Sunday, April 27, 2008

Day 14 - Looking For Uncle Ho & Sandals

Got up in the morning of November 22nd in our gorgeous hotel room, had some coffee and checked my email. Well, went to check my email but the computer seemed to stop working. It wouldn't connect to the Internet for some reason. So we got ready and went down to breakfast, I knew I could check my email at the computers in the lobby anyway.

Though while we were getting ready we heard the loudspeakers outside again. It started with a very anthem sounding song with opera-like singing and then the announcements went on for at least a half-hour. I really wanted to ask someone what the announcements were saying.

After breakfast we stopped and talked to the manager because we wanted to book a Halong Bay trip for the next day. He showed us a few options and we decided to do a one night trip. He set that all up for us and I mentioned the problems with the computer in the room before we left.

After walking outside we remembered something we forgot in the room and went back up. When we got up to the room the housekeeping staff was already cleaning. And, I swear it had only been a couple of minutes since I brought it up to the manager, there was a guy working on the computer. Seriously, anybody reading this ever gets a chance to go to Hanoi you have to stay at this hotel, the Hanoi Elegance 2.

We finally got out of there and we made our way toward the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. Referred to as Uncle Ho by the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh lays in state like Lenin in Russia. This was only mildly intriguing, but we read that the grounds of the complex is a traffic-free zone and getting to a place where there were no cars and you could walk around without dodging traffic sounded fantastic. Crossing the street in Vietnam was getting very tiring.

We made our way across town to the mausoleum area, snapping a few pictures along the way.

At some point while walking past the Hanoi Citadel, the military complex in the city, we saw some guys (cops or soldiers) with an open fire they seemed to be cooking with. At this point we saw another whole, cooked dog.

Speaking of the military. I had imagined that, this being a regime state, we would have seen a constant military/police presence. But I didn't find this to be the case the entire time we were in Vietnam.

We got to the mausoleum and discovered that it was closed. Not only was the mausoleum closed, but a large section of the area around the actual mausoleum building was closed off. So we couldn't go and walk around grounds. The reason for it being closed is priceless. Once a year they remove Ho Chi Minh's corpse to take it to Russia for maintenance and this happened to be the time of year he was visiting the former Soviet Union.

We stopped and had bananas and water outside the One Pillar Pagoda while trying to figure out what to do next.

We picked the Temple of Literature as our next stop. Built by one of the emperors in 1070 to honor scholars and men of literary accomplishment, the Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius and the site of the first university in Vietnam. A really nice and peaceful place to go hang out for a while.

There was a group of schoolgirls in traditional dress there for some sort of event so Lisa and I did our fake picture set-up where I pose in front of her but she is really focusing on something else. We did this way back in Bangkok with the sex tourist.

Lisa with the doctors' stelae, which recorded the names, places of birth and achievements of those men who received doctorates.

Let's see, a sun hat, a camera bag over my shoulder, and a map out. Could I look any more like a tourist?

We walked around the city a little more, stopping at several shoe stores along the way to see if I could find some sandals. Usually they would just look at my feet and shake their heads no when I asked if they had sandals in my size. I really wanted to find some before we went on the boat the next day.

We decided we should get another suitcase for the overnight boat trip so we didn't have to take our big bags. We asked at the hotel where to find luggage and they pointed us in the right direction, which, of course, was the "luggage area." On the way Lisa saw a shop with some clothes she wanted to look at and she bought some light pants for the boat.

We had to pass by the shoe district on the way to buy luggage so I decided to make one more push for sandals. I really, really wanted some open toe shoes for this boat trip. I was becoming obsessed with the concept. We hit several stores and I tried on at least a half-a-dozen pairs with no luck. Tried one last store......


Not exactly the colors I would pick with unlimited choices but they fit and they were comfortable. With three days left in our vacation I finally had appropriate footwear. And they are a pair of Tevas that only cost me 660,000d, or about $40.

Then we stopped at a couple of the luggage shops and finally got a small rolling bag for about $30. We were set for Halong Bay.

Dropped off the loot at the hotel and then went to an Indian restaurant on Pho Hang Be called Tandoor, it was getting too late to make the walk all the way back to Com Chay Adida where we had eaten the night before and we didn't feel like spending a bunch of time trying to find another vegetarian place. Traveling vegetarians can always count on Indian restaurants. We sat at a table on a small balcony overlooking the street and had some good paneer and korma, happy to be watching the street life rather than walking in it for a while.

