Hoi An, the capital of Suits

Our travel sleeping choices have changed throughout the years. In the past, we have stayed mostly in typical “backpacker” hostels that usually contain a dingy private room for $15 or so. For the past number of years, our adventures seem to find us in small “traveler” hotels that range from $35-45 a night. These hotels are usually filled with local business men traveling to a meeting or retired German couples reliving their youth. The extra cost does add up but we have learned that maintaining the fortitude and morale of the group is critical in strange environments. We find ourselves in one of these hotels and spend the day hiding from the strange noises and smells outside.

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Eventually, we made it outside and were pleased to find a large town of European type canals, palm trees, rickety fruit stands on each corner and a tourist area of fine restaurants and tailors. These are the type of towns we try to avoid but like the hotel variable….we seem to be slowly changing into old Germans, reliving our youth. A local pottery family was offering free pottery classes and we ended up buying a few things to ship home. Nearby was a elderly Grandmother making “Ban Mi” sandwiches…which we had everyday for lunch ($0.75)

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At night the town seemed to explode with lights, music and food. Finely dressed Chinese and French couples stepped around smelly backpackers trying to bargain with locals merchants, while large groups of local teenagers break-danced on sheets of cardboard next to the canal. We shopped and ate to the sounds of “Rock me Amadeus” and old Justin Timberlake playing from kid’s boom-boxes while watching the giant nocturnal party. If we walked too far off the path, we found nervous looking backpackers buying bags filled with expensive substances and heavily make-uped women chatting economics with balding western men.

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During the day, we found a tailor with a good reputation (online) and started negotiating. Back and forth, we played good natured games of numbers that eventually we found a price and quality of fabric that suited our suits and tastes. I had two 3 piece suits, 6 shirts and a British style overcoat made, while Tamara had a vest, suit, blouse and fitted suit made. With shipping, it cost us a couple of weeks of income but with the price as long as we don’t gain much weight for a while. The fittings and alterations took a few days but eventually everyone was happy and we sent off the package for the transpacific journey home.

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Eventually, the time had arrived for us to face the train again. Another 18 hour, 500 miles of washing machine level comfort, medieval smells and epic scenery may seem like a strange choice considering a flight would only cost $100 each but the process of travel as important as the destination. Having said that, Tamara has always said that I am a “connoisseur of misery”. If I could, I would love to travel the 3 months via 17th century sailing ship to the new world or overland Asia with Marco or follow the path south with Livingstone. Fortunately, I love my Wife more and realize that there are more important things/responsibilities in life….but that is my default mentality that I layer my reasonableness upon.

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The train trip started so nice, with the room being fairly clean and empty. The air-conditioning succeeded in keeping the 90 degree heat out, as the South China sea crashed against the limestone shore outside our window. We enjoyed sitting in our private room, listening to music, chatting about some perceived insight while the ancient tracked machine pulled us south. That is a highlight I will store in my aging mind for later.

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Around the time, Tamara mentioned how lucky we were that our room was not filled with screaming children, the train pulled up to a small town. There was a knock at our door and in came a weary young mother with a newborn baby, a toddler, a grandma that seems to be recovering from a stroke and 3 sq meters of luggage. My Wife didn’t see the humor in the situation and headed to the food carriage. She ordered a few beers (I was disappointed when she would not share) and some local food, as I joked with the stewards.

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The evening found us in our bunks watching Despicable Me on the laptop with the toddler, while the Mother (infant permanently attached) quietly chatted with her ill Grand-mother. I can’t say it was a wonderful or restful night but it was all we could have hoped for.

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6AM found us pulling into Saigon; the old capital of Indo-China, the “Paris of the East” and the next leg in our Asia adventure.

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Nihn Bihn and the Night Train

Departing from Hanoi was a bit sad as we really enjoyed exploring the city, visiting with friends and getting a better understanding of a culture that had been completely unknown to us until now. The train was old and shabby, likely a second hand transport from China, but seemed to vibrate with a sound of adventure. That last bit could have been in my head. Very official looking conductors, dressed sharply in imposing uniforms, seemingly from a 1950’s eastern European movie, herded passengers like goats. Nursing mothers dragging sacks of mystery, old men with suitcases the size of small mattresses and a few Chinese tourist all made their way to their assigned carriage. As we boarded our carriage it was slightly concerning to notice a small barefoot man under our carriage, welding the axel. With each flash of the arc, my mind became more confused on what a welder could fix on the axel of a running train…. I tried to sneak a photo but a few of the uniforms directed stern sounds in my direction.

