Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sapa and the Zen of Computer Maintenance

Sapa at sunrise.

Due to an unfortunate incident involving a renegade glass of water’s senseless attack on an otherwise innocent laptop, said laptop is now out of commission...indefinitely. Fortunately it was a Dell, covered by the world’s best-ever warranty, which means sometime within the next 20 days I will be receiving a brand-spankin' new laptop of equal or superior quality!

In the meantime I’ll try to update the blog during any free time that might present itself during my 2 day stays at Beautiful Mountain School. Until then, I leave you with this breath-taking view of Sa Pa, where I ended up spending most of my time on my recent trip to Vietnam. Maybe now you’ll be able to understand why it was so hard to leave, why I’m still talking about it, and why I can’t wait to go back!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Descending Dragons: Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes some 1,600 islands and islets, rising from emerald waters to form a spectacular seascape of precipitous limestone pillars and uninhabited islands, almost completely unaffected by human presence.

The legend of Ha Long Bay begins as many Vietnamese legends do, with the people fighting against foreign invaders from the north. The god of heaven, seeing their struggle for freedom, sent a family of dragons down to earth, to help them defend their land. Descending upon the waters of the bay, they began spitting out jewels and jade, which upon hitting the waters, were transformed into islands and islets, forming a formidable fortress to protect against the invaders. With the shelter of these jewels of the sea, the people were able to protect their land, which became the country of Vietnam. The Dragons, moved by the beauty if the bay and the reverence of the Vietnamese, "kept not their first estate, but left their own [heavenly] habitation" to remain on earth. (Jude 1:6)

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After two days in chaotic Hanoi (Ha-noisy), we hopped on a bus to take us the short 30 km to where we would board or Chinese junk for a 2 day cruise. The trip takes over 3 hours, due to the slow speed drivers must obey on highways in an attempt by the government to save live. Atleast 30 people die in traffic accidents a day, despite the new law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets or face a hefty fine of a 20,000 dong ($1.25). I often commented on my total disbelief that we had not seen a traffic accident during our 2 days of perfecting the art of street-crossing in Hanoi, but sadly enough, as we headed for the place where the dragons descended, we drove past a semi truck with a motorbike and its driver pinned beneath its front wheel, an image I have a hard time forgetting.

The view of our authentic Chinese junk, the Dragon's Pearl, anchored in the misty blue of the bay, as seen from the mouth of a cave. Docking on an small island, we were able to climb to the highest point for a sweeping view of the bay, other isles rising and falling thru the cool, blue waters like the back of a dragon.

A small floating village of about 300 people, seeking shelter in the shadow of the cliffs and karsts of Ha Long Bay. There is a small, floating primary school where the children learn to read and write. After primary school they are fully devoted to helping their family earn a living.

As our boat let down it's anchor for the night, I saw this young girl rowing towards our boat. I could hear her singing to herself as she pulled the oars in time. Her voice drifted up on the wind, and as soon as i saw her, I thought of the young girl from the Tonle Sap floating village in Cambodia. She looked up at the deck and our eyes met. "Hey, you buy something?" She yelled up to me. I was on the top deck of the boat, and she was far blow the bottom deck, only a few inches above the water. "I'd like to know how she's gonna deliver you goods!" another man laughed.

"You buy?" She said, holding a box of Oreo's up above her head. (Yeah thats right, Oreo's. There's no escaping the O). As I smiled down at her I noticed she had peanut candy I discovered back in Camboida and became absolutely addicted to. I bolted from my seat and headed down the narrow, spiral staircase to the bottom deck, towards the hull. As she saw me coming, she pointed to where a small ladder led down to the water. I haggled with her for quite a while over the price, giggling over her reaction. The other cruisers watched from above and slowly made their way down to buy some snacks. I got the peanut delicousness and headed up to my cabin to keep myself from eating them all at once.

