Monday, February 28, 2005

SAS Email 5 - Hong Kong & Vietnam

***I know these are ridiculously long and probably contain a ton of extraneous info most of you don’t care about, but if you’re reading this far then at least you’re interested in some part of my trip… While I write these partially to serve as a journal when the voyage is over, another purpose is to hopefully evoke similar responses from you. I’m halfway across the world but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about your lives, so please take some time out of your day once a week or even month and write me a detailed update on how your life’s going… I’m interested and miss ya***

“Certainly travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on deep, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

Well I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written, and the amount of things I’ve done and seen since my last email would be impossible to fully recount. I’ll try to condense Hong Kong and Vietnam into this one email, but in the process I’ll be leaving out a lot of the details I usually like telling people about (and hearing in other people’s stories too)… I guess I’ll start with my highlights from each country, this way if anyone goes to either of those places they can use this email as a travel reference.

Hong Kong- Although HK wasn’t my favorite actual location of the ports we’ve been to, I had the most amazing days there… it just seemed like everything I did ended up being something incredible, like the cosmos were perfectly aligned for me to have a blast. I was expecting an impressive skyline from my little background knowledge of HK, but I was overwhelmed with the skyline on Hong Kong Island… it seriously puts mid-town Manhattan to shame. My first day there was spent walking the streets of Kowloon (urban area… not as city-like as HK Island), taking the Star Ferry over to HK Island and taking that all in, visiting the incense-filled (so smoky the people who work there wear doctor’s face masks) Man Mo Temple, taking a sampan ride in Aberdeen (a must-do in Hong Kong… Aberdeen is basically a floating village with fishing boats, restaurants, etc all on the water), and then one of the most fun events of my life happened… As usual I was with my buddy Dennis (the kid with the long blond hair in the pics that my brother said “looks like a funny dude), and we were trying to get into the HK Cultural Center but couldn’t find an entrance. We ended up walking through this back glass door that had a velvet rope on the inside (but the door was open, and open doors are meant to be walked though).

The place was massive and really impressive, but totally empty. We were on the 3rd floor, and were shadily walking around the place. The only people we could see were wearing tuxedos and catering uniforms, and after talking to an usher we found out that in 30 mins they were hosting a gala/reception to kickoff the Hong Kong Arts Festival, with a 300 person guest list consisting of every major politician and player in Hong Kong… we snuck around the place for the next 30 mins, hiding in the bathroom for a little while, just so we could witness this major event w/o being kicked out (keep in mind we’re in shorts, t-shirts, sneakers and I’m wearing a backpack)… then we realized somehow we were on the inside section of the set of stairways. So we could technically walk down the red carpeted staircase to the main reception area where the press was surrounding the major players in their formal wear, sipping on cocktails and eating joir’devours (I know I’m butchering the spelling)… I don’t know why, but I felt this compulsion to walk down and join them, act like I belonged for some ludicrous reason and hopefully get kicked out… I just kept thinking you only live once, and how many people are given a golden opportunity when they’re 21 to crash an event like that in Hong Kong… so we got into character- We were part of a delegation of American college students hand-picked to be sent across the world from country to country to promote diplomatic relations with foreign nations… hahahha…10 mins after the gala started, maybe 15 people were in the velvet-roped press-surrounded section, and we walked down the red carpeted grand staircase. Grabbing a cocktail and roastbeef joir’devoirs (Ron Burgundy style saying “Oh this is delicious! You gotta try this.”), we walked up to the nearest couple and started a convo… … we said our ship was badly damaged to the point we couldn’t get to our suitcases so that’s why we were in such sloppy clothes… and after 15 minutes we had the business card and were good buddies with the General Consulate of Poland to Hong Kong… We said we’d talk to him later, turned around, and we were promptly escorted out of the area by security… definitely one of the most fun events of my life… the next morning the Arts Festival Gala was on the front page of the SE Asia newspaper.

We came back and played basketball at a nearby park with a bunch of pretty good Asians, then went out to Lan Kwae Fong (the crazy bar area.... a cross-section of streets with nothing but fun bars) and had a great night partying from bar to bar, highlighted by an all-Asian band playing American rock covers (Sweet Home Alabama, Ride Sally Ride, Bon Jovi, etc)… and yes they had a cowbell player in a see-through fishnet shirt. So that was just Day 1 in Hong Kong, so you can tell how much happened everyday there and how things just seemed to work out. I’ll spare you the extreme details of the rest of the days… Day 2 I took the hour bus ride to Kam Tim, a remote town with a 16th century walled village still in tact with people living there. The bus stopped by an elementary school so we went and played soccer and basketball for an hour with 12 local kids… then we walked through the narrow streets of Kat Hing Wai (the walled village), the entire mini-city probably consisting of 2 acres. Day 3 I went to Lantau Island (after morning classes) to see the Big Buddha, which is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. It’s a 114 ft tall bronze Buddha, on top of the mountains of Lantau Island. I don’t know why I’d never heard of it before, it’s like a Hong Kong Statue of Liberty, but I loved it and was actually able to meditate there with a friend of mine on a grassy patch right next to the Buddha at the peak (The next day when flying to Vietnam I asked jokingly if there were extra 1st class seats and the flight attendant bumped me up… one other student out of 380 on the flight was in 1st class too, the girl Haley I’d meditated with next to the Big Buddha… crazy proof that good karma does exist!). We then toured the surrounding Po Lin Monastery, which fortunately wasn’t crowded by tourists like most other famous monasteries, and that was pretty amazing at well. I spent the rest of that day alone, which was nice to finally have time to myself, and checked out the HK skyline from Victoria Peak and picked up a few presents at the “night market” on Temple Street. The next morning we flew to Vietnam, and I fell in love.

