Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Most traffic in Vietnam is actually motorcycles, not cars. There was a free taxi ride included when I bought my train ticket through my Hanoi hotel. I have to admit that I was a little surprised when a motorcycle, and not a taxi, pulled up to take me to the station.
But after carefully observing Vietnamese traffic, my theory is that it is the most efficient system of transportation possible if human life is not a major consideration in your traffic model!
Sunday, October 21, 2007
The informational films in the exhibits were nothing less than propaganda. However, I was just a guest in the country and just tried to learn something without complaining.
The tourists from other Western countries all said the same thing about the cartoonish bias. Most of the exhibits are labeled something like this one, of which I happened to take a picture and the caption reads "The American soldiers panic at Lang Vay base. What's President Johnson thinking? "
The Vietcong lived secretly in the "Cu Chi" tunnels for many years just 40 kilometers from Saigon. The south Vietnamese knew they were in that area, but it took them years to figure out that they were living in tunnels during the daytime. They were very small and cramped and all dug by hand -- we got to squeeze through some of them. Cu Chi is a local tree that grows fruit that tastes sweet but is poisonous to humans.
You can also fire weapons at Cu Chi -- the Vietnamese are converted capitalists now and they have found this is a good way to make a buck. Naturally, I had to take a few shots with an American M-16 rifle (6 rounds for $6). I later found out that the ammunition used for the guns is left over from Vietnam War era stockpiles, meaning it is not really safe to use. But I had blast knocking off a few rounds!
Below are some of traps that the North Vietnamese "were forced to build" by the Americans. This first one, the green ball with long blades sticking out, would swing down from a tree:
This next one was buried in the ground. Once a leg was caught in it, it could not easily be removed -- trying to do so would embed the needles more. And the Vietcong used their human waste and other products to cause infection when the needles of any of these weapons penetrated flesh:
This one is the folding chair trap. Ouch:
One thing that I liked about the historical displays was that you could actually experience them. In a country like America, there would be too much liability to allow people to go into tunnels, to see any traps that were not in a glass display, or to fire M-16 rounds for fun.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
I maintain three separate bank accounts (not brokerage accounts) with three separate ATM cards. I can transfer money among these accounts via the internet (I will have a separate post later for "Technologly on the Road"). I do a monthly auto-transfer from a brokerage account to one of the bank accounts (e.g., if one of my accounts got cleaned out by a hacker or some kind of fraud, it would not hurt that much). I also have one credit card which I rarely use due to high fees and fraud issues related to using any credit card in a developing country. All of my banks are aware that I am traveling in Asia.
I also maintain a Paypal account that funds my Skype account. And I figure it might be handy if I need to pay a fellow traveler or receive money from him. Also, the one time on this trip that I reserved a room in advance before arriving in a town I used Paypal to pay for it (that was all that they accepted, which was fine with me).
I keep photocopies of all my documents in a secret email account that I never access from internet cafes. I also keep a written record, all in code, of all of my card numbers and the phone numbers for contact for things like American Express for each country I am visiting as well as the direct phone numbers for my various brokerage accounts.
I bought a pirated Lonely Planet Philippines book here (the only kind available) for $6.50. I don't really have much of an itinerary yet, but that is part of the adventure. The Philippines is a somewhat more expensive location than Vietnam or Thailand because the tourist infrastructure is not as well developed and transport between islands tends to cost more than purely overland journeys.
I booked all of my tickets on the internet. In order to get the best prices, and because Saigon (my current location) has such bad flight connections, I will have to do an overnight on the way there in Singapore with an 11 hour layover. After a little outside the box thinking, I have decided to spend the night in the Singapore airport:
It is rated #1 by sleepinginairports.com . . . wish me luck!
However, on the train from Hanoi, the same day that Helen left me, I met up with Misty, a technical editor from American taking about seven months off to travel through Asia. Misty and I hung out for about four days and had a great time exploring Hue, the old Vietnamese capital, together.
In the next town, Hoi An, I met up with John, an Australian investor. John was very interesting and tried hard to get me to deviate from my passive investing strategies ;-) But we had a lot of fun over a couple of days and reaffirmed my affinity for all Australians!
In the next town, Nha Trang, I met wonderful friends Gary, Lorraine, Louise, and Daan in our diving class. Gary, Lorraine, and Louise are traveling together for a year around the world tour -- they are from Britain. Daan is taking a couple of months break here in Vietnam -- he is from The Netherlands. Wow, we all had so much fun together. And we met up several times for dinner in Saigon, also. The fact that Lorraine and Louise are identical twins made for some interesting travel stories!
I have always wanted to SCUBA dive since I was a kid but I just never took the time to do it. So I decided to literally take the plunge! For $280, including all dive and equipment fees, I took the four day PADI-certified Open Water Diving Course from a 5 star rated outfit, roughly half the price as in the US. The level of instruction was nothing less than outstanding! Grant Martin at Rainbow Divers has done over 7000 dives and teaches other instructors how to teach and it shows! And there was actually one instructor per student for each dive. Now I have a PADI card that I can use to dive anywhere in the world down to 18 meters.
The PADI Open Water Course, which is standardized around the world, involved five pool dives the first two days and four open water ocean dives the last two days. There was also a lot of coursework the first couple of days including, gasp, some physics problems -- but I found that my physics wasn't too rusty after all . . .
Learning to SCUBA dive has definitely been the highlight of this trip so far. And, in fact, this has led me to change my itinerary and my next country destination . . . I also added a couple of underwater photos below that we took during our dives.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
The dollar goes so far in Vietnam and China -- one can vacation in these places at a fraction of the cost of many other destinations. Gang, take some time off to travel! ;-)
Americans (and Australians, Brits) have the advantage that English has become the international language, the lingua franca of Planet Earth. I tend to take half to one day tours to various places as I am traveling. Virtually all of the tours are in English. Often, I am the only native English speaker on the tour. People strive to learn English because they often cannot advance without it and, indeed, international travel is very difficult to impossible nowadays if you do not know basic English. Americans not only are wealthy, but they receive this gift of the lingua franca for free, as their native language, whereby all these other folks must struggle so hard to learn it. Even Asian travelers from different countries usually communicate with each other in English and that is how they communicate with hotel staff, etc.
A couple of evenings ago here in Saigon, I had dinner with a Fullbright Scholarship winner (and another Dutch friend, Daan, that I made on the road) -- via this scholarship the US government will be paying her way for an MBA in the US. She is from a poor Vietnamese family and had to struggle hard to get her education and to learn English. She wanted to practice her English with me, a native speaker, before her TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test in a week. She is very poor but wanted to pay for dinner which we, of course, refused to let her do. It made me realize how fortunate we are in America.
I remember back when I was a student in Spanish school in Ecuador. I had two different teachers during my stay there and they were both well educated -- one had a PhD in Psychology and the other was married to a successful man. But neither had ever driven a car, flown in an airplane, left their tiny country, had a bank account, etc. In fact, due to visa requirements, it was impossible for them to travel almost anywhere. We talked about the fact that even if they got a visa to go to America they could not afford the plane trip there or the hotel prices nor would they have known how to drive a rental car, etc. I feel so fortunate that I am able to travel and see the world with the Blue Pass (American passport) which lets me enter most countries with ease and minimal hassle. It is something that I no longer take for granted!
In Vietnam you negotiate everything. Especially if you are a tourist because the starting price is two to four times higher. You see, the Vietnamese (and to a lesser extent, the Chinese), believe they are all in this together -- to get money from you, the tourist. This means that if you are sitting in a restaurant, you will usually be bothered by people selling things. The restaurant owner does nothing to stop this because, you see, they are in this together, as fellow countrymen, to get the tourists' money. I am writing this from Saigon and I have been offered the opportunity to buy weed, women, chiclets, sunglasses, cigarettes, lighters, books, et. al. more times than I can remember. I was having breakfast at a restaurant here and counted 10 people in one hour who approached me, or at least made eye contact expecting a nod, and wanted to sell me sunglasses. They all sell the same stuff.
Just like when we got scammed on the Chinese bus by the guy who demanded an overage charge for our luggage, many of the people near us probably knew it was a scam but did not care since I am a foreigner. Being from a country that is so open to foreigners and generally quite fair to them, this has been a big adjustment for me.
Anyway, later the same afternoon as the "you are the worst customer incident", Helen was shopping for gifts and quoted a price of about $6 on a sweater. We counteroffered for about $4.75. The lady got so upset that she yelled at us and kicked us out of the store. We have no idea exactly why, but obviously that lady needs to learn to treat her customers more kindly if she wants to stay in business. We walked to a different store and did the same thing for virtually the same article of clothing, and they were happy to let us make the purchase.
I just walked out of a restaurant here in Saigon where my meal was finished to the tunes of the mother (restaurant owner) and teenage daughter in a loud 20 minute verbal fight -- one at the front of the restaurant and one in the back. Oh well, you have to take the good with the bad . . . . I have had an absolutely fantastic time here in Vietnam, but I promised to dutifully report everything.
Earlier that morning, we found an all you can eat breakfast, mixed Vietnamese and Western, for $2.50. Check out the view from our seats on the outside patio!:
After two much needed restful days in Sapa, we took the overnight train to Hanoi which was quite luxurious and a totally different experience from riding the overnight bus! Hanoi is quite crowded and the traffic and noise can be a real turn off. We did all the usual tourist stuff there and found some good vietnamese restaurants. Below is a picture I took on the return trip from the Museum of Vietnamese Ethnography -- from the back of our moto-taxi:
Yes, Vietnam is the land of the motorbike and this is how you get around. When I left Hanoi, the hotel provided me with a free taxi since I purchased my train ticket there -- but I was surprised when a motorcycle pulled up. Yep, I rode on the back of the moto with all my gear on my back. Now, writing this from Saigon, I think nothing of this and ride moto taxis all the time.
After a few days in Hanoi, we arranged a 3 day tour to beautiful Ha Long Bay ($72 including everything except drinks):
My birthday came on this trip and I spent that morning swimming off our anchored boat in the most scenic destination possible. It was great! So far, Ha Long Bay is definitely the highlight of the trip.
Sadly, Helen must leave and go back home now. We had a great trip together and it was so nice of Helen to show me around her home country of China. But it will be just me, traveling all by myself, from now until my friend Dave joins me in Singapore in late November. I am more than a little tentative about traveling by myself. . . more to come on this subject later!
I was reminded of those slave ship conditions, to a much lesser degree of course, during our overnight bus ride from China to Vietnam.
The day began when Helen and I rode the 5 hour bus trip back to Kunming from Dali. After arriving in Kunming in late afternoon, we immediately purchased tickets for an all night bus ride (~12 hours) to the Vietnam border. From there, we would take a 1.5 hour shuttle bus to Sapa, a great trekking location and former French hill station in North Vietnam. Plus, we would pay no hotel bill this evening, since we would be on the bus. It all sounded so good in theory. But, alas, as the saying goes, the difference between practice and theory is greater in practice than in theory.
After a wonderful dinner in Kunming during our three hour layover back at Muslim alley, we returned to board our overnight bus. Unfortunately, Chinese bus tickets are not very informative about the class of bus you will be riding. When we got on, I could see right away this was going to have a bad ending.
The bus had beds and ours were in the very back, with only a super narrow aisle to get to the front of the bus. And unlike the beds in most of the bus, the beds in the back had five people laying side by side across the top in the back. The width of my space was almost exactly as wide as my body. And the length was more suited to someone about 1.6 meters tall (5 foot 3 inches). I switched spots with Helen so that I could at least hang my smelly feet over the ledge, a luxury afforded to two of the five seats. Next to me was a Vietnamese lady who wanted to take up part of my space with her "stuff" and she was not happy when Helen asked her in Mandarin (which the lady also spoke) to get out of my little space. But she did move over, for the most part.
OK, now there is this guy on the bus, and he immediately approaches me. He asks Helen and I to pay the overage amount for our luggage, 30 yuan (4 US dollars) each, since our bags our overweight. This is all in Mandarin. We look at our tickets, and there is indeed a maximum weight of 10 kilograms or, it says, you might have to pay more. I knew that my bag under the bus weighed about 14 kg. The bus was about to leave, we could not get back to the front to verify anything, the guy was demanding the overage money, so we paid him. Well, guess what, it was a scam! He goes around the bus station looking for foreigners to take advantage of, and he got us for 60 yuan (~8 US dollars). We should have asked the bus driver, but our shoes were off, we were trying to negotiate our space way in the back of the bus, and the bus was about to leave. Of course, the scammer knew all this, and knew we would be way out of town and unable to report the scam if we discovered it later (which we did by talking to the driver in our final destination -- we think he was probably in on it -- I will have more to say about this mentality later in a Vietnam post!).
So now we are packed like slaves in the back of the bus, and starting our journey to Vietnam. After a couple of hours we realize that this is actually a 2 lane road the whole way (one lane each way) over a series of high mountain passes! And the road is so bumpy that my body is bouncing several centimeters high at times. And there are very few bathroom stops. Near the end, there were people almost jumping out at quick stops to even go to the bathroom on the road.
We finally arrive at the border, completely battered, and an hour later we are in Vietnam! We are promptly scammed (sort of) as we pay about $5 each instead of $3 each for the 1.5 hour shuttle from the Vietnam border to Sapa. Well, we finally arrive at our destination worn out but much wiser. We secure a great hotel for $6 per night. That is our last overnight bus ride for awhile!!
Below is me at the Vietnam border that morning, much worse for wear -- Good morning, Vietnam!
