Thursday, November 27, 2008

Vietnam photos

In my last post I discussed current politics in Vietnam a little bit, but I really don't know much about Vietnam's history or politics, so feel free to correct me or add to what I wrote.

Meanwhile, I've posted all of my Vietnam pictures at, and I'm posting a small selection of them here on Blogger, below.

I am in Tokyo, resting up and recovering from a cold. Itsumi made me chicken soup (so sweet of her, especially since it's an American custom, not Japanese!) and is making sure I stay warm and rest. It's good to be in one place rather than traveling.

Next week, I will use my Japan Rail Pass to take a trip in Japan to Hiroshima, Kyoto and Osaka. Itsumi has made all the reservations, and will join me for part of the trip.

A man gets a haircut in the street in Hanoi.

Itsumi prepares hot pot at a restaurant in Hanoi. They bring us the steaming broth over a cooker, and all the ingredients, and we make it at the table.

Yuck - snake wine. To rice wine, add dead snakes, birds, lizards, whatever. It's said to have a viagra effect.

River on the way to Perfume Pagoda.

Me at Perfume Pagoda.

Rowing to Perfume Pagoda

The bicycle I rented in Ninh Binh, and a friendly waitress at my lunch spot

Street vendors on bicycles

My guide at Tam Coc

A baby rides precariously on the back of a bicycle

Rice paddies and limestone cliffs near Ninh Binh, seen from Mua Cave
I bicycled all around this area.

Hoa Lu, Vietnam's ancient capital, built in the 11th Century.

A pineapple field

The driver who took me and two Dutch tourists to Cam Phouc National Park slices a fresh pineapple for us

Motorbike taxi driver takes a break

Cock fight in front of Lenin Park, Hanoi. I think this is a very sad sport.

Leaving Vietnam; politics

I'm back in Japan after three very enjoyable weeks in Vietnam! And I'm happy to see Itsumi and to settle back into life here. Meanwhile, here are some of my last notes from Vietnam, which I wrote a few days ago.

Today is my second to last day in Vietnam. Although I've enjoyed it here, I'm looking forward to getting away from Hanoi's constant honking of horns, the loudspeaker at 5 a.m. lecturing the locals with propaganda that I can't understand, and the continuous cries from motorcycle taxi and bicycle taxi drivers of "motorbike" and "where are you going," and the hawkers' calls of "madame," "buy from me," and "very cheap." When they really want to make a sale they warm me up first with the friendly local questions: "where are you from?" "what's your name?" and "how old are you?"

No doubt I'll miss this constant noise when I'm back in Japan where everything is quiet and clean and orderly, and people on the subway speak in a whisper out of courtesy to others!

I catch myself speaking the local Vietnamese pidgin English, and expecting to hear someone say

"same same but different" at least once a day. For some reason, that's the national saying here, and it's even on T-shirts.

I've become a real pro at crossing the street. It goes like this:

1. Look both ways. You aren't looking for a break in traffic, as there won't be one. You want to step out in front of motorbikes and bicycles, that can weave around you, rather than buses and trucks.

2. Take a deep breath, and step into traffic. Make your way across the street slowly and deliberately. Most importantly, don't stop, and don't run. The motorbikes expect you to walk at a slow and steady pace, and they will weave accordingly.

3. Be aware of oncoming traffic to the extent possible, but don't worry too much about it because you can't watch everything. Don't be surprised if some motorbikes are driving the wrong direction on the wrong side of the street. As one local said, "in some countries they drive on the right side. In other countries they drive on the left side. In Vietnam, we drive on both sides."

4. Breathe a sigh of relief when you make it to the other side!

The drivers don't follow any rules, but they are polite, and they will try hard not to hit you. It's the same on highways. The highway to Ninh Binh is a divided highway, two lanes on each side divided by a median. I was cruising along in a bus, in the left lane, when suddenly a line of trucks and other vehicles came straight toward us, in our lane! The bus driver quickly moved into the right land, and soon we saw that we had encountered an unannounced detour. The oncoming traffic was in our lane because the other side of the highway was closed for road construction, but there was absolutely no warning of this!

You've just got to watch this video of the traffic in Hanoi!

