Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 31st, 2008 by MadDog
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The train from Hanoi to Hoi An wore me down a bit. I was in a compartment for four and I couldn’t speak more than a few words of Vietnamese. So, when I left Hoi An for Saigon, I decided to take a plane instead. The train had cost me U$17. I think that the plane was about US$70.

Everybody knows that the name of the city is Ho Chi Minh City, but, like a lot of things that everybody knows, a lot of people ignore the fact and continue to use the more familiar name of Sài Gòn.

All of the guide books (I had Lonely Planet) say that you should stay away from the kids who want to ride you around on their motor scooters (too dangerous!) and the cyclos. If you don’t know what a cyclo is, have a look at this:

Quang and his trusty cyclo

The driver’s name is Quang. I’ll have more to say about him in my final post about Vietnam. For now, I’ll just say now that having him haul me around was an excellent experience.

I don’t know why I took so few photos in Saigon. Possibly it is because Saigon didn’t appeal to me as much as the other places I’d been. It’s a big, slightly obnoxious city that seemed to me to have no particular character.

The street vendors are particularly insufferable. I did a lot of walking around the city. On several occasions, I would be followed for blocks by a persistent peddler. I finally stumbled on the solution. I absolutely refused to speak English. When a street vendor started hassling me in broken English, I would answer in Tok Pisin. I’d start by saying, “O plis, sori. Mi no save tok Engles.” I’d follow that with a blank stare. After a few minutes of fun watching the peddler desperately trying to communicate, he’d start to look around for a more likely sucker. It was devastatingly effective.

One place that did attract my attention was the Wedding Palace. I’m a Registered Celebrant here in Papua New Guinea, which means that I perform a lot of weddings. So, I have a sort of professional interest in the matter. The Wedding Palace is a huge white building with a beautiful colonial style interior. This couple was happy to have me take a photo of them on the staircase:

A happy couple at the Wedding Palace

Out back is the special wedding car in which the bride and groom are whisked around town for their celebrations. The car is certainly interesting, but what is more curious is the 105mm rocket launcher in the background:

The Wedding Car - Saigon Wedding Palace - The rocket launcher is optional

There are many war museums around the city. The entire city, in fact, is a huge war museum. You can see bits of destructive paraphernalia on practically every street. I visited several of the war museums. They were tough going. It was challenging to view the “American War” through the eyes of Vietnamese museum curators.

Most of my favourite photos of Saigon are night scenes. The city bustles during the day, but at night it sparkles. This is a typical night time street scene in front of the Rex Hotel:

The Rex Hotel - Saigon, Vietnam

Motorbikes are everywhere; traffic doesn’t ease until about ten at night. It seems that drivers are obligated to sound their horns at least once every ten seconds – it must be a law. The advice to avoid the boys who want to take you for a ride for a price is probably wise. I witnessed an average of three serious motorbike pile-ups a day.

During the day, most women dress in long-sleeved white clothing and white gloves. Somehow, they manage to keep big hats on their heads while riding. The point is to prevent the sun from darkening the skin. Lighter skin is considered more attractive. I talked to a young lady at my hotel about the Ao Dai – the long, conservative, tight fitting dress so favoured by the Vietnamese. When I mentioned that I found it particularly attractive, she smiled and explained why. “It covers everything and conceals nothing” she said. She is so right.

At night, however, the ladies loosen up a little:

Siagon at night - Grrlz on Bikes!

Armies of motorbikes cruise seemingly without fixed destinations:

The motorbike brigade on night maneuvers - Siagon

It’s not unusual to see a family of four on a single motorbike.

Having taken no notes to go with my photos, I can’t identify many of the places that I saw. This one, I know, is City Hall:

Saigon at night - City Hall

Here, in the park at City Hall, is a statue of Ho Chi Minh:

The statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of City Hall - Saigon

Down by the Sài Gòn River, there is a huge floating restaurant decorated like a giant fish:

Giant floating fish restaurant on the Saigon River

As part of my pilgrimage, I had planned to visit the Củ Chi Tunnels. I didn’t particularly want to – not being much of a fan of war. I did, however, find the experience revealing, if difficult. The place is like a horror show. It has a metaphysical stink of war:

Emerging from a hidden entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels - near Saigon, Vietnam

The first thing that you hear when you approach the area is the continual popping of firearms. There is a firing range where, if you’re inclined, you can shoot anything from a M1911 .45 semiautomatic pistol to a Browning M2 .50 machinegun. Bullets for an AK-47 or American M-16 were going for US$1 per round. I saw one person after another shell out US$30 for a magazine and then rip it off in about three or four seconds.

