Tag: travels

Vietnam pictures

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And the much-delayed pictures (the H still holds the pictures hostage on his computer. I filched a few that looked pretty).

The first two are of the Ngũ Hành Sơn (mountains of the Five Elements), better known in English as Marble Mountain: it’s a major Buddhist temple complex near Đà Nẵng (centre of Vietnam), which has a slew of pagodas and shrines on moutaintops, as well as temples carved within caves that are truly impressive. Easily my favourite place (though not very favoured by Western tourists; the crowd was mostly local) of the trip: serene and unearthly, and with fabulous views over the surrounding countryside. Easy to see why they built the temples here.

And this is the tomb of Khải Định, the second-to-last emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty: Huế is surrounded by the mausoleums of all the emperors–they’re all in very different styles, and this one is a striking fusion of Eastern and Western (see the octogonal pavillion vs the crosses that line the terraces). Inside, it looks a lot like a Vietnamese Versailles, with lots of ornate ceramics on the walls, and it has a golden likeness of the Emperor (the actual body is somewhere under the palace) and a shrine to honour his memory.

Khai Dinh tomb

That’s all from me–tommorrow it’s back to novel brainstorming and cooking 🙂

A few observations on VN, in no particular order (part 1)

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(broken down in several posts as this grew too long)

1. Food: oh my God, the food. I might be a tourist and more than a little lost in Vietnam, but the food is always like coming home (and it’s no coincidence that the one place I’m never lost in is restaurants). Plus, you always eat well at Grandma’s house (thanks to the combined efforts of Grandma, my maternal aunt, and my cousin). We also tested and patented the food crawl as we were travelling: this is a technique by which you get up at 6:00, have a cup of tea, eat a breakfast soup at 9:00, have lunch at 11:00, then have a boat ride on the Mekong and have a copious snack at 15:00, and proceed to dinner at 17:00 (all the while being pointed to food in various peremptory ways, and being told to eat in either French or Vietnamese). That’s discounting special events where you are well and properly stuffed, banquet-style (our stay intersected my great-grandmother’s death anniversary, and a two-year death anniversary for my great-uncle, which is basically when the period of mourning ends for the descendants); and it explains why we came back from Vietnam sated, but determined to undergo a diet of salads. [1]

2. Orientation: Grandma very sensibly wrote the address of the house on a bit of paper (well, OK. First she told me to repeat it out loud, then she grimaced and said she was going to give me a bit of paper… Remember what I said about my pronunciation sucking?), and that was what we gave taxis as we zoomed around Saigon. It puzzled them no end that two very obvious tourists (one White guy, and one vaguely Vietnamese-looking gal who obviously couldn’t speak very well) would ask to be dropped in what seemed to them the back end of nowhere. Mostly it was fine, but we did have one taxi driver who kept circling the house, looking for a hotel where we could be staying… (when this was explained to Grandma, she laughed very hard and said she was the cheap variety of hotel). In the end, I gave up the pronunciation game–it’s just too frustrating to argue with a cab while the meter is running–and copied down street names on a bit of paper. (I think the only two places that I said out loud that didn’t suffer from a pronunciation problem were the Bến Thành market, which is a touristy destination, and the word “crossroads”, but it was accompanied by a list of two street names, and a rather graphic gesture of a cross made with my hands).

3. Tourists vs. locals: the H and I spent a most profitable afternoon in Hội An [2] observing an ever-increasing flow of local tourists vs Westerners, and we’ve come to the conclusion that the one difference between the “locals” and the Westerners is–guess who’s wearing the T-shirts and shorts and getting sunburnt? (getting dark skin is considered a bad thing in Vietnam, so a lot of people dress with long-sleeved shirts, trousers, and sometimes even gloves and facemasks. And I shudder for the poor kids decked out in thick winter clothes, because it’s colder in the Centre, but most certainly not *that* cold).


[1] I didn’t escape the ritual bout of food poisoning in Hội An–two days out, and I basically couldn’t keep anything down. Thankfully it didn’t last long, because it was a bit stressful to be rushing about in a temple complex trying to explain with gestures that I was going to be sick and needed to get away from the sanctuaries before it got messy. Also, explaining in a restaurant that I was sick and needed cháo (rice porridge) was worth a laugh or two (I mangled the pronunciation completely, but enough of it got across that I basically got a custom dish made up for me).
[2] Incidentally, if anyone knows of a festival that happens to fall on Feb 8th/the 17th day of the First Lunar Month, we’d be interested. We were mildly curious at the queue of pilgrims outside the Quan Vũ/Guan Yu temple in Hội An, and we couldn’t figure out why they’d be there (I know Guan Yu’s death anniversary is on the 13th day of the First Lunar month or something, but the date doesn’t coincide).

