travel


I just stumbled upon a really pretty music visualization project. Flokoon uses Last.FM data to make a sleek network displays of artists.

flokoon

When one clicks the ‘i’ icon on a particular artist, an information pane pops up with artist bio and discography information.

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One can also browse the tagspace for a particular artist, and then browse the network via a tag.

It’s very well done. There are some items I’d like to see. For example, I’d like to have a visual representation of where I’ve traveled in the graph. If I go from Wolf Parade to Handsome Furs, I’d like that vertex colored differently or something. Also, tapping into audio for each artist would be nice.

Flokoon isn’t just about music . They use the same approach to visualize YouTube videos and images from fotolio.

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SF – Image Courtesy of SFPhotorama.com


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My Living Room

Well, Philly anyway; then onwards to New York in the Fall.

This morning I gave notice to my building manager that I’ll be moving out of my wonderful apartment of 6 1/2 years on July 5th. The countdown is on! I’m moving back east to return to school (once again), this time to continue my research into the rapidly evolving intersection of music and technology. The next 4 years will be filled with many challenges, hard work, and surely rich rewards.

I’m very excited about the program and being closer to my family; but I’m also very sad to leave this wonderful city, my dear friends here, and a life that couldn’t have been more fulfilling in nearly every way.

More to come on exactly what I’ll be researching and learning in future posts. In the mean time, for those who are curious, check out the PhD program overview

And if you’re so inclined, clock the flickr set if you want to check out my lovely apartment. It’ll be refinished and available for rent (probably) in August. Also, some of this furniture is for sale. Contact me if you’re interested!

I’ve been moving around quite a bit this summer. Almost every weekend I’ve been in a different location: Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Philadelphia, Montréal, New York, Washington DC, Delaware shore, Guerneville, San Diego, LA, Hawaii. Usually, when I write ‘travel’ entries, it’s because I’ve traveled to some far-off location (Vietnam, Central America, Bahamas, etc.). But this summer, I will only leave the country once while managing to rack up considerable miles. The map below charts my east coast travels in June and July. I might post another map of all my travels once the summer is in the books.


East Coast June/July

Robbins and Brian Gottlock
The Newlyweds
(courtesy nytimes.com)

Old Montréal
Old Montréal
(courtesy gupshup.org)

Amtrak Adirondack
Adirondacks Amtrak Route

While on the east coast, I spent some quality time with the family, including my adorable nephew, and made the regular visits to various east coast destinations. One of the main reasons I stayed on the east coast for so long was a string of family-related events that were close enough together to make it hard and expensive to fly back and forth from San Francisco.

The “big” event on the east coast was my brother-in-law, Robbins’ (on the left in the photo above) wedding to his long time partner Brian. They married in Montréal. A destination wedding, part out of necessity and part out of fun. More on that in a minute. First I had to get to their wedding.

Montréal By Train

Based on my sister’s recommendations, I elected to take the Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Montréal. The trip was a whopping 14 hours, but was a completely gorgeous and relaxing time, despite the fact I had to rise at 4:30 am. After a brief ride up to Penn Station, the Adirondack route follows the full length of the Hudson, winding along cliffs, through pine forests and misty hills, past West Point (an institution very familiar to generations of Maurys and Bunkers, but thankfully not me). There are several stops along the Hudson, but once north of Albany, it’s nearly a non-stop trip the rest of the way. I secured two seats to myself and was able stretch out, nap, relax, read and watch the scenery roll by. Intermittently on the northern route, I got some work done. This train ride is highly recommended if you have the time and disposition.

Once in Montréal, I met up with a bunch of the wedding goers who turned out to be quite fun and entertaining. I wasn’t able to really take in the city, but what I saw I liked a lot. The old French influence and the European architecture gave me the sensation of really being in a foreign country, even though I was only an hour from the border.

My favorite area of the city was probably the Latin Quarter, where we went the first night for Robbins’ bachelor party. One thing I found remarkably backwards about Canada (or Quebec/Montréal more specifically) is that many of the gay male clubs can and do prohibit women from entering. How can a society so ahead of the US in so many ways still have rules like that? Mind you, it didn’t impede our determined group, as about 25 men and 10 women stormed one of the gay strip clubs and proceeded to watch really buff, hairless men stroke their johnsons on stage. After the strip club, we went upstairs to a club, called Unity, and proceeded to get down on the dance floor. Our party knows how to party – we promptly had about 5 guys dancing on stage, and kept going until about 3:00AM. This was the first dance episode of several that would mark the high points of the weekend, and my trip back east.

The Wedding

The following day, at a civilized 4:00PM, we all met at the St. James United Church, crowded in, took our seats, and the ceremony commenced. Despite the whole “gay” thing, the wedding was the most traditional I’ve attended in years. The ceremony was in a church, ‘traditional’ vows were exchanged, one husband is taking the other’s surname, all the guests showered the newlyweds with bubbles as they left the church, and the couples sped off in an awesome chauffeured car.

