Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals. In the early morning hours, I left the cramped room full of seven other snoring and butt scratching budget travelers and signed onto a shared computer in a quiet hostel in East Berlin. The keyboard had buttons with Spanish, German and English letters. After struggling to find the @ sign, I managed to log in to my first and still existent yahoo account. In those days, yahoo was king. It was like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and Google had a website baby.

The headline of that September morning was that the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ died filming on location in Australia. He died doing what he loved most, pursuing wild creatures to show viewers a glimpse of the world that is out there. A world the majority won’t and might not even want to see. A wild world, a world of crocodiles, orangutans, sharks, giant spiders, massive lizards, sluggish sloths and even those damned sting rays. I saw an episode where he jumped into a crocodile infested river in the dark with only his ubiquitous khaki outfit and a headlamp. The croc swam away! That croc probably could be heard exclaiming to its own reptilian camera crew, “Crikey, didya see that human? He came rawght afteh me!”

He was one of the heroes of my youth, among the incongruous others in the list such as Pee-Wee Herman, Mark Recchi, Chris Farley and Jack Kerouac. I loved watching animals and he seemed to put them at ease, almost telepathically informing them they were on TV and could go about their business after a quick picture. In 2005, I was working in my friends’ sandwich shop in Austin, TX, and every day after the lunch rush, Crocodile Hunter reruns came on. While sweeping up the cracked old floors and wiping off the scattered sesame seeds on the tables, I’d watch ol’ Steve take me far away from that repetitive grind to Australia’s outback, Indonesia’s forests, coral reefs, deserts or even Antarctica.

Steve Irwin revealed a world through his travels, but also with his personality. His passion was unmistakably clear. That feeling of having lost an enthusiastic soul, someone who took us out to show us what we were never going to see, came again last week with the passing of Anthony Bourdain.

He was a New Jersey punk, chef, writer, traveler and recently, an activist, all of which was on display in his globe-trotting semi-documentaries. Bourdain’s shows went way past the sparkling Greek islands and elegant restaurants of Rick Steves’ Europe. They had none of the blatant marketing of Samantha Brown’s check out this fancy hotel show. Even when strange food was presented, it wasn’t to be eaten like a dare a la Andrew Zimmern. Anthony Bourdain is a synonym for adventure and discovery. He looked comfortable in even the craziest situations. South Africans shouting at him, cooking on the Congo River with no lights, hunting in Scotland, he’s cool. Only the Tokyo robot show seemed to faze him, he looked like me at twelve watching A Clockwork Orange.

While reading all the memorials on the internet, I saw one quote that collected my feelings. It came from N.Y. Times travel writer Lucas Peterson: “And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?” That’s what got me. I know outwardly having it all doesn’t fix the metaphorical inner void that feels so real, but damn. It’s heartbreaking when we see people who give so much of themselves, who in the end, seem to have given so much, there was an insuperable emptiness left at the end of the day. Yet, his terminal sadness won’t be what I remember about him.

Reading Bourdain’s graphic Kitchen Confidential while working in a restaurant made me feel like a soldier among the heat of the ovens or battling the thick steam of the dish room, proud of my working sweat, earning that six pack after work. His shows were always DVR’d on my TV. I’m not sure if there was a conscious notion of wanting to travel because of his show, but it definitely made it seem possible.

He didn’t like particular things or people. I thought that was so cool even when I disagreed with him. He spoke candidly. I’m too Libra balanced to let a situation get awkward. He ate everything. I still don’t think I’d eat live octopus, chicken feet or escargot. He wrote in his voice. I write like it’s for a good grade. My natural jealousy and envy of his work was tempered by knowing how hard travel can be, especially the places he went. But, I always respected him. I respected his reporting from the forgotten corners of the globe. I respected his food knowledge, his ability to talk to anyone and his pure joy of a simple thing like a bowl of noodles.

I was in Vietnam. My crappy hostel had no A/C, so I was up at the heat of sunrise. Marching out with my backpack for a long day of who knows what, I stopped at a street stall and order Pho Bo, beef with noodles. I sat on the small plastic stool, motorbikes whizzing past my table kicking up yesterday’s dust, and I took that first bite. Memorable. So are you my man.

AB

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Top 6 Responses When I Tell People, “I Live in Korea.”

