Sunday, September 26, 2010

Củ Chi Tunnels

(This post is a follow up from our trip around the world. I will be writing a recap for each place we visited during our 4 month trip. Prior to Vietnam we also visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia).

The Củ Chi Tunnels are an experience. I think we were expecting more of a historical tour and it was anything but. Our guide was ‘John Wayne’, and he had a very cutting and dry sense of humor, but I guess that is typical considering he frequently visits a place like this and deals with the tourists it draws. We had an interesting mix of people on the bus, stretching from loud Australian girls in summer dresses to a Canadian professor. Entry for foreigners costed 75,000 Vietnamese đồng ($3.85 USD) and 15,000 (77¢ USD) Vietnamese đồng for those from Vietnam.

- Not long after we arrived people were buying ice cream and complaining about the heat. There was also the sound of gun fire in the distance, catering to the tourists that needed to shoot guns to make things feel more realistic. Somehow I expect more of people while visiting a memorial site where people lost their lives, but I just wondered what was going on around me. Everyone came for different reasons, but we were reminded of the voyeristic types places like this seem to draw, which is one reason I tend to avoid war related sites.

- At the Củ Chi Tunnels we were first shown the entry to the hidden get away tunnels in the ground. Typically the bottoms of the trees would be marked, so if enemy troops were coming after the Viet Cong they could essentially escape by disappearing underground.

- Watching several brave guys on our tour fit into these very small openings made me really think how the small stature of the Vietnamese people really proved to be an asset, because even if these tunnels were detected many included traps or were simply too narrow for Western bodies to fit into.

- The tunnel system was built from 1948-1954. While simple, they were also undoubtedly very sophisticated. Frankly many of the young American GIs never stood a chance. There were various levels to aid in escape and they were made out of the clay so if the area was bombed it would only make it stronger. Through the war 30% of the first level were bombed. Time and time again John Wayne stressed these tunnels were not for living. If enemy troops were coming they would slip into the tunnels and go under them in the opposite direction, thus evading capture or worse.

- It was a sweltering jungle and then there were rudimentary traps made from mundane and ordinary objects. Suddenly window boxes and folding chairs were made deadly metal stakes beneath.

- War is indeed harsh and it pains me to think of men dying slow and agonizing deaths as they struggled around the terrain. Their end would have been horrifically tragic, especially if they didn't immediately die.

- Some of the questions tourists asked were just ridiculous, especially because their concerns had been addressed, but John Wayne humorously put them in their place. After demonstrating various traps and allowing people to go into the tunnels, a rather loud girl asked where people would use the restroom.
They had gone through the tunnels as well, on all fours, and John Wayne said, "not eating, not bathroom, not bedroom, no living in tunnel!!"

- Another way they evaded US troops was to make sandals from thick mats, which hid their tracks and were able to get wet. As he showed them to us in the various sizes he said 'these for monkeys, these for children, these for Vietnamese, these for Westerners'.

- The strangest part of the Củ Chi Tunnels was what a tourist racket it is. They had the most ridiculous and kitschy mannequins - some that even moved. The worst part was the firing range. It seems particularly senseless to have something like that at an area that was so war torn where so many people died, but you could pay to shoot an AK47. There were even prizes for hitting targets. Unreal. We kept standing there thinking this cannot be happening.

- After the shooting range we watched a propoganda video detailing a young woman who was 'an American killing hero' and how 'Washington DC wanted to turn Vietnam into a dead land' and attempted to destroy the Củ Chi Tunnels, but didn't succeed because the Viet Cong had 'a riffle in one hand and a plow in the other'.

- There was a diorama in the corner that looked like it was made by school children. It was really strange and even showed families having dinner underground while bombs and destruction went on above. John Wayne didn't address that, although I do believe what he said regarding it being impossible to live in these tight spaces, despite what all of those elementary school history books say.

The entire day reminded me of the Comedy Central television show Strangers with Candy with Amy Sedaris.

This will probably go down as the most bizarre day of our trip.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Oktoberfest 2010

Going to the Oktoberfest is always fun. I love seeing the different tents, decorations, and small details. It's also nice to go at various times of day to see the way the light changes.

The second week looks to be much chillier and with a bit of rain. That is one change I could do without, but I'm glad we were able to enjoy it with bright blue skies and the last of the summer sun.

Cat + Beth brought their dirndls along, so they were set and ready to go. Our first Wies'n visit was opening weekend, but thankfully with reservations at the Schottenhamel tent.

Reservations typically include vouchers for 2 Maß + 1/2 of a chicken. Even though the vouchers come with a tip for the waitstaff it's wise to give them at least a Euro extra for prompt service. It's easy to understand how the workers make a fair amount of money during the Wies'n, but they definitely earn it.

