Vietnam, day six pt.1: king mark approximately

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Thursday, May 8th 2014:

If there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves; for the tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy.  No more violent dreams, no refreshment, no awakening.  In the anesthesia produced by self-knowledge, life is passing, art is passing, slipping from us: we are drifting with time and our fight is with shadows.  We need a blood transfusion. – Anais Nin, 1934

6:30AM.  The sun is peeking through the blinds so I rip them wide open, I’m awake with purpose.  I go down to the second floor of the hotel for a quick breakfast.  Boiled potatoes, watermelon, canteloupe, and coffee.  It could be any other day: wake up, eat, get to work.  But it’s not any other day, I’m further away from those other days than I’ve ever been, isolated on the other side of the world, surrounded by the immensity of it.  I go back to my room to pack some things in a tote: sunscreen & sunglasses.  I’m across the street buying a bottle of water.  I’m in the lobby ready for the day.  It’s 8:00AM in Vietnam.

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We take a walk down to the Perfume River to get on a dragon boat.  These aren’t the elegant dragon boats of the past.  No rowers, no intimacy with the river, there’s nothing romantic about them.  The word “TOURIST” is painted on the side of each.  We’re enclosed in glass, there are tables of souvenirs ready to be sold, the motor gently pushes us up river. We sit in plastic chairs as an elderly woman rocks gently in a hammock near the back, her caged bird sits silent, I can’t wait to disembark.  The boat docks and we walk up the stone steps to Thien Mu Pagoda.  It’s brutally hot.  I take a photo of some Chinese tourists taking a photo and move on to the Buddist temple directly behind it, getting away from the group.  There’s the car Thich Quang Duc, the famous Buddhist monk, drove on his way to self-immolating in protest outside of the Cambodian embassy in Saigon.  It’s displayed along with a plaque near the rear of the temple.  I find a tree to sit under for a few minutes, take a drag of water.  It’s completely silent, incense smoke wafts up around my ears, tucks in filling my nose and I don’t want to get away from it.  It feels peaceful here.

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This is no longer a vacation.  It’s a quest.  It’s a quest for fun.  You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles. – Clark Griswold, 1983

It’s time to get on a motorbike.  We all knew this was coming, some of us were excited, the majority are hesitant.  There are 17 of us, 17 drivers, 17 motorbikes.  We pick keys out of a bag and find the corresponding bike.  Shake hands with your driver for the day.  I loosen the straps on my helmet to fit over my gigantic head and we’re off.

My driver stoically kicks the motor on and heads straight into traffic, my knuckles are already white, the left hand grabbing his shoulder, the right wrapped tight around the seat.  It’s a quick introduction, only about 5 minutes and we’re visiting a local incense maker.  I buy a bag of freshly rolled cinnamon-scented incense and I’m excited to get back on the bike.  I’m already loosening up, my left hand on my knee, my right on the handle behind the seat.  We swerve down narrow dirt roads to a lookout point 10 minutes away.   Here is the Perfume River.  This is how a creator would have wanted it to be seen.  Smoke rises from a distant rice paddy, wooden skiffs barely move down river, the trees greener than any green I’ve seen before, the brightness and contrast of actual life turned up to a cinematic level.  A path leads this way, a path leads down to the river.  Abandoned military barracks are behind me riddled with bullet holes washed to perfect circles from rain.  Local teenagers giggle and kiss.  Back on the bikes.

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The next stop is the tomb of Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from 1847 to 1883.  It’s mid-afternoon, this is as hot as it will get.  We walk under the shadows of the walls, past the man-made lake, past Luong Khiem palace to the rear of the complex.  Here is his actual tomb, elaborate and exposed, no relief from the heat.  A local woman in a conical hat dries chili peppers in the sun.  Everyone buys popsicles and we eat them in the shade.  I buy a book about Ho Chi Minh from the gift shop.  Just resting now.  Time to cool down.

Vietnam, day five: the purple forbidden city & the dmz

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Wednesday, May 7th 2014:

6:30AM.  I’m contorted in my bunk on the train as it slowly rocks hard to the left, then to the right.  Again, I’m the first awake.  My legs knock over a half-empty can of Pringles as they stretch out as far as they’ll go.  I try to sit up, my filthy socks push into the luggage stowed on the shelf at the edge of the bunk.  I reach over and pull open the curtain.  Staring out the window, I see green hills and the countryside rolling past, a silent film never to be replayed.  We’re a few hours north of the DMZ.  I hear a woman yelling in Vietnamese rolling a beverage cart past the door, Elaine wakes up and orders four cups of instant coffee with condensed milk.  I find my footing on the ladder and jump down.  Everyone wipes the sleep away from their eyes, we stomach the coffee and eat slightly stale croissants.  Good Morning!

