Saturday, October 8, 2011

Traffic in Hanoi is very unique.  Notice the scooter traffic.  This was shot with an iPhone 4.  Processed with the iPhone iMovie app.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Chidlren of Sapa

(I have to admit that this shot was not taken by me, but taken by my friend Mr. Binh using my Olympus EPL1 with the 20mm Panny lens. It's actually a really good shot.)

This image still stalks me.  If you didn't get the last posting, one evening while walking around the area, we sat down and had some coffee. Typically, a H'mong Hill tribe member would come up, but this time it was a little girl. She was selling some stuff, but what was more strange was that we noticed that she was carrying a baby girl as well. We bought a few little trinkets from her, and gave her something to drink. The way she seemed to look, she seemed to be in a work mindset.

Essentially, in Sapa, the hill tribes have adapted to the tourism industry. I've observed many children selling silver, textiles and other stuff. They don't have to go in costume, but just go as they always have dressed. In fact, the indigo dye that they use is very distinct. If you buy anything from them, you had better make sure you wash it on your own, otherwise everything else in the load will turn blue. The children of Sapa are hustling. This is late in the evening. No child labor laws out in this part of the world. She's a cute kid, but also a saleswoman. Now, people in the US may complain about this sort of stuff, but the world is bigger than the US. People do whatever they have to do to live.

Ironically, the children of Sapa probably speak English better than the Vietnamese tourists that come to visit this area. In 10 years, this kid probably will be selling stuff using perfect English.
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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Of street food and mall food, Bangkok

McDonalds, Bangkok
iPhone Hispstamatic

Even in Bangkok, Thailand, can you not escape fast food.  Ronald McDonald offers a wai as a greeting to you.  A thin and rather good looking Thai girl advertises "I'm Loving It!" in the background.  On average a Big Mac meal is around 130 Baht or around 4 dollars.  That's significantly cheaper than what is in the USA which is more like 7 dollars.  The menu is modified to fit the local sense.  For breakfast, they have a thing called jook, which is like rice porridge.

Jook is not a joke.

For the most part, it was passable as far as jook is concerned.  This item cost me 29 baht, or basically a dollar.  The jook I'm used to has stuff that I normally wouldn't eat like liver and kidney.  It's the only way I would eat that stuff.  This item is probably not going to make it to the US.    

Regular Thai people are in a different income range.  You have some who make about 5,000 Baht a month.  Essentially that equates to about 160 dollars a month in terms of earned wages.  Many Thais only make about 200 baht a day.  Most of the workforce therefore tends to cater to street food vendors. 

Papaya Salad being made on the street.

For the most part, everyone works in Thailand.  If you get fired, you open up a stall by the corner and start to cook if you got any sort of ability.  Most focus on one dish.  The stall above pretty much only does papaya salad.  That's all they do.  You walk to another vendor for noodles.  Let's say you want noodles.  Go to a 7/11 or Family Mart.  Chances are a noodle vendor will be parked directly in front of the door.  Again, not possible in the US.  But then, this might be why Thailand's unemployment rate is well under 3%.    

Thai Noodles in front of a Family Mart store. 

There is a large variety of foods available on the streets of Bangkok.  Because of the ungodly heat during the day, many Thais come out at night.  In fact, this city doesn't sleep.  You see Thai people sitting in front of a 7/11 store having noodles with a Leo Beer that they bought in the 7/11.  No open container law here.  By the way, contrary to belief, I see Thais drinking Leo more than Singha.  Chang is really high on the consumption list.  Here are a few more shots of some of the stalls that I saw.  

How most Bangkok Thai eat.

Some street food on display.

Other options for picky visitors?  Answer:  The Mall.  Now, the mall in Thailand is not like the mall in the USA.  It is much more than just a mall.  US malls lack a variety of stores.  In fact, the sense of choice in a US mall is less than in Bangkok.  The Food Court alone in any of the malls in Bangkok make the US malls look like the deserted mall parking lot in Back to the Future.  The Food Court in Central is a good example of how behind the US is in terms of this sort of stuff.  Go to Siam Square, or Paragon for a better idea.  In a small local food court mall, you can get anything you like.  In fact, the mall concept makes sense in Thailand.  Why?  The HEAT.  Malls have AC!  Have street food but not bake into a skewer of meat.   

