Tuesday, June 27, 2006

4th of July Musings: Patriotism abroad

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country"
-John F. Kennedy

This is not one of my posts that will be interesting for its pictorial content. For those of you who have come to understand this space as being one of great visual beauty, perhaps it would be best if you returned in a few days when my efforts will be realigned around events that have actually happened in the real world, as opposed to merely being thoughts that I have...well...thought.

To travel abroad is to put yourself into situations in which, regardless of how you see it, you represent your country. This carries with it an awesome responsibility, one that most people either ignore, squander, or both. Each time that you meet someone from somewhere new, that person forms an impression of you that is intrinsically linked to where you are from. They don't know that since you are from a particular region, or that you grew up poor or rich or black or white or green or yellow or blue or Jewish or Catholic or Hindu or Jain or anything else that could have influenced you in your developing years, that you may not be a representative of where you are from as a whole. They simply see you as "that American/Aussie/Brit/South African/Indian that I met." And they are going to remember it.

As such, the label most frequently applied to me lately has been "American." This carries with it a great number of meanings. It can mean that you like Rock 'n' Roll and cheeseburgers and Coca-Cola. It can mean that you own a gun and carry it with you all of the time. It can mean that you support a government that is doing things that many people disagree with. Or absolutely none of these representations could speak for you. Unfortunately, as I've been roaming, more often than not, the above assumptions, coupled with any number of others, have made up the bulk of people's first impressions of me.

It is continually amazing to me how entitled people from other countries feel to tell me what they hate about my country, how it is being run poorly or what is wrong. Simply by learning that I am American, I find myself drawn into massively one-sided conversations regarding everything that the lecturee knows, knows to be inherently wrong with where I am from. Setting off on my travels, I knew from previous travel experience that I would encounter people such as these. Concurrently, I also knew that with each person that I met, I would have to make a choice: defend my place of origin, or agree with the antagonist that yes, perhaps some things about my country were imperfect. In the interest of peace and tranquility in any number of situations, I often chose to quietly listen to what a person felt the overwhelming (if not unsolicited) need to tell me about my country, and as often as not, I would let the comments go. Having gone through this exercise enough times that I wanted to scream, I began to wonder if I was in some small way, betraying my country. If I was being "unpatriotic."

So what is it to be a patriot? Webster's dictionary says:

A patriot is one who loves, supports, and defends ones country.

The writer George William Curtis said:

"A mans country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle and patriotism is loyalty to that principle."

If you look through the tomes of literature dating back to the first organized governments, you will find more writing than you could possibly care to read about what is or is not patriotic. As often as not, the writing criticizes those who act patriotically. Goethe said "Patriotism ruins history."

So what to do when confronted on the issue of my country? Do I believe in "my country, right or wrong"? Of course not. Anyone who knows me is aware of my staunch opposition to any number of decisions which our government makes. In this, I believe that I am in good company...

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it."
-Edward R. Murrow

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the President , or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American public."

-Theodore Roosevelt

But do I dare agree with everyone, all those who would vilify America, people who as often as not have never been to the States, and will readily admit that I am one of the only people from there that they have ever met? Can I possibly just let these people continue talking at me, haranguing me, blaming me even, for the worlds problems? Am I a failure as a citizen, an American and a patriot if I remain silent? Isn't it sometimes just worthwhile to let an issue drop?

The answer is both yes and no. There are some attacks that simply do not warrant a response. When queried by a very drunk man (nationality is unimportant save that he was not from the US) about whether or not I believed that the victims of 9/11 "deserved it", I found it to be such an infuriating, stupid, asinine question that I was at a loss. My first instinct was to fight him, to unleash all of the fury and rage that boiled inside of me to wither his ignorance, to destroy his smug mien. But what good would it have done? After a very long moment, I instead chose to simply walk away from him. Fortunately, the other people sitting around him chose to do the same. I hope that he understood the point.

But that is only an extreme example. I have given up counting the times that, after answering the "where are you from" question, I get a knowing look and a "sorry" from the person. As often as not, the person responding in that fashion comes from a country about which I could find cause to say something similar. In fact, there is hardly any country on the planet about which one could not find some cause for criticism.

But I don't.