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Three more hours till we reach the station in Hue.  I went down the hall to use the toilet, just a hole in the train floor with a bar to grab onto.  There is a “western style” toilet available in the next car, but I’m fine with anything today.  Back to my bunk.  I read two chapters in my book and pass out, so tired, the sleeping plank and the dirty pillow feel like fine Egyptian cotton.  Wake up and collect your bags.  Welcome to Hue, the former capital, the Imperial City of the Nguyen Dynasty.

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11:00AM.  I get off the train and get on the bus straight to the Gold Hotel, “the most impressive four star hotel in Hue City”.  I went up to my room on the tenth floor, threw down my bags, washed my face, back down the elevator, back in it, just keep going.  Hue seems like it will be a cool city to spend a couple days in, definitely quieter than Hanoi.  I walk past a soccer stadium painted with the Olympic Rings, some sort of wishful thinking for their future.  Down the street and around the corner I ran into Kevin and Frankie at a sidewalk cafe, they had just ordered, another bowl of pho bo for me and a Huda beer.  Every town in Vietnam has their own local brew, it’s all Huda in Hue.

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We met up in the lobby in the late afternoon for a quick bus ride to Hue Citadel and The Imperial City.  It’s best to see places like this early in the morning before anyone arrives.  By this time of day buses were already clogging the parking lot, sprawling tour groups being herded along, impossible to get a clear photograph of anything.  It was also unbearably hot, my clean t-shirt soaked through with sweat after being there for only ten minutes.  I won’t go on about it.  It’s a huge sprawling complex, much bigger than it looks from the outside, all very beautiful.  I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it.  You don’t need me to tell you how amazing the wonders of the world are, they’re known as wonders because they are, UNESCO has you covered.  After a few hours we walked back to the bus as the rain started to come down, passing a display of captured American planes and tanks on the way.

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8:00PM.  The whole group took a walk to La Carambole for dinner, classic French and Vietnamese cuisine.  Fresh spring rolls (not the best), grilled pork and rice.  It was Josephine’s birthday so after we ate Lam, our guide, brought out a cake, her name spelled hilariously wrong in frosting, and we all sang Happy Birthday.  Two cups of strong coffee.  Everyone already a bit drunk, really fun dinner.

After the long process of everyone paying seperate tabs we walked over to DMZ Bar to continue the birthday festivities.  It’s the epitome of a classic backpacker bar.  Cheap cocktails in giant plastic cups, loud pop music, the scrawls of past travelers covering every inch of the walls and the dirty ceiling.  Not the kind of bar I would normally want to spend time in, but everyone was there and it was great.  Things started quiet enough, everyone sipping beers and talking.  A bit later Cliff and Marcella, a couple from Scotland with the most musical of accents, livened things up with an interpetive dance to The Proclaimer’s “I Would Walk 500 Miles”, the Scottish national anthem.  Pool was played and more drinks were poured.  We stumbled back to the hotel around midnight taking a few wrong turns here and there.  A perfect ending to not my favorite day.

Vietnam, day four: seeing angels in the architecture

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Tuesday, May 6th 2014:

6:30AM.  Things are moving in slow motion.  You wake up on a boat before anyone else in a country on the other side of the world.  You don’t bother showering or changing clothes.

I went to the top deck, bleary-eyed, still half asleep.  The sun is rising, half-cloaked by floating mountains and fog, everything is silent.  I get through another chapter of my book and go searching for signs of life below.  Breakfast is being served.  Unnecessarily high stacks of buttered toast, dragon fruit wedges, always disappointingly bland, their hot pink dangerous skin teasing of flavors that don’t exist.  Everyone shuffles in a few at a time and takes a seat, giving the slightest of good mornings.  Fried eggs are served and coffee is poured.  The crew sits at a smaller table slurping soup, I wish I had that soup too.

