Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Motorcycle Compendium

Summing up 2006

It's been an interesting year (and I'm not using the ancient Chinese meaning of "May you live in interesting times"). I've traveled quite a lot and posted a lot. I found this cool site that lets you enter the places you've been to and generates a map for you:

Of course if I just visited one city in that country, it counts it as having visited the whole country. Russia added quite a bit to my world coverage in terms of area, though it only contributed as much percentage as Macau did.

So - only 15% - there's much of the world still left to see!

And now, back to Vietnam
November 8-9

I've come to the end of the stories from Vietnam. On the last few days in Saigon, I did some shopping, read some books and thought about what else I'd love to show you all when I get back.

Since motorcycles are the main form of transportation here, the act of carrying stuff around has evolved into an art form almost. It's amazing what you can see while traveling around the country. I therefore set out to find some pictures of overloaded motorcycles.

I did not see any of the banana-laden motorcycles where from behind it looks like the person is riding a banana cluster, nor was anyone moving big cabinets that day by having the person behind them on the motorcycle clutch the cabinet with outstretched hands. But I did go by the market and found the following heavy loads on tiny scooters.

That's it for Vietnam.

All my published pictures can be seen at

Happy Hanukka, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (or pick you favorite seasonal holiday) to you all!


Technorati Tags: , , , , Tags: , , , ,

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Nine Dragons

Album for this entry:

This here, this is the way to start the day.

The time is 6:20a, the boat rocks from side to side, sailing up the river, the coffee is piping hot and the kettle next to it is Vietnamese tea that's typically drunk along with the coffee.

After returning from Cambodia to Saigon, back in southern Vietnam, I had one more major attraction to visit - the Mekong delta. The Mekong river is the 13th longest in the world. It starts from Tibet, flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and eventually Vietnam. The river's delta has nine major flows into the sea and is called by the locals in Cambodia and Vietnam the river of nine dragons.

The part of the delta that's controlled by Vietnam was originally part of Cambodia, but the Cambodians ceded it Vietnam for political and military help a few hundred years ago. The area still has a large population of Khmers (the major ethnic group in Cambodia) though many Vietnamese have settled here over the years.

Tuoi and I set out on a two day trip to the delta. We did this the local way, by buses and minivans from town to town. Our first stop was about 3 hours away from Saigon. We left early in the morning to beat the tourist crowd. We rented a boat and did a 3-4 hour trip around a few islands in the area.

The tourist industry has evolved greatly and at every stop there was something for us to see and, more importantly, to buy. This beehive, for example, was part of a demonstration before we were offered some honey and pollen to purchase.

We also saw how coconut candy (highly distilled coconut extract with coloring added from plants) was made.

I had a chance to photograph another pool of Koi fish waiting for tourists to feed them. While Tuoi threw fish food pellets into the water, I snapped shots of them swimming in frenzy trying to find all the food.

You can also check out the video version of Koi feeding frenzy.

We spent the night in Can Tho, a small town near the border with Cambodia. When we arrived, the streets were easily navigable and we had no problem reaching the hotel. When we stepped out an hour or so later, the streets surrounding the hotel were flodded with water at least 4 inches (10 cm) deep. I didn't understand what this was since it did not rain, until Tuoi explained that when the moon is full, the river overflows the streets when high tide comes.

This is a clip shot in Saigon where the same thing happens:

The Floating Markets of Vietnam

And so we woke up early the next day and went on a 7 hour tour of the river. The boat that picked us up was relatively small - space for 4-6 people but it was only the two of us and our driver (sailor?). On the way to the boat, we passed a coffee shop and asked for some coffee. A minute after we climbed onto the boat the coffee arrived along with some tea and we set sail, coffee and all, to see the sights.

We sailed up the river, dodging river traffic, floating plants and the occasional debris, passing around fishermen sitting in their boats picking fish out of their nets and generally enjoying ourselves.

We passed these signs along the way. I've never learned boating and while these signs were posted on the side of the river, I assumed they were targeted at the river traffic. If anyone reading this understands what these say, please add the explanation as a comment at the bottom. I thought about making up my own signs and adding them to the list. Like a diagonal line across an empty sign. Or maybe a dot in the middle of an empty round sign. Or that oh-so-artistic-every-museum-has-to-have-one completely black sign.

There are two main markets to see in this area. The bigger one is a set of warehouses set along the river bank. Many boats congregate along it, most of them big motorizes boats with large loads.

Breakfast can be had on the river. You simply flag down one of the boats that sell snacks / drinks / sandwiches and order what you want. Notice how this woman uses her foot to steer the boat's motor. Yes - sailing with your feet is big in Vietnam.

So how do you find what you want to buy? Easy - boats advertise their wares in the simplest way possible.

What's tied to the pole above the boats tells you everything you want to know.

