Letters from the Front
These are Emails that I sent while on the road in Asia. There were generally internet cafe's in every town that we visited, though I didn't always have time to make a trip to one. I did manage to squeeze in an email every few days though!
July 23, 2001: Letter (from St. Louis) to my family, telling them that I'm hitting the road again.
July 28, 2001: Letter #1 from Hanoi, Vietnam
July 31, 2001: Letter #2 from Hanoi, Vietnam
August 2, 2001: Letter #3 from Hue, Vietnam
August 10, 2001: Letter #4 from Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
August 14, 2001: Letter #5 from Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
August 16, 2001: Letter #6 from Hainan Island, China
August 27, 2001: Letter #7 from St. Louis, Missouri
This Thursday, the 26th, I'll be flying from St. Louis to L.A. to Hong Kong to Hanoi, Vietnam. :)
The next two weeks, I'll spend traveling south through Vietnam down to Ho Chi Minh City (ex-Saigon).
From Ho Chi Minh City, I'll fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia. To see Angkor Wat.
I'll be there a couple days, and then fly down to Pnomh Penh.
On August 15th, I'll fly from there to Bangkok and then back to Hong Kong (which will take me flying over Hainan, but since I won't be on a U.S. spyplane, I should be able to avoid any <cough> unscheduled landings).
A couple days in Hong Kong, during which time I will hopefully get in some quick trips to Macau and China, and then I'll return to the U.S., arriving back in St. Louis on the evening of August 19th.
Q: "Why Vietnam & Cambodia?"
A: "Um, I haven't been there yet."
A: "Well, Connie really wanted to go to Cambodia, since she's always wanted to see Angkor Wat, and it just recently opened up for tourism (seeing as they were having a fairly messy war there for awhile). So, she called me up a few months back, and gave the pitch:
A: "Yup, once again, Connie has talked me into another interesting trip. I suppose it's fair, since last time *I* was the one that talked *her* into Antarctica." :)
Q: "Will you be safe?"
A: "Don't worry, I'll be *very* careful, and have read up quite a bit on the dangers of the country. I have no intention to go trekking off the beaten path. And I got all my shots. And I'll bring galoshes."
A: "Nah, I made up most of it." ;)
Or in other words, I'll be fine. And I'll send postcards!
Subj: Elonka in Hanoi
Just wanted to drop you a note and let you know that I made it safely to Hanoi. I just arrived just now, if that gives you any idea of how long I've been traveling!
I think I'm exactly on the opposite side of the world from St. Louis. It's 1 p.m. here on Saturday, and I think that in St. Louis it's 1 a.m. (also on Saturday). I think. I'm pretty sleep-deprived at the moment from the journey: St. Louis to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Hanoi.
The city is amazing. I probably should have brought a digital camera so I could upload pics with the Email, but let me try and describe it: I'm in an "internet cafe", which is a tiny room, about 10' by 10', with one wall open to the street. There are about six computers here, with a large fan blowing on them (and us) to keep everything cool(er). Outside, it's a mass of bicycles and motorcycles and the honking horns of the occasional car. No air conditioning, btw. It's about 90 degrees, and 90% humidity, and the sun beats down *hotter* here than in St. Louis. You feel it as soon as you step outside.
The narrow streets are lined with shops where the shopkeepers put *all* of their merchandise on the outside wall -- a huge colorful mosaic of everything from soap to food to clothing to toys and electronics. Most everyone seems to be outside, sitting on the curb or sidewalk, along with dogs and children.
We passed one park that seemed to be "haircut alley," as dozens of men sat in chairs while their barbers trimmed their locks. Huge piles of hair covered the sidewalk, which we needed to step on or around as we walked by.
Let's see, what else? The exchange rate here is 15,000 Vietnamese "dollars" to 1 US Dollar. So it's very strange to ask, "How much is a bottle of water?" and to be told, "8,000 dollars"!
Anyway, Connie and I are here and safe, and the locals (after selling us postcards) are extremely friendly and hospitable, and are now showing us around with great pride, translating for us and haggling good prices for us with everyone from cafe' owners to cab drivers.
If anyone wants to reply back, please use this address (firstname.lastname@example.org). I'm also collecting addresses of local Vietnamese folks who are "internet-literate," like with yahoo.co.uk addresses. It'll be cool to stay in touch with the people I meet here!
Signing off for now,
|Subj: Elonka in Hanoi - Part 2
Date: 07/31/2001 6:21:21 AM Central Daylight Time
I'm back in Hanoi for the day, so decided to come out here to the internet cafe' to give y'all a report on how things are going.
