Furlough in 'Nam

I know that the decision to visit Vietnam came some months before the event actually transpired in the middle of November 2017, so I'd date it around July if I was a gambling man, however, I'm a terrible gambler and I don't give a shit about the truth so the actual date doesn't matter. The events surrounding the situation, on the other hand, are worth relating: like any good decision, it was the result of beer and benevolent camaraderie. My friend Adam was hosting Fifi and I, and a chap named Laurence at his condo when we began discussing places we'd like to visit in the future. Someone mentioned Vietnam; Adam and Lawrence talked about how they both wanted to see Hanoi and how easy it would be, relatively speaking. As you can imagine, this turned into a conversation about how to get there at the earliest convenience despite everyone's differing schedules. Despite my overall lack of being consciously present, my cognitive antennae began to pick up on this information and I in turn began to vocalize a solid interest. Fifi, who was a witness to all of this and was visibly upset at the prospect of my departure, started to make faces at me and they were anything but pleasant. There was something that she was trying to say to me, but between a mind awash in dreams of Hanoi, and my complete disregard for the concerns of others, her message was doomed. I could, however, discern what would and what would not make her happy and being a terrible companion, I ignored all of her verbal and nonverbal messages of frustration and immediately voiced my enthusiasm and unwavering support for the proposal at hand.


I spent my time in the hot seat, and a few months later Adam, Laurence, and your dear author found ourselves in the Hanoi airport waiting for our visa paperwork to be completed. Our plans were to meet our friend and fellow coworker Nicole who had already been in in the city for a day. We arrived quite late but we entertained thoughts of getting a whiff of Hanoi nightlife before hitting the hay. The queue for visas, communicated to us via monitors running on the high-tech operating system known as Microsoft xp, led us to infer that it would be a while. We were right, and basically did nothing until we were able to pass through customs, exchange our Thai baht into Vietnamese Dong, and find the ride arranged to us in advance by Nicole, during which I learned that the Vietnamese drive on the right side of the road, which is something I hadn't experienced in what felt like a very long time. Our hotel the was located in old quarter and it took about half an hour to get there. We crossed over a magnificent bridge on our way to the city and its scaffolding came alive via waves of different colors emanating from LED lights. Another display that came alive for us was a hammer and sickle, a common sight in Vietnam, radiating against the night in its electric glow. Sets of these little trinkets adorned the mouth of the bridge on both sides like snakebite piercings. As soon as we were dropped off at our hotel we issued hellos unto Nicole, unpacked our filth, and took in our first unmediated impressions of the night according to northern Vietnam.


The hotel was named something or other, and the staff were a bunch of patient, accommodating souls and, due to the fact that some of them regularly sleep on the floor over night, we disturbed them numerous times, due mostly to our heavily trodden and vocally audible comings and goings. After a beer of local Hanoi lager, which tastes like many other South-East Asian brews, we decided to go for a walk around the old quarter and get ourselves a Banh Mi, those famous sandwiches that would end up comprising much of what we ate during our time in the city. Our eyes were greeted with European architecture and narrow, swerving streets not completely unlike those through which your dear author navigated his swarthy soul in Phnom Penh. Nights in the old quarter, as we quickly learned, were punctuated throughout with the animalistic sounds of alcoholic banter and yelps of frenzied glee. I spied a bar to the left; its entrance was crowded with white men, their mouths running over with laughter which quickly melted into the Hanoian cacophony surrounding us. In the midst of these goons, a red haired gorilla of a man began riding atop of one of his drinking mates and in some godforsaken caveman language began shouting curses to the wind, which was already full to bursting in a mess of humidity, the smell of petrol, and noxious fumes of all varieties. But that's Southeast Asia for you, no one ever claimed that it smells like a bath or anything. Maybe a dirty bath.


