Humanity Versus Hostility – Thoughts from a Jam-Packed Asian City

traffic Vietnam
The motorbikes come to a rare stop at a rare stoplight in Vietnam.

It’s a head-on collision in the making. Two fast-moving motorbikes, a mountainous road slick with rain.

The riders see each other at the last second. They slam on the brakes, fishtail, come to a stop inches from each other. They smile, shrug, get back on their bikes and putter off.

If this happened back in Phoenix, there would be a lot more drama. Some yelling and gesturing at a bare minimum, with a possibility of punches thrown.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Vietnam, though, is that the people are fairly relaxed toward each other – even behind the wheel or handlebar.

Vietnamese culture
Could Buddhism be part of the easygoing Vietnamese attitude?

I saw it on the first day as Sarah and I perched on a curb, waiting for a break in traffic to cross a street in Ho Chi Minh City. There, traffic seems like chaos. It’s intimidating and stressful. I had no idea what to do. I noticed a local woman start to cross, and I followed her. We walked a straight, slow, steady line. The motorbike avalanche flowed around us. Nobody honked, nobody got mad. I looked over my shoulder, and Sarah was still on the curb.

The local woman noticed. She went back across, took Sarah by the hand and towed her across the intersection. Without saying a word, she taught Sarah -- "This is how we do it in Vietnam."

Vietnamese culture
Maybe after a long history of armed conflict in its borders, Vietnamese culture doesn’t sweat the small stuff … like traffic.

It makes the Vietnamese sound very friendly, doesn’t it? And they are, but not in the way we associate with Aussies and Kiwis. They’re not really outgoing and jocular. It took me a few days to feel plugged into their mannerisms; once I did, I saw courtesy and humor in many of my encounters.

The streets strike me as microcosm of the culture. I sense that people connect with each other, and give each other the room they need to exist. When one motorbike rider cuts in front of another, nobody gets upset. Everyone just goes around each other, making room for the occasional alpha predator like a bus or semi-truck.

What’s the root of this? Buddhism? Living in close quarters? A period of peace after a long history of conflict?

And what’s the source of the uptight hostility I sense back home? Phoenix is a sprawling place, as are many Asian cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. But density accompanies their sprawl, where Phoenix-area people are spread out. It’s possible to walk for a mile in Scottsdale, where I live, and not see another person on foot. Since I’m just a few weeks removed from my trip to Vietnam, my area feels vacant -- especially with the out-of-business car dealerships that blot the southern part of the city.

You won’t see the hostility in every encounter here. People here are relatively polite one-on-one. But controlling a vehicle turns us into impatient, self-centered misanthropes just a minor traffic inconvenience away from fury. That includes me.

My conclusion – our cars and our homes are bubbles. We grow to hate being outside them, and we resent any reminder that there are other human beings out there. We starve for human contact without realizing it. We grow isolated.

I see this as a very regional and varied phenomenon. I consider the Pacific Northwest the friendliest part of the United States. People walk quite a bit more, and the drivers are civilized. It’s not unusual for a local to strike up a conversation with someone.

So is more people walking the answer? No. People walk all over in Washington, D.C. -- and I consider it one of the least-friendly places I’ve ever visited. Consider that I’ve spent well more than six months total in the area, and I consider my view valid.

I have no solution, nor a solid idea of what makes one population so much quicker to anger than another. All I can take away is a bit of awareness -- and a reminder to ask myself “What would a Vietnamese motorbike rider do?”.

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Getting Around Vietnam – Tips and Observations

Getting Around Vietnam
Motorbikes and scooters are the workhorses of getting around Vietnam.

If I had any artistic skills, I’d draw a cartoon about trying to cross a street in Vietnam. It would show a skeleton in a Hawaiian shirt leaning against a street sign. Two locals would be next to it, and one would be saying "Looks like another tourist tried to wait for a break in traffic to cross the street."

How to cross a busy street is just one thing you need to know about getting around Vietnam. Let me break it down for you by mode of transport.

On Foot
In the cities, traffic bubbles and boils in all but the wee hours. The motorbike traffic rarely stops. So how do you cross a street? You look forward and walk at a slow, steady pace. The motorbikes will weave around you without complaint. Taxis, buses and trucks are another story. Beware of them. Fortunately, there are far fewer of them; there’s probably 40 motorbikes for every car or trucks. Sidewalks are often a hazard unto themselves since they also serve as motorbike parking lots and makeshift cafes. That said, I still like going on-foot. The dense cities mean there’s plenty of cool stuff to see for every step you take.

