As my time abroad marches on, feelings of homesickness are beginning to become more acuteas the memories which tether me to home slightly fade.Despite my last blog detailing a semi-productive daily routine which I have developed, and the fact that the “lows” which I had discussed two blogs prior have lessened in both frequency and intensity, my enjoyment of Hanoi and Vietnam is still subject to discoloration at times by intense homesickness.I sometimes feel like a tree whose roots still burrow in Connecticut and New Orleans, but whose trunk and crown have been transplanted to faraway soil.Wistfulness can be brought on by anything.The other day I saw a Red Mercedes SUV which reminded me so much of a vehicle my friend Natalie drove in college that for a moment I thought it was hers, down to the Alabama plates.A few weeks ago I saw a dog which looked like It could’ve been my border collie Callie’s cousin.I pulled my motorbike right over and gave it a big old hug, potential fleas be damned.
The thing I miss most about home is obviously the people, be it family or friends or dogs.I have learned while on this journey that at home, it is not the places where home exists which I think so fondly of while away, but rather the people which make the memories worth remembering.I miss the picturesque Long Island Sound sunsets while sharing some drinks and blasting tunes with friends far more than I miss “The Stinkpot”, the 19-foot Mako which allows such times.I miss the friends I surrounded myself with and grew to depend on over my four years far more than I miss Tulane, though I do miss only having class on Tuesday and Thursday.It is memories and people which I miss most, shockingly not flavor blasted goldfish.
I have made and continue to make friends in Hanoi, but it is difficult.It is not easy to grow new roots.Often times I would rather stay in and watch a movie than go out, and I have to fight these hermetic impulses (sometimes).When I do go out, the social scene is sectioned off by the fact that most Hanoi bars are dominated by large tables hosting one friend group each, and there are few instances to run into new people.Most new people I meet these days is through someone I already know.I have what I believe to be a strong nucleus of friends, mostly Brits to whom I was introduced by my former roommates.There’s no shortage of fun activities for a day off.A waterpark just a quarter mile from my house costs around $6 dollars for unlimited access to 13 slides (which are actually half decent, even compared to American waterparks), a lazy river, a rope swing, a high dive, all with very relaxed security and safety standards.A slow kid walking up the stairs is the longest line I’ll encounter.The adjacent amusement park offers the most terrifying rollercoaster I’ve ever been on (strictly for the fact that it’s a Vietnamese rollercoaster), Bumper Cars without bumpers, and a Ferris Wheel which I thought offered the second or third best view of the city I’ve seen so far.Other days, a bit of a drive away is a fantastic pool attached to the Intercontinental Hotel, conveniently located next to a driving range which plays directly into the lake.Undoubtedly a premier spot to spend an afternoon or early evening.
My roommates Nick and Kenjah are great as well.Nick is a very well traveled German working for an Environmental Lobby (as far as I understand), trying to get Vietnam to shift towards a more sustainable future.Kenjah is a French Musician who was big in Japan, where he lived for 10 years before moving to Hanoi just recently.I have had the pleasure of watching him play live on stage twice, and in my living room around a dozen times.Kenjah’s worldview is very French and very existentialist, and he takes many conversations in unexpected and fascinating directions.Another roommate, a Vietnamese man named Johnny (who went to University in London and speaks English better than me) has joined us recently, though unfortunately my late work schedule and his early work schedule do not allow much overlap in free time, though he seems great from the interactions we’ve had, and I look forward to getting to know him more.
April afforded me necessary visits from my parents and good friend Harry.I have made no secret of how cathartic and essential I felt those guests were.The last five weeks have stretched on devoid of foreign company, and have felt longer for it.Obviously I knew moving to Vietnam would remove me from seeing friends and loved ones for extended periods of time, but I’ve never been away from EVERYONE at the same time for so long, and it is admittedly more difficult than I anticipated.
The comfort offered by a familiar face in a foreign land is indescribable.This Friday, one of the most familiar faces I know, belonging to Ms. Cailin O’Brien, will arrive at the doorstep of 483 Au Co, fresh off 20 hours of flying from Los Angeles.On Saturday morning, we will depart for a two week adventure down Vietnam.We will begin to the East, traveling to Cat Ba Island just south of the famous Ha Long Bay.From there, we will travel to Ninh Binh to see miraculous karst caves and grottoes, before continuing South to the Ancient capital of Vietnam, the Imperial City of Hue.We then will motorbike seven hours down the Vietnamese Pacific Coast Highway, arriving in Hoi An, supposedly one of Vietnam’s (not so hidden) gems.We will visit Danang, the third largest city in the country and the Northernmost base of operations during the American insurgency.After another overnight train, we will spend a day relaxing on the sandy white beaches of Nha Trang, nicknamed “Little Moscow” due to the supposed abundance of Russians.I will make sure to keep my wits about me.From there, we will take another six hour motorbike ride West into the interior of the country, traveling along QL27C as it traverses the Annamite Mountain Range, rising and falling 1500 meters in what I’ve been told is the most beautiful motorbike route in Southern Vietnam.We will arrive in Dalat, an old French town from the Colonial era.Surrounded by rice fields and dozens of waterfalls, we will take a day “canyoning”, meaning Cailin will scale 18 meter high rushing waterfalls while I struggle on the 14 kilometer hike to and from the rapids.We will then travel to Cat Tien National Park, which although was devastated by the American War and later by predatory logging, still boasts some of the best biodiversity in Southeast Asia.The final leg of our journey will be to Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam.I am eager to visit many of the sites from the War, along with see what another huge city in Vietnam is like.Far more westernized than Hanoi I’ve been told, but I can’t wait to see for myself.We will have one day to travel down into the Mekong Delta and see the famous floating markets and silk factories.After 11 destinations, 2 overnight train rides, 10 hotels, 15 motorbike hours, 5 busses, over 2000 kilometers and 14 unforgettable days we will fly from Saigon back to Hanoi late on June 15.We will have the 16th of June to explore Hanoi and do a bunch of tourist stuff before Cailin departs the morning of the 17th.I am unbelievably excited to travel around Vietnam.What I’ve done in Vietnam so far would be akin to moving to New York City, traveling around New England, New York State, and maybe some of Jersey and Pennsylvania, and saying you’ve been to America.The vast majority of the country I’ve yet to experience – this two week, pedal to the metal, no holds barred adventure will offer me a brief but beautiful glimpse into people and life across this great land.The fact that I’ll have a pretty kick-ass travel buddy accompanying me makes it all the better.After all it is the people and not the places which most color a memory.
When Cailin departs I am not for want of company for long.Recently graduated friends travel across Southeast Asia at this very moment, and have fortunately worked their itinerary to visit Hanoi just days after I return from the south.More visitors are expected to come in late June.This upcoming month promises to be filled with familiar faces and unparalleled adventure.Just in time.
So that is where I am as a prolonged and busy but productive May draws to a close and an adventurous, filled-with-friends June patiently waits to begin, before it will no doubt fly by in the blink of an eye, packed with memories and visitors and great times.My homesickness does not diminish with time, but I am confident that new visitors will again renew in me the strength to continue on this epic year-long adventure.
Life in Vietnam has become defined by routine.I don’t want to imply that days have become predictable, stagnant or stale, far from it.New experiences and unexpected sites await around every corner, jarring me with how different this land is than any other place I’ve lived and constantly reminding me how far I am from home.Rather, at least for the time being, I have developed a general daily routine which structures my time, and the surprises are found randomly throughout a set daily pattern.With this blog I have decided to not detail an extended period of time, but rather focus on my generic daily routine, to try to give all readers a peak into Thatch in Nam.
The month of May will no doubt be an outlier when this whole adventure is over.Resultant from the fact that I was working a part time schedule in April combined with having taken a significant number of days off for visitors, I am on an absurdly tight budget this month.While I still have some money accessible from my US bank account, I have embraced the challenge of living this month in the most thrifty way possible.Additionally, my “free time” has been slashed drastically this month, as I went from working only three days per week in March and April (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) to six (Saturday’s off).With that in mind, let’s delve into a day in the life of Thatch in Nam.
Part I: Waking Up
My days begin lazily around 8:30 or 9am, as I stir from my slumber and realize slowly how firm my mattress is.Though I’ve gotten more accustomed in the 100+ nights I’ve slept on it, the rigidity is still unkind to a waking body and mind.
My Bed. Old Glory hangs to the right of pictures of family and friends.
A millennial to my core, my first tasks of the day are to mindlessly scroll through Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter on my phone, robotically taking in digital representations from the States and around the world.As nearly the whole day in the Western world unfolded while I was curled up asleep, there is often much to catch up on.I am disappointed with myself for the attention I’ve continued to pay the ongoing political chaos in the United States.Though I’m on the entirely other side of the world, the entree of my daily news diet is always 45.I have strong opinions on the President and the administration he leads, but I will not detail them here.I wish I could detach from the constant barrage of chaos, but the whole thing is akin to watching a massive metaphorical car crash in slow motion on a national scale: you want to look away, but don’t have the strength to rip your eyes from the spectacle.That’s all I have to say about that, for now.
Often the timing works out that I’ll rise around the time of the seventh inning stretch of the Red Sox game, if they’re playing a night game in the States.I throw on a stream of the game and leaf through the box score to inquire about what happened in the earlier innings as my mind slowly gains consciousness.
The East Coast is 11 hours behind Indochina Time, so when I wake up around 9am, it is 10 o’clock the previous night at home.I try to take time each morning to FaceTime somebody, whether it be my parents and family or friends.Sometimes if I sleep in I miss the opportunity to contact people, as they must rise early the next morning for their professional lives.This portion of my day is also something I am looking to improve, as I sometimes mindlessly browse the internet, blankly staring at the screen rather than calling and engaging with people.I don’t know why I do this.Even if there is no one I need to talk to that day, I can still be more productive than switching off my brain and watching YouTube conspiracy videos.
Around 10am, I finally escape the mildly uncomfortable yet extremely alluring bondages of my bed.I dawn my motorbike helmet, grab the 500ml water I left cooling in the fridge the night before, and hop on my aging motorbike which recently eclipsed 41,000km on it’s odometer.Half blinded by the blasting light of the Hanoi sun, I ignite the bike and am on my way.I travel south down Au Co, a major street which connects the neighborhood I live in (Tay Ho) to the rest of the city.During my early months in Vietnam, I rarely used Au Co, opting for the far calmer and more scenic roads which wind along the lake.However, by taking the main street I make a twenty minute drive closer to seven, allowing me to get to my destination (almost) on time.
Part II: Gym and Lunch
At around 10:16am every day, I pull up to “The Fitness Village”, a predominately Western gym located on the riverside of Au Co, and rush into my 10:15am yoga class (it’s not always yoga and it’s not always at 10:15, but what the hell, for the sake of simplicity of blog, it’s Yoga at 10:15).Other classes offered here are Pump classes, which are a low weight, high rep hour long workout to the “best” EDM from 2013, and Interval Training which is an hour long circuit training workout to the “best” EDM from 2011-2012.But today is yoga.
The Pool and Back area of the Fitness village. Very refreshing to jump into the pool after a sweaty practice of Yoga.
My teacher Andrea greets me as I rush to grab a mat, two blocks and a strap, and find a corner in the back of the room where the smallest amount of people can see me flail about.Through the approximately one and a half months I’ve been doing yoga regularly, I feel my body getting begrudgingly better. At first, it was a disaster.My practice could still be qualified as a disaster, but less so these days.In the beginning, I could barely touch my ankles, and now I can stretch all the way to my toes.My balance in March would be akin to a drunk toddler on an airplane experiencing turbulence.Now I’d say it’s more similar to a tipsy teenager on an airplane, for lack of a better metaphor, NOT experiencing turbulence.I am still far from being “good”.I have vastly improved my “vinyasa”, a series of four moves which flows with the breath from high plank, to chataranga (which is basically a pushup position but you just go down, not back up), to upward dog where you push your chest up like a mighty vicious cobra, to downward dog where you basically try to fold your two halves into a triangle with your mat providing the base.This is about the only move I can do with proper breath, inhaling and exhaling to each movement.The rest of the lesson I am panting and pouring sweat and gasping for air.As the days have gotten hotter, Andrea has began turning off the fans and air-conditioning.Dear God, I never realized how much I could sweat.Several times throughout the lesson I’ll have to flip my mat, one side having gotten too wet and slippery to hold any pose for any length of time. The practice always ends with my favorite part of the day.After a grueling 55 or so minutes of uncomfortable positions and dynamic stretches, we fall gently onto our backs into what is called a “chervasana”, which is the most idyllic nap time one could possibly dream of.A soft and soothing tune is played loud enough to be perceived by the ears, but soft enough to not invade the mind and dominate the attention.Andrea softly whispers affirmative statements while I gasp for breath and soak in my sweat.She comes around to each student and gives them a little 10 to 15 second head and neck massage with lavender oil.The class is ended with her encouraging us to take the calm and presence of mind we have developed in yoga and allowing it to guide our day.As I said, I am still embarrassingly bad at yoga.I can only capture my breath for one set of movements. I am often panting shallowly like a dog, where the goal is to be constantly taking slow and deep breaths.My mind is often darting from thing to thing, YouTube Conspiracy video to what I thought of the movie I watched yesterday to “hey that girl is attractive” to what my first grade teachers name was to “god damn I’m sweating a lot” and so on.I hope to improve both my breathing and mental focus over the coming months, and arrive back in the States good enough to impress my friends and maybe do a handstand, that’d be pretty cool.
