Friday, April 28, 2017

SIN --> BKK

Remember the cold that was tickling at the back of my throat? It turned into a full-blown upper-respiratory disaster.

When I got to Singapore, my nose, throat, and lungs were filled with all kinds of gunk--not to mention the headache, bodyache, and sore throat. Just in time to infect my dear cousin Erin! She was gracious enough to let me stay in her hotel room at the Grand Hyatt while she attended a conference, and I would like to apologize now to her and to her entire family for very probably making them ill.

As you can imagine, most of my trip to glamorous Singapore was spent in bed, attempting to recover--I even took a hot bath one night to clear my sinuses. But I did manage to get out of the hotel room a few times.

After sleeping for ten hours my first night there, I willed myself from beneath the covers and into the shower, and later out onto the street. I picked up some cold/flu medicine at 7-11, which helped. My first thought while walking through the crowds: HOLY MOLY I AM UNDERDRESSED. Admittedly, I was staying in a commercial area, but even so, everybody was perfectly put together, their outfits at the height of fashion.

I, on the other hand, was wearing a Harry Potter t-shirt.

Honestly, I found the city almost...creepy somehow? Have you watched the show Westworld? In that story, Westworld is a theme park created to mimic an 1800's wild-west town, where visitors can interact with hyperrealistic androids who have no idea they aren't real. Singapore seemed like a Westworld-esque theme park of a modern Western city. The streets were spotless--and yet it was very difficult to find trash cans. The MRT subway was clean, on time and efficient. Giant shopping malls were everywhere. The people were dressed to the nines, and every individual with whom I interacted, even briefly, struck me as cheerful and optimistic.

Like I said: creepy.

I visited two cafes that day: My Awesome Cafe, which was undoubtedly awesome, albeit expensive; and Dapper Coffee, which seemed more like a bar, and actually had a fully stocked bar, even though it was only open from 9-5. I went to the first cafe because the internet told me it was a great place to get work done, and I think the internet lied. I was the only one working there--all the other chic people were merely lunching. I went to the second because it was around the corner and up the stairs from the first, and it ended up being steampunk themed. Electroswing all afternoon.

I can never decide if I'm pro- or anti-steampunk. I want to like it, but the people who really like it are so--well. Nevermind. If you can't say anything nice...

I spent most of the next morning in bed as well, and later Erin and I did some mild sightseeing. A hot-and-humid-and-sweaty trip to Gardens by the Bay, where we witnessed the awesome majesty of the Supertrees. A cocktail (virgin, in my case) to cool down at the tippy-top of the Marina Bay Sands, where we witnessed the awesome majesty of a thunderstorm rolling in over the skyscrapers. A meal at Maxwell Road Hawker Center in Chinatown, where we both witnessed and consumed the awesome majesty of Hainanese chicken rice, along with other dishes--too many dishes. Yum.

And that's about all we had time for before we had to head back to the airport to catch our respective flights. I'll have to return to Singapore sometime when I'm not half-bedridden.

On the bright side, I think all the rest was good for me--I'm feeling a lot better now. The cold is definitely still there, but it's manageable.

As for my current location: I arrived in Bangkok late last night, and I conked out the second my head hit the pillow. My hostel, The Yard, is essentially what would happen if graphic design-obsessed Tumblr users were allowed to create a hostel. Alarmingly hip. Hip to the extent that upon check-in, they give you a glass bottle for water because they want to discourage you from using plastic, and the bottle says that's what it's for in a charming font, and they give you a small burlap bag to carry the bottle to and from the water machine, also printed with its purpose, also in a charming font, because these are the things you need to live an Instagram-worthy life. But hey, there's free (Instagram-worthy) breakfast!

I suppose the super-hipness makes sense, as it's in Bangkok's Ari neighborhood, which is also super-hip. Plenty of little cafes, many of which I've worked in today while taking it easy--I need my strength to catch the train and go sightseeing this weekend. I shouldn't make fun--it's a very nice place to stay for a very low price. Not quite as low as some of the other hostels I've stayed in, but still more than reasonable. I need to laugh at it a little, though, since it makes me feel old.

What will I do during the rest of my stay? Not sure. Bangkok is rather large, and I am but one human. Food tour? Perhaps. Palace and temples? Definitely. Bamboo hand-poked tattoo?

