Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Back Home

Well after 3.5 months of traveling, er I mean studying, I'm now safely back in Chicago. I have to admit it's kind of weird being back and
  • Being able to eavesdrop since I can understand the language being spoken around me.
  • Not seeing teeming masses of humanity on city sidewalks.
  • Not being a minority anymore.

It's now back to work. . . I had a case due yesterday for the first day of class, 2 classes today, and a case due for class tomorrow. No easy rentry for me, damnit!

Anyways, I've fallen a bit behind with the blog and have quite a few destinations I still need to write about. Provided that classes don't get in the way I'll write about them as I have time. . . I may be home but the stories will continue.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Adding to the collection

Well as promised, here is a continuation of the sign collection with some of the signs sis and I found in Yangshuo. . . Enjoy!

While I find them funny, I give mad props to the Chinese for trying. Even though they're not perfect, they do get the point across. All of us greatly appreciated the effort in making our navigation much easier.


















Anyways, I consider this payback for how my HK friends laughed at my attempts in Cantonese and Mandarin. See it's a 2-way street! We all get a kick out of non-natives trying out our native tongue. :)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

3 signs of beauty

So, Sis, one of the germans and myself are in Yangshuo China admiring the scenery and having a very good time. A full travelogue will be forthcoming when I can add pictures, but here was today's gem:

We all went on a daytrip to see the dragon's backbone rice terraces 4 hours north of Yangshuo. Really beautiful and well worth the trip. On the way there our guide explains thet the terraces are the home of the Yao people and goes on to explain about their rituals and customs. She then goes on to explain the "three things that make a wife attractive to a husband in Yao culture:"


  • "Big Feet so they can climb up the mountains easier."
  • "Big Voice so that they can call their husband down from the top of the mountain to eat. this was before cell phones."
  • "Big Ass because it means lots of babies."

Of course her choice of vocabulary caused all of us gweilos to laugh. We would have used wide hips. . .

Sunday, March 11, 2007

30 Hours in Disney with the Death Penalty (Now with Pictures)

Our hopscotch through SE Asia ended with a 30 hour layover in Singapore. Plenty of time, according to many here in HK, to see a city dubbed by many to be the "Nanny State" or "Disney with the Death Penalty." When I asked people in HK to give me their impressions of the city the first words out of everybody's mouths was "It's so clean!" Not a ringing endorsement for the city in my mind. I mean Milwaukee and Omaha are clean too, but this does not make them awesome tourist destinations.

All in all, Singapore lived up to its reputation and hype. Indeed it was extremely clean, and it did indeed feel like a giant Disney World. That impression began forming immediately when the immigration officer noticed I was staying on Jeslan Basar street and recommended I visit a computer market near my hostel. Normally you're lucky if an immigration officer responds to your hello, let alone act as a tourist information service.

Once we left the airport it suddenly felt like we had entered a British Commonwealth Epcot with Indians, Chinese, Malays, and Gweilos all represented. It's a very diverse city but, in the interest of keeping things orderly, everybody has their own neighborhood (like Epcot!) where they recreate a touch of home complete with restaurants and architecture.
  • Little India is filled with Hindu Temples (sorry didn't take pics)

  • Arab Street (Yes there is an Arab Street) has mosques,
  • Chinatown (which is the cleanest Chinatown I've ever seen) has a roming group of Chinese musicians and lion dancers.

  • Colonial District has all the old british colonial architecure and western hip restaurants

Yes, many other cities, including Chicago, have ethnic neighborhoods. However it all seemed a bit artificial, a bit too planed and very sterile. Plus we would never name a street "Arab Street"

However there was more than just Epcot!

There was Animal Kingdom in the form of the Singapore night safari, which is incredibly nice and fun but incredibly touristy. The main attraction there is a tram tour where you can see nocturnal animals actually doing something, while the guide narrates in a cheesy way. Thankfully she didn't say "lions and tigers and bears oh my!" but she got damn close a couple of times.

There is the Magic Kingdom in the form of Sentosa Island, filled with modern tourist attractions like a skyride and motion simulator rides, but we skipped that part.

Continuing the Disney theme, the city had an imaginary "mascot" in the form of the merlion (half fish and half lion) that guarded the waterfront and posed for tourist pictures.

