Sunday, September 14, 2014

Blasting Back to Da Nang

After a typically fun night out in Hue, we decided to get up early for our drive back to Da Nang in order to avoid the afternoon storms. Since Thinh and Jacqui hadn't been to the city before, we did a bit of drive-by sightseeing around the Citadel, the complex from which the Nguyen dynasty ruled Vietnam.

 With that done we headed back south on Highway 1, hoping to avoid another hellish day of driving. Fortunately the weather was perfect, and once we cleared Hue's sprawl the traffic thinned, allowing us to simply scream down the highway. This was some of the fastest driving I've done here - at times we were hitting 80kph (50mph), which feels like warp speed when you're used to driving in Saigon, where traffic rarely moves faster than 30 or 40kph. It seemed like almost nobody else was going south, and we blew past the few trucks in our way like they weren't even moving. Of course, in the back of my head I was thinking of how horrific an accident would have been at that speed - any distraction, from a chicken on the road to a wobbly kid on a bicycle - could have led to certain death.

The scenery, however, kept me focused. This was the first time I was seeing the mountains between Da Nang and Hue in dry weather, and they were gorgeous. A line of green peaks stretched along the highway to the west, while lush rice paddies fanned out to the East Sea on the left.

 The kilometers fell away in the blink of an eye, and we carved up the two smaller passes that eventually lead to Hai Van.
 We reached Da Nang just two hours after leaving Hue, a trip that had been more than twice as long the previous day. We threw a football around on the beach with Hai Van in the background, and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in Da Nang before our flight back to Saigon.

Da Nang's skyline along the Han River
I've always enjoyed visiting central Vietnam, and this trip was no different. It's hard to go wrong with Hoi An's history and food; Da Nang's beaches, mountains, and wide open roads; and Hue's landmarks and surprisingly lively nightlife. It was now time to get back into the swing of things in Saigon.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Rain Drive

Back in the U.S., I always defended Vietnam whenever someone made a crass dog meat joke or some other stereotypical comment. I would argue that most people have little interest in eating dog, and you don't see it very often. If you don't know Vietnamese it would actually be very difficult to find any trace of a dog meat industry here - the restaurants serving such dishes don't advertise in English. As much as I would like to think that the popularity of dog meat is fading, there is no doubt that a fair number of people still demand it.

There was a truck stop at the bottom of the Hai Van pass, and as I approached it I noticed two trucks - one to the left of the road, the other on the right. I saw that the right truck was full of live pigs and thought nothing of it. Then I looked left and was horrified: dozens of terrified, yelping dogs were packed into stacks of crates on the bed of the truck. There isn't any logic in seeing one type of animal being treated terribly and not reacting; only to react viscerally at the sight of another, but that's just how it is. I've seen dead dogs being butchered before, but seeing this many live ones - and they clearly knew what their fate was - was extremely difficult. A few minutes later, while eating lunch at an open-front eatery in Lang Co, the truck drove past on its way north. The dogs were still howling. I lost the rest of my appetite.

-

After lunch we mounted our bikes for the final 60-ish kilometers to Hue. It was a straight shot up Highway 1, and we thought it would take no more than an hour or so. However, shortly afterwards a light rain began. We weren't prepared for wet weather (all I had was a rain jacket), and we hoped it would pass. However, the sky was darkening in every direction. Heavy rain began a few minutes later so we pulled into a cafe. The highway was in the process of being expanded and there was no shoulder; the prospect of dealing with psychotic bus and truck drivers in pounding rain with no room for error wasn't a pleasant one. The rain slacked off a bit later, so we carried on.

It didn't take long, though, for the intense downpours to resume. We took shelter under a shack and considered our options: Hue wasn't far off, but in weather like this it would take much longer than anticipated. Da Nang was even further away, and there was nowhere nearby to wait things out. Plus, it didn't look like the deluge would be stopping anytime soon. This is where the difference between weather in the north and south is most noticeable: it rains a lot down south, but the storms are usually short and intense; no more than an hour or two. Up north it can rain (or at least drizzle) for days on end. The only real option was to do our best to protect our electronics and passports and continue on the road to Hue.

