Saturday

Downtime

The Vietnamese work hard. They are an unbelievably energetic people. So when the trade or the pace of work slows, the sun is high, the air hot and humid or they've just had enough, they'll shut down wherever they happen to be and take it easy. They'll even get in a little sleep. And, just like work and life, rest is also out in the open. They'll rest anywhere.

Cyclo driver, D Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycle yoga I, Ho Chi Minh City

Delivery man, Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycle yoga II

Utility cyclo behind bus stop, D Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City

D Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City

Mercer, Ho Chi Minh City

Mercer II

Shopkeeper, Ho Chi Minh City

 

Thursday

Street Scenes

Fruit for sale: late night, Ho Chi Minh City

Gone to the dogs: pet market, Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City
View from the top, alleyway, behind D Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City

Green grocer, Ho Chi Minh City

Fast food, Vietnamese style

Fast pho ba

Coconut cooler. Fresh coconut water: drink it through the straw, then use a spoon to scoop out and eat the flesh. Delicious!

 

 

Fast food, Vietnamese style.

The beauty of most Asian cuisines, and no less so Vietnamese, is that most things can be cooked very quickly. So, fast food in Vietnam is not junk food, unlike the situation in Australia and most Western countries. The most popular Vietnamese dish is pho ba (pronounced like "fur" but with a shorter duration to the syllable, and bah, as a long syllable). It is a soup of white rice noodles, beef pieces, been sprouts, leafy greens, basil, herbs and freshly squeezed lime juice, all in a light beef or chicken broth. Pho ga is the chicken version.

Pho is ubiquitous in Vietnam and is eaten at any time of the day, most usually, though, for breakfast or lunch. It takes three minutes to make and serve and is freshly made for each order. Only the broth has been prepared beforehand. The noodles are soft and cook when they are dropped into the hot broth for one minute. The beef is thinly cut and is cooked after two minutes in the broth. Tourists and locals all lap it up and it is surprisingly filling. It's also healthy. There is no need to look for junk fast food in Vietnam — there is no need anywhere, but some people don't know any better. There are shops that specialise in just pho, and many street food stands serve up huge quantities of it. Many tourists and imbibers swear as to its restorative properties after a night on the tiles.

 

 

 

Tuesday

Keeping the faith

 

 

 

Random bursts

I have abandoned all notions of writing this blog in any chronological order. Vietnam is too energetic, too manic, too fast and it just gets away from you. You are savouring one day, one moment, one experience and, suddenly, the next thing happens to you. Your responses are running all at once, like multiple torrents unleashed by a downpour of events.

So I will write, instead, about things, people, themes, events, ideas, experiences, sights and visions as they present themselves. Parts Unknown is not so much a personal diary as a distillation of my passage through a country and a culture I have never experienced before. I have rediscovered the joy of travel after 28 years of being firmly rooted in my fixed abode in Australia, living the life of the student, the worker, the husband, the father, in debt for a mortgage and, now, the single again middle-aged white male – only mortgage free.

Monday

"Hello". The face of new Vietnam

 

 

Blogging hell!

Last night I logged on to post some more content. Blogsy (my blogging app on the iPad) automatically updated. Then it said I had to "recreate" my blog account. After a scare, it worked. Then I went to upload photos. But ohhh no! I had to recreate the Picasa account from scratch too. So I tried to do that, and disaster struck. It won't recognise my password, and throws up all sorts of demands and requests. The trouble is, everything on Google is in Vietnamese, even though my default language on the iPad is English. There is no way to translate the dialogue boxes, nothing works, and I can't upload photos to or from Picasa or, indeed, from the iPad's photo library.

I suspect the culprit is Blogsy. This is a monumental stuff-up, and I won't be able to post any photographs until, well, I don't know when.

I am in Hoi An, it is a beautiful old town, and I can't show you any of it.

I'll try and do something from my friend Peter's laptop back in Nha Trang (his Google is in English, I think), but until then, I'm flying blind.

Saturday

Driving in Vietnam

I wouldn't dare drive in Vietnam. I don't know how the Vietnamese do it. So I left myself at the hands of professionals. My first experience was with a cyclo. Strangely, I never felt in danger or under threat in the chaos – organized or otherwise – that is Ho Chi Minh City traffic.

