Some Images from Seima

I’ve been horrible about posting here, but better now than never. Here are some images from a recent trip to Elephant Valley in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, and the WCS field office located on the edge of Seima Protected Forest and just outside Keo Seima (the local town). This trip, the second of two, I spent with my two interns (and friends) Phalkun Chan and Sereyrath (Rath) Aing. Highlights included:

  • Going on a nature walk and getting to see Gibbons and Doucs but avoiding leeches!
  • Visiting the Elephant Valley elephant sanctuary and carrying luxury wood leftovers from an illegal logging site to be used as benches.
  • Seeing all manner of beetles and bugs, again.
  • Assisting the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) with their document cleanup.
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Bong Thea Kon (Baby Duck Egg)

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A seized modified SUV used in the illegal logging practices in the area.

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A WCS employee with malaria, waiting for his symptoms to subside.

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The Keo Seima market.

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Phalkun and Rath, my two interns and co-adventurers!

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Rath poses in front of the protected elephants, who are getting washed in the mid-morning at Elephant Valley.

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Me in my grittiness, and the Cambodians, and the elephants!

Some seized motor bikes (a photo I artfully edited).

Some seized motor bikes (a photo I artfully edited).

Phalkun posing in the CRDT office.

Phalkun posing in the CRDT office.

Rath posing in the CRDT office.

Rath posing in the CRDT office.

Me posing in front of a poster at the CRDT office.

Me posing in front of a poster at the CRDT office.

A rather candid shot outside the CRDT office.

A rather candid shot outside the CRDT office.

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons.

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons.

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons again.

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons again.

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons (Phalkun).

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons (Phalkun).

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons (Rath).

Stopping at the spiritual tree after seeing some gibbons (Rath).

A nice forest shot . . . not sure what I'm doing with my hands here.

A nice forest shot . . . not sure what I’m doing with my hands here.

Another shot of the sea of seized motos.

Another shot of the sea of seized motos.

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The Sprawling World of Information Management at WCS (Phnom Penh and Seima, Cambodia)

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I came to Cambodia for a summer to do work. Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes people don’t realize it. Sometimes people say: you’re on holiday, why aren’t you acting like it? To which I reply with exhaustion and/or fatigue and/or confusion, for I have been working, and I continue to work, and I continue to explore what I’ve come here for.

The job: working for the Wildlife Conservation Society. The position: working as the Information Management Specialist. Similar to my work for Open Development Cambodia, except this time with a touch more confidence, a bit more experience, and two lovely sidekicks to keep me even-keeled during my journey.

The opening of this position was unique and intense: working under significant leadership/supervision within the WCS, it was determined that I help to hire two Cambodian interns. How? Find out where to advertise, get the job posting circulating, and then interview them. I had only a little bit of interview experience under my belt, from the last time I was in Cambodia. But so be it: the show had to go on! With the help of the Phnom Penh office’s lovely admin, and some support for the interviews from two other staff, we hired two young women who started working abruptly (and continue to this day). All told, there were six interviews, four of which I conducted alone.

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The work has been mostly analysis at this point. The Phnom Penh office, where I’m based, has an internal library of a couple thousand books (we actually haven’t counted them straight through, as we are still weeding the collection). There are an uncountable body of digital documents on hard drives and servers as well. The Phnom Penh office is setup with a Synology server, and the organization just implemented Google Drive, which has been fairly troublesome to work with, as the bandwidth on the local WiFi system cannot handle the eight or so people using Google Drive simultaneously, and not many people even know how to use it, and individuals are using it on both Mac and PC.

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We’ve gotten the main library under control. A lot of the documents were damaged (from age and general decay, or from termites) and have to be scanned so we can throw them out. Weeding is challenging. Many of the documents are absolutely not in any capacity available online because they are very old, and when we can only find the catalog record or a broken hyperlink, it’s more than frustrating. We have been keeping records of what we get rid of, if we cannot find digital replacements. The potential to seek out these documents from other NGOs exists, though I’m not sure we will actually get to do that investigative work.

