Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adventures with Arthur (in Hoi An)

Hoi An is a small town in central Vietnam that has been elevated to almost mythical proportions by travelers hungry for some new threads. Here, we were told, we could get a new wardrobe for the cost of a fancy dinner back home. While not initially committed to partaking in such an endeavor we were drawn by the promise of a new suit for Jeremy, a fancy dress for Ali, and generally "more adult" clothing to fit the more adult lives that await us when we return home.

Of course if traveling in Asia has taught us anything it is that while anything is possible, nothing is easy. For instance, does the wool-cashmere fabric the saleslady is suggesting for Jeremy's suit actually include polyester and if so, how much harder should we bargain for the price? For instance, if Ali requests double stitching on her dress as she was told to do by a knowledgeable friend, how can she be sure it was done if she doesn't know what double stitching looks like? And anyway, how the hell can you know if you are going to like a shirt/skirt/dress/pair of pants if you can't even try it on before you buy it?

It was an exhausting and strenuous week and it was only exacerbated when a tarantula paid us a visit in our bedroom. No, really we are being much too cynical and grumpy. We got lots of nice, inexpensive stuff made here, as you can see by the pictures, and met some wonderful tailors.

For those of you considering a shopping trip to Hoi An we would highly recommend a pretty little shop called MeKong (336 Nguyen Duy Hieu Rd, owned by a kind and honest couple. For a less enjoyable experience that, with perseverance and a knowledge of exactly what you want, yields equally satisfactory clothing try Nhi Nhi (64 Le Loi St); you can contact the pushy proprietor at If you are tired of the hassle or want a particularly complicated or high quality article of clothing, your best bet is Yaly (358 Nguyen Duy Hieu, where you will be sure to pay much more and be served by a team of highly efficient female tailors.

By the way, Arthur (the tarantula) was last seen loitering on the ceiling in our bathroom. We were dismayed this evening to find it missing.

Check out pictures from Hanoi by clicking here

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chuc Mung Nam Moi

To successfully cross a street in Hanoi one must be patient, reckless, and lucky. A mix of motorbikes, bicycles, street vendors balancing bamboo sticks laden with baskets of fruit and other goodies on their shoulders, cars and buses stream past uninterruptedly in both directions. Although some intersections do have lights and/or crosswalks and some streets have lane markings, traffic laws are generally disregarded. The Vietnamese street-crossing strategy, which we have adopted reluctantly but successfully, is to join hands and slowly inch into oncoming traffic, playing chicken with approaching motorbikes. Seeing you standing terrified in the middle of a busy street most motorbikes will swerve behind you allowing you to advance, but sometimes they swerve in front of you trapping you in the path of an oncoming car.

This only adds to the excitement of wandering through the maze of winding lanes overflowing with cafes serving 20 cent glasses of Bia Hoi beer on tiny plastic stools about 6 inches tall, and stores and vendors selling everything from frog legs and snake-infused liquor to stylish silk clothing and steaming bowls of Pho (beef noodle soup) in Hanoi's old quarter. Refuge from the chaos is available in dark, smoky Soviet-style cafes which serve only very strong Vietnamese coffee and Lipton tea and cater to well-dressed men and hip twenty-somethings. We have also retreated to several of the many nearby lakes and visited plenty of ornate museums, including Hoa Lo prison, where John McCain spent time as a POW.

As you can imagine, the contrast between McCain's descriptions of life as a POW and the Vietnamese portrayal is striking: Hoa Lo prison's walls are lined with photos of smiling GIs enjoying Christmas dinner, playing pool and basketball, and generally eating nutritious meals, even though as one picture noted, Vietnamese peasants were starving. Ho Chi Minh's musuem, the Revolution museum, and the Women's museum are chock-full of similar propaganda: "here is the gun used by American invadors to kill virtuous Vietnamese mothers defending their homes," for example, or, "the slave and the aggressor," or "smiling peasants receiving promised land allocations from Ho Chi Minh." Another site of interest was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where his body is preserved and displayed in a sort of floating glass case surrounded by severe-looking soldiers ready to crush anyone who snickers or speaks in Ho's presence.

On the 13th the frenetic pace came to a standstill. It was the eve of Tet, the most important holiday of the year, and people were busy buying holiday baskets and fake money to burn in Buddhist ceremonies, and toting around kumquat trees on their motorcycles. You may have heard of the Tet offensive, but we assure you that Tet in Hanoi was not in the least bit offensive. Most stores closed for the week and the traffic all but disappeared as people gathered to feast with their families in honor of the New Year.