When I emerged from my room again, the girl was floating just beneath my balcony. "Hello!" she called out smiling. "Hello!" i smiled, hanging over the banister, waving to her. A second boat of 2 boys and a young girl had rowed up beside her. "Xinh!" She smiled, pointing to me. I felt my heart starting to sink, wishing i could speak Vietnamese. " Madam Xinh!" She said agian. Immediately I recalled the people of Cambodia would often say "Madame Saag!" Which my friend had told me meant they thought I was cute or pretty. I realized she was trying to say the same thing. I pointed back at her "Xinh! Xinh!" She laughed and asked, "What's your name?" Her name was Saa, and she was 16 years old. When I told her I was 24 she asked me something in Vietnamese pointing at her hand. I was clueless, but right at that moment one of the boat staff above deck crept down the over hang and laughed "She's trying to ask you if you're married."

"Marry! Marry!" She yelled, pointing at one of the boys in the boat beside her. "Xinh!" He said, smiling, and pointing up at me.

"Same old as you! 24!" The little match maker smiled.

"Marry?" The boy asked?

"Ok!" I laughed. How could i refuse? (^_^)/

The beautiful limestone formations inside one of Halong bay's many caves. I fell behind the small group of people exploring the great hidden hall until I was all alone. As I wandered through the magically illuminate tangles of stalagtites and stalagmites, i imagined the boat people seeking shelter from the thrashing waves of frequent typhoons, high above the turbulent waves, deep within the heart of this pillar of stone.

The magical reflection of a hidden pool of water danced on the smoothly scooped ceiling, rising and falling like the waves that sculpted it.

Alone in awe, or so I thought. What is that scary shadow behind me?

On a cool and clouded winter's day, the sullen beauty of the beach looking out onto the bay.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Literature, Lakes and Legends

The Temple of Literature

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Originally built in 1070 in the Ly dynasty, the temple is a shrine to Confucius and his disciples responsible for spreading his teachings. Six years later, Quoc Tu Giam or School for the sons of the Nation was established for the princes. The school later admitted sons of mandarins and finally commoners were allowed to attend but, only after they passed a rigorous examination at the regional level. Today it is a a place to memorialize the most brilliant scholars of the nation's past.

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Lake of the Returned Sword

The crimson curve of the Huc, the bridge of the Rising Sun, archs over the emerald waters of Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Returned Sword,to the Ngoc Son temple.

During the 15th century, the great king Le Thai To (Le Loi) led his armies in battle against Chinese invaders beneath the blade of a powerful sword, bestowed upon him by the gods. After 10 years defending his people, he finally defeated the Chinese and reclaimed Vietnam's independence. With the war over, the king and his courtiers took a leisurely boat ride over the calming waters of the Green lake (as it was known) when suddenly a giant turtle surfaced. The king drew his sword, pointing it at the creature. The turtle immediately took hold of the sword with its mouth and plunged to the depths, returning the sacred blade to its divine owners.

Mourning the loss of such a valuable sword, the king ordered that the lake be drained and the sword recovered, but when it had been emptied, both the turtle and sword were gone. Realizing that the sword had been a gift to help the king defend his country, he renamed the green waters the"Lake of the Returned Sword."

This story is retold in thousands of schoolbooks, and in popular performances at Hanoi's water-puppet theaters. It is believed that giant turtles still live in the lake, although they very rarely surface.

Personally i'd prefer the "watery tart" of King Arthur, but turtles are cool, too.

Ngoc Son Temple: A Study in Red

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A woman praying in the courtyard of Ngoc Son, a shrine dedicated to the patron saint of literature who was often called upon for help by those taking the various tests required to become a mandarin. It is also memorializes a national hero responsible for many victories against the Mongols.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

The Soul of the Rice Fields

Northern Vietnam's Peculiar Water Puppet Theatre

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A distinct, traditional art form found nowhere else in the world, Vietnam's Water Puppet Theater was born in the fertile Red River delta during the tenth century. Farmers, inspired by harvested, water-filled rice paddies began to stage impromptu puppetry shows on the water's surface as villagers gathered around the edge of the pond to watch. Often thought of as the "Soul of the Rice Fields" the world's first glimpse of Northern Vietnam's splashy, smoke-and-fire-filled acrobatic puppet extravaganza came only after the normalization of relations with the west.

