Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cathedral at Chartres

Today we met up with Ilene's aunt and uncle at the Montparnasse train station to take the 70 minute trip to Chartres and see the cathedral. I chose this among the possible day trips because it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, and I have a policy to see as many of those sites as possible ever since I realized that some of my favorite visits in Vietnam coincidentally were World Heritage sites. I've collected about 20 so far and have about 800 to go.

The cathedral was as spectacular as promised. We happened to arrive just as mass was getting ready to start and the last stragglers from the surrounding village were hustling to get in. They seemed to be OK with us tiptoeing around during the service, though it did mean the gift shop was closed. It was interesting to think that the people of this town have been praying there, burning incense and lifting their voices up to the vaulted ceiling continuously for 800 years. Some things won't ever change I suppose. The kids in the choir, for example, spent most of the service twisting around in their seats and punching one another.

We were lucky to see it in the slow season. The cathedral and the route up from the train station are ringed with souvenir shops and bus parking, all of it agreeably empty on a Sunday in the middle of January, and I could imagine it crowded with tourists and having a lot less fun.

That's probably part of why we enjoyed the walk around the old medieval part of town more than the guidebook led us to expect. Perhaps if you were on a grand tour of Europe and had seen several other medieval towns, this one would be nothing special, but it was a first for us, and we had it to ourselves for the afternoon.

After we returned to southern Paris, we said goodbye to Ilene's aunt and uncle -- hoping very much to see them again soon -- and then raced off to squeeze in our last destination for the trip -- Montmartre in the north of the city. Unexpectedly, it had the most crowds of all, I think because everywhere else in the city everything is closed up on Sunday. Lots of buskers and mimes and other entertainers were out on the steps leading up to Sacre Couer, and lots of people were out enjoying the late afternoon soon.. We got some good pictures of the city, found the spot where the big reveal was filmed in Amelie, hit the souvenir shops and headed back to the hotel.

That's it, except for whatever adventure getting to the airport tomorrow presents. We did as much as humanly possible without giving up sleep entirely. The food has been our only disappointment, but c'est la vie. You can't do it all. Next time it will be a food-focused visit.

-Robert

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Catching up

We started out today with a long walk down to the Marais neighborhood to explore some of the older streets in the city. Our timing was off and shops weren't open until later, so we missed a lot of good chances to spend money. The shop windows really call out to us here, and it's a good thing I don't know enough French to read or we'd never get past all the bookstores we pass.

The rest of the day was devoted to catching up with family. Ilene's aunt, who we hadn't seen in more than 10 years, lives in Germany with her husband, who we hadn't met before, and they took the 3-hour train ride to come visit us. We had a very nice time getting re/acquainted and swapping travel stories as we covered a lot of ground together around the city. We had lunch at a place they recommend near the Eiffel Tower and then walked along the Seine back to the Tuileries gardens to the Orangerie. (Sunny and in the low 50's today.)

The Orangerie is a seemingly under-appreciated little museum with two nice reasons to visit -- a small collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in a very nice space and the 8 panels of Monet's Nymphae. They are enormous paintings that he designed especially for this space, and they have a powerful effect in the 2 large oval rooms. Again, we felt quite privileged to get the chance to see them.

Next we went across the street to have coffee in the smart shopping district north of the gardens and the Louvre, to do some more window shopping and then say goodnight. Ilene's aunt and uncle are joining us on a day trip to Chartres tomorrow, which I expect to be the highlight of the trip.

-Robert

Friday, January 14, 2011

Another country, another riot

I'm exaggerating, but we did cross paths with world events in a minor way today, reminding us of my adventure with the riots in Bangkok last April. You may have heard that there is a lot of popular unrest in Tunisia right now. It's getting major play on CNN International anyway. When we left our hotel this afternoon to explore some residential and less touristy neighborhoods (i.e. Belleville), the President of that country was still hanging on to power. As we walked around we came across a small demonstration of a few hundred Tunisian expats apparently in support of the street protesters in Tunis. The shouting in French that we could make out included the complaint that Sarkozy is an accomplice. By the time we got back to the hotel the President of Tunisia had fled the country and on his way to Paris.

