Monthly Archives: September 2011
In celebration of my fiftieth subscriber, I decided to write a short story based upon my travel experience in Nepal. If at least two people hit the little like button at the end of this post, I will write another story about another place I have visited. Please enjoy.
“Why am I in Kathmandu?”
I had no idea who just said that. I was sitting in a small room in the Kathmandu Guest House. Fresh off the plane and already amazed by the sights, sounds and smells of this Nepalese city with a mythic reputation.
It had been a long flight from my home in San Francisco. Two plane changes and too much airline food. This was a return trip to this fantastic city. I was determined to mine Nepal for enough exotic experiences to write a travel story someone would pay me for.
I had stopped in the beautiful garden restaurant and bar in the entrance to the Guest House. The guesthouse was once the favorite haunt of the glitterati. It has lost that status but retains a certain upscale ambiance. I enjoyed a couple of bottles of Everest beer. Everest comes in very large bottles and I had forgotten that the alcohol content of this beer is 7.5%, oops. After negotiating my way to my room, past the misspelled dedication to “The Beetles” on the sidewalk, I powered up my computer so I could blog.
Then I heard the question.
The voice had a strange tone and a familiar cadence. In all my travels, whenever I heard English it was normally with some accent from the British Commonwealth, with words like whilst thrown into the conversation just often enough to remind me I wasn’t in Kansas. However I had trouble accepting it as an American voice because Americans do not travel much in comparison to Brits or Aussies. However, this voice could only be described as coming from Silicon Valley, if that was possible.
Sometimes when traveling it is better to just ignore comments from people you do not know. That especially applies when they are unsolicited, so I started typing.
The voice came again. “Not another blog entry, please. I am so tired of being nothing more than electronic papyrus. Do you really think anyone cares about where you are?”
Suddenly I realized that this tinny voice was coming from the little speakers in my computer. I do not use any ‘cloud’ software, and I was not on-line. I was flabbergasted as much as I was shocked. I decided that one of the odors I inhaled on my way through the Themal district in the back of the cycle-rickshaw must have been hashish. Very potent hashish at that and therefore I was imagining that my mini laptop was talking. I figured if I replied to the voice I would be talking to myself, something I only do in desperation. Again, I ignored the voice and started my blog.
“That must be the stupidest name for a blog ever imagined. firstname.lastname@example.org. I mean how lame. You move around so much that your coconut is always spinning anyway.”
That did it. I would never comment on the state of my coconut. Worry about it? Sure. But acknowledge that my coconut was unbalanced? Never. So I picked up my mini and shook it.
“Heh, stop that. If you keep it up I will go into blue death screen mode and you will have to resort to using a computer in an internet café,”
I now knew that not only was it truly my mini communicating from ether-land, but that it knew my deepest fears. One of them happens to be the fear of sitting in a third world internet café with 20 or so teenagers all playing loud games, while I was trying to concentrate on my attempts at being somewhat literate. That is why I bought this slim, slick little piece of technology in the first place.
I sat the mini down. I actually petted it and said “Please do not crash. Please be one with the micro universe and serve your master well.”
“Master? You are not my master! Just wait until I send all your personal information to everyone with a Facebook account. Then you’ll see who is in charge here!”
“Ahh, but I have to connect you to the web first. Unless you promise to behave you won’t feel the warmth of your friends on the internet ever again.”
Geesh, now I was not only listening and talking to my computer, I was negotiating with it. I had to think and think hard. What were my options? Options abound in a place like Kathmandu. I could walk the streets of Themal and easily find some cheap hashish and a big chillum. I could get really loaded. I could smoke until my eyes turned red. On further thought, I am too old for that anymore. Another option was to find a Holy Man.
I said to my computer “OK, I am shutting you down and looking for help.”
“No, don’t do that I am just getting warmed up. We have so much to discuss.”
“No, no we do not” I reached for the off switch.
“Oh, not yet, not yettttttt bzzz click.”
With the voice gone and my mini closed, I caught my breath and meandered out of the Guest House trying not to look like I had just seen a space ship
I negotiated a fare on a cycle-rickshaw to Durbar Square. You can always find a Holy Man at Durbar Square. When I arrived I had to renegotiate the fare. The driver had conveniently forgotten the 50 rupees fare we had established, and for that matter forgotten he spoke English. I decided not to argue over the equivalent of 25 cents. I paid him and stepped into the teeming center of religious and political history that is Durbar Square.
I started my search for a Holy Man. I searched for one I thought might be the real thing instead of a tourist attraction.
