Full Nam Johnson / Singapore Grand Prix

They say “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

I have struggled with this sentiment my entire life, as I often come crashing down from life’s highs when they reach their inevitable conclusion.  It happened when I graduated from High School, then more severely when I graduated from Tulane. The fallout of my inability to reconcile with my graduation is likely a large part of why I ended up way out here in Vietnam.  And in the immediate aftermath of visitors in Vietnam, I have not done a good enough job of reflecting back and being thankful for their presence out here, despite the fact that I know full well how lucky I am to have had any visitor out here for any length of time, but rather I’ve gotten a little depressed upon each departure.  I have been better about it upon Margot’s farewell than other visitors, especially those from my parents and from Cailin in June, but I still am filled too much with sadness for Margot having left and not enough gratitude for her having been here at all. As the days pass, the sadness is slowly replaced by a profound gratitude, and of course a little sadness at the end of a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime journey is to be expected, but I really need to work on having more of the former and less of the latter from the moment visitors depart.

Anyways, for the second time on this incredible journey I was joined by one of my best friends for an extended length of time and afforded the unique opportunity to travel around and delight in some of the best this city and country have to offer and share it with an old friend for whom I care deeply.  After the best week of my life, documented in the previous blog, all good things must come to an end. Adam Kalina, Jack Rekucki and Jimmy Ferrare departed Hanoi on Friday, August 31st.

That day seven visitors became four.  We visited the Hoa Lo Prison, built during the times of French Imperialism to jail Vietnamese Patriots, and later used to jail American Pilots shot down on bombing campaigns over Hanoi, including the late John McCain.  The location still manages to move me upon each visit, this being my eighth.  Afterwards, myself and the four remaining guests went into the Old Quarter to explore and pick up any remaining souvenirs that needed to be picked up, and delight in the hustle and bustle and craziness of the oldest part of this city for the last time as a group.

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Four remaining guests and myself in front of St. Joseph’s Cathedral near Hoan Kiem, August 31

That evening we shared drinks just as a group at a lovely, out-of-the-way bar called Red River Tea Room, located just along the banks of Tay Ho.  We laughed and drank and played Cards Against Humanity from when the sun was high in the sky til long after it had descended beyond the horizon.

We returned to Thom’s Cafe and the nearby tailor the next day to get our suits.  They fit perfectly and I look great. On the evening of September 1st, Jack Barry hurriedly left to the airport around 9pm as I was under threat of eviction for having had so many visitors sleeping in the living room and making a mess for so long.  Luckily, Jack made his plane on time and I didn’t get evicted. Nathan left the following morning.

Seven became four became two quickly.  Aubrey and Margot were the last two visitors standing.  Sunday, September 2 was Vietnamese National Day, sort of like their “4th of July”, so myself, Margot, Aubrey and my roommate Nicoli went down to the Mausoleum and Ba Dinh Square in hopes of seeing a military parade or something cool.  We were underwhelmed by what just seemed to be an especially long and enthusiastic line waiting to pay homage to “Uncle Ho”. 

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Ba Dinh Square with Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the Background on Vietnam National Day

After a couple hours there, we departed back up towards my house, but not before stopping at the Driving Range for an hour on the way home to delight in whacking a couple golf balls into Westlake.  From there, we took a quick nap at home before Margot, Aubrey and I, for lack of anything better to do stumbled over to the amusement park. For about $8 each, we were able to ride the roller coaster three times, the ferris wheel six times, and the bumper cars three times. It was an absolutely fantastic trip to the amusement park, my best yet in Vietnam.

On Friday’s, Saturday’s and Sunday’s, the streets behind my house shut down much like those around Hoan Kiem Lake and become a Vietnamese block party.  The three of us on the walk home from the amusement park sat and ate Dalat Pizza (basically egg spread thinly over rice paper and topped with a boatload of deliciousness), played Vietnamese versions of popular carnival games, and cracked and clinked coconuts.  I drew a big crowd trying to throw little darts at balloons, failed miserably and won a little stuffed pink whale. It was a fantastic evening.  Upon returning home and meeting up with my roommates, we played more Secret Hitler (again, if you’ve never played check it out).

