2001.04.10, istanbul, turkey
let me first apologize for the stupid spelling and html mistakes in the last episodes of owt: the result of laziness and sloppy copy/paste on my part.
the plane trip from saigon to hanoi was uneventful. in hindsight, I am upset that I did not load up on english reading material while I was in the south. the books there are 'counterfeit' in the sense that they are copies, but very well made ones including the color covers and inside pages. they cost about US$1-2 for novels. by comparison there was no english-language books or magazines at all in the airport, and very little selection of used stuff in hanoi.
when I arrived in hanoi I ran into some girls from the mekong tour who had also flown north to hanoi. they were leaving the next afternoon on a tour to halong bay, and I decided to join them. I was still pretty sick, but I was also extremely bored from spending so much time in my hotel room in saigon. I thought I could tough it out.
halong bay is a few hours northeast of hanoi, fairly close to the chinese border. the name means 'descending dragon' and it is thought that under the waters sleep hundreds of dragons who in past and future are the defenders of vietnam against china. the bay is littered with hundreds of limestone islands which rise steeply out of the water, some chaining into each other and creating a very sheltered environment of calm waters. it is a popular tourist destination; perhaps even more so with vietnamese and chinese tourists than the more european travellers I met in the south. interestingly, it was in this 'local' tourist spot that I first saw someone begging for money.
in general, it seemed to me that the agricultural south was 'richer,' though not necessarily in material wealth, than the industrial north. the north actually is mostly agricultural as well, but it seems to have more factories and labor shops. one thing I noticed in both north and south was how graves are spread around the countryside. though it was put in place briefly, collectivization was reversed in vietnam and the farmers actually own their land. they see to it that they are buried on the land so that it stays in the family, for who would want to take over land on which roams the angry ghost of someone else's ancestors?
I learned that opportunities for advancement in vietnam are severely limited. after a brief stint of public schooling (which some children never attend), children are given a test at around age 14. if they do well on this test, they are sent for advanced schooling and may become bureaucrats or engineers or some such; if they do not do well they return to be farmers. our tour bus stopped at another 'school' where disabled village children (who could not become farmers) learned how to make knick-knacks for the tourist trade. these kids were mostly 12-15 years old.
the trip to halong was interesting, but clouded both by rain and by the fact that I didn't feel well. the tour group was largely french, with a few germans and the japanese girls and myself thrown in. no one spoke english well at all, so my weekend was spent speaking japanese and french. it is very difficult for me to switch from one to the other immediately, so I mixed them together in a way which no one but myself understood.
my pictures of the islands did not turn out too well, being so foggy, but I did get some nice photos inside the many limestone caves we visited. there are some long and presumably interesting stories behind these caves, but I could not understand a word our tour guide said other than 'hurry, hurry.'
back in hanoi, I started to feel much better and was able to explore the city. the french influence is much stronger than in the south, particularly in the 'old quarter' in which I stayed. the streets were narrow and tree-lined, probably very nice in the summer and useful to keep off the rain that fell most of the time I was there. the traffic is not very heavy at all, being mostly bicycles and motorcycles. people carry food around on the a traditional two-baskets-at-either-end-of-a-pole (there has got to be a shorter way to say that). in some cases, one side would hold a small gas or charcoal stove and the other would hold raw meat and vegetables. given the colder weather, many people dressed more warmly and seemingly in more western-style clothing. however, there were still a lot of women in the beautiful long and tight shirt-dress with loose pants underneath, and several women wearing the pajama-style clothing I had seen in the south.
I finally got over my distrust of the cyclo drivers (which was a holdover from bangkok), and I found it a pretty inexpensive and comfortable way to get around even in the rain. for faster trips, there are plenty of motorbike drivers to carry one across town. with this relative freedom, I visited the ho chi minh mausoleum and museum. the mausoleum tour ranks #2 in my list of shortest and most strict tours (#1 is the inside of the matrimandir in auroville, india). it was very interesting to see a guy who has been dead for 30 years: he looks pretty good. however, after so many buddha images over the past month I somehow expected him to be sitting cross-legged rather than laid out. the museum was much more interesting. it was a blend of modern styles and village handicrafts: a mishmash of all things from the life and times of ho chi minh. I really enjoyed the copies of guernica, and the documentation of the fight against fascism, but in general I found the connections between and within exhibits a bit difficult to understand.
as I was leaving the museum, I stepped into a small performance of traditional vietnamese and hill-tribe music (by which I mean people not considered to be ethnically vietnamese). I really like seeing and learning about different types of instruments: my room at home would be full of them if they were not usually so difficult to carry. one of the musicians, very beautiful and dressed in a traditional outfit, came over after the performance while another one was letting me play with the instruments (I was the only member of the audience). they spoke between themselves, and she said in english 'so handsome' and reached out to touch my beard. I was both embarrassed and surprised, since most women in asia who commented on my beard told me how much better I'd look without it. thank goodness that seemed to exhaust her knowledge of english, since I was too tongue tied to say much afterwards.
on my way back from the museum, I decided to try to go see a doctor: I was not getting much good sleep at night, and thought perhaps some specialized stomach antibiotics might clear it up. the hospital was listed in the lonely planet as having english-speaking doctors, but it was much more local than that. in the end, a woman doctor came up to me and after two words in english began speaking strongly accented french. I am not sure that she ever realized that we both had switched from english, but in the end she decided that I should go to a different hospital on the outskirts of town where they could understand my problem more clearly. I went back to my hotel instead.
