Day 5 of being back home and I finally feel somewhat okay. Yesterday's bocce action clearly had a positive effect on me.
We drove through flooded streets a lot of the way on the way to Halong Bay. We boarded the boat and headed out. Halong Bay is a stunning place. There are 2,000 islands all over the place. Most are uninhabitable rocks sticking out of the water. There are a few floating villages in the bay as well. Unfortunately, it was rainy and overcast all day. And I started to get sick. The unmistakable sore throat and fog soon enveloped me. As Jason and the rest of the Westeners aboard went swimming in the bay, I did my best to stay awake.
As the sun went down (at about 6:30, very hard for Jason and me to get used to) the crew of the boat pulled up to one of the floating house to buy fish for dinner. Watching the exchange was pretty interesting. Then a woman came rowing up to us to sell us Pringles and 60 cent cans of beer.
Our crewmates were okay. There was a nice Dutch couple, a funny Irish one, a skeevy German dude, a British college kid, and two obnoxious New Zealand girls in the midst of a seven month journey that both seemed ready to be over with.
The sun went down, we hunkered down in the boat, the shadows of the rock islands created some interesting effects, and we all tried to drown out the drunken howls of the Italians on the nearby boat.
I was out of my mind sick. It rained. It was hot. We went to Cat Ba Island. We trekked to some dumb cave. I went to the ratty hotel they booked us into and passed out. Jason opened the door to our room with his STA student card with one quick swipe. The N.Z. girls said they hung out with a guy who had stayed at the hotel for 2 weeks and his room had been broken into 3 times. When we went to sleep, Jason put the coat rack in front of the door to buy himself some time to beat the living daylights out of an intruder in the middle of the night.
Cat Ba Island sucked. The power went out a number of times during our short stay there. It was pretty empty. Low season, you know. An aspiring resort town - lots of new hotels going up. Sort of had the feel of a Jersey Shore town that has seen better days, yet its glory days still have not arrived. There were many stray dogs - some of whom we witnessed saving their friend from getting raped by another dog.
On our way to dinner, a boom boom girl in a bright red dress handed us a card from a motorbike advertising her establishment that offered five dollar massages. The card read "Saigon Pleasure House Sauna- Steam Exhale"
Still felt completely out of it. Our bus ride from Halong Bay to Hanoi was an interesting one though - we passed innumerable rice paddy fields. It was fascinating to pass so many families working or hanging out on a late Sunday afternoon by the fields and by the roadside. Just so damn different than what I'm used to seeing on a daily basis.
By the time, we got back to Hanoi I was ready for a nap. We changed hotels to a great one in a different part of the Old Quarter that was also a lot cheaper. It was on the 7th floor but walking up all those stairs was good for us. It was only 17 dollars a night and we figured out that if we deided to move to Hanoi and take up residence at this hotel, that it would only be about 250 bucks each a month, utilities and cable included. When we checked in, we met a real character from LA, but more on her later.
In the evening, we went to the Hanoi Circus. Everyone we told this to thought we were crazy. Unfortunately, it was a little disappointing. It wasn't quite crazy enough. Although the sparse crowd added to the surreal nature of it all. The circus definitely has seen better days. It was fun seeing monkeys on bicycles but it was also a pretty sad spectacle. None of the animals seemed all that pleased to be there - especially when getting hit for falling off a bike. I haven't been to a circus since I was a little kid so I have no frame of reference but this one seemed pretty sad sack.
The best part of the circus though was when the clown led the audience in a Ho Chi Minh singalong. Everyone immediately chimed in, kids and parents alike. The guy in fatigues next to Jason kept nudging Jason in the ribs singing and smiling. Jason responded with a smile and a thumbs up to the guy. The acrobats performing to "The Final Countdown" was pretty killer too.
After the circus, it was back to Franny's, the best ice cream place in the city, which means some of the best ice cream in the world. The people on our tour were meeting for bia hoi (keg beer on the street for a dime or so) at 9 but we had the circus to go to. As Jason said, "They all went drinking. We went to the circus and got ice cream!"
Snake Town Time! Only a few miles from Hanoi is a town that supplies snakes to the Hanoi restaurants. Jason and I decided to go check it out. On the way out, we ran into the LA girl we had met the day before who checked into our hotel at the same time we did. She is the kind of woman who is used to things going her way. She was travelling with her dog Olive. She asked us what we were doing. When we told her, she asked if she could come along. Of course.
It turns out that Maura had a lot to say. I'm not sure where to begin. Over the course of the day, we found out a lot about her. Let's see.
- Her mom is Vietnamese, married an ABC correspondent and got the hell out of Dodge.
- Maura was born in my hometown of Silver Spring but grew up in Jersey.
- This was her first time in N. Vietnam because her mom didn't want her to go until now.
