Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fair Dinkum

Before this trip, I did not know this Australian phrase. One of the people on our tour, Wayne, said it all the time, but it wasn't until Dee brought it up that I started hearing it. "Fair dinkum" (imagine it with a strong Aussie accent) is used to express surprise at something the speaker has said, along the lines of "Really", but less a question and more an exclamation. Rarely, it can also be used as an adjective meaning "real". Apparently, it's generally older Australian men, generally more from the country than the city, that use it. None of the younger Aussies on the trip used it, and they said they would probably be mocked if they did, but they all knew what it meant. Wayne liked to tell and hear stories, and after any sufficiently surprising one, he would counter with a hearty "fair dinkum".

I looked up the origin, and as with many things like this, there are several theories, some of which have been disproven. One popular one says that it originates from the Chinese "din gum", meaning "real gold". Another says it's a corruption of "fair drinking" from the convict days. Most dictionaries just say "origin unknown".

Among Rob, Michelle, Dennise and me, it became kind of a joke how often Wayne said "fair dinkum", and we sometimes even tried to elicit one with a particularly amazing story. Near the end of the Vietnam trip, Rob said he was surprised I hadn't made a bet to try to win my money back from the train bet. We decided that the four of us would all put in $5 and guess how many times Wayne would say "fair dinkum" in the 6 days we would be in Cambodia, the money going to the person with the closest guess. Michelle and I both guessed 42, so Michelle upped her guess to 45. Rob and Dee were more optimistic, guessing 59 and 60 respectively. Stay tuned for the result.

Uncle Ho

Before leaving Vietnam, I need to mention how much the Vietnamese love Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho, as they often call him. There are statues of him everywhere, and many billboards and signs all around Vietnam contain his picture along with some communist propaganda and often pictures of a farmer, a soldier, a student, a child, and a sheaf of wheat. Apparently, he loved children, as he is often pictured teaching a child. In Vietnam, you don't see any U.S. chains, except, curiously, Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is because Colonel Sanders looks a lot like Uncle Ho. Seriously.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Day 19: Chao Doc

Our new, larger group and new tour leader, Matt, took the bus to Chao Doc, a fishing town in the Mekong Delta near the border with Cambodia. Soon after we got there, we all hopped on the back of motorbikes and took a trip up to a nearby mountain named Sam Mountain. The drivers didn't hold back much, and it was fun speeding through the countryside and up the mountain as sunset neared. At the top, there was a beautiful view of the delta in all directions. More importantly, there was a hammock bar where we got to lie in hammocks with a beer and watch the sunset over Cambodia. It was definitely a peak experience.

The ride back was even more exhilarating because it was in the dark, and we stopped at a temple outside of town. Suddenly, there were about twenty kids around us talking, playing thumb war and pattycake, and generally having fun. For some reason, they wanted to hang off my arms and have me swing them around, which I did. Days later, I was wondering why I was so sore.

Kill Count: 8 (Vegetarians beware)

For our first farewell dinner in Saigon, our tour leader, Tan, took us to a dinner place that offered many kinds of meat that you grill yourself at your table. We decided to see how many different kinds of meat we could eat in one meal (i.e. increase our kill count), so many of us ordered different things.
Because I had a shrimp spring roll as an appetizer, I ended up with the biggest kill count at 8: shrimp, beef, rabbit, goat, frog, ostrich, shellfish (clams, I think), and ... snake. I ordered the last one just for the novelty; it came in a hot pot that cooked at the table and it was quite tasty, although a little hard to eat due to the internal spine.

After dinner, we decided to let loose a little, so we went to the Blue Gecko, an Australian bar a few doors down. They clearly knew Tan there, because we all got some free shots, and it was hard to buy him a round because free drinks kept showing up for him. We played some pool for a while, and after everyone else left, Rob, Michelle, Dennise and I decided to check out a club named Apocalypse Now. There, we got a taste of the fairly forward prostitution; as we walked upstairs, the host welcomed me and Rob and ushered us towards two girls at the bar, despite the fact that we were clearly both with partners.

The club had some appropriate touches, with oil barrels as tables, paintings reminiscent of the movie, and t-shirts on the staff that read, "May I help you, sir!" We joked that they should play "The End" every night for last call. It was quite a popular place, and I think the highlight of the evening was dancing with a bunch of locals and foreigners to "It's Raining Men".