We had a less ambitious agenda today and hopefully found our grove. It certainly led up to our best dinner so far. We started with a visit to Saint-Chapelle in the morning, a 13th-century cathedral founded by Saint Louis, famous for the beauty of its stain glassed windows which make up almost all of the exterior walls.

From there we hiked down to the Latin Quarter to visit the Musee de Moyen Age -- the Museum of the Middle Ages. We were disappointed that the section built over the 1st century Roman baths was closed. We did get to see some very cool tapestries, including The Lady with the Unicorn, which is actually a series of 6 tapestries.

We walked around the neighborhood of the Sorbonne for awhile looking in the bookshop windows and then tried out an ice cream shop that's supposed to be famous. It's been warm enough that we can take our coffee breaks at the sidewalk tables.

Then we took a nap to try and get on the right sleep schedule and to have the energy to hunt down a decent dinner. We can never nap for long in the daytime here because there's an elementary school below our window that has about 7 recess breaks a day I think. It sounds like the kids are in our room sometimes.

In the evening we hiked around Belleville and got chased into a cafe by the rain to have some hot chocolate. We eventually made our way to a proper neighborhood family-run restaurant. Maman running the front, Papa in back, heavy doses of plain peasant food with heavy gravies and sauces, fromage blanc with raspberry sauce for desert and a neighborhood kid who came in for awhile to sing pop songs for tips.

Tomorrow we expect to have a family reunion with an aunt of Ilene's who is visiting Paris for the weekend.

-Robert

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Art out the ears

More of the similar today. Still getting over the jetlag, we slept through the alarm and got a late start. We went to the Guimet Museum of Asiatic Arts first to see what was collected from places we've traveled to in Asia. It was curious to find that both we and artifacts from the Champa ruins in My Son have made the journey from that mountaintop in Vietnam to this room in Paris. We also re-acquainted ourselves with the woodblock prints that we saw so much of in Japan years ago.

After that we went by foot across the Seine, under the Eiffel Tower (not up it) and back east toward the center of town. After lunch at a bistro in the diplomatic district, we went to the Musee D'Orsay, which picks up in the mid-19th century where the Louvre leaves off. It's housed in a renovated fin de siecle train station and is on a more human scale that makes it much easier to appreciate the art. We saw some of the best-known -- and quite moving -- works from the French Impressionist and post-Impressionist eras. We didn't see as much as a typical visitor might, though, because a lot of the space is closed for renovations right now. We did enjoy quite a bit the special exhibit, which was on the career of Jean-Leon Gerome. One of his gladiator pictures in particular looked very familiar as soon as I walked in the room and saw it. I stood staring at for a long time wondering where I had seen it before. It turned out to be on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery where we've see in many times.

That took up all of the day and was enough art for us. We spent the evening walking up Boulevard St. Germain, checking out the shops and looking for someplace to eat. We still aren't having great luck with the food, being too disorganized, tired, distracted, illiterate in French and cheap to do much better than to fall into tourist traps. I'm still getting by on a lot of croque monsieur and croque madame. It's not healthy, but I figure I'm burning plenty of calories with all the walking we're doing.

Tomorrow we have a medieval history day planned.

-Robert

From ca phe to cafe

Our Southeast Asian travel blog is temporarily relocated to Paris. Instead of ca phe sua da, we've been having a lot of cafe, (which is a single shot espresso here.)

We arrived at our hotel with no trouble at mid morning on Tuesday and with the usual jet lag. Taking a lesson from our trip to London when, eager not to waste a minute of the trip, we sleepwalked through Westminster Abbey on the first morning and remember nothing about it, this time we took a little nap first.

