The Vietnotebook (Pt.1/3)
In August of 2018, my roommate Griffin and I booked travel from Los Angeles to Vietnam with the idea of riding motorcycles through the jungle for a month. The only plans made in advance were how to get there and how to get home; everything else was to be determined by the open road. Along the way I maintained a hand-written journal—selected & edited here—which now serves as a guide map to both our geographical journey across this diversely beautiful country, and the psychological transformation that occurred within. Vietnam changed me as it has many others, for different reasons. I think of it everyday.
"Riding fast, no longer clean.
Vietnamese Steve McQueen."
Day 1 – Sunday, September 30th
It feels like a 'day one'. Even though we left Los Angeles two days ago, our arrival to Hanoi came only as of late last night, after eighteen-hours of travel by way of Guangzhou, China. By the time we got to our hostel it was close to midnight but for all we cared it could have been 5am; we had just crossed to the other side of the world, and that meant it was time to celebrate. With great speed, we dropped our bags inside our four-bunk co-ed hostel room and found an ATM on the street to pull cash from. From there it was off to finding an open watering hole for a proper cheers among several beers. By the time the tab was finally dropped at our table, we had transitioned into the early hours of the next morning and it was then I suddenly realized I had left my debit card in the ATM outside. Good morning, Vietnam!
I have traveled here with my good friend and roommate, Griffin Nichols, on what I would call 'a most spontaneous whim'. See, five-or-so weeks ago, back in early August, I had been bumming out hard in Los Angeles. Griffin was in New York City working a gig for Fashion Week, and had also been feeling more of the same. It was a suffocation of the familiar and my breaking point came on August 21st when I awoke with an overwhelming feeling that if some form of change wasn’t known to me by the end of the day, there was a chance I'd fucking lose it for good. That morning, at 5:17am, I texted Griffin. An hour later we had roundtrip flights booked to Hanoi for $403 USD.
Fast forward to now: it's 10am on September 30th, and Griffin and I are presently sat at a two-top on the “outside patio” of our hostel’s rooftop here in the capital city of Hanoi, Vietnam, having just concluded our first meal: a complimentary hostel breakfast consisting of two eggs, fluffy slices of white bread toast, one crepe, one very yellow banana, and a high-voltage dose of Vietnamese coffee (black, of course).
The journey has officially begun, and with it, the cleansing of my observational eye. Behind the bar inside there's an advertisement for“Balloon Night: Only 15K. 4-8pm. Buy 2 for 1 vodka mixer.” I assume these to be the same type of balloons I saw at the bar last night, the ones filled with nitrous-oxide. I saw two men wearing business suits sucking them down till their eyes rolled into the back of their skulls, mouths falling agape. It looked miserable; yet they kept doing it. But who am I to judge? The balloons seemed lift these men from the ground and from their troubles and I figured that if someone wanted to steal from these two men, that they could have easily. But perhaps the balloons were taking care of that already.
My eyes wander this terrace where we are currently sat and I am silently informed that Griffin and I do not belong among these other guests, for the fact that they do not look anything like us. The difference is suddenly obvious—one of status. Not of socioeconomics, but the world itself. These people are TRAVELERS—certified by sandals and sweat-stained tank tops atop golden skin. A traveling man wears a beard; his female counterpart, a messy bun bleached by the sun. I look down at my own black Levis, my plain white shirt. My disgustingly clean plain white shirt. My clean clothes from another world. The answer is clear to me: I need to get dirty.
Day 2 – Monday, October 1st
9:45am. Awfully hungover, but trying to crawl back to life after just finishing a repeat of yesterday's complimentary breakfast here at the hostel. Besides getting shit-faced last night, yesterday we bought motorcycles for dirt cheap. I paid $280 USD out the door; Griffin paid $250. The bikes are a couple of Frankenstein Honda Wins scrapped together with cheap Chinese parts. In shopping around, our requirements were simple: the bike must run. The practically costing us nothing part was just an added bonus, which only goes to show how much weight the US Dollar holds here (1 USD= ~23,000 in Dong). With our modes of transportation in place, the journey can thus officially begin, and I am happy to report that I am already feeling a bit dirtier. The air in Hanoi smells like a mixture of food oils and garbage. Griffin is still sleeping in our room downstairs and I am afraid I'm unable to further form coherent words. Until tomorrow then.
