Life is so bizarre. I feel about a million times lighter than I did exactly twenty-four hours ago, when I realized that my purse was missing. What a difference a day makes.
About twenty-four hours ago, I got into a cab at Hanoi airport with some people I didn’t know. I say I didn’t know them, but I actually ‘knew’ quite a few a few of them. One girl, I had met getting onto my connecting flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok – none other than the American girl I’d met at the monastery near Mai Hong Son. We spent the few hours in Bangkok airport chatting and redefining the impressions we’d made of each other while we were sharing space and not communicating for ten days.
I got into the van and recognized a couple of the guys sitting in the front; they had been roommates of mine in Pai. English lads, nice enough; one, in particular, I had a sisterly soft-spot for. He seemed fragile and prone to worry – there was one night where he was feeling under the weather and decided not to go to a rave in the jungle that everyone else was going to. I had also decided not to go, having already been to one a couple of weekends before and having just returned from the monastery, softened and serene, knowing it’d be much of the same – mostly terrible psy-trance and drum-and-bass music and a major headache to get to and from. I sat on the floor and chatted easily with him as he lay in bed, reassuring him that he was doing the right thing for his mind and his body (he seemed like he needed some confirmation).
The American girl and I had met another girl (from Massachusetts) in the line for Vietnamese immigration, and the three of us decided that we’d travel into the city together. As we walked out of the airport into the humid, smoggy night, we were approached by a man in a white shirt, khaki trousers, and an official-looking badge, who started ushering us towards a silver van telling us it was just $4 to get into town. This sounded reasonable, so we agreed and handed over the amount he quoted us in Dong (which, we calculated once the cab took off, was about $8 each).
Feeling a little ruffled by this first interaction, we were excited nonetheless as the mess of highways and highrises started to give way to lively streets with cafes and night markets and throngs of people buying, selling, eating and drinking, zipping around on motorcycles with appendages that seemed to defy gravity (I saw one woman with maybe a hundred teddy bears stacked around her like bricks of a house; another man was carrying a gigantic wide-screen TV in a box). The cab was supposed to drop us off at all of our hostels, which was a challenge to convey to the poor cab driver who spoke not a word of English.
After various wrong-turns and stops in the tightly-packed Old Quarter, our eight had whittled down to just Massachusetts and I. From the backseat, she passed me out my bags as the cab driver lifted my heavy backpack onto my shoulders from the boot. I went into my hostel and dumped my stuff on a table beside the reception desk.
I handed over my passport, as I’ve become accustomed to, and started rooting in my bag for my large wallet (containing $600 in cash which I’d kept for Vietnam) which I’d just taken out of its hiding place in my backpack while we were at the airport, and which also now contained my smaller wallet (with all my cards and other IDs). Not finding it, I clearly saw in my mind’s eye what had happened – I knew that it had fallen out of my bag as Massachusetts had passed it out to me.
I felt the blood drain from my head to my toes to make a pool around my feet. My mouth went dry. I had just arrived in a strange country where I didn’t speak even a word of the language, knew no one and had no access to any funds.
I remembered that Massachusetts had been staying at some Boutique Hotel (she was on a business and her company was paying for it). I connected my phone to the hostel’s wifi and saw to my dismay that there were two in the old quarter that could fit the bill, in opposite directions. I chose one and started running through the winding streets. The traffic, the people, the sounds and smells – it was all so overwhelming, jarring and threatening. After about ten minutes of dodging street vendors and motorbikes, I burst into the reception of this quaint little hotel on a filthy backstreet and asked if there was a girl who had just checked in. There wasn’t. So I asked to use their wifi, loaded the directions, and proceeded to the other one, where no one had checked in either.
There were no other options apart from the Hanoi Boutique Hotel and the Old Quarter Boutique Hotel. So I made my way back to my hostel, where I planned on brainstorming ideas with the receptionist.
