In the washing machine of ridiculous conversations between Bubba and myself, I can’t recall when we chose Vietnam as the target adventure. When people ask why Vietnam? It’s easier to explain that we just pulled it out of a hat. We had already been on the adventure of a lifetime; Eight weeks in Costa Rica; surfing, yoga, bungee, ATV, using military grade weapons, deep sea fishing, hiking etc. I knew Bubba was capable of the impossible adventure. However, there had been a stunning number of near-miss adventures since Costa. What were the odds this time? Not Good, if you played the percentages. Vietnam is on the far side of the world, 9165 miles away, as the crow flies.
This would be a titanic effort, involving some fierce and complex adventure design. The text messages from Bubba started coming in as steadily as a drumbeat in the remote distance; unlike the near-miss adventures since Costa, their frequency and urgency intensified. The target had not been painted green yet, but I knew that this time, it was different.
I sat down in my office and started grappling with the design. After a few days of fits and starts, I slumped in my chair; The entire venture was eluding me, at least from this distance. For the first time, I lost faith in my ability to plan an epic adventure. I had visited every map, every travel website; Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet etc. I was on E, empty, striking out. After four days of planning, there was no clear design. This was such a heavy lift, and I didn’t want to find myself in Hanoi aimless or unprepared. Or worse. The goal in planning is a concept referred to as structured spontaneity. Structured spontaneity is that mental location on an adventure travel experience where one goes off plan without panic. In this moment, the best I could hope for was blissful chaos.
I canvassed my LinkedIn for contacts to find a connection who had either travelled or done business in Asia. It turned out that Rob Cullins, the father of an alumni at the school where I work had traveled extensively in the East. Great guy. Superior insights. We had dinner and he connected me with Charles Henagan, a true adventure traveller, a man on a quest. Charles was a godsend. He had extensively travelled throughout Vietnam and recommended the tour company Vietnam Impressive. Thus begun my correspondence and Skype calls with Tu Nguyen.
Communication was a challenge because the cultural and language barriers. I still was missing the structure I needed. Emails and voice calls were insufficient. At some point we started to do Skype video calls on a regular basis. The cultural divide started to disappear once we started collaborating over Skype. I had a lead foot on the pedal, and the plan lurched forward. Technology had shrunk the world. Tu dialed us in, target in sight.
In a few weeks we were about to make a journey that consumed 24 years of Marco Polo’s life. He never even crossed the Atlantic. We planned to stop in the Middle East for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, after months of planning, we were still uncertain if we were in launch mode.
This was the most epic travel experience I have ever been on for a number of reasons, but most importantly, the sheer magnitude of both the distance and cultural juxtaposition. You have the analytical build up of the planning stage. The emotional starburst of the trip departure. The endurance nightmare of the journey. Finally, time has this quality mentioned by Lawrence Summers: “A good rule of thumb for many things in life holds that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then happen faster than you thought they could.” In the blink of an eye we go from trip prototype planning to hotel check in. We are in the Apricot Hotel in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. From the interior of the room we might as well have been in downtown Ft. Lauderdale.
What now? We have to eat, so we venture into the old quarter. The emotion that we are experiencing after all we have been through to get to Hanoi is a steep let down. Partially, because we are not sure how to engage this alien culture. We spent the next couple of hours dipping our foot into the cultural deep end, checking the temperature before diving in.
We got something to eat at a restaurant on the fifth floor of a building that overlooks the Old Quarter. It was clearly not a “Dances with Wolves” moment. It could have been America. We were clearly in the experimental phase. All of that changed when we decided to wander into the throng of people in the Old Quarter. Vietnam is a people, not a place, and it’s here in the crowded streets that we start engaging with the culture.
We wandered into a few establishments and made connections with fellow Westerners and an American. We were bouncing between cultures, still testing the waters, afraid to leave our side of the swimming pool. Always making sure we can see home base. I met these Swedes in the road and we shared a drink. Even though we were from different countries, we were experiencing Hanoi from a Western perspective. It’s funny how I initially thought they were Americans and they thought I was Swedish. Western strangers happy to see other in the sea of the unknown. Cool Dudes--straight out of the movie “The Thirteenth Warrior” about Viking marauders.
It took about two hours to fully engage. The adventure we had hoped for started here and lasted until we landed in Ft. Lauderdale.
I am not the only one who has ever drunk snake blood in Vietnam. For tourists, I’m assuming, the goal is the attempt to capture a truly authentic cultural moment. We went there for a cultural thrill and we got one. Our host seemed to pitch this in a way that was somewhat staged. He had a flair for the dramatic; the name, theater atmosphere and cultural shock value.
The presentation is irrelevant when you’re about to eat a part of a snake that is still alive. The idea of doing this is a culinary “beyond the pale” shimmer. One needs that crossover juncture where mental gravity kicks in. The elevator cables have snapped and we are on our way to the first floor. It becomes a law of nature. It’s happening. If you think about it to much, your will vanishes.
We were at museums for most of the morning; READY to stray off the beaten path. We found a reputable snake house on Trip Adivsor and started to make our way there. We pulled into what appeared to be ordinary house in a typical neighborhood. Communist flags lining the street. You saw that wherever you went.
We were greeted by the owner, a man named “Dragon.” As we exited the van I felt like a prize fighter before the title bout. Bubba was my corner man, energetically trying to hype me up before the moment of truth. I had no idea what to expect.
Dragon asked what kind of snake I wanted. At the bottom of the food chain was a farm raised bamboo snake. The apex experience was the wild mountain cobra. I couldn’t imagine anything living in the wild in Vietnam. They eat everything--dog, mice, cat, animal organs, centipedes, duck embryos. If it provides calories, it’s consumed.
