Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Good Morning Vietnam!

This morning we pulled this giant ship into the Mekong Delta and took four hours to weave our way up through the waterway to get to our port just outside the center of Ho Chi Minh City.  The delta didn't look wide nor deep enough for this ship, but we made it!  It was awesome to watch Vietnam go by.  Rural areas where it was only green and more industrialized areas where we went under a bridge and past skyscrapers.

Matt and I are on Aquaphytex-duty during out stay, so we're following Pedro and Rosa with their plan to start a couple of experimental water purification plants in Vietnam.  They set up a meeting in a biology research center in Ho Chi Minh, and we headed out with them around 2:00pm for the meeting.

First things first, we needed to catch a taxi to the middle of town, so we walked down the long port area to "immigration."  They just got a new x-ray machine, which means they run absolutely anything in your hand through it, then let you pick it up on the other side.  No questions asked.  It was a nice break from DIA.

There was a taxi driver just on the other side of the street, and Pedro negotiated him for the whole day.  We needed to go to their meeting, pick up Pedro's girlfriend at the airport, then take them to their hotel, and Rosa, Matt and I to downtown to meet the rest of the film crew for dinner.  After the cab driver walking away from the negotiations twice, he finally told us to get in his car.

We got to the research center and headed in, expecting our cab driver to hangout and wait for us until we were ready to head to the next location.  Matt and I were, of course, documenting everything, so we captured Pedro cranking the music in the cab and also announcing things in Spanish on the cab driver's CB radio.  The cab driver found it funny, so we felt like we had gotten back on his good side.

The meeting with the two researchers went really well.  They offered us tea, dried coconut and some interesting candies that looked like it would be hard, but ended up being soft fruit with the texture of sugared rambutan.  After the meeting was over, the two researchers were so pleased with how it went that they wanted to celebrate.  They said that they would go out and get a traditional cake to celebrate the new year and also some Vietnamese wine.  We approved of the idea, so they disappeared from the second floor meeting room and closed the door behind them.

We waited for a little bit, then, needing to find a restroom, I wandered out into the hallway and downstairs.  They were nowhere to be found.  They really did head out to buy us this cake and the wine!  We patiently waited, assuming they wouldn't want to scam us after such a nice meeting.

The reappeared with a green, square lump with the texture of sticky rice on the outside and a bottle of Vietnamese red wine.  They poured out our tea and filled the cups with wine.  They had a geeky quality to them which charmed us.  Since it's the Chinese new year, most businesses are closed and all of the people from their office (including their assistants) were out for holiday.  They didn't quite know their way around a kitchen, per se, but they made due.  They got some mismatching plates and a few forks and spoons, and then proceeded to drop the wine cork into the wine.  The wine was still pourable, so we proceeded with the celebration.

The rice, bean, meat "cake"
They cut us each a piece of the cake, and upon further inspection, I realized that it truly was sticky rice on the outside.  They explained that this cake had a long history and a mystical story behind it - something about the king asking for people to make a cake for the people or something...I should have listened better.  It takes 8 hours to make the cake, and it's made of sticky rice, a sort of mashed and dried green beans around peppered pork, all wrapped up in some large leaves that give the outside the green tinge when they're removed.  It was interesting to say the least.  Not extremely flavorful, but very filling and pleasant as a savory dish.  I think the word "cake" was a mistranslation...

We all finished our toast and had some more green tea poured on top of any leftover wine.  "Very good for digestion," they said.  Alright - we'll go with it.

We headed out to the road to the terrible realization that our taxi driver had driven off.  That didn't seem like a huge problem to our Vietnamese friends, but Pedro was beside himself.  Pedro had left his luggage in the trunk thinking it was going to hang out with us all day.  Bad idea.

"You what?!" cried our new researcher friends.  They sprung into action and pulled around their car to take us in search of the taxi driver.  At this point, it was time to pick up Pedro's girlfriend at the airport, so there was a miscommunication, and we were driven to the airport to search for the place that the cab picked us up.  We tried to explain that we were picked up at the port where our ship was, but were happy to be at the airport where we would be picking up our friend.  Anyway, our researcher friend called the taxi manager and got the people in search of Pedro's luggage to be dropped off at his hotel that evening.  Pedro didn't seem extremely concerned for having just lost his suit, shoes and presents for his girlfriend.

At this point, it was time to line up outside of the terminal and grab Pedro's girlfriend.  Pedro was in search of a place where he could buy flowers, and decided that going in the exit of the airport would be the best option.  He headed to the two security guards who weren't letting anyone in, and told them, in broken English, that his girlfriend was coming and he had to go in to meet her.  He whipped out his passport, and they sent him in.  "For love!" he claims.

We, however, were not allowed to follow.  This little camera crew is not as good at sweet-talking authorities.  We'll need to work on that.

After about a half hour, Pedro and his happy girlfriend walked out of the airport.  We were very happy to see them!  We caught a taxi back into the middle of Ho Chi Minh to drop them off at their hotel, and dropped ourselves off at a location to meet the film crew.  We were now an hour late to our rendezvous time, so Matt, Rosa and I decided to go and exchange some money and find some dinner.

After a wild goose chase around a block, we finally exchanged our American dollars over to Vietnamese dong, and became instant millionaires. One US dollar is the equivalent of 20,000 dongs, so a hundred bucks is the equivalent of 2,000,000 dongs.  Madness!

We were pretty hungry at this point, and the streets were packed with people celebrating the new year in the main square, so we decided to go to a Pho restaurant in the side street that we were on.  It was very delicious!  I didn't know that I liked Pho until now.  The American version is far more bland than what we had.

Any given day in Ho Chi Minh...
After dinner, we decided to explore the main square.  It was completely insane!  The biggest killer in Vietnam are motorcycle accidents.  There are really no street laws or lights or signs that control traffic.  You just go and don't hit anyone.  Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way.  The trick is to walk confidently and steadily and people will drive around you if they can predict where you're going.  If they predict incorrectly, you get hit, and it's your fault.  In other words, you would get the ticket.

I can't even put into words or in pictures how crazy these streets are.  It was a constant flow of cars, trucks, vans, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians going across the traffic.  Nothing stops, it all just flows.  There were families of four on a single moped.  Dogs riding along.  Balloons.  Dried squid. Ice cream.  The whole place was a giant party.  Everything was decorated and blinking for the holiday, and there were street performers and so many children enjoying themselves.

The streets were beautifully decorated.  Each
street and each block had a different theme
and a different look.  This road was
full of lanterns and behind them you
can see pots of yellow flowers.
At one point, we needed to cross the main drag, and we walked and walked to find a place to cross where the traffic would stop.  It was like an eight lane highway with everyone going about 10 miles per hour.  We finally got to a spot where there were two policemen.  We pointed out to the road, and they grabbed us and pushed us out into it, nodding happily that they helped us.  We were in the middle of the madness, and gritted our teeth and just walked.  It was actually quite exhilarating until I turned to find Matt who was holding the camera above his head shooting the whole thing and not looking where he was going.  Ah!  He made it safe, though, and we made a new family rule: no filming while crossing Vietnamese roads.  Agreed.

We wandered around in the magical, chaotic world that is downtown Ho Chi Minh during the new year, and enjoyed the feast of images to capture.  It's a little bit humid here, and it was very hot during the day, but the evening was the perfect temperature.  We could have stayed out all night, but we've got another day of shooting ahead of us and decided to be semi-responsible and head back to the ship for some shut-eye.

So far, I am loving Vietnam.