We started off with an easy trip to Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday afternoon, and it was an incredible privilege to be in one of the world's oldest, largest and most beautiful buildings. It's difficult to describe what it's like to see something so grand for the first time, and I expect it will end up being the highlight of the trip.

This morning we started off with the Louvre, thoroughly intimidated by how much there is to see. Despite it being the slow season now, we found it plenty crowded in the galleries, although the only line we've experienced is with the coat check. I hate to imagine what it's like during the busy season. In all honesty, it's very difficult to let the art make an impression in an environment like that, and I've come away from other museums more charged up from the experience. We managed to see a large portion of it including all the most famous highlights. Winged Victory was my favorite. I've heard so often that the Mona Lisa is smaller in person than people expect that I expected it to be smaller than it was.

After we felt thoroughly dosed with art, we walked the distance between there and the Champs Elysee, down the length of that, up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and all the way back again. And then, at twilight, back into the Louvre for another dose of 18th and 19th century sculpture. (It's open late on Wed. night and still crowded then, too.)

The view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe was fun to see, though we're not having great weather for it. It's been overcast all the time and drizzling some of the time. But it has been warm enough that walking around outside is comfortable. We've even eaten at a sidewalk cafe and had crepes sitting on a park bench.

We haven't had great luck with the food yet. It's difficult to coordinate the guidebook recommendations with our budget with the sightseeing destinations. The perfect place is never just outside the museum. I've been eating a lot of ham and cheese sandwiches.

We put in 10 miles easily today, and out legs are killing us. We have a similar agenda for tomorrow. We got one of the 4-day museum passes -- Wednesday to Saturday -- and have to keep up the pace for it to work out as a legitimate bargain. It does save some standing in line for tickets, though that's not too much a concern during the slow season.

We're having a lot of fun and learning a lot. Ilene says she understands Saigon better after seeing Paris -- how much the colonists were trying to recreate Paris there. None of the legendary rudeness yet. Lots of patience with our lack of French. I got the bartender at our local brasserie to talk football with me. I've been discovering how much "travel" in my mind is equated with "travel in Vietnam." I keep having to remind myself that I don't have to be anxious about knowing where my next source of drinking water is going to come from -- that even though I'm not at home I can still get water out of a tap whenever I like.

I'm getting tired of espresso and tried to get a "French press" style coffee. Nobody knows what I'm talking about, though. That's my mission for tomorrow.

-Robert

Friday, June 4, 2010

Che

This isn't my first post about che (pronounced jay-uh), but there seem to be more kinds than I'll ever have a chance to try. Some are almost as firm as cakes, most are like a tapioca pudding, and my favorites are more like watery beverages and very refreshing like a sweetened iced tea. On English-language menus, it's often called "sweet soup," served either warm or chilled, and the one pictured here looks at a glance like lentil soup when it is ladled out. It's made with different kinds of sweetened green or red beans, cooked in a kettle over a charcoal brazier, poured over ice and has coconut shavings on top, garnished with a shake of oil from banana leaves. It costs about 25 cents and the shade of the ancient banyan tree is thrown in for free.

-Robert

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Ca Phe Sua Da

Vietnamese style coffee and condensed milk. It's the best part of any afternoon here.

-Robert
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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cao Lau

Cao lau is easily my favorite Vietnamese dish, and it's so frustrating that you can only get it in Hoi An and surrounding area. The well water in the region is supposed to be the secret ingredient, and so far no entrepreneur in Saigon seems willing to challenge that perception.

There are some Vietnamese who have heard about this dish their whole lives and never had it because they've never been to Hoi An. It's one of those things that people go to a lot of trouble to pack up and carry home with them on airplanes to deliver to homesick transplants or to the unititated. Which our friend in fact did last week -- his carry-on bag included the fixings for 10 bowls of cao lau for his family who had never had it before, the broth in a recycled water bottle and all the rest in plastic baggies ready to assemble.

