Squad Takes Nam (A Photo-Essay)

Before Reading the Blog, Please enjoy this little photo montage I made of our adventure set to Hall and Oates.  You will see some of the pictures again further down in the blog and learn more about them and our adventure as a whole.

Grey clouds engulf Hanoi as the remnants of Typhoon Mangkhut moves over the city.  A heavy rain pounds down, the heaviest since another typhoon came through in early August.  It creates a reflective atmosphere in which I look back upon the last month of my life and am filled with intense gratitude and joy.  As stated in the blog post “Wilderest Dreams”, I could’ve never imagined a scenario like I had the past month, when friends aplenty visited me on literally the other side of the world.  I had been looking forward to this adventure for so long, it’s strange that now it’s in the rearview. And although each second was incredible and I wouldn’t change a single moment (except the night we lost the Kook Cam, RIP), I am filled with a distinct type of sadness, almost sort of an emotional hangover from being on such a high for so long and realizing that it’s over (I also might still be a little bit actually hungover from Singapore).  Drowning out this sadness though is infinite gratitude and deep appreciation for the month that was – the best month of my life.

Words are insufficient devices to express the joy I felt each moment of each day as I looked around me and found myself surrounded by friendly familiar faces filled with ear to ear smiles, bellies full of beer belting out laughter with Vietnam as the backdrop for a legendary adventure.  I am too clumsy a writer to capture with any brevity the magic of the adventures of the past month. But I’ll give it my best shot.

It started late on Saturday, August 18th, when the first visitor Jack Barry arrived in Hanoi.  He had miscalculated his sleeping schedule on his flight and also had been delayed slightly so upon his arrival we didn’t go to tear up the town, we enjoyed a lazy night in catching up.  The next day I took Jack Barry for his first Bun Cha, and taught him when I was saying “cam on” I was not beckoning him to more quickly put the garlic on his meal so I could do so next, but rather that I was saying “thank you” in Vietnamese to the waitress for bringing us the delicious meal.  The weather was scorching so we spent much of the time sheltered in AC, unable to explore the city until the midday heat would break. Jack Barry’s first day in town, I still had to teach so I left him with a South African friend named Robyn. By the time I returned from work, Jack Barry, as he often is, was gleefully inebriated.  We shared a fantastic BBQ dinner (the first of many over the past month) and met up with some more friends afterwards.

Monday was more of the same, perhaps I should’ve taken us to get Bahn Mi’s or smoothies because the hot and sweaty weather did not make for ideal Bun Cha consumption conditions.  However, that afternoon after the heat broke we found ourselves at “The Sanctuary”, an outdoor pool / bar about an 8 minute drive from my house with my friends Dave and Lauren and their pup Sally.  After a couple great hours of lounging in and around the pool, I departed for work but Jack Barry, ever the social butterfly, stayed with Dave and Lauren. I returned home after work to find Jack snuggled up with Sally, Dave and Lauren leaving her with us to go on a date night.  Several more friends came over that night and we played a card game called “Secret Hitler” (if you’ve never played, I’d recommend it). Each day was getting better than the previous, and still only one visitor had arrived.

On Tuesday, August 21 Jack Barry accompanied me to work.  He was overwhelmed and impressed by the level of organized chaos that defines a Vietnamese English classroom (at least one where Teacher Thatcher is leading the way).  We then sped home, overwhelmed with excitement for in just a few hours the second visitor, Margot Palandjian would arrive. Arrive she did, with the biggest smile on her face and swollen ankles from the flight but to see her was incredible.  After a couple hours of kicking it, we made a spur of the moment 2am trip to the Flower Market (if you’re ever in Hanoi, check it out at this time of night, it’s buzzing). We chowed down on some delicious Bahn Mi’s and drank Saigon beers before returning home for some much needed sleep.  

