Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hard Times with the Hard Drive

My dear friends,

Today I had a pretty big scare. It did not involve me choking on a too-long piece of squid, or being held up at gunpoint. I was in a tizzy about the state of a box roughly the size of my chest. It's black on the outside and lets people store information on it.

My computer was unable to start. Multiple restarts and attempts at diagnosis and at System Restore failed to fix it. The root cause of the problem was a 'bad patch'. I was on the verge of formatting my computer when I decided that I had to have dinner, lest I starve, and go to an Internet café to email a renowned computer-repair shop in the city. As I entered the alley just outside my hotel, I thought to myself about what would really be the consequences of losing all of the personal information on my computer. All of my reports, both excellent and shitty, all of my lecture notes, all of my photos (of which there are not many, but of which there will be many), all of my music, all of the programmes I never use anymore would be gone. How often do I use these things? Not very. Would it be bad to lose them? Ceteris paribus, yes. I rely heavily on some documents, such as my CV. But most of them are just things that are nice to have. My life could be nearly as fulfilling, as fulfilling or perhaps even more fulfilling than it currently is without all of that stuff on my computer. I could start storing my information in other ways - for example, I could talk to people more, so that information about me could be stored in their brains.

So I walked along Phố Dội Cấn, 5 bpm away from a myocardial infarction. There were other things stressing me out, but those things are not properly part of this post. Besides, the computer issue was directly responsible for most of my stress. I emailed a local computer-repair store to ask for a quote, and enjoyed a bowl of miến gà as little as I possibly could (there were other things on my mind). At the Internet café/three-walls-a-roof-and-children-playing-computer-games (the place did not serve coffee), I spent about twenty minutes. The rate for thirty minutes was 20,000 VND. It was nice to get back 15,000 VND even though I used two thirds of the time I requested. That 15,000 paid for three quarters of the miến gà, which I was unable to enjoy.

I returned to my hotel, expecting to have to do some serious relaxation exercises to calm myself down. Things like this tend to really stress me out. I usually worry about things much more than they should be worried-about, and I usually worry about them for much longer than they should be worried-about. But, lo and behold, my computer finally showed the Windows Vista log-in screen. I was certainly relieved as this, but I remain disappointed that I should be so attached to the contents of a hard drive. I will back up my hard drive ASAP, that is for sure. But life cannot be lived on a hard drive. There is a real world of people out there who would either love, or at least be indifferent to, meeting you and me.

Monday, June 28, 2010

So Long, Hạ Long!

"...south Detroit"

- Steve Perry, in Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"

This past weekend, I, one of my friends and a friend of that friend travelled to, through and from Hạ Long Bay. The trip through was the most exciting of the three trips. Yet again, the tour was with AST (for those with short memories, AST is the name of a Hanoi tour company, and that name stands for "Affable, Safe and Trustworthy"). Our guides were just as safe and probably just as trustworthy (although I didn't tell them any secrets, so I cannot confirm this) but definitely not as affable. They weren't mean, but they just weren't...affable.

You probably want to see some pictures now. Here we go!

I don't know what expression I was going for in the last photo.

The bus ride from Hanoi to Hạ Long City took about four hours. After getting our tickets, we boarded the boat which was our home for the subsequent twenty-three hours. Lunch was nice - rice, prawns, vegetables with meat, cooked greens, cooked salad (yes, my friends, the kitchen staff made an iceberg-lettuce salad then sautéed it until limp) and pineapple. I was very disappointed to be seated at a table with forks, spoons and knives set up. I had intended to go my entire placement without using a fork. But my travel companions sat with the other Westerners (French, in this case) on the boat, and those Westerners sat at the table with the Western eating implements. All of the other guests on the boat were visibly of East Asian descent, and were seated at tables with chopsticks. To ask for dôi dũa (a term more elegant than "chopsticks") would have been ridiculous. So I suffered as the prongs of the fork lacerated and impaled my pride. I will just have to go for nine months and two weeks without using chopsticks.

Really, all there is to see from a boat in Hạ Long Bay is the rock formations. You can say that they look like anything you want them to look like. I said that they reminded me of the background of the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario for SNES. I don't know if you get that sense from the photos that I show here, because it is impossible to see in them the whole panorama. Maybe you can see some cool shapes in these rocks:

After a while, once you've seen one rock in Hạ Long Bay, you've seen them all.

