12 July 2011

Best Urban Park

It has to be the most beautiful urban park in the San Francisco bay area; Mountain View Cemetery, situated in Oakland California.

My days of cruising cemeteries in the US for the sheer macabre value of it all ended back in high school. I have visited ones overseas for their historical significance, but never saw much reason to drop by their more modern counterparts in the US. But when I had a third relative interred at the park, I took a more careful look.

How could I have missed such a glorious setting with its 226 acres of winding roads, beautifully arranged tree lined streets and sparkling fountains? It is a landscaped wonder designed by Fredrick Law Olsen, (he of Central Park fame), and dates back to 1863.

“Olmsted took a unique approach to Mountain View Cemetery. His park cemetery integrated the Parisian grand monuments and broad avenues. Olmsted also drew on a popular philosophy of the times, American Transcendentalism, to help shape his vision of the cemetery.” (mountainview cemetery.org)

One honestly feels as if they were in some European grand garden, transported back to a time when it was only man and nature. Situated on rolling hills, with what feels like miles and miles of small roads branching off of the main, fountain lined artery, it is a perfect spot for communing with nature.

On any given day you will find joggers, ladies pushing strollers, people walking their dogs, artists sketching or painting, and even children from a local day care having a picnic.

Many famous Californians are buried there. Charles Crocker’s massive tomb sits on Millionaires row, which, but the way, is where I would like to build a small cottage. Walking by his final resting spot you’d think you were on a lovely, narrow city street, surrounded by greenery, where cars have been banned. In front of you lies a spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay. Looking either to the left or right, you see nothing but green rolling hills, trees, and your peacefully resting neighbors.

Every time I go I find some place new to explore; some other bit of historical interest. There is the Civil War Veterans area, ringed by cannon balls of the era. There are beautiful chapels, amazingly elaborate crypts from a bygone era, and an overall peacefulness that belies the fact that you are actually in Oakland, CA.

It is easy to explore either with a map provided by Sunset View or just by turning up a road that looks interesting. (you can drive to most places, or park your car and walk.) Guided tours are offered twice a month.

For me it has become a place to get away from the commotion of the city; a place to clear my head, drink in nature, and maybe even commune with some souls from the past.



30 May 2011

Where NOT to buy Cuban Cigars in Saigon

My last night in Vietnam was to be coffee and Cuban cigars with a few friends. I’d heard that there was a top-scale stogie shop in District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, and after some searching and a few phone calls, I’d located it.

Casa Habana Cigars is located on 41 Ha Ba Trung St,  Dist 1, HCMC, just a block or so down from the Park Hyatt. Walking in I was very impressed; walls of glass windowed, temp controlled, cigar cabinets. This looked as good as the ones in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.
I asked about Romeo and Juliet’s, knowing that they were what I had wanted to buy. They were out of number 4’s, so I looked at the number 2’s. I picked up a cigar and took a whiff; humm….not what I had remembered. I asked the manager about their packaging date, then turned the box over.
Oh, I said, these were packed in 2009, they’re two years old.
But that’s what makes them so good, she replied.
Yes, I have many customers who insist on aged cigars, she assured me.
I knew this was wrong. I knew they were way past their shelf life, but spent $18 a piece on two cigars. I have no idea why I believed her, especially after I had asked her who imported their cigars.
The owner makes trips to Cuba to buy all the cigars, but he isn’t Vietnamese, he’s American, she told me.
I pointed out that this could not be possible since it was illegal for Americans to go to Cuba, let alone run an import/export deal with the country.
She assured me that I was wrong; that this was a legitimate business venture.
That evening we lit up the cigars and I kicked myself; they sucked. They were not the smooth, tasty Cubans I had sampled in Mexico. They were old, and not totally horrible, but certainly not worth $18.
In retrospect, I realized that I should have looked for a different brand and taken much more time in selecting my cigars. But the heat, humidity, and last day errands had gotten the better of me and thrown me off my usual cautious self when buying luxury items in places like Vietnam. However, that does not excuse a sleazy American from ripping people off and disseminating false information about Cuban cigars.
Now I must wait for my next trip to Mexico where the cigar shops are run by honest folks.


14 May 2011

Building a Boat

Every morning, since arriving in Mui Ne, I’ve walked along the beach and looked out at the lovely boats and thought that I really should find out where they are made and go see the builders in action.

And then one morning, just two coconut-tree lots down from the hotel, I noticed some construction activity going on beneath the canopy of the palm trees. Although I had walked along that stretch of beach several times a day for over a month, this was the first time that I’d noticed something other than coconuts.

And much to my great pleasure, there stood a boat workshop! I walked over and said hello to the guys and expressed my delight in finding them. I asked if it would be ok to walk around and look at the work they were doing; no problem.

