Message from Da Nang

Greetings from Vietnam! In the immortal words of Mick Jagger: Please allow me to introduce myself! I am a physical therapist and failed subsistence farmer from America. In this new blog, I'd like to share with you some hard-won experience from our eleven years of farming experience in America, as well as some observations on how life works here in Central Vietnam.

In 1986 my husband and I uprooted our thoroughly suburban lives and moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in an attempt to become self-sufficient back-to-the-landers. We renovated a derelict farm house and heated it with wood, milked cows and goats, churned butter, butchered chickens, sheared, spun and wove with wool from our own sheep, harness-trained a Quarter horse to field work, raised pigs for pork (while my husband considered himself Buddhist!), and home-schooled our eldest daughter. We gave that all up within a year of having visited Vietnam for the first time in order to adopt two children. With the perspective gleaned from that brief time spent in Vietnam, we realized that we were so laughably far from subsistence that I yielded to the mutiny led by my eldest daughter to return to the promised land of suburban American life. And there we stayed for a number of years until, with the re-election of George W. Bush, my husband and I realized that there was absolutely no hope for America and we started to cast about for some way out. We found that route out in 2005, while on a return trip to Vietnam to do volunteer work. We recognized in Vietnam a place where we might live out our lives while making a positive impact in the lives of others. Our Vietnamese and American daughters were by then grown and there remained only our Vietnamese-born son to consider. So, in 2006, with a reluctant son in tow, my husband and I moved to Da Nang, Vietnam.

It seems counter-intuitive to choose coastal Vietnam as a place to relocate to when climate change and potential sea-level rise are looming before us. I guess that, other than having some familiarity with the place and having a strong sense of mission/destiny/whatever, the deciding factor for me was that I felt that Vietnam was so much better poised to navigate the post-Peak Oil, post-global trade future. Dwellings and places of business here are clustered closely together to facilitate what was, until very recently, a human-powered system of transportation. Most food is grown and marketed locally. Petroleum-dependent modes of transport are recent add-ons, rather than the determining factor in how everything is laid out, as they are in the States. And, despite the dizzying pace of development and Westernization taking place here in the past few years, traditional knowledge and practice are much more accessible than they are in the States. For example, other than my own abortive attempt to re-invent farming based on what I had gleaned from library books and conversations with my elderly patients, the last member of my immediate family who had any farming experience had been my grandmother, who left her family farm in Ireland more than one hundred years ago, at the tender age of twelve. In contrast, folks that I encounter here in Da Nang and the surrounding areas grew up farming and even college-educated twenty-something-year-old city dwellers know how to make do with very, very little--thanks in large measure to the educational opportunities made mandatory by the US-led embargo that relaxed a mere 15 years ago!

Here, in a nutshell, is the essence of what I have learned by meditating on the failure of our farming adventures and through what I am observing here in our new life in Vietnam: COMMUNITY IS ESSENTIAL! Have you ever read the Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? I did. In fact, I read most all of them aloud to my home-schooled eldest daughter. In retrospect, I think that I inadvertently merged the idyllic picture of the bountiful life depicted in Farmer Boy, a romanticized account of Wilder's husband's childhood on a prosperous farm in upstate New York with the isolation and do-it-yourself childhood of Wilder herself depicted in Little House in the Big Woods. I had a lot of support in this delusion, of course, having been steeped in the notion of American individualism and supposed self-sufficiency. In reality, survival--let alone thriving--as a solitary individual or nuclear family is well-nigh impossible. We need each other. We have evolved to work and live in community with one another.

You're not going to make it alone, wherever you live. So, the question is: what can YOU contribute to that essential community?

Another Letter from Vietnam

Well, let's start out here with a quote by that noted American sage, Donald Rumsfeld:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.

That about sums up our situation, peering forward into the post-collapse future, wouldn't you say?