The interns have been mostly helping with organization and scanning. They are not by any means librarians or trained in information management, but they seem to enjoy that. I try and compensate them (above their monetary pay) with cupcakes and jokes. It usually works to break the monotony. Additionally they’ve been on data retrieval missions and in the near future will be helping other team members with photography classification, and metadata enhancement for some indexes that were created by staff for previous projects.

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One of the joys of working for an NGO that operates mostly out of the field is being able to go out in the field for different events and functions, similar to a couple of my experiences working for ODC. In the picture above, I am visiting the release event of the Royal Turtle in Sre Ambel. Seeing the work that the information within this organization does so well to capture, seeing it in real time, provides a lot of significance to a job that could be mostly PDFs and wiping away dust.

The NGO is in the field and I already got to visit the one non-Phnom Penh office I will be helping out in: Seima. Seima, located in Mondulkiri Province, is a protected forest that is at risk from deforestation/land development, as well as illegal logging of rare trees. Seima has a plethora of diverse wildlife, including gibbons and doucs (which I saw during my visit). It also apparently has more types of hummingbirds in one space than any other forest in the world (21 was the count).

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When I was a graduate student a couple of years ago, I actually fantasized about going out into the jungle in search of rare documents. I’m not exactly doing that, but I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to consider this short-term gig one of “jungle librarianship” proportions. The office in Seima literally sits right on the edge of a dense forest. Whether or not it’s officially a jungle or not is aside the point, but it’s humid, and the creatures that fill the forest are wild and unlike any I’ve ever seen (especially the insects).

Fortunately my brief trip this one time for two days was not the only trip I will take there, and I will be able to go back with my interns-cum-translators, to work there again. Doing what, you might ask? Transforming the Research Center, which needs some deep cleaning, organizing, and general improvements, and capacity-building with the Cambodian staff who are responsible for heaps of information.

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So far, my experience working with the WCS has been one of independence and intensity. I have been responsible for a lot, and the expectations are high. It’s easy to “go up” in organization here because the offices have been disorganized for so long. Just being around and shuffling papers has been a symbolic act of change and optimization that (I think) most people at the organization, Cambodian and Barang, both understand I’m around to provide support and assistance where needed, though nobody really know what the image of that is going to be at the very end, and that’s probably a good thing, because it means we are all open minded and working together to achieve what will be a better future for the internal information landscape.

I realize I haven’t provided a lot of details about this position: types of documents, file formats, technologies, etc., and content related specifics. It’s been hard to write about this because there is so much I can say. I think I will contribute more details in the future, if things appear like they are getting settled down around here. Which they probably won’t, because Rath and Phalkun (the interns) keep me on my toes, and Simon and Alex and Sarah and Matt and Kez (the WCS staff) keep me on my toes, and Heng and Claire (the other interns) keep me on my toes, and Veng and Solita and Pheap (the IT and Admin team) keep me on my toes, and all the other people I’ve worked with throughout the organization . . . everyone has been enormously fun to work with, and yet the entire process has been one of overload. Jeff, who is helping with REDD and GIS and the IT infrastructure here (he’s been here since last year) has been an amazing support, but I think he can see me slowly getting more and more burnt out. Maybe it will happen. It probably will. But this is Cambodia. Burnout happens, and we move on, go forth, drink coconut smoothies, and enjoy the rush.

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A Return to Koh Dach (Silk Island), Cambodia

Koh Dach hasn’t appeared to to change in any significant ways since I was there last year. But it remains a strange, well-traveled, well-visited spot just outside of the city where the breeze is strong and the fruit is cheap, and the roads are endlessly waiting. There’s even a significant lack of restaurants on both the main island, and Koh Chbhal, or “Head Island” (which sticks out of Silk Island like some tumorous growth). JESUS SAVES still sits in a huge banner at the top of the ramp leading onto the island. There is still a lot of chaos and dust and family dogs roaming around. Everything is at one with the silkiness of the island.