The reception was held at Le Centre des Sciences De Montréal, overlooking the fleuve Saint-Laurent (or Saint Lawrence River in English). The food was delicious and the wedding band was off the hook. They played all the predictable wedding songs, but it almost didn’t matter what they were playing, as the wedding guests, myself included, were ready to dance the night away.

By about 1:00AM, they kicked us out of the reception, and we found another club that was willing to let us dance until about 3:00AM again. I’m sure we made quite the site – about 15 of us, dressed to the nines, wearing sunglasses (for some reason), we come in, find a place in the back of the bar, and proceed to go crazy. In no time, there were people dancing on tables, shirts were gone, the dancing got dirty. Three bouncers monitored our group closely, but we committed no offense so heinous as to be removed from the club. All around, one of the funnest weddings I’ve attended since my cousin Brooke’s in Texas in 2005.

Reflections on Same Sex Weddings

I can’t write up this travel log without articulating my frustration with why we had to travel to a foreign country to witness the union of these two wonderful and loving people. This is the first of four wedding-related events I will attend this summer, and it was the second same sex wedding that I’ve attended. As I watched these two people marry, and as I’ve reflected on this topic over the last couple of weeks, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the U.S. legal position on gay marriage, the general population’s aversion to it, and the leading presidential candidates’ failure to take a firm position one way or the other on this issue.

One evening in Montréal, a few of us were discussing the presidential race, and one person opined that her primary issue, the one that will determine who she votes for, is the candidate’s position on gay marriage. I thought at the time this was an extreme position to take — after all, the candidate has to win a general election, and gay marriage is not supported by a vast majority of Americans. But the more I think about it, the more I agree with her. Fundamentally, gay marriage is a civil rights issue with far reaching consequences. When will our national politicians stand up and fight for equal rights? When will they decide to lead, rather than pander to the polls on this issue?

The first gay wedding I attended was in San Francisco, on the first weekend that Mayor Newsom legalized same sex marriages in that city. People came from all over the world to marry in San Francisco. The feel in the city that week was unforgettable. It was hopeful, exciting and celebratory.

We all had the sense that we were taking part in something revolutionary and historic. As most readers will remember, the state Supreme Court ordered a stop to the unions, effectively annulling the thousands of weddings that took place (although the vows and the promises made remain the same). But the political and moral point had been made. I believed then and I still believe today that this issue is the civil rights battle of our era. It’s a long struggle and won’t be won overnight. States can annul all the marriages they want, Congress can pass all of the amendments and resolutions they want, but they can’t stop the steady progression of thought. I’m confident that my children will look back on our society’s perspective on gay marriage in much the same that we regard the prohibition on interracial marriage – as backward and plain ignorant.

But until that time, gay couples remain relegated to travel – across the country, across state lines or to another country – if they wish to trade vows. Our enlightened neighbors to the North have not only legalized gay marriage, they have embraced it socially. The marriage I attended in Montreal felt like any other marriage, it was a union of two people who love each other very much, and a union of their friends and communities. Here’s to the day when we attend destination weddings solely for the fun of it, not out of legal obligation.

Viet Nam Map
Viet Nam
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Welcome to Da Nang!
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A Delicious Site!
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Get in my Belly!
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Breakfast Cooked to Order
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Rose Petals in the Bathroom
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Hectic Streets of Hoi An
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Japanese Covered Bridge
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Bridge From the Side
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Fabric Everywhere!
The Hoi An Cloth Market

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Beautiful Dresses
Tailored to perfection!

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I am Man!
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My adopted look. Fresh, no?
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The kid in this photo was hilarious.

Vietnam 2006
Part 3: Paradise and Everything Nice (11/24/2006 – 11/29/2006)

And finally, just in time for me to go off on another adventure, here is the last entry in my Vietnam write-up! The first and second entries are below. For a visual tour of my trip, visit my flickr stream or watch the YouTube videos (here, here and here ). There was a really funny video that Jon shot of an old man singing at a Bia Hoi, but I’m not sure when we’ll get that video posted…

The previous episode had us sweating it out in Buon Ma Thuot in the Central Highlands, riding elephants, being bombarded with propaganda and avoiding eating some gnarly Forest Animals. We all agreed that the Central Highlands, while very interesting, was the low-point of the trip. That actually made the final leg of the trip in Hoi An even more splendid than it otherwise would have been.

Hoi An

We left Buon Ma Thuot aboard a small little twin prop plane and landed an hour later in Da Nang, where we were met by our driver and taken down the coast to the town of Hoi An. The town itself has been there for centuries. It’s been a trading post since at least the 16th century and in 1999 was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO. I’ll spare you an historical sketch of the city. If you are curious, read the Wikipedia entry on Hoi An.

