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I've posted a few older photos from Vietnam. Here are some pictures from a striking cave temple, where burning incense and sun from a natural air shaft have combined to create incredible effects.

p1010085 by you.

p1010090 by you.

p1010112 by you.

More on Flickr...
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I went down to Abu Simbel yesterday.

p1050731 by you.

Abu Simbel was officially a temple to Isis, but it's real purpose was twofold:
- Stroke the pharaoh's ego
- Scare neighboring civilizations into providing tribute.

The temple is filled with scenes of the Egyptian army slaughtering and enslaving other civilizations.  They made  sure to be racially inclusive.. they had a Nubian, a Hittite, a Greek of some sort, an Assyrian etc. 

Anyway, Abu Simbel was very impressive, and well worth the 3-hour drive each way through the Sahara.

-------------

So I have this thing about blogging at various ancient monuments and other nice places.  For example:

 
p1030752  p1030753
Ephesus, Turkey

p1010742  p1010744
Ankgor Wat, Cambodia

p1050208
Taba, Egypt

setting-sun
Akko, Israel

P1000347
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Having a laptop has been seriously wonderful.  I chose one (EEE PC 901) that has around six hours of battery life, weighs around two pounds, and costs only $350.  It's good enough to handle email, browsing the web, writing documents, and other basics.  The version of Linux that comes with it is kind of wonky though... any attempt to do something out of the ordinary (eg use an ipod as an external hard drive) has been a pain in th ass.    The computer also crashes half the time when coming out of standby.  Even so, it's wonderful, and it beats lugging around a full size laptop.  It's also a great conversation starter... apparently people haven't seen subnotebooks before.

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According to a fellow traveler who grew up in Vietnam, being somewhat fat was the fashion ideal for women even in the big cities as of 20 years ago. Now the fashion for women is to be as thin as possible. It's interesting... the US went through this transition a little under 100 years ago once the majority of people could purchase enough food to overeat. Basically, fatness used to be an (albeit unreliable) indicator of status as it implied wealth.

Weight aside, the prevailing Vietnamese city fashion involves wearing a lot of blingy ugly poor imitation designer clothing. Ick.
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Motorbiking in urban Vietnam is like a bad action movie chase scene cliché. As the protagonist and various villains are zipping along the street, a garbage truck pulls in, blocking half the road. As everyone moves to get around it, a child suddenly darts into the street, chased by her mother. Then, an oblivious old lady begins crossing a bit further down, carrying a long pole with various items dangling from it. Getting around her would be no problem except that there's now a truck coming the other direction and a bus passing it by driving into the lane of the oncoming traffic, and there's a huge pothole on the shoulder of the road where you'd normally pull over, and what is that rock doing in the middle of the road...

This would make a fantastic videogame.
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After the great success of our first motorbike expedition, we decided to go on another excursion, this time from Hue. This journey took us to a long sandy island that was filled with a mixture of schools and elaborate graveyards. The graves were all fairly recent and ran the gamut from simple sand mounds to incredibly ornate temples all mixed together. If the graves had some official name or significance attached to them, they'd probably be packed with tourists, as they are aesthetically fantastic. Instead, the only people around aside from us were massive throngs of schoolkids on lunch break. They all wanted to chat and practice their English, which was great fun.

At one point we took a side road and ended up at the entrance to a beach. The beach facilities were spare but massive – there were two enormous covered parking structures for motorcycles and cars, symmetrically placed to each side. Each parking structure had a symmetrically placed loud aggressive sales guy.. It was hilarious to watch the two of them symmetrically vying for our business from a couple hundred feet away, surrounded by a huge empty expanse of concrete and sand. We each headed toward one of them, made a big circle around them, and headed back out.

A few minutes later we were going down a small side street, and a guy sitting on his front porch waved for us to stop. Soon we were the star attraction of a family gathering on their front porch. Several other people from the neighborhood stopped by, and we found a lot to talk about despite the language barrier. There was arm wrestling, picture taking, comparison of heights, skintones, and shoe sizes, and what appeared to be an attempt to set me up with a girl who looked to be about 14.

