Thursday, February 27, 2014

LREI 2014 Art Auction

 I have been fortunate enough to have worked for and been associated with LREI, a unique and fantastic private school in Manhattan, for a number of years now, thanks to the lovely and talented Laura Hahn. I participated in their art auction 2 years ago, selling a photograph I took in Bogata, Columbia.

This year I have donated two pieces shot in New Orleans, Louisiana, to be sold in tandem and titled  'Americana Diptych.'

The show is March 12th.
Register to attend (and bid) at LREI!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Goodnight, Saigon...

My final morning in Vietnam was neither eventful or special. Though it was warm. I rose as my leisure and reluctantly went for a morning run, this time employing the park-provided exercise equipment all of the senior citizens seem to utilize during the early morning hours. I believe there is a way to utilize muscle groups when on these machines, but what I've witnessed looks more like flipping about that engaging one's octogenarian core.

The morning was still cool and I went to get some fresh fruit and croissant before heading back to Budget Hostel 2 to properly bathe and prepare for the long journey ahead of me. Knowing my flight was at the crack of dawn on the 13th, I had not bothered to book accommodation for the night of the 12th, and planned on crashing at the Saigon airport - something that, for anyone who knows how I travel, comes a no surprise. Cheap and resourceful - that's me!

Hair washed and braided, new psychedelic leggings purchased in Hanoi painted on and I went out into the increasingly balmy sun for a manicure/pedicure that I told myself I would indulge in before returning to the states. Having last addressed my feet in 2013, I felt it was long overdue.

Receiving perhaps the best and most silently relaxing pedicure I have ever received I was feeling like a new woman. I stepped out on the street feeling clean and almost human. 30 feet down the road, however, I moved to put my phone on my camera bag and dinged a nail. In a haste to correct it, I only made the issue worse and had to face facts that my beautiful manicure was only meant to last a matter of moments. Any woman who has ever gone through the trouble and expense of this sort of attempt at beautification no doubt knows my frustration with this trivial detail.

Oh well. C'est la vie - a motto I find much more comfortable to abide by when not on my home turf. It was lunchtime and with this being my last day in Asia till lord knows when I was determined to eat well, and eat authentically. Pho 24 was just around the corner from the main market and the locals could be heard slurping down slimy noodles from around the block - so that's where I went.

A bowl of Pho Ga was ordered in Vietnamese for the fist time and, my chest puffed with pride at my daring and, I thought successful feat. The victory was short lived and chest almost immediately deflated almost as the polite woman taking my order responded in unimpressed English. Boo!

The chicken mixed fresh basil and spicy red peppers made this dish well worth the price tag and I have come to the conclusion that I could pretty much eat raw bean sprouts at every meal. Bright pink watermelon juice sat loyally by my bowl as I spooned up the broth a and attempted to have an international phone call with my Bestie.

Having spent the last three and a half weeks here I knew that the time that comes in every woman's life every 28 days or so was on it's way and it was only a matter of time before I was exhausted, hungry and on the verge of tears - though that does sound an awful lot like every day for me! 

Deciding to take the suggestion of a virtual stranger/new friend - something I only do on the rarest of occasions - I hired yet another motorbike driver and road 20 minutes out of the city center to Van Trahn, described as a Tourist Complex, but much more closely resembling a high-end suburban swim an racquet club. Not my speed, I will admit, but with my current state of exhaustion there were certainly things that sounded far worse than laying in the sun.

40,000 dong to take a dip and occupy a chair kept me 'busy' for the late afternoon hours, but before long it was time to take my now chlorine drenched body back to my belongings and make a plan - at least give plan-making my Pat Benetar best shot. Without any sign of a motorbike out in district lord knows where, I was forced to take a proper cab, during rush hour, allowing me the opportunity to see uniformed children exiting school for the day as well as begin to silently stew over all of the sadness that so easily rises to the surface of my deeply Irish psyche, like the curds of freshly turned milk, when in the 'real world.' I am not saying I have not had my good and bad moments while in Asia, but something about that quiet cab ride let me know that in a day's time I would be back in the cold, in more than one way.

Nevermind all of that business. Back in my 'hood' I was on the hunt for food, feeling weary from all of the over self analyzation and thinking about life in general. For some reason when I am on the hunt for food, there seems to be no prey to find. I picked up some Choco Pies at the circle K to take back home with me and share one of my travel traditions, of sampling a new cookie or candy from a foreign place with a dear friend. I ended up at restaurant 48 (not sure why all dining establishments are numbered here) , a very posh and very westernizwd establishment that not only gave me the silky smooth instrumentals stylings of Phil Collins - but Debbie Gibson - with lyrics! I mean - what else does a girl need?!?

Clay pot chicken and rice, which literally just means those ingredients are served in that device and in no way indicates it's cooking method, and 2 lime juices later, I had a pricey bill, a full tummy and only a couple hours to go before hitting the hay, and by hitting the hay I mean awkwardly sleeping on my backpack in a cold and abandoned airport. I am just hoping the Vietnamese authorities have no issues with my jammies.

