The Vietnotebook (Pt.1/3)
There's only way to see the world: As dirty as possible.
In August of 2018, my roommate Griffin and I booked travel from Los Angeles to Vietnam with the idea of riding motorcycles through the jungle for a month. The only plans made in advance were how to get there, and how to get home. Everything else was to be determined by the open road.
Along the way, I maintained a hand-written journal—selected & edited here—which now serves as a guide map to both our geographical journey across this diversely beautiful country, as well as for the more important psychological transformation that occurred within.
Vietnam changed me; as it has many others, for different reasons.
My experience, however, was my own.
I think of it everyday.
"Riding fast, no longer clean. Vietnamese Steve McQueen."
Day 1 – Sunday, September 30th
It feels like a 'day one'.
Even though we left Los Angeles on the 28th, our arrival to Hanoi came only as of late last night—after eighteen-hours of travel by way of Guangzhou, China.
By the time we got to our hostel it was close to midnight, but for all we cared it could have been 5am, for we had just safely crossed to the other side of the world! And that meant it was time to celebrate. Speedily so, we dropped our bags inside our four-bunk co-ed hostel room and found an ATM outside to pull cash from. Then it was off to finding an open watering hole for a proper cheers among several beers. By the time the tab was finally dropped at our table, we had transitioned into the early hours of the next morning and it was then I suddenly realized I had left my debit card in the ATM outside. Unfortunately, when I went back to look, it had unsurprisingly vanished.
Good morning, Vietnam!
I have traveled here with my good friend and roommate, Griffin Nichols, on what I would call 'a most spontaneous whim'. See: five-or-so weeks ago, back in early August, I had been bumming out hard in Los Angeles. At that time, Griffin was in New York City working a gig for Fashion Week, and had also been feeling more of the same. The best word I can use would be 'stagnation'—a suffocation of the familiar. My breaking point came on August 21st when I awoke with an overwhelming feeling that if some form of change wasn’t known to me by the end of the day, I might just fucking lose it for good.
So- at 5:17am, I texted Griffin.
An hour later, we had flights booked to Hanoi for $403 USD.
Fast forward to now: it's 10am on September 30th, and Griffin and I are presently sat at a two-top table on the “outside patio” of our hostel’s rooftop here in the capital city of Hanoi, Vietnam, having just concluded our first meal: a complimentary hostel breakfast consisting of two eggs; two fluffy slices of white bread toast; one crepe; one banana; and a high-voltage dose of Vietnamese coffee—black (of course).
The journey has officially begun, and with it, the cleansing of my observational eye.
The first thing to catch my attention was an unlit neon-sign behind the bar inside, advertising “Balloon Night: Only 15K. 4-8pm. Buy 2 for 1 vodka mixer.” These must be the same type of balloons I saw at the bar last night—filled with nitrous-oxide, à la Whip-Its. Two men wearing business suits were sucking them down till their eyes rolled into the back of their skulls, mouths agape. From an outsider's perspective it looked miserable...yet they kept doing it. But who was I to judge when I myself knew the procedure all to well. As I watched the balloons lift these men from the ground—and from their troubles—I figured that if someone wanted to steal from these two men, perhaps even myself, that they (or I) could have easily.
But then perhaps the balloons were taking care of that already.
As my eyes continue to wander this terrace where we are currently sat, I am silently informed that Griffin and I do not belong among these other guests for the fact that they do not look anything like us.
The difference is suddenly obvious—one of status.
Not of socioeconomics, but the world itself.
These people are quite simply put: TRAVELERS—certified by sandals and sweat-stained tank tops over golden skin. A traveling man wears a beard; his female counterpart, a messy bun bleached by the sun.
I look down now at my own black Levis and plain-white t-shirt.
My disgustingly clean plain-white t-shirt.
My clean clothes from across the world...
I need to get dirty.
Perhaps we all do.
