Dec 6 2010

Questionable Decisions By The Americans

Clipping Armpit Trap

Throughout our time in Vietnam, Peter and I continuously came back to one question — whether it was when we were examining a giant cave, used as a field hospital, that was completely indiscernible from air, or visiting the extensive Cu Chi tunnel network the North Vietnamese army built around Saigon, or even just staring into the dense jungle foliage that covers the country: what the hell were we doing there?

Forget the politics and morality of war. We just couldn’t believe that anyone who had set foot in the country and met the people could ever have believed we could win. Take, for example, these photographs of one of the entrances to the Cu Chi tunnels, proudly demonstrated to us by our guide:

Now you see it. . . .

. . . Now you don't.

We learned that when North Vietnamese troops needed to cross rivers, they’d poke breathing straws through clumps of floating plants and swim across under the surface of the water. When American troops sent out dogs to try to sniff out the entrances to these tunnels, the North Vietnamese started using American soap and sprinkling pepper on the ground (a native product, no less) to confuse their sense of smell. To sabotage troops walking through the jungle, they created camouflaged traps — such as the armpit clipper above — that used nothing more than sharpened bamboo sticks and the victims’ own body weight to kill or maim them.

Thanks for the illustrations.

As continues to be demonstrated today, the world’s most powerful army has nothing on determination, cleverness and local knowledge. (Not to mention the monsoons. Did no one know about those?)

On a lighter note, though, here is another unwise tactical move on the part of the Americans: on our second day in Hanoi, Peter decided to get a straight-edge razor shave from a guy on the street. (Thankfully, he used a new blade.) As I watched the barber hold a razor against my beloved husband’s neck in the middle of North Vietnam, one thought kept popping into mind: I’m glad he doesn’t hold a grudge.

Nov 26 2010

A Donged

There are two reasons to visit Hoi An, Vietnam. One is the beach. The other is tailored clothes.

We happened to arrive at the beginning of Hoi An’s monsoon season, which left us with the second activity: having clothes made. Peter had been excited about the prospect of a new suit since we’d arrived in Vietnam, and had prepared by researching different styles and cuts online so that he knew exactly what he wanted.

I did not take that approach. I am bad at picking out clothes when they have already been sewn – I feel like my sense of personal style would be best defined as “clothes I can wear to the gym.” Ask me what kind of clothes I dream of having made, and I will give you the sort of blank, panicked stare exhibited by animals about to be flattened by a passing truck. I do not know what kind of clothes look good on me. I do not know what kind of clothes I want. If I could spend the rest of my life dressed for a yoga class, I would be happy.

It didn’t help matters to be in a town where every other shop is a tailor. I’m not exaggerating. Skirts, suits, trousers, shirts, a selection of identically cut winter coats – you can even have shoes made.There are so many tailors that it’s difficult to find your way around  the town, since you can’t  use shops as landmarks. “I’ll meet you on the corner by the dress shop” could be any corner in Hoi An. Leaving Hoi An without some sort of custom-made clothing would be like eating at Peter Luger’s and not having a steak: you’d be  missing the point.

Peter’s plan, which I agreed with, was to go to A Dong silk, one of the more reputable shops in town. It was immediately obvious that this was a higher class establishment than the small shops nearby. A Dong had greeters and a receptionist. They offered us thick catalogues of clothes to look through and glasses of bottled water garnished by slices of lemon. We each were greeted by a woman who became our personal sales assistant.

Peter immediately began describing to his sales clerk the exact type of suit that he wanted made. Two buttons, notch lapel, single vent in the back – even as he’s relating these words to me, I have no idea what they mean. I, on the other hand, asked if I might see a catalogue, and soon was leafing through several books, each over 100 pages, of every conceivable type of women’s clothing. It was totally overwhelming. And making things worse, I had a much less helpful sales assistant than did Peter. Instead of helping me select clothing from the tomes in front of me, her main goal was to try to get me – a freelance writer who works primarily from home – to buy a three-piece suit set.

By the time Peter was selecting fabrics, I was descending into a spiral of self-loathing that occurs any time I set foot in a department store. Worse, I was sharing it.

“I’m sorry,” I said to my sales assistant. “I just hate shopping. It makes me feel horrible about myself. I’m really bad at this. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with for quite some time. I really hate this.”

I’m not sure how much of my apologia she actually understood; she was too busy pushing the suit (which I eventually bought). I did, however, learn a valuable lesson: if I’m going to go shopping, it’s important that I do my laundry beforehand. We’d dropped ours off the night before, and adding to my usual sartorial self-loathing, I had been reduced to wearing too tight yoga pants and an oversized t-shirt from Peter that says “Ask me about my Sheep!”

