Venice, Scenes of Everyday Life

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It’s easy to imagine Venice as some sort of Renaissance wonderland. From many of the pictures people take and the art done of the city, it’s very easy to miss that this is as much a vibrant commercial and residential city as it is a a beautiful historic site. In paintings hanging in the museum, the merchants, sailors, craftsmen, and tradesman filling the canvas are, to our modern eyes, part of the decor of the time. They were in fact vital to the growth of the city, just as they are vital to its life today.

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The canals are the life blood of the city. Everything comes in by boat, and travels to the correct destination via increasingly small canals. During the day it’s mostly moving people and tourists around, but in the morning it’s moving everything else.

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Until about noon, you can find these market boats pulled up along the canal, usually near clusters of restaurants or grocery stores. They stock the local vendors and it looked like they were doing brisk business. Cramped quarters leads to minimal storage space, so everyone gets a daily shipment of most food goods.

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There are some dry markets that sell to normal customers who walk through the stall lined aisles. These markets are, unsurprisingly, also supplied by boat.

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One of the semi-enclosed areas near the water is reserved for an incredibly pungent fish market. The stone tiles around there are treacherous.

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In addition to keeping everyone supplied with food and other wares, someone has to maintain the city itself. A lot of buildings rely on piers and supports that are jammed in the water. Building new ones or replacing old ones is a pretty delicate affair that the tradesman handle with ease. I know I’d fall into the water if I tried walking the planks the way they do.

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The effort it takes to keep such a city in good repair is incredible. We were utterly fascinated by the way boats were customized for their particular jobs. Just like construction crews on land, these long, wide, and flat boats carried cranes. Unlike land based cranes, these swing low and are relatively light weight, and the crane boats carry their own building supplies with them.

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For moving boxed cargo, there are very similar flat boats that run around dropping off boxes, which are shuttled to their destination by a runner with a dolly. The early morning bustle is full of people taking things to and fro, getting ready for the day.

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It’s not just on land – the early morning fog falls on a seemingly endless stream of boats zipping up and down the canals.

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One of the major things that (probably) no one thinks about when they think of Venice is hauling out the trash. We sure didn’t, so when we saw these garbage boats roaming around in the morning hours, we were amazed. They’re a lot like the crane boats, but their cranes have only one job – to lift and empty the garbage carts.

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The carts are slim and on wheels. Workers run them along alleys and across plazas to the various businesses and residences, collecting trash. When the cart is full, they run back and drop it off at the boat, which lifts the cart and through a door in the bottom, empties it. In part because they don’t have a lot of time to cover the island, and because their carrying capacity is relatively small, garbage day is every day. Like the fresh food, the fresh garbage needs to be carted regularly – there’s no place for storage like there is on the mainland.

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It’s not just on the water that the city gets repaired. These workers are installing phone and internet cables – it’s very cool to see Venice wiring up for the future.

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Hanoi and Vietnam’s History

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Hanoi is two things: hectic and contradictory. It is hectic because it is the capital. Everything must happen here, but bigger. Vendors clog the sidewalks with impromptu eateries and storefront goods spill out onto the streets. We’re here also here during the tail end of Reunification Day celebrations, which every year commemorates the end of what they call the American war and joining of North and South Vietnam. In the evenings, young couples and families walk the boulevards of the Old Quarter and along the river, weaving their way through rivers of motorbikes and dodging the occasional car. During the day, it’s business as usual: everyone on a motorbike has somewhere they need to be five minutes ago and most driving rules are loose. In the early afternoon the roads flood with schoolchildren, walking home with friends or catching a ride on a motorbike with parents. Neither will stop, so watch your step.

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And Hanoi is contradictory because it is both the seat of the country’s communist state and a business center. Nearly everyone here is involved with business of some kind, whether selling food or household goods or running restaurants and coffee shops. In the downtown area, multistory malls with Louis Vitton and Burberry stores attest that anything can be had here, for a price. Teenagers pose for photos in front of monuments to the revolutionaries, but in the shadow of shimmering ads for Pepsi. Yet all this occurs under the watchful eyes of Uncle Ho, the adoring personification of former leader Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam feels less like a communist country and more like a country that used communism as a unifying word against colonial forces.

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The museums and monuments corroborate that idea, dedicating themselves more to portraying the evils of colonialism and the heroic acts of people who fought the colonial forces than to illustrating a post-capitalist worker’s paradise. A visit to the Women’s Museum yields two floors dedicated to female revolutionaries who fought against the French and American forces and their fates when captured. Similarly, Hoa Lo Prison (known by American POW’s as “Hanoi Hilton”) is divided into two parts: the first is a scathing reconstruction of conditions here during French colonial rule, depicting torture and treatment of political prisoners at the hands of the colonial forces.

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The second half of Hoa Lo Prison is a museum dedicated to the American POW’s housed here during the war, with specific attention paid to the good care and conditions the prisoners received. Wander through and you’ll find yourself staring at goods given to them for personal hygiene and entertainment, at photos on the walls of them playing volleyball or celebrating Christmas. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, a sort of proud elevation of the Vietnamese people over the barbaric colonial forces. I can’t comment on veracity, but it’s certainly interesting to see.