I’ve lived in Korea for five calendar years and have traveled around the world as well as come back home to the USA a few times. People sometimes ask me where I live, and I noticed that there are a few questions people ask when they hear the words, “I live in Korea.” Centuries ago, it was called the “Hermit Kingdom” as there was so little known of the oft forgotten peninsula between the two formidable Asian giants, China and Japan. Before I came here, I didn’t know much either and probably would have asked these same questions. So, this is not a post designed to shame the clueless or disgrace the inexperienced. After all, we’re all experts and idiots in one area or another.

1) “North or South?” OR “Aren’t you afraid of North Korea?”

Although Kim Jong-Un is a plump, egomaniacal, scion of brainwashing zealots and a perfect case of foolish nepotism, his nation is of no more concern to South Koreans than Americans are afraid of a Canadian military attack. I’m greatly exaggerating the point; however, North Korea’s craziness remains north of the 38th parallel. Because of the war in the early 50’s yet despite the historical relation, today’s North and South are polar opposites. The yearly U.S.-Korean joint war-games usually pisses off whichever rotund Kim happens to be dictating at the time and some military posturing ensues.

Where South Korea has TV, Internet, excess amounts of delicious food, political and for the most part (Confucian society (i.e.: collective hierarchy) is deeply ingrained and restrains many social processes)) societal freedom, North Korea has none of that, and instead has statues and framed photos of their god-kings. It’s a stupid response but even stupider and hurtful when posed to an actual Korean. My Korean girlfriend hated when we traveled through SE Asia and people would ask her, “North or South.” North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave the country for fear of them never returning, or worse, returning with a tacky t-shirt and knowledge of an open and free world outside their tiny half peninsula of despotic tyranny.

*A better question: “How is the South Korean government changing their policies regarding maritime guidelines in response to the Sewol disaster?”

 2) “Do you eat a lot of sushi?”

This one isn’t really that bad, because there is sushi in Korea, but it is more of a Japanese dish, not Korean. The sushi in Korea is expensive, but can be found anywhere. It’s a dish that is too clean and polished for normal Korean cuisine. Most Korean food is in combination or mingled form, like soups or the numerous side dishes called “banchon.” Japan is orderly and beautiful, like sushi. Korea is rushed but satisfying, like BBQ. Obviously comparing a country’s attributes to food is a generalization, but sometimes apt.

*A better question: “Do you eat a lot of kimchi?”

 3) “What’s the weather like?”

This one has an easy answer for me because Philadelphia is on the same parallel lines of the globe as Korea, so we have similar weather, vegetation and trees. But not every foreigner is from my latitude, so this one can be a good question for those from the southern climes or another hemisphere. Technically, the weather has four seasons, but winter is the boss. He arrives in time for Halloween in an angry, horror show snowman suit complete with whistling Siberian winds and bone chilling temps. Summer is sticky, hot and humid and has a month of almost perpetual rain, whereas spring and fall are completely wonderful with blooming flowers or flamboyant colors of autumn foliage respectively.

*A better question: “Does Chinese pollution affect you?” (Yes, it does.)

4) “I have a friend/relative who teaches in ___________.” (Not Korea, but it’s their only contribution to such an outlandish statement and a mild confusion of all Asia as one.)

I actually find this one to be endearing. Asia isn’t a place many people will visit in their lives. It’s literally on the other side of the world from the Americas. The follow up to this question is, “Do they like it?” And the answer is usually affirmative, which makes for an easier introduction about my reasons for living here. Asia opens up new possibilities and increases cultural awareness. Smelling the street fires of Cambodia, partying in Thailand, feeling the history of Vietnam and Laos, bowing in Japan, people-watching in China or laying on the beaches of the Philippines seems like such a distant dream until you live within one hour of the immaculate Incheon airport. Traveling is a major perk for expats. The road is a liberating place to feel comfortable inside of your own anxiety. Since you are a foreigner, there is a certain amount of exemption from the strict societal frameworks of some Asian cultures. You can get away without bowing, but if you do, you’re golden. You can get away without speaking the language, but if you do, you’re heaped with praised. Which brings me to the next point…

*This one was a statement, but anyway—a better question: “Why did you move there?”

5) “Do you speak Korean?”

