Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nha Trang

Cristina and I took a week off work to meet up with Tessa and Reuben, who made the California to Viet Nam trek. After a brief rendezvous in Ha Noi, we all flew down to Nha Trang, on the southern coast, for some serious R&R.

I'm not sure what "Nha Trang" translates to in English, but if it were to mean something approximating "As close to paradise as you're going to get in these parts" I wouldn't be surprised.

Nha Trang at night.

This blog isn't really up to the task of explaining the rather convoluted history of how Viet Nam arrived at its current state. However, for those of us raised on Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon, it may come as a surprise to find out that there were seriously dramatic political shifts prior to the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon administrations. The Vietnamese have been carving out this corner of the world for centuries. One of the previous inhabitants of southern and central Viet Nam were the Champas. The Champa kingdom was of Indian extraction, and was sanwiched between the Viet in the north and the Khmer in the south, and eventually got crushed by the Vietnamese. Before this, however, they built a whole bunch of cool structures that the tourist books call "Champa Towers." Above is a picture of the Po Nagar Champa tower.

Many of these temples feature "linga" which is a polite term for "sculptures of erect penises with an image of Shiva carved into it" (I'm not making this up). I would have taken a picture of the lingam at Po Nagar but there were people praying, so it didn't seem right.

The most famous pagoda in Nha Trang features a giant Buddha statue. Around the base are tributes to the monks who immolated themselves to protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the Ngô Đình Diệm administration.

The same pagoda features another statue of a reclining Buddha.

Cristina and Tessa on our island hopping boat tour, featuring a snorkelling session complete with several thousand jellyfish and a coral reef. The pain was minimal, the sight was impressive.

A coming storm.

Some dramatic lighting on the taxi ride to the airport as Cristina and I say goodbye to Nha Trang.

Saturday, August 8, 2009



Cristina was given a 100 dong note this week as a gift. The spirit of the gift lay not in its monetary value (.0056 U.S. dollars) but in its relative rarity, as 100 dong notes haven't been printed for some time in Viet Nam.

So I was going to post a blog about how weird it is to have an exchange rate of 17,800 dong to 1 U.S. dollar, and the experience of holding a note that has the number 500,000 printed on it (that's ~30 dollars U.S. for those of you who don't want to do the math).

Even worse, I was going to write about having a 500,000 dong note and it being useless because I wanted to buy a bowl of bahn da cua, which costs 10,000 dong, and not being able to because no bahn da cua stand would be willing to figure out how to make 490,000 in change.

So given the fact that during my life I've proven myself to be an asshole in about 99 different ways (make it an even 100 after writing this blog) and given the current economic climate, I will not whine about having 500,000 when I needed 10,000, or anything to that effect (at least, not any more than I already have, indirectly as it may have been).

Instead I'll geek out for a moment on the Zimbabwean dollar...

This is a 100 trillion dollar note, printed this year by the central bank of Zimbabwe. It is the result of a monthly inflation rate estimated to have topped out around 220 million per cent. That's an annual inflation rate over 89 sextillion percent, meaning that the price of goods doubled every 24 hours. You paid 50 billion for that loaf of bread yesterday? Well, now it's 100 billion.

Mind you, this 100 trillion dollars is only 100 trillion after the government of Zimbabwe revalued their currency several times. Which is to say that they would chop 10 zeros of their denomination and announce that 10 billion dollars would equal 1 dollar. If they hadn't revalued their currency this 100 trillion dollar note would actually be a 10 septillion dollar note, that's 10 with 25 zeros following it.

How the fuck does this happen? The academic answer is that hyperinflation occurs when a government straddled with debt begins printing money at a much faster rate than the growth of its gross national production. Still, a 10 septillion dollar note? This is madness.

But then I've heard the reports that Fannie Mae is requesting another 10 billion dollars from the U.S. taxpayers. Since 850 billion has been spread around, what's 10 more? And even if a huge sector of the global economic interest lies in the strength of the U.S. dollar, everything is O.K., yes?

After all, the Federal Reserve can always print more money.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ghost Park

There's an abandoned amusement park here in Hai Phong. Cristina and I managed to get inside and snap a few pictures before a guy with about three teeth started yelling at us in Vietnamese. I'm not sure what he said exactly, but I'm guessing that it translated roughly to, "Get the fuck out of here before my dog chews a hole in your groin."

There is also an operating amusement park just up the road, but who wants pictures of happy children when you can look at creepy pictures of a ghost park?

This post is in memory of Marshall Scotty's Playland Park (1956-1983),in Lakeside east of San Diego, which currently stands in comparable disrepair, but which also provided more than a few happy memories:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Skin Disease of the Month


There was (is?) a homeopathic movement involving the consumption of colloidal silver. Proponents suggest that colloidal silver provides any number of health benefits, including a significant boost to the immune system which leaves them malady free (except for the fact that the consumption of excessive amounts of silver results in the irreversible condition known as Argyria, in which the victim's skin turns blue).

This is not to be confused with Methemoglobinemia, a genetic condition which interferes with the amount of oxygen that is delivered to the skin, causing it to turn blue. A famous series of cases occurred when two Kentucky clans carrying the recessive Methemoglobinemia gene intermarried and began producing blue offspring. They were known as The Blue Fugates of Kentucky:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bia Hoi

This is bia hoi, "fresh beer," an institution of Vietnamese society. Bia hoi refers to both the drink and the establishment that serves it. As there is a bia hoi directly outside the school, and it costs 3000 dong per glass (that's 17 cents U.S.), I have consumed more than a few.

"Hoi," by the way, is not pronounced "hoy" as one might expect, but "huh-ee" (except you say it as one syllable). "Hoy," in fact, means "smelly." So for the first month or so after our arrival, I would sit down at my favorite bia hoi and order up a glass of smelly beer.

Bia hoi is stored in non-pressurized, insulated kegs. They have to sell all the beer by the end of the day because it goes flat, and there is a noticeable difference between a glass tapped from the bottom of a keg and a glass tapped from a new keg.

Note that these kegs are from the local bia hoi producer in Hai Phong. There are a couple of other brands in town, including one from Hanoi that is slightly more expensive. I prefer the local brew though.

In the late afternoon the bia hois begin to fill up and are packed around 8pm (although it is pretty common to see a few beer enthusiasts knocking back some brews as early as 7 in the morning).

Chilling out at a bia hoi involves (continuously) toasting the good health of your drinking companions and enjoying the fact that the heat has broken for the time being (that is if, in fact, the heat has broken; if not then it is a time for simply toasting the good health of your drinking companions--continuously).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Skin Disease of the Month

Harlequin-type Ichthyosis.

It makes Necrotizing Fasciitis look like a cold sore.

Google image it at your own risk.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

When in Rome...

In Viet Nam there are a number of traditions that are followed within the ebb and flow of the lunar calendar. For example, on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month the landlady will lay out offerings of food, rice wine, cigarettes, scotch, flowers and the like on the altar that sits on the top floor of our house. This is to promote prosperity and good fortune within the household.

Recently Cristina and I took part in a small ritual to rid our body of insects. Last week one of the locals informed us that on the fifth day of the fifth month (of the lunar calendar) we should eat lychees and plums before noon "to get rid of the insects" in our body. We weren't sure what this meant, and several possible interpretations (none of which seemed pleasant) were discussed, but the rather sizable language barrier that we face when talking to the locals prevented any sort of firm understanding of what was supposed to happen or why.

Fortunately, Hang (pronounced "hung") a recent addition to the teachers' house was able to clue us in, as she is both a native of Hai Phong and fluent in English (believe you me when I say this comes in handy at times). The insects referred to actually meant parasitic worms, and Hang suggested that instead of eating lychees and plums we eat sticky rice cooked with wine to rid ourselves of them, a more traditional de-worming dish.

So we did.

(But only after the rice was placed on the altar for about twenty minutes to get its mojo working.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rules Change In The East

It has been said by more than one expat that there are no traffic laws in Vietnam. But although red lights are routinely ignored, driving down the opposite side of the street into oncoming traffic is considered acceptable, and that during rush hour intersections generally resemble one of Dante's circles of hell, it is not entirely accurate to say that there are no rules governing traffic.

Here are the few that I've figured out:

1) The main responsibility of the driver is to avoid hitting anything directly in front of them.

2) The horn is used (almost ceaselessly) to indicate that you are behind someone and are driving faster than they are.

3) Bigger vehicles trump smaller vehicles unless the smaller vehicles have enough maneuverablity and speed to avoid being pasted by the larger vehicle.

4) Generally speaking you never stop unless, a) you choose to stop at a red light, b) death will occur if you don't stop. This is especially true if you are a pedestrian attempting to cross a street. Instead you either speed up or slow down, and if you are driving a vehicle you can change direction. If you are a pedestrian and you choose to change direction in the middle of traffic this is tantamount to playing Russian roulette.

This is what it looks like to drive into oncoming traffic, from the perspective of a mortal (i.e. me) on the back of a motorbike.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Necrotizing Fasciitis

Whatever you NOT perform a Google image search of Necrotizing Fasciitis.

You've been warned.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Three fragments regarding fruit

First one:

I was asking for limes from a fruit vendor who speaks a little English, and when I saw a basket of them I pointed and said, "Limes."

"No, no," she said, "lemons."

Having quartered more than a few limes in my life, I felt reasonably assured in telling her, "In English, they are called limes."

"No," she said, "they are lemons."

And there it is. Now when I need limes, I ask for lemons.

Second one:

They have green oranges here.

Third one:
2 shots of rice vodka
3 oz orange juice
1 1/2 oz pineapple juice
1 tbs peach nectar
Pour over ice, top with club soda and garnish with a lime wedge.
Call it whatever you want; I call it a Saigon Sling.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Dog Meat Chronicles, part 1

A few things about eating dog meat:

The funkiest thing about the meal wasn't actually the dog meat itself but the sauce that is used on the side for dipping, muom tom. Muom tom is a sauce made from shrimp paste that I suspect goes through some sort of fermentation process as it certainly stings the nostrils. Muom dom is a greyish lavendar color, which I found a tad disconcerting as well. Fortunately my hosts provided me with a dish of salt, lime juice, and chiles to use as an alternative.

The locals eat dog meat at the end of the lunar month in order to deflect trouble and bad luck. It is unlucky to eat dog meat at the beginning of the month. They also like to eat dog meat when it rains.

It is known in Vietnam as "thit cho" and is pronounced "teet chaw" (which is also the same way the students at school pronounce the word "teacher").

Three different preparations of dog meat: on the bottom is stewed dog meat, above that is roasted dog meat, to the right is dog liver and sausage. At the top of the picture is a dish of muom tom. Later in the meal dog meat on the bone that had been simmered in some sort of broth also came out.

The dog stew was my favorite part of the meal and was quite good in a slow-cooked meat sort of way. The roasted dog was good except for the skin, which was much tougher and chewier than I expected.

These are my hosts and meal companions. That's Hoan (American name: Carlos) and Mr. Tien, the boss men, on the right. The other three are security guards at the school.

The meal was accompanied with what they called rice wine, but although they served it in wine size portions I'm pretty sure that any distilled spirit that rates at 70 proof would be more accurately called liquor. The guy on the left is the only one in this group who can handle his drink. It was his job to make sure the glasses stayed full (note the 2 liter jug at his feet).

They assured me that at the next dog meat party dog testicles would be served.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Different strokes for different folks

Since the students in my English classes like to listen to music, I usually try to play a song in each class and center an activity around it. So far the success rate for bringing in music from my collection that they actually enjoy has been pretty low (low being around .1 - .2 percent, note the decimal points).

Artists that my students do not like:

Pink Martini
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
The Kinks
Bob Marley
The Temptations
Neil Young

Comments for these artists have ranged from, "This music is very bad" to "I think this music is horrible."

Artists most requested by my students:

Brittney Spears
Justin Timberlake
Lincoln Park

This has been one of the most difficult aspects of my job.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gershom, c'est moi

And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread. And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Some views from my roof

Good artists borrow, great artists steal. This blog qualifies as neither great, nor art so I must give credit where credit is due. Since a few people have complimented the photo of the blue lit hotel room window, Cristina would like everyone to know that she is the one who took it.

Happy Lunar New Year

We arrived in Vietnam shortly before the lunar new year celebration. The party lasted the better part of a week and involved toasting the good health and good fortune of our fellow revelers with gargantuan amounts of rice liquor and sometimes scotch. For the Vietnamese, of course, it involved a bit more: cleaning house, visiting the local pagoda, planting kumquat trees, and engaging in nonstop karaoke performances (as well as consuming gargantuan amounts of rice liquor and sometimes scotch).

The most impressive sight of the holiday was the view of thousands of sky lanterns floating through the air. The launching of a sky lantern is supposed to symbolize the letting go of stress, problems, and the like. But let's face it, it's pretty cool to soak a rag in oil and launch it into the air with you own mini hot air balloon.

This is our neighbors launching a sky lantern from their roof. The authorities are making a lot of noise about outlawing sky lanterns (apparently fires knocked out power in a few sections of Hanoi this year due to people letting go of their worries).