In a word. Good. :)
Vietnam is a beautiful country, with beautiful and very friendly people. As I've been traveling around, I've had the events of the 60s prominent in my mind, but to be honest, it's not such a big deal here. I've been to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, the military museum, and even the "Hanoi Hilton" where the POWs were kept. I've also talked to some of the locals about "the American war" from the 60s and 70s.
They're really *not* upset about it, as near as I can tell. If they're upset with any other country at all, it's probably France. For a nutshell of the history of this country: Vietnam was under a very harsh French Colonial rule for about 100 years. Then around World War II, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, they declared independence and fought the French in their own revolutionary war.
Then (according to the Vietnamese version), the Americans came along in the 60s and 70s, with an American "war of sabotage and aggression." But the Vietnamese were already so battle-hardened from their war of independence, it was almost as an afterthought or "mop up" that they kicked the Americans out as well.
I see this same refrain over and over throughout the museums. Like, in the Ha Lao Prison (Hanoi Hilton), there's room after room that talks about how thousands of Vietnamese prisoners were tortured by the French in that prison. There are detailed descriptions of the type of torture, signs showing which Vietnamese political prisoner was kept in which cell and for how long, and handwritten letters by some of the prisoners, documenting what happened. There are also displays and dioramas showing how some of the Vietnamese prisoners were able to escape by crawling through sewer lines. And huge statues and other memorials documenting the bravery of the imprisoned Vietnamese freedom fighters, who helped gain Vietnam's independence from the French.
But in terms of information about the Americans, there's one small room, that talks about the American pilots who were there, and shows some photos of a few of them in the prison, getting letters from family, attending mass, playing volleyball, etc. (There's even a picture of McCain). The vast majority of the museum though, is all about how the French used the prison to torture the Vietnamese.
It's an interesting mix of patriotism, righteous indignation, and propaganda. But I have to admit that it's fascinating to hear "the other side's version" of the war that I grew up hearing so much about.
Overall, I'd say that the Vietnamese people today are very eager to meet foreigners. The most common tourists to visit are Chinese (thousands stream down by road from China, to the tropical resorts along the Vietnamese beaches). But English is the most common second language, and US Dollars are the effective "second currency." In shops, prices are as likely to be listed in US amounts as Vietnamese. The main way to tell the difference is by all the extra zeroes after the Vietnamese prices (like a bottle of water is 5,000 D'ong). So as Vietnam has been making the switch to a free market economy, they've been eager to embrace the value of the US dollar. :)
Let's see, what else have I been doing over the last few days? We visited Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where he lies in state, similar to how Lenin's tomb was in Moscow. In fact, there's a huge statue of Lenin just a short trip away. Also, similar to Lenin's tomb, Ho Chi Minh's coffin and old home is a kind of shrine today. Thousands of people line up each day to file solemnly past his glass coffin, where there's an honor guard of four young soldiers, one at each corner. We had to line up the same as everybody else, and I was really struck by how important the place was to the Vietnamese people, and how much respect they have for Ho Chi Minh, as their "founding father" who brought them independence. Sort of like a Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.
And again, the people around me in that place bore no ill-will to foreigners. I was just another person in the line (though perhaps a bit taller than most <grin>).
We've also driven out to the coast, to see the spectacularly beautiful Ha Long Bay, which reminds me of the dazzling coastline of Rio de Janeiro, or the towering rocks of Lake Powell (except green of course!). It's probably the most beautiful view in all of southeast Asia. We also went swimming there (beautiful clear warm water), and it struck me that I was swimming in the Gulf of Tonkin, in the South China Sea! It's so strange to get these different peaceful associations with these names that have always implied war and violence to me.
Other things I did recently -- I ran across a home for deaf children, so spent an interesting afternoon signing back and forth, and learning the different signs in Vietnamese vs. English. I also went to see a "water puppetry" show, which was developed many years ago by rice farmers, and has some beautiful puppets dancing around on top of the water -- sort of a Vietnamese "O". :)
And last night, I went to see one of the modern plays - a Vietnamese version of "Harry Potter"! The books are a huge hit with the kids here, and the play was an amazing entertainment - I couldn't understand what was being said, but could follow along by the antics. It was the full Harry Potter story from book 1, with owls dropping messages and the children visiting the class of each of the spellcasters of Hogwart's. Plus there were lots of extra things thrown in -- dancers and gymnasts and songs and costumes and props and dragon monsters in the forest and firebreathing and sword swallowing and cartwheeling roller-skaters and even some tap-dancing! It was a lot of fun!