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It was another few hours cruising slowly back to the harbour, just sitting on a deck chair enjoying the view.  This was the first day of the trip where my eyes really began to focus.  The cobwebs of jet lag finally shaken off.  The boat docked and we immediately got on the bus to head back to Hanoi.  Business as usual, headphones on, watching the scenery fly by.  After a couple hours we stopped for lunch at a huge craft store on the side of the highway.  All the art, clothing, paintings, etc made by people affected by Agent Orange, all proceeds benefitting them.  I went straight to the cafe in the back and ate my first bowl of pho bo, the first of many, with a Coke Light.  Bought a bottle of water for the bus and three postcards and three stamps to mail home.  Back on the bus.

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Back where I started, the Hong Ngoc Cochinichine Hotel, Hanoi, Vietnam.  There would be no overflowing tub or rock hard mattress to enjoy tonight, just a room to throw my backpack in for the remainder of the day.  There is an overnight train in my future.  I sat in the lobby for a minute and screenshot some maps of the city on my iPhone and then I was off.  Time to get lost in the Old Quarter.  So insane, no sidewalks, jockeying for walking space on the street, the smells, the smells!…motorbike exhaust, mystery meats burning on coals, incense everywhere…the sound of those motorbikes constantly humming by.  You don’t just cross a street in Hanoi, you will yourself to be alive on the other side of that street.  I went down to the river to find a coffee shop a friend recommended to me, no luck.  It’s even busier by the river, backpacker bars, shops, rooftop restaurants, no time to think or look at a map, some little kid inexplicably grabbing my ankle as I walk past.  I stopped into The Polite Pub on a quiet side street and ordered a Tiger draught, full of locals at that time of the day, free wi-fi, texted Marissa and just sat for an hour.

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I paid my tab and went out to meet some friends from the group at 69 Bar-Restaurant.  After wandering around for thirty minutes I finally found it.  Give me one more week in Hanoi and I could give you directions, but this was just plain dumb luck.  I showed up before anyone else and passed the time sitting out front talking to the owner.  He asked me about America and told me about all the cars passing by, how people in Vietnam love Lexus and BMW, how I’ll see more in Saigon, how no one can actually afford them.  Everyone finally showed up and we went to our table on the second floor.  Josephine, tall Swedish girl in her early twenties, ran into a friend downstairs, small world.  Dinner was an impressive bowl of boiling broth and fish over fire, ash from the glowing embers spitting onto my lap.  Drop in some lemongrass and dill, pour it over noodles, take a sip of beer, pretty decent.

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We had about an hour to make it back to the hotel.  Slowly shuffling through the streets, my last night in this ancient city.  My eyes are wide open, I see every piece of peeling paint, every electrical wire sloppily stapled to a wooden post.  I stop into a bodega near the hotel to buy a bottle of water and two Halida beers for later.  We all pile onto the bus for the short ride to the train station around 10:00PM.  The station is hot and crowded.  Everyone buys snacks and drinks, croissants for the morning, beer to help fall asleep.  I’m bunked with Matt and Della, a young couple in their late twenties from Birmingham England, long lost friends from another life, and Elaine, from London, the sweetest, reminds me of my mother.  I’m on the top bunk, bunk 16.  We’re in “first class”, but it’s a very basic train, a cramped cabin, dirty blankets and pillows.  Everyone in the group puts their luggage away and walks around smiling, taking photos.  No one complains.  This is an experience and I love everyone for loving that.  I feel lucky to be bunked with these three.  We stay up till midnight talking and laughing.  It’s a rough night’s sleep.  Noisy, bumpy and cold.  I have no idea where I’ll be when I wake up, I can’t wait.

Vietnam, day three: junk boat sleeping on ha long bay

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Monday, May 5th 2014:

It’s morning in Vietnam.  I’m wide awake.  I seem to be adjusting to this time travel quicker than I thought I would.  Downstairs again for another breakfast of fruit, fried something-or-others, and coffee thicker than bone.  I take a quick shower in the badly retrofitted tub, it’s about 4 feet off the ground, water pours out from the half-caulked edges flooding the entire bathroom.  I go to a little store down the street and buy a huge bottle of water for about 20 cents and stand outside waiting for the bus.  It’s about 4 hours north to Ha Long Bay, close to the Chinese border.

