Good morning (and goodbye) Vietnam

21 07 2011

It’s Thursday morning here in HCMC and I’m all packed up, ready to head home. Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune is on repeat; it reminds me of the end of Ocean’s Eleven when all the hard work is over with, and all of Danny Ocean’s eleven is admiring the beautifully lit up fountain outside of the Mirage Bellagio hotel on the Las Vegas strip.

Yesterday, I visited my paternal grandparent’s old house to pay my respects since I couldn’t make it out to their mausoleums. Several of my uncles and aunts who were in town also visited with me. I didn’t realize it until it happened, but my trip didn’t feel complete until I stepped into that house (one that I’ve stayed at every visit until now), lit some incense for my grandparents, and then spent some time eating fresh fruit with any relatives who were able to make it. It’s only fitting that that was storybook ending to my trip, the denouement to an improbable sixteen days of adventure.

My breakfast waits for me downstairs: it’s another special home cooked vietnamese specialty: Hu Tieu Nam Vang. I’ve eaten like a king all week, and my stomach’s kingdom size has increased its land considerably. The neighborhood is bustling around me, carrying on with its daily cacophony of sounds. Hammering, dog barking, people on the telephone, children in the street playing, someone’s tv turned up way too loud… just another typical Thursday morning here in District 1.

I have so much more to share about the tail end of my trip that I didn’t not get to write about. Those stories (along with the remaining pictures) will have to wait until I get back. I’m glad to be going home, but it’s been another amazing trip. Maybe not a once-in-a-lifer like my previous trip where I buried my grandma, but it’s a trip for everyone who yearns to understand humanity as one, global entity. All it takes is an open mind, the ability to set your reservations aside, and a whole lot of humidity.

Goodbye Vietnam. Hen gap lai sao.



Single & stuck between two cultures, I’m foraging my own path

21 07 2011

My cousins and I were in a taxi on the way downtown for some shopping when my cousin’s phone rang. With a perplexed look, she turned around and told me it was for me. How did anyone know I was with my cousin? And why would they have her number to know to reach me there? I hesitantly picked up the phone thinking it was yet another family member that found out I was here in Vietnam. “Here comes another guilt trip,” I thought to myself.

Turns out, it was one of the couples from my tourist group last week. Coincidentally, he too is from San Jose. So, after some initial small talk, he tells me he wants me to stay another week here in TPHCM so that we could hang out again. I thought to myself, “damn, everyone wants to hang out with me…” I felt myself figuratively puffing my chest out and fanning my peacock feathers. Well, I’m hoping it was figuratively. Anyways, I thank him for the offer but I let him know that work really is waiting for me when I get back (including a wedding that I’m coordinating music for). He tells me that that is too bad, because he wanted to introduce me to someone in his extended family that was young, single, and really cute (his words, not mine). My initial reaction was again one of, “heck yeah… all the ladies love Luu J….” But then I remembered that in Vietnamese culture, families routinely hook up single guys with single girls all the time. For a second there I was curious about who she was, but then I snapped out of it and reminded myself that I have already been down this path.

You see, as Asian as I look, my experiences and travels through Vietnam have reinforced two facts: 1) It’s ridiculously hot here, and 2) my interests, hobbies, personality, ideals, values, and morals, are undeniably American. In a way, it’s a bit disappointing because it really narrows down my ability to be compatible with a whole ‘nother country of opportunity. But at the same time, it’s also a reminder that I am proud to call myself American (for all its infamy here in Asia) and I am glad to have such a wide perspective. Through my travels and interactions with Vietnamese girls –and I’m not talking about the Vietnamese folks born in the States like me. I’m talking about born-and-raised-bona-fide-squat-outside-playing-cards-in-the-alley-Vietnamese… I’ve realized that we are just too different, and one of us would eventually be hugely disappointed. That fact would be magnified by the inability to communicate well, something that I value very much, and something that the Vietnamese culture has not yet mastered. Oh, and then there’s the language thing too. Who knows, maybe this entire rant will be disproved one summer’s day when I fall madly in love with a Vietnamese woman. But until then, this is my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I really feel like a dude stuck between two cultures. Too American to appeal to those down-to-earth Vietnamese girls that want the typical Vietnamese family and lifestyle. too Vietnamese to appeal to the American women who not only look at me and see an Asian person, but also see all the other Asian stereotypes that come along with being short and having black hair. The only thing I can do is be myself. Because outside of that, I don’t know what else I can do.

