Tag Archives: SE Asia

Yeti Rants: Making Yourself Another Face

If I were to ask you how you felt about foreigners’ behavior in other countries, what would you say? Do you believe that people should follow the customs of the countries they were born in/currently reside in? That paying respect to different customs is the mark of maturity and wisdom?

Or do you think one’s own values trump the local flavor? That personal integrity stays the same regardless of where your body happens to reside?

Of course most people will operate somewhat between those two extremes. Both of these seam reasonable but each have a flip side as well. On one hand, what if you’re an asshole who ignores customs in favor of your own actions? Taken to extremes, this is sociopathic behavior. On the other hand, does it matter if traditional values are based on superstition, religion, and other falsehoods?

Taking a place on the spectrum, wherever you are, does not justify the kind of two-faced Shakespearean hypocrisy I allude to in the blog title. It increasingly seems to me that people support causes or deride them with no thought to the logic behind their rushed judgements.

To take two recent events, a controversy currently going on in Korea is that a religious group is opposing the efforts by the LBGT community to throw a pride parade. Traditionally, Koreans have not supported or even acknowledged homosexuality. In a country that is over 50 percent Christian (the fundy American flavor at that) they have a holy book that uses the word “abomination when discussing the issue.

To most of us, this is ridiculous. Giving in to bigoted and superstitious religious fundamentalists who draw moral lines between what is natural and what is not in their own didactic terms goes against every impulse of modernity and open-minded thinking. The values that brought us everything good in the world, basically.

You can see for yourself how with “tradition” on your side (even a relatively recent tradition) you are free from the pressing demands logic, the stress of making any sense at all. This looks like satire but it is actually being handed out to foreigners in the streets of Seoul.

11392914_10103491651369694_997182344594550830_n

Amid the zany claims of 5000 years of “great moral virtue” (some Christians claim that Korea developed Catholicism separately from the West) and equating homosexuality with bestiality and incest, there is one valid, legal point. It’s a shitty law, but it is a law.  You can fight to get the law changed (I’d agree you should fight to get the law changed) but you cannot do this and then argue that customs and traditions should be generally be respected.

Backpackers Eleanor Hawkins and Emil Kaminski, among others, are also in the news. Recently they stripped naked on top on Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. Their party (as much as could be tracked down and arrested) was jailed, fined almost 1000 pounds each, and deported.

A couple days later, and earthquake killed almost 20 people and stranded hundreds more. Many cited the taking off of clothing by Miss Hawkins and Mr Kaminski as the reason for this tragedy. Among those assigning such  blame is Malaysia’s State Tourism Culture and Environment Minister Masidi Manjun.

They actually didn’t break any laws, only custom. And yet the overwhelming response to taking off their clothes in public was that they were shallow, stupid, and irresponsible. These are the best things that were said.

In Mr. Kaminski’s own words, he recieved “thousands of pieces of hate mail” with many “death threats” labeling him a “cultural terrorist” and a “pig shit asshole” with wishes that he could be pushed off the mountain or get his head chopped off. In one internet poll, 91 percent of over 2200 hundred voters agreed that visitors should be mindful of local culture. A highly rated comment one site sums up the general attitude: If you don’t agree with their laws, that’s fine, but just don’t violate them while you are visiting the country. Otherwise, don’t go to that country.

Admittedly, much of the vitriol Kaminski received was after he mocked locals, their officials, and their customs in a snarky video that certainly did his PR no good. His counter: If local religion prohibits certain actions, then local believers of that religion should not engage in it, but they cannot expect everyone to obey their archaic and idiotic rules.

If he sounds combative, keep in mind that in addition to death threats he has been accused of causing the death of almost a score of people. Also keep in mind that he seems to be a bit of a dick. That aside, isn’t his attitude largely how we Westerners feel about the local religion in Korea? Is it not both archaic and idiotic to demonize homosexuality and to blame earthquakes on literal demons angered by the sight of bums, boobs, and wangs?