It seems that I piqued the curiosity of some readers of my initial blog post when I referred to myself as a "failed subsistence farmer." Let me clarify what I meant by that. Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I, setting out with absolutely no previous farming experience beyond five years of vegetable gardening in a different climate zone, embarked upon an adventure, the goal of which was to become totally self-sufficient back-to-the-landers--initially in a rental situation and later on our own derelict 13 acre farmstead. It was the most intellectually challenging and, in many ways, satisfying time of my life. We accomplished amazing things that were entirely outside our previous range of experience but, had we had to rely entirely upon ourselves, without an outside income that allowed us to purchase inputs from the corporate-based economy to fill in the gaps where our efforts missed the mark--quite frankly--we would have starved. It was a great and fascinating experience, but the most important thing it taught me was that even the most dedicated and motivated novices will not be able to sustain themselves in isolation. You need community in order to survive. And your group needs not only arable land, skill sets, tools, seed stock, physical strength, empathy for one another, and an ability to "think outside the box"--but you need to have the knowledge and culture base that forms that "box' in the first place.

It is axiomatic in our circles that the complexity that we perceive in our global system of food production and life support is its Achilles heel. It's a fact that most Americans, for example, don't give a thought as to how the buildings they inhabit manage to maintain a constant temperature , nor do they meditate upon the nature and history of the Slim Jim that dangles from a hook beside the cash register of the perennially well-stocked convenience store. We could watch a movie like Food Inc. or read Michael Pollan's brilliant opus The Omnivore's Dilemma and decide that we could bypass all that seemingly unnecessary added transport and processing and just go for simple, natural foods that we could produce ourselves, if we only had a bit of land and learned a few techniques from yesteryear. Let me tell you, though--this stuff ain't simple! Trying to become a self-sufficient farmer was absolutely the most complex challenge I've ever faced in my life.

Despite the implied message of our educational system, humans did not evolve to gain skills and knowledge from lectures and textbooks. We humans are endowed with something called mirror neurons, which are key to how humans learn the language and skills that set us apart from the rest of the animals. (You can read a bit more about mirror neurons here). Basically, we copy what we see and we hone those new skills through practice.

I devoured how-to books on farming and gardening and food preparation and the like, but you need some real experience to attach those abstract new ideas to. For example, it is true that I learned how to castrate pigs from a library book. However, I did have a base upon which to add that nerve-wracking skill. During my years of study to become a physical therapist, we had to dissect a human cadaver--which we did by following the example of our instructors. Later, I spent a lot of time surgically debriding (removing dead tissue from) wounds of very much live people after--once again--observing someone else do it. While castrating squealing, wriggling baby pigs was extremely stressful--to me and the pigs--it did build upon a skill set that I already possessed.

When we were starting to farm more than twenty years ago, the folks whose guidance I sought out--who had spent their youth on subsistence level farms--were already in their eighties. They're all dead now. How in the world can we conjure up that lost culture of subsistence, let alone adapt it to this rapidly changing planet and climate? I really do despair for the US. I'm sitting here, in the very flat coastal city of Da Nang, Vietnam, within two blocks of the South China Sea, fully cognizant of the inevitability of increasingly intense storms and rising sea levels and, ironically, I feel safer here--because I'm living within a culture that knows how to survive under really adverse conditions. I'm sure it's going to be rough here. Much of the surrounding countryside, as well as parts of the city, are underwater at least once a year due to flooding. Dengue fever sweeps through periodically, inflation is rising, and access to Facebook in Vietnam has just been cut off by the powers that be. You've got your concerns and I've got mine. Let's keep sharing our thoughts and experience and try to make the time that we've got left count for something good.


Hunger and Poverty, Up Close and Personal

It's very, very hard for well-fed Westerners to get their heads around the reality of malnutrition and starvation. Seriously malnourished and starving people do not rise up and revolt. They lie down and seriously consider whether they can afford the energy to get up and complete any given task. Chronically malnourished kids don't grow to their genetic potential and readily succumb to illness.

Common knowledge has it that Vietnamese people are genetically pre-disposed to be short, with a delicate bone structure. And when I first visited Vietnam in 1995, that certainly appeared to be the case. Everyone I saw was short and thin. When I returned to Vietnam, landing in Da Nang ten years later, my first thought was that the people of Da Nang must be of a different ethnic background than those I had met previously in Nha Trang and Saigon--their faces looked quite different from those I recalled from my earlier visit. It finally dawned on me that these Da Nang residents were not emaciated and so did not look "classically Vietnamese!" A lot of well-off people in the cities these days are quite chubby and their kids are tall and not "delicate" in appearance at all. However, most Vietnamese over the age of 25 understand hunger in a visceral way and their bodies bear the legacy of chronic malnutrition.

