Sunday, November 21, 2010

Greetings from the Hanoi Hilton

No, it's not the one John McCain stayed in: it's the one next to the Hanoi Opera that helps pay for the comfortable lifestyles of Paris and the rest of the Hilton clan.  But the two "Hiltons" are within walking distance of each other. This is my second trip to Hanoi. Gertrud and I were here about 5 years ago where we spent our most memorable Valentine's Day ever.  The Vietnamese are gradually adopting many Western traditions, and restaurants all over Hanoi were hosting special Valentine's Day events.  Hotel staff recommended a small, intimate restaurant which had less than 10 tables with a waiter for each.  On arrival, we were greeted with roses and champagne and the service got better from there. We had a meal of 8 courses, each more sumptuous than the previous.  We wanted to stop several times but couldn't because we love Vietnamese food and everything was so good.  And every Valentine's Day since we reminisce how special that day was.

The highlight of my current stay was a weekend cruise on Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin where the historic incident with the same name ultimately triggered the Vietnam War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_Incident).  Ha Long Bay is the oft-photographed UNESCO World Heritage site which has provided a backdrop to many movies about Southeast Asia, including "Indochine." I really enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of Ha Long on this short cruise which I shared with about 80 people, mostly French.  And through the wonders of Youtube, you can now see Ha Long's beauty for yourself (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxgpaTxhVVs)!  As a side note to this excursion --  my travel agent arranged for me to be driven to the Port of Ha Long by private car. I became a little concerned when I met the driver and discovered that he spoke almost no English.  However, I became more relaxed a few minutes into the trip when he suddenly asked "ob ich Deutsch spr├Ąche."  Turned out that he is quite fluent in German, having spent 5 years in Dresden as a student in the 1980s under the East German regime. We had a few interesting conversations and I was able to describe for him the lovely Dresden of today now that it has been restored to its pre-World War II splendor.

Ha Long Bay, Gulf of Tonkin
On Ha Long Bay









Returning to the subject of Hanoi: the city has some of the most colorful street scenes in all of Asia and it is a great place to watch people. It is of course very crowded with hawkers selling an incredible variety of wares and foods in front of their shops, groups of women haunched along the streets eating from their rice bowls with chopsticks, incense smoke rising from small Buddhist shrines, electrical wires running every which way, and of course the constant buzz of motorbikes which intimidate most Westerners and who continuously blink in disbelief as to what they see on bikes.  Today I saw a family of 4 on a motorbike including a baby being held by the mother.  Here are some other bike scenes:  http://www.google.com/images?q=bikes+of+vietnam&hl=en&biw=1024&bih=542&tbs=isch:1,isz:m&prmd=iv&source=lnt&sa=X&ei=7uzoTPCvCoWwceWS6I4K&ved=0CAgQpwU. One enterprising expat has published a picture book and used a play-on-words to entitle it "Bikes of Burden."

Hanoi is a vibrant center of culture, both Vietnamese and foreign.  I have been very impressed with the young musicians that perform every evening in the hotel lobby.  A classical string quartet plays from 6 to 8 followed by either a Jazz quartet or a trio playing excellent Flamenco guitar. Tonight,  the city staged an impressive musical, open to the public, on the portico of the Hanoi Opera, next to the Hilton, which was complete with dancers in brilliant costumes and high-tech sound and lighting systems

Last month Vietnam celebrated 1000 years of nationhood and it was apparently quite the celebration in Hanoi. There are still many decorations, lights and political posters hanging in the streets. And of course, the national hero, Ho Chi Minh, was the center of much of the celebrating.  His picture hangs everywhere in Hanoi and he is revered for having driven the French out of Indochine and for reuniting the country by driving the American out of South Vietnam. It is not difficult to understand their pride when one recalls the images of the last Americans leaving by helicopter from the top of the Saigon embassy,  Many American military vehicles, aircraft and weapons, captured during the war, were on display during the celebration.  However with the war now in the distant past the Vietnamese genuinely like Americans, with the young emulating American youth in most everything, both positive and negative. It's as if the war never happened except during times of national celebration.