It was absolutely amazing; a mini boatyard, out in the open, where they were building a beautiful, seafaring vessel with nothing more than very basic tools. I would need to document the work so asked if I could come back the following day with my camera.

Returning the next day, it was immediately obvious that the man in charge was a master craftsman. I watched in wonder as he and his crew worked on the boat with the minimum of power tools. They had a hand built-table saw and an electric drill and that’s about it. These were plugged into an electrical line that ran down a coconut tree and off to some unknown location. Everything else was done by hand.

I walked around the boat to get a better idea of the construction techniques. I watched as they bent the side boards to fit, marked them, removed them, and then lined the edges with drill holes. Into these they placed sharpened dowels which would be used to secure one plank to another on the sides of the boat. It took three people to achieve this next step; one to align the dowels/holes, another to hammer the top plank down with a large mallet, and the third to use other tools to insure a water-tight fit.
In the following days I would visit the guys to check on the progress and inquire about the launch date. Each time I was able to see another bit of incredible work. One day the boat was upside down as they sawed off large wooden plugs that are used to secure the inner cross pieces. After that, they painted the underside. Another day they had started to paint the interior and to build the removable inner planks that would cover the engine and hold. And finally, they told me that the boat would be launched the following day at 11am.

Not wanting to miss an early launch, I arrived at 10am to see another boat with four or five men, pull up to the beach. I assumed they were there to collect the new boat and I was right. I looked over to the new boat and saw that they had just started to paint the eyes on the bow. How could they set it off in an hour with wet paint?
I asked again about the time it would hit the water. Altogether, three men looked up at the sun, gauged what time it now was and reconfirmed that it would be at 11:00. It wasn’t until several days later that I realized that whenever I had asked about time, they looked up to the sun, even if they wore watches.

With that settled, I said hello to the new arrivals and my boat builders explained who I was. By this time, the master builder had left the final painting and engine hook-up to his crew and was involved in building another boat. I took a few more pictures and sort of tried to stay out of the way.

A couple of young teenage boys said hello, eager to practice their English. I asked why they weren’t in school and they assured me that they had afternoon classes and would soon be off. When they got bored with watching the workers, they ran off into the coconut grove to run around.
The guys who had arrived on the boat wandered around and helped where needed. I brought out packets of cookies and they offered me tea. About that time I turned to check on the young ones only to see one of them starting to scale a four-story high coconut tree. I was concerned. I looked around. No one else was concerned. And actually at their age, 13 or 14, I would have been doing the same, being a tree-climbing enthusiast in my younger years. Except that trees in California had branches to help the ascent. I tried not to look figuring if he fell there were plenty of people around.

Not much later I heard the tree-climber call out to his friends below. I looked over but he was out of sight, somewhere up at the top. His friends kept busy arranging fallen palm fronds in a pile below the tree. He called out again, they stood back, and down came the first coconut. I never did see him come down but the next time I looked he was up another tree. This went on until they had a large pile of coconuts. They brought several over to the boat crew and then headed down the beach presumably to sell them to a restaurant or hotel.

A woman arrived with baskets from the market. I said hello and found out that she was part of the new boat group. In these situations I never really know who are family and who are friends and it doesn’t matter. What I really love about the Vietnamese culture is that everyone works as a unit, things are done together, food is shared together. A whatever-is-mine-is-yours attitude. That, and the feeling of camaraderie in situations such as the one I was watching.

I found a log to sit on, camera at the ready should they suddenly make a dash to the sea with the boat. Soon the woman brought her baskets over to the bow of the boat where they were loaded onboard. At first I thought she had been to the market and would sail back with the new boat. But the baskets were filled with offerings that now were carefully arranged on the prow; small bowls of a sticky rice concoction and carefully assembled fruit. Another dish held small crabs, I think. On the ornamental piece at the very tip of the prow, one man placed flowers and incense. All this occurred while the finishing touches of attaching gas lines and checking the engine happened at the back of the boat.

Finally, it was done. One man stayed in the boat and tossed handfuls of rice around the inside and o to the ground around the boat.. Then everyone gathered, the offering foods were taken down, and they sat in a small circle and ate. They invited over but I felt it was a personal time for the group and did not want to intrude.
And then it was time to load the boat onto the two-wheeled tow bar and haul it down to the water. I believe they said it weighed a ton. Some pulled and some pushed and others cleared the way. When they hit the small slope that led to the water they started to run. The new boat splashed into the sea. Some of the guys splashed water onto the sides of the boat while another dropped the rudder.

Three men remained in the boat, fired up the engine and were off, heading over to the port of Mui Ne. The guys from the other boat got in theirs and followed the new boat. The chief builder watched until it was almost out of sight, grinning, obviously pleased with his masterpiece. I high-fived him as he came up from the waters edge.

