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Leaving Vietnam

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My second day in the field with PSI Vietnam was just within Hải Phòng documenting their promotional efforts and outreach. We started in the morning with a trip around the city with a local staff member photographing billboards promoting safe practices and HIV testing, ideally with groups of men sitting or standing nearby. The billboards were generally placed in strategic areas – places where men drink (bia hơis) or industrial areas where they work.

A PSI billboard promoting HIV awareness

For lunch we had bún chả at my request. Our local contact took us to a place that was quite renowned for it, and rightly so; the spring rolls were delicious – stuffed with crab and shrimp. I ate very well, but it seems the others were able to eat a fair bit more.

Crab and shrimp springrolls with bun cha

After relaxing in the hotel lobby for a couple of hours (I uploaded photos to my last blog post), we returned to the PSI office where they male client team was meeting before heading out for the evening’s work. They practised a couple of interactions with a mock group of men out drinking, and apparently it was very humorous and realistic. After about an hour we took a group photo, then they all rolled to various quarters of the city to do their work.

We met up with a couple of teams (they work in pairs) on a busy street lined with bia hơis. Their outreach was very similar to what I’d seen in Phnom Penh – a worker would approach a group of single men in the target age group and engage them in discussion about condom use and HIV prevention. From what I understood, much of the talk was about how you can’t tell if someone has HIV and that it’s best to be safe and practice prevention. One example they used, presented with flash cards, was that you can verify what your friend says about the weather by looking at a weather forecast and what he says about a restaurant by trying it, but you can’t take his work on whether a sex worker is safe, so it’s always best to use a condom. At the end of the chat, a few gifts – pens, condoms and condom holders – were passed around and the worker found a new table.

A PSI outreach worker with potential male clients of sex workers at a bia hoi

This kind of work can’t really happen late in the evening as the men will have had more to drink by then and would likely be heading to ‘entertainment establishments’ if they were planning to do so, so we were on the road back to Hanoi by 7pm. It was a steady, slowish drive again and it wasn’t until about 9pm that we got to where I would be staying in the northern part of the city. We had some phở, then I was dropped at the Newtatco Hotel, an unusual place which I think was a state-run guesthouse. It reminded me of something out of China in the early 1980s, and the bed was as comfortable as sleeping on a sheet of plywood. Like most nights on this trip, I didn’t sleep well.

At 6:30am a taxi arrived to take me to the airport which was surprisingly busy. There were long lines to check in and for emigration. The flight on Air Asia was smooth and comfortable and time, and Bangkok’s airport was surprisingly quiet and I was out the door and on the airport train quickly.

I checked in to Jim’s Lodge not long after lunch and tried unsuccessfully to nap, so I got up and headed out on the town. For a snack I picked up a couple of buns at one of the ubiquitous 7-11s, then took the BTS to National Stadium. My plan here had to meet up with my PSI connections from last year. From National Stadium I was planning on taking a taxi to meet Piboy, the outreach worker I followed for a few days last year, but it turns out he was an hour away, so unfortunately I could not meet up. My other contact here, Alex, had to head out to check on projects in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, so I couldn’t meet him either.

I ambled around MBK mall for a bit, watching people buy cell phones and gizmos, but looking at the price of camera gear, it was clear things are actually cheaper in Canada. I did buy a screen protector for my point and shoot which came to $3, installed.

Jeremy Tan recommended a chain of classy and high-quality spas as a place to get a thai massage. Normally averse to massages, he claims going to Health Land converted him, so I had to check one out. It look me a long time to find the location I was looking for as Bangkok street names and addressing are confusing at best. I walked up and down many streets including the infamous Soi Cowboy (the go-go bars being prepped for the evening’s action, and the bar girls having their dinners). Eventually I simply got a moto driver to take me to Health Land (I had been very close several times). When we arrived he expressed concern that I was in the wrong place. Through hand gestures he let me know that I couldn’t possibly want to go here as the place doesn’t offer boom boom as part of the massage. I let him know that it was OK.

