Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pebbles on a mountain

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(Above) This is where I traveled.

(Below) For some perspective…
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It’s a big world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Five Vietnam: Hanoi and the End

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter is tiny streets and miniscule alleys packed with sellers of all things, from vegetables to headstones. The roads have baffling twists and mysterious termini: you may round a corner and have a beautiful lake filling your view, or you might find yourself on the doorstep of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In sheer numbers, the bodies and machines filling the streets can’t match Ho Chi Minh’s frenzies, but Hanoi’s more constricted environment makes every road crossing or packed sidewalk an obstacle course.

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The Quarter certainly does feel old. Beautiful aged buildings are everywhere, and traditional markets line some of the winding alleyways. While it’s also the hub for budget-minded tourists, most of the locals – except for the ones catering directly to foreigners – go about their business without so much as a glance at the intruders.

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Preparations for Tet were in full swing: everywhere I saw people carrying huge bunches of flowers, and orange trees – apparently a common gift and decoration – filled up Hanoi’s parks. Unfortunately, my flight was on the morning of February 2, the eve of Tet, so I didn’t get to experience the New Year in Vietnam. When the day turned I was somewhere in the air between Guangzhou, China and Los Angeles.

The energy of the Old Quarter was undoubtedly my favorite aspect of Hanoi. It could get exhausting – but then, it felt like a place that should be exhausting. At the same time, greater Hanoi was an attractive, park-spotted city, well-oriented for rambling. One afternoon – after failing to see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which was apparently open only in the morning – I took some back alleys, the kind to which you’re never quite sure there’s an exit until you hear the traffic from a real road up ahead. I ended up at a large pond entirely surrounded by multistory buildings, with entrances only large enough for motorbikes. Along one side of this pond was a long wall separating the walkway from a row of apartments; smack in the middle of this wall, a mirror reflected a man’s half-shaved face and his engrossed barber.

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I was definitely struck with a sense of last-chance-to-see, since Hanoi was my ultimate stop. This gave me the odd idea that I should be doing something in particular to mark my final days in Asia – seeing some famous sight or throwing major dong at a special meal. But I realized that nothing would be more appropriate for the end of my trip than simply looking and listening. With rare exceptions, I never set out for a place with specific intentions, and usually I’ll gladly take aimlessness over an itinerary.

So I looked: at joggers around Hoan Kiem Lake, women washing dishes in buckets on the sidewalks, people taking in laundry under the sullen grey skies. I listened: to the chatter of men in the coffee-drinking circles, the admonitions of mothers to their children, and the insistent hum of engines. Everything ordinary – that’s what I wanted for my last couple days.

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Fittingly, my grand exit was more of a sneaking crawl under cover of darkness. I woke up before 5am, when the streets were miraculously quiet, and tiptoed downstairs to shake the hotel proprietress awake so she could unlock the doors. She was sleeping peacefully on the lobby couch, protected from the chill by a thick sleeping bag. After clearing my throat ineffectually, I reached out and tentatively applied the smallest touch to her ankle region. I did this probably half a dozen times, increasing the pressure almost imperceptibly each time, before she woke and sat up blearily. I felt terrible. I had told her the day before that I had to check out early, but that fact assuaged my guilt not at all – especially since she and her husband had been extremely kind and helpful during my short stay.

“Did you pay?” she asked, rummaging around for my passport. “Yes, last night. I paid the older woman. Your mother?” I guessed. “Older woman?” She seemed confused, but let it pass, and finally handed over my passport and opened the doors, shivering as the chill cut through her pajamas.

“Thank you so much,” I said guiltily. She smiled slightly.

“And Happy New Year."

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I walked the dark, empty streets to my airport shuttle. I sat in the cold airport. Boarded the plane. We took off.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Four Vietnam: Drops of Hue

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In Hue it rained, and most of what I saw was filtered through a café window. I never had to brave any downpours; instead the clouds decided to drip just enough to discourage too much exploring. I embarked on two expeditions to the Citadel, Hue’s old walled imperial city, and turned back both times. (This was due to a combination of rain and a general lack of interest in seeing the country’s tallest flagpole – which I was able to glimpse from afar, in any case.) I did enjoy walking along the banks of the Perfume River, a wide expanse blanketed in mist and dotted with colorful tourist boats, but the raindrops made me pay for the sight.