Let me tell you about my young friend and co-worker, Trang. Trang grew up, along with her six siblings, in a hard-scrabble, cashless farming family. The "soil" on their little farm is sand and the nearby river is salty because it's so close to the coast. So, unlike areas further inland, diverting river water to irrigate their community's rice fields is not an option. That means that some years their rice makes a marginal crop and, in especially dry ones, it fails altogether. The only free and reliable source of food for this family of nine was yams, supplemented at times with home-grown pumpkins, a little bit of purchased rice for the babies, and some locally produced sea salt. That's it. Amazingly, they've all survived. The six daughters have now left home to work elsewhere and only the young son remains to be cared for by his parents. I asked Trang if they ate chili, onions, fresh vegetables or fish with their yams and occasional rice. No, she said, when you're hungry and poor, you don't worry about taste, you're just glad to get anything into your stomach--even dry yams that catch in your throat until they're washed down with water. Interestingly, the opposite of ngon, the Vietnamese word for delicious, would not translate as "disgusting," as in English, but, instead, as "uninteresting." Yams and plain rice alone are just not that interesting but, to Trang's way of thinking, a hundred kilo sack of rice would be a real piece of food security. Trang says that a windfall like that, eaten half and half with the yams they had dried, stored and then boiled could last a family of nine for a couple of months. Add some nuoc mam (fish sauce) or soy sauce and it even starts to taste "interesting."

I'm telling you this because it seems like there's a disconnect between the message that I'm getting from knowledgeable people about the imminence and totality of the impending collapse, and the fussing and fretting I discern from some "doomsday preppers" about difficulty in affording freeze-dried, Mylar-packed "survival foods" and the like. Our orientation towards food and nutrition in America has us focused on protein, vitamins, "good" versus "bad" cholesterol, and striving to avoid "empty calories." However, it's calories that keep our bodies functioning and that give us the energy to do the things that need doing. Certainly, our bodies work better and our children grow bigger and stronger when we have optimal amounts of vitamins, minerals and protein in our diet--but all of that is irrelevant if your body is consuming itself just to maintain its basic physiological functions.

It's a given that 307 million Americans are not going to immediately become successful hunter-gatherers when the SHTF. And even the most knowledgeable would-be back-to-the-lander is not going to enter this daunting new phase of history with a full larder and the assurance that every subsequent crop they plant will bear fruit. Thus the recommendation to stock up on food supplies sufficient to bridge you over to whatever comes next. Traditionally, in agriculture-based societies, the staple food item is a calorie-packed, readily storable grain or root crop. The Irish had potatoes; indigenous Americans depended on corn; French and Italian cuisine is based upon wheat; and, here in the coastal regions of Vietnam, we have rice--if we're lucky. Of all those crops that I just mentioned, I'd like to suggest that you consider rice for the core of your initial emergency food supply, for several reasons. First of all, it's much less problematic to store than any root crop. Secondly, the price of bulk rice at the moment is affordable. And thirdly, preparing rice for consumption is far less demanding than what is required for most any other grain. Bread baking with wheat, for example, necessitates grinding the wheat, access to a leavening agent such as yeast, considerable time and skill, and an oven with reliably constant heat. By contrast, rice requires only a pot, a heat source, and a bit of water. Actually, the third electrical item--after an electric light and fan-- that every Vietnamese family purchases when they get the cash is a rice cooker. This one simple, relatively cheap device makes cooking rice absolutely brainless--just rinse the raw rice, add some water, close the lid, and push the "cook" button. The rice is ready in about 15 minutes or so when the "cook" button clicks off and the cooker switches to warm mode. In fact, if you have rice left over from one meal, you can add a bit of water, hit the "cook" button again and you've got hot rice ready for your next meal. No electricity? Switch over to a pot on your gas burner--or your charcoal or wood fire. Slice up something else--onions, chicken, a little fish--stir fry that in some cooking oil, and you've got yourself a pretty respectable meal. Still have left over rice? Next time throw the cooked rice in the frying pan with whatever else you've got and voila! --you've got fried rice. Throw the rice into a little broth made from whatever you've got--a bit of beef or some clams or whatever--cook it until it's absolute mush and you've got chao, the traditional food for invalids, children and toothless old people. I'm pretty sure that you don't live next to a rice paddy, but I'm willing to bet that trail mix doesn't grow on trees where you live either. If you're from the Americas, Europe, Australia or New Zealand, it's not likely that rice will end up being your staple crop in the long-term but, for that tumultuous transition time ahead, you could do worse. And Trang says rice is a LOT easier to swallow than boiled sun-dried yams!