The market has all the roles you'd typically expect from a merchant society. Here's the distribution channel for a pineapple. This is a farmer bringing wares to the market:

While this is a wholesaler of pineapple, aggregating the produce from many such farmers:

And you can all guess what this retailer sells:

We then made a turn into a small channel that led off between houses and trees to get to the second market. This one was smaller with less large boats around. It seemed more like a local exchange of produce. Most boats were maned by one person and filled with one vegetable or another.

Unlike a regular market where fixed stalls serve as the bargaining place, this market operated using Chaos theory. To enter the market, aim your boat at the center of the throng of boats and turn your motor off. From here on, you'll be pushing into the market using your oars or by manually pulling on other boats. Everyone keeps moving even if they do nothing, on account of everyone else passing by. You're guaranteed to find a way through the market to the other side, it just might take a while.

Found a boat you want to stay near for a while? no problem. Tie yourself to the boat and you'll drift off together. We had some pineapple here, then some lunch. We found the noodle-soup selling boat and anchored ourselves next to it. And then we were off back to Saigon.

For more scenes from the river, take a look at the album linked at the top of this entry.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , Tags: , , , , ,

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Landscapes and Worms

Albums for this post:

Worms are cute, funny, deadly vicious and good with a bazooka. No, I'm not smoking anything as I write this. Worms is a winning series of computer games created by Team 17. The game is an evolution of the old computer game where two players face-off and try to each blow the other's cannon out of existence by, each in turn, entering an angle and velocity and hoping the bullet makes it against the changing wind.

The creators of Worms took the game a step further. Teams of cute little worms face off and the math comes off. Instead, each player in turn chooses a weapon, anything from a bazooka, an uzi, a mine or even the occasional exploding sheep (really!) and aim and fire at the other team's worms.

The setting is a computer generated landscape made up of water at the bottom (these worms can't swim - if you fall in, you die) and randomly created mountains and islands on which the worms stand and stoically wait their turn to do the others in.

How is this tied to my travels? Keep reading...

Rowing 2.0

Hanoi is a wonderful place to use as a jump-off point to some interesting locations. The first one I went to was Tam Coc. Tam Coc is a small village about 3 hours drive from Hanoi. It's on a river flowing through rice paddies, but the interesting thing about it is the limestone outcrops rising out of the water and fields up into the sky.

On the way there we stopped at some old tombs that were not very interesting other than their age. But I did get a nice picture of this peasant who was posing for us tourists as we came out:

We arrived at the village and went to the pier were small rowboats were waiting for the tourist rush. We were paired off into the boats, along with 2 locals, and sent off on our merry way. My boat mate, Canadian Matthew, said the area the boats pulled out of was so artificial with a white stone railing all around the round pool that he expected small dolls to jump out and start singing "It's a small world after all" at any time.

Soon, however, we passed the Disney part of the experience. In order to leave the village, the boat had to go under a small bridge. Since the tunnel under the bridge was so narrow, we both had to get off the benches we were sitting on down to the floor and duck. This please-sue-us part of the ride made it clear we were no longer in Kansas, eh, Disney anymore.

Once beyond the bridge, the full beauty of the area became visible. The river was not very wide and on either side limestone rocks shot up out of the ground. Many of them were not connected to each other with fields or water in between, making it a very surreal scene.

That's when it hit me. I was looking around trying to see the worms clustered on the hiltops pointing shot guns at each other or grappling to achieve a more favorable perch. The randomness of the hills made them look as if they were some landscape out of the Worms game.

We set off, all the boats of all the tourists going the same way, looking like an expedition of the Royal Geographic Society in Africa. All that was missing were the native pack bearers and the umbrellas to protect us from the Sun.

A couple of times we passed under the mountains in places where the water seems to have excavated passages underground. These long passages would be dark, creating nice effects where the other side became visible as we approached it.

It took me a while to notice, but boat rowing here is done in reverse. Instead of the rower facing back and pulling the oars to get the boat moving, rowers over here face the front and push the oars. It seemed a very strange thing. After all, when you pull, you brace your feet against the boat to get the optimum power going. But when you push, what do you push against?

Some more reflection made it clear. Rowing with your hands is only done when you go slowly and need the minimal amount of power to move. As soon as we started moving a bit faster, our rower let go of the oars, sat back leaning against the boat with his hands and put his feet on the oars. From then on he proceeded to row with his feet. In an amazing display of skill he would maneuver each oar towards him with curled feet, then push against the oar with his legs.

Don't believe me? Watch this short documentary I shot!

(How'd you like my wonderful narrative?)


The place was ideal for selling things. After an hour of travel, we arrived at a small cul-de-sac where all the tourist boats ended up. There were local vendors in small boats with everything from cold drinks to snacks to fresh pineapple.

