Posts Tagged 'vietnam'



Adventures in Vietnamese Bureaucracy: Dong Hoi Visa Shenanigans

I didn't take many pictures amid all this. So here's a boat.

Blond and sun-crisp, with a Marlon Brandon mouth and board shorts, Ben was the first Westerner I’d seen in Dong Hoi.

He lit a cigarette and sighed as his driver secured my backpack to the roof of the SUV. “Where are you from in the States?”

“California.”

“Ah, well,” he exhaled an agitated puff, “this is like the Alabama of Vietnam.”

I’d only spent 20 hours in Dong Hoi, so I wasn’t exactly in the position to agree or disagree. But I could verify that during those hours, I hadn’t seen any other foreigners. I hadn’t been able to communicate with anyone, hadn’t seen any English or any Western food, and I certainly hadn’t seen the travel agency I so desperately needed.

My first clue that I was officially off the beaten path was when the minivan from Dong Ha had more or less slid the door open and pushed me out onto the main strip of Dong Hoi, the tout smiling and yelling back at me, “Dong Hoi.”

I’d been lured to this part of the country by the Phong Nha Farmstay, an independent, family-run homestay that was also one of the few outfitters to run tours to the newly opened Paradise Cave.

But what I needed first was a travel agency—the kind I’d see all over the other places I’d been in the country, English-language signs advertising tourism services. I needed a visa extension: my 3-month, multiple-entry one was due to expire just 4 days before I fly out. While in Laos, I’d spent a good hour researching extensions, grace periods, whether I should just apply for a new visa or try to extend the one I have. I’d come up with zero in the way of solid, conclusive information. You could, it was rumored, overstay by 48 hours with no penalty. After that? Both Google and the Vietnamese Immigration website were wholly unhelpful. My plan was: get to Vietnam, find a travel agency in Dong Hoi, drop my passport there while I went to the farmstay for four days, pick up my passport when I returned to Dong Hoi for my bus to Hanoi. It wasn’t air-tight, but it was the best I could devise.

But after circling a dusky Dong Hoi a few times, I determined that there were no travel agencies. Because there were no Western tourists. I picked up a SIM card and called Ben, from the Phong Nha Farmstay.

“Listen,” Ben told me after I explained my situation, “I’ve got a guy in Dong Hoi.” He gave me the info of a man named Hung. After an ensuing half-dozen phone calls triangulating between Ben, Hung and myself, I ended up at Hung’s office the next morning, 2km down the main highway, a small room crammed with computers and tourism posters—in Vietnamese.

“Why didn’t you just get another visa?” Hung drilled me.

“Because I didn’t know I needed to.”

“Why did you wait so long to apply for an extension?”

“Because I couldn’t find any information on whether I had to extend it or not.”

Hung sighed. “This will be a problem.” He lectured me on much easier it would have been to just get a new visa while I was in Laos. I nodded, not bothering to explain the obscurity of Vietnamese bureaucracy.

He made a phone call; I sipped a glass on tea. He wheeled back over to me, giving a grave-faced and round-about explanation for why I couldn’t apply for a normal extension, why I had to have a rush, one-day extension. Which cost $100.

At which point Ben called me. “How’s it going with the visa there?”

I explained the situation. He sighed. “Let me talk to Hung.” The phone passed back and forth a few times. “Okay, listen,” Ben told me, “what Hung’s telling me is that you can’t leave your passport in Dong Hoi, because if the extension gets denied, we could possibly get fined for having someone illegal at the farmstay.” I chuckled at the idea of myself being illegal. “So it looks like you’ve got to do the rush, sorry bout that.”

After the initial wave of nausea, I succumbed to the idea that I’d have to part with $100. Live and learn—and blog about it so that other poor saps can learn too. Hung told me he’d call when it was done, around 3 or 4 o’clock.

I commenced to wander around the sweltering town of Dong Hoi, the faded colonial streets, the floating restaurants and wooden fishing boats, waving at the boys on bicycles that called out “hello” at me. I’d retreated to the lobby of my hotel—where I’d been the only guest—when Hung called. “There’s a problem with your visa. You didn’t tell me you have a business visa.”

I let out a laugh. “Well, I didn’t know I had one. I applied for a tourist visa.”

“The Immigration office says they need a health check and a letter from your employer to extend your visa.”