Back at the hostel I packed my newly acquired Haribo and struck up a conversation with Paul, an English teacher living here by way of Liverpool and quite possibly a reoccurring character from 'The Young Ones,' a BBC classic and personal favorite. I had to give myself momentary credit for immediately picking up on the Liverpudlian accent, but I suppose that credit is really more appropriately attributed to 4 lads who made it big in America from around that way.

Paul mentioned he was going out and invited me along so, after booking and paying for my 11:30 pm taxi to the airport for my 5 am flight, I hopped on the back of Paul's motorbike, which he drove with Saigonian sensibility, and headed out to an open air barbecue spot that is clearly a local hangout, with only Vietnamese drinking buddies with wire-rimmed glasses and cocktail waitresses in micro mini Budweiser emblazoned dresses present. Well, that if if you don't count two Brits and an American trying her first local Saigon Bia. 

The boys, both Paul and his BFF Glen were jovial, sweet and generous. Paul commented on my 'bohemian style of dress' and I couldn't help but smile as, just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been called conservative. Perhaps I am the Sybil for the 21st Century. Though I suspect if I had accepted regret would have immediately have set in, an impromptu marriage proposal over a beer and stir fried vegetable is always a pleasant surprise and a great way to wind down a trip. Despite the repeated suggestion that I reschedule my cab, I stuck to the plan and was driven back to the hostel to meet my waiting taxi cab.

The night was warm and sultry, making the bronzed skin on my shoulders glisten in the neon lit night. The midnight streets of Saigon were empty, but not lonely and I believe I could have lived the rest of my life, happily perched upon the back of that bike. I tried my best to absorb every last moment of my time here in Vietnam knowing the sands were running through the hour glass of time at lightening speed. It was literally the perfect way to say Goodnight, Saigon.

Which leaves me here, homeless and draped upon my worldly possessions at the Saigon International Airport. Knowing well what I had in store for me when opting for airport accommodation for the evening, there is one variable that had not occurred to me - what if the airport seating is strictly outdoor? And outdoor it was! Wearing all possible layers of wardrobe tucked within my trusty rucksack, I am left here, chilly and waiting for hours while watching families, uncertain whether they are coming or going, doing their best impression of a documentary crew shooting a behind-the-scenes film for One Direction. I mean, seriously - I realize there is a language barrier but minutes upon minutes of video and stills were shot and from what I can surmise all that is taking place is banal conversation amongst friends and family either about to board or just having had arrived at SGN who all seem to think their entire existence is one big Hallmark moment. I had been told they don't fly much - but still. I mean, come on...

27 hours, several screaming children and many bags of candy later I arrived, safe and sound in New York, just having slid under the Polar Vortex radar and instead of being diverted to another airport, instead was just met with cold winds and white snow. With only my tan, a couple of pairs of earrings and a yet unedited card filled with photos to show for it, I can say with all of the confidence in the world my time spent in Vietnam was worth every tear, every moment and every penny.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Back Back, Forth and Forth

Thick, doughy pancakes and unripened pineapple has never tasted so sweet. Perhaps my move for free breakfast was ethically questionable, but with having used Sunflower as my continual home base and with Clarisse having offered me half of her private room after I had confirmed booking at another place, I felt moderately justified in my partaking in the buffet breakfast offered to guests.

Clarisse and I both fiddled with our respective electronics and then it was time for me to rent another bike and head to the beach, and time for her to pack her bags and catch a busy to Hue.

We parted with matched American hugs and Parisian kisses and said our goodbyes, with no false promise of keeping in touch, but knowing that we had thoroughly enjoyed our time together here, in Hoi An.

The folds in the full skirt of my bright orange dress flapped happily in the wind and I peddled my way back past the rice fields to An Bang beach. Passing up on a beach side meal this time, I simply laid in the shade an read the John Grisham novel I had acquired for free in Phu Quoc. As the old adage goes, beggars cannot be choosers and therefore I could not have chosen to have the last several pages of my novel missing- but I think I got the gist.

The highlight of the day at the beach was spotting an unearthly creature. A man of such beauty I simply stared in awe as he meandered over to what I could only assume was his girlfriend. My loins were a flame and just as quickly were quickly extinguished when said mythical beast started snapping #grownmanselfies. Nothing kills a hard on faster than vanity and foolishness - a deadly mix.

Back to Sunflower I changed into 20-hour bus ride appropriate clothes, which should have a hidden pocket to house cyanide, and went out to have what I was deeming my 'last meal,' as crackers and Haribo would likely get me through the next day or so.

It was while siting at this outdoor establishment, after ordering pizza - because nothing sounded good - that a handsome older man I had noticed the day prior, and who I was quite certain noticed me, walked by and we both gave a genial hello like we had actually ever spoken and not simply exchanged telling glances and flirtatious smiles.

