times in Ho Chi Minh I was stopped by people commenting on my curly hair, and – I thought this was so strange – three of those times the commentators were Filipino. Each time we had a lively conversation about Philippine dialects and food – “And menudo? Caldereta? Tortang talong, you know that?” – and I duly expressed my admiration for their country and how much I missed it already.

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Although my time in Ho Chi Minh was interesting, I was really looking forward to some time away from big cities. After all, since I finished my Peace Corps service in November I had been through Manila, Osaka, Tokyo, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong – all middling-to-huge metropolises. My first choice was Quy Nhon, a midsized and supposedly laid-back beach community about a third of the way up Vietnam’s coast, but a long and confusing discussion with my hotel’s booking desk revealed that all the trains were full and the buses were too. (I’m not exactly sure that this was, in fact, the conclusion, but after running around in some half-English circles, we definitely weren’t getting anywhere.) The conversation turned inevitably towards another beach community, one not as far as Quy Nhon and much more popular. I reluctantly bought the ticket for a sleeper bus, telling myself that no matter how tourist-infested the place was, I would at least have a pretty beach at my disposal. And my fate was set: I was going to Nha Trang.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Red sky Boracay

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Last year I passed into the New Year in Boracay; this time around I gave the holiday a miss and came a few days afterwards. (Thus avoiding “super-peak season” prices.) There’s little to be said about Boracay that hasn’t been said before – or, more specifically, that I haven’t said before. Since my site was only a few hours from the island, and since some travelers used Iloilo City as the entrypoint to Boracay, I’ve said a lot about it. It’s too crowded. Too commercial. Too much of a non-Filipino enclave.

But it does have a pretty beach and good food and, like all beaches in the Philippines seem to do, it faces west.

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Boracay is at its best when sun, sand and waves are all that exist – or when they are complemented by young locals placing their carefully lighted candles into sand lanterns, or busily shuttling cockroach passengers along the beach in toy cars. There’s a lot of ugliness on the island, but it still shines on occasion.

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I knew this second goodbye to the Philippines would be more definite – I won’t be making another trip there anytime soon, though I certainly hope to get back someday. This time, unlike in November, I had a ticket back to the US. But I still had two weeks before I would be making that last series of flights home. In the meantime, I had one last country to explore, and a little after midnight on January 20 I touched down in Ho Chi Minh City to begin a long crawl up Vietnam’s coast.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I went back to the Philippines

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Filipinos have a well-worn repertoire of national Sights and Spectacles to recommend to visitors. There’s Boracay, of course, the country’s dominant party beach; the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, a series of brown papillary bumps in the earth; the tarsiers, the world’s smallest primates, also found in Bohol; Palawan’s underground river. Many Filipinos have never visited some or any of these sights, but the list is pretty standard, and near the top of that list can usually be found the rice terraces of Banaue.

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For me, the most striking thing about the rice terraces is not their appearance, impressive though they are, but rather their sheer antiquity. Some of the terraces have been maintained by Luzon’s Ifugao since long before such a people as “Filipinos” existed. And for all of modern society’s accoutrements, the terraces remain in use in communities far from any oceans, cities or Jollibees. The finest terraces of them all (well, such is the general consensus) are etched into the mountainsides at Batad, which is a reached by a long trike ride and a longer hike from Banaue. Batad’s small local community caters to visitors with its many simple guesthouses, and foreigners are no odd sight – on our hike in, many of the locals we passed asked in proficient English if we needed guides or lodging in the town.

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The truth is that, while the terraces are worth seeing, I was more interested in the mountain culture and the people who lived in what I thought of as an inhospitable place. Many of the trails are impassable by anything mechanical, and even on the well-worn road out of Banuae we witnessed a jeepney struggling through the mud mixed up by recent rains. (We also came upon a mysterious earth-mover digging out a hillside in a place where there seemed absolutely no way to way to get the huge machine there – the trails up and down the hill were far too steep and narrow. It looked like it had been airdropped by a truly monstrous helicopter.) Of course people there survive, working their terraces and housing and feeding curious outsiders, but their adaptations to life in and from the mountains must be marvelous to “urban” eyes. Even their bodies change: we saw that many locals had feet with remarkably splayed toes, tweaked to better navigate the mountain paths that wind around their valley.

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I didn’t return to the Philippines a month after my service ended just to see the rice terraces, of course, but I liked the sidetrip. I enjoyed visiting Japan and China, but I discovered just how huge the difference is between traveling and living. Back in the Philippines I felt comfortable: I knew how to get around, I could communicate, I recognized a lot of the local quirks. The Philippines was my home for over two years, after all, which was not enough time for me to understand it, but it was enough for me to become comfortable with a lot of things that were initially jarring – and enough for me to welcome the sweet sounds of Ilonggo all over again.

I spent Christmas back at my center in Iloilo, after a harrowing ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) trip from Manila involving three cramped bus journeys, two intemperate ferry jaunts and twenty-seven total hours. A few of my coworkers knew I was visiting, but it was a surprise for nearly all of my kids – and I was mobbed before I even got inside the center. It was fantastic to see them again, to go through our well-worn routines and conversations.

My third New Year in the Philippines turned, and this time I had a ticket home. But I wasn’t redeeming it quite yet.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Five China: Hong Kong Pinball

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Hong Kong’s neon arms might be open to foreigners and foreign investments, but I had more trouble getting through its gates than I did entering the red border via Shanghai. After a long wait in line, my immigration official took my passport and scanned it. And scanned it again. And a third time. She flipped through the pages, peered intently at my Chinese visa and frowned. A second official conferred with her and then called me out of the line. After asking me how I had gotten into China – apparently ferries are suspicious – she pointed out the smears on my passport and all was suddenly clear. Likely some ink had run during the rainy days in Japan and that was enough to throw my documents into doubt. But soon enough I was inside and on my way through yet another big city.