The ensuing 50km to the city became one of the most miserable experiences of my time in Vietnam. The rain didn't let up for a single second. I could barely even keep my eyes open with the heavy raindrops blasting them, so I eventually decided to put my sunglasses on, choosing poor visibility over no visibility. It was freezing; our hands numb and teeth chattering. The aforementioned lack of a shoulder meant trucks and buses came screaming by with inches to spare while washing walls of water over us. Potholes became invisible thanks to standing water, and stretches of flooded road made hydroplaning a real threat. We carried on, jaws clenched, with nowhere to hide and no choice but to soldier on. We neared the city, with lightning cracking across the sky, large vehicles bellowing their ocean-liner horns, the incessant rain pelting our helmets, and suddenly an airliner taking off directly overhead as we drove past Hue's airport; invisible in the deluge. I was nearing sensory overload, and it took all of my experience and instinct not to just go insane. I had already decided that I would get very drunk that night.

Finally, mercifully, we entered the city, and I was able to remember my way around. We entered our hotel like a trio of miserable wet dogs, and in no time our room was covered in soaked clothing. All told, the 100km (62 mile) drive from Da Nang to Hue had taken over five hours. However, we had survived, and the proper thing to do was just laugh about the drive. No point in complaining. Plus, there was much beer to be drunk!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Where Clouds Meet Ocean

The Hai Van Pass was one of the few well-known locations in Vietnam that I hadn't been to yet. The pass traverses the eastern end of the Annamite mountains, where lush, steep hills drop right into the East Sea. These mountains separate the dramatically different climates of northern and southern Vietnam; therefore the area is often shrouded in mist and low clouds. In English, Hai Van translates into "ocean cloud pass". The pass was the dividing line between the ancient Champa and Dai Viet empires; today it serves as the border between Da Nang and Thua Tien-Hue provinces.

The highlight of Hai Van is the 21km road that winds its way up and down the mountains. (The national railway also crosses the pass, hugging the coast the whole time in what must be a spectacular ride.) If you've seen the Top Gear Vietnam special, this is the road they fawned over halfway through the episode. The pass used to be extremely dangerous, as this was the only road connecting Hue and Da Nang, meaning everything from 18-wheelers and tour buses to motorbikes and bicycles used it. Luckily the opening of the Hai Van tunnel in 2005 took almost all large traffic off the pass, turning it into a motorbike's dream. I've already driven the Ma Li Peng pass, one of the most stunning in the world, way up in Ha Giang province, but I still wanted to see what all the fuss was about at Hai Van.

Our van driver found a place where we could rent motos in Da Nang, and as we waited for our bikes a fighter jet roared overhead and out to sea. I had never seen a military plane in Vietnam before - I assume it was flying out to patrol over the disputed island chains in the East Sea that are at the heart of the strained Vietnam-China relations.

With the bikes ready to go, Thinh, Jacqui and I headed north through the city, the cloud-topped mountains looming up ahead. We reached the beginning of the pass and began zigging and zagging our way up, the road following the curves of the geography. Climbing quickly, we were afforded expansive views of Da Nang's skyline, the East Sea, and other sections of the pass. The temperature began to drop, and after a few exhilarating hairpin turns, we were suddenly at the summit.


south towards Da Nang
zoom zoom
The view north looked over Lao Cai and the road down as it sliced through the mountains. An old, bullet-scarred French garrison sits at the top of the pass, along with a string of shops hawking drinks and useless knick-knacks to tourists. A stiff breeze blew through the opening in the pass, and the weather divide between the two halves of the country was distinct: thin clouds struggling to keep sunlight at bay to the south; a number of ominous dark clouds to the north. We scrambled around the ruins of the fort (where a couple was posing for cliched, but admittedly spectactular, wedding photos) for a bit before getting back on the bikes to head down the other side of Hai Van towards Hue.
looking north towards Lao Cai


bullet holes
summit
view from a pillbox
This was an absolute blast, as we rocketed back down to sea level, carving up plenty of tight curves along the way. With the exception of a few cars and bikes we had the road to ourselves and could open the throttle with little concern. (I should also mention the fuel trucks - since flammable materials aren't allowed in the tunnel, the only trucks you see on the pass are those transporting gasoline and fuel tanks. Exactly the sort of vehicles you want to run into at high speed.) In no time we were spat out at the bottom of the pass, where we rejoined the bus and truck traffic on Highway 1 and stopped in Lao Cai for lunch. Hai Van can't compare to Ha Giang in terms of sheer beauty (few places can), but the drive is phenomenal, and lives up to the hype.
a happy camper

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Revisiting Hoi An (again)

Last week I went up to Central Vietnam with two friends, Thinh and Jacqui, and we spent three nights in Hoi An. It was my third time visiting the town, but neither of my friends had never been, and I've always enjoyed that part of the country. I've covered Hoi An in previous posts so I'll just go over the basics: the Old Town is as beautiful as ever, but it has definitely gotten more crowded. There are more hotels, more people, more restaurants, and more shops catering to visitors than the last time I was there a couple of years ago. You also have to pay VND120,000 ($6) to enter the Old Town; the result of a controversial measure passed earlier this year. They haven't quite gotten the ticketing system down though - you only have to pay once during your stay, and every time we walked past a ticket booth afterwards, the attendants just asked if we had tickets instead of actually checking. I guess they trust visitors?