Our driver navigated the hectic streets of Hoi An and pulled up in front of a hotel that was so beautiful, I was certain we were in the wrong place. The hotel itself was built during the colonial period, so the architecture was very reminiscent of the French style. The lawn was manicured and cut by hand (no mower, just a guy with sheers, crouching and cutting, all day).  There was a large main house, and along one side there were the suites where Jon, Darrell, David, Rebecca and I stayed. Luke, who is the cheapest man I’ve ever met, managed to get a room inside the main house. To his credit, Luke paid pennies on the dollar to what we paid, and his room wasn’t half bad.

When we stepped out of the van, our luggage was taken straight away and we were directed by the hotel manager (who was wearing beautiful traditional Vietnamese dress, like most the young women in Hoi An) to a table set and prepared for our arrival. Some snacks were already laid out, and we nibbled and ordered drinks. I can’t possibly express how great this was! Everything in Buon Ma Thuot was just a little off, but here we had all the luxuries we could ever want.

Our First Meal

The beer was ice cold, the mixed drinks were perfectly prepared, and when the food started coming out, it was as though we were in an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Divine, I say!

I don’t recall all the dishes in that first meal, but I do remember the shrimp salad (called banana salad, I think). It was a side dish (on the right in the second meal photograph), but it was so tasty I ordered it at every meal afterward. When we finished that meal, we were led to our rooms, which were equally wonderful. Rose petals adorned the sheets and bathroom, the AC was crisp and cool, and the fridge was stocked with water, beer and snacks. We all took a rest and met up to walk the town.

Walking Hoi An

The town of Hoi An is very small, so walking it was easy. I had heard that it was possible to have clothes tailored here, but I was totally unprepared for how big an industry tailoring was. Nearly every shop was a tailor, and one could have any thing they imagined tailored from the most lovely fabrics available. I went kind of crazy having clothes made. I think the only person who had more stuff made than me was Rebecca. My travel mates were calling me a big girl (among other things I won’t repeat here) by the end of the week. I think they were just jealous.

I actually only had a few things made for myself: four shirts, two suits, two pairs of pants, and a couple of short sleeve shirts. I also had a few dresses made for my adorable girlfriend, which she’ll be wearing in the Bahamas in just a few days. Probably the coolest thing anyone bought were the pair of shoes that Jon bought. I wish I had pictures. They were multi-colored Pumas (or Nikes?), where each stripe was a different color. Bad ass…

The Beach

When we exhausted ourselves at the tailor shops, we all hopped on our scooters and headed down to the beach to relax, joke with the people who sell stuff on the beach, swim in the wonderful South China Sea, and drink copious amounts of beer. The beach was it’s own experience altogether. I wish I had more photos of all the people there. There are these people that walk the particular stretch of beach that we used, selling everything from pedicures to trinkets to fruit and snacks. It sounds like they might be annoying, but they were actually very funny and entertaining. Some were old women who spoke no English and would try to guilt you into buying something by just being enormously cute and old. They would sit next to you and plead with you until you bought something. Others were young, fluent in English, and had adopted some very funny phrases and jokes. They would joke and cajole, leave you alone and return an hour later until you finally caved and bought something.

For some reason we attracted many of these folks, so they would eventually give up the act, sit down next to us and just hang out. Rebecca usually had about 5 women working on different parts of her – massage, manicure, pedicure, trinkets for her friends, fruit, beer, etc. She was a big hit. Luke somehow got the nickname “Man” which is actually quit fitting and stuck with him (unbeknownst to him, apparently). I didn’t get a nickname, but the kids were fascinated by my tattoos (as usual), and would touch and caress them. It seems like that would be uncomfortable or rude, but it was fine. The physicality of these Vietnamese was comforting somehow.

In brief, our days in Hoi An were rich and relaxing and completely awesome. It was a great way to round out the trip. I’m a little hesitant to even write about how great that town is, because I want to keep it secret. Fortunately there aren’t too many readers passing by here!

My impressions of Vietnam generally: The food is amazing. The architecture is beautiful. The poverty is sad and striking. The people are so kind, curious, beautiful, and fierce. I still can’t believe that the US would ever want to or try to control this country. They should have learned from the French and the Chinese and all the other people who tried and failed to control the Vietnamese. They are fiercely independent and resourceful.

If I had another 3 weeks to keep traveling through the country, I would have followed the coast Southward through Nha Trang and the other famous beaches there. I’d then head to Pho Quoc, dive and relax in the Gulf of Thailand. Maybe next year! In the mean time, I’m off to the Bahamas on Friday, so check back in in a couple of weeks for more pix and stories!

