Vietnam photo omnibus

Hey friends! If you’re waiting for your Royal Wedding video to load and would like to look at some pictures of noodles or enormous statues of Ho Chi Minh… we’ve got those! Here is Kevin eating really delicious phở, and loving it.

Click here for all of our Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon pictures.

We had a really lovely short visit in Hue, but may not manage to post about it on its own right, so our uproarious captions will have to fill the huge void. Here is Kevin being impatient for his traditional coffee to drip:

Click here for all of our pictures from Hue.

We will definitely be putting up a post about Hanoi, the world’s best place to be killed by oncoming traffic — but you’ll die happy because of how delicious the food is. Here is a picture of two strangers posing by a lewd statue:

Click here for all of our pictures of Hanoi!

Of course, you can always find our most recent — along with our least recent — photos by clicking on the word “Photos” in the black bar near the top of every page. It must be our funny-caption brinksmanship that leads us to call them out separately in this way.

Saigon kick

I think Kevin and I expected to spend most of our time in Vietnam sitting at folding tables on the sidewalk, eating assorted street food. (And, as our pictures will testify, that expectation was close to correct.) I didn’t realize until we got to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon that I didn’t have an advance mental picture of it at all, other than this one, which is obviously not too current.

Even with what felt like zero expectation, Saigon still surprised me somehow. I think partly it was the juxtaposition: The city felt slick and rich after Phnom Penh. It’s pretty leafy and green and full of parks. It’s also boutique land — not just in the main tourist areas (though the emphasis on luxury goods is definitely greater in the tourist areas, and one of the first things I saw upon arriving in the city was a Gucci store), but in the mixed-use, real-life neighborhoods too.

We’d read that locals don’t like to mix with tourists in Saigon, and whether or not that’s true, it occasionally felt accurate to us. One night we went to a restaurant popular with locals; the menu was only in Vietnamese, but we figured we’d point to things that looked good. But the staff were not down with that approach, and instead gestured impatiently for us to choose among several warmed-over, suspicious-looking fish dishes in a buffet, from which none of the locals was eating. Kevin tried, in a friendly way, to make himself understood, but the staff were implacable and indifferent, and we ended up giving up and trying somewhere else. One small failure for our spirit of adventure, but one large victory over e coli, we figured.

Speaking of bacteria: Saigon is the place where traveling really caught up with us, and each of us will probably permanently associate the city with intestinal discomfort. Unfortunately, this was also the city in which we had asked ourselves: Is it really all that important to have a window in your hotel room? So a number of hours were lost in our depressing little bunker, waiting for the storm to pass. (Nothing against windowless hotel rooms, but I think my first windowless hotel room will also be my last. Live and learn.)

But we had some good moments. Like! Wonderful wonderful coffee. The appropriately disturbing War Remnants Museum. A lot of exceptionally delicious food. And the puzzle of the communist-capitalist thing: the palpable commercial bustle juxtaposed with news stories like 'VN Congratulates Cuban Communists’ (Sample snippet: “'The Communist Party and fraternal people of Cuba have made great efforts and gained encouraging results in updating their economic model in order to raise labour efficiency and productivity, promoting fast and sustainable economic development, while firmly defending the revolution’s achievements,’ wrote the Central Committee. 'We strongly believe that the 6th Congress of your Party will create a strong motivation for fast, firm economic development. The Cuban people, under the clear-sighted leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba headed by leader Fidel Castro and President Raul Castro, will overcome all difficulties and challenges and will continue to develop their nation, while successfully building socialism in the free, beautiful and heroic country of Cuba.’” You said it, guys!)

I kept having to shake my head and remind myself: “Right, yes. Communism. With media control.” At the wonderfully weird Reunification Palace, there’s a video about the Vietnam War, which understandably tells the story from the (north) Vietnamese perspective. We ducked in and sat down, appreciating the air conditioning. I spent several minutes nodding along mostly, and then the video voiceover said, in big retro-announcer voice: “Citizens of countries all over the world expressed solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and many American citizens self-immolated in protest of the war.”

