Chicago in Photos

When life hands you an invitation to a wedding in an obscure part of Indiana, you RSVP YES and immediately start planning your trip to Chicago, gastronomic mecca of the Midwest. Four days and as many nights was enough to just scratch the surface of what the city has to offer, though it would take at least a couple weeks to try all the restaurants that I wanted to.

Things we liked: river tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the food, Hamilton, the coffee, the 606, the International Museum of Surgical Sciences, food again, the American Writers' Museum.

Things we didn't like: ...

Photos below.

Marina City (aka the Corn Cob Buildings) by architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Marina City (aka the Corn Cob Buildings) by architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Mom and me at the Cloud Gate.

Mom and me at the Cloud Gate.

Revival Food Hall in downtown is an excellent lunch spot.

Revival Food Hall in downtown is an excellent lunch spot.

Street art.

Street art.

Library of the International Museum of Surgical Sciences.

Library of the International Museum of Surgical Sciences.

Original manuscript of On the Road below a map of Kerouac's travels at the American Writers' Museum.

Original manuscript of On the Road below a map of Kerouac's travels at the American Writers' Museum.

A biker on the 606, a former railroad line converted to public park.

A biker on the 606, a former railroad line converted to public park.

Delving into Vietnam War History

One of our first excursions upon reaching Saigon was a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels - an underground network spanning some 200 kilometers of varying depths that could hold up to 10,000 Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War*, portions of which have been reopened for tourism. The site isn't so far, as the crow flies, from the city center, but the traffic made it seem so, as did the gradual giving way of multi-lane thoroughfares and modern buildings to modest houses and unpaved roads.

The main entrance to the complex felt like a museum, what with a gift shop and displays of antiquated weaponry and missiles. Once our guide squared away our tickets, we descended into a short stretch of tunnel (not part of the original network), emerging onto what could easily pass for a film set from Apocalypse Now, replete with distant gunfire. Though it was not a hot day (thank god), the air beneath the thick, green canopy of trees was heavy with moisture and rife with a still somberness befitting a site of war. Military-style tents housed exhibits and dioramas illustrating the construction and use of the tunnels, while employees in khaki uniforms milled about, demonstrating how soldiers accessed the tiny, hidden entrances.

Another tunnel entrance.

Another tunnel entrance.

Ventilation holes, incorporated into what's meant to look like a natural rock formation from above.

Ventilation holes, incorporated into what's meant to look like a natural rock formation from above.

The system was ingenious; the underground network had areas for designated uses like bunkers, latrines, and kitchens - with disguised openings for ventilation above ground. Certain areas even had river access should soldiers need to escape by waterway. Up top, in addition to designing entrances so well camouflaged and small that even if Americans located them they wouldn't be able to fit, the Viet Cong also set myriad sorts of traps for the enemy.

One sort of a trap - a false floor above a pit of spikes.

One sort of a trap - a false floor above a pit of spikes.

An employee leads us into a section of the original tunnel network.

An employee leads us into a section of the original tunnel network.

A short stretch of original tunnel is open for tourists. As a petite woman, it was cramped for me and my camera. I could walk, bent double, but the 6' 4" Canadian in front of me had to shuffle whilst practically curled up in the fetal position. We had handed our bags over to the members of our group who had opted not to go for the full experience; I tried to imagine what it must have been like during the war, staying underground for days at a time with my weapon and gear. Minutes later we reemerged above ground, gratefully stretching our legs and backs and gulping in the humid air.  

The gunfire we'd been hearing, though somewhat amusing and atmospheric from afar, was decidedly less so up close. Our guide, a local, joked that criminals were executed on site; in reality there is a shooting range where visitors can fire authentic guns used in the war - with real bullets, he assured us. Bullets can be purchased in increments of 10 for a wide range of firearms. I have never held a gun, nor do I desire to; I cannot reconcile shooting as recreation when, nearly every day in the country I call home, there is news of gun-related violence.

As we turned away from the shooting range, back toward where the bus had dropped us off, I thought about the tunnels I'd visited in Okinawa, how warfare has evolved over the years, and how different cultures choose to commemorate it. Our guide said that such tunnels would be ineffective today, when there are smart missiles that can pinpoint exact targets and burrow through layers of concrete before detonating. This reminded me of the film Eye in the Sky, a timely drama about drone warfare and the human sacrifice that still persists in battles waged through technology. These new methods may reduce the collateral damage suffered in decades past, but at the same time desensitize us to the violence and destruction still intrinsic to war.

