Jane Fonda Was Here

After another 12 hour bus trip, I’ve arrived in Hanoi. It was probably one of the worst bus trips I’ve taken so far. The bus was packed and I got the misfortune of sitting next to a guy who decided to sprawl all over both of the seats.

My cab driver tried to scam me as he took me to my guesthouse.

The weather here is pretty cold for Vietnam. The temperature is getting down to 11C (low 50s Fahrenheit). Most of the locals dress as if it is freezing with scarfs, heavy jackets and heavy hats.

I haven’t had time to see much of Hanoi yet. It seems a bit more dreary than Saigon, but that might just have been arriving at dawn on a Sunday morning. I’m here for two days before going to Ha Long Bay, then returning to Hanoi for a few more days before heading to Laos.

Onward to Hanoi

It has rained almost non-stop since I’ve been in Hue. Yesterday the rained stopped and I finally got the chance to go visit the Citadel and former grounds of the royal palace. It was sort of anti-climatic given how long I had to wait to go see it. The royal palace isn’t an ancient structure. It was built about 200 years ago and it shows in the construction. Most of the grounds is in a pretty serious state of disrepair and major renovation is currently being done.

Hue is a really nice city. The food is good and I’ve found it very conducive to walking (even when it was raining). At over a million people, it is a big city you never really hear much about.

I have another overnight bus trip ahead of me today. I’m only going to spend two days in Hanoi before going to Ha Long bay I think. Then I’m off to a quick trip through Laos and back into Northern Thailand. Hopefully the airport issue in Bangkok will be resolved before I get there.

According to reports, it hasn’t been raining up in Hanoi, so I hope the wet weather I’ve had for the last two weeks in central Vietnam will be gone. I’d really like to have good weather for when I’m in Ha Long Bay, as it should be one of the best opportunities for photography I’ve had on my trip.

365 Photos Later….

Today marks the one year anniversary of me putting up my very first daily photo. I had already been into my trip 9 months when I decided I had a large enough stock of photos to begin putting them up every day. The very first one was a shot I took from the plan when I arrived in Tarawa, Kiribati. I believe I was in Japan when I started it.

If you’ve been following along for a while now, you’ll notice a few things:

  • I try not to have a country represented twice in a week. The exception to this is Australia because I was there for so long. It treat each Australian state as a country for this purpose.
  • Not all the photos are artistic. Some are just snapshots of signs or other oddball things, which are often more informative.
  • Sometimes (especially in the last week) I might be late in getting a photo up, but I make up for eventually. There were 2 days in June I missed, but I eventually went back and filled them in. Other times I have lined up a month in advance. I really should do that more often. It would make life easier on me.
  • I had to take down the Lightbox plugin that showed the larger image on the screen because it would crash Internet Explorer. I hope to have it back up again soon. I’m coding all the photos so they will work going backwards.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the photos. It isn’t easy updating a website on the road every single day, but somehow I manage to do it.

Lets hope I can do 365 more.

Off to Hue

I went and visited the My Son Sanctuary today as well as roamed around the Hoi An old city with my camera today. My Son was a bit disappointing. First, it rained which sort of made for difficult conditions taking photos. Second, it was much smaller than I expected. It was the size of a single one of the side temples you’d see in Angkor. The architecture is very similar to the older temples you see around Angkor, and in fact My Son is older than Angkor. There was a giant map of My Son where you could see the layout of the area, and the size of the map sort of gave the impression that it would take hours to stroll around the premises. In fact, we had only an hour and it was more than enough time. The ruins were pretty ruined and in a state of dilapidation well beyond what you’d find in Angkor. (which is to be expected given its age).

The ancient city of Hoi An is an old trading port. The building styles you find are a mix of Chinese and French, and very different from what you see in the rest of the country. A lot like Penang in that the whole city (or at least part of the city) is the attraction. You can walk around the areas near the riverfront and pretty get a flavor for the places in a few hours. There are lots of good restaurants in the area.

The third location of my central Vietnam World Heritage trifecta is Hue. The citadel in Hue is probably the biggest historical attraction in the country. For the first time in ages, I actually have a room booked in advance (my current hotel did it for me, as they get a finders fee).

After Hue I have two options: 1) Take a 12 hour bus ride to Hanoi. 2) Take a bus or fly from Hue to Dong Hoi to visit Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park on the way to Hanoi. I’m leaning towards #2, but I’ll get more information in Hue.

Hoi An

I made it to Hoi An. The word which best describes it is…..wetter. It has been raining even more here and the surrounding area looks flooded, which is to say the rivers are high and the water in rice paddies seems to be overflowing.

