Gassy Feeling

 Today's sunshine in Dong Hoi, Quanh Binh province, was the first I have seen in at least ten days, five of which I spent shrouded in mist in Cuc Phuong National Park. I arrived here last night with rotting laundry after spending all day on the train crossing North Annam on my slow, rail-bound route back to Saigon. Dong Hoi is a pleasant and little visited fishing port city only an hour or so north of the former Demilitarized Zone, meaning it was flattened during the Vietnam war. Now it is calm and balmy; I emerged from the air-conditioned railway car to discover that I had left the Vietnamese winter definitively behind to the north.

Just steps across the street from my excellent and comfortable hotel, the Nam Long, I found the riverfront fishing boat refueling fleet, wooden vessels outfitted with large diesel holding tanks and standard-issue gas pumps sprouting from their decks. Smoking on board is not advised.*

The concept of branding seems to have great traction in Vietnam. As I noted recently on facebook, if I had a dollar for every iPhone I saw on the streets of Hanoi, I could afford my own iPhone. The notion extends to gasoline sales. I have seen many of the small, rural oil-barrel mounted, hand-pumped gasoline dispensers sporting a crudely painted "Shell" logo.

Here in Dong Hoi, the news that BP is responsible for the toxic death of a major world fishery seems not to have penetrated, for the company is still getting free, hand-painted advertising.

Another hand-painted logo, the "P" for Petrolimex, which sounds like a joint Peruvian-Mexico oil company, but is actually Vietnamese.

 Note the gas pump shrouded in blue polytarp, and the two others, one on each vessel in the background. Just pull your ship into the adjacent berth and gas up with the extra-long hose.

*Although I'm told you can stub a cigarette out in diesel fuel and it won't ignite.


And no, I'm not staying there...

 In Ninh Binh, the "Mark of the Beast" Hotel. Just like the Eagles said, the kind you can check into, but you can never leave. 


No Country For Old Birds

Caged Hwamei (Melodious Laughingthrush), Hanoi. I have yet to see one in the wild.

It has been more than ten years since my last intensive birding exploration of Asia, and I had forgotten just how oppressive this continent can be, if you happen to be a bird. It isn't that people here don't love our little feathered friends, it's that they love them so much that they want to keep them in cages at home, or eat them as crispy fried snacks. One Vietnamese in Dalat put it to me this way: "Vietnam people don't want to have to go to the forest to hear birds sing. They like it, and they want to have birds at home, so they can hear it every day!" Between the hunting, the trapping, the snacking, and the shooting of birds with slingshots, a perfectly acceptable pastime for small boys here, the avian world in Vietnam is under constant attack. (Anecdotal reports suggests that in neighboring Laos the situation is far worse; travelers report seeing nary a wild bird there, and of walking in forests almost devoid of birdsong).

The results of this human versus bird armageddon are that even in the deepest, best protected forests, the birds are very, very wary. The innocent birder who wishes nothing more than to see the poor little critters through some high-quality optics must settle for distant views of cautious and skittish creatures going out of their way to place leaves, trunks and branches between themselves and any visitor. Even families of birds that elsewhere in the world are often curious and confiding, like the genus Parus, the titmice and chickadees of European and North American feeders, stay at least three times as far away from intruding humans as they would on other continents. One must be patient and silent.

Here's a compilation of threats I've encountered in my travels here:

1. At a coastal forest preserve near Binh Chau I came upon this concerted effort to catch terrestrial gamebirds, such as pheasants, partridges and silverbacks. I saw similar snares on Sulawesi in Indonesia fifteen years ago. The pictures are a bit difficult to follow, as the whole idea is that the traps blend into the forest background.

Over a long stretch where secondary forest bordered on a clearing, perhaps several hundred meters, someone had created an obstacle course of chopped brambles, twigs and brush. Note the diagonal line of brush running from the upper left to the lower right, above. It is only about eighteen inches high, but heavier, meatier birds like pheasants and partridges are reluctant to fly unless absolutely obliged to, and the spines and tangle of these narrow twigs prevents them from easily hopping over. Every five meters or so the hunter leaves a gap in the "fence" for the bird (or small mammal) to pass through on the way back from feeding in the clearing to the relative security of the forest. Across the gap is the hair-trigger for the snare, below.

Note the horizontal string across the lower third of the right hand half of the image above. When the bird hits this string, the trigger is jostled, and the loop, held in tension by a bent sapling, yanks the bird into the air. Below is an image of the tripwire from above. The vertical string to the upper left is attached to a springy, bent-over branch.

Above is the sapling, bent over by the tensioned string. Below, the taught string, before I released the mechanism.

