Writings from SE Asia


The Hustle (08.02.07)

"Welcome to the (x) guesthouse/hotel. You have any plans for your stay here?"
"Not really, I think we were just going to hang out in Hoi An."
"Oh. When you leave, you leave by bus or by train?"
"Train probably. Or maybe airplane. We don't know yet. Any idea how much that costs?"
"Here's the schedule... look... You want to leave this time? I get the tickets for you right now."
"We haven't really decided yet. We're gonna think about it before we buy."
"You must book soon, otherwise maybe there is no more tickets. Now is Tet, and many people going to visit family."
"We're gonna have lunch and think about it."
"Okay, but you come back later and tell me when."

Later that evening:
"You want me to book tickets now?"
"No thanks, we ended up getting them from a travel agency."
"Why you do that?! (with astonishment and disappointment) I wait for you here very late! You tell me you want tickets but you buy somewhere else!"
"Sorry, we figured they we all the same."
"Why you buy somewhere else?"
"Well, we were in town, and finally decided on taking the train, so we bought them."
"But I wait here for you!" (crushed look on face, glint of anger in eyes)
"We didn't know you were waiting for us. We didn't mean to waste your time." (she works at reception and is supposed to be there all day anyways)

The guilt trip persists relentlessly...

Then the next morning:
"Why are you charging us extra for the room?"
"That the price."
"But you said 8 dollars yesterday. And this sign behind you says 120,000 dong a night."
"That different price." (same same, but different)
"Whatever, it's just a couple dollars extra. Let's just pay and get out of here."

"Why you book with someone else?"
"And you not pay for bottle of water in room."
"Yes, yes we did. Goodbye."

Arriving in Hanoi:
"Welcome to (x) Hotel. You have plans for tour? You come with me and look at tours ...

"Why you not book with me!? I wait here for you!!"

Same same, but different.


In Northern Viet Nam, the weather is a pleasant 75 degrees, the French influence is apparent in fashion and food, and everybody and their mother is a travel agent. Literally. It's all about the hustle, no shame in it. You get what you can. Highball a price and if the tourist is stupid enough, they pay it. They're rich, they can afford it. More for me. So what if the price is listed on the sign behind me. No shame. I gotta get mine. Always on the hustle...

We wake up in Hoi An to somebody knocking on our door. "It's 9 o'clock." -"We don't need anything. Thanks!"... We finally get up, and find a note under our door. It's Iris from Israel. Oh yeah, we had told her where we were staying in Hoi An so that we could meet up with her. Whoops. She wants to meet for lunch though, and she's staying right next door. We decide to walk for town, and a teenager with excellent English skills starts talking to us. Where are you from? How long are you staying here? You like Viet Nam? Is your hair real? What do you do back home? Real smooth like... then slide in the pitch: I don't know if you guys are interested, but my mother is a tailor and has a shop in the market. Cheap but good. I'll give you a ride into town if you want to check out her shop.

Hoi An is a tailor's jungle, from the chic storefronts offering the full-deal wining and dining while you decide on your purchase, to the narrow back alleys laden with blue tents, under which nimble-fingered needle-workers labor composed in cerulean silence. As you weave in between towers of fabrics piled up from pin-striped to paisley, and look through all of the latest fashion catalogues to find the style of suits, shirts, slacks or winter coats that you want them to duplicate, then select the cotton, cashmere or silk that you desire... you can tell that this torsion of textures, threads and needles, it is truly survival of the fittest. 2 french-cuffed shirts for 25. 60 bucks for a tailored suit... why not?! Duplicating your favorite jeans, shirt or shoes poses no problem at all to these experts. Personally design your own dress or coat and they'll make it. Get your measurements this afternoon, and pick them up tomorrow morning.

I can only imagine what it would be like to be a slave to fashion in this city...

Overwhelmed by the hustle, and not really in the mood for shopping, we check out the selection and decide to come back the next day. Okay, but you buy with me? Pinky swear? The next day we are renting bikes to explore the islets and artisan communities outside of the city proper, and the girl who is renting us the bikes says, "You looking for suits? My sister has a shop in the market, she give you good price." Always on a hustle. We check it out and it looks good, so we get measured up, and put in the order. At $170 for a 3-piece suit, 4 nice silk and cashmere shirts, and a winter coat, and for once I don't even feel like haggling. Niles, I know the white pin-stripped is sick, but you'd look like a straight pimp in it. Go for the cream. The flower print french-cuffed even works with it. I go for clean, pin-stripped, dark grey with a pale violet shirt.

