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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Now Listening: Silver Jews, "I Remember Me"

On our way to survey some of the project sites Habitat has in Kien Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta, Midori and I passed through Phu Quoc island. Phu Quoc is essentially off the coast of Cambodia, but during one of the many recent convulsive S.E. Asian wars prior to this relative calm, Vietnam laid claim to it. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. kept a prison for suspected V.C. on it; the prison is still in operation.

We saw none of this, because we sat on our asses on the beach for a day and a half. I also took a Lot of photos. I'm trying to set up a Picasa account to post 'em on, but I'm having some technical trouble. So in the mean time, a smattering, and then later (I hope) a link to the rest.

This is Midori (the smiling, non-Vietnamese one) immediately prior to boarding. We arrived at 3:45am for a 5:55am flight; the airport wasn't even open yet. More sleep and less caution next time.

Uhm. Paradise?
Well, sort of...

I like the woven boats,
and this blue.

They're hard to see, but I pulled one of these guys' spines out of my foot after about three minutes in the water.

And, of course, it's monsoon season:

Finally...they are beautiful, these cattle in the sand:
I think I have plenty for a second post. Unless public outcry is overwhelming, I'll post more specific (and interesting?) photos tomorrow (I hope). Also, an overdue respect-is-due...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pat's Night Out

Last night I was invited out by Mr. Tan, whose friend (brother, perhaps?) was celebrating the opening of his new cafe in Nha Be District of HCMC:

That's Mr. Tan, breaking it down on the left. You can tell he's an architect because of his black-framed glasses.

Going out Vietnamese style is an all-male affair. Apparently on Friday nights men go out and drink themselves silly while their wives and mistresses wait at home for their husbands/lovers to come home feeling randy, presumably Not listening to Loretta Lynn's "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (with Lovin' On Your Mind)." Anyway, so this outing was all men, and included many men dancing with other men, as above. And that's how -- VERY far from home, the guest of a friendly co-worker, with no reasonable way to leave politely -- I found myself in THIS position:

Yes, yes, that's me twirling a very nice, very drunk Vietnamese man, whose name I do not remember. And, of course, I had a dance with my host, too:

You may thank Luke, an engineer who's also volunteering with Habitat Vietnam, for the photos.

After the dancing, Mr. Tan showed me and Luke around the house, parts of which he designed. Then Mr. Tan drove me back to his home (nearby) where his not totally-pleased wife let us in, and where I spent the night quietly fighting for space under a Winnie the Pooh blanket with one of Mr. Tan's children, who had snuck into the bed when I had momentarily risen to use the bathroom.

I won eventually, but it was hard fought.

Why people live in Boston

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Not Crimes: "Remnants"

The Ho Chi Minh City "War Crimes Museum" has been rechristened, since my increasingly-unreliable guide book was published, as the "War Remnants Museum." Clearly the exhibitions remain as they were.

Not many photos to post, since most of the exhibits -- save the odd helicopter, tank or miscellaneous ordance sitting in the gardens -- were themselves photos. But (if you'll pardon the soapbox for a moment) a single thought.

Most of the exhibitions were photographs, and the museum admirably paid due to the photojournalists who took them, honoring those on all sides who died in the process:

And looking around at their handywork -- generation-defining photos by Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, Henri Huet, et al -- it's hard not to think that at least their work stands as a testament to why they risked their lives. These folks sent home the images that revealed the Vietnam War as it was, gruesome, cruel, and futile, and it profoundly changed American perception of the use of military force (right? Right?). None of this is new, and others have phrased it better.

So what I don't get is, journalists are getting scuppered left and right in Iraq right now, but I don't see what's to show for it. We are all aware, vaguely, of the media black hole that is Iraq, but after seeing, again and all at once, images that shook us as a country, it is TOTALLY SCARY that little of the sort is coming out of Iraq. The images that do make us shudder collectively have all eluded censors, to reach us through informal channels: Abu Ghraib, a botched hanging filmed on a cell phone. There are some mitigating circumstances: we have a professional army now, and the force deployed in Iraq is a fraction of the 500,000+ in Vietnam in 1968. But we know from a few reports that we haven't gotten any nicer as an occupying force, and certainly fighting wars hasn't gotten cleaner. This void, of information but especially of images, is a smear against both government officials who want to fight a war without acknowledging the mess it makes and media outlets that refuse to push them for access.

It makes one wish -- I cannot believe I'm writing this -- that Life Magazine were still around.

A Day in the Life...

Some photos of my basic life in HCMC:

The view to the left off of my "balcony" (it's about 2'x2'):
The view to the right:

My desk getting great warm light through the curtains, about 3pm:

...and what I see when I shave:

I'm definitely taller than the average VietBear.

Friday, June 8, 2007


My girlfriend Blair, who is off to The Gambia next week, for 27-months in the Peace Corps (go on -- try to find it on a map). You can read about her certain-to-be-zany exploits on her blog "the gambia on one blair a day":

I've added the link under "Important Blogs & Sites" on the right. I leave it to you to figger out which one it is.

This is what she looks like now.

Note the cute cheeks and the warm smile. I'll try to post an "After" picture when I next see her - the Peace Corps can Do Things to a gal. I'm guessing she won't be wearing the sparkly dress...

Okay food time now!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Opinions Divided on Reunification Hall

My guide book sez, "Reunification Hall is one of those take-it-or-leave-it destinations. Some like it, some hate it." He then goes on to make VERY CLEAR which is his camp: "...the rambling 'Hall exudes a sterile atmosphere and displays appalling taste in architecture and furnishing." Even giving him his normative perogative, I still think he's unfair:

It's pretty commie on the outside, I grant, but the grounds are pretty, and those second-and-third story windows are great from the inside:

Also, the open windows on both sides give great cross breezes, 'cause DANG it's hot here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

How to Cross a Street in Ho Chi Minh City

Perhaps you already learned this skill, from experience in some other large city outside of the developed world. I have no idea if these conditions exist elsewhere (I suspect so):

During full rush hour, the sidewalk is also full of motorbikes. Really. Anyway, crossing the street in three easy steps:

1) Step into the road.
2) Walk at an easy, predictable pace.
3) Do not hesitate, weave, avoid, shy, juke, or twist. DO NOT STOP.

After a few seconds of forward motion, during which motorcycles will part around you like a school of fish, you will be across the street and ready for a drink. At least the first few times.

Actually, I omitted the real first step, which I learned entirely on my own:

0.5) understand the pedestrian's place in the hierarchy.
  • Motorcycles will part around you.
  • Cars might go around you, conditional on them having space to do so (and the inclination).
  • Buses do not go around you. That is not what they do. Buses go straight. They are Being-Unto-Drive-Straight. Going around you, or even slowing slightly, would cause existential crisis.
All that being said, having traffic respond to you cooperatively as you step into the road makes you realize how a city is a responsive, living thing. It's Cool.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Sir! I exist!

Yes. But the fact has not created in me a sense of obligation. or something to that effect.

Photos and relevant posts starting tomorrow, including

traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, and the naming of this blog; and
getting ripped off (episode 1).