The pork is braised and is generally attended to more carefully than in other dishes (no gristle!) The rice noodles are made with a special lye solution that give them more chewiness and texture. The fried pork rinds give it a lot of flavor like croutons in a salad. It's served with only a little bit of pork broth, so it's not really a soup like other noodle dishes, which is a nice change.

And I think I've got a lead on what might be one of the best possible versions. That's because we go there with our friend who is a life-long resident of Hoi An and a born ambassador and tour guide who knows everyone in town. We've been back to this place a few times, and I love it. I didn't write down the details, but they're there in the picture if you look closely enough. To any other travelers reading this, that's the place you want to track down.



-Robert
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hue-style cuisine

These are some examples of Hue-style dishes. I haven't learned the names of each one. Most of them are based on some kind of rice flour wrapper or paste that is gummy in texture, filled out with shrimp or shredded pork and cooked by steaming. The one that looks like a yellow cake is a kind of pork-loaf similar to a pimento loaf. For almost all of them you spoon Vietnamese fish sauce over them. (That's the sauce made from fermenting sardines in clay jars in the sun and then pressing the mash to get the oil. Like with olive oil, the first pressing is most prized.) This isn't my favorite style of food here, because the texture of the rice paste is a little off-putting, but I do like the ones in the tiny bowls with dried shrimp and fried pork skins. It's like a good bar snack.

-Robert


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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pix from Hoi An and Hue

Photo highlights from the side trip to Hoi An and Hue are in the slideshow on the right and here.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hoi An and Hue

Our most memorable and special experience on our previous trip to Vietnam was going to Hoi An with our friend who is a native there to visit her family, and we've been looking forward to a return visit on this trip. The best part is breaking bread with locals and getting to experience life off the tourist trail. This time we were invited to tag along on a family expedition -- 15 people total in a rented van -- to visit relations in the countryside, tour some caves, hitting the historic sites in Hue and than return for a full day in Hoi An.

We ran into some bad luck, though, and had to let the group go ahead of us from Hoi An for a couple days while Ilene rode out a case of food poisoning. We missed the country cousins and the caves and took a bus to catch up with the rest in Hue on the third night.

Hue was the capital of the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the citadel of the royal forbidden city and a lot of the royal tombs still remain along the Perfume River in the city center and in the surrounding countryside. We spent a full day touring those with our friend's family, as well as hitting some of the famous local cuisine and the market to buy souvenirs like tea and chili paste.

Then it was back to Hoi An for our last night. Hoi An is a small city on the coast that at one point was an international trading port until the river silted over, and the old town still shows traces of the Japanese and Chinese influence there. In the morning our friend organized an odd little boat excursion around the island near the old town. It was on a tiny skiff that seated the four of us and the ferryman. When we first got in, we were being paddled by a toothless old man and after awhile we came across another boat being paddled by his brother, who was missing a leg. They traded places because the one-legged brother, about 5' 4" and 80 years old, was the stronger paddler. Ilene and I couldn't take the guilt and took up paddles ourselves and tried to get us around the island a little quicker, but it was still a solid hour of work.

The main reasons we returned to Hoi An were to enjoy our favorite local dishes and to go to the beach. It was my only day at the beach in 6 months despite traipsing all over southeast Asia within spitting distance of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Two years ago when we came here we went to the main town beach, well-known to tourists, and our friend also took us to another beach where we were the only foreigners. Since then, word has gotten out and there are plenty of tourists there now. There's plenty of room for everybody, but it was nice to have the bragging rights before.

The other thing that has changed in two years is a serious erosion in infrastructure -- both metaphorically and literally. The monsoon season last year brought disastrous flooding to Hoi An, and the streets are still unusable messes in some places. Electric supply also seems to be falling further behind demand. Our experience -- four power cuts in three days -- may be just chance, but we do hear anecdotally that this is becoming more common throughout the country. It's pretty disheartening to come back from a hot day seeing the sites, planning to lay down in front of a fan, and to see that the hotel lobby is dark again.

