Friday, January 31, 2014

May Art Gallery- Worth a Look in Sapa, Vietnam

Vu Thang artist in Sapa, Vietnam

Exploring Sapa, I come across May Art Gallery. While I am definitely no art critic, curiousity draws me in and am immediately blown away by the work of the resident artist, Vu Thang, who I am told is quite famous in Vietnam and has had his work exhibited several times in Europe.

Given the fact that Internet is new in this mountain town, and he’s had little exposure to the outside world, I take it that some art critics/ experts, were also drawn to his works.
Vu Thang artist- amazing work

I look at every single painting in the gallery, most of which were created by Vu, though there are some which painted by his friends. I really like them, I leave to get something to eat, but am unable to get the images out of my mind. I walk back in, gazing upon art I wish I had the talent to create.
Vu Thang artist (photo poorly framed by me)

Vu Thang, artist, May Art Gallery in Sapa, Vietnam
I enjoy getting local pieces to decorate my place and supporting the artisans, so eventually, rather than just stare at them, I choose a small piece and purchase it from Vu’s wife who runs the gallery while he creates more work.

May art gallery, by Vu Thang 

Putting my money where my mouth is- here is the painting I purchased

If you’re in Sapa, I highly recommend dropping by. Hopefully you’ll find the art as appealing as I do.
May Art Gallery in Sapa, Vietnam. 

You can contact them at mayartgallery at (I have to space it out so spiders don't pick up and spam them if you have any questions. When they get their website back up and running I will include that as well.)  

Trekking to a Black Hmong Village through the Mountains

I walk with my Black Hmong guides who have offered to take me to their village. The word “Black” is self-referential as this is the traditional color of their clothing. We stop on the edge of town at a small restaurant, pho is the order.
While I don’t think Vietnamese fare compares taste-wise with Thai or Indian (I find it bland) the diet here is exceedingly healthy, consisting of rice, vegetables, pork, chicken, and some fish, all of it fresh and local. Vietnam has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world standing at 1.7% as of 2008, and that figure falls precipitously in these distant elevations.
My Hmong guide near her village

No Write, No Read
The bit of English my guides know they’ve pieced together from verbal interactions with tourists over the years. In fact, the Hmong tribes have never had a written language of any kind, and last year with the government bringing schools into the region, the current generation of Hmong children will be the first ever to learn to read or write.

Snow the destroyer
We leave town and start trekking up a steep mountain path. I've chosen the worst possible time to visit. Only one week earlier, snow fell in the area for the first time twenty years. While no doubt the children were immensely excited, the trees, not so much.
Many of them lie bowed to the ground, unable to cope with the subfreezing temperatures and snow that recently adorned their branches. Vegetation has perished, unused to such conditions. 
Our path is steep and rocky, but by no means are we climbing K2 in the Himalayas. My guides tell me that the trail is regarded as too tough to traverse by the local tour companies, who prefer the main road on the opposite side of the mountain.
here's what I see winter trekking around Sapa

Hours later, on our descent, I see steps carved into the mountain where in the summer, yellow and green rice stalks spring, adding color and depth to the area. Unfortunately, today there is nothing there but stagnant, muddy, freezing water in their place. Undoubtedly visiting here in the summer would offer more of a visual spectacle.
In this vid, you'll see the rice fields, currently with stagnant water, and a view of a small village nearby

We pass two villages whose pigs, chicken, and ducks are given free reign. There are no predators left in the area to snatch them away, and these creatures won’t run far from the structures which provide them food and shelter.

Local limestone cliff being excavated for profit
A water buffalo walks by, grunting. I nod at him as he passes. They are used as beasts of burden, helping to plow the fields as they have for thousands of years. Not every family owns one, as it’s an expensive investment of about $1,500 (a year’s salary for some.) Each family works for itself and keeping what it earns, with no mandate to share with their fellow villagers. Vegetables and fruits grown are sold at the Sapa marketplace and their trinkets and clothing are marketed aggressively to any tourist in town.