I am getting used to the language here. Where everything looked and sounded the same at first, I can now recognize different words. My guesthouse in Hanoi is called the Tam Thuong Guesthouse, near Hang Manh Street. I can remember that now, without thinking of it as the Tom Thumb Guesthouse near Hangman Street!
English is the lingua franca here, and all the tourists speak it in order to get by, whether they are from France, Germany, the U.S. or Japan. A young Spanish woman enviously said to me "but you speak the language here!" (meaning English). Maybe because there are so many languages in Asia, few foreign travelers in Vietnam speak any Vietnamese, and so the Vietnamese people learn English out of economic necessity. I am especially amazed by the H'mong girls who, although they do not go to school at all, speak English very very well learning only from talking with tourists.

I'm learning how to tell the difference between real and fake products, such as pirated books for tourists and North Face pants and backpacks. (Hint: everything here is fake!)
I've seen sex tourism in action. There is an intersection in Hanoi's old quarter that has become an outdoor tourist bar. The little corner stores have placed plastic chairs in the street, facing the intersection, and tourists can drink thirty cent draft beers while sitting in the intersection and watching the crazy traffic. While I sat in this intersection and chatted with Tobias, a male traveller from Sweden, a young man approached Tobias and said, "you want lady massage?" To clarify, he added "you want bang bang?" Tobias, who is traveling alone, told me that this happens to him all the time, and that in Thailand he was approached even as he exited the airport.
And I've met locals who have eaten dogs and cats. I saw a photograph that an Australian tourist took of dog parts for sale at the market. I clearly saw the head and the legs. I have no desire to try eating this myself.

I am still trying to figure out what I think about Vietnam's political situation. I recently read "The Girl in the Picture," a book about the life of the young girl who was photographed running naked from a Napalm bomb dropped by the South Vietnamese with coordination from the U.S. during the Vietnam/American war.

The book describes the horrors that the girl's family experienced during the war, and the terrible things that happened to them under the subsequent communist regime. They lost their home and their family business, they had to burn all of their books, and they suffered extreme poverty.

The girl, Kim Phuc, was used as a propaganda tool by the communist government, which forced her to give many censored interviews and to tell foreign media that she was a student when in actuality the government had prevented her from continuing her schooling. Some of her friends were jailed for practicing their religion, and Kim and her family lived in extreme poverty for many years while the government kept donations that foreigners sent for them.

Before the communist takeover, Kim's family had been middle class peasants in the south of Vietnam. After many years of suffering, Kim escaped to Canada and received political asylum.

It seems like, in contrast to Cuba, Vietnam never got the just parts of socialism such as jobs for everyone, a livable wage for everyone, free health care and free university education for all.

Even entrance to Lenin Park in Hanoi is not free. Instead, Vietnam got censorship, loss of freedoms, complete government control over the population and mass poverty and starvation.

Other countries in the region did not fare much better. The communist Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 in Cambodia began with one of the world's most bloody revolutions and during Pol Pot's four years of power the regime tortured to death or executed the vast majority of the country's educated people. Thousands were systematically killed for wearing eyeglasses or for their ability to speak foreign languages, supposed symbols of the bourgeoise. Pol Pot was never brought to justice, and died in 1998.

The Laos Socialist government also has a history of brutal suppression of its people, particularly the H'mong minority tribes. Since the 1980s Laos has softened its socialism to allow for private enterprise and foreign investment. But the human rights abuses continue. Human Rights Watch provides information about Laos' recent abuse of the H'mong people.

Vietnam, too, has softened whatever socialist ideals it once had. One Vietnamese man told me that Vietnam is "a capitalist country with a socialist face." Wikipedia says "Vietnam is a socialist republic controlled by the Communist Party for whom ideological orthodoxy is less important than economic development."

Although it's still called The People's Republic of Vietnam, I see a thriving capitalist country under a one-party Communist government with no evidence of socialist ideals such as state care for the people. It seems that there is no social safety net. There is a small pension for certain office workers, but peasants must work until they die. There is no free health care and many rural children do not attend school at all. The poorest of the poor work in cities as street vendors, earning at best 75 US cents per day.

I learned from an exhibit on street vendors at the Women's Museum in Hanoi that most of the vendors are women peasants who cannot make a living on their small plots of land in the countryside and so they migrate to Hanoi to sell anything they can.

The average Vietnamese city dweller earns U.S. $2,000 per year, while the average person in the countryside earns half that. However, I see far fewer people begging on the street in Vietnam than in Bolivia, for example.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has current problems with censorship, religious persecution and the jailing of dissidents who have criticized the government via the internet. (Notice I post this after I've left Vietnam). Vietnam currently is detaining many political prisoners.