After visiting the above sights, I notice that the Lonely Planet Singapore (bought on the streets of Vietnam for US$2) wrote up the GSB's Singapre Campus as a tourist site because its in an old chinese mansion with beautiful roofs. (goes to show how little there is to see huh?) Curious about our campus, I drag the reluctant Spaniard to check it out. For some reason he had no desire to visit the Asian Exec MBA campus for a school he didn't attend. I can't imagine why. . .


Well LP was right, it's a great building with beauiful courtyards and roofs. However, more importantly we both got to check our email and get a couple of drinks for free in air conditioned comfort. Free internet and pops made the Spaniard suddenly glad we made the stop. He even picked up a cople of copies of Capital Ideas and GSB magazine for the plane ride back.


After our stop at the GSB our layover came to an end and we went back to the exit gate of the park, er I mean airport, where we were treated to a bit of Singaporean propaganda. We were flying Tiger Airways, an Asian version of Southwest, so we had to fly out of the "Budget Terminal"(yes that's what they called it). Basically it was an old hanger that they made into a bare-boned terminal with few ammenities. Think old Midway with a couple of layers of bright paint. Despite providing an inferior product, the government tried to work the PR angle by plastering the slogan "Budget Terminal . . . Enjoy the Difference!" all over the building.


It was kind of insulting really. At best the governement thought people were stupid enough to think they were getting something better. At worst they were rubbing our noses in the fact we were flying budget carriers and didn't deserve anything better.

Oh well, I did "enjoy the difference" from HK that Singapore offered, but I was still very happy to get on a plane to return to my more character-filled home of the last 3 months. One can only take so much Disney before they need to leave.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

And done. . .

I just finished all of my classes today with my OB final and Buyer Behavior presentation. With that my educational career in HK has come to an end. I'll wait to give the synopsis of my classes until my grades are in the GSB's hands. . . I might not need As, but I still need to pass.

Now that everybody's all done all of us students are going out for one last dinner and party tonight before we all head our separate ways. In the meantime I'm packing up my room, and getting ready to leave for Yangshou with sis and one of the Germans tomorrow night. I'll be back in HK for 2 nights before I leave for Japan, so this is not really good bye to this great city, but it's still kind of sad. . .

Friday, March 9, 2007

Fall of Saigon

The last part of the Vietnam series involves some misadventures we had in Saigon.

We arrived at our hostel in Saigon at 1am after flying in from Hue where we had a good time seeing temples, tombs and the old Vietnamese imperial palace.


We had parted ways with the Spaniard's friend in Hue since she was interested in seeing more of the center of the country, and had little interest in visiting another big Vietnamese city after living in Hanoi.

Before we left Hue, we had booked a ticket for a Cu Chi Tunnel tour from a travel agent recommended by our guidebook. The agent told us that we needed to be at the pick-up site by 7:30am. Given our late arrival into Saigon we weren't too happy about the timing, but we were willing to do what was required in order to see the tunnels.