We zipped along through several more small towns and rice paddies, and crossed back over a bridge that overlooked some ingenious mazelike fish traps.

Because most people on the road are riding bicycles or motorbikes, when you're on the highway you really see all the other people on the road. It's much more humanizing that way. I've watched many other motorists do double-takes as we pass by. Some of them have pulled alongside me and started conversations, which is charming but way too distracting for someone of my skill level. It's also beautiful to watch a flock of Vietnamese women all dressed in traditional white robes, bicycling along and talking.

This is why I like motorbikes... you can go all day without seeing another tourist, and you can meet people who are not yet sick of tourists.
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Vietnam is famous for price-gouging and scamming tourists, although a fellow traveler has noticed that they gouge each other as well.

I found I can bargain down food vendors by 20-50% and motorcycle taxis by as much as 80%, though I'm sure I'm still paying well above the local price. The strangest experience I had was with the public bus system though. We had been warned ahead of time that the price for the bus from Hoi An to Danang was 10,000 dong, but they often charged foreigners several times that. We arrived at the bus station prepared to negotiate, but saw no one to negotiate with. The operators just told us to get on the bus. Bad sign. In the station I noticed a sign in Vietnamese that said:

blablabla 10km – 4000 dong
blablabla 10-25km – 7000 dong
blabla 25km blabla Danang – 10000 dong


I took a picture of the sign.

We got on the bus along with a colorful assorrtment of locals, and a few miles later we were harassed for a much larger fare. My companion (an Israeli who has a lifetime of bargaining experience from the tough Arab street markets) told the fare collector we were only willing to pay 10000. He hovered over us, insisting on the larger amount for a while, and then moved on to shout at a nearby Vietnamese passenger about her fare. When he came back to continue bugging us, I showed him the picture I had taken of the fare sign.

He got a very annoyed look on his face and then took our 10000 dong.

The actual amount we were arguing over wouldn't even buy a coffee over in the US, but I want to make it a principle not to encourage skimming as long as it doesn't detract from my vacation experience. Personally, I found shutting down this guy's racket to be rather fun.
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Hey there everybody,

I'm currently hanging out on a beach in a small private island in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Halong Bay is the sort of place where a Bond villain would put his hideout... it consists of thousands of jungle-covered limestone islands jutting out of the sea. You could build your fortress in a cave in one of these islands, and if you only entered and departed at night, no one would know you existed. I don't normally go for boat cruises or lazy days on beaches, but the tour I booked offered lots of opportunities for exploration of the islands, so I'm not getting bored at all. Today they offered a hike that 70% of the tourists chickened out on... it involved a 1000-foot ascent up craggy rocks to the tallest peak in the area, giving us stunning views of the archipelago. Amusingly, the fastest hikers were a German couple in their 60s. Yesterday was sea kayaking through ocean caves.

The other guests might find it amusing that my idea of a relaxing time on a beach involves blogging, but hey, that's how my brain works.

Also, I think if I were not here alone, I'd probably be doing something else right now.
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Most Vietnamese vendors sell things for a much higher price to tourists than to locals.  Since supermarkets are more or less nonexistent, almost everythinng you buy has no price label.  Thus, it's easy to have discriminatory  pricing.

The average annual income in Vietnam is around $500/yr.  I don't know the average income of an American tourist in Vietnam, but I'm guessing it's around $50000/yr.  So there's about a 100-to-1 difference in salary. 

Let's look at things from the perspective of the Vietnamese street vendor, but translate things into American prices.

