31 December 2007

The End of Another One

In a little over an hour, it will be 2008
in Vietnam. This is my third New Years
Eve here. Two years ago, I walked my
ghost town of a neighborhood, hoping
to find something going on. There was
nothing. This year, although it is not
Times Square, there are people out, and restaurants open, and maybe I will
even hear some noise at midnight.

Not having any New Years type pictures, I have picked a few from the files.

Happy 2008 to all! Kate



































































25 December 2007

What's Right With This Picture?

Every year, about 13,000 people die in traffic accidents in Vietnam, the majority while riding motorbikes. HCMC has around 25 deaths and 100 brain trauma cases per day. You can do the math on additional bodily injury. Or at least that was the case until December 15th, when the new helmet law went into effect.

When I first arrived here, I rarely saw anyone with a helmet. There was a law for riding on the freeways with a helmet, but not within the city. Still, the majority seemed not to be wearing them. Or you’d see people with plastic yellow hardhats, (not US quality ones – more like kiddie toy hats), which, of course, had no chin straps. Even those with decent helmets, more often than not, left them un-strapped. Whenever the police would set up a ‘helmet trap’ on the freeway to nab non-compliers, people came up with interesting ways to avoid a ticket. There was the simple turn-back-take-another-route. There was the wait-it-out. And my favorite, the guys who set up helmet sales stands at the entrance to the patrolled area. You drive up, rent a helmet, drive past the cops, and return it to his partner on the other side.

Try as one may to convince people that helmets really were necessary, it was mostly a lost cause. Complaints of discomfort, heat, and ugly, were among the most common. And this from women who routinely wear full-length gloves, jackets, hats, facemasks, and sunglasses so to avoid any hint of sun exposure to their skin.

The helmet law, overnight, changed all that. I simply could not believe that from one day to the next, everyone was wearing a helmet. The reason? The fine. Don’t wear a helmet and you could fine yourself paying a $10 fine. When you only make $100 a month, that is substantial. Hell, even if you are making $200, that is still a lot.

I hear that within the first week deaths were down by two thirds. Those that were dying were mostly wearing either inferior helmets or not buckling them. Helmet quality is a problem. Apparently, a year ago, about 40% of the helmets sold did not comply with safety standards. Now that is down to 20%. It seems things will only improve.

‘Tis the season and I intend to get up early tomorrow so as to be able to watch White Christmas at 6am before heading off to work.
Kate

14 December 2007

Soap Operas



I started watching General Hospital when I was in high school. You can’t beat daytime drama for camp-ness. I remember that at one point I made a family tree of all the relationships: who had married whom; who had been divorced from the brother of the father of the third wife’s oldest child; which woman had a split personality, manifested as loving wife to the thoracic surgeon/trailer-trash hooker; and a long list of missing family members who always showed up at the most inopportune moment. I’d go years without seeing an episode, then flip on the TV one day, thrilled to see that I could still follow the story line. About a year ago, I found out that General Hospital is shown on cable in Vietnam. Granted, it is last season’s episodes, but since I had been out of the GH loop for at least ten years, it didn’t matter.

A typical day finds me arriving home from work and turning on GH. It is total, mind-numbing escapism, that frees my spirit of all the stress of work and life. Nothing like the non-stop pathos of life in Port Charles to take ones mind off the everyday hassles of life n HCMC.

And to catch up with all that has happened in the years since being a regular viewer, I thought I would see if there was a website. Well, of course there was, filled with bios on all the characters and the actors, and its own little interactive family tree. Even after all these years, many of the same characters, played by the same actors, were still part of the show. Then there were all the new people and story lines that I got hooked into within a few weeks.

So why, you ask, am I writing about an American soap opera while living in Vietnam? Let me backtrack a bit; it’s December but it is hot and humid. So when people ask me if I feel any sort of nostalgia about being in a non-Christmas country, away from family and friends, or if I plan to go to the US for the holidays, I say no. It simply does not fell like The Holidays.

Today I turned on General Hospital and was elated to find out it was The Christmas Show. Every year, although I certainly haven’t seen it in ages, they have an episode centered in the hospital’s children’s ward. There is Santa and presents and everyone in Port Charles seems to show up to join in the festivities. The highlight of the show is the telling of the Christmas story to the children. For years, the story was read by Dr Steve Hardy, Chief of Staff at GH. The actor who played the part for about thirty years, died around ten years ago. This year Dr Alan Quartermaine, the current Chief of Staff, and played by the same actor for the past thirty years, told the story to the kids and families and friends, surrounded by Christmas trees, gifts, and people all bundled up in winter clothing. As the camera panned around the room it stopped for a second on the hand of someone taping a picture of Dr Steve Hardy to the nurse’s station counter. I am embarrassed to say that I got teary-eyed. That feeling continued as a Christmas soundtrack accompanied shots of other, previously feuding characters, resolving their differences for this one day, hugging, smiling, and joy-ing to the world.

All those sorta goofy sentiments dissipated as soon as the show was over. Now I am back to life without all the holiday fanfare and, frankly, am happy for it. I can’t wait until next Monday to see if Courtney actually sleeps with Jax, or if she finally finds out that the child she is carrying really is Nicolas’; if Jason ever gets all his memory back after the brain surgery; if Sonny hooks up with Emily, who is still not legally divorced from Nicholas even though he, Nicholas is now engaged to Courtney; if Alexis is successful in defending Manny, who was a psycho-gangster-murderer, but just had emergency brain surgery and they found he had a brain tumor that had caused a life-time of aggression; or, of the utmost importance, if Laura ever comes out of her catatonic state and returns to Port Charles so that I can at least see what she looks like after all these years.

See? I bet you didn’t even know what you were missing.
Kate

08 December 2007

The Carnival Traffic

First time I am trying a video attachment. Since I can't seem to change font, or do anyting else, I will leave this as an experiment.

Gotta love this traffic!

video

December Carnival



After a few Decembers in Malaysia, and now three in Vietnam, I no longer am totally astonished by the sight of Christmas tress, Santas, and fake snow in tropical countries that have a very limited Christian population. Oddities in Malaysia included Muslim girls and boys sitting on Santa’s lap and wearing Santa hats, in the middle of a mall with a massive Christmas tree. Here, the downtown stores have decorated entire building facades with styrofoam snow, lined streets with blinking lights and moving reindeer, and there are Santa suits on sale from street vendors.