An ancient civilization collides with modern tourism

20 07 2011

The last couple of days have been such a blur that I’m finally now only catching my breath on the train on the way back to Ha Noi. I can’t begin to tell you how absolutely surreal it was to visit and walk among two very different and very ancient cultures. I’m uploading all the photos from my camera and it’s only beginning to slowly hit me now. These pictures tell so much, yet so much more needs to be explained to appreciate the ancient cultures that I was able to visit. I also learned firsthand how the effects of tourism and technological advances can be a negative impact on an entire way of life. Allow me to expound and I promise you’ll see why I am so eager to share, yet rather inexplicably speechless at the same time.

Geographically speaking, after returning to Ha Noi from Ha Long Bay, our group took an overnight train to Lao Cai, a smaller city that sits directly on the Vietnam-China border. Upon exiting the train station, I could literally look across the river and see China. From there, we drove out to another small city in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam called Sa Pa (in the province of Lao Cai). Now, Sa Pa is a unique little town for many reasons. First, it sits over 1500m above sea level. This fact is important because it explains why there is such a heavy French influence in the town. Back when France ‘won’ the right to colonize Vietnam after the allies bailed them out in WWII, the French government wanted to find the area in Vietnam that most resembled the weather in France. Because Sa Pa is so high up on a hill/plateau, the climate is temperate, and there actually exists four seasons, with snow occurring every few years or so. Why is this such a big deal? Because Vietnam as a country is mostly subtropical and tropical. Its temperatures usually range from 22 degrees Celsius to about 35 degrees on hot days. The humidity is often in the mid to upper 80 percentile. There are monsoon rains three months out of the year, and the other nine months are just plain hot. As you can see, anyone (including the French and me as a tourist) would find a climate like Sapa’s to be highly sought after.

An even more obvious reason as to why Sa Pa is such a popular tourist destination is the fact that the town is the de facto social border between modern civilization and a number of ancient peoples that live in the surrounding hills. If you walk the streets in the early morning, you will find them lined with people (mostly women and children) from the H’mong (Mien) and Dao (Dzao) cultures. These are ancient peoples that have been known to exist over 2000 years ago, and have migrated their way south from what is now present day China into the hills and mountains of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The H’mong-Mien are easily identified by the indigo dyed turbans on the head of women. And because the indigo dye they use is natural and comes from a plant, many of the H’mong-Mien have permanently stained blue hands. The Dao people can be identified by the red cloth they wear on their heads. The interesting thing about both cultures it that not only do they speak their own indigenous dialect, they can speak a variety of other languages, with Vietnamese not always being the strongest. Many of them speak English and French very well. The reason for this is because Vietnam has historically played host to the French for many years, and with this new wave of tourism, many of these visitors have fallen in love –or more accurately, lust with the young women and have ended up fathering offspring. I saw a little girl who had blonde hair, blue eyes, and Asian facial features. It was fascinating and sad at the same time.

Tourism, in my humble opinion, has created a difficult situation in towns like Sa Pa. On one hand, tourism has brought a new awareness to this ancient and fascinating culture that has existed for thousands of years. The money that tourism brings in helps to foster growth in a poor and rural area such as Sa Pa (Lao Cai). The caveat here, though, is that many of the H’mong are starting to choose a Western or more modern lifestyle because it is becoming more and more appealing. Also, much of the money that is being poured into the H’mong peoples is not the direct purchase of their handmade goods (which is acceptable and appropriate), but rather, many foreigners feel sad to see the children live in such poor conditions that they outright hand out money to the little ones. This has taught the H’mong to send their children into the streets begging for money and could potentially wreck an entire generation of H’mong and Dao tradition and heritage.