Next - Halong Bay


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Day 13 - Hanoi Elegance And The Old Quarter

November 21st, yet another travel day. Hué was a lovely little respite from the craziness of the traffic in Saigon, if only because there are a lot less people there and not necessarily because they actually drive more sane.

We had breakfast at the hotel and then packed up our stuff for checkout. We went down to the desk and settled up our bill. We tried to insist once again that they charge us the full price for the bigger room we were given but they would have none of that. They offered to arrange a car for us to the airport and we left our stuff with them to store until it was time to leave. We had about an hour or so to kill so we just took a long walk around town to places we didn't see the day before.

One last stroll around Hué and off to the airport we went.

The plane to Hanoi as a lot more full then the one we took from Saigon as there was a tour group, senior citizens from England it seemed, on our flight.

This time the pilot of our flight was not American sounding. He sounded British instead. Does Vietnam Airlines not hire Vietnamese pilots?

Glad we had the hotel in Hanoi arrange for our pick-up from the airport so we didn't have to do any of the research on which cabs to catch or avoid, or figure out how much we should pay to know if we were getting ripped off. We walked through the gauntlet of drivers offering us rides to the guy holding a sign with my wife's name on it.

Back in the crazy traffic of another large Vietnamese city, it took forever to get to the hotel. We finally got to the Old Quarter in Hanoi and our hotel.

We were staying at the Hanoi Elegance 2 Hotel, around the corner from the original Hanoi Elegance which causes a lot of confusion among travelers since neither one's sign specify if it is number one or two. This would turn out to be the favorite hotel of our entire trip. First, the people there were so freaking nice and helpful and they always remembered who we were and which room we were in when we stopped to pick up our room key every day after returning from sightseeing.

Also, we had the most awesome room! I had read some reviews on before we picked this hotel and more than one suggested a specific room, #705 on the top floor. This was the most expensive hotel on our trip ($75) except for the one night at the resort in Can Tho, but it was really worth it. The manager showed us to our room and we couldn't believe our eyes when we walked in. The room had huge windows on three sides and glass doors that opened up to a terrace overlooking the street below.

(click on images for larger pictures)

At just about every place we stayed on this trip there was usually Internet access available in the lobby and free wi-fi in the room if you had a laptop with you, which we did not. But in our room at the Hanoi Elegance there was wi-fi in the room with the laptop provided by the hotel!

There was a complimentary bottle of wine and a plate of fresh fruit, which was replenished every day. The fruit, not the wine.

After reveling in our new hotel room for a while and taking a bunch of pictures we decided to go check out Hanoi. We walked all around the Old Quarter, which is exactly what is sounds like. It is the oldest section of Hanoi and has all of the historic-looking buildings with tiny, winding streets and lots of cobblestone sidewalks. It's kind of like Beacon Hill in Boston without the annoying accents.

But the small amount of room on the streets and the mass amount of pedestrians all over the Old Quarter does not stop anyone from driving just as crazy as they do in Ho Chi Minh City. A dizzying number of motorbikes zip around the Old Quarter all day long as well as a decent amount of cars, vans and small tour buses. The sidewalks are really narrow to begin with and then are blocked in a whole bunch of places by parked bikes or motorbikes and the makeshift restaurants and bars that line the sidewalks of Hanoi. So not only is the traffic crazy, but you have to walk in it all the time to get around.

But the Old Quarter is definitely a charming place. The hustle and bustle of life there is just fantastic to be around.

This part of Hanoi is also a lot like New York with each street or block known for selling a particular product. One street might be where all the candy stores are located, on the next block you get your coffee, here's the corner with the luggage stores and on the stretch of road on the NE side of the Hoan Kiem Lake is where all the shoe stores are lined up. Kept thinking of New York's Flower District, Garment District or Indian Row. OK, really I thought a lot more about the episode of The Simpsons when Homer asks his new boss where he can find a hammock (Scorpio: "'s the hammock complex on third." Homer: "Oh, the hammock district.")