A defunct tank.

A defunct tank.

 

*Or, as locals call it, the American War.

Saigon in Photos

We didn't spend nearly enough time in Saigon, but in our two days there managed to immerse ourselves in the city's smells, tastes and legacy. Our hotel, the Continental Saigon, dating back to 1880, was located just across the street from the opera house in an area dotted with architectural vestiges of the French colonial days. The double room I shared with my mother was cavernous and stately with ceilings of church-like proportions and a dainty sitting room area. At the same time, crossing the street away from the opera house brought on aggressively modern skyscrapers, designer stores, locals selling everything from street food to knock-off sunglasses, as well as hip new purveyors like the Gingko concept store. The city's disparate identities is perhaps best reflected in the fact that it has two names: Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon.

Like many other Southeast Asian metropolises, Saigon can best be described as organized chaos. Millions of motorbikes sort of, mostly, obey traffic lights and laws, at night forming an endless, slow-moving sea of lights amongst the honking cars. The bikes congregate ahead of the other vehicles at red lights, surging forward like an angry swarm the moment it turns green.

Despite the many many marks of history on the city's geography, it's also decidedly cosmopolitan - we passed many European designer stores, ethnic restaurants representing cuisines from around the globe, and even a subway project in conjunction with a Japanese company.

Photos below. 

Our first meal in Saigon - noodle soup at Pho 2000, made famous by Bill Clinton's patronage back during his presidency.

Our first meal in Saigon - noodle soup at Pho 2000, made famous by Bill Clinton's patronage back during his presidency.

City hall, with statue of Ho Chi Minh.

City hall, with statue of Ho Chi Minh.

A street vendor near our hotel.

A street vendor near our hotel.

Our hotel, another vestige of the colonial era.

Our hotel, another vestige of the colonial era.

A saleswoman portions coffee beans for a member of our group at a local market.

A saleswoman portions coffee beans for a member of our group at a local market.

Post office.

Post office.

A local purchasing fresh fruit.

A local purchasing fresh fruit.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Opera House.

Opera House.

Sa Dec Market in Photos

Before visiting the lover's house, we passed through Sa Dec Market - a mostly covered and narrow marketplace bustling with activity. Scooters and bikes constantly zipped through, weaving their way between local shoppers. Baskets of sedate chickens sat waiting to be plucked, while at the seafood stalls shallow pans of water showcased shellfish, snails, frogs, eels and fish - most still wriggling and occasionally even leaping into the air. The vast majority of stalls were tended by women in conical hats who filleted and butchered with deft hands. While as outsiders we felt the most drawn to the meat and seafood vendors (because they made the farmer's markets back home look oh so tame), there were plenty of others hawking exotic fruits, fresh vegetables, spices and a larger variety of rice than I knew existed. Some photos below. Not for the squeamish or vegetarian.

Live poultry. 

Live poultry. 

Not live poultry. 

Not live poultry. 

Yes, those are bees. 

Yes, those are bees. 

Blue crabs. 

Blue crabs. 

Sheep's(?) head. 

Sheep's(?) head. 

Little girl accompanying a parent on a shopping excursion. 

Little girl accompanying a parent on a shopping excursion. 

Bamboo. 

Bamboo. 

De veining. 

De veining. 

The ladies who run the market stalls can butcher and filet as fast as the cooks in Michelin starred restaurants.   

The ladies who run the market stalls can butcher and filet as fast as the cooks in Michelin starred restaurants.   

Creepy fish heads.

Creepy fish heads.

The Lover

After walking through the lively and vibrant Sa Dec Market, we visited the former home of the eponymous lover from Marguerite Duras' famous novel. This semi-autobiographical tome draws upon her experience growing up in Vietnam where, as a teenaged girl, she became romantically involved with a Chinese man twelve years her senior. From what I understand, the novel - despite its Lolita undertones - is largely romantic and tragic, because ultimately the literary couple doesn't end up together. But throughout her life, Duras - as many of us do, changed her own story multiple times.