So really, I didn’t do much in Hue. I sat down with endless cups of Vietnamese coffee and wrote in my journal and read Banana Yoshimoto’s N.P. I tried to stay warm. I ignored the sounds filtering through the inexplicable window that linked my bathroom to the hotel room next door. Pretty soon it was time to go, and with a handful of peanuts and a squished butter cake (a gift from Hai) to sustain me, I boarded my last bus. My final stop was that fabled capital of old Indochina, city of lakes and temples: Hanoi.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Three Vietnam: Finding Luck in Hoi An

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In keeping with my belief that unplanned travel is often the best, Hoi An ended up being one of my favorite stops. I forfeited the remainder of my ongoing ticket to Hue, but a new ticket for the next day was only about 3USD and the extra was worth it.

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Hoi An’s primary tourist attraction held no interest for me whatsoever: the town is known for its tailors, and clothing shops abound. One store proudly displayed a letter from a foreign customer who, along with his wife, ended up buying somewhere north of sixty clothing items during their stay. Unfathomable. Perhaps more than any other place I went in Vietnam – where tourists were in general easily found – the foreign contingent in Hoi An asserted itself with a kind of selective interest: I saw almost no foreigners outside of a half-dozen or so streets that form the town’s core. I was also greatly amused when I came upon a Highly Interesting Cultural Event being held on a sidewalk – some locals burning trash. Two separate international types were videotaping this while the Vietnamese laughed at them.

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What I really liked about Hoi An was the river, which was green and sluggish, and the buildings, which were yellowed and old. The river flows alongside the Ancient Town, a collection of narrow streets and alleyways that harbor the typical tourist requisites along with many, many cafes. My favorite part of my brief stay was walking these streets and talking with the local artists about their work. There were several photography galleries as well, mostly displaying the output of a local photo club.

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As always, there were also lots of people angling for foreign dollars. I’ve found it pretty easy to turn down overpriced trinkets and vegetables and motorbike rides, but I was willfully suckered in Hoi An by Dao and Tuan, a couple of shrewd kids who insisted that I needed to buy a buffalo zodiac pendant for luck. (Apparently the Vietnamese substitute a water buffalo for the ox of the Chinese zodiac.) I got them to cut their price by two-thirds but knew I was still getting swindled – especially after, realizing they were out of buffalo, big sister Dao handed Tuan a fraction of what I paid to go get me a buffalo pendant from some unnamed third party. I respected their polite tenacity and also appreciated their willingness to chat. I may have lost points with them when I tied the buffalo to my wrist instead of around my neck, but after some consideration Dao decided that it would bring me luck nonetheless.

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And now the bit about food. Thanks to an abundance of international restaurants I mostly ate western food in
Hoi An, and it was mostly good. I’ve talked about the coffee and the pho, but another thing I’ve loved about Vietnam is the crusty baguettes that are frequently served with meals. It’s something I only recently realized that I really miss from back home.

More than anything, Hoi An was simply picturesque. As I moved through Vietnam I saw more and more preparations being made for the February 3 Tet holiday, and Hoi An was in full swing: altars bearing food and incense were being set up along the sidewalks, red banners and decorations adorned many of the cracked walls in the Ancient City, and dragons were in conspicuous attendance. All of these preparations were set against a town that, while catering to tourists, still managed to maintain its own separate spirit. The morning before I left, I was out early on the streets watching worn old women carry impressive loads of bananas and peppers on their backs. A girl stepped out of her shop and performed a brief, private ritual with sticks of incense. And the fog rolled on the river.

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Compared to the rest of my bus trips, the hop to Hue was brief – only four hours – but it gave me my best look at Vietnam’s countryside. This was because, for unclear reasons, the driver yanked me out of my seat halfway through and made me sit on a fold-out chair right at the front of the bus. (I think my booking agency screwed up my ticket, and as a result I had to forfeit my seat to someone else.) This ended up being great for me because I had more leg room, more fresh air and the best view of anyone. Some of this view was Da Nang’s ugly urban sprawl and some of it was the feeble walls set up by developers building resorts on fabled China Beach – I had at one point considered going to China Beach, and this ride made me glad I didn’t – but we also rode through rather beautiful mountain passes and valleys.

I also had the pleasure of watching the bus driver threaten to toss off a group of young Vietnamese men who had gotten a bit too rowdy. He literally turned off the highway, stopped the bus and turned around to chew them out. It was fantastic.

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Throughout it all, drizzle plunked down onto the windshield. Since Ho Chi Minh I had been hoping for a respite from the grey weather, but I wasn’t getting it now… and I wouldn’t get it in Hue.