As before, the best part of the trip was spending time with our friend's family. She has the most photogenic nieces and nephews in the world, and her sisters and sister-in-law are fantastic cooks. They put on a couple of delicious spreads for us. You gotta love it when you hear a chicken clucking in the kitchen on your way out to the beach and then find a chicken dinner waiting for you when you get back.

-Robert


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Bun Bo Hue



This is Bun Bo Hue, a dish nearly as common as pho and which I prefer and eat quite often.
Bun = rice flour noodles. Bo (pronounced baa) = beef. Hue = Hue style. The pink ball is crab meat and is my favorite part of it. After innumerable bowls of it here in Saigon, I finally had it in Hue at a place that is supposed to be the best place to get it. It was crowded with domestic tourists. But everyone in our party agreed that it wasn't anything special and you could find just as good in Saigon.

-Robert
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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ilene at work

Ilene is winding up the semester here, which means that her students have been presenting their final projects. She does a lot of presenting herself, usually working seven days a week to touch as many audiences as possible.

On Sunday last week she had an all-day workshop for the faculty and administrators at her university, followed by newspaper and TV interviews, followed by a banquet. On Monday, she presented "book donation" to the university library. (Fulbright gives grantees a budget with which they choose and purchase books for the host university.) By the end of the day Monday, all of the flowers visible in these photos and more were wilting in our apartment, which happens a lot.

Almost as cheap and plentiful as tropical flowers here are big plastic banners, so just about every room she steps into has a big sign introducing her. There's almost always a bust of Uncle Ho off her shoulder like in these photos, too.

The top picture shows her moderately crowded American literature class of about 45 students. That's the one that meets at 6:30 a.m. The bottom picture is her intercultural communications class of 90 students. Pretty difficult learning environment, as you can see. What I love about that picture (and several more added to the "misc." slideshow) is how it shows the main difference between Vietnamese and American college students. American students almost never drop the posture of being too cool for school. Vietnamese students give everything they've got, though I'm sure having Ilene for a teacher has something to do with it.

-Robert


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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Night life in Saigon

We had a few social events in the last week. First, we met a new friend that I made during my visit to Kuala Lumpur. She's an English teacher in Thailand. She and her colleagues came to Saigon last week for a recruitment fair (Many Vietnamese students find Thai universities a good compromise between price and quality.), and Ilene and I got together with them for dinner to talk education. Next trip to northeast Thailand we should have a personal guide to help us connect.

Next, we had a little New Haven reunion. Our friend Aly and her colleague Ryan, who work for the Hole In the Wall Gang organization, were here for a few days to plan a summer camp that is nearby. (She has a job that is the envy of all of Westville, traveling to several countries around the world to help organize camps.) We took them to our favorite place at the night market and decimated a couple of grilled red snapper. It was nice to catch up on New Haven gossip and to spend a couple hours speaking straight-up American English at our natural speed.

Last Friday, we went with a friend to see a band that I have loved for a couple years called Dengue Fever. Highly recommended. They ultimately put on a great show, but unfortunately, it was one of those Vietnam things with sketchy details and a lot of discomfort along the way. We had to wait through hours of some kind of battle of the death-metal band impersonators. Ilene eventually gave up and went home without me, and I put my ear plugs in and watched Saigon's body-piercing set party. It cracked me up when one of the bands paused to play an actual melody, the same-old song that we heard every night out on our last trip, "It's My Life" by Bon Jovi. As you can see in the video, it's no less a crowd favorite than it was two years ago.

-Robert

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video

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pictures from Singapore and Malaysia

I have a photo album up of the trip to Singapore and Malaysia here. You can also link to it from the slideshow on the right.

-Robert

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How to save money in Kuala Lumpur

When you go to the KL Bird Park, before you buy your ticket, go directly to the restaurant, which is in the treetops of the aviary, and have lunch on the veranda. By the end of it, you'll probably have had enough of the birds and feel like you don't need to pay the entrance fee to see some more.

