Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wrapping it up

Well, it's too much to say in a simple summary. Vietnam is the most special place in the world, for me, and I cannot quite say why. I can readily say why I love Texas, and New York City, and Paris -- I can rattle off dozens of reasons without a pause. I can readily say why I love Cambodia and Laos, and Peru. And Amsterdam. But Vietnam just makes my chest ache, and brings tears to my eyes, and if I don't get to go back before I die I'll feel that as a great loss. Even though I engage in light fantasy about living there, I know I really couldn't; the language is too difficult for me at this advanced age, and the life is too difficult for my years of luxury and wealth. But if I had another version of me, a younger, braver version, I would live there.

It's a physically beautiful place, that's certain. It has everything: the gorgeous mountains in the far north, with the hill tribes of beautiful people. It has Halong Bay, that gorgeous otherworldly place of karst mountains rising straight up out of the water. It has crazy beautiful Hanoi, such a mix of cultures. It has a long coastline. It has the rich delta, the huge muddy Mekong that is born in the Tibetan plateau and spills out into the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Yeah, it's a beautiful, vast place.

But obviously there are other places with those geographic features, those kinds of beautiful places. Vietnam has Vietnamese people, and that's something very special. They are busy, man. They work work work, so hard. They just get up and work, and keep working. They smile and laugh and tease. They stop and have their morning pho on the sidewalks. They cuddle their children as they work. They sit and drink tea and read the newspaper with each other in impromptu sidewalk cafes. I read once that Vietnam has survived all the people who tried to take over by being like bamboo -- by being flexible and adjusting and just keeping on. Something about that touches my deepest heart and makes me love them. Obviously there are jerks and crooks and rotten Vietnamese people, they're regular people. But as a people, as a whole, this is my impression of who they are and I just love them. Here's what I'll remember:

it's so dynamic in Hanoi -- everything coming down and going up and life being lived FAST, making things work with what's at hand
Hanoi, city of peace
Hanoi, the city that never sleeps. Like, ever.
motorcycles and women carrying loads on their shoulders.
broad beautiful boulevards
just outside HCMC as we headed for the airport home -- this terrible accident, where a big truck plowed into a store. i know there were people (and probably children) sitting there. i can't imagine how many lives were devastated, it was heartbreaking.
life is lived on motorcycles, man! Need to get a new window or door? How else -- on the motorcycle.
very literal sidewalk cafes. these are everywhere, of all sizes. in front of businesses, you'll see a few people sitting on these little plastic stools, hunkered over their morning pho, or over cups of tea or coffee. everyone talking, drinking, laughing. i saw one man giving a woman a very intense forehead massage. it's just life lived in a hurry, in public. so much like new york.
sweet tribal women who could also take nice photos with my fancy camera, and whose english was quite good.
stunning scenery
this very very sweet man, our Mekong guide. i'll never forget him.
our boat and crew. never ever will i forget them.
busy, social life in the Mekong delta
little children everywhere, all waving and shouting Hi! Hello! with big grins
the big, lovely, muddy Mekong River
lots of culture-melding everywhere
adorable, beautiful children -- these were learning that 30/6 = 5.
our amazing journey down the Mekong River
fascinating people and gorgeous scenery
being there together. our first trip together was to vietnam, in 2005, so this was a special return.
this is vietnam
wild and so beautiful
And Malaysia, a great addition to our trip. The best part for me was Kuching, on Borneo -- we ate some great food and we really enjoyed our visit to Bako. My Malaysia memories will be centered there, I think.

breathtaking. truly. i could not breathe.
magnificent and wild and beautiful (not me, the place!)
some flat hiking, but not much!
mostly a lot of very humid, airless climbing on tree roots. the climbing was fun.
seriously good food; here we were at a set of stalls at the bus stations. that was a great lunch, i'll remember it for a very long time
oh, back at Bako, resting at a trailhead after a difficult climb
naughty monkey, stole Marc's drink
they'll feed themselves!!
proboscis monkeys, so weird and ugly, but only found on Borneo, and we saw them!
sigh. lots of beautiful water journeys on our trip.
and good eats in Kuching.
Maybe it's because I'm tired, maybe because ..... hell, I don't know, but I can't quit being so choked up. I am glad to be home, but I'm feeling sad not to be in Vietnam. I was ready to go, but it was hard to leave. Maybe you had to be there.