He was a young guy, might have only just been twenty, and seemed bored by the whole scenario (the following morning, a Welsh man with a smoker’s visage who was staying at the hostel on a long-term basis would tell me over breakfast on the rooftop that ‘that useless little asshole helps nobody, he thinks he runs the show here, and he doesn’t’). I understood his ennui, to be honest – it was nearly midnight, and I don’t think he grasped the gravity of the situation. He basically told me in no unclear terms that “this is Vietnam – you won’t be getting that back”. I asked him if I should go to the police, and he just laughed. Feeling powerless, I stood outside on the chaotic street, in the shadow of a gigantic, Gothic-looking cathedral (the first I’d seen in Asia, looking so out of place, but I was too stressed to notice). On every side, tourists were getting drunk as locals looked on in (from what I could gather) disgust.
A van was parked by the door of the hostel. Two Dutch girls were arguing with him, demanding their money back. I listened for a moment but couldn’t tell the assholes from the innocent. As they left, victimised, I approached, wondering why the hell I was approaching this of all men and not yet knowing what I was going to say. I asked him if he would take me to the airport for free; in my head, I was convinced that I’d remember the man who’d hustled me into the cab at the airport. The driver was dressed exactly like him, but then, they all were.
He linked my arm (which was both jarring and reassuring) and walked me into my hostel. He and the Reception Boy talked in Vietnamese for a few moments, both looking at a loss. I asked the Boy to explain that I needed a lift out to the airport to find the cab I got. He translated with a sarcastic smile. But the man then gestured me to follow him. He linked my arm again and walked me to his van, gesturing that he wanted me to get in. The Boy, standing at the door of the hostel, said that he was going to take me to the main office. I thought that something was getting lost in translation (I knew that this wasn’t the cab company that I’d traveled with), but, with no better ideas coming to mind, I walked around to the passenger side and got in.
As we started driving, I realized how different Vietnam seemed to Thailand. It definitely seemed more ‘foreign’, less Westernised. This man spoke only a handful of almost-indistinguishable English words (no judgments here – better than my total lack of Vietnamese). The people were more aggressively tactile, which I liked in theory, but in practice, in my current vulnerable state, I found bothersome. The driver started gesticulating with his hand and saying the word “Eat?”, questioningly. He was pointing to his chest and then touching my belly. He was asking me to join him for dinner. At this point, I freaked out a little; not instinctively, but rationally. I was driving in a van with a stranger, in a country I knew nothing about, and now he was touching me and asking me out to dinner.
I asked him to stop the van but he said “no no no, one minute”. We turned into a dark alley (great), and parked next to a bunch of identical vans. He opened my door, put his arm around me (to guide me inside, not out of affection) and walked me into the office.
It felt like a police station, with bars on all of the windows, and off-white paint peeling from the walls. Finding that there was no one sitting at the wooden desk in the middle of the room, he banged on an adjacent door. There was the sound of disgruntled movement on the other side. The door slowly opened to reveal a man in a wife-beater holding the handle on the other side, reaching from underneath his sheet on the bottom bunk of a steel-frame bed against the wall. He stared at me. I stared at him and then at the driver. An eternity passed as I weighed up the situation. This was the scene in the movie where the girl gets raped and chopped up and thrown in a freezer, and yet, as I scanned my body for signs of panic, I didn’t find any. I didn’t know the men of this country, or the nature of the people here, but I intuitively knew that bizarre as the scenario was, they were only trying to help me.
Still, I moved towards the door just in case I needed to run. Hungry Driver explained the situation to Bed Man (or at least whatever version of it he’d received from Reception Boy). From there, the Bed Man, alert and now unbothered that he’d been woken him up, agreed that if I came back there between five and eight AM the following morning, he would have someone take me to the airport for free.
Hungry Driver dropped me back to my hostel. Or, close enough. He actually had to park at the end of the street, so he walked me right to the door, trying to convince me a few more times to go eat with him. I don’t think that he was being a creep – I think he was actually just concerned that maybe I was hungry. I thanked him profusely but declined, happy in the assumption that his intentions were pure.
I called my dad and went to bed because I couldn’t think of anything else that would help the situation better than a few hours of sleep.
Four-and-a-half hours later, my alarm woke me up to the same situation, unchanged but for a new determinism on my part to do my own detective work. I set to work. The hostel manager helped me to watch the security tapes from the night before, and – after twenty minutes of watching entertaining but useless footage of young boys in silver chains, polo necks and high-tops direct motorbike traffic, and conversations started over cigarettes between open and probably tipsy travelers – I miraculously saw myself entering the door with my bag and its purse-less contents. Owing to the fact that this was a bigger hostel than I would usually stay at, their security cameras were sophisticated enough that we could slow down and zoom in on the cab as it drove down the street, enough to read the registration number on the side of the car.
