Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tell all: Viet Nam; Part 1

In keeping with what I said in the previous post, this is what happened in Viet Nam, from the beginning (I didn't realize 'Viet Nam' was actually two words until a few months ago, but it is).

My flight was on July 4 from Chicago to Hanoi with a layover in Tokyo. I heard several times that leaving for Viet Nam on the 4th of July was basically the least patriotic thing I could do, but I was going to meet up with Danish people so I don't think that was considered in the decision. I was nervous about flying by myself and I didn't sleep until near the end of the flight from Tokyo. I had a dream that I accidentally got off in North Korea. I was thinking about this because I had just told my family that on my return trip I would have a layover in Seoul, South Korea, which prompted a discussion on the safety of the border between North and South Korea and how I should be careful not to step over it. My momentary confusion about where I was when I landed dissipated, and getting off the flight I was simultaneously proud of myself for being so far from home alone and terrified as I realized there was really no going back now (no going back for 3 weeks).

The officer at immigration scrutinized my passport and visa to the point that I thought I definitely had something wrong. I watched him looking repeatedly from me, to my picture, to his computer. He finally let me in and I rushed out to the arrival gate where my friend Louise and her friend Signe were supposed to be waiting. When I got to the gate I couldn't find them, and I was barraged by people offering me taxis and hotels and other assistance (I could barely understand most of what was being said, and instead of even saying 'no' most of the time I just looked at them blankly, which really didn't help). The airport had a very dismal and imposing atmosphere, and as I called the hotel my friends were coming from I started to wonder why I was in an airport in Viet Nam by myself. Twenty minutes is enough to thoroughly question your judgment.

The hotel told me that Signe and Louise were waiting at a different gate and that I should stay where I was. Louise ran up to me and hugged me before I even realized it was her, and I almost started crying. I hadn't been happier to see someone I knew in a really long time. Louise had become one of my best friends last summer while teaching English in Bolivia. The 3 months we spent there together gave us a closeness it is hard to build with friends I've known for years.

Leaving the airport the mid-summer humidity made me feel like I had been hit by a wave of wet heat. I don't mind heat, but I was still taken aback. I noticed that there were sometimes 5 people on one motorbike, sometimes a child holding a younger child and sometimes a driver texting, smoking and driving simultaneously. The traffic was unlike anything I had ever seen, and I started avoiding looking at the cars and motorbikes around us.

Our first few days in Hanoi were a sweltering blur. We saw Hoi Loa prison, where John McCain was incarcerated for 5 1/2 years, and I developed a new respect for him to have survived more than a week in the worst living conditions I could ever imagine. We also saw a water puppet show, which was made even more adorable by the fact that Louise (not understanding my mumbling English) initially thought was a "water puppy" show and wondered where all the puppies were when the show started.

The first few days were trying. I had never experienced the dirty, oppressive heat that was inescapable in Hanoi, I could barely sleep. I had a constant knot in my stomach from anxiety and exhaustion. The second night we were in Hanoi, there were widespread power outages in the city. We had an overnight train to the northern mountain region of Sapa, so we showed up at our tour company to wait inside with the other travelers. We noticed a crowd forming outside of the tour agency, and when we went outside the building we saw that the building next to it (connected to it, because the buildings in Hanoi all spill on top of each other kind of like those in San Francisco) was engulfed in flames. The crowd was volatile and screaming in Vietnamese. There were people trying to run into the burning building, which I think means that people were trapped.

We ran down the block, past the civilian blockade and were rushed to Hanoi station. We left Hanoi for a borderline delirious overnight train trip on a train akin to the Hogwarts Express. The first thing I did on the train was listen to the album "Farmhouse" by Phish, which I don't think I've listened to since high school, and by the morning we were in Viet Nam's idyllic northern mountains.

* * *

Monday, July 25, 2011

twenty ways to see the world

"No be scared! Put on your sunglasses and hat, and walk! All you have to do, walk!"

He glanced down and saw the burgundy scarf on my lap and then added "and scarf!"

I listened to his advice- his English was difficult to understand but I could get the jist (gist?) of what he was saying; I should cover myself up to attract less unwanted attention for being a foreigner. I should not be scared.

He knew I was scared, he saw me saying goodbye to my Danish friends and then sitting blankly in a chair.

I remembered what someone had told me once, that there is sensible fear and there is fear that paralyzes. Maybe the fear I had of exploring Phnom Penh by myself could be considered sensible, but it was only one day and I had already been in Cambodia for a week. I deemed the fear part of the latter, nonsensical category.

I listened to his advice and put on my huge sunglasses and wrapped the scarf around my neck and the lower part of my face. I took off onto the street, looking pretty incognito (which I particularly enjoyed) not because I really wanted to but because sitting in the hostel for the final day I had in Southeast Asia seemed anticlimactic. I thought about my location on a map, farther away from home than I had ever been, and got some satisfaction out of the novelty of the situation. A whole day alone in Cambodia. I was at once excited and anxious. I remembered reading that Cambodia is ranked 166/180 in the world for corruption and poverty. I have traveled alone before, but it was in Western Europe. This is different.

The best place to start with a story is at the beginning. This isn't the beginning of the story, sitting at a hostel alone in the capital of Cambodia, Phom Penh, with more than 12 hours until I can begin the 20+ hour flight back to Chicago, receiving a pep talk and advice from someone who worked there after my friends left for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The planning for this trip started last winter when I was in DC, feeling stifled by the working world and drowning in the human rights violation reports I was reading. I was constantly wondering why all these things were happening, why so much devastation and tragedy were so pervasive in the world.

That's not the point of this though. The point is that while I was sitting at a desk working from 9-5, my mind wandered to different places. That's when I got it into my head that I needed to come to Asia. And now, I'm here.

This trip began on the 5th of July when I arrived in Hanoi, Viet Nam, after a flight that took me more than 8,000 miles away from home, to my 4th continent and 17th country.

I realize that the way I am writing this is bizarre- starting at the end of my trip, now sitting in an Internet cafe instead of the hostel to escape the torrential rain. I am a few hours into this day and I am doing great, pretty much avoiding contact except for the usual questions shouted in broken English on the street "WHERE YOU FROM? WHAT YOUR NAME? HOW YOU? WHERE YOU GO?"

I am going to write more and start from the beginning (not the real origin, though, the beginning of this actual backpacking trip 3 weeks ago) and tell how everything happened.

Right now, that seems daunting because of everything that's happened. Also, the rain is slowing down, and the clock is tick-tocking before this flight to South Korea I have to catch. I am going to the riverfront and the next time that I write will be from home!

as ever