But I struggled on. Eventually, I decided upon several things: the aforementioned suit set, a knee-length winter coat, and a pajama set.

Yes, that’s right. Faced with a Bible-length book of potential clothing choices, I chose to custom tailor pants that I wear to bed. I will add the experience to my list of evidence suggesting that, if I ever have a large source of disposable income (and willingness to part with it), I really should invest in a personal shopper.

The fittings themselves were hell, especially since my assistant, a young woman named Phuong, had an irritating habit of insisting things looked good when they didn’t. I also had suggested she call me “Kate,” a name I never use, since “Catherine” is a bit difficult to pronounce (though, as she said it, Kate turned into Kay – so maybe I just should have stuck with my actual name). The result? Dialogues such as the following:

“Kay, you try on the pants now?”

“Okay.” (Shimmy into pants, observe the way they cling to my groin.) “These are too tight here.”

“Really? Are you sure? I think they look nice. Are you sure, Kay? Are you sure?”

I guess the good thing about these exchanges were that while I am relatively clueless when it comes to picking out clothes, I do in fact have the ability to tell when things are too tight in the crotch. And after a few minutes of her insistence, I wasn’t afraid to be assertive.

The result? Peter got a couple of great suits made. And after several rounds of fittings, I went from hating the clothes and my body to actually being happy that I’d gotten a pair of custom tailored dress pants.

Now I just need to find a reason to wear them.

Nov 23 2010

Peter’s Permanent: The Update

All right, here’s the update you’ve all been waiting for: what happened to Peter’s hair. Devoted blog readers will recall that in Beijing, he made the disastrous decision to allow the hairdresser to give him a perm. That was September 3rd. It’s now November, and . . . let’s just say it’s getting there.

Peter made his first correction in Lhasa, Tibet, on September 25th. His  hair had grown a bit by that point, making the perm stand up even straighter from his scalp, giving him permanent bed-head and/or the appearance of someone who’d stuck a finger in a socket. We both were a bit nervous, given the vertical rise of the stylist’s own hair, but after I explained that he wanted it “short little little,” he gave Peter an unoffensive trim.

A rare moment of open eyes.

I watched Peter this time, and confirmed his habit, which I’ve only discovered on this trip, of taking off his eyeglasses and closing his eyes when he gets his hair cut. He says he likes to relinquish control in the barber’s chair and relax, which is a nice idea in theory, I guess, but given the previous consequences, I couldn’t believe he was doing it again. Perm me once, shame on you. Perm me twice . . .

Then November 6th, while we were in Hoi An, Vietnam, Peter decided he needed another trim, since the perm was in no way “gone.” So, naturally, he went to a guy with an open-air shack on the street.  As Peter took off his glasses and sat down, eyes closed (really?!), the guy whipped out what I have personally experienced in an Asian salon before — and which has made me swear never to go back: thinning shears.

I’ll never fully understand why people like thinning shears, but if they’re going to be used anywhere, Asia makes sense – people’s hair tends to be thicker than, say, someone with English and Irish blood. But this stylist wasn’t concerned with whether the texture of Peter’s hair was in need of thinning. He just jumped right in.

As I watched him, I began wondering if the man actually had some sort of tic that made it impossible for him to stop snipping. He snipped his way through Peter’s hair, and then kept snipping the air as he moved on to the next piece, then snipped the hair again. The sound alone would have glued my eyes open. But Peter relaxed, eyes closed, as the man thinned his hair like someone clearing undergrowth from a forest.

“Are you sure this is what want?” I kept asking. “Maybe you should open your eyes.”

“It’s fine,” Peter replied. “I don’t have my glasses on. I can’t see anything anyway.”

I was baffled – had he learned nothing? – but didn’t intervene. Instead I watched as the guy pulled out an electric shaver and started buzzing the sides. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but feared that Peter was getting a marine-like cut that would leave hair on the top of his head and none on the sides, sort of like a cupcake. My fear intensified when I noticed that the man had shaved a line into the hair at the back of Peter’s neck, far higher than any self-respecting man wants to be hairless, and then buzzed everything below.

Long story short: Peter now has a weird hairline at the back of his hair where the guy’s shave ends and his normal hair is coming back in (it’s probably an inch and a half higher than it should be). As for the top and sides, the hair is so thinned out that I fear he’s getting sunburned on his scalp.

Next time, I’m going to insist on two things: wear contacts, and keep your eyes on the prize.

Still snipping.

Nov 22 2010

That’s Hanoi-ying

While our initial impressions of Vietnam were fantastic, we soon fell victim to a syndrome warned of by the Lonely Planet: feeling paranoid that we were constantly becoming victims. Vietnam, more than any country we’ve visited, put us on guard of being ripped off.

