cities. hanoi, ha long
The plane from Guangzhou to Hanoi lands on the boiling tarmac at exactly half past 3 in the afternoon. Stepping through customs, I arrive on a dusty road and board an even dustier bus which will take me into central Hanoi.
I’m eager to make it to the Airbnb I’m sharing with Dovi. It’s located just off the central square of Old Hanoi. I call it a square, but in truth it’s more like a bustling traffic circle that connects 5 or 6 busy avenues. It rivals anything I’ve seen in New York. As the scooters race around, pedestrians first hesitate and then rush terrified through the mayhem. Located at the edge of one of Hanoi’s prettier lakes, Hoan Kiem, the square is lined with American fast food chains and large Vietnamese clubs.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I step onto the bus at the airport, I know none of this yet. My excitement to reach the Airbnb -- where I’ll see Dovi for the first time in months; in fact it’s the first time I’ll see any of my friends since moving to Beijing a few months prior -- my excitement is only mitigated by a deep sense of foreignness.
While it’s true that I’ve been living in Asia for quite some time now, China suddenly seems like a Western outpost compared to the wilderness which surrounds Hanoi. And so, as the old bus pulls out of the terminal, leaving just a plume of grey exhaust in its place, I direct my eyes out of the foggy window and watch the passing legions of scooters, swaying palm trees, and toiling women.
Why do I travel to the developing world? Why does it fascinate so many alienated backpackers who track its muddy roads for months on end? What is it about the filth, the desperate struggle, and the harsh heat that awakens in my heart a sense of authentic life?
Do we secretly long for a return to a more natural existence? One that is filled with hard toil, where bread is still provided by the sweat of one’s brow? Perhaps, I think to myself as the bus rumbles down the highway, perhaps Adam’s curse is not so easily avoided, all these millenia later.
Or maybe it’s not the Other that attracts us, but the Self. Arriving in Vietnam, the Westerner is presented with a way of life that seems frozen in time, like a renaissance painting on the wall of the Louvre. When we encounter a culture so completely foreign to one’s own, we are able to take a removed, objective perspective; untarnished by the thousand associations, assumptions, and beliefs that cloud our normal existence, life in the third-world functions like a mirror. By truly seeing the Other, we finally come into contact with our Self. As Levinas says, the ego is discovered in the face of the other.
Arriving at the Airbnb’s address, I squeeze between two buildings, walk through a narrow alleyway, and… bump into Dovi! Like a lion rising from his slumber, Dovi bears a look of excitement, slight confusion, and fading exhaustion.
Our apartment is arranged like a maze, split into multiple levels, with rooms sprinkled haphazardly along a tunnel-like passage. The main room has some traditional Vietnamese furnishings, and the bedrooms are two separate lofts, only one of which is air conditioned. It goes without saying that Dovi has already claimed the air conditioned room. No matter, if I position the fan correctly, I find that I can sleep quite nicely.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned from this trip is the futility of judging others from one’s own perspective. A person can only be fairly judged - and this is the only judgment worth considering - from the perspective that that person occupies. In other words, I learned that my frustrations do not stem from the actions of others, but only from my own inability to place those actions within their proper context.
As we ventured out, following the twisting roads, and zigzagging between the rows of scooters which filled the sidewalks, we came across a Dunkin' Donuts watching over the city center. As if by an act of God, the moment we stepped into the bakery, the skies opened up, pouring rain with a vengeance that can only found in SouthEast Asia. Standing on the porch, drinking iced caramel lattes (Dovi’s favorite), munching on donuts, watching bright scooter lights flash passed through the rain, we experienced the simple joy that of two friends finally united.
We had booked the Airbnb in Hanoi for three days, but after just one we were feeling that we were ready to move deeper into Vietnam. Our first two days in Hanoi were filled with food, a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s palace (he occupied a lovely grounds with gardens, a pond, and a summer home on stilts), and the spacious Temple of Literature (or Monkey Temple).
And so, on the afternoon of our second day, we found ourselves in the travel agent’s office where we booked a bus ticket to the world famous Ha Long Bay. Dovi had wanted to go to Sapa, but I had vetoed what would have been several days of mountain trekking in the summer heat in favor of what I hoped would be the lovely seaside calmness pierced by Ha Long’s towering ocean cliffs.
[N.b. Never, under any circumstances, order a Vietnamese coffee. It smells and tastes like cold sugary mud.]