Despite all the signs saying not to feed the birds, they've obviously been tamed. I had some kind of black bird with a bright orange and yellow markings hop on my table and pluck the chicken out of my curry before I could react. This was on the placemat directly in front of me -- less than an arm's length away. If I was looking at a caged bird I couldn't have been closer.

The waiter brought me another serving, and I moved to a table further from the rail, but I was still menaced throughout the rest of the meal by a hornbill and a half dozen storks. And to think of all the hiking in leech-infested forests and bicycling through rice paddies that I've done to see their kind from a hundred yards away.

-Robert

Monday, May 3, 2010

Malaisia

Some trips just don't go well. I'm going to cut this one short and head "home" to Saigon in a few days instead of attempting to continue on a comprehensive tour of peninsular Malaysia.

It's hard to put my finger on the problem, especially since I was so gung ho for this a couple weeks ago, but it's fair to say I'm not feeling like the benefit is worth the costs. The loneliness and inconveniences and discomforts are no worse than my other extended trip, but I'm having trouble getting below the surface and feeling like I'm learning or experiencing anything. So much walking around looking at things without understanding and not connecting holds less attraction -- this week anyway.

There is one discomfort that is greater here: I'm further south than I've ever been except Singapore last week (when we took cabs everywhere), and the sun is really oppressive. From about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. it takes all my will to step out of a shadow.

What I've seen of Malaysia so far I really do like, though. The few people I've talked to have been sincere and friendly. I'm in Melaka (a.k.a. Malacca), which is an interesting place historically. It was a Portuguese colony almost as far back as Columbus went west. Arab and Chinese traders were leaving their mark before that. The Dutch kicked out the Portuguese, and the English kicked them out, and Indian and Sri Lankan immigrants have been arriving all along. You can see the marks of all this history in the oldest parts of town. There are European buildings here older than any structure in North America, including a church where St. Francis Xavier was interred for awhile. It was strange to stumble across that and find Malay Muslims posing for pictures in front of it.

I'm disappointed in myself for not forcing myself further down the trail to see if the spirit returns in another location. But I feel like I've had enough. I'm moving on to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow for three nights and have a flight booked for Friday.

-Robert

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Singapore

Ilene and I are in Singapore for what are really her only days off during the Fulbright project. It takes something of an adjustment to handle being here. On the one hand, prices are comparable to what we'd experience on a long weekend in New York, which we can afford and shouldn't worry about. On the other hand, they are astronomical compared to what we are used to and the budget we've been living by in the rest of Southeast Asia, and we have trouble making the mental and emotional switch. We spent more on taxis yesterday than we spend in two months in Saigon.

We're also somewhat awed by the comparative luxury of it. Singapore seems like a miracle next to everyplace else we've been in Southeast Asia. The cleanliness and order and economic activity all feel a little overwhelming and we stand around gawking like tourists. Frankly, skimming around on the surface in our touristic way, it feels like paradise.

I love how genuinely multi-ethnic it is. Walking around Little India and Chinatown and the Arab quarter (which is underplayed in the guidebooks if you ask me) is a lot of fun. We can hear the call to prayer from the Mosque across from our hotel room and smell the cooking from the Indian restaurants in the street below.

The best part so far has been the food. Mainly we eat at hawker centers, something like the food courts of an American mall, except that instead of chain restaurants with facades signifying different ethnic cuisines, these are all mom and pop stalls whipping up the real deal. We split up and collect Indian samosas and Malay laksa and Thai curry and Chinese soups and rotis, pratas, etc. and some fantastic coffee and tea, each for about 3 Singapore dollars per serving, and meet back at one of the tables in the center to feast. I told myself I was going to treat myself to a dose of familiar Western foods while I was here, but I've been having too much fun at the hawker centers to get around to it.