We’d spend five minutes negotiating a relatively fair price for something, and then the seller would pocket our money and try not to give any change. Every taxi meter started at a different price and went up not just by different amounts of money, but in different increments of distance and time. Taxis outside tourist attractions were even worse – after leaving the Ho Chi Minh museum, Peter and I took separate cabs (I wanted to go to a hip hop class) and both were overcharged so outrageously that we each got out early. When I pointed out to my driver that his meter was bumping up approximately every five seconds and insisted that he pull over, he then accused me of being a “Very bad lady.” (“And you are a bad man,” I replied.) Peter’s told him that it was his fault, since he’d chosen to be picked up in an expensive part of town.

We heard stories of people selling counterfeit bus and boat tickets several steps away from the legitimate ticket offices; there is even a scam where people open hotels with the same name as other hotels, and hire cab drivers to go to the airport and ferry passengers to the fake version. (Sometimes the fake version is run-down/closed, and so the would-be guest goes to the guesthouse recommended by the cab driver — and owned by the scheme’s mastermind.) Check out the number of pages our guidebook devoted to ways you can get ripped off, as compared to other hazards:

Landmines: 209, 482-3

Malaria: 514-15

Scams: 90-1, 104, 351-53, 476, 481-2

The result is that you begin to feel that everyone is out to get you, which doesn’t make traveling a very pleasant experience. We found the best solution was to arrange pickups at the bus or train station so that we didn’t have to deal with taxis at all – which led to this welcome in Bac Ha (I didn’t get a photo till the sign had almost been destroyed).

My favorite scam, though, was this ambush that Peter coincidentally caught on camera as we were trying to take a movie that would show what it’s like to cross the street in Hanoi. After lots of smiles and an insistence that we take a photo, this woman demanded I buy a bag of sliced pineapple from her. In this particular case, though, the video was worth the price.

Nov 20 2010

Our North Vietnam Adventure

Here’s a sign that Peter’s and my maturity levels do not correspond to our ages: our reaction to the customer satisfaction survey for the Red Dragon cruise we took through Halong Bay on a beautiful wooden boat. Some sample questions:

-What did you like about our junk?

-How did you learn about our junk?

-Please list any suggestions for how we might improve our junk.

-Would you recommend our junk to your friends?

7th grade humor aside, though, the experience was great – two and a half days of floating and kayaking amidst hundreds of surreal karst formations jutting out from the water.  Even better, this particular company had the exclusive rights to an area of the bay, so that for much of the trip the only other boats we saw were those of local fishermen.

We then took a local ferry to Cat Ba island, where we spent a day rock climbing on a deserted beach with a local guide who climbed in his flip flops. And then it was a night train to Sapa and Bac Ha, two towns in northern Vietnam known for their terraced rice fields, fantastic markets and colorfully dressed minority tribes, with evocative names like the Flower H’Mong and the Red Dzao. (If you think our reaction to the junk questionnaire was bad, you should have heard us in Sapa. “Oh my god! That buffalo is H’mongous!” “Why can’t they just get H’mong?” “H’mong Catherine, let’s go.” Ad nauseum.)

Climbing on Cat Ba

Said minority tribes are also known for being some of the most persistent and annoying saleswomen ever, tempting you to spend your weekend holed up in your hotel room just so they cannot find you and try to sell you aprons. For a while it’s fine, since some of the stuff is pretty — and besides, it’s hard business supporting your family on your handicrafts. But after having several women press their faces up to the glass in the cafe window where we were sitting (seriously – they’ll just stand there, trying to get you to make eye contact), I composed the following open letter.

Dear Ladies of the Flower (and Black) H’Mong:

Contrary to what you believe, I do not want to buy any of your embroidered bags, pounded silver earrings, or postcard sets that you produce from a mysterious pocket in your apron every time I walk past you. When you approach me with your distinctive cry – “Hello lady! You buy something for me!” – and I say “No, thank you,” I am not asking if you might like to walk with me for the next half hour, pushing hand-stitched tote bags into my hands. If you then stand next to the table at the restaurant where I am eating lunch, waiting for me to finish, and/or send your small child onto the restaurant’s balcony to proposition me with small, stuffed felt squares, I will be even less inclined to make a purchase. And if you then appear out of nowhere later in the day while I am shopping for replacement sneakers and again show me your wares – this time offering to sell yourself as a souvenir as well – as another woman joins you and attempts to sell me the exact same products that you are, as if I might just not like your particular striped bags and would prefer her identical selection, please forgive me if I cover my head with my hands and attempt to run away.

In the end, as you know all too well, I may break down and buy something, not because I want a purple headband, but because I want to be left alone. But that’s your game, ladies of the Flower H’mong. You’ll keep trying and trying, thrusting your bags onto people’s arms and demanding that they name a price for something they don’t want, until eventually you wear them down.

