Day 189: American Psycho catches plane to Vietnam
It feels like they should be calling in Batman to keep me from slipping into a very dark, twisted place. That or I should get some sleep. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
BABBLING waves of nausea nibble at my body's shore as I sit hunched over a 12-inch Spicy Italian, chosen by the die. It's 5:15am. I'm at Don Mueng Airport in Bangkok. I need sleep.
I can't remember the last time I had a full night of sleep, let alone a good night. It must have been last week when my body isolated between cold and hot while a fever crept in, forcing me to hideout in bed for two days straight. But even then, I was waking every hour on the hour, or close to it.
The three days leading up to my departure from Chiang Mai, which was supposed to be a recovery period and an opportunity to catch up on work, but ended up being too much fun, I didn't find much in the way of sleep either. There was a big night out with Emma and Yuki, which was a riot, then there was Loy Krathong: after dropping Yuki off at midnight, I met up with another friend, crashing at her place, and rising early – I had to pack my bags and catch the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok for my flight to Vietnam the next day.
After five years of celebrating Loy Krathong, the festival of lights, in Phuket, I finally made it up to the famous Chiang Mai celebration. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
If you want to go insane, not goofy funny insane, but lock me up insane, take the 14-hour, Second Class seats on the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Dehydrated, my body and mind are desperate for sleep, but the florescent lights in cart seven of the train are unrelenting. I'd bought the ticket five days earlier, but because of the festival, all the sleeper car beds were already booked.
So, here I am.
I recline the seat and stare into the back of the hood of a North Face sweater. Minutes later, I take it off and look over at the young Japanese guy next to me who is doing the same thing. I sit the seat up right and return to my book, which isn't helping.
Deep into American Psycho by Bret Ellis, I'm at the point that Bateman is wildly fluctuating between painful materialistic details of his new state-of-the-art sound system and torturing woman before decapitating them. The gruesome details of the book, pouring acid over a woman's genitals so that he can stick a tube with a ravenous rat inside, is doing nothing good to my mental state. I'd rather be reading something else, doing something else, but there isn't anything to do – I forgot to pack a deck of cards in an easily accessible location. I put the book down for five minutes, then pick it back up, finding myself starting to narrator the world around me with Bateman's voice: a hardbody, nice ass, big tits, sits three seats back.
It's not healthy, especially for someone who already questions their numbed emotional state.
After the train pulls into Bangkok, I trudged out of the handsome station, across the street to @Hua Lamphong Hostel, a swanky little place Yuki located for me. Though I don't have a reservations and it's 7am, the nice man, who took in the volume of my luggage as a sign of my general state, is able to find a bed in a 4-person dorm to check me into.
Though rightfully concerned about how I'm going re-pack my bags, as well as the weight of the checked bag, I crawl into the bottom bunk in the cold room and pass out in my underwear. By about 4pm, I am capable of moving again. Online, I upgrade my luggage – again – from 20kg to 40kg, then start worrying if I've have more than 40kg of stuff.
Yuki, who flew down to Bangkok her way to Phuket, and I grab dinner on the San Francisco floor of the Terminal 21 shopping mall, before I settle down for a desperately needed haircut.
I'm in bed by 8:30pm when I get a message from Yuki that she's missed her flight to Phuket. I know I should drag myself out of bed for drinks, or something, but she has a condo in town and I don't have the energy to move. I briefly consider rolling the die, it seems like the sort of thing where the die will get me out of bed and I'll see something amazing, wonderful and unique. However, not even 50 percent of me can handle getting out of bed.
Instead, I lay there, sending messages on the phone for a bit. Then, tossing and turning, patiently waiting for the guy in the next bed over to turn off his light. It's a soft, warm light that's not too bothersome, but I'm unable to sleep. Around 10:30pm, a pretty girl staying in the bunk above me arrives a half hour after a Russian, who lets us know that if it gets too cold to just turn the AC up.