My apartment building has not been spared the holiday make-over. The circular palm tree garden has been transformed into a blue-lit holiday tree. First, they trimmed the group of four palms, then bound the fronds together into a point. (looked painful). Over that was placed a wire frame, to which thousands of tiny blue lights were attached, a big red star at the top. We also have blinking wreaths with holiday greetings on all apartment block entrances.

Knowing that around this time of year, in the evening, it gets rather insane with spectators and revelers downtown, I have avoided it. This year, however, I decided I really should get some pictures and maybe get some sort of idea why this is all happening.

I knew the place to start was the Le Loi street and Saigon Center, which is a corner building with high-end stores inside; high-end coffee shops on its outer edges. This time of year they put up a massive Disney-type display of elves and trees and reindeer at the main entrance. You need to walk through Santa’s house to enter the mall. On the sidewalk in front, there are at least thirty vendors, each with a tub of kiddy toys that sparkle and glow with flashing lights and sounds. Another ten or fifteen people sell bright, Mylar balloons. Then there are the professional photographers just waiting to capture you and your family in amongst it all. The folks mill around with their kids, take pictures in front of the display, buy toys and snacks.

Being in the middle of it all, for the first time, (previously, I would do anything to get away from the massive crowd), I got it. It was a carnival and people were out to play. Simple as that. And I dove right in buying silver plastic tiaras with flashing lights that my friend and I wore the rest of the evening, much to the delight of all those that passed us.

Suddenly, while we were in the middle of absorbing all the merriment, the vendors lining the outer edge of the sidewalk next to the street, jumped up grabbing their wares, and high-tailed it away. Within five, I kid you not, five seconds, there was not one vendor on the sidewalk. Having seen this in other countries, I knew it was the police coming in to crack down on unlicensed sellers. As soon as someone notices the police, the call goes out, and it is a domino effect of pick-up-and-leave. We carried on down the street noticing the entrepreneurs and their goods standing across the street, waiting to return.

The next corner was the mall called the Tax Center. I have no idea why it is called this, because it is simply a huge building with lots of independent up-grade stalls inside, though prices here are reasonable. The bottom floor is electronics jewelry, and cosmetics. Floor two is clothing, and three and four are souvenir shops.

Now, the Tax Center, this year, had really gone all out. The entire building, which wraps around a corner, was covered in snow. Along the sides of the building, they had placed white benches and trees and mailboxes, so that you could sit and have your picture taken. Several of the benches had ‘actor-manikins’ dressed in…..actually, I was not sure of why they were dressed the way they were. One woman was totally pained in silver and stood frozen next to a silver tree. Another guy looked like something out of a 1940’s South American novel. On the sidewalk two men were chalking out snowman scenes, while people either avoided or stepped on their work. We took a quick peek inside to look at the dancing and singing show being performed by little girls in white, glittery outfits. Back outside, I saw that they even had a machine on the second floor, spewing out something that resembled snow onto the crowds below.

Continuing another few blocks, we turned right onto Dong Khoi Street, the really, really, expensive strip in town. Palm trees covered in those blue lights, (which must have just come out this year), and the mechanical reindeers made of tiny white lights, lined a block. Sides of building were draped in Astroturf-like fabric, bedecked with more blue lights. Locals posed in front of the displays and snapped pictures.

Walking back along Le Loi after dinner, I noticed that the streets seemed much more chaotic than usual, but put it off to the carnival. I had been told that that is the way it gets here in December. Then we started noticing young men on motorbikes waving huge Vietnamese flags. Hmm, maybe there was something else up, possibly a football game. As we walked, the motorbikes with joyously screaming riders, increased to the point that traffic barely moved, and this is on a massive, center-divided, French-built boulevard of about eight lanes. The drivers were now coming up onto the sidewalk to get through. It was getting a bit perilous. Also, there is no way one could get a taxi or, even if possible, where would it go?

Finally, after walking away from the main drag, we got a taxi. And yes, it had been a football match that added to the celebrations. Vietnam had beat Laos. Driving along, we passed hundreds of young people parked on the side of the road, watching all the traffic. I kept the windows down to take pictures and wave at people who smiled and waved back. (those tiaras were still blinking). It was so uplifting to see people having so much fun just driving around and being part of the whole.

Definitely a marvel of an evening. I plan to go back in two weeks to see the big city park that I hear is even more insane than Le Loi Street.

Peace on Earth
Kate

29 November 2007

Marimba Magic


A few Friday nights ago, I just happened to see a small flyer advertising a concert by an Israeli marimba-ist for the following evening at the Conservatory of Music. I had never heard of Asaf Roth, but do love live music and marimbas, and he looked kinda cute. I assumed it would be good, but never imagined that it would turn out to be one of the most incredible concerts I have ever been to.

I’d been to the conservatory once before. It’s a small venue; sort of long-in-the-tooth, but with that old-world French charm and decent acoustics. The concert was free-of-charge, and open seating. I settled into the perfect spot to see and hear.

Asaf started with a few lovely, mellow pieces, and all the stress in my body started to drift away as I was caressed by the music. As the concert progressed, his selections built in intensity.

‘Remembering’ is one of the most remarkable musical pieces I have ever experienced. Before he began, Asaf explained that, since he was only one person, he was going to use an electronic loop pedal to stand in for additional musicians. Then he demonstrated. He tapped a switch with his foot, and into a microphone said “come”. Instantly, the word was repeated, "come, come, come", in a steady 4/4 beat. Then he tapped the switch again and added “on” Now we heard, “come on, come on, come on.” Then, “shush”; “shush come on, shush come on, shush come on”. Demo over; he began to play.

The piece starts with a simple, slow, melodic line, of about 12 measures. Then he abruptly stops, slowly moves to his left and picks up maracas. Another pause, he taps the electronic loop switch, which replays the 12 measures, on top of which he shakes the maracas. Again, an abrupt halt, then over to a xylophone, and another dimension is added to the piece. I think this is where he goes back to the marimba and we now hear what sounds like a mini-orchestra playing the most beautiful, somewhat haunting, music.

Marimba Spiritual, was even more mesmerizing. This piece started slowly and built in speed and complexity, once more utilizing the music loop. The rhythms sink inside you and at one point I flashed back to a Sufi performance I had seen in Cairo; it had that same feel of grabbing your soul and nearly putting you into a trance-like state. I gave up trying to figure out how many layers he had put together or understand how he could keep track of it all. This man is not only a seriously talented musician, but a master of multi-tasking.