Inside the Yoga Studio
Warning: Fart Joke Story Interlude now
Several weeks ago, I was still a newcomer to the class.I had to go to the bathroom extremely bad, and not #1.We were nearing the end of the lesson and I could see that shining light of the Fitness Village bathroom inching closer and closer.I may have to skip the chervasana today to make it in time, but that’s a price I was willing to pay.We were coming down out of a more advanced pose with one leg splayed forward and the other stretched to the opposite side and back into downward dog.Drenched in sweat and using every ounce of energy not being employed at keeping myself up to hold myself in, I decided to return to Childs Pose and wait out the final minute or two of the lesson before slipping out quietly as everyone else slipped into their chervasana.Thinking to myself that I had accomplished quite a feat given how urgently I needed to use the water closet, I felt quite proud as I lowered into Child’s pose.It was at the exact moment that I had rested my bum on my ankles that critical mass was reached.While nothing physical came out, one of the most forceful and auditorily impressive flatulations I had ever released exploded into the room, popping the peaceful bubble of everyone around me and denying them nirvana.Though I tried to feign innocent, the source of this disturbance was no mystery.I rose from Child’s pose to find every head pointed squarely at me.I still needed to go to the bathroom very badly.There were two other men in the class and then probably around a dozen women.I could feel the blood rush out of my face.Luckily for me, the two guys thought it was pretty funny (objectively they aren’t wrong) and they began to chuckle loudly.Andrea chuckled too, then extended to me a verbal olive branch of freedom by asking if I needed to excused myself from the room.Some of the other women chuckled as I quickly exited the room and fled to the bathroom.Most remained silent.Can’t win em all, sometimes you have to take solace in the little things like not shitting yourself.
Anyways, when yoga finishes at 11:15ish (or 12:30ish if it’s Monday or Thursday), I hop back on my motorbike and speed off to lunch.My favorite Bun Cha place is conveniently on the way home from the gym.At around $1.75 for a full lunch of delicious Bun Cha, I cannot resist.I scarf down the charred strips of pork belly and the juicy delicious minced pork shoulder, the broth-soaked vermenchelli noodles and the fresh leafy salad drowned beneath the hunks of meat.If I can attribute my chopstick proficiency to one food, it is undoubtedly to bun cha, as there has never been a nobler reason to learn any skill than to transport the deliciousness from bowl to face.
By this time in the day, the sun is high and heavy in the sky, pounding down on the foggy city of Hanoi, exploding the ambient temperature to flirting with triple digits (Fahrenheit) every day, so long as it’s sun and not rain pounding down on the metropolis.I quickly go pick up some takeout to throw in the fridge for dinner before retreating to the confines of conditioned air in my home.If it’s not absurd heat, I’ll often take the scenic route home along the lake, but if I’m sweating while doing nothing except driving my bike, I forgo the picturesque path and speed straight home, I’ll have enough time to sit in the hot sun on my bike later in the day.
Part III: Open Hours
I arrive home usually around noon if it’s an early day of yoga, or 1:15pm if it’s a late day. The next several hours, before I begin the long journey to work, are the least structured and most open of my day.They are unsurprisingly often the least productive, though sometimes (with the right motivation) extremely fruitful.I have been trying to use this time more to read, to write, to think, and to plan.I too often use it to turn off my brain and stare mindlessly at the internet.However, in the early part of May I have been planning (stop me if I’ve written this in the blog a thousand times before)the trip of a lifetime which is happening in early June, when one of my best friends Cailin will visit me for two weeks and we’ll wander Vietnam north to south.In an earlier blog about Cambodia, I reflected on how I’ve never really been a fantastic “planner” (there are 16 Walkie-Talkies in the New Orleans dump which can attest to that) and how planning that trip gave me a whole new outlook on travel.Compared to this, the Cambodian planning was easy.One person, three different places, nine days.Simple.In the upcoming trip, Cailin and I will bounce between ten different cities on busses, taxis, rented motorbikes, two 12-hour long train rides and one flight over the course of 14 jam-packed days.Researching and organizing and booking all of that has been (at least in my eyes) a monumental task.A lot of this time I don’t accomplish anything and I mindlessly watch stuff.I was able to watch the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender over the past two weeks, mostly finding time to binge during this downtime, in-between bouts of furiously planning the trip.I hope to develop the discipline to occasionally pick up a book during this mid-day purgatory.While I have the time to write, I feel there is too often nothing to write about.I need to develop a more keen sense of penmanship and learn to write when an obvious topic doesn’t readily present itself.I bought a yoga mat recently, and hope to start going to the roof to practice tricky moves in a second practice of the day once I get good enough to guide myself through a meditation.These are all things I hope to do with this time in the future, but there will always be another tomorrow.I need to start doing these things today.Well, maybe not today… but you get the idea.
On Sundays in the late afternoon I sketch out my lesson plans for the week.I look at the schedule, see what is to be learned in each class, reflect on where the students were the week before, and develop a strategy to best achieve the goals.Early in the job I would spend about 30 minutes before leaving for work each day developing the days lesson plan, but have found it far more efficient to do the whole week before it starts.
Around 4pm I’ll hop in the shower (if it was an exceptionally sweaty day at the gym, this time often gets bumped up).In order to get hot water, I need to flip a switch to turn on the heater about 15 or 30 minutes before getting in.While this was invaluable in the frigid Hanoian winter (and I didn’t figure it out until several weeks after I got here), these days I rarely employ it at all.The oppressive Vietnamese heat negates any necessity for water which is not chilling to the touch.
Part IV: The Commute
Around 4:50pm each day, I set out on the hour-long commute to work.I live in Tây Hồ, the northeastern most district within the boundaries of the city of Hanoi.I live close to the northernmost tip of this district.My job, however, is down in the Hà Đông district, one of the southwestern most points in the city.The distance between my house and office is a little over 15 kilometers (9.33 miles) as the crow flies, or about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) as the bike rides.Unfortunately, by leaving my house around 5pm each day I face the full brunt of Hanoi rush hour.I’ve read that there are four million motorbikes in Hanoi.With an urban area of around 400 square kilometers, that averages out to 10,000 motorbikes per square kilometer.I’m not convinced there aren’t more.On top of that, there are cars, trucks and busses which must be paid constant mind to.Motorbikes are no doubt the lowest on the food chain in the wild streets of Hanoi.As such, it is the duty of the motorbike driver to remain in a constant state of acute active awareness to their surroundings.I still manage to listen to Podcasts.
Aerial shot of traffic on commute to work (via Google Images, not my phone)
Driving to work is always a challenge.The weather is defined by extremes.Almost every day resembles either a preheating oven which isn’t quite all the way warm yet but screw it you can toss the cake mix in there because it’s hot enough, or it resembles a ferocious and unrepentant shower who’s nozzle has been broken off at the highest pressure setting.Usually it is the former, which is only slightly less discomforting than the latter.
My route to work takes me first around the lake (by choice, driving this way adds about 3 minutes to my commute) which isn’t so bad.I get to the Dragon Statues and turn right.I go to the second light and turn left.This is where the commute leaves the relatively calm streets of Tây Hồ and I jump immediately into the frying pan of Hanoi rush hour.I follow a road called “Võ Chí Công” south for about 3.5 kilometers, where it turns into an elevated highway which offers me a brief reprieve from the stop-and-go chaos.At some point, this elevated highway turns into “Đường vành đai 2” (Meaning Outer Ring Road) which quickly turns to “Đường Láng” as the elevated highway dips down, dumping me back onto the crowded streets.There’s a huge pothole at the end of the off ramp leading back to the street which I always have to pay mind to.
Once back on the street, I inch along between a stream of motorbikes flowing around slower moving barges of cars and trucks and busses.To my right is the Tô Lịch River, though to refer to it as such is insulting to the term.It is a stagnant, thin pond of gross liquid filth which aggressively attacks my olfactory system throughout the duration of my 2.5 kilometer ride along it’s banks. I have taken to calling the muck (which is right up there with Bourbon Sludge as the grossest liquid I’ve seen in this lifetime) “Shit River”.Three traffic lights stand between me as I come off the highway and my next turn right.Perhaps one of the only things I like about driving in Vietnam is the red light timers.Next to each red light, there is a countdown clock informing drivers of how much time until the light turns green again.On the best days, I catch the lights at the perfect timing and drive through them by only slowing down slightly and weaving around a couple cars.On the worst days, the traffic is so severe that I can spend upwards of 5 or 10 minutes inching towards each light, waiting for the demigod of the intersection dressed in his brown traffic cop uniform to beckon me forward and allow me safe passage across the harrowing crossroads.
Shit River looking way nicer in this picture than it does in person.
Finally, at the third traffic light, diagonally across from the KFC, I turn right onto Lê Văn Lương, crossing over Shit River and finally being able to breath in fresh air which smells only of motorbike exhaust, scorching pavement, smog, and the dozens of various other unpleasant indistinguishable smells which make up Hanoi’s odor (but hey, at least it doesn’t smell like shit water AND all of that!).I follow Lê Văn Lương, which becomes Tố Hữu, which becomes Yên Lộ, for almost 9 kilometers.The road is one of the arteries of the city which stretches directly from close to Hanoi’s center all the way to her outskirts.I haven’t found the right way to describe the long corridor, but the best term I have yet come up with is “pre-post apocalyptic”.While almost every building along the route is under construction (as is much of the city, as is much of the country), were It devoid of people it would look like a map ripped straight from the impending Call of Duty game.
Panoramic Shot of the one rice field which flanks my commute to work. Normally, the road to the left is stop-and-go traffic, but this shot was taken on Sunday, when the roads are clear.
I have learned the flow of traffic along this road, as it follows a similar pattern day to day.I know when vehicles merging from the right will cause a slowdown on that side of the road, and I weave to the left.I know when vehicles waiting to make a left turn in the face of oncoming traffic at a busy intersection will be forsaken by the traffic demigod and clog up the left side of the road, and I weave to the right.I know when the road becomes so jammed by an influx of cars that the only vehicles constantly moving forward are the motorbikes bouncing along the uneven sidewalk, and I join them.In Vietnam, sidewalks are a privilege bestowed upon pedestrians only during times of steady flow on the road.During peak traffic hours, the sidewalks become but a fifth lane of the road, exclusively for motorbikes.As I bounce along the sidewalk, I pass to my right a sculpture yard with statues of Buddha and other Oriental symbols.Proudly fixed in the middle of it all, caste in beautiful marble and standing resolute is Lady Liberty, left hand clutching that famous book and right hand defiantly reaching skyward, alabaster flame held high.Bringing two fingers to the brim of my helmet, I salute Her as I ride by.
My commute comes to an end after a tricky roundabout which dumps me mere minutes from my place of work.I pull into the parking garage, park my bike and am on my way.
Part V: Teaching
Teaching English in Vietnam is an exploding industry right now.Twenty-somethings around the world are realizing they can come to Vietnam to make good money while live cheaply.There are several huge companies which run English Schools growing with exponential speed, such as APAX and Apollo English.I do not work for a company like this.The center I work for, “Happy Learn English”, is a tiny, one location operation with one woman, Miss Linh, pulling all the strings.
The “school” is in a converted apartment, and as far as I know (or would assume), every student lives in the surrounding apartment complex.The “Sparks” complex consists of 10 building complexes, with two to four towers making up each individual complex, each building having 25 stories and (at least from the floors I’ve been on) about 8 apartments per floor.The first floors of the buildings contain a variety of grocery stores, gyms, laundromats, hair stylists, English schools, Vietnamese schools, anything and everything you could imagine.The space between the buildings is very communal, with fitness playgrounds for young and old alike, soccer fields and basketball courts, picnic tables and more dotting the massive conjunct courtyard. It is a self contained city.I get the sense that, apart from work, people who live in this complex would never have any reason to leave it.A trip to the grocery story can be completed via an elevator ride and a quick stroll.The movie theater is in Building 2, showing all the latest releases.Playdates happen nonstop across the playgrounds and soccer fields and basketball courts.After getting a bottle of water from the Circle K next to the parking garage, I ascend to the fifteenth floor of building seven and begin my work day.
