Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Land of the Three Waters

I remember back in the early days of messing around on Google Earth (before Streetview took all the glory) I discovered what the word "antipode" means and that, by inverting the coordinates of any given location, I could find its exact opposite side of the globe. It was on this day that I realized how foolish I was for thinking that if I dug deep enough in my elementary school's sandbox, eventually I'd make it to China. In reality, I would have come out somewhere in the Indian Ocean - onto some God-forsaken, middle-of-nowhere ocean floor somewhere equally far from Madagascar, Western Australia and the southern tip of India. My closest hope of salvation would have been the French Southern and Antarctic Lands several hundred miles to my south. Unless I was digging in my winter (their summer), the several dozen scientists that live on the island would have probably all gone home. In the end, it was a good thing that I never made it all the way through. It probably would not have ended well for me. 

This is all to just set the scene for my visit to Kanyakumari, India's southernmost tip and dubbed "The Land of the Three Waters". It is here that the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal all meet after the Indian sub-continent finally ends its 1000 mile separation of the three. As I stood out on the point, dipping my toes into the water, I imagined my desolate antipode resting under the water somewhere thousands of miles in front of me. There was no land between my big toe and the Antarctic. 
Dipping my toe into the southern tip of India

Waves crashing into the southern tip of India

The Antarctic is a pretty abstract concept when you're in southern India. The heavy heat either bakes you dry on the east side of the peninsula in Tamil Nadu, or steam cooks you on the west side in tropical Kerala. A narrow mountain range divides the two and, driving, you cross from West Texas to Bali in a matter of minutes. The contrast is jarring and spectacular and the only thing that seems to hold the two separate universes together is a little two lane road that we whizzed along to and fro across the southern tip of India. 

I had the good fortune of getting to tag along with my aunt and her colleague, Christine, in southern India while they were visiting a factory to set up some purchases. (Thanks again you two for having me along!) We spent a day  in Tirunelveli going over designs of dried botanical arrangements and then took off for a few days of adventure while the artists created samples back in the factory. We visited the beach town of Kovalam, saw an old wooden palace and visited a few temples. It was a great little tour of India's southern tip and I can heartily recommend it to others looking for a good corner of India to explore. 

I could write about a lot of experiences I had in India over just a few days, but I think the experience(s) that struck me the most were the temples. Maybe I wasn't going to the right temples when I visited Northern India back in 2011, but the southern temples just seem to have so much more character. Sensuous is the way that I would describe them if I only had one word. Given my rambling so far, that might be the only word of mine you read about South Indian temples, but if you'll indulge me for a few more paragraphs, I have additional observations on the subject. 

It wasn't until I was back on the plane returning to Saigon that I finally arrived at the apt metaphor to describe South Indian temples: they're like a good, cured cast iron skillet that has been passed down from your great-grandmother. This metaphor may seem strange, but let me lay it out for you.

I think the piece that finally did it for me was a bas-relief of the monkey god within Meenakshi temple in Madurai. After making my way from the imposing gate through the dark layers of the temple lined with sculptures of Hindu gods and warriors, I made it into one of the central altars buried deep inside. If I hadn't had a guide, I would have been completely lost at this point. He directed me to the monkey god altar and I noticed it was very shiny for a stone sculpture, with globs of white and yellow smeared all over it. My guide told me that it was butter and lard - that people worshipped this altar by smearing cooking fats over it and then draping it in floral strands. 

Altar to the Monkey God at Meenakshi Temple
This was the literal parallel that got me onto the cast iron skillet metaphor, but the connection goes deeper than just a shared surface for butter. Worshippers at these temples offered all sorts of organic materials in these temples. Flowers were probably the most common, followed by bananas, coconuts and other fruits. I only saw the butter used once, but oils are smeared all over worshippers' bodies and burned in tiny lamps all over the temples. Priests bless worshippers with the ash from burnt wood and you'll notice little pots of ash at other stations around temples used to worship at altars. Colorful inks make worshippers and altars standout in the darkness. Most of the inks are plant based and are gone within a few days, so it's a safe bet that anything that is colorful has to be tended to on a daily basis. Some of the inks are made from spices, which provide a powerful scent that corresponds to the vibrancy. Then there is the largest mass of organic material of all - the temple elephant. Larger temples have a resident elephant that will bless you in exchange for monetary or edible donations. 

Elephant blessing at the temple
All these oils, ashes and inks blend together and layer over each other to create a truly sensuous environment that would be lost if someone went through with a sponge and bucket of soap. The character of these places is caked into the walls over centuries of worship. The altars are enclosed in layers of inner chambers and low corridors that make it difficult for any essence to escape into the outside world. It's like these temples are designed to trap the fumes and textures of all that enters and this accumulation makes these temples so special. Like an old, well cured cast iron skillet that has cooked thousands of servings of biscuits, gravies and caramelized onions, its flavor develops and matures over the generations. If you scrub it too well in the wash, you sterilize it and strip out all of those flavors. The sandstone walls of those South Indian temples are the spiritual equivalent of Grandma's cast iron skillet. 