Progress, and travel plans

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Hue Imperial City

So… My understanding of written Vietnamese is definitely improving (in the new lesson, I understood what they were saying to each other with just a few well-placed explanations from Mom); my pronunciation still kind of sucks. Let’s not speak of my spelling, which has got Mom going into fits semi-regularly. She’ll say a word, and I’ll write it down, and know that I got it wrong. The “this pronunciation translates to this accent” isn’t happening so well right now, whereas the “this accent translates into this pronunciation” is a little bit better ingrained. I can repeat fairly accurately; I can’t really manage unprompted unless it’s very simple things (“hello”, “thank you”, “please give me a bowl of phở” *g*). Not surprising: I’ve always been more visual than auditive (yup, writer. Why do you ask?) As I was saying to Mom, the main thing where I’ve improved is that I’m reasonably sure that I can read and understand a Vietnamese menu with close to no help (barring the odd unknown vegetable, though Vietnamese is very kind by providing classifiers: “rau” for herbs, “cây” for leafy things, “trái” for fruit, “củ” for tubers…). I *might* possibly be able to order, if I steel myself not to follow the path of least resistance and speak English.

Why does this matter, you ask? Weeelll… The first two weeks of February, the H and I will be traipsing through Vietnam. Specifically, through Huể (high time I visited the imperial capital, or what’s left of it), Hội An, Sài Gòn, and the South around Sài Gòn (yes, I know it’s HCMV now. Never quite got used to it). I’m down to two people warning me the accents of the Centre are horrible–that I should be more than adequately equipped to handle Southerners, might possibly manage to understand Northerners, but that the Centre is a law onto itself. Given that I can barely make myself understood by Southerners, I can’t help but think that the Huể/Hội An section of the trip is going to be so much fun… (Sài Gòn will be better, both because, hey, Southerners, and also because Grandma/the uncles will be around)

Three more lessons to go before we leave. Ouch.

San Francisco se lève

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(“San Francisco arises”. Famous French song 🙂 )

Having now safely arrived in San Francisco (I may not have been clear in my previous post, but we were delayed by 4 hours–we didn’t remain stuck in Chicago), we now set about to a. sightseeing, and b. eating out with friends.

(ok, there was c. awesome reading at Borderlands, thanks to Jude Feldman, Naamen Tilahun and the rest of the staff–and everyone who showed up to listen to me blather on about the Aztecs. Now I’m all set for the Worldcon reading 🙂 )

Thoughts on a.: wow, that is a hilly city. We have a map, but as Nick Mamatas pointed out, what we really need is a gradient map. We walked from Chinatown to Pacific Heights over a bunch of hills, and were mostly ready to collapse by the time evening came around.
Oh, and I’m in love with Chinatown. Definitely more Chinese than Vietnamese (unlike in Paris where the reverse holds true–we call it “Chinese district”, but there’s very little Chinese about it). I love the herborist shops and the teahouses (must snag a tea before I leave), and the crafts shops (lots of touristy stuff, but there’s some really pretty things. Friend and I got a bunch of paintings–mine’s of mountains lit by the setting sun, lost in a sea of clouds with a solitary little house on the peaks). And the food… mmmmm…
Thoughts on b: had drinks and/or food with Mike, Nick Mamatas, Kate Kligman, Jason S. Ridler, Erin Hoffman, Katherine Sparrow, Dario Ciriello and Keyan Bowes (hope I haven’t forgotten anyone…). The Chinese restaurant in particular (Chef Jia’s) had amazing food (mmm, vegetable potstickers), though we managed to eat three meals with it (the original meal, plus the leftovers over two other meals…). And the company was great, though we were a little frazzled by so much sightseeing. Have learnt useful things RE US food: “hot” is not hot at all on my scale, and “sweet” is definitely over the top for me.

To come: more sightseeing, and more food 🙂

And in shameless self-promotion items of the day, I forgot to post that if you’re in the UK, you can get the Kindle edition of Servant of the Underworld for £0.99, less than the price of a coffee. Offer’s good until the end of the summer if I recall correctly–so if you’ve always wanted to try out the book….

And a small (belated) reminder…

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… that I’ll be in London’s Forbidden Planet tomorrow at 6pm, signing copies of Servant of the Underworld. John Meaney/Thomas Blackthorne will also be there, signing copies of his latest Angry Robot offering, Edge.

