Monday, January 31, 2005

Northern Lights

The house lights dim, the crowd grows hushed, and smoke hangs over the empty stage like dust in the air before a coming storm. Suddenly, from way in the back, the sweet sound of a single saxophone bursts to life. Heads swivel and necks crane, trying to get a glimpse at the source of this magical sound. As the soft tones grow louder, a lone musician snakes his way through the crowd. Soon, the music flows, the band grooves, and the crowd goes wild. Although it feels like NYC in the 60s, we are in the Hanoi Opera House, in 2005 Vietnam. A new cultural revolution is alive and well.

However, unlike China of the 60s and 70s, this is cultural revolution is different. After decades of repression and authoritarianism, Vietnam is discovering the arts. It’s the antithesis of Mao; an awakening of national proportions. Parks filled with sculptures, a profusion of art galleries, an abundance of theatres, and a burgeoning music scene stand as evidence of the change.

Hanoi has long been known as The Paris of the Orient for its French Colonial architecture, prolific bakeries, tree-lined streets, and omnipresent baguette vendors. However the moniker was incomplete until the recent explosion of cultural offerings. Now a visitor to Hanoi really can feel Parisian, as she spends the day browsing museums, lunching at sidewalk cafes, and soaking up the arts.

The artist at the Opera House was Quyen Thien Dac. He trained at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and this was his homecoming. Vietnam is just learning about jazz, decades after the medium was established in the U.S. Dac plays all the classics – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Chick Corea – to educate the masses. At the same time, he has his own portfolio of superbly grooved tunes, many of which he performed with cool composure for us at the Opera House. Dac is a pioneer in Vietnam, and we feel fortunate to have been there to see the party.

Enjoy the Hanoi Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the video groove:
Dac Jam
Water Puppet Theatre

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

The American War

In March of 1965, American combat troops splashed ashore near Danang, Vietnam, cementing U.S. involvement in a painful war that divided the United States both politically and emotionally. In Vietnam, it is known as the American War.

The story of the American War traces its beginnings to 1847, when the French first attacked Vietnam, and seized Saigon. After decades of bloody fighting with the French, Vietnam ceased to exist in 1887, as Vietnam was forcibly incorporated into France’s colonial holdings. Throughout the period of colonization, repeated independence attempts by the Vietnamese were brutally crushed by the French. However, during World War II, France was forced to cede control of Indochina to Japan. Suddenly, the only meaningful resistance to the Japanese was by a group known as the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated group opposed to both French colonization, and Japanese occupation. As the Viet Minh represented the best hope to repel the Japanese, the U.S. provided the group with significant military and financial aid. The leader of the Viet Minh was a young military guru named Ho Chi Minh.

With U.S. and Chinese support, Ho Chi Minh led a popular uprising against the Japanese in the spring of 1945, and forcibly reclaimed much of Northern Vietnam. In September 1945, after the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasakai, Ho Chi Minh stood on a stage in Hanoi, with American O.S.S. Agents at his side, and declared independence for the Democratic People’s Republic of Vietnam. Despite this declaration of independence, the power vacuum left by the Japanese defeat led to chaos in the streets, with holdover French settlers eventually reasserting their control over Vietnam. This didn’t sit well with the Vietnamese, who had tired of French occupation, and the Franco-Viet Minh War spun out of control. For the next eight years, France and Vietnam fought what was at the time the bloodiest war ever to be fought on the soil of Vietnam.

At the same time, the “Domino Theory” of a worldwide communist movement intent on gaining control of the world through various “wars of liberation” gained popularity throughout the West. As a result, the U.S. abandoned its support of Ho Chi Minh, switched sides, and backed the French war effort against Vietnam. In 1950 the first U.S. military advisors arrived in Vietnam to instruct troops on the use of U.S weapons, and by 1952 U.S. aid to the French troops in Vietnam topped $2 billion. The Geneva Conference of 1954 finally ended the bloody war, and among other things, “temporarily” divided Vietnam into two zones at the Ben Hai River near the 17th Parallel.