I'm Jewish, but when I meet a German I don't immediately write them off as "the country where the Nazi's came from." Yet when I meet people, I'm often instantly treated as a person "from the country who is at war with Iraq" or the country who "is destroying the environment" or the country who is "bullying and policing the world." Do I deny that parts of these statements are true? I do not. But I respond that my country is also the best functioning democracy on Earth. I say that my country provides freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, a government comprised of checks and balances, and that it is elected by the people, every time. When people respond "well we have that too" I can proudly say to them "yes, now you do, but my country was founded on those principles." Maybe those ideals are trampled upon from time to time, and perhaps it doesn't always work perfectly, but what is important is that overall, it does work.

So how does all of this add up? Does walking away from an insult to my country make me a coward, or less of a proud citizen? By sometimes firing back do I make things better or worse? Can I consider myself a patriot? To this question I've decided that my answer is: I am half of a patriot.

Living in Washington D.C. for the past five and a half years, I've often spent time at the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, I've probably spent more time there than any other single place in the District. In the Lincoln Memorial, on the left side of the building is a stone carving of the Gettysburg Address. I have read this enough times to have committed it to memory, and that memory has served me particularly well while I have been thinking about my status as an American abroad. Two lines of the address have always resonated with me, and I realize now that they, as perfectly as I can envision, describe what it is to be a patriot, anywhere. The lines read:

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

To be patriot is not to argue and fight with people. It is not to squabble over semantics and dispute descriptions and work to confirm or deny stereotypes. I believe that a patriot is a person who cares enough to work to make their country better. It is a person who loves some aspect of where they are from, for whatever reason, to work towards the goal of making that place better, whatever "better" may mean to them. To be patriotic is to do something, not to say something. Later in the Gettysburg address is the following line:

"...that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion..."

The last full measure of devotion. That in the end, the devoted were willing to die for their cause.

That sounds frightening. It sounds like the things that we hear from suicide bombers and religious radicals, that you would be willing to "die for their cause." But Abraham Lincoln was not talking about a suicide bomber, and he wasn't talking about religion. He was talking about beliefs, and was using the soldiers of the Civil War, both North and South, to demonstrate his point. He is not telling us to throw our own lives onto the great pyre of sacrifice that the Civil war had already exacted. He is saying that from their deaths we should resolve to finish the work that they began, work that they believed enough in to start in the first place. To want to improve where you are from is all well and good, but the patriot is the person who goes from wanting to make a change, to working to make a change.

"Love of country is like love of a woman - he loves her best who seeks to bestow on her the highest good."
-Felix Adler

Thus, to the question "are you a patriot" I have to answer that I have so far fulfilled only half of the requirements. I have a profound desire to see a change in my country, and I have an equally profound desire to be a part of that change. But I haven't started that work yet. I am still out here, still traveling and learning and figuring out why exactly it is even worth the time to make that difference. Soon, I will return to the United States to begin a period in my life during which I hope to learn how exactly I can fulfill the second obligation of a patriot. The obligation of making the change. It is my hope that in some small way due to whatever action I am capable of taking, people will no longer look at an American abroad as someone to be accused, or harassed or vilified, but as a person to be respected, not because of overwhelming might, or global dominance; but because of the wisdom, justice and acceptance that they embody.

I believe that it is immensely important for Americans to travel abroad, and to do so with humility, grace, tolerance and passion. There are people throughout the world who know of my homeland only by what they are exposed to through the media, our pop culture and third or fourth hand accounts. These flashes of our country are not enough to help anyone understand what it is that America represents, and it is hard to ignore the fact that some of America's greatest enemies are people who (at least I feel) completely misunderstand our values and ways of life. Diplomatic processes are not the way that impressions change. People meeting people is.

So perhaps in the end, I have begun to be a patriot. I have been meeting people from all over the world, and with each interaction, I have given them (what I hope) is a positive impression of my country, a better understanding of who we are, and a glimpse at our potential. Perhaps this has begun a change, if only in those very few people with whom I've had the opportunity to speak. If that is the case, and if I have been able to change their impressions about America for the better even a small amount, then I have at least provisionally earned my title as a patriot, and I intend to continue working to solidify that title as I carry on through life.