Fried Bananas at a mall

Pulled Pork in a Mall

If you are a tourist, or don't have a good sense of judgment about food, you can grab essentially what is street food in the mall.  Now the food police in America wouldn't approve of some of the temperature monitoring and other things, but if you are paranoid about that fact, why did you go to SE Asia in the darn first place.  The people eat this stuff all the time.  Any yes, the Thai food is different than in the US.  Like anything, it is uneven.  But then, if you didn't like a meal, you only blew a dollar versus 10 buckaroos.    

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vietnam to invest major tourism bucks in Central Vietnam, Hue

Central Vietnam, 2010

According to Vietnam News, Central Vietnam, specifically the area around Hue, is going to get about a million buckaroos to boost tourism for 2012.  The goal apparently is to boost the amount of tourism by about 7 to 8 million visitors.

Tourism is a big economic booster in SE Asia.  The only hope is that you get the "good" tourists versus some of the "bad" tourists.  On my way back from Hanoi, I noticed some very seedy "farangs" with really disheveled looks.  Some actually sort of smelled a little too.  Hue is a beautiful city.  There are also a lot of really nice spots there.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Walkabout in Hanoi with an iPhone

iPhone 4, Pano 

Hot diggity dog with extra mustard!  Not all my Hanoi iPhone pics were lost.  Apparently, the Picasa program that I use to organize my travel photos managed to copy the pictures into a folder.  It was labeled 2010, but it turned out to be the iPhone photo library.  So, I get to show you some stuff that I shot with the gadget.  The above shot was taken from the restaurant.  I've also located my videos for Hanoi traffic, but I need to figure out a way to edit those things.  

Discreteness.  One of the things that I am using more and more is the iPhone to capture what I observe in my travels around Hanoi.  People are not intimidated by a person shooting pictures with it.  The little gadget has a few advantages over my point and shoot, which I used during the last visit to Hanoi.  It doesn't scream out, CAMERA.  With the phone, I was more discrete.  In other words, I wasn't broadcasting myself as the "Stupid American Tourist" with big call signs with an DSLR rig like a Canon or Nikon around your neck.  I love the wide angle lens of my Nikon D80, but there are some advantages to the photography apps that I was able to use.  I observed people feeling their personal space being violated by these huge cameras with huge lenses.  With the iPhone, I just sort of shot street scenes.    

The Hipstamatic app is pretty much what I am using for these shots.  It produces some interesting effects. This is a shot of the train station in Hanoi.  From here, I went with some friends to Sapa.  Traveling like other Vietnamese is enlightening.  Let's say when you travel in Vietnam, it isn't like taking AMTRAC or the MTA Blue Line in Los Angeles.  

What I tried to do is to take shots of the Old Quarter as I walked about the area.  The little Hisptamatic app seems to accentuate a particular type of feel in the images.  Taking shots with this thing felt more like using a Polaroid, since the pics were usually squarish.  So here are my results, along with my random thoughts of gibberish.       

This gate is older than America.  There are buildings in Hanoi that predate the USA by well . . . you know.  Vietnam is an old country.  There were a number of banners and flags celebrating the 1000 year birthday of the city.  That's right, 1000 years.  My home in Long Beach is considered to be "Historical" because it was built in 1918.  Hanoi, specifically the Old Quarter, was founded in 1010.  

The Hanoi of 2011is a bustling city accentuated by the cacaphony of honking horns, motorbikes, and the general hum of a living and breathing city.  It is so not Los Angeles.  People walk.  The traffic is well, let's say, unique.  I walked around the Old Quarter, and the age of the city becomes very apparent.  Sections of streets sell specific products.  There was one street that only sold hammocks.  

As you can tell, the streets are narrow, and the shops are also narrow but deep.  I remember that the explanation was that you were taxed based on how much space the building front took up.  Essentially, these places are the Vietnamese equivalent of shop houses.  

Commerce is very prominent in Hanoi.  Vendors of all kinds sell many things.  I remember when I took the train ride from the Sapa region back to Hanoi, there were vendors selling baguettes.  The Vietnamese take chunks of bread and dip them in condensed milk.  I just like bread, so no condensed milk for me. 

