Monday, November 19, 2007

Floods in Central Vietnam

Last week, central Vietnam was hit with persistent rainstorms, which led to much flooding in Hoi An, a popular tourist town about 4km from the coast. I was staying with my tour group in a hotel about 3km away from the old town of Hoi An, far from the lower streets in town, close to the river, which had begun to flood as our group attended a cooking class on Sunday evening. The river rose about half a meter over the duration of our 2 hour cooking class, so we had small fisherman's dinghies paddle us back to a dry street, and hopped in a cab to head back to our hotel.

This is what my Monday schedule was meant to look like:
9am (approx): get up, eat breakfast, pack, and take care of any last-minute errands
11:30 Meet guide in hotel lobby
11:45 Depart for airport
12:30 Arrive airport
13:40 Fly to Saigon
14:45 Arrive Saigon, drive 30 min to hotel, check group in, free time the remainder of the afternoon
19:30 Group dinner

This is how Monday turned out:
5:30 Wake up, roll over, and marvel at the sheets of rain which are pouring down before falling back asleep
8:00 Wake up again, notice that it's still raining buckets, go to breakfast
8:45 Walk out to the street in front of the hotel, and see that the water has flooded the street and is as high as the middle of my calf
9:00 Call the local Vietnamese guide, Hoang, (whom I am working with in this part of the country) who is staying in a city about 45 min away and tell him that the street is flooded.
9:05 He assures me that the bus will have no problem driving in the street because it is a big bus. We agree to move the departure time to 11:30
9:15 Return to room, pack, wonder about the rain which continues to fall havily
10:30 Field hundred of questions from the passengers in my group, none of which I know the answer to
11:00 Receive a call from Hoang, who tells me that the bus driver has just arrived in Hoi An, and that there is no way we can get out
11:01 Silently curse and wonder what the hell I am going to do
11:05 Call the office in Saigon, tell them we are stuck in the hotel and will not make our 13:40 flight. They manage to get the whole group onto a 10pm flight
11:15 Inform my group of the situation, and continue to field questions about how they are going to pick up their custom tailoring (which Hoi An is known for), which is certainly the very least of my concerns, especially since I know all the tailors' shops are under at least 2 meters of water
11:30 Receive a call from the office informing me that all our (paper) air tickets have to be physically taken to Da Nang, a 45 minute driver from where we are, to be reconfirmed for the 10pm flight. Contemplate suicide. Curse Vietnam Airlines for such an inane and archaic system. Wonder why a concept as simple as e-tickets hasn't taken on in Socialist and/or Communist Asian countries
12:00 Inform group of the plan (again), tell them that they will likely have a couple hours to relax in the hotel and vicinity while I head into town to get some boats to transport us to a dry area of town and pass off the tickets to someone who can take them to Da Nang
13:00 Start walking 3km in waist-deep water
14:00 Arrive at the dry area of town where Hoang is waiting with the new (tiny!) bus that will eventually take us to the Da Nang airport. Pass the tickets off to Hoang, who then gives them to a driver to take to the Vietnam Airlines Da Nang office. Turn around and head back to the hotel.
14:10 See all our group's luggage (17 bags!) pass me in a boat being pushed against the current by five people. Rejoice and breathe a sigh of relief.
14:15 Find two old Vietnamese men in a fishing dinghy and convince them to paddle their boat out to the hotel and pick up members of my group to bring them back to town. Find a second boat to join the armada, hop into one of the boats, and start paddling with the Vietnamese grandpas.
15:00 Arrive back at the hotel and load most members of my group onto the boats--6 of them decide that they don't mind walking, so I lead them along until I can find another fisherman's boat for the last few group members.
16:00 Hop on a boat to bring up the rear, and head towards town. Again.
17:00 Arrive in town to find that all members of my group have also made it and are alive and well. Hear that one woman has even managed to collect her tailoring. Rejoice again; one less thing for me to think about.
17:45 Hop in the 20 seater bus with my 15 passengers, all our luggage, Hoang, the driver, and the driver's assistant (yeah, I don't really get it either) to head to the airport. Still in my wet clothing, but relieved that we are finally on our way.
19:00 Bus engine stalls out as the road is now enveloped in knee-deep water and the engine is flooded. The driver proceeds to open the access door to the engine (which happens to be between the driver and passenger seats), and goes to work. The bus fills with a bit of black smoke, and I wonder if this day can get any worse.
19:03 My group starts singing "Row, row, row your boat." In a round. I thank goodness that I have an amazing group of passengers.
19:15 Bus is up and running again!
19:30 Arrive at the airport, check-in, settle into a noodle restaurant across the street and put on some dry clothes.
22:00 Plane takes off. Take a deep breath and thank god the day is finished.