The next day we lazily got some noon-ish (1pm-ish) bun cha, before departing for the Cong Vien Tay Ho, translated “New Sun Water Park – West Lake”, a fantastic little water park just a 10 minute walk from my house.  We spent the day there racing down the approximately dozen slides they offer, floating lazily around the lazy river, and enjoying life in Vietnam. I had to keep pinching myself that Jack Barry and Margot were in Hanoi with me at this waterpark on such a beautiful Vietnamese August afternoon.  What a life. On our walk back to my house, Margot and Jack delighted in some street vendored snails while I crushed a pair of small Bahn Mi Bao Ga’s, small fried small chicken sandwiches on extremely doughy bun topped with veggies and mayo. We rested up with quick naps, and then headed back to the BBQ place for the second time of many in the month to delight in some mushrooms wrapped in beef, cheese wrapped in beef, beef, bia and more beef.  We departed from there to Hanoi Rock City, a gathering drinking hole for expats which hosts an open mic night every Wednesday. We delighted in the musical talents of people from around the world well into the morning

It is at this point where I think I want to do away with the chronological retelling of the adventure.  Too many people arrive and too much happens, and I’m not crippled in bed so I don’t have four days to write a novella like I did after Cailin was here.  Rather, I’ve elected to find my ten (or so) favorite pictures and videos from the week, and beneath each I’ll write a bit about the situation in which they were taken, sort of like a photo essay combined with an actual essay.  I’ll end the blog with a sappy soliloquy about how much I love my friends which will in large part restate what was said in the prelude blog “How Lucky Am I… (Pt. II)”. And the story of mine and Margot’s adventures after everyone else left (including how I peaked in Singapore) will be coming later this week or early next week.

Picture 1: Circus Pub

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In this picture, I am with Adam Kalina and Jack Rekucki, two pledge brothers and two of my best friends.  This picture was taken at a hole in the wall bar somewhere in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I don’t know the true name of the bar but have taken to calling it “Circus Pub” because the inside reminds me of a circus tent.  This was taken relatively early on in the evening, as evidenced by the relative dryness of my shirt. Rekucki had arrived around noon that day, and Adam Kalina, having been delayed in Los Angeles, had just arrived not an hour prior.  This picture means a lot to me because I have so many great memories with each of these guys in a city over 14,000 kilometers (8,750 miles) away in New Orleans, and this was on August 23rd, the outset of our adventure and the beginning of our journey on the other side of the world.  I’m also wearing my favorite shirt and haven’t completely ruined it for the night yet.

Picture 2: El Loco Tapas Bar

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This picture was taken Friday, August 24 at El Loco Tapas Bar in Tay Ho, Hanoi just about a 10 minute walk from my house.  It is my favorite restaurant in the city. The calamaris are to die for. Typically, this restaurant is saved for special occasions, such as whenever a friend who I’ve made out here leaves Hanoi or it’s somebody’s birthday.  What more special occasion could call for Tapas than the arrival of all these beautiful people in Hanoi, with the final three visitors less than 12 hours from arriving? On the table are the fried calamaris, some deep fried camembert cheese with jam on top, chicken and mushroom croquettes, a cheese taster board, some Spanish gorgonzola meatballs, Patatas Bravis with aoili, grilled oysters and of course some extra bread.  We were washing it all down with Sangria, and Margot (who was known as “Nuoc Ba”, or “Water Lady”, due to her extreme hydration vigilance the whole trip) was also encouraging us to continue to down the La Vie Waters.

Picture 3: Thom’s Cafe

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This picture was taken Saturday, August 25.  All guests had arrived, and we were sitting at the lovely Thom’s Cafe located near the middle of West Lake on the eastern bank.  It was conveniently two minutes walking from where my brother, Jack Barry and I had elected to take advantage of the prices of custom suits in Vietnam, so the two of them are not pictured as they are getting fitted.  I got fitted first and strolled over to Thom’s Cafe to delight in the best egg avocado cucumber Bahn Mi I have yet to happen across in Hanoi, along with a top five mango smoothie. Everyone else seemed very content enjoying the great food and great conversation.  Uninteresting people don’t up and move to Hanoi. While sitting at Thom’s Cafe, we struck up conversations with several passerby’s, each with interesting stories and opinions and ways of looking at the world.

Picture 4: Vietnamese Hacky Sack

This video was taken on Saturday, August 25th after a fantastic meal at Cau Go Vietnamese Restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the the Old Quarter in Hanoi.  On Saturday’s, the roads around Hoan Kiem are closed off to traffic and become walking streets and a vibrant Vietnamese block party. We saw a group of locals playing what I just know as Vietnamese Hacky sack.  Basically, they take a badminton shuttlecock, remove the rubber ending and add a bunch of washers to weigh it down and then a rubber stopper so you aren’t kicking the washers, and then use it as a hacky sack. The Vietnamese were good, Aubrey with a background in JV soccer for the Greens Farms Dragon’s was passable, everyone else was terrible.  It didn’t matter. The Vietnamese loved playing with us, some Koreans joined in, and others from nationalities I couldn’t quite distinguish. It’s moments like this that are truly special – surrounded by my friends from home while making connections with people from around the world.