Although we kept running into pigs and beastly men throughout our jaunt, I noticed a serious lack of stray dogs, the likes of which in Thailand are ubiquitous. With my personal relationship to canis familiarias being what it is, I did in no way mourn their presence. Many people told me that they are eaten before they can cause any mischief. This bit of news was music to my ears, but I soon learned that another nuisance lay in store along the winding streets of Hanoi: hawkers. After spending the good part of a year in Thailand, I had become used to how spoiled we are in terms of local, everyday business etiquette. I knew that Indians were known for enthusiastically corralling people into their shops, and I had heard stories of store owners in Morocco blocking the exits of their shops, trapping customers inside until they made a purchase, but in Thailand people just greet you kindly and flash a smile at you. If you act like your interest has been piqued, then they will try to sell you their wares, but aggression is something I never experience when shopping with the locals. Vietnam lacks the tranquility of Thailand in this respect. Local people are in no way subtle about their interest in where you spend your money. One of my first lessons in this regard was taught by a rickshaw driver. Basically, his bicycle was attached to a carriage in which he wheeled fat, old white people around throughout the day. His carriage was empty and since I generally look like most of his clientele, he said “hey,” to me. I ignore him and kept walking, but he screamed “HEY, where you want to go?” I figured that he would give it up soon, but his offer persisted for a while before he finally gave up the ghost and steered off into an alley. Instead of screaming at potential customers, some of these hawkers employ a method of feigning a “cool” familiarity with their marks, which must, I feel, bring in more business than yelling at people. One such suave gentlemen hailed me that first night; greeting me from afar, he proceeded to act as if we were old friends meeting up again for the first time in at least a couple of moons. He said, “so what do you want? Ganja? Cocaine?” “Naw,” I said. “I'm perfectly happy drinking beer and huffing balloons at the bar, thanks.” His tone switched to a more playful register and he tapped me lightly with his foot while he offered me the earthly pleasures of “sucky-sucky,” and other sins against the daylight hours. After assuring him that I wouldn't subject any poor, Vietnamese soul to the depressing comedy of a sexual experience with me during my stay, the matter was concluded.


The solid couple of days that we spent exploring the city consisted mainly of walking, eating banh mi sandwiches, admiring northern Vietnamese propaganda posters from wartime, and drinking Vietnamese coffee. This comes in many varieties including egg coffee, and something known as “Weasel Gold,” the making of which involves the faeces of the aforementioned wretched animals, but that doesn't stop people from slurping it up like fiends. While sightseeing, we visited the Hoa Lo prison, which is infamous for housing American POWs during the war, including senator John Mccain. Some of us wondered if an animatronic version of the man would beckon us into the exhibit, waving his hands as high as possible in benevolent praise of Hanoian hospitality. There turned out to be no such thing, but they had his flight suit on display which was kind of neat. Most of the pictures of American POWs showed them happily smoking cigarettes, decorating Christmas trees, gardening, and playing games. However, I don't think anyone that I know personally is guillable enough to believe that life in the “Hanoi Hilton” was simply bingo and party favors. It was, after all, a time of war. The prison began around the 1880's when Vietnam was a part of French Indochina. It was built to house political prisoners from the local population, and inmates were subjected to many kinds of abuse, including torture, solitary confinement, beatings, rotten food, and the guillotine. Seeing as its function was to confine resistance among the local people against the imperial French state, I can't help but feel a sense of poetic justice when reflecting on it's later use during future conflicts, when the Vietnamese people faced other acts of unjust aggression. Garnished with rusty barbed wire and bits of shattered glass to dissuade climbers, as well as dank, dark cells, Ho Loa prison appeared to me as South-East Asian hell incarnate and was certainly the most morbid place where we poked about during the trip.


On a lighter note, we decided to visit the imperial citadel of Thang Long aka The Hanoi Citadel, after devouring a round of Banh-mi's. The citadel was built around 1010, and as it fortunately wasn't razed by the French when they decided to say bonjour and occupy the country, the area remained relatively preserved until the time of the American war, when it served as HQ of Northern Vietnamese military operations. We had a great time lumbering up and down the steps of the main site, admiring the visual treasures of times long past. The Vietnamese flag was comfortably within eyesight from most areas, waving placidly atop the Flag Tower of Hanoi, a signature landmark of the city. This however, pales in comparison to the visual dance delivered via the apprehension of a pile of old junk tires; their colors blooming in the capital city's haze. It was interesting to see different shades of the past come together at this site; within the old walls of the citadel, pieces of ancient pottery and other relics are housed, as are many preserved buildings from the time of The Yankee Invasion.


