A different kind of phone accessory

Very stylish, I know

Just for posterity, I thought I ought to show off my stylish N95. It's been wearing that Handyplast/Band-aid for close to a month now.

I've dropped the phone enough times that the battery cover won't stay on anymore, so in Vietnam I slapped on a piece of masking tape as an interim measure. That eventually lost its adhesive qualities, plus it was leaving some sticky residue on the phone, so I switched to this more elegant solution.

I thought I would have a new phone by now, but the one I want hasn't been on sale since I got back, so the N95 will have to do for a while longer.



On the tourist trail, then off again

Pose in front of the emperor's tomb

I've been plugging away at the writing since I got through the unexpected move and banged through Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot in about a week. If that sounds like a lot, it is: Hue, Danang and Hoi An comprise about half my total word count, while writing about Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot takes some diplomatic finesse because of how murky things are in the highlands (the social-political relations, not the air or the views, which are great).

Here's some of what I can't squeeze into the book about each town:

Hue (pronounced 'hway' or 'way', not 'hue' or 'huey') was where I first started to overdose on cultural sights. There's only so many imperial whatsits you can look at in a day before the ironic voice in my head withers in fatigue. I've never been one to diligently work through all the royal doodads that any culture puts on display (that's why I spent most of my time at Versailles lounging in the royal gardens rather than meditating on the royal fripperies), but now that the job called for it ... Well, I sucked it up and did it.

I don't like to play favourites, but I will say that of all the imperial tombs I liked the crazy Khai Dinh construction best, mostly because it seemed the least traditionally Vietnamese after all the others I'd seen. Also, I saw it around lunchtime, which is why its blazing blackness is forever seared into my memory.

This be Danang

Danang was great because it was a regular non-touristy city and every expat I met there loved it for being a regular non-touristy city. It's always been panned in previous editions of the guidebook, but I give it a big thumb's up. When you can walk for blocks without a single person trying to hawk you a postcard, conical hat or xe om ride, that's a precious thing.

Also it had excellent Vietnamese food. I'm not crazy about the local noodle speciality mi quang, so I went marginally upmarket and hit all these neat little Vietnamese restaurants instead. Writing the Danang restaurant section was hard last weekend when I was stuck at the laptop without a hearty meal within reach.

Lights for sale

Hoi An I didn't like when I first met it. Too quaint, too much like a movie set and too many damn tourists. After Danang --- when locals would do a double-take at seeing me pass them on the street and I wouldn't see another foreign face for hours unless I popped into Bread of Life or Bamboo 2 Bar --- Hoi An seemed like some purgatorial outpost wherein I'd been cast to test my patience with relentless street sellers --- "Hey you! Come here!" --- and bellyaching tourists.

Then I met some really lovely people. Then I heard some really lovely stories (personal ones, that don't get disclosed here or in the guidebook). Then I figured out that "Hey you!" is a direct translation of the Vietnamese term for addressing a stranger (the way in English you would say "Excuse me"). Then I lingered in Hoi An longer than I'd planned to --- also because Yan Wei joined me and hey, who am I to deny her a few days of Hoi An magic (especially since we spent most of our time out of town)?

I'd go back to Hoi An in a heartbeat now, mostly to hang out and eat lots of fabulous food (Morning Glory, Mango Rooms and Casa Verde, I'm lookin' at you). But not cao lau. I don't care if it is Hoi An's pride and joy, it just doesn't do it for me.

Kon Tum Village rong house

Kon Tum, then, which was very dusty and very poor. These are towns in Vietnam that you visit not for food or nightlife or ancient relics, but because they've got exotic minority (read: marginalised) villages in the area. These are places where you smile at the kids but keep them at a distance because how on earth can anyone do enough to help them all. I felt growly inside when we saw a packed tour bus leaving a "popular" orphanage and later a foreign couple dropped in on the orphanage's nursery with their guide to cuddle some poor babies (though I was a drop-in too, even if I did forbear from the cuddling).

I still feel growly. Ask me about it some time.

Reach for the sky

Pleiku was like the older sibling of Kon Tum, with slightly better but not necessarily trendier clothes. We found a cool cafe to hang out in and Yan Wei picked up a fan (the kind that wants to practise her English with us) at the market, which led to an earnest but awkward hour spent in that same cafe.

Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced 'boon me tote') had no good restaurants. All our sightseeing outside the town was great, but when we got back and had to scrounge up dinner --- well, let's just say that 'scrounge' is appropriate because there really wasn't much to pick from, even including street food options. You know a town is lacking in dining options when even our well-informed tour guide couldn't recommend us a place.

