"No Promises"

I kept hearing this song on the radio in Vietnam, both on stations that mostly played songs in English and on stations that otherwise didn’t seem to play songs in English. I was totally tickled by its borderline nonsensical generic-ballad lyrics, and assumed I was experiencing some Asian boy-band phenomenon. Like:

“I don’t wanna run away,
You’re the one I need tonight.
No promises.
Baby — now I need to hold you tight.
I just wanna die in your arms…

I don’t wanna run away,
I don’t wanna be alone.
No promises.
Baby, now I need to hold you tight, now and forever my love.”

... and, listening, I figured, presumably no one involved in the making of this song is solid on the meaning of “no promises,” right? Like, if I am the only one you want and you want to be with me forever and it is your preference to die in my arms, I think we may be entering commitment territory. I pictured some lithe dudes with asymmetrical haircuts, soulfully crooning lyrics that were written by a computer program.

But then with a free moment I looked it up. And no! The person who is not solid on what “promises” means is actually English pop sensation Shayne Ward. (Although — why I am wasting my time on this is anyone’s guess — according to Wikipedia the song is originally by some dude Bryan Rice; Shayne Ward is merely covering it. And with a classic like this, who can blame him.)

I mean, the brass cojones of this song. “You’re the only one I want — but if by some chance I DON’T drop dead in the midst of this evening’s passionate lovemaking, you know. No promises.”

Anyway this guy and his shifty overtures are huge in Vietnam. And the video is a masterpiece of its genre. What is that girl wearing?

San Francisco giants

So, we are tall people. And naturally we have felt extra-tall when traveling around southeast Asia. Sometimes it comes in handy, like when we need to locate one another in a crowded market or metro station. Sometimes it’s less convenient – Kevin has a collection of lumps on his head from banging it on things. But for the most part it hasn’t been a big deal, and our height has largely gone unremarked.

Until Hanoi, where we arrived to find ourselves CELEBRITIES OF TALLNESS. We’d be picking our way down the street — trying to avoid laying waste to the city’s zillion small sidewalk businesses or tripping over a broken walkway tile and pitching into the path of an oncoming motorbike — and find people poking their friends and pointing at us. Old ladies would make meaningful eye contact with me and point at Kevin, and then gesture way above their own heads. Yes, I would attempt to convey with my answering smile and nod. He is tall!

The best, though, was at the local sights and museums. In the Ho Chi Minh Museum – which is flabbergastingly bizarre, and you should go there – a young woman tailed us for a while, taking our picture when she thought we weren’t looking. One maybe 10-year-old girl came up and very politely asked if she could pose with us for a photo. And several different times we encountered big groups of elementary and middle-school kids on class trips — all in uniform, white shirts with red sailor ties — and they would goggle at us. Then — invariably! — some kid would shout out “Hello!” And we’d shout back “hello!” And then, every single kid would start yelling “hello, hello, hello!” And we would yell back “hello, hello!” And this feedback loop would continue for a bit, with us grinning foolishly at the kids, and the kids obviously getting a huge kick out of discovering and conversing with these huge zoo animals.

With one group we met – in which the kids were slightly older, maybe early high school – several members approached us, one at a time, to measure their height against ours and then say “wow.” One woman, who I think was a teacher or chaperone, squeezed my forearm, and then laughed as if to say “weird, it’s real!”

Strangely, being a traveling sideshow attraction was a really nice experience. I guess because people seemed so psyched, it made for a pleasantly reciprocal-feeling tourist experience. Here we are, checking out your cool city, and here you are, gawking at some of the more gargantuan foreigners you’ve seen lately. We go home and talk about how weird the Ho Chi Minh museum was; you go home and tell your family about how you saw this ENORMOUS dude. Everybody high-five!

It's all about the Ho Chi Mins

Hanoi. As our plane was landing, I’d really done no research, and I had no idea what to expect. A lot of things I’d read suggested that Saigon was really where it’s at, and that Hanoi was more drab, less cultural, less romantic. I wondered aloud to Page if perhaps we were making a mistake by going there, that perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had the time of my life in Hanoi. Something about the city and I really clicked. Clearly, a lot of it was the food, which I’ll get to in a bit. But, it wasn’t just that. There’s something about the city. Nearly everyone who visits stays in the old town area, but it’s not a cordoned off Ghirardelli Square-like contraption, or some Colonial Williamsburg spin-off. It’s very much alive, and no matter how many white-dreadlocked hippy backpackers show up, there’s far more locals. It’s a hive of specialized shops, streets devoted to doorknobs or purses or dried fish, and all that life is spilling out onto the streets at every corner, with vendors, food stalls, and just people hanging out.