Our first stop was the Surprising Cave. I'm not sure who was first surprised by the magnificent formations in this cave - French people or Vietnamese people. They would most assuredly have been surprised by these garbage cans:

Like the rocks on the outside, one can make anything of the rock formations in Surprising Cave. Check it out:

Wait a second...those formations in the last photo look an awful lot like people! How improbable that millions of years of erosion would create such life-like protrusions!

Ladies, savour these next two photos. Men, leave the room:

THAT is how excited the first person to discover the cave was when he first entered it.

After the cave was kayaking. Kayaking is one of the most amazing things to do. It's fun, puts you outside, gets you semi-wet and gives you a great arms workout. I was in a kayak with a twenty-four-year-old owner of a bar in Sai Gon. She liked the strength of my paddling but complained whenever we had to turn our kayak sharply. She always made me turn the boat by myself. But she and her companions ended up treating me and my companions to some beer and some seafood. One of those companions and I talked for a while. She taught me a bit of a Vietnamese song which sounds really pretty when sung without accompaniment, but somewhat cheesy when sung by Mỹ Tâm in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nR-kGA1o3Ds

That night, I slept in this room:

The night went mostly without a hitch. At around midnight, gas filled my room because the motor was being revved constantly as the crew tried valiantly (seriously) to restore power to the boat so that guests could have air conditioning. My room must have been the one closest to the motor. Anyway, we went along, and I took more pictures the next morning. They look very, very similar to the ones I took the previous day, no?

That morning, I stayed on the top deck of the boat, took pictures and slept hardcore. It was great to spend three-and-a-half hours on the top of the boat. At lunch, I witnessed a Heimlich maneuvre! One of the Australian/New Zealander (I couldn't tell) tourists from our return trip had a string of something lodged deep in his throat and was choking on it. One of his companions had to do quite a few pumps on his abdomen. His ordeal lasted for about one minute - I was really worried that he wasn't going to make it. I'm glad that all that resulted was a bit of vomit on the floor and some lost appetites. I was all for continuing to eat, because we should have been celebrating the fact that this person was saved, and we should have been celebrating it by eating.

All in all, the morning was great. I realised about half of the way through the bus ride back that I had forgotten to put sunscreen on my feet. I was wearing sandals, so this is what I saw when I got back to my hotel room:

The camera's flash makes it look a little bit worse than it actually was. Only a little bit.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

There Was a Hosing at the Market Today...and it Wasn't to Clean the Vegetables

Today I paid 50,000 VND (roughly the equivalent of $2.75 CDN) for one mango, one dragonfruit and four sapodillas. That might not seem like a travesty to those in Canada, because these fruits are a thousand times fresher than they would be if sold in Canada and because $2.75 gets you maybe half of a dragonfruit in Canada. But deplorable it was. Why? Because I could have paid much, much less. I did not pay much, much less because I am a wiener. A true Austrian wiener, aged for twenty years.

Let me explain. I was quoted 30,000 VND for the mango and the dragonfruit, a quotation to which I responded that only 25,000 VND would be forthcoming. The lady/ladies (they all seemed to blend into one entity of older-lady devilishness) said (in Vietnamese, and it is to my credit that I understood) that the fruits came from the North of Viet Nam. If I'm getting really, really fresh fruit, I should be willing to pay a premium for it. But I paid 15,000 VND for two disastrous pears that probably were not even grown in Viet Nam (being grown outside of Viet Nam, the transportation costs to the seller would be higher than for fruits grown within Viet Nam). So to pay double that for domestically-grown fruits is terrible. And my Westernness and my docility are to blame. But I did not walk away. I agreed to pay the first price that they quoted me: 30,000 VND.

Here is how my Western logic led me to pay far too much for those fruits: I had chosen the fruits, so the lady/ladies put them on the scale for me. To balk at the price and walk away would a) be very rude by itself and b) be a waste of the time and effort they put into measuring the weight for me. In Canada I (and probably many others) have been brought up to respect the time of others. Wasting time is a bad thing, according to the logic of respecting others' time. In addition, I am not a confrontational person. It is hard for me to just walk away from somebody entreating me to do something. I might continually refuse to fulfill the request, and I might do it more forcefully each time they ask, but I will almost never walk away from somebody. It is extremely hard for me to do that. Because I cannot walk away, I am paying too much for fruit.

