A Travellerspoint blog

War And...

Seeking Peace In Vietnam, and Finding It In... Me

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I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

For Americans of three generations, there is possibly no country on Earth that has left as deep an imprint on the psyche as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The images of our military involvement there -- a Viet Cong guerilla with a pistol to his head, Jane Fonda sitting on a North Vietnamese cannon, a little girl running naked from her burning village, the last helicopter leaving the roof of the American embassy as Saigon fell to the communists -- are indelibly burned on our imagination.

Only thirty-three years ago

But what is Vietnam today? This narrow strip of a nation with over 80 million people, stretching from the mountainous Chinese border in the North to the delta of the mighty Mekong in the South; is it still the jungle quagmire where America lost such a huge piece of its innocence?

In a word, not even remotely. OK, that was actually three words. But Vietnam today defies easy description. The old coexists with the new in Vietnam in ways that are immediately apparent to the visitor.

Duality in today’s Vietnam

For starters, like its giant neighbor to the north, Vietnam has chosen a middle path that maintains authoritarian governmental control while jettisoning communist collectivism in favor of a market economy. And the Vietnamese people, entrepreneurial to the core, have embraced it whole-heartedly; witness the taxi driver with a faulty meter who ripped us off for a 5km ride costing $30.

We arrived in Hanoi, the former capital of communist North Vietnam, from Shanghai. We had heard wonderful descriptions of the French colonial Old Quarter, and came with visions of quietly crumbling cafes, breakfasts munching crispy baguettes with espresso, peaceful Buddhist temples amid misty lakes, and locals in conical hats on bicycles.

The Hanoi of our dreams

Well, there are bikes on the road in Hanoi, but the vast majority are motorbikes -- swarms of them. They are everywhere.

Adventures in crossing the street

Now, credit where credit is due: the baguettes in Vietnam are actually the best I’ve ever tasted, even better than in France. But truthfully, Hanoi’s Old Quarter was a bit of a let-down. Oh, the faded elegance of bygone colonial days is there, but it’s mostly plastered over with billboards for Levis, signs for travel agencies and cheap backpacker guesthouses, and awnings for silk shops.

Gallic goodness... it’s in there somewhere

The biggest black mark for Hanoi, though, was that it was incredibly stressful to walk around. There is the constant buzz of motorbikes, the drivers of which all consider it their moral duty to beep their horn incessantly whenever there is another person in the same time zone. And furthermore, you have to walk around in the street because the sidewalks are full of... parked motorbikes. And whatever sidewalk real estate isn’t being parked on is taken up by little impromptu sidewalk restaurants with locals sitting around eating pho (light and savory Vietnamese soup with slices of beef -- quite tasty) on little plastic chairs.

There is no longer a war in Hanoi, but there certainly is no peace.

So we bugged out of town for Halong Bay, which is one of the natural wonders of the world -- we know this because of the billboards all along the highway leading there encouraging you to go to a website and vote for it to be so declared. Halong Bay is definitely very beautiful; sharp cliffs of limestone thrust dramatically out of the water, creating a misty wonderland that Dr. Seuss would envy. Locals ply the waters in little boats, ekeing a meager existance from the sea.

The cliffs of Halong Bay

Unfortunately, every visitor to Hanoi makes a side-trip to Halong Bay just like you, so it is nearly impossible to find any solitude, or even quiet away from the drone of dozens of boat motors.

And you thought you were going to be here alone?

Oh, and those meagre-existance-ekeing locals? Their living is mostly pulling up beside your tour boat and calling, “You want cold driiiink?”

It’s like a floating 7-11, but without the Slurpee machine

So we decided to high-tail it way off the beaten path, up into the mountains of northern Vietnam along the Chinese border, to the land of the hill tribes. The H’mong, Dzai, and other tribes live here, in small villages in the misty mountain valleys, tending their rice paddies and water buffalo much as they have for hundreds of years.

Like Middle Earth, but with rice

Dubbed Montagnards (“Mountain People”) by the French, and just “the ‘Nards” by the CIA, they were recruited by the Americans to fight the communists during the war. Many H’mong were resettled in the USA to avoid government persecution (shout out to Mrs. Xiong, our tailor back home in Milwaukee), so their culture and history are familiar to us and we were really looking forward to a few days of trekking among their idyllic villages.