Day 2 – Monday, October 1st
9:45am - Awfully hungover, but crawling my way back to life after just finishing a repeat of yesterday's complimentary breakfast here at the hostel.
Besides getting shit-faced last night, yesterday we bought motorcycles for dirt cheap. Mine was $280 USD out the door; Griffin's, $250. They are both a couple of 'Frankenstein-ed' Honda Wins, scrapped together with cheap Chinese parts. In shopping around, our requirements were simple: only that they both work (at least for now). The practically-costing-us-nothing part was just an added bonus, which only goes to show how much weight the US Dollar holds here (1 USD= ~23,000K in Dong).
With our modes of transportation in place, the journey can thus officially begin. I am happy to report that I am already feeling a bit dirtier.
In other news, the air in Hanoi smells like a mixture of food oils and garbage; Griffin is still sleeping in our room downstairs; and I am unable to further form a coherent string of words.
Fucking booze, man.
Day 4 – Wednesday, October 3rd
6:45am. We are currently in Tu Le, which is about halfway between Hanoi and our next destination, the northern mountain town of Sa Pa.
The majority of yesterday was spent in the saddle. We left Hanoi around 9am and didn’t arrive here in Tu Le until sundown, around 5:45pm. While the riding was some of the best I’ve ever done, it wasn’t without setbacks. The first coming almost immediately after we got on the road, when we quickly learned that the main motorways here in Vietnam do not allow motorcycles. Luckily, Griffin had bought a Vietnamese SIM card while we were out yesterday and was able to pull up Google Maps to show us a thirty-minute detour we needed to take to get back on the road.
Then, sometime in the afternoon, as we were riding, I witnessed a bolt fall of Griffin’s bike. Or at least I think that’s where it came from. I only heard it, then saw it bouncing toward me across the broken pavement. Like an idiot, I said not a word—a mistake I am now keeping to myself, because not long after Griffin’s engine was suddenly hanging off his bike!
Thankfully, a large portion of the Vietnamese population depends on motorbikes for transportion, and as such, mechanic shops are EVERYWHERE. When Griffin's engine broke loose, we had only been ten minutes from the last repair shop, and within half an hour (and 10k in repairs) we were back on the dusty trail.
Today, we will finish the trek to Sa Pa.
I am looking forward to more good riding.
P.S. Griff named his bike “Don Chixote”, so I have cleverly named mine “John Phogerty," singer of “Photunate Bun”.
Day 5 – Thursday, October 4th
Our activity of yesterday consisted, for the most part, of a five hour ride from Tu Le to the mountain town of Sa Pa. On the backroads, we passed rice fields greener than Oz; spotted locals living in wooden shacks gripped to the mountainside, reminding me of our human ancestors of days past. The beauty on this road could fill this entire notebook, but an attempt to do so would only lessen what is real.
The one thing I will speak of is the Vietnamese children; especially of these mountain regions.
It seems that they are still pure.
Free from Western pretension, they smile and wave at us when we ride past; so I smile and wave back. Who knew such a simple interaction could bring such joy!
So simple, so pure.
Life is suffering—but it’s moments like these that remind me it's beautiful as well.
It’s now currently 8:09am, and Griffin and I just finished another complimentary breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, bread, and black coffee. We are sitting at our hostel’s café on the edge of Sa Pa's mountain range, so perfectly named ‘The Café In The Clouds’. The view is out of this world. I couldn’t imagine a better start to the day.
Thus far, we have been extremely fortunate when misfortune has shown its face. Yesterday, I joined Griff in the breakdown club, but was extremely fortunate to have broken down at the beginning of Sa Pa, where my backpack flew off my bike due to being rattled free by the harsh nature of the mountain roads. Immediately, I pulled over and retrieved it; thankfully still intact. But when I tried to start my bike back up, the engine seized. After trying to get it to start for five or so minutes, I was forced to push it almost two kilometers to a mechanic, who, with technical speeds of superiority, soon dismantled my engine to reveal the culprit: a broken nut, which had jammed the engine from turning over. Good news is that after four hours, and 650,000K in Dong, I have been deemed road worthy once again.
