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thegrassyroad
17 June 2012 @ 03:24 pm
Um, thank you. I'm not sure which blog you found so I'm posting this to both. The book you sent is right up my alley, so I'm sure I'll get a lot out of it. Much appreciated. I'm curious to know how our paths crossed? All the best to you!
 
 
thegrassyroad
29 August 2009 @ 12:58 pm
It's 8 AM and my eyes pop open of their own accord most days; the morning light is streaming in through the curtainless windows.
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I will never cover them up. Shutting out sunlight is not something I've ever been inclined to do. Most likely the dog has woken me up already, fumbling out of his nest of blankets beside me to bark uproariously at nothing. After I put him down on the floor (he shouldn't jump off, with his fragile dachshund back), he returns in due course to whine at the side of the bed until I lift him up again, whereupon he'll climb laboriously over what must seem to him mountainous covers on his short legs to reach my neck, flop heavily onto my face, and proceed to try to suffocate me with his own neck. Usually this is pretty effective, as my indulgent feedings have given him a disproportionately fat neck, as if he were not already hilariously out of proportion even by dachshund standards. Roughly translated he's saying: Get up, get up, feed me, play with me, but more than anything just acknowledge my existence as the center of the universe again! I concede, get up, and Dax does his happy dance, hopping about and trying to bite my toes. He's beside himself as I go to the closet, watching closely to see what I'm doing. I remove the blue zip-up hoodie that was a gift from Deborah in Greece, and Dax commences his high-pitched squeals of excitement. All signs point to a walk. One would think he'd spend it all at the beginning, but his frenzy only mounts as I pull on a skirt or jeans, check to make sure my hair isn't too frightening, and slip my feet into flip flops by the door. Dax can barely stand still as I clip his leash on and open the door. Without fail, he runs out and nearly falls over pulling at the end of the leash before I can manage to close and lock the door. We dash to the elevator bay,Dax's claws scrabbling for purchase on the smooth floor, and I usually have to pick him up for the ten floor ride down while he's squirming and barking ferociously at anything that moves. He's a holy terror for the first 10 minutes of every walk - running at and trying to intimidate everything from bikes to old ladies. He's got a Napoleon complex in the worst way.

There's one particular building security man whose sole purpose in life is seemingly to provoke small dogs, though when he's not barking back at Dax, he's patiently trying to befriend him, even going so far as to occasionally stop me, gesture to me to give him the leash, and stand there with the dog shooing me away while Dax watches bewildered. We do this about once a month and Dax still goes nuts at this man as if he were a complete stranger every time. I can't really blame him - he spends all day practically alone in my little apartment, disdaining toys of all kinds.

We make our way to the nearby city park (inexplicably named Paris Park including signage in French):
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We try to avoid the more populated areas until Dax calms down enough not to bark people into cardiac arrest. Most Koreans run shrieking from Dax as if he were an enormous lizardlike monster, but those who don't attempt to approach him altogether too enthusiastically, which usually results in his lauching himself bodily at them like a torpedo of teeth and flying, floppy ears. Unfortunately I haven't yet learned how to say, "He's not dangerous, he just sounds like he is," in Korean. Usually our avoidance of public places leads us to a narrow alley between two buildings, where I stroll under an English school advertisement that always makes me smile a little, wishing that Korean English academies actually worked more this way:
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Mornings in Korea are slow and quiet, especially before 10 AM, when most stores open and people begin to come out for the day. Seoul is a late-night city and not an early rising one. I have really come to appreciate mornings since living here. Empty streets are a rare treat.
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On the way to the park, we pass a functioning Buddhist temple, a beautiful anachronism among the largely unattractive modern buildings in Mokdong.
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In the runup to Buddha's birthday it's decked out in colorful paper lanterns:
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The bleakness of Paris Park in the winter has been replaced by the riotous bloom of spring. Azalea bushes in bright pink and blinding white line the walking paths for a solid month before giving way to green:
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For a few short weeks, the cherry blossoms paper the park with pink petals:
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It is really fantastic to live so close to a park, even a small one like Paris Park. It curbs somewhat my cravings for nature. An urban oasis:
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We're usually accompanied by older people doing their morning stretches under the trees. The exercise equipment (a fixture of all Korean parks) is packed:
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but we can find some quiet places. Dax's favorite spot overlooks the basketball courts. He marches directly to the edge of the five-foot drop, utterly unafraid (he's a city dog), and watches people pass by like a lord on a throne, which I'm fairly sure he thinks he is.
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Some days we meet an older gentleman and his black and brown dachshund, or exchange a few (English, since my Korean is still appallingly bad) words with a kindly man in a motorized wheelchair. Dax is unfailingly friendly with other dogs, so I find myself standing around while he does a sniffing dance with a new acquaintance, often fantasizing about live concerts on the stage at the center of the park, where I have never seen a single thing happen besides an occasional game of frisbee. It stands there empty, almost begging for a fiddle and drum kit...
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On the way home, I'll sometimes pop into Starbucks for a coffee to go. Dax behaves himself, tucked under my arm like an accessory. He is probably grateful not to have to wear his miniature Ralph Lauren doggie jacket with its white puffball hood that I got him for winter. (Yes, I have actually purchased dog clothing. I never thought I'd see the day.) With dog and coffee in hand, I browse through the open-air fruit and vegetables markets opening up along the streets. I live in Mokdong, Yangcheon-gu (a "gu" is like a district in Seoul). It's a fairly upscale neighborhood in the west of the city, south of the Han River on a tributary called the Anyang Stream:
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It has pretty much every imaginable amenity (a supermarket with a fair assortment of Western items within walking distance, restaurants, bars, parks, a major hospital, and a very nice running/bike track on the stream which leads directly to the circuit of well-kept paths along the length of the Han River as far as you dare to walk or ride) and is a high hospitable, even sometimes beautiful place:
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My building is an officetel, which is a residential/commercial building generally with studio apartments. It's called the Hyundai Parisian:
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Though it is neither large nor luxurious, it has been a comfortable home-away-from-home. I live on the 10th floor, room 1009. Back home, Dax runs out of the elevator straight for the apartment door, always a comical spectacle from behind. He is, as Shannon said unforgettably, like a shopping cart with one wonky wheel:
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My apartment is set up for functionality, with the kitchenette and clothes washer (no dishwashers here!) in the front entry hall across from the bathroom:
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My bedroom and living space are one in the same and I've got a minimum of furniture: just a bed, a couch, and two tall bookcases:
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I've made it my own.