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Marge enjoying some Coconut

Monday, September 3 was Aubrey’s last day, and we again spent it lazily walking around the Old Quarter picking up trinkets and enjoying in each others company.  Nicoli led us to what I found to be the best Mango smoothie in Hanoi, though I can’t remember the damn name of the cafe. Margot, Aubrey and I went for one last quick dinner at the BBQ place, but it was damn jam packed so we made our way over to Turtle Lake Brewing for one final meal.  As we rode home, we popped the heck out of one of my tires, but still all three managed to make it home alive. “Closing Time” by Semisonic set the mood as I called Aubrey a Grab (the Southeast Asian version of Uber), and two visitors was finally down to one. I was sad to see Aubrey go, and for that portion of the adventure to to officially be over, be over, but I was infinitely grateful at the company who would be sticking around for the next couple weeks.

Margot Palandjian and I met my junior year of college.  I originally knew her as “the chick who came over to clean the turtles”, Charlie and Luna (R.I.P.), which I had not agreed to host in the backyard of our junior year humble abode, “The Trap House”.  Though certainly friends the entirety of that year, we didn’t become close until my senior year, when I realized how dope she was and hopefully she thought the same of me and I made a more concerted effort to develop a friendship.  Once we became good friends, we fast became best of friends. Margot reminds me a lot of another one of my best friends, Miranda Princi. She doesn’t take shit, we share a very similar sense of humor and they are each easy going yet always seem to be in control at the same time.  Margot possesses an infinitely curious soul and always assumes the best of people even in the face of conflicting evidence. She is one of the nicest, most uplifting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, thinking of others first, second and third and if there is time thinking of herself fourth, before again checking on the other people fifth and sixth.  The fact that she was the one to stick around and share in Vietnam with me for these next twelve days, I couldn’t be luckier.

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Full Nam Johnson at Circle K

Around the time that Cailin visited, I discussed in this blog how a familiar face could offer comfort untold in foreign lands.  The same sentiment applies to Margot’s visit. Hanoi felt a bit more a home than at points before. This is not to take away from any of the friends I’ve made in Hanoi.  I’ve made many great friends whom I am very fond of, but when the entire life you live you didn’t know existed before January of the same year, there is only so much a home anything can ever really feel.  With a friend of several years by my side, and one of my best friends at that, Hanoi shined with a new light, each day promising to be better than the prior.

And each day was.  Margot came to class with me and delighted for several days in being a Teacher’s Assistant.  The kids were especially fond of the Bubble Gun she brought to class her second day.

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“Teacher Mango” as the kids took to calling her

We made two trips out into the country, the first to Ba Vi National Park where we found a secluded waterfall which Margot dubbed a “Temple of the Sun”.  

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Temple of the Sun, our private waterfall oasis on the 5th of September

On my Saturday off, we made the trek three hours north to Thai Nguyen to spend an overnight amongst the rice paddies in a scenic river valley cutting through the mountain ranges of northern Vietnam. We went bouldering and swimming again in secluded waterfalls before zipping around scenic rice paddies and bumpy roads as the sun slowly descended behind the vibrant green hills.  

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Rice Paddy Fields of Thai Nguyen

And we talked.  A lot. Growing up with three brothers, I’ve always highly valued having platonic female friends.  I feel as though they offer insight and opinions which I just don’t get from any other aspect of my life.  We discuss different topics and from different angles and explore different viewpoints than I would have ever considered before.  I am no fool as to my position in society – one of privilege, and for that I am grateful. But I naturally fall “victim” to the male gaze, to blind masculinity from time to time, and to being a total idiot other times.  When Cailin was here, she pointed out and made clear several of my behaviors which were not always considerate. This discussion continued to a lesser extent with Margot. Female friends challenge me to be better in a different way from my male friends.  I’d like to think I’m a very sympathetic person, but know I would be nowhere near as much without having had an array of close female friends my entire life. Despite all my progress in this regard, there were still one or two times when Margot bluntly called me on my shit, and I could do nothing but agree, nod and take in the advice.  Progress in this regard is slow, I’m not gonna snap my fingers and fix behaviors I didn’t even realize were problems for years at a time. After all, like I said I grew up with three brothers, the female perspective was not strongly represented in the Gleason household.  However, I’m infinitely grateful for all the people who call me out, and realize it takes a true friend to call you out on your shit.  If they didn’t care about you, they wouldn’t care about your faults and wouldn’t make it known they want you to work on doing better in the future. It was kind of funny – the Vietnamese just did not understand the concept of male – female friendship.  We got inquisitive looks almost everywhere we went.  For these friendships though, I’m forever grateful – and wouldn’t want to know a life without them.