In Vietnam, when we have a disaster, it's generally a flood due to a typhoon or run-off from torrential rains in the mountains. Let me qualify that: here in Central Vietnam, it floods every year. It's not uncommon for houses in some locations to get flooded chest deep annually. The BAD floods are the ones that come up REALLY high, REALLY fast, with little or no warning--the ones where folks are up in the rafters, chopping holes in their roofs to escape from the rising waters. Since almost all food here needs to be cooked before eating, this causes some considerable inconvenience when the family is spending a couple of days perched on tables or in the loft, waiting for the flood waters to drain out of the house. You can, says Trang, catch rain water from the roof and then cook VERY carefully with wood atop your table if you have some metal underneath. Better by far to have the ubiquitous Vietnamese disaster relief food: ramen noodles! Trang says the instant noodles are great: you can just add hot water to soften them or, in a pinch--you can eat them like a cookie, without cooking them at all.

So I guess what I really want to say here is that your three months' emergency stockpile of food needn't simulate a typical Western diet. Keep it simple and just move on and focus on acquiring the skills, tools and human connections that you will need to invent a new life for yourself in that Brave New World which is yet to be born. 

Steady Footsteps volunteers speed relief supplies to victims of recent typhoon.

Stone Soup

Let's play "What do we know?"

1) We know that sudden, catastrophic collapse is imminent.
2) We know that, right now, virtually no one in our respective locations is open to the idea of discussing this, let alone preparing for it.
3) We know that, no matter how much we stock up in the way of emergency supplies, those supplies won't last indefinitely and we will need to find new ways to sustain ourselves over the long haul.
4) Long-term survival in the aftermath of systemic collapse will require community.

So that brings us to the key question, "How can we foster community?" All of us reflecting upon the inevitable impending collapse of the global economy, peak oil, and climate change have similar concerns and many of us who have some experience and knowledge feel led to share our insights with like-minded folks. The problem, of course, is that we are widely dispersed and, in most cases, will never lay eyes upon each other, let alone plant potatoes or set up water filtration systems together. The folks who could potentially be there for you when your husband falls off a ladder and breaks his arm--or weevils have destroyed your stored grain--live within walking distance of your home.

Let's be honest about this. We don't trust our neighbors. This is true in the cities of Vietnam, as well as in America. Vietnam has a history of civil war and a more recent one of migration due to economic circumstances (i.e.; the dearth of economic opportunities in the countryside.) The media in both America and Vietnam harp on crime (be wary of the other) and individual success stories (lottery winners, movie stars and successful entrepreneurs). You'd be hard-pressed to find compelling stories in either Vietnamese or American media of unrelated individuals banding together to support one another. And yet that's exactly what tribes of traditional people do. Plains Indians both hunted and processed buffalo as a community. Hog butchering, likewise, was traditionally a communal activity in America. The Amish do not charge their neighbors by the hour when they participate in a barn-raising. And both Irish and Vietnamese traditional cultures dictate that neighbors step forward to help prepare the body of a deceased community member for the wake which is held at the family's home.

