Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Obligatory Top 10

What end-of-the-summer, end-of-the-trip blog would be complete without a top 10 list?

10. Pagodas, pagodas...and more pagodas.

9. Tailor-made clothes: cutting out the Western middle man and going straight to the source.

8. Multiple karaoke sessions - who knew Lionel Ritchie was so big in SE Asia?

7. Nuns.

6. Being some of the tallest people in an entire country of 90 million souls.

5. Watching East meets West-ern medicine...while only working 6 hours per day.

4. Finding beach bungalows - all along the South China Sea coastline.

3. Cheap eats on a red stool as good as any $30 entree at an Asian fusion hot spot in the states.

2. Having our first conversation over dinner...entirely in Vietnamese.

1. Seeing the Que Huong (the homeland).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sliding the Red Sand Dunes

Vietnam has a lot of stuff going on in a small country. We've seen quite a bit of it in our travels, from the limestone teeth of Ha Long Bay to the flooded plains of the Mekong Delta. As our time in Vietnam is coming to an end, we decided to travel with our friend Christiaan to Mui Ne, a town in Vietnam that is home to a geological feature we haven't seen yet, the red sand dunes.

After the lushness tropical goodness of the rest of Vietnam, we were surprised to come upon the otherworldly desert austerity of the red dunes at dawn. The only thing piercing the Mars-like quality of situation was the hordes of wealthy Saigon tourists being disgorged by the fleet of tour-buses arriving every 15 minutes. And the wedding pictures being taken at the top of one of the dunes. And the swarms of poor children renting pieces of plastic used to slide down the dunes. So, it wasn't so much Laurence-of-Arabia-solitude, but the pictures are really convincing, aren't they?

We did manage to hike away from the bulk of people, led by a group of great little kids who helped us find a great vista point for the sunrise and instructed us in the finer points of sliding down the dunes.

We were also fortunate enough to find an amazing resort in Mui Ne to round out our time in Vietnam. We had a beach front bungalow with a couch, and two beach chairs with a wide umbrella. What more can you really ask for? This place definitely ranks in our top 10 of most beautiful places ever. And No, Christiaan did not stay with us.

The real clincher: 8 dollars for a 1 hour massage on the beach. 'Nuf said.

Since Christiaan just finished his Massachusetts Bar exam, we decided to treat him to a beach massage. And so began the following dialogue, conducted in Vietnamese, translated by me for my American companions. I may have taken some dramatic liberties.

It is clear that everyone now assumes that Holly and Christiaan are married. My masseuse is a funny, good natured young lady.

Doannie's Masseuse: [to Doannie] So, are you married?

Doannie: Yes, that's my wife right over there.

DM: [incredulous] Really?

Doannie: [gesturing towards Christiaan] But that tall white guy over there? He's single.

DM: [coyly] I have been waiting for a tall, handsome American to come and sweep me away. What kind of women does he like?

Doannie: Hey Bubs, what kind of women do you like?

Christiaan: I like talkative, fun girls.

Doannie translates.

DM: [Excitedly] Oh, I am very talkative and fun.

Christiaan: But I live in Boston, and it is very cold.

DM: [as if speaking to a dense child] But if two people love each other, it doesn't matter. If you come back in two weeks, I will learn to speak English for you. If you say that you will accept me, I will spend a sleepless night, restless with excitement. If you say no, I will come to this beach and drown myself in the ocean. [thank goodness, she was laughing through this]

Christiaan: [with the fervor that comes when you only know one Vietnamese word that happens to come in very handy at this moment] Khong! Khong! (translation: No! No!)

But it all turned out well in the end, with no broken hearts, but rather, with an unfinished bridge between two ships passing quietly in the night. I might also add that I think that Christiaan owes me for a translators fee and because my massage suffered as my masseuse's attentions were decidedly elsewhere.

Plus a couple of random pictures: Here's the highly illogical Vietnamese fishing boat. Basically a floating donut.

Here's me learning how to kite-surf.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bubs and the Old Quarter

From Hai Phong we moved on to Vietnam’s capital, Ha Noi. In addition to visiting hospitals with the VCHAP group there, we welcomed our friend Christiaan to the homeland. Better known to many of our readers as Bubs (and frankly, much easier to pronounce by the Vietnamese), Bubs started his 6 week post-bar trip just as we wrapped up our 6 weeks in Vietnam. Not that we blended in well before, but having a 6’4” red-head in our midst certainly increased our profile. To keep everyone from thinking Doannie was our tour guide and to reduce confusion when checking into hotels, Bubs became my baby brother for the week, or as he preferred given our shared birthday - my twin brother (just born 2 years later than me).