My bus ride from Nha Trang turned out to be 14 hours instead of 12. I didn’t get the sleeper bus which isn’t really a bad thing. I had more room to spread out on the normal bus and wasn’t crammed into a bed type compartment which was designed for someone smaller than myself. I spent yesterday sleeping and walking around Hoi An, because I got about 4 hours sleep on the bus.

Hoi An can best be described as quaint. The main tourist attraction here is the old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, it really doesn’t seem like a tourist town in the same way in which Mui Ne and Nha Trang were. I guess beaches attract more people than historic buildings. Go figure….

Playing the “what places does this remind me of” game with myself, the city which most comes to mind when I walked around Hoi An was George Town in Penang, Malaysia.

Hoi An is also very close to My Son, which is a religious complex, and also a World Heritage Site, about an hour from here. I should be visiting there tomorrow. Today will be walking around Hoi An with my camera, hoping to get a few moments of blue sky. (I hate taking photos on overcast days) I hope to be on the road again by Monday for the short trip to Hue (not pronounced like the word used to describe a color).

Visiting the Killing Fields

Skulls in the victims memorial pagoda
Skulls in the victims memorial pagoda
One of the things which has made up a major part of my life has been academic debate. I was on the debate team in high school, in college and coached high school for three years after I graduated. During that time I read volumes about almost every subject you can imagine.

In debate, you are forced to take both sides of an issue. You can become very detached about the subjects you research, and in all the years I was involved in debate there was really only one subject that really influenced me on a personal level. That was the genocide in Cambodia. My knowledge of what happened in Cambodia from 1975-79 wasn’t something I learned about when I got to SE Asia. (I will not outline in detail what happened there. There are plenty of resources online where you can learn more about it. Suffice it to say that between 1 to 2 million people, out of a population of 8 million, were killed in a span of four years through famine and outright murder.)

Memorial Pagoda Entrance
Memorial Pagoda Entrance
It is a sad commentary on a capital city of a country, when the biggest tourist draw revolves around mass killings. Sadly, that is the main attraction in Phnom Penh. The guesthouse I stayed at played the movie The Killing Fields every other night, and a documentary on the Toule Seng prison on the nights in between.

I wasn’t sure how I’d react to visiting the Killing Fields. I’ve never been to places such as Auchwitz before, so it was a totally unique experience for me. What happened in Cambodia has never quite stuck in the public’s conscious like Holocaust. In fact, one of the odd things I found myself doing (and I know I’m not alone in this) was trying to make comparisons between what happened in Cambodia and what happened in Germany. It doesn’t take long to realize how foolish it is trying to compare or rank degrees of evil, especially when the monstrosities you are talking about are so great.

You don't know weather to laugh or cry when you see a sign like this. Click for larger image.
You don't know weather to laugh or cry when you see a sign like this. Click for larger image.
When you visit the Killing Fields, you are struck by how underwhelming it is. Prior to gaining its notoriety, it was an orchard. There is only one permanent structure there; a large pagoda filled with the skulls and bones of the victims found in the mass graves. The closer you get, you begin to realize the enormity of what is inside. Piles of human skulls, many of which have holes in the top of the head.

The area around the pagoda is so cratered, it looks as if it were bombed. The craters are the remains of the open mass graves were victims were left. Up to a hundred people would be dumped into a single hole. They system for killing people was very organized, like what you saw under the Nazis. Records and photos were kept. Unlike the Nazis, they didn’t build elaborate camps. Bullets were deemed too expensive, so most people were killed by hand via strangulation, blunt weapons or blades.

Bed and cell in Toul Sleng Prison
Bed and cell in Toul Sleng Prison
I didn’t go through phases of grief, sadness and astonishment. I quickly went directly to being pissed off. The more I learned about the events before and after the Khmer Rouge rise to power, the more pissed off I became. The details surrounding that is another post.

After the Killing Fields, my tuk tuk driver took me to the Tuol Seng prison. Like the Killing Fields which turned a simple orchard into den of madness, the Tuol Sleng prison used to be a Phonm Penh high school. This was where prisoners were taken for interrogation before they were taken to the Killing Fields. Of the over 17,000 people who were taken to Tuol Sleng, only seven are known to have survived. (The official name the Khmer Rouge used for the prison was Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short).

Makeshift cells in Tuol Sleng classroom
Makeshift cells in Tuol Sleng classroom
Toul Seng was a torture center. It is hard to call it anything else. Prisoners were chained to the floor and many of the school rooms were bricked up to create more, smaller cells. Some of the rooms had prisoners chained to the floor as if it were the deck of a slave ship. There were hundreds of photos on display of the victims who came through the prison. It was chilling to look at them knowing that they were no different than the people you meet on the street, and that every one of them was tortured and murdered in cold blood.