When I’m rolling with Bubba, it doesn’t matter if it’s deep sea fishing or bungee jumping, it’s go big or go home. We ordered the wild mountain cobra. I had to go out to the street and warm up. Things were getting intense.
I had no idea what to expect as we all went to the second floor. There were two rooms. The first room looked like your standard family room without furniture. There was a glass divider between the rooms. On the other side was the dining area. Dragon brought a red bag in the room and took out a live mountain cobra. He began to put on a show in what I believe is ritualized tourist experience for something that the wealthy Vietnamese eat routinely, as a delicacy. He defanged the cobra by opening its mouth and allowing the snake to attack the bag. When the snake bit the bag he yanked it back. This removed the snake’s fangs.
As a Westerner one begins to go mind blind during each stage of this ritual--the red bag, the defanging, the public butchering. This is so out of the realm of the common experience that each stage stacks disbelief on disbelief. This is not like ordering a spicy chicken at Wendy’s. However, if you witnessed the process of where that spicy chicken originated, cast the spotlight on the stages of production, it would be more terrifying than what was being witnessed in Dragon’s family room.
Dragon then turned the snake upside down and and used a pair of scissors to slice the snake’s skin. The beating heart of the cobra was exposed while the snake’s tongue continued to slither. The heart was outside of the body encased in a fluid sack. As soon as Dragon removed the heart, I noticed the tongue ceased moving.
Mentally, I am on auto pilot and already committed. Bubba is in Rocky Two mode, getting me hyped. The ritual is a three step process--the heart, snake blood, and the bile. Supposedly, eating a snake increases a man’s virility. Anyhow, that’s how the legend goes. As you can see, I was in a state of confusion and shock as this was my first time. Pretty sure there won’t be a second. After we are done with this ritualistic part of the dining experience we head over to our table. Dragon took the butchered snake into the kitchen where five different snake dishes were prepared, and eventually the waiter brought them to our table.
The other patrons were super stoked as we transitioned into the dining room. There was a lot of cheering, high fives, and requests to do shots of corn wine. One of the guys was intoxicated and kept on making obviously inappropriate gestures regarding the potent effects that mountain cobra has on male physiology. I thought it was hilarious, but the guy got a little out of hand. When he was focused on me, I had to bat his hand away and make space between us. I eventually used a chair as a barrier. When all else fails I do what normally do. Deflect attention to Bubba.
Imagine how powerful the Sun’s gravity must be to keep all the planets in the solar system in orbit. That attraction is nothing compared to Bubba’s ability to captivate a drunken Vietnamese. Bubba tried to hold him off, but he could not anticipate the guy trying to playfully bite him on the neck. His worst fears materialized. An older Vietnamese guy not only touching him but trying to bite him. I just thank God that Bubba didn’t rip the guy’s shoulder out of his socket. Eventually, Everybody returned to their seats, laughing uncontrollably.
As we began to enjoy the meal, I noticed that Bubba and I were the only ones eating. My first thought was that Phoung and our driver were going to order something else. They just sat there politely, almost looking sad. The way they were looking at the cobra meal is the way I imagine someone looks at food after experiencing a famine. Bubba and I invited them to join us in the meal. You would have thought that they had just won the lottery. In Vietnam, cobra is reserved for the wealthy and is widely believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. Both men were ecstatic and we all enjoyed the rest of the meal. Phoung even commented that he was anxious to tell his wife that he had cobra. Apparently, it had been four or five years.
We are touching the ceiling in the sky at Ninh Binh after climbing the 500 steps. My heart is about to jump out of my chest. My legs have transitioned from that intense burning sensation to the Jello stage. In the Jello stage, you accept that you could buckle under your own weight at any moment. At 250 pounds, I am not in adventure shape. Still, I am in Nam.
I gaze West and it’s obvious why the location scouts chose this area to film Skull Island. It looks like an ancient planet. Its the perfect place to film a movie about bygone monsters. it’s majestic savagery consists of limestone karst peaks for as far as the eye can see.
Behind me is a statue of the Goddess of Mercy and next to that is a serpent that is resting on a limestone peak. I am alone, lost in my heartbeat and struggling to catch my breath. I am not sure where Bubba is at on the climb. He told me to go ahead. I deployed the drone to capture this moment. The drone is a magnet. It never fails to draw the attention from whomever is in its proximity. I’m not even sure I can legally fly it in Vietnam. However, the potential footage is so good that I don’t care. I’m going to break a rule that I am not even aware of. I am dialed in-fully on launch mode, blades whirling. At that moment, I see Bubba making his ascent. The moment has a magic all its own. I launch.
The eyes contain the emotional core of a person, everything. Emotional states emanating from the eyes are radically contagious, rippling out through consciousnesses at light speed. The echo bouncing and pinging off anyone in proximity. It’s evolution, guiding are social interactions.
The evaluation of a look, or body language is happening so fast we don’t contemplate it. At home, it’s hiding in plain sight or we are just blinded by the intimate neural dance in the culture where we reside. The reading and writing of emotions becomes unconscious. At times, we all hide, producing counterfeit expressions. Vulnerability is seen as the enemy. Then a genuine emotion makes contact. You see it in a moment, usually when people are compromised emotionally or when your mind is operating in an extraordinary state of consciousness. When you stop the dance and look into the eyes of an American you see what America is. America is I, generosity, laughter, work, more, rage, risk, fairytales.
When traveling, you have a greater focus on micro-expressions. Any perceptual twist is heightened because you are not in a recognizable cultural element. You can’t turn your mind off and operate unconsciously. Any foreign emotional exposure, is simultaneously, more accurate and more ambiguous.
There is no unconscious emotional neural dance for a Western visitor to Vietnam. You are actually trying to perceive emotions in an extremely elevated state of consciousness. In moments, glances become life stories and often bring down an avalanche of cultural insight.