I found this dilemma weighing heavily on me as I visited a small Dao village. As the bus pulled up into the center of town, the Dao women and children gathered around the tour bus, mobbing all of us trying to get off the bus. They were very cordial, greeting us and asking us who we were, where we were from, and if we were enjoying our vacation. They even invited us to walk further into their village and visit their homes, which we agreed to. On the walk, they covered our heads with umbrellas to avoid the hot sun, and inquired about our families and what we did for a living, basically small talk. It was very pleasant. As we visited the home and began our trek back out to the bus, the women started begging that we buy some of their handicraft. This, in and of itself, was a dilemma. You see, if you purchase something from one woman, the rest of the village would know that you are willing and all the women begin to flock to you asking why you aren’t buying from them. On the other hand, if you tell them you’re not interested, they guilt trip you with their hospitality. If you continue to deny their requests, they actually start cursing you. Interestingly enough, they choose to curse at you in the language that you were speaking so that you may understand them perfectly. Needless to say, getting back to the bus was quite an adventure.

As a Catholic and fake sociologist, I found myself in a particularly difficult situation morally. On one hand, the price of their wares and the generous soul in me reminded me that even a small amount of money could go a very long way for them and their families. At the same time, I didn’t want to reinforce this behavior of poaching off of tourists and helping to create a new tradition of begging for money from tourists. Simply put:  I wanted to help them without damaging their livelihoods. In the end, visiting them for one and half hours was simply not enough time to accomplish both of those goals. I left without buying anything, and felt sick to my stomach on the bumpy ride back up the mountain.

Our tour group: a microcosm of Vietnamien, one gia dinh nonetheless

16 07 2011

It’s about 9:00pm local Vietnam time and I’m sitting on my bed on a train on the way to Sapa (rural mountain community of the H’mong people in North-West Vietnam). We’re only a few minutes out from the Ha Noi train station but part of the tour group is jammed into my cabin, including our tour guide. You see, I’ve managed to unwittingly make friends with the other families on this adventure through Northern Vietnam. Our group is a picture-perfect, tv-made, Benetton ad collection of people. We have the older couple from Southern Vietnam (mieng nam) who are free-spirited and always talking about parties and boozing. Then there’s the typical family of ten with mom and dad, grade school kids, the little toddler, grandma and grandpa, and the uncle and aunt with their kids (all of which are adorable by the way [see pics]. There’s the lone older gentleman traveling on his own. He mostly keeps to himself as he isn’t well acquainted with anyone, but once you strike up a conversation, you find him to be very cordial and generous. There’s the newly wedded couple on their honeymoon. The husband is from Kampuchea and the wife is Vietnamese. I’ve caught them staring into each other’s eyes at random points of the day and they still have that newly married ‘glow’ about their faces. I found a new drinking buddy: a man with his wife and son visiting from France. They’re Vietnamese but have been living in France almost all their lives. Of course, there’s my cousin and me, just two young ‘kids’ on an adventure through the very soul of Northern Vietnam (mieng bac, with me being a Viet Kieu [a Vietnamese person born in another country] from the States).

Last but not least: our character of a tour guide. For starters, when we first learned of his name (Ngoc Ha), we all were under the impression that we were going to have a female tour guide for the next 6 days. The men in our group were (oddly) more excited than the women, go figure. Well, apparently Ngoc Ha is also a male’s name in the north and so we all had a good laugh about that. Don’t let his seemingly homely persona fool you though: he is an encyclopedia of Northern Vietnam history and has a super dry sense of humor. And, his accent is so bac ky that it just adds to the whole experience. In short, he makes for a wonderful and wonderfully entertaining tour guide.

