“And the gangsters are buying us shots…but OJ got yelled at for pulling out the camera #undocumented” @Scarlettsmithin
I already keep shitty hours. Day and night mean absolutely nothing to me back in New York – in Vietnam they mean even less. I leave Kara on the bed alone around 4am to go down to the floor below us with a balcony, dormitory styled game room, and communal computers with limited internet access in order to write. I later blame it on jet lag. I owed MIRF an article about a road trip we took back in September – I really just wanted to listen to The Doors and lurk on the now forbidden fruit of Facebook.
My dragging power cord bangs against the ceramic 3rd world floor slightly bothering the drunken Aussie passed out on the couch. the noise was enough to remove his hands from his crotch and thigh sandwich. The Facebook site is blocked in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for some (anti-revolutionary) reason and the program I need to get around it is down. Whatever. The shit hammered traveler on the couch burps in punctuation. That gives me an idea. I turn around and go back to my room and write a story about a friend’s drunken black out in Baltimore.
Later in the day I would save a nearly canceled guided tour by pointing out to the group their missing (or “kidnapped”) tour member (as they suggested themselves in a barely controlled panic) was sleeping his demons off under the couch upstairs.
The communist announcements being air horned off an overcrowded military jeep awakens Kara. I’m already 3,000 words, a couple of Tumblr posts, and a planned extended layover in Germany in. In retrospect I have to admit how hyper I was, toying with the oily scrambled eggs that came with my fried tomatoes and pineapples breakfast. There was a fruit that looked like a Styrofoam dice but I couldn’t remember its name or stomach its taste – all I knew was my stomach was going through the motions and I was putting Kara through the motions.
The higher the sun went up in the sky the louder, brighter, and stickier Hanoi became. Our German layover – in which I would have stayed in Frankfort an extra day to visit a friend while leaving Kara to travel the rest of the way home alone – was 10 days away – if I could even book it. And there I was on the internet making a million moves when I should have been sharing the moment. I was officially being “Hanoi-ing”.
The weather is like someone invented a spicy jalapeño cotton candy blend and fed it to you in a jungle mist. You sweat just to make your clothes tolerable. The breeze is like the exhaust that comes out from behind a school bus on a 90 degree Manhattan day except it’s inexplicably clean minus the noodles and rotting fish smell I’m already partial to. The day is bright but I can’t see the sun through the smog of a billion motorbikes moving wheel to wheel like cells through a blood vessel. I used an anatomy reference because of the efficiency of their movement was as facinating as the human body itself. Yes, there are a million tiny bike horns being honked and everyone seems annoyed but no one gets into any accidents and everyone peacefully moves along at their loud and frenetic pace. They all wear these vinyl jackets where the hood zips all the way up to the eyeballs making everyone look like sperm.
This mesmerized me, hypnotizing me like a little white girl staring at the dead air on the TV screen in the movie The Poltergeist. Crossing the street was like entering something wonderful, yet dangerous. Kara went from holding all of our important documents and money in order to keep them safe to holding my hands in order to keep me safe.
After an intense bargain shopping, moped dodging, and “what street is this?” asking totally blind tour of the Cho Hang Be Market and its surrounding alleys we return to the silence of our obnoxious hostel. Kara wants to book our flights to Cambodia – I want to sneak in my selfish layover in Germany – we combine and transform into The Impossible. Our cooperation in this matter dissolves into her taking a nap and me cruising/ cursing all over the internet. The gooey Vietnamese sun sets by the time me and her set an accord. We squeeze an outfit change and a roundtrip to Cambodia before our makeup dinner at some Lonely Planet approved restaurant.
Our meal was cheap. The pizza I ordered was horrible. Our fight was 400 dollars more than had we ignored the advice to book our flights in Vietnam instead of in advance.
I swear off taking advice and eating pizza in any country not the United States on Twitter in a colorful yet unimaginative rant. A agitated patchwork of ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck all thats’. My first full day on the other side of the planet and it’s spent trying to mentally convert the Dollar into the frustrating Dong (Vietnamese currency) and finding an open computer with a running communist roadblock buster. Twitter just wasn’t enough.
It’s during a nerve soothing smoke break is when the genius of asking for a local travel agency hits me. I light another as I wait for Kara to meet me out front. Of course it takes a minute for her to get the message because I told her in a classic fashion – over the internet. She walks into a situation where I’m trying to figure out how and why the Asian man sitting next to me outside has my watch on.
He returns it with a weird National Geographic type laugh; I’m too tapped out to ask how and pretend to be very grateful when I’m actually awkwardly confused and completely baffled.
The price of a Jack Daniels on the rocks goes between 2 and 4 bucks give or take several thousands in Dongs. Kara handles all the money and makes sure every glass of mine is followed by a beer. I am now on vacation. Our bar hopping takes us to a place called The Pub. The bar offers us two floors of drunk and walls filled with artwork by local artists. You could tell this is a tourist/ transplant bar by the pop art nature of the canvases – and the scent of patchouli – we probably found the Vietnam hipster bar.