He kept walking, turning around just enough to let me know that he was wrestling with the idea of joining me, but as his figure faded I dove back into my bootleg Nick Hornby, literally printed on stitched together and copy paper. The Asians really do seem to love their knock offs, even when it comes to literature.

Evidently his wrestling match ended with him opting to return to the restaurant and before long we were dining together, having a great conversation, exchanging playful barbs. All with 90 minutes until my bus departed on the first leg of my journey back home to the good ole US of A. As he stated himself - 'the clock was ticking.'

After dinner he escorted me to snack acquisition and sat with me at the hostel to wait for the bus. Transportation has been far from punctual here, yet neither of us knew it would be nearly 3 hours of waiting. But no bother, in fact, when the double-decker sleeper bus arrived, in a flurry of chaos and hurry I was irked that I had to go. My new English friend chivalrously brought my ever-expanding backpack to the bus and we hugged and bid adieu - but not before I suggested he fly to Saigon - knowing full well they are no flights this week, or I would likely be on one.

This encounter was not dissimilar from the German in Da Nang with the minor exception of interest and attraction. I do hope to hear from him again, but if nothing else maybe he can simply function as a beacon of hope in a world of douche bags.

The bus being 3 hours late was actually the most enjoyable part of the journey as the first half was spent freezing my nicely tanned ass off and being attacked by bugs of unknown origin. The seats were recliners, so preferable to the train, but with only one stop to literally piss into a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere the first 12 hours, it looked like this was going to be a bumpy ride - in more ways than one.

Continual stops in the middle of nowhere seemed to only act as assurance we would not be arriving in Saigon at 5 pm the following afternoon as promised. After being forced to get off of the bus at a station in Nha Trang with little to no information I could barely believe the horror stories a Mexican fellow rider was sharing with me- until we got back on what seemed to be the exact same bus but with Adolph Ho Chi Minh at the wheel.

At the risk of sounding like a spoiled white girl, I was literally moved to the back of the bus, Rosa Parks style with no explanation given. I was simply and angrily waved to the back. I was dismissed. Evidently the front seats are saved for locals despite the fact that tourist pricing structure ensured I paid at least 3 times as much as them for the exact same accommodation, I was seen as a second class citizen. I realize I should see this as justice, or a learning experience - but really all I see it as is fucked up.

An attempt to discuss the possibility of bladder relief was of little use and when the attendant handed out waters to everyone except the white people on the bus I was partially enraged, partially amused. I felt like I was in the documentary from the 50s where little kids are divided by the brown eyes and the blue eyes and chaos and prejudice ensues. I have never felt more brown eyed.

I realize racism exists in present-day America, but at least we have the decency to mask it. This blatant affront to tourists was my first experience with it. And I hope it to be the last.

All of this in addition to people literally siting in the aisle coughing on you, leaning on you, and eating their odoriferous native fruit a little too provocatively and loudly for my liking was wearing me down. A friend of mine back in California, who shall remain partially nameless (Sean) would literally go apoplectic if confronted with this situation. Luckily my adventurous spirit and travel tenure at least makes is bearable - though respite in the food and toilet break was eagerly welcomed, if only for the opportunity to not have cockroaches and people alike invading my personal space.

An estimated arrival time of 5 pm soon turned into midnight with Morgan Freeman at the wheel and Jessica Tandy riding shotgun.

Exhausted by the time we arrived at the bus station I chose Evil Kinevel of motorbike taxi drivers and we negotiated an inflated fare for what was the first time I have been legitimately frightened on one of these contraptions since arriving. Racing through the warm Saigon night I felt a sense of comfort and familiarity as I had been in this city just 3 short weeks ago.

I had booked a bed at Budget Hostel 2 again, knowing the price couldn't be beat and the location was central. I requested a bottom bunk and was able to actually obtain one for the first time since my arrival. After a quick ice cold shower I climbed into the pod that I paid $4.50 a night for not inches from 2 complete strangers and fell fast asleep knowing the next two days would almost be just killing time until my return to New York and it's foreboding Polar Vortex.

Unable to properly sleep in like the teenagers and young people surrounding me after a night of cheap beer and cheaper liquor, I rose at 8 am to that old familiar rooster crowing its miniature lungs out just across the way.

I went down to the lobby in my bra-less pajama ensemble, having long ago given up worrying about things such as appearances in public, and took care of some real life stuff before properly changing and heading out in search of breakfast nearby - as my grumbling belt wouldn't wait long.

Allez Boo - clearly foreigner friendly - was just across the park and a banana pancake and mixed fruit juice sacrificed to the gods of my intestines in minutes flat. This may seem like a safe enough breakfast order but each and every time I order something along these lines they are unexpectedly different - for example - this pancake featured some sort of liquidy center - like a cherry cordial which I don't believe anyone actually likes. I ate around it and enjoyed the view of clogged streets further clogging lungs and utilized the free wifi for some Skyping with Boston before heading back to the hostel to retrieve my 4th book on this journey and wander.

