My parents arrived last Sunday. Returning home late Saturday evening from Bangkok, I was quick to sleep, filled with excitement for the week and adventures that lay ahead.
Sunday morning I was awoken at 7:30 by a text message from my mother’s work phone; they had landed! Thirty minutes later, my phone buzzed again; they had made it through customs! Thirty minutes later, my phone buzzed for a final time; they were at the hotel! I hopped on my motorbike and raced to meet them. My dad had slept so poorly on the plane that he was comatose, but my mom came down to meet me in the lobby. I was overjoyed to see her. After a long hug, we went for coffee next to the hotel. I have used this blog, and other outlets in Hanoi, to a fairly cathartic effect, but nothing is as cathartic as sitting across from your mother for the first time in months sharing your joys and sorrows and everything in between. After a late breakfast, we went up to the room to wake up my dad, and headed off for a day of adventure in Hanoi.
The first day I was still in somewhat a state of shock, the two most familiar faces in my life had joined me in this setting completely foreign to anywhere I had seen them before. For their part, I think their energy was impeded by the jet lag associated with traversing 11 time zones in 24 hours. Still, we trekked across Hanoi, from the famous One Pillar Pagoda to the Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum and even to the Temple of Literature. We finished the day at the top of Hanoi, taking in a sunset fiercely muted by clouds and pollution from the 68th story of the Lotte Tower. Afterwards, we returned to their hotel (conveniently attached to a steakhouse) and I gorged myself on the finest meal I’ve had abroad. I had almost forgotten how much I love steak, having not eaten it for almost three months. For a second I wondered what I had missed more: the hunk of meat on the plate in front of me, or the two people across the table. Obviously the latter, though it was close.
The next morning we were up early and headed south towards Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the original location of the Vietnamese city who’s narrow, crowded, jumbled streets remind me vaguely of the French Quarter in New Orleans. We walked the circumference of Hoan Kiem Lake, taking in the famous Turtle Temple along the way. We then went to Hoa La Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where captured American pilots, including John McCain, were housed during the (Vietnam / American) War. We learned it’s history, how it originally had been built by the French imperialists to house Vietnamese nationalists, how after the expelling of the French in 1954 and subsequent capturing of pilots during what is known here as “The American War of Destruction”, it had been repurposed as a POW camp. I asked my parents about their recollections of the War. They expressed their sheer amazement at being in the building and city which they had heard so much about in a different era, which had been at the epicenter of one of the most monumental events of their youths (not to mention American history). I supposed I would be similarly shocked if, decades from now, Thatcher Jr. travels to Baghdad or Fallujah for a year to teach English, and my wife Nina Agdal-Gleason and I go to visit him.
After a Bun Cha lunch, we departed Hanoi. We met up with a Cultural Anthropologist named Hung, whom I had been introduced to by a friend of my uncles who owns a heritage gallery in Hanoi (more on that later). We climbed into a Toyota Fortuner and headed north for hours on end, until we reached Ha Giang, the northernmost province of Vietnam, an unspoiled beautiful range of karst mountains towering over tranquil rice fields, steppes carved into the piedmonts by generations of the people who live there. We arrived at a homestay around 8:30pm, exhausted from sitting in a cramped car for 7 hours. Luckily, we were greeted with a full Vietnamese dinner buffet of the freshest vegetables and pork and beef you could imagine. It was the night of April 9th, my dad was celebrating his (number redacted)th birthday. As is customary during Vietnamese meals, shots of rice wine we’re constantly poured, clinked, and thrown back. I was surprised and delighted to find French fries among the Vietnamese cuisine, unsure if they’re a staple or a welcome newcomer. Belly filled and energy tempered by rice wine, I was fast asleep by 10pm.
A Panoramic View of one of the hundreds of valleys in Ha Giang
The next morning, we awoke around 7:15. Eggs that might’ve been laid that morning was our early feast, and after that we hopped on motorbikes. In Hanoi, I ride an automatic motorbike, all I have to do is crank my wrist or pump the breaks to accelerate or decelerate respectively. Obviously the sheer cliffs of Vietnam’s northernmost province is the perfect place to learn how to ride a manual bike. As evidenced by the fact that I am writing this blog post, I survived our ascent up to a remote village, accessible only by motorbike. Home to about 50 people, the Black Yao village we visited that Tuesday morning is perhaps the most authentic and fascinating place I’ve ever been. Most people who live in this village don’t travel further than 20 or 30 kilometers from their birthplace in their entire life. The furthest they trek from home is the furthest rice field they cultivate. The leader of the village, an octogenarian Shaman who had been the spiritual leader of these people for close to six decades, told us (through Hung, our fantastic guide and translator) that in his life he had only left thrice, each time to Hanoi to pay his respects at the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.
