Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I am winging my way toward Bali with a brief layover in Singapore and am having one of those days of crystal clarity that I wish came more often, but am unspeakably grateful for when they do come. I cannot remember a time ever in my life when I was more content, more full of joy. When I am in this mode everything affects me so deeply. I am overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions and when they come at me like this – fast and furious – I just have to get them out. The only thing I know to do is to write because it is my peace, my devotion, my solace, my great desire. So, here are some random thoughts. There is no common thread running through them. They are just rumbling through my brain.

Having eaten nothing but a simple fare of rice and vegetables for the past two weeks I splurged in the airport gift shop and bought a tin of sesame encrusted cashews. I offered some to the fellow sitting across from me and he took one, then declined more, so I voraciously devoured the rest of the tin. The next time he looked up from his studies I was licking my fingers. “Did you eat that whole thing?” he asked, incredulously. “Yep,” I replied. He laughed. You snooze, you lose.

I was nearly brought to tears by the beauty of the hair clip that held back the long black mane of the Vietnamese woman in front of me as we boarded the plane. I kid you not.

For the last two weeks I have been eating everything with chopsticks with absolutely no problem, so can someone please explain to me why I kept spilling my food all over my lap on the plane when I was using a fork???
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If not for a late plane today I would have left Hanoi believing that most Hanoiites are sourpusses. Instead, I spent two hours in a room full of locals, waiting to board the delayed flight to Saigon. With the exception of one vacant chair, the seats directly across from me were all filled with men – most of them dressed in suits and ties. At my back, a couple of rows away, a TV was tuned to one of those bad martial arts movies, with Vietnamese subtitles running across the bottom. Slowly, I became aware that all of these proper-looking men were watching this ridiculous movie. Some of them were openly and avidly watching it. Others were feigning only a casual interest, but it was obvious that they were hanging on every word. About this time, two tiny little girls from one of the duty free counters sat down together in the remaining empty chair and, holding onto each others’ hands, became transfixed by the program as well.

Only one man – his nose buried in a newspaper – seemed to have no interest. Suddenly I caught this guy surreptitiously sneaking glances over the top of his newspaper. His head didn’t move – just his eyes, as they rolled up and over the newspaper every few seconds, in an attempt to hide his interest in the movie. Little by little, each of the men began to chuckle at the antics in the movie. Soon they were laughing out loud and joshing with each other over the movie. I looked beyond my aisle and saw that, as far as I could see, every face was painted with a broad smile. Even the guy with the newspaper finally relented and openly watched the TV.

So despite the delay, by the time we got on the plane everyone was in a pretty good mood – me included. For a few moments I thought I was going to get lucky and be in a row with no passenger in the middle seat but it was filled at the last minute by a short man in jeans, a knit top, a baseball cap, and simple sandals. From his appearance I guessed he was a Read More

From the moment I arrived in Hanoi things got difficult. The taxi trip from the bus stop to my hotel on the day of my arrival was no more than a kilometer and the fare should have been around 8,000 Dong. Half way to the city center I glanced at the meter and saw it already said 90,000 Dong. I pointed to the meter, asking, “Meter say 90 – that mean 90,000 Dong?” (I’ve slid into the simple English spoken by the Vietnamese because it’s easier for them to understand). “Vuong (yes), 90,000 Dong,” he replied. I had warning of this – there are discussions of Hanoi’s rigged taxi meters all over Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum. “Meter no work – you turn off,” I said sternly. “Vuong, vuong, 90,000 Dong,” he insisted. Although I had few options at 5:30 AM on dark, deserted streets with not another taxi in sight, I bluffed. I yelled, “You cheat me – I report you – you let me out of taxi right now!” “No – it OK – I fix,” he said. By the time we reached the hotel the meter read 108,000 Dong. We negotiated and I ended up paying him 50,000 Dong. Had it not been for the fact that he held my suitcase hostage in his trunk I would have simply walked away without paying him at all.

On Sunday I booked an all day city tour. Our first stop was supposed to have been the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to view the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho, as they fondly refer to him, was the President of North Vietnam until his death in 1969. His embalmed remains have been lying in state since and there is a long queue every day to view his body and pay respects. Instead, our guide took us first to the Museum of Ethnology, which features displays and films on many of the 54 different ethnic groups that inhabit Vietnam. Interesting, but not what I had signed up to see – this stop wasn’t even on the itinerary. Just to be sure, I asked if we were going to the Mausoleum. After informing us that she was a new tour guide and politely asking us to “be sympathy for her” because she “is learn English,” she told us we would go to the Mausoleum in the afternoon. From that moment Read More

If Saigon is the irrepressible teenager, then Hanoi, Vietnam is the genteel, elderly aunt. There is a strange energy about this city. Wherever I went, I felt a heaviness; an oppression. Stone-faced police are everywhere, standing around in groups. Whereas in Saigon smiles come easily, in Hanoi most people scowl. Hanoi residents in general are thicker-bodied and move more languidly than their Saigon counterpart – as if they are just going through the motions of getting through another day. Even the traffic here is more sedate. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but perhaps it has to do with an almost unbelievable corruption that permeates the north of Vietnam.

