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?