Biking around in Hoi An is laidback and relatively calm, so it was interesting that we saw two motorbike accidents in one day (none of which was too serious). Venturing out on the islets was great fun, seeing fishermen using gigantic net contraptions with four poles spaced 50 feet apart which were lowered into the water to rest, and pulled up later for the catch. Everywhere we go, children flock us asking for money or to sell things. Instead, we carry around pockets of candy to give them. They always smile at the consolation prize. The look on the faces of the orphan children in the Highlands when Niles handed out coconut candies to them was one of joy in all of its purity.

The beach there was beautiful as we walked through groves of low palm trees casting their wavy shadows on the sand, providing a welcoming umbrage. Nature's red carpet. When we approached the water, we found big, glistening, black puddles scattered in the sand. Under the straw roofed umbrellas we sat down on beach chairs, and the boy bringing us pineapple smoothies explained that there had been an oil spill in the South China Sea... but that it was a couple of days ago, so it was okay to swim now...

I went down to the shore to record the surf. Its fierce crashes drowned out a constant high pitched scream.

On the beach we are targets for vendors selling beautifully crafted necklaces and bracelets, others selling fresh mangos, dragon fruit, soursop, and pineapples. Iris is a prime target: her big heart just won't let her tell people 'no' sometimes. She pleads with an old lady trying to pawn off gum and cigarettes to leave her alone, placing her hands together in front of her chest and bowing slightly. Attention is a sign of progress. She stays. I promise to Lavi that if I can possibly squeeze down another pineapple, that she is the only one I will buy it from. She says "shit happens" and "tough shit". I tell her I can only offer her a smile. She says "smile outside, crying inside". After a few seconds, she cracks a smile.

We leave town after more guilt trip laid on by the lady at the hotel over not booking the tickets with her, and head north on a sleeper train to Hanoi. We enter the overbooked couchette, with 7 people on 6 beds. Over the next 14 hours we learn some useful phrases in vietnamese, eg. "Doy ngii no qua dat tien" ("I think that is too expensive") from the young vietnamese man with rocky English. Also travelling in our compartment is a delightful older dutch couple with a raunchy sense of humor and a flair for life. We compare the US and Canada, and discuss literature and creative writing, which they find astonishing that there are classes for in school.

Shortly into the ride a ticket woman passes the door and offers us westerners the opportunity to upgrade to a "soft" cabin with four beds, instead of the hard beds we had, for the exclusive price of 400,000 dong. Considering that we had bought our tickets for about 500,000 dong (32 USD) we thought it ridiculous. The dutch lady keeps prodding at the woman jokingly, saying "150,000 dong - 1 bed". The woman says 300,000. The dutch lady says, "Okay 100,000 dong". The woman doesn't like this. I tell everybody that I remember the "soft" couchette only costing a few dollars more than the hard one, so I tell the lady that I know exactly how much it says in the price list, and I offer her 3 dollars a bed. She laughs hysterically looking at her friend. I tell her again, I know how much it is listed as, and we'll give her exactly that. There's nothing in it for her if she can't hustle us, so she leaves in search of some other westerners who find sleeping in the same room as common vietnamese folk displeasing. We laugh and wager she'd return.

We awake to cigarette smoke and dawn glimmering over the watery rice-fields bearing mirrored ridges of the hills beyond. The remainder of the ride is over flat plains near the ocean, surrounded by limestone hills.

Hanoi startled me at first. We sat down outside of a french-looking cafe at a wireframe table with a tablecloth draped neatly over it. The woman next to us was wearing a two-piece business suit - something we hadn't seen in 2 weeks. A guy rode up on a motorbike who looked like the Asian version of Michael Jackson, a walking endorsement of the "whitening lotion" that is so commonly sold in SE Asia. Whiter is better. Many of the girls even carry around sleeves which they put on before climbing on their scooters, so that they won't tan. The face masks they wear cover their mouth and nose, leaving only the eyes peaking through to the world under their brimmed hats.

Travelling can be overwhelming at times, especially if you show up in a country with only vague ideas of what you want to do and where you want to go. But knowing somebody where you are going helps you to ground yourself, giving you a pivot point in the surrounding chaos of the new place. We hooked up the first night with Hang, a friend of my linguistics buddy Landon, and she was a joy to be around. She took us to meet her friend, an American man, serious and insightful, who after working for a NGO in Vietnam in the 60s, was motivated by a profound sense of guilt to come back to work for the Global Village Foundation. He enjoys his work, and it helps him to deal with his ghosts. Hang invited us to her home, and allowed us to play with her instruments joyfully while she adorned us with hats and scarfs, her photographic subjects for future paintings. She showed us around the city with her sister, and took us to eat at the "Restaurant Eat Delicious" (translation of the VN name), an immense restaurant whose tables indoor and out had to total 300+. Hang also took us to experience Bia Hoi, the only beer in Viet Nam on tap. It's pretty piss beer, but then again, so is most Asian beer. The great thing is that at 2,000 dong a pint, you can buy 8 beers for a dollar. Needless to say, Niles was thrilled. It also gave me the opportunity to break out one of my few premeditated jokes: What do sex in a canoe and Asian beer have in common? .... It's fucking close to water.