It was a very pleasant place with beautiful wood finishing and fragrant herbs in the air. The customers were mostly women and couples. For 450 Baht ($15) I got a 2 hour thai massage in a nice, soothing room by a stout and powerful masseuse. Thai massage, when done properly, often makes you think, by god this hurts but it sure feels good for me. A great deal of time is spent on the legs, and when you have hamstrings as tight as mine, there were times when the pressure almost made me sing. Two hours of finger and elbow pressure, plus twisting and pulling reduced me to a sack of jello. I had come in with a headache and it was long gone, and my legs felt pleasantly achy.

Looking down on Suhkumvit from the Asok BTS station

For dinner I walked a few minutes over to Cabbages and Condoms, a social enterprise started by the fellow who really brought condom use to the fore in Thailand in the 1990s. The restaurant is in a lovely treed courtyard, and a musician from a music school plays traditional Thai music. The food is very good too. I had tom yum talak (spicy seafood soup) and penang kai (chicken in a thick coconut curry sauce), with sticky rice and fresh coconut water. For desert – mango sticky rice, of course, and a glass of Thai whiskey. The bill came to about $17, which is pricey for here, but certain worth it for the food and the ambiance.

Then, back to the hotel for an early-ish night (although I still didn’t sleep too well). I’ll pack up now and head to the airport for my flight to Phnom Penh.

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Written by sockeyed

November 4, 2010 at 20:05

Hà Nội-Đồ Sơn-Hải Phòng

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My last night in Laos – the 29th – was a lively one by Lao standards. I joined my old friends from last year’s malaria project (Tak, Saen, Seng and Dao) for a night on the town. We started at the expansive waterfront bar Moon the Night (not sure what that means), where a crate of Beer Lao was delivered to the table and there were various things to nibble on. At around 9 or so we decamped to a karaoke bar near That Louang for some crooning. Only one of them (identity protected) had a woman sit with him; I can only imagine the agony of one’s days spent listening to men yowl along to the latest Lao and Thai hits.

Mr. Seng belts one out

I was home by 11, I think. And I’ll be ice in my beer kept me sober (I’m learning to nurse my drinks long enough to get me through an evening without wobbling).

My flight for Hanoi left in the late afternoon, and to be honest I was worried about how I was going to spend the day as I really had drained Vientiane of options. Fortunately Dao was having a party at his house as he lives near a part of the river where there was a boat race festival. Apparently it’s traditional – if you live by the river – to host all of your friends, feeding and beering them under a canopy. Tak picked me up at the hotel and we joined Dao for a few hours of sitting and grazing. Once again I nursed a small amount of beer through the afternoon.

Mr. Dao hosts a party

I arrived at the very quiet airport in plenty of time for my 17:50 flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was fine although I was disappointed not to be fed even a peanut or cracker in the course of the one hour flight. The time on board was extended by 50% when we sat on the taxiway for half an hour behind some other plane. I worked on reading my book.

I picked up my visa on arrival and was met by a PSI driver. We zipped into town, then got, bogged down in traffic, as expected, but eventually I made it to my hotel. I was very pleased with the Hanoi Elite, a two week-old little gem in quiet alley in the old quarter. I had a very nicely appointed little room in a modern Asian style, and the staff were very pleasant and helpful, running out to get me a SIM card or a moto driver, and providing excellent breakfast.

The Hanoi Elite Hotel

I was tired and hungry, but it was Saturday night in Hanoi, so I grabbed my camera and spent a couple of hours wandering the streets and photographing the highly-aesthetic chaos. Nothing is quite like Hanoi traffic, and organic mass of scooters with the odd car screwing things up like a clot in an artery. Crossing streets is much the same as it was in 2004 – walk steadily and let everything flow around you; hesitate or run and you’re likely to get in trouble. There is a new dangerous element however – it is not unusual for a rider to be text messaging on the scooter. Danger danger.

Near Hoan Kiem Lake

I enjoyed a bowl of pho ga at a streetside stall, squatting on a 6′ high stool and watching the world flow by. The chicken broth put a dent in my sore throat (which lasted until today – November 1).

