Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong

Only fitting as I did one on the way to Vietnam that I do the same back. It was not supremely interesting, but there were a few highlights as we flew halfway around the world. The itinerary was basically the same, except this time our layover was in this guy‘s homeland, Shanghai. Spent my last night with Fa Nah Nah, doing God knows what, and didn’t really finish packing until very late that night. Hooray for procrastination. We left Hai Phong at 5 in the morning, first stopping for delicious Banh Mi Tam, deliciously crispy Vietnamese baguettes with pâté inside, which was fitting because this was our first food when we landed too.

At the airport, we found some guys that were able to get BBM on their phones abroad, a task that Fa Nah Nah and I spent our entire vacation trying to figure out. I don’t recall how many times I tried to text “3GON” to “119” to try and make it work. Turns out, however, Vietnam doesn’t carry Blackberry service. Figures. Those guys had a roaming plan from Canada that allowed them to use their Blackberry for about $50 a month.

And then I ran into some trouble with the carry ons. Fucking Vietnamese airlines. I was flying Vietnam Airlines to Shanghai, and then Air Canada home. I had packed 2 carry ons, because Air Canada allows you to have 2, but unfortunately, Vietnam Airlines only allows you to have 1. So I had this extra one that I couldn’t bring. FFFUUUU. I’m glad that, at least, I had Canadians coming back to bring my extra stuff for me.

In Shanghai, there was a weird thing where the luggage doesn’t automatically get transferred to the next airplane? So, we almost forgot to pick up our luggage while trying to get to our plane. By some stroke of luck, we saw them at the baggage claim track. Dannie, always the good Samaritan, saw some people that we met at the Vietnam airport about to go through Customs without their luggage and went to warn them. They offered him a beer, but he’s like, “Lol underage.” Hahahhahaha.

So, we pick up our luggage and go through customs, and find ourselves up at the bag check-in again, on the main floor. Uhh.. this seems inefficient, but we checked our bags in, realised that we had some time, and saw some large conspicuous doors. Feeling adventurous and a little rebellious, we stepped out and breathed Chinese air. Stepped on Chinese soil. Took pictures of Chinese cars.

We decided it was time for food. My brother, ever-so-white, went to get some Burger King. Meanwhile, I decided to get myself some delicious Kimchi Ramen. Oh yes, it was gooooood.

A small scale model of what I can only assume is Shanghai.

On the plane, I felt ever so worldly as I pulled out the mish mash of bills that I had in my wallet. From left to right: American, Canadian, Chinese, Vietnamese. I guess that’s alphabetical too. My (not-so-) secret nerd habit is my foreign money collection. That shit is cool! Maybe I’ll take pictures of it one day. I’ve just recently organised them into a little display book. :D

Anyway, landing back in Canada was a rush. We touched down at 6:30pm on New Years Eve, got through Customs pretty quickly and just had to wait a long time for our luggage. It was 7:30 by the time we got out, and about 8-ish when we got home. I immediately jumped into the shower to wash 3 weeks worth of Vietnam off of me, and went into super speed mode to get ready to go New Years clubbing. Ffffuuuu, stressful, but the night was fun.

And thus concludes my trip to Vietnam. For real this time.

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Afterlife

Visiting Vietnam, the place where my entire family, before my generation, is from. Where all my grandparents, their parents, and their parents’ parents were born and buried. Because I’m unable to visit their grave sites very often, we do visit them at least twice when we are in the country.

My mother came from a Catholic family, and my father a Buddhist family, although now he’s since converted. With these two different religions, the kinds of cemeteries that we visit are rather different, in both ritual and aesthetic. Yes, the cemeteries are segregated depending on the religion. Actually, I don’t know if that’s how it is in North America or not because I don’t visit cemeteries here.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the idea of the Christian/Catholic afterlife. Be good and you go to Heaven. Be bad and you go to Hell. The Catholic side of my family all resided in the rural areas outside of the main city of Hai Phong, so it is only natural that this is where their plots lay, in the primarily catholic village’s cemetery. The road to get there is rocky and really difficult to get to in a large group or with a car. The path is narrow and broken up, with large rocks and deep “pot holes.” It’s hard to deftly maneuver a bicycle there even, as you just hit the rocks and keel over.