It’s still easier than ever to get over to the island. Just drive about 20 minutes outside of the city, wait for the regularly-occurring ferry to arrive, and wait for everyone to load up. The ride across the Mekong is only fifteen minutes or so, which is just enough time to get pictures and not feel uncomfortable in waiting.

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One of the two ferries is multi-level.

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All manner of vehicles board the boat to go to the other side.

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Our fearless captain, who did not care one bit for my picture-taking.

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It had been a while since Yenda, my friend who graciously drove me and the others (Pinkie, Nicole, and Ema) from the center of the city to the island, had visited. For him, Silk Island is a source of nostalgia. From the random plants (vegetable, fruit-bearing, and otherwise), to the style of houses, Silk Island was a magnificently filled with stories and a sense of living memory. We joined along, ate watermelon, took photos, and coasted through the breeze and the dust.

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View of the Mekong

Unfortunately it was very hot and we had some form (presumably) of fatigue. Sun stroke, perhaps? It was brutalizing and returning to the aircon of the car was a welcome activity. We cruised the island with no intentions other than general exploration. We saw families spending their Sunday seated together, traditional poses and huge sets of eyes upon us on the street as we cruised by, seeing pot holes, examining vegetation.

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Even the dog looked hotter than us.

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A little boy on his big bicycle.

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Silk Island had its moments of decay.

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The Cambodian equivalent of bubble wrap.

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Nicole eats some watermelon. 1,000 riel for a whole melon.

No trip to Koh Dach is complete without a visit to the tourist beach at the northern point. Having been there before, I was well expecting the swaths of trash and the local tourists who spent their time getting away from the city–or other parts of the island. The heat kept us from any relaxation, however.

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A man fishing with a net near a rent-able covered platform.

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A woman talks on her phone next to an inner tube, while the fairly disgusting trash landscape sits in the distance.

Regardless of the landscape, there was a lot of beauty to see here. Mostly in the youths who flocked around and played in the sun, the river sparkling nearby.

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We were (are) a troupe of adventurers but seeking what?

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Yenda fought me, in the shadows.

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Despite its close proximity to the city, Silk Island often felt like being back on the coast, where the carefree, stressless attitude sank into the corners.

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Following our visit to the beach, we slowly headed back to the ferry and went on with our day, visiting the Sokha Hotel (just completed, and gloriously empty), and other nearby destinations, including some good seafood. It was an enjoyable adventure. I do have some other pictures but they are not uploading correctly. I will try and upload them through another network soon. And videos: be prepared for some glorious, glorious videos of streetscapes and nightlife.

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

A Tale of Dust and Sidesteps (Phnom Penh)

A street scene near the Royal Palace

A street scene near the Royal Palace

I have been here now nearly one week. Phnom Penh’s streets are still dusty, still cracked, and still beautiful. The motos buzz by with their rattling, the tuk tuks not far behind. The heat is everywhere, is upon everything.

What will it take to get to the ATM?

What will it take to get to the ATM?

I live in a building that is under renovation. The manager of the building, a man named Roshan, lives across the hall from me, with his friend, another man, both from northern India. They are friendly. There is no one else in the building, which stands in the center of the Duan Penh neighborhood. The building is four stories high and will have 8 apartments once it is completed. I am the first one. I am on the ground floor, but will be moving to the top floor soon, where there will be breeze. There is a Cambodian restaurant called Meng Meng next to my building. Early in the morning the charcoal seeps through the window where I sleep and makes me ill, gives me a headache. It is the same type of headache as when you wake up from being next to a campfire the night before. It will be good to move to the top floor. Even though it will be higher and harder to get to at the end of a long day, it will be worth it, to be away from the charcoal. I will continue to pay $200 per month, and it will include WiFi and the occassional cleaning from Roshan’s friend, who is apparently the de facto house cleaner.