Teaching is chaotic.Teaching is unbelievably challenging.At it’s worst, teaching can make you infuriated with a small Vietnamese toddler.At it’s best, teaching is infinitely rewarding.
I work from 6pm to 9pm every night, Sunday to Friday.The children are learning English in the evenings, supplemental to their primary schooling during the day.The three hours are split into two ninety minute classes.I work with kids ranging from four and five all the way up to nine and ten.The classes are roughly organized by age group and English ability.
The 6pm-7:30pm class is always younger kids who have at best, a loose grasp on the Vietnamese language, so trying to teach them a whole new language is an immense challenge.Covering anything beyond the letters of the alphabet, sounds associated with those letters, and short words that start with those letters is an exercise in futility.Some days it feels as though even teaching them the letters and sounds is futile.However, the kids are adorable and full of life.I’ve never met a more receptive audience for my slapstick humor.If I walk into a wall, fall out of my chair, make fart sounds with my armpit, or basically do anything goofy and unexpected, the kids double over with laughter.It is a fine line to walk, however, as the kids are quick to jump at any opportunity when I get too distracted and too playful to take the class entirely off the rails.Before I know it, I find myself surrounded by a dozen screaming Vietnamese toddlers, an indifferent Teachers Assistant sitting in the back on her phone, and the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme playing in my head.Sometimes I try to calm them down by playing a game of Freeze Dance.I once tried to play musical chairs with them, but the first kid who got out couldn’t handle the emotional distress of waiting until the next round and started bawling.For the rest of that class, we played a version of musical chairs where the number of chairs and the number of players was equal, and the kids gleefully all kept sitting down whenever the music would stop.The only reliable method of calming the children down is honestly the saving grace of my job: Gogo’s Adventures in English.This animated cartoon depicting a magical dinosaur-dragon hybrid and his exploits has a 100% success rate of calming the calamity in the room.Each video is about 5 minutes long.There are 40 videos in all, and by now I’ve probably seen them all more times than I’ve seen Rick and Morty (dozens).After one or two videos, the kids are usually calm enough to continue the lesson.I also use it as a bargaining chip, telling the kids at the beginning of class that if they are good and work hard that day, we can watch Gogo at the end.While working with the youngest kids is certainly challenging in ways which test every ounce of patience I have, their unbridled energy and genuine demeanor makes them a joy to teach (usually). Additionally, while day to day they do not demonstrate much improvement in English, I am starting to see after several weeks, something clicking in (some) of the kids and their comprehension, speaking, and writing abilities getting stronger.
The 7:30pm-9pm class is always full of stronger English speakers.Usually ranging from age 8 upward, the kids in the later classes have been learning English for several years.They can understand complete sentences such as “Take out your Phonics Book, turn to page 32 and do exercise D” and they can express themselves in full ideas such as “Teacher, I left my book at home.”There is still a big discrepancy of skills from class to class, day to day in this time slot.Some are learning what vowels are, and how they sound in their short form.Others are learning how the letter “E” can make a vowel “long”.Others still are learning the different sounds that consonants make when they are blended together in familiar patterns.It is much easier to be engaging rather than mindlessly repetitive with the latter class.Where as at 6:15 I am drilling “B – ba – big” over and over again, at 7:45 I am writing “Wave” on the board and asking kids to come up with other words that have the same A_E letter sequence.At 7 I am helping kids color a banana yellow or an apple red, at 8:30 I am asking kids about their favorite and least favorite foods, what they had for dinner last night and are going to have tonight, and other far more complex things.Where extra time in the early class is devoted to Freeze Dance or Gogo Videos, extra time in the later class can be devoted to exploring an concept such as alliteration, metaphors, playing Hangman or other quiz games, or actually playing Musical Chairs because the kids are emotionally mature enough.The discrepancy of skill level within a class can often be quite high.When that happens, there’s usually 3 or 4 kids out of the dozen who breeze through the exercises before I can finish explaining them.I usually attempt to employ these pupils to help their classmates strengthen their English.Often times a struggling student will learn far more from their peer than their teacher.The late class is not immune to veering as drastically off course as the early class.The boys are at the age where they want to punch things.They pretend they’re Spiderman and jump up on their desks.The girls will do subtle things like hide or deface each others books.There is no Ace up my sleeve to pacify the later classes the way Gogo Videos immediately befall a calm on the earlier classes.If these kids decide they’re actually done learning for the day, there isn’t much I can do.My job is to keep them engaged for as long as possible and to instill in them as much as possible during that engagement.If I can do that for about 70 minutes of the 90 minute class, I’ll call It a successful day. Time for Musical Chairs.
Presenting the “Brave Bears” class with certificates for having completed the 3rd level Phonics book (Long Vowels)
Overall, teaching is extremely challenging and extremely rewarding.I have taken to liking (almost) all of my students a great deal.They are goofy and adorable and bursting with life.At the same time, you aren’t allowed an off day.You can’t show up to work and hide inside a cubicle and wait for the clock to release you from your bondage.You have to stand at the front of the classroom and command the attention of 12 excitable but easily distracted little kids and direct that attention and energy towards learning a new language to which most of them would be indifferent without the reward of stickers.I think I’ve best summarized my teaching experience in the following way: There are some days when I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I do.There are other days when I am getting paid nowhere near enough.I can only hope that the majority of my 120(ish) days of teaching left fall to the former.I strive to get better as a teacher, to be able to more completely and competently capture my kids attention and embed in their minds the foundations of the English language.I have a lot of work to do in order to become the best teacher I can be, in order to make my students the best they can be.
I need to enjoy it while I’ve got it, though.I doubt when I get back to the “real world” that many workdays will end with an enthusiastic game of Freeze Dance to the Vengaboys’ “We Like to Party”.
Part VI: Post-Work, aka “The Chill”
While my commute to Happy Learn takes around an hour of weaving through the dense rush hour traffic, by 9pm the roads are nearly empty and my voyage home takes little more than a half hour.Of course, this can be longer if rain is pouring down, but apart from a few return journeys the skies have been kind.Shit River doesn’t smell nearly as bad as it does in the midday sun, instead of podcasts I listen to various genres of music ranging from Rock Classics to todays hip hop, blasting my vocals for the world to hear.This serves a threefold purpose: 1) It’s really fun driving a motorbike around nearly-empty streets while belting Billy Joel; 2) Vietnamese drivers, either confused or off-put by the white kid tone-deafly shouting in a strange language, give me a wider berth as I pass them or they pass me; and 3) I need practice if I’m going to redeem myself from the last time I tried to do karaoke and puked rice wine on the stage before reaching the second chorus of Chicago’s “Saturday In The Park”.One artist I’ve had to remove from my driving playlists is Ludacris.It is simply too dangerous to have the possibility of “Move Bitch” or “Get Back” coming on while I’m driving home, lest I lose all sense of fear and begin carving up the road like a madman with a death wish.
I usually get home around 9:35pm.Obviously I’m not going to eat dinner before 6pm, so by this time in the night I am ravenously hungry.I have discovered that, in the fervor of hunger, even vegan food can taste good.Upon returning home I kick off my flip flops and swiftly move to the fridge.I take out the bag of take out I had put in that afternoon, rip open the plastic bag, open the Styrofoam containers, and dump the contents (rice, fake chicken, some sprouts, and fried potato slivers) into a bowl.I throw it in the microwave for three minutes, stopping after ninety seconds to mix up the contents a little bit with chopsticks.After the final beeper, I quickly move the scalding bowl from the microwave onto a plate, and bring the whole thing up to the second floor living room.Often my German roommate Nick or my French roommate Kenjah will be on the couch watching TV or a movie, or listening to music.I take my spot on the left side of the couch, douse the contents of my bowl with soy sauce, and dig in.You’d be surprised how good fake chicken can taste.
Vegan Chicken, some green leafy thing that I’m not sure what it is but it doesn’t taste horrible, some rice. Sure there are french fries, but they’re vegan french fries.
My roommates and I usually watch a movie or a couple TV shows while exchanging good conversation and (especially ever since Kenjah, who is a musician and an existentialist in that order, arrived two weeks ago) complex ideas about philosophy, government, history, and the world.Sometimes I think we’re great minds comparing notes from different cultures and different upbringings, exchanging ideas and knowledge and views of the world.Other times I think we’re pulling stuff from our ass.Maybe it’s both.Whether we are engaging in high-minded philosophical repartee or buffoonish banter, I always find the discussions to be enjoyable.
Around 11 or 11:30, belly full of fake chicken and rice, I make the arduous twenty foot journey from the living room to my bedroom.I shut off my computer and take out my iPad, opening up Netflix and throwing on something, anything, but usually Rick and Morty.As hard as I try to fight it, I still too often succumb to the allure of a midnight snack.Pringles are the only widely available Western chip in Vietnam.Sometimes I’ll splurge on Goldfish, though the fact that they haven’t discovered “Flavor Blasted” technology in this part of the world leaves my heart aching for more.A delicious treat has presented itself to me in the form of bite-sized Kit Kat balls, which are unbelievably delicious.If I’m super hungry, sometimes I’ll go downstairs and make a grilled cheese.I need to stop, or at least severely cut back, these midnight snacks.
After I’m done stuffing whatever snack into my face, I brush my teeth, turn off the air conditioner, cut the lights, and try to fall asleep.Most of the time I leave Netflix playing very quietly, but I need to stop doing that.I try to reflect on the day in it’s dying moments: looking back at the things I did well and the things I didn’t, and think about what I hope to accomplish and do better the next day.As demonstrated by the frequency I’ve said “I need to do this” or “I need to stop doing that” throughout this blog, there is much room for improvement in my day.I also take a moment to reflect on where I am, out in Vietnam, halfway around the world from my home, my family, my friends, and my dogs.And I think about how far I’ve come in the time since I arrived here, which feels so long ago but also only yesterday.I made no secret of how difficult the first several months over here were, how at several times I doubted my strength or will to persevere, how I thought I might falter and have to return home long before completing my intended year abroad.I now feel like Lady Liberty, steadfast and resolute. I have conquered the original shock of moving to Vietnam, along the way developing a productive routine and meeting many new friends.If all goes according to my plan, I have about 180 days left in Hanoi.While this routine will not remain stagnant, I hope to improve upon it day by day, reading in the afternoon and cutting out the midnight snacking and becoming a better teacher, and in the course of doing so, improve myself.
It’s funny how having a friend from (what oftentimes feels like) another life visit you in a new place can provide new perspective, a chance to see your new world from an outsiders point of view, and, coincidentally, a respite from a never-ending onslaught of “new” (example of never ending onslaught: this sentence).My friend Harry visited me for three(ish) days last week, and It was a blast to spend time with an old friend and adventure around my new city.Though the weather didn’t always cooperate, we were lucky enough to experience a totally new place but not forced to be constantly pedal-to-the-metal.Harry’s time here was filled to the brim with racing around the city as tourists, checking off museum after museum, taking in (almost) all the major monuments and sites in Hanoi at an awe-inspiring speed.It was equally filled with relaxing interludes during which we could catch up. I got a much-needed update the on the state of all my friends who are living in New York City, he got to see an abridged version of my routine.An old friend of five years got to meet my new friends of not yet even four months, and we got to bounce around West Lake and Truc Bach, and every minute was enjoyable.
Me and Harry in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
April was a month of visitors for me, a much needed chance to restock my drive going forward on this long journey abroad.As mentioned last blog, my parents visited allowed me to fully decompress, unbottling overwhelming emotions which had been building the duration of my time abroad.I was able to discuss with them strategies to better prepare myself for the challenges I have been facing and continue to face in Vietnam.
