Wednesday, March 28, 2007

somewhere on a desert highway...

It wasn't a Harley Davidson, but the price we paid for our splendid isolation in Phu Quoc was having to rent a motorcycle in order to get into town or do any exploring of the island. Now, I have always always always absolutely hated motorcycles...I hate the ear-shattering roar they make, I hate the smell of their fumes, and most of all I find the thought of driving one utterly terrifying. I don't just mean nervous--I'm talking mind-numbing panic (and anyone who knows just how incompetant I am when it comes to operating motorized vehicles of any kind will admit that my fear is somewhat reasonable). On top of that, we were on a tiny, isolated island with pitted, twisty dirt roads and no access to medical care in a third world country where we couldn't speak the language. Oh yeah, and we didn't know how to drive motorcycles. It seemed like a no brainer: stay on the beautiful, solitary beach and stay far away from the motorcycles. Unfortunately, Will didn't seem to agree with my reasoning...and it didn't seem fair to veto the only thing he said he wanted to do (Phu Quoc was my ideal vacation much more than it was his). I tried my best to suck it up and be a good sport (although I did ride on the back of Will's motorcycle instead of getting one of my own) and was determined not to be annoying or yelp, and all in all I think I did a pretty good job (especially during the night riding, where I was a total Positive Papa). It took a while for me to get comfortable, because as I gained confidence, so did Will--which meant he started driving the motorcycle faster and less cautiously. He also picked up the pace whenever we were passed by other motorcycles...I guess he felt embarrassed by our faltering, foreigner pace (although, since it was his first time, and he had to navigate over large rocks and holes and strange, makeshift wooden bridges, he really shouldn't have felt embarrassed at all). This was too bad, not because of the scariness, which I got pretty much used to, but because it made it harder to look around and almost impossible to take pictures from the back of the motorcycle (this was pretty dangerous because I needed both hands to operate my camera and I had to lean back and to the side to take pictures...meaning I was off balance and completely unattached to the moving vehicle...but there was so much to look at that I tried anyway). We rode all through the town, just looking, and stopped at the harbor to look at the brightly painted, marigold-decorated fishing boats and to climb up some rocks to a lighthouse/tower-y thing that looked out over the whole of Long Beach, where we were staying (the picture I'm in the forefront of). We went out to dinner at a place other than the open air restaurant at our bungalows (an open air restaurant at another hotel, but still). This place was in the middle of the line of resorts and hotels and bungalows at the top of Long Beach, and even though it was more expensive than our place, I am beyond glad we didn't go there. It was a great place to have dinner though...we were up high on a deck and could look out over the water to watch the sunset...but we failed to give any thought to what would happen after our meal, when it was dark out and we were stranded far from our sweet little bungalow. For a while, we couldn't get the motorcycle's headlight to turn on, but quickly established that it wasn't broken---it just only went on when the motorcycle was actually accelerating (this made the huge rocky downhill somewhat of a ride of terror). We made it home almost without incident, but as we turned onto the narrow, sandy track that led to our bungalows, we hit a deep patch of sand and fell. This would not have been that big of a deal except for the fact that we were on a thin raised path running through an extremely muddy ditch full of extremely muddy ducks. I had laughed about the ducks and their muddiness and bird flu and such earlier in the day, so jinx-ically speaking, I totally deserved to fall in the mud with the ducks. Luckily, knowing this, I clung so hard to the falling motorcycle that I only scraped myself and burned my foot. And after a few minutes of non-starting stress, the motorcycle worked again, so everything turned out just fine.

Friday, March 23, 2007

phu quoc

The sand was just like peanut butter cookie dough. Really...I even made Will some sand peanut butter cookies but I don't think he found them very impressive.

This spot is where we spent most of our time in Phu Quoc.

Our hotel consisted of a handful of little bungalows and rooms (4 bungalows, 6 rooms, to be exact) arranged in a loose semicircle around the open air restaurant, all right in the beach. Our bungalow is the slightly smaller one on the right and directly behind Will. They were simple and pretty, with the same red stone floors as the pathways and restaurant and low, smooth wood furnishings. At the entrance of each was a little pot of sun-warmed water and a coconut dipper to wash our feet and keep sand out of everything.

Views to the left and right of my beach chair.

