Monday, December 19, 2011

And finally . . .

The two of us.

For everyone else who has wished us well.

And finally, a little blurry, but well . . .

Thank you all.

Narita Japan

There are two posts I should really add to make the travelog complete, but I'm going to post them in reverse order. This will be the very last thing I did. After leaving Ho Chi Minh City I had a lengthy layover in Narita Japan and decided to go exploring just a little. My primary goal was to find and explore a rather old Shigon Buddhist temple called "Naritasan Shinshoji" or "Narita Mountain New Victory Temple." This "new" temple having been founded in 940, apparently, and being one of the oldest in the Kanto region. (Thank you Wikipedia.)

So I took a train into town, bought some breakfast at a lovely little cafe, and commenced wandering around. When that failed to net me an old temple, I went back to the train station and got a map. Worked much better.

It was in an older picturesque part of town with lovely narrow streets and lots of traditional buildings (and plenty of police peep cams.)

A twenty minute stroll brought me to the temple where I spent the next hour or so wandering around and listening to a very neat religious service of some kind. (Much fire, chanting, and drumming. And lots of people in formal Japanese clerical garb of one kind or another and, thankfully, even more ordinary folks just going to temple for their own reasons so it didn't feel so touristy. Pretty normal assortment of people in their "Sunday" best. Much like a typical church in the west, but without the shoes and with more percussion.)

The music was splendid. The body of it was microtonal chanting that didn't change pitch much, but was sort of rhythmically fascinating. And the slow rise and fall was really neat. Behind this was some very driving periodic drumming that gradually increased in tempo, with a few different types of bells dropped in from time to time for emphasis.

Next to the temple was a Japanese garden that reminded me of home, oddly. (The city of my youth is home to a rather large and well regarded Japanese garden called "Seiwa En" or "Garden of Pure Clear Harmony and Peace.") Obviously the garden's (Japanese) creators got it right, as the version in Narita was clearly quite similar.

Behind this was a cemetery where I got myself briefly lost: an experience I recommend, so long as you're not in a hurry to catch a flight. (I wasn't, thankfully. It was all quite a good thing.)

Of course, all of this will no doubt bear periodic repeating as time goes forward. I suspect I will be making annual or semi-annual pilgrimages to Ho Chi Minh for Tet, so it should be quite possible to stop through Japan from time to time on the way there or the way back.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City

The city once known as Saigon is a strange and interesting place. Contrary to my first impression there are traffic signals and police officers, but in spite of all that, one's first impression of HCM is probably almost inevitably the traffic. There are something over eight million people here and every single one of them seems to own a motorcycle. Further, there doesn't really seem to be much in the way of segregation by function. Businesses, factories, and homes exist side by side in an uninterrupted cloth.

The block I'm on has perhaps a half dozen restaurants, two mobile phone shops, a couple of pharmacies, a small factory of some kind, and an admixture of other things I can't immediately identify but which clearly look business like. And of course people eat and sleep in virtually every one of these buildings in back rooms and on upper floors. There are surprisingly few "stand alone" houses here, even by European standards. And virtually nothing actually "stands alone." Streets are fronted with continuous walls of buildings to the sidewalk line and beyond on all sides. Alleys are distinct from streets only by breadth and lack of sidewalks. And everything is filled with the noise of people and traffic and the smells of food are everywhere at all times. Makes any city in the west seem downright quiet and sleepy. (Up to and including New York.)

Anyway . . . I can't really convey the whole thing, but here's a little. First, a relatively typical Ho Chi Minh building:

Christmas is apparently celebrated here, and it feels . . . strange. Here's a shop selling little santa suits in all sizes:

A little piece of the local telecom infrastructure:

This is about how a typical street feels:

As you get into the older part of town, district one, there are a number of older and larger buildings and even some colonial remnants that have been converted into museums of one kind or another:

No trip to the east would be complete without a visit to a local temple of some kind. I tossed a few bucks into the collection box in gratitude for letting me take pictures. This one is a fairly typical Buddhist example:

Of course, Saigon was and still is a port city. You can see everything from sampans loaded down with rice on the rivers to cruise ships anchored downtown. The little tour boat went zipping by while we visited one of the museums:

Here's a little glimpse of the skyline, which isn't tall yet, but it's growing:

There's lots more I could show you, of course, and in a week I've only scratched the surface, but I hope this taste meets your approval. I'll close with this shot of a back alley near the main market that's become a motorcycle parking lot:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Well, 'tis my last day in Vietnam. All has gone quite well. I've survived noise and traffic and crazy food, and even East Asian dating rituals, I think. I figured out how to pull pictures on here a few days ago (with the aid of a recently purchased device) but haven't had the time since. Today, being a comparatively quiet day, I have the time.

So here's Mai Hong and I in the hotel room shortly after I got to Ho Chi Minh City:

Her brother in law Hung runs this little cell phone shop:

Her parents live in a smaller city called Cai Lay, and her father raises chickens and ducks:

Her older sister lives in a city famous for its beaches. She brought down some fresh crabs. (You can drag any kind of food, living or dead, more or less anywhere but the western chain coffee joint.) These apparently came down with her on the train and then took the bus with us later before eventually winding up as dessert.