As a tourist, it's hard for me to appraise the human rights situation in Vietnam, but I did ask one local business owner who spoke English well and who I had gotten to know over a few days. He told me that the government is very controlling of the people and that if someone writes something that the government doesn't like, they will likely be jailed. He said that, in contrast to Cuba, Vietnam is not really a socialist country.

All this leaves me wondering why we fought in the Vietnam war anyway, and thinking about how many of our human rights we lost during the Bush regime. I am hopeful for the future. A young Vietnamese woman told me that she is happy that Obama won because "he has black skin, and it's more fair." The whole world is hopeful!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bicycling in Ninh Binh

I spent the last two days bicycling around the Ninh Binh countryside, visiting 1,000 year old temples and pagodas, the ancient capital of Vietnam from the 10th century, and being rowed down a beautiful river through long "caves" that open on both sides.

But the best part has been pedaling through the countryside over dirt paths, past rice paddies, tiny hamlets, farm animals, carts drawn by some type of a bull with a humb behind its neck, limestone mountains and rivers that seem to stand still.

Traveling by bicycle is wonderful because, in addition to costing only $1.20 per day for the bicycle rental and not using any fossil fuels, I can stop whenever I want to to take pictures, and the local kids gleefully greet me with "hello" and "goodbye" in English. I gleefully answer them back with the few Vietnamese words I know, and this game can amazingly go on for quite some time!

Of course I have to ask directions many times while traveling by bicycle, and it's amazing that this can be accomplished with only the Vietnamese words for hello, goodbye and thank you and the name of the place I'm trying to find. I just follow the finger pointing. Yesterday, after a long day's loop tour, I asked directions to my hotel by showing a man the hotel's business card. He pointed straight ahead, and then held up six fingers. I didn't know if this meant six blocks or six kilometers, but at least I was going in the right direction! It turned out to be six kilometers, and I found my hotel with no problem after bicycling alongside a group of school girls who tried their hardest to say some words in English.

People are so kind and helpful wherever I go, and they don't become impatient with my inability to speak their language. I wish that immigrants and visitors to the United States would receive the same patience from all Americans.

I am not going to upload any pictures until I get back to Japan, because the internet connection is too slow and intermittent here, but within a couple of weeks you will be able to see them at

Friday, November 14, 2008

Trekking in Sapa

After an overnight train ride to Sapa, the three other members of my tour group and I began our trek through the Sapa countryside. This region is a higher altitude, maybe around 7,000 feet, and it is sprinkled with tiny hill villages of Vietnam's ethnic minorities including the H'mong, Dzay and Thai people. Around the villages are terraced rice fields, water buffalo and other farm animals.
At the start of the tour, ten H'mong girls and women joined us and walked with us. All along the way they talked to us in English, made little adornments for us out of plants they picked along the way, gave us four-leafed clovers which apparently grow freely here and held our hands every time we crossed stepping stones in a creek or a slippery part of the trail.

These girls, all dressed in their beautiful traditional clothes, were so cute and fun, and really made the day. I took lots of pictures of them, and they were happy to pose.

Of course, after hiking with us for9 km they pulled out their handicrafts and asked us to buy, and who could say no (even though buying from them promotes child labor and keeps the girls working and not in school).

Above, our guide, Khang, of the Thai ethnic minority, plays the flute while the H'mong women and girls look on.

Above, a boy tends a water buffalo, used for plowing the rice fields.

The girls made wreaths and hearts from ferns that they found along the way, and adorned us with them.

We hiked a total of 16 km, to a homestay where we would spend the night with a Dzay family who taught us to make Vietnamese spring rolls over their open hearth and whose baby peed on my lap. Below, our guide prepares French Fries for us at the home stay hearth.

The journey to the Sapa region was well worth it, even though everyone who ate the meal at the homestay (below) got food poisoning and spent the following night throwing up. Hey, everyone needs a good cleanse now and then, right?

I was especially interested in visiting the H'mong villages because there are many H'mong refugees in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

FromwhatI understand, H'mong hill people from Laos helped the U.S. during the Vietnam/American war by becoming ground troops in Laos, preventing Ho Chi Min from distributing supplies. It was illegal for the U.S. to have ground troops in Laos, so most people didn't know about this "Secret Army" until years later.