And trust me, once you've walked around a temple for an hour, it stays on you. I left the Meenakshi temple in Madurai and got straight on a plane to begin my trip back to Saigon. As I sat in my seat, I could feel the oils between my toes and smell the spices on my shirt. My skin was greasy and fingers were sticky, no matter how many times I washed them. At Christian church, I approach the whole experience with scrubbed skin and crisp, pressed shirts. The whole affair is pretty clean and sterile in comparison to South Indian temples. It felt different, and even uncomfortable, to have all of these residues all over me after visiting the temple, but isn't that the whole point? What better way to remember and hold onto an experience than to feel it slide between your toes or smell it on your shirt a few hours later. I know that to some of you that might seem disgusting and, full disclosure, I  showered aggressively once I finally got home, but I can appreciate the sensuality of old time religion. In the end, it worked. I can't wait to go back and experience all that again. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Labuan Bajo, Indonesia: Sea Below, Stars Above

I can't remember the last time that I was able to see the Milky Way. Saigon just has way too many lights and hazy skies to ever have a chance at seeing anything less bright than a half-moon. It's a sad indication of how urban my life has become.

Waves crashing on Devil's Tear near Dream Beach (Lembongan)

Ten days on the Sea of Flores in Indonesia fixed that, though. The town of Labuan Bajo is located a few islands further east from the more popular Bali. It is isolated by the fact that you have to take an extra 1.5 hour flight from Bali, which seems to discourage most travelers from making it out there. However, the extra trip over stunning islands and pristine seas shimmering every shade of blue imaginable is well worth the effort.

Our final and best snorkeling sight. There's a cuttlefish down there somewhere

Those beautiful, clear, clean seas offer an abundance of marine life and diving opportunities. Bryn and I SCUBA dived six times over two days and had a blast. We swam with a pair of Manta Rays, saw countless Sea Turtles, a few reef sharks and, after numerous failed attempts to find a cuttlefish during our dives, we finally spotted one flitting alongside a sea turtle while we were snorkeling on our last day. The coral is still extremely healthy, but there is already evidence of its destruction. Like in Vietnam, it appears that the marine park charged with protecting the area is more interested in collecting revenue than protecting the park. Very few dive spots had mooring lines and a lot of boats just dropped anchor over coral beds. It was painful to watch. Like with Con Dao, it seems that the strongest force for preservation, for now, is Labuan Bajo's isolation. The sheer fact that not many people go out there means that the coral stays in tact. Who knows how long that will hold true, though.

Labuan Bajo's biggest celebrities are its Komodo Dragons. Two islands off the coast of Labuan Bajo (Komodo and Rinca) make up the only wild Komodo Dragon habitat in the world. And the 5,000+ dragons roaming those islands are out in full force. We hiked on both islands and saw dozens of dragons lounging in the sun, hanging around the kitchen hoping for handouts or females guarding their nests buried in earthen mounds. Although they're quite dangerous (our guide briefed us on all of the Komodo Dragon related injuries and deaths over the years) they're also pretty docile animals. As long as you keep your distance from them, you're fine. It's when you start posing a threat to the nest or if you come across a hungry, hunting dragon that things get dicey. On our second day in the park we spent a few morning hours walking around Komodo Island and I think it was my favorite. Climbing to a hilltop to enjoy the view, we found that a dragon had beat us up there and occupied the best spot. Cockatoos squawked in the valley below us and flew from tree to tree and a little further out, you could see the coral under the waves of the bay rolling out to the sea. He was a smart dragon.

A Smart Dragon
Logistically, you're going to have to spend a lot of time on boats while you're in Labuan Bajo if you want to get the most of it. The town itself doesn't offer much more than dive shops, restaurants and hotels. There are some cool excursions inland, but the mountainous roads are slow going, so you have to set aside a lot of extra time for overland travel. As for us, we spent every day we were there on a boat. We spent the first two days on a dive boat exploring the reefs and marine life and the next two days on a private boat touring around Komodo Island National Park. We constantly passed much larger, live-aboard ships that offered 5 or 6 days of diving much further out at sea where the day-trippers couldn't reach. I was only little jealous of them. Honestly, I probably don't appreciate diving enough to get the full benefit of a live-aboard. Two days of diving and two days of snorkeling/hiking with dragons was a good amount for us. But more is always possible.

A boat similar to ours waiting for the nightly bat evacuation from the mangroves. 
One of my favorite moments of the trip was our night out at sea in between Komodo and Rinca islands in the national park. We had anchored next to a mangrove forest to watch giant fruit bats come out for their nightly feeding. As the migration of bats dwindled, the stars began to come out. The moon was waning so we had a few hours of good darkness after the sun went down. All four days we were out there, there was never a single cloud above us - they always lurked behind mountain ridges on the horizon, but never got close to us - so the sky was clear. And to make it perfect, the closest human settlement was nearly 20 miles away behind a mountain, so light pollution was at a minimum. The only manmade light source came from a few fishing boats out on the horizon. The conditions were perfect for an amazing star show, made more amazing by the fact that it's been so long since I've seen one. The Milky Way smeared across the sky above us as we lay out on the roof of our little boat.