Just kidding, Mom.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wonders of the Ancient World; or, my trip to Angkor Wat

Having spent a few days here, I can understand why my friend who was so adamant about my skipping Cambodia entirely didn't like Siem Reap. It's a town that caters solely to tourists--especially young backpackers looking to get wasted. The tuk-tuk drivers are relentless in their efforts to whisk you away. And it's honestly easier to find Western food here than it is to find traditional Khmer food. I had tacos for dinner last night.

Tacos.

Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia
Even so, there's something authentic about Siem Reap's commitment to inauthenticity, its desire to be either stereotypical Southeast Asia or anywhere but Southeast Asia. Back in Phnom Penh, Rosemary compared Siem Reap's famous Pub Street to downtown Las Vegas, and she had it absolutely right. It's crowded with foreign tourists, the restaurants feature a wide variety of global cuisines, and every sign is lit up in neon.

Of course, it's a lot cheaper than Vegas. Draft beers are $0.50 each!



The reason so many tourists flock to Siem Reap is that it serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat. Or more specifically, to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Angkor Wat is merely one temple of dozens--though it is the largest and most famous of the bunch. One of the more popular times to visit is at sunrise, when the glow brightens from pink to orange over the temple's iconic towers. I hadn't planned on visiting at sunrise, because I'm just not a morning person.

And then I visited at sunrise.

I didn't have much of a choice. I arrived at my hostel in the evening after my long bus ride from Phnom Penh, and a chatty Australian woman, Jess, invited me to sit at her table for dinner (ACYE vegan BBQ for $5!). She was with a less-than-chatty English woman who introduced herself as Mina. After staying mostly silent during the meal, Mina suddenly asked whether I was planning on going to Angkor Wat.

"Yeah, probably tomorrow?"

"Okay, I'm going at sunrise. Let's split a tuk-tuk."

Fortunately, Mina was a wonderful traveling companion. She became less quiet over time, and she's actually quite funny, in a subtle way. We got up at 4 a.m. (ouch) to meet our driver, who took us first to get our tickets, and then to the park. It's a good thing we decided to split the cost of the tuk-tuk, because admission prices to the archaeological park doubled in February, so it's nearly $40 to go for a single day.

Angkor Wat Cambodia sunrise
Angkor Wat itself was the first stop. We stood outside at the reflecting pool with gazillions of other tourists to watch the sunrise--I eventually walked several feet back and sacrificed capturing the reflecting pool just so I could get a photo without another person's head or phone in it.

After oohing and ahhing over the picturesque vista, we headed inside the giant temple, which is remarkably well-preserved. All (or at least most?) of the temples in the archaeological park were built as Hindu places of worship, but later became Buddhist places of worship--and they remain so to this day. They let visitors explore pretty much the entire site--they even let you climb up into one of the towers via some very steep stairs--and it took nearly two hours to get through it. Lots of opportunities for pictures of course. We watched a monkey steal a woman's bag of food. Her fault, obviously. The monkey was just being a monkey.

When we got back to the nearby parking lot, our tuk-tuk driver was gone. He was supposed to stay with us the whole day. We couldn't ask another driver--they were all waiting for other tourists as well. While we were discussing our options, a different tuk-tuk drove in and pulled up next to us. Turns out the pregnant wife of our original driver had gone into labor, so he had to get back to Siem Reap ASAP. But he'd kindly sent his brother to pick us up and finish our tour--which is sort of amazing! If I were about to have a kid, I'd probably forget about everything else.

Mina and I were on the small circuit of the park, which brings you to three major temples, along with a few smaller ones, and takes around half a day to complete. The second temple we visited was Bayon, known for the huge faces carved into its stone towers. They were everywhere, calmly smiling down on us--and the tourists were everywhere, too. Bayon is a lot smaller than Angkor Wat--still big, of course, but cramped in comparison. It was hard to squeeze around everybody else, but we managed it.
bayon temple cambodia

After that it was a few much smaller temples. At one of them we climbed an enormous flight of stairs only to be confronted with ANOTHER FLIGHT OF STAIRS. By this time it was very hot outside, so we agreed to skip the second flight and find ice cream instead.