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The Philosophy Club of Thai Nguyen, Vietnam

We talked a lot of philosophy too, that was one of my favorite parts.  Margot and I were both philosophy majors at Tulane.  While she has a much more libertarian viewpoint, and definitely dabbled in hedonistic nihilism at points in her life (didn’t we all, in college, though?), and I myself hold a rather idealistic utilitarian viewpoint, we could still debate and discuss many not only ideas of philosophy, but specific teachers at Tulane University.  Debating philosophy deep into the night (in rural Vietnam, deep into the night is around 11:30pm) three hours flung into the rice paddies of northern Vietnam will no doubt be a highlight of this incredible year when all is said and done.

With Marge, I also explored Hanoi in a way I hadn’t since arriving.  We just wandered the streets of the Old Quarter to find whatever it was the Old Quarter wanted us to find.  We saw a temple on the side of the road, we pulled over to check it out. On my own, it is too easy to fall into a rut.  Go to the gym, go get bun cha, go get takeaway for dinner, lounge around while making passive attempts at trying to read or do anything productive and sit in AC, and then go to work.  With Margot around, we were up and at it almost every day. Sure, we succumbed to some lazy days which didn’t start until after the midday heat had broke, but once we were going we were going.  

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‘Splorin some Temples around Hanoi

Though the fact that it’s over, yet still so recent makes the whole thing feel a tint bittersweet, I am infinitely grateful and hope that the sadness washes away but the gratitude remains of the remarkable 12 days I got to spend with one of my best friends on the other side of the world.  

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Thanks Marge for visiting me in Vietnam

Oh, and then we went to the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Singapore.

After twelve unforgettable days adventuring around Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, Margot and I awoke at 4:45am on Friday, September 14 and departed to Noi Bai Airport to catch the 7:35am flight to Singapore.  

At noon, we arrived in Singapore.  By 4pm, we were settling into our seats at the Bay Grandstand of the Marina Bay Street Circuit, a Formula 1 track which winds through the very streets of Singapore, watching the coolest cars in the world driven by the best drivers zipping around in front of us, with the famous Singapore skyline in the background to the right, and the coolest building I’ve ever seen, the Marina Bay Sands to the left.  Friday was just practice rounds, the drivers were feeling out the track and feeling out their cars, but still the roar of the engines got my heart racing. We returned to our hotel to take a quick dip and get ready for a nice (ahem) dinner at a restaurant called Ushidoki, where I was treated to undoubtedly the finest and highest quality beef I’ve ever had the good fortunate to masticate upon (sorry Mr. Papic).  

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Exploring Singapore by night

From there, Margot and I attempted to get into the Casino at the Marina Bay Sands but were (probably for the best) turned away for lack of passports, explored the craziest mall I’ve ever been to (complete with a canal running through the middle), and took in the world famous Garden by the Bay Trees. I’ve been to a couple of cities in my day. Singapore is without a doubt the coolest one I’ve ever had the fortune of exploring.  The architecture was a geometric explosion of lights and mirrored windows, famous old buildings flanked by the most modern of skyscrapers. I’d been told going to Singapore is like going to the future. I should hope the future will be so amazing.

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Gardens by the Bay

I’ve had continental breakfasts at hotels before, but I’ve never had an Intercontinental breakfast.  The latter is vastly superior to the former. I discovered this the morning of September 15.

Though we had tried, the evening prior we’d not been able to ascend to the “boat”, for lack of a better word, which sits across the three towers which make up the Marina Bay Sands.  That was the first item on our agenda, but this was the vacation portion of the adventure, so it wasn’t until around 1pm that we hailed a cab and made our way to the resort. I elated in the most enchanting parmesan truffle fries I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating atop the coolest building I’ve ever been in in the most futuristic city I’d ever explored, while wearing my favorite shirt (freshly ironed for the first time ever) in the company of one of my best friends.  Pretty good day, and it was only 2:30 in the afternoon.

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Possible Peak, I’m not sure, it’s hard to pick one at this point

After a delicious brunch at supper time, we descended from the top of the Marina Bay Sands and made our way around the banks of the Marina Bay, skirting the outside of what is known as the “downtown core” of Singapore, where it looks like all the big banks and financial service companies have their towers.  We also passed the ArtScience Museum (one of the craziest looking buildings I’d ever seen), passed through the plaza where we had been the night before, around past the famous Fullerton Hotel, and finally made our way into the Grand Prix. It was Saturday of race weekend, there was one more practice round to be run and then finally the Qualifying.  We got to our seats just in time for the third and final practice round.

