The Heat

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Photo by Phan An

Hanoi (June 1, 2017)

It’s summer again and people can’t stop talking about it. Everyone is shocked that it is hot, in June, in the tropics.

But it actually is pretty bad. Hoo boy. The air is sulfurous and you always feel like you’ve been dipped in oil. One degree hotter and the concrete will bubble into magma and suck us all down into hell.

I’m on the bike going to work. It’s 5:00 which means the city has jammed to a shuddering halt. Traffic has become a game of land warfare as everyone battles for each inch. But I like the gridlock. It means no one can work up the velocity to do something stupid. People here generally drive like an F-16 is chasing them.

Right this very second in Hanoi there are 5 million motorbike engines running. We’re all baking in our own fumes. Since I got here I’ve inhaled enough pollutants to fill a hot air balloon. My blood now glows neon green. The carcinogens have melted down my DNA strands into malignant genetic code and my children will wander the Earth with Orc-like deformities, one eye set three inches higher than the other. The karmic revenge for Agent Orange.

Up ahead there is a work crew ripping up the concrete. They’ve been out here all day. And there’s a woman in a rice hat pushing a trash cart. People in chilly cars blast their horns at her because she’s on the road. As if there is anywhere she could go. As if she’s out here blocking the lane just for fun. Someone honks at her again.

Inside a car there’s no heat or smog. In Vietnam you don’t have a car unless you’re rich. If you have a car then you might as well be Jay-Z. You are exempt from reality. The woman with the trash keeps shuffling and panting. Someone honks again. I fantasize about blowing up their car with an RPG. They should take the horns out of luxury cars. You shouldn’t get to have money and also be loud about it.

The heat is breathtaking. Vietnam is in the crosshairs of a flamethrower held in the hands of a demon. The heat is proof there is no God. You’re stuck on this prison planet, better hope you picked the right parents. Then the light’s green and a few minutes later I’m in the office under the AC thinking Finally, like I deserve it.

Exile

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Photo by Quach Tuan Anh

First Day in Vietnam (3.26.16)

Hanoi is pretty much District 9, but with rice hats. The roads are cratered like a string of landmines popped off. Chickens on death row are caged in the alleys and smoke columns rise from trash fires. It’s noisy, too. The Party has provided for the people a soundtrack of Socialist hymns, piped in by loudspeaker and underscored with the grinding bass of motorbike engines.

I’ve seen movies where people move to places like this. They do so because they’re fugitives.*

I just arrived, and I’m being ferried around by a taxi driver whose breath could kill flowers. We go past the monument to where they pulled John McCain from the water (it’s across the road from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf). The soldiers in the French Quarter have green uniforms and AKs on loan from the Russians in Goldeneye N64.

At one point we come to a dead stop and just sit there for a few minutes. Up ahead, the driver of a Mercedes 4matic SUV has granted himself carte blanche to park in the middle of the road, so that his vehicle now sits as a clot in the veins of the city. Outside my window a man stands on the curb, pants open, spraying on a light pole.

We pull up to a lake with a temple stuck in the middle of it. I pay the man (Vietnamese currency strongly resembles Monopoly money) and get out. Sixty year-old American couples, scowling like Emperor Nero, float by in pedicabs. Wikipedia says this place is called the Old Quarter. It was once the HQ of the Chinese overlords. Today it’s under siege by backpackers, fat off the life of no gym and all beer.

Speaking of beer, under an umbrella near the Cathedral I discover that the local stuff has very little kick to it. But at thirty cents a pour, what did you expect? In a restaurant across the street five local men stage a very on-the-nose tableau by having a drink around a gold bust of Ho Chi Minh. This reminds me of some fellow Americans who mock Communist personality cults while at the same time regarding our Founding Fathers as a veritable platoon of Christs. Idol worship, like anything else, is only strange if foreigners do it.

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Photo by Thanh Quế Trần

I’m aware that there are tourist obligations to be fulfilled, but I didn’t come here to be a tourist. I came here to do nothing at all. This morning I was in Korea, running out the clock on my contract. I couldn’t wait to leave; my job was the workplace equivalent of the Bataan Death March. Now it’s 5:00 pm and I’m in Vietnam. And I don’t know much about Vietnam. President or Prime Minister? Couldn’t tell you. Population? No idea, but based on traffic it has to be at least nine trillion.

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Photo by Noi Tran

Eventually I switch venues and take a plastic table at a sidewalk café. I order my first cup of Vietnam’s fabled drip coffee and am immediately humbled: it’s a deeply bitter, weapons-grade brew that could take the rust off lug nuts.

Some policemen roll up in a Jimmy Carter-era pickup and begin swatting over chairs with their batons. The staff comes to move my table, and as they pick it up the coffee cup tips over and spills on my phone. The cops then evaporate. I’m not sure what that was about.**

I have to be honest. I don’t like it here. But the beer is cheap, so I think I’ll stay.

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*I’m being dramatic. I lacked perspective when I arrived. Vietnam is really not that bad. (I can think of neighborhoods in Massachusetts that are more third-world than Hanoi). My sister, who had been living in Nairobi, later came to visit me here. “It’s pretty run-down, right?” I asked her. “No,” she said, “it’s actually pretty rich.”

**Later on I’ll learn that some streetside establishments need to be paid up with the local police in order to monetize space on the sidewalk.