Ta Prohm is the third major temple on the small circuit, and as our tuk-tuk driver pointed out many, many times, it is where they filmed Tomb Raider. I've never seen Tomb Raider, and all I know about it is that it's based on a video game and stars Angelina Jolie. But I've got good news for those of you who are equally out of touch with pop culture: they could have filmed nothing at Ta Prohm, and it would still be equally stunning. It ended up being my favorite of the sites we visited that day.

ta prohm temple cambodia
While many of the other sites are in clearings or open plains, Ta Prohm is set further back in the jungle--it took about eight minutes to walk there from where the driver dropped us off. It's also in greater disrepair than many of the other temples, which only adds to its charm--gigantic trees shove and twist through its mossy, blue-green stones. I wish I could have camped there for a few days--and this is coming from a person who hates camping.*

I can't remember the name of the final temple we visited, but it was awfully large for a minor site. Architecturally it was more like Angkor Wat, but it was in the same kind of disrepair as Ta Prohm, and it had one long hallway that ran straight through from one side to the other. An unofficial guide attached himself to us and showed us a few things we wouldn't have found otherwise--an elaborate carving of an elephant, a cracked stone door that hadn't collapsed or been removed. We ended up having to pay him, of course, but it was probably worth it, as we would have missed a lot of that stuff on our own.

We arrived back in Siem Reap sweaty and dehydrated. Fortunately, Mina knew of a hotel down the street that would let you swim in their pool as long as you bought something to eat and drink. We bought spring rolls and beer, and I got a comically bad sunburn in these incongruous patches that don't make sense based on what I was wearing. Story of my life. I am the palest human, after all.

Later that evening we had a drink on pub street, and we picked up some souvenirs at the night market. I bought a krama, which is a traditional Cambodian style of scarf. I found a pretty one for a good price, and there's no such thing as too many scarves. This is an objective fact.

Today I was exhausted, so I mostly just relaxed--went to a nonprofit cafe called Fat Panda's and worked on my novel, drank a ginger-lemongrass mojito to fight the cold that's tickling the back of my throat. And tomorrow I leave Cambodia altogether.

Where is my next destination, you ask?

Singapore! My cousin Erin will be there for a conference, so she invited me to stay in her fancy hotel room. How could I resist? I've enjoyed all the hostels I've stayed in so far on this trip, but it will be nice to have some relative privacy for a few days. And it will be even nicer to catch up with Erin, who I haven't seen since we parted ways in Amsterdam in December. We are quite the jet-setters.

*We built cities because nature is trying to kill us. Why would I willingly go spend the night with the snakes/scorpions/sinkholes/quicksand/flash floods/tornados/etc.?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Life in the Cambodian Capital

While I'm sure their advice was well-intentioned, I'm very glad I didn't listen to the friend who told me to skip Cambodia. I've had some Capital-A Adventures in Phnom Penh! I only spent two full days in the city, but it feels like I was there for a week.

The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City was much more pleasant than I expected. I sat next to a friendly German named Malte, and the Mekong Express employees provided us with water and snacks. I even got some work done on my novel. The only downside: there was a small child with a blue plastic fish toy that for some reason played "Let It Go" from Frozen. But only one line: "Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door." And sometimes when he pressed the button, it would play the lyric eerily off-key, and slower. Lleettt itt ggooo, lleettt itt ggooo. Over and over again.

Good thing he was adorable.

The border crossing was an interesting process. Again, Mekong Express did a great job with this; the employee on our bus handed out visa paperwork that we filled in at the beginning of the ride, and when we got near the border, he collected all our paperwork and passports, along with the visa fees. We had to get off the bus in this dusty, cobwebby warehouse at the edge of Vietnam to have our passports stamped for exit. Then we piled back on the bus, and got off a few minutes later at the much more aesthetically pleasing Cambodian entry facility. But the bus employee got all our visas settled for us and handed our passports back. We simply had to walk through the gate and get stamped. And electronically fingerprinted! Never had to do that before.

I wonder if gambling is illegal in Vietnam, because just over the border in Cambodia there are dozens of shabby casinos. It reminded me a lot of the California-Nevada border for that reason.

I got to my hostel late, but I'm glad I stayed where I did. If you're ever in Phnom Penh, give Feliz Hostel & Cafe a try. Apparently it has one of the best breakfasts in the city? Didn't know that when I booked the bed. Pretty sure it's Khmer-owned, too, which is great. I'd rather give my money to Cambodians than to foreigners exploiting Cambodians, if I can help it.

It turns out that one of my friends from grad school, Rosemary, is teaching English in Phnom Penh at the moment. So she and I had lunch and caught up on my first full day in the city. Then I took a tuk-tuk to the royal palace for a very gilded afternoon. For those not in the know, tuk-tuks are those three-wheeled carriages attached to motorbikes, which serve as taxis in Cambodia. When it comes to monetary interactions with tourists, at least, Cambodians prefer to use U.S. dollars as their currency. While it's nice to not have to exchange currencies, it's also more important to barter to make sure you're not getting overcharged. I mean, either way, you're going to get overcharged. But it's a question of being reasonably overcharged versus unreasonably overcharged. I hate bartering, so settling on prices with the tuk-tuk drivers was probably my least favorite aspect of the trip.