I wanted so much to tell them how special the experience had been for me; how fantastic they were at what they did, but I couldn’t. When I say I spoke to these folks it was in my very limited Vietnamese combined with a lot of sign language. I certainly didn’t have the language required, but I did have a bunch of great photographs. The next day I burned CD’s for both the builder and the new boat owners. I took them over to the coconut tree boat yard where they were gratefully received.

It was one of those truly magical experiences.

The next boat should be finished in about a week; I may just still be here when it makes its maiden voyage.


08 May 2011

Coconut Tree Trimming

Eating breakfast one morning, I watched as a guy drove in on his motorbike, one hand on the handlebars, the other gripping a 10 foot bamboo ladder. He parked his bike, took off his helmet and shirt, picked up the ladder he had placed on the ground, and walked towards the central part of the hotel. This looked interesting.
.When I returned to my room I found out what was up; he and his buddy were there to trim the coconut palms. Often at 8:00 am it is already rather hot but that day was overcast and even threatening to drizzle. This boded well for the men about to undertake the trimming of thirty trees.
The men, shirtless and shoeless, with small machetes in hand, climbed up there ladders that they’d placed against the coconut trees. Reaching the top of the ladder, they looped a fabric band around their feet to prevent their feet from slipping and ensuring a type grip around the trunk. These were real men.
With feet securely in place, right hand both gripping the machete and hanging on to the tree, they placed their left palm against the middle of the tree and pushed off. While doing this they pulled their knees up, inching up the tree at an impressive speed.

Some of the taller trees must be about five stories high and quite narrow at the top. Looking at them now I wonder if they ever snap under the weight of the trimmers. I’d guess they probably would if these guys were any larger.
Once at the top of a tree, the workers got lost in the foliage. You’d hear a whack, and then palm fronds and coconuts at various stages of development would drop to the ground. The men worked opposite sides of the property. The young ladies who work here stayed well out of the way until a call came from the top of the tree and they’d hurry to gather and sweep things up.
I was out with my camera trying to get good pictures of the work which was none too easy what with branches flying down and trying not to shot into the light which is hard when your subject is directly above you.
The whole thirty trees were done in under four hours. I think it would take the rest of us four hours just to scale one coconut tree.


06 May 2011

No Power

It was one of those god awful days in Mui Ne when the electricity is shut off from 8:00am until 5:00pm for routine maintenance. There is no prior warning and this is the fourth time it has happened since I’ve been here. I only have a fan in my room, no A/C and that’s never a problem except when there is no power and with no cross ventilation, it is impossible to breathe in there. I can’t write because my laptop battery won’t last more than an hour. I had things to do so I just took off to worry about it later.
On the way to the bus stop I went over the errands I needed to do; first was to go and pick up my train ticket for next week, next was to go to the ATM. And oops; no electricity means no ATM. The bus had arrived so I got on.
My guy who had the ticket was out and wouldn’t be back for two hours. So I walked to my next destination, the internet café where they sold blank CD’s. I mentioned my ATM problem and they assured me that ATM’s would work. I doubted this but gave it a whirl. No luck.
It was only 10am. Too early to go get that meal I had been dreaming about and too hot to do much else. I caught the bus back home.

Now what was I to do? I tried stretching out on the bed to read the one book I had and didn’t much care for, but just wasn’t not enough air. I tried sitting on my front porch but it was too uncomfortable.
Time crept on and I tried not to think about it being a wasted day. Then just when I was again thinking it was a wasted day I spotted a beautiful lizard on the rock right across from my room.
I do love lizards and had seen a spectacular blue-headed guy near the front of the hotel a month ago. Back near my room there are only these rather plain ones. This one didn’t have a colorful head, but he was of that pre-historic dinosaur body style. I ran to get my camera.
Carefully stalking him and trying to get a good shot did not turn out the way I had hoped. I only have one lens on my camera, but there is some zoom capability. And since it is my new, very expensive DSLR camera, I was sure it would suffice. Wrong. I’ll work that out later. But as I was trying to get a clear picture of my reptile who had noticed my approach and scooted up a coconut tree, I found a second brand of lizard.
Talk about camouflage! This critter was about 4 inches long and looked like coconut bark. Had I not been right on top of him in my attempt to capture the image of lizard number one, I would never have seen him.
I still have hopes of getting a picture of the blue lizard and this unbelievable moth I have only seen once. It was an army-green-cami painted moth.

