Monday, July 28, 2008

Like Costa Rica - without the crowds or the harness

Costa Rica has the canopy tour through the Cloud Forest of Monteverde. Switzerland has the sport of canyoning through the gorges of Interlaken. Both of them appeal to tourists seeking adventure-eco-travel, and both are wildly popular (and fun). You can do all of this and more for a fraction of the cost atop Vietnam's Bach Ma mountain without running into a single other tourist - if you are willing to go without the helmet and the harness.

We spent the past weekend at Bach Ma National Park, which rises 1450m above sea level but lies only 18km away from the sea itself. The number of tourists is limited by the few places to stay on the mountain - only a handful of charming old villas leftover from the French Colonial days. In fact, we were told there was only one room left on the whole mountain and we would have to share a triple with our friend Phuoc from Boston. Which was fine, but odd considering we saw only about 30 other tourists during our entire weekend there. The Vietnam tourism industry is totally missing out by not promoting Bach Ma as the eco-adventure experience it proved to be, but it sure was nice to have it all to ourselves.

We arrived at our villa after a harrowing half hour of careening up switchbacks on a single lane road - reminiscent of our friends Jesse and Theresa's recent post from their trek in India. We had left Hue in 90 degree heat but we emerged into 60 degree bliss. For much of the day the mountain was shrouded in a cool mist, making it one of the few true clout forests in the world ( When the fog dissipated, the view was spectacular: ribbons of river winding through shimmering rice fields and spilling into the South China Sea.

After taking in the views and enjoying a light lunch, we set out for Bach Ma's most ambitious hike, which would take us by 5 lagoons before we reached a spectacular waterfall. The two people who ran our villa said it would take the whole afternoon, and they were right. But they somehow failed to mention the part about pulling yourself along wires wrapped around trees as your traversed through the gorge, or the 700 steps you had to go down to get to the base of the waterfall...and then the same 700 steps you had to go back up.

Doannie was made for this sort of thing, with his low center of gravity, freakishy long toes capable of grasping slick surfaces, and his general lack of fear. I on the other hand am pretty risk adverse. I may have bungee jumped 400 feet from a cable car in Switzerland and rappelled down waterfalls in Costa Rica, but both of those were before I turned 30 and both of those were with quality carabiners and ropes. It was all Phuoc and Doannie could do to keep me from turning back, and if the views were not as magnificent I probably would have! For the final test of the 1400 steps, I was huffing and puffing and seriously concerned that I might have a small troponin leak. We made it back just in time for dinner at the villa. I'm still recovering.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sound of Music

Odd things can happen to you at any time. You can find 20 dollars on the street, or you can get hit by pigeon poop walking across a public square. In this particular case, we got accosted and serenaded by a gaggle of nuns after running into a group of Microsoft employees from Seattle bringing 20 computers for the convent.

Those of you who are following this blog know that we have been staying at the clinic attached to my aunt's convent for the past two weeks. Still, the number of actual nuns that we have run into has been pretty small, and for the most part, they have been short interactions, full of deference, soft voices, soulful eyes.

Not this time. This time, we met up with about 10-15 Aspirants, or young women who are just beginning the 13-14 year long journey to full nun status. We proceeded to go through long meandering conversations in English/Vietnamese hodge podge with some of the most spirited and boisterous people I have ever met. It was as if every single one of them was like Maria from the Sound of Music. It wasn't clear to me how the metamorphosis from chatterbox to serene vessel of God's grace was supposed to occur, but I suspect that it has something to do with the two year VOW OF SILENCE that each of these Aspirants was about to undertake. If I was about to not talk for two years, I would probably be yakking my head off, too.

But clearly, the most surreal, Sound-of-Music-like moment was about to come. For what would be more Rodgers and Hammersteinesque than a full-on musical moment? One nun would start, and then all the rest would join in with perfectly blended, multi-part harmonies. Somehow, we got shamed into our own choked version of America the Beautiful, only to later learn that these nuns have choir practice three times a week. Basically, we got vocally hustled.

They invited us to join them for a ride on the famous Dragon Boat tour of Hue's Perfume River, but we declined. I won't say that we didn't feel like getting schooled again as they sang up a storm while floating down the river, but I'm sure if factored into our decision.