At this point I should mention that I have never been able to sit still when I hear music, and simply do not understand how others do so. Especially when beautiful melodies and intoxicating beats are coursing through your body. I hate having to be consciously aware of restraining my normal physical reaction, which would be to really sway and move along with the music. Mostly, I was transfixed by Asaf’s performance, but a few times I peeked at the people around me and they were like rocks in the ground, not a foot tapping, nor a head bobbing.

The next delight was “Peter and the Wolf.” A Vietnamese woman, who had introduced Asaf before the concert, walked onto the stage. She sat down at a chair to his right, adjusted the music stand which held her script and, ever so slightly, nodded to Asaf, who started to play. Let me tell you, I may have only understood a few words of the language, but it didn’t matter. Between the excitement, wonder, and joy in her reading, added with that marvelous “Peter” score and Asaf’s variations, the entire audience was swept away on a magical journey. What was truly amazing is that our narrator did not speak marimba, and Asaf did not speak Vietnamese, yet they functioned as one, never missing a beat or a word. Even more phenomenal, as I learned after the concert, was that they had only practiced together one time. Granted, the woman was a conductor and performing arts teacher, which I found out later, but it still was a remarkable feat.

Another piece included students form the Conservatory. I had been wondering about all the percussion instruments sitting on the left; bass drum, a snare or two, some cymbals or bells, and I think a timbale. This piece was all percussion and Brazilian beats. Anyone who knows me will understand that it was close to pure hell for the Samba Queen to remain seated. Asaf was more of a conductor this time, using that traditional Carnaval instrument, the whistle. Truly awesome. And, as with “Peter”, they had only rehearsed together once.

Aside from the instruments I knew, Asaf had this electronic thing that I could not see. I sounded like it was a keyboard, but then sounded like percussion. He did this very bizarre thing where he sang and played the keyboard together, but it all meshed together to produce what sounded like a choir. I simply have no way of describing what the heck it was, but it was cool.

I was buzzing by the time the music stopped. I was still buzzing when I got home. Since I don’t have any way to get his CD, I am now forced to listen to snippets off his website. How is it that I had never heard of him? And what if I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to find out about the concert? No matter; it was meant to be.

Do give his music a listen http://www.asafroth.com/
Kate






26 November 2007

Nha Trang




I’d been planning my annual birthday trip for months. All I wanted was a few days of sun on a secluded beach where I could get a tan and collect sea shells. I figured I’d go to Nha Trang, an hour’s flight north of HCMC. Everyone who has been there has brought back good reports, but no one could recommend a hotel, so I was off internet hunting.

Unfortunately, all I seemed to find were ugly hotels, not even on the beach, but across a huge main boulevard. That was not what I had had in mind. Upon further research, I found a place called Paradise Resort, that had beautiful bungalows on a long stretch of beach. The price was a mere $18 a day, which included three meals a day. It also was 33 kilometers north of town. After not too much thought, I decided that it really wasn’t that far to travel and it was exactly what I wanted. I booked my ticket and Paradise.

A few days before my trip, a nasty typhoon was moving in towards the Philippines, with a good chance that it would continue on to Vietnam and hit Nha Trang. I kept up with reports, right up until 4am Thursday morning, an hour before I needed to leave for the airport. The forecast was grim. I thought maybe I should cancel but knew if I did, the typhoon would dissipate and I would be stuck in HCMC. I should have cancelled.

My flight left at 7am. I was not pleased to see that it would be on one of Vietnam Air’s little prop jets. They give these runs to the new guys and they have always been rather bumpy flights and landings. I was also thinking about the typhoon. And then there was the fact that Paradise was in fact a 2 hour taxi ride from the airport. Nha Trang flights, up until a year ago, landed in the downtown airport. They have since moved to Cam Ranh airport, 45 minutes away from downtown. Buckled in, it was too late to change my mind.

I sat next to an American doctor who was in Vietnam overseeing an international medical training project. He told me that he had been in Vietnam in the mid 60’s as a USAID worker. We were having a pleasant conversation when the turbulence started. It was fairly horrific, went on entirely too long, but I managed not to loose my breakfast. The lady across from me kept yelling with every bump. She later apologized and I answered that that is how we all felt, but had persevered to not scream.

Coming into Can Ranh, my seatmate told me that it had been built as an airbase by the US military during the war. It is a massive, basically deserted airfield. Besides worn out tarmac there didn’t seem to be much other than sand and some green ground cover. The landing was a few bounces short of a text-book maneuver, and I was really happy to de-plane.

Waiting to get our bags, the doc asked if I’d brought my skeeter repellent. Damn! Once again I had forgotten. He said he had an extra bottle, and handed me a container of Cutter Bug wipes, to which I said, “I went to school with Tommy Cutter!” I really wonder what ever happened to Tommy.

After collecting my bag, I walked outside to the grey, drizzling day, and found my taxi driver waiting. I don’t remember much of the ride into town; I was whipped, having had little sleep, it was a grey day, and the raindrops impaired my vision. As we got into town and started to pass some of the hotels I had seen on-line, I was truly grateful I hadn’t booked any. There was the beach bordered by a lovely promenade, then that double wide boulevard, and then the hotels. At one point we pulled over, and my driver told me his brother and his brother’s taxi would take me the rest of the way.

For the next hour I did notice the beautiful scenery. We drove over a river and I saw that all the fishing boats were painted a bight, royal blue. They reminded me of Portuguese fishing boats. And they didn’t have any eyes! They are the first sightless boats I have seen in Vietnam. When we went through small villages, their houses were also blue. Very lovely.

We arrived at Paradise and I was really looking forward to meeting the owner, “Mr. Cheri. A Frenchman”. That is what it said on the website and how I addressed him on the phone, but his email address said “Vladimir.” He came out to great me and I guessed his age as late 60’s even though he walked and moved like a 30 year-old. I later learned he was 80! Throughout my stay there I would ask about his life and got bits and pieces, but mostly that he had lived here and there and done this and that. I did ascertain that he was Croatian. Then again, maybe not. He had been in Vietnam for eleven years, had a 32 year old wife and two young boys.

Paradise resort really was nice, although the weather pretty much made it impossible to get a good look at things. There were basic beach bungalows and beautiful apartments and higher quality bungalows, a huge eating area, patio/lounge space and, of course, the sea. Only one other guest was there at the time, so I had my pick of accommodation. I chose the high-grade bungalow right at the water’s edge. A two meter wall protected me from the surf, which seemed to be getting quite wild, especially since the water there is supposed to be fairly flat.

