Saturday, March 04, 2006

Yo! - From The Delta To The DMZ!

Our daughter, Della, also happened to be in Vietnam, as part of her 6-month excursion around the world. Staying in Hanoi at the time we arrived incountry, she boarded a flight south, and joined us in Ho Chi Minh City; a welcome surprize!

Every culture has its own laguage and customs, and we have found that the four most important phrases to acquire early on in any country you visit are; hello, please, thanks and cheers! The judicuous use of any or all of these words is greatly appreciated by the local population, and they can open doors for you, (even if sometimes they are marked EXIT)! In this particular case, the Vietnamese word for hello is nay, nay; please is dong tu; thanks is cam on, and cheers is Yo! Easy enough? You are now ready to deal with any contingency!

Eager to see some of the neighboring area, we planned two excursions; one to a resort town, (which also happened to have been a huge US Base during the Vietnam War), at nearby Vang Tau Island. It was accessible by means of a 1.5 hour boatride on a Russian Hydrofoil, which operate from a wharf just outside our hotel. Constructed of what the guide book delicately termed 'wood and dented metal' the hydrofoils are identical to models cruising the Volga River, and were a source of curiosity for Jay and myself from our first arrival. Neither of us had been on such a craft, and were interested in doing so. Thus, early in the morning (for us, anyway) we were off in a cloud of choking diesel smoke, and a bit of suspicion that this particular conveyance had seen its best days about 15 years ago. Our vessel, the Vina Express II, (the crew told us to not ask what happed to the original), was s slightly-seedy, rusting hulk that was decorated in Early Soviet Chintz; it had the same dismal blue and white interior that had graced the old diesel-electric train we had taken from Hong Kong to Shanghai a few years ago. To top it off, there was an oddly-incongruious plastic bowl of yellow flowers set on the foreward bulkhead, and it was fitted with what appeared to be seating either cast-off from the Bolshoi, or salvaged from yet another Aerofloat misadventure. To further reinforce my already-fragile faith in Russian Engineering, no sooner had we got up to speed than the slap of a wave dropped a plug from the overhead TV monitor, putting that out of order for the trip. Just to further foster passenger confidence in this aging crate, from time-to-time a technician would wander into the cabin, lift an inspection hatch, and after rummaging around for a few minutes would then retire to the aft cabin shaking his head, (no doubt to immediately don a personal floatation device and hang around the life boats). At least the air conditioning worked.

I must say, the thing did clip along at a smart pace; at least until the big waves got at it offshore. At this point I was forcefully reminded why some 40 years ago the Royal Canadian Navy gave up its plans to use hydrofoils as sub-chasers. At least one passenger beat a hasty retreat from the cabin, clutching the air-sick bag fortutiously tucked into the seat, while others didn't look like they were enjoying the ride one bit. Meanwhile, I couldn't help notice that both the sick-bags, and the drinking water they handed out, were labelled as being from Air Vietnam. Some sort of corporate tie-in, I suppose? (More likely the visible evidence of the internal workings of the local black market!)

Anyway, we arrived at our destination in one piece, and set off to explore the town and its beaches. We found that, this being the off-season, things were quiet, but it is obvious that the area is hopeful of an economic turnaround. Sidewalks and the basic infastructure are being improved, condos are sprouting up, and businesses are sprucing-up in the hope that the tourists will come. Will they? The population seemed freindly, the climate was tropical, there were good beaches and prices were cheap. I would say that there is a good chance that the tourists will discover a place in the sun in this corner of the world. Sandra, Della and Jean oceanfront on Vang Tau Island.