Harry’s visit allowed me to escape from all that.Several times throughout his visit I forgot I was in Vietnam.I was transported back to a comfortable couch in New Orleans or New York, just sitting around and shooting the shit with an old friend.As much as I love learning about foreign cultures, the mannerisms and intricacies of people from the world over, it can get exhausting always talking about something “new”.I was afforded in Harry’s visit some much needed reminiscing time as we exchanged memories that started with different variations of “Do you remember that time when…” and ended with a mutual hearty laugh.Reminiscing on good memories is sometimes as fun as making new ones, especially for myself, having been in the moment with difficulty escaping to the past since I arrived in Hanoi in January.After Harry left, due to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to virtually attend the Fourth Annual Wines of the World celebration via FaceTime.Almost my entire grade of friends from Tualne descended upon New Orleans last weekend for Week 1 of Jazzfest and, more importantly, the fourth annual gala which showcases the finest wine from around the world.I woke up at 9am and thanks to the series of tubes which comprises the internet, arrived at 9:01 the previous evening in New Orleans to be passed around on an iPad like a nice bottle of Pinot.While I have been able to keep up with my friends pretty well over in Vietnam, it felt great to see them all in one place, and to be there in some small way, taking part.It also meant a lot to me that my good friend Jack Clarke went through the effort to tackle the logistical difficulties of getting me there virtually.
Virtually attending “Wines of the World”
Anyways, as April turns quickly to May, I continue to settle into a “routine” of sorts.Two more roommates moved out this morning (May 1), as their year in Hanoi had come to a close and they departed for a Chinese vacation and then back to England.It truly makes me sad to see them go, as they offered quick and lasting friendship from the second I moved into our house at 483 Au Co til the final Sunny episode finished last night.I will hope to see them again at some point, and with any luck I’m sure I will.
My teaching schedule is about to pick up dramatically.Where for the past two months I have been working a leisurely three days per week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), starting tomorrow I will begin working every day except Saturday.Don’t mourn for me too much, my daily working hours still only span 3 hours each evening, so I don’t think I’ll be overwhelmed by the workload.However, having to be in Hanoi 6 days per week will lessen my ability to travel, so the past two weekends I have taken advantage of my remaining freedom and escaped the city for cleaner air and clearer skies.
Two weekends ago I drove to a small town about four hours southwest of Hanoi called Mai Chau.It was a charming little town, and the drive was so scenic I almost forgot about how much it hurt my butt.The town itself offered not too much in the way of scenery, but no matter.I was only in town for one night, but Vietnam is always full of surprises.Coincidentally, right across the road from where my friends and I were staying, a celebration / festival / party / rave of epic proportions was thrown in an open field well into the night.I am unaware of any holiday or event the people could’ve been celebrating, it seemed to me as though it were a “Because we Can” party.Vietnamese of all ages danced to music of all kinds.It seemed as though the elder generation dancing vigorously around the fires were equally as fond of progressive trance as the teenagers blasting the tunes from massive speakers which they had wheeled in.Upon entering the field, my friends and I became quick party hits, as apparently being over six feet tall is an impressive party trick in Vietnam.Everybody wanted to take selfies or dance with us, from attractive young Vietnamese women to balding middle-aged men.They implored us to share their drinks, which were surprisingly strong.Ice cream was being sold for 25 cents.I spent a dollar fifty.The experience was truly unlike anything I’d ever known before, surprising and exciting and confusing and over in the blink of an eye.Goes to show that even out in the remote mountains of Vietnam, a mere fifty kilometers from the Laos border, people are still getting down.I take comfort in that.
Locals getting down at a rave(?) in Mai Chau
This weekend was my last non-working Sunday, but I also got Monday (Reunification Day) and Tuesday (Labor Day) off.After my appearance at Wines of the World Sunday morning, I set off for Ninh Binh, a place I had gone five weeks earlier and will return five weeks from now.A quick two and a half hour drive straight south of Hanoi, the route is nowhere near as scenic as Mai Chau, but the considerably shorter length leaves the bum feeling considerably less sore.Expecting not to be too surprised, I explored for the second time the magical park of Tam Coc, hiked again up to the Hang Mau Pagoda, and stayed at the Hoalu Ecolodge owned by the notorious Badman, the most badass Vietnamese person I have yet to meet.I went with some friends from South Africa, one who is headed home soon and another who will be sticking around Hanoi for a bit.At night, we feasted on a magnificent home cooked meal of rice, rice wine, rice crackers, rice cakes, salad, snails, pork, beef stew, and even some fried chicken (!!).After the meal finished, we took advantage of the $1, 0.5 liter beers which you don’t have to pay for until you check out anyways, so It almost feels like they’re free (at the time, I can assure you that they are not free forever).
My Friends Matt and Cherer looking out over Ninh Binh from Dong An Tiem Pagoda
Monday afternoon I returned to Hanoi to spend one last evening with my roommates Jamie and Becky before they moved out Tuesday morning.The calm, quiet evening was a great way to spend some time with them before they left, and provided a bit of a breather for my wallet as I move into the month which will be the tightest budgetary month in my year abroad, what with having taken quite a few days off in April to accommodate some much-needed visitors.If there’s ever a place to try to live on $12 per day for a month, Hanoi is it.
Planning for my many upcoming adventures continues.The most imminent is a month away today, when I will be joined by one of my oldest friends, Cailin, and we will traverse Vietnam from Hanoi all the way down to Saigon over the course of two weeks.The other trip now which commands my attention is the cumulative trip I will take in November and December before getting home (Merry Christmas America!).The foundations for that trip have been laid, some stakes put in the ground and some dates set in stone.It is these future adventures, and many others, which have been extremely useful in battling through any passing “lows” which have happened upon me in recent weeks.Things in Vietnam seem to finally be feeling someone normal, and Hanoi is beginning to feel like a place where I can feel comfortable getting a good nights sleep (I could still do without some of the chicken squawking at 4am, but I’ve even gotten used to that, for the most part).
As always, I hope everyone at home is doing well.As always, if you ever want to reach out and contact me, my email is working and even with my increased workload of 17 hours per week, I’ll find the time to respond.
Roll Wave. Roll Wines.Let’s go Pels.
My (I guess now former) Roommate Jamie riding a bike in Mai Chau.
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 impedemy 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.
The stupidest thing about living in Vietnam is the visa. Good for only three months, Vietnamese immigration law dictates that I must leave the country, order a new visa, and return. This cumbersome, expensive exercise must be undertaken approximately every 12 weeks. The upside: I spent the weekend in Thailand.
The cheapest flight internationally out of Hanoi is to Bangkok. Additionally, US residents visiting Thailand don’t require a visa so long as they stay for less than 30 days. Thus, Bangkok is the most efficient and convenient destination for a visa run.
I landed at Don Meung International Airport at 10:45 Thursday morning. By the time I had gotten through the immigration checkpoint, noon had passed. By the time I got hostel, lunch was long overdue. I mistakenly believed that, due to the lack of a “spicy” warning, some street chicken curry would be a good first meal in Thailand. Though my palette has expanded considerably over my first 3 months abroad, spicy foods remain a realm I cannot go. Upon the first bite, my mouth hissed, my neck snapped and my pores began pouring sweat (more than they already were in the 86 degree heat). A life lesson: as a westerner, be ever weary of Thai Vendors and Thai food.
The Coolest thing at the Thai National Museum was the dioramas of War formations
After recovering from the onslaught against my tastebuds which affected not just my sense of taste, but attacked my smell and even vision, I began wandering the streets of Bangkok. It is a massive metropolis, annually the most visited city in the world, and I got to see but a bit of a sliver of it, and was overwhelmed. The chaos of Hanoi seems almost casual to me now, but the chaos of Bangkok was something else entirely. The largest intersections in the main part of the city, as far as I could find, did not have crosswalks, so I darted in and out of traffic, a real life game of Frogger with much higher stakes.
Bangkok is famed for its nightlife, and I was fortunate enough to indulge in the clash of cultures that is “Backpacker Heaven”, Khoasan Road. Though drinks are cheap compared to the West, they cost an arm and a leg compared to Hanoi. A skill I am working hard to develop is developing a budget and sticking to it. I did the best I could. I failed this time.
Khaosan Road around 8:30pm. By 11, the whole street was as packed as the inside of a New York pub.
Friday morning I awoke with the birds, having signed up for a tour which was departing at 7am. I stumbled onto the street which mere hours before had been a mass of drunks to find it completely deserted. A tumbleweed bouncing down the street would’ve been both appropriate and cliche.I thought I had signed up for a tour that would generally stay around Bangkok, but it dawned on me that I was mistaken as the bus whisked us away, hurtling along the highway towards the Burmese border for two hours before coming to a stop.
Not in Bangkok
Quick side-note: In the USA on long drives, I like to preoccupy my mind by looking at trucks and thinking whether or not they’d be cool Transformers. Almost no truck I’ve seen in Southeast Asia would make a cool Transformer. Only the double decker tourist busses would make worthy Autobots.
We arrived at a floating market in Damnern Saduak. Though I’d heard great things about the ones in Bangkok, I was disappointed to find this one to be nothing but a tourist attraction. Thai vendors all sold the exact same souvenirs, offering to lower their price whether you showed interest in the product or not. Next visa run, I hope to make it to an authentic floating market.
Next, we visited the Bridge on the River Kwai, a railway bridge which had been constructed by the Japanese (or more accurately, by their prisoners of war) during World War II as part of the Thai-Burmese railroad system. About half of the 200,000 prisoners put to work constructing the railway perished due to exhaustion, hunger, thirst, or malaria. It was a humanitarian catastrophe, even in wartime. The nearby museum was extremely interesting, albeit disorganized, as I learned bits and pieces of history about the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand. The bridge itself was very cool too, despite being overrun with tourists. When I visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Phen about 2 months ago, I was struck by how well the memorial was done. The Bridge on the River Kwai was not a memorial, it was a tourist destination. Still, it was extremely interesting to learn the history of this famous bridge and have the occasion to traverse it twice. I look forward to rewatching the movie set at the bridge which I have not seen in quite a few years, no doubt my enjoyment of the film will be deepened by my time spent at the namesake.
Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, “Bridge on the River Kwai” – Billy Joel
Finally I boarded the bus and it whisked me to the destination which had been my primary concern when choosing this trip: the Safari Park in Kanchanaburi. Upon arrival, I had to patiently wait my turn. Finally, after about 40 minutes I entered the Tigers den. There, I met Emma and Emmy, two 11 month old Bengal cubs who eagerly greeted me, or more accurately eagerly greeted the bottles of milk I was holding. After they had scarfed down the milk at an awe inspiring rate, I was handed two bones which had on one side been covered with chicken scraps. The tigers used me as a jungle gym to get to the meat as I moved it around. They were HEAVY, probably weighing upwards of 50 pounds each. But they were adorable and regal and enchanting. For a moment, I forgot how much I miss my dogs.
Peaking. Note: I took extra precaution to make sure this was a humane Animal Sanctuary and that the tigers were not on Tiger xanax. They were feisty, but well fed, well taken care of, and happy with their living situation.
At one point, a piece of chicken fell off a bone and plopped onto my knee. I quickly scooped it up and held it in an open palm. I was terrified that one of the tigers was going to bite my hand off, but at the same time kinda willing to exchange maybe a pinky for a story of being bit by a Bengal Tiger in Thailand. Fortunately for the less masochistic (in the platonic sense of the word) side of me, he simply licked it off my palm.
I was in the tiger den for about 10 minutes, though it felt like the blink of an eye. The insuing two and a half hour drive back to Bangkok, however, dragged on for what felt like an eternity.
Upon returning to my hotel I took stock of my pockets. I had just about enough money for dinner, a new t-shirt (I had sweated through every one I bought and took pity on the poor soul who would have to sit next to me on the plane the following day), breakfast and a museum the following day, and a bus to the airport. I would not be able to participate in the debauchery of Bangkok for a second night. Just as well, after eating some delicious street Pad Thai for dinner, I fell into a deep restful sleep.
Saturday morning passed without much of note. I slept in until I was forced out of bed by a looming late checkout fee which would throw off my razor thin margin of a budget. The Thai coin museum was cool but far less exciting than what I had experienced the day before. I had to barter at several shops before finding a shirt which could be purchased with my remaining baht while leaving enough to get to the airport. Traffic in Bangkok is crazy and the bus to the airport took forever. But I made it, got on my flight, and returned to Hanoi.
As I begin my second three month stint in Hanoi, I reflected on the first three months. They were extremely challenging, as I have noted in many a blog, but extremely enlightening and rewarding. My time in Bangkok was fun, but I must admit my excitement to be there was dampened considerably by my considerable excitement to get back to Hanoi. For tomorrow morning, my parents arrive for a week. Two loving familiar familial faces could not be more what the doctor ordered if I had a prescription. Even now, I find myself hurrying to finish this post so I can drift off to sleep and awake and go meet them at their hotel. We are going to spend a day in Hanoi, and then venture out to the northernmost province of Vietnam, Ha Giang which lies right on the Chinese border and is supposed to offer beautiful views and beautiful culture unmatched anywhere else in the world. After, we are going to Halong Bay for a two day one night cruise, and the weather, at least at the time of this post, calls for clearer skies than during my first visit to the sublime place. I am excited to travel the country, but for all I care my parents and I could just sit in a room and be together and it would still be a fantastic week, albeit a little droll. I am far more excited about who is joining me for the week than the weeks journey itself. And thus I drift off to sleep, still exhausted from Bangkok but ecstatic beyond words for the week ahead.