Looking over the Village Book with the Shaman. Almost 150 years old, it is written in “Chữ nôm”, original Vietnamese character script, basically the only place where this antiquated alphabet is still used. This book contains all birth information, marriage information, and other important events which happen in the town.
It is truly fascinating how, as humans we have but one window, our own experience, into this massive world. My life experience could not be more polar opposite to these villagers. I have been blessed in my (almost) 24 years of life to travel extensively, both within my own country and internationally. I have been surrounded by electricity and technology my entire life and the omnipresence of both is only increasing. These villagers didn’t have electricity until the beginning of this decade, and didn’t have TVs until three or four years ago. The Shaman didn’t exactly lament over the adaption of technology by his people, but it is clear he felt it was disruptive to the stoic way of life way up in the mountains. I tried to reflect on my own usage of electronics, interconnectivity, etc. etc. as all social media, texting, FaceTiming, Facebook seems so natural and fundamental to my way of life.
Maternal figures tending to their young
After finishing our visit to the village, we descended down the narrow, winding motorbike path back to the site of our first homestay. After a hearty lunch with porker fresher than the night before (by about 8 hours, seeing as we ate lunch at noon and dinner at 8pm the previous night), we piled back into the car and began the 90 kilometer journey (only 30km as the bird flies) further north, further into the mountains. Outside of our car, the views were unbelievable. I have never seen a landscape so dramatic, peaks rising hundreds of meters vertically with trees clinging onto the sides of near 90 degree cliffs. Over hundreds of generations, the mountain people had built steppes of rice fields into nearly every possible inch of the grand slopes. I thought about the Herculean effort made by humanity over thousands of years to transform these steep, unforgiving inclines into productive farmland. Our guide explained how, for thousands of years, each generation would cultivate the steppes left to them by those who came before while also placing equal emphasis on carving new steppes they would never get to tend in the hopes that the generations which follow them, whether it be their children, grandchildren, or great-great-great-great grandchildren would enjoy a more bountiful harvest. I was reminded of a Greek Proverb which states “A society grows great when old men plant trees who’s shade they know they shall never sit in”. This mindset has been forsaken by America, and western capitalism as whole, as evidenced by the pillaging of the planet in search of short-term profit. It was amazing and inspiring to see a community truly abide by this guiding principle, thinking and acting in ways that will benefit their family and people generations long from now, long after they’re gone.
Rice Steppes carved into the piedmonts beneath the magnificent karst mountains
We arrived at our destination around 6:15pm, a homestay in a small town called Dong Van which prided itself on being built in 1925. After a hearty hotpot dinner (and more rice wine), I fell into a deep sleep no later than 9:30pm.
The next morning, we again headed north. Our destination was Lung Cu, known in Vietnam as “The North Pole”. Befitting it’s name, we arrived at a great flagpole sitting at the northernmost point in Vietnam. Already 1,470 meters above sea level, my parents and I climbed about 300 stairs to reach a massive tower. After climbing through the winding staircase within the tower itself, we emerged onto a platform about four meters across. My legs wanted to give out for fear of heights, so I didn’t give them the chance. I waddled like a baseball catcher around the the platform, much to the amusement of my parents and the group of Chinese Tourists who joined us atop the tower. Looking north, China seemed but a stones throw away. We could see clearly, about 200 meters in the distance, the Nanli River which makes up the natural border between Vietnam and China. The views were breathtaking, 360 degrees of unimpeded vantage upon to rice fields, towering cliffs and two stoic lakes. Above us, only a flapping, 54 square meter large flag (representing the 54 Ethnic Groups of Vietnam) and wide, blue sky. My dad was greatly amused and flattered when the Chinese tourists asked to take a picture with him, a common occurrence in this part of the world, so far from Hanoi where Western-folk are somewhat familiar.
After finishing at the flag pole, we again boarded our car and whipped along the mountain passes which afforded us more spectacular views and gut-wrenching blind corners. My mom was fascinated by the regularity with which we saw children, some looking barely three years old, playing along the side of the road, often on the side of a cliff. I was also taken aback, but figured that both the fear of heights and bad balance had been weeded out of the gene pool of this area thousands of years ago. Suffice it to say I would not have made a great child to have up in these mountains, what with my leg-weakening fear of heights and remarkable ability to trip over flat surfaces. I felt confident the mothers of the mountains did not blindly trust their kids to play at the sides of the cliffs. At least, I hope not.