Monday, December 10, 2007

Day 15-18: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City, renamed after the Northern Vietnamese took over in 1975. We had been led to believe that the name Saigon was a bit offensive to the Vietnamese due to the history, but fortunately, this more pleasant name lives on even among Vietnamese. They use the names somewhat interchangeably, and anyone from District 1 says they are from Saigon. The train schedules and even the airport code (SGN) still refer to the old name.

Because it is the biggest city in Vietnam, I expected it to be even more chaotic and crazier than Hanoi. That it was, but it was also a lot more built up and western than I realized, with grand tree-lined boulevards and public art from the French colonial period, and high-rise hotels and fine dining from when American money flowed there.
There were still a ridiculous number of motorbikes among the cars, bicycles, and cyclos on the street, and crossing the street was still hair-raising, but it actually seemed to me to have a little more structure than a place like Hanoi, where roads were small, traffic lights barely existed, and sidewalk space was all used up.
Still, chaos rules in Saigon, and the infrastructure still looks cobbled together sometimes, as attested by the frightening tangle of power lines along the roads.

We only got a taste of the city the first night by eating at the outdoor food stalls at the nearby market. The next morning, we went straight to the Cu Chi Tunnels 45 minutes away. Though it was in the south, Cu Chi was the site of a group of peasants loyal to North Vietnam during the war. The U.S. led many bombing campaigns in this area, and to survive, the people of Cu Chi used many guerilla warfare techniques and built an impressive network of tunnels under the jungle, complete with meeting rooms and hospitals. It made you realize how insane jungle warfare must have been for all sides. The Cu Chi people built brutal traps intended to injure enemy soldiers' legs on the theory that a dead soldier removes one enemy from the battlefield, but an injured soldier needs help and removes two soldiers or even three if both legs are injured. The traps were hidden in a dense jungle and included sharp spikes, so I can only imagine how paranoid one would be fighting there.
The bombings happened during the day, so the people there had to farm at night, and then crawl into the claustrophobic tunnels to escape enemy fire during the day. Despite repeated bombings and atrocities that killed many people, Cu Chi was never defeated thanks to the tunnels. We got to walk through one that had been widened for westerners but still felt cramped and sweaty.

We got back and went to lunch at Pho 2000, sitting at the table where Bill Clinton had lunch there in the year 2000 (commemorated throughout the restaurant). In the afternoon, we got a cyclo tour around the heart of the city and ended at the War Museum, showing history, weapons, and, primarily, pictures from the Vietnam War.
The conclusion of the day: War sucks. Seeing all the deaths and injuries to soldiers and civilians, the damage to property, and the atrocities that were committed on all sides only solidifies my belief that the best way to support troops and country is very often to oppose war.

This was our final night with our first tour leader, Tan, and with only the seven of us in the group, so there was a farewell dinner. It was a very interesting dinner and deserves its own entry, which will follow this one.

The following day, Dee and I explored some more of the city. We visited the markets and later the Jade Emperor Pogoda, and we discovered a nice neighborhood with many good restaurants and interesting shops along the way. Because we forgot our map, it took us a while to find it, but we persevered and found an interesting temple with several rooms for worship.

We met up with Rob at 4pm and walked over to the Sheraton Hotel. I had been talking for days about wanting to get a view of the entire city, and the Sheraton has an bar on the 23rd floor open to the outside. It was totally worth it to see how far the city sprawls in all directions, and we got a good sunset over the hazy skyline.
Rob and I had also been talking for days about finding some propaganda posters like the billboards posted around the cities. We hadn't found anything and had conceded defeat when, on the walk back to the hotel, Rob spied a poster at the back of a store. Success!

That night, we met our new group. We added 5 people, a young British woman, 23, fraternal twins from Australia, 19, their friend Grace, 26, and Grace's mom Evelyn. We also changed tour leaders from Tan, who is Vietnamese, to Matt, who was born in Britain but now considers himself Kiwi (New Zealand), and spends almost all of his time traveling. It was both weird and fun to add new people after having the same group for 10 days, and we prepared for our upcoming time in Cambodia.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Memorable Meals and High-Speed Tailoring (Day 13-14: Hoi An)

After our busy days in Hanoi and Hue, we took a bus ride over a high pass to the leisurely town of Hoi An. We were lucky to have missed the recent floods, which seem to be just a part of life in this riverside town.

