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Sunrise over Phu Yen

A lovely time-lapse video of the sunrise over the ocean in the town of Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen province.  About 5:00 am, April 23, 2019.

Idiot Boy Makes a Real-Life Escape Room

I considered packing my Leatherman multi-tool (thanks again, DW, best Christmas present ever) when I came to Taiwan for this little vacation. But I decided against it. Because I am an idiot.

The AirBnB that I’m staying in here in Taipei is a small studio apartment. The door lock is a Korean electronic lock that you open with a smart card. Pretty modern and convenient. and foolproof. But not idiot-proof, as I proved.

I have to say from the outset that this is not entirely my fault. It’s mostly my fault, but I can share some of the blame. I blame physics. Doors that are opened too quickly have a infuriating tendency to slip out of one’s grip and slam into the wall. Is that my fault? I think not. On top of that, fast-moving objects, like door handles, have the bewildering tendency to break when they slam into a wall. While I admit responsibility for starting the door in motion, can I be held responsible for the laws of physics? That’s a little unfair.

Oops

Now, I’m pretty sure that the engineers anticipated a lot of eventualities in the process of designing this electronic door lock. They clearly did not consider the idiot factor, though. That’s where I come in.

From the inside, you have to use the door handle to open the door. There is no other way to open it. I know this, because I was trapped inside the apartment while I tried to figure out how to open the door without a functioning door handle. Turns out, that’s kinda hard to do.

None of the “tools” in the apartment (forks, chopsticks, clothes hangers, zipper pulls, electric appliance plugs, paring knives) would fit into the hexagonal hole in the door mechanism. I was completely trapped inside. On top of that, it was a national holiday, and the service center was closed. The landlord was out of town too. It was a perfect storm. I was on my own.

After an hour of increasingly panicked head-scratching, I decided to think outside the box. Using a table knife as a screwdriver, I removed the screws holding the bathroom doorknob on.

I could jam those long screws into the hexagonal hole. But I still couldn’t turn it.

So I used the knife as a lever.

That worked.

Once I was out, I ran to the nearest hardware store and bought an Allan wrench. It worked like a charm.

So now I’m paying for my idiocy. Literally. A repairman is currently replacing the whole mechanism, and I am paying for it.

Next time someone suggests that we play escape room, I will cheerfully suggest that that someone kiss my butt. I played escape room for real. I won, and it only cost me $80 for a new lock. Even better, there was no guarantee that there was a solution to this one. I’m an idiot, but I’m a resourceful idiot.

Call me MacGyver. Idiot MacGyver.

And from now on, I am taking my Leatherman with me on every. single. trip.

Hanoi Old Quarter

Vietnam has a long weekend to celebrate the Hung Kings. All I really know about the holiday is that celebrates in ancient dynasty in Vietnam. The dynasty supposedly created the first nation-state in Vietnam 3,000 years ago. So I guess this holiday celebrates Vietnam’s creation myth.

I took advantage of a calm before the storm next week at work, to get away and see a part of Vietnam that has become the newest hot tourist destination: Ninh Binh. It became famous a few years ago because it was one of the filming locations for a King Kong movie.

Ninh Binh really is this pretty, and it isn’t overly touristy (yet).

I flew to Hanoi then connected with a tour service to drive two hours to Ninh Binh. While in Hanoi, I stayed in an Airbnb in Hanoi’s famous “Old Quarter.”

That’s where I stayed

Old wooden staircase dating from the French colonial period. Please don’t say the phrase “fire trap.”

The apartment is tiny. It felt like a trip back in time.

Unfortunately I did not go back in time. I was in a small old apartment made out of wood, in the middle of 21st-century Vietnam. The ground floor is a nightclub that booms music until 1:00 am. The building is on the pedestrian street. At 6:00 am, the middle-aged ladies start their line dancing, playing their music on a big speaker on the street.

I like the Old Quarter. It’s lively and interesting. But now I know that although it’s a nice place to visit, until I can turn off my sense of hearing, I wouldn’t want to live there.

Isn’t it romantic?

Spotted in a grocery store in Jakarta.

Staying Fully Charged

I demand perfect performance from my technology.

I’ll never forget the time my cell phone died while on a trip. I was traveling with a friend in China. My friend didn’t speak Chinese, and was depending on me to navigate. About half an hour before our train was to depart for the trip back, I glanced at my phone’s battery indicator, and was shocked to see it was at 6%. In China, if you don’t have a cell phone, you are severely handicapped. You can’t order tickets online, you can’t call a car, you can’t check on the status of your train. It’s a big problem.

Now, there are many possible reasons why my cell phone battery suddenly developed a charge problem. Maybe it was just old (it wasn’t). Or it could have been because earlier in the day, we happened to visit a park that overlooks a military base, and I happened to have seen some stuff that the Chinese military probably wouldn’t want a foreigner to see, especially a foreigner with my job. I promise that I’m not a spy, but that’s a hard sell to certain governments that have trust issues. China is (in)famous for electronic eavesdropping, and they’re really, really good at it. So I’m fairly convinced that my phone was infected with some malware, and even wiping the phone and reinstalling everything couldn’t disinfect it.

