Books are piling up…

So books, so little time.  I also just bought a bunch of vietnamese books while I was in Viet Nam.  It’ll take me a good long time to deciper (I bought a vietnamese-english dictionary while I was at it), so i’m holding off on starting on those.  My goal is to finish the books I’ve started in the next 2 months so I can finally move on to better books:
  • Stumbling on Happiness
  • The Tapestries
  • Wild nights
  • That Amy Tan book that I couldn’t get past the first 30 pgs of (which coincidentally my brother brought on our Asia trip w/ him)

Oh and for work I should finish reading the Bella Sara books.  They’re a short read, so I’ll squeeze those in for a context switch when I need.  =)

Stories from Viet Nam

One of the big tourist spots in Sai Gon is Ben Thanh Market — it’s a large flea market that is a shopper’s nightmare and paradise all in one.  If you like to negotiate and bargain, it’s the place for you.  But if you bruise easily — mentally and physically, mabye it’s not your cup of tea.  Especially before new years, it’s crowded and you can expect you’re gonna get bumped into, pushed, stepped on, etc. 
There are stalls and stalls of merchants many of which sell the EXACT same things at outrageously different prices.  For example, the same souvenir starts at 25.000VND at one place will start at 10.000VND.  (Note: 17.500VND = 1USD)  Ok, maybe that’s not so outrageous… but when you’re thinking in THOUSANDS of Dong, it seems like a lot more than it actually is.  Keep in mind, a lunch from a street vendor costs from 15k – 30k.  So, I did the same thing I did in China… pick a place at random, bargain it down to where I walk away and they aren’t calling me back and now I’ve got my low point.  Now that I know the low point, it’s a point of reference for future bargaining.  At markets like these — especially high tourist attractions — the mark-ups are extraordinary.  Here’s where mental stamina is necessary — 
  • you have to be patient and willing to hit several places if you really want to get a good price
  • you have to know how much you’re willing to pay and stick to your price.
  • you’re gonna face some pretty hard sales, people swarming you, people clinging, people following you, and sometimes people insulted by your low offer.  You have to be able to withstand it
  • you might think you got a great deal one day (e.g. my mom thought she did an excellent job bargaining down to 100k) but the next day hit another vendor selling it for cheaper (in her case 50k — half as much!).  Over and over again we’d go from one vendor to another and see lower and lower prices… it was SO aggravating — particularly when we bought bulk at a higher price.

My brother had a whole new tactic.  Every where we went and everyone we spoke to always commented that he looked like a foreigner.  We all look like foreigners to Vietnamese in Viet Nam — we’re what’s called Viet Kieu — Vietnamese who immigrated away.  However, my brother wasn’t even thought to be Vietnamese at all.  This, my brother quickly learned, worked in his favor.  His gig was to bargain in English as a half Thai / half Chinese living in America.  This was pure genius!  As the vendors consulted each other in Vietnamese, my brother understood everything!  He knew when they’d be willing to make the sale, how much profit they’d be making, etc.  It was hilarious!  One night, he was mid-bargaining (in English) and pretty close at getting his asking price (and enjoying the inside Vietnamese conversation amongst the sales people).  Then my mom, finished with her night’s shopping, walks up to my brother and hands him the money leftover from her purchases.  My mom… who is CLEARLY Vietnamese… handing money to my bro who is supposedly half Thai / half Chinese… the gig was up!  =)

Besides the shopping and the eating in Ben Thanh Market, one day we saw a huge crowd starting to form.  Apparently, what happened was a thief pickpocketed from the city and ran into the market hoping to get lost in the crowd.  The guy was smart though.  He changed he took off his shirt while in the market.  As he was running, he was calling out "THIEF!" making it seem like he was chasing after the thief himself.  About 5 minutes later, the crowd barely dissipated when it formed back up again… they caught him!  A handful of cops, had cuffs on him and were leading him back through the Ben Thanh Market hands behind his back.   I’m sure in part this was meant to be a lesson for all to see as well as reassurance to tourists — thieves beware and tourists be at ease, for the VN cops are on top of it! 

