Southeast Asia Journal 18: April 16, 2010

Journal April 16, 2010

I haven’t written any of my thoughts down in a few days.  I have only been recording my thoughts into a voice recorder and am trying out a new technique.  I am hoping that it will save me some of the time that I have been spending on these journals lately.  It’s quite cumbersome to not only journal everyday.  But to add configuring a website, editing photos, proofreading, and all the rest – it’s a lot to do.

As promised, I have studied the barrage of honking and I think I have come up with a small semblance of the communication that the horns ring out.  Firstly, there is a “shave-and-a-haircut” jingle that drivers use as they are approaching an intersection so as to let others know that they are coming.  The ones who are approaching the intersection and are not intending to stop at all simply lay into the horn full blast from about 10 meters before the crossroad to about five meters after.  There are several short blasts for bikers that are approaching pedestrians who are walking slightly in the road.  The best I can figure, this evolved out of an idea that the more beeps on hears from behind, the more likely they will be able to position the moving object by it’s blasts — sort of a sonar that you can readily create imagery for in your head.  There are many “SOS” type blasts (more like toots, really) that are in short and long succession which can generally be tied to drivers delivering packages and who are more likely to be swerving in and out of shops looking for their package’s destination.  And finally, I have noticed that larger vehicles such as buses and cars really just love to massage their horns whenever possible.  There could literally be no one around and they will just honk to ensure that it’s still working.  I suppose there’s nothing wrong with adding to the noise pollution even when on deserted streets just so that the people sleeping in the apartments above don’t get too used to silence for too long.

At any rate, I am in Hanoi at the moment.  I have mostly been spending my time traveling a short distance on buses and then running around into the communities by day.  I did get to see the war museums and memorials.  It was really staggering to find out what we Americans did to these people.  But I wasn’t there, so I have no context as to why we might have been so terribly violent.  I am sure it was a different time and we understood much less about the way things work in different parts of the world.  I, myself, am living through a tumultuous time that my children (if I ever have any) and their generation may well have a hard time understanding just how blind we were back at the turn of the century when America started off the next hundred years with a horrible president and an even worse war – a war without an understandable cause or a foreseeable end.  But these are just a few of the emotions that overcome me when I see things that I am seeing here in remembrance of the way we were.  But, then again, that’s what I came here to see.  So I suppose I am getting what I asked for.

The main difference between Hanoi and Saigon, as far as I can tell, is that the percentage of people selling all manner of things — including themselves — is buffered a little bit by an overall effort of respect.  “No” actually means no here, where in Ho Chi Minh “no” meant maybe, or, perhaps, I might be swayed.

Moving around on buses makes a lot of sense for a country that is thin and long.  Perhaps if Chile ever becomes anything more than a desert with mountains, they might employ the same tactic at attracting tourists to that region of the world.

Hanoi is my favorite place in Vietnam so far.  You are still hassled a little bit on the streets to buy things from people, but at least you’re not chased down the road by prostitutes trying to haggle you down on the price of some “yum-yum.”

The streets are narrow and dirty.  The scents range from a whacking of the fecund to a wafting of the delectable.  And the people are either buzzing through or sitting, selling and smoking.  Even though the personal bubble gets smaller and smaller the farther north you go in Vietnam, there always seems to be just enough room for you to squeeze by without completely affronting the other person.  They are most genius when it comes to space management.  It seems that when you have lived in a culture of narrow walls and high population, you start to see things in terms of how much stuff you can put in them.

I also like the idea that there is really no class system here.  There are rich people, yes.  But everyone else pretty much does the same thing and therefore falls under the same umbrella of monetary dispersal.  They are all vendors or managers or students or drivers or laborers or a small variety of other things.  This sort of makes for a generally open population of person-to-person communication.  People are not afraid of what others will think here, as they do in other places like Thailand, because everyone lives in the same place, with the same lifestyle, eating the same food and buying all their necessities from the same places.

Really, I can only think of three classes: the uber-rich, the uber-poor and everyone else.  Those that can afford to give to beggars, normally do.  Those who are not able to do so make that known in a way that is comfortable per the community — they shout at the person and wave their hands wildly for invading their time and space.  And since big hand gestures and over-exaggerated expression of emotion is something that has been looked down upon in most Asian cultures, it is clear when someone is upset here.

I have appreciated the economic situation personally because things are much more reasonably priced here.  There is still a lot of underhanded swindling that goes on with westerners — mostly because they believe that we simply don’t know any better than to pay their inflated prices.  But it is still a different kind of swindling that goes on in Cambodia.  I spent a lot of money seeing the sights in Cambodia.  And so far I have spent more money in travel with one big, added benefit: I can book overnight buses and sleep on the way to my destination.  This not only saves me money in hotel stays, it also averages in to be what the transport alone would cost me in just getting around.  Therefore, food is my only contingency.

