Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 06 2015

Difficult photography

I like this article about Robert Frank, in that it attempts to address Frank’s viewpoint and method, touching on how difficult people with issues work towards art by bringing ugly things from deep down to light without dressing them up with absurd excuses, uncovering realities that are so true they can’t help but be beautiful.

In this age of constant connectedness and constant self-presentation, however, when one mistweet or inappropriate instagram can bring down global shunning, the dynamics of fame in any field, not just photography, have shifted. Back in the day, one would often find in any successful photographer’s bio the phrase “…fortunately happened to know (insert famous, influential individual here),” not to mention “…came from a wealthy family.” Other than those, and the work produced, not much else mattered. Connections, wealth, talent and luck, in that order.

It puts a dent in my admiration for photographers like Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, and increases my respect for photographers like Moriyama and Kertesz who hauled themselves up, though of course the work is the work, and the photographer is the photographer. I know talented photographers who produce excellent work but who are impossible to deal with, just as I know wonderful people who are kind and just and warm invididuals, whose photography…well, isn’t. The two aren’t necessarily connected, but I suspect that those people who are disconnected from society are better able to see society for what it really is. You have to go out of the house to see the house, as it were. If you’re constantly thinking of how you appear to others, making sure you’re socially acceptable, ensuring that you present the right sentiments at the right time, you’re not going to have the time or presence of mind to observe your surroundings with an eye to what’s really happening outside of yourself.

Frank was a terrible person to many people, by many accounts. Like Eugene Smith and Vivian Maier, he wasn’t cut out for family life or even social life…he couldn’t work with others; he couldn’t stand many other photographers; Magnum wouldn’t touch him. Some may think that his photography was brilliant despite these things, but I’m certain it was brilliant because of these things. If Maier had had a champion to maneuver her beyond her social and financial limitations, would we have seen her emerge as one of her era’s preeminant photographers? Likewise, if Frank had pissed off Walker Evans earlier, would we now be seeing stories like “Lifelong janitor’s road-trip photographs uncovered at yard sale will BLOW YOUR MIND (#37 made me choke up)”?

It doesn’t seem to work that way these days, however. For one thing, there is the deluge of online imagery, which doesn’t seem to have increased the amount of good photography by as much as people were expecting; if anything, it might have even somehow reduced it. But the Great Image Flood has managed to produce a different paradigm for judging value. Now we have contests for images taken with a certain machine or in a certain place, or by people of a certain age. People sit in front of computers taking screenshots of Google Streetview and call it photography. Others write about the latest gear and accrue huge followings, while more and more governments strive to demonize photography by their citizens while increasing their own surveillance capabilities, two phenomona that are not unrelated, crowing about the End of the Private when what is really happening is the End of the Public. And amid all this are the constant articles about the Death of Photography, as if to paraphrase a Pixar movie script, saying that when everyone is a photographer, no one is.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “Image Flood” photopocalypse theory, however. Why bother looking at anything if there’s so much out there, people seem to be saying. But we can only view so many images a day, just as we always have. If a billion images are uploaded in a forest, do they make a sound?

These are no doubt confusing times for someone who is interested in photography. I’m not singling out studio/model/business/sports/wildlife/landscape/HumansofRandomCity/yourlastmealatChipotle/whatever images, but actual photography. A lot of good work is being done, but any metric we once might have had evaluating it, much less finding it and appreciating it, has largely been replaced by counterproductive niceties and artspeak. It’s great and it’s there if you can find it, but don’t expect an easy path or anything approaching valid agreement of its worth. A flash on your screen and it’s gone. Offscreen, out of mind.

The death of photography, as well as many other things, could really only be the result of our refusal to observe and, as Georgia O’Keefe said, “make our unknown known.” Robert Frank did this, and his unknown was beautiful. It couldn’t not be. Unfortunately, in this knowlege-driven age, ignorance has become our greatest power (all you have to do is open virtually any comments section to see just how eager we are to wield it). There are modern-day Franks and Cartier-bressons and Smiths and Maiers. There are artists producing amazing work that transcends all of those, but they’re not the ones you know. The ones you know are concentrating on making sure you know them, and they don’t have the time to not suck.

posted by Poagao at 12:04 pm  
Jun 30 2015


I went over to the Page One bookstore in Taipei 101 this afternoon, or rather what’s left of it. When Page One opened in the new mall complex that formed the base of what was then the world’s tallest building, it filled an entire floor with rows upon towering rows of books on every subject, featuring vast literature and fiction sections, a healthy art and photography selection, and the whole place was filled with that wonderful new-book smell. There was a huge Sony Store opposite with all kinds of cool gadgets, and the Jason’s supermarket downstairs was filled with tasty treats from all over the world, including Keebler Fudge Sticks.