As you can see, we had things pretty much to ourselves. Although we didn't really know it when we reserved our bungalow, happily we were pretty far from the main drag of hotels, resorts, and guesthouses on Phu Quoc. We basically only saw other people staying at our place--Will's friends unfortunately couldn't get plane tickets to the island and weren't among them--mostly interchangeable-looking European men and their Asian girlfriends, but also a funny older French couple and a group of 3 Australian guys living in China.

We ate seafood right out of the ocean and drank coconuts knocked off the trees clustered around our area. The little restaurant made both Western and Vietnamese dishes--we usually had Western food for breakfast and non-Western food for everything else. Tofu and eggs were a hot commodity, as the restaurant only bought a certain amount from town each day and sometimes ran out. Will determinedly stuck to a 4-or-5 meal per day regimen, a fact that helped make us a favorite with Keing (the waiter/odd-job guy).

Vietnam far and away possesses the the happiest dogs (both wild and domestic) of any Asian country I've visited. In Korea, most dogs are kept outside in small cages or on short chains. Their fur is raggedy and filthy, and they get taunted and tormented by passerby--especially kids. The strays are skinnier and even dirtier (the other day I happened across a stray blind-in-one-eye, 3-legged teacup chihuahua), and the few (lucky?) lapdogs are usually dyed strange colors (pink and green are the most popular) and forced into clothes. In China and Cambodia they have it a little better (I've seen some happy looking ones), but most still suffer in tiny cages and filth. In Vietnam (especially Phu Quoc but Saigon too), both pet and wild dogs have glossy fur and dog smiles on their faces. Phu Quoc has a ton of mostly wild dogs that roam the island freely and mainly ignore people. The little guy in the pictures adopted Will and me as beach lounging companions, hanging out under the shade of our beach chairs and coming to lie under our table when we went up to the restaurant to eat. He liked being patted and did not once beg for food.

We could walk waaaay down the beach without seeing a soul (apart from the occasional dog). On our first day, we found a place where a stream entering the ocean had carved the beach into a steep dropoff and watched a cat-sized black octopus come out of the depths to eat hermit crabs.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Our first and last stop in Vietnam was Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City). We got in really late (seemingly, all flights in and out of Saigon occur between 1 and 6:30 in the morning), so I had arranged with our hostel back in January for us to get picked up at the airport. Of course, when we arrived at the airport, our pick up was nowhere to be seen. When we called the hotel, we were told that I had failed to confirm (which my email account totally disproves!) and that we should just get a taxi to the hotel. We then had to join the large mob of other hot, tired, and disgruntled arriving passengers for one of the few available taxis (which were all gleefully charging ridiculous prices) and it was completely my fault.
After that inauspicious beginning, however, everything--aside from the extremely irritating tendency of everyone in Saigon to charge us Happy New Year tax--went really well. Despite not picking us up at the airport, the staff at our hostel was really nice, and our room was clean and cool and had lots of English TV. We visited the War Remnants Museum, the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Reunification Palace, the post office (doesn't sound touristy but it was actually pretty cool), the Notre Dame Cathedral, wandered around checking out Lunar New Year celebrations, and wandered and shopped at the large, indoor Benh Thanh Market. We ate amazingly well...incredible fruits and smoothies, pho, spring rolls, bun, other things I never learned the name of. The fruit--fruit plates, juices, shakes, and smoothies--was my favorite. Just about every restaurant and tons of street stalls and carts had big displays of fresh mangos, coconuts, pomelos, pineapples, bananas, dragonfruit, strawberries, and watermelon. The absolute best tasting thing I had was some mango juice at Benh Thanh Market. The food section in the market has a ton of stalls and counters selling all kinds of food and just sit down on one of the little stools and point at things. Will, of course, refused to get anything and then drank almost all of my mango juice (you can just see the edge of his face and his hand holding the juice in the picture), something I had to try really hard not to get angry about. We also ate pho at a restaurant that Bill Clinton once went to. All four walls featured huge pictures of Bill beaming over a big bowl of pho...very exciting. Will liked their pho much he had to have two giant servings. While waiting for the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City to open (most things in Saigon are closed for an hour or two around lunchtime), we bought nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) from a little old woman with a cart on the sidewalk. She forced sticks of sugar cane through a little press, then handed us plastic bags with the resulting juice and some ice. It was delish. We sat on some random steps across from the museum and watched random other foreigners try to figure out that the museum was closed. We also had a really good lunch at Quan An Ngon, a restaurant recommended to us many times over. It's pretty cool--the restaurant is set up into different stations and you can wander around and see cooks preparing different dishes. We sat with other Americans--married doctors on vacation--who were very nice and fun to talk to. The woman had a jellyfish sting on her arm exactly like the one on my finger (which today, March 23rd, is still red and angry), only much bigger. Saigon was a lot like Phnom Penh, extremely backpacker-ful, very friendly, and overflowing with motorcycles. Crossing the street is done in the same way too...slowly and deliberately right out into the traffic, trying not to make any sudden moves so that the motorcycles can go around you. There are few traffic lights in the entire city, and seemingly even fewer traffic laws, so the whole thing can be pretty harrowing. Will made it especially so, by religiously avoiding the crosswalks (which are marginally safer since lots of people gather to cross in them).