Addendum:
20Feb 2011: A tourist boat sank this week on Ha Long Bay.  When I read this it made me shiver!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat


Hello from Cambodia, my first stop in Indochine, the former French colonial empire in Southeast Asia that became Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the aftermath of Ho Chi Minh's defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Indochina). In 1992 the name Indochine entered the US mainstream with the release of the Oscar winning movie of the same name starring Catherine Deneuve (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xJQPuY3G7k).  I am enchanted by the culture and history of the area but am certainly glad (I'm sure Gertrud concurs) that my experiences haven't been quite as adventurous as Ms. Deneuve's tango scene. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97Esl2LedIg)!

I am very excited to have finally reached Cambodia after several attempts. Although my work has been in the capital of Phnom Penh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phnom_Penh), a long-time personal goal has been to visit the 12th century temple complex of Angkor Wat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat), which many consider to be one of the "seven wonders of the world."  I almost made it in 2008 but my flights were cancelled due to Thai political demonstrations that closed the Bangkok Airport.  In the fall of 2009, I was scheduled to fly to Cambodia from Australia but had to return home for an emergency medical procedure. So I am very elated to have finally visited Angkor Wat which I did this past weekend.

My biggest surprise was to discover that Angkor Wat is only the best known of a large number of temple complexes that Khmer rulers built around Siam Reap between the 9th and 12th Centuries -- BE SURE TO CLICK ON THE NEXT LINK - (http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/srtemples.htm).  Researchers have recently concluded that this area was likely the center of Asia's largest population at the time. I spent several hours in the heat on Saturday climbing up and down the ruins of Angkor Wat and other temples, stopping frequently to view and photograph the impressive architecture and bas relief sculptures which are in various states of disrepair and restoration. My favorite complex was actually Ta Prohm which is much smaller: what makes it especially appealing are the huge gum trees with incredible root structures that have taken over the temples, pushing right up through the monuments and walls.  The following link contains some of Ta Prohm's remarkable scenery  (http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-taprohm.htm).
                                                               
At Angkor Wat
At Ta Prohm
















I can't close without at least mentioning the genocide against the Cambodian people, carried out by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, and responsible for the deaths of nearly one-fourth of the country's population -- approximately 1.5 million people. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge).  Identifying all of those guilty and punishing them still dominates much of today's Cambodian news, not unlike the aftermaths of the Jewish Holocaust  or the Armenian Genocide. A further legacy of the Khmer Rouge are the millions of land mines spread throughout the country (http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/menu.html) which will continue to be a threat to Cambodians for many decades to come. 

This afternoon I'm off to Hanoi for a week's work after a short stop in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  I'll be home just in time for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Brunei, the Gateway to Borneo


This week I'm in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunei) which shares Borneo, the world's third largest island, with parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei is ruled by (are you ready for this?) Hassanal Bolkiah, his majesty, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, Grand Chamberlain YAM Pengiran Penggawa Laila Bentara Istiadat Diraja Dalam Istana Pengiran Hj Alauddin bin Pengiran Paduka Tuan Pengiran Hj Abu Bakar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hassanal_Bolkiah).  There have been 29 Sultans of Brunei going back to the year 1405.

The Sultan is one of the world's richest men and owns extensive holdings of oil and natural gas. He also has what is purported to be the world's largest palace and grounds (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istana_Nurul_Iman).   The Sultan is also famous for his vast automobile collection, having been said to have owned between 3,000 and 5,000 cars: according to The Guinness Book of Records the Sultan's personal collection includes the world's largest collection of Rolls-Royces -- 500 in all. During the 1990s, his family accounted for almost half of all Rolls-Royce purchases, bulk buying slightly modified vehicles for diplomats and adding unique cars to their own collection. He also owns the very last Rolls-Royce Phantom VI, a 1992 state landaulette.