But to cover the issue of swindling and underhanded business here; There seems to just be this (at least publicly) unspoken agreement that exists between merchants, hotels and the shady tourist companies that tote around their guests and clients.  It’s really a bad situation.  It’s also very short-sighted, as one fellow traveler pointed out to me.  They really just dig in for the big scam not minding that they are found out about halfway through the ordeal — they really don’t consider the idea that these travelers are part of a greater circuit of travelers who attend to blogs and travel forums where these scams will be listed and bitched about, thereby likely prompting less tourism in the long run.  But I hate to jest in this way, it is quite a shame that there is such a culture of backstabbing and money-grubbing of westerners.  I would imagine that it gets a little old for the local shop, restaurant and hotel owners who are being screamed at by legitimately pissed off tourists after having realized that their overpriced and over-promised “luxury” or “VIP” ticket to whatever they expected to enjoy, turned out rather to be a hustle of shark-like intensity from their first step on the bus.

But on to the food: Now that’s the good part about being in Vietnam.  Not only are there many different national favorites and flavors to choose from, but they are almost always very bold and well-cooked.  Unlike Cambodia, Vietnamese food is a little less adventurous.  Because of their longevity as an impoverished nation, they have resorted to inputting a lot of odd additions to their meals.   From insects to amphibious life, the Cambodian menu is something to be careful and picky about.  Vietnam’s sharp contrast in digestible delicacies include variations of noodle soups, chicken and pork dishes and a plethora of seafood selections.

From here, I hope to be traveling to Sapa tonight via overnight train into the mountains. This will be my most coveted photo-opportunity in Vietnam.  I hope to get into the hill tribe villages and come away with a glimpse into the lives of the people of this area.  They have an amazing history.

There are several tribes.  Many of them are small, but some of them span all the way into the provinces in Myanmar, Laos and even south into the northern parts of Thailand.  The Dzao are one of these tribes with numbers estimated around 480,000 people.  Most of these cultures are women-centered and have a very different viewpoint on how life should happen.  For instance, the women are expected to propose to the men; the women are the ones who inherit the wealth when the family or husband passes; and the men normally take on the woman’s family name after moving into the woman’s house following marriage.

The Ede tribe is a polytheistic, communal society who live on long boat-shaped houses set on stilts.  Entire families will live in these constructions and there is normally an area sectioned off for newly weds.

The H’Mong tribe, who I am hoping to see most of all, has several sects divided by the colors of dress that the women weave.  Almost all of the sects wear beads and 70’s-style sequins buttons.  There are black, white, red green and flower sects and all named accordingly.  The Black H’Mong wear a distinguishing cylindrical hat decorated with weavings of various colors of beads.

It will be a pleasure simply to be around these people, but hopefully I can also take away and share a perspective of their seemingly undying lifestyle.

The train station at Sapa is about five minutes from the Chinese border.  The next stop on this famous train is Kunming in the southern mountains of China.   Kunming happens to be the place of residence of a fellow adventurer in whose work in philanthropic and historic adventures I have found a recent interest in studying and following.  Jin Fe Bao, a Chinese renaissance man, has recently finished trekking the length of the Vietnamese railroad.  His story and photos can be found here: and another of his exploits includes having trekked 80 days across the arid trade lanes of the Sahara Desert in Africa.  Information on that journey can be found here:

From sapa, I will return to Hanoi and, barring any delays in attaining my visa for Laos, I will be headed on another overnight sleeper bus to Vientienne — the Lao capitol.  From there, I will… well, you will just have to read the next journal to find out.

I will go back into these last few and likely the following journal and update them with photos after I have had a chance to sift through of the mountain of shots I took recently and edit them down into good pieces for these articles.  But I figured I would at least publish this one tonight after having worked on it.  So enjoy and I will let you know when they are loaded up!

Till then, all my best.


2 thoughts on “Southeast Asia Journal 18: April 16, 2010

  1. Colin’s mom again-I’m a latecomer to your photos and blog, but appreciate greatly your efforts to document what you are experiencing along your journey. I don’t know you at all, but sense that you are impressively observant and remarkably curious; you seem to be extremely dedicated to learn what happened in each nation’s history well before you were even born to make sense of what you are seeing and to put what you are observing into perspective. I feel fortunate to have stumbled onto your blog and look forward to your future posts…..

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