Archive for the 'Vietnam' Category



Revenge of the Long Nose, Eyewear Edition

I knew I’d been in Asia awhile when I passed a herd of European tourists—flushed from the heat, sun-twinged limbs gleaming in sweat, tall and robust and covered in what suddenly seemed like an ungodly amount of body hair—and thought, “White people: how uncouth.”

Just me? Maybe. But the longer I’m here, the more absurd white people in Asia become. We’re a delicate race and we really don’t belong anywhere that sees more than 3 months of sunshine a year. Put us in the Americas, in Africa, put a crapton of us in Australia, and it’s just kinda sad: sweating everywhere, dehydrated and sun-burnt, leathery necks and sun-spotted arms.

In Asia we stand out for other reasons too: we’re large, we’ve got facial hair (I’ve got more of a ‘stache than most of the men I see), our eyes are comparatively the size of dinner plates and our noses like some real-life Pinocchio shit.

Those of you who’ve spent time Asia might be familiar with the term “chang bizi.” It’s Chinese slang for white people and literally means “long nose.” (Check this forum discussion of long noses: “so long, it frightened me.”) And while I haven’t heard this term in my travels in other Asian countries, I have had people comment on the length and geometrical pointiness of my nose. I mean, my nose is pointy by Western standards; coupled with my round checks and Irish tendency towards redness, I look something like an ostrich. But good lord, get this thing out here, combine it with my blue eyes, curly hair and 177 cm of PURE WOMAN and I’m a show-stopper, really.

I mean, dang!

So you know, you get some looks out in this part of the world. (Not aided, as mentioned in the last post, when you go jogging in Spandex with visible tattoos.) You start to feel the offensiveness of your own body—your sweaty, ginormous, hair-and-sun-spot-covered body, of which the pointy nose is the icing on the cake.

In seemingly unrelated news, my contact lens debacle has continued: after the cleaner threw out my lenses and after I discovered I couldn’t get my particular lenses replaced in Vietnam, I contacted a couple clinics in Bangkok, where I’m headed next month for a wee holiday. The response: toric lenses are available in Thailand! Yay! Buuuut… not at the strength of my prescription. To get the lenses I require, they’d need to order them from overseas. “The cost will be between 20,000-30,000 Baht.” (Do the conversion, it’s not pretty.)

So. Glasses it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve solely worn my glasses. Because it’s inconvenient for exercise, meaning that I have to jog semi-blind (NOT advantageous with all the dangling wires and low-hanging tree branches in these parts). But secretly because I look really fly in a pair of big plastic sunglasses (byproduct of having come of age in the post-Kurt-Cobain era).

But if Asia thinks it’s got me beat, if it thinks my genetic inferiority with conspire with a lack of foreign products to take me down a notch in the realm of 90s-era style, I say NAY.

Long nose to the rescue!

Now you might not be able to tell in this picture that I’m actually wearing TWO pieces of eyewear: my 6-year-old eye glasses and my snazzy red shades from Malaysia. And the reason you might not be able to tell is that they both sit so comfortably on my nose. And with so much extra nose to spare.

Technically speaking, I’ve got room for another pair on there. I might just go buy some, solely to prove the supremacy of my pointy schnoz.

Would your average Asian nose wouldn’t be up to the challenge of two pairs of eyewear on one nose? I think not. Does this compensate for the fact that I can’t get contact lenses, can’t buy clothes that fit me, that I look like the fucking attack of the 50′ woman walking around this city? Not really.

But does it make me feel a wee better? Does it give me reason to walk around humming amended version of Smiths’ songs (two points for anyone who gets the reference)? Does it give me further reason to amend canonized poetry to fit my own particular circumstances and sense of personal triumph? (“From the ash I will rise with my long nose”—three points!)

Why yes, yes it does.

There’s Truth in Skyping

Wednesday morning, post-jog Skype sesh: sitting in my robe, cup of coffee, laptop in my lap, feeling all warm and good after a shower and a bowl of pho.

Routines are one of my favorite things (because I’m officially old and boring). Watching the routines emerge in my new life here in Hanoi has been a sweet, kinda precious thing. And one of my favorites are Wednesday mornings. It’s my only weekday morning off right now, so I force myself to make the most of it: wake up at 6am to go jogging before the worst of the heat presses down. It doesn’t really help much; after ten minutes I’m a fucking slip-and-slide of sweat and after twenty minutes I’m woozy from the heat. It’s really more of an excuse to get up early—cause as it turns out, dawn is one of my favorite times in Asia and who really says, “I’m getting up early to go strolling”? Well, most of SE Asia, judging from how many people are out and about, stretching their limbs and buying vegetables and sitting on little plastic stools drinking tea. But not me—I’m the giant, red-faced tattooed girl ducking from all the low-hanging tree branches, curly fro flopping in the breeze. (Majestic, really.)