I knew a suspension bridge would be involved

I'm skimming over the details, of course, but I have to conserve my strength for tomorrow's writing. One more major town to write about, then I switch into editing and cutting-text-to-meet-the-word-count mode. I hope I've set aside enough time for that.

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Why I like A Small Orange

(Besides their cool name, that is.)

Because within 3 hours of me emailing them on Saturday morning Singapore time/Boxing Day night American time, they had upgraded my hosting package status exactly as I requested (pro-rating the bigger package for the remaining month till I renew the annual subscription for this site), so that I can publish my blog without errors again.

I had to upgrade my package because this domain has somehow hit its disk quota of 75 MB, even though I barely store any large image files on it. The next size up is 400 MB; I think that'll hold me for a while.

Yay for A Small Orange (and Lucian, who introduced me to it)!

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What I did when I wasn't writing

On Christmas Eve, I walked through a light spray of rain, not enough to be a drizzle, palpable enough to feel like a dusting of snow, the kind that leaves your hair damp but not wet. At the first party, courtesy of ampulets' family, we politely raided her mother's wine collection after dinner and clinked glasses to the fact that we've been friends for 18 years (my bad, I said 16 that night). At the second party, courtesy of beeker's family, the conversation turned inexplicably to ghost stories some time after 1 am, which is a little weird for Christmas Eve.

On Christmas, the food from The Garden Slug was a big hit, as was my uncle's homemade roast beef. Packrat and Ondine got my grandfather a digital photo frame, which is so cool I want one. I did, however, get some very cool Breadou (thanks, Darren & Mel).

Today, I resumed work. Well, technically, I did, but really the writing muscle was so torpid from yesterday's tryptophan exposure, I felt like it was moving at the rate of one word forward, two words backspaced. So now I find myself two days behind schedule, with my final deadline exactly two weeks away.

Tomorrow better be more productive.

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Working up to Christmas

Between the moving and the deadline, I've been too busy to do anything Christmasy except order food for the family Christmas lunch and marvel at other people's idea of a Christmas greeting.

So in lieu of any traditionally festive posts, I offer you this rather nifty travelogue instead: "The road to Bethlehem", wherein BBC correspondent Aleem Maqbool follows in the footsteps (and donkey-steps) of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Personally, I love the opening to the December 17 entry:
"Why are you standing there with a donkey?" said an old Palestinian man.

"This is a nice modern city, and you're standing there with a donkey! What are you trying to say? What's wrong with you?"

Clearly, not everyone was as happy as I was to meet my new travelling companion in the centre of the city of Jenin.

The old man thought I was trying to show Jenin as a backward place. He refused to accept the nativity explanation, and went on his way muttering about how deceptive the foreign media is.
I can't wait to hear more about the donkeys.

Also, I want to write a travel/news story like this some day.

(The only irritating thing --- and this is a technical issue --- is that the posts are ordered in reverse chronological order, like a blog, which would be fine if they were all individually hyperlinked, like blog entries would be, and one could navigate through them from an archive page. But you can't, so it all feels very manual and pre-Web 2.0. The correspondent should just set up a free Blogger or Wordpress account instead.)

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Jonesin' for a drink

So tonight I was alone at Holland Village, and I could not for the life of me rustle up any kaki (pals) to come have a drink with me.

I was at Holland Village because I have a Pilates class anyway. I was alone because other Christmas drink plans had been cancelled on me at the last minute. I couldn't get anyone else because, I dunno, I have bad karma or something.

On the one hand, I like the intensity of sitting down to write for days at a stretch. On the other hand, it does leave me feeling that any preciously scheduled recreation time ought not to lie unusued if I've already scheduled it.

I think the word I'm looking for is du lan (a stronger version of being disgruntled).



Thusly moved

Yesterday was a harrowing afternoon for Sisu. I foolishly didn't realise how much all the noise and strangers and packing activity would upset her, so when I extracted her from under the bed mid-afternoon she clung to my shoulder (i.e. sank her claws right in) and spent the rest of the afternoon quavering there in terror.

Much, much later, I eased her into a box where she could ball herself and, uh, quaver some more.

Waiting I

Waiting II

Ink was less nonplussed, just more crotchety at being boxed up for several hours.