"The love of ones country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?"
-Pablo Casals

Next: Cambodia: A difficult reality

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The worlds finest, cheapest clothing, Tunnels and Traps and Bullets Oh My!, and a fond farewell to yet another country

The tourism industry is a great and thriving giant in Vietnam, and not one that slumbers particularly often. Wherever goes a person with a backpack, so goes a guest house employee to attend to them. To be an "independent traveler" in this country is nearly a concept that is being phased out. Every interesting place has been tagged like so many toys in a store and every week seems to be some sort of enormous sale. This is wonderful for the tourist, but a bit of a nuisance for one who tries to separate themselves from that title and the gaping maw of consumerism that it implies. Still, being able to buy an "open" bus ticket that would take me all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), during which you can "hop on, and hop off" at 6 different cities along the way, presents itself as a sort of "you'd be really, really dumb not to take this" option for travel throughout the country. Huzzah for progress!

So I found myself on a bus with mostly other travelers, headed down to the clothes producing town of Hoi An (a note about Hoi An; If you rearrange the letters, you get "hanoi". This creates more linguistic confusion than you would imagine at first blush). Hoi an is known for one thing and one thing alone: tailors. In this sleepy, quite enjoyable little town, there are roughly 300 tailors to meet your tailoring needs. And apparently, some people's needs are vast. The services provided are almost too fantastic to believe. Want a beautifully tailored, 120 thread wool suit with a silk lining in 3 hours? No problem. 60 Dollars. You can wait til tomorrow? Great! 55 dollars. You can have shoes made with your name and a catchphrase sewn around the sides. You can have gloves, handkerchiefs and scarves made. Or, for the ultimate in luxury, have a tiny Vietnamese woman size you for custom made underwear and socks. 12 dollars for the underwear, 2 for the socks. Guaranteed to fit.

Silk worms. Not only do they custom make your clothing, but they grow and make the silk there as well.

I didn't want to spend a ton of money. I really didn't. But you start picking fabrics, you start looking through fashion catalogs and then the proprietress tells you that the incredibly cool looking material that you're holding can be turned into a perfectly cut dress shirt in about 2 hours for 10 dollars, and suddenly my credit card seemed to leap from my hand and did the lombada with their reader. Fine. I'd buy a !#@load of clothes.

I won't bore you with details, but suffice it to say that if you need a well dressed man to appear with/for you at any social function, I'm your guy. If you see me wearing a suit into a McDonalds it's only because I now have enough suits that I can do things like that and still have reserves enough for a whole April's worth of weddings.

The only other notable event that occurred in this town was the following exchange:

(Scene: The bars close in Hoi an at midnight, all save one, the Full Moon Bar. This bar is horrifically inconveniently located 20 minutes outside of town. As such, the moto drivers all stand around outside of the local drinking establishments and come bar close, do their best to get you to ride out to this bar with them.)

Me: (Yawwwwwn) Okay guys, now what?

Moto Driver: Hey! Hey where you go?

Me: Dunno, kinda tired

Moto Driver: No, not tired! You come to Full Moon bar! Very good!

Me: Eh, maybe. I'll see

Moto Driver: No, you must come. There will be...MAXIMUM DANCING (thrust hips and waves hands around)

Me: Wow. Maximum dancing. Sold. Lets ride.

I mean come on, could you turn down MAXIMUM DANCING? Be honest with yourself, you couldn't.

Unfortunately, the MAXIMUM DANCING had to occur sans benefit of music, as by the time we arrived the power had gone out and the only light was provided by candles. We accommodated this problem by getting a group of people together and for some reason singing the theme song from Baywatch over and over and over.....and over....and over....

Weird night.

The next bus stop was in Nha Trang...

Owner of my guest house in Nha Trang. She was exactly like my Grandma, except Vietnamese. Seriously, she was awesome

...a town which is very well known as being one of the most popular with tourists, and not always the nice kind. It is an inevitable fact of travel that you will come across things which people do which disgust you. It may be what foods they eat or their hygiene or something else, but eventually, you will find something that you don't particularly like to hear about other people doing. Such as pedophilia. A bit of a heavy topic to be sure, but in Nha Trang, it is one of the most prevalent problems in terms of the tourists. Nearly always men, but of any age, race, and nationality, Nha Trang has earned itself a reputation over the years as being a prime area to engage in underage sex tourism. The government of Vietnam is well aware of this, yet is also aware of how much money such tourism brings in. It's not that they condone it, but they are certainly not doing very much to curtail it.