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Don’t Mess with the Monkey
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Cruising the Mekong. (From left:
Jon, David, our tour guide,
me & Darrell)

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Brick factory along the Mekong
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Typical Mekong Canal
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A Divine Meal!
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Fruit Drying at Popped Rice Factory
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Popping Rice on the Mekong
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And Then There Were Five:
Rebecca Arrives

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See Ya, Saigon!
Darrell @ The IndoChine

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Buon Ma Thuot: Propaganda Central
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Me & Luke and our M’nong Driver
Riding Elephants in Yok Don National Park

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Fresh Coffee, Yummy!
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Buon Ma Thuot Cuisine:
Skunk Anyone?

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Medicine or Dinner? You Decide:
Preserved Baby Goat

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A suspicious, but delicious meal.
The baby goat above is to our right.

Vietnam 2006
Part 2: My Posse Gets Thicker, The Mekong & Buon Ma Thuot (11/20/2006 – 11/23/2006)

It’s taken me way longer to wind up my posting about my visit to Viet Nam than I thought. Holidays, work and life took over and I lost track of time. But as promised, here is part two of my three part write-up on Viet Nam. You can scroll down or click the following link for the first entry. For a visual tour of my trip, clock the flickr stream, or watch the YouTube videos (here, here and here [more to come…]).

In the previous episode, I arrived in Saigon, was met by two of my traveling partners Jon and Darrell, toured the city, met my third fellow journeyman David, saw Cu Chi, and generally rocked the hell out. In this episode you will be introduced to the notorious R.E.LEE and cool-hand Luke, and get a glimpse of life in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

In that earlier post I also talked a bit about the impact that Cu Chi had on my trip and my impression of Vietnam, both from a broader historical perspective and from the perspective of an American visiting a place that has been a mythical and mis-represented place. Those sentiments were not hyperbole. Even now, over a month after I left that country, I still think about Cu Chi and Vietnam generally, and how eye-opening my experiences there were. Our visit to Cu Chi was really just a metaphor for our trip as a whole: amazement, respect, shame, pride, humility, fear, frustration and curiosity.

So one can imagine my mindset as I arrived back in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon after our visit to Cu Chi. I was charged and exhausted at the same time. Fortunately, we had picked a great time to leave Saigon, as our loathsome “leader” had flown down to Saigon from Hanoi (he was there for the APEC meeting) to survey the city he avoided visiting in the 60’s and 70’s. His presence, as one could imagine, caused total traffic mayhem in an already hectic city.

We missed Bush’s entourage but did get hit by a massive storm as we returned to the city. We stopped at a lacquer manufacturing shop where I picked up some cool lacquer-inlaid boxes for family members, and we headed back to the hotel. That night we visited our local beer joint, and then prepared for the beginning of our guided trip.

The Mekong Delta

The portion of the Mekong we visited was about 2 hours south of the city. Our plan was to visit some of the factories that line the small canals, the Saigon and the Delta generally. Our first stop was a brick making factory. This may sound boring but it was actually pretty cool.

Next we cruised along a small canal, through residential areas and shores thick with jungle. I couldn’t help but think of those poor Navy bastards that had to patrol these waters during the war. They were literally sitting ducks, as NVA and Viet Cong fighters could easily hide and stalk their ships and ambush them at will. Like I needed another reason to not join the armed forces.

We stopped for a delightful lunch at some tourist trap, where we ate elephant ear fish (or something named like that), drank some local spirits and had a delicious and luxurious meal of fresh spring rolls, pork and shrimp.

Afterward we continued along the River until we reached the popped rice and candy factory. Again, this might sound boring but it was incredible to see the skill and precision used to make this candy. The whole operation was run with flawless efficiency, each person doing a discrete task.

To polish off the Mekong portion of the trip, we cruised through a floating market and saw some crazy Mekong coffins. The Mekong excursion was fun and educational and a nice introduction to the rural life of the South Vietnamese.

When we arrived back at our hotel, we found the venerable Rebecca Lee, PhD sitting in the lobby working on her tiny computer. I lack both the time and the words to describe the good doctor, so I will simply say that her presence portends unprecedented conspicuous consumption of beer, a probable ingestion of burritos if at all possible, generally entertaining banter and hopefully not a late night trip to the hospital, although this has been known to happen. I’ve traveled with on two occasions in the past, and she’s a great travel partner.

Within an hour the entire entourage had descended on our fav. local Bia Hoi to stun the locals with our mad beer drinking skills and crazy American women. After some food, some beer, some funny stories and even an arm wrestling contest (that I won) with one of the locals, we all headed back to the hotel to meet our final traveling companion, Luke, who was scheduled to fly in from Beijing that evening.

With impeccable timing Luke arrived and the posse was now complete. It’s always entertaining to watch completely different people get to know each other, and I was pleased to find, after a day or so, that this group would get along famously.

