Don’t Stop and Never Run

20 08 2011

Vietnam

Don’t stop and Never Run, is a personal narrative about the trials and errors of traveling through Vietnam, a country much bigger and more taxing than I could have ever anticipated. Chasing after beaches, trains, monuments, and time, this piece chronicles my experience which can’t be described in few words. What started out as a vacation with my best friend from Korea, turned into a race from the northern capital Hanoi, to Ho Chi Minh City. Where I am sarcastic and at times neurotic, Mike is sensitive and full of common sense, together we made it through some very uncomfortable situations, coming out the other side better friends and having gained new perspective. Though we were too ambitious, cramming an entire country into one week, it was the moments we lost ourselves in-between the itinerary that we realized how truly eye-opening discomfort can be. 

Part I: Arrival

For being so cool I have a tendency of getting really worked up about details.

My backpack was heavy. An inexperienced traveler, I could hardly anticipate that a hair straighter would be needless; flip-flops and a sports bra invaluable. The science of packing for a trip to a third world country was less complicated than I realized. As I stepped into Ho Chi Minh Airport at 3:35 a.m. the backpack was weighing down both my shoulders and spirit. I was exhausted. I had missed my flight in Shanghai, and spent most of the night waiting for another. The entrance Visa I had prepared was an even bigger anxiety attack. The whole process seemed like a scam from the second I handed the drowsy-eyed, wrinkled-shirt employee my passport. Shaking off the fatigue, I watched him like a panther until he collected my 25 U.S. dollars and waved me through. As tired as I was, I wasn’t about to have my identity stolen.

In the earliest hours of morning, and with a second wind coming on strong, I found myself in the quite of a city that had a reputation of pick-pocketing, drugs, lady-boys, and some of the best food in southeast Asia. I turned to Mike and knew: we were going to find at least one of these things tonight. But where was everyone? Is anything open? We were about to find out.

We were starving, and for anyone else who has ever walked the streets of a city at four in the morning, if you’re not drunk, you’re hungry. The only source of life was down a shady street I had caught sight of as we took a cab into District 1. So we backtracked on foot to an eatery spread open to a patio, spilling out onto the street. Two men were merrily playing guitars from chairs that were clearly meant for small children-these little plastic tea party tables are apparently standard in Vietnam, so we opted for an adult table inside and relieved ourselves the heavy loads. The space filled with Abbey Road and John Lennon, as a man with long black hair howled like a coyote into the sky.

The interior was simple. Nothing lacked  purpose and everything had lost its esthetic long ago. Though not the only patrons, we were greeted swiftly and kindly by the young boy serving the tables. Beer. We need beer. A He brought over two lukewarm Tiger Beers, a brew I would learn to love on this journey. We toasted our first victory and held our breath, hoping the meals we had pointed to in the menu would come out looking familiar and edible, without pig heads or cat meat; neither of us could handle that at this hour, or sober.

The food was heavenly. Fried tofu with lemon grass and fennel seeds was the perfect salty dish to accompany the beer. Peppery and light, I felt myself relaxing as the hunger vanished and was replaced with ease as the warm beers started to take effect, my worries over the long day of travel abated. We had made it. We were here. As the morning crept on, the restaurant slowly became a living room. The service boys started to take their clothes off, and shirtless they walked around serving us beer, cleaning up shop barefoot and causal.

 

We were the only people left eating, so the family of cooks and servers settled in for the night.  This family worked side-by-side each other, lived and played together. Some woman appeared from the back and sat next to us, perhaps curious whether the foreigners had enjoyed their cooking. The family sat close, playfully smiling and laughing as we tried to talk to them, the young boys pushing each other towards me.  And just when I thought our welcome into Vietnam couldn’t get any more peaceful, Jimmy sat down.

In the spirit of backpacking, I had done something I would never dream of doing back home or in Korea. I hadn’t booked a single room, train ride, tour, or flight; which for me was both terrifying and liberating. What if we can’t find a room? Will we be forced to walk the streets and dance for change? What if the train is full? How will we get to Da Nang? My family will never see me again! For being so cool I have a tendency of getting really worked up about details. But I did my best to trust in my company, who had done far more traveling than me, assuring me that everything would be fine.

At 5:30 a.m. the idea of looking for a hotel or hostel seemed ridiculous. What do you mean they’re open? Besides the weight of my backpack, this clearly marked my inexperience abroad. Because they were open, or at least they were after we knocked on the glass doors and they turned the lights on. And just like that we had a room for about 20 U.S. dollars. For experienced travelers this is expensive, but I was so proud of my laissez-faire attitude that I didn’t feel like shopping around, plus we heard music, so we dropped off our bags to check it out. At about 6:00 a.m. we walked into the club, Go 2 Bar, a popular spot among foreigners, or people just passing through. It was a cocktail of foreigners and Vietnamese girls in blonde wigs on the third floor. Normally this is my kind of party. I love loud music and dancing, and I particularly love any party that involves wigs and possible transsexuals, but I had hit a wall, and I was somewhere between sleep and a bad ecstasy trip. A few more warm beers on the bar patio away from the noise, the sky started to reveal cloud patches in a soft lavender hue, and so ended my first night in Vietnam.

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