The coolest thing was that I had gone to Labuan Bajo anticipating amazing experiences in and under the water - and it fully delivered on those expectations. The star show was unexpected, though, and those surprises are the ones that really grab you.

Monday, August 24, 2015


I haven't traveled much in the past month. My aggressive tour of Vietnam's National Parks in July kind of wiped me out and spending August in one place sounded very appealing to me. The advantage of sticking around in one place is that you start to create routines and build on projects or relationships. The constant making and breaking of ephemeral contact while you travel can make one feel lonely. Staying in Saigon for just a month has been good for my soul.

First, I resumed Vietnamese class earlier this month. When I first got to Saigon, I was doing 20 hours a week. I've cut back to 12 and am enjoying it a little more. I've hit the point in my language studies where I'm starting to learn special vocabulary. This past week, I learned how to talk about a trip to the doctor's office and explain what hurt. This is great stuff to learn, but I won't use it everyday (hopefully) and so I won't have many opportunities to reinforce it. It's helpful that I now know how to say "I have a cough", but by the time I have a cough and need to say it, I will have surely forgotten it. Regardless, just applying myself to Vietnamese several hours a day helps keep up what I have learned and do use everyday. My latest project is to learn the lyrics to a Vietnamese pop song. My teacher suggested this one by who seems to be the Vietnamese equivalent of Jack Johnson. I can sing the first two verses so far, which has come in  handy a few times. 

One of the times I used my limited Vietnamese singing ability was during a presentation I recently gave at the American Center. The American cultural center here hosts all sorts of English speaking events and I've been pretty active there recently. During a series they did on American states, I presented Texas, naturally. In an attempt to make the presentation a little more interactive, I included a little segment where we all learned and sang the first verse of "Deep In the Heart of Texas". The audience was a little shy about singing at first, though, so I was able to loosen them up with my own rendition of the first verse of the Vietnamese Jack Johnson song. It was enough to make everyone laugh and break up the ice a bit. After that, they were much more enthusiastic with the singing and clapping. You have to give a little to get what you want and me singing a Vietnamese pop song seems to be good collateral when asking others to embarrass themselves. 

I've also been spending my Monday nights in August at the American Center leading a Massive Open Online Class, or MOOC. The class watches the lecture video online over the weekend and then we all get together on Monday evening to answer questions, go over examples and just talk about the topic of Problem Solving and Decision Making. Granted, it's a pretty broad subject, but I've had a lot of fun doing it. I hadn't ever really taken a MOOC before I led the discussion for this one and, I have to say, I'm a fan. I think learning at your own speed and doing it on your own time can really serve students better than the traditional, rigid class schedule. One of my favorite moments from the MOOC was during the class on group decision making. We had a hypothetical situation in which someone walked through the door and offered the class $10 million if they could make a unanimous decision on what to do with that money. The class was split between investing it, creating a scholarship fund and donating it to charity. They all presented their cases, debated the points and even were able to convince a few people to change sides, but in the end, we didn't reach a consensus and so the fictitious benefactor had to leave us and find another group to donate his money to. It was fun to watch them engage with each other and all make really valid arguments. 

For those keeping count, I'm now on the fourth activity that has been keeping me busy in general. Earlier in the month, I started a little chess club that meets up every Wednesday at a local university. I've never really been part of a chess club, so it's cool to be able to play people face-to-face. Vietnamese people in general are not comfortable with direct confrontation, so it's been interesting to watch them deal with chess, which doesn't have any pretext of passive aggressiveness - it's all out there on the wide open board. In one game in particular, once things started getting heated, the guy I was playing started making small talk, as if to reaffirm our mutual humanity while we slay each other mercilessly on the chess board. At least, I assume he was trying to diffuse the tension. Maybe he was trying to appeal to my humanist side in an effort to get me to cut him some slack. He ended up winning, so maybe he's playing a more conniving game than I gave him credit for... Anyways, a couple of kids have been in regular attendance and they don't seem to have any pretensions about being "nice" on the chess board. I've played the ten year old twice and both times just barely escaped with a win, only because he's made crucial mistakes in the end game. All the extra play seems to be paying off.  I've been playing chess with my uncle on a regular basis since 2007 and of the hundreds of games we've played over all of those years, I've managed to win maybe 10 times. However, just last week, I managed to beat him three times in a row - an unprecedented feat in my budding chess career. I'm not necessarily ready to take on the Russians yet, but at least I have evidence that my game is improving. 