After 10 minutes there while a vendor pestered us until she judged we won't buy anything else, we turned around and started back. This being the same way we came, the rowers decided it was a good time to disturb us. While one kept rowing, the other oepened up a container and began displaying souvenirs for us to buy. We were the epitome of a captive audience, but luckily she did not press too much, just let us see it and when we said we weren't interested she went back to talk with the other guy manning the boat.

An Afterlife Special - Misted Halong Bay

My next jump from Hanoi was to a bay called Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, part of the South China Sea. The bay is famous for the large number of small islands jutting out of the sea. It's similar to Tam Coc but on a much grander scale.

Once we cleared the throng of tourists waiting to board the boats and got onto ours, we had a quick lunch and proceeded to sail into the bay. The scenery is just amazing. As far as the eye can see rocks emerge from the water pointing up at the sky.

Explanations about how the bay came into existence are of four different categories: The boring, the mythological, the artistic and the geeky.

  • The boring: 300 million years ago, a large earthquake shook the area, creating the bay and the jutting rocks. Yawn. ZZZzzzzz
  • The mythological: "Halong" means "dragon decending into the sea". When the dragon, father of the people of Vietnam, landed in the ocean his feet gouged the earth and thus the bay came to be.

  • The artistic: The islands are the result of a huge hand drawing a finger painting under the sea. Islands are where the hand pushed up out of the sea.
  • The geeky: The bay was a beta version of the Worms landscape generator. Really. Look at it. It's ready-made to play. Just add some worms and missiles and you can start.
The boat we were on had a main cabin where we dined, a lower deck at the front and a deck on top of the boat where we lounged and watched the world go by. I love sailing. The world plays out in front of you, continuously changing, never repeating. We also had cabins with a small attached bathroom each. This was, after all, an overnight cruise.

The air during this season is continuously misty. Sea mist obscures everything beyond a certain distance, making it difficult to see far away (and making photos less interesting). The sky is white and the Sun is a blurred disk shining through. Sailing through this landscape with the mist covering the horizon felt like it was an afterlife sail into the next world taken out of some pagan mythology.

We sailed for a few hours, the Sun slowly going down and the color changing a bit to amber.

We eventually reached our stopping point for the night, a stretch of sea between islands where all the other Junks (the name of the boats) stopped for the night. As night descended, we had dinner then went to sleep early - there was really nothing to do.

I woke up really early, wanting to catch the sunrise when the sky is still clear and the sea mist has not yet filled the air. At 4:30a it was beginning to turn lighter. I climbed up on the top deck and grabbed a lounge chair, iPod and the two cameras with me. First the sky turned less dark, then a bit gray, then it got whiter and whiter and it became obvious that the sea mist was in the air all night as well. It was very disappointing.

After breakfast we set sail back to land, a few hours of soothing sailing before the long car ride back to Hanoi.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , Tags: , , , , ,

Monday, November 27, 2006

Of Cabbages and Kings*

Albums for this blog can be found at:

And Now on with the Story

I spent the few days following my motorcycle trip in a nice town called Hoi An. Hoi An used to be the major port of southern Vietnam for about 1000 years and has a nice old town you can walk around in. Most houses are about 300 years old (hurricanes come by and destroy the town every few hundred years). Merchants from China, Japan, India and even Portugal used to come to Hoi An, trade for silk, spices and other goods and sail back.

Today most of the houses are used as restaurants or tourist shops though the structures are well maintained.

The ferry crossing in Hoi An also lets you take your bicycle across. This is especially important for the kids.

I also finally caught a good picture of school girls in the traditional Vietnamese garb. Notice the face masks. There are two reasons for them. First of all, they help keep the smog and dirt out. But most importantly, in a country that considers whiter skin as more beautiful, girls keep their faces hidden from the Sun to keep them paler.

The Chams

Hoi An also serves as a jumping point for a day trip to My Son. My Son is the historical holy city of a minority called the Chams. The buildings are from 1000 years ago when the Chams were the growing empire in the area. In their heyday their kingdom reached all the way into Cambodia and they fought the Khmers, builders of Angkor Wat.

The buildings are built of bricks and carvings were made into the bricks after they were placed. To this day, no one knows how they glued the bricks together but they hold quite well.

The Chams were Hindu and the statues and decorations in the ruins reflect that. According to the tour guide, the head of this statue was either cut away by the Chams when they deserted the area or else carved off by the French as an archaeological treasure.

During the Vietnam war, there was a small VC base in the ruins. The US responded by bombing most of the buldings that were still standing so unfortunately not that much survived.