Here's your moment of Zen: We were there with our friend Phuoc, who also has a caucasian wife and he was showing them a picture of her. She is also blond and fair skinned, and one of the nuns asked if she and Holly were related. To see her response when we said no, you'll have to watch the video of the singing shown below:

Oh how, the tables have turned. Please see

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

HIV Home Visits

Today we set out early in the morning for the countryside of Quang Tri province to call upon 3 of the HIV patients under Di Dien's watch. On the way there we learned that she has 95 HIV/AIDS patients assigned to her and that about 1/3 are on anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs). As a primary care provider of sorts she does not dispense ARVs; the patients must make the trek into Hue once a month to the dispensary at the main hospital. Rather she serves more as a case manager for the patients and their families, periodically checking in on them to ensure that they have the food and water and shelter necessary to comply with their ARV regimen. The standard ARV regimen in Vietnam consists of three medications which must be taken twice a day with food and water; if a patient misses doses the virus can rapidly develop resistance to the medications, rendering them useless. The same is true of anti-tuberculosis regimens (a four drug combination), and about 10% of patients with tuberculosis in Vietnam also have HIV.

Patients are referred to her from the Infectious Disease Unit of Hue Central Hospital after they have been diagnosed with HIV. She and her staff of volunteers conduct an initial home visit to assess the living situation upon discharge. They look for things such as whether there is running water, a clean cooking area, and a separate latrine from the house, or whether the patient even has a house at all. If the living situation is deemed unsafe or unsanitary they argue the case before their board of donors and try to relocate the patient. They also assess the health of the family members, who may or may not have contracted HIV themselves, but are disadvantaged by having a relative with this still stigmitized and often debilitating disease. They check to see whether the children of the family are in school. They provide financial and emotional support for the family, even after the person with HIV dies. All in a day's work for Di Dien.

Of course if she finds a person too sick to stay out in the province, she brings them back with her and admits them to the hospital. Fortunately this did not happen today, although we did visit one young one man with HIV and TB who was recently discharged after she had found him very sick on her last visit. We met him on the side of the road, because his father is currently not allowing him in the house. He showed us his ARV and TB medications, kept in a small baggy in his pocket. Di Dien was very concerned about his situtation and will be working to secure stable housing for him. We also visited a woman widowed after her husband died of AIDS. She and their 3 children (thankfully uninfected) and the grandmother all sleep together on one bed in the simple 2 room structure, although they do have a mosquito net. The cook over an open fire but they do have running water and a proper latrine 20 feet from the house. Much better off than many I met in Tanzania all those years ago. They even have their own local drugstore of sorts - check out this guy on his bike selling an aray of sundries to the tunes of his boombox. He just rolled right on by while we were standing on the path in the middle of the rice fields!

In addition to getting to see the patients in their homes (or lack thereof), today was also an amazing opportunity to see more of the rural countryside. The guidebooks talk about how difficult it can be to get away from the coastline and visit the rural villages nestled in the mountains and foothills of Vietnam. In some cases tourists simply are not allowed by the government. The lack of good roads or anything in the way of a restaurant or hotel is also prohibitive. Standing in the shadows of the rolling green hills which separate Vietnam from Laos today was yet another privledge we were afforded in our roles as part tourist, part family.

Lost In Translation

I've only seen "Lost In Translation" once, the film by Sophia Coppola starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen. I remember it as a story of two people at very different stages in their lives, each feeling lost but finding themselves through finding each other. I remember it being beautiful and moving, but the only scene which I specifically remember is the one where they end up in a karaoke room in Tokyo. Something about the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of the karaoke was particularly striking, both for the characters and for me.

Doannie and I had our own "Lost in Translation" moment last night when we too ended up in a karaoke room. We went with a group of Vietnamese medical students after conducting a conversation class with them down by the river (one of the responsibilities of my rotation at the hospital here). From the outside the place looked like a small hotel, at least 8 floors high but no more than 2 rooms wide. Then just like in the movie we were ushered up a narrow staircase and into a small room equipped with its own karaoke machine and a serious sound system. Instead of an American style karaoke bar where you write down your song requests and sing to a room full of strangers, this place was full of tiny rooms of solo performances, which turns out to be a slightly different beast.

We quickly learned that crowd pleasers back home like "Sweet Caroline" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" don't go over very well here, because there is no crowd to play to. Actual singing on key and on time is the goal, usually as a solo. The karaoke machine actually rates both your timing and your ability to stay in key and gives you a score (Doannie and I both managed to get in the 80% range). Thankfully we had bottle service from the bar downstairs (i.e., a guy brought a bucket of warm beers and a bucket of ice) to loosen us up. A duet of Boyz to Men's "End of the Road" won us some fans amongst the medical students.

