Hanoi, 0730. So I’m in the café where the immigrants go. An American mother in yoga pants is chastising the counter staff for offering her a bag of oatmeal raisin cookies that were baked yesterday. “No, I want them baked today,” she says. I hate white people.
There is a weird abundance of grace here, when you consider that not too long ago the Marines were skeet-shooting Vietnamese infants up in the rice paddies. Also when you consider that if a foreign power ever spilled blood on American soil we wouldn’t forgive them until the sun burned out. But Vietnam is cool. They let the children of the killers return to the scene of the crime, and yell at them about cookies.
At another table a young ESL teacher is saying “Mate, I yelled BE QUIET, and the kids were stunned! They all stopped talking!” His friends laugh at this. They are impressed that their buddy, who is a six-foot tall adult male, is capable of scaring 3rd graders.
ESL teachers will make more money by Friday than the dudes roasting in the construction site next door will this month. We came here and formed a fake aristocracy. ESL teachers are the luckiest idiots of all time. Our murderous ancestors broke the world and rearranged it so that English became a superpower. So that now in modern times we can go to the tropics and play the game of life with the cheat codes on. All possible because we make the right mouth noises.
You gotta wonder, maybe in an alternate universe the script is flipped and waves of young Vietnamese slackers have gone to America to teach Vietnamese. In New York City they drunk drive motorcycles the wrong way up Fifth Ave. And a young Vietnamese mother in a Brooklyn bakery is really angry she can’t get fresh baguettes for the bánh mỳ.
Travel notes from November 2017 that I’m just getting around to posting now.
Vientiane, November 30th.
I’m staying in a villa because now that I’m 30 I think I’m too good for backpacker hostels. This was a mistake. This villa complex is way out in the jungle and looks like a POW camp. This is the kind of place where snakes come out of the toilet. There are so many bugs in my room I should probably sleep in a beekeeper suit. I should have stayed with the young kids in the dorms and gotten hammered.
Right now I’m downtown. Vientiane is chill. Very chill. If a nap were a country, it would be Laos. You kind of expect a capital city to have a little action or something, but there’s not a lot of people here. Vientiane might have more Buddha statues than people. Thailand is right there, on the other side of the Mekong River. It’s so close you could hit the people over there with a paintball gun. Maybe everyone waded over to Thailand to find work, because in Thailand the minimum wage is about $300 a month. Here, it’s $100. I guess that makes Laos the Mexico of Thailand.
The hammer-and-sickle flags on the boulevards remind you that the “bad guys” won the war. Between Laos, China and Vietnam I’ve now spent so much time in Communist countries that I’m probably on the same CIA watchlist Lee Harvey Oswald was on.
On a patio I order a Beerlao and talk to the bartenders, who speak Lao, and Thai, and some French, and also English. I only speak English, which makes me the stupidest person in the city. While I drink I skim Wikipedia a bit. It says that a long time ago Laos was called “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under a White Parasol.” They should have just kept that name. Wiki also says the US dropped an average of eight bombs a minute on Laos during the Vietnam War. Eight bombs a minute, for eight years. Somehow the Earth wasn’t knocked off its axis. It’s at this moment that realize I’m wearing my Captain America T-shirt today. Wearing this shirt is like walking around Pearl Harbor draped in a Japanese flag.
I get dinner at a riverside pizza place. The Canadian ambassador happens to be at the next table drinking whiskey and starts unloading on me about Trump. The shield insignia on my shirt is a bulls-eye at which to sling political criticism. The man has ruined travel for Americans. I should have gone tubing in Luang Prabang instead.
Bangkok has a lot of gold palaces and whatever but what you see the most of in the city is 40 year-old British men drinking beer at 10 am. They have pierced eyebrows and bulletproof leather skin and Man Utd jerseys from 2001. This is what a man looks like when he stays single. I’m sitting among these dinosaurs having my brunch.
The other tables in the place are taken up by dour middle-aged white couples. They’re on mimosas. They are not talking to each other. They chose the marriage option of the Would You Rather (Lonely & Single or Miserable & Married) we all must face when the party is over. Everyone must eventually play this Would You Rather, except for me. I decided a while ago that I wouldn’t get old.
Except I got old anyway. I was in Bangkok a long time ago, when I was 22 and still immortal. Now there are a bunch of new 22 year-olds here. They came to this hemisphere on a rocket of privilege and crashed it on a Thai beach, like I did. They won’t remember Bangkok because they’ll drink too much while they’re here, like I did. The boys smash Chang bottles on the cobblestones and the girls can be overheard saying things like “I love traveling.”
