Various circumstances have kept me away from this dear weblog for the past week or so….for that I apologize. I am in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, currently sitting in an Internet cafe in the Central Highlands city of Dalat.
I spent five days in Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam, a nation that existed only between 1954 and 1975. Ho Chi Minh City, of course, is only its official name: locals still prefer the old name Saigon.
Saigon is a city on the move: I’ve never seen so many motorbikes in my life. It still retains something of the old French colonial charm, and there are many Franco-style buildings on display. There is also an emerging bougeoisie in Saigon, as evidenced by the fancy department stores and coffee shops that dot the streets. Like its northern neighbor China, Vietnam has liberalized its economy while remaining a Communist Party dictatorship.
How did a largely guerilla force comprised of poor peasant farmers manage to defeat the world’s most powerful military, anyway? One explanation lies in the Saigon suburb of Cu Chi, site of a network of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong utilized to drive the US/South Vietnam coalition out. We explored the tiny, narrow tunnels (later surgically enlarged to allow rotund Westerners to crawl safely) and were shown all of the various booby traps and other diversions used as an instrument of war. Amazing.
Our tour guide was a veteran of the war, too, on the South Vietnam side. It’s easy to forget that the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s called here) didn’t just pit Americans vs. Vietnamese in a clash of civilizations but rather was a Civil War in which the Americans propped up one side. Our guide still refers to the war being "lost", despite the reunification of the country and the supposed "liberation" by the North. After the war, important figures in the Southern military and government endured horrific retribution from the victorious Communists- these are wounds that take ages to heal.
More to come later.…
So I had my trip’s first disaster- bigtime, really. I was sitting enjoying a beer in the afterhours in a poorly lit garden area when I left my bag unattended for a few minutes. When I returned, it had been stolen. I immediately checked around, and reported it to the hotel, and went through the whole nine yards of filing a police report. Missing? My digital camera (including a few hundred shots of Yunnan Province), my Ipod, and two airline tickets that I have to replace before waiting a year to get a refund. Fuck!
Vietnam beckons, though….in about six more hours. I rebooked my flight and am heading down……hallelujah! One of the best things about traveling in new countries is the opportunity it gives you to get a fresh start. I may or may not replace my camera on this trip, but I’ll definitely feel a lot better about getting ripped off.…
I love trains, but haven’t been able to use them much in Asia. The reason? Buses are usually faster and far more convenient while train service in China is often limited or sparse.
But to my delight I found that there was a train service from Dali back to Kunming, leaving during the day time. Perfect. I imagined myself sitting next to the window, watching the scenery, reading, and listening to my iPod as we whirred through Yunnan Province. I selected hard seat- after all, how bad could it be?
When they say hard seat, they aren’t kidding. The seats are wooden with a padding that isn’t really much softer than a concrete bench. Also, you’re crammed in like sardines- they manage to put three seats together when two would be more appropriate, and on crowded trains people often stand in the aisles and in the gangway between the cars.
As for my fellow passengers? Well- the No Smoking sign was liberally ignored. Spitting was rampant, as some of the travelers felt obliged to hock up phlegm into the aisle. There was no food served save for instant noodles and what was perhaps the most disgusting egg I’ve ever eaten in my life (I couldn’t finish it).
After arrival in Kunming, my legs were crunched, my head ached, and I was deliriously hungry. And then I couldn’t find a cab. Finally, one guy stopped, took me to my hotel, where I was informed that there was exactly one more room. Beautiful.
I think I’ll stick to the buses from now on.…
This comes waaaay too late, but as long as I have this primo internet connection I might as well mention it here. Congratulations to Italy, the home country of my paternal ancestors, for capturing its fourth World Cup against France last Sunday.
I stayed up very late (until 5) to watch the match in a bar in Dali with a bunch of other fans rooting hard for France. I dozed off and missed the infamous Zinadine Zidane head-butt, but didn’t find it all that objectionable. Of course, it was a stupid move for Zisou because it took him out of the penalty kick situation and left his team a man down with ten minutes to play. But christ- talk about a swift and exacting manuever!
I must confess that I didn’t really like the Azzurri club. They epitomize the prima-donnaish aspect of soccer that I find lame even if it is part of the game. Of course, I was going hard for them because:
1. I’m half Italian
2. Italian is my second language
3. I lived there for a year and still have quite a few friends who were ecstatic to see their home nation win
4. My parents were there at the time and I wanted them to have the experience of being in a World Cup winning country
5. I have no particular reason to root for the French, even though I like ZZ and Henry and Ribery more than anyone else on the Italian team with the exception of the amazing Gigi Buffon.