When asked this, I inevitably ask myself, “Why don’t I speak Korean?” I’ve lived in Korea for several years and I’ve just never committed to fully learning the language. There’s many excuses: difficulty, lack of time, everyone speaks English, but they’re not good excuses. Some foreigners will devote some time and get decent or even fluent enough to be a part of the crazy Korean reality TV scene. I fell into each category. The Korean alphabet took me one day to learn, but the speaking part is not so quick to absorb. After work, I barely have time to juice my biceps at the gym, shower, eat a meal and watch a quick Daily Show before it’s time to hit the sack and do it all again! Also, it’s true that anybody you hang out with will speak English. Yet, the inherent truth is that maybe you could meet new (non-English speaking) people if you could communicate in their language.

*A better question, so that you won’t make me feel apathetic and lazy: “How do you say, ‘Thank you’ in Korean?”

 6) “I’ve always wanted to do that.” (You can.)

This is the rare response from the person whose eyes light up with the phantasmagorical dreams of Oriental life with bustling floating markets, neon-lit crosswalks, bizarre street foods, copious rice paddies, or sparkling emerald waters. These people are genuinely interested in your experience. They want to know more. They want to know how you did it. OR, they are not interested at all, completely happy in their life and had thought about it once in passing during a sunny happy hour in the week after university graduation. The fact is, anyone with a college degree can teach in Korea or Japan. Non-college graduates with at least a desire to teach, travel and live abroad can go to Thailand, Vietnam or China. It’s a wide-open world for English speakers. I’ve even met Filipinos, Germans and Dutch who speak such good English that they get hired as “Native Speakers.”

*Again, another statement—but a better second question is: “Do you think I would like it?”

I recommend the experience to most people. One-year contracts go really fast; and a friend of mine told me long ago that everyone should teach at least once in their life. If you are working in a job that isn’t your career, recently had a bad break-up and need to get away, living at home and don’t know how to move out, desire travel opportunities or simply crave an adventure, this is a good choice.

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Sleeper Train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok

City dwellers wave goodbye to the train wearing the eponymous grins from the “Land of Smiles”, motorbikes sit idling at the crossing. Brick walls evaporate into the rice paddies. Two pretty Asian girls in glasses and ponytails settle in across from me, one thin and bird like, the other, cute and plump. I’m sweating and they are pulling out their shoulder wraps to prevent a chill from settling upon their ultra delicate skin. A group of strange people in colorful t-shirts are filling up the seats behind me, quiet surrounds us. I take off my earphones and hear only the click clack of the train. It’s a woody area now. Dense trees, all seem to be cousins of the same ancient seed. Not much roadside trash to be seen. Power lines remain visible. Some kind of building material lies dormant with spider webs yet stacked neatly, waiting to become useful. Railroad ties, tracks and wooden beams are abandoned and rotting slowly or perhaps have been replaced and are merely waiting to be recycled. We slow down for a moment at Kuhn Tan, which appears to be a town solely inhabited by strutting roosters. Our first tunnel, black inside and always a relaxing moment instead of the fear that going under a mountain should induce. A chubby girl on a hill is playing her tennis racket like a guitar and dancing about like Elvis. Her brother seems embarrassed by her behavior.
Night settles into itself like an old man kicking back a La-Z-Boy chair. The full moon rising up from the horizon, barely illuminating the rice fields, glowing golden gleams of glistening light. Right now, hundreds of miles south in the Gulf of Thailand, people in their second earth decade are applying day-glo paint to their taut appendages and taking shots, toasting in a bacchanalia of juvenile expression of life’s promise under that forgiving moon’s eye. They will drink from buckets, indulge in hallucinogens, and dance on the beach like a drunken and drugged version of Lord of the Flies. They will awake with gruesome hangovers and flock into social media proclaiming it to be the “greatest night ever” prefaced with a picture of hugging strangers masquerading as friends.
Distant lights flicker through the foliage. Smells of train food being served, soggy microwaved meats and saucy veggies served with that ubiquitous starch of Asia–rice. I take a paper towel to my face and futilely attempt to blot off the accumulated grease and grime of my earlier city walk. The towel becomes clear in places.
An androgynous ticket checker struts the aisles with an appeal to both sexes and in a pull and a push quickly turns two leather benches into a clean, crisp bed with white sheets.
Lightning strikes far away amplifying the dark vista with a sneeze of light. At a dreary train station a lady gets on with two plastic bags and a purse and sits opposite me assuring my feet a place on the ground for the duration. She takes out a pungent piece of sausage. It smells like beer spilled on the floor of a busy bar. The stench lingers in my nose making me hungry and nauseous simultaneously–a most confusing feeling–like when someone gives you unsolicited yet nevertheless good advice. Clouds casually hide the mouth of the moon as my new bunk mate asks for her bed, thus closing my window view and chasing me to my top berth.
I love having a little space all my own. I have a mesh cup holder, non functional light, pillow, blanket, curtain, leftover sunflower seeds from my boat ride last week and a new apple in Saran Wrap. There are three Simpsons loaded on my laptop, it’s 20:25–bedtime for train people.