Over the years, however, things have changed in the area. More buildings have gone up, mostly luxury apartments no normal person could ever hope to afford. More useful stores, such as electronics outlets and interesting restaurants, gave way to more and more top-end fashion accessory brands. The supermarket was left mostly devoid of Western goodies, settling down into more of a large-ish Wellcome grocery at three times the price. As this happened, Page One closed off one section after another, slowly shrinking until it could only be entered through an exit stairway door.

Now it’s scheduled to close in the near future. Most of the unsold books have been brought to the front of the store, including the children’s book section, which I found kind of sad. The whole thing is kind of sad, not just Page One but the entire area, although Page One seems like an apt metaphor for what’s happened, i.e. money chasing out culture. But I suppose it’s better to build that area up than to simply tear the old parts of the city down, which is happening, but not at the rate it might have had no land been available out at the east edge of the city.

After purchasing, somewhat out of a sense of guilt, a Star Wars notebook, I walked around the area a bit, remembering when it was mostly empty, and how happy I’d been when the Warner Village theaters were built. They’re still there, of course, along with a long series of expensive Mitsukoshi Department Stores. I stopped in the Gogoro Scooter shop and was impressed with the electric scooters dotting the showroom floor, though for me a city scooter is solving a problem that has been solved effectively with the arrival of the MRT and the YouBike system. If I were to buy another two-wheeler, it would an electric motorcycle with enough range to get me into and back out of the mountains for a day or so.

But the area around 101 has become markedly less interesting. The real action is happening, as it seems to always have done, in the alleys of Taipei as young entrepreneurs open up more interesting shops with their own vibe and audience. Perhaps the vacuous culture-suck that surrounds 101 is a useful lightning rod, drawing clueless rich tourists and spoiled rich locals away from places where they could do a lot more harm. The real soul of this city still lies elsewhere.

I took the big movie poster over to the new DV8 the other night. I figure that that is the most suitable place for it, rather than just sitting amid the clutter of the Water Curtain Cave. For one thing, the first scene we shot was at the original DV8, and Gary, who runs the place these days, also acted in the film (in a scene shot at Peshawar, which has long since been torn down). I’d never been to the new DV8, which is now on Fuxing South Road near the rear entrance to NTU, not far from one of my former haunts, actually. I should get a DVD to Gary, I suppose, though Dean said he would work on a Blu-ray version.

In other news, Maoman, Taffy et al are setting up a book party/signing for me on July 18th, a Saturday. They’re looking at Vinyl Decisions, which is near the old Bob’s (My, there are a lot of old/new places in that area). I imagine it will be a small affair, but I’ll post the details either here or on Facebook when I know more. Hopefully the print version will be available on amazon soon; they require a certain amount of time, but it’s been a while, so hopefully by that time it will be up. Currently the print version is available at Camphor Press’s site. If you buy one and somehow randomly encounter me on the street when I’m not in too foul a mood, I’ll probably even agree to sign it for you.

posted by Poagao at 10:51 pm  
Jun 09 2015

Good-bye, IHOP

It seems my dear alma mater, Washington & Lee University, has decided not only to tear down my freshman-year dorm, Gilliam Hall, but also the place where I spent most of my time when I was at W&L, aka the old International House. The IHOP, as we called it, was an old two-story white wooden structure just two doors away from Gilliam. It must have been built very long ago, as it was already old and rickety when I first saw it in the late 1980’s. But it was a godsend for me.

ihopAlong with Chavis House, where I also spent a lot of time, the International House was the most interesting place on campus, a welcome oasis of multicultural influence in a desert of entitled white fratboys in polos and khakis with beers glued to their hands. If it were a fraternity I would have rushed it, but it was more of an anti-fraternity. Anyone was welcome; it was more about embracing than exclusion. And the people I met there were my best friends during those days. I keep in touch with many of them to this day. I honestly think that if it weren’t for them I would have left W&L altogether.