Today, is a mellow day. We will stroll through Sa Pa, and then later ride to the Lao Cai train station (a mile south of the border of China) to catch a 9pm train ride with our bikes back to Hanoi, so that tomorrow we can commence the three-week journey south to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh).
At this moment, all is right in the world.
I am dirty.
I am content.
Day 6 -Friday, October 5th
As of 4:30am this morning, we have successfully landed back in Hanoi, where we originally started, thanks to an overnight train ride from the town of Lao Cai, just one mile south of the Chinese border. At 8:55pm last night, after a two-hour drinking session with two, new older-friends – one from Ireland; the other, Scotland – we boarded a passenger train car in the shadows of the night, guided only by the small kerosene lamp of the young man working the platform.
Our bikes had been dropped off and stored in cargo hours earlier, and as I walked the train platform with my one bag on my back, I felt like I had suddenly traveled back in time—as if I had been dropped back to the days of war and had become a soldier boarding his train destined for death. All I could hear around me were the sounds of jungle insects; the high-pitched locomotive whistle, like a kettle of tea; and the voice of the Vietnamese woman making travel announcements over the loud speaker, which we could not understand.
A moment later, and I suddenly felt like Harry Potter, rushing to board the Hogwarts Express.
I thought to myself that these identifications were quite the opposites, and still am wondering what that dichotomy meant.
Once boarded, Griffin and I were able to choose an open-sleeping car with four bunkbeds. Luckily, no one else joined us. In fact, I actually think we were the only ones in our sleeper car as I ended up spending some time in the hallway filming out the window, and did not, at any time, spot another soul on board.
Our cabin was dark and built of ancient wood. Everything creaked. Everything smelt of must. I am almost sure it had been a cabin for soldiers back in the war.
Either way, I found it the proper sleeper-train experience: non-luxurious, totally unclean.
I even killed a small cockroach on my pillow, marking it official.
Because our return to Hanoi happened so early in the morning, it was to a still-sleeping world. We rode directly from the train station to a hostel in hopes of snagging a room for a few extra hours to snooze, but were told that check-in couldn’t be done until 7am. Until that time, we were allowed the use of their lounge on the sixth floor, where I was successfully able to obtain another hour of shut eye.
By 7am, we were up again and ready for the day, already changing plans. The original idea was to head East to Ha Long Bay, however we soon realized that this route would cut at least two days out of our time needed to get south to Ho Chi Minh. Thus, we scrapped the detour, and instead decided to gear up for our long trek south, aiming for a first stop in Ninh Binh.
However, before leaving Hanoi, we decided to make a special stop for breakfast.
At some point during President Obama’s tenure, he made a trip to Vietnam where he also made a guest appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, Parts Unknown; the outcome of which is now famously documented.
In a small, local hovel, the President of The United States shared a meal with the late Mr. Anthony Bourdain; and now Griffin and I have too.
Our meals were the ‘Combo Obama’ – one Bun Cha; 1 seafood roll; 1ea Hanoi Beer bottle – all for a small price of $85k.
But the raddest part was that the restaurant had put a glass case around the table where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain had once shared a meal together as men; chairs and dishware included.
Another reminder of how important it is to travel dirty.
To discover the parts unknown.
Cheers to you, Mr. Bourdain...Rest easy.
Day 7 – Saturday, October 6th
Before I talk about today, I’d like to first add a post script to yesterday:
After the 'Obama Combo', we rode from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and arrived by the early afternoon. Our accommodations were a private bamboo hut nestled within a giant alcove of limestone.
As soon as we got to the hostel, we had a quick bite; then hopped back on the bikes for 3km to catch a local boat tour through some of Vietnam's famous caves. Out of three routes available, we chose the one with nine caves and three temples. Each canoe held four guests, plus the local Vietnamese tour guide. Ours spoke not a word the entire time.