Anyway, this is my last day in Hanoi. Tonight we're taking an overnight sleeper train down the coast to Hoi An. I don't know if they have internet cafe's in the smaller cities, so it might be awhile before I can check Email again. But I'll keep you posted!
|Subj: Elonka in Vietnam (letter #3)
Date: 08/02/2001 2:14:15 AM Central Daylight Time
I'm in the old imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue' (pronounced Hway, one syllable). It's a beautiful city with a river winding through it, and about five universities. It's also hotter than Hanoi, with the temperature around 100 degrees, combined with the extreme humidity, and the sun very high in the sky (we're about 16 degrees from the equator). The heat is oppressive -- camera lenses steam up, and all of us are sweating so much that we soak through our clothes within a few minutes of stepping outside. So we're drinking lots of bottled water, and wearing hats and sunscreen. A few of the people in my group have even bought the straw conical hats that the locals wear. I'm tempted to get one myself, except I don't want the hassle of carrying it through train stations and airports and such.
Yesterday we took a boat up the Perfume River, which got its name from the thousands of flower blossoms that cover it in certain seasons. We went to a nearby Buddhist monastery, Thien Mu, one of the oldest in Vietnam. We also were shown a powder blue car behind it, which is the car that was used to drive one of its revered monks down to Saigon, where he sat down in the middle of an intersection, meditated, and then his fellow monks doused him in petrol and set him ablaze. He remained impassive as he was burned alive on the street, as a symbol of protest against the persecutions of the government of south Vietnam at the time.
Today we went walking through the Imperial City, and saw the throne room and the buildings where the mandarins would live, and a museum with many of the old imperial relics. A big restoration effort is underway to get the buildings to look the way that they did in their old splendor, and it's a very impressive visit.
I should also mention that Hue' is just south of the DMZ, so there are a few more markers here of the American War. Though sometimes it's hard to tell if we're seeing something that's real, or something that's been manufactured for the tourists. For example, merchants ply the tourist restaurants, selling war souvenirs, such as one man was working his way from table to table, offering what looked like a Zippo lighter engraved with the insignia of the 1st Division. He wanted $8 for it (I declined). There are also a couple restaurants here with names like "Apocalypse Now Restaurant" and "DMZ Cafe'". The tourist hawks are also quite adept at using guilt trips to try and get the tourists' attention: "Hello, I have a birth defect from Agent Orange, will you buy something from me?" "Hello, my father died in the war while helping the Americans. You should help me now and ride in my cyclo (taxi)." It's hard to tell what's real, and what's being made up as business tactics.
I've also learned that when asking prices, if they think I'm "just off the plane" new to the country, they'll routinely quintuple the price. Now that I've been here a few days though, I'm learning what the real prices are and so I'm more comfortable haggling with them. :)
Oh, and I ran into another deaf community here, and they were very nice. Some of their signs are the same as the community near Hanoi, and some are different. The sign for tourist is the same though, as they pinch the tips of their noses. And the sign for Vietnamese is the same, as they touch the tip of their nose and then point to the ground. I take it to mean, "We are the small-nosed people who live here, and you tourists are the big noses!" <grin>
Tomorrow we are continuing on to Hoi An, where we may get a chance to go swimming at China Beach. It'll be nice to cool off for awhile!
Subj: Elonka in Vietnam (part 4)
FYI, I've seen internet cafe's scattered all over Vietnam, ranging in price from 100-2000 "D'ong" per minute (the exchange rate is 14000 VND to $1). According to a local newspaper, there are currently about 100,000 internet subscribers in this country of 70 million people.
Some of the internet connections out in the boonies, though, are pretty ragged. Often I'd spend 10 minutes or more just waiting to get connected.
Oh, and for those that are interested, Yahoo seems to be *the* Email/IM service of choice here. It's been common in every internet cafe' that I've peeked into, and I even see tourists using it (like right now there's an Italian gentleman next to me who's accessing the Italian version of Yahoo). The second most favorite Email service seems to be Hotmail. And then AOL is down around #3 or #4.
Anyway, I seem to be connected at the moment (at 300 VND/minute), so wanted to reassure everyone that I'm fine, still intact, with no serious health problems. The trip has been fascinating so far, and the food has been incredible, which is probably from the French influence. Even the tiny towns all have a bounteous supply of fresh baguettes each morning, which you can buy at the roadside from locals in their rice paddy conical straw hats. :)
I've been taking hundreds of pictures, and will scan them when I get back. For now, I'm safe in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM City, but everyone still calls it Saigon). And tomorrow morning I leave for Cambodia!