The path eventually connects with the main road and I see people on motorbikes carrying roofing materials for a new house. Obviously the amount of material a couple of individuals can carry on these roads via bike is a fraction of the total needed, thus making building a house here both labor intensive and inefficient as compared with the machinery and infrastructure available to builders in the west.

Cash crop + spending
Eventually we reach the village of my guides. We’ve walked almost five hours to traverse these ten miles, I sit down with a French couple who smoke the local marijuana they’ve purchased (cash crop). They offer me some, I decline as always. They tell me it works, but it’s not very potent.
I ask my guides whether the government ever makes problems for them over the mari-j. “No, the government doesn’t care what we do here, we never see any government officials.”
I ask what they do with the money they work so hard for. Well, believe it or not one of their biggest expenses is fertilizer, as she points to the bags stacked in the corner. They also use left-over funds for things like building materials/repairs, and Western clothing.
Video: Cute kids, village, and copious amounts of marijuana

Change afoot

A year and a half ago electricity arrived, and soon after cellular access. My guides boast of the advantages, telling me that when there would be a big event such as a wedding they used to have to walk miles to neighboring villages to invite their friends. Today, they are just a click of the button away. Combine that with the new schools, and it’s safe to say this distant region of the world, is slowly but surely being homogenized. One day, maybe 20 years from now, it won't likely be terribly different than any other location on earth. 
Travel will be very different for my children. 

Black Hmong children at play

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cold Spell and Black Hmong in Sapa, Vietnam

Nine hours on a sparse, overnight government train with little more than a hard bunk and a blanket brings me to Lao Chai, a mountainous region in Northwest Vietnam, close to the Chinese border.
Twenty years ago this area was completely shut off from the rest of the world, tribes living in villages almost exactly as they had for the last several centuries.
As Vietnam opened itself up, trade made it possible to bring in new technologies and materials, slowly transforming this distant region. While many might decry this as “globalization” and bemoan the annihilation of these “beautiful cultures” I disagree. Having seen how impoverished peoples live all over the world, it’s my belief cellular access, internet, and electricity improve life quality, and believe me when I say, they are all individually grateful to have this modern magic. Those groaning about it, what are you hoping for, a quaint cultural zoo?
Certainly the entrepreneurs and those employed to transport us have the possibility of making a living that doesn’t consist solely of subsistence farming.
We traverse a windy, mountain road for the next 40 minutes, climbing to an elevation of 5,000 feet. Feeling nauseous from the sharp curves, I’m grateful to reach our destination, the mountain town of Sapa.
Sapa market
The temperature hovers near freezing, making it the low, low, low season for tourism. I get out and walk to the nearest hotel. My room runs $8, and I'm the only patron in this 3 story structure.
The business is family owned, and the 40 year old wife is clearly the drive behind it. In addition to lodgings they’ll help you book activities, rent you a motorbike, or sell you clothing which I am in dire need of, considering I am actually sick for the first time in three years, and freezing to death. I quickly choose a thick sweatshirt, which, demonstrating extraordinarily poor negotiation skills, I’m already wearing in an effort to stay alive before we’ve agreed upon price.
I inquire about a guided trek through the mountains, which she informs have already departed for the day, then offers to rent me a motorbike so I can investigate the Sapa area on my own. If I want, she says she will go get gas, which will run me an extra three bucks. She hands me a riding helmet which I try on, then tell her I need to go get something to eat, as nothing but water has crossed my lips in the last 14 hours. I’ll return.
Local villagers selling their wares (largely to tourists)- in central Sapa. The blue colors are derived from the indigo plant
The Black Hmong
I venture off and investigate the market, already open and selling fresh local fare. I purchase some almonds which I eagerly wolf down, and am quickly surrounded by ladies of the Black Hmong tribe trying to sell me their wares, little billfolds and bags they’ve colored with indigo and other naturally occurring dyes from local plants.
The local market- dress warm in winter
I really don’t need any of this stuff, nor does anyone I know, and the craftsmanship doesn’t absolutely wow me, so I opt not to buy. One woman in particular is very persistent and hounds me wherever I walk. I duck into a coffee shop, and she’s waiting for me when I re-emerge. She actually gets mad at me when I still don’t purchase from her.
Now, Ms. Persistent is up fed up enough to leave, while those remaining change tactics and offer to take me to their village, 16km (10 miles) away, which is exactly what I wanted to do when I first arrived. I immediately agree at their offer of $10 to guide me there.

