Day 1: Nov 23-Nov 24

Trip Start Nov 23, 2007
Trip End Dec 11, 2007

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

0300 local time (Eastern Standard Time): Kickoff
I've been up all night, trying to get last-minute things put together before I head off for the crazy world of Vietnam.  I am a crazy mix adrenaline surge, excitement, and eager concern about this trip.  I'm glad I even have the opportunity to do this, but this is a completely foreign place, and should something go wrong, I do not have the plentiful resources that I have in the US to amend the situation.  On this odyssey are my grandfather, grandmother, mother and me.  Dad, Paul, and Theresa will go another time when it's more convenient.  I am really look forward to what these 2+ weeks have in store for me.

0700 local time (Eastern Standard Time): A Hop and a Skip
We took off late from HIA but arrived on time at Dulles International Airport, as we were only in the air for 30 minutes.  As we would do at every single airport, we secured wheelchair assistance from the ground crew to move my grandfather from gate to gate.  My grandmother would take my grandfather's walker with a fold-down seat to move her small (albeit heavy) bags, while Mom and I took care of all of the carry-on luggage.  Often, because Mom carried several bags as well, I would have to lug around ALL of the big carry-on luggage.  We arrived at our departure gate to LAX with some time to spare.

After a little coffee for Grandpa and Mom accompanied by some pictures of a gorgeous red sunrise outside, we were ready to cross some time zones.

1145 local time (Pacific Standard Time): Relaxing at LAX
The flights have been smooth thusfar--HIA to IAD (Dulles) then to LAX in a 767.  We were cleared to fly over the Grand Canyon, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains?  We're on a Boeing 747 right now waiting to taxi out of our gate at LAX.  I believe that this is my first time on such a plane, and we are seated in the economy cabin near the projector screen.  Go, Mom!  I can't decide whether to sleep or watch movies.

I was up til 230am last night sending last-minute e-mails, packing, and organizing things so that I would know where everything was upon my return.  Mom woke up in a panic at 410am this morning, worried that we were late for our flight.  We needed 2 cars to carry all passengers and luggage to the airport.  It was sad to say goodbye to Dad, Mai-Ly, and Khoa.  At least we had Thanksgiving dinner together.  We heard that they had breakfast when they got back to the house from the airport--I don't think the sun was even up at that point.  Then again, it was Black Friday, after all, so maybe the siblings went to do a little Christmas shopping.

Our entire crew, from ticket agent to every single flight attendant, is Asian.  It makes sense to have such a crew but I've never seen that before.  Overhead announcements are done in 3-4 different languages.  Speaking of spoken languages, it's the 1st time in history that there are more secondary speakers of a major language than there are primary speakers.  (English)

There is a 13-hour time zone difference in Hong Kong from Eastern Standard Time, and Vietnam is another time zone away, for a net change of 12 hours.  This actually makes it easy to figure out what time it is in Eastern Standard Time (just subtract 1/2 day from local Vietnamese time).  We will cross the International Date Line as we fly overseas and "lose" a day in the process.  Total travel time is 25:45.  Total air time is 0:30(Dulles) + 5:30(LAX) + 14:30(HK) + 2:30(Saigon), covering >10000 miles

I'm pretty sure 2 of the stewards are Gaysian.

1430 local time (Pacific Standard Time): "Spacific" Thoughts over the Pacific
Just had "lunch".  Food was mediocre.  I read the modern history of VN in my travel guide as I ate.  Reading about the atrocities afflicted on this poor country by foreign powers with selfish interests makes me rather emotional.  This is the story of my family & countrymen.  Then again, we did such cruelties to ourselves in our North-South War too.  (I'm not sure why this plane hits turbulence every time I attempt to write.)  I find that I often get annoyed hearing my parents/grandparents' stories of the extreme suffering in their past, but I can't really fathom what they went through.  I have no experience of living with the constant fear of death, rape, pillage, and uncertainty in being a 'boat person' trying to escape the war that is terrorizing the country.  I don't know what it is to be a "Viet kieu" (foreigner who is ethnic Vietnamese) yet.  I cannot imagine what it is to be displaced, often forcibly, from home and family.  I certainly have no concept of being "bui doi" (orphaned, often homeless) or Vietnamerican, and be blacklisted and rejected by family and society.  How will I feel when I meet my relatives here?  What will I think when I am witness to their lifestyles?  Will I be jaded by my blessings of infinite opportunity and hold that against these people?  Will I feel sorry for them?  Contemplating about these things brings a tear to my eye.  (Don't know why I feel so emotional - Is it the altitude?  My time of month?  Stress?  Lack of sleep?)  Speaking of sleep, 60% of the people in the economy cabin are asleep, likely due to postprandial effects and the lack of good video programming presently.

