Friday, December 5, 2008

We are engaged . . .

Months and months of planning and everything finally came together 165 meters above Singapore I got on my knees and asked Huyen to marry me, and she said "YES!"

Friday, November 28, 2008

More Photos . . .

Viet Nam Update

After I got back from India a number of you asked what do I do with my days. Well, the answer to that question was not much. Which, for those of you who know me well, is really quite amazing. Amazing because I am usually so busy that I would not even have time to answer that question. Somehow, over my first 2 months here in Hanoi I had managed to reduce my days to the following: taking Huyen to work, going to one of my favorite cafes for a cup of iced heaven, lunch with Huyen, doing stuff on the laptop, visiting various markets to find stuff to cook/bake, picking Huyen up from work, eating dinner, watching a film or T.V., and going to bed. For a guy whose has been accused of not being able to slow down and smell the roses, my new schedule gave me time to smell not only the roses, but the the daisies, the lilies, the tulips, etc . . . But, fear not. The old Nol you all know has not been drowned in the Red River, he is alive and well. Without taking away much precious time together with Huyen I have manged to find some things to do that will continue to keep me busy for the rest of my time here. Speaking of time here. Thanks to a production schedule push on my next project I will be spending an extra month here in Viet Nam. Not only will this allow me to spend more time with Huyen it will also allow me to be here for Tet, the Lunar New Year. Which, for those of you who don't know, is by far the biggest and most important holiday the Vietnamese celebrate. See you all in February ;)

"Madagascar 2": I know that most of you reading this blog have seen "Mad 2" already, but we had not gotten a chance to see it until last weekend. While we were at the theater last Saturday to see "Quantum of Solace" we noticed that the theater was having a sneak preview screening of "Mad 2" the very next day. Naturally we plopped down our 180,000 Vietnamese Dong ($10.50) and reserved 2 seats for the screening. The theater was about 3/4 full and the film, even with the subtitles, was a big hit with the mixed local and ex-pat audience. Thanks to everyone who worked really hard on what was a difficult production. The movie really looks great, and I am proud to have worked on it and with all of you.

Cooking Class: Some of you may know that I had wanted to get a job as a kitchen slave at some restaurant while I was here in Ha Noi. However, for various reasons this did not happen. In lew of that plan I started a cooking class at the local community college. The class meets Monday through Friday from 8-10:30 AM for two months. There are about 18 students and our spirited teacher, Co Lien, who used to host a cooking show on the local VTV station in the 90's. Class is a blast (though it's not like any American classroom, and a slap to the back of the head is in order when instructions are not followed) and all the other students are really helpful when I can't follow the instructions well enough or didn't catch the amount of some ingredient. We do 3 dishes per class so it's pretty fast and furious, though I haven't actually cooked at all, mainly because I'm so busy writing detailed directions I am still learning quite a lot. Like add MSG to EVERYTHING! I brought the class a loaf of pumpkin bread today in the spirit of Thanksgiving, and though the bread was a hit, the caramelized pumpkin seeds on top stole the show. A parring knife was even brandished at one point to protect the seeds on one of the last slices from a would-be robber. Needless to say I was flattered . . .

Blue Dragon: When I was in Ha Noi in 2004 I spent several months volunteering at Hoa Sua Cooking School. That school, organized for orphans, ethnic minorities, handicapped, and poor children, teaches cooking, baking, and service skills so that these kids can more easily find jobs in the very widespread food service industry. Though I did not get to help in the kitchens (they have a large staff of professional chefs) I did help in the English classes as well as teaching some basic art skills to some deaf and mute instructors. It was a really great experience, so last month when I mentioned to my friend Corey that I was thinking of doing some volunteer work again he put me in touch with another organization called Blue Dragon ( The main goal of Blue Dragon is to help street kids (orphans, poor and underprivileged children) stay in school. They do so by providing support, tuition, tutoring, and after-school activities for around 200 kids. I've been lucky enough to be paired up with one of the Vietnamese instructors named Binh, and we have managed to but together a art and animation class for a few kids. Though I'm not teaching nearly as many students as I was at Hoa Sua it's been really great working one on one with a few students who really show a lot of talent and interest. In particular one boy named Tiep, who is 13 or 14 and lost his father recently (so he goes to school in the morning and then works from 2 to 7 pm everyday.) Though he hasn't been properly schooled and doesn't read well, he is really bright, asks a lot of great questions and has a lot of talent. And on top of all that, he is one hell of a break dancer.

Corn: For those of you who have read "Omnivores Dilemma" you might remember that the author, Michael Pollan, argues in the first chapter that Americans, not Mexicans are the true "corn people." However, I'd like to argue that my girlfriend is the one who really deserves that title. Her weekly consumption of either boiled or grilled corn is truly astonishing. At least 4 times a week we head to the old quarter (after extensive research, buying corn all over the city) to buy corn from a woman who sets up her boiled corn operation every evening in front of a temple on Ma May street. "I don't want to miss the season" Huyen insist every time we head on a another corn detour. Back in our apartment the corn is husked, placed in a bowl, and then eaten on our bed at a speed I did not think possible. "You should eat the corn one row at a time. It's faster." says Huyen, and who am I to argue, because I'm not lying on the bed with her the chances I'll get to eat any of the average 5 cobs we purchase are slim to none. A woman who insists on buying food in season and then putting it away with so much gusto . . . now that's a woman I should marry!
<- Before . . .

and 5 minutes later ->


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Incredible !ndia Part 3

"That was fast?" I said as the bus came to a stop amongst the numerous bicycle rickshaws parked in front Tibetan Refuge community. It was 7 am, and only 13 hours since we had left Dharamsala, and for whatever reason, nearly 4 hours less than the drive there. Thay Hai had mercifully scheduled a day of rest back at the Tibetan Refuge area in Delhi before we boarded a train for an overnight ride to Lucknow, and that rest was definitely welcome. Back in the Tara guesthouse we slept through most of the afternoon for what we knew would be another tough stretch. After a long lecture at the end of dinner about the many dangers of the Delhi train station the circus began. The directions to pack lightly for a highly mobile trip were followed by very few of us, subsequently the 48 pilgrims, nuns, and monks had about 100 suitcases and boxes, many of which were very large. Just to get the luggage to the bus at the front gate we needed half a dozen bicycle rickshaws came to collect the load spilling out of the front lobby. At railway station the real danger turned out to be the amount of stuff and people we were trying to move in an orderly way off the bus and onto the right train platform. After nearly 45 minutes of chaos the porters, identified by a small brass tag they wore around their arms, managed to get our luggage loaded on to several carts and moving towards the train platform. Broken up into small groups of 5 to 6 people with a porter pulling a cart full of our luggage and one designated leader (a job I found myself nominated to do) we waited on the platform for the train that would take us to Lucknow for about 30 minutes (The train ended up about an hour and a half late, which was a definite plus for us given how long it took to get the group moved from one place to another.) Because of concerns about having our luggage lost or stolen if we placed it into the luggage car it was decided that we would keep our luggage with us in the passenger car, so once the train came to a stop I began to frantically manhandle each piece of my groups luggage up the stairs and into or bunk section. Of course there was a good reason for having a designated luggage car. The passenger cars were divided into 5 sections with 8 bunks per section and a very narrow passage way running down the length of the car, which left very little room for luggage, let lots of large luggage. The poor Indians who shared our compartment waited patiently as we struggled for nearly 20 minutes to find a place for each piece of luggage, eventually loading up one bunk with 4 large pieces when no more room was to be had underneath the bunks. So, after a quick run over to the next rail car to say "goodnight" to Mom and Huyen I clambered up to the top bunk, put on my jacket and a pair of socks while hunched over to try and fight of the Arctic like breeze blowing from the A/C vent a few feet away from my feet. Exhausted I quickly fell asleep soon after the train pulled away from the station aided by back and forth rocking familiar to train travelers and babies everywhere.