The Vietnamese believe that on the stroke of midnight all the problems of the last year vanish and the events of the following 24 hours determine the course of your next year. We went to a boisterous firework celebration by Hoan Kiem lake decorated with flowers and balloons and then enjoyed local beer and sweets with our hotel owners and other guests into the wee hours of the morning. The following day people were especially smily and broke into hysterics whenever we wished them a happy new year in poorly-pronounced Vietnamese "Chuc Mung Nam Moi." Also, our hotel gave us all special red envelopes containing a 5000 dong note. It has been nice to walk the now-peaceful streets and watch Christmas-style family gatherings in storefronts, parks and cafes. We also teamed up with two Americans living in Shanghai and an Irishman living in Hong Kong and have been making plenty of merry on our own. The two of us treated ourselves to a decadent meal on Valentine's Day celebrating how much our relationship has deepened and matured over these past four months and how glad we are to be on this trip together.

Spending almost two weeks in Hanoi has been one of the most interesting and enjoyable periods of our trip. We especially appreciate the 60 degree weather that descended upon the city just in time for Tet eve, as well as the opportunity to learn more about our country's history in this part of the world, and we are feeling re-invigorated for the remaining two and a half months.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

That Nowhere Kind of Feeling

Jeremy received his second letter of acceptance-to the UC Davis History program-on our first night in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This announcement combined with the astronomical heat here from about 9am to 6pm, and the lack of anything much to do except eat noodle soup, drink weird juices from plastic bags, attend movie night at the Martini Lounge (we saw Inglorious Basterds a few days ago), and read our books at French cafes or, sometimes, at the Scandinavian bakery, has dropped us into some sort of strange vortex.

Despite our best efforts we have both been pondering the future a lot, which is slightly agonizing considering we still haven't heard back from the eight other grad schools. Even so, all of the often conflicting factors that will influence the decision about which school to choose weigh heavy on us; the most prestigious program, the best academic match, our preferred geographic location, how much funding is available in relation to the cost of living, a location where there are second-year Smith placements, and on and on. It makes our heads spin! We aren't actually talking about it much yet, but it contributes to a feeling of being a little displaced, in a nowhere, in-between time, thinking about the future. Plus, all the cafes and lazy days make us miss our friends and family.

We fly to Hanoi, Vietnam on Sunday and that will surely be sufficiently overwhelming to get our minds off things. We have also met a nice couple from Austin, Texas with whom we plan to go bowling tonight and Jeremy got his first “professional” shave and haircut in over five years this afternoon. Moreover, in our spare time, we submitted complaints to both Eddie Bauer and Isis (Clothing for women) about some clothes we purchased for our trip and have so far secured a full refund at EB and 20% off on any future Isis purchase. Also, shout out to E.K.M.!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tubing the Nam Song

Before arriving in Vientiane we stopped for a few days in Vang Vieng, a truly bizarre place we had promised ourselves we would never go. It is essentially a small village that has turned into a drunken and drugged-out tourist amusement park centered on tubing down the river, drinking, and ingesting large amounts of mushroom tea. There is loud music playing until 4am and drunken scantily clad Westerners trying to seduce one another, and sometimes villagers. Certainly makes life more interesting for the local adolescents, but clearly a very problematic and troubling place.

Besides sitting in restaurant/bars, which all play re-runs of Friends or Family Guy, and getting drunk, the main thing to do in Vang Vieng is to rent a tube and float down the Nam Song river. The river and the scenery beyond are spectacular, and the first few hundred meters are lined with family-run riverside bars whose employees throw lines out to tubers and hall them in with offers of free shots. People are then encouraged to climb up tall bamboo towers, grab onto big swings or zip lines and then jump 30 feet into the water, all the while listening to American music such as Wesleyan alum MGMT. This goes on for about four hours and then you spend the next two hours floating slowly back into town as the sun sets. Given the high level of intoxication among many party-goers, it comes as no surprise to see the large number of backpackers with slings, crutches and bandages walking through town. To some of you this may seem pretty dumb and to others pretty fun. We thought it was pretty dumb but we still had a good time (although we fled after one day.) Also, despite swearing she never would, Ali went on the “death slide” and “death swing” among a few others (they aren't actually so dangerous unless very drunk) after making sure there were no rocks below and watching many other people do it first. She really likes those kind of things and couldn't help herself.

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