That evening, we picked up tall beer cans from the 7/11 across the street from the Airbnb and headed to the central bar district sprawling around Ta Hien Road.
On the walk over, we passed by the “Dunkin' Donuts Square” which was closed off to traffic and packed with locals, tourists, and families. As we entered passed the barricades, the lights suddenly turned on, revealing a maze of sparkling street cars selling food, clothing, and women.
A staple of Asian nightlife, this was Dovi’s first time at a night market, so we slowly made our way through the throngs of teenage girls while we munched on shitty food and browsed the clothing on sale.
At this point, we were getting a slight buzz and were tired from pushing our way through what must have been half of Hanoi’s population, so we stopped in an innocent looking panini shop that was run by a few kids and a tiny chihuahua. After refueling (Dovi found the puppy rather funny), we continued on to Ta Hien.
In true SouthEast Asian style, the bars that lined the narrow road blasted music and people out onto the street and crammed tiny tables and stools into the path. At this point, we weren’t walking past bars, but through them. Waitresses, stuffed into tight dresses advertizing the local beers, called out to us, trying to convince us to drink our night away in their establishment. (Strangely enough, we were kicked out of the first bar we chose; seemingly for no clear reason.) After pressing through all of the mayhem -- and swapping Dovi’s broken suitcase for a sexy looking North Face duffel bag -- we made our way to a side street, chose a bar, and squeezed into seats between a small Vietnamese family and a foreign couple.
We sat like this -- sipping our beers, smoking our cigarettes, and staring at the bustling road -- for several minutes before the woman who ran the pub suddenly runs out and starts packing up all of the tables! (Women run most of the businesses here.)
As police sirens flashed in the distance, the women happily shooed us away from our table, stacked the chairs, and in a manner of seconds, all that was left of the bar were a few people standing around sipping drinks and munching on peanuts.
“These outdoor bars are illegal,” explained the Vietnamese dad with broken English and a full smile. As the police car cruises past like a shark through a swarm of tuna fish, and eventually disappeared around a corner, the street snapped back into action. We spent an enjoyable evening swallowed up in the excitement of Ta Hien, and retired to our rooms so that we could wake up early enough to catch our bus to Ha Long.
We checked out of our Airbnb just in time to catch the “bus” (it was more like a van. We were squeezed into the back seat with a Filipino english teach and her Vietnamese student/boyfriend. All we could grab for breakfast were those disgusting coffees I wrote about before. I’m pretty sure I ended up spilling mine out.
Random thought: there are two ways to see a city. You can put together a list of things to do and then go through it one by one. Or you can wander around and find out what the city decides to show you. At first, Dovi wanted to do the former, while I preferred to do the latter. But we kind of reached a compromise. Anyways, a blend of the two approaches is probably the best. Just as in life. You need to have goals, but you have to let yourself stroll around a bit.
We arrive in Ha Long and are duly expelled from the bus onto an empty dock. After 5 hours in a cramped bus, we’re ready to go out and do something! But there doesn’t seem to be much to do. As I go find a bathroom, Dovi finds an Israeli sitting around (oh yeah, there are Israelis everywhere) and learns that Ha Long is pretty small. One afternoon is enough.
A salesman tries to bully us into booking an overnight cruise, but we settle for a “five star” hotel. After taking a nap (yeah, there are lots of naps on this trip), we grab some lunch and go to the beach for a swim. The town has the feel of a resort, but without the people. It’s strangely quiet. And the water looks scary, which doesn’t stop us from taking a dip. Other than a weird company retreat (which we crashed too late to find any food) the town is deserted.
We wake up late to a cloudy day and stroll over to the port to book tickets on a boat to tour Ha Long Bay. As we sail through the ancient sea pillars, we all go up to the roof of the boat to take photos, videos, and selfies. At a certain point, the girls posing for photos become more interesting than the sites themselves. There’s a little Vietnamese guy who tells us about all of the famous rock structures emerging from the sea, but honestly, Dovi and I find it all hilarious. The kissing birds, the sexy couple, and so on.
We arrive at a cave in the middle of the bay and climb into our kayaks. The skies open up (as they do every day at this hour) and we let the rain run down our bodies while we maneuver the plastic boat into the mouth of the cave. Once we’re there, a giddy feeling of abandon comes over us, so we light up cigarettes and play bumper cars with the other kayaks. At a certain point, Dovi gets the great idea of performing an opera in the middle of the Vietnamese sea, so I use this as an opportunity to practice not caring what other people think of us. Actually, it turns out that the other tourists think it’s quite funny and some Chinese dude even tries to join in.