It turned out that they do have a very noisy generator at the hotel which they turned on at 2:00pm. I flipped on the fan and cooled down and planned the rest of the day. Since I rarely walk to the beach at sunset I thought I should try to get a few more photos before I leave in a few days.
 It’s lovely in the early evening as the sun goes down at 6:00 pm. The tide is way out and local folks keep busy picking up various types of edible shell life. The families from the neighboring little shops walk through their backyards down to the beach. Kids and mom’s and dad’s and dogs romp in the shallow water. My favorite little tiny dog seems to be the alpha who lords over the big ones.
Feeling invigorated by the cool evening weather and wonderful sights, I smiled as I unlocked my room only to be greeted hundreds of flying termites.
I’d had this problem after the rains when I lived in HCMC. I’d learned that one need only turn off the lights and open the windows. When the bugs had attacked the room a few weeks ago after some rain, I did just that. But this time the windows had been closed so I didn’t understand where they’d come from.
I walked to the bathroom to make sure its window was shut and was greeted by a horror movie scene; one million flying and crawling termites covered the sink, tub and walls. These guys don’t bite, but they were flying down the back of my shirt and I couldn’t deal with the invasion until the next morning. I went to the front desk and two of the ladies came back with me to fix the problem.
They came with a can of bug spray which I always try to avoid using, but this was desperation. As I sat outside my bungalow, they sprayed and swept and washed away the invaders. At one point I walked back in to see that one young woman, after spraying half a can of insecticide, had closed herself in the bathroom to clean it. I told her it was not safe and to open the door. No problem, was her response.

Eventually all the bugs were gone. I installed the mosquito net over the window as I do every night, turned the fan on full-force, and kept a wary eye out for any more flying bugs.

I went to bed and was glad the day was over.


30 April 2011

International Worker's Day

International Worker’s Day is celebrated on May 1st throughout much of the world. In the US, it is called Labor Day and is commemorated on the first Monday in September. The interesting thing here is that the May 1st date is in homage to the American workers who were killed and injured during the Haymarket Riot of 1886, where they were striking for an eight-hour work day.

I find it amusing that socialist, communist, past and present anti-US governments should choose an American incident as the date on which to honor their countries workers.
I believe we in the US did, at one point, celebrate the day on 1 May. I had heard somewhere that the US decided to change it to Septemeber so as not to be associated with all those commie countries who had absconded with the date. As intriguing as that sounds, it can’t be right. According to the US Department of Labor’s website, the first Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882.
Here in Vietnam, it is a four day weekend and the beaches are packed. My hotel had been booked out months ago so I had to leave my pool-side living quarters and move to another small room for two days.
What I want to know is how did I acquire all this extra stuff? I came with an overweight suitcase and small backpack. When the gals at the hotel helped to move my belongings it seemed I had an extra five bags of junk. Yes, I have way too many seashells, but I have not bought anything here. Maybe I just didn’t cram my items into the suitcase as well as I did on the way here.
Yesterday afternoon, when the holiday spirit was in full swing, I had to go “in to town”. The quotes are there because it really isn’t going into town, but rather traveling a few kilometers down the road to where my acupuncture doctor is and then another few klicks south to eat at a restaurant that is ok.
This is always a bad idea at 1:00 in the afternoon. It is always hot at that time and has gotten noticeably more sweltering in the past few weeks. Yet I insist on taking the city bus which rolls by every twenty minutes, most of the time. Sometimes I only wait a few minutes and there are times when I have waited twenty-five minutes. Even in the shade this can get to be a bit much. Still, it is preferential to any other means of transportation here.
Most people rent a motorbike, (motor scooter), or go by motorbike taxi. I do not. There are millions of taxis available and, on occasion, I have coughed up the few bucks it costs to go down the road, but they are also a bit terrifying. You see Mui Ne is still located along a narrow, two-lane road that is not wide enough for two tourist buses to safely pass each other while heading in the opposite direction. Now add to this the concept that you must always pass the driver in front of you. And don’t forget the people on bicycles and various forms of farm animals and pedestrians along the route. For some reason, I feel the safest on the bus even when the drivers go hell bent for leather along the way, hand glued to horn, swerving across the other side of the road in order to pass anything in their way.
Now to all that, remember that it is a four-day weekend and traffic has increased 1000-fold. I normally would never describe myself as having frazzled nerves, but yesterday I did, along with being overheated and generally just getting sick of it all. I have reached the point where I need to move on.

The beach is lovely and living out of a suitcase is fine with me. Not having a kitchen is not. In normal everyday life, I do not dream about food or look forward to the next meal. But this has been simply too many months of not eating properly or eating horrible restaurant meals. I have started watching cooking shows and competitions and drooling.
I have less than two weeks left at the beach and am thinking I should be leaving today. But there are a few fun things coming up next week and I still have the final five pages of my novel to knock off. And although the hotel and beach are packed with way too many people, my little temporary room is sunny, quiet, and breezy, and everything will go back to the way it was by Tuesday.

Happy Worker’s Day!
[photos taken in Phan Thiet]

11 April 2011

Kate's Mystery Novel now available on Kindle

"Murder, Jaz, & Tel Aviv" is now available as a Kindle edition.
Much cheaper than the print edition. Just as funny.