The next part was out of my scope of capabilities, but the hostel manager somehow managed to make contact with the driver of said cab, who confirmed that (somehow) he had found my purse the night before at the end of his shift. There was about 2 million dong in it, which I’d withdrawn from the airport ATM before getting in the cab. No sign of the dollars.
Or so he said. Someone pointed out to me later when I recounted the story. “He brought those home to his wife”. There was no incentive for him to return the dollars, I understood that, but he said on the phone to the hostel manager that he hadn’t seen a larger purse, and had picked up two groups of travelers after he dropped me off, so he reckoned they’d stolen it. I chose to believe his story, but the truth of it didn’t actually matter – $600 was a lot of money to lose (would have lasted me well over a month in Vietnam), but worse still would have been the inconvenience of losing my only debit card (my spare one was swallowed by a machine in Chiang Mai on my fifth day in Thailand). My desperation last night was mostly due to the fact that I had no funds nor access to funds, and the only thing that I could think to do was have my dad wire me money in maximum daily installments for the foreseeable. I knew how much a headache this was because, interestingly enough, a messy but lovable heroin addict staying at my hostel in Pai had told me so only the day before (he’d unsurprisingly lost all his cards and was having his mom wire him beer money every day at a max of $200). He and I kept running into each other no matter where I went in Pai, which I thought was a sign that I had something to offer him – he’s been in and out of rehab dozens of times, so we talked about 12-step programmes, sobriety and the curse of being an addict (although I mostly talked about the blessing of it).
I recalled our seemingly benign conversation the day before on the doorstep of a tattoo shop in the town (he was getting a ‘Rancid’ tattoo on his arm, and I’d been toying with the idea of getting a heart chakra inspired one on my chest which thankfully I decided against) and thought, oh great, the universe was prepping me.
When I realized that my purse had been located, I realized that it hadn’t been prepping me at all – it was just setting me up to experience an even deeper sense of gratitude.
And I am grateful, on so many levels. I wasn’t supposed to come here, buy a bike and hit the road. I don’t quite know what I am here for, but I know that it’s going to be revealed one step at a time.
I’m conscious of making to much typing noise so I’m not going to write for long, I’m going to sleep and wake up early and write a bunch then. But how foolish we are to separate good for bad, it’s like separating drops in the ocean. It’s all just ocean; it all just is.
It feels so good to be up this early and well-fed, and on the way back to bed. I thought I wasn’t bringing my baggage with me to Vietnam, but everywhere I go, there I am. The rest of the day, however, will be good. I know this to be true.
I’m back in my cozy bed now and feeling under no pressure to get out and explore the city. I feel like I could be here for a while. Perhaps I’ll spend Christmas here. Or else on a beach. We shall see. Either way, I’m going to volunteer here in the next few months. I would like to travel but traveling doesn’t excite me as much as living in places does.
First day of December, Christmas tunes and reindeer elves everywhere. Unexpected. Things are slowly on the upswing, gotta keep pushing through. I can’t think what else to do except endure.
I feel like I have had moments of presence but I’ve also been so jarred by the experience the other night that I’m not quite present here yet. In fact I’m mostly asleep walking through these crazy, lively streets, at least during the day. All that changed this evening and I expect tomorrow will be better. Need to get out and do shit during the day and then write in the afternoon.
Cried in an AA meeting this evening because I didn’t realize how much I needed it. Felt at home. God I’m so grateful for AA.
Conscious again of typing loudly. Goodnight my love. I will never leave you.
It’s funny what life throws at you. Have plenty of food for thought with things that have come up the last few days since my money went missing. It’s looking like I’m actually going to be volunteering in the city or outside of it for a little bit, and working at a Tiesto concert on Friday night, promoting Marlboro cigarettes. Lol. I mean, what the hell, none of this would have happened if my money hadn’t gone missing.