Like dutiful tourists we arrived at the preordained time to catch the tour. Imagine, our anger when we found that the 7:30 time was only to pick up our tickets and not for the tour, which actually left at 8:30. We were pissed off about losing an hour of sleep, but what could we do but wait an hour?
We walked around the area to kill some time, and returned to the pick-up site (the Sinh Cafe) to find a scene that can only be described as the fall of Saigon (I hate to use that cliche but seems highly appropriate no?)
Turns out there were like 20 tours leaving from this 1 block stretch of sidewalk and there was no organization to the madness at all. 8:30 passes, then 9 with no tour but continued promises of only 10 minutes more from the staff in the ticket office.
I start talking, no really I was bitching, about the situation with a family of 6 from England who are living in Beijing but vacationing in SE Asia who were on our tour. We decide to abort and take a taxi together to the tunnels (which given 8 people would only be slightly more expensive than the tour). The family is able to get their money back easily,but for some reason the staff resists my efforts to get back our US$10. It was also amazing how quickly their english deteriorated in the face of an unhappy customer. Sleepy, undercaffenated Sloop is pissed and busts out the "Ugly American" in all of us against the managers of this sorry excuse of an operation:
"THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!! YOUR OFFICE IN HUE TOLD US TO BE HERE FOR THE TOUR AT 7:30 AND IT IS NOW PAST 9 WITH NO WORD OF WHEN IF EVER WE WILL GET OUT OF HERE. I WANT MY MONEY BACK AND I WANT IT NOW!!!!!"
Despite the guidebooks warning against losing your cool (and thus your face), the managers relented and I got our money back. They did curse at me in Vietnamese, which I of course couldn't understand (my guess is "I hope your sorry mother^%$&^% ass falls in some of those traps at Cu Chi), but I got my money back and couldn't care what they thought.
I've already covered the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants museum, so no need to rehash old news.
The rest of our time in Saigon was fun, reflecting the rest of our time in the country. However, the trip ended on one big sour note. As we were leaving the Nga Hoang (I put the name in so that people googling it might be able to find this post) hostel in Saigon (where we had a private room) I looked in my backpack to make sure I packed my camera. I quickly noticed that the iPod nano I got for Christmas was missing, which was odd since I hadn't taken it out of the backpack my entire time in Vietnam. My mind immediately went "Oh Shit" I was robbed, and instinctively looked through my neck wallet which had been packed in the same backpack during our time in Saigon. Sure enough the HK$500(US$65) I had stored there was missing as well.
I run back to our room, which we left 2 minutes before, to find the maid already "cleaning up." I start scouring the room in search of my missing possessions. I of course couldn't find the $500, but somehow the maid did underneath the mattress. I of course didn't put it there, and my guess is that whoever rifled through my stuff hid it there hoping I would check-out without noticing my loss until I was well out of the area.
Why wouldn't they just outright steal it you ask? Well, my hypothesis is a HK$500 bill is easily transported, untraceable, and unlikely to be noticed until I got back to HK and needed some local currency. However, my iPod might be traceable or identifiable and might be noticed before my departure, in which case she could get caught. Better just to hide it in my room in order to mitigate this risk.
Anyways, at least I got back my iPod, which was much more valuable, but losing the equivilent of US$65 still stings. Though what bothered me more is that somebody actually went through my stuff to rob me as none of this was laying out in the room.
So, if you ever have a chance to go to Saigon, be very careful with what you buy and where you put your stuff. . .

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Allright back to Vietnam. . . We happened to be in Vietnam for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, which is their biggest holiday of the year. (Also, the holiday that gave its name to the Tet offensive, but that was the topic of another post) After witnessing the holiday first hand, I wholeheartedly agree with the guidebook's description that it's like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's all rolled into one 4 day holiday.

We were in Hanoi for the run-up to Tet and the city was abuzz with activity. So much so in fact, that the Spaniard's friend commented that this was the most animated she had ever seen the population. Everybody was buying gifts for family, food for the big meals, and flowers and mandarin trees for decoration. To accomidate the crush of commerce, impromptu markets sprung up everywhere, especially along the side of major highways (and sometimes in the middle of major highways) which made getting around very slow moving.

This proved to be a significant hassle as we prepared to leave Hanoi to go to our next destinations, Hoi An and Hue in the center of the country. We had heard really good things about both destinations and thought that they would be good places to pass Tet since their beach access would allow us to while away days without worrying about things being closed for the holiday.

Given the aforementioned markets, our cab was caught in a lot of traffic on the way to the airport, and we had a tense ride where we worried about missing our flight. Luckily we got to the airport with enough time(5 minutes to spare), only to find the flight overbooked and the Spaniard's friend was designated the potential bumpee. The check-in lady explained that since it was Tet the flights were overbooked with Vietnamese returning home to their villages and preference was being to Vietnamese wanting to get home for the holiday. This was not the first time we had been discriminated against.However there was still 1 unclaimed seat and we only had to wait 5 minutes before the flight closed for check-in and she could get it. We anxiously watched for signs of any Vietnamese people, but luckily for us (and for them because the Spaniard was talking about blocking their path). Luckily nobody showed and we all made the flight with no problem.

We arrive in Hoi An 2 hours later to begin the Tet eve celebrations which included everybody in the whole town (and every tourist within a 100 mile radius) on the waterfront partying in anticipation. There was also a carnival set up where people could win various food items at various games along with bingo for bigger prizes. We all try our hands at one game and the Spaniard's friend wins a box of cookies. She asks "What am I going to do with this". . . well actually it was "Que voy a hacer con esta" but that's a small detail. . . Well she gives a cookie to one kid and soon that was no longer a problem.