Anyway, I do that for twenty minutes and after I’m sweaty and disgraced enough, I go down the block and get a bowl of pho, stroll over to the market and buy some fruit, stop for a coffee, come home, shower, BLAH BLAH BLAH and I’m on the computer and (in theory) ready to write by 8am. Killer.

Except 8am here is 6pm on the West Coast, 9pm on the East, and a reeeeeally good time to catch up with friends. So I end up chitty-chatting for a couple hours, that Word document slowly getting buried behind Skype and IM and FB windows. Like most writers, I feel a sense of urgent, impending failure unless I’m writing 2000 words a day, but I try to reassure myself that maintaining connections with folks back home is important. Because I love my friends, but also because they know, really know me, in a way I often don’t know myself. (And besides, I enjoy the fuck out of a witty IM.)

So this morning I’m Skyping with a friend in Oakland. She’s telling me about this nightclub debacle and I’m telling her about my wading-through-sewage debacle and we’re laughing and shit. And then she goes, “You sound so much happier!”

Okay, so this is like fourth time I’ve heard this from someone. Granted, they’re not here in person and all they’ve had to go on for the past 10 months has been my voice, maybe a grainy little video box that freezes a lot and makes my skin look yellow. But still, I think there’s something to that. You know how they say when one sense is shut down, the others become heightened? Like blind people are supposed to have mad good hearing? I don’t know if this is true but I like the sound of it and it goes along with my theory, so let’s assume. Cause it would then follow that if your only contact with someone is through their voice, you’d get pretty good at reading and gaging it.

So I tell her, “Yeah, you’re like the fourth person who’s told me that.”

And she goes, “Well do you feel happier?”

I answer without missing a beat: “Totally.”

Now, the transition to Hanoi has been turbulent. I don’t find Hanoi a particularly accommodating city, and I had to hit the ground running. I’ve had more demoralizing breakdowns in my move to Hanoi than I did in Phnom Penh, and the air is worse and the traffic is mental and I think it might actually be hotter here.

But it’s true, I’m happier. I’m happier in this hard-to-name, only-vaguely-aware-of way, in the same way hard-to-name, only-vaguely-aware-of way I was UNhappy in Phnom Penh.

I’ve been trying not to talk about it too much. One, because you don’t really wanna sound like a smug bastard and two, because I don’t know how to explain it. Why am I happier here? Life is easier in Phnom Penh in a lot of ways—it’s a smaller city, it’s less polluted, there’s more access to foreign products, food is less expensive, people are damn friendly, there’s tuk-tuks, etcetcetc. People here have asked me, you know, what was Phnom Penh like, why did I go there, why did I leave, and I usually just shrug and say, “Hanoi’s a better fit for me.”

So I keep chatting with my friend, then I pop on FB and holy shit, Angelo’s online. So we start IMing, about curly fries and an on-the-job fender bender and some ridiculous Champagne Party an eccentric millionaire gives, when holy shit, ANOTHER friend pops up. (Cause I am so damn popular. In online life.)

It’s this dude I knew in Cambodia. He left before I did, in March, and we haven’t talked since then. So I’m bouncing between windows—curly fries, Cambodia, curly fries, Cambodia—when Dude goes: “I’ve been reading your blog.” Like. “It’s funny.” Like. “And negative.”

Wait, what?

“Negative?”

“It’s all about how hard everything is and how bummed you’ve been.”

Damn.

I’ve been trying to walk this line between being honest and being a total fucking Negative Nancy. Cause right now, to be honest, I’m pretty down on Cambodia. But I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut about it, cause I know it’ll pass and that really, that’s not how I actually feel. It’s just that it’s really fresh; it’s like I was dating someone and I got burned.

Cause I didn’t hate Cambodia. It wasn’t some shithole with no redeeming qualities that I was absolutely miserable in. There were things I loved about Cambodia, loved in that full-body, heart’s-gonna-leap-outta-your-chest way that you can’t quite explain. I friggin moved there, from across the planet.