Enter "Crazy Kim." Crazy Kim is 5 feet, 7 inches of whup-ass, and she reserves this power exclusively for child-predators. She is a Vietnamese-American who returned to Vietnam several decades ago, and, upon finding the sort of scum that you can only really imagine pervading Nha Trang, she decided to do something about it. It started off with her simply watching the beaches (where the predators usually troll for young children to sleep with), and in some cases following them back to hotel rooms, getting into the rooms and kicking the living shit out out of the perpetrators. In recent years, Kim has opened a self-titled bar, which not only is one of the largest and best run bars that I encountered in Vietnam, but also holds classes every day for the poor Vietnamese children to come to to learn English. She continues her pedophile ass-kicking crusade through public awareness, particularly through T-shirts emblazoned with her logo "Hands off our kids!", and talking to law enforcement all the time to get and give updates. The capture of Gary Glitter, the infamous British ex-rock star who was caught in Vietnam on a child-sex mission was thanks in part to Crazy Kim's assistance.

I relate the above for two reasons. First, because it was something that was very in your face and gave a definitive character to Nha Trang, and second, because I know that many of you who read this site are travelers yourselves, so should you find some time to hang out in Nha Trang, you can sign up to teach English classes (any English speaker can do it), you can talk to Kim and ask how to help, or you can simply buy a t-shirt, the proceeds of which go to help continue her fight. It's a worthwhile cause, and it's a thankless cause. She can use all the help that she can get.

I spent several nights in Nha Trang, doing my best to avoid engaging in any activity that smacked of culture, then moseyed on down to Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon (and hereafter referred to as HCMC).

Aidan, Lorraine and Zorro...I mean Normo

Betcha can't guess what this is....guess yet? (see next picture)

An aquarium! (No seriously, it wasn't even a pirate aquarium. Somone just decided "hey, I want to build an enormous pirate ship out of paper maiche and stone. Hmmm, but it needs to make money...Eureka! Fill it with fish). Not particularly logical, but cool nonetheless

Day boat trip. Home made drum set. Drinking mulberry wine in the South China Sea. Ahhh...the tough life.

HCMC is as bustling and wild as Hanoi was, albeit with slightly wider streets.

...and Burritos. "Why did he take a picture of his Burrito?" You may ask, or even "Why is he capitalizing 'Burritos'?"...Because it was fantastic, that is why. Plus, how often do you get a Burrito served on a banana leaf?

Unfortunately, these streets seemed to be just as full of zooming motos as the old city in Hanoi was. Crossing the street was just as dangerous but it took twice as long. Oy.

Also Dragons. Dragons would eat you if you crossed the road too slowly. Big hassle.

This is a park. No clever comment here, but isn't it nice?

As in the rest of Vietnam, the Vietnamese people themselves were nothing short of very very lovely. Really, nothing short of that at all. I was directed in turns to the National Palace (not particularly impressive), the Art Museum (mix between impressive and really not impressive art)

This is the courtyard at the National Art Museum. Yes, of course it's a badminton court.

Cau Dai temple. So weird as to completely defy explanation.

Essentially, they believe that God has spoken to man 3 times, once with Jesus, once with Moses, and recently with Victor Hugo of all people. I don't get it either. Very nice people, very cool outfits

...and the War Museum

I was told that this was a large eggplant, I think that the sign-writer from the Hanoi Hilton had something to do with it...