This haggling thing will take some time to get used to. I can't bear to make someone appear mad, and walking away makes the fruit vendors put on sad faces and start yelling. It's all a show. But in the moment, it is hard for me to forget that their lives would be nearly just as well (or unwell) whether I walk away or not.

The nice, docile Josh is gone. If you want me to pay you double what everyone else is paying for your lychees, then you can go to hell. And because I'm going to be such a bastard from now on, I'll see you there.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Smells Like Fun at the Perfume Pagoda

On Saturday, I and four WUSC Students Without Borders students went on a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương) complex at the Hương Tích mountains. I was to be at the Hanoi Sports hotel at 7:45 AM. After getting ready to be in public, I realised that I had very little time to get to the place where I and the students were to be picked up. So I caved and took a xe ôm (xe ôms, also known as motorcycle taxis, are rather expensive, considering that the buses are usually at least six times cheaper) to the hotel where I was to be picked up. The bus did not leave until about twenty minutes after that. As a result, I had the opportunity to get some breakfast. Being the clueless foreigner that I am, I bought two bánh giò. Little did I realise that bánh giò is simply a rice-flour dumpling, filled with pork and saturated with oil, wrapped in a banana leaf, dripping with oil. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Việt Nam's Double Down Sandwich, disguised as quaint ethnic food. It wasn't bad. But as a Westerner heretofore on a perpetual health kick, the very idea of such a thing frightens me.

So much for my breakfast. Our tour guide, a recent graduate of Hanoi University's tourism programme (he had finished his final exam two weeks before), was sincere and lovable. His English was bad enough that I wasn't able to make out everything he said, but that didn't matter. He truly wanted us to enjoy visiting his country, and was proud to show it to us. It is perhaps no coincidence that he works for the tour company AST, AST standing for "Affable, Safe and Trustworthy". If only Toronto tour companies were so optimistic about themselves. My ticket cost me only 364,800 VND, which as of June 20 is equivalent to $19.71 CDN. It included transportation (bus and boat) there and back, the food of lunch (drinks were extra) and the guidance of the tour. The trip fills your whole day without forcing you to get home at an ungodly hour. Toronto tour companies give you two-hour tours of the city, no food included, for no less than $30 CDN. Something's got to give, and it's not Việt Nam.

I took two photos of the rice fields that I saw on the way to the Perfume Pagoda. Here is the better one:

Once off the bus, we are advised to buy hats if we did not have hats already. I had forgotten my very expensive and very nice hat in my hotel room, so I paid 20,000 VND for a hat that looks natural on a Vietnamese farmers but really touristy on me. I do not have any photos that show me with the hat - however, my travel companions do, and I will try to get their photos so that I can post that photo. After getting hats, we boarded the boats. These boats were not motorboats. They were boats propelled by the sheer force of middle-aged women. Us visitors sat in these boats for about fourty minutes as the women rowed, rowed, rowed their boats gently down the stream (also known as the Yen River):

Here are some photos of what lay by the river:

The swastika surprised me until I remembered that the swastika is a symbol of good things in Buddhism.

After lunch, and after an inordinate amount of steps, I and a few others took a cable car to the Perfume Temple, the main attraction in the complex. The Perfume Temple is a cave, and was first used as a temple in the 14th century. It was great feeling the coolness of the air as I descended the steps to the cave - natural air conditioning! The weather in Hà Nội had been really friggin' hot - 38 and 39 degrees Celsius were not uncommon - so the cave was a nice change.

I did not take pictures in the temple not only because there was a sign exhorting visitors to not take pictures, but because what lies within the temple should be awesome (in the biblical sense). It is not awesome (in the biblical sense) when seen in a photograph. I will say that there were splendid arrangements of lights and statues, burning incense and cool stalactites.

After visiting the main temple, I and some others walked all the way down the mountain to the second (and final) pagoda on the tour, the Thiên Trù pagoda. Here are some photos of that:

And it turns out that I do have some photos of me wearing the touristy hat. Exhibit A:

I swear to God, folks, this is the best one on my camera.