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t get along terribly well with most of the other students at W&L. That included my freshman-year roommate, Todd, which is not intended as any kind of negative reflection on him. He just became good friends, not with me, but instead with my high-school friend Garrick, who also attended W&L. We ended up having some kind of falling out over something that apparently neither of us can recall. It was ugly, but to me the entire fraternity culture was ugly.

The saving grace of W&L was the wonderfully kind and brilliant faculty, most of whom would bend over backwards to help students. But the International House made it home. I moved most of my things there and more-or-less lived there full time in a side room nobody happened to be using. There was one bathroom in the hall under the stairway, and the kitchen, with an oddly slanting floor, was an addition in the rear; the house had apparently been built before indoor plumbing was invented. Victor Cheung, from Hong Kong, lived upstairs in the master bedroom with his girlfriend Junku, from Japan. Members would have parties there, trips to places like Washington, DC, and occasional fights over who ate something out of the pantry that didn’t belong to them (I’m sorry Outi; I just love pop-tarts and I was hungry). Taiwanese cadets from the adjacent Virginia Military Institute would come to the parties as they knew they would be welcome there. There was always something going on, be it a midnight game of strip poker or just someone studying while the TV was on.

Later the building served as the university’s LGBQT Center, I saw to my astonishment when I visited a few years ago. But now it’s gone. Farewell, old friend.

posted by Poagao at 12:29 pm  
Jun 01 2015

Back from Vietnam, etc.

The hotel had arranged for a car to the airport leaving at 7:30 a.m., but we were up at 5 and out on the streets to watch the city come to life. Chenbl was looking for the city gate we’d stumbled upon the previous day, but we failed to restumble upon it, and instead spent the time wandering around markets and random streets as the sun appeared and began to cast interesting light here and there.

Just as the light was getting really good, though, we had to leave. Time was up. Breakfast was had, and soon we were in the car driving sedately (there seems to be no other way to drive in Vietnam…everything is more or less sedate) in the direction of the airport. No muss, no fuss. We tipped the driver and walked back into the flurry cloud of travel, which included a large group of Very Loud Chinese just behind us. Oddly, the woman at the desk had us weigh our carry-ons, and then declared that we’d have to check them as they were over seven kilograms. This has never happened to me before, not just being over the weight, but having to weigh my carry-on luggage at all. Now we were free and unencumbered, with no worries as long as we didn’t miss our connecting flight.

flightSo we missed our connecting flight. It wasn’t our fault; our flight out of Hanoi was delayed coming in, so by the time we got to Hong Kong our other flight had already left. We might have made it if air traffic control hadn’t had us flying in circles for half an hour. The women who met us at the gate in HK already had us on the next Cathay flight back to Taipei, but they’d also put us in the very middle seats. Once we were on board I asked a stewardess if there were any window seats available. The HK woman next to me then asked her the same thing. Five minutes later, the HK woman was escorted to an emergency exit window seat, but Chenbl had to snap at the stewardess to remind her of my request. In any case, I ended up with a nice view of the brand-spanking new Rolls-Royce engine as we jetted back to Taipei, a few hours behind schedule.

The train station, where the bus dropped us off, was full of people, as it tends to be on weekends. I really can’t wait for the airport MRT to be finished so I can start bitching about that instead of the airport buses. I was exhausted by the time I got home, and went to bed without fully unpacking.

The reason for this was that the next day, i.e. Sunday, I was hosting/judging a photography event in Sanxia. In order to make it there on time, I caught the first bus from Xindian at 6:40 a.m., arriving in Sanxia a little after 7. After wandering around the market a bit and meeting up with Chenbl and Ewan, the people who had arranged the event briefed me on what I was supposed to do. Basically it was a contest for market photography, and the event was kicking the whole thing off. I talked a little bit about this and that, went with them around the market, and we took some photos. It was fun. A few dozen photographers registered for the event, which includes some very nice prizes. Many of the participating photographers were seriously equipped older men who weren’t quite sure what the hell I was doing there but were afraid to ask.