I wandered for a good hour or so in the opposite direction of all of the sights to see that I had been aware of and found just what I was looking for - no white faces and no places that charged entrance fees. In their places were bike shops wrapped in brightly colored cellophane, making new tires look like unwrapped Christmas presents. Dress stores with dummies vaguely resembling the Kardashians before they hit it big and BeBe was considered designer and lots of odd looks from the locals as if I had lost my way - but I walked with purpose - like any good New Yorker and eventually found myself at the Mecca of all things requiring and promoting good taste- Burger King.

Some sort of cheesy nostalgia often leads me to the red and yellow doors of this establishment when traveling abroad. It feels like a very serious joke I have with myself and when ordering a meal the woman received my instructions better than most in the US as how I'd like my sandwich to be prepared. Unfortunately this did not ensure this petite portion would satisfy my taste buds as the chicken had skin and gristle, free of charge - but, on a positive note, it is the first time I have had decent ketchup anywhere in Asia. I felt as though it checked something off of my travel to do list - so all in all, I was a satisfied customer.

More waking and more solicitations for motorbike rides ensued. When I politely declined their offers, the same - 'where are you going question' followed to which I could not answer, in every sense.

Hours later I wandered back into familiar territory I stopped at the cafe at which I had eaten weeks ago, this time ordering Combination Vegetable with Rice. When it came out with octopus and beef I was disappointed, when I relayed this to the waiter, he was irritated. Clearly just having scraped the protein pieces off the plate I ate my cabbage and carrots floating in bits of beef. I literally have no idea how a vegetarian would survive here.

A couple hours of reading in the hazy sun and my book was near finished do I got up, to head back toward what I believe was District 1. My sense of direction is fairly good and I knew I was heading in the right general direction. Unlike my past days in the city, this one brought me through the posh part of town where I can only imagine Europeans come to spend their well earned Euro at Gucci and Prada for mere dongs. The night was sticky and the city alive.

When I arrived back at the market I was not only minorly relieved, but so very proud of myself for taking a fairly succinct route back to my humble abode. The shops were all closing, but that was OK by me, as I have spent more than my share to 'help the economy' over here. The fear buried deep within as to my fluid spending habits the past few weeks will only really be addresses once I am back on domestic land, as I feel it would be pointless to deal with that sort of malarkey now.

Just when I thought I could not shove any more food in my face - I saw Tutti Fruitti. Much like the shops sweeping New York City, TF was a self-serve yogurt shop that had brightly painted walls, annoying up beat music, and rainbow sprinkles! Though I am a sucker for the self-serve craze and can rarely resist, I have to give credit where credit is due and say that Madison Station Cafe, located in Carmichael, California is not only my first place of legal employment, but also the best frozen yogurt on the face of the planet. There just simply is no contest. Sorry, Saigon.

With tomorrow being a sort of weird long day, where I plan on sleeping at the airport to cut down on travel time and expenses, I went back to the Budget Hostel to pack my bag as efficiently as possible, make sure I seemed to still be in possession at least of the things that really matter - and write this piece.

Notice I didn't say shower.

I am disgusting.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Obscene Amounts of Dong

My experience in Hoi An picked up as soon as I walked into dorm room 104 and met my bunk mates for the night. Directly below me was the youthful Grace from Australia who was gender neutral and cute as a button. To my right was Chelsea, an intense young blonde on her way to Australia to escape the seeming oppression of the English countryside.

Chelsea was kind enough to invite me to what soon became a UN dinner meeting with 6 ladies representing 6 different countries in attendance. The meal was lackluster but the company was welcomed and after eating we made out way down to the river and I finally saw what all the Hoi An hub bub is about. A kaleidoscope of lanterns romantically leads you down the waterway dotted with cafes, restaurants and shops. We opted for the slightly pricier experience of an after dinner drink on a boat tied to the dock and featuring live music. In our case the musical dazzlings of Vietnamese John Lennon, who also sampled from the from the John Denver catalog, we on the menu tonight.

We slowly made our way back to the hotel and retired for the evening, but not before I had discussed  with Clarisse, a gorgeous 20-year-old from France the possibility of her accompanying me on the tour to My Son the following morning.

Waking up early has not proven a problem at any point since arriving here and I was up and sampling the extensive, and included, breakfast buffet at the hotel before 8. Clarisse and I met and we boarded the lime green bus #10 to the My Son ruins, nearly an hour away. Out stuffy bus was MC'd by a local man who possessed the unique talent of speaking in English to his constituents in such a way that he actually appeared to be dubbing over his own personal Kung Fu film. You had to see it to believe it.