On the more social, less confrontational side of things, we've found a good swing dance community here and have really been getting involved with that. Bryn and I have even taken it to the next level and taught a few classes. The scene in Saigon is pretty small and mostly beginners, but that just means that Bryn and I can actually make a difference here. I'm hoping to get even more involved and maybe start teaching a regular beginner's class. This sounds ridiculous to me, because in Austin or DC, I'm not nearly good enough to consider teaching, but since the scene is so young here, even if I can just teach people the basic step and a few simple moves, we will have made a big improvement. The perks associated with teaching swing dance have already started trickling down, too. Just last night I was invited to teach a class up on the 43rd floor of the highest building in town! I could barely even recognize the city from way up there. Swing dance has opened so many doors for me all around the world and I'm sure it will continue to create opportunities for me here in Saigon. 

Sixth, and finally, is my solo project that I started when I first got to Vietnam. This one doesn't actually require me to be in Saigon to keep up, but I don't know when I'll ever get another chance to write about my rubber band ball. I know, this may not seem exciting, but ever since the days of Pee Wee Herman's gigantic ball of aluminum foil, I've had a dream of making ridiculously large balls out of a household commodity. Vietnam is a great place to start a rubber band ball because I swear this country is actually held together by rubber bands. They're everywhere. Any food you order take-away involves at least four rubber bands and the ubiquitous, disposable rain ponchos use rubber bands to seal at the wrists and waist. Just walking down the street, you see them all over the place. Although I'm tempted to pick them up off the sidewalk, I've made a rule for myself to only pick them up off of the ground if I find them in my building (which I do all the time) since the ones on the street probably aren't hygienic. Considering that I've only been collecting since May, I think I'll be able to grow this ball pretty large by the time we leave. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Endangered Architecture in Saigon

A few weeks ago, I was writing to a friend about to come visit advising not to spend too much time in Saigon; the real treasures of Vietnam were outside the city in the countryside. That opinion has changed dramatically over the past few weeks, mostly thanks to a book that I found recently. "Exploring Ho Chi Minh City" by Tim Doling offers 23 walking tours around Saigon and surrounding areas. So far, I've only done two, but those two tours have easily doubled my knowledge of Saigon. The short story is that if you come visit, you should plan on doing one of these walking tours with me.

This book has confirmed what I already suspected about Saigon: this isn't a city that parades its best sites in broad daylight. I've tried a few times to just go on walks around Saigon and see what happens and usually that results in coming back home a few hours later hot, exhausted and convinced that all there is in Saigon are motorbikes and banh mi stands. The best of Saigon is hidden down inconspicuous alleyways, behind walls or locked up in controversial stories that aren't immediately apparent. After comparing a few walking tours from the book with a few walking tours without the book, the book definitely wins. 

A few weeks ago, nerding out on Saigon's history, I visited Tim Doling's blog and read a series he did on buildings around the city set to be torn down. They are all French colonial buildings between 80 and 150 years old. They are also mostly in district one; the center of the city where property is the most valuable and the most development is taking place. The series of blog posts is called "Date with the Wrecking Ball" and, while many of the buildings make an appearance in Tim's tour book, there isn't a specific tour dedicated to visiting the sites of Saigon with the shortest expiration date. Overcome with a sense of urgency, I plotted out a route on google maps and created a little tour based on Tim's blog posts that would show you most of the old French colonial buildings destined for the wrecking ball. 

Started as the equivalent of a French VFA and ended up as the
Vietnamese lottery commission before it was shuttered last
year and now serves as a moped parking lot
A few days later, we walked the tour ourselves to make sure we saw these little gems before they got knocked down. Some were more impressive than others, but all of them had a unique story that told the story of Saigon's turbulent 20th century. Most buildings started out as French administrative offices but shifted to more of a social purpose as French influence waned towards the middle of the century.  Then they were taken over by the South Vietnamese or Americans until 1975, when the North came in and needed their own office spaces. As the southern economy liberalized in the 1980s and 1990s, the old buildings transitioned from government to commercial purpose - although many of them still house state offices. 

One of the 1975 evacuation points
There are plenty of poignant landmarks, too. The old Pittman apartment building that served as the stage for one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam war is on the route (that building will be knocked down any day now). There's also the old French police station and jail right next to the cathedral along with an old printing press that published some of the first romanized Vietnamese newspapers. An old factory on colonial Saigon's main avenue has been converted into an upmarket cafe and clothing store. However, I think the building that most struck me was the Grand Magazin Charner: the first shopping mall in Indochina. 

A visit to the old staircase of the first shopping mall in Indochina

The Grand Magazin Charner was most recently used as a grocery store, but its doors were shuttered last year in preparation for demolition. The building itself is beautiful and certainly historical, but it has been remodeled so many times that it's hard to recognize the old French colonial architecture. What is impossible to miss, though, is the grand mosaic staircase parading down to the ground floor. I had read so much about this staircase and looked at so many pictures of it, but with the clear understanding that the building was now closed and inaccessible. Allegedly, a local architecture student broke into the building late last year to take the final pictures of the staircase. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the doors to the condemned building wide open and a friendly guard named Cu let us in to get our own glimpse of the lobby and staircase. It made our day to be able to see perhaps the most endangered piece of art in Saigon. There is talk of saving, or at least preserving, the staircase, but its fate is in jeopardy right now. I'm amazed that, given its artistic and historical value, a museum hasn't tried to acquire it. If there are any multi-millionaires out there looking for a nice mosaic staircase, you might be able to get what you need here in Saigon.
Detail of the mosaic

In return for showing us the staircase, Cu only asked for a picture of us in return. When we tried to send it to him, we found out that he doesn't have email. So, we went to a photocopy shop across the street and framed a print of our photo for just $2. I'm not sure he appreciated it all that much, but if you want to see the staircase for yourself, you might try offering Cu a framed picture documenting your visit with him.