The graves themselves are angular, efficient, and have a powerful presence to them. They’re mostly made of ceramic tiles, though some can be brick or marble even. Each has a small vase packed with dirt that you stick incense in. When you arrive at the plot, we say a prayer, individually light incense, and greet the deceased. Depending on the occasion (anniversary of death, etc), songs can be sung and/or the rosary is recited.

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream.

In Buddhist beliefs of the afterlife, after you die, you are either reborn as a different being, be it another human or a creature. This is the belief of reincarnation. However, you can also enter Nirvana, which is the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven. Depending on the sect of Buddhism, Nirvana can mean different things, mostly a synonym of ‘reaching Enlightenment,’ such as achieving a ‘purified, superior mind,’ or ridding oneself of craving, pleasure, or ignorance and therefore ridding oneself of suffering. Anyone who achieves Enlightenment becomes a Buddha and is no longer reincarnated, but instead enters Nirvana.

As you can see, Vietnamese Buddhist cemeteries are quite different from Catholic ones, even though they do have some similarities. Part of my family has a mausoleum-like area where much of my paternal family members are buried. The architectural details of both the graves and larger structures call back to an ancient Oriental aesthetic. They remind me of pictures I’d seen of the Forbidden City of Beijing, except a bit more morbid.

At a Buddhist cemetery, we also burn incense as a way of honouring and communicating with the dead. Instead of praying, however, we sort of have a very surreal, one-sided conversation with our ancestors. I always feel weird doing anything besides greeting them. My grandfather died about 4 months before I was born, so I never met him, and the only other relative that I know of buried there is my uncle, whom I’d never met. I think my father once said that he wanted to be buried here too.

At the entrance of the cemetery, there’s a little shop/shack that you can buy incense and other things. One of these other things are stacks of fake American bills as well as yellow paper with Chinese-like characters on them. We buy these leafs of very thin paper and burn them in the designated pits by the grave site (see above). The idea behind this is that the money must also ‘die,’ aka be burned, and pass onto the dead, so that they can spend it, wherever they are. I’m now realizing that this doesn’t quite fit in with the Buddhist afterlife theory, so maybe we’re not Buddhist? But I think we are. My parents’ English is not perfect. Maybe my father’s side was Taoist, which is also prevalent in that area of the world.

In one sense: afterlife doesn’t exist in terms of a Taoist belief system

It’s in life that we are eternal in Taoism. The afterlife is within life itself. We are of the Tao when living and upon death are the Tao again. Death is the point where your essence is not you, non being… Yet it’s always you as we are always of the Tao, But your expression of your life is within life.

There are also some variations where it’s a belief of Buddhist-Taoist hybrid. I remember when I was younger, I watched a Chinese movie where this woman died, but being unable to move on to the next life, her body got trapped inside an umbrella which was left in the attic of an old house. A very long time later, a man found the umbrella, opened it, and freed her ghost, but she was still unable to move on. Through the story, the man fell in love with her and would buy her beautiful garments, but of course, since she was a ghost, she was unable to wear them. So, he burned them, and then they would appear in her ‘realm,’ for lack of a better word, and then she would be able to wear them. I think this is kind of what happens to the money.

I also visited another (let’s just stick with) Buddhist cemetery on the way to Hue, in the village that my grandparents came from. It was my first time there, and I saw my great-grandparents’ graves. They were finishing up a tomb encasing there, moving an urn to its proper place in my family’s plot. There were groups of grave-tomb-things, each with an urn placed on top. They were mostly in pairs but some with three or four in a row.

