Halong Bay Quickie

I’m busy and swamped but haven’t posted since Friday and am beginning to shake.  Enter Jake’s post announcing water as his weekly Sunday Post theme, so there, potential time management problem averted. Thank you, Jake.

This is Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most visited areas, which isn’t managing its potential problems very well. You wouldn’t know it based upon what the locals are trying to sell. And not by what you come across in the majority of the travel blogosphere. The latter is a post topic in and of itself, which I’m forced to save for another time.  Suffice it to say that serene scenes like the one above, taken in late October 2010, are fairly rare when the departure pier, below, typically looks like a staging ground for a naval invasion.

Hope you’re enjoying your Sunday more than I’m enjoying mine. :)

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Agent Orange’s Golden Anniversary

These are a few shots I took exactly one year ago today at the Thanhxuan Peace Village, or Lang Hoa Binh Than Xuan, an orphanage, school and clinic in Hanoi set up specifically for victims of Agent Orange. It was also the last time I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star before an appreciative audience.

Fifty years ago this month U.S. forces began dropping Dioxin on Vietnam, a milestone that passed without much fanfare. I mentioned the jubilee anniversary to a colleague. Jaded by a job that forces him to live in an ever-changing 24-hour news cycle, he simply said, “That’s old news.”

This too, I suppose, is old news: wars never end. They leave stories of the dead and legacies for the survivors and maimed. In Vietnam, some of those legacies take on the chilling form of children born with twisted, disfigured limbs or severe retardation. Some enter the world without eyes or sockets, never meant to see. Others have eyes that appear to be just a heartbeat or two from bursting out of their badly misshapen heads. Some are missing fingers, hands and arms. Others toes, feet and legs.  Not much unlike some of the victims left on the battlefield. This is Agent Orange’s third generation.

Even in the bustling streets of Hanoi, home to more than six million people who get around on more than four million motor scooters, it’s not uncommon to still see veterans of the American War, some maimed, some disfigured, many destitute.

From 1961 through 1971, United States forces dumped 20 million gallons, or about 80 million liters, of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant containing an especially virulent form of dioxin, on southern Vietnam. Manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, it was housed in 55 gallon barrels adorned by orange stripes, thus its name. During the aptly named Operation Ranch Hand, whose goal was to deprive the enemy of cover by ridding the countryside of forest and jungle, dioxin was sprayed on more than 20,000 villages and hamlets, leaving more than three million hectares of forest destroyed. “Only we can prevent forests,” was the wry motto. And it worked. Double and triple canopy jungles were wiped out.

The operation ultimately left nearly five million people infected with dioxin. Estimates vary, but on the conservative side of things, some 150,000 children today live with the fallout. Epidemic doesn’t remain too strong a word.

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Lang Hoa Binh Than Xuan is in a gritty neighborhood on the northeastern fringes of Hanoi, about a 40 minute scooter ride from the Hoan Kiem Lake area. I found a reference to it in my pre-trip research – I can’t remember precisely where, sorry. The staff at my hotel had never heard of it. Neither did Thanh, My guide/scooter driver for the afternoon. When we eventually found it, his friendly demeanor and insistence gained us entry.

The facility has three buildings – the first combines dormitories on the second floor and a physical therapy unit on the first. The second is a two-story school, and the third, a three-story building, is the domain for medical treatment. All three combine to wall a fairly large courtyard. We were finally let in a little bit after two. Classes were back in session and the playground was quiet, empty.

We didn’t enter the clinic building, but the other two were modest but functional. In the school building, the paint on the walls of many of the rooms was flaking and peeling. It looked like a dirty map of a far away winter.

The ground floor hallway was musty. Strong odors emanated from one of the restrooms at the far end. In one small room, three young boys cried out towards me. One smiles, one waves shyly, another begins to drool. A fourth, catatonic, simply stares into the ceiling.

According to Vu Son Ha, the administrator we spoke with, 130 children live at the center while others come to attend classes or to receive physical therapy. Their ages vary wildly, from pre-schoolers to twenty-somethings who are forever trapped in the bodies of ten-year-olds. Some are orphans, but most are here because their families can’t afford the care their conditions require. About 50 doctors work at the center along with 10 teachers. Funding initially came mainly from overseas; since 2002 the Hanoi municipal government has provided some assistance.

On a typical day, the children wake up at 6, have breakfast at 7 and then attend classes until 11. Then it’s time for lunch, which is followed by a nap. Then there are more classes from 2 to 4 in the afternoon and dinner is at 5.

We visited a classroom where we were met with an overwhelmingly warm reception. We watched some visiting volunteers guiding the class in a sing-along, and when they were done it was our turn. Thanh jumped right in, leading the class in a Vietnamese folk song. Upon request, I followed up with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Some knew the words.