So, getting back to the second long overnight train of my stay in Vietnam, Ngoc Ha and several of the other members of our group including a bunch of the small children are currently jammed into my cabin, a cabin of two side-by-side bunk beds and room for nothing else. The kids are sitting on my bed to my left playing with each other while the adults are all gathered around Ngoc Ha on the opposite bed. Why, you ask? He’s just discovered Angry Birds on my iPad and he can’t put it down. If there’s one thing that I absolutely admire about Asian cultures (other than the veritable cuisine) it’s the concept of ‘family’. Although our tour group is a collection of many families coming together for six short days, we’ve become one, large, extended family, sharing food and laughs three times a day, and watching after each other as we embark on unfamiliar adventures. In fact, Ngoc Ha routinely refers to us as a gia dinh: a family.

Ha Long Bay and its islands: The pitfalls of tourism…

16 07 2011

Ok, so let me get the obligatory out of the way first… If you try Googling Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, you’ll probably find a plethora of websites that describe it as one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world. And quite frankly, I’d have to agree with them. Even through the rain and fog, the sheer the rawness of the small islands is something that I’d highly recommend seeing at least once in your lifetime.

With that being said, the rest of my Ha Long City experience was less than endearing. The city is quite literally a tourist trap; the city is divided into two halves: one half is dedicated solely to tourist hotels and restaurants, and the other is where the locals reside. The shops are sketchy, the food we had wasn’t all that great, the hotel was cheap and made me nervous about keeping my valuables in the room, and on more than one occasion, I was taken to a shop or restaurant that was obviously new or struggling, and they probably secretly paid our tour guide to ‘help them out’. We got dragged to a shady purveyors of ‘real pearls’. The young women in the traditional ao dais gave us a presentation that was supposed to convince us that their pearl jewelry was real, actual pearls taken straight from the shelled mollusk. We were then led into another room that contained cases and cases of pearl jewelry that were being sold to us directly, therefore a discounted price was possible on all items. I knew I smelled something fishy (besides the lunch I had) when I saw an authentic pearl necklace for 65.00 USD. On another occasion we were taken to a local coffee bean producer. It was another similar presentation with a walkthrough of their products. I have a feeling Ha Long Bay is such a growing tourist attraction that companies are moving in there trying to take advantage of the tourist pocketbooks anyway they can. They even built a small amusement park on one of the small islands in the bay that, in my estimation, is rather lame and uninspiring. The whole theme park is designated as ‘for international guests’ but as I wandered around for about thirty minutes before getting bored, I realized that it was all Vietnamese locals most likely from the local part of town. Other than the beautiful islands of the bay, I would NOT recommend spending time in the actual city of Ha Long. Spend your time out on the bay viewing and visiting the islands. Unless, of course, you decide to go on a day when the fog was super-thick and heavy, and the rain never ending.

Rain in Vietnam is nothing like rain in California. For starters, when it starts to rain, the humidity soars to almost ninety percent and the large overcast sky seems pregnant with death eaters about to burst at any second. Now, in the south, the rain is somewhat akin to a gas station car wash: you know it’s coming but before you realize it, the extremely wet downpour is over with. In the north, the weather pattern is a bit different. You still get the same inundating rain, but it seems to linger for much longer, sometimes hours or even an entire day. Either way, the rain is a tropical one, warm and wet, temporarily refreshing, and always making a dirty city even messier. In addition to drenching rain, the lightning storms I’ve encountered have been tremendous. I haven’t seen a lot of ground to cloud strikes, but the cloud-to-cloud lightning has been plentiful, blinding bright at night, and deafening loud at times. I tell you, there’s nothing like riding on a creaky, old, rusty train from Ha Noi to Sa Pa while lightning illuminates your entire cabin every thirty seconds or so as the driving rain in addition to the train wheels on the tracks create this sort of loud, white, background noise.