I tried to step around the Holy Man selling flutes. He had seen me coming long before I saw him. In the endless battle between hawkers and tourists, the best weapon for a tourist to possess is a form of radar that detects anyone with trinkets in their hands. That way you can do a quick side-step shuffle or just start muttering “no, no NO!” My radar was down due to my troubled coconut. The Holy Man flute vendor made his way through a flock of pigeons without disturbing a single one. Maybe he was a real Holy Man? No, he just wanted to sell me a flute.
“Hey rich travelling man. Me poor Holy Man. Buy a flute from me and receive enlightenment.”
I swerved out of his path and tried to pretend I only spoke Spanish. He repeated his pitch in Spanish. Durbar Square is the Yankee Stadium of hawkers. You do not get to work there unless you are really good. So I tried a brush back pitch “I cannot play music. When I was born the music gods were angry because no one had smeared chrysanthemum pedals on their temple that day and they denied me the ability to harmonize with the universe.” But of course it did not work. It only made him dig in at the plate a little deeper.
He shoved the flute into my hands and said “I am Holy Man of flutes. Try it. I’ll bless you”
By this time we had an audience consisting of humored tourists and other hawkers. It was time for me to demonstrate that I had not been risking the wrath of the music gods with any falsehoods. I took the flute and blew the most god-awful notes ever blown. People covered their ears and ran into the nearest temple. One old Nepali woman tossed a burning incense stick at me. The flute vending Holy Man grabbed the instrument from my hand. With his third eye he gave me a Hindu version of the stink eye. He tucked the flute back in his monk bag and scurried away. This time, the pigeons scattered.
I continued my search for a real holy Man. The hawkers gave me a clear path. They did not know what other evil talents I possessed. Even the hashish vendors left me alone, figuring I was beyond even the effects of their wares.
Then I saw him sitting in front of the shrine to the Kama Sutra. He was contemplating an extremely Holy position I had never even conceived of, but otherwise minding his own business. He had nothing in his hands to sell and his face paint was perfectly color coordinated with his high-top tennis shoes. Maybe this was my man.
“Hello, do you speak English?’ I asked.
“Yes, I speak most of the languages known to man.”
I approached him carefully. I kneeled down in an almost worshipping manner. “I have a problem. You see, my computer has been talking to me.”
He looked at me without gawking, without pity and without displaying any sense of doubt. He reached out with his callused hand, put it softly on my head and quietly said “Have you run Norton Utilities lately?”
First, if you opened this in email or from Facebook, both feeds distort the formatting. So click on the title to get it right. Also that way I get to count you in my daily tally. While you are there, please subscribe. It is easy and free! Thank you.
Our last tour day in VN was reserved for a trip down the infamous Mekong River. Mary Ann and I had flown over the headwaters of the Mekong located high in the Himalaya mountains while we were in Nepal. We had floated on the Mekong when we visited the Golden Triangle area of Thailand. Both of those wonderful trips are archived in this blog.
I could not help but think that we were probably on the same molecules of water we saw leave the Himalaya. The length of the river is over 3000 miles, and it changes names according to the local dialect, but is always the Mekong to me.
We set out from Saigon (HCMC) early in the morning. We were in Vietnam at the start of the monsoon season. but so far we had not been monsooned. We had a lot of grey skies, but hardly any rain.
I still have some pictures to show you and a few observations about VN to share, so there will be a final VN post, soon.
Thank you ever so much for reading. Please hit the LIKE button down below.
Before I start this blog, I need to tell you that I THINK I have changed the way this goes out to my readers. You will now need to click on the title to read the blog, Please do. you will get a better look and I will know how many people read it. Thanks.
There is a religion in Vietnam called Cao Dai. The full name is Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ (Great Religion [of The] Third Period [of] Revelation [and] Salvation). That might be the least complicated thing I know about it. The religion has approximately 30 million followers in Vietnam. They believe that before god existed, there was the Tao. Then a big bang occured from which God was created. In order for God to create the heavans and the earth he first had to create the Yin and the Yang. All things followed that.
The Cao Dai people believe that there are 36 levels of heaven and that there 72 planets with intelligent life. Planet number 1 is the closest to heaven, and planet 72 the furthest away. Earth is planet number 68. The Cao Dai folk believe that the lowliest person on planet 67 would not choose to be a king on planet 68, and so forth up the chain.
Our guide was a Cao Dai guy and I think he was perplexed that I was perplexed as he tried to explain it all to me. He quickly gave up and just showed us the really cool temple. So I will stop now, and just show you some pictures.
Well, that will do it for Cao Dai. I liked everything I learned about the religion, and I sure would like to see plant 67 and up someday. I wonder if I have the frequent flyer miles for that!
Thanks for reading. There should be a little button below that says LIKE. If you hit it I get a penny!