A typical streetside pho restaurant

The next day – Sunday and Halloween – was a free day for me in Hanoi, so I woke at 6am, hand breakfast in the hotel, then hit the streets. I crisscrossed, circled and ambled my way around the Old Quarter, savouring its vibrance and looking for spots I remembered. I also noticed the changes. It’s quite likely that I have a selective memory, but it really seems to me that there are a lot more tourists and backpackers than there were, and a lot more restaurants and bars catering to them. And locals responded differently, probably tired of being photographed and being in the constant presence of travellers.

A street in the Old Quarter

A street vendor in the Old Quarter

I had a few enjoyable interactions, particularly in one case where I stopped to watch two men and one boy sanding the rust off an old disassembled child’s bike. The boy stood at the ready with a can of blue spray paint. The pulled up a stool and invited me to join them, so I did, communicating what I could and photographing the scene.

Bringing an old bike back to life

I had fantastic Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa) in a cluster of coffee shops on Trong Thanh and a massive and delicious lunch of bún chả hà nội (fried spring rolls, grilled meat, noodles, greens and soup) at Dac Kim on Hàng Mành Street (recommended by Vinh).

Where I enjoyed my cà phê sữa

bún chả hà nội

I laid down for a rest in the afternoon but didn’t really sleep, and got up around 4pm to catch the better light. A visit to the Temple of Literature turned out to be a bit of a mistake; it was totally mobbed and just moderately interesting. Well, it does have an impressive history and some interesting stellae celebrating ancient professors, but I didn’t feel moved. The moto ride through the Old Quarter, however, was very exciting and warranted shooting lots of video clips.

A detail at the Temple of Literature

Mob scene at the Temple of Literature

Three years ago in Luang Prabang while photographing the Luang Prabang Children’s Cultural Centre I met a CUSO Cooperant named Derin. It turns out that she’s now in Hanoi working for Oxfam Canada, so I joined her, her mom and sister for a dinner in an open-air restaurant southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake not far from the railway station. We caught up on what we’ve been up to and enjoyed a variety of Vietnamese dishes, prepared in hawker-like stands around the periphery. The dinner came to $5, or 100,000 Dong each with beer. Yes, Vietnam is still very cheap (and this wasn’t street food).

Why not carry a giant plant on your scooter?

I enjoyed my last evening scooter ride through the city and slept nearly a full night.

Rush hour (note the standard way of moving infants on the right)

Hoan Kiem Lake at dusk

Today it was back to work with PSI, but it was a very enjoyable and full day. My guide, Ms Ngoc, and a driver showed up at 8am for a long, slow drive to Hải Phòng (100kms in two hours). Ms Ngoc is like many of the PSI local staff I’ve worked with – very bright and helpful. Prior to work with PSI she was with Save the Children, and she spent time studying in Switzerland. She fell asleep in the car.

We passed straight through Hải Phòng, continuing another 20kms to Đồ Sơn, a resort town on the coast. It was actually pleasant, with a cool breeze, shady trees and a reasonable waterfront. We spent our time with Mr Thu, the local distributor for PSI’s Number 1 condoms. I learned a great deal from the experience. Here, hotels and guesthouses are largely responsible for providing condoms for their sex workers, but they are also seemingly the central organizing element in the sex trade. Quite often, women were based in the guesthouses and sent around the town to clients on the back of motorbikes. It was a surreal scene as the place was actually quite deserted-seeming, but there was a steady buzz of women in tight pants and heels being delivered here and there. Condoms also seem to be quite a commodity. PSI is interested in encouraging as much use of their high-quality condoms as possible, but they face competition from cheaper Chinese ones. When guesthouses run through 10 shoebox-sized boxes of them in a week, I guess economies of scale come into play. So Mr. Thu has to actively promote his product.

Number 1, big here and in Laos and Cambodia

 

He drove around town with a big box of Number 1s on the back of his scooter and we followed in our car. He chatted up and made sales of varying sizes to street stall vendors and guesthouse operators, and pitched the condoms to the sex workers directly. I documented it all.

Mr. Thu out on his motorbike

Interacting with the owner of a tea stall who sells Number 1 condoms

A week's worth of condoms for a guesthouse

 

Late in day we rolled back to Hải Phòng and spent a couple of hours with the female sex worker outreach team – Sống đẹp (“Clean Living) – first in their office where they mocked up a series of 1-on-1 education sessions with sex workers, then in the field. We didn’t have any success getting into any entertainment establishments, which we expected, but I was able to photograph outreach to a couple of street workers. Much of what I’m doing is carefully shot to preserve the identity of the sex worker.