I’m still feeling quite rattled by the experience, to be honest, so I’m trying to go easy on myself. I’m trying not to move too quickly or out of feeling obligated to get going. I was going to do a trip to Ha Giang tomorrow, but I ended up deciding to stay in the city. I reckon I’ll spend the month here and then travel south, seeing as much as I can before heading either to Cambodia or straight to Malaysia or Indonesia – who knows. I don’t have a clue. I suppose Philippines is up there also. There’s so much to think about. I should talk to Pepe.
I think the main thing that I’m feeling though is quite vulnerable and like I’m back in my old habits. Everything is so up and down. I go from feeling amazing and treating myself so well to feeling like crap and perpetuating that crap cycle by doing all of the things that make me feel like shit. I try to break it and end up breaking myself in half, almost. I wonder if I should just do this trip tomorrow and be done with it. I wish I would hear back from the people I’m waiting to hear from. Perhaps going up north around New Year’s would be amazing, I could be in Sapa for New Years I suppose. I could also have a bike at that point and even scoot up myself. Then back down south for the trip south, I might just do that on buses or trains but I’ll see what makes sense at the time.
This country seems to have something about it that I love and something about it that I find really challenging. I suppose I want to be challenged. I realized today that my experience has been at its peak when I am surrounded by Westerners and getting validated and having spiritually enlivening conversations. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I also feel alive when I’m in nature, and I wonder why I am signing myself up to teach in the city for three weeks – is that perhaps a bit much?
I’m feeling desperately overwhelmed. I expected that there would be points in my trip just like this. I’m now beginning to wonder if it’s the fault of the city, and if I should really be focusing on getting the hell out of the city. I wonder. I like Vietnam, but I wonder.
And yet I’ve been applying for teaching jobs here. I wouldn’t mind getting the experience, alright, I wonder if I could get a certificate at the end of any of them. I’ve just applied for so many that I have lost track. I should maybe be looking at getting online work too to supplement.
It’s all a bit much, all of this. I am supposed to meet Matt tonight but I’m really not feeling great. I should honor my body and just not meet him, but I feel like I can’t do that. He leaves on Tuesday. I wouldn’t mind sticking around the area that i’m in to be perfectly honest.
I love myself and I will make the meeting tomorrow afternoon, wherever that might be.
I’m on the way to Cat Ba Island now. The weather is dull and foggy, or perhaps smoggy – only time will tell. I already feel a clarity that I didn’t feel before as we’re leaving. I wonder if the problem all along was the hostel? There were elements of it that I like, but also elements that I didn’t like so much. Elements that were, say, a little jarring. Like the fact that it was nestled right in the Old Quarter. I think I just became extra sensitive to everything, and that’s why I’ve been struggling.
Yeah, I’ve been struggling a little bit. I’ve been exhibiting a lot of bad behaviours, and ones that are reminiscent of when I was deep in my addiction. Things like headaches from severe introversion, isolating myself and extreme lethargy and almost nausea from the emptiness of craving. The past 72 hours has seen a lot of that. And I haven’t quite tried to run away from it, but I think I’ve indulged it a bit. I haven’t meditated, but I have said yes to things I didn’t want to say yes to, like hanging out with Matt last night, which inevitably made me feel about 100 times smarter, a thousand times more connected to the world, and a million times better. I might not be getting it fully right all of the time, but I’m not completely incompetent. I see some growth, slowly but surely.
This morning I am intolerant. There are just so many annoying men around me. It’s like I can see right through them and their intentions. And they all get so awkward when you get close to them at the toaster and the coffee machine. Like they are only winning the power play as long as you don’t approach them. They’re like aggressive street dogs, all bark no bite. Bite me, boys.
There are also a lot of basic people here. It’s such an unfair thing to say but you know what, I am in a judgemental mood. I need to get out of that.
All of this is such a clear indication of my mental state.
There is a chance that I will come back to Cat Ba for Christmas. There’s a chance that I’ll work here for a few weeks at a little guest house with a rooftop restaurant, and just be. I reckon that would be quite peaceful. I don’t know if it would be as fulfilling as maybe teaching English would be, but you know what, I realized that part of this trip has to be about my own comfort, too. I’m willing to go out of my comfort zone in order to make this money that I lost back, but I’m not willing to go much further after I’ve made it back. Hmmm… I never thought of being an escort until now, actually. I should look into that. Wait, no I shouldn’t! Jesus, the places my brain will go when I try to think practically.