As always there was a ton of great food to be eaten; but one of the saddest moments was when I brought Thinh and Jacqui to a hole-in-the-wall place I discovered on my first trip to Hoi An in 2011. They had served amazing food, but this time I had trouble finding it, even though I remembered the street. I finally realized it had been converted into just another shop selling cliche t-shirts and useless touristy crap. Surely at some point Hoi An is going to be over-saturated with stores offering the exact same shit? Below is one of the best (and cheapest) things we had - grilled pork skewers that you wrapped in rice paper with veggies and peanut sauce. We crushed this place twice.
A highlight of our time in Hoi An was the day we went to the beach. We rented bicycles and pedaled the 6km to the main beach, but it looked a bit crowded so we turned right and headed down the coast road, hoping to find something quieter. We ended up at a dock, not exactly an ideal place to swim. Dejected, we turned around to head back to the main beach. A local spotted us, made a swimming motion, and then pointed down a dirt path next to an abandoned resort. We rode a couple hundred feet and then came upon perfection: a completely deserted beach. There wasn't a soul in sight, the water was clear, and there was a huge sandbar out in the water. The sun was shining, there was a lovely breeze, and we suddenly had our own private beach.


A great afternoon was had by all, with the low point coming when I badly sprained my left ankle after caving to peer pressure and cannonballing from the sand bar into the water.

The following day we motorbiked out to the My Son ruins, which sit in the countryside about an hour outside Hoi An. I've been there before as well, but it's a beautiful drive, and I always enjoy visiting historical sites. Read the second half of this for more on the ruins. Unsurprisingly, they hadn't changed since I was last there, although I had forgotten how many overgrown bomb craters litter the area. (It was bombed heavily by the American military during the war.)


The scenery between Hoi An and My Son is gorgeous:
As was this sunrise Thinh and I woke up early one day to watch:
After a thoroughly enjoyable several days in Hoi An we took a taxi to Da Nang, where we rented motos and headed north for the Hai Van Pass.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why I Moved Back to Vietnam

This is a question I've been asked repeatedly over the past few days, and in many ways the answer is much simpler than the inverse, or why I left Vietnam last year.

When I moved back to New Orleans last October, I had no intention of staying for good. I still wanted to live abroad, but I thought I was done with Vietnam. Eventually I decided that I would've stayed in the U.S. if a good job opportunity had presented itself, but none did. (There was the possibility of working on a senator's re-election campaign, but that reality took far longer than expected to flesh out, and by the time they seemed ready for me I had already booked my flight out.) It's a real shame that there is a distinct dichotomy in America between people who enter the rat race right out of college and people who decide to do something different. My college friends all have steady jobs that they are well compensated for, and I'm often envious of their financial stability. Meanwhile, they are jealous of all the cool shit I've done overseas. There seems to be no middle ground, it's either stay home and build your network or cut all ties and get on a plane.

I briefly looked into working in another country, primarily South Korea or Japan, but in June I realized the easiest thing to do would be to go back to Saigon. As if to confirm this feeling, I had two promising job leads after just a few weeks of looking, in comparison to months of (admittedly half-assed) hunting in the states. Unless you're in a hard-science field or a lawyer, it's probably easier for someone in their 20's to find work overseas than in America.

Ultimately, the main reason I wanted to go back to Vietnam was boredom. I realize that saying I was bored in New Orleans, one of the most vibrant cities in the U.S., seems stupid, but bear with me. To be sure, I had some absolutely great times back home: I saw family and college friends in Pittsburgh (twice); thoroughly explored New York City; went to California for the first time; had a hilariously drunk Mardi Gras; ate loads of amazing food; saw a lot of fantastic live music (Arcade Fire, Jack White, Dr. Dog, Mogwai, The Dear Hunter, The Killers, etc.); and made some wonderful new friends, but I missed the lifestyle of being an expat, especially in Saigon.