"Damn that was cold!" I exclaimed. "Yes, I didn't sleep at all" agreed Mr. Tai who was sitting up in the bunk across the way from me. I had ended up wrapping myself in the heavy wool blanket I had dismissed earlier at the steamy Delhi train station. I even resorted to wrapping my head in my ao trang (the lovely robe you all see me wearing in the photos) in an attempt to fight of the cold. Sometime in the early morning they had turned off the A/C and I climbed down from my bunk to warm up and go see how Mom and Huyen had fared. The light pouring in from the large windows on either side of the train, and as I made it through our car to the next most of the passengers were waking up, moving around, and lining up to use the surprisingly "OK" restroom. By the time we did pull into the station at 9 am, nearly 2 hours behind schedule, the chill of the night before had been forgotten, and looking out on to the sweltering platform I thought to myself you should be careful what you wish for. After the locals had left we started unloading our luggage, piling it up into a few small mountains while our new fixer, Mr Pradeep Saxena, gave instructions to the small army of uniformly red-robed and elderly porters. I marveled as these porters, some of them who had to be 60's, loaded up their long narrow wooden carts and then hauled them up and over the bustling train platforms to the bus waiting outside. Getting all the luggage into the bus was another feat altogether and most of the porters stuck around to catch their breathe and enjoy that show. After a surreal stop at a hotel where we were given keys to a number of empty rooms in order to use the facilities we were on our way to Sravasti.

The sun was setting when we finally arrived, but before heading to the hotel we turned off the road to visit the ruins of some stupas of one of Buddha's most greatest patron's, Anathapindika. That night at the hotel a vote at dinner that night meant we would be up at 4 am for a early morning ceremony at the Bodhi Tree. This would mark the start of a routine for the rest trip. Rising early for a ceremony at a scared site then a day on the bus traveling to our next destination and a quick stop at some less significant site before checking into our hotel for a quick dinner and bed. I really loved our short time at the Bodhi Tree and the next day at the birth place of Buddha in Lumbini. The rest of India we saw pass by at 45 miles an hour in the bus like the rest of the hundreds of pilgrims we saw at each site. Our last three days in India were gone before we knew it, and it felt like a dream as Huyen and I left the Vietnamese monastery in Kushinagar at 3 AM to board a plane in Varanasi heading back to Delhi for our 7 hour layover before our flight back to Bangkok.

"Are you doing alright?" I asked Huyen as we sped through the hazy night towards Indira Gandhi International Airport on the four lane elevated highway. Huyen was trying to sleep in my lap, as the food from almost 100 year old Tandoori restaurant we had just visited not 20 yards from the enormous Jama Masjid Mosque was not agreeing with her stomach. So I hardly noticed the cab slowing down as all the vehicles in front of us came to a stop. That's not completely accurate, not all the cars were stopping, some cars were stopping others changing lanes to get over to the far left, and still others just slowing to a crawl. I strained my neck looking out the front of the cab to see what was causing the traffic jam in front of us, but soon realized that there was no overturned Tata truck or errant scared cow on the highway in front of us. What there was was something on the road below the elevated highway. Something so compelling that dozens and dozens of drivers were literally stopping in the far left lane crossing the walking across the other three lanes of traffic to get to the medium and see what was going on below. For several hundred yards these people lined the highway medium staring down at whatever tragedy or comedy had occurred on the bottom part of the highway. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious to see what was going on as well, but I was more concerned about getting to the airport on time so I leaned forward and urged our cab driver onward. Poor guy. He slowed the taxi down to a crawl as he wove his way through all the cars parked randomly across the freeway and craned his neck as far as possible, and if not for his damn passengers would have surely stopped to join his fellow countrymen for the show. I cannot imagine the chaos that would break out if everybody on the 110 Freeway through downtown Los Angeles stopped to look at something on 101, but it seemed entirely unremarkable sitting in the of cab on the way to the airport in Delhi.

"You must come back to and see the real India" said Pradeep as he handed me his business card outside our room at the Vietnamese monastery in Kushinagar. I agreed that it would be great to see some of India's more well known sites, but I couldn't help but think I did see the real India. A country where one can stop seemingly in middle of nowhere in the dead of night to get your flat tire fixed and all the locals will turn up for the show. Where 60 year old men stack hundreds of pounds of luggage on a wooden cart and drag it half a mile up and down a sweltering jam-packed train station for less than a dollar. A country where people from all around the world come to build temples right next to one another and worship an enlightened individual from 2600 years ago each in their cultures own unique way. Where a tilt of the head can mean anything from from "Hello" to "OK, I'll take care of it. Don't worry." And, a country where it's OK to stop in the middle of the freeway and walk across the lanes to see what's going on below. That's the great thing about traveling and opening yourself up to new and "strange" experiences. More than any elaborate palace or grand monument I think it's little moments that give you insight into the "real" country and the culture that can show us just how amazingly different and basically the same we all are. Incredible India indeed.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Incredible !ndia Part 2

"Are we in Delhi already?" I asked the cab driver as we drove through a pitch black forest that ended up being a large park. "Yes" he responded as we bounced back onto a wide but pot holed road through what I could hardly believe was the capital of the country. An hour after leaving the incredible dusty (because of round the clock construction) international arrivals terminal we came to a stop in front of a metal gate set in a low earthen wall in which was set a sign that informed us we had made it to the Tibetan refugee community. The cab driver helped us down the maze like narrow alleys to the dimly lit lobby of the Tara House where a few young Tibetan men were intently watching a Indian drama on the small TV hung high on the wall opposite the small front desk. Turns out there was a room for Huyen and I in the Tara House, but because of the size of the rest of the group of pilgrims that had arrived earlier we were booked into two guesthouses. As luck would have it my mother was booked in a room in a different guesthouse. I rolled my mother's suitcase back out into the alley following one of the Tibetans from the Tara House to the other guesthouse, where, after banging on the door of room for several minutes to wake up her roommate I somehow managed to find my way alone back to my room. It was nearly one in the morning and we were about to crawl into bed as the phone rang. It was Aileen, the Vietnamese American travel agent who had arranged the whole trip, calling to see if we had made it alright and informing us that we would need to be up at 5, eat breakfast by 5:30, and ready to go with all our stuff in the lobby by 6 to get on the bus for the 12 hour trip to Dharamasala. Turns out a 5 am wake up would be a luxury as the average wake up time for the rest of the trip would be 4 AM. OK, well, we knew this wasn't going to be easy . . . . .