For them karaoke is serious business, and a few of them scored 100%. As I listened to them sing tender love songs in Vietnamese (as well as a few by the Carpenters and Celion Dion), I had my own "Lost in Translation" moment. I don't understand most of what is said around me most hours of most days, and I have come to rely heavily on Doannie to fill me in as best he can. But I have also found my acuity for emotional subtext has sharpened as I watch the world go by in this strange and lyrical tongue. It is a beautiful thing to bear witness to someone else's pilgramage to their homeland, especially when that someone is your newlywed husband. As I sit on the sidelines in unusual-for-me silence, I see what a special gift we have both been given to experience this together.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hoi An: Better than Filene's Basement

For this weekend's adventure Doannie and I traveled to Hoi An, an ancient shipping village which was part of the famous Silk Road. A bustling port which once connected silks from Japan to spices from China, it is known for its unique blend of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and French architecture. During its heyday merchants from each of these countries maintained their own local governments in town while they went about their trades. The port ultimately filled in with silt but Hoi An was left with the regal buildings of these four communities and a legacy of fine craftsmanship. Otherwise known as...the place to do some serious shopping.

The adventure began when we boarded our bus Friday afternoon to find out that it was no ordinary bus, but rather a sleeping bus! Strapped in on the top level of the double decker like babies in bassinets, we traveled the four hours from Hue to Hoi An in style. The trip took us into the fog of the mountains and over the incredible Hai Van pass, after which we descended upon beautiful blue bays and white sandy beaches. After a week of saving money at the convent, we decided to splurge on a 5-star beach resort, a complete bargain at the current Dollar to Dong ratio.

But the bargins didn't end there. We had come to Hoi An on a mission: to purchase 8 tuxedos for Doannie's best friend Daniel's wedding (see related post: Buu Doan in the Buu Dien). Hoi An is full of tailors who will make anything you want in any material you want in a matter of hours. The shear number of choices was overwhelming. Wool coats for $50 (try trying one of those on in 100 degree heat), complete suits for under $100, shoes made to fit your feet...I could go on an on. And on it on it went, with the shopping and then the relentless haggling for prices consuming over 8 hours of our first day in town.

I realized things were a bit out of hand when on day two I said to Doannie over breakfast, "We really should see some of these ancient houses today" and he replied "Don't you remember walking past them all day yesterday?" (I did not). We had come to Hoi An for some R&R and to experience the famed Silk Road of old, and yet we were frantically consumed with modern consumerism. We did carve out time on Day Two to visit many of the old meeting houses, as well as several historic homes which had been in the same families for hundreds of years. We watched men and women executing the time honored tradition of lantern building, a special treat since the lanterns hanging from the rafters at our wedding were ordered directly from Hoi An. A trip to the Tran family chapel to hear a fellow Tran tell us about the 10 generations of Trans whose placentas were buried in the back yard (that way their souls are never far from home) was another highlight. Although she did eye me strangely when I said "I am a Tran too!"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Visiting the Homestead

My parents say that they are from Hue in the same way that I say that I am from Atlanta. They are both catchall geographical terms that allow people not familiar with the area to attach location and meaning to your origins. But just as Atlanta area people have a sense of the subtle variations between Alpharetta and Doraville, the people of Hue draw distinctions between different villages. People around here can even pick up on what village or province you are from just by dialect. On Wednesday, we got an opportunity to visit the villages that make up my parent's past. In honor of the release of The Dark Knight, I will tell the tale of the uncovering of my parent's own origin stories using analogies from the Batman franchise.

Gotham City: My Mom was born in a small village called Vinh Hoa about 30 km away from Hue. It's a small, quiet beach town where my mother's family goes back at least two generations. My father was also born on the coast, but further to the south, not far from Nha Trang, but his mother's family is also from a village near Vinh Hoa. The entire region is dominated by rice farms. For those of you who have never seen one, a rice farm looks like an absolutely perfect emerald green lawn, except that the grass is about a foot high and submerged in six or so inches of water. The wind ripples its surface, making it look like the east Asian version of the American prairie. Rice in place of wheat, water in lieu of dust. At the right angles, at the right time of day, you can see the sparkle of silver water between the blades as farmers wade through their fields maintaining their livelihoods. Rice cultivation is one of the few major modern subsistence crops that resists industrialization, so everything is done by hand and oxen. There is no diesel-powered behemoth combine, the only motorized vehicles are the ubiquitous motos, buzzing like overgrown cicadas. Being a coastal village, the other industry of the area is fishing, a trade plied on long skinny wooden boats propelled by a thin paddle like the one used by a gondolier. My mother's family was actually involved in construction, but I guess it turns out that both my Mom and Dad were really kind of beach kids. Which is weird.

Wayne Manor: My Aunt Dien and Uncle Han took us to the house where my mother was born. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to understand how powerful of an experience this was, to see the house that my grandfather built, where my uncles lived, where my mother cried because my uncle Han (her cousin) wouldn't give her some of the fruit he had picked from a tree in their yard. Inside the house was the same shrine to the ancestors that you'll find in every home and business in Vietnam, but this one was unique to me and my family, tracing a line from me to someone who lived so long ago their portraits were sketches on paper. Generations of my family are buried there.