- She still has family in S. Vietnam.
- She is a commercial actress with four current billboards in LA.
- She lived with Michelle Rodriguez for a year.
- She showed us a video on her camera taken by Rodriguez as Maura jumps into a lake from a tree.
- She couldn't get work because her teeth were a little crooked. She now has clear braces on her lower teeth. But this gives her a lisp. No worries, they'll be off in 6 months - just in time for pilot season, hooray!
- She has many goals for her life. They are:
1. To be a photographer for Nat'l Geographic one day.
2. To get her own sitcom
3. To flip a house or two
4. To have kids
5. To be a good wife, er a good partner she means.
6. And, oh yeah, to teach English for a couple of months in Vietnam because you know, if she teaches a few kids English, they can teach others, and it will help so many people get jobs in hotels and such, it will have a spiralling positive effect, you know.
- She likes to mix it up between jetsetting and roughing it. Last year, she was sailing the Mediterranean. This year, backpacking in Asia. She decided to keep it real because living in LA can be a bit living in LA.
- She says, "Oh sugar" instead of "Oh shit."
- Her two all-time favorite movies (she's seen them so MANY times) are The Matrix and Almost Famous.
- She showed us a movie she took of a young girl in Saigon peeing on the street.
- In her younger days, she was known to have boys buy her diamond watches which she returned for a profit. Silly boys.
- She was in Asia for some spirtual cleansing.
- She deliberately doesn't keep up with current events because she likes living in her little bubble.
- She planned on going to Sri Lanka in a few weeks until I told her that she might want to research if that was safe or not.
I got the impression that she has no idea that Iraq might not be the safest place to go right now.
Anyway, we wandered around the quiet streets for a bit. We found a flooded rundown snake inspired pagoda. Then a sweet, shy teenage girl implored us to sit down with her and talk. She was so excited to talk to us. She was selling some fruit in front of her house but she wasn't trying to sell us anything. She was just excited for visitors. As silly as Maura was at times, she was extremely nice to all of the kids we came across. She kept telling our new friend how pretty she was and repeatedly gave her nice hugs when we were leaving. The girl was definitely one of the most memorable people Jason and I encountered. She was so genuine. She insisted that we send her pictures and told us that a British guy had promised to send her pictures but never had. The whole time, her mom was standing a few paces away making sure that everything was okay.
Then we found the right place for us for snake. We didn't go for the cobra although maybe we should have. We ordered up two snakes. Olive the dog and the birds in the restaurant's courtyard knew there was bad stuff about to go down in the animal kingdom. They all went nuts during the slaughter.
First, the draining of the blood. Then the cutting out of the heart and the gall bladder? perhaps. Then the slicing off of the skin. The whole time, the hearts were still beating on the plate. It was crazy watching the whole thing. The snakes were moving throughout. It is hard to kill one of those things.
Maura and Jason wanted the hearts and since I still wasn't feeling all that hot, I let them down the beating hearts. Maura had the right idea by quickly swallowing it. Jason, for some odd reason, put it on his tongue, felt it beating, and then took a bite. Bad decision that he quickly made better by swallowing the whole thing. Then we all drank our snake blood mixed with rice wine which wasn't bad. And some gall bladder wine or something. We were brought many different courses, some better than the others, most of which you would have no idea that it was snake unless you were told.
After lunch, we walked back to the main road to catch a cab. It was fun watching many of the women check out Maura with a look that said, "Who the fuck are you?" As we drove back into town, many many men on motorbikes peered into the cab to get a load of Ms. Maura. At one point, before we bid adieu to her, she asked us, "Do you really think I'm going to have a TV show and be famous?" We assued her that, yes, of course she was going to be famous.
Jason and I were pretty beat and didn't do much on our last night. We walked around a lot and got ice cream again.
We began our trip dodging hookers in Saigon and ended it with banana splits in Hanoi.
We had a few hours to kill during the day. We wandered around for a bit looking for the Border Guard Museum. Yes, that is right - a musem dedicated to the brave men and women who guard Vietnam's borders. Its hours are only from 8-11 am and supposedly are regularly closed for no reason. However, we couldn't even find the fucking place. Instead, we enjoyed our time in the Vietnamese Revolution Museum.
Our cab ride to the airport featured sights such as cows feasting on trash, rice paddy fields underneath huge billboard ads, and a soccer game where the players were using tires as the goals. I've already detailed our long journey back but I didn't mention in my post from the Tokyo airport about the 16 year-old unassuming Japanese girl with the t-shirt emblazoned on the back with gigantic letters that read, "SUCK MY DICK!"
When we arrived back in NYC, a customs official took Jason into a separate room to ask him if he'd ever been to Yemen. When he said no, he was allowed to pass. We both then got the third degree by the next round of questioning.