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As we’re leaving Hoa Lo prison, we overhear a tour guide talking to a visiting American couple. “There’s a joke here we say,” the guide says. “If you ask us whether we forgive the Americans for invading, people will say ‘yes, yes, we forgive the Americans.’” The guide pauses and chuckles, “But if you then ask whether they forgive the French, people will say ‘well, we forgive the Americans.’”

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Delightful Da Lat

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If you want to visit Vietnam without the rote tourism, overcrowded cities, and tropical humidity, Da Lat is your city. Situated in the 1,500 m above sea level on the Langbian Plateau, Da Lat (or Dalat) is a year-round temperate getaway for people looking to relax, take in the mountain air, and drink coffee. The primary tourism market here is domestic and the foreign tourists that do make it here are primarily Russian, so don’t expect many English speakers. But several places offer English menus, and paper, a pen, and a smile are all you need to barter in the city’s markets. So pull up a chair and order a coffee, visit the city’s flower garden, or explore Da Lat’s bizarre architectural wonderland.

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A view of the city; red-roofed French villas from the colonial era sprawl across the countryside, a reminder that this was once a getaway for the French-colonial elite.

 

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A rain-kissed flower grows in a planter in Da Lat. The city is also known as “the city of a thousand flowers” and its temperate climate produces flowers for export.

 

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A man fishes in Xuan Huong Lake. I personally would not eat anything from this lake (see below).

 

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A woman uses a net and pole to fish waste out of Xuan Huong Lake after a storm. Heavy rainfall washes everything from plant debris to plastic bottles to dead fish down into the lake, so people like the above keep Da Lat beautiful.

 

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A military officer looks around at stalls in an indoor market.

 

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Plastic tables double as chairs, set out in preparation for an evening concert.

 

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Not someone’s home, but the interior of a local coffee shop. The city is filled with dozens of cozy cafes like this one.

 

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The branch of a bonsai tree on the shore of Xuan Huong Lake.

 

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A view over the night market in the city center.

 

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Vendors display wares to potential customers in the night market.

 

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Looking lost in the night market.

 

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Toys posed (by someone else) in a mall in Da Lat.

 

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A woman poses for a photo while riding as an advertisement for Yamaha motorbikes.

 

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A woman takes a selfie (left) while tourists wander by below (lower center) in the confusing architecture of the Hang Nga Crazy House.

 

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A bubbling cauldron of stew in the local market. IT WAS DELICIOUS.

 

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An offerings table for deceased ancestors in front of a local business.

 

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A truck-sized lotus lantern awaits deployment onto Xuan Huong Lake, part of a celebration of Buddha’s birthday.

 

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The night skyline of Da Lat, reflected into the lake.

When you don’t know where to shop

We’ve just had one of those moments where we are painfully aware we’re not in our home country, despite all the trappings of modernity that resemble the U.S. We’ve been driving for a day and it’s abundantly clear that we’re going to need a microUSB charger for the car if we want to have any hope of keeping the phone alive and navigating on this continent. Great, we just need to pick one up from the store. But the question is what store?

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Spoiler: it’s here, for those of you just on this page looking to buy a phone charger.

Back in the U.S., we’d just search for the nearest Target or Walmart, but here in New Zealand, neither of these big box chain stores exists. Likewise for electronics stores; a search on Google maps for Radioshack turns up nothing. Alright, it looks like Google Maps isn’t going to be particularly helpful. We could try searching online for the name of a big box store chain here in New Zealand, but that could lead us down a rabbit-hole of all the possible stores in New Zealand. And the phone battery is already dangerously low.

We resort to some simple logic. Where are big box stores normally found in the States? Strip malls and suburban areas, alongside supermarkets. So we search for PaknSave, the only supermarket chain we know here in New Zealand, and get a lead. Ten minutes later we’ve located the PaknSave and a few monstrous parking lots down, there’s a massive store called The Warehouse. It turns out to be the functional equivalent of a Walmart, complete with bargain basement prices on everything from USB cables to cheap fleece blankets. We buy our charger, a blanket for picnics, and as a splurge buy a $11 boogie board for the beach. We’ll have to shed these things when we leave our car camping behind, but hey, for now they’ll be fun. Three hours later and about $20 NZD poorer, we’ve got our phone charger and a few other things we don’t need. And we know where to get more if we want it.

This is all a reminder of how much innate knowledge we take for granted in our daily lives, from where to buy things to how the world around us works. We were in “easy mode” here, since at worst we could have used English to ask people for directions, though that would have taken more time. But what if we were in a country where we didn’t know the language, and what about all of the foreigners still learning English that visit the U.S.? When people ask simple questions like where to shop, there’s an easy tendency to say “That place, duh. How could you not know?” But we’re all only one country away from not knowing the answer.