Posts Tagged 'vietnam'



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.

Cambodia Is To Buffalo As Vietnam Is To Detroit: The World According to Angelo

Buffalo, cultural hotbed

Unexpected thing #1356 travel has afforded me: a kid I met on a dirt road in bumfuck Italy a year and a half ago has become one of my closest friends, and one of the people I keep in touch with the most.

Things I love about Angelo:

1. He’s New York as shit.

2. He keeps me in the loop. As per the previous post, I’m culturally out on a fucking island here in Cambodia, so I can listen to him prattle on about contemporary art and underground shows and for an hour I can pretend I’m not literally on the other side of the planet from all that.

3. Listening to all his first-year-out-of-college stresses and struggles puts my own shit in perspective.

4. I get him. I met Angelo as he was breathlessly bicycling away from what he called wildlife, what anyone else would call a herd of grazing sheep. Which I totally understood—being an uber-urban kid from a big-ass city, an expert in riding public transit, finding hole-in-the-hall restaurants and living insanely cheaply in insanely expensive places. But knowing fuck all about the rest of the world. That’s what I was, before I started traveling.

5. He never fucking sleeps. That the little green dot on Facebook is always lit, so I can call whenever.

As such, Angelo’s right up there with my parents and my sponsor when it comes to Skype-age. Take last Saturday afternoon: get a message from him to call anytime before 2am Eastern, cause that’s when he’s going out for the night.

Who goes out at 2am? my old-ass asks.

Twenty-two year old New Yorkers, that’s who.

So I call and he of course picks up, just as bright and chipper as always: “Yo yo yo! I’m maaaaad hungry; we’re about to go on a walk, get some dollar pizza.”

So Angelo takes me with him, the horns and hustle of Manhattan coming through my laptop, echoing around the dingy walls of my apartment, making it feel smaller, shabbier, more barren.

“How’s the weather out there?” I ask.

“Aw man, it’s been fucking beautiful,” he says. “I mean, I feel bad even telling you.”

I laugh. I start telling Angelo about what’s been going on with me since we last talked, which basically amounts to a recounting of my last post, but in a whinier tone.

“Man, I really just, you know,” he pauses. “I feel bad for you, yo. Like, I know you’re out there doing your thing, that you went for a reason and all that. And I’m all proud of you—I tell people about you all the time—but I just picture you out there, and, well, I feel bad.” I laugh again. “I mean, shit, I couldn’t do it.”

“Aw, sure you could,” I tell him. “That’s the first thing you learn—how much more adaptable you are than you think.”

“Yeah, well,” I can hear him dragging a cigarette, “maybe it’s just that I wouldn’t wanna do it.”

I sigh. “Yeah, well, that’s fair.”

I hear the clatter of a the pizza place; Angelo orders and it’s loud and then it’s quieter again. “Where are we?” I ask. “On your steps in front St Mark’s Market?”

“Nah, someone was in my spot, yo! I’m having to stand.”

I go on, start telling Angelo about my back-up plan, my ace-up-the-sleeve: going to Hanoi for a few months to bang out some high-paid English teaching. “Yo, yo, do that man,” he says between a mouthful of pizza crust.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Vietnam is like, cool. You’d get mad hipster points.”

I laugh. “I don’t get hipster points for Cambodia?”

“Nah. Obscurity points, but…” Pause, thoughtful chewing. “You know what it’s like? It’s like Vietnam is Detroit. And Cambodia is Buffalo.”

I almost spit out my coffee. “Wait, what?”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he answers and his voice gets more excited as he breaks it down. “It’s like, people in New York talk about Detroit. There’s shit going on there—art shit and music festivals. People go there. It’s mad hip right now. And people know about Vietnam. We talk about it; we eat pho and read Tao Lin and shit.”

A belly laugh shakes my body.

“But say someone moves to Buffalo. That’s like ‘what the fuck?’ That’s just like, ‘Why? Why would do that to yourself?'” I’m damn near hysterical with that. He laughs too. “It’s just like, you feel kinda bad for em.”

“And Cambodia is Buffalo?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“But, what if Cambodia starts getting cool?” I extend the analogy: “Like, what if people in New York start talking about Cambodia and eating prahok—”

“What’s that?”

“‘Fish cheese.’ This gross-ass fermented fish paste shit; it’s foul. But what if it becomes hella hip and trendy and I get to say I was into Cambodia before it was cool.”

We both laugh long and hard. “It’s a gamble, though, yo,” he finally says.

He’s right.

“Come on, let’s go back to your place,” I tell him. And he walks me back the four blocks to his apartment, New York City howling through my computer—just like I was there.

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.

Phong Nha Farmstay, F*ck Yeah

I could tell by the way he slid the business card over to me, by the utter seriousness in his eyes, that he wasn’t fucking around. “Hands down, without a doubt,” he stabbed the card with his index finger, “the best thing I did in Vietnam.”

I put the Phong Nha Farmstay card in my wallet. It stayed there for nearly 3 months. I knew I’d be headed back through Vietnam for my flight home and, now, I knew where I’d be stopping along the way.

Central Vietnam’s caves have been making a lot of buzz lately. A few months ago, National Geographic ran a feature on the newly discovered Song Doong/World’s Biggest Cave. And Thien Duong/Paradise Cave, which had previously been thought to be the world’s biggest cave, officially opened for tourism. Not that I’m the biggest cave person in the world—just that I’ve traveled enough to know that the best recommendations often come, not from guidebooks and tourists offices, but from other travelers.