That night we tried to check out a bar a top one of the hotels, but it was a highly touristy spot so after just one drink, we high tailed it out of there and found a more suitable location to welcome our friends to the city that I was coming to adore.

Drinking on roofs is big in Saigon. Most hotels have rooftop bars, the most famous of which is probably the Rex. It’s not surprising that it’s such a popular pastime for tourists in particular, since every book I’ve read that takes place in Vietnam (granted that’s only about 3) has a rooftop scene. The Quiet American (Greene) and Up Country (De Mille) both have rooftop scenes (at the Continental and the Rex respectively). There is a real attraction to it – the views are gorgeous and the air is cooler up there – but with all of the tourists and such, it feels like a theme-park version of the real Saigon bustling and teaming below. I wouldn’t say avoid the rooftop bars, but choose them carefully and be sure to visit the local joints as well.

The next morning we bid farewell to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. What a glorious city. Beautiful trees, architecture that blends colonial French with Asian and Vietnamese styles, lovely shops and of course the crush of humanity, which somehow doesn’t overpower but rather feels like a warm embrace.

The Central Highlands: Buon Ma Thuot

We reached the Central Highlands after a 1 hour flight aboard a little 2-prop plane. Buon Ma Thuot is south of the DMZ and was heavily bombed during the American War.

Buon Ma Thuot is known for two things as far as I can tell: the various ethnic minorities, some of whom were bussed in by the government to be ‘assimilated into Vietnamese population’ as we were told repeatedly, and the booming high-quality coffee production business. Oh, and elephant rides if you want.

It’s a very interesting place for several reasons. Americans aren’t supposed to visit this area without a ‘permit’ (read: Guide) and our passports were taken at the hotel when we arrived. It’s customary throughout Vietnam for hotels to hold ones’ passport (a practice I find discomforting), but in Buon Ma Thuot your passport is taken down to the local police station and registered there (or so we were told). In brief, it feels quite like you are under surveillance in the Central Highlands.

Without going into detail, the ethnic minority situation is perplexing: while the minorities are diverse in their cultural heritages, mostly Montagnards but also Ede, M’nong, Cambodian and Laotian, they are packed in together in what seems like theme parks with little regard for differences among them.

Our guide said the groups were all perfectly fine with this, but it seems from my perspective that they were but into a centralized location to better monitor and control them. I base this assumption on the fact that many ethnic minorities have been known to help enemy forces during the centuries of war in Vietnam.

Propaganda is at full tilt in the Highlands. You can see propaganda everywhere in the country, but in BMT, there were enormous posters reminding ethnic groups that they were communists before anything else. Also, and this was the clincher, there is a ‘news’ announcement 3 times a day piped over loud speakers to the population. When we inquired with our guide what was being said in these announcements, he made it sound like it was NPR or some such. Yet, in Saigon, we had several folks tell us it was straight propaganda. Without knowing Vietnamese, I can’t say one way or the other, but I believe the latter.

The dining in BMT was not remotely the caliber we found in Saigon or would find in Hoi An, although the food at our hotel was really good. But on the town, it was mostly local fare. Not surprising, really. In the photos along the right of this posting, you see a menu with all kinds of things on it — the sorts of things you hear about eating in Viet Nam, like dog, weasel, java, skunk, etc. The place we dined had a section “Assorted Forest Animals” on the menu. We stuck to the fish, which was quite good and fresh. The oddest part about our meal wasn’t the menu. It was the preserved baby goat floating in a tank next to our table. Not delicious. Next door to the restaurant was a traditional medicine shop, and I think the goat was part of that shop, not our restaurant. I think.

All in all, the best part about visiting the Central Highlands for me was that it made the remainder of the trip — and particularly our first couple of days in Hoi An, truly exceptional by comparison. I wouldn’t have changed my time there — it was enlightening and fun. But it was also the low point of the trip. High points in Buon Ma Thuot: we saw some crazy stuff, rode some elephants through the jungle, and acquired some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. We also saw how it was grown, harvested and treated, which was pretty cool.

That’s it for this episode! The next time you hear about Viet Nam, the posse will be en route to having an extraordinary time in Hoi An, near Da Nang. My description of Hoi An is short and sweet, and I’ll end with some general thoughts about what I encountered in Viet Nam, and my favorite things that I still think about when I’m feeling that itch to see something I’ve never seen before. Check back in!

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NVA Regulars, Saigon Post Office
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Motorbikes as far as the eye can see!
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Binh Tay Market, Cholon District
Masks for everyone!

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Making friends in a Bia Hoi joint
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Staff at our local Bia Hoi
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Drinks at the Majestic
(CW from left: David, Darrel and Jon)

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Terrified in the tunnels of Cu Chi.
Which way is Canada?