The royal palace is a must-see, in my opinion. The grounds are gigantic, planted with bright green shrubs and flowering trees. And the architecture is unbelievable, of course. The buildings are in the traditional style, where...okay, here's where I'm going to screw this up. At the tops of many of the columns are these bird-human hybrids, but I forget their name. And then on the rooftops there are these mythical serpents--whose name I also forget. Historically these creatures are enemies, so when they're represented together in architecture, it symbolizes peace.

There's your shamefully bad Khmer architecture lesson for the day.

It was hot outside, so wandering the palace grounds was sometimes overwhelming. But there weren't too many people there, so there were plenty of places for me to sit and rest in the shade. Pro tip: you have to cover your shoulders and knees at the palace, just like you would at a temple. I was glad I brought a scarf with me--though it wasn't quite wide enough to tie at my waist, so I had to awkwardly tie it beneath my butt. Super classy, Robison.

Remember Malte, the German guy from the bus? That night he and I had dinner at FCC, which is, according to Rosemary, a must for tourists, as its multiple patios overlook the river. It was good, but you definitely pay extra for the scenic vista. There was a cute cat who kept begging for my food. No, kitty. Human food.

Day 2 was somewhat brutal--although not in the morning. I hopped in another tuk-tuk and went to Central Market, which is famous for its pre-war, Art Deco architecture. I bought a hat, because I cleverly left mine on the bus from HCMC. Wonder how many times that's going to happen over the next few months?

Afterwards I headed to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is housed inside S-21, one of the most notorious prisons from the Khmer Rouge period. It was, perhaps, one of the most horrific things I have ever witnessed. They tried to leave many things as they found them--so you might just walk into a stuffy room, where you find a solitary metal bedframe with leg irons attached. As your eyes adjust to the lower light, you might notice a picture on the wall, of the prisoner they found bludgeoned to death on that bed when the Vietnamese liberated the city. You might notice bloodstains on the yellow and white tile floor. The floor where you're walking.

And that's just the interrogation building.

Other buildings contain further horrors: cramped cells, torture devices, and thousands of photos of the prisoners themselves, most of whom ended up in the killing fields. Their captors were meticulous record-keepers. The audio tour was incredible, full of detailed information and narrated by a man who lost family members in the prison.

There's a question of ethics when it comes to turning genocide into a tourist attraction. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable--but I think that's a good thing. Everybody ought to see stuff like this, and be made to feel uncomfortable or worse, as it serves as a deterrent for similar atrocities in the future. But then I'd see people taking selfies, and that just made me sick. What kind of person thinks it's okay to treat such a sensitive, heartbreaking subject with such callousness? How do they have the audacity to make themselves the center of such an experience? I honestly don't know.

Because I apparently hadn't witnessed enough abject human suffering yet, I paid a tuk-tuk driver to take me out to the Choeung Ek killing fields. They're about 15 kilometers outside the city, and my driver definitely took the scenic route. I was worried at first that he was going to take me to the middle of nowhere and rob me (these thoughts inevitably cross my mind when traveling alone, as unfounded as they might be), but once I checked the map to see we were heading in the right direction, I calmed down and enjoyed the bumpy ride through unpaved neighborhoods.

Based on what little I saw, it seems like things are changing very fast in Cambodia. Some of the houses were hardly more than metal shacks, while others were tall, concrete structures with glass windows, locked tight behind high gates--all right next to each other. Some people have cars, but most have motorbikes, assuming they have any transportation. When we got near to Choeung Ek, we had to chase some white cows off the road.

Here's the thing about the killing fields: they are objectively beautiful.

They don't mow the grass--for obvious reasons--so the ground is covered with vines and wildflowers, along with large birds pecking at the earth below. There air is teeming with butterflies. A row of yellow flowering trees marks where the fields begin, and behind the fields, there's a pond. In front of it all rises a gigantic traditional stupa, where thousands of victims' skulls are on display.

Again, the audio tour was worth it. Not only does it provide information about what you're seeing--the mass graves, the trees where they strung speakers to blare revolutionary songs that would drown out the screaming--but it also shares stories from family members of the dead, and from young guards who worked there. It plays music composed specifically to commemorate the tragic events. It warns you to watch your step, as small pieces of bone and clothing are still washing up in the rain, all these years later.