Being such a big tourist area, non-Asian walking around is always being asked if they want to buy a book, some fruit or a ride either on a motorbike or cyclo. Some of the women with the fruit baskets wouldn't just try to sell us fruit. Some of them would walk up and try to put the basket-balancing stick on Lisa's shoulder to have us take a picture. Obviously trying to scam some money out of the tourists. We kept waving them off, though Lisa said she probably wanted to get one before we left because her mom likes hokey pictures like that.

Later in the day we noticed that there was some announcement being made over loudspeakers up on poles all over the Old Quarter. It probably went on for a good 20-30 minutes and sounded very Orwellian despite the fact that we didn't know what as being said. Granted, it could have been the weather report for the next day, what did we know?

For dinner we went and found a place that I found out about on Happy Cow, called Com Chay Adida. It was a little off the beaten path and we had to walk a little ways to get there. We were definitely the only tourists around by the time we got to the area where the restaurant is located. On the block where it was located there were a bunch of street vendors as well, and I'm pretty sure we saw a whole cooked dog hanging on a hook at one of them.

Com Chay Adida is a fantastic restaurant in a colonial-era townhouse. In the middle of the place there is an open shaft through to the floors above with a rock garden and little pond on the ground floor. The ladies who waited on us didn't know English but they were super nice about the language barrier and we just pointed to the menu to tell them what we wanted. This is a lot easier to do at a vegetarian restaurant, knowing that no matter how badly you communicate you won't be brought a plate of squid or dog testicles.

This was one of the best places we ate on this trip, they had great faux meat and noodle soup.

After dinner we walked around Hoan Kiem Lake. At several spots around the lake, when the walkway would open up into a little plaza, there were groups of people out doing aerobics. And damn if Hanoi didn't also have those guys with scales all over the place. Although here they seemed to be even poorer and older people hawking the weigh-yourself service. Several of them had even had just your common bathroom scale instead of the fancier stand-up versions. Who knows, maybe they had a run of business after the aerobics people finished exercising.

Back at the hotel I enjoyed some complimentary wine on our terrace before bed.

Next - Uncle Ho not at home, Temple of Literature and sandals!


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Day 12 - The Rain In Hué Falls Mainly Every Day

We had pretty much just this one day to see Hué. We were staying for two nights but this was our only full day in town. It was now November 20th.

Woke up and it was still raining. We could tell that it's probably true about Hué being the Seattle of Vietnam from the way that every single wood door in our room creaked from being slightly warped. And the musty smell.

Having lived in Seattle myself for many years, I kind of liked this. The only problem with trying to hit a lot of sights in one day is that the grey kind of sucks your energy and the wet ground makes you move slower. This would be the only stop on the trip that I wished I had packed my boots. Instead, like so often when I lived in the great Pacific Northwest, I would be walking around in the rainy weather wearing Chuck Taylor's. I don't think there is a worse shoe in the universe for walking in the rain. But I love them so.

We decided from the get-go that trying to go down the river and see some of the temples and tombs would be pointless since it just wasn't nice enough out to go do that. The visibility wasn't very good but we really wanted to take a ride in dragon boat on the Perfume River.

We walked toward the river where the boats were lined up and, as is the case when you are an obvious tourist, it wasn't long before one of the boat guys walked up to us. We agreed on a price with a couple of guys that appeared to be a father/son team. Not a lot of business on the river this day. The son, who spoke better English, really wanted to take us on a whole day excursion to the temples and tombs but we really just wanted about an hour on the river to see the city and then get dropped off on the banks closest to the Citadel. It would have been a better tour in nice weather but it still wasn't bad, despite the guy trying to sell us silk paintings and clothes while we rode.

We then got dropped off on the banks of the river and walked through the mud and across the street to the Citadel, the moated and walled old Imperial City. Hué was the site of the bloodiest battles of the Tet Offensive during the war and much of the Citadel was destroyed. But still not a bad place to explore on a rainy day in Hué.

There is this one spot close to the entrance that you can buy bags of fish food to throw in a pond and watch the feeding frenzy.

Toward the end of our time there we came across an area in one of the buildings that had guys selling the works of a couple of local artists. We bought a few cool rice paper paintings for ourselves and for gifts. After hanging around there for a while we headed back toward the main part of town to try to find food, watching how the locals dealt with the rain as we walked.

We hit a place for lunch that was really cool. We were led up a small winding concrete staircase to a second floor dining area with a balcony over the street, passing a a woman cooking in a cubby-hole kitchen abut halfway up (floor 1-1/2?). We had a nice view of street life from up there.