"Are we going to stop dinner now?" I asked Sarah, the young Tibetan woman who was our fixer for the first few days of our trip. "Well the place we were going to stop was closed, so this place will do." We had been on the road for about 13 hours, including several stops to try and fix the A/C on the bus (third time was a charm when a guy on the side of the road with some bits of wire and some pliers climbed inside the engine compartment and viola! The A/C sprang to life) when we rolled into the small collection of square concrete buildings that made up this small stop. There were 4 or 5 Indian men gathered around the front of low square concrete building in front of which stood a large tan door oven, two open burners, and a collection of large stainless steel urns from which wafted the most wonderful scents. The tallest of the men stepped up behind the tan door and started forming oval shaped naan from a huge mound of dough as all 48 of us poured out of the bus to the tables inside. Heaven. As we polished of our one and only authentic Indian meal of the trip (all of the Vietnamese on the trip decided right then and there Indian food wasn't for them, so for the rest of the trip we feasted on a Hodge-podge of quasi Vietnamese food, instant noodles, hard boiled eggs, and various snacks. Hell!) I remembered that the map we had gotten before the trip said it would only take 12 hours to get to Dharamsala. However, according to Sarah we had at least another 3 hours to go, and, unfortunately, they would be the toughest three. She was right. Though only about 90 km from our destination, it was almost straight up 1500 meters, not once but twice. I have no doubt that our bus driver could give Louis Hamilton a run for his money. He did things with a vehicle, let alone a large bus that I did not think were possible. Racing up one mountain down to a valley and then up another through a seemingly endless series of 180 degree switchbacks on road barely wide enough for our bus with a sheer drop on one side and a cliff face on the other. I was tired, but fear and fascination kept me up watching the dark world spin by as the bus spun around one hairpin turn after another. I don't think I've ever been that scared in a motor vehicle, but after nearly 17 hours after we started out we rolled into impossibly narrow streets of the McLeod Ganj suburb of Dharamsala (literally "Rest House"), capital of the Central Tibetan Administration since 1960 and home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

"Amazing!" I exclaimed as I pulled back the curtain of our hotel room and was greeted with sight of a picturesque landscape. Though this small beautiful mountain town in sight of the Himalayas was not a place that the Buddha ever visited, we had made this two day detour in order to show some solidarity with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community that numbers in the thousands. It turns out we would miss the His Holiness by one day, as he would not return from the medical treatment he was receiving in New Delhi until the day after we left. Regardless, it was wonderful as our group gathered in the small temple inside the Dalai Lama's compound for the first ceremony of our trip. In my experience with Buddhism, you get out of it what you bring to it. Being mindful can make a simple meal, walking, or even breathing a spiritual experience, and a lack of mindfulness can even make a ceremony in the most scared temple distracting and ordinary. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I found it difficult to be mindful in His Holiness sparsely decorated temple. As would occur for the rest of the trip, several of the other pilgrims either did not participate or stopped in order to start taking photos or video of the ceremony, or for that matter, at any other opportunity. Spirituality can be hard to attain when someone is gesturing to you to smile for the camera. This was not like Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhist retreats. A strict schedule of morning walking meditation, Dharma talks, and all meals and evenings in Noble silence are a welcome routine when you are looking for a deeper experience. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed, which is of course what happens when one's expectations meet reality and they end up being very different. We walked outside to the balcony that surrounded three sides of the temple and over-looked the entire valley and up the impossible steep Himalayas. Then as my mom walked up and asked us to get together for another photo and there with my arm around Huyen and my mother smiling brightly as she took out her camera I remembered what this trip was really about. For the remainder of the trip I was never bothered by any of the distractions swirling around us, and my smile and mindfulness came easily.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Incredible !ndia Part 1

"What have you seen in India that has changed your mind about what you thought India would be like?" asked Mr. Pradeep Saxena as we stood outside the bus waiting for all the other passengers to answer Nature's call on the road somewhere between the Lucknow and Sravasti. "Uh . . . I don't think I can really answer that question since I've only been here three days, but I can say that it is a really amazing place." Pradeep smiled and cocked his head to the side and turned out towards the portable blue screens he had set up to give the ladies some privacy in the flat rice fields. "Yes it is really incredible. Incredible India is the country's motto you know." Well, yes I actually did know. Along with "Malaysia, Truly Asia" and "Seoul, Soul of Asia," I see ads for "Incredible !ndia" at least 4 or 5 times a day on the T.V. However, this trip to India did not look anything like the commercials I see so frequently. No Taj Mahal, no tigers, no elephant rides, no cricket, or exotic costumed dancers. This was not the 5 star tour of India with immaculate hotels with crisply saluting luggage porters, modern hi rises, wonderful restaurants with carefully prepared gourmet meals, and beautiful postcard locals. Nor was it the backpacker's hardcore slog through the "real" India. Endless hours on non air-conditioned buses packed with locals, no star guesthouses, days without showers, and a diet of rice and naan, carrying everything you need for your epic trek in a very large and expensive back pack. No, this was something altogether different. This was a Pilgrimage.

"What are you going to India for?" asked everybody I told about our trip. Even I never expected to be traveling to India in the way that I did. I always thought it would be a lot more like the T.V. commercials, just with a lot more food. Instead we would spend the seven days in India on a bus and a train with a group of Vietnamese Kieu (overseas Vietnamese,) a handful of Westerners, 4 Vietnamese Buddhist nuns, an abbot from a new monastery in Colorado, and a Venerable who splits his time between temples in Southern California and Hawaii. We were making a whirlwind tour, traveling hundreds of kilometers every day over Northern India's very rough and crowded roads to see as many of the important sites in the life of Buddha as possible. Thay Hai, a monk with soft and round shape that matched his very friendly and quick to laugh personality would be our teacher and leader on this journey. Thay Hai had had a lot of experience in India, first visiting over 25 years early and having returned on his own spiritual and healing pilgrimage when he was diagnosed a brain tumor. After two years of meditation his brain tumor disappeared and he started to take groups of pilgrims to the places where he had found the peace and inner spirituality that helped him heal himself without the help of modern medicine. Aside from the spiritual journey this trip would also provide, Huyen and I a chance to spend valuable time with my mother who had invited us on the trip and had been working closely with the Abbot from the Vietnamese monastery in Colorado. It would also be the first chance for Huyen to be spend time with and get to know the Vietnamese American community. With hopes that Huyen can join me in the States sometime next year it will be so important to stay a part of this community that will keep her connected to her home and roots. So, even though we weren't going to see India's most popular and famous sites we boarded our Jet Airways flight to New Delhi with a lot of excitement for what we knew would be the difficult but rewarding journey that lay ahead of us.


Monday, November 3, 2008

INDIA, well . . . not yet. Bangkok!

We made it back from our incredible trip to India a week ago but I've been a bit slow writing about it. I'm going to blame it on the rain and flooding here in Ha Noi, which has been the worst since 1973 ( After a sketchy ride back from Huyen's office early on Friday the rainstorms knocked out our power and even though it came back on Saturday morning our Internet connection was disabled. We spent almost the entire weekend inside as the rains really hit the city hard. People actually drowned in their car in the street. Some areas are still under a meter or more of water two days after the heaviest rains. So, aside from watching a lot of bootleg DVD's and not writing, I got through the several thousand photos we took in India. First editing out the countless "bad" ones and currently trying to organize them into three not too long slide shows for your soon to be viewing pleasure.
In the meantime I've posted a handfull of photos from the few days we spent in Bangkok on our way and returning from India. Like all the other of the times I've been to Bangkok I was excited for the awesome variety and quality of food that awaited, as well as a chance to shop around in the ultra modern malls for some of the things you just can't get or pay too much for in Viet Nam. This time, in addition to the regular pleasures of Bangkok we also paid a visit to one Thailand 5 star medical facilities. Just to make sure my previously mentioned staph infection had been treated completely we booked an appointment at Bumrungrad International Hospital over the Internet for our 7 hour layover on the way to India. What we saw and experienced blew us both away. It was like a 5 star luxury hotel! Starting from the moment we walked into the lobby to the time I happily paid my $32 bill we just could not believe how nice everything was. I remember in 2004 some of my ex-pat friends in Viet Nam telling me how they would always go to Thailand for their medical care. I thought this was ridiculous given that Viet Nam has a number of decent private medical clinics, but after my experience at Bumrungrad I'm thinking I might fly from San Francisco to Bangkok for my medical care . . . it's that amazing. Plus, did I mention all that great food?


Friday, October 17, 2008

What a Difference a day makes . . .