As we re-board the boat, the guide comes around to collect the money for the Kayaks and our great mood quickly evaporates. We had wildly underestimated the cost and we’re pretty sure the dude is just lying to us in order to milk us for more money. To be honest, that is the worst part of it. While traveling in third world countries, one often feel like you’re being scammed at every turn. So, even when you do get a fair price, and the prices ARE much lower than anything in New York or Tel Aviv, you still have no idea how much you should pay and end up walking away feeling taken advantage of. Every price hides a hidden cost, and every smile masks a strategy to get more money out of your pocket than you had been willing to part with.
When Dovi went to buy a pair of slides, the vendor initially asked for 250 Vietnamese Dongs (yes, that’s really the name of their currency), insisting that anything less would make her lose money. Needless to say, Dovi ended up bargaining her down to around 70 dongs, and we still walked away feeling like we were ripped off.
The night before, we had heard that the real party is not in the sleepy resort town of Ha Long, but actually in the local town of Bai Chay. So, after an evening of swiping right on Tinder, I met a girl named Lisa who runs a hostel over there where we can sleep for $10 a night. When we return from our boat ride, we grab our bags and get a taxi to take take us over to that side of the city.
We wake up rather late. It’s pouring outside. So we spend the day inside of the hostel’s lobby (we’re pretty much the only guests) playing card games and chatting with Lisa about Vietnamese life. Somehow we find a guitar, and as I strum a few made up chords, Dovi treats us to a new song he makes up while we go.
Around lunchtime, we go across the street so that I can get a haircut. The barber doesn’t speak english, so I just point to his head and he gets to work. While he cuts, he watches a football game on his phone, so I’m not entirely sure that I’m getting the greatest haircut, but if there’s ever a time to experiment with your looks, it has to be in Bai Chay, Vietnam. Sure enough, my haircut is something of a Picasso painting, and becomes just another ridiculous prop in our adventure. I act differently with a Vietnamese haircut. It feels freeing. The local folk laugh as I walk past.
By this point we’ve had our fair share of Vietnam, so after much planning and replanning, we book our flights to Bangkok, a hotel room for that night in Hanoi, and reserve seats in a van to take us back.
Around dinner time, an Austrian and German dude stroll into the hostel. The German kid is like 18 and just got back from living in his car in New Zealand for 9 months. It sounds like torture to me, but he seems pretty proud. I guess the things I do seem like torture to others as well. Maybe we all just prefer our own kind of torture. Maybe that’s why we smoke cigarettes. It’s better to choose your own torture, at least then you feel like you’re in control.
On the ride back to Hanoi, shit hits the fan. Whenever I describe Dovi to people, I explain that he is the nicest nihilist I have ever met. So, somehow the conversation turns to the difference between morals and ethics. I insist that although they are similar, there is an essential disconnect between the two systems. For example, if a woman comes to the doctor and asks for an abortion, he has a medical ethical duty to perform the operation. However, it may very well go against his moral beliefs. In that case, the doctor is forced to choose which system to follow: the ethical or the moral.
Another example is the lawyer who knows that his client is guilty of murder. He may have a moral obligation to disclose this information to the jury, but at the same time he has an ethical obligation to maintain attorney-client privileges.
Dovi won’t accept this. He argues that if there is a discrepancy between our moral and ethical systems, then it’s because one of the systems is flawed. A perfect moral system would take all ethical obligations into account and issue the “good” choice. For example, it is only a superficial moral system which says that the lawyer ought to tell the jury what his client did. A deeper (and more comprehensive) moral system, however, would take into account the consequences of such a policy and its effect on the justice system, and would therefore agree with the ethical decision and obligate the lawyer to keep his silence. [Note: I think this is Dovi’s opinion, but I’m sure he will say that he really meant something else.] In any case, it wasn’t so much the argument that was at stake, but the way we went about arguing. The poor people who shared the van with us had to hear us going back and forth halfway back to Hanoi.
As what usually happens when Dovi and I get frustrated with each other, we don’t let it sit but try to understand what went wrong. Why did our argument turn nasty? I suggested that deep down I felt like Dovi had a good point, but instead of dealing with that point head on, my ego decided to make it seem like he just couldn’t understand what I was saying. I wonder what Dovi will think when he reads this entry.