06 April 2011

Coconuts - Things I Didn't Know

I love coconut. I’m not talking about that shredded, sweetened crap one buys in US supermarkets. I’m referring to fresh coconuts that are picked off the tree, machete-ed opened, and drunk. And when you’re finished, you have the guy crack that baby open so that you can scoop out the gelatinous inners and have dessert.

OK, so you live in the US or Europe or some other place where palm trees don’t grow coconuts. That’s a good reason for never having tried them. I, on the other hand, have spent a good many years in parts of the world where coconuts grow in most people’s back yards. So how is it that now, after all these years in extreme proximity to the product, am I just learning of its medicinal properties?

My leg was cramping about a month ago and I knew I was getting dehydrated. I drink tons of water and had rehydration salts, but nothing was really helping. I’d searched for Gatorade but couldn’t find it. And then I was told to go out and get a coconut. A coconut? For dehydration? It seems that coconut water is all I needed to replace the electrolytes that I had been losing.

Further research turned up the fact that during WWII, coconut water was used in place of plasma when supplies ran short. It is still used to this day as an IV saline solution; so much is it like the body’s own fluids. But possibly the most amazing fact I learned is that it is packed with potassium. The equivalent of 15 bananas!

About two years I read something about needing all these milligrams of potassium per/day and had not been able to work out how to do that. There was nowhere near the amount I was supposed to be ingesting in any of the food combinations I could come up with. Granted, if I am not in the tropics, I can’t eat a coconut a day, so I am making sure I get my daily dosage while in Vietnam.
I am also sort of mad at myself for not knowing this sooner. I wasted years not taking advantage of the local coconuts. Even though I have always thought that their water and meat was sublime, I simply never ate that many.

I'm busy making up for lost time.


25 March 2011

Temple of the Whale

I came to Mui Ne because it’s on the beach. I wanted a place to write and relax. Most days I don’t leave the hotel grounds except to walk on the beach or go for a meal close by. There really isn’t much to see right in my neighborhood other than tourists and tourist related industry. So I was rather surprised that the tourist map I had bought contained more than just advertisements for local restaurants and clubs. There are several places of interest within a 30 minute bus ride. Today’s trip was to the Whale Temple.

The local bus let me off within two blocks of the little temple, located in Phan Thiet, the “big” city at the other end of the bay.

According to the blurb on the tourist map, the Thuy Tu Temple was built in 1762 by fishermen to worship the whale. It goes on to say that there are nearly 100 skeletons at the temple, more than half of which are 100-150 years old. It mentions a burial ground within the temple which has been used for beached whales. And that’s about all I knew before I got there, and pretty much what I knew after I left. At times like these I really, really want a translator. What could be more fascinating than a place where whales are worshiped and have been for centuries?
Since I was unable to talk to the source, I had to rely on the internet and got a bit more information.
Worship of the Whale God is a religion practiced by coastal fisherman in Vietnam and dates back to at least the early Khmer and Cham cultures. They believe that this god protects them while at sea and will guide them to shelter in a storm. Whales are highly revered creatures in Vietnam and have never been hunted here. If a dead whale or dolphin washes up on the coast, there is an elaborate ceremony performed to mourn and honor the mammal. It is then buried and three to five years later exhumed; the remains then carried to the temple to be worshiped. From what I have found, it seems the last whale funeral was in 2002. Once a year, around August, there is a large festival in honor of the whale and to ask for protection on the seas in the coming year.

I arrived at the small temple and was ushered in by a gentleman collecting the nominal entrance fee. From there one walks into the room which holds the intact skeleton of a fin whale. A placard stated that it was 22 meters long, (aprox 67 ft) and I believe it said it weighed 65 metric tons. I think this whale passed on to the great ocean in the beyond, either 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. (I’m not sure that I understood the man at the temple, or if the internet information was accurate.)

There were a few local people visiting the whale. I saw a woman reach out and touch the fin of the skeleton. Being raised in a culture where you are never allowed to touch a museum exhibit, it bothered me a little. But then I noticed a young man, clearly not a tourist, doing the same thing and I believe they were communing with the whale’s spirit, not desecrating its remains.

From there I walked over to the temple proper. Music and chanting was blaring from loudspeakers that came from a small room to the left where men in bright blue costumes were praying.

After making sure it was all right to enter, and then if it was ok to take pictures, I stepped into the first room with its central alter in golds and reds. There were also smaller ones on the sides. A few older folks sat around the edges and some others were lighting incense and praying. I did try to ask about it all, but my limited Vietnamese was not going to work. One gentleman guided me up to the alter. When I saw the donation box, I took out some money and put it in, then pointed to the incense. He kindly took out three sticks, lit them for me, and showed me where to stand. I said a few blessings for the whale god and for my mother, who loved whales. When he saw that I had finished, he took the burning incense and placed in the pot on the alter. Then he mimed that I should fold my hands in front of myself and bow.