Since Griff and I only made two, we paired up with a gentleman from New Zealand named Jeremy, and an outdoors-y lady from Denver named Meredith. Jeremy was with his family: wife, son, and two daughters. They took the other canoe, floating next to ours.
During our three-hour tour, Jeremy explained to us that his family likes to take long vacations every few years; their last being 18 months long! They had lived in France and Spain, during which time his kids enrolled in local schools. Jeremy proudly told us how much confidence his children gained from the exposure of these experiences, and I myself witnessed it firsthand. His kids were hardly kids at all. In fact, I realized they were better adults than most I myself know. These were personable, outgoing members of society. Perfectly well-rounded. The recognition of which first made me envious, until I came to accept that it was simply good enough for me to recognize that I was living in a world where families like Jeremy's exist.
I wondered then if my own could one day be like his. Would I ever have the balls to create an opportunity for my children to be travelers of the world like Jeremy's?
Who I would be if I had grown up dirty like this?
The “boat” tour lasted three hours, and was nothing short of being otherworldly. I use this adjective only after finding out the latest King Kong film was shot here.
By the time we returned to the hostel in Ninh Binh, darkness had fallen, and we ended up making the acquaintance of a Swiss-girl named Selena, and her hilarious German friend named Peter. Together, we shared homemade rice wine, a few rounds of cards, and bouts of laughter.
I called it a night at 10:30pm, falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
As for today:
I believe we have finally obtained official membership status as Vietnamese road dawgs.
At some point in the late afternoon, during our 330km ride from Ninh Binh to Pho Chau, the environment seemed to transform into a set-piece for the film Apocalypse Now as a burning-red sun lazily hung on the horizon, behind a thick sheet of smoky haze. In Vietnam’s depictions in film, I have always thought this blood sun to be a product of war, since every film I’ve seen with Vietnam as a backdrop has been about the subject.
Bombs, flame throwers, napalm.
The burning of the jungle.
While I know that war was for sure a contributor to this Apocalypse Now effect, my time on the road today showed me that Vietnam’s blood sun is also due to the Vietnamese people's way of burning trash as means of disposal.
Along all roads are these mini fires of trash, left completely unattended on the sides of the road.
I saw hundreds.
Arriving in Pho Chau at sundown, we checked into a hostel with a private double-bedroom and found a local family to cook us dinner. As soon as we sat at the small plastic table, the mother and her son (I'd guess about age nine) asked us if we wanted chicken, in extremely broken English.
At least I think that’s what we were asked, because after replying ‘yes’ to whatever question they did ask, the father suddenly appeared from the back kitchen with a LIVE chicken flailing in his grip.
Right past us he walked; seeming to me in slow motion as I caught his cunning smirk and smiling eyes above the thrashing of the panicked bird.
Seconds later, the poor creature was thrown into a pot of boiling water.
A few more, and it was no longer amongst the living.
A few seconds after that, and it was no longer a chicken.
Meanwhile, the father’s grin had remained all throughout this process.
I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen a man so proud.
What was delivered to us a few minutes later was a steaming bowl of chicken broth and chicken parts; plus a side of white rice, veggies, tofu, and some sort of odd nut (or maybe it was a root?) that exploded in your mouth.
It wasn’t my favorite meal here, but for sure the most authentic.
Oh- and I also snapped their chair in half while trying to lean back for a better view of the chicken massacre.
I tried to pay them for it, but they wouldn’t let me.
Day 8 – Sunday, October 7th
Today's ride from Pho Chau to Phong Nha was out of this world! Probably the best riding I’ve ever done; and perhaps ever will. If there's a descriptive word for this ecosystem here: it's 'lush'. Everywhere you look it’s green; and I literally mean everywhere.
To describe all the things, I would need all the words.
Instead, I can only urge you to come here yourself.
I feel like Indiana Jones.