What we found, however, was a very-developed backpacker tourism industry in the town of Sapa. The hotel we stayed at had seven stories, though to its credit it had great mountain views and was locally owned. But there was no peace in Sapa, thanks to the little girls we semi-affectionately dubbed “The H’mong Purse Mafia.”

Oh sure, they look cute, but watch out -- they’ll ambush you when you least expect it

You can’t set foot on the street in Sapa without being accosted by these entrepreneurial ten-year-old girls with embroidered purses. Their English and their business accumen are flawless. They’ll walk with you for an hour, lulling you into a sense of false security that they are just along for the ride, and then when you least expect it... “You buy from me? Five dollars? Please? Maybe later, OK? Promise?”

Vultures. Adorable little impossible-to-resist purse-hawking vultures.

This poor guy is toast

Best line of the trip... Upon telling one maybe, but I had to go check with my wife because she keeps all the money: “OK, but you come back five minutes -- I no got all day wait for you!”

But then, when we least expected it, we found our peace in Vietnam -- in Me, our H’mong guide who led us on our treks into the villages.

Me, in her traditional H’mong costume and new purple Wellies

Me is from the Black H’mong tribe, is 24 years old, and has been married to her husband Vang since she was 15. Originally traditional animists, she and Vang became Christians four years ago. She has a 7-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, and her family lives in a village three hours’ walk from Sapa. She has been leading treks for several years, and catches a ride on a motorbike each morning to get to the hotel.

Hair that hasn’t been cut since she was a girl

With a sunny disposition and an infectious smile, Me was a delight and a wonderful companion for a few days. She led us along narrow mountain paths and through tiny villages of tin-roofed houses, teaching us about rice growing and indigo dyeing.

The village of Lao Chai

Always quick to laugh and crack a joke, even in the face of a life most of us would consider very difficult, Me had a quiet contentment about her that I sincerely hope and pray was contagious. She found it bewildering that we had been married for 17 childless years -- “No babies?” But she accepted our choice even if it seemed unnatural to her. “Maybe next year!”

We asked her about the increased tourism in the Sapa region over the past ten years, and whether she felt it was a good thing for her people. “Yes,” she said pragmatically. “We can earn money and buy what we need. Sometimes we have bad harvests. Price of rice has gone from 40,000 Dong a kilo ($2.50) to 120,000 Dong in a few years. I have to buy phone to be tour guide. Very expensive! But maybe a few too many tourists, you know?”

Ring ring -- surreality calling!

With economic and political uncertainty (today is election day), a house still not sold, and jobs in Houston not yet secured, I would like the same inner peace and simple trust in God’s provision. I found it in Me; I hope that I can find it in me.

Posted by Bwinky 17:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Past and Future

Meandering Up the River of Time from Xi’an to Shanghai

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“Where you visit in China?” asked the middle-aged Chinese businessman with whom we shared a table at the Beijing airport café (a not-uncommon custom in China -- in a nation of a billion people, you don’t waste seats just because you don’t know someone).

“Only Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai,” we replied. “Not too much time, too short to see such a big country.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “But you see all times in China -- Beijing present, Xi’an past, Shanghai future.”

I had never heard it put that way, but I really like it. Xi’an (pronounced she-AHN) was the capital of China from before the time of Christ, under the first emperor to unify the country, Qin Shi Huang. He was a brilliant military strategist who brought China together at sword-point, but he lacked diplomacy and was a bit of a megalomaniac. He had a massive tomb built starting when he was still in his thirties, then had the architects killed (Dale Carnegie would not approve...) and ultimately was buried there with a huge army of life-size warriors fashioned from terra cotta, each completely unique. Rediscovered by local farmers digging a well in 1974, this has become one of China’s biggest tourist draws. And it is quite fascinating.

Ever wonder how people forget there is something like this buried beneath them?

”Boy, after two millenia, I really can’t wait to get out of this dirt and have a bath...”