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The scenery slowly changed as we headed south. The homes became smaller, the cars were replaced by large thick cows, mopeds seemed to drive slower and drying laundry seemed to become the dominant flower on the trees. Raised concrete graves with offerings of food, paper automobiles and incense would be placed between artificial ponds completely filled with ducks. My understanding is that the ponds are filled with Carp who eat the water plants and the ducks fertilize the plants and eat the organic waste from the nearby family kitchens, providing a never ending flow of protein.

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Eventually modern civilization was replaced by a green patchwork of rice patties and thick wild groupings of disheveled bamboo stands. At each stop, women with baskets of fruit and greasy cakes would offer their wares and attempt to keep their small fuzzy headed children off the tracks. While I read a Hunter Thompson book, Tamara hypnotized the local mothers with her knitting skills.

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Nihn Bihn is only a few hours south but with over a thousand miles of upcoming train travel, (one end of Vietnam to the other) it pays to break up the trip into manageable legs. We found a two room “B and B” and the family let us rent their mo-ped so we could explore the area. While the town was fairly ugly with wide dirty streets, we dodged the random harried cargo trucks and eventually reached the peace of true countryside.

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The draw of this location is a picturesque river that flows through the small farms and between limestone hills. For a few dollars we hired a crusty woman boat driver who spoke only a handful of English with the phrase “It’s number one!” being used as a random noun and punctuation to anything of interest. Our boat headed down the lazy river and entered an area of large limestone towers that seemed to be placed in the middle of the ever present rice patties. It was not until the river started to take us under one of the limestone hills did we turn around and see our driver was using her feet to row the boat as she chatted to a friend on her cell phone. By about the third cave the weather pulled in some fog and chilly drizzle and we started to head back up the river. All the while, our pilot pumped the oars with her feet yelling unknown insults and laughing at the timid local men rowing down the river.

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(Click the one below for Video)

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With the weather getting so cold and wet, we decided to cut our visit short and head south on a night train to the half way point of Vietnam, Hoi An. To kill time til the train, we hiked up one of the limestone towers we saw the day before from the boat. The view was utterly amazing. Vast flat rice fields dotted with small homes under the shadows of limestone guardians. Had the clouds not been so thick, the photos would have been mounted on our walls at home for life. (Click here to see what it would have looked like if the sun was out)

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Train and bus stations are dangerous places in any country. These locations always have one or two predators and this backwater station was no exception. As we walked out of the inky night and approached the small one room train station, I saw two slimy young men standing just outside the florescent lights. Watching like subtle leopards, they analyzed each passenger for weakness or some other unknown variable. The stained lips, red teeth and wide eyes denoted that they were likely chewing beetle nut and wired for sound. Walking up the stairs, it became our turn for their inspection. As soon as I felt their eyes on us I slowed slightly, pointed at directly at them (like Fonzie from Happy Days)  and winked with a knowing smile. Surprised, they both gave me a genuine smile of large red teeth and again became serious as they examined the group of partially drunk French backpackers wandering behind us. I learned that trick from a expat in Honduras and it has served us well.

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Hoi An

With our train being only 90 minutes late, we took that as a sign of the night to come. Walking down the grimy narrow hall way of the train, we looked for the room that would be ours for the next 18 hours. We found our room occupied by a nice Chinese traveler couple. Oliver was my age and had retired from his marketing job with ExxonMoble with a small fortune made from investing in Chinese real estate. We had a nice conversation about traveling, nationalism and corruption of the governments of the world. His stories of growing up under the “Party” helped me better understand his dislike of communism. His brother had been detained and abused by the security forces during the protest of Tiananmen Square.

Oliver’s goal was to travel the world for many years, looking for “something” that he said he would know when he saw it. He was confident that what he was looking for was not religious, as “Chinese only worship money” (his words). When he asked about my beliefs, I was surprised that he had heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said he had wondered in the past, why Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned by the “Party”, in China.

The next morning the new found heat of central Vietnam woke us to our train  slowly wobbling its way along a beautiful hilly coast. This area of Vietnam was the front lines of the “American War”, also known as the DMZ, but it was still a surprise to see neglected concrete artillery bunkers and machine gun nests being reclaimed by bamboo stands and laundry lines.

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Eventually, we said goodbye to our fellow travelers and arrived at Hoi An.

 

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Hanoi – Understanding Pho

Hanoi is the political capital of Vietnam. All the “Good Communists” (those with documented multi-generational support of the “Party”) come from here and are shipped out to be mayors and governors for the other areas of Vietnam. Being so far North, we are greeted by the typical winter weather of 55 degree drizzle. We often like to travel during these slower times as the domestic and foreign tourists are fewer and people are more relaxed as they deal with the normal day to day activities.