Beyond that, there’s a lot else going for it. The city is quite pretty. The lake of the old market area, Hoan Kiem, is beautiful, and there’s a lot of other lakes and parks across town. The city is surprisingly walkable, perhaps the most walkable we’ve been in Asia yet. Everyone we met was tremendously friendly and kind, and it often didn’t feel like like a weird service relationship (which is mostly what you encounter in Asia as a white ATM).

There’s a number of fun activities, too. The Ho Chi Minh Museum, with accompanying hoverport, definitely opened my eyes to the Power of Communism like no other. The Museum of Ethnology was perhaps the best done museum we’ve seen in Asia yet: well organized, informative, crazy awesome structures, and the first place that I felt like I was able to get a grip on what the quilt of cultural-ethnic groups of SE Asia are like. Plus, the 8,000 thirteen-year-old school children there really liked Page. I mean, really.

I’ll probably never forget that Hanoi was where I was introduced to:

  • Cha Ca: Cubes of fish, fried dangerously at your table with mega dill.
  • Banh Cuon: The slippery dumplings with soup and crunchy fried bits of your dreams.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo: Beefy beefy mega-beef noodle comfort soup.
  • Banh My Doner: Contender for Page’s favorite food of the trip. Cinnamon melty fat mayo-spicy goodness.
  • Mien Xao Luon: You didn’t know cellophane noodles could be this hot goody dangerous crab yes.

As well as a ton of amazing renditions of dishes that I already knew.

More than anything, though, my favorite moment in Hanoi was having Bia Hoi Ha Noi on street corners. This is a essentially local, essentially Hanoi thing to do. Thanks to some beautiful happenstance (thanks, Sandals Guy), a Czech brewer introduced beer brewing in Hanoi in 1960 or so, and hit upon a great recipe for a pilsner-like brew that seems to cry, to weep, to be served out of a keg.

So the people obliged. And all over the city, there’s a culture, unlike anywhere else I’ve seen yet in Asia, of Bia Hoi vendors, which just set up shop on a busy street corner, with a stack of red plastic chairs, and serve the beer by the mug, out of the keg, made fresh from the brewery that day, for a quarter a glass.

Every corner is a Zeitgeist, and every corner is full of locals and meanderthals alike. And it’s beautiful. You can just sit on a maze-like street corner of the old town, enjoying some peanuts or sunflower seeds, with your cold mug of clear-yellow-almost-green Bia Hoi Ha Noi, watching the world go by, not a care in the world.

And when the lady asks if you’d like another mug, you’ll say yes.

(Credits: Thank you, Gastronomer.)

Things you cannot transport on a scooter

Not much, man. Vietnam seethes with scooters, and in Hanoi – which, as far as I can tell, is the traffic- and fire-unsafety capital of the world – the locals’ transportational ingenuity seems to know no bounds. Here is an incomplete list of somewhat surprising things we’ve seen go by on the back – or front, or side – of somebody’s motorbike:

  • Five cases of wine.
  • A keg of beer.
  • A ladder.
  • 20 big clear plastic bags, each containing water and two or three sizeable live goldfish.
  • An armoire.
  • A floral arrangement the size of the driver’s torso, plus a huge bunch of 75 or so balloons shaped like ships and cats and stuff.
  • A weed-whacker.
  • Assorted mannequin parts.
  • Several huge bags of concrete.
  • Two dogs. Each approximately 50 pounds, just riding on the seat, one in front of the driver and one behind.
  • Nine full water-cooler jugs of water.
  • Four children.
  • A bowl of soup. That the driver was eating.
  • A stove. Not a camping stove. A regular, full-size, Western-style range.

Things we are waiting to see transported on a scooter.

  • Another scooter.
  • A coffin.
  • Ho Chi Minh.
  • A pool table.
  • A palm tree.
  • Geena Davis.
  • A goat.

When it sinks in that you're living abroad

When you get your hair cut in a foreign country.

Pros: The $5 cut by a very professional stylist compares favorably to the $50 cut you usually get in San Francisco.
Cons: It also comes with an unexpected, semi-consensual 20-minute face massage, with lotion, in a darkened room. (15 minutes in, Page was fairly sure I was being held for ransom.)

Vietnam photo omnibus

Hey friends! If you’re waiting for your Royal Wedding video to load and would like to look at some pictures of noodles or enormous statues of Ho Chi Minh… we’ve got those! Here is Kevin eating really delicious phở, and loving it.

Click here for all of our Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon pictures.

We had a really lovely short visit in Hue, but may not manage to post about it on its own right, so our uproarious captions will have to fill the huge void. Here is Kevin being impatient for his traditional coffee to drip:

Click here for all of our pictures from Hue.

We will definitely be putting up a post about Hanoi, the world’s best place to be killed by oncoming traffic — but you’ll die happy because of how delicious the food is. Here is a picture of two strangers posing by a lewd statue:

Click here for all of our pictures of Hanoi!

