Wednesday, June 17, 2009


I went to Vietnam to make peace with a part of my father's memory. I went there because I'd heard the word "Vietnam" all my life and I knew it as a horrible place and time that people didn't really know how to talk about. It was a story that I would catch random parts of now and then that never had a happy ending. It was the reason that Dad screamed in his sleep.

I went there to bury that and to pay tribute to my Dad, who came back from that place and had a family and a career where he served his fellow man, protected the innocent and saved lives. I went to heal my own heart and to help some of the people of that country in whatever way I could.

There is a tradition there of burning gifts for ancestors. It's often fake paper money but sometimes it's cars or other kinds of property. These gifts are raised to heaven on the smoke which occupies the place between the material and the immaterial world. If there is any need of money in heaven, I think Dad's probably ok. He never had any trouble finding gainful employment and he liked to work for what he got. But I learned how to make origami lotus flowers by watching the kids at Blue Dragon. So I sent up about a half dozen of those the night before I left.

"Vietnam" is no longer a war for me. It's a country full of people that struggle under a corrupt government, but with endless energy, curiosity, ingenuity, and optimism. A place where shy, smiling children say hello to you just for walking down the street - full of friendly, young, amateur tour guides, and people who quickly become like family.

"Vietnam" was my home for a while, and It's a place where a part of my father's memory came to rest.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Where the Blog Ends

Well, I'm back in the States for about 3 weeks now. My brother was in a serious accident at the end of last month, so I packed up and came back to be with he and the family. This is also why I haven't had any posts here in a while. Just thought I'd mention that here because a few people were curious. I plan to have one more wrap-up post soon.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

chuc mung nam moi

Chuc mung nam moi means happy new year. Well, literally, it's something like "good/advantageous/lucky year new". And don't even try to say it if you don't speak Vietnamese because I can't put the accent marks that tell you the tones, and even if I could you wouldn't know what they mean. I've actually come to believe that it would be easier for me to teach everyone here English than to learn Vietnamese myself.

Anyway, Tet is by far the biggest holiday of the year. Preparations, and the actual celebration, seem to go on for about 2 months. First, the decorations start to go up. Tet predates communism by centuries, but the party isn't about to miss an opportunity for self promotion.
There are 2 kinds of Tet trees. One with little citrus fruit, and another with pink blossoms. I think someone told me that the ones in the south have yellow blossoms. In any case, it seems like every other motorbike had a tree on it.
The kids get ready for the Tet pageants, which involve flowers, and singing, and dancing (and nose picking if you look closely).
Blue Dragon helps a bunch of kids out in the countryside and goes out a few times a year for big assemblies. The Tet extravaganza had a dancing dragon, Tet gifts, and contests... This one involved blindfolded participants trying to feed each other yogurt. The kids loved it.
And I got invited to a Tet party at the house where I lived when I first arrived. Hot pot seems to be the standard celebratory meal. One or two pots of boiling water are put in the center of the table and bunches of plates with things ready to be boiled. It honestly seems to be much more about the communal experience than the food itself. I didn't try the fetal duck. It didn't look so good. But the conversation was excellent.
Along with the trees, vendors sell a lot of Tet gifts. People spend the first few days of the new year visiting family and friends. The clean their houses, get haircuts, cook special food, and buy gifts to hand out on their visits. These gift baskets have everything you need to make someone's day - including booze and a pack of marlboros.Any important celebration in Hanoi seems to involve balloons. This is the year of the ox (or cow, or buffalo depending on who's telling it) and so there were plenty of ox balloons on new year's eve. And fireworks. Even the cops stopped to turn their heads skyward in awe. Maybe this is why pickpockets are so fond of these celebrations.And just after midnight, the ancestors are paid tribute. People burn fake paper money among other things, and they are conducted by smoke to the next world. So I imagine that the ancestors enjoy tet too. After that, you go to Thailand because everything is closed for a week.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Tet is Vietnam's version of the Chinese new year. It's lunar new year's eve and the few days around it. I'll have a post about that later. What it meant for me was that everything was shut down and it was a good time to get out of town.

I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand. Unfortunately, it was full, so I went on the waiting list. I signed up for another one, but that one was full too, and I'd already bought plane tickets. I wanted to see Thailand anyway, and I'd always wanted to try scuba diving, so I decided just go and see what I could see.

At the Hanoi airport, I had a chance to buy some souvenirs from Tahiti. So I could have just bought one of those, told everyone I went to Tahiti, and called it a day. But I decided to go through with it anyway. I was happy to get to Bangkok before I left the airport. Mainly because it was warm. I got a sim card for my phone, saw a Starbuck's, got 3 free maps, and saw a lady-boy before I even left the airport. Ah, yes. Civilization...

This was the first 7-11 that I saw. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say that I think I went into a dozen 7-11's that day. Not to buy anything, just to soak up a little A/C, look at all the stuff I COULD buy, and remember my childhood. I practically grew up in convenience stores, so this was a heartwarming homecoming for me.

Eventually I made my way to Khao San Road, the touristiest of touristy areas in Bangkok. I found a scuba diving shop, booked a trip to Koh Tao and wandered around for a couple of hours until it was time to get my bus. Not this bus...
The bus I was on wasn't quite as quite as pimped out. No unicorns.

But I did get on this boat...And about 27 hours after I left the house in Hanoi, I was here. I found a place to stay and took a 4 hour nap. The little bungalow was dirty but only about $15 a night, and about 100 yards from the beach.