Stefan joined us after running a half marathon and looked dashing as ever in his lederhosen. We had a great time singing our hearts out. Perhaps I haven't visited enough this year to pin the 'Wies'n Hit', but the band's rotation was really great and included crowd favorites that you can download for your own celebrations:

'Das Geht Ab' - Frauenarzt + Manny Marc
'Ein Kompliment ' - Sport Freunde Stiller (the local favorite)
'Skandal im Sperrbezirk' - Spider Murphy Gang
'Hofbräuhaus Lied' - Wilhelm Gabriel
'Anton Aus Tirol' - DJ Ötzi
'Anita' - Costa Cordalis
'Country Roads' - John Denver
'Er Gehört zu Mir' - Marianne Rosenberg
'Viva Colonia' - De Höhner
'Fürstenfeld' - S.T.S.
'Hände zum Himmel'
'So ein schöner Tag' (Fliegerlied) - Tim Toupet

We'll be visiting several more times as friends and visitors arrive. I'm hoping to get up the courage to ride the sky swings or ferris wheel at dusk, because I'm sure the photos would be incredible.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wasserburg Leuchtet

Since hearing about Wasserburg Leuchtet I've really wanted to go. I think I talked about it for a good week or two.

It's always nice when cities go the extra mile in making the seemingly ordinary extraordinary. In this case the entire city gathers and beautiful light displays are projected on the building façades.

There are fog machines, laser shows, free outdoor movies, interesting effects with water, music, and the quintessential German carney foods.

Before we left we stopped at the train station in Munich so I could check the train schedule after the Jubileums Oktoberfest (and some old fashioned beer). There was just enough time to hit the ladies room and hop on the train. Dusk came quickly and before we knew it we were on a train from Rosenheim through the darkness to Wasserburg.

Many people have this paralyzing feeling when they are in big cities with subways and navigating the area. Evidently I have it for booney-ville country areas.

Once we arrived it was pitch black except for maybe the 2 lights on the platform and the headlights on the waiting bus. So much for google maps telling me it was only a 10 minute walk into town. There was no way we could have walked there, because the roads were also completely dark. Everyone who got off the train climbed aboard the bus.

After we arrived to the inner city I called Stefan to fill me in on the train schedule. The bus driver said the last bus back was at 22:30, so I figured there would be trains out... assuming is never a good thing. The last train to Munich was at 21:00 and it was about 20:30.

Clearly Stefan was not so happy when he learned he'd have to drive an hour to pick us up after a very long work week. He was such a good sport and thankfully also able to enjoy the India themed light show with us.

I'm already excited to see what the theme is next year, although India will be tough to beat. There are so many vibrant colors.

We've been getting nostalgic - just one year ago today we left for India ourselves. The only anniversary I've ever been sad to think about.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

pretty maps

Seeing this website just made me happy...

Aaron Straup Cope created a really neat website aptly called Pretty Maps. He has one for sale on 20x200 of lovely San Francisco.

You can also make maps on the site... here is one of Munich.

Another artist that is taking to the maps is Eric Fischer. His maps designate areas of the city that are visited by tourists vs. locals by using geodata from photo sites. People taking photos of the same city over a period > than a month = locals (blue), tourists (red), and uncertain (yellow).

Here is his from New York City. The Munich map isn't as exciting. Perhaps that's due to people like me that don't have photos on flickr.

(photos courtesy of : Aaron Straup Cope + Eric Fischer)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Vintage Oktoberfest

Since Oktoberfest began 200 years ago it is more of a celebration than ever, although this is a photo of the calm before the storm. Vendors were finishing their set ups and Theresienwiese was relatively quiet.

The old-fashioned area with old rides, costumes, animals, and horse races opened the day before the actual kick off, so we were happy to take part in the festivities. It costs 4€ to enter, but it's definitely worth checking out. After all Jubileumswiesn was 200 years in the making!

The animal area is very impressive. They have sheep, cows, horses, rabbits, turkeys, and freshly hatched chicks.

Keeping with the Oktoberfest theme there is plenty of beer, but the beer in the Jubileums area is slightly different. All 6 breweries got together to help in creating it the old way straight from the wooden kegs and it's available at the Festzelt for 8.80€ / litre. It's a bit stronger in taste and alcohol.

It appeared as though many tourists didn't realize it was happening, because there weren't as many people as I would have expected.

On our way over I was talking to our cab driver about the supposed controversy between several brothels in the area. One is said to give the cabbies 120€ / person they bring, so the other brothel is complaining. He said since he's a day driver he doesn't know too much about it, but he did say he had a Turkish business man that wanted a 'typical German woman'. He wasn't sure what that meant, so he took him to several brothels to check out the ladies. The cab driver said the Turkish man found one he liked, but she was the cleaning lady and her services weren't for sale. Cab driver stories are always so random.

Amazingly we were his first trip to Oktoberfest this year.

In the Festzelt there were traditional Goaßlschnalzen whip crackers and locals with their festive costumes and kitted out tracht.

It makes me love our city that much more - they definitely know how to celebrate and incorporate tradition at every turn. They also make things so family friendly.

This is a great site to buy Oktoberfest decor and celebrate yourself if you're not able to make it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Oktoberfest stamps

Oktoberfest begins tomorrow. We enjoyed it a day early before the crowds at the Jubileumswies'n (traditional area). I will write more about it once our guests are gone, because it was loads of fun - complete with beer brewed the old fashioned way.