A raw American moment takes the the form of a redundant work routine, an imperfect selfie, an EDM concert, that moment when you fall in love. The gaze and emotional states look different in Vietnam. In the Northern mountains of Vietnam and in the city of Hanoi I saw the same look over and over again. I see grit.
In Hi Giang, I would see families farming on the side of a mountain at what looked to be a ninety degree angle. How did no one fall simply by standing. I’ll never forget the sight of a six year old stepping off the road, down the mountain in front of us, disappearing. As we came back around we had a better angle and he was casually and vertically walking to join his mother who was working a plot of land. I never saw any sadness or frustration nor anger. I saw stoicism, acceptance, and persistence.
I would routinely see women in their late sixties, with produce on their backs, walking uphill, on a mountain road where the ascent seemed continuous.
I have two vivid memories; I saw a kid not more than twelve guiding around fifteen water buffalos up onto the road from the mountain below. He was riding one backwards without stirrups with a whip in his hand. He brought the buffaloes onto the road without a care for the traffic. He was focused, doing a job. He needed to get to the road and he knew the traffic would adjust. He was twelve years old, but acted with no hesitation.
I saw a man in his thirties with a heavy wooden yoke around his neck. We passed him on our way to Dong Van. On the way back two hours later, covered in sweat he was still walking with that yoke around his neck; one foot in front of the other.
I have been fortunate enough to travel to different places. I have never met people more friendly than the Vietnamese. What makes it impressive is the conditions under which they are living and working. I saw what Vietnam is--friendly, calm, patient, unbroken, fearless.
The Apricot Hotel sits across from Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Sword lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The Apricot sets the standard for Vietnamese service. Order a toothbrush on the phone, and someone knocks on the door with a toothbrush within seconds; toothbrush delivered. The service is blazingly fast and friendly beyond imagination. This area is where one locates the historical and cultural pulse of Hanoi. The rooftop has a tremendous view of some of the important historical landmarks. One can see the fusion of ancient temples, communism, and French colonialism. Hanoi is in a state of perpetual motion. It’s like getting slapped in the face, unaware of where the slap came from. Humans on a moped migration, crowds walking, and vendors bartering. In America, the movement is almost machine-like in its predictable order of action. In contrast, here the feeling of awe is constant; the passage of people coming at impossible angles. The swirl of it. The noise.
The beeping. The pollution. I was always amazed that you never saw any rage during what appeared to be complete movement anarchy. There was this acceptance and patience one could never imagine on I 95 in Ft. Lauderdale. The sensory forecast of persistent near miss accidents on every road; in the last micro second, someone avoids getting pancaked and pulverized. Families riding on mopeds. It was lunacy and paradoxically functional. One had to be born into this; it would be impossible to learn later in life. What were the regulations about drone flight in the capital city. Who cares. We are here and it is now. That view on the rooftop was the perfect launch point to capture the personality of the Old Quarter. We glided past the pool with the drone briefcase trying to be discreet. Discretion is an impossible assignment for the two of us. We are attention magnets; feeling like 007 on the inside but looking like wookies roaming the rooftop on the outside; alien eyes trained on us. Watching every movement. The pool was packed with people and it sounded like the Tower of Babel. The patio area overlooking the city had this metal structure with tables near the ledge; ten floors up.
I started unpacking and getting the drone ready for launch. Bubba blocked the view and acted as a lookout. Blades were whirling and we launched that mother off the table. What a shot as the quadcopter tilted and screamed over a city block of crowded people toward the lake. It was on a track to get a shot of Turtle Tower sitting in the middle of the lake. Turtle Tower is a historic structure from the 15th century, built before the French Colonial Era. This was great video of the Old Quarter and the entire city. As soon as we launched, a group of mostly kids surrounded us.
Better to ask for forgiveness than permission. There was no objection from anyone. Only fascination. I was dialed in and narrowed my focus ignoring everything but the drone. At about 500 feet out from the launch point and over the lake I lost the drone signal. I got that bad feeling in my stomach. There goes 2000 dollars. I was about to crash the drone before we even made it outside of Hanoi. Bubba’s in my ear but I don’t hear anything because of the stress. Whats going on? Gripping the controllers as if the harder I squeezed I could force a new signal. Drone barreling away. Finally, a signal.
I breathed again. As I brought it back, I had a new problem. The crowd had swelled and formed around us. There was no place to land the drone. Everyone had drone fever and was oblivious to the danger, not understanding that a blade could cause serious injury. I told Bubba to get the kids back. This was probably the only time in Vietnam that Bubba was ignored. I couldn’t concentrate on the drone, kids, and flight controls. I was worried about hitting somebody as I tried to land it. I shut out everything but the drone. I was going to bring it over my head and catch it out of the air. Severe wind gusts made it difficult to stabilize the flight. It was about 4 feet above me moving all over the place in a 3 foot radius. That distance made a catch impractical. Signal lost again. The drone went to autopilot and started flying right toward the pool loaded with people. I was like; “%%%%.” I can’t believe this “&&&&.” The lake crash would have been a 100 times better than this. Someone is going to get hurt in Vietnam. Unbelievable.
It veered away from the pool and started flying adjacent to the hotel, 10 stories up. Without warning, it crashed against the side of the building. I watched the propeller blades disintegrate against the hotel wall. All I could think of was the mass of humanity below. I followed it visually as it began to fall. Thank God it fell into a balcony on the ninth floor. I’d rather be lucky than good. Crisis averted.
This 90 second moment before the Trang An boat tour sums up my simple, yet enduring relationship with Bubba. I have known him for almost two decades.