After that it was time to shop again! We walked down to the market.

We checked out both the inside and outside areas for a little while and I again tried in vain to find a pair of sandals. That was another fruitless try, though at least this time nobody tried to squeeze a two-sizes-too-small pair on me like in Saigon. Most just looked at my feet and said "no big."

A woman started talking to Lisa and asked her to come to look at things in her shop on the second floor. Lisa told her we were just looking and didn't want to buy anything. The woman said, "You come just look, maybe buy if you like something."

We got upstairs and a guy showed me a shirt that looked pretty cool. I turned to show Lisa and the women had, in a matter of seconds, started wrapping her in a silk get-up thing. I kept looking at shirts while they wrapped and unwrapped my wife in various colors. And she loved the stuff.

We weren't going to buy anything there and ended up walking out of there having spent $170 after the bargaining process. I got an awesome shirt that I'm still kicking myself for not getting more of in several different colors.

We got the hell out of there before we spent more money. Stopped back at the hotel to drop off stuff and put on dry socks. Then we walked down to the vegetarian restaurant on our block, which was really full of a bunch of local teenagers. So often at the vegetarian restaurants we were hitting on this trip we were surrounded by other Westerners, so this was cool to see.

It had finally stopped raining by nighttime and we were able to take a nice walk around town. Any worry about the war being a sensitive topic in Vietnam was laid to rest by seeing things like bars named after the DMZ, which was not too far way. (There is a club in Saigon named Apocalypse Now)

We had dessert and drinks at the restaurant across the street from our hotel while watching a traditional Vietnamese folk music band play.

I was able to sit on our balcony and keep listening to the music after we went back to the room. A tour group came out of the place at the end of the night, Germans I think, and their bus picked them up right at the door and whisked them away, taking care to make sure the tourists don't interact with anything not pre-planned, packaged and processed for Western consumption. You might as well be at the Vietnam exhibit at Epcot Center.

I sipped a beer and watched the street scenes below. My night ended watching the man who runs the shop across the street, a convenience store basically. He kept putting his son of about 4 years-old to bed in their little house next door and the kid kept getting out of bed and walking over to the store. And he was usually wearing one of his dad's pair of sandals. He must have put that kid back to bed about a dozen times by the time I called it a night. But he was still smiling about it.

Next - Hanoi


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Day 11 (Part 2) - Going Hué Down Now

Trivia - The post title is a play on words of a song by which band?

We finished eating at the Little Buddha Vegetarian restaurant and made our way back toward tourist cafe that was getting our plane tickets ready.

On the way we saw a sight that we had seen several times in Ho Chi Minh City, that I haven't mentioned in previous posts. All over Saigon there are people on the sidewalks, either sitting in place or walking around, with scales for weighing people. It was one of the odder ways I've ever seen poor people try to make money and didn't seem like it would be that profitable. But there were many different people with scales in just about every public high-traffic area around the city, so it must have been something people do. Maybe the Vietnamese don't have scales at home. Of course I don't think we ever saw an overweight Vietnamese person on the entire trip so I'm not even sure why they need to weigh themselves.

We got back to the tourist cafe, picked up our tickets for the two flights (Saigon-Hué and Hué-Hanoi) as well as our luggage and went out to find a cab. There was a guy across the street with a little brown piece of crap sub-compact and a taxi sign on the top. He ran over and helped us across with our suitcases and I asked him how much to the airport.

"Run meter," he said.

At the end of the ride he really did charge us the meter price, about 130,000d. I gave him 200,000d and told him to keep the change. I guess the best cabs to take in Saigon are the ones that look like independent drivers with worn out used cars. He was the only one that didn't try to take advantage of the stupid American tourists.

We had quite a while to wait at Ho Chi Minh City airport since we got there really early. Lisa left me in a cafe with our stuff to go look for souvenirs and snacks, while I commenced getting liqueured up.

I really hate flying. But after an Ativan and a couple of beers it's not so bad.

We got on the plane and it was only about half full. For those of you wondering, Vietnam Airlines flies regular jets like Airbus and not little third world prop puddle-jumpers like you were imagining in your Western mind.

