Friday, January 31, 2014

I Love Your Tets

My last morning at Mushroom proved uneventful, as the pre-Tet celebration had left all guests and staff fast asleep well past the time of my departure.

I flagged a taxi and took a quick ride to the Phu Quoc airport, sad to leave the sun and sand. My sadness was only partially assuaged by perhaps the cutest little boy I have seen here thus far, sporting suspenders and so excited to be at the airport that he was literally doing the dance of joy. Both my heart and ovaries ached.

The flight up to Hanoi is a mere 90 minutes, but feel so very far away. Having left the tropical warmth held in the Gulf of Thailand I flew to the North of this long and narrow country to it's Capitol, with a climate much more similar to my native San Francisco and who's city environment, though mellow, it most certainly not the beach.

With no visible option for public transportation from the airport in Hanoi, and my Lonely Planet long since misplaced, I hopped in yet another cab, for what seemed like an eternity and with a cost that felt like a fortune. It took 45 minutes or so to arrive at 85 Hang Bac Lane where a hotel, travel agency, hostel and restaurant can all be located in an easy one stop shop. Navigating the language barrier was challenging, but once sorted out I hopped on yet another top bunk in room 402 and immediately booked a day in Ha Long Bay in 2 days time. It had been suggested to me to take more time in this most famous, picturesque location in Vietnam, but being stubborn and cheap has it's draw backs and I felt one day was sufficient. I don't leave until morning, so I will have to let you know how that worked out at a later time.

The nice man at reception suggested my first stop in the city be Hoan Kiem Lake, located just a stones throw from my temporary abode and extra beautiful with all of the final touches being put on the Lunar New Year celebration decorations. Massive floral displays, ornate lighting design and balloons floating high in the sky set the perfect back drop for a lovely day, and for a city clearly obsessed with selfies and amateur photo shoots. Literally any husband with a handheld has a model on his hands - its surreal. I managed to get some good photos myself, while weaving between women of all ages striking a pose against anything that seemed an appropriate background and took a seat by an elderly man quietly painting as I enjoyed an ice cream of indeterminate flavor while ready a John Grisham novel left behind at my last hostel and written in English. Free and in my native tongue - all the requirements met for appropriate reading material.

More meandering, a couple souvenir purchases for the boys back home and I went into what ended up being perhaps the whitest restaurant in the city. Though the staff was local and amiable, the place soon filled up with tourists of European descent and their family members while I feasted on honey baked chicken, sauteed vegetables and sticky rice. Lets pretend, for a moment this meal was at all authentic and I will sleep better knowing I both enjoyed Vietnamese cuisine in addition to feeling properly nourished, a possible first on this journey. Luckily, it was also incredibly expensive, so the guilt can persist regardless.

Being New Year's eve the city was a buzz with excitement and I made my way back down to the lake to get a front row seat to the impending fireworks show as families gathered and vendors sold fresh sausages and pineapples on the street. I found a spot, posted up and waited. The time read 9:22pm. Sure, it was chilly, but I was ok, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, right? Tet in Vietnam. I waited. I waited for what felt like a very long time before glancing back at my phone. The time read 9:37pm. Then I thought to myself. I am here alone, I have nothing to prove, and I do not want to be out on the cold. I figured I had slept through one New Year's Eve this year so far, why not make it two for two? Back in my pajamas and cozy in my bed my roommates did give me a mild amount of ribbing for not going out and enjoying the festivities, but I thought to myself, this is part of the beauty of getting older - I honestly don't give a shit if these 20 year-olds think I am cool or not. I am reading my book and going to bed. And that is just what I did.

The good thing about going to bed early (though I have not slept through an entire night since arriving in Vietnam, as I have had multiple noisy roomies since this trip's inception) is you get up early - naturally and feeling ready for the day. Have you ever noticed that when you are on holiday you can get up and 6 am and feel fantastic, but when you are at home and the alarm goes off at 6:15 you feel like homicidal maniac? I wonder why that is. Nonetheless, I dressed and went downstairs to go for a run around the lake, but was detoured for nearly an hour by one of the sweet New Zealanders with a beanie seemingly stitched to his head and a Mangum P.I. mustache charmingly draped across his very young face. Once we were met by another traveler in the form of a VERY young, VERY excitable and VERY gregarious young lady I made my exit and circled the lake with a breeze in the air and sun on my shoulders.

By the time I returned it was shower hour at the hostel and my room of 8 took turns showering and meeting, some while still lying in bed. The bunk next to mine, I would soon discover, housed two Dutch brothers, one of whom had had a pink strawberry blazer made in Thailand for Tet and had it proudly hanging from his bed. Having been passed along to some incredibly generous and helpful Vietnamese compadres through friends, I was the one with the inside track on where to go during Tet, when most everything is closed down, and quickly offered my assistance, and company to the brothers, only to be additionally joined by the girl from New Zealand and two Nordic ladies who were welcomed with their fair beauty. Setting out as a posse of 6 was overwhelming for me and though I felt a bit trapped but I decided to embrace the company and the adventure it would provide. First stop was the Temple of Jade Mountain where I felt lucky to have ended up in Hanoi during Tet, as the Vietnamese families were out in droves with offerings of fruit and money. The temple was bustling, rich with the aroma of incense and children, once again were breathtaking.

Making our way across town to the One Pilar pagoda, the troops grew weary so we ducked into a local cafe where beverages were ordered repeatedly and never arrived quite right - a theme in this country. The two brothers, Jerome and Tim were charming in that sort of obnoxious but I can't help but like you sort of way and half way through the day I found my cheeks literally in pain from smiling so much. I cannot say I remember the last time that happened. Being neurotic beyond compare, I immediately thought of the wrinkles that must be forming on my ever slackening face.

The pagoda to which we were headed happened to be right next to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, that closes early, but has guards in their dress whites posted outside at all times. Tim tried to get one to take a photo with me, as I felt it the perfect 2014 Christmas card, but they were having none of it, despite the fact that they too were taking selfies. Ridiculous!

The accompanying museum was uninspiring but the pagoda was gorgeous and full of life. Food was the next on the agenda but we needed a ride. We found one in the form of a nice older man driving a 40 year-old military vehicle who would not allow us to pay him and to whom my dear Dutch friend introduced me as Canadian - not my finest moment - but I did not protest. I had heard admitting my Americaness in this city could prove troublesome, but I am sort of bad ass, so I didn't worry.

Dinner was uninspiring, confusing and lengthy but I'll admit a bit of flirting with a 25 year-old is fun from time to time, especially when he so clearly reminds you of the boy you were in love with in college. There was an instant ease and I was grateful for his presence in this Breakfast Club we'd created.

There was a quick stop back at the hostel, replete with a serenade from Mr. Notorious B.I.G. just for me. According to the Kristoff brothers since I am 'from the Bronx' and shoot hip hop I am gangster and since there are no gangsters in Holland I am their resident expert. If only they knew...

With the rest of the group going out to drink I figured I was game, but when they ended up at an essential frat party at a hostel bar, fraught with wasted English girls and chanting teenagers away from home for the first time I thought - maybe Danny Glover was right - and I am, in fact - getting too old for this shit. Then I thought back to 24 year-old Briana - she didn't like this sort of activity either. Feeling satisfied that my ever advancing age was not the problem, but my general discomfort with parties and plebians made it a lot easier to walk away and wander the flag-lines streets of Hanoi back to 85 Hang Bac, where I can enjoy some ice cream, some Wifi and some Bob Dylan on the juke box.

Tomorrow morning it is my day trip to Halong Bay. At least nature doesn't close during New Years.