Media control is something I find really scary, but it’s sort of awesome that they put that assertion in the English-language version of this video. They could have left it out, but no! We say Americans self-immolated, and we don’t care who hears it.

The basic (non-) structure of our trip has been that we get to a new place and then decide where to go next, so in Saigon we twiddled our thumbs a lot, debating. Down to the Mekong delta area? Up to gorgeous Halong Bay, even though it’s supposed to be a bit of a tourist trap? Eventually we decided on Hue (kind of rhymes with whey), the country’s former imperial capital. There are plenty of reasons to go — architecture, history, temples — but in truth our primary motivators were that Kevin loves the city’s signature noodle soup dish, bún bò Huế, and we found a great last-minute deal on a room in a fancy hotel. With a window. Vietnam Airlines, here we come!

Planes, trains and automobiles Buses.

We have been getting down with some bus travel, y’all.

This is enjoyable in part because I am a crappy flier; looking out the plane window before takeoff, I will regard the scrubby dry grass beside the runway with intense love. Why have I never appreciated the ground before? If only I could be down on that gritty desiccated grass I would nuzzle it like it was my newborn baby’s hair.

But also, the bus is more entertaining in many ways. I think we had expected to take more trains, but the bus is often faster and cheaper, and we’re traveling with locals, who regard us with weary tolerance. And we’re seeing the countryside: marshy fields of water lilies, dusty little villages, bare-bones rest-stops where families share plates of noodles and we familiarize ourselves with squat toilets.

Like a plane, the bus has a fair amount of climate variability, except that while on a plane one is typically cold, on a southeast Asian bus one would like to be so lucky as to be cold. (Even on a nice bus, one that costs as much as $12 for a six-hour inter-city jaunt, a little light steaming seems to be the norm at this time of year.) Also like a plane, there’s a restroom at the rear of the vehicle, though local custom obliges the driver to do a fair amount of braking and weaving, so maintaining one’s ladylike hover over the toilet seat takes a fair amount of dedication and muscle control.

Some details are unique to the bus experience, however. The playing of karaoke DVDs during the journey: not like a plane, at least any plane I’ve ever been on. Or, for that matter, any bus I’ve ever been on. By our second lengthy journey I was able to nudge Kevin and say “look, it’s the one with the bonnet again.” (One of our favorite videos seemed to have a Little Bo Peep-meets-Liberace theme.)

Other excitements have included cows in the road, extensive honk-based communication between our bus drivers and the drivers of the surrounding vehicles, and, most excitingly, roadside construction. At one point, as the road narrowed to accommodate some maintenance work and the bus tilted sideways to drive partially on the shoulder, I was not able to prevent myself from leaning in the opposite direction, as though my leaning would be the thing that kept us from rolling over the guardrail and down a hill into a marsh. Actually, though, it totally worked, in that we did not roll over the guardrail and down the hill into the marsh. (Relevant: When I say “guardrail,” it would be best if you’d picture more like a fairly thick string, hung from wooden stakes at about thigh height. Sometimes adorned with multi-colored flags — presumably for extra safety — and sometimes not.)

Here was maybe my favorite part, though:

The seat covers. Ride our bus line, and spend the whole six hours with your butt on Slutty Little Mermaid’s face. As my dad would say: Such a deal we have for you!