1445 local time (Alaska Time):  Where are we?  I dunno, "Al ask a"
Everything on the projector screen is in Chinese characters.  From what I can gather, our speed is 629 MPH @ 32000 feet - wait!  Now it's in English!  It's very interesting how they are providing regularly updated maps (topographical too) of our location and heading.  Someone or something smells like decayed food, and it's making me nauseous.

1500 local time (Yankee Time Zone): International Date Line
We are crossing the International Date Line over the Bering Sea, and we "lose" a day in the process (West of the I.D.L., they have already started tomorrow).  Officially, our time is 1500 in the Yankee Time Zone on Friday, 11/23.  Shortly, when we actually cross the International Date Line, it will be 1500 in the Mike Time Zone on Saturday, 11/24.

I just finished watching Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix - this movie series annoys me more than Lord of the Rings--at least LOTR had decent acting.  The Harry Potter series has great imagination but the themes that are hammered upon have gotten old and repetitive, thinly guised, in my opinion, by new situations.  For me, the premise of a story is a vital component, and it seems that each 'new' movie is driven by the same story of Harry being left alone and vulnerable to fight evil, with everyone who is supposed to be taking care of him secretly working to protect him but always arriving 2 minutes too late, acknowledging his power and accomplishment only after initial suspicions and ridicule.  This is lame!

Grandpa looked uncomfortable so we had Grandma come sit in my seat so he could lie down flat over several seats.  I stood around for a while, before asking the patron across the aisle whether I could borrow his seat awhile (he was sitting elsewhere with a friend).  There was much confusion initially but eventually we were able to communicate in Espanol (my Spanish instructor Frat-Cat would be proud).  Ironically, the crossword puzzle I just completed had this clue: "Cuba, to Castro".  The answer was "Isla", a propos for my usage of Spanish and the island my teacher hails from.  Another clue in that puzzle:  "Thai neighbor" - "Lao".  Just think, I would be landing in a few hours not so far away from Laos.

We are crossing the Bering Sea.  Can you imagine that ancestors migrated over the once-frozen bridge from Asia and spread out through the American continents.  A remarkable trek!  We've flown 3300mi thus far and that's only from Los Angeles to the Bering Strait!  We are traveling in the comforts of a temperature-controlled, pressurized cabin far above any possible hindrances--they had to contend with wildlife, difficult terrain, and the unknown beyond.

1515 local time (Lima Time Zone): South of the Snows of Siberia
(this is the 2nd time i'm entering this entry--a lost internet connection undermined my 1st attempt.)

South of Siberia, over Gulf of Shelekhova, we are at the halfway point by time on this leg of our trip--just 7 hours left.  It's currently noon in Hong Kong (HK).  Air temperature outside is -70deg F air temp outside.  I don't think any amount of 'physical activity' could overcome that bitter cold - LOL.  A look outside the jet reveals cloud cover and a completely frozen landscape of white mountains--nothing but white.  Yet it is a serene and peaceful scene, seemingly undisturbed by artificial manmade designs.

I just just found out internet cafes abound in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) for relatively cheap.  Come to think of it, I will technically be a millionaire when I exchange my currency in Vietnam (VN):  $100US = 1.6Million Vietnamese dong.  It should be interesting trying to do calculations with such large numbers.  I must remember that $1 US = 16K dong.