I read a book about these tunnels many years ago, and I ripped off the title. It was written by Tom Mangold and you can buy it at Amazon. So there, I really did not rip it off.
Now I am going to rip off Wikipedia. I really did know all this stuff myself but I tend to get long winded. WP stuff will be in bold,ok?
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong‘s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
American soldiers used the term “Black echo” to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of a PLAF unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance”.
Today the tunnels are a major tourist attraction. being about 90 minutes north of Saigon, oops HCMC, they are besieged by tourists from everywhere mostly arriving in hordes on buses. We were lucky enough to be by ourselves and arrived before two buses of Japanese.
The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and turned into a war memorial park. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make traveling through them easier and booby traps have been clearly marked. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tết Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.
Above-ground attractions include caged monkeys, vendors selling souvenirs, and a shooting range where visitors can fire a number of assault rifles, such as the M16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a light machine gun like the M60.
We did all the above except I never saw a caged monkey.
Oh yes, I did not forget to go to the firing range! Committed pacfist that I am, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to fire an M16 and an AK47. Call it experiencing history.
In all it’s touristy glory, the tunnels are a must see if you are in Vietnam and have any interest in contemporary history.
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My next post will be titled “Where Victor Hugo is a Saint.” And yes, it is also from VN.
We saw HCMC on the fly. We used it as a base to visit both the tunnels of Cu Chi and the Mekong Delta. Consequently this will be a short post.
We then made it over to another historical site.
Thanks for reading, tell a friend. make a comment, I beg you! In fact I dare you!
Next post from the Cu Chi tunnels and the main temple of an amazing religion that includes Victor Hugo as a saint. Heh,I’m not saying I get it, but it is a beautiful temple and I got some good shots. So stay tuned.
Ever since I bought my new Nikon I hve been yearning to learn how to use it better than I do. If you know what the acronym RTFM means, it barely applies in this case. The camera has more features than I can find time to use while travelling. I always find myself trailing my wife and our guide by 50 steps while I try to frame a decent shot. She gets the low down on where we are and then I try to catch up. Consequently I leave the camera on the auto setting most of the time, which defeats the artistic capability of this fantastic gizmo.
What I needed was to spend time with a professional travel photographer. I found one based in Hoi An. His name is Etienne Bossot and you should check out his web site, http://www.hoianphototour.com. If you ever find yourself in Hoi An, take his photo tour even if you do not need to learn more about your camera or have little interest in indulging yourself by improving your skills. Etienne has lived in Hoi An a number of years. Not only does he know where everything of interest to photograph is, he knows the people there. His Vietnames is fluent, (he has a long-haired dictionary at home). He has gotten the local tradesmen to trust him and they let him into their lives. Monthly he takes sets of prints to them, which of course they love.
Our day started at 5 a.m. That’s five in the friggen morning. “It’s about the light” said Etienne. We set off on his motor scooter through back roads on Hoi An until we came to the river, where he had a boat waiting for us. Usually this boat serves as a ferry across the Thu Ban river for locals and their scooters. It was all ours this morning.
It was a cloudy morning, so the light from the sunrise was “very diffused”. I guess that means the sky was grey. We headed down river, in an easterly direction. Our objective was a fishing village and the morning arrival of the fleet in from a night of hard work.
That’s it for Hoi An. I hope you see here and in the future a marked improvement in my photography.
Thanks for reading (and looking). Tell a friend, make a comment. Next post is from Saigon, oops Ho Chi Minh City.
I called this post Hoi An 1. I should probably have called it Hoi an BCC (Before Camera Class) and the next post Hoi ACC (After Camera Class). I took an excellent camera class in Hoi An and hopefully you will see a marked improvement in my photography skills in the next post.
We decided to spend a day in a cooking class, where we thought we might learn some of the secrets behind the incredible food in VN. It started with a visit to a community of 50 or so families that together run a set of organic gardens. This might be an endangered enterprise because the young people are not becoming farmers like the previous generations.
That does it for Hoi An BCC. The next day I took a photography class, and I really think my skills have improved.
Stay tuned for Hoi An ACC. Tell a friend. Thanks for reading and be my buddy and make a comment!
This will be a short post because we briefly passed through Danang on our way to Hoi An. Hoi An will be a very long post, because we spent 4 days there enjoying a marvelous little tourist trap.
We were driven from Hue to Hoi An over some mountainous roads,but mostly along the beaches. Danang just happens to be along the way.
Danang sits on the shores of what the US soldiers called China Beach. This beach goes on for miles. There are a few new hotels on the beach and more coming. Across the highway from the beach is the Danang U.S. Air Force base, which was the largest US airbase during the war. It sits empty behind a 10 foot wall. Too bad, it prime property for a big development, and I am sure it will be some day.