What it's like to visit a restaurant in a foreign country with Kevin

  1. Set out to find the place. Kevin assures you that it’s not too far.
  2. Walk for 15m in scorching heat/pouring rain/war-ravaged cinderblocks.
  3. Kevin says, “Well, it’s a little further than I thought. I mean, I thought it was right here. Let’s keep going.”
  4. Walk for another 30m.
  5. Kevin says, “You know, I’ll ask one of these friendly local folks where it is.” Kevin lankily approaches a pharmacy owner or badminton player, bows/wais/nods and attempts to say the name of the restaurant, followed by a shrug/smile.
  6. After doing this 3 times, get a big smile, and then head in opposite direction.
  7. Another 10m later, and we’ve arrived!
  8. Kevin apologizes.
  9. Ordering ensues. The equation ((amount you should order) * 2.5 – (concession to Page / 2)) is used.
  10. Usually, Kevin will ask for something not on the menu and/or which is not available today. Attempt to politely negotiate at this point is attempted, which is universally unsuccessful yet humorous.
  11. Food successfully ordered. Time to cool off/dry off/remove leeches gained in process of finding restaurant. Kevin will usually lead conversation with a light discussion on space stations.
  12. Food arrives! Another table will likely have to be connected to ours to make space for the number of dishes that arrive.
  13. Kevin begins eating first dish.
  14. Moans of pleasure ensue.
  15. Continued, loud moans of pleasure happen.
  16. A few minutes in, Kevin is still loudly “Mmmmm… mmmmmm…”-ing every 45 seconds or so. Other patrons at the restaurant are looking at him.
  17. About 3/4ths of the way through the dish, Kevin wonders aloud if this might, in fact, be the best rendition of this dish available in the world. After all, we are in X, the country/place/province/cruise boat of the dish’s origin.
  18. Kevin finishes dish.
  19. 15 seconds later, Kevin gives his heartfelt description of why the dish is sublime, usually involving terms like “contrast,” “texture”, “balance,” and (Page’s favorite) “complex.”
  20. Plate pushed away, Kevin settles into his chair.
  21. Kevin waits patiently.
  22. After 1m30s, Kevin becomes twitchy.
  23. At 2m15s, Kevin finally breaks down and asks Page what she thought of the dish. “It’s OK if you don’t have an opinion yet.”
  24. Rest of meal is finished in a similar fashion. Time ambles by.
  25. Meal is complete.
  26. Pay bill. Kevin attempts to thank servers for his ridiculous behavior in a culturally sensitive way.
  27. Exeunt.

No Absolutes

When traveling, there are rules you are supposed to follow. There are certain things you are supposed to never do.

  • You shouldn’t let touts talk to you, or lead you around. But then you are in a big market in a strange city, and some guy asks where you are from, then leads you round the market, and then helps you find where the bun bo hue vendors are hidden, and joins you for lunch. In the end, he doesn’t ask for anything.
  • You shouldn’t let someone approach, then take your picture, as it’s probably a scam. But sometimes it really is just a little girl on a school trip who wants her picture taken with some white folks, and afterwards, in perfect English, thanks you and shakes your hand solemnly.
  • You should have a quick rule for for finding a hotel in a new city so you don’t agonize over it, something like “always get the 'Our pick’ of the Lonely Planet midrange hotels,” or “always choose the affordable option from the Luxe Guide.” But none of these rules work all of the time. Sometimes one of the hotel options is great, and sometimes one is way wrong and the other great. But both of them are sometimes the wrong choice.

When you are in a strange place, dealing with a lot of unknown things, you want to be smart. You want to close yourself in, follow specific rules, be careful, stick to a plan and simple rules.

But in reality, travel doesn’t work that way. What you actually need to do is have guidelines, but not rules. You have to approach each situation with a careful mind, but an open mind, and see how things unfold.

Learning how to have this approach, and not deal in absolutes, has been a challenge for me.

And, here are some Phnom Penh photos

Kind of a motley bunch, this time around, but here they are.

Now we’re hitting up some more bus action to Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon. In fact in some of these photos, that precious bus journey is memorialized! Here I am eating some lovely chocolate that our friend Emily gave us as part of a pre-flight care package (we are making that shit last), and here is the view from the window of our bus as it appeared to be driving into the Mekong River (but in fact was only driving onto a ferry in order to cross the Mekong River). Finally, do you know what you see when you leave Cambodia and enter Vietnam? A cat’s ass. Cambodia is like, pffff, whatever. We’ll show you what we think of your departure. (Or maybe that’s a Vietnamese welcome? Unclear.)

"You like to go to killing field?"

