Friday, June 28, 2013

Travelling back in time in Vietnam

We’ve been in Vietnam for a week now and made it about ⅔ of the way down its long coastline. Travelling through Vietnam is a relatively linear process. There is one train line that runs along the coast from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly known as Saigon) with only a few minor spurs going off of it. Our trip so far hasn’t deviated much more than 10 miles from this main line. This is great for seeing the full extent of Vietnam from north to south - you don’t have to neglect any areas of the country and Vietnam makes for a perfect land bridge from China to the rest of southeast Asia, or vice-versa. The down-side to the simplicity of navigating Vietnam’s transportation corridor is that you have to share it with everyone else. Because there is only one significant rail-line linking all of the major cities, any movement between those cities relies on that one line. It’s been pretty difficult to get tickets for some of the legs of our journey. For example, I’m writing this post from a seat on an overnight train instead of a bed on an overnight train because they were all booked up. Not ideal for a good night’s rest, but we’ll deal.

Our strategy for visiting Vietnam was to spend a day or two in the bookend cities of Hanoi and Saigon to see Vietnam urban life (and because they are nearly impossible to avoid when travelling through Vietnam) but spend the bulk of our time somewhere in the middle of the country - preferably in a smaller, quieter seaside town. We found that exact match in Quy Nhon, a mid-size port town located about ⅔ of the way down the coast between the larger cities of Danang and Nha Trang. A lot of Vietnamese from the cities vacation in Quy Nhon and it has a very bustling port that we visited Thursday morning - I’ll tell that story in a bit.

In a lot of ways, Quy Nhon is the perfect city. It has the kind of topography that you’d expect to see in a Sim City game. A stretch of land about 2 miles wide nestled between the ocean to the east and mountains to the west. There’s an excellent natural harbor just north of town that extends into a sizable bay - almost like San Francisco’s layout, actually, just on a smaller scale.

Our first day there, we rented scooters and headed south along the coast line hugging the mountains for what made a beautiful ride. Every once in awhile we’d turn off downhill towards the beach and ride through a little coastal village and find a deserted beach or, in one case, an elephant standing on the side of the road eating needles out of a pine tree. It’s amazing what you find once you get off of the trains and buses and start exploring little nooks and crannies on your own.

We approached the second day a bit different. Realizing that the beaches were deserted because it was way too hot and the sun was way too direct to be enjoyable, we got started at 6am instead of 8am. Still, as we were leaving the hotel, Vietnamese families were finishing up their morning swim and heading back to the hotel. It gets really hot here really fast. We were up at the port by 6:30am and the shade was already quickly disappearing. We had decided to call it a morning by 11am and exile ourselves to shade for the entire afternoon.

Walking into the port in Quy Nhon was what I imagine it was like to walk into a port 200 years ago. Wooden fishing boats were all crowded around the docks unloading baskets full of fish that were carried off on bicycles or by hand to a covered area 30 feet from the water. There, the fish were cleaned and either set out to dry on reed mats behind the covered area or packed in ice and loaded into trucks. I suppose that last step put us more squarely in the present. There were plenty of wholesale buyers carrying off baskets by hand though, so it wasn’t hard to imagine you were in the 19th century. I think that in a lot of ways, travelling in developing countries is like going back in time. Fishing ports in the west are so mechanized, huge and disjointed that it’s hard to see the whole process - nevermind the fact that a visitor to a western port would unlikely get to just wander around at his leisure among the melee like we did in Quy Nhon.

Despite the chaos, rotting fish smell and a glaring sun before 7am, we were able to see the whole process very neatly and transparently; the way it would be laid out in one of those illustrated encyclopedias of “how things work”. On the other side of that, of course, is that even I, a lay mariner at best, could see obvious ways to improve the port facilities. How about enclosing the fish processing center and refrigerating it to reduce the need to truck ice in on a daily basis? Or even better than that, make the ice on the premises instead of driving it across town? The crudeness of the operation was beneficial to us, but I’m sure the port operators aren’t striving for quaintness. Who knows what the place will look like in 20 years - or if it will even exist - as capital investments improve and complicate the port. That’s why you have to see it now and then compare it to the future when it comes. Actually, I read later that Quy Nhon had been a significant port since the 2nd century AD, so chances are it’ll survive the next 20 years.