And some photos of the boat ride on the way back:

There's a thunderstorm right now, so I'd better sign off before my computer gets fried. Thanks for reading! I hope that we'll meet again soon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

D.O.A. (Delighted on Arrival)

Dear friends,

I have arrived safely in Hà Nội. The absurdly-long flight was worth it. Those who wrote me messages of wishing well are very gracious. I cannot respond directly to them, as Facebook does not work on my laptop. I expect that it will not work for the next ten months. It'll be nice to take a break from the ol' blue-and-white and live a life in the 3-D, technicolour world. Email and Skype are the best ways to reach me.

In the area where I am staying, there are very few Westerners. I am a curiosity, and have received stares ranging from blank ones to frightened stares to good-humoured stares. Today I was taken to see a bit of Hà Nội (actually, just Hoàn Kiếm Lake) by a girl only a few years younger than me, and I was getting death stares. I presume this is because people thought that we were dating. Some people say "Hello!" to me as I walk. For the whole day, I did not see the innocuousness of this. All of those who said "Hello!" to me, except for one woman, were on motorcycles, so I thought that they were just trying to sell me a motorcycle ride. I told most people "Không, cám ơn" ("No, thanks") when they said "Hello!". That was Josh's Western fail #1.

On my first night, I stayed in, and organised my stuff REALLY SLOWLY. I tend to be a slow mover, but the slowness of my movement yesterday was ridiculous. The heat, humidity and resultant sweatiness make physical and mental vigour difficult for new arrivals to maintain. Perhaps early-morning exercise is the answer to my problems of lethargy. Whatever the case may be, my room's air conditioning is set to sixteen degrees Celsius, and it will stay that way for a long time. Even at 16 Celsius, the sweat comes and comes. To get rid of the sweat, I indulge in the greatest way in which one could possibly clean himself: the bucket shower. It uses SO MUCH LESS water than the average shower in Canada does. All one needs is soap, a pot with an extended handle, a reliable water source and (optional) a shower head connected to a water supply. People here don't brag about taking bucket showers, but they really should because it's the 'green' way of doing things. Canada needs a massive social-media campaign in favour of bucket showers.

Following my bucket shower was a fourty-five minute session of getting lost in Hà Nội. I had set out to look for some breakfast and realised soon after leaving that I did not know the way back. Key to my getting lost was my ignorance of the ngách. The ngách resembles a street fairly well. All of the houses and establishments have numbers. But all places in a ngách have one address on the same street. I was going from ngách to ngách frantically, seeing the name of my hotel's street and looking for its number, only to find families having breakfast or deserted alleys. I might not have done it so frantically if I did not have to go on a tour at 10:00. Anyway, by sheer luck, I found my way back by about 9:00. Relieved, I went to find some breakfast. I was a hungry boy because I had not eaten a meal since around 2:30 PM the previous day. The first phơ establishment I saw was good enough for me. My order was executed mainly through pointing, but I got some Vietnamese in there. Once the vendor understood what I wanted, I was invited to sit on a stool, about eight inches high, across a table from a local police officer. He seemed to me like any regular local. He was really nice, asking me questions and tolerating my stuttered, extremely curt responses (in Vietnamese). The fact that he is a police officer did not make him any less welcoming - I was just a bit freaked-out because I did not want to have any run-ins with the police on my first full day in Việt Nam.

Traffic is most assuredly not like traffic in Toronto. Cars are rarities on Hà Nội strees. The way of transportation taken by the vast majority of people is the xe mô tô (motorcycle). Taken together, they drive on both sides of the road in both directions at all times. This means that pedestrians have to be careful about stepping on the road, which they have to do because sidewalks are often blocked from storefront to curb by parked motorcycles. This might seem like it is nerve-wracking, but it is for the most part not so. One just has to use his judgement and recognise that most drivers will take pains to avoid colliding with other people. Crossing the street is a precise art, even where pedestrian crosswalks are painted on the road. Those who have seen me cross the street know that I want to be on the road for as little time as possible, and that I run across as fast as I can. All of that short-distance dashing has given me good practice for crossing Hà Nội streets, where such a thing is not paranoid, but necessary.