While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Xi’an was the center of the world. It was the beginning and end of the Silk Road, and traders from all over the world made their way there. The present-day city walls, the best-preserved of any city in China, date from the Ming dynasty in the 1400s and stretch 14 miles around the city center. If you think that’s impressive, consider that the Tang dynasty walls in 800 A.D. were seven times larger.

Fun to walk around; scaling, not so much

Xi’an today is unfortunately a not-all-that-picturesque city of 5 million. Inside the walls it is mostly broad boulevards and high-rise hotels...

Looking toward the ancient Bell Tower

...but there are pockets of very beautiful and historic old houses built of the city’s distinctive gray brick.

A bustling market street near the walls, restored to medievaly goodness

From Xi’an, we zipped forward in time what seemed about 4,000 years, to Shanghai, China’s bustling east coast metropolis and showcase of wildly futuristic architecture.

The Pudong New Area, home to science fiction-style buildings like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Arriving at the airport, we took the world’s only implemented Maglev train (Magnetic Levitation for non-geeks, in which the train hovers over the track on big opposing magnets) into the city -- a 35km journey that takes 8 minutes. The cars driving toward the airport beside the track flash by so quickly, it looks like they are speeding in the opposite direction.

I am not making this up

Shanghai has a rather interesting history; in the mid-1800s it became the Chinese colonial trade center for England, France, and America, and by the 1920s it was the greatest Western city in the East after Hong Kong. Home to banks and shipping companies, brothels and opium dens, it was the Paris of the Orient (or the Whore of the Orient, depending on whom you talked to). Stretching along the west bank of the Huangpu River opposite Pudong is the Bund, a street of beautiful Art Deco skyscrapers that rivalled New York in their day.

Memories of Shanghai’s Jazz Age

Incidentally, Lynn’s sister Jane (a John Denver fan) inquired whether there were in fact “Shanghai Breezes,” as he sang about in a song. Standing on the promenade overlooking the Bund, we can categorically deny the existance of breezes in Shanghai -- gales is more like it; it was very windy.

The Roaring ‘20s in Shanghai weren’t all galas, gambling and gangsters, though. Shanghai was the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party, which “liberated” the city in 1949 during the Communist/Nationalist civil war. The Customs House on the Bund with its giant clock tower modelled after Big Ben, once a symbol of Western colonial profit-taking, became a broadcast tower for propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.

The triumph of the people over capitalist oppression, Shanghai style

But those days are so far past in Shanghai they might as well be buried with Xi’an’s terra cotta warriors. Today, Shanghai’s streets are flooded with expats doing business and locals shopping for the latest handbags from Gucci or Coach (some of them even non-counterfeit!). Like Beijing, or perhaps even more so, Shanghai is a city firmly faced forward, proudly displaying its past, but rushing to embrace its future.

Whatever tomorrow holds, Shanghai is ready to embrace it

Posted by Bwinky 22:36 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)


Additional Thoughts on Boshintang and China's Young People

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Tomorrow, we leave Shanghai for Hanoi, Vietnam. There will be a post soon about our time in Xi'an and Shanghai. Meanwhile, these further thoughts/shamelss plugs related to recent posts:

1. Can't get enough appetizing mental images of me chewing on doggy stew in Seoul? Read our friend April's take on the evening. Her blog is really great, and she goes into even more yummy details...


2. If you have not done so, check out our other blog. Flat Shunshi is a paper-thin Japanese boy who is accompying us on our travels (he is the Asian cousin of Flat Stanley, whom you may or may not have heard of). He is a school project for our seven-year-old nephew Josiah, and he has his own blog...


3. We are currently staying in Shanghai with a young man named Tiger (no, not that Tiger, though in his Couchsurfing profile pic he is wearing a red shirt). We spent some time talking tonight and conversation took a political turn. He had this to say about the attitudes of Chinese young people...


"Most Chinese people are not really that interested in democracy. The government is opening up things so that they can make a lot of money and buy a nice home and a car, and that's more important to them so they want the government to keep doing what it's doing. They want the government to be more open and truthful with them, and they would like more freedom, but right now things are going well so they don't mind the status quo.