What a difference a day makes. On Friday October 12th the most amazing thing happened. Twice. I met the most wonderful, intelligent, crazy, beautiful, funny, spirited, caring, loving, interesting, thoughtful, courageous, young woman I have ever known for lunch and then again for dinner. Countless hours on the phone, text messages, IM chats, and Skype video conversations, and four more trips to Viet Nam later and I am more in Love with her everyday. What a difference a day makes indeed. . . . .

Le Ky Niem Mot Nam

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Soaked from head to toe . . .

Soaked from head to toe. That's how I had spent most of the week before our trip to Sai Gon. The remnants of Typhoon Hagupit and start of Severe Tropical Storm Mekkhala had been dumping rain in Northern Viet Nam for several days, and, needless to say, I had gotten wet. No matter how good my poncho was at keeping most of me dry my head and feet got soaked. Aside from obvious fact that riding a motorbike in the rain will get you wet, there are two other realities about life in Viet Nam. One, you frequently get bitten by little bugs, usually mosquito's, but other things as well. And unless you are in the habit of bathing in DEET this is unavoidable. So I had two little bug bites that were in just the right place for the front strap of my Teva Sandals to keep wet. The second fact of life here is that if it rains hard anywhere in Viet Nam the streets will inevitably be flooded and you may find yourself standing in ankle deep (or deeper) water. Water, which, because of all the stuff in and on the streets will probably be contaminated with all sorts of nasty things. In 1993 I found myself thigh deep in water trying to pedal my bicycle back to my dormitory after one particular lengthy rain storm which my friend and I had tried to wait out at the German Embassy's monthly Bier Kellar. Unfortunately for me these two things came together three weeks ago, and whether in Ha Noi or in the deluge in Sai Gon those two little bug bites got infected.
The first few days we were back from Sai Gon I did not notice anything unusual, but on Wednesday morning I woke up to find that that area of my foot had swelled and a red streak had made its' way close to the base of my ankle. Naturally I was a bit alarmed. Huyen was alarmed too and after ruling out going to one of Ha Noi's many public hospital's without her to help translate I called over to the SOS International clinic just 4 blocks away from our apartment. Luckily there was one appointment available that afternoon, so after having a quick lunch with Huyen I jumped onto our trusty Super Cub and headed over to the clinic. Though I'd first been in the building that houses the SOS clinic in 1999 when it housed the Business Consulate of the American Embassy where my friend Tara was working I had never needed it's services before. So when I walked into the reception area I knew I had made the right decision.
Dr. Fone was a big man and very affable, as are most of the Australians I've met (Huyen was a little shocked later on when I told her I had been joking around with Dr. Fone. He commented on the fact that I had brought in two helmets, to which I responded the bigger one was for my posterior. Apparently joking around with doctors in Viet Nam is something you don't do, but never met an Aussie without a sense of humor, Med school or not.) He took one look at my foot and declared it a staph infection, also stating it was too bad there weren't any med students around to observe my textbook condition. The good thing about not working (or doing much else for that matter) is that I had all the time in the world to hang around for an hour of medication via IV. Dr. Fone recommended two days of IV treatment, so he told the nurse to leave the IV in overnight as I had agreed to clear my busy schedule and return the next morning for round 2. Unfortunately, this meant the nurse decided to stick the IV in my wrist, which would prove a bit of a hassle given the limited use of my left hand, but, I suppose it was a better option than having a needle taped to the crock of my arm for 18 hours. I lay there for about an hour listening to Honduran woman translate Spanish into English to a Belgian doctor for her Colombian friend who was having severe chest pain. The next day the curtains separated me from a German man who had come into to make sure his children's immunizations were up to date, while on the other side of me a Japanese man lay silently attached to a IV and an oxygen tank. International clinic indeed.
Last night I took the last of my oral medication and the swelling, redness, and blisters have all but disappeared. Hopefully there will be no long term ill effects, and under the advice of my mother (the inventor of due diligence) I will be stopping at Bumrangard Intl. Hospital in Bangkok on our way to India in two days to see an infectious disease specialist to make sure of just that. As Dr. Fone felt the for any swelling in the lymph nodes behind my left knee two weeks ago he said it was good that I had come in that day as staph infections can travel rather quickly. I agreed and thought to myself, what a difference a day makes . . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Update . . . finally