“But I don’t have an employer. I don’t actually work in Vietnam. It’s a mistake.”

“Then you’ll have to go to Hanoi. Immigration here can’t do it.”

That was about the time Ben showed up, an SUV packed with family and supplies he’d picked up in Hue. “Well shit,” he said, “let’s drive over to Hung’s.”

There aren’t hardly any Westerners in this province, Ben explained, so they aren’t used to dealing with tourists. The Phong Nha Cave might be the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that was only for Vietnamese. Westerners are rare, and everything having to do with Westerners exceedingly difficult.

On the sidewalk in front of Hung’s office, Hung shook his head and handed my money back to me. We stood around and ate ice-cream from the corner store, brain-storming.

“I mean, fuck,” Ben said, “you could just overstay.”

His Vietnamese wife Vik shook her head. “No. Better to do it the legal way.”

We discussed options. I could take a bus to Hanoi that night, and get it sorted out there. I could take a bus to Hue, hoping I could sort it out there, then take a bus back to the farmstay. Or I could say fuck it.

“I mean, what’s the worst that’ll happen?” I asked. “Will they arrest me or detain me?”

“No, no. I think officially, they charge you $25 a day. But a mate of mine overstayed and they just waved him through. Worst, I say, is they put something in your passport saying you can’t come back for three years.”

I shrugged. “I can live with that.”

I had something less than a chuckle when I imagined myself actually being an illegal in Vietnam. But after all the day’s shenanigans, I really could live with it..

Born Into This: Inheriting War in SE Asia

It was really not the time to be thinking of Charles Bukowski.

I stood staring at a display of UXO casings at a Phonsavan tour company. I was thinking of the documentary I’d seen the night before (see previous post), which followed a group of impoverished Lao children as they harvested UXOs for scrap metal.

Something panged in me, and I thought of the poem.

It was the same something I’d felt at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I stood before pictures of children born with mutations from Agent Orange—small and crippled and bubble-skinned—children who’d been born after the war, hadn’t lived through the war, but who had it in them, possessed it in their DNA. If the images hadn’t been so brutal, I’d thought, they’d have been a metaphor for the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

I’d been surprised in Vietnam, to discover how much of the war I’d carried in me, without knowing it. I hadn’t realized how much a part of American culture the Vietnam War is—in our books, our films, our movies and our freeway exits, cardboard signs and thousand-yard stares. I’d remembered, suddenly, visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC as a teenager—muggy-skied and sweating, watching the grown-ups trace hands along the reflective stone, place flowers and cry—not understanding it. I’d turned; my mom had been one of them, the name of her cousin under her fingers.

And I’d suddenly remembered the poem.

It’s more muddled in Cambodia and Laos, places were the American activity was “secret”—it’s less a part of your consciousness, more a part of something else that you can’t quite name.

“People from my province,” the Cambodian boy looked sheepish as he told me, “they still hate Americans. For the bombings.”

I nodded one, two, three times. “And you know what? America bombed Cambodia in secret. And most Americans still don’t know about those bombings.”

We sat beside each other waiting for our numbers to be called at the cell phone shop. Neither of us had been alive during the 70s.

I’d wondered, as I looked at bomb ponds beside pre-Angkorian temples in Cambodia, how one goes about being American in all this. “‘I wasn’t born yet,'” I wrote, “doesn’t seem good enough.”

And looking at the pile of UXOs in Phonsavan, I had the same thought rise. Because the kids out there harvesting these bombs, they weren’t born yet either. Neither of us asked for this, did this, witnessed this, lived through this. We were born into this, are left to figure out what to do with this, dig through the dirt of this.

And that’s when I thought of the poem again.

I’ve been composing some kind of essay in the back of my head about all this. I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it yet, or if there is anything to say about it. But in the meantime, I’m thinking of a poem that seems fitting. And, in the light of the recent string of natural and political disasters, doesn’t seem so dramatic or fanciful as it once did. It doesn’t feel so hopeless either—it just feels accurate.

A Tale of Two Tours: Part II, Khmer Village

White girl comes to town. Crowd gathers.

Duc had a prison-style dragon tattoo and a speech impediment, and he gave me the best goddamn tour I went on in Vietnam.

I kept seeing him around town. My first morning, groggy-eyed drinking coffee at a corner cafe, I saw him sitting at a neighboring table. He was selling his tour services to another sola Westerner, and it appeared to be working. He was younger than the other motorbike drivers, wearing a sleeveless shirt, something beat-up, kind of tough about him. He’s working it, I’d thought.