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Sitting on the Slow Boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai

Green trees, brown water, red and blue boats, jagged, moist rocks poking up from the riverine depths. More Mekong sights, but this time–on the river, churning and chugging through the calm muddy currents. Engine grumbling behind, people spread out on used minivan seats, fires ashore. Trees like stars, uncountable and mesmerizing. Light rain, coldest air I’ve felt in 2 months, cruising speed.
Houses disguised as 3 sided shacks balanced on tenuous mud and sand slopes. Construction is not a paramount for river dwellers. Water buffalo striving for honor of laziest draft animal stand at the banks and pretending to chew gum and blankly stare at their reflections.
Beaches made of wonderfully light white sand, surrounded by hills, no footprints.
The river rapids slow us to a crawl. Whitewater rising and bubbling from the murky, mercurial depths, swirling in a pulse of surface energy. Some haggard man, teeth brutally stained from betel-nut rests on his haunches atop a black rock and barely even acknowledges our presence.
What dank fish live in this water? What muddy-eyed salamanders crawl beneath these smooth stones? What type of predator is here? No crocs, no barracuda, no sharks, no teeth, it’s like a river meant for toe dipping. Fish throw themselves into nets, bite unloaded lures, lunge past the tides and crawl ashore onto the grill. They are giving fish. The peaceful and fully edible Mekong.
The clouds are thick, obscuring any rays save the glimmer of sunshine. Fresh Rain smells mixed with parched boulders begin to permeate the aerated boat. Hours later, I have the answer to that great American bard of rock n roll, John Fogarty, I have seen rain coming down on a sunny day. Sun out, fisherman fishing, rain drizzling, rocks shining in the wet glare, we push on. Rivulets have carved tiny meandering hollows in the sandy shore.
Slowly, we approach shore. The old woman seemingly made entirely of sinewy muscle and old skin goes ashore on some dangerous rocks with a young boy dressed nicely. We leave them squatted on the rocks figuratively but almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. Rocks still drying, resemble wet, unmolded clay with a bumpy texture.
The scariest part of the Mekong is its opacity. No knowing the depths. Only wonder of the life below. It’s like the Mississippi, just a polite, helpful old river. Nothing to worry about here.
We finally pass some kids about dusk. They sit like friendly gargoyles upon the rocks, legs dangling, waving, most likely completely unaware of another world beyond the river and her murky wealth. Further on, we see a deeply tanned statue posing as a boy holding a net within a small cave like hole, ensconced by rocks.

2nd day
Started rainy, now sunny with puffy cottony clouds. Hills closer and higher, we pass a copse of singing trees. The peculiar little black birds tweeting a morning chorus to the river. Dense engine sound obfuscating the rich jungle din. Vines growing upon vines, branches hugging each other. The birdsong and frogs making an orchestra out of the shoreline, with me in a front row. Birds on flutes, frogs on horns, cicadas the drum and rhythm section. A leaf barren tree teems with black birds sitting, posing and chirping. Wifi towers planted on hillsides otherwise devoid of life hint of things deeper in those forests. Quarry, bulldozers, trucks, cranes, terraced hills, new bridge construction.
Nasty yellow foam bubbles swirling beside plastic rubbish and scattered debris. Styrofoam floating in sad circles in gentle whirlpools.
A woman in classic long Laos skirt and silky pink shirt spits phlegm wretched from the bowels of her gullet over the side of the boat for the sixth time in two hours. She spits as well (and as loud) as an outfielder. Cows and a fat pig sit on the beach dreaming calmly.
Journey complete and back on terra firma, legs twitchy for exercise, body sticky for shower, ears ringing from the incessant engine roar, I feel a sense of completion. Mekong will be behind me tomorrow, replaced by new Thai surprises.