our last night in Vietnam -- sunset on the Mekong River.
And a final collection of details from my notebook:
  • a huge billboard with a can of collagen and 3 men in white lab coats, doing the thumbs-up. What was that about? Drinkable collagen??
  • frequently seen in Hanoi: vigorous public nose picking. i guess the combination of horrible air and motorcycle riding means chunky noses. i don't know.
  • there are 3 kinds of face masks people wear. the simplest is a scarf tied around the mouth. Next is a real face mask with elastic loops for the ears, but it's just like a sling or something. The fanciest is a real fitted cloth mask.
  • our dear Mekong guide said that country people (including those in the delta) work very very hard, but city people are lazy and just do their jobs and that's it. then he told me that before 1985, people didn't work much because they didn't own their land. they'd do just enough to get their rice and food, and no more. but then the government decided that people should own their land, everyone started working very very hard. he said the government didn't really change, they just made that decision. it's so funny, to be in a country where it's not unusual to see the hammer and sickle flags, hanging behind people who are all scrambling around with such capitalist urgencies.
  • in Malaysia the driver sits on the right side of the car, the British way. Wasn't expecting that.
  • Air Asia is a pretty cheap airline, though once you add on all the extra costs, like luggage and choosing your own seats, it's not as cheap as it seems. But it does seem to pull into the very back gate at the airports, requiring passengers to hike a very long way to get to the real terminals. The flight attendants' uniforms seem to require very long fake baby doll eyelashes, which was kind of creepy. But they were very enthusiastic; at the beginning of each flight they made this announcement:  "We hope you're as thrilled as we are about this exciting journey!"
It really was an exciting journey.

Mekong Lodge

For our last night in Vietnam, we knew we'd want to be rested since our trip home would be very long, and difficult. We also knew we'd be particularly tired after our boat trip, since we didn't sleep well and knew we wouldn't, without air conditioning or a decent shower. So Marc found this spot in Cai Be, the Mekong Lodge. We didn't do much -- we napped, we showered, we ate lunch and dinner and breakfast, and we took a walk. We hung out and recovered and repacked and prepared. It's a fairly new place and we were the only guests, which was kind of creepy, actually. One thing most people do at the Mekong Lodge is to take a cooking class, which we didn't do because hey, we already have a great cook who lives in our apartment....Marc....and he can cook Vietnamese as well as anyone. But since they offer a cooking class, they do have a wonderful cook so the meals we ate were uniformly wonderful. Our dinner in Hanoi, at Madame Hien's, was probably our best meal in Vietnam, but these were all a close second.

really mixed feelings here -- our last night in Vietnam. Ready to go, but never want to leave. You know that mix.

we walked behind the lodge, through the countryside. little children hollered Hi! and waved, chickens clucked and dogs barked, and most of the people we passed lit up with smiles.

here's how they serve fried fish when they roll it up in rice paper. our elephant ear fish was served this way too.

the pier is at the end of this sidewalk

lush landscaping

really. lush.

sunset getting ready
It was a good place to stay for the night, just what we needed before our very long flights home. Sad to leave...

Mekong Delta markets

We visited a lot of markets, definitely, and it was fun going with a guide because we could ask questions and get the inside story -- well, kind of. His English was 100% better than my Vietnamese, but his vocabulary was not as rich as his stories he wanted to tell, so we kind of bumped along. The markets all kind of resembled one another, with the exception of the floating markets.

coconuts for cooking -- the green ones are for drinking.

lots of different fruits; they call the big red grapes American something. Not American grapes -- something else. American something, I can't remember.

Mekong prawns

so many kinds of fish -- some from the river, some from the rice fields

lots of fish and shellfish and eels, which were always trying to escape -- and some did.

gorgeous-looking stuff to eat, as you can see

the meat didn't look quite as delicious, and as we realized, we'd probably been eating meat that looked like this. as in, hanging in the air and attracting flies. ignorance is bliss, because it was all delicious.

ok, see those things there, the pink ones on the right? rice field rats. yeah.

softshelled crabs from the rice fields. the fish and shellfish from the rice fields are always much smaller than the river versions, and often quite different-looking.
But the floating markets were something else entirely. There's a big one at Cai Be, which we saw the moment we got on our boat and weren't quite oriented. But we came to another one on our second day; for this one, there are approximately 300 boats that collect there every single day of the year. They're kind of like wholesalers; boats from the small village markets come out to the floating market and buy lots of produce that they take back to sell. The boats clump up and tie themselves together, as a function of what they sell. So the turnip boats are usually tied together, the pineapple boats, the yam boats, etc. And the coolest thing of all is that they hang what they sell from tall poles, so you can see from a distance -- ah! There are the turnip boats!

people busy buying and selling

enlarge this -- it's a turnip vendor working, but observing from their boat is a family with their dog. it's adorable.

Pineapples for sale!

it's vast, the floating market

in addition to the poles advertising their wares, the boats also have television antennas.

coconuts for sale on this one; and the motor out the back is ingenious. they can tip it so even in the shallowest of waters they have engine power.
The markets are usually the highlight of the trip for Marc, and I loved them too.