He looked over at me and we exchanged brief nods.

I saw him again that afternoon atop Sam Mountain, two skimpily clad female backpackers hopping off the back of his motorbike. Yup, I thought. Woooorkin it.

He asked me about my tattoos, peeled his shirt back and showed me a jagged dragon across his chest. The lines of it were half-blown out.

“You tattoo? You use neddle?” he asked me. I shook my head, “No way, a gun, man!”

He grinned a soggy-toothed grin. “Me, no gun.” I could tell, though I didn’t say it.

And again outside my hotel that night. He talked up his tour services, an English at once clear and garbled, that snagged and stuttered on certain words. I’d already booked a Delta tour with my hotel; I politely refused.

The next day’s tour was my third one in Vietnam with barely-to-no English spoken. We motored the Delta’s brown waters, through a “village” of tattered boats—faded wood, clutters of laungry, children flying kites from somewhere on the decks—and to a Cham ethnic minority village on dryland. It was fascinating, beautiful, but I had no context for it, no way to learn, to understand what I was seeing. I wanted to know more, felt it building up in me, bottling up, nowhere to go—an asphyxiation of unasked questions.

I was over it. Over the seeing-and-not-knowing tours.

Which I guess is how Duc sold himself to me. I sat later drinking coffee on a plastic stool in the shade. He pedaled his motorbike up, said hello. He asked how my tour had gone. I told him not great.

“You go with someone who speak English, it better.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that.”

He must have sized me up pretty well. He told me about a Khmer village about 15km away, very remote and isolated, “no one else take you there.” He kept talking and talking, and I thought, It’d be nice to see something with someone who can explain it. I also thought, If his tour guide skills are anything like his sales skills, it’ll be pretty good. I’d already spent too much that day, but said fuck it.

“Okay, okay,” I smiled. Then added, “You’re a good salesman.”

We drove through the Delta, its murky beauty: corrugated tin shacks perched on bamboo stilts like skinny legs, a Dali painting; ladders to reedy docks, leading precipitously down the muddy banks, into the muddy water (love, love, love that dirty water). My brain was on fire with images; I kept trying to scribble them down. Writing poetry on the back of a motorbike, it turns out, is very hard.

Duc kept pulling over along the way, to show me things, rice and seeds, things laid out on tarps to dry in the sun. He didn’t have to do that. He explained how the rice patties were harvested, how the people worked long hours, “very hard work.” He didn’t have to do that either.

Every now and then a vagrant stutter would lurk through his speech. But he’d work through it—drag his speech and himself through the snare of it—and something about it struck me as sad and somehow tender, like a bird with a broken wing.

I pretended not to notice.

We made a few other stops, finally pulled off and bumped slowly down a dirt road. The landscape changed—more cows, bone white and skinny-ribbed, flowering trees I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The houses were suddenly different too—thatching for walls as well as roofs, so the structures looked furry, like animals.

We crawled out of a cloud of dust as the bike came to a stop.

We begin to walk the town’s road slowly. He explained: a town of about 400, ethnically Khmer. There were a few towns like that along this strip of the Delta, a ribbon of land that had once been part of Cambodia. They stayed pretty isolated, stayed to themselves; residents rarely left. So traditional ways, instead of blurring with those of the Vietnamese, stayed pretty intact. And I could feel it, could feel the immediate difference.

Curious brown faces began to appear. “Hello!” one of them shouted, then hid behind the back of another. “My name is—” then a chorus of giggling. I answered back hello, and they laughed more. We went on like that, as I kept walking.

Every face I passed seemed to smile. I was an outsider, an oddity, but they seemed pleased by me. I passed a baby in a hammock, being rocked by a rope that was tied to it, a mother tugging, tugging. She smiled too.

The crowd of children grew, big grins on small faces. Most were barefoot, their clothes thin and worn. They held their hands to their mouths, the girls chewed their hair, they smiled and smiled.

We passed a woman making these omelet/crepe things I’d had before, filled with sprouts and meat. I was hungry. I motioned for one and sat down.

This is when the real delight began to grow. And the crowd.

I’ve heard other travelers’ tales like these: being surrounded in some small village somewhere, stared at. But I’d never had to happen to me. I kept stopping eating, looking around—an entire circle of faces, just watching, watching, and smiling too.