Our friendly security guard, Cu

After our little tour, I reflected on the idea of all of these buildings being wiped off the map in the coming year. What affected me most was a little anecdote about the Catinat building, another one of those structures that had seen a dozen tenets over the past century and held books worth of stories about Saigon's struggles through the 20th century. When the French were building it in the 1920s, excavators discovered the foundation of Saigon's old city wall. Did this stop the developers? No. They went on with their construction project and buried the evidence of Saigon's pre-colonial past under an office building. I'm not saying that the Vietnamese should knock the Catinat building down out of spite for building over their old city wall, but in the midst of debate over preserving these old French buildings, I think it is important to remember that the French developed over an existing city. You don't see many structures in Saigon that pre-date the French colonial era. I certainly don't think that the Vietnamese have any moral obligation to preserve these old buildings and it makes sense to me that the Vietnamese would want to build a city for themselves. 

There's also the simple value of these properties. These old French buildings are at most five stories high and yet they are surrounded by modern skyscrapers 30-40 stories high. The opportunity cost of keeping these French colonial structures is high and, in a developing country like Vietnam, they don't necessarily have the luxury of sacrificing millions of dollars in development projects for cultural heritage - especially when the cultural heritage in question is of colonial dubiousness. 

A modernist mosaic beneath L'Usine cafe. I'm thinking that it
depicts water buffalo. 
However, I still certainly hope that the city will figure out a way to preserve these buildings and I do think that there is commercial, as well as cultural, value in doing so. There is talk of incorporating the old facades into new developments or, in the case of the Grand Magazin Charner, incorporating the staircase into the new building built in its place. Southeast Asian cities have developed extremely rapidly and many have done so at the cost of developing a city character. Saigon might aspire to one day be as new and shiny as Singapore or Bangkok, but one of these days, Saigon will eventually be trying to set itself apart from Singapore and Bangkok. One way it can do that (architecturally, at least) is by preserving its unique French flair. I assume that Singapore and Bangkok don't have 19th century Moroccan staircases in their shopping malls or early 20th century factories converted into chic, downtown coffee shops. One of these days, in the not so distant future, these retro-buildings will be way more valuable than another sleek, modern skyscraper. 

So I say "save the old French buildings"! If not for the historical value, then at least for the commercial value!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Worlds Below Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park

At one point deep inside the Tu Lan cave system, the members of our tour all pointed our headlamps up at a huge column. The solid sediment looked as liquid as a clock in a Salvador Dali painting. No wonder people are so drawn to touch formations in caves – it’s hard to believe that they are solid. You want to poke it with your finger just to make sure. Luckily for us, the cavern burrowing through the mountain above us and the sharp stalagmites hanging over our heads were very solid. Barring an earthquake, we could have sat in our cave for a thousand years and not notice a single change. With the exception of a bat fluttering by every once in a while, caves are basically controlled laboratories for nature’s geological experiments. While I was at Phong Nha National Park in north-central Vietnam, I spent a fair amount of time deep inside these caves, so I had some time to think about it. Here are my observations about spelunking in the wilds of Vietnam.

View of Phong Nha and the Dr. Seuss mountains behind it

Cave Cricket
First, walking through a cave is a lot like diving on a coral reef. I started realizing this after our guide described a cave formation as looking like a piece of coral. The same subterranean forces that shape the rocks under mountains seem to have the same personalities as the submarine forces that shape the underwater world. Beyond the visual similarities between formations and coral reefs, the whole experience has a lot of parallels. Going into a cave requires a similar checklist as descending below an ocean surface: secure and check all of your gear; do a head count to see how many people are in your group; identify your entry point and then descend. Like diving, descending into caves can be pretty technical and you tend to be really focused on just picking your way down the rocks. When I dive, I’m usually too preoccupied with equalizing my sinus pressure and maintaining a constant descent to really notice what’s going on around me. But then, you reach the bottom and realize that you’ve landed in a different world. You start noticing fish/bats going back and forth overhead; you crane your neck upward to see the coral/rock features tower over head and, as you start traversing the floor of the sea/cave, you start noticing little critters in the crevices and start sticking your mask/headlamp into little corners to watch cave crickets/sea urchins hanging out on their rocks.