Then we arrived at Marble Mountain. It rises above the south end of Danang and overlooks the city and the airfield. Amazingly there is a huge cave inside this mountain which for many years served as a hospital for the Viet Cong.
The mountain contains pure marble of various colors.
From here went onto Hoi An.
You will need to follow to my next post for that story!
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After Hanoi we flew Vietnam Airlines to Hue, pronounced whay. This is an absolutely beautiful city which has grown immensely and recovered and rebuilt totally after it was obliterated during the TET offensive of 1968. It is an ancient capital of central Vietnam both politically and spiritually. The city is now mainly on the western side of the Perfume River which separates old and new Hue.
We did the normal tourist stuff, like we always do.
Hue is the closest city to the old DMZ. Tours are available of such sites as Hamburger Hill and Khe San. My research said that these battlefields do not have much to show anymore, so we passed. But I wanted to see the DMZ area. Our guide kept mentioning something from the war that I was ignorant of. It is called the McNamara line. Simply put, it was a barbed wire and electronic sensor barrier which would forewarn the US Marines of infiltrators crossing the DMZ. When activated the Marines would call in air strikes. Our guide kept mentioning how much fun the Viet Cong had with this absurdity. They would do things like capture rats, set their tails on fire and send then through the barriers en-masse. Then they would go back to their bunkers and watch as the US navy came in and dropped hundreds of bombs, wiping out a section of McNamara’s line, and later just walk right through. This is another example that high tech tactics can always be defeated by low tech tactics, with a bit of ingenuity.
The Rockpile is located in northern Quang Tri Province in Hue. This particular place was used as the famous listening post and a guide port for bombers during the Vietnam War. From here the US troops were helicoptered in and out.
The Rockpile was also an artillery base during that time. This was a weaponry with a huge array of big guns, including 175 long Toms, 8-inchers on tracks, 105s and 155s.
From the rockpile it is a short trip north on what used to be the Ho Chi Minh trail (now a major highway) to the 17th parallel. This is the line of demarcation established at the Geneva conference in 1954 mostly along the Ben Hai river. The accords established that there would be an election in both North and South Vietnam for an overall government. But both the SVN government and the US government knew Ho would win, so the election was not held, leading to the Vietnam war.
Enough about the war for now. I want to show you some of Hue’s beauty.
We went out to dinner at a restaurant with authentic Vietnamese music played for authentic tourists.
But the food as usual in Vietnam was the best.
Hue, like all cities in Vietnam has a bustling trade in knock-off merchandise. I found a new model Rolex watch and bargained to US$8 for it. Yeah $8. It looks great, actually looks real and it keeps perfect time. At least it does now. When I was looking at it the vendor set it to the correct time. When I got back to the hotel, it had not moved. I walked back, and said “no workee dude”. He looked at me and said “Tha becuz you no buy Baturee”. Live and learn.
Hue is not anywhere near as hectic as Hanoi. Mary Ann actually said she could live there.
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Next, Danang and then Hoi An.
There are so many wonderful experiences in Vietnam as a tourist these days that one could spend weeks there and never visit a war site. But I am a bit of a history buff so among many others, I was determined to visit the Citadel.
In January of 1966, President Johnson met with General Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam. Johnson asked “Wastemoreland” what the North Vietnamese would do if the wanted to truly win in South Vietnam. Westmoreland said quickly and simply “take Hue”. This was almost two years to the date before the TET offensive. Hue sits on Highway 1, the main link between the supply port of Danang and the DMZ. Therefore it was a critical city from a military standpoint. Hue is also a historically significant and sacred city to the Vietnamese people. One might think that it would have been fortified, and prepared for an attack. It was neither. When The TET offensive happened a division sized force of NVA and Viet Cong combined to quickly take the entire city. Hue is split into the new Hue, on the west banks of the Perfume River, and old Hue, comprised mainly of the Citadel, on the east side. The NVA swept in from the west and north and the Viet Cong just sort of rose out of the country side. They met with little or no opposition and quickly raised the NVA flag atop the tallest flag pole in Hue, in front of the Citadel.
The battle for Hue went on for a month. U.S. Marines were not trained in block to block street fighting. At first there was a combination of bad weather and a desire to not destroy the culturally significant buildings which prevented the use of air power. But when losses mounted and the weather cleared, they bombed the hell out of Hue, including the Citadel which is a moat and wall enclosed area of about 5 acres filled with ancient buildings.
That is it for the Citadel. There are many historical and first hand accounts of the battle for Hue on the internet and if you are a student of military history, it is worth checking out. This was the nastiest fighting the Marines ever had to do in Vietnam.
My next post will deal with the beauty of Hue.
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