Suppose you own a small fruit smoothie stand in the US.  It's a relatively tough life... you make $20,000 on a good year, and nearly all of that goes to expenses.  You sell smoothies to the locals for $5.  Then these funny-looking people from a country called Richlandia show up.  You know they have a lot of money.  So you make up a price for them.  You say $50.  They smile and buy it, stoked at the great deal they're getting.  You raise your price to $200.  Most of them still buy it.  Sometimes they get confused and give you a $2000 bill instead of a $200 bill.  All the money looks alike to them.   They walk around with cameras worth $30,000 dangling from their wrists.  When they open their wallets, you see that some of them have over $100,000 in Richlandia currency in there.  You have to feed your  family.  Do you cheat the foreigners?  You can legally cheat them by a significant amount and most of them won't even know.  You could commit a crime and end up with a year's worth of income in a few seconds.  What do you do?

If you're very motivated and want to stay on the ethical side of things, you could learn English and become a tour guide, or start a stand that sells items catering to foreigners (like hand sanitizer, which they all seem to be obsessed with. 
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Today I realized that Hanoi is basically the real-life equivalent of those webpages that have dozens of obnoxious banner ads that blink, shake, dance, and do whatever it takes to get your attention.  Every five seconds or so, somebody makes a noise or visible motion to get your attention.  There's an astonishing variety of noises, from "hey you", to whistles, to bird noises, to grunts, to the sort of sound that a gay man might make to cruise me.  The latter one is especially funny when a motorcycle taxi driver does it while patting the back seat of his motorbike.    I would love to transport one of those guys to the Castro in San Francisco and  watch him try to get some business.

The worst ones are the ones that physically get in your way.  Even old ladies carrying two baskets of bananas balanced on a long pole will purposefully move their baskets to block your way.   You wouldn't push an old lady... or at least, you wouldn't push the first one who tries it.   The second one, on the other hand...

I've made a rule of only buying from people who do not resort to extreme measures to get my attention.  It's positive reinforcement, though my ability to provide meaningful training of an entire country full of salespeople is limited.  If all the other tourists did it...   The trouble is that the loud sell probably works on average.   People who make their lives selling things probably have some idea what they're doing, even if they can't spot the right technique to use on me.

Yesterday as I was walking past a woman who was loudly trying to get me to buy replica watches, I suddenly turned to her and tried to sell her my bag of fruit.  I insisted that she look at them.  She laughed.  I laughed.  Maybe she got it.

Then there were the motorcycle taxi drivers who came into my sleeping compartment when I arrived by train into Hanoi at 5am.  They woke me up and asked for my hotel name and bag.  (A common scam involves motorcycle taxis taking you to a sham hotel with a similar name to yours.)  I told them "no" a few times in both my language and theirs, along with "go away".  They kept hovering.  I closed the door partially.  They reopened it.  I closed it and locked it.  They stayed outside for 5 minutes while I packed, occasionally banging on the door.  When I finally opened the door to the horde of them, they were blocking my way, shouting "Moto?  Where you go?".   I body-checked the first one hard against the side of the train compartment, and the rest left me alone.   I don't have much of an asshole side, but these people are working hard on nurturing it.

On the other hand, I've found the majority of Hanoi residents to be very nice. 
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As of a week ago I had never shot a gun or been on a motorcycle.  Now I can check bot of those off.

I shot a few rounds out of an AK-47 at a range in Vietnam.  I will say that modern videogames replicate the sound and feel very well, but the sensory assault you get from it in real life is fantastic.  the target (a giant sign far away) was kind of boring though... I would have preferred some tin cans on a fence, or better yet, a propane canister.

On to the motorcycles.  I met up with someone who taught me how to ride the small Honda motorbikes that make up 90% of the traffic in Vietnam.  For the shockingly low price of $4.30, we each had a motorbike and a full tank of gas for the day.  After practicing in a hotel parking lot, we headed out toward the Marble Mountains, a group of stunning Buddhist temples carved into limestone mesas.  We also discovered an incredible seafood place off the tourist trail.  The knack for getting really good food  is to look for places on side streets where there are large amounts of well-dressed locals  eating.  We also went into the Son Tre mountains, a set of forested mountains that form a long peninsula near Danang.  The combination of forest, beach, ocean, and city was stunning, and zipping through it on a motorbike thrilled me at a primal level. 