Me with the Black Hmong women of Northern Vietnam in Sapa. You'll note I look like a giant next to them. People of Vietnam are far shorter than elsewhere in the world. 

Deal Gone Awry
Now at that moment, I see the owner of the hotel, the same woman I had been dealing with. I get her attention, and politely tell her I won't be needing the motorbike and hand her the helmet she had given me. She starts yelling at me in a combination of Vietnamese and English, refusing to take back the helmet, saying I am breaking our agreement .
I’m shocked by her reaction as she walks up the hill shaking in anger. I excuse myself from my guides to go speak with her.
“You agree to rent motorbike, you owe me $8. Five for bike and three for gas. You want to go with Hmong ladies, you still owe me.”
“I never said definitively I want the bike, besides I can change my mind even so.”
“I go get gas, that cost me $3. Bike has gas in it. You not fair person. You owe me.”
“The gas is there in the bike, I didn’t use it. You can sell it to someone else.”
“You owe me, we family business. You no go Hmong lady.”
“You’re yelling at me, you’re calling a liar and unfair. Do you think that’s going to make me want to rent from you. I have a room here, I bought this sweatshirt from you, you’re yelling at me.”
“I went buy gas.”
I consider her position and take a breath. 
“Okay, I’m a fair person. I tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to give you $3 for the gas, I’m not going to pay you for a bike I’m not going to use. Okay?”
I pull out $3, she simmers down. I’m not a fan of the way she’s behaving, but I think this is more than fair. She’s getting $3 for gas she’ll resell, and that’s a day’s labor here for some in this country. I’d rather err on the side that I got slightly the worse end of the stick then someone going away with the feeling that I screwed them, especially for such a small amount. 
“So, I’m fair person?” I say, only quarter questioning, driving home the point so she might end any thoughts of ill-will towards me.
“Yes, but you don’t do that. You don’t hand me helmet in street and say you don’t need. You come up and talk me private.”
Huh. So maybe the whole reason she reacted that way is because she felt disrespected, that she lost face? I play back the scene in my head, and don’t see that I behaved disrespectfully at all, but nevertheless, that’s how she felt.
I walk back down the hill, thinking to myself that I doubt people would have reacted so elsewhere in SE Asia. The incident leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I find my Hmong guides, and start walking out of town. 

This should give you a general idea of what Sapa looks like as I walk with my Hmong guides

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sharks, Pollution, and Communists in Hanoi

The watch tower 

Dodging Sharks
Traffic congestion in Hanoi pales when compared with Bangkok, yet it's generally easier to traverse BKK as fairly decent public transport (the BTS Sky Train or the metro) is available. The only public transport in Hanoi is the bus, which packs people in like sardines, and due to lack of maneuverability, takes longer reach a destination than the ubiquitous motorbike.
Hanoi has a population of 7 million people and 3 million motorbikes line the roads. And when I say “line the roads,” I mean that literally. In many areas of Hanoi, especially the old quarter, a domino like set-up of motorbikes takes up the entire sidewalk, forcing pedestrians into the street, like a sandy beach lined with impassable boulders forcing you to wade into shark infested water.
The sharks circle around you, viewing you as an added impediment to their forward progress, but you’re the one who has to be mindful, because if one slams into the pedestrian, it’s game over for you.
*HONK* Feel the whoosh of air as a bike whizzes by from behind, traveling on the wrong side of the road, missing you by inches, as the dissonant sound of the horn reverberates in your ear. With every near miss, your body releases the fight or flight hormones of adrenaline and cortisol into your system. By the fifth time you see your life flash before your eyes, your nervous system has simply been overloaded like a computer about to crash.
check out the traffic and the sidewalks filled with bikes

The Noise
Duck immediately into a restaurant. Even after the owner graciously closes the door per your request, the loud sounds of horns and motorbikes accelerating with the baffles off, penetrates, grinding on you. It's unavoidable, never ending. 