We followed this with a trip to the Mekong Delta a few days later. Although only 100 km away, it is a 3-hr trip by car, given the poor state of the roads and the traffic. For much of the way the speed limit is only 40 km per hr. The fastest we ever got up to was 80 km per hour, and only in short bursts at that. There was the constant threat of a collision with the usual swarming motorbikes, which occupied one of the two lanes, and threatened to take over the second on at any time. However, our guide made liberal use of his horn, and succeeded in keeping our mini-van out of all conflicts, exept for one large rooster that made the mistake of thinking that it was the Cock of the Walk, even though it was standing in the middle of a side-road. I am thinking it ended up as the Stew of the Few. Right, Della trying on a hat made in the traditional manner.

We drove to Viet Long, a small but pretty town located on a large river. There we hired a local guide for a tour of the surrondings by boat. Visiting a local brick-plant, we saw how their local economy worked, and could not help but notice that we had seen some of their ceramic works in stock at the Home Depot back in Canada. From there by boat we went across the river to tour an orchard/plantation. As it turned out, the plantation is owned by Chairman Ho Chi Minh, who is now living there in retirement. Although speaking no English, Uncle Ho, as he prefers to be known, was the most gracious host, offering us generous helpings of fruit, tea, nuts, and what he proudly displays as his newest hobby - making wine and distilling spirits. Help by generous cups of free-flowing spirits shot back with a loud YO!, the 85-year-old Chairman Ho had arranged for live entertainment, consisting of musicians and singers, to entertain as we sat out in a cabana in his field. With a pleasant breeze as well as the treats and the ever-present beverages refreshing us, the weary touristist, we were very much made to feel comfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings. Unfortunately, much to his disappointment, we had to depart after about 45 minutes of this pleasant interlude, since we had other destinations yet on our list for today. Left; me, thanking Chairman Ho Chi Minh for his generous hospitality.

Next was a tour up the channel between two islands. Unfortunately, the tide was at low ebb, and we had to thread our way among may boats beached until the flood. However, our skilled boatman picked a deft path, and we made it through spots that stopped most other boats. This gave us a good chance to view the homes and shops from the water, as well as to see how people lived on the channel Now in deeper water, we stopped at a local candy factory, where a facinating tour showed us how traditional sweets are still made. From there it was onto the neighbouring town, where we passed a floating maket; each boat tied up in the channel had a speciality good, which it displayed on the bow of the craft. Finally we were reunited with our faithful guide, who had driven down to meet us and take us back to town. This was a very interesting day, and we much enjoyed all of the sights and sensations of the countryside. Right, some of the busy river traffic.

While in town we also toured the Old Imperial Palace, now called the Reunification Palace. It was a little spooky; I remember many news clips depecting this building as background, and nobody will ever forget the film of the two tanks crashing through its iron gates during the fall of Siagon. (it turns out that the whole thing was staged for propaganda purposes. First of all, in 1975 the government had declared Siagon an Open City - there was no resistance. Then, the tank drivers, who were country boys, got lost and had to hire two guide to get them to the palace. There, all the TV camera were set up, but, unfortunately, the gates had been left open. So there was a brief interlude while the crew ordered the palace staff to close the gates. Then, they revved up the engines and smashed through the gates while the cameras rolled. The guy rushing across the lawn with the Red Flag was the unit Propaganda Officer, and there just happened to be large North Vietnamese Flags on hand so they could wave these from the second floor balcony for the benefit of the camera).

We also toured the War Remenants Museum; a bit of a gentler handle than its original moniker - The Museum of US Atrocities And War Crimes. At least the old propaganda flicks are still being put to good use! Above; the gate in front of the old Imperial Palace in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

There are flickering ghosts of the Vietnam War still to be seen about, but they are fading fast. Now it is the new generation that will carry Vietnam forward, and no matter what, they will do so as one of the few generations not under the yoke of a foreign power. In the past 400 years of Vietnamese history, for only 80 have they not been ruled by a foreign conqueror. It took the Vietnamese people 35 years to get past their War of Unification - now their destiny is in their hands.

Sited Along The Way:

Have a look at the craft moored on the upper right. Look familiar? It is a former US Navy Rivercraft of the type that appeared in the movie Apocalpyse Now. Currently it is employed in the service of the Harbour Police. We also saw a few US Army Jeeps still being driven on the streets, complete with CB whip antennae, but we were not sufficiently quick to get a photo of one.