Anyway.

The experience of being electronically cut off from the world was pretty annoying, and I vowed never to be stuck in that situation again. Now, every time I travel, I carry my phone charger and a battery, which the Chinese call a “fill electricity treasure.” I’m love my Anker fill-electricity-treasure: it’s cheap, small, light, and can charge my phone at least twice. Because of that experience, I have never been caught without a fully-charged phone…

…except for that time last year when I was in the press van on a mountain in Vietnam, waiting for a certain cabinet member to visit a certain world leader, and I realized that I forgot my battery back at the hotel, and my phone battery was down to 12%, and the reporter in the van needed to file a story and needed my phone’s Internet connection. After a stressful 20 minutes, he managed to file his story, and my phone still had 2% charge, so all was well.

I really need to remember to bring my battery with me at ALL times.

I love my current phone, it’s a real workhorse, and 100% reliable. But it’s more than two years old, and I use it a LOT. A few weeks ago, the battery started draining quickly. The diagnostics showed that it was only holding 84% of its original charge. Since I demand perfection (from everything but myself, apparently), it was clear that it was time for a new phone or a new battery.

I got a recommendation for a cell phone store in town that replaces iPhone batteries. I contacted them, and they offered to come to my place and replace the battery. Said it would take five minutes, and cost about $30.

Gotta love Vietnamese customer service. Sign me up!

The guy arrived an hour late, and had to go back to his shop because he brought the screwdriver for the iPhone 6, and I have an iPhone 7, and apparently the screws are a different size. But within two hours (not five minutes), I had a new phone battery. I waited for a few weeks before I declared the operation a success. But indeed the battery is holding a charge, everything seems to work just fine, and if I am ever again caught without a fully-charged phone, it will be my own fault, not my phone’s.

And no sign of spyware. Yet…

So grateful:

For two things. One, that this work uniform exists in the world. Thanks, Korea. And two, that I don’t have to wear this work uniform. Thanks, fate!

Freelance diplomatting

Chinese tourists in Vietnam generally speak neither English nor Vietnamese. Which is fine, until they go off script.

I’m traveling today for business, and I’m staying in a pretty nice hotel in Da Nang. During breakfast, a middle-aged Chinese couple just wandered into my hotel’s restaurant. The greeter asked them for their room number, which is how they keep track of who has eaten breakfast from which room. Unfortunately, she was asking in English, and the Chinese couple clearly did not understand her.

It was a complete communication breakdown. I happened to be getting a glass of orange juice at the time, and saw the whole interaction. It was getting increasingly uncomfortable, so I decided I should help out.

I jumped in and helped translate between the two. Turns out, they weren’t staying here, but they wanted just to look around and see the food. (That’s a typically cute Chinese thing to do, my lovely wife loves a good buffet).

The tourism and hospitality industry in Vietnam is facing a new challenge. They invested a lot of effort in aiming their training programs to an international clientele that speaks English. Unfortunately, they are now dealing with a kind of tourist that they didn’t prepare for. As China gets richer, international travel has become more accessible to more people in China, including a large segment that does not speak English at all. Most Chinese tourists travel in groups for that very reason. If they follow the tacit rules, to stick with the group, no problem. But if they try to do something that wasn’t part of the plan, they hit a wall.

The food display was like artwork. I liked to look at it, too!

It was the first time I translated between two foreign languages, which was a challenge for my old and withering brain cells After just a short interaction, my brain was like scrambled eggs. But I managed to pull it off, barely.

And the funniest part was a few minutes later. I returned to my seat and resumed breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the couple finishing their tour and prepare to leave. Before they walked out of the restaurant, one of them turned around and surreptitiously took a photo of me. I suppose that our interaction was as interesting for them as it was for me, and now I will be one of their funny vacation stories for their friends back home: the weird white guy who spoke Chinese and Vietnamese.

Is it just me?

Or does it look like that tree is about to poop on that poor tourist’s head?

Can’t un-see it now, right?

Sunrise Over Cai Be

That’s the Saigon River.

 

Am I overreacting?

The video monitor in the lobby of the hotel broadcasts the names of their guests. Including the fact that some people are traveling alone.

Thanks for the grandly welcome, Indochine Palace Hotel, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you not display my name in public like that.

As a physically fit white male, I don’t feel particularly vulnerable when staying in a hotel in a strange town. So I don’t feel that this violation of my privacy puts me at risk. But I wonder how I would feel if I were a woman? Would I want it public knowledge that I was alone in a hotel room? Would I feel like the hotel was advertising an opportunity to predators and criminals?

Maybe I’m overreacting, maybe my reaction is influenced by the current dialogue about sexual assault, and disregard for the rights of women not to feel like they could be victimized at any time. But maybe my eyes are being opened to the reality that women deal with every day. That they are vulnerable. That they have to be more cautious. That they don’t enjoy the freedom from fear that I do.

Am I overreacting? I hope so. But I fear that I am not.