Other Assorted Wrap Up Stuff
- We became obsessed with MTV Asia. Jason noticed that many of the videos had something to do with food. Jason describes:
1. There are two videos where singers eat bananas.
2. There is one video where 2 singers feed each other fruit.
3. There is a video where the band makes a berry pie for a girl. She eats 1 slice and giggles.
4. There is a video where a boy imagines he and a girl are feeding each other pasta.
5. And, of course, Ho! Summer where 2 boys drive around feeding each other apples and bananas before riding together through the water on a gigantic banana."
- Many of the places we stayed in also housed the workers. The lobby bathrooms or restaurant bathrooms were stocked with employee deodorants, toothbrushes, and towels. At our last hotel in Hanoi, they set up places to sleep for the workers right in the lobby.
- The most popular t-shirt style in Laos for teenage boys were Linkin Park shirts.
- On our trip, we heard "Hotel California" at least five times. We also inexplicably heard the Wham Christmas song twice. And I would have never thought that Extreme's "More than Words" would be so popular that we'd hear it 3 times.
- In Vietnam, there aren't many tuk-tuks. Motorbikes and cyclos are most prevalent. Cyclos are basically a seating space on the back of a bicycle. Jason and I were toying with the idea of giving a cyclo driver money to rent his cyclo and then give us each other rides and/or trying to get Westeners to hire us to give them rides. How long before a pack of angry cyclo drivers would have beaten us down if we had tried this stunt?
- Hanoi is an amazing city. But everything shuts down at 11. The streets are packed right up until that point though with friends and family gathering outside to eat and drink bia hoi on plastic stools. The night we went to the jazz club, the streets were super crowded. When we left the club, there was no one out. Very strange. It was only 11:15 or so. Also at the jazz club, Jason had the pleasure of being corrected by the bartender about the proper pronunciation of the word water. All these uppity new English speakers are going to ruin it for the rest of us.
- The lake near the Old Quarter in Hanoi is one of my favorite parts of the city. There are many trees dipping into the water in quite a majestic way. The lake is lined with benches. In the evenings, there are many people fishing by the trees (nicely lit creating a nice mix of colors from the trees and the water) and couples of all ages lounging on the benches and on motorbikes.
- When we originally arrived in Hanoi, we were almost the victims of a scam. We didn't even realize this until we talked to other Westeners a few days later. Our cab driver found out where we were going and then he called a friend at another hotel. When we got to the first hotel, his friend hopped in the cab and told us that the first hotel was booked already but that they owned two other hotels. He hopped in and took us to one of the others. We asked him if it was the same price and he replied, "Yes, of course. Same, same." The new hotel whisked us in to talk about rooms. When they found out that we had already paid for our hotel at the airport, they realized that they were screwed because they weren't getting money from us. They called us a cab and we went to our right hotel - the haunted one with the ghosts desperate to get out of the closets. I'm telling you - everytime I faced the damn closet in the middle of the night, it would rattle.
- One night in Laos, I tried to pay with a twenty dollar bill. It was returned as unusable because of a slight slight slight tear.
- Jason made quite an impression on many of the ladies of SE Asia. There were the women accompanying the Thai soccer team who all wanted to pose for pictures with him. There were the giggling teenagers taking pictures of him at the market in Laos. There was the teenager at the market who said, "Take me to NY to be your girlfriend." There was the girl who wrote him a note that stated, "I live you." She was quite embarrassed when Jason corrected her mistake. For the record, he was on his best behavior throughout.
- Hanoi and even Saigon are extremely clean cities for the most part. Both had constant cleaning crews at all hours of the day sweeping up and keeping the cityscape in tip-top shape.
- Hanoi's Old Quarter is pretty spectacular. Very touristy but also full of non-tourists. The streets are narrow with many back alleys and winding streets. The sidewalks are so crowded with motorbikes that pedestrians are forced to walk on the streets thus having to avoid all the traffic. Orignally, the neighborhood (1,000 years ago) had 36 main streets each with its own trade. Now there are 50 main streets. But many of them still house merchants selling the same wares.
- I'm not sure I fully explained how mellow Vientiane was. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it is a capital city that only has 200,000 people in it. The entire country only has 6 million people.
- I'll never get sick of the sight of a whole family on one motorbike especially if there is a small child being propped up a parent.
- I was very tempted to buy one of the many Ho Chi Minh paintings on sale in Hanoi and put it up in my classroom. How would my school react? Would they tell me to take it down? What would the parents say? I really should have bought one just to see, huh?
It is nice to be home. I start work tomorrow so Summer Dan will die a quiet, uneventful death.
I hope to start posting some pictures soon but I've barely made a dent sorting through them.
3 days ago