On the tuk-tuk ride back to the city, my driver--who had waited for me while I was touring Choeung Ek--got a flat tire. He was extremely apologetic, showing me the nail to prove that it had really happened--I think he was afraid I wouldn't pay him. I tried to reassure him the best I could, and while he had it repaired at a small, roadside tire shop, I got to play with the owner's baby, who was almost impossibly cute. (Only after his mother indicated it was okay, of course.) He had this expression of perpetual surprise on his face, eyes wide and mouth open. It was nice to encounter some sweet innocence after all that trauma.

After getting some work done at the hostel, I met Rosemary for a drink at Red Bar, which is on a street full of bars where expats like to go, rather than tourists. We ended up at another place that was hosting a Khmer hip hop night. Good beats, and everyone seemed genuinely joyful. It was delightful. I'm glad Rosemary was able to show me some places I never would have found on my own.

After one more little bar and a quick visit to Rosemary's place to see her killer terrace, I had to go back to my hostel--which was close by, for the record. One problem: I could find no tuk-tuk, and I didn't really want to walk there. It is not advised to walk alone at night in Phnom Penh, especially if you're a tourist. Finally this guy offered me a moto ride, so I hopped on, and it was totally fine--until I got off at the hostel and he offered me...well, he either offered me sex or drugs. It was unclear. He didn't threaten me or anything--the situation just made me uncomfortable. Fortunately, he didn't seem to get angry when I handed him his two dollars and ran inside as fast as I could.

Like I said, Capital-A Adventures. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

(Note to parents: I'm fine. Don't worry.)

Now I'm on a bus to Siem Reap, the gateway city to Angkor Wat. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the best. Can't wait to see temples and temples and temples and temples...

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edit: I made it to Siem Reap safely. Couldn't post the blog entry on the bus, as the wifi cut out. Must go to sleep now--sunrise tour of Angkor Wat in the morning!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

SGN --> PNH

This afternoon I hop on a bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. It was tough deciding where in the region I wanted to go, especially due to my limited timeframe. I recognize that I'm lucky to be here for two whole months, but two whole months is hardly enough time to see all of Southeast Asia. It's huge! Had to skip Myanmar, which is something I really wanted to do. But I'm also heading to some places I didn't expect. More on that later...

My last full day in Ho Chi Minh City (until June, that is) was wonderful. In many parts of Southeast Asia, there's an app called Grab, which is essentially the region's equivalent of Uber or Lyft. If you're planning on traveling here at some point, I'd recommend downloading it before you come. Anyway, the major difference between Grab and Uber is that on Grab--at least in Vietnam--you can order a xe om.

A motorbike taxi.

This isn't surprising--motorbikes are the most common way that people travel in Vietnam. The streets are clogged with them. Thing is, I've never been on one in my life. And everyone at my hostel was telling me that I was just supposed to climb on the back of one, with a stranger driving, and enjoy the ride through some of the most harrowing traffic I've ever witnessed?

Reader, I did precisely that. The driver gives you a helmet, if that's any consolation. It wasn't actually as scary as I thought it would be--except when there were buses about an inch from my knee. That made me nervous.

Sorry, Mom.

I think my driver noticed I was worried--he took it pretty slow. I had him drop me off at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, which is housed in a beautiful mansion (a series of beautiful mansions, actually) from the French colonial period. Most of the art is from during or after the war, and the styles of the work vary wildly. Here are pictures of some of my favorites. The history buff in me was satisfied by one of the other buildings on the property, which contains a huge collection of ancient religious statues and pottery. None of the buildings were air conditioned, so it was a little stuffy. But there was hardly anyone there, so I got to wander around wherever I wanted and look at the work as closely as I wanted. An ideal museum trip, all in all.

After wandering over to the Mekong Express office and picking up my bus ticket for today's adventure, I made my way to L'Usine, a major hub of expat life in Saigon. The first floor is a shop, and the second floor is a fancy cafe. Walking inside was bizarre--I felt like I'd been suddenly transported to Brooklyn. Mason jar lighting, chic black-and-white tile walls. Nicki Minaj blasting on the speakers. Not an authentic Vietnam experience by any means--but my salad was delicious. Hard to find western-style salad over here, as it requires rinsing the vegetables in pre-boiled water. And, you know, because not every culture has to be obsessed with salad.