If I led on earlier that we ate nothing but banh-mi sandwiches during our stay, I must apologize because nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we had two awesome dinners that I can't help relating. The first was conventional but high-quality; we ate at a new restaurant that served us up some Vietnamese curries, and other staples of the country's cuisine. The second meal was much more expensive, but it's more of a story: a couple members of the group suggested we find a swanky french restaurant and blow a lot of money. I voiced my support and sweatily followed the group, wrapped in clothes the likes of which should never be seen in any fine dining establishment whatsoever. I have never claimed to be the spitting image of class or good taste. The drinks at this place were pretty fair, and I was looking forward to ripping into the goose-steak that I had ordered when various Francophone gustatory delights started announcing themselves. The unlucky bird was eventually served, and our meal was serenaded by snippets of Mozart, issuing from a quintet that seemed to materialize spontaneously among the diners. I myself had never experienced such a poignant style of eating, and the overall atmosphere of the joint soothed my snobby, half-drunk soul. As if this wasn't enough cultural exchange for one night, we decided to check out a performance of Vietnamese water puppetry. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, but the dark room, strong A/C, and no knowledge of the language had me ready to nod off at the end, a victim of the recently inhaled french feast. Sleep, however, was a long time off yet, for when the puppetry performance ended we agreed that we all desperately needed to find a bar as soon as possible. The nightlife in Hanoi, as the reader may have gathered earlier, is fantastic. In many places and especially in the old quarter, bars are generously distributed such that any thirsty pedestrian need not travel far in order to slake their thirst. In one of the joints we visited, the second floor was filled with white people chain-smoking cigarettes, dancing without taste, throwing back shots, and breathing through balloons of nitrous oxide as if they were oxygen tanks. I enjoyed watching everyone make fools of themselves, but instead of joining in their Bacchic glory I grabbed a chair and did what I do best, which is sit, sip, and let the course of events surrounding me unfold as they will, uninhibited. In many of these establishments, the customers are not the only people getting tuned up. In some parts of Southeast Asia, it's quite common for the bartender to pour him or herself a drink while he busies himself with your request, and the same goes for laughing gas and smokes. The days of bartenders taking on a role of “therapeutic listener” unto whom one can shovel despair may be long gone, but the days of bartenders as other folks trying to get a load on are alive and kicking, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: it's kind of comfortable in a way; in Hanoi, it felt like everybody was getting fucked up and losing their money together. The house always wins, as everybody knows, but an attempt to make them sweat a bit and come out on top is never to be overlooked. The same rule, of course, applies to buffet dinners and open bars of all kinds.


Over the course of one of the precious few nights we had in Hanoi, we met up with an old coworker of Laurence and Adam's. His instructions led us to bar with plenty of space, decent music, and cheap prices. After many of us had our first drinks poured and began puffing way at the first smokes of the evening, the police decided to join the the throng, pockmarking the environs with their star-laden military helmets. We asked Gully if it was time to set up shop elsewhere. He was quite unsure and said that the police and and the owner of the establishment were working out a bribe. After a few moments of meandering around, we all secured transportation to another bar less inhibited by a governmental presence upon their property, and it was from there that we endured the remainder of the evening. We found ourselves staring across a lake again as we took our seats in a set of chairs across the street from the bar itself. The atmosphere was brimming with beers and balloons, and apart from the ravings of an unknown American suffering the onset of madness via laughing gas, the night rang out in echoes of amiability. Alas, The Vile Vapor hadn't claimed it's last victim of the night; before long, one of our fellow schmoozers among the chairs collapsed to the ground mid-balloon and damaged their glasses. Everyone jumped to their feet, of course, and attempted a revival. Immediately upon coming to, a bellow was issued unto Hanoian airspace: “Who the fuck knocked me over and broke my glasses?!” and after tending to the situation, our group either went home or to the club, your poor author has wracked his brain but can't, for the life of him, remember what happened after that. Hanoi is an awesome city, and it would certainly be worth it to spend more time there than I did, exploring it and enjoying its particular charm. Vietnam seems like a very cool country, I'll be looking for opportunities to visit other areas of it in the future. However, Hanoi, with its haze hung heavy in a musk of petrol, pollution, and cigarettes, will hold a special place in my memory for a long time to come.

The next entry will find your poor, battered author in a state convalescence on Koh Kood, a pristine island with minimal development whose animal inhabitants are ferocious, and numerous beyond all comprehension. It was enough to kill a man, or at least scare him to death as happened in my case, which will be described at length. So, if you enjoy human suffering, woe, and reading about other people in uncomfortable situations, then you should tune in again next time for some real fuckery. 


To read more of Dan's adventures abroad, click here!