We're now installed at my parents' for the interim, which would not have been possible without the family and friends who showed up, helped, advised and made ironic wisecracks. This whole experience has made me realise, however, that maybe I need to make more lawyer friends.

It's been an exhausting couple of days, and tomorrow the writing must resume.



Down and out

Nothing like taking down the Xmas decor one week before Xmas, to put a bummer on things.

Due to circumstances well, well, well beyond my control --- and once again proving that there are unpleasant people in this world, it's just a matter of time before one crosses your path --- I am being summarily evicted from the place where I live. The next time I have to do one of those Internet memes that asks about random or weird things about you, I'll be able to say, "I have had to move house with 48 hours' notice."

The move is not my idea and not my fault. I'm pissed, of course, and trying to make arrangements, but I'm also grateful for family and friends (you know who you are). This morning I was just reading this New York Magazine article "Alone Together", about how living by oneself, particularly in cities like New York, doesn't necessarily mean that one is alone or lonely. It's never felt more true than today.

I don't particularly want to air the circumstances behind my precipitous house removal on this blog, but here's a quick FAQ to stave off all the usual questions:

1. You really have to move? Right now? With only 48 hours' notice?

I have less than that, actually, but yes, I do.

2. You've tried negotiating/bargaining/pleading/crying/wailing/growling/sicking your cats on them?

All except the last one, yes. All possibilities are exhausted.

3. But why ...?

Shit happens, even when it's not your fault.

4. Where will you go?

To my parents' place for a month, then to a new place which I'd found but not planned to move into till mid-January.

5. Move twice? Why not move to the other flat now?

Because it's not ready and can't be ready in the next 24 hours.

6. And the cats?

Will come with me.

7. And your things ... ?

Will go into storage except for what I need for the next month, i.e. enough clothes for four weeks (it's kinda like living out of a backpack again?) with prettier items for Xmas and the New Year, and all the stuff I need to finish up my current work.

Okay, I think that covers everything. Now to pack ...


The first words are the hardest

Which is why a headline like "I'm rewriting the same paragraph over and over and over!" is guaranteed to get me to click on it.

I figured Cary Tennis's advice (or anyone's, really) would run along the lines of "Just write it, dammit!" But I didn't expect him to approach it this way:
The rule I have made for myself [because he's on post-operative painkillers] is that I cannot go back and fix, or rearrange, or rewrite what I have done. I realized, on the first day of this experiment, when I absolutely lacked the mental concentration to do that kind of rearranging, that I would have to give it up. Thus I was forced to write this new way.

[...] This disability is forcing me to simply keep writing and moving forward.

Of course I fear that I will not be brilliant enough. This fear will have to wait. I cannot hide from it.
He also says:
In the case of writing and rewriting a paragraph 20 times or 50 times, we may fear the plainness and simplicity of what is in our minds; we may fear that unless we unleash a dazzling fusillade of verbal inventiveness, the reader will turn away in boredom and disgust. So we keep tinkering, trying to perfect the bomb.
I've often said I'm a highly inefficient writer (in terms of word count per day, which often translates into income per day) because I spend all this time "tinkering, trying to perfect the bomb", as Tennis puts it. The last few weeks, I've been plugging away at the Lonely Planet assignment, trying to write with "colour and flair" while "telling it like it is" (their mantra, don't you know). Which means I get stuck rewriting the same sentence over and over --- don't even get me started on paragraphs --- and the opening words to any new section are the hardest.

Of course, even harder than writing a good opening, is when you write one and then realise that there's no way you can use it in the book. For instance, this is an outtake for my opening to the history of Hue:
The emperors loved it, so the French sacked it. The North Vietnamese coveted it and stole it; the South Vietnamese and Americans wanted (and took) it back. The Communist government didn't really want to have anything to do with it --- but then the tourists started turning up in droves.
Copyright ME --- just because I'm not giving these lines to Lonely Planet doesn't mean anyone can steal them.

I know that I need to "simply keep writing and moving forward", but I don't know that I can. I guess sheer desperation will kick in at some point, as my non-negotiable deadline looms.

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Out of words

I would blog more, but writing all day leaves me feeling strangely empty (not drained, just empty).

I would stick a photo here in lieu of text, but even though I still carry my camera with me everywhere, I haven't "seen" any pictures that I want to take. Also, I spend most of my day cooped up at home writing, and while the cats are plenty entertaining, I haven't taken any good pictures of them, either.

I think I'm just going to go to bed.