After the fishing port, we drove about another mile down the road and found the boatyards. When we arrived, two crews were building two separate fishing boats out of wood. It was amazing to watch the process. Twenty year old boys in plastic shower slippers were scrambling along a make-shift scaffold fitting freshly milled wood planks around the rib of the keel. I’m not the best with boating terms, so forgive me if I slip up. As far as I could tell, the guys were cutting boards about 20 feet long and attaching those planks to the frame of the boat (also wood) using vice grips. Then they drilled holes into the ribs, stuck iron pegs into the holes, and used those pegs as braces to force the wooden planks into place with vice grips. I thought it was cool that they use wooden pegs to attach the outer planks to the ribs of the frame. There was very little metal used in the whole process. In fact, if it weren’t for the electric circular saw and the electric drill, the boatyard scene could have also taken place two centuries ago. The vice grips were key to putting the planks in place though. I’m not sure if vice grips were around in the 19th century. And again, how many boatyards in the west would let you walk around freely, looking over the workers’ shoulders? I’m sure OSHA would not approve.

So, Quy Nhon was a success. It was the kind of place where you can just unpack your bags for a few days and go find an adventure. Compared to China, it was a breeze. People were much more friendly, spoke more English and seemed more open to foreigners. This also made me happy that I spent the time I had in China. Seeing how easy southeast Asia can be, I’m happy we opted for the more challenging route.

By the time I post this, we will have arrived in Saigon and be back in city life. I’m operating under the assumption that Saigon will be just like New Orleans (major port city at the mouth of a major river system; French influence; prostitutes, etc.) and that the only difference will be that songs will refer to the “Mekong Delta Blues” instead of the “Mississippi Delta Blues”.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Last Day in Kunming

We're packing our bags and tying up all the loose ends in order to leave by bus tonight at 7pm for the Vietnamese border. It's a night bus that has rows of bunk beds installed in the cabin. I've never ridden one before, so I'm excited to find out how that goes. I'm counting my lucky stars that I'm not 6 feet tall. I should be able to fit in one of the beds pretty comfortably. We've got a bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - prepared more out of habit than economic necessity. We can get food cheaper than PBJs at any bus station we stop at along the way. It's really hard to under-price the Chinese.

As I'm tying up logistical loose ends here in Kunming, I figured that I could also tie up some loose ends on the blog. Here's a recap of how things ended up during our adventures in China:

The first student that I was tutoring who I was waiting so patiently for payment from back in April ended up not working out. After four weeks (8 hours) of instruction, her Dad finally paid me for my work (about $32 per hour) and then told me that his daughter had a school function and could no longer take classes from me. It was a pretty thinly veiled excuse for just not wanting to continue with me as a tutor. I'm not sure if my teaching capabilities, the price or who knows what else were the cause of the abrupt ending, but according to others I talked to who had been in the same boat, I got off pretty well. The money pretty much paid for a trip out to the mountains in northwest Yunnan, so it certainly wasn't a waste of time. A few weeks after the "break-up", our roommate's friend hired my services for her daughter and so I continued teaching. One day, she brought in a friend, a little eight year old boy with the English name "Brutus". Meeting a Chinese eight year old named "Brutus" was a very special treat.

The protest against the proposed petrochemicals factory that was supposed to take place June 6 never materialized. Police were out in force - we had seen pictures and heard that police were lined up every 20 feet along the street in the downtown area. Lots of people wore white that day, the official color of the anti-factory protesters, but no crowds gathered for a demonstration. People have more-or-less quit talking about the factory and so I assume that it will go on ahead as planned. The Chinese government demonstrated in Kunming how effective it can be at dealing with dissent.

I sold my bike right before we left for Beijing for the same price that I bought it for, which is a win in my book, but Chinese friends chided me for not selling it for more than I bought it for. I've missed not having it these past weeks and have often cursed the buses for coming so infrequently and being so crowded when they do come. I can't wait to get another bike when I get to Italy.