OK, Phnom Penh! Before departing Siem Reap Kevin threw a little poll up on Facebook asking whether we should visit PP or not. Public opinion was split (one vote for, one against) and ultimately we decided we should see more of Cambodia than just the history-rich but touristy Siem Reap area (plus a few hours of borderland through the window of the van from Poi Pet).

I’m glad we made it to Phnom Penh. I feel this way even though we did not have an especially great time there. A big factor was the Khmer New Year, which begins on April 14 and lasts about a week; the holiday hadn’t inhibited us much in the tourist economy of Siem Reap, but in Phnom Penh, 80% of the businesses were closed. (Do your homework ahead, kids! Although as none of our guidebooks mentioned this scheduling challenge, this probably would have required more digging than we had time to do.) So instead of enjoying cafes and bars that cater to expats and the little street businesses that cater to locals, we mostly hung out at more expensive and generic places that cater to tourists. At least we contributed to the local economy.

On the plus side, we stayed in one of the best $45-a-night hotel rooms we’re ever likely to find (LeBiz, it was called: free wifi, breakfast included, looks like the inside of an Apple store). Everyone was really nice to us. The chestnut that, despite the wonders of Angkor, Cambodia’s greatest treasure is its people — which struck and more or less still strikes me as sort of a smarmy, facile thing to say — nevertheless felt true when we eked out a conversation with a remork driver about his home province, or heard from a waiter about his immense pride in Cambodia’s first-ever crop of locally grown strawberries. (I looked aghast at the two on my plate that I hadn’t yet consumed, and then crammed them into my face with the quickness.) And it was a good idea to have a more modern counterpoint to the medieval-era history artifacts in Siem Reap.

Of course, it’s a little weird to go to a place and seek out the remaining evidence of the recent atrocities visited upon, and committed by, its people. But the locals seem down with the tourist interest in the Khmer Rouge. There is a funny/terrible thing that seemed to happen repeatedly, where a remork driver would come up to any Westerner leaving a building and ask, with a huge hopeful smile, “You like to go to killing field?” Aaaaaaahhhhh.

As for the attractions themselves: The killing fields exhibit and Tuol Sleng genocide museum are especially interesting because of how poorly kept up they are. At Tuol Sleng, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a detention/torture center and general staging ground for people who were to be executed, there are still bloodstains visible on the floors and walls, and while some rooms contain prison memorabilia — bed frames, shackling equipment, photos of victims, bullet boxes in which prisoner excrement was stored, strings of barbed wire, and the gradually collapsing remains of claustrophobic detention cells — other rooms contain piles of broken air-conditioning equipment or haphazard stacks of sun-bleached informational posters that are no longer in use. The combined effect is incredibly eerie, and gave me a very different feeling than visiting Holocaust museums and exhibits ever has. It felt like at any moment a door might slam closed behind me and I might be trapped in the nightmare myself. It’s a weird example of poor organization and minimal maintenance making for an even more effective experience (whether or not this is what’s intended).

At the killing fields site, the low-maintenance approach is perhaps less good. You arrive at this field, which is hot and dusty but basically serene until you see the huge Humvee-sized divots that represent the excavated mass graves. But periodically sticking up out of the ground we would see teeth and broken limb bones, slowly disintegrating under the ferocious sun and tourist footsteps. (There were several signs entreating “Please do not walk through the mass graves!” but I can’t imagine everyone obeys.) There’s a memorial stupa — kind of a Plexiglass column within an ornamental pagoda-style tower — that displays about 8,000 human skulls. But it’s not climate-controlled, or guarded, or even fully sealed against public interference. I am not exaggerating when I say I could have taken an eggshell-fragile, 35-year-old human skull and put it in my purse, and probably no one would have noticed. This seems bad.

I’m knocking these sites’ maintenance standards in awareness of how it must sound; it’s this kind of concern that sees countries dispossessed of their antiquities by arguably well-meaning, equally arguably opportunistic western countries. And Cambodia has some problems that may well rank ahead of atrocity-preservation on its to-do list. Maybe peeps aren’t even all that interested in keeping these memories alive; that would be understandable.