The noise of giant popcorn being cooked and the smell of cordite brought back a lot of memories. I wasted no money on bullets.

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Fooling Fish on the Henry Leith

Posted in Under the Sea on December 30th, 2008 by MadDog
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On Saturday morning, we waddled out with a full load of fun-seekers on Faded Glory to Wongat Island to dive the Henry Leith for the millionth time. Okay, maybe the 500th time. It never gets tiresome. In fact it has been fascinating to do the same dive several times a year for a period of nearly twenty years. Wrecks in tropical waters change dramatically over time. I reckon that the Henry Leith will be virtually unrecognizable in another 25 years. It is deteriorating rapidly.

The visibility was miserable – about the worst I’ve ever seen it in that location. All the photography had to be up close because of the poor light and the pesky particulate matter in the water.

I did manage a few interesting shots. Here’s one of a fan coral that shows some of the individual polyps extended:

Weird Flower Garden

I’ll call that one “Weird Flower Garden.” The image looked pitiful until I had the idea to turn the entire background to monochrome black and white. That got rid of the nasty green background and allowed the natural colours of the fan coral to be seen against a neutral canvas.

Here’s a Spotfin Lionfish on a big leather coral:

Spotfin Lionfish on the Henry Leith at Wongat Island near Madang, PNG

The Spotfin is uncommon in other locations, but for some reason seems to be attracted to the Henry Leith.

Angelfish are notoriously difficult to photograph because they are so skittish. You simply cannot get close to them. I caught this one down in the passageway to the cargo hold. He was confused enough for a few seconds while deciding how to escape that I got one good image of him:

Angelfish - trapped!

Then Pascal had a brilliant idea. He pried open a small clam on the deck with his knife and we just watch the fish feeding on it. Great for photography – too bad for the clam.

I wouldn’t want to do this regularly, but these are easily the best angelfish images that I’ve gotten so far:

Angelfish feeding on clam

There was a lot of mixed-species feeding going on. It was interesting to see how each fish took its turn. There was very little pushing or shoving going on.

Sometimes, two or three fish were feeding side-by-side:

There's room for all at this diner

This is similar to the “turning the rocks over” trick that we do at Planet Rock.

Everything gets eaten by something eventually.

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Madam C. J. Walker – A Pioneering Black American Woman

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 29th, 2008 by MadDog
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As the interlocutor on Monty Python used to say, “And now for something completely different.”

As a kid in Indianapolis in the 40’s and 50’s I was all too aware of segregation. Many parts of the city were “black” while others were “white.” Many schools were segregated. Living as I did on the edge of a black district, the schools that I attended were mixed race. I didn’t see that as much of a blessing at the time. Interracial fights were common and race was always the unwelcome elephant in the room. Nevertheless, it did teach me that we must learn to get along with each other. It also taught me that life was much simpler if you learned to be colour blind.

One black area of town that was particularly famous was the area we called, “Indiana Avenue.” As children, we were of course, supposed to stay away from there. And, of course, we didn’t.

One place that fascinated me was the Walker Theatre:

Main entrance of the Walker Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana

It was more than a theatre. The building contained several businesses and was situated at the centre of a thriving black business and residential community. Sadly, today the Walker Theatre is about the only surviving landmark:

The Walker Theatre Building in Indianapolis, Indiana

The genius behind much of this was Sarah Breedlove, born in Delta, Louisiana, the first member of her family to be born free. Her parents had been slaves. At age 14, she married a man named Moses McWilliams and was widowed at age 20. While living in St. Louis, she joined St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which helped develop her speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills. She was married in 1894 to John Davis and divorced about nine years later.

Sarah Breedlove, a. k. a. Madam C. J. Walker

When she began to lose her hair, she had the idea for a line of hair care products. Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado, where she worked as a sales agent for Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products. Sarah also consulted with a Denver pharmacist, who analysed Malone’s formula and helped Walker formulate her own products. This may have been the first case of industrial espionage in American Black History. In addition, she often told reporters that the ingredients for her “Wonderful Hair Grower” had come to her in a dream:

Madam C. J. Walker's "Wonderful Hair Grower"

She opened a permanent office in Pittsburgh in 1908, which her daughter ran, and in 1910 she formed Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories in Indianapolis, where she developed products and trained her beauticians, known as “Walker Agents.” The agents and the products were recognized in black communities throughout the U.S. and Caribbean for promoting the philosophy that cleanliness and loveliness could advance the plight of African-Americans.