I unpacked my bag cursing myself for the 300th time about the fact that I, yet again, did not bring enough warm clothes. I had the sweatpants out the night before, but decided they would be too warm. I spent the next 4 days in my one pair of grubby jeans and one long-sleeved t-shirt, sweatshirt and scarf.

My days were spent reading, eating, and sleeping, as the weather got worse. I enjoyed talking to the one other guest, a retired guy from Sweden, bumming around Vietnam for six months. I kept bugging Mr. Cheri about the weather forecast. Although there was no wind, the waves were getting scary, especially since my bungalow was right there in the front of it all. At one point he told us we were on alert for evacuation. Great.

The first night I was on my bed reading, doors open, listening to the waves crashing. I kept getting up to check how close they were to my room. At this point, they were about two meters high and seemed to be breaking just a few feet in front of me. I kept envisioning tsunami scenarios. Around 9pm, totally freaked, I packed my bag, left it in my room, and high-tailed it up to the dining area, which was farther up the hill, to see what the situation was. No one was around. Fine with me, I was prepared to sleep at the table. About 10:30 Mr. Cheri came down, asking what I was doing. I explained that I was about to be swept away by waves and he started to laugh. “No problem”. Finally convinced he knew what he was talking about, I went back to my bungalow.

The next night I was up every hour to check on the waves and kept my bag packed for a hasty retreat. At least I finally remembered to use the bug wipes so that when I was sitting outside before crawling under the mosquito net, I wouldn’t be chomped on. Reading, I looked down and noticed my bright red nail polish was on a page of the book. Oh crap! Cutter bug wipes take of nail polish! I quickly ran in to wash off my hands. My nails remained sticky. Wonderful, stuck in the middle of a typhoon, no nail polish remover to get the rest off, and gummy nails. I washed my hands again, then tried to forget about it. Eventually they did dry and I was saved from any embarrassing nail situations. Add that to your list of nail polish removers, along with brake fluid. (don’t ask)

The rain never stopped until Sunday morning. And although it wasn’t sunny, at least then I could do one walk on the beach and collect shells. I was glad that this trip had come to an end and I could go home. On the drive to the airport I was able to get a better look at the area. The road to Can Rahn is brand new and beautiful. But when we got to the airport, it was a different story. Because I had been talking to people and in a hurry to get into the taxi when I had arrived, I hadn’t paid attention to my surroundings.

Can Rahn airport is haunted. I felt it as soon as we drove in. When I first came to Vietnam, the war was always in my mind; in the names of places, in the people I saw. But it was always an intellectual connection, not something I physically felt. Vietnam to me has become just the country where I live and work. It has lost its edge as the place of such useless death and destruction. It is not that I have ever forgotten that, but that those sentiments had been pushed into the backdrop of my life. Looking out at the vast expanse of Can Rahn, now only a tiny air terminal and a few abandoned buildings, I said to myself, this is why I have come here.

I walked around outside and could feel the ghosts and sadness in every step I took, and in every place I looked. Inside, on the second floor, I gazed out onto what I estimate would be miles of paved ground, now barren but for two planes.
I found I could not sit down. The building itself was oppressive.

We were loaded into the bus and driven out to our plane. I stepped out onto the tarmac and was wracked by an overwhelming sense of sorrow. While the others moved quickly to board the plane, I stood back and tried to concentrate on what I was feeling. What could I do? Someone needs to heal this landing strip, and I am just little me. Maybe just being aware, just being receptive to the grief reaching out and enveloping me was what I was supposed to do.

I’d spent most of my vacation pretty much just wanting to leave and feeling anxious. Getting onto the plane, I felt much calmer. Some purpose had been served, although it was not the one I had planned.

Kate

01 November 2007

Changes

When I first moved into my neighborhood two years ago, there wasn’t much here other than apartments and houses and lots of construction. The one supermarket was housed in a small building, with crowded aisles and sloping, cracked floors. You could never let go of your shopping cart because it would take off and either run into another customer or smash into the tomatoes. Restaurants were few, overpriced and served questionable fare. There were a few little shops that were combinations of real estate agents and something else, like a dry cleaners or lamp shades. They generally disappeared after a few months. The part I really did like was walking up to the river and along the beautiful landscaped walkway, where It was like being in the country.

All that has now changed; some for the better, some for the worse. The bitty supermarket turned into a massive place. Originally, the stock was about the same, just more of each item and spread out. I am not really sure if the stock has, in fact, increased, or if it is just that I have gotten used to what is an is not available in Vietnam. In addition, another big supermarket opened, and a connivance store sprung up right in front of my apartment building. Do keep in mind that “big” supermarket is relative. It is large for Vietnam, where the majority of folks still go to the fresh markets every morning at the crack of dawn.

The first month or so that I was here, I also went to the market on Saturday morning. But it became too much of a hassle. It really isn’t within walking distance, and I no longer had the desire to make the sojourn on my weekend mornings. I can get produce in the supermarkets, but it is no where near the quality or selection that one gets at the fresh markets.

Of the other shops that open and close, not much is of interest. There are now about four flower shops selling both fake and real flowers. Their selection is limited and two to three times the price of flowers in town. I still haven’t figured out who shops at the clothing boutiques. Weird clothes, usually one of each item and outrageously priced. I prefer my supermarket which has really good buys on tops and pants.

There was a stationary store at one point, but it disappeared. What I really want is someplace I can buy light bulbs. The dry cleaner cum hardware store, (actually just a few odd items), closed eight months ago. Eventually, as the area grows, all these things will become available but, for now, it is hit or miss for what is on sale on any particular day.

Several weeks ago I was riding my bike up by the river. All the monster buildings that were either in foundation stage, or still empty lots two years ago, now tower over the area, blocking sun and air. The beautiful landscaped walkway is now hemmed in by hideous, fifteen story, apartment buildings. I can never walk there again.

Fortunately, the area right along the river is still the way it always was. It is the nursery for the gardens in this area. I ride my bike along the gravel paths, through rows of baby plants and gardeners, and I am transported into a different world. There are always a bunch of gardeners who are generally surprised to see me bumping along on the red bike, but who always wave back and smile.

However, there is one good addition to the nasty buildings. Along the bottom of one of them, directly across from the river, there are now six or seven new restaurants. They are all branches of well known establishments in town.