Vietnam 2006
Part 1: In and Around Saigon (11/17/2006 – 11/20/2006)

Just returned from a 11 day trip through southern Viet Nam. My trip is chronicled here in three parts, this being the first. For a visual tour of my trip, clock the flickr stream, or watch the YouTube videos (here, here and here [more to come…]).

I landed in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon on the morning of the 17th after a long flight pinned in the middle seat aboard an airbus from San Francisco. I was met at the airport by a driver who navigated the hectic city streets and delivered me safely to my hotel in the center of town. After a few minutes rest in my hotel room (quite nice for $25 a night!), and a quick shower and shave, Jon and Darrell met me and out we went into the streets of Saigon.

My first impression of Saigon was of a teaming, bustling metropolis. There are 3 million motorbikes in the city, and often times it seems there are all clustered around you, packed into every nook and cranny of every street and every sidewalk in view. This video, shot on the back of a Honda 150, hardly does the chaos justice.

Nearly all of the women and most of the men wear a mask or scarf to cover their nose and mouth. Some people claim this is a reaction to the Bird Flu scare, but after a minute or two on a motorbike, it’s quite clear that the smog and exhaust from all the bikes is the main motivation for wearing a mask. The women, ever conscious of keeping their skin pale and untanned, also wear hats, glasses and elbow length gloves, despite the humid 90 degree heat. This makes the scene all the more dramatic, as from my American eyes I see 3 million bank robbers wreaking havoc in the streets on their getaway bikes. It took merely a week for me to fully adopt the masked rider style. I fully intend on getting myself a scooter here in SF.

Evidently, the Vietnamese can carry anything and any number of people on their motorbikes. I saw several families of four, three men and a refrigerator, and huge stacks of hay all balanced on these tiny 150’s. You name it, they can carry it on their bike while navigated total chaos.

Most people who live in the city still call it Saigon, although they may refer to it by the official Ho Chi Minh in some circumstances. The city was renamed the day after the city fell to (or was liberated by, depending on your perspective) the North Vietnamese Army in 1975. Ho Chi Minh never saw the end of the war, so renaming Saigon, the center of the South Vietnamese government and locus of power for Americans, to the name of the North’s political and intellectual leader is a suitable homage and fitting use of propaganda. At any rate, I started calling the city Saigon once I learned that that was still in common use by the inhabitants of the city.

After walking around for a bit, the three of us stepped into a Bia Hoi (a locally brewed beer and social experience a like) for a beer. The patrons of our first Bia Hoi seemed as interested in us as we were in them. Within an hour, we had made friends with a table of older men, and each of us were assigned Vietnamese nicknames, the meanings of which are still a mystery.

In the first three days, we saw much of the ‘big draws’ in Saigon and the surrounding environs. We saw the big markets (Ben Thanh Market, Chinese Market, American Market and Russian Market), Cholon (chinatown), Reunification Palace, and the War Museum. We had drinks atop the famous Rex hotel, ate tons of Pho, and found our favorite Bia Hoi.

And then there were 4
On the evening day 3, our fourth traveling companion David arrived from Taipei. We shopped and stopped for a drink atop the Majestic overlooking the Saigon River, and spent the night telling stories, drinking beer and eating the local fare at our fav. Bia Hoi. The next morning we made our way up to Cu Chi to visit the famous Cu Chi Tunnels that the Viet Cong dug and used to avoid US bombs and kick some serious cracker ass. The photo of me in the tunnels doesn’t show you how cramped and dark those tunnels are. There is virtually no light (the picture is lit by flash), and even though this tunnel was enlarged for tourists, it is still so cramped that you can’t turn around. The Viet Cong lived there for years. They had children in there, cooked, slept, died, and underwent surgery. These tunnels snaked under US bases, roughly 300 miles in total, stretching all the way to the Cambodian border to the west and the Saigon river to the east. Imagining the psychological impact on US troops and tactical advantage afforded to the Viet Cong by the existance of these tunnels really punctuated why US soldiers returned so shell shocked from the war. I was really amazed by these tunnels and impressed by the tenacity, determination and industriousness of the Viet Cong.

We don’t hear much about the Viet Cong (and certainly nothing positive) in history class in the United States. In fact, the Vietnam War generally is glossed over in history class. We didn’t lose the ‘war,’ (when history books even acknowledge it as a war), we ‘withdrew.’ We weren’t fighting rural farmers on their own land half-way across the globe, we were fighting against the spread of Communism. All I really learned about Vietnam in school is that it resulted in a wall full of the names of dead soldiers and that somehow the mighty American military could not defeat bands of poorly armed guerrillas.

But what my trip to Vietnam and Cu Chi particularly taught me is that the American military never had a chance in Vietnam. If military planners had done any research at all, they would have understood that the Vietnamese, particularly the Vietminh/Viet Cong, were smarter and more determined than the American forces. And they had something the Americans never had — a compelling reason to keep fighting.