  • This is a photo of Phuong, one of the gracious hostesses who looked after us in our private lounge in the hotel. Many of these young ladies are working part-time to put themselves through university. They are some of the new generation of Vietnamese who hope to work in the emerging economy here.

  • at right, the Siagon River from our hotel room at night. The boats are lined up for dinner cruises. The dark area behind the illuminated signs on the other side of the river is a former US Army staging area that is slated to become the new International Business Centre of Ho Chi Minh City.

  • Right; Scooters, scooters and more scooters. The sidewalk just around the corner from the hotel.

  • Left: a final YO! from Vietnam! A toast by Sandra & Jay with some of Uncle Ho's best!

Doug-San, Heading Back To Japan

Saying Sayonara for now.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam!

Among all of these Asian Tigers, there is a Junkyard Dog. Mangey, mean, bloodied, showing the scars of recent tussles, and fiercely possessive of its territory, the Junkyard Dog is also a resourceful, tough and suspicuous animal. The name of that Junkyard Dog is Vietnam.

With winter still hanging on in Tokyo, we departed February 22 for 8 days in Ho Chi Minh City, (the former Siagon). It was supposed to relatively cheap, and to also offer warm weather. As one who grew up with reports of the Vietnam War heading the newscasts, I was also more than a little curious to see what had become of this country in the 30 years since the end of the war. As Jay neatly put it: 'Vietnam is where the major world forces meet - Buddahism, Communism and Botulism!'

On the ride in from the airporthere 3 immediate impressions of Vietnam were made . First of all, the whole place moves on motorcycles!! There are 8 million people in Ho Chi Minh City, and there are 3 million motorcycles. They swarm everywhere, like packs of flies except for the snarl of their motors and the continual churping of their horns. Before the war there were no cars; only motobikes and bicycles. Now there are no bicycles, only a handful of cars, and motorbikes everywhere! But, then again, why not? A brand new Chinese motorbike can be had for $400.

The second impression was, there are NO RULES OF THE ROAD! We were coming in from the airport around midnight, granted. But nobody stopped for red lights, people drove the wrong way on the street, and the whole time I was there I never once saw any bike rider ever signal either a turn or a stop. As for pedestrians; forget it - the law of the jungle prevailed and Might was Right out on the road. To turn, our taxi simply cut into a lane of motorbikes and forced them to swerve to avoid a head-on collision. Coming to an intersection only meant that one slowed, and cut through the crossing traffic no matter what colour the light was. It turns out that this flouting of traffic laws came after the Unification, when great numbers of cheap Russian motorcycles flooded the market. It seems that they had no clutches, so to come to a full stop meant that one would stall and then had to restart the motor. The easy answer? Don't stop, no matter what! It was complete chaos to the newcomer's eye; only later was I to learn that there are Rules of the the Road - just not what we have here.

The third thing that struck me about Vietnam is that there are an awful lot of zeros on their bills. A $20,000-Dong bill is actually about $7 CDN. Sticker prices of $300,000 - $1,000,000 seem high, until you get used to the conversion. But, all the same, you carry around an incredible pile of paper and coin all the time, and spend a good part of each day counting it out or counting your change. A few locals take advantage of an unwary tourist by slipping in (or out) a couple of zeros at any given time. Inflation has run its course in the years since the Unification, but it seems that the proud Communist Government is unable to swallow its pride and devalue its currency.

However, our hotel was excellent; right downtown and on the edge of the Siagon River. It was a five-star hotel, and for $130 per night (double occupancy) you got a/c, a King Size Bed, cable, a free Happy Hour from 5:30 - 7:30, a breakfast, and full use of the pool and other facilities. In fact, the snacks served at the Happy Hour were so good, you could skp supper, if you were so inclined. Left: downtown Ho Chi Minh City as seen from the top of our hotel.