Interesting. You like traveling. You like to not go to work and go visit exotic places? Tell me some of your other surprising opinions.
Above my head the new king’s poster shimmers in the gas fumes. He seems vaguely annoyed with the task of monarchy. For his official portrait he had to pose with a sword and wear a bejeweled gold coat, and it’s way too hot in Thailand for coats.
While I was eating I saw this lizard walking by on the sidewalk, all by himself. Just out for a nice stroll.
When it gets dark I’m in the hotel shotgunning the same GIF to 100 girls on Tinder and getting zero replies. Then I go out to where everyone is drinking rum and coke out of beach pails. I’m rolling solo but some American soldiers adopt me because I’m tall. Being tall is a superpower. You don’t need to be interesting, or have a personality. People will just come up and ask if you have to go to like a special shoe store or something. People find that kind of stuff interesting.
Later on we part ways when the boys want to go whoring in Patpong. They’re trained killers who somehow lack the confidence to talk to drunk girls. They have to pay for it. I stay out, chopping it up, and eventually I’m making out with a girl from the Netherlands. The next day I’m tired because I stayed up so late. I wish I’d slept instead. Being single kind of sucks. But then again having a girlfriend kind of sucks too. The moral of the story is that everything kind of sucks.
A few hours later I’m at the airport and the Tinder girls’ responses start rolling in. They all say lol had no wifi. Backpacker broads. Their bios all say they love traveling.
At the gate I send a bunch of funny GIFs to my friends because if the plane crashes I want to be remembered as humorous. Each GIF must be selected with the possibility in mind that it will be showed to other guests at my wake. Then I watch some of Deadpool with some Buddhist monks who laugh at all the kills and dick jokes.
After that I’m at the Burger King and two girls from London ask if they can sit with me. They are 22 and have just graduated from “uni.” We have an engaging conversation.
Ah, being single. It sucks but it’s also great. I guess that even though I got old, I’ve still got it. Then one of them plugs in her phone and I realize they are only sitting with me because my booth has an outlet in it.
Hanoi, June 1st. 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. 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 right now, just like five million other people. It’s 5:00 pm which means the city has jammed to a shuddering halt. Traffic has become a game of land warfare as everyone battles for each inch. 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, or as if she’s out here blocking the lane just for fun. Someone honks at her again. They should at the very least take the horns out of luxury cars. You shouldn’t get to have money and also be loud about it.
The heat is breathtaking. 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 home under the AC thinking Finally, like I deserve it.
This is my first day in here. What’s Hanoi like? Hanoi is pretty much District 9, but with rice hats. The roads are cratered like a bunch of landmines went off. There are chickens caged up on death row and trash fires on every block. The government barks announcements from the loudspeakers, even though Vietnam has the internet and smartphones, and could use those things to spread information. I’ve seen movies where people move to places like this. They do so because they’re fugitives.
Of course, I’m being hypocritical. Vietnam isn’t really that bad. I can actually think of neighborhoods in Massachusetts that are more third-world than Hanoi. (Lawrence, I see you.)
I’m in a taxi heading downtown. My taxi driver’s breath could kill flowers. We go past the monument that marks they pulled John McCain from the water (it’s by the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf). The cops on the streets have the same green uniforms and AKs as the Russians in Goldeneye N64. Outside my window a guy is pissing on a light pole. So I guess that’s cool here. I’m excited. At home you go to jail for that. But here, in a Communist motherland, you can have true freedom.
We pull up to a lake with a temple in the middle of it. I pay the driver (Vietnamese cash looks like Monopoly money) and get out. Sixty year-old Western couples, scowling like Emperor Nero, float by in pedicabs. There are backpackers everywhere, fat off the life of no gym and all beer.
I get some local coffee and wish I hadn’t. It’s a horribly bitter, weapons-grade brew that could take the rust off lug nuts. Then I meet a college friend who lives here and we get some beer. To order it you say “bia”, which means you pronounce it the same way they do in Boston. The beer is weak, and there’s ice in it, but it only costs thirty cents. As we sit there some of the Goldeneye cops come through in a Jimmy Carter-era pickup and start swatting over chairs with their batons. The staff drags our table away and some beer spills on my phone. I don’t know what just happened, but it was annoying. My friend says it has to do with street permits or something. To be honest I don’t like it here. But the beer is cheap, so I’ll probably stay.