Besides that incident, VN seems to be a much much safer place than 6 years ago when I was myself almost the victim of purse-snatching.  It was even worse 8-10 years ago when my mom saw a guy getting pick-pocketted right in front of her while her friend whispered in her ear quietly, "Don’t scream or he might hurt you."  These days VN enjoys and values tourists and what it does for their economy so these petty thefts have diministed quite a bit.  I noticed a large number of tourists in Sai Gon, many of whom walked obliviously with backbags on their back, digital SLRs dangling around their necks and faces in a street map and they were perfectly ok.  I’m glad Sai Gon is more inviting to tourists these days.  It’s a beautiful city and more of the world should see it.


Story from Hong Kong to Thailand — the hunt for Starbucks…

My bro collects Sbux mugs and all throughout Asia, wherever we spotted a Starbucks we dropped in to check out the mugs… and a cup of joe.  Cheap as the food may be, a Starbucks latte always cost the same.  It’s quite insane actually.  For $7, we got a delicious chicken & rice lunch with a free soda and a latte still costs $4.

In Singapore, the really nice sbux city mug was the one with the merlion on it.  Our hotel was right on the main strip of Singapore.  It was probably the best hotel we stayed in and was right next to all the malls, shopping, etc.  From the day trips, we knew sbux was right around the corner from us, so off we went.  We hit one starbucks and didn’t see the mug we wanted.  So I asked where the next closest mug was.  Thankfully, it was right next door in the mall.  Swell!  So off we go!  We get there and again we’re dismayed by the lack of MerLion mug.  So I ask the two guys there if they have any more mugs and they don’t.  They offered to call around to the other starbucks to see which one had it.  So while my brother & I sat, they offered us the new promotional chai vanilla latte.  Then the other sbux guy meanwhile tracked down the MerLion mug for us!  Even though the other store was close, the sbux guys even drew us a map!  Hands down, this was the best sbux service we’ve ever had!  So we walked the 3-4 blocks to the starbucks and voila!  MerLion mug!

In Thailand, Sbux was a rare thing.   I think I saw all of 3 or 4 the whole time we were there.  There were 4 starbucks within as many blocks from our hotel in Singapore!  On our way back from our day trip on the tour, my bro & I started paying closer attention to sbux we saw on the road and counting blocks back to our hotel hoping we wouldn’t have to trek too far.  I didn’t have to say it, but I think he knew that if it ws more than a few blocks away, it was a journey he’d be taking on his own.  =)  Low and behold though, there was a sbux only 2 blocks away!  And another mug secured.  Success!!

If the trip were shorter and if I didn’t have to lug so much baggage around, I would have gotten a few mugs myself, but as it was, I left the collecting to my brother and instead just enjoyed the sweet nectar that is caffeine and milk.


Story from Malaysia

One of the things our tour guide in Malaysia was really excited about us experiencing was this fancy buffet dinner with cultural show.  She did everything she could in preparation of that evening to cram as many facts and stories she could so we could fully enjoy the show and even understand some of what we were seeing.  It was a great dinner and a lovely show.  At the end of the show, the guests were invited on stage to have their picture taken with all the beautiful performers.  Dinner guests cycled on and off the stage.  Finally my mom & I got on stage and smiled nicely for my brother and dad who stood in the crowd in front of the stage taking our pictures. 
Then all of a sudden I hear my brother calling out my name and pointing up.  I look up and there’s a FIRE!  One of the spot lights was directed straight up at the ceiling and caught fire.  It was a small fire and I stood kind of amazed more than scared but then snapped out of it and grabbed my mom and started heading off stage.
As I’m heading off stage, I hear the evening’s emcee say in a very calm, almost serene voice: "Everyone, please stay calm.  Everything is ok.  If someone could please find a fire extinguisher."  A guy gets a fire extinguisher and starts spraying the small fire.  The emcee, "Yes, good.  Everyone, stay calm.  The fire is almost out."  And then the fire erupts again.  Heheh.  By this point, I’m almost outside the restaurant (as is most everyone else) but I steal a few glances back when I hear the emcee say, "Sir, please, a little more fire extinguisher."  You have to imagine this emcee saying all this as if she were saying, "Yes, a little more cream in my coffee please."  She was unbelievably casual about the whole thing.  It was hilarious.
I make fun, I’m sure her calmness prevented people from just stampeeding out of there and hurting themselves or others.  It probably wasn’t memorable in the way our tourguide wanted it to be for us, but it’ll be memorable nonetheless.