By the end of the day I had experienced beach highways, windy mountain roads, potholed roads, third world city traffic and even dirtbiking.  I briefly got the bike up to 50mph on a wide open road with no one around.  I liked watching my subconscious pick up skills and adjust quickly to a new mode of moving through the word.  My very strong self-preservation instinct kept me on a good path toward mastery without risking my life.  The constant tinge of fear it brought on ensured that I paid very close attention to everything that was going on.  A full day of doing that is exhausting, and I was barely conscious at dinner 

In any case, I would like to try more motorbiking when I get home.  I should get some proper instruction too.   
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Saigon was my introduction to independent travel in the third world. After the clean efficiency of Singapore, I had dropped myself into a messy, chaotic city. I had an especially aggressive taxi driver from the airport (though I didn't know it at the time), and watching him plow his way through the herds of motorcyclists with his horn blazing gave me a reaction halfway between stunned amazement and laughter. The first hotel I tried (on recommendation of a friend) turned out to be something out of Delicatessen... a windowless depressing pit for $8 a night. I instead stuck with my original $15 hotel option for my pampered first-world ass to use while I acclimated to things. As I relearned basic skills like walking on the sidewalk, buying things, and crossing the street, I started to enjoy the chaos that the city provided. My travel companion and I spent a day wandering through various neighborhoods, walking into lesser known temples and looking at markets.

There are some interesting day trips from Saigon. One is the Cao Dai Temple. This religion, more or less unknown outside Vietnam, worships Shakespeare and Victor Hugo alongside Jesus, Mohammed, and others. Their temple looks like a Disney version of a Chinese palace crossed with an Illuminati conspiracy theorist's living room. If it were at Burningman, it would out-weird most of the other camps. The other nearby attraction is the Cu Chi tunnels. The inhabitants of these tunnels (Vietcong fighting the French, and later the Americans), are some of the most hardcore inhabitants of the planet I've ever heard about. The tunnels allowed them to harass various surface-dwelling enemy forces while remaining almost entirely undetected by them, even when said enemy forces were occupying the territory above the tunnels. They lived in a massive underground city (of several thousand inhabitants) spread over hundreds of square kilometers and connected by tunnels so small that you have to crawl on your hands and knees to get through them. They managed to hide things like cooking fumes through ingenious ventilation systems. Even though the US discovered several tunnels (and dropped massive amounts of Agent Orange onto the forests so the tunnel entrances would be easier to find), the network was never substantially compromised.

One big disappointment in Saigon has been the food. I came in with great expectations, and instead have eaten fairly miserable fare. On my third night, we went out to a really high-end restaurant in the downtown business area, which gave us an excellent three-course meal for the exorbitant price (relative to most of Vietnam) of $30/person. This not only replenished me, but allowed me to verify that not all fish in Vietnam tastes like cardboard.
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In downtown Saigon, there was a clothing store called “Gizz fashions”.

The 12 year old in me has also noticed that certain Vietnamese store signs are very good at inadvertently getting Westerners' attention. There's been “Hung Long”, “Long Phuc”, even “Long Dung”, but no “Long Dong” just yet. I really need to look up these things in a VN->English dictionary to see what they actually mean.
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Dalat is a Vietnamese hill town that was substantially developed by the French in the early 1900s, and still has a very strikingly European feel. While Saigon offered me a big, messy primer in third-world megacities, Dalat presented itself as an idyllic place for an independent thinker with a taste for outdoor adventure, Asian culture, and good cheap food to expatriate (to verb a noun). The hilly streets and gnarled evergreens also give the place a very San Francisco feel. The runaway chain reaction of douchebag foreigners begetting businesses catering to douchebag foreigners (and treating all foreigners as if they were douchebags) has not afflicted this city. Perhaps it's the lack of beaches, late-night bars, and easy cheap access by plane. Those all must be catalysts judging from what I've seen in other cities.