The next day we were off exploring, but immediately were faced with a horde of panhandlers, people wanting you to take their taxi or pedi-cab, people flogging CDs, postcards, maps, phrase books, or lord knows what else. This was quite a shock from Japan, where I had never been panhandled in my entire time there! You have to learn to avoid eye-contact and ignore all the questions, comments and pleas, otherwise you will go crazy every time you step out onto the sidewalk.

Things are, indeed, cheap here. A beer will sell for $1; a bottle of rum is $1.20 and it is about $1.60 for the really good stuff. A fancy meal for four in a Thai Restaurant with linen napkins, live entertainment and a bottle of expensive Bourdeaux wine was $51. Most taxi rides in the city are less than $2. The area has excellent lacquer-ware, and many shops featuring local wares for very good prices, although you have to bargain the merchants for a good price. Knock-off DVD moves of virtually any title you can name are $1. An apartment in town goes for a little as $12,500. Unfortunately, you can't drink the water, the streets are rough and the sidewalks are a hazard just to walk on. There is no mass transportation other than the occasional bus.

The heat here is really intense; a shock after lounging in near-zero temperatures in Tokyo. Sunblock is a must, and the place really only comes alive after dark. Then, people will sit out on the sidewalks and cafes, and the whole place takes on a completely different air. Oddly, there are almost no bridges to connect downtown with the outlying regions. Just below our window three ferries frantically scurry back and forth across the Siagon River to dump the packs of snarling motorbikes into the streets as people rush to and from work.

Speaking of motorbikes, after a few days in town I was to discern that there are, in fact, certain Rules of the Road - Vietnamese-Style. Here are my self-discovered Top 15 Rules To (Hopefully) Live By When Driving A Motorbike In Ho Chi Minh City:

  • traffic lights will be obeyed to some degree during the day, especially when a cop is standing on the sidewalk observing, and directing traffic with a club. However, if the way is mainly 'clear' the scooters will roar right through a red light. Only at night does the system fail completely;
  • except for the police and tourists, nobody wears a motorcycle helmet;
  • Might makes Right; the biggest truck, car or the biggest pack of motobikes takes the Right-of-Way;
  • if you are going the wrong way on the street, (not at all uncommon), jam your thumb on the horn and keep going like crazy;
  • green hats (motorcycle taxi's) have the right-of-way among bikes, and the green hats with plastic sandals have the Right-of-Way over the other green hats (I have no idea who these people are or why this is the rule);
  • in intersections, the first to the horn has the presumed Right-of-Way unless 'aced' by one of the categories above;
  • Round-Abouts, (Traffic Circles) are really only an excuse to drive even more erratically, so if you can't figure out the 'system' that's because there isn't one;
  • when passing a bike with a female rider on back who has their arms aroud the waist of a male driver, a wide berth must be given since these cycles swerve unexpectedly at times;
  • it is possible to get as many as five riders onto a single bike, although only two are legal. Likewise, it is possible to carry an entire wardrobe, computer station, restaurant, and even large pieces of furniture on a motorbike;
  • Never signal your intentions on a motobike. The distraction you cause by people trying to figure out what you are doing with your hands is liable to create the Mother Of All Pile-Ups!;
  • when carrying a large fish on a pole slung between two motorbikes, in addition to jamming down the horn, it is considered good form to also frantically wave both arms to warn oncoming traffic of the hazard. Of course, with no hands on the wheel, and nobody hanging onto the fish, this, too, creates an additional hazard;
  • you get to light up a new cigarette every time you get stopped at a traffic jam; when crusing down the road with a fag in you mouth, it burns really fast!
  • Just because 4 scooters driving abreast are headed straight at you doesn't necessarily mean that you are the one going the Wrong way on a One-Way Street! However, it NEVER pays to be Dead Right!;
  • If you can't think of anything else to do, or if you are just bored sitting in the crowd, jam on the horn and gun it! The others will follow!;
  • there are 8 million motorbikes in all of Vietnam, and yet only 3 million driver's licences for them have been issued! What makes you think that the guy in front of you has any idea what he is doing, either?