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...etc."
-The Declaration of independence
Source: "A History of the United States" Houghton-Mifflin, 1966

This quote, from one of our own most important national documents, led off the exhibit about American atrocities. This did not make my time at the museum any easier

This museum deserves a note or two, as it will remain in my memory as one of the most emotionally grueling and vivid museums that I have ever been to. If I had to put it on an emotional par, I would probably choose to compare it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Though less well funded and organized, there is a certain kind of raw feeling that goes along with a visit. The most vivid exhibits are a massive photo exhibition composed of exposures from photographers who died during the conflict, and a series of pictures of the victims of various painful realities of war. Of the former group, what I found myself stumbling teary-eyed into a bathroom after was the series of photos by a woman photographer named Dickey Chapelle. Her work most often showed a very human side of very tired soldiers. Medics attending to a wound, two GI's, both heavily bandaged smoking cigarettes etc. What made this section so moving were the last two photographs. The second to last showed Ms. Chapelle in her younger years and the caption told about how it was her favorite picture of herself. The last photo was of the same woman, visibly bleeding on a battlefield strewn with other bodies. There is a helicopter in the background and soldiers in motion all throughout the frame. The dominant figure of the shot is a priest, standing over the woman and giving her her last rites. You can see the pain on her face, and the caption states simply that she passed away in the helicopter on the way back to the base. It took me about 10 minutes before I could carry on down the line.

The latter group of photographs, those of the victims of the various war happenings were equally discomfiting and moving. Included were the two Pulitzer prize winning photos, one of the mother swimming through a river clutching her children to her, and the other of the little naked girl covered in napalm, running straight at the camera. Again, some time was needed before I could resume perusing the exhibits.

I don't know very much about photography, so I'm really not a good judge of which photographs had good composition, details, clarity etc. What I am capable of judging is what emotions were elicited from me by these pictures, and without any hesitation I can say that I was deeply, and irrevocably moved by the museum. Though these are pictures that could be found with a simple Google search, there was an immediacy to seeing them in the context of that particular museum in that particular place that cannot be achieved through the filter of the internet. Thus I have not tried to reproduce the experience here, choosing instead to merely described my response to it.

An important part of a visit to HCMC is to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, in which Vietnamese guerilla soldiers lived and fought during the Vietnam War. The ownership of the tunnels is incredibly confusing, as at different points they belonged to both the North Vietnamese, and the South. This means that at different times, there were American soldiers fighting in the tunnels against soldiers, and at other times fighting from the tunnels. Of course, the fighting in the tunnels is the case that gets highlighted. Upon arriving at the tunnels, all guests are immediately sat down in a dingy room and shown what has to be the most blatant propaganda nonsense video that is still used on a consistent basis today. The main subject of the video was a young woman who distinguished herself (and earned a medal) as the "Best Killer of Americans" in that part of Vietnam.

This made me slightly uncomfortable.

Carrying on, we found ourselves following the guide out into the "jungle" (very sanitized for tourists at this point). Here, the guide hopped down into a tiny (read: tiiiiiny) hole in the ground.

Guide: "Too small for Americans. You (pointing at me, having already been identified as such), try to get in!

I tried.

Popping up out of the tunnels. I am sneaky.

I got stuck. I bascially had to force the hole open wider to get out. Point taken. We were then shown the various traps and tricks that the soldiers used to ensnare unwitting aggressors. I only have the one picture below, but the rest were equally horrific.

Viet Cong foot trap. This would hurt.

Then it was down to the tunnels!

I really did not fit in the tunnels very well. Oh, and since there was no light, this was how I decided to make life harder on myself by blinding my eyes with my own flash. Brilliant!

At the end of it all, the big finish so to speak, was that you could go down to their shooting range and fire off some rounds from guns used during the war. AK-47's, M-16's, and even an M-60 machine gun, which is the most Rambo looking thing you could ever hope to see. It was such a great deal, that bullets were only 18,000 dong apiece. About $1.20.

So did I gleefully blow away some targets? I did not. I couldn't quite (and still really can't) put my finger on my objection to the activity, but there was a smacking of impropriety that I couldn't reconcile. It may have been all the talk about killing Americans, the traps, the general knowledge of what the place represented, or something deeper than all of that, but I simply couldn't find the fun or amusement in shooting a gun purely for sport in a place where so much gun shooting for other reasons, none of them very pleasant, had occurred. Call me crazy, still can't quite figure it out.