Well it's been quite some time since I put some letters together, forming words, and strung these words into sentences for my blog. I'll chalk it up to one part writer's block, one part health problems, and one part life. . . . .
Three weekends ago Huyen raced home from work on Friday in a cab and picked me up at our apartment on the way to the airport. We were on our way down to Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City) to attend a going away party for one on my good friends, Thuy Pham, who after 4 long years in Viet Nam had decided to head back to the States. The flight on newly formed Jetstar/Pacific Airlines was a bit cramped, as the seats were tighter than I think I've every experienced in a 737. The rainy weather as we descended into Tan Son Nhat airport also did not help as it got a bit bumpy, though nobody threw up, which is often the case when traveling on public transport in Viet Nam. Because of a delay in Ha Noi we arrived rather late, and despite a offer to go out on the town Huyen and I made it to the hotel and crawled in to bed by 12:30 AM. Up at a civilized hour of 10 AM the next morning we had to make a quick pit stop at my old hair salon to get Huyen's newly styled hair properly coiffed before meeting Thuy and her boyfriend, Seth, for a Western style brunch. The conversation turned to dinner (as it often does when I'm having breakfast) as I had volunteered to cook for a dinner party of 12-15 people. After some discussion we formulated a plan and the 4 of us were off in a stifilingly hot cab to a place called Metro.
It turns out that Metro is huge, and much like Seth and Thuy promised very much like Costco. Which of course is great for getting lots of stuff in bulk but not so great if you try and get in without a membership card. Having never been to Metro Thuy and Seth had not brought along any I.D. to register for a membership card. Luckily my California Driver's License was sufficient to gain us entry after some quick paperwork. Naturally we ended up spending more time in Metro than we thought we would, especially in the huge refrigerated section of the giant store. Unwisely the three of them left me alone to escape the cold of the meat locker so I, of course, made the biggest and most expensive purchase of the afternoon, 4.5 kilos of Australian Strip Steak (unfortunately the Aussie meat [which is the best quality] comes in large cuts, so even though I picked the smallest piece it was still rather large. So much so that Seth may still be commenting about it as he and Thuy scuba there way through Malaysia.) With a shopping cart full of stuff and my new Metro card we paid the hefty bill (the meat was 1/3 the total) only to find that Metro does not provide bags to carry your purchases. Again, I came prepared with a back-pack (partially filled with some cooking tools I'd brought down to SGN) and a small man bag. Stuffing as much as we could into both bags we picked up the rest and jumped into a mercifully cooler cab. Off to the Manor.
My agreement to take on the cooking challenge was done partially because I was told I would be doing the cooking in the very nice kitchen of one of Thuy and Seth's more well heeled friend's. When we finally got into this friend's apartment in the Manor (another story full of lots of walking, lies, and 4 adults trying to figure out simple tasks) I was not disappointed. The $300K apartment had had another $50K invested in a fully upgraded kitchen. Needless to say, I was excited. The four of us needed to shower and tie up a few more odds and ends (which for Huyen and me involved going to two more small Western markets to buy more stuff. 3 Markets for one meal, welcome to your future life Huyen ;) before we returned to cook.
Two and a half hours later we were all back in the nice new kitchen (oven had not even been used before) and quickly dove into to getting the four course meal together in 2 1/2 short hours. Once again Huyen proved why I love her some much. She dove right into all the onions, garlic, and shallots with aplomb despite the tears, and was a great sous chef all night, or at least until a certain prohibited spirit made it's appearance. Fortunately the well heeled friend returned from basketball shortly after our arrival to find the four off us working away like crazy in his kitchen because one of us (who well remain unnamed) was having quite a bit of trouble with the Porsche Design can opener. After quickly dispatching the 8 cans I needed open he offered to open some bottles from the in cabinet wine fridge I had been eyeing ever since I had set foot in the kitchen. Turns out, like many folks of means, that he's is quite the Oenophile and every six weeks when he goes back to the States he returns with half a dozen bottles stuffed into his suitcase (American wines are insanely expensive here because of specific taxes, so fans of Napa Cabs are out of luck.) An unfiltered Newton Chardonnay to start us off right, and 2.5 hours were a blur of peeling, chopping, par-boiling, roasting, sauteeing, etc . . . even as the first guest started to arrive.
The pea and mint soup with creme fraiche, baked pasta, and 8 lbs of strip steak with roasted potatoes were a hit, though by the time it was all done we had gotten through almost 4 bottles of wine. Once dinner was polished off the hard stuff came out. Absinthe, newly legal in American, a liquor which apparently ranges anywhere from 110 to 180 Proof and is dangerously easy to drink ( The bottle we were imbibing that evening was 170 Proof. Of course Thuy got the first glass of the Green Fairy, but quickly thereafter a glasses topped with a flaming green spoon of sugar was offered around to all the guests.
Having maternal Grandparents renowned for producing high quality rice wine with the best ingredients Huyen first experience with alcohol came at quite a young age. When she was six she picked up a cup of what she thought was water, but which turned out to be her grandparents rice wine. So 17 years later when the Absinthe was poured Huyen was happy to take part. "Wow this is great! Can I have another?" Luckily there were others waiting for a shot because 5 minutes later she was horizontal on the couch in the living room. Whilst the increasingly ruckus festivities went on all around me I started the Molten chocolate cakes trying to limit my alcohol consumption to red and white wine I had drunk earlier. Unfortunately, Thuy called me out for a glass of Absinthe, and not wanting to disappoint the appreciative crowd, I took the drink. This being the second time I've drunk Absinthe the taste, smoothness, and power came as no surprise to me, but in combination with the wine the effects were not desirable. After all the guests had had their chance to the Absinthe, Thuy was center stage trying to guess which one of the guests answered questions about her that Seth had secretly collected early in the evening. An incorrect answer resulted in Thuy having to drink a shot of wine, but if she guessed your answer you got to polish of the shot. Unfortunately, I was the only friend present who had met Thuy in college, so my last drink of the evening came as she easily identified my answer. One very emotional speech later, Thuy not me, we all changed clothes walked out into the light drizzle to catch cabs to the club.
Like most clubs in Viet Nam, Bounce is insanely crowded, insanely loud, and insanely smokey. Even though the well heeled friend has his table in the VIP area reserved there was still absolutely no room to move. I felt sorry for the people working in the club as the push and squeeze their way past the club goers to deliver drinks, cigarettes, and snacks. After only five or so minutes it all got a bit too much in my weakned state and I need to the restroom anyway, so Huyen and I claw our way out of the club. After sitting outside the club trying to get some fresh air for 10 minutes wehead back inside to say our goodbyes and then back outside to catch a cab for the very short ride to our hotel.
Unsurprisingly the night was not very peaceful and by the time morning breaks I've got a bad case of the runs and am sore all over from rolling around trying to get comfortable all night. We still manage to get packed up and off by 11 AM to meet up with my good friend Kym and his girlfriend Trang at the very popular restaurant Quan An Ngon. Despite having not had any good Southern food the previous day I am not able to eat any more than some tofu with ice. My numerous trips to the restroom during lunch finally convince Trang that I'm really not feeling well, though she kept trying to order enough to feed all four of us. At a cafe later on we stumble upon the idea of getting a massage at a nearby spa. Given how sore I am a massage sounds great, but the idea of getting stepped on by someone while I'm sick seems a bit risky. Soreness (the $8.50 price and the promise of hot stones) win out, and with a quick detour to pick up some Imodium, we were off to the Spa. Despite some uncomfortable, uh . . . painful moments, I managed to keep my screams and the contents of stomach inside where they belonged. All in all, aside from not getting to eat some of my Southern Vietnamese favorites, not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
We took our leave of Kym and Trang, making a quick precautionary stop in the very posh bathrooms of the Sheraton Hotel Sai Gon, before making or way to our decidedly humbler hotel. Meeting very briefly with Thuy and Seth who had come by to return my cooking implements and say goodbye on last time. Saddened by our both our imminent departures from Sai Gon the Gods opened up the Sky and the rain came down in buckets. It was not until I had finished loading our bags into the taxi in ankle deep water that I realized that I had not taken my camera out once during the entire weekend. So, while the cab waded slowly towards Tan Son Nhat Airport I took a few photos out the window. Rain as we arrived and rain during our departure, an ominous sign as we sat at the gate soaked from head to toe. . .

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Xe May Update 2

When we last left our hero he was just getting the hang of motoring around town on his new scooter only to be rudely interrupted by an unexpected mechanical failure. After getting the bike back to our apartment via the Vietnamese "Towing" service the appropriate call was made to the Vitamin lady and the next day was set for the repair. Woke up early the next morning expecting to take the bike to a "shop," as instructed the night before, but it turns out that Vitamin lady's husband decides not to do that rather he will send someone directly over to our place to fix the bike on location. Unfortunately, like with many things here in Viet Nam this involves a time frame of "sometime in the afternoon or early evening." It turns out that the man calls right in the middle of lunch and will be over in 15 minutes. Luckily Huyen and I had decided to eat close by our apartment so this is no problem. We roll the bike out on to the street and wait. Me for the repair guy, Huyen for her friend so they can split a cab back to work.
The very stern looking Anh Tuy pulls up on his Honda Dream a small basket of tools in basket over the front wheel. Huyen goes through a small list of over minor problems, kickstand spring loose, gear shift lever bent, etc. . . , but Anh Tuy just goes over how to shift the scooter through it's gears once again, and then after trying to kick start the bike a few times proceeds to remove the spark plug. Huyen's ride shows up as Anh Tuy, having determined the spark plug is innocent, removes the battery from the bike. Using the small voltage meter to determine whether or not the battery is alive I fill up the time snapping photos of this small mechanical procedure. Battery checks out, so Anh Tuy digs a bit deeper into the bikes body and pulls out another electrical device. This turn out to be the offending part and Anh Tuy explains to me that even though the IC (I don't really know what this part is or does) has made in Thailand stamped on the side, it's really made in China and of crappy quality. I ask if he can purchase a good Thai one for me and he tells me to wait for a few minutes while he does just that. Back with an equally sketchy looking (which is why it's a good thing I did not go to try and buy the thing myself, cause they both look equally used, old, and Thai to me) IC which he clicks into place, and then with the scooter's "guts" still hanging out, he kick starts the bike again. It roars (I explained to Huyen a few days earlier that our Super Cub is like the Harley of motor-scooters cause it's engine is so loud and obnoxious, esp. given it's size and lack of power) I smile and give the thumbs up and then ask him about the other minor problems. With a pair of pliers he bends things back into place and with that he is done. How much for the house-call? 120,000 Vietnamese Dong or $7.25 US. Not bad for such stern and determined service, plus I now know to look out for fake Thai parts now. I pay him 30,000 extra for coming by, as instructed by Huyen, which at first he tries to give back thinking I do not understand, but then happily accepts after I tell him it's extra. With a "You speak great Vietnamese" (amazing the flattery $1.85 will but you) he's off again on his Honda Dream. I grab my bag and jump on the Cub, kicking it to life on just the second try. A successful first outing to buy some Thit Bo Kho (dried beef) in the Old Quarter and a stop at the supermarket by the lake and me and the Cub are back in business. . .Watch out Ha Noi!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Xe May update . . .