The U.S. government convinced the H'mong minority of Laos to help the U.S. during the war by telling them that the Vietnamese wanted to take their land. When the U.S. pulled out of the war, the H'mong were victims of genocide by the newly formed Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Of the 300,000 H'mong in Laos at the start of the war, 30,000 died as a direct result of the fighting, 100,000 escaped to Thailand or elsewhere, and 90,000 remained in Laos and many of these were subjected to execution or torture by the Laos government. Many of those who escaped eventually became refugees in the U.S.

I pulled this information from a short internet search, but feel free to chime in because I really don't know much about the Vietnam war history.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A few unorganized thoughts

During the Halong Bay tour the guide, Hien, told me that most Vietnamese people, aside from government workers, work seven days a week, often for several months at a time before having a day off. We can thank the labor movement in the U.S. for the fact that we have weekends.

Hien's wife works in the garment industry. She works 12 to 14 hours a day, and doesn't get any days off. The factory where she works does contract work for many different companies, and so the clothes she produces have many different labels. Hien's parents take care of their 10-month-old baby.

In order to be a tour guide, Hien studied English in a university for more than four years, but he doesn't want his son to become a tour guide because the work is irregular. He hopes that his son can become a government administrator.
Everyone asks me about the U.S. election. I have talked with Australians, Japanese and Vietnamese people about the election. Everyone is glad that Obama won. People around the world oppose Bush's war in Iraq, which Bush pressures their governments to support, and people are concerned about the U.S. economy, which affects the economy in countries around the world.
A man tried to pickpocket me in Hanoi. I felt something touch my hand bag, and as I looked over my shoulder a man was hurrying away and the side zipper on my bag had been partially opened. The pocket contained only a highlighter and my travel alarm clock anyway, as I am very careful of where I carry things of value, but the man got nothing from me. In all my traveling, this is the first time that anyone has tried to pickpocket me. Hanoi is known for pickpockets, but not for any violent crime.
I visited the Hoa Lo Prison, best known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. Sen John McCain and other prisoners of war were held and tortured here during the American War, as the Vietnam War is called here.

The Hoa Lo Prison, now a museum, served a much longer role in Vietnam's history. It was opened in 1896 by the French, as part of an effort to suppress the growing popular anti-colonial movement. The French used the Hoa Lo Prison to house and torture Vietnamese political prisoners from 1896 until 1954, when north Vietnam was liberated from the French occupation. There were many women political prisoners as well as men, and many were executed here. A French guillotine is on display.

In addition to exhibits on prison conditions, solitary confinement, death row, torture devices, escapes and resistance by prisoners, the prison has exhibits on French supporters of Vietnamese liberation, and U.S. protests against the Vietnam war.
I spent the afternoon reading in the park overlooking the lake that is in the center of Hanoi's old quarter. I am reading a book called Golden Autumn. It's a collection of Vietnamese short stories.

I love to sit in a beautiful public place and watch people. In the evening, many locals meet in the park to do a tai chi type of exercise together. It reminds me of the Chinese people who do tai chi in the early morning in San Francisco, but this exercise is something different.

Two 19-year-old boys asked if they could sit next to me and practice their English a bit. I was reluctant because I thought they would try to sell me something or scam me in some way, but I looked at their homework books and they really were English students just trying to practice. I talked with them for a half an hour, taught them some new words and learned a bit about their lives.
Vietnam is like Bolivia in that there is a constant hubub of noise, and the locals get business done by recognizing the different noises. For example, the garbage collectors (two people pushing a plastic tub on wheels) make a particular banging sound as they work their way down the street and people come out with garbage.
I bought a new pair of glasses for US $89! That includes exam, lenses and frames, and they were done on the same day! Now I have a spare pair, so I don't have to worry about losing my expensive pair when I'm kayaking, etc.
I'm signing off for a few days, as this evening I will leave for a three day/four night tour of Sapa. I normally don't join tour groups while traveling, but Vietnam is unique in that the package tours are actually cheaper than traveling independently. And it is nice having the tour company take care of all the arrangements, and to have a local guide. So until next time, thanks for reading!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Transportation in Hanoi, Halong Bay

In Vietnam you can transport anything on a motorbike or bicycle! A mattress, for example. I saw a big wooden desk on a bicycle taxi, and a ladder being transported on a motorbike. The passenger precariously held the ladder sideways as the driver navigated traffic. I even saw two motorbikes driving in unison, one behind the other, the passengers on each holding one end of some long poles that they were transporting. And everywhere, there are motorbikes transporting huge piles of chickens in cages all strapped down to the moborbike.