The old streets are literally on the water, and when the tide is high, the river actually overflows and the street fills with water. A recent monsoon flooded the entire lower floor of the shops and restaurants down on the water; the waterline was the second highest in recorded history.

The first day, our Intrepid leader Tan showed us his favorite tailors and shoemakers, then took us to the Mermaid Cafe for lunch. Most of us ordered the local specialty, Cao Lau, and those who didn't probably regretted it! We oohed and ahhed over the delectable combination of savory broth, thick rice noodles, thin slices of pork, fresh herbs,m chilies, and pork cracklings. It was so good, in fact, that all of us ended up back there the next day for lunch, and we all ordered Cao Lau again. Martin and I also ate the delicious pork-stuffed squid, which Tan had recommended. [Side note: Every piece of squid we ate in Vietnam was tender and delicious, nothing like what we get in the States. We thought this might be the case throughout Southeast Asia, but Martin ordered the squid in Cambodia and Thailand and was disappointed on both occasions. Clearly, the Vietnamese know how to cook this tasty tentacled treat like no one else.]

Later that day, we headed to Yaly, the premier tailor shop of Hoi An. We were each assigned our own shop girl to take our measurements and help us choose fabrics. They were incredibly efficient - seriously, were in and out in 45 minutes, and most of that time was just us hemming and hawing over our design choices. They told us to come back the next afternoon at 3pm for alterations, so we went out for a 3,000 dong (about $0.20) draft beer at a little place on the water and dinner at a place called Cargo Club before calling it a night.

On day two, we saw the major sights: a traditional Vietnamese music show, the Tan Ky house, and the Japanese covered bridge. We then had our second Mermaid Cafe lunch and visited Phuoc Kien, a traditional assembly hall. At 3pm, we headed to Yaly for our fittings. Amazingly, Martin's shirt fit perfectly! My outfit was nearly perfect, although a bit tight around the rib cage, so they asked me to come back in two hours for a second fitting. When I did, it was (of course) ready to go. Incredible.

Wearing our new outfits

Due to my second fitting, I missed the start of our cooking class. Tan gave me a quick ride over on his motorbike, and the group had already started grating vegetables for the fried spring rolls. We used the coolest rice paper wrappers I've ever seen, sort of like a rice funnel cake, but really flat and thin.
We also made creamy pumpkin soup, green papaya salad, steamed fish in banana leaves, and stir-fried spinach with garlic. [Note to all aspiring chefs: always blanch your greens before you stir-fry them.] We then chowed down on our home-cooked feast. It was fantastic! I learned many great tricks that I can't wait to use at home.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hit the Joe, Jack (Day 11-12: Hue)

Hue is a former capital of Vietnam and is home to the old imperial complex, called the Citadel. On the first day, we got a tour of this walled and moated area that has many intricate buildings dated back to the early 1800s. Our tour guide was Mr. Tang, a very knowledgeable and quite funny person who spoke English pretty well, except for a few eccentricities.
After he made a joke, which he often interspersed between history lessons, he would say, "That's a funny." He also directed us to take "arty farty photo." When it was time to go, he would exclaim in a strong Vietnamese accent, "Hit the Joe, Jack!" Needless to say, we liked Mr. Tang.

That night, we ate at a restaurant called Lac Thien, run by a deaf guy and his family, many of whom are also deaf. The owner came out, and even though he's deaf, it didn't stop him from communicating. He pulled out his family tree, and he proudly showed us that he has had 7 kids, all with perfect hearing. He also has invented a beer opener made from a piece of wood and a screw. We ordered 5 beers, and he opened them all at once by lining up the beers with the openers attached and karate chopping them. Then, he made an opener for every one of us.

The next day, Mr. Tang was our guide again, this time for a motorbike tour of Hue and the surrounding countryside. We all got our own driver, and hopped on the back for an adventurous ride. We stopped at several sites close to the city and then drove down dirt roads into the countryside. All the kids we passed yelled "Hello" and many held out their hands for a high five. At one point, we stopped at a kindergarden class, and all the kids came out to greet us and take pictures with us. They were very cute. At the end, we rode in the crazy traffic back into town to our hotel. All in all, it was an amazing experience.