I always had a hard time explaining this to people, since almost no one equates Vietnam with being a great place to live. The simplest explanation I could give is that there is so much freedom here. Yes, this is a strange thing to say about a city located in a country run by an authoritarian Communist government, but expats (particularly those from western countries), for better or worse, sit somewhat removed from the bureaucracy of living here. We can arrive at the airport, apply for a three-month visa with every intention of just getting another without leaving the country, work without a work permit, rent a motorbike without a license, and move into a house immediately without signing any paperwork. (It's not always quite that simple, but that's exactly what I've done since arriving on Thursday.)

There is also a much greater sense of optimism in Vietnam; a feeling that the future can still be bright. The U.S. has become depressingly cynical and close-minded; the political climate is sickening and ignorance seems to be celebrated in some quarters. (Again, I'm fully cognizant of the irony of writing this from a single-party state where dissent is swiftly suppressed, but people here learn to work their way around the government instead of just complaining and yelling at the TV all the time.) I hope that my generation of Americans can change this, but it will take time.

Anyway, I'm digressing. I moved back to Vietnam for more excitement, more cultural immersion, more travel, and more opportunity. When I arrived here in 2010 I knew nobody and nothing, and ended up carving out a pretty good life for myself. Instead of looking at my decision to leave last year as a mistake, I'm choosing to consider how much I should be able to accomplish this time around, with a solid network of friends and connections and a healthy knowledge of the country. I don't know how long I'll be here this time, but I'm looking forward to whatever is coming my way.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Returning

After nearly 10 months away, I'm living in Saigon again. A post about why this happened is forthcoming, but I haven't had time to spend much time in front of the computer yet. Since arriving late Thursday night I have quickly inserted myself back into the old routine: tons of street food, a visit to my usual spa, plenty of beer, etc. It's been extremely easy to pick things up where they left off with my friends; at certain points it has felt like I never left. The same banter and wide-ranging conversations are there - for example on Friday I went to an American-style BBQ restaurant with several pals and we ended up having a lengthy, beer-fueled discussion on the validity of suicide as a way to combat depression. Afterwards I went to another friend's house where the Vietnamese government and its relationship with China was a common theme. In other words, it's been a great few days.

Of course the journey over here was a marathon, as always. The trans-Pacific flight was its usual Twilight Zone-esque self, where you can leave America on Wednesday morning and arrive in Japan mid-day Thursday without it ever getting dark, as the plane chased the sun west the entire time. That long flight actually wasn't too bad, as I had an empty seat next to me, although the fact that United was charging $7.99 for beer was ludicrous. To pass the time I employed my time-tested program of watching as many movies as possible, occasionally dozing off and having to rewind. This time I enjoyed the Grand Budapest Hotel, the Lego Movie, Korengal, American Hustle, and an episode of Louie.

I should have been exhausted by the time I made it to my house in Saigon, but I was so excited to be back I immediately went for food and then played some pool. I'm still adjusting to the time and have been waking up far earlier than I would prefer, but I expect that to end in the next few days. I'm back on a motorbike already, a skill that had not faded in my time away. There have been huge changes to Saigon since I left, but much is the same - the same sounds and traffic; meat grilling in front of open-front restaurants; fresh fruit and vegetables spilling out of markets; people everywhere; the heat and rain. I can't wait to see what this new stint in Vietnam brings.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oops

Ok, one last really final post. I had some technical difficulties with the first Tumblr page I set up, so here is the new one: http://miketatarski.tumblr.com/. It's the same URL, but if you had already followed the old one you'll need to re-follow this. Hope you enjoy!

Now bye for good.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Signing off

I've made the big decision to put this blog into retirement, as the name is no longer appropriate to where I am. Fear not, though, as I'm still going to write, except I'm switching to a new platform - Tumblr. Follow the link to the new page and find out what you can expect from it: http://miketatarski.tumblr.com/

I'd like to take this final chance to thank everyone who read this - from those who frequently commented, to the silent types who I know enjoyed it as well. When I began this thing over three years ago I never expected it to get anywhere near this popular. I thought the only readers would be my parents and maybe a few family members or close friends, but I've been contacted by people from all over the world. Of course, it helped that I had an amazing city and country to write about. I am very grateful that so many responded well to what I had to say. I hope that continues in the future. Cheers, ya'll.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Road trip!