Eventually, the lights are all turned off. Nearly in perfection unison with the lights going dark, my man in the next bed over begins a heavy snoring. I can tell from the sounds of the bed creaking above me that the girl isn't asleep. If it wasn't creepy, I'd love to be able to be like, “Hey, want to cuddle?” Nothing too sexual, just holding a body and trying to get some sleep.
However, that would be creepy as fuck, as well as inappropriate. Instead, I toss and turn and feel slightly bad knowing that I'm going to be waking up at 3:30am and making a bit of a racket trying to get my bags together and out of the room. Not that I'll be excessively noisy, but any sound at 3:30am sounds like a racket to those trying to sleep.
“Very handsome,” the young man at the AirAsia check in counter says, handing me back the photo that fell from my passport when I handed it to him.
“Thanks,” I say with a smile.
All the fretting about weight was for naught, though it was good I did upgraded. The bag, which looks like it's on the verge of vomiting its contents out onto the conveyor belt weighs a little more than 30kg. Security is breeze, well relatively, heavy-duty motorcycle boots are less than ideal for “slipping on and off” at the check point, but I make it through security after immigration checks me out of Thailand for the last time. In general, none of the lines at this time in the morning are too long. Those that are long move forward smoothly, which leaves brings me back to my battle against light nausea at small table in front of the Subway in the Bangkok airport.
Stuffing what's left of the sandwich in the pocket of my hoodie, I get a handle on all my gear – even know, with my checked bag gone, I'm overburdened, my laptop case is bursting with books and camera lenses. Additionally, I have a drone bag and my helmet, complete with furry orange fox ears.
The seats on the AirAsia flight to Hanoi are smaller than I remember. I squeeze over to the window seat; I love watching the world from the window of a plane, I find the conditions nearly claustrophobic – this from a guy who loves tight spots. Big boots and bulky riding gear don't help, but there's no room in my bags for the gear, so I am forced to wear the ridiculous outfit on board. To complete the look, I pull on my helmet.
The young Aussie in front of me, maybe from Melbourne given his accent, whispers something to his girlfriend about me wearing a helmet. He lets out a good-natured snicker. The woman who sits next to me doesn't seem the least bit phased by the outfit. Though the helmet isn't entirely uncomfortable, I decided not to wear it for the entire flight over.
A large yellow taxi sign is at the far end of the road abreast Hanoi Airport.
“Taxi?” I young Vietnamese man with a slight build asks before I make it to the queue.
“Where you going?” he asks, re-positioning himself so that a large white pillar stands between him and the taxi queue.
I hesitate. He seems dodgy.
The man flashes a “Airport Taxi Driver” license in a light brown mini-wallet, like a fake-cop would flash a badge he bought at a costume store. He then sits down on the far side of the pillar and starts tapping a pack of cigarettes.
“Where you go?”
Without knowing how much it should cost to get to town, I'm not really wanting to bargain over the price, as I have no reference point: is 1 million Dong too much, what about 100,000 Dong?
I opt to function within the system, ignoring the guy and heading for the taxi queue, where there isn't a queue at all. A military officer, dressed in full attire, including a peaked cap, stands next to the guy organizing the taxis.
“Where you going?” he asks. “18 dollars.”
“What I thought it's metered.”
“It is, don't worry,” the officer says. The taxi guy was trying to get a rise from me for a laugh. I step into the taxi he points at, the next one in line.
“How are you?” I ask the driver, who's at first a bit baffled by the question.
“I am good. How are you?” he asks, drawing up probably the majority of his English vocabulary.
“How do you say 'thank you' in Vietnamese?”
“Com on ban.”
Content with silence, especially as the driver doesn't seem to be a particularly talkative taxi driver, I stare out the front passenger window as we head into town.
Every so often there will be sharp blasts of the taxis horn for one reason or another, it seems unnecessary to me after so many years in the relative road silence in Thailand, but I remind myself that this must be how they do it here. I try to relax.