Note: Not much change has happened the past couple weeks, I have been going through my daily routine of teaching, lounging, yoga-ing, sleeping, and Netflix-ing, with the occasional foray into socializing.Thus, this post is far more reflective and less anecdotal than posts in the past.If you want to skip my incoherent ramblings, there is a fun video at the bottom of my trip last weekend to Ninh Binh.
I feel as though I’ve begun so many of my reflections with some variance of “Vietnam continues to be difficult…”, “I still have yet to feel fully settled in Vietnam…”, etc. etc.In a strange way, I am realizing that I have felt this way my whole life.The unease I feel all too often in this country is but a cousin of the doubt and insecurity I have wrestled with my entire life.By coming to Vietnam, I have lurched myself into a lifestyle where this doubt is ever more present and pressing than in my previous life, and my normal outlets for dealing with these insecurities are unavailable.In the absence of old friends, loving family, good doggies, and New Orleans I worry that I have begun to turn inward.I seek refuge in takeout and movies.I find deliverance in delivery and Deliverance.There is nothing wrong with seeking refuge in this way from time to time, it is when introversion becomes unquestioned habitual routine that it must be internally challenged, if not done away with altogether.
When confronted with an individual challenge, a dichotomic decision needs making: do something about it, or ignore it.While at points throughout my life I have deferred too often to the latter, I think I have usually done enough to check the “did something about it” box.However, the slow and arduous process of becoming an adult, taking responsibility for my every action, and holding myself accountable to myself is not an individual action.It is hundreds of choices made every week and every day.It’s the choice in the morning to get up and hit the gym instead of the snooze button.It’s the decision to forgo bun cha and eat a salad for lunch – EVERYDAY (well, maybe not every day).It’s pausing a movie, finding somewhere quiet and spending time reflecting on what I’m doing, and what I could be doing better.It’s countless other split second decisions made and forgotten, forming habits and informing character without even realizing.To become aware of the omnipresence of such decisions isn’t even close to half the battle.The self-discipline tohold myself accountable to myself for every decision I make must be developed, practiced and executed all simultaneously and all the time.Famous 20th century French biologist Alexis Carrel once said “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.”I am still so far from where I want to be in terms of health, diet, routine, priorities, and so much else.However, through self-reflection and holding myself accountable to myself, I’ll have a pretty good idea if I’m headed in the right direction or not.My journey of self-improvement did not begin when I landed in Vietnam three months ago, nor will it end when I depart approximately nine months from now.I’m just now realizing it’s a odyssey I’ve been on my whole life, too often dragging my feet.This journey has no destination.How strange that I had to move half way around the world to realize that.
It can be easy to get lost in the day to day hustle and bustle of Vietnam, but when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture, the absurdity of my current situation is always all too obvious.Never in my life did I expect to (attempt) to learn yoga in the Far East.Not in my wildest fantasies did I ever conjure visions of myself weaving through Hanoian rush hour towards my job as an English teacher.Nor did I ever think I would find myself at an Italian restaurant in Vietnam, sipping Caribbean rum mixed with an American soft drink bottled in China, surrounded by Brits, French, Germans, and South Africans discussing who in the world knows what.Yet this, or something similar, is the situation I find myself in most nights I go out.
I don’t want the beginning of my reflection to suggest that I have become entirely a hermit.I still break bread and clink glasses with friends and strangers several times per week.I hope and plan to continue doing so the remainder of my time here.Friends in Hanoi come and go.A roommate who I had grown quite fond of moved back to England several weeks ago, but a nice German man named Nick quickly moved into his room and it has been a pleasure getting to know him.At the end of April, two more roommates will move out, and while I will miss them I look forward to the potential new friends who will take their place.Hanoi is not home.The friendships I make here won’t have the time that friendships from childhood, high school and college did to develop and strengthen, and I ought not expect them to.I need to gleefully accept these new friends for what they are: fellow travelers with whom I am fortunate enough to share an amazing, chaotic city in a beautiful, exotic country, for however long our journeys overlap.Once I am able to fully do that, I feel as though shedding any hermit shell I have developed will be easier.
I must also begin to appreciate how fleeting my own time in Vietnam is.January 10th, the day of my arrival to Vietnam, feels simultaneously half a lifetime ago and as though it were only yesterday.Next week, my parents come to visit and I can honestly say I have never been more excited to see them.Once they arrive, friends will visit with such regularity that there won’t be a two month period when I don’t have a visitor for the remainder of my intended time here.I could write a whole other post about how fortunate I am to have friends with not just the means but more importantly the desire to visit me halfway around the world.I am acutely aware of how far from home I am, so it is not lost on me the effort and expenditure made by visitors to come see me.The adventures I will have and ability to share the wonders of this country with friends and family from home are the things I’m most excited for.Those will be the moments – shared with others – which will be the most memorable of this whole entirely unforgettable year.
That just about sums it up: I am becoming more aware of the overall life journey I am on, working on developing friendships to elevate my experiences here, while eagerly and excitedly awaiting visits from family and friends.This upcoming week will mark the approximate quarter-way mark of my planned year abroad.It has been turbulent, challenging, stressful, chaotic, unpredictable, and extremely rewarding.I would be a fool to expect anything different from the remaining months.
P.S.Because I live in Vietnam I can do some dope things.The below video are several of my favorite shots from my visit last weekend to Ninh Binh, about three hours south of Hanoi.Sorry about the video quality, my GoPro has been malfunctioning so I had to use my phone camera.
Life in Vietnam never feels normal. I have been in Southeast Asia for 64 days, and each day a little something never fails to surprise, confuse, or inspire me. Last Thursday, I met a little pup who was tied to a post outside an auto-mechanic shop where my Motorbike was getting routine work done. I tried to pet him, as my love of puppers in no secret (and honestly the lack of dogs to play with has been the hardest adjustment in Vietnam), but he timidly backed away. I went down the street and brought some bread for 5000 VND (less than 25 cents) from a bakery, and bounded eagerly back to the pup. While I immediately earned his favor by returning with a treat, I did not want him to have it so effortlessly. Over the next twenty minutes while the mechanic was hard at work on my bike, I was hard at work trying to get this pupper to shake my hand. After some time had passed, each of us showed the other the fruits of our labor. The mechanic demonstrated to me that the bike worked perfectly (I had been having some trouble with it dying while I was sitting at red lights), and I demonstrated to his delight his puppy’s new ability to enthusiastically throw it’s paws at any outstretched hand which promises food in return for a shake. We shook hands (the mechanic and I), and I was on my way.
Adorable Puppy who can now shake hands
Teaching doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did with the puppy that afternoon. I recently (and FINALLY) found a job at a Center called Happy Learn English. From 6pm to 9pm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday Night, I become Professor Thatch and try my hardest to impart the language of English onto a bunch of screaming Vietnamese children. Tomorrow (Monday) will mark start of my third full week working at the Center, and it has been, in a single word, overwhelming. My classes range from 4-5 year olds in one group to 9-10 year olds in another. The youngest children are the hardest to teach, as their grasp on their native language is still developing, so attempting to supplement that language development with an entirely foreign one is near impossible. With the older students, they usually have at least a couple years of English classes under their belt, which makes everything infinitely easier. When I ask them to be quiet, they understand. When I ask them to do Exercise C on page 17, they understand. When I instruct them to dance around in a fun game of freeze dancing, they understand and enthusiastically participate. Teaching, like everything in life, is a skill which develops over time. I am much better today at teaching than I was two weeks ago on my first day (which was basically a three hour competition between me and the students about who could scream louder), and two weeks from now I hope to be a much better teacher than I am now. A famous poet Phil Collins, who gave us perhaps one of the finest movie soundtracks of all time in the Tarzan OST, once said “In Learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn”. I have found these words to be infinitely true, as each day teaching I learn new things about myself and the way I communicate with those around me, especially those who look to me to teach them.
Days have slowed down. I need to find more activities to keep myself occupied. I have joined a gym and started doing yoga (HA!) (but actually…), but that still leaves me four hours each afternoon which are unstructured and thus unfruitful, and that’s on the three days a week when I work, though on May 1st those 3 days a week turn into 6 days per week, with only Saturday’s off, so perhaps I ought to cherish my relative boredom more. I continue to make friends and try new experiences, but the wonderment which characterized my first month in the country has faded and I’m looking for new ways to get that back, hopefully without the chaotic ever-frazzled mindset. I look forward to upcoming visits from family and friends.
I have developed a general plan for the remainder of my time in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The contract I signed with Happy Learn runs through early November. Between now and then, I will have some nice breaks. A week early next month when my parents visit (and I am extremely excited to see them), and a day later in the month when a college friend visits. For the first two weeks in June, one of my oldest friends will join me for a two week, pedal to the metal traversing of Vietnam from North to South, covering some 1500 miles over 14 jam packed days. In late August, two more college friends and hopefully my older brother (and, if anyone who is reading this is thinking about visiting please do in August) will visit, I will show them Hanoi and we will explore the Northern parts of the country together. I will also have to take 2-day trips to Bangkok in early April, July, and October for Visa-run purposes. Outside of those reprieves, I plan to work steadily until early November, at which point I plan to embark on an approximately seven week journey across the parts of Southeast Asia I will not have visited yet (mostly Thailand) (some of Malaysia) (and maybe some Indonesia) before triumphantly returning to the States around Christmastime. Note that this whole plan is very subject to massive change, but right now these dates are the navigational beacons guiding my overall life trajectory.
Some might say having such a long-term plan is antithetical to the mindset of a backpacker in Southeast Asia. Some might even accuse me of “not living in the moment”, one of the worst sins a backpacker can commit. But since developing this plan, my mood has improved dramatically, my ability to get out of bed and go to the gym has increased 100% (from 0% to 100%) (100% may be a little generous, we’ll call it 67%) and it no longer feels as though I am living each day just to get to the next one. I have long term goals, a lighthouse blinking far in the distance which I can use to steady my course and keep it true. I hope to show my parents and friends a great time when they visit. I hope to utilize the extremely cheap gym membership and access to Yoga classes it affords me as much as I can. I hope to use my remaining time in Vietnam to cultivate myself into a more disciplined, outgoing and complete individual. I hope to save up some money I can use to travel around the continent for seven weeks at the end of it all. I hope to be home for Christmas with my family and New Year’s with my friends. All of these factors now are on the table, whereas a month ago I hoped to figure out something to do to entertain myself the next day.
Living in the moment is important, and I try to do as much of that as I can. When I am out with my friends, it is quite easy to live in the moment because my phone doesn’t work in Vietnam. When I am in the classroom, it is easy to live in the moment because I’m trying to figure out how I get these dang kids to learn how to spell “giraffe”. When I first got here, I was living day to day, moment to moment. Forget telling you what I would be hoping to do that August, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I was hoping to do that afternoon. Distant, long term goals provide motivation and purpose for immediate action. That is perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far in Vietnam. I look forward to continuing to learn new lessons, going to the gym, and living in the moment, all while keeping an eye on the horizon.
I know that in the blink of an eye, it will be late December and I’ll find myself on a plane to New York City. I have been looking forward to that day since I arrived in Vietnam. Having such a great contingent of family, friends and dogs to return to, how could I not look forward to it? But, for the first time since my arrival, and as a result of the general framework of a plan I have developed, I genuinely look forward to each of the days between now and when I get on that plane home.
Video from one of my classes can be found below:
The lesson on “Rolling Wave” will be coming up next month.
P.S.: Funny story but I couldn’t find a place for it in the actual blog so I’m gonna put it down here. Kinda gross so don’t read if you don’t like gross things.
