Tuesday, January 03, 2012

"Nam Unplugged

Vietnam was a destination least in my mind when around August I was planning our December vacation, our annual Haj so to say. Riding the worldwide coma of giddy glee abound, December is a great time to indulge in revelry. Monk was reading Graham Greene, telling me in his characteristic Brown Sahib way of how romantic Greene’s Saigon was. I quickly checked the prices of the flight tickets and voila soon found the whole idea going from germination to execution. So with the help of Trip Advisor, Booking.com and Cleartrip, a 10 day trip was made possible.
We went to three places, Hanoi and Halong Bay at the Northern tip of Vietnam and Saigon at the South. There are many more lovely places like Danang and Hoi An to name a few we could not go to but there is only so much a ten day trip could achieve. So with this mental shrug I sit content and happy reminiscing about the ten perfect days. Well almost.

Our destination 1 was Hanoi. We got there via Kuala Lampur since no direct flights ply between India and Vietnam. We found ourselves quite happily hosted in Conifer Boutique Hotel right at the heart of the French Quarter, walking distance from the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. Next we met Monk’s B school classmate Bhupi. Thus between Bhupi, the Vina mobile 3G SIM card, the GPS on my iPhone (Steve Jobs, RIP) and a copy of Lonely Planet our tryst with Hanoi began. From street food to a chic night club, from introduction to Vietnamese art houses (Bhupi, thanks man) to stumbling upon a street concerto right by our hotel courtesy Luala, we tasted greedily every bit of a new world unfolding every moment and hung on desperately to every experience like Hugh Jackman’s skull t-shirt does to his sexilcious pecs. We met a motley crew of very interesting Diaspora, saw a father and son Jazzing up in Minh’s Jazz Bar, ate food which were generally swept away by my irate mother during monsoons and aptly deemed as creeps, almost felt at home trying to cross crazy busy roads, laughed till our spleens burst on the cheesy poses the locals charter up for pictures, walked till our feet hurt but we very bravely still walked. The beautiful Opera House, imposing and grand is a standing legacy of the French influence in Hanoi. Characteristic ochre coloured sills splashed the white façade and exteriors and the French windows cut such a handsome caper that no amount of sighing took care of my longing to have belonged to an era where parasols and décolletage were a woman’s sole equity. The Military History Museum left Monk quite thrilled and even I dint have to feign excitement. Temple of Literature was fun photographically and historically and an ego boost for Monk, why with nubile young things wanting to take pictures with him.

The next destination was Halong Bay, a 3 hour ride away from Hanoi and a UNESCO world heritage site. We got to HB, got on our junkie and did things I would not have ever done had I not been under the stare of the most fun bunch of people. Kayaking, cycling through remote village islands, eating like there was no tomorrow and meeting some interesting people marked our two nights three days of thrill. The floating villages and the prehistoric caves were awe inspiring. Son (pronounced S”aw”n ), our guide in HB made me realise that if you have knowledge and you take the pain to share it, language barriers is least of the concerns. Just say it and do it and people will appreciate. HB is romantic yet elemental. Not in the “ooh I am swooning hold me sweetheart” way romantic…more like “I need that picture, I deserve this realm and I lived 3 decades for just these vistas “ way. Will I go again? Yes. Will I still shit bricks in my pants because I can’t swim? Of course. I am a creature of habit and I shall want to be thrilled again and again and again. I wish like the magical beings in Harry Potter I could collect my memories in a Penseive. I would happily plunge into these memories should events around me bog me down.

Saigon was the last in our itinerary. It was a bustling city steeped in history. Living in Radio Catinat or Hotel Continental Saigon, one floor below the room Graham Greene stayed in, was the first step towards raising our glasses to nostalgia. Watching a Vietnamese cultural pastiche of a program in the Opera House, now the Municipal Theatre was an interesting hors d' oeuvre. Christmas Eve felt like a carnival sans Dylan. It was as if every person in that city vowed to have fun and Christmas morning saw at 7 a jazz band performing at the Opera House very democratically, with little children patiently watching on and learning that fun is to be had in every single way every single day. I felt as if the whole country is home to fun denizens… of the fun, for the fun and by the fun should be Vietnam’s national slogan. It’s no less than a wonder what this country has achieved since 1975’s Reunification. Yes the poor co-exist but they are cared for. The cherry on the cake was the cooking class. It was as global as possible with people from 6 different nationalities learning how to cook from a Vietnamese chef. We cooked, talked and ate. We parted ways. We dint offer our contacts. We hardly knew each other’s names. We just knew we loved the concept of food irrespective of our skin colour, country and culture. Some one somewhere like me is trying to get hold of some Hoisin Sauce and rice papers.

Paradise but has its serpents. So the next time I shall be wary of pick pockets in cramped areas especially in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. In Saigon, cyclos, the rapidly depleting human cart pullers are desperately poor enough to rob you at broad day light by charging 50 dollars for a ride which is just 2 dollars and so next time I shall hail a cab instead. I shall be gushy and friendly but I am loathe to be had and that is why I am glad I handed the cabbie on my way back to the airport just 10 dollars in Saigon even though he asked for 20 since there was “traffic” on the road. Sorry my friend but I dint spawn those cars and having them on the road does not increase the distances just stretches the travel time and I am on a vacation for Pete’s sake. Finally, Air Asia is a sick airline. Low cost and lowly. I shall never fly them…at least try my best not to fly them since one must never say never. But I will read up the fine prints and follow my instinct.

Finally all those who bark do not always bite. Help comes by when you seek so keep earning those good karma coins because despite not having a transit visa on our way back (thanks to Air Asia’s great customer service) a fine gentleman at the KLIA immigration helped us with a special pass so we could come back home with our rose tinted glasses intact.

Life, I tell you, is worth living. Somehow world over every human being just has a few basic needs: to be loved, to be appreciated and to be useful. The more we stick to this basic reality the more uninhibited we shall feel, the more charmed will be our Eureka moments and the more hungry we shall stay to imbibe what we don’t have but we need for the sake of simple everyday living. Yes and to all those girls out there still looking for “the” man, continue doing so. A good man is necessary to have fun, a man who can soak in everything and transcend age and barriers….