But things didn’t go well for me there. I went with big dreams and they totally fell through. I had to work my ass off at staying emotionally balanced and healthy, and as dramatic as it sounds, I feel like I narrowly escaped with my sanity. I loved Cambodia and it broke my fucking heart. That’s not Cambodia’s fault and it’s not mine. But it’s easier to be negative about it, to keep a mental inventory of everything that’s more developed and better here—and there’s a lot—because I’m still too close to it to look at the full picture. It doesn’t yet feel safe to delve into the complexities of why Cambodia didn’t work for me or what exactly happened to me there. Maybe it won’t ever be safe—that’s another thing I learned in my time there: that some things aren’t safe in delve into. Why did this thing or that thing happen? In a way it doesn’t matter. I’m not a psychologist; I’m not a historian; I’m not a policy maker. What would the knowledge of why do for me? “If you understand, things are as they are. If you don’t understand, things are as they are.”

I’ve been thinking all this, secretly. But not-so-secretly, it would seem. Totally fucking obviously, perhaps.

So, what I’ve learned from this morning’s Skype/FB/IM marathon: I’m happier in Hanoi; I’m down on Cambodia.

Not exactly late-breaking news. But the truth.

First-World Problems in the Second World

1. The landlords of the four-story house I rent have been doing repairs. For ten days straight.

They’re putting in AC and new light fixtures; they’re painting and putting a metal grating on the front fence that will in no way change how easy it would be to hop the fence.

As such, there have been men milling around my house for ten straight days. They arrive on a fleet of motorbikes at 8am and they sometimes don’t leave until 6pm. They aren’t particularly careful—they bash into Nick’s motorbike, they knock Jacob’s bedroom door off the hinges, they splatter paint and it drips down the gap in the stairs, on to the kitchen counter.

When I point this out to them, they clean it. With the sponge I use to wash dishes.

2. My landlord comes every day to supervise them. He wanders around shirtless, a cigarette dangling from between his fingers. I don’t like the way smoke smells in a house and by my Western estimations, as long as I’m paying him money, I should be able to ask him not to smoke in my house.

I don’t bother to point this out. Mostly because I only speak ten words of the language native to the country I’ve moved to.

3. On Friday the 13th, it is 95 degrees. The heat index puts the “feels like” temperature at 112. The AC in the classroom where I teach (for $24/hour, with no relevant qualifications) is feeble and wheezy. I feel nauseous.

4. I’m on the heaviest day of my period. The one box of “super” tampons I found were not in fact super, at least not by Western menstruation standards. This means that during the five minute break between classes, I have to run downstairs (in the heat) to use the one bathroom with toilet paper and soap.

While I’m on the pot, watching the mosquitoes twitch, I realize there isn’t a waste basket. I resolve to wrap my used tampon in a wad of toilet paper and carry it in my fist, to be deposited in the first waste basket I see.

5. My moto driver wants an extra dollar.

6. Searching for an address in the heat.

Since I never had vision insurance in the States, I rarely went to the eye doctor; when I did go, it’d always be over $300. As such, my toric contacts are now four years old. They’re filmy and make my eyes burn; I’ve been wearing my glasses instead and the prescription on those are even older.

I discover I can get a free eye exam at a reputable optometrist and I go, visions of clear vision dancing in my head.

7. During my free eye exam, I discover that toric lenses are not available in Vietnam. “Can I order them?” “No.” “Do you know where I can them?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Yes.”

I leave the clinic, squinting through my glasses.

8. I come home. The workmen have left and there’s a cleaner now. She’s thorough but zealous—she’s rearranged my bedroom, cut down the mosquito net and thrown away a rickety old table that I was too cheap to replace. I have to rehang the mosquito net before I can take my afternoon nap.

9. I cannot nap well.

10. I wake up and a big fucking storm has blown in. Everything is black and howling, and it feels like the world is pressing in against the windows. Finally it bursts and the thundering starts, a stampede of rain.

I notice water dripping down the stairs. I follow it up to the second floor, then the third floor. The stairs are slick and I slip on my way to the fourth floor. There I see the terrace has flooded and the water seeps in, underneath the door and into a filmy pool. I watch it drip drip all the way down to the first floor—into the kitchen, where the paint splotches are.

11. The rains dies down and I decide to drag myself out to a meeting. Because I am cranky and menstrual and obviously NOT WINNING at Vietnam today.

In the thirty minutes of torrential downpour, the alley has flooded. I wade through murky that laps against my shins, bits of garbage and food floating past. My flip-flop falls off and I have to reach in the water to retrieve it.

A morbid compulsion drives me to sniff my fingers. They do not smell nice.