Afterwards, we had some lunch in an alley, and then walked over to the temple to meet up with my friend Ashish, who brought along his two adorably cute kids. We walked around and chatted over ice treats before Ashish had to leave.

Just then a temple ceremony started up, so we watched people taking statuettes in and out of the temple, accompanied by fireworks. Then it was back on the bus home. This time, however, I felt that my trip was truly concluded. I’d been thinking so much about getting up and going to the event that I hadn’t truly relaxed since I got back.

Aaaand now it’s Monday. There are some reports in the media about the event, but nothing major. Anyway, back to work. See you later.

posted by Poagao at 11:18 am  
May 30 2015

Vietnam 8

wiresHanoi seems to be in the middle of replacing the entirety of its considerable airborne wiring. Every few streets we saw a bevy of repairmen balancing precariously on the black masses of wiring in between poles.

We got a rather later start than we’d intended to, but we were out on the streets by 8 a.m., after a mediocre breakfast downstairs. At first we tried to follow the purple path suggested by the tourist map, but other streets were too tempting. We found one of the old city gates, and some interesting markets once we left the tourist district. Chenbl spent a good 15 minutes chasing chickens in an alley while I photographed scooters piled high with plastic bottles edging through the narrow entrance. Walking north, we passed underneath the railway and, quite thirsty, looked for something to drink. When we approached a coconut stand as we’d done last night quite easily, the woman selling the coconuts demanded that we pay first. This was a bad sign, and we should have left then and there, but we were thirsty. Of course once she had our money, she pulled out her very worst coconut, the one she’d been saving for fools just as us, with a moldy black exterior and exactly one metric mouthful of juice. We should have made a bigger fuss than we did, but again, we were thirsty, and we had no idea that a Lotteria was just around the corner. Heated up with anger rather than cooled down by the coconut juice, we sat and drank lemon juice to cool off.

We spotted another lake nearby, Truc Bach lake, so we walked over to check it out. It turned out to be uninteresting, but the trip did serve one purpose: Chenbl finally found a way to cut his fingernails: He approached a trio of Vietnamese fellows on the bank of the lake and asked if he could borrow their nail clippers. They said ok, Chenbl’s nails were clipped, and we were on our merry way around the small promontory, separated from land by a truly awful canal.

We were wandering around without purpose, and this suited me fine. We passed by the luxurious Army Hotel, with bored Army guards outside, and walked down broad streets to a long park where I nearly fell on my face when I tripped on a fractured curb. I fell on Chenbl instead, who had the presence of mind not to fall over himself.

armyhotelWe walked around a round building in the middle of a roundabout that turned out to be Old, and then over to where the train tracks crossed over the street, following the tracks until we were hungry enough for lunch of beef pho sitting on the street. I haven’t had any pho here so far that hasn’t been  delicious.

We walked south, out of the tourist district completely this time, and our exodus engendered a sense of relief. People seemed like regular people, touts weren’t constantly approaching me, there were actual sidewalks and street crossings, and prices were half of what they were in the old district. It was like returning to civilization. We even saw a traffic accident where the drivers got out, glared at each other, got back into their cars and drove off, both completely ignoring the traffic cop at the intersection, who ignored them right back.

Further south, we came upon another lake, this one looking man-made, probably to cool off the neighborhood. After sitting and resting while a small boy slid down the stairs over and over again, we decided to walk west. Inside a nearby alley, an old barber was striking camp in the light of the sunset as a boy threatened me with a tree branch. Both lived just down the alley, near a small temple on the lake.

We walked to the railway tracks, where we were surprised to see far more people camped out on the tracks than we’d expected. I guess it must be cooler, and they all seem to know the train schedule, but it was still a bit unnerving considering how easily trains can slip up on one. We talked with one young bespectacled fellow who enquired about our cameras. I got his flickr handle so I can look at his work.

Continuing through long alleys punctuated with LED signs and little old shops, my spirits lifted even more. This was actual Vietnam, actual Hanoi. People were friendly and open, traffic moved smoothly. We had some delicious dry beef noodles at some random shop patronized by heavy, shirtless men and one very old woman. In the corner by the TV was a large glass bottle of something straight out of Severus Snape’s pantry.