The driver pulls up under a Royal Poinciana tree about a half block past Leh's place on West Lake, Ho Tay, which is about four kilometers from Hanoi's Old Quarter.
Leh and I have a complicated history, I nearly didn't ask if I could crash at her place, but had, at the end of the day, decided to at least make a tentative request.
I met the small Vietnamese woman with a wide, prominent jaw when Rob and I were on our first motorbike trip through Vietnam. Rob had organized a Couch Surfing Meet Up where he and I set up a slackline. Leh was one of a number of people who came and played with us.
On two occasions, she visited me while on extended holidays in Phuket. I'd assumed, conveniently, that they were holiday romances, turning a blind-eye to any signals that they could be anything more. On the second visit, she even came with two friends. All three of them crashed in my tiny one-room apartment. However, things that exist under false pretense, where we see what we want to see in the situation, never last. The shit hit the fan when a dear ex-girlfriend of mine from America came out to visit me in Phuket for three months.
One of Leh's friends, taking an unwise initiative and failing to understand the larger picture, wrote my ex-girlfriend a pretty damning email about me – all with Leh's consent. There was a subsequent falling out.
That said, Leh and I had gotten back in touch for travel advice – she was headed to Myanmar – or this little thing or that. So, when I the die decided to ship me to Vietnam, it was only natural that I drop her a line.
I log into the WiFi at Leh's building to call her so she can come down stairs and unlock the door of the tall, narrow building overlooking the lake.
She arrives downstairs in a lovely blue apron draped over a black dress.
“There was a guy living here a couple months ago, but he moved out,” An says, ushering me into my room. It's a small room, cluttered with furniture. A coat rack is squeezed between the bed and armoire, next to a desk, next to a small refrigerator next to the far wall. Unframed mirrors lean on the other side of the room. Brown ceiling to floor curtains are pulled open, revealing enormous windows looking into the trees, beyond the trees is the lake.
It's amazing to be able to get my own room like this. The stairwell winds upward, on the other side of the second floor, where my room is, there's a tiny bathroom, nearly too small to turn circles in, but sufficient, perhaps that's from where the term water closet comes.
We dump my bags in the room, then walk up to her room on the next floor. Buu, an owl-eyed Long Haired English cat, peers at me from under Leh's bed.
“Want something to eat?” Leh asks.
“Yes, please. We could go out to a cafe, if you want,” I offer, not wanting to impose.
However, Leh's happy to make a simple breakfast for us in the rooftop kitchen.
I exhausted, I nibble at the triangular toasty, after eating the slices of apple and done good work on a glass of milk.
Originally, the plan for the day was on the ambitious side: apply for Kenya Visa at embassy; buy motorcycle; go to DJI shop and see if they can fix my drone and when see when they expect to have the Maverick in; and get some work done.
Not only was it an ambitious plan, it also failed to taken into account that Hanoi doesn't have a Kenyan Embassy. In fact, there isn't one in the entire country. The update caught me off-guard, given that when I did an internet search from Thailand the first result that showed up on Google was “Embassy of Kenya in Hanoi”, which seemed pretty straight forward. I'd even gone to the website, EmbassyHanoi.com, which offers bits and pieces of useful information about Kenya and Kenya Visa information – failing, of course, to mention that there isn't an embassy in Hanoi. However, there is one in Bangkok.
“I think I might just go take a nap,” I tell Leh.
Leh walks me down and spreads a soft comforter over a washed, but stained red, blue and white stripped cover sheet. The stains look vaguely familiar to stains I've put on bed sheets in my past, but what can you do about stains?
“Do you want lunch?” Leh asks.
I struggle to come around, mumbling something, then falling back asleep.
“Okay, what about in 15 minutes,” I ask, after Leh comes down again. The smell from the kitchen, four floors above me, is heavenly, but exhaustion is stronger.
By about 3pm, I make my way up to Leh's room, who then joins me in the kitchen.