Good stuff. Also, given the lackluster US performance, it’s clear that the top forty or fifty American players should certainly be playing in Europe and not in the MLS. Turn our domestic league into a sort of Triple-A league and don’t worry about building it up. I’d rather see the US advance to the semis or finals of the World Cup than to see the MLS thrive, and that can only happen if our players play against the toughest competition in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, or England.…
Along the hike yesterday, I engaged in a conversation with a French Canadian musician about The White Stripes. He hates them and calls them the most overrated band in the world. I protested that they’re my favorite band and so we began hashing out support for our respective opinions.
His critique of the Strips focused on a lot of musicological reasons that were frankly beyond me. He said Meg White is a terrible drummer (something a lot of other people have noted) and that Jack White’s a lousy guitarist because, well, his guitar playing is too simple.
When asked to defend the band, I really wasn’t able to come up with a substantive response. Mostly I just said that their music sounds good. Isn’t that enough? The Montrealian thought not and sort of huffed as if he had clearly won the argument. But I am reminded of an old Duke Ellington quote: "If it sounds good, it is good." Nobody would argue that Ellington wasn’t an authority on these matters.
This is my frustration with talking to certain people about music. They’ve learnt so much about it that they begin approaching it as a science, rather than an art. They break down music to the sum of its parts rather than taking a holistic approach, which I find more appropriate. Along the same vein, people criticized The Da Vinci Code for being poorly written- even some people whom I suspect devoured the book in three days as I did. The only books that are poorly written are the ones you can’t be bothered to finish, no matter how sparkling the vocabulary or convoluted the plot.
Similarly, I just finished reading Scar Tissue, the new autobiography of Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis. The conventional wisdom about RHCP is that they are comprised of three first-rate musicians and a goofy frontman who can’t really sing. Of course, Kiedis is no Freddy Mercury- but I would still argue he’s a damn good singer. Listen to "Scar Tissue", "Under the Bridge", "Venice Queen", "Road Trippin’", or "Porcelain". All lovely songs. Sung well? I don’t care- I still love them.
The book itself is great by the way. Talk about a pure dose of sex, drugs, & rock and roll. Kiedis reminds me a little bit of a guy I knew in college named Luke. His friends and flatmates would note the steady procession of women emerging from his bedroom and ask him how the hell he did it. "It was a beautiful experience, man", was Luke’s most common response. As it is Kiedis’
Did you know that "I Could Have Lied" was written about his failed relationship with Sinead O’Connor of all people? I didn’t. Hard to imagine a more unlikely couple.
The book does document Kiedis’ struggles with drug addiction- particularly heroin. He was clean for five and a half years around the time Blood Sugar Sex Magik was big- but then relapsed and didn’t officially go clean until December 2000. I actually found his advice for kicking a drug habit quite useful- rather than pretend you don’t want to use, acknowledge that you do but that you choose not to. That’s an important difference, and a useful tip for anyone hooked on anything from heroin to cigarettes.
Enough rambling- back to walking around…
I note with sadness the passing of Syd Barrett, the founding guitarist and vocalist of Pink Floyd, one of NBNL’s favorite all-time bands.
Of course, Syd hasn’t been part of Floyd for a long time- over thirty-five years, in fact. His increasingly erratic behavior, driven by excessive consumption of psychedelic drugs, forced his bandmates to replace him with David Gilmour.
Most people are aware of the 70s Floyd albums, such as Dark Side of the Moon. Yet for interested fans it’s worth checking out The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, Floyd’s first album, as well as the singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play". Both feature Barrett’s brilliant insanity.
By the way, the classic Floyd song "Shine On You Crazy Diamonds" and the whole Wish You Were Here album are thought to be tributes to Barrett by his former bandmates.
In China, where the plumbing system isn’t quite as durable as ones back home, it isn’t uncommon to see signs in restaurant and hotel room bathrooms asking you to not flush toilet paper down the toilet. Yet in Dali and Lijiang, here in Yunnan Province, establishments have taken this one step further: they’ve forbidden actually shitting in the toilets at all!
The signs are predictably hilarious: "No Poo In The Loo". "No Faeces". "No Excrement". "No Shitting". Or my favorite "No Pupu" (how wonderfully phonetic!). In some cases, you’re faced with a Y50 fine for dropping a deuce in a forbidden area. Can you imagine the embarrassment of having to pay that?
I suppose I can see the rationale- nobody wants a stinky toilet, eliminating poop eliminates mass quantities of toilet paper, etc. etc.
Yet where else are customers supposed to go? Mind you, these are restaurants that serve western food, fruit, and coffee. What if your guesthouse is miles away? Do you face the fine and go for it? Or do you stubbornly hold off and risk an uncomfortable situation?
Perhaps restaurants should hand out complimentary tabs of Immodium as a way to assuage customer fears of breaking the bowel laws.…
I’m still alive, though just barely as two days’ hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge has rendered my legs useless. The Gorge is near Lijiang, a small town in northern Yunnan Province where I have been staying for the past few days.