We are standing on one side of a gully that separates us from the limestone peaks featured in the film Skull Island. There is narrow cinder block slab that is a makeshift bridge to cross to the other side. The view across the rice paddy is stunning. To cross or not to cross is a metaphor for our friendship. A friendship based on a simple premise--hope that the other will somehow in a way large or small, embarrass themselves. It’s that simple. We like to laugh and give each other a hard time. Bubba is a unique individual. A relentless savage force of nature. I coached him when he was 11 or 12 at Raider Camp. A Summer basketball came where his nickname was Shaq. All 300 campers and counselors knew him. As a ninth grader he would walk into my classroom, sit down, and verbally torture me in front of my students. In the eleventh and twelfth grade during football workouts in the summer we would at times, exchange verbal unpleasantries, or the situation might devolve into a full on public wrestling match. I know it sounds unusual but you would just have to know Bubba and the context. When he is in the zone, his sense of humor is unmatched, usually sending the uninitiated into the void.
How do I explain Bubba? He has “eyes on wherever he goes.” People stare for a combination of reasons--size, personality, and the it factor. He’s learned to hide in plain sight with the uncanny ability to unleash a seismic personality avalanche at a moment’s notice. He is a duality. He can be withdrawn or on center stage at any second. He can be incredibly observant, seeing the strengths and weakness of everyone who crosses his path. A walking paradox--mercurial yet charitable. His verbal samurai skills will cut you at the spine, and yet, he’s the first one to pick you up when you’re down.
I think we make a great adventure travel team. I am Alfred and he is Batman. I think that most that know me would describe me as unorthodox, a wild card in my craft with the ability to see the side angles to get the job done in the classroom, on the basketball court and as a coach. At times a used car salesman, hiding that quality from most of the world. Bubba has always seen right through this facade and called me on it. I in turn have done my best to consistently embarrass him in a way an older brother tries to put his younger sibling in place.
We have been badgering each other for twenty years; on the football team, in workouts, in the classroom, and on epic adventures. Tormenting each other wherever we go, laughing like barbarians even in the most stressful situations. Usually ones of our own making.
In 2011 on an 8 week Costa Rican adventure, we heard this animal sound just outside the hotel where we were staying. We headed toward the beach. We were aware crocodiles hung out at the mouth of the river that dumped into the Ocean. We went anyway. It was pitch black. We thought we saw a crocodile at about 20 yards but could not make out the image. I was holding a coffee plate that had a miniature candle on it. Visualize that for a second. It could have been an episode of the Three Stooges. As we got closer to get a clearer look, Bubba pushed me toward the crocodile and ran away. Turned out to be driftwood. I was terrified, but we had the best laugh. Those type of moments repeat themselves whenever we are together. You might be reading this like “What!!” It might not be something that comes across in print, but it’s pure unadulterated comedy.
Vietnam. The ultimate contradiction. A constant hive of activity where nothing gets done. A rare beauty fused with pollution. A country we fought an endless war with, but now filled with people who are incredibly nice to two archetypical Americans. Circular chaos without the psychological tension. In America right now, it feels like everyones psyche is ready to explode. Not in Vietnam. It’s like an Ultra Music Festival without the drugs, aggression or wanton sexuality.
I usually choose my adventure destinations based on activities that can be done in H2O; surfing, snowboarding, snorkeling, waterfalls, rafting etc. There is plenty of water in Vietnam, but I knew deep in my DNA, somewhere in my subconscious, that it would be a miscalculation to get into any body of water.
Somewhere South of Hanoi we saw these two guys swimming in a pond. I asked our driver to pull over. I knew it was rude, by I had to get a picture. These guys were swimming in a pond permeated and surrounded by pollution. I could feel the pollution from the car. You know how sometimes you know. There are no words. Your body tells you. That feeling is present in most cities near Hanoi.
In Vietnam, everybody is vigorously working but nothing seems finished. Every house I saw was partially painted. There were bricks in front of every home, small business, or industrial factory. At one point I actually came up with a mantra “finish it.” Please somebody finish something. Vietnam is beauty, damage, and the unfulfilled wrapped into one.
In the United States, especially in Florida, the elites live in beautiful oases--near the beach or in their perfectly manicured and gated communities. There are physical or cultural partitions that separate race, income groups, neighborhoods, and industry. Not in Vietnam. The affluent live right in the middle of the soup. No zoning laws. Right in front of the factory billowing out smoke. They contribute to the paradox that is Vietnam.
After the boat tour in Ninh Binh, Bubba and I were starving and ready to metaphorically destroy any decent restaurant. An all-out assault on food was imminent. The eateries in town seemed a little underdeveloped for what we had in mind. We decided to dine in the hotel as it had the most Western vibe.
We made our way from our rooms, down a walkway into a huge dining area that was devoid of patrons except for a party of about fifteen diners. The restaurant could have held at least three hundred and fifty customers.
It’s here where I realize that the fascination that the Vietnamese have for Bubba is never going to end. It’s going to be like this for the rest of the trip. Ninety percent of the time he took their fascination with him in stride. The only thing that put him over the edge were the fifty to seventy year old Vietnamese Men that insisted on, pointing, touching, grabbing, photographing, yelling, or all of the above.
The fifteen or so people having dinner became laser focused on Bubba and things went south from there. One of the older guys grabbed him and so Bubba being tired of this, grabbed him back forcefully. Not the first time I have been like “here we go.” Bubba was generally cool when someone asked permission, but the pent up emotions dealing with constant fame at times revealed his inner Hulk. This fascination happened wherever we went. During our meal, a twenty-something guy approached Bubba for a picture. The smile on his face was was so big. You would have thought he was seeing a family member after a ten year prison sentence. The only person that would get this much attention back home was Lebron James.
During the rest of the adventure Bubba would shut down field trips, concerts, and tours with his presence. The young, the old, men, women, individually Or in groups—all were drawn to him. Almost magically. Random strangers would stop everything to interact with Bubba. I have never seen anything like it. In Vietnam, he was Tom Cruise. I asked Tu about it and she said that Bubba represented something to the Vietnamese that they usually don’t encounter--giant and cute.