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

I write this sitting in My Friends Cafe eating a raisin pastry while a wedding blasts music from across the street. The pastry is underdone despite the place being owned and run by a French man and his Cambodian wife. I will not complain. It is still tasty, even in its doughy state. I drink an Americano with ice and milk, probably overpriced, but I don’t care, I will indulge. Cambodia, for the visitor, tourist or worker, is still cheaper, even if the prices are getting more and more inflated with every day. Having spent time in Vietnam, now, it’s so easy to see how ridiculously expensive things in Cambodia have become. Whereas most snacks in southern Vietnam cost between 50 cents and a dollar, here you can expect to always pay more than a dollar–even when the food is worse. I was at a Vietnamese restaurant getting a Vietnamese coffee for a dollar fifty the other day, and looked at the food menu: $7.5 for certain Vietnamese dishes. Seriously? How does the market get this way? Is this what the “middle class” of sellouts and the corrupted buy? Or is it marketed toward tourists? How long will an empty restaurant like that, with so many staff, stay open? Who will be happy? The Vietnamese coffee was good, by the way.

More uncanny clouds (from Wat Botum Park)

More uncanny clouds (from Wat Botum Park)

I start work in 45 minutes. I am working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). I am based in their Phnom Penh office. I am going to be working at one of their sites, Keo Seima, a protected forest, soon. My first visit will be in a week and a half–arguably one of the greatest adventures I will have encountered as a solo traveler in Cambodia.

A new coffee seller (this wasn't here during my first time in Cambodia)

A new coffee seller (this wasn’t here during my first time in Cambodia)

I stir in liquid sugar. I look at the tile floors. I see the breeze upon the ferns outside.

The work itself is quite difficult, quite challenging. It is not over my head but nearly so, a situation where one has to stand on their toes to keep from drowning. I have seen many different jobs with many different responsibilities in my life. This 8-week information management contract might be the most independent I have been in a role, despite there being a significant support network within the organization. Cambodian rules still apply: I have to get on everyone’s side. I am still the outsider.

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Natasha will be coming at the end of the month, if she can raise money. It is so hard to be anything for anyone. From personal life to work life to romantic life. I struggle. I look at the sky and wish for it to rain, to cause me some constraint, to relinquish its long arms of endless heat. I know everything will work. I know everything will be significant. I know everything will be. I sit and wonder how I can share this place. I have shared it before. With loves, with friends, with strangers. I have taken people and shown them. My body, hot, knows it can happen again, but where is the energy I had two years ago? Where is the spark? Where is my engine, my internal machine, to keep pushing me forward?

With my friend and old coworker Pinkie, at Motor Cafe

With my friend and old coworker Pinkie, at Motor Cafe

I have done an okay job meeting friends from my previous time here. I have met with James whose photography once inspired me. I have met with Pinkie and KC, who were some of my closest friends. I have met with Antoine for a dip at the Teahouse pool next to my apartment. I have met with Tana, for an exchange of gifts. I have met with Sokunthea, my previous collaborator. I have met with Scott and Warren, my current collaborators. There are many friends left to see, but I have so many weeks left to see everyone.

As I continue to write here, I will try and focus on new aspects of life in Phnom Penh that I hadn’t thought of before. I certainly have stared to think in many new ways about what it’s like to live here, especially short term, especially with a pre-established relationship to the city, and my romantic relationship in Seattle. Before I arrived, I had many questions about how I would spend my time here. I divided time between: work, friends, travel, photography, reading, and watching movies. I brought too many books. I brought too many movies. I have to take a course while I am here, as well. Life is packed, taxing, challenging. Busy. Some people don’t understand this. But I don’t need them to. I will live my life with the gains and the losses. There will be beauty, creation, suffering, destruction. Let us think of accountability.

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Dalat, as Seen via Human Beings

Dalat Roadside

(Including this, which was one of my favorite shots in the city, for some reason)

I spent a couple of nights up in Dalat (returning a couple days ago to Saigon, where I am now) and really enjoyed it. The two nights might not have been enough for the average traveler, as there are countless activities and restaurants and cafes (oh, the cafes! My god!) to explore, but for me it was just enough. I stayed at ZEN Cafe, located about 1.5km from the city center, a small French villa built 70 years ago featuring hardwood floors and exquisite gardens. The German and Vietnamese-owned inn/hotel/thing kept me satisfied and rested throughout my entire stay. I loved it. The peace and quiet. The laid-back pace of life. The entire thing was a perfect experience for traveling alone.