After two and a half days on the roads driving my new ride I was doing much better, though I still look like I've taken a shower when I take my helmet off from all the perspiration. One particularly embarrassing moment on Saturday on the way to a art gallery I passed a woman on a bicycle on the way up a hill to one of Ha Noi many diabolical traffic circles. I was feeling pretty good shifting smoothly from first to second, but I all the oncoming traffic was a bit too intimidating for me to merge correctly and I stalled out near the top of the hill. By the time I got restarted and managed to navigate my way through the traffic circle on to the main road I got to pass that woman on the bicycle again several hundred yards down the road already. It was only my second night . . . . . A couple of close calls, but that's par for the course here in Viet Nam. Overall though, my shifting was less clunky, and my choice of gears was getting better too. Accelerating more smoothly with quite a bit less herky-jerkiness. I was managing not only to avoid other moving vehicles and pedestrians but the many bumps in the road as well, for which our future children will be forever grateful. I was even "Lai xe nhu mot dan ong Viet Nam," (Driving like a Vietnamese guy) Huyen remarked after one particularly smooth outing. Stopping in the shade to avoid the sunlight (Keeping us out of the heat of course, but also serving the secondary, but no less important function of keeping her skin nice and white.) As well as, getting a little jump at the lights like everyone else so I wasn't left in the dust of everybody else, including bicycles. Nice.
Monday afternoon, having managed my first solo ride with aplomb (Huyen called me 15 minutes after I dropped her off to make sure I was alive,) I was feeling pretty damn good. That's just about the right time for the Gods of humility to step in to take you down a notch. On the way back from a late lunch we noticed a weird popping sound as we had started the bike but it started so away we went. Unfortunately, all was not well and about halfway to Huyen's office the engine started to cut out. After a few more yards we lurch to a stop. I'm not too concerned, as with many things as Retro chic as my Honda Super Cub (It's almost as old as I am,) one cannot expect flawless operation. Huyen jumps off, I shift it into neutral and try several times to kick start the bike checking thrice to make sure I am indeed in neutral. Huyen jumps back on and does the same with the exact same result. Nothing. Remembering that we don't have a fuel gauge we lift the seat and unscrew the cap to see half a tank of gas sloshing around. Well that exhausted my extensive mechanical knowledge, so I step back and look as authoritative as possible while Huyen looks to see if there are any obvious lose connections. Luckily (and unluckily in Viet Nam) nothing goes unnoticed, so the xe om guy across the street comes over and he tries to kick start the bike. Nothing. He checks the gas. Still half empty, in this case, and then an old woman from the shop we are standing in front of offers her opinion. Huyen, the xe om driver, and the old woman chat for a moment while I sweat and uh, supervise. The xe om driver disappears across the street and just as quickly reappears with a small oil rag in which is wrapped a few tools and a spark plug. He proceeds to quickly replace our plug and tries to restart the bike again. No luck. At this point it is decided the bike cannot be fixed here on the street and we pay the guy 20,000 VND ($1.33) for his efforts and try and decide what to do. Leave the bike here, call a minivan, hire two xe om guys to take the bike back to our apartment. It's getting late and Huyen needs to get to work. We call the same xe om guy over and after a quick discussion it's decided we don't need two xe om guys. I can take the bike back with our helpful xe om guy.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of my new ride breaking down, a first in itself, I also got to do something I never thought I'd get to do. If you spend enough time in Viet Nam you'll notice any number of vehicles, from bicycles to heavy laden motorbikes being pushed along by another motorbike. The reason for this might be to speed up in the case of a bicycle, help with a heavily loaded cyclo, or, as in my case, an engine failure. I seen this somewhat sketchy operation innumerable times, but I never thought I'd be taking part, but with Huyen not available for this little circus act and with the xe om guy confidently telling me to jump on my scooter, I decided to go for it. Wheeling the bike around to head back home I clip my helmet strap together and feel an abrupt nudge at the rear of the bike. Starting out is a bit dodgy as I forget that I still need to steer the bike while the xe om guy uses first his right leg on the rear passenger peg to propel us along. We mange to cross over to the slow (slower) side of the street and he crosses behind me he and switches to his left hand on the metal rack (aka Huyen's seat) as we get up to speed. Just like my first few times out on the road we are traveling slow enough to get through almost all the lights perfectly, only having to stop once, which was great since it's a pain to get going again. 15 minutes later we roll up in front of our apartment no worse for wear, another first in my many first time experiences in Viet Nam. Mr. Xe Om happily takes the 50K VND I offer and races away at full speed as I wheel the bike down our apartments hallway to it's parking space. Huyen calls to ask if I made it home alright and tell me that we would not get the bike fixed until the next morning (as well as that I'd paid the xe om guy too much ;) "No problem" I said walking back out the front door of our apartment and down the street. Joining the flow of traffic on Ha Noi's bustling streets once again . . . as a pedestrian.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Xe May!