It was easier to draw a picture. At the top was the shrine and grave of my ancestors, which were probably 4 or more greats above my grandparents, so it went a long way back. Each row represents a generation, their children, their spouses, etc. I don’t exactly know how it works, but that’s the gist of it. It’s like a macabre family tree. This is closest I’ve ever been to my actual roots. I’ve always been so jealous of the people that can say, “I can trace my family back to this century, or this person.” It gives you a sense of history, that I think, maybe, I might be missing.

At the back of the plot, there was a tiny bump about 2 feet by 1 feet, and maybe a foot high, with a bunch of snack wrappers on it, as well as incense sticking out. I thought that was terribly rude, until I overheard that it was a family member’s child’s grave. That gave me intense chills as I was standing right beside it. It was a two year old boy, playing by the river or a hill, one second looking away, and he fell and hit his head on a rock. He wasn’t old enough to get his own large urn-holder thing, so they buried him at the back of the plot, marked only by the offerings of sweets on a pile of dirt, overgrown with grass.

There are so many unmarked graves here, either unidentified bodies, those from the war, or families were just too poor to be able to afford to build anything–they could only pay for the plot of land. The hour that we spent here was unnerving, and I felt my breathe caught in my chest the entire time; like I was afraid to breathe, much less speak.

Walking to and from the car as especially nerve-wracking because in addition to being an incredibly bumpy and hilly path (as with in the Catholic cemetery), there were unmarked graves everywhere. I was on the edge of tears trying not to step on someone’s final resting place. Aside from being extremely haunting, however, it was elegiacally beautiful. It was a foggy day, fresh from the rain, and the mist hung in the air. The cemetery was in the middle of nowhere and haze stretched far across the fields.

And that is the story of cemeteries I visited in Vietnam. I think this is the last post on Vietnam. The posts following this will return to normal, Canadian life, what I’ve been up to, and of course, food. Hope you enjoyed my tour of Vietnam.

Tombs and Temples

We spent the day in Hue going to the tourist attractions, namely visiting the tombs and temples of the emperors of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty. Yes, I’m a descendant of royalty. HA. Me and half of Vietnam. There were seven in Hue; we went to two of them. The last one we tried to go to was closed so we went and bought tea and treats in bulk instead.

The first place we went to was Chi Kiem temple. It was the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc (1829-1883), his predecessors, and his minor wives. Tu Duc was the fourth out of thirteen emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, and was the last emperor of independent Vietnam. He ascended the throne in 1847 after the death of his father, Thieu Tri.

He had 104 wives (playaaa), but had no children because he was rendered sterile after a bout of small pox as a child. During his reign, he signed away many of Vietnam’s provinces and it was the year after his death that Vietnam lost its independence and became a French colony, or protectorate.

The tomb grounds are amazing. Picturesque, calm, rustic, and beautiful.

Where the Emperor was buried.

Architectural detail

As with a lot of older civilizations, they like to be buried with their army, or icons of their army, so that they may protect them in the afterlife.

Our next place was the Khai Dinh tomb, which took 11 consecutive years to build (1920-1931). This place was beautiful in its own unique right. A blend of both eastern and western art and materials. Many of the intricate mosaics were made mostly of glass and ceramics. Absolutely fantastic, amazing stuff.

Emperor Khai Dinh was the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, and only ruled for 9 years. During his reign, he was bent on restoring the empire to its former glory and prestige, but instead of achieving this, all he did was approve and push forward the French’s colonial powers and decisions. Many regard him as merely a puppet for the French colonial institution. While letting them take control of the country, he lounged back in his palace of grandiose splendor. He died in 1925 in poor health and suffering from drug addiction.

There were three ish flights of stairs to get to the final big tomb area, all the way up a hill, but the view from the top was amazing. Stretching far out, you can see all the hills and valleys, and the break between the hills. So green.