We continued up the alley, which turned out to be very, very long, but it was interesting and the most fun we’ve had in Hanoi so far. We made attempts to chat with various people along the way, some older men smoking water cigars, some women cutting hair, some construction workers eating dinner, etc. We passed empty lots where the houses had been torn down, and eventually ended up on a major road, where we asked directions back to the old district. Everyone we asked said it was too far to walk, but when we pointed out that we had just walked from there, they just shrugged. Crazy foreigners, I guess. What can you do?

As we made our way back towards the hotel, showers of leaves would occasionally float down from the trees. We had some fresh juice at an intersection, but some air conditioning was in order, so we stopped in at a KFC. Chenbl noted that the chicken there was much thinner than it is in Taiwan. The women in front of us were apparently applying for several foreign visas along with their meal, as they had filled out several forms and provided bank statements with phone confirmations. Then every school in the vicinity let out, and the place was suddenly filled with screaming children. This prompted our escape.

Now we’re back at the hotel, where the broken fridge has been fixed. In order to compensate for this commendable act, neither the TV nor Internet is working, most likely due to the cutting of a few wrong wires today.

posted by Poagao at 10:11 am  
May 28 2015

Vietnam 7

The other ships in the harbor where we docked were still lit up when I got up this morning at around 5 a.m. They’d doused their lights by the time I got up on the sundeck to watch the sunrise. One other passenger was there taking shots with his phone. The sunrise was much nicer this morning than yesterday, with an actual sun-shaped sun rising up into the sky rather than just a general lightening of clouds. I stayed on top of the ship as the engines turned on noiselessly and we began to move through the water towards the same place we’d moved the day before. Several other ships followed, and we dropped anchor in the same place, with the same hawkers, and the same bad tai-chi. Today, however, we were taken over to a very large, impressive system of caves called Hang Sung Sot. It felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings, except sprinkled with signs saying STOP and THIS WAY and NO SMOKING and CUT THAT OUT. Bats hung from the roof, swaying, chirping and shitting on the floor. The group moved faster than I could take photos, so I only got a few shots. We were the first group in and damn if we weren’t going to be the first group out! Such is tourism.

caveThen it was back to the ship, a nice big breakfast. By the time I’d showered and packed, the ship was part of an armada of Paradise ships heading back to port. After we docked we were taken to yet another lounge, where we were fed and sung to before embarking on the grueling 3-hour drive back to Hanoi. I say grueling but it was merely a little uncomfortable due to 45-degree heat that the crowded van’s a/c just wasn’t up to dealing with. I felt far more sorry for the people laying boiling asphalt in that weather, covered head-to-toe in clothes for protection.

Back in Hanoi, we were the last of our group to be dropped off at our hotel, the Golden Sun Moment. This was possibly in order to spare us any embarrassment, as everyone else seemed to be staying at really nice joints. Thoughtful, that.

We managed to get a room somewhat unlike the one we booked, which has been a constant theme in Vietnam, and then we headed out to walk around. We went down to the lake and around to the old cathedral as the late afternoon sun lit up the streets. A man in black with a taped-up rangefinder had staked out a nice spot to catch people walking through the light on the other side of the road, but when I approached he scattered. “Just wait until you submit your stuff to HCSP,” I didn’t call after him. “I will be condescendingly arrogant with pop-culture references! Ooh, feel the burn!”

Behind the cathedral several boys were kicking a ball at the rear windows, against a backdrop of the wise men pointing at weeds. When they saw us they kicked the ball at us, but we managed to dodge in time (Chenbl can move surprisingly quickly if he needs to). Later we had dry noodles at a place one of the Americans on the ship had recommended. It wasn’t terribly good. Rather, it was both full of Westerners and really expensive.

I’ll be honest here, so far I really dislike Hanoi. Or at least the Old District. It’s busy and wary and fearful, it feels as if no Vietnamese live here, and the ones who do aren’t happy about the fact. But perhaps I’ll get a better impression tomorrow.

posted by Poagao at 10:09 pm  
May 28 2015

Vietnam 6

Sleep at the Merci Hotel was, well, not great. I hate windowless rooms with no connection to the outside, there were mosquitos, and the a/c blew directly on my face. I didn’t even feel like sleeping in in the morning despite my fatigue. The hotel staff was continuously busy on their phones or playing games on the front desk’s computer. Breakfast was ordered from other nearby establishments, so it wasn’t too bad, but I’ve been spoiled by living in Prince Roy’s Park Palace for the last few days.

