Tuesday, May 06, 2008

From Vietnam With Love (and lots of hassling)

To cross into Vietnam, all it took was a bus, a boat, then another boat, a transportation scam in Chau Doc (with Ben & I being on the receiving end), and a rabid two year old boy dancing in my lap and slobbering on my arm while I practiced monosyllabic Vietnamese with his 22 year old mother whose tough formative years made her look more like 50. Can Tho wasn’t so memorable despite the friendly company, imposing statue of Ho Chi Minh, and pleasant geographic situation along the river. It was big for not being so famous - over a million people. Saigon was even bigger with loads upon loads of motorbikes. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels which the Viet Cong used to sneak into southern Vietnam during the war. The tour was tarnished by our guide’s pained attempts at speaking English through strained apoplectic faces while pointing out the painfully obvious. The bus ride to Dalat was only supposed to be a few hours, but it wound up taking at least 10 after something in the road forced us to take some ridiculous detour, plus the bus driver had to repeatedly stop and pour jugs of water on the radiator for some mysterious reason. The city is in the mountains and thus cooler in temperature and different feeling from the rest of Vietnam. It’s almost like a European city out of the Twilight Zone: there’s a greater comparative wealth, strangely architected buildings, and a pristine central lake. Everyone is constantly wearing their motorbike helmets (even when they're not on their motorbikes) while donning long sleeves and pants (and while I said it was cooler, it's still like 80 degrees during the day). Wandering along the lake’s perimeter at night we caught many a glimpse of couples together on benches, arms around one another, romantically sporting their helmets and pollution facemasks.
Today I bought a slick new pair of sneakers that I just couldn't resist. They look a bit like Asics. A few days ago I had to buy a new backpack, a Lowe Alpine imitation, after my Sierra Club one from high school had seen enough of this world.

"crazy house" in dalat

I’m sitting on the main beach in Nha Trang. Last night I battled with a bout of exhaustion and slept for 12 hours. I feel much better today, relieved that it wasn’t a parasite. Leah, who joined us in Saigon, is off for a stroll while Ben is at my side. He fancies me a dilettante these days compared to all the serious artists he knew back at Vassar. Unlike me and amazingly enough, he is unbothered by the constant bombardment of women wearing rice paddy hats approaching every five minutes trying relentlessly to sell us something useless.


It was in quaint Hoi An along the UNESCO protected streets where we briefly joined forces with Arielle, the former PiA girl who was posted in Malaysia before bowing out amidst scandal. She resurfaced some months later in Hue, and after some message swapping agreed to meet up.
Hoi An felt like it was a city made for midgets – why, I don’t know – and every other store sold the same style of women’s pea coats with slight modifications in color. Leah bought a swanky red one for $30 so she can be all the rage in NYC next winter.
Having learned our lesson from the miserable standard overnight bus ride from Nha Trang to Hoi An, we opted instead for the sleeper bus to cover the stretch between Hoi An and Hanoi. The journey would’ve been even more pleasant had the stench of recycled air and dirty socks not been so pungent. Unfortunately for Ben, he had to sleep next to some strange man with funky nose jewelry (read: a massive hairy mole) while I paired off with Leah. Our time in Hanoi was brief and rainy. We had only a day of exploring, for the next day we set off on a dodgy two day tour of Halong Bay. We were delayed three hours because the other van of people joining up with us struck a motorbiker on the drive from Hanoi.
The bay was pleasant, like a more grand version of Khao Sok, and the Lord graced us with favorable weather. Ben and I were forced to share a bed at night on the boat. At around 4:30am, while in the throes of a dream about urinating on the wall of a locker room shower, I awoke to find that I was indeed pissing myself in real life for the first time since preschool. None of it made its way over to Ben.
We returned to Hanoi for our final night in Vietnam spent outside amidst some pseudo cluster of outdoor bars on those same miniature plastic chairs used for time-out. We downed cheap beer at 3,000Dong a glass while listening to some bizarre Australian couple rave about the book “Shantaram”. The female Aussie kept oddly referencing the fact every 30 seconds that she was a writer herself. "It's such a great book, and I can just appreciate the structure so much more being a writer myself, you know?"
And so it was in those final hours that we said goodbye to Vietnam, to Ben, and to love.

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