By Bus
Bus rides are not great for getting around Vietnam. The roads are rough, the seats are tiny and suspension maintenance seems an afterthought for many tour companies. I saw some overnight buses that looked pretty plush, but I didn’t try any. The regular city buses also looked a bit worn out and crowded.

getting around vietnam
Boats are ideal for getting around Vietnam.

By Boat
After we bounced around the roads for four hours on buses, our next tour (Saigon River Tour) transported us all by boat to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Getting around Vietnam by boat, we found, is far more pleasant. We chatted with the crew and enjoyed a scenic ride up the Saigon River. What would’ve taken two hours by bus took one hour by boat. Sweet sailing!

By Plane
Talk about saving time: A bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi would take about 30 hours. But a 2-hour ride on a Vietnam Airlines A330 got us there in less than two hours. Boarding was quick and easy, the service was good and the plane was clean. And here’s a tip for aviation nerds: Have your camera ready to snap a photo of MiG-21 fighters lined up in shelters on side of the runway opposite the terminal. For long distances, a flight is the choice for getting around Viet

getting around Vietnam
A Vietnam Airlines A330 – the ideal vehicle for getting around Vietnam in a hurry.

nam.

By Taxi
I avoid taking taxis in the United States. It’s a mind-boggling ripoff, but sometimes I have no choice. But they’re great for getting around Vietnam cities. A 20-minute ride will set you back about $5 US, or 100,000 Vietnamese Dong. We had good luck avoiding taxi-driving shysters; we followed advice from a new friend who grew up in Saigon. She told us to stick with Vinasun taxis, and to be vigilant for sound-alikes and mispellings. In Hanoi, we stuck to a simple bit of advice: Stick to cab companies that use Toyotas, and avoid every cab driver with any make of Korean automobile. This blog post does a nice job of outlining taxi scams in Saigon -- for Hanoi, stick with the Toyotas!

By Train
We took two overnight train trips – from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back again. It was included as part of the price of our three-day hike/homestay arrangement through the Hotel Rendezvous (a great place that I highly recommend, and will focus on in a future blog post). That got us a room with four bunks. Sarah and I had two, and the others went to other random passengers. On the first trip, we shared the room with a gregarious chemical engineer from Hanoi. On the next trip, three people crammed into the remaining two bunks. Both trips were bumpy, slow and loud. But we fell asleep anyway, and it was far better than any bus trip we’d been on.

getting around vietnam
Unless you’re a 90-year-old grannie, there’s no excuse for getting around Vietnam in a cyclo.

By Motorbike
No. Just no. Unless you’ve lived in the country awhile and fully understand its traffic manners, this is not the way to get around Vietnam. I saw a few foreigners who rented motorbikes. I saw one later with a bandaged leg and a glum expression. Others in the rural areas probably fared better. I get the desire to say you did something "adventurous" (one guy was actually recording with a GoPro Helmet hero, an absolute joke at the slow speeds scooters travel). And also, don’t let anyone drive you around as a motorbike passenger. That’s a scammer favorite.

By Cyclo
If you want to look like a dumbass tourist, hop in one of these bicycle rickshaws and let a local pedal you around. Even in the United States, this feels like the most-exploitive modes of transit anywhere. Plus, locals will get a giggle out of you. They know that only lazy tourists and 85-year-old grannies will ride a cyclo.

Examining the Hind End of Vietnamese Cuisine

I never really meant to start something called Poop Chute Theatre. It just came to life on its own. I trace its birth to a quick stroll through Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t go to Ben Thanh Market looking for souvenirs – it was way too early in the trip for that. I just like seeing what locals buy, checking out the Vietnamese cuisine and trolling for some of those incredible little mandarin oranges that seem to be everywhere in Asia (and yes, I found them). And I intentionally overlooked pho, since that’s really more of a northern specialty.

That’s when I passed be a three-by-two-foot mound of cow intestines, their flat-white color sucking in the ambient light. The mound inspired this Facebook post:

Two crazy things I’ve seen today: some dude riding a moped while carrying a bowl of pho in his left hand, and some stall at a market selling a prodigious pile of poop chute (aka beef small intestine).

The best response to that post came from Nick, who said: Just a pile? They might sell more if they put them on a big spool and sold them by the foot, like at a hardware store.