And so it went with Phong Nha Farmstay. Sure, I could have ventured out to the area independently. Or I could have done a day trip to Paradise Cave and been sufficiently blown away by the other-worldly spectacle of it: stalactites dripping and stalagmites rising, looking like sea kelp, so that I didn’t know where in the earth I was, so that I looked up at the cathedral of limestone and exclaimed, “Holy shit, I didn’t know the earth could do this.”

I could have stared out of a bus window at the Ke Bang National Park that contains the cave, as well as some 300 others, and I could have seen American bomb craters or perhaps even spotted the rare langur monkeys that we saw rattling around in the trees.

But I wouldn’t have ridden down Victory Highway. I wouldn’t have gotten to learn the local history so well. I wouldn’t have watched a former VN medic squat down beside a girl’s motorbike-accident wound and apply crushed penicillin to dry it out and keep the insects away. And I wouldn’t have had a pool to swim in or killer food to eat either.

Phong Nha Farmstay opened in December 2010, in the same month as Paradise Cave. While the nearby Phong Nha Cave was the second largest internal tourism site in Vietnam last year, the area is still largely unknown to Westerners—children still wave when you pass by, women touch your curly hair curiously and giggle, and you don’t see a single “Good Morning Vietnam” shirt for sale. But with the biodiversity and political history of Ke Bang National Park, and the never-ending quest of travelers to find the “real” fill-in-the-country’s-name, the region unlikely to stay that way.

Which is what Phong Nha Farmstay is banking on. Its 7 private rooms and 1 dorm room were never full during my 3 night stay, though this too is unlikely to stay that way. The place is run by Australian expat Ben and his Vietnamese wife Bich, who grew up in the Cu Nam village where the farmstay is located; milling around are also their infant son; Ben’s daughter; Bich’s mother (the medic), father and brother; and a slew of easy-going staff. They set the tone for a professional yet homey environment—solidifying my view that, more than uniforms and fawning, the best thing you can do in the service industry is really, truly give a shit about your product and your customers.

I took their 1-day tour of Ke Bang National Park and Paradise Cave. We rode on the back of motorbikes, down Victory Highway, which is officially closed to foreigners (Ben’s wrangled some kind of deal, I didn’t ask what), which was built to transport goods during the war. Riding down the near deserted highway, I couldn’t see any of the rare mammals or the thousands of species of plants or birds that the park contains—all I could see was dense green, the cliffs and peaks of mountains, the white flutter of butterflies along the roadside.

We made several stops along the way at sites important to the Vietnam/American War. North of the DMZ line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the park, which was heavily bombed during the war. A museum is currently being built. We stopped at the memorial 8 Ladies Cave, as well as a somewhat-obscured vista of a downed helicopter.

The tour was led by Ben and his buddy Dave, a white dude with deep smile wrinkles, a camouflage vest and a permanent cigarette dangling from his lips—the kind of semi-grizzled expat guys that off-road motorbikes and cold beer were made for. They were knowledgeable and funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Along for the ride was also their underling Tom, a recent transplant from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, who had Iron Maiden board shorts and the greenest goddamn eyes I’ve ever seen.

Paradise Cave itself was a trip. It was designed by a private developer, and felt like a tasteful, eco-Disneyland. There was an automated turnstile and go-carts to transport the half-dozen tourists we saw. Unlike the nearby Phong Nha Cave, decked out in red, green and purple disco lights, Paradise Cave is lit with energy-efficient lighting. We wandered through the kilometer of deck open to the public, our voices the only ones echoing in the cavernous dark.

We then stopped by a mountain-stream river, where we stripped off our clothes and leaped from rocks and sunbathed and poked around the lagoons and sandy shores. We were lucky enough to spot some langur monkeys hopping around the trees on our way back to the farmstay, where we chilled and drank smoothies/beer.

And I have to agree with the random dude, whose name I forget, who handed me that business card all those months ago—Phong Nha Farmstay was the coolest thing I did in Vietnam. It gave me a fuller, more complete experience of the country—what it’s like outside of the cities and the tourist towns and even the beaches. I don’t think I’d be walking away, as I will in a few short days, with the same picture of Vietnam if I hadn’t gone there.

Sunset over the rice paddies

**

Travel Tips: Phong Nha Farmstay

Contact the farmstay, and they’ll make it easy to reach them—they’ll arrange a taxi from Dong Hoi, which costs about 370,000 dong. It’s best to come by plane or train; as there’s no official bus station that I could discern in Dong Hoi, it’ll be hard for the taxi to locate you otherwise. Dong Hoi is along the Reunification train line, and well-connected to other cities by bus.

The farmstay is a mid-range experience. Private rooms are $25-35 night, with air-con and hot water, and there’s a somewhat cramped 6-bed dorm room with beds for $8. Additional rooms are being built next door, at Bich’s brother’s house. Food is not cheap but delicious. It’s all at restaurant, not street food, prices, so you’ll be paying $2-6 per meal. It is, however, some of the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam.

You can also expect to meet awesome fellow travelers. Like these Icelandic dudes. Bad asses all the way.

The 1-day tour of Ke Bang is $45, $50 with a driver, which is recommended. This is steep for a lot of backpackers, but like the food, definitely worth it. Besides, are you really gonna come all the way out there and not see the park/cave?

One of the goals of the farmstay is to train local folks in Western tourism. There’s a sweet note on the front page of the menu explaining that some staff have more experience than others, and that if mistakes are made, please communicate them. So when one guy was brought Coco Pops instead of Muesli, the situation was handled gracefully. You can tell a lot about a business by how they handle their mistakes, and in this regard, Phong Nha Farmstay proves itself as quality.


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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