Thursday, November 12, 2009

Part 3: Halong Bay

The currency in Vietnam is called dong. I defy even the most mature readers of this blog not to snicker at that. No? Ok, how about in context? Keep your hands on your dong at all times. It’s so hot my dong is sweaty. One dong is good, but a million dongs are better...

Anything? I could go on.

After a day of touring around Hanoi, Huy and the driver were scheduled to drive us out to Halong Bay. For a relative few number of dongs (anything?), we’d be spending the night on our own personal junkboat, with bedroom and a crew of six. But first, we had to get there.

The ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay is three and a half hours long. Which would be fine, except for that driving thing we talked about. Specifically, the driving like an asshole thing. And as every non-car owner like ourselves can attest, the only thing worse than being on the road with an asshole driver, is being in the backseat with one.

Remember how they used to depict driving in old black and white movies? Hands at 10 and 2, jerking the wheel back and forth to convey movement? And you’d always see that and say, who drives like that? Nobody drives like that!

The Vietnamese drive like that.

Their pathological need to pass each other on the highway means that you spend roughly 2 of the 3 ½ hours in the opposite lane, driving directly into head on traffic, in a never-ending game of chicken with a variety of diesel-fueled vehicles. And when we weren’t actually passing, we were checking to see if we should be passing.

But if the point of this trip was to see and experience things we’d never see in the States, this ride offered up some gems, including (but not limited to): a live calf roped to the back of a scooter, a massive gift shop emporium staffed entirely by victims of Agent Orange, and a coal mining town so completely covered in soot it would be invisible by night.

Along the way, Huy educated us about Halong Bay. In 1994, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added it to its list of World Heritage Sites, classifying it as one of the 33 most beautiful bays in the world…

Hold on. If you’re anything like me, you might stop Huy right there. What the hell is a World Heritage Site? Why such a weird number for a list? How many beautiful bays could there possibly be in the world? Will there be wine on the boat?

Basically, you can expect two things out of visiting a World Heritage Site: 1. It’s going to be mind-bogglingly, ridiculously, shockingly beautiful. 2. There will be a mind-boggling, ridiculous, shocking number of tourists there.

Which is why whipping out the extra dong for a private guide and driver is crucial in a place like Vietnam. The dock was TEEMING with tourists when we arrived. Hundreds of junkboats waited for gaggles of hillbillies (Europe and Australia have hillbillies, too) to finish rummaging through fanny packs and taking pictures of toilets before they could get going. Not us. Not with trusty Huy in charge.

The second we got to the dock, we hopped on the boat. The second we got on the boat, the boat departed. The second the boat departed, we got lunch. The second we got lunch, we were sipping wine. I’m telling you, there is no other way to do this touristy stuff.

A quick word about our boat. As I mentioned before, we had the entire thing to ourselves, which was a little ridiculous considering the vessel offered a huge upper deck with ten deck chairs, three guest rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a crew of six. We tried to compensate for our guilt by being extra nice to the crew, who couldn’t have understood us less if we had meowed our appreciation.

Once our junkboat headed into the bay, we started to understand what the hubbub is all about. I mean, you just can’t believe what you’re looking at. Describing the beauty of Halong Bay goes well beyond my meager capabilities as a writer. Every picture you take makes you think you should quit your day job and become a professional photographer.

The nerdified version of what Huy told us goes something like this: sometime after the Pleistocene, shifting tectonic plates caused a mountain to collapse and break apart into dense clusters of limestone islands. Each island, covered with thick jungle vegetation, juts out of a very shallow bay, which causes the water to be perfectly flat and calm.

I distinctly remember lying in a deckchair while Crissy napped under a cloudless sky, sipping a glass of wine, listening to the distant gurgle of other junkboats lazily chugging along, and the occasional whistle chirp from the soccer game the crew was watching on a small TV, thinking, “I’m about as off the grid as you can get right now.”

Thankfully, the government limits the number of boats that can go out each day, so it’s incredibly quiet as you glide through this seemingly never-ending maze of ancient geological handiwork. I took so many pictures in the first 10 minutes that I had to be reminded we were gonna be there all day and all night. It was about 3 in the afternoon.