You get the same kind of tunnel vision in a cave as underwater. Both worlds require you to observe through a kind of window – either a headlamp in the cave or through a mask underwater. This forces you to process your surroundings piecemeal – it’s difficult to get the wide panoramas that we’re used to with peripheral vision up on the surface. Every once in a while, you have to look up and confirm that there is indeed something above. This tunnel vision helps to maintain some mystery in your surroundings, but it also helps you focus on what’s right in front of you. Sometimes peripheral vision can be a distraction. Up on the surface, our wide field of vision just gives us too many things at once. It’s distracting! Below the surface, the visual field is more suitable to those of us who don’t like to multi-task.
A drop of water forming a stalactite
Also, coral reefs and Vietnamese caves aren’t as far removed as you might think. The layers of rock that form the walls of the caves came from layer-upon-layer of coral reef, underwater plants and life that covered the sea floor millions of years ago. Like most of the world, the caves burrowing under mountains were once sea floors. Some people think caves are haunted. I agree with them, but I don’t think that caves haunted by human spirits – they’re haunted by the billions of pieces of compressed sea-life that make up the walls and ceilings holding up the millions of tons of mountain directly overhead.

View of the entrance to Ken cave from our campsite
Second, I can totally see how previous human civilizations could have mistaken caves for hell. The surface of Phong Nha national park is remarkable for its natural beauty. The karst landscape makes for dramatic mountains that rise up out of nowhere and sheer cliff faces framed in lush jungle. The sun shines brightly, rivers flow through the valleys and humans survive on what the earth provides. But look a little closer at one of those cliff faces or follow a river upstream far enough and you’ll find a gaping hole in what you thought was a relatively solid earth surface. They are dark, mysterious places that don’t seem to provide much support to life – except that bats fly out of their gaping mouths every dusk to prowl the night skies. Caves are weird places and only the bravest/fool hardy of people would venture to go into one without a reliable light source.

Lush rice fields on the surface

Imagine a medieval adrenaline junky venturing out of the security of his village to go explore one of these holes in the earth. Maybe he has a torch as a light source. He can’t convince anyone else to leave the village to go on this asinine adventure, so his discoveries can only be translated through the perhaps faulty wiring of his own consciousness. He stumbles his way down sharp, loose rocks, eventually losing the light from the entrance. At the bottom of the cave, darkness is absolute. If it weren’t for his torch, he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. The weak light from his flame shows bizarre, twisted formations of rocks. Stone daggers thrust up from the floor and hang down from the ceiling, threatening to impale him at any second. Blobs of collected sediment protrude from the cave walls, eerily resembling slimy monsters that he’s heard described by local fishermen who have sailed far out to sea. He hears noises but they are unfamiliar and he cannot determine their source. Going into a cave is to go into a different, unexplainable world that is so physically close to our own but so far removed. The lush colors of abundant life that make up the outside world immediately turn into a deathly grays and browns below the surface. If our explorer can’t find his way back to the mouth of the cave, if his light goes out, surely he’ll die down there.

I can’t imagine anything closer to the physical manifestation of hell than going down into a cave. Naturally, there aren’t devils dancing around with pitchforks, but if you look at some of those formations from the right angles, the stalagmites and stalactites look like pointy incisors attached to gigantic jaws ready to chomp down on anyone foolish enough to get in their way. With the right mixture of fear, imagination and a few hundred years of creative embellishment, those caves become our modern portrayal of hell. But even if Dante and John Milton were fooled, I’m not. I know that caves are really just spooky abandoned coral reefs.

Nautilus fossil/ghost in the cave wall

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bach Ma National Park

Entrance to Bach Ma National Park
I stood at the front entrance eyeing the road winding 12 miles in front of me up to the peak of Bach Ma mountain. The ranger had just informed me that it would cost $75 to get a ride up to the top in a van. The situation reminded me of how Vietnam does not tend to cater to individual travelers. The van option was tailored to the more normal 10 person Vietnamese tour group. I just couldn't justify giving up a chance to climb a mountain for an overpriced, 30 minute van ride.

Even though Bach Ma National Park is only a few miles away from the coast, I could already feel the cool air beckoning me to ignore the perils of spending an afternoon outside in Vietnam. Bach Ma peak itself was covered in clouds and it just looked like a different world up there. The logician inside me was telling me to wait for a group to come along and share a van with them, but my feet were chomping at the bit to make the summit on their own. And I was off.

The road climbed steadily and steeply the whole way. I kept seeing signs warning of a 10% grade ahead, but really the whole way was a a steep incline upwards. After about 20 minutes, I was already being rewarded with stunning views of the valley below leading out to the sea. The clouds kept their cover, too, so that I didn't melt. Everything was coming together nicely and I was running on the adrenaline rush that kicks in when you semi-spontaneously decide to climb 4,000 feet in a day.