As the afternoon marched towards early evening, a mass of clouds marched over the mountains. It was not rainy season yet, that comes in July and August and brings uninterrupted downpours for weeks on end, but still a light mist began to pepper the mountainside. Visibility was reduced on the road to about just 10 or 15 meters in front of us, and the breathtaking panoramas retreated behind a dull, gray, visibly impenetrable haze. The rest of our journey down out of the highest peaks, further south back towards Ha Giang City quickened considerably for not pulling over to take pictures every ten minutes. We arrived to our third homestay again around 6pm. This was the first one with (luke)warm water, so I rejoiced in my first shower since leaving Hanoi. As evening routine, the freshest food descended into our bellies alongside a river of rice wine, and afterwards it was quickly to bed. The word “firm” does not do justice to the mattresses at this homestay, and I felt stiff the entire next day, but it did not impede my falling asleep in the slightest.
Jimbo taking in the views of one of the valleys
The next morning was again an early one. Thursday’s breakfast was as fresh as the two prior days, any fresher and I’d have to grab the egg as the chicken laid it and cracked it open on an already simmering pan. After breakfast we walked around the village, just outside of Ha Giang City. The clouds hung low in the sky and cast everything in a hazy fog, but the village was still breathtakingly beautiful. I was amazed by the advanced irrigation system which fed all the rice paddies. Much of the village was preparing for a wedding later that afternoon, so we got a unique look at the preparation for a northern Vietnamese wedding, in which basically the whole town endeavors to assemble the wedding in the mere hours prior to the ceremony.
At about 9:30am, we climbed into our car for a final time and began the long trek back to Hanoi. Stopping just once along the way, we returned to the bustling chaotic metropolis around 4pm in the afternoon. The rest of the day was spent lounging about, getting massages, catching up on the political chaos of home which had been largely ignored during our time in the mountains, and eating delicious tapas. While many of my friends were playing football (soccer), a couple who were free joined me and my parents for a divine feast at the lovely El Loco Tapas Bar. I didn’t even know what tapas was before I came to Vietnam, quite hilarious that I had to come to Southeast Asia to find Mexican food which doesn’t nuke my weak American stomach. This was by far the latest night we stayed up the whole time my parents were here, sangria (not rice wine, thank goodness) being poured and clinked well after the designated closing time of 10pm. At 11pm, the restaurant finally kicked us out. My parents went back to their hotel and I returned to my house to attain a meager 6 and a half hours of sleep (by the time I was done watching some Rick and Morty, it was more like 5 hours) before leaving for Halong Bay the next morning.
If you want a romantic, transfixed and starry eyed description of Halong Bay, I would suggest you consult my blog post about the place from when I went in January. Coming from Ha Giang, a place unfrequented by all but the most adventurous tourists, to Halong Bay, where each day 10,000 visitors are bussed around it’s scenic harbor was quite shocking. Every bit as naturally beautiful as I remembered, I was quite put off by the fact that it must’ve been between 200% and 300% more crowded than when I had come in January. It makes sense, January it was cold and cloudy and I was told that April and May are the peak months for Halong Bay tourism. The trek up Titop Island was impeded by what amounted to a line spanning nearly the entire 400 step staircase. The waters and beach which had once felt not exactly private but rather exclusive was overcrowded with masses of people I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t at the Chinese version of Cabo during their spring break. But through it all, of the thousands of people who packed in to appreciate the natural beauty of the place (ironically thereby diminishing said beauty, if only slightly), I had two guests with me who brightened the mood and made it all worth it.
During the downtime in Halong Bay, I discussed with my parents strategies to conquer what I have taken to calling “the lows” of living abroad. My mood in Vietnam has been one of extremes. I have made no secret of the difficulties I have been having with adjusting to living not just in such a foreign land and a different way of life, but more so living halfway around the world from my family, my friends, and all I had known prior to January 10th, 2018. While the time since then has provided me with some of the most unforgettable and amazing experiences of my life, it has equally been plagued by bouts of self-doubt and loneliness which comes from such a dramatic change as Darien to Hanoi. I have (rather lazily) taken to referring to this pattern as the “highs and lows” on my journey. The highs are great, unbelievable moments I will hold dear for the rest of my life like watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat or playing with baby tigers, or more recently trekking to the most remote villages and most dramatic landscapes I had ever seen alongside my parents. The lows are more muted, slow building tremors in my psyche which come to a head at random times, during which I feel alone and scared and overwhelmed by a deep longing for home. Each low eventually passes with help from a good movie, a cathartic writing session, a western meal, a FaceTime to friends or family, or just the simple passage of time. My parents and I discussed strategies to help deal with the inevitable lows to come, as well as ways to make the highs more frequent. Talking with them about this helped a great deal, and I feel more well equipped to continue this arduous, rewarding journey than before my parents visited.