"I think that there will be democracy in China, maybe in five or ten years. But most of the people my age that I know are actually a little scared of democracy because we have never known anything but this. And we saw what happened in Taiwan when they went democratic, and there was a lot of corruption."

Posted by Bwinky 08:58 Archived in China Comments (2)


Portaits of a city in transition

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For two weeks in August, Beijing stepped to the front of the world stage, and served notice that it is a metropolis ready to join the ranks of the world’s alpha cities.

The Bird’s Nest: it’s not just for soup anymore

There is perhaps no other nation on earth that is modernizing more rapidly, and today’s China is far less about...

Long live the glorious people’s revolution


The National Grand Theatre: the mothership has landed

Or so one would think from first impressions of the city, which has more newly-constructed glitzy skyscrapers and fantastic modern architecture than you can shake an Olympic gold medal at. Or would, if you could see them...

Smog over Tian’anmen Square

We arrived here on Sunday the 12th from Seoul, and were immediately struck by how different Beijing is from our expectations. Oh, sure, the major tourist sights are the icons of its imperial past:

The Forbidden City

The Summer Palace

The Great Wall at Jinshanling

But this is not your father’s China. Today, the subway is full of posters for LG and Toyota rather than communist propaganda. You only have to spend a few hours walking among Beijing’s fashionably-dressed young people, more interested in their cellphones than Chairman Mao’s little red book, to realize that this is a country that is undergoing a second Cultural Revolution -- and one that is potentially even greater in its impact on Chinese society.

The future of China: you can’t fool the children of the revolution

The China of old, with its olive-drab uniform of communist conformity, has crumbled under the weight of a new consumer-driven culture that appears content to coexist with the totalitarian political system. This is really not surprising when you consider how deeply ingrained capitalism is in the soul of the Chinese people -- as the hoards of souvenir hawkers will attest. One old lady, “Ginger,” hiked with us for an hour on a very strenuous portion of the Great Wall, teaching us Chinese and "helping" Lynn up steep steps, all as prelude to pulling out a picture book and starting the sales pitch. That’s commitment to profit.

But step away from the neon and glitter of Beijing’s main thoroughfares, and you discover just how thin the veneer of modernity can be. For every brand-new modern edifice, there is a centuries-old hutong (alley) full of traditional courtyard houses, where life clings to the old ways of public baths and coal-burning stoves.

Out for a late afternoon stroll

In this Beijing, old men still gather in doorways to play mah jong and haircuts are given on a stool in the square. We paused in a particularly evocative alley, and an old lady invited us in to see her two-room, coal-heated apartment (she didn’t seem to care that we spoke no Chinese, she happily carried both sides of the conversation).

This hutong is home to at least 6 families

A common tongue isn’t necessary for friendship

Beijing is a city in transition, and we found that most evident in the faces of her people. I will close this post by letting them tell their own stories.


Posted by Bwinky 17:11 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Seoul Food

Burpin’ Boshintang with April in Seoul

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After our detour home and to Germany, we arrived back in Asia on Thursday, October 9th, landing in Korea, where our friend April Cardinal is teaching kids English in Seoul.

”Augh, my students were so naughty today!”

Hiking in the mountains over Seoul

I have to confess that we originally scheduled this stop primarily as a chance to visit April rather than out of an actual desire to see Seoul. Fair or not, Korea didn’t hold much interest for me; from my limited (read: from watching M*A*S*H) knowledge, it struck me as a limbo between Japan and China -- neither as dynamic as Tokyo nor as historic as Beijing.

Well, after visiting, I have to say that my opinion is somewhat altered; Seoul is quite a pleasant place. We had a terrific time with April, and it was fun to learn about a culture that we really had not put a lot of time into learning about. We did take a bit of time to see some of the historic sights, including the Gyeongbukgong palace, Korea’s version of the Forbidden City, where they do an elaborate changing-of-the-guards ceremony accompanied by incredibly discordant music -- I didn’t know it was possible to produce such screeches from a trumpet.

”Hmm, I hope none of the tourists notice that my beard is fake...”

Speaking of screeches, we also indulged in a night of karaoke. We were joined by Jane and Ami, two of April’s fellow expat teachers.