It's obvious to us that many of the trappings of "normal" modern life must fall by the wayside as we spiral into the collapse of our globalized, petroleum-dependent society. We stand ready to give up Hummers and Big Macs and maybe even Diet Coke. But I think that, if we have any hope of having a life worth living after all is said and done, that we need to examine carefully the baked-in assumptions we hold as a result of having spent our lives thus far in a corporate-produced culture. Your neighbors may have "incorrect" political views and some funky personal habits but, in the end, it won't be Dennis Kucinich or your sister in Poughkeepsie keeping a nightly look-out for chicken thieves with you. And none of your virtual friends at Peak Prosperity will be there to help you patch your roof--it will have to be those less-than-perfect neighbors. So here's my idea: consider investing in a BIG (restaurant/institution-sized) pot, a long-handled spoon and maybe a free-standing propane gas burner and a bunch of stackable plastic lawn chairs. Now go out and buy a LOT of soup bouillon and perhaps some dehydrated veggies, bulk rice, oatmeal, grits, or whatever seems right to you. Then, when times get tough, you'll be ready to serve up a hot daily bowl of fill-in-the-blank in your carport or garage or front yard to whomever shows up. Invite folks to bring their own bowls and to settle down to eat and talk. You'll have planted good seeds in what will certainly, at that point, be fertile soil. See what develops . . . maybe you'll grow a community!

In Praise of Motorbikes

Vietnam was and is a nation that travels predominantly on two wheels. Uncle Ho's supply chain, consisting of tough human beings propelling supply-laden bicycles, proved equal to the challenge of defeating the US, whose petroleum-powered network of supply lines spanned the globe. Even today, while cars and trucks clog the avenues of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, much of the rest of Vietnam sits astride two wheels. Today those two wheels tend to be petrol-powered and it's not unheard of for relatively prosperous families to have a motorbike for each parent, as well as one for each kid over the age of 18. But, prior to the precipitous drop in motorbike prices that resulted from the introduction of imported Chinese motorbikes about ten years ago, a single motorbike was considered a terrific asset for an extended family. Access to a motorbike enabled sick folks to be ferried to medical care more expeditiously and rural shop keepers to more readily access goods from the larger towns and cities. Wider ranges of employment and educational opportunities arose as well, thanks both to the improving economy and the ability to cover somewhat longer distances in a reasonable amount of time (i.e.; making it feasible to get home at mid-day for lunch and a nap.)

 The bulk of motorized two-wheeled transport in America consists of either motorized bicycles or enormous Harley-Davidson clones--both of which are generally considered to be dangerous toys (a Harley viewed as an extravagant one and the moped being merely comical)--rather than as serious modes of transportation. In Vietnam, 110cc "underbone" style motorbikes such as the Honda Wave represent the basic mode of transportation. Unlike Harley owners, Vietnamese ride their bikes rain or shine--along with their kids, their groceries and even live pigs, chickens, and plate glass windows. It can get a bit dicey at times but--with the bike's low center of gravity and ease of operation--even a fifty-something year old American woman like me can learn to operate one with confidence. Modification of the basic bike with kits (which are readily available in Vietnam) enables even disabled folks to travel independently by motorbike.

All told, these small motorbikes have contributed greatly to the enhanced quality of Vietnamese life over the past decade. With their fuel efficiency and relative ease of maintenance, one might well be a valuable asset in a survival-oriented post-Peak Oil community.

Learning From Experience

So, here I am, some 17 years after I last plowed and harrowed a field in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia behind a marginally trained Quarter Horse in harness, and some 25 years after last hand-spading an expansive garden mulched with peanut hulls in an oceanfront community in Virginia Beach, trying to figure out the logistics of growing veggies on a rooftop in Da Nang, Vietnam. Well, as you can see from the above photo, I clearly don't have a lot of space to work with--only a narrow tiled pathway between a low masonry wall and a pitched metal roof that that I access from the doorway of my second floor bedroom. So, space is at a premium and the sun, during our eight month long summer, can be relentless. Vegetables are grown on a strictly seasonal basis in the countryside surrounding Da Nang--the relevant seasons being the wet season and the dry season. The wet season brings floods of amazing depths that no vegetable crop could withstand. It does, however, bring new soil from the mountainsides and also recharges the soil with moisture. Once the floods recede, crops grow beautifully in the fields--until, that is, the summer sun turns everything to toast. Low lying paddy fields in many areas are set up to accept the controlled inflows from irrigation channels in order to produce rice during the summer months. Higher lying fields, or fields situated in non-irrigated areas (close to salt water, for example) generally produce only marginally once the summer heat sets in. I figured, since my veggies are situated on the second floor of a house in a well-drained neighborhood in Da Nang, in a place blessed with both running water from the city, as well as ground water issuing from a hand-operated pump that we recently installed in our front courtyard, that floods and drought were irrelevant for us and that we should be able to produce fresh produce all year long. I thought that our only concern would be to ensure that my rooftop garden was well-watered and that I could produce a cornucopia of foodstuffs with minimal effort.