Day 4 – Wednesday, October 3rd
6:45am. We are now in Tu Le, about halfway between Hanoi and our next destination, which is the northern mountain town of Sa Pa. The majority of yesterday was spent in the saddle. We left Hanoi around 9am and didn’t arrive here in Tu Le until sundown at around 5:45pm. The riding was some of the best I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t without setbacks. Almost immediately after we got on the road, we quickly learned that the main motorways here in Vietnam do not allow motorcycles. Luckily, Griffin had bought a Vietnamese SIM card while we were out yesterday and was able to pull up Google Maps to show us a thirty-minute detour we needed to take to get back on the road.
Hours later, I witnessed a bolt fall of Griffin’s bike while we were riding. I heard it first and then saw it bouncing toward me across the broken pavement and not long after Griffin’s engine was hanging off his bike. Thankfully, a large portion of the Vietnamese population depends on motorbikes for transportation, so mechanic shops are EVERYWHERE. Half an hour and 10k in repairs, later we were back on the dusty trail.
(P.S. Griff named his bike “Don Chixote”, so I have cleverly named mine “John Phogerty," singer of “Photunate Bun”.)
Day 5 – Thursday, October 4th
Yesterday consisted mostly of a five hour ride from Tu Le to the mountain town of Sa Pa. On the road we passed rice fields greener than Oz, and spotted locals living in wooden shacks gripped to the mountainside. It was a beauty that could fill this entire notebook. The one thing I will speak of now is the Vietnamese children, especially those we have seen in these mountain regions. It seems to me that these children are pure. Free from Western pretension, they smile and wave when we ride past and so I smile and wave back. Who knew such a simple interaction could bring such joy!
It’s currently 8:09am, and Griffin and I just finished another breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, bread, and black coffee. We are sitting at our hostel’s café on the edge of Sa Pa's mountain range, perfectly named ‘The Café In The Clouds’. The view is out of this world and I couldn’t imagine a better start to the day.
We have been extremely fortunate when misfortune has shown its face. Yesterday, I joined Griff in the breakdown club. At the entrance to Sa Pa my backpack flew off my bike after being rattled free by the ruggedness of the mountain roads. Immediately, I pulled over and retrieved it and thankfully everything was still intact. But then I tried to start my bike back up and the engine seized. I tried to get it started for five or so minutes and then I was forced to push it almost two kilometers to a mechanic, who, with technical speeds of superiority, dismantled my engine to reveal a broken nut that had jammed the engine from turning over. Four hours and 650,000K later, and I am road worthy once again.
Other than that, today is a mellow day. We will stroll through Sa Pa and then later ride to the Lao Cai train station, which is a mile south of the border of China in order to catch a 9pm train ride with our bikes back to Hanoi, so that tomorrow we can commence the three-week journey south to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh). At this moment, all is right in the world. I am dirty and I am content.
Day 6 -Friday, October 5th
As of 4:30am this morning, we have successfully landed back in Hanoi. Before catching our train last night, we had a two-hour drinking session with two new friends – older gentlemen, one from Ireland and the other from Scotland - and when the time came we boarded the passenger train car in the shadows of the night, guided only by the small kerosene lantern of a young man working the platform. I felt like I had suddenly traveled back in time. It was as if I had been dropped back to the days of war. I was a soldier boarding this train, likely destined for death. All I could hear around me were the sounds of jungle insects and the high-pitched locomotive whistle that screamed like a kettle of tea. There was also the voice of a Vietnamese woman making travel announcements over the loud speaker, which we could not understand.
Once boarded, Griffin and I were able to grab an empty sleeping car with four bunkbeds. It was dark and built of ancient wood and every movement caused something to creak. I only smelt must. For sure it had been a cabin for soldiers back in the war. Either way, I found it to be the proper sleeper-train experience: non-luxurious, totally unclean. I even had to kill a cockroach on my pillow.
But because our return to Hanoi happened so early in the morning, we arrived to a still sleeping world. From the train station we rode directly to a hostel in hopes of snagging a room for a few extra hours to snooze, but were told at the front desk that check-in couldn’t be done until 7am. Until that time, we were allowed the use of their lounge on the sixth floor, and I was successfully able to curl up on a bench and obtain another hour of shut eye.
When 7am came, we were up again and ready for the day, already changing our plans. The original idea was to head East to Ha Long Bay, however we soon realized that this route would cut at least two days out of our time needed to get south to Ho Chi Minh. Instead we decided to gear up for our long trek south, aiming for a first stop in Ninh Binh. But first: breakfast.
At some point during President Obama’s tenure, he made a guest appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s, Parts Unknown, the outcome of which is now famously documented. In a small, Vietnamese restaurant, the President of The United States shared a meal with the late Mr. Anthony Bourdain; and now Griffin and I have shared the same.