Electrocution was a preferred method of torture in Toul Sleng, but they hardly stopped there. A bar in the courtyard of the school originally built for exercises was turned into a gallows and some inmates were hung. A painting in the prison also depicts water boarding.

I can’t help but think what Cambodia would be like today if it wasn’t for the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia is far behind its neighbors economically and has a high amount of corruption. Most of the educated class was killed, actually targeted because they were intellectuals, by the Khmer Rouge. It made it very difficult to rebuild when the people who ran things were systematically eliminated.

In the movie The Killing Fields, Sam Waterson’s character said that “Cambodia was a country he had learned to love and pity.” I think that sums it up quite well.

Off to Hoi An

I’m off to Hoi An tonight on a 12-hour overnight bus ride. I am not looking forward to it. The buses are sleeper busses, which means you have a sort of bed instead of a seat. That sounds great for an overnight trip, but it really isn’t. The beds are uncomfortable and you are more inclined than lying flat.

It has been raining almost the entire time I’ve been here. The last few days I have been totally lazy. I’ve been on an anti-vacation. When you travel for a living, an anti-vacation is when you stay in your room, do nothing, and watch TV. Oh yes, and the World of Warcraft expansion came out and I took advantage of it. (I’m level 74 now thank you very much).

However, it is time to get moving. The really interesting parts of Vietnam are up in the Hoi An/Hue region in the center of the country where I’m going next. I assume I’ll be spending the next several days in tourist mode and taking photos before I head up to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.

I got some new items for the contest which I’ll be showing off in a new video I’ll shoot when I get to Hoi An. Hopefully, it wont be as wet there.

Nha Trang

Last night I arrived in Nha Trang via the 5 hour bus from Mui Ne. Nha Trang is a good sized city of about 300,000 people. It calls itself the premier seaside resort in Vietnam. THe primary attraction here seems to be the beach and some of the nearby islands, which to be honest, really doesn’t interest me all that much. I’ve seen my share of beaches. I’m here mostly because the idea of a 17 hour bus ride is less appealing than a 12 hour bus ride, which is what I’m going to have to take on my next trip from here to Hoi An.

The bus arrived after dark. I was able to whip out my trusty iPod Touch and found a place to stay on the cheap just a few blocks from the bus station.

A funny story from Mui Ne on the subject of guidebooks. I was about to leave my guesthouse a few days ago when a European couple walked in with their backpacks asking if there were any rooms available. The woman at the desk said “Yes, $20 a night”. The woman of the couple instantly pulls out her Lonely Planet and says “It says here $10-15 per night”. The woman at the counter responded “That was four years ago. We put in air conditioning and internet since then.” The man responded “but the book is from last year!”. I chuckled to myself and made a mental note to put that on the website.

When I arrived in Mui Ne, I walked around for five minutes, then went to one of the many stands which sold tours. I asked if they could get me a room for $20 a night with internet, and they said yes. They called around in found a place in 5 minutes and drove me there on their motorbike. Total cost to me: nothing and I got free transportation. They guys who found me the room got a finders fee, the guesthouse got a customer and I found a room. Everyone wins…..except the guidebook publishers.

I was also able to get some great photos of the sand dunes near Mui Ne. I hope to have those up later today. I was totally caught up with my photos when I left Mui Ne. That felt good.

The countryside from Mui Ne to Nha Trang was very beautiful. The bus made one stop at a restaurant which catered to buses. I’ve seen similar establishments all over SE Asia. As I was walking around, I took out my iPod to listen to some podcasts. One of the kids working there, I assume part of the family that owned the restaurant, got all excited and said “Is that an iPod Touch?!?” He knew everything about it, down the the specs, but had never seen one in person before. He offered to buy it from me, but I had to decline. Besides, I’m not sure it would do him any good without iTunes and it is tied to my account.

It is raining as I write this. When I left the hotel there was a minor flood on the street out front. The water was calf deep. There isn’t general flooding here, that part of the street is just in a slight dip. It was pretty neat to walk downstairs and see the street filled with water.

I think I’ll only be here for about two days. The things I really want to see are up near Hoi An and Hue, so spending more time here than necessary will just slow me down.

New Site Feature: Click on the Daily Photo

I just want to tell everyone about a new feature I added to the site. Starting today, and with the other Daily Photos on the front page of the site, if you click on the image, you will see a nice big 900 pixel wide version of the image. If you are familiar with such things, I’m using Lightbox.

I saw some images on the Boston Globe that were that large and I really liked it. I think most images look better when you can see it in a larger size.

If you click while in RSS or email, you will see the image, but it will show it to you in a new browser window, just like you were clicking on any other link.

So click away and let me know what you think.