By the time we arrived at the evidently American-destroyed ancient temples it was sweltering and sticky - and this is the dry season! We met up with Grace and fellow roommate Jasmine who was asking for photo pointers I was in no position to give, and wandered for the allotted 2 hours through the lush green fields and rich brown stonework of the temples - sweating our asses off all the way.

The promise of an actual boat ride back was alluring,  though the reality of it exhibited track housing and manicured farmland, disappointing me with it's similarity to the California landscape. Clarisse and I seemed to be in this together at this point so, when wandering the streets of the main market where the boat docked, we purchased what had been explained to me was sticky rice by the lady selling this local delicacy. We were both excited to chip in our 20,000 dong and sample this local dessert. The excitement waned when the dish was more like 10 lbs of some sort of paste housed in what I believe to be banana leaves, and unable to eat in any manner with dignity.

Luckily, this monstrosity of a meal allowed us to meet a very nice older couple from Philadelphia. When I heard English from over yonder,  I asked if they were American - as I have seen so few of my own kind over here - and then asked of they wanted to sampled some of our orange paste. Both were confirmed and it was not long until they had pulled up their wicker chairs to our table and we were having juice and coffee in the afternoon light of Hoi An. Former military who met in Berlin and formed a long lasting love affair though California and Philly with no children but lots of travel I could not help but be intrigued by their story and friendly disposition.

After a couple hours and a very generous and secretive settlement of the bill we were off by the American gentleman, like travelers do - we went in opposite directions, thankful for the respite from either loneliness or aggressive Vietnamese.

With a large leather bag almost calling my name I resisted and set forth to pick up my tailored items, neither of which were quite right and with assurance of adjustments being made by tomorrow morning my new French Bestie and I  went down to the waterfront for some window shopping and dinner. It was while en route to said dinner that I went to an ATM to grab some cash, only to realize that my bank card was mysteriously missing. Being down to only a few thousand dong and having a week left to go in Vietnam, I became understandably nervous. Trying to put forth my best roll-with-the-punches attitude I realized there was nothing I could do about it that night and, if we dined at a place that took credit cards (and charged their own additional fee for it's use), Clarisse could give me cash and it just might get me through the next couple of days.

Dinner was delicious and romantic in an open courtyard and candlelight. My Com Ga was light an lovely and multiple lemon juices were had, as I am becoming addicted to the sugary treat. While meandering through the alleyways of Hoi An, we came upon the Japanese Covered Bridge, a main attraction here and one that I was having difficultly locating. As it turns out, it is rather small and inconspicuous. At night the bridge is lit up and young girls in colorful silk pajamas sell lanterns you can light and place in the canal. I am sure the tradition has something to do with luck or wishes, but I remained behind my lens and went with the free option, as I literally didn't know where my next meal was coming from.

Turns out that next meal was the buffet breakfast at the Sunflower where I spent the following morning sorting out my financial drama via the Internet and Skype. Laura at Citibank was very polite and friendly but once I was transferred to Jeffrey, her supervisor, to discuss sending me a replacement card I realized he was an ass, and could basically suck a dick - pardon my French. Luckily I recently switched over to a more internationally friendly credit card that allows a cash withdrawal with exorbitant fees if you go to a bank that acts as a partner. It was Saturday in Vietnam and banks closed at 10am. It was 9:20 - time was ticking. When I went to retrieve my passport from the front desk of the hotel to pay for my room, I got hit with a double whammy that they only accepted cash and that my reservation for this evening had somehow been forgotten and I was essentially homeless. No money and no place to stay - awesome! Thinking catching a bus out of town that night might solve my problems, I inquired about tickets only to discover most travel South was booked solid for the next several days - as Tet is over and families are traveling back home. My free spirit so often invites such amazing encounters and adventures and then - every so often - it bites me in my big white (currently two-toned) ass.

With a morning of literally running errands I was able to get to the bank and take out what felt like an obscene amount of dong (better to be safe than sorry). Next, I popped into a more amiable travel agency than the one located in my hotel and I soon discovered why I had taken out such large amounts of cash. The friendly agent did manage to get me on a bus the following night but for a price 3 or 4 times the regular price - because of Tet. Once again - free spirit/lack of research = masticated glutes.

No bother - I am white and therefore, at least according to most people I know - rich and realized that no issue is insurmountable with the right mixture of persistence and money. Ticket booked, ridiculously expensive private room for the night acquired, disappointing tailored clothes ready to pick up and dong coming out my ears - check. I was good to go. And ready for the beach.

Frenchie and I met up and rented bikes to ride the 5k down to the beach only to discover the carnival that is the main beach in Hoi An. Thanks to one of my new Spanish friends we took a quick side route, bringing us 3 kilometers down the beach. An Bang beach was a slightly less frenzied area with cheap chairs for rent and waterside restaurants. Sadly, also with cute beach shops selling unique and irresistible jewelry. I am telling you - I am out of control.

