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Hanoi and Cat Ba

I have never seen driving like in Hanoi.  Ever.  Not even in video games.  If they drove like this in Grand Theft Auto, I would break the controller against the wall out of frustration.  It’s insane!  I know what you boys are thinking, Asians can’t drive?  Asians are incredible drivers!  Everyone has spent their life training in a 007 movie.  They’re doing things with a motorbike I didn’t know was possible.

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After the long bus ride I got into the hostel and put new sheets on my bed.  The owners sat down with me and asked me my name without letting go of my hand for an awkwardly long time and every time they saw me for the next few days they called me by my first name.  In the list of Jim’s favorite cuisines, Vietnamese rates a close second to Korean, so after the nine hour trip from Nanning to Hanoi I went right out and got some Pho.  The first thing that hit me was how different life is when you can’t speak the national language.  I kept opening my mouth to ask for something in Chinese, then it flipped to Spanish, and then landed on nothing.  I have to mime, make faces and point at things to get what I need and that can get pretty frustrating.  I made my way to a quiet bar with an expat sitting there.  He had really long hair with an equally long scarf wrapped around his neck, glasses, and he was just staring at the liquor bottles against the wall.  He was holding hands with a girl named Mary Jane and after drinking a beer he introduced me to her and we got to talking for a bit.  She took me for a dance, but I haven’t danced in so long that I got overwhelmed and had to leave the bar to walk around for a bit.  The old quarter of Hanoi is filled with travelers, and it was surprising how many white people and english language were all around, so I just made my way back to the hostel and passed out early. 

The next day I woke up at seven and made my way to the Temple of Literature.  If you don’t know much about Vietnamese history, suffice it to say that every country has tried to take and maintain control over it, especially Hanoi, and the Chinese were no different.   The temple of Literature is the first university in Vietnam, started around the thirteenth century, and most of the writings are in Chinese characters.  Who knew that studying those Chinese characters could take me so far?  Most of the writings were placed on top of stone tortoises just like in Qufu. 

From there I wanted to go to the prison, but ended up walking past the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and went in there instead.  There was a documentary playing in a small room on the second floor about female street venders in Hanoi.  You see them in lots of countries, especially in Asia and South America, selling flowers and vegetables on the curbs, and this doc followed them throughout their days and into their hometowns.  They’re just so poor.  In New York you see lots of poverty, well, to be honest you’re pretty much confronted with everything.  One time on the C train at 2am I saw a guy take a dump on the subway platform and then talk to the flies that started coming around.  You can’t avoid the rich, you can’t avoid the poor, the Muslims, the Jews, those I-talians, the homeless – everything.  It’s all in your face every day.   If you have a free day and you’re really pissed at the world, I recommend taking a walk on Park Avenue.  Start in the thirties where you have the highest concentration of billionaires in the world, and then keep walking right into the South Bronx.  But theres poverty in The Bronx, and then theres poverty in, well, Bolivia, where some kids suck on stones to generate saliva in their mouths to drink. It’s just on a different level.      

ANYWAY, the documentary was cool, and alllllllllmost made me buy things I didn’t need from the women I passed on the street afterwards, but my $30 a day budget endured.

I chilled for the rest of the day until I felt it was late enough to have a beer.  There are a bunch of microbreweries around the city and they all make super light and cheap beer, each glass costs less than 50 cents.  Danger Zone!!!  I made my way to the Central Backpackers Hostel which I heard was a great place to start your night.  I didn’t really think it was possible, but there is an equivalent to a Wall Street bar in South East Asia for travelers!  Whoa!  Lots of guys, less girls and everyone was on the prowl.    I’m not judging, from time to time we all get lonely.  The dj was American and poured shots for the entire bar, soon people were dancing on tables, Australians were throwing up in the bathroom (somehow I could hear the accent through the vomit), it was just great to see everything I’m used to in New York but instead of suits, everyone had dreads, long flowing white shirts, and colorful pants.  I never read the book, but I don’t quite know if this is what that woman was writing about in Eat, Pray, Love. 

Alas!  I smoked a cigarette, which meant I was too drunk and needed to go to sleep. 

The next day I booked a ticket for Cat Ba Island, the one place the Brazilians told me I need to go.  It was a 3 hour bus ride to the coast, to another bus which took us through an industrial port for an hour, to a speedboat to the island for 20 minutes, to another bus on the island to take us to the center of town. 

What’s that feeling?  I feel relaxed, there’s so much beach around me, so much green, so much nature. Yes.  In the high season Cat Ba island is said to get 10,000 people coming in every week, but there’s barely anybody here now.  I was able to bargain down a hotel room to $6 a night.   It’s my own room, everybody!  With a bathroom and everything, it even has two beds in it. 

Yesterday I woke up late and rented a bicycle to go to the national park.  The bike cost as much as the motorbike, which is random and tempting, but I had been boozin so hard recently that I felt I needed the exercise.  Well, about 200 people on motorbikes passed me as I struggled to use this mountain bike from the 1980s to get up 45 degree hills.   But I made it after 2 hours, and the park was beautiful.  I hiked for another hour or two up to the peak, completely soaked in sweat, and started my descent down to get back to the hotel before the sun went down. 

I had just left the park for a few minutes when I noticed a man and woman riding bicycles behind me and gaining on me fast.  I immediately felt a bond with them and we struck up a conversation when they passed me.  Adam and Kirsten are a Canadian married couple who work as trauma physicians (doctors in the ER) and are taking a month’s vacation before they head back to work.  They invited me to join them into the cave hospital we passed.  It was less than a dollar to get in and the cute tour guide took us around the tunnel.

“So this hospital was built during the Vietnam war?”

“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the American war?”

“Fair enough, my bad.”

“Yes, the hospital was built in the early part of the American War of Destruction.”

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, nice burn!  Really felt that one.  But the cave was so cool, and it was wild to think that they performed surgery in these rooms, and they even had a cinema. 

I have to say that since arriving in Vietnam I have felt nothing but the warmest welcome from all Vietnamese that I’ve met, and so far I’ve been operating exclusively out of the north.  Just this morning I sat for breakfast alone at a restaurant and the family that ran the place invited me in to eat with them and share the food that they prepared.

After the hospital my new Canadian friends invited me to join them swimming at one of the beaches.  The water was perfect after the grueling bike ride and it was my first time ever swimming in an Asian ocean.  They said they wanted to go home and change but that we should meet up for dinner so we parted ways and I went back to my PRIVATE room, with no snoring and no weird men who may or may not have been masturbating right before I walked in.  All mine baby. 

I’m a pretty phasey guy, I get into weird phases every week.  Some days I wake up and I know, in fact I’m certain that if I just moved to Mexico and started my own Mariachi band I would be happy.  That’s not a joke, I really think that sometimes.  I don’t even listen to Mariachi music.  Sometimes it’s growing bonsai trees, sometimes I know I could be totally happy if I just mastered the cello.  Anyway – a few months back I got really into Canadian politics.  I don’t know why, I’m weird.  Maybe it was that whole Rob Ford meltdown or the healthcare thing.  Either way, my new Canadian friends were impressed and we hung out and drank for six hours talking about everything.  As trauma physicians I was so temped to ask about every disease EVER, but I kept my hypochondria in check for the sake of the new friendship.

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