Just before sunset, our boat docked at one of the islands. “We go on a small hike.” Huy informed us. A bottle of wine deep and armed with only shorts and flip-flops, we weren’t sure if this was the greatest idea. Huy assured us we’d be fine.

So we hopped off the boat and huffed up a stone staircase and entered the most gigantic cave I’ve ever seen in my life. As Crissy stood gawking and I fumbled with various low light settings on the camera, Huy told us we should keep moving.

He led us through a small passageway narrow enough for our inner claustrophobics to huff asthma inhalers and say, I think we’ve had just about enough of this nonsense.

And then we stepped into a cave the size of an airport terminal.

Let’s see, how can I describe this, other than tell you I was expecting to find woolly mammoth carcasses around every corner. Gargantuan stalagtites millions of years old poured from the ceiling like 10 ton icicles. The place was so gigantic it looked like something straight out of Epcot Center. I took so many pictures Huy wanted to punch me. About two of them came out.

After the caves, we took one more pit stop at a gorgeous little beach for a sunset dip, before our boat anchored for the night. Crissy and I relaxed on the deck of the boat, reading our books to the soothing creak of old wood and wet ropes. I could hear a crew member softly whistling to himself on a boat 100 yards away.

Soon after our second gigantic fresh seafood meal on the boat, Crissy and I retired for the night, stuffed, relaxed and happy.

We were so relaxed, in fact, that we slept in until 10 am, missing out on the last pit stop we were scheduled to make that morning. Apparently, the crew was too respectful of our sleep to wake us up. “I am sorry, we have to bring the boat back now,” Huy regretfully informed us.

“Not to worry, Huy,” we assured him. We saw plenty. And what we did see was worth every last dong.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Part 2: Hanoi

Here’s the thing about Asia. There are so many freaking people. I mean, there are SO MANY people. Especially in Vietnam. You just don’t understand overcrowding until you get there. And you really don’t understand it until every single one of those people drives a scooter.

We left for Hanoi on Tuesday, October 27th, and were picked up at the airport by an awesome little helmet-haired dude named Huy, who would be our own little personal Dith Pran (a buck for anyone who gets that reference) while visiting the city. In addition to being awesome in every regard, Huy knew the answer to everything. Even things in addition to, “Do you hate Americans?” (The answer, by the way, is not really…but more on that later).

So as soon as we got in the car (oh, we had a personal driver too. we're looking into this here in New York), Huy started reeling off facts about Hanoi. Its 1,000 year old birthday is next year. It’s been occupied by the Chinese, the French, and the Japanese. It's a city of roughly 6 million people. 4 million of them drive scooters.

That last fact is not a joke, nor is it an exaggeration. I think I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s eat-em-up show on the Food Channel when he said, “The first thing you notice about Hanoi is the scooters.” You don’t notice the scooters. The scooters ARE the city. You’re absolutely swarmed by them at all times. They drive on the sidewalks, they drive on the ceilings, they drive up your pantlegs. They lay eggs and multiply at stoplights. They turn up in your soup.

The deal is, the government decided that cars simply weren’t a sustainable form of transportation in a county as engorged with people as Vietnam, which is about the size of California, with nearly triple the population. So they slap huge taxes on the purchase of a car, which are over 100% already, and expected to balloon to 200% next year.

The result, of course, that you’ve got families of five, including toddlers and, yes, infants, riding on scooters, surrounded by millions of people driving scooters like assholes. Oh, by the way, everyone drives like a total asshole. That’s an important detail.

Also, the custom is to always be honking. I’m not kidding. They honk to pass, honk to merge, honk to alert you to their presence, honk if they’re horny, honk if they love Jesus, whatever. Huy told us that’s just how it is. He basically told us they’re not honking at you, they’re honking with you. Which doesn’t make it any less annoying, of course.

But somehow, inexplicably, nobody seems to have discovered road rage yet. This probably has something to do with the fact that they’re all out in the open on scooters, not safely seatbelted into steel boxes on wheels with lockable doors. Or maybe it’s because if they did give someone the finger, they’d poke someone’s eye out. Regardless, when it’s just accepted that everyone’s going to drive like a complete and utter dickhead, I guess there’s nothing to get mad about.