2. Those birds not destined for the pot, or the skewer, tend to be champion singers, prized for their morning serenade. While life in a cage is perhaps preferable to being eaten, the number of caged birds in Vietnam is staggering. Walking down busy urban streets in the early morning one hears all manner of deepwoods jungle species calling out from tiny wicker homes hung on balconies and from the eaves of homes and businesses.
Below, a bird shop in Hanoi.

Green Magpie. I have yet to see one in the wild.

3. So-called mist nets are used by scientists to catch forest birds without harming them, so that they can be measured, weighed, banded and released. But very fine fishing nets work just as well, to catch birds for food or for the cage trade. At the bottom of a trail outside of Dalat, well-known to birders, at the southern end of Lake Ho Tuyen Lam, I found at least a hundred meters of this netting strung in a loop around a wooded stream. The sites favored by birders are also interesting to the trappers. This netting was in poor condition, and to judge by the dead Mountain Fulvettas it had caught, was not being regularly attended (or perhaps Mountain Fulvetta is a worthless species to the trapper and he therefore had not even bothered to untangle these corpses).

The small white lozenge in the center of this net is a float; these are very fine gauge gill nets used locally for fishing small species of freshwater fish.

I'm afraid I admit to having at it with my pocket knife. I cut down, shredded and balled up all the netting I could pull out of the bushes. Like the thousands of miles of "ghost nets" abandoned or broken off and drifting on the high seas, fishing on and on for fish that will never be eaten, netting like this will continue to catch and exterminate birds indefinitely, until wind and broken branches tangle it into inefficiency.

4. Scene: A long row of foodstalls at the Sapa barbecue pavilion in extreme northwest Vietnam. The vendors clamor for each passing visitor to choose their particular restaurant, which is much the same as all the others.

Me: What's that, next to the marinated pork ribs and the broccoli-rabesque vegetable wrapped in beef tenderloin?
Girl: Birds. Small birds. (I look incredulous, or perhaps mystified. The girl flaps her arms like wings and repeats).


Halong Bay Tragedy

In the budget hotels of Hanoi today the tragedy at Halong Bay is a source of widespread worry and conversation. One of North Vietnam's premiere tourist destinations, these sculpted limestone outcrops are visited by almost all the travelers who pass through the region. If yesterday's terrible disaster, in which at least 11 12 tourists perished in the sinking of an overnight tour boat, made it onto any friend and family radar screens, please rest assured that I was not on board.


A great idea for a Red Hook Bed and Breakfast

Enjoy waterfalls sightseeing, Jungle trekking, Elephant riding, Dug-out boating, and your very own Gongs show. (click image to enlarge).

The so-called "hill-tribes" of Vietnam, numerous ethnicities resident in the most remote areas of the country, near the Cambodian and Lao borders, have traditionally been oppressed, repressed and marginalized by the dominant "ethnic Vietnamese." Adding to their burden of racial discrimination, many of the southern hill-tribes threw their lot in with the South and the Americans during the war, suffering for it after the defeat. These valiant fighters were known as the Montagnards; many of them moved to live in the Carolinas after my government valiantly recognized their unique level of service and extended a green-card welcome in the denouement of the war. Those who remain continue to be treated as second-class citizens, but their "rustic" way of life and "colorful" costumes make them a major draw for tourists, who are offered countless opportunities to experience "authentic" hill-tribe life via visits, tours, sleepovers in long-houses elevated on stilts and the like. The ensemble of hill-tribes are generally referred to as "minority people."

Also on offer, spend an evening with a minority.


Progress is a woman's best friend

The shops in Buon Ma Thuot, a mid-sized city in the hot western lowlands of Vietnam, not far from the Cambodian border, were full of tabletop gas ranges, a critical barometer for a certain level of development. The humble gas range, while not a full on home oven, is a great leap forward in cooking efficiency from charcoal. When an economy reaches the stage where most families can aspire to, and attain, a home kitchen appliance like this, the piecemeal clearing of forests for charcoal production wanes (although valuable timbers are still looted). Those members of the family who do the cooking are no longer at constant risk of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses caused by smoky cookfires. The kitchen moves indoors. This is modern efficiency, progress.

However, assuming the Vietglish (or Chingrish, for these burner units are likely made in China) on this model more or less accurately reflects the marketing thrust of the manufacturer, gender stereotypes are still firmly planted in the premodern, charcoal-cookstove era.