Details here (including how you can win a replica Aztec Sun Stone, and a Tuckerisation in the next Thomas Blackthorne novel).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pack :=)

Cultural dissonances

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A brief summary of the Vietnam trip (in terms of what struck me–mostly very shallow. The mindset stuff is going to take more time to process):

-Traffic: definitely… different. Circulation is mostly made up of scooters (those cost twenty times less than a car, and consume less fuel), since public transport isn’t very developped or reliable. The scooters are very much family transports, with two adults and a bunch of children on them (I was told you could pile up more people than two adults and two children, but have not personally seen it). It’s also illuminating to see how they manage to fit stuff onto the back or front of a scooter: what would take the trunk of a car is carefully balanced on the back of the scooters and tied into place. I saw several contraptions, some of them making me wonder what would happen if they stopped a little too abruptly. The record holder is a small scooter near the Cham ruins of Mỹ Sơn, which had one driver and one passenger; and the passenger was holding a glass panel four or five times as large as the scooter, with no protection whatsoever… (though even our driver agreed that was stupid)
The key rule of circulation seemed to be “don’t stop, whatever happens”. This makes life as a pedestrian fairly challenging: the key is to cross the street very slowly, and not attempt to run–because the scooters will see you way ahead of time and work out their way around you. It does take a fair amount of trust if you’re on a big street (like, say, near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi) and see this wall of scooters coming towards you… As far as I could tell, there are few other rules–at any rate, I saw manoeuvres that would have given fits to a Western policeman, especially in Hanoi.

-Rhythm of life: people get a really early start over there (as in most hot countries, I guess). In the immortal (and rather traumatising words) of my grandmother when I arrived at her place in Saigon: “we can afford to have a late start tomorrow morning–I think 6am should be good”.
Hotels served breakfast from 6am onwards (and having tested it, you have more than a few lonely tourists taking breakfast at this early hour), and you have people out on the streets going to work, exercising, etc. at what we Westerners think of ungodly hours. We took a cab at 5:00am in the morning, and everything was already open. The counterpart of this is that the Vietnamese go to bed fairly early, around 9:00pm or so. I’ve tested it, and you definitely get up at 4:00am-5:00am with no problem if you do this.

-Food: it was both very much familiar, since I’ve been consuming Vietnamese food since my childhood–and different, partly because we definitely don’t have the right ingredients in Paris. One thing I hadn’t twigged on was the notion of breakfast: a lot of people start the day with a soup or some other salty food, nothing like cereal or bread (my grandma’s an exception, but she’s lived in France for a while). Most hotels offered phở (typical soup with rice noodles and beef or chicken) or some variation, in addition to more Western fare (one even had sushi, which I tried just for the heck of it). I found that I actually enjoyed having the soup in the morning, which was pleasantly warm and not-too-heavy food. Plus, I love phở, which helps.
Meals consist of giving you a small bowl on a plate, a spoon, a pair of chopsticks and a very small dish with salt/nuoc mam/lime. You then pick and choose among the five dishes on the table (my mother explained it to me but I forgot. I think there’s one salty one, one of rice, one of vegetables, and two I can’t possibly figure out…), put the condiments in, and eat everything in your own bowl.
I became acquainted or re-acquainted with a great variety of fruit, and I confirm that I still can’t touch a durian with a ten-foot pole. (Durian is a smelly fruit that is banned on public transport in several South East Asian countries, with a pretty strong taste. I’m told it’s like custard, and I suspect you need to be born in Vietnam to actually enjoy it. The closest thing to it I ate was jackfruit, which is already pretty near my discomfort zone).

-Guidebooks: we had the Lonely Planet, which was OK except for the non-existing restaurants it indicated (places close pretty fast). We also had a French guide, the sole virtue of which was entertainment value. I read the section on Vietnamese culture and had a good laugh (better to laugh than to cry). Samples included “the Tet is also called Vietnamese New Year, and in China Chinese New Year”, which is a waste of paper and inaccurate (weirdly enough, the Vietnamese don’t go around saying “let’s celebrate Vietnamese New Year”…)–and “the most common fruits are the apple, the orange and the pineapple. Exotic fruit such as rambutans, dragon fruit and mangoes are also available but more expensive.” (I’d be curious to know where in the blazes they found oranges and apples, because I seldom saw any, except in the north. Also, their “exotic” fruit happen to be very much native to the area, and no way they’re more expensive than apples…). Needless to say, this all made me very suspicious of anything else the guide had to say…

-Most surreal moment of the trip: hard to pick, but I’d say sharing a flight with a big group of monks. For starters, they came to the airport on scooters, which is a fairly incongruous image. And it’s very, very weird and very much an eye-opener to see that not only don’t they have suitcases, but they also have no cabin luggage whatsoever–their possessions were the equivalent of a small handbag, and that was it. Does make one think…

Your semi-daily Vietnam pictures

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Po Na Gar Temple, Nha Trang

Street of Hoi An

(My camera died halfway through Hoi An–luckily I have my sister’s for the rest of the trip. Also, we’re definitely entering the Internet black hole from this stage on, as neither my grandma nor the friend we’re staying at while in the Mekong Delta will have any Internet connection)