So what did I do when in Dalat? I did a lot, actually. I explored the town. I followed up on recommendations and TA-highly-rated establishments. I walked around. A lot. My feet actually hurt for the first time since I can remember from general walking! That’s not a bad problem, by the way. I also took one of those Easy Rider tours (who knows how official this one was; I was approached at the bus station and Peter (Binh) gave me a ride to the guest house and then took me out for coffee and the next day we had a great customized tour together). I think the impetus to choose one of these tours to fill half a day in Dalat was important: I needed to get into the countryside, get on the road, and I wanted to take pictures of it all.

Unfortunately I don’t have enough free time to edit the lighting on these pictures, and as the days I was in Dalat (except for the last couple of hours there) were all overcast, the pictures might not look “beautiful,” but I’ve tried to include some below that focus on the risks I took in taking pictures of people. I find it hard to take pictures of people in Southeast Asia. It’s a stereotypical approach, one that many professional and art photographers take when they visit “developing countries” in general: capture the spirit of the place via portraits. But I’ve always been incredibly nervous of taking pictures of people. It’s not that I’ve ever been yelled at or frowned at for taking pictures of faces and bodies, but it feels slightly exploitative. I suppose it will get easier as I keep doing it, and I will always feel like I am exploiting just a bit, but perhaps the cost is worth it? More on that later, hopefully. Now, for the pictures!

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Early morning. A girl stands and waits for this store to open.

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Workers construct a new road.

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A man carries goods to where? A market? A store?

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Hand-carving the patterns of the sidewalk.

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Path construction and repairs on the Lake of Sighs.

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Sighing, perhaps? At the Lake of Sighs.

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A lone fisherman. I did not see anyone fishing catch anything.

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A man’s daughter practices her moto posing skills.

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A tourist walks, head down, through the Dalat market.

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More deliveries along the main road through Dalat.

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The pensive stare back.

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This man cooked a mean pork BBQ for breakfast.

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While eating my pork BBQ for breakfast, the pork for tomorrow’s breakfast was dropped off.

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Taking a break to make a call.

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Working at a flower garden.

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Chiseling the granite.

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More plantation work.

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A roadside Vietnamese wedding.

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Immediately after I took this, the girl smiled and waved at me.

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At the silkworm plantation.

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It actually wasn’t that hot inside this silk factory.

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The man behind me bringing in a load of silkworm cocoons.

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Moto mirror selfie.

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Produce delivery.

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This machine takes the skin off coffee beans.

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Coffee! For everyone!

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The best Spongebob clothing I’ve ever seen.

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Self portrait in Crazy House

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A balloon vendor

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Blistered and Cut-Up Feet and the New Hydration (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

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Ho Chi Minh City. The name has a pulse and brings to mind the an urban landscape with its own unique rhythm. The last time I was here in 2013, I didn’t know what to think, was fairly overwhelmed, and though not disappointed, I did find myself wanting more. Now I have returned, the first major international city to reunite with, and I am alone.

I spent the day doing things (and purposely not doing other things) to give me a taste of Saigon I had not encountered before. For one, I followed Jason Conger’s traveling lead by pacing myself. I have provide my trip with significant space to chill out, rest, relax, and not spend the time seeking out activities. So far, so good. I have managed to cover a lot of ground without being stressed about “seeing everything.” Again, it helps that I have been here once before.

My day trip had one destination: be at the British consulate by noon to meet Dede for lunch. Dede is my good friend from the old days in Cambodia. We met randomly nearly three times before we realized we worked near each other. Then we started hanging out. She’s from Ho Chi Minh City but has extensive travel experience. She’s also the only person in HCMC that I have stayed in touch with, and I had to catch up over some food.