there is not so much of a tourist/backpacker part of town as in saigon, but there were plenty of nice cafes and restaurants with a good mix of local people. there is no fast food in vietnam of any sort, though there is a decent mix of food. since I had eaten a lot of vietnamese food when I was first sick, it was not very appealing to me: I stuck to indian and european restaurants, with the exception of french bread. it is the most widespread french legacy in vietnam, and is alas a poor imitation: too dry, with no taste. or perhaps it really is like french bread, and I am spoiled by san francisco sour dough, the best bread in the world. I shall see when I go to france next month.
on my last night in hanoi, I went to see the water puppets. unlike marionettes, these puppets are controlled by sticks and wires which are hidden underneath them in water. it was created by farmers in the flooding regions of northern vietnam, and uses a lot of (waterproof) fireworks. although there are musicians who sometimes fill the roll of voice-actors, most of the pieces are either visual spectacles (twirling dancers) or small comedies which are easily understood without language.
I left hanoi on friday morning to return to bangkok. I had bought my london-to-san-francisco ticket online from a UK site, as it was much cheaper than buying it in bangkok; but I needed to have the original in hand before I could board the plane to istanbul (it was my 'proof of onward journey,' needed to board a one-way flight to turkey). my friend david had come to thailand in the meantime, and although we were not able to meet he had hand-delivered the ticket to the bangkok airport KLM office. everything worked perfectly, and I was able to pick it up just after arriving on friday afternoon. it turns out, though, that carrying a gold credit card and/or a few thousand dollars worth of travellers' cheques is sufficient proof that you can pay for another ticket once you have landed.
I was really craving ramen when I got to bangkok, so I headed back to thaniya and ate at the ramen restaurant that I had been to once before. this time, it was evening and the girlie shows in patpong and thaniya were going strong. I decided I should check one out, just for the experience. various women on a stage performed tricks of anatomy that I have no desire to see again, while slightly more clothed women sat down next to me to talk and ask if I would buy them a coke. I did not. one girl who sat next to me was extremely beautiful, but also had the saddest eyes. that pretty much sums up why such shows don't 'do it' for me: I can't forget that those are real people on stage.
on my only full day in bangkok I took a tour just north of the city. we stopped for a short while at the summer palace, which is an interesting mix of thai, western, and chinese architecture. it appears to still be in use by the royal family, during which time I assume it is closed as a museum. the main part of the day we visited ayuttaya, the ancient capital of thailand which was plundered by burma in the 1700s. it was a very hot day, punctuated by several short van trips from one site to the next; I should have heeded the lonely planet and taken a self-guided bus/bike tour rather than subject myself to a minibus again.
the architecture was very interesting: a mixture of 'classical' thai style and earlier khmer styles (like angkor wat). some of the monuments have been partially restored, and even when not several of them are still religiously significant. what surprised me was the building materials: almost everything is made of red brick, which might explain why it has really not held up too well over time. being a flat river basin, I suppose central thailand does not really have much in the way of quarries but quite a lot of mud and clay available.
that evening, I was able to meet up with my friend ben who was up from singapore on a business trip. I had already bought a ticket to see thai boxing, and convinced him to join me. thai boxing (muay thai) uses not only the hands, but also feet, elbows, and knees: every part of the body is a legal target. it was interesting, but I guess I thought it would be more violent or at least that there would be some knockouts. we drank some thai rum (better than thai whiskey) at the stadium and were ready for hockey-style blood. we ended up leaving before it finished and going to get another drink and just shoot the shit. it was really great to hang out with a friend: it made bangkok seem somewhat nicer, even, though it was still too bloody hot!
on sunday morning I shook off my hangover and eventually made my way back to the airport. the trip to bahrain was not too long, but it was mostly dark and there was not much to see until we landed. on our approach, we passed by dozens of oil refineries on the coast or just offshore (probably in qatar, not bahrain). like the tasco refinery in the east bay, there was a constant flame at the top of every stack and from that height they looked like birthday candles. I also found it interesting that the video skymap, in addition to showing position speed, altitude, etc. also showed the position of mecca in relation to the plane. I am not sure how people positioned themselves for prayer in those tiny airplane seats, though, nor how the timing for prayers was determined.
I had a 12-hour layover in bahrain, an island nation which seems larger but far less-developed than singapore. the national language seemed to be arabic but everything was also written in english, and everyone I met spoke english very well. the airline set me up with a free hotel outside the airport, and by the time I got there it was 4 am body-time and I was exhausted. however, since this was probably to be my only time in bahrain, I went downstairs to the bar to have a quick drink. all of the patrons were male: from the middle east, africa, and maybe pakistan/india. most of the staff female: the wait staff was local or malay, and on stage several young russian women danced and sang badly. in addition to the beer, I got a hookah (or 'shisha' I think they called it) and spent almost an hour taking it all in. I slept like the dead.
the trip to istanbul was short and sweet, mostly over the arabian desert. I have met up with my father and we've started exploring the city. after the 37 degree day in thailand, it is actually nice to feel cold! so far the food and people and sights have been amazing, in only two days! but that is the subject for a future message...