It was a good salad, though.

While digesting the salad, I walked to the post office again and dropped off a gigantic batch of postcards, which made me feel like an extremely responsible and efficient pen pal. Then I rode an elevator to the 49th-floor Skydeck of the Bitexco Financial Tower, HCMC's tallest skyscraper, to watch the sunset. I knew the air pollution was bad here, but you can really see the smog from all the way up there. Nevertheless, I captured some great views of the sprawling city and the wide river winding through it.

I took another Grab bike home during rush hour--we drove along the river, which was a nice change of pace--and that evening we had another family dinner night at the hostel. Clam & sausage linguine. Yum yum yum. A bunch of us played cards late into the night, and I kept accidentally winning. What can I say? Beginner's luck.

I rose early this morning to pack up, and now I just have to wait for my 6-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh. Ugh.

Not ugh, actually--that's 6 hours I can spend revising my novel. I am supposed to be a writer, after all.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Temples on Easter

I spent my Easter Sunday exploring various temples in Saigon's Chinatown.

Chua Ong Saigon
The first was Hội quán Nghĩa An, otherwise known as Chùa Ông, dedicated to Guan Gong, a figure from the Three Kingdoms Period. This according to my very reliable translated-from-Vietnamese-by-Google Wikipedia research. It apparently dates back to the 1800's, though it was renovated in 2010--which makes sense, considering that its colors are vibrant and its sculptures look brand new. I walked carefully and quietly around the edges of the temple--didn't want to disturb the worshippers. The sun shone in and displayed the sacred decor to its fullest, brightest advantage.

Chua Ong Saigon



The second temple I visited, Thiên Hậu, must be much more famous, as it was packed with other foreign visitors, and information about it is far more readily available online. It was originally built all the way back in 1760, and the last time it was renovated was 1916, so it still retains its historical look--I simply mean that it's much easier to tell that it's old. It's dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, who protects seafarers. It's not only known for its beautiful architecture, but also for its many hanging incense coils, which give the interior a strong, sweet scent. The coils were lovely, although ash kept falling on me--which would normally be fine, except I was drenched with sweat, so the ash stuck there. I exited the temple looking much more dusty than when I entered it.
Thien Hau Saigon
Finally, I visited the Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda, which is dedicated to Me Sanh, the goddess of fertility. I didn't spend as much time in this one, as I was already feeling weak from the heat and I still wanted to find the center of Chinatown. But it was interesting to see. The figure of the goddess had an LED-light halo radiating from her head, blinking red-blue-green, red-blue-green, red-blue-green. (I don't like to take pictures of the figures of gods/goddesses--seems rude or sacrilegious somehow.) Not wanting to be associated with an obnoxious group of British tourists who clearly had no qualms about bothering worshippers, I slipped back outside.

Thien Hau Saigon
After my mini temple tour, I headed for Bình Tây Market, the central hub of HCMC's Chinatown, known as Chợ Lớn. That's where my misadventure began. First, it was a lot farther than I expected. Second, when I arrived at the market, I found that it was closed for renovations. Which didn't stop the shop owners, of course--they'd moved the market into several temporary structures in the middle of the road, tall, green metal shacks where the air was sweltering. Third, I was hoping to find some yummy Chinese street food and relive my Beijing days, but that didn't happen. I probably could have found some if I'd had the wherewithal to continue exploring, but by this point I was honestly afraid I might faint.

Cholon Shanghai
On the bright side, I bought a hat. And I found a pretty dragon statue! Almost makes up for the sunburn. Ouch.

I have just a few more days in HCMC before I head to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Despite the limited time frame, I may take it easy-ish today--I have to do laundry, and it will need time to dry. Also, this humid weather is doing more of a number on me than I expected. I think it's probably wise to take breaks.

But I'll be back at it tomorrow--still some museums I want to check out. And I have more postcards to send!

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Tourist in Saigon

I've been navigating HCMC on foot--Saigon, I should say. Everybody refers to it as Saigon, even locals, which I didn't realize before I came. Anyway, I've been walking everywhere, which is generally how I prefer to do things. Much easier to get to know a city if you walk around, see everything at a slower pace, get to know the streets and the shortcuts. I've only been walking about 5-6 miles per day, but it takes a lot longer here, since negotiating the crowded sidewalks and crossing the busy streets is such a complex endeavor.