I didn’t expect to find love on this trip, but I found it in the form of Vietnam. Until this trip Vietnam wasn’t a place, it was a war. When someone said they were in Vietnam, it meant they were in the war… I’ll never look at it that way again. The country is so beautiful and diverse and interesting, with the people being some of the most friendly I’ve ever met. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), and I spent the first day there just walking around, trying not to get hit by motorbikes (they’re EVERYWHERE) and taking in the city. Then I went on a field program to Hanoi (the capital at the north end of the country) and Halong Bay (a 4 hour drive from Hanoi… a bay with over 3000 limestone islands). Hanoi was like Saigon, except not as bustling (like Boston to NYC) and had much more of the French influence in its design and architecture. We visited the Temple of Literature, Museums of Vietnam History and War, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (the more I learn about him the more impressed I am… from what I know he seems to be one of the best leaders of the past century), massive caves/grottos in Halong Bay (the Grotto of Heaven was a 150 meter, 150 foot high cave that looked felt like being inside a Disneyland ride), a traditional water puppet show, the 36 Streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and the amazing rice fields of North Vietnam. We’d drive for 4 hours and the entire time be surrounded on both sides by nothing but rice fields- perfect rectangular sections dotting green fields, drenched in shin-high water, with one or a few Vietnamese farmers in their traditional hats, working the land. They were out there all day working alone and so hard, it was just incredibly humbling to see.

After three days I returned to Saigon, where I spent one day at the Cao Dai Temple (amazing, unlike anything I’ve ever seen) and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were some 200km long, dug in dense soil and used by the Vietnamese throughout the war to demolish the Americans… it was really scary to see and the war hit home pretty hard when in the jungle and crawling through the tunnels, plus there’s a shooting range at the end of the tour where people can fire AK-47’s for a dollar per bullet… so as you’re walking through the jungle, seeing the tunnels, viewing spike-laden traps, I’m hearing gunfire ringing out and bullets whizzing through the air! That definitely added some authenticity to the experience, and furthered my already hyper-pacificist viewpoint on the world. Haha, I know a bunch of you will ask me if I fired the gun like most students did, but I didn’t, it just seemed so wrong to be recreationally firing shots on the sacred ground where so many people died gruesome deaths for the wrong reasons. But I do have a hysterical video of my friend Reed firing the gun while I’m standing next to him shaking my head and the loudness of the shot causing me to almost fall over. The next day we took a day tour to the Mekong Delta, which visually is what I imagined Vietnam to look like… colorful fishing boats, muddy waters, small islands, green vegetation, etc… It was an amazing day; if anyone goes to Vietnam make sure you take a boat tour of the Mekong Delta. Now we’re back on the boat and headed towards India, the country I’m looking forward to most out of any on the trip. That’s the roundup on my daily travels, here are my observations and insights (Although I lost my notepad I wrote a lot of them down in, I’ll try to recount as best as I can):

Hong Kong Observations-
The most contrasting place I’ve ever been to, towering skyscrapers rest on the waterfront next to colorful fishing boats and villages, while lush green mountains roll in the background… extreme rich live two doors from extreme poor
People don’t cross the street during the day until the crosswalk light goes green… even if no cars are around.
It was British for 99 years, so they drive on the wrong side of the road.
Best public transportation system ever, take the bus, subway, ferry, etc… they’re efficient and great.
Don’t spit anywhere, and if you throw out gum make sure you wrap it up… or else a $200 US fine
Very moral people- subway system expects you to tell them where you’re going and pay fee according to distance you’ll travel but they don’t enforce that
They love Bon Jovi, guys feel cool playing the cowbell, and fishnet shirts on men are apparently “in”