Dax tucks into his breakfast and I pull out my yoga mat, though on some days my commitment to this relatively new practice wavers a bit. My Logitec speakers were definitely a worthwhile investment; the soft music I play has none of the tinny sound of my small computer speakers. It thrums deep and resonant like a heartbeat. A few sets with my handweights, a turn or two on the exercise ball, and I'm ready for the day. A spot of breakfast, and I check my email sitting on my exercise ball. I don't have a table; the opportunity to acquire one just never really presented itself and the need was never great enough to entice me to seek one out. I like the lack of clutter.

I hop into the shower, no doubt annoying my neighbors with blaring repeats of my new favorite songs. After a year of taking showers in a box of a bathroom in my old apartment which had no tub, shower stall, or curtain -- just a showerhead and a tile floor with a drain, a setup which inevitably meant everything in the room got drenched -- my glass-walled shower is still a luxury. I linger.

I finish up my routine of getting ready with an audiobook, my new obsession in that they allow me to keep my hands free and busying while still reading. Luckily my apartment is small enough that I don't miss any of the storyline as I putter around.

I toss a doggy chew treat on the floor for Daxy and bid him farewell for the day. It's a short 10 minute walk through the streets of Mokdong, now bustling, to my school. Sometimes I pick up lunch at the Bangkok Tree (the logo for which reads like "BangTreeKok," lending an unfortunate new meaning to the term "treehugger"), a Thai restaurant in my building. I've struck up a friendship with the workers there and often bring them little treats or chitchat to the extent we're able; it's nice to have a place where you're known. I enjoy being a "regular" somewhere. On the way into work, I take a shortcut through a little tree-lined alley adjoining a public middle school:
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Polaris is in the tall building on the left of the photo, Dreamnest. Spelled phonetically in Korean, I think it has about 5 syllables. (This is the most hilarious thing about English words which have been readily accepted into the Korean lexicon. Inevitably they have an absurd amount of syllables and end with "uh", since very few words in Korean have consonant endings. It is a bit of a game among the foreigner crowd to sound out these words and then try to guess which English word they are approximating.)

The school is dark and still at the beginning of the day, and I usually arrive in advance of most of the teachers and start the day's work in my office:
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(Aptly cluttered here... I'm often doing 20 projects at once.)

My classroom, Venus (all of our classrooms are named after planets):
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The teachers trickle into the teachers' room until about 1 PM:
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For the majority of my time at Polaris I've been the only female teacher, so in short order the day's gamut of dirty jokes, potty humor, and sports trivia commence. Classes begin at 2:45 PM after 2 hours of prep time. My coworkers are a good group of guys, and between them and the kids:
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the day passes quickly. My classes change every 6 month semester and for month-long intensive periods in summer and winter, so I've taught up to 8-10 classes a day but with my Senior Teacher responsibilities (always growing) I try to keep it down to 4. I could write all day about the experience of teaching, but suffice to say that teaching is a learning profession, and that the greatest reward has just been working with the kids. They have made me smile, laugh, cry, laugh until I cry, want to pull my hair out, want to strangle them, and want to take them home and keep them forever. I'll never forget them.

When classes are done, I'm reorganizing things in the office, printing student awards, designing curriculum, getting training materials ready for new teachers... I am a woman of all work at Polaris.

After the last class ends at 8:10 PM, we pack it in quickly and head home. Sometimes the teachers hang around the local convenience stores, which always have tables set outside in the warm months, making for a great cheap and makeshift bar. The gatherings can be quite large:
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or consist of just a few of us, winding down the day.