Eventually, her products formed the basis of a thriving national corporation employing at one point over 3,000 people. Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Black women. Madame Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

Advertisement for Madam C. J. Walker's Products

Madam Walker amassed a fortune in a mere fifteen years. Her prescription for success was perseverance, hard work, faith in herself and in God, “honest business dealings” and of course, quality products. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once observed. “And if there is, I have not found it – for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

Madam C. J. Walker's house at Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York

Madam Walker was also known for her philanthropy, leaving two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities including the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute and Bethune-Cookman College. In 1919, her $5,000 pledge to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign was the largest gift the organization had ever received. She died soon after, on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at her estate, Villa Lewaro, due to kidney failure and other complications resulting from hypertension. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. At her death, the multi-million dollar estate was left to various philanthropic organizations and to her daughter, whose philanthropic endeavours were key to funding the Harlem Renaissance.

I was aware of none of this as a child. I wonder how much better race relations could have been if school children had learned of the contributions of all of the citizens of the land – not just the white ones. How would a school-sponsored class visit to Madam Walker’s laborotories have affected our white-bread ignorance of the accomplishments of black Americans?

I wonder . . .

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Reefkeeping . . . an online magazine for the marine aquarist

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Under the Sea on December 28th, 2008 by MadDog
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It’s always a complement when someone asks to use one of my photos for a web site.

Marc Levenson of Reefkeeping – An Online Magazine for the Marine Aquarist did a nice job with one of my Christmas Tree Worm shots.

I take the liberty of showing you the cover here:

December 2008 cover of Reefkeeping Online Magazine

Click on the image to see what he did. After the first click on the photo at the centre, you’ll get a nice Christmas surprise.

Thanks, Marc.

Have a look inside the magazine while you’re there. It’s chock full of beautiful photography and valuable information for anyone interested in keeping a saltwater tank.

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The Mekong Delta

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 27th, 2008 by MadDog
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I’d like to continue talking about my visit to Vietnam a few years ago. The truth is that I have so many photos of the Mekong Delta that I want to show you that I’m going to cut the chatter short and just describe what was going on.

The general advice of travellers who had been there was, “Don’t miss the Mekong Delta.” Having heard about it endlessly during the war, I wanted to see what it was like. It didn’t disappoint. It was as beautiful as it was described – without the bullets flying.

We embarked on a small boat on the surprisingly rough muddy waterway:

Our transport across the broad Mekong River

The colours were splendid. Boats and houses like a solidly constructed rainbow line the riverbanks:

Boats and beautiful houses line the banks of the Mekong River

The colour of the river made the boats look as if they were floating in hot chocolate:

Boats floating on the hot chocolate Mekong River

As it was during a major national holiday, the red flags with the bull’s-eye yellow star were peppering the scenery. In the next image you can see a huge watchtower at the left. I suspect that this is a leftover from the war. It must have made a tempting target:

Red flags aplenty - The Mekong RIver Delta

If you’re boat has a motor, you have to fuel up occasionally:

Refuel your boat here on the Mekong Delta

We switched to canoes for the trip to the village:

Canoes to the village on the Mekong Delta

The hats! They are iconic of Vietnam. I brought back six of them. They cost me about a dollar each and they last forever.

This is one of my favourite shots from all those that I got in Vietnam:

One of my favourite images of Vietnam

At the hamlet, we were entertained by a talented young singer and his backup band:

This Mekong Delta singer had a beautiful voice

His sister followed with an equally impressive performance:

A Mekong Delta village entertainer

Then it was time to wash up for lunch:

A place to wash up in the Mekong Delta

I don’t believer that I’ve ever seen a more interesting placement of a bathroom sink.

For lunch, we had to most beautifully decorated fish that I’ve ever seen:

Beautiful, but very stinky fish in the Mekong Delta

Unfortunately, it was also the stinkiest fish that I’ve ever eaten. I took a polite bite and then switched to the yummy veggies. Vietnamese taste aparently runs to the strong, fishy aroma. That’s not one of my favourite things. Dining out was a bit of a let-down for me. That’s because I was raised on stinky ‘fish sticks’ because they were cheap. I still prefer my fish to smell nothing like fish!

I would happily have spent several days wandering around the Delta region. Sadly, I was running out of time. I had planned to spend two weeks in Vietnam. If I ever get to go back, I’ll plan at least a month. The list of places I missed, but would love to see, is as long as my arm.

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Solar Attack

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 26th, 2008 by MadDog
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My collection of sunrises as seen from my front yard is growing a bit too rapidly. I need to unload some of them. In another year, I’ll have enough for a nice coffee table book.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take you with me back to Vietnam.