A war zone, once

Tam Toa Church

I've spent the better part of this week writing about Dong Hoi, Dong Ha and the DMZ, which means I've spent the better part of this week getting a crash course in the Vietnam War/American War in Vietnam/the Second Indochina War/the quagmire that the war in Iraq is constantly being compared to.

(We're calling it the American War in the guidebook.)

All you really need to know is this:
  • Dong Hoi is the town immediately north of the DMZ that got pretty much shelled to bits by American bombing because it was the town immediately north of the DMZ (and hence used as a main staging area by the North).
  • Dong Ha is the town immediately south of the DMZ that also got pretty much levelled thanks to its proximity to the border.
  • The DMZ is the demilitarised zone that used to be a highly militarised area pockmarked with US bases, but almost everything was stripped by the Americans when they left or picked apart by successive militaries or people scrounging for scrap metal.
In short, none of these towns look very much like what war veterans remember, and a layman would have to really use his/her imagination to get something out of seeing these places. Not that I'm saying one shouldn't visit or respect the memory of what happened there --- just don't expect it to look like a scene out of a Vietnam War movie.

The airstrip at Khe Sanh today

But let me backtrack a little first. Dong Hoi wasn't a DMZ stop. We were there to visit the Phong Nha Caves --- very nice, despite the crazy lighting scheme inside and the pouring rain outside. The only unnerving thing was feeling a mild wave of claustrophobia while we were inside the cave, even with Deanna for company. I never used to get that way.

We stumbled on other cool stuff in Dong Hoi, but for that you'll have to wait for the book. Onward to Dong Ha and the DMZ, to see grassy patches where men and their weapons once slugged it out in battles that became the stuff of legend. Seeing all the sites in one day means they all sort of blurred into one another. It's only in the writing that I've now finally sorted out a lot of the details, and thank goodness for friends who just happen to be military buffs. I now know what "Leathernecks" are and I'm replacing all references to "McNamara's Wall" with "McNamara's Line" (it just sounds better).

On a more sobering note: I didn't think too much about unexploded ordnance while I was in the DMZ, even though I pretty much followed in the footsteps of our guide, but yes, there's still heaps of it around (see Mines Advisory Group and Clear Path International for some updates) and this is one place where you're better off sticking to the beaten path.

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Oh, cardboard

Beach detritus

Ah, Vinh. Most people don't know where it is, but those I met in Vietnam who did, when they heard that I'd been there, were quick to offer a sympathetic gaze. "Oh, Vinh." They might as well've said, "Oh, cardboard."

It's nice to know I wasn't alone in finding Vinh utterly uninteresting, unsalvageable and uncommendable. We had to spend three nights there, right after one night in ho-hum Thanh Hoa (which isn't making a comeback in the book --- as I emailed my editor, "unless people have been clamouring for it? The town itself has little to recommend"). And even after Thanh Hoa, Vinh seemed, well, blah.

Fine, so it's a port/industrial city, and it can't help that it was bombed to bits during the war and got ugly Stalinist buildings from East Germany thereafter. But why are the streets so empty of all the street food and street life one finds in almost every Vietnamese town (even in Dalat on a cold November night)? What do all the people do when there isn't a 220th anniversary of the city's founding to celebrate? Why is there nothing to eat on the street except bun bo Hue? And why do some hotels rent rooms by the hour?

If not for the fact that Vinh is a common stop for buses to and from Laos, I don't think it would make it into the guidebook either. Sure, there's Cua Lo Beach half an hour away (see image above), but that's not a beach I'd come all the way here for.

I made a friend in Danang who had spent several months in Vinh. When I asked her how she had stood it, she said dryly, "Oh, I looked around for a bridge to throw myself off, but I couldn't find one."

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Writing vs. getting a book deal

Borders' selection of Salman Rushdie

I did hardly any writing today, so to atone I'm blogging another writing-related link instead. After this morning's "Writers' Rooms", I got home to find a New York Times article from James: "Typing Without a Clue", by Timothy Egan.

Egan's point:
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.
I was in Kinokuniya today (before I read this article) and marvelling at the number of completely inconsequential books that get not only published but shipped all the way to Singapore. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the system's hit a point where I can finally get my hands on the full oeuvre of Margaret Atwood or the new paperback edition of The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million without having to place a special order. But I wish that didn't also mean that Twilight gets touted all over the place.



Writers' Rooms

The BBC website has a great slideshow of photographs by Eamonn McCabe of writers' rooms --- from Martin Amis to David Lodge to Roald Dahl. I particularly love the skylights that Seamus Heaney and Martin Amis have.