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One Month in Laos >> View From a Bus

Laos
Buses held together with duct tape, given as goodwill gestures by more prosperous countries like Korea and Japan when they were deemed embarrassingly old and dirty, yet functional enough for their poorer neighbors to the south. Swirling fans above my head momentarily brush away the flies flitting through the cabin. One rest stop after another, we are boarded by ten women in sweaters, cotton stockings, dust masks, wool hats and baggy pants. They offer an incongruous amount of food for a bus ride. They have entire grilled chickens skewered on bamboo, 5 hard boiled eggs skewered, pork skewers, some kind of knuckle meat…skewered… bags of colored liquid, fruit bags, water bags and strange chips. Their clothing layers are three deep with no perspiration visible in these harshly hot temps. Crippled chickens lay in a pile, un-moving, un-clucking, awaiting the cleaver, awaiting the grill. Stumpy dogs sniff about the dust scraps with focused eyes. Cigarette butts tossed aside at varying lengths of completion. Ample piles of trash in the corner, beautiful red flowers on the trees above. Bus continues to idle. Air-con a stale breath of exhaled chemical ice.
A country where you can stop at any corner and push search wifi and nothing comes up. Highly unconnected and slow and unreliable when it is provided. The dust here is a white, sandy dust. Cambodia is more of a brown, dirty dust.
Moving into the dense jungle, verdant canopy thick like a giant outdoor greenhouse. White barked trees stuck like toothpicks under a pillow of broccoli, all the leaves blossoming at the top to meet the sun’s hale glare. We approach a 90^ turn and 3 vehicles have collided. A large truck hangs over the edge of the guardrail, oil seems to have leaked all over the road.
Another rest stop, another chance to look at mystery meat and colorful eggs in Saran Wrap. Like paying for a stomachache.
Indistinct shrub land and red clay dirt passes until a magnificent golden Buddha punches your eyes awake. He sits peacefully among desolation beside the one room tin roofed houses offering no tangible reprieve from poverty but rather a structured belief system intended to end suffering for these uneducated peasants–‘escape’–the true hallmark of religions. We pass a graveyard dedicated to revolutionaries. The tombs are yellow, shaped like taller WW1 German helmets.
In the mountains, white and yellow tubular flowers droop like fragrant tears, kids, faces dirty with exhaust fumes and play, trees everywhere with bare, burned patches possibly indicating the clear cutting of the modern world encroaching upon this paradise at 1,000 m above sea level. The hills round and solid, jagged and with chins raised look like scoliotic giants bent over, searching the landscape for their lost keys. Small black pigs wrinkling their nose toward our bus. Only green, varying shades of green paint the walls of life here. Cutbacks, switchbacks, up and down backs weaving astride the mountain. Jungle trees are more visible now. Full branches, healthy leaves, probably full of the same bugs that have buzzed and crawled all over me the past weeks. The drop down into the canyon from the road is dizzying. No guardrail. Only a stranger driving this hulk of a bus, with hopefully functional brakes. Road shoulder disappears and the houses are close enough to touch from my window. Thatch and tin, thin layers to keep the oppressive jungle out, or perhaps to let just a little in for good luck.
“Winding road ahead” sign taunts us as a mist begins to fall. Clouds securely belting the middle of the valley, prompting the mountains to peek above with their singular, expansive green eye.
Coming down from the heights, finding the chocolate river a la Willy Wonka Factory flowing imperceptibly past sunken boats and judicious palms. Civilization presents itself to us with lonely gas stations and rumbling pickup trucks. Rice paddies accepting the playful tickle of sprinkling raindrops behind us.