Maybe not.

Study that picture once again. I'll also mention that it is situated on the south side of my house and that there is no structure to the east to shade my house in the mornings. I've got ten styrofoam crates of soil, mixed with composted cow manure (all of which had to be transported via uncounted motorbike trips from the surrounding countryside and carted up the stairs to the second floor because we live on a sand bar, two blocks from the South China Sea.) The crates--which were used originally to transport fruit, and are generally recycled to haul fish and also to serve as refuse containers--utilize my narrow strip of potential garden better than any traditional flower pots. The soil is certainly deeper than it would be in normal gardening containers and I do water religiously, allowing time for the chlorine in the city water to off-gas in five-gallon buckets for a day before I use it. (We refilled our freshly cleaned goldfish pond with city water straight from the tap one day and the chlorine level on that particular day killed all the fish in a matter of hours!) Plants start off great in my roof-top containers and leafy veggies (lettuce, Swiss Chard, and mustard greens) produce well. The tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini started off well also, and produced copious amounts of foliage--but little to no edible fruits. So, what's the deal?

I've got several hypotheses, including airborne emissions from a near-by rubber plant and my failure to water deeply enough at first. The chief suspect, however, based on observing the results of our failed attempts to grow beans in our front courtyard and greens in our mostly shaded clothes drying area, is one that I never would have anticipated here in the sunny tropics, where pale Caucasian skin can burn to blisters in short order: insufficient hours of direct sunlight.

While it feels like summer for most of the year (although, interestingly, it's not as hot here as it was in the US last summer), our day length is a mere twelve hours long, year in and year out. Now consider that my crops are not out in the middle of a sunlit field, but are situated on the floor of my rooftop. Even though the sun rises here about six AM, the low eastern wall prevents the sunlight from striking the soil surface in those styrofoam crates until around nine AM. And then, after about 3:30 PM, the soil surface is shaded once again--first by the adjoining metal roof, and then by my neighbor's house to the west. While the ambient air temperature is quite hot out on that rooftop and the intense sun makes it supremely uncomfortable to stand there in the middle of the day, it seems that the abbreviated day length that the plants sitting on the surface of that tiled walkway experience is insufficient for them to produce fruit and is merely adequate for leaf production.

Which just goes to show that, if you are serious about food production, you had better start experimenting and learning from experience in your own unique setting. You're not going to learn all you need to know from a book or a class or even from your own experience gardening elsewhere. Don't plan on waiting until the SHTF to start gardening. Start now, and learn from your mistakes while there is still time. It would take a rare and dedicated person in an ideal situation to produce all the carbohydrates that their family requires. I never was able to do that, even on my little Shenandoah Valley farm--chickens ate my emerging wheat, geese ate my black-eyed peas, and I impaled my hand on a rusty wire while hanging seed corn from the barn rafters in an abortive attempt to follow seed-saving instructions that I found in an ancient Agricultural Extension Service booklet. Your best bet, for the immediate unknowable future is to stockpile a LOT of grain (rice works for me) and to try to grow greens to supplement that basic carbohydrate source with vitamins and minerals. Swiss chard grows well in the summer without bolting to seed and kale is extremely winter hardy. Both will continue to produce, or at least survive, into the winter in the temperate zone if you protect them with a cold-frame and--protected-- can take off growing in the spring before anything else gets started.

My advice? Buy rice, get seeds for greens, research cold frames, and start growing!