When I make my way back to my apartment, Dax is ecstatic to see me again, and on most days we'll go out again for a quick walk through the evening crowds of families. I end the night with a run along the Anyang Stream, a book, a movie, a few songs on my guitar, or just catching up on email or errands. My little apartment is cozy at night, dimly lit and full of incense:
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Despite sleeping all day, Dax loves bedtime. He cozies up in the crook of my arm and before long we're drifting off into the promise of the next day:
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All considered, it is a good life, and I try to remind myself as often as I can how lucky I am to have the opportunity to live this way - halfway around the world from home, with adventures every day, the time and money to travel in Asia, and with a great circle of people (both friends and strangers, since it is the unfailing hospitality and patience of the Korean people which allows me to live comfortably and happily in their country, trusted with the education of their remarkable children) around me - because it is true that even in a foreign country, familiarity deceives you into taking life for granted if you let yourself. I find that no matter now many wonderful places I see and experiences I have, it is always the presence of good people (including puppy-people) which enriches my life the most and for which I am most grateful.

Goodnight Seoul.
 
 
Current Location: Seoul, South Korea
Current Music: Gravity, Sara Barielles
 
 
thegrassyroad
22 April 2009 @ 07:53 am
Scenario: I have a hideous chair that's been obnoxiously occupying my apartment/doubling as a computer desk since October. I recently reorganized my apartment and have eliminated all need for said hideous chair, however, living in Mokdong I've observed that when someone needs to dispose of large items, it's necessary to call some sort of disposal place that will help you procure a "it's legal to dispose of this item at the trash bins" yellow sticker to affix to your items. Needless to say I have no idea how to do this, so I get up early this morning and just run my hideous chair out to the trash bins, hoping to escape all notice. No dice. Predictably, the old guy who handles security in my buildng comes booking out, yelling at me in Korean. I make the typical excuses for not having any idea what he's saying. He manages to convey to me that it will cost me a whopping 5,000 won to dispose of this chair, whereupon I sign to him that this is totally cool and he should hold on - I'm going to get money from my apartment upstairs since I had the dog out for a walk and didn't have any cash. (He probably got about 1% of this.) I emerge with a 10,000 won bill - the smallest I had - which he kindly runs to the convenience store to make change for... only 3,000 won, as it turns out. I thank him, take the dog for a walk, and return to the building bearing a peace offering. Starbucks Green Tea Latte: Universal Symbol For I'm-Sorry-For-Being-The-Ignorant-Foreigner-Thanks-For-Not-Ripping-Me-Off-Anyway-No-Hard-Feelings-Even-Though-You-Yelled-At-Me? Perhaps.

Ah, the joys of living in a foreign country for over a year when I have neglected to invest the necessary energy it would take to learn basic Korean. Where all else fails, there's Starbucks.
 
 
 
 
thegrassyroad
01 February 2009 @ 03:42 pm
The beauty of living in Asia is the fact that lack of inclination can be easily overcome by sheer proximity. Had you told my twenty-year old self that I would be living abroad and traveling widely in eight years, and asked that past self where I guessed I would have gone, Vietnam would not have made the list of top twenty, possibly top fifty. It’s certainly not that I didn’t acknowledge Vietnam’s value as a place visit, it’s just that my former self was utterly (now I can say I am only partially) beholden to the allure of romance, and Vietnam had never been associated particularly strongly with romance in my mind. (Having visited it, I can say in all honesty that it still isn’t, but it is has at least solidified into a real place rather than just a name I’ve read in history books or seen on maps and reality has its own gritty romance.) What led me to Vietnam was novelty and convenience, more than anything… although a rumor of low-priced custom tailors also had its allure. I suppose people have visited places for less noble reasons, though at present I’m at a loss to imagine them.

Despite my shameful lack of curiosity about Vietnam prior to the trip, I was determined to fully experience it and make up for lost time. Lest I repeat the mistake of underscheduling myself and then leaving a place feeling like I’d left it sadly unexplored as I’d done in Malaysia, I made an ambitious plan to cover Vietnam top to bottom. I bought a guide book, perused it in advance, and booked a flight arriving in Hanoi and leaving from Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon). I had roughly 11 days and 1,500 km to travel in order to get onto my plane and back to Seoul. I also had the company of my very good friends from Seoul, Allyson, Bethany, and Gordon, and a friend from home, Jess, who came up from Australia to adventure with us.

I'll post retrospectively on the approximate dates of the trip, so check back periodically for the full story as it goes up incrementally.

Where in the world?Collapse )
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Current Location: Vietnam
 
 
thegrassyroad
We were up bright and early to take a van to the airport - having had our train/bus experience, we were determined to make this transition an easy and quick one.

Oh, how the universe delights at our expense!

Our quick plane ride turned into a five-hour odyssey at the airport which involved boarding, getting seated and settled, disembarking, waiting in the lobby white-knuckled after being told that our plane was grounded because of technical difficulties (hoping against hope for a new plane!!) then being re-boarded... on the *same* plane which had supposedly been repaired. I have never been more grateful to land intact as I was when we touched ground in Ho Chi Minh City.

Meanwhile I had to bid farewell to Jess, who got on a different flight to ensure that she wouldn't miss her connecting flight to Perth because of the delay. We got teary-eyed, we laughed, we hugged... and after she left I discovered a card she'd stealthily slipped into my baggage. In short - Jess rules.