Sixty-five percent of the Sultan's 400,000 subjects are Sunni Muslim.  The Sultan has shown some religious tolerance by allowing a few churches, temples and shrines (but as of yet no synagogues) to serve foreign workers, businessmen and diplomats. He holds a firm line on alcohol which cannot be purchased anywhere in Brunei. However, in an attempt to build up tourism and to be hospitable, he allows foreigners to bring in small amounts for their own use. The volume is checked closely on the way in and out to try to prevent it from ending up in local hands.

During the past decade, the Sultan has led a major effort to modernize the capital with new infrastructure, mosques, restaurants, and a shopping mall. It has excellent roads and its drivers are among the most disciplined in Asia.  However, the city is "dead as a door nail" after dark.  There is very little crime in Brunei with the following being a possible reason: as my flight approached the Bandar Airport, the purser announced that anyone caught with drugs in Brunei would be punished with death.

Seventy percent of working Bruneians are employed by the Government. According to my tour guide, public sector employees typically work 4-5 hours a day with a two-hour lunch break and several half-hour tea breaks. Government employees get interest-free loans to build homes. Brunei residents pay no taxes and receive free medical care and education all the way through university if they remain in the country to work.

One of the capital's principal tourist attractions is the suburb of Kampung Ayer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampong_Ayer) with 39,000 inhabitants living in houses on stilts along the estuaries of the Brunei River.  The government has provided electricity and plumbing to all of them which are connected through a series of wooden walkways.  There are also schools, mosques and clinics on stilts among the homes. Other points of interest in and around Bandar are the Royal Brunei Museum, the Royal Regalia Museum (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwBc3g4XEFI), several interesting mosques topped with golden domes, and the Palace which can be viewed from afar but can only be visited on special occasions.

The primary attraction outside the capital is Ulu Temburong National Park which is reached by boat and is a rain forest preserve for exotic flora and fauna (http://www.ecologyasia.com/html-loc/ulu-temburong.htm). 

Ok, so there you have it -- everything you always wanted to know about Brunei Darussalem. It's been an interesting place for a few days, but I'm ready to move on.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bangkok's Two Faces

Greetings from fascinating Bangkok, Thailand where I am working for a week.  It certainly has a very rich Buddhist culture with its stupas, temples and pagodas as well as it royal palaces (http://www.1stopbangkok.com/gallery).  For those who have reached a certain age, you will remember the 1950's vintage Oscar-winning film "The King and I" with Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr and Rita Moreno (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PlnzCl5x-8)  which was set in the days when Thailand was still Siam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thailand).  The film was probably the first introduction of Thailand/Siam to many Americans.  The public at large became much more aware of Thailand during the Vietnam War when American GIs came here for Rest and Recuperation leave.  In 1979, Gertrud and I spent a belated honeymoon in Thailand because her brother was living here and could offer us the use of his company's beach house. We also stopped through here several times in conjunction with our foreign service posting to Australia in the late 1980's when it was a shoppers paradise and one could try exotic Thai food, long before it became a world cuisine.  I can still remember our first taste of sweet coconut milk in food and we weren't sure we liked it. Now it is one of our favorites.




Unfortunately, Bangkok also has an ugly underbelly which has sullied its otherwise deserved reputation as a first class tourist destination.  It is probably the number one target city in the world for sex tourists, many from Europe, Australia and the US. It is not uncommon to see men in their 60s and 70s walking the streets with 18-year olds (perhaps even younger) on their arms. Unscrupulous businessmen and human traffickers entice many young girls from the impoverished countryside of Thailand and surrounding countries to Bangkok for jobs, which turn out to be quite different than what they expect. Apparently this sordid business is promoted by many in the Thai Government and Police and it has become a major source of foreign exchange for the country. 

Sorry to end on such a sad note.