After the plane took off the male flight attendant came over the intercom to make announcements. He first spoke Vietnamese, naturally. In the middle of his spiel he said something odd. It basically sounded like this - "<Vietnamese, Vietnamese> Captain Randy <Vietnamese, Vietnamese>"

Lisa and I looked at each other, "Did he say Captain Randy?"

The flight attendant then spoke in English and it was the usual airline speech of welcoming you aboard and blah blah blah. And he did in fact welcome us on board on behalf of Captain Randy.

After we leveled out the intercom came on again and a very American sounding voice said "this is Captain Randy from the cockpit..." and did the usual pilot talk of telling us the weather at our destination and how long our flight would be. The weird thing was that what he said wasn't translated for the Vietnamese people on the plane. You know, the actual people whose country we were in.

So that was odd. We got to say goodbye to Captain Randy as we got off the plane, a typical looking pilot with the kind of mustache common among pilots, supermarket managers and members of the Village People.

We got off the plane in Hué about an hour and twenty minutes later. When we walked out to the cab it was raining. It was also, for the first time on this trip, not hot. In fact, it was even kind of chilly. It was also raining, which is something we heard it did a lot in Hué. Lisa even read something that referred to it as the "Seattle of Vietnam."

After about a 30 minute taxi ride we got to the Orchid Hotel and were met at the sidewalk by a bellhop with an umbrella.

If you are ever going to go to Hué you need to stay at the Orchid Hotel. This place is incredible. The staff was super nice to us and the hotel is really cute. They apologized to us over and over about the lock on our door, which was broke due to it being an electronic key-card lock with a dead battery. There was no real put-out to this, they just had to open the door for us every time we came back because they only had one manual key. But they kept apologizing for it anyway. This was not the original room we had reserved because we came a day earlier. They let us keep this one for both nights at the same rate even though this was a bigger and more expensive room, and we were the ones that needed the extra night at the last minute. We tried to tell them to go ahead and charge us the full price but they would have none of that.

And the room was fantastic! A "family room" with a big bed, a separate single bed (good to know for when we take our kid to Vietnam in a few years) and a cheap mini bar, topped off by a balcony over the street below.

It was late and we were slap-happy by this point, remember our day started with the canceled train in Saigon, when I discovered my favorite part of the room. In the closet were some damn sexy silk robes.

I never would have imagined it was possible to look creepier than Hue Hefner. But I think I proved that it is.

Next - The day in Hué


Friday, April 11, 2008

Indoor Fireworks

I'm somewhat amazed that at the age of 37 I can still be so blown away by a concert experience that I become a giddy little girl in those moments. When I was a teenager going to a show was an escape from my horrible home life for a few hours, so a really amazing show by one of my favorite artists was always a special and memorable experience. It also helped me forget, for a few hours, that I was growing up in a horrible place under the rule of a wretched, tyrannical mother. As Jeff Tweedy sings on Sunken Treasure, "Music is my savior..."

I wouldn't have made it through my teen years without music and concert-going. But now I don't have anything to escape from. My mother lives far away from me, I have a great wife who I love and we have a kid on the way (that is the first time I've written that here, the big news in my life. If you know me I probably already told you and if you don't know me you are probably not even reading this). I even met my wife because of a concert, REM at Rosemont Horizon in 1989, during those dark days.

It seems that by the time one reaches their late thirties these romantic notions of "special" experiences at shows that perhaps "take me to another place" or some other idea about "out of body" hippy nonsense would have been beat out of them by life. But with me that's not the case. I can still be so caught up in a beautiful moment at a show by one of my favorite performers that my eyes will well up or I will feel like (and I know how dorky this sounds) I've entered another plane of existence and nothing else in the world exists in that moment.

I went to the Grand Ballroom on 34th Street Wednesday night to see the Nick Lowe show. Well, I went to see Robyn Hitchcock open for Nick Lowe. Robyn is not someone I miss when he comes to the town where I'm living, having seen him 40-something times. I probably wouldn't have been going to see Nick Lowe without Robyn opening. Lowe is one of those guys who I like a lot but have never gotten around to owning any of his records. I think everyone has somebody like that, legendary musicians whose records you feel like you should own but don't. I'm always kicking myself for never having bought any Tom Waits either.