After finally arriving in Saigon, we took a taxi into the city in the waning light, looking for a hotel. We'd opted to wing it this time, so we directed the driver to take us to De Tham - hotbed of foreign-friendly accommodation. After a rather cursory search, Gordon and I directed our tired crew (lugging baggage considerably bloated by our loot in Hoi An) to a mid-range hotel that didn't seem infested by anything, cleaned ourselves up, and hit the town. Our first night consisted of half-hearted bar hopping through De Tham, with stops at the sprawling corner-squatter pub Allez Boo and many more:
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The quest for a decent bloody mary was for naught, but we managed to stay out till late hours talking with fellow travelers.

Our final day in Vietnam, January 3, was jam-packed with sightseeing. We walked into the inner city (Ho Chi Minh - at least the corner that we explored - was easy to negotiate on foot with a guidebook and a good innate sense of direction) to see the Reunification Palace, The War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, and what was once the Champs Elysee of the East, Nguyen Hue. (These days it's little more than an unexceptional boutique and hotel-lined avenue.)

After a delay getting into The War Remnants Museum on account of our arrival during lunch break, we stood outside the grounds of the Reunification Palace without much inclination to go inside until it was time to go back.

My greatest realization upon visiting the War Remnants Museum was how horribly ignorant I am of the Vietnam War. It’s shocking, really, that pretty much all I knew about it, I learned from Forrest Gump. I wonder, in retrospect, if there was some deficiency in my schooling, i.e. that the war was still so fresh in people’s minds and the scholarship still so controversial that no one cared to dwell on it a great deal and consequently my memory has glossed over the perfunctory lessons we had on its minutiae. More likely I’ve just forgotten the time spent on it like I’ve forgotten much of my high school history studies, including the name of my grey-bearded teacher and the exact definition of a Federalist (which I do recall never being quite clear on).

As shocking and heart-rending it was to see some of the things that happened during this war (brutality on both sides, chemical warfare, innocents caught in the crossfire, etc.), it was good to reeducate myself on what I'd missed. The most moving part of the experience was seeing a series of mounted pictures detailing childrens' reactions to the war.

We made our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral, very different from its namesake in Paris:
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I was amused by the blending of cultures, including an old Vietnamese woman in a rice hat selling baguettes and pate off her bicycle in the street.

We stopped for a bite at one of the fast-food pho places on Nyugen Hue before heading back to pack up, check out, and say farewell to Vietnam. (Not before purchasing an absurd amount of Vietnamese coffee at Highlands - the Vietnamese Starbucks - and trying to clear corners of our overstuffed luggage in which to cram it.

After a back-and-forth adventure to the airport (I forgot my passport at the hotel and Gordon heroically volunteered to accompany back to get it), we boarded our plane at around 11 PM on January 4th.

In a few short hours we were back in Korea, back home, and back to work - truly a whirlwind adventure.
 
 
Current Location: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
 
 
 
thegrassyroad
29 December 2008 @ 08:46 pm
Days 6-9


We had planned to spend a good portion of our time in Hoi An (December 29-January 3), as it boasted some nice beaches and the ultimate draw -- custom tailors willing to make just about anything in short order and for relatively cheap prices.

Our first day in Hoi An began with scouting the town for the tailors we'd patronize. We'd read up on the myriad of choices and the necessity of asking many questions, requesting to see finished work, and buying pieces one at a time to test for quality. All of our good intentions went out the window when we hit the street. We were accosted by an over-friendly motormouth of a woman almost immediately, who dragged us into her shop and had us pouring over samples and books, gushing all the while about how she'd take care of us and we should order everything through her. Emma and her entourage of seeming-spies who had infiltrated all of Hoi An, would become a fixture of the next 4 days. Some of us moved on from Emma's, but a brave few stayed and placed orders.

We were finally able to extricate ourselves from Emma's clutches and made our way through the streets lined with tailors of every imaginable permutation:
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It was an adult version of kid-in-a-candy-store. We hardly knew where to begin. The facades of stores:
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led to narrow, waterstained alleys:
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and quaint back rooms where the evidence of daily life was everywhere apparent:
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The main street of the tailor district, Le Loi, was the only landmark in a sea of dizzying similarity and the lodestone by which we negotiated Hoi An:
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The city itself is full of character and hidden gems. It's famous for its French colonial influence, so it's littered with French patisseries (Cargo Club on Nguyen Thai Hoc being the crowning glory) and buildings seemingly nostalgic for their former glory. But by no means is Hoi An a monogomous town. It boasts a number of notable European and Asian fusion restaurants including the Ho Chi Mihn-based chain Good Morning Vietnam (Italian). The European association is enough to drive prices through the roof by Vietnamese standards, where a perfectly satisfying local meal can be purchased for less than $5 USD. Like many cities in Asia, Hoi An is a bit of an assault to the senses during the daylight hours, when its ragtag mix of influences makes it seem like a rundown orphanage, but night brings a flattering cloak of darkness:
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Lanterns like stained-glass cathedral windows glow throughout the streets, and late-night tailors scramble to place the last orders of the day, measuring and pinning, chattering and cajoling.

Much of our stay in Hoi An passed in a blur of billowing fabric, measuring tape, and paper bills that flew out of our hands like they'd been magnetized. I ended the trip with 2 work shirts in blue and white linen, 2 cargo skirts in black and khaki, 1 brown pair of capris, a floor-length red-silk-lined opera coat, 1 grey basic winter coat, 2 formal dresses, and likely a few things that I've forgotten. The equivalent in the states would have easily cost me more than $500 USD. Hoi An is an easy place to indulge yourself:

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because the possiblities are endless. It's only after several wears with your new clothing that you realize that perhaps the quality is not the best.