Phnom Penh’s more distant history seems just as haphazardly preserved and presented, though. Touring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, our guide explained rather earnestly that an effort is being made to prevent people from touching the bas reliefs, based on advice from UNESCO. By contrast, at Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda we saw the piles of bamboo strips with Sanskrit and Pali writing on them, which seemed to be just thrown in a jumble in some unlabeled glass-fronted filing cabinet. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem to assess: would some help from art historians and management consultants more than pay for itself in boosted tourist revenue or local pride, or are the country’s extremely meager funds better spent elsewhere first? Having seen a little of the hard conditions in some of the country’s more rural areas, I can’t really advocate museum renovation.

Fortunately, no one is asking me to whiteboard solutions for the challenges of any developing country. At the end of it, I felt grateful for having visited Phnom Penh, as well as guiltily grateful to leave. Our Cambodia visit registers now, even a couple of days later, as a bleeding-heart-liberal ache in my chest. No one is in any great need of my opinion, but I can’t help asking myself anyway: What to do, what to do?

All my exes live in Sihanoukville

We heard a fair amount of contemporary pop-country music while in Phnom Penh. I made a brief attempt to explain this to myself as indicating some kind of sympathy between the historic, recent and current struggles of the Khmer people and the themes of longing and hardship in American country music… or something… but soon sanity and the preponderance of Keith Urban songs led me to conclude that this is what Phnom Penh retailers think their tourist customers want to hear. Regardless the natural next step was for Kevin and me to spend half an hour thinking up Cambodian versions of famous country song titles (“All My Exes Live in Sihanoukville” being our best showing, obviously). Further entries:

“She Thinks My Remork’s Sexy”*
“Callin’ Siem Reap”
“Palm Wine”
“Have You Forgotten”**
“You Belong With Me (And I Have An Arranged Marriage With You)”
“Butterfly Kisses”
“Vishnu Take the Wheel”***

*A remork is the tourist taxi option of choice in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, especially if you’re two big Western people (ie more mass than can comfortably fit on the back of someone’s moped-taxi). Remork is the Khmer word for a vehicle that’s like a Thai tuk-tuk, but instead of being a single-body vehicle it’s an open-air wheeled cab drawn by a moped. A little moto-chariot, essentially.
**Too edgy?
***Yeah, Theravada Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia, but there’s a lot of Hinduism in the country’s history (and in its art).

Are you better at thinking of country song titles with proper nouns in them than we are? Pitch in!

Angkor Wat

Worth it.

We climbed to the top and sonorously declaimed to our imaginary amassed subjects: “Y’all don’t own one Koo Koo Roo. Not one.”

We also saw some other temples that are part of the Angkor complex (did you know there were others? We did not.) It was all eerie and bygone in this weirdly primal-feeling way — the palpable ancient-ness makes it all feel even more foreign, at least to me. That said, when the guidebooks warn “you will regret it if you only spend a day in Siem Reap!” they were incorrect, at least as pertains to us. Siem Reap is kind of a dusty tourist trap, equal parts Wild West and college town, but not necessarily the good parts of either of those. (There is even a “pub street” with an Irish bar and a bar called Angkor What? and pop-indie music playing.) We had one fantastic Khmer meal on the night of Kevin’s birthday, and lucked into staying very cheaply at a swanky hotel with a pool (plus some endangered/protected little Siamese crocodiles, thankfully contained in a separate pool), but on the whole we didn’t wish we’d stayed longer.

Anyway, here you can peep all our Siem Reap photos, with their art-historical caption commentary of stunning accuracy and amazing detail.
Next up, Phnom Penh!

Note: Is our blog re-emailing you when we update already-published posts? Do please let us know, as I wouldn’t want you getting updated when I fix a semicolon or something.

Dock one point from the Germans

The text, in reprint:

“Wow, an amazing place!” ... Naomi, UK

“Unbelievable!” ... Gina, Australia

“I proposed to my girlfriend in the back of the ice tuk-tuk!” ... Michael, Germany