After booking a tour with someone other than the hotel we were staying at, and thus incurring a higher room rate and a shameless guilt trip, we set off for Ha Long Bay . Driving out of the city, we made our way across a long narrow bridge which connected the banks of the expansive Red River, named for not for the color of the mud, but rather for the pharaoh-esque curse it was plagued by. As we cross the bridge, I can only vaguely see the faint outlines of the buildings beyond, grey objects on white background. Nothing farther. The pollution can't tell when it has passed the city limits either. Even out in the middle of Ha Long Bay, on the modern triple-decker boats, with ancient-looking sails to prey on tourists' predisposition for exoticism, the pale yellowish haze doesn't leave the horizon. Only a gradation of smog creeping up the dome of the sky, from grey to blue.

Pollution aside, Ha Long Bay is majestic. The limestone monoliths jut sharply out of the water like dorsal plates of a prodigious stegosaurus almost drown by the tides time. Their sides have been chiseled down, straight down from the curved top to the depths below. They remind me of a fleet of giant dolphins jumping up along side the boat as we make our way to hollow islands where wondrous grottos teethe stalagmites and stalactites to join earth with the underworld.

After exploring a cave whose main attraction was a fallice shooting out of a formation (lit red), we jumped in kayaks and explored the bay on our own. Upon spotting another island across the way that actually had a beach, Niles and I made it our goal to make it over there, drink a beer, and kayak back to the cove in the hour we were given. Despite the fact that our kayak was veerying hard right, we made it over in record time. Hustle time. We walk up the beach to the beverage stand. A man emerges from a back room and the Aussies in front of us ask for 2 beers. The sign to the right lists the beers - 10,000 dong a piece. The man behind the counter says 50,000 for two. The Aussies ask if he's serious. He says 25,000 a piece. The Aussies say, "Screw this, we can get it for 15 on our boat." I give it a shot, and the man refuses to budge. We say the sign says 10,000. He says the sign isn't valid anymore, the price now is different. Same same, but different. We're not playing his game, so we leave. We head over to another stand around the corner, where a teenage boy with an apron is standing. We ask for a couple beers. He says 20,000. The sign on the refrigerator behind him says 10,000 per beer. That makes sense. He takes out the beers and puts them on the counter. "40,000 dong" Wait, what? We tell him the sign behind him says "20,000". He says the sign is no good. I say it's false advertising then, and I make my way around the counter motioning that I'm gonna rip up the sign. He takes a butcher knife and x-es out the sign. I cheer him on. Do it! Do it if it's not correct. He buckles. 30,000. No, 20,000. After spending 10 minutes on the island and still having no beer, we don't have the time, so I play the game. Okay, 25,000. 30,000. 25,000 - good for me, good for you, I say. He agrees. He takes my 50 and doesn't have gives me a twenty back. I say, no, 5 more. He looks in his wallet and can't find any 5,000 currency. He looks up at me, down at his wallet again, then pulls out 10,000 more, a clear look on his face was one of a battle against his will as tosses it down on counter. 20,000 dong - Good man, I tell him. You did what's right. He looks defeated. There's always next time.

We made our way back to the cove where we docked on the big boat to watch the sunset which I enjoyed all the way from 1/80 sec. to 2" shutter speeds. The whole day was filled with amazing sights such that I snuck through to break my previous record set in County Kerry, Ireland for the most pictures I've ever taken in a day. Old record: 322 - New record: 352. I think I even asked some of the others on the boat to take my camera away from me, because everywhere I looked, I couldn't stop clicking.

At night, the fleet of ancient-looking boats with their faded red, fish-fin sails rest gently on the placid water, barely moving. The lights on the boats barely distorted ripples in the water. Inside the boats we enjoy the merriment with our fellow travelers, all in their late 20s/early 30s: 4 Canadian med students who are in VN doing part of their project for school, 2 Austrian guys who own an IT company, a funky Austrian couple, and a german couple (who didn't say anything and looked unhappy the whole trip). The Canadians decide to teach us the best game EVER. To start, each player writes the name of a famous person on a few pieces of paper, and put them in a hat. It's like speed charades, except the first time through, you are allowed to use words. The members on your team try to guess as many of the people as possible in 1 minute, then the next team goes. Then when all of the names have been done, you throw them back and start round two, which permits only 1 word to be spoken, and is 30 seconds long. Round 3 doesn't allow any words, but by that time you're already familiar with the names so it's easier to get them fast. It's all about speed in this game, and it is loads of fun. I know you're thinking, "Charades... not so cool." but after you start the game, you'll love it too. You'd be surprised what people have to go through to describe names like "Dick Van Dyke", or how to act out Saddam Hussain (the winner used a stair as a prop while asphixiating himself...)