The city is celebrating in a variety of ways. These stamps are an especially fun way to jazz up postcards to everyone we wish could be here with us.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

(This post is a follow up from our trip around the world. I will be writing a recap for each place we visited during our 4 month trip. Prior to Vietnam we also visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia).

- Ho Chi Minh City, or as the people in Vietnam still call it - Saigon, is a bustling city. There are around 4 million motorbikes in the city. We also learned they are cheaply made in China and can be purchased for as little as $800. Thankfully helmets are for sale everywhere for only a few dollars. Many people also wear face masks to defer the exhaust from other motorists.

- Crossing the border also meant prices drastically dropped. It was my first time in a communist country, although I didn't notice a major difference from the Socialism. It was comical, however, to visit the ATM and take out a couple million Vietnamese Dong.

- Conveniently our hotel was located directly across from where the bus let us off in a quiet alley way, which made things very easy for us. Our neighborhood (Quận 1) was a busy area with lots of people and vehicles around. We slowly were versed in the art of crossing the street with the darting motorbikes driving everywhere. Traffic rules do not really seem apply, except for waiting at the red lights.

- The first day we conquered the city by foot armed with a map from our very helpful and friendly front desk guy. We ventured out into the streets for a meal and found a really nice Vietnamese restaurant, which was just around the corner. We ordered a few dishes from the menu, which seemed to fill the table. The funny thing is that they put all kinds of different leaves and herbs on the table that we didn't quite know how to include in the meal. We ended up just chewing a couple mint leaves after our meal.

- Another nice restaurant that we tried was Quan an Ngon. They had an open kitchen and it was fascinating to look at the produce and ingredients. Not refrigerating meat makes me nervous, but they had several chickens that appeared freshly defeathered.

- After lunch we went to a nearby grocery to find some exotic (to us) fruits. A really sweet man was so excited to speak English with me and attempt to communicate. He was telling me the names of the fruits in Vietnamese and asking me the names in English. Unfortunately for many I really had no idea, but I was eager to learn what his favorites were. We ended up having Dragon fruit, Ambarella - a bitter green fruit, and Rose Apples which are similar in texture to a radish and very watery, but with the light taste of an apple.

Interestingly many are served with a chili salt to add some zest. I loved that, because I love salt and spiciness. The rose apples were my favorite.

- We also stopped at the tourist heavy Bến Thành Market. As in many different cities in South East Asia, anything that you would ever want or not want can be found at these hawker type markets. The approach this time was a little different as people were not afraid to grab your arm and jump right in front of you to make you aware that they had the best merchandise there is. We were surprised how forceful these seemingly tiny ladies were.

- One of the big sites in town is the historic post office, which was also visited. It doesn't appear to belong in the surrounds and only the big poster / painting of Mr. Ho Chi Minh himself inside reminds you of where you are.

- Next to the post office, there is the Notre Dame cathedral, which again seemed slightly out of place. In general churches are a rather familiar site for us, but for the month prior we were more used to temples, so it was surprising to see a simple Catholic church along the way. It's funny that the most familiar suddenly seemed foreign to us.

- The inner city itself can easily be traversed by foot. Maybe easily is not right word, since one has to be very careful on the streets, as motorbike literally ride past half an inch from you. We tried to put our big city behavior to the test and just looked straight and walked whenever we had to cross the street with a steady rhythm. Since I’m still capable of writing this, it looks like we did OK.

- After a couple days in HCMC we set out for a couple excursions to the Củ Chi Tunnels and a day trip to Mỹ Tho with it's speckling of islands (Dragon Island, Unicorn Island, Phoenix Island, and Turtle Island).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The new Williamsburg was said to be Berlin... is the new Berlin now Detroit?

All three places have been taken over by artists who find inspiration and enormous low rent studios for creativity. We all know what happens once the artists move in - it's not long before property starts to rebound.

(This video is a preview. The full video can be seen here.)

It's inspiring to see so many young people helping to revitalize this historical city that so many have considered hopeless. It definitely does appear that they are on to something... inner city farming, beautiful old architecture, proximity to the lake, and small mom + pop style shops as opposed to chains? Doesn't sound too bad!

Watching the video above is pretty inspiring. Phil Cooley, who is featured, has a point he says if he moves back to New York he has no say what happens in that city... in Detroit he can be part of the community and make a difference.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chiemsee Wedding

Our friends Irmi and Felix got married last month and had a very beautiful celebration at the Chiemsee.

They are big sailors, so having it at the lake was a perfect fit. Every tiny detail was not overlooked from beautiful paper lanterns and parasols to a cigar bar that grew more and more popular as the night wore on.

Being a dog lover I was also thrilled to see several guests had brought theirs along.

They were very distracted while everyone enjoyed cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

We all celebrated late into the night with lots of talking, dancing, and of course eating plenty of fantastic foods.

The next day, after brunch, we each wrote a note for love for a balloon launch. What a gorgeous wedding weekend.

Congratulations, Irmi + Felix!