Oh, how you fatigue me.

Flower H'Mong selling to other Flower H'Mong

Nov 19 2010

Glorious Food

It is our second official night in Hanoi, and Peter and I are thrilled. It’s a surprising feeling of exuberance, considering that today officially marks five months on the road, and our most recent stop – Kathmandu – left me wanting to curl up in a ball and never leave the hotel.

Part of our happiness has to do with the vivacity of the city itself. Rivers of motorbikes flow through the streets, making getting across town a stressful, potentially suicidal activity. There’s a bit of the sense of anarchy that can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s outweighed by a sense of vivacity and excitement that’s infectious. There are stalls on every street corner where people sit on tiny plastic stools, chewing on sunflower seeds and sipping beer as they watch the traffic go by. Ancient trees push out of sidewalks, covered in roots that seem to be dripping down their trunks. Guys on mopeds linger everywhere, trying to convince you to let them give you a ride, and women in conical hats sell fruit from scales that dangle from poles stretched across their shoulders.

But the thing that so far has made it great – and which I feel is going to continue to be one of our favorite parts of this country – is the food. Vietnamese people care about their food. They care about it a lot. They also have fantastic raw materials – fresh fruits and vegetables, great seafood, and a cuisine that emphasizes seasonality. And, though perhaps it’s un PC to say this, they also happen to have been occupied by the French. (I don’t support colonialism, but if you were able to choose your occupier based on their food, they sure as hell beat the British.) There are baguettes here, and strong, good coffee.

Peter at our cooking class. If this is not the definition of "perfect husband," I don't know what is.

The reason for our current euphoria, however, has to do with a restaurant called Quan An Ngon. (It’s at 16 Phan Boi Chau, should you want to find it.) It was recommended to us by a Swedish woman I met on the plane and oh, please, if you come to Hanoi, you must go. The premise is street food – a sort of one-stop shop for many of the deliciacies you can find sold in hole-in-the-wall shops around town. The seating area is a large courtyard with white sheets draped over it to keep out the rain, and around the edges are numerous open-air kitchens, each specializing in a section of the menu (which is the thickness of a J. Crew catalogue) and labeled by a sign painted on a steamer basket.

We were overwhelmed by the choices, but managed to narrow it down to four things: mango salad with seafood, steamed shrimp in coconut juice, grilled squid with chili sauce, and whatever dish was our waitress’s favorite – which turned out to be Vietnamese pancakes.

It took about four minutes for the first dish to arrive, the mango salad. It was a mound of sliced green mango, crunchy and only slightly sweet, topped with cilantro, tiny red flakes of chili, shrimp and squid. Peter took one bite and actually exclaimed in happiness. (I believe his exact words were, “It’s a taste explosion!” – and he wasn’t kidding.) The combination of spiciness and sweetness, the crunch of the mango and the softness of the squid, and the overnotes of the herbs, were perfectly combined. We took a cooking class earlier today (at a school called Hidden Hanoi, which I also recommend) and our teacher had told us about how important balance – referred to as the yin and the yang and defined as a blend of salty, sour, sweet and heat – were to Vietnamese cuisine. This dish nailed it.

Spring rolls from the cooking class. Why do I think we'll gain weight here?

Next up was my favorite, the Vietnamese pancake. It was a plate of rice paper crepes, a pile of fresh lettuce, mint and basil, and some sort of crispy fried thing combined with bean sprouts and sauteed egg and shrimp. It looked great but neither of us had any idea of how to assemble it. Not to fear. Our waiter, seeing our confused looks, whipped out a pair of disposable plastic gloves from his apron and expertly rolled the ingredients together into a tight, cigar-like tube and handed it to me. Oh. My. Goodness. Crunchy, salty, sweet, and yet somehow refreshing, thanks to the herbs. I’ve had Vietnamese pancakes several times before, but never like this. What’s more, the entire plate cost $1.50.

The squid were perfectly grilled; the shrimp came draped around the edge of a whole coconut, filled with juice. For dessert, we had another recommendation of our waitress, something called che suong sa hot luu – described as “jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls and coconut milk.”  It came in a juice glass and was an icy, milky concoction with an odd combination of green gelatinous crunchy things, strips of black sweet bean, a thick sweet yellow paste, and red balls that looked like pomegranate seeds. It looked like someone had thrown up a Christmas tree into a glass – but it turned out to also be delicious.

The ingredients for our dessert, which were mixed up in coconut milk.

We walked back to our hotel giddy and full, with fingers that smelled of sweet fish sauce and garlic and charcoal squid. Even better? Our four dishes, dessert, beer and water came to about fifteen bucks.

I love it here.