Trees Growing on, through and over stuff

Bringing you travel news entirely out of sequence with the actual travels...
Every promotional brochure, National Geographic feature and Discovery Channel documentary on the wonders of the ancient Khmer world of Angkor includes photographs or footage of the interaction between the jungle and the ruined temples. Most of these originate from one temple, Ta Prohm. Here the buttresses of vast trees envelop, bend, and sometimes topple the walls of the complex. This impression of the forest slowly consuming this particular ruin was, according to Wikipedia, intended by the 20th century restorers of Angkor; the implication is that not just Ta Prohm originally threatened to disappear forever beneath the forest. Apparently, only the largest temple, Angor Wat itself, was still in continuous use into the present day, despite the collapse of the civilization that built it in the 15th century. Wikipedia sometimes needs a grain of salt, or the application of your personal bullshit detector, to be ruder about it. Of Angkor Wat the collective genius of the world's editing taskforce suggests that this largest temple was protected from the encroachments of the jungle because it is surrounded by a giant moat, as if jungles spread like forest fires, creeping across the land, instead of thanks to the movements of seeds on the wind and in the guano of innumerable birds. The trees do have a chance, and they will take over if mankind does nothing to impede their growth.

It was an inspired choice, to leave one major temple in the managed state of being swallowed. The enormity of the trees growing directly out of the temple complex provide a direct link to the era of its maximum splendor; one imagines the seedlings that became these towering trees taking root just as the Khmer influence was waning. To the rabid environmentalist, they give hope that the natural world can recover from the grotesque impositions of mankind. In the tops of these giants, Alexandrine Parakeets were croaking and cavorting; Robson's field guide to the birds of Southeast Asia actually lists "temple groves" as one of their preferred habitats. Few trees of this stature remain anywhere in the world; only because this is holy ground, and because of the tidal waves of cash that Angkor tourism represents, are they still here.

Laura swears she overheard someone in a group of tourists remark "I don't understand why they don't just get rid of the trees...."
At Ta Prohm, special platforms have been constructed for the express purpose of having oneself photographed in front of the most impressive of the tentacular roots.



Language Barrier

Asia sometimes feels like a wall of incomprehension, a collection of impenetrable languages. After almost a month here, I still don't speak more than a few words of Vietnamese (coffee, beer, noodle soup, my repertoire is exhausted). It is disorienting to pass day after day in streets filled with language that I can only register as noise, and I'm in awe of travel writers who spin compelling and informative narratives out of experiences lived surrounded by alien tongues. Writing about Latin America seems so much more natural to me, as a spanish speaker, than trying to decipher what is going on beneath the surface of a place like Vietnam. Still, one can't learn the language of every single place one visits before writing about it.

A couple of my recent posts have suggested (at least to me, and perhaps to close readers, if I have any) that Vietnam is all go, go, go, a country brimming with youth and focussed on the future, the streets teeming with motorbikes, an avalanche of free enterprise, the war a distant memory. It is an easy impression to get, and without language it might be difficult to get any other. But it isn't altogether correct, especially the last point.

Be clear that the language barrier is the traveller's problem. The dilemma is that to experience "the real Vietnam," one needs to avoid the tourist enclaves, where the English-speaking Vietnamese are gathered, making money by speaking English. The people one meets with whom communication is easy are almost certainly in the tourism business. They are guides, travel agent operators, hotel desk clerks, and the odd exile or emigrant, returned for a visit. But in avoiding them, communication becomes limited to gestures, a pantomime routine of eating, sleeping, and laundering. So one has to take one's stories where one finds them.

At the Cat Tien National Park canteen, a brief conversation with a tour guide on his lunch break starts when he asks me how long I have been in the park. Four days, I say. He looks Vietnamese, but his English is so good he might be a tourist.

"Where are you from?" I ask, just in case. I had embarrassed myself minutes earlier by asking four Taiwanese birdwatchers, one of whom attended Stanford, if they were Japanese.

"I'm from Saigon." Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City, except government officials. "You?"

"New York, America."

"I ask my people where they are from, and they say they are British, but on my paperwork it says they are American." I understand he is talking about his clients. "They like to look at birds."

"They lied to you about where they are from? Why would they do that?" (I have yet to meet anyone in Vietnam who resents me for being American.)

"Maybe they are British, but they work or live in the USA, sometimes it is like that. That's all."

"Maybe. You have a tour company?"

"I take the permit from my friend. Once, I had my own tour company. But, too much politics. I don't like. I know politics. After the war I was sent into exile."

He looks my age, with just a few gray hairs on his well-combed black head. But he is almost ten years older: "I joined the army when I was eighteen," he says. "I wanted to make the change to the Air Force, and become a pilot."

This was in 1972, when joining the South Vietnamese armed forces already must have looked like a bad idea on the ground. It would have required a certain amount of optimism. Youthful enthusiasm, perhaps. I don't say so though, for there is something odd and pointed in his delivery. He has slipped with an ease uncharacteristic of the people here into a sort of war memorial mode, without any real prompting from me.