Throughout Asia you’ll witness many people walking around wearing surgical masks, even wearing them in office buildings. I always thought it was overkill, wondering how much protection it truly offered, but if I had stayed any longer in Hanoi, I might have adopted this practice myself.
With an endless stream of motorbikes and outdated automobiles rolling by, kicking up dirt, most void of the most basic pollution controls, you can feel your lungs aging as they try to expel the foreign particles you continually suck in. Might as well fall asleep in the smokers lounge at the airport.

What to See
The most interesting thing I saw in Hanoi was a statue of Vladamir Lenin in the park. While Vietnam is still technically under a Communist regime, like everywhere else, capitalism has won out in practice. To me, gazing upon Lenin here is like bearing witness to a statue of Jim Jones still standing in Jonestown; a reminder of Kool-Aid the population was forced to drink.
Vladamir Lenin in Hanoi

Museum of Culture/ Entomology 
Half the museum was devoted to teaching Vietnamese history, and allowing a visual glimpse into the culture of its tribes, some of which are still out there largely living as they have for hundreds of years. The other half was a devoted to a safe sex exhibited for Vietnamese youth. I found it bewildering.
Half the Museum of Culture is devoted to artifacts like this

the other half- a safe-sex exhibit
I was promised that I would be witness to some beautiful French colonial architecture. While I never expect Prague or Barcelona in SE Asia, not a single building here captured my attention. As in many poor regions of the world, most of the structures are in need of upkeep, and are in state of rapid deterioration. 
The yard of the Temple of Literature
Friendly Communists?
It’s not that the people in Hanoi are unfriendly, I simply found them less warm and welcoming than other areas of SE Asia, such as Laos and Myanmar. In all honesty I theorize that this is partly a function of Communistic bureaucracy, as, once in office, peoples’ individual rights like freedom of speech are stripped away for the “greater good;” the true purpose of this action being to insure those in power stay there. 
The population rapidly learn to be careful of what escapes their mouths/ opening up to strangers. Eventually it becomes part of the culture. Additionally, there isn't a Communist regime who didn't impoverish their people, that's a deep hole to dig out from under. The closer you are to the epi-center (Moscow, Beijing, etc.) the greater the affect. Hanoi, post-Vietnam War, was the country's capital. 
You can feel a slight hardness, an edge amongst the population if that makes an sense.
And by the way, to those of you rolling your eyes, by no means does this apply to everyone. I met some very gracious and friendly people as well. There just isn't the same openness as I've experienced throughout the majority of SE Asia.

It’s rare I say skip a place, but I’m afraid that’s my verdict for Hanoi. There’s little to see, and walking the streets is positively draining. Save your adrenal glands, and go elsewhere in Vietnam. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who Wants to be a Millionaire- Slot Machine U in Vietnam

“A dollar isn’t worth as much as it used to.” We hear such axioms from our elders daily, but not a single soul amongst them has visited Vietnam.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
The rate for Vietnamese Dong to the US Dollar stands at 21,000 to 1. Exchange a $50 bill and you’re an instant millionaire. The maximum allowable withdrawal from the airport ATM is 2 million dong- a total less than $100. Feel like Bill Gates holding a hefty stack of 500,000 dong bills, spend like it too.
500,000 dong (about $25)
Shop selling birds
Vietnam is one of the most affordable countries on earth. A decent hotel room might run you $10, a full meal at a nice restaurant would start getting expensive at $5. Go into any eatery in Hanoi and you can consume a healthy bowl of chicken pho for $2, $2.50 if you want to live large.
An hour and a half taxi through heavy traffic to or from the airport is $17, what would that meter be in New York City? A shared van will take you that distance for $5, and all prices are subject to negotiation.
You can pretty easily survive as a local on a couple hundred dollars a month. 
Hanoi monument
Long Hours- Hard Work
Bank employees are thought to have cream jobs, as in addition to the high pay of $10 a day, they also have relative job security. 
The best paying jobs though are governmental. The police chief of Hanoi gets a salary of $1,000 a month, formidable for Vietnam, and with that affords to drive around a brand new Rolls Royce. Service to the people no doubt. 