I had to share it with this little guy, but he mostly just kept to himself behind the mirror in the bathroom.
Koh Tao island is about 7 kilometers long and it's a big destination for scuba divers. I did 2 dives on Wednesday. It was a good time, but dealing with the pressure changes from the depth was a real hassle. I had some trouble getting my ears to pop, but eventually did, and got down to 10-12 meters (35 feet or so). We saw some cool corals, colorful fish, and various crazy looking sea cucumbers.

But the coolest stuff I saw was on a snorkeling trip around the island the next day. It was on a long boat (bigger than this one)...And we stopped and snorkeled at a bunch of little bays and reefs and did a complete loop around the island. The first stop was by shark island. I was the first one in the water and I practically landed on top of one of these guys.
I didn't have a waterproof camera, so this isn't my shot, but it's a black tip reef shark. The ones that we were swimming with were probably only 3-4 feet long, but everything looks bigger under water, so they seemed like 5-6 feet long. Big enough that I was glad it wasn't dinner time. Our guide told us that they feed at night. There was definitely something counterintuitive about swimming toward sharks when I saw them instead of away, but it was really cool. Definitely the highlight of the trip.

I was going to go back to Bangkok, but I couldn't think of a good reason not to stay on the island another night. There was plenty of exploring to do. For instance, I got to try salaberry fanta from the 7-11. It tasted a little like crushed hopes and dreams strained through a bandana that's been sitting in the bottom of an old tackle box.
All together I was there for 4 days and 3 nights. I left relaxed, with some great memories, and the sunburn of a lifetime.The next morning I arrived in Bangkok at about 4AM. I wandered down the the temple complex with the famous reclining Buddha and dozed on a bench outside until they opened. The reclining Buddha was just like in picures and on TV, but bigger. The temple school is sponsored by - you guessed it - 7-11. They're everywhere! Which reminds me, I also got to try "Pepsi Green". It tasted the way I imagine fairy pee must taste like after the fairy's been on antibiotics for a week or so. And speaking of anti-biotics, I realized while I was in Bangkok that my scuba diving injury needed a little medical attention. I scratched my toe on a bench when we were waiting to get into the boat, and after 4 days I could tell that it was infected in a pretty nasty way.

Luckily there were plenty of pharmacies to chose from, soI skipped this one for obvious reasons. I found a place with a pharmacist that spoke excellent English, and hooked me up with a whole sack of toe dressing supplies and a 5-day course of antibiotics for about $15. That's what I would pay back in the states just to get the paper that says I can pay someone else for the pills. And that's with insurance. I stopped at the local Starbuck's while I waited for the flop houses to clear out so I could get a room for the night. With a frappaccino and a muffin, I felt like I was in Ohio. Which some tourists would whine about , but I was lapping it up like a slurpee. After all, I wasn't on vacation from Akron, I was on vacation from Hanoi, a sadly slurpee-less land, and I was loving it.

Khao San Road is the main hub of the banana pancake trail, trustafarian set. It's like that street with all the bars in any college town, but on an international level.
T-shirts and black market cd shops line the streets along with all sorts of random gift shops and restaurants. There was one vendor that was selling nothing but plastic lizards and fake poo. They knew their demographic.Elephants too.
It was a great place to spend a day, but afterward I was ready to get back to Hanoi.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More Motorbikes

I don't know why, but Blogger wouldn't let me use it for a while. And I don't know why I can use it again now. But I'm behind in my posts. So have a look at this. More motorbikes!

I'm still surprised by what people will do/put on a motorbike here.

AK-47's...And an entire bathroom, one piece at a time. cabinets......bathtub......and the door...This guy seems to have worked out some kind of airbag system for himself.This guy looks like he's taking his dogs to the vet. I didn't have the heart to tell him that it didn't look like they were going to make it.
But there were four guys in a row, all with pigs on their bikes. They looked healthy as could be. Don't worry guys, I'm sure they're just taking you in for a regular check up.Aren't they cute?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Vietnam Vo Dich!!!

New Year's was fun. It's a bigger deal than Christmas around here. There aren't as many decorations, but there are a lot more closed businesses.

But what's even bigger is when Vietnam wins Thailand for the AFF Cup. It's hard to desribe what a big deal this is. I watched the game in a restaurant with a friend of mine who tried to explain it to me several times. I didn't really get it until the last goal when the waiters, customers, and staff all started yelling, jumping, and running around for joy.

As soon as we had seen the team receive the cup on TV, we went outside to watch the mayhem. All of the streets were filling up with traffic heading toward the lake at the center of town. The intersection in front of the opera house was just starting to fill up.

People were honking even more than usual. The preferred technique for motorbikes seemed to be one person driving and one person waving the biggest flag they could find. Of course, flag vendors magically appeared in the intersections as well.

Apparently, this was the biggest football win in 39 years, so some of the young ones needed some training in proper Vietnamese style celebration. Here is a family of 4 on a motorbike. Come on, baby. Wave that flag!
Some lucky revelers had trucks.
Vietnam Vo Dich! Means Vietnam is the Champion! And when they heard a foreigner saying it they went even crazier. It was like having magic words that made people go insane with joy whenever I wanted them to. I tried to use my power responsibly, but I did use it to get a good shot of these guys.
We didn't stay out long because my friend was worried that all of the streets would be jammed. We had to turn around a couple of times, but ended up getting home ok. I drifted off to sleep, rocked gently by a lullaby of honking and screaming.


No time for a real blog entry this week, so I'll leave you with this little gem...

Happy Holidays!