It was my experience as a child of immigrants to have a loose connection to my parent's homeland. It was not see-able, or really know-able, even though it was an ever present spectre in our daily lives. I think that's why I have such a strong feeling of connectedness to my places, the Athens's, the Oakland's and Boston's that have made up the fabric of my life. To understate what has clearly been a theme for this whole trip: it has been nice to see where my parents grew up.

The Batcave: Anyone who knows my parents knows that the only place where they would seek refuge and rest, to rearm and prepare for any upcoming challenges is a church. And lo and behold, my Mom grew up about 10 feet from the Catholic church in town. My grandfather was a lay deacon, and my family has given money over the years to build up new additions and upgrades to the facility.

Cast of Characters...a Female lead and a bunch of really really old people like Alfred: We visited a lot of distant family. For my family's sake and the fact that it is extremely unlikely I will remember them later, I will briefly outline their relationship to me under each picture.
Here's the classic multi-generational Vietnamese household.

Believe it or not, these two very elderly women in the background are my father's cousins. My grandmother was one of the youngest of her large family and these women are the children of the oldest. They are still kickin' well into their eighties. Bodes well for me.

She is the younger sister of my father's mother. Also amazingly robust. Go Asians.

What a cutie. The Byzantine maze that describes her relationship to me is not important, but she was an enchanting little lady. They were all amazed that I would come to visit them and were patient through my limited Vietnamese as we outlined their relationships to me and mine.

As we drove away, I wondered if I could ever have much of an idea what it's like to live their lives, to see what they've seen, to do what they must do everyday. Did they see the vast asymmetry, that what divides our stations in life isn't genetics or race or any other scapegoat for poverty, but zip code? A daring parental act 35 years ago created a rift between us, with tile and porcelain and limitless opportunity on the one hand and concrete and bamboo and mildewed squalor on the other. It's hard not to think that my parents slipped through an ever narrowing door, that the world will not receive these sons and daughters with the same sort of jaw dropping generosity it gave me and my sisters.

Raiding the Imperial City

Hue was the Imperial capitol of the Nguyen dynasty from the early 1800's to the mid-20th century. As such, it is home to a massive citadel, a city within in city on the north bank of the Perfume River. Modern Hue surrounds this old walled compound. The north bank is called the Imperial City or the Citadel, and the part of the city on the south bank of the river is sometimes called the European city, a reflection of its more recent origins. Ancient-looking walls surround ancient-looking buildings with ancient-looking woodwork. By and large, however, most of the feeling of ancient-ness in the Citadel exists at the intersection of illusion, artifice and really clever marketing.

This is not to say that Vietnamese culture is not very very old, because traceable elements of it do extend back thousands of years. But as ancient-looking as this amazing structure was, we just kept thinking that there were things older than this in Boston. The oldest things we were seeing dated from the mid-nineteenth century, and on top of that, most of the buildings of the Citadel were destroyed by the particularly intense fighting and bombing campaigns around Hue during the American War. The scenic gardens, the houses of meditation and worship were mostly reconstructions of a remembered past.

Still, it was a sight to behold, with its high and forbidding walls surrounded on the exterior by a moat filled with beautiful purple water lilies. An interestingly delightful choice for a defensive mechanism usually filled with stakes, burning oil and/or crocodiles. Maybe all of these things were in there. If so, it's a little like putting a candy coating on a wrecking ball.

Holly and I were not alone on this little tourist jaunt. No, the young girl pictured here is not some wayward street urchin, nor a girl that Holly and I are adopting to bring back to the US (surprise!). Interestingly, these are not too far from the truth. Unfortunately, these sad, made-up scenarios are not even fully reflective of the real tragedy of her story. Her name is Tam, and she and her sister are orphans. They lost their parents years ago and now live with my aunt in the clinic. She is, frankly, more cheerful that I would be if that were my life, and she had a great time exploring the temples and gardens of the Hue Imperial City and the Thien Mu Pagoda we visited that day.

The Thien Mu pagoda is more expansive than one expects and houses a Buddhist monastery on its grounds. Above, you can see some new recruits getting their first taste of the ascetic life. We started talking to one of the older monks there and he told us that these young men were former pickpockets and street thieves turning over a new, and more cleanly shaven, leaf. As I'm used to saying as a teacher, every day is a new day, right?

Every day is an opportunity to do right by the world, too. The Thien Mu pagoda is mostly a testament to a distant past, but it holds one semi-modern relic shown above. An old beat-up car is a standing monument to the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in Saigon to protest the lack of religious freedom experienced by the Buddhists of Vietnam. At first sight, seeing a car on these natural surroundings seems dissonant, but ultimately the mind brings into focus what they eye can't see: that sometimes creating a peaceful nirvana on earth requires acts of personal and grotesque sacrifice.