We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, which, in terms of making its clientele feel like turn of the century French aristocracy, is unparalleled. The hotel was built in 1901, waaaay back when the French kicked ass and took names, and all the Vietnamese employees still greet you with a “Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur,” which is cool and weird and fancy and reminds me of the deleted scene from Apocalypse Now Redux.

Huy took us all over Hanoi and answered every question we could throw at him. Over the two days we spent in Hanoi, he took us to the infamous Hanoi Hilton, sent us on a CycloTour through the city’s Old Quarter, walked us through the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum grounds, pointed out 400 year old trees, explained the significance of the Temple of Literature, escorted us to the Water Puppet Theater, all without making us feel tired or annoyed or sick of sightseeing.

And as for that hating Americans question, here’s what Huy told us (by the way, this was corroborated by our Saigon tour guide, Trung, who you’ll meet later): Vietnam is a country with a long history of foreign occupation. The Chinese were there for 1,000 years. The French were there for 100 years. Relatively speaking, the American War (as they refer to it) was just a blip in their history.

Yes it was a very destructive war, and yes the scars of the war are still plainly visible, but generally speaking, the Vietnamese just seem to have moved on. I know it sounds like the naïve optimism of a couple of tourists, but both of our guides were very adamant about this fact.

And for what it’s worth, in the time we spent in that country, not once did we encounter even a whiff of anti-American sentiment. And we’re pretty sure it would’ve been the same even if we hadn’t told everyone we were from Toronto.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Vac-Asian, part 1: Hong Kong

Hong Kong is the most explosively vertical city on earth. That’s not a matter of opinion. More human beings live above the 14th floor in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world. I just had no idea how many freakishly tall buildings they could build in such a tiny space…and we live in Manhattan.

This weekend the ticker taper parade for the World (really?) Champion Yankees was in our neighborhood, and I overheard a drunken Yankees douche, er, fan, blather, “This is the greatest city in the fuckin’ world, bro!” (p.s. the Yankees winning the World Series is about as exciting as Goldman Sachs executives giving themselves billion dollar bonuses…yay, the bad guys won…again!!).

Point is, yes, New York is an awesome city. But I wanted to ask that fan exactly what criteria he was basing his theory on. Because if it’s number of skyscrapers, or impressiveness of skyline, I gotta say, Hong Kong’s got this city beat.

According to the ever wise and reliable Wikipedia-san, Hong Kong has almost two thousand more high-rises than New York City. Two thousand! We’re not talking about dollars or cars or people here. We’re talking about massive structures of steel and girders and glass and lightening rods and millions of people to live inside them.

I mean, I don’t want to turn this into some kind of municipal wiener contest, I’m just saying…for such a small amount of surface area, it’s shocking to see these gigantic economic stalagmites explode upward in such a brazen disregard for nature and gravity and all that is holy. I mean, they have typhoons in this place. Yeah, those are real.

On top of that, the surrounding areas are stacked (stacked!) with mile after mile of public housing that is so singularly unique I wouldn’t shut up about it the whole time we were there. “It’s like Robocop!” I kept exclaiming. Except, of course, sans crime-fighting cyborg with a heart of gold. So I guess it’s nothing like Robocop.

It’s strange, because on one side of the island you’ve got these huge bundles of skyscrapers that throb with the scary futuristic uniformity of a circuit board. And then you go to the other side of the territory (their word, not mine), and…and…

Ok, I should take a step back here. First of all, I have to mention that we were staying with our incredibly generous and hospitable friends the Tiedes, who have relocated to Hong Kong with their two dogs, Prophet and Lester. After a full day of exploring Hong Kong’s money-maker, they took us on a harrowing wrong-side-of-the-road drive around to the back of the, uh, territory, which, inexplicably, looks like the Italian Riveria. I mean, it’s the most incongruous, best-kept secret I’ve ever seen.