I saw a chance at some funny stuff here, so I kept my eyes peeled for more poop chute. But first … you might wonder why a market sells intestines. Well, tripe is a pretty common ingredient in foods from around the world beyond Vietnamese cuisine. Americans are squeamish about stuff like this. I’ve eaten tripe in menudo and pho. I’ll be honest – I’ll never go out of my way to eat it. Is that, at least in part, a result of growing up in a picky First World society that has so many resources that it can afford to throw calories away, or grind them up to use in dogfood and (probably) Big Macs? Yes, I’m sure that’s part of it. Because the texture isn’t far different in my mind from the rubbery feel of calamari. And people go crazy over that … but generally just when fried.

Anyway, I soon encountered more poop chute. And this time … I snapped a photo and added the caption: A lovely mound of poop chute for your post-holiday culinary plans.

hind end of cuisine
The photo that started my Facebook misadventures into the hindquarters of cuisine.

Soon, the madness continued. I assume these are cooked intestines since they don’t appear very sausage-like. It’s also the first time I used the phrase that defined every photo to come: That’s right, it’s time for a new episode of Poop Chute Theatre!

Vietnamese cuisine
Awaiting your bowl of pho?

Roy, a friend from the UK said: Hey Justin remember it’s breakfast time here in the UK when you post these photos! It’s putting me off my eggs & bacon. 😉

Heh. Maybe he should eat pho for breakfast to get into the spirit of things! Still, I switched things up a bit with the next installment of Poop Chute Theatre:

Today’s edition won’t make you lose your appetite for breakfast sausages. But it WILL make you think twice about drinking coffee at my house. Vietnam grows lots of coffee. And weasels enjoy eating the coffee berries. Hours later, poop goes the weasel – and out comes a coffee bean. As part of the No Coffee Bean Left Behind program, someone harvests the beans the weasels pass … which you can buy a Weasel Coffee at many fine markets.

Vietnamese Cuisine
What does the weasel poop?

I’m still skeptical about the claim. This coffee is too cheap to have gone through that much labor. The Economist agrees with me. Either way, the stuff is delicious. Whip it up using a French press, and it needs no cream or sugar. I suspect this involves good soil and a nice roast rather than a weasel’s digestive tract. Most importantly, the winning Facebook response comes from Mark. He’s fully into the spirit of these posts … which is NOT “look how weird people are in other countries.” His words:

this is amazing. kinda want to try a cup. btw i have you in vietnam and another friend in singapore right now and you are both absolutely kicking ass (in your case almost literally!) with sharing your cool adventures on FB.

Next comes a simple post: Submitted for your approval - Poop Chute Theatre.

Vietnamese cuisine
Poop Chute Theatre continues with this gem.

Now, here’s where things got really funny. I was sure my poor friends were worn out with photos of Vietnamese cuisine through the Poop Chute Theatre filter. So I decided to give them a break with this post (see the photo caption for the Facebook post text).

vietnamese cuisine
“Alright, alright … I’ll show you something nice. Hanoi in the morning.”

And Kym weighs in with a pair of responses that still make laugh:

I’m sure there are poop chutes in that water….

Three minutes later, Kym has more to say. And this is where it gets super-funny.

Why would I even say that? What has your Vietnam “poop chute theater” done to my brain…?

So, here’s the conclusion to my Poop Chute Theatre posts … more intestines waiting for the cooking pot. I spotted this scene shortly before heading out for three days of hiking among the Hmong villages. Sheldon called it an “organ recital” with his usual penchant for wordplay.

Vietnamese cuisine
“You didn’t really think I’d head off the grid before a good ol’-fashioned episode of Poop Chute Theatre, did you?”

Sheldon made me laugh, as did my old bandmate and friend Laura, who said:

“Dear god, that one in the middle even looks like it has a butt!!!!”

And Dan made a good account of himself, too.

“I keep hearing the song “Poop Chute Riot!” when you post these pics.”

So, what ultimately do I take from Vietnamese cuisine through my Poop Chute Theatre posts? Not a whole lot. You can eat well without any intestines making it into your meal. But you can see that intestines appeal to our tastebuds and eyeballs very little. I’m sure that’s a product of our culture – and I’m guilty of it to some extent.