This room led to a small passageway that held the remains of whales gone by. Again, I couldn’t ascertain just how many creatures were stored there. I then walked into the back room that also opened out onto an ally.

Another alter covered the wall facing away from the ally. In front of it, and out onto the street, tables were set for some sort of lavish luncheon. I had no idea if this was a weekly affair or if it was some special occasion. In a room to the right, women were preparing platters of food while young men waited outside, later to deliver the food to the tables. When people started to arrive for their meal, I left the temple.

When I first arrived I had noticed that across the street was a workshop of people making those little round rowboats that one sees all over Vietnam. They are completely constructed of woven bamboo. I had wanted to take pictures but again, the instinct to be non-intrusive took over. As I walked out of the temple and again looked across to the boat shop, I saw that there was a tiny drinks café set up in a courtyard adjoining it. Perfect; I’d buy a drink and hope I could talk to some people and take pictures.

I got my drink and sat at the table watching a man making lamps out of pieces of bamboo. He pointed to a fantastic mural on the wall across the way and said he had painted it. Then he excused himself as he was already late for the prayer service across the street at the temple.

His wife stayed around and introduced me to the five dogs she had, all very friendly. When I finished I got up and walked over to takes pictures of the boats. Being that it was lunch time and temple time, no one was actually working on the boats. I will have to go back another time.

I think it will be a mission of mine to find someone associated with the whale religion and who also speaks English. I really need to know a lot more about this wonderful faith.


20 March 2011

Super Full Moon

The Super Full Moon of March 19th arrived in Vietnam last night. After reading that it only occurs every 20 years or so, and that the moon would be 14% larger than normal, I readied myself with moonrise information. I scouted out the hotel grounds for photo op locations. I had no idea where the moon would rise but was out and searching at 5:40pm.

I’d read on the NASA site that the best photos are taken when the moon is still low on the horizon and there is an object, like a tree, in front of it. There are lots of palm trees around but I knew they would be too tall to get a shot of the moon just coming up. I needn’t have worried; it was still light until after 6:00pm and I couldn’t even find the moon. Eventually I did, it was beautiful, but even my new, very expensive camera was not up to awesome lunar shots. I went out several times during the night, but had no further luck in producing the beautiful moon picture I had hoped for.

That adventure over with, I needed to start on a serious effort of eating properly. The worst thing about hotel living is that you can’t prepare much of your own food. Buying fresh fruit and carrots is no problem. And last week I made the 35 minute bus trip out to the only supermarket in the region and was able to stock up on Corn Flakes, cashews, soy milk, and orange juice. (in those boxes that have a shelf life of 50 years.) But that really isn’t the best way to eat for weeks at a time.

One would think that in a locale which was only small fishing villages until about ten years ago when the tourism trade took off, it would be easy to get a fantastic meal of grilled fish. Not so. Yesterday I tried yet another local restaurant and I swear the fish had been marinated in mothballs.

And that brings up another question; what type of fish have I been ordering? The menu may have several different fish listed but when I question further I find out they only offer the one fish I have eaten since arriving. It is not very good, it is always overcooked and the flavor goes from bland to hideous. I find myself forcing down food and trying not to think about what I am eating or where it came from.

There are also my particular food requirements. I don’t do MSG. This has nothing to do with philosophical or religious reasons, but bad-reaction reasons. Migraines and puking for a day or two after ingesting the stuff is not pleasant. When I go into any restaurant I tell them, in three different languages, that I can’t eat MSG. (Ajinomoto, Bot Ngot, Knorr). Sometimes they tell me they don’t use it but when questioned further say, “but it’s just a little.” And even when they swear they will not use any, they do.

So I will try to figure out how to eat well. And I will try to ignore the closet moths that are multiplying at an alarming rate and, I assume, devouring my clothes. And I will also remember that cleaning with water-only is how they do it here, so must just get used to it. The rest of it is still on the amazing scale, so I think I should do just fine.


12 March 2011

No Tsunami in Vietnam

As I walked back from a late, fish lunch two days ago, I received a frantic text message from a Vietnamese friend in Ho Chi Minh City. She told me of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Since I am at the beach, she urged me to run for the hills as fast as I could.

A little freaked, I got to my room and turned on the CNN and BBC. Tsunami warnings had been issued for the entire Pacific Basin, but I didn’t see Vietnam on either the maps they were showing or on the countries listed. I flipped to the Vietnamese channels where no broadcasts were being interrupted with tidal wave warnings. I text-ed my friend with this news. She wrote back to say that Vietnam had no tsunami warning system and I needed to get away from the water.