Here we are having dinner. From right to left: the composer, Mai Hong, her younger sister Mai Tham, her mother, and her father:

The next day her sisters fetted me with a birthday party Vietnam style:

The young one is called something along the lines of "bean" and belongs with Mai Hong's older sister.

Will add some pictures about HCM City itself in a second post, but I'll cut the first one here to keep it from getting unwieldy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

More on Vietnam

Well, there are traffic lights in Saigon after all. Went for a lengthy drive about town yesterday, or ride, I should say, as I was perched atop the back of Mai Hong's sister's scooter. I got to be her bitch! :D

If you hadn't gathered this from the last post, scooters are the preferred mode of transportation in Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City. In a city of 8 million people squeezed into an area the size of . . . oh, who knows, but a small area, anyway . . . Central Park? . . . (Not quite that small) but in such a small dense area it only makes sense. New York could learn a thing or two. Traffic would flow a lot better indeed in Manhattan if the car/motorcycle ratio were similar. And if there were so few traffic lights. Yeah, you'd have to make the speed limit maybe 20 mph, but that's what . . . ten times as fast as a crosstown bus right now?

Anyway . . . there are traffic lights. And above each one there's a little clock that gives you the time to the next change. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

So I got to meet Mai Hong's younger sister Mai Tham and her husband Hung yesterday. And his nephew Khanh. Today I met her older sister Mai Hoa and her son. Cute kid, but got terrible motion sickness on the bus. Need to suggest the trail mix treatment. I seem to recall that helped my ex a great deal. The bus, you see, brought us to a smaller city called Cai Lay where Mai Hong's parents live. So now I've also met her mother, father, and paternal grandmother. All these things I've seen only in her pictures. Good times.

And tonight we will feast upon fresh crab. (You have to step over them to get to the facilities.) Things are different in different countries, you see. And in VN the crabs stay as guests in your kitchen before you invite them to be the main course. (A swan gets to sing a lovely song about that phenomenon in Orf's Carmina Burana. "I used to be white and lovely, and now I'm extra crispy."

Had a duck egg last night. And inside the egg, of course, was a duck embryo. Tasted much like very very tender chicken. You just eat the sucker whole. (Or you eat all of it anyway, one little piece at a time.) The albumen is QUITE a lot harder than that in unfertalized chicken eggs. It's as though the liquid parts of the egg become quite solid, but the "solid" parts become very very soft. Not bad, all told, if you can get past any initial reaction you might have.

Which is to say Vietnam is, first and foremost, a blooming food adventure. Well, second and secondmost. First it's a way to meet Mai Hong. Second it's food.

More later.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Three Bs of Travel to Vietnam or . . .

Bad Flights, Bustling Cities, and Beautiful Girls

Well, the flight from St. Louis to Ho Chi Minh City is behind me, and I have been introduced to the Vietnamese Noodle Joint in the authentic style. (Delicious.)

The flight wasn't really so bad, but the plane felt more like a cattle car than human transportation. And fourteen hours in a cattle car with a splitting headache and no analgesics is enough to level anyone, I think. Or nearly so. Fortunately, I was able to buy some in Shanghai. (Where the airport employees spoke surprisingly broken English for such an international city, and I no Mandarin. Und mein Deutsch war completely useless, of course. Note to self: learn the language BEFORE traveling to a foreign country. Works better in that order.

Fortunately, once I got to Ho Chi Minh City, which some of you may know as Saigon, I connected with my most expert native guide. (Who speaks MUCH better English, thankfully.) So Mai Hong and I are together at last. :) And Saigon is quite lovely. And Mai Hong is most beautiful indeed. (Though she still doesn't believe me when I say that. Maybe in twenty years she'll buy it.)

Saigon reminds me a little of a cross between Cologne and Miami blown up to the size of Chicago. (A little bigger, actually.) The streets are narrow and winding. There are no traffic controls to be seen anywhere. (Might possibly have seen one at the airport, but I haven't seen one since, and it was late and I was distracted, so don't quote me on that.) So traffic flows in a remarkably organic but surprisingly logical fashion. And at about twenty miles an hour or so it works.

But the Maimi part: the entire city is pastels and stucco. Cheek by jowel and about a four story average. The storefronts are all open and doorless, much like some of the older parts of the Miami area that I've seen. But with roosters and endless processions of sidewalk cafes and noodle joints. It is . . . bustling. Crowded. Alive. Very very very green. Lots of fun so far. A little old and dirty, like any decent city should be. (Don't care much for the new clean ones. You can keep those. Or the ones with more tourists than natives. Don't need those either.)

But the best part is this . . .

Mai Hong is wonderful and seems to like me. :"> Wish me more luck. So far so good. :D

And I swear I will post pictures once I can figure out how to get a computer to talk nicely with the borrowed digital camera. (I still shoot film, but I borrowed a camera for the trip. Which won't talk to Mai Hong's computer, darn the luck.)