In fact, blaming natural disasters on the moral failings of others is old hat for those who fight for tradition.  In 2014, UKIP councilor David Silvester blamed punishing floods in the UK on the passing of a same-sex marriage bill. But the list of disasters blamed on the LBGT community and their desire to get married is nearly limitless. Little did you know, earthquakes and hurricanes and 9-11 itself were all because of people not respecting tradition.

I mentioned the Malaysia incident in some detail because it so recent. But similar instances in Cambodia and all over South East Asia periodically crop up. Hell, last year, Malaysia put a person in jail for 6 six months because they filmed their friends playing naked on a private beach. (And no, playing in this instance is not a euphemism.) It seems to be verboten to suggest that these customs and traditions are out of place in the modern world. If so believe this you then also must believe either that your opinion only matters in the country you were born in or that some ignorant traditions are worth keeping and others must be discarded, but with no objective criteria to know how.

If the the case of the would-be paraders and the naked backpackers are substantially different, I fail to see in what respect. Whether visiting a country or living there, there shouldn’t be an obligation to follow the most narrowly defined or anachronistic customs as defined by zealots. Perhaps the right to be naked is not a vital one, but assigning any moral decrepitude or indecency to our non-clothed forms is just as idiotic as equating two men kissing with a man humping a sheep.

So … how do you feel about customs, traditions, and the need to acknowledge  them?

This is not ‘Nam. There are Rules. (A Vegan Vietnam Experience.)

The Halong Bay cruise was admittedly a low point. Of course, it being Southeast Asia, everyone from the ticket seller to the driver to the people loading luggage onto the boat, had assured us that vegan food as available as an option. “Oh yes, very tasty, very fresh.”

It being Southeast Asia, they were all lying. The rice was vegan, it’s true. And a huge plate of crunchy peanuts were free from animal products. The rest, side dishes and fried eggs and entire fish, were decidedly not. I mixed the peanuts into my rice. I’d had worse meals, some of them cooked by me.

Dinner was no different–big piles of rice were the only surely vegan options–there were a few veggies swimming in a sauce that smelled of fermented fish. Plain rice isn’t so tasty but I happened to have a small container of nutritional yeast and some dried seaweed flakes, so even though I missed veggies it was a bearable few days.

Halong bay is beautiful, absorbingly so, and between climbing to caves and kayaking through lagoons and hiking through jungles and moonlit swims, the lack of vegan food didn’t interfere that much.

It was a low point, but only relatively so. Vegan Vietnam is an incredible treasure trove of tasty treats.

55 million Vietnamese people, give or take, are Buddhist, and have a tradition of eating veggie foods twice a month. (Snack options during this time include vegan pig ears, vegan chicken feet, vegan dried squid meat, and vegan king mackerel fish in tomato sauce, all of which costs two dollars or less ). Vietnam is easier than other places in SE Asia to be vegan in another regard as well. The word “chay,” written in a westernized script, adorns every veggie restaurant and food cart. Vietnamese being a tonal language, it’s a harder word to pronounce than you’d expect, but at the least you can keep your eyes out for it in written form.

The big cities have many vegan options of course. There are the cultish but always dependable Loving Huts, which often offer buffets on certain days and affordable, tasty meals the others. Not many people use Happy Cow anymore, and many of the listed restaurants have since closed, but the numbers do provide some perspective. Happy Cow lists 28 veggie and vegan places in Hanoi, 94 in Ho Chi Minh city (which puts it roughly on par with Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur and not too far behind Bangkok, which clocks in at 130. Interestingly, it’s the tiny Singapore that sports an all mighty 287 listings!) But the little towns are where the fascinating vegan options–and experiences–are to be found.

North from Ha Long Bay is Sapa, the famed hill station nestled in a land of misty rice terraces and cheeky Hmong touts. The specialty here is Dau phu Ca chua or tofu fried in tomato sauce and sprinkled with green onions. If that doesn’t sound exciting, then you need to hit skyscanner right now; the tofu is that good.

Because it is high in the hills and quite chilly by Southeast Asia standards, the other ubiquitous vegan friendly option is hot pot. Like shabu shabu or steamboat, they bring to you a grill and large pot of veggie stock, along with a table full of veggies, mushrooms, tofu, and even some mock meats. It’s fun to cook your own food at the restaurant, and one hotpot is enough food for two or three people.