My legs hurt a little, and my chub rub is at peak ouch (sorry for the TMI, friends), so I'm taking it easy today. I'll probably make a run to the supermarket--my hostel has a huge kitchen, cannot recommend The Common Room Project enough--and maybe chill at a cafe, or go out for dinner, but for the most part I'm going to relax. Besides, I have to plan the next step of my travels!

War Remnants Museum SaigonOne reason I've been walking so far is that my hostel is in District 5, and the majority of the big tourist attractions are in District 1. The first day that I was fully awake I went to the War Remnants Museum, which was horrific. The exhibits largely consisted of photographs. Graphic photographs. I'm not sure what was harder to look at: the bomb-mangled bodies or the tragic Agent Orange victims, many of whom were born as late as the 1990's and early 2000's. It puts the Vietnam War in sobering perspective and makes Trump's current military efforts even more terrifying. Outside in the yard they had loads of tanks and airplanes and helicopters. Good for pictures, I suppose, now that they're no longer being used to kill.

I tried to visit the old French Cathedral yesterday, but it was closed for Holy Week. Which is a good thing, in my opinion! Religious places should be closed when people are trying to pray. I can always go another day. Instead I visited the French Colonial post office, which is still a working post office. I admired the European architecture while sending off a few postcards, all under Ho Chi Minh's watchful eye. That guy is everywhere.

On the nearby Nguyễn Huệ walking street, I explored this old apartment complex that has been converted into a bunch of tiny shops and cafes. It was a lot of fun climbing the dusty, concrete stairwell and ducking into various doorways to see what I would find. I enjoyed a tea at a cafe on the 6th floor called The Letter, sitting on their balcony with a view of the city. Afterwards I went to Pasteur Street Brewing Company for a Jasmine IPA and some conversation with fellow travelers, and then I meandered back and forth trying desperately to find Banh Mi 37, which serves--you guessed it--banh mi. It's known for making the sandwiches with these little pork patties and a different kind of sauce instead of the typical mayo. I finally found the small cart tucked into an alley and, after waiting in line, walked away with the first banh mi of my trip. Delicious.

All the food I've had here so far is delicious, actually. The other evening my hostel had a family dinner night. Sarah, a vegan from Slovenia, gave us all tasks, and we cooked up roasted squash, beetroot hummus, baba ganoush, vegan mayo, and more. I ate way too much, of course.

As I mentioned, I'm trying to figure out where to go next. I was going to head to Cambodia from here, but now I've heard that I should skip Cambodia and go to Myanmar instead? Decisions, decisions. I was talking this morning with another guy from Chicago who's been traveling around Asia for two years. (Coincidentally, I feel like the first American I meet abroad is almost always from Chicago.) Our conversation:

Him: "You're going back to the States after this?"

Me: "Yeah, in two months."

Him: "Why?"

Why indeed.

(Just kidding--I love you guys.) 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hello from Ho Chi Minh City

I haven't had much of a chance to explore the city yet, but I did take a long walk yesterday afternoon. First impressions:
  • HOT. Like, 95-degrees-help-I'm-melting hot. Not that I didn't expect this--it is a tropical climate, after all. But I haven't experienced this kind of humidity in quite some time, so it's still a shock. 
  • As far as appearance goes, Ho Chi Minh City looks a lot like Beijing, but with more colorful buildings and with more plant life. The plants really are gorgeous--huge trees bursting through the sidewalk and flowering vines hanging over people's windows. Here's the view from my room in the hostel.
  • Sidewalks: they exist, but not consistently. They double as scooter parking, so half the time there's no room to walk. And you have to watch your step, as many of the tiles are cracked and uneven. People keep burning things on the sidewalk as well? Trash, maybe? Not sure. But I'll take inconsistent sidewalks over walking in the street--the traffic is wild. Crossing streets is an act of faith. Even when the light is in your favor, the scooters just cruise right around you. It will probably take some time for me to develop the confidence that they're not going to hit me. 
  • There are many dogs! Nice to see cute little fluffs everywhere. My hostel has a cat named Cersei. I was going to take a picture of him last night (yes, Cersei is a male cat, despite his namesake), but he was eating a giant cockroach. I figured it wasn't the most flattering time. 
  • Street food: plentiful and tasty. I sat myself down for a bowl of phở at a sidewalk cafe last night, and alas, I forgot to take a picture. I'm the worst tourist. It was yummy--though I will have to suck it up and get over my aversion to fatty meat while I'm here. It's just the texture that bothers me, rather than the flavor. So horribly chewy. ::shiver::
So here's a story that will only be meaningful to those of you who know my beverage preferences: I drank a coffee this morning. WHAT. I know. I didn't have much of a choice--one of the Vietnamese women working at my hostel was deeply adamant that I try a Vietnamese coffee--iced, with loads of sugary milk. I felt like it would have been rude to refuse, despite my deep dislike of coffee. Though I must say, the gobs of sugar made it palatable, at least. It sort of tasted like liquid tiramisu. I may even have more of them while I'm here, as it seems to be The Thing To Do. 