I started the day walking away from my tiny guest house in the backpacker area (Bui Vien) and grabbed a coffee and a mini banh mi from Highlands Coffee. With the help of my GPS on my phone (even without a data plan, GPS works well here), I was able to find my way walking north/northeast. I cut through Công viên 23 tháng 9 and got up to the park located near the Reunification Palace, Tao Dan Park. It was still early enough to witness some great martial arts and aerobic exercise activity going on. I didn’t linger, but walked around at a steady pace, admiring people milling about in the relatively cool morning, and the magnificent power of nature Vietnam’s managed to sustain in such a bustling metro:

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From the main park, I walked around the Palace (I didn’t really feel like going in, so I skipped it–another reason to come back, I suppose!) and kept going toward Công viên 30-4. It was around here I was approached by a shoe shining guy, a young man who spoke pretty good English. He really wanted to clean my shoes for a dollar, and I remember the desperation of some people in tourist areas throughout the region. I really did not want my shoes cleaned–mostly because they aren’t shoes, but Chaco sandals that can’t be shined. So I kept saying no, as you do, and went on my way.

Cutting up Phạm Ngọc Thạch, I encountered a lovely pool. It was a big pool. A strangely designed pool. An empty pool. There were school children walking around everywhere. A lot of recent graduates in their robes. People were getting photos taken. I took photos and walked on, smiling at random people, not really talking much. I looked up how to say “hello” in Vietnamese. I looked up “thank you” as well. I practiced even if silently mouthing was the most I could get out of me. The tonal qualities make it a bit awkward to get the subtleties down right without outright shouting the words, which is obviously awkward for me.

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Trekking on, I continued and reached Công viên Lê Văn Tám, or Van Tam Park, which Dede would later tell me had nothing in it. I found some things: a beautiful white sculpture. A family playing badminton. Respite within the shade. These things were good to know, good to see. I’m glad I had had a chance to check it out, as most tourists probably won’t ever find it.

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I was ultimately heading toward what is known as the Jade Pagoda. I kept focused on thinking about how I could take pictures and look at the “world of Vietnam” through a lens that was different than the first. I suppose the awe and crazed differences that are so distracting when you first encounter Asia die down a little bit with subsequent returns. They don’t disappear entirely, but they do dim a little. I used the opportunity to take risks in taking photos of more people up close, slow down and take videos of the traffic and the landscape, and analyze architecture, advertising, and daily life. Vietnam really is a fascinating place. It doesn’t have the elegance of scale that Bangkok has (the tall buildings are few and far between, as opposed to the prominent NYC-esque skyline of the latter), but it is sprawling, and ripe with life.

The Jade Pagoda was slightly disappointing. I had heard it was amazing from various TA reviews, and I put a lot of faith into that. Perhaps with a guide I would have found the experience more enjoyable, but alas, I did not have a guide, and I found the temple small and lacking in mind-boggling uniqueness. Well, almost lacking. The temple has what appears to be a gazillion turtles in one of its pools:

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The smell of incense left behind, and my feet significantly blistered at this point, I realized that roughly an hour of walking had led to my need to rehydrate. They say, the anonymous they, that one traveling in a very hot and humid environment should avoid heatstroke by not over-consuming liquids. I think most balance that out by drinking lots of beer, which hydrates and dehydrates at the same time. Choosing not to drink in Vietnam, I instead chose to actually drink water but only once in a while. While my body wasn’t (and isn’t, as of this writing) ready to embrace Southeast Asia’s climate just yet, it has been logical in its intake of water.

I ended up stopping by this very small shop that advertised fresh honey juice (whatever that means) with pictures of what appeared to be oranges on large signs. I went inside and asked for orange juice and the reply was, as expected, in the negative. They didn’t understand my language. I didn’t know their language. I pointed at a random item on the menu, which looked like a green tea latte, and awaited my beverage. What was returned was a sickly sweet and medicine-like chalky iced drink that tastes like a combination of generic chemicals and something very vegetable, backed by lots and lots of sugar. At first I choked it down, but then, as it got diluted by the ice, it became very tolerable.

I would later ask Dede what it was I consumed, but she had no clue. Apparently there are just as many types of drinks in Vietnam as one thinks there are. Maybe you, dear reader, has an idea?

