Vietnam

Blessed and fortunate: I'm a man!

My first blog post was a short one, and included this: 

my 40th birthday will not be spent in the same way any other (of mine) has been. It won’t even be spent in the same hemisphere.

One way ticket. New priorities.

Boy it looks profound in those big italics, doesn't it? [no]

Back then I was looking at 40. Now I'm seeing it inside parallax just before it hits me in the nose.

my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around

And I say "back then" because even though I posted that just 10 months ago, my life has gone down a completely new path--yet again. I traded the stability of golden handcuffs to bet on myself, I waved goodbye to a relationship that breathed like oxygen but ultimately sustained like cyanide, and I learned how much I love and miss my family and a handful of dear friends.

I also set out on a truly once in my lifetime experience, to see parts of the world I'd only dreamed of. In the 5 months since I left, I've seen stunning natural beauty in Cambodia and Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng; breathtaking works of manmade art in Bangkok and Chiang Rai and Vientiane. I've also seen man's inhumanity to man in Kanchanaburi and Saigon.

I got soaked with strangers during Songkran, knew joy with old friends and family over coffee and beer, and made new friends and relationships I'll forever treasure.

And I have written, because that's what, above all, I came here to do. 

 

On my 25th birthday I was working in the coolest job ever with the coolest people ever. I thought I'd found my path. But I also wanted love, and I'd reconnected with the woman I was supposed to be with. Three months later I would move to Washington, D.C., and we would forge a new path together.

On my 30th birthday I was in a job I hated, but using it as a stepping stone on the new path for more. The woman and I had been through a lot together (and at times apart), but we had made it through. We were on the same path. And I was starting to taste a bit of the good life she promised--we were even making plans for my first trip outside the U.S.

On my 35th birthday I was a freshly minted MBA, stressed out in a lucrative job with a massive learning curve, but excited for the challenge. I was newly hitched to that woman: we'd been through so much, and now all the hard work and stress and struggling was paying off. We'd had a lovely wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, sparing no expense. Living the dream that we had built. We'd built me into something more than I ever could've imagined. I even thought I was happy.

On my 39th birthday, that path was gone. The job had become even more lucrative, but it led down a path I wasn't willing to walk much longer. I'd survived a divorce, and was in a beautiful, intense entanglement with a Girl who happened to have a boyfriend. I'd given The Ultimatum, trying to convert myself from ho to housewife (so to speak).

I didn't act right

And it was around that 39th birthday that I realized this new path I'd imagined, walking hand in happy hand with this new Girl while figuring out the next stop in my six-figure professional tour was destined to be like those before--not a dead end, per se, but one from which I would have to turn in order to continue my journey.

I don't regret any of these twists or detours or dead ends, just as I don't regret my childhood plans for being a pro baseball player or POTUS not panning out, nor when at age 14 the first girl I really fell for LYLAB'ed me, or when at age 18 my first real girlfriend cheated on me with my then-best friend and his girlfriend ("Dear Penthouse Forum, you'll never believe how I got cuckolded").

Far from regret, I am thankful for all of them. Because without the love, the loss, the opportunities, the rejections, the false promises, and my own personal failings and "mistakes", I wouldn't be right here, right now--exactly where I am supposed to be. Doing exactly what I am supposed to be: writing and traveling.

Now I know what happy is. Because I Am Happy.

 

Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about what it takes to be a man. His words, along with a few others, helped sustain me during my divorce. In leaving everything behind on this Next Episode of my journey, I drew on those words and inspiration from sources diverse as fuckable friends and Stewie Griffin and the Rocky movies.

 

And now, as the days between me and four decades on earth reduce to single digits, this path that I have walked has led me, not only to deep gratitude and appreciation for all I have become, but to a sincere understanding of what the great philosopher-king Gundy the First said:

On racism, culturalism, and travel

I took a tour of Ho Chi Minh City (and/or Saigon) alongside an English couple. That's "from England", not just English-speaking. Technically also British, but more specifically, oh screw it just watch the video... 

With that done, I was on the tour with an Englishman and Englishwoman and, being as it was such a small group, we got to know each other. He was George and for the purposes of this blog we'll call her Victoria. And it wasn't long before we got into politics. This is a topic I approach delicately, as Americans abroad have a reputation and I try to defy stereotypes.

don't  be like me

George and I discussed what Uncle Ho would think of the Starbucksification of his Communist paradise (it turns out he might not be so bothered--he was concerned as much or more about nationalism, independence, and unification. Communism, like all -isms of a certain size, will encompass a spectrum of folks from zealots to pragmatists). We discussed The American War, and why the conflict, while very real and painful, was a "small-term problem" for the Vietnamese compared to their once and future threat. And, unavoidably, we joked about how Trump gonna fix it.