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Beijing--although wicked cold--was really relaxing and wonderful. Since the holiday hadn't actually started yet, during the day I was on my own. I ran errands (the worst of which was paying 63A Guowang's electric bill, a job that took hours and involved waiting in a lengthy and aggressive line), and mostly went on long walks. I got to see Lin Yuzhe and Liu Chang, eat really, really amazing food with Will, and catch up on some of the sleep I didn't get in Cambodia and Hong Kong.
It was fun to watch some of Beijing's preparations for the Lunar New Year. All over the city I watched people glueing 春联 (special New Year couplets) on thin red paper over their doorways. The constant fireworks were somewhat less pleasant. Day and night (are fireworks even fun during the day?), the air was full of the cracks and bangs of exploding fireworks. I couldn't go anywhere without kids trying to scare the foreigner by setting them off just behind my head. It was all worth it, though, for the sight under our plane as we left Beijing. We left at night, and as we flew over the city, thousands of fireworks bloomed up endlessly and everywhere below us.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Asia is the land of ultra-specific superlatives. In our four days in Hong Kong alone, we experienced the World's Largest Outdoor Seated Bronze Buddha, the World's Largest Permanent Light Show, and the World's Longest Outdoor Covered Escalator. At the Royal Palace in Cambodia, we saw the World's Most Diamond Encrusted Buddha and the Emerald Buddha, which is the world's largest single carved crystal Buddha (not to be confused with Thailand's Emerald Buddha--also not made of emerald, and possibly also a superlative of some kind). In Korea, I've been to the World's Largest Outdoor Standing Bronze Buddha and the World's Largest Outdoor [Something I Can't Remember] Sleeping Buddha (not to be confused with the World's Largest Reclining Buddha, which lives in Burma/Myanmar along with the World's Largest Underwater Bell...or so I've been told). In China I remember seeing the World's Largest Indoor Buddha Carved From A Single Tree and many more. Bizarre...but I guess I can't really make fun of it--the system seems to work (we clearly would never have visited, remembered, or photographed ourselves riding the World's Longest Outdoor Covered Escalator if we hadn't known of its eminence).

the good (and awesome)

Fortunately we didn't spend our whole time in Hong Kong scared in our creepy hotel. Overall, I'd say there was definitely more fun than suffering. We went to Buddhist temples (with tons of hanging, spiral cones of incense, little whimsical creatures, drums, and dim lighting), had our fortunes told, ate delicious gelato, ate even more

delicious dim sum with Mary's family friends, wandered Hong Kong Island, shopped in markets, saw really cool architecture, took the Star Ferry, and rode a cable car to look over all of Hong Kong (although we couldn't actually see much of it because of the smog). Katie and I also had a number of epic escalator races, culminating in a thrilling race through the immigration line when we left Hong Kong, in which I was the surprise victor. In the middle of the huge Ladies Market in Kowloon, we randomly bumped into another ETA, Jenn M, who had just spent some time traveling on her own through the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and was stopping off in Hong Kong on her way back to Korea. We even got to meet a Hong Kong movie star--we were wandering around looking for an internet place (unlike seemingly every other part of Asia, Hong Kong has an extreme deficit of public internet places) and heard squealing and other sounds of teenage female glee. We turned a corner, saw this:
and realized there was someone famous somewhere in there. We fearlessly waded into the fray (which parted quite willingly to let the foreigners through) and, sure enough, discovered Alex himself and got a quick picture of him. Several of the TV cameras and tons of the other fans captured us meeting Alex. We have no idea who he is (other than that he's in the movie he's holding a flyer for. Its English title is "It's a Wonderful Life," although I'm absolutely certain it's nothing like the Jimmy Stewart one), but we know he's famous, so it was definitely time well spent. Yay for celebrities.
We also wore really, really nice sunglasses the whole time we were in Hong Kong. Photographic evidence below:

in wigs

Friday, March 16, 2007

the bad

Bad things in Hong Kong were the pollution and my food poisoning and/or parasite. I think it is finally safe to say (a full month after it happened) that I am completely no longer sick. The picture on the left shows our view overlooking Hong Kong. The pollution was about at that level the entire time we were there...obscuring views, dulling pictures, and making our sunglasses utterly unnecessary. It was, however, not nearly as bad as getting sick.