One day, after my tour through the river gardens, I was in need of refreshment. I noticed, for the first time, that these restaurants were being installed and that one was already opened. It looked lovely, with outside tables, under umbrellas. I parked and went up the stairs and sat in a big, cushiony sofa-thing. I spoke to the owner who explained that this was the first of the restaurants to open, and that the others were soon to follow. I only wanted to drink something cold, but took a look at the menu and was pleased to see that the prices were quite reasonable. I commented on the beautiful view of the river and that I was worried that it would suffer the fate of everything else around and be turned into a concrete jungle. He assured me that the river would stay and that on the other side of said river, they were building a golf course.

In the coming weeks, I was back there several times to either eat or drink coffee. A few weeks ago, the rest of the places opened. There is a lovely chain coffee shop which has fantastic seating, but the coffee is shockingly priced and sucks. Vietnam has the best coffee, especially the ice coffee, which one can’t really mess up. But this place, Gloria Jean’s does. I knew from my experience with them in Malaysia, that they were not good. Even worse than Starbucks coffee. But I thought I would give them a try. My Ice coffee was at least three times the average price, and it was horrid! Unfortunately, I doubt I will ever go back, even if they do have the most comfortable chairs.

Last week, while stopping off with my bike, I saw that they were setting up huge banquet tables all along the front of four restaurants, getting ready for a big event. I talked to a man who looked to be in charge, and he said that that evening was the grand opening. He invited me and said that it was open, and free, to all. So at 7pm that evening, all dressed up for the grand affair, I arrived. One of the managers and the owner I had spoken to several times, came rushing over to greet me, looking quite surprised at my attire and commenting on how nice I looked. Later I realized that I had only ever spoken to them after jumping off the bike, sweaty and bedraggled.

It was quite the event. I wandered from place to place, walking in a looking at the décor of each eating establishment. They are all beautiful. The free food was good, and the live jazz band was great. The rain held off, it was a full moon, and I felt like I was on vacation in a new city.

So finally, after two years of no options other than cooking for myself, I now have quite a few choices. I am quite pleased. Little pleasures are these.
(the pretty pictures are from Hoi An)
Kate

19 October 2007

Hoi An


I know I have been in Vietnam two years when the city of Da Nang evokes no other feeling than that of a place an hour’s flight north of Ho Chi Minh City. When I first arrived, all those Vietnam War place-names caused a gut-wrenching reaction, accompanied by mental TV footage of battles, bodies, and protests.

My trip was actually to Hoi An, but one flies into Da Nang. From there, it is a 45 minute taxi ride to the beautiful town Hoi An, which sits along the banks of the Thu Bon River. It was a major South East Asian port from the 17th to the 19th century. I read somewhere that it was not bombed during the war by agreement of all sides, so as to preserve its historical heritage.

The first thing that strikes you, coming from HCMC, is how small, and cute, and quiet it is. One strolls along the narrow winding, tree-lined streets, past two-story, Chinese style houses. The center area is blocked to cars and motorbikes, but even on the streets, it is not busy. Or at least in comparison to the non-stop traffic congestion of HCMC.

And that’s another thing: Ho Chi Minh City. Before I arrived in Vietnam, I read in the Lonely Planet guide that most people in HCMC still refer to it as Saigon. I soon found out that was not the case; both young and old assured me that they generally call it HCMC. However, in Hoi An, it was a different story. Every time I told someone I was from HCMC, (and I told them this in Vietnamese!), they would reply with, “Oh, Saigon.” I soon started telling people I was from Saigon.

Although it is still the rainy season, and I had read that there were often floods this time of year, my friend and I arrived at 8am at the Blue Sky Hotel, to find clear skies and slightly cooler weather than in HCMC. I had found the hotel on the internet, liked the pictures, and called the proprietress. They only had the “Superior Deluxe” room available for $35, which was more than I had planned to spend, but it looked so beautiful on their web page, that I booked it. And I was not disappointed. It was the nicest room I have stayed in, in all of my travels. Large, new, spotless, tasteful décor and a balcony that looked out over a water- spinach lagoon. (sort of looks like a flooded rice paddy).

We had breakfast on the back deck, drinking in the peace and quiet, while they made-up the rooms. Then it was off to meander amongst the charm and beauty of historical Hoi An. I thought I might do some shopping, Hoi An being know for its fabric lanterns, but all I wanted to do was walk and soak in the sights. As it started to heat up, we stopped off for a drink at a café along the river.

Learning from my previous experiences traveling outside of HCMC, I’d packed enough clothing to suit all weather possibilities. I was happy to see that, if the heat continued, I would be able to wear the dresses I had brought, and maybe the jeans and other warmer items could be worn in the evening.

The Mango Room Café was one of the many quaint eating establishments lining the small road that ran next to the river. The owner, although Vietnamese, had lived in the US, South America, and Australia, which was reflected in the decoration and menu. Green and blue walls, red trimming, and platform beds with mats and pillows filled the downstairs. I kicked off my shows, climbed up on the bed/table, sat looking out the window, and drank an ice coffee. I watched the small boats going up and down the river, and at the moored fishing boats parked out front. I noted that the eyes on the boats were white, as opposed to red, in HCMC. It was magical.

We cruised about a bit more, then headed back to the hotel for a snooze. (I had been up at 3am to get the taxi at 4, to get to the airport at 5, for the flight at 6am.)
I lay down on the bed with a book, balcony door and windows open, a soft breeze blowing through the room. I wondered what the hell I was doing living in the insanity of Saigon.

That evening, we walked through the streets, down to the river, then crossed the bridge. The other side of the river didn’t have any of the small shops and cute streets – or at least not that I noticed, but it did have a row of restaurants. We picked the pretty blue one, and walked upstairs to the large, open dining area. There, we sat at a table next to the railing, gazing down upon the river, boats, and people.

I have never been a person driven by food, and every time that I have eaten in restaurants in HCMC, it has been a disappointing experience. Usually sub-standard. Or, if you get a decent meal one time, you won’t the second. Having no idea what to expect in Hoi An, we ordered grilled shrimp and calamari. I had never had such delicious food! Simple, clean, fresh, and unbelievable. And this was to be the norm for the rest of the trip. Every single place we ate, (except for the hotel, where it was limited to breakfast), was exceptional. I was finding that I was looking forward to the next culinary stop, which is usually at the bottom of my list when I travel. Actually, there was one good thing about the hotel food; the bread. Hoi An has its own mini-baguette specialty. Hard crust, oven fresh, individual little loaves. I rarely eat bread, but if I lived in Hoi An, I would eat it with every meal.