I was also really struck by the remarkable similarities between some elements of Vietnam and what is happening in Iraq now. If only our government had the institutional capacity to remember the lessons of Vietnam, perhaps Iraq would be going better now. That’s a refrain heard frequently these days, but the truth of it resonated for me the last couple of weeks. How can we expect to defeat fighters with better knowledge of the land, the people and the culture, who can melt into the population easily and who are driven by pride, survival and ideology to repel a foreign force? How can we expect to gain the confidence of a population when we rain bombs on them indiscriminately, kill their fathers, uncles and brothers, and insist on imposing our perspective on them? We can’t, plain and simple. We are as doomed in Iraq as we ever were in Vietnam.

Okay, enough of my political ranting. The trip to Cu Chi was eye opening, and the tunnels were downright terrifying. I loved every minute of Saigon and Cu Chi. I loved the warmth and disposition of the Vietnamese people, which I’ll talk about more in the third entry. In the next entry (#2), our travel posse is completed by Rebecca and Luke, we travel up the Mekong, visiting all kinds of cool factories along the way see how the rural folks rock it and ride some elephants. So check back in…

I’ve been a horrible blogger, I know. Life has superceded my compulsion to blog the last several weeks. I’ve been bouncing about between the coasts, working too much, playing just enough and spending time in the company of close friends. Tonight I’m off to spend Thanksgiving in Viet Nam. I can’t wait! And, fortunately, I don’t have to.

Unfortunately, I’ll be sharing Ho Chi Minh City with several heads of state, including our unfortunate and bewildered “leader.” But hopefully that won’t get in the way of a great and informative trip.

I may try to dive once while I’m there, but I doubt I’ll be near the good diving this time of year. I wanted to dive in Hoi An, but evidently the season there is over and the best diving is on the western side of the country (actually off the island of Phu Quoc), which I won’t be visiting. I may try to dive in Nha Trang, which is closer to where I’ll be travelling.

I am armed with a new camera, two unlocked GSM phones, a veritable gaggle of crazy crackers, and a friend with a video camera and mad editing skills, so don’t be surprised if you get more than you bargained for the next time I post on this blog.

Anyway, I wanted to write a brief post to say that I have plenty to rant about, and will spend some time doing exactly that when I get back to the states. Until then, enjoy yourselves.

Shark Attack!

Shark Attack!


Mad Shark Love

Mad Shark Love



Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Hol Chan Marine Reserve



Relaxing at the Split

Relaxing at the Split


Moonlit Rendezvous Caye

Moonlit Rendezvous Caye


What I missed: Whale Sharks!

What I missed: Whale Sharks!

Just back from another excellent trip to Belize. I’m falling in love with this country, the people there, the barrier reef and all the amazing marine life living there. The Love Below. My trip was short — only a week — but I saw more of the country than my previous longer trip. It seems like I spent most of my time underwater. The first 2 days were too windy to snorkel or dive, but I managed some brief shore snorkeling even then. On the third day, I took a brief sailing trip out to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve to visit some nurse sharks and blow a roll of film. Swam with the sharks, played with sting rays and free dived down to check out a moray eel hiding out in an underwater cave. The whole photo set from this roll is on my flickr account.

On the fourth day, my traveling partner and I embarked on a three day, two night sailing/snorkeling/fishing/camping excursion from Caye Caulker to Placencia. The full photo set is available on yahoo!, you’ll need to contact me for access.

We sailed south along the barrier reef, stopping to snorkel in the pristine caribbean waters alive with vibrant reefs and marine life. Along the way, we fished for barracudas and grilled them for dinner when we stopped for the night on the small cayes dotted along the reef. Our nights were illuminated by the full moon and windy with the Easter breeze. On the final day of the trip, a group of dolphins swam at the bow of our boat for a while. It was the first time I saw dolphins in the wild.

I snorkeled several barrier and atoll reefs. The most exciting thing I saw snorkeling was a group of spotted eagle rays off Tobacco Caye. They appeared out of the blue in very shallow waters and circled me for a bit until swimming off to deeper waters. They actually scared the shit out of me. I was snorkeling alone, I was in shallow and difficult waters, and their wing span was at least equivilent to mine. They circled as near as six feet, and I believe that was the first time a yelled ‘Holy Shit!’ into my snorkel.

We reached Placencia on the sixth day, and the following day I dived the north wall and the white hole along the continental shelf. Diving along the wall one can look one way and stare down into the 3000′ abyss of the Caribbean Sea, and the other way to inspect the cavernous coral shelf and wall. On these dives, I saw numerous lobsters, black groupers, moray eels, and a big old loggerhead turtle. Our dive master, Prince, had the wicked sea turtle move, and with it he made the turtle come our way and swim with us for a while.

