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: