Tag Archives: travel blog

Version 0.91 (Apocalypse Now and The Vietnam War)

07/24/19

Watched two-thirds of Apocalypse Now last night. Had never seen it before, but since having begun watching it I understand why it is so highly regarded. It’s definitely a bit of a mind-fuck after having walked through the War Remnants Museum. I don’t know what it is about being here in Saigon, but I’ve suddenly developed a strong desire to learn more about The War. Perhaps it’s because here resides histories of four different governments from three different countries—French, American, South Vietnamese under the auspices of the United States, and the current Vietnamese government which took control after the defeat of the Americans and the South. One can find influences and historical artifacts from each and every one of them here. There is none of that in Hanoi. As well, in terms of historical attempts at influence abroad it may be the single biggest blunder in American history; and, being an American myself, and one who is here in Saigon, I am curious about how this came to be: what were the causes for the strongest military power’s on Earth defeat by such a small country with a middling economy and largely undeveloped urban areas? And that has caused me to reflect on the Iraq/Afghan war, and the the general state of politics in the U.S. today. One would think the lessons learned from the Vietnam War would stick, but frankly I think they’ve all been forgotten. Are there any students of history and war in the military today? Were there ever? Sunny thoughts on a sunny morning….

Version 0.90

07/23

I have just sat down, and am waiting on my coffee order to be delivered at the La Viet in District 3 that my Grab driver unceremoniously dropped me off at moments ago. I found their cafe to be a good place in Da Lat to do a bit of writing, and as all the reviews on Google stated how great a place this Saigon location is to work from I thought I might go. There are a few other cafes in the vicinity that I can walk to as well whenever I decide to leave.

The Grab ride was a surprising and fascinating one, largely because Saigon is a huge city—one which I am completely unfamiliar with. I must correct myself though. The ride wasn’t surprising in any way, but my arrival at my destination was, as we simply stopped at the opening of an alley and my driver signaled for me to get off. I don’t know where I thought I was when we arrived, but I certainly did not think we were at my destination. I imagine if my interior world had a face, a visage to read, it would have looked similar to Harry’s after going for a bit of a tumble on Dumbledore’s arm. That ride, looking back, was fascinating because of the surprise—the sensation of time and distance passing while on our way was nil. It was just me flowing through the streets on the back of this motorbike driven by a guy in a green jacket and helmet.

Yesterday I was moved. On one occasion, possibly two. I visited the War Remnants Museum. That was one. And I guess I could say the espresso I had at Saigon Coffee Roasters was moving as well. It was certainly the best one I’d had in Saigon, and possibly all of Vietnam, so that would be the second occasion. But before all of that I visited the fine arts museum. The museum building, while a bit run down, is a fabulous old colonial villa constructed in the early 1930’s. A/C is only provided in select rooms—those with particularly important works—and the three story structure encloses an inner courtyard. The topmost floor is my favorite. It is full of artworks pre-1975, meaning they were created before the end of the war. To these eyes they seemed much more cultural than the later and more contemporary works which have a more personal, inward looking, and often abstract form to them, and seem to me less culturally Vietnamese and more global. Many of these earlier works were simply depictions of everyday life, similar to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of Dutch/Flemish life and town scenes. But what moved me and interested me most about the works on the third floor was just how immediate they felt to the war—how they brought it forth into the present day—and how so many of them directly depicted the war’s influence on daily life.

The War Remnants Museum is really special though. I will start by saying that in my opinion it’s fair and objective, and isn’t anti-American, though I could certainly see why some particularly sensitive people might think it is as it is highly critical of America (I would say for good reason!). The combination of written testimony regarding the war by various political figures around the world, and the imagery in photographs and news articles is well arranged, and it’s those photographs and the testimonies of so many against the war, and also certain statistics relating to the supply and usage of munitions during the war that does such an admirable and convincing (if one for some reason needed convincing) job of the absurdity, the madness, the stupidity of war in general, and the Vietnam War in specific. In the two hours I was there I probably only covered three-quarters of the exhibition space, and at only 40k dong entry I am certain to go back. It is an absolute must-visit for any traveler who finds him/herself in Saigon.

Version 0.89 (Happiness)

07/20

Been in Da Lat for five days and hardly written a thing. It’s hard to when one is always on the go with very little quiet, peaceful, distraction-less time to himself. But here I am! At last! Yet my initial thought is that I will write very little. That I have very little to write. That despite five days of being in a new and fascinating city nothing has tripped a switch in me to write—the link between external stimuli and internal feeling and thought was not connected.

“Here I am!” means that I am alone—and will be for quite some time. I am also enjoying an excellent V60 coffee from Da Lat at La Viet. Mozzie and her friends have departed for the airport for flights back to Nam Dinh. I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything in particular until 21:30 as I have a bus to Saigon at 22:00. Well, what to do to fill my day? Wander with my camera all over town. Visit a couple of cafes that I have earmarked in Google Maps. Eat bahn xeo; they make a different style here than in Da Nang. Thinking about food, am I ever grateful for Mozzie and her friends. Because of them I tried so many different dishes than I would have otherwise. Most of the places we went to eat clearly rarely, if ever, received western guests. Many of them didn’t bother to have english translations of anything—food or drink. Certainly there are areas where foreigners are more commonly seen, though not many, especially when one compares it to another popular mountain town like Sa Pa, but we spent no time in those areas besides racing through on our scooters.

So, this morning she left. I walked with her up to her waiting taxi and friends. We were lying in bed this morning and she told me she was happy. This may seem like a strange thing to tell your lover the morning of the last day that you will see each other for quite a long time, but it made me happy to hear her say so; to know that I could contribute, nay, to be the sole contributor to that happiness. That is something too easily taken for granted. Like, “of course!” but it’s a thing that is never “of course” (at least with me), for it is all too easy to hurt someone, to cause pain, to cause suffering, and there is already far too much of that all around the world (as there ever has been), so why make more? Furthermore, to be able to make someone happy on a day such as this when in most relationships, there would be tears is another reason to be happy myself. Perhaps it was easier because we knew there was a strong chance of this happening, that our relationship was running on borrowed time, so to speak. I can’t say for sure though. All I know is that it’s all been worth it.

Version 0.88 (Getting to Da Lat)

07/15

That was a long and noisy train ride. I definitely recommend the top bunk rather than the bottom bunk of sleepers in Vietnamese train cars. Not sure how much sleep I got but it was sporadic, infrequent, fitful, and constantly interrupted. Luckily I planned for that occurrence. (No, I didn’t. But I did plan to check out a couple of fairly popular specialty coffee shops not far from the station in Nha Trang, which may help me overcome the lethargy from my mainly sleepless night.)

[Later]
Just finished a surprisingly voluminous espresso at Nha Trang Coffee Roasters that despite its volume wasn’t as bitter as I expected. It wasn’t really good, but I didn’t need to add sugar to it at least. Considering the state of specialty coffee in Vietnam, and the obviously small budget the cafe has to work with, I am impressed. The espresso machine and grinders in total could not have cost more than a couple thousand dollars (really a fair chunk of change over here), and were likely bought second-hand. The roaster is a small two or three kilo one and is clearly where the bulk of the money was spent. However the cafe space is cavernous—perhaps it was an old automotive garage—and is pretty busy, with most of the tables and chairs occupied, so hopefully those profits can turn into better equipment and additional education for the staff.

I have a limousine bus to Da Lat that leaves from somewhere in the city at 11:30. Perhaps I will get some sleep then. But I‘m not there yet. I have over two hours to do whatever it is I wish to do, which at this point will likely be getting another coffee or juice, then lunch, then calling a Grab. I’d like to wander around the city a bit, but it’s not worth it with all the crap I’m lugging around.

[Further Later}
I’ve finally arrived in Da Lat after a fairly dull and uneventful, but also a bit odd and on occasion slightly unsettling, bus ride. I have showered at last, and, in the sink of our homestay washed my t-shirt and boxers I’d been wearing for the last sweaty 36 hours. Being as we are in the mountains and the temperatures are significantly cooler, I’m looking forward to not sweating through my clothes for the next five days. Writing this I am sitting at La Viet, a highly esteemed specialty coffee roaster here in Vietnam, and I mean “specialty” in the very best way: the way that all players in the industry should want to act, for they not only take special care to roast and brew their coffee as best as possible, but they only roast Vietnamese grown coffee, and they work with farmers in the region to improve the cup quality so that the farmers may have a more sustainable living, one that is bound more by the quality of the product (gasp!) and less by what the commodities market dictates. They do this by improving soil quality, fertilization techniques, improving the picking and processing of the coffee fruit, testing different cultivars to see if one does particularly well in a region versus others, etc. It is a beautiful relationship, and I am happy to finally get to try their coffee which, while pretty unremarkable by specialty standards, is far and away much better than most of the rest of the coffee grown in the country.

But how did I come to be here? From Da Nang I took a night train to Nha Trang where I whiled away four hours at a couple of different cafes and one very busy, very good pho stall. In no place yet in Vietnam did I get as many stares as I did in my brief time in Nha Trang. I thought it strange considering the size of the city and its magnetism for tourists, granted I was hardly in a touristy part of the city as those places are located predominantly along the beach, and I was nearer to the train station.

It’s an interesting comparison between where I stayed and spent most of my time in Da Nang, and the area of Nha Trang I was in. Mainly I’m thinking of the level of English spoken in both places. Quite a number of Vietnamese where I was in Da Nang are conversational in skill level and are not embarrassed to speak, but in Nha Trang I noticed a severe decline in ability, or possibly they were all just too shy and afraid of making mistakes, because what little english I received was mumbled and barely audible, spoken in a way that suggested nervousness, apprehension, or insecurity, and these were all younger kids in their teens and very early twenties.

After my layover in Nha Trang which was highlighted by my breakfast at the pho stall where a Vietnamese gentleman pulled up on a motorbike as I was attempting to sit down with my cumbersome belongings and repeated the word pho to me several times (whether that was to be sure that I knew what I was going to be eating, or so that I understood the correct pronunciation of the name of the dish, I can’t be sure), and then verbally warned me that I was about to put too much fish sauce in it while I was seasoning it, I took a bus—a “limousine” bus, mind you (basically a slightly larger, glorified mini-van (some with, some without bucket seats))—here. We were packed to the gills in this bus so that it was anything but limousine-like, and my pack had to be lain on the floor between the legs of other passengers. Add to that squished between me and the driver was a woman with her one year old baby. The entirety of the trip the driver was coughing, and by the end of it, which came a bit sooner than expected, he had to stop to let us out by the lake in order to go see a doctor for his cough. And now I’ve developed a cough. Whether from him or something else I can’t be sure, but the timing certainly is suspicious. I wonder if the woman or her child came down with anything…

Version 0.87 (Questions)

07/12

Da Nang.

Booked flights “home”, meaning California, today. Very mixed feelings about it, but at least the flight was cheap. I was able to use credit card points and still have some leftover for use in the States. And the flight is with American Airlines as well; something just seemed significant about that. Booking the flight, however, is about all that I have accomplished today. Working on getting my number with Authy changed so I can get into my Gemini account (lost lots of important information since losing my phone). Currently, having left the cafe, I am eating a wonderful, spicy ramen at The Vegan Ramen. So nice to see quality, and varied, vegan places popping up in the cities here.

Not sure what I will do with the rest of my day. Walk to another cafe and relax and write for a couple of hours since I accomplished nothing but the flight earlier this afternoon—but booking flights is a thing that takes time. One must ask questions such as when do I want to leave? Do I really want to leave? (not really) What time of day? How long for a layover? Layover where? But most importantly these questions all take a backseat to the questions of “do I want?” (or must I?J) and if so, “how much does it cost?” If you must or if you want, then hopefully you find a flight that is cheap, and if that is the case and the stars are aligned perhaps you will have your other preferences granted. I feel lucky in this respect.

Version 0.86 (Just Some Thoughts on a Train, and a Little Poem at the End)

07/11

Sitting on a train going nowhere.

Correction: just as I began writing this we began to move. Only about one hour from Da Nang Station now. There is only one track that runs through the mountains and jungle along the coastline, so it is imperative that care is taken when another train is coming.

I left Nam Dinh last night in the rain. Spent half the day in a cafe idling my time way while Huyen was in the office. Afterward she ended up driving me around in the rain so that I could replace my cellphone, which we succeeded at doing, and then dinner at a cheap Korean place. I’m so, so grateful for her. It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t want me to leave Vietnam, but I feel I really have to. So low on funds. Trips to Tam Coc and Sa Pa realized much higher expenditures than I expected, and then I lost my phone. The day spent in Nam Dinh was nice enough though, and I look forward to spending nearly a week with Huyen in Da Lat.