The final phase of my time in Vietnam was as a passenger on a boat, meandering through the waterways of the Mekong Delta. The Delta is not as interesting a place as I was led to believe. The boat ride is one of the big hyped-up things that all the guest houses try to book you on, and since the ride would take me all the way to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, I figured that I'd let the buses survive without me for just one trip and travel in da boat. Though I haven't acknowledged except really to point out the ways in which it has inconvenienced me, the Mekong river is very much a part of the life of anyone who lives or travels in SE Asia. It is the principal source of fresh water for many remote areas, provides irrigation measures, and represents the food and a livelihood through fishing for many people. As a traveler, it is a kind of flowing companion, always accessible one way or another, and ultimately as important to the success of your travels as it is to the success of the communities which it supports. Throughout the different countries that the Mekong passes, it changes in nature. In Laos it was narrow and quick, a slicing current hurrying boats along steeply banked rivers, enclosed with ivy hills. Here in Vietnam, it looks much more like a major waterway, a Mississippi or a Nile, than simply a navigable river.

The "tour" that I was on included a visit to a coconut candy factory (oh my was that good candy!) and some assorted other activities...

Such as boat riding...

...and hat wearing!

Our guide rode comfortably...

After passing though massive bamboo stands in a swampy type area, we got back to our main boat and started the trip up the Mekong to the border with Cambodia.

"...3 stories, 2 bedrooms, HUGE backyard swimming pool..."

Our last stop before the long-haul 5 hour ride commenced was a fruit market in Unpronouncable Vietnamese Town. We ate some lychee and dragon fruit from grubby stalls among hundreds of locals, foul smelling cattle and naked children. Business as usual for me these last few months. The border crossing went smoothly, the only incident of note involving myself, a group of children begging for money and candy, and my realization that 1. I could lift the children high into the air with little, to no effort and 2. That the roofs of the huts surrounding the border area were only about 5-7 feet high. Thus, several precocious children found themselves stranded on rooftops for a few minutes while I let them think twice before going after the contents of my pockets again. When I got them down, I was assaulted with big smiles, a wave and even a handshake, then they went scampering off. My time in Vietnam was ended, and I can say without qualification that it was my favorite country to visit in South-East Asia, for the reasons enumerated above and others which simply cannot be translated into text. Should I ever have the chance to return, I would jump at it like low-hanging fruit, when I am hungry, and it's hot out, and I really feel a...well a hankering for fruit. In other words, I would seize it.

Patriotism, America and independent travel. Can they work together?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Destinations of an absolutely opposite nature: The balmy heat of Halong Bay, and the cooling chill of the highlands of Sapa

Having enjoyed the non-stop hustle of Hanoi for any number of days, it became time to move on to different things. That "different thing" firstly turned out to be a trip to North-Eastern Vietnam, to a place called Halong Bay.

Hmmm...which to choose?

Halong Bay is also known as "Bay of the Descending Dragon" due to a legend about the place, which goes something like this:

"Long ago when their forefathers were fighting foreign invaders from the north, the gods from heaven sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands and islets dotting the seascape and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The locals were able to keep their land safe and formed what is now the country of Vietnam. The Dragon family fell so much in love with this area for its calm water and for the reverence of the people of Vietnam that they decided to remain on earth."

So basically, we were traveling amongst dragon loogies that were formerly precious jewels. Bummer about the transformation.

Treasure hunting aside, the place is magnificent.

This view really, really doesn't suck

Enormous granite outceroppings...again? Yawwwwn...

There are roughly 1500 islands, exploding up out of water so blue and clear that you expect to see birds flying around in it. Each droplet of an island is such an alarming green against that brilliant blue that they seem to be emeralds set into a vast sapphire block. To get to Halong Bay, myself and my companions who I'd been on/off traveling with since our Mekong River difficulties got on a bus, that took us to a port, where we got onto a boat. Wary, as my luck with these people and boats was catastrophic at best, I boarded the three story high vessel, glancing hastily around for life preservers and escape pods. Finding none, I began to worry, but was reassured by the legend that Dragons wouldn't allow anyone to drown there, and that they would come to save you if there was any danger. I think that someone told me this just to make me feel better, though how the idea of being plucked out of the ocean by an enormous set of dragon talons is supposed to be comforting is beyond me.