The agenda for today: maybe a bookstore, maybe some bánh mì, and certainly a trip to the War Remnants Museum, as I am a consummate nerd. My hostel is having a family dinner night as well, so this may be a good opportunity to speak to other humans. We shall see. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

ORD --> PVG --> SGN

Just a quick note to say that I'm flying to Vietnam today!

Or, rather, I'm flying 14 hours to Shanghai, and then I have a 4-hour layover, and then I have another 4-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Good thing I like airports.

Am I nervous? Yep. But I think I'm prepared as I can be. I'm all packed (and lightly, too!), I've got snacks for the plane(s), and I've pre-treated all my clothes with permethrin spray, because nobody wants Dengue Fever or Malaria. (Related: see this argument for wiping out mosquitos as a species. I mean, it's probably a bad idea, in the end. But still.)

I arrive early in the morning on April 12th--but for you it'll still be the 11th. If you need to get in touch with me, remember this easy rule: Vietnam is exactly 12 hours ahead of U.S. Central Time. So if it's 9 a.m. in Chicago, it's 9 p.m. in Vietnam. I should have ample internet access, so let's chat sometime.

Wish me luck! <3

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Road Trip

On Saturday afternoon I drove a few friends to Bloomington, Illinois for a concert.

When I first learned to drive, I absolutely loved doing it--I was something of a leadfoot. But now I'm a nervous driver. Not sure whether the change is due to the wisdom that comes with age or an increase in my anxiety. Maybe both.

Still, I enjoy taking road trips. A car's interior may be more cramped than that of an airplane, but the uniformity of clouds can't compare to even subtle changes in landscape as the miles slip past. Illinois isn't known for its majestic landscape, of course. Nevertheless, there's something poetic about acres upon acres of barren agricultural fields, emerging wet and dark from the winter and readying themselves to grow crops again. There are few trees, and many rivers. The land is so flat that you can see all the way to the horizon.

Then there are all the weird landmarks to witness. On I-55, in Joliet, there's a massive ExxonMobil oil refinery. The only appropriate word to describe this complex is "sinister." Long, spindly pipes spike high into the sky, banded with rust. Below them spread dozens of wide, concrete vats holding sour pools of chemicals--or at least that's what I imagine. At night, these structures are covered in so many blinking lights that the refinery appears to be a city skyline of its own. It looks like the type of place an authoritarian government would send enemies of the state to die. If I had my way, it would make an appearance on whimsical trucker noir Alice Isn't Dead--which just began its second season, podcast nerds.

On this particular trip, I had the pleasure of chauffeuring Meg, Mikaela, and Sara, whose partners are all in the band Typesetter. That night, Typesetter was opening for punk royalty Against Me! at Bloomington's Castle Theatre--a hip, vintage bastion of culture surrounded by drab office buildings and small, mid-century homes. Shamefully, it was only the second time I've seen Typesetter in concert, and their sound has changed substantially since the first time I saw them years ago. They've added a woman named Sarah to their ranks, a talented multi-instrumentalist who works everything from glockenspiel to trumpet into their music. These extras add a depth to their songs--her keyboard parts especially give their punk music a hint of 80's New Wave. I dig it. It's well-worth checking out.

It was my third time seeing Against Me! in concert. I certainly wouldn't consider myself a superfan, but I do enjoy their music. They're more of a band I listen to on shuffle. I didn't even realize they had put out another album in 2016, which explains why I was unfamiliar with so many songs on their setlist. That said, they put on consistently great live shows. High-energy and connected to the crowd, every time. And they always bring something special to it--for instance, that night Laura covered Mountain Goats' seminal classic "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton." Hail Satan, indeed.

After the concert we piled back into the car and drove through the black night on empty highways with no streetlights. We hardly saw a thing until the hideous refinery once again lurched into view. By that time it was nearly 2 a.m.

The whole evening was fun--no other way to put it. I'm glad I had the opportunity to do something so distinctly American before I fly to the other side of the world.