And what of the society after the Unification? It became a Communist State. Every child became entitled to a free education. Health Care became a possibility. Pensions for those unable to work or over 55 came into being. Yet, the State-run economy has lagged behind the others; only now is the government trying to turn this around. It has reserved land just on the other side of the Siagon River to turn into a financial centre like Shanghai. As it has turned out, the answer in today's society is neither pure Capitalism nor Communism; it is a blend of the two. The degree to which the State is able to balance these two economic systems will dictate the success of the undertaking. To my mind, Vietnam is uniquely poised to make a huge economic surge when it appears on the world stage. I can think of no better place to get in on the ground floor of what is very likely to be another surging economic area as Vietnam develops its electronics and manufacturing sectors to compete in the global economy.

Sited Along The Way:

  • Some of the local wine on sale in the market. If you look closely at it you will note that each bottle contains a complete Scorpion and a Cobra head. Trust me; this wine bites!

  • Now this is a Drive-In (I). A Vietnamese knock-off of a fast-food burger joint. You just wheel in the bike, park 2 feet from the till, and grab your goodies! With the exception of KFC, (Col. Saunders looks like Chairman Ho Chi Min anyway), there is not a single fast-food chain in town - No MacDonalds, No Wendy's, not even the dreaded Starbucks!

  • Now This Was A Drive-In. Can you recognize this building? We came across it on the banks of the Siagon River. It is an old MacDonals, built circa 1962 - before the chain became 'internationalized'. It must have been quite the place in the mid-60s, with hungry GIs muching down burgers on the banks of the river.

  • A sidewalk motorbike overhaul centre. Just drop your tools and you are in business! The crowd at the back is watching the mechanic pull the entire cylinder from a moped.

Now this is a drive-in (II). The lady at the right has hot soup for sale. Anyone strolling by plunks down a few cents and chows down a bowl right in the steet, as the girl in background is doing. However, many communiters also roll up on their scooters to pick up a bowl for the drive home. Is it just me, or does eating hot soup on a motorcycle in Rush Hour seem like not a good idea?

Doug-San (not in Japan)

Saying Sayonara for now!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Yokahama Mama

Tokyo's port city is Yokahama, just to the south. The preserve of Western Influence since Admiral Perry forced Japan to open its doors to the world in 1859, it was not surprizing to find that it has a very western fell about it. For one thing, the streets are wider and the buidings are more set apart; much as one would find in North American cities. This place, largely leveled in World War II firebombings, is being rebuilt around the scale of the automobile; unique in the area. At left: some of the high-rise buildings crowd in on the floating musuem; the Nippon Maru. In the background the giant ferris wheel and rollercoaster can be spotted.

Now seeking to move beyond its origins as a port city, Yokahama is home to many gaijin, and it is seeking to re-invent itself as both a commerical business centre and as a waterfront entertainment park. An odd combination, but never underestimate the Japanese!

We came across an outdoor skating rink, complete with Zamboni. It was the last day of skating for the year, and many young Japanese were taking the opportunity to try out the blades. There were a wide variety of styles on display, and despite some freightful tumbles, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves!

As an adjuct, the Japanese Chinatown is right next to the port city. Only the Japanese took the model of Chinatown, and improved it - sort of a Chinatown Done Right! The place was so immaculuate that you could have eaten from the street!

Sited Along The Way:

  • Right: a businessman taking a little Siesta Break, while the two Clones look after the shop.

  • I might agree that the small business is the lifeblood of any economy, but even this seems to be taking it to an extreme! Jay, standing in front of a kid's dollhouse.

  • At right; one of the colourful local characters that hang out in front of the shops.

I am not really sure what you would actually do with them, but it is always nice to know that you can get either Times (or is that Limes) 24 hours a day!