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The show, made up of a number of skits, shows the life of everyday peasants, drawing on a wealth of folklore with a good dose of humor as farmers and forefounders establish and defend the country against forces of man and nature. Performed entirely in Vietnamese with no foreign translations or explanations, the meaning of most of these tales may be lost on most tourists, but its still a highly entertaining glimpse into the traditional folk culture of the northern Vietnamese.

Modern water puppetry is performed in a pool, the water surface being the stage. Puppeteers stand, waist deep in water, behind a screen, controling puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanisms hidden beneath the water's surface. Carved out of wood, these puppet often weigh up to 15 kg.

Puppeteers taking a bow.

A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides a vibrant vietnamese musical accompaniment as Cheo singers sing traditional northern Vietnamese songs, telling the story being splashed out by the puppets.

Getting Friendly with the Locals at Hoan Kiem Lake

The Capitol's curious citizens still gather around the famous Hoan Kiem lake, the heart of Hanoi, sitting on its banks and benches socializing and watching the city come to life. While there are no puppets splashing about in the lake's ever-green waters, the friendly, funny and outgoing people of Hanoi find other ways to amuse themselves.

As we wandered around the lake, waiting for the water puppet show to begin in a nearby theatre, a kind couple gestured for us to join them on a small bench, before commencing to converse with us in perfect Vietnamese. Of course we had no idea what they were saying, but thanks to a handy phrasebook we unburied from the bottom of a bookbag, we were able exchange greetings, ages and nationalities.

The man became very excited when I told him I was from America (My in Vietnamese, pronounced Mi). He pointed to himself before launching one arm up over his head, gliding it above him. Judging from the sound effects that accompanied it, I took this to be an airplane. Then, he pretended to hold a gun, aimed it up at where his hand had been flying, and began to pull the trigger as he followed it across the sky. He looked at me and smiled, pointing to himself, shooting at the plane and saying "My! My! (America)". Despite this somewhat unpleasant connection, he was very excited to shake my hand and smiled constantly as he tried to communicate with us (tried being the key word).

Never underestimate the power of gestures!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Spirit of Hanoi

Whether it is blossom time or not
Jasmine is always jasmine
Elegant or not
One is nevertheless a citizen of the capital

Nguyen Cong Tru (1778-1858)

The French could not subjugate the Vietnamese spirit of independence, but their influence is visible in the fading colonial facades of the once brightly colored buildings, weathered by war and old age, looking all the lovlier for the wear. The smell of freshly baked baguettes drifts in the bustling streets as the sun begins to stir the citizens of the capitol. Old friends meet at the Hoan Kiem Lake, the heart of the city, to talk and reminisce about times gone by, as the silohuette of their berets show against the sunlit surface the lake's perennially green waters. Badminton nets spring up on every empty corner, and around the lake gangs of Hanoi's old generation gracefully practice their Tai Chi, their arms slowly rising and falling, as if floating on water, or caught in a dream.

Scarlet banners hung across the streets shout "Long live the Communist Party of Vietnam!"

Its been a week since i returned from Vietnam, but the smell of pho and baguettes still lingers in my nose. I remember staggering down the sidewalks of the Old Quarter, crowded with tiny pho 'shops', low tables covered with fresh vegetables, clams, and meat surrounding a steaming pot of broth and rice noodles. Foot stool chairs strewn across the cement footpath were buried beneath traditional straw hats, baseball caps, and hungry citizens enjoying their morning meals. Women selling the famous french baguettes stopped me every couple steps, .15 cents a roll.