I’m still here for a few more weeks.

I want to see family and friends. Andddd, I miss my bicycle immensely.

Through the window
The sea is spread out far and wide
Rippling
Welcoming
Soft horizon
Rocky shore

Version 0.85 (This Moment and Bai Dinh Pagoda)

07/08

I’m back in town, heading to dinner soon but stopped for a coffee, smoothie, and a scoop of ice cream at a cafe. The girl that owns it with her boyfriend (who happens to be French) makes the ice cream herself, simply because she likes ice cream and thought that making her own would be a fun, and potentially profitable, thing to do.

The sun has drifted down to a level now where its light is ever so slightly beginning to wane, and all it touches is burnished bronze. Shadows are getting ever longer, the temperature is finally beginning to cool. It’s an extraordinary scene when walking through town, or just beyond its frayed edges and that light bounces off the still water’s surface or falls softly between tall, rocky crags, refracting and scattering through the distant hazy air, shimmering diaphonously like some ethereal curtain. One might imagine that heaven is like that—sort of a soft, hazy, halcyon, shimmering, euphoric, wondrous place. A place in which one’d wish to be immersed, feeling those feelings for eternity.

Short walk to Tam Coc boat launch where I found a group of children, some in life vests, some not, swimming or learning how to swim amongst the flotillas of boats which where they were pushed together appeared as large, floating islands. Nearby is a woman doing her washing in a basin and the river which a cascade of steps leads down to. Here too is where the children are swimming in supervision of their parents.

The water is gently rippling with the thrashings of the kids reflecting brilliantly the colors of the sky which are still primarily blue, but some apricot skin and rosé accompany, with wispy grey clouds interrupted by the tops of palms and karst formations jutting out of the dark void like termite mounds from a plain.

A young boy whose name is Money or Mani? and speaks little english has sat down next to me. He is maybe eight or nine years old. He mimes something and asks my name, but that is as far as the conversation goes. Currently he is watching me write this. It has been ten minutes.

My big trip this day was driving out to Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest buddhist pagoda in Vietnam, and wandering around for several hours in the sweltering heat that baked or wilted everything it touched (which was everything not tucked away in the shade). Truly an extraordinary place, and well worth the thirty minute drive beneath a blazing hot sky.

I arrived there, and like everyone else paid and parked on a dusty, dry patch of ground beneath a tent, so to provide shade for the black seats of motorbikes that everyone gets around on. I bought a bottle of water from a vendor nearby and began walking towards the most obvious landmark in the distance: a tall tower atop a hill pointing like a finger at the cloudless sky. I remember too thinking to myself that I should have applied sunscreen.

The grounds were seemingly deserted, though I don’t find that surprising as there is very little shade to be found anywhere, and to walk around is to be trapped without respite beneath the searing sun for great lengths of time, at least until arriving at the main buildings of the pagoda. I remember on my way back to the parking lot passing a group of French kids in their twenties who were quite obviously fagged out from the heat and the long uphill walk to the tower I first visited upon my arrival, asking how far it was to the tower and if there was any shade. Before even getting to the tower, however, one wanders through a gauntlet (there is always one of these) of vendors—essentially a market—selling various touristy knick-knacks and souvenirs, coconuts for drinking, snacks for eating, etc. With the general desertedness of the place the whole block felt like a ghost town with most vendors napping in a chair or hammock within the shade of their shops.

Beyond the tower one follows meandering paths and probably walks down some stairs, eventually coming to a gate or an entrance of a kind (there are numerous scattered along the shaded hallway that encompasses the three main temples on the grounds). Here one can walk for hours exploring the three temples, the courtyards formed by them, and the series of 500 Arhat, or Buddha, statues that line the halls. I passed several groups of Korean tourists, all with fans in hands, sweating profusely. One woman was even desperate enough to ask me for some water from my bottle.

I spent about three hours strolling the grounds and the temples contained within, taking pictures of other tourists and various objects while doing my best to stay in the shade, which was possible probably 80% of the time. Eventually, tired, somewhat dehydrated, and completely over the heat I walked back to my motorbike, passing the French kids I mentioned earlier.