Vietnam Observations-
Motorbikes are everywhere, probably outnumbering cars 50 to 1
XXXL clothes are fitted for people that are 5’8”
There’s no regard for traffic regulations, everyone drives on either side of the street regardless of vehicles approaching… it’s like existing inside of a bee hive… its scary as hell at first but fun to watch
You can bargain for anything, most things are dirt cheap, and they accept American cash everywhere
The currency is called “Dong”… the corny jokes are unending
Children will wave and say “Hello” or “What is your name” everywhere you go… from bridges, windows or sitting on the front of motorbikes
The country is like a national dollar store
They all really do wear those straw hats, and prostitution and “massageee” are as big as rumored
Crossing the street is like playing a live game of Frogger
They have knockoffs of everything… DVD’s are 15,000 Dong… that’s $1
The food is soooo good, but never eat off the street… you’ll end up spending way more time with the porcelain g-ds than you want
Yes I did have a woman say “me love you long time” to me… and yes I even puffed on a cigarette for the 2nd time in my entire life just so we could say when we get back “Damn I haven’t smoked a cigarette since Nam”… and yes I’m a fool.

Finally, picking one travel story/insight would be really difficult because several incredible things happened over the past 10 days. One was the horribly deformed 18 year-old girl I saw walking by dragging her bottom on the ground (in a catcher’s squatting position, she couldn’t stand, that was her life-position and the disabled in Vietnam have no government benefits/aid), sliding her left foot forward a few feet and then pulling her right forward with her right hand because she had no power in that leg. After staring from behind her for 30 seconds frozen in shock and empathy, I decided to walk over and smile at her because I figured everyone usually looks away when passing her and I wanted her to see me smile as if things were okay, and hopefully smile back because I assumed she must be so sad. As I walked up from behind her I heard something… it was the girl… she was singing. I was just blown away, I walked 25 feet ahead of her, stopped as if I was looking for something, then walked back past her, smiled at her as she sang and she stopped to flash a true smile back at me… that one really shook me up.

The second was my night in Halong Bay, when I wasn’t particularly close to anyone on my field program so I wandered the streets alone for an hour or two, stopping in markets and makeshift stores. Eventually on my way home, a block before my hotel, I stopped at a small stand where three people were sitting. I wanted to buy a cool Vietnamese traditional wooden pipe they had, so they sent out a guy on a bike to get me one and told me to wait 5 minutes… he came back, but I had realized this was a stand where people stopped by and this woman served them tea and a smoke before they went on their merry way… I bought her a pair of gloves because she only had one, and she gave me tea and a bottle of wine that I insisted we share with everyone around. That turned into an hour of fun with the locals, they probably knew a combined 25 English words between 15 of them, but we somehow made communication work and laughed the entire time. Two SAS girls who were walking by had joined us for the last 15 mins, and overall it was a great great night. I wished them all goodnight round 11pm and gave the woman who ran the stand (she was 26 but looked 35) a big hug goodnight… and then she invited us back to her home to meet her family… 10 minutes through pitch-black dirt roads and we arrived at her home… it was one room, with her husband and 1-year old son, and her parents living in their own one room home nextdoor…

They brought out their best- bottled water in tea cups. We spoke and played with this adorable baby for an hour, they even offered me the only laminated picture they had of him (I had to refuse though), and invited me back the next night but I was leaving for Hanoi. These people had almost nothing, their walls were barren and they had one room with a bunk and regular bed… but they were so happy with their lives, so welcoming to me, and offered me nearly everything they had. That was definitely one of the most amazing nights of my life, and taught me things I can’t really put into words. All I can tell you is that when you travel, see the sights, but don’t travel places without getting to know the locals. Travel to meet the people, not just to view the locations where they live.

Lastly, at the Mekong Delta on the first island (Unicorn Island) we went to there was this ridiculously cute 6 year-old girl who greeted us at the entrance gate by waving at us for minutes without expressing anything on her face… completely stoic. She wouldn’t smile or talk, just waved. When we sat down to eat we realized she was at the gate outside the eating area, standing and still waving. We ate and a small musical ensemble played, and she remained at the gate waving expressionless. I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t change her facial expression or say anything. Eventually two of my friends got her to say “Cintao”… hello… after they gave her their LiveStrong bracelet. I grabbed our guide and asked him to ask her my question, “If she could have anything in the world, what is the one thing she’d want.” Her friends were around now, and she was silent until he asked her friend the question… all of the sudden she exploded with chatter and laughter, pointing at Dennis, Jaret and me. The guide said “She wants to know, what is heavier- A kilo of cotton or a kilo of iron?” Hahahha, we exploded laughing, told her they were the same, and she nodded laughing and did a little dance in a circle. He then asked her the question for me, and she said a couple things before settling on her final answer. The guide told us, “She says if she could have anything, she wants her parents to have good health so they can take her out and play.”

We were all shaken up by that, agreed we wanted to adopt Vietnamese babies, haha, and eventually she ran off playing with her friends. As we left the island, our guide said he’d been at that island everyday for years. The girl always greeted everyone at the entrance and usually followed the tours around, waving without expression from the gate… this was the first time he’d ever seen her speak a single word.

If I’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s to travel to connect with people…they’ll teach you more than any museum or book.

Be safe and stay classy,

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