Displeased with the film adaptation of The Lover (which our guide screened in the dining cabin one night and a fellow passenger subsequently deemed "soft porn"), she later published The North China Lover, which was billed as a more detailed and "truer" account of the relationship. Notebooks that were posthumously made public, however, paint an altogether different portrait, with one passage describing the "revulsion" she felt after their first kiss (see: Wartime Writings). These lesser known writings hint at possible sexual and emotional abuse, even prostitution.

Duras passed away in 1996, and with her left the truth regarding the nature of the affair. Undoubtedly, how she felt about it as an adolescent, as it was unfolding, differs from how she must have felt as an adult. She was seventy when the first fictionalized iteration was published; seventy-seven when the second came out. Both novels probably served as attempts to come to terms with the relationship; to figure out and clarify her feelings, perhaps even find some profound conclusion.

As we toured the beautiful old home, with its floors warped with age, intricate craftsmanship belying aristocratic wealth, and black and white photographs of both Duras and Huynh Thuy Le, sipping jasmine tea while listening to our guide wax romantic about the ill-fated lovers, I was reminded of my own failed relationships.

Each time things doesn't work out we want there to be some deeper meaning or lesson learned, so it's not just time wasted and feelings spent. But maybe a solution or antidote doesn't exist. Maybe the leftover pieces are just a burden that remains with us. For as Duras' experience seems to suggest, even a lifetime is not enough to make sense of something so raw and intimate. 

A River Economy

Having grown up in Seattle, I'm used to living by water. But seeing the lifestyle that its proximity fosters, even from the very window of our cabin, was another matter entirely. As we got closer to (and finally reached) the Mekong River, the economic activity that our ship passed only intensified - at one point there was enough boat traffic it was like driving on the highway back at home during rush hour! The color of the water is a result of the rainy (read: muddy) season. Some photos below.  

Fish farming. 

Fish farming. 

Sacks of rice being unloaded via conveyor belt.

Sacks of rice being unloaded via conveyor belt.

We passed many barges practically weighed down to the very water level with soil.

We passed many barges practically weighed down to the very water level with soil.

A woman taking a break at a floating market.

A woman taking a break at a floating market.

A little boy grins at us from the back of a vendor's boat at the floating market. These boats have long bamboo poles on which they hang examples of what they're selling. (Although a hat affixed to the pole means that the boat is for sale).

A little boy grins at us from the back of a vendor's boat at the floating market. These boats have long bamboo poles on which they hang examples of what they're selling. (Although a hat affixed to the pole means that the boat is for sale).

A boat leaving the floating market. 

A boat leaving the floating market. 

Phnom Penh in Photos

The Cambodian capital had a much different vibe from quiet Siem Reap; it reminded me a lot of Taipei with all its greenery and claustrophobic streets. Upon arriving we had some free time, so the majority of the group went to check out the Royal Palace - a complex, really, of gilded, elegant structures with high peaked roofs and colorful embellishments. To my surprise it's still in use. The current king, at sixty-three, is still single and childless, so he will likely select one of his nephews to be his heir. 

Inclement weather slightly disrupted scheduled activities, but we still managed to squeeze in a cyclo tour around the city's main sights before departure. A 'cyclo' is essentially a bicycle with a seat for a single passenger affixed to the front. It was a bit nerve-wracking being in the face of honking traffic but our drivers proved most trustworthy. 

Side view of the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace. It gets its name from the thousands of silver tiles that comprise the floor, and houses Buddhas and other trinkets made from precious materials. 

Side view of the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace. It gets its name from the thousands of silver tiles that comprise the floor, and houses Buddhas and other trinkets made from precious materials. 

Detail of a restored portion of a mural at the Royal Palace. 

Detail of a restored portion of a mural at the Royal Palace. 

The cyclo drivers sizing us up. I had the sense that they were all jockeying to have me as their passenger because I was the smallest. 

The cyclo drivers sizing us up. I had the sense that they were all jockeying to have me as their passenger because I was the smallest. 

This cheeky little boy was running around naked (don't worry, his mother was nearby) in the area that we stopped to admire the Independence Monument. 

This cheeky little boy was running around naked (don't worry, his mother was nearby) in the area that we stopped to admire the Independence Monument. 

A view of the parliament building on the left, ironically located just next to a casino (gambling is illegal). 

A view of the parliament building on the left, ironically located just next to a casino (gambling is illegal).