I laughed—what else could I do? I searched for Duc’s face, hidden behind the crowd; his was smiling too.

A very small, very hunched and wrinkled old woman, tapped my shoulder. She handed me a short tin cup filled with water, and I thought I might cry. They were all so welcoming, so sincere; the children giggled and the adults watched and they all kept smiling. It struck me as about the sweetest thing I’d ever experienced.

Duc and I began to walk slowly back towards the motorbike, the village’s kids trailing behind us—a shadow of children. I turned around and waved. “Good-bye.” And a chorus of “good-byes” erupted and a flurry of waves, and we drove off, away: a precious little place I’d never be again.

And it struck me, there, on the back of that bike, that Ba Chuc must have been a lot like that town before the Khmer Rouge came. Only bigger.

We cruised back into town. I hopped off in front of my hotel, handed Duc $10 instead of the $9 we’d agreed on.

“Oh, you tip me? You happy?”

“Yes. I’m very, very happy.”

A Tale of Two Tours: Part 1, Ba Chuc

We were racing the sun. It was begining to glow orange, cut into pieces by the great green palm leaves. The Mekong Delta—the landscape of every Vietnam War movie I’d ever seen, where boat engines sounded like the echoes of helicopter blades.

We were trying to get to Ba Chuc before the sun went down. It was the site of a Khmer Rouge massacre; a pagoda with the bones of the deceased had been constructed. I’d planned on visiting it the next day, but when Sam Mountain turned out to be a bust—cages full of endangered birds for sale, and small boys peeing between make-shift altars—I’d decided to make a run for it.

We pulled into a dirt lot with the sun low, barely above the squat structures—corrugated tin walls and thatched roofs. The motorbike driver didn’t speak English; he pointed at the sign on a small, concrete building. “Ba Chuc.” I handed him my helmet, and he leaned back to wait.

Inside was empty, a lonely government building—fading paint and dusty floors. The walls were lined with photos depicting the massacre. Along this stretch of border, there were several Khmer villages; it had, at one time, been part of the Khmer kingdom. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge had come into the town of nearly 4,000; only one person survived the massacre.

I’d read this all in my guidebook. Here, all the signs were in Vietnamese. The brutal black-and-white images didn’t need translation. I walked slowly, alone with the freeze-frame horror.

A barefoot woman entered the room. She was withered and hunched. She tugged at my sleeve, pointed to the picture of a girl’s body impaled through the vagina. She made a thrusting motion, her eyes desperate. She motioned around.

She kept pointing, I kept nodding—what else do you do? She held incense out towards me, made a motion for bowing. I didn’t want to buy any incense. Not so much that I didn’t want to buy it, but that I didn’t want to burn it, to bow—to mime the motions of someone else’s religion, someone else’s sanctity, someone else’s tragedy. Not mine, not mine. (I hadn’t wanted to go to my uncle’s funeral as a little girl, and it was the same feeling—an old feeling, buried feeling, that I’d forgotten—something in me saying, “No, no, no.”)

I walked over to the pagoda. It was in a grassy lot, mostly deserted. A large tree grew next to it. It was pretty, rural, littered with trash. Two teenagers sat holding hands. Three small, dirty boys played on the steps leading up to it. They leapt up, walked over to me, palms open. I shook my head (no, no).

They followed me as I walked in a slow circle around the pagoda. Behind glass, skulls had been arranged according to age: 0-2, 17-25… It didn’t seem real.

I circled around once, twice. I didn’t feel anything I thought I should be feeling (“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.”) I didn’t feel anything, really, but numbness, and a “no.”

I walked back down the few steps, back towards the motorbike, the driver, another distance to be traveled in silence. A rock hit the groumnd beside my sneakers. I looked back, and the boys giggled. Had they meant to hit me? Was it malicious, were they playing, who was I, what was I doing there?

I walked back to the motorbike through the dirt-lot dusk, feeling nothing but “no.”

Saturday Night Fevered

Long stalks of flowers and twisted plumes of incense burning. Nodding, bowing, chanting with their eyes closed. Trays of food—peeled fruit, shrink-wrapped cookie packages, an entire plucked chicken—held atop people’s heads as they murmur. Candles and coconuts, red glowing altars (to what, to what?).

Children and hunched-up old people, a constant bumping, bustling, brushing against—the Asian conception of personal space, or lack thereof, exemplified. Announcements on a loudspeaker (what, what?).

Smoking a cigarette while he prays. Sweeping rubbish out from under the feet of the worshippers—playing cards with footprints on the floor.

Photocopied money in buckets being carried, to be burned—tossed into a pit outside that shoots scraps of burnt paper all over, raining ash in the night wind. Smoke rising (to where, to where?). Calling to children—“Em oi! Em oi!” Some kind of urgency, some kind of plead—nothing Christian about this piety. Nothing solemn; everything sacred.

Security guard siddles up to me, glances at the furious scribbling in my notebook (for what, for what?).

A Buddha-looking diety looking down on it all—a halo of neon, flashing in technicolor.

——–

This was perhaps one of the biggest What The Fuck moments of my travels. I had no idea where I was, what was going on, what any of it was for—just that I was suddenly immersed in it, plunged into a cloud of incense smoke and chanting and riotous fervor. These were the notes I made in the middle of the madness.

The motorbike driver didn’t speak any English. We were coming back from another site outside of Chau Doc, a town along the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta. The roads became cluttered, lined with food stalls and carts and bodies, bodies. They filled like a clogged pipe until they choked and he had to pedal the bike through the crowd.

He stopped in front of a temple adorned with blinking Christmas lights. He pointed. I went in.

It was a funny thing, to be wrapped up in the zeal and fervor of it all without having the slightest clue what any of it was—an entirely sensory experience, a ritual out of context, a girl out of context, cultured-shocked.

When I got back to the hotel, I asked the English-speaking desk clerk, “I just went to some temple, up the road and—”

“You saw thousands of people,” she finished me, nodding.

“Yeah! What was that?”

She told me that they’re city-folk; they come to Lady Temple after the new year to ask for good luck. On weekends in February, March, even up through April, the otherwise sleepy town of Chau Doc swells with these Vietnamese travelers.

“Pilgrims, pilgrims,” the other clerk told me the next day. He’s younger than the girl, I thought, but he only seems it—he later told me that he’s almost 40. I wondered where the years went, behind his boyish smile.

“Other times, not so many people in Chau Doc. It very good for the business.” He looked out the glass lobby windows onto the town’s main market, overflowing into the street with tourists—not so many of them Western.

Snapped a couple of jostled photos before I saw the "No Camera" signs...

Expensive, Bad and Popular: The Mystery of Highlands Coffee

It was gonna be bad. And not just bad—cheesy, inauthentic and fuck-all expensive. And yet I felt that sneaky smile, that oh-God-I-hope-no-one-sees-me sensation.

I let myself get sucked into the air-conditioned arms of Highlands Coffee.

It’s the Starbucks of Saigon, and morbid curiousity led me to do it—the same cringing magnetism that inspired me to watch Eat, Pray, Love on the airplane (which I incidentally thought was more about codependency than travel). But it’s not just uniformed workers serving bland psuedo-Italian espresso drinks and pre-packaged sandwiches that makes it lame. It’s the utterly, unabashedly Western approach to coffee, and the inherent riddle of it: why does a country that already has its own distinct coffee culture need a Starbucks rip off?

Fancy coffee: it’s the international sign of gentrification. No, no—it’s not just an Oakland thing, or a Brooklyn thing. We in the States may have moved beyond Starbucks to point that we can, oh say, smell the different between Blue Bottle and Four Barrel (I’m not proud), but I think the basic phenomenon is inherently the same.

Case in point: I was in a one-day writing workshop with a girl who was working on a piece about the burgeoning coffee scene in Seoul—hip young kids hanging out for hours, sucking down the sweet stuff—and how it signified a shift towards all things Western.

Fair enough. But why would Vietnam need something like Highlands? Why would anyone forgo a 50 cent ice-cube-brimming glass of powerful black and sweetened condensed milk, drank sitting on a plastic stool under a sun umbrella on the sidewalk—for a sterilized, $2 cup-and-saucer of shitty espresso?

Well, for one, I wanted to use their Wifi and make use of their Western bathroom to wash my face and take out my contacts before an overnight bus. But the rest of the folks, I dunno.

As one might suspect, the majority of customers filling the two-story, corner-office location were Westerns. They didn’t appear to be tourists so much as expats—discussing business deals on their iPhones, explaining their credentials to suited men who sat nodding thoughtfully, glancing at papers and sipping their cups. They filled the cushy, comfy chairs, and their chatter filtered softly beneath the piped-in soundtrack of easy-listening versions of “Seven Nation Army” and Mariah Carey Christmas carols (yes, it’s almost March).

The longer I sat, though, the more the perhaps true draw of Highlands revealed itself to me. A well-dressed Vietnamese woman ate a piece of chocolate mousse cake while her son pretended to do homework. She looked over at him every now and then, and corrected him snappily—mispronouncing the English words he was studying.

A group of women sat on a wrap-around maroon sofa. Their voices were low, speaking in an accented English. I eavesdropped: they were a Bible study. Several members were from Manila, the rest from a scattering of Asian countries. English was, of course, the common denominator language to discuss their newly embraced religion.

And it struck me that both groups were, in their own ways, trying to be Western, adopting the language, religion, dress—and coffee. Was that the answer to Highlands success, or its mere existence? That it catered to people striving, striving? And that it didn’t even matter if the coffee was good (it wasn’t), or that I cost more than my breakfast and lunch combined?

Was that the great global metaphor hidden inside an expensive cup of coffee—the symbol of it? Was it just a different version of me waiting in line at the farmer’s market for 20 minutes to get my special blend of $10 beans?

Well, an hour of free Wifi and one cup of crappy espresso certainly couldn’t answer all that. But it did serve to quell the curiousity—and convince me to stick to the street stalls.

Saigon’s Secret Cities

Zero points for subtlety

It seemed like LA to me: glitzy buildings, endless traffic, neon lights reflecting off the hoods of gleaming cars. After two weeks in Vietnam, Saigon’s wide roads and rows of Western shops, its construction cranes turning this way, that way, like slow skeletal animals—it all seemed terribly wealthy to me.

And even more than Hanoi, there seemed to be no break in Saigon, nowhere to rest or even catch your breath from the heat and exhaust and honking, the billboards and the building, always building—more, higher, newer: an unrelenting city, like hot breath on the back of your neck.

But if you looked, if someone showed you, you could find them—passageways, skinny portals to other places, other cities, secret cities just behind the surface.

You don’t notice them at first—or you think they’re dead-end alleys, nothing gaps between buildings—no wider than a doorway, and you step through them, into them, into another world: alley streets that wind inside city blocks, where people sit in doorways and women crouch over grills of smoking meat and children run and laundry hangs and TVs flash beside flashing altars and telephone wires stretch in impossible tangles, like dreadlocks—in short, where everyday life is lived.

It’s cool and quiet inside—the buildings are high and the alley streets narrow. You pass a succession of doorways, more glimpses into the lives of the people inside, a flood of images: families huddled on the floor around a big cooker, eating rice; chickens clucking around; old men napping in hammocks; women lighting incense and raising it and waving it and tucking it in a crevice to smolder and smoke.

It feels like a Moroccan medina, those deep parts when you wander far enough—little shops set up in the front rooms of people’s homes, the random internet cafe, children running everywhere, squealing and toddling off into doorways. Only the smell is of fish instead of spices, and it’s motorbikes instead of donkeys you have to look out for.

But it’s the same sense of feeling strangely at home, even though it’s so far from your own home, anything you know of home. There’s something incredibly comforting about the living of everyday life. For those of us that have treaded onto the dark side—maybe for all of us—there’s something really precious about the doing of everyday tasks, a simple joy in being a part of the world, a simple part of it all—even if only as a passing shadow on the wall, a white girl snapping photos and peering in crevices and smiling and waving when the children exclaim “Hello! Hello!” in an English they barely know.

You wander and rove, twist and turn, and then suddenly you’re back out on the surface, the wide swarming streets, an assault of heat and honking. It feels addicitive—you want more, you want to go back, go back under. You find another small portal and dive into the cool dark shadows.

It starts to feel like water, like bobbing up and down, in and under the surface, submerging and coming up for air—only you’re not sure which is the breathing and which is holding, cheeks full and a quiet burn rising through the chest.

You move in a strange space through caverns, observing the private lives of organisms you feel you’re somehow distantly related to; you move through a still, dark world terribly foreign but also somehow familiar, somehow like home—at home, in the secret cities of Saigon.

Sylvio, Character Study

Too shy to take a picture of Sylvio. So here's some sunlight coming through the umbrella thatching. Let's pretend it's a metaphor.

Grizzlied OG with wiry sun-blasted hair, old-man eyebrows that look like a million little spider legs—walks around shirtless, smoking. Not a warm and fuzzy type at all. A tough old dude who smiles sometimes with his eyes, laughs sometimes with his chest (more of a grunt, really, accompanied by a low shake and a choir of smoke).

“The only problem is, what am I gonna do when I finish building?” Shrugs. “Eh, I’ll probably just make furniture. You can always make furniture.” An indeterminate accent—mentions being a kid in Canada, but it’s not that; there’s a twinge of something else. Speaks Vietnamese with the workers, seems to joke with them—they smile—but the tone is flat, and the face rarely smiling.

He shovels dirt in the afternoon, asks, “Is your Wifi working?” “Did you ever get your coconut?” Yes, yes. Disappears during the day to a place behind the buildings and shrubs and palms, where I imagine him weaving, hunched over shirtless in his baggy cloth pants—weaving more bamboo roofs and walls and beach umbrellas; carving and crafting wood into chairs and tables, shining the dullness until it glows.

Weaving, weaving, a neverending project—his own Buddhist sand garden. And you wonder what for. What is he building away from, or towards? The framed photos that hang over the doorway to the kitchen? Him with an 80s mane, tuxedo arms embracing a woman in layers of poofy sequins? The dim pictures of a little girl?—face obscured, leaning over sand, or in a park, maybe, leaves creating shadows that even in the still-frame seem to crawl like insects. Where are they?

I don’t ask. He doesn’t really create an atmosphere of asking. “How long have you been here?” I asked on the first night. “Just since last night,” he teased flatly, the hint of a twinkle in his eye that reminded me of my dad, only a little dimmer. “We knew you were coming, so we built it up.”

“Oh, well, you shouldn’t have.”

“Ah, no,” ashes his cigarette, clears his throat. “Nine and a half years, we’ve been here.” And looks around at the roof, the table, the trees and paths now consumed by night—looks around and down and doesn’t say anything more.

So he answers, and he certainly isn’t rude, but it doesn’t encourage any more asking. A tough old dude, a building dude, a man of that generation—the world covered with them, from every country it seems—as though there were something in that generation. Something they’ve seen, or that’s seen them, and they seem to withdraw very far inside, into their man caves of building and sculpting and staring off and thinking. Of laughing with their chests and smiling with their eyes, and leaving you never quite sure when they’re messing with you or when they’re serious or if you’re bothering them or bugging them—them, them, under all those layers of sun-beated skin.

Take Me To The Jungle, And Don’t Ever Take Me Back

Okay, so outdated pop culture references aside, hear me and hear me well: Jungle Beach is the stuff of backpacker folklore.

A rustic, simple homestay: a cluster of bamboo cabanas on a sandy lot, shaded by the whispering palms of trees; hammocks and hand-made lounge chairs; a communal dining room where guests gather twice a day for meals; thatched sun umbrellas stuck into the sand of a postcard beach.

Sometimes a place feels so special that you don’t really want to write about—as though writing about it would sully it, or giving it words—trying to give it words—would cheapen it, lessen it, and you want to keep it a private, precious thing.

I arrived at Jungle Beach a little heart-heavy (see previous post), a bit of melancholy sprung up, as though something tapped into a murmuring, gargling reserve of oil beneath the surface of me and wasn’t shooting out like a geyser, but rather seeping through, leaking out into the sunlight.

In any case, I crawled off the overnight bus a stop early, 40km outside Nha Trang—5:30 am on a dusty strip of highway that consituted the town Doc Let. I took a motorbike the next 20-some km, sleep-blurred and thirty-mouthed, to Jungle Beach. I arrived, and I didn’t ever want to leave.

It wasn’t the kind of place that immediately bowls you over. “This is nice,” I thought, as I curled up under a thin blanket, inside a soft blue mosquito net. But the place grew on me—or I grew into it.

Hours and days passed in some sort of other time zone. Wake up with the sun. Jog on the beach or do yoga on a mat in the shade. Eat breakfast. Do some writing, some reading. Lay on the beach. One of the workers comes out and says it’s lunchtime. Rise off my feet, sit at the communal table, pass bowls of meat and veggies and rice and sweet chili sauce. Have another coffee. Go back to the beach. Not even read, really, just lay there—lay there thinking, or not thinking, just watching the waves and feeling my own kind of waves inside, welling up, rising and receeding, as though I were standing on the banks of a monumental sadness, whose bounds I didn’t know, just the pull of its gravity. Cry sometimes, about nothing in particular.