The Manager of the restaurant greeted us once we made it past the gauntlet of hugs and Paparazzi. They would not be able to accommodate us. A previously scheduled children’s party was going to take over the entire restaurant. We insisted on eating. We were starving. We would be quick. She was adamant that we wouldn’t like the food because it was too traditional. She refused to seat us.
Walking back to the hotel lobby, we found the manager and asked him for more food options. He recommended the hotel restaurant we had just come from. He called the manager on the phone and told her to give us a table. She sat us and gave us a menu written entirely in Vietnamese.
She had to order for us because we had no idea what our options were. She selected six entrees. One thing that struck us as odd is that we spent at least ninety minutes from the time we first showed up until after our meal. No one else came into the restaurant, much less a party of over three hundred kids. That should have been a red flag.
The food came and, in the same way that I knew not to ever go swimming in Vietnam, I knew it would be a catastrophe to eat anything on the table. the look and the smell was a mind-benders. The manager hovered over us as the food rolled in. She was extremely nice but she had this Clint Eastwood stare going on. I can’t blame her as Bubba and I must have looked like mutants from a different solar system. I guess she was wondering if we were going to eat the food. There was this unusual dynamic. She knew we wouldn’t like the food. At the same time, her body language made it clear that she would be offended if we didn’t eat everything.
We experimented with the food from the first plate pictured below. I took a healthy bite. I could’t keep it down. I reflex gagged the food-- back onto the plate. I had no intentions of being rude but my whole being would not let that food make contact with any part of my body, much less my mouth. Imagine the stench of rotting fish combined with a maple syrup like texture. Once it touched my lips it stayed with me for hours. If I drank water, I smelled it. If I ate chips, it was there. My body was not going to process this food. I got a couple of bites of something from another plate down by using water as the lubricant to get it past by taste buds. Nothing could make the after taste go away.
We politely excused ourselves. Barely any food had been touched. We sheepishly walked out of the restaurant, embarrassed. We had come here to experience raw Vietnam and in our first attempt we had to take an L. I spent the night eating two king size bags of Twizzlers Strawberry licorice which my wife had packed for me. I might as well have been in a movie theater in Boca Raton.
I couldn’t imagine this trip without Phoung. He is such an interesting character and a wonderful tour guide. Imagine a blend of George Jefferson and Frodo Baggins. Toss in a distinctive laugh and a happy go lucky attitude; I present Phoung. Our driver’s name was also Phuong. Great guy, but he didn’t have the magnetism of Phuong. When we first met them we had to refer to them as Phuong one and Phuong two. In this narrative when I refer to Phoung, I am writing about our charasmatic guide.
I Immediately noticed what I would later call the Phoung walk. It’s a carefree, effortless movement that I find hilarious. Eventually, as we got to know each other more, Phuong attempted to have a light moment with my Sasquatch like walking style.
We left Hanoi and traveled North to the border of China. We spent days in a van traveling over treacherous mountain passes to experience astonishing vistas, while attempting to assimilate our cultural worldview with something so exotic that it oftentimes left us bewildered. This is the reason we came to Vietnam. We wanted to be turned upside down and we were not disappointed. It happened at every sensory and cultural turn. The most notable memories with Phuong was the journey through the Northern mountains, Yen Minh, Lung Ce, H’mong Palace, and the Ma Pe ling Pass.
Some of my favorite moments and memories of Phuong were those “lost in translation” moments. He conveyed something with total clarity in English but the meaning was in dissonance with what we were experiencing. A great illustration of this was when we were in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. We visited it just before we left for Hi Giang, in the North.
The museum is dedicated to the 54 diverse ethnic groups that makeup the country’s population. The first thing I noticed was how unprotected some of the artifacts were. I asked Phuong how the museum prevented people from disturbing or touching some of the exhibits. In the next moment Phuong was handling some of the centuries old artifacts. Bubba and I were kind of stunned and confused. Was our question the catalyst for this behavior? Was this a common practice? I couldn’t imagine being in Smithsonian Museum of American History and touching George Washington’s military uniform. However, it seemed like Phuong was touching everything now. We asked if we could experience the museum in the same tangible way. Phuong said “sure, why not.” It was like he owned the place. We were never really convinced that this was OK.
I am not sure how old this drum was but Bubba hit it, Phuong laughed, and the museum personnel behind the camera were all smiles. Bubba and I were culturally confused. We had no idea if Phuong knew what he was doing or was it Bubba’s star status among the Vietnamese that allowed him to do whatever he wanted. We visited three museums during our adventure and there was this casual atmosphere at every one. It didn’t appear that preservation of artifacts was high on the to do list.
Another interesting note about Vietnamese Museums, specifically the Hỏa Lò Prison (American POW’s called this the Hanoi Hilton) is the propaganda that you encounter. Where does national pride end and propaganda begin? It’s a tough question. Seeing another nation’s blind spot is what makes travel so beneficial. It also has an eye opening effect on your relationship to your own native country. Where are the American blind spots?
Reflecting on some of the images of American POW’s from the Hanoi Hilton museum. It seems like the POW’s were treated exceptionally well; basketball games, Christmas parties etc. It’s like a primitive YMCA. Tons of fun. Bubba and I we’re like, “Yeah Right.” This place was hell on earth for any American that was captured during the war.
Traveling in Hi Giang with the two Phuongs was its own adventure. At any moment, on a narrow road designed for mopeds, it felt like we would slip off the edge of the earth and fall into the void.