Well it finally happened. After 9 trips and over 15 months total spent in Viet Nam I finally got a motorbike, well, scooter really. The terribly retro chic, Honda Super Cub ( It's only got a 50 cc engine, so I really can't call it a motorbike, but it's a mechanized vehicle, so it's a big step forward for me. Last Friday Huyen excitedly called me, exclaiming that our new bike would be ready that evening. Three days ahead of schedule. I was really excited too, ever since we had talked about me getting a bike during my previous trip in May I had been looking forward to finally making the leap from taxi's, xe om's ("Honda Hugs" guys on the street corner who you pay to take you places,) and most "manly" of all, having Huyen drive me around on her motorbike (a proper motorbike, fast, solid, silver Japanese engineering. ) However, faced with the reality of getting an actual motorbike in a mere 6-7 hours, I was also more than a bit nervous. Having been mentally scarred by my first experience with motorbikes back in 1993 (A classmate of mine, Kerry, had borrowed a friend's bike and had it parked in front of our 4 story classroom building. During on of our regular breaks she offered to let me try it out. "Sure, why not? How hard could it be. . . In font of all the other students, Americans, Japanese, Korean, English, etc. I quickly mounted the bike, hit the electric starter, took it out of neutral, and accelerated forward. Just a bit faster than I liked, but instead of grabbing the break lever I managed to twist my wrist and the bike shot out from under me and I fell flat on my face. The riderless back crashed down on it's side about ten feet in front of me destroying the driver's side mirror and scratching up the side of the bike a bit. Needless to say, Kerry was a bit upset, not only because I damaged her friends bike, but also because she was quite attracted to this particular friend. Well, the mirror was replaced and all was forgiven [though no love connection was made. . . ] but the memory remained.) I was really worried that I might hurt myself, or worse, Huyen or some other innocent Vietnamese person who happened to cross the path of my 50 cc's of moving metal and plastic.
My phone rang again, about an hour earlier than I had expected. Huyen says Kim Anh (the vitamin lady's) husband has my bike and is waiting for me over by the Fivimart (one of Ha Noi's more popular supermarkets,) so get over there as soon as possible and she'll meet me there. I throw my shirt on and head downstairs, out the street and to the corner where I grab Thien, one of the friendly xe om guys who hangs out on our corner, and were off in the middle of rush hour to see a man about a bike. Turns out he's not at the Fivimart, but at Huyen's former, and Kim Anh's current workplace, Regus. So I walk the two blocks back to the office building, but no Super Cub or husband in site. Then a man on an old Vespa pulls up asks if waiting for a someone with a Honda Super Cub (Luckily, there are still few enough Westerns around that we still stick out.) "Yes. I am that guy!" The man informs me that he is Kim Anh's husbands brother and that his brother has gone to "fill 'er up" and should be back momentarily. Which he is, about 5 minutes later. Out of the traffic, in the falling evening light, my Super Cub appears. It looks completely new (they repainted it and rebuilt the engine.) Retro and beautiful. Exactly what I had in mind. In faltering English (his) and faltering Vietnamese (mine) he goes over all the of the bike's basic operations. Front brake lever on the right along with the turn signals. Rear brake at my right foot along with the old fashioned kick starter. The foot lever on the left shifts the three gears up and down. Horn and lights on the left side of the handlebar. And in the center of the steering column is a simple speed-o-meter, odometer, one green light (to left me know I'm in neutral,) and one orangish light to indicate I have one of the turn signals selected. The one thing I notice is missing is a fuel tank gauge. He smiles and lefts the hinged seat revealing a small gas cap, which he quickly unscrews. "No problem, just look in" he says gesturing to the petrol sloshing around inside. Seems easy enough. Huyen has not shown up yet so I ask him a few questions about his vintage Vespa and then dig out the 500,000 VND ($30.21 USD) that Huyen had negotiated for the monthly rental. He smiles and refuses saying that he can't accept the money because of the vitamins I had brought over for his children. Just then I see a tiny Van Xuan taxi coming through the intersection and know that it must be Huyen. She's adamant about taking Van Xuan, they are the cheapest and most reliable in Ha Noi. . . Not sure if he was unsure about his English or my Vietnamese (or maybe I just look like completely clueless,) but he goes over the entire bike again with Huyen, who of course, ask some more insightful questions. Huyen jumps on the bike and takes it off the sidewalk in a tight circle on the street and then back. Confident everything is in working order Kim Anh's husband jumps on the back of his brother's Vespa and they zip off to dinner.
The moment of truth. Huyen asks if I can take us home. Well. . . .this is not what I had had in mind. It's dark now. There are still a ton of people on the street. And we are a good 10 minutes from home. The week before we had scoped out a place right in front of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum that is wide, smooth, and most importantly, not busy. We saw some people practicing driving there and I leaned forward over Huyen's shoulder and said to Huyen that I thought that might be a good spot for my maiden voyage. She agreed then, but here in front of the Regus office on a dark rush hour street she may have forgotten my idea from the week earlier. The challenge has been thrown down, however unintentionally, and as much as I'd like to, I gotta step up. I step over to the bike and lean it upright off it's kick-stand. Straddling the beast I lean down over to the left of the steering column and turn the key in the very inconveniently placed ignition switch. The green light indicating neutral blinks on which means I'm good to go. Huyen has jumped on the back of the bike on the metal rack behind the seat which she swears she doesn't mind riding on (she used to ride in the same place on her father's super cub, but I don't think I'll ever try the passenger "seat" since I still want to have kids.) I place my foot on the kick-start and kick down. Naturally my foot slips off the first few times, and then when I finally manage to keep my foot on the kick-start nothing is starting except the perspiration on my fore-head. Huyen gently reminds me that I need to give it a little gas at the same time I kick the start. Of course. The next kick and the engine roars, like a over powered lawn-mower, to life. Grabbing the brake lever firmly, in order to avoid repeating my past mistakes, I shift the bike into first gear and non intuitively, the green light goes off meaning we are good to go. I angle the bike off the sidewalk and onto the street using the entire width of the street in order to turn the bike 180 degrees and in the wrong direction. It's not that I did not know where to go, it's just that the big traffic circle (described in my early blog entry) just looked too intimidating. So, it's down the distinctly less busy street puttering away from our apartment as other motorbikes and bicycles going flying past for a few blocks until Huyen encourages me to turn right. We roll over a few of Ha Noi's infrequent speed bumps and then another right onto the very large street that runs parallel to the Red River. I hug the sidewalk as huge trucks and buses roar past and finally another turn and we are back on track heading towards the traffic circle. "Slowly, slowly" Huyen yells from behind me though I don't think I can go any slower without falling over. I enter the circle as a bunch of bikes race toward me from the left and a few more merging in from the right. A bunch of the traffic is trying to cut across my path and I slow down even further to give them clear passage. Luckily, as with pedestrians, the other vehicles just find their way around me and as quickly as they enter the intersection they are gone and I have a clear path. I awkwardly shift the bike into second gear and we lurch forward to Trang Tien street. I pass the crowds of locals spilling out onto street in front of the ever popular Kem Trang Tien (Ice cream shop) and just like that I'm at the bottom Ha Noi's central Lake. A slow left turn on to Ba Trieu and I'm on a busy but mercifully one way street. The good thing about me driving so slow is that I manage to not have to stop at any of the lights, so while the locals race from one intersection to the next, I putter smoothly through each of them far behind the pack. One more harrowing turn to the left off of Ba Trieu and all that's left is a right turn on to our small street, Trieu Viet Vuong. I avoid a few pedestrians and just like that we are home. As I swerve towards the narrow ramp that will take us up onto the sidewalk Huyen wisely slips off the still moving bike. I quickly realize I'm going a bit too fast so I grab the breaks and jerk to a halting stop in front of the ramp. Huyen walks up and reaches down to turn off the bike and then tells me to downshift into neutral. Of course she's gotta help me (basically do it herself) woman-handle the bike the two ramps down our apartments hallway to our parking spot. All in all an thoroughly ugly and shameful display, but in the words of Sean Connery in the "Untouchables." I have fulfilled the first rule of police work (and motorbike riding.) I made it home alive at the end of the day. . .

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Change. . .

Contrary to what some people might tell you, walking across the street in Viet Nam is not a matter of closing your eyes, hoping for the best, and stepping out in front of the oncoming traffic. Nope, getting across the streets here requires a bit more subtly than that. I was crossing the street, streets really, as the area in front of the Opera House in Ha Noi is a big traffic circle where 6 streets meet one another (see link on the left for a map view,) when I started to think about change. Much like the conventional wisdom would have you do, I strode confidently off the sidewalk of Phan Chu Trinh on my way to the far opposite corner where Ly Thai To street begins. All the traffic on Phan Chu Trinh runs one way and I was walking across the street at a 45 degree angle with the traffic coming at me from behind. No sooner had I gotten to near the center of the intersection than I had to stop. Unlike motorbikes/scooters that make up 90% of the traffic on the road, and will 99% of the time simply maneuver around you, buses and trucks do not. So as the line of buses and trucks came streaming at me from 4 different directions, I had to stop a moment and change direction, walking away from my final destination. The one thing buses and trucks do stop for is another bus or truck. With two vehicles of equal size it's just a matter of who gets there first. This inevitably involves speeding up and then quickly slowing down if you are not going to win the race to the intersection. As the winning bus goes lumbering by an arms length away the other newly stationary bus allows all the motorbikes, cars, and pedestrians like me an opportunity to make our move. I quickly turn back left onto my original heading, all the motorbikes who had also slowed down to see which of the buses would yield, buzz by me and the line of cars accelerate past before the losing bus can get back into gear and alter the flow of traffic once again. Stepping on to the sidewalk I make my way through dozens of bikes parked neatly on the street into lovely air condition offices of Huyen's former employer, Regus Business Service Center at 63 Ly Thai To Street.

Mrs. Kim Anh was waiting in the reception area for me, and I hand over the heavy plastic bag. With a quick thank you and your welcome, I'm back outside in half the time it took me to cross the street. I stop for a moment still enjoying the full blast of the air conditioning flowing out of the sliding doors of the office buildings lobby. How many times did I have to change my path in order to get across the street? 5, 6 times maybe. . . slowing down, stopping, turning left, turning right, and then a quick trot to cover the last few meters. Change is part of life of course, from my path across the street to my 4 month relocation to Viet Nam. Not that I didn't deal with change everyday in my life back in the States. To the contrary, I dealt with hundreds of little changes everyday. Change the schedule. Change the story. Change the sequence order. change the shot numbers. Change the audio breaks. Change the concept. Change the dialog. Change the timing. Change artist. Change the camera. Change my dinner. Change the time I walk to the gym. Change my clothes. Etc. . . . . . Somehow all these little changes become so routine, salad with balsamic dressing instead of Italian tonight, pan the camera in instead of dolly, head to the gym at 7:30 instead of 8 pm, that it was easy to lose my ability to appreciate them.