We laid on the beach until the cool breeze outgrew the warmth of the sun and rode back into town, me feeling a bit queasy from the questionable fried rice I had consumed for lunch. The scenery once outside of the main mall area of Hoi An is gorgeous and vibrantly green - the bonus of choosing to ride home at sunset provided the perfect postcard moments on a rickety bike with the wind in my hair. We attempted to keep the bikes into the nighttime hours, but the lady in charge was having none of that and we parted ways on foot, as I checked into my room for the night, just 100 yards down the road at Green Field Villas & Spa (I saw neither).

90 minutes later it was dinner time and we reunited and it felt so good. Well, not really. Whatever I had eaten was really not sitting well with me and it took all of my strength to get out of my room. Here is where you see the benefits of  traveling alone because you feel no obligation to anyone else, so you can do as you please. In the moment I was regretting having committed myself to another person and slowly sauntered alongside my wild haired new friend to a place off Le Loi that she had read about being cheap and tasty. Once we arrived - we saw just why. This outdoor eatery off of a side alley had no white faces (A-Ok with me) and no menu. You sat down - told them what you wanted to drink and then they brought out food and then more food - prepared it at your table and watched you like an overprotective mother as you consumed this foreign matter, making sure you not only ate it all - but enjoyed it.

With my stomach doing somersaults I was proud of myself for trying this spring roll bonanza, especially having no idea if I was eating German Shepherd or Cow - neither of which are part of my repertoire.  I was somewhat cautious and sampled 2 of the offered rolls as well as the authentic chocolate mousse but did not go overboard. The experience was filling enough for me.

Strangely feeling better, we headed down to the Tet decorations to take photos and ended up at a cute little French inspired cafe for fruit juice and 25 cent beer. There are many 'fresh beer' advertisements here and though I don't totally understand the concept, they seem to be quite cheap - so I am all for it. Despite the fact that my travel companion of the past couple of days is 12 years my junior I found her to be insightful and incredibly smart and was thankful to have a beautiful young woman who could discuss politics, economics, and jewelry shopping all in one fell swoop. I can only imagine the amazing things that lie ahead for her. I will pretend this does not make me jealous at all.

With the city mostly dead (save for a backpackers bar housing every person I have encountered here under the age of 30) we returned to our respective hotels with a promise of breakfast in the morning - to which I would technically now be stealing. Always out for a free meal and a new adventure.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Land of Conspicuous Consumption - It's Not Just for America Anymore!

While in Da Nang I was informed it was once considered one of the most luxurious beaches in all of the world, and most certainly all of Vietnam. This dilapidated town resembles more of an Atlantic City that once was with it's sad building facades, empty lots and endless neon lights, but I bit, and vowed to have a beach day.

The day started bright and early with a jog down by the beach that was more scenic and calorically beneficial and en route back to the hostel I stopped at a local Vietnamese bodega for bread and juice. I have discovered fresh, healthy foods are often missing from stores such as these and had to make due with Oreos and orange Fanta. While internally justifying my purchase a fellow whitey invited me to coffee with a thick German accent and, not wanting to be rude I admitted I didn't drink coffee (especially in Vietnam where the tradition is to process the coffee beans through the intenstines of weasels- you do the math!) but that I would be happy to sit down and have a chat.

While sitting in the warmth of the early morning sun I thought to myself - this could totally be me meeting the man of my dreams. A fellow traveler of similar age. Employed. At least partially English speaking. This could totally be it. Then, and thoughts of rainbows and unicorns danced through my head like a Lisa Frank montage I thought - if only.  If only I felt any sort of human connection or remote attraction to this man who is not only lacking in classic beauty but also in an acceptable dental regime. If only he were not him, or maybe if I were not me. Oh well, better luck next time.

Shortly thereafter we were met by his friends, one of whom is married to a Vietnamese woman and in the country visiting her family for new year. As an uptight white person like myself, he explained that he had recently had a conversation with his 'Vietnamese family' about the concept of privacy - a theory they simply could not comprehend. That explains so much...

Before being seen spending too much time with fellow foreigners I politely excused myself and went to freshen up and head to the beach, filled with families and interracial couples. After paying 30,000 dong for a lounge chair I laid down, put on my shades, and dug into my book (the 3rd on this trip) - which I have been rationing for fear of a lack of English reading materials for long train and plane rides. I am not sure if the ocean is laced with tryptophan or what but I was fast asleep - woken up by the lapping waves and my ever intensifying tanorexia.

By this point, with the sun sliding down the blue wall of sky I was famished and in dire need of something other than chocolate and peanut butter Oreos to tide me over. I went for a walk along the beach, hoping the water front eateries would be opening around this time and came across 3 Englishwoman trying to catch the last rays of light. As I approached, asking of they had any suggestions as to where I should eat, the most vocal of the bunch responded with a guffaw detailing how she figured I lived here and she was just about to ask me the same thing. Repeating 'you thought I lived here?' with a curious puppy tilt of my head she replied - well you just look so at ease.

