Vietnam: First Observations

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(Prelude: Departure from Korea)

Friday morning I woke up rich. Severance pay from my Korean job was more money than I’ve ever seen in my life. Not enough though. They should have paid me more for the hundreds of hours of trench warfare I’ve waged against my students’ stupidity.

Money, man. It makes me feel stupid because I don’t know how to invest it. And when I have a surplus I panic, get some sort of survivor’s guilt, obsess about how it could all go away. The default human existence is a hardscrabble one and I feel like having money is cheating the rules, that this is a glitch that can’t last. I feel like the rich people are going to discover that I’m out of my cage and lock me back up.

Before leaving I compressed my existence into one duffel bag like a goddamn Buddhist. Threw everything away: jackets and bedding and everything in the kitchen and my stack of old notebooks full of bad writing. The old ladies with the carts scavenged it all off the curb. Then I drank in Seoul all afternoon with those we’re leaving behind, then spent a night in a hotel on the airport island. I was trying to process all these emotions, this whole bittersweet crush of them. Vietnam in the morning.

***

Of course there was one last crisis at the airport. Some kind of glitch on the airline reservation site so we had to pay the price of an iPhone just to check in. Koreans never budge, can’t budge. Keep making a fucking X with their arms when you’re trying to work it out with them. Most stubborn bitches on the planet. Got to the airport bittersweet, left it bitter.

The great departure ended up being an anticlimax. I needed some dopamine, Facebook likes to help mark the moment. Was going to do a status about the end of my two years in Korea but I couldn’t think of a humorous enough take on it. So I just got on the plane. Had another fight with the girlfriend as we took off. Made up in the air over China and landed in Hanoi. Her grandmother is from here, used a fake ID to get out back when it was war war war all the time.

Our hotel is by the museum that celebrates the curbstomping North Vietnam gave the US Military. Tonight I did my sprints in front of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The guards eyeing me wore the same green uniforms as the Russians in Goldeneye. Sucking in the smog made me nauseous. Running at all over here is a ridiculous prospect. No traffic lights whatsoever so every intersection is a Mad Max situation. I’m told that getting hit is a certainty; the only question is how hard.

The first night here food and beer and taxis for three of us came out to $27 USD. Each purchase feels inconsequential, like you’re just putting down Monopoly money. Even after Bank of America takes its pound of flesh in wire transfer fees it will take me a coon’s age to burn through all my money here.

Hanoi is cheap, and because of some open sewer pipes it smells like shit. And also hot rubber and fish oil. Same as in Thailand or rural China. There are scooters everywhere, backpackers fat off the road life of all beer and no gym, chickens in the alleys, miserable sixty year-old white couples in pedicabs scowling like Emperor Nero. No subway, which is weird for a capital city. No one has any money; everyone’s teeth look like pieces of broken plates jammed into their gums.

The government and cops are bent but name a country where they’re not. Wherever in the world you go, it’s just people being people. No difference except how you get by, how much you can get away with. It’s poor here but it’s not the Cuban Communist hell all those young boys died trying to save us from. People drive around and use phones and drink. The night market has lights and live music. It’s just another city.

Now I have to get a job and make friends, which are the two things in the world I least want to do right now. I just want to take a nap; having escaped the stress of Korea I feel like I survived a war. There’s Heineken in the fridge so I’ll pour some out for my brothers left behind, then wake up and find a motorbike and see how long I last in the death race out there on the streets.

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21 thoughts on “Vietnam: First Observations

  1. Oh my goodness. I sure wish you wont come to the Philippines because my country is more or less like Thailand or Vietnam. But I wont love you any less if you dislike my country. Really.

  2. Fuck yes dude finally a bike! Get something English from the 60’s that’s survived more shit than a cockroach and you’d make my traveling abroad fantasies a reality. Can’t wait to read more.

  3. You need to write travel books. No shit, I’m serious. ‘Fred Colton’s Vietnam’ Korea, etc. …you could break the USA down by states. Put all your interesting observations and experiences into little tomes with a couple of maps and a ‘Shit Not to Eat–Everything Else is Safe’ section and I’m there.

    1. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have ambitions of doing something like that eventually. I need a good angle on the idea — you might have begun to crack it for me.

      1. I hope you keep gnawing at this idea. You’re the first person that made me want to see Vietnam for more than history alone. You paint a vivid picture, but a real one. You neither gloss over things nor condemn them–they just are, and there you are. Travel books are overwhelming and I never find them useful until I’ve been somewhere anyway. I like the way you paint a larger picture then pepper it with details. It’s always people’s stories that are interesting, and if they happen to give you a few solid tips while they’re at it, well, so much the better. Also, you don’t write like tourist. That might sound weird but you don’t. It doesn’t have that flavour, and that is a great, great thing. It’s just right, somehow.

      2. Thanks! I try to not be a tourist even though that’s why I am. Or maybe long-term tourist, or immigrant, or well-dressed drifter. Who knows. So glad you appreciate what I write though. It’s easy to think you’re just putting stuff out there and it just disappears or people hit Like without reading.

      3. Being a tourist is a-ok–moving past that in your writing is what makes it stand out. Wow, that seems like a vague comment even as I write it. 🙂 And yeah, I seek out your writing. It’s definitely being read.

  4. I like articles that inform me of life and times in other countries by the people who are living that experience. This is even more so when it is of places I have never been nor will ever get to see.

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