Thursday, October 15, 2009

That Time I Was In Asia: Halong, Baby!

Brooke and I liked to play this game where we came up with tourism slogans for Vietnam like, Vietnam: Where the only thing harder than the language is your bed. Ha, get it? But seriously, the mattresses were like coffins.

Anyway, it turns out Vietnam's actual official tourism slogan is "Discover the Hidden Charm," which should be read more like an imperative challenge than a whimsical suggestion. "Go ahead," they defy you, "just try to find the charm. It is exceptionally well hidden."

So after three days of meandering through windy alleys in Hanoi trying to ferret out the charm, Brooke and I decided to take off for less congested pastures – Halong Bay. The picturesque cove is home to thousands of limestone isles which jut up out of the water like geological erections. We had heard that it was a UNESCO (I'd link to it but their website is so boring) World Heritage site, and while we had no idea what that meant it sounded very important. Since it's a four-hour drive from Hanoi to the coast, most people make an overnight trip out of it. To those people we say, "Hey, lame-os. Want another Stella d'Oro treat with that vagina?" We hired a driver, woke up at 7:00, and made a day of it.
Our driver is ten minutes late, and Brooke and I are pissed. There's two good reasons for this: 1. Clocking in at $180, this is the most expensive thing we've paid for yet (hotel rooms included). Hanoi is absurdly inexpensive; your whole perception of worth is skewed by ¢15 beer and $2 cab rides. Couple that with the fact that in Vietnamese currency it cost 3.2 million dong (giggles), and you can't help but expect to be treated like royalty; and 2. Americans are treated a bit like royalty in Vietnam. Maybe it's the tourism dollars we bring along, or the curiosity of our progressive demeanor in a throw-back communist setting – whatever the case, I've never felt cooler than I did in Vietnam.

When our driver finally does show up, the tour guide with him apologizes profusely. "Traffic," he explains in what is probably the best English I have heard a Vietnamese person speak the entire time we've been there, which is still just like being the thinnest kid at fat camp.

Immediately it is made clear that the driver doesn't speak English – perhaps doesn't speak at all. The tour guide though (a Vietnamese guy who is 25-going-on-16-year-old-girl) is clearly very excited for the ride. He introduces himself as Quay, but tells us to use his nickname, Buffalo Joe. When Brooke asks how he got his nickname, he says, "Because I was born on the back of a buffalo while my family was escaping the flood," without a hint of excitement, as though she had asked Fat Albert how he got his nickname and he replied, "Because I'm fat." Skirting the obvious follow-up questions ("Was it at least your buffalo?"), Joe starts inquiring about us.

Joe: "What is your profession?"
Me: "We are writers."
Joe: (genuinely shocked) "No! I think actors. Or FBI agents."

It's about here where I start thinking that Joe should be the best man at my future wedding. I mean, I really can't explain the rush you get when a Vietnamese person assumes you are an FBI agent, but I have to imagine it's akin to the way George Clooney feels every time he looks in the mirror.

My excitement is short-lived though, because the more I chat with Joe, the more I come to understand just how out of touch he is with American life. For example, he mentions going to for all his dating advice – and not in the sarcastic way. And after seeing the Steve Carell/Anne Hathaway film Get Smart, he assumed that everyone in America had a handgun because they "were fun." Finally, when he pointedly asks why all Americans are fat (cute!), I try to explain how in America fresh, healthy food can be more expensive than fattening, processed food. I use McDonald's as an example (of which there are none in Vietnam), and again, Joe is shocked. Somewhere down the line, Joe got it in his head that McDonald's was a very expensive restaurant, "one of the nicest in America." He pulls one of those comically overdone double takes when I tell him that it costs more money to cook a plate of rice, vegetables and fish than it does to buy a Big Mac.

This leads to a long conversation about some of the hardships Brooke and I have faced in trying to find something undisgusting to eat in Hanoi. Joe gives us a few recommendations, at which point Brooke, never afraid to ask the hard questions, acknowledges the Marmaduke in the room and pipes up with, "Do you eat dog?"