It's always so interesting how strangers view you.

With nothing but local seafood as far as the eye can see, I was growing frustrated and weary. I happened upon a restaurant currently serving an affectionate young Asian couple and, when reading an entire page of Ga (chicken) dishes I figured this place was my salvation.

It was not.

An elderly woman brought a bowl of peanuts in their shell and quail eggs in the same to my table while proudly displaying a bottle of beer and a bottle of coke, indicating I was to choose one of them. I made the non-alcoholic selection and when the young male waiter approached I pointed to the chicken page and hoped we could gesticulate our way through the ordering process.

We could not.

He repeated chicken, but when I sympathetically asked rice? noodles? I was met with a blank stare. He elicited the help of his fellow staff, mostly being laughed off, and when the cook came out the routine began all over again. Even the young couple were laughing at me at this point and, though I don't embarrass easily, I'll admit I felt a bit like an ass.

I quietly got up and left, leaving the quail eggs untouched.

Realizing I would have to walk the 45 minutes back across the bridge to the 'new town' (the only criticism on about this lodging was the distance to the action) I headed back to Sea Wonder Hotel, showered, put on a gauzy floor length dress, chucks and hoops and began my sojourn in search of sustenance.

The bridges in Da Nang at night look like carnies have set up permanent residence on the water and I was in love. Bright colors and flashing lights. I was like a kid in a candy store.

It turns out there is a nightlife in Da Nang in the form of a succession of coffee shops that line the waterfront and play techno and Abba exclusively. Because of Tet there was the additional draw of more beautiful floral displays and some sort of Star Search Asia set up along the board walk. I watched one duet. The man had the most delicate wrists I have ever seen.

With all open establishments seeming to offer weasel ass coffee and juice I opted to head back to Quan An Thai Lan, where I had dined the day previous and where the owner remembered me and my penchant for spicy - providing me with the most taste-bud scalding papaya salad I have ever experienced. My pineapple fried rice came with some sort of seafood in it, but by this point I was so hungry I just closed my eyes, opened my mouth as put it is. Dirty, I know. The presentation was lovely and the meal was both filling and affordable. If I ever find myself in Da Nang again I will most certainly make my way here.

The long walk home brought me past the busy sidewalks filled with children aggressively yelling 'hello' in my face with a mix of curiosity and disdain and allowed me the opportunity to purchase some cotton candy for 10,000 dong for which I was grateful not to be charged an inflated tourist price.

When I came home to my 4 bed dorm it was occupied by my solitary roommate - Cheryl, a young woman from Canada currently living and teaching in China, and two of her friends on holiday. The 4 of us chatted for a couple of hours as they drank Vietnamese vodka that look suspicious and smelled even more so, mixed with orange soda and Mountain Dew. When it was time for bed, my mind - per usual - was racing, but as Cheryl's soft snoring became stronger I surrendered to sleep.

Before the sound of my alarm roused me from my satin sleep sack, the sound of Communism did. The elementary school, clearly back in session from the New Year holiday was having their morning phys-ed hour and the pre-recorded sounds of government sanctioned activity wafted over the loud speakers and into our room. No bother, I needed to be up anyway. I was leaving today, and wanted to get my things in order.

Packing and repacking each night can prove annoying, but I am always so glad I don't make myself too much at home. I suppose this might leak into my real life too...

Carrying my bags down the 5 flights of stairs to the lobby I indulged in their pancake breakfast - consisting of 3 mushy crepe like concoctions served with home made bitter honey. Yesterday when eating this I was skeptical, but today I was hungry and sweet breakfast food just sounds better than a bowl of noodles. Informed that the breakfast was included in my stay was an added bonus - the fact that another girl had neglected to tell me this as I paid full price the morning before was quickly forgotten as I climbed in the backseat of my private car that was to take me to Marble Mountain before depositing me in nearby Hoi An.

Marble Mountain was a feat and I opted to utilize my ancient ass in the ancient art of stair-climbing and passed up on the clearly much newer lift designed to transport the old and lazy to the top of the hill.

From what I can surmise this is an old hill with lots of spots for worship.

It was the first time I really felt like I was in Asia. There were pagoda's beautifully detailed at every turn and you were able to look out over the city to the ocean. The piece de resistance, however, was a large room carved into the side of the mountain housing 3 temples at which to worship, one that sits directly under the filtered midday sunlight leaking through a hole at the top of the cave. There is no way my photos (or video) do it justice, but trust me when I say it was awe-inspiring.

With a driver waiting and my body covered in a full sheen of sweat from climbing a mountain in Converse, I descended the mountain in search of a driver who I think was maybe wearing a pink shirt and possibly driving a silver car who was maybe parked at the end of this street and who was in possession all of my wordly possessions belongings perhaps we should have made a game plan before parting ways.

I deftly negotiated a small marble something special for a loved one back home and was one again back in air conditioning and heading to Hoi An - a city which every one kindly recommends.