I have struggled with Acid Reflux (really bad heartburn) since my early days in High School. I am prescribed the antacid Prevacid, and I could’ve sworn I brought over a lot more than I actually did. About 10 days ago, I ran out. I was beside myself. Perhaps the most dorkish thing about me (or very high on a long list) is that I can’t go even two days without my Acid Reflux medicine before I start feeling incredibly sick, almost to the point of rendering me completely useless (as opposed to my resting state of mostly useless). I went to a Vietnamese pharmacy with the Google-translated words for “Heart Burn”, “Acid Reflux” and “Stomach Medicine” written on a crumpled up piece of paper. The pharmacist spoke to me in Vietnamese about my options, and I chose all three and headed home. I was eager to figure out which, if any, could help sooth the aggressive burning deep in my chest (gonna go ahead and guess that this story is one of the least romantic uses of the phrase “burning deep in my chest” ever). I ripped open the first package and scarfed down three pills. It was thirty minutes later, with my chest in just as much discomfort, when another system further along my digestive tract starting feeling strange that I came to the sullen realization: I had just taken laxatives. The giant pizza I had just eaten to test the efficacy of the Acid Prevention wanted out, and it was going to get out – quite literally – one way or the other. That was not a fun night. Since then, I have found a passable replacement (if you’re ever in Vietnam with heartburn, get Maalox, it is not a laxative) to bide me over until replacements can be shipped in. So, in case you were wondering, I am thriving and living my best life out here.
The nine days I spent in Cambodia were amazing and unforgettable. I have so many stories to tell and thoughts on the place that the blog post is far longer than I was hoping. I have thus split it up into three parts: Siem Reap, Koh Rong, and Phnom Phen, one for each leg of my journey.
Missing everyone at home, hope everyone is doing well. Do feel free to contact me if you wish at any point! Would love to hear from friends back home as to how you are all doing, as I near two months (Jesus Christ!) since I left home.
PART I: SIEM REAP
My time in Cambodia was (I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot on this blog and it’s starting to lose it’s weight) unlike anything I had ever experienced before.The magic of this exotic Kingdom captured me the moment I landed in Siem Reap and still commands awe in my memory.I landed at 4:55 PM on a Sunday and left at 4:55 PM the following Tuesday, so I was in the country for exactly 216 hours – and not a second of the trip was like anything I could’ve imagined.
Cambodia is a small nation, just under 70,000 square miles (about the same size as Missouri) with a population of 15,000,000.The largest city and capital Phnom Phen is home to almost 1.5 million people.Not a single other Cambodian city exceeds 200,000 inhabitants, so the population is largely dispersed across the nation.Cambodia is, like the Indochina peninsula as a whole, a poor but developing economy based largely on tourism and exporting cheap goods.The people, known as Khmer’s, are an exotic population with a fierce passion for life, family, and country.As I learned more about the country, it’s history and it’s inhabitants, my appreciation for all I saw and experienced grew and deepened.
I began my trip in Siem Reap, the fourth largest “city” in the country, if you could even call it a city.It was a sprawling maze of thrown together huts with only a handful of paved roads.I stayed, by recommendation of my friend Quentin who had been there only a month prior, at a hostel right downtown called the Funky Flashpacker, and it was quite funky indeed.Drinks were cheaper than a Hanoi Happy Hour, and explorers from all across the world exchanged wisdoms from their homelands and their travels while the most popular tunes from 2007 set the mood.The first night, I found myself playing cards with Canadians, South Africans, Koreans (South), Dutch, and many other nationalities I can’t even recall.
My first morning in Siem Reap, I boarded a bus, groggy eyed and dragging my flip flops at around 7:30AM and headed an hour and a half north, to the mountains where the ancient kingdom of the ancient Khmer began.To call Kulen a mountain does the same disservice to the word as calling Siem Reap a city.It was much more a glorified hill, but glorified indeed.Our first stop was“The River of 1000 Lingas”.The ancient Khmer people got their water from springs bubbling up out of the ground, which feed into a river which runs down the mountain.Into the rocky riverbed, King Suryavarman I and his people in the 11th century carved Lingas, chiseled directly in the river and depicting the phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.Though not as grand in scale as monuments I’d seen in Vietnam or was yet to see in Cambodia, I still marveled at the ability of the ancient Khmer people to create a religious monument literally in the middle of a river.It is said that the water that flows over the Lingas is blessed.
Lingas, Phallic symbols of the Hindu God Vishnu, carved into the riverbed on Kulen Mountain. These carvings span the entire width, and length, of the river.
Next, we visited the massive “Reclining Buddha” deep in the Kulen Jungle.Carved around the same time as the Lingas, I again found myself awed not by the size of the structure (though it was indeed grand), but more by the impossible effort it must’ve taken to erect such a monument centuries ago, deep in the Cambodian jungle.
Our final stop of the day was certainly my favorite.After trekking through what felt like several kilometers in the intense Cambodian humidity, the jungle opened up in front of us and the omnipresent buzz of insects gave way to the roaring crash of the magnificent Kulen Waterfall.Standing about 12 meters tall and pouring over its cliff in three distinctly separate streams, the waters welcomed me as I quickly exchanged my dirty, sweaty shorts for my “Life is Good” bathing suit (sorry Rekucki if you’re reading this, I still have those and will get them back to you eventually) in the private changing room of “behind that big tree over there”.The rivers that fed to this roaring falls were the same I had visited earlier with the carved Lingas, so I was baptized by the refreshing water and discovered salvation chest deep in an Edenesque Cambodian oasis.The hour spent floating in this sacred stream was not enough, but the sun was beginning to set on my first full day in Cambodia, and there was still much to do.
Kulen Waterfall, deep in the Cambodian jungle.
I returned to the hostel and signed up for the next morning’s trip to the temples.Though I was weary of the 4:30AM pickup time, when is the next chance I was going to have to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat?Later that evening I visited the Siem Reap night market, a bustling chaotic mass of shops and spas, restaurants and pubs spilling over one another and out into the street.It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, a thrift shop on steroids.Everything was for sale, and every price was negotiable.I was in heaven.Though I spent “too much”, at least according to the nagging voice in my head that sounds vaguely of my mother, I considered the fact that I hadn’t spent my every last dime a small victory.I retired back to my hostel with the spoils of my night in hand, eager to see what the next morning had in store.
Waking up at 4am after going to bed at 2am is a disjointing experience in life.You are unsure of if you slept at all, or perhaps you are still asleep?Are you deprived of rest, hungover from the night before, or perhaps still impaired from the previous evenings activities?4am is a time of questions, but it’s too early for anyone who has the answers to be awake.
Myself and seven others boarded a beat up old Cambodian sprinter van.I was unsure if the other occupants were half asleep or half dead, perhaps a bit of both.45 minutes later, at around half past five, we pulled up in the pitch blackness to what we were told was Angkor Wat.We could’ve been anywhere in the world, we wouldn’t have a clue until the sun revealed itself.But as light slowly began to creep over the horizon and the darkness of night began to retreat, in the distance I saw it.Three giant, beautiful, intricate and jagged pillars of the most pleasing geometrical perfection slowly emerged from the pitch black.I had seen pictures of Angkor Wat before, but as with the beauty of the New York skyline or the feeling of a New Orleans Jazz pub, pictures and videos don’t do it justice: you have to be there to understand.Sunrises are not marked by the jetting, vivid colors as a sunset, but rather a more muted emergence of light from every direction, though certainly strongest over the east, where Angkor Wat stood.
Angkor Wat at Sunrise
We marched into the actual temple at around 6:15 in the morning.I was fully awake by now, any lingering longing for my bed throughly defeated by the awing magnificence of my location.Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex in the world at 402 acres, over two-thirds of a square mile, almost four times larger than the Vatican.The central temple is an astounding testament to the advanced architectural and engineering capabilities of the Temple’s builders, the twelfth century Khmer people.Eight pillars create a perfect square courtyard, already some ten or fifteen meters above the surrounding land, and the central tower, a massive structure which reminds me of a lotus flower stacked on itself again and again, trailing off into infinity.This central tower stands 41 meters taller than the courtyard where it’s foundation lies, 65 meters (213 feet) above the ground in total.I dare say that Angkor Wat may be the most impressive structure humanity has ever erected.While I save my title for most impressive thing humanity has ever done to the realm of space exploration, perhaps the most impressive thing we have created on this earth lies deep in the Cambodian jungle, carved out of limestone eight hundred years ago.
Standing in the Central Courtyard of the Interior, behind me is the Central Spire.
While the scale the temple is stunning, equal grandeur could be found in the smallest details.Not a doorway, wall, pillar, or handrail in the entire complex seemed to be undecorated.Into every inch of stone was chiseled a bas-relief scene from Khmer history, either depicting religious lore or Cambodian history.Above every doorway were faces and stories of stone, preserved the same as they had been carved.Every inch of the complex was patterned, or depicting some epic religious story.It was beautiful.My mind meditated on the planning, designing, and execution that must’ve gone into creating this magnificent yet unified structure.Even with modern technology to design and build such a structure would be a massive undertaking, so I was in absolute awe that ancient Khmer people had been able to create something so massive and beautiful, almost 1000 years ago in the middle of the jungle.Cambodian mythology tells the temple was constructed in a single day by Vishnu, but I didn’t believe it.Even a God would require more than 24 hours to construct something this grand.
By 7:30, the morning stupor had completely worn off and my fellow trekkers and I were all playfully exchanging laughs.It didn’t feel like 7:30 in the morning, nor had it felt like I had just met these people three hours ago.We ate a nice American breakfast outside Angkor Wat while trading stories of previous travels before hopping back on our mechanical chariot and headed several kilometers north to Angkor Thom, the center of a large ancient Khmer city and home to Bayon Temple, the temple of a thousand faces.A quick sidenote: I was able to go on this trip at the time that I did because Vietnam had all but shut down for the Lunar New Year Holiday.This was extremely apparent in Cambodia, specifically at Bayon Temple, where every step I took I had to wade through a sea of small Chinese tourists.I stood head and shoulders above the crowd, but movement throughout the temple was difficult.That said, it still struck me as remarkably beautiful and different from Angkor Wat.Monkeys were far more present at this temple, and it was in far greater ruin than the previous.Massive faces, taller than my entirety were carved into every spire or tower.As with Angkor Wat, every facade of this temple was intricately carved.Had it not been for the thousands of tiny tourists or the quickly escalating Cambodian heat, Imight’ve found this temple more inspiring than the first.But at the intersection of impassable crowds and oppressive heat, I was only able to be moderately blown away by this temple.
One of the Dozens, if not Hundreds of Faces carved into Bayon Temple. I am in the front.
Our final stop was the temple of Ta Prohm, known better in America as the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed.Instantly recognizable, I stayed alert the entire time there, ready to bolt in the event of a giant stone come chasing after me or arrows began spraying from the wall.Cinematic references aside, this temple was truly magnificent.Deeper in the jungle than Angkor Wat or Bayon Temple, nature had begun to reclaim these ruins.Trees five centuries old merged so seamlessly with ruins just a couple centuries their senior in an unbelievable confluence of ancient architecture with mother nature.The trees seemed to be standing on their tippy toes to reach higher than their towering man-made counterparts.I couldn’t find the hidden gold anywhere.
The Jungle struggling to reclaim the temple of Ta Prohm.
With new friends made and three temples conquered, we boarded our bus and returned back to Siem Reap.Though there are dozens more temples around the Angkor site, they will have to wait until the next time I visit Cambodia.
I arrived back at the Hostel around 1:30 in the afternoon, with six hours to kill before boarding a night bus down to the Cambodian coast.What is one to do with so much time?Visit a shooting range?Too expensive.See a floating village? Not enough time.Ride an ATV across Cambodian rice fields at sunset? Perfect.
PART II: KOH RONG
I boarded the night bus at 7:30PM.After one of the worst nights of sleep on the least comfortable bed I could imagine, I woke up the next morning in Sinhoukville on the Gulf of Thailand.It was time for vacation, in the Western sense of the word, to begin.I took a ferry from the mainland to an island called Koh Rong. Though a small island, it was the largest of the Cambodian Isles, about 78 square kilometers, just over 30 square miles.I don’t know if it was due to the fact that I had been living in grey, foggy, ever-overcast Hanoi for a month, but the beaches and waters on Koh Rong damn near brought tears to my eyes.I have been blessed to frequent the Caribbean and other tropical destinations on occasion (thanks mom and dad), but Koh Rong might’ve surpassed them all.The sand was pure white and so fine it made a squeaking sound as you walked.The water was a perfect teal blue, as ideal in temperature as in appearance.I decided to forgo the water taxi and instead trekked the two kilometers from the ferry port to my accommodations.Though the journey was arduous and exhausting, a delightful swim and a $2 Pina Calata were fitting spoils of my labors.