See if you can spot the black tip of the tail curving around the barrier 
As I settled into a good pace, neck craned to my left watching the landscape recede below me, I heard leaves rustle and looked back down at the road. About 4 feet in front of me, a black snake with the slithered ahead. It raised its head and I could make out the unmistakable flare around its neck: a cobra. I froze. Finally, I had the wherewithal to pull out my phone and take a picture of it, but I was so flustered that I kept pushing the home button on my iPhone instead of the big white button for the camera. Once I finally snapped out of it, I was only able to catch the last of its tail as it exited the road for the thicker cover of the jungle. From then on, I proceeded with a little more caution, making sure to walk in the middle of the road.

Luckily, there is very little traffic on the road up to Bach Ma, so walking in the middle of the one lane road wasn't a problem at all. Most tourists drive up first thing in the morning for the sunrise, so my mid-morning start missed most of the heavy traffic.

About half-way up, I started getting up into the clouds and the view disappeared. Even though there was heavy cloud cover, I could still feel the mid-afternoon sun trying hard to burn through the atmosphere. The result was a weird combination of dense, glaring fog and heavy, hot air. I've never been so hot in fog before - my understanding was that you needed cool air to create fog? Left without a view to occupy my attention, I wandered on through the fog for a few miles trying to make sense of the meteorological conundrum I was caught in the middle of. My conclusion: I don't understand weather sometimes.

As I hoofed it over the second pass, lost in the random thoughts that flowed through my brain after several hours of walking through white, it started to rain. As it had been threatening rain all day, I already had my rain gear on and I welcomed the slight relief it brought from the heat. Besides, I was only about another mile from my lodge where I could dry off. I was so happy when I rounded the final corner at mile 12 and saw the one-story stone building waiting in front of me. It had been the first sign of civilization I'd seen in hours. Part of me had started doubting that there actually was anything at the top.

Right as I entered the front lobby, the rain started pouring down in earnest. I had been lucky. Lucky not only to have made it in time to miss the brunt of the rainstorm, but to have ended up in such a beautiful place. The lodge I had booked a room in was an old French villa built by well-to-do colonialists in the 1930s. I felt like I was in a wine cellar somewhere in France: the rounded stone walls supported a conical ceiling with a single stone column in the middle of the room. A staircase followed the rounded wall up to the rooms. It was such a cool space.

However, the girl at the reception desk had to deliver the bad news that I actually would not be able to stay there that night as the electricity was out. I'd have to go another mile up the road to the next lodge. Under other circumstances, I would have been devastated. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows that you count down every foot for those last few miles to the top. To add a whole 5,280 feet to my countdown was a blow to morale. But the rainstorm outside was intensifying. Lightning was flashing directly overhead and the wind was straining at the windows. Electricity or no, I was at least waiting out the storm in that grand, French entrance hall.

As I watched the storm, I realized that I had started the day somewhere in tropical Vietnam and in just a few hours had somehow made it to Oregon. The lodge was surrounded by pine trees that padded the ground below them in needles. Wisps of clouds blew up the side of the mountain and the rain kept driving down. Every time lightning struck, I heard a zap come from the fuse box on the back wall and began to understand how the lodge had lost its electricity.

About an hour later, the rain finally slowed down. The receptionist gave me a poncho and I set off on my final mile, teeth actually chattering in the cold aftermath of the storm. I had never imagined that I would one day be cold in Vietnam, but it's possible.

I spent the second day exploring the trails around the peak of the mountain. I got up early for sunrise at the peak and then made my way down through the leech infested forests to a series of waterfalls. At one point, finding a leech on my ankle, I freaked out in the middle of the road, flinging my shoes and socks off in an effort to get rid of the little suckers. I found five of them on me in all, with many more wriggling around in the bottom of my shoe. Once I had removed them all, I fashioned a pair of leech socks out of my poncho: I'd rather be wet than covered in leeches. It seemed to do the trick, as I went the rest of the day leech free.

The highlight of that second day was Rhododendron falls, the grand finale of a series of waterfalls winding down the mountain. And yes, I walked the nearly 700 steps down to the base of the waterfall and then back up. And these aren't your friendly, OSHA approved staircases; these are crude, concrete terraces of varying height scaling the side of a cliff. After climbing back up those steps, I was done for the day. I went back to the lodge in time to miss another afternoon rainstorm. I left my window open and watched clouds spill over into my room. I still can't really believe that all happened in Vietnam. It really is a different world up there.

The top of Rhododendron Falls

The base of the falls, nearly 700 steps down

 Buddha in the jungle

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cat Tien National Park

To get in the mood for this first section, I recommend listening to this sound clip that I recorded on the evening when we begin. 

The rain finally came Sunday night at around 3am. It was late, though, and made for a tense evening. The previous four days it had rained all afternoon, washing the accumulated heat and dirt off of the day and cooling the evenings. But Sunday night, I lost my patience waiting around for the rain and went to bed feeling like the day wasn’t quite complete. I had been waiting lazily enough, reading and swinging myself in a hammock out on a deck overlooking the Dong Nai River. The waiting was getting uncomfortable, though. The mosquitoes had already managed to score a few bites on my butt, which I have to point out was covered in two layers of clothing. I retreated back to my bungalow and behind the protection of my mosquito net. By then, even the crickets, cicadas and frogs had gone to bed and it was dead still outside as everyone just kept waiting for that inevitable rain to finally come. I turned on the fan in my room to blow away the tension in the air. It’s amazing how heavy the air feels right before a storm.