It's really no wonder - at one point I got a glimpse into the way the tailoring system works. I had ordered a silk dress from a shop that had the fabric I wanted but not the patterns, so I was shepparded onto a little motorbike, given a helmet, and driven by a tiny saleswoman to one of the "factories" in the residential areas where the seamstresses and designers worked. See, the storefront employees are usually bilingual salespeople who know the basic minimum about tailoring (enough to pin and measure) while the real work is done by a cadre of hard-working, Vietnamese-speaking seamstresses who sit bent over humming machines all day - and likely into the night. I worked briefly with a designer, showing her the pictures of the dress I wanted and watching as she sketched, then was hustled back onto the motorbike and into town again. Despite reassurances that the designer was "the best!" the dress came out all wrong and had to be sent back before I was willing to take it home with me. There are certainly some high-end tailors in Hoi An (who charge accordingly) but for the most part, the quality of clothing you'll get is bargain-basement. It may be cut to fit you, but as in most places -- you get what you pay for. I'd still recommend a trip to Hoi An, but only to very savvy shoppers who know how to identify good quality fabric and sewing.

Still, I can't say we didn't have fun:
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(This picture just makes me want to say, "Fi Fie Fo Fum!" Three guesses as to why.)

We rang in New Year's Eve at our resort in what was undoubtably one of the weirdest celebrations I've ever attended. It was absolutely worth it for the sheer novelty (a game involving some sort of wooden paddle, a dancing contest wherein Gordon and I had to bust a move meanwhile managing not to drop a balloon pressed between our foreheads, the worst DJ ever, a lackluster buffet, the Vietnamese tradition of "lucky money" distributed among the guests by a venerable old man who seemed to be someone of considerable importance - perhaps the owner? - and sparklers):
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but the party proper was held in the suite of rooms that Allyson, Bethany, and Gordon were sharing:
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Word to the wise: Do NOT buy the $3 bottles of pink champagne. They are actually cough syrup or possibly cyanide masquerading as champagne. Again, you get what you pay for in Vietnam, excepting things that are strictly Vietnamese.

Welcome 2009!


The new year brought with it... lots of rain. The beaches of Hoi An went untraveled by the likes of our party, as we trudged through rain-drenched streets in rice hats and ponchos, watching the river gradually rise until it overflowed into the town streets:

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Rain.
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More rain.
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And MORE rain.


In the end, at Jess's urging, we decided to make the most of it:
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I've got good people.

Another notable exception to the glut of rain and tailoring was a day trip to My Son, the Cham Dynasty (the Indianized Kingdom of Champa ruled Vietnam for about 14 centuries in the early A.D. years) ruins outside of Hoi An on January 2nd. Jess, Gordon and I made a morning/afternoon of it on a chartered bus tour booked through our hotel. Although it rained lightly throughout the trip, the misty overcast weather leant a certain mystique to the already evocative place:

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The ruins on approach
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An overgrown corridor
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Ancient glory
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Anybody seen the Rosetta Stone? An inscribed stella.


A good day trip and a welcome injection of culture!

Our next step was Ho Chi Mihn City, aka Saigon.
 
 
Current Location: Hoi An, Vietnam
 
 
thegrassyroad
28 December 2008 @ 08:00 am
DAY 4 and 5

Jess and I were up early for a breakfast of noodles and Vietnamese coffee at the hotel, after which we hopped on our bus to Halong since I absolutely forbade Jess to come to Vietnam without seeing Halong. Poor me, I had to go again. Oh, darn. Notable exceptions to my previous trip:
- We indulged in rice hats, for the shocking price of approximately $1. Mine served me well throughout the rainy rest of the trip given how much I detest umbrellas.
- We bought fruit off of one of the small motorboats that pursued our much larger junk and from which two young men leapt like monkeys and climbed up to the windows beside our tables:
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- We befriended two traveling gentlemen whose paths would cross with ours on an outgoing train and again in Hoi An.

We arrived back in Hanoi, almost unrecognizable as the bustling chaotic city we’d come to know. The place was a ghost town. As we set out in search of dinner, we figured out why – a soccer game was on, and everyone was locked inside, glued to their televisions. As we were getting ready to climb into our cab to the train station, all hell broke loose – Vietnam had won the game. People ran through the streets shirtless, waving Vietnamese flags. Motorbike traffic clogged every thoroughfare, and at one point during what would normally be a 5 minute drive, we had to inch through a human pyroclastic flow of shouting, honking, exuberant fans. We rolled down the windows and marveled at the merriment. (Unfortunately my pictures of the festivities were lost.) We arrived at the train station just in time, paid our cab driver double the fare (despite the fact that he tried to swindle us out of considerably more; our first encounter with a less than honest Vietnamese person; for the most part the people had been tremendously accommodating, good-natured, and understanding), and tipped a young man who led us to our cabin.