At midnight the fireworks went off and we were treated to a 20 minute show. Everybody oohed and aahed at each firework. We're too spoiled in the US to get worked up over fireworks anymore, so it was kind of cool to see everybody really get into it. After the show we fight our way with the throng of humanity towards the heart of the party. Almost every store we passed along the way had opened their doors with offerings for the new year, which I assume was to bring good fortune.

Also along the way local kids were jumping behind the Spaniard, without him knowing, to see if the jump as high as the top of his head. Luckily he didn't get smacked, which from my vantage point almost happened 3 times. Our journey ended to find the party in high gear.


However we had to cut the festivities short, since somebody wasn't in a party mood:


The next day we toured around Hoi An, which is a great little town to spend a couple of days.


It's famous for its custom tailoring where people can get suits made in 3 hours for US$60. However given it was Tet most of the stores were closed. There were a few open, where I was able to buy some souveneirs for back home. Despite being double priced for the holiday, it was still very reasonable. However given the dearth of shopping we quickly decamped to the beach for some R&R.

While sitting in a beachside restaurant enjoying some lunch and a few drinks, a local girl approaches to offer her goods for sale. She really nice andfriendly but guilts us into buying some things by giving a sob story about how business hasn't been good lately and thus she needs to work on Tet. We buy some peanuts and Tiger Balm for about $3. As she leaves she says Chuc Mung Nam Moi which means Happy Tet (or lunar New Year in Vietnamese).

However, if it has a similar meaning to Kung Hei Fat Choi (Happy Chinese New Year in Cantonese), which literally translates into something like "Congratulations on getting wealthy" then our Vietnamese friend is off to a good start.

PS: Given their new years greeting, how the Chinese (or the Vietnamese for that matter) ever thought they were communist is beyond me and Tripper.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Some more Chinglish

My Dad has asked me to take pictures of the Chinglish signs I've encountered along the way in China. He wants me to "preserve history" before the linguistic police get rid of the funny. Although in a country of 1 billion+, I'm sure it'll be around for a while.

I've definitely been a little lax on documenting the signs, but I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunity to catch up in Yangshou. However, in order to appease my Dad I'll post what I have in my collection so far:

In Shenzhen as I'm leaving a store:

Courtesy of ChickenMan. . .Not one I've seen personally, but Chinese speakers I've asked said it's plausible since that is the literal translation in Chinese
An interesting way of saying "Do not enter" on the Great Wall...
These are from HK. Not exactly Chinglish but still interesting.

Some very erudite graffiti:

Why not just say clean up after your dog? Anyways I didn't know dogs played baseball.

The 4.5 fingered man awaits

My sister just got here from Chicago to visit and travel with me as I take the long way back home via SW China and the GSB Japan trip this Sunday. Unfortunately she arrived just at the point where I actually have work to do for projects and finals. Oh well, I'm sure she'll be able to keep busy. . . there are many malls here in HK and she has brought a pretty empty extra suitcase.

Anyways the real reason for the post is to share the email I received from the hostel I reserved for us in Yangshou China via hostelworld.com. . .

Hi, SloopJohnBSLW:
We are warmly welcome you to the Yangshuo Culture House!
This is Wei who come from the Yangshuo Culture House, thanks a lot to book your room at the Yangshuo Culture House and your reservation XXXX-XXXX is good now. the room cost you pay that it's already including the three Chinese meals a day, the clean bed and the Chinese Culture experience as well.
Please give me a call when you are arrived in Yangshuo and we will have the free pick up in the Yangshuo city, you can call XXXX,XXXX if you use the Yangshuo local telephone.
And if you are use the foreign phone you can call as below:
XXXX,XXXXXX.
One thing that I would like to mention you that there are some people will try to cheat you, they will say they come from the Yangshuo Culture House, but they are not . there are only four and half finger in my right hand. so please just give me a call yourself directly to me and we will have the free pick up in the Yangshuo city.
All the best wishes and kind regards from the Yangshuo Culture House

Eventhough I'm leaving HK soon, the adventure will continue. . .