Men and women sipped Vietnamese tea, while others waited for their dripping coffee to slowly fill their thirsty cups. I weaved my way through them all, past curious children squatting on door steps, smiling and sometimes saying hello. I tip-toed around women filling the baskets that would later hang from the shoulder-slung bamboo sticks as they wandered the streets selling all kinds of edible deliciousness.

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Its been a week since my ears rang with the sound of motorbikes beeping their horns incessently, seemingly in beats of threes, as their engines gently hummed along with the city's song. At every corner the men of this mad orchestra leaned against their heavy metal instuments, arms folded calmly, waiting for a chance conductor to bid them play. "Madame, motorbike? Cyclo?" Motos flowed thru the streets, and sometimes up, over the sidewalks, the blood of the city fighting to flow through its conjested veins.

My very first cyclo ride back in Chau Doc, at the end of my Cambodia trip. Cyclos hold a special place in my heart, not only because of the amazing experience of driving though the streets of the tiny, rarely visited town, but also because my cyclo 'driver' was the first Vietnamese man to propose to me :)

Its been a week since I risked my life to cross those narrow streets that seemed to grow as wide as the Red River as I slowly stepped across, bikes flowing around me like a stream wrapping itself around an island.

Its been a week, but the song of that sleepless city still sounds in my ears, as fresh as the morning baguettes and as sweet as the freshly sqeezed fruit juice sold on every old quarter corner. Its been a week, but I can still feel the embrace of Hanoi in all my senses, even in my dreams.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Flowers of the North

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A Flower H'moung woman at the sunday market in Bac Ha.

My bag finally made it to my doorstep last night at 9:37! More pictures coming soon!

Mysteriuos Illness Strikes Beautiful Mountain School

In totally unrelated news, it seems my beautiful mountain school has been hit hard by a mystery illness, causing five of the fifteen employess to call in sick (a very rare occurance, as most teachers feel pressure to report for duty even under the harshest of circumstances). Another 3 teachers unabashedly admit to suffering the same symptoms: vomitting and diarreah. My vice principle used a rather interesting gesture to make sure I understood the Japanese word for diarreah while giving me a short examination upon my entrance to the office.

This slight outbreak has led to a visit from one of the big shots from the Board of Education, as well as an edict by the principle requiring all teachers to wear the infamous surgeon-style face masks in the building. In an attempt to find the source of this illusive illness, the vice principle has created a list of teachers and the break room snacks they`ve indulged in over the past few days . The suspects: Oshiruko (mochi, or chunks of smooth, gooey rice balls in sweet bean sauce, a traditional new year`s food), Soba mochi filled with sweet bean, tsukemono (Japanese pickles), Chilli pepper chocolate (a last minute omiyage, or souvenier, on my way back to Japan via Korea), and coconut candy (another omiyage from Saigon). So far, the sweet bean soba mochi is looking unusually suspect, and despite the risk, I feel an incredible urge to eat the last one left in the tea room...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Vietnam On My Mind

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Somehow I've managed to make it back from Vietnam, although now that I have I'm kind of wishing I hadn't! Getting back to Japan was no easy task, and although I seem to have made it, one of my bags has not. Of course the only thing of importance in it was the large collection of photo CDs full of the pictures I took while I was there. Until it finds it's way back to me, here's one of the last images on my camera.

Meet my adopted daughter, Ba, a 5 year old Black H'moung girl living in Lao Chai village, near Sapa, northern Vietnam. Actually, I think she adopted me. Both her parents are addicted to opium, and most of the time she wanders the tourist-flooded streets of Sapa with her baby brother strapped to her back trying to sell whatever she can. Whenever she spotted me in town she would abandon the tourists she was charming at the time, run to me, hug my legs and take my hand, happily following me wherever I went until her mother came to take her away. Then her eyes would fill with tears. The night I left Sapa, she stood outside the van crying uncontrollably, screaming "Goodbye! I love you!"

Maybe she's forgotten me by now, but I'll never forget her.