We arrived in Yen Minh after trekking through the mountainous region of Hi Giang. Traveling these narrow roads in a passenger van is at the least, an unpleasant enterprise. The views are magical, but the roads are designed for mopeds. If I ever go back, I’ll take my chances on a a scooter for that feeling of freedom and the open road. The van just tossed us around for what seemed like forever. There used to be a carnival ride at local fairs in Ohio when I was a kid called the Rotor. It used rotation to produce a centrifugal effect. This is what comes to mind when I think about this journey; my body’s constant fight with gravity as we twisted and turned in the mountains.
Our accommodations were a local homestay called Ha Anh. We parked at about 6 p.m. while the Sun was setting. Everything felt right; the end of a journey, the look of the homestay, temperature, people, surroundings, sounds. I still had no idea what we were walking into. I have stayed in many hostels but never a homestay. In hostels there is a sense of partial privacy. The main doors of the homestay open to a large room where sleeping mats and throw blankets were organized in a simple large room with wooden and stone decor--simple but exceptionally clean. The sleeping room accommodated approximately twenty people. In other words zero privacy.
We met some of the most interesting people from all over the world. Mexicans, English, Australians. Invariably, whenever we had meaningful conversations with any other Non-American travelers their hostility toward President Trump was a consistent theme. I needed to walk, explore, stretch my legs. Ha Anh is at the top of a road that descends a half a mile to the main street of Yen Minh.
At first, Bubba wanted to explore the town with me. However, if you read earlier chapters of this Ebook, you understand our mutual hope that something bizarre happens to the other one. That moment organically manifested itself in the form of a hostile goose.
A goose was guarding an entry to a home a couple of blocks down this steep road. I was taking pictures of the neighborhood and went to take a picture of this entryway. The goose appeared, freaked out, and charged us. I have never seen Bubba move so fast to get clear of this aggressive goose. He went about fifteen yards back up the road. As soon as I saw this I engaged with the goose to get a bigger reaction out of Bubba. Bubba must have been channeling his inner National Geographic. Unbeknownst to me, Geese often attack humans and can cause serious damage. Bubba decided to end his walk about and take a shower and get some rest. Phuong and I pressed ahead.
I finally got a modest taste of what Bubba was going through during our trip to Nam. Bubba received relentless attention wherever we went by any demographic. I was for the most part, left alone. As Phuong and I walked toward Main Street my Americanness was a source of curiosity. Many people wanted to say hello or take a picture. Vietnam is the friendliest country that I have ever visited. it’s hard to imagine that my father’s generation fought a long and vicious conflict here with these people. I was probably stopped seven or eight times. Here are some of the images below of my walk.
When we arrived at the main street of Yen Minh we continued our
aimless walk, just happy to wander. I was being bombarded with visual and cultural dissonances of this place and it was unique and fun. Down a side street there was a market. I felt like I was on the movie set of Raiders of the Lost Ark. the sights and sounds were visceral. My senses were overwhelmed. There was a woman selling live chickens to customers on my right. She would grab a chicken out of the cage and snap its neck right before she handed it to the customer. As I continued to walk, there was another vendor, selling fish out of a makeshift rectangular tub. The ground around her was littered with scales, knives and hoses.
There was a butchered fish on one of those typical small plastic Vietnamese stools. Again, I am just wandering, taking things in. Just when you think you’re having this wonderful unique experience and your guard is down, you’re reminded that this is not your world.
At the end of the street, Phuong and I took a right into what appeared to be the warehouse of the market. We actually turned into a scene straight out of Deer Hunter or Tropic Thunder. It was a wide area where people were living out of metal shipping containers. I would say there were between ten and fifteen containers. Some of the containers had awnings where the owners and their families would live and relax. The other containers had various goods.
Right away my radar is is collapsing. I’m in the wrong place. I knew I didn’t belong but it’s not the same way I don’t belong at a wealthy country club, or on a novice rock climb. That’s a free from danger not belonging I was among a hardened, foreign element and I knew it. Right past the street on my left, there were three guys just outside a container preparing for a cock fight. They immediately stood up from the classic Vietnamese squat position. They wanted to show off their muscular fighting bird. One of them tried to stick it in my face as a joke. They all laughed. It’s that same laugh you hear on a middle school playground before five or six kids jump you. I was trying to give Phuong the signal “Lets Get the @@@@ Outta Here.” My American body language screaming “GO” was lost on Phuong. I certainly wasn’t going to trigger anybody’s chase mechanism by running out of there. I just had to calmly guide Phuong out of there myself. In this moment I had three emotions I had to suppress; anger at Phuong for not recognizing my stress level, fear, and disorientation. The way we had come in was now blocked off by the crowd gathering for the cock fight. I have never seen one and I am sure it would have been mind bending, but I had to trust my gut and find my away out of there.
I had to walk through the rest of the containers and make my way to the next street over. I asked Phuong if there was another street in the direction we were walking. I couldn’t tell because the sun had just set. Phuong was in Phuong mode. Oblivious to my tension. I would have to have physically shaken him to get through Phuong mode but I had to keep my wits. I just had to act like I belonged. We walked toward the next street. After 30 yards, there was a container to my left and some wiry guys were hanging out and appeared to be drunk. Tattooed up and looking angry. I felt like I was on the wrong side of the prison yard. They all stared intently at me as I walked by. One of them got up to intercept us in the road. He said something in Vietnamese and pointed at his wife (or just some woman) and laughed. His friends laughed. I looked at Phuong. Phuong said he was inviting me to have a beer outside his container. I didn’t trust Phuong’s translation at all. What was I going to do? Play it cool. Have a drink. Bide my time. Echo belonging. I belong.