Still a bit nervous, I went to the lobby area and spoke to the owner. He more or less laughed at me. There was no problem in Mui Ne and never is a problem here. Apparently, because of the geography of the area, it is where ships are told to come when there is any sort of storm at sea. He told me that the name Mui Ne means Safe Harbor. OK; I was mollified for the moment, but did keep a close watch on the news and the sea level. If I saw the water suddenly retreating, I was ready to make a run for it.

The internet had been on and off for most of the day so I thought it best to email folks and let them know that all was ok here at the beach. Back watching the news I find out that Northern California is on a tsunami watch. What was up with that? I’m not that far from Japan, and all is well, yet San Francisco was busy preparing for destructive forces from the ocean.

I stayed up long enough to see that Hawaii got a slight hit but couldn’t stay awake to watch the California events, although the waves were to arrive within the hour. How could that be happening so soon after they left Japan? It takes 12 hours to fly from San Francisco to Taipei, yet the tsunami made the trip from Japan to California in seven hours? Next time I travel, I am going by tsunami.


07 March 2011

What I Wake Up To Every Morning

From the window of my little room, I can see and hear the ocean which lies less than 50 yards from where I sit. Mui Ne is a bay without giant waves crashing on the shore. Still, I can listen to the constant ebb and flow of the water as it laps upon the sand and rocks me through the night.

In the continual warmth of the day, most often cooled by a gentle wind, I gaze up at the coconut palms backed by brilliant blue skies and wonder if there is anything more beautiful in the whole wide world.

I have no idea why it took me over six weeks in Vietnam to finally get to a beach where I know I belong. In part, I wanted to visit with friends and be in a place that I knew well which happened to be in the big city. And then there was the decision of which beach to go to. Contrary to what one reads in the guide books, I do not find the tourist beaches to be very alluring here. And I am just not up to roughing it on a secluded patch of ocean of which there is probably no shortage.

There are, of course, a few beautiful islands, but then you are stuck on an island, costs are high, and there really isn’t any local population to delve into, which is important for me when I travel.

It was around six years ago that I first came to Mui Ne. It was my first trip to a Vietnamese beach, it was close to Ho Chi Minh City where I was working, and friends told me it was lovely. I was happy to find a hotel that was away from the central area that everyone seemed to rave about.

I remember walking a few kilometers down the road to the “center” of tourist-town. It consisted of one hotel after another, no space in between. The beach was packed with mostly young ones drinking, surfing, parasailing, and sitting on the beach. It was not my scene; it had not been my scene even when I had been one of the young ones.

For me, the beach is solitude and waves, collecting seashells and meditation. When I was last here, I remember enjoying my somewhat isolated retreat where I could go out every morning to watch the fishermen pulling in their nets. I also knew that just a few years prior, this area had been only fishing villages and figured that in another few years even that stretch of beach would look like the crowded areas.

So that was my dilemma; where was I to find that elusive beach atmosphere with some of the conveniences but without the party-life and noise? I searched and searched on the internet and finally decided I might as well give Mui Ne another try. It was the right decision. Not everything in Mui Ne has been overbuilt. Sometimes one simply has to take the risk of ending up in hell to find paradise.

The fishermen are still here. They still go out in their little boats and still haul their nets in every morning. I like to sit at the beach entrance to my hotel and watch the morning rituals of pulling in the nets. But it makes me self-conscious; as if I am intruding on their time with the sea. Or maybe it bothers me that I am the rich gal who can afford to watch them work so hard for so little money. I want so much to capture it all on film, but it seems too invasive.

This morning I did go out and I did take pictures, along with several other tourists. But before I left the beach I handed one of the women a bit of money, thanking her for letting me take photos. I will never be comfortable with the rich gal status I carry with me when in countries like Vietnam. I only hope that I am making a favorable impression and not offending those who live here and who have called it home for centuries.


03 March 2011

Windsurfing in Mui Ne

Coming into Mui Ne in the taxi, I’d noticed a banner strung across a hotel. About all I could understand was Windsurfing Competition and March 1-5, the rest being written in Vietnamese. Well this was fortuitous. Once situated in hotel number one, I cruised the internet for details. Yes, there was a PWA, (Professional Windsurfer’s Association), contest going on right here in town. The problem was that the PWA site didn’t list where in Mui Ne it was happening.

Once in hotel number two, I continued my search for windsurfing details and was just about to go out on the street to flag down surfer-types when I stopped to chat with another hotel guest sitting in the shade in front of her room, five-month-old baby on her lap. We talked about the kid and I noticed a surfboard lying to her right. It turned out that her husband was in the competition and she told me to go down to the Full Moon Resort to watch.