Of course, you can always find our most recent — along with our least recent — photos by clicking on the word “Photos” in the black bar near the top of every page. It must be our funny-caption brinksmanship that leads us to call them out separately in this way.

Saigon kick

I think Kevin and I expected to spend most of our time in Vietnam sitting at folding tables on the sidewalk, eating assorted street food. (And, as our pictures will testify, that expectation was close to correct.) I didn’t realize until we got to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon that I didn’t have an advance mental picture of it at all, other than this one, which is obviously not too current.

Even with what felt like zero expectation, Saigon still surprised me somehow. I think partly it was the juxtaposition: The city felt slick and rich after Phnom Penh. It’s pretty leafy and green and full of parks. It’s also boutique land — not just in the main tourist areas (though the emphasis on luxury goods is definitely greater in the tourist areas, and one of the first things I saw upon arriving in the city was a Gucci store), but in the mixed-use, real-life neighborhoods too.

We’d read that locals don’t like to mix with tourists in Saigon, and whether or not that’s true, it occasionally felt accurate to us. One night we went to a restaurant popular with locals; the menu was only in Vietnamese, but we figured we’d point to things that looked good. But the staff were not down with that approach, and instead gestured impatiently for us to choose among several warmed-over, suspicious-looking fish dishes in a buffet, from which none of the locals was eating. Kevin tried, in a friendly way, to make himself understood, but the staff were implacable and indifferent, and we ended up giving up and trying somewhere else. One small failure for our spirit of adventure, but one large victory over e coli, we figured.

Speaking of bacteria: Saigon is the place where traveling really caught up with us, and each of us will probably permanently associate the city with intestinal discomfort. Unfortunately, this was also the city in which we had asked ourselves: Is it really all that important to have a window in your hotel room? So a number of hours were lost in our depressing little bunker, waiting for the storm to pass. (Nothing against windowless hotel rooms, but I think my first windowless hotel room will also be my last. Live and learn.)

But we had some good moments. Like! Wonderful wonderful coffee. The appropriately disturbing War Remnants Museum. A lot of exceptionally delicious food. And the puzzle of the communist-capitalist thing: the palpable commercial bustle juxtaposed with news stories like 'VN Congratulates Cuban Communists’ (Sample snippet: “'The Communist Party and fraternal people of Cuba have made great efforts and gained encouraging results in updating their economic model in order to raise labour efficiency and productivity, promoting fast and sustainable economic development, while firmly defending the revolution’s achievements,’ wrote the Central Committee. 'We strongly believe that the 6th Congress of your Party will create a strong motivation for fast, firm economic development. The Cuban people, under the clear-sighted leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba headed by leader Fidel Castro and President Raul Castro, will overcome all difficulties and challenges and will continue to develop their nation, while successfully building socialism in the free, beautiful and heroic country of Cuba.’” You said it, guys!)

I kept having to shake my head and remind myself: “Right, yes. Communism. With media control.” At the wonderfully weird Reunification Palace, there’s a video about the Vietnam War, which understandably tells the story from the (north) Vietnamese perspective. We ducked in and sat down, appreciating the air conditioning. I spent several minutes nodding along mostly, and then the video voiceover said, in big retro-announcer voice: “Citizens of countries all over the world expressed solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and many American citizens self-immolated in protest of the war.”

Media control is something I find really scary, but it’s sort of awesome that they put that assertion in the English-language version of this video. They could have left it out, but no! We say Americans self-immolated, and we don’t care who hears it.

The basic (non-) structure of our trip has been that we get to a new place and then decide where to go next, so in Saigon we twiddled our thumbs a lot, debating. Down to the Mekong delta area? Up to gorgeous Halong Bay, even though it’s supposed to be a bit of a tourist trap? Eventually we decided on Hue (kind of rhymes with whey), the country’s former imperial capital. There are plenty of reasons to go — architecture, history, temples — but in truth our primary motivators were that Kevin loves the city’s signature noodle soup dish, bún bò Huế, and we found a great last-minute deal on a room in a fancy hotel. With a window. Vietnam Airlines, here we come!

And, here are some Phnom Penh photos

Kind of a motley bunch, this time around, but here they are.

Now we’re hitting up some more bus action to Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon. In fact in some of these photos, that precious bus journey is memorialized! Here I am eating some lovely chocolate that our friend Emily gave us as part of a pre-flight care package (we are making that shit last), and here is the view from the window of our bus as it appeared to be driving into the Mekong River (but in fact was only driving onto a ferry in order to cross the Mekong River). Finally, do you know what you see when you leave Cambodia and enter Vietnam? A cat’s ass. Cambodia is like, pffff, whatever. We’ll show you what we think of your departure. (Or maybe that’s a Vietnamese welcome? Unclear.)