essays | places
Vietnam · 2015 green velvet
On my way to the bus station, I bought a motorcycle. I’d just decided to take the easy way up North, but life dealt me a much juicier chapter. When I stepped out on the street, my eyes happened upon a Honda Win that just felt right. Lulu. That much was obvious. I found the backpacker who sold her fast enough and some $ 200 and twenty minutes later I was on my way. With a broken speedometer you also had a broken odometer and no way of knowing how fast you are going and less way of knowing how many thousands of miles that bike had shrugged off, but there was no better way to sweep Vietnam from the South to the North and to get into those hidden corners that no bus or tourist agenda penetrates.
Nobody spoke English outside the tourist bubbles, but they all spoke kindness and plenty of it – from the cops who stopped me for speeding and explained Vietnamese traffic rules to me on Google Translate, to any mechanic between Ho Chi Minh and Ha Long who patched up Lulu, to all the road side restaurant owners and the receptionists of these love-hotels where you’d find condoms and whitening cream on your Mickey Mouse bedsheets.
It was an intimate journey with ever changing landscapes all around me and inside me. I had some thinking to do, some feeling and atoning, and there was plenty of time waiting for me in my solitude as I drove up and down and left and right, sometimes zooming through the traffic like a gazelle, sometimes leaning back in the shade large trucks would cast onto the scorching highway. The only motorized vehicle I ever owned, Lulu got me all the way across Vietnam and eventually into Laos.
passages LOW-KEY LIMESTONE | Tam Coc rock, limestone throne, monsoon swoon, ravine queen, panorama mama, rice paddy daddy. They call you the “Dry Ha Long Bay” these scoundrels. But where they see an uncanny resemblance to the limelight lime-star up north, you look more you than anything else, and what you lack in ocean you make up for in rice. You don’t need a UNESCO fiasco, or a Hollywood spotlight, for your recipe is low-key.
passages 400 YEARS | A major Southeast Asian seaport throughout the 16th to 18th century, Hoi An is now among Vietnam’s most significant tourist destinations, and yesterday’s merchants from China, Japan, India, and Europe are today’s tourists from the very same lands. I wonder how the feel has changed over time. Was life there more authentic when people poured in for trade, not tourism? How did and do the locals feel about all the attention? How have the cultural dynamics changed throughout the exchange? Was that little, yellow architecture more intriguing when it was novel, or is it now that nostalgic sentiments flake off the warm facades? What did this scene look like when the lanterns were lit by candlelight and the restaurants and storefronts were whatever they might have been? And what will Hoi An look and feel like in another 400 years?
The rivers merged under a random bridge as though that was perfectly normal. And indeed, no one else seemed to care much for the view, but I had never seen anything like it, and so I declared it immensely interesting.
Vietnam · 2015 blue river meets brown river
Vietnam · 2015 Micky and more
Vietnam · 2015 turquoise crescent
places / stories
Can Tho / Cultural Evolution
Can Tho / Vietnam · 2015 shipping melons
Can Tho / Vietnam · 2015 melon merchants
Coming in from Cambodia, Can Tho was an obvious stop in the wet heart of the Mekong Delta, but tourism hadn’t dropped anchor yet. With more gestures than words, I managed to get to the floating market where goods were exchanged from boat to boat. It’s always fascinating to see how culture adopts to environment in an evolutionary if accelerated manner. Most of Can Tho has already faded into that impenetrable fog of my memories, but one interaction has survived: me, inside a store, penniless for unknown reasons, and some friendly middle-aged lady buying me a bag of chips. They had enough good souls in that country to invade heaven.
Can Tho / Vietnam · 2015 Mekong market
Ho Chi Minh City / Modern Chaos
Ho Chi Minh City / Vietnam · 2015 growing tall
Ho Chi Minh was a modern chaos and that’s about all I recall. On my way out, Lulu broke down, or so I thought, five minutes after I’d bought her. But she was just out of gas and when I dragged her to the next corner there was already someone there to help me. There is someone helpful at every corner of Vietnam. We pushed her to the next stop or gas station or something and gave her a large bottle of Coke. They always sold gas by the soda bottle in these parts of Southeast Asia. And off I went, pulling a thousand traffic tricks to maneuver Ho Chi Minh’s madness. It is an orchestrated madness, to be sure, and there is one simple, crazy rule to it: you are responsible for what the traffic participant in front of you does. No one will ever signal or glance at the rearview mirror before pulling their shenanigans. You have to react and that means being alert every second and meter of the way. It’s more of a game than it is traffic, and you must be a gambler to partake.
Ho Chi Minh City / Vietnam · 2015 box build
Hội An / Crowded Fairytale
Hội An / Vietnam · 2015 lantern warmth
Hội An / Vietnam · 2015 nostalgia in full swing
Hội An / Vietnam · 2015 fairytown
It’s funny how these well-preserved pasts always seem like fairytales seen from the present when they were probably anything but. Nostalgia is a warm feeling that can only account for the idyllic simplicity of the olden days, but not for its struggles, inconveniences, and anarchies. Looking at Hoi An’s old masonry from a few centuries away, you could paint some pretty cozy narratives, and everyone seemed to agree on those and also on the aesthetics, and so it was a pretty crowded fairytale. It held me captive for some days, and I used the breather to put on a facemask and spray-paint Lulu – black and navy blue in theory, black and indigo when the metal was dry.
Hội An / Vietnam · 2015 pasta in the making
Hội An / Vietnam · 2015 a quieter layer around the core
Hội An / Vietnam · 2015 sweet back-alley trap
Quảng Bình / Paradise Underworld
Quảng Bình / Vietnam · 2015 twin rocks
Quảng Bình / Vietnam · 2015 river road
Quảng Bình / Vietnam · 2015 happy highway
Vietnam thinned out into a wasp waist a little North of Da Nang, and so it was never much of a drive from the coastal highway to the hinterland hills. Limestone formations sprouted all over the land like rock flowers and underneath it all lay hidden a purple, spikey underworld.
Paradise Cave, Quảng Bình / Vietnam · 2015 inside the inside
Tam Coc / Bed of Rice and Rowing Feet
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 gliding on glass
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 in sync
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 dirt road dame
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 checkered rice
Tam Coc rock,
plunged in eternal sleep on a bed of rice,
the world passing it by,
affairs of no matter,
because what goes full circle is, at the end of the day, stagnant as rock.
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 all good
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 rice & rock
Tam Coc / Vietnam · 2015 rowing feet
They rowed the boat with feet that had the dexterity of hands.
Ha Long Bay / Crowded Fairytale
Ha Long / Vietnam · 2015 water blossom
Ha Long / Vietnam · 2015 boat blender
Ha Long, I didn’t have time or thirst for your cruises, but don’t think that your beauty was lost on Lulu and me as we sat by the promenade, staring into your sea soul.
Ha Long / Vietnam · 2015 Lulu
Ha Long / Vietnam · 2015 catch
when you set out to see Everest, but Everest doesn’t care