Suffice to say our accommodation on the Reunification Express did not exactly meet my expectations for the romance of train travel. I suppose I’ve fantasized too long about the wood-paneled, velvet-upholstered Orient Express. Jess and I had the two lower bunks of a small, four-bunk sleeper car painted an institutional greenish blue shade. All romance vanished as we explored the bathroom at the far end of the car, which was dripping with sloshed water from the toilet bowl. One of the sinks was clogged, and had similarly drenched the area surrounding. Fortunately our cabin was mid-way down the car. We good-naturedly accepted all of this as par for the course, and even had enough grace to offer one of our bunks to the family who were sharing our cabin, as the father had only one arm and climbing up to the top bunk would have been a hardship for him. Jess and I settled in for the night after discovering that our traveling companions couldn’t speak a lick of English – unlike their son, who had come and gone once he’d seen his parents comfortably settled.

Commence the snoring. No problem. This is what iPods are for. Morning dawned. We sat up, stretched, found ourselves not too badly worse for the wear. Our traveling companions woke, too. The man sat up on his lower bunk, hocked, and spit a loogie… on the wall of our cabin. Jess and I exchanged horrified, disbelieving glances. Breakfast arrived, amid some confusion stemming from Jess and I lacking any language to ask questions or order. Our companions tucked into their packed breakfast, which involved some kind of foul-smelling sausage that they offered us and which we refused as unenthusiastically as we could manage. For the sake of his solicitous, kind, and much younger wife, we did our best to ignore Loogie Man, who like many Asian men seemed to operate under the impression that the more noise you make while eating, the more enjoyable the meal will be. After finishing his rice, he drew a few short breaths, paused, and then sneezed violently, shooting rice and who-knows-what-else across the window of the cabin as far as Jess’s pillow. After that there would be no more napping for either of us and we passed the time as far away from Loogie Man as possible. The trip, which was supposed to end around 11 AM, dragged on – first to noon, then 1 PM, then 2 PM. Stations were not clearly announced, so we teamed up with another group of traveling girls down the car to let each other know when Da Nang, our stop, arrived. We had never been quite so eager to leave any place as we were to get out off that train.

After a quick chat with our friends from the junk on Halong, who had spent a significantly less revolting trip in a hard sleeper car, we got into a taxi and headed for our resort – the Pho Hoi Riverside. After the train cabin, it was like paradise:

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We met up with the crew, who had made it safely and also much less eventfully to Hoi An the day prior. After cleaning up, we went out to explore. Our first discovery was a plaza-of-sorts by the river that was occupied by a number of makeshift kitchens surrounded by benches and umbrellas/tarps. We dubbed it “the food tents” and religiously ate there at least once a day for the rest of our Hoi An stay – it was cheap, fast, and good. Our first venture out to find nightlife found us at Before & Now, one of the only late-night places. We drank some cocktails, played a rollicking game of “never have I ever” and came to the conclusion that Hoi An is not – at least not around Christmas time – a party town.

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No idea what gave us that impression.
 
 
Current Location: On the road
 
 
thegrassyroad
26 December 2008 @ 08:00 am
DAY 2 and 3

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we loaded onto a bus and were on our way out of Hanoi, headed northeast to the coast and Halong Bay, a place vying for recognition as one of the modern wonders of the world. The drive was uneventful save for a few bathroom breaks at vast craft shops packed with pottery, needlework, clothing, paintings and lacquerware with prices clearly catering to the constant flow of tourist travel between Hanoi and Halong Bay. The countryside, alternating between rice fields and small towns, was as unassuming as any countryside the world over.

We arrived at the quay in Ha Long City, a surprisingly bustling place packed to the gills with tourists and junk boats in the harbor despite the grey, cloud-heavy weather.

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We waited on the docks for a while, one of many inexplicable delays that seem to plague the Vietnamese tourism industry and which we came to accept as a matter of course. Amid clouds of exhaust from the junk boats’ idling engines, we made our way onto our home for the night: the Imperial Junk. As I was boarding the boat, my sunglasses came untucked from my pocket and plopped into the bay, disappearing in a matter of milliseconds as they sank into the cloudy grey-brown water. I was horrified, less by the loss of my souvenir ripoff sunglasses from the Beijing Silk Market, but that I’d contributed – however inadvertently – to further polluting Halong Bay with human detritus. We were shown to our room (very comfortable, but the standards we’d been expecting), then explored the boat. There were three levels – most of the overnight cabins occupied the lowest level, but our cabins were the only two tucked in behind the bar on the middle level. We climbed up to the top deck to get a better view:

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On a summer day, the top deck would be a perfect place to stretch out and soak up the sun. Our hopes for sunshine to illuminate the bay seemed vain, but the place had a certain mystique in the misty overcast light.