The moment I arrived Aaron Spelling's Sunflower Hotel I knew this was not the place for me. The foyer is lovely, with a full restaurant, free wifi and a pool in the back, yet the clientele is clearly auditioning for a nighttime soap and brought their bathing suits and STDs along with them throughout Southeast Asia in hopes of making it big and discovering themselves.

Good lord, please don't let Amanda pull my hair or throw me in the pool.

I did what I do and I sat down to connect to the internet and eat. A bowl of noodles, 2 glasses of watermelon juice and an intense text message conversation with a good friend from back home, resulting in the obligatory tears for the day, and I was back on foot, wandering the streets of this 'ancient city.'

It didn't take long before bumping into Kim, a very convincing seamstress who somehow tricked me into following her on a 15 minute walk back to her business to sell me on some handmade clothing. It was on this walk that she commented on my skin in the sun, while she was covered head to tow in what had to be 80+ degree weather. She said, in no uncertain terms - in Vietnam if you want a boyfriend white skin is good - black skin is bad. I love international lessons on racism. But she thought I was in my 20s, so I totally let it slide.

Allow me to explain something here - Hoi An is a town of tailors. I had been told by many I have encountered in my travels that they had shirts or suits made for cheap when visiting this tourist destination - but I didn't realize that literally every shop on the street houses gorgeous dresses displayed street side, luring in the vulnerable female (and male) traveler.

I never buy much when I travel. I keep it cheap and small - limiting it to a postcard for myself and a couple of pairs of earrings, but Kim got me and she got me good. My made to order slacks and blouse will be ready by 3 tomorrow. Now, adding insult to injury - for anyone who knows me SLACKS and BLOUSE are not even words typically permitted into my vocabulary, let alone wardrobe. I have been thinking for several years, maybe it is time to own a grown up pair of black pants, as leggings are not all weather or business appropriate, but how I ended up commissioning these in Vietnam of all places is still beyond me. There is a sucker born everyday and on February 6th, 2014 her name is Briana E. Heard.

Receipt in hand (and purchase completely made) I was back out on the road ready to be accosted by more pushy salespeople. And that I was. At least Kim was kind and told me I looked young, gesturing to my not yet developed crow's feet. People sell here and they sell hard. It was explained to me last night that when people call cities in Vietnam 'ancient cities' what they are really saying is 'old buildings filled with shit to buy.' That is what Hoi An is, one big outdoor mall, masked as a cultural experience with straw hats and motorbikes. I attempted a walk through the marketplace but quickly re-routed when women seemingly came out of the wood works with services and goods for what were exhorbitantly priced.

As I made a B-line for the river things quieted, and so did my mind. The white faces faded, as did the noise and mayhem. At the end of a long road heading to nowhere was an outdoor eatery and when I saw it bordered the river, with beautiful fields of green farmland on the other side being worked in the bright yellow sun I sidled up a tiny plastic chair and intended on simply ordering a beverage but fell, once again, victim to the power or Asia persuasion.

The young waitress brought over a menu with 4 or 5 items. First, she mentioned a dish and pointed to a nearby table. It looked like someone had emulsified baby fish and spit it into a bowl. I passed. Next she mentioned Cao Lau, elaborating with - its the best food in Hoi An. Fine, sold. What I was presented with was a small bowl filled with think yellow noodles, sprouts, some sort of meat product and something fried.  Adding hot sauce makes every dish better and that is exactly what I did while sitting by the river and digging into my traditional dish. It was surprisingly yummy and made even sweeter as a little girl, there with her entire family for lunch, made friends with me. The language barrier caused some confusion, my guess is mostly on her part, but we were bonding. I was reading and eating and then - she was puking. All over the floor. Projectile vomit of what I can only imagine was some sort of silken tofu at one point in it's life. Suddenly I lost my appetite. Luckily the bill for the meal and soda was only $2, so I did not feel terribly bad leaving the remains behind with the memory of her doing her best Linda Blair.

The walk home was a field lined with landmines of temptation. All of a sudden I really needed that leather bag (which I sort of do) and those pants - how could I live without them. I had walked into this town with the mindset that I would allow myself to purchase the one staple in all traveler's repetoire in Southeast Asia - the hippie pants. Hammer-inspired, these loudly patterend and brightly colored pants provide room for movement when biking, lounging or drinking copiopis amounts with your underage travel mates in an attempt to really soak up the culture. They are cliche and ridiculous and I wanted them.

I was embarrassed that I wanted them - but I did. And somehow, I ended up with slacks. Wonder what that means.

Alas, a trip to My Son has been booked for tomorrow ( I have so far been quoted 2 separate prices) and I can look forward to a few hours void of consuming anything but the beautiful history of Vietnam.

I only have a handful of days left in this country and though I am not looking forward to returning to the ominous Polar Vortex. Clean clothes and my queen sized bed don't sound so bad.