Laundry Time

Let's talk about laundry! It seems to me that those collapse-conscious folks who don't ignore the topic of laundry either anticipate a grueling regime of boiling clothes with home-made lye soap, beating clothes on a rock in a stream, or else getting used to living in filth and squalor. Hard as it is for folks to believe who grew up with the convenience of automatic washers and dryers and listening to tales of the bad old days of starch and lye, wringer washers and/or boiling vats--there is a completely different, totally reasonable, tradition of clothes washing which I've observed over the time that I've been in Vietnam.

Let me preface this by saying that this alternative tradition works best when you make a few other modifications to your life style as well. The Vietnamese people that I first encountered in 1995--as well as many now--generally have two sets of clothing and don't utilize the standard Western top sheet/bottom sheet/pillowcase style of bedding. (This would have been typical of Americans and Europeans in earlier, less affluent circumstances as well.) Vietnamese people, in general, pay a lot of attention to personal cleanliness. I have rarely encountered anyone with noticeable body odor and even soiled clothes are unusual aside from mechanics and masons who are actually on the job. Footwear is customarily removed at the door and feet, as well as the rest of the body, are typically washed before one retires to bed at night. On hot days, people make every effort to avoid being out in the heat at mid day and often take a quick shower at mid-day to cool off. So, right off, you can see that homes and bodies are kept pretty clean here.

Although clothes dryers are almost unheard of, I've never seen a dedicated clotheslines out in the middle of an open yard here either. Drying clothes in our hot, dry eight-month long summer is pretty straight-forward: clothes are generally hung on hangers and then suspended on wires along sunny walls, or on metal clothes racks on balconies or in breezy hallways where they dry quickly. In the rainy season, when the only breaks between downpours are oppressively humid, it gets a bit trickier. Clearly, you need a sheltered spot to hang the clothes. Even then, however, clothes probably won't get 100% dry. (That's probably the number one reason we don't use closets here--everything would get full of mold and mildew.) Spacing out the suspended clothing and using an electric fan to move the air can be helpful. Also, using an iron to press the clothes can eliminate residual moisture. You can see, however, that having an abundance of extra clothing and bedding to store is not necessarily an advantage in a perennially damp environment.

Right now, Vietnam is in the midst of an economic boom and middle class folks are buying refrigerators, water heaters and washing machines right and left. But prior to this time, EVERYBODY washed clothes by hand--and it was a casual, everyday affair--not some arduous task left for mom to do one day a week. It's something typically done at the same time you wash yourself up, either in the bathroom or out at the well. Even in the 1980s, when folks had barely any money and Vietnam was under a US-imposed embargo, folks put up the money to buy a bit of detergent--and they used it in cold water. That's something to realize--soap may require hot water to be effective, but detergent does not, especially if you're not dealing with a heavy amount of grease or oil. All you need is a basin, some water, detergent, and a brush. If you're using a plastic or metal basin instead of a sink or a bathtub, it allows you to readily utilize that waste water for some other purpose (cleaning the floor or watering plants, for instance) and is convenient if your normal home plumbing (incoming or out-going) is either not functional or if the tub and sink are otherwise employed. Of course, this style of washing works the best if you've already mastered the Asian Squat!

 Photos by Nguyen Thi Thuy Trang.

Steady Footsteps

While health care technology in Vietnam has rocketed into the 21st century in Vietnam with cardiac bypass surgery, total hip replacements and in-vitro fertilization available now to those who can afford it, physical rehabilitation remains stuck somewhere in the 1950s. That's ironic because physiotherapy and occupational therapy rely on skill and knowledge--not to mention a bit of compassion--all of which are far cheaper than most any product of the medical technology or pharmaceutical industries.

Steady Footsteps' mission is to bridge the great isolating divide of language and culture and bring effective rehabilitation services to disabled people in Central Vietnam. Steady Footsteps focuses especially on the care of people with neurological disorders--kids with cerebral palsy, adults who have suffered strokes (CVAs), and people of all ages who have had head injuries. (Unfortunately, traumatic brain injury is one of the leading causes of death and disability in Vietnam, so remember to strap your helmet on securely before taking off on a motorbike adventure here!)