The meal to buy is called the ‘Combo Obama’ – comprised of one Bun Cha; 1 seafood roll and 1 Hanoi Beer bottle – all for a small price of $85k. This is exactly what the men ate during their visit and you can even see their actual dishes as the restaurant has encased the table where Obama and Bourdain ate.
So, to the parts unknown, cheers to you, Mr. Bourdain. Rest easy.
Day 7 – Saturday, October 6th
Before I talk about today, I’d like to first add a post script to yesterday. After the 'Obama Combo,' we rode from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and arrived in the early afternoon. Our accommodations were a private bamboo hut nestled within a giant alcove of limestone.
As soon as we got to the hostel, we had a quick bite, then hopped back on the bikes for 3km to catch a local boat tour through some of Vietnam's famous caves. Out of three routes available, we chose the one with nine caves and three temples. Each canoe held four guests, plus the local Vietnamese tour guide. Ours did not speak a word the entire time. Since Griff and I made two, we paired up with a gentleman from New Zealand named Jeremy, and an archetypical woman from Denver, Colorado named Meredith. Jeremy was with his family: wife, son, and two daughters. They took the other canoe, floating next to ours.
During our three-hour tour, Jeremy explained to us that his family likes to take long vacations every few years, with their last being 18 months long. They had lived in France and Spain, during which time his kids were enrolled in local schools. Proudly, Jeremy told us how much confidence his children gained from the exposure of these experiences, and I myself witnessed it firsthand. His kids were hardly kids at all. In fact, they were better adults than most actual adults. These were personable, outgoing members of society. Perfectly well-rounded in my observations.
I thought about my own future family. Could we one day be like Jeremy's? Would I ever have the balls to make that happen? Who would I have been if I had grown up like Jeremy's children?
The tour lasted three hours and was nothing short of being otherworldly. I use this adjective only after finding out the latest King Kong film was shot here. By the time we returned to the hostel in Ninh Binh, darkness had fallen and we ended up making the acquaintance of a Swiss-girl named Selena, and her hilarious German friend named Peter. Together, we shared homemade rice wine, played a few rounds of cards, and shared a hearty amount of laughs. Then I fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
Beyond that, I believe we have finally obtained official status as Vietnamese road dawgs. At some point during our 330km ride from Ninh Binh to Pho Chau, the environment was transformed into a set-piece for the film Apocalypse Now as a burning-red sun hung lazily on the horizon behind a thick sheet of smoky haze. In Vietnam’s depictions in film, I have always thought this blood sun to be a product of war, since every film I’ve seen with Vietnam as a backdrop has been about the subject. You know: bombs, flame throwers, napalm. The burning of the jungle. And while I know that war was for sure a contributor to this Apocalypse Now atmospheric effect, my time on the road today has shown me that Vietnam’s blood sun is also due to the people's way of burning trash as means of disposal. Along all roads are mini trash fires, most of them left completely unattended.
When we arrived in Pho Chau it was sundown and we checked into a hostel with a private double-bedroom. Then we walked around the village and found a local family to cook us dinner. As soon as we sat at the small plastic table, the mother and her son (I'd guess about age nine) asked us if we wanted chicken, in extremely broken English. "Yes, please." Not a moment later, the father appeared from the back kitchen with a LIVE chicken flailing in his grip. He carried the chicken right past us, almost in slow motion, and I was surprised to see the man's cunning smirk and smiling eyes above the thrashing of the panicked bird.
Another few seconds later and the poor creature was thrown into a pot of boiling water. Alive. A few more seconds and it was dead. A few seconds after that, it was no longer a chicken. Meanwhile, the father’s grin had remained all throughout this process. I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen a man so proud.
What was delivered to our plates a few minutes later was a steaming bowl of chicken broth and chicken parts; plus a side of white rice, veggies, tofu, and some sort of odd nut (or maybe it was a root?) that exploded in your mouth. It wasn’t my favorite meal here, but for sure it was the most authentic.
Oh-! And I also snapped their chair in half while trying to lean back for a better view of the chicken massacre. I tried to pay them for it, but they wouldn’t let me.
Day 8 – Sunday, October 7th
Today's ride from Pho Chau to Phong Nha was out of this world. Probably the best riding I’ve ever done, and perhaps ever will. If there's a descriptive word for this ecosystem here it's 'lush'. Everywhere you look it’s green, and I literally mean everywhere. To describe all these things I would need all the words. Instead, I can only urge you to come here yourself. I am feeling like Indiana Jones.