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Walking around the Marina Bay

After the practice round, we made our way to Zone 4 towards the Padang Park, where in just a few minutes Liam Gallagher of Oasis was set to take the stage.  If we’re being honest, with my limited knowledge of how cool the actual Grand Prix was gonna be, a big selling point of going was the chance to see Liam Gallagher.  At 8pm, he took the stage. On a night when the temperature was pushing high 80s and I was sweating through my South Bark polo, Liam donned an all black hoodie and long pants as he lead the crowd through the hits of Oasis and his subsequent solo career.  He ended with “Wonderwall”. I kinda wish he had dropped one of his middle, lesser known songs and played “Live Forever” as well, but hey, I’m not gonna complain about a Liam Gallagher set in Singapore.  

After he finished, we hurried back to our seats to catch the end of the second qualifying round, in which the ten drivers who will sit on the grid the following day are decided.  We watched the entire third round of qualifying, in which drivers just try to go out and have the fastest lap, whoever gets the fastest gets to “sit on the pole” the next day as the announcer kept saying.  Lewis Hamilton smashed the track record, making his way around the 5.1 kilometer track in just 1 minute and 36 seconds. I’m not a huge car guy, but these Formula 1 cars zooming by, engines loud as airplanes whipping around corners at amazing speeds, sending sparks as they bounce over imperfections in the Singaporean streets upon which they race, gets your heart pounding.

After the qualifying, we made our way back towards the Padang Park for The Killers.  It’s funny, the last time I saw The Killers was in October 2017 in New Orleans, and then they were also the closing act of the evening, I was also too tired to be up in the crowd, and in both instances I sat near the back of the crowd on the grass grazing on something covered in cheese (in New Orleans it was a Grilled Cheese, in Singapore It was a Cheese Pizza).  I don’t know if either of the phrases “deja vu” or “it’s a small world” apply here. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell I’d done in life to deserve such a set up – watching The Killers with Margot Palandjian at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Singapore. Don’t pinch me, let me enjoy the dream.

After getting lost on the way home for almost an hour, some great room service french fries and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, we slept for about 12 hours.

It was suddenly Sunday, race day.  We lounged by the pool and had lunch at the hotel, wanting to conserve our energy for the big day ahead.  We had another great talk and I genuinely appreciated the advice Margot offered about some issues I had been dealing with living so far from home and so distant from so many friends at home.  She was bluntly honest at times, but sometimes that’s what it takes to get through my thick skull. It was a great final heart to heart after a long month full of em. Then, it was show time.

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Race Day

We suited up and made our way to the Marina Bay Street Circuit for the final time.  We arrived around 5pm, excited to see The Sugarhill Gang and disappointed to be informed their set had been moved from 5:15 to 7pm, right during the opening ceremonies.  Oh well. I’ve heard “Rapper’s Delight” a couple of times before. Never seen a Grand Prix.

We made our way to our seats, mango margaritas in hand, and the true magnitude of the situation began to hit me again.  Here I was, in Singapore, at the Formula One Grand Prix with Margot.  What??? What a life.  

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C’est la vie

The racers paraded around the track waving to the crowd in some of the most elite vintage cars I’d ever seen, the Singaporean national anthem was sung, the racers took their places at the starting grid, the checkered flag was waved, and they were off.  As had apparently happened the three years previous, there was a crash early on in the race. It was only the third turn when two teammates bumped into each other, sending one of them into the barrier and ending his night rather early and unceremoniously.  

I had put down a bit of money on Lewis Hamilton, the pole sitter, point leader, and he seems like a rockstar.  When I began following him on Instagram a couple of days before the Grand Prix and found out he was partying with Tommy Hilfiger and Travis Scott in New York City the Wednesday of race week, I was a little hesitant to put money on him, but his performance the night before had convinced me, why the heck not?

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Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel race by in the foreground early in the race (likely around lap 3) with the ArtScience building just in the background and the Marina Bay Sands behind.