The Walk

A wet pug dog, temple of red and gold. Bob Marley in my headphones. Busy street, balconies, streetlights, alleys, old unbalanced doors, sidewalk jammed with trash flowers, SUV’s on the curb, mini-mart, same peaceful breeze as last night. Special, bow tied and helpless baskets full of jellies or Nescafé. Finally the fruits. Mangoes, grapes, apples, starfruit, grapefruit, dragon fruit. The old interchangeable ladies selling those cherries and avocados.
A mom slaps her young daughter’s head for something as they buy orange flowers built in the shape of a stupa. Laundry. Motorbike. Writing symbols abound. Teenagers strutting. D-mart, Kintime, Nokia. Hotel. Beeline. Pepsi. Poorly named pho dung…closed Sunday. Canon. J.D. Pools. Purple flowers above some runoff river sitting playing with itself. Sweet home Restauran (sic).
Four guys play black dominoes. Some terrible drama on the TV. Do I want a Cornetto cone? No. After dinner. More dogs laying about the flip flops and soily cardboard.
Carnation condensed milk and coke sitting together, what would that make?? A huge crystal store condensed into one tiny room. Guy slurping noodles in his cell phone store. Old lady on her haunches loading a soda fridge. What appears to be “Laos Got Talent” is on. Always traffic, there’s always somewhere to be. A grayed old couple working the bicycle store. Calloway golf clubs, golf must be glorious out in some of these green mountains, the fairways lined with karst cliffs, deep blue water hazards. K-plaza, Paweetra Beauty Center, Samsung, Galaxy, iPhone, cross the street, drainage, arrows, green fences with gold lace, a giant red and white electrical tower, wifi, red and white curb, barbed iron wall. Entrance gate with guard in uniform, green. Five big nice banks all in a row. Across the street, the planned site of the Vientiane WTC megamall. To the right, the Patuxai, the tri-tipped, intricately carved Arc de Triomphe of Laos. A guy on a moto does a wheelie and peels out. Nuclear power plant advertisement on the rather small big screen. Girl in multi-color one piece alone on a bench with bags. Banana shaped leaves on the ground. Campus France. Black cat hides in the shadow. Cat scampers away. Saw a dead cat earlier. It’s chin was on the ground, the man poked it, dead. The world is hard, as Bob Marley sings War in my ears…”until all these things, have no meaning to all mankind, there will be War.” TUK-tuk. So many banks. Changed it up: now it’s Amos Lee, “windows are rolled daaaaoooun.” Pho ZaP… Original taste since 1958. Really??Lizard crawls on the glowing massage sign. Some terrible thing festering on the sidewalk. A tree patch. Puddle. Wind. Palm tree. Puppy. Poppy pharmacy. Print shop. Beerlao. Settha Palace. Born to B. And then I arrived at the bowling alley…

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One Month in Vietnam

Vietnam makes you walk along its spine as you move through the country. You can go up or down. I went down. Starting in the misty, drizzly capital of Hanoi, an ancient town with the scrappy charm of a lived-in city. Giant, grizzled trees grow through sidewalks sheltering street food merchants. Gimcrack houses sit nestled among silent alleys. Tiny red and blue plastic chairs lay scattered along each corner. It’s a busy city with a mixture of hustle and relaxation. The population is either going or arriving. They arrive and watch the rest keep moving. The city bears many visible scars of age and strife which only adds to its charisma. The French influence apprises itself within the architecture, wide, tree-lined boulevards and cafes. The centerpiece lake, Hoan Kiem, gives off a flavor of tranquility among the commotion. The best food lives in Hanoi.

I slept on a night bus for the 13 hour drive south. Hue, the old capital, is rather indistinct apart from its massive ruins and tombs dedicated to king worship. The grid lined streets work well for sightseeing, as I wandered making three sided squares of exploration. A few days spent looking at old bricks and concrete and moving south again.

The silken, quiet town of Hoi An permeates a vibe of innocuousness. Walking lantern lined streets of oppressive cuteness, quiet cafes offering nickel beers, flashy tailors displaying their flamboyantly attired mannequins, tiny restaurants backlit in tasteful orange and red hues, it screams, “You can feel safe spending money here!” The UNESCO cultural heritage town will continue losing its historic spark as more foreign money continues to pour into the pockets of local merchants. Until then, we can enjoy the relaxing pace and historical significance.