I was pretty excited about seeing Robyn again and getting the chance to check out a Nick Lowe show. I haven't seen Robyn as an opening act since that REM show back in '89 so I wasn't really sure what to expect. Was he going to just play his songs that a non-Hitchcock crowd might know, his minor hits, like Balloon Man and Madonna Of The Wasps? Or would he just go ahead and play the same kind of set, though shorter, that he would for one of his own gigs?

I didn't get my answer from the first song as he opened with Heaven, which is fairly accessible and known. But then he followed with Daisy Bomb, which is not even one he plays very often, so I thought, "OK this is going to be a real Robyn Hitchcock experience."

He also started off with one of his rambling stories in all its wonderful weirdness, which I would think is pretty daring for an opener to do. By the middle of the set he really dared the audience to come along with him on this journey when he threw in some of his odder songs. Throwing The Cheese Alarm at them was quite a sight to see. A song that mentions about a dozen types of cheese would be a real test of how much the Nick Lowe crowd was into it. And if that didn't drive them away then maybe Wax Doll, with its line "If I was man enough I'd come on your stump," would. But the crowd stayed with him.

I knew I liked Nick Lowe fans a lot by this point in the show. During the whole set, including Robyn's ramblings, the crowd was so quiet and listening intently. This was a completely different experience than the one Billy Bragg had with the idiot Pogues fans last month.

By the end he had played a wonderfully varied set of eight or nine songs that spanned his career from about 1980 (I Got The Hots) to a brand new song he said he had just written. Right before the new song he played probably two of his finest compositions, One Long Pair Of Eyes and Glass Hotel, that gave me goose bumps and a lump in my throat.

I called my buddy Mikey in Seattle to tell him about the show, I wasn't sure if my wife would be in bed so I didn't want to wake her up with my giddy exuberance about the show. The show was short but a great performance as usual for Mr. Hitchcock.

I talked with Mike for a while and then went up to see Nick Lowe's set. Like I said, I don't own any Nick Lowe but I figured it would be a good show even without knowing the songs. I was also guessing I could look forward to hearing him play several songs that I would recognize since the man is responsible for a few legendary songs, like (What's So Funny "Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding, I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock and Roll) and Cruel To Be Kind.

A good show was an understatement. It was a great show! The songs I didn't know were fabulous and the ones I recognized sounded better than any version I had heard before. He closed the main set with an acoustic version of Peace, Love & Understanding that was beyond amazing. With all due respect to Elvis Costello, his version doesn't even come close to speaking to me the same way that Nick's did on Wednesday. And I love Costello's version.

At that point he walked off stage for the encore break (still the part of a show I hate the most, the fake encore) and the crowd was going nuts. After hearing such and incredible version of that song to end the set I thought about leaving. "It couldn't get any better than that ," I thought. I really considered letting that be the last moment for me. I am glad I didn't.

He came back out and played The Beast In Me, a song I kind of know, and then invited Robyn out on stage to do a song with him. This was why I didn't leave, knowing this was a possibility. Nick and Robyn covered a fun, obscure early 60's song and then Nick said something like, "We'd like to bring out a friend..." and out walked fucking Elvis Costello! Needless to say the crowd went absolutely nuts.

Elvis and Nick did a song called Indoor Fireworks that Elvis wrote, which was quite beautiful. Then Robyn came back out the three of them finished the show with Robyn singing lead on If I Fell by the Beatles and Mystery Train, a song made famous by the other Elvis.

Really glad I decided to stay.

After the show I was really pumped up and had to call as many of my music-loving friends as I could. Since it was so late I had to stick to the West Coast so I was on the phone to Seattle, San Francisco and L.A. My friend Martha in San Francisco got on the computer right away and bought tickets to Saturday's show at the Fillmore.

I just love that a concert can still take me to another place like that. It's even better than it used to be, I can get the same feeling I got as a teen without all the baggage that goes along with, well, being a teen.

God I love music.


Roquefort and grueyere and slippery Brie
All of these cheeses they happen to me
Oh please

Rough pecorino and moody Rams Hall
Stop me before I just swallow it all
Oh please

Somebody ring the cheese alarm
Oh please
Somebody ring the cheese alarm

Goats' cheese cylinder, tangy and white
Roll over me in the flickering night
Oh please

Chaume and Jarlsberg, applewood smoked
"The pleasure is mine," he obligingly joked
Oh please

Somebody ring the cheese alarm
Oh please
Somebody ring the cheese alarm

Hey now, Fletcher, don't keep me up late
I can't even fit into size thirty-eights
Oh please

Juddering Stilton with your blue-blooded veins
You can't build a palace without any drains
Oh please
Oh please
Oh please

Half the world starving and half the world bloats
Half the world sits on the other and gloats
Oh please

Truckle of cheddar in a muslin rind
Would you give it all up for some real peace of mind?
Oh no.