A little background on me and surf related sports; had I grown up at the water’s edge, (and not across a bay that lead to the Pacific Ocean), and had that shoreline been in a hot weather location, (and not frigid Northern California with its 50°F/ 10°C water), I would have been a surfer.
The ocean is my lifeblood. There is nothing on earth that clears my mind and replenishes my soul as does a walk along the beach listening to the sounds of the crashing surf.

Even growing up turning blue in order to romp in the waves of Stinson Beach didn’t deter me from the dream of catching a few waves on a board. (But access and equipment did.) It wasn’t until I jumped into the warm waters in Southern California at around 14 that I realized I had been tricked into thinking one must endure pain in order to play in the ocean. From that time forward I think I only tested the arctic waters of the north a few more times. I knew what was available and I was holding out.

Landing in San Diego to go to college I, of course, lived in Ocean Beach. Everyone there surfed or scuba-ed and I watched with vicarious delight and with more than a bit of sadness that I wasn’t out there with them. One apartment I had overlooked the Ocean Beach Pier and the waves beyond. I actually would have a few surfer friends call to ask how the waves were at any particular time of day. All I could answer was, They’re breaking.

I moved to another apartment where my neighbors were all into, at the time, cutting edge sports like hang-gliding and windsurfing, which was so new that one of the guys was hand-manufacturing boards. They invited me for a windsurfing lesson and I was over the moon. Little did I know that I was not going to be able to master the sport.

Maybe I was past the age of developing water and sailing skills. My friend kept telling me to snap up the sail and make sure the wind was at my back. I tried and tried but just couldn’t manage to hold that contraption in the right position to catch the wind. I don’t know how long I was out on that little lake when I finally gave up, lay down on the board, and began to paddle towards shore which was taking a long time. My friend easily sailed out on his board and towed me back in.

And here I am, all these years later, still dreaming of my little surf shop on a white-sands, tropical beach. Possibly I’ll never have that, which is ok, but that doesn’t stop me from my surfer girl mind-set.

I caught the bus down to the Full Moon Resort, which is one of the high-dollar joints in town. The entranceway and surrounding gardens with brilliant flowers and lots of shady palms looked charming. With many of the hotels along that stretch of beach, it is just a matter of walking through the entrance, out through their beach café, and onto the beach proper. Not quite the case with the Full Moon. It sits above the beach on a mini-cliff requiring climbing down a bunch of stairs to the sands below.

Not that it mattered as this was the spot where the event guys were set up, manning a number of laptops. It was also and the main filming area for both foreign videographers and Vietnamese press photographers. I ordered an ice coffee and joined the ranks of the press corp. I didn’t even need the press pass that they all had hanging around their necks.

Since the wind had yet to pick up to an acceptable sailing speed, the contest was on hold. This gave me time to check out my photographic competition. Right. These guys had the bad-boy mega lenses. I pulled out my new, very expensive Canon, with its little bitty zoom. I made eye contact with one of the photographers and pointed to my camera and then to his and laughed. I walked over and asked about his very expensive Canon and that 400mm lens. The lens alone weighed close to 6 kilos. I looked out to where the action was to take place and knew it was a virtual impossibility to get any good shots of folks jumping their boards over the water. Even if I walked down to the sand, I wouldn’t get much. My alternative was to hang out with the guys getting paid to do what I was trying to do and take pictures of them and the sunshine.

I sat back down to sip my coffee, took off my lens cap and saw some grime on the lens. It hadn’t occurred to me up until then that I should have brought a lens cloth with me. And why the heck didn’t it come with my very expensive camera? But hey, I was surrounded by pros; they’d know what to do. It took me a few minutes to gather the courage before approaching one of the men and asking how to clean my lens. He asked me to hand him my camera. For less than a split second I worried about him dropping it. (I don’t ever hand this camera to anyone to even take a picture of me). Of course I quickly realized that my camera was much safer in his hands than even in mine. He called out to his buddy to lend him the required materials. With the gentlest care imaginable, he first cleaned the lens with one cloth and then finished it with another. At least I now know that this is a two-step process.

Every ten or fifteen minutes an announcement came over the loudspeakers informing us that the competition was still on hold due to lack of wind. Mind you, I thought it was quite breezy, but apparently it was not enough for windsurfing. And it was already past 3 in the afternoon. And the sun goes down by 6pm. The guys would look at each other and shake their heads. I’d look and say something like maybe tomorrow. The last announcement I heard before leaving was that if the wind picked up they would start at 4:05. That was enough for me. I hopped on a bus back home.

I might head out again in the next day or two if it gets really windy. I don’t think I can get any good pictures but I would like to watch the guys and gals take to the sea. And more importantly, just being around the whole surf scene makes me very, very happy.


This is my one winsurfer shot; a speck on the landscape. I took a peak at the same shot done by one of the real guys with the big lens, and you can read the name on the riders sunglasses.