4K Beach, Koh Rong
I was staying on the East side of the island, on a beach called 4K.I had heard Long Beach, on the west side of the Island, was a magnificent place to watch the sunset.I had also heard it was only an easy 45 minute walk away.One of those things was true, the other was decidedly #FakeNews.The sun was to set at 6:15, so I left my hotel around 4:45 so I could spend ample time lounging on Long Beach, enjoying a picturesque sunset.After making the 25 minute walk back into town, sure my journey was nearly complete, I was informed otherwise.I learned I would have to hike over the top of the ridge (about 250 meters up, and then back down the other side).I was also told the route usually takes an hour, so I was immediately in a race against the clock to reach the other side before the sun set and I was lost in darkness in the Cambodian jungle.With several Pina Colata’s already in my system and another firmly in my hand, I began making the ascent as quickly as possible.Never in my life had I sweated so profusely.By looking at me, you would think I had just come from a swim at the beach, not laboring towards one.Just as I began to give up hope that I would ever traverse the ridge, the steep path got flatter and flatter until I reached the top.I could see the sun in the distance, beginning to shine a burnt orange, but where was the beach?Oh right, I remembered.250 meters below me.If the path up to the top of the ridge was steep, the path down felt like a straight drop.I grabbed onto hanging vines and branches and rocks as I slid down the hillside.More than once I was sure I was going to pitch forward, or that a vine would snap, and that I would perish trekking through a Cambodian jungle.Not a bad way to go out, I suppose, but I had a date with the setting sun, and the appointment time was quickly approaching.At points I could see the sun peak over the tops of the trees, but I had no time to marvel in it, lest I be late for sunset.By the grace of Vishnu, perhaps still protected by the sacred waters from Kulen, I emerged from the jungle at 6:05PM, fully intact save a few scratches and cuts as souvenirs from my hike.If I had been baptized by the waterfall at Kulen, I felt completely reborn as I fell into the Gulf of Thailand, my body gaining no additional moisture but infinite refreshment from the soothing waters.I was lucky enough to find a boat going back around to the other side, so that I didn’t have to make the trek back across the ridge in pitch black.Thank God I did, or perhaps I would still be there instead of writing this post.
I returned back to my hotel likely around 8:30.It would’ve been earlier if I hadn’t looked up and been enamored by the night sky.Very few times in my life could I say I’d seen a night sky so vivid and full.I felt almost as though I could hear Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster that he launched on Falcon Heavy, millions of miles away by now, blaring “Starman” by David Bowie directly into my ears.But then I recalled I was playing the song from the portable speaker in my pocket.
Upon returning to my hotel, I again made friends through the international language of card games.A particular favorite of mine that I’ve picked up in Southeast Asia is a game called Shithead.After several games with fellow travelers, I was ready for bed.But not yet, one of them beckoned.Had I seen the plankton yet?I had recalled the plankton of Koh Rong mentioned in passing to me by several friends in Hanoi when I told them I was going there for holiday.But seen them with my own eyes?We waded out into the pitch black water, my neck still fully cringed straight back, still bewildered by the night sky, when I was told to look down.I was blown away.With each movement, kick of the foot, flick of the wrist, clenching of a fist, an entire night sky was illuminated just beneath the water.Millions of plankton lit up at the slightest flinch.We had one pair of goggles between the five of us, and when it was finally my turn I plunged beneath the water and began kicking and flailing with all my might that, under any other circumstance, you’d be sure I’d gone mad.I wondered to myself if this is what God felt like when he created the heavens stars, before remembering I’m not that big into that sort of thing.
Setting Sun from 4K Beach
The next morning, I awoke with a profound excitement.The first thing on the docket for the day was to check off a bucket list item: Scuba dive in the Gulf of Thailand.We boarded our boat around 10::30, and I was back in a familiar setting (a dive boat), just on the opposite side of the world.The diving was great.Though I will say the visibility was marginal at best (4-5 meters at most), the abundance and diversity of sea life was remarkable.Macro organisms were typical, you had your French Angels, parrotfish, Squirrel fish, snappers, puffers, and others, the true magic was in the micro life.The visibility was so poor due to the abundance of plankton in the water.Nudebranches and colorful corals swayed gently to the gentle push and pull of the ocean.We did not dive very deep, deepest I reached was 9 meters, but it was amazing nonetheless.I have often wondered why I enjoy scuba diving so much.I think I figured it out on this trip.Previously, I thought it was the fish or the mystery of the ocean.While those are certainly factors, my true love of the activity derives from the tranquility.Under the water, all you hear are the cathartic sounds of the ocean, the cool Darth Vader sounding breathing from the regulator, and the soothing tune of bubbles.Your only concern is your air supply, bouyancy control, and not harming the marine life.To be good at diving, all you have to do is be calm.An activity where the main goal is tranquility, and I get to look at cool shit underwater? Sign me up.
After coming in off the dive boat, much to my surprise and delight, two of my friends from Hanoi, Jesse from Milwaukee and Cherer from Durban, South Africa, were waiting at my hotel.I had messaged them telling them where I was staying, but had no expectations of finding them until later that day, if at all.We ventured into the main town to buy some rum, and returned to 4K to delight in the night sky, build a fire on the beach, and it was my turn to show someone of the plankton.Tunes were played and laughs were shared well into the night.
The next day, I did it all over again.Tranquil scuba diving in the morning, exploring with friends in the afternoon.That night, we took part in the “Richie Rich Pub Crawl”, which is exactly what it sounds like.About 200 drunk 20-somethings parading around a Cambodian Isle, jumping from pub to pub, not a sober fool amongst the lot.I totally have a lot of very vivid memories from this night and didn’t forget anything about it at all.My most vivid memories are how strong and how cheap the drinks are on Koh Rong.Everything else is very vivid too, I swear.I’m like, really smart and very mentally stable.Never forget anything.
The next day, my last full day on Koh Rong, I wasn’t scuba diving.I had the entire day open.I awoke around 10am, after a full 5 hours of sleep, and started off down the beach in search of Jesse and Cherer.I found them in their tents, as mentally wounded from the previous night as I was.Unsure what to do, I suggested we rent a Hobie Cat (little sailboat) I had seen just up the way.They agreed, and for an hour and a half we skated across the little bay off of 4K beach as though we were true pirates.Except about an hour of that time, we were stuck in severe doldrums and forced to paddle.No matter, it was paradise found.The sun was baking, the water was refreshing, and, for the most part, my body had forgiven me for the night before.
Cambodian Locals fishing at Dusk
That evening, we chartered a local Cambodian woman and her husband to take us out on their boat to fish.Sunset has always been my favorite time of the day.When watching a beautiful dusk sky, all is right with the world, I get a feeling of intense peace and satisfaction.Never has that feeling been stronger than while hand fishing off a rustic boat in the Gulf of Thailand.I caught one fish, Jesse caught one as well, and Cherer caught three. Our Cambodian counterparts caught near a dozen.After the sun was long set and any remnants of it’s light had faded, we headed back towards shore where we quickly made a fire and roasted the small snappers.The meaning of “fresh fish” was revolutionized to me, eating breaded snapper that just an hour and a half prior had been swimming about, was delicious.With the stars above me, a fire in front of me, new friends around me, and great tunes enchanting me, I felt a strong sense of peace I had not felt since leaving the States.A new, exotic comfort zone had been established, if only for a moment.
Fish caught not two hours prior after being grilled on an open flame on the beach. It was more than five star dining, on that rating system you would need the entire night sky, which we had just by tilting our heads back.
PART III: PHNOM PHEN
The next day was spent largely in transit.I awoke, treated myself to an authentic Khmer massage on the beach (it was $8 for an hour massage, expensive I know, but what the hell, I was on vacation!), packed up my stuff, and headed back towards the dock and the ferry.A goodbye was said to Jesse, who was headed back to the States after finishing his time on Koh Rong, and a “see ya later” was said to Cherer who would be returning to Hanoi just a couple days after me. The 45 minute bumpy boat ride back to the mainland was followed by an 8 hour bus ride from hell to Phnom Phen.At his point in my journey, I had not showered in a week, was covered in sand, deprived of sleep for nearing a week, and longing for nothing but a wash and a proper sleeping space.What I believed would take only 4 or 5 hours tops ended up being an 8 hour journey, the last hour and a half of which I could’ve completed faster on foot, the traffic in Phnom Phen rivaling that of an LA rush hour.
Upon arrival and checking into my hotel, I ascended the four flights of stairs and collapsed onto a proper, queen-sized, no-sand-in-it bed.I quickly galavanted to the bathroom and was reborn in a stream of fresh water, shampoo, and soap.Though I was probably still dirty, I never felt so clean, or slept so well in my life.
Before going to Cambodia, I had asked friends about the Killing Fields and whether they were worth a visit.Many of them said to skip it, as it would sour my trip, while others warned of the depression it caused but lauded the way the memorial was constructed.I arrived to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, about 30 minutes outside Phnom Phen, around 9:30 in the morning. What I learned there, and following at the S-21 Prison back in Phnom Phen shook me to my core and moved me in my heart of hearts.
For those unfamiliar with Cambodian history, the country endured a terrible genocidal episode but 40 years ago.The country was used as a major supply route for the northern Vietnamese during the American War, and as a result, the United States led a “secret” bombing campaign on a large part of Cambodia.The war was no secret to the farmers and rural villagers, who’s country was pelted with more bombs than were dropped by the US throughout the entirety of World War II.Cambodians sought shelter in the cities in droves, but arrived without the necessary skills to find gainful employment.The national government was weakened, destabilized by the constant American bombing.The Khmer Rouge, an ultra-nationalistic, ultra-communist party was gaining power, and on April 17th, 1975 they invaded the capital Phnom Phen and established a new government.The idea was an agrarian utopia where everyone worked the land and received the fruits of their labor.It was based on an extremely Maoist reading of Communism.The Leader, Pol Pot, and his high council were paranoid and ruthless.Anyone who was seen as not fully devotional to “Angkar”, or “The Organization” was brought to prison, tortured until they confessed to crimes they did not commit, and then executed as punishment for their confessions.Over the three years and eight months that Cambodia was under Khmer Rouge control, approximately 2.2 people were killed, over 25% of the population.
What I saw at Choeung Ek was unlike anything I could imagine.Upon arrival, I was given an audio tour, which was fantastic.I walked from station to station, I could take as long as I wanted at each place, and the audio guide was a Cambodian man who had survived the Khmer Rouge occupation, spoke from experience and told an incredible story of one of the worst tragedies in human history. Across the entire grounds were craters, each of which had been exhumed during the 1980s.I was told that during the rainy season, the soil gets churned up and new fabric from victims clothes, or even occasionally teeth and bones bubble to the surface.The most shocking part to me at the Killing Fields was a mass grave where 150 babies and mothers were discovered next to a tree.The final stop is a 19-level pagoda in which all the bones of the victims are displayed.I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of skulls, along with the condition some of them were visibly in, visibly violently bashed through just several decades ago.The Khmer Rouge philosophy was “in order to kill grass, you must pull out the roots”.When they killed one member of a family, they killed all, so no one would be around years later to exact revenge.
Victims of the Killing Fields. One facade of one level of the 19 level pagoda housing remains of more than 12,000 who lost their lives.
After Choeung Ek, I went to the main prison of the Khmer Rouge, S-21 located in the heart of Phnom Phen.It was another exquisitely moving memorial, with pictures of victims, instruments of torture, and audio tour.The audio tours made the entire place stoic, for when you removed your headphones you heard nothing, adding to the eeriness of the place.Of the approximately 15,000 Cambodians brought to S-21 during the Khmer Rouge reign, only 12 were known to have survived. I was fortunate enough to meet one such survivor while at the place.An old man by the name of Bou Meng had returned to the place where he was imprisoned, tortured, and forced to confess to crimes he did not commit, all to tell his story.After learning all day of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, to meet one of the few people who survived was unbelievable.I was near speechless, able only to listen. Though he spoke of just broken English, Bou told me of his strong desire to tell the world of what happened in Cambodia and attempt to make sure it does not happen again, anywhere else in the world.
Bou Meng, one of a dozen survivors of the approximately 15,000 innocent Cambodians brought to S-21 Prison in Phnom Phen during Khmer Rouge rule. He survived because he knew how to fix a typewriter, along with being a great painter. He was commissioned first to create art depicting Brother #1, Pol Pot. He later was told to paint scenes of torture and death from the prison.
Thoroughly moved and mentally exhausted, I wandered the streets of Phnom Phen for the rest of the afternoon, attempting to make sense of it all.How could such atrocities occur in such a beautiful place, and how could an entire nation manage to be on the road to recovery not even 40 years after the fall of the regime?I am in awe of the ability of Cambodians to not only endure a national tragedy the likes of which few nations have ever known, but continue to endure poverty on a scale I had not seen before, and through all that remain a beautiful and vibrant and exotic country and a Kingdom of Magic.A boat ride across the Mekong River to watch the sun set over the Phnom Phen skyline was a perfect end to the day, and to my trip.