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Crossing the Red River heading away from Hanoi, my head rests against the fogged up window of this bus, headphones on.  I turn Love In Vain by The Rolling Stones up as loud as it will go.  The soundtrack of the war for countless American GIs, atleast that’s what dozens of Hollywood films have led me to believe.  Just going with it, watching the country roll by.  After a couple of hours we stop for a restroom break at a pottery factory in a small village.  I spend about 20 minutes walking around seeing how they form, fire and paint these elaborate blue and white vases.  All the clay sourced from the surrounding mountains.  I have no idea who buys them, I’m guessing tourists stopping for a restroom break, but they’re beautiful and it’s fascinating to see.  Two cups of lotus tea.  The local kids doing their best photo poses for the clicks and camera flashes.  Back on the bus.

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Another 2 hours and we’re in Ha Long Bay.  It was interesting overhearing people from Australia and Scotland on the bus talking about the Vietnam War (known around here as The American War).  I’ll get into that more once we hit Saigon.  My first impression of Halong Bay was that it’s a gigantic tourist nightmare.  People from all over crowding into the port waiting to be taken out to their ship.  We got on a small wooden skiff, life vests on, and cruised out to our overnight junk boat among the seemingly thousands.  It didn’t look like much from afar, but it was actually very charming.  Everyone had their own room on the bottom deck, large bed, port windows, en-suite bathroom.  They served us a nice lunch cooked right there on the boat, everyone had a beer in hand.  Then it was just heading out into the bay.  The clustered boats all go in their own direction, the water and sky open up, the tourist nightmare fades away, and it’s incredible.

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It’s hard to describe how beautiful Ha Long Bay is.  Thousands of these rocky, tree covered, floating islands jutting up from perfect, undisturbed water.  We all spent a few quiet hours moving about the boat, finding the best views.  Climbing up and down stairs, trying out different lounge chairs, taking hundreds of identical photographs.  Then it was time for a bit of exploring before dinner.  We climbed back onto the small wooden boat and headed to shore.  It was a long, hot walk up a cliffside to check out this large cave system.  It was hard to take a good photograph in the caves, but I posted a blurry one above anyways.  It was really crowded with tourists, but amazing nonetheless.  Looks more like a film set than something still being formed naturally over thousands of years.  Sweaty and sore, walking back to the ship.  Old women paddle by in makeshift boats overflowing with goods.  They lift their fishing nets up to the cliff, you drop your money in, up comes whatever you need.  Pringles, cigarettes, beer, water, chocolate bars, postcards, anything you want.

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Back on the boat I leaned against a railing on the stern and watched most of the group climb into kayaks.  Kayaking was an optional evening activity, decided to sit this one out.  Two fishermen pulled up and sold a bucket of fresh crabs to our crew, we’d be eating those in a couple hours, a meal request care of our guide, Lam.  I decided to waste away the rest of the day on the top deck.  Halida beer and The Quiet American by Graham Greene on a lounge chair.  Dinner was squid, shrimp, whole fish, crab, and vegetables.  The crabs were cooked, the meat taken out and mixed with herbs and spices, put back in the shell and cooked again.  Everyone talked about those crabs throughtout the trip as one of the best meals we had.

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After dinner everyone gathered at the bow of the boat for drinks and talking.  There was nowhere else to go.  We’d be spending the night here, waking up on Ha Long Bay.  For some reason the younger people in the group retired to their cabins below while the older ones decided to stay awake and do some drinking.  After an hour or two, Dean, this large cartoon caricature of an Australian, and the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, plugged his iPod into the boat’s stereo and put on some Nick Cave.  Really good conversation and getting to know everyone a whole lot better.  Laurel, beautiful and young in her early-70s, after putting back a couple Cointreaus on ice, requested some Led Zeppelin.  So much fun.  This went on for a while and then it was clearly time for sleep.  Port windows open, fan on, cool sea breeze, the gentlest of rocking waves.  Goodnight.

Vietnam, day two: when you’re lost in the rain in hanoi

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Sunday, May 4th 2014:

Good morning, Hanoi.  The first half of today is pretty much a blur.  Jet lag hit me hard.  I didn’t even bother getting my camera out, just took a few snaps with my phone.  I went downstairs to grab some breakfast in the hotel lobby.  Pineapple, melon, cucumber salad, fried eggs, fried spring rolls, bacon, and fried rice.  Some sort of confused translation of a Western breakfast.  Drank a couple cups of muddy coffee and went right back up to my room for a nap, the first of many today.