When the French troops left Vietnam, the U.S. military advisors stayed to train South Vietnamese troops. In 1959, Ho Chi Minh agreed to requests by Southern Vietnamese communists to begin efforts to “liberate” the South. Eight months later, Ho Chi Minh announced formation of the National Liberation Front, whose stated political platform called for neutralization of Vietnam, and the gradual reunification of the North and South. In the South, the National Liberation Front was known as the Viet Cong. While the Viet Cong started the war against the South in 1959, by 1964 regular North Vietnamese Army units were also attacking the South. Despite massive U.S. aid and the continued presence of U.S. military advisors, the South suffered from devastating political instability, and quickly found itself in trouble.

Newly elected President Johnson, citing unsubstantiated attacks on U.S. warships by North Vietnam, ordered U.S. air strikes on the North, and escalated U.S. involvement in the conflict. Soon, the U.S. found its hands tied, with fear of a Soviet/Chinese reprisal for any expansion of the war into North Vietnam, and the assured spread of Communism the perceived result of any withdrawal. As a result, the U.S. fought a war of attrition, trying to break the will of the North through annihilation of North Vietnamese troops. Despite massive U.S. air strikes (every road and bridge in North Vietnam was bombed, 4,000 of the North’s 5,788 villages were hit, and over 15 million tons of explosives were expended), the North showed no sign of weakness.

As the war of attrition raged, support for the war effort in America plummeted. As a result, President Nixon pushed for a negotiated end to U.S. involvement. The Paris peace agreements called for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of all U.S troops. Although all U.S. troops were out of Vietnam by 1973, the U.S. continued to provide massive financial and military aid the South, as the brutal guerilla fighting continued between North and South Vietnamese troops. In 1975, the U.S. cut its funding to only $700 million – less than half of what experts thought the South needed to survive. The North immediately took advantage of the situation, and launched a massive push south across the 17th Parallel in violation of the Paris agreements. With no one to provide leadership or assistance, South Vietnam quickly collapsed, surrendering on April 30, 1975.

The costs of this war are staggering: 58,183 U.S. soldiers were killed (or listed as MIA), 223,478 South Vietnamese troops died, and over 1,000,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed. As if those numbers are not shocking enough, consider that over 4,000,000 Vietnamese civilians (10% of Vietnam’s population) were injured or killed, as were hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Cambodia and Laos. Pentagon figures indicate that the U.S. lost 3,689 aircraft and 4,857 helicopters, and spent over $330 billion on the war effort (by comparison, the Korean War cost the U.S. $18 billion).

American soldiers won every battle, but lost the war. The North was simply more willing than the U.S. to suffer through a war of attrition. History may have been indicative: Ho Chi Minh once told the French, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose...."

To this day the war is an emotional and divisive topic. Some remain convinced that our past commitment to contain communism in Vietnam makes the world a better place today, while others feel the staggering loss of human life for a war effort doomed to fail was a complete policy failure by the U.S. Government. One thing is certain: whether you think it was right or wrong politically, everyone can agree that war is hell, and that this hell was one of the worst in history.

The following War-Related Photographs were taken throughout Vietnam. As Americans in Vietnam, we were welcomed with open arms. People were friendly and warm, and we found no evidence of any grudge against the U.S. However, Vietnam is fiercely proud of its independence and warring capabilities. There are war museums in several major cities, and historic sites all along the Ben Hai River and the Demilitarized Zone of the 17th Parallel. In the official museums, the Vietnamese government continues to cite wartime propaganda as fact, and the view presented is very one-sided. Private tour guides are much more unbiased.

NOTE: For those interested in reading a firsthand account of the wartime decision making of both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, pick up a copy of the excellent book In Retrospect by former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. It explains what factors went into the evolution of America’s war position – from Kennedy’s policy of limiting U.S involvement to support of the South’s military, to Johnson’s escalation to active war with the North – and details the grave mistakes Secretary McNamara believes were made by the U.S. with respect to the war.

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Monday, January 24, 2005


In Central Vietnam, there exists a bastion of consumerism adrift in a sea of communist theory. Art galleries, sidewalk cafes, antique shops, and high-end restaurants combine to give Hoi An an air of the South End, Cherry Creek North, or Belltown. It is a taste of the West in the far East.