One good thing about the tourism in Sapa, and other popular destinations in Vietnam, is that everyone understand what you mean when you ask for no egg or no fish sauce. All of the dishes are quite cheap–think in the 2 USD range–but for even cheaper you can DIY.

That most tasty remnant of French colonialism–baguettes–is everywhere and always vegan. It usually costs about .15 cents USD (depending on your haggling prowess, of course.) The markets have fruit, and many of the little stores sell western sundries, so peanut butter and banana baguettes are very easily achievable as well. (Or in a pinch, you can swap pringles for bananas, but it’s not recommended unless the very real danger of hanger is about to happen.)

Excepting the Ha Long Bay cruise of course, the food in the north was excellent. But it wasn’t until the cities of Hue and Hoi An that I really got to talking to Vietnamese vegans. In a crowded lunchtime place in Hue, one woman–who has lived in the US for over 30 years now–asked me if I knew that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. This made me laugh, as I had walked 4 kilometers along a busy road to find this place, and that the small room was filled with grey-robed monks. We chatted for a bit and I assured her I loved veggie and vegan food and had for all my life. The woman remained politely dubious–Americans she knew loved meat and cheese and milk. She watched in fascination as I munched on a plate of mixed rice.

Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered a vegetable that is truly loathsome. We’re talking a Lovecraftian menace; some kind of ancient, fermented something with a clear grudge against humanity. I can’t really describe the taste–though words like “rotting old socks” or “slightly corpsey” suggest themselves–and though I tried I could not eat it. Even the other foods on the plate it had touched were tainted. The woman watched my struggle, saying nothing, but when I left with half the food on my plate uneaten she smiled sadly to herself, clearly thinking something like “that’s what I thought.”

Three hours south, in Hoi An, things got better. Like everywhere else in the touristy parts of Vietnam there are plenty of great places to get vegan meals here (including the deservedly famous Karma Waters). But my favorite place in town didn’t even have a name. Down a side street off a different side street, it was the kind of place you could stumble into once and never find it again. There were no menus, only a small buffet for lunch with some of the tastiest eggplant I’ve ever had.

On my fourth or fifth visit there, the woman in charge started talking with me. She was a new vegan, and in a case of no one as pious as the recently converted she talked to me of the powers of grains and veggies for quite some time. It was all quite interesting, but when I told her I had been a vegan since 1995 she stood up and grabbed my biceps. With a big smile, she then disappeared into the back. Moments later, she returned with a dilapidated Polaroid and took a photo of me, which she tacked up onto the wall. “Very strong,” she said, smiling at me.

I took the night bus that night and didn’t see her again, but for all I know there’s still a photo of me hanging on that wall. What I learned later is that many Vietnamese think that without the protein provided by meat, there won’t be enough nutrition and you’ll waste away, or even break in half. (Seriously.) Having seen (and photographed) me, a 6 foot 3 guy, who is not skinny, might have helped her win the next argument. At the very least, she got to tell me about how healthy beans were, and I think that meant a lot to her.

Further south, the Russian enclave Na Trang was the land of 50 cent vegan Bánh mì from a smiling lady with a cart close to the ocean. I bought four from her on the way out of town. Dalat, another hill station with horses painted to resemble donkeys, had more cheap vegan restaurants than I could even try in a week and all of them were more delicious than I can say. Think a big bowl of phở (or something like it), three enormous fresh spring rolls, and unlimited tea for around 1 dollar USD. As for Hanoi–well Happy Cow wasn’t lying. The number of restaurants were staggering and all of them were grubbin’, but a small place called Huong Sen earned repeated visits for its awesome set lunches.

The tradition of abstaining from animals and their products has existed culturally for long centuries, but veganism is still new, burgeoning even, and that makes for a rewarding place to travel. As part-time vegetarians, they understand the needs of full-time vegans surprisingly well. From the powerhouses of phở and Bánh mì, to the equally tasty rau mong (the tastiest river weed around), you’ll eat well in Vietnam. Just watch out for the fermented gym socks.