 

Picture 5a – Ngu Lam Peak

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Taken when we summited Ngu Lam Peak in Cat Ba, the highest peak in Cat Ba National Park at about 1000 meters above sea level (but only a 45 minute hike from where we parked our bikes), it offers a stunning panoramic view of the entire island which seems to stretch on for eternity of the jagged, unmistakable Vietnamese hills.  I had sweated through my shirt on the way up so had left it somewhere to dry. I asked Margot to take a picture of us, but she instead took a panoramic, which I was unsure would work because I was not confident in my ability to keep my shaky body from spazzing out for more than two seconds. Nuoc Ba pulled through beautifully, and this picture is no doubt one of my favorite from the trip.  The panoramic does a better job than other pictures to give you a sense of the vastness of the scale, but does not adequately at all depict the depth of the mountain range which covers the national park. The only way to see that is with your own eyes.
Picture 5b – Ngu Lam Peak

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This one was taken just several minutes after the previous one and at the same place so I’m gonna count these as two parts of the same picture.  In this one, I am with my brother and my oldest friend who made the voyage to Vietnam for this trip, Aubrey Carter. All three of us went to the same High School, Greens Farms Academy so expect to see this picture on the cover of the next issue of the Alumni Magazine.  This is one of the pictures my brother and I sent to our family during the trip, and my father immediately posted it on Facebook with the caption “Something my dad never would have said – my two sons enjoying the jungles of Viet Nam”. I thought it was a witty caption but it really got me thinking how lucky I am to live in a time when I can travel the world and be joined by my friends in such a beautiful country.  Coming over here, the first thing I associated with Vietnam was “war”. After eight months in this beautiful country having some of the most peaceful memories I could ever imagine, The American War is the furthest thing from my mind most of the time.

Picture 6 – Goin’ Bananas

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The morning of Monday, August 27 was a groggy and agitated one.  The stress of so many people visiting at one time, asking what we were doing next and me feeling as though I had to make sure they were all alright was beginning to get to me.  Margot and I hopped on a bike, Aubrey and Kalina on a second and we sped into town to look for a place to rent a boat to go out into Lan Ha Bay, just south of the world famous Ha Long Bay (but it’s the same thing minus the thousands of Chinese tourists).  We found a boat which would take us out for basically nothing, so we signed up and raced back to the hostel to get everyone else. I found a local shirt vendor and purchased 8 banana Hawaiian shirts, because why not? We all donned the shirts, and our driver Han hopped in front as we took a picture before setting sail into the bay for what was one of the best and most unforgettable days of my life.

Picture 7 – Captain Nuoc Ba

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For over four hours on August 27, we explored Lan Ha Bay via boat and kayak, foot and swimming.  We found our own little private island upon which we clinked beer cans and listened to groovy tunes, until a flash monsoon put a halt to all that.  Getting back to the boat as lightening struck down not more than half a kilometer away was the most alive I’ve ever felt. We were able to get everything – speakers, beers, people, and other important supplies – back onto the boat, but it was chaotic and exhilarating.  Honestly, the freak typhoon may have been one of my favorite moments of the trip. Both before and after the 20 minutes of excitement the typhoon afforded, we spent hours lounging lazily in Lan Ha Bay, sipping on Bia Saigon’s and Bia Ha Noi’s and listening to the sweet stylings of John Mayer.  Anyways, we were making our way back towards Cat Ba when Margot asked the driver if she could steer the boat for a little bit. Not only did he say yes, once she took the helm he basically handed the captainship to her. He offered little to no advice and looked downright disinterested as she navigated us back through a floating village, through the towering jade spires which make up the bay.  Margot peaked, as evidenced by picture 7b.