When I set off for Nha Trang, I booked with a good local bus company. I heard the words "open bus" and thought that maybe I would travel in an open top to see the sights. What a silly assumption: how would an open top bus cope with a sudden tropical downpour? No, what I got was a "sleeper bus" for the 10--hour journey. That's right, a sleeper bus. Three rows of bunks on two levels take the passengers on their journey. Travelers can adjust the bunks upright for sitting, way down for snoozing, and all points in between.

Upon boarding the bus, we are asked to take off our shoes and place them in individual plastic bags into a large basket. There are two or three drivers who take turns at driving and sleeping, and they spend time alternatively on a bunk or hanging out on the floor in the cockpit.

Traveling down the highway in dense traffic, dodging motorbikes, bicycles and the occasional ox cart, is quite an experience, but the Vietnamese habit of tailgating before overtaking (which buses do very frequently) is unnerving. Sometimes, the driver would pull out to check the road ahead, only to have to pull in behind the vehicle in front in double quick time because of oncoming traffic. When he does overtake, it is with the narrowest of margins. I observed my bus getting back into its own lane just as it and the vehicle coming from the opposite direction cross their A pillars with less than a meter to spare, at about 70 or 80 kilometres per hour.

Sleeper bus: built for comfort, not speed.

Take your shoes off please.

Old Curiosity Street

 In Park 23-9, D Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City


Old Curiosity Street

I ventured a little farther out of the Ben Thanh Market but still within its radius, and discovered a street full of shops selling old and new furniture, curios, antiques and decorative items. Old film cameras were among the goods for sale: plate and large format cut film cameras, old East German Pentacon Six SLRs, and various German and Japanese 35mm models. They looked forlorn and the dust on them suggested that it had been a very long time since anyone had removed them from their glass cabinets to examine them for purchase. 

There were bronze and stone statues, most of them of a religious nature, votives and a myriad other religious objects. There were even old gramophones, though most looked too good and too new to be antiques. I suspect they were reproductions. It's midday, and most of the proprietors were snoozing among their wares. 

 

The Sage and the Buddha. 

One delightful old gentleman, reclined well backwards on his chair next to a sculptured head of a Buddha, looked at me with a welcoming smile and gave my camera a quick glance. I motioned by raising the camera to my neck level and smiling at him questioningly, and he nodded his head benignly in approval, his smile widening, without a single word being exchanged between us. I took two photographs, thanked him in Vietnamese, he nodded his head again, with an even bigger smile, and I walked on. I love these quiet exchanges across cultures and languages, between two people who cannot communicate in a common tongue yet understand and approve of each other's intentions. The old man's smile says all he wants to say to the people who will see the photograph of him. 

 

Thursday

A beautiful people.

The Vietnamese are a handsome people, and none are more beautiful than Vietnamese women. How can there be so many beautiful women in one place at one time? These exquisite oriental odalisques, wrought to perfection in liquid alabaster, pass you by with dignified grace and look like they are about to glide onto a stage to dance with Tchaikovsky's swans.  Whether walking or riding a motorbike either solo or on the pillion, they are bolt upright but never tense: they are always on display in their finest form.
Vietnamese children are outrageously beautiful, prancing animated porcelain dolls. They are spontaneous and gregarious, but their respect for people older than themselves, and particularly for teachers, is always evident. Teachers in Vietnam are so respected, in fact, that they have their own pronoun in the language!

I happened to pass a school some streets away from the Ben Thanh Markets, walking down a street filled with antique shops and places selling old and not so old curios and furniture, and saw some kind of drill being practiced in a school yard.  I poked my camera lens through the bars of the front gate to take a picture or two. After I had about four exposures, the children did an about face and I was spotted. They broke out spontaneously in cheers and waves, and must have called out hundreds of individual hellos. I kept snapping and their teacher smiled and let them express their spontaneous reaction to a stranger that had shown so much interest in them and their activity.  They made me feel welcome and special. Then the teacher called them back to attention and they snapped to it as one.

Some minutes later, as I was photographing further down the street, another small group of school children saw me from behind and called out to me, striking a pose at the same time. I hit the shutter again, much to their delight. They said hello as they approached closer and waved goodbye as the passed me. These kids are cool!

Wednesday

To market, to market.