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The old center of Hanoi is watched over by 100 year old French colonial buildings that push in over the narrow streets. Ornate rusty metal railings seem to melt back into the buildings that grew them and colorful plaster attempts to create new and exciting textures as they dissolve. Amazing ancient banyan trees, on the corner of most streets, add an extra obstacle for the fast paced traffic of mo-peds, bicycles and a sprinkling of tiny taxis occupied by wide-eyed Europeans.

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The city seems to consist of two types of people; modest young men and women rushing to work on straining mopeds and tiny women on bicycles selling some form of food or clothing to those that that live in their area.

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Our wanderings around the city takes us pass an promenade Lenin statue that, unlike most countries we visit, is polished and well cared for. It was not surprising to find the National War Museum near our “Comrade Lenin”. The museum documents the countless invaders (Thai, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese, French, American and many more nations that always seemed to have one reason or another to be in Vietnam. Of course the Vietnam War is here called the “The American war”. The people (alive now) have absolutely no ill feelings against Americans, they are seen as just another group of people that failed to impose their will on the still young and hopeful country. Having said that, the propaganda at the Museum (and the history that is taught in schools) does the term “propaganda” proud. I saw one artillery piece that “while operated by the proud Mothers of Vietnam, sank 5 American ships during the battle of……”.

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We had a young university student (Thao) who volunteered (she would not even take a tip) to show us around Hanoi for a few hours . She mentioned at the War Museum, that American men were forced by the American government to fight. She was surprised to hear that some of my family and friends went to prison (18 months or so) because they refused the military draft. Even my Father had to face the draft board and explain why he would not join any military action, regardless of the consequences. I know it was many years ago but it made me so proud that some decided to obey their Bible trained consciences even if it meant prison. One of my good friends who did two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner during the War, said he wished he had the chance go back and join those that stood fast.

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One of the best part of travel is learning surprising things about yourself. We had the opportunity to do so when Thao asked us about the concept of “Personal Space”. She had been told that Americans (and Brits) become very uncomfortable if you move within a specific  distance to them. “Is this caused by childhood experiences or where does this come from?”, she asked. Most Asian people literally do not understand the concept of personal space. I have yet to grasp how I (we) have developed this special requirement and why it is so important to our social interaction. I bet I could find a book on it but it will likely remain a mystery for me.

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The Food in Vietnam is amazing and one of our favorite foods to eat.  Heaping piles of spicy fresh vegetables, flavorful curries and complex broths that can require days and dozens of ingredients to prepare. To get a better understanding of this side of the country, we joined a cooking class that had us preparing 4-5 of the more common dishes the locals enjoy. We learned to make Prawn cakes, Pho (a wonderful soup eaten for breakfast), green PawPaw salad (crunchy  veggie salad), spring rolls and a dipping sauce made from vinegar, garlic and spices. It was an enjoyable experience that had our teacher helping us find and taste the many different foods available in this area of the world. Yes they eat goat, dog and cat but they call cat “Little Tigers”, so I think it is ok.

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The Brothers in Vietnam are under a government ban. While they MAY not be thrown into prison, they are picked up by the police, interrogated, searched, questioned and detained if caught preaching or with Bible Literature. It is not Christianity that the government dislikes, it is Jehovah Witnesses, because they refuse to join the “Party” or the military. A friend told us that they have to hold conventions (in the 100+ summer and 40 degree winter weather) under tents in a parking lot because they are unable to rent a venue. Preaching is very difficult as you have to be sure that they or their friends are not informers or part of the police. The friends here are truly ones we should pray for.

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A Oregonian friend of ours has lived in Vietnam for many years. He assists the friends here as an elder (Coordinator, School and Secretary) and has spoken Vietnamese for over 20 years. He and another local friend (no need to for names) picked us up with their motorcycles for a day out visiting their friends. One of our stops was a small food cart that is owned by a extremely poor, widowed friend. She spoke as much English as we did Vietnamese but her kindness was truly expressed through her food. It was obvious that she found much joy in serving us, heaping our plates to bursting with noodles, grilled meet (beef or goat?) and fresh and pickled vegetables. It would have been so great to learn more about her from her own mouth. Just one more thing to look forward to in the future.

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The people of Hanoi have an eggshell thin veneer of seriousness that is cracked with just a smile or a “Sin Chow” (hello). After that they are almost universally kind, modest, friendly and a type of mild that is my new goal in life.

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After just a few days, Tamara and my feet were itching to see more of this unknown area of the world and so started our long travel South via train. More updates as they come!

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Hong Kong 15 years later.