Picture 7b – Margot Peaking

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Here is a reverse angle of the previous picture, Margot Palandjian in full peak mode.
Picture 8 – Supreme

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Taken on Wednesday, August 29 at Dong Am Tien Park in Ninh Binh, Vietnam, this picture now forever adorns the front of several black shirts with a couple of (possibly trademark-violating) “Supreme” logos on it.  That morning, Margot had found two very beautiful but very fake gold chains, one with an emerald fat Buddha inside and one which was shaped like a tiger tooth with a golden tiger on the top. As a good friend Justin Arzi put it when he saw a picture, “that chain go dumb”.  Kalina, infatuated with the chain, was lent it by Margot. Once he got it, the camera fell in love with him. Stay tuned for a full photoshoot in a later blog. We were at Dong Am Tien for several hours, trapped by a heavy rainstorm. However, they still had ice cream and water and I had by my side my friends Jimmy, Margot and Kalina so I was as happy as a clam.  The post-rain mist made for some great photography conditions, thus resulting in what you see here.

 

Picture 9 – Cheering on Vietnam

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If there’s one thing Vietnam will always go crazy for, it is their U23 soccer team.  The Asia Games were taking place in Jakarta, with the underdog Vietnam team outperforming expectations and getting ready to square up with a powerful South Korean team in the semi-finals on the afternoon of August 29th.  I consider the host of the hostel we stayed at, Tran “Badman”, to be a friend, as this was my fifth time staying at his hostel and I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I told him we were all excited for the game, he went out and bought 8 matching Vietnam shirts, headbands, and stickers for all of us to wear.  While the Vietnamese team ended up falling 3-1 to a stronger and more disciplined Korean team, it didn’t kill the spirit of Vietnam and didn’t stop Badman from partying with us and doing Karaoke deep into the morning hours. The highlights of karaoke included singing “Sweet Caroline” with my brother, Kalina’s rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer”, the two Jack’s, Barry and Rekucki absolutely electrifying the crowd with a duet of “Dead or Alive”, and of course Badman’s rendition of Lionel Richie’s seductive “Hello”.  Badman also learned how to play Beer Die and do a “Roll Wave”.

 

Picture 10a – Bun Cha Huyen Linh

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Taken on our last day as a group of eight, we went to my favorite Bun Cha place in Hanoi just around the corner from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the presidential botanical gardens.  It is a beautiful spot, a thin hole in the wall which can only fit about twelve people at a time, so the eight of us took up almost the whole damn place. Bun cha is a Northern Vietnamese food made of pork belly and shoulder mixed into a broth and served with rice noodles, and it is my favorite food I’ve found in Vietnam, possibly cracking my top five favorite foods of all time.  This place has, in my opinion, the best bun cha in Hanoi, and Hanoi has the best bun cha in the world, so therefore this place has the best Bun Cha in the world.
Picture 10b – Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

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Just a picture of squad deep at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  The rain was pouring and I had convinced Margot we could leave our rain jackets in my motorbike.  Everyone else, having taken a taxi down there, was well prepared for the storm, apart from Aubrey who not only didn’t have a rain coat but ended up losing a toenail in a tragic slipping accident just a couple of minutes after this picture was taken.  Jack Barry didn’t have a raincoat either.

Picture 10c – Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House

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The final picture in this blog is a picture of all eight of us, some enjoying coconut ice cream but all enjoying the final couple of hours of having this legendary squad in Vietnam.  I don’t know how I could’ve ever been so blessed, how the timing worked out so well and so many friends descended upon Vietnam at the same time. What you have seen is just a highlight, 10 (okay a couple more than 10) of my favorite photos from this week long journey I shared with seven magical people.

This brings us up through August 31st, when Kalina, Rekucki and Jimmy all departed back to the States.  I couldn’t be more thankful for the squad we had and the times we shared. I can’t believe how well everything went.  I’ve never considered myself a “planner” per say, I do love trying to organize events where a lot of friends can come hang out, because my favorite thing is hanging out with my friends.  I was shocked each day as we successfully moved from place to place in Vietnam, things going relatively according to the itinerary I had drawn up. I want to thank each and every person who came to visit me.  It’s not secret I was in a bit of a rut leading up to their visit. I was still recovering from the most traumatic incident and most painful experience of my life. But these 7 people helped me fall in love with Vietnam all over again.  In a blog hopefully later this week or early next, I’ll recount the amazing two weeks when the Queen of the Johnson’s Margot Palandjian stuck around and we continued having once in a lifetime adventures and I do believe we achieved Full Nam Johnson.

Thank you to everyone who came.  Thank you to everyone who cares enough to read this blog.  Thank you to everyone around the world who considers me a friend.  I am blessed beyond belief.

As always, Roll Damn Wave.

 

 

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