12. Come home two hours later, legs splattered with bits of mud and belly full of homemade chocolate cake. Take a lukewarm shower and dry off. Apply my French moisturizer (it’s a toner not a cream, thank you), put the bottle back on the shiny new shelf the workmen installed that morning.

Notice that my contact lenses case is missing.

Search around for a bit, text the landlady, get a snarky text in broken English back.

13. Get on Google to figure out if one can get toric lenses in Bangkok, where I’ve already booked a trip for next month. Discover that one can. Also discover that it will be expensive, only be marginally less than in the States. The difference being, of course, that in Vietnam I’m actually earning enough to have disposable income for extravagant indulgences like medical care for non-life-threatening problems.

And flights to Thailand.

And workmen that lose contact lenses.

And landlords that repair your house.

Try to comfort myself with these thoughts as I climb under the mosquito net, the AC droning and the fan cutting the air into thick mold-smelling slices.

Kinda Like Dating: The Xe Om Saga

Number one most aggravating, expensive and demoralizing part of my move to Hanoi: transit. This city is big and confusing and filled with about 10 million motorbikes (no, really) and even without the heat it’d be pretty damn unwalkable. So you take xe oms, motorbikes—the same as you do in Phnom Penh except here you’ve got a helmet and the driver can read your destination’s address. So you’d think it’d be a better jam, but. It. Is. Goddamn. Expensive.

I guess most people don’t arrive in a city and immediately start looking for jobs and going on interviews. Most people don’t get three jobs in two weeks and have to venture out to these far-reaching, newly constructed parts of the city where the schools are located, twenty minutes away from center (not during rush hour)—venture out for evening classes and early morning classes, before they know their way around or where exactly they’re going, when the city still looks like miles and miles of exhaust-laced sameness.

So. My first few weeks involved a lot of getting lost, getting stranded and getting extremely fucking annoyed. Mostly at myself, since I couldn’t communicate, couldn’t haggle, didn’t know how to ask the driver to come back when the class was over. So I’d come out of a dark building at 9pm in a desolate part of town, look around and realize there was fucking no xe om to take me back to civilization. I’d walk for ten minutes and the xe om I’d finally find would take one look at my ill-fitting clothes and desperate, lost expression and know he could take for whatever he wanted. $4 back to center? I wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate. Well played, xe om, well played.

I tried to keep it in perspective—I was brand new here and didn’t know shit, so I kinda deserved to get ripped off. You have to earn not getting ripped off, is how I feel, and that takes time. So until then I was just gonna have to bleed money. Like $8-10 a day. And arrive to new jobs thirty minutes late because the xe om didn’t know his way and ran out of gas and yelled at me when I couldn’t tell him which direction to go.

Exactly.

(It took about a week to figure out that, as utterly terrifying as the idea of driving a motorbike is, it’s not at all viable to live in Hanoi and not have your own transport. So I found someone to give me lessons—not an easy feat considering I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle and had never balanced on two wheels. That’s a whole nuther story for another day, but for now I’ll just say that there’s bruises up and down my shins and I’m probably a good month away from being mobile.)

So the most immediate solution was to get a regular xe om. I was in the market, evaluating each ride for safety, courtesy and relative knowledge of the city. It was kind of like dating, except that when I found a potential candidate I didn’t know how to actually communicate the fact that he was a potential candidate. I would look at him longingly, try to pantomime a request before letting my arms dangle back to my sides and walking off, demoralized again. (Not so different from actual dating, really.)

I was spending a couple weeks in a guesthouse in the Old Quarter while I waited for a room in a house to open. The guy who ran the convenience shop across the alley (really just rack of water and cigarettes in his living room) was giving me overpriced, jerky rides to work and back, but I was stoked to just have a regular dude and not have worry about getting stranded. (Think of this as the Substandard Convenience Fuck—I did.) But one day he decided he wanted SEVEN FUCKING DOLLARS to take me work, so I ventured down the alley to find another xe om.

There was a cluster of them perched on their bikes on the corner. I sighed and did the usual approach, pointed to the address I’d written down on my falling-apart notebook. Negotiated a price, strapped on my helmet, hopped on. It wasn’t till we were halfway there that he started talking to me. In really good English.

He picked me up after class, took me back to the guesthouse. He gave me his number and told me to SMS him when I needed another ride. I did and man, he was pretty good. Safe driver, knew the city, open to negotiation. It was kinda perfect. Too perfect. Just like dating, I was hesitant, suspicious of Mr. Perfect Xe Om who could speak and read English, and was happy to tote my monolingual, newly arrived ass all over the city when he could probably make more hustling tourists in the Old Quarter. Don’t get attached, I told myself. This can’t last.