Still, as we departed from Halong Bay and headed back to Hanoi, I thought about how much I would miss them. It felt like they had just arrived yesterday, and all of a sudden they were leaving tomorrow and I again would be alone, Thatch in Nam sans parents. Still, I wouldn’t let the fact that they were leaving the next day impede at all enjoying every moment with them. We got back to Hanoi around 4:30. That evening we enjoyed a stupendous dinner overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, joined by my roommate Nick whom my parents liked a lot. A light mist was falling on the city, and in the distance I took in the first lightening I have yet seen in Vietnam, unsure still if it was striking the ground or if it was heat lightening confined to the clouds. Returning to my parents hotel around 10:15, I had to wake my mom up to get her out of the taxi. They quickly went to bed, and I returned home to find “The Other Guys” had been added to Vietnamese Netflix and I capitalized on the revelation.
The next morning after waking up early to watch the New Orleans Pelicans defeat the Portland Trailblazers in game one of the 2018 NBA post season (Let’s go Pels!), my parents and I headed down to a massive and impressive cultural gallery called 54 Traditions, run by Dr. Mark Rappaport, a friend of one of my mom’s brothers. He took us around his gallery, showing us six floors of unique and fascinating Vietnamese artifacts and explaining stories behind them which demonstrated true understanding of Vietnamese ethnic culture which could be attained only through decades of study and experience. My parents surveyed the gallery for authentic souvenirs (an oxymoron which in this case is genuine) while I interrogated Mark about a most amazing visitor I had heard he had had a couple weeks prior, the legendary Harrison Ford. Too old to go get them from forbidden temples anymore, I guess he has resigned to accruing artifacts by more traditional means.
My parents left last Sunday. First, my dad at around 3 in the afternoon, headed to the airport to catch his flight back to America. My mom, headed to England for business, didn’t fly until 1:30 in the morning, so I was blessed to share another late lunch, dinner, and more time with her. During our extra hours together, we discussed plans for my tentative grand, seven week adventure which will act as the culmination of this year-long journey. Receiving news this week of my dads intentions to retire in June, we discussed the possibility of him coming out to meet me in November or December to join me for part of the journey. We discussed the possibility of my two younger brothers coming to potentially visit during those weeks as well, likely over the week of Thanksgiving. Her and I looked at flights from Thailand to New York which would deliver me home just after noon on Christmas Eve, the most joyous Yuletide gift America shall ever receive. We’re gonna be saying “Merry Christmas” again folks, believe me.
Still, as the seconds crept by and my moms departure become increasingly imminent, I was overcome with a sense of sadness. While it was truly a blessing to have my parents visit me for a week, their presence made temporarily tangible that abstract idea of “home” which I have been missing so much. In their departure, that tangibility is shattered and I am left with a longing for home that is all the more intense for having been blessed by that sense of familiarity for a short time. It also doesn’t help that, barring some big change in plan, I likely won’t see my mom again until Christmas, nor my dad til (hopefully) mid-to-late November. Upon me came another low. However, utilizing the strategies developed in Halong Bay, I endeavored to not let this low capture me. I managed to make it back out Sunday night after sending my mom to the airport around 10pm. It was my friend Jack’s birthday celebration, and although I didn’t think I would make it out, I was extremely glad that I did. Good conversation and laughter were exchanged deep into the night and well into the morning hours. I was reminded that although my parents had left, I have a group of friends in Vietnam (a small group constantly in flux, but a group nonetheless) whom will help me along this journey, even if they don’t realize how much.
It’s silly to ever say life in Vietnam is “routine”, but a bit of a more structured schedule mirroring the time before I went to Bangkok several weeks ago has returned in the days following my parents departure. I am back to teaching, back to struggling at yoga, back to “the grind” as they say. I am looking forward to next week, when a friend from college will visit for several days, sure to be another “high” along this journey. I am equally (if not more) excited for early June when I will have 16 days off, and will be joined by one of my oldest friends to traverse Vietnam from North to South. Excitement for these adventures, and for others further down the road, and for my eventual return home help to some extent to assuage lows when they happen.
I am unbelievably blessed to have the opportunity to live in this remarkable country among these amazing peoples for a year. I am more so blessed to have had my parents visit me at the quarter-way marker of this journey. Their visit provided me with a renewed strength to continue this journey. It provided me with a “bottleneck” week to help placate my shrinking wallet. Above all else, it provided me an opportunity to see two of my favorite people, and with them go on an amazing adventure. I am forever grateful, I will carry the memories of this past week with me as a source of strength for the rest of this journey I am on now, and for the rest of my life as some of the best, most unique times I have spent with my mom and dad.
P.S. – Got lots of good footage in Ha Giang, but have yet to find time to edit it all together. I have figured out that the accompanying music will be “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Check back next week for hopefully a nice visual accompaniment to a fantastic song.