Version 0.83 (Perception of a Situation Defines the Situation)

07/07/19

Today I lost my phone, incredibly enough while sliding it into my pocket.

How?

How does one do that?

This is one of the great mysteries of the universe humanity will never get to the bottom of.

I was following Google Maps, which showed that the alley I was walking through made an elbow before letting out to the road that would take me to my homestay. Yet after the elbow the alley shortly terminated at a property with no continuation in site. I turned around, naturally, with my phone in hand and backtracked thinking I possibly missed something or read the map incorrectly (keep in mind it’s like 35 degrees Celsisus and uncomfortably humid, even by the standards of Vietnam, and I’m walking with a heavy pack on my back, a bag of art books and a separate smaller backpack in one hand, and the phone in my other). I realized I missed nothing and that Google was in this case simply wrong, and so I slid my phone into my pocket (or so I thought), and walked back out to the main road which would also take me to the small, dusty, dirt road that my homestay was located at the end of. It wasn’t until five minutes later when I wanted to make certain of where I was that I realized the phone was mysteriously not in my pocket. I backtracked, but clearly about thirty seconds too late as I think a guy who passed me leaving the alley on a motorbike and who said something to me about there not being hotels down that way picked it up.

I am now eating. There’s nothing I can do about the phone at this point, and I would still like to enjoy my time in Tam Coc and elsewhere rather than fret for hours or days over not having a phone. I got along fine in my past life without a cell phone, so I think I will manage just fine here. I still have my laptop, and the homestay has wifi. Hopefully my hosts are at the homestay so that i can rent a motorbike and scoot around, see some sites: do all that I planned to do, regardless of having a phone.

[Later]
At Gia Minh Restaurant and Bar after unsuccesfully finding Thuy Linh Restaurant. These are the things that happen when one loses his cellphone. I’m eating a sort of spring roll or garden roll that has surprised me. It’s a fresh rice paper wrapper around sliced mango, pineapple, cabbage, and carrot with a passion fruit-peanut dipping sacue. Wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was, but all that tropical fruit made for a very lovely, bright, vibrant, energetic, healthy-feeling dish. It paired well with the fried tofu and papaya salad as well. Not so much with the beer, but I didn’t expect to order what I ordered when I ordered the beer.

I am actually quite delighted to have found this place, and will be returning for dinner another day. It’s a family-run place (as most places in Vietnam are), and I’m laughing being entertained by two young girls and their friend who are full of energy, giggles, and very good english. In fact, part of why they are so excited by my presence is to practice their english. So, here I am having a ball with these children, andnhaving a delicious, healthy dinner all thanks to the loss of my phone.

It really turns out that your perception of a situation will define that situation. If you’re intent on enjoying yourself you will.

Version 0.82 (A Brief Note and a Recommended Cafe)

07/06/19

Back in Hanoi, and at Loading T,  a favorite cafe of mine notable for its location (set on the second floor of a beautiful, and gradually crumbling away, French colonial building), ambiance, decor and most importantly, its coffee, distinctly known for the aroma and light taste of cinnamon. I recently read that the cinnamon aroma and flavor comes from cinnamon sticks that are roasted with the coffee (rather than adding ground cinnamon to each and every beverage). Supposedly this is why its aroma is more apparent than its flavor.

This will be, unless I purchase another, my last coffee in Hanoi for a very long time. Tomorrow morning I take a short bus ride to Tam Coc where I will be for a couple of days, then over to Nam Dinh to visit Huyen and her hometown for a day, then Hoi An, then Da Lat, then perhaps Saigon, before heading back up to Da Nang prior to flying back to the U.S.

I really have nothing to write. I knew this was a questionable idea…. Spending time day dreaming about opening a Vietnamese themed cafe back home….

Version 0.81 (Weather)

07/05/19

Bright, misty morning. Nothing but white, white, white.
The air is heavy with them: these vast impenetrable clouds.
Sa Pa hidden below, mountain slopes lost above.
Peering into this nebulous void is like trying to see into the future:
all that is visible: that which is around me now,
and even that is impossibly indistinct at times.

These inscrutable clouds that move in from all around.