Hoi An is experiencing a tourism boom. All the travel books will tell you that in addition to its charm, it is the place to purchase tailored clothing and hand made shoes. Now, when someone tells me you can get an entire new wardrobe made in just two days, I have to ask; what’s wrong with this picture? Apparently, they can do it, but the quality is really poor. There are hundreds of dress shops and shoe stores, and all the samples look like everyone else’s, and of dime-store quality. I can’t understand why anyone would buy anything there, but they do.

Day two started out rather grey, but with no rain. We hopped a taxi to the beach in search of a cute restaurant for breakfast. I’d read that the beaches were beautiful, but I wouldn’t agree. They reminded me of the scrubby, northern California coastline, especially the old Fort Ord area. Give me palm trees and lots of green, and I will say it is a beautiful beach. All the same, I do love the sound of the surf and the fresh air.

The beach was lined with restaurants of the concrete floor, bamboo roof, no wall, variety. And they all were empty, even though this is supposed to be the high season. I think things will get busier in a month. The young woman, who served us at the place we chose, told us it gets packed on weekends. After we ate, we decided to walk back to town which, on the map, was listed as a 4K walk.

The road to town ran along a river. About half-way back we stopped off at a restaurant that was perched over the river. Made of dark wood, and open on all sides, it was filled with white rattan tables and chairs. No other customers were there that early in the day, but the staff was about, setting up. We parked ourselves on one end and ordered ice cream coffee. It was heaven. The river under us, no voices other than our own, and coffee with strawberry ice cream which, by the way, is quite tasty.

Once back in the center of town, we stopped off for another delicious snack, with another spectacular view, all the while scoping out restaurants for dinner. Walking in and out of all the shops, I realized there really wasn’t anything to buy. Other than cheaply manufactured cloths and shoes, I found mostly the same things one can buy in HCMC. Even the fabric lanterns were not a better buy, so why bother buying and lugging them back?

By early afternoon, the rains had started, and just got stronger. Holed up in the hotel, I read and rested. The rains let up in time to head out for dinner. This time we chose a place that advertised cooking classes, which is something else one can do in Hoi An.

As with most of the restaurants along the river, this one was small, with tables right at the front, and no walls to block the view. I looked out and noticed that the river was rising and had actually gone over the bank onto the sidewalk. But then the first dish arrived, sweet and sour fish, and I got too involved with eating. Next thing I noticed was that the river was now flowing right up to the stairs of the restaurant, which was built about a meter above the street.

Soon kids on bicycles were driving through the water, laughing and splashing. The water under the bridge was now almost even with the bridge. The part of the bridge which dipped down towards the street was under water. I watched as Vietnamese didn’t even hesitate, but simply rode their bikes or motorbikes through the water, up to the bridge, and continued on their way. Not so the tourists, who would walk from the other side and come to a dead stop when the reached the water obstacle. Eventually, they would carefully wade through the water, or flag down a motorbike to drive them through, or even carry their girlfriend across. And still, the water rose, even though it was only drizzling.

The final course for dinner was shrimp cooked in coconut milk that was served in a hollowed-out coconut that had been put on the fire to heat. Indescribably delicious! By the time we were finished, there seemed no way to leave the restaurant. Fortunately, there was a side door so we avoided the flood.

Although it was a fun experience, I knew that this amount of water meant that there was serious flooding in rural areas all around us. And those floods are still continuing.

Another reason I had wanted to go to Hoi An was to see the Cham ruins outside if town. The Cham are an ethnic minority group and up until my trip, I hadn’t realized that they are related to the people who built Angkor, in Cambodia. Although the temples are ruins, the Cham people are still around. I had hoped to find some ethnic art in town, but that was not to be the case. And what with all the rain and grey skies, I decided to put of ruins-traipsing for another trip.

The next day out walking, I saw a silk tapestry ‘factory’. I had seen many of the silk embroidery pictures that the tour books rave about, but had never been impressed. Or at least not until I saw the ones that the women were producing in this shop. They looked like photos. All were quite large with scenes of Vietnam, portraits of people, or flowers. Too big and too expensive for my tastes, I looked at the smaller scale, which didn’t have the same quality. They all looked ‘embroidered’. The sales woman explained that that was because of the thickness of the embroidery thread. Apparently, small-scale pictures are all made with thicker thread. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of finished products, but if I had, you would swear they were photographs.

They weather continued to be dismal the next day, our last in town. I had booked a 7pm flight, but my friend and I decided to try and get on the 1:30pm flight. The flight was sold out, but we were sure we could get on stand-by, so went to the airport at 10am. On the ride to the airport, our driver pointed out China Beach. Nothing to write home about. Across the road were the remnants of US military hangers. We also passed by the Marble Mountains, which have their own story and which I will visit on my next trip.

Lovely Da Nang International Airport is about the size of a small Safeway. It was totally deserted when we arrived. The security guy said no one would be there until 12 noon. Across from the airport was a row of dingy restaurants were we went and ordered coffee. I then called Vietnam Airlines and was told I was on the waiting list, but that I would have to get on another waiting list at the airport since they didn’t share information. We talked to several locals and drank coffee until people started to arrive and it looked like the tiny Vietnam Air office was about to open. I put up a valiant effort, getting first on the waiting list and bugging the crap out of any official looking person I could find, but it was not to be. The flight was booked solid.

So we had five hours to kill before check-in time. This time, my valiant effort paid off and they let us check in our suitcases. I actually think they finally acquiesced to get rid of me. I am becoming quite the pushy lady as I get older. Once free of suitcases, we grabbed a taxi to take us to the Cham museum.

The museum was in this gigantic, probably French, building next to the river. It really didn’t contain much, but I was drooling over the thought of going back to the Cham ruins on my next trip. This was when I found out about the connection between the Cham Kingdom and Angkor. The pieces they had, looked like they had been taken from Cambodia.

Outside the museum, I stopped a guide and asked where the tourist section of town was. There is none. So my friend asked the lady at the ticket booth about shopping areas. She directed us down a main street.

I am sure there must be some nice sections of the city, but what we saw was dead ugly. Sort of a 1960’s industrial steel and concrete urban zone. I did notice that there seemed to be no traffic. Obviously, there was, but it was so civilized. One could actually cross the street with out fearing for life or limb. It had crossed my mind more than once since arriving – Wouldn’t it be nice to live in Hoi An? Which would probably mean working and living in Da Nang. I don’t think so.