We spot a Pac-Man themed acrylic painting. Instead of just enjoying it we ask how much it would cost to buy it OFF THE WALL. The initial price offered by the management translated into roughly 250 bucks. We somehow got them to go down to 50 dollars. We should have ended that exchange with cowboy boots and a cigar, being that we were intoxicated by the idea that we made off like oil barons. The dirt cheap alcohol made us sloppy and obnoxious art collectors
We drop off our million dollar Dong painting back at the hostel. Most of the bars are all in walking distance as our hostel was in the middle of what I would call the Hotel District of Hanoi. Our hotel party bar lobby is (finally!) closed. Apparently closing time in Vietnam is around 1:30 in the morning. My watch is still set on Lower East Side time. We run back out in hopes of finding somewhere with a late last call. Next thing you know I’m dipping in and out of side streets bombing everything with the 1134 stickers Mike gave me back in home. This is when I start to notice how much darker the streets are and how much more aggressive the street vendors were. I’m being sold everything from bootleg Viagra to hot-pot street gutter beef to weed. I guess if I was selling weed I’d want to be a little extra pushier to the guy wearing dreadlocks, but this one pair got a little too pushy.
It was something in the way he turned his head to the guy riding behind him on his moped. The way the following moped curved around him, stop, then proceed like a look out. I’ve walked in enough shitty neighborhoods to know when something is about to pop off – the air thickens and everything turns into the color of red.
“You want mardyjuana?”
“No I’m good.”
‘You want green? Green, green smoke”
“No, no, thank you, thank you, no I’m good.”
“You want book? I have books”
“Uh no thank you… Wait, what? No… Kara?”
The first kid slows down as the guy riding in back hops off while the other guy curves his bike in an attempt to corner us. One guy actually pulls out a couple of books. I’m confused. Is this guy trying to sell me pot or a book!? He keeps repeating the same offer over and over again. I’m watching his eyes dart from corner to corner and I match them in speed. This fuck is trying to rob us. I spy some cops or military guys in the near distance in between the shadows cast by the jagged edges of the oriental rooftops and start becoming firmer in my rejections. I added a bass to my now echoing city bred monotone. I spread my arms in an attempt to seem larger than life itself putting distance between the tiny men and Kara purse. Kara? KARA?!
Kara was live tweeting the entire event, giggling like her phone was a Telli-Tubby telling a dirty joke.
I now have a fire in my eyes. My forehead stress lines are now spelling “fall back”. Our hostile companions understood the look, rescinding their offers and riding off into the shadows. Kara is oblivious as to what just happened and demands to know why I’m being soooooo cranky.
Kara’s giggle is too much for me and after my first natural – and less anxious – breath I break out in laughter. We don’t even discuss it. I can’t. We find an afterhours bar instead. Some guy balances a beer on a pencil in his mouth while we down glass after glass of nervous people whiskey. The room has a small group that could be from Brazil or from Spain but we can’t tell and don’t care. So far everything seems to be like another tourist trap for people afraid to venture far from their hotels. One guy looks at my dreads and breaks out into a medley of Bob Marley songs. This is new to me… obviously. I excuse myself to break the seal and laugh without embarrassing the “bro”.
The bathroom is in the back of the bar next to a room that has a glass door covered in trash bags. I hear faint bass from what could be techno music coming from behind the door. After washing my hands I grab Kara and take her to the back room. We enter a small private disco complete with a DJ and a table loaded with the shadiest Vietnamese characters I’ve ever seen on this side of a pool hall in Chinatown. The floor littered with cigarette butts.
Everyone is wearing sunglasses. The cigarette smoke acts like a curtain that would hang a VIP booth, obscuring their chinky eyed intentions. We look at each other – “uh” for a secound – and without skipping a beat break out into dance moves worthy of a Glee episode with a side of glitter. This is what we’ve been waiting for. The music sounds like bunch of pop songs re-sung by Korean performers and mashed up over beats that could double as the soundtrack to anyone of the Final Fantasy video games. Our dances go from serious to silly from shot to shot. The gangsters, surrounded by their clichéd pack of women, demonstrate their approval by quietly sending us 2 free beers, a couple of shots, and a message with the waitress asking me not to take any more pictures. I take one more and skip back to the safe room.
Everyone has left except for one couple. The bartender lets me You Tube DJ and all I do is play 90’s underground hip hop videos. We end the nights around 4am after trading stateside stories with bleeding heart teachers from Scotland. I think they are hippies or “on a mission from God”. My whiskey face really didn’t care. I monkey walk back to the hostel. No one bothers us.
The next morning is a hung over moment of clarity. No one knows me here, and there I was… acting like Vietnam was the 6th borough. Something happens to us here and no one would know for months – and here I was feeling like I was back home. I can also get shot or killed back home. I have to stop. On our ride to the airport, I prayed to God that I would act like I knew better when I got to Cambodia. This is the jungle, what that Korean Army & Navy clerk on Houston Street warned me about. I was going to be very, very far from home, again.
And just when I was getting comfortable.