Dalat is also home to the Crazy House, a working hotel built by a woman with aesthetic taste somewhere between Dali and Gaudi, but with more love of purely organic forms and random jungle fauna.   My friend and I spent three hours  there taking pictures, and then I returned the next night and serendipitously met the owner.  She built the whole place on the stunningly small budget of around US$1million, which she was able to pull off because her dad was the head of the Communist Party.

In any case, this place is glorious.. May it not be ruined.

I'm starting to wonder if the tourist industry is like the fashion industry in that even good places (and fashion trends) eventually get too famous and then they become overly popular and then take a turn for the cheap and cheesy.  Of course, old  fashions get discarded while tourist traps continue to trap tourists.
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So I'm at this restaurant looking at the menu, and I see that in addition to sections for beef, pork, chicken, duck, frog, eel, ostrich, and boar, the menu has an entire section devoted to cow penis. Yup, not just one dish, but six to pick from. I think, why the hell not? When else will I get a chance to try cow penis for $1.80?

It arrived thinly sliced, mixed in with some phallic baby corn and some onions. It turns out that different parts of cow penis taste very different. I had trouble matching the abstractions on my plate to actual cow anatomy. My dining companion, an Israeli guy I met on the bus, picked up a shriveled circular section, and I helpfully guessed, “foreskin”? Some of it is spongy and decent-tasting... as in the texture of tripe but the taste of veal. Some of it is like organ meat, with the typical organ meat bad aftertaste. And the last bits are barely edible. I spent the next half hour walking around looking for fruit smoothies to wash it all down so I wouldn't have to experience any cow-penis-flavored burps.

Aren't you so glad you're reading this?
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I'm finding few opportunities to write. I'm doing this one on a cramped sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Hue, two cities in Vietnam. You know how little kids sometimes put a bunch of insects in a jar and then shake the jar to get them to fight? That's kind of how the bus is, except with people in the jar. I even spent extra for the “nice” bus, but it's still a hellhole. If they showed people pictures of the cheap seats, no one would buy them. The cheap seats don't have a cushion for your back. This also isn't the just-scraping-by bus for locals... this is the “nice”, “air-conditioned” bus for tourists. I'm happily typing away though, oblivious to the drama between the autocratic driver and the frustrated passengers. Next time I use the train. Thank Science for my little bottle of Ambien.

When this country gets ubiquitous cheap internet access over cellphones plus the high review density that sites like Yelp currently have in the US, half their tourist enterprises will be screwed. For now I try to look things up on TripAdvisor.

Anyway, I'm actually really having a good time. I just wanted to write an entry in a bus full of miserable passengers. Now to write some more...
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... just having some trouble getting on the internet.

Given that the 16 hours people in the US are awake tend to align with my (1) sleeping time and (2) day adventure time, I haven't been on the internet at the same time as you American folks.

I have taken close to 1000 photos in  the last 10 days.  I tried to upload one to flickr, and it took about 2 minutes.   Some slick web 2.0 stuff is broken on the EEE PC (trying to sort this out), including flickr uploader and dropbox, so I've had to use the public terminals for bulk uploading.   I don't exactly want to stay logged in while they run overnight uploading files, so uploading large amounts of info is out.  Well, hopefully I can hold on to my data until I get to a nice first-world airport.   I have it all backed up locally, but  I want my data resting safely in a server farm in Oregon.

Anyway, I'm having loads of fun.  Text-only post coming soon.  :-)
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Here's my research on Vietnam... people have asked to see it too, so I've put it up publicly.  As with the Middle East research, it's copied from an email without any editing so some of this may not be relevant.

It's not mentioned below, but Vietnam is also right next to the Ankgor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, which is *INCREDIBLE* and may likely be the highlight of the SE Asia part of my trip. 

Vietnam details )

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