I remember thinking on our first trip to Hong Kong (one of our first trips anywhere) in 1999, that it felt like the ominous cityscape in Bladerunner. Dark looming buildings counterweighted by oversized neon signs, offering the oblivious fast-paced pedestrians all manner of objects and services. Now, 15 years later it feels even more so as the predominantly young Hong Kongesse (don’t call them Chinese please) are permanently hunched over their iphones or tablets. Even the most traditionally dressed grandma has bright colored audio cables snaking into each ear. The impressive skyline is now even more impressive yet curtained off by a soupy smog.

 

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The new airport is built far outside the city on a new island that took billions of dollars and years to reclaim from the sea. The old airport had you flying into a narrow valley of buildings inside the main city. Your first exposure to Hong Kong would be the bedrooms of sleepy families just above your airplane window. As it is now, you take a modern high speed rail over artificial islands and even under ground until you reach the heart of the City. Our Hostel is a typical low range artsy fartsy affair with a foosball table, balcony and a in-room bathroom that is encased in transparent glass. The complete lack of privacy was mitigated by a thin curtain that encouraged the other to bury their head in a book when nature called the other.

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No visit to a new area of the world is complete (for us) without searching out our fellow Brothers and Sisters. The Bethel (administrative/translation center) has grown since our last visit. In 1999, there were only 35-40 in the office but now has increased to 200. Most of the work is assisting the Brothers in China, who are banned by the government for being “extremist”. Another focus of the Hong Kong Bethel is medical education of the local doctors in the many new methods of blood-less surgery. It has been such a success that many doctors in this area have become leaders in advanced medical (blood-less) care.

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One great surprise was meeting Diane Leung again, who we met 15 years ago at the old Bethel. She remembered us and asked how we had used our youth since we last met. We were shown the new literature carts and even a few prototypes that are being sent to many large cities. It made me remember the sandwich boards that our Grandparents used to bring attention to the Bible message.

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Until recently, we were unaware that Hong Kong has a Disneyland and this knowledge required Tamara to make “the pilgrimage”. Our jet-lag brought us to the magic kingdom far too early and we walked around for hours in a nearly empty park riding one ride after another. The park was surprisingly cleaner, newer and slightly smaller than the California park. The Asian flavor was muffled yet found ways to escape the homogeneous messaging.

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Much of the preaching work in Hong Kong is done in public spaces because of the difficulty entering the compact secured mega-structures. Being the most densely populated place on earth, the “mansions” as they are called, are concrete cubes that provide less living space per person than a berth in a US Prison.

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The Brothers and Sisters setup stands at various public places, (we assisted on the water front one day with our friend Katie) , and await the endless tourist buses of mainland Chinese (42 million last year) that arrive for a taste of “clean” air and goods from around the world. One 3 hour span resulted in over 500 brochures placed with many providing email addresses for return visits once they return home inside China.

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Our wanderings around the city was enjoyable with us never feeling spooked or in danger. The well dressed residents walk quickly from one unknown location to another, never looking away from their screens but somehow missing taxis and belching transport busses with inches to spare. The language is harsh, quick and aspergerish in its cadence but we found them nice if you could break them away from their electronic trance. One trek we took was to the “Peak” and is a highlight of Hong Kong. The hike up the small mountain ended with us shivering at the top, waiting for the large buildings below to turn on their colorful lights. One of my favorite memories is of us at this spot 15 years ago.

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Our Hong Kong adventured ended with us attending a meeting at the Kowloon Central English hall that is made up of 200 Filipino sisters and 5 local Brothers. The sisters are “imported servants” for the rich Hong Kong parents of overweight Hong Kong children. The Sisters leave their home and families to work in (according to a Amnesty International report I read recently) substandard and often exploitative conditions. The Sisters only get one day off a week and so this required that the meetings are all conducted on their day off. I found their comments during the Watchtower (simplified edition) encouraging and almost universally starting with “what I learned….” Or “ I want to use this to improve my relationship with God by….”.

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Sitting next to and visiting with these wonderfully kind, meek and materially poor Sisters caused both Tamara and I to feel something similar to shame or guilt at the freedom that we two possess. Coming to terms with inequity is something easier pushed aside than examined too closely if given the choice…those that travel are often not given that choice.

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UPnP hacks emergence (your router might be in trouble)

Routers. Love ’em, hate ’em….you gotta have ’em.

There has been a number of router hacks recently but one of the most  dangerous vulnerabilities to come around (after WPS hacks. ak=reaver) is a UPnP issue that may make some routers not worth the money you paid.

 

The test is easy but the explanation is not.

Use this link to test your router….. GRC’s Instant UPnP Exposure Test

 

Click on the button that says “GRC’s Instant UPnP Exposure Test”. You can also click the “Services” and then “Shields Up!” to do a full network test.

 

Currently, Google is reporting that many suspected hacking systems are starting to scan all IP’s on the internet  for this vulnerability.

If you are interested in more data on this let me know how I can help.

 

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