So when I moved into my new house last week and left the Old Quarter, I figured, you know, that was the end of a good thing. My sweet summer xe om fling. “Thanks for the rides,” I told him. “But I’m moving up to West Lake.”

“You need ride, you SMS me,” he told me.

“But isn’t that kinda far for you?”

He shook his head. “You SMS me,” he said again. It was more of a command than anything else.

Well, it’s been a week now and this fool is still showing up. He even texts me at night to ask when I need him the next day. It still isn’t cheap, but given the circumstance, it’s the best I could ask for.

I was already pretty stoked when he came to pick me last night. It was late and I was in my stupid work slacks that make me look pregnant and it had been a long day of classes and I was hungry and ready to go home. Like that.

I came out of the building and saw him sitting on his bike. He was nodding his head, and I heard a faint, distorted blare of music.

He waved and circled over. The sound became louder. And recognizable: “Hotel California.”

I laugh burst from my belly.

“You like?” he asked. He held up the thin cellphone from which the song was blasting. “I just buy.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “I love it.”

I got on and we headed back. It had just rained and the air the fresh, the road still pocked with puddles that reflected the lights. He played the song over and over—we must have listened to it four fucking times—and he sang along to his favorite lines (“pretty pretty boys / that she calls friends”). I laughed and felt the breeze on my face and thought, you know, I’ve found a good one.

Though really, he found me.

Earning It in the Old Quarter

It was the heat that did it. 115 with humidity and no AC at my friend’s house, where I’d been sleeping on that stained futon for two weeks. Belongings scattered in three bags, towel strung along the back of a shelf in an attempt to have it dry. It never did.

So when I came back from lunch at 2pm last Wednesday and the power was out, not even a fan to cut the thick air into more manageable, breathable pieces, I knew it was time to cut out. I mashed my toiletries and dirty laundry into my bags, dripping sweat and shaking, and staggered down the alley to find a taxi.

I was off to be a tourist.

Obligatory flooded street photo

I’ve never been a tourist in Hanoi. Not in the proper sense. Thanks to my friend, I’ve always had somewhere to stay, someone tote me around on the back of their motorbike and take me to the good street stalls and even order for me. It’s been phenomenal, especially considering what a full-on assault-on-the-senses this city is. I’ve been massively culture shocked all three times I’ve arrived here, in a way that no other city had culture-shocked me, and if I didn’t have a good old friend to show me around I’d probably not have left my hotel room.

But after two weeks I was still kind of helpless. I couldn’t drive a motorbike (more on that later), didn’t know my way around, couldn’t tell you the names of any of the amazing food I’d eaten. I had, however, gotten three jobs and was feeling not exactly flush but at least less crushingly broke. I was ready to venture out on my own.

“Ugh, you’re going to the Old Quarter?” another friend said. “You couldn’t pay me.”

It’s true that it’s loud. It’s true that the traffic is mad and the alleys are narrow and the air is choked thick with pollution. It’s true that it’s mashed with backpackers with dirty hair and Vang Vieng tanks, who walk too slow and talk too loud. It’s true that the vendors overcharge you.

But.

But it’s kinda nice to be a tourist. To walk around—actually walk!—and get a sense for that layout of things. To find food stalls on my own, to haggle in my cursory Vietnamese, to be forced to fend for myself. It’s harder and more expensive, but I feel more like it’s mine, like I’ve earned it.

I also like sitting in the AC in my underpants.

Fish soup, down the alley from me

But true to form, I’m the shits at being a tourist. It’s been a week in the Old Quarter and I haven’t gone to a museum, haven’t seen a cultural attraction, have been half-assed about taking photos. I have eaten a lot of street food and sat at a lot of cafes. I’ve gotten up at 6 to jog around the lake, past the women doing that Chinese red-fan dance and the teenagers eating ice-cream (yes, at 6am). I’ve read a book and watch a couple movies and written two first drafts.

So I’ve had a pretty good week.

“I’ll be ready to leave in another week,” I told my Old-Quarter-hating friend, “when it’s time to move into my new place. But for now,” I shrugged at the tourists and the vendors and the xeom drivers perched on the corners, ‘I’m okay with it.”

It’s Too Easy (Cheating in Hanoi)

At the altar,
old ash curled
like fingernails.
A funeral pours into the street.
Bouquets of lychee,
electrical wires
like black nests,
the way his old Russian motorbike
coughs down the alley—
it’s too easy
to write poetry
in this city
where nothing else is easy,
where the air is thick
and my eyes sting,
where fishermen rise from arsenic waters,
gleaming as buffalo
while I drink coffee.