Finally out on the streets, we walked to the place where we were to be picked up by the ship company’s bus. In the back were several Western tourists, all of whom seemed to be trying up to one-up each other with the people they knew and the places they’d been. “Caitlin, tell them your Raoul story!” The bus trip was interminable, though the conversation coming from behind got better over the course of the voyage after all the showing off was done and people started discussing topics of more interest. When we arrived at the depressingly empty port area we were were ushered into a fairly standard waiting area, and then when the ship, one of several white vessels lined up at the dock, was ready, we were allowed to go aboard. Apparently Chenbl and I were the last ones on, because the massive door began to close before my foot had even crossed the threshold.

The ship itself, though, is quite nice. Old wooden trim and paneling as well as properly worn, clunky brass fittings. We set out into the sea amidst islands. Our cabin has twin beds and its own balcony. Eventually we stopped by a little island, where we were taken to the sandy beach. We kayaked around the sea a bit, looking at the eagles soaring overhead, listening to the cicadas, paddling into and out of a cave, and around a little floating house before heading back to the beach, where I swam a bit before we had to get back to the ship. Watching the pale green water and pale blue sky, separated by bits of dark green island, slipping by my window was utterly peaceful. I do love being on board a ship.

The crew had a little cooking class on the sundeck, and Chenbl got an award for cooking spring rolls. Later, at the seven-course diner, we were told to wear the provided traditional Vietnamese clothing that seemed fresh out of a TV historical drama set. The food wasn’t too bad, but it looked better than it tasted. Later we tried some fishing…well, Chenbl tried; I laid in a hammock stretched across the away boat and enjoyed the rocking motion. Many other ships were anchored around us.

We got up early to see the sunrise, but it was far from spectacular. The ship upped anchor and moved to another position near some other ships, and at 6:30 some of the passengers, mostly older and female, arrived at the sun deck for tai-chi practice. The ensuing tai-chi was, shall we say, somewhat less than authentic, but I suppose they do it that way for a reason. They can’t exactly start with the basics; people most likely just want something that makes them feel like they’re doing tai-chi, not actual tai-chi. I took photos and then, after everyone had left, did some of the forms I know. For some reason, this is the one place where they unfurl the sails, perhaps to air them out. I can’t see them actually being used for any kind of meaningful propulsion.

Local boat people were rowing back and forth between the ships, plying their wares, but to little apparent avail. I wonder who buys things from them. But they must, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Maybe the ships’ local crews buy from them.

We got off the Paradise Luxury, and were ferried onto another, smaller boat, the Paradise Explorer, around 9. This was a day boat, with only one closed deck, and a sundeck on top. We made our way across the bay, wondering which of the gigantic tankers were legal, and found ourselves at a small fishing village. Several Vietnamese women took us in small boats around the village, but we got the smallest, slowest rower, and quickly fell behind all the other boats, even though we were the first to leave the dock. It soon became apparent that we weren’t making any actual headway, and the Australian guy behind me stepped up and took over. It didn’t go very well, as he didn’t know what he was doing, and my snarky comments probably didn’t help the situation.

When we finally arrived somehow, we found a village with a schoolroom and several huts. A naked male mannequin decorated one bedroom. Then it was another slow slog over to the pearl factory, where daintily dressed women manned an elegant floating pearl display room, all in the middle of a messy fishing village. It’s rather bizarre. As soon as we left they cut the A/C and threw open the windows. I imagine once we were out of sight they all jumped into the water for a nice swim, but I could be wrong.

kayakWe got back to the boat, which took us to another location while we ate a tasty lunch. Then we kayaked to a nearby beach, which featured one of the signature orange basins I keep hidden around the world in case of a surprise jam session. A French couple was busy manhandling their kayak, as if they’d somehow dropped something valuable inside it and couldn’t get it out. Chenbl and I foundered on the surf trying to get back out into the water, but we managed. I swam around the boat after returning the kayak, and was reminded that I need to swim more.