I’m on the bus back to Hanoi now. I am glad I took that break; I think I desperately needed it. I look forward to returning to the city and getting better at taking space for myself. I suppose now I just need to decide where I would like to be for Christmas.
I could help out at that hostel on Cat Ba, Or. I could go to the English school for a couple of weeks and then go spend a week on Cat Ba. Either way, I reckon that I should see how this covering job thing goes, because if it meant that I could live in Hanoi and make money for a month, maybe I’d be better off doing that than volunteering. Or maybe I could do both.
There are so many options, I wonder if I could speak to a hostel in Hanoi about doing it. I don’t know. I think I need to go to that English language place and stop thinking any further about it. And I will go to my interview on Wednesday and then I’ll go to my meeting and then I’ll go to bed.
What do I want to get out of the next few months? Ideally to spend as little money as possible, to immerse myself in Vietnamese culture, to be relaxed, to meet cool people. Yeah, I guess it sounds like I should go do the English language teaching thing. If I don’t like the vibe of the other people staying there, then no problem, I will move on to the next thing. It’s volunteer work. No one can make you stay. I will happily just move on out to Cat Ba for two weeks and swim in the sea and chill. At that point I should also have a bike so it’ll be easy enough to get around and just go wherever the hell I want to. Driving on this road to Cat Ba now, it seems super easy.
I think I need to maybe get out of Hanoi as soon as I get these few jobs done. This is a place I can come back to. I have to admit that part of the reason I want to stay is fear, another small part is laziness, another small part is having a crush on someone. Without trying to separate my motivations into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, some other motivations are that I want to get used to riding a semi-automatic bike before I take off, I want to solidify myself by going to as many AA meetings as possible, I want to give back that which I so graciously received (and I need to work out my bad karma), I want to get a real sense of what the city is about, and I want to have the opportunity to make up the money that I lost (I’m already up $200 of a potential $600. At local rates, I would have to work about 20 more hours to make up the remaining $400). It’s doable. The universe will provide.
I am feeling very good right now, but trying not to see it as such, and trying not to hold on to it… it’s just another thing that I have to let go of. There is no good and bad, there just is.
How do I do that, though? I feel myself waltzing with the universe, in the same way that I used to when I would momentarily attain that elusive “perfect” state of drunkenness; it would invariably last for no longer than twenty or thirty minutes, and then I’d pass into something messier or darker. When I experience this flow naturally (or at the very most, with a nudge of caffeine), I experience something so foreign and yet so familiar.
I suppose what’s similar is the ecstasy and… almost mania that I experience. It’s like I feel invincible.
What’s also similar is that I’m aware of its temperance. Which brings with it a slight anxiety, maybe more anxiety than I feel ordinarily. As I write this, my own mortality, my addictive tendencies, and the threat of “bad shit happening” have all entered and left my mind, like clouds passing by.
I suppose that’s what’s different – I see them as clouds, and I let them pass. I’m aware that they’re my thoughts, and not me. And my reaction is not to try to prolong the goodness and dispel the clouds, which it would have been before, through alcohol or whatever. Now I realize that there is only one thing that I can do – no substance I can take, no “right” thought to counteract the wrong one, none of that. All I can do is watch, and rest in the place that’s beyond the thoughts or the external joy-givers.
I feel some sniffles coming along. If I’m supposed to get sick, then I have to just let that happen too. There’s no point in fighting anything.