Sống đẹp outreach workers fill out their log books

A Sống đẹp outreach worker provides support for a female sex worker

 

Hải Phòng is bustling and dusty, but not ugly (for the most part), and I got to see a lot of it as we drove around after the outreach teams. PSI has put my up in the decent Bach Dang Hotel in the centre of town on Dien Bien Phu Street. Ms Ngoc led us to a decent and filling dinner of pork cake and rice noodles dipped in sour-saltly-sweet-spicy soup. I was back in the hotel in plenty of time to write this and backup all of the 300 images I took today.

Written by sockeyed

November 1, 2010 at 17:59

Hanoi & The Perfume Pagoda

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I’m still enjoying Hanoi very much. I continue to be amazed at the organic mass of honking scooters that flow through the streets, weaving around me as I cross the street. I’m still amazed that there are no disasters, but there is some method to the madness.

I’ve explored many of the sites here, although many more remain. On wednesday I visited the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple that served as a university to train scholar officials. The architecture was very attractive, and there were a series of large stone tablets resting on the back of enormous turtles celebrating the graduation of either individuals or groups of scholars. This temple was first founded in around 1072, I think.

I also visited the Army Museum, which is largely dedicated to 20th century military history in Vietnam. It was quite sobering, particularly the display of American warplane wreakage in a courtyard. There were shattered pieces of B-52s, F-111s, F4s and so on, often with insignias evident. Also on display was the NVA tank that crashed through the gates of the presidential palace Saigon, marking a key point in the end of what is known as the American War. There are several very famous photographs of this event that I have seen.

The food is fantastic, whether it’s pho eating at a streetside stall as you sit on teeny stools at teeny tables, or a fancier meal in a restaurant. I’ve had delicious spring rolls, fish, juices and even creme caramel here. The prices are fanastic. A full meal with drinks and dessert runs about $4 at most.

Yesterday I signed up for a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, about 70kms south of Hanoi. The trip was $12 all inclusive, and about 16 people came along. The bus trip was quite interesting. I got to see a lot more of Hanoi as we drove out of the city. The architecture is distinctive – tall, skinny ornate buildings are the norm. Scooter chaos was everywhere. The countryside is gorgeous, with lush patties and fields, and locals working them in their conical hats. The villages that we passed frequently had dogs in cages, and there is no doubt that they were destined for the table.

After 2 hours, we arrived in a village where in fours we got in small rowboats and were paddled by a local one hour down a placid river, past karst hills, shrinesm fields and even the odd lily just growing wild. We docked our boats, then hiked about 45 minutes up a steep stone path worn smooth by years of feet. At the top, we dropped down a set of stone steps into a massive cave which, while not deep, had an astounding mouth all surrounded by lush vegetation. The cave was a Buddhist temple, although I saw a number of Taoist deities as well. I hope that my photos do justice.

Descending was less sweaty. It’s not terribly hot here, but it is sticky. After a lunch at the bottom, we had some time to explore another ‘pagoda’, a gorgeous temple complex with a series of courtyards and towers, all hung with colours banners and flags.

We rode the boats back into down, then boarded our bus for the trip back into town as the sun went down.

Jeremy Tan arrived last night from Kuching and is delighted by the chaos, I’ve enjoyed meeting new folks, and have managed to meet up with Rory and Jenny from Ireland everyday, but it will be good to have a dedicated travelling companion, particularly one with Jeremy’s character. We’ll visit more sights in Hanoi today, with the highlights being a meal of cha ca grilled fish and a trip to the water puppet theatre this evening. Tomorrow we’ll probably head down to Hue. The original plan was to take the train, but I heard from Rory that you can actually fly for around $60, and fortunately they’ve retired all of their Tupelov jets, so that’s not such a scary proposition. A 45 minute flight is preferable to an overnight train ride, I think.