Phuong and I sat down and the woman brought us our beers and he attempted to have a conversation in Vietnamese. Vietnamese might as well be Martian to untrained Western ears. I only speak English but I can generally understand a fraction of communication if someone is speaking German, Spanish or some other Indo European language. Not with the Vietnamese language; zero, zilch. This added to the tension. He was obviously wasted. Again, Phuong was dropping the ball--drinking, not having a care in the world. We finished the beer and attempted to leave when the stranger insisted that we drink his special brew. A hose ran along the inside of the container that ended in a spout. That’s what his crew was drinking out of. He filled our two glasses and brought them back to our table. No way was I drinking this. As soon as both he and Phuong turned their backs I poured half on the ground, hoping the others would not see this. A few moments later I poured the rest of my drink into Phuong’s glass when he wasn’t looking. I guess he didn’t notice and gulped it down.
Another one of the guys got up from his table and approached us. He grabbed my forearm and motioned to something behind the container. I told Phuong that I wanted to get going and got up. The guy still had my arm, increasing his grip. He used an even but ever increasing pull to get me to go in that direction. I didn’t change my body language or make any facial expression. I was in neutral. I just used an equal amount of force to resist. This was starting to be very stressful. Finally, he let go and Phuong and I headed to the next street that wasn’t a street. It was a narrow alley of about fifty yards where one literally had to walk through people’s homes on both sides that seemed to touch in the middle of the alley.
We finally got to a normal street and I noticed a large Kung Fu sign at the entrance of a martial arts academy. I saw students who were finishing their workout. I couldn’t pass up the photo op and the cultural exchange. They put back on their uniforms and allowed me to participate in some of the drills. I will never forget these moments. Thirty minutes later I was back in the homestay, eager to tell Bubba what he had missed because of that angry goose.
I was thankful to see Bubba--a friend, an American, hearing English. I was now the overwhelmed stranger; sensory, culturally, linguistically, geographically. I could tell something was off. After surviving a hostage situation in the back alley, I had no idea I was about to lose a showdown with an eleven year old.
Apparently, Bubba had tried to take a shower and couldn’t figure out how it worked. In some parts of Vietnam the shower, sink and toilet are in the same room. Simultaneously, one of the owner’s kids, an 11 year old girl named Ha, had walked into the shower area and yelled at him on the other side of the private shower door while he was undressed. Bumbling, Fumbling, Stumbling--hopelessly trying to turn on the shower . Ha was yelling at Bubba for not wearing shower slippers.
Here is in the middle of nowhere, naked, he can’t figure out the shower, being screamed at by a child who acted like she was on a construction site. Alone. Anyone would have been shaken and bewildered. Bubba left the shower sheepishly. No one else there spoke English. No rescue.
I needed to figure out what was going on. I was intensely fatigued by the traveling and the events of the early evening. I asked him to point out the kid who had yelled at him. She was working along with the other kids in the kitchen right next to the sleeping area. The host, her mother, was nowhere to be found. We both needed to clean up and get into new clothes for dinner.
I have never seen a group of three kids work so hard to prepare dinner. They were like machines in an elegant dance that they probably performed night after night for the homestay guests. Everything efficient, effort with no effort--an orchestration of functionality. At the same time, they were doing all of the other tasks necessary for the homestay to function. The guests had questions and requests. All of the guests except Bubba. He was disheartened.
The pace was frenetic and Ha was clearly in charge. She gave instructions to the older kids in Thai.
I headed into the shower area which consisted of a communal area and 3 separate bathroom/shower stalls. I went into one showers and I couldn’t get the water to come on. It’s a moment we have all experienced; how could something that we do everyday suddenly become complex. At the edge of the doorway they were five or six pairs of shower slippers. My shoe size is thirteen. Bubba wears a fifteen. The biggest size in the shower was a nine. I grabbed the nine and and stood a the entrance way of the kitchen. Ha and I began our showdown. I was overmatched.
I am the Dean of students at a high school with a population of 2200. I’m used to getting the respect of kids much older than Ha. She had crushed Bubba’s soul but she was no match for me. I am a Jedi. I know we are talking about an 11 year old kid. I am trying to make light of this situation and still make my point. I had been traveling all day, feared that I would be a hostage an hour beforehand, and just got through a weird Kung Fu session in town. I was going to gently let Ha know how I felt about her interaction with Bubba and we still needed help with the facilities.
I dropped the slipper in front of me and put my foot on it. My foot devoured the sandal with a third of it spilling over the front. I said “look” you guys don’t have slippers that fit people our size. She stared at me calmly, her body language suggesting that she was still in charge. I asked her to show me how to turn the shower on, which she did. She was calmly doing a task efficiently. I said Thank You. She nodded and left. It was one professional to another. This left an impression on me. Kids are a lot different in this part of the world.
Later, during dinner I was having a conversation with Ha’smother and my glass of water was getting low. I got up to get some more water. They were about twenty people in the common eating area. Everyone eating, engaging in conversation--Ha included. Her mother just gave her a look and told me to sit down. Ha got the water immediately. No complaints. No why me. just work.
Later that night Ha was setting up one of the areas for other guests and I was on my computer. I asked her to come over and see a picture of my daughter on Facebook. Her eyes lit up. She couldn’t believe the world that I was from. I had to give her the computer because she couldn’t stop looking at pictures of my family and then I showed her Bubba’s family. She was in total shock. Bubba’s family is quite extended. Our worlds are far apart but Facebook brought them together. In that moment I saw the kid in Ha for the first time. In this part of the world most of the time work is life and life is work even if you are eleven.
Dubai happens at timeless intersections. The woven patterns; Vegas, The Middle East, a Star Wars bar, dictatorship, feudalism, travel fatigue, no plan. When we arrived in Vietnam twelve days earlier, I never experienced jet lag or an ounce of fatigue. I was way too excited. Dubai, might be the greatest city in the world but through my lens it’s the last place on my bucket list.
My lens. I despise Vegas and the attendant themes of gambling and the experience of the artificial. Dubai, strikes me the same way.
I have no use for seeing the pictures of the Sheikhs, Rulers of the UAE, on the inside and outside of most buildings. It’s the same way I don’t like brussel sprouts.