Markets are said to be the heart of a city. And so it is with the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. (There are, in fact, more markets in this metropolis, but his one is central and quite famous). 

 

Ben Thanh Market has everything: fresh food, clothes, jewelry, flowers, haberdasheries, mercers, astounding varieties of coffees and teas, spices, luggage, shoes and fabulous eateries a la street food style, only under the main cover. The place is enormous! 

 

 

Lunchtime games

 D Le Loi

Ben Thanh Market

 Mid-day rest, D Le Loi

 

The rhythm of life in Ho Chi Minh City

 I have observed the Vietnamese now for just three days from the distance that separates any tourist from the citizens of a place, and I can't say that I have a great insight into their lives. I can say that certain aspects of their lives have made an impression on me.

The Vietnamese are incredibly energetic people. The young generation of professionals, students and the people Australian politicians were fond of calling "aspirationals", know that is the way to get to wherever they want to be. The majority of the working population, the working poor, (now there's a contradiction in terms) have to be more than doubly energetic because the return for their effort is very small. They are weary. One can see it in their faces And in their laboured bodies as they face the same struggle to make a living day after day. 

I understand why everyone works so late then. I have just finished dinner ( at 10:15 at night) and all around me everything is open and working. Restaurants, bars (these I can understand) but also bookshops, boutiques, travel agents, shops selling bags, sunglasses and trinkets, street vendors and street food cooks. The people who sweep the streets and remove the rubbish that people deposit on the edge of the footpaths are still working, clad in bright orange overalls and helmets, manually pushing their mobile skips and taking away everything that has been discarded. 

Some people have finished for the day (or night) and are just sitting and watching the world go by. Others are sleeping on chairs or folding beds, even in little alleyways and under any little bit of cover. It's hot and humid. The less one moves, the better. Some even manage to sleep on their motorbikes, stretched with impressive acrobatic skill and balance across pillion and handlebars. 

Incredibly, little children are still up and active. Some are school age, some are toddlers and some but babies. I have not seen one complain yet. Children are adored in Vietnam, and babies and toddlers, in particular, are always being cuddled, entertained and kissed rhythmically every few seconds. It all happens outside, as their families sit, work and play. 

As I sit at the restaurant's outdoor tables, I am offered things to buy by people who have been doing this for at least 14 hours already: cigarettes, sunglasses, reading glasses, bracelets, fans, and, strangely, towers of books wrapped in plastic. The stacks must weigh a good ten or twenty kilos, yet people walk around cradling them with their hands or balancing them on one or other of their hips, a method that makes them walk with their spines bent severely in one direction. It pains me to look at them. (The books, by the way, are pirated: they are photocopied and laboriously bound). I don't make judgments. These people have to make a living and things here are harder than we in the west know. Anyway, the Japanese copied English cars and German cameras after the war, and look at where they are today. 

And so I feel sorry when I decline to buy, and watch sadly as the vendors turn from me with a sometimes bitter look of disappointment, and I wonder how I must look to them and begin to question my decision. But I have realized that I cannot buy every trinket, bracelet or souvenir proffered. It would be impossible to carry it back to Australia for a start. I can only try and spread my tourist money as logically and responsibly as I can. 

 

Seek and ye shall find.

 Or: it never rains, it pours. 

I went looking for a photographic store or a computer store. I trudged across streets and whole city blocks without success, then I found a whole cluster of stores in one place. Apparently, in Ho Chi Minh City, if you find the one place you're looking for, you find them all!

I had passed a city block full of bookshops, another full of art supply stores, another full of shoe shops and cobblers, another that was exclusively for bags and yet another full of office supply stores. 

 

Today's lesson, from the Book of Thoughtful Organisation

I learned my first lesson as a traveling blogger with an interest in photography and a penchant for digital technology: make sure you have a solid plan for back-ups, and never rely on the hope that you will find the technology you will need periodically in another country. The iPad is great for downloading photos and then updating your blog with text and pictures from it with Blogsy and, in my case, a Picasa account. But the iPad compresses pictures for display on its admittedly gorgeous screen, so how could I maintain the high resolution integrity of my photographs? Easy, or so I thought, I'll find a place to burn them onto CDs or DVDs. Now, that may be a sound strategy, and it does cost some money, but that's provided you find a place and equipment to do that and a way to check the results.