The dragon usually hides behind one of these two islands. If you look closely, you can just see his tail sticking out from behind the left hand one. Really, it's totally there

Anyway, we were off. The plan being to spend one night on the boat and another night on the island of Cat Ba, the largest inhabited island in the area. I cannot recall if in my ramblings I have discussed my proclivity for flinging myself off of high things into water. I really, really love doing this. Just point me towards a cliff, rope swing, ledge, whatever, and if it looks deep enough, I'm jumping. The thrill of being in the air and falling for so long that you can think to yourself "damn, this is really high" then scream, then have time for a second thought of "Damn! This is probably going to hurt my feet huh?" is unparalleled in my experience. And you know that it's high when you can complete both thoughts before crashing loudly and splashily into a 10 meters of clean, ice blue water.

All of the above is relevant, because by the time that the boat had slowed down enough to drop anchor, I had already leaped headfirst off of the third floor deck. In case any of you are unfamiliar with my athletic history, nowhere in the compliation of Norm's Endeavors would you find "proficiency at diving." One big headache later, I decided that perhaps next time I would enter the water feet first, as is my custom. We spent several hours jumping of of the boat, lazily paddling around in the water, and attempting to "board and conquer", to absolutely none of the crews amusement. Arrr....

After a visit to some caves that looked as if they were carved out of molded plastic and were the set of some crazy movie about aliens and zombies and stuff, we returned to the boat to find our way to the kayaks.

As it turns out, the kayaks were stored at a fish farm.

Despite the lead in above, this is not a picture of the fish farms. I didn't take one. This'll have to suffice.

Halong Bay is an interesting place for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the manner in which people live there. Imagine, if you would be so kind, an entire neighborhood of single family homes, clapboard and shingled with tile and corrugated tin, floating peacefully on a gently rolling current, kept cool in the shadow of a massive rising cliff face, overhung with weeping willow-esque branches and high standing, high branched trees. These homes all float due to dozens of enormous plastic jars and containers, lashed toghether under the very floorboards of the homes and all of the homes are attached to each other by lengths of rope. Gypsies and traveling caravans have nothing on the uniqueness of life that these people have created. For the most part, the homes have a sort of loosely understood "backyard area" in which there are perhaps four rows of 2x4's arranged into squares, under which hang nets. These are the fish farms, and if you have ever eaten "fresh sea fish" that wasn't native to your area, there is a reasonable chance that it came from here. Fish is one of Vietnam's biggest exports and those fish come from fish farms scattered all throughout the country.

Pieter, Mathias and Norm, kickin' it on some dragon loogies

Getting off of the boat and onto the floating 2x4's was challenging enough in and of itself. Doing so after looking into one of the cages and seeing enormous, shark-like fish swimming around in what seemed to be a state of high agitation made the task all the more difficult. Oh, and there were dogs. As having an electronic security system to protect your home and fish out here would be non-feasible for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which being the lack of electricity and the time it would take for a rent-a-cop to get a boat out from the mainland, home security is provided by dogs. Big dogs. Really, really big dogs. As soon as our boat pulled up, two of the dogs came dashing down the planks, but didn't bark. The other two dogs split up on different beams and held back, just watching. I'm not sure when exactly someone figured out how to teach military tactics to canines, but I was impressed. In a supremely stupid and unthinking gesture, I reached out to give one of the dogs a friendly pat on the head, you know, to let him know that we were "a-okay." Maybe all our earlier pirate posturing hadn't worn off yet, but the bark/growl/snap/lunge that followed my efforts were enough to see me leap backwards about 5 feet and nearly fall into the big shark pit (which wasn't a shark pit, it was some other fish that apaprently wouldn't eat me. Whatever, they looked like sharks). Convinced that it was time to get into kayaks and get far the hell away, I lowered myself in, gripped the paddle and took off.

There is something very humbling about being in a tiny, easily swamped boat, paddling hard against waves and current, and having the sun completely obscured by the rising karsts. Coming around the corner of an island, the sun is suddenly at full capacity, lighting up everything around you and reflecting gloroiusly off of all that surrounds you. As previously mentioned, the water is nearly perfectly clear, allowing you to see down through the sea perhaps 10-12 meters, 10-12 meters of absolutely empty, microorganism flecked water.

If you have to squint to look at this picture, just try and imagine how bright it was to be there. Yeah, thats right. Pretty damn bright. (I'm sorry, my captioning skills seem to be lacking right now)

It was a hard choice between staying in the kayak to get to the beach that was our destination, or repeatedly flinging yourself into the water. I managed to supress my baser instincts for the duration, but only just.