I know many cultures use quite a few parts of the animals, snouts and sphincters included. As Nick says, though, we don’t use intestines as the end game. I’ve eaten rotten fermented shark meat and boiled silkworm larvae. I slammed a shot of rice alcohol aged with a dead cobra. I’m game to try new things. Still, intestines rank low on my “Eat This Again” list.

One thing is for certain: I don’t look down on Vietnamese cuisine or that of any other country for flying its digestive tract flag high. I find humor in it, sure, and you can blame Christopher Moore for inspiring me to use the phrase “poop chute” in his wonderful book “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” But it does me no favors in getting the uninitiated to try a bowl of pho.

If you switch it around, though, I’ll bet people from around the world get a kick out of some of the things Western nations consider tasty. And I’d love to know what they are.

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Travel in Vietnam – A Few Quick Thoughts

travel in Vietnam
When you travel in Vietnam, chances are you’ll come away with more than just photos of pretty sites. It’s a thought-provoking place.

It’s been one week since I’ve returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam. Over the next few months, I’ll have a lot to share with you about what it’s like to travel in Vietnam.

Obviously, a lot of people have asked "how was your trip?" It’s impossible to wrap this trip up with a sentence or two, so I just have to say "It was great." There’s a lot more to it, though.

Here are a few key thoughts from our travel in Vietnam, which I’ll dive deeper into with my future posts:

    • This wasn’t my most high-flying, adventure-packed vacation. But it was, hands-down, my most culturally thought-provoking.
    • Vietnam has some environmental problems, and I think it’s still possible to change course. Quite a bit hangs in the balance for it – tourism, health concerns and the long-term status of resources like the Mekong River.
    • There’s a very interesting divide between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. People in the south have little good to say about the north. Oddly enough, it seems a one-way street: I never heard any HCMC-bashing in Hanoi.
travel in vietnam
I hope Vietnam makes protecting its natural resources – like the Mekong River – a high priority.
  • Speaking of Ho Chi Minh City -- I was surprised to learn that quite a few people there still call it Saigon.
  • People often ask why we decided to travel in Vietnam. Well, it’s because we like the food. I can’t tell you how much pho I’ve eaten in the last few years. We figured that was as good a reason as any.
  • That said, I didn’t eat any pho at all in Vietnam. We learned of many great items that I’d either overlooked on menus here in the U.S., or they just haven’t made their way here.
  • As a kid who grew up in the Cold War and then saw the fall of the Soviet Union, it was really interesting to see the hammer and sickle in so many places.
  • Holy shit, the motorbikes. They’re everywhere!
  • Suddenly, my home city feels empty and sterile – and stripped of a huge percentage of human-to-human contact.

 

Well, that should give you an idea of the shape of things to come. And yes, I’ll have some concrete tips for planning your own travel in Vietnam. We learned a lot that will help you get even more out of your time than we did.

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Insect Shield Gear – Great Holiday Gift Idea

insect-repellent
Checking out the Insect Shield clothing – plus a pair of soon-to-be-broken-in boots!

I count myself pretty lucky to be an outdoor-loving character in a place like Arizona. It’s not 100-percent bug-free -- but it’s close. Mosquitos and other hungry critters don’t pop up very much in my dry, desert slice of the world.

But right now, I’m in Vietnam. I had visions of slathering myself in insect repellent  to keep insects from feasting on me. So far, though, I’ve had an
unexpected helper in some Insect Shield clothing – a hat, bandana, shirt and socks.

I’ll soon head out for a three-day hike that will put me in the backcountry. That will give me an ample chance to check it all out. But I’ve already put the insect-repellent socks through their paces. And wouldn’t you know -- no insects munching on me! And they’re also pretty comfortable.

As you’re waiting for my full test, I can already tell you that Insect Shield items would be a great addition to the holiday shopping list for your favorite outdoor fans. My experience has been great with it so far, and I was also impressed to see that Insect Shield technology is also keeping bugs away from other travelers and even people who study insects.

The Insect Shield technology is designed to last the entire lifetime of the clothing – keeping mosquitos, ants, ticks, midges and other such menaces at bay. If that means being able to skip coating yourself in insect-repellent, that’s a gift itself -- and it gets even better since Insect Shield has a pretty wide variety of clothing options. I was surprised to see everything from an Oxford shirt to a Nomex coverall!

So, you still have a few weeks before the Christmas shopping season really gets crazy. Check out the Insect Shield FAQ and find out it can help people on your list banish pests that sting and bite.

Insect Shield provided insect-repellent items for testing and review.

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