---The Cheese Alarm by Robyn Hitchcock

Monday, April 07, 2008

Bimbo Math

I was up watching TV last night. Well, I was kind of reading while the TV was on something or other. Whatever I was ignoring ended and the local news came on, which I never watch. After I realized it was on I went to change it but paused to see a story about a carbon monoxide leak in a party hall in Queens. A whole group of people at a wedding reception got sick and many had to be taken to the hospital.

Here's the part that stood out and what is really, in a nut shell, wrong with the broadcast media. The reporter for the story was one of those cookie-cutter TV bimbos that seem to have taken the place of actual female journalists all over the TV news. I couldn't find the clip on the Internet, so I can't quote it verbatim, but this is what she basically said in the intro to the story:

The carbon monoxide level in the hall was 500 times what
the normal level should be for carbon monoxide, which is zero.

This was not an in-studio back and forth discussion where people can misspeak, she had time to plan the intro and write it. So there is no damn excuse for this.

I went to a dumpy public school system in a southern state that was 49th in SAT scores, but even I learned by the second or third grade that zero multiplied by anything equals zero!

Helen Thomas blazed a trail for this?

I'm sure there are a lot of smart and hard working women with actual journalism degrees toiling in the trenches who can't get an on-camera gig just because they don't look like they could be in Playboy.

Full, firm breasts and long legs shouldn't be the qualifications for TV reporter. Oh wait, that's right, I live in America. How silly of me.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Day 11 (Part 1) - Waiting At The Station...And Waiting, And Waiting....

OK, I know it has been almost a month since I did any of my SE Asia travelogue, but today I pick it back up with our last day in Saigon. A monster of a day trying to complete the seemingly simple task of departing for Hué.

November 19, 2008 - What a freaking day! What was supposed to be a low-key day of waking up late, strolling through the market and then making our way to the station to catch our train to Hué turned out to be anything but low-key. It turned out to be the longest damn day of the trip and we didn't even really do anything.

We woke up a little late that morning, had some breakfast and then went over to the Ben Thanh Market, where we had bought our hats and Lisa's áo dài the day before. We went back to the same hat stand as the day before so Lisa could get a summer hat this time, finally convinced she needed one after the previous day of walking around in the sun of Ho Chi Minh City. She found one with just the right cuteness factor for her taste and we were on our way.

Our next stop was back to the railway ticket office in the backpacker area. I hadn't taken enough money with me the day before so I only bought the tickets for the first leg of our trip north, the overnight train from Saigon to Hué. We still needed to get the tickets for the daytime train we were going to take to Hanoi after spending a night in Hué. This is where we hit our first glitch of the day.

The morning train from Hué we wanted to be on was sold out. We had to pick a different train and the next one with available space left in the late afternoon instead, which meant we had to buy sleeper spaces instead of seats since this one would get into Hanoi the next morning rather than the same evening. OK, a little setback, no big deal. Costs us a little more money and some time in Hanoi, but we get a bit more of Hué as a trade off. The real downside was that now both trains we were going to take through Vietnam would have the majority of travel time during the night, so we wouldn't see as much of the country as we planned.

We stopped at one of the Internet places in the backpacker area and Lisa emailed the hotel in Hanoi to tell them of our later arrival so they would hold our room. Then we headed back to the hotel to get our bags, stopping along the way to buy bread and jam to go with the peanut butter we bought at the market. We weren't sure what kind of food options the train would have and we would be a couple of very hungry vegetarians by the end of the ride if they only had meat options.

We checked out of the hotel and grabbed a cab outside. This time we asked the price before getting in, learning from our mistake the night before, and the guy told us 40,000d (about $2.50). We gave him 60,000d when we got to the station.

Our train was scheduled to depart at 1:00pm and we were at the station pretty early, probably a little before noon. We spent the time looking around for a place to buy some bananas and water, with little luck. I did eventually find a cafe a short walk from the station doors that had water.