At least we found yet another beautiful restaurant with great food. Then we went over to the massive riverboat restaurant that was setting up for the nightly dinner cruise. They kindly let us come aboard and get some hot tea. Finally, it was back to Da Nang International.

We boarded a brand new 777. (I think). Shortly before take-off my friend pointed to the movie screen, where all I could make out was some gritty grey with odd lights. She informed me that it was a live picture out the cockpit, or possibly from under the plane. No matter, the purpose of it was so that passengers could watch the take off and landing, just as the pilot sees it. And, oh my god!, was it ever something! I was very loud with all my “Wow’s!” and “Amazing’s!”, and laughing with excitement. It is very strange to look at the screen, then look out the window; a real thrill ride.

I am already looking forward to my next rip to Hoi An, although next time it will be in the totally dry season, which is coming up on us any week now. Until then, I will just have to look at my pictures to relive the feeling of tranquility I experienced in Hoi An.
Kate

25 August 2007

Toad Rock Beach










In need of a short beach trip, with limited funds, I had almost given in to the realization that I would have to go back to Mui Ne, where I had gone a few months after arriving in Vietnam. It was not really what I wanted to do.

The bus trip to Mui Ne is only $8, and “only 4 hours.” But you have to add in the hour I allow to get to the departure location, and then the hour waiting for the 8am bus which leaves at closer to 9am. Then there are all the stops it makes before dropping me at my hotel. So, six hours is closer to the time it really takes.

The hotel was another problem. Mui Ne is growing by the day. I hear that four years ago it was a cute little fishing village. When I went, it was wall-to-wall accommodation, ranging from cheap bungalows to costly resorts. I had stayed in a nice enough place, down the beach from the center. But that had been a year and a half ago, and there was a good chance it was no longer an isolated venue.

Add to that ,that I would have to leave Monday morning, and return Wednesday morning, and I had pretty much decided to call it all off. Then I remembered Binh Chau. I was told that it was only two hours from HCMC, and had a beach, hot springs, and wide open nature areas. Most of foreigners I talked to hadn’t even heard of it, which was a good sign. It might be sort of quiet and not over-priced. I had actually thought about going there over the May Day holiday, but everything had been booked, and prices tripled.

After finding the website, I called the Binh Chau Eco-resort. It is run by Saigon Tourist, a government organization that seems to own about half the hotels and tourist industry related businesses in Vietnam. I was thrilled to discover that although the resort was costly, the beach bungalows at Ho Coc Beach were only $8 a night. I booked a room.

Now the problem was how to get there. If one goes to any of the tourist places, anywhere in the country, you grab a bus down in the backpacker section. Not so for my destination. I was told to go to the main bus station, and to buy a ticket for Binh Chau, and given instructions where to get off. I was assured it was only a two hour ride.

Again, I asked friends about this bus station, and no one had ever heard of it. I then knew what I was in for; a giant bus terminal, with long rows of ticket windows, and a fair amount of chaos. I’ve been there-done that, too many times to count, although never in Vietnam. I kept asking the guy from the resort, as well as Vietnamese friends, for specifics. They kept saying it wouldn’t be a problem. I asked when the bus left. I was told “all day”, and to get the 7am bus.

Completely leery about the whole prospect I, nevertheless, caught a taxi at 5:45, so as to avoid morning traffic, and arrived about an hour later. And yes, it was my semi-nightmare come true.

There wasn’t one foreigner within 5 miles. This was going to put my Vietnamese to the test. I stared at the long row of ticket counters, one on either side of the main entrance, and tried to find something that said “Binh Chau”. Finally, I just walked up to a counter and asked. They pointed to an agent two windows down. I asked for a ticket and was told the bus left at 8:30am. It was only 7am. I tried to ask if there was an earlier bus, but got nowhere. I paid for the ticket and decided to first find the point of departure before trying to figure out what I would do for an hour and a half.

I walked out into the rows of buses and milling crowds, asking where to get on the bus. I young woman with an official looking “employee” tag around her neck, took me by the arm and led me away. Soon, I was surrounded by people wanting to know where I was going. They pointed to a filled mini-bus and said that was the one, and that I could get on.

I mentioned that it didn’t leave for over an hour, so I was in no rush to board. More people appeared, some of them drivers from other buses, my appointed guardian explaining where I wanted to go. A lot of commotion ensued, and a driver told me that his bus was leaving in ten minutes. I sold my ticket back to one man, (I assumed he went and got a refund). I was wondering if I was supposed to tip my personal travel agent, when she held up a bag of water bottles to sell me. I finally understood that all these people with tags around their necks were vendors. I bought some water, thanked her, then boarded the bus. At least I know that if I ever use that station again, I should simply walk out to the buses as ask who is leaving next.

I can’t say that I was really surprised to see that the 18 seat mini-bus was already filled, and the fold down seats between the rows, (2 seats on one side, one on the other), were already in use. This was the people’s transport, not for tourists. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to sit, but the driver came in and made the people in one row move over to let me in. There were now five people squished into three full seats and one fold down seat. I perched on the edge, and could not sit back. I also had my carry-on bag in my lap, which was banging into the people on either side of me. I haven’t yet learned how to say, “Is there a luggage section under the bus?”

After a lot of sign language and a few words, the driver’s helper took my bag and shoved it somewhere up front. They loaded on two more people before we finally took off. I had directions written out, and several people assured me that they knew where I needed to get off. Oh well, it was only for two hours.

Getting out of the city was slow and sweaty. I was glad it was early in the morning. I was stuck in the middle and there was no air conditioning. Once we were out into the rural areas, I tried to appreciate the scenery. But the bus kept stopping and piling on more people, until there were 35 of us. I looked at my watch and asked the lady next to me how long it would take. Her answer; three to three and a half hours.

We finally arrived at the corner where I had been told to get off. I walked under the awning of a little store to get out of the heat and to call the hotel for my driver. But no one answered. And then this guy showed up and asked if I was going to Ho Coc beach, and that he and his motorbike were for hire. I do not do motorbikes. I had been told I could get a taxi. But I was out of energy for anything, and it was a quiet road, and only 6 kilometers. I told the man at least six times that I was scared to death of motorbikes, and he had to drive slowly. I inspected his bike; it was new and shiny. He was in his late thirties, and I was very impressed that he put on glasses before we took off. (as opposed to a crappy bike, a 19 year old, and someone too vain to wear corrective lenses.)