This morning, I took a local bus for about an hour each way to a strange part of town to look at motorbikes, and there also found some shoes that I’d been vaguely stressing about needing for a modeling gig tomorrow night. This evening, I went for an interview for some English-teaching cover-work, in a cool neighborhood not far from the more touristic Old Quarter, where I’ve been staying, but with a lot less tourists and more Vietnamese pouring onto the pavement drinking beers, bouncing babies, grilling mystery meat, spraying vegetables for sale with filthy water (to keep them fresh?), cutting keys, mending shoes, fixing/loading/revving/parking motorbikes, playing cards, smoking bamboo bongs, laughing, smiling. Before I left my hostel this evening (this haven of tranquility in the midst of the chaos), a Chinese girl in my dorm said to me “You look like a yoga teacher.” The last couple of days, I’ve been getting carried away with the many hats I’ve been considering – teacher, model, and hostel worker, to name a few jobs I’ve signed up for this month. In that moment, in her heavily-accented English, smiling brightly and struggling slightly, this one girl shone a ray of clarity into my mind that I’d desperately needed unbeknownst to myself. It made me remember that my purpose is spiritual, in life and in travel. I was so connected to that idea in Thailand; I seem to have forgotten it in the midst of life-shit happening in Vietnam. Not that yoga is the only spiritual path (so are teaching, modeling and working in a hostel, if you’re conscious), but I realized that I haven’t done yoga or meditated in a week and that I’d be mad not to spend a month volunteering at Shivananda’s ashram in Dalat, an opportunity that found its way to me through the goodness of others. It’s often others who bring us back to ourselves.
Aside from that experience, though, on a much more basic level, I just did all the things that I was supposed to do today, which in itself feels good. I find that when I put one foot in front of the other and do the next right thing, life gives me what I need. I’ve expressed this sentiment in writing in so many worn out ways, but simply because it’s the truth, and the truth has a quality of freshness every time it presents itself. So, if you’re reading this and rolling your eyes, I’m sorry – to me it feels like the first time, every time.
I went to an AA meeting tonight, in this guy’s house. His name’s John, he’s from Alaska (I assume because every time I’ve met him he’s had a different t-shirt with some sort of Alaska pun on it), and has lived in Hanoi for 17 years. A big bear of a human with a long dark ponytail, he has the kind of face that smiles even when he isn’t smiling, dark features that perhaps once were cold and empty but now radiate kindness and contentment. I’ve been looking forward to this meeting since Saturday, and I’m not one to look forward to AA meetings like that (I’ve always enjoyed them, and been happy going to them, but it’s never an anticipation that extends much further than an hour or two beforehand). His house was tucked away in a little courtyard, filled with artifacts (is all I can describe them as) and warmth. There were fifteen people there, apparently a record, which I was happy to be a part of. There were people there with as little as three months and as many as thirty years. We ate cookies and popcorn and drank strong coffee, crammed into a circle the size of his sitting room. I saw many of the same faces that I’ve come to know. Afterwards, I walked with a Canadian man who has been sober ten years who’s passing through here, and the flowing conversation carried us almost all the way around the lake back to where we came from and into a little “French” cafe where the barman greeted us with “Bonsoir” and the mahogany and ashtrays and italic writing on the menu were all about as authentic as a Vietnamese Christmas. He had a milkshake, I had a soda. We parted ways feeling lighter – at least I did. As usual, I hadn’t even realized I’d felt heavy. But that’s recovery – it gives you what you need, not what you want or think you need. All you have to do is show up.
AA, since I arrived in Vietnam, has been more crucial than I think I will ever realize without the benefit of being all-seeing or all-knowing. I think that only if I were to see what life without these meetings would have looked this past week, I would know. But as I type this, it’s dawning on me that I already know. Maybe we don’t have to be able to see the full picture to understand the full truth. Maybe that space of unknowing that’s filled with faith – or intuition – is the crucial element in it all.
Is that the human experience of God, or a higher power? Isn’t that inbuilt into it, that leap of faith that has to be made? In Autobiography of a Yogi, there are a few stories about enlightened masters testing potential disciples by asking them to make a leap of faith (sometimes literally, like, off a cliff to their death). Only then do they accept them as disciples, because they know that their faith is strong. Only then are they deemed worthy/primed to receive the teachings or the spirit. Only then have they surrendered their grasp on the empirically knowable, for knowledge that is far-superior and infinite.
Holy shit, I feel like I just understood the meaning of that. Softly, softly, catchee monkey.
Beyond the curtains of my bunk, I can hear the tappa-tappa-typing of a few other women in our roomy female-only dorm above the madness, a heavenly nest. The bad music and shouts coming from the streets below are but a din. I’m imagining that we’re all typing ourselves to sleep, typing ourselves to sanity, typing ourselves in this crazy country back home to our very selves. I imagine that, in our manifold mother tongues, each of us writes a different story, but slowly, slowly (softly, softly) we’re writing our way to the same ending.