I am compromised on every level. I want to get home so bad and I’m sleep deprived. When we land in Dubai, we are in a different time zone and I hadn’t slept since leaving Nam. I am upside down and we have a twenty hour layover. We should have just shut it down and waited for our connecting flight. However, we couldn’t pass up another adventure opportunity. This time, the lack of planning would eventually lead to maddening pandemonium.
Here is one symptom of my mental state. I put my passport in one of the side pockets of the backpack. I was so tired and afraid of losing any important travel documents that I had to recheck them every twenty minutes. In the rechecking, I would invariably put it someplace I thought was more secure. In the subsequent rechecking, I would forget that I moved it. This ignited a panic attack. I would invariably find it and move it again. Repeat, recheck, panic attack, move, repeat. I had to get home.
We had two goals to accomplish in Dubai. A rooftop dinner where we could enjoy views of a 21st century skyline and a ride in the desert just outside the city. This almost led to tragedy on more than one occasion. The lack of any planning and common sense was about to rain down on us.
A few observations concerning our experience in Dubai. Never rent a car in a foreign city the size of Miami. We didn't speak the language. We had no idea on how to get where we wanted to go. We were driving during rush hour. The GPS in the car operated at a snails pace. We were persistently lost and overwhelmed. We never made it to the desert. However, we did however find ourselves on the most famous street in Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road where we were able to make it to the rooftop of one of the hotels.
We went up to the to the top of the hotel to get a view of the city. We must have talked to about four people in the hopes that they would help us make it outside of the city and into the desert. No luck. No one understood us, no one cared, and our trust level was almost zero. We settled on having dinner in the city. It’s the drive back where we almost crashed into the abyss.
We had been up well over thirty hours now. We are driving back to the rental agency through a foreign city under continuous construction. The GPS was worthless. We screwed up and we were short on time. We had to drop off the car, make it back to the hotel, get to the airport and catch our flight. We were lost in Dubai at around 9 p.m. UAE time. Our flight was leaving at 2a.m. Every turn we made was either a gridlock traffic nightmare or a mass of pedestrians on migration. I almost had a breakdown. We weren’t going to make our flight.
Almost seventy percent of Dubai is compromised of Indians or Pakistanis. Only 25 percent is Emirate. The Emirates do no work. I am not sure if that’s feudalism or globalism gone haywire. It felt like we were lost in a country within a country.
One wrong turn can change your life. The GPS guided us right into a construction site. It was packed with Indian workers. I looked at Bubba and said, “why does the feel like the movie Taken?” We got stopped by security and were told to go back from where we came. In other words, go back into the maze that is Dubai. At this point we had been lost for about an hour with no sign of getting our bearings. On the way back we flagged down a taxi cab driver who spoke English--Thank God. She told us to follow her to the airport. After 20 minutes and trying to interpret the different airport signs we made it back to the terminal. The nightmare was not over. We got lost in the terminal trying to find the rental agency. That took about 20 minutes and produced sheer panic. Being close is more agonizing than being far. Finally, we made it.
We took a limo back to the hotel to get our stuff and we had about forty-five minutes to take a nap. I wasn’t going to sleep. I knew if I shut my eyes, it would take a freight train to wake me up. I would be stuck in the Middle East. NO WAY (SCREAMING IN MY MIND). I sat in the chair and pinched and slapped myself while Bubba slept. I wasn’t going to miss my flight. I was going home.
Bubba and I share a desire for adventure, and we are lucky enough to be able to revel in it. He is a wonderful traveling accomplice, and we have been to some wild places together. In closing this e-book, I tried to figure what it all means, and what I can carry away from this adventure. And keep. And maybe, share with you.
I love to experience the unconventional, the strange, the wondrous. Vietnam was an extraordinary opportunity to fulfill that ambition. A trip to Vietnam is expensive. A more conventional vacation in a five-star hotel could be just as expensive, but if you want to get to the edge of the very improbable--think about a trip to Vietnam.
As for me, I am pretty sure that travelling makes me a better man. I think Bubba would say the same thing. We enjoy pushing ourselves to the limits, and laughing at our idiosyncrasies. Vietnam is a place where one’s idiosyncrasies collide with the cultural unknown. In other words, It’s a perfect place for the entertainment and deep joy that laughter brings. When Bubba and I are in familiar territory, that kind of laughter happens in waves. In Vietnam, it was a perpetual avalanche.
I would urge you with all of my being to get to the unknown. How can you really appreciate all you have at home if you have never travelled abroad. Nietzsche tells us that we cannot really understand and appreciate the light without the dark, torment without peace, and good without bad. I think he might be on to something there. Vietnam is about as far away and different as I could ever travel from my home and the people I love--my family. At moments, the distance and the unfamiliar would strike at the core of my spirit. There were times when even contemplating the distance would cause me anxiety. I appreciate being an American, and I have a loving family. Don’t get me wrong--I am not comparing what I did to a soldier going to war. That is something very powerful, and something that I have never experienced. Mine was not a forced separation. I put myself in Vietnam, and then Vietnam entered my world.
The hard working people who just grind it out in terrible jobs--everyday. The invincibility of the human spirit. The dangerous landscapes--mountains and river gorges carved into the countryside. The smiles of children--timid and fleeting. The company of men having a drink together. Some of them were friendly, and some were not. The same everywhere. The exhaustion of travelling thousands of miles. The bewilderment of unfamiliar food. Bubba and I have pact of “no judgement.” It’s a good idea to travel with a friend who will guarantee you the same consideration, because travelling that far tests you to your very limits. But the rewards are infinite. Sitting here, a warm feeling washes over me as I recall my experience on the far side of the world. In the Summer of 2018, Bubba and I are traveling to Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, China, and Japan. I ask not good fortune; I am good fortune.