So I believe I'm dealing with like-minded folk--after all, you meet someone with a passport, they likely take a broad worldview, right?*

*I'm not arguing the reverse--that people without passports are necessarily isolationist. But I am saying that if you go through the time, trouble, and expense to own a passport, chances are you want to see the world beyond your window.

So since we've shared a chuckle about the flagbearer of America First, as we stand in the War Remnants Museum lobby I make a Brexit joke. Safe, right?

"Well," Victoria says, "we voted for Brexit." She then explains that they have such problems these days with Eastern Europeans coming in, taking jobs, and they work for so much less than we do... "it's a problem," she repeats.

This is not a novel argument--I've heard this in The States about Mexicans, and when I visited the Dominican Republic I heard this about Haitians (and they don't say "parsley" right).

So you'd think I would've learned not to bring such topics up, right?

I never claimed to be, like, a really smart person.

So I nodded sympathetically, because I'm not changing anyone's opinion, nor do I have the right to tell them what's right for their country, or countries, or isles, or...

And then, at the first opening, I scurry off to whatever floor they aren't going to.

When we later reconvene, I'm confident that we won't have any more unpleasantness. After all, they must've picked up on my discomfort: the English are known for their grasp of subtlety. 

Not quite:

On our way to lunch:

Victoria: Do you like the food here?

Me: Absolutely!

Victoria: Really? I can't handle soup for breakfast.

Me:...

At lunch:

Me: So where else have you traveled on this trip?

Victoria: South Africa. It was lovely.

Me: Yeah?

Victoria: Oh yes, and so much more affordable then here.

Me: Really?

Victoria: Yes. The wine is excellent, and they make it right there.

Me:...

On our way to the Chinese Buddhist temple:

Victoria: The Chinese are just awful!

Me: Oh?

Victoria: Yes! They're so rude! And they're ev-erywhere. In fact, there's a shop we visit in London. blahblahblah They had a help wanted sign, and it said 'Mandarin speakers preferred.' Can you believe that?

Me: I guess they have money.

And by this point I'm done feeling any embarrassment and decide to have a little fun with Queen Vicky, and expose some of my biases.

Me: I have noticed the Chinese struggle with line-standing, so that is annoying. Of course, the absolute worst are the Irish. Sooo obnoxious.

She bristles, and the convo pretty well dies. And, honestly, I do find the Irish pretty obnoxious while abroad--you can't take them anywhere:

So is there a point to this story? Yeah: at home or abroad, I would encourage you to remember Wheaton's Law:

Seeing Saigon in the rear view

I left Saigon yesterday, though I don't expect it will leave me anytime soon. I still have much to say about it (including a nominee for The Most Embarrassing Moment of My Life in the Non-sex Category), but here are some final shots. Because, as my mother said when she first looked at my blog, "nice pics!" (never mind that I'm a writer, here to write).

So you gotta give the people what they want.

Yes, Saigon has kicked my ass. Yes, I still like it.

I really see the appeal of this place. It’s manic and disorienting. It’s dirty and difficult. But it’s people are simply beautiful. When I’ve had the courage or stupidity to look up from where I’m going, I see such warmth and kindness.

Last night a young man on a date asks me where I’m from and takes an interest in my tattoos [side note: I have to find a way to explain them that transcends culture because it’s hard enough talking about Plato’s allegory of the cave to native English-speakers. Pro tip: stop being pretentious]. Today two schoolgirls see me, smile wave and say “hi”. These are little things, but they are truly sincere--there was no come-on, no attempt to sell me marijuana or massage, just friendliness. They mean the world to someone living 24/7 outside their comfort zone--and be honest, when was the last time you waved and said hello to a random stranger clearly deriving from “not around here”?

and there's entertainment

and there's entertainment

But what makes Saigon’s kindness so surprising is that, by my American sense, they have every right to hold a grudge. I don’t want to get political here, but It wasn’t that long ago we ravaged this country--many people here saw it firsthand. In fairness, I’m in the south--they had a very different experience than did Hanoi, and maybe there the bitterness is greater.

I asked my tour guide, as we left the palace where the tanks crashed through, about The American War and attitudes toward its named participant. He said “we only wanted to be unified.” And whether true or simply happy talk it shows a perspective, and again, a kindness, I’ve come to associate with this bunch of Commies.

it's easier getting in these days

it's easier getting in these days

Then came the War Remnants Museum. First, it’s important to remember that history is written by the victors. Second, war is hell and bad acts happen on all sides. Third, as a corollary to first and second, something can be the truth without being the whole truth.

With all that said, what I saw I cannot unsee. I will spare you those sights--except for one.

pharmacia=pfizer

pharmacia=pfizer

There were lots of companies that made lots of money from chemicals that wreaked havoc on fighters from both sides, as well as their future children and grandchildren. One of those companies became a company among my clients in corporate world. A company that now claims to heal people once was involved, along with others, in making chemicals that caused cancer and birth defects.