Last week, I met an old man in the park who asked me for help with English. Over the past week, I've gone over to his house a couple of times and helped him make sense of a month-long trip he made to the US in 2010. As weird as China seems to any American, the US is at least as weird to the Chinese. Making sense of baseball, gift shops, Native Americans, wagon trains, settlers and Mormonism all at once can be a daunting task, so I sat with him as he went through his pictures of his trip. He's started writing out the text of signs and displays that he took pictures in and translating it into Chinese. He says he'll publish a book about it, but I'm not sure how much of a market that will have. Then again, this is China, what do I know about the Chinese reading market. The experience with him reinforced my desire to learn Chinese well enough to go on a Chinese organized tour of the US. I'd see a completely different country than the one I was used to.

The sad part about leaving China is that I know whatever knowledge and instinct I have for this place will evaporate so quickly after I leave. I like looking back over the past four months to see how China has shaped me. How I can see the world a little better from the Chinese perspective, how I can acquire everything I need in order to survive. As we move through southeast Asia over the next 6 weeks, I know that most of our time will be spent just figuring out how to get what we need and we won't have as much time to interact with a place. I like that we stayed in Kunming long enough to see the seasons change and discover weekly patterns in life: coming to expect the late afternoon drone of the pickled vegetable lady walking down the street announcing her business; hearing the "ding-ding-tang" lady come down the street ringing her bell and advertising her chewy sweets; waking up in the morning to marching music playing at the elementary school across the street from us. We won't get to establish all of those patterns again until we get to Italy. But I'm also incredibly excited about travelling through this corner of Asia. I'm also very excited to jump in an ocean. I haven't been in the sea for nearly 2 years, and I haven't swam since January.

For those interested in following us along on the trip, here's a rough itinerary of where we'll be and when. Bryn made this map and the approximate schedule is below:

June 20: overnight bus to Vietnamese border, train to Hanoi

June 21-23: Hanoi

June 23: overnight train to Hue/Denang/Hoi An

~June 26: train in Nha Trang, on to Ho Chi Minh City

June 30th: swing dance in HCMC

July 1-4: Mekong Delta, boat to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

July 4- swing dance in Phnom Pehn

July 6-7: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

July 8: take a boat to Battambang, Cambodia

July 12: Get to Bangkok, swing dance in Bangkok

July 15: Fly to Mandalay, Myanmar play in Myanmar for ten days

July 26: Fly back to Bangkok, maybe swing dance, maybe take off for the beach

~July 31: Get to Malaysia, take the Jungle Line across central Malaysia

~August 4: Arrive in Singapore

AUGUST 6: Bryn's Birthday

August 9: Leave for Italy

August 10: Arrive in Bologna!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Update on Italy

We landed in Beijing Saturday morning to complete the last step of a graduate school application process that started back in Ocober. As I told everyone a few weeks ago, the last remaining piece of the puzzle was visas to go to Italy. I'm happy to announce that we were succesful in aquiring those visas this afternoon! It was a relatively easy process, actually, much easier than we had feared. We dropped off our visas and a huge pile of forms at noon, ate lunch, bought myself a knock-off winter coat in a flourish of confidence that we'd definitely be going to Bologna, and then picked up our visas at 4pm. Walking into the embaasy in the afternoon, I was a little worried that they'd inspect the fake Armani coat I'd just bought and renounce my visa on the grounds of stealing their intellectual property. It was tucked well inside a bag though and they didn't notice. Whew!

Now we have 4 days left to just explore Beijing. We already went hiking in the western hills yesterday and tomorrow we're going to the summer palace. Bryn and I kind of feel like country bumpkins here in the capital. Life in provincial kunming is a little different. We've felt a little embarassed exclaiming to our host here how amazed we were that we can flush toilet paper down the pot - a big no no in Kunming. We also feel a little racist whispering about how many "white people" there are here. We're miserable at taking the bus. In Kunming, it's a no-holds barred battle to claim your seat on the bus. Here, it's a more civilized process. We were ashamed the first day, but we're improving. 

We're off to swing dance now after nearly 4 months of only sneaking in a swing out here or there at salsa events or traditional Chinese dance circles. It'll feel good to get in some pure swing dancing with others. We still like each other, but it's just good to dance with others every once in a while.

With the Italian visa secured, we're feeling pretty good and readyto live it up on the dance floor.