Old Town Hoi An has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its seamless mix of French Colonial, Chinese, and Vietnamese architecture. It is jam-packed with well-to-do tourists from countries around the world. French, English, Chinese, and Vietnamese languages float through the air interchangeably. It is a third-world shopping Mecca.

North of Hoi An lies the sleepy town of Hue. Known for its ancient Citadel, Hue has become the culinary capital of Vietnam. Once the former capital, Hue has evolved into a pleasant riverside town that has become a regular pit stop on the traveler’s circuit. We dropped into to these two towns on our way north to Hanoi from Saigon, and found them a surprising change from Southern Vietnam. Whereas Saigon is all hustle and bustle, Central Vietnam is slower, calmer, and much more relaxed.

After four months of travel, we welcomed the change.

Enjoy the Central Vietnam Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Central Vietnam movies:
Art Gallery Chick.
Cheaper Than Water.

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Saturday, January 22, 2005


It is 11:30 p.m., and you are in a bar in Saigon, drinking a Tiger Beer and listening to music with your friends, when you feel a tug on your sleeve. You look down at your elbow and see an adorable five-year-old girl selling cigarettes and lighters. Your first thought is to shoo her away, but after a moment of reflection you think, “Why isn’t she home in bed at 11:30 on a school night?” The answer? She doesn’t have a bed, and there is no school.

Nestled in a poor neighborhood in southern Saigon, Sunflower Children’s House gives shelter and love to 30 young girls, age 5 to 15. These girls were all found on the street, struggling to survive in a third-world country with no support network. They have no family in the traditional sense of the word. Some are orphans, some have parents with mental instabilities, and some come from brutally broken homes. Some begged on the street, some stole food, and some were forced to prostitute themselves to survive. All of them deserve better.

Julius, a caring man from Holland, decided to do something about it, so he built a three story house, hired a couple of educators and a cook, and created a safe house for these kids. They now have food, shelter, safety, education, support, and most of all, opportunity.

With our Dutch friends, Edith and Maarten, we visited Sunflower Children’s House to provide a little support, both financial and moral, and to meet these miraculous survivors. Although we went to Sunflower with the intention of giving, we received more in return than we ever could have dreamed. These kids gave us inspiration and hope, and a profound sense that there is some goodness in this world.

Enjoy the Sunflower Children’s House Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Sunflower movies:
Dutch Lesson.
Hokey Pokey.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Good Morning, Vietnam

Horns honk, motorcycles flow through the streets like water, and here we are, halfway across Saigon’s busiest boulevard during rush hour. It sounds desperate and distressed; like salmon running upstream towards a certain death. Yet, this is Asia; not everything is as it seems.

Like much of Asia, Vietnam is a land of contrasts. Communist, yet embracing a free market economy. Traditionally conservative, yet expression is starting to break free. The only thing constant around here is change.

Take Mui Ne, on the southern coast. Once a quiet coastline known only to fishermen, Mui Ne has morphed into a high-end beach resort. Fancy resorts and guesthouses line the beach, and western influence drips from every palm frond. Adrenaline sports have found their way here too, with the constant high winds an ever-present playground for windsurfers and kiteboarders.

Take the Mekong Delta, the fertile depository of the 12th largest river in the world. Once only filled with rice paddies, the Mekong Delta has sprouted cities and a productive fishing industry. Although it is still largely rural, Southern Vietnam is the only spot on the Mekong between Tibet and the South China Sea where any development has taken hold.

Take Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, now known to the world as Ho Chi Minh City. This city of seven million positively hums. Business is booming here in the economic capital of Vietnam, and the place is starting to look like Hong Kong: high rises, neon, and construction projects stand as testament to the rise of capitalism.

We make it across the street in one piece. Despite the increasing similarities to the western world, things are still done differently here, including crossing the street. Saigon has three million bicycles, two million motorcycles, and 200,000 cars, and as far as I can tell, all of them are in use 24 hours a day. If you had to wait for a break in traffic, you would never get anywhere. As a result, a system has developed that goes against everything you were ever taught by your mother. Just step off the curb and gradually into traffic – as you creep slowly towards the other side, the cars, motos, and bikes avoid you. It works every time, but it never feels quite right.