I found a place. I looked all over District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City for a place and couldn't find one. I walked past the Ben Thanh Markets on Le Loi Street and then a vision hit me: a vision of at least half a dozen photography stores, with windows bulging with the latest photographic equipment and all necessary amenities and services available inside. Big brand camera logos were festooned all over their awnings, and most were crawling with tourists seeking various services. I bought a 16 gigabyte SD card in one, and went to another to get the photographs from four other SD cards burned onto CDs or DVDs. I emerged two hours later with eight DVDs full of photographs for a total cost (parts and labour) of 800,000 dong – about AU$40. But then I couldn't check the DVDs in my hotel's computer, because its DVD drive wasn't working. Lesson learned: the hell with the weight factor.

Next time, I'm bringing my MacBook Pro for backup on the hard disk drive, on discs, and on an external storage device. At the very least, if I don't pack a Mac laptop, I should pack an external hard disk drive. Then I can download the photographs onto that with either a store or Internet café computer or the hotel one.
As soon as I can determine that the DVDs I have are readable and functioning, I can format the cards. I now have two 16 gigabyte cards, one 8 gigabyte card and one 4 gigabyte card that are full, and I need to use them again.

Tuesday

Downtime.

 A well-earned rest on hot afternoon.

An awful lot of sitting around. 

 

Street scenes

 Best Pho place in town?

 

 Meat stall

 Open all hours: fruit and vegetables at 10 pm

 

Life in full view.

 My hotel, the Cau Vong (Rainbow Hotel) is nestled in an alleyway, or lane, behind the main thoroughfare of Pham Ngu Lao on District 1, on which sits, also, a park, called 23-9 ( or so I'm told). There must be a long-form name for it, so I must find out what it is.  Ho Chi Minh City is full of such little alleyways that run parallel to bigger roads, and they are often crowded and sometimes picturesque little enclaves of hotels, private houses and other kinds of businesses. 

The Cau Vong is one of the most picturesque of these alleyways. It is a secluded microcosm that has two exits and entrances – one that goes under a "tunnel" formed by the upper floors of two buildings that front the Pham Ngu Lao and the other the end of the alleyway onto a side street that is a hive of local business and tourist activity. Here, as everywhere else in Vietnam, life is lived on the street, in the open. Work, trade and recreation are almost always carried on outdoors. My hosts sit on chairs on their front entrance, just as all other Vietnamese do. They talk, the relax, they watch life go by, they interact with family and neighbours, and they are always available to their guests or to potential new ones looking for a place to stay. People here can be as engaged or as disengaged as they wish, even though they live literally cheek by jowl. 

There is a lot of activity, but there is also an awful lot of just sitting around, in what seems like a time bubble – a personal, wrap-around time warp – in a city as manically energetic and outright frenetic as Ho Chi Minh City. People zone in and out at will. I envy them.

Monday

Tech talk

 My preferred devices for photography and connectivity on this trip are:

  1. iPad (64 gigabyte with wi-fi)
  2. iPhone 4 for communications and experimenting with photo apps and video
  3. Olympus EPL-1 digital camera with kit 14-42 mm zoom lens and electronic viewfinder
  4. Olympus EP-1 digital camera with kit 17 mm lens and optical viewfinder
  5. Spare batteries, chargers (one each for cameras and iDevices) four SD cards and iPad camera connector. 

This is a compact, lightweight kit, and the Olympus micro fourt thirds cameras are superb performers: any limitations are likely to be mine as a photographer – I tend to be impatient in setting menus and post processing – and not shortcomings in the equipment. 

 Fresh oranges for the morning's juice

 Power nap

Saigon sunset from my plane seat

 

 

View from my window, Rainbow Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City

 

 

A man and his dog, traffic stop, Ho Chi Minh City

 

 

Sunday

The blogger has landed

 A very long queue at Adelaide Airport preceded a smooth and well-serviced flight with Malaysian Airlines to  Lumpur, followed by a two-hour stopover and then the flight to Ho Chi Minh City. 

I got through passport control and immigration very quickly, while a large crowd of other people waited in long and slow moving queues for an entry visa: compulsory for entry into Vietnam. I had applied for my visa to the Vietnamese Embassy in Australia and my passport and visa check took all of two minutes. Apply for a visa in your country of origin and bypass the crowds at the airport upon arrival. 