I am not particularly tired, and I feel I should try to stay up anyway so that I crash when it is nighttime in VN.  Hopefully this will allow me to get acclimated more quickly.  I am biding my time my continuing my blog drafts and doing crossword puzzles that I have packed with me.  This glossy paper I am using does not absorb the ink from my pen, however.  Thus everything I write smears, so that my hands are literally black from smudges.  There are some movies that the airline is circulating during our trip--I will have to check the airline magazine to see what is playing to determine whether the films are worth watching.

1800 local time (Hong Kong Time): On Approach to Hong Kong
1hr before touchdown in HK.  My eyes are bloodshot from sleep deprivation (or altitude/low oxygen content?)  I must remember to keep my wallet in my front pants pockets--never in rear.  I also need to brush my teef soon.

In the last 2 days of air travel, I have seen Beowulf 3d, Hairspray, Harry Potter, Hot Rod, and parts of The Invisible, Underdog, and Transformers.  Based on this selection, one might surmise that I hailed from a society with big hairdos, who admire cross-dressing dancing men, flying witches/bitches/idiots, and outlandish fantasy.  Which might not be far from the truth, I suppose.

Alcohol is INCLUDED in my transPacific flight.  Now why would they attempt to hide such a delicious detail from me??  I did not know this previously, but I will surely take full advantage of this on the way back.  Seeing the guy across the aisle totally plastered and reeking of alcohol gives me pause, but only a brief pause.  Seeing a child across the other aisle vomit into his mother's hands also gives me pause, because I'm not ready even to imagine the tremendous amount of responsibility required to raise a family.

ooOOoo - final descent!  Please put your seats in a full-upright position and your tray tables securely fastened to the seat in front of you.  Make sure that all aisles are clear and your bags are completely underneath the seat in front.  The cabin stewards will be by shortly to collect any miscellaneous trash items.  Thank you for your cooperation.

I am in Asia!!!

2030 local time (Hong Kong Time): Hong Kong International Airport
HK Int'l Airport is as I imagined:  space-age modern industrial with open designs/layouts at restaurants.  Some establishemtns offer free use of Internet with purchase of food/drink.  There's wireless at all US airports but here there are computers you can log into with pre-loaded applications.  Here, I can no longer speak Vietnamese to carry on secret conversations with family to hide information.  In fact, natives will probably speak so rapidly in varied accents with unfamiliar idioms that they will be able to keep secrets from me!  Although I'm full-blooded Viet & I speak the language, I will be an outsider nonetheless.  It's a rather weird feeling, but I am still excited.

Thankfully, the typhoon headed towards the area has taken a different path and gone back out to sea.  We still need to find out the extent of damage in Central VN where flooding occurred.  We would love to visit Hue and Hoi An, but if they are flooded, our schedule is already packed anyway.

0215 local (Hanoi Standard Time): Poverty
I write from the air-conditioned comforts of the hotel--not as rundown as I though it would be.  It's rather nice, actually.

Let's ketchup: at the end of the transPacific flight there was an elderly ethnic-Chinese man shaking underneath several blankets and being attended to by his family.  Seeing my chance to fulfill my role as knight in shining armor, I intervened and asked the gaggle of women what was wrong.  After a brief history and even briefer physical, I felt he was just having upset stomach from bad food.  His family showed me a bottle of herbal ointment that they gave him and there was not one remotely familiar ingredient listed on the bottle.  I said I would come back to check on him.  We landed shortly thereafter and I went back to get a progress report.  He cheerily told me he had vomited 10 minutes prior and was feeling great.

Tay Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Now time to go through immigration & then customs.  Immigration was stressful.  The woman, dressed in her communist garb and peering through her glasses at us with a fierce look kept asking questions ("place of birth? what's your full name?").  Meanwhile, our luggage was being put out on the conveyor belts, unattended.  Finally, with a generous tip slipped to her inside one of the passports, we were cleared and went to baggage claim.  Our belongings came on different belts, interestingly.  Viet kieu (ethnic-Vietnamese foreigners) are often instructed to provide tips for the Immigration agents.  I am unsure whether this advice is rooted in some sort of fact, but the lady seemed to me as if she were just delaying us until we tipped her.