The Scales of Justice
I leave my hotel at 9 AM to go out and explore Hanoi. I'm approached by a woman in her 40’s carrying two heavy baskets of goods on opposite ends of a long stick, balanced over her shoulder like the scales of justice, a mask covering her mouth protects her lungs from the soot and pollution kicked up by the motorbikes which she's dodging every moment as she walks the streets of the old quarter searching for customers.
“You buy, you buy,” she insists, holding out various trinkets one after another trying to garner my interest in her meager possessions; her English is poor, she communicates solely via her determination.
The problem is I run into the same situation over and over. It’s difficult to pick and choose, as everyone wants your attention and resources. You’re like the rare bee in the desert with ability to pollinate their flower, without you, they wilt.
“No buy, no buy,” I communicate as she furiously presents me with more of her flowers. I feel a touch sad as I walk away.
Explore the city, arrive back in the old quarter 10 hours later. There she is, on a different block, looking for bees, any bee. Now I’m ready to sample her pollen, such effort is to be recognized and rewarded.

(I videotaped two women, but the one I purchased from was the same I saw in the morning)

Playing the Slots
But many vendors don’t recognize you as a bee with whom to cultivate a symbiotic relationship. Most take the viewpoint that they’re unlikely to ever see you again (a reasonable assumption) so they’re better off playing you like a slot machine in hopes of a huge payoff.
A man on a motorcycle pulls next to me and offers to give a guided two hour tour of Hanoi. He speaks better English than anyone I have met on the street so far in this capital city, so I inquire how much.
“700,000 dong,” he replies. ($35) As stated above, he’s asking for 15 times the hourly wage of a banker. The slot machine does the computations, laughs and walks away. He’s vastly miscalculated the odds.
Okay, “500,000 dong,” he offers hopefully.
“Seriously?” I state, a one word response.
“300,” he pleads.
“No thanks,” I reply.
“Okay, you tell me how much,” his motorbike idling beside me.
“You tried to rip me off, we can’t do business,” I explain.
The funny thing is, if he started out at 250, I might have said yes. Now I won’t even consider it. In business, if you treat someone as a chump, or unfairly, you can expect this reaction. Greedy gamblers rarely win. 
Ancient tablet says- "don't gamble."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Exploring Hanoi, Vietnam on Christmas Eve

I land at the diminutive airport in Vietnam’s capital city. An hour forty-five minutes through heavy traffic takes me to the center of Hanoi's old quarter. Disembark from my shared van. Having negotiated a $4 rate per person, the driver takes $5 from me and refuses to make change, communicating via feeble English an even more feeble excuse. I offer it up as a tip. 
The lake in Hanoi, lit-up for Christmas Eve
I start walking, my luggage weighing me down, trying to locate my hotel several blocks away. I pass by elderly men in green army uniforms, likely former soldiers of the Vietcong. Two of them sit in cheap plastic chairs, the others on the dirty sidewalk, the dizzying whir of motorbikes grinding by. They sip coffee and draw on cigarettes in what is likely a daily ritual. I ask permission to take their photo, one smiles in assent while another wags his finger “No,” shaking his head hard for emphasis. I open my palms in surrender and walk away.

The college aged hotel clerks are gracious and happy to have me, offering me some pastries to celebrate Christmas Eve as they check me in. I consider it a nice touch, especially considering I’ve unwittingly paid five times the going rate via the internet to insure hassle free lodgings. You can easily show-up just about anywhere in Vietnam and secure a room for $8-10 a night.