Written by sockeyed

October 29, 2004 at 14:33

Train to Hanoi

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I’ve decided that it’s really easy to be a travel writer because when you travel, it’s inevitable that things happen to you that are worth writing about, like my train ride from Guilin to Hanoi.

I realized that it was going to be interesting when I picked up my ticket at it was entirely in Chinese, Cyrillic and German.

The train was about 1/2 an hour late, nothing too serious. I sat in a smokey Waiting Room No.2. Music was playing, and I recognized the tune, and after about 10 minutes, I realized the same song was still playing. It was somehow skipping, but each skip was around 2 minutes long. If the train was any later, I realize that I might have gone mental.

I was relieved that my ticket actually worked, and I was able to get on the train when it arrived. I found my doily-encrusted first class compartment, and was soon joined by a couple from Ireland, Rory and Jenny, and a computer programmer/skier/climber from Ohio named Brian. Everyone was on long trips around Asia, spanning months, and in fact, Brian was working remotely as he travelled. Not a bad life!

In the hallway, I met a fellow and invited him to join us. Peter is a Swiss railway enthusiast. Enthusiast is putting it mildly. He had a quiet passion for trains. In fact, he was most of the way from Portugal to Ho Chi Minh City, all by train. What was his job? Why, working for the Swiss railways, selling train tickets. I guess that he didn’t believe in getting away from his job. He pointed out that our peculiar train tickets were issued in Swiss Francs. Did it have something to do with Switzerland being a neutral country?

The Irish couple, Brian and I decided to seek something to eat in the “dinning” car, so at around 5pm we wandered over. We sat there for an hour watching the entire crew of the train eat in shifts, then we were allowed to order. When our 2 dishes came, we realized that there wasn’t going to be enough food, so we tried to order more. We were told the kitchen was closed. Not only that, there was no beer to drink, only Pepsi and a bottle of rose wine that served as more of a decoration on the table. Nonetheless, we opened the bottle and found it to be Kool-aid like sweet wine with a rose flavour. Ack. We were to have an hour-long stop in Nanning, so we figured that we could get some more food in the station. Wrong we were.

When we pulled in at around 8pm, they showed us to a fancy new waiting room with huge leather chairs and locked us in. There was a snack bar, so we bought beer and nuts and crackers. The Irish couple decided to use up as much money as they could, so they bought 8 beers and lots of nuts.

We were released from the waiting room after a bit less than an hour, and our polyglot bunch made our way back to the train which was reduced to a mere two cars. Back in our compartment we played cards and I lost in record time, so I decided to go to bed.

At about 2:30am, we were waked up and our passports checked by the Chinese authorities. Before long, we pulled into Dongdang in Vietnam and piled off into the station with all of our bags. We had the place to ourselves, and border staff outnumbered us, I figure. There were several people at one window giving out entry cards, several people changing money and selling snacks, and about 5 checking each passport and taking into a back room for closer scrutiny. The best was the quarantine check, which cost 2000 dong (about 14 cents). The fellow behind the counter stuck the same electronic thermometer in everyone’s ear, pretty well guaranteeing that if one person had some terrible disease, we’d all get it.

After about an hour in the waiting room under Uncle Ho Chi Minh’s portrait, a new two car train pulled up (Vietnam has a different guage) and we got on. I slept until the sun was up, then watched the Vietnamese countryside roll by for the last hour of the journey. It was clear that we were in a different country now. Locals were working the lush fields in conical hats, motorcycles and bicycles rolled by in profusion, and the architecture was no longer tiles and glass like in China, but more ornate, decorative and colourful.

Hanoi is lovely and exciting. The narrow curving streets are jammed with masses of scooters, bicycles and motorbikes, all honking madly. Women with conical hats are selling flowers, fruits and vegetables from their carrying poles, and men drive by wearing those classic green pith helmets. People generally want to sell you something, but are friendly and pleasant. There is no shortage of great things to buy for not many dongs, either, such as paintings, silk, clothes, lacquer ware, and so on. I didn’t find much to buy in China, but here is a different story. Well, off to explore more of the city.

Jeremy Tan arrives tomorrow, then we’ll probably head south, or maybe north into Sapa.

Written by sockeyed

October 27, 2004 at 23:36

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