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It was around this time I had to make a decision: walk around aimlessly through endless waves of traffic for another hour before getting lunch with Dede, or visit the zoo and botanical gardens. I stopped in a temple/museum adjacent to the zoo and looked at the zoo’s price: 50,000 dong, or $2.5. I wasn’t going to be losing much if I went in. I went in. The first thing I noticed was a panda. I took a selfie and sent that off to Natasha later on in the day.

Then I visited the bonsai garden, which was absolutely fantastic, but unfortunately lacking in its signage. If only they had put proper signs up to describe what are now the best bonsai trees I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few, actually). I would have loved to know the specific names of these bonsais, as well as the names of their growers. Is that the word for a caretaker of a bonsai?

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Other highlights of the children-packed zoo and gardens? Elephants, a white tiger, orangutan (these scared me as much as I though they would, having read the horror stories about people getting mauled by them in the jungle; the ones in this cage looked like they could absolutely obliterate a human being at any point in time), scarlet ibises, and lemurs. The zoo had a significant lack of barriers which surprised me. Obviously it made sense to keep the exhibits open-air, since most of the species were most likely more accustomed to the humid air anyway, but knowing that Asiatic black bear, or that giraffe, was on the other side of a 1-meter-wide moat-like gap kept me a little startled. So different from USA.

Stumbling around had built my appetite. I walked to the destination of Dede’s work place and after a joyful reuniting, we both walked on to Pho 24, a chain that I remember enjoying multiple times in Cambodia. There’s a subtlety about pho that I haven’t quite been able to decipher yet. Dede swore that the pho at Pho 24 in Vietnam is better than Cambodia, but I honestly couldn’t tell he difference. It all tasted heavenly to me. After an hour of talking and catching up, I walked Dede back to her work and then ventured forward. I walked down the fancy Dong Khoi Street, “famous” for its shopping (at least on TA). I took a dip into the Vincom shopping center and, as I suspected, there wasn’t anything there for me. It appears that even the idea of the “shopping mall” in Asia has lost its exotic appeal. I wonder what else on this trip will be uninteresting.

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Dong Khoi ends at the river front, and there is a park there, but you have to play Frogger and nearly be destroyed just to see it. Unfortunately there’s nothing much to see. The charm of the Mekong from Phnom Penh is not recaptured here. Tankers float by, and the water is flowing nicely, but everything about the Saigon River lacks charm. I could foresee a Saigon in the future that has created an amazing waterfront, but who knows if that will ever happen. Dodging sketchy offers for boat rides, I got myself over to the walking street (Nguyễn Huệ) and that’s when the dark storm came. Rainy season, finally!

Jumping from awning to awning, I slowly made my way back toward the guest house. I stopped in a couple of book stores (including one that I had been in with Jason two years ago). Everything about the experience was wonderful, though hot and wet, of course. I managed to take this selfie while waiting for the rain to stop:

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It was pretty easy to take compelling videos of traffic in the rain, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to post some of that footage in a later post. For now, just imagine a lot of poncho-laden individuals and resulting puddles.

After all was said and done, I stopped and bought a strawberry cream crepe and a Vietnamese coffee at a Tous Les Jours, and went back to the hotel. I spent time emailing and passed out for about an hour before Dede arrived to pick me up. We ended up going to this fantastic place called The Secret Garden, where we enjoyed a lot of authentic Vietnamese food. We were joined by Dede’s boyfriend, Patrick (Padraig–he’s Swedish), and we talked about all manner of things movies, works, and even priviledge and the death of black people in America. All in all, it was a great time hanging out.

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After dinner, Dede took me for a little night cruise around town and helped me get my ticket to Dalat. It was very soon after my return to my room that I passed out. Today I woke up early. I am going to stop and get some noodles for breakfast, and coffee, before it’s time to catch that bus.