It's a beautiful spread of food on the wooden table: there is a platter of green beans with fried garlic, marinated short ribs and a fish curry.
“This is beautiful,” I say.
“It's just left-overs from dinner,” she says, before asking if I want rice.
We nibble at the food for the better part of the hour, occasionally talking, occasionally sitting in a comfortable silence. The green beans hit the spot.
My body aching, I lay down on the tiles of the floor and stretch some. Everything hurts.
“So who did you go to Bagan with?” I ask.
The way Leh says the name, I can only assume that it's the same girl who sent the nasty email to my ex-girlfriend right before she flew halfway around the world to spend a few months with me.
“Awesome,” I say.
I'm fairly sure this is the sort of situation where my lack of emotional memory and certainly my lack of memory in general contributes to my happiness. There isn't a cell in my body that cringes or rails against the woman's name or even the idea of what she did. It's all water under a bridge and though it caused six to eight months of emotional turmoil, none of that water lingers. The currents that cause strange rapids when a river floods are powered by water that won't be around tomorrow.
I'm happy Leh has a great travel buddy and that I know the person, though I couldn't tell you much about her.
“You're going to go back to sleep?” Leh asks. I want to, but I know it's a terrible idea. I need to get my sleep schedule back in order, or at least take proactive steps in doing so.
“No, no, I'm trying not to. Is there anywhere around here to get a massage?” I ask.
“The place I go is four or five kilometers away.”
“Want to go together?”
It takes a bit of convincing, but Leh eventually agrees to join me for a massage at her favorite place, Van Xuan Foot Massage.
At about 6pm, the back shutter of the building electrically clacks open. Leh rolls a fat white scooter that seems to have been crashed a number of times out into the small ally behind the appartment.
“Do you want to drive?”
“Sure, but I don't know where we're going.”
We wobble onto the main road, where I take a right, putting along, following Leh's surprisingly clear directions.
“It's like the first time you ridden a motorbike,” Leh says, in her choppy, sing-sing voice.
“It takes awhile to get use to Vietnamese traffic again.”
Traffic in Vietnam has a unique flow to it as people disregard lanes and right of way, weaving together a tapestry of motor vehicle mayhem that manages, for the most part, not to end in disaster. The key seems to be focusing on not hitting anyone and letting everyone else focus on not hitting you. It's not unusual to be poking across the flow of traffic, vehicles bending around either side of you as you make your way forward.
It's dark now, and though the rush hour traffic is gone, Hanoi is a city of 5 million people, so it's not as if the roads are empty. The wide roads in this part of town are covered by the enormous canopies of Dracontomelon Trees; the sidewalks making room for their imposing, knobby trunks. The sidewalks themselves could be consider sweeping if they weren't cluttered with parked motorbikes and in need of a good sweeping.
A young man in a white polo helps us park the moped up on the sidewalk in front of Van Xuan Foot Massage. The welcoming hall is under a high vault ceiling with a glass chandelier hanging over the large white tiles.
I'm tempted to choose the massage by die roll. However, Leh usually gets the 90-minute foot massage, so I join her for the treatment.
We're lead to the back, past a couple dusty motorbikes and unpacked boxes, up a flight of stairs and into a private room. Inside are two plush lazyboy-type chairs.
“I ordered boys to massage, because they are stronger. Is that okay?” Leh asks.
“Yeah, that's fine. But I know you just didn't want some pretty girl touching my feet,” I tease.
Hot tea is brought to the room before Leh and I change clothes. I pull on a pair of long, baggy checkered shorts and a nice white t-shirt that were left wrapped in plastic bags on our chairs. Leh gets into a checkered night gown.
A flat screen on the far wall plays the news in Vietnamese as the young man with his company polo shirt tucked into dark blue jeans digs deep into my shoulders. My feet are soaking in a bucket of brown herbal water, which some might call tea, as he spends the first part of the massage working on my shoulders, neck and head. Though it's listed as a foot massage, the treatment is a full body one. At several points I caught myself thinking how nice it would be if it was a pretty girl giving me the massage, knowing full well that it technically shouldn't matter.