After breezing through Customers, it was time for "that walk"--that walk that I had seen videotape footage of on my grandparents' prior visits to VN.  That emotional walk through the glass exits of the airport to the fenced walkway surrounded by hustling drivers, traffic officials, hundreds of screaming family members waiting for their loved ones, communist party members, and, I'm sure, a sprinkling of ne'er-do-wells.  That walk where my grandparents looked excitedly into the sea of faces, while trying to hold back a flood of emotions.

My grandmother was off to the races immediately.  Our attendants were too busy with the carts of luggage that they forgot about my grandfather in his wheelchair.  I had my bookbag, a cart of luggage in one hand, and Grandpa's (Gpa from now on) wheelchair in the other.  The attendant took control of the wheelchair as I went out with my cart to slow down Grandma (Gma).  Thus commenced my personal walk.  I was a raging sea of emotions that cancelled each other out, before "Bac!" ("Aunt") interrupted my thoughts.  Family began swooping in from every direction.  I had no clue who I was related to.  A flurry of hugs ensued with joyous greetings, "How are you, Aunt?!" "You've lost weight!"  A few immediately recognized my resemblance to my maternal grandfather and clasped my hand to greet me by name.  I turned around to see my mother swallowed up by the mob of family and moments later, there were tears streaming down her cheeks.  (Wow, everyone IS short.)  The Aunts were all like munchkins surrounding my mother.  Some brief introductions and then we were rushed to our cars/taxis.  (The airport was aesthetically appealling--lots of glass, steel, and halogen lighting.)

1st Look at Ho Chi Minh City - in the Dark
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was as I had read it to be, an incessant disorderly current of vehicles.  The ubiquitous "moto's" (motorbikes) contend with cars/taxis for road supremacy.  There is no semblance of lanes or organized turning and merging.  Indeed, Uncle Huy confirmed accidents are a rule, not the exception.  Our relatively short drive home is loaded with updates and gossip.  We turn onto an alley barely 1.5 cars wide.  On this alley are 3-4 houses that belong to the Aunts/Uncles and/or their family members.  Most homes are barely the width of a 1-car garage.  We got to a corner of the alley and more family streamed out of the house to greet us.  The "hello's", tours, "sit, sit", and "drink this" are brief to allow people to catch up.

I try to introduce myself to as many as possible, impressing them by getting all the aunts' names correct during a self-administered pop-quiz.  Aunts Lanh, Thuan, Hang, Hien, Huong, Lien, Hong, and Uncles Tien, Huy.  Cousins Linh, Be (a nickname meaning "cow"), Loc, and more I can't remember.  The brief tour revealed a MUCH-improved house from what I remember from pictures, but it's still a confining space that houses 6-7 whole families.  The upstairs quarters are barely more than tall cubicles, some with small wardrobes and even fewer furnished with floor mats for sleep (Wow, how do they make a family?).  The rooms are a clash of furniture:  tiny plastic stools for extra seats, and aesthetically offensive furnishings under garish lighting.  Security seems to be lacking and their moto's are pulled into a side space.  But for all their funny clothing, small spaces, and "low-class" accents, they were not lacking in a profound sense of family.

Everyone was so happy to be catching up and receiving gifts.  Jokes abounded, and even more questions were fired in rapid succession, including why I wasn't married yet and whether I wanted to find a wife while I was here.  It's obscenely late for these ppl now--most will wake up around 4am.  We take our leave with them carrying our luggage and walk to the hotel down the street.  The huge metal gates are opened and the manager shakes the interrupted sleep from his eyes to greet us.  We are shown our rooms and bed down for the night.  As I would discover is a common occurrence, the water heater for the shower is a wall-mounted, switch-operated box barely larger than a toaster.  This allows the hotel to save money on energy costs.

This should make for good conversation in the morning.  Good night, Pennsylvania.  You have bright afternoon sun; we have orange street lights.  This is a long ways from home.
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