You can learn more about rehabilitation in Vietnam and the work of the Steady Footsteps organization here and here.

Surfing in Vietnam

If the chance to take the longest cable car ride in the world, view a giant dragon-shaped steel bridge breathe fire (really!), or experience acupuncture treatment for pain relief or drug addiction were not enough incentive to visit Da Nang, how about doing a bit of surfing?

The longest and most beautiful beach in all of Southeast Asia stretches from Da Nang's Son Tra Pennisula to the tourist town of Hoi An. This twenty mile (30km) long white sandy beach was the site of the famous China Beach R&R spot for GIs during the American War, as well as an international surfing competition in 1992. Despite the fact that Five Star resorts are popping up like mushrooms along the Da Nang/Hoi An corridor, surfers and other beach-lovers are few and far between. Most of the locals prefer to time their beach visits to the dawn and twilight hours, in order to avoid the effects of the intense tropical sun. (Just two hours of mid-day tropical sun on pale skin can produce a serious, second-degree burn.) If you plan to spend much time on the beach and in the surf, bring plenty of waterproof sun block! Otherwise, consider coming during the rainy season, between November and February when skies tend to be overcast and the waves are the biggest. 
The water here is relatively warm year-round, but you would probably be more comfortable in the winter months wearing at least a spring suit for surfing. Vietnam is, of course, a tropical country and it never gets very cold here but, when you're wet and the weather is breezy and overcast, it's easy to start shivering. 

This section of the coast is beach break. We have pretty consistently surfable waves beginning sometime in September and trailing off in May. During the summer months of June, July and August, the seas tend to be quite calm. Off-shore storms can be a source of wave action, stirring up the usually calm seas of August to yield a couple of days of good surfing or making the usually surfable November seas so rough that you might think twice about even walking on the beach! Up-to-date surf forecasts can be found here.
A word of warning: Rip currents here can be strong and drownings do occur. Make sure you use a leash. If you do become separated from your board and are caught in a rip current, remember to swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current before attempting to swim ashore.

How to Grow Bean Sprouts the Vietnamese Way

Growing bean sprouts can afford you the benefits of fresh produce in four or five days at any time of the year, in any climate, and requires neither sunlight nor soil. This technique produces large quantities of ready-to eat organic produce, utilizing only clean sand and water, a plastic strainer and basin, and your bare hands. 
 Clockwise from upper left: dry mung beans, soaked beans, decanted water--ready for addition to soup, bean sprouts.

Start out by rinsing your beans (I'm using mung beans in these photos) and then allow them to soak in a bowl of water. After about 8 hours, drain the beans, which will have doubled in size, and reserve the liquid to use later in soup. Spread out a single layer of beans in damp sand and cover with several inches of sand. Top off with some more water if the sand is not already sufficiently damp.

 The deeper and better drained your volume of sand is, the less chance that the beans will rot instead of growing. My own bathtub-sized container is located on a covered porch. It's made of brick and cement and allows drainage from the bottom. I use local builder's sand, most likely dredged from a brackish river, with any residual salt having been leached out with fresh water. An over-sized container such as this allows you to grow multiple batches of sprouts, staggering their maturity so that you could potentially have fresh sprouts as often as you like. Some folks here in coastal Vietnam use a section of concrete drainage pipe filled with sand, set on end on a bed of sand. Others just bury their beans directly in a patch of sandy ground. In the winter, in colder climates, sprouts would need to be grown in a more protected location.
 In a few days (depending on the depth you planted, the temperature of the sand, etc.) the bean sprouts will start to push up through the surface of the sand. At this point, you can either procrastinate by tossing a bit more sand atop them, or else get ready to dig! Bare hands work best for me, allowing me to extract the sprouts with minimum breakage. 
 Deposit your new bean sprouts in a sieve, rinse three times in fresh water, and you've got fresh bean sprouts! Dump your rinse water back into the sand so that you don't clog your sink. I clean as much organic material out of the sand as possible with a strainer between plantings to minimize the risk of rot in subsequent batches. The neatest thing about this technique, from my point of view, is that the sand does the work of removing almost all of those annoying little green seed jackets with no effort on my part!