Asia – Day 13 – Viet Nam

We’re now in Viet Nam — well, we have been for the past couple days but I’ve been too busy to blog, so let’s get everyone caught up:
Bangkok – Days 8-11
Tour Guides: Phong, Anna, Thong
  • Grand Palace – this was the old "forbidden kingdom" of the King of Thailand.  Some of the structures here are painted in real gold!  The place is huge and the gold rooftops are beautiful when the catch the light.  All the sculptures and buildings are beautifully crafted.  It’s not as large as the Forbidden Kingom but it’s more landscaped and better kept up.  Forbidden Kingdom doesn’t have a lot of plant life there but the Grand Palace has lots of plush greenery that’s been well-kept
  • Snake Farm – I don’t know the name of the place, but we went to a snake farm where they harvest the snake’s natural properties to create oils, pills, etc. that they then coax you into buying to cure whatever ailment  you’re feeling.  It’s such a hoax (I think) but the power of suggestion is powerful, so if you believe it’ll work, it just might.  My brother and I talked my parents out of spending any money here.  The cool part though was before they made their sales pitch.  They had a dude playing and wrestling with different snakes.  He’d smack the snakes head down and dodge when the snake attacked him.  There was even a snake that they had trained to play dead!  No joke, the snake seriously turned onto its back exposing its belly.  And it just laid there until the snake trainer told it to flip back over.  He brought the snakes over for everyone to pet.  At one point, he was biting one of he snakes while holding it out for everyone to see.  After he let go of the snake, it pooped all over teh stage… heheheh… I think he might have even got some of it in his mouth because he rinsed out his mouth right away.
  • Pattaya — Sin City of Thailand apparently.  We were getting coached by our Tour Guide to enjoy ourselves, see all that Pattaya has to offer and don’t think about anyone judging us.  He promised to take everyone to temple to confess whatever we did in Thailand.  =)  And at the end of our time in Pattaya, he said we should leave everything we did here in Thailand and not carry it back with us else it might give us nightmares.  Hehehh… he’s a funny guy.  Stuff we saw in Pattaya:
    • Nong Nooch Garden — We saw trained elephants do everything from dancing, riding a tricycle, and playing soccer.  They were pretty comical and amazingly well trained.  Afterwards, you could pay a couple bucks to pose with the elephants.  I chose the elephant that coils its trunk around you at the waist and picks you up.  Pretty freakin’ cool!  At the same place, my brother was able to pose with a Tiger and actually sit there and hug it.  Crazy!
    • 2-hour Thai Massage — they give pretty strong massages in Thailand.  I seriously think the small Thai woman massaging me could kill me with her bare hands if she wanted. 
    • Tiffany Show — This was a pretty awesome show.  It’s the most popular caberet show in Thailand.  All (most) of the performers are men who’ve had a sex change and they’re all GORGEOUS!  I was amazed.  Some of them may have changed over a bit too late and still look pretty masculine but most of them were beautiful.  If I didn’t know they were trannies beforehand, I wouldn’t have guessed it.  That’s how beautiful they were. The only thing is they don’t take good care of their teeth.  If they had nice pearly whites, they’d really be hot but the yellow crooked teeth ruin it all for me. 
  • Temple – As promised, we were taken to a Buddhist temple as our last tourist stop… I guess as a way to cleanse or do any whatever repenting you need from whatever naughty things you did in Pattaya.  =)  I think the worse people did was drink and watch nuddie shows.  The majority of the tour group were old married couples.
  • Another Thai massage – only an hour this time, but this place, they climb all over you… sit on you, step on you, etc.  My brother got walked on.  My masseuse weighed more than me I think, so I was grateful she didn’t try to walk on me.

Our final half day in Bangkok was spent at the mall before we headed to Viet Nam.

We’ve been in Sai Gon now for the past 5 days.  I’ve been eating all sorts of good stuff — fresh fruit, sugar cane juice, coconut juice, etc.  YUMMY!  It wasn’t until last night that I got sick from something and started throwing up.  The last time I threw up was in Ha Noi six years ago.  Something about VN doesn’t agree with my stomach. Thankfully this time it’s only coming out of one end and has seemed to subsided.  It sucks being sick when you’re traveling… not a good feeling. 

Tomorrow we head down to Ca Mau which is where my family is from.