We drove slowly and I tried to concentrate on fresh air and almost no traffic. I arrived in one piece at Ho Coc beach, and was met by the manager who spoke perfect English. There was a lot of construction going on around the enormous, open-air dining room. I was told that it had just been completed the week before. He later told me that it seated 400. No one was there.

We then went out to the bungalows. I didn’t see anyone other than workers. It was gorgeous. There were only 18 large bungalows arranged in three rows. The front three were built on raised platforms that had been made to look like tree trunks. Behind them, but still right on the beach front, were the second row, and behind that, the third set. All were positioned so that you could see the beach. It was then that I found out that I was the only guest. I choose a bungalow away from the workers, in the second row. The tree house ones were more expensive and unnecessary.

My bungalow was beautiful, except that I was concerned with the floor boards which were made of split bamboo that sagged when I walked on them. If you weighed any more than me, I am sure you would have broken them and fallen through to the sand, three feet below. Aside from that, it was equal to the one in Phu Quoc, which cost nearly five times the price. I settled in, looking forward to a very quiet stay.

When I opened my front door to the beach, (there was also a back entrance off the main walk), a saw a family of around twelve people rollicking on the beach, right in front of the bungalows. It was good that all I wanted to do was lie on the bed and look out at the beach. I would not have felt comfortable as the only foreign-bikini-clad-tourist, which would have caused a stir. I was hoping that they wouldn’t stay all day; I wasn’t quite sure if they had paid a “day fee,” or if maybe they were staying at the resort. They left at dusk.

Ho Coc means ‘Toad Rock’. It is named for a giant rock that looks like a turtle gazing out to sea. This is the legend of Ho Coc, which I am copying from the resort brochure:

One year there was a strange drought. All the rivers and springs dried up to such an extent that everything lacked water, and the plants and trees were withered. The Tribe of the Toads decided to sue the King of Heaven for rain to rescue all the creatures. To go up to heaven, though, all the toads had to swim through the vast sea, so they plodded away day and night, plunging and emerging from the water. They tried relentlessly, but they could not pass the great sea. The Toads’ leader was so sad that he decided to never move again and to stare at the sea forever without a motion.

From the Heaven’s Court, the King of Heaven was moved and impressed by the toad’s strong will and effort, so he ordered his ambassador to make rain on the earth. And then it was raining and all creatures shouted with joy and came in crowds to two hilltops close to the sea for singing and dancing. A strange thing happened - the toads saw their leader, who was still looking at the sea, turn into rock, his eyes fixed at the vast ocean facing the eastern direction. Today, that rock remains unchanged and named “Toad Piece”. The two hilltops now are “Tam Bo” and “Ho Linh” and the seashore is called Ho Coc.



In the evening, I walked over to the massive dining area for dinner. Other than the kitchen staff, I was the only person there. I ordered some calamari, talked a bit to the staff, and went back to my shack.

It always surprises me how much cooler it is in the evening at the beach as compared to HCMC. I almost felt chilled. I went to sleep on a truly comfortable bed, dreaming about the next day, and lying in the sun.

I woke up at 4am, and walked outside to sit on the bench in front of my bungalow. Way out at sea, I could see the lights of the fishing boats lined up along the horizon. I looked up to night sky and the millions upon millions of stars. Far off in the distance a storm was brewing. Lightening bolts lit up the skies in silence, being too far away for thunder to be heard. For an instant, the entire scene in front of me would be illuminated, then plunged back into darkness. I’d catch glimpses of the calm sea lapping on the rock-lined shore, and the silhouettes of the fishing boats. Every time the sky lit up, I tried to register how much I could see. Slowly, the storm clouds moved towards me, and soon soft, quiet rain began to pelt the sand in front of me, as I was sheltered by the overhang of the bungalow roof. I stayed there until I started to get wet.

The next morning, I was disappointed to see that it was grey and overcast. Plenty warm enough to lie on the beach, but I craved brilliant sun. About an hour later, I started to notice groups of mostly teenage boys, with a few girls mixed in, coming down to the beach. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts, carrying bags of food and drink. At first I thought they were just strolling down the beach, but then they sat down, right in front of my little house. And within an hour, there were hoards of loud kids, eating and dumping their garbage on the beach, then running into the water. This was not at all what I had expected, being at a ‘private’ resort, and they only registered guest.


I went to see the manager to find out what was up. Turned out that it was a school holiday and, apparently, every teenager in the area had come to the beach. I tried to ask why they were allowed on the resort, but no one seemed to understand. So it turns out that this perfect little ‘gem’ I had found, really was not. I was not going to get any tanning hours in.

The following day, I steeled myself for the trip home. The same man who had taken me on the motorbike was going to pick me up and drive me a little farther down the road from where he had picked me up when I arrived. This way, I was assured, I would get a good seat.

Once on the motorbike, I tried to look out upon the beautiful scenery to keep my mind off any possible peril. It didn’t work; I kept getting flashes of being road-kill. So I shut my mind off and thought about other things.

When we turned left onto the main road, I really started to feel uneasy. Only two kilometers, I kept repeating to myself. But then we kept driving, and driving. Yes, he was a good driver, but we were on the big road, and there were trucks, and we were going at a good clip. And still we kept driving. Forty minutes later we arrived at a real bus station. At least there were only two other passengers on the min-bus, and it was to leave in ten minutes. I got on and leaned back in the seat.

We were off to a good start. I had a window seat and the air rushing in felt good. The driver would slow down when we passed any place that seemed to have people waiting for a bus, and his ticket-collector would hang half-way out the open door and call out to people. We gradually filled all the seats and I was beginning to get the feeling that that had nothing to do with not taking on any more passengers. A few times we came to a complete stop and the ticket guy got off and physically steered people onto the bus. We were soon up to over thirty passengers but at least this time I had a prime, if squished, seat.

About two hours into the trip, when there really was not even one inch to spare, the bus came to a halt and everyone started getting off. I soon realized that we were being shifted to a different bus. This time, being one of the last on, I got caught in the middle again. And then the new ticket man started asking everyone to pay up, even though we had already paid on the last bus. Needless to say, my fellow passengers were having none of it, and the guy finally relented and left us alone. I was never so happy to get back to HCMC and hail a taxi. It was another hour before I got home, but I was cool and comfortable.

All in all, it was one of those experiences that builds character. If one subtracts all the noise and distraction at the beach, it really was a beautiful spot, with a wonderful story about its creation. Mom, you would have loved it.

Kate