Hanoi, the Capital-- July 8, 2010
First Day on my Own, Adam flew home last night
So I got my ass kicked by Monkey Island. It's a long story, but basically it includes traveler's diarrhea, several flesh wounds, and a jellyfish. Anyhow, not to worry anybody because I only feel stronger for emerging from the jungle in one piece. Halong Bay was beautiful, and I finally got to do some hiking-- though I don't know that I'd want to repeat the steep climb we did in CatBa National Park to a panoramic view tower, because frankly it was hotter than hell and I was preceded on the descent by oversized bullets of my own sweat. Highlights of the trip included stargazing on the deck of our boat with no light pollution, a Willie Nelson lookalike who played Jason Mraz on guitar during the long and crowded bus ride, trekking from a white sandy beach through the jungle to our bungalow overnight on Monkey Island (whose gates are guarded by a very relaxed, yet well-endowed, monkey), and a beautiful kayak excursion in and out of the lush, humming green cliffs of Cat Ba Island. I also met a really "lovely" engaged couple named Mark and Denise (!) who are from England and Ireland, respectfully, and I'm meeting them tonight for a movie in the air-conditioned "Megaplex" cinema... the first movie theatre I've heard of in Vietnam.
I hadn't planned to stay in Hanoi at all, let alone spend four nights here, but I couldn't get a ticket on the overnight train to Lao Cai (the border crossing for China) until Saturday night. The lodging here is more expensive than the rest of the country, especially for a single travler, and so my room is the size of a matchbox. There have been rolling blackouts since I arrived which is really unpleasant given that air conditioning is my lifeblood here, even more so than water. I've also developed a pretty strong aversion to Vietnamese cities for their smog, traffic, and swarms of tourists all being carted through the manufactured Vietnamese trail, complete with identical trips to Halong Bay and Sapa and late night binge drinking sessions at the local Irish pub. I hate feeling like I am one of many, but I know that it's silly to think I'm any different from the rest-- just because I walk around the tourist destinations with a conscience doesn't mean that I'm not walking around tourist destinations.
But Hanoi is the capital city, and therefore holds a wealth of history and culture if you're willing to brave the heat during the day to visit museums and stroll through the backstreets of the Old Quarter. I went to the amazing Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts today, and was-- I kid you not-- the ONLY person in the whole museum. The funny thing is, right next door was the Temple of Literature where HOARDS of white people were snapping photographs rudely inside the Confucian temple whilst religious Vietnamese who had come to pray seemed miraculously undisturbed by the flashes and jostling backpacks. The Temple was somewhat nice looking and the gardens were mostly shaded, but I didn't really see the appeal-- thus my surprise that the Art Museum (which featured handcrafted ceramics, traditional folk crafts, clothing, jewelry, and paintings from all different periods of Vietnamese history) was totally deserted. I meandered through, taking my time, and softly singing Arirang to fend off the loneliness of exploring the more deserted parts of a city on my own. Again, not to worry anyone, I've met plenty of nice people here-- it's just that somehow being AROUND people is not the same as being WITH them. And I do miss all my friends and family from home.
I ate lunch in a progressive, comfortable, and excellent restaurant called Koto, which somehow gave me a sense of comfort because the food superiority reminded me of Oliveto and the food world I accidentally became a part of in the Bay Area this past year. I ordered the Coconut fish salad, and closed my eyes while I ate it because it was so good. It's rare to find a healthy meal here, unless you're willing to pay top dollar, but again-- Koto is progressive and known for its commitment to recycling all its proceeds into its own rigorous hospitality/culinary training program for underprivileged youth from the city streets. All the service staff, as well as the cooks themselves, are themselves students in the program, and the restaurant as a 100% job placement rate after graduation. In the end, I actually felt really good about splurging, which allowed me to relish my layered dark chocolate mousse cake in complete and utter bliss.
Tomorrow, I hope to visit the Women's Museum, the History Museum, the Revolutionary Museum, and the temples within Hoan Kien lake. On my last couple days I'll visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and museum, because I have a weird fascination with the dude. He was very charismatic, and eloquent, from what I've read, but he's also the symbol of communism in Vietnam and was obviously a very controversial figure in his immense power. I'm eager to get to China and the cool weather, but I am also captivated by this country I stumbled blindly into. I actually like wading/j-walking through traffic (it feeds my anarchist fire), and riding half terrified/half exhilirated on the back of random guys' motorbikes through the city, narrowly missing other drivers by only centimeters. In a weird way, I feel sort of accomplished sweating gallons every minute, especially since the Bia Hoi (fresh beer on tap-- inspired by the Czech) is very abundant and incredibly refreshing, and I had never until this point experienced getting a tan within a city. I like waking up early, despite feeling exhausted all day, and I even kind of like the lonely solitude of navigating the streets, and puffing on my inhaler each morning to combat the smog. This traveling thing: I think it's growing on me.