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Actually, I stayed in two cities during my time in Hong Kong: one was Hong Kong itself, and one was Chungking Mansions, a sprawling global microcosm in the form of a single crumbling building on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Chungking Mansions does not exactly live up to its grandiose name, but its many budget guesthouses, food stalls, moneychangers and knockoff hawkers make it an interesting place to spend a night, to say the least. Aircon units stud its rusted façade like warts on a modern chimera.

I could find no desk or obvious check-in area at the first guesthouse I checked. I walked up and down the narrow hallways until a man stuck his head out of a room and asked, in some foreign accent, what I needed. I had no idea if he was officially connected to the guesthouse or not. He asked another random person in the hallway, who asserted that all the rooms were full; and so he walked me over to the next guesthouse, where again nobody was on duty. This one had a tiny desk and a telephone. He told me he thought room nine was empty. There was a phone number taped to the wall, and he dialed this to ask somebody – I imagined a suited, scarred figure lurking behind a desk somewhere in the basement – about vacancies. This absent person confirmed that room nine was available. My guide rummaged around in the desk – “I think the key is here” – and let me in, then told me “Okay, you just pay me now.” So I did.

This was my first private room since Kameido Weekly Mansion in Tokyo, and it came fully equipped with a TV, bathroom and even a window. I didn’t bother with the tiny television, but I thoroughly enjoyed the hot water in the slightly larger bathroom. The sink jutted out over the toilet and the shower implement knocked against the walls as I tried to maneuver it in the miniscule space. My window looked out over a dark, dirty alley and dozens of other windows just like mine. I only stayed Thursday night – my flight was early Saturday morning, and I didn’t want to blow the money to stay a partial night – and so I checked out on Friday and asked if I could leave my luggage there for the day. “Yes,” the surly clerk (there was a clerk this time) told me. I looked around for a luggage room or a desk big enough to hide my bag behind. There was nothing. The clerk glared at me under her brows. “Just here?” I asked, and she nodded like I was an idiot. So I dropped my bag in the middle of the hallway and left.

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Kowloon was crazy in the way that only an international crossroads could be. I bounced around the streets like a human pinball, jostled by the frantic crowds. At first – thanks in no small part to a throbbing headache developed over the course of my two-hour train from Guangzhou – I hated it. Couldn’t wait to leave. But after checking in to my guesthouse and eating a delicious beef curry on a quieter sidestreet, I started to appreciate the pace and the crowds. My first afternoon and evening I spent roaming Kowloon’s streets and then rushing to the wharf to take pictures of a gorgeous sun setting behind Hong Kong Island’s skyline to the south.

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Hong Kong is much bigger than most people, including me, probably imagine it. Most of the Special Administrative Region is green hills and undeveloped land; this, aside from my train ride in, I did not see. Kowloon is the district directly across the bay from Hong Kong “proper,” where most of the shiny stuff is. Kowloon is seedier and more interesting, but I also enjoyed boarding the venerable Star Ferry (which connects the Tsim Sha Tsui section of Kowloon with the Central District on Hong Kong Island) for a bumpy ride across the harbor that cost, in US dollars, about twenty-five cents. The metro also undercuts the harbor, but the Star Ferry is cheaper and more entertaining.

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But Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway is itself world-renowned for its efficiency. It is indeed impressive – although really all the metro systems I rode in China and Japan were pretty swanky – and the second morning I rode it up north to have a look at the prior site of the Kowloon Walled City. It’s now a park, and a pretty one, but a few decades back the Walled City was infamous: it was formerly an army garrison that was later colonized by locals who flocked to the lawless community inside. Crime and poverty ran rampant through its labyrinthine streets, where dog-meat vendors sold their wares and unlicensed dentists ran their front-room clinics. (If there’s one thing that has become canon in the retelling of the City’s history, it is, for whatever reason, the unlicensed dentists.)

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After the Walled City I took in Hong Kong Island. I took the Central to Mid-Levels Escalators – a crazy system of escalators that seems to run on forever, and then a littler further – to the SoHo section, where I had lunch in one of the dozens of little restaurants that line the steep streets. It was here that I made the decision to spend most of my wealth, if I ever amass any wealth, in the pursuit of food. Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mediterranean, Italian, French, Lebanese, Japanese… just about every cuisine imaginable was represented on those hallowed lanes.

On my way back down from Mid-Levels, I strolled the little alleys of vendors selling antiques and vegetables. At ground level the scene was very different: the walls of skyscrapers rose all around, glinting in the afternoon sun, and pedestrians milled busily around the intricate footways built over, under and through the noisy streets.

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I spent my second night holed up in a café on Nathan Road, watching the Friday crowds dance by and waiting for them to thin out. They never did. When I boarded the Airport Express around eleven pm, the streets were still thrumming.

China had one more surprise for me. My next country required an ongoing ticket for entry, and I had none. I hadn’t planned ahead that far. So I was told that I wouldn’t be able to board my plane without proof that I was leaving again. I decided to buy the cheapest ticket I could and just change it when I decided on my next destination – only to be told that the airport desk could only book me a return ticket to Hong Kong. With no feasible alternatives, I bought the most inexpensive return ticket I could find, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be using it at all.

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I stepped on my plane and stepped off again two hours later. The moist, warm air, the crumbling streets, the smell of fumes… it all seemed so familiar. Soon my cab was skimming down Adriatico, my old landmarks flashing by in the early-morning gloom. I was back in Manila – back in the Philippines.