It was a great bet to make.  Hamilton put on a World Class performance, an absolute clinic and won the race almost nine seconds clear of second on the podium Max Ver Stappen and forty seconds ahead of third place finisher Sebastian Vettel.  Hamilton, the best racer on the circuit today, was also the most supported, and the crowd was electric as he took his victory lap and the most amazing firework display I’d ever seen launched from inside the Marina, exploding between us and the Singaporean skyline, reflections dancing in the mirrored windows of the city and the Marina Bay Sands Resort to the left.  I looked at Marge. A solid high was fived. We’d done it! “Sent it” at the Singapore Grand Prix – check that off the bucket list … next?

The afterparty was at a place called the Amber Lounge, so we headed that way.  I have decided to announce my retirement from competitive gambling, after having won an undisclosed amount on the Singapore Grand Prix while at the Singapore Grand Prix, seems like a good place to stop (I may toss a casual bet here and there, but trust me it will be very casual).  The afterparty had flowing champagne and drinks and we danced the night away and met Martin Garrix. I basked in the glory of the real reason of the party – my successful bet. I remember everything so vividly, I swear, until around 4:30am. We left the party around 5am. Margot’s flight was scheduled for noon.

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Martin Garrix at the afterparty

If I recall correctly (which I probably don’t), my body willed itself awake around 8:30am to the sound of two alarms blaring and we were wizzing towards the airport by 8:45, both of our lights on but nobody really home, myself having lost my flip flops and bathing suit.  My custom suit was crumpled up inside my carry on, the coat coated with rum and cokes.  It’s a shame that this was mine and Margot’s goodbye, hungover and on not two hours of sleep, but still after I thought I was gonna die at the check in counter and we had settled into a couch near her gate, through my pounding headache and shattered mind I was able to feel a profound gratefulness for the entirety of the adventure Margot and I had shared over the past month.  Even as her flight got called and we said our final goodbyes and I limped towards my gate, I was too hungover to feel real emotional sadness for it all being over, at the time I just felt pretty nauseous.

As the alcohol hangover faded, a much more emotional one set in. After riding such a high for such a long time, I felt it come crashing down.  Again, not as distinctly or poignantly as in times past, but the general feeling was the same.

I need to work on not letting the end of highs be the beginning of lows. As stated at the beginning of the blog, it is often just after the highest highs of my life that I feel the lowest lows, not because things get down (except in the case of the motorbike crash in June, but that’s a different story) but rather just because I struggle to deal with the come down, I refuse to accept the high is over. Thus is what’s happening now. It’s been a string of beautiful days in Hanoi after the typhoon passed by, and yet I still struggle to get out and do things. My roommate Nicholi is leaving Vietnam tomorrow, other friends are gone for a bit, and I am somewhere I gladly haven’t been since early August: alone with my thoughts. Latched on to my memories. What a shame it is that I am like this – I still have many weeks to explore this beautiful city and this beautiful subcontinent before I will return home and see everyone once again. I can’t go through life with the attitude that the absence of a high is the equivalent of a low, that days are either perfect and the best ever or overwhelmingly melancholic.

I endeavor to pull myself out of this funk quickly, and to not let such a funk capture me again while out here. It’s natural to feel a bittersweet sadness at the conclusion of an amazing adventure with a slew of best friends, it’s not healthy to get caught in a typhoon of nostalgia and wishing it was a couple weeks earlier. Part of my mind feels as though if I had focused harder on appreciating each moment while it was happening, I could’ve somehow made them last forever. How absurd.

Anything worth having is temporary. If you could have it forever, it wouldn’t be worth much. The sadness I feel upon the absence of my friends confirms the joy I felt upon their presence, but I can’t get caught up in either. I need to look back with a smile on my face but not fixation or sadness in my mind, appreciate the good times we had, be confident in the knowledge that there will be more good times in the future, and get back into the swing of Hanoi to make my remaining weeks here as great as possible.

“Yesterday’s over my shoulder, so I can’t look back for too long. There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me and I know that I just can’t go wrong”                                                                                            – Jimmy Buffett

Thank you to Margot for all the adventures and for putting up with my shenanigans for over three weeks.  I’ve said before that the best gift I’ve ever received was when people have come to visit me out here, their presence alone is a gift I could never repay.  I’m so lucky to have so many people visit, so lucky that this one chose to stick around for a bit, and so lucky to have more visitors on the way in no time at all.  Perhaps I’m luckiest of all to have so many people whom I will be elated to see when this whole adventure is over and I return home in December.  Can’t decide, and again, it’s a good indecision.

 

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Just a couple of best friend Johnson’s in Singapore, this is what it’s all about.

 

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