For example, I have been traveling throughout the country using a company named Sinh Cafe. They’re a good company and come highly recommended by Lonely Planet, but there is a problem with the Sinh Cafe name in Hanoi. Sinh Cafe holds the copyright for that name from the southern tip of Vietnam, all the way to Hue. North of Hue, however, there are no copyright laws, so there are a total of 86 Sinh Cafes in Hanoi – 85 of them being copycats that regularly steal the money of clients who think they are booking with the real Sinh Cafe. Fortunately I knew about this ahead of time, because I passed four other Sinh Cafes on my way to the real one this morning to book a city tour for tomorrow and a Halong Bay tour on Monday.

In the Old Quarter, one vendor offers live eels

In the Old Quarter, one vendor offers live eels

After arranging these two tours I took a walking tour around the Old Quarter, snaking through impossibly narrow streets where vendors set up in the middle of the road, leaving only 18 inches or so on either side for pedestrians, motorbikes, and bicycles. You have to see this market to believe it. One lane was nothing but clothing. Another was fruits and vegetables. A third was fresh meat – huge beef and pork slabs were carelessly tossed out on wooden plank tables and freshly plucked chickens were suspended from makeshift roofs while flies buzzed around the carcasses. Yet another lane featured seafood of all types – huge live catfish swimming around in white porcelain pans bowls full of squirming live eels. Running water from hoses is continually pumped into the pans to keep the fish alive and the excess water overflows onto the narrow concrete walkway, making for slippery, treacherous footing,especially whenever I had to dodge a speeding motorbike. Read More

Vietnam has been ruled by a series dynasties. The most recent of these was the Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted until 1945, when the last emperor abdicated power. Due to its central location, Hue, Vietnam and its environs was home to each of these dynasties and the countryside is fairly littered with historical temples, palaces, tombs, and pagodas. Although many of these architectural gems were destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968, there are still many fascinating sites to visit. Hue is divided between the old fortified city and the new urban sprawl that has grown up on the south side of the Huong River. It was this suburb that I found myself in last night – thus my comment about finding Hue disappointing after Hoi An. By the light of day, however, I discovered that I was only a short walk from the Citadel and the Forbidden Purple Palace, so I set out early this morning to see what I could discover.

Walking anywhere in Vietnam is difficult. First, no one understands my desire to walk. They think I am crazy to be out walking in the hot sun when I could be riding. Second, every few steps I was accosted by an enterprising motorbike, taxi, or pedicab driver who tried to sell me a tour or convince me to take a ride with them. It always starts with the same opening: “Hello, madame, where you from?” If you answer them, then you have to fend them off for the next 15 minutes. I literally had one pedicab driver follow me around for half a mile today, sure I would relent and hire him. So, eventually, I resort to ignoring them and being totally rude, which makes me feel guilty. There has to be a better way but I haven’t found it yet.

Courtyard at the Forbidden Purple Palace

Courtyard at the Forbidden Purple Palace

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I hit the buses again today, this time for a short 3.5 hour ride to Hue. Unfortunately, for the two hours preceding the bus ride I was sitting at a computer with an abysmally slow Internet connection, struggling to get my photos uploaded for my two most recent posts. I got the last photo uploaded just as the bus pulled up, so I unplugged my laptop, shoved it in its case, grabbed my suitcase, and ran for the bus. What I did NOT do was go to the bathroom before I got on the bus. And about an hour into the ride I was a tad bit uncomfortable. No worries, I thought, they always stop at least once during each trip – twice on longer trips. So when we pulled into a roadside restaurant, I quickly headed for the toilets.

In almost every other instance, the bathrooms we have stopped at have been sparkling clean. In fact in a couple of places I was required to leave my shoes outside the door and don special plastic flip flops provided just for the bathroom. So I was unprepared for the level of filth I encountered in this bathroom. Any other time I would have just “held it” but this was definitely not an option in this instance. I HAD to go. The floor was wet and covered in mud, so I couldn’t put my backpack down. The stool itself was filthy so I didn’t want to sit down. So, if you can picture this, I unzipped my pants and simultaneously let them drop while trying to Read More