 

Hue

The trip to Hue was long, grueling, and mildly rewarding. Hue is what we call the central region of Vietnam. The country is split up into 3 distinct parts, Bac (North), Hue (middle), and Nam (South). Only us in the North speak proper Vietnamese, HAHAH. No, really, all them other Vietnamese people speak some kind of wackadoodle. Those in the South have an annoying high pitched whine that goes along with their speaking, and the Hue people seem to speak a whole ‘nother language. “English, motherfucker. Do you speak it?!” Or rather, Vietnamese. Seriously.

Our first stop was to visit my paternal grandparents’ village, where we, apparently, have a bunch of family that I’ve never heard of. Even my dad rarely go to see them. They live about 3 hours south of Hai Phong. It was weird seeing all these people. The village was very run down and poor, and their house, dark, as it is with most Vietnamese villages in the rural areas.

Both my grandparents were from this village, and way back, probably in the 30’s, they both left the village to go to the city of Hai Phong. They weren’t together, and I’m not sure if they knew each other, actually, but what I do know is that they met in the city and got married, had kids, and my grandfather started his bus business. That’s where my dad was born.

We didn’t stay there too long, just long enough for a short visit, and then we made our way further south to Hue. Including the 3 hour trip to my grandparents’ village, it was probably a 16 hour trip. This was our first food stop. Built on top of some body of water, it was a rather nice idea. We were suspended over the water, with a great view of the fish/shrimp/waterlife farms. My awe at the place didn’t last long though, because I had to pee.

What’s this photo of? What are you showing me? A room? with a little hole in the back? A white box filled with questionable fluid? I thought you had to go to the bathroom. Yeah, I had to go to the bathroom. WTF IS THIS SHIT. I walked in and out of the bathroom umpteen times, refusing to go to the bathroom in this forsaken place. However, we were 6 hours out from the city and another 10 hours from our destination. Yes, I had to suck it up and pee in this bathroom. You can’t even call it a bathroom.

How do you pee there, you ask? You squat, pee on the floor, and the floor is tilted back and the fluids go through that hole. What about the solids? What do you do about the solids?!?! I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

So I go back to our room to eat, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I sat there for the better part of the hour, utterly grossed out, and not having the stomach to eat anything there. It doesn’t help that it was seafood either, and I don’t particularly like seafood. Especially the kind that looked like it was fished out from the muddy waters beyond. I prefer to not know where my food come from k, thanks.

Fish from beyond, that was probably not half bad tasting.

Other food that I just couldn't eat.

Melodramatic, you say? You weren’t there, man. It was horrible. I am just very thankful that I don’t have to put up with that every day. It was a bit of a shock to my system, and I sat at the table, zombified. It’s times like that moment that I wish I were a boy.

In other news, when I got over that, and we got to Hue, we had some rather spectacular dishes. Delicious! A lot of North people don’t like the Hue way of doing things, but I’m down for different foods.

Noodles, bean sprouts, pork blood.

Bun Reu Cua. My favourite dish, Hue Style. Vermicelli with egg/crab mushballs, in a tom yum-like broth, with onions, chili sauce, and cilantro on top.

Chicken

Tofu

Front: boiled pork. Back: Pork and shrimp deliciousness. My favourite way that you can prepare pork, but I don't know what it's called in English. "Thit Lon Kho" though the spelling might not be right. It's a sweet and tangy sautee or something.

Fresh coconut juice (back) and fresh sugarcane juice aka "nuoc mia" (front)

Orange juice.

Passionfruit juice. Yes, I was addicted.

East Meets West

Growing up in Canada, when you go away, you begin to miss things that you take for granted while in Canada. You miss the comfort of not worrying about lizards crawling up your snatch every time you go pee. Is someone going to try to grab your purse when you’re not paying attention? (Trick question. You should always be paying attention.) So, especially if you’re younger, you start wishing you were back home, in the comfort of air conditioning (or rather at this time of the year, heating). Not having to wear sandals in the house because the people are too dirty to clean their house properly. So, we find the closest thing we have to home and we cling to it.