The largest and most brightly lit area was the art room. Paintings and drawings covered the dirty walls. Several kids were busy working on beautiful, vividly colored needlepoint landscapes. I bought one, a sun-lit pagoda scene. I still have to get it framed. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.

A few more shots.

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Previous posts from Vietnam 2010:

Scooters of Hanoi

More photo organizing from last October’s Vietnam trip.

There are just over 6 million people in Hanoi and about 4.5 million motorbikes. I didn’t count, but there are probably several 100 of each in the short slide show below. And there’s even a really groovy soundtrack.

The Song:

Creative Commons License Test Drive by Zapac is licensed under a Attribution Noncommercial (3.0).

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Previous posts from Vietnam 2010:

Primary school English class, Mu Cang Chai, Vietnam


This is a primary school teacher near the village of Mu Cang Chai, posing with her English class, a pic selected today by the travel site Gadling as it Photo of the Day.

I enjoy visiting schools whenever the opportunity arises. She asked me to stay awhile, and I did, gladly, to converse for a bit with the students. A few had a better command of English than she did.  Her mastery was basic and could barely understand me, even when I spoke very slowly and deliberately.

On average, teachers earn between $150-200 per month in Vietnam, a figure that can rise depending on levels of education. As an incentive to relocate to more remote regions, teachers in rural areas earn more than their colleagues in urban areas.

Vietnam 014, originally uploaded by pirano.

Agent Orange, 35 years later

The shot above was taken in October at the Thanhxuan Peace Village, a clinic, school and orphanage in Hanoi for victims of Agent Orange. Over the course of nine years, US forces dumped 20 million gallons, or nearly 80 million liters, of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant containing an especially virulent form of dioxin, on the southern Vietnamese countryside. That brutal legacy of war ultimately affected nearly 5 million people and is now on its third generation.

I’m working on a longer story on Thanhxuan at the moment, and came across this today – a good two-part report that aired recently on CBS5 in San Francisco. Check it out.

Part 1 -

Part 2 -

via Channel APA

Piran Café in 2010

That’s a boiled dog prepped and ready for sale in a small market in Nanning, China. Apparently, it offended western sensibilities enough to make a related post the most visited on this blog in 2010.

Team WordPress sent out a Your 2010 year in blogging report on New Year’s Day, complete with a Blog-Health-o-Meter attached. I hardly agree with their ‘Wow’ assessment, but I did appreciate the courtesy. And it did make me take a closer look at what transpired here over the past 12 months.

With just 78 posts, 2010 wasn’t nearly as active here as I would have liked. Life gets in the way. Nonetheless, a quick analysis:

I made four visits to Asia last year, and it was good to see that posts related to those trips made up half of the 2010 top-10. I regularly travel through Europe’s biggest cities, all of which are starting to look more and more alike. So it was a welcome gust of fresh air to bebop about northern Vietnam for a few weeks and savor the charm of an unparalleled city like Hanoi. I’m still organizing notes and photos from that October visit to Vietnam and Nanning, China, for a few projects so there is more to come from there.

So, here it is, Piran Café’s 2010 Top-10:

10. I wanted to visit Ho Chi Minh today, but he wasn’t there.
A trip to Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum while he was away in Russia for his annual facelift.

9. Shanghai notebook – Barbarossa Restaurant and Lounge
My favorite spot in People’s Park.

8. Hoa Lo, aka The Hanoi Hilton: an Abbreviated Tour
The place where John McCain stayed.

7. DICAPac WP-S10 waterproof housing test run
A quick test with some foam seahorses in the bathtub and the kitchen sink.

6. How to retrieve your wallet from a pickpocket on a Barcelona metro
Or, how to scare a thief.

5. Tito on Stamps
The former Yugoslav leader’s cult of personality on postage stamps. Considering the time it took to scan all the stamps, this post was the most time consuming, so THANKS for checking it out!

4. 60 minutes in West Bay, Doha
I’m sure there are cities with less heart and soul, but I have yet to visit them.

3. Cablegate in the Balkans – And the winner is:
A quick rundown of the immediate region’s cablegate tags.

2. Gulf coast oil spill, superimposed over Slovenia
An image from a cool google earth plug-in. Is anyone still upset about this?

1. Twenty Minutes in a Pair of Nanning Markets
A boiled dog on a market countertop apparently piques a lot of interest.

All-time most read post? I doubt anything will ever match ‘Did anyone tell the Amazon swimmer about the candirú?‘ unless I come across another fish that enjoys lodging itself into a penis.

Goals for 2011? I’d rather not put them in print. Let’s just see what happens.

Nanning 002, originally uploaded by pirano.

Vietnam People’s Air Force Museum – notebook

Still quite a bit of catching up to do from my trip to Vietnam in October. Here are a handful of shots taken at the Vietnam People’s Air Force Museum, which sits on the eastern edges of Hanoi. A google translation: All for the protection of the skies of our Vietnamese Fatherland.

There’s a lot here that will be of interest to aircraft and history buffs, particularly the many downright odd-looking Soviet-made copters. It did have a certain appeal.

But what I mainly saw when looking at the tons upon tons of metal rusting and rotting in the heat and smog of Hanoi was the insane amounts of money mankind insists on wasting to wreak havoc upon his fellow man. Below, a few downed US planes.

The museum sits at the edge of the unused Bach Mai airfield, providing ample room for this vast junkyard. Obviously, there were many planes parked here permanently, but I found myself more drawn to the plethora of rusted support vehicles. And their awkward and colorful descriptions, like the one describing the bulldozer below:

Bulldoger No UL-269This bulldoger used by 28th air field engineer battalion in building head quarters, missile, radar, shelling fighting battle fiellds, in building secret airfields participating in our airfare and air defense glorieus victories.

I arrived quite late in the day and had less than 30 minutes to rush through the museum building itself. Quite a few of the exhibits focused on the American War and included a good stock of artifacts collected before and after the victory. Here are some Object Collected From US-Puppet Bases in the South on Liberation Day.

Proletarians, Unite! How many of these countries still exist?

Ten additional shots in the slide show below. You can also view them on my flickr stream here.

Gallery not found. Please check your settings.

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Previous posts from Vietnam October 2010:

17 Hours in Nghia Lo


Here are a few shots taken during a relatively brief stop in Nghia Lo (Nghĩa Lộ) in Vietnam’s Yen Bai Province. I got my first street shave here, too.

Nghia Lo is just over 200 kilometers from Hanoi, a leisurely seven-hour trip on a two-lane highway, including plenty of stops. The first two-and-a-half hours meandered through the Red River Delta northwest from the capital; from then on, the terrain turned hilly and then mountainous until reaching the center of the valley.

A fairly sleepy town of about 25,000, Nghia Lo rests in the center of the Muong Lo Valley, the second largest in Vietnam’s northwest after the Muong Thanh Valley which is home to the better known Dien Bien Phu. But Nghia Lo was also the site of two key battles in the IndoChina Wars. In the first, in October 1951, the French managed to repel the Viet Minh from the area, disrupting their supply lines to the north. 3500 Vietminh and over 600 French were killed. Almost exactly a year later the Viet Minh took control. For good. The battles are still very much remembered. I visited on the 19th of October; one man I spoke to told me of a local celebration he attended the day before commemorating the victory.

Besides a stroll down its market street, there isn’t much to do in the town itself, but it’s a good stopping point on the road that leads further north through the amazing Tu Le Valley and the Hoang Lien Son mountain range to Sapa, and for visits to local ethnic communities. (More specifically on these another time).

The area around Nghia Lo is home to several of Vietnam’s ethnic groups, the Thai, Black Thai, White Thai, Tay and H’Mong among them. My guide Duc did a terrific job of identifying them for me and explaining the subtle differences, but I didn’t do a very good job of writing everything down. I would be most appreciate to any and all who can help identify the groups these women belong to. Thanks!







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Previous posts from Vietnam 2010:

The Priciest Booze I’ll Never Drink (or, a note to travelers even more stupid than me)

Despite appearances, this slimy reptile is quite likely not a cobra but Xenochrophis piscator, more commonly known as the Chequered Keelback or Asiatic Water Snake, a common non-venomous species found widely throughout Asia. It’s also harvested by merchants who then stuff it into a bottle of a putrid local alcohol and sell it to unassuming tourists –or just plain dumb people like me– as an exotic snake wine said to have countless medicinal qualities. An all-natural viagra among other things. It’s then promptly confiscated at an EU port of entry, approximately three weeks before you receive a letter informing that you’ve been fined EUR 125.19.

The snake itself  isn’t endangered, but it does appear in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as a ‘Species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation’.

Oftentimes they’re modified post mortem by stretching the skin to make them look like cobras. Black markings are also added with a simple permanent magic marker.

Including the 5 USD (EUR 3.78) street price in Hanoi, my 500ml non-souvenir cost me just under 130 EUR, or about 8 EUR per shot. I hope someone at the Environmental Agency of the Republic of Slovenia (ARSO), who were assigned to identify my short-term pet in a bottle, managed to enjoy a swig or two.

There’s a good study on the Vietnamese snake wine industry in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, published just a few days before I bought the snake, here.

Previous Vietnam posts:

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