See?
It feels like cheating,
stealing
images the city wrote
when it wasn’t even trying
(when all I ever do is try)—

when it was looking the way other,
when it was waiting for the light to change,

revving its engine or else
leaning a head
against a back:
arms wrapped
eyes closed

Writing poetry in its sleep

Evening In Front of Uncle Ho

Bubbles blowing and bats swooping. Children giggling. The squeak-squeak of those little shoes they put on toddlers.

It’s nighttime in front of the Mausoleum, summer in Hanoi. The last time I was here it was winter and the city had a strict bedtime—10pm and like a light switched off: wide streets vacant, narrow alleys thick with shadows that slunk from the sharp cast of headlights.

But it’s different now. Or I’m different now. The season has changed and the city is full, parks blooming and bursting with people. Kinda like dusk in Phnom Penh, the “Golden Hour” I always called it—sky all pink and breezy, everything made even more excruciatingly beautiful by the fact that it’d all pass so goddamn fast, like sand through your fingers (have you ever held sand through your fingers like that? I hadn’t till then).

The stadium lights beat down and the bats swoop behind.

I’d wanted a walk. I needed a walk. It had been my first real shit day in Hanoi, following what had been my first real great day in Hanoi. It was the xeoms that had done it—stranded and lost and giving myself heat stroke, showing the driver the wrong address, him screaming at me when I realized my mistake, my eyes welling up, men at the cafe staring placidly, legs crossed and coffee. He had me. He charged me $6. I paid it.

I never did find the school I had the interview at. I felt about as broken and lost as I am in this city, in my life right now. My friend took me out for dinner; I ate too much; he said, “Remember that Bukowski poem: ‘it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse… but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left.'”

Exactly. Another chopstick full of noodles please.

So I needed a walk, something to clear my mind. He lives on this little peninsula and if you follow it down, you go on an isthmus between two lakes. The couples sit on benches and the lights stream pass and the old men sleep on their motorbikes. Get to the end, there’s women doing line dancing; they’re dancing in pairs and then they line up and “Macarena” comes blaring on the speakers and they start to dance with no irony whatsoever. There’s a boy up front, away from everyone else—socks pulled high and shirt tucked into his shorts—and he’s dancing to his own rhythm, wild and unrestrained and tragic. I can tell before I see his face that he’s got Down Syndrome.

He dances alone.

I keep going, cross another park, another roaring street and I come to the wide open green in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They’ve got those big white stadium lights on and it washes everything in brightness, seems to make each blade of grass gleam. In the cement stretch in front of the building—block-shaped and austerely uplit in red—families are strolling, powerwalking, children chasing bubbles while a thousand hand-held fan whir.

There’s guards milling around, uniforms and little hats. It feels almost Italian the way the people are out. There’s a breeze and it feels like luxury across my arms.

I realize I haven’t seen a single prostitute during my stroll. At least a blatant one. I’ve got a head full of Phnom Penh and half my heart too, and all I keep thinking is—“Grass: you’d never see that in Phnom Penh”; “Look how nicely cobbled the pathway is”; “It’s after 9pm and normal people are out, families and kids.”

I like this, I think. This feels good.

I watch a mother blow bubbles for her toddler son; he squeals, waves his fat arms and chases them. A girl snuggles under the crook of her boyfriend’s arm. Two girls sit on the walkway between patches of grass, giggle in close towards each other. “Hello!” a boy exclaims at me. “Hello!” I exclaim back, just as jubilantly.

Had all this really been waiting? Really been going on—hidden under the cover of winter and of my own distance?

It had.

Just then the stadium lights start to snap shut—one, two, three—and a dimness is cast over the grass. It’s suddenly quiet, still, dark, backlit but the thousand motorbikes that snake around on the street beyond the grass. It feels further away than it is.

The guards start to blow their whistles. People gather their things, make their way towards the street.

I check my phone: 9:30.

I smile. So the city does still have a bedtime.

The Haze and the Lake and My Life in Three Bags

The haze hangs low over West Lake. Not big and billowy like fog, but flat like a pancake. Like the thin blanket I’ve been sleeping under, a futon on the floor of my friend’s living room. My life in three bags, wedged into the corner beside me, slowing spilling over onto the floor. This again.

It’s not so bad, really. The polluted mist, I mean. At least for now, it feels better than the suffocating heat of Phnom Penh, that felt like a hand over your mouth, or the way the too-strong sun stung my too-Irish skin.

My friend lives on a little peninsula along the lake. Down one of those winding alleys that remind me of the inside of an Italian town. Though I couldn’t really tell you why. It’s a mellow little enclave; there’s cafes along the water, chairs set up under umbrellas and the shopkeepers walk the coffee over to you, across the street on metal trays. You can sit there at dusk, watch the bats swoop through the mosquito-ridden sky, watch the lights click on, feel something resembling a breeze cut through that haze.

I’ve been in a fog since I got here, four days ago, 9pm in a taxi with a broken meter. I’d handed the driver the address, carefully printed with its strange slanting accents. He looked at it and nodded. He could read it and he knew roughly where it was. I wanted to cry.

The fog I’ve been in is not a big and billowy one, like home, the way the clouds will pour over the hills behind my brother’s house—how I’d watch it through the kitchen window and it’d look like a living thing. It’s been more like the haze that hangs over Hanoi, asthmatic and dense and twitching with mosquitoes. It’s a cheap metaphor, but the best I can offer right now.

I guess you could say I’m shell-shocked. It wasn’t so long a journey here—a six-hour bus to Saigon and a two-hour flight—and there’s no time difference, but I feel like I’ve traveled across the world. Been sleeping like a log, spending long hours online searching for jobs and sending CVs, drinking coffee that doesn’t seem to cut through the mental haze at all. Taking some walks, but mostly sitting still. Not writing, not really reading. Mostly just staring a FB feed.

I have no idea what to say about my time in Cambodia or why I knew I had to leave. I don’t think it’ll make sense for a long time, if ever.

My first morning in Hanoi, Angelo caught me on Skype and we chatted. He told me about his trip to Detroit while I looked at his Instagram photos of bombed-out buildings and roller tags and the inside of art studios, abandoned convenience stores and houses with a thousand haphazard numbers painted on the outside. Dead grass and sunsets and his beautiful girlfriend, in high tops and cut-offs, skin burning with youth.

“How’s Hanoi?”

“I dunno, I just got in last night.”

I told him it was hard, that I think the transition will be harder than I’d expected. But that ultimately, I’ll be happier.

“I mean, it’s sad. I left Phnom Penh under sad circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I wasn’t really ready to leave. I didn’t hate it, you know; there was still shit I loved.”

“Then why’d you go?”

A pause. “Self-preservation,” I answered without thinking. I considered it a moment; I looked out at my bags, my life, crammed into a corner. I nodded to myself. “I realized I had to get out. And I can’t totally tell you why.”

“Man,” he said.

We trailed off into silence.

El Mac: Saigon Street Art

So here’s something cool I came across in my internet wanderings last week: a video of American street artist El Mac‘s piece he threw up in Saigon, “Kosom by the Mekong”:

El Mac – Sai Gon, Viet Nam “Kosoom by the Mekong” from Viet Nam The World Tour on Vimeo.

Just, you know, when you start to think you’re doing something cool by travel blogging, there’s some good ole’ street artists to totally blow your shit out of water.

Aside from the images making me nostalgic for Southeast Asia, what’s so cool to me about this is the opportunity for exchange. They say all art is a conversation, right? And us writers prattle on about authentic experiences and living like a local, but street art really offers the opportunity for that in a way that writing necessarily can’t—you know, the good ole’ Tower of Babel.

El Mac isn’t the first dude to be doing this sort of stuff: I got a chance last summer to catch up with Gaia about his work in Seoul, and of course JR is out there giving everyone’s heart a boner with his work. And I guess part of what’s so exciting to me about it is the chance for dialogue it offers—as though the artists were saying: “Hey, I’m here in your country, and this is what I see and this is how I express it, in my culture. And I’m gonna leave it here, for you to see and have, and what do you think of all that?”

And the question may not be being asked to me, but I think it’s fucking awesome.

And I wonder if there’s a way us writers could do something close, even with the limitations of language—if we could find a way to have a similar exchange, in the earnest and uncomplicated way one will point to an object and say it their language, then point to you, and you’ll say it in yours, and you’ll both smile at the difference of it, the arbitrariness of it—neither one’s way right or wrong, but just different, another little glimpse into the vast diversity of human expression.

I’m open to suggestions.

Read more about El Mac’s work here.

Black Langur Stares on the Back Porch

I would have much rather he kept his eyes on the road.