Then it was back to the big ship, the Luxury, and although I witnessed someone going back for forgotten stuff, it didn’t occur to me that I’d left my battery and chargers on the small boat. Oh,well. I’d wanted to go back to explore the cave above the beach, but they neglected to tell me that was an option. The crew really could use some work on their communication skills.

posted by Poagao at 9:51 pm  
May 26 2015

Vietnam 5

We got up early to catch the good light, and before it got too hot, walking down through downtown Saigon to the river where boats of all sizes and shapes were plying the broad brown waters. On the banks, a woman knelt in prayer as she released some fish that had been captured for that express purpose. I suppose one’s responsibility for such actions doesn’t quite resonate past the personal level all the time.

We walked to the bridge designed by the Eifel of Tower fame, the steps of which reeked of trash and urine. Nearby a field of young Vietnamese men practiced formation in a very languid fashion. On the other side of the bridge a TV or film production was ongoing, with the crew positioning a complex array of mirrors and filters to make the editor’s job less hellish as the sun came and went. The director and his assistant huddled on the steps not far away, looking at the monitor.

Breakfast was had on a street nearby, and we talked with the owner in Chinese as she was, as seems fairly common here, of Cantonese ancestry. Unfortunately, though the food was good, we lingered too long, and when the cops came to collect their shakedown fees, they were unable to escape fast enough and got caught in the net.

We examined an interesting mixed Hindu/Buddhist temple down the street before walking back through a market to the tallest building in the city, which features an observation deck. As it costs money to go up, it wasn’t crowded, and they offer free wifi and water in addition to free dots and substandard, wavy glass that screws with your photos. I wonder if they also light it up at night from the inside as well. Perhaps someday I’ll come back and find out.

But the daytime view was fine, and really let me get a grasp on the layout of the city. Perhaps I should have gone up there at first to get my bearings, instead of leading Prince Roy on a series of merry, exhausting chases around the city. But I didn’t, so, well, sorry about that, my liege.

From up top, I did managed to pinpoint our next destination: Across the river was a large, densely packed area of what looked like older houses, punctuated by a single orange pagoda. We got one of the staff to write the neighborhood’s name down (it turns out he takes the bus past the area every day), and we caught a cab out there.

pagodaIt turns out that the pagoda is new, and built next to the smashed ruins of the old temple. Little shards of porcelain gods lay in the mud, but two were intact and placed lovingly on one of the concrete pillars. I wonder what that is all about. We were invited inside by a monk, who showed us around and took pictures of us in front of the altar.

After that we walked back into the alleys of the densely packed neighborhood behind the temple. It was fascinating and fun, and we were greeted by almost everyone. It is in District 4, one of the poorer parts of town as I understand, but the houses were mostly neat and clean, some of them quite nice. Nice little parks dotted the area.

We made our way towards the canal bank, where things got very industrial very fast. A guard waved me away from the actual waterfront, and we walked in a large U back to where we’d started. Lunch was delicious beef pho at an electronics repair shop.

After taxiing back to PR’s place and showering up, we bade his Highness farewell and caught a cab to the airport, this time making sure the driver used his meter. At the airport we barely had time for a small snack before boarding our 777 to Hanoi. The good news is that we got emergency row seats. The bad news is that the seats had no windows, so I had wedge my head into the space between the seat and the fuselage to see the wonderful cloud formations outside. Our stewardess gave me a talking to about filming in the aircraft after I shot video of her pointedly refusing to help passengers with their luggage (I’m sure she’ll enjoy the Youtube video).

The flight had left in a downpour, but the weather in Hanoi was much nicer. We had to take buses into the airport, but it wasn’t that bad. We then got on a bus into town, which is a long trip. It was just after sunset, the empty rice fields glowing under massive electric billboards and the lights from lonely motorcyclists.

Things got seedier as we approached the city, and then nicer again. It was nighttime when we forced our way through the touts and caught another cab to our hotel, the Merci. I suspect the driver understands Chinese, because after Chenbl mentioned a less-than-life-changing tip, we seemed to be travelling in circles for a long while.