That's why I love coming to Viet Nam so much. It's always changing my perspective on life. Whether it be my first visit in 1993, as I struggled to deal with my survivors guilt spending three days with a destitute street kid. No parents, no school, poor health, and beaten up just a few days before by some other kids for what must have been the few dollars in his possession. Those were some of the toughest and best days I have spent on this planet. The kind of mirror that only the Ghost of Christmas Present holds up in fairy tales, and not one that most of us are lucky enough to get to look into. Or my sixth trip, when my whole idea of what love could be was changed when I sat down to a historical skillet of Ha Noi's famous fish dish, cha ca, across from Ms. Lai Thanh Huyen. Or my ninth trip when a very official and difficult meeting between two families brought me closer together with my mother than I ever been. Or this tenth trip. When just yesterday, on the sixth floor of a 40 year old building (see photo,) in her half empty one room studio, beyond all our expectations, Huyen's parent's accepted me and my family into their family in such a generous and loving way that I ended up in a heartfelt embrace with her father in a way I thought I might never be able to, let alone a mere 7 days after I arrived. All these changes every time I come here, hard and easy, painful and wonderful, big and small, important and trivial, and so I keep coming.

What was in that plastic bag I handed over to Mrs. Kim Anh? A $40 gift of Gummy Bear vitamins to a woman I have never met, who is no longer even Huyen's colleague. Turns out her husband buys and fixes up Honda Super Cubs. The perfect motorbike for a novice like me, light, not too powerful, and brakes and throttle all on the right side of the handlebars. Just a little gesture of good will in the form of Gummy Bears vitamins for their kids to make sure I get a nice bike in good working order with a nice (non pink) color. Change the way you do business ;) It's all these changes, that add up to make a life. If you close your eyes and step out in front of traffic here you are just as likely to get hit by that winning bus as you are to make it to your final destination. So, I open my eyes, stop, slow down, turn left, turn right, and a final little burst of speed to get to the other side. Smile and appreciate all the little changes that make that possible. . .

Friday, September 5, 2008

First Post. . .

Hi All,

OK Everybody I'm going to give the blog thing a shot and see if I can think of something interesting enough to write and/or photograph on a regular basis to keep you all interested while I spend the next four months in Ha Noi, Viet Nam.

Well, I made it to Viet Nam safe and sound. Somehow I managed to sleep a good 8 of the 13 hours of flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong. The new seat on the Cathay Pacific 747's are, like Nhat said, since he just flew the same flight on his way to and from Beijing, slightly more comfortable than the old ones. Definitely better for the person sitting behind you, as the seats do not fold back, rather slide forward. That way you don't end up trying to eat your meals with the person in front of you fully reclined giving you that awkward 45 degree angle of entry to your tray of food. Hate that! I'm sure the person behind was happy about those seats, since I ended up sleeping through two of the three meal services.

Got into Hong Kong bright and early, 6:10 am, with two and a half hours to kill, and made a beeline for the food court since I had not eaten for nearly 10 hours! Thank God Asian airports, on a whole, are like the rest of the countries they are located, in that, food is everywhere and for the most part good and cheap. Over a dozen places in the food court alone and dozens of other spread throughout the terminal. I ended up with a bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen from the Japanese chain Ajisen (, mainly because the HK places had big queues and as I mentioned, I was STARVING! Happily sated I headed to the gate to join all the Vietnamese (listening to Dance Music remixes on their cell phones) and Europeans (cool architectural eye-glasses and colorful backpacks) waiting for the plane to take us to Ha Noi.

Now that my stomach is full I focus on the task at hand, getting to Ha Noi and spending time with my lady, and being only hour and a half away I am starting to get excited. Unfortunately, the Viet Nam Airlines Airbus 321 left engine has different ideas, and after making it all the way to the end of the runway . . . we slowly turn back the way we came as the head flight attendant announces that we are heading back to the gate because of a "Technical problem." AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Another 30 minutes on the plane at the gate (satellite gate) before the buses are summoned and we are herded back to the terminal. The new departure time is estimated at 11:30 AM, but I am skeptical, however, my skepticism is mitigated by a $40 HK voucher for our troubles. I quickly jump online to call Huyen to tell her about the delay, but I'm too late as she is already in a cab 1/3 of the way to airport. Bummer. . . three hours waiting for me in the decidedly less tasty Noi Bai airport. My only advice, stay away from the hot dogs! Though I am disappointed that Huyen and my reunion will be delayed another two and a half hours I make another reunion with a bowl of shrimp won ton and HK milk tea up at the food court. Back at the gate I only wait five minutes before we are back on the bus heading towards the plane sitting out on the ever muggier tarmac. It's like deja vu on board, except that the scary looking German guy who was seated in the aisle seat next to me is gone. After we had left the plane the first time and everybody bum rushed the desk at the gate to get their vouchers I saw him gesturing with sternly pointed finger at his ticket as the three poor gate attendants tried to calm him down. All I caught was " . . . I vill not get back on zat plane!" Can't say I missed him, he had that 1970's Baader Meinhof ( look to him, save the waist band of his fashionable Diesel underwear just visible because of his low riding super tight black jeans. Would have taken a picture, as he was that, uh . . . unique looking, but I was too scared he might catch me, and then who knows what. Not that I'm saying his bad juju was to blame, but as soon as we were all on board we taxied quickly down the run-way and were off with out a hitch. . .

The small flip down screens on the Viet Nam airlines Airbus 321 were lowered almost immediately after we took off. Not for in-flight entertainment, but for in-flight progress tracked through a very video game like set of animated views. I stared hypnotically up at the screen, first at the very basic flat map view, here's HK, where you just left, and there is Ha Noi, where you are headed. Then to a approximation of what the pilot sees view (very flight simulator like.) And finally to the most interesting of the three. Starting out just off the front of the plane on the co-pilot's side, the camera then does a slow 170 degree spin to end up behind and slightly above the plane with a virtual flight path extending out in front of the plane and Ha Noi far off in the distance. This view then does a power of 10 sort of thing (shout out to Dave Murphy,) stepping back further and further away until the "slightly" out of scale plane is covering most of Southern China in a view that encompasses the whole world. OK, all of this is not very interesting (except that it kept me pre-occupied as I had already read the VN airlines magazine twice,) but what was a bit interesting is the route we took. Not a straight as the crow flies route over the South China Sea, across the infamous Gulf of Tonkin, and then straight into Ha Noi, but a route skimming the coast of Southern China, then a bit of a turn to the North just past Nanning, and finally a 45 degree turn to left above Northern Viet Nam and down to Ha Noi. Wonder what that was all about, and a bit put out as it must have added another 15 to 20 minutes between me and my ultimate destination. Mercifully we are quickly into our descent as my excitement grows every moment as I recognize the Red River Delta countryside open up below me in the seemingly always partially cloudy Northern Viet Nam sky. I dig my "Viet Nam" cell phone out of my bag, and place finger on the power button as our juju-less plane gracefully sets down on Noi Bai's bumpy runway. . . "Hello! Em Oiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii"

1.) Ajisen Ramen.
2.) Table with a view HKIA
3.) . . . bowl no.2
4.) Made it!
5.) She's out there Somewhere!