It wasn’t a busy road—in fact, it was near deserted, a strip of pavement carved out of the thick jungle of Ke Bang National Park. But every time he scanned the tops of the trees, his head would turn and linger and the motorbike would inevitably veer off into the opposite lane or towards the precipitous drop on the other side of the guardrail.

But when he pointed and stopped the bike, I knew he’d spotted what he’d been searching for. And really, it was all for us—the tour. Ben pulled up behind him, and we all stopped, all the bikes. Ben waved his arm, “Cut the engines!” he hissed, then pointed to the top of the trees, where my motorbike driver was also pointing.

“Black Langur monkeys.” The branches rustled as a dark figure leapt. “I didn’t think we’d see them today—you guys are lucky.”

We stood on the side of the highway, and Ben told us about the monkeys: it was rare to spot them, not just because it was a warm afternoon and they usually liked to eat in the morning, when it was still cool. They were afraid of people—although afraid might not be the right word. Cautious? Wizened? They were heavily poached, hunted, and they’d learned to be weary of people—to disappear into the dense black of their world when humans appeared, like pale, hairless ghosts, I imagined, or else demons from their dreams, whatever monkeys dream.

But they weren’t afraid that day. Or maybe they didn’t see us. They sat amid the branches, obscured by the branches that seemed to waver under their weight, as they picked and chewed leaves. We passed a pair of binoculars; I glimpsed the white tufts of their ancient-looking faces, the way monkeys have always looked to me like little wrinkled old people, nothing else. I remember seeing their fingers move over the leaves, though I couldn’t have, really—I couldn’t have possibly seen anything that small.

There were four or so of them, and we stood on the side of the road by our silent motorbikes and watched them—dark figures amid the dark—without speaking. The roads in the park were littered with a twitch of white butterflies; I’d thought of what Alicia had said, in Laos, as some tourist had tried in vain to photograph a swarm of them:

“You know, it’s funny—people think butterflies are really sweet and pretty. But they eat garbage—they’re attracted to trash and shit—so when you see them, you know something’s rotting.”

I’d paused, smiled my sly smile. “So, basically, butterflies are my dating spirit animal.”

And we’d laughed, and I’d thought about that, tried to tell one of the kids on the tour, earlier that day as he’d circled in a swarm of them and tried to take a picture: “You know what I learned? That butterflies eat shit.” And he hadn’t seemed to have heard me, or he pretended not to, or he gave one of those non-committal “hmmm”s and remained focused on trying to document them, capture them, which he eventually announced he couldn’t do.

And the butterflies moved around us on the roadside now, but we didn’t pay them any mind; we were watching the dark monkeys, the Langurs with their white tufts. And it seemed, for a few fleeting moments, like they did actually see us, and more than that, were watching us. One sat perched near the top of the trees, facing us, while the others ate—like he was on guard, the watchman, and it would make sense if he was.

And it sounds crazy, but I swear I could feel their eyes—black eyes, small eyes, peering out at us from whatever weird, dark world they were from. I swear they saw us, really saw us, with a gaze that wasn’t pleading or desperate or tragic or even noble—just a long, heavy stare. Naked and quiet and insistent.

**

I sat on the back porch, the wood-rotting slant of it, with a steaming cup of coffee, a smoking American Spirit and 10 minutes to “power relax” before I had to leave for work. It was almost exactly one month later, and I was back home.

My phone dinged; it was a text from Emily, my sister-in-law. “Zaia has a question for Alicia: she’s wondering where the Academy of Sciences gets their animals.” Alicia works as a specimen preparator (aka: taxidermist) at the Academy of Sciences, and has become the resident answerer for all my niece’s animal-related questions.

I was pretty sure I knew; I remembered Alicia saying they were all born into captivity, or else were orphans—but in any case, they didn’t know how to be in the wild. But more than that, they didn’t know to be afraid of humans, hadn’t learned to be afraid. Or not afraid, but to keep their distance—that we lived in different worlds, separated by a skinny strip of pavement, and that to cross over was dangerous for either one of us.

And I thought suddenly of the Black Langur monkeys. Or, more precisely, I thought of their black figures and their stare, the way their stare felt on my skin. The big green leaves on the tree rattled in the yard, and I pictured, in some tangled wilderness, the Black Langur monkeys inside myself. I felt their silent, insistent stare.

“Not sure,” I texted back. “But we’re hanging tomorrow, so I’ll ask and get back to you.”

I chugged my coffee and stood up. It was time to go to work.

Yes, I did try to take a picture of the monkeys. You can't really see them, but I swear they're there, and that's a metaphor too.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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