With two members of my group, as we begin the 3km walk from our hotel to the dry area where we can meet our bus

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bia Hoi

I recently had nearly 5 days off in between two tours to get to know Hanoi a little better, and was able to explore some of the wonderful tree-lined streets of colonial architecture; local restaurants; and parks filled everyone from small children to elderly grandparents strolling, playing badminton, or reading.

On one particularly sunny day, I joined two other tour leaders who also had the day off to head to a large public pool out in the embassy district (ie the area of the city where foreigners on extremely comfortable expat salary packages live) where we could pay a few dollars to swim and spend the afternoon there. We packed a picnic of some baguettes and brie (thank you, remnants of French colonization), hopped in a cab, and headed out. Upon arrival, we found a large deck area encompassing a 50 meter pool....which had apparently closed about 20 days earlier and had been sitting in neglect ever since; the walls and surface were now an emerald shade of green as algae took over.

Non-plussed, we walked back out to the main highway, and spontaneously hopped on a city bus that happened to be pulling up to a random bus stop as we were walking past. We rode for about 20 minutes before finally hopping off, resigned to the likelihood that we would just return to the tour leader house and spend the remainder of the afternoon on the couch. Until I spotted a Bia Hoi and suggested a picnic there.

What is "Bia Hoi," you may ask.
A: A beer drinker's heaven.

"Bia hoi," are the ubiquitous local restaurants that serve fresh cold glasses of local beer for 2,000 VND/glass ($1 = 16,000 VND, so you're looking at about 8 glasses of draught beer for a measley dollar). Because the beer is brewed without preservatives, the kegs are delivered daily to local restaurants around the city, and must be consumed that day. Cold, light, and incredibly cheap, we figured a few rounds at the bia hoi wasn't a bad runner-up to a day spent lounging at the pool.

As the locals patrons derived amusement from our very beginner Vietnamese skills and snack of brie and baguettes, I whipped an ad hoc tablecloth (aka bath towel) out of my bag, and three icy, frothy beers appeared on the table. The amused waitress even brought over a knife for the cheese, before we could even think to ask, as the two men sitting next to us laughed and gave us a thumbs up. A vietnamese twist on our picnic, the bia hoi pit-stop made for a great afternoon.

"Mot, hai, ba, YO!"

Chad, Ross, and I enjoy our picnic, complemented by Bia Hoi (and a slew of amused onlookers)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Vietnamese Language

In a bout of ambition (and possibly a little too much wishful thinking), I decided that I was going to use my 4.5 day break between tours to be as productive as feasibly possible. This mainly entailed seeking out a Vietnamese tutor to meet with during the week, so that I can do more than, say, order a chocolate ice cream and iced coffee in Vietnamese (the first two things I learned to say. No, seriously).

I figured that, since my time is limited and I won't be back in Hanoi again for about 5 weeks, I'd get in some basic phonetics and survival phrases from which I can build upon and teach myself a bit. I had been optimistic that, being able to speak Chinese (which also has tones and from which many Vietnamese words are derived), it would come pretty easily. This was far from the case. For starters, they have two sounds that are 1)nearly impossible to pronounce and 2)pretty much sound identical to me. The first one is "nh," which is probably closest to the gn- at the beginning of "gnocchi." The second one is "ng" which sounds like....well, pretty much exactly the same as far as I'm concerned. A more formal, linguistic explanation is: when you pronounce the "nh" sound, the top of the front part of your tongue touches the the roof of your mouth in the front. For the "ng" sound, the front of your tongue doesn't touch the roof of your mouth at all, but rather the back of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth in the back. Basically, just stick your finger down your throat and start gagging--now you can speak Vietnamese! In all seriousness, though, it sounds a bit like you're choking, especially when it comes at the beginning of the word, as it so often does.

The other thing I learned (also, unlike Chinese) is that Vietnamese doesn't have just one or two pronouns for the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd person pronouns. In English we have "I," "you," and "he"/"she"/"it." In Vietnamese, however, the pronoun changes according to your age, gender, the age/gender of the person you are talking to or referring to, or whether you are talking to family, friends, or a stranger. A couple quick examples:
This is how you would refer to yourself/say "I" if you were talking to the following people:
--Grandparents, aunts, uncles: "Chau"
--Parents: "Con"
--Brothers, sisters, & friends who are older than you: "Em"
--Brothers, sisters, & friends who are younger than you: "Chi" (if you are female) / "Anh" (if you are male)
--Anyone in a formal setting: "Toi"

Ummm, yeah. Not confusing at all.

"You" and "he"/"she"/"it" get even trickier, because you would refer to people differently depending on whether they were younger than you, slightly older than you, approximately the same age as your parents, or approximately the same age as your grandparents.

To top it all off, there are 6 different tones, so any given word means at least 6 different things accoring to the pitch of your voice when you say the word.

I'm wondering if I really need to know how to say anything other than "chocolate ice cream," "iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk," and "noodles"... Sounds like a pretty balanced diet to me.