“How did it feel when they massaged your butt?” Leh wants to know, curious if I've ever been sexually interested in men.
“Good. I hold a lot of tension in my hips, so it always feels amazing. I've always wanted to go in and just get a full hour butt massage, but I'm worried they'll take that the wrong way.”
Before settling our bill for the massage 250,000 Dong (12 dollars), the die is given dinner options: Pho, Bun or sticky rice. It chooses sticky rice place. So, with Leh's nearly life-long knowledge of the city, we end up in a dirty, crowded restaurant on the corner of Nguyen Ttreet and a smaller road.
Xoi Yen serves the best sticky rice dishes in town. The kitchen area spills out onto the street. The motorbikes are parked three deep around the corner.
A small bowl of soft, yellow sticky rice covered with layers of green bean mash, chicken and fried onions arrives at our knee-high table. Perched on the tiny red, plastic stools that seem more suitable for a four year old, or perhaps a four year old's stuffed animal, we dig in. The green bean mash is extraordinary, so much flavor packed into each bite, and surprisingly, not green. The beans themselves are soaked for several hours so the skin easily peels off. Then, they are cooked in a rice cooker until they can be mashed together and rolled into a ball. Slices of the ball are cut off and put on top of the rice.
The die, well Leh and the die, made a very good choice.
Several doors down, past a tight, dark ally with a sign that proclaims “Egg Coffee”, but looks like a poorly conceived trap, there is a more brightly lit entrance to an Egg Coffee Cafe.
The drink, unique to Vietnam, was a staple in Hanoi since the 1950s, traditionally created with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and Robusta coffee. It's not an easy drink to make. I remember when Rob and I were here four years ago: he was inspired to try to make egg coffee back in the US and failed miserably from what I heard.
Upstairs, there is floral jungle around the stairs and tiny table after tiny table surrounded by dirty white walls covered in oil paintings. Also on the wall are piece of printer paper advertising “Matcha Egg Coffees”. The place is packed. We settle down on a pair of squat stools next to a table covered with sunflower seed shells and empty coffee glasses.
Leh helps a waiter clear the table and orders an Egg Coffee for herself. The die orders me a Matcha Egg Coffee.
“This is exactly how white people fuck shit up,” I tell Leh after tasting my drink.
It's not that the Matcha is bad, but it certainly is no improvement on the original. We both agree that it is significantly less pleasant. After tasting the Matcha and then trying the normal one, it's hard not to be impressed by the perfect balance of flavors and the thick creaminess of the original egg coffee, served in a small glass cup sitting in a bowl of hot water.
Though I'm fading – wasn't I sick earlier today – the die is given a new set of options: go home; go sit on bench by the lake; go out for a drink.
The die wants to go for a drink: specifically, a cocktail.
“What about somewhere with jazz?” I ask Leh.
Bar + 84, a dimly-lit, speakeasy-themed place with paintings of Vito Corleone and other mobsters on the walls, hosts jazz nights on Thursdays. It's Thursday.
A table close to the small stage is open when we walk in, though most of the place is packed. A heavy-set, by Asian standards, Vietnamese woman in a tight dress and a 1920s hairdo sits on a tall stool singing an old rock song. Leh orders the Russian Green tea martini, which turns out to be exactly what it looks like when an Ogre tea bags your martini, and the die orders me some pink lychee cocktail with a twist of orange – the die likes to help me with my mainly image.
The set ends a couple songs later. Leh and I mostly sit in a comfortable silence. We nurse our cocktails until the second set, which is more rock and roll. It's not bad, but it's not enough to hold either of us, so we pay our bill and head back to the house.
Leh says goodnight and hurries up the stairs to her room as I unlock the door to mine.