Before long, we were motoring out of the port and onto the bay proper, weaving between the big junks and small motorboats piloted by enterprising locals peddling fresh fruit and snacks to the tourists. Lunch – which consisted in a never-ending train of seafood-derived steaming dishes on communal plates – was served on the middle deck, where we were all seated on wicker sofas with foam pillows upholstered in garishly flowered fabric. We got to know our fellow passengers, who were for the most part the middle-aged, sedate variety. In due course, we procured a few cans of local brew and carried them up to the top deck as we made our way toward Cat Ba Island through grey-cloaked hills wading through the bay like weary pilgrims:

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Our first stop was a visit to one of the hidden caves in the limestone rock towers. Unfortunately my photo of the entrance vanished in my hard-drive meldown, so I can only guess that it was Hang Sung Sot, the “surprise” cave:
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In addition to the colored lights that set off the rivers of stone, frozen in their flow, there were small red lights glowing in the uppermost part of one rock enormous conglomeration, giving its somewhat amorphous shape the hint of a dragon’s head (on the right of the photo). Although the scope of the cave – indeed surprising after a steep climb and a small, unpretentious entrance in the overgrown face of the stone – leant itself to reverential appreciation, the presence of penguin-shaped trash receptacles and the curiosities of “the fairy’s breast” rock formation and its accompanying male equivalent made the whole experience significantly more jocular. Unfortunately our “We’re in the Batcave!” pictures didn’t come out. We emerged from the cave onto a small platform overlooking the flotilla of junks gathered enmasse even on this overcast day. Departing, our junk collided with another, shattering a window with the kind of ponderous indifference of a giant rolling onto a house in restless sleep:

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I could only imagine the chaos during the height of tourist season. Sails down, we puttered through small fishing villages almost Dickensian in their isolated desolation. At one we stopped and unloaded, walking carefully over a grid of planks floating on slowly degenerating Styrofoam blocks to avoid the netted pits that contained sealife of every permutation. We were invited to choose anything we’d like for lunch, purchase it from the villagers, and hand it over to the ship’s cook to prepare. Despite the novelty, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I watched the men from the village play an unidentifiable card game as two children chased each other across the structure, deftly avoiding the nets, putting on a bit of a show for the tourists. Theirs was a life I could barely imagine living.

As twilight crept in, we motored into a small cove littered with other overnight junks, their sails raised in the fading light.
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After dinner the crew brought out the karaoke machine, and given that we were the only party-inclined guests on the boat, in short order we stole the show. Even Gordon, staunchly anti-karaoke, broke down and sang a few songs. One cannot miss the opportunity to say you’ve belted out an ABBA song on board a junk boat in Halong Bay, after all. Once we’d purchased the crew a round or two, they shared their homemade rice wine (fact: rice wine is disgusting the world over) and a few snacks procured from the kitchen by the cook, talking with us in heavily accented English until we surrendered and stumbled off to bed.

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The morning brought grey skies and the threat of rain. It commenced to drizzle as soon as breakfast was over, but our crew resolved to go kayaking anyway:

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and despite sitting in gradually accumulating puddles, we had a blast. The kayaks slipped through the green water, just a thin shell of plastic separating us from unknown depths. We gazed up at the green-decked cliffs soaring above us from the surface of water peppered with tiny raindrops. It was an entirely different perspective on Halong, a much more intimate one which made it easy to forget the crowds of junks and see the place more as the people who first spun tales of the Jade Emperor and a celestial dragon descending had seen it – mystical, wondrous.

The rest of the trip played out like the first day in reverse: slow progress through the slouching hills, green water yielding to grey-brown, and unloading on curiously deserted docks which had been so packed the day prior. Most of the junks were on two-night trips. We had lunch at a local restaurant of vast scale, spending a good hour of inexplicable delay talking with a lovely couple from Kuala Lumpur, who invited us to visit them with unrelenting hospitality. Then it was back on the bus and back to Hanoi, where Jess would be waiting at the hotel.

Our reunion was joyful, but before long we fell – as good friends do – into the kind of comfort that forgets separation. Jess was welcomed with open arms by my crew; watching old friends meet new ones and mesh together without hesitation is without question one of my favorite experiences in this life. We sought out a restaurant with character in the Old Quarter, eventually choosing one with a good view of the bustle of the evening streets below:

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We hurried Gordon, Bethany, and Allyson onto their taxi to the bus station for their overnight bus trip, then Jess and I set off into the city to find the Opera House (aka Municipal Theatre) and any part of Hanoi that resembled – to me, anyway – a city proper. In due course, we found both:

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Away from the Old Quarter, Hanoi has an entirely different feel. Boutiques, upscale hotels, and modern amenities like crosswalks and stoplights do exist. I admit that part of me was gratified to have seen it, given the fact that I readily sacrificed a thorough tour of Hanoi (including the Citadel and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum) for trips to Halong Bay. We followed the lights of the Sofitel Metropole Hotel to a small café that beckoned us in for a second dinner of Hanoi specialties with its quaint opulence:

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We hopped a cab back to our hotel and turned in, ready for an early morning.
 
 
Current Location: Halong Bay
 
 
thegrassyroad
25 December 2008 @ 03:46 pm
Day 1

The adventure began on Thursday, December 25th – an unorthodox Christmas to say the least.