Asia – Day 8 – Bangkok

Since I last posted, we’ve traveled from Hong Kong to Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (and Putrajaya) and now to Bangkok (and Pattaya).  It’s all a bit of a blur for me, but here’s a quick recap:
Singapore – Days 4 & 5
Tour Guide: Francis
  • Jurong Bird Park – We caught a bird show where a parrot sang to us in three languages including Happy Birthday in English.  Very impressive.  Then we caught another bird show with all the big birds — hawks, vultures, eagles, etc.   One of the tricks was to have the huge vultures fly through the crowd right above people’s heads.  One of the birds along its path clipped my camera hand with its wings…. scared the bejeebers out of me!  I was videotaping and you can see the shake… I’m surprised I didn’t screem.  =)
  • Merlion Park – The merlion is the symbol of Singapore.  It’s a lion’s head on a fish’s tail.  The story has it that Singapore used to be a fishing town until a king saw a lion and made a sacrifice to it in order for the town to survive and thrive and so it did.  The lion represents the "new" singapore and the fish the old singapore
  • Sentosa – this is a resort town/island.  The best part here was the Songs of the Sea show which was a light show projected onto mist that was sprayed into the air.  It was pretty darn awesome.  Very hard to describe just how cool it was.

Kualu Lumpur – Days 6 & 7
Tour Guide: Diane

  • Thean Hou Temple – As temples go, this was just… "eh".  It wasn’t all that magnificent but I always like going to temples, so I enjoyed it all the same.
  • Twin Towers at KLCC – the twin towers were awesome. Diane was a fun tour guide and bribed us with out of print 2 Ringit notes for answering quiz questions correctly.  Thanks to her there are facts I actually still remember from Malaysia that I probably wouldn’t have.  For example, the twin towers have 88 floors.  The skybridge connecting the two are between floors 41 and 42.  One tower was built by a Japanese construction company and the other by a Korean one.  The two were built simultaneously.  The Japanese finished earlier by 1 day… however the Koreans had to build the bridge.  The building was completed in 1996; however, the grand opening ceremony wasn’t held until August 8, 1999 — the reason was due to Feng Shui and Chinese "lucky numbers".  The number 8 is very good luck so you’ll see lots of 8’s everywhere.  The number 9 sounds like the same word in chinese as the word for longevity, so it’s considered a lucky number meaning "forever" or "longevity".  Therefore, 8/8/99 is a super auspicious date.
  • Palace – We visited the King’s palace and had our pictures taken with the guards who sat on horses at the gate.  The guards have to stand/sit there for 4 hour shifts but the horses get swapped out every hour.  Right after I had my picture taken, the horse beside me pooed… I guess I just brought it out in him.  =O
  • Monument – We visited a monument that I’ll have to check the name of later.  It was a lot like a monument in DC — the one of the soldiers holding a flag up.  In fact, I think it was built after someone had seen the one in DC and decided it was a neat way to honour the country’s soldiers.
  • Putrajaya (the new city) – a new city was established an the new government center is being relocated there.  We had their famous chicken rice dish — pretty darn yummy and at 7 Ringits (2USD) it’s freakin’ cheap!

Phew!  That was a lot.  I’ll have to write more on Bangkok later.