Stunning Sunset over Phnom Phen from the Mekong River
Cambodia showed me both wonders I could’ve never dreamed of and horrors of which I could’ve never imagined.It blew my mind with the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, calmed my every fiber with the paradise of it’s isles, and deepened my understanding of humanity with the stories of horror, but also stories of the enduring human spirit and will to live and fight for a better day.I thank Cambodia for all of this.My nine days spent there were nine of the most jam packed, impactful days of my life.I will never forget them, nor am I done extracting the lessons I learned there.I will carry Cambodia with me the remainder of my journey in Southeast Asia, and the remainder of my life.And, God willing, someday I will return to the Kingdom of Cambodia and do it all over again.
I have been adjusting more and more to Vietnam.I am visiting sites throughout the city, from centuries old Buddhist temples to modern skyscrapers built within the past decade, this city has so much to see and so much to find.There is so much history here.Hanoi celebrated it’s 1000 year anniversary in 2010.It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around that as an American, where our oldest cities are barely pushing four hundred years old.
Buddha Statue from the Vien Nien Pagoda, Built in 1014
I visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum the other week.I found the entire complex to be wildly fascinating, from “Uncle Ho’s” preserved stilt house, to the massive Mausoleum where his embalmed body lies to this day, to the distinctly pro-Russian tilt of the Museum content.Propaganda is easier to recognize in a foreign country, and a communist one at that.However, it seems as though Ho Chi Minh was a genuinely good leader, even through the independent research I did following my visit to the museum.He was concerned with Vietnam’s national sovereignty, and fought whoever was required to ensure it, whether it was the French, Americans, Chinese, Cambodians, or any other nationality that infiltrated his countries soil. I hope to continue learning more about this man who is revered with near-Godlike status in this country
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where the embalmed remains of the leader still lie.
I got into my first motorcycle crash last Thursday.I was driving downtown on one of the long, wide boulevards which create the backbone of this cities infrastructure.I was driving at about 40 km/h (around 25 mph) when a bus began merging into my lane.Whether the bus driver didn’t see me or was indifferent to my presence on the road I don’t know, but either way, I had to swerve to avoid contact with the bus.It was as I was moving to the right and applying the brakes that I hit a pothole which I did not see in the road.Though I had hit potholes previously, never at speed.I lost control, swerved sharply to the right, pitched forward, and slid.All things considered, I was incredibly lucky.Not only did the bus not hit me, but nothing else hit me, or got hit by my careening bike.The only injury that remains eight days later is a banged up left knee, and a deep rip in the only pair of khakis I brought (oops).It was not an if I was going to get into an accident, it was a when.The main advice I’d received from fellow expats who had been in accidents previously was get out of the road as quickly as possible.Before I even felt the pain in my wrists, hip and knees from the crash, I hopped up, grabbed my motorbike (which was leaking gas), and limped to the side of the road to lick my wounds.I thought to myself “Well Thatcher, you’ve really done it this time…” as I futilely tried to start my motorbike, before Vietnam stepped in to help.A sweet old lady who couldn’t have been taller than five feet walked up, helped me dust off my pants, and (somehow) started my motorbike.She then told me (through our shared language of facial expression) to follow her, and she led me for about five minutes before we arrived at her (husbands? friends?) motorbike repair shop.As a man went to work on my bike, she fetched a first aid kit and helped me patch up my knee and elbow.Within ten minutes, my bike was fixed (the man didn’t want money but I insisted he take at least some) and I was rejuvenated.The Vietnamese streets had caused me to crash, but the Vietnamese people helped me to get right back up.
The job search continues. It was certainly not my plan to still be searching near a month into my journey, but then this plan was very loose from the beginning.I am reassured by stories I hear from friends of how it took some of them several weeks to find jobs upon their entry into Vietnam, especially when coming in January.Tomorrow, I am departing Vietnam for 9 days for the Lunar New Year holiday.
I am going to Cambodia.I fly to Siem Reap tomorrow, will spend two days there touring the magical temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.I will then travel to the south of Cambodia, to Koh Rong located in the Gulf of Thailand for four days.While there, I will get to go scuba diving several times and live on a paradise in the sun for a price which is absolutely unheard of.And let me repeat, I GET TO GO SCUBA DIVING IN THE GULF OF THAILAND (!!!)!This has been a dream, a fantasy, a goal of mine ever since I first learned how to scuba dive six and a half years ago, and now it’s coming true.After several days in the Gulf, I will board a bus to the capital, Phnom Phen.There, I will get to visit the killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge.Though I’ve heard it’s extremely somber and depressing, I have been told It’s a must visit and will change the way I look at many things.I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on that next week.
I am excited and nervous for this trip.It feels like a miniature version of all the feelings I went through before departing for Vietnam.It may seem silly to fret over a nine day trip just a month after embarking for a year to a distant foreign land, but this is the first time I’ve ever done a trip like this entirely on my own, including the organization part.Instead of just asking my mom where we were going for vacation and choosing from her list of pre-approved and pre-researched activities, for this trip (obviously) that entire arduous process fell squarely on my shoulders.I had to book flights and order visas.I had to decode cryptic Cambodian bus and ferry schedules.Understanding that to most of you I am just listing the more mundane aspects of planning any vacation, I am proud of the research I put in and look forward to my 9 day Cambodia getaway as my reward.
Vietnam remains challenging, and I hope it never gets “easy” to the point of “boring”.I still need to work on being more social and expanding the limits of my comfort zone (and finding ways to push myself beyond those limits).I need to end my honeymoon with the magical culinary gold that is Bun Cha and get back to expanding my palette.I need to find a way to dive headfirst into the local and regional culture, expanding my world view.And of course, I need to find a job.These things will all come, if I make them so.Life changing moments or lessons don’t happen on a whim or by chance, they are revealed only after moments of challenge and toil.I have learned many lessons in the month (crazy that it’s already been a month) that I’ve been here.Now I must apply what I’ve learned to hopefully pave the way to further discovery, both about the world and about myself.
BUN CHA. This might be the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted besides Flavor Blasted Goldfish and chocolate. Made of grilled pork meat (minced shoulder meat makes the meatballs, while grilled pork belly makes the strips). You dip the white noodles into the meaty broth, and the resulting taste blows your mind. Sidenote: from eating so much bun cha, I am now more than proficient in chopstick usage.
Tune in middle of next week (probably around the 22nd or 23rd) for fun updates from Cambodia!Happy Mardi Gras / Lunar New Year / any other holidays going on!
Me at the top of the Lotte Tower. At 272 meters (nearly 900 feet), it is the third tallest building in Vietnam, but without a doubt the best view.
My second full week in Vietnam was about establishing a more consistent routine, while also marked by a spontaneous trip to Halong Bay (see bottom for more details on that).Having my friend Quentin in town for four days provided a much needed sense of familiarity in this vastly new place.
After my blog post last week in which I aired the struggles I am dealing with adjusting to Vietnam, I didn’t know how folks at home would react, if at all.The messages of support and encouragement I’ve received over the past week have rejuvenated my belief in self and filled me with the comforting knowledge that, though they are half a world away, there are many people who are supporting me in this challenging journey I am just undertaking.Messages from family and friends received this week were invaluable and though I could not respond to all of them, know that if you sent anything I received it, took your words to heart and put your advice into practice.
Sunday night / Monday morning was spent celebrating the gift to humanity that is Tom Brady, as I stayed up til 7am local time watching the AFC Championship game.Luckily the Super Bowl doesn’t start til 6:05am local time next Monday, so hopefully I can snag a couple hours of sleep before the big game.
Monday night was spent downtown at a hostel with Quentin and Kenny, though it may as well have been a Friday night because days of the week (or nights of the week) do not exist in Backpacker Hostels across Southeast Asia, every day is the weekend and every hour is Happy.Tuesday was spent sipping on lots of water, sleeping in, and supporting the Vietnamese U23 soccer team as they defeated all odds and Qatar in the Semi Finals of the AFC tournament to advance to the finals against Uzbekistan.I also tried Bun Cha for the first time and I could swear I heard angelic biblical hymns during the meal.
Wednesday and Thursday provided my first escape from the bustling chaos of Hanoi as I awoke at 6:30am and boarded a bus which took us roughly four hours to the East, to a magical and unique place called Halong Bay.While the reflection on the beauty of the place can be found at the bottom of this blog post, I have a couple thoughts on the place that I found rather ironic.The first is how capitalism has invaded even the tiniest niches of this overtly communist country.In the bay, women rowed small boats loaded with Pringles, Wine, and sea shells to each of the larger tourist barges, becoming a sort of floating connivence and souvenir shop. Another souvenir shop waited for us atop the one island we were able to summit, selling photos of the bay, other little nic naks, and beer.It was incredible to see the places in which people had set up shop in order to make a couple bucks selling things to readily ready to spend tourists.The other thought I had was that even out in one of the most majestic places I had ever been to, the sounds of construction could not be escaped.At the first island we went to, they were (I guess?) working to expand the dock, and our time on the island and exploring it’s caves were punctuated by cityesque sounds of industry, continuously reminding us that not even the most sacred places on earth can outrun modernization.
Upon returning to Hanoi Thursday night, I was so exhausted that I fell into a peaceful and content slumber which extended well into the late morning Friday.More job search emails sent out, laundry dropped off at the laundromat mere steps from my house ($3 paid for all the clothes I brought with me, save for the outfit I was wearing, to be washed, pressed, dried, and folded, looks like I won’t be doing my own laundry the entire time I’m here), and attending my first Expat party.It was certainly one of the most interesting parties I’ve ever been to, meeting people from Australia, South Africa, all across Europe (a lot of Brits), and a couple fellow Americans.
Saturday I went downtown to watch Vietnam take on Uzbekistan in the finals of the U23 AFC Tournament.Originally given 350-1 odds to win the tournament, the Vietnamese took the Uzbekistanis to extra time, surrendering a heartbreaking goal in the 119th minute.Though the team lost, the patriotism displayed by the Vietnamese over the course of the week, both after the victory on Tuesday in in the face of defeat Saturday, was nothing short of extraordinary.I always thought American patriotism set the gold standard in the world, but I am now not so sure after seeing how fired up this country got for a regional, U23 soccer tournament.
This upcoming week looks to be more settling in, more job searching, and planning a trip for the rapidly approaching Tet festival, during which I’ve been told the entire country shuts down for over a week.On the short list of destinations are Ankor Wat, Cambodia, or Chiang Mai, Thailand, or perhaps even somewhere in Cambodia or Laos.If you have traveled in Southeast Asia and have any suggestions as to where a great place to spend about a week would be, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
Until next week,
(Now for the part about Halong Bay)
To say Halong Bay blew me away with her jarring and sharp natural beauty would be vastly understating my thoughts on the place. Though the sky was filled with clouds the near entirety of our time on The Viet Beauty, the misty ambiance added a compelling mystique to the experience. The natural beauty of the massive limestone pillars which shoot directly up from the tranquil waters was unlike anything I had seen before.
The name Halong Bay derives from the Vietnamese for “descending dragon”. Legend tells of an ancient people who struggled to fend off adversaries as they sought national sovereignty. Seeing the suffering, the Gods sent a family of dragons to protect the birthing nation. According to myth, these terrific beasts spat not fire but jewels and jade which formed the sharp towering spires. The dragons willed skyward rock pillars which exploded from the waters ahead of invading ships, dooming the aggressors, creating a protective wall and ensuring Vietnam its sovereignty. The dragons then made their home in the bay.
I possess neither the vocabulary nor the poetic ability to impart though words the unique beauty of this place. I think no one does. Nor do the pictures and videos taken here do any justice to the immensity of the jagged towers which escape their earthly bonds and reach seemingly forever towards the sky.
Words such as “awesome” and “spectacular” have become bastardized to the point that they no longer hold any weight. They are casually attributed to a fun weekend we had, a good burger we ate, or a cool movie we saw. Though equally as guilty as everyone in this dumbing-down of language, I now know a place which inspired awe that I felt acutely throughout my body as my eyes struggled to digest the spectacle which they were beholding. I know of a place forged by legend and dragons, coated in a mythic veil which engenders the entire bay.I know of a place I shall certainly return to hopefully several times before I depart this land (ideally under fairer sky’s and for longer than a day), to again experience in person that which anything else fails to capture.
Please enjoy this video featuring clips from the Bay and the musical stylings of The Doobie Brothers.