Time for the first major American travel I've done in years.
I doubt this drive will be as eventful as the motorbiking in Ha Giang I did a couple of months ago, but the great thing about road trips is that something unexpected always happens. Really looking forward to this one.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Transitioning

Today was my most productive day since returning to the U.S. last Thursday evening. I opened a bank account, joined a gym, and got my bicycle (which I flew back with me) into riding condition. Prior to this I had accomplished practically nothing. I'm still in a bit of a daze from leaving Saigon - saying goodbye to some of the most important people in my life and giving up that lifestyle, followed immediately by the mind-bending odyssey that is trans-Pacific travel, left me in a weak state. Plus I barely slept during my madcap last week in Saigon, during which I spent just one out of the final seven nights in my own bed (not necessarily for the reason you're thinking of, there were several all-nighters thrown in). I haven't felt like doing anything social, and for the most part I've kept to myself, listening to music and binging on episodes of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" to get my travel fix vicariously.

The other day I watched "Lost in Translation" for the first time, which was a terrible idea. It's a great movie, but the isolation and discomfort the characters played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson experience in Tokyo mirror my feelings towards being back in the U.S. It was an unpleasant reminder that I'm caught between two worlds. I had gotten used to living in Vietnam, but everyone expects that, as an American, I will just end up staying here for good. My last three years were an experience that no one here understands. I ordered a beer at a restaurant the other day and the waitress asked for my driver's license. I joked that I hadn't needed it in a while since I had been living abroad, where it is useless, and she scoffed at me. I ran into a neighbor who wondered if living in Vietnam had been "scary". (Mind you, she is elderly and there is no reason the average American would need to know that the country has moved way past the war, but still...) I still want to talk about traveling, where the best places to eat in District 10 are, etc., but here the hot topics are politics (vomit) and the weekend obsessions of college football and the NFL. I still enjoy American sports, but I've been disconnected from them for so long that I have a hard time staying interested for a whole game. I don't mean to sound like I'm hating on Americans, but leaving the melting pot that is any expat community and re-entering the relative homogeneity of a mid-size city is tough. How am I supposed to make fun of British English if there aren't any Brits around?!

Fortunately the food has been amazing. New Orleans is one of the best places in America (or the world) to eat, and I've been taking full advantage of that. Having a fully-stocked kitchen is great as well, I enjoy cooking but didn't have the equipment in Vietnam. (And why would I cook when I could walk down the street and get an amazing meal for $2?) The fall weather is also fantastic; as much as I love Saigon the 365-day heat was tiring. Access to helpful customer service in fluent English is great. The people who helped me out at the bank and gym today were affable and knowledgeable, there was no need for miming and no wondering if they understood my dumbed-down questions.

There are obviously some things that have taken some getting used to. A few times I've forgotten that we have a dishwasher, as I'm used to doing that by hand. Every time I cross a one-way street I still constantly look both ways, since traffic in Saigon can come from any direction at any time. Cost of living is an obvious difference. I'm going on a whirlwind road trip from Las Vegas to LA and San Francisco starting Friday, and the other day I booked a night at a hostel (bunk bed ftw!) in Santa Barbara for $34 a night. $34!!!!!! That's easily a night at a 3-star hotel in Vietnam. On that topic, this six-day trip is going to be considerably more expensive than the 3.5 week journey through Ha Giang and Myanmar I took a couple of months ago. Oi.

Perhaps the hardest part of being back so far, though, is the expectation of everyone that I have all of my next moves figured out. I've been asked "so, what are you doing now?" roughly 5,236 times. (Second on that list is "so you're back for good?") I have to explain that well, I've only been back a few days and am just getting over my jet lag, and I really have no idea what I'm doing anyway. I want to continue writing, and I want to move back abroad, preferably Asia, but that's pretty much all I know. One reason I have trouble connecting with people here at times is that so many people have their next five-ten years planned out - job, wife, house, dog, kids, etc. - while I can't even say what I'll be doing in five months. That was the great thing about my group of friends in Saigon - we were all playing things by ear, enjoying the moment. Perhaps not the most financially logical way to live, but it's a lot of fun. That line of thinking doesn't jive with the prescribed American life though, where everyone is supposed to graduate from college and work in an office for 40 years while raising 2.2 kids behind a white picket fence. Occasionally I do envy the stability of that lifestyle, but then I remember that time I watched the sun rise at the southern tip of India or ate jackfruit in the simple home of an old man in Myanmar while he talked about the past. I just want more of that. I guess that's what I need to figure out during this transition period: how do I keep having experiences like that while making enough money to pay off my college loans? That is the challenge.