Asia – Day 2 – Hong Kong

We had a very full day in Hong Kong… they whipped us all over the place…
  1. Dim sum.  The dim sum was delicious but as with all other meals on this trip since I guess it was prepaid for they just brought specific dishes.  The whole fun of dim sum is being able to point and pull things off a cart.  Well, that’s the fun for me anyhow. 
  2. After Dim Sum we headed to the Waterfront Promenade and Avenue of the Stars.  The Avenue of the Stars is sort of the equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Chinese Grauman’s Theatre with the footprints — except it has chinese stars like Andy Lau, Jacky Chan and Bruce Lee to name a few.  It has both a star and the actor’s hand print.  I of course sought out Andy Lau’s square; he’s got respectably manly hands.  Jet Li has pretty stubby small hands that are about the size of mine.
  3. We were supposed to visit a temple but when we got there it was too crowded, so we changed plans and instead went to Victoria Peak.  We traversed pretty windy switchbacks up a mountain (all paved roads so nothing too dangerous or scary except we’re in a big tour bus with other big tour buses careening towards us).  At the top, there was a nice 360 view of Hong Kong and a huge mall.  =)
  4. Next was lunch on a floating boat at Jumbo Restaurant.  The food was eh and supposedly the view and experience was what made this a cool spot but honestly this wouldn’t have been something I would have sought out to do myself if I was visiting on my own.
  5. For the ladies in the group, the next stop was a gem/jewelry factory.  I learned of a new hot gem called – Chalcedony.  I’ll have to do some googling to see what’s so great about it (or if you beat me to it, send me email and let me know if it’s as special as they make it out to be).
  6. After that was a stroll around Repulse Bay Beach.  This was timed perfectly at sunset so there were lots of beautiful pictures of the beach but the main attraction was the numerous statues of Buddha of all varieties — Thai, Indian, Chinese, etc.  It was awesome.  If I were on my own, I would have easily spent 2-4 hours here.
  7. Then it was off to dinner for an all-you-can eat Korean/Japanese BBQ.  This was pretty yummy.  We were in a bit of a rush to get to our next spot, which wasn’t so much a problem for me but I think my brother could have spent 2-4 hours here.  =)
  8. After dinner, we rushed to catch the Hong Kong Harbour Light Show.  In fact, they had to hold the ferry for us because we couldn’t get there in time (really, you can’t rush an all-you-can-eat bbq dinner — did they really think they could get us out of there within an hour??).  The light show was pretty cool but it could have been designed a bit better.  I didn’t have the emotional reaction to it I expected and I for sure thought the end would be marked by something truly spectacular.  But instead it just ended.  Just lke that.  No fanfare.
  9. Last stop of the evening was the Ladies Market, which really is just an outdoor flea market like place where there’s blocks and blocks of small stalls and alleyways with vendors selling all sorts of goods.  Here is a place I could have easily spent 4-5 hours.  With the 1 hour we had, my mom and I barely made it through 2 alleyways.  You really need time at these places so you can haggle and bargain your way around.  The beauty of these places is that you’ll find the same thing 2 stalls down so if one vendor won’t give you the price you’re looking for, the next one might.

And that was our day!  Phew!  They certainly do pack in a lot.  I knew before even going on this trip that the whole guided tour thing wasn’t my cup of tea and now going on one for the first time just confirms my issues with these tours.  You spend 30 minutes here, 1 hour there and everything just goes by in a blur.  I like to sit, soak things in, close my eyes and let the place I’m at just envelope me.  I remember just sitting on the Great Wall just gazing over the mountains and standing in the Forbidden City with my eyes closed and imagining what it would have been like when Chinese royalty walked those halls.  Here, we’re herded like cattle and I barely have time to take in one place before we’re herded to the next spot.

I can say one thing though, we’re covering a LOT of ground.  Because we had to shift things around a little, we’ve actually accomplished the iterinary for both days in HK.  I think they’re cooking up other stuff to do tomorrow that wasn’t on the original itinerary.

More photos to come (probably when I get back to the US).

Asia – Day 1 (Hong Kong)

After many many hours on a plane and a few more hours in San Fran waiting to get on a plane, I’m not in HK at a newly built hotel that has free Internet!!  Gotta enjoy this while it lasts.  We landed around 9:30pm and had a late dinner.  It was a 7 course dinner that was D-LISH!  Top dishes were the peking duck, steamed fish, and the salt & pepper short ribs. I’m disappointed there wasn’t a dessert though… not even cut oranges. 
Got to the hotel around 12am and we’ll be starting bright an early tomorrow at 8am!  It’s a full day of touristy stuff on our itinerary, so I’m off to bed!

2009 Reading List

Here’s what I’m considering for my 2009 reading list:
    • Stumbling on Happiness (*)
    • The Tapestries (*)
    • Bartimaeus Trilogy (3) (*)
    • Wild Nights (*)
    • Twilight Series (4)
    • Catfish and Mandala
    • Dear First Lady: Letters to the White House
    • Seeing Vietnam
    • Catcher in the Rye
    • Picture Perfect
    • Harry Potter Series (7)

I also want to read more Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Tom Stoppard, Franz Kafka, and P.G. Wodehouse.  I also want to read some poetry.  I don’t typically read poems, so it’ll be nice to branch out a bit.

More suggestions are welcomed!

2009 New Year’s Resolutions

Here are my goals for 2009:
1) Be a good aunt
2) Be a better long distance friend
3) Make a positive difference in the life of someone I don’t know
4) Understand the depth of my non-profit aspiration/dedication
5) Spoil Rocky
6) Take a risk
7) Finish an entreprenureal effort
8) Drink less coffee
9) Read 20 books
10) Do something silly
Wish me luck!