The one thing that I found really nice is that you can have a lot of foot traffic in the Old Quarter.  In fact, I rarely saw any vacant stores.  All the stores were active, and in addition to that, there were vendors selling items on the street itself.  Realistically, this wouldn't happen in the USA.  We have so many regulations in terms of commerce, but then you don't have the shadow of the censorship.  You are free to say anything, except stuff about the government.  It is sort of like Thailand.  You say anything bad about the King, and you are in big trouble.  

The city is alive.  However, unlike Bangkok, the city does sleep.  Effectively many of the shops close after about 11PM.  There are sections of the city that still seem to bustle.  Bangkok on the other hand seems to become active at 11PM during the evening.  

Things are wrapped around the old in Hanoi.  The electrical grid seems to be an ad hoc experiment in how quickly can you make an octopus wiring problem.  The modern and the ancient collapse upon each other in Hanoi.  

There are these quaint alleyways that zig zag through this part of the city.  The scooters are ever present, reminding you that you are not looking at an old photograph of an ancient city.  It is an ancient city with various levels of adaptations.  The scooter is a good example.  Hanoi is a city that I would call scooter town.  The scooters average about 150cc, and they are pretty good with mileage.  The bigger thing is that having a big car is not an advantage in Hanoi.  It is hard to maneuver in certain parts of Hanoi in anything bigger than a scooter.  The city was not designed around the car, like Los Angeles. 

As you can tell.  Cars are not really a popular item here.  Part of it is the cost.  It is very expensive for the average Vietnamese to buy a car.  In fact, even in Thailand, a car is an expensive thing.  In certain parts of Thailand, a house costs the same as a car.  So, it makes perfect sense for the scooter to be the primary form of transportation here.  

A person asked me, can you live here?  I said.  Maybe.  There are advantages and disadvantages to all places.   

Thailand Khao Lak, Waterfall. Location of tsunami aquaphobia sessions

I've decided to try out the videolog aspect of blogging.  I usually don't like to get photographed.  I'm not into that sort of thing.  But then, I guess people want to get more of a clear idea on what we did in the past as part of working with my fledgling NGO.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Children of Sapa, 2011

One of the things that is troubling is that many of the children of Sapa work the streets selling items.  This little girl approached us to sell some textile goods, but we noticed that she was carrying a sleeping baby as well.  We gave her a drink and told her to take a break and relax.  

Essentially, there is no child labor law in this part of the world.  Everyone works including the children.  The irony is that despite their situation, most of these hill tribe kids have a rudimentary level of English speaking skills.  Of course they speak Vietnamese too.  

Back in Thailand, July August 2011

iPhone Hipstamatic shot

We were taking a road trip back to Phang Nga. On the way, there is essentially a rest area that is about half way between Bangkok and Phang Nga.  As usual, there is a 7/11.  7/11 is very prominent in Thailand.  They serve as your go to store as there is one every few blocks.  Well, I call this the Buddha of 7/11.  It is right in front of the store. 

When you drive through Thailand, this is what you see.  Green. When I tell people Thailand is green, they underestimate how green it is.  

Sapa, Vietnam. Hill Tribe Dance

iPhone Pano shot from balcony.   Not the best, but you get the picture.

When I was an undergrad, I actually studied a little bit about Marx.  One of the things that I remember is that he noted that the means of production governs the means of existence.  Essentially, your economic structure often influences how you conduct your life.  Now, after several years, I was actually really able to see how that change could be transparently clear.

In the Sapa region, the means of production is directly tied into a growing tourism industry.  The problem about this situation is that it has changed the very fabric of how people live in Sapa.  The hill tribe people were primarily subsistence farmers, but because of the tourism industry, they have modified their lives in order to maximize their ability to sell.  The first thing that will happen is that you will be immediately greeted by young women in indigo clothes trying to sell food, jewelry, linen, and other clothing items.

In this part of the region, I hardly encountered any Americans.  Most of the people I encountered were French or Australians.  Pretty much, in this part of the world, the Aussies are all over the place.  It is raining in this picture.  

One of the things that the hill tribes have done is to use their traditions as a tourist attraction.  At the Cat Cat Village location, there is a small performance space for them to show their various dances. This is the entrance to it.  