On Wednesday we went to the Singapore Zoo, which is gorgeously designed to get you a good look at the animals. We could walk around below most of the birds, apes and monkeys, and you have to watch out that they don't wizz on you. I could watch the African storks soaring around all day. Seeing the very rare white tigers was once-in-a-lifetime. The Komodo dragons were a lot bigger than I ever imagined.

Back in our neighborhood for the evening, we stumbled across the Museum of Chinese Opera, which is really just a tea shop with a lot of photos of opera stars on the wall. It would be like Lombardi's in the West Village calling itself the Museum of Italian-American Heritage. We sat and had a pot of tea and some cake while a woman played several numbers on a kind of Chinese harp. She asked about us and our travels afterward and answered my questions about scales and time signatures on the music she was playing. The harp has just a five-note scale, but an amazing variety of technique is possible on it.

Yesterday was our luxe city respite day. We walked around the botanic gardens and the orchid gardens and then hit the Orchard Street shopping strip, which makes Fifth Avenue and Chicago's Miracle Mile look dowdy. We had dim sum for lunch between a few of the malls, and when the afternoon rains hit we used the underground passages to get down the street to a cinema and saw the new Marin Scorcese movie.

More museums today, and I have to find the bus station to buy my ticket for the next stage. We split up tomorrow -- Ilene on a flight back to Saigon and me to wherever the bus goes in mainland Malaysia.

-Robert

Friday, April 23, 2010

April 30, 1975

The holiday coming up this week is pretty significant -- 35 years since April 30, 1975, which is known around here as Reunification Day. Westerners usually refer to it as as the Fall of Saigon.

The iconic images of that day to Americans are of helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy, landing on crowded naval carriers and then being shoved into the sea to make room for more evacuees. To the North Vietnamese, the American evacuation was a sideshow, and the iconic images in Vietnam now are more like the one included here -- of the tanks smashing into the gate of the presidential palace.

The park in the photo is still a park, a few blocks from our apartment, where young people gather to make out in the evenings. Two blocks up the street, at the end of the park,towering over the Notre Dame Cathedral, is Diamond Plaza, a modern shopping mall and office building. On the top floor is the gym we go to, and from the treadmills there we can look down this street. The gym is our largest extravagance here, an overpriced respite from the heat and noise. Being from southwest Missouri, I always say hello to the people I've met there who went to college in Oklahoma -- oil industry people who now work for Conoco Phillips, which has offices in the building. (Another oil connection: After 1975, the Vietnamese government used the U.S. embassy as the headquarters for Petrolimex until the resumption of diplomatic ties.)

After my workout I like to go to a French cafe on the edge of park to get a ham and cheese sandwich, probably my second-biggest extravagance here, and watch the comparatively sane traffic. As I was sitting there today, I watched workers setting up bleachers and scaffolds in the street, which had been closed off in preparation for public celebrations this Friday. I'm curious to know what that includes, so I'm disappointed I'll miss it, but we'll be away on a holiday during Ilene's only real break during the school term. (May Day is also a holiday here, and the two days together make for a four-day weekend for most workers.)

In going away, though, we're not so different from any other Vietnamese I've talked to, who all seem to have an attitude about it pretty much like the attitude most Americans have about Memorial Day; if they can't make it to the beach, then it's a good day to hit the sales at Diamond Plaza and see a movie. Green Zone, the new Iraq War movie, is playing.

-Robert

Evening out with friends


We went out with friends to celebrate our friend's birthday -- dinner first, then donuts, which in Saigon is a sit-down affair. I think it's funny how whenever I go out for comfort food like donuts, ice cream, or pizza I'm always the oldest person there. In Vietnam, it's mostly teenagers who eat these foods.

Our friend brought her intensely photogenic niece along. If she looks familiar, it's because she resembles her older brother who was the star of my photo collection from our trip two years ago.

In all of the pictures after that last one with the donut, she only appears as a blur streaking around the adults at the table.

-Robert

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