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Getting a Different Perspective on the American War

Some people go to Vietnam for the beaches, culture, or because it's cheap. However, I'm not going to lie, much of the reason I wanted to go to Vietnam was to visit the various Vietnam War, (American War depending on your side) sites around the country. We all know that I'm a nerd, but unfortunately the Spaniard didn't completely catch on to this until we were already in the country. Much to his chagrin I dragged him to various sites relevant to a War he didn't know or care much about. His friend made the comment, which he agreed with, that us Americans are obsessed by the War whereas Europeans don't really care. . .

The tour of sites started in Hanoi where we went to what remained of the "Hanoi Hilton." Most of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high rise development, but there is a museumin what remains. However most of the museum is about the atrocities and barbaric treatment the french conducted against the anti-colonial freedom fighters of Vietnam. The history I was most interested in reading comprised only 2 rooms. Despite the lack of content, it was worth the journey to read about all the "good treatment" the Americans received despite being agents of an Imperialistic aggressive government. They showed pictures of Americansat church, playing sports, eating, etc. They also showed what they claim to be John McCain's flight suit.



The next stop on the tour was Ho Chi Minh's tomb. Given I've seen Mao's pickled corpse, I wanted to continue the dead man's tour by visiting Uncle Ho. Unfortunately it was closed for Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), but we did get to see the house he lived in while president and from which he gave orders regarding the war. Instead of living in the mansion of the former French governor, Ho instead lived in a simple construction he had built on the mansion's grounds in order to project a certain symbolism of having power but still being an egalitarian man. However, despite his wishes, that symbolism changed upon his death:

Former French governor's mansion, now presidential palace used for ceremonial events:
Ho's former house:

Ho's current house:

In the center of the country we passed by China Beach of TV fame. Granted we only saw it from a nearby mountain, but this is where US GI's got they're R&R not too far from the DMZ. . .
We also went to a museum where captured US military equipment was on display like trophies:
All of the previous sites were interesting but the highlights of the magical history tour were in Saigon where we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum. The Cu Chi Tunnels were really cool and surreal at the same time. They are a network, of over 100kms, of tunnels about 1.5 hrs outside of Saigon where many Viet Cong hid and lived during the war. It was an engineering feat to say the least, and drove home how determined the Viet Cong were to win and how intractable the situation was for the US. The guide leading us around told us, with a lot of patriotic pride, that:
  • The tunnels were designed very modularly so that destruction of one section wouldn't harm the others.
  • People had enough drive that they lived in the claustrophobic tunnels for months on end in order to serve the cause.
  • They provided away for the Viet Cong to conduct military operations out of sight before sneaking off and blending into the population.

Just to give you an idea of how small the tunnels are (Keep in mind they expanded them to accomidate the larger sizes of western tourists):


They also had replicas of the various booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers in the field. Here's a rather tame one that would be hidden in a covered hole waiting for an unsuspecting leg (yes those spears are barbed):

On a lighter note, after visiting the traps you can play commando and shoot an AK-47 for US$1 a bullet. Of course I bit, but I did find it ironic that a location originally designed and built to expel shooting Americans from the country would be inviting Americans back to shoot weapons. Ah the power of the all mighty dollar.


As for the War Remnants museum. . .keep in mind that it used to be called the War Crimes Museum before the government began actively promoting tourism. Despite the name change, the tone of the exhibits remains the same. There were pictures of deformed and burned people, a jar with a deformed fetus, and children with all sorts of birth defects supposedly from the use of Napalm and Agent Oragne. My Lai was also given a lot of space.

Stories of shooting civilians were also discussed at length. Given the Viet Cong's tendency to slip into the population, I can't say American's were completely to blame but there was no mention of that at the museum. Plus, we don't know if they truly were full-time civilians or whether they moonlighted in Cu Chi. . .

There were also exhibits showing 60s peace demonstrations from the US and around the world that showed "solidarity with the Vietnamese people and cause." (of course the protests was active support for the Viet Cong and not simply disapproval with American involvement.)

Visiting all these sites was great, if only to get the perspective of a population who viewed the US as invadors and not liberators and what happens when you fight them in a guerrila war where it's hard to distinguish the combatants.

Going to all these sites spurred the Spaniard to want to learn more about the War's history as being there made the history come alive. It's too bad President Bush only went to visit Vietnam last fall since it would have been good for him to gain a similar interest and learn some of these lessons earlier . . .

You know what they say: those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. . .