In Vietnam, it was Parkson Place. It was clean. Like, shiny clean. With actual clothes on racks, albeit ugly clothes. There were staff, and even a cafe. On the top floor, was an arcade and food court. And a bowling. How many times did we go bowling in those three weeks? I lost count, but I know that my score just kept getting progressively worse instead of improving. But my tolerance for Heineken improved, so worth it? Heineken is the only decent beer available there.

My brother’s favourite meal was KFC. Yes, you can groan now. All the choice in the world, and food you can’t get halfway around the world, and you go for KFC. Though, I’m not going to lie, I also partook in the finger-lickin’ goodness. There’s just something so satisfying about tasting familiarity in a place that’s so very outside your comfort zone.

There were also some Vietnamese renditions of American classics that weren’t half bad. Of course, we just wanted to try it to see what it was like. The pizza wasn’t too bad, it was just.. different. Everything we did in Vietnam, just felt so (surprise, surprise) Vietnamese. Not hating on my culture, but there’s only so much I can take.

The spaghetti actually came out better than expected. It was really just a tomato sauce with carrots, that tasted a bit watery, but some people I know have made worse spaghetti sauce. So, A for effort, Vietnam. A for effort.

See Vietnam

Yes, so a lot of these posts are photo-dumps, but I took a lot of pictures in Vietnam. ~1500 on my Nikon, and ~1500 on my iPhone. (Although, now my hard drive refuses to turn on, so hopefully I still have my photos. :| )

Vietnam has some beautiful landscapes. Absolutely gorgeous. Aside from the food, (and I guess, family), looking at the scenic part of it is one of my favourite things. Though, I don’t have many pictures of the city-life, but enjoy the scenic tour of the homeland.

Close to my village.

On the waters of Hai Phong

Behind my uncle's house.

Foggy river.

On a drive up North.

A bridge in Hue.

Oh my, so artsy. This symbolizes the life of an average Vietnamese person. All work, no play. LOL. I kid. Vietnamese people are all play.

This is not the archetype for Vietnamese architecture.

Cat Ba

Cat Ba is beautiful. It’s a little island off the coast of Hai Phong. I’ve got a bit of family there. My aunt and all of her children and grand children are there. My aunt owned the ice factory that’s there and her kids (and my other aunt) own hotels and cafe/restaurants there. My parents bought a plot of land a little ways off from the main strip and plan to move there when their parental duties here are over. It’s a scary thought, yes, I have quite a bit of ties to the place.

We were in Vietnam for just under three weeks, and because I didn’t plan my itinerary there, I was constantly hustled hither thither and after a bit of begging my parents, they finally found some time for us to go to visit Cat Ba, although we only spent one night there. We got on the ferryboat at around 10 am, after breakfast. The ride actually only takes about 20-30 minutes, so the island isn’t too far away.

It was a very impromptu trip. We basically decided after we finished eating, that we’d go to Cat Ba for the day, ergo I didn’t have a proper camera on me, only my phone. So here’s a small snapshot of what kind of tiny islands you pass on the way there. The first time my mom’s family tried to send her away as a refugee to Hong Kong (and subsequently Canada), they put her on a boat off of Cat Ba in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, there were coast guard equivalents patrolling the area and my mom got let off on one of these islands. “Monkey Island,” they called it. That was her first unsuccessful attempt to get out of the country, but I digress. These mountainous islands are gorgeous.

Most of the people living on this island are by the coast, where the ferry docks are. There are two main streets, perpendicular to each other, that really is all that the island has to offer. It’s a popular tourist attraction, so you’ll see a lot of white people there. The main strip is just one road and it’s not that long. It might take you 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other (if you don’t go between the hills towards the beaches).

Close by is the famous Ha Long Bay, which we went to about 7 years ago, last time I was in Vietnam. There were a lot of stairs, and then we walked down into this huuuuge cave, all lit up with lights and things. We didn’t have much time this time though. We spent one night there and left the next day at around noon. Sad.

I took a short video of us on top of the boat on the way to Cat Ba: