Hanoi is a chaotic whir of jumbled motorbikes, cramped buildings and dilapidated French colonials. It’s colorful and frantic and bursting with energy and an intangible liveliness. It’s a real, organic city, overwhelmed with the frenetic and jostled trajectories of its people. Here, interspersed concrete slabs recall victory over the American imperialist aggressors, and statues of Lenin and his crew line the city streets in triumphant celebration of communism. Just a block further there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken, surreptitiously veiled in the party’s trademark red. And just up the road is Ho Chi Minh’s grey mausoleum, modeled after Lenin’s very own. And if you peak inside, fried chicken still on your breath, you’ll see an embalmed Ho Chi Minh rolling in his clear glass grave.
My buddy Jacob and I sit down to eat at the first hole in the wall we find. A miniature television set broadcasts a quadruple amputee singing along side a hundred dancing Vietnamese children. The locals watching beside us appear just as perplexed, giving us bemused smiles and thumbs up. We devour our preposterously cheap lunch and propose that Vietnam “is so dope.”
Sitting on the curb drinking thirty-cent beers, incurring sunstroke, and admiring the plethora of beautiful Vietnamese girls dressed in 40’s French pinup, a man strolls by and insists my shoes be shined. Trying to be funny and polite I stammer something incoherent about dirtiness being fashionable. But having already exhausted his English repertoire with the words “shoe shine,” he has trouble responding, so he tilts his head and grins bashfully instead. After a pause, he remembers that one other phrase he learned eons back. “Where…” he says through a beaming smile, “where are you?” I’m not sure if he’s being rhetorical or what. “Well, where are you?” I respond. He laughs and nods with the international gesture for “oh, yes, yes, of course”, and continues on down the road, whereby Jacob and I confirm that Vietnam is indeed “super dope.”
We book an obscene multi-story hostel that merits mention only because it so wholly encapsulates the backpacking phenomena of South East Asia. With rooms titled YOLO, Swag, and Swingers 69, nearly every tank-topped Australian in the city is lured to the glowing neon beacon of excess and debauchery. For only four dollars a night, each co-ed dormitory features all standard amenities, not limited to but including:
a.) Two (2) British adolescents, who will be asleep for no less than 18 hours each day, minimum of three days.
b.) One (1) older Japanese man, illuminated by the glow of his laptop, who will remain nestled beneath his sheets for approximately 85% of his stay.
c.) Three (3) Australian girls, situated on top bunks, who will aggressively mispronounce every proper-noun featured in Lonely Planet, speculating on the mysterious disappearance of their friend “Reh-Beh-Kah.”
d.) One (1) German wayfarer, bearded, who will spend roughly two hour each day frantically packing and unpacking his bag while muttering “scheiss” under his breath.
e.) Two (2) Scandinavian travelers, who, engaged in some elementary game of mad libs, will discuss each city they have visited while only using the descriptors “nice” and “really nice” to explain each locale.
f.) One (1) croaking Australian male who ostensibly had his vocal chords sawed out of his throat in the dead of night.
g.) One (1) pool of vomit gradually receding into the shower drain.
The nightly pub-crawl is postponed until the torrential downpour wears off. Huddled in the lobby is a motley, heavily intoxicated United Nations, including a guy cradling a DVD player in his arms. I ask him why he’s carrying a DVD player, and try to explain to him its dismal life expectancy in said context. I almost have him convinced that the only reasonable course of action is to smash the DVD player against a wall, thereby maintaining agency over its inevitable death, when the rain stops and the crawl resumes. Lining the streets are dozens of makeshift bars and impromptu clubs packed with locals, and you get the feeling that everyone here thinks we’re big bumbling cattle being herded between the bars, which we are. The DVD player never does find its way home.
Jacob and I plant ourselves across the street from a thumping nightclub where the herd has since been shepherded. A smiley lady nudges two plastic stools toward us and pops open some Cokes, inviting us to join the other bedraggled souls who prefer street drinking. Jacob incidentally offends the Nigerian man sitting next to him, who works in the clandestine mineral trade, and I chat with a Laotian public prosecutor who tells me that the lady boys in Vientiane are very, very beautiful. His face grows somber and he looks off into the distance, “very…very… very beautiful” he says slowly, before getting up to leave.
We wedge ourselves into a group of jolly Australians. Two of them are wearing matching purple and red suits, utterly soaked in sweat, which they haven’t taken off in days for fear of losing some cryptic bet. Jacob and I announce that we’re journalists for Vice magazine, which commences a bombardment of pointed inquiries.
“If yer really like ah journalist then ah where…wha…um wha are ya doin ‘ear?” one borderline feral lad, Ned, asks. “We’re story scouting right now, what else?” The lie becomes startling easy to maintain, and soon we’ve got a substantial audience. I sip some whiskey while casually reminiscing about my time as a military anthropologist in the foothills of Afghanistan and my slapstick encounter with tribal warfare in the Papua New Guinean highlands. The complete infeasibility of each scenario doesn’t jar the Aussies in the slightest; not even the dramatic recount of a Himalayan tribe, the Gurung, beheading a Tibetan mastiff and bringing it back to life the next day with the aid of a shamanic powder. “Incredible…ya know there’s like so much science can’t explain,” the guy in the purple suit, or was it the red suit, exclaims. The herd leaves the club and as we get up to join them, purple suit comes up to me and apologizes, acknowledging how annoying it must be to constantly repeat all these stories about my incredible life. “Yeah” I say, wondering whether or not I should give up the ruse. “Sometimes just to save myself the time I lie and tell people I’m an English teacher.” In the background I hear Jacob talking about the time he was forced at gunpoint to do Ayahuasca with the Klu Klux Klan.
Several bars later we’ve got the Australians convinced that a completely normal deck of cards has been soaked overnight in LSD. Just like Jimi Hendrix, man, you’ve got to like, press it really hard into your forehead and you know, osmosis it, we insist. So Ned, the tall goofy Australian, smears the Queen of Hearts into his forehead and keeps it pressed, awaiting the high that will never come. Soon the clock strikes an unacceptable hour and the city police arrive. The pub-crawl shepherd commands everyone to “shut the fuck up unless you want to wake up in a Vietnamese cell!” Nobody understands the rapid escalation of events, certainly not Ned, who is flailing on the ground asking why he isn’t feeling anything. With the crowd watching, the shepherd kneels down towards Ned, “that means you, fucktard!” He orders everybody else to get inside, and his volume, coupled with the sirens beyond, compels the herd to listen.
He gives us the option to go home, not expecting us to accept his offer, and he sighs when we do, “okay, follow me, fast.” We casually stroll behind him right as a second police van rolls up. He screams for us to run, and so we do, stumbling as fast we can through the orange-lit streets of late night Hanoi. We catch our breath at a curb two blocks down, where the shepherd adds, “Fuck! Fuck! I’ve been shot at and I’ve been fucking tazed before and the police here are not fucking around, go!” A pair of sirens appears to be drifting our way, and the shepherd flags down three passing motorbikes on the otherwise empty streets. “Whose in charge here? Okay! You’ve got to be ready to throw a fucking punch if it comes to it, okay! Go! Fucking go!” He screams our hostel’s name at the bikers and tells us to hop on. The shepherd stays back, either a martyr or fraud or a negligent leader who forgot to mention a certain citywide curfew. But we escapees cram onto the backs of the bikes and peel down the quiet roads home, eager to recreate the exact sequence of events the following night. And we do.
Ha Long Bay is a dreamy ocean expanse of submerged limestone spires jutting out from the sea. Over three thousand of these yellow plateaus zigzag across the brilliant turquoise horizon. Our boat is rocking ever so gently to remind us we’ve left land behind, and the salty breeze paints a relaxing calm unheard of in the distant frenzy of Hanoi. We sit down to a light seafood spread and exchange pleasantries with the German couple across from us, clinking our glasses to paradise. Just as I set my cup down the cabin’s bass speakers abruptly ejaculate the most deafening techno imaginable. After a few seconds of club thumping our excited guide-turned-party-jockey charges into the room, spewing out hype onto everyone. “Whose ready to par-tee in Hah, Loooooong, Baaaaay!” We dozen passengers muster up a sort of friendly cheer, are hurried through our very loud lunch, and join our host on deck for wine and exotic fruits. The Dutchman beside me, smoking his fifteenth cigarette of the hour, tells me in a slow European drawl that he “lawvs to party.” Aboard the Ha Long Bay party cruise, coincidentally the most budget means of exploring this World Heritage Site, you can hear the faint thump of club tunes reverberating from every other boat on the waves.
We’re dropped off at an enchanted island cave, where the mystique is only partially blurred by the site of twenty large wasted Australians in sombreros and swim suits cutting us in line. The cave itself, perhaps once a site of mild beauty, or even mediocre to slightly above average wonder, has been since renovated into an ostentatious Vegas exhibition rife with neon stage lights and placards. Our guide, who has been enlightening me to the plot of Fast and Furious 6, breaks out a laser pointer. He pans the red dot to an indiscernible blob of rocks and asks us if we see the dragon. Right there, that dragon. The Dutchman gets angry. He cannot see the dragon. The rest of say yes. The red dot shifts to a mark on the cavern wall and everyone confirms that they see a dog or a king or a sailboat or something, except for the Dutchman. “I don’t fawkin’ see nothing.” Our guide shines his laser on a formation of stalactites, and asks if we see the man and women pledging their love to one another. I claim that an amorphous shadow on the wall represents the man, and the guide tells me I am very perceptive. While the guide is busy delineating a shark or maybe a school bus, the Dutchman asks me how I’m seeing all this stuff. I tell him it’s sort of like a Rorschach test. “Rembrandt was fawkin’ Dutch, you asshole,” he replies.
As the tropical sun sinks below the horizon we take turns leaping into the dark blue water. We huddle into a circle so as to expose only those on the exterior to the threat of massive jellyfish, and distract ourselves with the site of sunset-stricken cliffs on all sides. Just then an old lady in a small canoe mysteriously surfaces from the deep sea and begins paddling towards us. As she nears we realize her canoe is stocked with cookies and biscuits and candies and beers. From the boat our guide shouts that there’s no outside alcohol allowed- but someone yells something about international waters and autonomy, which the guide doesn’t understand. The mysterious seafarer gladly serves us up lukewarm Tigers beers. Soon the old lady paddles away, melting into the shadow of a far off rock.
“Trip pop, groove step, dub beats, psycho chill, ambient dub, new funk, darkcore, techstep, neurofunk, glitch, drum funk, hop scotch, nu jazz, trancecore, deep house, psytrance, umm, dark psytrance…” The Dutchman lists off his dizzying knowledge of electronica nomenclature to the oontz oontz beats of distant party ships. “Bitpop, krautrock, jump-up, hard step, dubtronica, space synth,” he continues, droning an ambient beat of his own. Splayed on lounge chairs with beers in hand we listen half-heartedly and awe the immense canopy of stars above. Sitting behind the Dutchman is the only non-20-something aboard. Bao emigrated from Vietnam to France when the war broke out when he was just a child. Marooned on a wayward party-liner for the night with increasingly inebriated tourists, this is Bao’s first time returning to the country of his birth. Genuinely relaxed, he’s contended with rolling his own cigarettes, sipping a Tiger, and smiling while taking it all in. Beside Bao a British man is ranting about train track maintenance and an Austrian women fervently nodding in agreement.
The rambling Dutchman swigs a mouthful of vodka and tosses the emptied bottle into the water. His choice to litter the bay is of course met with uproar, which he shushes, insisting that the crew didn’t see a thing; worry not, he won’t be penalized for bringing outside alcohol onboard. That’s not the point, someone expresses, to which the Dutchman replies that it’s not a big deal, because, “like, scientists will dig it up in a hundred years or whatever.” A pause ensues as the crowd attempts to parse the logic of this last line. Bao is grinning in the corner. Having beheld such extravagant horrors in his lifetime, the addition of one more bottle to the sea is nothing but another meager donation to the growing landfill below and the continued degradation of everything else in this world. The Dutchman puts Buffalo Soldier on over the loud speakers, kicks off his flip-flops, and reclines with the smirk of a man who has everything. “God I fawking lawv Bob Mawley,” he announces, before drifting off to dreams of Dutch scientists combing the sea for precious glass bottles.
In the ensuing days Jacob signs up for a bathroom tour of Hanoi and I drink copious iced beverages while he acquaints himself with every other toilet in the capitol. We chat and eavesdrop and stroll and devour and dive through impenetrable seas of motorbikes unscathed. Upon seeing the fifth arctic sled dog of the day we discover the posh trend of Vietnamese girls leading massive woolly Samoyeds and Mastiffs through the tropical heat of the city. In Rodeo Drive Chihuahuas peek out of chic purses and in Hanoi overheated Huskies outweigh their petite owners by a factor of three. Nearby some plump white rabbits hyperventilate in cages awaiting their imminent transformations into stew.
After a maniacal kamikaze dash through violent rains and even more violent traffic, Jacob and I shake the hands of our suicidal motorbike chauffeurs and board the overnight bus to Northern Laos. The inside is lined with a red plushy fabric and warm rainbow lights. We’re required to take off our shoes and snuggle into horizontal seats partitioned into little love couplets; Jacob and I have been squabbling lately, so the forced proximity is good for us. The onboard film is a lighthearted opera about a female squad of minesweepers foiling sinister American plots. I fall asleep watching the undulating jowls of the film’s male protagonist singing about his job as a wartime trucker. Jacob and I awaken to a man with a wet bloody gash, very crudely bandaged, staring down at us. At a delirious late night rest stop we discover that almost every single passenger onboard has a missing eye, a missing limb, or a fresh red wound. We are not, however, inducted into this northbound cult of casualties, and safely make it to the border unharmed. A French couple incapable of pronouncing anything correctly asks us if we’re Jewish.