Me on a moto-taxi

Here is a short video of a local crossing the street in Hanoi.

I am back from the Halong Bay tour, which was much more posh than I expected! We explored the beautiful bay of bluegreeninsh water surrounding many limestone islands and towers, aboard a beautiful old junk. (why do they call boats junks?) I had my own cabin with air conditioning and a private bathroom and shower.

There were only five of us on the tour, me and two really nice Australian couples. We had a guide, a chef, and several crew members who waited on us hand and foot, and served us delicious seafood meals.After exploring a cave and seeing floating fishing villages, we anchored the boat and kayaked into a beautiful cove where we saw jellyfish and monkeys, and took a swim. We spent the night anchored.

The next day we visited an island that is a national park where we hiked through the rainforest and limestone mountains. On theisland we visited the shack of an elderly woman who served us tea. She and her husband have permission fromthe government to live on the island as its caretakers, sort of the local version of forest rangers. They live in a thatched structure with tarps for walls, and they subsiston their gardens, chickens and fish that they raise, and whatever they can gather from the land.

We spent the second night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, and the next day we headed back to Hanoi. All this, three days of adventure including transportation, lodging and meals, for US $98!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Temple of Literature, Water Puppetry, still in Hanoi

After Itsumi finished with the conference she presented at in Hanoi, she and I went to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university, built in the 11th Century. The buildings are still standing!

Because Japanese is written with Chinese characters, and Vietnamese used to be written in Chinese characters, Itsumi was able to read the writing on the ancient buildings even though she doesn't speak Vietnamese. During the French occupation, the French got rid of the Chinese characters and imposed the Roman alphabet, and today Vietnamese is written in the Roman alphabet. This makes it easier for me to navigate Hanoi, because unlike in Japan I can read the street names. Also unlike Japan, all of the streets have names!

It's very easy to get along here without speaking Vietnamese. Everyone in the tourist industry (which is booming) speaks English, and many speak it very well. They like to ask me if I voted for Obama. The world is invigorated about his win!

In the evening Itsumi and I went to a traditional Vietnamese water puppetry show, a very impressive play "performed" by brightly colored puppots whose stage is a pool of water. It was beautiful, accompanied by traditional music!

Itsumi left Vietnam in the morning, returning to her job in Tokyo, and I'll spend the next two weeks by myself in Vietnam. I've booked a three-day tour of Halong Bay, starting tomorrow morning, so I'll be offline for the next few days.

The internet connection here is too slow for me to upload photos, but I will catch you up on pictures when I can. Until then, I hope you're doing well, and thanks for checking out my blog!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Taipei, then on to Hanoi

I spent a quiet night sleeping on a couch in the Taipei airport, well worth saving the $89 to stay at the airport hotel.

In the morning, after watching a bit of the election news on CNN, I walked to my terminal from where I will fly to Vietnam. Many flights from this terminal go to Bangkok and other Asian cities, and I was struck by how many middle-aged creepy-looking American men were in the terminal. They were either traveling alone or with other men, but not with women. They look nothing like the backpackers I usually encounter in my travels, and I can't help but wonder whether they are engaging in sex tourism, or going to meet prospective mail order brides.

I arrived at the Hanoi airport and withdrew two million Vietnamese dong, or just a little over US $100, from an ATM. I took a taxi to the hotel, where Itsumi was waiting, and the first thing she told me was that Obama won!!!

Hanoi reminds me of Bolivia in many ways: the motorcycles and bicycles piled high with people (up to four or maybe more), chickens, construction materials, you name it; the street vendors, and the crazy traffic! Lonely Planet gives this advice on crossing the street:

"Wait for a break in traffic and slowly make your way across. It used to be that a slow and confident walk into the constant stream of motorbikes was like parting the Red Sea, but now with the occasional and oft-ignored cross walks and pedestrian signals in many cities, motorists are downright resentful. If you lack the nerve, look for locals crossing the street and creep behind."

This is actually true, and when we want to cross the street we just step out into oncoming traffic and trust the motorbike drivers to weave around us. So far, they have!

Motorbikes and scooters are everywhere here. Some backpackers even buy them (for as little as a few hundred dollars) and drive them around southeast Asia. I'll pass on that, but I'd like to rent a bicycle while I'm here!

Vietnam is a vibrant country, in rapid economic transition, and Itsumi says it reminds her of Japan 30 years ago. I'll spend three weeks here before returning to Japan in late November.