Friday, August 24, 2007

Last Post from Viet Nam...

but not last post ON Viet Nam, I don't think. My apologies for the long delay - one month exactly, in fact - since my last post. In the interim Midori and I have written a 77-page document on just a few of the ins-and-outs of housing and microfinance in Viet Nam and Cambodia. Now that That's over with, and I have had three nights of 12-plus hours of sleep in the week since, on to Ha Noi!

Visually, two themes keep recurring for me in Viet Nam: color and infrastructure. The former usually catches me through some juxtaposition of weathering and vibrancy. The latter, evidence of increasing national wealth, manifests visually in a haphazard accretion of roads, pipes, and, everywhere, electrical connections. Ha Noi has 'em both, though in the transitions from Real Life -> diggity-film -> iPhoto -> blog, the colors lose some of their punch. Also, in Ha Noi, awesome architecture:

The old market has entire blocks dedicated to a single product. I spare you the photos I have of the cardboard stores, near (really) the tape-only stores. Instead, toys:

This apartment block sits somewhere in the north end of the old market in Ha Noi. I like the repetition: many lives making identical units their own.I will ROCK this style when I am (a little bit) older.
I haven't yet figured out if the toilet paper is crucial to the Look, or merely to the photo.

Central Ha Noi surrounds Hoan Kiem Lake, which opens Ha Noi up and provides a breeze. In the middle of the lake is Ngoc Son Temple, reached by way of a v. scenic red bridge. Father and daughter on the grounds of the temple (Midori took this one):

Inside, fantastic light.The lake features in Vietnamese mythology: in the 16th century, a turtle bore a magic sword from its depths in answer to the prayers of a fisherman named Le Loi, who used it to fight Chinese occupation in the North. Afterwards the turtle took back the sword. Oddly Arthurian.

Ha Noi also has a pretty good army museum; better than the War Remnants museum in HCMC, mainly since it goes far back into the early occupation of, and resistance to, the French. (It isn't any less wrenching.) It also had more artifacts alongside its collection of photographs, including the following note and translations, from the pocket of a downed pilot:

I mean, seriously: "misfortune"? I too would hope very much for sympathy were I to suffer the extreme "misfortune" of bailing out of my plane after being shot down on a bombing run. But I don't think I'd put much faith in that note eliciting it.

This stack of wreckage, about 30 ft high, includes pieces from many different planes:

Finally, Midori doing her best "Marilyn Monroe next to a Russian Built, Vietnamese Flown, American Killing Fighter Jet" pose:

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Mighty Tay Ho

Oh the praises I can sing of the mighty Tay Ho! So big! So rectilinear! So very, very strange!

Where the lobby always celebrates New Years with Christmas Decorations!
Where you always know what time it is in Moscow!
Where the architecture sings the workers' praises even in the stairwells!
Where one counts as blessed each day he did not have to press THIS button:
Where Chinese and Korean tourists come by the busload to admire the greatest disco-kidney-bagpipe-pool-lamp fountain this side of the Urals!

(Nice view, though:)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Out: Phnom Penh

In: Ho Chi Minh. It's good to be back.

My Anh guesthouse welcomed us back; the (unofficial) Lotus Salad Place around the corner - inexplicably closed for a period before we left for Cambodia - is open once again; and it took just 20,000 VND ($1.25) to buy an alarm clock, available at 9:30pm on a Sunday night at the clock&watch shop three blocks away, to replace my CELLPHONE, which I LOST on the EFFING BUS TO SIEM REAP (and which I had been using as an alarm clock).

Anyway. Much blog backlog ("backblog"? "blogback"? "blacklog"?), and still no photos of Ha Noi posted. I will save a Very Special Post for Ha Noi's Tay Ho Hotel, a place where it is always New Years Day, and which sheltered us for a week in its weird, weird Social-Realist arms. Also other stories as I remember them.

In the meantime, if I had only one photo to illustrate urban street life in Vietnam, this is it:
Shot in Ha Noi. Note the bullhorn on the front of the bicycle, out of which comes a looped jingle a few bars longs that I couldn't capture on film, but that everyone who has spent some time here will immediately know.

I haven't processed Cambodia yet, but while I'm grasping for Essentials, the following is on the right track:

The single largest age bracket in Cambodia right now is ages 10-14 (though this guy looks maybe a little younger). Gad Khmer children are cute. Midori suggests it's their flat noses.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Lost in Translation

After we left our third family visited in KG, I realized I hadn't seen the toilets in any of the houses so far, and, given the threat of water-born illness, I thought it might be good to check out. My request to our guides, however, who were quasi-government officials from the Women's Union, got translated
  • from "Tell me about those families' toilets"
  • to "I need to go to the bathroom."
First we stopped at the above commode cantilevered out over the canal, which was very instructive. I took this photo. Because I didn't have to pee, I didn't, and we got back on our motorbikes.

We stopped again after a few hundred yards at a modern, "permanent" house, and these nice, besuited women, accommodating their prissy charge's delicate Western sensibilities (no wonder we lost the war!), politely gestured towards the house, from whose resident they had received permission for my use.

I like to think that they were relieved (har!) that I was not, in fact, being picky about my choice of facilities, rather than disappointed that they could not help me.

Kien Giang Province, and purpose

now listening to: The Mountain Goats, "Going to Georgia"

So the "other" Pat Thrasher, my aunt, e-mailed me to ask what, exactly, I am doing in Vietnam. A fair question, given that I have have not explained much in Crossing HCM. So:

The Vietnamese government classifies these houses, and 48% of the houses in the overall Vietnam Mekong Delta, as "simple" or "temporary," which I take to mean, "will blow away in the next typhoon" (the last one, the equivalent of a category 1 hurricane, leveled over ten thousand houses in 1997; at over four people a household on average, that's a lot of homeless people).

Another 43% of folks in the Mekong Delta live in "semi-permanent" houses, which I understand to mean that the foundation raises the floor above the annual floodline, and the floor will survive the next typhoon, but the walls and roof will blow away (or some similar combination). That leaves 9% in "permanent" housing. So 91% of the 17.3 million people in the Delta live in substandard housing.

I'm here with Habitat for Humanity to crunch some of these numbers, systematically articulate the need for housing improvement in Vietnam, examine some of the larger forces at play in the real estate market at large, and get a handle on the policy framework surrounding housing and housing finance. In particular, Habitat is interested in developing its nascent housing micro-finance programs, and my Partner-in-Crime is focusing most of her energy on the micro-finance industry in Vietnam, and how Habitat fits into that world.

Habitat's longest running housing microfinance programs are in rural Kien Giang province, of which Rach Gia is the capital, so Midori and I trucked out there to see what's what. I encourage you to check her blog for more photos and experiences; she was in the field three days compared to my one.

Meanwhile, my Xeom driver in KG:
Midori and I simultaneously taking photos at 30 mph:

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Three-Hour Tour

Midori and my excuse for going to Phu Quoc was that it was "on the way" to Rach Gia. Rach Gia is a small fishing city that serves as the base of Habitat's operations in Kien Giang province, which in turn is a fairly poor, very rural southern province in the Mekong Delta. By "on the way" we meant one could fly to Phu Quoc, sit on the beach for two days, and then take a boat from Phu Quoc to Rach Gia. Unsurprisingly, the boatride was an adventure.

To start it off, our hosts in Rach Gia had pulled some strings to get us on this boat, and the logistics of those strings meant we would take one company's boat, but the tickets would be waiting for us at a different company's office. I was pretty sure even from the onset this arrangement would end in failure. The company with the tickets - whose office is located, as far as I could gather from my attempts to find it at the dock, in St. Louis - even sent someone over to give the tickets to us. Some punk-ass other westerners ended up with the tickets instead.

Props go to Midori, who made an ally early on with a woman in one of the booking offices. She ultimately found us one ticket, which I thought should pose a problem, since two of us wanted to get the hell off the island, but with some handwaving and, on my part, standing around looking incompetent in a way only an American in S.E. Asia can successfully pull off, we got on board. I was glad to contribute something to the cause.

Midori got a seat in the passenger cabin, but when I tried to sit next to her, I was directed instead to a hatch in the ceiling that led, by way of the cockpit, to a covered area on top of the passenger cabin that was the manufacturers had probably not intended for passenger transport. It was small and crowded when I arrived - I got the only remaining seat on a bench - but just before setting sail another 12 or 15 people popped up through the hatch. It was sort of like the State Room scene in Night at the Opera, but with a monsoon rainstorm that started halfway through the 3-hour trip.

The storm did mean that I got to meet my neighbors (all of us on the windward side), as we all tried to shelter from the driving rain. This is how I met Tien:
an 11th-grader from Cao Lanh City. She and her mother, aunt, and brother graciously invited me to their house if I'm ever in Cao Lanh. And Tien did an admirable job translating their questions, including, "Do you have a lover?" (They all responded enthusiastically when I pulled out a photo of Blair.)

Righto. Some photos. The boat's crew at work during the storm:

This photo makes it look less crowded than it was, since everyone is crammed to the left of the camera frame, on the lee side, to avoid the rain:Rach Gia, as seen from the Habitat offices:

Citimart!All of the vacant land you see in these photos has (unlike vacant lots in most American cities) never been developed. It's all landfill, claimed from the Gulf of Thailand over the last twelve or so years. The center of Rach Gia looks like a normal city, but out here it's like a mall in a marsh. I particularly like how tall, skinny, and occasional the buildings are, an indication of the lots' size and the developers' dreams of density.

Starting posts on Kien Giang this weekend: the road to Ha Noi goes through the Mekong Delta.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

We are the Best Expert! [Phu Quoc, part II]

More photos from the island. I'm now about two posts behind real time. We're currrently in Hanoi, and I hope to begin those posts this week. Hanoi is Excellent.

But first, the shout out, to the Olympus D-490 zoom
and to Robert Smythe, who gave it to me. It has taken most of the photos posted so far on this blog, and has served me admirably. Many thanks Robert, and well-done D-490.

Okay. photos:

We are the Best Expert!

Some neat water effects. Again, I like the colors in this one:
And this optical effect:

Life on the beach:

The view from my bungalow's porch ($40/night):
The bungalow, from the beach:
The local flora:

One of the groundskeepers outside my bungalow:
I think he is mute - we communicated entirely by hand signs (if I hadn't seen him sign to others on the staff, I would have assumed he had figured out that hand signals were easier than trying to speak Vietnamese to me).

Next, a boat ride, Rach Gia, and the Field.