Three pm, and someone comes out with a little plastic plate of fruit, pineapple or pomello or watermelon. Eat it with a toothpick, get a coconut, drink it and scrape it clean with a spoon. Go wade in the water, hopping waves or letting them pummel me, or floating on my back and watching the great white clouds walk across the sky. Shower, check my email, write. Gather for dinner and spend hours afterwards chatting with the other travelers—mostly couples, mostly German for some reason, but really cool people, different ages but all open and friendly. Feel like it’s midnight when it’s only 9, say good night and curl up under a thin blanket, inside a soft blue mosquito net. Repeat as necessary.

The place was built by a dude named Sylvio, who walks around shirtless and smoking, a tough old guy (see character study in upcoming post). He bought the land nearly 10 years ago, and built the place slowly, each cabana by hand, and it’s become the stuff of backpacker folklore.

One of the most impressive parts of Jungle Beach is the staff. The staff to guest ratio was almost 1:1, a friendly, laid-back Vietnamese staff that didn’t pander to the guests and fawn over them, but was attentive—in short, that actually seemed to really care that we had a good time. Ten years of working in the service industry, and I’ve decided that that’s all people really want—to feel taken care of, to feel like you actually give a shit. It’s a rare thing, and it doesn’t necessarily come with heafy price tags and swanky surroundings. It comes, to be completely and utterly trite, from the heart.

I spent four days and three nights doing virtually nothing at Jungle Beach. And as my depature neared, I found myself desperately not wanting to leave. I discovered, without having known it, that I really needed that time—to decompress, to clear out some space, to get ready for the project I’m about to embark on. And yet I didn’t feel rejuvenated, in a sense; I felt simply like I didn’t want to leave.

But what would another day have done? What would another week or year done? Will I ever actually work through all this whatever-it-is I carry in me? Will I ever be done? No, no, it was time to go.

But I can’t ever remember feeling so sad to leave a place. I looked around—it all seemed so precious. I actually almost cried. What the hell is all this? Am I going crazy? Am I becoming soft in my old age?

I got in the taxi and we bumped off, leaving the buildings and the thatched roofs and the gate and the barking dogs in a billow of dust behind us.

Little Artist Girl, Hoi An

The best cup of coffee—or rather, glass of coffee, tinkling with ice cubes and a teeny spoon for stirring—I had in Hoi An wasn’t at one of the wicker-chair, wifi-ready terrace cafes with an English menu. Sure, those were nice too: to sit and look out on the lantern-lined pedestrian streets and tailor shops and footbridges and the grey strip of water on which paper-mache Tet floats and old wooden boats nodded “yes, yes.”

But those were more of the ambiance. The best actual coffee I had was at a plastic-chair, sooty-pavement stall near where locals loaded their motorbikes onto a dingy barge and set sail, to somewhere off into the reedy horizon.

I sat sighing and stirring and soaking in what felt like a private nook amidst the “charmingly touristy” bustle of the city (it really is quite lovely, in spite, or because of, all the tourism). I observed the goings-on, and then I noticed her: a little artist girl, studiously perched over her clipboard.

She was fully absorbed in her work, a study of the colonial building across the street. The bicycles and motorbikes and swarm of people didn’t seem to exist to her—she sat focused, consumed by the work at hand.

Passerbys stopped to observe her; she didn’t seem to notice. Old men who sat smoking, drinking coffee, waiting alongside the docked boats for an indeterminate something, slowly got up to watch her. They stood around nodding; she didn’t look up once. Nothing else seemed to exist; none of it—the people, the street, its bustle, the whole honking world—mattered except the building, her drawing.

She was an artist at work. In her poofy red vinyl skirt, her frilly white socks, her fuzzy beret; her unwavering black eyes and posture of pure commitment —a perfect little artist.

She worked for the duration of my leisurely linger. Eventually she looked up, over at a man that might have been her father. He nodded, tenderly clipped another board atop her drawing to protect it from the flurry of the street. He took her hand and they walked off together.

I got up and paid for the best glass of coffee I had in Hoi An.


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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