What I missed was swimming with the Whale Sharks, who showed up along the reef as we reached Placencia. Normally, these giant fish come into shallower water around the full moon to feed on larvae of snappers and other sea life. There were Whale Shark dives available to me, but I was nervous enough about diving that I didn’t need to be swimming with the largest fish in the world, who can measure 60′ across. Next year, next year.

Belize is an extraordinary country, from so many perspectives. Culturally, politically, socially, environmentally, this must be one of the most diverse and unique places on the planet. I’d like to spend more time studying, experiencing and describing this place, but until, this post will have to suffice.

Frogman Attacks!

Image is copyrighted http://www.jimsugar.com.

This weekend, I went down to Monterey to do my check-out dives for my SSI Level 1 scuba certification. I’m now a certified Open Water diver, which means I can dive in most recreation situations, including on my upcoming trip to Belize! Yay! The picture to the right is not me, and the gear shown is what is used by Navy Seals, not recreational divers. Our guns aren’t nearly as cool ;). Credit goes to Jim Sugar for the photo.

I got certified through Bamboo Reef. I highly recommend this diveshop. They have shops in SF, Monterey and the Northbay. They are highly competant and fun to work with. Their instructors are excellent, and they really understand how to make new and prospective divers comfortable and confident.

To be honest, I was anxious about completing my scuba certification. The classroom session were boring (despite a great teacher), and the pool work was very low risk. But to get certified, you have to get out in open water and prove your skills. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never dived in open water, never gone deeper than ten feet, and couldn’t imagine diving in the cold waters of the Pacific in the middle of February. But the open water dives were really well planned to get new divers accustomed to the unfamiliar environment in incremental steps.

Our check-out dives were in San Carlos Beach in Monterey. There were literally hundreds of scuba divers gearing up on Saturday morning at 8:00am — we looked like an army of frogmen preparing for an amphibious assault. Or something like that.

Our first ‘dive’ was just a snorkeling excursion. We got comfortable cruising around in the gear and the cool sea water. I was pleasantly surprised to find the water temperature bearable. The water was ~ 50 degrees (f), but we were rocking about 14mm of wetsuit (a shortie over a farmer john) including a hood, gloves and booties. I wasn’t cold at all.

The second dive (after the snorkel dive) was just 20 feet or so, allowing me to get comfortable with being deep enough that an unplanned ascent was a bad idea. The next dive was 30 feet or so, which got me even more comfortable with the depth and also gave me a chance to practice being neutrally bouyant. The first dive of the second day (dive 4) we went down to 40 feet.

During the first couple of dives I was so focused on being underwater and not freaking out that I didn’t pay much attention to the world around me. Occasionally, I would think ‘holy shit! look at all this crazy stuff around me!’ but I didn’t become completely aware of the scenery until the 5th and final dive. The final dive was just me and my ‘buddy’. We were free to cruise around, check out what we wanted, and didn’t need to follow a group of people or worry about where we were. Our only concern was having fun, keeping at the planned depth, and keeping track of our available oxygen.

On this last dive, we saw some loveley Monterey Bay sealife. Beautiful kelp forests, funky fish and bottom dwellers, and colorful underwater foliage. The underwater environment in Belize will be much more lively, but I look forward to returning to Monterey for more dives in the near future.

On Saturday, we also visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is one of the best aquariums in the world, host to some of the largest and most exotic wildlife.

I’m looking forward to diving in Belize!

Last week I returned from a 2 week trip to Central America. Most of my time was spent in Belize, with a brief trip to Guatemala.

While in Belize, I did a good deal of snorkeling along the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world. It stretches around 150 miles along the coastline of Central America and is home to some crazy marine life. I saw some amazing coral and the largest fish that I’ve encountered. I swam with some nurse sharks, sting rays, eagle rays, and a big old Grouper fish. I really wish I had followed through and got certified to dive before this trip; but now I have something to do before my return to this relaxed, sunny little country.

I visited two Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala: Altun Ha and Tikal. The former is small and interesting in it’s remoteness and obscurity. The latter is a vast ancient Mayan metropolis, home to the second tallest Mayan structure known to anyone. This ‘Temple IV’ and the surrounding landscape was a shooting location for the original Star Wars. No coincedence that Lucas chose Tikal as a shooting location, since the Mayan’s had their own “star wars.” I’m not sure if Darth Vader was in these uber prequels to the modern Star Wars series; but supposably the Mayans often waged war against their neighbors during certain astrological events. Those Mayans sure were crafty…

Two choice photos are below. The rest of the photos from the trip can be seen on Flickr (Belize, Tikal).




Nurse Sharks!

This family of nurse sharks lives near the Belize Barrier Reef. They are not dangerous, but not always friendly. The sharks I saw ranged in length from about 4′ to 6′. I was introduced to them by a mutual friend (whose arm you see in the frame).