We checked in and then went out for dinner, and suddenly the world was a giant frat party. The streets were full of Western kids. Hardly any Vietnamese were to be seen. We sat next to a table of young Americans who were dining on a debate of the merits of locking people up forever with no reason, with a side of chunky entitlement. The dinner was ok, as was the a/c, as the weather is evern muggier up here than in Saigon. The crowds outside were just out of hand as we forced our way back to the hotel.

Tomorrow, hopefully, we’re going to catch a ride to Halong Bay and get on a boat.


posted by Poagao at 12:26 am  
May 24 2015

Vietnam 4

We had breakfast at a steakhouse this morning. The steak was a little on the chewy side, but the French bread was good. After that we walked over to the bus station, where middle-aged men crowded around the opening doors of newly arrived buses in an effort to get some business. We boarded a bus and headed out to the Chinatown area, where we walked through a street market and then a more substantial goods market, and then through some alleys bordered by neat old two-story houses. Many of the residents spoke at least basic Mandarin, so we chatted with some of them about their families and how they’d come to Vietnam, etc.

We also visited a series of temples, some more like those of Taiwan, some different. They tend to use the central door here rather than leaving it only for the gods’ use as they do in Taiwan. Across the street from one of the temples was an emtpy ice cream place that turned out to be surprisingly tasty.

The last temple was a multi-story affair locked inside of a tuggle of other buildings; Chenbl got dizzy inside due to all the bad energy there. Even Prince Roy and I felt it; we didn’t at all feel welcome by the practicioners, who were upstairs chanting in front of giant statues. Of course, they might have been unhappy with the chatty Western tourists that came in behind us, but I suspect they weren’t a very happy bunch in any case. It felt good to leave.

But we were tired and hot by this time, and as I was on my last battery, we elected to take a taxi back, PR chatting with the driver in Vietnamese. I felt bad about dragging PR all over town during the hottest part of the day; Chenbl and I doggedly headed out by ourselves for another loop around the area while there was still light, but I think we should have followed PR’s example and just took a break in the A/C, because my feet were aching and my head swimming by the time we got back. We did see quite a few Western tourists around town, young men with beards and lenseless glasses (and one with a conical hat) and young women with ponytails and lenseless glasses. There are far more Western tourists here than in Taipei.

Dinner was a delicious affair at a rooftop restaurant called the Secret Garden, in an old building that someone stole the elevator from at some point. Tomorrow is our last day in Saigon, but we’re going to try and get some more sightseeing in before our flight up to Hanoi.

posted by Poagao at 11:19 pm  
May 23 2015

Vietnam 3

Today was brilliant. Breakfast was some more delicious pho, beef this time, at another place Prince Roy knew of, only a few blocks from his place. The blue decor looked to be from pretty much the same era as the place we went last night, but the breakfast crowd was more active. A huge screen showing security cam footage was hung on the wall in between the heads of various animals.

helicopterNext on our itenerary was the war museum, which features a bunch of leftover U.S. military equipment such as airplanes, helicopters and tanks. Chenbl and I then walked around town a bit, stopping by a couple of temples, before walking back to Prince Roy’s palace, where we met a couple of Vietnamese women who were going to take us around town on the backs of their scooters in search of the best and most sanitary street food this town has to offer.

It was wonderful, a great way to see more of the city and sample a lot of great food. Being Taiwanese, of course we weren’t daunted by the scooter traffic, but…well, ok, the traffic here can be kind of daunting. But we soon learned to ignore it and just enjoy the ride. We stopped in five places for various meals, but it was paced well so that we didn’t get too full, and we learned a lot about all the dishes, all the way to a range of desserts. I noticed that, though the skies are full of huge bundles of electrical wires, people here leave their balconies in unfettered glory, rather than blocking them out as they do in Taiwan. It makes a huge difference in the mien of the city. I also love the huge trees lining the avenues, like something out of a Miyazaki movie.

We got back to Prince Roy’s place after 5pm, and went out again at night to shop for jackets. After that PR took us to a great little microbrew bar, where we sampled a bunch of beers in the second story of an old building on one of the city’s main old streets. We also had delicious chicken and shrimps dishes before picking our way through sidewalks crowded with evening diners (whoever sells those little red plastic stools must be making a killing) back to PR’s place.

What a great day!

posted by Poagao at 11:14 pm  
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