Subj: Elonka in Asia (letter #5)
I'm in another tiny little internet cafe, with the computer sitting on a woven straw mat. The doors are open to the honking and noise of the busy street outside, and I also have a view of the river. The room isn't air-conditioned, but there is a spinning fan on the ceiling overhead. The condition of the mouse is pretty appalling though. Think of the dirtiest mouse you've ever seen, and multiply it by 5 or so. The keyboard is a bit sticky but otherwise okay.
Prices here for access are 100 Riel/minute, with the exchange rate being 3800 Riel to $1. *Everyone* uses US dollars here though. Not just in the tourist sectors, but in the entire country. Like I went into a local store the other day (sort of their version of a Walgreen's), to look at clothing and school supplies and cooking utensils and such. In the cash registers, all the bins are full of different denominations of dollars. So the locals pay in dollars, and get change in dollars. For the "cents"change, they get the little stuff in Riels. Kind of confusing at first to pay with one currency and get change in two, but it's fascinating.
This is my last full day in Cambodia. Tomorrow we fly to Bangkok and then on to Hong Kong. Hopefully internet access will be a little easier there! I'm actually skipping lunch to send this... The rest of the group is at a restaurant down the street, but when I saw an "INTERNET" sign so close, I couldn't resist running down here to send an Email.
The trip has been going well. We're all safe and healthy, with no major problems. Every so often we see the remnants of land mine problems, such as amputees or old land mine warning signs, but we have never felt personally in danger ourselves. We're a bit more careful here in Phnom Penh though, sticking together in groups at night rather than wandering off alone.
BTW, up in northern Cambodia, near Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is spectacular. I count it as one of the major sites to visit in the world, and highly recommend a visit. The Cambodians know it's going to be a huge tourist draw, and there are massive hotel-building projects going on everywhere, along with huge road-improvements along nearly every highway. We still had to bump along on potholed dirt roads every so often, but in a few years this is all going to be paved highways to the major sites. Also, right now we were able to clamber over nearly all parts of the ruins, but I can see that as tourist traffic increases, they'll probably close certain parts off, so, like Stonehenge, you'll only be able to see them from a distance. I'm glad that we came when we did!
Okay, gotta run... Just wanted to drop you a line and let you know that everything's going fine.
Subj: Elonka in Asia (part 6)
Hello from Hainan Island!
And no, don't worry, this one was a scheduled landing! Not like that other U.S. plane that was here a couple months back. ;)
Connie and I got to Hong Kong yesterday evening, and went walking around the city this morning (Thursday). We'll be flying back to the U.S. on Sunday, but I checked with a travel agent on the possibility of day trips, and, after some finagling, scheduled a flight, via DragonAir, to Hainan in the afternoon! I'm spending Thursday night here, and doing some sightseeing tomorrow morning. Then in the afternoon I'll fly to Canton (aka Guangdong) in mainland China, meet Connie at the art museum there, and then we'll take the train back to Hong Kong that afternoon (Friday). If we get back in time, we're going to try and take in a movie. Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour 2" just opened in Hong Kong today, and we think it would be really cool to see a Jackie Chan movie in Hong Kong! Plus it was a lot of fun to say to Connie today in Hong Kong, "Bye, see you in Canton!" :)
Assuming all goes well with that itinerary, I'll spend Saturday taking a day trip to Macau, the Portuguese colony right near Hong Kong. And then on Sunday we'll head back to Los Angeles, where, after customs and passport check, I'll hop on another plane to St. Louis, and arrive on Sunday evening. If I don't find time (and/or an internet connection) to send Email from Hong Kong, then I'll drop everyone a line from St. Louis to let you know that I'm back safe.
So far Hainan Island has been very nice. Everyone here has been very friendly, and they're eager to practice their English. I'm staying in the main city, Haikou (pronounced Hye-Koh') on the north of the island. Tomorrow morning I'm renting a car with a driver, so I can see a bit of the countryside. As incentive, I'm trying to find a town that I saw from the plane as we approached the airport. There was a thunderstorm nearby, which resulted in a beautiful rainbow that I could see from my seat on the right side of the aircraft. It seemed to be pointing right down at a small village near a river, so tomorrow morning, I'm going to try and find that village. I've been chatting with a girl here at the business center in the hotel about my "rainbow quest", and she's completely understanding. For the Chinese, lucky symbols are very important, so it seems completely natural that if I saw a symbol like that, that I should do my best to follow it. :)
The internet connection here is great. 19 Yuan for 30 minutes though, which is pretty expensive (It's 8 Yuan to 1 USD). I'm starting to lose track of all of the different types of money I've been using recently. Dollars, Vietnamese D'ong, Cambodian Riel, Thai Baht (from my airport stay in Bangkok), Hong Kong Dollars, and now Chinese Yuan. If any of you want souvenirs of Asian money, let me know! The Cambodian bills are especially pretty since they have pictures of Angkor Wat on them.