From underwater to the view from above

14 07 2011

(continued from “The underwater world beneath Nha Trang Bay“)

Day 3 was my last in Nha Trang and I spent the first part of it as non-adventurous (normal) Luu J. I slept in (yes, in this blasted country where the sun starts showing off at 5:45am, 9:00am is sleeping in), grabbed a huge breakfast, went down to Louisane Brewery Restaurant (which sits on the beach, has those tropical looking palm umbrellas everywhere, and makes tanks of yummy Black Beer), and sat there reading my book. Every so often, I’d take a break by jumping into the ocean for a swim, or lie there and contemplate life’s many mysteries. Like, for example, how DO they squeeze all that milk into Kraft American Cheese Singles?

Luckily, by noon, the crazy adventure bug hit again and I talked my cousin into going parasailing with me. For the uninitiated, parasailing is when they connect you to a harness, which is connected to an already deployed parachute. Then as if the parachute trying to drag you across the ground isn’t enough stress already, they connect a speedboat to your harness and then drag your ass all over the bay. Let me just say, after my cousin stopped shrieking at the top of her lungs rendering my left ear useless for about a minute, nothing can describe the sensation of flying high above the world. I was told we were anywhere between 25-30m above the ocean. It’s a feeling I will never forget. It was like seeing a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. When we finally came back down and gently grazed the water as we came ashore, I couldn’t help but wish I could’ve shared the experience with more people, perhaps someone special. But alas, that will be my excuse to come back again in the future.

The underwater world beneath Nha Trang Bay

13 07 2011

I’m about as adventurous as a fat kid at a supermodel swimsuit party. My idea of a good time involves either a Coors Light and a baseball game, or eating food until I’m silly full. Yep, I’m pretty crazy, a real-life kamikaze. But every so often, you surprise yourself, and my 3-day trip to the resort city of Nha Trang did just that. There’s something about being 10,000 miles away from home that brings out the adventurous spirit. The usual inhibitions masked by excuse making flew out my window with the beautiful ocean view and were swept away by the warm beach air. And yes, I was sober… well, mostly.

On the train ride up to Nha Trang, I made friends with an Aussie and his “mate” (his words not mine) and we had an interesting conversation comparing Aussie and American culture. On Day 2, I rode a speedboat out to several of the small islands in Nha Trang bay. Not gonna lie, that Year of the Dog thing kicked in again, and I couldn’t help sitting near the bow of the boat as it screamed along at over 50km/hr, my luscious black hair whipping in the wind. I bought fresh sea snails and cuttlefish from a merchant that literally lives on a floating seafood farm out on the bay. I went swimming on a private beach where I enjoyed my freshly purchased seafood, cooked by a beachfront restaurant the way I requested: steamed and grilled.

But my biggest adventure of the day (other than my visits to the W.C.), was my first time ever diving. Airplanes and me are like french fries and ketchup, but me and being underwater for extended periods of time with creepy crawly things are more like Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, Harry Potter and Voldemort, Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz. But again, something about being on the beautiful pristine blue ocean made me forget my usual hesitations and I suited up before I even had a chance to realize what I was doing [Sidebar: Me not wanting to get shown up by my younger female cousin had nothing to do with it. Nope. Definitely not.] I was led by hand on a ‘fun dive’ by a certified diver and in an instant, I was plunged into the underwater world of Nha Trang Bay.

I saw all types of living things. Small fish, big fish… red fish, blue fish. I saw bright yellow fish, I saw a school of small black fish. I ran my hand on the ocean floor and found a bottom dweller deftly hidden in the sand. I picked up odd shaped starfish, I touched living coral and plants. Simply put: I did a whole bunch of things I never want to do. If the little minions that operate the hamster wheel in my head could talk, they would say something in gibberish and squeak a noise that sounded like, “WTF? Is he feeling ok?”

Oh, I was feeling ok, alright… and I wasn’t done yet.


To be continued in part two…