After three days in Kunming we left to visit the old towns of Lijiang and Dali. The bus ride to Lijiang was eight hours and passed through Dali. We would stop on the way back toward Kunming in Dali. These old towns are large clusters of old-style architecture buildings with lots of stores oriented toward tourists. The old town in Lijiang, in particular, was huge and took days to explore:
A picture from inside Dali's old town:
In both Lijiang and Dali we rented bikes to ride to nearby minority villages. During our ride in Lijiang, we passed through some wonderful scenery pictured below. Unfortunately, we caught a terrible rainstorm while far away from the city. However, we ran into some local ladies enjoying some ad hoc dancing on the way back as everyone waited out the afternoon rainstorm together:
We also visited Stone Forest which is several square square kilometers of interesting stone formations that have remained as the earth around them has eroded away. You can see the former horizontal water line across the rocks in the picture below, which was formed during a long period when the water table did not change. The vertical fissures you see on the rocks were formed by water under extreme pressures. I love geology, so I really enjoyed this.
However, we also encountered what became a recurring theme for Chinese tourist attractions: ridiculous prices. It was about US $20 to get into the Stone Forest park, which is not that big. Basically, this makes the place off limits to ordinary Chinese people. In Dali, the ferries across Lake Erhat (just a few kilometers in distance), which used to cost less than one dollar, had all been recently cancelled (permanently) in favor of tourist "cruises" which cost a minimum of US $20. A definite rip off and we passed on that.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
The region is famous for its hotpot and it was delicious. We had chicken and rabbit in this one along with lots of veggies. Helen managed to order some horse, too, and had my try a bit before telling me what it was -- it was actually pretty good. At this point, I can't believe how much I am liking Chinese food. It is something that I never would have predicted.
We took the cruise down the Lijiang river to the smaller town of Yangshuo and we viewed the scenic karst peaks along the way that make the region famous. Karst is a distinctive topography in which the landscape is largely shaped by the dissolving action of water on carbonate bedrock (usually limestone, dolomite, or marble -- in this area it was limestone). While we were eating on our cruise boat, some of the locals commented that I had excellent chopstick skills! I have gone from hapless to effective in just a few weeks. I have used a fork only once since I entered China, and that was on an internal flight where forks were the only option ;-)
In Yangshuo we rented bikes to get a good look at the scenery surrounding the town. The bikes rent for about $1.30 per day.
There is an amazing light, dance, and music production called Impressions performed out on the water with lit karst peaks in the background. These pictures do not really capture the scale of the production, which is produced by China's most famous movie producer, Sanjie Liu. It is truly an amazing show! The show is run nightly, and I estimated that there were around 2000 people in the audience. The cost of the show is around $25 and well worth the money. There are over 600 actors and actresses in the production. The show plays out a beautiful love story that shows the courting process of the minority people of the Guangxi region where Guilin and Yangshuo are located. You can see the mountains lit up in the background in the first picture.
I mentioned this problem to Helen, and she immediately recommended an Asian remedy: baby powder. I have been sprinkling my feet with it each morning ever since and it does seem to help some. I have also taken to "feet showers" during the day and evening.
What else did I forget? Well, I needed a plastic cover for my passport. It started to get a sweaty smell as I kept it close to my body on my waist at all times. So Helen gave me her plastic passport cover and that has seemed to solve the problem.
Really, that is about it. I seemed to have had everything else that I needed. I also bought a pair of "sandal socks" over here which are thin nylon type socks that you can wear while wearing sandals that minimize any skin abrasions from the sandals due to a lot of walking.
Oh wait, I forget my backup pair of eyeglasses -- I brought the case thinking they were in there, but when I looked inside during my trip the case actually contained the sunglass cover for my eyeglasses, not the eyeglasses themselves. I really have not been able to wear contacts much over here so I really hope that I don't break or lose my only pair of eyeglasses!
Monday, October 1, 2007
We spent some time on the beach and had a great time. This is where the Russians go -- there were many Russian tourists in Sanya.
Our final stop on the island was the capital and business center, Haikou. They have a great park that just comes alive in the evening!
There was so much activity: tai-chi, music and dance groups, ping pong, badminton, walkers, etc. And the town was really alive in the evening with street stalls, stores open late, people enjoying the man-made lakes. I am beginning to realize what I like most about China compared to other places and that is the downtown ambiance! I just love to walk through these downtowns and see what is around the next corner, to try out the local cafes, shop, people watch, etc. I lived in downtown San Jose, California before in search of something similar. But there is nothing quite like it in the US, for sure. And China feels real safe, even at night.