Back outside, the sidewalks are occupied by a domino like set-up of motorbikes, forcing me to walk in the middle of the street as their brethren fly around me blaring their horns. It’s loud and highly unsettling.
I duck in a restaurant. Ancient moldy paint peels off the stark and disheveled walls that could use some tender loving care. Electrical fans, the establishment's only decorative touch, lie silently, awaiting use. It’s chilly tonight and patrons here are dressed warmly. I order some form of a chicken and vegetable roll; that and a side of complimentary bean sprouts costs $1.20. I suppose nothing in life is free.
A small restaurant, just off the street in Hanoi

I consume my bland meal and head for the lake, where the locals celebrate, consuming sweets, fruit, and corn being cooked over small open charcoal fed grills. I buy some mango for dessert, the sweetness of the fruit drowned by the hot red pepper sprinkled upon it.
By the lake on Christmas Eve in Hanoi

Food stand by the lake in Hanoi
I get a few askance looks and smiles. While there are tourists in the country, I seem to be the only one who is circling the lake this Christmas Eve. 
Observing the commotion, I realize that my stature just south of 6’ would make me Vietnam’s most dominant basketball player and their starting Olympic center. Not a soul here measures even 5’ 7” .

I find interacting with the locals difficult, as very few speak English well enough for me to have any form of conversation, but even with that said, I don't feel the same initial warmth as I have in Myanmar or Laos. Maybe it’s just the chill in the air. 

I stop at a café. It’s not Starbucks in presentation, not even close, just a run-down dwelling serving a dual purpose as a place of business. A cup of Vietnamese coffee costs just north of a dollar, and takes a couple minutes to prepare. I sip it, trying to ignore the blaring horns outside. The coffee is thick, black, and sweetened with condensed milk. I smack my lips and remark, "Tasty." I’m surprised no one prepares coffee like this in the States. There's definitely a market for it. 

I gaze around the ramshackle building and leave 5000 dong as a tip, nod in thanks, and walk away. The voice of the elderly woman calling after me informs me in Vietnamese I have left my change. “No, no, no, for you. Thank you for the coffee.” I smile and head back to my hotel.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Vietnamese Visa Snaffu

Thursday afternoon, Bangkok

Protests of the government growing--

Maybe leaving the BKK isn’t such a bad idea. Head to the Vietnamese embassy. I hand over paperwork, a wallet sized photo of myself, my treasured passport, and an exorbitant fee of nearly a $100 for next day service.
Poorly spoken English from the guy helping me. “Come back, tomorrow (Friday) 4:30,” the man states as he makes a note of it on my receipt.
“Tomorrow 4:30?”
“4:30 tomorrow,” he verifies.

I walk from the counter and look at my receipt. Crossed out is 4 PM as the time the passport will be ready, and in its place is hand written the 4:30 PM time. I know enough about government efficiency not to arrive beforehand.

Restaurant with WIFI, sitting on my computer, looking at flights to Vietnam. I should wait til I have my passport, I think to myself. I close my computer and concentrate on my tasty meal.

Friday, 4:30 PM
I walk down Ploen Chit Rd back to the embassy. Gazing up at the barbed wire protecting its high walls, I push the door open; or rather try to. It doesn’t budge. Stuck? I apply more force, to no avail. Time to look at the sign. My eyes linger, the embassy closes at 4:30!
So I paid for extra for one day service, and my passport isn’t going to be ready until the moment the embassy closes for the weekend. Fuck. I look around in frustration and see another man staring blankly at the wall.
“You too?” I inquire knowingly.
He turns towards me, “The guy told me 4:30,” he responds.
We shake our heads. A third person approaches, we say nothing, watching her baffled face read the same sign we did, as it slowly dons on her what happened.

Suddenly I’m glad I listened to my instinct not to book a flight. Unfortunately, as I hadn’t planned to spend beyond Saturday morning in Bangkok, I hadn’t booked any lodging for the weekend either, and with Monday the earliest possibility of getting back my passport, I’m in a bit of trouble; as a foreigner you need your passport to check into any hotel or hostel.
I race to find internet access and discover my hotel is filled for the weekend. Scratch going to the gym.
Hurry back. “I’d like to extend my stay until Monday,” I tell the clerk at the desk as non-chalantly as possible, as if I have much choice considering they’re the only ones who don’t need my passport as they’ve already checked it.

I’m in luck, they have one room left. “But we took hotel off Agoda (internet reservation service) so we can sell last room at higher price.” I’m forced to agree to their terms. Gouged, my wallet lighter, I hobble back to my room. 
I hope Vietnam is worth it.