So we spent our second day in Hong Kong sunning poolside and sipping vodka lemonades at their private club overlooking craggy cliffs that plunge into turquoise water. There are surf beaches, sandy seafood joints, yachts. It’s crazy. Even if I don’t get to have a yacht, at least it’s nice to be in a place where yachts like to hang out.

Here’s the other weird thing about Hong Kong. When you walk around the guts of the city, which, despite the rampant capitalism is still mighty Chinese, the whole city gives the impression of being built in a treehouse.

That’s because Hong Kong sports some pretty rocky geography, so they just stack all the pubs and restaurants and chicken-windowed shops right up the side of the rocks. There’s actually a moving walkway, called The Escalator, that hauls your fatass right up past level after level of bars and restaurants and chicken-windows. God help our obesity rates when America gets wind of this.

The Tiedes showed our Asia-ignorant asses all over Hong Kong. We drank beer out of bowls, learned how to distinguish between spices that numb and spices that burn, and learned that super rich Chinese people line their security gates with shattered broken glass. And fine, maybe that last one was an isolated incident, but still…it was a learning experience.

To be honest, there’s a good chance that every piece of information I just provided about Hong Kong is completely incorrect. I’m just calling it like I see it. But if there are two things I’m positive of it’s that A. it was an incredible way to launch the journey, and B. it’s near China, right?

Friday, November 6, 2009

pre-trip prep

Our adventure unofficially began the morning of October 20th, when we dropped Franny off at the small commuter airport in Long Island, base operations for Pet Airways. This little entrepreneurial gem was no doubt the brainchild of a group of mustachioed flyboys who decided to make a little extra cash charging $400+ a ticket to fly peoples’ pets across the country in style.

So they outfitted a few single engine planes with a fuselage full of animal cages and a couple flight attendants to refill their vodka tonics, and just like that, a business was born. In our case, shelling out the extra cash to have her stay with Crissy’s mom and stepdad outside of Chicago was half as expensive as 18 days of New York City boarding, and she’d be getting 10 times the attention. Best money we ever spent. Er, top 20, anyway.

When we arrived at the airline counter to drop Franny off, Crissy was so traumatized that one of the employees asked if Franny was moving to Chicago permanently. “Well, not exactly,” I responded, clearing my throat. “We’re going on vacation for a couple weeks.”

Now let me clarify here. My wife has an actual, bona fide phobia of flying, as diagnosed by yours truly, the one sitting next to her on 99.9% of her flights. Admittedly, she’s much better than she was when we first started dating, thanks to a little old-fashioned grit, and a lot of new-fashioned Xanax.

But let me tell you something. My wife’s fear of flying is not a cute little scaredy cat bumpity poo in the planey waney. When that 90-ton winged monster rears up and lurches off the runway in defiance of gravity, something inside Crissy’s primal brain unhinges, and the primordial fight or flight response blares like a siren in her skull. And her inability to do either as the plane rockets into the sky sends her into a writhing, scrambling, eye-bulging, skin-tearing rage for roughly 6 minutes.

Like I said. The Xanax helps.

Anyway, the point is, when it came to Franny boarding her first flight, Crissy was projecting a lot of Xanax-free fear onto our confused puppy, who was actually in great hands with the friendly, helpful employees. Plus, Crissy brought along Franny’s pillow wrapped in one of my stinky t-shirts, so she’d have a familiar scent to keep her calm in case of turbulance.

And to be honest, I’d bet my life that if Franny had her choice of horrors to endure, she’d take a couple bumps in the clouds over the running vacuum cleaner ten times out of ten.

P.S. What, you thought I was gonna lead with the dead body story?

The future is a place of many wonders

We made it. We traveled to the future and back and lived to tell about it. We have many things to report about what you can expect out of mankind in the next 12 hours, including: people will be loud and pushy in the airport, they will be overly paranoid about contracting the swine flu/Sars/ebola, Asian airlines will have a dizzying array of entertainment options to choose from on personal screens…in coach, and food will taste good.

During the course of the 18 days we spent in the future, we experienced expansive cities, mind-boggling swarms of scooters, 10 shots fired by an AK-47, the true resting weight of a 50 lb. boa constrictor, and one dead body.

That’s right. A human corpse.