(from journal): It's our last full day in Hong Kong and I'm sick as a dog. Katie and Mary had to go on without me, since there's no way I can leave this room. Of course, today's trip (to a temple and wishing tree) is the one I've been the most excited about. The wishing tree is gradually being crushed under the weight of all its wishes and may not be around for much longer--and now, around Lunar New Year, is the best time to make a wish (you can't hang them in the tree itself anymore, but still). Tragically, now that I'm finally able to emerge from the bathroom, the TV is not working and I've finished my only book...I have absolutely nothing to do except feel sorry for myself (which I'm excelling at) and listen to the insanely loud Koreans moving around in the hallway. I don't understand why they came to Hong Kong just to spend entire days fussing around in the hallway of a seedy guesthouse. I hope I'm better by tomorrow--the thought of lugging my stuff to/around the airport, flying, and making my way alone through Beijing with my stuff while sick pretty much makes me want to cry.

I didn't really get better the next day...but I was functional and, despite the fact that my flight to Beijing was canceled, I made it with no problem to Will's house where I could rest, eat mild foods, and take medicine.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

hong kong: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Our visit to Hong Kong was definitely a mix...

To start with the ugly, here is the building we lived in--the Mirador Mansions. I remember long ago, as a student living in China, hearing stories of Hong Kong being "modern" and "dazzlingly clean." None of the people I was listening to stayed anywhere near the Mirador Mansions. Our whole area (in Kowloon) was dirty and decayed looking--like nothing so much as an apocalyptic future city from a sci-fi movie. The Mirador Mansions (almost exactly like the other major budget accomodations option Chungking Mansion, but with a much lower incidence of cockroaches) is a huge building filled with various small businesses, tons of cheap guesthouses--many of which seem to be in league with one another, abandoned small businesses and guesthouses, and the world's most frustrating elevator. It is extremely creepy and depressing, especially at night. The guesthouse Katie picked was just one among the 50 or so in the building. It's run by a middle aged lady and staffed by several shy Chinese girls from the mainland (which was great for me, since it meant everyone there spoke Mandarin). Our room was small, but clean and cockroach-free, with a TV, AC, and an oddly green, exceptionally high (I couldn't both keep my feet on the ground and sit on it) toilet. All sorts of super sketchy looking people roamed the elevator, stairs, and hallways, admitted freely by the pointless security guards stationed at the entrance after 10 pm. We didn't really think much of the creepiness, except to find it funny, until the second or third night we were there. We walked into the Mansions kind of late, through the door-sized hole in the metal sheeting over the entrance, turned a corner, and saw a man lying on a stretcher. A sheet was pulled up to his chin, and my first thought was, "Oh my God, that guy's dead!" so I watched him carefully for any signs of life. He did not seem to be breathing and no one gave him any kind of medical attention. A policeman and one of the useless security guards stood next to the stretcher, talking seriously, and a crowd of mostly sketchy looking people had gathered. We got on the elevator and pressed the button for our floor...and then a really creepy looking guy in the crowd separated from his friends and followed us onto the elevator. He didn't press a button, just stood there looking at us creepily. When the elevator arrived on the floor, there was a stand-off, since we were not willing to get off in front of him, and he didn't have a destination other than to follow us. Finally, he left the elevator and started sort of drifting down the hallway, so we quickly performed some evasive maneuvers and then locked ourselves securely into our room. The next morning, while Katie and Mary were still asleep, I went to try and pick up our laundry. I overheard one of the Chinese workers say to another, "Did you hear that 4 people died last night?" and asked her in Chinese what had happened...but the owner lady came flying out from her little office and ordered both girls not to tell me anything. I guess she didn't want us to freak out and leave. In retrospect, maybe cockroaches would have been better than seeing a dead person.