One problem with using the computer here though, is that most of the menus are in Chinese! I can usually figure out what a particular window is saying though, because some of the words will be in English, and numbers are usually understandable. Plus of course I just know, geographically on the screen layout, where certain buttons are, and so I click on them from memory. Like clicking on the button at the lower left of the screen is still the Start button, and though its menu is mostly Chinese, I can pick out bits of stuff that's readable like "****2000 for Win" or "****Explorer" or "****Office****", so I can usually puzzle out what the rest of the menu item said.
Same with popups. Like I can type in a web address normally, and then a completely unintelligible warning screen pops up, but I can make a pretty good guess that it's saying something like, "You are about to leave a secure internet connection," and then I click on the highlighted button which I assume means, "Okay."
I was even able to get an AIM connection on this computer. Though I think it was too early in the morning for most of you. I did say hi to a couple folks though. :)
Okay, that's it for this installment . . . BTW, if you know of anyone else that would enjoy these, feel free to forward them along. Plus I'll also be posting these (and my pictures!) on a website after I get back, just like I did for the Antarctica trip.
Signing off for now,
Subj: Elonka back from Asia!
Anyway, yes, I made it back safe, and I'm actually still pretty healthy, which is a surprise since I usually come down with a nasty cold every time I return to pollen-filled St. Louis. But this return seems to have gone okay, maybe because of all the meds and shots I had to take to go to Asia. Hmm, maybe I should take these anti-malarial tablets more often! ;)
It was kind of weird the first couple days back in the U.S. The first thing I noticed is that no matter where I went, I could hear *and* understand the people around me, since everyone was speaking English! In Asia, there'd be a constant babble of voices, but since I couldn't understand much of it, I could just kind of tune it out as background noise. Here in the States, I can understand everything, including the kids whining at their moms, and the grumpy person at the counter who's arguing with a salesclerk. It was a little depressing at first, being out of my "language bubble of isolation," but then again, there were probably people who were just as whiny and grumpy in Asia, except I didn't understand what they were saying! ;)
There's also the inevitable culture shock about prices. After being in countries where you could get a gourmet meal -- including several attendants to wait on you hand and foot -- for the whopping price of $3, it's kind of horrifying to walk down an aisle in a grocery store here and see how high all the prices are. Like the price of a box of cereal here is more than the average daily salary in Vietnam!
In terms of foods that I missed from the U.S., I found the thing that I *most* missed was popcorn! So I've had a few batches of that since I got back. I also really missed cheese, such as Monterey Jack and Cheddar. In Vietnam you *can* occasionally get the processed Laughing Cow (La Vache Qui Rit) cheese, so I got the occasional fix, but it's just not the same as a good batch of Wisconsin Cheddar. :)
In terms of what I miss from Vietnam, I find I really miss the great bread that they had over there, that was baked fresh every day. I also really enjoyed the way they'd usually offer you a scented damp handtowel whenever you arrived somewhere. The towels were great to have handed to you at a hotel after a long hot day of travel, or when sitting down at a table in a restaurant, it was nice to have a clean damp towel handed to you so you could clean your hands before eating.
Stuff I *don't* miss about Vietnam, is the constant swarm of hawkers around, trying to sell me postcards and souvenirs that I didn't want. I also much prefer the bathrooms here in the U.S. :) In China, the bathrooms could often be quite clean, but they'd never *ever* have paper (ever), so you always had to carry around your own supply. It's nice to be back in the U.S. where you can be assured of small but important things like that. :) I'm also glad to be back online, not just for checking Email, but for easy access to the web. Like I've been web-surfing quite a bit, reading up on the places I visited, and getting more tidbits about the mythology and history of the artwork that I was particularly interested in. So it's really nice to have reliable net access 24 hours/day, that doesn't carry a per minute surcharge. And I *love* search engines!
In other news, I've gotten my pictures developed (over 20 rolls!) and
some of them came out *great*. I'll be making a website with them over
the next few weeks, and have one small batch of pics uploaded so far.
I'll be tweaking them later so that they're easier to view in terms of
size and stuff, each with its own caption and description, but if you
want to see the "raw" pictures, you can take a look at this
first batch at my new domain:
For updates, you can check back at elonka.com as I work on the site, or, when I get it more fleshed out, I'll send another Email update so everyone can take a look!
Signing off for now,
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