It was already dark at 6:30 pm, something I found strange, given that in South Australia it's still quite light at 9 o'clock at this time of year. 

The cab ride from the airport to the hotel that my friend had booked for me was an amazing introduction to the chaotic traffic of Ho Chi Minh City. It's well known that motorcycles are the favored form of personal transport here, and this city of seven million people must have at least as many motorcycles and scooters.

 They move en masse, weaving rapidly in and out of lanes and other riders' way, never indicating their intended trajectory with indicator lights, beeping their horns incessantly (I am told this is a code about ceding or demanding right of way), and all while they are occupied by two or more people! I saw families of three and four people – mum, dad and one or two children – on small motorcycles of no more than 125cc capacity. Women who wore long dresses ride side-saddle on the pillion. What I could not fathom was where these passengers were seating: there certainly was no seating room built into these machines for any more than, at the most, two rather delicate and wispy bodies. The pictures that display this madness are coming as soon as I can snap them. 

On a short walk to acquaint myself with the immediate surroundings, I get touts trying to get me to hire a motorcycle, sell me cigarettes (no, I don't smoke) I get offers from street vendors for all manner of goods and trinkets and I get propositioned by hookers. It saddens me that all of the ones I saw plying their trade that night are so young: they look like children!

Right now I am catching my breath and quenching my thirst at my hotel. It's hot and a bit muggy, and I am well satisfied after a plate of pho at a local eatery. It's 10 o'clock at night, but the activity outside is as frenetic as ever. An American movie is playing on the TV on the wall behind the reception desk. I don't know what it's called, but I can see Robert Downey Jr. and Zac Gallifianakis filling the screen with their nodding, talking heads. 

A young woman from the family that owns the hotel shows some interest in my iPad as I type this, then gets into a conversation with two Asian men in very competent English, telling the younger of the two that she is also studying Spanish and a business course.

The hotel has wi-fi for guests. They saw me looking for a connection and immediately offered their network name, while the young woman types the password on the iPad to connect me. The iPad will remember the network from now on and I'll no longer have to type in settings to connect. 

Time to return to my room, cool down with a shower and get the cameras out for tomorrow. I need to find an adapter for my charger plugs. 

Friday

Teething problems.

When you're a tyro with blogs, you're bound to get it wrong. I just did. I've been sweating since I couldn't put up a post from my iPad – my preferred input device – to Parts Unknown. Then I remembered that I purchased the Blogsy app from the iTunes Store to do just that. 

So here it is. I wanted to use the iPad because I want to travel light. My MacBook Pro is a fantastic machine, but I wanted to experiment with a lightweight portable device not only because of its greater portability, but also because I enjoy the challenge of using new technology. 

The next step is to learn to upload photographs from the iPad to the blog. Blogsy has a simple way to do that, but one should never underestimate how a blogging tyro can muck it up without trying. 

In my next post, I'll write about the photographic and computing gear I'll be using on this trip to stay connected, update the blog, and manage my travel in Vietnam. 

By way of introduction.

It's the wee hours of a Saturday morning in South Australia, and I'm just starting on this blog. It was only created less then 10 minutes ago. I just realised that I'm taking off for Vietnam in 31 hours. I haven't even packed yet!

So how did I get here? I made a promise to a good friend and former colleague and boss, who has always insisted that I don't get out enough! He has retired to the tropical resort town of Nha Trang, on Vietnam's central coast, where he and his Vietnamese wife decided to build a hotel. (So much for retirement).

I left the South Australian Public Service in June 2011, after a career spanning 25 years and five departments – mostly in communications roles – and I'm spending part of my pay-out on this trip. (I still have to find another job to make my daily bread, but my needs are simpler now, thankfully). And since I haven't been overseas in 28 years...

I thought about starting a blog to share my experiences on this journey, and to engage in a form of writing that is radically different from that with which I had made my living previously. I am also a keen photographer, and I have long wanted to combine words and pictures.

Vietnam is an unknown part of the world for me: indeed, I am a stranger to Asia, although I have always been an admirer of the cultures and people of the continent. I am going to Vietnam with a fresh eye and an open mind.

I will be happy if you find something to like in this blog. I will post words and pictures as often as I can, and I will do my best to make them interesting.