We hiked out for about six hours on the first day, climbing roughly 2,500 feet in the process and dodging heavy rain (I stupidly forgot to pack my raincoat so was forced to use a mediocre umbrella). Then, after a night’s rest, we hiked again for four or five hours which was pleasant due to the nice weather and flat terrain. Nonetheless, I am absolutely exhausted.
One more week before I start heading for Vietnam, but at the moment I’m enjoying the pleasures of Yunnan Province- China’s most exotic, diverse, and relaxed.
Hopefully more updates soon- computer service here isn’t exactly first-rate….but who cares, right?…
You meet them on every trip. They are usually middle-aged, single men; often with colorful pasts. They dress modestly and slip in and out of crowds with remarkable ease- they betray no evidence that they are tourists who are lost in a foreign country. While other travelers rush about sightseeing, determined to spend every day to its fullest, these men are content to while away the hours in a hotel bar, sipping beers, dragging on cigarettes, and yes, telling stories.
They are the storytellers, an integral part of the traveler taxonomy. Their only way to relate to others is through their memories, culled from endless trips around the globe. A sprinkle of rain reminds them of the Bolivian Andes. A powerful smell from a side street brings them back to bustling Bombay. You had bad luck in China? Try going to Burma, mate. You thought London was expensive? London is the same, only more so.
The storytellers seek the company of younger travelers who are still impressed by a man with over 100 stamps in his passport. Youngsters inevitably tell their own stories, trying to impress the grizzled veteran. Sorry- anything you have done, he has done deeper, longer, wider, and better. There is nothing that surprises him, nothing that he hasn’t seen before.
I personally find such people a bore- a terrible bore, really. I’m more interested in people traveling for the first time- perhaps they’re middle-aged divorcees escaping a painful reality back home, or they’re twenty-five year old university graduates who have spent the past two years saving for their trip. These are the people with fresh insights, for they’ve nothing to compare their observations with. I consider their views far more valuable than a man just trying to add to his collection of stories.
Other Kunming notes:
- I finally got my US dollars- on the black market. I won’t bore you with a description of why I was reduced to such a dodgy option, but the experience of actually getting the money was memorable and amusing. A sympathetic concierge at the hotel arranged for me to meet a "currency exchanger". He came at the appointed time and while the hotel manager wasn’t looking, the three of us slipped through a door and walked through the corridor and into an unmarked room with a desk and some chairs. He was carrying a briefcase- I an envelope containing 12,000 RMB. We had a brief discussion, and then he opened his case and pulled out a stack of $100 bills. He asked me to count them. There were fifteen. He motioned for me to peer at the note through the light to verify their authenticity. I did so, not really knowing what to look for, but figuring that everything was fine. He nodded his head, shook my hand, and left me and the concierge. My US dollars are here- but if they’re counterfeit I’ll be in bad, bad shape in Vietnam.
- Didn’t watch the Italy/Germany match because it was on at 3am, but I’m pleased Italy won…go Azzurri!
- Technology is amazing. While I was sitting on a city bus, having a look at Kunming, I got a cal on my cellphone from my friend Ben in Overland Park, Kansas. He had just been to the Kansas City Royals game, and we had a brief conversation about the shockingly high home-run rate of Royals pitcher Scott Elarton. The whole time I thought- I am sitting on a rickety old bus in central China, talking to a friend sitting in a suburban house in the middle of The United States about a subject as banal as the Kansas City Royals. Amazing.
Night train to Dali tonight, but not before I pick up my Vietnam VISA and my dollars from the hotel safe. Paul and Kako, my colleagues, have arrived so I’ll have some company while walking around Kunming today. More in a few days to come.…
Greetings from Kunming! I flew here, capital of China’s famous Yunnan Province, yesterday morning after enduring two stressful days of packing and moving out of Fuzhou in the extreme heat. Indeed, the change in climate is welcome- Kunming is slightly cool and very dry whereas Fuzhou was sweltering and humid. I had forgotten what it was like to walk for more than five minutes without breaking out into a dripping sweat.
In addition to the nice climate, Kunming operates at a far more relaxed pace than Fuzhou. You don’t hear as many horns, traffic flows more or less normally, and shops aren’t blasting asinine pop music out onto the streets. This sort of tranquility is rare in large Chinese cities- and definitely welcome here.
I haven’t been able to explore much of Kunming yet as I’ve been busy making preparations for my trip to Vietnam. I ordered my VISA today and will exchange my Chinese money into dollars tomorrow. Most of the sights in Yunnan lie further north in the province, near the cities of Dali and Lijang. I will head there in a few days.
Ah- back on the road. How I’ve missed it.…