I wake up early the next morning to go up to the top deck to take pictures before sunrise. The moon smiles gently, and cone-hatted women in small rowboats drift by. The water is so still that there is no lapping of waves against the hull. The tripod rests steady. After sunrise, I go down to our room where Niles is still asleep, and crash on the bed again. I open my eyes to see Niles opening the shutters to our room. I look out at water-level to take pictures. In my lens, a small rowboat approaches, with a pretty Vietnamese girl inside. As she gets closer, we can see she's selling water/beer/wine. You buy something? I reach out and bring a refreshing liter of cold water through our window, without leaving bed.

Back in the densely filled streets of Hanoi, Niles and I look for a shop. We get to the street a Canadian exporter of tribal goods had told us about. "Yeah, there's aboat 4 musical instrument shops over on Hang Man street." We turn the corner to the most utterly enjoyable afternoon of my trip so far. I wander into shops filled with dark-wood and string instruments that I've never seen before in my life. I am enchanted by gourd flutes with bamboo drone pipes. I pick up some singing bowls and play around with different sizes, determining which tones are perfect intervals. Long bridges with only 2 strings with the bow imprisoned perminantly between the them. One stringed instruments with bowls that you cup to your chest, using it as a resonant body. Crisp and cutting sounds of thin-reed metal jews harps. Bamboo flutes. Dried fruit with tiny seeds inside turned shakes with the most delicate and magical sound to them. Beautiful bronze Buddhist bells with bolt nuts brilliantly filling the role of clapper. Niles and I are playfully experimenting with the sounds one can possibly make with the jews harps (an instrument that absolutely never runs out of amusement), when we look over on the ground and notice rocks of different sizes lined up in a row. No, it can't be. We ask the girl working, and she gives us the go ahead. Niles picks up the mallet, and drops it on the rock. The purest of rings chimes out of the rock. Rock music. These huge slabs of rock, ranging from 12"-20", are a special kind of rock found in an archeological dig from 2500 ago that have an astoundingly graceful resonnance. I wanted to buy them straight up, but the set of 8 cost about 6,000 dollars. So instead I just pulled out my microphone, and sampled them (with her permission of course). You really have to hear it to believe it. The original Rock Music.

After buying 20 instruments that afternoon, plus one djembe drum for our most gracious host Hang, I was ecstatic. Exploring these unknown sounds was a vivid dream that I always knew was so intrinsic to my being. Sometimes we forget, but doing what comes naturally can often bring us back home.

I reluctantly shipped the instruments back the next day (Vietnamese post doesn't have insurance or tracking numbers, but I'm told it is extremely reliable), then almost got hustled by a motobike driver trying to charge me 2 bucks for 8 blocks (something which would generously run a quarter), before rushing off to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. On the way to the airport, I had wanted to get one last thing in Vietnam: A sample of the horns in traffic. The horns there are ridiculously cool. They aren't the annoying tritone ones that all US horns have. They have various arrays, from alternating perfect fourths, to root jumping an octave back to root then up again to 7th, and the coolest of all, the delays. The standard delay is one note which repeats itself while gradually fading out, kind of like Chevy Chase sinking a putt in "Caddy Shack" (nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh). It surprised me at first to hear one of these, as it sounded like a hover car out of The Jetsons. Niles was incredulous when he heard it too. Then there is the alternating 3rd delay, which is pretty fancy too. Sticking my microphone out of the window as we taxied to the airport, I managed to get lots of little motorbike horns, and one alternating 3rd delay right up close! I don't know yet what I'm going to do with it, but it's definitely going in a mix somewhere.

After 2 1/2 weeks in Vietnam, we walk through the terminal to leave to Siem Reap via Bangkok. But before leaving the Land of Hustle, there was of course, the ultimate hustle. After checking in at the airport, after waiting in lines to go through customs and departure, we are about to go through the metal detectors, when two men with green commy uniforms check our passports.

"Have you paid the airport tax?"
"What airport tax?"
"You have to pay $15 to get into the terminal."
"We paid the taxes when we bought our ticket."
"No, that's different ( same same).
"Aw crap. This is bullshit. Oh well, at least we won't have to deal with this hustle anymore... or at least until the next time we visit Vietnam."

Tam biet... for now.


PS. The commies even made Niles throw out his rusted over anti-aircraft bullet he found at Skull Hill. You know, you don't want people shooting down planes from the inside...