Our first goal was to introduce Bubs to the little red stool, an eating venue he took to easily given its minor impact on the budget travelers’ wallet. We also started the search for Vietnam’s cheapest beer, found in one of the many bia hoi houses - 18 cent draft served on lively street corners. Bubs and Doannie certainly deserved a bia hoi after putting up with my marathon shopping sprees. I had saved all souvenir purchasing for the end, and Ha Noi’s Old Quarter lived up to the task at hand. A series of tiny winding streets still full of old French colonial charm, each street was initially home to one type of merchant - silk, wood, paper, etc. The streets retain the names of the original goods on sale but the products are now for a modern clientele - imagine entire street blocks selling only high heels, or knock-off Lacoste and Polo shirts, or sunglasses, or bathroom fixtures. A shopper’s paradise.

In between the working and the shopping, we managed to take in some historical sites as well. We visited the famous Huc bridge and Den Ngoc Son pagoda, the Tortoise tower and the Opera house. A trip to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first University and center of Confuscian culture, was a highlight, as was a tour of the infamous Ha Noi “Hilton” where John McCain spent 5 years as a POW. And while Bubs was in Ha Long Bay for the evening Doannie and I attended a dinner party at the home of Dr Kim Ninh, country director of the Asia Foundation in Vietnam. Good thing she happens to be the sister of Doannie’s aunt, because otherwise I don’t think we would have found ourselves at the same dinner table as the SE Asia Correspondent for the New York Times, a freelance writer for the BBC, an up-and-coming reporter for Vietnam’s premier newspaper, and a linguist contributing to the current genocide trials of the Khemer Rouge in Cambodia. Needless to say we were a bit out of our league.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

An encouraging model

After our weekend in Ha Long Bay, Doannie and I joined up with the VCHAP group (Vietnam CDC Harvard AIDS Partnership) in Hai Phong. This is the third largest city in Vietnam and a large port city. Unfortunately, it has Vietnam's fastest growing HIV population due to a high rate of IV drug use and opium trafficking. The Ha Noi group comes out once a month for a week to do hands on training with the new HIV doctors in the province and to offer consultative services on difficult cases in the afternoon. This is done by the dynamic duo of Dr Huong, an MD/PhD from Hai Phong and a total firecracker, and Dr Marcelo, an HIV specialist from Argentina and a total wisecracker. Together they are a total riot.

We saw a very encouraging model in Hai Phong, something we had yet to encounter in our 5 prior weeks of working in Vietnam. The new doctors practiced taking a history and performing a physical exam in front of Drs Huong and Marcelo, who then provided direct feedback and filled in the gaps by asking additional questions and doing additional exam maneuvers. In the US medical education system this is known as precepting and in the European system as mentoring. It was wonderful to see in contrast to either the complete lack of supervision of junior doctors or the omnipotent decree of senior doctors with the junior doctors expected to learn by observation alone. This of course requires buy-in from the doctors-in-training, who have to be open to criticism and critique, and we learned that the enthusiasm of the Hai Phong trainees is as of yet unmatched in other provinces where VCHAP works.

We also got to spend some time in a thoroughly un-touristy town, which was a unique experience in its own right. We visited one of Vietnam's only microbreweries, where the choices were either "black beer" or "yellow beer" and ngo-ing was in full force. We encountered a Vietnamese break dancing group and a park full of people doing what can only be described as calisthenics. Check out this particular routine for a good laugh:

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Dragon Bay...AKA a bunch of real pretty rocks

For our next-to-last weekend adventure, Doannie and I left Hue and headed for Ha Noi via Ha Long Bay. Hue had really started to feel like home and we were sad to say goodbye to our Vietnamese teacher, to the medical students, and most of all to his family. After three nights in a row of big sendoff dinners, we reached our first snag of the whole trip...our flight to Ha Noi was canceled. Which was not a big deal, but a big inconvenience as we missed our Saturday morning departure to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam's candidate for the new 7 Wonders of the Natural World ( We eventually made it there Saturday night, but not before spending a hairy evening in an old Soviet style hotel that Vietnam Airlines put us up in and braving 3 buses and 1 boat on public transportation to meet up with our tour group.

We were rewarded with hundreds of limestone karsts - really large and beautiful rocks jutting up out of the sea. Vietnamese legend holds that dragons sent by the gods spit out these jewels of jade to create a wall of resistance against the Chinese. They certainly were mythical, shrouded in mist and rain and hiding secret caves. After a tour of the bay on an old junk and a kayak around the karsts, we retired to our beachfront bungalow on a private island. Why can't we have weekend getaways like this when working in Boston?