  • not sure what this is? (at the right), Actually, this is a gas station. The pumps come down from the roof, to save space.

Doug-San In Japan

Saying Sayonara for now!

Hockey Night In Japan.

Although most of the hockey in Japan is played in the most northern island, there are still some hockey rinks in Tokyo, and where there are rinks there will be hockey.

Curious as to the state of the game here in Japan, I attended a practise of the Kukodo Lions of the Asian Hockey League. This is a professional legaue, with 4 teams from Japan, three from China, and two from Korea. It is stocked with former NHL Players such as Esa Tikkannen, Shjon Podein and, Derek Plante, as well as a collection of European, Canadian, American and local players. This is a new league, created as a result of the contraction of exisiting franchises. The downturn in the economy has had consequences for the domestic hockey leagues, since most clubs are privately sponsored and funded. At the practise I met and talked a great deal with the star player of the Kukodo Lions, Joel Prpic. Joel is from Sudbury, and following stints with the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avananche, has made his living here in Japan. He, like teamate Ryan Fuschita, spends from late August to April in Japan, and then returns home for the off-season. The club plays a 40-game schedule and draws a base crowd of some 2,000 for homegames. At left, me poising with Joel Prpic at the bench.

I found both the games and the practices to be surprizingly Western in philosophy, method, culture and execution; maybe not such a great surprize given that the coaches and most of the players are either from or have spent time, playing in North America. The level of the quality of play is quite high, although they play a skating and finesse game, rather than a physical one.

In all, I attended two semi-final playoff games, doing technical work for the Lions' coach, Mr. Chris Wakabashi, who is the son of one of Japan's early hockey icons. The Lions won their semi-final round and now advance to the league finals. Unfortunately, I will not be able to take in any homegames, as I will be back in Canada by that time. However, I do wish Joel and his team all the best for the future, and I hope that they will continue to represent some of the best of the Canadian exports to the locals.

Elsewhere, we took in the atmosphere of the Maple Leaf Club, in Shibuya. This is a cultural island in Japan, featuring as it does, such treats as widscreen hockey and curling games, hamburgers, and even a Mondy Nite Special; a Labatt's Blue and a Poutine for $10! Suitably decorate with an Early Log Cabin motif, one is surrounded by such cultural icons as the Provincial Flags, hockey sweaters from all Canadian NHL Teams, a stuffed Jackalope, skates, and even snowshoes hanging from the walls.

I could not help but notice that there were way more Europeans there than Canadians, and that the Japanese favour the place as somewhere they can practise their English! One more little slice of home on this island on the other side of the world. At Left; some of the Shibuya skyscrapers, and at right; the Tokyo skyline as seen from the top of the building at the left.

Sited Along The Way:

  • The Japanese are always cleaning and tidying up, even the streets in from of their homes. Here is a handy cleanup kit put on a utility pole in the residential area.

  • Another sweet shop. this one is the Beard Papa Sweet shop.

  • St. Valentine's Day in Japan operates slightly differently than back home. first of all, it is a day where the lady gives the man flowers or a gift. The guys wait until mid-March, when it is their turn to bestow gifts on what is called The White Day. Intrestingly-enough, White is not normally worn as a colour other than at funerials to express mourning. The sole expection to this is in the case of a Western Wedding, where the bride will wear all-white. Black is consistered good luck, and most people wear this colour daily. At left; a lady on the subway bearing a Valentine gift.
  • Weddings here are a decidedly casual affair, as might be expected under the Shinto relion, which is remarkably tolerant in approach. (For one thing, it is entirely possible to be both Buddahist and Shinto in religion; neither is viewed as being exclusive.) Secondly, you are 'married' by whomever, whenever. Jay's sister is a nun, and, interested in the marriage ceremony details, once asked a local man who performs marriages what qualified him to do so. He replied "Well, I am a Christian!".

Doug-San In Japan

Saying Sayonara for now.