Touching Down in Deep Humidity (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

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After nearly 24 hours of continuous travel, I have reached Vietnam. The travels could not have been derailed any more than they were. My original itinerary: Seattle to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Saigon. My first flight was canceled due to mechanical issues (apparently it was the same plane that was canceled a day earlier, and apparently it was much to my benefit that I got to the airport so early so as to get rescheduled to the next plane). On board the next plan to SF, I would still make the connection to Hong Kong (but by a hair). I explained my situation to the United employee at the main desk, who bumped by seat up to an upgrade (not First Class, but approximately 15 rows closer to the front) so I’d get off the plane earlier and have a better chance at making that flight. All was lost, however, when the delayed plane, presumably the same exact aircraft that had the earlier canceled flight, was approximately 1.5 hours late in taking off. It was around 1 hour delayed when I woke up from the nap in my upgraded seat and the captain announced people could get off the plane to get food, or rebook. I decided to “deplane” and then get rebooked. This was a wise decision on my part: I talked with the amazing desk person, Mika, who got me the original upgrade, and after about fifteen minutes of her artistically figuring it out, I managed to get a transfer over to Asiana (the Korean airline) that would put me through Seoul/Incheon and then to Saigon. Glorious! And the cherry on top of the cake: I would get to Saigon 1.5 hours ahead of the previous route. When I got to the desk at the South Satellite terminal of SeaTac, the Asiana desk person, who was just as sweet and helpful as Mika, got me aisle seats for both planes. On top of all these delays? A couple meal vouchers that kept me running and in high hopes via coffee and baked goods.

Having been on Asiana, I was not surprised by the amazing quality of the entire flight experience. In fact, I enjoyed it so much this time around not via surprise but via contrast to a recent trip on Delta to NY. Though Delta is trying to pick up the slack of USA airlines with new technology and “experience”-based flying, they still fall short. Asiana’s seats are some of the most spacious. Their food is fantastic and free whiskey is actually a little more valuable than one thinks when the day is filled with stressful flying. All the free movies, music, and games built in to each of the seats is amazing as well. It’s hard to describe the “Asian” experience of Asiana, but I will say it’s similar to being on an Air Asia flight, and a China Air flight. Anyway, long story short: if you’re American and haven’t traveled East, then you haven’t traveled. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s kind of existentially break-through.

I only had about fifteen minutes between getting off in South Korea and getting on the plane to Saigon, but I will comment that the entire process was smooth and enjoyable. Maybe because I’ve done it before? On the previous plane I watched such mediocre hollywood hits as Jupiter Rising, Monster University, and Seventh Son. I fell asleep to Exodus: Gods and Kings. I read bits and pieces of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which is delightful and makes great travel reading. It’s one of six books I brought on this trip. I listened to Billie Holiday. There was, needless to say, a lot of sleeping.

Getting through security, passport control, and customs at the airport in Saigon was also very easy, and I think it was so enjoyable because I didn’t have to wait in any huge lines. I do remember all of my previous times in Vietnam being counterpointed with Jason. This time around, I had myself to keep myself company. Me alone with my thoughts. The taxi ride was familiar but silent. Inevitably we got to Bizu Hotel District 1, located right in the heart of the backpacking district, the same general location Jason and I stayed in when we came here 2 years ago. Nothing has changed, though the young Vietnamese kids hanging out drinking and partying look even younger than I remember. I picked up some smokes and some water, and in the course of doing a short walk to stretch my legs, lasting 15 minutes, the familiar shouts and calls for massages, marijuana, moto drivers, and beer specials washed over me in numbness. It’s my goal to not do any drinking while in Vietnam. We’ll see if I can hold true to that desire. I look forward to taking it easy and having a slow pace that meets with the humidity and the long, frantic trails of the tiniest ants in all the world.

Tomorrow I’ll be going out with my real camera, taking pictures of parks, pagodas, and other sights that I missed the first time around. I’ll also be meeting my dear friend Dede, who I regularly spent time when we both worked in Cambodia last year. Hopefully I’ll still enjoy the coffee with condensed (sweet) milk, the baguettes, and the noodles all on the horizon. Hopefully I’ll continue to stay active and engaged with my friends in the USA via G-chat, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Vietnam, though blocking Twitter, offers free international texting via T-Mobile. It’s these small amenities I didn’t have the first time visited that are truly making this experience different in subtle though alarming ways.