Today, if you’re familiar with British Empire culture, you will know is Boxing Day. It’s the day that one is supposed to reward with boxes containing small gifts all those who have supported your life in various ways . . . the postman, the milkman, plumber, etc.

Since you support my life in a very important way by reading the daily drivel that I spoon out, I’ll box up some images that illustrate why I enjoy getting up every morning. (That’s aside from the fact that it’s always a pleasant surprise to discover that I’m actually still alive.)

I captured all of these except the first one from the stern of Faded Glory moored at our dock. In the first photo you can see Faded Glory. I usually stand at the stern by the dive ladder.

This one features a rising moon on which you can clearly see the reflection of Earthshine on the dark side:

Sunrise with Moon

I love these “Sky on Fire” shots:

Sky on fire

This one is a little more subtle:

As subtle as a sledgehammer

The next two are panoramas taken on two different mornings.

This one covers a about 120°. At the left, you can see the lights of the main wharf. At the right is the boundary fence of our yard and the pilings of a defunct dock outside our fence:

A 120 degree sunrise

This one covers an even wider angle of about 190°:

A wider sunrise panorama

I feel very blessed by life in a place where I can rise bleary and troubled by dreamtime phantoms, walk to my front windows, and catch a vision of wonder that makes me think, “Well, that’s a nice start.”

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Madang to Moresby – A Few Favourite Images

Posted in At Sea on December 25th, 2008 by MadDog
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My recent eight-day sea voyage from Madang to Port Moresby on Miss Rankin yielded many memories that will last me for the rest of my life and not a few images that I will add to my slide show folders.

Today, we’ll take a break from Vietnam and I’ll show you just a few of the shots that made me feel lucky to be in a certain spot at a certain time – you know the kind that I mean.

As we left Madang, I was shooting like a crazy person to get images of the Coastwatchers Monument. Fortuitously, a big cargo ship came along just as I was getting out of telephoto range of the monument:

A cargo ship passes the Coastwatchers Monument in Madang

I’m going to try to contact the ship owners and see if I can peddle this image to them. It would look nice on the wall of the boss’s office.

This is the biggest school of feeding tuna that I have ever personally seen. I know that it is small by ocean standards. If you click to enlarge, you can see many birds and a few fish out of the water:

Tuna and birds in a feeding frenzy

Along the north coast, in several places, you can see what appear to be steps going up the sides of the mountains. These are ancient beaches. As the sea level rises and falls it apparently pauses for long periods of time. It’s not continuous; it’s a jerky process. So, each time there is a pause, a new beach and corresponding cliff forms. When the sea level changes again up or down, these fossil beaches are preserved:

Fossil beaches along the north coast of Papua New Guinea

If there are any doubters out there about the actual age of the earth, you might want to have a close look and think about it. I haven’t been ashore here, but I’d like to do so someday. I’m told that the fossils that you find at each lever are different.

As sunsets go, this one is not particularly pretty, but we very seldom get a chance to see the sun actually slipping below the horizon. Clouds usually block the view. On this evening, however, there was a slot of clear air between the base of the clouds and the ocean surface:

Sunset with sunspot?

If you click to enlarge you can see a little dark spot on the sun. (Oooh . . . King of Pain by Sting just started playing in my head! “There’s a little dark spot on the sun today; it’s the same ol’ thin’ as yesterday”) I think that it might be a sunspot. I’ve seen photos of sunsets in which sunspots were clearly visible. Maybe I got lucky here. Or maybe it was only a small cloud.

We saw a spectacular rain shower along the coast one evening. I spent about twenty minutes shooting it. There was a very dense column of rain under a single cloud. It looked to me to be only a few hundred metres wide. I suppose this is a visible explanation of why we often get short intense rainstorms around Madang:

A fierce little rainshower along the north coast of Papua New Guinea

After I get my web host problems sorted out, I’ll be able to show you some spectacular panoramas that are zoomable. For now, I’ll just have to show you the clickable thumbnail of this beauty:

Reef panorama - Milne Bay - Papua New Guinea

We were anchored off the edge of a reef down around Milne Bay. There are thousands of reefs in the area. You could probably dive there for a lifetime and never do the same dive twice. The shot above is a blend of six separate frames. If you click to enlarge, you can see a guy in a canoe. People travel incredible distances here in small canoes.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be jumping around from place to place on Madang – Ples Bilong Mi. I have more from Vietnam and the Moresby trip. I’ll slip in some odds and ends also.

Oh, by the way – If you’re into it – Merry Christmas.

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