When traveling, one must consider whether it’s worth the peace of mind to book a place to stay in advance and sight unseen… or arrive reservation-less and trust to luck. For our first night in Hanoi, we opted for peace of mind and booked online from Seoul a hostel with a good reputation for helpful front desk staff. That was precisely what we got, in addition to what veteran travelers accustomed to staying in places that aren’t five star resorts would call “character.” It’s a generous way of excusing a dump from utter dumpiness on account of the lack of egregious problems arising during the stay. And indeed, if we’d sought out a place to stay for qualities strictly definitive of Old Quarter Hanoi, we could not have chosen a better one than the Thuy Lam Hotel on Han Ga Street. From the moment of our arrival (where we were met by a driver from the hotel, a service we’d arranged in advance and the first of many that would redeem Thuy Lam from its unfortunate appearance), sitting in the taxi watching the row houses - some standing to five stories, their windowless concrete sides in rough contrast to front façades ornately embellished and balconied, like awkward schoolgirls with no adjoining buildings to justify their tall narrowness – whiz by in a blur, Vietnam made no secret of its shabbiness:
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For certain it had its charms – the French colonial influence in architecture, the lush tropical plants, the quaint sight of women in rice hats toting long poles balanced by the reciprocal weight of baskets on either end – but there was no disguising the fact that it is not an economically advantaged country.

We arrived shell-shocked but excited from newness and travel, were led to our high-ceilinged, water-stained, curtain-darkened and slightly skunky-smelling rooms, and deposited our things. With the assistance of the unfailingly friendly English-speaking hostess, we arranged for an overnight trip to Halong Bay the following morning as well as an overnight bus to Hoi An for Gordon, Allyson, and Bethany and a train the night after for Jess and I. A matter of minutes and several Vietnamese coffees (complete with condensed milk) later, the first few days of our holiday were well arranged and we were free to venture out onto the streets of Hanoi.

Venture being a very appropriate word, imbued as it is with a certain uncertainty and danger, for the streets of Vietnam are a risky place to be for a foreign traveler unaccustomed to the hordes of motorbikes choking the veins of the city:

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Were it not for the fact that the sheer volume of riders prevents anyone from going too quickly, daily life in Hanoi would consist almost entirely of a series of traffic accidents, one after another. There are few traffic lights to speak of, many roundabouts and only occasional crosswalks. At one point, standing amid a crowd of bikers moving at the pace of a leisurely walk, I wondered aloud why people bother to ride at all. It didn’t appear to be any faster than using one’s own two feet. But ride they did, and with enough skill to avoid even the most wayward tourist, as we quickly discovered. We relaxed enough to allow ourselves to look around.

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The Old Quarter certainly lives up to its name in that it looks in many ways like a relic of some bygone era, albeit for the shops selling electronics, boots, giant stuffed animals, plastic toys of every possible permutation, and all of the other trappings of modern life tucked into the weathered facades of the buildings. It was the modernity that seemed incongruous, especially rising up from streets that seemed perpetually, stubbornly muddied despite the paving. I was fairly in awe of everything.

Fortunately Hanoi is fairly easy to navigate, and we made our way unerringly to the city’s centerpiece, Hoan Kiem Lake, which by all accounts doesn’t deserve a name grander than “pond” and is perhaps more accurately described by “sinkhole.” The murky water was ringed by mislaid trash in many places, and the trees looked so thoroughly discouraged by it that they trailed their leaves and branches into the water, whether in protection or correction it was unclear. The reverence of the Hanoians for this place as described in my guide book was not in particular evidence. The lake has two points of interest – the Tortoise Tower dedicated to the Vietnamese hero Le Loi and his legendary sword (a story akin in many ways to the Arthurian legend of Excaliber, save the Lady of the Lake is played by a giant turtle) at its south end and in the north, an island connected to the mainland by The Huc Bridge where Den Ngoc Son, the “temple of the Jade Mound,” houses both statuary and a lacquered specimen of the family of giant turtles still rumored to live in the lake. Although we didn’t have time to visit the temple, I unknowingly photographed a structure beside the bridge named Writing Brush Tower, which in retrospect was rather fitting to my literary predilection:

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Inscribed in Chinese characters are the words, “A pen to write upon the blue sky.”

The primary purpose of our excursion to the lake was to seek out the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and acquire tickets to this unique Vietnamese contribution to world theatre. For a ticket price of around $2 USD, we were treated to a near hour-long production accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music played by a highly disenchanted band on their second-to-last show of a multi-performance day. We were as amused by their near-comatose expressions as we were by the actual show. The idea of water puppetry is an interesting one: the brightly colored wooden puppets, manipulated from behind a screen by puppeteers standing waist-deep in the water “stage,” depicted traditional Vietnamese farming and worship themes, including the token fire-breathing dragons:



I can’t say it was the most riveting of all theatrical spectacles I’ve ever seen, but it was well worth it to see merely for its singularity and the opportunity to imagine how the puppeteers able to control such range of movement at the length of a long pole. I picked up a miniature replica of one of the puppets for my mom’s international doll collection.

Prior to the show, we’d sat down to our first authentic Vietnamese meal (fried noodles are de rigueur!) and happened upon a fellow English teacher from Seoul. The world, for all its vastness, is a very small place sometimes.

We returned to our hotel through the colorful streets:
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The Vietnam trip had commenced.
 
 
Current Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
 
 
thegrassyroad
Where in the world?Collapse )

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Map

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On approach

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Splendor

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Sitting Budhha

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Bridging the seasons

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South Korea wants to be Western New York

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Summiting Ulsanbawi

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The granite rock Ulsanbawi

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Green and gold

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Riot of color

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Craggy cliffs

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Offering

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Tricklefall

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Lothlorian