Enjoy the Southern Vietnam Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Southern Vietnam movies:
Mekong Canoe Trip.
Bird Song.
Mekong Buzz.
Boating the Delta.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Incomparable Temples of Angkor

Mist hangs heavy in the early morning air, as two monkeys scamper across the road in front of us. Birds soar overhead, their staccato calls echoing off the forest canopy. The jungle fades, and in the distance multiple spires of ornate sandstone stand at attention against the crystalline sky. We have arrived.

Angkor is a word that conjures great images of romance and power, of brutal conquests and defeats, and of the brilliant ancient history of the Khmer people. From Angkor, the mighty Khmer kings ruled over a vast empire that stretched from the Gulf of Thailand north to China, and from Vietnam west to the Bay of Bengal. In its prime, the grand walled city of Angkor Thom had over one million inhabitants; London at the time had a mere 50,000.

Built between the 9th and 14th centuries, the 100-plus monuments of Angkor are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The names of the major temples are legendary:

Angkor Wat – the King of all Angkor Temples; perfect symmetry, perfectly maintained; the largest religious structure in the world.
The Bayon – hundreds of immense, enigmatic faces towering above ancient columns and sculptures.
Ta Prohm – dripping with atmosphere while fighting against, and co-existing with, the forces of nature.
The Terrace of Elephants – 350 meter-long terrace graced with a parade of massive elephant carvings.
The Terrace of the Leper King – expansive terrace littered with intricate carvings.
Banteay Kdei – vast Buddhist temple, sprawling 700 meters by 500 meters amidst dense jungle.
Preah Kahn – a maze of exquisitely carved columns and arched corridors; one of the biggest complexes in Angkor.
Angkor Thom – the great walled city of Angkor.
Rolous Group – the earliest Angkorian temples, built in the late 9th century.
Banteay Srei – considered to contain some of the finest stone carvings in the history of the world.

From its prominent role in ancient Asia to its recent theatrical role in Hollywood’s Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, the mysterious and grand temples of Angkor have held the world’s fascination for centuries. Yet, only recently with the cessation of Cambodia’s brutal civil war have the doors once again been opened to one of the greatest sights on the planet.

Enjoy the Angkor Photo Gallery.

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Monday, January 17, 2005


The year is 1971. Somewhere in the U.S, you are born. At the same time, half a world away, a baby Cambodian is born in the town of Battambang, his almond eyes glowing with spirit and life. What, if by a stroke of fate, you would have been born to his parents, and he to yours?

He would get vaccinated for polio; you wouldn’t, and you would develop the debilitating disease at age four. He would grow up in a solid home in a good neighborhood, while you would be raised in a one-room thatched hut next to a rice paddy. He would go to school, and play with his friends, while you would be forced to slave in the fields by the rouge government that murdered your older siblings. He would eat nutritious meals with his family every day, while you slowly died of starvation.

He would go to college, while you faced discrimination because of your exaggerated limp caused by polio. He would find a stable, well-paying job in a respected profession, while you would get hired to clean the toilets in the men’s room of the only bar in town for four dollars per month. He would leave his job for a better one, with a higher salary. You would borrow money from your only remaining brother to buy a motor scooter to ferry tourists around town. He would occasionally get stuck in traffic on the way home from work, while you would find yourself staring down the barrel of an AK-47 held by a Khmer Rouge guerilla intent on stealing your only possession, thankful that the only reason he didn’t shoot you already was your wretched polio hobble.

Yet, you would persevere. You would teach yourself English, borrow more money to buy a second motor scooter, and continue to work in the bar when you could. Because you are one of the only kids in town that knows any English, the United Nations delegates you meet in the men’s room would ask you to translate for them when arranging their late-night concubines. You would save enough money to buy a small house, and rent out one of the two rooms. You would finally meet a nice girl, marry her, and become the father of two beautiful children. You would find happiness.

You would be Salone, our driver in Battambang, and you would have an amazing story to tell.