The performances were pretty nice.  The flag of Vietnam is displayed pretty prominently here.

The Region of Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam.  Using iPhone 4 Pano application

During the dog days of Summer in Hanoi, the Vietnamese take bus or train trips up to the Sapa region of North West Vietnam.  It is known for the terraced rice farming.  This sort of farming can also be found in China. 

Terraced farming is pretty much the norm in Sapa.  Similar forms of farming also occurs in Southern China, and it also called "step up" farming in Japan.  Essentially it is a form of adaptation to the agricultural limitations of the area. Sapa is largely an area entirely devoted to the growing of rice.  The fields turn yellow when the rice is close to being harvested.  Water is also heavily managed in the area with a series of canals, paddy fields and other water effects.  This is a water pump.

This was taken using my Olympus EPL1.  Effectively, I've ditched the DSLR for the sake of weight.  Some of my shots are not being composed and shot using the iPhone4.  Still, you do need a full format camera lens to get any sort of detail.  Below is a shot of a loom in a shop/house.  This is located in a location called Cat Cat. Most of the hotels are also called Cat Cat by the way.  What you will see is that the tourism component of the region has expanded drastically.  It has changed the way the Hmong live now too.

Another economic engine for the area is textile.  Most of the Hmong can be observed wearing their distinct indigo blue clothes.  They also have converted their villages into tourist destinations.  This is an example of showcasing their textiles.  When you arrive, Hmong follow you around trying to sell you textiles, silver bracelets and other stuff.    

Street food is quite evident throughout the area.  Here, the local villager is grilling sticky rice that has been stuffed into bamboo.  It is actually quite tasty. 

Sapa is actually very unique in Vietnam.  The area is largely populated by the hill tribes, but they have adapted to the tourism component.  

This man is making sculptures out of a soft white rock here.  The tools of the trade are displayed before him.  Again, with the new economic model set by Doi Moi policy changes, commerce is emerging in all parts of Vietnam.  But with such changes, life has also changed for many.  It has extended to the hill tribe people, who converted their homes into a tourist attraction.     

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The turtles of Hoai Kiem Lake

My friends here first brought me to this coffee shop at the top of a building.  It had a good view of the lake and pagonda.

Here's my shot of the lake again.  I had a panoramic shot, but in my brilliance, I accidentally deleted it off my iPhone.

There is a recurrent myth associated with this lake.  It largely is connected to the turtles of the lake.  In the fifteenth century, a  Lê Lợi became emperor of Vietnam.  Supposedly, he had this sword, which was taken by a turtle back into the lake.  It's the reason why they call it in English, "The Lake of the Returned Sword."  As least this is what I got out of Wikipedia.  There is a temple on the lake called the "Temple of the Jade Mountain."  

The Entrance to the place called in Vietnamese,  Đền Ngọc Sơn, is rather ornate.  There are a number of murals that remind me of Confucian and Taoist concepts.  The temple itself has a person who is writing, what I believe to be fortunes on paper.  He had a line going. 

Additionally, the view of the lake is actually quite nice from this location.  It is a tourist destination, as you had to pay an entrance fee. 

The temple itself feels very Chinese.  In fact, the one color that I would associate with the temple interior is red. 

The turtle is preserved and on display.  

Turtles or Tortoises have a significance to Vietnamese.  It also seems to be a motif also connected to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, which has a number of tortoises on display associated with various scholars.  Supposedly, you rub the head to get some luck. 

If you can tell, the lake has a very distinct green color.  It is located in the heart of Hanoi, so I wouldn't recommend swimming in that water.  Sort of like the idea of swimming in LA's Echo Park Lake or MacArthur Park.  Not recommended. 

It has a nice view of Hanoi.  


Monday, July 25, 2011

Symbolism of Lotus fields

Hanoi is a hot city.  It is an ancient city.

Recently, I took a motorcycle ride with a friend to eat at a Hanoi restaurant, not frequented by the tourists. Afterwards, he took me to an area which is heavily populated by Lotus farms.

Incredibly, the lotus has a number of uses.  Lotus root is often cooked.  The lotus flower is often quite desirable.  The lotus seeds are snacks.  Each of the colors of the lotus in Buddhism has an associated symbolic component to it.  