Butchering Switchfoot’s “Meant To Live” together

Jane and Ami are doing much better with their duet

By far the most interesting sight was the tour we took to the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjeom.

The UN’s JSA (Joint Security Area) -- that bombastic white building is North Korea

Under the watchful eyes of soldiers of the South...

”I love how badass these glasses make me look!”

...and the North...

”Running dog capitalist pig tourists, I will not even bother to watch you with my binoculars...”

...you are ushered into the conference room where negotiations are held, and allowed to step ever-so-briefly into one of the world’s most reclusive nations.

The most moving part of the trip is the stop at the Freedom Bridge, where prisoners of war were exchanged after the cease-fire. There is a wall of memorials that has become something of a place of pilgrimage for those who fought, and families separated by politics.


What was unexpectedly fascinating, though, was learning about Korean cuisine. I came knowing very little about the food here, so the whole weekend turned into a bit of a culinary odyssey. We started with dinner at a Korean barbeque with Jane. Everyone sits around a grill and cooks their own yummy little strips of marinated beef or pork.

What’s Webber got that we ain’t got?

Contrary to what you’d think, vegetarian food can be tough to find in Asia. One that’s practically a national dish in Korea is bibimbop, a mixture of bean sprouts, pickled veggies, and a fried egg. And, as a bonus, it’s really fun to say -- try it... “BEE-beem-bop.” Bonus points if you can say it three times, fast.

”I don’t care how you say it, I’m just glad it doesn’t contain squid!”

Of course, you can’t discuss food in Korea without talking about the national culinary obsession: kimchi. The “cabbage that they ravage with the chili paste taste.”

”Kimchi, kimchi, it is good for you and me!”

Those quotes are from the English Village Boyz’ “Kickin’ It In Geumchon,” a hilarious hip-hop ode to being an expat in Seoul. Go watch it:


As they say, kimchi is cabbage that has been mixed with chilis and dried shrimp and other stuff, and left to ferment for up to a year, buried underground in big jars like these...

55 gallons of kimchi goodness

Hardly a meal goes by that Koreans don’t eat kimchi. After mealtimes, the subway has a distinctly spicy, vinegary smell -- and I swear I am not making that up. Koreans claim that the reason they never got SARS is the medicinal value of their kimchi. I can believe it -- if I was a germ, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the stuff either. In fact, I am not a germ and I still don't want to. It really smells bad.

Street food is big here, too -- especially food on a stick.

Various animal parts and balls of stuff

That, believe it or not, is a hot dog rolled in ketchup and french fries, all on a convenient stick

Of course, there is also plenty of western-style food in Korea as well...

Hey, I don’t write ‘em, I just take the pictures

They actually do not sell any cheese here

April’s favorite: sweet potato pizza with honey mustard sauce... much better than it sounds!

Without question, though, our biggest foodie adventure was our quest to go eat boshintang...

Dog stew.

No, it is not a myth, they do in fact eat dog in Korea -- specially bred food dogs that look like big huskies, not pet dogs kidnapped off the street. I guess it’s not as common as it used to be, because we had to hunt down a small basement restaurant in a very off-the-beaten-path neighborhood, and there we sat down and tucked into a big ole' steamin’ bowl of spicy Fido soup.

Don’t think about what you’re about to put in your mouth!

Mmmmm... Boshintang!

And the verdict? Well, it was...


Actually, pretty gross.

Neither of us could finish more than half our bowl. The meat didn’t taste too bad; it was kind of gamey and really fatty, sort of like mutton. The broth was so hot that it kind of killed the taste, really. But it was hard to get past the smell; it had a distinct scent of, well, wet dog. Which it was.

The mother and daughter who ran the place were really sweet. They wanted their picture with us; apparently not too many Westerners come through their doors.

I'm smiling on the outside, but I'm thinking, ”I have a doggy hair stuck in my teeth...”

A drawing we did for their wall

As our weekend together drew to a close, we sat in a cafe on Sunday morning, savoring a good cup of coffee. Savored it so long, we actually missed our flight to Beijing. Good food and good friends -- it can really be addictive.

All except the boshintang. That made me want to arf.

Posted by Bwinky 22:21 Archived in South Korea Tagged food Comments (0)

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