Enjoy the Battambang Photo Gallery.

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Friday, January 14, 2005

Technical Difficulties

We are back in business! As far as we can tell, Vietnam didn't want our web site to be updated. Now that we are in Laos, everything works perfectly. We are a couple of weeks behind in posting, but should be caught up soon.

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

The First 100 Days

We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Elliot

As of today, January 8, 2005, we have been traveling for 100 consecutive days. It has been amazingly fun, educational, sometimes challenging, and incredibly, incredibly cool. Our travels have taken us across a continent and back again, with much more to go. A quick recap:

China: Hong Kong-Shenzhen- Guangzhou-Guilin-Yangshuo-Chengdu.
Tibet: Lhasa-Gyantse-Shigatse-Sakya-Shegar-Tashi Dzom-Cho Dzom-Rongphu Monastery-Everest Base Camp-Tingri-Zhangmu.
Nepal: Kodari-Kathmandu.
India: Delhi-Rishikesh-Agra-Jaipur-Ajmer-Pushkar-Udaipur-Jaisalmer-Jodhpur-Delhi.
Sri Lanka: Colombo-Mirissa-Unawatuna-Galle-Ella-Kandy-Columbo.
Cambodia: Phnom Penh-Battambang-Siem Reap.
Vietnam: Saigon-Mui Ne-Saigon-Mekong Delta-Hoi An.

Here are some of the highlights:

Coldest Temperature: Everest Base Camp (-17C).
Hottest Temperature: Everywhere else.
Best Food: India.
Cheapest Food: India (cheapest sit-down meal was $0.80 for the two of us).
Coolest Bar: (tie) Riverside Balcony Bar, Battambang, Cambodia & Tam Tam Café, Hoi An, Vietnam.
Highest Cow Density: Rishikesh, India.
Highest Elephant Density: Pinnewala, Sri Lanka.
Highest Monkey Density: Rishikesh, India.
Highest Panda Density: Chengdu, China.
Highest Camel Density: Pushkar, India.
Best Beach: Mirissa, Sri Lanka.
Highest Monastery: Rongphu Monastery, Tibet – 16,334 feet above sea level.
Best Meal: Christmas Dinner, Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Most Expensive Lodging: Hong Kong - $34.01.
Least Expensive Lodging (not counting free lodging): Cho Dzom, Tibet - $3.40.
Best View: (tie) Ella, Sri Lanka & Everest Base Camp, Tibet.
Best Hike: 4-day trek to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, at, 17,056 feet above sea level.
Worst Illness: Lynn- Explosive Diarrhea, Rongphu Monastery, Tibet; Scott- Technicolor Puking, Agra, India.
Best Cooking Lesson: The Spice Box Spice Shop, Udaipur, India.
Best Shower: Zhangmu, Tibet (first shower in a week; paid 10 yuan, or about $1; would have paid $10!).
Best Monument: Temples of Angkor, Cambodia.
Best Shopping: Hoi An, Vietnam.
Worst Traffic: (tie) Delhi, India & Chengdu, China.
Most Amazing Statistic: 3/4 of the world’s population lives in a village; 1/7 of the world’s population lives in a village in India.

This is a big, big world, and we are just scratching the surface. There is so much more to see and do, and there simply isn’t enough time. We both agree this is the best thing we have ever done (well, except for getting married), and we count our blessings every day that we found a way to make this happen. The bulk of the trip is still ahead, so stay tuned and see what the next 100 days have to offer.

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Faces of Cambodia

Despite decades of horror, Cambodians have persevered. Today Cambodia is thriving and spectacularly beautiful, in large part due to the resilience and strength of the Khmer people. Throughout the country, Cambodians ooze with genuine warmth and friendliness. Smiles and laughter accompany their natural good humor, and they welcome guests with an unmatched hospitality. Wherever you go in Cambodia, be prepared to have fun.

Enjoy the Faces of Cambodia Photo Gallery.

NOTE: Even more so than the rest of the world, Cambodia pins its dreams on its youth, with 41% of the population under the age of 14. The kids in these pictures are the future of Cambodia.

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