We sat and waited.

Being the big train geek that I am, I was really looking forward to this part of the trip ever since we started planning it. A trip up the entire coast of Vietnam and adding to my ever-expanding collection of pictures of me standing dorkily on a train platform, standing on front of a subway car or lying on a sleeper compartment bunk. This would end up being the only picture we got:

(click photos for larger image)

It was getting really close to 1:00 but no one was starting to make their way to the platform. I kept looking to see if there was a train outside, there was not, and the doors to get to the tracks were locked shut. There were no announcements being made in English, but ours was the only train leaving anytime soon so we just waited for the crowd to start moving. Ten minutes until departure time and still nothing. Finally Lisa prodded me to go up to the window to ask. I had read in the guide book that there was always an English-speaking line at the station but I didn't know which one it was since there were no signs in English. I just went to an open window and tried to ask the lady when our train would be boarding. After a minute or two of trying to communicate with each other she was able to find the English word "canceled."


She pointed down to the window at the end and said "English." So I went down to the end and waited in line. I yelled over to Lisa that the the train was canceled and she brought our bags over by me so we could try to make a decision on what to do once I spoke with the woman at window #1. She confirmed the cancellation and then told me that the next train we could get on would be the 11:00pm, ten freaking hours later! That train wouldn't even get into Hué until 5:00pm the next day, which would give us less than 24 hours there.

We're standing there trying to figure out what to do and suddenly I (the guy who hates flying and loves trains more than anything) say, "Let's look into flying."

Lisa tells me that there is no way it will be affordable trying to buy tickets the same day but I argue for at least checking it out. Everything else in this country is cheap, so what the hell?

I leave Lisa with our stuff and go out to try to find an Internet cafe. The station in Saigon is not in the middle of town like it should be so I wasn't sure if I would find an Internet place. After a little walking I came upon one. I went online and googled Vietnam Airlines. There was no way to book flights or check fares on their site, so that was no help. One of the other sites that popped up was advertising tickets for $67 but it looked suspicious. I decided to just go to Expedia and try it there. $287 for two tickets from Ho Chi Minh City to Hué taking off at 6:30pm. OK, a little steep but not really bad for last minute.

I head back to the station and tell Lisa. She goes to find a public phone so she can call the hotel in Hué to see if they would have a room for us a day early since we had originally planned to sleep on a train that night. After she checked that out I then went to use the phone, a public phone with an attendant you paid instead of putting money in, and called one of the reputable tourist cafes listed in the guidebook to see if we could get the tickets cheaper.

Bingo! I talked to a woman that could sell us tickets for $66 each. But we had to go down to the cafe to buy them. So off we went again. First we stopped by the ticket counter and got a refund on our Saigon-Hué tickets. We went out to the line of cabs and asked how much to go to the backpacker area and a cabbie told us $5, or about double what it cost us to get there. I was in no mood to haggle so I said fine and we jumped in.

On the way to the tourist cafe it finally dawned on me that our train trip from Hué to Hanoi would be almost all at night so there didn't seem to be much of a point of riding the rails up the coast. I told Lisa we should ask how much it would cost to get a flight for that leg when we got to the tourist cafe. I still can't believe these flights were my idea. I mean, I hate planes.

We made a feeble attempt to still be tourists along the way and managed to take a single picture of some kids we saw exercising in a park. Our exciting sight of the day.

We got to the tourist cafe and arranged for both sets of tickets after getting a quote of $65 each for the second flight. We left our bags there while they got our tickets ready and went to the railway ticket office to get a refund on our second set of train tickets, minus 10% since that train wasn't canceled.

Then we stopped at an Internet cafe again to email the hotel in Hanoi for a second time to let them know that we won't be arriving late as we wrote just a couple hours earlier, but in fact will be arriving even earlier than our original time we told them when we booked. At this point we were wondering if they even wanted these two flaky Americans staying at their hotel.

FINALLY got all this shit taken care of and we went to find some food. We found the Little Buddha Vegetarian restaurant in mini-hotel row. I never wanted a beer so bad in my life. I had two of those big-ass bottles of Tiger beer that I was drinking all through Southeast Asia. Lisa snapped our last picture in Ho Chi Minh City:

I was spent, and this day was only about half over.

Next - A surprising voice on the plane and some damn sexy robes