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I woke up and decided to take my first walk around the city.  I wanted to check out the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, about a 15 minute walk from the hotel.  I wandered around some side streets and strolled down a beautiful tree-lined road towards that part of town.  The combination of heat and jet lag made it feel like I was sleepwalking.  I didn’t get far.  The first day of trying to adjust to an 11 hour time difference.  I missed a lot of things I wanted to see in Hanoi this day, but I knew I’d be back on Tuesday to make up for it.  Back to the hotel for another nap and a shower.

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6:00PM.  Time to go to the lobby and meet with the group I’d be traveling with.  Everyone shuffled in a few at a time, ordering beers from the bar, taking a seat at the table set up for 16.  Our Vietnamese guide, Lam, introduced himself and had us all write down our insurance information.  We went through the day to day itinerary in Vietnam, lots of early mornings, full days, but also plenty of time to relax and explore.  The people in the group came mainly from Australia and the UK.  One from Sweden, one from New Zealand.  I was the only American and only 1 of 2 traveling solo.  That was orientation.

We all met downstairs about an hour later to go have dinner.  About a 20 minute walk through Hanoi’s labyrinthine streets and markets to the Old Quarter.  We went to an upstairs restaurant called A Taste of Hanoi on a busy street overflowing with bars and cafes, the sidewalks crammed with people perched on miniature plastic stools.  I could tell the restaurant catered mostly to tourists and tour groups, but it was fine, the food was good.  Lemongrass beef with steamed rice.  Spent a couple hours there talking and getting to know everyone.

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After dinner a few of us decided to hang around the Old Quarter to grab a drink.  Two Bia Hà Nộis downstairs on those tiny plastic stools in the street.  Backpackers and locals shoulder to shoulder, street food hawkers, people selling balloons and garbage souvenirs, motorbikes slowly weaving through the crowd.  We decided to call it an early night, four hour bus ride to Halong Bay in the morning.  The rain started coming down as soon as we stood up, everyone splitting ways.  I followed two Australian friends, Frankie and Kevin, back to the hotel.  I had no idea how to get back on my own.  Running through back alleys, people scrambling to cover the street markets with tarps, ducking under awnings to look at a map, getting completely soaked.  Back in the room, breathless and happy.  Sleep.

Vietnam, day one: 24 hours from miami to hanoi

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Friday, May 2nd – Saturday, May 3rd 2014:

Awake before dawn to finish packing three weeks of clothing into an impossibly small backpack.  The taxi driver called from out front about 20 minutes early, so no time to think or double check things, kiss Marissa goodbye, out the door.  I’m on my way.

Okay, so.  This is the beginning of three weeks of traveling solo through Southeast Asia.  Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.  I’m about to fly from Miami to Hanoi.  24 hours of travel time.  I’ve never been to Asia and I’ve never been on a trip this long.  To make things easy on myself I decided to go on a tour with Intrepid Travel, another first for me.  I never liked the idea of planned group travel, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.  I would do it again.  

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taxi driver:  “Where ya headed?”
me:  “Vietnam.”
taxi driver:  “Wow.  The last time I was there I was killing those people.”

I left early enough to miss rush hour traffic down to Miami International Airport.  I was feeling pretty emotional from the moment I got through security, 3 weeks is a long time to be away from home.  I settled in, made some calls, drank a bloody mary.  Time to go.  Miami to Chicago to Tokyo to Hanoi. The flights were uneventful.  I thought 24 hours of travel time would be a nightmare, but I just watched a lot of movies, ate a ton of food and napped whenever I could.  I managed to get some wi-fi at the Tokyo airport and sent a quick photo home, excited to be in Japan for even just an hour.  Then it was another 6 hours to Vietnam.  I got in late, already dark outside.  Got some Vietnamese Dong out of an ATM and flagged down a taxi driver outside.  Hazy ride to my hotel in Hanoi, windows down, warm sticky breeze, getting excited.

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I checked in to the Hong Ngoc Cochinchine Hotel a little before midnight local time.  I went up to my room on the eighth floor and drank a warm Tiger beer from the minibar, opened the window and stared out at the neon signs and empty streets below.  So exhausted, too wired to sleep.  I went downstairs to ask if there was a bodega nearby where I could get some water or snacks.  A bellhop sleeping in a chair by the door woke up and took me down the block to help me buy what I wanted, got himself some cigarettes.  Back upstairs and immediately asleep on the rock hard mattress.  I knew I’d wake up with no idea where I was.