Typical afternoon rainstorm on the banks of the Dong Nai River. Cat Tien forest is on the opposite bank.

I felt like I had barely closed my eyes when I woke up to thunder in the distance. It was a welcome sound and I lay in bed listening to it gradually get closer. Within a few minutes, the thunder was peeling directly over me, starting just behind my head and continuing down past my toes.  I waited for the drops to start falling, but they didn’t. Despite the lingering anticipation, I fell back asleep. The next time I woke up, I heard footsteps approaching my bamboo bungalow. I held my breath and strained to listen where they were headed. They approached my bungalow, then started heading away from it, then sideways, parallel to my room then… on my roof? Eventually, my senses sharpened and I realized that the footsteps were in fact the rain beginning to fall around me. The slow, heavy start transitioned to a steady rhythm that played nicely on the thatch roof above me. With the tension finally cut, I fell back into a deeper sleep.

I dreamed of dinosaurs that night: specifically, a T-Rex wreaking havoc on a ship. It was like “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” except that my brain was playing all the scenes that took place on the boat that the movie didn’t show. My dream ended differently, too, with the boat finally pulling up to a curb along a Mexican sea-front plaza. The shallow water caused the ship to tip over, releasing its deadly cargo into the party town. I can only imagine that my dream was (at least partially) inspired by Cat Tien National Park. The forest I spent the last 5 days in is a prehistoric kind of place that seems to be fit more for giant lizards than soft skinned humans. The giant “Tung” trees, for example, must have been around for the dinosaurs - they kind of look like dinosaurs. Their long, ascending roots are like dragons, with smaller, secondary roots coming off the main roots that make for believable looking legs. Maybe my dream influenced that simile, though. A few days before my dream, I had walked around a Tung tree comparing its giant roots to flying buttresses of some medieval church or castle. I like the dragon simile better though – it’s more likely you’ll see a dragon in that dense, ancient forest than a gothic cathedral.

A massive root coming off a massive Tung tree.
I celebrated my last day in the Cat Tien forest by crossing the length of the park to Crocodile Lake. I didn’t actually see any crocodiles there, but that didn’t take away from the experience. I rode my bike and walked through dense jungle for about 3 hours to get there and the grand expanse of the lake was a dramatic contrast. I don’t tend to get claustrophobic, but walking through Cat Tien tested the limits of my senses. My eyes couldn’t do much more than watch the path directly in front of me. As soon as I looked up to either side of me, I was blinded by green. In the beginning, I’d try to use my eyes to follow up on clues my ears were receiving – a rustling tree here, a flutter of wings there – but my eyes usually couldn’t provide much help.  Once, while watching a tree top shake violently, I saw a monkey fly through the air on its way to another tree, but other than that my eyes were pretty much useless. By the end of my trek, I was relying on my ears. Instead of trying to spot birds through the dense leaf cover, I stopped periodically to listen to the symphony of calls all around me. At Crocodile Lake, though, the jungle opens up to an expansive wetland where the eyes finally got to join in again: cranes circling over the water looking for a place to land, brightly colored birds darting over the tops of the reeds and red-headed ducks waddling through the shallow wetlands.

Lava stone footpath to Crocodile Lake - chiseled and placed by hand.

I returned to the lodge sweaty, muddy and beat. It was 3pm and hot and I had just covered 20 miles over bumpy, muddy roads and narrow jungle paths. I was hungry and thirsty, as all I had during my trek was a Cliff Bar and two bottles of water. Luckily, the lodge I was staying at served an awesome river fish steamed in pineapples, tomatoes and peppers. After I devoured that and finished off a liter of water, I crashed into bed to sleep off the heat of the afternoon. The bamboo bungalows make air conditioning futile, but the gaps in the wall allow natural ventilation to keep the rooms cool. I actually visited another lodge down the road that had brick built rooms and a/c, but they were still hotter than my little bamboo bungalow. The technology may be a thousand years old, but it works.

My humble bungalow. The stockings hanging behind the chair are my leech socks. 

Steamed fish from the river right below this table. 

Later that evening, the owner of the lodge I was staying in showed me around his garden. He had planted about 40 hardwood trees that would grow there for over a thousand years. Even though the lodge had only been open for two years, the owner was obviously planning for a long future. The trees he was planting would barely be adolescents (in tree years) by the end of his life. But that’s the cool part about forests, I guess. The giant trees that are already over a thousand years old transport you back in time – even if not quite back to the dinosaur era, at least back to the gothic age. The little saplings that reach up to your chest and are as big around as your thumb transport you a thousand years into the future. Who knows what the banks of the Dong Nai River and Cat Tien national park will look like a thousand years from now. I hope it still looks similar. It was nice to have my weekend there in the middle of both.

The full span of a Tung tree.