Leaving the decorous realm of Hoi An behind, I pushed on to the seedy, sleazy, sparkling Nha Trang. It’s a beach town, a port of call for Russians, and a party stop for backpackers. Besides the standard resort style fare of watersports, spas and high rise hotels, there isn’t much to see here. Luckily, I found the smiling faces off the main drag to be a fun diversion to photograph. Here, travelers make the decision to visit to the mountain highlands of Da Lat, or the sandy duned beaches of Mui Ne. I opted for the former. The bus climbed through fog and mist up challenging mountain passes and as my ears popped I caught my first elevated vista of Vietnam. There is something glorious about mountain fog, untroubled, placid in its silent repose, like a blanket for the weary hills.

Da Lat reminded me of a place in Europe I’d never been. It’s familiar in a foreign way. It isn’t a great walking town, with steep hills, crumbly sidewalks and an expansive city center, but it had a gentle banana shaped lake planted within its belly that provided ample strolling space. The weird, Gaudi-esque “Crazy House” was a nice day trip, followed by the self-controlled roller coaster to the bottom of Datanla Waterfall. I began suffering traveler’s stomach here, and the cuisine of the city, being bland and boring, didn’t help matters. I could feel the sun flexing its solar muscles as the bus meandered down from the highlands.

Ho Chi Minh City/HCMC (Saigon) contains, in equal amounts, the elements heat and desire, mixing into a melange of laziness and lust. Food on every corner, drinks at every shop, coffee in every window, windows being washed, vegetables being peeled, bustling markets, honking buses, cars and bikes, neon lit high rises, the NEVER-ending murmur of a powerfully prosperous city creating the incompatible feeling of cognizant ignorance. You must allow in certain sensory images and sounds while becoming oblivious to others. Horns keep you apprised of speeding maniacs behind you, but you cannot allow each and every horn to rattle within your auditory frequency lest it permeate into a cacophony of permanent distraction. Each bar, grill, hostess cafe, massage parlor, eatery and lounge have a card proclaiming a promotional special for you. Your inner voyeur will be over-loaded with side-long glances into the cozy homes along tiny, damp alleys. Scavenging dogs trot about the streets, with flappy testicles or nipples respective of gender, looking both ways before crossing. Black hair is everywhere. Soggy sidewalks, messy bathrooms, warm beer; the glaring, bold heat and humidity of the south reaches its zenith in HCMC. Glistening bodies in the daylight hours presage the sticky, grime covered masses of the evening. It’s not a soothing city. It’s a busy city that doesn’t have time to notice how uncomfortable it feels.

The country is unrelentingly green. The mountains are sharp and covered with a mass mixture of evergreens, swampy cypresses and paradisiacal coconut trees.  The ramshackle houses, some built with palm fronds and discarded sheet metal, seem perfectly congruous among the roadside environment of rotting trash, mysterious fires and mangy mutts. Small, filthy restaurants line the dusty, country streets advertising soups, rice and overcooked meats.

The people have a surprising mix of faces with great variety in skin tones and facial features. Their mouths move quickly to match my smile and most seem to sell something; trinkets, clothes, fruits or services. They catch your eye and say, “Buy something.” “Hey, you.” “Excuse me.” “You like?” “Very good, very cheap.” “Come on, help me out.” They all have something you desperately need. They possess pushy but rather effective sales techniques, and continually out haggle me. The motorbike drivers offer you rides as though it were drugs. Late at night, or even under the noonday sun, you can hear their whispers as you walk past crowds of shoeless men lounging atop cushioned seats in various stages of sweaty relaxation, “Hey, man, hey.” “Taxi.” “You need motobike?” “Where you go?” “You wanna go motobike?” “Very cheap.” “Oh, there. Very far, motobike is better.”

I have trouble picturing the Vietnam my father’s wartime generation would have known. It was only 50 years ago, but the cities have moved fast. On the long bus rides, I caught some rare sights of rural and tourist neglected places. The Vietnamese fought so hard for so long for their freedom. The War Remnants Museum in HCMC is a devastating, penetrating, albeit one-sided, look into the century long battle against the French and Americans. They dug the longest tunnel system in the world and some lived underground for a decade. They continue to suffer from Agent Orange and forgotten mines. They came out of a brutal civil war and somehow are managing to work together to heal. Money helps the healing; tourists bring the money. It’s a puzzling socialistic republic they have here.

 

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