The rest of my time in Halong Bay saw the whole crew on Cat Ba island, living it up in the extremely toursity town and catching a cold in an air-conditioned room (only the second "air con" room that I've stayed in in over 4 months. Both times I've come down with the sniffles. Apparently I'm no longer able to handle comfort).

Upon returning to Hanoi, my compatriots elected to head down South, a decision that I was as yet unable to make, because of the wonderful things that I had heard about Nothern Vietnam, namely the small border town of Sapa.

A few crazy bia hoi filled nights later, I arrived via overnight train into the small, but rapidly growing (read: tourism has found this place in a big way) city of Sapa.

Descending view of the rice paddies.

The city itself can be walked end-to-very-steep-end in about 45 minutes. However, in those 45 minutes you will encounter people hailing from no less than 3 separate hill tribes, scores of travelers and jewelery makers, and a thriving open air meat market at which you can by fish the size of a cows leg, and a severed cows leg the size of you. It's quite an experience.

The main activity in Sapa is hill-tribe trekking, and there are about 8 gazillion companies all vying for your money. Feeling a bit pressured due to the extremely subtle sales techniques ("You come with me, you bring money (tugs sleeve)...we go now!) I set off walking on my own.

I love mountain towns. I really do. I think that the same elements that draw people to so called "chilled out surf towns" are the same elements that draw me to hard-to-get-to, often cold, places. The air doesn't smell like smog, the people are generally friendlier, you only have to open your eyes and glance slightly upwards to catch a breathtaking view, and noone finds it odd if you just decide to go off walking into the surrounding hills for a few days. A deep breath of mountain air flavored with noodle soup later, I was off walking to the nearby Hmong village of Cat Cat. Despite my previous culinary inquiries, I decided to not push my luck by asking about the naming of the village. After an hour walk down winding, steeply switch-backed roads, I arrived in the vast, stepped rice paddies of Cat Cat.

I did ALL of this in one day. I am very efficient.

The ingenuity that rice producing peoples bring to their endeavors is nothing short of remarkable. as each plateau must be filled to the top with an exact proportion of water, an overage causing the plants to drown and too little water causing themn to wither, yet the most sophisticated piece of machinery that I saw employed belonged to this guy...

John Deere hasn't quite made it out here yet...

The water levels remain constant regardless of flow, simply by having carefully placed and sized holes in the walls of the paddies. While marveling at the ecological efficiency that had clearly been handed down as innate knowledge through generations of farmers, you couldn't help but notice the many interestingly dressed children that swarmed you as you walked. You couldn't miss them really, because they spend most day light hours trying to get you to buy small bracelets, shirts and necklaces that they have woven. The ethnic group doing the most selling were the Red Tzao people, who dressed very distinctively indeed.

Fun fact: The only time that these people weren't smiling was for this picture. I don't know why, but they refused to look happy in photographs. Maybe they are allergic to the flash?

They were overall, a lovely group of people (all women whom I met now that I think about it), some of whom took me into their homes and fed me some sort of noodle and chicken soup. Not quite how grandma makes it, but good nonetheless.

Even in the day time, the super-ninjas of Sapa remain elusive. Somewhere in town, there were four completely naked guys with ninja stars trying to remain inconspicuous.

The following day saw me hiring a 4x4 and a driver, and basically just tooling around in the mountains, occasionally stopping in a small village to play with the children and be hassled to buy things. Getting anywhere in this area took quite a while, so it was only towards the end of the day that I made it to "the waterfall."

Guess how it got its name...?

After doing some calculations and realizing that 1. I am bad at math, 2. I am bad at planning and 3. I only had about 2.5 weeks left on my Vietnam visa, I reluctantly hightailed it back to Hanoi, carrying on to the South of Vietnam.

The disparity of the places that I described above only serves to highlight how incredible a place Vietnam is. You can go from clean blue ocean, to high blue mountain skies as fast as you can make the decision to do so. And as I was to see, all of this contrast was merely a prologue to what I later experienced during the rest of my time in Vietnam.

Next: Why you shouldn't even consider buying your clothes from anyplace except Vietnam ever again, I arrive in Saigon and madness ensues, and sober reflections on a terrible period in recent history.