A bashful look comes across Joe's face as he answers that yes, he does eat dogs. Everyone eats dog. Remaining true to my non-judgmental attitude, I kind of just nod my head, the way you might while looking at a particularly well-trimmed hedge. Brooke, however, presses on. "But they're so cute! What do they taste like?"

"All different," Joe replies.

"We have a dog as a pet. But you wouldn't like him," Brooke says, showing Joe a picture of Puppy on her iPhone. "He's one of the little fluffy ones."

"Oh!" Joe shouts excitedly before catching himself and continuing more slowly. "Those are the most delicious kind."

And with that – Joe's confirmation that Puppy would be a hit delicacy in Vietnam – I think it's safe to say the final gauzy layer of the cross-cultural veil was torn down. You win, Vietnam. You're fucking crazy. Hand jobs, mixed meat, Buffalo Joe and his John Grisham fantasies – I don't get it, and I probably won't before we leave for Cambodia in three days. But you know what? I want to make this work. So I'm just going to accept you for who you are, common ground be damned.

We arrive at the dock in Halong Bay and Joe walks us out onto the pier. There are about a hundred boats – in Vietnamese they're called "junk" (giggle) – all docked at odd angles. Joe says, "Choose." Fuck yeah, 3.2 million dong (GIGGLE)! That's more like it. Brooke and I choose our junk (GIGGLE) and climb aboard.

Halong junk

Halong junk 1

Halong junk 2

For the next five hours, we have the entire boat to ourselves. Brooke and I have a few beers, and before you know it the two of us and Joe are like old friends. We're laughing, swapping stories about communism and Mad Men, and having a grand old time. When the boat moors at one of the limestone islands so we can go explore a cave, Joe makes an entirely too loud comment about the attractiveness of two late-teen blond girls there with their father. We all laugh – except the father. No matter, we're having a blast. For the first time, Brooke and I can honestly say that unlike most soldiers in the 70's, we are having a terrific time in Vietnam.

Note to hidden charm: You've been Westernized™.


Anonymous Camels & Chocolate said...

My friend's the new PR rep for Papua New Guinea and we've been doing the same:

"Papua New Guinea: We used to eat ya, now we greet ya!"

"Papua New Guinea: DYING to come back."

October 15, 2009 at 5:13:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous juniperjune said...

rofl, good to know that puppy is certified delicious.

October 15, 2009 at 6:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Maddie said...

The day after you were in Halong a junk carrying 32 people capsized in a sudden storm, killing two Britons, a Frenchman, and two Vietnamese.
I'm really glad you and Brooke weren't there that day. I feel somewhat responsible for Vietnam's bad behavior, like its my badly behaved boyfriend and you just don't know him like I do...

October 15, 2009 at 9:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Milk And Honey said...

oh this looks like fun! did tom know what mad men was?

October 15, 2009 at 11:05:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Matt said...

Did you get Buffalo Joe to video your junk jump?

October 16, 2009 at 8:51:00 AM EDT  
Blogger molls said...

Puppy gets cuter every time you post a photo of him.

October 16, 2009 at 6:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Native Minnow said...

So in other words, Puppy should be grateful that you didn't take him along.

October 17, 2009 at 6:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Antelope said...

Everyone knows the tiny versions of things are tastier. Puppy is the Vietnamese version of a Cornish game hen.

October 17, 2009 at 7:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

So, are you a writer for your job now? If so, congrats!

Have a great time in 'Nam.

Now you can say, "I was in 'Nam."

October 18, 2009 at 1:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Dana said...

I give this post a 5-LOL.

October 19, 2009 at 8:53:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Abigail Road said...

I was told once, by a couple Korean girls, that black dogs tasted the best, and white ones were gross. If I ever had the balls to do it, I'd test that statement, because seriously, I'm curious.

November 20, 2009 at 11:09:00 AM EST  

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