"A tiny, dark room," he says. "No support. Shackles on my ankles. Eat. Sleep. Toilet. No food." He gestures to the miniature dish on the table into which one pours a personal serving of soy-sauce as a condiment. "Rice. One bowl, a little bit bigger than this, every day. All the time dark."

"You mean something like internal exile," I say. "Where were you?"

"Mekong Delta region," he says. "Prison."

Prison can be a metaphor for exile, but he means, quite plainly, that he was in prison. It is particular tragedy when the darkest days of a life are forever remembered as the most profound. My friend has slipped so easily into a terrible reverie, thirty-five years later.

"How long were you in exile?"

"Nine months. I shrink. My stomach shrink. I get thin. Before, I used to eat. I liked to eat. Now, still, I eat little." He points to his half eaten lunch of instant noodles. "I am full."

"No support," he says again, "no support at all," and I understand why his clients might have claimed to be British.


Chúc Mừng Năm Mới

Or, Happy New Year, in Vietnamese. Today, for once, the incessant hustle and bustle of Vietnam has slowed by a factor of ten. Hundreds (instead of the usual thousands) of motorbikes are circling the streets of Dalat, but riding them are men dressed in their Sunday best, taking their girls out for a spin, or troupes of youths enjoying a drive on the first day of the year. I don't think I've seen a necktie in Vietnam except on television, but today I've encountered dozens, worn under flash suits. It is almost inconceivable, but commerce has ground to a halt.
A major Dalat commercial strip, still and shuttered

Vietnam celebrates the "Chinese" or lunar calendar New Year, and it is perhaps the most import holiday, with moral, spiritual and familial significance. It is not a grand public fete, but rather a day on which families gather across the land, spending time together and eating. The unprepared and starving tourist must wander the streets looking for the odd open restaurant, for the Vietnamese are at home, consuming Banh Tet, a sort of giant rice-based tamale, or so it looked while watching them being made at Cat Tien National Park a couple of days ago. Rice, bean paste, shallots and bits of cooked meat and pork fat are fashioned into a bundle, wrapped tightly into a flattened cube, and boiled, for a very long time. Ten to twelve hours, I was told. I'm hoping I'll get to try some.

 Bundling the pork fat rice deliciousness at Cat Tien National Park in preparation for Tet.

It seems natural and logical that the New Year should be a time for taking stock and of trying to look forward to a prosperous future. Last night someone told me that "on this day we try to only think about and remember the good things, and leave the bad behind." While all we have left of this notion is the fading tradition of the New Year's resolution, in Vietnam people greet the New Year dressed to the nines, and on the first day of the year they are careful to be positive and friendly, instead of hungover. Being rude, violent or venal on this most important day is thought to sully the entire year to come. The guard at the Ta Nung valley was all smiles today, where he had been surly and near-confrontational on my birdwatching visit a week ago. His small outdoor table held a vase full of yellow chrysanthemums, another key element of Tet ritual.

 A shuttered gas-station, decorated with yellow lilies.

For at least the last couple of weeks vast rafts of yellow flowers have been available for sale on the roadsides, at intersections, and in the markets. Chrysanthemums are cheap, and favored, but almost any yellow flower will do, from marigolds to pricey orchids. These are considered harmonious, auspicious, and all those other lovely pseudo-oriental adjectives based on oversimplified translations of undoubtedly complex and "inscrutable" Chinese notions. On New Year's day they adorn Buddhist shrines, the doorways of homes, the shuttered gates of businesses, and tables everywhere.

 These chrysanthemums have not been planted; the stems have simply been stuck into the front yard planter-box. Note also the consumed incense sticks in the front corner of the box.

Until I arrived here, I had no idea that Tet meant "New Year" in Vietnamese; I only knew the word from the "Tet Offensive," the massive countrywide assault by the North Vietnamese forces and sympathizers of January 31st, 1968, in contravention of an agreed-upon cease-fire intended to preserve the holiday. To behave in such a dastardly fashion in the context of the Vietnamese conception of the new year was either a communist rejection of religious superstition or a bold gambit demonstrative of the North's unwavering belief that they were in the right. To attack on such a day must have brought an enormous psychological advantage, for taking violent action on Tet could only, I think, have been done with a persuasive and perhaps infectious courage of conviction. I've heard the offensive described as the turning point in the war, but I was only four years old when it happened, so I don't know if the American press reported on this psychological dimension of attacking on Tet. Do any fogies out there remember? Today, in Dalat, the Tet Offensive seems all but forgotten, although it was one of the only occasions for armed conflict in this comparatively unscathed city. The bad has been left behind, and it's time to accentuate the positive.