Most often, I see pictures of brides posing with the flowers, or posing in lotus fields.  In talking to my friend, he told me that many couples take their wedding pictures in lotus fields.  Apparently, there is a huge industry surrounding the notion of wedding pictures in Vietnam.  You travel to places just to take these pictures.  The wedding hasn't even started in a year yet.  The people sitting next to me came with an entourage.  The girl came in a wedding dress.  The photographer came with his full DSLR rig.  The wedding wasn't scheduled until another year.  

In the meantime, I just sat there and had some tea.  I pondered about this aspect of weddings in Vietnam.  It's so different than the US.  We can just go to Vegas and get married by an Elvis impersonator.

But then, I'm able to have tea in a shack next to a wedding party. By the way, it seems that drinking hot tea during the day is also a thing to do in Vietnam.  

The Perils of relying on just the iPhone as a camera

All good ideas often get sidetracked by stupid user decisions.

Traffic in Hanoi is unique.  For a taste, I could use the iPhone to record video.  Yeah, that's right.  I thought I was going to string together some video and just upload.  Well, that sort of got undermined.  As I was deleting some bad shots on the iPhone 4, I somehow managed to delete almost a days worth of photographs out of the phone.  They are gone.  This includes a pretty good set of video clips I had of Hanoi traffic.  Darn.

I had originally composed a video of the traffic in the Old Quarter of Hanoi using iMovie.  Actually, it looked pretty good, and I was quite pleased with myself.  But then, it is now gone including a number of pretty nice artsy shots I took.

Well, I've installed Photector on the iPhone now, so I don't screw it up again.  Of course, you have to have a jailbroken phone to do this.

Vietnamese Food, Lake View in Hanoi

After I settled in, I had dinner with my friends in Hanoi.  I had to drop off a load of stuff that I was bringing to them from the US.  One thing about the amount of stuff was that it forced me to pack more efficiently.  I've pretty much gotten to the point where I could pull off a one bag trip, but because I am carrying liquids, the carry on option was null and void.  It's amazing what you can pack in a 25 inch bag.

I took a taxi ride to the restaurant.  One of the interesting set ups is how the architecture is governed.   They asked what I would like to order.  Japanese OK?  I said, Hanoi food.  So I got Hanoi food.  This is a sample.  It's not like Thai food in which the heat level can be volcanic.

The way things appear to go is that with many big meals, they have some libations.  Usually, they cheer every once and a while, but they don't really pound the suds down.  Each meal seems to be accompanied by some sort of drink whether or not it is coffee or beer or whatever they decide to toast.

Restaurants can literally open up anywhere.  For example, in the Old Quarter, you often find Pho stands in the narrow alleyways of the city.  This place always seemed to be crowded.

There are incredible views.  I went to this coffee place next to the Hoan Kiem Lake.  Supposedly this lake has some turtles which apparently are considered to be sacred in Vietnamese culture.  

Hanoi, it's been a long time.

Hanoi.  I'm back in this town, on the same street, and actually in the same hotel room that I had booked last time I was here.  This time, I'm pretty much going local.  No tourism guide hitch for me.  I'm going native, or actually I'm going to be escorted by Hanoi friends.

I was met at the airport by my friend, Bich.  When it was time to get over to the Hanoi Boutique Hotel 1, well, let's just say it was a roundabout trip.  Being pretty much lost in terms of the Vietnamese language, I could tell that Bich was sort of irritated with the taxi driver.  She told me later that the driver was taking us the long way around to the Old Hanoi quarter.  What I did get was a good 101 picture of Hanoi traffic.  At first, it is sort of amazing that anyone would want to drive.

1.  Bigger the vehicle, the better the right of way.
2.  Pedestrians beware.  Walk steady.  The bikes will go around you.
3.  It's chaotic, but apparently everyone sort of rides within certain understood rules.

As you can tell, there are more motorbikes than necessarily cars.  This is what differentiates Hanoi from Bangkok.  The one thing that I did observe is that it is still possible to go to more than one place in Hanoi.  It's almost impossible in Bangkok with terminal gridlock in the heart of the city.  

Occassionally, you will see merchants literally carrying their wares on the top of their heads.  In Vietnam, it seems that there is no license fee issue.  Want to start a business?  Put something together off the top of your head and go for it.