My own writing space at home is much more mundane. Cheap, too.

My el cheapo writing corner

I promise to do better after I move to a new place. I want to have:
  • A whole room, for starters.
  • A chair/table setup that's better for the back --- wish I could afford the new Herman Miller Embody.
  • More artwork around me.
  • More natural light --- I totally fell for an apartment I can't afford in Joo Chiat two weeks ago because it had glorious windows.

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O$P$ (continued)

The tussle between O$P$-vandal and O$P$-target proceeds apace. The second round of O$P$ accusations that appeared on Thursday were whited out by about 2.30 pm on Friday. I didn't go out last night (Friday), but by 1.45 pm today, new scrawls were up. They're using black marker pens now.




At first I didn't want to blog about this, because I thought it might worry my parents. Then I realised, I just spent seven weeks tramping all over Vietnam, during which time they probably worried over any number of things. This is small potatoes compared to that.

So here's the story: O$P$, for those of you not down with Singapore jargon, is vandalism shorthand for "owe money pay money". It's what loan sharks use to mark their territory on the walls around the homes of people who owe them money. You know, to cause them general embarrassment and unease, to make them pay up more quickly.

Between 11 am and 4 pm on Tuesday, someone scrawled O$P$ in red on various walls in the block where I live, appending the apartment number and (I presume) phone number and name of the loan defaulter to their warning. The door of the apartment in question was also defaced with paint. I know this because I live right next door. (That's the little detail that I thought might make my parents worry.)

Before 3 pm yesterday, the offending red marks on the white walls had been smudgily cleaned and painted over. I suspect I also overheard my neighbour speaking to some kind of authority figure, though not a policeman.

At some point today, the tireless vandal had scrawled more O$P$ accusations, again in red, over or beside the painted-over areas.

Now I'm wondering if this is going to turn into a battle of wills: can the local housing authority paint over the red marks faster than the guy with the red pen can go around marking up the place? Stay tuned ...



First impressions

An excerpt from Sunday's IM conversations:
Wahj: what have you been up to?
Wahj: besides writing
ME: writing and procrastinating
ME: if i'm not doing one, i'm doing the other
ME: today i cleaned my shower curtain and shower in lieu of writing
ME: (altho i have written quite a bit after that)
Wahj: The power of procrastination is amazing
Wahj: I'm convinced the best way to do something is to have something else to do
True dat, but I think after a week of giving in to procrastination, I finally have text on the page that I'm reasonably proud of.

However, there are also lots of stories from my seven weeks of travelling that won't make it to Lonely Planet. I mean, it's a guidebook, not a travelogue or a memoir.

So since I've been getting storyteller's block when I'm with family and friends, plus there are more stories than can be told in one sitting anyway, I thought maybe I could try blogging some of them as I'm writing about the respective places.

First stop: Ninh Binh.

Van Long Nature Reserve

When people ask me what my favourite place on the trip was, I usually hesitate to give a reply because they were all good in their own way (except for Vinh, but more about that in a couple of days). Philosophically I also don't see much point in trying to single out one travel destination or experience and elevating it as the superlative. It smacks of a certain consumerist approach to travel that I'm none too crazy about.

The blithe answer to the "favourite place" question, though, is Ninh Binh.

Ninh Binh was easy to love. The weather was positively glorious for the three days we were there. The flowers were blooming and the buffalo were amiable. The rice fields were a ripe, rich green, and the farms were buzzing with harvesting activities (including a memorable skedaddle on motorbike past a small roadside fire fuelled by dried rice plants; I made it unscathed but my friend was unfortunately singed by a stray ember).

And our motorcycle guides made things easy. The lead guide always spoke pretty good English, everyone drove safely, and all they had to do was whip us off the main path and down some country lane for me to be happy.

In the living quarters of a 14th-century temple, we sat down for tea, bananas and persimmons with an elderly nun who wouldn't let Deanna take pictures of her until she put on her official robes. On an empty river coming back from Kenh Ga village, the boatman let me take the wheel because, you know, that's what they let tourists do. Deanna led forth to breakfasts of pho ngan (duck pho in a heady broth, which I never saw again on the trip) and other market foods that I promptly forgot the names of.

When you spend most of your day looking at mountains (okay, limestone karsts) and blue skies, it's not hard to like a place.

There were other mountains and other blue skies over the next seven weeks, but it was Ninh Binh's that I saw first.

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