Remember, as one highly decorated WW1 Marine General demonstrated, War is a Racket. And those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

---

And there’s no clever or appropriate segue from that into something far sillier, so I’ll change the subject: the ass-kicking I experienced last night thanks to consuming something that didn’t agree with me. At all.

I’ll share no pictures there, either, except one:

we got to know each other quite well. I think we might be married under Vietnam common law now.

we got to know each other quite well. I think we might be married under Vietnam common law now.

Good morning Vietnam! Now go the f*ck back to sleep.

Hey, it's not me using that language--it's that nice mom from the CapitalOne commercials so concerned about your double miles!

Oh Ho Chi Minh City, I don’t know what I find more troubling: that you could kick my ass, or that I might enjoy it.

Last night I arrive after wailing, gnashing of teeth, and debating interpretation of travel rules (since I’m an expert and airport security isn’t), I get modestly overcharged for a taxi to my hotel. Three-tenths of a km before arrival I hear and see a band covering Cranberries’ “Zombie” in the park. Now I know where I’m going after check-in. 

wish we had these in The States

wish we had these in The States

Hit the night market, have a delicious beef and corn stew pita sandwich (I’m in Vietnam so it’s all Vietnamese food, if you think about it), allow grill smoke fill my eyes listen to more music--this is becoming almost routine. Not routine were some of the meats there (I debated snapping a pic of the skinned and roasted crocodile with head still green and almost smiling but even I have lines). Grab a couple more provisions at the Circle K (what 7-11 is to Thailand, it seems--I blame Napoleon) and take a shower, where I see just how efficient things can get in this world.

but did they really need a bum gun at that point?

but did they really need a bum gun at that point?

Now maybe they can do even better. Perhaps my hotel in Laos will have the bathtub in the actual toilet. Why not, it’s all pipes.

I’m in bed by midnight.

Know who else is in bed at midnight? Nobody in Ho Chi Minh. And so it remained at 1:30 a.m. and 2:30. By 4:00 the sounds had gone fainter but not totally away. A couple of times when I rise I go pee and my feet get wet from remains of the earlier shower and then feel something tickling my leghairs and remember cockroaches are drawn by standing water and run back to bed trying to think of nothing anymore.

At 5:45 the noise was nearly nil, but now the sun was out.

You might think going to sleep five times in the night sounds good--after all, that’s five times the sleeping, right?

Wrong. I’m not so good at math, certainly not when I keep getting awakened every couple of hours. But it's time for breakfast.

Even after, still groggy from sleeping in four separate sessions (you'd think that might be better but no). And while I could sleepwalk in Ayutthaya get only a cut toe, here it will get me killed. In each moment you are the hub, and 360 degrees of spokes are coming at you, going away from you. Circling. Direction can change and you best be watching. Even a green walk light just means fewer motorbikes darting your way. Most people go slow but it's still several hundred kilos of metal with hot exhaust manifolds--and anywhere from one to four people in tight concentric alignment. Knees, elbows and skulls. You can't win that battle.

Best practice I've found is pick your gap, commit, and maintain speed. Convey direction in body language so they know what you're doing. It takes trust. But like Reagan, verify--keep your head on and be ready to adjust if the situation warrants. And it certainly will at some point.

Ignore the horns-- Probably won't hear the one that gets you and there are far too many to discern your own special honk, the one made just for you. No, let them blend into the unyielding symphony of diesel revving and car alarms.

And don't think the sidewalks are a safe haven. That'd be your biggest mistake--letting your guard down for a moment in an in-name-only, pedestrian-only zone. Don't forget you have parkways in the states and last I checked you can't just park on one.

Within minutes I thought "it'll be nice to return to the tranquility and order of Bangkok”.

 

But a couple of more trips out and I get the flow. It becomes fun to swim among the motorbikes, moving at a slight angle as if in the beach tides. There’s a moment when a little child, 2 years or less and sitting between his father and the handlebars smiles up bright at me and waves. I grin and wave back, making the other three members of his family smile.

Think about that: 4 people, one scooter. And it wasn’t the first or last time I saw the configuration. I didn’t like fitting four people in my car--when I had a car, that is.

and I'll have at least one more before I go

and I'll have at least one more before I go

For lunch I had the best banh mi at least as delicious as anything in Eden Center--filling and only 20,000 dong ($0.88). And through the day, since Vietnam is all about coffee, I had several cups in various styles--Vietnamese, American/French/commercial mass market with a foam heart--never cost more than 50k: even in a place called $nob Coffee, which appeals to the decadent capitalist pig-dog in all of us. And the scenery, with more fender rubs than Darlington, could hold even my attention for hours.

It’s a nice distraction from things weighing on my mind.