When I got back, my feet hurt enough that I figured I'd try a foot massage. I remembered seeing a sign next to the hotel and so I went in search of the place. There was a large picture of a foot with reflexology-style markings on it. The sign said "Hair and Nails Salon" but I did the typical westerner's all-asians-know-about-good-massage-so-what-if-its-a-salon thing and went in. $7 for 45 minutes of massage. I said fine.

Imagine my disappointment when the girl brought over one of those automatic foot massage buckets and had me place my feet in it. She turned it on and I tried to figure out if I need to sit there for 45 minutes before I pay the fine and leave.

But 5 minutes later it turned out that all-asians-know-about-good-massage-so-what-if-its-a-salon and the bucket was just to clean my feet. She proceeded to rub them dry, then had me move to the massage room where she and a guy that took over later did amazing things to my feet. Amazing! If you're ever there, I have the card.

Home of the Kings

My next stop was Hue. Hue, a city on the Vietnam coast, was home to the last chain of kings to rule Vietnam. This is where the Nguyen emperors set up camp, built their capital and their palaces. The old city is an amazing 2.5km by 2.5 km surrounded by a wall. Today it is inside the modern city. Inside the old city is the forbidden purple city, home to the emperor himself. The city was badly damaged during the fight with the French and later the locals took bricks and wood from it to build houses. Few of the buildings survived and some of the palace grounds were used to grow food.

When I got back home (to the US) from the trip, the number one question on my mind was: are my fish still alive?

I left my aquarium with somewhere between 20-30 guppies swimming in it and left for five weeks. The light turns on and off automatically, the filter is strong and will take care of the water quality but food was a question mark. I use an automatic fish feeder and I made sure it was full before I left, but was that enough food?

I came up the elevator with all the bags, opened the door and looked. There they were:

But the feeder was empty!

I have two theories about this:

1) In the time honored Hollywood tradition, I came home just in time. The last day they had food was day-before yesterday and any additional day delay would have killed them all.

2) In the time honored Hollywood tradition of copying film plots, my fish acted out the script of Alive, feeding off their dead until I arrived.

Whichever it was, there still about the same number of fish in the tank, plus a few newly born ones which are usually snacks for the older fish so I'm going to go with option 1.

In the forbidden city, tourists can pay a bit of money to feed the schools of Koi fish that swim in the ponds. It's a nice system :)

Hue has a few other attractions like this 7-story pagoda

or this old covered bridge outside of town,

but the main event is a ride up the perfume river to see the palaces / tombs built by the emperors. The boat makes its way up the river stopping from time to time to let us off to see one or another of these tombs. Some of them are on the river bank, some are a couple of kilometers inland.

Leaving Hue

I then took a night bus to my next destination. 13 hours and you can try and sleep as many of them as you can. I actually did pretty well considering. I had an interesting experience getting the ticket. The hotel I was staying at in Hue was selling tickets for $9. The bus left at 6p and so I wanted the room until then. But they wouldn't let me keep the room so late without paying the $4 half a day rate.

And the store across the alley was selling tickets to Hanoi for $6.5. So I went back to the hotel and said I'll buy their ticket for $9 if they let me keep the room. They politely explained that was not possible. When I threatened to buy the ticket across the street instead, their ticket price started going down. We stopped at $7, at which point I said I'll buy it from them only if they'll give me the room till 6p for $2. They said yes.

Now I think math in Vietnam works the same as in the rest of the world. So why does ticket + room till 6p for $9 different from ticket for $7 plus room till 6p for $2?

The Towers of...

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. It has a different atmosphere from Saigon. It feels more raw even though the tourist industry is going strong. I got a room at a hotel in the market and had to suffer through all the fishwives (really, they were) pointing at me and discussing me whenever I passed through. I don't think they were using terms like "Lucky Buddha" to describe me up in Hanoi. Much more raw.

I went to see the first university in Vietnam, the Temple of Literature. Established in 1070, it was a place for high learning for Mandarins of the king's court.

In 1484, the emperor decided to publicly recognize the students passing their doctorate tests. The idea was to create a large stone stelae and carve the names of students and their home towns onto it.

There are four animals the Vietnamese consider long lived and therefore suitable for carrying the stone tablets on their backs. The Phoenix, the Unicorn, the Dragon, and the Turtle. For extra credit, can you pick the one that is not exactly like the rest?

I wonder if they chose turtles because they had live examples to copy from or because they have all the qualities of a table - flat backed on four short sturdy legs.

Walking around the Temple of Literature trying to find the entrance I saw this guy who took a break from it all. He strung a hammock between the street light and the wall and went to sleep.

Another of Hanoi's interesting spots was the one-pillar pagoda. The original was destroyed by the French when they left Vietnam but was rebuilt by the Vietnamese.

Near the one-pillar pagoda was a larger temple where I caught this monk ringing the bell.

* Of Cabbages and Kings is a line from Lewis Carrol's nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , Tags: , , , , , , , , ,